Stoics and Romantics: A Review of Two Books

Anyone who likes to write must spend time reading because there is no writing without reading. Of the many books that I have taken up recently on the search for ideas or entertainment, two rise above the rest as thought-provoking and engrossing. (Footnote to self regarding the rejects: do not bother reading anything else by Harold Bloom.  One book by him is enough; he reworks the same stuff in the same manner, and his identity looms large: from childhood he has been unbearably brilliant, he is unable to write without the word “daemon,” and thinks Shakespeare is the greatest.)  My two favorites center the frame of my interests in Stoicism and Romantic literature: Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm and Romantic Lives by Daisy Hay.

To the Stoics among us, Seneca must be of interest, and the outlandish and horrible antics of the Roman emperors wonderfully described by Romm, through whose reigns Seneca managed to survive for many years, should captivate a historically-minded reader of any philosophical persuasion. The author writes in an engaging and fast-paced style, anticipating and addressing the questions that come to mind about the motivations and inner most thoughts of Seneca, a Stoic who had to reconcile his philosophy with the actions he took to survive and possibly to maintain some check on the cruelty of his one-time pupil, Nero. For anyone who remembers the PBS series of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius or who read the book, the joys of learning fact (or most likely fact) from fiction abound in this book.

Romantic Lives hits the most interesting biographical points of the lives of a number of Romantics — Hunt, Shelly, Mary Shelly, a little bit of Keats, Byron — and the parts of their lives that intersect. In some cases, Hay gives an equally or even more vivid picture of the personalities of her various subjects than biographers manage in hundreds of more pages on a single individual. Keats plays a small role in this book, so he needs his own biography, but Hunt, Byron, Shelley, and Mary Shelly are fully developed. Hay zeros right in on the details that reveal the most and interest the most. What I found as the special treat is her attention to the “ordinary” people (ordinary only to distinguish them from the literary greats) who existed within the orbit of Shelley and Byron. I had developed a particular curiosity about the post-Shelley existence of Claire Claremont, which the final pages of this book fully satisfied.

With a focus on the intersecting lives during a certain period of time, the author is not obliged to treat at much length or at all the childhood or forbears of any individual, but only those parts relevant to a rather limited period of especial interest.  Having read the several biographies of the personalities involved, there was some repetition, but more often Hay used common material to clarify the events, motivations, and relationships of the parties and to depict the iintense drama, of which there is no short supply, as well as a canonical 19th century novelist. Again, beyond basic biographical endeavor, Hay digests the difficulties of a situation of complexity and long duration into a perfectly insightful and (seemingly) accurate pithy assessment. For example, she sums up the Shelleys’ marital problems: “The tragedy of Shelley and Mary’s marriage lay in her inability to convey to him the depths of her emotional attachment, and in his failure to understand how much pain his actions caused her.”  Likewise, her voice is an added value when she steps back to assess the impact for better and for worse these individuals had on each other.

It is always a wonderful side effect if a book does more for the reader than the author meant to achieve or the reader had reason to expect. That statement assumes that Hay did not mean for us to evaluate the importance of sociability in our own lives. Such was my experience in the following way. A major premise of the book is the importance of a “co-operative sociability” to creative influence.  She definitely makes that point stick in the case of Percy Bysshe Shelley, although at times she concedes that it is in solitude and only through thinking about or corresponding with friends that he derives his inspiration.  The notion of the importance of friends to creativity struck me as worthy of consideration because I had been a proponent of the opposite, believing that genius leads to solitude and in that state the great writer sounds his or her imagination.  I had embraced that paradigm from the example of Emily Bronte, who, in her amazing self- resourcefulness, seemed to find within herself the inspiration for her novel and poetry.  However, even in her case, one could point out that she did have the creative camaraderie of her sister Anne, who was her partner in Gondal. Closer to home, the idea that connecting with others is an essential source of inspiration reminded me of my own isolation. I have no like-minded coterie to share literary or philosophical ideas. My mother was a literary compatriot, but by the time I got around to developing my interests, I had scant years before she could not even recollect who Walter Pater was. The two professors from literature classes to whom I made overtures ran for the hills — or would have, but saved themselves the trouble by just ignoring my emails.

My isolation brings me back to the first book on a beleaguered Stoic, as Stoicism again proves useful. I have no “co-operative sociability,” but the dispassionate mind can accept that reality because sociability has its drawbacks as well as its benefits, there is no changing the situation so liking it is better than lamenting it, and I share that situation with many others, past and present. Last, there are books such as these to offer the eternal, virtual cooperative sociability of reading.

Another Biography, Another Opportunity

There seems to be no such thing as the definitive biography of an individual. However, any biographer describing a life, already treated numerous times, must establish what new information justifies yet another work. Rarely does the discovery of new facts play a part. Perhaps developments in psychology or science, such as medicine, allow a different analysis of events.  A purportedly more thorough approach starts at an earlier point in time than its predecessors, or ranges into issues tangential to the person’s life, such as political events. More commonly, new scrutiny justifies itself from the passage of time, such that the subject appears through the perspective of a new age, with different mores and sensibilities, which might allow, for example,  a more probing and revealing treatment of certain aspects of the subject’s life.  In that regard, it could be said that each generation “deserves” its own biography of those most intriguing individuals immortal of interest. The possibility that a noted scholar will offer an interesting interpretation even of a well-known subject leads to another book on the shelf.  Last, certain subjects are so fascinating that their life stories bear repetition.

