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

“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. Continue reading ““Glanmore Sonnets, X” by Seamus Heaney”

“Try to Praise the Mutilated World” by Adam Zagajewski

There are some poets who, no matter how many great poems they write, are always associated with one particular work. That work becomes their signature, the poem that even non-poetry readers know them for. For Seamus Heaney, it was “Digging,” for Gwendolyn Brooks, it was “We Real Cool” (which is actually a work of virtuosic genius, but I digress), and for the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, it appears to be “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”

Of course, “Try to Praise” did get more attention in the press than most poems do: following the September 11th attacks, The New Yorker printed this poem on the back cover of its next issue. The poem was then picked up by several other media outlets, all of them feeling, like The New Yorker, that it spoke to what America was feeling at the moment.

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

[Translated by Clare Cavanagh]

A few writers have commented on what appears to be a trend in Americans’ taste in poetry: after any major political shift or national disaster, Polish poetry becomes very popular. I won’t speculate on what others see in this nation’s poetry, but for me, one of the main things that draws me to Polish poets is their willingness to be dead serious about things that many people generally do not take seriously. Begin with the title of the poem: though some choose to believe that the world is pointlessly cruel and devoid of meaning, Zagajewski goes against that nihilistic grain by describing the world as “mutilated.” It’s a disturbing word, but in a way, it expresses hope too: a thing can’t be “mutilated” if it was not once whole, and if it was whole once, maybe it can be made whole again.

In addition to wholeness, another thing this poem wants is immutability. It seems poets are often distressed by the indifference of nature, wondering how there can be an ultimate good when their cries of pain are met by a planet that simply keeps turning. This speaker, on the other hand, turns that problem on its head: he tries to find solace in a world that is indifferent to human woes, and therefore unchanging: “The nettles that methodically overgrow / the abandoned homesteads of exiles.” Nettles, of course, don’t care about exiles or their homes. They exist only to keep growing, and grow they do. There is an order to their behavior and that behavior remains constant, no matter what happens to the speaker. Like the word “mutilated,” it’s a depressing scenario, but not entirely hopeless: whatever tragedies may befall mankind, at least they can’t keep the world from spinning or the plants from growing. Life can still go on.

One of Zagajewski’s great strengths as a poet is the incredible subtlety of his work, and there’s perfect example of it in this poem. While the speaker is encouraging his listener to think back to happier times, he tells the person to “Remember the moments when we were together / in a white room and the curtain fluttered.” Such a vague reference, and yet, so evocative of the sort of comfort that this speaker is hoping to get from the world.

It’s impossible to be sure what went on in that room. It appears that only the speaker and his listener really know. Maybe the speaker and listener are lovers and this was their bedroom? Or maybe it’s a dark, dreary sickroom brightened by the sudden intrusion of sunlight? In either case, the result is the same: these two people are suddenly reminded that there is a world outside of them. For the lovers, they get to wake up beside each other and find that their happiness will continue. For the sick person and his/her companion, the sun provides a brief distraction from their worries and fears. The sun causes a break in the private universes constructed by these people—whether those are universes of pleasure or of pain—and pushes the couple out toward a world that is even bigger than the two of them.

And ultimately, I think that’s what this poem wants us to do: to think outside of our own heads for a change. To realize that there is more in heaven and earth than we can dream of. I think all good poetry exists to make us think outside of ourselves and the vision of the world that we’ve come to accept. For me, Polish poets in general and Zagajewski in particular are especially good at doing that.

Why Macbeth‘s Birnam Wood Prophecy Actually Works

In case I hadn’t mentioned it here before, I love Macbeth. Passionately. It’s my favorite Shakespeare play (other than Hamlet) and its main character is one of my favorite protagonists in all of literature.

In spite of that, I can understand why a lot of people dislike it: it’s pretty dark and violent, even for Shakespeare, and the ending can seem a little odd. I’ll concede that the resolution to the “none of woman born” prophecy was a bit of a cop-out; however, I’m not so sure I can say the same about the next most infamous plot point in Macbeth, the fulfillment of the Birnam Wood prophecy.

In case your memory needs refreshing, in Act 4, Scene 1, a spirit conjured by the Weird Sisters tells Macbeth that he can never be defeated until Birnam Wood, the forest surrounding Macbeth’s castle, comes against him. Naturally, Macbeth interprets this to mean that the trees themselves will have to move of their own volition before he can be overthrown: “That will never be. / Who can impress the forest, bid the tree / Unfix his earth-bound root?” So you can imagine Macbeth’s surprise in Act 5, Scene 5 when his castle is attacked not by an army of walking trees but by an army of men camouflaging themselves with tree branches cut from Birnam Wood.

This, understandably, can be rather disappointing to some. J. R. R. Tolkien, for example, was so disgusted with Shakespeare’s handling of the Birnam Wood prophecy that he corrected the mistake in his own Lord of the Rings trilogy, creating the human-like tree creatures we now know as ents. But, while guys dressed like trees might not have the same element of surprise and wonder as walking trees, I do think that, in the context of Macbeth, such an inauspicious fulfillment to the prophecy works.

In the dramatic conventions of Shakespeare’s day, a tragedy wasn’t a tragedy at all if it didn’t concern itself foremost with the hero’s downward spiral into darkness. We can see how this plays out gradually in Macbeth: Act 1 reveals the murderous ambition he harbors, Act 2 sees him killing his king, Act 3 has him ordering the murder of his best friend, and in Act 4, he sends soldiers to slaughter Macduff’s defenseless wife and children. By Act 5, he has reached the nadir of his corruption. This reign of terror can only end with his death. Macbeth, however–still under the influence of the witches, but also drunk on his own pride–believes that he is invincible, that he is so great that nothing of this world can harm him. It would take nothing short of a brand new natural phenomenon to take him down.

The forest closes in on our Macbeth character in Throne of Blood (1957).

Contrast the mighty, exalted image Macbeth has of himself with the paltry spectacle of his enemies. Different directors might stage this scene in different ways: for instance, in his 1957 retelling of the Macbeth story Throne of Blood, director Akira Kurosawa has his actors moving whole tree trunks while shrouded in fog, making the ambush look much spookier than it sounds on the page. Still, it cannot be denied that these are men pretending to be trees, and not the awe-inspiring walking trees that Macbeth anticipated. These people are false, similar to how Macbeth is a false king, trying to wield a power that cannot truly be his. When faced with these warriors and this fulfillment to the prophecy in which he had placed so much trust, Macbeth’s delusions of grandeur quickly fall to pieces. He is forced to confront the fact that he too is only a man, still subject to the same universal laws and the same morality as other men, instead of the all-powerful, almost God-like creature he believed himself to be.

That’s it for me. What do you think? Do I make a good point? Am I overreaching to try to save my favorite play from the ridicule it justly deserves? Let me know in the comments.

“Mary Magdalen and I” by Czesław Miłosz

As you might have noticed, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with Czesław Miłosz’s poetry. One poem in particular that I keep returning to is “Mary Magdalen and I,” translated by Miłosz and Robert Hass:

The seven unclean spirits of Mary Magdalen
Chased from her by the Teacher with his prayer
Hover in the air in a bat-like flight,
While she, with one leg folded in,
Another bent at the knee, sits staring hard
At her toe and the thong of her sandal
As if she had just noticed such an odd thing.
Her chestnut-brown hair curls in rings
And covers her back, strong, almost virile,
Resting on her shoulder, on a dark blue dress
Under which her nakedness phosphoresces.
The face is heavyish, the neck harboring
A voice that is low, husky, as if hoarse.
But she will say nothing. Forever between
The element of flesh and the element
Of hope, she stays still. At the canvas’s corner
The name of a painter who desired her.

This isn’t an actual painting Miłosz is describing: he mentioned once at a poetry reading that he “invented” the painting and therefore, he said, the painter in the last line is him.

And like a master painter, Miłosz attempts to tell us as much of this woman’s story as he can solely through depictions of physical things. Mary’s pose, for instance—head down and “staring hard / At her toe and the thong of her sandal”—suggests a few things to me. Since Jesus could possibly be standing next to her (assuming her exorcism was recent), it could be a show of reverence for Him, denoting Mary’s piety. The gesture of staring at her own foot and shoe “As if she had just noticed such an odd thing,” for me, also brings to mind the image of a very young child who is mesmerized by commonplace objects. It makes me think of someone who is small and vulnerable and innocent, all of which describes Mary in this instance.

Getting to Mary’s physical features, they too help tell the story that’s been told about her for centuries: her hair, for instance, “curls in rings” because of a Talmudic passage in which the word “Magdalen” is sometimes translated to mean “curling women’s hair”; since artificially curled hair has for so long been associated with prostitutes, this little detail helps reinforce the story that Mary Magdalen was a reformed prostitute. (There’s actually no Scriptural basis for that, but anyhow ….) Her hair rests “on a dark blue dress,” blue being associated with heaven and often used in religious art to clothe saints. And yet even with the blue dress, we can still see how “her nakedness phosphoresces.” Looking at paintings of Mary Magdalen from about the early Renaissance onward, you’ll notice that many of them depict Mary partly undressed, sometimes with her whole torso uncovered. These paintings would seem to depict Mary in a sort of transitioning state between her old life (that of the sinner and prostitute) and her new life as one of Christ’s disciples.

Miłosz himself said he didn’t have an actual painting in mind when he wrote this poem, but it still reminds me of “Mary Magdalene in a Landscape” by Annibale Carracci.

And, as far as I can tell, that’s partly what the poem is about: being caught in between heaven and earth, “the element of flesh and the element / Of hope.” One thing I’ve always loved about Miłosz is how honest he is about the realities of living in a fallen world. While his poetry often glories in the things of the earth, at the same time, he recognizes these things to be corrupted, lesser versions of what they could be. He can be honest about the sin, death, and pain that plague the world, without giving up his duty to praise the world. I think this poem portrays that sort of duality in an especially elegant way, contrasting the humble, innocent, child-like Mary Magdalen with her surroundings, in which demons “Hover in the air in a bat-like flight.”

However, as we come to the end of the poem, we see that Mary is no longer front and center, but rather, the artist painting her is. Not only are we made aware of the painter’s presence, but we are also told that he is in some way aroused by this image of Mary Magdalen. I wondered about these last lines at first, wondered why it was even necessary to mention the painter, let alone that he “desired her.” Now, I think these lines have a dual purpose.

