Books Protect Us from Madness

Schnetzer and Nelisse in "The Book Thief"

Schnetzer and Nelisse in “The Book Thief”

My Leonardtown Library Discussion Group discussed Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief last night. I was enthralled with the novel and noted similarities with another book we discussed recently, Nicole Krauss’ History of Love. Both authors invent books within their books that radically alter people’s lives. My post today focuses on Zusak’s imagined books.

Liesel is a young girl who is raised as a foster child in Nazi Germany. At a very young age she loses her parents, probably because they are communists, and sees her little brother die. She is raised by a poor couple who unexpectedly find themselves hiding a Jew named Max. Because her foster family has no money, Liesel grabs books where she can. They include:

The Grave Digger’s Handbook (picked up from her brother’s graveyard);

The Shoulder Shrug (salvaged from a Nazi book burning);

–The Whistler and The Dream Carrier (stolen from the library of Ilsa, the mayor’s wife);

–a dictionary (given to her by Ilsa).

The Word Shaker (a book created by Max on painted-over pages of Mein Kampf).

Although these books appear to be acquired haphazardly, I believe that the books we need find their way into our lives. When we are scanning library or bookstore shelves, we sometimes instinctively select exactly the books we need. So it happens with Liesel:

–She learns to read from the Grave Diggers’ Handbook, and even though it is a manual, it gives her a framework for processing her brother’s death. This is where she first senses that words can touch on life’s most momentous events.

The Shoulder Shrug is described as follows:

The authorities’ problem with the book was obvious. The protagonist was a Jew, and he was presented in a positive light. Unforgivable. He was a rich man who was tired of letting life pass him by—what he referred to as the shrugging of the shoulders to the problems and pleasures of a person’s time on earth.

The book lets Liesel know that there are deliberate ways to live a life that is all too fragile and evanescent.

The Whistler is a crime novel about a mass murderer who always whistles after he kills someone and who, in the book’s conclusion, is eyeing his next victim. (I wonder if Zusak got the idea from the Fritz Lang movie M.) Grim though the book is, it gives Liesel a narrative that articulates the horrors going on around her.

The Dream Carrier begins as follows:

It was quite fitting that the entire town was sleeping when the dream carrier was born…

Liesel, one of the few in her town to survive the war, becomes a dream carrier. The narrator, who happens to be Death, informs us that the book we are reading is based on her own account of her life.

–Liesel uses the dictionary to break the special code of books and sometimes of adult language generally. Language is so visceral for Liesel that the dictionary becomes an indispensable guide, helping to open up further language’s magical powers.

–Max’s parable The Word Shaker, however, points to a paradox that will shake Liesel to the core. Language, while liberating, can also be abused by a charismatic tyrant. Indeed, when all hell is breaking loose in Liesel’s world, she turns against language and destroys a book:

Soon, there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Fuhrer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or worldly tricks to make us feel better.

Max’s story, however, which is written over the text of Mein Kampf, gives her another way to see language. Here’s an excerpt from The Word Shaker:

Yes, the Fuhrer decided that he would rule the world with words. “ I will never fire a gun,” he devised. “I will not have to.” Still, he was not rash. Let’s allow him at least that much. He was not a stupid man at all. His first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible.

He planted them day and night, and cultivated them.

He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany…It was a nation of farmed thoughts.

While the words were growing, our young Fuhrer also planted symbols, and these, too, were well on their way to full bloom. Now the time had come. The Fuhrer was ready.

He invited his people toward his own glorious heart, beckoning them with his finest, ugliest words, handpicked from his forests. And the people came.

They were all placed on a conveyor belt and run through a rampant machine that gave them a lifetime in ten minutes. Words were fed into them. Time disappeared and they now knew everything they needed to know. They were hypnotized.

Also in Max’s story, however, are “word shakers,” who climb the trees and shake down words to the people below. Among these is a little girl who is particularly attuned to words:

The best word shakers were the ones who understood the true power of words. They were the ones who could climb the highest. One such word shaker was a small, skinny girl. She was renowned as the best word shaker of her regions because she knew how powerless a person could be without words.

That’s why she could climb higher than anyone else. She had desire. She was hungry for them.

One day, however, she met a man who was despised by her homeland, even though he was born in it. They became good friends, and when the man was sick, the word shaker allowed a single teardrop to fall on his face. The tear was made of friendship—a single word—and it dried and became a seed, and when next the girl was in the forest, she planted that seed among the other trees. She watered it every day.

The seed grows into the mightiest tree in the forest. The Fuhrer is unable to chop it down.

Ilsa, the mayor’s wife, also appreciates Liesel’s deep hunger for words and for books, especially after she receives the following letter from her:

Dear Mrs. Hermann,

As you can see, I have been in your library again and I have ruined one of your books. I was just so angry and afraid and I wanted to kill the words. I have stolen from you and now I’ve wrecked your property. I’m sorry. To punish myself, I think I will stop coming here. Or is it punishment at all? I love this place and hate it, because it is full of words

You have been a friend to me even though I hurt you, even though I have been insufferable (a word I looked up in your dictionary), and I think I will leave you alone now. I’m sorry for everything.

Ilsa, however, will not allow Liesel to punish herself but brings her a notebook. In it, Liesel pens her story, entitling it The Book Thief.

The book that Liesel writes concludes,

I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.

One other note: In addition to loving the hunger for books that is at the heart of Zusak’s novel, I was drawn to it by a personal connection. Liesel lives in a small town outside Munich and close to Dachau. My father, who died last year, was in Munich during the war and saw Dachau three days after it was liberated. The novel mentions Americans guarding Dachau, and although my father wasn’t one of these, he did have the job of educating Munich citizens about the concentration camps. He told me that the Germans initially labeled the horror stories as American propaganda, prompting the Americans to set up mandatory tours of the camp.

Posted in Zusak (Markus) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Behn’s Comedy Masks Feminist Protest


My students have been clarifying for me the radicalism of Aphra Behn’s 1677 comedy The Rover. Although Behn masks her egalitarian vision with humor, the play articulates how hard it was for a brilliant and independent woman to hold her own in the public arena.

The play is about two sisters, Florinda and Hellena, who long for other futures than the ones decided by their father. Florinda wants to marry the dashing Belvile rather than the old and wealthy Don Vincentio, while Hellena wants to marry Willmore (the rover of the title) rather than spend her life in a convent. Since it’s a comedy, both eventually get what they want, with Hellena becoming a bit of a rover in her own right. They first have to overcome a series of very revealing obstacles, however.

In her attempts to run away with Belvile, Florinda is almost raped twice by his friends. Meanwhile Willmore, one of these friends, doesn’t want to be tied down by any woman. He first wins the love of the high-priced courtesan Angellica, who waives her fees for him, and then, when he tires of her, chases after Hellena. Hellena’s challenge is to land him in marriage without him experiencing marriage as a trap. She succeeds after first dressing as a gypsy and then as a man before finally engaging in a dazzling verbal duel.

In a departure from the normal comic formula, we are also made to feel for the broken-hearted Angellica. Another prostitute, this one played for laughs, is the minor character Lucetta, who tricks the wannabe rake Blunt by pretending that she’s a great lady bestowing favors on him. In the end she strips him of his clothes and his money.

The four women students who wrote on the play all appreciated Behn’s exploration of women’s limited options. Tessa Haynes, who has written penetrating essays for me in the past (such as this one on Twilight and Jane Eyre), began her essay with a personal experience that explains why she found Behn so liberating:

I learned at a young age what could happen if I found myself walking alone late at night. I learned what could happen if I left a drink unattended at a party. I learned ways to prevent unwanted advances or attacks; keys between fingers, pressure points on hands and wrists to be released from a grip, and a companion for walking, preferably someone strong and aggressive looking. Women have had to become physical warriors in order to guard what society has deemed their most prized possession; the baby maker between their legs. The horrible thing is that there is nowhere that is truly safe. I had a friend who was assaulted at a party. I had a friend who was assaulted at a wave pool. I had a friend who was assaulted in her own home. We hear the stories, we see the statistics, and we arm ourselves for a battle we shouldn’t have to fight. This constant state of danger is not a recent thing for women. We’ve been experiencing it since the beginning of time. With the emergence of the internet and other media platforms as well as the dawn of feminism, this danger has been able to be clearly expressed to the world. Before this, women learned of the dangers from their mothers, close friends, and sometimes hidden within the writings of fellow women. Aphra Behn’s comedy The Rover is one of these writings.

As Tessa and the other women students see it, Behn too is frustrated by the constant threat of male assault. Each of the four female characters finds a modicum of power but each also runs up against the limitations of her gender.

Lucetta and Angellica, the two prostitutes, treat sex as a business proposition, which gives them some power (although Lucetta is working for a pimp). Angellica, however, wants something more: she wants love. Unfortunately, the moment that she allows herself to be vulnerable, she is used and then tossed. She regains some of her dignity toward the end by threatening to shoot Willmore and then just surrendering him as not worth the bother, but she’s been taught a stern object lesson.

Florinda hopes to be rewarded for being a virtuous woman. She rebels slightly—she runs away from her father and brother so that she can marry that man that she loves—but after that, as her name implies, she hopes that being a beautiful flower will be enough.

Behn rips that illusion away by having her almost raped, first by Willmore and then by Blunt, the latter because he wants all women to pay for Lucetta’s deceit. Florinda learns the hard way what Lucetta and Angellica already know: once you’ve slipped out of patriarchy’s protections, you are free game for any man.

Because Rover is a comedy, Florinda is saved—three times in all—but the almost-rape scenes are unusual for comedy and very unsettling. One doesn’t find such moments in male-authored plays. Here’s the dialogue in one of them:

Flor. ’Tis not my Belvile—good Heavens, I know him not.—Who are you, and from whence come you?

Will. Prithee—prithee, Child—not so many hard Questions—let it suffice I am here, Child—Come, come kiss me.

Flor. Good Gods! what luck is mine?

Will. Only good luck, Child, parlous good luck—Come hither,—’tis a delicate shining Wench,—by this Hand she’s perfum’d, and smells like any Nosegay.—Prithee, dear Soul, let’s not play the Fool, and lose time,—precious time—for as Gad shall save me, I’m as honest a Fellow as breathes, tho I am a little disguis’d at present.—Come, I say,—why, thou may’st be free with me, I’ll be very secret. I’ll not boast who ’twas oblig’d me, not I—for hang me if I know thy Name.

Flor. Heavens! what a filthy beast is this!

Will. I am so, and thou oughtst the sooner to lie with me for that reason,—for look you, Child, there will be no Sin in’t, because ’twas neither design’d nor premeditated; ’tis pure Accident on both sides—that’s a certain thing now—Indeed should I make love to you, and you vow Fidelity—and swear and lye till you believ’d and yielded—Thou art therefore (as thou art a good Christian) oblig’d in Conscience to deny me nothing. Now—come, be kind, without any more idle prating.

Flor. Oh, I am ruin’d—wicked Man, unhand me.

Will. Wicked! Egad, Child, a Judge, were he young and vigorous, and saw those Eyes of thine, would know ’twas they gave the first blow—the first provocation.—Come, prithee let’s lose no time, I say—this is a fine convenient place.

Flor. Sir, let me go, I conjure you, or I’ll call out.

Will. Ay, ay, you were best to call Witness to see how finely you treat me—do.—

Flor. I’ll cry Murder, Rape, or any thing, if you do not instantly let me go.

Will. A Rape! Come, come, you lye, you Baggage, you lye: What, I’ll warrant you would fain have the World believe now that you are not so forward as I. No, not you,—why at this time of Night was your Cobweb-door set open, dear Spider—but to catch Flies?—Hah come—or I shall be damnably angry.—Why what a Coil is here.—

Flor. Sir, can you think—

Will. That you’d do it for nothing? oh, oh, I find what you’d be at—look here, here’s a Pistole for you—here’s a work indeed—here—take it, I say.—

Flor. For Heaven’s sake, Sir, as you’re a Gentleman—

Will. So—now—she would be wheedling me for more—what, you will not take it then—you’re resolv’d you will not.—Come, come, take it, or I’ll put it up again; for, look ye, I never give more.—Why, how now, Mistress, are you so high i’th’ Mouth, a Pistole won’t down with you?—hah—why, what a work’s here—in good time—come, no struggling, be gone—But an y’are good at a dumb Wrestle, I’m for ye,—look ye,—I’m for ye.—[She struggles with him.

As Behn sees it, this is how men are. Hellena, who sets her sights on Willmore, has no illusions that he will respect her virtue. She knows, from Angellica’s example, that she can’t let her guard down. Her solution is verbal pyrotechnics that keep him intrigued, and their dialogue veers into Beatrice and Benedict territory from Much Ado about Nothing. Although Hellena insists on marriage because she doesn’t want “a cradle full of mischief and a pack of repentance on my back,” nevertheless she assures Willmore that their marriage will be like no other. She will never be predictable but will keep him off balance at all times. Because she threatens an inconstancy to match his own, he will never be able to ignore her.

This is not a great model for a marriage but it functions well as a comic resolution. Also, it is the best that Behn can come up with given the way that unmarried men seem perpetually predatory and patriarchal marriage appears a prison. Comedy allows room for imagining something beyond prevailing reality.

A couple of my students applied Northrup Frye’s vision of comedy to The Rover. As Frye describes the basic plot of comedy, there are three stages:

–Existent Society: existing society precludes hero from something he wants

–Confrontation: hero confronts representatives of society

–Reformation or Replacement of Society: the hero’s society replaces the previous society

In this case, the existing society denies women the freedom to enter into lasting and loving relationships. Men must be confronted and persuaded to change. Willmore’s and Hellena’s tumultuous coupling, where she gives him the promise of perpetual excitement and he treats her as an equal, is put forward as a replacement.

Behn dreams big but couches her vision in a form that can be laughed off. Best to be safe, she figures. Also, this way men will listen to her.

Posted in Behn (Aphra) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Who is the Worst Rake in Jane Austen?

Wise and Winslet in "Sense and Sensibility"

Wise and Winslet in “Sense and Sensibility”

The other day my Jane Austen class ranked the rakes that show up her novels. I was the odd person out in our voting. I’m curious how you would vote.

Jane Austen wrote in the Regency period when the decadent prince regent, later George IV, set a bad example for young men with his loose sexual morals, his free spending, and his large appetite. As Austen saw it, some young man with great potential had their promise sabotaged by the culture.

As much as I can gather from my students’ discussion, their ranking was as follows. Willoughby drew the most negative votes:

John Willoughby (Sense and Sensibility)

George Wickham (Pride and Prejudice)

Henry Crawford (Mansfield Park)

Mr. Eliot (Persuasion)

John Thorpe (Northanger Abbey)

Thomas Bertram (Mansfield Park)

John Thorpe (Northanger Abbey)

Captain Tilney (Northanger Abbey)

Mr. Smith (Persuasion)

Frank Churchill (Emma)

Frank Churchill perhaps shouldn’t be on the list since he proposes honorable marriage to Jane Fairfax. Then again, he takes far too much delight in putting one over on the citizens of Highbury.

In my own opinion, Mr. Eliot should have topped the list as he sets out to deliberately ruin his friend Mr. Smith. By contrast, Willoughby and Wickham are less calculating. I’m with Anne Elliot in being more offended by sins of the head than sins of passion. Willoughby may ruin Colonel Brandon’s ward and break Marianne’s heart while Wickham almost ruins Lydia, but their actions seem more the result of thoughtless narcissism than deliberate malice. Thomas Bertram, whose extravagance costs his brother a profitable living; Mr. Smith, whose extravagance plunges him and his wife into bankruptcy; and John Thorpe, a wannabe rake, fall into this thoughtless category.

I agree with the students that Henry Crawford should appear mid-list since he at least wrestles with his soul, even if he then returns to his rakish ways. He’s the only rake who undergoes such a struggle. Austen, who generally focuses exclusively on women, makes an exception in his case by showing us what he’s thinking. This almost automatically makes him somewhat sympathetic.

Actually, we see one other rakish interior. In his confession to Elinor, Willoughby shows himself to be conflicted and therefore to have more depth than, say, Wickham, This prompts Marianne’s sister to experience a “pang” for him.

So what purpose is served by such an exercise other than gaining more insight into the characters? Well, it gives the students a chance to weigh the conflicting claims of social influence and individual responsibility. Once again, literature provides an opportunity to practice ethical thinking.

Posted in Austen (Jane) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dr. Seuss: We Can Do Better Than This

Cat in the Hat

The world has been too much with me recently so I tracked down an old post urging us to buck up. It’s a poem in which my father channels Dr. Seuss. I posted the poem originally on January 3, 2011 but it disappeared from this blog’s archives. So here it is again.