My expectations of Nicholas Roe’s take on the life of John Keats were in keeping with the foregoing realizations of the limited yet potential virtues of repetitive biography —  virtues particularly suspect in this case because John Keats’s life and work had fairly recently received a thorough, modern, and compelling analysis by Andrew Motion. Nonetheless, there were a few points in the life of Keats for which I desired more information or even further informed speculation. And I welcomed an excuse to once again plunge into the story of the life of John Keats.

First, I wanted to know what in the world was going on with Keats’s mother; she leaves her children and disappears for five years. There is no indication that she was not a loving mother before her husband’s death, yet she abandons her four children. After the new biography I remain curious.  Although Roe speculates that Frances, Keats’s mother, might have known and even had an affair with Rawlings, her second husband, while married to Keats’s father, no new material about her personality, character, actions or motivations explains her absence. As I recall, Motion depicts her more sympathetically as a bereft and beleaguered person who turns to Rawlings to help her run the family business, now entirely her responsibility, along with four little children.  A profligate floozy, a half- mad widow, an alcoholic, something in-between?  Two biographies down, and I would still like to know.  Roe makes a new (to me), but light-weight, suggestion on the topic of Keats’s mother, later in the book: Keats felt a connection with Hamlet because his mother too was unfaithful.  The resemblance ends there, since Hamlet’s mother does not run away and leave Hamlet as a little child. Roe does not offer any convincing evidence (or really any evidence) that Keats saw such a connection.

Second, I wanted to know more about Isabella Jones and whether she was as important influence on Keats emotionally as Robert Gittings suggests, or not so much, as Motion believes. The jury is still out on whether she was one of the great loves of his life, an inspiration, or just a friend.  Let us have a little more informed guessing on this topic. One clue to her importance is that after Keats dies she re-emerges in letters excoriating Severn for thinking too much about himself and his own difficulties while taking care of Keats in Rome. At least give me her appearance — no one knows what she looked like?  Even as only a passing dalliance, such information would be of interest.

Keats’s use of mercury still baffles me from a medical perspective. If Keats was taking it for a sexually transmitted disease, did it work?  According to Keats, in a letter, the mercury did help; that throws into question whether he was indeed suffering from a STD because mercury does not cure STDs — or so my internet research indicates. Did he just feel a little better from the mercury, but was left uncured such that he would have died or gone mad from syphilis? Roe, more than Motion, focuses on Keats’s use of mercury and asserts that, as a highly toxic poison, it was doing him in as much as his consumption. That is interesting; however, Keats knew from his medical training how harmful it was, so that creates a question why he would continue using it. I raise my hand to ask an even more urgent question raised by Roe: if Keats knew he had venereal disease how did he think he could ever marry Fanny Brawne?  Was it known to be contagious?  Roe suggests that Keats did know it was contagious and held off from Fanny for that reason; but he did not hold off – he became engaged to her.  Is Roe suggesting that one reason Keats went to Rome was to leave Fanny because he knew he could not be with marry her? How does that square with his engagement and plans to marry her if he recovered?

I also wanted more details on what Keats did during his time at Guy’s Hospital and how he reacted personally to the horribly gruesome state of affairs there. Roes gives a clear rundown on the courses that the students followed, but nothing more than Motion on how his experiences there affected him.  We know from his letters that he found the suffering of women hard to bear, so he might have found surgery on female patients particularly awful; but others students at the time, who are used as stand-ins for Keats’s reaction, spoke about the horrors of surgery on children.  How did that affect Keats?  Does a teenager, which he was at the time, with the soul of a poet, glide through days of cadavers, putrefaction, and suffering?  If so, that ability or personality trait bears some analysis. His silence about Tom’s death – the last days and how he felt — and that his statement that “our own suffering touches us too nearly for words” might suggest that he found his surgical experience too horrible to translate in any verbal form at any time of his life.

In sum, Roe tantalizingly ruffled those areas of special interest to me, but stopped short of answers or even meaningful informed hypotheses. As for my reactions to Roe’s work on the whole, any minor revelations were mixed with a number of irksome ongoing and loose suggestions about how various details of Keats’s life surfaced in his work.  Roe’s major addition to Keats’s biography was to insist on the importance of Keats’s father’s death on his life and work.  A parental death would be expected to have a residual impact, but the connection of the event to any statement by Keats or poem is not proven or supported, just announced.  Of the many sorrows and difficulties in Keats’s life, Roe takes up his father’s death and the anniversary of it as influential; however, everything is influential.  Far less notable events are also considered to underlie Keats’s poetry—almost everything figures. Every museum, ruin, field, cliff, street, room Keats has seen lies behind a description in a poem.  In a way that might be true because writers blend their own experience with imagination, but Roe does not offer any argument showing the meaning of such a purported connection to enhance one’s understanding or appreciation of the poem. The worst instance of an unsubstantiated connection between Keats’s life and his poems pertains to eating. Roe opines that Keats ate for consolation, although he offers no proof ( in fact food and any “palette affair,” as Keats called an interest in food, did not mean much to Keats.)  Maybe if he had suffered from an eating disorder, a focus on food would have had some relevance. Nonetheless, any time there is food in a poem, Roe points to a hungry Keats, eating for comfort, and Roe twice interjects that the word “eats” figures in his name “Keats.”  Saying such a thing once would have been too much, but he gives it to us twice.

