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 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 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:

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."

August 18, 2009

Possession By A.S. Byatt & Some Musings on Poetry

By way of a bit of background, I should mention that I belong to two different on-line book groups. I guess they could both be best characterized as "Facebook," or social networking, for bibliophiles. I have an account with and with They are both wonderful on-line book experiences; and allow members to join various discussion groups, based upon your literary interests. For example, on Goodreads I belong to a "Victorian Era" discussion group, and we are getting ready to do a group read and discussion of a "neo-Victorian" novel; and the book chosen by the group was A.S. Byatt's 1990 novel Possession: A Romance. I first read this novel shortly after it came out in 1990. The novel also won a prestigious Booker Award in 1990 (the British equivalent of the American Pulitzer Prize).

Possession is a beautiful novel, exquisitely plotted and written; and incorporates a substantial amount of Romantic and Victorian poetry. There's bits of Browning, Tennyson, Yeats, etc. scattered throughout. However, much of the poetry included in the novel is that written by Byatt herself, in the style of Alfred, Lord Tennyson or Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti. The poetry is critically important to the novel's dual plots too. All I can say is that it is all delightful to read!

Re-reading this novel has recently inspired me to pick up and begin reading selected poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Browning, Christina Rossetti, William Butler Yeats, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I am pretty familiar with all of the Romantic Era poets, having taken a course in college, years ago. I was not, however, particularly familiar with the work of the prominent Victorian Era poets; and all I can say is, "Wow!"

For example, Christina Rossetti was the sister of the famous pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti; and she is simply a fabulous poet. A wonderful poem to start with is her longish famous narrative Goblin Market. Well worth some careful study, it is an epic poem that touches on feminism, sisterhood, and strong mythological and religious themes. Alfred, Lord Tennyson is probably familiar to most folks. He succeeded William Wordsworth as "Poet Laureate" for the United Kingdom, a post he held for 42 years until his death in 1892. Tennyson is probably best known for his book-length Arthurian epic poem, Idylls of the King. Also, I dearly love his beautiful poem, The Lady of Shalott; and who has not read The Charge of the Light Brigade?

In closing, if you've not read a truly beautiful romance novel lately; I strongly recommend A.S. Byatt's Possession. You might mix it up with a little bit of poetry too, just to make the experience even richer. Go find yourself a collection of Rossetti, Tennyson, or Yeats; make yourself a pot of tea, and settle back in your favorite chair and have some quiet time.

Pro Se - What is this all about?

One might ask why I am creating a blog? The short answer is that I have done it for myself. It is a place where I can put down my thoughts and observations on those things important to me. The name of this blog - "pro se" - seems, somehow, quite appropriate. The wordplay, creating the word "prose," is simply a bonus.

I would like to use this blog to post my observations about the following: (1) the books I've read, that I'm reading, and the books I want to read; (2) share my landscape photography and my experiences in finding these images on my travels; (3) share my thoughts on movies that I've seen; (4) all things involving good food, family, and friends; and (5) anything else that seems appropriate at the time, i.e., current events, politics, etc. This may change, but this is my intent for the time being. I also have a real love of poetry, and I'd like to be able to post some of my favorite poems or other bits of doggerel that I come across in my reading. Maybe this blog creates a way for me to put down, in some organized fashion, some of the thoughts and observations that occur to me day-by-day.

Finally, I am a total blog-neophyte. So, I will very gratefully accept any tips or advice in improving the experience for both the writer (me) and you, the reader.

Cheers! Chris