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First Impressions Series: John Ruskin’s Young Adulthood First Experience in Venice and of St. Mark’s Cathedral

September 29, 2016

Venice: The Upper End of the Grand Canal, with San Simeone Piccolo; Dusk 1840 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Venice: The Upper End of the Grand Canal, with San Simeone Piccolo; Dusk 1840 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Here is the mature John Ruskin’s memory of his first visit as a young man to Venice and St. Mark’s cathedral square. He recorded his sensations of “this Holy Land of Italy” in an entry for May 6, 1841:

“Thank God I am here! It is the Paradise of cities and there is moon enough to make herself the sanities of earth lunatic, striking its pure flashes of light against the grey water before the window; and I am happier than I have been these five years . . . . I feel fresh and young when my foot is on these pavements.”

Young Ruskin would go on to write one of the greatest critical studies of historic architecture with the multi-volume Stones of Venice.

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Paul Varner



Great First Impressions Series: Theodore Roosevelt’s First Glimpse of Egypt as a Young Boy


Great First Impressions Series: Theodore Roosevelt’s First Glimpse of Egypt as a Young Boy

September 15, 2016

Although Theodore Roosevelt is best known for his time as President of the United States, he developed a reputation as a significant American writer and was best known for as a writer for his The Strenuous Life (1899), The Rough Riders (1899), and The Winning of the West, 4 volumes (1897).

In his diary, Roosevelt describes his first impressions of Egypt, during a family trip to the Middle East while he was a young boy.

How I gazed on it! It was Egypt, the land of my dreams; Egypt, the most ancient of all countries! A land that was old when Rome was bright, was old when Babylon was in its glory, was old when Troy was taken! It was a sight to awaken a thousand thoughts, and it did.

From Darrin Lunde, The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, A Lifetime of Exploration, and The Triumph of American Natural History. 2016.

To Autumn by William Blake (1783)

Autumn e09d93fdd9d3752b6baad24d7a352c8c

It’s finally looking like Autumn where I live in Texas. Well, slightly. So let’s celebrate the beginning of autumn with this early poem of William Blake’s from his first book, Poetical Sketches.

“To Autumn” is full of gorgeous colors and a magnificent personification at the end, all portraying sexually charged nature with fertility, the daughters of the year dancing and singing lusty songs, the narrow bud opening her beauties, and personified Autumn, after ravishing modest Eve, rising and dressing, then fleeing over the bleak hills. But he leaves behind his golden load.

O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stain’d
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou may’st rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.

The narrow bud opens her beauties to
The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and
Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve,
Till clust’ring Summer breaks forth into singing,
And feather’d clouds strew flowers round her head.

The spirits of the air live in the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light, roves round
The gardens, or sits singing in the trees.”
Thus sang the jolly Autumn as he sat,
Then rose, girded himself, and o’er the bleak
Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load.

(A Literary Life classic. First posted October 7, 2015.)

Birthday: Donald Hall

September 20, 2016


Today is the birthday of the American poet Donald Hall whose attempt to establish the canon of postwar American and British poetry with his Contemporary Poets of England and America, 1957, a collection of the best young poets of the day. In 1960 Donald Allen, however, published his anthology, The New American Poetry, which collected an entirely different set of poets. The two anthologies battled it out for much of the 1960s to see who were the real living canonical poets of the day.

Here is a poem Donald Hall wrote during the Cold War and the waning days of African colonialism.


Men with crew-cuts

are impossible, like

ice shows. In airport bars, all winter,

holding stand-by tickets,

they wait for a plane into the next territory

and confess

to puzzlement

over the Oriental mind.

Later, they want to drop eggs on the Russians.

Later, they want

to keep violence out of the streets

by installing a machine-gun-nest on every corner.

When they talk about women, they are discussing

a subjugated race

rumored to have cached away

huge quantities of ammunition.

They lounge on the porch of the Planter’s Club,

in darkest Africa,

pith helmets over their crew-cuts, drinking pink gins,

and laughing at jokes about stupid natives,

while the tom-toms start to beat

in a million kitchens,

and the sky lightens

with a storm of Russians with hair

down to their shoulders,

as inscrutable as the Chinese,

and as merciless

as women.