Another distinguishing approach of Roe was to say less on some points to which Motion gave special attention.  For example, one gets the sense of the dire and relentless financial straits that Keats was under from Motion, whereas money is mentioned far less by Roe and without imparting a sense of the strain and turmoil those problems posed for Keats. Similarly, Motion gives the reader a very dim view of Abbey; in Roe’s book, Abbey plays a much smaller role and does not seem in the least villainous. Roe also does not address the events following Keats’s death, the epilogue, which serves valuable purposes. At this point, we need to know what became of the other characters in the drama: Fanny, his sister Fanny, George, and Brown, among others. Also some words on Keats’s legacy are needed as one can hardly bear to bid him farewell after so many hundreds of pages without considering the destiny of his poetry as consolation.

Roe raises a few tantalizing ideas, but overall Motion’s work gives a more complete and painful sense of Keats’s identity.  The differences between biographies does not slight the achievements of the respective authors, and they would, I suspect, understand the keen interest  of my foregoing enquiries because they of course fell under the spell of Keats’s life and relished every minute spent considering and reworking the mysteries of the greatest story ever told.  One could safely say that the final words have not been written — there will be other biographies, probably within my lifetime.

With full appreciation for the research complied and presented in biographies on John Keats, I am also very thankful that I can indulge my fascination and construct my own concept of him as a living being through his own words, immortal in his letters and poetry.

Emily Brontë, Another Stoic

I have been immersed in a world of immoderate emotion because for quite some time I have read, thought about, and written about poetry, Emily Brontë’s poetry. I am writing a book about her poetry called The Poetic World of Emily Brontë. Her poems lavish anguish, pain, suffering, sorrow, nostalgia, passion, and despair on the pages. The Stoic mind in confronting such feelings might struggle to remember that they do not have to hold sway over our lives. I wrote in an earlier post how Byron was the Anti-Stoic: suffering nostalgia; lamenting; and sighing—yet what beautiful lines. I would say the same for Emily Brontë, except it does not always seem that the emotions filling the pages are actually her own, but rather frequently those of some poetic character.

I have, it turns out, surfaced from her poetic world with Stoic principles intact, maybe because I have made great use of them during this project. When undertaking something that has been long in the works, such as this book, one might tend to become ecstatic and have certain hopes. First, ebullience is distracting, at best. Also, it will end one way or another and then one will feel like something was lost, when nothing was ever possessed. As for various hopeful scenarios, focusing on how others might react to my work represents the epitome of pointless thinking. Some may like it, others could not care less, some might wonder how the thing got published—who knows and really what difference could it make.  One might say—oh there might be money.  There will be no remuneration, but even if there were, my imagining it and hoping for it has no effect on whether it comes and can only set me up for a defeated sensation, even when there never was a battle. I wrote it for myself and, as for readers — few are enough, one is enough, none is enough.

My observation about poetry opposing Stoicism does not pertain, however, if a poem has as its theme an overt or tacit endorsement of the precepts of the philosophy, which does occur. I wrote an article, “The Stoic Philosophy of John Keats,” which appears on this blog under the “Start Here” heading.  Part of it identifies the Stoic statements in Keats’s poems; the rest reveals how Keats was coincidently a compatriot of Seneca in his approach to life and death.  I found it fascinating how two minds could arrive at the same point without the path of influence. Emily Brontë is not a candidate for that kind of scrutiny, but she does make some pointedly Stoic statements in a few poems, which not surprisingly, echo at times lines from Keats’s poems. In particular she observes that the trivial and treacherous in life defeat tranquility and that mirth beguiles because, “Every phase of earthly joy will always fade and always cloy.” As for joy, it is simply “the shortest path to pain.” Those are her ingredients for unhappiness; however, on the other hand, she endorses things that are worth pursuing for a tranquil life: learning, friendship, self-sufficiency, and a love of nature.  Emily Brontë was rather a Stoic after all, in her own way, despite imagining all those emotion-roiled characters in her poetry and in her novel.


Good for Society, Bad for Literature

We all learned in English class that a good story had to have conflict and that there were four basic types of human struggle: against self, nature, others, and society. I think the last, the individual versus society, trumps all the others for providing an engrossing plot. Take a moment to reflect on your favorite works of literature and from star-crossed lovers (be they in Verona or on Brokeback Mountain) to Horatio Alger, or to characters who are alienated, newly immigrated or attempting a first–all have had society as a worthy antagonist. Racial, sexual, and gender based constraints, narrow-mindedness, limited opportunity, bigotry, bad laws, and hateful mores make the literary world go-round.

