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On this Date in 1767 August Wilhelm von Schlegel was Born

September 8, 2017

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On this date in 1767 August Wilhelm von Schlegel was born in Hanover. The following are some notes I used for my Historical Dictionary of Romanticism in Literature:

The German Romanticist, critic, and philologist was known primarily in England for his translation into German, with the assistance of his wife and others, of the plays of Shakespeare. He also became famous for his lectures: Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, published in 1815. William Wordsworth and William Hazlitt praised the lectures dealing with Shakespeare, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge almost certainly borrowed from them for his own Shakespeare Lectures. Schlegel was also, with his younger brother Friedrich, the editor of The Athenaeum Magazine (1798-1800) a manifesto of German Romanticism. He died in1845.

Here is a sample of A. W. Schlegel’s work, from his commentary on Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. As a critic, Schlegel’s ideas still matter greatly in Shakespearean scholarship.

August Wilhelm Schlegel
from Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (1808)

Of all the works of Shakespeare this is the only example of imitation of, or borrowing from, the ancients. I cannot acquiesce in the censure that the discovery is too long deferred: so long as novelty and interest are possessed by the perplexing incidents there is no need to be in dread of wearisomness. And this is really the case here: matters are carried so far that one of the two brothers is first arrested for debt, then confined as a lunatic, and the other is forced to take refuge in a sanctuary to save his life.

In a subject of this description it is impossible to steer clear of all sorts of low circumstances, abusive language, and blows; Shakespeare has however endeavored to ennoble it in every possible way. A couple of scenes, dedicated to jealousy and love, interrupt the course of perplexities which are solely occasioned by the illusion of the external senses.

A greater solemnity is given to the discovery, from the Prince presiding, and from the reunion of the long-separated parents of the twins who are alive.

The exposition, by which the spectators are previously instructed while the characters are still involved in ignorance, and which Plautus artlessly conveys in a prologue, is here masterly introduced in an affecting narrative by the father.

In short, this is perhaps the best of all written or possible Menaechmi; and if the piece be inferior in worth to other pieces of Shakespeare, it is merely because nothing more could be made of the materials.

Paul Varner

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“Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister.” On this Date in 1812 Robert Browning was Born.

May 7, 2017

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On this date in 1812 Robert Browning was born in London. He died in 1889. In commemoration, how about we read one of his most popular poems, “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister.” The poem’s first appearance in print was in Bells and Pomgranates, number 3, under the title “ Camp and Cloister” and in book form in 1842 in Dramatic Lyrics. In both early appearances “Soliloquy in the Spanish Cloister” as we have it today was paired with the “Incident of the French Camp” under the title “Camp and Cloister.” In Browning’s later distributions of his poems it remained one of the Dramatic Lyrics.

“Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” in 72 lines, 9 stanzas, consists of the under-the-breath mutterings of a cloistered monk as he observes with hatred Brother Lawrence watering his myrtle-bushes in the convent garden. Everything about Brother Lawrence irritates the speaker deeply. He can’t stand the way that the monk spends refection talking about the weather and his beloved plants, the way he eats and drinks heartily while the speaker is always careful to demonstrate his own piety by laying his knife and fork crosswise and by drinking his watered orange pulp in three sips to represent the trinity.

He imagines how Brother Lawrence must lust deeply, if only he would show it, after brown Dolores who often sits outside the convent wall combing her long, black, lustrous hair. Even as the speaker observes Brother Lawrence trimming his flowers, he takes great pleasure when one snaps, and he gleefully admits keeping the plants “close-nipped on the sly.”

So he contemplates how most effectively to destroy the soul of the hated brother. Perhaps he could trap him in one of the 29 sins listed in a passage in Galatians just as he is at the point of death and send him off to hell. Or perhaps turn down the most lurid page of all in his own pornographic novel and slip it in among the garden tools. That certainly would cause the despised brother to grovel in the hands of Belial.

He even fantasizes selling his soul to the devil (but being sure to leave a loophole in the contract). But just then the vesper bells ring calling the brothers to prayer. The poem closes as the speaker curses Brother Lawrence before they have to enter into prayers together.

