Our next acquaintance is with John Donne, who lived about a century before Alexander Pope, having been born in 1572 and passing away in 1631, and like Pope his family’s Catholic faith caused him some trouble early in his life. Interestingly, his mother was a direct descendent of St. Thomas More, and though he was able to study at Oxford and Cambridge, he couldn’t receive a degree there because his religion prevented him from swearing a required oath of allegiance to Queen Elizabeth. Unfortunately, he did not have More’s constancy, and after traveling in Italy and Spain for a few years, left the Church and became an Anglican sometime while working as a secretary for Sir Thomas Egerton. Disappointing, but I won’t doubt his sincerity given his reputation among those who knew him. He would eventually join the Anglican priesthood, despite feeling himself unworthy, after years of urging from his friends and even from King James I. He did suffer about ten years of hardship, though, because of his relationship with Anne More, who he secretly married because he knew he wouldn’t receive her father’s permission, which in those days was career suicide.…
After our brief visit in Japan, we come home to the English-speaking world to see one of our most famous poets, Mr. Alexander Pope. Though he did achieve financial stability and a good reputation during his lifetime as a respected poet and accomplished translator, his early life was difficult due to health problems (specifically, turberculosis of the spine, as well as being trampled by a cow as a child). Also, he was born in 1688, the same year as the “Glorious” Revolution, so he and his family were subject to the anti-Catholic legislation passed shortly afterward. For example, he was barred from attending university and so had to make due as an autodidact. This doesn’t seem to have held him back too much intellectually, though, and so he should serve as an inspiration for autodidacts everywhere.
The poem I’ve memorised is actually a selection from a longer work, An Essay on Criticism, but it’s probably the most famous part of that essay:
Well, we have the rhymed couplets that Mr. Pope is known for. This form was very common at the time but has long since fallen out of fashion, which honestly is fine with me since they’re a little boring. Also, they made this selection oddly more difficult than I expected – rhymes make memorisation easier in general, and memorising the couplets was simple enough, but each stands almost on its own, so the hard part was tying them all together in one unit and in the right order. In other words, rhymes help one to form sets of lines into “chunks,” so for example a rhyme scheme of abba gives you a four-line chunk. Unfortunately, couplets give a set of a mere two lines.
In any case, the poem itself is relevant to all autodidacts like Mr. Pope. When we study anything of substance, it’s easy and tempting to settle for a merely surface-level understanding of the subject. However, this is a dangerous attitude to take. We come away with a few facts, but no real understanding, and what facts we have are easily confused or forgotten. To quote another author, Bl. John Henry Newman, “Confused, inaccurate knowledge is no knowledge. It is the very fault we find with youths under education that they use words without meaning, that they are wanting in precision and distinctness, that they are ignorant of what they know and what they do not know.” I’ve covered some similar thoughts from Cardinal Newman previously.
I thought this would be an appropriate poem to cover early on because, as discussed in the introductory post, the best way to “drink largely” when attempting to understand a poem is to commit it to memory. So, whether you’re joining me in the study of poetry or if you’ve taken on another subject, remember to “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring!”…
The first friend we’re making in the Hundred Friends project is Fujiwara no Masatsune, a Japanese poet and editor who lived 1170-1221. His picture and this poem is on the card to the right, and you can read a little more about both over here, if you like.
As I mentioned in the introductory post, this will mostly be an English project, but since the idea came from the Japanese anthology Hyakunin Isshu, I thought it would be appropriate to begin with a poem from that collection. This is the ninety-fourth poem in that book, and in Mostow’s translation goes like this:
the autumn wind in its mountains
deepens the night and
in the former capitol, cold
I hear the fulling of cloth…
Two years ago, I wrote about an excellent little book called the Hyakunin Isshu, a Medieval Japanese poetry anthology of one hundred poems, specifically five-line tanka, each by a different poet. At the time, I started wondering if, perhaps, I could memorise that many poems. If that sounds overly ambitious, keep in mind that this is something people actually do for a game called “karuta,” which is a card-matching game based around the poems. So, it’s certainly feasible, but I’m unsure about memorising the Hyakunin Isshu specifically. As much as I love the book, I do like some poems more than others, and besides, I’d like to write about the experience as I go. Each of the hundred poems, though, has already been covered, and covered very well, at this excellent blog.
Besides, as much as I admire Japan, I’m also a good patriot and so do ultimately prefer the literature of my own people. Could I make an English Hyakunin Isshu? The idea has stuck with me this long, and after memorising a couple of poems recently I remembered how much I enjoy doing this. So, after floating the idea on Twitter, I’ve decided to go ahead with this project.
