Category: literature

Chesterton and The Man Who Was Thursday

Note: This post was originally published at Thermidor on March 6, 2017, but since it recently shut down I’ve decided to republish my articles here. I plan to post one per week until they’re all back up, with only light editing.


What’s there to say about G. K. Chesterton? He’s a contender for the most-quoted man on the Right; spend some time in any broadly Right-wing community, Conservative, Reactionary, or even just moderate Christian, and it won’t be long before someone quotes one of his famous aphorisms or anecdotes. Though not a particularly rigorous thinker, and a bit light for those used to reading the Joseph de Maistres and Julius Evolas of the world, he’s among the best authors who’ve written primarily for popular audiences.

One thing that makes his work especially impressive is that, besides his innumerable essays, he wrote several deservedly popular novels. After burning myself out a bit on his non-fiction, I recently decided to revisit some of his novels, beginning with The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. It’s about poet Gabriel Syme, recruited by Scotland Yard and tasked with infiltrating a cabal of anarchists. It’s a classic setup for a spy or detective story, aside from the poet protagonist, and up until the final chapter plays out much as one would expect of a Chestertonian detective novel.…

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Of an Estranged World: Flannery O’Connor and the Grotesque

I’ll preface this post with a brief note that it was actually written several years ago, back in 2012. I set it aside at the time because it was so different from everything else I was writing, but I was reminded of it while re-reading Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood recently. The style is a bit different than what I generally use now, but I think there’s enough material here to be of interest that I’ve decided to finally publish it with only minor revisions.


I suspect that few would associate the word “grotesque” with Christian art. Though Medieval and Renaissance depictions of demons or hell were suitably horrifying, in most cases today “Christian” is often little more than a synonym for “family-friendly.” This is one reason I enjoy Flannery O’Connor’s short stories so much; her work is thoroughly Christian, yet it draws heavily from the gothic and outright grotesque style that I’ve always been drawn to.

Since the term “grotesque” is often used but seldom clearly defined beyond a synonym for something like “disgusting” a clear sense of this aesthetic is necessary for a meaningful discussion of her fiction. One study of the genre that I’ve found helpful is Wolfgang Kayser’s The Grotesque in Art and Literature. His book-length review of the history of the grotesque in the arts concludes that it has three primary elements common to almost all of the writers and artists who have employed the form. First, the grotesque represents the “estranged world,” second, it is “a play with the absurd,” finally, it is “an attempt to subdue the demonic aspects of the world.” Though the first two aspects are certainly applicable to O’Connor’s work, the last describes it best. Kayser wrote that a certain comfort is found in the grotesque, where “The darkness has been challenged…” In few of O’Connor’s stories is the “darkness,” the sinful or deformed aspect of human nature, really defeated, but it is at least discovered and some catharsis can be achieved from that alone.

O’Connor, though, also had her own ideas on what constitutes the grotesque. She does not write about freaks and the repulsive just for the sake of sensationalism. There is a purpose behind them, and that purpose can best be found by reference to her Catholic beliefs, because the characters she creates are not grotesque just because they are physically or spiritually ugly, but because they deviate from a natural order. Though they are freaks, O’Connor also knew that most of her readership would not find them so, or at least not for the reasons she did; therefore, she exaggerated their faults all the more, and used violence to shock her audience out of complacency. She once wrote, “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” To illustrate, let’s take a look at three of her short stories, “Good Country People,” “Revelation,” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”…

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Notes on the Odyssey

One notable thing about the Iliad is that it inspired a huge number of other poets and playwrights to use it as source material for their own works. Some filled in the gaps left by Homer, since he’d only addressed a relatively small part of the Trojan War, while others covered the adventures of the poem’s heroes after the war. The Greeks themselves were the most prolific and successful at this, but the Romans and even modern authors, musicians, and filmmakers have attempted their own additions and adaptations to the epic. I think it’s safe to say the most celebrated of these attempts was the Aeneid, making Virgil the world’s greatest author of fanfiction, but we’ll get to his work some other time.

Today, I thought I’d share some observations on the only official sequel, the Odyssey. This one needs less of an introduction than the Iliad, since it’s one of the few Classical works still commonly assigned to high school and college students, at least among Americans. I still won’t assume much familiarity – after all, I’m writing in large part for people who’ve finished schooling and are ready for an education. Since it is more accessible than the Iliad, though, I’ll talk about it less formally than I did about that epic and just offer a few observations about it.

So, as you might guess from the title Odyssey follows Odysseus after the Trojan War, whose trip home went about as well as every other hero’s – badly.

Very badly.

