June 28, 2010

Three surprises in old books

Endymion is more plain fun to read than I expected, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea a lot less fun. It's extra surprising how much they reminded me of each other in their settings.

John Keats' poem was a thumping failure when published, and isn't thought much better of now; it's about the shepherd Endymion who loves the moon, and how many travails he has to go through for them to live together. It's poetry, yo, it rhymes, there are classical allusions, and yet, stuff happens; there's even character development and conversation. It's a fair criticism that the imagery and plot has at least as much to do with 19th c. England as with antique Greece, but that's poetic now too; has much of the same charm that the beautiful set dressing derived from 20,000 Leagues under the Sea has. There's a whole section in a curse-maintained undersea cavern, which was strangely like the whole interesting part of Jules Verne's bafflingly uninteresting adventure novel.

Why is the Verne so famous? Is all the good stuff in the the sequels? It's written from the perspective of the single least interesting character, who is too single-minded to find out anything about his smarter, braver, more interesting host Captain Nemo, let alone his smarter, braver, funnier, more interesting servant Conseil. Nice imaginings of the undersea world, but hey, we have undersea webcams now.

John Keats, Endymion

Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

So wrote clew.

June 21, 2010

John Masefield, John Masefield

Masefield is between Tennyson's high flights and Millay's pseudo-natural speech. All the poems have good readable stories, and they are never painful to read, and some stanzas or couplets are delightful; but the whole sinks like a comfy hammock between the earlier and later greats.

So having fought the Pentland War and won
A name through Britain and a peace secure
He felt the red horizon cast her lure
To set him hunting of the setting sun
To take a ship and sail
West through the grassless pastures of the whale
West to the wilderness of nothing sure
But unseen countries and the deeds undone

It helps that Masefield wasn't scrupulous about sticking to any close version of the stories, so one gets several Tristan-and-Iseult stories with different characterization and indeed plots (and Arthur letting Kai get in trouble for trying to keep Tristan from protecting a royal pig is excellent, like a scrap from The Once and Future King). Tristan's Singing has a chunk of saved-by-Nature that I found affecting, like mild Coleridge. Simkin, Tomkin and Jack is almost steampunk.


Find in a Library: John Masefield

So wrote clew.

January 16, 2010

The City of Dreadful Night, James Thomson

"The city is not ruinous, although
  Great ruins of an unremembered past,
With others of a few short years ago
  More sad, are found within its precincts vast.
The street-lamps always burn; but scarce a casement         40
In house or palace front from roof to basement
  Doth glow or gleam athwart the mirk air cast.
The street-lamps burn amid the baleful glooms,
  Amidst the soundless solitudes immense
Of ranged mansions dark and still as tombs.                 45
  The silence which benumbs or strains the sense
Fulfils with awe the soul's despair unweeping:
Myriads of habitants are ever sleeping,
  Or dead, or fled from nameless pestilence!

Pure quill. Perhaps someone will illustrate it, or at least use it in extensive chapter headings for Felix Gilman's next novel.

Project Gutenberg file#1238 The City of Dreadful Night

So wrote clew.

March 29, 2009

Twenty, Stella Benson

TRUE PROMISES
[...]

  You promised friends and songs and festivals.
  You promised true. Our friends, who still are young,
  Assemble for their feasting in those halls
  Where speaks no human tongue.
  And thus our songs are sung.

Pretty sounds in mournful poems, precariously balanced between with-your-shield-or-on-it investment in the ?noble sorrow? of war, and a conviction that the war is just more of the usual (tragedy).

FIVE SMOOTH STONES
  [...]

  It was young David mocked the Philistine.
  It was young David laughed beside the river.
  There came his mother--his and yours and mine--
  With five smooth stones, and dropped them in his quiver.

  You never saw so green-and-gold a fairy.
  You never saw such very April eyes.
  She sang him sorrow's song to make him wary,
  She gave him five smooth stones to make him wise.

  _The first stone is love, and that shall fail you.
  The second stone is hate, and that shall fail you.
  The third stone is knowledge, and that shall fail you.
  The fourth stone is prayer, and that shall fail you.
  The fifth stone shall not fail you_.

[...]

(Five Smooth Stones has a reference to a crooked cross that confused me enormously until I remembered that she's writing in the First world war.)

Militant civilian can be taken either way. She's still a citizen of London:

THE NEWER ZION
  [...]

  I will repeat old inexpensive orgies;
  Drink nectar at the bun-shop in Shoreditch,
  Or call for Nut-Ambrosia at St. George's,
  And with a ghost-tip make the waitress rich.

