Monday, March 29, 2010

The Iliad
Achilles Fights the River

"the river roared."
- The Iliad, Book 21, line 19

Achilles takes his fight to the Trojans as Book 21 of the Iliad begins with the Trojans routed, one half blocked by Hera with the other half "packed in the silver-whirling river," (line 9). Achilles slays Lycaon, son of Priam, and Asteropaeus, son of Pelegon. Then he goes after the Trojan's allies from Paeona, beating and hacking them "in a blur of kills" (line 235). The blood of the men is so thick that the river rose and,

"taking a man's shape, its voice breaking out of a whirlpool:
"Stop, Achilles! Greater than any man on earth,
greater in courage too --
for the gods themselves are always at your side!
But if Zeus allows you to kill off all the Trojans,
drive them out of my depths at least,"
(lines 239-45) -

But Achilles proceeds to attack and fight the river itself. Continuing until the gods recognize that this cannot stay. Poseidon and Athena come to him and advise him, "It's not your fate to be swallowed by a river:" (line 328). The gods take over from this point and the book chronicles the spectacle of battles among the gods, mirroring the battles of the men below. even through this the river remains a thread that cannot be forgotten. The Trojan's and Hector's days in particular are numbered from this point onward.

The Iliad by Homer. Robert Fagles, trans. Viking Penguin, New York. 1990

Friday, March 26, 2010

A. E. Housman

This is the day A. E. Housman was born in 1859. Thirty-seven years later he would publish his best known collection of poems, A Shropshire Lad. He would follow it with other collections. In addition to his poetry he was counted one of the foremost classicists of his age, and has been ranked as one of the greatest scholars of all time. He established his reputation publishing as a private scholar and, on the strength and quality of his work, was appointed Professor of Latin at University College London and later, at Cambridge. Here is one of my favorites from the collection:

LOVELIEST of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Housman. The Folio Society, London. 1986 (1896)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

King Solomon's Mines

I am more accustomed to handle a rifle than a pen, and cannot make any pretence to the grand literary flights and flourishes which I see in novels - for sometimes I like to read a novel.
- H. Rider Haggard, Allan Quatermain's preface to King Solomon's Mines

Having enjoyed the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson my whole life it was with some pleasure that I found a resonance with his novel Treasure Island when I bean to read the novel King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard. Only after reading the novel did I find out that Rider Haggard was inspired to write his novel after having read Stevenson's. H. Rider Haggard was a prolific English writer, who published colorful novels set in unknown regions and lost kingdoms of Africa, or some other corner of the world: Iceland, Constantinople, Mexico, Ancient Egypt. His best-known work is the romantic adventure tale King Solomon's Mines.

I found the adventure tale a tremendously enjoyable read with an appealing narrator in Allan Quatermain. It is a story of a group of treasure hunters searching legendary diamond mine in a lost land. In the story the veteran hunter Allan Quatermain with his friends Sir Henry Curtis and Captain John Good, accompanied by Umbopa, their native servant, set off to reveal the fate of Curtis's missing brother - he has gone to look for the treasure of King Solomon in the land of Kukuanas. They cross imposing deserts, nearly freeze in the mountains, and after a long journey they reach their destination. Umbopa turns out to be a king of the Kukuanas and, with the help of Quatermain and his friends, he defeats the villainous King Twala, who dies in the combat with Curtis. The adventurers find Solomon's mines, but are left to die in an underground vault by Gagool, a mysterious witch-doctor. After an escape, with a few handfuls of diamonds, they find Curtis's brother and return to the civilization. Suspense abounds and the story reads like a precursor to some of the adventures of "Indiana Jones". They are Rider Haggard originals, however, and merely serve as the models for many adventurers who followed them in literature and film. Reading this book reminded me of my early love of the wonder I found in the adventure tales of Robert Louis Stevenson.

King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard. Folio Society, London. 1995 (1885)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

In Search of Lost Time

The Captive, Book V, Part One

". . . is it not true that those elements - all the residuum of reality which we are obliged to keep to ourselves, which cannot be transmitted in talk, even from friend to friend, from master to disciple, from lover to mistress, that ineffable something which differentiates qualitatively what each of us has felt and what he is obliged to leave behind at the threshold of the phrases in which he can communicate with others only by limiting himself to externals, common to all and of no interest - are brought out by art, the art of a Vinteuil like that of an Elstir, which exteriorises in the colors of the spectrum the intimate composition of the worlds which we call individualsand which, but for art, we should never know?

