Sheep and Peacocks

On the second of February bloggers traditionally post a favorite poem, though apparently I’m the only one who still does that. Here’s one from Thomas Love Peacock’s 1829 novel The Misfortunes of Elphin.

The War-Song of Dinas Vawr

By Thomas Love Peacock

The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.
We made an expedition;
We met a host, and quelled it;
We forced a strong position,
And killed the men who held it.

On Dyfed’s richest valley,
Where herds of kine were browsing,
We made a mighty sally,
To furnish our carousing.
Fierce warriors rushed to meet us;
We met them, and o’erthrew them:
They struggled hard to beat us;
But we conquered them, and slew them.

As we drove our prize at leisure,
The king marched forth to catch us:
His rage surpassed all measure,
But his people could not match us.
He fled to his hall-pillars;
And, ere our force we led off,
Some sacked his house and cellars,
While others cut his head off.

We there, in strife bewild’ring,
Spilt blood enough to swim in:
We orphaned many children,
And widowed many women.
The eagles and the ravens
We glutted with our foemen;
The heroes and the cravens,
The spearmen and the bowmen.

We brought away from battle,
And much their land bemoaned them,
Two thousand head of cattle,
And the head of him who owned them:
Ednyfed, king of Dyfed,
His head was borne before us;
His wine and beasts supplied our feasts,
And his overthrow, our chorus.

As a matter of policy I no longer post or link to YouTube videos, but with a bit of searching you can find Dylan Thomas declaiming Peacock’s poem. I’d be curious to hear this war song set to music by a competent folk metal band.

Those who have read, or have been forced to read, the English romantic poets might enjoy Peacock’s caricatures of Shelley, Coleridge and Byron in Nightmare Abbey.

Update: At least one other blogger is still posting poetry.

2022: Fiction

In recent years I’ve largely lost my taste for new fiction, and I’ve probably spent more time perusing essays and polemics than I have reading stories. Nevertheless, I still occasionally read novels and story collections. Here are some that I read last year, with a few from 2021.

I downloaded a number of the titles in the periodic $.99 sales organized by Hans Schantz and read a few pages of each. Usually a few pages is enough. I did finish On Basilisk Station by David Weber, Storm Front by Jim Butcher, Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia and Draw One in the Dark by Sarah Hoyt, all first volumes of lengthy series. They held my attention, but after finishing them I had no interest in reading the next books. (Your taste may differ from mine; if they sound interesting, give them a try. All are competently written, and while they’re not my kinds of story, they might be yours.) I read all five volumes of Fenton Wood’s alternate history Yankee Republic; I would have loved it when I was ten years old, but I’m not that young any more. Frank Fleming’s various novels are amusing, though only the Superego series has any real heft to it. I also read Hoyt’s Deep Pink; the premise is clever, but it feels like a short story inflated to novel length.

The most interesting novel I read was an old one, written over a century ago: William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land. Everything you’ve heard about it is true: it’s stupendous, and it’s nearly unreadable. This tale of a heroic quest in a far distant future is written in a deliberately archaic language. It may have the highest ratio of semicolons to periods in all of literature. And in many passages every sentence begins with “And.” Getting through the first few chapters is work, and even when you’re accustomed to the rhythm of the prose it still takes an effort to read. But it’s worth it for its depiction of an Earth grown strange, hostile and dark.

I’ve been meaning for years to investigate Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. I finally got around to reading their Roadside Picnic, one of the few books that can stand comparison to The Night Land for sheer dread. Aliens briefly visited the Earth, leaving trash behind at a handful of sites around the globe. Some of the garbage is useful to humans. Some is lethal. “Stalkers” brave the hazards of the “Zones” where the aliens were to find items to sell on the black market. It’s dangerous: a step in the wrong direction means crippling injury or instant death, and there are consequences even for those who not venture into the Zones. The novel is narrated by one of stalkers during a few of his trips into the Zone over the course of several years. Roadside Picnic an intense, nightmarish book. I’ll need to read more of the Strugatskys.

Tim Powers is the contemporary writer most like the other Inkling, Charles Williams1. Like Williams, his books are spiritual thrillers. Powers is a Catholic, and it shows. His recent novel, Alternate Routes, introduces Sebastian Vickery, a former Secret Service agent who Saw Too Much and is now wanted dead or alive by the Feds, preferably dead, and Ingrid Castine, from a government department with a suspiciously innocuous name who saves his life. Together they save a haunted Los Angeles from the supernatural schemes of a rogue government agent. They reappear in Forced Perspectives, in which they save Los Angeles and the rest of the world again, this time from people with guilty consciences wielding an ancient Egyptian symbol/artifact. The daughter Vickery never had also figures in both books. The novels are fast-moving, easy to follow and entertaining, but they’re Powers-lite. For full-strength Powers, I recommend his earlier books. Try Declare if you like spy stories, or The Drawing of the Dark if you prefer 16th-century historical fantasy, or beer. English majors might consider The Anubis Gates, set in 19th-century London.

In The Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner names Frederic Brown’s Night of the Jabberwock as the outstanding work of fiction inspired by Lewis Carroll. Of course Brown’s book was long out of print when I first saw Gardner’s recommendation, and it wasn’t in the local library. I kept an eye out for it at used book stores but never spotted it. A few months ago I checked the devil’s website, as Robbo calls it, and there it was, and … it’s okay. Brown is deservedly famous among those who remember him as clever craftsman of short-short stories, and I hoping for an intricate Carrollian fantasy. However, Night of the Jabberwock turned out to be a murder mystery in which the narrator is a Carroll enthusiast. Solving the mystery involves ordinary reasoning, not Carrollian logic, and there are no white knights or Cheshire cats, just a small-town newspaper editor and his acquaintances. If you like tidy murder mysteries it’s worth checking out, but I was disappointed.

I also read Brown’s Martians, Go Home, in which the earth is suddenly invaded by obnoxious little green men. They won’t attack you physically, but they are mouthy little jerks, contemptuous of human beings, who pop up everywhere and insult everyone. They have x-ray vision, too, and blab what they read in personal letters and top secret documents. They are invulnerable, and there is no way to evade them or kick them out. Part of the book relates how a blocked writer copes with the alien provocations, and part recounts how the rest of the world deals with the little creeps. It’s never really explained how or why they came or what eventually happens to them. It’s an odd little book that doesn’t fit in any category, not quite science fiction, not quite humor, not quite satire. I can’t give it a strong recommendation, but it is unlike anything else I’ve read recently.

I read a few of Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo books a thousand years ago. They have been missing from my library for decades, but recently they have been made available again in English, this time with all the stories included in each collection.2 The books are mainly about Don Camillo, a priest in an Italian village in the years after World War II, and his battles with Peppone, the Communist mayor. The tales are mostly humorous satire. Camillo usually gets the better of Peppone, but he can be a jerk, and Peppone, wrong-headed though he is, is not a monster.

The novel Don Camillo and Don Chichi3 is the last Don Camillo story. It takes place in the mid-1960’s, after the second Vatican Council. The bishop of Camillo’s diocese assigns him “Don Chichi,” a young curate full of the spirit of Vatican II who spouts socialism and wants to “demystify” the Church. He is almost as much a trial to Don Camillo as Camillo’s niece, the willful biker chick Cat. Cat is Camillo’s match for guile and feistiness, but over the course of the novel she gradually becomes more responsible. Don Chichi, on the other hand, remains a fool whose meddling does more harm than good. Don Camillo and Don Chichi is primarily humorous, but there is bitterness. Guareschi was furious with the changes to the Church done with the excuse of Vatican II and his anger shows, particularly in the second chapter, a sarcastic “Open Letter to Don Camillo.”

Sort of a Christmas story

Some years back I posted one of Robert Benchley’s Christmas pieces. Here’s another.

Editha’s Christmas Burglar

By Robert Benchley
It was the night before Christmas, and Editha was all agog. It was all so exciting, so exciting! From her little bed up in the nursery she could hear Mumsey and Daddy down-stairs putting the things on the tree and jamming her stocking full of broken candy and oranges.

Continue reading “Sort of a Christmas story”

Poetry corner: in memoriam

Joyce Kilmer, updated by John Leo:

Versified and rhythmic non-prose verbal arrangements are fashioned by people of alternative intelligence such as myself, but only the divine entity, should he or she actually exist, can create a solar-shielding park structure from low-rise indigenous vegetative material.

John Leo, a very funny, very serious writer whose columns were among the few things worth reading in the newspaper1 before the turn of the century, died earlier this month. His collection Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police2 is fun to browse through.

(Via Kim Du Toit.)

Just wondering

Does this distress you?

From the Daily Mail:

A University has slapped a trigger warning on some of Britain’s greatest Romantic poets because their work contains ‘representations of sexism and misogyny’.

Bath Spa University has told students that poems by William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats and Alexander Pope have the potential to ‘disturb’ or ‘distress’.

Is there any writer worth reading, anyone at all, who will not “trigger” some ideologue?

(Via Kim Du Toit.)

Why is the sea boiling hot?

I had planned to post a selection of epigrams for this year’s post-a-favorite-poem entry today, but Maureen Mullarkey’s commentary yesterday on Chicago finger food as served by Cardinal Cupich calls for more Lewis Carroll. So, here’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter.”

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright —
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done —
‘It’s very rude of him,’ she said,
‘To come and spoil the fun.’

The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead —
There were no birds to fly.

Continue reading “Why is the sea boiling hot?”

Catalogued

I recently received the White Flower Farm Spring 2022 Garden Book. As gardening catalogs go, it’s relatively dignified, with a University Roman flag, text that emphasizes accuracy over hyperbole, and no exclamation points. WFF prices are at the high end of the range, but in the past the plants they shipped were of consistently good quality. I might order a few items from them.

Nevertheless, the catalog was disappointing. Years ago the “garden book” was valued as much for the text as for the selections. Written by one Amos Pettingill, it had a degree of personality missing from other catalogs. Although the bulk of the text was devoted to describing the merchandise, he often digressed, as in his discussion of Exbury azaleas.

Lord Lionel Rothschild, a member of the famous banking clan and extremely rich in the days before the Great Depression and World War II, was not only a great banker but a great gardener. He was no dilletante; Lord Rothschild not only worked over every detail in the development of his lovely estate in Exbury, but he also worked diligently on breeding Rhododendron — and Azalea, a very close branch of the Rhododendron family. He spared no money in this huge breeding program, for he had started it late in life and knew it could be successful quickly only through massive expenditures. He once employed 225 men, 75 of them professional gardeners, to care for this estate of 250 acres. By working with tens of thousands of crosses, instead of thousands, Lord Rothschild used his wealth to telescope time…. Money, people are inclined to forget, is a very useful thing — whether we go to the moon or piggy-back a fine strain of plants with it.

Continue reading “Catalogued”

Mysteries of the plains

According to Jules Verne in Master of the World:

“Lake Kirdall in Kansas, forty miles west of Topeka, is little known. It deserves wider knowledge, and doubtless will have it hereafter, for attention is now drawn to it in a very remarkable way.
“This lake, deep among the mountains, appears to have no outlet. What it loses by evaporation, it regains from the little neighboring streamlets and the heavy rains.
“Lake Kirdall covers about seventy-five square miles, and its level is but slightly below that of the heights which surround it. Shut in among the mountains, it can be reached only by narrow and rocky gorges. Several villages, however, have spring up upon its banks. It is full of fish, and fishing-boats cover its waters.
“Lake Kirdall is in many places fifty feet deep close to the shore. Sharp, pointed rocks form the edges of this huge basin. Its surges, roused by high winds, beat upon its banks with fury, and the houses near at hand are often deluged with spray as if if with the downpour of a hurricane. The lake, already deep at the edge, becomes yet deeper toward the center, where in some places sounding show over three hundred feet of water.
“The fishing industry supports a population of several thousands, and there are several hundred fishing boats in addition the the dozen or so of little steamers which serve the traffic of the lake. Beyond the circle of the mountains lie the railroads which transport the products of the fishing industry throughout Kansas and the neighboring states….”

If Verne’s account is accurate, Lake Kirdall would be in the Manhattan/Fort Riley area. I’ve lived in Kansas the larger portion of my life, and I’ve never noticed any mountains in all my wanderings around the state, let alone mountain lakes. Evidently French science-fiction writers know as much about the plains states as Japanese blues bands do about the deep South.

Joseph Moore mentioned the lake in his review of Master of the World, cited by John C. Wright in his list of “The Fifty Essential Authors of Science Fiction.” I hadn’t read Verne since grade school1 and was curious, so I tracked the book down. It was okay, but just okay. I’m surprised that Wright included it in his note on Verne. It may be that I expected the wrong things from it, or that I need to have read more of Verne to fully appreciate it. Brandon Watson gives it a recommendation, along with a couple of related novels.

The greatest mystery to me is, why did Verne invent a lake in a spot where two minutes with an atlas would have told him that it couldn’t exist when there was the quite real and remarkable Crater Lake in Oregon available?

***

David Breitenbeck:

Among its many other marks, one sign that the American education system is a complete fraud is the fact that English classes never present H.P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, R.E. Howard, Walter B. Gibson, or the like as examples of American Literature for students to read.

The decline and fall of the English department

A long time ago I decided against a career in academia. It was one of the few major life decisions I got right.

… pluralism in academic settings rarely lasts for long. There has to be a truth at the end of the day, even if it’s the “truth” of an artificial academic consensus. When theory killed literary truth, it doomed the discipline. Into this vacuum, identity professors in English departments poured ersatz truths about race and sex, which have failed to shore it up. At the time I was baffled at this suicidal trend, but in retrospect I can see that it was only natural that identity politics should have ascended so quickly in the nineties. Its urgent claims gave English a moral meaning that theory had undermined. When literature itself no longer sparked the heat of conviction that divided Bloom and Hirsch in the early sixties, the discipline had to find another source of energy. Identity critics had the answer. They weren’t decadent—they were impassioned. By 1992, “post-structuralism” had a stale tang, but gender and queer sounded fresh and potent. A theory panel at the MLA Convention on “Shelley and the Sign” was ho-hum, but “Queer Shakespeare” down the hall was packed.

High seriousness was restored, but literature was the victim. It wasn’t Shakespeare that drew the crowd, but queerness: Lear was a pretext. Literature had become a booster rocket, at best, one that you jettison when you reach the orbit of political relevance. The institutional effects are plain to see at this late date. Fifty years ago, a university couldn’t call itself “Tier One” unless it had a renowned English department. No more: Abysmal enrollment numbers in the humanities at such universities prove the irrelevance of literary study. My colleagues around the country bemoan the decline, but they blame the wrong things. English did not fall because a bunch of conservatives trashed the humanities as a den of political correctness. It didn’t fall because it lost funding or because business leaders promoted STEM fields. It fell because the dominant schools of thought stopped speaking about the truth of literature. Once the professors could no longer insist, “You absolutely must read Dryden, Pope, and Swift—they are the essence of wit and discernment”; when they lost the confidence to say that nothing reveals the social complexity of the colonial situation better than Nostromo; if they couldn’t assure anyone that Hawthorne’s sentences showed the American language in its most exquisite form, they lost the competition for majors. Students stopped caring about literature because the professors stopped believing in its promises of revelation and delight.

Miscellaneous quotes

Assistant Village Idiot:

Critical Race Theory, and Critical Theory in general doesn’t have any art I can think of. Not poetry, not music, theater, film, painting, sculpture, nor literature. It may just be that I am not up on such things. I don’t think it is mere recency, as both have been around for years, nor is it a bias from unfair comparisons from centuries ago. I am not asking that it produce an equivalent to the high Renaissance. Existentialism is also recent but does not suffer from the same lack. There is plenty of interesting theater, poetry, and literature from them, and I think only a little stretch of the concept brings in the visual arts including film….

This is a major red flag for the intellectual foundation of a philosophy, that artists in no medium can bring forth anything of interest. The heart of artistic expression is transposition, of reframing or new understanding of one concept and making it manifest in another. If you can find nothing to transpose, it means there is nothing there.

Jeff Sypeck:

How many boys doze off in English class because no one made clear that poetry is also the province of Satanic wizards, voodoo queens, blood-flecked Vikings, Puritan swordsmen, and frantic barbarian hordes?

TS:

In 2008 I was wary of Obama but never bought into the “born in Kenya” crap and thought maybe he could do some great good in uniting our country racially. I think by 2012-ish I realized the enemy was within. By 2017 I realized we were in a Cold Civil War. And now in 2021 I think it’s a tossup as to who is the bigger enemy: the Left in this country or China.

Historical note: Dave Mustaine in 2012:

I’m just hoping that whatever is in the White House next year is a Republican. I can’t bear to watch what’s happened to our great country. Everybody’s got their head in the sand. Everybody in the industry is like, ‘Oh, Obama’s doing such a great job…’ I don’t think so. Not from what I see.

Looking at the Republican candidates, I’ve got to tell you, I was floored the other day to see that Mitt Romney’s five boys have a $100 million trust fund. Where does a guy make that much money? So there’s some questions there. And watching Newt Gingrich, I was pretty excited for a while, but now he’s just gone back to being that person that everybody said he was – that angry little man. I still like him, but I don’t think I’d vote for him.

Ron Paul… you know, I heard somebody say he was like insecticide – 98 percent of it’s inert gases, but it’s the two percent that’s left that will kill you. What that means is that he’ll make total sense for a while, and then he’ll say something so way out that it negates everything else. I like the guy because he knows how to excite the youth of America and fill them in on some things. But when he says that we’re like the Taliban… I’m sorry, Congressman Paul, but I’m nothing like the Taliban.

Earlier in the election, I was completely oblivious as to who Rick Santorum was, but when the dude went home to be with his daughter when she was sick, that was very commendable. Also, just watching how he hasn’t gotten into doing these horrible, horrible attack ads like Mitt Romney’s done against Newt Gingrich, and then the volume at which Newt has gone back at Romney… You know, I think Santorum has some presidential qualities, and I’m hoping that if it does come down to it, we’ll see a Republican in the White House… and that it’s Rick Santorum.”

Literary footnote

I might have saved this for a second of February one of these years. However Theodore Dalrymple mentioned it in a recent column, so I’ll post it now.

The Latest Decalogue

By Arthur Hugh Clough

Thou shalt have one God only; who
Would be at the expense of two?
No graven images may be
Worshipp’d, except the currency:
Swear not at all; for, for thy curse
Thine enemy is none the worse:
At church on Sunday to attend
Will serve to keep the world thy friend:
Honour thy parents; that is, all
From whom advancement may befall:
Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive
Officiously to keep alive:
Do not adultery commit;
Advantage rarely comes of it:
Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat,
When it’s so lucrative to cheat:
Bear not false witness; let the lie
Have time on its own wings to fly:
Thou shalt not covet; but tradition
Approves all forms of competition.