Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Thirteen Gun Salute by Patrick O'Brian

Source of book: I own this.

I already discussed Patrick O’Brian in my review of the previous book in the Aubrey-Maturin series, The Letter of Marque. If you are unfamiliar with either the author or the characters, I strongly recommend reading the earlier review.

This book picks up the story after Captain Aubrey’s smashing (literally!) success in commanding his own privateer. Alas, this is small consolation to Aubrey, who lost his commission in the Royal Navy after being set up in a stock fraud scheme by his political enemies.

At the outset of this book, Aubrey and Maturin set off on another mission connected with Maturin’s secret work as a spy, when a new development in Indonesia presents itself. Since an official naval ship is needed to deliver the envoy so he can attempt to negotiate an important treaty before the hated French can do so, the powers that be decide to reinstate Aubrey to his command. This is Aubrey’s dream, of course, but he does regret that he must leave his beloved Surprise, the frigate that has long been his favorite ship.

As I noted before, there are twenty completed books in the series, with one left unfinished at O’Brian’s death. This book is number thirteen, and the books form a continuous narrative. Thus, this book ends right in the middle of the story, like many of the others. I will have to keep reading to figure out how this adventure ends.

This particular book has far less actual battle action than the previous book. No two books are exactly alike, but this one particularly focuses on the cloak and dagger stuff, plus some interesting diplomatic maneuvering. The fact that O’Brian makes these events exciting is a testament to his skill. O’Brian, like C. S. Forester before him, used the actual events in British Naval history for his plots, so he generally works with what he has, filling in the details as necessary, and using his own characters.

I must admit, the particular plot in this one is interesting, in light of both The Arabian Nights, which I am reading with my kids at present, and the vagaries of diplomacy in our present time. As it has been throughout history, the details of the treaty are merely a part of the whole. Who knows whom - and particularly who is sleeping with whom - is equally important to the negotiation. In this particular case, the potentate in question is batting for the other team with an important (and highly attractive) advisor, who is also getting some on the side with one of the French diplomats. (As I noted before, the only graphic sex in the series occurs in Maturin’s description of insect nookie in his scientific journals.)

A few things about this book deserve mention. First, I particularly enjoyed the many descriptions and mentions of flora and fauna. Maturin is an amateur naturalist (as all naturalists were in that time - Sir Joseph Banks preeminent among them), and the book dwells at length on several of his excursions. Whether it is his hike to a remote decayed volcanic crater to see the orangutan, or his dissection with a fellow naturalist of a tapir, or his capture of a Sago Pedo, a particularly cool insect. (A large, predatory Katydid native to Spain, to be precise.)

Second, there are O’Brian’s typically excellent characterizations. In particular, I would mention Preserved Killick, Aubrey’s steward. Killick is not only Aubrey’s valet on board, but also is responsible for entertaining dignitaries and generally supervising the hospitality of the vessel. Sallow, cranky, and sarcastic, he really is one of the delightful long-term characters.

I also liked the portrayal of the diplomat, Mr. Fox. He is far too concerned about receiving the respect and accolades he thinks he deserves.

Fox...occupied a more or less perpetual stage, playing the role of an important figure, an imposing man, and the possessor of uncommon parts. To be sure, he was at least to some extent all three; but he would rarely let it alone - he wished it to be acknowledged. There was nothing coarsely obvious or histrionic about this performance; he never, in the lower deck phrase, topped it the knob. Stephen [Maturin] thought the performance was by now almost wholly unconscious; but in a long voyage its continuity made it plain, and on occasion the envoy’s reaction to a real or imaginary want of respect made it plainer still. Fox did not seek popularity, though he could be good company when he chose and he liked being liked; what he desired was superiority and the respect due to superiority, and for a man of his intelligence he did set about it with a surprising lack of skill. Many people, above all the foremast-hands of the Diane, refused to be impressed.

I will admit that I know a few people like this - a few judges included. It is not only the self-important that O’Brian skewers. He also has some cutting remarks for the “stuffed shirts” that occupy a certain level of government service:

Dinner was less agreeable, however. Before it Fox introduced him [Maturin] to three high officials who were to join the mission, almost caricatures of their kind, tall, red, thick, arrogant, with booming voices and an inexhaustible store of platitudes.

Even Fox cannot abide these dullards, but considers them necessary to counterbalance the French contingent.

“We have to produce a show at least equal to what the French can offer...and these people the Governor has lent me are used to missions of this kind: they can stand there in their gold-laced uniforms for hours without suffering; they can give the appearance of listening to speeches; they never have to steal away to the privy; and at banquets they are capable of eating anything from human flesh downwards. But I admit that their company is a trial.”

This reminded me of a certain Dilbert comic strip. Apparently some things never change. 

As Maturin observes (regarding a character in a previous book), in this line of work, “truth” is often what one can make others believe.

“What I meant was that if he could induce others to believe what he said, then for him the statement acquired some degree of truth, a reflection of their belief that it was true; and this reflected truth might grow stronger with time and repetition until it became conviction, indistinguishable from ordinary factual truth, or very nearly so.”

A few other interesting mentions were the prevalence of syphilis, which we tend to forget these days; and the durian, a favorite fruit of a few of my friends. (Some day I’ll try this. We found dragon fruit here locally this year. Will durian be next?)

As a final note, I was once again shocked at how O’Brian used his unique pacing to let the death of a major villain sneak up on the reader. Just as in a previous book when Captain Harte, Jack Aubrey’s nemesis, is blown up with his ship with no warning whatsoever; Andrew Wray, the traitor who has done his best to get Maturin killed just shows up suddenly as a corpse, a victim of an assassination when his intrigue fails. While many, perhaps most authors like to build gradually to a stunning climax, O’Brian often sneaks major events in with a bland sentence or two, leaving the reader gasping for breath as he or she realizes that something astounding or terrible just occurred without any sort of advance preparation. I think O’Brian was on to something, though. Sometimes we lose a loved one after a long illness, so we are prepared. Sometimes, though, death and destruction strike without warning. I remember hearing more than once that someone I once knew had died, out of the blue, and it can be a sobering experience. Just this last year, a relatively young colleague simply didn’t wake up one morning. One day, she was there, and the next not. In war, this is a “normal” experience, much more so than in our everyday lives.

Maturin, of course, gets the ironic pleasure, or whatever ambiguous emotion he felt, of dissecting his arch-nemesis (for scientific purposes - his friend is collecting spleens), and disposing of the rest of the body discretely (for patriotic purposes - he is a British agent, after all). In his characteristic phlegmatic way, he does what he must, but I must admit this particular passage is disconcerting in the extreme, and O’Brian’s matter-of-fact writing heightens the sensation.

As I noted in my earlier review, I think that this series represents some of the best modern historical fiction. The characterization is excellent, and the writing is both modern and sophisticated while remaining of the time of its setting. And, O’Brian doesn’t feel the need to preach, but simply tells his tale, relying on the astute reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


Glória in excélsis Deo et in terra pax homínibus bonae voluntátis.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

The words spoken by the angels to the shepherds announcing the  birth of Christ. In their expanded form, they are one of my favorite sections of the traditional liturgy. For this Christmas eve, here are several of my favorite settings of this text.

John Rutter's modern Classical setting. I love the jagged and shifting rhythms, edgy dissonances, and effective use of the unison voice.

U2 appropriates a portion of the lyrics, and manages to capture the way we approach God's throne with nothing of our own to offer. At its core, Christmas is about the Divine reaching down to earth, offering peace and reconciliation with Himself.

The classic carol, based on a French text of unknown authorship, has become one of the best known and loved carols of all time. It is my eldest daughter's favorite - and I must confess, one of mine as well. Robert Shaw's arrangement is still exceptional.

Poulenc's Gloria is notable for its amorphous tonality and time signatures, but also for a mood that is more subtle than merely happy. I discover something new each time I listen.

The gold standard for the Gloria is, in my opinion, the Vivaldi version. I had the opportunity to play this a few years back, completing the trifecta of magnificent Christmas choral works I dreamed of playing. (Messiah, Bach’s Magnificat, and this Gloria.)

Merry Christmas to all, and may the peace of God be with you.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience by William Blake

Source of book: I own a pocket-sized Folio Society hardback of this book, a delightful gift from my thoughtful wife.

For me, Blake is indelibly associated with images. Images created both by words and by illustration. In addition to his poetry, Blake was also a master of the the visual arts. I am fond of his illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which grace my shelves. I also was thrilled when the Huntington Library exhibited his exceptional artwork for Paradise Lost. His drawings have an unmistakable style, ethereal, fantastic, and deeply disconcerting - like his poetry. Perhaps no work of his is more integrally connected in this way than the matched pair, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.

These works were originally published with Blake’s illustrations and handwriting, with each version slightly different, essentially a unique work of art. My book reproduces the copy owned by King’s College, Cambridge.

In form, and on their surface, the Songs are essentially children’s poetry. Simple, childlike, and firmly in the tradition of earlier works of their sort. However, like all things Blake, they subvert the genre, and are, like the old fairy tales, full of meaning for adults.

Blake was one of the English Romantic poets, a contemporary of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and shared some of their concerns with the injustice of society, the hypocrisy of the established church, and a reverence for the “natural.” Blake was particularly focused on social ills much the same way that Charles Dickens would be a generation later.

Although some of his poems are often interpreted as advocating for “free love,” he was rather devoted to his wife, despite the inauspicious start to their marriage. Blake was on the rebound from a failed relationship. (The lady in question refused his proposal.) Blake asked Catherine, who was smitten with him, if she pitied him. When she responded in the affirmative, he stated that, “then I love you.” Their marriage lasted 45 years until his death. She was illiterate at marriage, signing her name to the certificate with an “x,” but she eventually became his creative partner and vital assistant.

While some of his beliefs were a bit unorthodox, and he has a reputation in certain circles of being hostile to religion, he actually held the Bible in reverence, and was devout in his own way. His objection was to what he saw as the wrong focus of organized religion on the suppression of desire and love and its excusal of oppression of the poor. I am hard pressed to say he was entirely wrong in this. Rather, he adeptly identifies a constant temptation of the church throughout history to support the status quo and those in power regardless of any true sense of right and wrong.

Blake conceived Innocence and Experience as two “contrary states of the human soul.” Thus, each is meant to complement the other. I decided to read them together for that reason.

The introductions to each set forth Blake’s vision:

Introduction to Songs of Innocence (aka Piping Down the Valleys Wild)

Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me:

'Pipe a song about a lamb!'
So I piped with merry cheer.
'Piper, pipe that song again.'
So I piped: he wept to hear.

'Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe;
Sing thy songs of happy cheer.'
So I sung the same again,
While he wept with joy to hear.

'Piper, sit thee down and write
In a book, that all may read.'
So he vanished from my sight,
And I plucked a hollow reed,

And I made a rural pen,
And I stained the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear.

I loved this one from the first time I read it in a children’s collection of poems.

The introduction to Experience has a completely different mood:

Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past, & Future, sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk'd among the ancient trees,

Calling the lapsed Soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might control
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!

"O Earth, O Earth, return!
Arise from out the dewy grass;
Night is worn,
And the morn
Rises from the slumberous mass.

"Turn away no more;
Why wilt thout turn away?
The starry floor,
The wat'ry shore,
Is giv'n thee till the break of day."   

Innocence, despite its seemingly optimistic mood, is filled with poems that, like this one, have a surface innocence and happiness, but that have a nagging undercurrent that is just a slight bit dark. For example, one of my favorites from Innocence, The Echoing Green, reads as follows:

The sun does arise,
And make happy the skies.
The merry bells ring
To welcome the spring.
The skylark and thrush,
The birds of the bush,
Sing louder around,
To the bells’ cheerful sound,
While our sports shall be seen
On the echoing green.

Old John with white hair
Does laugh away care,
Sitting under the oak,
Among the old folk.
They laugh at our play,
And soon they all say:
‘Such, such were the joys
When we all, girls and boys,
In our youth-time were seen
On the echoing green.’

Till the little ones weary
No more can be merry;
The sun does descend,
And our sports have an end.
Round the laps of their mother
Many sisters and brothers,
Like birds in their nest,
Are ready for rest;
And sport no more seen
On the darkening green.

The image of the village green recurs later in the volume in the Nurse’s Song, which as a direct parallel in Experience by the same name. In the former, the children resist the call to come to bed, but in the latter, the nurse herself reflects bitterly on her loss of youth. The cavorting itself loses its luster in its very meaninglessness.

Like these, many of the poems have direct parallels in the companion volume. The most famous, perhaps, is Little Boy Lost and Little Boy Found from Innocence, which are paired with Little Girl Lost and Little Girl Found in Experience. The contrast of mood is striking, with the boy simply lost in the wood and aided by an angel. The girl, however, is surrounded by lions and tigers, which both protect and menace her.

Blake doubles down the imagery in a further pair with the concept of the lost children. However, both of these poems are found in Experience, and both demonstrate Blake’s vision of what the organized church believes are the ultimate in being “lost” in the spiritual sense. A “little boy” dares to question religious orthodoxy, and is burned at the stake. A “little girl” has a (vaguely implied) sexual encounter with her love, and faces the scorn of her father. I couldn’t help but find a parallel in our modern times in certain circles, where there is no worse crime for a young man than to question authority, and certainly no worse crime for a young woman than to sully her “virtue.” The values of the Nineteenth Century are alive and well in some places.

Another disturbing parallel is The Chimney Sweep from Innocence and its companion in Experience. Robert Pinsky wrote an interesting analysis of these poems on a while back, and also let an illuminating discussion in the comments. I found it interesting that the version in Innocence is one of the most disturbing poems I have ever read. Blake exposes all of the trite homilies we spout about injustice to the light, showing the utter hollowness of the promise of “just be good and everything will be fine.”

From Innocence:

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry " 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!"
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.

There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb's back, was shaved, so I said,
"Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head's bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair."

And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.

Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he'd be a good boy,
He'd have God for his father & never want joy.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

And from Experience:

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying! 'weep! weep!' in notes of woe!
'Where are thy father and mother? Say!' -
'They are both gone up to the church to pray.

'Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter's snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

'And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and His priest and king,
Who made up a heaven of our misery.'

Another pair that is telling is The Divine Image and its counterpart The Human Abstract. The former portrays the common grace poured out on all men, the image of God that remains in fallen humanity.

    The Divine Image (from Innocence)

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

The latter cites the same virtues, Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love; but they are all twisted and torn by human envy, fear, and cruelty.

The Human Abstract (from Experience)

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody Poor;
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.

And mutual fear brings peace,
Till the selfish loves increase:
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.

He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the grounds with tears;
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.

Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the Catterpiller and Fly
Feed on the Mystery.

And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat;
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.

The Gods of the earth and sea
Sought thro' Nature to find this Tree;
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain.                        

Blake puts an uncomfortable finger on a sore spot with so many of these poems, which still seem relevant today.    

Not all of the poems are in matched sets. The Tyger is sufficiently well known, although it is not always associated with its location in Experience. If anything, the image of the tiger runs throughout that latter collection, sometimes as a source of fear, sometimes as a source of wonder, but always mysterious and non-tame.

Likewise, the contrast and connection of self-focused love and other-focused love run throughout the collection. Blake is an early modernist in his idea that one cannot love others and loathe one’s self, but he also acknowledges that self-love is empty by itself. Both self-loathing and self-obsession begin and end at the same place. Love must look outward.

The Clod and the Pebble (from Experience)

"Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell's despair."

So sung a little Clod of Clay,
Trodden with the cattle's feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

"Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another's loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven's despite."

I will close with a couple of favorites that stand alone rather than in combination. Or perhaps, they are a combination with each other, contrasting yet again the good of love and empathy with the empty results of self-focused anger and revenge.    

A Poison Tree (from Experience)

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
On Another’s Sorrow (from Innocence)

Can I see another's woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another's grief,
And not seek for kind relief?

Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow's share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?

Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

And can He who smiles on all
Hear the wren with sorrows small,
Hear the small bird's grief and care,
Hear the woes that infants bear --

And not sit beside the nest,
Pouring pity in their breast,
And not sit the cradle near,
Weeping tear on infant's tear?

And not sit both night and day,
Wiping all our tears away?
Oh no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

He doth give his joy to all:
He becomes an infant small,
He becomes a man of woe,
He doth feel the sorrow too.

Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,
And thy Maker is not by:
Think not thou canst weep a tear,
And thy Maker is not near.

Oh He gives to us his joy,
That our grief He may destroy:
Till our grief is fled an gone
He doth sit by us and moan.