Book Review: The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis

Year of First Publication: 1945

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2015

Number of Pages: 160

Publisher: Zondervan

Genre: Fiction

Sub-Genres: Speculative fiction

Subjects: Heaven, Hell, damnation, death, desire

Buy it here (disclosure: I use affiliate links).


I glanced round the bus. Though the windows were closed, and soon muffed, the bus was full of light. It was a cruel light. I shrank from the faces and forms by which I was surrounded. They were all fixed faces, full not of possibilities but of impossibilities, some gaunt, some bloated, some glaring with idiotic ferocity, some drowned beyond recovery in dreams; but all, in one way or another, distorted and faded. One had a feeling that they might fall to pieces at any moment if the light grew much stronger. Then—there was a mirror on the end wall of the bus—I caught sight of my own.

And still the light grew.

Chapter 2

As I mentioned in last month’s “Bookish Links” post, I’m participating in an online book club started by Joy Clarkson of the podcast Speaking with Joy. Basically, we read two chapters of The Great Divorce every week, Joy posts questions about the chapters on social media, and then we answer them and discuss what we read. Joy has studied this book inside and out, so the discussions she starts and the insight she provides—through her blog and her podcast—are incredibly illuminating. It’s also really fun to study this book with other Lewis fans.

The club is currently up to chapter eight out of fourteen, but since this book is so short and the material was so interesting to me, I decided to read it straight through.

The story begins with our narrator (who, though he is never named, appears to be Lewis himself) wandering around a dreary gray town at sunset. He comes across a group of people waiting at a bus stop and decides to join the queue, if only so that he won’t be alone anymore. When the bus finally comes, it whisks these lost souls away to a new and strange place, one that is larger, brighter, and feels altogether more real than anywhere else they have ever been. The narrator soon finds out that he and his fellow passengers were in Hell before and have been allowed to take a sort of “holiday” in Heaven. They can even stay in Heaven if they want to; the problem is most of them don’t want to. Between their misguided loves, their cynicism, and, most of all, their selfishness, it takes nothing short of a miracle to get these people into Heaven for good.

I think James Motter, an independent C. S. Lewis scholar, probably summed it up best: “if it is solely entertainment you seek, there are better books. We read [The Great Divorce] instead for the light it sheds on Lewis’s theology.” That’s not to say that the book holds no entertainment or artistic value whatsoever. On the contrary, the ideas Lewis discusses would undoubtedly lose some of their power and clarity if Lewis had stuck to his usual apologetic prose. The imaginative elements in this book are part of the argument. Nevertheless, I do believe that Lewis is writing to explain and educate more than to entertain. Without pretending to give a factual account of what Heaven is like, Lewis instead uses this story as a parable to talk about salvation. The story consists mostly of our protagonist observing interactions between the souls from Hell (he calls them “Ghosts”) and the residents of Heaven—the “Spirits”—who desperately want to bring the Ghosts over to the other side.

So, if you’re looking for a rip-roaring fantasy yarn, this may not be your book. If, however, you are interested in Christian ideas about Heaven, Hell, and human desire, read on.

*

One of the defining features of Lewis’s Hell is the lack of any sort of community. As the narrator observes when he first joins the queue, even the couples can’t get along with each other for very long and everyone is constantly bickering and sniping at each other. Once the bus ride is underway, we learn from one Ghost—the narrator calls him “the Intelligent Man”—that, typically, the longer a person stays in Hell, the further they remove themselves from their neighbors:

“As soon as anyone arrives, he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move. Very likely he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled with their neighbours and moved. So he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house. You see, it’s easy here. You’ve only got to think a house and there it is. That’s how the town keeps on growing.” [Chapter 2]

Naturally, some residents of Hell have noticed this lack of camaraderie and believe it is a problem. But their ideas for solving it couldn’t be further from the spirit of true community. For instance, the “Intelligent Man” hopes to start a market-based economy in Hell by bringing items back with him from Heaven and selling them. “If they needed real shops,” he reasons, “chaps would have to stay near where the real shops were. If they needed real houses, they’d have to stay near where builders were. It’s scarcity that enables a society to exist. Well, that’s where I come in.” He describes his role in this scheme as that of a “public benefactor,” when his motive is clearly personal economic gain. He’s not as interested in a real community of people who help and care for each other as he is in finding a customer base to make money off of.

Similar to Dante in Inferno, Lewis imagines Hell as a series of concentric circles, formed as the Ghosts move further and further away from each other. (“The Abyss of Hell” by Sandro Botticelli)

Another Ghost the narrator meets on the bus is identified as the “Tousle-Headed Poet,” a former writer and Marxist agitator. He tells the narrator that he’s going to Heaven in hopes of finding “Recognition” and “Appreciation” for his (alleged) talents as a poet, decrying the “appalling lack of any intellectual life” in Hell. He describes his failed attempts to form a writing society in Hell, before assuring the narrator that, of everyone on the bus, he is the only one who will be staying in Heaven permanently. In his mind, he is the only one of them who is sophisticated enough to appreciate Heaven.

So where the Intelligent Man’s main motive for seeking community was based in profit, this poet’s motive is to find a group of people who will praise him and acknowledge his perceived superiority. In either case, their motives stem primarily from love of the self.

“Saint Augustine in His Cell” by Sandro Botticelli

And to Lewis, that’s the main problem that these souls need to overcome if they are going to stay in Heaven: they must forget themselves, their works, their sin, and leave everything behind for the sake of God and his love. One really interesting point that Joy has brought up in the course of the book club is how Lewis’s ideas here complement those of St. Augustine in his book City of God. According to Augustine, human beings only exercise two kinds of love: love of God and love of the self. Even when we love other people, we either are loving them “in” God (in such a way that pleases him and draws us closer to him) or we are exercising self-love (loving a person not for their own sake but for what they can do for us). And because it is ultimately our loves that motivate us to act, all of our actions become either a way of serving and drawing closer to God or a way of serving ourselves. “Friend,” a Spirit begs one of the Ghosts once it reaches Heaven, “can you just for one moment think of something other than yourself?” The point here is not to obliterate the self, as some philosophies and religions teach we must do: rather, to enjoy communion with God, God must be foremost in the worshiper’s mind and heart. When we pass out of love of self and into love of God, Lewis says, it is only then that we can find rest and fulfillment.