"The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we can do with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with men like these we do really fly from star to star."
- Marcel Proust, The Captive, p 343

The concluding pages of The Captive focus on art, particularly music and literature, perhaps as discussed in the above excerpt to address the ineffable, "which cannot be transmitted by talk". Marcel relies on rumor and his own imagination to fuel his continuing suspicions of Albertine's infidelity. In spite of her captivity he feels the pangs of jealousy from these imaginings and they provide relief from his boredom with her only to add to his pain at the thought of her perverse behavior. Her denials only prove to him that he is right in these thoughts. It is a relief, in a sense, when he becomes somewhat didactic with a litany of literature from Hardy to Dostoevsky and beyond in an attempt to provide examples of the other - of the ineffable. It is not without some relief that this section ends, and with it Albertine's captivity, although it is fairly certain that Marcel's pain is not at an end.

In Search of Lost Time Vol V, The Captive & The Fugitive by Marcel Proust. The Modern Library, New York. 2003 (1923)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A man's character is his character. Nonetheless, it was startling, every now and then when I looked at the sunlight falling across his bowed head, to see that Deepak Mehta, the quietest of my boys, was now an old man.
- Ethan Canin, The Palace Thief, p 205

Having recently read Ethan Canin's recent novel America America, I decided to turn to some of the short stories on which his literary fame is based. I was not disappointed with the collection entitled The Palace Thief. The stories each are beautifully written and tightly constructed. I was especially impressed with the title story, a miniature about the academic life of a history teacher, reminiscent of James Hilton's "Mr. Chips" or perhaps even closer to the world of R. F. Delderfield's novel, To Serve Them All My Days.
But unlike those novels this was a short story and it is with the focus required in a short story that Canin tells of a life dedicated to teaching. The dedication is almost to the exclusion of all other interests, but it is not sufficient to provide a moral foundation that can carry the teacher through the difficult dilemma that he faces in the story. But in addition to this I believe the title of the story also refers to the role of time, as the teacher, Mr. Hundert, finds as time as has passed him by that his life is ending with many unanswered questions. True, he had an impact on the lives of some of his students, but did he gain anything in return?

Monday, March 22, 2010

This is one of Michael Frayn's lighter works, but enjoyable nonetheless. In it a weak plot is put in service of an enjoyable analysis of Bruegel's paintings and, eventually, the painter himself (it helps to come to the book with some knowledge of his oeuvre as this may heighten your reading enjoyment). As the story goes on the plot and characters become less important. If you have an interest in 16th century Dutch painting, the intellectual fervor centered around Antwerp or the details of the Counter-Reformation, this book is probably just right for you.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Sonnet for Today

Yet another facet of love - so near and yet so far from that found in Proust.

Sonnet #151


Love is too young to know what conscience is;
Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?
Then, gentle cheater, urge not my amiss,
Lest guilty of my faults thy sweet self prove:
For, thou betraying me, I do betray
My nobler part to my gross body's treason;
My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love; flesh stays no father reason;
But, rising at thy name, doth point out thee
As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.
No want of conscience hold it that I call
Her 'love' for whose dear love I rise and fall.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

In Search of Lost Time

The Captive, Book V, Part One

The heart is infinitely impressionable regarding everything that concerns the life of a certain person, so that a lie from that person causes that heart intolerable spasms. Our mind may go on reasoning interminably during these spasms, but it does no more to mitigate them by taking thought we can soothe an aching tooth.
- Proust, The Captive, p 295

Jealousy is a major theme throughout In Search of Lost Time with the generosity of Proust's variations on this theme comparable to that encountered in the plays of Shakespeare. The theme appears in the first volume where Swann's love for Odette is colored by his jealousy:

"But then at once his jealousy, as though it were the shadow of his love, presented him with the complement, with the converse of that new smile with which she had greeted him that veryevening - and which now, perversely, mocked Swann and shone with love for another . . . With the result that he came to regret every pleasure that he tasted in her company, every new caress of which he had been so imprudent as to point out to her the delights, every fresh charm that her found in her," (Proust, Swann's Way)

In his discussion of Proust in "Where Shall Wisdom be Found?" Harold Bloom concludes that the only recourse of the jealous lover "is to search for lost time, in the hopeless hope that the aesthetic recovery of illusion and of experience alike will deceive him in a higher moder than he fears to have been deceived already."(p 256) This is where we find Marcel in his tortuous relationship with Albertine in The Captive. Just as in the examples of Swann and Odette or Charlus and Morel, before him Marcel succumbs to his deepest fears of the activities of Albertine with others. His passion for her was like an elevtric current and the jealousy, rahter than a breaker, was fuel for the fires of his passion.