Dr. Seuss’ special mixture of comedy and earnestness had a big influence on my father’s light verse. This homage takes on special significance now that my father himself has died. Scott Bates died without uttering any last words but he loved Seuss’ dying observation so I imagine him delivering it.

If you know the works of the noted children’s book author, see how many of the references you can catch. If you aren’t familiar with them, just surrender to his distinctive use of language.

In the Cosmic Caboose of Dr. Seuss

By Scott Bates

“We can do better than this.” –Last words of Dr. Seuss (1904-1991)

Dr. Theodor Seuss
Used to play fast and loose
With the deadliest, dullest reality–
Oh, the places he went! Oh, the things he did see!
            Like the gol-darndest zoo
            Of young Gerald McGrew And Horton the Incredible Elephant, too,
Who rescued the Egg and the World of the Who;
            –Or the lands of those kooks
            The Yooks and the Zooks
With their bomb called A BITSY BIG-BOY BOOMEROO
That was going to blow us to Sala-ma-goo
            All because of a Wall
            And no notion at all
That a person’s a person no matter how small!

–PLUS the fabulous sights we were likely to meet
On the way home from school on Mulberry Street,
            Not to mention the Whacks
            Of the Truffula Axe
On the smogulous Street of the Lifted Lorax!

–Give the Doctor a cat, he’d give him a hat,
A wopsical hat! Would he settle for that?
            Would he settle for one?
            Or for two, three or four?
No! Not Dr. Seuss! Not even a score!
Take Bartholomew Cubbins. The hats that he wore
They numbered five hundred, not a single hat more.
            And when he was done,
            The very last one
            The five hundredth hat            
Was a wonderful thing, A throbulous bibulous oblifferous thing
That Bartholomew Cubbins could sell to a king!

–And when, at the end, Dr. Theodor Seuss
Went riding with Thidwick the Big-hearted Moose
On his Cosmic Express, in his Big Red Caboose,
And they came to the home of the Grumbling Grinch
On the top of the cliff called Calamitous Clinch.
In the Proverbial,
            Did Dr. Seuss falter?
            Did he flee?
            Did he flinch?
            Did he say, “What’s the use?”
No! Not Dr. Geisel! No! Not Dr. Seuss!
On the ultimate inch of the last precipice
He just said,
            “We can do better than this.”

And we can! With Horton and Thidwick the Moose
And the Grinch and the Lorax and Cindy Lou Who
And Dr. Seuss, too, in the Great Seuss Caboose,
            We can go beyond Zebra,
            Beyond Sala-ma-goo—
And the Valley of Vung and the Solla Sollew—
At the ultimate edge of the Boom Band Abyss—
On the corner where Mulberry Street meets Bliss—

We can certainly do much better than this!

Posted in Dr. Seuss | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A Play for the Painfully Shy

She Stoops to Conquer

Teaching Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer last week reminded me of the time I first encountered it in high school English. At that time I found it to be one of the most delightful plays I had ever read. Looking back, I now have a better sense of why I liked it so much.

Like the male protagonist Marlow, I was painfully shy. Forced to talk to Kate Hardcastle, Marlow becomes tongue-tied, although he is perfectly easy when interacting with lower class women. My students noted that they experience a similar split: anxious about interrelating with members of the opposite sex, they find that lowering themselves through alcohol lessens inhibitions and loosens tongues.

Part of the reason for my own shyness was a horrendous case of acne, which prompted me to pull into myself. I actually remember talking to a girl once the way Marlow talks to Kate: I looked at her shoes the entire time. The other side of such reserve is that, when one does enter society, one says all the wrong things. Marlow orders his future father-in-law around in the mistaken belief that he is an innkeeper. In my own case, I would blurt out witticisms that were meant to be funny but were obnoxious instead.

Goldsmith was similarly inept. The famous actor David Garrick, in a mock epitaph, wrote of him,

Here lies Nolly Goldsmith, for shortness called Noll, 
Who wrote like an angel, but talked like poor Poll.

Marlow’s shyness takes him into his worst nightmare: he becomes the laughing stock of everyone on stage, including the woman he is trying to impress. Here she is twisting the knife after he realizes that she is not a servant but the woman he couldn’t face:

HARDCASTLE. It means that you can say and unsay things at pleasure: that you can address a lady in private, and deny it in public: that you have one story for us, and another for my daughter.

MARLOW. Daughter!—This lady your daughter?

HARDCASTLE. Yes, sir, my only daughter; my Kate; whose else should she be?

MARLOW. Oh, the devil!

MISS HARDCASTLE. Yes, sir, that very identical tall squinting lady you were pleased to take me for (courtseying); she that you addressed as the mild, modest, sentimental man of gravity, and the bold, forward, agreeable Rattle of the Ladies’ Club. Ha! ha! ha!

MARLOW. Zounds! there’s no bearing this; it’s worse than death!

MISS HARDCASTLE. In which of your characters, sir, will you give us leave to address you? As the faltering gentleman, with looks on the ground, that speaks just to be heard, and hates hypocrisy; or the loud confident creature, that keeps it up with Mrs. Mantrap, and old Miss Biddy Buckskin, till three in the morning? Ha! ha! ha!

MARLOW. O, curse on my noisy head. I never attempted to be impudent yet, that I was not taken down. I must be gone.

Normally I would have found such an embarrassing scene so painful that I would have turned away, even though it is meant to be comic. Comedy, intended to relieve anxieties, can become painful when the anxieties are too intense. There is such good humor in She Stoops to Conquer, however, just as there is in Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield, that I felt safe. Maybe I drew courage from the way that Marlow is able to laugh at himself in the end:

Joy, my dear George! I give you joy sincerely. And could I prevail upon my little tyrant here to be less arbitrary, I should be the happiest man alive…

My students noted that Goldsmith’s neo-Restoration comedy seems less abrasive, but also less profound, than the Restoration comedies of William Wycherley and Aprha Behn. This is true. But we all agreed that there is a vital need for such a warm-hearted and forgiving play. After all, it can bolster even the painfully shy.

Posted in Goldsmith (Oliver) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Biblical Paintings, Allowable Eroticism

Caravaggio, "Jaes and Sisera"

Caravaggio, “Jaes and Sisera”

Spiritual Sunday 

Today’s Old Testament reading involves the Canaanite commander Sistera, most famous for having had a nail driven through his head by Jael, one of the few proactive women in the Old Testatment and an early Hebrew freedom fighter (at least in the eyes of the Jews). The story makes great use of small details:

Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Come, my lord, come right in. Don’t be afraid.” So he entered her tent, and she covered him with a blanket.
“I’m thirsty,” he said. “Please give me some water.” She opened a skin of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him up.

“Stand in the doorway of the tent,” he told her. “If someone comes by and asks you, ‘Is anyone in there?’ say ‘No.’”
But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died. (Judges 4:18-21)

Throughout the ages, painters have been drawn to Biblical subjects where they could feature women, often their mistresses, in dramatic poses. It was a form of allowable erotica. I share today some passages about a painter in Anthony Trollope’s novel The Last Chronicle of Barset that becomes obsessed with painting a woman as Jael. Trollope develops their growing relationship with great comic effect as he shifts back and forth between the woman and the role she is playing. Here they are in their first encounter:

Miss Van Siever, who at this time had perhaps reached her twenty-fifth year, was certainly a handsome young woman. She was fair and large, bearing no likeness whatever to her mother. Her features were regular, and her full, clear eyes had a brilliance of their own, looking at you always stedfastly and boldly, though very seldom pleasantly. Her mouth would have been beautiful had it not been too strong for feminine beauty. Her teeth were perfect,—too perfect,—looking like miniature walls of carved ivory. She knew the fault of this perfection, and shewed her teeth as little as she could. Her nose and chin were finely chiselled, and her head stood well upon her shoulders. But there was something hard about it all which repelled you. Dalrymple, when he saw her, recoiled from her, not outwardly, but inwardly. Yes, she was handsome, as may be a horse or a tiger; but there was about her nothing of feminine softness. He could not bring himself to think of taking Clara Van Siever as the model that was to sit before him for the rest of his life. He certainly could make a picture of her, as had been suggested by his friend, Mrs. Broughton, but it must be as Judith with the dissevered head, or as Jael using her hammer over the temple of Sisera. Yes,—he thought she would do as Jael…

Upon further acquaintance, “Jael” begins to grow on the painter:

Miss Van Siever was shown into the room, and Dalrymple perceived that she was a girl the peculiarity of whose complexion bore daylight better even than candlelight. There was something in her countenance which seemed to declare that she could bear any light to which it might be subjected without flinching from it. And her bonnet, which was very plain, and her simple brown morning gown, suited her well. She was one who required none of the circumstances of studied dress to carry off aught in her own appearance. She could look her best when other women look their worst, and could dare to be seen at all times. Dalrymple, with an artist’s eye, saw this at once, and immediately confessed to himself that there was something great about her. He could not deny her beauty. But there was ever present to him that look of hardness which had struck him when he first saw her. He could not but fancy that though at times she might be playful, and allow the fur of her coat to be stroked with good-humor,—she would be a dangerous plaything, using her claws unpleasantly when the good-humor should have passed away. But not the less was she beautiful, and—beyond that and better than that, for his purpose,—she was picturesque.

Strict historical authenticity is beside the point. It’s all about the clothes:

And then on four different times the two ladies had to retire into Mrs. Broughton’s room in order that Jael might be arrayed in various costumes,—and in each costume she had to kneel down, taking the hammer in her hand, and holding the pointed stick which had been prepared to do duty as the nail, upon the forehead of a dummy Sisera. At last it was decided that her raiment should be altogether white, and that she should wear, twisted round her head and falling over her shoulder, a Roman silk scarf of various colors. “Where Jael could have gotten it I don’t know,” said Clara. “You may be sure that there were lots of such things among the Egyptians,” said Mrs. Broughton, “and that Moses brought away all the best for his own family.”

In the end, Jael does nail her man: she marries the painter.

Posted in Trollope (Anthony) | Leave a comment

Ignorant Armies Clash by Night

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs

Sports Saturday

We’re half way through the NFL season and, just like every year, the body count keeps rising. In “the war of attrition that is the National Football League” (as ESPN’s Mark Schlereth describes it), one needs more than highly skilled players. One also needs a fair amount of luck in the injury department.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this. The surprise is that anyone is still standing at the end of the year. After all, the game mostly involves 200+ pound players throwing their bodies against each other for play after play and making violent contact with helmets, others people’s bones, and (when the weather turns cold) frozen turf.

The concluding lines from Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” comes to mind. Applied to the NFL, the poem captures not only the violence but also perhaps why were are attracted to that violence.

Here’s how the poem ends:

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

For all the intricate plays that offensive and defensive coaches draw up, much of the game is pure mayhem. “Darkling plain” and “ignorant armies” captures it.

The poem as a whole, however, is an expression of cultural despair. The Sea of Faith has ebbed, Arnold moans, and now there is “neither joy, nor love, nor light/Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” Our “confused alarms,” ginned up by a media that generates and then feeds off of fear, prompt us to find a distraction in this violent sport.

In other words, the darkling plain is our own minds. We are the ignorant armies.

Posted in Arnold (Matthew) | Leave a comment

Social Media Invades the Classics

Fritz Eichenberg, "Jane Eyre"

Fritz Eichenberg, “Jane Eyre”

My son Toby just alerted me to a new book by Mallory Ortberg, reviewed by NPR, entitled Texts from Jane Eyre and Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters. It’s always an illuminating exercise to rethink literary classics in light of present day social media. Young readers find themselves able to relate to characters and situations that otherwise might seem alien.

I’ll share in a moment a couple of examples from Ortberg’s book. First, however, I note that three years ago my Jane Austen class undertook a related exercise, imagining Sense and Sensibility as an on-going Facebook conversation.

You can read a full account of the experience here. It proved to be wonderfully clarifying, as the following examples make clear:

–“[R]elationship status”…is as big a deal today as it was in Austen’s time. The wonderful Facebook category “It’s complicated” sums up Marianne and Willoughby very well and the students used it. Edward’s status also did some wild swings towards the end of the novel.

–While we may think, like Marianne, that we are far more open than Regency England, we still often say one thing while meaning another. (“Very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure,” Austen writes in Emma.)  To cite an instance from the exercise, the students playing Elinor knew that the students playing Lucy were being hypocritical. At the same time, “Lucy” knew that “Elinor” knew. (At one point Austen shows us what Elinor is thinking: “All this is very pretty; but it can impose upon neither of us.”) Engaging in that dance made them more attuned to Austen’s sophisticated use of irony.

In looking at the entangled conversations, one can understand why Marianne longs for upfront conversations and straightforward from-the-heart relationships.  (Exasperated by Elinor’s reserve at one point, she bursts out, “Neither of us have anything to tell. I because I conceal nothing and you because you communicate nothing.”) She learns to her sorrow, however, that the dream of open and honest communication is an illusion.  It was an illusion in Austen’s time and it is an illusion today.  Language and human relationships are always shifting.

In Texts from Jane Eyre, Miss Havisham in Great Expectations texts wedding dress photos from a blocked number, which captures her mania well. There’s also a imagined interchange, quite hilarious, between Ashley and Scarlett in Gone with the Wind:

Scarlett O’Hara: 
ashley r u there
(i’m DRUNK (from brandy))
remember that time we made out in the barn

Ashley Wilkes:
Scarlett, it’s four in the morning and I have to get up in two hours to run your mill
Please don’t text me this late

Scarlett O’Hara: 
oh i sold the mill
did i not tell you that

Ashley Wilkes:
Oh my God.

Scarlett O’Hara: 
did you know that pantalets are out this year
that’s why im not wearing any :)

Ashley Wilkes:

In addition to being a lot of fun, such spoofing is a great springboard into discussing a work. Teachers, take note.

Posted in Bronte (Charlotte), Dickens (Charles), Mitchell (Margaret) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beholding the Summer Dead before Me

William Trost Richards, "Forest Interior"

William Trost Richards, “Forest Interior”

Because it is autumn and the wind is stripping the trees of their leaves, here’s a haunting Charles Swinburne poem that features the season. The title is about the verse form that Swinburne uses, a poem using lines of eleven syllables. The most famous hendecasyllabic line is Keats’ “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

In Swinburne’s vision, the passing of summer is a metaphor for the passing of youthful desire.


By Charles Algernon Swinburne

In the month of the long decline of roses
I, beholding the summer dead before me,
Set my face to the sea and journeyed silent,
Gazing eagerly where above the sea-mark
Flame as fierce as the fervid eyes of lions
Half divided the eyelids of the sunset;
Till I heard as it were a noise of waters
Moving tremulous under feet of angels
Multitudinous, out of all the heavens;
Knew the fluttering wind, the fluttered foliage,
Shaken fitfully, full of sound and shadow;
And saw, trodden upon by noiseless angels,
Long mysterious reaches fed with moonlight,
Sweet sad straits in a soft subsiding channel,
Blown about by the lips of winds I knew not,
Winds not born in the north nor any quarter,
Winds not warm with the south nor any sunshine;
Heard between them a voice of exultation,
“Lo, the summer is dead, the sun is faded,
Even like as a leaf the year is withered,
All the fruits of the day from all her branches
Gathered, neither is any left to gather.
All the flowers are dead, the tender blossoms,
All are taken away; the season wasted,
Like an ember among the fallen ashes.
Now with light of the winter days, with moonlight,
Light of snow, and the bitter light of hoarfrost,
We bring flowers that fade not after autumn,
Pale white chaplets and crowns of latter seasons,
Fair false leaves (but the summer leaves were falser),
Woven under the eyes of stars and planets
When low light was upon the windy reaches
Where the flower of foam was blown, a lily
Dropt among the sonorous fruitless furrows
And green fields of the sea that make no pasture:
Since the winter begins, the weeping winter,
All whose flowers are tears, and round his temples
Iron blossom of frost is bound for ever.”

Another famous autumn poem, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, provides Swinburne with many of his images. I have in mind the leaves that “shake against the cold” (in Swinburne, “the fluttered foliage,/Shaken fitfully”), the “sunset that fadeth in the west” (in Swinburne, “above the sea-mark/Flame as fierce as the fervid eyes of lions/Half divided the eyelids of the sunset”), and “the ashes of his youth” (in Swinburne, “the season wasted,/Like an ember among the fallen ashes”).

In Shakespeare’s grim analogy, the yellow leaves of the fall are like teeth lost by an aging man while the shaking of the boughs is like aged palsy. He is like a ruined structure where “late the sweet birds sang.”

The speaker imagines that the young man will treasure him in his aging because he knows he will soon lose him. I’m not sure how confident he is that this will be the case.