**

As Joy has taken the care to highlight during the book club, this story draws on many different sources. The whole idea that “the damned have holidays” was inspired by the ancient theologian Tertullian, who believed that all souls, saved and unsaved alike, will reside in Hell until the Final Judgment. However, he wrote, the saved are sometimes permitted to experience Heaven temporarily, as a means of “refreshing” their souls. (Tertullian called this temporary experience of Heaven “refrigerium,” Latin for “refreshment.” It is, incidentally, also the root of the English word “refrigerator.” So that’s where my mind was during one chapter.) Lewis tweaks that idea slightly, instead presenting a situation in which the souls of the unsaved to visit Heaven and given the choice to stay.

Given Lewis’s background has a scholar of medieval literature, it’s not surprising that there are some Dantean influences on the story too. The narrator even has an angelic guide to lead him through Heaven in the form of George MacDonald, a nineteenth-century Scottish preacher, poet, and novelist. MacDonald’s writing was a huge influence on Lewis throughout his career, especially as a young man. In his memoir Surprised by Joy, Lewis credits MacDonald’s novel Phantases with “baptising” his imagination so that he could better understand the idea of holiness as presented in the Bible. Lewis even takes a quotation from MacDonald’s sermon “The Last Farthing” as the epigram of The Great Divorce:

No, there is no escape. There is no heaven with a little of hell in it—no plan to retain this or that of the devil in our hearts or our pockets. Out Satan must go, every hair and feather!

Even the title of the book itself has its roots in another author. As Lewis explains in his preface to The Great Divorce, the title was inspired by William Blake’s poetry collection The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. While not necessarily responding to the work directly, Lewis did want to write about the “divorce” of Heaven and Hell, and to describe why they are and must always be considered completely separate entities. “If we insist on keeping Hell (or even Earth),” he writes, “we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.”

But in the very next sentence,

I believe, to be sure, that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he abandoned (even in plucking out his right eye) has not been lost: that the kernel of what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in the “High Countries.”

And that’s another Lewisian theme we see in this book: God as the ultimate satisfaction of all human desire.

I think it would be fair to say that the concept of desire is a dominant theme across Lewis’s work. He wrote about it extensively in Surprised by Joy, and returned to the topic many times throughout the years. He understood the longing that most feel for something bigger than and beyond themselves, and he knew that nothing found on earth could satisfy that longing permanently. And so, while he does often employ reasoned arguments to prove the claims of Christianity, a good portion of his writing—in this and other books—addresses that longing in particular as well.

Lewis was a firm believer that art could be a means of pointing souls toward where they needed to go in order to fulfill this desire. And so, while the book isn’t quite the type of novel I was expecting, it is still very artful. It weaves layers and layers of symbolism and imagery together to try to represent imaginatively what would be much harder to represent conceptually.

A perfect example of this is in the descriptions of Heaven itself. When the Ghosts first arrive in Heaven, they find that the grass is too rigid for their feet to bend it. It actually hurts them to stand on it for too long. They also find that the light in Heaven is so strong that they can see through other Ghosts as if they were pieces of paper held up to a lamp. What all of this is saying is that, compared with sin-stained creation, God is much realer and more solid even than the physical world as we know it. He is saying that with God, things and people become more “solid,” more lasting, as God himself is everlasting.

It’s one thing to try to explain the point that God is the true reality. But in Lewis’s writing, decked as it is in the imagery that he’s known for, it becomes much clearer and much more real to the reader. Lewis doesn’t bypass the imagination for the sake of the brain, he tries to treat both of them at once.

That’s not always something you get from Christian teachers. Many Christians grow up in the belief that Christianity is primarily an affair of the brain, a series of mental apprehensions which eventually lead to the salvation of your soul. There is very little in this brand of Christianity to address the heart, the imagination, the emotions, or the senses. What Lewis presents instead in this book is an idea of faith that encompasses the whole person. “[H]itherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect,” one of the Spirits tells a skeptical Ghost. “I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom.” Lewis believes that God wants the whole person to be saved and transformed—mind, spirit, and body—and so he tries to involve as much of the person as possible, including the imagination and, through his keen sensory descriptions, the body as well.

That’s one of the things that intrigues me about Lewis and his approach to apologetics. That’s why I read this and will keep on reading him for a long time.

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Bookish Links — June 2018

Man on a Bus by Alex Iby.
  • Joy Clarkson, of the podcast Speaking with Joy, is running an online book club for C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce! We’re five chapters in already, but the chapters are short so there’s time to catch up. More info here.
  • “In his oeuvre, ecstatic tones mixed with sober reflection; there was no easy way to classify this poetry—it burst taxonomies. It was not ‘nature poetry,’ it was not a ‘poetic meditation on History,’ neither was it ‘autobiographical lyric’—it was all of those. The ambition of this poet knew no limits; he tried to drink in the cosmos”: Adam Zagajewski on discovering Czesław Miłosz’s banned poetry as a young man in Poland, and why he “can’t write a memoir of Czesław Miłosz.”

“The Bowl-Maker” by C. P. Cavafy

On this wine-bowl—beaten from the purest silver,
made for Herakleides’ white-walled home
where everything declares his perfect taste—
I’ve placed a flowering olive and a river,
and at its heart, a beautiful young man
who will let the water cool his naked foot
forever. O memory: I prayed to you
that I might make his face just as it was.
What a labour that has turned out to be.
He fell in Lydia fifteen years ago.

[Translated by Don Paterson]

This is a krater. Yes, it’s tin and bronze instead of silver. But it’s beautiful, isn’t it?

For those unfamiliar with him, C. P. Cavafy (born Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis) was a Greek poet who lived from 1863 to 1933. Despite spending most of his life in Egypt, Cavafy was fascinated by his family’s homeland and his poems are filled with influences from Greek history, mythology, and culture. This particular poem describes an imagined scene from ancient Greece of a silversmith hard at work on a new krater, a type of vessel for mixing wine with water.

It’s important to understand how personal this piece of work is for the silversmith. Herakleides may have requested a scene of a young man sitting next to a river, but it seems unlikely that he would ask for a portrait of the smith’s friend specifically. After all, Herakleides is upper class and this silversmith is just a hired craftsman. They travel in different circles, which means that he likely never even met the young man. In that case, it was the silversmith himself who decided to put the man’s portrait on the bowl.

So, if the task is simply to carve a picture of young man, why did he choose to carve this young man? Obviously, a person likes to keep pictures of the people they love, just to remember them by. But I think there is another reason why he might have decided to do this, one that has to do with the deeper ideas underlying this poem.

“Orpheus and Eurydice” by Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein-Stub, 1806.