First, they bring the poem full circle. The poem begins with “The seven unclean spirits of Mary Magdalen” and ends with “The name of a painter who desired her.” Each time, we are confronted with a state of spiritual imperfection, which brings to my mind what seems to be the recurrent nature of sin. I hope I don’t sound too bleak: if Christ has freed you from sin, you are free indeed, but that doesn’t mean that the process of being made holier won’t be long and laborious. Salvation is instant; sanctification is not. That won’t be completed until we are actually with Christ in heaven. For many Christians (and Miłosz apparently was one of them), this is a painful reality: the idea that, even as we strive to be the best we can, we still fall short and do what we, justly, hate. But, even while we’re on earth, there’s always hope—more on that in a minute.

The second reason why these lines are important is because they point to the relative unimportance of the artist in relation to the work he creates. As I mentioned earlier, the painting in this poem says something very meaningful about the spiritual realities of the world. However, that last line reveals that the artist’s primary thought is of “desire” for this woman—or for women in general—and not the spiritual or historical weight that Mary’s story carries. Nevertheless, good things are still accomplished through this man and his work, in spite of his less-than-noble ambitions.

For me, that speaks to a sort of Providential action in life, whereby the things we do, even when we do them imperfectly or for the wrong reasons, can still be used to better our fellow men, and even to glorify God. That’s why we shouldn’t despair, even as we look on our own sinfulness and the fallenness of the rest of the world. Of course we should deplore any and all sin and avoid it whenever possible, but recognizing sin for what it is doesn’t have to lead us to despair. Instead, it gives us greater opportunities for rejoicing: it lets us better appreciate the providence of God when we realize that everything works together for Him, even our own imperfections.

That’s all for now. Do let me know in the comments if I’ve completely misinterpreted this poem and what you take away from it.

On Yeats’s “Mongan Thinks of His Past Greatness”

While I’m devoting an entire month to Irish literature, I thought I’d talk about one of my favorite Irish poems, W. B. Yeats’s “Mongan Thinks of His Past Greatness.” It’s not a very popular poem, for reasons which will become clear in a minute. Nevertheless, it was one of the first Yeats poems I ever heard, so it stuck with me.

The Original Poem

The 1899 edition of The Wind among the Reeds. Pretty, isn’t it? // Image by Camboxer and licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The poem first appeared in 1898 in a London literary magazine called The Dome, where it was titled “The Song of Mongan.” The following year, it was printed again in Yeats’s 1899 collection The Wind among the Reeds. Here’s the poem as it appeared in that book:

“Mongan Thinks of His Past Greatness”

I have drunk ale from the Country of the Young
And weep because I know all things now:
I have been a hazel tree and they hung
The Pilot Star and the Crooked Plough
Among my leaves in times out of mind:
I became a rush that horses tread:
I became a man, a hater of the wind,
Knowing one, out of all things, alone, that his head
Would not lie on the breast or his lips on the hair
Of the woman that he loves, until he dies;
Although the rushes and the fowl of the air
Cry of his love with their pitiful cries.

In 1899, Yeats was still deeply involved in the Celtic Revival movement, as well as harboring a more personal interest in magic and mysticism. This was the period of poems like “The Song of Wandering Aengus” and “The Stolen Child” that teem with mythological allusions and obscure occult symbols. “Mongan Thinks” fits in with these poems perfectly.

“The Bard” by John Martin (1817). Image via Wikiart.

In this poem, the speaker is Mongan, a mythical Irish king and the half-human son of the sea god Manannán mac Lir. When Mongan was a baby, his father brought him to Tír na nÓg, the dwelling place of the gods, where he was trained as a master poet and magician. In Irish folklore, though, the downside of learning magic and keeping such close contact with the gods is that you lose the ability to participate in normal, everyday life (See Yeats’s footnotes to the 1899 edition of Reeds). It’s an idea that Yeats had explored before, such as in his 1894 verse drama The Land of Heart’s Desire, in which a young bride follows a faery girl into the woods, thus separating herself forever from her husband and family. Assuming Yeats had this legend in mind when he wrote about Mongan too, then Mongan’s separation from his beloved is not only a physical separation but also an inability to experience life as she does or with her.

Further on, the poem delves into even more obscure imagery. Mongan, for instance, talks of becoming a hazel tree: the hazel tree, according to Yeats’s notes, was a symbol of both the Biblical Tree of Life and of the Tree of Knowledge. So for Mongan to compare himself to a hazel is to say that he is not only immortal, but also that he has been at the center of all wisdom. The hazel was also associated with the constellation Ursa Major—the “Great Bear”—which is made up in part of the “Pilot star” (the North star to us Yanks) and the “Crooked Plough” (the Big Dipper). This is why Mongan talks about stars being hung “among my leaves.”

The Changes

Eventually, it occurred to Yeats that these mythological references and layers of occult symbolism were not necessarily going to improve the reading public’s opinion of him. So, he revised this and other early poems, leaving much of their original imagery intact, but recasting the poems in such a way as downplayed their arcane roots. In the later editions of The Wind among the Reeds, this poem, now with the unwieldy title–“He Thinks of His Past Greatness When a Part of the Constellations of Heaven”–comes at the end of a string of poems whose speaker is identified only as “The Poet.” The idea now (if my interpretation is correct) is that this is a human poet whose gifts are so great that he was immortalized by the gods in a constellation, yet, even though he has everything else he could want, he still mourns for his lost love. Yeats also changed the final two lines of the poem, so that the sentence begun in line 1 now ends with line 10 and lines 11 and 12 make up their own sentence:

O beast of the wilderness, bird of the air,
Must I endure your amorous cries?

