There's something so vital about Greek invocations. Their figurative language is so crisp, precise, and yet allusive. Aeschylus was the great innovatoThere's something so vital about Greek invocations. Their figurative language is so crisp, precise, and yet allusive. Aeschylus was the great innovator of tragedy, taking to heart the spirit of fearless meddling that infected all Greek genius. 'The Suppliants' is a brief but solid example of his power.
Cookson's translation transmits the evocation and originality of the work, but his penchant for rendering the chorus with rhyme is awkward and not true to Greek traditions. English is too large, complex, and variable to respond well to couplets. It is a wild and many-fathered bastard of a language, made easily silly by such constraints if they linger for more than a sonnet's length.
For me, the effect is that of a bright-colored mix of fonts and interchanging capitals: it may be technically legible, but detracts more meaning from the text than it adds. I will not go as far as Milton and declare it
"the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter"
but I do agree that it should be used sparingly. For verse, English is better served by alliteration, meter, and more subtle sound-play, sparing rhyme--as Shakespeare did--for the occasional unmistakably heavy accent.
It is one thing to rhyme in a language like Italian, where the musicality and continuous aesthetic make such a thing natural, even inescapable, as it might flow from everyday speech. To try to transfer that directly to English is like a painter who, desiring to produce the visual equivalent of a song, paints his canvas in strips of verses and identical choruses; there are methods which are more effective and less artificial....more
The more familiar I become with Kipling's many short, fantastical works, the clearer it becomes that almost every fantasy author of the past century oThe more familiar I become with Kipling's many short, fantastical works, the clearer it becomes that almost every fantasy author of the past century owes him a great debt. I have pointed out before that he has written works which lay out whole subgenres--blueprints which later authors like C.S. Lewis, H.P Lovecraft, Neal Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke have expanded upon.
And in this collection, we can see yet another branch of influence. In several stories spanning centuries of English history, Kipling writes of war, politics, and adventure amongst the clash of conquerors and settlers of that island. Each story is full of unusual historical details and characters, woven closely together into a rich and varied tapestry where beauty, comedy, and tragedy are depicted side by side.
It is this vividity of myriad emotions that I have come to see as the mark of a great and exciting tale of adventure. As Howard said of his greatest creation, Conan the Barbarian:
"Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet..."
Of the many authors who have followed after Howard, the great majority are lackluster, for though they all remember the 'gigantic melancholies', none recall the 'gigantic mirth'. And indeed, these tales of Kipling's are immediately reminiscent of the wild, strange adventures penned by Howard and Leiber.
They both learned well the lesson that both magic and realism are dependent on a constant rush of strange yet naturalistic details. Any long-winded explanation is the death of a story, while innumerable implications of the greater world are its life. More than that, they resemble Kipling in form. The sorts of characters, places, events, and twists we see are immediately familiar to the connoisseur of Sword and Sorcery: piracy, doomed battles, monstrous apes, lost treasures, inscrutable foreign allies, mystery cults, ruthless generals, seers, &c.
Tying all these tales together was a frame story taken from the English fairy tale tradition, with the familiar theme of modern children accidentally coming across ancient myths (though in this case, they are only listeners, not participants). Yet what fascinated me was how fantastical the stories themselves felt, despite the fact that they were not overtly magical. Even so, Kipling maintains a consistent tone of wonderment and strangeness, often by representing the world through the eyes of the characters, themselves.
So many authors seem to think that including some elves and dragons will make a story wondrous, but for the most part, they are known quantities, not mysterious entities. We all know what dragons are, so their appearance in fantasy could hardly surprise us. No story will be fantastical if it is fundamentally familiar and predictable. It is not the color of a creature's skin that makes it otherworldly, it is how the creature is personified. It is simply impossible to make something fantastical without a strong sense of tone.
So perhaps I should have been less surprised that I found in the thirty pages of one of these stories more complex characters, emotional depth, and sense of the mystical than I have in most five-hundred page books about yet another dragon war.
Unfortunately, I found the last few stories dragged on a bit, lacking the conciseness and immediacy of the earlier ones. Kipling's attempt to tie all the stories together into a meaningful narrative about English identity was stretched a bit thin. Likewise, there is an uncomfortable implication of 'White Man's Burden' in the way the Romans treat the Picts--but if anything, the fact that he turns the same argument on his own people suggests that it is a comment about international power relations, and not race.
Once more, Kipling shows the breadth of his imagination--the many periods, peoples, and stories he covered--and it's easy to see his influence among the best writers of fantasy and adventure.
Compared to the Nineteenth Century's Romantic movement and the Seventeenth's Shakespeare and Milton, the Eighteenth has always felt a veritable void tCompared to the Nineteenth Century's Romantic movement and the Seventeenth's Shakespeare and Milton, the Eighteenth has always felt a veritable void to me. There was a little bit going on in France with Diderot and Voltaire, and some minor British works by Swift and Defoe, but by and large, Eighteenth Century literature is Fielding and Pope.
He began his inimitable wit and wordly mastery with 'An Essay on Criticism' when he was only 21. It was a varied, vivid exploration of what makes writing good, and includes such oft-quoted lines as "To err is human, to forgive divine", "A little learning is a dangerous thing", and "fools rush in where angels fear to tread".
Four years later he added his contribution to the Epic Tradition with 'The Rape of the Lock'. One of the reasons that this was a slow century for literature was that it was a century obsessed with the superficial. Like all great Epicists before him, Pope captured the spirit of his age, but in this case, instead of capturing it in a broad net of climactic action, beautiful language, and political posturing, he speared it with an acerbic tongue.
His epic was a small one, but just as Milton reinvented the genre by replacing the hero with the villain, Pope revolutionized the genre by replacing the epic with the everyday. His lampooning of the high nobility and their self-importance allied him literarily with his contemporaries, such as Voltaire, who all prefigured the social and literary revolution of the coming century.
Pope plays a very delicate instrument with his epic, often balancing a thin line between respect and ridicule: the same line the nobility had to walk every day. His linguistic and conceptual abilities shine here, as does his humor, which lies on the upper borders of the clever and the witty.
Pope had an unfortunately backward view of women, nowhere reaching the subtle implications of Milton's autoerotic Eve or Shakespeare's Cleopatra, or even the powerful women of the Greek and Roman Epics. Yet his portrayals here do not show the same bias as his 'Epistle to a Lady', since he lets his mockery fall equally on the foolish men and women of his period, and often for the same superficialities.
His later works consisted of translations and numerous political treatises, which though scathing and brilliant in their way, do not continue the philosophic and artistic exploration begun in 'An Essay on Criticism' and expanded in 'The Rape of the Lock'. The Dunciad certainly has a similar bent, but is too historo-specific to really have the same effect, so 'The Rape of The Lock' is probably the best work of the best British poet of the Eighteenth....more
This was the topic of my senior thesis (specifically the poem 'Medusa'), and also my most recent attempt at finding something revolutionary, interestiThis was the topic of my senior thesis (specifically the poem 'Medusa'), and also my most recent attempt at finding something revolutionary, interesting, or worthwhile in modern poetry. The dadaists and beat poets were intent on wresting poetry from the jaws of tradition. By popularizing poetry, they turned poetry into another pointless, populist act.
By enshrining the 'personal experience' as the sole qualifier of poetic worth, they ensured that every hack poet will feel justified in sharing their inane thoughts, and that every good poet will be lost in a sea of mediocrity. Personal experiences are often banal and painfully shortsighted. Making sacred something which everyone has is the same as making nothing sacred.
While their egalitarianism might be audacious, this does not make it useful. Remove our ability to critique poetry, and you no longer have any community of poetry. The poem has finally been relegated to the most base populist urge: escapism. When 'emotional reaction' is all that matters, Twilight and Miley become our 'high art'. Newsstand celeb rags become our critics.
When you try to eliminate tradition, you eliminate the ability to create meaning, since meaning can only be expressed by confirming or denying the experiences and notions of tradition. Keeping tradition as a basis does not mean agreeing with it. Indeed, by rejecting it, the dadaists also rejected the tradition of poetry as fundamentally subversive. Without a tradition, what is there to subvert?
I chose Duffy because I thought I saw something promising in her. Instead of shock tactics and 'personal experiences', she seemed to create a more complex and interesting view. It seemed there might be something more there than you might get from hearing a gas station attendant complain about their relationship woes for the duration of a cigarette break.
When I finally sat down and began to follow the traces and threads of Duffy's thought, it became less promising. An analysis of word use, construction, and scansion proved rather fruitless; she was keeping no extra meaning there. Her words are simple, straightforward, and though they point to something more than their pure meaning on the page, there are no worlds inhabiting the spaces between oxymorons, as in Donne and Plath.
Duffy does not take on and subvert the myths she uses, indeed she often presents the characters as divorced from their historical or mythological contexts. 'Medusa' ignores almost all of the original tale, acting less as an observation of the life of the monster than a rather simple metaphor for the belabored feminist standby of 'the gaze'.
She even misapplies the mythological elements she does use, indicating that she has no interest in trying to realistically portray these 'unwritten' women's stories. There is no apparent pattern or further meaning to her misapplication, so it is not a subversion of the original tale.
A comparison of this poem to previous Medusa-themed feminist poems (including Plath's) also failed to show promise. Duffy was not using tradition as a shorthand to create intertextuality. The similarities were haphazard and vague.
A historical view proved no more profitable, since Duffy's many wives do not represent the various and changing views of the womanhood of the past. She does not explore the time before there was a possibility of 'homosexual identity', or the understanding of the feminine in all these far-flung ages.
Indeed, her women are all remarkably modern, which would be forgiven under the auspices of the sacred 'personal experience', but it seems a crime to look at yourself, at femininity, at history, and not question whether your own assumptions are just the symptoms of your own zeitgeist.
Perhaps Duffy recognizes this, for in 'Medusa' at least, she presents a woman whose view of the world is as flawed as the metaphor would indicate. It is her obsession with her own victimization that turns men to stone, not their faults or flaws. Though she blames them, we see the chinks and cracks in her all-encompassing victimhood.
I hope that Duffy sees the cracks, as well. If she does, then her poems at least represent an informed and skeptical view of the 'subjugated woman', recognizing how this destruction becomes internalized.
If she does not recognize this, then the poem is a purely personal experience, representing not only Duffy's understanding of gender, but where that understanding becomes flawed and unreliable: the point when an unreliable narrator becomes an unreliable author.
Without clever and biting asides to clue us in, we're left wondering whether Duffy is a self-victimizer, or whether she is laughing at the notion. There is a sense that she recognizes this, but it never seemed fully-formed enough to break the bonds entirely.
Most of the poems are more-or-less unremarkable, leaving many readers with the sense that Duffy is being candid and straight-forward. Her simplistic language does not invite a deeper reading, though her work profits from it.
By failing to be clear, she leaves herself open to interpretation, even interpretations opposite to what she often seems to indicate. Many read 'Medusa' as a woman vindicated in her hatred, though perhaps this only comes from their own need for such vindication against the world.
The myth of feminism in Duffy never reaches the conscientious wit of Angela Carter, whose acumen is a rare and valuable gift to humanity. By leaving her poems open to interpretation, Duffy loses much of the punch she could have had by presenting her subversion more strongly. Her poems are likely to amuse the cynic as well as provide emotional support to the self-victimizer.
Then again, it's hard to blame Duffy for this entirely, as the short-sighted will always try to take away something that supports what they have already decided to be true....more
Mervyn Peake was, by all accounts, a powerful presence, an electric character, and a singular creative force. While Tolkien's poetry is the part everyMervyn Peake was, by all accounts, a powerful presence, an electric character, and a singular creative force. While Tolkien's poetry is the part everyone skips, Peake's invigorates his books. His voice and tone are unique in the English language, and his characterization is delightfully, grotesquely vivid. As an illustrator, he was perhaps somewhat less precise than Dore, but more evocative than Beardsley.
His life and his vision were singular, from his birth in China to his years on the channel island Sark, and finally, his slow deterioration, until he was unable to speak, and drew only clowns in profile, capped as dunces. Though many suggest this deterioration marks the perceived failing of Titus Alone, Peake would complete his final illustrations more than a year later, and did not succumb to death for another decade.
There were some editorial problems with Titus Alone, and though they have been mostly repaired, there are still dissatisfied grumblings about the final form. The ultimate Titus book is not easy to come to terms with, and indeed it took me long thought and consideration. However, I will not coax or argue mitigating circumstances: this book is Peake's vision, and while not as expansive or exacting as the others, it stands as its own work, and completes Peake's philosophical and literary journey as well as we might wish.