So, here’s the poem:

I
GR-R-R—there go, my heart’s abhorrence!
Water your damned flower-pots, do!
If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence,
God’s blood, would not mine kill you!
What? your myrtle-bush wants trimming?
Oh, that rose has prior claims—
Needs its leaden vase filled brimming?
Hell dry you up with its flames!
II
At the meal we sit together:
Salve tibi! I must hear
Wise talk of the kind of weather,
Sort of season, time of year:
Not a plenteous cork-crop: scarcely
Dare we hope oak-galls, I doubt:
What’s the Latin name for “parsley”?
What’s the Greek name for Swine’s Snout?
III
Whew! We’ll have our platter burnished,
Laid with care on our own sheld!
With a fire-new spoon we’re furnished,
And a goblet for oneself,
Rinsed like something sacrificial
Ere ’tis fit to touch our chaps—
Marked with L. for our initial!
(He-he! There his lily snaps!)
IV
Saint, forsooth! While brown Dolores
Squats outside the Convent bank
With Sanchicha, telling stories,
Steeping tresses in the tank,
Blue-black, lustrous, thick like horsehairs,
—Can’t I see his dead eye glow,
Bright as ’twere a Barbary corsair’s?
(That is, if he’d let it show!)
V
When he finishes refection,
Knife and fork he never lays
Cross-wise to my recollection,
As do I, in Jesu’s praise.
I the Trinity illustrate,
Drinking watered orange-pulp—
In three sips the Arian frustrate;
While he drains his at one gulp.
VI
Oh, those melons? If he’s able
We’re to have a feast! so nice!
One goes to the Abbot’s table,
All of us get each a slice.
How go on your flowers? None double?
Not one fruit-sort can you spy?
Strange!—And I, too, at such trouble,
Keep them close-nipped on the sly!
VII
There’s a great text in Galatians,
Once you trip on it, entails
Twenty-nine distinct damnations,
One sure, if another fails:
If I trip him just a-dying,
Sure of heaven as sure can be,
Spin him round and send him flying
Off to hell, a Manichee?
VIII
Or my scrofulous French novel
On gray paper with blunt type!
Simply glance at it, you grovel
Hand and foot in Belial’s gripe:
If I double down its pages
At the woeful sixteenth print,
When he gathers his greengages,
Ope a sieve and slip it in’t?
IX
Or, there’s Satan!—one might venture
Pledge one’s soul to him, yet leave
Such a flaw in the indenture
As he’d miss till, past retrieve,
Blasted lay that rose-acacia
We’re so proud of! Hy, Zy, Hine.
‘St, there’s Vespers! Plena gratiâ
Ave, Virgo! Gr-r-r—you swine!

 

Forms and Devices

Browning’s appeal has often come from the dramatic presentation of inner psychological character, frequently of figures out of the mainstream of normal experience. In “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” Browning uses the technique of soliloquy taken from the stage. Whereas the speaker actually voices his thoughts, unlike in dramatic monologues, nobody in the poem hears him. As a result of this technique, the poem achieves immediacy—everything happens within the timeframe of the actual reading of the poem just as it would if this soliloquy were spoken on stage.

Furthermore, the dramatic nature of the form allows Browning to avoid stilted poetic diction and instead to demonstrate the quite forceful language of the speaker in a variety of forms:

If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence,

God’s blood, would not mine kill you!

It allows Browning to show us a speaker who sometimes voices his own opinions, sometimes quotes from the Bible, mocks, or parodies Brother Lawrence’s hated affectations. At times we may even sympathize with the speaker in his disdain for the boring Brother Lawrence In short, the dramatic nature of this poem allows the full display of the speaker’s ambiguous personality.

Remarkably, while the poem sounds so dramatically real, Browning reveals his true virtuosity through the poetic forms he uses. Each stanza consists of 8 variously trochaic and iambic tetrameter lines. Tetrameter often is used for fast movement in a poem, as in stanzas 7 and 8, but speed and natural speech cadences also are achieved by the use of irregular rhymes and frequent double rhymes, for example in the last lines of the poem in which every line ends with a double rhyme:

Blasted lay that rose-acacia

We’re so proud of! Hy, Zy,Hine.

‘St, there’s Vespers! Plena gratia

Ave, Virgo! Gr-r-r—you swine!

The phrase “Hy, Zy,Hine” represents the ringing of the vesper bells but also are the beginning of the final curse on Brother Lawrence.