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Sixteenth Friend: Abraham Cowley, “The Given Heart”

Another poet, another friend, another cavalier, this time Mr. Abraham Cowley. He was born in 1618 and like a few other writers we’ve covered, especially from this era, he was multitalented and had some success as a poet, playwright, essayist, and even as a promoter of the Royal Society. During the Civil War he accompanied the queen to France, where he worked for the royal household. He was able to return to England in 1656, and spent most of the rest of his life living a largely solitary life writing.

Like most of the cavalier poets, despite some success in his own lifetime Cowley isn’t widely read today. His reputation has had its ups and downs over time, and Dr. Johnson said that he “has been at one time too much praised and too much neglected at another.” Though not the best poet of his era, he was a talented man and I suspect that his current neglect stems not so much from any fault of his so much as from fashion. Those who read poetry at all are still caught up in something of a romantic mode, looking for outpourings of emotion, so the more formal, restrained style of the Seventeenth Century comes across as stiff to our ears regardless of how heartfelt a given poem may have been. The explosion of (mostly bad) free verse has deadened our senses to technical skill, and many readers find it difficult to read verse not written in modern, everyday language.

With all that said, let’s take a quick look at today’s poem, “The Given Heart.”

I wonder what those lovers mean, who say
They have giv’n their hearts away.
Some good kind lover tell me how;
For mine is but a torment to me now.

If so it be one place both hearts contain,
For what do they complain?
What courtesy can Love do more,
Than to join hearts that parted were before?

Woe to her stubborn heart, if once mine come
Into the self-same room;
‘Twill tear and blow up all within,
Like a granado shot into a magazine.

Then shall Love keep the ashes, and torn parts,
Of both our broken hearts:
Shall out of both one new one make,
From hers, th’ allay; from mine, the metal take.

For of her heart he from the flames will find
But little left behind:
Mine only will remain entire;
No dross was there, to perish in the fire.

Well, it’s a quite solid, respectable love poem, albeit not a happy one. I do like the explosive imagery in the third and fourth stanzas, and the work ends on a strong note in the last stanza contrasting the purity of his heart with hers. This probably isn’t a poem I’ll remember forever, but may hang onto the ending.

 …

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Fifteenth Friend: Walt Whitman, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”

Last week we discussed Ezra Pound’s “Pact” with Walt Whitman, which turned out to be about as peaceable and long-lasting as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This week, we’ll meet with Walt Whitman himself.

Mr. Whitman was born in 1819 and grew up in Brooklyn. Professionally, he struggled for most of his life both in his day jobs (editing newspapers and as a clerk for the Department of the Interior) and as a poet. Some of this was just bad luck, like one publisher going bankrupt at the start of the War Between the States, while others stemmed from the content of his poems; Ralph Waldo Emerson was a supporter of his, and he also became popular in England because of his reputation as a champion of the common man, but the first few editions of Leaves of Grass did not sell well and critics responded poorly to his use of free verse. Exacerbating matters were accusations of indecency in his poems, which is why he was dismissed from his post at the Department of the Interior, and in 1881 a Boston publisher stopped publication of Leaves of Grass thanks to the efforts of an outfit called the Society for the Suppression of Vice. The controversy did bring some attention to the book, though, and once he found a new publisher finally found some moderate financial success.

I should also mention that Whitman was a supporter of the Free Soil Party, which opposed the extension of slavery into new territories and was eventually absorbed into the Republican Party. As one might guess, then, he also supported the Union cause in the War Between the States, despite being disturbed by the level of suffering the war caused. To his credit, he often went to hospitals to visit wounded soldiers, both Union and Confederate.

Now, to his poetry. Here’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Folks, I’m gonna be honest: I’m pretty sympathetic to Mr. Pound’s assessment of Mr. Whitman’s poetry, and I chose this poem in large part because it’s short. It does have its virtues; I like how the lines get progressively longer, making the lecture feel heavier and more oppressive, until we get some relief when he goes outside. He does get his point across by contrasting the abstract “charts and diagrams” and so forth with the more concrete “moist night-air” and “stars,” though “mystical” doesn’t convey much. He also contrasts the crowded and noisy lecture room with his later solitude and silence. However, none of these images really grab me like those in some of the other, better poems so far have, and because of the free verse it also doesn’t have as much musicality as I like.