Hall is one of those genteel poets of the middle 20th century who wrote in a conservative style but who could wallop you with an unexpected punch. His poem here, from the Cold War era presents a well-known philosophy and approach to life in American life over the last few decades, and Hall presents this philosophy with deliberate clichés and stereotypes. The men with crew-cuts are simply “impossible” for the speaker. Take a look and how they would keep the streets safe from violence. We’ve seen these people all around us, right? And usually these types have the same old attitude toward women and toward “natives” as in the poem. Where do we find these people? Well, Hall tells us where, and among all those these crew-cutted men most undesireable white guys are Russians or Russian wannabes with hair hanging down all over the place, unlike neat, razor-sharp crew cuts.

Happy birthday, Donald Hall, born this date in 1928.


David Garrick’s European Tour 1763-1765

September 15, 2016


David Garrick as Hamlet

 On this date in 1763 the famous English actor David Garrick began is celebrated “World Tour” of western Europe. He returned to England on April 27, 1765.

The following is an essay that I published in a different format in Salem Press’s series Great Events from History: The Eighteenth Century.

By 1763 David Garrick, actor and manager of the Drury lane Theatre, was firmly established as the greatest English actor of his day, the most important figure of English theatre. His European Tour spread his reputation throughout Europe and proved to be one of the great celebrity events of the century.

Garrick was at the height of his career in 1763 but the 1762-1763 theatre season had been particularly difficult. Together the Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres attempted to end the longstanding but unprofitable practice of reducing ticket prices by half after the third act. An organized audience riot at Drury Lane forced Garrick with a personal stage appearance to acquiesce to the mob’s demand. Thus Garrick and his wife Eva Marie, with whom he had never been apart for more than twenty-four hours, set out for Paris and the continent for a long deserved rest from professional duties.

Garrick’s timing was fortuitous, as his reputation had preceded him and all things English were in style. His first night in Paris he was given the freedom of the theatre of the Comédie Française where he made numerous acquaintances among the Paris theatre establishment. Again, in the next two years when returning to Paris he was welcomed further by eminent writers and thinkers. In particular Garrick enjoyed the regular hospitality of the celebrated salon of Baron Paul Henry d’Holbach, the philosopher, best known today for his famous refutation of human free will in his essay “Are We Cogs in the Universe?”

D’Holbach’s salon along with other social functions allowed Garrick the pleasure of developing lifelong acquaintances with such figures as Jean François Marmontel, Denis Diderot, Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Baron Friedrich-Melchior Grimm, all prominent writers and critics.

The Garricks spent only three weeks initially in Paris before proceeding to Italy, passing through Lyons, over Mount Cenis to Turin, Milan, Genoa, Florence, Rome, and ultimately Naples where they spent Christmas. The journey truly was a triumphal tour as notables throughout Europe vied for time spent with the great actor. At one point, passing near Ferney, Voltaire, author of Candide, sent Garrick an invitation, which Garrick however smugly rejected due to Voltaire’s well-known disdain for Shakespeare. This rejection was taken as quite an insult.

Throughout his tour Garrick also was searching out of the way sources for rare books to add to his extensive collection and also, evidently to sell for a profit upon his return to England.

Along the way Garrick made the most of his acting reputation on his visits. In Naples, accompanied by Lord and Lady Spencer and Lady Oxford he was asked by the King to the Royal theatre to test the Italian acting company by developing a scenario for a plot which they were to undertake and perform within twenty-four hours. In Parma while dining with the Duke of York and the Prince of Parma, Garrick performed his famous dagger scene from Macbeth, for which the Prince gave him a snuff box which Garrick added to his collection of many snuff boxes given out as gifts on his tour.

Upon another occasion at the private residence of Mlle. Clairon, a leading French female actor, Garrick performed the dagger scene along with the Ghost scene from Hamlet and the mad scene from King Lear. Mlle. Clairon, enraptured, threw her arms around his neck and kissed him, and then, embarrassed, turned to Mrs. Garrick and apologized.

Once when riding in the countryside with another French actor, Préville, the Frenchman began pretending to be drunk. Garrick praised him on the performance but also showed him some of problems with the routine by himself demonstrating drunkenness. In doing so he fell from his horse and lay unconscious. The performance was so convincing that the veteran French actor truly thought Garrick to be dead and turned to seek help. Garrick then sat up and laughed.

Misfortune extended the length of the tour considerably. After especially difficult travel to Naples, in which the coach had broken down during severe weather, Eva Marie caught cold and developed rheumatism in one of her hips. She was forced to keep to her bed for many days, though amusingly she did attend a masquerade during Carnival in which she dressed as a lame old woman dragging her leg behind her. Nevertheless the illness persisted until near the end of the tour when Garrick himself grew severely ill with what might have been some form of typhoid fever.