One theme that seems to occur often in literature, and especially in poetry, is the idea that art negates death. We see it in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55, where he promises to make his mistress immortal through his poetry, and in Donne’s “The Canonization,” in which the speaker looks forward to the glory and honor that he and his lady will amass for themselves after death thanks to this poem. Going further back to ancient Greece itself, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is often interpreted as the story of the artist’s attempt to achieve immortality through art. I think our craftsman was attempting a similar thing with his bowl. Somewhere in him, there was the hope (however vague it might have been) that, if he could capture the man’s likeness in silver, it would be like capturing a bit of him. Whether anyone remembered the man or not, whether anyone knew his name, this bowl would go on preserving some semblance of him, even after the craftsman and everyone else who knew him was dead.

But the smith can’t do it. His memory is faulty. Like Orpheus on his journey to the Underworld, it’s not the art itself that fails per se, but the person practicing it.

So there is a sort of moral here: don’t make art a god. Though it can help to guard things and people from oblivion, it will never be perfect until the people creating it are. It’s an idea that I think I personally need to be reminded of from time to time, given the fact that so much of my life revolves around writing and poetry. At the same time, this poem speaks to me on a purely emotional level, oddly enough because of its unemotional exterior.

Auden, 1939.

Whether this is the result of my reading him in translation or not, I’ve always gotten the feeling from Cavafy that he can be very dry (in the best sense) and matter-of-fact. There’s a real anguish that’s being communicated here, but not in the torrents of language you might find in, for instance, Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., nor even in the cavalcade of images and metaphors one finds in a piece like Auden’s “Stop all the clocks.” Cavafy’s language is terse. It’s minimal. Until the craftsman addresses “memory” to complain about his unanswered prayer, the poem consists almost entirely of a recitation of facts, a description of outward realities. This affects the experience of reading the poem, but it also affects the way we read the speaker.

Because the grief, and the reaction to the grief, is described here in such brief and vague terms, it frees the reader to bring her own emotions and experiences to the poem. The speaker tells us very little about the deceased and even less about himself. As for the speaker’s own feelings, they are suggested but never overtly described. By leaving the details of the speaker’s emotional state unsaid, Cavafy allows his readers to put some of their own experience into the piece. He makes the poem personal for everyone who reads it.

Of course, this craftsman is not a completely blank slate onto whom the reader can project anything she wants. There are a few clues to who he is and what he’s feeling, and the sparseness of the language is one of them. When I read this poem, short and to-the-point as it is, I get the impression of a speaker who is entirely done. He is worn with grief and has no desire to continue explaining himself to others, as if they deserved an explanation. He avoids talking about anything interior to him, as the focus on outward objects and realities suggests.

Cavafy.

And really, that avoidance of interiority gets to the heart of what this poem is about: this speaker looks to external reality as a sort of refuge, both from grief and from forgetting. At the same time that this poem points to the limits of poetry, I think of it as a sort of ars poetica too, explaining why poets—and artists in general—are motivated to make art. And in this case, they make art to honor the things and people they love. To preserve memories and to give those things a physical presence outside of the artist. In a way, he’s trying to do what I try to do every time I sit down to write one of these essays: he wants to externalize his love, give it a shape and a form in the real world so that it no longer exists only in his own head.

So while Cavafy critiques the creative impulse, this poem is not anti-art. True, art will never live up to our ideal for it, but it will stand—for a time—as a testament to what we loved and what was important to us. It might make that thing or person important to others too, if they find that the work satisfies something in them as well.

Six Poems about Fathers That Aren’t Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.

Before I say anything else, let me make it clear that this post’s headline does NOT mean that I think there is anything wrong with “Those Winter Sundays.” On the contrary, Hayden was a genius and that poem is one of the greats. And because it’s so great, it’s starting to become over-familiar. For this list, I wanted to branch out into a few less famous poems, and highlight some modern work that I think is interesting along the way. Sounds OK? Good, let’s begin.

1: “A Letter of Recommendation” by Yehuda Amichai

Like “Those Winter Sundays,” this poem sheds a light on a loving but complicated relationship between a father and a son. Amichai’s poetry often points toward a sort of strained relationship—not necessarily with his father himself but certainly with the beliefs his father gave him and the culture he brought him up in. But in this poem, all of those differences give way to a tenderness that is just as much a part of the son as the Ten Commandments he learned as a child, so ingrained in him now that he can’t help repeating them “like an old tune someone hums to himself.”

2: “Little Father” by Li-Young Lee

Lee’s father, Lee Kuo Yuan, is easily one of the biggest influences on his son’s poetry. His spirit and personality is an almost unavoidable presence in Lee’s  work, from his first collection Rose to more recent poems like “Three Words.” Growing up as Lee did in a “old-fashioned Chinese family,” his father was the center of the household, and thus he becomes the center of many poems. Lee casts his father’s persona in a number of roles: life-giver, protector, healer, and even a sort of conduit to God. And while the most famous of these poems is “The Gift,” I find “Little Father” touching as well, balancing a son’s grief over his father’s passing with his hope for a life after death and his determination to go on living as his father would have wished.

3: “The Harvest Bow” by Seamus Heaney

Heaney is another poet whose father, Patrick, often preoccupies his imagination. His first book opens with “Digging,” a young poet’s attempt to explain himself and his craft to a father who can’t understand either, and his last book, a posthumously published translation of Aeneid Book VI, began as a tribute to Patrick in the collection Seeing Things.

One thing that becomes apparent about Patrick Heaney if you read his son’s interviews is that he was a man of few words, one for whom action was almost always preferable to speech. This is why the speaker in the poem feels the need to “glean the unsaid off the palpable”: the things his father makes give him the connection to him that was missing in their communication. In a way, I think this makes the poem comparable to “Those Winter Sundays”: it’s about recognizing love even when it’s not expressed as we would expect or wish.

4: “I Wash the Shirt” by Anna Swir

Similar to “The Harvest Bow,” this poem is about the poet finding a connection to her father—silenced now by death instead of disposition—through physical objects, in this case, his sweat-stained shirt. Like much of Swir’s poetry, it is an illustration of a scene, simple and understated, but moving and powerful.

5: “Learning to Pray” by Kaveh Akbar

A lot of poems focus on the father as a sort of model—of strength, heroism, virtue, or what have you. In this one, he seems to his child—and consequently, to the reader—to be almost otherworldly. I love the phrase “that twilit stripe of father”: “twilit” because he prays at sundown, but this word also suggests to me the idea that his father is approaching a liminal space, halfway on earth and halfway in heaven. The father is his son’s first idea of something beyond, his first vision of “wonder,” as Akbar likes to call it.

6: “Why do you stay up so late?” by Don Paterson

At first glance, this one might seem a little off-theme, and maybe my reasons for including it will not be as apparent to everyone else as they are to me. But, this poem is dedicated to the author’s son, and it does feature a father in a real, earnest dialogue with his child about one of the most important things in his life. There’s an intimacy about it that draws me into it. All of the other poems I’ve mentioned so far are written by children addressing their fathers and seeking to understand them better. Here we have the reverse, a father who wants to meet his child where he is and bring him into his own private world.

