Friday, April 27, 2018

On Poetry in General by William Hazlitt

Happy Poetry Month! Many Writers have tried to define that elusive something that we call poetry and writer and literary critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was no exception. To Hazlitt poems cannot merely describe an object or a feeling; their words have to heighten the imagination.

He laments the "advances" in civilization (scientific knowledge, modernization, etc.) that are unfavorable to poetry because they cause more indifference and less awe. Society, by degrees, is constructed into a machine that carries us safely and insipidly from one end of life to the other, in a very prose style. . . It is to overcome the flats and sharps of prose that poetry was invented.

Hazlitt says that poetry lifts the spirit above the earth and draws the soul out of itself with indescribable longings. Because of that definition he cites Pilgrim's Progress and Robinson Crusoe as great poetic works. The great poetry in the world, according to him, is found in Homer, the Bible, and Dante. (Beautiful language that elevates the mind is essential, but obviously to him, rhyming is not.)

 "On Poetry" was one of several essays gathered together by Jacob Zeitlin in 1913 and is fifteen pages long. I found a free online copy here. If you don't already love poetry, this article is probably too dry to change your mind, but I appreciated Hazlitt's insights.

Blessings,

Friday, April 20, 2018

British Author Birthday Week

Two of my favorite authors celebrated birthdays this week. Miss Read, author of light novels, was born on April 17, 1913. Her books about country villagers ("Fairacre" and "Thrush Green" series) are cozy reads. Her daughter answers questions about her legacy on her own website here.

Born almost 100 years before Miss Read, Charlotte Brontë celebrates a birthday on April 21st. Her book, Jane Eyre, has brought me deep pleasure at various times in the last four decades. This year I even began memorizing favorite passages from it, especially this one between Rochester and Jane:

I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you, especially when you are near me as now. It is as if I had a string somewhere under my left rib tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel and two hundred miles or so of land come broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapped. And then I have a nervous notion that I'd take to bleeding inwardly. As for you, - you'd forget me.

Blessings,

Friday, April 13, 2018

Miracle on the River Kwai by Ernest Gordon

Of the twenty P.O.W. memoirs that I've read, Ernest Gordon's Miracle on the River Kwai is my favorite. Published in 1963 it recounts Gordon's three years in a Japanese concentration camp in Thailand.

I was drawn into the story by the splendid writing. Phrases like Age, sun and sea had made his face a thing of wrinkled splendor and Apathy and listlessness settled over Bapong Camp like a miasmic fog, made my heart sing. But I kept reading because of the mesmerizing stories of faith  being lived out in the harshest of circumstances. 

Gordon was a young Scotsman whose pre-war life included college studies and yacht racing. When WWII broke out, he became an officer in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Captured after the fall of Singapore, he is taken to work on the Thailand/Burma Railroad. Japanese engineers calculated that the railroad would take 5 to 6 years to complete because of difficult terrain. But when they received permission to use "disposable" workers, they pushed the timeline to 18 months. The Allied prisoners were worked so hard that they lost all consciousness of time. Was it Tuesday the fourth or Friday the seventeenth? Who could say? And who would care? One gray day succeeded another - with no color, no variety, no humanity. Misery, despair and death were our constant companions. As conditions steadily worsened, as starvation, exhaustion and disease took an ever-increasing toll, the atmosphere in which we lived became poisoned by selfishness, hate and fear.

It was every man for himself until a miracle of grace occurred. Gordon had suffered from a number of diseases (diphtheria, beriberi, etc.) and had lost the use of his legs. A friend built him a little shack and arranged for him to leave the Death House (the hospital hut where men went to die). Another man, a quiet young Methodist named Dusty Miller, came daily to bathe and feed him. Dusty also massaged his legs and squeezed out the pus-filled ulcers. As Gordon "came back to life," a general regeneration was going on in the camp. Several men gave their lives to save others. Stories of their self-sacrifice began to outweigh tales of Japanese cruelty.

Gordon's view of Christianity had been that it extracted the bubbles from the champagne of life, leaving it insipid, flat and tasteless. While still recovering from his illnesses, he was asked to lead a religion class. Is there meaning in life? Does faith in Christ make any difference? He did not have the answers but he had a New Testament, which he read and discussed with the men.

He goes on to describe how the atmosphere in the camp changed as the men began to serve one another. The filthiest job in the camp was to collect the used ulcer rags, scrape them clean of pus, boil them and return them for future use. After a man named Dodger came to faith, he took on the job with joy. The last portion of the novel shows the transforming power of God's love in mens' hearts. A very inspiring read. 

P.S. Gordon does not describe the torture and hardship in as much detail as other P.O.W. memoirs so this might be a good book for the squeamish. Also, because I loved the book so much I sat through the profanity-laden two hour movie version. (The book title was changed to To End All Wars to accommodate the 2001 film.)  It added lots of people and horrific situations that were not in the book, and isn't nearly as eloquent or satisfying.

Blessings,

Friday, April 6, 2018

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

The opening pages of Little Women clearly delineate the personalities of each of the four March daughters. One has dainty, frugal habits; one loves art and luxury; one loves her kittens and dolls, and another loves writing her stories. All of them are on the cusp of womanhood. And as the story progresses each of them learns to give up her (or modify) her dreams for the greater good of all.

I first read this book as a teenager who saw "happily ever after" as the requirement for every story. I was appalled at the defects in some of the novel's characters and considered them defects to the book. Now many years and many books later, I know that these character flaws were essential for keeping the book from becoming sickeningly sweet. They made the characters human and their progress more believable. 

Mr. March, the girls' father, was known to say, "Trifles show character," and friends and family members definitely reveal their hearts through both small quarrels and small kindness. At one point in the story when Amy is snubbed by aristocratic friends, she learns that true politeness comes not from wealth, but from the rule she learned at home: Love your neighbor as yourself. She repays meanness with goodness and reaps a reward. 

When Meg's father comes home from the war, he takes her hand and says, I remember when this hand was white and smooth, and your first care was to keep it so. It was very pretty then, but to me it is much prettier now, for in it I read a little history. This hardened palm has earned something better than blisters. I'm sure the sewing done by these pricked fingers will last a long time because so much good will went into the stitches. I'm proud to shake this good, industrious hand.

Although one of the principle messages of the book is presently an unpopular one (that "a woman's happiest kingdom is her home,") I hope that young people will still read the book for it's even more central idea: the value of living for others. Interwoven into the tales of heartaches and victories, Alcott succeeds in painting a picture of the joys of family life (even in the midst of poverty) and the long-term pleasures of loving sacrificially and well. The writing is not as eloquent as some of the British novels I've read recently, but it's solid enough.

I enjoyed this humorous description of Jo who thinks she has lost her chance at love: A drop of rain on her cheek recalled her thoughts from baffled hopes to ruined ribbons. For the drops continued to fall, and being a woman as well as a lover, she felt that, though it was too late to save her heart, she might save her bonnet. (p. 267)

One of my favorite aspects of the book is that the girls choose to model their journey to adulthood on the book Pilgrim's Progress. Quiet Beth looks forward to reaching the Celestial City, but tom-boy Jo hopes they can fight a few lions first. This time through I noticed many other literary references:  Aesop's Fables, The Vicar of Wakefield, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Rasselas, Evalina, Ivanhoe, Francis Bacon, Milton, Shakespeare, Plato, Homer and Milton, and a host of Dickens' characters.

Most movie adaptions get the story all wrong because they make the girls much older than they are. Amy is 12 in the book's beginning and Meg is 16. I was interested to see that Masterpiece Theatre is coming out with a new version in May. I hope my friends in the U.S. will watch it and let me know what they think about it.

Blessings,