Commonplace Book: November 2002 Archives

Christina Rossetti I love Project


Christina Rossetti

I love Project Canterbury (see left column) they produce such wonderful Anglo-Catholic stuff. In this week's e-bulletin was a brief on-line biography of the poet who gave us the wonderful carol, "In the Bleak Midwinter." Go here to read it. An excerpt follows.

It is sometimes said that Christina Rossetti dwells overmuch on the physical aspect of death. Her poetry has, indeed, its sombre strain, but the trails of glory are never far away. Like that other singer of the Catholic Revival, John Mason Neale, it is for the dear, dear country that her eyes keep vigil. Beyond the dull street on which her bedroom window looks out is the vision of Urbs Beata:

I saw the gate called Beautiful
And looked but scarce could look within.
I saw the golden streets begin
And outskirts of the glassy pool;
On harps, on crowns of plenteous stars,
On green palm branches many-leaved
Eye hath not seen, nor ear hath heard,
Nor heart conceived.
I hope to see these things again,
But not as once in dreams by night,
To see them with my very sight
And touch and handle and attain
To have all Heaven beneath my feet
For narrow way that once they trod;
To have my part with all the saints
And with my God.

This biograpphy makes me think I have neglected the poet who gave us the wonderful "Goblin Market" overlong. I have a magnificent pre-Raphaelite illustrated version of that single poem, but it is evident that I will need to seek out a more complete "Works." If anyone knows of an on-line resource, please let me know in the comment box or send me an e-mail. Thanks.

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Rashomon for Basho


So, how does one translate Japanese poetry. In the column to the left there is a link to Basho's most famous work variously translated Narrow Road to the Deep North or Narrow Road to Oku. I have selected stop 26 on the journey to look at the translations offered of a single haiku.

Station 26 - Ryushakuji

[translation by Nobuyuki Yuasa]

In the utter silence
Of a temple,
A cicada's voice alone
Penetrates the rocks.

[translation by Dorothy Britton]
In this hush profound,
Into the very rocks it seeps -
The cicada sound.

[translation by Cid Corman and Kamaike Susume]
into rock absorbing
cicada sounds

[translation by Helen Craig McCullough]
shizukesa ya Ah, tranquility!
iwa ni shimiiru Penetrating the very rock,
semi no keo a cicada's voice.

[translation by Helen Craig McCullough]
In seclusion, silence.
Shrilling into the mountain boulder,
The cicada's rasp.

You can see that all five give us a sense of the main elements--the quiet or stillness, the cicada's voice (which by the way, if it's anything like the cicadas I've heard precludes any sense whatsoever of quiet) and some sort of rock. In the first translation, the translator introduces the notion of a temple which is nowhere present elsewhere, Britton gives us rocks rather than rock, McCullough gives us a mountain boulder.

The difficulty of most haiku is that the fourteen syllables of the poem may never be united. They may remain fourteen syllables that have little relations to one another. For example, it might be like saying in English,

clock dripping water deathwatch beetle Huxley's surprise

It is up to the translator to have these seemingly random elements make sense. Britton chooses to do so through rhyme, Korman and Susume seem to wish to give the closest sense of the original, in doing so it is the sparest and probably least appealing to American ears.

Which translation do you prefer and why?

(Tip for homeschoolers seeking to inject some diversity of culture--this is one of the most famous and most translated books of Japanese Poetry available. In addition, it is a rather interesting travelogue. With some of the prints of Hokusai illustrating some of the places referred to in Basho, this can make a pretty neat lesson. In addition, Hokusai has some very appealing prints of things like cat and butterfly. His masterpiece--One-Hundred Views of Mount Fuji includes one of the most often reprinted images--"The Great Wave of Kanagawa." Finally, the haiku, like the diamante is kind of a school-figure for the writing of poetry. Most kids enjoy them and most adults can help guide them. This book gives a sense of how profound and beautiful a haiku can be.

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How to Read St. John of the Cross


How to Read St. John of the Cross
Part I: The Poem Introduction to Ascent of Mount Carmel

The Dark Night
St. John of the Cross

Songs of the soul that rejoices in having reached the high state of perfection, which is union with God, by the path of spiritual negation.

1. One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings
- ah, the sheer grace! -
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

2. In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
- ah, the sheer grace! -
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

3. On that glad night
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
- him I knew so well -
there in a place where no one appeared.