Now, the closest equivalent to tanka we have would be the sonnet, but I soon decided to branch out a bit. I’m going to be spending a lot of time with these poems, and putting together a hundred of these was already a challenge, so though the sonnet would ultimately be well represented, I’m not restricting the list to them.
Regarding language and the poets’ countries of origin, I consider this an English project, though I also included a few Frenchmen since, contrary to what geographers may tell you, Britain is not an island, as well as one Japanese as a nod to the project’s origin. Furthermore, since this is supposed to be a set of standards, I was generally conservative in my selections; some of these are very well-known, almost cliché. That’s fine, because they deserve their reputation, and one benefit from this project will be a greater familiarity with the most notable poems in the language. Several of these are the types that make one think, “Oh, so that’s where that saying comes from!”
I prioritised poets from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, though the ultimate range is quite broad and other eras are well represented. Of course, some worthy poets are left out simply because I didn’t have room, or they didn’t have any suitable poems. A few of these are already quite a bit longer than is probably wise.
Me being me, I also favoured Cavaliers over Puritans, and Southerners over Yankees.
I should mention that I did get quite a bit of help in selecting these poets, as one can see from this thread where I announced the project. Joshua Jennings, always trustworthy in literary matters, contributed the most, but I also received suggestions from Arthur Ownby, Testis Gratus, Amy Mellein, Egon Maistre, and Fredrik Andréasson. Ezra Pound’s book ABC of Reading provided several of these, as well.
I am including some poems I’ve already memorised, so I do have a head start. Still, I’m unsure how long this will take. My goal will be one or two poems per week, but they vary so wildly in length that it’s hard to predict how this will go. Nonetheless, when it comes to reciting poetry, my ability is second only to Humpty Dumpty.
One final note, for those wondering about the “hundred friends” title. It comes from a comic called Chihayafuru, which is based on the karuta card game mentioned above and is how I first learned of both the game and the poems. I wrote about it a few years ago. In any case, when the protagonist first begins with the game and has to memorise all of the poems, her coach tells her to think of it as making a hundred new friends. The metaphor between a poem or poet and a friend is one that has stuck with me. As one can imagine, there’s no better way to really learn and understand a poem than to commit it to memory. Beyond that, though, there’s a deeper connection that’s difficult to describe, but it’s just what Confucius was getting at when he encouraged his students to study the Book of Odes, because the poems “will stimulate your emotions, broaden your observation, enlarge your fellowship, and express your grievances.” Some of my posts on these poems will be longer than others; some may offer a bit of analysis, others will basically just be “here’s a poem I think is worthwhile,” but I hope to be able to explain this better as we go on.
I also hope to encourage you to make some new friends of your own.…
After writing about Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried, Sam Stevens (whose own novel Lone Crusader I reviewed earlier this year) recommended that I also check out another of O’Brien’s novels, Going After Cacciato. That sounded like a good idea to me, so I got a copy of the audiobook edition expecting another war novel along the lines of The Things They Carried.
I was about half-right. It’s partly a war novel, and partly a modern version of Around the World in Eighty Days.…
I have a new post over at Thermidor Magazine, reviewing Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried, a collection of closely related short stories about his experience in the Vietnam War. It is my favourite war novel, and one of my favourite works of fiction generally. It’s even rather new by my standards, published in 1990, within my lifetime! Well, I was a small child at the time, but still. In my review of Lone Crusader, a new work by any standard, I quoted C. S. Lewis’s famous advice, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” My general rule is that a “new” book for this purpose is “written within one’s own lifetime.” Cicero said that “Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever,” so the goal here is to avoid being temporally parochial-minded.
In any case, I’ve had a backlog of reviews to write, and I’m almost caught up. Next up will be a collection of treatises by Xenophon, after which I’ll start preparing for a Very Special Episode next month, which contains a momentous landmark for Everything is Oll Korrect!…
I have a new article over at Thermidor Magazine, in which I discuss not only Hesiod’s works, but his days, as well. More specifically, I give an overview of his epic poem The Works and Days, with a few words on Theogeny as well. If you can’t get enough of the Classics, I also wrote about Poetics, by Aristotle, over there a couple months ago, and I will likely have a follow-up of sorts in the near future.
In addition, I have a post drafted and ready continuing my series on Plato’s dialogues, this time covering Socrates’ Defense, more commonly called The Apology. If you’re new to this blog, I began with an introduction to the series with a short discussion of three dialogues, then covered Meno, and most recently, Euthyphro.…
I have a new post, a review of G. K. Chesterton’s classic novel The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, but in a first for me, it’s not posted here. You can find it over at Thermidor Magazine. In my previous post I think it came across that, though I like Chesterton, I’m not a big fan of his non-fiction. I’m more enthusiastic, though, about his novel.