Peake was never one to pander. He did not write for any crowd, and he certainly did not write to facilitate escapism. He may have fashioned his work by an aesthetic, so as to mesmerize or mystify the ear, tug at the mind, and certainly to tickle the eye, but he did not give comfortable or simple answers.
The first two books are rather congruous, despite the subtle shifts, the advances and retreats, the many skirmishes Peake engages the reader in, only to return the veil before any clear victory or defeat can be claimed. It was not Peake's intention to stroke and comfort his readers, but to take them from high to low, to present them with wonder and with a vast, unconquerable world of wretched beauty.
Over the long stretch of the first two books, the reader becomes accustomed to the castle Gormengast, to identify with Titus' everyday struggles against plodding tradition. Characters die, others take their place, filling out the ranks, buttressing the ancient walls with their very breath.
There is a safety in tradition, in the comfort we slowly gain from it, as we do in Gormenghast itself: always separate from the world without, unknown and forbidden. Like Titus, we imagine that the outside world must be like the inside one: it cannot be so different, after all, from this crumbling castle, this place which has become another home to legions of awestruck readers.
But any reader content to watch it all play out so familiarly has not been paying attention—has not been listening to Peake. Though there is always the susurrant coo of that comfort, that tradition, we must not forget that, for young Titus, tradition is death, is rot, is black and stagnant waters.
Many readers find themselves utterly thrown when they first begin to encounter the world outside Gormenghast, and realize that it is not what they expected. However, it is difficult for me to imagine how such readers could at once praise Peake for the the singular, spectacular world of the first two books, and then become upset when he continues to expand his vision. They find themselves well-seated by yesterday's revolution, and resent such an unwelcome start.
Peake continues a thread of literary exploration which draws through the great epics, from Homer to Virgil, Tasso, Ariosto, and Milton, to Byron, to Eliot. Like these great works, Peake explores the role and nature of the hero: his connection to tradition, and the purpose chosen for him.
Originally, the epic hero was governed by his own mind, like Odysseus, a mind devious beyond measure, it proved. Then Virgil created his hero of Piety, of submission. Aeneas grasped hold of tradition, trusting in it to lead him. This was a message to the populace: trust in our ways, our traditions, and our Emperor to provide all that you might need. While this message is useful to an empire, it can be rather destructive to the individual, asking that he give up himself to the greater good.
Milton eventually continues this tradition, except he promotes subservience to Church instead of Empire (though there was little enough difference at the time). However, Milton included the old, violent, self-serving hero as a cautionary tale: humility and piety are Adam's strengths, while Satan has the 'false' strengths of warlike might and Odyssean skepticism.
Many later writers, including Byron, found that the Satanic mode of heroism was more appealing to the individual, especially to the iconoclast and artist who was tired of being told to 'pipe down' and 'follow orders'. Nietzsche would carry this sense of heroic individualism to the cusp, when he stated that mankind would have to demolish all tradition, and each individual would have to create a whole philosophy of meaning for himself, and thus become a philosopher of the future known famously as the Ubermensch.
Of course, there is a point when we all must question the whole of tradition, and just as we did when we first learned the art of speech, test what happens when we respond to all questions and demands with a resounding 'no!' These later rebellions, these existential crises can happen at any time, whenever we find ourselves struggling to make a place for ourselves.
Titus leaves home--as he must to become himself. He cannot honestly accept or reject Gormenghast and its tradition unless he can see it objectively, which requires that he develop a more worldly point of view. Like anyone progressing from childhood to adulthood, he questions the fundamental assumptions of his parents and teachers, and by extension, their whole world, and so he sets out on his own. Also, like any of us on the brink of adulthood, he learns that the world the adults promised doesn't really exist.
The real world is stranger, more daunting, and far more vast than the 'right and wrong' of parental morality, or the far-flung imaginings of the child. Even though his readers have been through this shift themselves, and should know to expect it from a changing young man, new to the world, Peake still manages to catch us off guard. Like Titus, the reader expects the world to be different and challenging, but like Titus, they cannot imagine how truly different it will be when it arrives.