The Captive & The Fugitive by Marcel Proust. Modern Library, New York. 2003 (1923)
Where Shall Wisdom be Found? by Harold Bloom. Riverhead Books, New York. 2004

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

From here forward, if I was to make something of my days in this place, I would have to lift myself. I turned and walked farther. The paths glittered with ice.
- Ethan Canin, America America, p 198

America America, the novel by Ethan Canin, is an immensely readable saga of a young man's life in middle America. That his life intersected with that of a renowned Senator from his state is part of the story that Canin tells, but not the most important part. In fact the political narrative while interesting may diminish the coming of age story about Corey Sifter, his family, his home town and his mentor, Liam Metarey. The narrator, Corey, is an examplar of the old-fashioned Puritan work ethic. He demonstrates this both in his physical work at home and for the Metareys; and again in his studies at the private school which he attends, with the support of his mentor, as he uses his love of reading and dedication to study as a way to overcome his discomfort in a school where most students are from backgrounds completely different from his own. His mentor liked to say to him, "work will set you free" (p 401). It seems that every small town has a family like the Metareys; bigger than life and more powerful than most others in town. I know my own small town home did. That was part of what made this book a comfortable, compelling read for me.

The novel is both written and structured well, narrated by an interesting first person who knows enough of the town secrets to keep you interested, but not all, and who has an unwillingness to share all that he does know. What is the right thing to do when your mentor's family overreaches? Do you forgo their largesse or do you look the other way and try to pretend that everything is all right? We find the narrator musing, "Liam Metarey remains a mystery to me to this day. I knew him for what he seemed to be in the eyes of a sixteen year-old boy . . . In retrospect I understood almost nothing."(p 427)

The author sometimes, however briefly, strikes notes of hubris in his assumptions about what is good for America, but because this is fiction the reader can forgive him and remember that real world politics is never as idealitically pure as it may be portrayed by novelists with "rose-colored" glasses. In spite of this I truly enjoyed this book for most its sentiments and for those passages that betrayed an honesty and love for an America that was and, hopefully, may not yet be lost.

Monday, March 15, 2010

"We Look up at the Stars"

I posted the following poem more than a year ago as an "Hommage à Auden"; however, it seems fitting to refer to it once again as a poetic response to the lecture I attended yesterday by Herman Sinaiko on Plato's Republic. This is a response to the power poetic and real of knowledge and the possibility of growth in wisdom.

A More Human Universe

We look up at the stars above and realize
How little we know -- what a masquerade
Of consciousness we live -- our guise
For a reality that stands alone.

How great is the gulf between the stars
And those below, who dream of cares
So small? Our sky includes both Mars
And other celestial beauties for our wonder.

We look to the sky above and are alone,
Vulnerable to the reality we live below.
Do we hope to share in the infinite one,
With the stars as companions to our being?

The feeling of the stars, in its icy gravity,
Displays nothing that points toward
A more human universe.
Can we bridge the gulf with knowledge?

No, not knowledge, but wisdom acquired
By facing the certainty of each moment lived.
The reality of roles and missions discovered
And fulfilled is moving us closer to the stars.

- James Henderson
(August, 1992 (2003))

"Beware the Ides of March"

What better day than today to celebrate a little Shakespeare. My own introduction to Shakespeare occurred more than forty years ago when I read Romeo & Juliet and Julius Caesar during my first two years in high school. Julius Caesar has been close to me as a play for it was also the first Shakespeare I saw in a live stage production (although I had previously viewed the Franco Zeffirelli film of Romeo & Juliet). Subsequently I have both seen and read this play as much as most any of Shakespeare's plays other than the great tragedies.

The Ides of March (Latin: Idus Martias) is the name of March 15 in the Roman calendar. The term ides was used for the 15th day of the months of March, May, July, and October, and the 13th day of the other months. The Ides of March was a festive day dedicated to the god Mars and a military parade was usually held. In modern times, the term Ides of March is best known as the date that Julius Caesar was killed in 44 B.C. Julius Caesar was stabbed to death in the Roman Senate led by Marcus Junius Brutus, Gaius Cassius Longinus and 60 other co-conspirators.