5. O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

6. Upon my flowering breast,
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

First, it seems ridiculous, but we must recall the genre. This is poetry. You cannot assume that the "I" speaking is the poet. The "I" of the poem may or may not be the poet himself. It depends upon the type of poem and the author. For example, the "I" of the confessional poet is almost always the poet, but much of the time the first person is an invitation to read substituting yourself for the "I" of the poem.

Here St. John makes the interpretation somewhat easier by announcing his intent at the beginning of the poem. " Songs of the soul that rejoices in having reached the high state of perfection, which is union with God, by the path of spiritual negation. " From this follows two points. The "I" of the poem is the soul transported and this eight-part poem is not a single song. The stanzas do not flow one into the other but they constitute a number of songs. However, there need not be eight. One reading of the poem, the one I shall pursue here, would find two different songs--stanzas 1 through 5 which all seem bound by a common thread and stanzas 5 or 6 through 8. Stanza 5 seems pivotal and its importance is signaled by language that very much resembles liturgical language. Something about it suggests the Exultet of Easter.

Most blessed of all nights, chosen by God to see Christ rising from the dead!

Of this night scripture says:
"The night will be as clear as day:
it will become my light, my joy."

The power of this holy night
dispels all evil, washes guilt away,
restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy;
it casts out hatred, brings us peace, and humbles earthly

Night truly blessed when heaven is wedded to earth
and man is reconciled with God!

Earlier in the Exultet we find the line concerning the night in which the pillar of fire led the people out of bondage.

It seems that central to St. John's point is this stanza, that is why I could see it associated with both "songs." By his language St. John of the Cross refers directly to the central event in the Christian Experience. This is the pivot upon which the entire spiritual life turns. Thus you could view stanza 5 as ending one song and beginning another. Try reading the poem as two songs--the first a song of a person leaving their still house driven by the search for the beloved, the second a song of the loved and the beloved together in union.

We are still left to pursue the understanding of the poem. St. John of the Cross ostensibly wrote two books explicating the poem (although Ascent leaves the poem fairly early on and only Dark Night of the Soul visits the entire poem.

One other important point to remember about the poem, is that as with all spiritual poetry when you read it, you mustn't merely look for the authorial intent--you need to plumb the depths and see what it is saying to you. You need to become the "I" of the poem. Because this "I" is female, such a reading is at surface somewhat more difficult for men than for women. It is very difficult to put yourself in the place of the female of the poem until you remember that in God's embrace all souls are "female." This has less to do with sex than it has to do with the role and response defined in classical terms of the female to the male. Modern sensibilities have often brushed this aside, but the meaning of this poem can only be captured in that classical understanding. The soul is bending, yielding, and fruitful under God's ministrations. When reading the poem set aside your modern sensibilities and accept the notion of the time during which the poem was written.

As with all poems read it, reread it, and read it aloud. If you understand Spanish, seek it out in Spanish and read it aloud. Let the music and the rhythm of the poem have their proper place.

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The Poetry of Nature


I know Gilbert White more from his pioneering studies of what we would today call ecology. He worked in the eighteenth century and wrote a number of works about wildlife near his native Selbourne. He also happened to be an ordained, but non-practicing minister. Despite its unflinching metrical regularity (blame Dryden and Pope) this poem is quite nice in its evocation of some of the rhythms and sights of a summer night in the 18th century.

The Naturalist's Summer Evening Walk
Gilbert White

equidem credo, quia sit divinitus illis
Ingenium. Virgil

WHEN day declining sheds a milder gleam,
What time the may-fly haunts the pool or stream;
When the still owl skims round the grassy mead,
What time the timorous hare limps forth to feed;
Then be the time to steal adown the vale,
And listen to the vagrant cuckoo's tale;
To hear the clamorous curlew call his mate,
Or the soft quail his tender pain relate;
To see the swallow sweep the dark'ning plain
Belated, to support her infant train;
To mark the swift in rapid giddy ring
Dash round the steeple, unsubdu'd of wing:
Amusive birds!- say where your hid retreat
When the frost rages and the tempests beat;
Whence your return, by such nice instinct led
When spring, soft season, lifts her bloomy head?
Such baffled searches mock man's prying pride,
The God of Nature is your secret guide!

While deep'ning shades obscure the face of day,
To yonder bench leaf-shelter'd let us stray,
Till blended objects fail the swimming sight,
And all the facing landscape sinks in night;
To hear the drowsy beetle come brushing by
With buzzing wing, or the shrill cricket cry;
To see the feeding bat glance through the wood;
To catch the distant falling of the flood;
While o'er the cliff th'awaken'd churn-owl hung
Through the still gloom protracts his chattering song;
While high in air, and pois'd upon his wings,
Unseen, the soft enamour'd woodlark sings:
These, Nature's works, the curious mind employ,
Inspire a soothing melancholy joy:
As fancy warms, a pleasing kind of pain
Steals o'er the cheek, and thrills the creeping vein!

Each rural sight, each sound, each smell, combine;
The tinkling sheep-bell, or the breath of kine;
The new-mown hay that scents the swelling breeze,
Or cottage-chimney smoking through the trees.
The chilling night-dews fall:--away, retire;
For see, the glow-worm lights her amorous fire!
Thus, e'er night's veil had half obscur'd the sky,
Th'impatient damsel hung her lamp on high:
True to the signal, by love's meteor led,
Leander hasten'd to his Hero's bed.

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The names use above were pseudonyms used by Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Bronte to given their publications more substance in the eyes of a population that did not much value the contributions of women to literature--although with the advent of Jane Austen that was fast changing.

The following poem by Anne Bronte is exemplary of the work. Much of the poetry is quite fine if a bit regular and sometimes, depending on length, monotonous in rhyme.

Anne Bronte

ETERNAL Power, of earth and air!
Unseen, yet seen in all around,
Remote, but dwelling everywhere,
Though silent, heard in every sound.

If e'er thine ear in mercy bent,
When wretched mortals cried to Thee,
And if, indeed, Thy Son was sent,
To save lost sinners such as me:

Then hear me now, while, kneeling here,
I lift to thee my heart and eye,
And all my soul ascends in prayer,
Oh, give me-give me Faith! I cry.

Without some glimmering in my heart,
I could not raise this fervent prayer;
But, oh! a stronger light impart,
And in Thy mercy fix it there.

While Faith is with me, I am blest;
It turns my darkest night to day;
But while I clasp it to my breast,
I often feel it slide away.

Then, cold and dark, my spirit sinks,
To see my light of life depart;
And every fiend of Hell, methinks,
Enjoys the anguish of my heart.

What shall I do, if all my love,
My hopes, my toil, are cast away,
And if there be no God above,
To hear and bless me when I pray?

If this be vain delusion all,
If death be an eternal sleep,
And none can hear my secret call,
Or see the silent tears I weep!

Oh, help me, God! For thou alone
Canst my distracted soul relieve;
Forsake it not: it is thine own,
Though weak, yet longing to believe.

Oh, drive these cruel doubts away;
And make me know, that Thou art God!
A faith, that shines by night and day,
Will lighten every earthly load.

If I believe that Jesus died,
And, waking, rose to reign above;
Then surely Sorrow, Sin, and Pride,
Must yield to Peace, and Hope, and Love.

And all the blessed words He said
Will strength and holy joy impart:
A shield of safety o'er my head,
A spring of comfort in my heart.

Emily Bronte

HOW beautiful the earth is still,
To thee-how full of happiness !
How little fraught with real ill,
Or unreal phantoms of distress !
How spring can bring thee glory, yet,
And summer win thee to forget

December's sullen time !
Why dost thou hold the treasure fast,
Of youth's delight, when youth is past,
And thou art near thy prime ?

When those who were thy own compeers,
Equals in fortune and in years,
Have seen their morning melt in tears,
To clouded, smileless day;
Blest, had they died untried and young,
Before their hearts went wandering wrong,
Poor slaves, subdued by passions strong,
A weak and helpless prey !

" Because, I hoped while they enjoyed,
And, by fulfilment, hope destroyed;
As children hope, with trustful breast,
I waited bliss-and cherished rest.
A thoughtful spirit taught me, soon,
That we must long till life be done;
That every phase of earthly joy
Must always fade, and always cloy:

This I foresaw-and would not chase
The fleeting treacheries;
But, with firm foot and tranquil face,
Held backward from that tempting race,
Gazed o'er the sands the waves efface,
To the enduring seas-

There cast my anchor of desire
Deep in unknown eternity;
Nor ever let my spirit tire,
With looking for what is to be !

It is hope's spell that glorifies,
Like youth, to my maturer eyes,
All Nature's million mysteries,
The fearful and the fair-
Hope soothes me in the griefs I know;
She lulls my pain for others' woe,
And makes me strong to undergo
What I am born to bear.

Glad comforter ! will I not brave,
Unawed, the darkness of the grave ?
Nay, smile to hear Death's billows rave-
Sustained, my guide, by thee ?
The more unjust seems present fate,
The more my spirit swells elate,
Strong, in thy strength, to anticipate
Rewarding destiny !"