  My soundless feet shall fly among the runners
  Through the red thunders of a Zeppelin raid,
  My still voice cheer the Anti-Aircraft gunners,
  The fires shall glare--but I shall cast no shade.

  And if a Shadow, wading in the torrent
  Of high excitement, snatch me from the riot--
  (Fool that he is)--and fumble with his warrant,
  And hail a hearse, and beg me to "Go quiet,"

  Mocking I'll go, and he shall be postillion,
  Until we reach the Keeper of the Door:
  "H'm ... Benson ... Stella ... militant civilian ...
  There's some mistake, we've had this soul before...."

  [...]

Project Gutenberg etext #12643, Twenty, Stella Benson

So wrote clew.

July 08, 2005

Suzy Zeus Gets Organized, Maggie Robbins

Light chick lit might as well be verse, since verse shows off imagery and zingers and what else does one read this stuff for? Robbins adds a discernible plot, with dating and religion and a bit of a nervous breakdown, but the fun is the rhythm and the rhyme:

Ancient Greeks, with nine to choose from,
sipped their ouzo, heard their muse.
Suzy wonders, was that real, or
was it maybe just the booze?
Suzy hears a thought. His roommate
isn't just his roommate, Suze.

Is it a trend? Is it a Movement? Another three of the books I've blogged in Poetry are this-sort-of-thing, especially The Beauty of the Husband; then two of them are antiquarian (The Emperor's Babe, The Penelopeia) where 'Zeus' in this title is oblique. Definitely a trend.

Of the Nine, none were devoted
To shopping, chocolate or shoes.

Later: That was too cheap a shot. I should have remembered one of the sweeter poems from the tenth muse:

I have no embroidered headband to give you, Cleis, such as I wore
and in my mother's day a purple ribbon was the height of fashion
but we were dark; a girl as fair as sunshine
should only wear flowers.

Fashion; wedding (?) worries; generational saga... it's not the plot that makes great literature.

The above is my memory of, almost certainly, Mary Barnard's translation of Sappho. Since Barnard mostly had memory-jogger-size scraps to translate, it's hard to quote her in proportions small enough to be definitely fair use...

Find in a Library from Worldcat

So wrote clew.

April 19, 2005

The Oxford Book of Comic Verse, ed. John Gross

Mostly mild and Cantabrigian (sp?) comedy, but it all scans, and there's a little of anything.

There's a page on an old copyfight, Dicken's outrage at US unauthorized reprints. From The American's Apostrophe to Boz, Aytoun & Martin, both dead by 1909:

That, I s'pose, you call free trading,—I pronounce it utter gammon.
No, my lad, a 'cuter vision than your own might soon have seen
The a true Colombian eagle carries little that is green;
The we never will surrender useful privateering rights,
Stoutly won at glorious Bunker's Hill, and other famous fights;
That we keep our native dollars for our native scribbling gents,
And on British manufacture only waste our straggling cents;
Quite enough we pay, I reckon, when we stump of these a few
For the voyages and travels of a freshman such as you.

This was, I gather, the basis of our official position at WIPO, except that we feel everyone else ought also to spend dollars on US productions and cents on their own.

ISBN: 0192832077

December 04, 2004

The Seasons. Spring, James Thomson

There are lofty reasons to enjoy reading old books, but it's also nice to run across yet another of the minor allusions made by Dorothy Sayers. (I realize there are annotated anthologies, but I feel it only counts when I meet something on, as it were, its own terms in the wild. It's like a birder's life-list.) For instance, in The Parent's Assistant:

Delightful task! to rear the tender thought,--
To teach the young idea how to shoot,--
To pour the fresh instruction o'er the mind,--
To breathe th' enlivening spirit,--and to fix
The generous purpose in the glowing breast.
THOMSON.

I can't remember when Wimsey quotes that, but it will come to me. More from the same poem:

     An elegant sufficiency, content,
Retirement, rural quiet, friendship, books,
Ease and alternate labour, useful life,
Progressive virtue, and approving Heaven!
          The Seasons. Spring. Line 1158.

Thomson is compared to E. A. Poe, although A. C. Swinburne comes to my mind. Thomson wrote poems of Gothic gloom in modern setting, including The City of Dreadful Night, which is gloriously purple prose, roiled and shot with black and curdled red:

We bow down to the universal laws,
Which never had for man a special clause
Of cruelty or kindness, love or hate:
If toads and vultures are obscene to sight,
If tigers burn with beauty and with might,
Is it by favour or by wrath of Fate?