Sonnet 73

By William Shakespeare

That time of year thou may’st in me behold 
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, 
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. 
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day, 
As after sunset fadeth in the west, 
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest. 
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire 
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, 
As the death-bed whereon it must expire 
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by. 
   This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Yes, autumn can be a melancholy season. But that is part of what makes it so beautiful.

Posted in Shakespeare (William), Swinburne (Charles Algernon) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Can Donne Help Us Cope with Death?



A teacher of a “Literature and Nurses” course recently wrote me asking for a post that has mysteriously gone missing from my retrievable archives. It was from a series of essays that I wrote on Margaret Edson’s W;t. As other posts from that series have also disappeared, I reprint today three of the missing posts. I don’t know why the internet gods were so focused on Edson, but I recently reposted two other essays in the series that also went missing (here and here).

Two posts in the series somehow escaped the massacre. I provide links to them at the end of today’s column.

Wit Won’t Cushion Us against Death (originally posted January 8, 2010)

Will John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud” help one handle the fact that one has cancer? It is significant that the cancer victim and Donne scholar in Margaret Edson’s W;t is rejecting her favorite poet by the end of the play.

First of all, here’s Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 10″:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

I’m actually not sure whether this particular poem would help any cancer patient. The poem has too much braggadocio in it for me, as though the poet thinks he can override his fears through shear audacity. My reservations about the poem are also those of the play. Wit is all very well, Edson seems to be saying, but can it speak to the heart or to a patient in distress?

In fact, as Edson sets up the poet, it’s almost as if he stands in for a flight from sentimental emotions. E.M., the protagonist’s graduate school mentor, is a woman in a man’s field and she shows that she is as tough as any man by burying her softer side. Vivian has become the same kind of academic. As Jason, her doctor and former student says,

Listen, if there’s one thing we learned in Seventeenth-Century Poetry, it’s that you can forget about that sentimental stuff. Enzyme Kinetics was more poetic than Bearing’s class. Besides, you can’t think about that meaning-of-life garbage all the time or you’d go nuts.

Donne, as he is portrayed in W;t, uses his mind to avoid harsh truths. In actuality, “Death Be Not Proud” reveals that he fears that death has all too much reason to be proud. Donne employs his brilliant mind in a desperate attempt to put death in its place. Vivian also detects such fears in Donne’s Holy Sonnet #5:

If poisonous minerals, and if that tree,
Whose fruit threw death on else immortall us
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be damn’d; Alas; why should I bee?
Why should intent or reason, borne in mee,
Make sinnes, else equall, in mee, more heinous?
And mercy being easie,’ and glorious
To God, in his sterne wrath, why threatens hee?
But who am I, that dare dispute with thee?
O God, Oh! Of thine onely worthy blood,
And my teares, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drowne in it my sinnes blacke memorie.
That thou remember them, some claime as debt,
I thinke it mercy, if thou wilt forget.

As Vivian analyzes the poem, 

The speaker of the sonnet has a brilliant mind, and he plays the part convincingly; but in the end he finds God’s forgiveness hard to believe, so he crawls under a rock to hide.

If arsenic and serpents are not damned, then why is he? In asking the questions, the speaker turns eternal damnation into an intellectual game. Why would God choose to do what is hard, to condemn, rather than what is easy, and also glorious—to show mercy?

Vivian sees the speaker as so overwhelmed by his own sense of sin, and his own worry about God’s judgment, that he arrives at a religiously inaccurate conclusion:

True believers ask to be remembered by God. The speaker of this sonnet asks God to forget. Where is the hyperactive intellect of the first section? Where is the histrionic outpouring of the second? When the speaker considers his own sins, and the inevitabilility of God’s judgment, he can conceive of but one resolution: to disappear.

This is a mouthful but here’s what Edson is doing: just as Donne’s restless intellect won’t let him open himself to simple forgiveness, Vivian is having trouble opening herself up to experiencing her fear, hurt, and confusion. She is trying to master the cancer with her mind and finds herself defeated at every turn. We see this in the following passage:

Am I in pain? I don’t believe this. Yes, I’m in goddamn pain. (Furious) I have a fever of 101 spiking to 104. And I have bone metastases in my pelvis and both femurs. (Screaming) There is cancer eating away at my goddamn bones, and I did not know there could be such pain on this earth.

Only at the end of the play does Vivian open herself to the sentimental support of the “never very sharp” nurse Susie and distance herself from the doctor, her former student. Here’s what she says after Susie calls her “sweetheart”:

That certainly was a maudlin display. Popsicles? “Sweetheart”? I can’t believe my life has become so . . . corny.

But it can’t be helped. I don’t see any other way. We are discussing life and death, and not in the abstract, either; we are discussing my life and my death, and my brain is dulling, and poor Susie’s was never very sharp to begin with, and I can’t conceive of any other . . . tone.

(Quickly) Now is not the time for verbal swordplay, for unlikely flights of imagination and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit.

And nothing would be worse than a detailed scholarly analysis. Erudition.Interpretation. Complication.

(Slowly) Now is a time for simplicity. Now is a time for, dare I say it, kindness.

At the end of the book, her old mentor comes by her hospital room (I’m not entirely sure if this is real or if she’s imagining it) and provides both simplicity and kindness: she reads her Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny. I’ll write on the significance of this story in my next post.


Runaway Bunny Sing Thee to Thy Rest (originally posted January 11, 2010)

In her dying moments, the Donne scholar in Margaret Edson’s W;t rejects Donne in favor of Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny.  What does this say about the usefulness of both Donne and Brown when we are pushed to the edge?

Runaway Bunny is about “a little bunny who wanted to run away.”  Each time he tells his mother where he will run to, however, she tells him that she will come after him.  For instance, when the bunny says, “I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you,” his mother replies, “If you become a fish in a trout stream, I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”  And so on until the little bunny, surrendering, concludes, “Shucks, I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.”

The story concludes with her offering him a carrot.

Runaway Bunny, which earlier in the play Vivian would call maudlin, now puts her to sleep.  Her former mentor, who has been reading it to her, at one point does a John Donne interpretation: “Look at that.  A little allegory of the soul.  No matter where it hides, God will find it.”

But Vivian does not want interpretation at this point, only a story that brings her home.  By which I mean, she lets go of her Donnean anxieties and her Donnean doubts and dies in peace.

Other notes: In addition to reading Runaway Bunny, the mentor’s final words to Vivian are Horatio’s final words to Hamlet: “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”  This is significant because the mentor, when Vivian was a student, once contrasted Donne with Shakespeare, finding Shakespeare overly melodramatic.  But it is the melodramatic Shakespeare, not the intellectual Donne, who gets the last word.

Runaway Bunny recalls another bunny story cited earlier in the play, Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies.  Vivian remembers reading it to her father and encountering the word “soporific.”  This scene and the one where her teacher berates her for a melodramatic reading of “Death Be Not Proud” are the two in which we see her moving from an emotional to an intellectual plane, with the intellectual ultimately proving itself to be insufficient.

But I don’t think W;t is simplistically anti-intellectual as, say, a movie like Dead Poets Society can be.  Or like the student I once had who read Wordsworth’s line “we murder to dissect” and concluded that he should stop reading poetry and go out and start communing with nature.  (For me, Wordsworth’s poetry actually helps me commune more deeply with nature.  But that’s a post for another day.)

I don’t buy this either/or, either the intellect or the emotions. First of all, little girl Vivian’s fascination with the word “soporific” is an emotional as well as an intellectual experience.  She loves to feel her mind expanding.  A children’s book writer than I knew as a child, the Appalachian author May Justus, told me that she occasionally stuck difficult words into books intended for very young children (such as The Wonderful School of Miss Tillie O’Toole) because they find it to be an invigorating game.

In fact, this childhood fascination with challenging words is what initially draws Vivian to Donne.  As she explains,

The illustration [in Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies] bore out the meaning of the word, just as he had explained it.  At the time, it seemed like magic.

So imagine the effect that the words of John Donne first had on me: ratiocination, concatenation, coruscation, tergiversation.

So why does Vivian dry up and become brittle?  How is the intellect set against the emotions instead of working in concert with them?  We’re not really told. Maybe it’s because, as I suggested in an earlier post, she’s a woman in a man’s profession and feels she has to suppress her female (emotional) side.  Maybe it’s from living in a culture that is suspicious of emotional display.  Maybe it’s because America is a highly competitive world that puts emphasis more on results (publications in this field) than on human relations.  Edson critiques both research universities and research hospitals, a theme I’ll touch on tomorrow.

But for the moment, I’ll just note that Vivian needs to return to the delight that she once got from children’s books and, for that matter, to the delight that she once got from Donne.  She has gotten lost but her illness brings her back.

You may have noticed how, in this website, I sometimes talk about adult literature, sometimes children’s literature, sometimes high art, sometimes low. Rather than seeing them warring with each other, I think they are linked by a common thread of delight.   Margaret Edson’s play makes dramatically clear how vital it is that we find our way back to that delight.

And yet another note: I learn from a reader that Runaway Bunny is a version of Psalm 139.


The Tolling Bell Says You’re Not Alone (originally posted January 15, 2010)

I talked yesterday about the poet being like one blundering around in the dark, making utterances that some, in their suffering, find consoling.  The poet doesn’t know which poems will reach which readers.  To make another analogy, he or she is like Queequeg, carefully constructing a coffin that, after he is dead and in ways he cannot imagine, floats to the rescue of Ishmael at the conclusion of Moby Dick.  (Lest this sound like a strange comparison, I note that John Donne in “The Canonization” uses a well-wrought funeral urn as a metaphor for poetry.)

One would think that a Donne scholar would turn to Donne poems in her hour of need. The poems cited by the English professor and cancer patient in Margaret Edson’s play W;t, however, don’t work for her.  “Death Be Not Proud” and “If Poisonous Minerals” seem to come up short.

Rather than telling her cancer to be not proud, for instance, Vivian feels defeated by it. Death seems to be getting the last word. And while the second poem captures Donne’s doubts about whether he can be forgiven by God, Vivian doesn’t think much about God or seem to believe in the afterlife.  Like Donne she has regrets (about her coldness and her lack of compassion as a teacher), but she doesn’t use Donne as a framework for examining her doubts.

It’s as though Donne is just standing in for arid intellectual exercise, an emphasis on head over heart, on mental dexterity over empathetic sensitivity, on wit over compassion.

It leaves me wondering if Edson chose Donne for her play for the same reason that cartoonist Charles Schultz chose Beethoven for Schroeder’s inspiration. Schroeder, in case you need reminding, is the pianist in Peanuts. He worships Beethoven, celebrates his birthday every year, and has a large grim-faced Beethoven bust on his piano. Schultz once said he himself liked Mozart better than Beethoven but chose Beethoven because he was more heavy and imposing. Beethoven captures Schroeder’s seriousness.

At the end of the play, Vivian turns to a children’s story for solace, giving Donne short shrift. So that you don’t walk away from W;t thinking that Donne, for all his brilliance, is unable to perform at crunch time, I present images from Donne that Vivian could have resorted to in addition to The Runaway Bunny.  In the following passage from Meditation 17, a plague victim hears the death bell tolling but is so ill that he doesn’t realize it is tolling for him:

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me and see my state may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all.  When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingrafted into the body whereof I am a member.  And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.  God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.  As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness.

And further on:

Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings?  But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.  If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or thine own were.  Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

How could this help Vivian?  First of all, the bell she hears tolling is in fact tolling for her. That in itself is a powerful image, one which could help her move past a sense of smallness so that she would see herself as part of a larger drama.

That larger drama involves an awareness of communal suffering. When others die, part of us is washed away, and when we die, others will lessened. “Any man diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

Vivian’s breakthrough in the play is to move from a sense of isolation to a feeling of community with the human beings around her.  She bonds with the “never very sharp” Susie and wishes that she had been kinder to Jason, her former smart student who is now her doctor.  Donne, meanwhile, provides the comforting image of community in his meditation: we are all in this business of life and death together.

This means that we are all dying together, being translated together. We each die in our own way, to be sure, but all are involved in humankind. In the end, God’s hand shall bind up our scattered leaves in that library where every book shall lie open to one another. Given how fond I am of books, I love this image.

Whether or not Vivian believes in God or an afterlife, this binding together image is the consolation she gets from The Runaway Bunny.  The mother bunny assures her little bunny that she will always be there, a sustaining presence (“have a carrot”), no matter how far away the little bunny has run.  As Vivian’s old mentor interprets, “Look at that. A little allegory of the soul.  No matter where it hides, God will find it.”

Now, maybe Vivian so associates Donne was the world of arid academe that she needs a book that recalls her childhood rather than the poet that made her reputation. But in my experience, it’s not an either/or, either a great poet or a children’s book. In my own darkest moment when my son died, a range of different works came to my aid: scenes from Beowulf, poetic passages from Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Mary Oliver, the children’s book Bridge over Terabithia, the James Baldwin short story “Sonny’s Blues.”   

Among other things, these works showed me that I was part of a large community that has been suffering and wrestling with death since the dawn of time. I realized, as never before, that people have been turning to poetry and story to try to capture a tragedy that is bigger than any of us. Even though I knew, as they knew, that poetry and story can’t do justice to our suffering, I felt a measure of consolation in the way we were all in it together. So why does Vivian in her suffering not turn to Donne’s line, “I am involved in mankind”?

In my own case, I was caught off guard by some of the images and stories that reached out to me. I certainly didn’t realize that my grieving would find articulation in Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother, for instance.  So maybe tolling bells and scattered book pages and diminishing promontories don’t do it for Vivian at this particular moment.  But poets and writers are working overtime to provide us buoys for when the white whale charges our ship. We do ourselves a disservice if we don’t avail ourselves of their help.

Addendum: I omitted one other Donne poem that gets mentioned in the play: “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” could also provide Vivian with comforting images.  It begins with an image of “virtuous men pass[ing] mildly away” and concludes with one leg of a compass (the kind used in geometry) returning home after having circumscribed a full circle (“Thy firmness makes my circle just,/And makes me end where I begun”).  Love grounds us when we stray.


Other Posts on Margaret Edson’s W;t

Arguing over Life, Death and a Semi-Colon (January 7, 2010)

Doctors, Bad Bedside Manners, and Poetry (January 12, 2010)

The Limitations of Cerebral Teaching (originally posted January 19, 2010)

Don’t Underestimate Your Students (originally posted January 20, 2010)

Posted in Brown (Margaret Wise), Donne (John), Edson (Margaret), Justus (May), Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Fellowship of Soldiers

World War I soldiers

Veterans Day

Veterans Day, which we celebrate today, was originally Armistice Day, set up to mark the end of the war that began 100 years ago. Few wrote as powerfully about the soldier’s perspective as Wilfred Owen, who died a week before the armistice, so of course I must share one of his poems.

“Apologia Pro Poemate Meo” means “a defense of my poem” although maybe Owen means his war poetry in general. It’s a particularly challenging poem for those accustomed to Owen’s searing indictment of war. In this one he seems to celebrate the comradeship of soldiers, even though it is a bonding that sometimes occurs when they are “slash[ing] bones bare.” In other words, there is something problematic about the emotions that the soldiers feel.

Sometimes the emotions seem genuinely uplifting, however. The poet says that he sees “God through mud,” explaining that the smiles shining through the muddy visages of his fellow soldiers are sometimes truly “seraphic.” In the trenches he has seen eyes lit up in glory (a word that Owen savagely attacks in “Dulce et Decorum Est” but seems to embrace here), and he has heard laughter that is as innocent and heartfelt as a child’s. He has “perceived much beauty/In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight,” and he has “heard music in the silentness of duty;/Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spade.” The fellowship he has with his comrades, meanwhile, is a tighter bond than any that is established through kisses and loving eyes. These ties, after all, involve “war’s hard wire” and tight bandages.

But lest it sound as though he is only celebrating the comradeship, Owen also describes some of the more dubious aspects of soldier bonding. For instance, there is an exhilarating sense of collective power that comes from killing:

For power was on us as we slashed bones bare 
Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder. 

Perhaps the poem explains that his poetry comes from a space that non-combatants will never be able to comprehend. It is beyond understanding that genuine laughter, joy, love, beauty, peace, and fellowship can be found in “the sorrowful dark of hell.” In the last line he says that we non-soldiers are not worth the soldier’s merriment, which may mean that he’s telling his fellow soldiers that our lack of understanding is not worth making fun of. Soldiers, don’t waste your sardonic laughter upon uncomprehending civilians.

But we, at least can give them our tears.

Apologia Pro Poemate Meo

By Wilfred Owen

I, too, saw God through mud– 
The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled. 
War brought more glory to their eyes than blood, 
And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child. 

