Monday, October 31, 2022

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


A Separate Peace is considered one of the classic coming-of-age stories, as well as a book that challenges the supposed glories of war. The story itself is about high school boys, but also serves as a metaphor for the senseless violence that leads to wars in the first place. 

The book is narrated by Gene, a boy from the South who attends an exclusive boarding school in New England. “Devon” is based on Phillips Exeter Academy, where the author went as a boy. Even the motto is directly borrowed from the school. While it was boys only at the time Knowles attended, as well as when he published the book in 1959, it became co-ed in 1970, and the motto was changed to be gender neutral as well as to focus on education, not “becoming a man.”


Gene’s roommate and best friend (and occasional frenemy) is Phineas, aka Finny, a natural athlete and leader. Gene, in contrast, is decent, but not outstanding in sports, but is in the running for academic glory. Finny is also a surprisingly un-egotistical character, given his gifts. He literally wants to think the best of everyone, and Gene’s belief that Finny is jealous of him is all in Gene’s head. Finny is based on Knowles’ classmate David Hackett, who went on to work in the Justice Department. The other character based on a real person is Brinker, a student who insists on law and order, until he becomes disillusioned with the war and his father’s rosy view of it. Brinker was based on Gore Vidal, who apparently liked the book.


The book is set during World War Two, with the boys on the brink of being draft eligible - which means most of them, being rich kids, try to figure out how to get into a less dangerous job with the Navy or Coast Guard, or the Army Air Corps. But there is also the question of whether the war will last long enough for them to serve. (Knowles himself had a career much like Gene’s - being shuttled around but never seeing combat.) 


From the beginning, it is clear that Finny is going to play a central role in the book. He creates the "Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session," with an initiation that involves jumping off of a tree branch into the river. But things to wrong when Gene and Finny attempt a double jump. For reasons Gene never truly understands, he joggles the tree, and Finny falls off, breaking his leg badly enough that it is expected to end his sports career. 


Gene feels tremendously guilty, and confesses his role to Finny, who refuses to believe him. This tension pervades the rest of the book, until the tragic conclusion. 


I think it is this tension that the author uses to illuminate his metaphor of war. Gene is, it is clear to us, although not always to him, jealous of Finny, who has the extroversion and natural likeability Gene does not and never will have. And yet, he genuinely loves Finny, even if Gene essentially lives through Finny rather than form his own identity. The impulse that leads to the accident is a momentary reaction, a fleeting idea, and one not truly intended to cause the catastrophic harm it does. 


And this is how so many wars start too. There are unresolved jealousies at the social level, and an impulse can cause the spark that leads to mass destruction. World War One is probably a better example of this than World War Two, but at the level of the ordinary foot soldier, the analogy holds. There is no genuine personal malice between soldiers of each side, but they kill anyway. In the end, there is senseless death on all sides. 


I think one reason this book is a classic is that it has a lot of unresolved psychological complexity. Even at the end - 15 years later - Gene is still trying to figure out himself and his relationships with his schoolmates. His insights are important, but they are limited. He can, at best, only partially know himself. 


The book is also fascinating because, amidst the central tragedy, there are moments of humor. It isn’t a particularly dark book most of the time, although things do end badly for a number of characters. Knowles captures a particular moment and place - the age of 16 at a boy’s school - and the fragility and incomplete maturity of teens. That the consequences of normal development and behavior turn out so badly has more to do with bad luck and fate than with any ill will. 


I found it interesting that the book has been challenged quite a bit. There are probably two reasons for this. One is the most obvious: there is a bit of rather mild swearing. I mean, nothing major, and perfectly in context. I would have no hesitation in letting my kids read this one. 


The other is a supposed homoeroticism in the book. I think probably the best way to explain this is to say that any strong emotional connection between male characters tends to be read as homoerotic in our culture, in a way that it wouldn’t be in other cultures. Modern American culture is a bit freaked out about any display of physical affection between men, and males are trained to avoid showing emotion, particularly any emotion culturally categorized as “female.” This is a particularly damaging dysfunction of our culture, not least because it makes male-male connections “gay” even if sex is not involved. 