 

Themes and Meanings

“Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” ostensibly deals with the lives of only two monks, but Browning intends to give us a glimpse into the whole monastic system while unintentionally revealing his own protestant prejudices against asceticism. No historic basis serves as a source for the poem; instead, Browning treats the cloister as a breeding ground for extremely narrow-minded thinking and gross jealousy of all that does not satisfy powerful egos. Here we have a poem that gives the sour-natured attitude of mind of a monk jealous of a brother whom he hates merely because of his genial nature and goodness. Of course, Brother Lawrence does come off seeming like a terrible bore, and perhaps his dullness lends to the humorous counterpoint of the speaker’s lust for physical enjoyment in life. In Stanza 1 Brother Lawrence’s simple caring for his garden galls the speaker utterly:

What? Your myrtle-bush wants trimming?

Oh, that rose has prior claims—

Needs its leaden vase filled brimming?

Hell dry you up with its flames!

The speaker further despises Brother Lawrence for his simple interest in spiritual life, and his neglect of those petty superstitious forms the observance of which the ill-natured monk congratulates himself.

When he finishes refection,

Knife and fork he never lays

Cross-wise, to my recollection,

As I do, in Jesu’s praise.

I the Trinity illustrate,

Drinking watered orange pulp—

In three sips the Arian frustrate;

While he drains his at one gulp.

 

We delight in this at times humorous portrait of the monk, even though we disapprove of his attitude, but we enjoy his shocking exuberance, his demonic intensity, his zest for earthly pleasure. But, when everything is finally considered, “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” is Browning’s brilliant analysis of emotional hatred such as too close and too long association might develop in an uncharitable person.

 

I have taken my material for today’s post from notes to an essay I published many years ago for Salem Press.

 

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Paul Varner

 

 

 

 

 

First Impressions: Dorothy Wordsworth Meets Her Brother

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Racedown Cottage, the first residence of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, in the Lake District

April 7, 2017

On this date William Wordsworth was born in 1770 in Cockermouth, Cumberland, UK.

Few brother-sister relationships in literary history have affected the course of western literature like that of Dorothy and William Wordsworth. The story of that relationship is the story of natural and shared genius, yet the genius of one relegated, obscured, and subordinated in her lifetime to the genius celebrated in his lifetime. Yet, William’s genius was dependent greatly upon that of his sister’s. Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals were not published in her lifetime, but they reveal her genius and they reveal that she was for many of the early Wordsworth poems her brother’s collaborator. It’s not that William took advantage of his sister or that he would have denied her role as his partner if asked. Nineteenth-century English society took advantage of her.

Regardless, William Wordsworth received the acclaim of history and the western world as he dominated his age and mightily helped the worldwide paradigm change that was Romanticism.

Dorothy and William spent their childhoods apart with relatives after the deaths of their parents. So when they came together in early adulthood they really did not know each other well.

Here in a letter to her close friend Jane Pollard from February 1792, Dorothy offers her early impressions of her brother, at first comparing him to their brother Christopher:

Christopher is steady and sincere in his attachments. William has both these virtues in an eminent degree, and a sort of violence of affection, if I may so term it, which demonstrates itself every moment of the day, when the objects of his attentions to their wishes, in a sort of restless watchfulness which I may not know how to describe, a tenderness that never sleeps, and at the same time such a delicacy of manner as I have observed in few men.

In another letter to Pollard from June of that year, Dorothy writes an introduction to her brother whom she hopes Pollard will soon meet:

But it is enough to say that I am likely to have the happiness of introducing you to my beloved brother. You must forgive me for talking so much of him; my affection hurries me on, and makes me forget that you cannot be so much interested in the subject as I am. You do not know how amiable he is. Perhaps you reply, ‘But I know how blinded you are.’ Well, my dearest, I plead guilty at once; I must be blind; he cannot be so pleasing as my fondness makes him. I am willing to allow that half the virtues with which I fancy him endowed are the creation of my love; but surely I may be excused! He was never tired of comforting his sister; he never left her in anger; he always met her with joy; he preferred her society to every other pleasure—or rather, when we were so happy as to be within each other’s reach, he had no pleasure when we were compelled to be divided. Do not, then expect too much from this brother of whom I have delighted so to talk to you. In the first place, you must be with him more than once before he will be perfectly easy in conversation. In the second place, his person is not in his favour—at least I should think not; but I soon ceased to discover this—nay, I almost thought that the opinion which I had formed was erroneous. He is, however, certainly rather plain, though otherwise has an extremely thoughtful countenance; but when he speaks it is often lighted up by a smile which I think very pleasing. But enough, he is my brother; why should I describe him? I shall be launching again into panegyric.