According to Plutarch (Shakespeare's source for this drama), Caesar was warned by a seer to be on his guard against a great peril on the Ides of March. On his way to the Theatre of Pompey (where he would be assassinated) Caesar saw the seer and joked "Well, the Ides of March have come," to which the seer replied "Ay, they have come, but they are not gone."

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Journey

"Wiser by the day"

Socrates' "beautiful city," the political pattern of justice, gradually emerges from the discussion in the first seven books of the Republic. The last, but most significant, feature of the just city to come to light is the figure of the philosopher-king. The nature and goal of philosophy itself is finally treated by Socrates in the Simile of Light in books VI and VII. But are philosophy and politics compatible? Is the just city a realizable goal or is it an unrealizable image, a Utopian dream?
- Herman Sinaiko, introduction to the lecture.

I do not claim to be wise or even particularly knowledgeable about any one thing; however I do try to learn a little every day and thus become a better human being. What brings this thought to mind is a lecture I attended this afternoon by Herman Sinaiko (Professor, Humanities, the College, the University of Chicago). The stated title of his lecture was "A Line, a Cave, and a Beautiful City in Plato's Republic", but I think a shorter, more direct summary title would be "The Journey". He focused on Books 6 and 7 of The Republic in discussing the "overall way the simile of light can be read". I am not going to attempt to discuss the lecture in detail for I am still digesting his words and I have a four page hand out that he asked us to read afterward along with reading, or rereading (in my case) The Republic. The lecture was a demonstration of Plato's project, to the extent it can be demonstrated in a lecture. How does one demonstrate the "dialectic" of Socrates without engaging in the actual process?

He concluded the lecture with a summation of his goal of providing: 1) an account of "The Good", 2) the structure of the "divided line", and 3) the Parable of the Cave. All of this was, in part, an attempt to start (just start) to answer the questions: What is a human being? What is the truth that exists beyond all statements? How do we understand and deal with the inadequacy of our knowledge? Any misinterpretation of this lecture is due to my own limitations which can only be addressed over time, trying each day to engage in "the journey". Hopefully becoming a little wiser, and realizing a little better the breadth of the project.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


from "Nocturnes"

When pain comes

"a universe of broken people"
- Joyce Carol Oates

When pain comes like waves breaking on the shore of your heart,
your life is circumscribed by the roar of the breakers.
So much more living would be possible if only you could step apart
from the pain.
You search for someone with whom to share -
there are no takers.

It binds your thought with straps of steel that defy your heart's logic.
Frozen in time the memory of pleasant places is hidden by shadows,
Which, like shards of memory, shower your being with moments of magic.
You try to escape from this world -
hiding inside and staring out the windows.
Seeing all the other broken people.

- James Henderson, May 1993

From "Nocturnes", a collection of night thoughts in the poetic mode.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Quote for Today

Be as a bird
perched on a frail branch
that she feels bending beneath her,
still she sings away all the same,
knowing she has wings.

- Victor Hugo

Thursday, March 11, 2010

This book goes beyond history to provide an account of individual heroism and nobility. The primary hero is Dr. Benjamin Rush, who led the fight against the plague of yellow fever in Philadelphia of 1793. The book is both well-written and well-researched, filled with details about the plague and its effect on all aspects of life in Philadelphia starting in the summer of 1793. The chronicle of death at times seems overwhelming, but the courage of those physicians and others who fought against it are what made it a remarkable story for me.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

We Made it Hum


"We made Tono-Bungay hum! It brought us wealth, influence, respect, the confidence of endless people. All that my uncle promised me proved truth and understatement; Tono-Bungay carried me to freedoms and powers that no life of scientific research, no passionate service of humanity could ever have given me...." (Tono-Bungay, Chapter 3)  

