Paulus Torchus

Month: July, 2013

Again, Essays

354px-Plate_Vb_Human_Skull,_engraving_by_William_Miller_after_drawing_by_W_Miller

John Milton, by Walter Bagehot

In all honesty, I find that I am beginning to either go too long between updates or cramming my head too full of essays. I remember that this was a review of one or more books about Milton. I remember that it was a good read, although, again, odd to read a review of a book that I am not called upon to read. I remember the discussion of the characters of Satan and Eve in Paradise Lost, which included the age old argument that Milton made Satan into a character perhaps a bit too understandable for someone claiming to view him as a villain (in case you’re wondering, I reject this hypothesis. I believe Milton was attempting to illuminate why and how we have such an enemy in Satan. In order to do so, he had to get into the mindset of one who rebels against authority. That is why it is such a great poem. Artists have a thing called imagination which allows them to do such things. It does not mean that they are secret Satanists).

Was it good? I seem to remember thinking it was. Did I learn from it? Well, it seems what I’ve written above stuck with me anyway. Would I recommend it? I would recommend just about anything by or having to do with John Milton.

Science and Culture, by Thomas Henry Huxley

What an oddity, given our vantage point! Huxley gives a speech in praise of scientific learning. In doing so, he has some harsh words for those who believe that education should be towards the purely, immediately obvious vocational (a battle which we still fight). But he also speaks against a “classical education.” He does so to promote the “scientific education.”

We must look at this through the filter of his time. The battle for scientific education of any kind was still being waged. Huxley was talking to the current Texas Board of Education. From my point of view, it is unfortunately and highly ill advised to throw a classical education under the bus in order to gain science curriculum. RATHER YOU NEED BOTH! And you can have both. In our time, a classical education is all but dead. The Humanities are endangered species. So:

Was it good? It was well written. Did I learn from it? I learned what I’ve just said about Huxley and his time. Would I recommend it? I cannot.

Race and Language, by Edward Augustus Freeman

Oh dear me, no. We really don’t need to hear from 1870 on the subject of race, do we? Surely this is one instance where, though we clearly still have a long way to go, we are far wiser than our ancestors.

As it progressed, my reaction was mixed. On one hand, Freeman’s thesis seems to be along the lines of “race doesn’t really matter as we are all human.” He, to some extent, illustrates this by surveying in narcotic detail the history of language (language not being an indicator of race as it shifts dramatically through history). Sound fine, right? But then he’ll throw in words to the extent of “but the real indicator of race, as we now know, is the shape of the skull.”

Oh, Freeman. Sit down and let the future teach you about race, please.

Good? No. Terribly dull and the good bits are dwarfed by the forehead slaps. Learned from it? Nothing I didn’t already know about racial views in 1870. Recommend it? Nope.

Truth of Intercourse, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Stevenson is an excellent writer and a breath of fresh air in light of what I just sat through. His (extremely short) essay talks about the impossibility of pure truthfulness, citing the possibility of being disingenuous while speaking the truth, or dishonest while never even speaking a word, and so forth.

Good? Great! Learned from it? Yes! Recommend it? YES!

Samuel Pepys, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Samuel Pepys retained the charming vibrancy of experience that a child possesses well into middle age, or so says Stevenson. Stevenson is telling us about a six volume set of The Diaries which he has purchased (although very little of the piece is a book review so much as a biographical thumbnail sketch). Does it make one want to read Pepys? Yes! Unfortunately, The Diaries are not included in this series and so you’ll have to wait until you’re done with the series in a year or so.

Good? Yes. Learned from it? Learned quite a bit about Samuel Pepys about whom I formerly knew that he wrote famous diaries and nothing else. Recommend it? Yes, although the cloud of despair at this point in the series makes it difficult to work up a whole lot of enthusiasm over something that reinforces how much you would like to be reading other things.

Next up: The conclusion of the two volumes of essays.

