First Impressions: Madame Bovary

At night, when the carriers passed under her windows in their carts singing the “Marjolaine,” she awoke, and listened to the noise of the iron-bound wheels, which, as they gained the country road, was soon deadened by the soil. “They will be here tomorrow!” she said to herself.

And she followed them in thought up and down the hills, traversing villages, gliding along the highroads by the light of the stars. At the end of some indefinite distance there was always a confused spot, into which her dream died.

Madame Bovary, Part I, Chapter 9

I follow a lot of literature-related blogs and accounts on social media, and one of my favorites is Karen Swallow Prior’s Twitter account. In case you don’t know of her, she’s a professor of English at Liberty University, as well as an author, having written two books and several essays for publications like Christianity Today and The Atlantic. The first of those two books, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, is a sort of literary memoir, a love letter to the books and authors that made her who she is. Madame Bovary is featured prominently in that book, and is often mentioned in some of Dr. Prior’s other essays as well. Eventually, my curiosity got to the point where I had to read it. Currently, I’m at Chapter 8 of Part II. Here are just a few preliminary thoughts I wanted to write down:

Because Dr. Prior’s writing tended to focus most on the moral arguments in this book, I half-expected it to take a very straightforward, even bordering on didactic, tone. So I was a little surprised by the dreamy, Romantic sound of some of the narration. Take for example this passage, describing Emma Bovary’s depression when a man she had fallen in love with moves to another city:

Everything seemed to her enveloped in a black atmosphere floating confusedly over the exterior of things, and sorrow was engulfed within her soul with soft shrieks such as the winter wind makes in ruined castles. It was that reverie which we give to things that will not return, the lassitude that seizes you after everything is done; that pain, in fine, that the interruption of every wonted movement, the sudden cessation of any prolonged vibration, brings on. [Part I, Chapter 8]

This choice of language, and the tone of the story overall so far, give me the impression that, though the writer knows full well that Emma is wrong, he can still, in a way, understand her longings. He’s not indulgent, but he’s not completely cold either. This makes the story better, I think, because it helps to humanize Emma. Going in, I was afraid the main character would make this book unbearable with her unremitting selfishness. The selfishness comes through loud and clear, but at the same time, so does the hope for an extraordinary life (not a bad desire in itself necessarily) and her love of beautiful things (also not bad if taken the right way). She has the same basic desires as everyone, although she goes about fulfilling them in the wrong way, ultimately leading her to lose everything. Flaubert, of course, is not defending his heroine—rather, he treats her as a real, complicated human being instead of just a component to a moral argument. I like authors like that, in whose books their respect and compassion for their own characters is plain to see.

The C. S. Lewis Quote That Everybody Gets Wrong

As I mentioned last week in my review of C. S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, the book contains one of the more famous Lewis quotes. You’ve probably seen it before:


It certainly sounds like good advice, and read in isolation, it is open to the interpretation that most people give it. Oddly enough though, Lewis was making the exact opposite point when he wrote it.

Near the beginning of chapter six of The Four Loves, Lewis references the following passage from Book 4 of St. Augustine’s Confessions, in which Augustine recalls his reaction to the sudden death of an unnamed friend:

Wretched I was; and wretched is every soul bound by the friendship of perishable things; he is torn asunder when he loses them, and then he feels the wretchedness which he had ere yet he lost them.

Rather than quote Augustine directly, Lewis instead summarized his point with the famous quote. But his whole reason for summarizing it was so that he could argue against it. From The Four Loves:

There is no man alive who responds more naturally than I to such canny maxims. I am a safety-first creature. Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as “Careful! This might lead you to suffering.”

To my nature, my temperament, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to that appeal I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground—because the security (so to speak) is better? Who could even include it among the ground for loving? Would you choose a wife or a friend—if it comes to that, would you choose a dog—in this spirit? One must be outside the world of love, of all loves, before one thus calculates. Eros, lawless Eros, preferring the Beloved to happiness, is more like Love himself than this.1

Lewis also refers to Augustine’s original idea as “less a part of St. Augustine’s Christendom than a hangover from the high-minded Pagan philosophies in which he grew up.”2 Ouch.