Now, after many years of political correctness, when we dipped our collective toe in the water of empathy, we have graduated from superficial words to laws that actually make hate illegal. Also along the way, the old taboos lie moribund if not dead. Single parenthood, sex outside of wedlock, homosexual attraction, and fraternizing outside of one’s social group, milieu, religion or nationality are phenomena that jump-started a story and that are now commonplace and accepted. In the late 19th Century, Daisy Miller will be ostracized for her conduct; she steps outside of the bounds of society and suffers—is she just naive and without guidance or wilfully flaunting convention? At least we have that question to consider because there is a Society to oppose our flighty protagonist. That entire plot device is now untenable; who cares how Daisy of the 21st century comports herself in whatever society she finds herself. Daisy can have a child, discover her homosexuality, and embrace a new religion—the story is not one of struggle but a chronicle of what an open-minded person Daisy is; her journey may have some difficulties but she will not be foiled, tricked, tripped, and undermined by a ruthless society.  Lily Bart today would hardly be ostracized either; a woman can of course take investment advice from a man—but  there was a sexual quid pro quo—okay, why not!  Again, The House of Mirth falls like a house of cards in the plot department. Oh Jane, who cares if Rochester is married, you can live with him!

Novelists can still write in earlier historical periods to mine the lodes of societal repression for conflict or set their stories in the still extant enclaves of old word intolerance.  Television has made much of that latter approach by latching onto the Amish and a repressive cult here and there for reality programs that unveil restrictive and curious segments of society that can still pose a threat to individuality.

The tail would be wagging the dog, or I would be writing satirically, to lament the end of the bad old days because modern day novels are deprived of tense social conflict. I am merely making an observation. And, what does this state of affairs forecast for us as readers or writers? I predict an increased interest in murder mysteries and survival stories.

The Candy Bar, a Short Story

The Candy Bar

A candy bar was a precious commodity. Some of the men had money in their accounts at the PX for a bag of M&Ms or a Snickers and others didn’t. The world of Florence South was a miniature of the outside: the have and the have nots. The lucky ones had outside support—parents or a wife, usually.  Kids weren’t much help; they were too young or had lost interest.  Hector’s mother couldn’t figure out the system for putting money in his PX account; his father was who knows where.  Hector had gotten lucky with shoes and shaving cream that he had inherited from another inmate when that guy finally stepped out beyond the walls. Hector loved those things, but to have a candy bar—that oozing sweetness and creamy chocolate.  It called to him the way alcohol had on the outside.

Gary had money in his PX account.  He was older than most guys in prison and had a certain status like an elder of a tribe. He had taught in the prison school and gave advice.  Hector had been in Gary’s English class. Strange, he thought, how much he had hated school a couple of years ago and how much he had liked it prison. He would have continued if the program had not been cut back.  Gary had seemed pretty bummed about that too. He had been a lawyer, or so he said, and he sounded like it.  He would listen and answer questions. After talking to Gary, Hector was almost convinced that his appeal stood some chance of success. Was Gary right or just talking– or worse just trying to make him feel better?

Gary always left the PX with a few candy bars, one already unwrapped and on the way down. Hector thought about asking him for one.  But, if he asked, maybe other guys would and where would that end?  He thought he could stop at just one so he wouldn’t always be asking, but how would Gary believe that.  Hector once made a point of watching Gary unwrap a candy bar, put to his lips, and sink his teeth into the dark softness. He never did that again– imagining was no good for him.

Another day like every other during a break in the yard, just a little less hot. Gary had laughed, Hector remembered, when a guard referred to it as “free time.” This day and once every month it really was work time for the inmate who had cleanup duty.  It was Hector’s turn. During recess, Hector joined a group of guys, leaning against one of the picnic tables scattered around the yard—a downtrodden schoolyard where the yells of kids free from schoolroom chairs echoed in the here and there, loud and soft voices of men in orange suits. He noticed that Gary was talking fast and with authority to two guys under the corrugated shade of a piece of veranda. The bell rang for the next phase of the day. Hector got his plastic bag and stick to clean up the wrappers and cigarette butts. Under the veranda he saw the wrapper of a Three Musketeers lying on the ground—no not a wrapper; he had found a candy bar. He picked it up with a quick glance around; it was his now.

The next month when he had clean up duty again he would find another of Gary’s candy bars.

In Memoriam, Paul Inman December 3, 2012

All That Love

Clicking through the channels during idle minutes I came across a documentary on Ethel Kennedy (and unavoidably in large part about Bobby Kennedy) made and narrated by Bobby’s posthumous daughter Rory.  Leaving aside any criticism of the film and commentary on the lifestyle of the subjects, I will note one particular revelation that made a statement, unintended I believe, about religion and literature/philosophy.