Advertisements

Still More Essays

ImageJonathan Swift, by William Makepeace Thackeray

In America, to say “he was a great writer, but in a lot of ways an obstreperous man and he ended badly” is sort of the institution. Poe, Kurt Vonnegut, Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, Ernest Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Truman Capote, Faulkner, and the list could go on and on, could all have that quote applied to them with very little objection. This is, essentially, Thackeray’s statement about Swift.

It was another thumbnail biography, one of the more enjoyable ones. While biographical, the bulk of the focus was on Swift’s literary output and legacy, both of which are formidable.

Good and enjoyable? Yes. Gained from it? Well, enjoying is gaining, I suppose. I was already predisposed to like Swift’s work, so I’m not really sure how to answer this. Recommend it? Yes, but more to the point, I recommend Swift.

The Idea of a University, by John Henry Newman

This was an odd read. He begins on the subject of, as the title might suggest, what is a university. He proceeds to talk about Oxford, its history, how great of a thing it is, how much better it would be if its “citadel of academia” aspects were highlighted even further. He ends by talking about ancient Athens as a hub of learning. And that is pretty much it.

Good? Readable. I think it would get demerits in rhetoric. Enjoyable? To a degree if I subtract my confusion over the lack of cohesiveness. Gained from it? The part about “citadels of academia” was inspiring. Recommend it? Probably not for general reading and I’m not sure why I had to read it.

The Study of Poetry, by Matthew Arnold

I like Arnold’s poetry to begin with. He begins by talking about the discipline of studying poetry. He champions the necessity of gravitas in great poets. All of which I appreciated, but he then went on to do two things that grate on my nerves.

First, he began to compare poets for levels of greatness, a sort of Western Canon argument, which in and of itself does not bother me. What bothered me was that he would take, for example, a line from Chaucer or Burns and place it next to a line from Dante or Shakespeare and then say, “See! It’s clearly not nearly as great.”

I did not see this in any of his examples. I think Chaucer and Burns are among the greatest poets of all time and comparing in that manner is intellectually dishonest.

But even worse, Arnold did the “Boo-Hoo, there is no great poetry being written today” schtick that we still see in magazines every few years today (one was just published in Harper’s a few weeks ago). I also find this intellectually dishonest as well as lazy.

Sesame and Lilies: Parts 1 & 2, by John Ruskin

This was one of my favorite essays. It was two lectures, delivered a week apart in the late 1860s. In the first part, Ruskin argues for the primary importance in a society of a love of books. Bless his heart. At one point, he goes on a bit of a rant toward Victorian England:

“Above all a nation cannot last as a money-making mob: it cannot with impunity,- it cannot with existence,- go on despising literature, despising science, despising art, despising nature, despising compassion, and concentrating its soul on Pence. Do you think these are harsh or wild words? Have patience with me but a little longer. I will prove their truth to you, clause by clause.”

Ah, and he keeps his promise in words that could just as well be leveled at contemporary America. It left me with that increasingly familiar deep sorrow from the end of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or upon hearing the Television is a Vast Wasteland speech. It’s a sorrow over realizing the thing that was being righteously spoken out against here has, in fact, won and become the rule of the day. Ruskin essentially laid out my non-negotiable political views in this piece.

At least in part 1.

Part 2 deals with the education of women. He began by talking about the role of women in society, which can be a little dodgy when coming from a Victorian. In this case, my personal feeling was what he said did not stray far from how Laurie and I treat our marriage. However, it would be difficult to prescribe what he says across the board in post-feminist America. Do not mistake what I am saying. I love that we live in a time which is more equitable and where women can do anything men can do. I also grieve over and would seek to change the places in which that equality has failed. I have a marriage in which we strengthen one another. In our case, what Ruskin suggests is pretty much the practice. I could not present his ideas dogmatically in, say, a classroom setting.

And we are not going to be so Freudian as to bring up Ruskin’s well known issues with his wife.

Although, I think one of the valuable contributions of this second lecture was his survey of the women of Shakespeare. He points out that, save for possibly Henry V, there are no pure heroes in Shakespeare. However, with the possible exception of Ophelia and Lady Macbeth, there is nothing but exemplary heroines in Shakespeare (although, in mentioning this statement to Laurie, she brought up The Taming of the Shrew. Again, Ruskin was a Victorian).

