A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Poem of the Day: John Donne, "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning"

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
   And whisper to their souls, to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say, 
   The breath goes now, and some say, no: 

So let us melt, and make no noise, 
   No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move, 
'Twere profanation of our joys
   To tell the laity our love. 

Moving of th'earth brings harms and fears, 
   Men reckon what it did, and meant.
But trepidation of the spheres. 
   Though greater far, is innocent. 

Dull sublunary lovers' love
   (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
   Those things which elemented it. 

But we by a love, so much refin'd, 
   That our selves know not what it is, 
Inter-assured of the mind, 
   Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss. 

Our two souls, therefore, which are one,
   Though I must go, endure not yet 
A breach, but an expansion, 
   Like gold to airy thinness beat, 

If they be two, they are two so 
   As stiff twin compasses are two, 
Thy soul the fix'd foot, makes no show
   To move, but doth, if th'other do. 

And though it in the center sit, 
   Yet when the other far doth roam, 
It leans, and harkens after it, 
   And grows erect, as that comes home. 

Such wilt though be to me, who must
   Like th'other foot, obliquely run; 
Thy firmness draws my circle jsut, 
   And makes me end, where I begun. 
-- John Donne

If you first read this poem, as I did, in some English lit survey or introduction to poetry course, you probably learned that Donne is one of the 17th-century "metaphysical poets" and that the metaphor of the twin-souled lovers as a compass is a "metaphysical conceit." (That's a drafting compass like the one you used in geometry class to draw a circle, not the navigational one that points north. On second thought, maybe they don't use compasses in schools anymore. Maybe they use computers. Even in my day compasses were thought of as potentially deadly weapons, with their little pointy foot. I don't expect they'd get through the metal detectors at some schools today.) 

Where was I? Oh, yeah: metaphysical poets and metaphysical conceits. Nobody but academics inclined to label and categorize cared about that back then, and I hope even they've outgrown it by now. The things that have enabled this poem to endure are the universality of its feeling (the emotional tie between lovers that physical separation can't remove) and the beautiful surprises of its imagery ("like gold to airy thinness beat"). And of course, as there often is with Donne's poems, there's a hint of naughtiness: I don't think he used those words "stiff" and "grows erect" casually. But he's also a good Christian who became the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, so that the poem is also about the immortality of the soul and the reunion of "soul-mates" in the afterlife. The poem begins with a man dying, though it also seems to be about a lover going on a terrestrial journey that will temporarily separate him from his mistress or wife. As Samuel Johnson said when he applied that "metaphysical" label, in Donne “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together." And I say thank goodness for it. 


Power Elitism

The UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner has found that, in many social situations, people with power act just like patients with severe brain damage. "The experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior," he writes. "You become very impulsive and insensitive, which is a bad combination."

Of course, we live in an age when our most powerful people - they tend to also have lots of money - are also the most isolated. They live in gated communities with private drivers. They eat at different restaurants and stay at different resorts. They wear different clothes and skip the security lines at airports, before sitting at the front of the plane. We shouldn't be surprised that they're also assholes.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Why I Don't Watch TV News

Poem of the Day: Emily Dickinson

The Soul has Bandaged moments -- 
When too appalled to stir -- 
She feels some ghastly Fright come up 
And step to look at her -- 

Salute her -- with long fingers -- 
Caress her freezing hair -- 
Sip, Goblin, from the very lips 
The Lover -- hovered -- o'er -- 
Unworthy, that a thought so mean 
Accost a Theme -- so -- fair -- 

The soul has moments of Escape -- 
When bursting all the doors -- 
She dances like a Bomb, abroad, 
And swings upon the Hours, 

As do the Bee -- delirious borne -- 
Long Dungeoned from his Rose -- 
Touch Liberty -- then know no more, 
But Noon, and Paradise -- 

The Soul's retaken moments -- 
When, Felon led along, 
With shackles on the plumed feet, 
And staples, in the Song, 

The Horror welcomes her, again, 
These, are not brayed of Tongue -- 
--Emily Dickinson
What is there to say about Emily Dickinson, other than that no poet I know of dared so greatly and succeeded so often with what she dared. "She dances like a Bomb, abroad" -- who comes up so frequently with images like that? If you Google it, you get 83,900 hits, lots of them from people trying to figure it out. Of course, we who have lived in the horrors of the 20th century and seen the pilotless drones of the 21st have seen bombs dancing terribly in the air. But we have also known the exhilaration of dancing bombs in Fourth of July fireworks shows. Did Emily see them in Amherst? 

Once again, to provide coherent thoughts on a poet, I have recourse to a review I wrote, for the Mercury News. I remember struggling with this review because I was writing it on a deadline that happened to be September 11, 2001. At the time I felt absurd, focusing on a biography of a 19th century poet when everyone in the newsroom around me was preoccupied with the grim story of the day. But now, thinking of Emily's poem, I realize that that was one of those "Bandaged moments." 

There is a pain -- so utter –
It swallows substance up --
Then covers the Abyss with Trance --
So Memory can step
Around -- across -- upon it --
As one within a Swoon --
Goes safely -- where an open eye --
Would drop Him -- Bone by Bone.
Where, you have to wonder, did something like that come from? What forces of heredity, environment and culture combined to produce Emily Dickinson?

Bristling with facts, daunting in its poundage, a new biography lumbers in to help us solve the mystery of the woman who may be the greatest American poet. The biographer, Alfred Habegger, is a former professor of English at the University of Kansas, and he has done his work as a scholar -- to a fault.

She was born in 1830 in Amherst, Mass. Her grandfather, who helped found Amherst College, came close to financial ruin through a series of unwise investments. Her father, Edward, reacted against his father's carelessness: ''He had observed from close up a father's disaster, and after being repeatedly bruised by it, gained an unshakable belief in the priority of family security and the importance of buckling on all the armor of fortitude and determination.''

Edward Dickinson believed that women's education should prepare them to be homemakers and nothing more. Emily later told a correspondent that her father ''buys me many Books -- but begs me not to read them -- because he fears they joggle the Mind.'' Her mother, also named Emily, seems to have been in need of joggling: ''a melancholy, inexpressive, and relatively inelastic spirit,'' Habegger calls her. The poet's later literary mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, recalled that she once told him, ''I never had a mother.''

The Amherst of her childhood and youth was a place where an intense religiosity swept through in waves of revivalistic enthusiasm. At the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which she attended for a year, students were divided into three classes: those who were had been saved, those who believed they were on the way to salvation, and the ''impenitent.'' The last was Emily's group, but she would remain unregenerate, even when her father and her sister, Lavinia, experienced a conversion at a revival in 1850. About this time, she wrote her first known poem.

In 1855, the family moved into the Homestead, which had been lost by Emily's grandfather during his financial troubles, and plans were made for her brother, Austin, to move into an adjacent house after his own marriage. Her fate was sealed when, about the time of the move, her mother had a physical/emotional breakdown. Emily, the elder sister, would have to be the woman of the house: ''Her work in life would be to attempt and achieve an unprecedented imaginative freedom while dwelling in what looks like privileged captivity,'' Habegger observes.

By 1858 she was collecting her poems into handmade booklets -- carefully copying the poems on notepaper and sewing the leaves together. But she resisted publication, even though she received encouragement as a poet from men such as Higginson, whose essays in the Atlantic Monthly inspired Dickinson to begin a correspondence with him in 1862. After her death, Higginson would be involved in the first edition of her poems.

When Higginson visited her in 1870, he found ''a little plain woman with two smooth bands of reddish hair,'' and referred to her twice as ''childlike.'' But in later years he also recalled his discomfort at her eccentricity: ''The impression undoubtedly made on me was that of an excess of tension, and of something abnormal.''

The glimpses of her emotional life found in Dickinson's letters and poems are catnip to a biographer such as Habegger. For instance, ''Of the twenty-one instances of the word 'hurt' in her poems (noun or verb),'' Habegger enumerates, ''every single one occurs between 1860 and 1863.'' This was a period when many of her poems seem to be addressed to a man. ''That the love poems were a response to an actual and painful relationship with a man seems the only plausible way to take them,'' Habegger comments. His candidate is the Rev. Charles Wadsworth, whom she had met in Philadelphia and who moved to San Francisco in 1862. But whether this was more than a heavy crush seems doubtful.

But there's evidence that she and Otis Phillips Lord, a justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, may have had something more substantial going on -- though it's circumstantial evidence, for most of their letters were destroyed. Judge Lord was in his 60s and she her 40s when they apparently fell in love. Her attraction to him seems to have developed around the time of her father's death, in 1873. Lord, whose wife died in 1877, apparently proposed marriage to her sometime after her mother's death in 1882. But she declined, and he died in 1884, two years before she did.

Throughout the book, Habegger steers a steady course around sensationalism and speculation. But the cumulative effect of his book is oppressive, smothering the spirit of its subject under a tedious account of her daily life. Lost in the mundane are what we really want to know about Dickinson: What sparked this utterly original writer to wrangle with God and nature and life and death? What emboldened her to break away from the conventions of poetic diction?

Her verse is that of a woman who knew the life of a small western Massachusetts town, the intensity of its religion and both the frivolity and the earnestness of its citizens; who dwelt in a countryside barely tamed out of wilderness, saw the arrival of the railroad and the expansion of a country; who lived in a time when war divided that country; who transmuted daily experience and a slim knowledge of the world into poems that can be nothing short of hair-raising.
Inebriate of Air -- am I --
And Debauchee of Dew --
Reeling -- thro endless summer days –
From inns of Molten Blue --
That ecstatic Emily Dickinson is nowhere to be found in this book. The Dickinson of Habegger's biography gazes at the world from behind doors and out of upstairs windows, and we don't learn much by standing there with her.

MY WARS ARE LAID AWAY IN BOOKS: The Life of Emily Dickinson
By Alfred Habegger
Random House, 766 pp., $35

Friday, January 29, 2010

Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged

Jeffrey Toobin on Alito at the SOTU: 
What makes Alito’s reaction even more delicious is that it’s further evidence that the Justice just can’t stand Obama. As a Senator, Obama voted against Alito’s confirmation, which the Justice does not seem to have forgotten. When the President-elect Obama made a courtesy call on the Justices shortly before his inauguration last year, Alito was the only member of the Court not to attend. (Obama voted against Roberts, too, but the Chief Justice managed to spare the time to welcome Obama.) The first law that Obama signed as President was the Lilly Ledbetter Act—which reversed a decision by the Supreme Court that had erected new barriers to plaintiffs filing employment discrimination cases. The author of that now-overruled decision? Samuel Alito. These two guys have a history.
Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2010/01/alitos-face.html#ixzz0e4Yjmbcu

Poem of the Day: Zhang Zhen

The Cat at My Friend's House

When you opened the door for us, 
astonishingly you stood upright, motionless, 
You inspected our colossal luggage 
and we also noticed 
the snow white fur on your belly panting up and down 
and that you are a male. 

We drank tea. 
There was a pot of ancient cactus on the windowsill. 
We were told when you are tired 
you take a nap there, 
but you never seemed sleepy 
and your body was always a tense steel spring. 

We didn't dare meet your eyes. 
Your right eye was a flaming red 
and the other was crow-black 
and they both radiated a blue fire at night. 
You were crazy about all kinds of lines, 
shoelaces, table legs, and the chain 
which you pulled, almost severing my neck. 
There was a moment when I was pointing at an old painting 
and instantly your front paws were hanging on my forefinger. 
Later when I was eating 
that finger felt incredibly heavy. 

As we entered night you went completely nuts. 
You put your head into slippers and threw somersaults. 
Then, like an arrow you shot across
the table between us and our friends. 
You bent your body into every terrifying position. 
Then with a loud scream you leaped onto the piano 
and the keys plunked a series of sounds like divination coins. 
The clock struck 
and the wall started to shake. 

The first night all night 
you squatted beside our pillow 
when we were making love 
and groused deep inside your throat 
like a moribund old man suffering from asthma. 
Your eyes were ghost fires 
emitting curses that terrified me. 
I gazed back at you 
and never fell asleep. 

When we were leaving, 
again you opened the door. 
This time you were expessionless, 
but when I got on the train 
I found all my poetry manuscripts 
were bitten to pieces. 

In this life I will find no way to clarify 
if you loved me or hated me, 
but sometimes in deep night I cannot evade you 
if the day before was dark and deadened. 
--Zhang Zhen (translated by Tony Barnstone)

Publishers still send me review copies of books, most of which I give to the public library. But I keep a few for myself, like the one from this poem is taken: Chinese Erotic Poems, a title in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series. Maybe I kept it because the book was about three things I don't know much about: China, erotica and poetry. I still can't claim to know much about them, but I can say I've made a start. 

The poems in this collection date from 600 BCE to the present, a reminder that the Chinese had a flourishing civilization when my ancestors were still painting themselves blue and worshiping mistletoe or something. I chose to post here one of the contemporary ones. Zhang Zhen was born in Shanghai in 1961; she got her Ph.D. in Chinese literature and film from the University of Chicago and now teaches film studies at New York University. I like the felineness of her cat, which is clearly more than a cat. It's interesting to compare Barnstone's translation with that of Newton Liu, here

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Sleazy Does It

If you were thinking about buying Andrew Young's book about John Edwards, Jim Lichtman gives a pretty good reason not to
Loyalty is frequently cited as a reason for agreeing to participate in unethical actions. Andrew Young's close association with Senator Edwards certainly fits this model. It is natural to feel a sense of duty and fidelity to an individual who has earned a level of respect and trust. Under such a relationship, it is not unusual for one individual to expect - sometimes require - that their interests be placed ahead of one's own integrity.

However, the ethical reality is that no one has the right to pressure another to violate their ethical principles in the name of loyalty. In fact, it's an incredible breach of loyalty to ask any friend to compromise their own integrity in order to help protect yours.

"There is a tendency," writes ethicist Michael Josephson, "to compartmentalize ethics into private and occupational domains so as to justify fundamentally decent people doing things in their jobs that they know to be wrong in other contexts... Frequently, one is tempted to [violate] established rules and procedures under the umbrella rationale of it's all for a good cause."

Whether he's aware of it or not, Andrew Young is guilty not only of purposely lying for a friend, but consciously choosing to put the selfish needs of his boss ahead of his own ethical responsibilities as an aide as well as a role model for his family and friends.

Poem of the Day: Geoffrey Chaucer

From The Wife of Bath's Prologue
If you're not up to tackling the Middle English unaided, there's a parallel-text version (Middle English and modern English) here

"Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynogh for me
To speke of wo that is in mariage;
For, lordynges, sith I twelve yeer was of age,
Thonked be God that is eterne on lyve,
Housbondes at chirche dore I have had fyve, --
If I so ofte myghte have ywedded bee, --
And alle were worthy men in hir degree.
But me was toold, certayne, nat longe agoon is,
That sith that Crist ne wente nevere but onis
To weddyng, in the Cane of Galilee,
That by the same ensample taughte he me
That I ne sholde wedded be but ones,
Herkne eek, lo, which a sharp word for the nones,
Biside a welle, Jhesus, God and man,
Spake in repreeve of the Samaritan,
'Thou hast yhad fyve housbondes,' quod he,
'And that ilke man that now hath thee
Is noght thyn housbonde,' thus seyde he certeyne.
What that he mente therby, I kan nat seyn;
But that I axe, why that the fifthe man
Was noon housbonde to the Samaritan?
How manye myghte she have in mariage?
Yet herde I nevere tellen in myn age
Upon this nombre diffinicioun.
Men may devyne and glosen, up and doun,
But wel I woot, expres, withoute lye,
God bad us for to wexe and multiplye;
That gentil texte kan I wel understonde.
Eek wel I woot, he seyde myn housbonde
Sholde lete fader and mooder, and take to me.
But of no nombre mencion made he,
Of bigamye, or of octogamye;
Why sholde men thanne speke of it vileynye?
   Lo, heere the wise kyng, daun Salomon;
I trowe he hadde wyves more than oon.
As wolde God it were leveful unto me
To be refresshed half so ofte as he!
Which yifte of God hadde he for alle his wyvys!
No man hath swich that in this world alyve is.
God woot, this noble kyng, as to my wit,
The firste nyght had many a myrie fit
With ech of hem, so wel was hym on lyve,
Yblessed be God that I have wedded fyve!
Welcome the sixte, whan that evere he shal,
For sothe, I wol nat kepe me chaast in al.
Whan myn housbonde is fro the world ygon,
Som Cristen man shal wedde me anon,
For thanne, th'apostle seith that I am free
To wedde, a Goddes half, where it liketh me.
He seith that to be wedded is no synne;
Bet is to be wedded than to brynne
What rekketh me, thogh folk seye vileynye
Of shrewed Lameth and his bigamye?
I woot wel Abraham was an hooly man,
And Jacob eek, as ferforth as I kan;
And ech of hem hadde wyves mo than two,
And many another holy man also.
Where can ye seye, in any manere age,
That hye God defended mariage
By expres word? I pray yow, telleth me.
Or where comanded he virginitee?
I woot as wel as ye, it is no drede,
Th'apostle, when he speketh of maydenhede,
He seyde that precept thereof hadde he noon.
Men may conseille a womman to been oon,
But conseillyng is no comandement.
He putte it in our owene juggement;
For hadde God comanded maydenhede,
Thanne hadde he dampned weddyng with the dede.
And certes, if ther were no seed ysowe,
Virginitee, thanne whereof sholde it growe?
Poul dorste nat comanden, atte leeste,
A thyng of which his maister yaf noon heeste,
The dart is set up for virginitee:
Cacche whoso may, who renneth best lat see.
My fourthe housbonde was a revelour;
This is to seyn, he hadde a paramour;
And I was yong and ful of ragerye,
Stibourn and strong, and joly as a pye.
How koude I daunce to an harpe smale,
And synge, ywis, as any nyghtyngale,
Whan I had dronke a draughte of sweete wyn!
Metellus, the foule cherl, the swyn,
That with a staf birafte his wyf her lyf,
For she drank wyn, thogh I hadde been his wyf,
He sholde nat han daunted me fro drynke!
And after wyn on Venus most I thynke,
For al so siker as cold engendreth hayl,
A likerous mouth moste han a likerous tayle.
In wommen vinolent is no defence, --
This knowen lecchours by experience.
   But, Lord Crist! what that it remembreth me
Upon my yowthe, and on my jolitee,
It tikleth me aboute myn herte roote.
Upon this day it dooth myn herte boote
That I have had my world as in my tyme.
But age, allas! that al wol evenyme,
Hath me biraft my beautee and my pith,
Lat go, farewel! the devel go therwith!
The flour is goon, ther is namoore to telle;
The bren, as I best kan, now moste I selle.

(lines 1-76, 462-478)
--Geoffrey Chaucer 

Watch an episode of "Jeopardy!" that has a literature category, especially one dealing with literature before 1900, and you'll see that even highly educated, highly literate people are unfamiliar with literary references that our grandparents used to assume were essential mental furniture. It's a consequence in part of our efforts at universal literacy: The more people there are who can read, the more diverse their backgrounds, the more books there are available to them, the less likely it is that they'll have the same books in common. It used to be that every literate person was familiar with figures like The Wife of Bath, Falstaff, Pickwick -- touchstones of the human comedy. Today, calling someone Falstaffian or Pickwickian, or saying "she's as raunchy as the Wife of Bath" will probably get you a blank stare. 

But this lack of a common literary background doesn't just include the moldy oldies of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens. Make an allusion to more recent literature, to Yossarian or Holden Caulfield or Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, and somebody in the room isn't going to get it. This is not meant as a rant against contemporary education. I'm no admirer of E.D. Hirsch's campaign for "cultural literacy" or even of Harold Bloom's canon-building. It's just to explain why I bothered to post a chunk of Chaucer here: because I think it's worth the effort, because it shines a light on a too often neglected corner of the literary experience. 

I think Chaucer is worth knowing because he was taught to me by a master, the late B.J. Whiting, whose Chaucer course used to fill the largest lecture room in Sever Hall at Harvard. Today, I bet you can't get enough students to fill a seminar room for a Chaucer course at most universities.

I've written about Chaucer before, in a review of the late Donald R. Howard's Chaucer biography. It appeared in the Mercury News in 1987. It says pretty much everything I have to say about the writer I think of as the second-greatest poet in the English language. 

CHAUCER: His Life, His Works, His World
By Donald R. Howard
E.P. Dutton, 704 pp., $29.95 

IT doesn't surprise me that, according to one of those recent gloom-and-doom studies of American education, half of American high school seniors don't know who wrote "The Canterbury Tales." I'm just glad half of them do. 

But I wonder how many of the people who did the survey and the editorial writers who agonized over its findings have actually read Chaucer. Or have read him since their English 101 survey courses. 

I'm talking about Chaucer in his own language, Middle English. So-called translations don't work because maybe two-thirds of his language doesn't need translating. It's not grammar and syntax so much as vocabulary that makes reading Middle English laborious. Take the opening couplet of the "Canterbury Tales" prologue, for example: 

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote . . . 

A word-for-word translation would go: 

When that April with his showers sweet
The drought of March hath pierced to the root . . . 

But that messes up the meter and wrecks the rhyme. The syntax now sounds quaintly "poetic." But the translator who tries to render these lines in something resembling the original's metrical and rhyme schemes inevitably drives away some of their ease and spontaneity. And all this effort goes just to make sure a reader doesn't think those showers are sooty instead of sweet. 

The reader of Chaucer has to put up with footnotes, not only to translate Middle English words, but also to explain the political, social and religious beliefs Chaucer took for granted. And the trouble with that is, as Samuel Johnson observed,"The mind is refrigerated by interruption." 

So no wonder people are ignorant of Chaucer. Which is unfortunate, because he's probably the second-greatest English poet. The only other serious contender for best-after-Shakespeare is Milton. And for me, Chaucer is to Milton as Mozart is to Beethoven. Both are great, but the tie-breaker is which artist can both strike terror in your soul and make you laugh. Chaucer and Mozart can do that; Milton and Beethoven are long on terror, short on laughter. 

A quarter-century after my own course in Chaucer, I still smile when I recall Alisoun's giggle in "The Miller's Tale," the eagle's bluster in "The House of Fame" or the barnyard fowls' banter in "The Nun's Priest's Tale." And thinking of Criseyde's despair and the fate of the rascals in "The Pardoner's Tale" gives me a frisson. 

Much of the delight Chaucer has given me came rushing back as I read Donald R. Howard's biography of him. Actually, "biography" is too narrow a genre to stuff Howard's book into, for it's a work of history as well as of biography, and one built on imagination as well as scholarship. What we know for sure about Chaucer is mostly dry-as-dust stuff from official records of the 14th century English court, about the doings of a Geoffrey Chaucer who was first a page, then a soldier, then a diplomat and a civil servant. These records don't even tell us what year Chaucer was born or what day he died. We know he married one of the queen's attendants, but not how many children they had. We even know he was once accused of rape; we don't know whether that means abduction or sexual assault or whether he was guilty of the charge. We have only circumstantial evidence, in fact, that the Chaucer of these records is also Chaucer the poet. 

Faced with not only such scanty evidence but also the webs of conjecture that scholars have woven about Chaucer over the centuries, Howard nevertheless puts together a coherent and convincing picture of Chaucer the man. And he also uses what we know of Chaucer's life and his poetry to shed light on his world. 

That's quite an accomplishment, for the 14th century is almost as alien to ours as an imaginary civilization created by a sci-fi writer. Think, for example, of a world not only without television, movies or radio, but without print. 

Newspapers and magazines didn't exist; books were few and precious. It was a world not only without the internal combustion engine, but without road maps -- and there were precious few roads. As Howard points out, our word "travel" comes from the French travail, meaning "toil." To travel the distance from San Jose to San Francisco would take more than a day. A trip from England to Italy, such as the one Chaucer took in which he encountered Italian culture at the dawn of the Renaissance, took months, and was a trek through an uncharted wilderness in which one relied on strangers to point the way. 

Before you get too swept away by the idea of a world without commuting and traffic jams, without talk shows and commercials, remember that it was also a world ignorant of microbiology, without antiseptics, with no clear sense of how disease was transmitted, let alone how it should be treated. Small wonder that the Black Death killed a third to a half of the population of England during Chaucer's lifetime. 

It's tempting to compare Howard's book with Barbara Tuchman's best-selling A Distant Mirror, another portrait of what Tuchman calls "The Calamitous 14th Century." Each book explores the age through the life of a representative man. Chaucer and Tuchman's central figure, Enguerrand de Coucy VII, lived at about the same time -- the last 60 years of the century. But I think, for us moderns, Chaucer is a better guide to the age than Tuchman's French nobleman. For Chaucer was not only a poet, he was also a professional man, a sort of medieval middle manager, born to the merchant class and educated into the service of the courts of Edward III and Richard II. He had the opportunity to explore not only England, France and Italy, but also several levels of society, and with Howard's help, we explore them with him. 

Howard also crafts a full portrait of Chaucer himself, making us abundantly aware of Chaucer's achievements. He helped transform English culture by introducing to it what he had encountered in France and Italy. When the literature of pre- Norman Conquest Britain -- such as "Beowulf" and the Anglo-Saxon lyrics -- had been swept away, not to be recovered for centuries, Chaucer created works that are the fountainhead of English literature. Even the language of Chaucer's England was unsettled, as the Germanic stream of Anglo-Saxon crossed with the Romance stream of Norman French. The court stuck to French, and the language of learning was Latin, but Chaucer forged the vernacular, what we now call Middle English, into a powerful poetic instrument. 

Howard's book will probably be heavy going for the general reader only in its analysis of Chaucer's less-familiar works. Nobody but scholars spends much time with "The Book of the Duchess" or "The Parliament of Fowls" these days. Even "The House of Fame," which has wonderful sections, is too allegorical for the modern temperament. But Howard's commentary will be invaluable for anyone who wants to dust off the old anthology and read a few "Canterbury Tales," or to venture into Chaucer's greatest work, "Troilus and Criseyde." 

Howard, a professor of English at Stanford, died of complications from AIDS, which it's too facile to call the Black Death of our age. This book is as fine a memorial as any writer could want, but there is an almost unbearable poignancy to its final sentence, in which Howard reflects on Chaucer's attitude toward death: "One must think of the world while one is in the world; facing eternity, our thoughts become closed within the self, our words become silence, and all our works upon this little spot of earth seem like the waves of the sea."

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Poem of the Day: George Gordon, Lord Byron

Stanzas from Don Juan

I want a hero: an uncommon want,
   When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
   The age discovers he is not the true one:
Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,
   I'll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan --
We all have seen him, in the pantomime,
Sent to the devil somewhat ere his time.
Most epic poets plunge "in medias res"
   (Horace makes this the heroic turnpike road),
And then your hero tells, whene'er you please,
   What went before -- by way of episode,
While seated after dinner at his ease,
   Beside his mistress in some soft abode,
Palace, or garden, paradise, or cavern,
Which serves the happy couple for a tavern.

That is the usual method, but not mine --
   My way is to begin with the beginning;
The regularity of my design
   Forbids all wandering as the worst of sinning,
And therefore I shall open with a line
   (Although it cost me half an hour in spinning)
Narrating somewhat of Don Juan's father,
And also of his mother, if you'd rather.

In Seville was he born, a pleasant city,
   Famous for oranges and women -- he
Who has not seen it will be much to pity,
   So says the proverb -- and I quite agree;
Of all the Spanish towns is none more pretty,
   Cadiz, perhaps -- but that you soon may see: --
Don Juan's parents lived beside the river,
A noble stream, and called the Guadalquivir.

His father's name was Jóse -- Don, of course,
   A true Hidalgo, free from every strain
Of Moor or Hebrew blood, he traced his source
   Through the most Gothic gentlemen of Spain;
A better cavalier ne'er mounted horse,
   Or, being mounted, e'er got down again,
Than Jóse, who begot our hero, who
Begot -- but that's to come --- Well, to renew:

His mother was a learned lady, famed
   For every branch of every science known --
In every Christian language ever named,
   With virtues equall'd by her wit alone:
She made the cleverest people quite ashamed,
   And even the good with inward envy groan,
Finding themselves so very much exceeded
In their own way by all the things that she did.
'Tis pity learned virgins ever wed
   With persons of no sort of education,
Or gentlemen, who, though born and bred,
   Grow tired of scientific conversation;
I don't choose to say much upon this head,
   I'm a plain man, and in a single station,
But -- Oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual,
Inform us truly, have they not hen-peck'd you all?
Sagest of women, even of widows, she
   Resolved that Juan should be quite a paragon,
And worthy of the noblest pedigree:
   (His sire was of Castile, his dame from Aragon).
Then for accomplishments of chivalry,
   In case our lord the kind should go to war again,
He learn'd the arts of riding, fencing, gunnery,
And how to scale a fortress -- or a nunnery.
'Tis a sad thing, I cannot choose but say,
   And all the fault of that indecent sun,
Who cannot leave alone our helpless clay,
   But will keep baking, broiling, burning on,
That howsoever people fast and pray,
   The flesh is frail, and so the soul undone:
What men call gallantry, and gods adultery,
Is much more common when the climate's sultry.
Her plan she deem'd both innocent and feasible,
   And, surely, with a stripling of sixteen
Not scandal's fangs could fix on much that's seizable,
   Or if they did so, satisfied to mean
Nothing but what was good, her breast was peaceable:
   A quiet conscience makes one so serene!
Christians have burnt each other, quite persuaded
That all the Apostles wuld have done as they did.
He thought about himself, and the whole earth,
   Of man the wonderful, and of the stars,
And how the deuce they ever could have birth;
   And then he thought of earthquakes, and of wars,
How many miles the moon might have in girth,
   Of air-balloons, and of the many bars
To perfect knowledge of the boundless skies; --
And then he thought of Donna Julia's eyes.

In thoughts like these true wisdom may discern
   Longings sublime, and aspirations high,
Which some are born with, but the most part learn
   To plague themselves withal, they know not why:
'Twas strange that one so young should thus concern
   His brain about the action of the sky;
If you think 'twas philosophy that this did,
I can't help thinking puberty assisted.
Thus parents also are at times short-sighted;
   Though watchful as the lynx, they ne'er discover,
The while the wicked world beholds delighted,
   Young Hopeful's mistress, or Miss Fanny's lover,
Till some confounded escapade has blighted
   The plan of twenty years, and all is over;
And then the mother cries, the father swears,
And wonders why the devil he got heirs.
Julia had honour, virtue, truth, and love
   For Don Alfonso; and she inly swore,
By all the vows below to powers above,
   She never would disgrace the ring she wore,
Nor leave a wish which wisdom might reprove;
   And while she ponder'd this, besides much more,
One hand on Juan's carelessly was thrown,
Quite by mistake -- she thought it was her own.
Oh Plato! Plato! you have paved the way,
   With your confounded fantasies, to more
Immoral conduct by the fancied sway
   Your system feigns o'er all the controlless core
Of human hearts, than all the long array
   Of poets and romancers: -- You're a bore,
A charlatan, a coxcomb -- and have been,
At best, no better than a go-between.

And Julia's voice was lost, except in sighs,
   Until too late for useful conversation;
The tears were gushing from her gentle eyes,
   I wish, indeed, they had not had occasion;
But who, alas! can love, and then be wise?
   Not that remorse did not oppose temptation;
A little still she strove, and much repented,
And whispering "I will ne'er consent" -- consented.
Well -- well; the world must turn upon its axis,
   And all mankind turn with it, heads or tails,
And live and die, make love and pay our taxes,
   And as the veering wind shifts, shift our sails;
The king commands us, and the doctor quacks us,
   The priest instructs, and so our life exhales,
A little breath, love, wine, ambition, fame,
Fighting, devotion, dust, -- perhaps a name.
--George Gordon, Lord Byron 

Forgive me if I quote myself, but this review, which ran in the Mercury News in 2002, says pretty much all I have to say about him: 

George Gordon, Lord Byron, was the first modern celebrity, the original dude with attitude, a prince of 'tudes. He crafted and relished the reputation that was summed up in the journal of one of his mistresses, Lady Caroline Lamb, who called him ''mad -- bad -- and dangerous to know'' (adjectives that many would have applied to Lady Caroline herself).

Fiona MacCarthy's very readable new biography tries to sort out the real Lord Byron from the complexities, of which there were plenty. He was an English aristocrat whose hero was Napoleon and whose politics were radical -- he joined the revolutionary Carbonari in Italy, and when he died in 1824 (from an infection worsened by the common medical practice of bleeding the patient) he was leading an attempt to liberate Greece from Turkey.

In the view of some contemporaries he was an effeminate dandy. In his portraits, many of which are handsomely reproduced in the book, he's costumed, primped and petulant. When he grew fat from self-indulgence he would crash-diet himself into thinness. He had a deformed foot that he took efforts to conceal, yet he was celebrated for such feats of physical vigor as swimming the Hellespont.

He was a womanizer who claimed to have made around 200 conquests during his two-year stay in Venice, but in his letters he expressed revulsion at female physicality (he particularly disliked watching women eat), and may have had what MacCarthy calls an ''innate sexual orientation toward boys.''

In her attempt to get behind the image and see what drove Byron to create and perpetuate it, MacCarthy, like most modern biographers, zeroes in on sex. Much of Byron's behavior stems, she suggests, from sexual ambivalence. There's ample evidence that as a student at Harrow and Cambridge, and on youthful travels in Greece and Turkey, Byron had numerous homosexual liaisons.

Byron's homosexuality, MacCarthy asserts, reinforced his sense of himself as outsider, especially since sodomy was a capital crime in the England of his day. ''England labeled as degenerate the instincts Byron experienced as natural,'' MacCarthy says, and provided the genesis of Byron's ''feeling of belonging to no country.'' His love of Greece, she asserts, began ''because homosexual relations in the East had none of the stigma they bore in his own country.''

Awareness of the risks to his reputation -- and, considering the English law, his life -- may have entered into Byron's image-making as well, MacCarthy suggests. Byron hung his early sexuality in the closet, setting out on ''frenetic'' relationships with women that, MacCarthy asserts, had ''an element of cruelty engendered by the knowledge that he was being false to his own heart.'' The result was that he adopted the manner we see as ''quintessentially Byronic . . . the bravura self-mockery of someone forced to recognise his outlaw state.''

MacCarthy portrays a Byron who was more sinned against -- by a narrow-minded society -- than sinning. Certainly we shouldn't be shocked that Byron was gay. But the evidence of his pedophilia is disturbing, as is the emotional brutality toward women that marks his countless heterosexual liaisons, including the one with his half-sister, Augusta. He was driven permanently into exile by the rumors about this incestuous relationship and the whispered allegations of sodomy that arose when Byron and his wife, Annabella, separated in 1816.

On the other hand, the scandal may have inaugurated the modern truism that there's no such thing as bad publicity. When he died, eight years after being exiled from England, the Times of London called him ''the most remarkable Englishman of his generation.'' In the two-chapter coda to her biography -- the ''legend'' part of the book -- MacCarthy points out that the image of the Byronic hero was so potent that even such eminent Victorians as Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin were able to overlook what they surely would have regarded as serious sexual misconduct in a contemporary. And when Emily Bronte wrote ''Wuthering Heights,'' she introduced ''Byronic hints of incest in the love between Heathcliff and Catherine.''

By their day, the story of Byron's life had been sanitized by his early biographer, Thomas Moore. And it helped that the Byronic hero was ''dashingly heterosexual,'' as MacCarthy puts it. The heroes of his poems -- Childe Harold, Manfred, Cain -- are wanderers and outcasts, or else they're scamps like Don Juan. Readers responded to ''Byron's poetic concept of himself as a man grandly and fatally flawed, who had lived so intensely and sinned so outrageously that he, and he alone, was doomed to suffer the retribution of the gods.''

The image may have been a more significant creation than anything Byron wrote. The long poems that made him famous -- ''Childe Harold's Pilgrimage,'' ''The Giaour,'' ''The Corsair'' and the like -- are tedious reading today. And as pleasant as some of Byron's lyrics are, they don't stand up against the work of his great contemporaries. They lack the imagery and depth of the odes of Keats and Shelley, the haunting magic of Coleridge's ''Kubla Khan'' and ''The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,'' and the penetrating insight of Wordsworth's best poetry. Byron also left no significant critical prose that compares with Keats' letters, Shelley's ''Defence of Poetry,'' Coleridge's lectures on Shakespeare or Wordsworth's ''Preface to 'Lyrical Ballads.' ''

It may simply be that poetry came so easily to Byron that he didn't take it seriously. MacCarthy asserts that in his youth, Byron saw ''the writing of poetry less as a serious professional occupation than as a diversion, a knack, a self-indulgence. In the scale of human achievement, as he viewed it at this time, rhyming did not count.''

There's not much evidence that this attitude ever fundamentally changed. His most enduring work is his comic masterpiece, ''Don Juan,'' on which he worked on almost until his death (it was left unfinished). The poem's lasting charm lies in the casualness with which Byron handles the intricacies of ottava rima, coming up with rhymes like ''Oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual, / Inform us truly, have they not hen-peck'd you all?'' Byron's wordplay evokes the song lyrics of Lorenz Hart and Ira Gershwin more than it does the verses of Shelley and Wordsworth.

MacCarthy is undaunted by the enormous amounts of information available on Byron's life -- everyone who knew him seems to have kept diaries, journals and boxes full of letters. She has produced a huge but enticing book that takes its subject seriously -- perhaps too seriously. I wish she had found a way to lighten the gloom of her exploration of the darker side of Byron. His letters are buoyant with humor, and his comic and satiric poems -- which, in addition to ''Don Juan,'' include ''Beppo'' and ''English Bards and Scotch Reviewers'' -- retain a freshness that his ''serious'' work lacks.

The book could also have used more critical edge -- she discusses the poems hardly at all, and makes no effort to assess their comparative merits or to view Byron's work in the context of the great contemporary literary ferment of English Romanticism. But given the turmoil of Byron's life, both public and private, it's perhaps both necessary and revealing that his literary career fades into the background.

BYRON: Life and Legend
By Fiona MacCarthy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 674 pp., $35

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Poem of the Day: Robert Browning

The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church
[Rome, 15--]
Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!
Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back?
Nephews -- sons mine ... ah God, I know not! Well --
She, men would have to be your mother once,
Old Gandolf envied me, so fair she was!
What's done is done, and she is dead beside,
Dead long ago, and I am Bishop since,
And as she died so must we die ourselves,
And thence ye may perceive the world's a dream.
Life, how and what is it? As here I lie
In this state chamber, dying by degrees,
Hours and long hours in the dead night, I ask
"Do I live, am I dead?" Peace, peace seems all.
Saint Praxed's ever was the church for peace;
And so, about this tomb of mine. I fought
With tooth and nail to save my niche, ye know:
-- Old Gandolf cozened me, despite my care;
Shrewd was that snatch from out the corner South
He graced his carrion with, God curse the same!
Yet still my niche is not so cramped but thence
One sees the pulpit o' the epistle-side,
And somewhat of the choir, those silent seats,
And up into the aery dome where live
The angels, and a sunbeam's sure to lurk:
And I shall fill my slab of basalt there,
And 'neath my tabernacle take my rest,
With those nine columns round me, two and two,
The odd one at my feet where Anselm stands:
Peach-blossom marble all, the rare, the ripe
As fresh-poured red wine of a mighty pulse
-- Old Gandolf with his paltry onion-stone,
Put me where I may look at him! True peach,
Rosy and flawless: how I earned the prize!
Draw close: that conflagration of my church
-- What then? So much was saved if aught were missed!
My sons, ye would not be my death? Go dig
The white-grape vineyard where the oil-press stood;
Drop water gently till the surface sinks,
And if ye find ... Ah, God I know not, I! ...
Bedded in store of rotten figleaves soft,
And corded up in a tight olive-frail,
Some lump, ah God, of lapis lazuli,
Big as a Jew's head cut off at the nape,
Blue as a vein o'er the Madonna's breast ...
Sons, all have I bequeathed you, villas, all,
That brave Frascati villa with its bath,
So, let the blue lump poise between my knees,
Like God the Father's globe on both His hands
Ye worship in the Jesu Church so gay,
For Gandolf shall not choose but see and burst!
Swift as a weaver's shuttle fleet our years:
Man goeth to the grave, and where is he?
Did I say basalt for my slab, sons? Black --
'Twas ever antique-black I meant! How else
Shall ye contrast my frieze to come beneath?
The bas-relief in bronze ye promised me,
Those Pans and Nymphs ye wot of, and perchance
Some tripod, thyrsus, with a vase or so,
The Saviour at his sermon on the mount,
Saint Praxed in a glory, and one Pan
Ready to twitch the Nymph's last garment off,
And Moses with the tables ... but I know
Ye mark me not! What do they whisper thee,
Child of my bowels, Anselm? Ah, ye hope
To revel down my villas while I gasp
Bricked o'er with beggar's mouldy travertine
Which Gandolf from his tomb-top chuckles at!
Nay, boys, ye love me -- all of jasper, then!
'Tis jasper ye stand pledged to, lest I grieve
My bath must needs be left behind, alas!
One block, pure green as a pistachio nut,
There's plenty jasper somewhere in the world --
And have I not Saint Praxed's ear to pray
Horses for ye, and brown Greek manuscripts,
And mistresses with great smooth marbly limbs?
-- That's if ye carve my epitaph aright,
Choice Latin, picked phrase, Tully's every word,
No gaudy ware like Gandolf's second line --
Tully, my masters? Ulpian serves his need!
And then how I shall lie through centuries,
And hear the blessed mutter of the mass,
And see God made and eaten all day long,
And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste
Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke!
For as I lie here, hours of the dead night,
Dying in state and by such slow degrees,
I fold my arms as if they clasped a crook,
And stretch my feet forth straight as stone can point
And let the bedclothes for a mortcloth drop
Into great laps and folds of sculptor's work:
And as yon tapers dwindle, and strange thoughts
Grow, with a certain humming in my ears,
About the life before I lived this life,
And this life too, Popes, Cardinals and Priests,
Saint Praxed at his sermon on the mount,
Your tall pale mother with her talking eyes,
And new-found agate urns as fresh as day,
And marble's language, Latin pure, discreet,
-- Aha, ELUCESCEBAT quoth our friend?
No Tully, said I, Ulpian at the best!
Evil and brief hath been my pilgrimage.
All lapis, all, sons! Else I give the Pope
My villas: will ye ever eat my heart?
Ever your eyes were as a lizard's quick,
They glitter like your mother's for my soul,
Or ye would heighten my impoverished frieze,
Piece out its starved design, and fill my vase
With grapes, and add a vizor and a Term,
And to the tripod ye would tie a lynx
That in his struggle throws the thyrsus down,
To comfort me on my entablature
Whereon I am to lie till I must ask
"Do I live, am I dead?" There, leave me, there!
For ye have stabbed me with ingratitude
To death -- ye wish it -- God, ye wish it! Stone --
Gritstone, a-crumble! Clammy squares which sweat
As if the corpse they keep were oozing through --
And no more lapis to delight the world!
Well, go! I bless ye. Fewer tapers there,
But in a row: and, going, turn your backs
-- Ay, like departing altar-ministrants,
And leave me in my church, the church for peace,
That I may watch at leisure if he leers --
Old Gandolf, at me, from his onion-stone,
As still he envied me, so fair she was!
--Robert Browning
Does anyone read Browning anymore? I suspect that J.R.R. Tolkien did, and borrowed, with a little alteration, the name of his wizard from the rival cleric in this poem. I think he also read Browning's "Caliban Upon Setebos," because Browning's Caliban sounds more like Gollum than like Shakespeare's. And maybe he got some hints for the more sinister landscapes in Middle-Earth from "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." 

The sure thing is that the only Browning anyone other than Victorian-lit scholars reads anymore are the dramatic monologues, like this one and "My Last Duchess" and a couple of others that turn up in anthologies. Even when I was a Victorian-lit scholar I never made it through the long narrative poems like Pippa Passes (which of course we used to call Papa Pisses) and The Ring and the Book. But the monologues, of which I think this is probably the best, are neat little character studies that really need to be read aloud to be appreciated. The bishop's self-revelations, his horniness, his pride in his Latin, his increasing debility, are all neatly presented here. I don't think there's much beyond historical interest in Browning's other poems, but his anthology pieces are still strong. 

And I have a little special fondness for Browning because the volume I took this poem from is an old Modern Library Giant, The Poems and Plays of Robert Browning (trust me, you really don't want to try to read the plays), that I won for "English proficiency" at my high school graduation. It was presented to me by the Browning Club of Oxford, Mississippi, a women's club that must have been founded somewhere in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, when Browning was considered to be something of a spiritual guru. 

Monday, January 25, 2010

Poem of the Day: Margaret Blum

Three Double Dactyls
Emily Dickinson
Sipped from a flower and
Got drunk on dew.
Judge Otis Lord asked her,
"If you're a bee, honey,
Must I be too?"

Anna Karenina,
When she discovered her
Love was in vain,
Sobbed not nor wept, but quite
Stripped off her mink and jumped
Under a train.

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Felt he no longer could
Cope with Communion.
Then spoke the pastor, not
"Peace! With the Over-Soul
Seek a reunion."

--Margaret Blum
The double dactyl, that odd spawn of the limerick and the clerihew, was like catnip to the late Margaret Blum. Known as Peggy (there seem to have been a lot of Peggys in my life), she was the office manager for the English department at Southern Methodist University when I arrived there as an assistant professor so many, many years ago. She was a great friend to Susan and me, and everyone who knew her misses her.   

Peggy was an occasional composer of occasional poetry. Her great love was Alexander Pope, and she delighted as well in the tricky wordplay needed to write verse in rigid forms -- the sestina, the villanelle, the pantoum and so on. She published a few of her verses in journals for English teachers, but mostly circulated them around the office, the subjects being things like the renovation of the building where we worked. They were clever and delightful, if a little too in-jokey for general appreciation, and with some encouragement from us, she self-published a little book called Verses From Dallas Hall, which I treasure. (Unlike a lot of memories of my academic career.) 

These double dactyls are the result of a little writing competition among several of us in the English department. My own entry in the competition included this one:   

Frigidly, frostily, 
Eleanor Roosevelt 
Said to her husband, "My  
Passion's quite gone.   
Seeing your crutches is 
"Strange," said her husband,  "They 
Turn Lucy on."