About those two lines . . .

Obviously, William Butler Yeats knows better than I do what should go into his poems. Even so, I’ve always preferred “Mongan Thinks of His Past Greatness” over “He Thinks….” Admittedly, familiarity may have something to do with it: I first heard of this poem while I was browsing through the archives at Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room website, and more specifically, through their 1953 recordings of Dylan Thomas. If you listen to Thomas’s recording, you’ll notice that he uses the new title for the poem, but recites the old lines. Since this was the first version of the poem I ever heard, it sticks in my head a little easier than the newer lines do.

Yeats in 1920. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

There are a few others things that make the old lines stand out to me too: First, the use of the words “rushes,” “cry,” and “cries.” All of them, I think, with their hard “c”s and their noisy “r”s help to establish the poem’s main sound effects. Our image of the speaker places him alone in a forest with the wind whipping about him: naturally, the word “rushes”—both the word itself and its sound—would tend to bring to mind the sound of rushing wind. Though it’s a more subtle effect, I think the words “cry” and “cries” in the final line also help to give a sense of what the speaker is hearing: those hard “c” and “r” sounds remind me, at least, of tree branches waving and hitting each other in the wind.

The placement of these words within the poem is important too. You’ll notice that the last line of the original poem nearly begins and ends with the same word: “Cry of his love with their pitiful cries.” Having those sounds repeated so closely together, I think, reminds a reader not only of wind but of a relentless wind, one that won’t let up, that forces you to hear the same mournful noises over and over and over. And then to put those two words capping a line seems to me to create a feeling of claustrophobia within the poem. If you look at the poem printed out on a page, you’ll notice that it’s sort of small and box-shaped. Having almost the same word to begin and end a line, I think, further boxes the poem in, giving an idea of how trapped the speaker feels. Thinking back on it, the image that this poem created in my mind, from the very first time I heard it, was of a man standing all alone in a forest so dense that he couldn’t find his way out of it if he wanted to. I think it’s amazing that Yeats can use the sounds of words to create a feeling of physical space in a poem.

And with that, I conclude my rant on Yeats and this little-known poem of his. Do let me know in the comments what you think of Yeats, of this poem, and chime in with whatever other interpretations you may have of it.

What Makes a Poem “Good”: a Completely Unbiased Investigation

Image by Jazmin Quaynor.
Image by Jazmin Quaynor.

If you’ve spent any amount of time around BookTube, you probably know already who Jen Campbell is. In case you don’t, she’s an author, poet, and book blogger based in the UK. Some weeks ago, she posted a video in which she posed this question to her viewers: “What makes a poem ‘good’?” It’s an interesting question, one that can be answered in a number of ways. Today, I thought I’d give my own personal answer and talk about a few of the things that, for me, make a poem worth reading.

Of course, one of the best things about poetry is how varied it is. Poems come in all shapes, sizes, and forms, and poets themselves have a near-infinite store of techniques available to them to make their poems do exactly what they want them to do. When you meet a poem, you have to take it on its own terms, so to speak. All this to say that what I’m about to write is not a checklist that I apply to every poem I read to find out whether it’s “good” or not. Rather, these are just a few of the things that have stood out to me most in my reading and that have encouraged me to dig further into poetry.

OK, enough preambling, let’s get to the post:

I’m sure you know the old cliché quote, attributed to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which says that poetry is “the best words in their best order.” I’ve always liked that quote because for me, one of the best things about poetry is getting to see an author use language in such a way that you feel as though no other arrangement of words in the world could express exactly what he or she was trying to say. That’s a defining feature of poetry, after all: the precision of the language. In prose, words are chosen primarily for their dictionary definition, and sometimes for their connotations. In poetry, though, words are chosen for their definition, connotation, sound, and sometimes even history. All of these elements have to mesh perfectly with what the poet is trying to say.

Father Gerard {PD-1923}
Fr. Hopkins // Image via Wikimedia Commons [PD-1923]
For instance, one poet who showed amazing skill at choosing words was Gerard Manley Hopkins. In his poetry, the sounds of the words and the overall meaning of the poem are so closely entwined that you can’t really have one without the other. The sound of the poem helps you understand what it means. (A really good example of this is “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.”)

Jen’s video also included a portion of a conversation she had with fellow poet Alex MacDonald who said that one of the “great joys” of reading is finding your own thoughts expressed better than you could have done. Though I by no means restrict myself to poems expressing only the thoughts and emotions that I’ve experienced personally—and I don’t think anyone else should either—there’s nothing like finding a poem that feels like it was written with you in mind. Whether it’s a few especially insightful lines or a work that captures a particular mood or frame of mind, there are times when it helps to see your own thoughts printed out on paper. If nothing else, it gives you the sense that you’re not alone, that what you’re experiencing has been endured by others before you.

On the other hand, sometimes the thing that makes a poem worth reading is not what you and the speaker have in common, but what you don’t have in common. Sounds strange? It probably is, but bear with me.