Good? Great! Enjoyed it? YES! Gained from it? Heavens, yes! Recommend it? Uh… well, the first part unequivocally. The second part with the aforementioned caveats.

Let’s All Write an Epitaph!

Because this is what I do on a summer vacation morning, apparently.

The etymology of the word is from the ancient Greek for a funeral oration. It is, in the modern English, an inscription on a tombstone or memorial marker for the dead.

When I was in Stratford-Upon-Avon (I realize with shock that it is creeping up on 20 years ago) I was surprised to find that I had never heard of the famous epitaph of Shakespeare’s tomb (possibly penned by the Bard himself) until I was standing in front of it:

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare
To digg the dust encloased heare
Blese be the man that spares these stones
And curst be he that moves my bones

I did buy a rubbing of it in the gift shop, Lord help me.

Ron Padgett says that an epitaph could be a simple phrase in prose or a poem, but, I mean, we didn’t come to The Handbook of Poetic Forms for simple lines of prose, now did we? Here is an example by Robinson Jeffers (a poem which I also might not mind having on my tombstone):

I wrestled with what I wanted to do with this form. I rejected out of hand anything cutesy or funny. I thought about those I know who have passed on, but being naturally armored, I was reluctant to delve into such complex areas of feeling in the public square (which is probably a major block in the quality of my poetic output, but that’s my problem and not yours). So, I finally settled on writing, à la Shakespeare, my own epitaph. When I die, be sure to donate money to Laurie so she can get this on my tombstone without her having to sell the movie rights to my novel and, thereby, making me restless in my grave.

Here lie the bones of Paul Mathers, tho’ his soul is on wing

Therefore weep you not over an inanimate thing.

But to honor the former vessel which once contain’d Paul

reflect that, in your current case, the timing is all.

So be kind, and aspire ever Godward with your time,

And listen to Mahler, read the classics, drink red wine!

And Many More Essays.

ImageI’ve finally finished this volume and started the next volume. The next volume is another volume of essays. So, before I forget what they were about:

Deaths of Little Children, by James Henry Leigh Hunt

Oh, and it’s about as cheery as the title might suggest! Hunt was of the Byron and Shelley crowd, but was not as accomplished of a poet. It is unfortunate that he did not focus more on being an essayist. The core idea of this piece is that the death of a child is, of course, nearly the most terrible thing that could happen to a person. However, one slight consolation might be that those who have lost a small child, in a manner of speaking, have an infant forever, whereas those who watch their children grow up have this weird beast in front of them that ate their child and took on its features.

Note: If you are reading this in order to steal my ideas for an essay, please know that I really ran far into the hinterlands of paraphrase in my summation above.

Good? Yes, but odd and bleak. Gained from reading it? I guess. Recommend it? I wouldn’t not recommend it.

On the Realities of Imagination, by James Henry Leigh Hunt

What is the difference between dream life and waking life? It all takes place inside of your brain as far as you are concerned. A madman sees four foot long beetles on the wall. You do not see them. He really does see them though! To him, they are as real as you.

So it is with poets and artists.

Good? Yes. Gained from it? Well, not much besides hearing a second to ideas that I frequently state. Recommend it? Sure.

The Tragedies of Shakespere (sic), by Charles Lamb

I almost threw the book across the room. Lamb makes an argument that Shakespeare is meant to be read rather that to be seen performed on a stage. He states that a performance might forever taint the image of the action of the play in the mind of the reader/viewer, as if Hamlet will forever be David Tennant or Derek Jacobi or Kenneth Branagh or so forth, in your mind’s eye. As if you were some kind of drooling idiot whose imagination retards upon first imprint.

I wanted to grab Charles Lamb by the collar and shout in his face, “YOU SHOULD DO BOTH! READ IT AND WATCH IT! IMMERSION!”

So, I have a long path of recovering any shred of respect for Charles Lamb ahead of me.

Good? No. Evil. Gained from it? No! Recommend it ? No! No! No!

Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow, by Thomas de Quincey

I had heard of the author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater, but this was the first time I’ve had the pleasure of reading him. His writing is a heady wine. I have an affinity for the type who are brilliant, but after you talk with them for a few minutes you realize that they are more than a little mad (Taylor Mead and Glenn Gould spring to mind).

de Quincey gives a sort of morose alternative to the muses: Our Lady of Tears, Our Lady of Sighs, and Our Lady of Darkness. Seriously, this is what you should give to your nephew who is over-enamored with the poetry of Jim Morrison in hopes of getting him to read good literature.

Good? Yes. Gained from it? Yes. Recommend it? Yes. And I look forward to reading more of de Quincey once I am free from the shackles of this series.

A Defence of Poetry, by Percy Bysshe Shelley

It was worth reading the whole volume simply for this piece. This is the essay from which we get the oft quoted “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” That is, in fact, the summation of the piece which might also well serve as a thesis statement.

Shelley illustrates how, essentially, poets have created human civilization:

“The exertions of Locke, Hume, Gibbon, Voltaire, Rousseau, and their disciples, in favor of oppressed and deluded humanity, are entitled to the gratitude of mankind. Yet it is easy to calculate the degree of moral and intellectual improvement which the world would have exhibited, had they never lived. A little more nonsense would have been talked for a century or two; and perhaps a few more men, women, and children burnt as heretics. We might not at this moment have been congratulating each other on the abolition of the Inquisition in Spain. But it exceeds all imagination to conceive what would have been the moral condition of the world if neither Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Calderon, Lord Bacon, nor Milton, had never existed; if Raphael and Michael Angelo had never been born; if the Hebrew poetry had never been translated; if a revival of Greek literature had never taken place; if no monuments of ancient sculpture had been handed down to us; and if the poetry of the religion of the ancient world had been extinguished together with its belief.”

Shelley is one of the greatest authors in the entire collection.

Good? Great! Gained from it? Yes! Recommend it? Yes!

Machiavelli, by Thomas Babington Macaulay

I braced myself for another piece on the subject of something upcoming in the series which really should have been placed after I had read that piece. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was the exact opposite. It is a piece in which the author explains why Machiavelli existed, explains the time and political climate in which he lived, apologizes for him in a way, and then explains why one ought to read him. The style of prose was excellent and vibrant.

Good? Yes! Gained from it? Yes! Recommend it? Yes!

Let’s All Write an Epistle Poem!

The Epistle Poem is, as the title might suggest, a poem which is also a letter. I am, in fact, adding “Poem” to the end of the title of the form in hopes to clear up any confusion that we are simply writing a letter.

Letters were a thing that people used to write on paper to another person and then put in a paper covering, called an envelope, which they would then take to a thing called the post office for delivery to the addressee. Ron Padgett’s description of the form, in fact, seems to have been written in that strange period of time after people had stopped writing letters but before the advent of email.

There are many examples of the form, but there is no instruction on the actual form save for writing a letter. There is no preferred meter or addressee. So I wrote this:

An Open Letter to the Epistle Poetic Form

by Paul Mathers

First of all, I will not start writing to the dead.

That seems like one of the least healthy things I could do.

Second, I appreciate the offer

to send a thank you note to the butterfly

on my lunchtime walk today

who flew in concentric circles and

enringed me as I passed by,

or a collections notice to Genius,

or anything to anything or anyone

to accrue interest on whimsy

against life’s inevitable times of deductions.

But, all the same, no thanks.

I feel my future biographers will bear me out

that I need no instruction in the invention of pathetic flailings.

While flattered and tempted,

the sandal straps of imagination

are a bit too dear in the small print

in our time.

Third, but, in the interest of old acquaintance,

here is how I am doing:

The neuroses have diminished finally

which should save us on hand soap.

I saw an interview with Brian Blessed yesterday

that made me want to go hunt down

my joie de vivre, find where that floozy ran off

with my barbaric yawp.

Pray for me.

Also, finally,

We got a ceiling fan in the kitchen,

but Schubert still has that cough.

Hope this finds you well

in spite of your recent hard times.