To be clear, there is no sex whatsoever in this book. You could read this to a five year old without getting any awkward questions. At least about sex. There are barely any female characters at all (and they are extremely minor.) Nothing the boys do could reasonably be considered sexual. So, unless you want to read a close friendship that way, there is no reason to make that leap. 


So, I kind of wonder if the real reason it got challenged as much as it did had more to do with its skeptical view of war and patriotism, with its disillusionment with “glory” and “manhood” and “country.” And, I have to wonder, perhaps those who love to challenge or ban books simply can’t deal with uncomfortable, complex emotions - and this book is full of them. 


The audiobook was narrated by Spike McClure. Not bad, but not a particularly remarkable job. In particular, he didn’t distinguish the voices much, so dialogue was a bit harder to follow. The book felt like more of a reading than a performance, if that makes sense. 


Thursday, October 27, 2022

My Beloved Brontosaurus by Riley Black (Brian Switek)

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


Before I get into the book itself, let me just make my apologies for the necessity of using deadnames. This is the problem that unfortunately arises when an author publishes books under a deadname, leaving thousands of copies - to say nothing of small-town library catalog systems - with one name, even as the author transitions to another name. In some sense, this is like a pen name (See: Ellis Peters) except with a ton of transphobic cultural baggage attached. 


I have thought long and hard on how best to handle this issue in this particular case, and have settled on an unsatisfactory compromise that I believe is “less bad” than the alternatives. My decision is that I will, solely for the sake of enabling readers of this blog to find the author’s books, make a brief mention of the deadname. Everywhere else, I will refer to authors by their names and pronouns, just like I would in any other situation. 


As I mentioned in a previous post, if the particular author manages to stumble across my blog, and prefers that I make a change, I am happy to do so. 


So, you will find Riley Black’s earlier books, such as this one, written under the name of Brian Switek, particularly older library copies. Her newer books, and her numerous magazine articles at places like Slate, National Geographic, Scientific American, and Smithsonian, will usually have Riley Black as the byline. Also, you can visit her website here




My Favorite Brontosaurus has been on my “to-read” list for several years. The problem is, it was really popular at our local library for a long time, was never there when I looked for it, and I didn’t want to order it and have to return it before I finished. So I waited. 


I was never one of those kids who was really into dinosaurs. There were a few reasons for that. First, I have tended to gravitate more toward living creatures rather than extinct ones. Second, the fossils that were famous and local where I grew up were the mammals at the La Brea Tar Pits, so of the extinct creatures, I loved the Saber-tooth Cats best of all. (Yes, I am a cat person…) 


The other reason was that, like many who grew up in evangelicalism, I had a fraught relationship with paleontology. Living in a subculture that believed in a 6000 year old universe meant that you stood out - and not in a good way - for believing in anything that smacked of “millions of years” or “evolution.” 


That said, there were some wrinkles within my own family. For those not familiar with the subculture, here is how the whole dinosaur thing went:


My grandparents’ generation: “Dinosaurs didn’t exist or they would be mentioned in the Bible.”

My parents’ generation: “Okay, so they existed, and here is where Job mentions them, but they lived at the same time as humans.”


In my family in particular, my dad literally saw dinosaur bones sticking out of the earth near our distant relatives’ property in Montana. So, he couldn’t exactly go along with the “Dinosaurs are a hoax” thing. For similar reasons, he allowed for the possibility of an old earth. But, because of perceived theological needs, neither of my parents could get on board with evolution. As has been the case with a lot of evangelicals, this in turn led to a general belief that modern science is a conspiracy to hide the truth, and has been followed over time with an increasing distrust of science and medicine, and recently, accepting quack theories about Covid and vaccines. 


Meanwhile, I did well in science classes in high school, and, despite the Fundie curriculum, grew to realize that YEC (as well as alternative “medicine”) was a pile of shit. Like my dad, the problem was, the evidence was staring me in the face. Specifically, of course, the universe itself. You cannot learn astronomy without realizing that you are seeing light that originated millions of years ago. And, with the aid of telescopes, billions of years ago. Likewise, living and exploring the American southwest, you see the evidence of eons right there in the rock layers. And they can’t be explained with some sort of single flood event. Oh, and the layers seem to have specific fossils for their ages. Weird, huh? 