Titus Alone has a self-contained plot. It has its own allies and antagonists, its own places, its own conflict, and its own climax. They all add to Peake's running themes of change, growth, beauty, and meaning, but they are their own. However, the climax in Titus Alone is only a dress rehearsal for the true climax, which comes only at the very end, and which remains unsure until then, as pivotal and sudden as the twelfth book of the Aeneid.
This resolution is the culmination of Titus' childhood, of all his former conflicts, of his life and purpose and individuality. It is the thematic culmination of the bildungsroman. It is the philosophical conclusion of Peake's exploration of the role of the hero, the self, and of tradition. It is also the fulfillment of his vision, his unyielding artistic drive. It is the final offering to the reader, his companion and rival on this journey.
He ends with beauty, with questions, with verve, and with a wink.
It still confuses me that many readers seemed to expect Peake to follow works notable for their strangeness and unpredictability with something familiar and indistinguishable. There are many who do this, it is true. There is the revolutionary who topples the regime only to supplant it with his own. There is the mountain climber who tops Everest, and then imagines that the greatest challenge is to do so twice.
You get no higher no matter how many times you climb the mountain. The true visionary adventurer climbs the mountain, and then, as an encore, paints the ceiling of a cathedral. It may not be expected, it may not please those fans who only wanted more of the same, but anything less is an admission of defeat. Peake earned his laurels in the first two books, and while we could hardly blame him for resting on them, he refused to.
Perhaps many readers became comfortable with his rebellion, his iconoclasm. They sympathized with his rejection of tradition, and then happily accepted that rebellion as their new tradition. Like Aeneas, they left crumbling Troy, trusting in their patron deity to carry them through. However, Peake was not content simply to add a new wing to his masterwork. He showed his authorial humility and his commitment to art by razing his own cathedral simply because it was more interesting than leaving it up.
As Nietzsche said: push everything, and abandon whatever topples, no matter how familiar it had become. He who can apply this to himself and to his own works is the only artist deserving of the title--and such is Peake.
Sometimes, I grow the silly delusion that I might have the potential to be a writer. As a curative, I read this, Lycidas, and Hours of Idleness; thenSometimes, I grow the silly delusion that I might have the potential to be a writer. As a curative, I read this, Lycidas, and Hours of Idleness; then I recall that not only am I not a writer, I am old....more
Mostly a collection of self-pleasuring on the topic of difference for its own sake. Some ear there for sound and concept, but mostly ringing as an oveMostly a collection of self-pleasuring on the topic of difference for its own sake. Some ear there for sound and concept, but mostly ringing as an overbearing attempt to be new. Stein's hatred of punctuation strikes one as an affectation, but then so do most of her opinions or ideas. I suppose Hemingway's sense that she was 'always right' stemmed from the lacking of his imagination (beyond that which bolstered his sense of self, and perhaps in that their true connection). Stein's importance to literary and artistic movements seems less creative and more like that of the town itself: that she happened to be a locale....more
The intellectual critic is able to remove himself from this poem's pomophilic lesbianism and focus on an analysis of the many literary elements presenThe intellectual critic is able to remove himself from this poem's pomophilic lesbianism and focus on an analysis of the many literary elements present. The lesser man simply counts himself lucky to find two such beautiful events in utopic cohabitation....more
Some place Ariosto above Dante because he tempers his ridiculously erratic romanticism with remarkable satire, joie de vivre, and a gently sloping conSome place Ariosto above Dante because he tempers his ridiculously erratic romanticism with remarkable satire, joie de vivre, and a gently sloping concession to an ending. While both Ariosto's and Spenser's works are long-winded, Spenser never overcomes the need for vindication which gradually grew out of this work. This desperation precluded the light-heartedness that buoyed Ariosto's lengthy tale.
The more one reads The Faerie Queene, the more one begins to respect Liz's desire to keep this man at kingdom's length; like so many naively obsessed stalkers of this latter age, Spenser never develops the external analysis necessary either for receiving signals nor finding wit.
He has certainly learned well his lessons from Milton, Homer, Dante, Ariosto, and the Mantuan Swan, but while he is a good student, he could never stand amongst his teachers. The abruptly unfinished Aeneid is far superior to Spenser's self-obsessed dike-fingering.