Merry it was to laugh there– 
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder. 
For power was on us as we slashed bones bare 
Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder. 

I, too, have dropped off fear– 
Behind the barrage, dead as my platoon, 
And sailed my spirit surging, light and clear, 
Past the entanglement where hopes lie strewn; 

And witnessed exhultation– 
Faces that used to curse me, scowl for scowl, 
Shine and lift up with passion of oblation, 
Seraphic for an hour, though they were foul. 

I have made fellowships– 
Untold of happy lovers in old song. 
For love is not the binding of fair lips 
With the soft silk of eyes that look and long. 

By joy, whose ribbon slips,– 
But wound with war’s hard wire whose stakes are strong; 
Bound with the bandage of the arm that drips; 
Knit in the welding of the rifle-thong. 

I have perceived much beauty 
In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight; 
Heard music in the silentness of duty; 
Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate. 

Nevertheless, except you share 
With them in hell the sorrowful dark of hell, 
Whose world is but a trembling of a flare 
And heaven but a highway for a shell, 

You shall not hear their mirth: 
You shall not come to think them well content 
By any jest of mine. These men are worth 
Your tears: You are not worth their merriment. 

Posted in Owen (Wilfred) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

“Leda and the Swan”–Warning Necessary?

Adolph Wertmuller, "Leda and the Swan"

Adolph Wertmuller, “Leda and the Swan”

My friend Rachel Kranz sent me an opinion piece, published over a year ago in the Harvard Crimson, about encountering images of rape in college literature classes. Harvard student Stephanie Newman worried that the story of Leda and the Swan (a.k.a. Zeus) as it appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the famous Yeats poem by that name might trigger painful memories in rape victims. It bothered her that the rape was aestheticized and not treated seriously as rape. Here she is:

Both works are gorgeously composed and offer much more, of course, than rape-centric plots. But in my professors’ and classmates’ eagerness to discuss the intellectual genius behind these texts, the topic of rape has been avoided or glazed over without the care the subject necessitates.

I’m troubled by this casual treatment of rape for two reasons.

The first is obvious: any student sitting around the table could have experienced sexual violence. Brushing over the issue of rape in literature to discuss Yeats’s sonnet composition or Ovid’s layered narrative shows indifference to the experiences and emotions of these students. While literature courses should certainly focus on literary topics, students shouldn’t be made to feel that scholarship excludes or trivializes an issue that already breeds on invisibility.

The second reason I’m bothered is that I fear the same attitude driving these academic conversations (an attitude that devalues the importance and validity of rape) also drives the minimization of rape in our culture.

I am always excited when students grapple with literature’s relationship with life. I myself remember, while taking a college survey course, being deeply disturbed by the impersonal violence that Yeats describes, and I can only imagine how it might trigger painful memories in one who has been raped. Here’s the sonnet, which connects Leda’s hymenal wall with the walls of Troy. Yeats wonders whether Leda, through her contact with the god, would be able to foresee how the result of their union—Helen—would bring about the fall of a great city:

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                     Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop? 

However, as unsettling as I find the poem and as much as I agree that readers should be willing to talk about actual rape when they discuss it, I don’t agree with Stephanie’s proposals. Here they are:

My first suggestion to professors is to start class with a disclaimer. Let your students know upfront that you will be discussing a text involving rape. Encourage students to speak their minds, but ask them to participate with awareness and sensitivity. You can explain how your scholarly approach contends with the presence of rape in the text, and you can invite your students to office hours if they have concerns.

In a similar vein, my second suggestion is to save 10 minutes of class to talk about the relationship between the text and modern views on rape. There are many secondary sources—essays on gender theory or historical documents—that examine relevant issues: How does our present-day attitude toward rape affect the way we respond to the text? How is it reductive or illuminating to characterize the text by its representation of rape? How should historical perceptions of rape inform our understanding of the text?

My final suggestion to Humanities faculty is to consider offering a course on the issue of rape and literature.

My reasons are laid out in a previous post where I responded to what I considered a non-story in the New York Times on just this issue. I argued that, by attaching warnings to literary works, one pre-interprets them before students can formulate their own responses. Furthermore, there is no end to the disturbing situations that one finds in literature and one can’t be issuing non-stop warnings. This past Friday a class discussion on Lucille Clifton’s Quilting ventured into her child abuse at the hands of her father. I once had a student storm out of a “Madness and Literature” class, taught with a psychologist, when we began discussing Lolita. Several times I have learned about students’ experience with abusive relationships when teaching Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. Stories of death—and there is a lot of dying in literature—frequently stir up students who have lost someone close.

In my previous post, I advocated, not specific warnings, but a general one, which I said could appear on all syllabi:

Warning: This course contains works that will bring you face to face with the most perplexing, the most painful, and the most profound experiences that flesh is heir to. Enter at your own risk. 

This does not mean, however, that I’m unsympathetic with Stephanie’s concerns. As I have taken students’ reactions seriously, never dismissing them as immaterial, my own awareness of literature’s profound and varied effect on readers has expanded considerably. One can’t always know ahead of time what works will trigger strong reactions, but one can be sensitive when they do.

So yes, Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan” may bring up painful memories. Stephanie is right that those memories shouldn’t be dismissed. Indeed, they can be used to deepen both one’s understanding of the poem and of rape itself. It’s significant that the the rape in the poem (unlike the one depicted in many paintings) has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power. As such, it anticipates the “brute blood” that was in the air during Troy’s fall, which saw the massacre of men and their sons (Hector’s infant child has his brains dashed out) and the enslavement of the women. The literal devastation of the city works as a metaphorical description of the psychological devastation of rape victims and vice versa.

I can’t say for sure that those who have been assaulted may find a solace of sorts in seeing their experience described in “Leda and the Swan.” But I have seen other students comforted when suddenly encountering their own traumas reenacted in literature. Whether they are comforted or appalled, however, it is up to them to voice their own responses. It is up to the teacher to create a safe and respectful space in which they can do so.

Posted in Ovid, Yeats (William Butler) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Battered and Broken and Weary

Guido Reni, "Repentance of St. Peter"

Guido Reni, “Repentance of St. Peter”

Spiritual Sunday

For a long time I have known Dorothy Sayers as the Oxford scholar who translated Dante and wrote the Peter Wimsey novels. Only recently did I discover that she also wrote Christian poetry. Here is a poem that she wrote in her twenties that is very much in the George Herbert tradition. By this I mean she describes herself fighting against Christ’s love before finally succumbing. For most of the poem we see her rejection: I didn’t ask you to die for me, she angrily tells Jesus.

It is as though she is so hunkered down in her suffering that she doesn’t trust the hope that is offered. “I am I,” she cries out, so

What wouldst Thou make of me? O cruel pretense,
Drive me not mad with the mockery
Of that most lovely, unattainable lie!

She is also appalled by the suffering of the crucifixion, by the claims on her that she feels have come from such a sacrifice, and by the call to become something more than she feels she can be (“Men were not made to walk as priests and kings”).

And yet, in the end—like Herbert in, say, “Love (III)”–she is won over by God’s loving persistence, which relentlessly urges on “thy maimed and halt that have not strength to go.”

And so, as in so many Herbert poems, the last line signals her surrender to God’s love: “Peace, peace, I follow. Why must we love Thee so?”

The Greek title is taken from the Book of John in the days before the crucifixion: “‘And I, when I am lifted up[from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.”

Pantas Elkyso

(“I will draw all men.” – John 12:32)

By Dorothy Sayers

GO, bitter Christ, grim Christ! haul if Thou wilt
Thy bloody cross to Thine own bleak Calvary!
When did I bind Thee suffer for my guilt
To bind intolerable claims on me?
I loathe Thy sacrifice; I am sick of Thee.

They say Thou reignest from the Cross. Thou dost,
And like a tyrant. Thou dost rule by tears,
Thou womanish Son of woman. Cease to thrust
Thy sordid tale of sorrows in my ears,
Jarring the music of my few, short years.

Silence! I say it is a sordid tale,
And Thou with glamour hast bewitched us all;
We straggle forth to gape upon a Graal,
Sink into a stinking mire, are lost and fall . . .
The cup is wormwood and the drink is gall.

I am battered and broken and weary and out of heart,
I will not listen to talk of heroic things,
But be content to play some simple part,
Freed from preposterous, wild imaginings . . .
Men were not made to walk as priests and kings.

Thou liest, Christ, Thou liest; take it hence,
That mirror of strange glories; I am I;
What wouldst Thou make of me? O cruel pretence,
Drive me not mad with the mockery
Of that most lovely, unattainable lie!

I hear Thy trumpets in the breaking morn,
I hear them restless in the resonant night,
Or sounding down the long winds over the corn
Before Thee riding in the world’s despite,
Insolent with adventure, laughter-light.

They blow aloud between love’s lips and mine,
Sing to my feasting in the minstrel’s stead,
Ring from the cup where I would pour the wine,
Rouse the uneasy echoes about my bed . . .
They will blow through my grave when I am dead.

O King, O Captain, wasted, wan with scourging,
Strong beyond speech and wonderful with woe,
Whither, relentless, wilt Thou still be urging
Thy maimed and halt that have not strength to go? . . .
Peace, peace, I follow. Why must we love Thee so?

Posted in Sayers (Dorothy) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Sports Autographs & Locks of Hair

Johnny Manziel signing autographs

Johnny Manziel signing autographsSports Saturday

Sports Saturday

When I taught Rape of the Lock recently, my students were puzzled by the Baron’s obsession with Belinda’s locks. They expressed similar befuddlement at Tom’s obsession with Sophia’s muff in Tom Jones and with Harriet’s obsession with Mr. Elton’s pencil stub in Emma. (See Thursday’s post on fetish objects.) These fixations struck them as incomprehensible desires from a bygone age.

To make the fixations relevant, I compared Belinda’s lock to a sports autograph. Autographs are big business and, if you’ve kept up with football news recently, you’ll know that the lure of the money that autographs can bring has gotten several high profile football players in trouble in recent years (Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Florida State’s James Winston, Georgia’s Todd Gurley). I think people desire autographs for the same reason that the Baron wants Belinda’s lock: it’s a physical link to the transcendent power that the athlete represents. By touching a fragment of the divine, fans can imagine themselves transcending the physical realm as great sports people seem to do. Wearing an athlete’s jersey works in a related way.

In Rape of the Lock, the Baron longs for Belinda’s transcendence and thinks that, if he owns even a piece of her, he will be wafted up into the same sylphan realms. He feels trapped in darkness and thinks that she can release him.

She is not the first woman about whom he has thought this. With each of his love affairs, he has obtained a physical token: “three garters, half a pair of gloves, and all the trophies of his former loves.” With each he has been disappointed and we know that he will be disappointed again. Here he is eyeing Belinda:

The Adventrous Baron the bright Locks admir’d,
He saw, he wish’d, and to the Prize aspir’d: 

Pope makes clear that the initial high the Baron feels, which fills him with a sense of power, is evanescent, just as the thrill of obtaining an autograph quickly passes away. Once the beauty fades or the athlete declines, one searches around for other tokens to fill the void. Pope emphasizes the evanescence in the following passage where the Baron discovers he has lost the lock:

Some thought it mounted to the Lunar Sphere
Since all things lost on Earth, are treasur’d there.
There Heroe’s Wits are kept in pondrous Vases
And Beau’s in Snuff-boxes and Tweezer-Cases.
There broken Vows, and Death-bed Alms are found,
And Lovers Hearts with ends of Riband bound;
The Courtiers Promises, and Sick Man’s Pray’rs
The Smiles of Harlots, and the Tears of Heirs,
Cages for Gnats, and Chains to Yoak a Flea;
Dry’d Butterflies, and Tomes of Casuistry.

The passage is an echo of the Paradise of Fools passage in Book III of Paradise Lost, set on the backside of the moon. The treasured trophy of today ends up in the forgotten attic box of tomorrow. Before that stage is reached, however, “little men” like the Baron unleash a lot of havoc with their desiring.

Posted in Milton (John), Pope (Alexander) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reading Novels for Moral Instruction

Finney and York in "Tom Jones"

Finney and York in “Tom Jones”

Today on “Recovered Blog Posts” I reprint a lost essay that originally appeared on November 4, 2009. As it turns out, it could have been written yesterday, which is when I wrapped up my most recent teaching of Tom Jones.

Yesterday my 18th Century Couples Comedy class concluded our discussion of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. We spent a lot of time discussing its popularity with youthful readers in the 18th century, an idea I owe to J. Paul Hunter, my dissertation director at Emory University. Paul explores the issue in Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of 18th Century English Fiction.

I’ve mentioned several times in recent posts how moralists attacked Tom Jones for corrupting young people (for instance, here). I assume they were most disturbed by Tom’s sexual escapades and the novel’s bawdy humor, but I wonder if some of their fire was aimed at Fielding’s satiric portrayals of parents and teachers, most of whom are heavy-handed and hypocritical. To add insult to injury, the student that these teachers hold up as exemplary is young Blifil, the book’s villain. Blifil always tells them exactly what they want to hear.

In a spirited discussion, my class demonstrated that novels are indeed powerful vehicles for true moral instruction. I asked them to put Tom on trial and render a verdict. They were to decide whether Sophia should forgive him and marry him, even though, at different points, he makes love to three different women, even while professing love for her.

A moral debate ensued in which the students weighed character, mitigating circumstances, the competing claims of justice and mercy, and the like. They used their brains, their moral compasses, their knowledge of life, and their ability to explore ideas in a communal setting.

In doing so they were aided by the modeling Fielding himself does in the book, both as an intrusive narrator and through the figure of Squire Allworthy. As narrator, Fielding is constantly discussing how to render judgment, both on the characters and on himself as the author. Fielding was a judge and knew that simple prescriptions are not always enough to guide us. For one thing, appearances can be deceiving and even the best intentioned make mistakes.

Squire Allworthy is an example. Although a good and moral man, as justice of the peace Allworthy hands down some faulty sentences. Occasionally innocent people (Tom, Partridge) pay a heavy price. Allworthy speaks for the author, however, when he says that, in the end, prudence and religion, our practical and our moral compass, will get us through life.

But for young people to develop those compasses, it’s not enough for stern teachers (like Thwakum) to beat values into them, nor for parental figures (like Lady Western) to deliver long and tiresome lectures about doing what they are told. Instead, there needs to be a constant give-and-take, an open dialogue, between young people and old.

We see this at the end where Tom and Allworthy are figuring out how to mete out justice. Allworthy is so appalled at Blifil that he is prepared to cast him out penniless, but Tom counsels mercy and Blifil receives a small sum. On the other hand, Allworthy recognizes that mercy without justice can become flaccid. When Tom learns that Black George, a man he has repeatedly helped, has stolen money from him, he argues the man’s poverty as a mitigating circumstance.  Allworthy will have none of it:

“Child,” cries Allworthy, “you carry this forgiving temper too far. Such mistaken mercy is not only weakness, but borders on injustice, and is very pernicious to society, as it encourages vice. The dishonesty of this fellow I might, perhaps, have pardoned, but never his ingratitude. And give me leave to say, when we suffer any temptation to atone for dishonesty itself, we are as candid and merciful as we ought to be; and so far I confess I have gone; for I have often pitied the fate of a highwayman, when I have been on the grand jury; and have more than once applied to the judge on the behalf of such as have had any mitigating circumstances in their case; but when dishonesty is attended with any blacker crime, such as cruelty, murder, ingratitude, or the like, compassion and forgiveness then become faults. I am convinced the fellow is a villain, and he shall be punished; at least as far as I can punish him.”

Young and old must negotiate the world together. Tom needs Allworthy’s experience and broader perspective, but Allworthy cannot entirely understand the complicated new world that Tom is facing. The city in which Tom loses his way and which is England’s future is a far cry from Allworthy’s rural estate. Fielding shows us how they can collaborate to create a wholesome society.

I learned from my students that most were raised on such a model, with parents both guiding them and respecting and even learning from their experiences. While sometimes parents must put their foot down, more often they need to engage their adolescent children in open discussions. They need to share stories and sort out the issues together

Julia and I shared our own stories with our sons and invited them to share theirs. In addition, we read to them every night of their childhoods. When the occasion arose, we talked about the characters and the plots.

As a result, we now have two grown men who are able, when facing life’s pressures, to step back, examine the situation as though they were reflecting upon a story, and assess their options. Sometimes they even see parallels with fictional stories they have encountered, which gives them an extra degree of clarity and meaning.

Fielding saw this potential in the novel when the genre was in its infancy.  At a time when moralists argued for a Thwackum approach, Fielding braved considerable criticism to chart a new way.