Meanwhile back in London fears that the Drury Lane theatre might suffer with Garrick’s absence proved unwarranted. Garrick had left the theatre in the hands of his partner William Lacy who maintained operational matters and with George Colman Senior who maintained creative interests. Colman was to prove himself as a major figure in London theatre as he later managed Covent Garden and the Haymarket theatres successfully while composing some of the best comic drama of the period. The major acting roles were taken over by Garrick’s young protégé William Powell who developed a significant following due to his absence.

While Garrick began the lengthy preparations to London he thus began to develop concerns about his reception back home. Throughout the tour, while he had moderately kept up with Drury Lane matters, he really had missed the actors and audiences very little. Concerned that his detractors might undermine his homecoming, Garrick attempted to circumvent criticism by having Colman distribute a poem broadside titled “The Sick Monkey” which was humorously to be self-deprecating.

The effort proved unnecessary, as Garrick was welcomed back to London, renewed in health and spirit, by devoted audiences with enthusiasm. While the European Tour had caused him briefly to consider retirement, David Garrick continued an incredibly successful career on the London stage until finally retiring in 1776. He died in 1779.

David Garrick’s European Tour was perhaps the best-known celebrity tour of the eighteenth century. As a result of the tour by the distinguished actor, English theatre, and indirectly English culture gained a new respect that had been missing for decades throughout Europe. Further, Garrick’s absence from the English stage allowed new talent to develop out from under the shadow of the great actor.

Soon after his returned he assisted George Colman Senior in writing The Clandestine Marriage, a play that still holds the stage and the play that essentially initiated Colman’s distinguished literary career. William Powell’s reputation as one of the century’s great actors was to increase even upon his mentor’s return. And Garrick’s reputation itself obviously increased. Among other things, he was elected into Samuel Johnson’s Literary Club, thus validating his intellectual character.

Without question, as a result of his European Tour David Garrick came to be considered one of the great figures of the eighteenth century and brought worldwide respect and acclaim to the English stage.

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Paul Varner

Liberalism versus Conservatism in Great Literature, Lionel Trilling–Part Two


September 13, 2016

If you have not read Part One of this series, posted last Tuesday, scroll down and read it and join the conversation.

So, to restate the concluding question from last time, If the only intellectual tradition available to us in early 21st century America is liberalism, what might be the danger

If liberalism today faces no serious disciplined intellectual opposition, what might become of the vibrancy that has characterized liberal thought over the last many decades?

Or, why hasn’t liberalism, if it is such a powerful force at the intellectual level, made greater progress in influencing the general population, even as more and more of us are earning college degrees and even advanced graduate degrees?

Back to the conservative political movement itself for a few minutes

If such a powerful political movement as is clearly about us today cannot sustain itself intellectually, what might be the consequences?

Try this idea out from Lionel Trilling, an idea not just about his own time but as a general observation still relevant for our times:

“It is just when a movement despairs of having ideas that it turns to force, which it masks in ideology?” (The Liberal Imagination xvi) Well?

Why not start a conversation in the comments box? But if not, think seriously about these questions as part of living the literary life.

Paul Varner


Great First Impressions: John Ruskin’s First View of the Swiss Alps at Sunset


Great First Impressions Series

This is a series I hope to run occasionally as I come across passages from Great Writers about their first impressions as adolescents and young writers just beginning their exploration of their world and their times

Great First Impressions: John Ruskin’s First View of the Swiss Alps at Sunset

September 8, 2016

The great reader, writer, and Victorian critic of art and literature, John Ruskin, whose views were to encapsulate the spirit of his age, described in this beautiful passage from his autobiography, the first time he ever viewed the Swiss Alps: “the walls of lost Eden could not have been more beautiful.”

It was sunset and he was fourteen-years old: “It is not possible to imagine, in any time of the world, a more blessed entrance into life, for a child of such temperament as mine. True, the temperament belonged to the age; a very few years—within the hundred, –before that, no child could have been born to care for mountains, or for the men that lived among them, in that way. Till Rousseau’s time, there had been no ‘sentimental’ love of nature; and till Scott’s, no such apprehensive love ‘of all sorts and conditions of men,’ not in the soul merely, but in the flesh . . . I went down that evening from the garden-terrace of Schaffhausen with my destiny fixed in all of it that was sacred and useful.”