And Thomson lived 1834-1882, note you; that's out of a mechanistic, very faintly evolutionary, probably shocking run of stanzas.

The Castle of Indolence has a modernism of its own: there was a 19th c. solitaire card game with the same name. The game version of the poem, ha. Maybe Studio Foglio will put out a deck.

"The City of Dreadful Night" is Project Gutenberg etext #1238; more poems are kindly provided by the Vasthead.

September 18, 2004

The Emperor's Babe, Bernardine Evaristo

Rewriting the past as the present is irresistible, however dubious in scholarship and dangerous in politics; good for romances and poetry, then. This is both, the raucus, she-lad autobiography of a woman who grows up poor in Roman London, marries money, seduces an emperor, and dies for it. It balances the Penelopeia. This puts the least socially acceptable enthusiasms into rough, silly, vulgar, broken verse in several forms; that hid not just the unpopular but the confusing urges of Penelope, and smoothed it all into imitation Lattimore.

I like Evaristo's book a lot better, of course. The most startling subject is the visit to a gladiator fight, which heroine Zuleika has no anachronistic objections to. It's not that she doesn't think about the horror, but there's no Victorian in her at all, it is not her duty to be good. Slower, and less considered, and more smoothly jointed to modern behavior, is her attitude towards her slaves; not intentionally cruel, but completely selfish.

The macaroni combination of Latin and modern London-melting-pot White Teeth urban slang and proper academic freeform verse works better than I expected it to.

ISBN: 0142001716

January 28, 2004

The Penelopeia, Jane Rawlings

An oddity - a domestic feminist sequel to the Odyssey, told in the first person by Penelope, who takes her daughters to visit several respectable queens around the wine-dark seas, comparing weaving and medicinal gardens with them all.

It should, alas, have had a lot more conflict in it. Everyone - including Helen - has decided that the whole aberration of the elopement is best forgiven and forgotten. Arete is a respected wife and co-ruler, the Pythia is a besieged by a city gone lawless but is not herself terrifying.

But no gods, scant enchantments, and no sorceresses! (Possibly one god, who behaves rationally - out of character, that. Mentor appears, but not as Athene.) And really, if Penelope has a bone to pick with the the wider world, or a yen for powerful women's knowledge, Circe and Calypso and Medea would have been the people to visit. Instead we get an unlikely Penthesilea (not even properly dead although the dead do speak in the originals).

It was all right as a story of motherly midlife crisis, which is a good solid subject. But the logical universe it's in is a plains-easy version of the rocky, stormy, Classical Mediterranean, and that's a pity. I would have loved a big mess of the Women's Mysteries - I adore Judy Grahn's reworkings, and the techne of women's crafts. Aga Saga of the Aegean doesn't do justice to either the wild or the domestic.

The blank verse is recognizably in the style of Lattimore. There are irruptions of modernity, especially in the interactions between characters; they're more reasonable and less emotional than Homer's characters, which leaves fewer places for rhetoric and poetry.

ISBN: 1-56792-206-6

January 13, 2004

Marmion, Sir Walter Scott

It's a commodus vicus of recirculation that puts pre-1923 books on my PDA, so that I am continually reading the books that my grandparents thought of as foundational, cliché, or passé, depending on their tastes for the past. Occasionally I recognize something that I first read on vacation at my grandparent's in a turn-of-the-century prize book - that is, a collection of uplifting literature in a nicer binding than children usually got, printed expressly to be a reward for school achievement. I think these survived on the upper shelves for two reasons. One, they were probably chosen for their appeal to teachers' theoretical tastes. The children who got them didn't haul them around and read them. On the other hand, they are pretty, and they were trophies. Parent and child and grown child protected them. I recognized three or four quotations from Marmion.

As an amusement in itself, as something I would recommend to a modern reader, Marmion does well. First, it has a fine plot, in broad strokes: the manly, courageous villain; the suffering hero; two lovely maidens, one something of a Villainess, one a Damsel in Distress. Battles! visions! tournament in a fairy ring! and it has great visual scene-setting.

Second, although it is entirely in verse, it's easy to read. It bangs along in simple rhyming, with a comma or stop falling naturally at the end of each line. This is unsubtle to the ear, but no barrier to comprehension.

Third, there are those several bits good enough to be still repeated out of context. One is the little song "Lochinvar", also satisfactory in plot:

For a laggard in love and a dastard in war
Was to wed the fair Ellen of brave Lochinvar.