 

A Book of Verses, a Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread and Thou: Edward FitzGerald’s Birthday

March 31, 2017

A Book of Verses, a Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread and Thou

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On this day in 1809 Edward FitzGerald the author of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was born in Woodbridge, Suffolk, England. Fittingly for my blog post, the celebrated author of one of the most famous poems about Spring was born in Spring. So here we go, folks. Happy Spring.

FitzGerald claimed his version (actually he wrote three distinctly different versions) of the Persian poem by Omar Khayyám was a translation of the poem from the original language. Well, let’s just say, kindly perhaps, that his translation bears as much relation to the original Persian as, say an Amazon.com suggestion that, hey, if you liked this Persian poem then maybe you will like this other thingy by the Victorian poet Edward FitzGerald. Nevertheless, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was a Victorian bestseller and since 1859 has been issued in nearly a thousand editions. I haven’t seen a copy in the last few years, but at one time you could count on nearly every Hallmark store and other stores selling inexpensive gift books to have on hand an illustrated copy of the Rubáiyát.

What makes the poem interesting for readers of Great Literature is the way the melancholy “eat, drink, and be happy” theme runs so counter to the usual popular literary fare of its time. Many readers read the poem as a celebration of life right now, while others read the poem as a celebration of wanton hedonism, specifically in its celebration of living life for the sake of drinking all the wine you can.

Here are some lines from the beginning of the 30-40-page poem. I conclude with its most famous lines.

I
Wake! For the Sun who scatter’d into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Drives Night along with them from Heav’n, and strikes
The Sultán’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.
II
Before the phantom of False morning died,
Methought a Voice within the Tavern cried,
“When all the Temple is prepared within,
“Why nods the drowsy Worshipper outside?”
III
And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted–“Open then the Door!
“You know how little while we have to stay,
“And, once departed, may return no more.”
VII
Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter–and the Bird is on the Wing.
VIII
. . . .

Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.
IX
Each Morn a thousand Roses brings, you say:
Yes, but where leaves the Rose of Yesterday?
. . . .
XII
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

On This Date: Julia Alvarez Was Born

March 27, 2017

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A Ten-year Old Learns the Simplicity of the Nuclear Age: Julia Alvarez’s “Snow”

Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), and National Medal of the Arts honoree for 2014, was born in New York City, but spent much of her childhood in the Dominican Republic.

Her essay, “Snow” looks back at the time when she returned with her family to New York in 1960. Alvarez wrote the essay at the request of an editor of the Northwest Review for a special issue on The Nuclear Age.

How does one write a personal essay on a looming potential nuclear holocaust? What personal experience is there to call upon? Instead of writing an essay full of dire warnings and helpless end-of-the-world despair, Alvarez looks over her assigned topic through the eyes of a child.

Snow

By Julia Alvarez

In the summer of 1960 my family emigrated to the United States, fleeing the tyrant Trujillo. In New York we found a small apartment with a Catholic school nearby, taught by the Sisters of Charity, hefty women in long black gowns and bonnets that made them look like peculiar dolls in mourning. I liked them a lot, especially my grandmotherly fifth grade teacher, Sister Zoe.

As the only immigrant in my class, I was put in a special seat in the first row by the window, apart from the other children, so that Sister Zoe could tutor me without disturbing them. Slowly she enunciated the new words I was to repeat: laundromat, corn flakes, subway, snow.

Soon I picked up enough English to understand holocaust was in the air. Sister Zoe explained to a wide-eyed classroom what was happening in Cuba. Russian missiles were being assembled, trained supposedly on New York City. Kennedy, looking worried too, was on the television at home, explaining we might have to co to war.

At school, we had air raid drills. An ominous bell would go off and we’d file into the hall, fall to the floor, cover our heads with our coats, and imagine our hair falling out, the bones in our arms going soft. At home, Mother and I said a rosary every night for world peace. I heard new vocabulary: nuclear bomb, radioactive, Third World War. Sister Zoe explained how it would happen. She drew a picture of a mushroom on the blackboard and dotted a flurry of chalk marks for the dusty fallout that would kill us all.