 

That’s all for now. What are some of your favorite poems about fathers and children? Let me know in the comments.

Bookish Links — May 2018

Image by Kate Ilina.
  • “In Brodsky’s view, politics was one level of human existence, but it was a low rung. The business of poetry, he thought, is to ‘indicate something more … the size of the whole ladder.’ He held that ‘art is not a better, but an alternative existence … not an attempt to escape reality but the opposite, an attempt to animate it.'”: from The Point, an essay on the great Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, and his “moral responsibility to be useless.”

 

Book Bloggers: An Appreciation

Image by Igor Ovsyannykov.

I’m a bad blogger: while I usually respond to comments on my own site, I often neglect to leave comments on other people’s sites. And that’s not a good thing—a person likes to know when someone appreciates their work, right? So today’s post is all about appreciation for some of my favorite book blogs and bloggers. This isn’t an exhaustive list of all of the blogs I like, just a few in particular that I wanted to highlight.

  • Christopher Adamson from The Golden Echo. Christopher is a PhD candidate studying Victorian literature, but his interests and his writing go far beyond that, into areas of medieval literature, church history, punk rock, and disability issues. His one main topic, though, is the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins (as you might have guessed from his blog’s title). It’s because of this site that I decided to give Hopkins another try after being less than impressed by him in high school. It’s a good site, one that I visit often.
  • Patrick Kurp from Anecdotal Evidence. I probably don’t need to mention this blog because everyone probably reads it already. Still, I thought I’d single it out as one of the rare blogs that A) posts consistently every single day and B) never puts up a bad or boring post.
  • Steven Dodson from Language Hat. This is relatively recent find. Like Anecdotal Evidence, this blog posts nearly every day and it’s always something interesting. Unlike the blogs I’ve mentioned already, this one varies between posts on literature and posts on languages and linguistics. Either way, I love it.
  • Melissa Beck from The Book Binder’s Daughter. Another fairly popular one, and also one of my favorites. Melissa has very eclectic reading tastes: just since I’ve been following her, she’s reviewed correspondence, poetry, philosophy, and plenty of classical literature. Her background in classics gives her extra insight into the works of Greek and Latin literature she reviews.
  • Clarissa from The Stone and the Star. Compared to most, Clarissa’s blog has gotten a lot of notice in the past for her posts on poetry, and rightly so. Not only is she a dedicated student of poetry, both in English and in translation, she’s also a poet and a translator herself: she knows her stuff.
  • Ashok Kara from Rethink. Ashok writes informal but thoughtful essays on the books and poems he loves. His stuff got me interested in writing my own essays on poetry.
  • Marcel from shigekuni. Marcel is a polyglot author who blogs on fiction, poetry, and translation. Having as he does a command of multiple languages (German, English, and French, as far as I know) gives his posts a more global aspect. His is one of the blogs that helped to show me just how narrow my idea of contemporary literature used to be, being limited mostly to what had been written in English.

That’s all for now. Feel free to name some of your favorite bloggers (bookish or otherwise) in the comments!

National Poetry Month 2018

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In case you didn’t know, April was National Poetry Month in the States. This year, same as last, I decided to celebrate by posting a different poem every day on Twitter. My post collecting all of last year’s poems got a great response, so here I am again with a whole new set of poems!

(There are a few inadvertent repeats from last year. But, as a friend of mine said, some poems are worth repeating.)

April 1: “Lightenings XII” by Seamus Heaney

Though it is technically about Good Friday, I thought it would be fitting to share on Easter too.

From the collection Seeing Things.

April 2: “Spoken For” by Li-Young Lee

Text from Poets.org. You can also find this in the collection The Undressing.

April 3: “Echo” by Christina Rossetti

From Christina Rossetti’s Complete Poems.

April 4: “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House” by Billy Collins

This choice was inspired by my neighbor’s dog. Life imitates art.

Text taken from PoemHunter.com. Also in Sailing Alone around the Room.

April 5: “Holy Sonnet X” by John Donne

From the Penguin edition of the Complete English Poems.

April 6: “Hurrahing in Harvest” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

From Poems and Prose.

April 7: “Motive” by Don Paterson

From Rain.

April 8: A haiku by Kobayashi Issa (translated by Robert Hass)

Text from the Poetry Foundation. Also find it in The Essential Haiku.

April 9: “The day is gone and all its sweets are gone!” by John Keats

Text from the Poetry Foundation. Also in The Complete Poems of John Keats.

April 10: “Low Branches” by Yves Bonnefoy (translated by Beverley Bie Brahic)

Text from The Book Haven. Also printed in The Present Hour.

April 11: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost

Available in pretty much any collection of Frost’s poems. This is a nice one.

April 12: “Sunday Afternoons” by Yusef Komunyakaa

Find it in Komunyakaa’s collected poems, Pleasure Dome.

April 13: “At the Wellhead” by Seamus Heaney

In honor of Heaney’s birthday.

From Selected Poems: 1988-2013.

April 14: “The More Loving One” by W. H. Auden

Find it in Selected Poems.

April 15: “In my craft or sullen art” by Dylan Thomas

From Thomas’s Collected Poems: 1934-1953

April 16: “I died for beauty” by Emily Dickinson

Text from Bartleby. Find it also in Dickinson’s Complete Poems.

April 17: “The Panther” by Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

From The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.

April 18: “Senza Flash” by Adam Zagajewski (translated by Clare Cavanagh)

From Without End: New and Selected Poems

April 19: “Track” by Tomas Tranströmer (translated by Robert Bly)

From The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris.

April 20: “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith

Text from the Poetry Foundation. Also find this in the collection Good Bones.

April 21: “The Beautiful Changes” by Richard Wilbur

From New and Collected Poems

April 22: “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath

From Plath’s Collected Poems

April 23: “When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced” by William Shakespeare

From The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

April 24: An excerpt from “The Separate Notebooks” by Czesław Miłosz (translated by Miłosz and Robert Hass)

From Miłosz’s Selected Poems: 1931-2004.

April 25: “Innocence” by Patrick Kavanagh

From Collected Poems.

April 26: “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” by John Keats

Find it in The Complete Poems of John Keats.

April 27: “Skunk Hour” by Robert Lowell

From a very old, out-of-print anthology. You can find this in Life Studies and For the Union Dead.

April 28: An excerpt from “My God, It’s Full of Stars” by Tracy K. Smith

Text from the Poetry Foundation. Also in the collection Life on Mars.