Yrs. etc.,

Paul

Life of Addison, by Samuel Johnson

Image

It is reminiscent of Plutarch’s Lives. Samuel Johnson wrote a longish thumbnail sketch biography of Joseph Addison. It is reverent, informative, and… wait, what’s this? Ten pages of reproduced text from a bad review of Addison’s Cato tacked on to the end? For the purpose of showing how Johnson disagrees with the critic? What, did Johnson get a note just as he was finishing the piece which read “Oh, and by the way, you’ll be paid by the printed word”? Johnson apologized for the lengthy quote, but clearly I have not accepted his apology.

It was a bizarre ending which lasted almost as long as the content of the biography and was a bit excruciating as I did not like what the critic had to say, nor his style of writing. But the biography did scratch an itch. As I mentioned, after reading Addison, it left me with thirst for more. This far into the series, I am finding myself famished for reading that I enjoy. When it comes, it comes in huge doses. When it comes, it comes in peak reading experiences of my life (Don Quixote, The Divine Comedy, Milton, et. al.). In between are some pieces that I find mildly interesting. But still I hear the ever closer tapping of the grizzly reaper’s crook in the background, and I wonder if my time might not be better spent seeking out more of those peak experiences. Then there are pieces like John Stuart Mill which make me feel like I’ve put a Chinese finger trap on myself. I am several years into this reading project and so I can’t quit. Steady, lad.

But I have blasted through several other essays and plan, if the winds be in my favor, to blast through the rest of this volume tomorrow. So I should probably do a few very brief summations.

Addison: Good? Yes mostly. Gained from it? Yes. Recommend it? Only to those starving for more Addison.

Of the Standard of Taste, by David Hume

This was an odd one. I preferred Burke’s thoughts on taste, which doesn’t surprise me as I believe I prefer Burke as a philosopher to Hume. Hume does fall into the camp of “taste is relative” although he finds a bit of a middle path from Burke. Hume rather says that critical ability can be cultivated whereas Burke simply believes that taste can be cultivated.

Good? Yes. Gained from it? I always gain from reading philosophy, even if I disagree with it. Recommend it? Yes. It was well worth it, although I would recommend Burke’s writing on Taste before this piece.

Fallacies of Anti-Reformers, by Sydney Smith

I almost lost my hope of home when I realized this was a summary of a work by Jeremy Bentham. In bold spite of what I just said about philosophy, after Mill, I know I could live a much happier life if I never read anything by or about Utilitarianism again so long as I live. Dr. Eliot’s attention to that particular philosophical school is, I feel, one of the more dated aspects of this series.

However, Sydney Smith was a charming writer. He actually begins by admitting that Bentham’s rhetorical style was next to non-existant and so a digest of his ideas might be called for. Having said that, Bentham via Smith makes some engaging and enduring observations. The piece is about common fallacies that politicians are given to. He was clearly pointing at particular issues of his day. I, on the other hand, was more interested in the endurance of these fallacies. For example, the fallacy of the wisdom of our ancestors. In individual humans, the deference to the wisdom of the aged makes sense. But in generations, it works in the opposite because, you see, we are the aged and the ancients were the young. We now have more experience than humans ever have had before.

There is the fallacy of irrevocable laws, which translates into a sort of tyranny of the past. The analogy is made that when one takes the position of the captain of a ship, the previous captain can leave advice, but he cannot leave the new captain orders. The new captain must choose what is best for his time and circumstance. There is the fallacy of a person in an elevated position behaving as if it is an affront to nature to question him. There is the fallacy of discrediting a measure because you dislike someone who supports the measure. The fallacy of there being no vocal complaints over the issue and the fallacy of procrastination. And so forth. The piece ends with an imagined speech in which a fictional politician gives a speech opposing a fictional measure in which he employs all of the fallacies. And it could have been a modern C-SPAN transcript.

Good? Yes. Gained from it? Yes. Recommend it? Yes.

On Poesy or Art, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Loved loved loved this piece. Coleridge surveys the arts. He claims that art is the reconciliation between man and nature. Poetry, for example, is the perfect marriage of form and unbridled passion. Coleridge, rather charmingly I think, seems to place poetry at a particularly lofty height.

But he also gives the other manifestations of the arts proper due:

“Every human feeling is greater and larger than the exciting cause- a proof, I think, that man is designed for a higher state of existence; and this is deeply implied in music in which there is always something more and beyond the immediate expression.”

And, really, this could be a quote from me on our couch in conversation with Laurie most nights.

Good? Great! Gained from it? Heavens, yes! Recommend it? As highly as possible.

Of Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen, by William Hazlitt

What an odd piece! Hazlitt describes a gathering of wits hosted by Charles Lamb. They are talking about the topic in the title. I’ve been in such conversations. It’s a variation on the “What historical personage would you have to dinner?” question. We get to hear some disagreement over whether or not Chaucer or Pope might fit the bill.

The odd part, for me, was when the conversation seems to shift from “people you would like to meet” to “people you would not like to see because they were probably ugly.” Like Oliver Cromwell. No one wanted to see him, warts and all. This didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Maybe they were trying to be funny.

Good? Uh. Well. I mean I guess it wasn’t poorly written. Gained from it? Uh. I’m not sure. I am really not sure I am any better of a person for having read this piece. Recommend it? No.

More soon. Pray for me.

Paul Mathers on the Toilet

 

You pay for owning a home in two ways. One is the traditional way, usually with a mortgage. The other is that you are left entirely to your own devices whenever a repair needs to happen. In our house, this naturally emerges into a joint effort because, say for example, when the toilet breaks, what am I going to do, quote Byron at it?

The short version is that we noticed moisture around the base of the toilet. We immediately crafted a narrative in which my dog Schubert somehow got the idea to use that device in that way from carefully observing us. This hypothesis crumbled when we wiped up the moisture, flushed, and saw the moisture return. Unfortunately, that happened this morning before I went to work. I began to reflect on the spiritual aspects of the toilet, specifically in moments like these. Much like the afterlife, you would like to pretend that you believe that everything is going to be okay, but experience has taught you that it will probably be very bad.

The toilet is one of those human universals that we end up taking for granted until there is a threat of its removal from our use. It was a very early invention in various formats, an early indication of civilization. One can begin to grasp a more reasonable view of humankind when one realizes that everyone, no matter how great or beautiful, has been a frequent user of toilets. It and death are the great equalizers and about as close to fairness as we shall see in this life.

We have created such a culture around them which, when you think of it, almost borders on idolatry. Before you write that last comment off as hyperbole, let me ask you, how many times have you “held it” through extreme discomfort until you could get to a restroom? Because you do realize that what you were really succumbing to was public shame, right? I mean, as far as ability goes, you could have gone right in the middle of the meeting. It would have been frowned upon, of course.

In disassembling our toilet, I had this overwhelming sense of the simplicity of the device wash over me. This is a device that is placed in just about every place where humans live and do business in the first and second world. It is made of porcelain and they are about the last remaining universal fixture that are made with the intention of having them break as rarely as possible. It is one place where we will not tolerate complete focus on consumption, which has a dash of irony as it is the place where the last effects of consumption are conveyed away from they who have consumed.

I have seen the underside of the final effects of consumption, and it was as filthy as the soul of humankind.

But I also had this new sense of the impermanence of the device. I had always felt as if a toilet was such a sturdy thing, but four bolts turned slightly and the bulk of it was sitting in my backyard. There was a moment of crisis as I realized that I sat upon something as temporal and mortal as this sack of meat I call myself.

Beneath the porcelain is a ring of wax. This was what needed to be replaced. The seal had broken over time. We scraped off the old wax and put a new wax ring in its place. There it sits in yonder bathroom, a thing of porcelain, water, and wax. What else in our modern world is made with such elegance and simplicity. My feeling of accomplishment was only slightly soured by the foul revelations and the sense that my hands will never be clean enough to eat finger foods again.

Let’s All Write Epigrams!

