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Posts Tagged ‘poetry

“When wombats do inspire/I strike my disused lyre”*…

 

Wombat

Rossetti mourning his wombat

 

“‘The Wombat,’ Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote in 1869, ‘is a Joy, a Triumph, a Delight, a Madness!’ Rossetti’s house at 16 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea had a large garden, which, shortly after he was widowed, he began to stock with wild animals. He acquired, among other beasts, wallabies, kangaroos, a raccoon and a zebu. He looked into the possibility of keeping an African elephant but concluded that at £400 it was unreasonably priced. He bought a toucan, which he trained to ride a llama. But, above all, he loved wombats…

It isn’t difficult to understand Rossetti’s devotion. Wombats are deceptive; they are swifter than they look, braver than they look, tougher than they look. Outwardly, they are sweet-faced and rotund. The earliest recorded description of the wombat came from a settler, John Price, in 1798, on a visit to New South Wales. Price wrote that it was ‘an animal about twenty inches high, with short legs and a thick body with a large head, round ears, and very small eyes; is very fat, and has much the appearance of a badger.’ The description implies only limited familiarity with badgers; in fact, a wombat looks somewhere between a capybara, a koala and a bear cub.

Despite the fact that they do not look streamlined, a wombat can run at up to 25 miles an hour, and maintain that speed for 90 seconds. The fastest recorded human footspeed was Usain Bolt’s 100m sprint in 2009, in which he hit a speed of 27.8 mph but maintained it for just 1.61 seconds, suggesting that a wombat could readily outrun him. They can also fell a grown man, and have the capacity to attack backwards, crushing a predator against the walls of their dens with the hard cartilage of their rumps. The shattered skulls of foxes have been found in wombat burrows…

Katherine Rundell urges us to “Consider the Wombat.”

* Christina Rossetti  (Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sister)

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As we ponder pets, we might wish an elfish Happy Birthday to John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, who was born on this date in 1892.  A philologist and professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, Tolkein is better known for the series of books of which he said “my work has escaped from my control, and I have produced a monster: an immensely long, complex, rather bitter, and rather terrifying romance, quite unfit for children (if fit for anybody).”

(Tolkein’s friend and fellow Inkling, C.S. Lewis, when told by Tolkien of a new character with which he was populating The Lord of the Rings, reputedly replied “Not another f—ing dwarf!”)

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Bust of Tolkien in the chapel of his alma mater, Exeter College, Oxford. He was later a don down the street, at Merton College

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“No light, but rather darkness visible”*…

 

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Satan Presiding at the Infernal Council (Book II, line 1), from John Martin’s epic set of illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1827

 

I begin with sound. I read Paradise Lost not only with my eyes, but also with my mouth. I was lucky enough to study Books I and II for A level many years ago, and to do so in a small class whose teacher, Miss Enid Jones, had the clear-eyed and old-fashioned idea that we would get a good sense of the poem if, before we did anything else to it, we read it aloud. So we took it in turns, in that sixth-form classroom in Ysgol Ardudwy, on the flat land below the Harlech Castle, to stumble and mutter and gabble our way through it all, while Miss Jones sat with arms comfortably folded on her desk, patiently helping us with pronunciation, but not encumbering us with meaning…

The experience of reading poetry aloud when you don’t fully understand it is a curious and complicated one. It’s like suddenly discovering that you can play the organ. Rolling swells and peals of sound, powerful rhythms and rich harmonies are at your command; and as you utter them you begin to realise that the sound you’re releasing from the words as you speak is part of the reason they’re there. The sound is part of the meaning and that part only comes alive when you speak it. So at this stage it doesn’t matter that you don’t fully understand everything: you’re already far closer to the poem than someone who sits there in silence looking up meanings and references and making assiduous notes…

John Milton’s Paradise Lost has been many things to many people — a Christian epic, a comment on the English Civil War, the epitome of poetic ambiguity — but it is first of all a pleasure to read.  Drawing on sources as varied as Wordsworth, Hitchcock, and Conan Doyle, author Philip Pullman (the author of many wonderful volumes, but most relevantly here, the His Dark Materials [Golden Compass] trilogy and the Book of Dust novels currently underway) considers the sonic beauty and expert storytelling of Milton’s masterpiece, and the shaping influence it has had on his own work: “The Sound and the Story: Exploring the World of Paradise Lost.

* Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1

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As we contemplate the celestial, we might recall that it was on this date in 1843 that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol— a novella he’d written over the prior six weeks– was formally published; it had been released to book stores and the public two days later.  The first run of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve, and the book continued to sell well through twenty-four editions in its original form.

Cover of the first edition

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Written by LW

December 19, 2019 at 1:01 am

“If thou thou’st him some thrice, it will not be amiss”*…

 

You

 

‘You’ is the fourteenth most frequently used word in the English language, following closely behind its fellow pronouns ‘it’ at number eight and ‘I’ at number eleven:

The fact that you follows closely behind I in popularity is probably attributable to its being an eight-way word: both subject and object, both singular and plural, and both formal and familiar. The all-purpose second person is an unusual feature of English, as middle-schoolers realize when they start taking French, Spanish, or, especially German, which offers a choice of seven different singular versions of you. It’s relatively new in our language. In early modern English, beginning  in the late fifteenth century, thou, thee and thy were singular forms for the subjective, objective and possessive, and ye, you and your were plural. In the 1500s and 1600s, ye and then the thou/thee/thy forms, faded away, to be replaced by the all-purpose you. But approaches to this second person were interesting in this period of flux. David Crystal writes in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of English that by Shakespeare’s time, you “was used by people of lower rank or status to those above them (such as ordinary people to nobles, children to parents, servants to masters, nobles to the monarch), and was also the standard way for the upper classes to talk to each other. … By contrast, thou/thee were used by people of higher rank to those beneath them, and by the lower classes to each other; also in elevated poetic style, in addressing God, and in talking to witches, ghosts and other supernatural  beings.” The OED cites a 1675 quotation: “No Man will You God but will use the pronoun Thou to him.”

“Needless to say, this ambiguity and variability were gold in the hand of a writer like Shakespeare, and he played with it endlessly, sometimes having a character switch modes of address within a speech to indicate a change in attitude.” [see the title of this post, for example]…

More of this excerpt from Ben Yagoda’s When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse  at “You.”

[Via the ever-illuminating Delanceyplace.com]

* Sir Toby Belch to Sir Andrew Aguecheek, in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

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As we muse on modes of address, we might send elegantly phrased and eclectic birthday greetings to Persian polymath Omar Khayyam; the philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, epigrammatist, and poet was born on this date in 1048. While he’s probably best known to English-speakers as a poet, via Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation of (what he called) the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Fitzgerald’s attribution of the book’s poetry to Omar (as opposed to the aphorisms and other quotes in the volume) is now questionable to many scholars (who believe those verses to be by several different Persian authors).

In any case, Omar was unquestionably one of the major mathematicians and astronomers of the medieval period.  He is the author of one of the most important treatises on algebra written before modern times, the Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra, which includes a geometric method for solving cubic equations by intersecting a hyperbola with a circle.  His astronomical observations contributed to the reform of the Persian calendar.  And he made important contributions to mechanics, geography, mineralogy, music, climatology and Islamic theology.

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Written by LW

May 15, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Life without industry is guilt; industry without art is brutality”*…

 

People walk past the Egyptian Theatre along Main Street before the opening day of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City

 

It is often said that art feeds the soul. But culture and the arts also fuel the economy directly: The arts contribute more than $800 billion a year to U.S. economic output, amounting to more than 4 percent of GDP.

That figure is based on detailed data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (part of the Department of Commerce) and the National Endowment for the Arts, summarized in a report released earlier this month.The report tracks the aggregate performance of 35 key arts-and-culture fields, including broadcasting, movies, streaming, publishing, the performing arts, arts-related retail, and more…

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The contribution of culture and art to the U.S. economy is bigger than the economic output of Sweden or Switzerland; learn more at “The Economic Power of American Arts and Culture.”

* John Ruskin

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As we see to our souls, we might spare a pining thought for Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca); it was on this date in 1327, after he’d given up his vocation as a priest, that he first set eyes on “Laura” in the church of Sainte-Claire d’Avignon– an encounter that awoke in him a passion that spawned the 366 poems in Il Canzoniere (“Song Book”).