April 29: “Oneness” by Pablo Neruda (translated by Stephen Kessler)

From The Essential Neruda

April 30: “Ithaka” by C. P. Cavafy (translated by Philip Sherrard and Edmund Keeley)

Suggested by my friend Tom and seconded by his friend Don.

From The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry.

That’s all thirty! Let me know in the comments which are your favorites.

First Impressions: The Confessions of Saint Augustine

Let the proud deride me, O God, and all whom you have not yet laid low and humiliated for the salvation of their souls; but let me still confess my sins to you for your honor and glory. Allow me, I beseech you, to trace again in memory my past deviations and to offer you a sacrifice of joy. Without you I am my own guide to the brink of perdition. And even when all is well with me, what am I but a creature suckled on your milk and feeding on yourself, the food that never perishes? And what is any man, if he is only man? Let the strong and mighty laugh at men like me: let us, the weak and the poor, confess our sins to you.1

“St. Augustine” by Sandro Botticelli.

I got it in my head about a week ago to start reading the Confessions. I can’t even entirely remember what reminded me of this book that I had heard about for so long but never attempted to read. One day, I’m not thinking about Augustine at all and the next, I have a five Amazon tabs open so I can use the previews to compare some of the major English translations. Like a lot of ancient literature, Confessions is divided into “books.” I have now read four out of thirteen of those books. Whatever the thing was that brought Confessions to my attention again, I’m glad it did.

Though Confessions is usually cited as one of the earliest examples of autobiography, it’s much more than that. True, the story of Augustine’s life and conversion makes up a large part of this book, but much of it is also concerned with theology, philosophy, beauty, even, I was surprised to find out, language.

In light of what I’ve learned so far about Augustine, however, it’s not very surprising at all: his entire education was devoted to making him an excellent rhetorician. Before converting and joining the priesthood, he had also been a teacher of rhetoric and an official speech writer for the imperial court. His skill in the use of language was immense, as you’ll see in this book.

Some credit, of course, is due to the translator of my edition, R. S. Pine-Coffin, who I think has produced one of the more beautiful English translations out there. But, good as the translator might be, he becomes an afterthought in the face of the passion with which Augustine writes. I expected an intellectually challenging book, as well as something that would encourage me in my faith. I didn’t expect for Augustine’s words to have such an emotional impact on me. Passages like the one at the top of this post, for instance, are deeply moving to me for reasons that are hard to put into words. The humility with which he writes strikes me as well. A friend said that Confessions was one of the most beautiful things he had ever read excluding the Bible and now I know why.

***

One of the fun things about reading the very old and very famous books is that you get to find out what all of the other books you’ve read were referencing. Writers often write in response to other writers: reading a book like Confessions means you get to see the other side of that conversation.

One person who took up a conversation with Augustine was C. S. Lewis, who mentions Confessions in his book The Four Loves. While writing about our duty to love our neighbors without counting the personal cost, Lewis alludes to Book IV, the first half of which describes the death of Augustine’s close friend and the effect that this had on him. (Lewis incorrectly identifies the friend as Nebridius. In reality, Augustine never gives the friend’s name.) Rather than quote Augustine directly, Lewis summarizes:

This is what comes, he [Augustine] says, of giving one’s heart to anything but God. All human beings pass away. Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away.2

In the long paragraph that follows, Lewis repudiates what he considers Augustine’s cold and calculating view of love, saying that it is even farther from “Love Himself” than “lawless Eros, preferring the beloved to happiness.”3 Having read Augustine in context, however, I don’t think he is presenting a cold and calculating view of love at all. He writes not against love itself but against idolatrous love for created things.

I think it would be fair to characterize Augustine’s love for his friend as idolatrous. In Book IV chapter 6, for instance, he writes that, although he “shrank from death,” he was also “sick and tired of living” following the death of this man.4 He felt as though his life could have no meaning and no purpose because his friend was dead. He loved this man more than anything, especially more than God, which is the definition of idolatry. Furthermore, the first sentence of Book IV chapter 7 reads, “What madness, to love a man as something more than human!”5 Not as a human, but as more than human. I don’t think Augustine has anything to say against loving your fellow creatures, even if that love is very deep. Instead, he wants to discourage us from pinning all of our hopes on created things and instead rely on God as the primary source of meaning and stability in our lives. That’s the conclusion that I came to, but if I’m misreading either Augustine or Lewis, feel free to leave me a comment.


1 Confessions by St. Augustine, translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin. Penguin Books, 1961. Pg. 71.

2 The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis. Mariner Books, 2012. Pg. 120.

3 The Four Loves, pg. 121.

4 Confessions, pg. 77.

5 Confessions, pg. 78.

“Like a breath of wind over my soul”: Thoughts on Chekhov’s “The Beauties”

Portrait of Chekhov by his brother Nikolai, 1889.

For a number of reasons, my reading lately has tended away from fiction. Where I used to breeze through a new novel at least every month, now I’m struggling to finish the ones I start. I’m too easily distracted by all the new poetry and nonfiction that I want to read instead. But one fiction author who’s managed to hold my attention all this time is Anton Chekhov. Partly because his works are short, so they don’t take much time away from my other books, and partly because I find he and I are similar in some ways (not many, but some), I’ve gotten more from him than I have from any other fiction writer in a while. It wasn’t until recently, though, that I discovered one of his most famous stories, “The Beauties.” It’s very short, so you have time to read it here and then come back. Or you can listen to this reading that Philip Pullman recorded for the Guardian Short Story Podcast. He’s a good narrator.

One complaint that readers sometimes have with Chekhov is that “nothing happens” in his stories. In this case, I have to admit that they’re right: a boy meets a beautiful girl. He does not speak to or spend time with the girl, just admires her and then leaves. Years later, he sees another girl who is also very beautiful. He admires her for a few seconds and then leaves. The end. In some of Chekhov’s later stories, he seems to be less interested in crafting intricate plots and more interested in creating a mood: showing us who the characters are and what events in their lives mean by recreating their emotional state in the reader. “The Lady with the Dog,” with its famously abrupt ending, does this, and so does “The Beauties.” Here, the story is not about anything the protagonist does but rather about what happens to and around him. It’s about an encounter with a kind of beauty that is so far beyond ordinary life that it seems permanently out of reach. It comes for the hero and he always just misses it.