The epigram is another poetic form with a great deal of confusing variety over what it might be. The essence that seems to be universally agreed upon is that it is a witty saying or bit of rhyme. In the sayings category, Oscar Wilde has epigram upon epigram liberally shared, some of which he actually said. Sometimes they are witty bits of poetry, without meaning to draw a crass comparison, the Burma Shave signs spring to mind. Padgett muddies the waters a bit (in light of Epitaph being two forms away) by bringing an example of an epitaph epigram.

I decided to do some of each for my own contributions. But before I get to them, I would like to share the closing words on this form from The Handbook of Poetic Forms, because I think it summed it up nicely.

“Epigrams are similar to what we might say to each other in witty conversation about events of the day, with the difference that the epigram is written on paper or cut in stone to last forever.”

The control appeals to me. It’s a way of redeeming esprit d’escalier. When you’re in the midst of a conversation about a topic, and people are likely only waiting until you stop talking so that they can say what they want to say, it is unlikely that you will be able to relax enough to produce your best bon mots. Now you can do it in the comfort of total seclusion.

As an aside and in related news, my epic poem about Glenn Gould has caused me to take an honest look at my desire to have a permission slip from an authoritative source for my natural inclinations towards reclusiveness.

First, the clever saying. A sort of modern proverb:

What you attempt to save on in cat food, you will only end up spending on kitty litter.

Now, the humorous epitaph:

Beneath your feet there lie the bones

of the dreadful Ernest Crane

who paid for a crooked deck of cards

with a bullet to his brain.

Which disturbed me at how easy something resembling cowboy poetry comes to me. I plan to shut that right back up into Pandora’s box. And, finally, commentary on a topical pieces, suitable to etching in stone:

Once loose lips sinking ships was the wisdom of the day,

but when the boat’s already sunk, baggy lips can flap away!

Or:

Applauding from a distance when a tyrant’s overthrown

misdirects us from the sacrifices of dealing with our own.

Or how about:

I clearly am, by all accounts, righteous, ethical, and sage.

Just look at how much I agree with those who are outraged!

You could go on like this all afternoon. Just go to Google News and respond to every headline in couplet form.

This wasn’t my favorite form. It seemed like the sort of writing exercise one would do in a junior high English class. But now it’s done and hopefully we can move on to more challenging forms again.

Defoe on Dissenters and Damsels

The song above is by Noël Coward (one of my favorite people in the history of people). It is a satirical song about the reaction of certain types to World War II, specifically the leg of it fought on British soil. To fully grasp the irony of the piece, one should imagine listening to it in a London that looks like this:

ImageMy intention is to highlight the importance of tone, tact, and taste. Daniel Defoe, in his essay The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters: or Proposals for the Establishment of the Church, lacks all three of these qualities. Or, rather, he does have a tone, it is simply the vitriolic hate-speak that we are wallowing in with today’s prevailing agitprop school of journalism. At some point, the din of hollering turns into white noise. In the days of Dr. Eliot, such pieces, judiciously placed, may have retained the intended power of the speaker. Today, I find it difficult not to tune out such a piece as I would an O’Reilly or a Michael Savage.

To illustrate that last remark, here is a sampling of said vitriol:

“I answer, It is cruelty to kill a snake or a toad in cold blood, but the poison of their nature makes it a charity to our neighbors, to destroy those creatures!”

Uh oh.

“not for any personal injury received, but for prevention; not for the evil they have done, but the evil they may do! Serpents, toads, vipers, &c., are noxious to the body, and poison the sensitive life: these poison the soul! corrupt our posterity! ensnare our children!”

Won’t somebody please think of the children!

“destroy the vitals of our happiness, our future felicity! and contaminate the whole mass!”

Who are the snakes and toads in question? Those who were not in the Church of England. Yeah, it’s one of those. It was written post-Restoration, with Queen Anne newly enthroned, in response to the Dissenter’s call for Christian unity and peace. Here are a few choice bits from the summation at the end of the piece:

“Alas, the Church of England! What with Popery on one hand, and Schismatics on the other, how has She been crucified between two thieves. NOW, LET US CRUCIFY THE THIEVES!”

“Let all true sons of so holy and oppressed a Mother, exasperated by her afflictions, harden their hearts against those who have oppressed her!”