I’ve always loved the Metaphysical Poets, and one of the main reasons why I love them is because they make me think in unusual ways. The same metaphors that caused Sam Johnson and John Dryden to write them off as poetasters were fascinating to me. If I can steal a quote from Seamus Heaney, a new metaphor is a new opportunity to see the same old things for the first time. I like that feeling of seeing old things as if they’re new to me.

And if I had to name it, I think that’s one of my main reasons for reading poetry: it gives me the chance to experience something new, or something old in a new way, by getting another’s perspective. It’s not just elaborate metaphors or metaphysical conceits that do the trick: it’s practically any poem that can make me understand (in however small a measure) the way in which the author sees the world.

dickinson-emily_cropped
Image via Wikimedia Commons. [PD-1923]
I’ll take for an example one poet whom I’ve been reading a lot of lately: Emily Dickinson. When I first began reading her work, I was intrigued and slightly mystified by phrases like “I dwell in Possibility” or “One need not be a chamber to be haunted.” Time and again, the passages in Dickinson’s poetry that most strike me are almost always the ones where she proves that her mind works nothing like mine. And that, of course, is the whole point: by seeing her thoughts laid out in black and white, I’m able to take a break from my own—to get a glimpse of a world that’s been remade simply by viewing it from a different perspective. I think poets are at their best when they can make you feel and think in ways you may never have arrived at on your own.

I could go on, but this post is too long already. Hopefully, I’ve given you some idea of why I love poetry so much, and have maybe even inspired you to read some poetry yourself.

Who else here likes poetry? Why do you like it? What tricks or traits will keep you coming back to a certain poet or poem? Let me know in the comments.

Are Song Lyrics Poems?

Dylan at a concert in New York state, 1963. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Dylan at a concert in New York state, 1963. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Along with much of the rest of the world, I woke up Thursday morning to the news that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” While I’m not sure if Dylan would have been my first choice for the award, I nevertheless agree with his fans that he is a great songwriter, one who even deserves to be called a poet.

But is that really true? Can song lyrics actually be considered poems or are they something else entirely?

I suppose it all depends on how you define the word “poem.” I’m afraid mine is not a very learned definition, but as far as I know, a poem is a piece of writing that is meant to speak directly to the imagination through the use of metaphor, imagery, simile, sound effects, and similar devices. Where fiction depends on narrative for its power and nonfiction on hard facts and logical arguments, poetry relies on the words themselves—their meanings, sounds, and rhythms—to make an impression on the reader’s mind.

Taking that view of it, I think some song lyrics can be considered poetry. As long as there’s that direct appeal to imagination, helped out by purposeful word choices, I see no reason why a song can’t be recognized as literary art.

Now, some have argued that Dylan’s lyrics aren’t really poetry because they lose some of their power when his music and his voice are subtracted. But does that mean that they’re not poetry, or just that they’re not the best poetry in the world? Whether the music is there or not, you’re still left with the imagery, the wordplay, the metaphors, and the rhymes, even if these find their fullest expression when set to music. Granted, reading Dylan’s lyrics is a completely different experience from listening to him sing them. But then again, as the author of this piece points out, reading a play is a completely different experience from seeing the same play acted out on a stage, yet no one questions drama’s place in the literary world.

For the record, I’m not saying that Dylan specifically deserves the Nobel Prize. I don’t think I know his work well enough to judge whether it reaches that level of skill. My point is merely that, if approached correctly, the lyrics even to pop songs can take on a literary dimension and be enjoyed both as poetry and as music.

Really, the whole point of writing this post was so I could start a conversation. Do you think songwriters are poets? Do you think Dylan deserved the Nobel? Are you so unhip that when I said “Dylan,” you thought of Dylan Thomas? Let me know in the comments.

“A spirit of health or goblin damned”

“Adieu! Adieu! Remember Me” by William Blake. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Hamlet read-along is still underway, and as expected, it’s given me plenty of opportunities to consider the play from different angles. Almost since the beginning of this read-along, one question in particular has nagged at me: is the ghost really who he says he is?

On my first reading of Hamlet, I pretty much took the ghost at his word. Both Hamlet and Horatio raise suspicions about the ghost’s identity early on, but I always found a way to dismiss their doubts. In Horatio’s case, I took it for a type of intellectual snobbery that wouldn’t admit the possibility of anything “not in [his] philosophy.” In Hamlet’s case, I believed that his doubt is less genuine than it sounds: he knew he should be cautious of the spirit, but what he really wanted to do was run straight to it (1.4.44-50).

After taking a second look, however, I’m the one who’s starting to have doubts.

The Times

The social climate of Elizabethan England, for one thing, makes it likely that the ghost isn’t as benign as he seems. Ghosts, as it turns out, were a very popular topic among scholars and theologians during the Renaissance. There were even formal treatises written about the nature of ghosts, whether they existed, and how to approach them (if you must). Ghost theory (if I can call it that) was also one of the main issues that divided Protestants and Catholics. While the Catholic Church had taught for centuries (and to some degree, still does teach) that dead people sometimes return to earth in order to deliver messages, ask for help, etc., Protestants generally believed that any disembodied spirit was likely a demon and should be avoided. Since Elizabethan Catholics were a minority–and not a very well-tolerated minority, either–this play was probably written with a Protestant audience in mind.