So, by the time I moved out, I was firmly in the pro-evolution camp, although I wasn’t “out” to my family. My wife and I raised our kids on mainstream science, which meant we have been using fully secular textbooks for a long time. I also did not realize just how “mainstream” anti-science is in conservative towns. Just as an example, at the homeschool enrichment program a couple of my kids attend, the instructor felt it necessary to disclose that some of the students’ parents may find some topics “controversial.” 


What was that topic? The Stone Age. 


I mean, I was raised Fundie and all, but what the heck is controversial about the Stone Age? Do these parents really believe that they had stainless steel knives in the Garden of Eden? (To be clear: the instructor was and is teaching facts, not religious fiction, and just wanted to defuse the situation. Also, Lillian has read the Gilgamesh stories, so…) 


Okay, maybe I should get on with the book itself. 


Black grew up as a dinosaur-obsessed kid, and unsurprisingly turned into a vertebrate paleontologist, science writer, and fossil hunter. This book is about dinosaurs, of course, but specifically about the new discoveries and revised beliefs about what they were like and how they lived. The book was written in 2013, so it isn’t cutting edge anymore, but it is far more up to date than most curriculum. And, crucially, far different from the popular culture versions of the Mesozoic. 


This starts with the Brontosaurus, which gets a chapter. As any kid will be happy to tell you, the Brontosaurus doesn’t exist anymore and never did. Okay, so they did exist, but you should call them “Apatosaurus” instead. 


So what happened? It’s actually pretty easy to understand. As more bones were found, and more complete skeletons uncovered, a wholesale revision of dinosaur classification took place. In many cases, it became clear that what had been considered two species was actually just one. Sometimes they were juvenile and adult versions, or perhaps just natural variation within a species. In each case, the first name given was the one that scientists used as the “correct” one. Since Apatosaurus was named first, “Brontosaurus” went the way of the…well, you know.


Except that it didn’t. 


Because, for a variety of reasons, chief among which I think is the fact that “Bronto” sounds like “Bronco,” public consciousness latched on to Brontosaurus. In fact, Carl Sagan would eventually argue that scientists should loosen up a bit, and just change the name to the more popular one. He failed in this quest, alas, so we are stuck with two names for the same creature and a senseless rift between popular and scientific. 


That’s just the first chapter. Black examines new developments in our understanding of dinosaurs, from their close relationship to birds (birds are “avian dinosaurs,” while the others are “non-avian”), to their social lives as we can see them from fossils, to what they may have sounded like, to why they became extinct. Oh, and also the important question of how the heck they managed to have sex, with those bizarre anatomies. 


The fact of the matter is that there still is a lot we will never know, but it is fascinating to figure out what we can, given the discoveries we have made. Black does a great job of describing the how of these things - how we find evidence of particular characteristics or traits - linking the fossil evidence to the conclusions. 


For the most part, the book strikes a note of wonder and calm. But there are also times where Black gets pretty snarky on Young Earth Creationists. I wonder if she feels tired of having the same stupid arguments thrown at her, or perhaps if she had to deal with some of the same subculture I did. 


There are a few random bits from the book that I thought were worth putting in this post. First of all is the description of dino-kitsch that still lingers in our country. For example, the approach to Dinosaur National Monument (on my bucket list…)


You know you’re getting close to the park when goofy, tourist-trap dinosaurs start appearking along Highway 40 in Vernal, Utah. You can’t miss them. SOme of them snarl, others pose outside hotels, and my favorite - a rendition of the town’s long-necked mascot Dinah - wears a polka-dot bikini and stands above a sigh that reads: “Let’s swim!” Dinosaurs didn’t have mammary glands, so I’m not sure what good a bikini top would do. Maybe that’s just the Utah sense of modesty at work. 


One has to wonder about Black’s experience of living (as she presently does) in Salt Lake City as a transgender person. Utah can be…interesting. (Although at least in my experience and in the actual laws, not as hateful as Texas or Florida.) And yes, the “sense of modesty.”


I also found amusing the reference to the alvarezsaurs as the “Mesosoic equivalent of anteaters.” Ants, after all, go way back, and something had to eat them, right?


Bonus points to Black for quoting Terry Pratchett. 


I like to think of these major events as what fantasy satirist Terry Pratchett once characterized as bifurcations in the trousers of time. The history we knew when down one leg, but there was another possible outcome.


There are a few points at which Black indulges in some snark at creationism. The fact of the matter is that, contrary to the teaching I was given that every creature is “perfect” for its role in nature, actual life is full of inefficient kludges and bizarre adaptations that clearly show common ancestry, but make no sense as a design. One example given is the laryngeal nerve, which makes a U shape that gets longer with longer necks. Giraffes are already laughable with a sixteen-foot-long nerve. But certain dinos would have had nerves nearly 100 feet long. Black quotes another scientist as calling dinosaur necks as “monument[s] of inefficiency.”


Another is an observation I might have made traveling through the Southwest. 


The panorama doesn’t whisper the truth of Deep Time - it practically screams it. How anyone in this age can believe that all of this geologic grandeur was created in a matter of days is beyond me. The strata, deeply set in rainbow colors, highlight the almost incomprehensible depth of time and could never have been laid down by a mere flood. Ages are stacked upon ages, naked in the baking western sun. Time is evident everywhere. 


That’s the problem. While each generation has had its schisms, I have to think that for my generation, more people have left the Christian faith because of its insistence on science denial than any other reason. The hill that Fundies chose to die on shows their profoundly poor judgment. It is never good when you have to say, “who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” 


On a totally unrelated note, the section on the mystery of how dinosaurs ate enough to survive is fascinating. And also explains one reason why little boys seem to identify with dinosaurs.


Dinosaur jaws plucked, sliced, cleaved, ripped, and otherwise cropped food, but then they immediately horfed their meals down.


Perhaps Calvin had it right. 


I also learned about a number of dinosaur sites I was unaware of previously. My father-in-law grew up in Price, Utah, and apparently there is now a visitors center for the Cleveland-Lloyd site, which I may have to figure out how to visit someday. 


As a final chuckle, the chapter on the demise of the dinosaurs is interesting. I did not realize the amount of resistance among paleontologists to the idea of an asteroid as the cause. Although it makes sense that they would feel that astronomers were encroaching on their territory. Now, of course, we found the crater, and the iridium in the mud layers. And the time is perfect. But here is the amusing line:


As far as I know, no one has yet implicated the CIA, the KGB, or Fidel Castro in the ultimate demise of the dinosaurs. That said, there has never been a shortage of truly outrageous hypotheses, including the sci-fi idea that aliens hunted dinosaurs out of existence. The idea is bunk, regardless of what the buffoons on Ancient Aliens might tell you, but is popular enough that the Utah State University Eastern Prehistoric Museum goes out of its way to list alien extermination along with disease and an ice age as unsupported hypotheses. (“There is no evidence of aliens or their garbage in the fossil record,” the sign advises in deadpan lettering.) 


I can’t find it online, but Calvin also was ahead of this one with his “Time Traveling Big Game Hunters” theory. 


Obviously, I haven’t even gotten into all the science stuff, which is fascinating, but difficult to quote in a blog post adequately. Just get the book and read it. It’s well worth it. 


Tuesday, October 25, 2022

The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore

Source of book: I read this one on the Kindle app.


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’m not really much of a horror reader, so nearly all of our annual “Spooky Lush” books have been ones I would not have otherwise picked up. This is definitely one of them. Unfortunately, my overall impression of this book was pretty meh. 

First, a bit about Guy Endore. “Guy Endore” was one of two pen names for Samuel Goldstein. The other, “Harry Relis,” was the one he used after he was blacklisted by Hollywood for his involvement with the Communist Party. (Also, it was a name borrowed from his wife’s sister’s husband…) Back in the day, of course, having an obviously Jewish name was pretty much death to one’s career, both as an author of fiction and as a Hollywood screenwriter - which was his other job. 