Posted in Fielding (Henry) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

10 Famous Fetish Objects in Lit

Audrey Beardsley, "Rape of the Lock"

Audrey Beardsley, “Rape of the Lock”

In the literature I’ve been teaching recently, I’ve been struck by how many fetish objects there are. Fetishes are things which, while insignificant in themselves, take on an outsized significance for someone. Often the significance is sexual although not necessarily. In today’s post I share ten fetish objects in literature that stand out.

Although an entire person can function as a fetish object–think Lolita or the Pygmalion-created Galatea–I’ve focused on small objects and body parts. Incidentally, I can think of at least one famous literary fetish that matches the original meaning of the word, which is to say an object believed to be inhabited by spirits or to have magical powers. I am thinking of the pig’s head in Lord of the Flies.

–A Girdle

While Sir Gawain resists all the other inducements that the Green Knight’s lady tries to seduce him with, he does accept her green girdle after she tells him it will save his life. Taking it shows that he cares more deeply for his life than he admits, and he turns bright red when he is caught wearing it. Afterwards, he carries it around as a badge of his shame, and the other Camelot knights don ribbons in a show of solidarity and humility.

–A Handkerchief

Iago, of course, uses the handkerchief that Othello gave Desdemona to goad the jealous Moor into murder. Here Othello calls upon Desdemona to yield it up:

Othello: I have a salt and sorry rheum offends me;
Lend me thy handkerchief.
Desdemona: Here, my lord.
Othello: That which I gave you.
Desdemona: I have it not about me.
Othello: Not?
Desdemona: No, indeed, my lord.
Othello: That is a fault.
That handkerchief
Did an Egyptian to my mother give;
She was a charmer, and could almost read
The thoughts of people: she told her, while she kept it,
‘Twould make her amiable and subdue my father
Entirely to her love, but if she lost it
Or made gift of it, my father’s eye
Should hold her loathed and his spirits should hunt
After new fancies: she, dying, gave it me;
And bid me, when my fate would have me wive,
To give it her. I did so: and take heed on’t;
Make it a darling like your precious eye;
To lose’t or give’t away were such perdition
As nothing else could match.
Desdemona: Is’t possible?

Othello: ‘Tis true: there’s magic in the web of it:
A sibyl, that had number’d in the world
The sun to course two hundred compasses,
In her prophetic fury sew’d the work;
The worms were hallow’d that did breed the silk;
And it was dyed in mummy which the skilful
Conserved of maidens’ hearts.

–A China Vase

Sexual innuendo flies wild and free in Wycherley’s infamous china scene. Caught visiting her lover by her husband in The Country Wife, Lady Jasper Fidget pretends that she is there to inspect some china. Thereafter, china takes on such ribald connotations that, for years after seeing the play, many spectators felt that they could not use the word “china” in polite society. Here’s Lady Fidget fending off Squeamish, a jealous rival, who wants to get some “china” of her own:

Enter Lady Fidget with a piece of China in her hand, and Horner following.

Lady Fidget: And I have been toyling and moyling, for the pretti’st piece of China, my Dear.
Horner: Nay she has been too hard for me do what I cou’d.
Squeamish: Oh Lord I’le have some China too, good Mr. Horner, don’t think to give other people China, and me none, come in with me too. 
Horner: Upon my honor I have none left now.
Squeamish: Nay, nay I have known you deny your China before now, but you shan’t put me off so, come—

Horner: This Lady had the last there.
Lady Fidget: Yes indeed Madam, to my certain knowledge he has no more left.
Squeamish: O but it may be he may have some you could not find. 

Lady Fidget: What d’y think if he had had any left, I would not have had it too, for we women of quality never think we have China enough.

–A Lock of Hair

Here’s how Pope describes one of literature’s great fetish objects:

This Nymph, to the Destruction of Mankind,
Nourish’d two Locks, which graceful hung behind
In equal Curls, and well conspir’d to deck
With shining Ringlets her smooth Iv’ry Neck.
Love in these Labyrinths his Slaves detains,
And mighty Hearts are held in slender Chains.
With hairy Sprindges
 we the Birds betray,
Slight Lines of Hair surprize the Finny Prey,
Fair Tresses Man’s Imperial Race insnare,
And Beauty draws us with a single Hair.

And here’s one of those insnared:

Th’ Adventrous Baron the bright Locks admir’d,
He saw, he wish’d, and to the Prize aspir’d:
Resolv’d to win, he meditates the way,
By Force to ravish, or by Fraud betray;
For when Success a Lover’s Toil attends,
Few ask, if Fraud or Force attain’d his Ends.

–A Muff

Sophia’s hand warmer is what sends Tom Jones into raptures. Once again, if you pick up any sexual innuendoes in the following passage, it’s the author’s intention:

And, to be sure, I could tell your ladyship something, but that I am afraid it would offend you.”—”What could you tell me, Honour?” says Sophia. “Nay, ma’am, to be sure he meant nothing by it, therefore I would not have your ladyship be offended.”—”Prithee tell me,” says Sophia; “I will know it this instant.”—”Why, ma’am,” answered Mrs Honour, “he came into the room one day last week when I was at work, and there lay your ladyship’s muff on a chair, and to be sure he put his hands into it; that very muff your ladyship gave me but yesterday. La! says I, Mr Jones, you will stretch my lady’s muff, and spoil it: but he still kept his hands in it: and then he kissed it—to be sure I hardly ever saw such a kiss in my life as he gave it.”—”I suppose he did not know it was mine,” replied Sophia. “Your ladyship shall hear, ma’am. He kissed it again and again, and said it was the prettiest muff in the world. 

A Band-aid and a Pencil Stub

–Emma’s gazes in fascinated horror as her protégé decides to rid herself of her memories of Mr. Elton:

She held the parcel towards her, and Emma read the words Most precious treasures on the top. Her curiosity was greatly excited. Harriet unfolded the parcel, and she looked on with impatience. Within abundance of silver paper was a pretty little Tunbridge-ware box, which Harriet opened: it was well lined with the softest cotton; but, excepting the cotton, Emma saw only a small piece of court-plaister.

“Now,” said Harriet, “you must recollect.”

“No, indeed I do not.”

“Dear me! I should not have thought it possible you could forget what passed in this very room about court-plaister, one of the very last times we ever met in it!—It was but a very few days before I had my sore throat—just before Mr. and Mrs. John Knightley came—I think the very evening.—Do not you remember his cutting his finger with your new penknife, and your recommending court-plaister?—But, as you had none about you, and knew I had, you desired me to supply him; and so I took mine out and cut him a piece; but it was a great deal too large, and he cut it smaller, and kept playing some time with what was left, before he gave it back to me. And so then, in my nonsense, I could not help making a treasure of it—so I put it by never to be used, and looked at it now and then as a great treat.”

And further on:

“Here,” resumed Harriet, turning to her box again, “here is something still more valuable, I mean that has been more valuable, because this is what did really once belong to him, which the court-plaister never did.”

Emma was quite eager to see this superior treasure. It was the end of an old pencil,—the part without any lead.

“This was really his,” said Harriet.—”Do not you remember one morning?—no, I dare say you do not. But one morning—I forget exactly the day—but perhaps it was the Tuesday or Wednesday before that evening, he wanted to make a memorandum in his pocket-book; it was about spruce-beer. Mr. Knightley had been telling him something about brewing spruce-beer, and he wanted to put it down; but when he took out his pencil, there was so little lead that he soon cut it all away, and it would not do, so you lent him another, and this was left upon the table as good for nothing. But I kept my eye on it; and, as soon as I dared, caught it up, and never parted with it again from that moment.”

–An Eye

For Poe, a human eye sometimes becomes something more than an eye:

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees –very gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

–A Cake

The most prominent object was a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An epergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstances of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community.

I heard the mice too, rattling behind the panels, as if the same occurrence were important to their interests. But the black beetles took no notice of the agitation, and groped about the hearth in a ponderous elderly way, as if they were short-sighted and hard of hearing, and not on terms with one another.

These crawling things had fascinated my attention, and I was watching them from a distance, when Miss Havisham laid a hand upon my shoulder. In her other hand she had a crutch-headed stick on which she leaned, and she looked like the Witch of the place.

“This,” said she, pointing to the long table with her stick, “is where I will be laid when I am dead. They shall come and look at me here.”

With some vague misgiving that she might get upon the table then and there and die at once, the complete realization of the ghastly waxwork at the Fair, I shrank under her touch.

“What do you think that is?” she asked me, again pointing with her stick; “that, where those cobwebs are?”

“I can’t guess what it is, ma’am.”

“It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!”

–Another Cake

This one, far more appetizing, helps trigger one of literature’s greatest explorations:

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.

–A Hair

And finally, turning to a contemporary work, Salman Rushdie’s remarkable short story “The Prophet’s Hair” shows the chaos that occurs when a holy relic shows up in people’s lives, leaving miracles and an urge to be pure in its wake. The story is a brilliant satire of fundamentalists. Here’s one consequence described in the story:

But before our story can properly be concluded, it is necessary to record that when the four sons of the dead Sheikh awoke on the morning of his death, having unwittingly spent a few minutes under the same roof as the famous hair, they found that a miracle had occurred, that they were all sound of limb and storng of wind, as whole as they might have been if their father had not thought to smash their legs in the first hours of their lives. They were, all four of them, very properly furious, because the miracle had reduced their earning power by 75 percent, at the most conservative estimate, so they were ruined men.

Please send in your own examples.

Posted in Dickens (Charles), Fielding (Henry), Poe (Edgar Allan), Pope (Alexander), Proust (Marcel), Rushdie (Salman), Shakespeare (William), Sir Gawain Poet, Wycherley (William) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hunkering Down in Hard Times

Audubon, "Great Blue Heron"

Audubon, “Great Blue Heron”

I write this before knowing the election results but am prepared for a fairly widespread Democratic defeat. The fact that the opposition party always takes control of Congress in a president’s sixth year—or at least has been doing so since Dwight D. Eisenhower—is scant comfort.

The historical tendency does, however,provide perspective. If Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton, the second Bush, and now Obama all started forfeiting the trust of the American people in the same year, it seems likely the cause is as much fatigue and desire for change as dissatisfaction with policy. Those sympathetic with Obama and the Democrats must hunker down and absorb the blows, just as my Republican friends had to hunker down in the final two years of the Reagan and Bush II administrations.

Here’s a poem by Mary Oliver about hunkering down. Very appropriately, it is set in November:

A Poem for the Blue Heron

By Mary Oliver


Now the blue heron
wades the cold ponds
of November.

In the gray light his hunched shoulders
are also gray.

He finds scant food–a few
numbed breathers under
a rind of mud.

When the water he walks in begins
turning to fire, clutching itself to itself
like dark flames, hardening,
he remembers.



I do not remember who first said to me, if anyone did:
Not everything is possible;
some things are impossible,

and took my hand, kindly,
and led me back
from wherever I was.      


Toward evening
the heron lifts his long wings
leisurely and rows forward

into flight. He
has made his decision: the south
is swirling with clouds, but somewhere,
fibrous with leaves and swamplands,
is a cave he can hide in
and live.      


Now the woods are empty,
the ponds shine like blind eyes,
the wind is shouldering against
the black, wet
bones of the

In a house down the road,
as though I had never seen these things–
leaves, the loose tons of water,
a bird with an eye like a full moon
deciding not to die, after all–
I sit out the long afternoons
drinking and talking;
I gather wood, kindling, paper; I make fire
after fire after fire.

In terms of my own political drama, the girl who once thought that all things were possible is the 2008 Obama supporter, inspired by visions of hope and change. Reality, a stern teacher, informs this child that some things are impossible.

Only I, a 57-year-old man when Obama was first elected, didn’t expect the impossible. Perhaps it was because the years had taught me not to raise my hopes too high, but I remember thinking that I would be thrilled if he did no more than pull us out of the recession and the two wars and enact comprehensive health care reform. Anything more, I told myself, would be gravy.

So now here we are with unemployment under 6 percent, the economy the most robust it has been in 15 years, the stock market at record highs, Obamacare instituted and proving a success (note that most Republican candidates in close elections stopped promising to repeal it), carbon emissions down, Dreamers no longer fearful of being deported, and same sex marriage expanding. Sure, I’d like more. I’d like gun sale background checks and meaningful tax reform and affordable college tuitions and good schools and a more robust middle class. But Obama’s achievements are substantial enough that having to hunker down now seems a small price to pay.

Some would rather choose denial and escapism when things turn cold, a warm south that is “swirling with clouds.” The tough-minded, however, stay in the frozen north, finding a cave that they can “hide in and live.” In this swampland dwelling they can decide not to despair or die but keep the fire of hope burning. I like the idea that the dark times involves drinking and talking with friends. That’s a very healthy way of continuing on.

As Shelley reminds us in a line that I read as rhetorical, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” In other words, Democrats, the season of scarcity where the water clutches itself to itself is only temporary. Learn faith from the blue heron who chooses not to migrate.

Posted in Oliver (Mary), Shelley (Percy) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Election Day as Trollope Describes it

William Hogarth, "Canvassing for Votes"

William Hogarth, “Canvassing for Votes”

Today being Election Day in the United States, I share excerpts from Anthony Trollope’s account of an election in his wonderful novel Doctor Thorne. (The novel can be found here.) In chapter 17 Thorne trumpets the significance of an election between the self-made railway magnate Sir Roger Scatcherd and the son of a wealthy tailor Mr. Moffat. He expresses amazement that people are willing to run given all the money and labor involved:

And now the important day of the election had arrived, and some men’s hearts beat quickly enough. To be or not to a member of the British Parliament is a question of very considerable moment in a man’s mind. Much is often said of the great penalties which the ambitious pay for enjoying this honor; of the tremendous expenses of elections; of the long, tedious hours of unpaid labor: of the weary days passed in the House; but, nevertheless, the prize is one very well worth the price paid for it—well worth any price that can be paid for it short of wading through dirt and dishonor.

Today, as we know to our sorrow, some are more than willing to wade through dirt and dishonor. I have in mind the blatant lying that has been customary for some.

Why do people go through all of this? Egotism is, as always, a primary factor:

To some men, born silver-spooned, a seat in Parliament comes as a matter of course. From the time of their early manhood they hardly know what it is not to sit there; and the honor is hardly appreciated, being too much a matter of course. As a rule, they never know how great a thing it is to be in Parliament; though, when reverse comes, as reverses occasionally will come, they fully feel how dreadful it is to be left out.

But to men aspiring to be members, or to those who having been once fortunate have again to fight the battle without assurance of success, the coming election must be matter of dread concern. Oh, how delightful to hear that the long-talked-of rival has declined the contest, and that the course is clear! or to find by a short canvass that one’s majority is safe, and the pleasures of crowing over an unlucky, friendless foe quite secured!

In Trollope’s election, each side claims to be purer than the other and vows to avoid bribery and other underhanded tactics. And like elections today, the money flows freely. Let’s start with what the campaigns say about themselves:

The two parties had outdone each other in the loudness of their assertions, that each would on his side conduct the election in strict conformity to law. There was to be no bribery. Bribery! who, indeed, in these days would dare to bribe; to give absolute money for an absolute vote, and pay for such an article in downright palpable sovereigns? No. Purity was much too rampant for that, and the means of detection too well understood. But purity was to be carried much further than this. There should be no treating; no hiring of two hundred voters to act as messengers at twenty shillings a day in looking up some four hundred other voters; no bands were to be paid for; no carriages furnished; no ribbons supplied. British voters were to vote, if vote they would, for the love and respect they bore to their chosen candidate. If so actuated, they would not vote, they might stay away; no other inducement would be offered.

Mr. Moffat, running for reelection, likes the idea of purity because he doesn’t like to spend money. His political consultants are not so pure and don’t have the same aversion to spending his money. I love the sentence in the following passage about “wallowing swine”:

[H]ad he considered the matter, he should have known that with him money was his only passport into that Elysium in which he had now lived for two years. He probably did not consider it; for when, in those canvassing days immediately preceding the election, he had seen that all the beer-houses were open, and half the population was drunk, he had asked Mr Nearthewinde whether this violation of the treaty was taking place only on the part of his opponent, and whether, in such case, it would not be duly noticed with a view to a possible future petition.

Mr Nearthewinde assured him triumphantly that half at least of the wallowing swine were his own especial friends; and that somewhat more than half of the publicans of the town were eagerly engaged in fighting his, Mr Moffat’s battle. 

The two political consultants in Doctor Thorne are the aptly named Mr. Nearthewinde (who knows which way the wind is blowing) and Mr. Closerstil (who also knows the pulse of the electorate). Think of them as 19th century versions of Karl Rove:

[Mr. Moffatt’s] last election had not been a cheap triumph. In one way or another money had been dragged from him for purposes which had been to his mind unintelligible; and when, about the middle of his first session, he had, with much grumbling, settled all demands, he had questioned with himself whether his whistle was worth its cost.