And even if, as some critics like to conjecture, Shakespeare was a closet Catholic whose plays are rife with pro-Rome propaganda, that still doesn’t mean that the ghost is a good guy. According to Catholic clerics of the day, one of the tells of a good spirit is that it will never say or do anything that contradicts Scripture or church doctrine. Contrary to what many people assume, vengeance was strongly condemned both by Elizabethan law and by ecclesiastical authorities. This doesn’t mean that revenge killings never took place, but nevertheless, Elizabethan society as a whole was making progress away from more barbaric concepts of justice like revenge. This means that even the most fervent of Catholic ghost-believers would have been horrified as Hamlet accepts the ghost’s demands implicitly.

The Story

Far and above all of this, I think that the way the ghost operates in the play itself suggests most strongly that he’s an impostor.

First, there’s the textual evidence of the ghost’s actions and reactions in scenes 1 and 5 of Act 1. For example, when Horatio bids the ghost “By heaven” to speak, he stalks away and, in Marcellus’s words, “is offended” (1.1.57-62). One scholar claims that this–the invocation of heavenly authority scaring the ghost away–is evidence enough that the ghost is an evil spirit. I find it hard not to believe her. Also in Act 1, we learn that the ghost is only seen at night (1.1.76-77; 1.4.3-7; 1.5.65-66) and that he vanishes as soon as he hears a rooster crow (1.1.162-164). As Marcellus describes in scene 1, both traits were believed, in the Middle Ages and beyond, to denote a demon.

Macbeth, Act I, Scene 3, the Weird Sisters by Henry Fuseli
“Macbeth, Act I, Scene 3, the Weird Sisters” by Henry Fuseli. Source: WikiArt.

When I studied Hamlet in school, I was told that the definition of an Elizabethan tragedy is a story in which forces outside of the protagonist conspire to destroy him (physically, spiritually, or both) and, through some serious moral flaw on his part, he allows them to succeed. The best example of this that I can think of comes from another Shakespearean play, Macbeth: in this play, the demonically-inspired Weird Sisters take advantage of Macbeth’s innate ambition and use it to bring about his ruin. Macbeth is still entirely culpable for the crimes at his door, but without that malignant influence, they might never have happened.

That led me to wonder: what if the ghost is Hamlet‘s version of the Weird Sisters? What if it was his design all along to destroy Hamlet and his family? If you think about it, most of the terrible things that happen in this play flow directly from the ghost’s directions to Hamlet. Without his interference, Hamlet would not have felt compelled to kill Claudius and the chain reaction that eventually leads to his and several others’ deaths would have never taken place.

We do learn later that the ghost’s account of the Elder Hamlet’s murder is completely factual (3.2-3), but does that really prove anything? Couldn’t a demon have just as easily come by the same knowledge? Maybe more easily? Suppose this is the very demon that tempted Claudius to murder!

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
“The Ghost in Hamlet” by T. R. Gould. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

And that gave rise to another thought. In Act 1, Horatio tells the guardsmen (and consequently, the audience) about what a mighty king Hamlet I was (1.1.92-101); at the end of the play, however, his greatest achievement has been undone when Fortinbras comes to overthrow Denmark. We also see throughout the play that the old king’s son and possible heir is clever, dogged, and resourceful. Suppose, then, that this play isn’t about a prince whose personal struggles destroy him and two whole families, but about a devil whose mission is to stand in the way of all of the good this dynasty did and could have done? What if what’s lost here is not only several lives or Hamlet’s mind, but also the glory and the honor which could have belonged to Hamlet and his family if only they had not given in to their baser instincts? To me, the narrative makes far more sense when viewed through this lens. It also gives the audience fewer opportunities for self-indulgence. It teaches us to identify not with Hamlet in his woes so that we can commiserate, but with Hamlet in his corruption. It turns the focus onto the evil of man rather than on his troubles, which, to my mind, is what tragedy plays are meant to do in the first place.

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So much for my own interpretations. Do you agree? Disagree? Do you have some of your own interesting thoughts on the ghost in Hamlet? Let me know in the comments.

“Why is Hamlet’s father also named ‘Hamlet’?”

Hamlet running after the ghost_tag_LoC
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

About a week ago, my younger brother asked me quite earnestly why Hamlet and his father have the same name. When I read Hamlet, it never occurred to me that the double name could have any special significance: after all, it was common enough in the Middle Ages and afterward for sons to be named after their fathers. Still, the more I thought about my brother’s question, the more I began to wonder whether there is something behind the two Hamlets and what Shakespeare was trying to say through them, if anything. So, like the “gentle prince” of Denmark, I spent a good deal of time thinking, and like him, I may have gotten lost in my own thoughts without really accomplishing anything. For that reason, I consulted the experts as well.

One critic, Alexander W. Crawford, contends that Hamlet was given the same name as his father to point out the similarities between the two men. Crawford believes that Hamlet’s father represents an ideal king, while Hamlet represents an ideal prince. By having the two characters share a name, Shakespeare encourages the audience to think of them as one and the same.

In his book Hamlet in His Modern Guises, English professor Alexander Welsh claims that the double name is used to establish “a theme of inheritance.” It also helps the reader (or viewer, as the case would have it) to draw a comparison between the younger Hamlet and Fortinbras, whom Welsh sees as Hamlet’s foil. Like Hamlet, Fortinbras  is a young prince whose uncle is a king. Unlike Hamlet, however, Fortinbras is single-minded and shows a dogged determination to right the wrongs committed against his family. Because Fortinbras is named for his father, naming Hamlet for his father serves merely to give the two princes one more trait in common.

Yet another critic, one David J. Gordon, believes that Shakespeare went out of his way to give Hamlet and his father the same name so that Hamlet would be doubly bound to his father’s wishes. Being his father’s namesake tightens “the noose of responsibility around him,” drawing him even further into a fate he wishes to avoid.

See? Vacillating again. // Image via Wikimedia Commons {PD-1923}
See? Vacillating again. // Image via Wikimedia Commons {PD-1923}

Personally, I wonder whether having two Hamlets is not meant to point to one of the great tragedies of the younger Hamlet’s story: that he is wholly unsuited to the roles thrust upon him. By naming the son after the father, Shakespeare forces a comparison between the two, a comparison in which the son does not fare well. By all indications, the first Hamlet was a strong leader and a fearless warrior (1.1.63-66; 1.1.81-96). Even after death, he is eager to see justice visited upon his enemies (1.5.81-83). Juxtapose that with his son Hamlet, the last person to whom the words “strong” and “fearless” could apply. For goodness’s sake, he was so distraught following his father’s death that he hardly even noticed Claudius stealing the throne right out from under him, and since then, he has done nothing to take back what is rightfully his (5.2.65-66). He doesn’t take command of a situation, he lets the situation command him. Clearly, he is no more the bold, confident man his father was than he is the swift avenger his father wants him to be. In a way, the elder Hamlet is his son’s foil: having been a strong person in life, he is everything the prince wants to be and everything he is not. Giving them both the same name only makes the situation more ironic.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I completely object to the opinions quoted above, or anyone’s opinion for that matter. Likely, I’m far off the mark, but it wouldn’t be a proper blog if I didn’t give my two cents too. 🙂

What do you think? Which of these is true? Are all of them true? Do you have a fifth theory you’d like to advance? Let me know in the comments.

In Defense of the Imperfect Characters

Back when I first started this blog, I posted an article responding to the mistaken notion that exceptionally good, upstanding heroes in literature are detrimental to readers. I’m finding now that it seems an equally passionate faction has the opposite complaint: they fret that characters in literature aren’t perfect enough.

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I read a lot of blogs. The last time I tried to count how many, the number fell somewhere in the dozens. Not all, but most of these blogs have to do with books, writing, and/or publishing, and more than a few of them are written from a Christian perspective. In reading these blogs, I’ve found that many in the Christian community at large are put off by depictions of sinful behavior in literature, no matter the context or the extent of that behavior. They expect their good guys to be good no matter what and their bad guys to be bad, just not too bad (a term whose definition depends solely on the reader). Like the people who complain about prejudice in books written hundreds of years ago in vastly different social settings, these readers refuse to see how the less savory aspects of a story don’t necessarily negate its worth.

He wasn't exactly an angel, but no one asks that we stop teaching about him. // Image source: Wikimedia Commons.
Need I remind you that David, Paul, Peter, and pretty much every major figure in the Bible excepting God has at least one major screw-up to his/her name. // Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

To put it bluntly, characters need to fall short sometimes. They need to fall short because people fall short. It is inevitable. If literature is meant to reflect the human experience genuinely and accurately, it cannot shy away from the less desirable aspects of our nature. In fact, it must embrace them–not in a way that seeks to make them into something admirable, but in a way that exposes them for the evil they are and, hopefully, inspires readers to strive against them. Only God is perfect, therefore to make one’s characters perfect angels who never do a thing wrong is either A) an affront to God’s perfection, suggesting that humans can be what He is, or B) a complete and utter failure to grasp the point of what you’re doing. Good literature shouldn’t hide from our weaknesses: it should expose them, pick at them, and–if the author is particularly good–weed them out. In short, characters who sin are not only acceptable, but also necessary.

This isn’t to say that all depictions of sin in literature are acceptable; fiction can just as easily be a vehicle for glorifying evil instead of denouncing it, especially in the way it depicts sinful acts. Like anything else in this world, it all depends on the intent behind it. For example, if an author seems to revel in the dastardly deeds of his/her antagonists, getting into gritty, unnecessary detail about the sordid things they do, it may be time to put that book down. Obviously, art that promotes something ugly and perverse isn’t good art at all and doesn’t deserve the attention. However, as long as the book as a whole isn’t promoting immoral behavior, carry on.

Of course, it’s easy to see the merit in a story where the lines dividing right and wrong are clearly defined. However, even if a character’s ungodly actions aren’t expressly condemned in the story, that’s still not necessarily a reason to toss the story out with the trash. I’ll give you an example: in 2011, Neil Gaiman wrote a beautiful short story called “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury.” The story’s protagonist (as well as its sole character and sole speaker) is slowly losing his memory, possibly to Alzheimer’s, and with it, he has lost the name and the stories of Ray Bradbury, his favorite author. At one point, our pitiful hero, speaking of the possibility that the world could forget Bradbury altogether, says this:

I think it’s God’s fault.

I mean, He can’t be expected to remember everything. God can’t. Busy chap. So perhaps he delegates things, sometimes, just goes, “You! I want you to remember the dates of the Hundred Years’ War. And you, you remember okapi.”

“Make good art!” Neil said. And that’s what he did. // Photo by Manfred Werner.

 

Obviously, this isn’t true: God does not delegate things to people, nor does He have any reason to. Maybe Gaiman believes this and maybe he doesn’t. Regardless, it’s still a perfectly good story, for this reason: it is neither a treatise nor a sermon, but rather, a portrait of a broken man, one who is desperately looking to escape his fate. He’s looking for some way out of the encroaching darkness, but if he can’t find that, he’ll instead look for someone to blame. Maybe that person will be God. Wouldn’t we all at least be tempted to blame God if we were in the same situation? It’s certainly not the right thing to do, but it is the innately human thing to do, which, I think, is why Gaiman chose to have his character do it. We don’t have to accept it: instead, we can see it as an image of fallen humanity, of what depths people are capable of sinking to apart from God. In this light, it becomes moving and sobering, reminding us that “There but for the grace of God go I.”

I understand that we must be discerning readers, but just as we can’t be too permissive with what’s allowed in literature, we can’t be too sensitive either. If we want stories that truly speak to who we are as humans, we need to make some room in them for human frailties, even human evils. Granted, fiction, especially more modern works, can prove to be quite liberal in its depictions of evil, even to the point of promoting it. That cannot stand. But when the actions of fallen men and women are presented in such a way that shows the true depravity of man and the superiority of good, we shouldn’t shun it. In fact, we should embrace it; only by facing these shortcomings head on and taking “a plunge into reality” as Flannery O’Connor called it can we hope for good, meaningful art.

Shakespeare and Censorship

You probably know by now how I feel about Shakespeare. You probably also know how I feel about censorship. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when I hear of someone censoring Shakespeare, I tend to take notice.

This guy, for instance, has been ticking people off for decades. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)
This guy, for instance, has been ticking people off for decades. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)

The latest example comes from Mark Rylance, an actor and former artistic director for the Globe Theatre in London. In a recent interview, Rylance confessed that, while working at the Globe, he would often cut out the passages of Shakespeare’s plays that appear anti-Semitic. He claimed that the censorship was necessary, as those lines have taken on more “resonance” since the Holocaust. He also defended his actions by pointing out that in Shakespeare’s day, playwrights and acting companies would often self-censor to avoid offending their audiences.

While I appreciate Mr. Rylance’s attempts to show consideration for Jewish audiences, I can’t help but condemn any attempt to censor an author’s works, no matter how hateful they may seem (because what’s the point of protecting speech that doesn’t offend people?). In the particular case of Shakespeare, there’s no reason why these plays, if they are going to be performed at all, shouldn’t be performed as written, especially in light of their history.

One thing that I will probably never understand about people who are presumed to be my elders and betters is why they cannot for the life of them put a work of literature into its proper historical context. We’ve seen this before with works like Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Gone with the Wind: critics try to judge them by modern standards of what is acceptable without taking into account the society in which the author lived, how it may have influenced his thinking, and what sort of culture the author was trying to portray. In this case, we forget that Shakespeare was living and working in Elizabethan England, where anti-Semitism was an institution. There’s no doubt that some of Shakespeare’s characters discriminate against Jews, but whether Shakespeare himself was an anti-Semite should have no bearing on how we view these plays: if he was not anti-Semitic, we must excuse him for trying to faithfully represent an unjust society. If he was anti-Semitic, we can expect no better from a person who was born and raised in such a society. His incomparable merits as an author shouldn’t be cast aside for this one (albeit terrible) fault in his thinking

Mr. Rylance is right on at least one point, though: actors and writers in Shakespeare’s day often did censor themselves. This is because they already had what we supposedly want to avoid: a society that couldn’t appreciate the right to free expression. If Shakespeare ever censored himself, it was because he didn’t want his head, literally, handed to him. It was because he saw his friends being imprisoned for writing plays and wished to avoid a similar fate. Censorship was common in Shakespeare’s day because freedom was not. Factions both political and “religious” held such a tight grip on the throats of the English people that one false step could mean losing one’s livelihood or, possibly, one’s life. Today in Britain and America, we have no such restrictions. Except in a few notable instances, the idea of free speech is respected. However, once we begin to let our words and others’ words be curtailed by the fear of “offending” people, we surrender a piece of our birthright for the pottage of approval. Censorship slowly becomes normalized, then accepted, then expected. Soon, authors find themselves in the same predicament as Shakespeare’s colleagues: being forced to self-censor to avoid incurring the wrath of whoever’s ideology happens to prevail at the moment. It’s easy to fall into that trap, but terribly hard to get out.

Statue of William Shakespeare in London’s Leicester Square. The scroll he’s pointing to reads, “There is no darkness but ignorance.” (Image by Lonpicman).

This is all a long-winded way of saying that, while anti-Semitism is evil and wrong, we must remember that human beings often are too. They succumb to prejudice quicker than truth and–whether they realize it or not–the majority often rules them. Though some diehards might beg to differ, William Shakespeare wasn’t God: he’s allowed to make some errors, and he would be a poor writer indeed if he didn’t allow his characters to do the same. The answer to human folly is not to block it out and ignore it, but to combat it with truth, a truth whose surest guard lies in free, unadulterated speech.


Do you agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know what you think, even if it isn’t flattering, but beware. “I am not bound to please thee with my answers.”