The months grew cold, November, December. It was dark when I got up in the morning, frosty when I stepped outside. One morning as I sat daydreaming out the window I saw dots in the air like the ones Sister Zoe had drawn—random at first, and then lots and lots. I shrieked, “The bomb, the bomb!”

Sister Zoe jerked around, her full black skirt ballooning as she hurried to my side. A few girls began to cry.

But suddenly, Sister’s shocked look faded. “Why, dear child, that’s snow!”

“Snow,” I repeated. I looked out the window warily. All my life I had heard about the white crystals that fell out of American skies in the winter. From my desk I watched the fine powder dust the sidewalk and parked cars below. Each flake was different, Sister Zoe had said, like a person, irreplaceable and beautiful. Northwest Review, 22. 1,2 (1984).

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Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: Introduction

February 24, 2017

Jane Hirshfield HD photo (c) Curt Richter

On this date this Western American poet and poet of the world was born. I first heard Hirshfield read her work at the Western Literature Association meeting in Sacramento, California in, I believe, 1999. She took the stage right after the rage performance poet Sister Spit and before Gary Snyder. What a program. Years later in Oklahoma I attended a program of Hirshfield by herself reading her work. That’s when I really looked up and started reading her work seriously.

Over the next few weeks I am going to do a series in The Literary Life devoted to Jane Hirshfield’s early poetry taken from conference papers and notes for a piece published by Salem Press.

Besides her work as a poet, Jane Hirshfield has written several major works on the philosophy of poetry, including Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1997) and Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (2015). Nine Gates treats the gates through which readers and writers pass as they learn what poetry brings to life and how it works. Patricia Kirkpatrick considers this volume of essays as addressing “not only ways to read and write, but a way to live.” Ten Windows considers how “Poetry is language that foments revolution of being.” While I am not ready to write about this book, I can say it really is transforming the way I read. The next installment in this series will be February 28.

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On This Date: Judith Ortiz Cofer Was Born

February 14, 2017

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On this date in 1952 the late Judith Ortiz Cofer was born. For much of her career she served on the faculty of the University of Georgia. The beloved Southern poet died on December 30, 2016.

Her best work, no doubt, is A Love Story Beginning in Spanish from 2005. Maxine Hong Kingston blurbed, “Judith Ortiz Cofer is a poet whose music pervades my life long after I’ve finished reading. A Love Story Beginning in Spanish inspires me and heartens me.”

Ortiz Cofer’s poetry is a poetry of many voices, often personal, but also projected into voices from acquaintances, original characters, as well as literary characters. In her longer poem, “Sailor’s Wife,” we hear from Homer’s Penelope as she awaits the return of her sailor husband, Odysseus.

Since Major League Baseball’s spring training has begun this month and the baseball season is practically here, I thought I would quote a few lines from “First Job: The Southern Sweets Sandwich Shop and Bakery.” The passage takes us into the country kitchen to meet Margaret:

In the kitchen of the Southern Sweets the black cook,

Margaret, worships at the altar of her Zenith radio. Hank Aaron

is working his way to heaven. She is bone-sticking thin,

despises sweets, loves only her man Hank, Otis Redding,

and a smoke. She winks at me when he connects,

dares to ignore Mr. Raymond when Aaron is up. Mysteriously

the boss-man understands the priority of home runs,

and the sacrilege of speaking ordinary words like my

“triple decker club on a bun with fries” frozen at tongue-tip

when Margaret holds up one bony finger at us, demanding

a little respect for the man at the plate.

hank-aaron-show-5

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On This Date: John Henry, Cardinal Newman Born

February 21, 2017

On This Date: John Henry, Cardinal Newman Born

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On this date in 1801, John Henry, Cardinal Newman was born in London. A spokesperson for the spiritual struggles of the Victorian Age in light of Charles Darwin’s publications, Newman’s best writings deal with the nature of education, the idea of the university, and the deep personal spiritual reflection of a highly educated man. His Apologia pro vita sua (“Explanation of his life”) relates Newman’s spiritual quest as he wrestled with theology and the life of his own soul. Newman died on August 11th, 1890.