Endore’s childhood was pretty bad. His mother committed suicide when he was four. His father couldn’t handle the kids, so he dropped them off at an orphanage. Later, after an invention paid some dividends, he sent them off to Vienna for an education, but when the money ran out, they were returned, and pretty much fended for themselves by necessity. He had his first big writing hit with The Werewolf of Paris, which led to opportunities to write similarly lurid horror screenplays. Although he never was called to testify at the McCarthy hearings, he was later blacklisted, and struggled to find work for a while, until the craziness blew over. 


Despite its significant success in the 1930s, I thought the book suffered from a number of flaws. The main one, and one we discussed extensively, was the flat characters. It really felt like there was little internal or emotional drama in any of the characters. It was hard to like any of them, and they never really seemed to change. Thus, the drama all had to come from the plot. Well, that and the sex and violence. 


The other issue, for me, was that there was way too much grafted on to the story. So, you have first the framing story: an anonymous American grad student is doing research, and has this bizarre episode where he buys a manuscript from garbage pickers, which happens to be the rest of the tale. Oh, and he is also solicited for sex by a woman who may or may not be a prostitute - and has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the story, except some reference to nymphomania. 


Then, we get the history of the Pitamont families, which involves a deadly feud, imprisonment in a dungeon, and the prisoner being fed raw meat. Which might be the origin of the family lycanthropy. 


Finally, we get into the story itself, which starts with the rape and impregnation of a 14 year old girl by a priest who happens to be a Pitamont. She becomes a nymphomaniac during the pregnancy, before she gives birth to the werewolf character, who then grows up before going on to terrorize Paris. 


And then, we also get a bunch of stuff about the Franco-Prussian War, and the Paris Communard - that period of time when the Communists briefly made a play to govern Paris. All this is eventually mixed in with the werewolf plot, and there is an attempt - a clumsy one in my opinion - to elevate what is to that point a sex-and-violence drenched lurid horror story, and make it into a political statement on how capitalism and war make the real werewolves out of us all, and….well, yeah, it fits with his Communist leanings, but it didn’t feel like an integrated whole to me at all. 


Also, before I forget, there is also the scene at the end in a mental asylum that appears to be a social statement about the state of mental health treatment. Oh, and that digression about the sexless marriage of the female love interest’s parents, and a few other rabbit trails that seem to have very little to do with anything else. The book really is all over the place.


I also thought the book was gratuitously lurid. Don’t get me wrong: I have no objection to sex or its presence in books. (Although good lord, a lot of otherwise great authors can’t write good sex scenes to save their lives.) The sex in here just felt, I’m not even sure how to explain it. The initial rape, for example, followed by the young girl fucking every male she can find, was gross and yet apparently intended to be titillating. There is little sense of the psychological trauma for the girl, and she seems there to further the plot. Like the later scene where her son has sex with her - probably rape as well. And then the violence toward prostitutes. And the masochistic sex the werewolf has with his lover - she offers her blood to him to keep him satiated. 


To be fair, I have to admit that I am not really a fan of this sort of book, so perhaps it is hard for me to judge its relative merits. But I can’t help comparing really good horror books with this one. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for example, which has a lot more depth. Or Dracula, which was a similarly foundational book for the vampire genre, but felt far more nuanced. 


I also want to mention the best part of the book, which, again, seemed mostly unconnected to the rest of it. The uncle of the werewolf, who is trying to track him down after his escape to Paris, ends up at a dinner party of this club that believes in eating all the different animals. The episode would have made a good short story, although I think Neil Gaiman’s version is better


Anyway, while I wasn’t impressed with the book, we did have a good discussion as usual. 




You can find the entire Literary Lush list here. At least the ones I read since I joined the club. 


Friday, October 21, 2022

Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles by Thomas Hardy

Source of book: I own Hardy’s complete poems


When I read Hardy’s last collection of poems, Winter Words, I laughed at his introduction, which called out the critics of his previous volume, who claimed it was “too pessimistic” - Hardy quipped that it was clear then hadn’t read the collection. 