1 Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves New York: Mariner Books, 2012. Pg. 120-121.

2 Ibid. Pg. 121.

Coming Soon to a Blog Near You: Reading Ireland Month 2017


Greetings, readers! A quick programming note: starting next week, I’ll be participating in Reading Ireland Month, also known as Begorrathon. What is Reading Ireland Month, you ask? It’s a yearly blog event hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall from The Fluff Is Raging. Basically, it’s a whole month of people blogging about Irish books, movies, music, food, and anything else they can think of. I happen to love Irish literature, which is why for the entire month of March, I’ll be blogging only about books by Irish authors.

I’m planning to stick mostly to twentieth century literature this year. A few of the books I plan to review:

  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  • Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney
  • Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane

And I might have a few other articles in store too. Feel free to join in! All of the details are up at Cathy’s blog.

Christmas Books

It occurred to me some time around the beginning of the month that I really should have written a post listing all of the books I got last Christmas. I thought January might be too late to post something Christmas-related, but a quick look around the blogosphere confirmed that there are still plenty of people posting their Christmas lists late. So without further ado, here’s mine.

1: The Complete English Poems by John Donne

Ah, John. The world would be such a boring place without him. Donne is one of my favorite poets, if not my favorite, for which reason this book has rarely left my side since December. I love it.

2: The Complete Poems by Christina Rossetti

I’ve been taking an interest lately in both the Rossetti family and the Pre-Raphaelite movement, so it’s nice to have all of Rossetti’s poems in one volume, instead of the anthologies and the Project Gutenberg ebooks I’m used to reading her out of. This book definitely makes it easier to appreciate what a prolific author she was too: 880 pages before footnotes!

3: Collected Poems by Ruth Pitter

Today, Ruth Pitter is probably best known as one of C. S. Lewis’s more frequent pen pals. In her own day, though, she was one of the most popular poets in England. In the little bit of her work that I’ve read so far, she almost reminds me of Rossetti, with her straightforward language and her strict meters. Like her friend Lewis, she also captures a sense of longing or “Joy” that few are capable of expressing. Books of her poetry are pretty rare on this side of the Atlantic, so I consider myself lucky to have gotten one.

4: The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy L. Sayers

Sayers is another writer on the periphery of the Inklings that I’ve been interested to know more about. She’s most famous for her mystery novels and her work as a translator, but she was also an essayist, writing on everything from language and education to feminism and theology. This particular book contains a series of essays on art and how human creativity reflects and interacts with the Divine. It comes highly recommended by a friend, so it should be a fantastic read.

That’s all for now. Tell me, what books did you get for Christmas? Have you read any of these? Let me know in the comments.

Next Sunday: ‘Inspector Lewis,’ Starring Charles Williams

You may remember last Fall, there was a slight brouhaha among Inklings fans online when the British detective series Lewis aired an episode centering around a murdered Charles Williams expert and a shadowy cabal reminiscent of Williams’s own Companions of Co-inherence. The episode, whose premiere coincided with the publication of Grevel Lindop’s long-awaited biography of Williams, was titled “Magnum Opus” and appeared as part of Lewis‘s ninth season. The series airs in the US as well on PBS (where its called Inspector Lewis instead), but because of some odd scheduling, the numbering for the seasons is a bit off. So what was Season 9 for the Brits is Season 8 for us.

I mention this because Season 8 of Inspector Lewis premieres tomorrow on PBS. “Magnum Opus” is the second episode in the season, which means if you want to see it, next Sunday, August 14 is your chance.

The episode will also be available to stream from PBS’s website, though I haven’t been able to find out how long it will be there. It is also only available to people within the US.

I’m afraid I haven’t been keeping up with Inspector Lewis so far, but for a chance to spot a few Inklings references, I might have to start. 🙂

HT: Murder! ‘Orrible Murder!

The Poetry Month Tag

Image via Matt Hobbs at
Image via

In case you haven’t heard, April is National Poetry Month! I’m excited, of course, and even more so because several of my favorite bloggers have already done and are planning lots of poetry-related posts this month. One of those bloggers is “Hamlette” of The Edge of the Precipice, who made up this little tag as part of the festivities:

What are some poems you like?

There are so many! To give a very small sampling, I love “When You Are Old” by W. B. Yeats, “Canal Bank Walk” by Patrick Kavanagh, the Holy Sonnets by John Donne (especially five, ten, and fourteen), “In My Craft or Sullen Art” by Dylan Thomas, and “Glanmore Sonnets” by Seamus Heaney.

What are some poems you dislike?

This is probably going to get me in trouble, but I don’t really like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” or much of anything else I’ve read from Eliot, for that matter (except “The Naming of Cats”). I also recall disliking Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” when I read it a few years ago.

Are there any poets whose work you especially enjoy?  If so, who are they?

Yes! Seamus Heaney, John Donne, W. B. Yeats, and W. H. Auden all top the list for me. I also love Don Paterson, Dylan Thomas, and of course, Emily Dickinson.

Do you write poetry?

Not as often as I used to.

Have you ever memorized a poem?

Yes. I used to know Kipling’s poem “If” by heart, although I’ve since forgotten it. Currently, I have about nine poems memorized.

Do you prefer poetry that rhymes and has a strict meter, or free verse?  Or do you like both?

It depends on the poem. Just for familiarity’s sake, I do tend to prefer rhymed, metered verse, but a clever poet can do some pretty amazing things with free verse too. W. H. Auden and Li-Young Lee are two of my favorite free verse poets at the moment.

Do you have any particular poetry movements you’re fond of? (Beat poets, Romanticism, Fireside poets, etc?)

The metaphysical poets are fascinating. A lot of people, I know, are turned off by the outlandish metaphors and the abstract philosophical talk, but I happen to love both of those things. 🙂

That’s all for me. Do check out Hamlette’s blog for links to more poetry-related posts throughout the month.

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Bloggers You Should Follow


Top Ten Tuesdays is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

I’ve been meaning for some time now to put together a list of book bloggers who I think should have more followers than they do. So when I found out that this week’s topic is “Ten Bookish People You Should Follow On Social Media,” I jumped on it! Here are ten bookish blogs I love, and that I think you’ll like too.

746 Books

A blog in which the author, Cathy, attempts to read all of the 746 unread books she owns. She’s read and reviewed 114 already, so there’s plenty of time to start following along. Besides those 746, Cathy also writes about new and classic Irish literature.

The Edge of the Precipice

This blog includes reviews, read-alongs, and other fun stuff. Plus, the proprietress is a huge fan of Shakespeare in general, and Hamlet in particular. A woman after mine own heart.

The Golden Echo

This blog covers everything from poetry and Christian monasticism to Captain Kirk and “raging hippopotami.” Seriously, follow it.

Majoring in Literature

Sara is always good for reviews of both classics and bestsellers. She sometimes even turns her critic’s eye to films as well.

My Lady Bibliophile

Schuyler (a.k.a. Lady Bibliophile) is great at giving in-depth reviews of her latest reads, which tend toward classic fiction, historical fiction, biography, and practical theology. Every now and then, she’ll write about her favorite authors too, like Charles Dickens and J. R. R. Tolkien. Lots of good things there.

The Oddest Inkling

A blog dedicated to snatching the works of Charles Williams, one of the Oxford Inklings, from the jaws of obscurity. Almost anything you want to know about this author can be found here.

A Pilgrim in Narnia

Billed as a blog about C. S. Lewis, although the author Brenton also writes about the other Inklings and authors like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett from time to time.

Stories and Soliloquies

Besides book recommendations and “mini-syllabi,” Michelle’s blog is also great for finding articles on philosophy, mythology, and metaphysics.

The Vinciolo Journal

Matthew Rettino, the author of this blog, is a writer, a poet, and an Inklings scholar. He’s written book reviews, essays on Charles Williams and Neil Gaiman, and a defense of Christopher Marlowe as the first hipster poet: basically, this guy writes some of everything.

Vintage Novels

One of the first book blogs I starting following and also one of my favorites. While the main purpose of this blog is to review of vintage novels, it also includes reviews nonfiction, poetry, and modern novels from time to time, along with the occasional essay on the nature of art. Fun stuff, that.

And if you know of any book blogs that you would especially like to recommend, let me know what they are in the comments.

Free C.S. Lewis Course

Mere Inkling Press

hillsdaleA free college course about C.S. Lewis? Too good to be true? No, it’s for real . . . and it’s offered by a well respected American College that traces its roots back more than 170 years. (Note, for the Europeans reading this, that makes it quite mature here in North America.)

Hillsdale college is currently offering its online course, “An Introduction to C.S. Lewis: Writing and Significance” at no charge. Here is the link to the enrollment page.

In addition to being a first class college today, Hillsdale has a very distinguished past. Founded in 1844, its leadership in the anti-slavery cause allowed it to host two speeches by Frederick Douglass. The first was delivered during the Civil War itself.*

C.S. Lewis offered a fascinating twist on the injustice of slavery. In an essay entitled “Equality,” written 80 years after Douglass decried slavery at Hillsdale, Lewis advocated democracy as…

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Update on Dorian Gray and a Question

I just finished The Picture of Dorian Gray last night and as promised, a review is in the works. In the meantime, I have a question for you.

In Oscar Wilde’s preface to the novel, he states:

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.

My question is simply do you agree? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments.

4 Reasons Why You Should Read Hamlet (and Why Your Excuses Won’t Work)

Hamlet running after the ghost_tag_LoC
“Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act I, Scene IV” by Henry Fuseli. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

You may remember that in my autumn TBR post, I mentioned Hamlet read-along that I planned to participate in. That began on the first of the month, but never fear! We’ve only gotten as far as Act 1, Scene 4, so it won’t be too hard to catch up.

To be very blunt about it, I love Hamlet. I didn’t think I would when I first read it in my high school English class, but whatever effort it took to get through it was worthwhile: it’s now one of my favorite books. Here are just a few of the reasons why you might want to give Hamlet a try in October.

1: The Setting

This, of course, is a play, usually encountered these days with splendid backdrops, props, etc. But in Shakespeare’s day, props were minimal and backdrops were almost nonexistent. The whole atmosphere of the play depended on words rather than on visuals. For that reason, Hamlet establishes an atmosphere of dread and suspicion from the very first line. If, like myself, you are enamored of shadowy eeriness, you will like this play.

2: The “Big Questions”

Unsurprisingly, there’s more to talk about in this play than could be sifted through in ten readings. We’re only four scenes in, but already, we’ve had tons of fodder for discussion, whether it was about the play’s context in history, conflicting views on the characters, or the ideas and views represented by the play itself. Maybe that’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly kept this reader happy. 🙂

3: Quotability

If nothing else, read it for the language. Read it for exchanges like this:

HORATIO [on having a ghost speak to him]: “O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!”

HAMLET: “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.”

or for the verbal tricks that Shakespeare pulls in order to make his hero seem insane while also keeping him truthful. (I might add that anyone who appreciates sarcastic humor will love Hamlet’s exchange with the grave-diggers in Act 5.)

4: The English Language Would Not Be What It Is without Hamlet

I knew that Shakespeare is responsible for many of the phrases and expressions we use today, but I didn’t realize just how many of those came from Hamlet. Sayings like “my mind’s eye,” “to the manner born,” “hoist with his own petard,” and of course, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” all find their roots in this play. It makes Hamlet quite an interesting read if, like me, you have any interest in the origins of idioms.


Of course, Shakespeare isn’t the sort of things that most people think of when they think of pleasure reads, but I wonder if that has more to do with what people expect Shakespeare to be like than what he’s actually like. So, to that point, I will attempt to answer a few of the most common complaints about Hamlet.

1: The Language Is Too Difficult

Statue of William Shakespeare in London. The scroll he's pointing to reads "There is no darkness but ignorance." A nice little reminder. (Image by Lonpicman).
Statue of William Shakespeare in London. (Image by Lonpicman).

Language is a problem, especially since there are places in this play where Shakespeare uses words that we still use today, but whose meanings have changed drastically in the last 400 years. Luckily, most printed editions of Shakespeare’s plays are awash with footnotes, definitions, etc. Or, if you don’t have that, there are websites that function the same way. was indispensable when I read Hamlet the first time, and when I read The Merchant of Venice. also has the full texts of Shakespeare’s plays (Sonnets too!) and even more in-depth notes than are to be had with Shakespeare’s Words. (Just don’t be a jerk and lift one of their essays for your school project).

But vocab is only half the problem: besides the words themselves, the way they’re strung together can be awfully confusing. I find the best way to deal with it is, first, to read the sentences aloud. I don’t know why, but passages that I read four times silently without making progress make perfect sense once I read them out loud. Other people have claimed that the same is true of them when reading Shakespeare, poetry, or anything else difficult, so it can’t just be me. 😉

I find it also helps to break up especially long sentences. There are lots of parts in Hamlet that use a sort of sentence within a sentence, with the second sentence set off by dashes in the first. This, for example:

Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
The imperial jointress to this warlike state,
Have we, as ’twere with a defeated joy,–
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,–
Taken to wife: nor have we herein barr’d
Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone
With this affair along.

When faced with this kind of monstrosity, I usually read around the dashes the first time, then go back and read the lines inside the dashes, and finally read the whole thing together. Hopefully, that should make these jawbreaker sentences a little easier to tackle.

2: It’s Going to Be Depressing

"Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard" by Eugéne Delacroix. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard” by Eugéne Delacroix. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The odd thing about this play is that, while it certainly is very dark and eerie, the darkness never becomes oppressive (At least, I don’t find it so.), and there are even some light moments mixed in with all the darkness. In an extreme twist of irony, the grave-digging scene ends up being rather amusing. So does the scene in which Hamlet [SPOILER!] discusses the method by which he disposed of Polonius’s body. A person who enjoys a bit of spookiness and some black humor should find this play very entertaining.

3: Old=Irrelevant

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering that I’ve devoted much for this blog space to praising classic authors, but I believe that the age of a work of literature has exactly no bearing on its value. That’s not to say that there’s no value to be had from more recent books, but rather, a book’s publication date should be one of the last things we consider when we decide whether or not to read something. Older books have stuck around not just because they appeal to a certain sense of aesthetics or because they speak to current events, but because they are true. They speak truth about their subjects, whether those subjects are human beings themselves, or ideas like honor, revenge, evil, and repentance, things we still grapple with to this day and, likely, always will. I could probably devote a whole post to defending older books and stories, but that’s a topic for another time.

Meanwhile, has anyone read/seen Hamlet already? If so, what did you think? Are you planning on reading it? Let me know in the comments.

Poem of the Week: “Evening”

As far as I know, this poem was never published during Chesterton’s lifetime: he wrote it down in a notebook somewhere when he was about 21 and kept it to himself. True, it’s not as intricate as Chesterton’s later poems and the style seems quite unlike him, but for whatever reason, I think this might be my favorite Chesterton poem.


by G. K. Chesterton

Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?


Poem of the Week: “A Psalm of Life”

Image via Public Domain Archive.
Image via Public Domain Archive.

Please forgive my negligence in updating this series and enjoy this poem by Longfellow:

“A Psalm of Life”

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,–act in the living Present!
 Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;–

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.