And because he’s in this constant state of expectation, it seems fitting that we should spend practically the whole story anticipating drama that never comes. Several times, Chekhov teases the reader with possible plots, none of which ever come to fruition. I thought the narrator would at least speak to Masha—he does not. I thought the girl at the train station was Masha, that the hero was finally getting his second chance with her and was going to do something about it—but it wasn’t her. I thought he was going to try to make something happen with the new girl—he doesn’t. Even in non-speaking side characters like the telegraphist and the guard at the rail station, there’s the potential for drama, but only suggestions, never actual facts. Chekhov hints at a whole tragic history behind the face of the guard, one that “wore a look of tenderness and of the deepest sadness, as though in that girl he saw happiness, his own youth, soberness, purity, wife, children ….” But, whatever that history is, we’ll never know it. Finally, we come to the end and to what I think is one of the most striking passages in the story:

The station no longer screened off the sunset, the plain lay open before us, but the sun had already set and the smoke lay in black clouds over the green, velvety young corn. It was melancholy in the spring air, and in the darkening sky, and in the railway carriage.

The hero expected to see the sun setting, but instead he see’s a lit sky and the sun gone. A hint of what had been there but is there no longer. Here, the feeling that pervades the whole story of having just missed something spectacular is encapsulated in only two sentences. It’s a perfect ending.

So though this is a story where “nothing happens,” it’s also a story draws you deep into the character, his mind and his emotions. It’s poetic and empathetic to a degree that I have rarely seen matched by any other writer. It reminds me of one of the main reasons why I keep coming back to Chekhov: not just because he understands people and their inner lives so well but also because he is able to transfer that knowledge to his readers in such palpable ways. In a short time, he’s become one of the writers I look up to most.

Bookish Links — March 2018

Image by Annie Spratt.

 

I hope you’re all well and have a happy Easter tomorrow!

“Glanmore Sonnets, X” by Seamus Heaney

These past two years, I’ve tremendously enjoying taking part in Reading Ireland Month, the annual blog event celebrating Irish literature, movies, music, and culture, hosted by Cathy Brown and Niall McArdle. I’m afraid this year’s contribution won’t match the volume of last year’s, but hopefully you’ll still enjoy this longish essay on one of my favorite Irish poems.

“Glanmore Sonnets, X”
by Seamus Heaney

I dreamt we slept in a moss in Donegal
On turf banks under blankets, with our faces
Exposed all night in a wetting drizzle,
Pallid as the dripping sapling birches.
Lorenzo and Jessica in a cold climate.
Diarmuid and Grainne waiting to be found.
Darkly asperged and censed, we were laid out
Like breathing effigies on a raised ground.

And in that dream I dreamt—how like you this?—
Our first night years ago in that hotel
When you came with your deliberate kiss
To raise us towards the lovely and painful
Covenants of flesh; our separateness;
The respite in our dewy dreaming faces.

Form and Function

The first thing to notice about this sonnet is that it is a sonnet. That’s significant for two reasons: first, the sonnet is considered the traditional vehicle for love poetry. Whatever else this is, it’s first and foremost a love poem.

Not only that, the sonnet is also the traditional vehicle of English love poetry. Though the form was invented in Italy, English poets like William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, and Phillip Sidney experimented with it to arrive at the sonnet form we know and love today. You could say that, like Ireland itself, the sonnet was taken from another people and claimed by the English as their own. This may be why so many critics have suggested that Heaney’s continual use of the sonnet form was a type of protest against the British literary establishment, who, despite expecting Northern Ireland to give up its own native culture and embrace England’s, still would not take seriously any “Ulsterman’s” attempt to participate in that culture. This is Heaney asserting both his right to be present and the worth of Irish culture and literary traditions when compared with England’s. More on that in a bit.

You all probably know already about the different types of sonnets, but just in case: the two most popular forms of the sonnet are the English (or Shakespearean) sonnet and the Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet. Both types consist of fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter, but the division of those lines and the specific rhyme scheme used are where these two forms differ. In an English sonnet, the rhyme scheme runs ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. It establishes its subject and then discusses or describes that subject for the first twelve lines, only to give some fresh insight or to address the subject from a different angle in the last two lines, called the “couplet.” One of the best examples of this form that I can think of is Shakespeare’s 130th sonnet, the one that begins “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun.” After spending twelve lines describing all of the ways in which his mistress is not an ideal beauty, Shakespeare suddenly turns around in the final two lines and says,

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

At the tail-end of the poem, he turns what would have been a string of insults into a sort of backhanded compliment. Not good wooing, but good poetry.

The Italian sonnet’s rhyme scheme can vary somewhat, but the most common pattern is ABBAABBA CDECDE. It uses an almost halfway division to explore two different ideas, or the same idea from two different angles. The first eight lines, called the “octet,” establish the theme for the poem and the last six lines, the “sestet,” either shed new light on the topic or present another idea, complementary to the first, but not exactly the same.

Each form has its comparative merits. In my own reading, I’ve always preferred the English rhyme scheme to the Italian. Because the rhymes are less spread out in an English sonnet, I think it gives the whole poem a better sense of cohesion. And where the Italian sonneteers have to get along with only five rhymes, the English sonnet gives the poet seven. This further adds to the cohesion of the piece by continuing the pattern of multiples of seven (14 lines, 70 feet, 140 syllables, 7 rhymes). My Christian friends will probably also remember that in church tradition, seven is the number of completion, and therefore a symbol of perfection. So, if you want to read it that way, more sevens is always better.

On the other hand, the English sonnet can be rather top-heavy. Twelve lines out of fourteen is a long time to treat a single topic, especially if the whole point of the poem is to turn the entire thing around in the last two lines. The Italian sonnet gives a more balanced approach by assigning eight lines to the first idea and six to the second. It divides itself almost in half, but not quite, an imbalance which I think well-suits a poetic form that has been so often called upon to express the deepest thoughts and longings of imbalanced mankind.

What I love about Heaney’s sonnets is that, with some exceptions, he gives us the best of both worlds: the tight, instantly recognizable rhyme scheme of the English sonnet with the more balanced and more approachable organization of an Italian sonnet.

And that nearly-balanced Italian structure is put to good use in “Glanmore Sonnets, X.” In my reading of it, the whole poem is preoccupied with duality, paradox, and contradictions.

What It’s About: the Octet

Right away, you notice that between the octet and the sestet, things are the same but also very different. Both stanzas show us a pair of lovers, presumably the same two lovers, but in two almost opposing situations and moods.

Glenveagh in Co. Donegal, Northern Ireland. Image by Jean-Renaud Leborgne, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Starting with the octet, we meet the lovers in an idyllic setting. The speaker himself tells us it was a dream, leading us to imagine some beautiful little hidden spot in a forest. They are lying on a river bank sleeping, while a light rain falls on them, a rain whose soft, steady beat you can hear in the repeated unaccented syllables in “dripp-ing sap-ling bir-ches.” So still and tranquil are they that the speaker compares them to “breathing effigies on a raised ground.” Here of course, “effigy” refers to the statues which once adorned the tombs of kings and queens and which depicted them laying down dead: I don’t think you can get any stiller than a rock imitating a dead person.

