Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Breugel and Auden

Auden is one of my favorite poets and Breugel among my favorite artists. Why did it take me so long to realize the connection between them? Just one of those things. Auden viewed Breugel's "Fall of Icarus" and wrote the following poem, the last couple of lines of which are so striking. And here is the picture itself.

art-pieter-bruegel-the-elder-landscape-with-the-fall-of-icarus.jpg

Musee des Beaux Arts
by W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Between what matters and . . .

From the opening lines of E.C. Bentley's classic in British mystery writing, Trent's Last Case from 1913.
Between what matters and what seems to matter, how should the world we know judge wisely.

Trent's Last Case is available only as an audio CD.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Don't let the best be the enemy of the good

I became aware of this adage a few years ago and have always considered it one of the most revealing but challenging of adages. It encapsulates a conundrum we all find difficulty resolving.

Given a particular outcome you wish to achieve with particular attributes, you can always anticipate barriers to achieving that outcome. The nature of those barriers often means that you can get someway or even most of the way towards your goal with some relative ease but that getting the last few details right involves excrutiating effort or unpleasant trade-off decisions. Sometimes raw persistence can carry you to your outcome but at tremendous cost.

The adage counsels that you consider accepting something less than your ideal outcome in order to avoid the cost of getting just exactly what you wanted. Better to accept 90% of what you were shooting for at 30% of the cost than to achieve 100% of your desired outcome but at a much higher cost.

Well and good. But what are the trade-off percentages. Colin Powell once counseled that a General can never be effective if he always waits for all the information he needs in order to make a decision. I believe his number was 70%; when you have 70% of the information you want, the benefit of prompt action outweighs the risks associated with waiting to get 100% of the information.

In the end, there isn't a numerical answer. Like a good lawyer, consultant or Jesuit, the answer is that it depends. The adage is useful for predisposing you to action but it does not give you guidance as to when enough is enough.

Today, I came across a reference that seems to attribute this adage, which I thought to be just a piece of folk wisdom, to Voltaire, rendered as "the perfect is the enemy of the good." I'll have to investigate that at some point.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The brain is an engineering system

From the October, 2009 Popular Mechanics' article 4 People Who Faced Disaster by John Galvin:

"The brain is an engineering system," says John Leach, a former Royal Air Force combat survival instructor who now works with the Norwegian military on survival training and research. "Like any engineering system, it has limits in terms of what it can process and how fast it can do so. We cope by taking in information about our environment, and then building a model of that environment. We don't respond to our environment, but to the model of our environment." If there's no model, the brain tries to create one, but there's not enough time for that during an emergency. Operating on an inadequate mental model, disaster victims often fail to take the actions needed to save their own lives.

I wonder if this is why enthusiastic readers are able, on average, to achieve such markedly higher outcomes in terms of education, income, etc.? The hypothesis would be that through frequent and broad reading, their minds create a large volume of off-the-shelf models for all sorts of situations (emergency, social, career, etc.) and therefore are able to respond faster and with greater probability of success. It would be consistent with our Reading Hamburger model.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

We live in networks, not communities

I just finished reading an essay (Why Schools Don't Educate, HOPE October 1996) from an author, John Taylor Gatto. An interesting experience. I am unfamiliar with his work but a quick web search seems to indicate a talented, passionate person of a distinctly iconoclastic nature.

Reading his essay was a disconbobulating experience. In the chain of his thinking from data to facts to interpretation to diagnosis to prescription, I found myself frequently in profound disagreement. And yet he writes passionately, well and with insight. I liked:
Children and old people are penned up and locked away from the business of the world to a degree without precedent - nobody talks to them anymore and without children and old people mixing in daily life a community has no future and no past, only a continuous present. In fact, the name "community" hardly applies to the way we interact with each other. We live in networks, not communities, and everyone I know is lonely because of that.

But for all my disagreement, disconcertingly, I also find myself in committed agreement with some of his thoughts.
Family is the main engine of education. If we use schooling to break children away from parents - and make no mistake, that has been the central function of schools since John Cotton announced it as the purpose of the Bay Colony schools in 1650 and Horace Mann announced it as the purpose of Massachusetts schools in 1850 - we're going to continue to have the horror show we have right now. The curriculum of family is at the heart of any good life, we've gotten away from that curriculum, time to return to it. The way to sanity in education is for our schools to take the lead in releasing the stranglehold of institutions on family life, to promote during school time confluences of parent and child that will strengthen family bonds.

In this last quote I recognize exactly what we are advocating for at Through the Magic Door. Opening the door of reading occurs within the family environment - teachers and librarians can help and sometimes, in some instances, even be the primary agents; but they can never replace the respect for and love of reading that is inculcated within the family.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley has been making the rounds in several blogs. First link in the chain appears to have been Ann Althouse's search for the source of an Aldous Huxley quote -
"It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one's life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than 'Try to be a little kinder.'"

Followed then by Kenneth Anderson's recollections of his reading of Huxley.

Huxley was never a seminal author for me though I did enjoy his works, particularly Brave New World, The Doors of Perception and The Perennial Philosophy. What impressed me most was not that that he might have the answers but rather that he seemed to embody the constant quester; always seeking and sort of issuing reports along the way.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I Have Tried the Upward and the Downward Slope by R.L. Stevenson

From R.L. Stevenson's Songs of Travel. For background see Lust, Vengeance, Exile & Loss.

I Have Tried the Upward and the Downward Slope
by R.L. Stevenson

I have trod the upward and the downward slope;
I have endured and done in days before;
I have longed for all, and bid farewell to hope;
And I have lived and loved, and closed the door.

Human exceptionalism

It is always a delight to come across a new book and/or author who can capture your interest. I picked up Martin Wells' Civilization and the Limpet. It is full of interesting titbits.
Small mammals always run through their lives at a pace in terms of footfalls if not furlongs - that would leave their larger relatives literally breathless. One can, in fact, be quite precise about it. The formula is: specific fuel consumption (food needed per gram per hour) falls with increasing body wieght as Weight (-0.25) (double the weight, metabloic rate rises by 84 percent, not 100 percent; at ten times the weight, the cost per gram is down to 56 percent). The Weight (-0.25) exponent applies to practically any activity you care to think about: heartbeats or breaths, time to digest a meal or reach sexual maturity, gestation and lactation periods, life expectancy. It means that all of us mammals get through just about the same number of heartbeats or square meals in the course of a lifetime. It is one of the universal laws regulating the life of mammals, and, amazingly, we have no clear idea why it should be.

Whatever the cause, it has some rather curious consequences, because all of us, of whatever size and rate of tick-over, inhabit the same planet, so that, like it or not, a day-night cycle lasts twenty-four hours, a tidal cycle runs over twenty-eight days, and seasons happen yearly. A twelve-hour night is inconveniently long for small mammals and for birds, which have to pack away enough food inside them to see them through what is, for them, a horribly long fast. Small birds in Europe or North America only just about make it in summer, when the days are long and the nights short. In the winter, most clear out and fly south. The very smallest, hummingbirds, couldn't even make it in summer in northern latitudes if they didn't go torpid and drop their body temperature at night, slowing down physiological time so that their reserves last until morning. Bats have the same trouble with days, and the smaller ones adopt the same solution. In winter, bats in temperate climates huddle together in some secluded roost and maintain a body temperature that is just sufficient to stop them from freezing. With a bit of luck their fat reserves will last them until the insects come out again in the spring.

Shrews and small mice just keep going, wake up and ferret around for food every few minutes. Most stash away supplies so that there are snacks available whenever they wake up. At the other end of the scale one might imagine that an elephant or a hippopoamus would appreciate a significant slowing of astronomical time.

Humans are unusual in this as in so many other ways, a difficult animal to fit into the general picture. One of our many outstanding features is that we live too long, by the standards of other mammals. Placed on the shrew-to-elephant weight scale, we fit in nicely in terms of metabolic rate, but ought to die off in our thirties; we've had our ration of heartbeats by then. The fact that we somehow contrive to live for twice as long is, arguably, a matter of brains, and looking after ourselves properly. But even animals in zoos, which typically live for a lot longer than their relatives in the wild, don't manage to beat the system by a factor of two or three as we do, so that the notion that we get by by coddling ourselves is unlikely to be the whole explanation.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Bright is the Ring of Words by R.L. Stevenson

From R.L. Stevenson's Songs of Travel. For background see Lust, Vengeance, Exile & Loss.

Bright is the Ring of Words
by R.L. Stevenson

Bright is the ring of words
When the right man rings them,
Fair the fall of songs
When the singer sings them.
Still they are carolled and said -
On wings they are carried -
After the singer is dead
And the maker buried.

Low as the singer lies
In the field of heather,
Songs of his fashion bring
The swains together.
And when the west is red
With the sunset embers,
The lover lingers and sings
And the maid remembers.

Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.

Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored. - Aldous Huxley, Proper Studies, 1927

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Whither Must I Wander by R.L. Stevenson

From R.L. Stevenson's Songs of Travel. For background see Lust, Vengeance, Exile & Loss.

Whither Must I Wander
by R.L. Stevenson

Home no more home to me, whither must I wander?
Hunger my driver, I go where I must.
Cold blows the winter wind over hill and heather;
Thick drives the rain, and my roof is in the dust.
Loved of wise men was the shade of my roof-tree.
The true word of welcome was spoken in the door -
Dear days of old, with the faces in the firelight,
Kind folks of old, you come again no more.

Home was home then, my dear, full of kindly faces,
Home was home then, my dear, happy for the child.
Fire and the windows bright glittered on the moorland;
Song, tuneful song, built a palace in the wild.
Now, when day dawns on the brow of the moorland,
Lone stands the house, and the chimney-stone is cold.
Lone let it stand, now the friends are all departed,
The kind hearts, the true hearts, that loved the place of old.

Spring shall come, come again, calling up the moorfowl,
Spring shall bring the sun and rain, bring the bees and flowers;
Red shall the heather bloom over hill and valley,
Soft flow the stream through the even-flowing hours;
Fair the day shine as it shone on my childhood -
Fair shine the day on the house with open door;
Birds come and cry there and twitter in the chimney -
But I go for ever and come again no more.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Infinite Shining Heavens by R.L. Stevenson

From R.L. Stevenson's Songs of Travel. For background see Lust, Vengeance, Exile & Loss.

The Infinite Shining Heavens
by R.L. Stevenson

The infinite shining heavens
Rose and I saw in the night
Uncountable angel stars
Showering sorrow and light.

I saw them distant as heaven,
Dumb and shining and dead,
And the idle stars of the night
Were dearer to me than bread.

Night after night in my sorrow
The stars stood over the sea,
Till lo! I looked in the dusk
And a star had come down to me .

Friday, September 18, 2009

In Dreams by R.L. Stevenson

From R.L. Stevenson's Songs of Travel. For background see Lust, Vengeance, Exile & Loss.

In Dreams
by R.L. Stevenson

In dreams, unhappy, I behold you stand
As heretofore:
The unremembered tokens in your hand
Avail no more.

No more the morning glow, no more the grace,
Enshrines, endears.
Cold beats the light of time upon your face
And shows your tears.

He came and went. Perchance you wept a while
And then forgot.
Ah me! but he that left you with a smile
Forgets you not.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Youth and Love by R.L. Stevenson

From R.L. Stevenson's Songs of Travel. For background see Lust, Vengeance, Exile & Loss.