He becomes so convinced of the necessity of his own brilliance that he cannot stop until it is proven. He refused to accept that this redemption might not come at all. Perhaps he hoped, like Virgil, to underscore the injustice of his political mistreatment with a great work, but unfortunately could not muster the strength to die upon its proper completion.
Each meandering addendum bears its certain character and excitement. Spenser is not without poetry, allusion, and the other necessary tools. While Virgil's exile may have helped inspire his works, Spenser's exile became the central and driving theme. This book that simply wouldn't end is an apt enough metaphor for the unyielding injustice he labored under to create it....more
What is it that infects the iconoclasts? What is it unrelenting that they cannot be the same?
John Donne was a man who straddled the channel. To be EngWhat is it that infects the iconoclasts? What is it unrelenting that they cannot be the same?
John Donne was a man who straddled the channel. To be English and Catholic was to never have an identity. Sometimes it troubled him, but to be no one man became his greatest gift. There are those who are never forced to look beyond their place and their lives. That place itself may be challanged, and success is never assured, but to strive to become someone out of being so strongly no-one is another type of success.
It taught him joy in the world. It taught him of the simplicity of joy: that it is always a small thing and turns about and about on a single word. It stretched him out along a continuum with two opposing sides that could never be opposite concepts, and only found their conflict in the blood and flesh of men.
I might say it is no wonder that he was the man who tried to imagine a speck of dust that spans the universe. I might say it, but it would not be true: Donne is a wonder; and he is a wonderer. In that sense, he creates himself. He may be this, or he may be its opposite. That he was born a Catholic and died the Anglican Priest of St. Paul's Cathedral is not the showing of a change of identity, but rather a simple turn of phrase.
Why shouldn't a poet's life be a poem? We might ask what mark could stand betwixt the caesura of a man's change of heart. The mark is Metaphysics, which has doggedly followed him ever since.
There is a Shakespearean accessibility to Donne, in that he never places himself squarely behind any particular idea. Indeed, he is defined by his ability to question more than answer. He also bears some resemblance to the bard in his use of low humor, which combines with his holy works to span most of human experience.
However, there is often little accessible about his conceits, which are complex, intellectual, and many-layered. Unlike Shakespeare, Donne tends to challenge the reader (though the argument of medium may stand here). Like Pope, there is the sense that Donne is sharing a joke with you, and there is satisfaction in it. However, it is often less likely to be (entirely) a joke as a conceptual and philosophical exploration.
Taking his cues from the consummate Petrarch, Donne builds a language and a world of poetry like the crafting of a philosophy. However, finding himself too uninhibited to match the singular drive and form of Petrarch, Donne leaves us instead an open book, where every confirmation undermines itself, and to withhold becomes, itself, a passion....more
Not many people outside of literary study or detective fiction fandom realize that the character of Sherlock Holmes was inspired by Poe's Dupin. DupinNot many people outside of literary study or detective fiction fandom realize that the character of Sherlock Holmes was inspired by Poe's Dupin. Dupin was the brilliant and insightful idle noble who occasionally aided the authorities in particularly difficult cases. However, unlike Holmes, Dupin took it up merely as a hobby, mimicking Holmes' brother Mycroft.
I'm not fond of Poe's poetry. Emerson's leveling of 'Jingle Man' is appropriate. Poe puts sounds together, but usually says very little with them. It is unusual that his prose was so varied while his poetry tended to obsessive repetition. Poe presents an example of the turning point when poetry ceased to represent the most complex and dense literary form (as in Milton and Eliot) and became the most frivolous and unrefined (the beat poets), while prose moved contrarily from the light-hearted to the serious.
When divorced from his single-minded prosody, Poe's mastery of the language elegantly serves the needs of mood, characterization, and action. This is not always the case: his Ligeia retains his poetic narrowness, but his detective stories have a gentleness and wit found nowhere else in his oeuvre.
The three Dupin stories helped to inspire detective fiction, using suspense and convoluted mystery to tantalize and challenge the reader. He may not have been as influential or innovative as Wilkie Collins, but his contribution still stands.
Any book of Poe's is worth purchasing simply for these three stories. They are studies in the careful use of language to develop mood, character, and drive--even in a sparse plot. They are not quite the equals of Ambrose Bierce's short fiction, but they are solid enough....more