Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Mere Oblivion

Here is an interesting article by Ian Hamilton in the March 16, 2000 Guardian, Against Oblivion. He is writing about poets' reputations rather than about authors of children's books but the dynamics are not dissimilar.
These ups and downs are to be expected and literary history is full of them. I mean, whatever happened to the 19th-century Spasmodics? And maybe we should not shed too many tears for fashion's victims. After all, getting to be fashionable is not usually an accident. Maybe we need these intermittent purges. On the other hand, there are poets who, by keeping to one side of the ins and outs of literary fashion, do find themselves rather more to one side than they would wish. By holding back, they run the risk of getting lost.

Rather more to one side than they would wish - how nicely put.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Bibliomaniac's Prayer

The Bibliomaniac's Prayer by Eugene Field

Keep me, I pray, in wisdom's way
That I may truths eternal seek;
I need protecting care to-day,--
My purse is light, my flesh is weak.
So banish from my erring heart
All baleful appetites and hints
Of Satan's fascinating art,
Of first editions, and of prints.
Direct me in some godly walk
Which leads away from bookish strife,
That I with pious deed and talk
May extra-illustrate my life.

But if, O Lord, it pleaseth Thee
To keep me in temptation's way,
I humbly ask that I may be
Most notably beset to-day;
Let my temptation be a book,
Which I shall purchase, hold, and keep,
Whereon when other men shall look,
They'll wail to know I got it cheap.
Oh, let it such a volume be
As in rare copperplates abounds,
Large paper, clean, and fair to see,
Uncut, unique, unknown to Lowndes.

For it was then that I knew I loved reading

Robert Louis Stevenson in his Collected Essays has one, Random Memories: rosa quo locorum, describing his earliest recollections of reading.
I was sent into the village on an errand; and, taking a book of fairy tales, went down alone through a fir-wood, reading as I walked. How often since then has it befallen me to be happy even so; but that was the first time: the shock of that pleasure I have never since forgot, and if my mind serves me to the last, I never shall, for it was then that I knew I loved reading.

Plus this interesting observation on the move from being read to to reading.
To pass from hearing literature to reading it is to take a great and dangerous step. With not a few, I think a large proportion of their pleasure then comes to an end; ‘the malady of not marking' overtakes them; they read thenceforward by the eye alone and hear never again the chime of fair words or the march of the stately period. Non ragioniam of these. But to all the step is dangerous; it involves coming of age; it is even a kind of second weaning. In the past all was at the choice of others; they chose, they digested, they read aloud for us and sang to their own tune the books of childhood. In the future we are to approach the silent, inexpressive type alone, like pioneers; and the choice of what we are to read is in our own hands thenceforward.

Monday, November 26, 2007

War in the winter

I just finished Alex Kershaw's The Longest Winter. This is the story of a single platoon, the eighteen members of which, through the dogged defense of their position at the beginning of the German onslaught at the Battle of the Bulge on December, 16, 1944, managed to delay the advance of a critical German regiment of Panzer tanks for twelve crucial hours.

Amazingly, the entire platoon survived despite a couple of members receiving dreadful wounds. Because they were all captured (only surrendering after having completely exhausted their supply of ammunition) and through the discombobulation associated with the decommissioning of captured soldiers at the end of the war, the significance of their actions and the beneficial consequences of their defense was not recognized until years later. Medals and commendations for members of the platoon did not actually get awarded until the 1970's.

More than the battle actions, this is a good book for painting the most remarkable feats of very ordinary American citizen soldiers.

You might pair this with a pictorial version of an incident of the Battle of the Bulge, captured in Peggy Mercer's There Come a Soldier .

Best foot forward

I am reading Thomas J. Cutler's The Battle of Leyte Gulf, currently out of print. This late WWII naval battle doesn't receive a lot of attention but Cutler's account is a nice mix of historical analysis and battle action.

I have just finished his account of the bombing of and ultimately the sinking of the USS Princeton, an aircraft carrier. The Princeton was commanded by Captain William H. Buracker. Also aboard was Captain John M. Hoskins, who was scheduled to succeed Buracker in command of the Princeton within the next couple of weeks.

In the course of the engagement, 108 sailors lost their lives and 190 were wounded, including Captain Hoskins who lost a foot. There is a post script to the story.
"Captain Hoskins had, of course, missed his chance - by a frustratingly few days - to command USS Princeton. And he had lost a foot. But John Hoskins was not the kind of man to be easily deterred. He was eventually fitted with an artificial foot and was expected, under the circumstances, to accept diability retirement as his lot. There had not been a 'peg leg' captain in the Navy since the days when sail yielded to steam. But Hoskins petitioned the Navy to allow him to remain on active duty, and, when it was decided that one of the newly built aircraft carriers was to be named Princeton, Hoskins applied for her command. He insisted that he was 'one foot ahead of the other applicants' and argued that he was better qualified for the assignment because, in a middle-of-the-night emergency, he could get to his battle station more rapidly than anyone else since he would already be wearing a sock and a shoe. His arguments may not have been convincing, but his spirit certainly was. John Hoskins was given command of the new USS Princeton."

Death of the Bird

A.D. Hope was a wonderful, if occassionally racy, Australian poet. You can find his works in any anthology of Australian Poetry.

As I look out at the woods, a steady, cold rain drizzling down this late-November day, The Death of the Bird seems to match the mood.
The Death of the Bird

For every bird there is this last migration;
Once more the cooling year kindles her heart;
With a warm passage to the summer station
Love pricks the course in lights across the chart.

Year after year a speck on the map divided
By a whole hemisphere, summons her to come;
Season after season, sure and safely guided,
Going away she is also coming home;

And being home, memory becomes a passion
With which she feeds her brood and straws her nest;
Aware of ghosts that haunt the heart's possession
And exiled love mourning within the breast.

The sands are green with a mirage of valleys;
The palm-tree casts a shadow not its own;
Down the long architrave of temple or palace
Blows a cool air from moorland scraps of stone.

And day by day the whisper of love grows stronger,
The delicate voice, more urgent with despair,
Custom and fear constraining her no longer,
Drives her at last on the waste leagues of air.

A vanishing speck in those inane dominions,
Single and frail, uncertain of her place.
Alone in the bright host of her companions,
Lost in the blue unfriendliness of space.

She feels it close now, the appointed season:
The invisible thread is broken as she flies;
Suddenly, without warning, without reason,
The guiding spark of instinct winks and dies.

Try as she will the trackless world delivers
No way, the wilderness of light no sign,
The immense and complex map of hills and rivers
Mocks her small wisdom with its vast design.

And darkness rises from the eastern valleys,
And the winds buffet her with their hungry breath,
And the great earth, with neither grief nor malice,
Receives the tiny burden of her death.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


The National Library of Scotland has a fascinating collection of digitized broadsheets from years gone by. Looking through some of these broadsheets is a real eye-opening reminder of how much has changed (and how much has stayed the same). From the NLS site:
How Ordinary Scots in Bygone Days Found out what was Happening

In the centuries before there were newspapers and 24-hour news channels, the general public had to rely on street literature to find out what was going on. The most popular form of this for nearly 300 years was 'broadsides' - the tabloids of their day. Sometimes pinned up on walls in houses and ale-houses, these single sheets carried public notices, news, speeches and songs that could be read (or sung) aloud.

The National Library of Scotland's online collection of nearly 1,800 broadsides lets you see for yourself what 'the word on the street' was in Scotland between 1650 and 1910. Crime, politics, romance, emigration, humour, tragedy, royalty and superstitions - all these and more are here.

There are too many examples to include - as a small sampler, try this report of the sale of a wife.

One thing leads to another

As so often happens, when looking for one thing I came across another of interest. In a similar vein to the poem I posted a while ago, Barbara Frietchie, I found this poem, The Bravest Boy in Town by Emily Huntington Nason.

The Bravest Boy in Town

He lived in the Cumberland Valley,
And his name was Jamie Brown;
But it changed one day, so the neighbors say,
To the "Bravest Boy in Town."

'Twas the time when the Southern soldiers,
Under Early's mad command,
O'er the border made their dashing raid
From the north of Maryland.

And Chambersburg unransomed
In smouldering ruins slept,
While up the vale, like a fiery gale,
The Rebel raiders swept.

And a squad of gray-clad horsemen
Came thundering o'er the bridge,
Where peaceful cows in the meadows browse,
At the feet of the great Blue Ridge;

And on till they reached the village,
That fair in the valley lay,
Defenseless then, for its loyal men,
At the front, were far away.

"Pillage and spoil and plunder!"
This was the fearful word
That the Widow Brown, in gazing down
From her latticed window, heard.

'Neath the boughs of the sheltering oak-tree,
The leader bared his head,
As left and right, until out of sight,
His dusty gray-coats sped.

Then he called: "Halloo! within there!"
A gentle, fair-haired dame
Across the floor to the open door
In gracious answer came.

"Here! stable my horse, you woman!"—
The soldier's tones were rude—
"Then bestir yourself and from yonder shelf
Set out your store of food!"

For her guest she spread the table;
She motioned him to his place
With a gesture proud; then the widow bowed,
And gently—asked a grace.

"If thine enemy hunger, feed him!
I obey, dear Christ!" she said;
A creeping blush, with its scarlet flush,
O'er the face of the soldier spread.

He rose: "You have said it, madam!
Standing within your doors
Is the Rebel foe; but as forth they go
They shall trouble not you nor yours!"

Alas, for the word of the leader!
Alas, for the soldier's vow!
When the captain's men rode down the glen,
They carried the widow's cow.

It was then the fearless Jamie
Sprang up with flashing eyes,
And in spite of tears and his mother's fears,
On the gray mare, off he flies.

Like a wild young Tam O'Shanter
He plunged with piercing whoop,
O'er field and brook till he overtook
The straggling Rebel troop.