Another is in the eulogy to Admiral Nelson:

To him, as to the burning levin,
  Short, bright, resistless course was given.
Where'er his country's foes were found
Was heard the fated thunder's sound,
Till burst the bolt on yonder shore,
Roll'd, blazed, destroy'd—and was no more.

And finally, there's the bit that can be used in domestic travail, and therefore made into common quotation; I'm pretty sure Anthony Trollope's characters use it. It's completely unfair to the character it seems to describe, who is shown with none of the faults but all these virtues:

O woman! in our hours of ease
Uncertain, coy, and hard to please,
And variable as the shade
By the light quivering aspen made;
When pain and anguish wring the brow,
A ministering angel thou!

As a historical object, Marmion isn't bad. Scott was in the wave of popularizing romantic Scotland, just as it was safely conquered¹. He commits roll-calls of the outlandish names of picturesque Scottish places. The villain is English and virile. The costume-party medieval setting, with Gothic(k) gloom, was similarly collecting its head of steam to power Victorian sentimentality and lithography.

The political introductions and the six interspersed dedications to his friends are also modestly interesting as types of early-nineteenth-century manly ideal.

The one historical fact you might want in advance is that the battle of Flodden was tremendously damaging, maybe decisively weakening, for Scotland against England. One of the editors of the poem points out that Scott was in a cavalry troop himself, and his description of the tactical stupidity of the King of Scotland is that of someone who could imagine being in that kind of battle. (Sir Winston Churchill also fought on horseback, if I remember correctly, so Scott is not the last survival.)

URI: http://www.gutenberg.net/etext03/marmn10.txt

¹ Less of this, for instance:

On active steed, with lance and blade,
The light-arm'd pricker plied his trade,--
Let nobles fight for fame;
Let vassals follow where they lead,
Burghers, to guard their townships, bleed,
But war's the Borderer's game.
Their gain, their glory, their delight,
To sleep the day, maraud the night,
O'er mountain, moss, and moor;
Joyful to fight they took their way,
Scarce caring who might win the day,
Their booty was secure.

December 30, 2003

The Radiation Sonnets, Jane Yolen

Subtitle: For my love, in sickness and health.

Formality makes it easier to talk about some things. That is, I think, the strength of this book. The sonnets were written in the course of her husband's radiotherapy, mostly speaking to him.

A little distance, and it occurs to me that I can think of great sonnet sequences of courtship (successful and unsuccessful) and some on ending a relationship, but no others from inside a happy marriage.

ISBN: 1-56512-402-2

March 12, 2003

Three Chinese Poets, Vikram Seth

Spring Scene in Time of War

The state lies ruined; hills and streams survive.
Spring in the city; grass and leaves now thrive.
Moved by the times the flowers shed their dew.
The birds seem startled; they hate parting too.
The steady beacon fires are three months old.
A word from home is worth a ton of gold.
I scratch my white hair, which has grown so thin
It soon won't let me stick my hatpin in.
--Du Fu, tr. Vikram Seth
The poets Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu were contemporaries in the eighth century C.E.; they were born in a golden age of culture and good government that ripped itself and China apart before they died. Seth gives more historical detail, and also describes the original forms he was trying to live up to. Seth likes good old rhyme and meter - his Golden Gate is a novel written entirely in sonnets, and is easy to read withal - but was aiming for translations, not new invocations of the muse: he remarks

"The famous translations of Ezra Pound, compounded as they are of ignorance of Chinese and valiant self-indulgence have remained before me as a warning of what to shun."

Well, I am ignorant of Chinese, and never mind self-indulgence, but I like these translations enough to learn some by heart - the rhyme & meter help - and like the poems well enough that I'm glad to have them.

ISBN: 1-85799-780-8

So wrote clew.

September 06, 2002

Beastly Tales, Vikram Seth

These are tales retold in rhyme, and it's glorious. They are also sardonic, funny, and full of morals, but the best part is the sound:

Praying may help us - who can tell?
But they, of course, have gods as well.
I would endeavor to maintain
Our plans on a terrestrial plane.
So wrote clew.

May 09, 2002

The Beauty of the Husband, Carson

Somethinq of a writers-midlife-love-crisis novel, but it's blank verse. Poetry is a good form for this. She uses writerly skill for universal emotion & doesn't go on & on abt. local status markers, which puts it ahead of most of the composition-professor-has-midlife-affair books that fill the genre.
So wrote clew.