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.…
Crito’s attempt to save Socrates has failed, so now we’ll go back and begin working through Plato’s dialogues from earlier in his life. First up are some discussions with various sophists, beginning with Protagoras.
This dialogue begins with a somewhat odd framing device; a friend meets Socrates walking through the city, and learns that he’s just come from speaking with Protagoras, who has recently arrived in Athens to work as a teacher. So, the rest of the work is Socrates recounting the meeting, so there’s a double narration going on, and the frame is never closed. I’m sure there’s been discussion enough of why the dialogue is structured this way, but I could only guess.
To the sorrow of all of his friends and students, us included, Socrates has been condemned, and normally would have been executed shortly after the trial. However, a state galley had been sent on a sacred mission at about the same time and no executions could be carried out until it returned, so instead he sat in a jail cell for almost a month. Shortly before its return, Crito, one of Socrates’ students, came to visit his teacher to say that he expected the ship to return soon, but that he could easily help Socrates escape by placing a few bribes. Socrates, though, always true to form, doesn’t jump at this chance to save himself, but instead insisted on discussing whether this would truly be the right thing to do.…
When we last left Socrates, he had just finished an unproductive discussion with Euthyphro, and was on his way to court to face charges of corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates’ Defense, also commonly called the Apology, is not a dialogue, aside from a few lines, but a speech given by Socrates in answer to his accusers’ charges against him. This is the first time so far that Socrates speaks mostly of himself, and my understanding is that it’s the only time he does so at much length.
One interesting tidbit is that this is the first work so far to mention Plato by name. This makes the speech feel authentic, since the author explicitly puts himself at the scene, though of course, that doesn’t mean this is an accurate depiction of the trial.
In any case, Socrates begins by apologising for not being a great orator like his opponents. We should take this with a grain of salt since this claim is actually good rhetoric, disarming the audience from looking for slick oratory. He says that resentful men, like his accusers, have unjustly given him a bad name because of his past arguments with them, and their slander has prejudiced those who haven’t yet met him. As evidence of his good intentions, a bit later, Socrates cites his own poverty, and points out that he has always taught openly and free of charge. Clearly, then, he was not trying to stir up trouble or personally benefit from his vocation.…
So, we’ve made it to one of Plato’s most famous dialogues, Euthyphro. Socrates is on his way to court, having been charged with corrupting the youth of Athens, when he meets a young man, Euthyphro, who is there to charge his father with murder. The primary question here is how to define piety, but with a theme throughout the dialogue of intellectual humility, even more so than in the other works so far.
Now, Euthyphro’s case is a difficult one. One of his father’s servants had killed a man, so his father had bound him and, while deciding what to do with him, the servant died. He certainly caused his servant’s death, though not intentionally, and few would find much sympathy for the murderous servant. There’s also, of course, the question of whether one should charge one’s father with a crime at all. Socrates doesn’t seem to think so, at least in most cases, and he says to Euthyphro in astonishment, “And the man your father killed, was he a relative of yours? Of course he was? You never would prosecute your father would you, for the death of anybody who was not related to you?”
It may be helpful to compare another philosopher’s opinion on a similar subject; the situation reminds me of an exchange in The Analects, in Book XIII:
The duke of Sheh informed Confucius, saying, ‘Among us here there are those who may be styled upright in their conduct. If their father have stolen a sheep, they will bear witness to the fact.’
Confucius said, ‘Among us, in our part of the country, those who are upright are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son, and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.’
Translator James Legge notes, “[Confucius’] expression does not absolutely affirm that this is upright, but that in this there is a better principle than in the other conduct. Anybody but a Chinese will say that both the duke’s view of the subject and the sage’s were incomplete.”…
Plato’s dialogue Meno begins with the titular character asking Socrates whether virtue is something that can be taught. Socrates, of course, wants to begin by defining what exactly virtue is. Now, in Lysis, Laches, and Charmides, Socrates and friends couldn’t even figure out what a few particular virtues are, so it seems unlikely that we’ll find out what virtue as a whole is (spoiler: we don’t), but interestingly, unlike those three aporetic dialogues, Socrates does present a positive argument of his own and even offers a conclusion at the end.
So, in response to Socrates’ question, Meno attempts to define “virtue” as “desiring fine things and being able to acquire them.” This doesn’t stand up to Socrates’ scrutiny, though, in part because, when Socrates starts asking for more detail and examples, Meno isn’t able to define virtue as a whole without reference to individual parts of virtue, like justice, temperance, and so on.…
My trip through the Classics so far was, to a large extent, a preparation for the works of Plato. I’ll work my way through The Collected Dialogues, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, a few dialogues at a time, and posting about them as I go.
Now, one choice I had to make at the outset was what order to read these in. There is no one perfect method, it seems, but in a project like this I like to have some plan going in. When I asked about this on twitter I got a few very helpful suggestions (beginning here) from Megillus, who knows the dialogues well, and I also found this recommendation online. That one is fairly close to Megillus’s recommendation, so I slightly modified it and will proceed through them like so:
- Getting started: Lysis/Laches/Charmides
- Socrates’ trial: Meno + Euthyphro/Apology/Crito
- The Sophists: Protagoras +Hippias major/Gorgias/Hippias minor
- The soul: Symposium + Phaedrus/Republic/Phaedo
- Logos: Cratylus + Ion/Euthydemus/Menexenus
- Dialectic: Parmenides + Theaetetus/Sophist/Statesman
- Kosmos: Philebus + Timaeus/Critias/Laws
You may notice that I cut out Alcibiades I, and I did that because it’s not included in my edition of The Collected Dialogues. I may look it up later; after all this I’ll be so close to being a Plato completist anyway that I may as well.
In any case, the first three, very short, works are all aporetic dialogues, that is, they each raise a question concerning some virtue that Socrates and his interlocutors try to define, but never come to a definite conclusion. At first glance that sounds rather pointless, but it does a few valuable things, namely introducing us to the style of Socratic dialogue, and forces us to begin thinking seriously about these virtues ourselves. This is why I don’t have a lot to say about Lysis, Laches, and Charmides, because I don’t think that the ideas raised are the point; rather, the point is the process, which isn’t something that can really be summarised adequately.
The style of these dialogues is taking some getting used to for me. When I read philosophy I generally prefer someone like Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas, who approach a question systematically, with all the directness and charm of a dictionary entry, and who offer a conclusion at the end of a discussion. I know a few people who much prefer Plato’s style, because it feels more natural, and philosophy does seem more entertaining when it includes a little storytelling and characterisation of the interlocutors. So I completely understand why many people like Plato’s work so much, but personally I much prefer a formal approach in works of non-fiction.
In any case, these are like the appetiser for the main course, and there’ll be more to follow, probably over the next several months.…