Well, I’ll still respect Mr. Whitman for what he does do well, and for his influence on later poets, but frankly, American icon or not, I can take it or leave with his poetry.…

Read More Fifteenth Friend: Walt Whitman, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”

Fourteenth Friend: Ezra Pound, “A Pact”

I’ve written about today’s friend, Mr. Ezra Pound, a few times before, including addressing his war literature, a very short poem, and a brief reflection on his birthday. In literary terms, he’s a strong contender for the most accomplished friend we’ll meet during this whole series, as he was a great poet, a skilled though idiosyncratic translator, a thoughtful and opinionated critic, and an editor with a knack for finding and fostering talented writers. Because of all that he may be, apart from the Bard himself, the most important poet in English. His reputation suffered because of his support for Benito Mussolini, but I feel confident predicting that in a few centuries Mussolini will be a footnote to the Cantos, much as many great and powerful men are now footnotes to the Divine Comedy.

Read More Fourteenth Friend: Ezra Pound, “A Pact”

New at Thermidor: The Lively (and Nauseous) Genius of Martial’s Epigrams

I have a new post over at Thermidor Magazine, on Martial’s Epigrams. As I say in the review, it may not be the greatest work of Classical literature I’ve read so far, but it probably is the most fun.

On a meta note, the summer semester has started for me, so if new posts slow down or get shorter, that’ll be why. The Hundred Friends series should be able to provide a steady stream of content, and I do plan to keep up a weekly schedule, but I also have an upcoming special post (or possibly series) in July that I’m working on. So, any delays should be offset by quality content down the road.…

Read More New at Thermidor: The Lively (and Nauseous) Genius of Martial’s Epigrams

Thirteenth Friend: Edmund Waller, “Go, Lovely Rose”

Today, we’ll meet Mr. Edmund Waller, another Cavalier poet (well, more-or-less, as we’ll see). Yes, he’s certainly not the first, and won’t be the last. In fact, the general era has been well-represented among our acquaintances so far, and they’ll continue to show up throughout this project. This is debatable, but I think it’s an easily defensible position that the peak of English literature was roughly the period from the Elizabethan era up to the Civil War. During these decades one could scarcely throw a stone down a London street without hitting a poet of note, and many of them have stood the test of time admirably. When one thinks of the archetypal English poem, one is likely to think of one of the works produced by this formidable literary roster.

With the Elizabethans, for instance, we had Shakespeare, Spenser, and Marlowe. Among the “Tribe of Ben” and the Cavaliers more broadly we had, of course, Ben Jonson himself, Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, and Thomas Carew. More broadly, their contemporaries include such luminaries as John Donne, John Milton, and James Shirley. Not coincidentally, this was also the era that produced the King James Bible, by far the most enduring translation of Scripture, and deservedly so (but don’t tell the Protestants I said that).…

Read More Thirteenth Friend: Edmund Waller, “Go, Lovely Rose”

New at Thermidor: Sanity, A Short Review

I have a new post over at Thermidor Magazine, “Sanity: A Short Review.” Sanity being a novel by Neoreactionary blogger Neovictorian. Honestly, I first got it partly out of a sense of obligation, since literature is my field and I felt like I should support Reactionary literary efforts; fortunately, I can confirm that it is actually good.

Sanity, by the way, has got me interested in seeing what else is out there in the way of contemporary literature by Right-wing authors. I’ve seen some poetry published here-and-there, on specialised sites and more general publications, but honestly haven’t found much worthwhile. I also haven’t looked very closely, though, so I plan to start reading these sites more thoroughly, and checking out the handful of other novels and such that people in and around the Right have published over the past couple years.…

Read More New at Thermidor: Sanity, A Short Review

Twelfth Friend: John Crowe Ransom, “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter”

Today’s friend is a good Tennessean, Mr. John Crowe Ransom. Even if you don’t read much poetry, if you read a lot of Southern or political history you may recognise Mr. Ransom as one of the Southern Agrarians, a contributor to I’ll Take My Stand. Some schools will also touch on his critical ideas, since he was important to New Criticism, which, very briefly, emphasises reading literature as self-contained, without too much emphasis on the author, social background, and the like. Of course, this is mostly covered at the college level if the student is lucky. I took a course on Southern literature specifically and even there, we only touched on Mr. Ransom’s work (coincidentally, we spent more time discussing New Criticism in a course on British literature). He also edited the poetry magazine The Fugitive, and taught first at Vanderbilt University and then Kenyon College, in Ohio.

Anyway, he only wrote two volumes of poetry, but most school curricula will include at least a couple of them, including the one I memorised, “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter.”

There was such speed in her little body,
And such lightness in her footfall,
It is no wonder her brown study
Astonishes us all.

Her wars were bruited in our high window.
We looked among orchard trees and beyond
Where she took arms against her shadow,
Or harried unto the pond

The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud,
Who cried in goose, Alas,

For the tireless heart within the little
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!

But now go the bells, and we are ready,
In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped.…

Read More Twelfth Friend: John Crowe Ransom, “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter”