Friday, May 29, 2020

The Rivals by Richard Sheridan

Source of book: I own this. 

 It is hard to believe it has been eight years since I read The School for Scandal, in connection with the Bakersfield Symphony’s performance of Barber’s delightful overture. That play, with its wicked (and not always very nice) wit is considered Sheridan’s best work. The Rivals came first, and is less of a social satire and more of a straight up farce. Today, it is best known for the term “malapropism,” from the character Mrs. Malaprop, who is constantly using words which sound like the word she intends, but means something quite different. 

 Let’s see if I can summarize the plot a bit:

 Young heiress Lydia Languish has read a few too many romance novels (of the 1700s), and longs for a scandalous elopement with “ensign Beverly,” who is really Captain Jack Absolute, the son of a wealthy aristocrat. Lydia’s guardian, Mrs. Malaprop, and Jack’s father, Sir Anthony, want them to marry, but Lydia refuses, citing her love for “Beverly.” When Lydia eventually discovers “Beverly” is really Jack, she scorns him.

 Meanwhile, Lydia is pursued by two other suitors: the ridiculous country gentleman Bob Acres (a friend of Captain Jack), and even more ludicrous Irish soldier, Lucius O’Trigger. Lucius has been writing letters to “Delia,” who he thinks is Lydia, but Lydia’s maid Lucy has been giving them to Mrs. Malaprop instead, who thinks her mystery lover is madly in love with her. 

 In addition to this mess, Jack’s friend Faulkland is courting Julia, but is irrationally jealous and suspicious of her fidelity. They quarrel continually about this throughout the play. 

Acres finds out that he has a rival, “Beverly,” to his affections for Lydia. Lucius talks him into challenging “Beverly” to a duel - although neither of them realizes “Beverly” is really Jack. The duel goes south really fast once everyone realizes who everyone else is, and Sir Anthony arrives with the women to break it up and set everyone right. Well, except for Lucius, who is horrified at being punked.

From my Heritage Press hardback: illustration by Rene Ben Sussan

The fun of the play isn’t the plot, though. It is the sparkling and witty dialogue. I was tempted to write down so many more quotes than these, but I restrained myself. 

 Lydia inquires of her maid, Lucy, what books she has brought back. 

LYDIA: Heigh-ho! Did you inquire for The Delicate Distress?

LUCY: Or, The Memoirs of Lady Woodford? Yes, indeed, ma’am. I asked everywhere for it; and I might have brought it from Mr. Frederick’s, but Lady Slattern Lounger, who had just sent it home, had so soiled and dog’s-eared it, it wa’n’t fit for a Christian to read. 

LYDIA: Heigh-ho! Yes, I always know when Lady Slattern has been before me. She has a most observing thumb; and, I believe, cherishes her nails for the convenience of making marginal notes.

 Not only is this deliciously naughty innuendo, it is proof that those evil reprobates who dog-ear books have been a problem for at least the last 250 years. 

 Mrs. Malaprop, furious that Lydia has refused to marry Jack (not realizing he is “Beverly”), complains to his father. 

MRS. MALAPROP: There, Sir Anthony, sits the deliberate simpleton who wants to disgrace her family, and lavish herself on a fellow not worth a shilling. 

LYDIA: Madam, I thought you once--

MRS. MALAPROP: You thought, miss! I don’t know any business you have to think at all--thought does not become a young woman. But the point we would request of you is, that you will promise to forget this fellow--to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory. 

 And later:


MRS. MALAPROP: What business have you, miss, with preference and aversion? They don’t become a young woman; and you ought to know, that as both always wear off, ‘tis safest in matrimony to begin with a little aversion. I am sure I hated your poor dear uncle before marriage as if he’d been a blackamoor--and yet, miss, you are sensible what a wife I made!--and when it pleased Heaven to release me from him, ‘tis unknown what tears I shed! 

 Sir Anthony chimes in:


SIR ANTHONY: It is not to be wondered at, ma’am,--all this is the natural consequence of teaching girls to read. Had I a thousand daughters, by Heaven! I’d as soon have them taught the black art as their alphabet!

 This play was written during the early days of first wave feminism - and it is true that when women were able to gain an education, they did seem to develop ideas of self-determination. Weird how that happens. The pinnacle of the scene is Mrs. Malaprop’s monologue, complete with butchery of the language. 


MRS. MALAPROP: Observe me, Sir Anthony. I would by no means wish a daughter of my to be a progeny of learning; I don’t think so much learning becomes a young woman; for instance, I would never let her meddle with Greek, or Hebrew, or algebra, or simony, or fluxions, or paradoxes, or such inflammatory branches of learning--neither would it be necessary for her to handle any of your mathematical, astronomical, diabolica instruments.--But, Sir Anthony, I would send her, at nine years old, to a boarding-school, in order to learn a little ingenuity and artifice. Then, sir, she should have a supercilious knowledge in accounts;--and as she grew up, I would have her instructed in geometry, that she might know something of the contagious countries;--but above all, Sir Anthony, she should be the mistress of orthodoxy, that she might not mis-spell, and mis-pronounce words, so shamefully as girls usually do; and likewise that she might reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying. This, Sir Anthony, is what I would have a woman know--and I don’t think there is a superstitious article in it.

 Later in the play, Fag, Jack’s amusing and morally suspect servant, mentions that he has lied to cover for Jack. And has invented a whole story with characters. 


FAG: And, in tenderness to my character, if your honour could bring in the chairmen and waiters, I should esteem it as an obligation; for though I never scruple a lie to serve my master, yet it hurts one’s conscience to be found out.

 In a later scene, Jack and Acres are teasing Faulkland about Julia, and how she failed to act miserable while he was gone. Rather, she continued to attend dances and the like and enjoy herself. 


FAULKLAND: Well, well, I’ll contain myself--perhaps as you say--for form sake.--What, Mr. Acres, you were praising Miss Melville’s manner of dancing a minuet--hey?

ACRES: Oh, I dare insure her for that--but what I was going to speak of was her country dancing. Odds swimmings! She has such an air with her.

 Faulkland is horrified. But when he talks of jigs and reels, the audience knows this isn’t about literal dancing. This is a dirty pun which is, sadly, neglected these days. You can find it (among other places) in Hamlet, where Hamlet talks about “lying between maid’s legs.” Acres is clearly feeding Faukland’s paranoia with jokes about Julia sleeping around. I won’t quote all of it, but the following dialogue is just rife with naughty puns. “The action of their pulse beats to the lascivious movement of the jig--their quivering, warm-breathed sighs impregnate the very air--the atmosphere becomes electrical to love, and each amorous spark darts through every link of the chain!” 

 Another brilliant bit of dialogue is between Jack and his father, when Sir Anthony is pressuring Jack to agree to marry the woman Sir Anthony desires - sight unseen. 


CAPTAIN ABSOLUTE: If my happiness is to be the price, I must beg leave to decline the purchase.--Pray, sir, who is the lady?

SIR ANTHONY: What’s that to you, sir?--Come, give me your promise to love, and to marry her directly.

CAPTAIN ABSOLUTE: Sure, sir, this is not very reasonable, to summon my affections for a lady I know nothing of!

SIR ANTHONY: I am sure, sir, ‘tis more unreasonable in you to object to a lady you know nothing of. 

 Although I could quote from every single line by Mrs. Malaprop, perhaps the one with the most malapropisms per inch is this one:


MRS. MALAPROP: You are very good and considerate, captain. I am sure I have done everything in my power since I exploded the affair; long ago I laid my positive conjunctions on her, never to think on the fellow again;--I have since laid Sir Anthony’s preposition before her; but, I am sorry to say, she seems resolved to decline every particle that I enjoin her. 

CAPTAIN ABSOLUTE: It must be very distressing, indeed, ma’am.

MRS. MALAPROP: Oh! it gives me the hydrostatics to such a degree.--I thought she had persisted from corresponding with him; but, behold, this very day, I have interceded another letter from the fellow; I believe I have it in my pocket. 

Also fun is the sequence of scenes with Bob Acres, after Lucius has convinced him he needs to duel with “Beverly.” Acres’ servant, David, tries to talk him out of it. 


ACRES: But my honour, David, my honour! I must be very careful of my honour.

DAVID: Ay, by the mass! and I would be very careful of it; and I think in return my honour couldn’t do less than to be very careful of me.

ACRES: Odds blades! David, no gentleman will ever risk the loss of his honour!

DAVID: I say then, it would be but civil in honour never to risk the loss of a gentleman.--Look’ee, master, this honour seems to me to be a marvellous false friend: ay, truly, a very courtier-like-servant.--Put the case, I was a gentleman (which, thank God, no one can say of me); well--my honour makes me quarrel with another gentleman of my acquaintance.--So--we fight. (Pleasant enough that!) Boh;--I kill him--(the more’s my luck!) now, pray who gets the profit of it?--Why, my honour. But put the case that he kills me!--by the mass! I go to the worms, and my honour whips over to my enemy.

 At the time this was written, dueling was still a common practice, but it was losing favor. Sheridan was one of those who turned it from a form of gentlemanly distinction to a mockable affectation. As Oscar Wilde would later say, violence has its fascination when wicked, but not when it is ridiculous. This is obvious in the dueling scene, where Lucius keeps trying to whip up Acres and Jack into fighting, when it is clear that Acres is too scared, and Jack has no intention of quarreling. 


SIR LUCIUS: [Goes up to Captain Absolute.] With regard to that matter, captain, I must beg leave to differ in opinion with you.

CAPTAIN ABSOLUTE: Upon my word, then, you must be a very subtle disputant:--because, sir, I happened just then to be giving no opinion at all. 

SIR LUCIUS: That’s no reason. For give me leave to tell you, a man may think an untruth as well as speak one.

CAPTAIN ABSOLUTE: Very true, sir; but if a man never utters his thoughts, I should think they might stand a chance of escaping controversy. 

SIR LUCIUS: Then, sir, you differ in opinion with me, which amounts to the same thing.

 Near the end, as everything gets sorted out, Lydia pouts and says she refuses to marry Jack. 


LYDIA: Why, is it not provoking? when I thought we were coming to the prettiest distress imaginable, to find myself made a mere Smithfield bargain of at last! There, had I projected one of the most sentimental elopements!--so becoming a disguise!--so amiable a ladder of ropes!--Conscious moon--four horses--Scotch parson--with such surprise to Mrs. Malaprop--and such paragraphs in the newspapers!--Oh, I shall die with disappointment!

Of course, everything works out in the end, even if we are denied the fun of imagining Lucius O’Trigger hitched to Mrs. Malaprop. 

By the way, a “Smithfield Bargain” is “a marriage of convenience in which the size of the marriage settlement is the determining factor.” Poor Lydia finds herself, despite her best efforts, marrying for money as well as love. Poor baby. 

 The play is intentionally silly - it’s more of a straight-up comedy than a real satire - although the pokes at the misogynist old folks remain funny. The School for Scandal is a better satire, but it is more mean-spirited than The Rivals, which more gently pokes fun at its characters. And, of course, Mrs. Malaprop never gets old. 


Thursday, May 28, 2020

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

Source of book: I own this.

 This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. I hadn’t heard of either this book (which just came out) and wasn’t familiar with James McBride, although a few of his other books sound familiar. However, I rather enjoyed it, as did other members of our club, making it one of the most universally loved selections since I joined the club. 

 James McBride has apparently written a number of other books, often with historical settings, and was awarded a National Humanities medal by President Obama. I dare say I will be putting his other books on my reading list.

 I’m not even sure what to call Deacon King Kong. It is literary fiction, in my opinion. But it is such a weird blend of pathos and humor that it defies categorization. It is a thoughtful book, but with elements of slapstick and magical realism. It makes a pair of suicides seem like a sacrament - a baptism. It makes a potential affair seem good for the characters. It has killer red ants, killer hooch, and mysterious cheese. And, more than anything, it has a bunch of memorable characters, any of which could be the center of their own story. 

 Set in the Brooklyn projects in 1969, the book starts and centers around a bizarre incident. “Sportcoat,” an old man who lost his wife a few years back and has spiraled into alcoholism, shoots the ear off the local drug dealer, a young man named Deems, who was once Sportcoat’s protege in the local baseball team. From there, the past and present swirl around the fallout from that incident, drawing in gangsters, cops, smugglers, an ancient artifact, and a few old secrets. Sportcoat is the deacon of the title - a deacon of Five Ends Baptist Church who prefers the illicit hooch King Kong to any commercial preparation. 

 As it turns out, there are connections to The Elephant, the last in a line of Italian smugglers. Why did his dad fund the construction of the church, including an epic mural of Christ on the side? Deems, in turn, is the pivot point of a drug war. And why did Sportcoat’s wife Hettie end up floating in the harbor? And what happened to the Christmas Fund money she kept but never told anyone where? 

 McBride brings in an honest Irish cop trying to make it alive to retirement, a dying gangster whose daughter runs a bagel shop, the delightful maintenance man for the building, Hot Sausage, and so many more. 

 I hesitate to describe the book more than that, because the plot is fun and full of surprises (although I figured out a few things ahead of time.) I recommend reading it for yourself. 

 McBride’s writing is outstanding - one of the comments in our club meeting was that from the first few pages, you really feel like you are there. The sights and sounds and smells and social dynamics really come alive. One person who had lived in New York City concurred with the reality of the area described - McBride grew up there, the son of an African American preacher and a Jewish-Polish mother - the daughter of a rabbi. The thing is, McBride doesn’t actually spend a whole lot of words on descriptions: he manages to create the picture without obviously doing so. Also a feature of his style is that he can take shootings and drugs and booze and gangsters and add the humor and slapstick without it feeling like a parody. It’s as much a part of the world he creates as the ghost of Hettie. 

 There are lots of good lines, a few of which I jotted down. 

 The first is an incident that is pretty hilarious, but has almost nothing to do with the rest of the plot: an explanation of how the red ants came to Brooklyn. Hector, the Colombian immigrant, gets too big for his britches, and dumps his wife and kids back home. She tearfully agrees to a divorce, and packs him lunch. When he opens it back in Brooklyn, he finds it full of the red ants, and a note saying “Adios motherfucker...we know you ain’t sending no pesos!” The ants establish themselves, and become part of the yearly life of the projects. This leads into a fantastic sentence in which the ants become


...a sole phenomenon in the Republic of Brooklyn, where cats hollered like people, dogs eat their own feces, aunties chain-smoked and died at age 102, a kid named Spike Lee saw God, the ghosts of the departed Dodgers soaked up all possibility of new hope, and penniless desperation ruled the lives of the suckers too black or too poor to leave, while in Manhattan the buses ran on time, the lights never went out, the death of a single white child in a traffic accident was a page one story, while phony versions of black and Latino life ruled the Broadway roost, making white writers rich — West Side Story, Porgy & Bess, Purlie Victorious — and on it went, the whole business of the white man's reality lumping together like a giant, lopsided snowball, the Great American Myth, the Big Apple, the Big Kahuna, the City That Never Sleeps, while the blacks and Latinos who cleaned the apartments and dragged out the trash and made the music and filled the jails with sorrows slept the sleep of the invisible and functioned as local color.


I’m not the only reviewer to have noticed that line. It’s arguably the most memorable line in the book.

 The missing Christmas Fund money is not only a big motivation for Sportcoat, it puzzles everyone in the church. Hettie never did disclose its location, and it never does appear. (Sorry about the spoiler.) Did she simply pocket the money herself? It seems possible. Is it hiding somewhere in the church? Also possible. What isn’t a mystery is why she kept it herself. 


“She ain’t supposed to walk around with the Christmas box.”

“She had to hide it someplace after she collected for it. Normally she hid it at church. But she didn’t always have time to wait for church to empty out. Sometimes folks would linger eating fish dinners or the pastor would preach overtime or some such thing and she had to go home, so she brung it home with her.”

“Why didn’t she lock it in the pastor’s office?”

“What fool would keep money ‘round a pastor?” Rufus asked. 

Sportcoat nodded knowingly.  


I have been a part of a number of churches in my lifetime, and one thing I can say is that I agree with Rufus. And, interestingly, one of the best ways to tell if a pastor is honorable about money is how careful he is to distance himself from the money. The honorable ones keep as far away as possible from it, delegating the financial stuff to someone independent. (Or at least as independent as possible in a small church.) It makes a difference. 

 Another interesting observation comes from the old, retired gangster, the Governor, talking about his deceased brother. (Who was also an artifact smuggler - he found a cave of stolen Nazi treasures including, in a fictional incident, the Venus of Willendorf. This artifact is in the book, although clearly the whole episode is fiction, not fact.) 


“He had an apartment in the Village the size of a rugby field. Full of fancy things. I never asked. He had no kids, so I figured it wasn’t anything. My poppa couldn’t stand Macy. He used to say, ‘Macy likes boys.’ I told Poppa, ‘There was a priest at Saint Andrews who’s said to like boys.’ But he didn’t want to hear it. I was a young man back then, fast on my feet and a bit of a wanker, but even then I knew the difference between a sick man who likes children and a man sweet on men.” 


This is a distinction lost on a lot of people in my Fundie former tribe, alas. 

 Another perceptive passage concerning sex is between the Irish cop and the wife of the pastor of Five Ends Baptist. She is in a loveless marriage, to an older man who she married before she understood what she was doing. As a divorce attorney, this rings true. 


She had been seventeen when she wed a man twelve years older than her. He had seemed to have purpose but turned out to have none, other than an affinity for football games and the ability to pretend to be what he was not, to pretend to feel things he did not feel, to make jokes out of things that did not work for him, and like too many men she knew, daydream about meeting some lovely young thing from the choir, preferably at three a.m., in the choir pew. She didn’t hate her husband. She just didn’t know him.


This one too was fascinating. Sister Gee (the pastor’s wife) is pressed for information by Potts, the Irish cop, after an incident in which the hapless Earl tries to put a hit on Sportcoat, but ends up bonked by a wayward bottle, then set on the subway back home by Sister Gee and a young gentle giant from the church. 


“You should have called us.”

“Why we got to have the police around every time we has a simple party? Y’all don’t watch out for us. Y’all watch over us. I don’t see y’all out there standing over the white folks in Park Slope when they has their block parties.” 


In recent years, as cell phone video has made it increasingly obvious even to this sheltered white guy that our experience with the police is vastly different from the experience of non-whites, McBride calls it straight. “To Protect and Serve,” as the LAPD motto goes, is directed at whites. The police protect “us” from “them.” And serve “us” at the expense of “them.” It’s a heartbreaking state of affairs. 


In a conversation later in the book, Potts can’t quite understand why the Five Ends folks are so obsessed with that Christmas Club money. 


“You were talking about the church money. It’s got nothing to do with this trouble.”

“It’s got everything to do with it. That Christmas Club money is all we can control. We can’t stop these drug dealers from selling poison in front of our houses. Or make the city stop sending our kids to lousy schools. We can’t stop folks from blaming us for everything gone wrong in New York, or stop the army from calling our suns to Vietnam after them Vietcong done cut the white soldiers’ toenails too short to walk. But the little nickels and dimes we saved up so we can give our kids ten minutes of love at Christmastime, that’s ours to control. What’s wrong with that?”


Although Potts isn’t quite getting it, he is falling in love with Sister Gee, and he flounders trying to express his concern for the danger she is in. After all, the drug bigwig wants to put the hit on Sportcoat; and, since the hapless Earl failed, is sending in his big gun: Harold Dean. 


He wanted to say, “He’s a killer and I don’t want him near you.” But he had no idea what her reaction would be. He didn’t even know what Harold Dean looked like. He had no information other than an FBI report with no photo, only the vaguest description that he was a negro who was “armed and extremely dangerous.” 


Dang, that’s some good satire. And it particularly hits home because “Harold Dean” is actually Haroldeen, a young woman. The whole “hey, he looked like the suspect” is problematic for the reason above. It seems the “all black people look alike” trope is alive and well in law enforcement, alas.

 [Side note: years ago, when I saw the Harlem Globetrotters, one of the jokes was that the big “clown prince” guy borrowed a purse from an older woman in the front row. When the referee told him to give it back, he said he couldn’t, because he wasn’t sure who he took it from. It was some woman. What woman? A white woman. Which one? He didn’t know, because they all looked alike…]

 Anyway, Potts keeps harping on “he’s dangerous.” Sister Gee is ready with a great response:


“Nothing in this world is dangerous unless white folks says it is,” she said flatly. “Danger here. Danger there. We don’t need you to tell us about danger in these projects. We don’t need you to say what the world is to us.”


Preach it. And Potts really is trying to get it, which makes him better than a whole lot of people in our country. 