There’s more than one way to read the “asperged and censed” line (that too I’ll talk about more below) but in my readings, it had the sense of benediction. “Asperges” refers to a rite in the Roman Catholic Church in which the priest sprinkles his parishioners with holy water, while “censed” refers to the burning of incense, another common practice in the Catholic Church. Both asperges and incense can be used on many different occasions, but in all cases they are a sign of purification and consecration, of something or someone being singled out for a holy purpose. Because the water and the fragrant aroma in this poem are coming not from a priest but from nature, this phrases gives the idea that even the environment in which these people exist has blessed their union and is commending them on their future life. There’s a sense of assurance that the path these people are on is the right one.

“Jessica” by Thomas Francis Dicksee.

At the same time, there is an element of foreboding and anxiety in this stanza, especially in the literary references Heaney makes: “Lorenzo and Jessica in a cold climate. / Diarmuid and Grainne waiting to be found.” In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Jessica is the daughter of Shylock—the stereotypical, Christian-hating Jew—while Lorenzo is a friend of Shylock’s enemy Antonio. He is also a Christian. Not only would each’s family disapprove of the union, it was also illegal for Christians and Jews to marry each other in seventeenth-century Venice. In defiance of society and of their families, Jessica and Lorenzo run away together to another city. From this allusion, we get a sense of some significant obstacle trying to force our two lovers apart.

The second reference heightens the sense of foreboding even further. In Irish mythology, Grainne was a princess brought to Ireland to wed the legendary king Finn MacCool. The night before her wedding, while Finn and his warriors the Fianna were feasting in the royal banquet hall, Grainne happened to meet one of the warriors, Diarmuid, and fell in love with him. Some versions say that Diarmuid fell in love with Grainne too, while others say that Grainne, schooled in the art of witchcraft, put a spell on Diarmuid so that he would love her. Regardless, the two ran away together into the forests of Connacht, where Finn and the Fianna found them weeks later. Grainne was still alive, but as for Diarmuid, he had been killed by a wild boar, in accordance with a prophecy given at his birth.

So where Lorenzo and Jessica eventually got a happy ending, the Diarmuid and Grainne story ended in tragedy. And really, there’s no other way it could have ended: even if the boar hadn’t killed Diarmuid, Finn MacCool would have. Maybe it’s this precariousness in their situation that leads Heaney to give them the phrase “waiting to be found.” They go into their new life expecting it to be taken from them, probably by death. It’s just a question of when.

One critique I read of the “Glanmore Sonnets” sequence chose to focus primarily on the darker tones of this stanza and the idea of death as expressed through funereal imagery: the reference to effigies, but also to asperges and incense, both of which, though they can appear at joyful occasions as well, are often used in Catholic funerals. And while I agree with this writer that the speaker obviously fears the separation that death will bring, I don’t think of this as an entirely mournful scene. The idea that they are “exposed all night” to the elements and to whatever malevolent forces may lurk around them, but that they still stay there, laying next to each other, gives me the idea that they each draw a sense of peace from their love, regardless of what goes on around them. Their love perseveres despite outward threats.

The Sestet

In the next stanza, things are not quite so idyllic. Turning to the speaker’s dream within a dream, we see the lovers in a hotel. Just the very fact of their being in a man-made, commercial space instantly kills the dreamy allure of the octet. The action changes completely too: where they once slept peacefully by each other’s sides, they’re now about to have sex for the first time. Before, the mood was tranquil but with an underlying tension; now it’s dominated by passion, both in the modern sense of overwhelming desire, but also in the more ancient sense of suffering, with the word “painful” adjoined to “lovely” and the man and woman’s eventual separation being described as “respite.” Previously, the pain in the relationship came from outside forces: now it arises from the relationship itself.

The Conflict

And so what Heaney does with these two stanzas—and the reason why the sonnet form fits this poem so perfectly—is that he presents two visions of love which not only contrast with each other but which also have contradictions inherent in them. The first stanza is the dream of love—peaceful, surmounting every obstacle, braving every danger—while the sestet is the reality—messy and painful. At the same time, the dreamy sense of calm in the octet is undercut by fear, while the pain in the sestet does not subtract from the “loveliness” of the moment. From this, we realize that the relationship itself is full of anxiety and pain–whether that comes from circumstances outside of the couple’s control or from each other. And still, this is the best thing that could have happened to them. It’s the road they need to be on. It is a strange and complex reality, but it is the reality of this couple, and Heaney captures it brilliantly.

A Poem about Poetry

Those are some of the reasons why I believe that “Glanmore Sonnets, X” is one of the best sonnets that I’ve ever read. But it’s not just Heaney’s skillful use of form or his insight that make this such a great poem. I think his use of allusion, especially literary allusion, is worth taking a look at also.

Some of the connections between this poem and older literature are obvious. In addition to the references to Shakespeare and Irish mythology, the phrase “how like you this?” is taken directly from “They flee from me,” a sixteenth-century love lyric by Sir Thomas Wyatt. In this poem, the speaker muses over his past relationships with women, all of which have since ended. Because this quotation comes directly after the octet, in which Heaney’s speaker preoccupied himself with worries about death and the impending end of his relationship, this quote helps give us better insight into the mind of the speaker, one that is already beginning to identify with the man who has been abandoned by his lover.

Elsewhere, the references are a bit more subdued. For instance, according to the scholar A. J. Smith, there’s long tradition in classical poetry of setting love poems on the edge of some body of water.1 Heaney was no stranger to the classics, so the octet’s setting on “turf banks” could be a nod to that tradition.

Heaney also shares at least one metaphor in common with love poet extraordinaire John Donne: in “The Ecstasy,” Donne compares two lovers—who, fittingly enough, are laying on a bank—to “sepulchral statues,” a comparison which is brought to mind in Heaney’s “breathing effigies.”

So, what does this abundance of references and homages tell us about the poem and Heaney’s intentions for it? A few things:

First, it’s not always a good idea to assume that poets are writing about themselves or people they know, but in the (very likely) case that Heaney is writing about himself, references like these flatter the loved one (and consequently, the lover) by comparing them to great lovers from history. It used to be a very common technique in poetry: evoke the lovers from past romances to make yours seem just as beautiful.

First edition cover.

Second, these references put Heaney in conversation with the poetic greats of history. By the time this poem was published in 1979, Heaney was a mature poet, a Noble-Prize-worthy poet even. According to Harold Bloom, Field Work, the collection in which this poem appears, is the book whereby Heaney officially entered the Western Canon. He could bandy about references to Shakespeare and Wyatt because, unlike he was fifteen years ago, he’s closer to their level now.

By invoking common cultural touchstones, Heaney also creates something universal. Shakespeare, Donne, and Wyatt are all considered canonical authors and their works are fairly well-known to most of the English-speaking world. In a sense, they belong to everyone now, not just to Heaney but also his to readers. Forming a connection to a shared past makes this poem feel like it is, just like that older literature, a type of communal property.

However in the octet, we see that the places and characters Heaney alludes to are not necessarily universal. Not everyone knows where Donegal is and most people outside of Ireland will have to look up Diarmuid and Grainne. At the same time that Heaney wants to reach out into the broader world, he also wants to keep things close to home, grounded in what is familiar and important to him, even as the world around him dismisses it. By combining the hallowed literary canon of Great Britain with the places and folklore of Ireland, Heaney is attempting to put both on the same level, to assert the value of this specially Irish material when held against the “approved” literature. In his allusions, he is simultaneously universal and private, just as he is in the poem overall.

Thanks for staying till the end! Let me know in the comments what your favorite Heaney poem is and whether you agree or disagree with my thoughts on this one.

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1 The Complete English Poems by John Donne, edited by A. J. Smith, Penguin Books. Pg 368.

Book Review: Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie

Year of First Publication: 1967

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2011

Number of Pages: 613

Publisher: Random House

Genre: Nonfiction

Sub-Genres: Biography, history

Find it on the Book Depository. (Disclosure: I’m an affiliate.)


It appears that my interest in Russia is starting to come full-circle. First it was their literature, then their language, and now their history. Olive, one of the most enthusiastic Russophile bloggers I’ve seen yet, highly recommended the work of Robert Massie—and this book in particular—to anyone who is just beginning to study Russian history.

It turned out to be a great recommendation: despite having little prior knowledge of Russian history before the Soviet era, I didn’t find this book at all intimidating or inaccessible. Massie’s almost lyrical prose makes it an even greater pleasure to read. From the very first paragraph, his gifts as a narrator are evident:

From the Baltic city of St. Petersburg, built on a river marsh in a far northern corner of the empire, the Tsar ruled Russia. So immense were the Tsar’s dominions that, as night began to fall along their western borders, day already was breaking on their Pacific coast. Between these distant frontiers lay a continent, one sixth of the land surface of the globe. Through the depths of Russia’s winters, millions of tall pine trees stood silent under heavy snows. In the summer, clusters of white-trunked birch trees rustled their silvery leaves in the slanting rays of the afternoon sun. Rivers, wide and flat, flowed peacefully through the grassy plains of European Russia toward a limitless southern horizon. Eastward, in Siberia, even mightier rivers rolled north to the Arctic, sweeping through forests where no human had ever been, and across desolate marshes of frozen tundra.

While this is a traditional biography, narrating its subjects’ entire lives from their births to their deaths, the main focus of the story for Massie consists in three things: the love story between Nicholas and Alexandra, the tragedy of their son Alexei’s hemophilia, and the toll that the disease took not just on the family but on the entire country. On those damaged genes, Massie pins nothing less than the downfall of tsarist Russia and the rise of Lenin. If Alexei hadn’t been so sick, Alexandra would not have embraced the so-called “holy man” Rasputin and would not have given him so much power in the government. Without Rasputin’s influence, Massie goes on, Nicholas and Alexandra would not have made so many of the decisions that ultimately led to even Nicholas’s closest friends and advisers begging him to abdicate.

Am I convinced that Alexei’s disease was the beginning of the end for a family seemingly marked for tragedy? Yes. Am I convinced that the Romanovs would not have fallen without Rasputin’s being there? Not really. As this book plainly shows, Nicholas was, in many other respects, a very good man—he just wasn’t a good leader. Thoroughly schooled in the ways of autocratic imperialism by his father before him, he preoccupied himself with a number of ill-advised overseas conflicts, meanwhile the Russian people were starving and his nation’s industry was struggling. When his people demanded the civil rights afforded to the citizens of most Western nations, he responded alternately with force and with half-hearted concessions which only served to inflame both sides. All this to say that Nicholas II’s Russia had plenty of problems and was already teetering close to the edge of revolution before Rasputin got there. Nevertheless, Massie is right to conclude that Rasputin’s interference in the government—particularly during the critical years of World War I, when the people already doubted the allegiances of their German-born queen—was the last straw.

Elsewhere in the book, I wonder if Massie wasn’t a little overeager to protect his subjects from criticism, particularly when it comes to issues involving the Jews. He makes no mention, for instance, of the fact that anti-Jewish persecution greatly increased during Nicholas’s reign, or that, although he did relax some of the restrictions put on Jews by previous tsars, he also added a few of his own. It is unfortunate that Nicholas, noted by his contemporaries for his kindness and generosity, should succumb to the prejudices of his day on this particular point, but it is a fact, one that Massie seems to overlook.

The Romanov family in 1913. From left to right, Olga, Maria, Nicholas, Alexandra, Anastasia, Alexei, and Tatiana.

In spite of those shortcomings, Nicholas and Alexandra is still a captivating book. Whatever their failings as leaders might have been, Nicholas and Alexandra were both fascinating people, and in some ways, even admirable people. Alexandra especially awed me with her strength and dignity. As Massie describes so poignantly, the struggle to cope with Alexei’s hemophilia nearly broke her, but even when she was at her lowest, she never gave way to despair. When she herself became plagued by poor health and exhaustion, she still found ways to help others and to make herself useful to them. During World War I, for example, she, along with her two oldest daughters Olga and Tatiana, trained as nurses with the Red Cross. There was the Empress of the All the Russias, changing bandages, administering medicine to delirious soldiers, and disposing of amputated limbs. Even at the very end, when she and her family had been under arrest for over a year and it was becoming obvious that they would not in fact be brought to England as promised, she was the one comforting her friends, assuring them that God was watching over them.

And her strength of character could be matched by her husband as well. My favorite story about him is probably the one where, after spending six months as a prisoner in his own home, he invited his and his family’s guards to share Easter dinner with them: he thought that, on Easter of all days, he should embrace his fellow Christians, whoever they happened to be. Stories like this convince me that, despite his failures and prejudices as a leader, he was still at heart a very good sort of man.

Really, though, that’s what makes the book worth reading in the first place: the complexity of these individuals, as well as of the times they lived through. The whole massive drama that they took part in. This was only my first taste of Russian royal history, but I will certainly be back for more.