Well, this collection, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles, is that previous collection. And, I think Hardy is right. It really isn’t particularly pessimistic. Mostly, it indulges on occasion the Victorian tendency toward overblow pathos, and even this isn’t the most characteristic trait of the collection. One wonders if critics were reacting to his disillusionment with Empire and the optimistic beliefs of that era. In that case, Hardy was more right than they wanted to admit. Within a generation, the Empire would be no more, and the world would be smoldering from two world wars. 


But none of that is really the point of the collection, which has a wide range of topics, moods, and styles. Some of the poems did nothing for me, while others were quite excellent. I suspect each person would choose different poems, and a younger (or older?) me might also be struck by different ones. Anyway, here are my favorites.


Waiting Both


A star looks down at me,

And says:  “Here I and you

Stand each in our degree:

What do you mean to do,—

  Mean to do?”


I say:  “For all I know,

Wait, and let Time go by,

Till my change come.”—”Just so,”

The star says:  “So mean I:—

  So mean I.”


That’s just a compact gem. You can call it pessimistic, or you can call it a truth about life and the inevitability of death. It isn’t entirely a surprise to see Hardy concerned with death. Poets in general have always done so. And Hardy was an old man by then, and had seen many friends pass. Here is another one, which is hardly pessimistic. 


When Dead


It will be much better when

I am under the bough;

I shall be more myself, Dear, then,

Than I am now.


No sign of querulousness

To wear you out

Shall I show there:  strivings and stress

Be quite without.


This fleeting life-brief blight

Will have gone past

When I resume my old and right

Place in the Vast.


And when you come to me

To show you true,

Doubt not I shall infallibly

Be waiting for you.


This next one is interesting. Artemisia is both the name for a family of plants that includes Wormwood and Sagebrush. It is also the name for a legendary female naval commander. I can see allusions to both in the poem, although I am not sure he intended that. In any case, I love the dialogue with the ghostly women of the past. His title as well seems to indicate a universal idea, encompassing every case where a woman has played a significant role. 


Every Artemisia


‘Your eye-light wanes with an ail of care,

Frets freeze gray your face and hair.’


‘I was the woman who met him,

Then cool and keen,

Whiling away

Time, with its restless scene on scene

Every day.’


‘Your features fashion as in a dream

Of things that were, or used to seem.’


‘I was the woman who won him:

Steadfast and fond

Was he, while I

Tepidly took what he gave, nor conned

Wherefore or why.’


‘Your house looks blistered by a curse,

As if a wraith ruled there, or worse.’


‘I was the woman who slighted him:

Far from my town

Into the night

He went... My hair, then auburn-brown,

Pangs have wanned white.’


‘Your ways reflect a monstrous gloom;

Your voice speaks from within a tomb.’


‘I was the woman who buried him:

My misery

God laughed to scorn:

The people said: “ ’Twere well if she

Had not been born!” ’


‘You plod to pile a monument

So madly that your breath is spent.’


‘I am the woman who god him:

I build, to ease

My scalding fires,

A temple topping the Deities’

Fanes of my sires.’


There is a series of poems about snow and winter in the collection, all of which are lovely. My favorite is this one, which is a song. Also, it has a cat.


Snow in the Suburbs


Every branch big with it,

Bent every twig with it;

Every fork like a white web-foot;

Every street and pavement mute:

Some flakes have lost their way, and grope back upward when

Meeting those meandering down they turn and descend again.

The palings are glued together like a wall,

And there is no waft of wind with the fleecy fall.


A sparrow enters the tree,

Whereon immediately

A snow-lump thrice his own slight size

Descends on him and showers his head and eye

And overturns him,

And near inurns him,

And lights on a nether twig, when its brush

Starts off a volley of other lodging lumps with a rush.


The steps are a blanched slope,

Up which, with feeble hope,

A black cat comes, wide-eyed and thin;

And we take him in.


Here is another good one:


The Prospect


The twigs of the birch imprint the December sky

Like branching veins upon a thin old hand;

I think of summer-time, yes, of last July,

When she was beneath them, greeting a gathered band

Of the urban and bland.