Considered by many to have been “the Father of Humanism,” and reputed to have coined the term “Renaissance,” Petrarch was most famous in his time for his paeans to his idealized lover (who was, many scholars believe, Laura de Noves, the wife of Hugues de Sade).  But Petrarch’s more fundamental and lasting contribution to culture came via Pietro Bembo who created the model for the modern Italian language in the 16th century largely based on the works of Petrarch (and to a lesser degree, those of Dante and Boccaccio).

Laura de Noves died on this date in 1348.

Lura de Noves

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Petrarch

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Written by LW

April 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one”*…

 

Networks

 

You’ve probably heard of the wisdom of crowds. The general idea, popularized by James Surowiecki’s book, is that a large group of non-experts can solve problems collectively better than a single expert. As you can imagine, there are a lot of subtleties and complexities to this idea. Nicky Case helps you understand with a game.

Draw networks, run simulations, and learn in the process…

Spend an extremely-fruitful half hour with “The Wisdom and/or Madness of Crowds.”

[via Flowing Data]

* Charles MacKay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

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As we contemplate connection, we might compose a birthday rhyme for Torquato Tasso, the 16th Century Italian poet; he was born on this date in 1544.  Tasso was a giant in his own time– he died in 1595, a few days before the Pope was to crown him “King of the Poets”– but had fallen out the core of the Western Canon by the end of the 19th century.  Still, he resonates in the poems (Spencer, Milton, Byron), plays (Goethe), madrigals (Monteverdi), operas (Lully, Vivaldi, Handel, Haydn, Rossini, Dvorak) , and art work (Tintoretto, the Carracci, Guercino, Pietro da Cortona, Domenichino, Van Dyck, Poussin, Claude Lorrain, Tiepolo, Fragonard, Delacroix) that his life and work inspired.

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Written by LW

March 11, 2019 at 12:01 am

“Poetry is emotion put into measure”*…

 

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Concrete poem

 

From Petrarchian through Cinquain to Sestina, Adam Bertocci offers 22 variations on Shakespeare’s most famous poem: “Alternate Forms for Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.”

* Thomas Hardy

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As we match content to form, we might send craftily-constructed birthday greetings to Ross Thomas; he was born on this date in 1928.  A thriller writer considered by many to be America’s answer to Len Deighton or John Le Carre– only funnier– he wrote The Cold War Swap, his first novel, in six weeks– and won the 1967 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.  He went on to write 19 other novels under his own name and 5 as “Oliver Bleeck.”  His 1984 novel, Briarpatch, won the Edgar for Best Novel.  In 2002, he was awarded the Gumshoe Lifetime Achievement Award— with Ed McBain, one of only two posthumous recipients.

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Written by LW

February 19, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Who ever converses among old books will be hard to please among the new”*…

 

old book

There are four original manuscripts containing poetry in Old English—the now-defunct language of the medieval Anglo-Saxons—that have survived to the present day. No more, no less. They are: the Vercelli Book, which contains six poems, including the hallucinatory “Dream of the Rood”; the Junius Manuscript, which comprises four long religious poems; the Exeter Book, crammed with riddles and elegies; and the Beowulf Manuscript, whose name says it all. There is no way of knowing how many more poetic codices (the special term for these books) might have existed once upon a time, but have since been destroyed…

All four are on display at “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War,” a new show of artifacts at the British Library in London.  An appreciation of “the ineffable magic of four little manuscripts of Old English poetry” at “What Do Our Oldest Books Say About Us?

* William Temple

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As we turn the pages with care, we might spare a thought for Quintus Horatius Flaccus– Horace– the Roman soldier and poet, born on this date in 65 BCE…  Horace’s Satires, Epodes, Odes, and Epistles, have earned him a reputation akin to Virgil’s…  He was in some ways the antithesis of earlier honoree (and champion of the Republic) Cicero; an apologist for empire, Horace was Augustus’ Poet Laureate.  He may have coined, but was in any case the first to use “carpe diem” in a recorded setting.   And he offered this good advice: “Add a sprinkling of folly to your long deliberations.”

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Horace, as imagined by Anton von Werner

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Written by LW

November 27, 2018 at 1:01 am

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