The Kennedys are almost synonymous with personal tragedy, and Ethel (although she married into the Kennedy curse) suffered many profound losses: the deaths of her parents in a plane crash while she was young; the death of her brother-in-law Jack, a loss not only of a relative and beloved president, but also a huge vicarious loss through her husband, Bobby, for whom Jack was the right and left arm (the film made clear to me the degree to which Jack paved the way for Bobby).  Ethel would later lose two sons, one to drugs the other to a reckless accident. In response to all the loss, a subject to which Rory devotes a substantial amount of time, she points to the support of religion and lingers over images of Ethel (whom she must refer to through the film as “Mummy”) kneeling in private worship and lighting candles.  At one point, Ethel states that she is sure that all the departed are “up there” happy together.

On the other hand, when Bobby loses Jack—his beloved brother, his livelihood, his inspiration, his confident, his political base of support and more—he takes to reading poetry.  Where was his catholic faith?  Rory of course could not interview him to see if he refers to anyone being happy in heaven, but she makes a large point of relating that in his grief he withdrew and read Aeschylus.  I would have liked to know what else he read at that time. (I am not familiar with Aeschylus, but I generally don’t like to read poetry in translation because there is always that other writer who has a very large hand in the end product.) Even when we see Bobby comforting a crowd of African-Americans upon informing them of the death of Martin Luther King, he quotes Aeschylus.

I did not get the sense that the filmmaker was making any tacit statement about her father’s loss of faith (whom she also must refer to through the film, as does everyone else, as “Daddy”). Yet clearly, if he isn’t kneeling and lighting candles, then res ipsa loquitur—he is not seeking his consolation through religion. By the way, I have always been baffled by the purpose of lighting candles and praying for someone after death.  If you believe that they are happy “up there” then what are you praying about? Either they are happy or not, and only in the latter case would they need your prayers, I guess so they can get to heaven from limbo or some such other place?  As for praying for things, I have been treated to many instances where people were going to fervently pray for my brother; he died young of a heart attack after a life of horrible alcoholism. We must, I suppose, forget about the workings of cause and effect here, or else conclude that the praying was detrimental.  Back to praying for the dead, if it is just an expression of thought for the deceased, I would ask, are there many moments when you are not thinking about a loved one who has just died?

Death gives religion its finest moment—without grief I would say that religion would wan or disappear.  I think people can face their own nothingness after death more than they can come to terms with the irrevocable disappearance of a loved one.  There might still, though, be pockets of use: some might still feel the need for that something bigger than themselves, or need a story about “how we got here” with more color than science can give, or want the social support and affirmation of gathering in groups and performing rituals. Still, as I read in a blog by a minister, the best time to make a convert is at a funeral.

My final perplexing religious notion– why is everything good attributed to god, but none of the bad?  This came to light recently when I listened to a Franciscan brother who was doing good work in the slums of LA.  He found the love of god in every instance of success he had in convincing a youth to turn from a life of crime, in every commercial success of the homegrown businesses he set up for the unemployable, and in every feeling of mutuality between two people.  God’s love was conspicuously absent when he described that the children with whom he worked were products of neglect and abuse, that they had routinely witnessed deaths of family members, and grew up in fear and poverty.  He noted that children were frequently victims of violent deaths. All good?  The devil’s work?  Is man now responsible? A mysterious manifestation of god’s love?

I did a good Samaritan act last week—it was easy to do; I offered a woman, who was obviously hurrying for the train station on a very hot day, a ride to the station where I was headed. She was so happy, nearly ecstatic, that I had stopped, and she exclaimed repeatedly, “Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus.”  My name is not Jesus.

Emily Bronte and The Palace of Death

Emily Bronte wrote only one novel, Wuthering Heights, and poetry (which has been for the most part marginalized).  That body of work is frustratingly small for anyone fascinated by her, as I am. Also, I have noted in earlier posts the astounding dearth of biographical information about her: she did not write letters, she did not keep a diary; few people knew her and those that had met her had no reason to pay her particular attention. We have some description of her by Charlotte, who did write letters, have acquaintances, and was even famous enough at her death to be the subject of a biography. However, even her references to Emily are not numerous, and I have always been slightly skeptical about Charlotte’s view of Emily.

In searching for more of her work and information about her, one comes upon something that, perhaps for a more prolific writer, would not be so exciting: homework. Emily studied French at a girls school in Brussels with Charlotte, who had conceived of the necessity of studying in Brussels in order to learn French well enough to teach it in the school that Charlotte (and to some degree the other two sisters) were planning to open.  It was hoped to be the way out of becoming governesses.

Their teacher, Constantin Heger, assigned essays on various topics for them to write.  What a fabulous coincidence that he was asking them to write, with no notion that he was face to face with two of the greatest writers in English literature. On that note, he did come to suspect that they were beyond the norm. So here we have Emily Bronte, writing on assigned topics, in a foreign language—one that she did not know well at all at the time of her arrival at the school.

I have translated and include, below, an essay that she wrote that demonstrates several hallmarks of Bronte as the author of Wuthering Heights, but most notably her proclivity for  insights that are ahead of her time. I will explain how this essay reveals her innate grasp of human nature after the essay.  Here it is.