This is Wells writing stylistically like Dickens in a mode of novel-writing that aims at the nineteenth century version of social justice (even though it was published at the end of the first decade of the twentieth century).
Today he is mainly remembered for his science fiction. "Tono Bungay" is an unusual work in that it straddles two of these genres: it is both science fiction and social commentary. The novel follows the rise and fall of an empire built on a quack medicine. The medicine, Tono Bungay, gives the book its title. Regardless of what it stands for, it is clear that Tono Bungay is not entirely good for you, and probably harmful in the long run. The short-term effects are however sufficiently pleasing so as to make a fortune for its inventor.
The novel is narrated by a young man, George Ponderevo, who, while not as appealing as the best of Dickens' heroes, has a certain charm. His rise along with that of his Uncle Teddy is chronicled with wit and an ear for the details of turn of the century commerce that make the book rewarding to the interested reader. Wells was able to write deeper and had a greater palette than those who may have only read his early science-romances might imagine. However Wells does add instances of science fiction even in this novel and often they are only remotely related to the main topic. Such is the case for the various experiments in air travel which make up a substantial part of the book. Yet another science fiction episode concerns a mysterious ore, which appears to be radioactive. Ostensibly, the purpose of this ore is to provide Tono Bungay a new infusion and lease on life. Radioactivity had only recently been discovered when Wells wrote this novel, and indeed was very mysterious . Wells treats the radioactive ore as something that fundamentally corrupts all that it touches. 
The result is an unusual book that as a whole is better than most of Wells' many works of science fiction.

Tono-Bungay by H. G. Wells.  Bison Books, 1978 (1908)


Any fool can have bad luck; the art consists in knowing how to exploit it.
- Frank Wedekind

In 1918, Bertolt Brecht attended the funeral of German playwright Frank Wedekind who had died on this day that year. He later wrote in his diary, "They stood perplexed in top hats, as if round the carcass of a vulture. Bewildered crows."
Wedekind was a major influence on Brecht, with whom he had much in common — both were once cabaret singers, both were controversial pioneers in theatrical form, both critics of bourgeois culture driven to exile by censorship.

Wedekind was a moralist who wore the mask of an immoralist, he had been the terror of the German bourgeoisie, alternately praised for being a saint and condemned for being a devil. He did not follow any group, or subscribe to any political ideology of the day. And his expressionistic visions preceded the rise of expressionism by several decades.

During Frank Wedekind's lifetime, his plays were persecuted and only performed in censored versions. They were considered pure pornography, for he dared to deal with issues of sexual freedom and release, problems of puberty, moments of ecstasy between the sexes, and moments of misunderstanding and violence. Wedekind's language was brilliant and poetic, constructed mainly of cascades of short one-line sentences often consisting of only one or two words, like verbal exchanges between pistols. His plays broke through all the clichés of the theatre of his time, and today he is considered one of the founders of modern drama. He has most recently become familiar through the recent revival of his play Spring Awakening, but my primary appreciation of his work has its source in Alban Berg's opera Lulu, an adaptation of Wedekind's play Pandora's Box.

Monday, March 08, 2010

The market economy needs no apologists and propagandists. It can apply to itself the words of Sir Christopher Wrens epitaph in St. Pauls: Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. [If you seek his monument, look around.] Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, p 850

There is more information in the 261 pages of The Mind of the Market than there is in most books more than twice its size. That is both an advantage and a disadvantage in the sense that the book held the reader's attention even though the fecundity of ideas sometimes bordered on the overwhelming. Michael Shermer, the author of The Mind of the Market, is the publisher of Skeptic Magazine and the author of nine previous books. In this book he attempts to capture the "Mind" of the Market while arguing against previous visions of how the market works while surveying scientific theories that he believes may be used to replace these earlier visions. I came to the book receptive to his support of free market economics, his penultimate chapter is entitled "Free to Choose" - a direct reference to Milton Friedman's classic text of the same name; however I was not convinced that, with all the scientific theories and studies used as examples of "evolutionary" economics and the neuroscience of the market, he made a convincing case. Many of the pieces of the book seemed to just hang there, fascinating little essays on some aspect of science or how "Homo Economicus" no longer exists (or perhaps never did!).

He summarizes his goals as describing 1) How the market has a mind of its own; 2) How minds operate in markets: and, 3) How minds and markets are moral. Each of these goals can be included under the rubric of "Evolutionary Economics" in Shermer's estimation. For my "money" and "mind" I found his attempt to be informative and entertaining if not, in the end, convincing.