And later:

He, Mr Nearthewinde, was doing his business as he well knew how to do it; and it was not likely that he should submit to be lectured by such as Mr Moffat on a trumpery score of expense.

In this election, as in our own, there is a war party and a peace party, although Trollope doubts that either party will deliver on its promises. Think of “England’s honor” as their version of “American exceptionalism”:

At the time of this election there was some question whether England should go to war with all her energy; or whether it would not be better for her to save her breath to cool her porridge, and not meddle more than could be helped with foreign quarrels. The last view of the matter was advocated by Sir Roger, and his motto of course proclaimed the merits of domestic peace and quiet. “Peace abroad and a big loaf at home,” was consequently displayed on four or five huge scarlet banners, and carried waving over the heads of the people. But Mr Moffat was a staunch supporter of the Government, who were already inclined to be belligerent, and “England’s honor” was therefore the legend under which he selected to do battle. It may, however, be doubted whether there was in all Barchester one inhabitant—let alone one elector—so fatuous as to suppose that England’s honor was in any special manner dear to Mr Moffat; or that he would be a whit more sure of a big loaf than he was now, should Sir Roger happily become a member of the legislature.

In the end, the entire election comes down to two votes controlled by the local tavern keeper Mr. Reddypalm, who is ready to support whoever crosses his palm with silver.

It feels somewhat quaint and Jeffersonian to read about such a personal election. Today, the money goes for multi-million dollar ad buys. Other than that, however, the dynamics of popular elections remain always the same.

Despite his satire, however, Trollope sees the process as a noble one, and we should see our own elections that way also. Sure, not everything is pure, but what in life is? So go vote, perhaps with the following Trollope declaration ringing in your mind:

No other great European nation has anything like it to offer to the ambition of its citizens; for in no other great country of Europe, not even in those which are free, has the popular constitution obtained, as with us, true sovereignty and power of rule. Here it is so; and when a man lays himself out to be a member of Parliament, he plays the highest game and for the highest stakes which the country affords.

Note on the illustration: Here’s Wikipedia’s explanation for the above Hogarth painting:

This scene depicts Tory and Whig agents, both attempting to bribe an innkeeper to vote for them. The crowd outside the tavern is visible in the background. In a reference to the antisemitism of the crowd behind, a Jewish peddler is being employed by another agent who is offering jewels and ribbons to the wives of voters.

On the margins of the composition a soldier (left) and two old sailors (right) represent uncorrupted patriotism. The soldier peeps out from behind a now-impotently decorative figurehead depicting the British lion devouring the French fleur-de-lis. A woman sits on it looking at her bribes. The sailors on the right are re-enacting a naval victory using pieces of broken clay pipe.

Posted in Trollope (Anthony) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Sexual Misconduct in the Classics

Hogarth, "Before"

Hogarth, “Before”

Last week, as a Maryland state employee, I took a special on-line course on sexual misconduct. Colleges and universities have not been as sensitive as they should be to complaints about sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape and other sexual crimes, which is why faculty, staff, and students at Maryland colleges are required to take the course.

The course offered many hypothetical examples, which got me imagining how various characters in the books I’m teaching this semester would fare. Here’s what I came up with. Let me know if you think I got the answers right:

1. Is Dionysus guilty of administering alcohol and other mind-altering substances to Agave and the other women of Thebes.

Answer: No. As a manifestation of their own repressed desires, he is giving them permission to do what they secretly want to do. As Lucille Clifton puts it in one of her Garden of Eden poems, “it is your own lush self you long for.” On the other hand, putting Agave in a trance so that she murders her son sounds like complicity in a murder if nothing else.

2. Is Lady Bertilak guilty of stalking Sir Gawain in the castle of the Green Knight?

Answer: Possibly. He doesn’t directly tell her to stop trying to seduce him—a knight cannot refuse a lady’s request—but he sends out enough strong hints that she should get the message.

3. Is John Wilmot guilty of harassment when he puts a love note in a lady’s prayer book, telling her to “fling this useless book away” and make love to him?

Answer: Possibly as he has invaded her private space. However, if she tells him to back off and he does so, the case ends there.

4. Is Willmore in Aphra Behn’s The Rover guilty of attempted rape when he accosts Florinda?

Answer: Yes, because she clearly turns him down and he still persists. And the same is true when Blunt and Frederick chase her into a house.

5. Is the Baron guilty of sexual assault in Rape of the Lock when he cuts off a lock of Belinda’s hair?

Answer: No doubt about it. And Clarissa may be guilty of complicity in providing him the encouragement and the means to do it. She should be watching out for women in danger at the party, not aiding their harassers.

6. In “The Lover: A Ballad,” what are we to make of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu anticipating the following interaction when she meets the perfect man:

Forgetting or scorning the airs of the crowd,
He may cease to be formal, and I to be proud.
Till lost in the joy, we confess that we live,
And he may be rude, and yet I may forgive.

Answer: Montagu is guilty of enabling those who contend that “no” means “yes.” Progressive though Montagu was for her day, such thinking creates no end of problems. Don’t pretend something you don’t mean.

7. Is Tom Jones guilty of harassing any of the three women he sleeps with in the course of the novel.

Answer: No, the sex is all consensual. On the other hand, Lord Fellamar, who attempts to rape Sophia, should go to jail. Lady Bellaston, who urges him on, is guilty of complicity.

8. Is Molly Seagrim guilty of taking advantage of Tom’s inebriated state to have sex with him?

Answer: Possibly yes if Tom does not know what he was doing and Molly takes advantage of this. However, given how Fielding describes Tom’s state, I suspect that there is enough consent to let Molly off the hook, even though a sober Tom probably would have remained true to Sophia. Here’s Fielding:

[T]he reader will be likewise pleased to recollect in his [Tom’s] favor, that he was not at this time perfect master of that wonderful power of reason, which so well enables grave and wise men to subdue their unruly passions, and to decline any of these prohibited amusements. Wine now had totally subdued this power in Jones. He was, indeed, in a condition, in which, if reason had interposed, though only to advise, she might have received the answer which one Cleostratus gave many years ago to a silly fellow, who asked him, if he was not ashamed to be drunk? “Are not you,” said Cleostratus, “ashamed to admonish a drunken man.”

9. Is Sir Clement in Fanny Burney’s Evelina guilty of harassment when he carries her off in his carriage and tries to make love to her.

Answer: No doubt about it. And so are the drunken revelers she encounters in Regency Park. She clearly makes her wishes known and is ignored.

10. Is Willoughby guilty of anything for knocking up Colonel Brandon’s ward and misleading Marianne.

Answer: No. He may be a jerk but (assuming Eliza is not underage), he doesn’t do anything unlawful. Marianne acknowledges that he broke no promises.

11. Is Rochester guilty of harassing Jane Eyre, say by dressing up as a gypsy and ferreting out her deep thoughts.

Answer: It’s probably not harassment although, as her employer, he is treading on thin ice. Of course, attempted bigamy is his major crime.

As I say, feel free to dispute my answers, which came to me partially as a result of taking the course. The most important things I learned are (1) intervene when you witness something going on (we learned various ways to do so) and (2) report anything you hear to those people in the administration designated to handle such situations.

Posted in Austen (Jane), Behn (Aphra), Bronte (Charlotte), Burney (Fanny), Euripides, Fielding (Henry), Montagu (Lady Mary Wortley), Sir Gawain Poet, Wilmot (John) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Jordan River Continues to Inspire

Benjamin West, "Joshua Passing the Jordan"

Benjamin West, “Joshua Passing the Jordan”

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Old Testament lectionary reading is a passage that African American slaves found tremendously significant. They worked it into their spirituals and from there it made it into the work of later African American poets. This realization is prompting me to rethink some of Lucille Clifton poems.

Here’s the passage from Joshua 3:

When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.

For American slaves, the Jordan River functioned both as a symbol of crossing over to freedom and returning home. The Ohio River, dividing the slave state Kentucky and the free state Ohio, functioned as the Jordan River, as did the U.S.-Canadian border. So did dying and returning to God if no other means of escape presented themselves.

The Jordan River is the river in the well known spiritual “Michael, row the boat ashore”:

Michael row the boat ashore, Hallelujah
Michael row the boat ashore, Hallelujah

Sister help to trim the sails, Hallelujah
Sister help to trim the sails, Hallelujah

Jordan’s River is deep and wide, Hallelujah
And I’ve got a home on the other side, Hallelujah

Jordan’s River is chilly and cold, Hallelujah
Chills the body but not the soul, Hallelujah

Michael’s boat is a music boat, Hallelujah
Michael’s boat is a music boat, Hallelujah

Michael row the boat ashore, Hallelujah
Michael row the boat ashore, Hallelujah

The trumpets sound the jubilee, Hallelujah
The trumpets sound for you and me, Hallelujah

When one connects those Clifton poems that mention rivers with this tradition, their power increases considerably. Take, for instance, her “blessing the boats (at st. mary’s),” which was written while looking out over the St. Mary’s River and imagining 16th century British vessels setting off for an unknown world. It’s already a poem about letting go of the familiar and taking risks, but when joined to the freedom journey, it takes on special resonance. (You can go here to read the poem and my account of how we use it in our commencement ceremonies to send our students on their way.)

The  freedom journey also plays in the background of Clifton’s “poem in praise of menstruation.” Thinking of the monthly visitation as a powerful and liberating river already shifts how we see it. If we link this river also with the Jordan River—“if there is in the universe such a river”—then the beauty and the pain, the faithfulness and the wildness, take on new potency. We pray to a new connection beyond ourselves and no longer feel chained down by our biology, along with the social stigma that has been historically attached.

poem in praise of menstruation

By Lucille Clifton

if there is a river
more beautiful than this
bright as the blood
red edge of the moon          if
there is a river
more faithful than this
returning each month
to the same delta          if there
is a river
braver than this
coming and coming in a surge
of passion, of pain          if there is
a river
more ancient than this
daughter of eve
mother of cain and of abel          if there is in
the universe such a river          if
there is some where water
more powerful than this wild
pray that it flows also
through animals
beautiful and faithful and ancient
and female and brave

Posted in Clifton (Lucille) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A Colossus Bestriding the World (Series)

Madison Bumgarner, a true Giant

Madison Bumgarner, a true Giant

Sports Saturday

What a world series it was for San Francisco Giants pitcher Martin Bumgartner! On Sunday he threw 117 pitches for nine shutout innings to win game five and then on Wednesday he returned to throw another 68 pitches for five shutout innings to preserve a 3-2 lead in the deciding game seven. And of course, that’s after having pitched a four-hit shutout to win the National League Wild Card game against Pittsburgh, pitching 7 2/3 shutout innings to win the first game against the Cardinals, and then pitching seven innings of one-run ball to win the first game of the World Series. As Shakespeare’s Cassius would have put it, the Giant did “bestride the narrow world like a Colossus”:

Brutus: Another general shout!
I do believe that these applauses are
For some new honors that are heap’d on Caesar.

Cassius: Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.

If Bumgarner was Caesar, albeit a Caesar that his enemies were unable to stab, then the Royals’ Alex Gordon has got to be wondering whether he should have followed Brutus’ famous advice. With two outs in the ninth inning of the final game and representing the tying run, Gordon hit a single that was bobbled twice, sending him to third. He could have tried for home but instead decided to hold up, only to see the next batter pop up. Nate Silver, the guru of statistical analysis, says he should have taken a gamble and gone all the way.

Here’s how Brutus puts the choice:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

To be sure, Gordon wasn’t exactly in a high tidal position—there’s a possibility he would have been thrown out easily—but as Silver describes the situation,

It would have been close. Alex Gordon might have scored, particularly if he’d been in the mindset to do so all along. Or maybe not. I’m sure there will be Zapruder-film-type breakdowns, and I’ll look forward to seeing them. It would have been one hell of a moment: Gordon, 220 pounds, who looks like he could have been a strong safety at the University of Nebraska, bearing down on Buster Posey, the catcher whose season-ending injury in 2011 helped inspire baseball’s home-plate collisions rule.

And Silver’s conclusion:

Here’s what I know: Gordon should have tried to score even if he was a heavy underdog to make it. It would have been the right move if he was safe even 30 percent of the time.

While the Royals don’t find themselves in dishonorable graves, having fought valiantly, they are bound up in the shallows and miseries of “what if?”

No Brutus-like suicides, please.

Posted in Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How the Dead Talk to Us

All Saints' Day in Poland

All Saints’ Day in Poland

All Hallow’s Eve

As we dedicate this weekend to remembering our dead—today is All Hallow’s Eve, aka Allhallowe’en—I share a Naomi Shihab Nye poem addressed to someone she has lost. The “Fifth of May” title appears to refer the birthday of the one who has died.

To her question whether the dead “stay silent as the sheet you died under,” she answers in the negative and finds ways in which those who have passed on communicate with us: perhaps through the flickering white candle we have lit, perhaps through the birds that come to our feeders.

She reassures her friend, who shares her pain, that the death has brought the two of them closer together. It has taken the brokenness that is death to show them just how close they are. This is the way not to be broken.

I know that my own family grew closer after my eldest son’s death although (as Nye notes) it took a while. Eventually my two remaining sons bonded in a special way–they are best friends–and Julia and I also experienced a deeper connection. We knew for certain that our marriage was forever. Here’s the poem:

Cinco de Mayo

By Naomi Shihab Nye

If this is your birthday and you are dead,
do we stay silent as the sheet
you died under? No. You always talked.
Here’s a thick white candle whispering.
Pour birdseed into feeders.
Speak up, speak up.

Tell me where they go, my friend said,
in the same pain. I touched her shoulder.
Here, right here. You’re closer than
you ever were — takes a while to know that.
Every scrap of DNA, he’s listening.
There’s a way not to be broken
that takes brokenness to find it.

The poem reminds me of lines from Mary Oliver’s poem on John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed):


the secret, and the pain,

there’s a decision: to die,
or to live, to go on
caring about something.  

The way not to be broken is to go on loving, to go on caring about something. You must make a decision to take this path.


Notes: Oliver’s poem “John Chapman” can be found here.  I’ve written about it here. I was alerted to the Nye poem by my friend Rachel, who sent it to me in remembrance of my son Justin.

Posted in Nye (Naomi Shihab) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Dark Doubles in Jane Austen

Christina Cole as Mrs. Elton

Christina Cole as Mrs. Elton

My Jane Austen seminar has been thoroughly enjoying Emma. Yesterday, as we talked about how Mrs. Elton functions as Emma’s dark double, I came to understand why Emma has become my favorite Austen novel.

Before we launched into all the ways that the rector’s wife is Emma’s shadow side, I asked the class whether they could identify doubles in previous Austen novels. For a character to function as a double, I said that he or she must represent a dark direction that the character could go. We identified doubles for all the heroines except Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. Here they are:

Catherine Morland – Isabella Thorpe
Elinor Dashwood – Lucy Steele
Marianne Dashwood – Eliza (Col. Brandon’s ward)
Elizabeth Bennet – Caroline Bingley
Emma Woodhouse –Mrs. Elton
Anne Elliot – Louisa Musgrove

Isabella is, as my students call her, the BFF (Best Friend Forever) who threatens to lead Catherine astray. Luckily a combination of sound moral principles and mature guidance (from Henry Tilney) saves Catherine from Isabella’s devious ways. The same principles save Marianne but only barely as her romanticism almost leads her to Eliza’s fate.

With Catherine, Elinor and Elizabeth, the question is how to win the hero without trying to. Trying is considered bad form and turns one into a “scheming little seductress.” To be sure, a major point of dressing up, playing the piano, singing, talking intelligently, etc. is to land a man. (Bingley notes delightedly that all the young ladies are accomplished, not realizing that men like himself are the target of these accomplishments.) But to absolve the three characters from the charge of seduction, there are doubles who are nakedly ambitious. Elinor could not be the heroine if she were as calculating as Lucy Steele. Whereas the latter consciously angles for Edward, Elinor just happens to “draw him in” (as Fanny Dashwood puts it). Likewise, whereas Caroline Bingley practically throws herself at Darcy, Elizabeth attracts him in spite of herself. It is only at Caroline’s suggestion that she parades about the room to be admired by Darcy and only by accident that she ends up at Pemberley at the same time that he is there, an encounter that is critical to their reconciliation. Despite Elizabeth’s early rejection of Darcy, she mostly escapes the charge of gold-digging by being so different from Caroline. When she tells Jane that her opinion of Darcy changed after she saw Pemberley, we assume she’s joking. (At least one Austen scholar, Alistair Duckworth in The Improvement of the Estate, suggests that Elizabeth is serious.)