The Palace of Death

In the past, when men were few in number, Death lived frugally and with limited means. Her only minister was old age, who guarded the door of the palace and introduced from time to time a single victim to appease the hunger of her mistress: this abstinence was soon repaid; the prey of her majesty grew prodigiously, and Old Age began to find that she had too much to handle.

It was at this time that Death decided to change her manner of living, to appoint new agents and take a prime minister.  On the day appointed for the nomination, the silence of the somber palace was broken by the arrival of the candidates from all sides, the arch ways, the rooms and the hallways resonated with the sound of the footsteps coming and going, as if the bones strewn on the paving stones were suddenly animated, and Death looked from above on her throne, and smiled hideously to see such a multitude running to serve her.

Among the first to come were Anger and Vengeance who went before her Majesty, arguing loudly about their respective rights; Envy and Betrayal took their places in the shadows; Hunger and Pestilence, assisted by their companions Laziness and Greed obtained comfortable spots among the crowd and threw disdainful glances on the other guests; however they found themselves forced to make way when Ambition and Fanaticism appeared; the entourage of these two persons filling the council room, and they demanded imperiously a prompt audience.

“I do not doubt” said the first, “that your majesty will be just in her decision so why waste the time in vain disputes when a quick glance is sufficient to determine the only one worthy of the office in question? What are all these pretenders who besiege your throne?  What do they think they would do in your service? The most able among them could not govern your empire any more than a soldier who has no qualification except his bravery could command an army.  They know how to strike down a victim here and another there, they can catch the feeble prey, men on whom your mark is visible from birth and that is the extent of their usefulness; whereas for me, I will lead to your doors the elite of the race those who are the farthest from your power; I will strike them in full flower and offer them to you in entire groups all at once.  Then, I have so many methods; it is not only spears that win me victories; I have other helpers, secret, but powerful allies; Fanaticism her-self is only one of the tools that I will employ.”

In hearing these words, Fanaticism shook her savage head and rose up toward Death with a burning and maniacal eye and began:  “I know that this glorious one will easily borrow my weapons and march under my standards, but is that a reason that she would presume to compare herself with me?  Not only will I be as powerful as she in overthrowing states and destroying kingdoms, I will enter into families; I will create opposition between son and father, daughter and mother; inspired by me, faithful friend will become mortal enemy, the wife will betray her husband, the servant his master; no feeling can resist me; I will travel the world under the light of the sky, and crowns will be like stones under my feet.  As for the other candidates, they are not worthy of your consideration; Anger is irrational; Vengeance is partial; Hunger could be defeated by hard work; Pestilence is capricious.  Your prime minister must be someone close to men and possess them; decide then between ambition and me, we are the only ones you should consider.”

Fanaticism fell silent, and her Majesty seemed in doubt as between these two rivals when the doors of the gallery opened and a person entered before whom everyone recoiled in surprise for she had an appearance which radiated joy and health. Her step was light as the wind and Death herself seemed uneasy at her first approach; however, she soon felt reassured. “You know me” said the stranger, “I come later than the others, but I know that my cause is certain. Certain of my rivals are formidable I admit and it is possible that I could be surpassed in striking feats that attract the admiration of the vulgar, but I have a friend before whom everyone in this assembly would be forced to succumb; she is named Civilization.  In a few years she will come to live on earth with you and each century her power will increase.  In the end she will turn away Ambition from your service; she will throw on anger the brakes of the law; she will uproot the weapons of the hands of Fanaticism; she will hunt down Famine among the savages. I alone will increase and flourish under her regime. The power of all the others will expire with their supporters– mine will exist even when I am dead.  If at one time I knew the father, my influence will extend to the son, and before men unit to banish me from their society I will have changed their entire nature and rendered them a type entirely at the mercy of your Majesty, so effectively, that Old Age will have a sinecure and your palace will be filled up with victims.”

“Speak no more” said Death descending from her throne and kissing Intemperance (for it is thus that the stranger was named). “It suffices that I know you; for the others I have valuable and important offices, they will all be my ministers, but to you alone is reserved the honor of my prince.

The End


Intemperance is the old-fashioned word for alcoholism. Hindley, in Wuthering Heights, is an alcoholic, as was Emily’s brother, Branwell.  Maybe the latter fact explains why the topic appears in her novel.  However, when she wrote about it in the essay, she had not yet witnessed her brother succumb to drinking as he would later. What is not explained is how she understood alcoholism in a way that was not current at her time or even suggested and would only start to surface in our present age, as inherited and running in families; an infliction, not a personal defect or failure; an insidious evil that kills.



Nature in the Poetry of Emily Bronte

Nature in the Poetry of Emily Bronte

It is impossible to know whether Emily Brontë’s inspiration to write poems about natural subjects came more from the Romantic poets or from her own life. There is no hard and fast evidence about which poets she read, but it is most probable that she did read the most notable Romantic poets: Robert Southey and George Gordon Lord Byron as well as Wordsworth and Keats. (Undoubtedly she also read Shakespeare, Milton, and probably the Latin poets.) Her own reading aside, Bronte hardly needed the suggestion that poetry lay in nature because she lived very much in the natural world.

The image of Emily Brontë roaming the moors is one mythic element about her that is true. Today a visitor to the Brontë Parsonage can literally walk in her path and rest upon a boulder by a stream that she is reliably known to have frequented. From very young childhood, walking on the moors was a prime leisure activity for the Brontës, and throughout her life, being on the moors meant more to Emily than to any of the rest of the family. Going for a walk of several miles over a wild landscape originated with Mr. Brontë, who was a great walker. Walking was a good method for her communing with nature. Close to the ground and at the relatively slow pace afforded by only two legs, walking gave her the opportunity to explore the flora and fauna that would be missed on horseback or carriage rides. Emily might have enjoyed a ride on horseback over the moors, however. In Wuthering Heights, she has the young Catherine galloping across the moors on her pony, Minnie. Horses were a large expense and beyond the means of Mr. Brontë, so walking was the normal method of transportation. A walk of many miles was not a daunting proposition for Brontёs. Again Wuthering Heights provides illustrations: Mr. Earnshaw has walked forty miles from Liverpool at the beginning of the story, carrying the little child Heathcliff, and Lockwood and Nelly Dean think little of traversing the six miles to take them to Wuthering Heights and back to Thrushcross Grange.

In addition to living close to the land, Brontë  marked the seasons. The importance of the change of seasons cannot be overlooked for her, or for any nineteenth-century denizen of the north of England, although her poetic sensibility no doubt heightened the impact for her. Without electricity or heat, the arrival of winter could certainly be considered a grim event, and hence the association so frequently of winter with death, sadness, and hardship. The seasons appear repeatedly in Bronte’s poems, not as filler, but with true meaning—a June day recalled in a poem really was the description of a glorious event that would make one think of heaven.

She also was particularly impressed by the wind—another common feature of life in Haworth. Wuthering Heights, as Lockwood tells us, is a name signifying the strong winds that race down the hillside and assault the house, causing the trees to slant one way “as if craving alms from the sun.” In several poems, Brontë ascribes to the wind a seductive power to charm one away from dreary thoughts.

Emily Bronte for most of her life slept in a very small room that had been formed out of another room, and her bed was situated under a window with a view of the sky unobstructed by trees. I can imagine that she made good use of it to observe the moon and stars, as she frequently depicts them and the effect they have to engender a feeling of another world beyond the mundane.

Aside from leading to near mystical experiences, the sky was a joy to her, if we can take her poetry as an indication, which I think we can. In a poem (which appears in the chapter on “Love and Friendship”) a voice reflects: “I gazed upon the cloudless moon / And loved her all the night / Till morning came and radiant noon / Then I forgot her light– // No, not forgot—eternally / Remains its memory dear; /But could the day seem dark to me / Because the night was fair?” Yet, surprisingly, in another poem (appearing in this chapter) night is preferable to a sunny day. The references to the moon and the sun raise the opportunity to point out a feature of her poetry that adds to its durability and attests to Brontë’s originality. The tendency to slip into allusions to mythology–Diana and Phoebus for the moon and the sun—might have taken hold of her. It was very common in the poetry of a close predecessor, John Keats. References to mythology were still current. For example, Charlotte Brontë edited a poem of Emily’s after her death to change the description of a willow’s branches from “gleaming hair” to “dryad hair,” a dryad being a mythological tree nymph. A small example, but it serves to show how Emily, free of a poetic convention of the time, was effective as a poet. She describes the tree as it looked in nature; Charlotte simply made an allusion. Indeed, if you see a willow tree in the sun, you can observe that the long weedy branches do look like hair and they do gleam.

Overall, nature plays a large and varied role in the poetry of Emily Brontë. Very often, a natural scene, complete with the description of a season, atmospheric conditions, and vegetation comprises the opening stanzas of a poem, but the main theme is not about nature per se. That approach figures so frequently that the first few lines often give no indication of the topic of the poem. (As with Shakespearean sonnets, the ultimate meaning of the poem frequently appears at the end.) For example, there are poems in which the description of a natural scene shifts to a different main topic, such as how things have changed from an earlier time when nature so appeared; or how the spectacle of nature triggers the imagination to envision a world without suffering or a happy eternity. Therefore, despite the large presence of a natural description, such poems would appear under topical headings of “Mutability,” “Spirituality and Eternity,” “Imagination,” or “Death.” (Likewise, poems in those four categories have shared thematic strains.) In addition to making use of the natural world as a setting for a poem, Brontë uses nature as point of comparison or contrast to the human condition. For example, nature reflects the mutability of life and brings harbingers of mortality with the prospect and arrival of winter. In other poems, the beauty of the natural world contrasts with a situation of sadness, which serves to deepen the pathos. Foremost in her thematic depcition of nature, Brontë presents the idea that nature has the power to console.

