Jan 17 2020

Arcadia and Middle-Earth: Prose Plus Poetry in Sidney and Tolkien

After finishing C. S. Lewis’s (1898–1963) English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama) (1954) last autumn, I was curious to then read Sir. Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1580): a strange work of mostly prose, but interspersed with much poetry. I’d read Sidney’s Apology (1580) several times and mostly understood it, but the Arcadia was more ambiguous. When reading it, sometimes (at least the older version) felt like a medieval romance (like the first part of the Roman de la Rose [c. 1230]). At other times, the Arcadia felt like an ancient epic (the Argonautica (c. 200 BC) comes to mind). Either way, Arcadia is definitely not a novel, though it is a fantasy.

And it also reminded me much of J. R. R. Tolkien’s (1892–1973) works—another fantasy world told mostly in prose but containing much poetry. Both authors take these old literary forms and add something fresh to them by mixing them together. They are “fun,” even when their tones turn toward things serious. In this regard, they have mirth.

This freshness of song and speech also reminded somewhat of Miguel Cervantes (1547–1616) Don Quijote (1605, 1616), which contains a few handfuls of sonnets, and along these lines we might add Johanna Spyri’s (1827–1901) Heidi’s Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) (1880) and Heidi Kann Brauchen, was es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) (1881) as well as John Bunyan’s (1628–1688) The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) with their Protestant hymns and songs intermixed with prose tales.

But the going-back-and-forthness between prose and poetry in Sidney’s Arcadia and Tolkien’s Middle-Earth mostly reminded me of classic Hollywood musicals. (I’m a South Pacific (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964) kind of guy.)

Post Scriptum

Finally, with feelings more of somberness than sadness do we wish Christopher Tolkien (1924–2020) and his kin the best as he now journeys westward toward the Grey Havens. His task as steward to his father’s work is now complete. And I expect the father to soon say to all around him, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.”

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First edition…. RIP Christopher Tolkien

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Dec 28 2019

Heidi and Sidney: Two Views of Arcadia

typewriter

The title character of Johanna Spyri’s (1827-1901) Heidis Lehr und Wanderjahre (Heidis Years of Wandering and Learning) (c. 1880) and its sequel Heidi Kann Brauchen, Was Es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) (c. 1881) lives in a true Arcadian paradise along the slopes of the Swiss Alps:

By now the sun was ready to go down behind the mountains. Heidi sat on the ground again and gazed at the bluebells and the rock-roses glowing in the evening light. The grass seemed tinted with gold, and the cliffs above began to gleam and sparkle….[1]

May had come. From every height the overflowing brooks were rushing down into the valley. Warm, bright sunshine lay on the mountain. It had grown green again; the last traces of snow had melted away, and the first little flowers were peeping up out of the fresh grass. The spring wind blew through the fir trees and shook off the old, dark needles, so that the young, bright green ones could come out and dress the trees in splendor. High above, the old robber-bird was swinging his wings in the blue air, and around the Alm hut the golden sunshine lay warm on the ground. [2]

Yes, as Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) has taught us beforehand, Heidi’s world is founded in that literary setting of poetic pastoral that so often can become (as Americans say) “tacky” with its kitsch motifs, followed by the inevitable banality in meaning behind them. As Johnson puts it:

In consequence of these original errours, a thousand precepts have been given, which have only contributed to perplex and confound. Some have thought it necessary that the imaginary manners of the golden age should be universally preserved, and have therefore believed, that nothing more could be admitted in pastoral, than lilies and roses, and rocks and streams, among which are heard the gentle whispers of chaste fondness, or the soft complaints of amorous impatience. In pastoral, as in other writings, chastity of sentiment ought doubtless to be observed, and purity of manners to be represented; not because the poet is confined to the images of the golden age, but because, having the subject in his own choice, he ought always to consult the interest of virtue. (Rambler no. 37, July 24, 1750)

Johnson is almost always right about this sort of thing. Still, it is good for children to read about the world Heidi lives in, for though it is a beautiful world, it is certainly not a paradise. Through her innocence and innate goodness, Heidi “was never unhappy, for she could always find something about her to enjoy.”[3] But those around her must struggle (and it’s important for children to read about this contrast, for depicting it is one of the things good fiction, for any age, tends to do).

There is, for example, the goatherd boy Peter, who has literally never eaten is fill, and a grand moment where he marvels when Heidi gives him some of her leftovers as they share a mountainside lunch.[4] And there is Heidi’s friend from Frankfurt, Clara, a girl (temporarily?) lame, perhaps from polio. Life is certainly not a paradise for Clara, which is one reason while Heidi comes to visit her. [5] There is the doctor who suffers melancholy and finds relief in the mountains. [6] And finally, there is Heidi’s grandfather, whom she loves dearly, but is someone who remains stubborn (for reasons never quite explained) in his unforgiveness toward the town beneath his mountain cabin.

But the Arcadia of the Heidi books is quite different from the original Arcadia (1580) by Sir Philip Sidney (1584-1586), which is a work that paints a world without children, but also a world full of young love and (occasionally) lust, as readers find at the end of Book III:

    Thus hath each part his beauty’s part;
But how the Graces do impart
To all her limbs a special grace,
Becoming every time and place,
Which doth e’en beauty beautify,
And most bewitch the wretched eye!
How all this is but a fair inn
Of fairer guest which dwells within,
Of whose high praise, and praiseful bliss,
Goodness the pen, heav’n paper is;
The ink immortal fame doth lend.
As I began, so must I end:
    No tongue can her perfections tell,
    In whose each part all pens may dwell.[7]

Upon encountering Sidney’s fictional work, I expected (as Johnson has taught me) green pastures and white sheep abounding. But here Sidney’s prose fiction rarely has anything to say about landscape. Instead there is a wild variety of poetry sprinkled throughout this strange prose creation, some of it beautiful, but some of it too rugged (in its style and structure) to be recited aloud with ease.

And I don’t know how reading these two highly contrasting works will ever make me a better writer (or reader), but after having read them, I do feel both better informed and thoroughly refreshed from the workaday world of Austin, Texas. As the doctor says to Heidi after recovering from his melancholy:

It is good to be on the mountain. Body and soul get well there, and life becomes happy again.”[8]

Happy New Year,

Christopher / Bookbread

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Picturesque at the family farm

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NOTES

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[1] Spyri, Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) in Heidi, illustrated Arthur Jameson, trans. Helene S. White [?], (Racine, WI: Whitman Publishing Co., 1944) I, iii, p. 36.

[2] Spyri, Heidi Kann Brauchen, Was Es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) (c. 1881) in Heidi, illustrated Arthur Jameson, trans. Helene S. White [?], (Racine, WI: Whitman Publishing Co., 1944) II, vi, p. 183.

[3] Spyri, Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) I, iv, p. 40.

[4] Spyri, Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) I, iii, p. 32.

[5] Spyri, Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) I, vi.

[6] Spyri, Heidi Kann Brauchen, Was Es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) II, iii.

[7] Philip Sidney, The Countess of Pembrokes Arcadia (The Old Arcadia) (c. 1580), ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones, (New York: Oxford UP, 1973; 2008) 210–11.

[8] Spyri, Heidi Kann Brauchen, Was Es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) II, iii, p. 164.


Dec 7 2019

Heidi and Bluejays

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

Recently, I read for the first time Johanna Spyri’s (1827-1901) Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) (c. 1880) and its sequel Heidi Kann Brauchen, Was Es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) (c. 1881).

They are nice, pastoral books, set in the elevated Arcadia of the Swiss Alps.

Then, today, I saw these bluejays:

And these bluejays reminded me of a passage from the fifth chapter of the first Heidi book:

“What are you going to make of the child?” the pastor asked. “Nothing; she [Heidi] grows and thrives with goats and the birds. She is well enough with them, and she learns no harm with them,” [said the grandfather].


Dec 1 2019

Gogol, Dolly, and George Sessions Perry

Western book stack

Until recently, I’d never heard of George Sessions Perry (1910–1956), even though for the past several years I’ve made my way to his hometown of Rockdale, Milam County, Texas to eat barbeque and attend rodeos. Sessions was a writer, mostly of fiction, and most notably for his 1942 novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, a book which tells the story of a white tenant farmer family in the central-eastern portion of the Lone Star State.

There is a moment in the novel’s sixth chapter that particularly stands out: a scene where a family wants to send their daughter to school on a cold and rainy morning until they realize she has no coat. What follows is a three-page description of how the daughter’s coat comes to be produced—a scene somewhat moving in its intentions, somewhat sappy in its melodrama––somewhat reminiscent of the rugged practicalities behind the madness of the protagonist in Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 short story “Шинель” (“The Overcoat”), and yet also somewhat resembling the soft sentimentality running through the narrator of Dolly Parton’s ballad of a “Coat of Many Colors” (1971).

But it was a scene that made reading the book worthwhile, and I now find myself curious to encounter what else Perry wrote about.


Aug 30 2019

The Dangers of Being an Eternal Student

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

THE DANGERS OF BEING AN ETERNAL STUDENT:

MEDITATIONS ON BEING A WRITER no. 3

Recently I came across an interesting passage from Ivan Illich (1926–2002) writing in 1973 on how to balance learning against teaching as well as the dangers of being an eternal student:

This blindness is a result of the broken balance of learning. People who are hooked on teaching are conditioned to be customers for everything else. They see their own personal growth as an accumulation of institutional outputs, and prefer what institutions make over what they themselves can do. They repress the ability to discover reality by their own lights. The skewed balance of learning explains why the radical monopoly of commodities has become imperceptible. It does not explain why people feel impotent to correct those profound disorders which they do perceive. (Tools for Conviviality, (c. 1973), (London: Marion Boyars, 1990) p. 68.)

Perhaps I’m too comfortable writing on topics as a non-expert—and (perhaps) this is the origin of recent feelings of scribbler’s impotence. I admit to being a carrier of that most modern of aliments: skepticism toward expertise. Yes, it’s too easy commenting on things as a student rather than a teacher, because against any objection to a comment made by a student, the student can always counter: “I am a student: by definition, I am ignorant.”

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean all objections to student commentary are valid; for it’s legitimate to ask why, to begin with, an objector is paying attention to a student (a non-expert)—for what use can that serve the objector? When it comes to discussing topics, students don’t have followers (captive audiences/readerships) the way teachers (expert authors) do.

The eternal student always knows she or he is powerless against an expert. Perhaps part of the solution is balancing means over ends, as Aristotle explains:

The magnificent man will therefore necessarily be also a liberal man. For the liberal man too will spend the right amount in the right manner; and it is in the amount and manner of his expenditure that the element ‘great’ in the magnificent or ‘greatly splendid’ man, that is to say his greatness, is shown, these being the things in which Liberality is displayed. And the magnificent man from an equal outlay will achieve a more magnificent result; for the same standard of excellence does not apply to an achievement as to a possession: with possessions the thing worth the highest price is the most honored, for instance gold, but the achievement most honored is one that is great and noble (since a great achievement arouses the admiration of the spectator, and the quality of causing admiration belongs to magnificence); and excellence in an achievement involves greatness…. But in all these matters, as has been said, the scale of expenditure must be judged with reference to the person spending, that is, to his position and his resources; for expenditure should be proportionate to means, and suitable not only to the occasion but to the giver. Hence the poor cannot be magnificent, since they have not the means to make a great outlay suitably; the poor who attempt Magnificence are foolish, for they spend out of proportion to their means, and beyond what they ought, whereas an act displays virtue only when it is done in the right way. (Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1934) (IV, ii) pp. 208–09.)

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Aug 2 2019

Meditations of Being a Writer no. 02

book spines

As a writer, I read something and hope to get something out of it: new ideas, ways of thinking, better understanding—I hope to get something.

Nine years before Edward Young (1683–1765) penned his questions on how broad reading affected Shakespeare and Milton differently, Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), though twenty-six years younger than Young, recognized the dangers of excessive hope. Johnson counsels readers as well as writers, to rethink the “anticipation of happiness”:

The understanding of a man naturally sanguine [courageous, a delight in bloodshed], may, indeed, be easily vitiated [spoiled or corrupted] by the luxurious indulgence of hope, however necessary to the production of every thing great or excellent, as some plants are destroyed by too open exposure to that sun which gives life and beauty to the vegetable world….

Perhaps no class of the human species requires more to be cautioned against this anticipation of happiness, than those that aspire to the name of authors. A man of lively fancy no sooner finds hint moving in his mind, than he makes momentaneous excursions to the press, and to the world, and, with a little encouragement from flattery, pushes forward into future ages, and prognosticates the honours to be paid him, when envy is extinct, and faction forgotten, and those, whom partiality now suffers to obscure him, shall have given way to the triflers of as short duration as themselves. [1]

Would-be authors imagine the titles of books they want to write but fail to realize the contents such books must contain. I have a problem of too much planning, an over-abundant need to pre-read things before I write. Too much sun leads only to cancer (ask Icarus). Instead I might need to start doing less planning, more writing. As the esteemed Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky teach us:

Biases in the evaluation of compound events are particularly significant in the context of planning. The successful completion of an undertaking, such as the development of a new product, typically has a conjunctive character: for the undertaking to succeed, each of a series of events must occur. Even when each of these events is very likely, the overall probability of success can be quite low if the number of events is large. The general tendency to overestimate the probability of conjunctive events leads to unwarranted optimism in the evaluation of the likelihood that a plan will succeed or that a project will be completed on time.[2]

Or as Tacitus succinctly put it: “Our men’s over-confidence might even have led to serious disaster. But Agricola was everywhere at once,” (Agricola XXXVII).

Back to Johnson:

That the mind of man is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity; and that we forget the proper use of the time now in our power to provide for the enjoyment of that which, perhaps, may never be granted us, has been frequently remarked….

There would, however, be few enterprises of great labour or hazard undertaken, if we had not the power of magnifying the advantages which we persuade ourselves to expect from them when the knight of La Mancha gravely recounts to his companion the adventures by which he is to signalize himself in such a manner, that he shall be summoned to the support of empires, solicited to accept the heiress of the crown which he has preserved, have honours and riches to scatter about him, and an island to bestow on his worthy squire, very few readers, amidst their mirth or pity, can deny that they have admitted visions of the same kind; though they have not, perhaps, expected events equally strange, or by means equally inadequate. When we pity him we reflect on our own disappointments; and when we laugh, our hearts inform us that he is not more ridiculous than ourselves, except that he [Quixote] tells what we [other writers, including Cervantes] have only thought.

In other words, too often writers magnify their advantages for their own advantage, never considering how such magnification distorts the goal of actually writing something that is worth reading (and rereading). I see advantages in pre-reading before writing. But I magnify those advantages, and like ants at the mercy of children, get burned by the magnification.

NOTES

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[1] Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, no. 02, Saturday, 24 March 1750. Johnson’s line of—“As some plants are destroyed by too open exposure to that sun”—might be compared to Hamlet being “too much in the sun,” (I, ii, 67).

[2] Kahneman and Amos Tversky, “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases,” Science 185 (1974) in Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) 428.


Jul 19 2019

Evil Elvis

porticos in Bologna, Italia

This is one of Rod’s better columns in a while. But there are things one can be nit picky about, such as when I read:

There is a certain sort of tiresome person who, whenever you bring up the steep and consequential decline of cultural standards, can be counted on to say, “People used to think Elvis was evil.” If a cable network ever stages live executions or barnyard orgies, these same people will turn up mouthing the same cliche. This line is not an aid to thinking clearly, but is an obstacle to it. It’s meant to assuage the consciences of those who say it, and to grant them permission not to think about the troubling thing in front of their noses.

…. as if some of the enemies of Elvis were not interested in a WASP-led theocracy against godless communism, as if their antagonism against black music and black music appropriated by white singers was something other than an effort to maintain their power and influence over all non-affluent WASPs and all non-WASPs? (Were not the enemies of Elvis also the enemies of Catholic-all-too-Catholic JFK?)…. 

But overall this is a great post–particularly the part about the Atlanta airport and the elusive sense of “home” shared between strangers.

UPDATE: I guess what I mean to say is that the “troubling thing in front of” my nose, is that WASPy extremism is just as extreme as “barnyard orgies” and broadcasting “live executions.”

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Jul 12 2019

Meditations on Writing no. 1

book spines
Meditations on Writing no. 1

I’ve felt some anxiety lately over the quality of my writing. Maybe I rely too much on quotation, too much name-dropping…. Perhaps I need to focus more on personal experience––more personal family stories, anecdotes from my travels through Europe, or my discoveries in genealogy? I think my writing needs more personal experience of life, less pre-published exegesis from the library.

Perhaps it’s all a question of means over ends—what Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) was writing about in 1780 with his biography of the poet Edward Young (1683–1765):

The attention which Young bestowed upon the perusal of books is not unworthy imitation. When any passage pleased him he appears to have folded down the leaf. On these passages he bestowed a second reading. But the labours of man are too frequently vain. Before he returned to much of what he had once approved he died. Many of his books, which I have seen, are by those notes of approbation so swelled beyond their real bulk that they will hardly shut…. (“Life of Young,” Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (c. 1779–81))

So Young did a lot of reading, found good passages and marked them, but ran out of time to use them. He couldn’t get back around to rereading what he knew was worth rereading so he could then use it in his own writing.