 I have to end with a humorous bit. It would take too long to explain the characters and the situation, but suffice it to say that rumor has it that Hot Sausage was killed in a gun battle. (He was only injured, don’t worry.) 


Joaquin, several spots behind them, looked strangely sad. “I borrowed twelve dollars from Sausage,” he said. “I’m glad I didn’t pay it back.”

“God, you are cheap,” Miss Izi said. She was standing a good five people ahead of her ex-husband and stepped out of line to address him. “You’re so tight with money your ass squeaks when you walk.” 


This book was a lot of fun, thoughtful and perceptive, and packed with great characters. I’m definitely planning to add some more James McBride books to my list. 




Just for fun, here is the list of books that our book club has read. At least the ones I have read too. Most of these were read for the club, but a few were ones I read previously - those posts pre-date the club discussion - and some I read afterward, because I missed the discussion. 


Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn

Circe by Madeline Miller

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Calypso by David Sedaris

The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

There There by Tommy Orange

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Educated by Tara Westover

Stiff by Mary Roach

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Artemis by Andy Weir

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore


Friday, May 22, 2020

Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Source of book: I own this.

I am not entirely sure what percentage of Emerson’s poems are in this volume - it is one of those Black’s Readers Service Company hardbacks with selected works, in any case. 

Emerson is better known for his prose these days, particularly essays like “Self Reliance,” which most American kids read in 11th grade. I figured I would read the poetry, and get an idea about what it was like. 

 Emerson in 1857

I would say that my impression, like that of Emerson in general, is mixed. There are a few gems in the collection, but also too many long poems in iambic tetrameter with rhymed couplets, that seem to go on and on without going much of anywhere. I was not expecting to miss blank verse that much - when he finally did write one in that format, it just felt like it flowed so much better. 

Also an issue in the poetry, like his prose, are Emerson’s really dated views on race. On the one hand, he was an abolitionist from the 1840s on (although he didn’t want that to be the only thing people associated him with), and had - for his time - a progressive vision of integration and intermarriage. But he also was a Saxon chauvinist, like many other Americans of British descent, who considered the “Anglo-Saxon race” to be superior to all others. Not merely in the sense of whiteness: Saxons were superior to the French, to the Irish, to the Italians, and every other immigrant group of the time. This led to a number of really wince-worthy lines in otherwise inspiring poems. 

I do want to be fair to Emerson on this, though. His views were common enough, although that is not a defense. Where I think it is easy to condemn him unfairly is to miss what his actual proposals meant. Whatever his beliefs about superiority, he advocated for true equality and, shockingly for his time, true integration. He may have believed the Irish and African Americans were inferior races, but he also believed they should live side by side with everyone, have the same opportunities, freedoms, and rights, and believed that inevitably, they would all intermarry and create a truly superior race: the American. Even today, there is something futuristic about the idea of intermarriage to the degree. For White Nationalists, this is horrifying. For a lot of us in California, we already see it - interracial marriage here is the norm, not an exception. 

So, I guess those are the two downsides: dated views, and dated poetic forms. But there is good too. Emerson may never reach the heights of the best nature poets (Wordsworth and Frost particularly), but one can see his influence on 20th Century American poetry. His writing on nature seems more about being inspired by nature than closely observing it. You won’t find the close lens turned on the details, just the grand vistas. There is also plenty of transcendental philosophy in the poems too. At this point in history and in my own journey, transcendentalism seems like part of normal culture, at least among conservationists. It isn’t nearly the shocking departure from orthodox religion it seemed at the time - it’s nowhere near New Age or other 20th Century movements. In some ways, it feels more like just another step in the long chain of mystics who find God in nature, not just in a church. 

Speaking of that, I liked this poem, one of his earliest, from 1838:

The Problem

I LIKE a church; I like a cowl; 
I love a prophet of the soul; 
And on my heart monastic aisles 
Fall like sweet strains, or pensive smiles; 
Yet not for all his faith can see        
Would I that cowlèd churchman be.   

Why should the vest on him allure, 
Which I could not on me endure?   

Not from a vain or shallow thought 
His awful Jove young Phidias brought; 
Never from lips of cunning fell 
The thrilling Delphic oracle; 
Out from the heart of nature rolled 
The burdens of the Bible old; 
The litanies of nations came,       
Like the volcano’s tongue of flame, 
Up from the burning core below,— 
The canticles of love and woe: 
The hand that rounded Peter’s dome 
And groined the aisles of Christian Rome 
Wrought in a sad sincerity; 
Himself from God he could not free; 
He builded better than he knew;— 
The conscious stone to beauty grew. 
Know’st thou what wove yon woodbird’s nest     
Of leaves, and feathers from her breast? 
Or how the fish outbuilt her shell, 
Painting with morn each annual cell? 
Or how the sacred pine-tree adds 
To her old leaves new myriads?      

Such and so grew these holy piles, 
Whilst love and terror laid the tiles. 
Earth proudly wears the Parthenon,
As the best gem upon her zone, 
And Morning opes with haste her lids    
To gaze upon the Pyramids; 
O’er England’s abbeys bends the sky, 
As on its friends, with kindred eye; 
For out of Thought’s interior sphere 
These wonders rose to upper air;  
And Nature gladly gave them place, 
Adopted them into her race, 
And granted them an equal date 
With Andes and with Ararat.   

These temples grew as grows the grass;    
Art might obey, but not surpass. 
The passive Master lent his hand 
To the vast soul that o’er him planned; 
And the same power that reared the shrine 
Bestrode the tribes that knelt within.      
Ever the fiery Pentecost 
Girds with one flame the countless host, 
Trances the heart through chanting choirs, 
And through the priest the mind inspires. 

The word unto the prophet spoken     
Was writ on tables yet unbroken; 
The word by seers or sibyls told, 
In groves of oak, or fanes of gold, 
Still floats upon the morning wind, 
Still whispers to the willing mind.    
One accent of the Holy Ghost 
The heedless world hath never lost. 
I know what say the fathers wise,— 
The Book itself before me lies, 
Old Chrysostom, best Augustine, 
And he who blent both in his line, 
The younger Golden Lips or mines, 
Taylor, the Shakespeare of divines. 
His words are music in my ear. I see his cowlèd portrait dear;      
And yet, for all his faith could see, 
I would not the good bishop be.

Another one I loved was this one. Nobody knows who “J. W.” was, although there are several possibilities. Of all the carpe diem poems I have read, this one is definitely a favorite. 

To J. W. 

Set not thy foot on graves;
Hear what wine and roses say;
The mountain chase, the summer waves,
The crowded town, thy feet may well delay.

Set not thy foot on graves;
Nor seek to unwind the shroud
Which charitable time
And nature have allowed
To wrap the errors of a sage sublime.

Set not thy foot on graves;
Care not to strip the dead
Of his sad ornament;
His myrrh, and wine, and rings,
His sheet of lead,
And trophies buried;
Go get them where he earned them when alive,
As resolutely dig or dive.

Life is too short to waste
The critic bite or cynic bark,
Quarrel, or reprimand;
'Twill soon be dark;
Up! mind thine own aim, and
God speed the mark.
Another one that struck me was this thoughtful short poem. Although not unique to America, we seem to worship riches - and the wealthy. The glamorous and the beautiful. Meanwhile, this wealth and beauty dulls their consciences. Emerson seems, to me, caught between his own sense of inferiority and a weird wonder at these bright creatures. 

The Park

THE PROSPEROUS and beautiful   
To me seem not to wear 
The yoke of conscience masterful,   
Which galls me everywhere.   

I cannot shake off the god;       
On my neck he makes his seat; 
I look at my face in the glass,—   
My eyes his eyeballs meet.   

Enchanters! Enchantresses!   
Your gold makes you seem wise;      
The morning mist within your grounds   
More proudly rolls, more softly lies.   

Yet spake yon purple mountain,   
Yet said yon ancient wood, 
That Night or Day, that Love or Crime,    
Leads all souls to the Good.

This little nature poem is also a nice defense of introversion. 

The Apology       
Think me not unkind and rude,
That I walk alone in grove and glen;
I go to the god of the wood
To fetch his word to men.

Tax not my sloth that I
Fold my arms beside the brook;
Each cloud that floated in the sky
Writes a letter in my book.

Chide me not, laborious band,
For the idle flowers I brought;
Every aster in my hand
Goes home loaded with a thought.

There was never mystery,
But 'tis figured in the flowers,
Was never secret history,
But birds tell it in the bowers.

One harvest from thy field
Homeward brought the oxen strong;
A second crop thine acres yield,
Which I gather in a song.
Also a great introvert poem is this one, rather insightful about how brains like his and mine work, with the thoughts drifting and swirling, and needing time to sort out and organize. This one is probably my favorite poem of his. 

My Thoughts

Many are the thoughts that come to me
In my lonely musing;
And they drift so strange and swift,
There's no time for choosing
Which to follow, for to leave
Any, seems a losing.

When they come, they come in flocks,
As on glancing feather,
Startled birds rise one by one
In autumnal weather,
Waking one another up
From the sheltering heather.

Some so merry that I laugh,
Some are grave and serious,
Some so trite, their least approach
Is enough to weary us:—
Others flit like midnight ghosts,
Shrouded and mysterious.

There are thoughts that o'er me steal,
Like the day when dawning;
Great thoughts winged with melody
Common utterance scorning,
Moving in an inward tune,
And an inward morning.

Some have dark and drooping wings,
Children all of sorrow;
Some are as gay, as if today
Could see no cloudy morrow,—
And yet, like light and shade, they each
Must from the other borrow.

One by one they come to me
On their destined mission;
One by one I see them fade
With no hopeless vision;
For they've led me on a step
To their home Elysian.

I also found this poem, used at the dedication of the monument at Concord - the first shots of the American Revolution - to be rather good. Plenty of occasional poems age poorly, or are turgid to begin with. This one is simplicity - and focus. 

Concord Hymn

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
   Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
   And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
   Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
   Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
   We set today a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
   When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare
   To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
   The shaft we raise to them and thee.

There are a couple of longer poems that I enjoyed, but really are too long to quote entire. The first is “Blight,” an indictment against profit-driven destruction of nature that seems relevant today. Here is the opening:

Give me truths,
For I am weary of the surfaces,
And die of inanition.

And later:

But these young scholars who invade our hills,
Bold as the engineer who fells the wood,
And travelling often in the cut he makes,
Love not the flower they pluck, and know it not,
And all their botany is Latin names.

The ending is pretty bitter:

And life, shorn of its venerable length,
Even at its greatest space, is a defeat,
And dies in anger that it was a dupe,
And, in its highest noon and wantonness,
Is early frugal like a beggar's child:
With most unhandsome calculation taught,
Even in the hot pursuit of the best aims
And prizes of ambition, checks its hand,
Like Alpine cataracts, frozen as they leaped,
Chilled with a miserly comparison
Of the toy's purchase with the length of life.

Much more hopeful is “Boston Hymn,” which is a celebration of the best of the aspirational America - the one at perpetual war with the worst of America. In the midst of the Civil War, Emerson expressed his hope that “All men are created equal” would become a reality, and that freedom would be a blessing to all. Here are a few stanzas that I thought were best. (You can read the whole poem here, although a few stanzas from my book are missing.

God said,—I am tired of kings,
I suffer them no more;
Up to my ear the morning brings
The outrage of the poor.

Think ye I made this ball
A field of havoc and war,
Where tyrants great and tyrants small
Might harry the weak and poor?

I will divide my goods,
Call in the wretch and slave:
None shall rule but the humble,
And none but Toil shall have.

I will have never a noble,
No lineage counted great:
Fishers and choppers and ploughmen
Shall constitute a State.

I break your bonds and masterships,
And I unchain the slave:
Free be his heart and hand henceforth,
As wind and wandering wave.

To-day unbind the captive,
So only are ye unbound;
Lift up a people from the dust,
Trump of their rescue, sound!

Pay ransom to the owner,
And fill the bag to the brim.
Who is the owner? The slave is owner,
And ever was. Pay him.

I mean, dang, there are some revolutionary ideas there. We STILL can’t have a rational conversation in this country about restitution for slavery. It seems fundamental: whites built America using the stolen labor and freedom of African Americans. And have worked ever since to make America serve whites at everyone else’s expense - even today. Any meaningful form of repentance needs to include restitution. This is an inspiring poem any way you slice it. 

So, that is my impression of Emerson. A few really good ones. Some tedious stuff. A man who was, like all of us, a mixture of good and bad, but one who I think did in good faith try to make the world a better place for all.