Review of “Genius”–a literary mega-criticism

I have finished Harold Bloom’s Genius for the most part.  I skipped the Spanish writers (except for Cervantes), and a select few others whom I have little interest in.  It is not the kind of book that once “finished” I will put it away for good.  I have found myself already re-reading certain parts and will always find it useful as a resource. As for omitting the Spanish writers, I generally had little interest in non-Anglophone writers, except for the French.  That is my bias of course, since I read French; however I do see a linguistic and literary closeness between English and French that is unique.  As for including other languages, I think Bloom deviates from his core notion—that there exists an objectively valuable literary canon in which one writer influences not only his or her generation but creates a literary progeny–because I don’t see so much the impact of Spanish (Russian or other non-English) writers on the canonical English writers (again, with the exception of a very few, like Dante). Bloom even acknowledges the breakdown in shared influences between literatures in different languages when he points out that Wordsworth never made it big in France, but Poe was an author who achieved more success through translation into French than he otherwise would have known or deserved.

As for whom he included and did not, the largeness of the number calls into question whether many are great writers, really good writers, worthy of a lasting reputation, etc… instead of geniuses.  I felt at times that the term was devalued.  I think, for example, The Great Gatsby is a really good book, and it merits a place in the literary canon as it has withstood the test of time; but to me a great book does not make the writer a genius.  I don’t think Fitzgerald was a genius and I am certain that I would not put Hemingway in that category.  He bolstered his position on Hemingway to a degree by noting how the man himself achieved a certain mythic status.  If that is a factor, then Byron should have been included; even if that were not a criterion, I would have included Byron way before many others.  The Brontes simply would not have been who they were or written what they wrote without the influence of Byron; plus if anyone ever had a more engaging way with words, rhymes, meter and poignant ideas, I don’t know him or her. Bloom drops several hints that he dislikes Byron as a person (although personal animosity did not stop him from including T.S Eliot).

I liked the poetic organizing principle of a mosaic.  However, the whole Kabbalah thing was of no interest at all to me.  As I was reading along at some point I was annoyed that I was not getting any meaning from his Kabbalistic references so I went back to the opening passages to pay more attention to the explanation about his structure.  Without reproducing it all here, I offer from page xi the following passage beginning like this: “Kabbalah is a body of speculation, relying upon a highly figurative language.  Chief among its figuration or metaphors are Sefirot, attributes at once of God and of the Adam Kadmon of Divine Man God’s Image.” Good ol’ materialistic me has no truck with speculative bodies that can only be known through metaphor, thank you very much!  I also grew very weary of his use of the word “daemon”.  I did not find it expressive of the many or precise meanings that he attributes to that word and would have preferred another one from time to time.

To note a few high points, I knew nothing about Swinburne, although I had heard his name throughout my life and had seen his books around the house.  His poem about God was quite the surprise.  And for any authors whom I know well, I read his treatments of them with interest and enjoyment, admiring the particular insight that he chose and developed for each one.

As for Bloom, himself, his talent is impressive and he might stand alone; I wonder how many others could have produced such an exhaustive work.  I did feel at times that he was showing off, but he can’t help it if he’s brilliant.  He breaks his own code in a way though; he believes that geniuses need the approbation of a certain audience, in particular one that extends far into the future, yet he admits that some of his geniuses have fallen by the way side in our degraded day and age.  He blames the current sad state of affairs on universities that value a curriculum based on race, nationality, or gender rather than on “true greatness” (I am among the converted on that score).  Yet, if genius does fade, at some point the question creeps in how much is greatness objective or subjective.  Maybe that’s where the Kabbalah fits to explain how there are absolutes, albeit knowable only through cagey metaphors.

Swinburne anyone?

Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)


IF love were what the rose is,
And I were like the leaf,
Our lives would grow together
In sad or singing weather,
Blown fields or flowerful closes
Green pleasure or grey grief ;
If love were what the rose is,
And I were like the leaf.

If I were what the words are,
And love were like the tune,
With double sound and single
Delight our lips would mingle,
With kisses glad as birds are
That get sweet rain at noon ;
If I were what the words are,
And love were like the tune.

If you were life, my darling,
And I your love were death,
We ‘d shine and snow together
Ere March made sweet the weather
With daffodil and starling
And hours of fruitful breath ;
If you were life, my darling,
And I your love were death.

If you were thrall to sorrow,
And I were page to joy,
We ‘d play for lives and seasons
With loving looks and treasons
And tears of night and morrow
And laughs of maid and boy ;
If you were thrall to sorrow,
And I were page to joy.

If you were April’s lady,
And I were lord in May,
We ‘d throw with leaves for hours
And draw for days with flowers,
Till day like night were shady
And night were bright like day ;
If you were April’s lady,
And I were lord in May.

If you were queen of pleasure,
And I were king of pain,
We ‘d hunt down love together,
Pluck out his flying-feather,
And teach his feet a measure,
And find his mouth a rein ;
If you were queen of pleasure,
And I were king of pain.

I had made it to the advanced age of…well, let’s not mention that, without reading anything by Swinburne.  I had seen the name vertically on the bookshelf crowded with the other Victorians in my mother’s keeping.  Not until I perused (I can’t say read because I did skip parts) the mega work of literary criticism Genius by Harold Bloom, did I encounter the sounds of his poetry.  I think I might post my criticism of his criticism. I am glad to have been directed toward such a poem as the one I have pasted above. LOVE IT!