Austen complicates the issue, however, by having one heroine put too little effort in landing a husband. I’m thinking of Jane here, whom the calculating Charlotte Lucas accurately predicts will lose her man if she doesn’t make more open displays of affection. It’s a thin line, then, that heroines must walk: they must somehow attract men without trying too hard to attract them.

I asked my women students whether they still feel a stigma attached to initiating relationships. Their answers were mixed but more said yes than no. Some traditions die hard.

The fact that Fanny Price doesn’t appear to have a double may be a sign that she is not as interesting a creation as some. I suppose Aunt Norris is one possible fate for her, an ill-tempered dependent, but doubles are usually the same age and in comparable situations as the heroines. The one doubling that my students found in Mansfield Park was Edmund-Henry. Mary is trying to lure Edmund down Henry’s path but he resists. As he is not the dramatic center of the book, however, the doubling doesn’t have as much of an impact.

Mrs. Elton represents a very different kind of double, this one bound up with class issues. Emma is a social snob and reacts badly to Mrs. Elton’s snobbery. Emma directs Harriet’s life and then is appalled at the way that Mrs. Elton wants to control Jane Fairfax. Her insult of Miss Bates at the picnic is not qualitatively different from the way Mrs. Elton sneers at Harriet. As one of my students noted, if Emma finds Mrs. Elton so distasteful, it is because she sees so much of herself in her.

The drama of the book is whether Emma can resist her dark side. In no other Austen novel do we see quite such an internal conflict, making Emma the most interesting character study of all the novels. In the end, fortunately, Emma shows she has more substance than Mrs. Elton by making a heroic sacrifice that the latter would not make: she surrenders Knightley to Harriet, accepting this as a consequence of her meddling in the lives of others. Her reward is to discover that Knightley loves only her. But Emma has had to dig deep to avoid becoming her double.

I suppose Anne Elliot’s double in Persuasion would be Louisa Musgrove. But the character dynamics here aren’t as interesting as they are in Emma.

Posted in Austen (Jane) | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Don’t Underestimate Your Students

Jan Steen, "The Severe Teacher"

Jan Steen, “The Severe Teacher”

Here’s another recovered blog post, this one written as a successor to the recovered post I shared last Friday. In both I react against the teaching approach of Vivian Bearing in Margaret Edson’s play W;t as I talk about the need to respect how students respond to literature. More often than not, there is substance in even off-the-wall student comments. This post like the other was written at the beginning of the semester.

My novelist friend Rachel Kranz writes an extended and very smart response to last Friday’s post. In case you missed it, I have appended it to today’s post. Rachel is very critical of Edson’s play, which she believes ultimately sells literature short.

Recovered blog post, originally published January 20, 2010

I begin my two literature classes today and, as always, am filled with trepidation.  Will I be the teacher my students need me to be?  Margaret Edson’s play W;t reminds me that, if I stay true to the literature, all will be well.

W;t, functions in part as a criticism of those college literature professors who sacrifice literature’s human dramas to their careers, their intellectual pride, their fear of emotion, and their desire to control. So how might one have taught protagonist Vivian Bearing, noted Donne scholar, so that she didn’t turn out this way? How might she have better taught her student Jason (now her doctor) so that he didn’t turn into a cold and soulless medical researcher.

Well, one only has so much power as a teacher. In some ways, Jason already is tending in a certain direction and he seeks out Vivian to confirm him in his predilections. But even given this, she probably could have sown some doubts in his callous self-assurance.

In my own teaching, above all I strive to respect the literature and respect my students. After over 30 years in the field, I can say with certainty that the literature will yield wisdom and comfort for virtually every life situation and that students can be counted on to find what they need within it.

Students will not always be fully articulate. But in even the most tangled of responses I can often find seeds of a profound insight.  I just need to work with the student to develop it.

There is a scene in W;t which shows the process at work. Vivian claims, after a student tries to work through an idea, that the student comes up short in the end. I would argue that it is rather Vivian that comes up short.  Here’s her recollection:

Student 2: But why?
Vivian: Why what?
Student 2: Why does Donne make everything so complicated? (The other students laugh in agreement) No really, why?
Vivian: (To the audience) You know, someone asked me that every year. And it was always one of the smart ones. What could I say? (To Student 2) What do you think?
Student 2: I think it’s like he’s hiding. I think he’s really confused. I don’t know, maybe he’s scared, so he hides behind all this complicated stuff, hides behind this wit.
Vivian: Hides behind wit?
Student 2: I mean, if it’s really something he’s sure of, he can say it more simple—simply. He doesn’t have to be such a brain, or such a performer. It doesn’t have to be such a big deal.
(The other students encourage him.)
Vivian: Perhaps he is suspicious of simplicity.
Student 2: Perhaps, but that’s pretty stupid.
Vivian: (To the audience) That observation, despite its infelicitous phrasing, contained the seed of a perspicacious remark. Such an unlikely occurrence left me with two choices. I could draw it out, or I could allow the brain to rest after that heroic effort. If I pursued, there was the chance of great insight, or the risk of undergraduate banality. I could never predict. (To student 2) Go on.
Student 2: Well, if he’s trying to figure out God, and the meaning of life, and big stuff like that, why does he keep running away, you know?
Vivian: (To the audience, moving closer to Student 2): So far so good, but they can think for themselves only so long before they begin to self-destruct.
Student 2: Um, it’s like, the more you hide, the less—no, wait—the more you are getting closer—although you don’t know it—and the simple thing is there—you see what I mean?
Vivian: (To the audience, looking at Student 2, as suspense collapses) Lost it.

If the student loses it, however, it’s because Vivian doesn’t help him build on the idea. Given Vivian’s skepticism and contempt (which he must sense), it’s impressive that the student does as well as he does.

The scene impressively shows the student getting at what draws Vivian to Donne, even though Vivian won’t admit it. She has her own versions of Donne’s fears and hides out from those fears, as the poet does, through intellectual gamesmanship. Her intellect is so powerful that she uses it to shield her from her fears. Only when she is facing death and no longer has any place to hide does she come face to face with them.

She admits her lack of integrity, her inauthenticity, in another report of students responding. She is discussing “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” which has a fabulous image of a pair of lovers (maybe John Donne and his wife) separated but connected.  Donne describes gold thread that has been beaten so thin that it cannot be seen and yet still maintains contact. Here is Vivian remembering the scene:

I distinctly remember my exchange between two students after my lecture on pronunciation and scansion. I overheard them talking on their way out class. They were young and bright, gathering their books and laughing at the expense of seventeenth-century poetry, at my expense.

(To the class) To scan the line properly, we must take advantage of the contemporary flexibility in “i-o-n” endings, as in “expansion.” The quatrain stands:

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an ex-pan-see-on,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

Bear this in mind in your reading that’s all for today.
(The students get up in a chaotic burst. Student 3 and Student 4 pass by Vivian on their way out.)
Student 3: I hope I can get used to this pronuncia—see-on.
Student 4: I know. I hope I can survive this course and make it to gradua-see-on.
(They laugh. Vivian glowers at them. They fall silent, embarrassed.)
Vivian: (To the audience) That was a witty little exchange, I must admit. It showed the mental acuity I would praise in a poetic test. But I admired only the studied application of wit, not its spontaneous eruption.

In short, the teacher gets to control how the students respond to the text, thereby always remaining in control herself. But as a result, there has not been a true exploration (or explora-see-on). Imagine how these two students would have felt if Vivian had told them how well they were responding to Donne’s wit. Having students parody a masterpiece can, in fact, draw them far more deeply into it than having them merely analyze it from the outside. For a teacher to respond this way, however, she must be open to literature working in the world in unexpected ways.

What would I do if I had Vivian as a student? I wouldn’t berate her, as her mentor E. M. does, for having brought a faulty edition of “Death Be Not Proud” to class. If one version has a grand flourish and the other a quiet comma (see my earlier post on the play’s handling of the poem), I would encourage her to explore each one. I would ask her which seems more logical, which feels right, and what to make of any discrepancy.

Honoring student feelings is important if we are to engage their emotional intelligence. In her youth Vivian appears to have loved grand flourishes and virtuoso word play. Good, that’s as it should be. Youth is a time for grand flourishes.

Unfortunately, she came to believe that she had to rein in her passion, letting it emerge in only the most circuitous of ways. Note, for instance her dissertation title: “Ejaculations in Seventeenth-Century Manuscript and Printed Editions of the Holy Sonnets: A Comparison.” The ejaculations she means are not the kind that you think she means (even though Donne’s poems make constant references to such ejaculations). I think the ejaculation she has in mind is the grammatical utterance that expresses a feeling outside of normal language structure (like “oh!”).  Except that, deep down, Vivian means the other kind of ejaculation as well—the sexual explosion, the excitement, the passion. She has just buried strong emotions deep.

Anyway, as her teacher I would have encouraged her to explore her fear of her feelings and I would have validated her hidden self.  If I had had Jason as a student in a Donne class and knew he was going to be a doctor, I would have encouraged him to explore Donne’s terror of death, knowing that one day he would be facing such terror in his patients.

Maybe I would have reached such students or maybe they would just have sought out another teacher, one less “touchy-feely.” Maybe Vivian needs to get cancer to learn what she learns and maybe that will be true of Jason as well. Then again, maybe there would be some opening for insight.

Response from novelist Rachel Kranz to the post of October 24, 2014

I really love this post, Robin, and am sorry I missed it the first time around (or maybe I saw it and just don’t remember?).

However, I have to say, I really HATED W;t, and am continually surprised that you–and other people who have devoted their lives to literature and are really smart about it–didn’t feel as insulted by the work as I did.

It seemed to me that the writer made an easy divide between intellect and emotion, between Donne and “The Runaway Bunny”–one that isn’t fair either to intellectuals who study literature OR to Donne and other writers who might take some work to fully understand and appreciate, but who repay that work in a rich and multidimensional way.

The idea that you have to WORK to understand literature sometimes, and that, as a writer, you have to work to make it complex and multidimensional, seems alien to a lot of American culture–and theater–and to me, W;t pandered to that wish that things be easy and emotional, rather than complex and challenging.

You obviously DO stand for WORKING to understand literature, and you help your students learn how to do that! However, the idea that there is something noble and fulfilling in thinking about literature–that as you say, Donne could be a true consolation to a dying woman, rather than “The Runaway Bunny”–is also alien to a lot of American culture.

The really sad thing about the play was that what the dying woman REALLY wanted and needed was not a book but a human, specifically, a mother–someone to love her, console her, and read her a children’s story. I get it–that IS what you want when you are sick and scared and facing the unknown, whether it’s death or just a new stage of life. And literature can’t replace human contact–no one who loves it would think that it could or should, which is why I hated the play creating a “straw woman” whose flaw is that she avoids human contact and focuses on her intellectual games with Donne.

But as a writer and reader, I have to hope that literature–challenging, complex literature–speaks to the scared adult in us as well as to the scared child. I have to hope that devoting your life to literature–whether as writer or reader–is not by definition sterile and a substitute for human relationships, which is the false dichotomy on which the play depends. I kept hoping that the play would end with the woman able to say, “Now that I am dying, I REALLY understand Donne, and I am repaid for my devotion to him,” instead of, “Now that I am dying, I see that I shouldn’t have sought in books what I really needed to get from humans.” Of course, she SHOULDN’T have done that–but the play implies that any true devotion to literature (or to science and medicine) is really only a way of running away from human contact.

I’ve often thought about W;t, especially as I went on to face my own illnesses, and I’ve thought about that part of us that really wants and needs the Mommy to read us “Runaway Bunny” when we’re scared. In the play, the image of the Mommy saying to the Bunny, “Wherever you run to, I will find you, and you can always come home” is a metaphor for God saying that to the scared and dying human who has run from His love. That IS a comforting thought–but I would love to think that the complexities of theology and literature and human thought help us come to that realization in a deeper way, rather than that they are filigree that prevents us from getting to the real truth. To a writer and reader, it’s awful to think that you don’t really NEED the adult complexities and challenges of literature–you just need the childlike comfort. I would like to believe that there is a kind of ADULT comfort–as well as other things–that great literature can offer, and that the greater the literature, the greater the truth it enables us to see. And I would love to believe–though maybe I’m just a Romantic!–that seeing the Truth really is what sets us free, or at least helps us come to terms with life and death in a more inspired way.

Posted in Edson (Margaret) | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Beaten Down by Life

Evgeniy Vuchetich, “Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares”

Evgeniy Vuchetich, “Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares”

For a change of pace, here is one of my father’s thought-provoking fables about a ploughshare that was once a sword. The reference is to the Book of Isaiah (2:3-4):

And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

Although Scott Bates was a lifelong member of the War Resisters League and very much in favor of turning swords into ploughshares, in this poem the image seems more about how youthful ambitions are beaten down by the responsibilities and realities of life. Those of us who are older can ruefully look back at what we once thought was possible.

The Ploughshare and the Sword

By Scott Bates

A Ploughshare bent
With labor heard
A Sword who bragged
With every word
Look at me said he
So debonair
My razor wit
Can split a hair
My soul is bright
My arm is thick
My tongue is sharp
My laughter quick
By rich red wine
I’m satisfied

I once was a Sword
The Ploughshare sighed

Posted in Bates (Scott) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Trying (and Failing) to Shield Our Love

Michelangelo, "Pieta"

Michelangelo, “Pieta”

I lost a colleague and a good friend last week. Andy Kozak, who taught economics at St. Mary’s, died of the lung cancer that he discovered last spring. A dedicated teacher, Andy was one of the kindest men that I knew. He tried to teach up until the very end, but ultimately couldn’t go on and others in his department had to step in and teach his classes. My heart weeps for his wife Becky in her sadness.

Then Jane Aldridge, a member of my book discussion group and my adult film course, died while vacationing in Malta. Unlike Andy’s death, Jane’s one was totally unexpected. Again, I think of the deep sadness of her spouse.

A disturbing Stephen Crane poem captures how such events, though small in the eyes of the world, hit loved ones with apocalyptic force. In “God Lay Dead in Heaven,” we are presented with the image of God dead and the earth turning black and sinking. Monsters, “livid with desire,” fight over what remains of the world.

This is how it can feel to lose someone you love. God seems to be absent, we are swallowed up in blackness, and mental monsters are unleashed.

Having captured our feelings through cosmic melodrama, however, the poem then changes registers with powerful effect. Suddenly we are faced with an image that is all the sadder because it is so intimate: a woman tries to shield her sleeping companion from death.

Against these odds, she seems to stand little chance. We experience the full futility of her attempts to protect.

God Lay Dead in Heaven

By Stephen Crane

God lay dead in heaven;
Angels sang the hymn of the end;
Purple winds went moaning,
Their wings drip-dripping
With blood
That fell upon the earth.
It, groaning thing,
Turned black and sank.
Then from the far caverns
Of dead sins
Came monsters, livid with desire.
They fought,
Wrangled over the world,
A morsel.
But of all sadness this was sad —
A woman’s arms tried to shield
The head of a sleeping man
From the jaws of the final beast.

If you have a friend who has lost someone close, know that this is what he or she is going through. Nothing you do or say can banish those feelings. What you can do is acknowledge how bad your friend must be feeling. Tell your friend that you are there in support.

Posted in Crane (Stephen) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

We Blame Spiritual Directors for Our Sins

George Whitefield

John Wollaston, “George Whitefield”

Spiritual Sunday 

I have a dear friend whose husband recently lost his job as a minister of a small church. I cannot fathom why they fired him as he is a deeply spiritual man and very articulate, someone I wish were my own minister.

Something comparable happened in the Sewanee church of my childhood and also, very recently, to a friend heading a church just up the road. And these are just the instances that I have personal knowledge of. All over the country, spiritual directors are losing their jobs for reasons that have little to do with their performance.

This satiric poem, written in the style of Hilaire Belloc, helps us understand some of what is going on. I like the sarcastic way Sir John Betjeman assures us that we ourselves are innocent and that he’s talking about others, the unkind ones, who blame church leaders for not living up to their outsized and contradictory expectations. The vicars pay the price for their own unresolved issues.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our vicars but in ourselves.

Blame the Vicar

By Sir John Betjeman

When things go wrong it’s rather tame
To find we are ourselves to blame,
It gets the trouble over quicker
To go and blame things on the Vicar.

The Vicar, after all, is paid
To keep us bright and undismayed.
The Vicar is more virtuous too
Than lay folks such as me and you.
He never swears, he never drinks,
He never should say what he thinks.
His collar is the wrong way round,
And that is why he’s simply bound
To be the sort of person who
Has nothing very much to do
But take the blame for what goes wrong
And sing in tune at Evensong.

For what’s a Vicar really for
Except to cheer us up? What’s more,
He shouldn’t ever, ever tell
If there is such a place as Hell,
For if there is it’s certain he
Will go to it as well as we.
The Vicar should be all pretence
And never, never give offence.
To preach on Sunday is his task
And lend his mower when we ask
And organize our village fetes
And sing at Christmas with the waits
And in his car to give us lifts
And when we quarrel, heal the rifts.

To keep his family alive
He should industriously strive
In that enormous house he gets,
And he should always pay his debts,
For he has quite six pounds a week,
And when we’re rude he should be meek
And always turn the other cheek.
He should be neat and nicely dressed
With polished shoes and trousers pressed,
For we look up to him as higher
Than anyone, except the Squire.

Dear People, who have read so far,
I know how really kind you are,
I hope that you are always seeing
Your Vicar as a human being,
Making allowances when he
Does things with which you don’t agree.
But there are lots of people who
Are not so kind to him as you.
So in conclusion you shall hear
About a parish somewhat near,
Perhaps our own or maybe not,
And of the Vicars that it got.

One parson came and pepole said,
Alas! Our former Vicar’s dead!
And this new man is far more ‘Low’
Than dear old Reverend so-and-so,
And far too earnest in his preaching.
We do not really like his teaching,
He seems to think we’re simply fools
Who’ve never been to Sunday Schools.”
That Vicar left, and by and by
A new one came, “He’s much too ‘High,’”
the people said, “too like a saint.
His incense makes our Mavis faint.”
So now he’s left and they’re alone
Without a Vicar of their own.
The living’s been amalgamated
With one next door they’ve always hated.

Dear readers, from this rhyme take warning,
And if you heard the bell this morning
Your Vicar went to pray for you,
A task the Prayer Book bids him do.
“Highness” or “lowness” do not matter,
You are the Church and must not scatter,
Cling to the Sacraments and pray
And God be with you every day.

Posted in Betjeman (Sir John) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Peyton Manning as Poe’s Dupin

Peyton Manning sets career touchdown record

Peyton Manning sets career touchdown record

Sports Saturday

So Peyton Manning did it, setting the career touchdown record last Sunday against San Francisco and then, for extra measure, adding three more touchdowns in a Thursday night win against San Diego. As he is a master at solving opposition defenses, in today’s post I compare him to Edgar Allan Poe’s legendary detective in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.”

Both Dupin and Manning are renowned for their genius IQs. The Phi Beta Kappa quarterback can recall tiny details from football games played decades ago and use them to his advantage. He also studies game films obsessively and is remarkable for his ability to anticipate blitzes and other surprises that opponents throw at him. Against all probability, he won his fifth Most Valuable Player award last year. He is 38 and only three years removed from four neck surgeries, which most people thought would end his career.

Dupin describes his own thinking process as “ratiocination.” In “The Purloined Letter,” he figures out how to outthink the devious Minister D– in a very Manningesque way. Or should I say that Manning is Dupinian?

Dupin explains his method by describing a children’s guessing game he witnessed. One boy stood out:

I knew one about eight years of age, whose success at guessing in the game of ‘even and odd’ attracted universal admiration. This game is simple, and is played with marbles. One player holds in his hand a number of these toys, and demands of another whether that number is even or odd. If the guess is right, the guesser wins one; if wrong, he loses one. The boy to whom I allude won all the marbles of the school. Of course he had some principle of guessing; and this lay in mere observation and admeasurement of the astuteness of his opponents. For example, an arrant simpleton is his opponent, and, holding up his closed hand, asks, ‘are they even or odd?’ Our schoolboy replies, ‘odd,’ and loses; but upon the second trial he wins, for he then says to himself, the simpleton had them even upon the first trial, and his amount of cunning is just sufficient to make him have them odd upon the second; I will therefore guess odd'; –he guesses odd, and wins. Now, with a simpleton a degree above the first, he would have reasoned thus: ‘This fellow finds that in the first instance I guessed odd, and, in the second, he will propose to himself upon the first impulse, a simple variation from even to odd, as did the first simpleton; but then a second thought will suggest that this is too simple a variation, and finally he will decide upon putting it even as before. I will therefore guess even’ guesses even, and wins. Now this mode of reasoning in the schoolboy, whom his fellows termed “lucky,” –what, in its last analysis, is it?”

“It is merely,” I said, “an identification of the reasoner’s intellect with that of his opponent.”

Dupin uses a version of this game to retrieve a stolen letter that eludes the meticulous searches of the police. Knowing that the authorities will search his apartment with a fine toothed comb, Minister D– has hidden his letter in plain sight, changing the exterior and placing it in his letter rack. He has identified the police’s intellect but Dupin identifies his.

Manning employed a similar process in setting up the record-tying 508th touchdown. The Broncos have a very effective screen pass that takes advantage of the speed and elusiveness of Demaryius Thomas, their top wide receiver. With Thomas and the great slot receiver Wes Welker lined up to his left, Manning throws a quick pass to Thomas while he is still behind the line of scrimmage. Welker, meanwhile, takes off and blocks for him. The play has led to some long and spectacular touchdowns.

On Sunday Manning anticipated that the San Francisco defense would be anticipating this play. He therefore faked the ball to Thomas as Wes Welker took off as if to block one of the two players defending the play. Both defenders charged towards Thomas, at which point Welker, who almost never goes long, simply turned down the sideline and caught Manning’s pass in stride for a 39 yard touchdown. As announcer Chris Collingsworth observed, sometimes studying tapes of Peyton Manning will actually get you into trouble because he knows you are studying them.

Of course, Manning still needs to figure out how his opponents plan to play him. Here again Poe’s story helps us appreciate the intricacy of Manning’s mind. The eight-year-old prodigy explains his success to Dupin:

[U]pon inquiring of the boy by what means he effected the thorough identification in which his success consisted, I received answer as follows: “When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is any one, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.”

I don’t know whether Manning employs facial expressions, but somehow he is able to identify his “reasoner’s intellect with that of his opponent.” He anticipates how wisely or how stupidly opposing teams will anticipate his moves.

There is another way in which Manning resembles Dupin. In “The Mysteries of the Rue Morgue,” Dupin is faced with a crime of unimaginable violence, but there seems no way that the killer could have entered the locked room. Dupin concludes that the killer could not have been human and then figures out that an escaped orangutan did the deed.

The stark contrast between extreme intellect and brute force shows up in many of Poe’s stories, signaling his mixed feelings about the Enlightenment. Even as he revels in the power of reason, he is also keenly aware of its limitations. The same author who created one of the great literary detectives also is famous for depicting madness and horrific cruelty. Sometimes he combines rationality and brutality in a single story: the narrator of “The Telltale Heart” is very rational in the way that he kills his neighbor and cuts him up.

Do you see how I am setting the stage for Manning’s accomplishments? Football is a bone-crunching, brain damaging sport in which men who are freakishly large, fast, and athletic hurl their bodies against each other for play after play. It is a savage game with long injury lists. Yet Manning, like Dupin, seems to rise above the carnage, analyzing each situation and figuring out an optimal response.

Of course, if he weren’t also an accomplished athlete, Manning wouldn’t be able to pull it off. But it is his cerebral approach to the game that distinguishes him from other players. He represents the triumph of raciocination.

Posted in Poe (Edgar Allan) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Limitations of Cerebral Teaching

Robert Donat as Mr. Chips

Robert Donat as Mr. Chips

As part of my Friday “lost blog posts recovery project,” I am reposting an essay, slightly amended, that was written for January 19, 2010. It’s one of my more personal essays, describing the time in my life that I failed a course. I pull John Donne into the discussion. I wrote the post after exploring Margaret Edson’s W;t in a series of essays.

The new semester begins today.  Margaret Edson’s play W;t is a useful reminder of where I should put my priorities as I begin teaching.

When my career started out, I had a number of things in common with Vivian Bearing, the English professor and Donne scholar in W;t. I too reveled in the complexity of texts, how they both invited and resisted interpretation, how they slid away from attempts to arrive at definite meanings. Sometimes I valued this over the guidance they provide for living in the world.

But after getting too many cold and analytical essays from my students, who were just doing what I told them to do, I knew that something had to change. During my first sabbatical I examined what I wanted my teaching to accomplish and concluded that literature should make a difference in my students’ lives. I have spent the rest of my career exploring how I can help make this happen.

I now ask my students what is “at stake” in the works they are reading and in the essays they are writing. Why, I make them tell me, should somebody care? If they can’t answer that question, I work with them until they can.

Of course, one thing at stake is passing the course. But if that’s all that students cared about, then life would be a barren affair. In point of fact, even the most disengaged student wants learning to be more than a series of hoops. Most students, after all, are trying to figure the world out. They are on the cusp of adulthood and they want answers. I help them link the literature and their essays to their exploration.

One useful strategy is encouraging them to tell personal stories that relate to or are triggered by the literary works. To be sure, I insist that they enter into a dialogue with the work, not a monologue. That is to say, they are not to subordinate the work to their lives (that would be narcissistic) but must step outside of themselves. The work is both like and unlike their lives, and they are to figure out what that means. At its best, seeing the work in terms of their lives opens up new insights into the work and delving into the work opens up new insights into their lives.

In my blog I have told a number of stories (and will tell many more) about the rich student conversations with literature that I have witnessed. I sometimes wonder, however, if I pay a price for not being more of a Vivian Bearing, who dismisses the significance of her students’ lives. For her, the rigorous demands of literary interpretation trump personal considerations.

I have a colleague who is like Vivian, and students who take her courses wear them as a badge of honor. They feel that they are tested to the max and feel proud of the B or C they receive. There is no mushy sentimentality in these courses, no asking the students how they feel about a work (always my first question). The work has its own artistic and intellectual integrity, and the students either climb that mountain or they fall short. As Vivian says about Donne,

To the common reader—that is to say, the undergraduate with a B+ or better average—wit provides an invaluable exercise for sharpening the mental faculties, for stimulating the flash of comprehension that can only follow hours of exacting and seemingly pointless scrutiny.

To the scholar, to the mind comprehensively trained in the subtleties of seventeenth-century vocabulary, versification, and theological, historical, geographical, political and mythological allusions, Donne’s wit is . . . a way to see how good you really are.

After twenty years, I can say with confidence, no one is quite as good as I.

I admire students willing to take up the challenge thrown out by such a teacher. They are like monks undertaking an austere discipline. In the play, the doctor who is treating Vivian, Jason, once enrolled in her seventeenth-century poetry class out of such a motivation. “I made a bet with myself that I could get an A in the three hardest courses on campus,” he says.

But by the end of the play as she is dying, Vivian herself begins doubting this approach. It took a traumatic college experience to get me to doubt it as well.

While majoring in history at Carleton College, I took a class from a teacher who had the reputation of being hard-ass and demanding. I signed up because I was convinced he would root out my indolence and my penchant for procrastination, which I saw as my biggest flaw. (I now realize that I worked pretty damn hard but I didn’t see it that way then.) He would force me to be diligent.

There was something pathological about the whole situation. It was as though I wanted to deny feeling and submerge myself in a world of pure intellect. I was almost Ayn Randian in my quest.

No sooner had I enrolled in the course than I went into resistance. I was sullen in classes (and I am never sullen!) and, like Jack Burden in All the King’s Men, I began I began sleeping incessantly, taking four-hour naps and waking up exhausted. Then, perhaps to unconsciously provoke a confrontation, I quoted something the professor said in class in a newspaper article. It was innocuous enough but it broke an unwritten rule and was a rotten thing to do. In response, the teacher kicked me out of the class and gave me an F. He handled things badly but he was not wrong in his view that we had reached an impasse.

I took the class because I wanted to prove that I was a pure intellectual. Then a deep part of me, the emotional side that insists that there be balance, struck back with a series of symptoms. As I look back, I am struck by how I was able to orchestrate my victimization so that everyone saw my teacher as the villain. Instinctively I knew what it would take to set him off and I pushed his button. I’m not proud of myself, but I learned a lot from the experience.

For instance, I learned perspective: the earth did not open up and swallow me when I received the only failing grade of my life. Furthermore, I draw on the incident when I see my own students and advisees experiencing academic pressure. My Carleton advisor and the Carleton Dean of Students were at a loss, and I don’t want to be as ineffective.

When Vivian says, “I know all about life and death. I am, after all, a scholar of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, which explore mortality in greater depth than any other body of work in the English language,” I see, and eventually so does she, the arrogance and the blindness in the statement. Donne is indeed wise. But for readers to tap into this wisdom takes more than cognitive intelligence. That’s my quarrel with Vivian’s teaching approach: she makes it seem as if interpretation is only a matter of intellect.

In fact, if there’s one problem with Edson’s play for, it’s that it doesn’t give Donne enough credit for operating in the emotional realm.  His poetry involves more than just dazzling wit. In fact, he himself was terrified by death and the prospect of hell. Sometimes his wit functions as psychological cover.

I also think that Vivian could have resorted to something other than The Runaway Bunny at the end of the play. It’s as though all canonical literature—not just Donne—has has been tainted by her academic approach so that only a children’s story escapes. But her mentor quotes a lovely passage from Hamlet as she dies: “Flights of angels guide thee to thy rest.” If we combine our emotional life, our experiences, and our intellect in the reading of literature, it will reveal its glories.

Posted in Donne (John), Edson (Margaret) | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Koch Inc: Oligarchs of Order and Ordure

The Koch brothers

The Koch brothers

It is truly dispiriting to watch all the money, much of it from undisclosed sources, that is being poured into this year’s election. (Thanks, Supreme Court, for your Citizens United decision.) By the time all is said and done, it is predicted that more than half a billion dollars will be spent on Senate and House races. The oil-rich Koch brothers say that they will be spending $300 million and they don’t have to say where.

If you want to understand why so many rightwing politicians are denying the fact of human-caused climate change, there’s a big part of your answer. It pays, at least in the short run, to believe that fossil fuels are not a problem.

Here’s a poem written by my father about oil barons like the Koches. The poem labels these figures “Officious Oligarchs of Order and Ordure” that would “Obliterate Oz,” by which he means our fair country. (As Joni Mitchell would put it, they are in the process of paving paradise.) The “Oceans of BUZZ,” I think, are the deliberately induced mind clouding that prevents us from seeing what they are really up to.

Pull aside the curtain, however, and the Wizards of Oz morph into the Lizards of Ooze.

O Is a Dirty Oil Man

By Scott Bates

O look out for the
Oil Barons the Omnipotent
Outrageous and Obnoxious
Owners of the O so declicate O-

Oligarchs of Order and
Ordure they would
for an Ocean of
buzziness busyness bossiness booziness

Opinionate and
Omniverous they are also
(but they don’t know it yet)

O look out
for the
(they think)

Lizards of Ooze

The one good piece of news I’ve heard is that the Rockefeller Foundation, which of course owes its money to Standard Oil, has decided that the future lies in renewable energy, not in ooze, and is pulling out of fossil fuel stocks. Who could have predicted that?

The poem appears in The ABC of Radical Ecology (1990).

Posted in Bates (Scott) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Writer Walks into a Starbucks…

creators of Literary Starbucks blog

creators of Literary Starbucks blog

My student Windy Vorwick, who seems always on the outlook for literary blogs, has alerted me to yet another, this one featuring Starbucks. The conceit is that authors (or their characters) order a coffee in a way that reveals something about their lives or works.

The bloggers are students at Carleton College, which caught my eye as that is where I attended college. Maybe there’s something about my alma mater that produces bloggers. Anyway, it’s nice to see students paying attention to literature outside of class.

As one would expect, the items are hit and miss but some are a lot of fun and the blog as a whole works as a test of one’s literary knowledge. There’s also potential for the authors to grow into the idea as they go along, especially honing their skills at parody. Here’s a sampling. Enjoy:

Lady Macbeth goes up to the counter and sees three female baristas intently hovering over the espresso machine, chanting something unintelligible. She decides to order a Passion tea and proceeds to spill it all over her clothes and hands. She runs screaming to the bathroom. The three baristas cackle in uncanny unison.

Marlowe goes up to the counter and begins ordering a coffee, but before he can finish he is stabbed to death. No one will ever know what he was going to order, but some say it would have been better than what Shakespeare ordered.

William Carlos
orders shaken iced
tea lemonade.
It is delicious
so sweet
and so cold

J.D. Salinger goes up to the counter and orders an iced skinny flavored latte. He pays for it, but when the barista tries to give it to him, he instead attempts to engage her in conversation, claiming that he didn’t really want the coffee in the first place. Also, everyone is a phony.

Charlotte Brontë goes up to the counter for a cup of tea and Reader, she orders it!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete