October 23, 2009

Reads & Reviews: September & October 2009

I am finally settled back in a groove back here in southern California after my long 3,000 mile photography road-trip in mid- to late-September. I realized that it is time to update the blog with all of the books I've read, I'm reading, and those in the queue. I found some great new stuff too.

1. Freedom & Necessity, by Emma Bull and Stephen Brust - This was a fabulous book; and I have no qualms recommending this at all. I really have to give it up to Emma Bull and Stephen Brust on this one. The epistolary style; comprised of correspondence, journal entries, and newspaper articles; works perfectly with the plot.

This is an exciting historical mystery set in 1849 in Victorian England. It is loaded with political intrigue, budding romances, murder and mayhem, and a healthy dose of Hegelian philosophy. In and amongst the very engaging fictional characters, Emma Bull and Stephen Brust have realistically inserted some well-known historical figures. The novel does an excellent job of educating the reader on the Chartist's movement that caused significant angst among members of Her Majesty's government, as well as in other European monarchies. One can tell that Bull and Brust did their homework in developing the plot; it just feels right and seems completely plausible. Finally, Susan Voight is one of the most likable, brilliant, and witty heroines I've encountered in a novel in a long, long time. She is a giant in this novel! I will definitely read this book again!

2. Beowulf, translation by Seamus Heaney - This was incredible! First of all, the story was told in the spare, sparse, and gritty language of Seamus Heaney's bilingual translation of the Anglo-Saxon original. Second, the plot of this elegiac poem was absolutely epic. The horror of Grendel and his Dam was palpable; and the heroism of Beowulf and his spear-fellows timeless. Finally, the ability to carefully study Heaney's translation, alliteration, and interpretation and then compare it to the Anglo-Saxon was almost surrealistic. It was an amazing experience to have the ability to look at and study the root language of modern English.

My younger brother recommended the Heaney translation to me, and now I know why. This has become a poem I intend to visit, and revisit, many, many times in the years to come. From the perspective of my personal enjoyment of poetry, reading Beowulf has been transformative. Reading Beowulf has led me to go back and reinvestigate the ancient Icelandic poetry of the Poetic Edda (or "Elder Edda"), including the Volsungasaga. From epics like Beowulf and the Poetic Edda, it is abundantly clear what a profound influence these early writings have had on the literature of the English language.

In conclusion, I cannot believe that it has taken me this long to actually sit down and read this beautiful poem. All I can say is "Bravo!" "Bravo!" to the original eighth or ninth century poet, and to Seamus Heaney for his beautiful relatively new presentation of this early treasure of the English language.

3. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, by J.R.R. Tolkien - As soon as I found this hardbound edition in the bookstore, I snapped it up. This 350-page book contains J.R.R. Tolkien's interpretation of two of the ancient epic poems from the Poetic Edda (or "Elder Edda") of the Icelandic peoples. Tolkien's son, Christopher has compiled and edited his father's work on the "Lay of the Volsungs" and the "Lay of Gudrun." This is earthy and spare poetry; rich in story and tradition; and provides a tangible connection to our ancestors and their mythology more than a thousand years ago.

This is a book to read, re-read, and study; and, I have to say, it somehow feels canonical, as "Beowulf" is considered to be. Christopher Tolkien's notes and comments on his father's work help place these poems in their proper context. Finally, I see that some of the ideas and concepts developed in Tolkien's fiction (e.g., The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion) are the direct result of his life-long fascination and study of the Poetic Edda. I highly recommend this book; it is real a treasure!

4. Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville - This was an awesome book! First, Mieville elevates the sci-fi/steampunk genre to an entirely new plane of existence. It is almost as though Charles Dickens were writing with a view to the future. The characters in Perdido Street Station are some of the most amazing you'll encounter in fiction. The horror associated with the main plot of the novel is virtually beyond imagination, and is some of the most terrifying stuff I've ever read. I simply could not put this down once I started; even though there were times when I was absolutely scared spitless! This book may not be for everyone; but it has left an indelible mark on me. I look forward to reading the next two novels in this series of three set in the world of Bas-Lag. Somehow the energy of China Mieville's writing feels right for the time. This is some seriously good stuff!

5. Isis, by Douglas Clegg - A gripping, poignant, and truly macabre tale. The perfect read for late-October, or when you feel the need for something on the scary side. Douglas Clegg has given us a superb retelling of the Osiris and Isis myth, set in Cornwall during the Victorian Period. This is no tale for young children either; it is gritty, realistic, and terribly bittersweet, with moral lessons throughout. The scenes and plot remind me a bit of Poe, but the writing is superb and brings to mind Edith Wharton's ghost stories. This little novella is one to read aloud to family and friends while safely ensconced in a warm living room in front of the fire. The illustrations are beautiful and complement the plot exquisitely.

6. The Affinity Bridge, by George Mann - This was rollicking good fun to read! Is it great literature? No; but then it is not meant to be. It is a wonderful page-turner, with engaging characters, a superb mystery plot, and set in the interesting alternative world of a 'steampunk' Victorian London. This is the first in a series of three proposed mystery novels featuring Sir Maurice Newbury and his fetching assistant, Miss Veronica Hobbes. Fun stuff to read, and I look forward to reading the second in the series, "The Osiris Ritual."

7. The Court of the Air and The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, by Stephen Hunt - In my humble opinion, don't waste your time (or money) on these two books. Here are my thoughts on the first two books in Stephen Hunt's 'steampunk' world.

"The Court of the Air" - I liked the cast of characters in this novel (there's a lot of 'em), and the plot was, at times, intriguing. I can't quite put my finger on what it was, but the novel never really fully engaged me. I read it with an eye toward simply finishing it, and moving on to something else. I was kind of hoping for an epic experience similar to Susanna Clarke's brilliant, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. In my opinion, this is not it. If your looking for some really serious steampunk, go directly (do not pass 'Go') to China Mieville's three-volume Bas-Lag series.

"The Kingdom Beyond the Waves" - A middling effort by author Stephen Hunt. I liked this even less than his debut novel, "The Court of the Air." While some of the characters were interesting, the plot really seemed overly contrived. Not too much else to say about this book. I think I'll take a pass on reading the third volume which has yet to be released in the U.S.


Here's what it is in the queue to be read in the very near future:

1. Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography, by Jan Marsh - The author of several books on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood has written what is acknowledged to be the seminal biography of Christina Rossetti, one of my all-time favorite poets. I have been carefully reading and studying Christina's poetry contained within my copy of the Penguin Classics edition, Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems. So, I am very much looking forward to reading this biography and going back through her beautiful poetry. If you're interested, I have several earlier blog posts here discussing Rossetti's poetry.

2. The Children's Book, by A.S. Byatt - This is the latest novel written by A.S. Byatt, one of my favorite modern authors. Byatt is the author of the Booker-award winning Possession. The Children's Book was also shortlisted for the 2009 Booker Award (won by Hilary Mantel for her novel, Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell in the Tudor Court). Apparently, Byatt's novel spans a period of time from the late-Victorian period, through the Edwardian, and through the First World War; and follows several generations in two families in England. I am very much looking forward to reading this novel.

3. The Poetic Edda - The Poetic Edda or Elder Edda is the collection of ancient Icelandic alliterative poetry containing much of the mythology of the early Norse peoples. It is generally thought that this poetry was written late in the first millennium, and existed as an oral tradition. It is from these beautiful poems that J.R.R. Tolkien received much of his inspiration for many of the primary elements in his tales of Middle Earth. Additionally, the Poetic Edda was the source of inspiration and material for Richard Wagner's operas in the Ring Cycle. Having read Beowulf, I am very much looking forward to reading this collection of ancient Norse poetry.

4. Ice Land, by Betsy Tobin - In the same vein, this recent fantasy novel by Tobin incorporates a lot of the mythology from the Poetic Edda, described above. I have heard that this is a fun book that describes life in Iceland in the 700-800 A.D. time frame and involves the eruption of the great Icelandic volcano, Hekla.

5. The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser - I have been derelict for most of my adult life for not having read this ageless epic poem. Harold Bloom said, "One is tempted to maintain that a reader who cannot apprehend Spenser's voice as being, at its best, the voice of poetry itself is not capable of reading adequately any poetry whatsoever." About the knights and ladies in The Faerie Queene, the great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, felt that they were fastened "with allegorical nails to a big barn door of common sense, of merely practical virtue." Suffice it to say, that Spenser's The Faerie Queene is high on my teetering To-Be-Read pile.

6. The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova - I have heard nothing but wondrous things about the poetry of Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), is one of the best known Russian poets of the 20th century. She was also known as "The Queen of the Neva," and was a member of the "Acmeists" or "Guild of Poets." The Acmeists were a confederation of Russian poets that met in The Stray Dog Cafe in St. Petersburg in the early 1900s before the Russian Revolution. Akhmatova's poems range from short lyrical poetry to her long epic, Requiem, about the Stalinist purges. I have a feeling that I am going to enjoy her poetry immensely.

7. The Complete Poems of Emily Bronte - I have read several of Emily Bronte's beautiful poems; and I am now ready to embark on a wholesale reading and analysis of all of her poems. I read her single novel, Wuthering Heights; which I recognize for its Byronic and Gothic passion and intensity, but have always been profoundly unsettled by the horrifying dysfunction in the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff. Whilst Charlotte and Anne Bronte also wrote poetry, it is my opinion that Emily was, far and away, the better poet of the three sisters. Stay tuned, I'll let you know in a month or two.

Well, that's it for now. I hope you enjoyed this quick tour through the novels and poetry that I have sampled over the past six weeks or so. I'd also like to acknowledge and cite the use of biographical material from the on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia and from Dr. Harold Bloom's recent poetry anthology The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer through Robert Frost.

Finally, the photograph I have attached to this blog entry is entitled, "Golden Grasses" and is a photograph that I took in late fall 2008 on the flanks of Bear Mountain in the southern end of the Sierras here in California. Fall around here, while it can still be warm, is incredibly beautiful; especially in the Sierra foothills. Please feel free to click on the photograph for a much larger view.


September 30, 2009

I'm Back!

I just returned from nearly two weeks of traveling through the deserts and high deserts of New Mexico and southern Arizona. I was able to spend some quality time with my brother, Gregory, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he lives; and with my parents in Green Valley, a small town south of Tucson, Arizona. Much of the trip, however, was dedicated to my on-again/off-again hobby of landscape photography. I met up with a fellow photographer, Leo Burkey, at the Albuquerque International and off we went.

Leo and I spent a couple of days photographing some of the landscapes around Santa Fe (e.g., see the photo of Pecos Ruins, above right; click on the photo for a larger view) and then took off for the remote Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico. The last time I was at Chaco it was known as "Chaco Canyon National Monument." In the late 1980s, it was designated as a "World Heritage Site," and for very good reaon. Chaco is a fabulous complex of Anasazi Indian ruins and roadways that dates from about 1100 A.D. through about the mid-1300s. The Chacoan peoples were sophisticated architects, farmers, and craftsmen, and likely carried on significant trading with populations of native American peoples along the Pacific coast and deep into Mexico to the south. The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) administers the park in consultation with numerous native American tribes that claim an ancestral connection to the region.

Photographing at Chaco is difficult, at best. The ruins are made of the same rock as that of the surrounding mesas and cliffs and everything tends to blend together. But as one walks through and around these ruins, one cannot but be simply overwhelmed by the amazing architecture and stonemasonry (see my photo, at right, of the three doorways and four rooms at dawn, inside of Pueblo Bonito. Click on the photo for a larger view). To this day, I think it would be difficult to slip a piece of paper between the rocks in the walls. I made some interesting photos at Chaco, but would certainly love to go back and try some different techniques, and also try and be there when there were more clouds in the sky. Truly a magical, mystical, and very spiritual place to visit and camp. We saw a herd of elk and one very healthy looking coyote.

The National Park Service reports that the average number of annual visitors is about 60,000; making Chaco one of the least visited units in the entire NPS system. A lot of that is due to the overall remoteness of the site and the rather beastly washboard dirt road into the park. There is potable running water and excellent camping and rest-room facilities at the park too. I strongly encourage a visit to this world treasure if you are ever in northwestern New Mexico.

From Chaco, Leo and I spent a long day driving south through New Mexico to White Sands National Monument near Alamagordo, New Mexico. As a side-note, we stopped at the fabulous "Owl Bar & Cafe" in San Antonio, New Mexico, for a world renowned 'green chile cheeseburger' and 'green chile fries.' Wow! They were just as good as I remembered from my days of living in Socorro, New Mexico, and attending the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. Leo and I drove past the Trinity Site, where the United States exploded the first atomic bomb at the nothern end of the long valley now occupied by the White Sands Missile Range. Leo and I arrived at White Sands National Monument with about an hour daylight left, and just in time for a terrific monsoon thunderstorm event with plenty of clouds, lightning, thunder, and rapidly changing lighting conditions (e.g., see the photo at right; click on it for a larger view).

White Sands National Monument is administered by the NPS and protects several square miles of very unique gypsum sand dunes and its associated ecosystem. Gypsum is comprised of calcium sulfate and water and appears pure white to the eye. We had wonderful skies with puffy and streaming cloud formations for our photography there; and I think we both felt that we got some our best shots of the trip there. Again, if you're in the neighborhood of Las Cruces, or Alamagordo, New Mexico, this is a definite must see.

From White Sands, Leo and I meandered over to the remote Chiricahua Mountains in extreme southeastern Arizona. As you travel about this country be prepared to be contacted by the U.S. Border Patrol frequently. Frankly, this country has never been the same following September 11, 2001. I remember rattling about this country twenty years ago and just banging into the odd rancher or two every once in a while; but now the roads are full of one Border Patrol vehicle after another.

The Chiricahua Mountains are the remnants of a massive rhyolitic volcanic eruption millions of years, and the deposition of hundreds of feet of welded ash-flow tuffs. Subsequent millenia of erosion have exposed the most beautiful and unique geologic formations of weirdly shaped spires and boulders. The National Park Service administers a small park unit in the Chiricahuas known as Chiricahua National Monument. This is one of the prettiest and cleanest national park units I have ever camped in, and I highly recommend it. Excellent hiking trails criss-cross the monument; and all of them are set up for day-hiking. Most, if not all, of the buildings, trail systems, and roads were constructed during the height of the Great Depression by the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps; and let me tell you, this stuff ain't going away any time soon. Again, this park unit is not particularly well visited; and averages about 50,000-60,000 visitors annually. We saw beaucoup wildlife here too - little herds of javelina, lots of Mexican bluejays, several species of hawks, warblers galore, acorn woodpeckers, white-tailed deer, and coyotes.

From the Chiricahuas, Leo and I drove west across southern Arizona to Green Valley, and bunked in with my parents for a couple of days while we photographed in and around the Tucson area. We spent an afternoon at Tumacacori National Historical Park, a morning photographing at the San Xavier del Bac Mission, and an evening shoot at the west unit of Saguaro National Park, where we even found a couple of rattlesnakes at sunset.

Finally, after a day-long drive from Green Valley, we arrived back at my home here in Santa Clarita. I put Leo on a plane back to Florida the next morning and promptly came down with the flu. I have been pretty much bed-ridden the past three-days trying to get over this damn bug. On the bright side, I have been able to begin to carefully go through and begin working up and posting some of my photographs from the trip.

Anyway, there's the rundown on the trip, and here's the link to my on-line photography (click here). The top three folders (i.e., Pecos, White Sands, and Chaco) contain the photographs that I have processed so far. I do hope you enjoy them!

September 13, 2009

I'm off Exploring!

I just wanted to let you all know that as of Monday morning that I am off on my fall photography adventure. I am going to be meeting a landscape photographer friend of mine from Florida in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We plan to shoot some photographs in Santa Fe, and then several days at the fabulous prehistoric Anasazi Indian ruins at the Chaco Canyon Cultural Historic Park (a World Heritage Site) in northwestern New Mexico; and then drive south for several days at White Sands National Monument. Finally, we are also going to drive over to southern Arizona and spend some time photographing the old missions near Tucson, and the landscapes in Saguaro National Park. I plan to be back in southern California toward the end of September with some new adventures to relate and some new photography to work up and post.

The photograph I've attached to this posting, is courtesy of the National Park Service, and is one of the interesting corner doorways in the Pueblo Bonito ruins at Chaco Canyon. Note the incredibly sophisticated masonry and stonework in the walls (click on the image for an enlarged view). This ruin, as does much of Chaco Canyon, reflects the nadir of Anasazi architecture and construction techniques. When I return from the trip and have my own photography to share, I will provide more information about Chaco Canyon, cultural and spiritual significance, and its interesting architecture.

September 4, 2009

Reads & Reviews: The Books of August 2009

The dog days of August arrived in southern California and have culminated with the massive "Station Fire" burning something over 145,000 acres (approx. 200+ square miles) in the Angeles National Forest. It has been a smokey mess here in the LA area for well over a week now. With the weather moderating a touch, the firefighters seem to be getting the upper hand on this monster fire. Thank God, and thanks to the tireless men and women fighting this fire!


Over the past month and a half I have been 'burning' through some great books too, and having a blast doing it! I thought it might be fun to just chronicle what I've read; by title, author, and a brief description of my impressions.

As an organizational tool, for my own edification, I think I will probably do a posting like this every couple of months. So, without further ado, here's my list of recent reads--

1. Far From the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy - I read this, in serial fashion, with my "Anglophiles Anonymous" group on-line at Shelfari.com. This was an intensely lyrical and emotional book and full of pathos, and one of my favorites by Hardy. It is such a study in human behavior, both good and bad. Instead of the 'normal' romantic triangle, Hardy sets up a plot that involves four main protagonists; Gabriel Oak, Bathsheba Everdine, Farmer Boldwood, and Frank Troy. The three men spin about, ever faster, the beautiful Bathsheba, until the horrifying climax of the novel. Normally, I find that Hardy's novels aren't what folks would categorize as 'happy' (and no pejorative is intended); but all in all, this novel ended well. An excellent novel, and one that I highly recommend (as I would any novel by Thomas Hardy).

2. Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), by Jerome K. Jerome - This was another group read novel that my Shelfari.com group did this summer. This, not-so-well-known, Victorian novel has been described as a "travelogue." Well, it is nothing of the sort. While it generally describes a boat trip that three young bored men take late one summer, it is absolutely hysterical from start to finish. There are madcap adventures, and sidebar streams of consciousness that yield so much insight into the minds of young middle-class men in Victorian London. Everything from their pre-trip planning, to the day-by-day rowing on the river, and their nighttime camping mishaps are documented. Jerome's ability to capture the personalities of his friends (and the dog) with wit and humor makes this a timeless read. When you're feeling a touch low in spirits, this is the book for you. After just a few pages, you'll be smiling and feeling much better about things. Definitely a book to pass around among friends and family!

3. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke - This book completely blew me away! I was taken into the world of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell on page one, and it was with the greatest reluctance that I turned the last page and was released to rejoin my own world. Susanna Clarke's debut novel is magical, mysterious, dreamy, witty and funny, and incredibly engaging.

The novel is set in Regency England and is a delightful mix of historical and fictional characters. Without sounding trite, the characters are Dickensian, the dialog Austenesque, some of the vision and fantasy of Lewis Carroll, and much of the prose like that of Patrick O'Brian. I can honestly say that this is one of the most unique, fresh, and original novels that I have read in many, many years; and I am already looking forward to sitting down and immersing myself again in this marvelous world that Susanna Clarke has created. If you are intimidated at taking on an 850 page tome, or want more of Clarke's marvelous writing, I strongly suggest reading her wonderful collection of short stories entitled, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories (see next entry).

4. The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, by Susanna Clarke - This is a wonderful collection of eight short stories by Susanna Clarke. This little volume was published in 2006, two years after the release of her fabulous debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I particularly enjoyed the title story, The Ladies of Grace Adieu as it expands upon one of Susanna Clarke's footnotes from the novel (i.e., Footnote 2, Chapter 43). While this collection is an excellent companion to the novel, it can also serve as a stand-alone introduction to Clarke's style, wit, prose, and imagination. Having read this collection of short stories, as well as Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, it strikes me that, above all, Clarke provides a view of what it means to be English. I think that these are amazing books, and this collection of short stories a welcome addition to her work.

5. The Mother's Recompense, by Edith Wharton - What a hauntingly beautiful novel! One cannot help but empathize with poor Kate Clephane and the life she has lived. After many, many years, Kate re-enters her, now adult, daughter's life, and the New York society she fled so long ago. The problem is that times have changed, and Kate does not well understand the social mores of the new age, her daughter's age, and this contributes to the moral dilemma she encounters.

This novel is vintage Wharton, and like much of her work, contains an intriguing plot twist that I shan't give away. In my opinion, the novel highlights Wharton's assessment of the stark differences between the late-Victorian and early-Edwardian Eras and the early period of the Roaring-Twenties and its impact upon American upper class society. This was a Wharton novel that I'd not yet read, and I'm so glad that I have now!

6. Saki: The Complete Fiction, by Hector Hugh Munro (Saki) - This collection contains all of Saki's laugh-out-loud hysterical, sometimes macabre and creepy, but always engaging short stories and novellas. Once you begin reading, you begin to eagerly look about for someone to read them aloud to. These are simply too wonderful to keep to one's self!

Each story is fabulously well-written and is a self-contained vignette of Edwardian life delivered with delicious wit, humor, satire, and sarcasm. It is such a pity that Saki (Hector Hugh Munro) was killed during the First World War (in 1916), cutting short an incredibly brilliant literary career. Read this book; you'll laugh forever, and read it again and again. Make sure you have an extra copy about to give away to deserving friends and family! Highly recommended!

7. The Forsyte Saga, by John Galsworthy - This is a titanic masterpiece of a multi-generational story of a fictional English family that spans the Victorian, Edwardian, and post-World War I eras. For the first one-hundred pages or so, I found myself having to frequently refer to the Forsyte family genealogical chart; however, by the end of the book I knew all of the characters and their place in the family intimately. Like all families, Galsworthy has created a world of very real and human characters in the Forsyte family; a family bound as much by their name, and at times even their dysfunction. The novel's characters exhibit the full range of emotion and feeling, including: love, greed, hatred, passion, jealousy, lust, truth, honesty, betrayal, and so forth; it is all there within this family - The Forsytes. Once started, I could not put this book down easily; it is that compelling. I fully understand why John Galsworthy was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932. For those who love novels of, and about, England, The Forsyte Saga is a must read.

8. Angels & Insects, by A.S. Byatt - A.S. Byatt, with Angels & Insects, has created a rich and complex book comprised of two medium-length novellas set in the mid-1860s and 1870s, both of which address themes important to the people of the Victorian Era. The first novella, Morpho Eugenia focuses on the relationships between a family, its friends, servants, and the natural world around them in the English countryside. The tale pivots around the study of society and nature, and then there's the tension and struggle between theology and science that resonates throughout; all of which funnels to a shocking climax involving the relationships between the story's central characters. Once started, it was hard to stop reading. I have to say that not only was the plot amazing, but the prose was just exquisitely beautiful. Byatt cements her reputation, in my opinion, as a superb storyteller with Morpho Eugenia.

The second novella, The Conjugial Angel is a more complicated, but lushly presented, story of the impact of 'Loss' upon a small group of characters brought together around a seance table. The Victorian poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and the relationships between Tennyson, his sister Emily, and a young poet, Arthur Henry Hallam, who died many years before the story begins, all figure prominently. Elements associated with the supernatural, a tinge of gothic horror, and the theology of Swedenborg all swirl together in this wonderful tale. Be warned though, one needs to read The Conjugial Angel slowly and thoughtfully; like a slice of pecan pie, it is rich and deserves to be savored and enjoyed slowly. Before reading The Conjugial Angel, I strongly recommend that the reader first read Tennyson's beautiful long elegiac poem, In Memoriam A.H.H.; his very personal and emotional tribute to his late-friend, Arthur Henry Hallam.

Fans of A.S. Byatt, or Victoriana in general, will not be disappointed one jot with either of these two novellas. I know that I will be back for a visit again sometime soon.

9. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde - This novel is a witty, whimsical, slightly daft, inventive and very entertaining read. This is the first novel in a series of five featuring the "literary detective," Thursday Next. While certainly not a prerequisite, it would help the reader's enjoyment to have a good reading background in British literature of the 19th Century; particularly the poetry of Wordsworth, Charles Dickens' novel Martin Chuzzlewit, and Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. In my opinion, Jasper Fforde has written an engaging novel that is actually quite thought provoking. It has alternative history and interesting perspectives on the value and meaning that society places on literature. While I don't know that I will read any of the subsequent 'Thursday Next' novels, I do recommend this fun book to fans of Jane Eyre and the Victorian Era. This is just plain old good escapism and is guaranteed to make you smile more often than not.

10. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll - I have just finished re-reading both of these wonderful novels in my "Anglophiles Anonymous" reading group on Shelfari.com. These books, while they may have originally been written for young Alice Liddell and other children, almost seem to be parables on what it means to be a child, and warn against not ‘growing up’ too fast. For example, it was interesting to notice that Alice quite innocently does not respond to the concept of the ‘abhorrence of death’ the same way an adult would (i.e., when the Duchess is under sentence of death at the croquet party). Also, Alice notices, time and time again, that the creatures of Wonderland are easily offended, or quick to argue (or defend) their point. Alice is always pointing out, “It’s no business of mine!” Further, she mentions several times that “Everybody says, ‘Come on!’ here” and that she “…never was so ordered about before, in all my life, never!” All in all though, Alice is a kind-hearted and thoughtful girl, who tries to mind her manners and be respectful of those she encounters.

Maybe the real message here is that no matter what one encounters in life, all will end well if one is respectful, optimistic, uses even a modicum of common-sense, and manages to maintain an almost child-like insatiable curiosity. I think it might be useful for all of us to make a point of re-reading these two books every few years; just to reacquaint ourselves with our own childhoods and innocence. Finally, I think it is wonderful that the protagonist is a vivacious and precocious little girl; it fits with the topsy-turvey world that Carroll has created, and it also seems important that a young female is the representative human in both books.

I also think that these delightful books really illustrate Lewis Carroll’s love of all things linguistic, mathematical and logical, as well as his fabulous word-play (e.g., puns, palindromes, anagrams, repetitions, and just plain crazy-cool made-up words). There are circular arguments throughout in many of the conversations between the creatures of Wonderland and Alice. The use of numbers is prominent throughout the books. There are interesting numbered sequences of events, or counted items, all over the place.

From a literary perspective, Lewis Carroll parodies or alludes to many of the popular poets of the day, including; Tennyson, Robert Southey, Thomas Hood , and Thomas Moore. To me, it seems pretty clear that Carroll loved poetry, and that he loved to tinker with writing poetry himself. Obviously, he was quite adept at parody as well.

In conclusion, I have thoroughly enjoyed my re-reading of these two books. It had been well over forty years since I last read these books from start to finish. I was absolutely amazed at how many expressions we use, almost daily, that have their origins in these books. Most folks may not realize it, but these two books have left an indelible mark on all of us, and will continue to do so for generations to come. What a treasure they are!

“Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die.

Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?”

11. Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym - This snappy wonderful little novel was my first exposure to the writing of Barbara Pym, and it won't be my last! The novel's protagonist, Mildred Lathbury, is a spinterish woman in 1950s Britain with feelings - real feelings. She wants to 'do the right thing' and make every one around her feel good; sometimes at the expense of her own feelings and needs. This novel is Austenesque in style and prose and devilishly funny at the same time. Once you start reading this little gem you cannot help but keep turning the pages, one after the other. I can't tell you how glad I am to have discovered Pym's books, they are truly special.

12. Some Tame Gazelle, by Barbara Pym - I am in the midst of a group reading of Pym's first published novel in my "Jane Austen" reading group on Goodreads.com. It is a wonderful and witty little novel of two spinster sisters living in a quiet little country village in England. I am truly enjoying the simple earnestness of the two women protagonists and the delightful writing style of Barbara Pym.

13. Possession, by A.S. Byatt - I am in the process of a group reading of Possession in my "Victorians" reading group on Goodreads.com. It has been several years since I last read it; and I have to say that, this time around, I am seeing it in a completely new light. It is a literary masterpiece that is exquisitely plotted and written. Personally, I think Byatt takes on postmodernism via the use of parody and satire. I think she is also paying some measure of homage to the great Victorian authors and poets; and wants all of us to simply read their fiction and poetry simply for what it is, and not deconstruct it too much. She is pretty hard on the processes and techniques of present day academic research too; implying that it has become far too cutthroat and competitive.

I also spent a lot of time very carefully studying the epigraphs leading off most of the chapters, as well as all of the beautiful poetry included in the text. Honestly, I don’t know that I gave much more than a cursory glance to the poetry during previous reads. This time though, I focused on Byatt’s poetry pastiches and discovered just how much it enriched and influenced the novel’s dual plots. It really inspired me to go and seek out the great Victorian Era poetry, including that of Tennyson, the Brownings, Christina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Charles Swinburne.

Regarding the epigraphs, I really recommend that the reader carefully study each epigraph before reading the chapter; and then upon finishing the chapter, go back and read it again and see if you correctly figured out the true meaning of it. There are little puzzles and clues throughout the entire novel, most of them residing within the poetry sections. This novel is quite like an onion, there's layer upon layer of nuanced meaning throughout. One must pay close attention as one reads.

In conclusion, this is a beautiful love story, achieving a level of romantic passion, emotion, and anguish like that of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, but with the Byronic or Gothic touches of the Bronte sisters. It is clear, to me, why Byatt was awarded the Booker Prize for Possession in 1990; and that this novel is clearly destined to be a classic work of literature.

14. The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer through Robert Frost, selected by Harold Bloom - This anthology is a "must have" for anyone looking for a fairly comprehensive collection of the best poetry in the English language. Additionally, Professor Bloom leads off the volume with his superb essay, The Art of Reading Poetry. Take this book with you on a trip and try and a read poem or two each day; it is an enriching experience. Read a poem out loud to a friend or family member, and you'll enrich their life too. I have slowly come to realize that poetry is arguably the highest art form.

15. Tennyson's Poetry, edited by Robert W. Hill, Jr. - This is a Norton Critical Edition of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poetry; and is a relatively comprehensive anthology. I searched out this edition of Tennyson's poetry while reading A.S. Byatt's Possession. I have completed a careful reading and analysis of Tennyson's In Memoriam A.H.H. and Maud: A Monodrama, and am now just browsing about and finding 'new friends' and revisiting old friends. I plan to tackle his Arthurian epic, Idylls of the King, at some point in the near future.

16. Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by R.W. Crump and Betty S. Flowers - This volume of Christina Rossetti's poetry is simply sublime; and contains all of her superb poetry. Of course it contains the thought-provoking epic poem, Goblin Market. Some of my other personal favorites include: An Echo from Willowwood, Song, After Death, The Ghost's Petition; and one of her very best, in my opinion, The Convent Threshold. This collection includes her sonnets, her children's poetry, and all of her intensely spiritual devotional poetry; this book has it all.

Christina Rossetti was the younger sister of the talented Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In comparing their poetry though, it is my learned opinion that Christina was far-and-away the master. In fact, of all the great Victorian Era poets, I think a case can be made that she may have only been equaled by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and America's greatest poet, Emily Dickinson. I highly recommend this volume of Christina Rossetti's poetry. You will find yourself returning to it time and again. She is truly one of my most favorite poets of all time.


Well, there it is; a busy month of reading I've had, but ever so satisfying! I am planning to read some "steampunk" novels that have been awaiting me. I have two recent novels by Stephen Hunt, and three relatively recent novels by China Mieville that I have been looking forward to reading. I also want to continue with reading the poetry of Tennyson and Christina Rossetti. So, stay tuned; and I wish you 'Happy Reading' in September, wherever you are!

By the bye, the photograph I've attached to this posting is a landscape photograph that I took on April 25, 2008, early in the morning along the banks of the Merced River in Yosemite National Park, California. The massive granite pinnacles in the background are aptly named, The Three Brothers. Look carefully at this image and you'll see that it is actually a reflection, and I've inverted it too. This is one of my favorite images of the last few years; and I thought it might be nice to share this peaceful and tranquil scene with you.


August 29, 2009

Edward Moore Kennedy, Requiescat in Pace

From Alfred, Lord Tennyson's, In Memoriam A.H.H. --

"Peace; come away: the song of woe
Is after all earthly song.
Peace; come away: we do him wrong
To sing so wildly: let us go.

Come; let us go: your cheeks are pale;
But half my life I leave behind.
Methinks my friend is richly shrined;
But I shall pass, my work will fail.

Yet in these ears, till hearing dies,
One set slow bell will seem to toll
The passing of the sweetest soul
That ever look'd with human eyes.

I hear it now, and o'er and o'er,
Eternal greetings to the dead;
And "Ave, Ave, Ave," said,
"Adieu, adieu," for evermore."


August 26, 2009

"There's Blood Between Us" - Christina & Dante Rossetti

I want to wind up my recent focus on the poetry of both, Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894), and her older brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), with an interesting side-by-side comparison and analysis of her poem, The Convent Threshold; and his poem, The Blessed Damozel. Both of these poems are relatively lengthy, and I'll not reproduce them here. I have included a link to each poem that you can open and print, if you like, to help in following the discussion below.

Christina Rossetti's The Convent Threshold; and
Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The Blessed Damozel.

I am going to start with Dante Rossetti's The Blessed Damozel that was largely written in 1847, when he was just 18 years old. Apparently, he worked on the poem, off and on, until he was satisfied and finally completed it in 1871. The completion of the poem, in my opinion, was ultimately affected by his relationship with, and marriage to, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Siddal (See my August 25th posting: The Muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti). Additionally, this poem became one part of a "doubled-work" by Rossetti combined with his eponymous Pre-Raphaelite painting (painted between 1875-1878). In fact, the first four stanzas of the poem are inscribed on the bottom portion of the frame surrounding the finished painting which is exhibited in the Fogg Museum of Art on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This diptych, or two-piece, painting is vintage Pre-Raphaelite in style; it is opulent, and loaded with details. The larger top portion of the painting is of the 'Damozel' looking down from Heaven with three cherubs, or angels. She holds the three lilies in her hand, and has stars in her hair; both of these elements are referenced in lines 5-6 of the poem's first stanza, and again in the fifth line of the eighth stanza. Additionally, there are a myriad of small vignettes of other couples embracing and kissing that wreathe her head in the background (referred to in the seventh stanza). The predella, or the small panel below the larger main painting, is separated by the "gold bar" referenced in the second line of the first stanza in the poem; and shows the poem's male subject reclined on the grass under an oak tree looking up, skyward, toward Heaven and his Lover. Also, the model used for the Damozel was Alexa Wilding who bears an uncanny resemblance to Dante Rossetti's late-wife, Lizzie Siddal, who died in 1862.

Dante Rossetti's poem, The Blessed Damozel, contains three voices. The first voice is that of the Damozel in Heaven. The second voice is that of her Lover, from whom she is separated as he is still Earth-bound, and generally represents his memories or the fantasies of their Love. The third voice is also that of the Earth-bound Lover, and represents his current state of consciousness, and is indicated in the poem in the parenthetical sections.

The poem's plot revolves around the separation of the lovers; she in Heaven, he on Earth. She yearns to be rejoined with him, and she sees other couples joined together in their love around her. She prays that he be allowed to join her, and hopes that he too is praying for their reunion; and that they now be allowed to live in Heaven as they lived together on Earth before she 'left' [died]. Eventually though, she comes to realize that she must move on with her journey 'through' Heaven; and that they will only be rejoined when the time is right, i.e., when Death finally comes for him. From his perspective, on Earth, looking up to Heaven, the vision of his beloved and her angels begin to dim and recede, and he is left alone. Ultimately, it seems that Rossetti's poem is a kind of Gothic imagining of passage through Heaven's various levels. As you will see, it is my contention that Dante's vision of this journey is a 'softer,' more gentle vision than the one put forward by his sister in her poem.

Some thirty years after Dante Rossetti began working on the poem, he stated that it was his sequel to Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven (1845). While Poe's poem deals with the grief of the Earth-bound lover at his loss, Rossetti's poem deals more with the desires of the loved one in Heaven. Also, it is thought that Dante Rossetti borrowed the stanzaic form of his poem from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's long poem, The Poet's Vow.

Now, lets turn our attention to the beautiful lyrical poem by Dante's younger sister, Christina Rossetti. Her poem, The Convent Threshold was first published in 1862 in her book of poetry entitled, Goblin Market and Other Poems. Most scholars believe, and I agree, that this poem was Christina's response to Dante's theme presented in The Blessed Damozel, i.e., the concept of separation and reunion; but she took it a step farther. Christina's poem delves into the Christian concept of redemption and some measure of suffering and sacrifice associated with the atonement before salvation can be finally achieved.

Christina's poem, The Convent Threshold takes a distinctly different approach than Dante's. Her poem has a much more overt theological basis; and revolves around the expiation of guilt. Christina's poem's voice, like Dante's, is female and is in a 'higher' plane [the Convent] and looks upward toward Heaven. The Speaker's Lover, like Dante's, is Earth-bound and still largely focused on the pleasures of life.

Interestingly, the poem starts off with a reference to the "blood between" the two lovers. The first three lines of the poem are:

"There's blood between us, love, my love,
There's father's blood, there's brother's blood,
And blood's a bar I cannot pass."

This is some incredible imagery, and can likely be interpreted several ways. Is it the allusion to the illicit sexual union of the two lovers? Or, is it a reference to the relationship between Dante Rossetti and his wife, Lizzie (who died the same year this poem was published), and bad feelings between the families? Or, is it a reference to the obsession that Dante had with his namesake, Dante Alighieri, and his guide in the Divine Comedy, Beatrice Portinari. There may be other interpretations as well; but the upshot is that the poem's Speaker renounces the "pleasant sin" that they shared. She acknowledges that her "lily feet are soiled with mud, with scarlet mud which tells a tale," and she is determined to seek absolution through rejecting the earthly pleasures and embracing the path of righteousness to Heaven.

Christina's speaker has moments of regret it seems (Sixth stanza, Lines 2-8), but she resolutely turns back to her path toward salvation. She continues to beg her earth-bound Lover to join her in repentance and seek redemption as well. In Dante's poem, the Damozel takes the matter into her own hands and prays for her Lover's redemption, and hopes that he is praying too. Christina makes it clear that seeking and achieving redemption is solely an individual act. In other words, in Christina's poem, the earth-bound Lover is completely in control of his own destiny; the final outcome (their reunion) is up to him.

The next part of Christina's poem describes her Speaker's journey through sin, hope, sacrifice, and redemption. Unlike Milton in Paradise Lost, Christina Rossetti fully embraces the idea of sacrificial atonement. The Speaker has to truly suffer before she can achieve Paradise (Stanzas 7-9), i.e., like a trip through Purgatory. These three stanzas are the darkest of the poem, and reminds me of the Apocalyptic visions of John while on the island of Patmos.

In the end though, Christina Rossetti brings her Speaker successfully to the end of her journey; she has atoned for her sins, has paid with her sacrifices:

"But through the dark my silence spoke
Like thunder. When this morning broke,
My face was pinched, my hair was grey,
And frozen blood was on the sill
Where stifling in my struggle I lay.
If now you saw me you would say:
Where is the face I used to love?
And I would answer: Gone before;
It tarries veiled in paradise.
When once the morning star shall rise,
When earth with shadow flees away
And we stand safe within the door,
Then you shall lift the veil thereof.
Look up, rise up: for far above
Our palms are grown, our place is set;
There we shall meet as once we met,
And love with old familiar love."

(Stanza Nine)


"We stand safe within the door." They have crossed the 'threshold,' and are together again with their Love.


This has been a most fascinating little research project for me; and one that I have truly enjoyed. I would love to hear from any of you who have read this regarding your assessments of my analysis. I do know that I have gained a tremendous appreciation for the poetry of this incredibly gifted brother and sister (and in Dante's case, as a painter too). In conclusion, I am of the opinion that, of the two, Christina Rossetti is the more mature, talented, and meaningful poet. It has been said that Christina Rossetti, with Alfred, Lord Tennyson, were the two greatest poets of the Victorian Era. I quite agree.

August 25, 2009

The Muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti

On August 19th, I posted an entry about Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) and included her beautiful poem, An Echo From Willowwood. Today, I want to expand upon this earlier post, and provide some additional background information and some more poetry.

As I mentioned in the earlier post, Christina Rossetti, and her older brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), were inspired to write poetry based upon some sketches drawn by Dante's wife, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Siddal (1829-1862). Lizzie had sketched pictures of a man and woman (Dante and herself) leaning over a pool of water looking at their reflections; and the images then becoming blurred and merging together with a puff of wind across the water's surface. It was this vivid imagery that served to inspire the poetry of both Rossetti siblings.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti probably met Lizzie Siddal in 1852 or 1853, and began to use her as a model to the exclusion of all others. With her classical beauty and copper-red hair she was one of the early Pre-Raphaelite period's stunningly beautiful models, or "stunners" as they were called. After seven or eight years together, Dante and Lizzie were married on May 23, 1860 in Hastings, England. Several months after giving birth to a still-born daughter in 1861, Lizzie Siddal died of an overdose of laudanum on February 11, 1862. While the coroner ruled that the death was accidental, there was speculation that it was a suicide. So great was Dante's grief over the death of his wife, that he placed his hand-written journal, containing the only versions of much of his poetry, in his wife's coffin, nestled in the tresses of her red hair.

With even a casual read of Dante's poetry, and review of his paintings, it is abundantly clear that Lizzie Siddal served as the artistic muse to Dante Gabriel, influencing his painting and his poetry. For example, in 1855, he painted Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah; but one of his most famous works, Beata Beatrix was painted over a period of time following Lizzie's death in 1862 . I have attached an image of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting of Lizzie Siddal the beautiful Beata Beatrix to this post.

Much of the poetry included in Dante's book of poetry, The House of Life (1869) was also influenced by his intimate relationship with Lizzie Siddal. While macabre, in order to prepare the poetry manuscript, Dante had to have his wife's body exhumed in order to retrieve the journal of poems from her casket.

I want to highlight two poems today. The first, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is from his 1869 book of poems, The House of Life, and is entitled Willowwood. This collection of four sonnets is the companion poem to Christina Rossetti's An Echo From Willowwood that I posted on August 19th.




I sat with Love upon a woodside well,

Leaning across the water, I and he;

Nor ever did he speak nor looked at me,

But touched his lute wherein was audible
The certain secret thing he had to tell:
Only our mirrored eyes met silently
In the low wave; and that sound came to be
The passionate voice I knew; and my tears fell.

And at their fall, his eyes beneath grew hers;
And with his foot and with his wing-feathers

He swept the spring that watered my heart’s drouth.

Then the dark ripples spread to waving hair,
And as I stooped, her own lips rising there
Bubbled with brimming kisses at my mouth.


And now Love sang: but his was such a song,
So meshed with half-remembrance hard to free,

As souls disused in death’s sterility

May sing when the new birthday tarries long.

And I was made aware of a dumb throng

That stood aloof, one form by every tree,

All mournful forms, for each was I or she,

The shades of those our days that had no tongue.

They looked on us, and knew us and were known;
While fast together, alive from the abyss,

Clung the soul-wrung implacable close kiss;

And pity of self through all made broken moan

Which said, ‘For once, for once, for once alone!’

And still Love sang, and what he sang was this:—


‘O ye, all ye that walk in Willow-wood,
That walk with hollow faces burning white;

What fathom-depth of soul-struck widowhood,

What long, what longer hours, one lifelong night,
Ere ye again, who so in vain have wooed

Your last hope lost, who so in vain invite

Your lips to that their unforgotten food,

Ere ye, ere ye again shall see the light!

Alas! the bitter banks in Willowwood,

With tear-spurge wan, with blood-wort burning red:

Alas! if ever such a pillow could

Steep deep the soul in sleep till she were dead,—

Better all life forget her than this thing,

That Willowwood should hold her wandering!’


So sang he: and as meeting rose and rose
Together cling through the wind’s wellaway

Nor change at once, yet near the end of day

The leaves drop loosened where the heart-stain glows,—

So when the song died did the kiss unclose;

And her face fell back drowned, and was as grey

As its grey eyes; and if it ever may
Meet mine again I know not if Love knows.

Only I know that I leaned low and drank

A long draught from the water where she sank,

Her breath and all her tears and all her soul:

And as I leaned, I know I felt Love’s face

Pressed on my neck with moan of pity and grace,

Till both our heads were in his aureole.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1869


The second poem is by Christina Rossetti and is entitled In An Artist's Studio, and was posthumously published in 1896, following her death in 1894. It is clear to me that Christina's simple, but powerful, poem is about her brother and his wife (Lizzie Siddal). I think that on one level Christina's poem has touched upon his almost-obssessive love for Lizzie; and on another level, maybe the poem addresses how men tend to view women, i.e., fantasy versus reality; especially given the lines, "A queen in opal or in ruby dress," and "A saint, an angel — every canvas means." Finally, the poignancy of the poem's last two lines perfectly illustrates, to me, the tortured lives and relationship shared by Lizzie Siddal and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.


In An Artist's Studio

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel — every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more or less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

Christina Rossetti


August 23, 2009

The Poetry of Emily Jane Bronte

Everyone is generally aware that the Bronte sisters wrote some truly incredible novels. Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855) was the author of Jane Eyre (1847), Shirley (1849), Villette (1853), and her first novel, The Professor, was published posthumously in 1857. Emily Bronte (1818-1848) wrote Wuthering Heights in 1847. Anne Bronte (1820-1849), the youngest sister, wrote Agnes Grey (1847) followed by The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1848.

What is not as widely known though, is that the Brontes first published work was a small book of poetry in 1846. It was submitted for publication under the pseudonyms of 'Currer' (Charlotte), 'Ellis' (Emily), and 'Acton' (Anne) Bell. The women thought it best if their first foray into the world of publishing were done under a masculine guise. They were required to come up with the full costs associated with publication and advertising. In the first year after publication, the publisher only sold two copies. After the death of the three sisters, a second edition of their poems was released and did much better.

Charlotte Bronte writes, in 1845, of her sister Emily's poetry, after she accidentally found Emily's handwritten collection of her poems:

"I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me - a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear they had also a peculiar music, wild, melancholy, and elevating." (From, The Bronte Story: A Reconsideration of Mrs. Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Bronte, by Margaret Lane, published by Duell, Sloan & Pearce, and Little, Brown and Co., 1953)

Professor Harold Bloom, in his anthology, The Best Poems of the English Language (Harper Collins, 2004) is of the opinion that Emily Bronte's poetry was "...the thing itself, strong poetry, of a wholly original kind." I tend to agree completely. It is a blend of the Byronism of the Romantic Era with Gothic passionate intensity. In her poems, it is easy to see the author of Wuthering Heights and her creation of the tortured love between Heathcliff and Catherine.

To give you a meaningful taste of Emily Bronte's poetry I want to highlight two of her poems: Lines (1836); followed by the poem Stanzas (1846), that Professor Bloom also included in his anthology, referenced above.



I die but when the grave shall press
The heart so long endeared to thee
When earthly cares no more distress
And earthly joys are nought to me

Weep not, but think that I have past
Before thee o'er a sea of gloom
Have anchored safe and rest at last
Where tears and mourning cannot come

'Tis I should weep to leave thee here
On the dark Ocean sailing drear
With storms around and fears before
And no kind light to point the shore

But long or short though life may be
'Tis nothing to eternity
We part below to meet on high



Often rebuked, yet always back returning
To those first feelings that were born with me,
And leaving busy chase of wealth and learning
For idle dreams of things which cannot be:

To-day, I will seek not the shadowy region;
Its unsustaining vastness waxes drear;
And visions rising, legion after legion,
Bring the unreal world too strangely near.

I'll walk, but not in old heroic traces,
And not in paths of high morality,
And not among the half-distinguished faces,
The clouded forms of long-past history.

I'll walk where my own nature would be leading:
It vexes me to choose another guide:
Where the grey flocks in ferny glens are feeding;
Where the wild wind blows on the mountain side.

What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?
More glory and more grief than I can tell:
The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling
Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.


Finally, I want to share some short verses written by Emily at about 16 years of age at the school at Roehead; and by Anne, when she was about 21 or 22, and away as a governess. Both of the little poems are about missing their Haworth parsonage home on the moors. Even though these verses are separated in years, and by author, I was immediately struck by the similarity of voice, tone, and emotion.


Emily's verses:

"There is a spot, 'mid barren hills,
Where winter howls, and driving rain;
But, if the dreary tempest chills,
There is a light that warms again.

The house is old, the trees are bare,
Moonless above bends twilight's dome,
But what on earth is half so dear--
So longed for--as the hearth of home?

The mute bird sitting on the stone,
The dank moss dripping from the wall,
The thorn trees gaunt, the walks o'ergrown,
I love them--how I love them all!


Anne's poem, entitled "Home":

"For yonder garden, fair and wide,
With groves of evergreen,
Long winding walks and borders trim,
And velvet lawns between--

Restore to me that little spot,
With gray walls compassed round,
Where knotted grass neglected lies,
And weeds usurp the ground.

Though all around this mansion high
Invites the foot to roam,
And though its halls are fair within--
Oh, give me back my Home!"


While I highly recommend reading their novels, I equally recommend that you look into their poetry as well; especially some of Emily's poems. In fact, it might be argued that Emily's real genius was in crafting verse versus prose. Such short lives too; and one can only wonder what might have been had these three amazing women lived longer.

Thanks to Wikipedia for some of the background biographical information on the Bronte sisters and their publication history.

August 22, 2009

A Poem for the Day - "The Ghost's Petition" By Christina Rossetti

The Ghost's Petition

“There’s a footstep coming: look out and see.”—
“The leaves are falling, the wind is calling;
No one cometh across the lea.”—
“There’s a footstep coming: O sister, look.”—
“The ripple flashes, the white foam dashes;
No one cometh across the brook.”—
“But he promised that he would come:
To-night, to-morrow, in joy or sorrow,
He must keep his word, and must come home.
”For he promised that he would come:
His word was given; from earth or heaven,
He must keep his word, and must come home.
“Go to sleep, my sweet sister Jane;
You can slumber, who need not number
Hour after hour, in doubt and pain.
“I shall sit here awhile, and watch;
Listening, hoping, for one hand groping
In deep shadow to find the latch.”
After the dark, and before the light,
One lay sleeping; and one sat weeping,
Who had watched and wept the weary night.
After the night, and before the day,
One lay sleeping; and one sat weeping,—
Watching, weeping for one away.
There came a footstep climbing the stair;
Some one standing out on the landing
Shook the door like a puff of air,—
Shook the door, and in he passed.
Did he enter? In the room centre
Stood her husband: the door shut fast.
“O Robin, but you are cold,—
Chilled with the night-dew: so lily-white you
Look like a stray lamb from our fold.
“O Robin, but you are late:
Come and sit near me,–sit here and cheer me.”—
(Blue the flame burnt in the grate.)
“Lay not down your head on my breast:
I cannot hold you, kind wife, nor fold you
In the shelter that you love best.
“Feel not after my clasping hand:
I am but a shadow, come from the meadow
Where many lie, but no tree can stand.
“We are trees which have shed their leaves:
Our heads lie low there, but no tears flow there;
Only I grieve for my wife who grieves.
“I could rest if you would not moan
Hour after hour; I have no power
To shut my ears where I lie alone.
“I could rest if you would not cry;
But there’s no sleeping while you sit weeping,—
Watching, weeping so bitterly.”—
“Woe’s me! woe’s me! for this I have heard.
O, night of sorrow!–O, black to-morrow!
Is it thus that you keep your word?
“O you who used so to shelter me
Warm from the least wind,–why, now the east wind
Is warmer than you, whom I quake to see.
”O my husband of flesh and blood,
For whom my mother I left, and brother,
And all I had, accounting it good,
“What do you do there, underground,
In the dark hollow? I’m fain to follow.
What do you do there?–what have you found?”—
“What I do there I must not tell;
But I have plenty. Kind wife, content ye:
It is well with us,–it is well.
“Tender hand hath made our nest;
Our fear is ended, our hope is blended
With present pleasure, and we have rest.”—
“O, but Robin, I’m fain to come,
If your present days are so pleasant;
For my days are so wearisome.
“Yet I’ll dry my tears for your sake:
Why should I tease you, who cannot please you
Any more with the pains I take?”

Christina Rossetti, 1866

I love this slightly spooky, but beautiful, poem by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). It is so rich in imagery and has such a distinctly Gothic feel to it. It is late fall or winter, and I can almost see the lonely house up in the cold and desolate moors; the two sisters inside the house awaiting the return of one of the sister's husband - from where, we don't really know, but can only surmise (Death?). This poem, it seems to me, could easily serve as the plot for a novel by one of the Bronte sisters, or even a Gothic movie.

I have been carefully reading and studying a beautiful little edition of Christina Rossetti's poems entitled, Rossetti: Poems. This small hard-back edition was published in 1993 in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series and published by Alfred A. Knopf; and includes something over one-hundred poems.

Finally, a brief bit about the painting that I have included with the poem. This beautiful painting is entitled The Ghost's Petition, and was painted by Emma Florence Harrison in 1910. This illustration was used in an edition of Rossetti's poems published circa 1910. It seems that Ms. Harrison was active as an artist from 1877 through about 1925. Apparently, very little is known of her life, including her dates of birth and death. She worked professionally as 'Florence Harrison,' working in London, and was an exhibitor at the Royal Academy from 1887 - 1891. Ms. Harrison is primarily remembered as a book illustrator for the publisher Blackie & Son, illustrating books of poems by Christina Rossetti, Alfred Lord Tennyson and William Morris. Ms. Harrison's work has that distinctive Pre-Raphaelite style, and is in high demand today by art collectors.

August 21, 2009

Charles Dickens and His ‘Bodhisattvas’

Right up front I'll say it - "I love Charles Dickens's novels, all fifteen of them!" True, there are some that I love more than others, but they have all been a delight to read.

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in 1812, and died, following a stroke, at his home, Gad's Hill Place, near London, on June 9, 1870. By all accounts, he was a prolific writer. He wrote short stories, founded and edited several literary magazines, wrote novels, dabbled in writing plays, and traveled about giving public readings of selections from his writings.

All of Dickens's novels were serialized in weekly or monthly literary magazines. In his novels, Dickens tended to address issues of social consciousness; and he did it with a mix of commentary, satire, fantasy and realism, and with a touch of sentimentality and Gothic romance. In several of his novels there are even quasi-autobiographical elements too. Dickens wrote about what he knew about. He wandered the streets of London with an observant eye cast upon the people and conditions around him.

About a year ago, I undertook the major project of reading, or re-reading, all of Dickens's novels in the order in which he wrote them. I wanted to carefully analyze his writing style and how it had matured over the thirty-three years between his first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1837), and his final, uncompleted, novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). This reading project has been an amazing experience for me; and while I have enjoyed each of the novels, my top four or five Dickens novels come from the latter half of his work (i.e., from Dombey and Son on). My all-time favorites include: Our Mutual Friend (1865), Bleak House (1853), Little Dorrit (1857), and Dombey and Son (1848). From his earlier work, I have to say that I do greatly admire Nicholas Nickleby (1839) and Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) too. In my humble opinion, Dickens's magnum opus is his last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend. This is a novel for the ages, and it provides the segue to the real purpose behind this blog posting.

If you've read any of Dickens's novels, you've encountered his heroes and villains. They are obvious, and there's far too many to count or list here. However, there's another type of character that Dickens typically includes in most of his novels; the ones that I have come to refer to as his 'Saints.' These are the characters, in some cases quite minor, that adhere to the following principle - That they do no harm, and always look to do good. I have a friend in one of my discussion groups on Shelfari.com that refers to these characters as "Bodhisattvas." Loosely translated from Pali (a middle Indo-Aryan language of India), "Bodhisattvas," found in the Buddhist canon, means "enlightened beings," or "a being on the way to full enlightenment." Some prime examples of Dickens's Bodhisattvas include: Sam Pickwick (Pickwick Papers), the Cheeryble brothers and probably Newman Noggs (Nicholas Nickleby), and one of the 'saintliest,' John Jarndyce (Bleak House).

I would like to use Our Mutual Friend and Dombey and Son to illustrate the role that these Bodhisattvas play in Dickens's novels. First, in Dombey and Son, there's my personal favorite, the affable and comical Captain Edward (Ned) Cuttle; and then there is Miss Susan Nipper and Mrs. Polly Toodle (Mrs. Richards). Captain Cuttle, throughout the entire novel goes out of his way to look after those he loves and cares about; namely Walter Gay, Sol Gillis, and later Florence Dombey. He bumbles about a bit; but there's never any question that his heart is in the right spot; and he is the 'good and kind' counterbalance to the malevolent evil of James Carker, the novel's principal villain. Miss Susan Nipper is a Bodhisattva because of her unbending loyalty and love for Florence Dombey whom she has nursed and cared for through childhood and beyond. Polly Toodle is recognized because of her love and care for poor little Paul Dombey, as well as her own large brood of children. Polly Toodle is the personification of 'Motherhood.'

In Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, there are several Bodhisattvas that I've identified. There is Miss Jenny Wren ("My back's bad, and my legs are queer"), the tiny doll's dressmaker; Miss Lizzie Hexam; the lawyer, Mortimer Lightwood; and then there are Noddy and Henrietta Boffin. Mr. Melvin Twemlow, a minor character in the novel, may qualify for the one truly heroic act he performs near the end of the novel; and also in that he does no harm to anyone throughout the book.

Miss Jenny Wren is fiercely loyal to the beautiful, but very poor, Lizzie Hexam. Jenny is also incredibly insightful and perceptive in ferreting out the true motives of all of the novel's major protagonists that she encounters. She doles out information, or mis-information, that influences subsequent actions on the part of some of the players. Perhaps her only flaw is her own personal relationship to her completely ruined alcoholic father (her "very bad child").

Miss Lizzie Hexam is a true Bodhisattva. Even with her very difficult background, she sacrifices virtually everything, including her own happiness, for the sake of family (i.e., her father, Gaffer Hexam, and her selfish younger brother, Charlie). She is willing to give up her love for Eugene Wrayburn because she believes that she is not worthy of his love because of their class differences. Throughout the novel, Lizzie goes out of her way to help those in need, including Jenny Wren and Mrs Betty Higdon. Ultimately, Lizzie is responsible for rescuing and caring for Eugene Wrayburn after he is viciously attacked and left for dead by the horrifying Bradley Headstone.

Finally, it is my contention that the Boffins can be granted 'sainthood,' although at times in the novel it seems to be at odds with the 'facts.' Even with all of the treasure that comes to the Boffins from the Harmon estate, they never lose their sense of self and their kindly nature to all around them. They take in the villainous Silas Wegg (of "Weggery" fame); the lovely, but initially greedy, Bella Wilfer; endeavor to adopt one of Betty Higdon's little orphans, and end up caring for 'Sloppy,' another one of the orphan boys. While the Boffins are equal part comic, satirical, and over-the-top sentimental do-gooders, they may also be Dickens's most obvious candidates for the Bodhisattva designation. With the novel's progression, the Boffins become more and more saintly; and at the end almost achieve the status of canonization.

So, the next time you pick up a Dickens novel to read (and I hope it is soon), do keep an eye peeled for Dickens's Bodhisattvas - his Saints. Give some thought to why you think Dickens included this type of a character in each of his novels. Finally, I'd be curious to know if you agree with this whole notion, and of the 'saints' I've identified here; or if I've missed any other potential candidates. Happy reading!


I'd like to acknowledge the use of Wikipedia for some of the background biographical information for Dickens; and my friend 'Lord Manleigh' for the use of his term for Dickens's saints - Bodhisattvas.

August 20, 2009

A Poem for the Day - "The Solitary Reaper" By William Wordsworth

Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the Vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound.

No Nightingale did ever chaunt
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of travellers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands:
A voice so thrilling ne'er was heard
In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.

Will no one tell me what she sings?--
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of to-day?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again?

Whate'er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o'er the sickle bending;--
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.

William Wordsworth, 1805


I have always loved this beautiful and lyrical ballad by the English poet, William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Wordsworth composed this approximately two years after a summer ramble in the Scottish Highlands with his sister, Dorothy, and his friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Wordsworth's sister, Dorothy, recorded the event in her journal entry for September 13, 1803: "It was harvest time, and the fields were quietly -- might I be allowed to say pensively? -- enlivened by small companies of reapers. It is not uncommon in the more lonely parts of the Highlands to see a single person so employed."

Also, Wordsworth, in a note to an 1807 edition including the poem, acknowledged that "This Poem was suggested by a beautiful sentence in a MS Tour in Scotland written by a Friend, the last line being taken from it verbatim." Wordsworth’s friend, Thomas Wilkinson, wrote a book, Tours to the British Mountains; and in this travelogue he observed that he had "Passed a Female who was reaping alone: she sung in Erse as she bended over her sickle; the sweetest human voice I ever heard: her strains were tenderly melancholy, and felt delicious, long after they were heard no more."

The poem is written in iambic tetrameter, i.e., the rhyming scheme is "a-b-a-b-c-c-d-d." Although, this scheme breaks down in the "a" rhyme in the first and last stanzas.

I looked at my marginalia notes associated with this poem in my college Romantic Poets textbook (positively ancient now!). Apparently, Wordsworth created several ballads that are considered 'solitaries.' Where the subject of the poem is alone with no interaction with others. In fact, in this poem, the young Highland lass, the reaper, is considered by Wordsworth to be a 'poet' herself; even though Wordsworth doesn't know what she is saying. Is it because he is too far away, and can only hear her singing? Or, is it because he doesn't understand her 'language'? Wordsworth compares the young lass and her singing to that of the Nightingale and the Cuckoo. In other words, they are all 'solitary' singers in touch, or communing, with Nature. Anyway you cut it, this is a beautiful, beautiful poem; and well worth reading every once in a while.

Finally, thanks to my friend, Laurel, for her reminder of the beautiful painting entitled, "The Song of the Lark," by the 19th century French Realist painter, Jules Breton (1827-1906).


Let's talk about the British author, Barbara Pym, for a bit. Ms. Pym is relatively unknown to most American readers; although there is a bit of a Pym-revival occurring now. Ms. Pym is sometimes casually referred to as "the modern Jane Austen." There is some truth, in my opinion, to that characterization. Most importantly though, Barbara Pym is a wonderful and engaging writer.

Barbara Pym was born in 1913, in Oswestry, Shropshire. She studied English at St. Hilda's College in Oxford. She served in the Royal Navy during World War II, and then worked at the International African Institute until her retirement. While working at the Institute, she helped to edit the Institute's scholarly journal Africa. She never married, and upon her retirement moved into a cottage in Oxfordshire that she shared with her younger sister, Hilary, until her death from breast cancer in 1980, at the age of 66.

Barbara Pym wrote twelve novels between the early-1940s and the late-1970s, with a notable publication hiatus between 1963 and 1977. Britain's well-known modernist poet, Philip Larkin (1922-1985), wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that Pym was "...the most underrated writer of the century." This prominent assessment proved to be a turning point in Pym's literary career, and her novel Quartet in Autumn was short-listed for a Booker Prize in 1977. Pym tended to write about single women living in quiet little villages or suburban communities. There also tends to be some connection to anthropology, or anthropologists, and the Church of England in her plots.

I currently have seven of Ms. Pym's twelve novels, and have read two of them, including: Some Tame Gazelle and Excellent Women. I plan to read her entire oeuvre over the next year or so. In fact, in early-September, my book group on Shelfari.com will be reading Pym's Some Tame Gazelle for a group read and discussion. Many of the group members have read all of Pym's novels and just love her work; so I am very much looking forward to the discussion.

Here is a list of Barbara Pym's novels, and the date written:

Crampton Hodnet (circa 1940)
Some Tame Gazelle (1950)*
Excellent Women (1952)*
Jane and Prudence (1953)
Less Than Angels (1955)*
A Glass of Blessings (1958)
No Fond Return (1961)*
An Unsuitable Attachment (1963)*
An Academic Question (1970-1972)
Quartet in Autumn (1977)
The Sweet Dove Died (1978)*
A Few Green Leaves (1980)*

*the volumes I currently own.

So, if you love good writing, and are looking for a new author to discover, I strongly recommend that you go find yourself a Barbara Pym novel. Maybe you will find yourself becoming a 'Pymphomaniac' too. Finally, I am attaching the website, for all-things Barbara Pym, maintained by her alma mater, St. Hilda's College, Oxford. Here's the link: www.barbara-pym.org

Thanks to my Shelfari friend, 'Lord Manleigh,' for the appellation, 'Pymphomania' and 'Pymphomaniac.' And thanks to Wikipedia for some of the background information on Ms. Pym.

The End of the World?

This morning, on my MetroLink train ride to work, a large middle-aged man walked through the aisle of my car saying in a loud voice, "The End of the World Is Upon Us, The End of the World Is Upon Us!" I looked up from my book of Christina Rossetti's poetry, reflected for a moment, and then realized that some of Rossetti's poems alluded to the same event. An interesting moment in what is turning out to be an interesting day. Only in Los Angeles...

August 19, 2009

A Poem for the Day - "An Echo From Willowwood"

An Echo From Willowwood

"O ye, all ye that walk in Willowwood." D.G. Rosetti

Two gazed into a pool, he gazed and she,
Not hand in hand, yet heart in heart, I think,
Pale and reluctant on the water's brink
As on the brink of parting which must be.
Each eyed the other's aspect, she and he,
Each felt one hungering heart leap up and sink,
Each tasted bitterness which both must drink,
There on the brink of life's dividing sea.
Lilies upon the surface, deep below
Two wistful faces craving each for each,
Resolute and reluctant without speech: —
A sudden ripple made the faces flow
One moment joined, to vanish out of reach:
So those hearts joined, and ah! were parted so.

Christina Rossetti, mid- to late-1860s?


It is interesting to note that this poem plays off of the 'Willowwood' sonnets written by Christina's older brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Dante wrote his sonnets about his wife, Lizzie Siddal, who died in 1862 due to laudanum addiction. So the story goes, Lizzie had left sketches of herself and Dante looking into pools of water together; these sketches then inspired the poetry of both Rossetti siblings. Finally, Lizzie Siddal also served as the model for Sir John Everett Millais's famous Pre-Raphaelite painting "Ophelia."