View all my reviews >>

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Iliad

"Roan Beauty"

"Why, Roan Beauty--why prophesy my doom?
Don't waste your breath. I know, well I know--
I am destined to die here. . ."
(Book 19, 497-99)

Achilles' roar permeates Books 18 and 19 of The Iliad. From the moment we read "Achilles , Zeus' favorite fighter, rose up. . ." to his "enormous cry" and the "fire, relentless, terrible, burst from proud-hearted Achilles' head,"(Book 18, 235 - 260), we and the Argives and even the Trojans, who immediately lose twelve of their fighters, are aware of the presence of Achilles. He has returned and he meets with Agamemnon to receive his due and assume leadership of the troops. His meeting with Agamemnon yields the the prophecy that:

For years to come, I think, they will remember the feud that flared between us both. (Book 19, 72-3)

But it is Roan Beauty who reminds Achilles and us of his ultimate sacrifice in this moving statement,:

The white-armed goddess Hera gave him voice:
"Yes! we will save your life--this time too--
master, mighty Achilles! But the day of death
already hovers near, and we are not to blame
but a great god is and the strong force of fate.
. . .
still you are doomed to die by force, Achilles,
cut down by a death less god and mortal man!"
(Book 19, 482-494)

The Roan Beauty does not speak again.

The Iliad by Homer. Robert Fagles, trans. Viking Penguin, New York. 1990

Saturday, March 06, 2010

This is a Rabelaisian novel first and foremost. Rough around the edges, but full of life, Henry Miller's once-banned memoir-like novel is better than any reality TV show (pardon me, that standard is too low to be meaningful). Picaresque in its telling the story skips around France and shares experiences that seem as real as any dream, or nightmare, can be. A crazy wonderful book. Not for prudes - if there are any left in the twenty-first century.

View all my reviews >>

Friday, March 05, 2010

Dylan Thomas

On this day in 1954, Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood was published in England; coming out just four months after his death in New York, it was an immediate best seller. Thomas's lifelong ambivalence towards Wales — "Land of my fathers. My fathers can keep it" — is maintained in the play, his Laugharne becoming the imaginary village of Llareggub, or "bugger-all" backwards.

But it is his poetry that I love and enjoy the most. There are many wonderful poems in his collected works - perhaps the following will suffice for a cold March day as spring approaches:

Holy Spring

Out of a bed of love
When that immortal hospital made one more moove to soothe
The curless counted body,
And ruin and his causes
Over the barbed and shooting sea assumed an army
And swept into our wounds and houses,
I climb to greet the war in which I have no heart but only
That one dark I owe my light,
Call for confessor and wiser mirror but there is none
To glow after the god stoning night
And I am struck as lonely as a holy marker by the sun

Praise that the spring time is all
Gabriel and radiant shrubbery as the morning grows joyful
Out of the woebegone pyre
And the multitude's sultry tear turns cool on the weeping wall,
My arising prodgidal
Sun the father his quiver full of the infants of pure fire,
But blessed be hail and upheaval
That uncalm still it is sure alone to stand and sing
Alone in the husk of man's home
And the mother and toppling house of the holy spring,
If only for a last time.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Childhood is Past

I am lying in my bed five flights up, and my day, which nothing interrupts, is like a clock-face without hands. As something that has been lost for a long time reappears one morning in its old place, safe and sound, almost newer than when it vanished, just as if someone had been taking care of it–: so, here and there on my blanket, lost feelings out of my childhood lie and are like new. All the lost fears are there again.
I prayed to rediscover my childhood, and it has come back, and I feel that it is just as difficult as it used to be, and that growing older has served no purpose at all.
And if I insisted on believing that my childhood was past, then at that same moment the whole future had vanished too,
– Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (tr. S. Mitchell)

Childhood is past
And with it the dreams
Of the dream seekers-

Memories that last
Are all that can lift
Us toward the future.

Childhood is past
And with it the fears
Of hidden dread-

The life that we made
Contains all our dreams
And fears we have conquered.

Dreamers and seekers
We live to pursue a fading
Image of all that was there-

We listen to the stars
Within us, and their light
Will guide us forever.

Dreamers and seekers,
These are the children within –
The knowers and seers.

Childhood is past
But look, deep within-
And see what is real.

- James Henderson, from Music Lessons (August, 1992)

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

This volume is a selection of his poetry that includes some of my favorites such as The Loreley and the Seraphine poems. The editor, Frederic Ewen, includes a biographical essay that is a good introduction to the life and work of this great poet.

She combs her golden hair

With a comb of gold she combs it,
And sings an evensong;
The wonderful melody reaches
A boat, as it sails along.