With a retrospective of this crucial moment in his creative development, Ruskin realizes that his experience could never have been the same before the Romantic Revolution in the two generations preceding his. Before Jean-Paul Rousseau, the Swiss Alps never really inspired such breathtaking awe in view of the sublime nature of the mountains. It just wasn’t how people responded to Nature.

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Paul Varner

Liberalism versus Conservatism in Great Literature, Lionel Trilling–Part One


September 6, 2016

One of the most influential books of the intellectual life of the mid-20th century was Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, published in 1950. I recently rediscovered this book as one of those You Might Also Likes on Amazon. I was actually a bit surprised it was still in print. I shouldn’t have been. Like all great books of ideas what Trilling observed in the 1950s still has relevance for our generation and will no doubt have relevance for your children’s and your grandchildren’s generations.

Lionel Trilling was a legendary professor of literature at Columbia University, the author of numerous books of ideas as well as novels. He edited the influential Partisan Review for many years and pretty well kept the conventional literary establishment in line. Ironically, what he may be remembered best for today, at least in his role as a prominent professor of a major university was his encouragement, along with his wife and fellow professor Diane Trilling, of two unconventional students, later to be leaders in the utterly unconventional and anti-academic Beat Movement: Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Ah well, what do you say?

As I began actually reading the book, I realized that although I had read many excerpts through the years, especially back in my years as a grad student at The University of Tennessee, I probably never read the entire book. The book as a whole collects essays published at various times through the 1940s. But Trilling was more than one of the numerous New Critics in his time. He was a cultural critic as well, writing about the Big Issues of the century.

Throughout this season I plan on bringing up Big Questions that have been formulated in the past by major thinkers about Great Literature. While I don’t plan on studying these books with you as in some college class, certainly not in a concentrated way all at one time, I would like to discuss some of the ideas.

So, let’s go. Trilling titles his book The Liberal Imagination. I remember wondering what he meant by “liberal,” and I could not imagine that his idea of what liberalism is would relate much to the common political label of the present.

But here’s a passage from his preface that struck me. It’s a long passage but read it all. And then let’s talk.

“In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know, But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”

Trilling published The Liberal Imagination in 1950, so this preface was probably written sometime in 1949-1950, thus prior to the huge conservative freeze on intellectual life in the U.S. that occurred with the McCarthy witch hunts.

The relevant question, as always, is whether Trilling’s observations from 66 years ago still contain truth in 2016 or hereabouts. To put it another way, does Trilling’s statement about the intellectual vapidity of the conservatism of his day still apply?

In contrast, why would Trilling say that the dominant, the only intellectual tradition of his day is liberalism?

Now, I know that the subject of Trilling’s book, the liberal imagination, is not just about the conservative/ liberal political spectrum that has overtaken the language of the issue of which Trilling speaks. Trump versus Clinton. Eisenhower versus Stevenson. But he does not ignore this political dichotomy in his thinking.

In fact, that’s the point. Even when we broaden out the discussion to include all of philosophy, literature, art, and other intellectual disciplines, there are, he says, no conservative ideas in his time. There simply was no opposing intellectual tradition in tension with liberalism then in place. (By “ideas” Trilling is speaking of a structured philosophical theory with a concomitant diametric opposition.)

Trilling contrasts ideas with sentiments. Yes, there are plenty of conservative sentiments as always. But sentiments are merely urges toward something. They are not intellectual.

So, a comparison with second decade 21st-Century America: It’s easy enough to tick off the names of the great liberal intellectuals of today—Noam Chomsky comes to mind. But who are the conservative intellectuals? Are there any? Obviously. There are celebrated conservative thinkers, but what conservative thinkers of today are adding to the ideas current of our time.

By intellectuals I am concerned, as was Trilling, with those in the intellectual disciplines, as I mentioned above, such as the arts, philosophy, political philosophy, criticism, historical theory, and so forth.

Well, of course I am trying to bait you. But is it possible to have civil debate about these observations?

Wait a minute? If the only intellectual tradition available to us in early 21st century America is liberalism, what might be the dangers? Stay tuned for next time.

Meanwhile, why don’t you start a conversation about these ideas in the comments box? But if not that, think seriously about these questions. That’s part of living a literary life isn’t it?

If you are reading this blog from one of the social media, take a moment and click on the WordPress blog itself, read the pages about The Literary Life and about me. Then check out last season. If you like what you see be sure to sign up for the blog in your email.

Paul Varner

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