Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Poems for the New Year

It has been a while since I did a set of poems. New Years Eve is a good enough excuse.

Here are four on the subject that caught my fancy. I present them in chronological order.

Blake described the series as representing two contrary states of the soul. However, despite the seeming naivety of the “Innocence” poems, they often have dark undercurrents, while the more jaded “Experience” poems sometimes show the naivety of pessimism as well.

This particular poem is from the “Innocence” poems, and treats the “New Year” as occurring where it has in most ancient societies: in Spring. It is one of the truly innocent and optimistic of the set, and utilizes Blake’s preferred images of innocence: birds, sheep, and children. He also uses an interesting form. The first eight lines of each stanza are a mere three syllables each. The concluding line is pentameter - two dactyls followed by three iambs.  


Sound the flute!
Now it’s mute.
Birds delight
Day and night.
In the dale,
Lark in the sky,
Merrily, merrily to welcome in the year.

Little boy
Full of joy,
Little girl
Sweet and small.
Cock does crow,
So do you.
Merry voice,
Infant noise,
Merrily, merrily to welcome in the year.

Little lamb
Here I am
Come and lick
My white neck.
Let me pull
Your soft wool.
Let me kiss
Your soft face,
Merrily, merrily we welcome in the year. 

Christina Rossetti also uses the imagery of Spring in her set of three short poems entitled “Old and New Year Ditties,” from Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862). (You can read my thoughts on the collection here.) However, she writes of Spring as transient, a symbol not so much of new life but of the brevity of life and the quick passage of time. “Chances, beauty and youth sapped day by day…” Rossetti wrote a great deal of devotional poetry, and these are somewhat in that vein. Her own life was difficult, as she battled ill health and was unlucky in love. To anyone who has experienced sorrow or hardship, these poems capture a bit of that feeling. The bittersweet nature of time and love, which never stays the same, no matter how much we want it to. The certain knowledge that life is too short for us to do and experience all we wish. And above it all, the desire for the Divine. 

Old and New Year Ditties

New Year met me somewhat sad:
Old Year leaves me tired,
Stripped of favourite things I had
Baulked of much desired:
Yet farther on my road to-day
God willing, farther on my way.

New Year coming on apace
What have you to give me?
Bring you scathe, or bring you grace,
Face me with an honest face;
You shall not deceive me:
Be it good or ill, be it what you will,
It needs shall help me on my road,
My rugged way to heaven, please God.


Watch with me, men, women, and children dear,
You whom I love, for whom I hope and fear,
Watch with me this last vigil of the year.
Some hug their business, some their pleasure-scheme;
Some seize the vacant hour to sleep or dream;
Heart locked in heart some kneel and watch apart.

Watch with me blessèd spirits, who delight
All through the holy night to walk in white,
Or take your ease after the long-drawn fight.
I know not if they watch with me: I know
They count this eve of resurrection slow,
And cry, “How long?” with urgent utterance strong.

Watch with me Jesus, in my loneliness:
Though others say me nay, yet say Thou yes;
Though others pass me by, stop Thou to bless.
Yea, Thou dost stop with me this vigil night;
To-night of pain, to-morrow of delight:
          I, Love, am Thine; Thou, Lord my God, art mine.


Passing away, saith the World, passing away:
Chances, beauty and youth sapped day by day:
Thy life never continueth in one stay.
Is the eye waxen dim, is the dark hair changing to grey
That hath won neither laurel nor bay?
I shall clothe myself in Spring and bud in May:
Thou, root-stricken, shalt not rebuild thy decay
On my bosom for aye.
Then I answered: Yea.

Passing away, saith my Soul, passing away:
With its burden of fear and hope, of labour and play;
Hearken what the past doth witness and say:
Rust in thy gold, a moth is in thine array,
A canker is in thy bud, thy leaf must decay.
At midnight, at cockcrow, at morning, one certain day
Lo, the Bridegroom shall come and shall not delay:
Watch thou and pray.
Then I answered: Yea.

Passing away, saith my God, passing away:
Winter passeth after the long delay:
New grapes on the vine, new figs on the tender spray,
Turtle calleth turtle in Heaven’s May.
Though I tarry wait for Me, trust Me, watch and pray:
Arise, come away, night is past and lo it is day,
My love, My sister, My spouse, thou shalt hear Me say.
Then I answered: Yea.

Thomas Hardy saw an epic change in the world during his long life. Born solidly in the Victorian Era, he lived through World War One to see the Roaring Twenties. “At the Entering of the New Year” was written in 1918, and has a simple note at the bottom: “December 31. During the War.” Presumably, Hardy intended that the poem be read in that light, as a representation not only of the difference between youth and age, but also of the progress of the war from youthful ambition to the devastation of a generation. The first part captures this exuberance: the rousing party that can be heard from far away. The second part echoes Rossetti with its picture of the incoming year representing an unwanted visitor, the passage of time that is inevitable but nonetheless unwelcome. 

At the Entering of the New Year

          (OLD STYLE)

Our songs went up and out the chimney,
And roused the home-gone husbandmen;
Our allemands, our heys, poussettings,
Our hands-across and back again,
Sent rhythmic throbbings through the casements
        On to the white highway,
Where nighted farers paused and muttered,
        "Keep it up well, do they!"

The contrabasso's measured booming
Sped at each bar to the parish bounds,
To shepherds at their midnight lambings,
To stealthy poachers on their rounds;
And everybody caught full duly
        The notes of our delight,
As Time unrobed the Youth of Promise
        Hailed by our sanguine sight.

          (NEW STYLE)

We stand in the dusk of a pine-tree limb,
As if to give ear to the muffled peal,
Brought or withheld at the breeze's whim;
But our truest heed is to words that steal
From the mantled ghost that looms in the gray,
And seems, so far as our sense can see,
To feature bereaved Humanity,
As it sighs to the imminent year its say:—

"O stay without, O stay without,
Calm comely Youth, untasked, untired;
Though stars irradiate thee about
Thy entrance here is undesired.
Open the gate not, mystic one;
        Must we avow what we would close confine?
         With thee, good friend, we would have converse none,
Albeit the fault may not be thine."

The history of the Twentieth Century is some ways one of unbelievably bloody war. From the trenches of World War One spoken of by Hardy, to the final fall of Communism. U2 was founded amidst the seemingly endless strife in Ireland, and many of their songs had their genesis in that environment.

However, “New Years Day,” from their album, War, is about the struggle of the Polish Solidarity movement that would eventually free Poland from the Soviets. This song came out in 1983, but it wouldn’t be until six years later that semi-free elections would be held in Poland, with Lech Wałęsa becoming the first non-communist president of Poland since the Soviet takeover.

U2’s lyrics are anything but naive, but they are hopeful. “Nothing changes” on New Year’s Day - but perhaps it might. And again, we see what may well be a longing for the Divine. Perhaps two can be one, and Love can triumph in the end.

U2 New Years Day

All is quiet on New Year's Day
A world in white gets underway
I want to be with you
Be with you night and day
Nothing changes on New Year's Day
On New Year's Day

I will be with you again
I will be with you again

Under a blood red sky
A crowd has gathered in black and white
Arms entwined, the chosen few
The newspapers says, says
Say it's true it's true...
And we can break through
Though torn in two
We can be one

I...I will begin again
I...I will begin again

Maybe the time is right
Oh...maybe tonight...

I will be with you again
I will be with you again

And so we're told this is the golden age
And gold is the reason for the wars we wage
Though I want to be with you
Be with you night and day
Nothing changes
On New Year's Day

So, happy new year, everyone, whether you feel excitement, hope, sorrow, or dread. May Love triumph over Time, when all is said and done. 

Monday, December 30, 2013

Christmas Books 2013

Two years ago, I made a short post about the books I received as gifts for Christmas. I never got to it last year, although I did note some birthday books. I wanted to do it again this year, so here goes. 

As usual, I will update this page with links to the reviews of the books as I read and write them. 

1. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I read this recently (in a library edition) but lacked a nice hardback for my own library. My wife found a used one to match my already extensive collection of The World’s Best Reading editions published by Readers Digest.

2. A Sense of Life by Antoine de Saint Exupéry

Exupéry is best known for The Little Prince, which is the most read book in the French language. Oddly, I do not believe I have ever read it. I have, however, read Night Flight, a novella based in part on Exupéry’s experience as an aviator. (He would later die while flying a reconnaissance mission for the Allies in World War II.) This book is a collection of essays, and promises to be quite interesting. Also a used book find by my wife.

3. Washington Square by Henry James

Another present from my wife, who has a nose for used book deals. This is a Heritage edition boxed hardback. Probably unread. (I never cease to be amazed how many unread used books we find. It’s sad.) I first read Henry James a few years back. (My review of those novellas are here.) This book is based on a story that James heard at a dinner party.

4. Ill Met By Moonlight by W. Stanley Moss

I have wanted to read this book for some time, and was disappointed that it isn’t in our library system. This is a story that would have been considered too improbable for a novel. Except that it really happened. Moss and another officer along with a small group of Cretan partisans managed to kidnap the German general in charge of the occupation of Crete and escape to the coast where they were picked up by a vessel. (Also, bonus points for stealing the title from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

5. The Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal translated by Kuno Meyer

This was a gift from my sister-in-law and her husband. One of several Irish seafaring sagas that date back centuries, this was one of the sources that influenced C. S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I am including a few books here that weren’t technically gifts, but were used book store finds during our recent vacation. Close enough ;) John Heresy is best known for Hiroshima, but he also wrote fiction. I previously reviewed A Single Pebble. I also enjoyed reading Time and Time Again and Life Sketches several years ago, before I started blogging my reading. I have no idea what this book is about, but Hersey is a consistently good writer. 

7. Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery

My wife found this one for me. I loved Barbery’s other book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog. This is her first book, about a food critic (think Anton Ego in Ratatouille), who is now dying, and is still seeking for another taste epiphany. If this one is as good as the other, it should be quite enjoyable.  

8. An Editor’s Tales, Tales of All Countries (Second Series), and Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope

Okay, by now, it should be obvious that I love Anthony Trollope. Even though these books violate my usual rule of limiting myself to hardbacks (we already lack shelf space), I went ahead and bought them because they are hard to find anywhere, and cost next to nothing because they were “used.” Not “used” in the sense of being actually read or anything like that, but they had supposedly been previously owned. I am particularly interested in exploring the shorter works.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Impossible Journeys by Matthew Lyons

Source of book: I own this.

My brother is a Folio Society leech. He quits or threatens to quit so that they give him discounts and free stuff. A great side effect of this is that he gives me awesome gifts. This book is one of them. Another was Trafalgar, reviewed here.

It’s a bit difficult to explain exactly what this book is about. The journeys described are in some cases not precisely impossible, but are so changed that they would be unrecognizable to those who undertook them. In general, these are the stories of journeys, real and “embellished” that took place before the world was really known. Most are set in the times of Queen Elizabeth I of England and the two hundred or so years thereafter. The book opens with the real but somewhat embellished tale of Thomas Coryat, who walked through Europe and Asia, eventually making it as far as India. It closes with the decidedly realistic and tragic tale of Sir Walter Raleigh’s explorations of Guyana.

In between are tales such as Andreé’s ill fated attempt to reach the North Pole in a balloon; Pegolotti’s trip to China and back via the land caravan route - most of the cities mentioned disappeared for the same reason towns dried up along the old Route 66; and purely fanciful descriptions of imaginary lands described by explorers willing to exaggerate to please their audiences.

Lyons tells these stories with a bit of a dryly humorous tone, but also quotes extensively from the original writings, which is also rather amusing. The original writers wanted to entertain, and used overwrought language that has an unintentionally comedic effect in the case of the exaggerations.

On the other hand, it is pretty amazing to see how many people were willing to just set off into the unknown, knowing the odds that they would return alive weren’t that great. And many of them didn’t.

The capacity to take risk and to just do crazy stuff is a testament either to the human spirit or to reckless insanity. Maybe both.

Andreé put it this way: “There is in our days only one way of retaining a belief in ideal efforts, and that is by endeavoring to make them oneself.”

On the other hand, you can really see the attraction of exploring the unknown. As the author puts it in the introduction, this book is for “those who half-regret the slow, empirical death by discovery of a world in which almost anything was possible because no one really knew what lay over the horizon.”

Along the way, there were some interesting real and imaginary discoveries. I note that Coryat got a tattoo of a cross in the Holy Land in the 1610s, before the word “tattoo” entered the lexicon (after Cook’s voyage to Tahiti). So no, religiously significant ink isn’t exactly a new thing.

I also found it interesting that wherever explorers went, there were tales of the Amazons. That is, the female warrior race, where the men were relegated to the fringes of society - if they were even allowed to survive after mating. The legend dates at least from Greek mythology, but it reappeared everywhere, from the tales of central Asia to Greenland to North America to the tropics of South America where it gave the name to the second longest river in the world.

This was a fun book to read. The tales were pretty short, except for the extended Raleigh tale, so it goes fast. The book itself, like all Folio Society books, feels delightful in the hands. A testament to the visceral pleasure of a physical object.

I think of this picture of Sir Walter Raleigh whenever I get irritated at having to wear a suit and tie in hot weather.