Laden with spoil and plunder,
And laughing and shouting still,
As with cattle and sheep they lazily creep
Through the dust o'er the winding hill.

"Oh! the coward crowd!" cried Jamie;
"There's Brindle! I'll teach them now!"
And with headlong stride, at the captain's side,
He called for his mother's cow.

"Who are you, and who is your mother?—
I promised she should not miss?—
Well! upon my word, have I never heard
Of assurance like to this!"

"Is your word the word of a soldier?"—
And the young lad faced his foes,
As a jeering laugh, in anger half
And half in sport, arose.

But the captain drew his sabre,
And spoke, with lowering brow:
"Fall back into line! The joke is mine!
Surrender the widow's cow!"

And a capital joke they thought it,
That a barefoot lad of ten
Should demand his due—and get it too—
In the face of forty men.

And the rollicking Rebel raiders
Forgot themselves somehow,
And three cheers brave for the hero gave,
And three for the brindle cow.

He lived in the Cumberland Valley,
And his name was Jamie Brown;
But it changed that day, so the neighbors say,
To the "Bravest Boy in Town."

Bingen on the Rhine

J.J. Tanner, 1850

I just finished reading Stephen Crane's short story The Open Boat. In the story he alludes to a ballad whose first line is "A soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers".

A quick search on the internet reveals that it is by Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton (1808-1877), a poet with whom I was unfamiliar but who looks pretty good. The title is actually Bingen on the Rhine.
Bingen on the Rhine

A soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers,

There was a lack of woman's nursing, there was dearth of woman's tears;

But a comrade stood beside him, while his lifeblood ebbed away,

And bent with pitying glances, to hear what he might say.

The dying soldier faltered, and he took that comrade's hand,

And he said, "I nevermore shall see my own, my native land:

Take a message, and a token, to some distant friends of mine,

For I was born at Bingen, -- at Bingen on the Rhine.

"Tell my brothers and companions, when they meet and crowd around,
To hear my mournful story, in the pleasant vineyard ground,
That we fought the battle bravely, and when the day was done,
Full many a corpse lay ghastly pale beneath the setting sun;
And, mid the dead and dying, were some grown old in wars, --
The death-wound on their gallant breasts, the last of many scars;
And some were young, and suddenly beheld life's morn decline, --
And one had come from Bingen, -- fair Bingen on the Rhine.

"Tell my mother that her other son shall comfort her old age;
For I was still a truant bird, that thought his home a cage.
For my father was a soldier, and even as a child
My heart leaped forth to hear him tell of struggles fierce and wild;
And when he died, and left us to divide his scanty hoard,
I let them take whate'er they would, -- but kept my father's sword;
And with boyish love I hung it where the bright light used to shine
On the cottage wall at Bingen, -- calm Bingen on the Rhine.

"Tell my sister not to weep for me, and sob with drooping head,
When the troops come marching home again with glad and gallant tread,
But to look upon them proudly, with a calm and steadfast eye,
For her brother was a soldier too, and not afraid to die;
And if a comrade seek her love, I ask her in my name
To listen to him kindly, without regret or shame,
And to hang the old sword in its place (my father's sword and mine)
For the honor of old Bingen, -- dear Bingen on the Rhine.

"There's another, -- not a sister: in the happy days gone by
You'd have known her by the merriment that sparkled in her eye;
Too innocent for coquetry, -- too fond for idle scorning, --
O friend! I fear the lightest heart makes sometimes heaviest mourning!
Tell her the last night of my life (for, ere the moon be risen,
My body will be out of pain, my soul be out of prison), --
I dreamed I stood with her, and saw the yellow sunlight shine
On the vine-clad hills of Bingen, -- fair Bingen on the Rhine.

"I saw the blue Rhine sweep along, -- I heard, or seemed to hear,
The German songs we used to sing, in chorus sweet and clear;
And down the pleasant river, and up the slanting hill,
The echoing chorus sounded, through the evening calm and still;
And her glad blue eyes were on me, as we passed, with friendly talk,
Down many a path beloved of yore, and well-remembered walk!
And her little hand lay lightly, confidingly, in mine, --
But we'll meet no more at Bingen, -- loved Bingen on the Rhine."

His trembling voice grew faint and hoarse, -- his grasp was childish weak,--
His eyes put on a dying look, -- he sighed, and ceased to speak;
His comrade bent to lift him, but the spark of life had fled, --
The soldier of the Legion in a foreign land is dead;
And the soft moon rose up slowly, and calmly she looked down
On the red sand of the battle-field, with bloody corses strown;
Yet calmly on that dreadful scene her pale light seemed to shine,
As it shone on distant Bingen, -- fair Bingen on the Rhine.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A.J. Liebling

"Cynicism is often the shamefaced product of inexperience."

p. 24 Mollie & Other War Pieces by A.J. Liebling

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

"The open destiny of life."

It is so delightful when you find someone who has written a piece on an issue which you might have been mulling over and find that they have written about it much better than you ever could have.

One of the issues motivating the establishment of Through the Magic Door has been to try and counteract the very large volume of unremittingly negative children's books that have come out in the past couple of decades. Some of these are wonderfully well written. Many have been award winners. But there are so many and they are so dark.

It makes you want to take up arms - Optimists of the World Unite!

I have just discovered an author, Barbara Feinberg, who has written a delightful piece which is an exploration of why our children are being burdened with all these negative novels. Please take a look at her article, Reflections on the "Problem Novel" which is adapted from her book, Welcome to Lizard Motel.

With her delightful essay, I can safely point to her words and restrain myself from ranting.

A moment perfectly captured

While the setting and details would vary, I think every reading parent can recall some similar moment.

From the dedication verse to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

ALL in the golden afternoon
Full leisurely we glide;
For both our oars, with little skill,
By little arms are plied,
While little hands make vain pretence
Our wanderings to guide.

Ah, cruel Three! In such an hour,
Beneath such dreamy weather,
To beg a tale of breath too weak
To stir the tiniest feather!
Yet what can one poor voice avail
Against three tongues together?

Imperious Prima flashes forth
Her edict 'to begin it' -
In gentler tone Secunda hopes
'There will be nonsense in it!' -
While Tertia interrupts the tale
Not more than once a minute.

Anon, to sudden silence won,
In fancy they pursue
The dream-child moving through a land
Of wonders wild and new,
In friendly chat with bird or beast -
And half believe it true.

And ever, as the story drained
The wells of fancy dry,
And faintly strove that weary one
To put the subject by,
"The rest next time -" "It is next time!"
The happy voices cry.

Thus grew the tale of Wonderland:
Thus slowly, one by one,
Its quaint events were hammered out -
And now the tale is done,
And home we steer, a merry crew,
Beneath the setting sun.

Alice! a childish story take,
And with gentle hand
Lay it were Childhood's dreams are twined
In Memory's mystic band,
Like pilgrim's wither'd wreath of flowers
Pluck'd in a far-off land.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

It was on this day, November 13th, in 1862, that Lewis Carroll made the entry in his diary regarding his promise to Alice Liddell, "Began writing the fairy-tale of Alice - I hope to finish it by Christmas."

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and illustrated by John Tenniel Recommendation

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?'

So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Gustave Doré 1876

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner originated from a discussion held between Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Woodsworth and Dorothy Woodsworth on a walk taken on November 13th, 1797.

Wikipedia has a decent entry on the poem

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

IT is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
'By thy long beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?

The Bridegroom's doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May'st hear the merry din.'

He holds him with his skinny hand,
'There was a ship,' quoth he.
'Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!'
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.

He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years' child:
The Mariner hath his will.

The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:
He cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.

'The ship was cheer'd, the harbour clear'd,
Merrily did we drop
Below the kirk, below the hill,
Below the lighthouse top.

The Sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he!
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.

Higher and higher every day,
Till over the mast at noon——'
The Wedding-Guest here beat his breast,
For he heard the loud bassoon.

The bride hath paced into the hall,
Red as a rose is she;
Nodding their heads before her goes
The merry minstrelsy.

The Wedding-Guest he beat his breast,
Yet he cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.

'And now the Storm-blast came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong:
He struck with his o'ertaking wings,
And chased us south along.

With sloping masts and dipping prow,
As who pursued with yell and blow
Still treads the shadow of his foe,
And forward bends his head,
The ship drove fast, loud roar'd the blast,
The southward aye we fled.

And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—
The ice was all between.

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It crack'd and growl'd, and roar'd and howl'd,
Like noises in a swound!

At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hail'd it in God's name.

It ate the food it ne'er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steer'd us through!

And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariners' hollo!

In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perch'd for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmer'd the white moonshine.'

'God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look'st thou so?'—'With my crossbow
I shot the Albatross.

'The Sun now rose upon the right:
Out of the sea came he,
Still hid in mist, and on the left
Went down into the sea.

And the good south wind still blew behind,
But no sweet bird did follow,
Nor any day for food or play
Came to the mariners' hollo!

And I had done an hellish thing,
And it would work 'em woe:
For all averr'd, I had kill'd the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!

Nor dim nor red, like God's own head,
The glorious Sun uprist:
Then all averr'd, I had kill'd the bird
That brought the fog and mist.
'Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,
That bring the fog and mist.

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow follow'd free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.

Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down,
'Twas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea!

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.

The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

About, about, in reel and rout
The death-fires danced at night;
The water, like a witch's oils,
Burnt green, and blue, and white.

And some in dreams assuréd were
Of the Spirit that plagued us so;
Nine fathom deep he had followed us
From the land of mist and snow.

And every tongue, through utter drought,
Was wither'd at the root;
We could not speak, no more than if
We had been choked with soot.

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

'There passed a weary time. Each throat
Was parch'd, and glazed each eye.
A weary time! a weary time!
How glazed each weary eye!
When looking westward, I beheld
A something in the sky.

At first it seem'd a little speck,
And then it seem'd a mist;
It moved and moved, and took at last
A certain shape, I wist.

A speck, a mist, a shape, I wist!
And still it near'd and near'd:
As if it dodged a water-sprite,
It plunged, and tack'd, and veer'd.

With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
We could nor laugh nor wail;
Through utter drought all dumb we stood!
I bit my arm, I suck'd the blood,
And cried, A sail! a sail!

With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
Agape they heard me call:
Gramercy! they for joy did grin,
And all at once their breath drew in,
As they were drinking all.

See! see! (I cried) she tacks no more!
Hither to work us weal—
Without a breeze, without a tide,
She steadies with upright keel!

The western wave was all aflame,
The day was wellnigh done!
Almost upon the western wave
Rested the broad, bright Sun;
When that strange shape drove suddenly
Betwixt us and the Sun.

And straight the Sun was fleck'd with bars
(Heaven's Mother send us grace!),
As if through a dungeon-grate he peer'd
With broad and burning face.

Alas! (thought I, and my heart beat loud)
How fast she nears and nears!
Are those her sails that glance in the Sun,
Like restless gossameres?

Are those her ribs through which the Sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a Death? and are there two?
Is Death that Woman's mate?

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.

The naked hulk alongside came,
And the twain were casting dice;
"The game is done! I've won! I've won!"
Quoth she, and whistles thrice.

The Sun's rim dips; the stars rush out:
At one stride comes the dark;
With far-heard whisper, o'er the sea,
Off shot the spectre-bark.

We listen'd and look'd sideways up!
Fear at my heart, as at a cup,
My life-blood seem'd to sip!
The stars were dim, and thick the night,
The steersman's face by his lamp gleam'd white;
From the sails the dew did drip—
Till clomb above the eastern bar
The hornéd Moon, with one bright star
Within the nether tip.

One after one, by the star-dogg'd Moon,
Too quick for groan or sigh,
Each turn'd his face with a ghastly pang,
And cursed me with his eye.

Four times fifty living men
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan),
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropp'd down one by one.

The souls did from their bodies fly—
They fled to bliss or woe!
And every soul, it pass'd me by
Like the whizz of my crossbow!'

'I fear thee, ancient Mariner!
I fear thy skinny hand!
And thou art long, and lank, and brown,
As is the ribb'd sea-sand.

I fear thee and thy glittering eye,
And thy skinny hand so brown.'—
'Fear not, fear not, thou Wedding-Guest!
This body dropt not down.

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.

I look'd upon the rotting sea,
And drew my eyes away;
I look'd upon the rotting deck,
And there the dead men lay.

I look'd to heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust.

I closed my lids, and kept them close,
And the balls like pulses beat;
For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky,
Lay like a load on my weary eye,
And the dead were at my feet.

The cold sweat melted from their limbs,
Nor rot nor reek did they:
The look with which they look'd on me
Had never pass'd away.

An orphan's curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high;
But oh! more horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man's eye!
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die.

The moving Moon went up the sky,
And nowhere did abide;
Softly she was going up,
And a star or two beside—

Her beams bemock'd the sultry main,
Like April hoar-frost spread;
But where the ship's huge shadow lay,
The charméd water burnt alway
A still and awful red.

Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watch'd the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they rear'd, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship
I watch'd their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coil'd and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gush'd from my heart,
And I bless'd them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I bless'd them unaware.

The selfsame moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.

'O sleep! it is a gentle thing,
Beloved from pole to pole!
To Mary Queen the praise be given!
She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven,
That slid into my soul.

The silly buckets on the deck,
That had so long remain'd,
I dreamt that they were fill'd with dew;
And when I awoke, it rain'd.

My lips were wet, my throat was cold,
My garments all were dank;
Sure I had drunken in my dreams,
And still my body drank.

I moved, and could not feel my limbs:
I was so light—almost
I thought that I had died in sleep,
And was a blesséd ghost.

And soon I heard a roaring wind:
It did not come anear;
But with its sound it shook the sails,
That were so thin and sere.

The upper air burst into life;
And a hundred fire-flags sheen;
To and fro they were hurried about!
And to and fro, and in and out,
The wan stars danced between.

And the coming wind did roar more loud,
And the sails did sigh like sedge;
And the rain pour'd down from one black cloud;
The Moon was at its edge.

The thick black cloud was cleft, and still
The Moon was at its side;
Like waters shot from some high crag,
The lightning fell with never a jag,
A river steep and wide.

The loud wind never reach'd the ship,
Yet now the ship moved on!
Beneath the lightning and the Moon
The dead men gave a groan.

They groan'd, they stirr'd, they all uprose,
Nor spake, nor moved their eyes;
It had been strange, even in a dream,
To have seen those dead men rise.

The helmsman steer'd, the ship moved on;
Yet never a breeze up-blew;
The mariners all 'gan work the ropes,
Where they were wont to do;
They raised their limbs like lifeless tools—
We were a ghastly crew.

The body of my brother's son
Stood by me, knee to knee:
The body and I pull'd at one rope,
But he said naught to me.'

'I fear thee, ancient Mariner!'
Be calm, thou Wedding-Guest:
'Twas not those souls that fled in pain,
Which to their corses came again,
But a troop of spirits blest:

For when it dawn'd—they dropp'd their arms,
And cluster'd round the mast;
Sweet sounds rose slowly through their mouths,
And from their bodies pass'd.

Around, around, flew each sweet sound,
Then darted to the Sun;
Slowly the sounds came back again,
Now mix'd, now one by one.

Sometimes a-dropping from the sky
I heard the skylark sing;
Sometimes all little birds that are,
How they seem'd to fill the sea and air
With their sweet jargoning!

And now 'twas like all instruments,
Now like a lonely flute;
And now it is an angel's song,
That makes the Heavens be mute.

It ceased; yet still the sails made on
A pleasant noise till noon,
A noise like of a hidden brook
In the leafy month of June,
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune.

Till noon we quietly sail'd on,
Yet never a breeze did breathe:
Slowly and smoothly went the ship,
Moved onward from beneath.

Under the keel nine fathom deep,
From the land of mist and snow,
The Spirit slid: and it was he
That made the ship to go.
The sails at noon left off their tune,
And the ship stood still also.

The Sun, right up above the mast,
Had fix'd her to the ocean:
But in a minute she 'gan stir,
With a short uneasy motion—
Backwards and forwards half her length
With a short uneasy motion.

Then like a pawing horse let go,
She made a sudden bound:
It flung the blood into my head,
And I fell down in a swound.

How long in that same fit I lay,
I have not to declare;
But ere my living life return'd,
I heard, and in my soul discern'd
Two voices in the air.

"Is it he?" quoth one, "is this the man?
By Him who died on cross,
With his cruel bow he laid full low
The harmless Albatross.

The Spirit who bideth by himself
In the land of mist and snow,
He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow."

The other was a softer voice,
As soft as honey-dew:
Quoth he, "The man hath penance done,
And penance more will do."

First Voice: '"But tell me, tell me! speak again,
Thy soft response renewing—
What makes that ship drive on so fast?
What is the Ocean doing?"

Second Voice: "Still as a slave before his lord,
The Ocean hath no blast;
His great bright eye most silently
Up to the Moon is cast—

If he may know which way to go;
For she guides him smooth or grim.
See, brother, see! how graciously
She looketh down on him."

First Voice: "But why drives on that ship so fast,
Without or wave or wind?"

Second Voice: "The air is cut away before,
And closes from behind.

Fly, brother, fly! more high, more high!
Or we shall be belated:
For slow and slow that ship will go,
When the Mariner's trance is abated.'

I woke, and we were sailing on
As in a gentle weather:
'Twas night, calm night, the Moon was high;
The dead men stood together.

All stood together on the deck,
For a charnel-dungeon fitter:
All fix'd on me their stony eyes,
That in the Moon did glitter.

The pang, the curse, with which they died,
Had never pass'd away:
I could not draw my eyes from theirs,
Nor turn them up to pray.

And now this spell was snapt: once more
I viewed the ocean green,
And look'd far forth, yet little saw
Of what had else been seen—

Like one that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turn'd round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

But soon there breathed a wind on me,
Nor sound nor motion made:
Its path was not upon the sea,
In ripple or in shade.

It raised my hair, it fann'd my cheek
Like a meadow-gale of spring—
It mingled strangely with my fears,
Yet it felt like a welcoming.

Swiftly, swiftly flew the ship,
Yet she sail'd softly too:
Sweetly, sweetly blew the breeze—
On me alone it blew.

O dream of joy! is this indeed
The lighthouse top I see?
Is this the hill? is this the kirk?
Is this mine own countree?

We drifted o'er the harbour-bar,
And I with sobs did pray—
O let me be awake, my God!
Or let me sleep alway.

The harbour-bay was clear as glass,
So smoothly it was strewn!
And on the bay the moonlight lay,
And the shadow of the Moon.

The rock shone bright, the kirk no less
That stands above the rock:
The moonlight steep'd in silentness
The steady weathercock.

And the bay was white with silent light
Till rising from the same,
Full many shapes, that shadows were,
In crimson colours came.

A little distance from the prow
Those crimson shadows were:
I turn'd my eyes upon the deck—
O Christ! what saw I there!

Each corse lay flat, lifeless and flat,
And, by the holy rood!
A man all light, a seraph-man,
On every corse there stood.

This seraph-band, each waved his hand:
It was a heavenly sight!
They stood as signals to the land,
Each one a lovely light;

This seraph-band, each waved his hand,
No voice did they impart—
No voice; but O, the silence sank
Like music on my heart.

But soon I heard the dash of oars,
I heard the Pilot's cheer;
My head was turn'd perforce away,
And I saw a boat appear.

The Pilot and the Pilot's boy,
I heard them coming fast:
Dear Lord in Heaven! it was a joy
The dead men could not blast.

I saw a third—I heard his voice:
It is the Hermit good!
He singeth loud his godly hymns
That he makes in the wood.
He'll shrieve my soul, he'll wash away
The Albatross's blood.

'This Hermit good lives in that wood
Which slopes down to the sea.
How loudly his sweet voice he rears!
He loves to talk with marineres
That come from a far countree.

He kneels at morn, and noon, and eve—
He hath a cushion plump:
It is the moss that wholly hides
The rotted old oak-stump.

The skiff-boat near'd: I heard them talk,
"Why, this is strange, I trow!
Where are those lights so many and fair,
That signal made but now?"

"Strange, by my faith!" the Hermit said—
"And they answer'd not our cheer!
The planks looked warp'd! and see those sails,
How thin they are and sere!
I never saw aught like to them,
Unless perchance it were

Brown skeletons of leaves that lag
My forest-brook along;
When the ivy-tod is heavy with snow,
And the owlet whoops to the wolf below,
That eats the she-wolf's young."

"Dear Lord! it hath a fiendish look—
(The Pilot made reply)
I am a-fear'd"—"Push on, push on!"
Said the Hermit cheerily.

The boat came closer to the ship,
But I nor spake nor stirr'd;
The boat came close beneath the ship,
And straight a sound was heard.

Under the water it rumbled on,
Still louder and more dread:
It reach'd the ship, it split the bay;
The ship went down like lead.

Stunn'd by that loud and dreadful sound,
Which sky and ocean smote,
Like one that hath been seven days drown'd
My body lay afloat;
But swift as dreams, myself I found
Within the Pilot's boat.

Upon the whirl, where sank the ship,
The boat spun round and round;
And all was still, save that the hill
Was telling of the sound.

I moved my lips—the Pilot shriek'd
And fell down in a fit;
The holy Hermit raised his eyes,
And pray'd where he did sit.

I took the oars: the Pilot's boy,
Who now doth crazy go,
Laugh'd loud and long, and all the while
His eyes went to and fro.
"Ha! ha!" quoth he, "full plain I see
The Devil knows how to row."

And now, all in my own countree,
I stood on the firm land!
The Hermit stepp'd forth from the boat,
And scarcely he could stand.

"O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man!"
The Hermit cross'd his brow.
"Say quick," quoth he, "I bid thee say—
What manner of man art thou?"

Forthwith this frame of mine was wrench'd
With a woful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free.

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.

What loud uproar bursts from that door!
The wedding-guests are there:
But in the garden-bower the bride
And bride-maids singing are:
And hark the little vesper bell,
Which biddeth me to prayer!

O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide, wide sea:
So lonely 'twas, that God Himself
Scarce seeméd there to be.

O sweeter than the marriage-feast,
'Tis sweeter far to me,
To walk together to the kirk
With a goodly company!—

To walk together to the kirk,
And all together pray,
While each to his great Father bends,
Old men, and babes, and loving friends,
And youths and maidens gay!

Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.'

The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest
Turn'd from the bridegroom's door.

He went like one that hath been stunn'd,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man
He rose the morrow morn.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

When love flourished in M for medical textbooks

When love flourished in M for medical textbooks
by Eva Ibbotson
The Observer
July 9, 2006

I was eight years old when I came to Britain as a refugee - and was not particularly grateful. Mostly this was because after years and years of being a sheep coming to the manger, or a grazing cow, I had at last landed the part of the Virgin Mary in the nativity play at my convent school in Vienna.
And then ... Hitler.

We came to London in 1934, a bedraggled party consisting of my fey, poetic mother, my irascible grandmother and confused aunt, and rented rooms in a dilapidated house in Belsize Park which, in those days, was a seedy, run-down part of the city. The house was full of suddenly impoverished refugees facing exile. On every floor were lonely and muddled professors, doctors and lawyers, mostly from German-speaking countries. I had no friends, no school yet, nowhere to play. . .

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Fuzzy-Wuzzy (Soudan Expeditionary Force)

Sudan Warrior - from the Frank and Frances Carpenter

Fuzzy-Wuzzy (Soudan Expeditionary Force)
Rudyard Kipling

WE'VE fought with many men acrost the seas,
An' some of 'em was brave an' some was not:
The Paythan an' the Zulu an' Burmese;
But the Fuzzy was the finest o' the lot.
We never got a ha'porth's change of 'im:
'E squatted in the scrub an' 'ocked our 'orses,
'E cut our sentries up at Suakim,
An' 'e played the cat an' banjo with our forces.
So 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your 'ome in the Soudan;
You're a pore benighted 'eathen but a first-class fightin' man;
We gives you your certificate, an' if you want it signed
We'll come an' 'ave a romp with you whenever you're inclined.

We took our chanst among the Khyber 'ills,
The Boers knocked us silly at a mile,
The Burman give us Irriwaddy chills,
An' a Zulu impi dished us up in style:
But all we ever got from such as they
Was pop to what the Fuzzy made us swaller;
We 'eld our bloomin' own, the papers say,
But man for man the Fuzzy knocked us 'oller.
Then 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an' the missis and the kid;
Our orders was to break you, an' of course we went an' did.
We sloshed you with Martinis, an' it wasn't 'ardly fair;
But for all the odds agin' you, Fuzzy-Wuz, you broke the square.

'E 'asn't got no papers of 'is own,
'E 'asn't got no medals nor rewards,
So we must certify the skill 'e's shown
In usin' of 'is long two-'anded swords:
When 'e's 'oppin' in an' out among the bush
With 'is coffin-'eaded shield an' shovel-spear,
An 'appy day with Fuzzy on the rush
Will last an 'ealthy Tommy for a year.
So 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an' your friends which are no more,
If we 'adn't lost some messmates we would 'elp you to deplore;
But give an' take's the gospel, an' we'll call the bargain fair,
For if you 'ave lost more than us, you crumpled up the square!

'E rushes at the smoke when we let drive,
An', before we know, 'e's 'ackin' at our 'ead;
'E's all 'ot sand an' ginger when alive,
An' 'e's generally shammin' when 'e's dead.
'E's a daisy, 'e's a ducky, 'e's a lamb!
'E's a injia-rubber idiot on the spree,
'E's the on'y thing that doesn't give a damn
For a Regiment o' British Infantree!
So 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your 'ome in the Soudan;
You're a pore benighted 'eathen but a first-class fightin' man;
An' 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, with your 'ayrick 'ead of 'air—
You big black boundin' beggar—for you broke a British square!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Mark Twain

"The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them."

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Novel defense

The Smithsonian Book of Books by Michael Olmert

From The Smithsonian Book of Books comes this little detail of which I was unaware.

"The ability to read and write Latin among the clergy was a holdover from the time of Alcuin (of York). Reading the 51st Psalm in Latin was proof that one was in holy orders and so was exempt from criminal prosecution in civil courts. Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's friend, once used his classical training in this way to escape punishment for manslaughter after a duel. In America this legal device survived into the 18th century."

Colophons and marginalia

I am enjoying dipping into The Smithsonian Book of Books at the moment.

The Smithsonian Book of Books by Michael Olmert

In the chapters covering the arts and development of the medieval scribes and illuminated manuscripts are a littering of the marginalia and colophons inked in by those toiling scribes of centuries past (and which seem to bring us closer to them than any of the actual text they are copying):

To copy books is better than to ditch the vines:
the second serves the belly, but the first the mind.

Or from this Irish scribe about his favorite pet:

Pangur is proof the arts of cats

And men are in alliance;

His mind is set on catching rats,

And mine on snaring science.

I make my book, the world forgot,
A kind of endless class-time;
My hobby Pangur envies not--
He likes more childish pastime.

Caught in his diplomatic net,
A mouse jumps down his gullet;
And sometimes I can half-way get
A problem when I mull it.

An Irish scribe in the 1100s couldn't resist adding this editorial colophon to the book he had just finished copying:

I who have copied down this story, or more accurately fantasy, do not credit the details of the story, or fantasy. Some things in it are devilish lies, and some poetical figments; some seem possible and others not; some are for the enjoyment of idiots.

Another exasperated scribe noted in the margins of a particularly challenging piece of Greek

There's an end to that . . and my seven curses go with it.

And then there is the simple and touching colophon to a just completed copy:

Goodbye, little book.

Friday, November 2, 2007


I know there's a word for it, can anyone think of it? The phenomenon is when you suddenly come across two or more instances of something unusual and impute to it something more than coincidence. I first became across this phenomenon when I was ten or twelve and noticed in a single day three separate dogs in different parts of the city that had those big plastic cones they put around a dog's head to stop them from chewing on stitches or a wound. I hadn't seen one of those for years and then spotted three in a day.

Likewise, last night I am sampling some Robert Frost poems and came across Locked Out.
Locked Out
As told to a child
by Robert Frost

When we locked up the house at night,
We always locked the flowers outside
And cut them off from window light.
The time I dreamed the door was tried
And brushed with buttons upon sleeves,
The flowers were out there with the thieves.
Yet nobody molested them!
We did find one nasturtium
Upon the steps with bitten stem.
I may have been to blame for that:
I always thought it must have been
Some flower I played with as I sat
At dusk to watch the moon down early.

What caught my eye was the line "We did find one nasturtium" and thinking to myself, you don't see that word often and I don't think I have ever seen it in a poem. Nasturtium is Latin for nose twister.

Then this morning, I am rereading Rosemary Wells' Wingwalker and come across:

"Your Father has dreams on the side, Reuben," my mother told me. She and I were planting nasturtiums in the center of a tire painted white.

Now what are the odds, and how would you even reckon them, of coming across nasturtiums at random, twice in the space of twenty-four hours?