On This Date: The Birth of John Ruskin

February 8, 2017

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On this date in 1819 John Ruskin, the eminent Victorian writer, art critic, and cultural critic was born in London. I have written quite a lot about Ruskin’s ideas in my ongoing series of Big Ideas about literature. Check the archives for much more about Ruskin.

One of the major works of Ruskin is his multi-volume study of European architecture, The Stones of Venice. Here is a short clip from volume 2, chapter six: “The Nature of Gothic.” Here Ruskin in a virtuoso piece of description looks at the vast panorama of European geography from far up in the skies, somewhat like satellite photos we commonly see of Earth. But, of course, Ruskin wrote these words years before the invention of flight. Imagine carefully, as you read, this terrifically visual writing.

The Journey of Thought

It is true, greatly and deeply true, that the architecture of the North is rude and wild; but it is not true, that, for this reason, we are to condemn it, or despise it. Far otherwise: I believe it is in this very character that it deserves our profoundest reverence.

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The charts of the world which have been drawn by modern science have thrown into a narrow space the expression of a vast amount of knowledge, but I have never yet seen any one pictorial enough to enable the spectator to imagine the kind of contrast in physical character which exists between Northern and Southern countries. We know the differences in detail, but we have nit that broad glance and grasp which would enable us to feel them in their fullness. We know that gentians grow on the Alps, and olives on the Apennines; but we do not enough conceive for ourselves that variegated mosaic of the world’s surface which a bird sees in its migration, that difference between the district of the gentian and of the olive which the stork and the swallow see far off, as the lean upon the sirocco wind.

Let us, for a moment, try to raise ourselves even above the level of their flight, and imagine the Mediterranean lying beneath us like an irregular lake, and all its ancient promontories sleeping in the sun: here and there an angry spot of thunder, a grey stain of storm, moving upon the burning field; and here and there a fixed wreath of white volcano smoke, surrounded by a circle of ashes: but for the most part a great peacefulness of light, Syria and Greece, Italy and Spain, laid like pieces of a golden pavement into the sea-blue, chased as we stoop nearer to them, with bossy beaten work of mountain chains, and glowing softly with terraced gardens, and flowers heavy with frankincense, mixed among masses of laurel, and orange, and plumy marble rocks, and of ledges of porphyry sloping under lucent sand.

Then let us pass farther towards the north, until we see the orient colours change gradually into a vast belt of rainy green, where the pastures of Switzerland, and poplar valleys of France, and dark forests of the Danube and Carpathians stretch from the mouths of the Loire to those of the Volga, seen through clefts in grey swirls of rain-cloud and flaky veils of the mist of the brooks, spreading low along the pasture lands: and then, farther north still, to see the earth with a broad waste of gloomy purple that belt of field and wood, and splintering into irregular and grisly islands amidst the northern seas, beaten by storm, and chilled by ice-drift, and tormented by furious pulses of contending tide, until the roots of the last forest fail from among the hill ravines, and the hunger of the north wind bites their peaks into barrenness; and, at last, the wall of ice, durable like iron, sets, deathlike, its white teeth against us out of the polar twilight.

And, having once traversed in thought this gradation of the zoned iris of the earth in all its material vastness, let us go down nearer to it, and watch the parallel change in the belt of animal life: the multitudes of swift and brilliant creatures that glance in the air and sea, or tread the sands of the southern zone; striped zebras and spotted leopards, glistening serpents, and birds arrayed in purple and scarlet. Let us contrast their delicacy and brilliancy of colour, and swiftness of motion, with the frost-cramped strength, and shaggy covering, and dusky plumage of the northern tribes; contrast the Arabian horse with the Shetland, the tiger and leopard with the wolf and bear, the antelope with the elk, the bird of paradise with the osprey; and then, submissively acknowledging the great laws by which the earth and all that it bears are ruled throughout their being, let us not condemn, but rejoice in the expression by man of his own rest in the statutes of the lands that gave him birth. Let us watch him with reverence as he sets side by side the burning gems and smooths with soft sculpture the jasper pillars, that are to reflect a ceaseless sunshine, and rise into a cloudless sky: but not with less reverence let us stand by him, when, with rough strength and hurried stroke, he smites an uncouth animation out of the rocks which he has torn from among the moss of the moorland, and heaves into the darkened air the pile of iron buttress and rugged wall, instinct with work of an imagination as wild and wayward as the northern sea; creations of ungainly shape and rigid limb, but full of wolfish life; fierce as the winds that beat, and changeful as the clouds that shade them.

