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First Impressions: Dorothy Wordsworth Meets Her Brother

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.


Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: Given Sugar, Given Salt

April 5, 2017


Hirshfield’s fifth volume of poetry, published in 2001, continues with the old themes but proves her most expansive volume to date: “As water given sugar sweetens, given salt grows salty,/we become our choices.” And thus Given Sugar, Given Salt explores our choices for meaningful living. In “Bone,” for example, the speaker’s dog unearths an old bone, the toy of her previous dog—for whose memory she still grieves. The new dog knows nothing of the old dog:

My memories,

my counting and expectations,

mean nothing to her;

my sadness, though,

does puzzle her a moment.

But the new dog does not remain puzzled for long. She just keeps on chewing and then readies herself for a game of catch.

Choices control all of our lives. In “Happiness is Harder” Hirshfield considers even happiness a choice. Sadness can be cured perhaps: “A person has only to choose./ What doesn’t matter; just that-.” However, “Happiness is harder.” Or, she says,

Consider the masters’ description

of awakened existence, how seemingly simple:

Hungry, I eat; sleepy, I sleep.

Is this choosing completely, or not at all?


In either case, everything seems to conspire against it.

Jane Hirshfield has, then, developed a unique voice among contemporary American poets. Her work has the quiet yet persistent vision characteristic of Zen. Life often is a question with no answer, but the question must be asked. Jane Hirshfield continues to ask.

Ok, folks, I think that’s all I’ve got for this series on the early poetry of Jane Hirshfield. If you would like to collect the entire series at once just click on Jane Hirshfield under Categories to read everything.


Since 2001 Jane Hirshfield has published the following volumes of poetry:

Pebbles & Assays (2004)

Each Happiness Ringed by Lions (2005)

After (2006)

Come, Thief (2013)

The Beauty (2015)

Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner



Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote

April 3, 2017

Spring f972d-dsc02201

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licóur

Of which vertú engendred is the flour;

Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,

And smale foweles maken melodye,

That slepen al the nyght with open ye,

So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,

And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,

To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;

And specially, from every shires ende

Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,

The hooly blisful martir for to seke,

That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.


Geoffrey Chaucer, The Opening Lines of The Canterbury Tales.

April is the cruellest month

April is the Cruelest Month mud_season_snow-500x375

April 1, 2017

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee

With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,

And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,

And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.

And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,

My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,

And I was frightened. He said, Marie,

Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.

In the mountains, there you feel free.

I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

From The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot


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

Loaf of bread jug of wine8c859c04f840c00709dc9f99bef3ef07

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 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.

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.
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?”
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.”
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.
. . . .

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.
Each Morn a thousand Roses brings, you say:
Yes, but where leaves the Rose of Yesterday?
. . . .
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!

Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: The Lives of the Heart, Part II

March 29, 2017


Continuing where I left off in my ongoing series on Jane Hirshfield’s early work, let’s continue to look at The Lives of the Heart, published in 1997. If you are just now clicking into this series just scroll down to the previous posts or click on Jane Hirshfield under Categories for the entire series at one time.

Obviously from the title these poems celebrate the heart, the center of human nature that keeps us at the core of our existence. Hirshfield explained to Katie Bolick of The Atlantic, “that for some years a central task in my life has been to try to affirm the difficult parts of my experience; that attempt is what many of the heart poems address. . . .At some point I realized that you don’t get a full human life if you try to cut off one end of it, that you need to agree to the entire experience, to the full spectrum of what happens.” For example, in “Secretive Heart” we find at its center life, the heart, is about the most mundane of material objects-such as an old Chinese cauldron “still good for boiling water,” but evidently not for much else.

It is one of a dozen or more,

it is merely iron,

it is merely old,

there is much else to see.


The few raised marks

on its belly

are useful to almost no one.


Heart looks at it a long time.

What do you see? I ask again,

but it does not answer.

My next installment in this series will be April 5. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner

Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: The Lives of the Heart, Part I

March 28, 2017


In her 1997 collection of poetry Hirshfield develops fully a new imagery of the lion and of the heart. Lions appear with mythic power in such poems as “Knowing Nothing,” “Spell to be said Upon Waking,” “Lion and Angel Dividing the Maple between Them,” and “Each happiness Ringed by Lions.”

In an interview by Katherine Mills, Hirshfield explains her idea with the lions: “the lion is fierceness and beauty; undeniable presence; danger; power; passionate love; transformation. Perhaps, for me. . .lions are the earthly answer to Buddhism.” Thus, in “Knowing Nothing”:

The lion has stalked

the village for a long time.

It does not want the goat,

who stands thin and bleating,

tied to its bit of wood.


The goat is not the reason.

The reason is the lion,

whose one desire is to enter-

Not the goat, which is

only the lure. . .

but the one burning life

it has hunted for a long time

disguised as hunger. Disguised as love.

Which is not the reason.

Here the paradox of the lion’s ferocity and its longing to assert itself—of its love—keep us searching but not finding the reason of life experience: “Love is not the reason./Love is the lure.”


My next installment in this series will be March 29. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner

On This Date: Julia Alvarez Was Born

March 27, 2017


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.


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).


Follow The Literary Life blog. Paul Varner

Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: The October Palace

March 17, 2017


In October Palace, published in 1994, we finally see a fully mature poet, no longer a developing talent. Hirshfield now moves beyond the formulas of writers’ workshop poems and finds the unique voice and range of experiences that has continually brought her the prizes and grants necessary for a sustainable poetic career.

Perhaps the overall theme of October Palace is that every moment of one’s life possesses its own meaning. This theme can be seen, perhaps most obviously, in “Percolation.” The speaker is in the midst of wasting a day confined inside because of the rain. But as she meditates upon her confinement, and as she becomes aware of a frog croaking “a tuneless anthem,” she develops serenity from the conviction that: “Surely all Being at bottom is happy:/ soaked to the bone, sopped at the root. . . .” And she discovers that life-giving peace must be wrung out of all experience,

yielding as coffee grounds

yield to their percolation, blushing, completely seduced, assenting as they give in to the downrushing water,

the murmur of falling. . . .

In many of her poems Hirshfield enjoys relating narratives from various folk and historical legends. For example, in “A Plenitude,”one of my favorites, Hirshfield considers the nature of fullness, completeness—plenitude-by relating a common story from Renaissance art:

But there is the story, too,

of a young painter meeting the envoy of a Pope.

Asked for a work by which his art

could be weighed against others’, he dipped his stylus—

with great courtesy, according to Vasari—

in red ink, and drew a single, perfect O.


My next installment in this series will be March 17. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner

Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: Of Gravity & Angels, Part II

March 16, 2017


One of the more memorable poems from Of Gravity & Angels is “Dialogue” which begins: “A friend says,/’I’m always practicing to be an old woman.’” Another friend considers herself differently: “’I see myself young, maybe fourteen.’” The speaker, however, identifies with neither friend:

But when I lean to that mirror

a blackbird wing rises,

dark, flashing red at the shoulder,


and no woman is there

to pin flowers over the

place where her left breast falls.


Another often read poem is “The Song”:

The tree, cut down this morning,

is already chainsawed and quartered. . .

Not an instant too early, its girl slipped away.

She is singing now, a small figure

glimpsed in the surface of the pond.

All material nature has its own spirit. Here the spirit leaves the tree but never completely. In the same way as the tree will grieve its lost spirit, “the wood, if taken too quickly, will sing/ a little in the stove, still remembering her.

My next installment in this series will be March 17. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner

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