Youth and Love
by R.L. Stevenson

Once only by the garden gate
Our lips we joined and parted.
I must fulfil an empty fate
And travel the uncharted.

Hail and farewell! I must arise,
Leave here the fatted cattle,
And paint on foreign lands and skies
My Odyssey of battle.

The untented Kosmos my abode,
I pass, a wilful stranger:
My mistress still the open road
And the bright eyes of danger.

Come ill or well, the cross, the crown,
The rainbow or the thunder,
I fling my soul and body down
For God to plough them under.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Roadside Fire by R.L. Stevenson

From R.L. Stevenson's Songs of Travel. For background see Lust, Vengeance, Exile & Loss.

The Roadside Fire
by R.l. Stevenson

I will make you brooches and toys for your delight
Of bird-song at morning and star-shine at night.
I will make a palace fit for you and me
Of green days in forests and blue days at sea.

I will make my kitchen, and you shall keep your room,
Where white flows the river and bright blows the broom,
And you shall wash your linen and keep your body white
In rainfall at morning and dewfall at night.

And this shall be for music when no one else is near,
The fine song for singing, the rare song to hear!
That only I remember, that only you admire,
Of the broad road that stretches and the roadside fire.

The Decline of the English Department?

In the Autumn 2009 edition of The American Scholar, there is an interesting article, The Decline of the English Department? by William M. Chace. It is well worth a read.

Nicely based on some factual analysis, (from 1970 to 2003, the number of students majoring in English declined from 7.6% to 3.9%), the article discusses why this might be an issue and why it has happened. I couldn't agree more with this leading statement:
What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.

Amen! If even those most affected in academia cannot set aside their divisive indulgences in order to support and cultivate a love of reading, then there should be little surprise that people turn away from those studies and that the culture of reading should itself stand in some jeopardy. I would go further than Chace and argue that an additional significant contributor to the decline has been the advancement of teaching by assertion and emotion, displacing teaching by reason and evidence. It is an incredible waste of time to attempt to argue against positions whose validity are not grounded in any measurable reality or whose theories cannot be tested.

Some of the other particularly attention grabbing passages:
Studying English taught us how to write and think better, and to make articulate many of the inchoate impulses and confusions of our post-adolescent minds. We began to see, as we had not before, how such books could shape and refine our thinking. We began to understand why generations of people coming before us had kept them in libraries and bookstores and in classes such as ours. There was, we got to know, a tradition, a historical culture, that had been assembled around these books. Shakespeare had indeed made a difference - to people before us, now to us, and forever to the language of English-speaking people.
Chace makes the point that, mundane as it might seem, English departments do have a tangible mission to fill. Having spent twenty years in management and systems consulting, I can testify that businesses in general, particularly services industries, value effective communication skills and are constantly seeking to find employees that can write well and invest in courses to improve the writing skills of their existing employees. The fact that they have to do this is testimony to the fact that English departments are not fulfilling a mission that is in demand.
The English department has one sturdy lifeline, however: it is responsible for teaching composition. While this duty is always advertised as an activity central to higher education, it is one devoid of dignity. Its instructors are among the lowest paid of any who hold forth in a classroom; most, though possessing doctoral degrees, are ineligible for tenure or promotion; their offices are often small and crowded; their scholarship is rarely considered worthy of comparison with "literary" scholarship. Their work, while crucial, is demeaned.
Ouch.
English has become less and less coherent as a discipline and, worse, has come near exhaustion as a scholarly pursuit. English departments have not responded energetically and resourcefully to the situation surrounding them. While aware of their increasing marginality, English professors do not, on the whole, accept it. Reluctant to take a clear view of their circumstances - some of which are not under their control - they react by asserting grandiose claims while pursuing self-centered ends. Amid a chaos of curricular change, requirements dropped and added, new areas of study in competition with older ones, and a variety of critical approaches jostling against each other, many faculty members, instead of reconciling their differences and finding solid ground on which to stand together, have gone their separate ways. As they have departed, they have left behind disorder in their academic discipline. Unable to change history or rewrite economic reality, they might at least have kept their own house in order. But this they have not done.

The result - myriad pursuits, each heading away from any notion of a center - has prompted many thoughtful people to question what, indeed, the profession of literature amounts to. As long ago as 1982, the iconoclastic literary critic Frederick Crews, keenly attracted to exposing the moribund in intellectual life, announced that the study of English literature couldn't decide if it was "a legitimate discipline or only a pastime." He concluded that it was not so much a profession as a "comatose field." Two decades later, in 2004, looking back over his shoulder, the intellectual historian and literary journalist Louis Menand told his fellow professors at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association something they already knew: while student enrollment in the humanities peaked around 1970, "it has been downhill" ever since. His verdict: "It may be that what has happened to the profession is not the consequence of social or philosophical changes, but simply the consequence of a tank now empty." His homely metaphor pointed to the absence of genuinely new frontiers of knowledge and understanding for English professors to explore. This is exactly the opposite, he implied, of the prospects that natural scientists face: many frontiers to cross, much knowledge to be gained, real work to do.
And this really hurts.
In 2006, Marjorie Perloff, then president of the organization and herself a productive and learned critic, admonished her colleagues that, unlike other members of the university community, they might well have been plying their trade without proper credentials: "Whereas economists or physicists, geologists or climatologists, physicians or lawyers must master a body of knowledge before they can even think of being licensed to practice," she said, "we literary scholars, it is tacitly assumed, have no definable expertise."
The indictments keep coming, made worse by their consistency with the facts.
Perhaps the most telling sign of the near bankruptcy of the discipline is the silence from within its ranks. In the face of one skeptical and disenchanted critique after another, no one has come forward in years to assert that the study of English (or comparative literature or similar undertakings in other languages) is coherent, does have self-limiting boundaries, and can be described as this but not that.