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A Poet to Make One Despair


A Poet to Make One Despair

Robert Browning is a poet to make one despair. Everything he writes seems nearly perfect and he sustains enormous lengths of poetry with the seeming carelessness of a master gymnast doing floor exercises. Every leap, every step, every roll, every move, choreographed and meaningful, yet done without breaking a sweat. That is not how poetry is, and particularly not when the poetry has such depths. With that tortured introduction, I present part of one of Browning's ruminations on theology. For the complete poem, check here

from "Caliban upon Setebos Or, Natural Theology in the Island"
Robert Browning

"Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such a one as thyself."
          (David, Psalms 50.21)

            ['Will sprawl, now that the heat of day is best,
            Flat on his belly in the pit's much mire,
            With elbows wide, fists clenched to prop his chin.
            And, while he kicks both feet in the cool slush,
            And feels about his spine small eft-things course,
            Run in and out each arm, and make him laugh:
            And while above his head a pompion-plant,
            Coating the cave-top as a brow its eye,
            Creeps down to touch and tickle hair and beard,
            And now a flower drops with a bee inside,
            And now a fruit to snap at, catch and crunch,--
            He looks out o'er yon sea which sunbeams cross
            And recross till they weave a spider-web
            (Meshes of fire, some great fish breaks at times)
            And talks to his own self, howe'er he please,
            Touching that other, whom his dam called God.
            Because to talk about Him, vexes--ha,
            Could He but know! and time to vex is now,
            When talk is safer than in winter-time.
            Moreover Prosper and Miranda sleep
            In confidence he drudges at their task,
            And it is good to cheat the pair, and gibe,
            Letting the rank tongue blossom into speech.]

          Setebos, Setebos, and Setebos!
            'Thinketh, He dwelleth i' the cold o' the moon.

            'Thinketh He made it, with the sun to match,
            But not the stars; the stars came otherwise;
            Only made clouds, winds, meteors, such as that:
            Also this isle, what lives and grows thereon,
            And snaky sea which rounds and ends the same.

            'Thinketh, it came of being ill at ease:
            He hated that He cannot change His cold,
            Nor cure its ache. 'Hath spied an icy fish
            That longed to 'scape the rock-stream where she lived,
            And thaw herself within the lukewarm brine
            O' the lazy sea her stream thrusts far amid,
            A crystal spike 'twixt two warm walls of wave;
            Only, she ever sickened, found repulse
            At the other kind of water, not her life,
            (Green-dense and dim-delicious, bred o' the sun)
            Flounced back from bliss she was not born to breathe,
            And in her old bounds buried her despair,
            Hating and loving warmth alike: so He.

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The Boring and the Bored


The Boring and the Bored
Perhaps I am investing too much importance in the saying of a thing, but I think the quote below needs iteration every day. I suppose that makes me one of the boring. As Lord Byron, who invented this division of humankind, classes himself with the bored, I am more than happy to represent the other half.

from Heretics Chapter 3
G. K. Chesterton

We might, no doubt, find it a nuisance to count all the blades of grass or all the leaves of the trees; but this would not be because of our boldness or gaiety, but because of our lack of boldness and gaiety. The bore would go onward, bold and gay, and find the blades of grass as splendid as the swords of an army. The bore is stronger and more joyous than we are; he is a demigod—nay, he is a god. For it is the gods who do not tire of the iteration of things; to them the nightfall is always new, and the last rose as red as the first.

I must admit to never having cared much for G. K. Chesterton. I've never much liked the Father Brown Stories. I found The Man Who Was Thursday nearly incomprehensible. The short essays have never spoken to me, nor has the poetry. The apologetics has left me cold. However, I must admit that Chesterton is something like one's parents in one's youth. The older you get the smarter they seem. Reading Pearce's study of Chesterton helps contextualize and reify a legend who is largely known to me through the portayals of Sir Henry Merrivale and Dr. Gideon Fell. But I am discovering an undiscovered country for me, and it is a tremendous pleasure. When Chesterton is on, the prose is supple and can border on magnificent. I had heard recently that there is a movement promoting the cause of G.K. Chesterton and I had wondered at that, but as I grow more tolerant I see more reason behind such a cause. I may even eventually finish Heretics.

[later: I meant to add: 5 points for the person who can identifty the author associated with the two persons mentioned other than G.K. Chesterton. An additional 5 points for any title associated with the two characters.]

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About this Archive

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