Within the history of the Christian church, there are so many examples of those who claim to be within the Church writing the most anti-Christian messages imaginable. If one were compiling what would likely be a horse-choking tome of such pieces, this would be an essential inclusion. I understand the complexities of that particular point in history. And I do not wish to suggest that there are not times in which a firm hand is necessary for the correction of a society. However, to sacrifice your ideals on the altar of your ideals is absolute foolishness… and par for the course of human history.

Hot on the heels of this infernal rhetoric, I had the perfect example of finding a regrettable person on your side. Sometimes you really do not want a person to be in agreement with you due to their highly visible, disgraceful behavior in other arenas.

Defoe argues, from the vantage point of a remarkably less enlightened age, for the education of women for the betterment of society in general. Sounds great, right? Well, maybe, until you read his reasons. His chief reason why women ought to be educated is that they would then make better wives and more amusing companions to men.

And so, I now can articulate why I dislike Daniel Defoe.

Did I enjoy it? No. Did I gain from reading it? Yes. Would I recommend them? … Yes, I suppose I would after I had put as fine a point as I possibly could on the importance of reading and understanding the opinions of the despicable, for the purpose of understanding why they are wrong.

The Spectator Club by Sir Richard Steele and several essays by Jonathan Swift

ImageI am several essays behind in my blog posts, so I am going to fly over several in one post. They have little in common save for being in the same volume.

The Spectator Club is a portal into an alien world, and by that I mean Great Britain of the early 1700s. I know the basic history of The Spectator and The Tatler, enough to know that the modern versions of those magazines (Isabella Blow comes to mind with the latter, and conservative England with the former) bear only about as much resemblance as they are printed on paper. The original “magazines” were daily publications which people would read in the morning and then talk about. They would push forward fads and worldviews which… come to think of it is not really all that different.

The piece was a bit like watching a pilot episode of a television series you might like and then never watching another episode of that show. Here, several characters are introduced with the promise that they are going to be amusing, vessels of ideas, conversation fodder, and then… nothing. Well, I suppose I could hunt down collected issues of The Spectator from the 1700s. But it’s pretty far down on my “to read” list. It just seems odd to me why Dr. Eliot would include this. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Did I get something out of it? I suppose I got a general grasp of what The Spectator was all about. Would I recommend it? No. Instead I would recommend going and reading the actual collected editions of The Spectator which are widely available free of charge due to their antiquity and their complete innocence of demand. Twenty seconds of searching found a free Kindle version on Amazon and a version on Project Gutenberg.

This oddity is followed by several pieces by Jonathan Swift. I shudder to think of the sort of person who would not love Jonathan Swift.

The first essay is Hints Towards an Essay on Conversation. In it, Swift presents a variety of humorous “types” of modes of conversation with specific attention to the more unfortunate choices. Loath as I am to cull a comparison from pop culture, it rather put me in mind of the song from Mary Poppins in which the title character and Dick Van Dyke’s outrageous caricature sing about ways that various people laugh. But as is so often the case with such things, the humor serves as a didactic etiquette tool.

Next is a similar piece, A Treatise on Good Manners and Good Breeding. It’s the sort of thing that I wish were taught to schoolchildren today. One of the primary lessons is that good manners are more often than not simply a matter of common sense. So the essay sort of becomes an apology for common sense.

Best of all, I thought, was his Letter of Advice to a Young Poet. It is precisely what the title suggests and is so excellent that I feel as if I could either write many pages about it or simply say that you should read it for yourself. I think I would be wiser to do the latter.

His final essay in this volume is On the Death of Esther Johnson. It is as earnest and loving an obituary as I’ve ever read. It had the, I’m sure, intended effect on me of wish I’d had the honor of her acquaintance. However, the purpose of the piece does not seem to simply be to eulogize one of the finest people Swift ever knew. Rather, he uses her behavior to instruct. This is what I really love about Swift. He writes material for the amelioration of the reader in a palatable, indeed even delectable form.

Did I enjoy them and gain from reading them? A thousand times yes. Would I recommend them? Doubly so.