Happy birthday, William Blake!

Born this day in 1757.

Here is his poem “Infant Joy”:

“I have no name:
I am but two days old.”
What shall I call thee?
“I happy am,
Joy is my name.”
Sweet joy befall thee!

Pretty joy!
Sweet joy, but two days old.
Sweet Joy I call thee:
Thou dost smile,
I sing the while;
Sweet joy befall thee!

Where did Homer get his MFA?

Homer and I go way back — all the way to the summer before my senior year in high school, when one evening a week I would drive to Dorchester and translate the Odyssey while dripping sweat onto the ancient text.

I’ve lost all my knowledge of ancient Greek in the intervening years, but I feel the need to reacquaint myself with Homer every once in a while.  Most recently, I listened to an audio version of the Iliad narrated by Dan Stevens.  Listening to this ancient epic while fighting traffic on Interstate 93 isn’t perhaps the ideal way of encountering Homer, but it’s the best I can do nowadays.  A few brief comments:

  • Dan Stevens is pretty good!  He obviously made the right career decision by quitting Downton Abbey for the lucrative business of narrating epic poems.
  • It’s amazing how modern some of the narrative structure is — for example, Homer needs a scene that shows Hector’s wife Andromache mourning his death.  But the sceone won’t work unless he has a previous scene establishing their love.  And that’s exactly what he has–a set up, and then a while later, the payoff.
  • On the other hand, he must have been absent the day his MFA program went over the rules for naming characters.  The Iliad, of course, features two major characters with the same name: Ajax. So Homer has to put his Homeric epithets into overdrive to ensure that we know which one he’s talking about. (Someone mentioned to me that some people point to this as evidence that these were real people–even back then, no one would be stupid enough to give two made-up characters the same name.)  Also, of course, multiple characters have more than one name.  Thanks a lot!  Generally, although not always, the alternative name is just a patronymic; even so, this doesn’t help us follow the action.  Similarly, Homer doesn’t bother to call the Greeks “Greeks”; instead they are Argives or Achaeans or Danaans.  (And Troy is randomly referred to as Ilion.) That is also really helpful.
  • The gods are hugely present in the Iliad, and are generally speaking much more entertaining than our current crop of deities.  The Zeus/Hera squabbling never gets old.  Here is a photo of grey-eyed Athena from the Museum of Fine Arts:

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  • On the other hand, I have never been happy with how much the gods motivate the action.  It’s never the case the one side does well because somebody has a good plan; or, if he does have a plan, it’s because a god put him in mind of it.  This is the sort of thing that Julian Jaynes points to in everyone’s favorite bookThe Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, as evidence that back in those days people weren’t conscious in the way we are today; instead, they heard voices in their minds that they interpreted as being the gods.
  • Finally, after all these years, I still prefer the Odyssey to the Iliad.  I ultimately find the incessant battle scenes repetitive and a bit exhausting.  Along with the rest of the Argives and Achaeans and Danaans, I just want Achilles to get over himself and come back and win the damn war.

Longfellow’s tomb

Life (and death) brought me back to Mount Auburn Cemetery the other day, so I can now include a personal photo of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s tomb, in place of the one I included in this post:

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(A sprinkler is at work in front of the tomb.)

As a special bonus, here is the more modest gravestone of the nineteenth-century American historian Francis Parkman, buried right down the street from Longfellow:


Parkman’s uncle George was the victim in a celebrated murder case chronicled in the documentary Murder at Harvard.

In which I run into Edgar Allen Poe

I was walking from the Boston Common over to Jacob Wirth’s after my road race when I ran into this guy with his pet raven at twilight:

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Poe was born in Boston in Boston in 1809, although he went to Virginia soon afterwards.

Poe’s reputation has risen since his death and stays high. In addition to being a writer of fiction and poetry, he was also a good literary critic.  Here is Wikipedia summing up Poe’s opinion of our old friend Heny Wadsworth Longfellow:

A favorite target of Poe’s criticism was Boston’s then-acclaimed poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was often defended by his literary friends in what was later called “The Longfellow War”. Poe accused Longfellow of “the heresy of the didactic”, writing poetry that was preachy, derivative, and thematically plagiarized. Poe correctly predicted that Longfellow’s reputation and style of poetry would decline, concluding that “We grant him high qualities, but deny him the Future”.

“We grant him high qualities, but deny him the Future” — is that prescient or what?

Here’s more about the Poe statue.

The road race, you ask?  Don’t ask.  Here’s a photo of the pack going into Kenmore Square.

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Notice that my part of the pack isn’t exactly “running”. The folks heading in the other direction, back from Kenmore Square toward the Common–they’re running. Sheesh.

It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country

Wilfred Owen wrote this poem in 1917 at a hospital where he was recovering from shell shock.  He died the next year, at the age of 25. Is there any more vivid description of what it is like to die for one’s country?

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

And here is John Singer Sargent’s large painting “Gassed,” completed in 1919 and on display at the Imperial War Museum in London.
Gassed© IWM (Art.IWM ART 1460)

In which I attempt to make amends to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I wasn’t complimentary to Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” in this post.  Well, opinions differ.

The other day I was driving through Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery at twilight, looking for a chapel where a friend of mine was giving a talk.  I didn’t have time to look for graves of famous people (Bernard Malamud and John Rawls, among many others), but I realized afterwards that I must have passed close to Longfellow’s tomb, which looks like this:

And it occurred to me that Longfellow couldn’t have been that bad.  (The Wikipedia article on Longfellow quotes one 20th-century poet as saying: “Longfellow was minor and derivative in every way throughout his career… nothing more than a hack imitator of the English Romantics.”  Well, yeah, I guess so.  But still.)

So I looked up the Longfellow verse that I remember the best from way back in middle school: the opening to his long narrative poem Evangeline.  It’s written in the epic meter dactylic hexameter, a rhythm that doesn’t fit easily to English.  But I think it works well here.  This isn’t immortal poetry–it doesn’t have anything interesting to say–but as poetry it’s pretty good.  What do you think?

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.

This is the forest primeval; but where are the hearts that beneath it
Leaped like the roe, when he hears in the woodland the voice of the huntsman
Where is the thatch-roofed village, the home of Acadian farmers,–
Men whose lives glided on like rivers that water the woodlands,
Darkened by shadows of earth, but reflecting an image of heaven?
Waste are those pleasant farms, and the farmers forever departed!
Scattered like dust and leaves, when the mighty blasts of October
Seize them, and whirl them aloft, and sprinkle them far o’er the ocean
Naught but tradition remains of the beautiful village of Grand-Pre.

Ye who believe in affection that hopes, and endures, and is patient,
Ye who believe in the beauty and strength of woman’s devotion,
List to the mournful tradition still sung by the pines of the forest;
List to a Tale of Love in Acadie, home of the happy.

It’s Shakespeare’s birthday, so let’s randomly replace words with “duck”

Put aside your well-thumbed copy of Timon of Athens and go to this site, obviously created by folks with too much time on their hands.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your duck.

Note that you can choose the replacement word.

Slurpy, slurpy!  Parting is such sorrow
That I shall say slurpy till it be morrow.

Out, out brief slurpy!

OK, time to go back to Timon of Athens.