Young himself speculated on Shakespeare and Milton’s range of reading, and how it affected the quality of their work:

Who knows whether Shakespeare might not have thought less, if he had read more? Who knows if he might not have laboured under the load of [Ben] Johnson’s learning? … If Milton had spared some of his learning, his muse would have gained more glory, than he would have lost, by it. (Conjectures on Original Composition, (c. 1759), ed. Edith J. Morley (Oxford: Manchester University Press; London: Longman’s Green & Co, 1918) 35, 36)

Yes, writers must read in order to be writers. But reading can impart no magical powers of writing onto the writer who reads. The quintessence will not be transmuted.


Jun 12 2019

Reading in the Hospital

porticos in Bologna, Italia

C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) once confessed what his ideal reading situation would be:

Johnson once described the ideal happiness which he would choose if he were regardless of futurity. My own choice, with the same reservation, would be to read the Italian epic—to be always convalescent from some small illness and always seated in a window that overlooked the sea, there to read these poems eight hours of each happy day. (The Allegory of Love, (Oxford UP, 1936; Second Edition, 1946) 304)

Lewis is referring (I think) to Samuel Johnson’s (1709-1784) choice of Shakespeare:

Having fallen into a very serious frame of mind, in which mutual expressions of kindness passed between us, such as would be thought too vain in me to repeat, I talked with regret of the sad inevitable certainty that one of us must survive the other.

JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, that is an affecting consideration. I remember Swift, in one of his letters to Pope, says, “I intend to come over, that we may meet once more; and when we must part, it is what happens to all human beings.”’

BOSWELL. ‘The hope that we shall see our departed friends again must support the mind.’

JOHNSON. ‘Why, yes, Sir.’ Boswell. ‘There is a strange unwillingness to part with life, independent of serious fears as to futurity. A reverend friend of ours [Dr. Percy] tells me, that he feels an uneasiness at the thoughts of leaving his house, his study, his books.’

JOHNSON. ‘This is foolish in [Percy]. A man need not be uneasy on these grounds: for, as he will retain his consciousness, he may say with the philosopher, Omnia mea mecum porto. [‘All that is mine, I carry with me,’ Cicero, Paradoxa, i]’

BOSWELL. ‘True, Sir: we may carry our books in our heads; but still there is something painful in the thought of leaving for ever what has given us pleasure. I remember, many years ago, when my imagination was warm, and I happened to be in a melancholy mood, it distressed me to think of going into a state of being in which Shakepeare’s poetry did not exist. A lady, whom I then much admired, a very amiable woman, humoured my fancy, and relieved me by saying, “The first thing you will meet with in the other world will be an elegant copy of Shakspeare’s works, presented to you.”’

Dr. Johnson smiled benignantly at this, and did not appear to disapprove of the notion…. (Boswell, Life of Johnson, ÆTAT 69, April 1778)

But compare Lewis’s preferred hospital to those in Thomas More’s (1478–1535) Utopia (c. 1516), where:

hospital patients get first priority—oh yes, there are four hospitals in the suburbs, just outside the walls. Each of them is about the size of a small town. The idea of this is to prevent overcrowding, and facilitate the isolation of infectious cases. These hospitals are so well run, and so well supplied with all types of medical equipment, the nurses are so sympathetic and conscientious, and there are so many experienced doctors constantly available, that, though nobody’s forced to go there, practically everyone would rather be ill in hospital than at home. (Utopia (c. 1516, 1551), trans. Paul Turner, (New York: Penguin, 1965) II, 61–62)

To be a patient in Utopia is to be a king: everyone attends to you. Compare Mayra Hornbacher: “Hospital policy is to impose the least level of restriction possible,” (Madness: a Bipolar Life, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008) 5).

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Jun 5 2019

Walking with Thoreau

In his essay “Walking,” Thoreau writes:

You must walk like a camel which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking. When a traveller asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study, she answered “Here is his library, but his study is out of doors.”

I’ve been in a Thoreau-esque mood lately. I’ve been gardening, photographing, paying closer attention to the nature around me, trying to figure out how this relates to my writing, wondering how it might make me a better writer.

Some highlights:

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Different day, different lizard

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An anole
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Wildflowers at the farm #wildflowers

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Green Lizzy #lizard

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