Such silence strongly suggests a complicity of understanding, with the practitioners in agreement that to teach English today is to do, intellectually, what one pleases. No sense of duty remains toward works of English or American literature; amateur sociology or anthropology or philosophy or comic books or studies of trauma among soldiers or survivors of the Holocaust will do. You need not even believe that works of literature have intelligible meaning; you can announce that they bear no relationship at all to the world beyond the text. Nor do you need to believe that literary history is helpful in understanding the books you teach; history itself can be shucked aside as misleading, irrelevant, or even unknowable. In short, there are few, if any, fixed rules or operating principles to which those teaching English and American literature are obliged to conform. With everything on the table, and with foundational principles abandoned, everyone is free, in the classroom or in prose, to exercise intellectual laissez-faire in the largest possible way - I won't interfere with what you do and am happy to see that you will return the favor. Yet all around them a rich literature exists, extraordinary books to be taught to younger minds.
What a line: "The caravan, always moving on, travels light because of what it leaves behind."
For me, this turn of events has proven anything but happy or liberating. I have long wanted to believe that I am a member of a profession, a discipline to which I could, if fortunate, add my knowledge and skill. I have wanted to believe that this discipline had certain borders and limitations and that there were essential things to know, to preserve, and to pass on. But it turns out that everything now is porous, hazy, and open to never-ending improvisation, cancellation, and rupture; the "clean slates" are endlessly forthcoming. Fads come and go; theories appear with immense fanfare only soon to be jettisoned as bankrupt and declasse. The caravan, always moving on, travels light because of what it leaves behind.
It can't seem much more dour than this.
Fewer and fewer undergraduates are showing up in classrooms, mine and everyone else's; the pleasure of undergraduate reading is everywhere blighted by worries about money and career; university administrators are more likely to classify "literary types" as budgetary liabilities than as assets; the disciplines we teach are in a free fall, as ideology, ethnicity, theory, gender, sexuality, and old-fashioned "close reading" spin away from any center of professional consensus about joint purposes; and the youngest would-be professionals, shrinking in number, stare at diminished job prospects.
Here's the crux.
For those of us who care about literature and teaching, this is a depressing prospect, but not everyone will share the sense of loss. As the Auden poem about another failure has it, "the expensive delicate ship that must have seen / Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, / had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."

But we can, we must, do better. At stake are the books themselves and what they can mean to the young. Yes, it is just a literary tradition. That's all. But without such traditions, civil societies have no compass to guide them. That boy falling out of the sky is not to be neglected.
Not to argue with Chace's analysis but to offer a silver lining. There are some seventy million parents of children of a reading age who, by and large, are eager for their children to read. Passe a discussion which I recently heard, perhaps the study of children's literature might be a platform on which to resurrect the deminished credibility of the English department. Seventy million natural constituents eager to see and understand some of those yet-remaining frontiers of new knowledge and intellectual discovery:
What is the mode of effectiveness that links the act of enthusiastic reading to the demonstrated academic performance in school?

What role does children's literature play in the establishment or continuity of culture?

Does children's literature reinforce personal values and behavioral attributes and if so how?

Are there any factors in common between books that have demonstrated multi-generational longevity?

What are the attributes of particular children's books that seem to translate easily across cultures (for example, why is Anne of Green Gables so popular in Japan)?


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Let Beauty Awake by R.L. Stevenson

From R.L. Stevenson's Songs of Travel. For background see Lust, Vengeance, Exile & Loss.

Let Beauty Awake
by R.L. Stevenson

Let Beauty awake in the morn from beautiful dreams,
Beauty awake from rest!
Let Beauty awake
For Beauty's sake
In the hour when the birds awake in the brake
And the stars are bright in the west!

Let Beauty awake in the eve from the slumber of day,
Awake in the crimson eve!
In the day's dusk end
When the shades ascend,
Let her wake to the kiss of a tender friend
To render again and receive!

That I may read, and ride, and plant

from
In the Beginning of Robes Geography
by Matthew Prior

Great Mother, let me once be able
To have a garden, house, and stable ;
That I may read, and ride, and plant,
Superior to desire, or want;
And as health fails, and years increase,
Sit down, and think, and die in peace.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Vagabond by R.L. Stevenon

From R.L. Stevenson's Songs of Travel. For background see Lust, Vengeance, Exile & Loss.

The Vagabond (To an air of Schubert)
by R.L. Stevenson

Give to me the life I love,
Let the lave go by me,
Give the jolly heaven above
And the byway nigh me.
Bed in the bush with stars to see,
Bread I dip in the river -
There's the life for a man like me,
There's the life for ever.

Let the blow fall soon or late,
Let what will be o'er me;
Give the face of earth around
And the road before me.
Wealth I seek not, hope nor love,
Nor a friend to know me;
All I seek, the heaven above
And the road below me.

Or let autumn fall on me
Where afield I linger,
Silencing the bird on tree,
Biting the blue finger.
White as meal the frosty field -
Warm the fireside haven -
Not to autumn will I yield,
Not to winter even!

Let the blow fall soon or late,
Let what will be o'er me;
Give the face of earth around,
And the road before me.
Wealth I ask not, hope nor love,
Nor a friend to know me;
All I ask, the heaven above
And the road below me.

Lust, Vengeance, Exile & Loss

On Friday evening one of the members of our parish, a bass in the choir, in order to celebrate a birthday, a day of rememberance, and an anniversary, put on a performance by this name: Lust, Vengeance, Exile & Loss. The performance was described as considering the consequences in a lighthearted recital of works. The pieces included works by Handel, Vaughan Williams and Gershwin.

A wonderful evening spent in a beautiful church scented by old wood, wax, and thousands of hours of contemplation, surrounded by old friends and congregants coming to celebrate community and a love of magical music and song. The singing was captivating; one of those performances where you can simply let yourself be carried away by the beauty.

Reading the program notes, I saw that the nine pieces, Songs of Travel, set to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams were actually poems by Robert Louis Stevenson - one of my favorite authors and poets.

On returning home, I looked up Songs of Travel and Other Verses by R.L. Stevenson as I was not familiar with any of them. I will run the nine pieces (a subset of the much larger collection). Not quite of a kind with A Garden of Verses, but some moving pieces none-the-less.

This day in history - The Battle of Quebec

Both the French General Montcalm and his victorious opponent the British General James Wolfe, lost their lives in this storied battle.




Adult








Francis Parkman by Francis Parkman and edited by David Levin contains his account Montaclm and Wolfe Suggested

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Samuel Butler on Dogs

Samuel Butler:
The great pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him and not only will he not scold you, he will make a fool of himself too.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Chandrapore

I have never read much (really, as far as I can recollect, anything) by E.M. Forster. Yet one further gap to possibly be filled eventually. I did come across this piece describing a town in India which certainly should have me scrambling to see what we have of his around the house. From Forster's A Passage to India:
Except for the Marabar Caves - and they are twenty miles off - the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary. Edged rather than washed by the river Ganges, it trails for a couple of miles along the bank, scarcely distinguishable from the rubbish it deposits so freely. There are no bathing steps on the river-front, and bazaars shut out the wide and shifting panorama of the stream. The streets are mean, the temples ineffective, and though a few fine houses exist they are hidden away in gardens or down alleys whose filth deters all but the invited guest. Chandrapore was never large or beautiful, but two hundred years ago it lay on the road between Upper India, then imperial, and the sea, and the fine houses date from that period. The zest for decoration stopped in the eighteenth century, nor was it ever democratic. There is no painting and scarcely any carving in the bazaars. The very wood seems made of mud, the inhabitants of mud moving. So abased, so monotonous is everything that meets the eye, that when the Ganges comes down it might be expected to wash the excrescence back into the soil. Houses do fall, people are drowned and left rotting, but the general outline of the town persists, swelling here, shrinking there, like some low but indestructible form of life.

Inland, the prospect alters. There is an oval Maidan, and a long sallow hospital. Houses belonging to Eurasians stand on the high ground by the railway station. Beyond the railway -- which runs parallel to the river -- the land sinks, then rises again rather steeply. On the second rise is laid out the little civil station, and viewed hence Chandrapore appears to be a totally different place. It is a city of gardens. It is no city, but a forest sparsely scattered with huts. It is a tropical pleasaunce washed by a noble river. The toddy palms and neem trees and mangoes and pepul that were hidden behind the bazaars now become visible and in their turn hide the bazaars. They rise from the gardens where ancient tanks nourish them, they burst out of stifling purlieus and unconsidered temples. Seeking light and air, and endowed with more strength than man or his works, they soar above the lower deposit to greet one another with branches and beckoning leaves, and to build a city for the birds. Especially after the rains do they screen what passes below, but at all times, even when scorched or leafless, they glorify the city to the English people who inhabit the rise, so that new-comers cannot believe it to be as meagre as it is described, and have to be driven down to acquire disillusionment. As for the civil station itself, it provokes no emotion. It charms not; neither does it repel. It is sensibly planned, with a red-brick club on its brow, and farther back a grocer's and a cemetery, and the bungalows are disposed along roads that intersect at right angles. It has nothing hideous in it, and only the view is beautiful; it shares nothing with the city except the overarching sky.

The sky too has its changes, but they are less marked than those of the vegetation and the river. Clouds map it up at times, but it is normally a dome of blending tints, and the main tint blue. By day the blue will pale down into white where it touches the white of the land, after sunset it has a new circumference -- orange, melting upwards into tenderest purple. But the core of blue persists, and so it is by night. Then the stars hang like lamps from the immense vault. The distance between the vault and them is as nothing to the distance behind them, and that farther distance, though beyond colour, last freed itself from blue.

The sky settles everything -- not only climates and seasons but when the earth shall be beautiful. By herself she can do little -- only feeble outbursts of flowers. But when the sky chooses, glory can rain into the Chandrapore bazaars or a benediction pass from horizon to horizon. The sky can do this because it is so strong and so enormous. Strength comes from the sun, infused in it daily; size from the prostrate earth. No mountains infringe on the curve. League after league the earth lies flat, heaves a little, is flat again. Only in the south, where a group of fists and fingers are thrust up through the soil, is the endless expanse interrupted. These fists and fingers are the Marabar Hills, containing the extraordinary caves.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Night-Wind by Emily Bronte

The Night Wind
September 11, 1840

by Emily Bronte


In summer's mellow midnight,
A cloudless moon shone through
Our open parlour window,
And rose-trees wet with dew.

I sat in silent musing;
The soft wind waved my hair;
It told me heaven was glorious,
And sleeping earth was fair.

I needed not its breathing
To bring such thoughts to me;
But still it whispered lowly,
How dark the woods will be!

"The thick leaves in my murmur
Are rustling like a dream,
And all their myriad voices
Instinct with spirit seem."

I said, "Go, gentle singer,
Thy wooing voice is kind:
But do not think its music
Has power to reach my mind.

"Play with the scented flower,
The young tree's supple bough,
And leave my human feelings
In their own course to flow."

The wanderer would not heed me;
Its kiss grew warmer still.
"O come!" it sighed so sweetly;
"I'll win thee 'gainst thy will.

"Were we not friends from childhood?
Have I not loved thee long?
As long as thou, the solemn night,
Whose silence wakes my song.

"And when thy heart is resting
Beneath the church-aisle stone,
I shall have time for mourning,
And Thou for being alone."

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Kindness

From Medusa by Michael Dibden.
He wasn't kind; he was a sentimentalist, a very different thing. And like all sentimentalists, he could turn vicious in a moment if thwarted.

Rebel Defoe

I mentioned earlier Miguel de Cevantes' participation in the battle of Lepanto.

On the heels of that, I came across a reference in the Spectator to Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, Moll Flander, and A General History of Pyrates) at the Battle of Sedgemoor. In 1685, James II became king of England, succeeding his brother, Charles II. Charles II's illegitimate son, the 1st Duke of Monmouth, launched a rebellion and invasion, seeking the throne for himself. Monmouth landed at Lyme Regis in Dorset in southwest England, hoping to raise local volunteers.

Battle was joined on July 6th, 1685 between a royal force of 2,700 infrantry and cavalry and Monmouth's force of some 3,500 untrained locals. Launching a night attack which was discovered, Monmouth lost the battle, his army, and later his head.

Following the defeat and capture of Monmouth, James II dispatched Judge Jeffreys to the West Country where he conducted what became known as the Bloody Assizes, rooting out supporters and participants in the rebellion - many of whom were executed or transported.

Daniel Defoe had rallied behind Monmouth and appears to have participated in the battle of Sedgwick but managed to escape with his life. He was heavily fined and lost most his wealth but kept his head.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Cicero on Old Age

Cicero's essay, De Senectute, in it's entirity can be found here.

There is therefore nothing in the arguments of those who say that old age takes no part in public business. They are like men who would say that a steersman does nothing in sailing a ship, because, while some of the crew are climbing the masts, others hurrying up and down the gangways, others pumping out the bilge water, he sits quietly in the stern holding the tiller. He does not do what young men do; nevertheless he does what is much more important and better. The great affairs of life are not performed by physical strength, or activity, or nimbleness of body, but by deliberation, character, expression of opinion. Of these old age is not only not deprived, but, as a rule, has them in a greater degree. Unless by any chance I, who as a soldier in the ranks, as military tribune, as legate, and as consul have been employed in various kinds of war, now appear to you to be idle because not actively engaged in war. But I enjoin upon the Senate what is to be done, and how.

( . . . )

Old men retain their intellects well enough, if only they keep their minds active and fully employed. Nor is that the case only with men of high position and great office: it applies equally to private life and peaceful pursuits.

( . . . )

But, to pass over these sublime studies, I can name some rustic Romans from the Sabine district, neighbours and friends of my own, without whose presence farm work of importance is scarcely ever performed—whether sowing, or harvesting or storing crops. And yet in other things this is less surprising; for no one is so old as to think that he may not live a year. But they bestow their labour on what they know does not affect them in any case.

( . . . )

The course of life is fixed, and nature admits of its being run but in one way, and only once; and to each part of our life there is something specially seasonable; so that the feebleness of children, as well as the high spirit of youth, the soberness of maturer years, and the ripe wisdom of old age - all have a certain natural advantage which should be secured in its proper season.

Newspapers have been with us for such a long time

I anticipate with regret and concern the passing of the real, physical daily newspaper with the sound of rustling paper, the dry smell of newsprint, the yellowing and then crumbling of old articles cut from a paper months and years before. With the ever greater decline of original content, the costs in comparison to a free display on the computer and with the disconsonant weltanschaung of most papers, their demise does seem only a matter of time and I hate to see their passing. I hope that I am wrong and that technology and desparation will lead to better content that people are willing to pay for.

All this brought to mind by Richard Henry Dana's comment in Two Years Before the Mast. Having departed from his Boston home, family, and studies at Harvard, he has been abroad in California for a year and half when mail and papers are delivered. He first observes:
After all, there is nothing in a strange land like a newspaper from home. Even a letter, in many respects, is nothing, in comparison with it. It carries you back to the spot, better than anything else. It is almost equal to clairvoyance.

He then goes on to tease out just how it achieves that transportation.

The names of the streets, with the things advertised, are almost as good as seeing the signs; and while reading "Boy lost!" one can almost hear the bell and well-known voice of "Old Wilson," crying the boy as "strayed, stolen, or mislaid!" Then there was the Commencement at Cambridge, and the full account of the exercises at the graduating of my own class. A list of all those familiar names, (beginning as usual with Abbot, and ending with W., ) which, as I read them over, one by one, brought up their faces and characters as I had known them in the various scenes of college life. Then I imagined them upon the stage, speaking their orations, dissertations, colloquies, etc. , with the gestures and tones of each, and tried to fancy the manner in which each would handle his subject, ----, handsome, showy, and superficial; ----, with his strong head, clear brain, cool self-possession; ----, modest, sensitive, and underrated; ----, the mouth-piece of the debating clubs, noisy, vaporous, and democratic; and so following. Then I could see them receiving their A. Bs. from the dignified, feudal-looking President, with his "auctoritate mihi commissa," and walking off the stage with their diplomas in their hands; while upon the very same day, their classmate was walking up and down California beach with a hide upon his head.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Semper Fi Cervantes

There are certain writers who transcend their times and their culture - writers who are enjoyed by readers everywhere: Shakespeare, Goethe, Cervantes, de Montaigne.

It is easy to box them up into tight thumbnail sketches and then overlook the lives they actually led. I suppose it is the burden of fame that everyone thinks they know you.

I came across this little fact yesterday which I actually learned a few years ago and then forgot. The great Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616), novelist, poet, and playwright, wrote one of the classics of Western literature and indeed world literature, Don Quixote. Cervantes, before becoming a world reknowned author, was a soldier - in fact, what we would today call a marine. In that capacity, he sailed in the western naval armada that fought and defeated the invading Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Lepanto. The victory of the Holy League temporarily halted the Turkish incursion into Europe. In the Battle of Lepanto, Cervantes was shot twice in the chest and once in his left arm, a wound so severe that it led to amputation.

It is so easy to think of authors as quiet people writing in rooms and to forget that many of the best of them were indeed men and women of the world first. The fragility of circumstance is also highlighted - here is one of the towering figures of world literature so nearly extinguished before pen was ever put to paper.



Independent Reader








Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and retold by Martin Jenkins. Ilustrated by Chris Riddell Suggested

Young Adult








Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and translated by Edith Grossman Suggested


Adult








Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley Suggested

Monday, September 7, 2009

Lepanto by G.K. Chesterton

Think of the knowledge of history that Chesterton presumes of the reader. I wonder to what extent this is even read in schools any more, even in Europe.

Lepanto
by G.K. Chesterton

White founts falling in the courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run,
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard,
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips,
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.
They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,
They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea,
And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross,
The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;
The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass;
From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,
And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.

Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young,
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war,
Stiff flags straining in night-blasts cold
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold.

Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,
Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world.
Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.
Love-light of Spain - hurrah!
Death-light of Africa!
Don John of Austria
Is riding to the sea.

Mahound is in his paradise above the evening star,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
He moves a mighty turban on the timeless houri's knees,
His turban that is woven of the sunset and the seas.
He shakes the peacock gardens as he rises from his ease,
And he strides among the tree-tops and is taller than the trees,
And his voice through all the garden is a thunder sent to bring
Black Azrael and Ariel and Ammon on the wing.
Giants and the Genii,
Multiplex of wing and eye,
Whose strong obedience broke the sky
When Solomon was king.

They rush in red and purple from the red clouds of the morn,
From temples where the yellow gods shut up their eyes in scorn;
They rise in green robes roaring from the green hells of the sea
Where fallen skies and evil hues and eyeless creatures be;
On them the sea-valves cluster and the grey sea-forests curl,
Splashed with a splendid sickness, the sickness of the pearl;
They swell in sapphire smoke out of the blue cracks of the ground,-
They gather and they wonder and give worship to Mahound.
And he saith, 'Break up the mountains where the hermit-folk can hide,
And sift the red and silver sands lest bone of saint abide,
And chase the Giaours flying night and day, not giving rest,
For that which was our trouble comes again out of the west.
We have set the seal of Solomon on all things under sun,
Of knowledge and of sorrow and endurance of things done.
But a noise is in the mountains, in the mountains, and I know
The voice that shook our palaces - four hundred years ago:
It is he that saith not 'Kismet'; it is he that knows not Fate;
It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey at the gate!
It is he whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth,
Put down your feet upon him, that our peace be on the earth.'
For he heard drums groaning and he heard guns jar,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
Sudden and still - hurrah!
Bolt from Iberia!
Don John of Austria
Is gone by Alcalar.

St Michael's on his Mountain in the sea-roads of the north
(Don John of Austria is girt and going forth.)
Where the grey seas glitter and the sharp tides shift
And the sea-folk labour and the red sails lift.
He shakes his lance of iron and he claps his wings of stone;
The noise is gone through Normandy; the noise is gone alone;
The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes,
And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise,
And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room,
And Christian dreadeth Christ that hath a newer face of doom,
And Christian hateth Mary that God kissed in Galilee,
But Don John of Austria is riding to the sea.
Don John calling through the blast and the eclipse
Crying with the trumpet, with the trumpet of his lips,
Trumpet that sayeth ha!
Domino gloria!
Don John of Austria
Is shouting to the ships.

King Philip's in his closet with the Fleece about his neck
(Don John of Austria is armed upon the deck.)
The walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin,
And little dwarfs creep out of it and little dwarfs creep in.
He holds a crystal phial that has colours like the moon,
He touches, and it tingles, and he trembles very soon,
And his face is as a fungus of a leprous white and grey
Like plants in the high houses that are shuttered from the day,
And death is in the phial, and the end of noble work,
But Don John of Austria has fired upon the Turk.
Don John's hunting, and his hounds have bayed -
Booms away past Italy the rumour of his raid.
Gun upon gun, ha! ha!
Gun upon gun, hurrah!
Don John of Austria
Has loosed the cannonade.

The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke ,
(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
The hidden room in man's house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea
The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery;
They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and Castle dark,
They veil the plum├Ęd lions on the galleys of St Mark;
And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
Christian captives, sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.
They are lost like slaves that sweat, and in the skies of morning hung
The stair-ways of the tallest gods when tyranny was young.
They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen or fleeing on
Before the high Kings' horses in the granite of Babylon.
And many a one grows witless in his quiet room in hell
Where a yellow face looks inward through the lattice of his cell,
And he finds his God forgotten, and he seeks no more a sign -
(But Don John of Austria has burst the battle-line!)
Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate's sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.
Vivat Hispania!
Domino Gloria!

Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!

Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight forever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade...
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)

Friday, September 4, 2009

"I'm the 82nd Airborne"

The other day I was watching a documentary about the Battle of the Bulge with my twelve year old. I told about a couple of men I knew that had been there. We spoke of the chaos and the disorganization and how whether the line held in a particular area often depended on the actions of single soldiers making the decision to stand or flee. I had heard a great story relating an incident in that battle and couldn't quite recall the details.

I had heard it told on the Australian ABC Radio years ago. I went back and found it here.
Chris Bullock: Colonel Grossman concluded with a story from World War II, when Americans were retreating in terror through a forest, pursued by Nazi SS. Reserve troops and paratroopers were called in to stop the Nazi advance under very difficult conditions.

David Grossman: And this is a true story. There was a photographer there, and a reporter there, and what happened was this. There's one American tank, 30 tons of death, fleeing down the road, and this one lonely paratrooper walks out in the middle of the road. And he's got hollow, sunken eyes, three days growth of beard; an M1 dangling from his hand and a bazooka on his shoulder and he walks up and he stops the tank and looks at the tank commander and he says, 'Buddy, are you looking for a safe place?' The guy says, 'Yes.' He says, 'Then get behind me because I'm the 82nd Airborne Division and this is as far as the bastards are going to get.'

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Convergence of the Twain by Thomas Hardy

The Convergence Of The Twain
by Thomas Hardy
(Lines on the loss of the "Titanic")

I

In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

II

Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

III

Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls-grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

IV

Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

V

Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: "What does this vaingloriousness down here?". . .

VI

Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

VII

Prepared a sinister mate
For her-so gaily great-
A Shape of Ice, for the time fat and dissociate.

VIII

And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

IX

Alien they seemed to be:
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history.

X

Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,

XI

Till the Spinner of the Years
Said "Now!" And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Ambrose Bierce - Write it Right

Bill Bryson is a marvellous writer and I have all of his books and have enjoyed each for their own merits. While I enjoy his travel writing the most (for example, In A Sunburned Country, Notes from a Small Island, and The Lost Continent) followed by his autobiogaphical and other works (such as I'm a Stranger Here Myself, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, and A Short History of Nearly Everything), there is one odd ringer in there. Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors is primarily a reference book and is, to my mind, an extremely eclectic collection of information that might be of use to a writer.

While I don't hold it in the same regard as his other works, it is still intriguing. Every three or four months I have to, owing to constantly acquiring new books, winnow my collection and consign some portion to storage. Which books do I absolutely have to keep to hand, which ones am I likely to read in the next few months, which ones might be useful? Despite being an odd little volume, Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors has survived several clearance cycles.

Among the reasons for its durability are the surprises. Looking up some other item, I came across Bryson's discussion of the use of "over" for "more than" in which he references Ambrose Bierce's Write it Right. Bierce I know from his ascerbic The Devil's Dictionary, as well as his short stories such as An Incident at Owl Creek.

Write it Right is not simply a writer's guide to style, but is, in Bierce's fashion, A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults. It is still in print (as linked above) but on backorder. Gutenberg has a free electronic version of Write it Right, A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, should you want to see what was on Bierce's pet peeve list. As Bryson says, it is "a usage book teeming with quirky recommendations, many of which you will find repeated nowhere.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Russian Sailors

From Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s Two Years Before the Mast. It is the 1830's, California is still a remote part of Mexico, and his ship has been trading up and down the coast of this strange and foreign land. They have now sailed up to San Francisco.
This large bay, which lies in latitude 37° 58', was discovered by Sir Francis Drake, and by him represented to be (as indeed it is) a magnificent bay, containing several good harbors, great depth of water, and surrounded by a fertile and finely wooded country. About thirty miles from the mouth of the bay, and on the south-east side, is a high point, upon which the presidio is built. Behind this, is the harbor in which trading vessels anchor, and near it, the mission of San Francisco, and a newly begun settlement, mostly of Yankee Californians, called Yerba Buena, which promises well.

Here, at anchor, and the only vessel, was a brig under Russian colors, from Asitka, in Russian America, which had come down to winter, and to take in a supply of tallow and grain, great quantities of which latter article are raised in the missions at the head of the bay. The second day after our arrival, we went on board the brig, it being Sunday, as a matter of curiosity; and there was enough there to gratify it. Though no larger than the Pilgrim, she had five or six officers, and a crew of between twenty and thirty; and such a stupid and greasy-looking set, I certainly never saw before. Although it was quite comfortable weather, and we had nothing on but straw hats, shirts, and duck trowsers, and were barefooted, they had, every man of them, double-soled boots, coming up to the knees, and well greased; thick woolen trowsers, frocks, waistcoats, pea-jackets, woolen caps, and everything in true Nova Zembla rig; and in the warmest days they made no change.

The clothing of one of these men would weigh nearly as much as that of half our crew. They had brutish faces, looked like the antipodes of sailors, and apparently dealt in nothing but grease. They lived upon grease; eat it, drank it, slept in the midst of it, and their clothes were covered with it. To a Russian, grease is the greatest luxury. They looked with greedy eyes upon the tallow-bags as they were taken into the vessel, and, no doubt, would have eaten one up whole, had not the officer kept watch over it. The grease seemed actually coming through their pores, and out in their hair, and on their faces. It seems as if it were this saturation which makes them stand cold and rain so well. If they were to go into a warm climate, they would all die of the scurvy.

The vessel was no better than the crew. Everything was in the oldest and most inconvenient fashion possible; running trusses on the yards, and large hawser cables, coiled all over the decks, and served and parcelled in all directions. The topmasts, top-gallant masts and studding-sail booms were nearly black for want of scraping, and the decks would have turned the stomach of a man-of-war's-man. The galley was down in the forecastle; and there the crew lived, in the midst of the steam and grease of the cooking, in a place as hot as an oven, and as dirty as a pigsty. Five minutes in the forecastle was enough for us, and we were glad to get into the open air. We made some trade with them, buying Indian curiosities, of which they had a great number; such as bead-work, feathers of birds, fur moccasins, etc.

(. . . )

Friday, December 25th. This day was Christmas; and as it rained all day long, and there were no hides to take in, and nothing especial to do, the captain gave us a holiday, (the first we had had since leaving Boston,) and plum duff for dinner. The Russian brig, following the Old Style, had celebrated their Christmas eleven days before; when they had a grand blow-out and (as our men said) drank, in the forecastle, a barrel of gin, ate up a bag of tallow, and made a soup of the skin.