- from The Loreley by Heine

View all my reviews >>

The Poetry of Heinrich Heine. Frederic Ewen, ed. Citadel Press, Secaucus, New Jersey. 1969

Monday, March 01, 2010

Frederic Chopin

Chopin Bicentennial

"Music was his language, the divine tongue through which he expressed a whole realm of sentiments that only the select few can appreciate... The muse of his homeland dictates his songs, and the anguished cries of Poland lend to his art a mysterious, indefinable poetry which, for all those who have truly experienced it, cannot be compared to anything else... The piano alone was not sufficient to reveal all that lies within him. In short he is a most remarkable individual who commands our highest degree of devotion."
- Franz Liszt

Two Hundred years ago today Frederic Chopin, the poet of the piano, was born. For classical music aficionados everywhere, whether they are pianists like myself, this is a red-letter day. Let's celebrate! I have already listened to my favorite recording of his two Piano Concertos performed by Martha Argerich with Charles Dutoit conducting the Montreal Symphony Orchestra; but my day of Chopin celebration will not end there and I hope yours does not either.

He grew up in Warsaw and entered the Conservatory (1826-9). By then he had already performed in local salons and composed several rondos, polonaises and mazurkas. Public and critical acclaim increased during the years 1829-30 when he gave concerts in Vienna and Warsaw, but his reaction to the political repression in Poland, coupled with his musical ambitions, led him to move to Paris in 1831. There, with practical help from the virtuoso pianist Kalkbrenner and the piano maker Pleyel, praise from Liszt, and a warm welcome in the criticism of Robert Schumann, he quickly established himself as a private teacher and salon performer, his legendary artist's image being enhanced by frail health (he had tuberculosis), attractive looks, sensitive playing, a courteous manner and the piquancy attaching to self-exile (Polish exiles were not uncommon in Paris of the 1830s). He was friends with other famous musicians and artists in Paris at that time including Berlioz, Liszt, and Delacroix. While he was acquainted with Countess Marie D'Agoult, his most notable romantic affair was with the novelist George Sand (Aurore Dudevant) though whether he was truly drawn to women must remain in doubt. Between 1838 and 1847 their relationship, with a strong element of the maternal on her side, coincided with one of his most productive creative periods. He gave few public concerts, though his playing was much praised, and he published much of his best music simultaneously in Paris, London and Leipzig. The breach with Sand was followed by a rapid deterioration in his health and a long visit to Britain (1848). His funeral at the Madeleine was attended by nearly 3000 people.

Chopin devoted himself as exclusively to the piano. By all accounts an inspired improviser, he composed while playing, writing down his thoughts only with difficulty. But he was no mere dreamer - his development can be seen as an ever more sophisticated improvisation on the classical principle of departure and return. For the concert-giving years 1828-32 he wrote brilliant virtuoso pieces (e.g. rondos) and music for piano and orchestra; the teaching side of his career is represented by the studies, preludes, nocturnes, waltzes, impromptus and mazurkas, polished pieces of moderate difficulty. The large-scale works - the later polonaises, scherzos, ballades, sonatas, the Barcarole and the dramatic Polonaise-fantaisie - he wrote for himself and a small circle of admirers. Apart from the national feeling in the Polish dances, and possibly some narrative background to the ballades, he intended notably few references to literary, pictorial or autobiographical ideas.

Chopin is admired above all for his great originality in exploiting the piano. While his own playing style was famous for its subtlety and restraint, its exquisite delicacy in contrast with the spectacular feats of pianism then reigning in Paris, most of his works have a simple texture of accompanied melody. From this he derived endless variety, using wide-compass broken chords, the sustaining pedal and a combination of highly expressive melodies, some in inner voices. Similarly, though most of his works are basically ternary in form, they show great resource in the way the return is varied, delayed, foreshortened or extended, often with a brilliant coda added. Chopin's harmony however was conspicuously innovatory. Through melodic clashes, ambiguous chords, delayed or surprising cadences, remote or sliding modulations (sometimes many in quick succession), unresolved dominant 7ths and occasionally excursions into pure chromaticism or modality, he pushed the accepted procedures of dissonance and key into previously unexplored territory. This profound influence can be seen in the music of Liszt (a personal friend),Fauré, Debussy, Grieg, and many others.*

*Source: Grove's Dictionary.