There is, I repeat, no degradation, no reproach in this, but all dignity and honourableness: and we should err grievously in refusing either to recognise as an essential character of the existing architecture of the North, or to admit as a desirable character in that which it yet may be, this wilderness of thought, and roughness of work; this look of mountain brotherhood between the cathedral and the Alp; this magnificence of sturdy power, put forth only the more energetically because the fine finger-touch was chilled away by the frosty wind, and the eye dimmed by the moor-mist, or blinded by the hail; this outspeaking of the strong spirit of men who may not gather redundant fruitage from the earth, nor bask in dreamy benignity of sunshine, but must break the rock for bread, and cleave the forest for fire, and snow, even in what they did for their delight, some of the hard habits of the arm and heart that grew on them as they swung the axe or pressed the plough.

Do you notice that Ruskin characterizes Western European architecture without showing a single building? He simply begins from the south at the Mediterranean and angles north up to the alps and the Germanic and Danish states. We see the laurel, orange, and “plumy palm” trees in southern Europe, the torrid zone. Going up much higher, we see the vistas of the Danube and Carpathians, the Loire and the Alps, the green pastures of Switzerland and France to the “mighty masses of leaden rock and heathy moors” up north. In the last paragraph Ruskin shows us the power, energy, and the strong spirit of men required for survival in the North.

 

Robert Burns Night

January 25, 2017

burns-night

To commemorate Robert Burns’s birthday in The Literary Life here is one of the Scotch poet’s more humorous poems:

To a Louse: On Seeing One On A Lady’s Bonnet, At Church
1786
(Hover over the dialect words for definitions.)

Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly;
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
Owre gauze and lace;
Tho’, faith! I fear ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunn’d by saunt an’ sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her-
Sae fine a lady?
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner
On some poor body.

Swith! in some beggar’s haffet squattle;
There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle,
Wi’ ither kindred, jumping cattle,
In shoals and nations;
Whaur horn nor bane ne’er daur unsettle
Your thick plantations.

Now haud you there, ye’re out o’ sight,
Below the fatt’rels, snug and tight;
Na, faith ye yet! ye’ll no be right,
Till ye’ve got on it-
The verra tapmost, tow’rin height
O’ Miss’ bonnet.

My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,
As plump an’ grey as ony groset:
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
Or fell, red smeddum,
I’d gie you sic a hearty dose o’t,
Wad dress your droddum.

I wad na been surpris’d to spy
You on an auld wife’s flainen toy;
Or aiblins some bit dubbie boy,
On’s wyliecoat;
But Miss’ fine Lunardi! fye!
How daur ye do’t?

O Jeany, dinna toss your head,
An’ set your beauties a’ abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie’s makin:
Thae winks an’ finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!

http://www.robertburns.org/works/97.shtml

Here’s what I said about “To a Louse” in my Historical Dictionary of Romanticism in Literature:

         Robert Burns wrote this poem in his familiar Standard Habbie stanza form. Since Burns rarely attended the common Scottish Presbyterian assemblies, this poem is his imagining of a church service with its hypocritical churchgoers. The speaker sits in a pew behind a respectable young lady during the service. She has dressed in her finery for Sunday church. The speaker notices a louse crawling in her hair. The fine lady is, of course unaware and would be utterly horrified to know someone had spotted lice in her hair. The poem’s obvious theme is that we seldom see ourselves as others see us.

The Standard Habbie stanza form perfected by Robert Burns, Burns adapted the stanza from the 17th-century Scottish poet Robert Sempill who used it in his ballad “The Life and Death of Habbie Simpson.” A Standard Habbie stanza consists of a six lines, or sestet, with three lines of iambic tetrameter rhyming aaa followed by an iambic dimeter line making the b rhyme. The last two lines are iambic tetrameter and iambic dimeter rhyming ab. Burns uses this stanza in other poems as “Address to a Haggis” (traditionally read tonight, “Holy Willie’s Prayer,” and “To a Mouse.”

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