In any case, Everything is Oll Korrect! is still and will always be my home base, as it were. I’ve even declined offers of posting elsewhere in the past because I like having all of my work in one place, but recently I’ve reconsidered that somewhat. In the past couple years I feel like I’ve expanded my web log’s purpose a bit beyond being simply a bibliophile’s journal. It’s still primarily that, but I also want, and to some extent have succeeded, in encouraging people to appreciate beauty and the arts. Occasional contributions at Thermidor, whose editor-in-chief has similar goals to my own, seems like a good way to further that cause.
Now, updates are a bit slow around here as it is, so dividing my work may slow it down even more. I’ll continue to announce it here at Everything when I do publish elsewhere, but I’ll also see if I can do something to pick up the pace of updates here. Perhaps reviewing more movies or other pieces of pop culture. We’ll see.
Finally, while you’re at Thermidor, be sure to take a look around; despite being a fairly new site, there are already several excellent articles to peruse. Here are a few of my favourites:
“Enemies and Strangers,” by Nathan Duffy, on the friend/enemy distinction, immigration, and Christianity.
“Up in Smoke,” by Jonathan, presenting a case against the legalisation of marijuana.
“The Liberty of the Slaves,” by Doug Smythe, on the idealisation of liberty.
“David Brooks: Pundit of the Last Men,” by P. T. Carlo, one of a few recent articles on the shallowness of American Conservatism.…
Anyone who’s read any the Confucian canon’s Four Books will have heard much of the Book of Odes. Confucius and Mencius discuss it and reference it constantly, and Confucius even told his son, “If you do not study the Odes you will not be fit to converse with.” He explains why in another chapter that I’ve quoted and discussed previously, “My young friends, why do you not study the Odes? They will stimulate your emotions, broaden your observation, enlarge your fellowship, and express your grievances. They will aid you in your immediate service to your parents and your more remote service to your sovereign.” The Confucians place so much emphasis on the Odes and their study that one can only have the highest expectations going into the book, but this can also set some false expectations as to what they are exactly. Even Ezra Pound, the great poet, translator, and admirer of Confucius, once expressed confusion as to what exactly the Confucians saw in them.
The Odes, you see, are a collection of 305 folk songs and poems; traditionally Confucius himself is supposed to have compiled them, though there’s much doubt over this. Several were used in a ritual context, as one would expect from the Confucians’ treatment of them, and many do have some moral component, though more often than not, this isn’t explicit. For the most part, though, they’re simply folk songs, and look exactly like one would expect folk songs to look. Most are romantic, some praise famous heroes, a few deal with the hardship of a soldier’s life, and some decry tyrannical government. This is all well and good, and they’re certainly enjoyable, but one can also understand the reservations of people like Pound; it’s as if a great sage urged you to study the great moral instruction of a collection of songs, then handed you a copy of Anthology of American Folk Music. Take, for example, Ode 61, “The River is Broad.”
Who says that the River is broad?
On a single reed you could cross it.
Who says that Song is far away?
By standing on tip-toe I can see it.
Who says that the River is broad?
There is not room in it even for a skiff.
Who says that Song is far away?
It could not take you so much as a morning.…
What does an author do for a semi-landmark like this, my 300th post? 300 is a somewhat ungainly number; it’s two too many hundreds to be special, but not halfway to a fourth digit like 500. It was made famous at Thermopylae, but a web log hardly merits a comparison to an event of that stature. Nonetheless, since it’s taken over nine years to get to this point, I’ll go ahead and take the opportunity to pat myself on the back – hooray for me!
Anyway, I don’t claim to be a particularly talented writer, but after so many posts, most of them reviews of some kind at this point, I can say that I’m comfortable writing and fairly confident in my ability to talk about books, fiction or non-fiction. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some advice with those who’d like to get better at writing and talking about literature themselves.
This subject will most interest students, of course, and perhaps others thinking of starting a literature blog, or maybe just members of a book club. I can honestly say, though, that writing has been immensely helpful in my own intellectual growth. I’ve written elsewhere that good art is something to be savoured, not scarfed down like fast food. The habits I’ve gained as part of running this blog have ensured that I digest what I read more fully, even for books that I don’t go on to review. So, I hope everyone will find at least some of my advice useful, and if you’ve given any thought to doing some writing of your own then by all means give it a shot, and don’t be discouraged if your early efforts turn out awkward. If you come away from this post with one main idea, let it be this: writing about literature (or non-fiction) is a learned skill, and like any other skill, you’ll only get good at it with practice.…