Iced airs wheeze through the skeletoned hedge from the north,

With steady snores, and a numbing that threatens snow,

And skaters pass; and merry boys go forth

To look for slides. But well, well do I know

Whither I would go!


I have to quote this next one, because I am told this is what it feels like to hike with me. 


The Weary Walker


A plain in front of me,

And there's the road

Upon it. Wide country,

And, too, the road!


Past the first ridge another,

And still the road

Creeps on. Perhaps no other

Ridge for the road?


Ah! Past that ridge a third,

Which still the road

Has to climb furtherward —

The thin white road!


Sky seems to end its track;

But no. The road

Trails down the hill at the back.

Ever the road!


This next one reminded me of a certain Terry Pratchett quote:

“It is said that your life flashes before your eyes just before you die. That is true, it's called Life.”


Here is Hardy’s take:


A Second Attempt


Thirty years after

I began again

An old-time passion:

And it seemed as fresh as when

The first day ventured on:

When mutely I would waft her

In Love's past fashion

Dreams much dwelt upon,

Dreams I wished she knew.


I went the course through,

From Love's fresh-found sensation—

Remembered still so well—

To worn words charged anew,

That left no more to tell:

Thence to hot hopes and fears,

And thence to consummation,

And thence to sober years,

Markless, and mellow-hued.


Firm the whole fabric stood,

Or seemed to stand, and sound

As it had stood before.

But nothing backward climbs,

And when I looked around

As at the former times,

There was Life—pale and hoar;

And slow it said to me,

‘Twice-over cannot be!’


If this sort of poem is “too pessimistic,” then methinks the reviewer has an unhealthy sense of - not optimism, exactly, but more of denialism. I think our culture has a tendency to live in denial of death and time and loss - and expect a forced “optimism” that is “positive emotions only.” That is problematic, and leads to a lack of healthy emotional expression. And also, in what possible way is this more pessimistic than, say, In Memoriam


Here is another one which speaks of death, but is the opposite of pessimism. 


The Sexton at Longpuddle


He passes down the churchyard track

On his way to toll the bell;

And stops, and looks at the graves around,

And notes each finished and greening mound


As their shaper he,

And one who can do it well,

And, with a prosperous sense of his doing,

Thinks he’ll not lack

Plenty such work in the long ensuing


For people will always die,

And he will always be nigh

To shape their cell.


This next one is specifically about Great Ormes Head, a headland of sedimentary rock in Wales. It is pretty spectacular, of the pictures do it any justice. Hardy notes that our memories are personal - and even the exact same experience can lead to completely different impressions. A wonderful poem. 


Alike and Unlike


We watched the selfsame scene on that long drive,

Saw the magnificent purples, as one eye,

Of those near mountains; saw the storm arrive;

Laid up the sight in memory, you and I,

As if for joint recallings by and by.


But our eye-records, like in hue and line,

Had superimposed on them, that very day,

Gravings on your side deep, but slight on mine! —

Tending to sever us thenceforth alway;

Mine commonplace; yours tragic, gruesome, gray.


The last poem I will feature in this post is one that I sent to my sister-in-law, who has a thing for butter. And not cheap butter, but the good stuff. So, we tease her a bit about it, and my brother for that one time he got store-brand butter that was not up to cream, shall we say. 


The Pat of Butter


Once, at the Agricultural Show,

We tasted—all so yellow—

Those butter-pats, cool and mellow!

Each taste I still remember, though

It was so long ago.


This spoke of the grass of Netherhay,

And this of Kingcomb Hill,

And this of Coker Rill:

Which was the prime I could not say

Of all those tried that day,


Till she, the fair and wicked-eyed,

Held out a pat to me:

Then felt I all Yeo-Lea

Was by her sample sheer outvied;

And, ‘This is the best,’ I cried.


As you can see, the range of poems is pretty great - and these are just the ones I liked best. If you like poetry from the Victorian Era, give Hardy a try. I find him less cloying than some, even if nobody can quite live up to Tennyson at his best.