Saturday, December 29, 2007

Adam Smith and children's books

No, he didn't write The Little Economy That Could.

Adam Smith's well known and little read masterpiece, The Wealth of Nations, is of a kind with Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species; dense, intensely thought through and rewarding of close reading even these centuries later. Though for turgidness and digression, I am afraid that Smith leads the race.

Fortunately, one of our best humorists, commentators and essayists, P.J. O'Rourke, has made the journey through the jungles of Smith's works (P.J. O'Rourke On The Wealth of Nations) and returned to report to us and serve as an ambassador of Smith's thinking in prose that is more comprehensible and definitely more entertaining.

Smith was writing at the time of, and as one of the principal lights of, the Scottish Enlightenment, that incredible flowering of thinkers and doers in Scotland in the latter part of the 18th century.

It is easily forgotten that Smith was a moral philosopher in the widest sense and that he just happened, in his reasoning on moral philosophy, to set the study of economics on a modern foundation. As widely admired (though little read) as The Wealth of Nations might be, even less read is it's predecessor volume, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

But between the two, O'Rourke points out, Smith established one of the most critical principles underpinning his thinking. The following is an excerpt from O'Rourke's On the Wealth of Nations. I have elided many of his humorous comments to try and keep the track headed towards the point at which I wish to arrive, I hope without misconstruing his meaning.
Adam Smith begins The Theory of Moral Sentiments with the riddle upon which all our well-being depends: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it." The root of these principles is, according to Smith, sympathy. We are sympathetic creatures. We possess one emotion that cannot be categorized by cynics as either greed or fear. And it isn't love. . . .

Our sympathy makes us able, and eager, to share the feelings of people we don't love at all. We like sharing their bad feelings as well as their good ones. . . .

This sympathy, Smith argued, is completely imaginative and not, like most emotions, a product of our physical senses. No matter how poignantly sympathetic the situation, we don't feel other people's pain. . . . "Our senses," Smith declared, "never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person." It is our imagination that generates sympathy and gives sympathy its power. . . .

People have the creative talent to put themselves in another person's place and to suppose what that other person is feeling. . . .

But sympathy by itself - be it for humans, animals, . . . - can't be the basis of a moral system. . . .

Imagination, already working to show us how other people feel, has to work harder to show us whether what they feel is right or wrong. Then there's the problem of whether we're right or wrong. We'll always have plenty of sympathy for ourselves. . . .

Our imaginations must undertake the additional task of creating a method to render decent judgments on our feelings and on the feelings of others and on the actions that proceed from those feelings. Adam Smith personified these conscious imaginative judgments and named our brain's moral magistrate the "Impartial Spectator." . . .

According to Adam Smith, the "wise and virtuous man" uses his imagination to create "the idea of exact propriety and perfection." This is "gradually formed from his observations upon the character and conduct both of himself and of other people. It is the slow, gradual, and progressive work of the great demigod within." If, Smith wrote, the Impartial Spectator did not endeavor to teach us "to protect the weak, to curb the violent, and to chastise the guilty," then "a man would enter an assembly of men as he enters a den of lions." . . .

The imagination that Smith describes is the strenuous imagination of an Einstein or a Newton, with all the discipline that this implies. "Self-command is not only itself a great virtue, but from it all the other virtues seem to derive their principal lustre," Smith writes. And, "In the common degree of the moral, there is no virtue. Virtue is excellence."

This hard, creative work that imagination does links the moral sympathy central to The Theory of Moral Sentiments with the material cooperation central to The Wealth of Nations. The imagination also has to make a creative effort to divide labor and conduct trade. Sympathy and cooperation are the more-conscious and the less-conscious sides of what allows civilization to exist. They are the "principles in his nature," that man has, "which interest him in the fortune of others."

All of which, I am afraid tortuously, finally leads me to the real question that occurs to me from this reading.

Among the many benefits that people often credit to early and frequent reading are increased vocabulary, factual knowledge, social awareness, attention spans, self-discipline, imagination, etc. I am sympathetic to all these implied benefits and suspect there is something to most of them.

The one I have always wrestled with is, however, imagination. How do you measure it? How do you know if more reading makes you more imaginative?

Having read O'Rourke's interpretation of Smith though, I think there is something more substantive here than I had reflected on. I do think that the act of reading forces children to project themselves into the circumstances of others and to exercise that sympathy of which Smith speaks. So imagination becomes not just a source of creativity but also a source of social awareness and adjustedness. And that you can begin to measure.

I wonder if anyone has ever done any sort of longitudinal study trying to measure the social adjustedness and the social sensitivity of early and avid readers compared to a random slice of the population? Likewise, I wonder if a child who has had much practice, through reading, of exercising their sympathy, correspondingly demonstrates greater creativity and innovation in other fields of endeavor.

There is of course an issue of sample bias - are children that are prone to early and enthusiastic reading also gifted with sympathy and creativity? Or can reading on its own help build those characteristics. I suspect both might be true.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Shortest Day

One of my favorite authors is Susan Cooper of the Dark Is Rising sequence.

One of my favorite musical events are the performances by The Revels. I have never seen them live, I just have a lot of their CDs, but I look forward to one of these years getting the kids up to Boston to see them.

And what I did not know until recently was that Susan Cooper actually worked with and contributed material to the Revels. Below is her evocative poem which the Revels set to music.

The Shortest Day

And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us - listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

An orange is not an apple

There is book review in the December 8th, 2007 edition of The Spectator, by Kevin Brownlow, of Paul Merton's Silent Comedy. Reading it, in conjunction with the running commentary in kid lit list servs regarding the recent release of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, caused me to reflect on quite what drives us into a frenzy of commentary.

In his article, Brownlow, comments on the varying quality of DVD releases of the old classic films by Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, etc. and mentions in passing,
Television is not the ideal way to watch silent comedy because it separates the audience. Chaplin expected his comedies to be seen on screens 25 feet wide, not 25 inches, the laughter to be shared with hundreds of people. Nothing can beat the cinema experience, since audiences are as important to comedy as the film itself. . . .

I sympathise. I can remember seeing the Syd Chaplin film The Better 'Ole on a viewing machine. I thought it the crudest film I'd ever seen. A few months later I saw it at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, with a sympathetic audience, and laughed so much I ended up on the floor."

The Enduring Mystery of Mrs. Bathurst

The British journalist, writer and novelist, Allan Massie is a regular contributor to The Spectator. He has an interesting little essay on Rudyard Kipling's Mrs. Bathurst in the December 8, 2007 edition of The Spectator.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Checklist for criticism

From The Horn Book, May 1946 in the essay Criticism of Children's Books.
"Art flourishes where there is sound critical judgment to examine and appraise. The critic must, first of all, have a real point of view about his subject. The essential point of view grows out of acquaintance with the best children's books past and present, and also with the world's best literature for everyone. This point of view - this measuring stick - must also bear some relation to children themselves and their reactions to books today. The critic should have experience of sharing books with children or of seeing them choosing and reading books for themselves. It is a truism - and yet it does not seem to be generally understood - that criticism is just as importantly concerned with pointing out excellence as weakness.

. . .

Comment on children's books is valuable in exact proportion to the judgment, honesty, fairness, and skill expressed by their critics."

Well, that's a pretty good starting point. And a pretty high bar. In summary, a critic should
Measure a book against some stated standards
Care about the book
Be knowledgeable with the body of children's books present and past
Be widely read in general literature and history
Have experience reading to children and how they respond to stories
Have seen how children pick and choose books for themselves
Offer balance with as much empahsis on the positive as on the negative
Judge the book and express that judgment felicitously

Spot on

From this quarter's edition of Slightly Foxed comes this description by Grant McIntyre in his article Strangely Like Real Life.
"Naturally, any addicted reader's greatest pleasure is to discover some new book or author - unexpected, sympathetic, in tune with one's mood. But there are also times when an old favourite will do, something one can rely on for enthralled contentment. To qualify as an absolutely prime old favourite a book needs partcular qualities. It must be capacious enough to immerse the reader completely. The characters must be like old acquaintances, familiar but never absolutely understood, and the events must become almost one's own memories. The best of such books are always fresh because, as one grows older, they provide new insights and amusements in the light of one's wider experience of self and others."

Perhaps this is one reason that books read as a child, when the boundary is still so amorphous between self and world, between reality and imagination, stay with us, influence us and are so dear to our hearts. They have become "one's own memories."

South Seas memories

Here is a wonderful example of the magic door. This brief description was written a century ago, by a Pole who did not become fluent in English (his third language) till he was twenty-one, about his memories as a seafarer in the South Seas. All those potential barriers, and yet, reading the words, we are wafted back in time and place and stand with him experiencing what he felt.
A strange name wakes up memories; the printed words scent the smoky atmosphere of today faintly, with the subtle and penetrating perfume as of land breezes breathing through the starlight of bygone nights; a signal fire gleams like a jewel on the high brow of a somber cliff; great trees, the advanced sentries of immense forests, stand watchful and still over sleeping stretches of open water; a line of white surf thunders on an empty beach, the shallow water foams on the reefs; and green islets scattered through the calm of noonday lie upon the level of a polished sea, like a handful of emeralds on a buckler of steel.

Joseph Conrad, Karain: A Memory

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

IQs Rising

Following on the heels of the Scientific American article recently posted about, there is another very interesting article that dove-tails closely with the Scientific American message - Effort Counts.

The New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell in the December 17th, 2007 edition is titled None of the Above.

The basic message is that we still don't have a good grasp on measuring IQ; there are some interesting phenomenon in that process that we can observe that reflect as much on how IQ tests are designed and administered as they do on what is actually being measured; and that effort, values and context cannot be ignored when attempting to predict outcome.

Monday, December 17, 2007

"You mean I don't have to be dumb?"

There is an interesting article in this month's Scientific American, The Secret to Raising Smart Kids.

I have always been deeply skeptical of the emphasis some people place on the importance of self-esteem for children. I have always felt that rather than focusing on making them feel good about themselves regardless of what they do, it is more important to equip them with the values that allow them to respect themselves based on their behavior and performance.

Self-esteem has metaphorically struck me as the powdered donut of life. Tasty and desirable but no substitute for a balanced meal and in the long run undermining one's good health.

This article relates the results of this particular scientist's researches. While somewhat tainted with academic jargon, it does, more than most, suggest productive things that a parent can do to help their child, and should be praised for that. We need all the help we can get.

And of course I zeroed in on the most pertinent part of the article:
How do we transmit a growth mind-set to our children? One way is by telling stories about achievements that result from hard work. For instance, talking about math geniuses who were more or less born that way puts students in a fixed mind-set, but descriptions of great mathematicians who fell in love with math and developed amazing skills engenders a growth mind-set, our studies have shown.

My emphasis added.

Let me know (through the comments button) the books you think capture the ethos of success through effort rather than success through innate talent alone.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The reader's life has pleasures that bookless folk never know

To para-phrase the Australian poet, Banjo Patterson in Clancy of the Overflow, - For the reader's life has pleasures that bookless folk never know.

Used book stores are wonderful places of discovery. With the decimation of the independent bookstore in communities across the country, used book stores (along with libraries) become increasingly important for the sustenance of our cultural heritage, but with a twist.

You can't necessarily go into one knowing that you will find what you seek but sometimes you find that which you did not know you were looking for. I love spending time in used book stores for this very reason: the chance for the unexpected and often improbable discovery.

This past week I was in one my favorite used book stores in Atlanta, The Book Nook, and came across a sea story of which I had never heard, Blackwater A True Epic of the Sea. No, not that Blackwater that's been in the news. Blackwater as in blackwater fever.

The book was written by H.L. Tredree and published in Britain in 1958 and recounts his early maritime career in a tramp steamer at the end of World War I. How this book came to be in the Book Nook in Atlanta, Georgia in 2007 would be a story in itself but that is a different tale.

The fact that it takes place in 1918 is pretty incidental. The upshot though, is that after loading and unloading cargo in the West Africa port of Dakaar, their ship, the S.S. Normandier set sail with a handful of the 49 person crew already coming down with the symptoms of blackwater fever.

In short order the entire crew has succumbed to the fever, all debilitated and many dying each day. With no one fit to stand shift or tend the engines, their engines die as well and they are left drifting and without power or heat in the North Atlantic. Without power, they are unable to end a wireless signal of distress.

With the first few deaths, they have proper burials at sea. As the fever takes its toll though, they end up barely being able to dispose of the bodies overboard and in a handful of instances have to leave the person where they expired, no one having the strength to move them.

The author, an eighteen year old wireless operator is among those stricken. The symptoms are prolonged bouts of fever, pustules, delirium, hallucinations, with some members of the crew appearing to recover into lucidity and then quickly relapsing and dying.

In some ways, this account could be criticized for how it is structured, the drifting in between third person and first person narrative and other minor infelicities. These deviations from artful telling in fact build the verisimilitude of the story.

In the end some eighteen members of the forty-nine member crew survived. At the time of their rescue, only two members, Tredree and the First Mate, were able to move in even the most limited fashion. Among the eighteen rescued were four who were thought to have already died but who in actual fact were in a deep coma from which they were revived. One is left, in a Poe-ish twist, to wonder about the actual status of the thirty-one who had already been committed to the deep.

If you enjoy maritime sea stories at all, add this one to your list to look for. I am delighted to have discovered it.

Sunday, December 9, 2007


It is interesitng to come across old words and find out about there origins and relevance. I came across an essay that mentioned sockdologize and had to go digging to find out what it meant.

The quirky site, Dear Aunt Nettie has a good post on the word, its origins and its significance.

Dear Recondite:

Oh, that's an easy one. It's the answer to the trivia question:

"What does the word "sockdologize," mean, and why is the word crucial to American history?"


"Sockdologize" and its many variations (sockdologer, sockdollarger, etc.) was a slang term which became very popular in the United States during the 1850s and '60s, and is still used in some parts of the country to this day. It means a forceful or decisive blow ­ a finisher; something that ends or settles a matter and leaves nothing else to follow, a knockdown blow, a decisive overwhelming finish, reply, argument, conclusive remark, or blow, which leaves no possible response.

Random House Unabridged: "His right jab is a real sockdolager." "The revelation of his actual source of income was a sockdolager from which this politician never recovered."

American frontierspersons were famous for their ability to invent new words, like skeedaddle, bushwhack, absquatulate, tarnation, gumption, bulldozer, etc., etc. In British and Continental stage plays of the time a standard comic character was the backwoods American with his outlandish talk and manners. The most famous melodramatist of the time, Dion Boucicault,² made his reputation on wily old American backwoods characters who sounded like ignorant cusses but were able to see through the plots and schemes of the aristocracy and big business.

So what role does this unlikely coinage play in American history?

The adjective form "sockdolagizing" was one of the last words that Abraham Lincoln ever heard.

The play, "Our American Cousin" by Tom Taylor, which was playing at Ford's Theater in Washington DC on the night of April 14, 1865, has a line in in which always brought down the house:

"Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal-- you sockdologizing old man-trap."¹ John Wilkes Booth, an actor himself and aware of the dialog, knew that the line brought the loudest burst of laughter from the audience, and as the audience laughed, Booth fired at that precise moment to muffle the loud noise of his fatal shot.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Two Peas in Different Pods

In researching this coming week's Featured Author, Leonard Weisgard, I came across this comment in his Caldecott acceptance speech:
Books at school were upsetting to me. Those frightening black and blue worlds, where everything was outlined in black and indiscriminately filled in with one color. There were blue cows and blue pigs and blue chickens and blue barns and blue people beneath a sky filled with blue sunshine and blue trees on blue grass. On the next page the world would suddenly have turned orange. An orange child in an orange world carrying an orange basket filled with orange juice, up an orange hill under an orange sky.
Susan Jeffers had a completely different take on exactly the same situation:
. . . The books were illustrated with beautiful, small ink drawings. These black-and-white illustrations sometimes had a spot of color - maybe blue or orange - that was it.

Looking back now, I realize I did not miss the bigger color pictures we now have in books. Those small, spare illustrations left my imagination free to create. This ability came into good use when, as a teen, I struggled to stay awake through the Reverend Stoneton's sermons. High in the choir loft, I would tell myself stories, creating in my imagination all the pictures that were not included in My Book House.
They both then went on to create beautiful illustrations for a new generation of children, who wouldn't have to put up so often with blue and orange pictures.

Susan Jeffers books in print.

Leonard Weisgard books in print.

Leonard Wiesgard Samples

alice_chess250_Leonard_Weisgard_1949.jpg train300_Leonard_Weisgard_1948.jpg barn_storm300_Leonard_Weisgard_1951.jpg

Susan Jeffers Samples

streamhorse_Susan_Jeffers.jpg bookbkg%2BSusan_Jeffers.jpg mypony_sm_Susan_Jeffers_2003.jpg

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?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Here is an interesting article by Virginia Postrel titled Resilience vs. Anticipation from Reason On-line, August 25, 1997. The whole article is a nice admixture of socio-geography, business strategy, macro-economics and technology history.

The only real relevance here is that I found it interesting and it provides some well-argued substance to a theme that the writer Lawrence Durrell used to speculate on, i.e. the influence of an environment on the character of a people.

Lawrence Durrell is most famous for his Alexandria Quartet, (constituting Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea) which is generally admired by many literary critics and has always seemed popular among older Young Adult readers. For my money, though, in my teenage years, I far more enjoyed his travel writing, especially Prospero's Cell, Reflections on a Marine Venus, Bitter Lemons, and Sicilian Carousel among others. Sadly all are frequently out of print but some are represented in an anthology the Lawrence Durrell Travel Reader. Also not to be overlookoed is the humorous gem Antrobus Complete and the rather unclassifiable Pope Joan, all grist for the YA mill.

A great ten-step reading program

Here is a wonderful reading program from John Bianchi and Frank B. Edwards at Pokeweed Press. No special subscriptions, no classes necessary. Nothing - simply add commitment and books and you are good to go.

Reading through the steps, I kept wanting to pull out a particular step for emphasis. Step 5 for example (Read for the fun of it) is especially important. But then again Step 6 (Ration TV as you ration junk food) I am whole-heartedly behind. And Step 7 (Fill your home with books) has got to be mentioned and endorsed. And on and on. I guess that is why I like their progam so much. That and the fact that it pretty neatly summarizes what we have done in our home.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Tacitus, Germanic Tribes and Political Correctness

Gaius Cornelius Tacitus 56AD-117AD

In high school, I went through a Roman historian phase where I read many of the classic Roman historians; Tacitus, Livy, Plutarch, etc. The issues addressed by those writers of two millenium ago often felt so contemporary and I found it fascinating.

I came across this interesting set of observations on the naiveté of Tacitus via a couple of bloggers, Glenn Reynolds and then Gail Heriot. Once again, it is a tying together of today with the long ago.

The essay is by John M. Ellis and is actually the first chapter of his 1997 book Literature Lost; Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities.

Opening excerpt:

What we now call "political correctness" may seem to be nothing more than a modern fad, and one that will pass, but to see it only this way is to misunderstand it. Its particular shape may be specific to our time, but its basic impulse is one that recurs regularly in the history of Western society. Herein lies a deep irony. Those in the grip of this impulse are critical of the Western tradition and define themselves by their opposition to it, yet the impulse itself is so much a part of the Western tradition that the attitudes it generates can be said to be quintessentially Western. One reason for studying the Western tradition is to learn some important lessons about this recurring phenomenon and so avoid mistakes that have been made many times before. In this chapter I shall look at some prior episodes to show more clearly what kind of thing this impulse is, what produces it, and what its dangers are. Rather than carp at the absurdities of the current scene, we can understand them more fully as part of the history of Western civilization.

Those who study German culture, as I do, usually get their first account of the early Germanic peoples from the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote a short treatise entitled Germania in the first century A.D. By the standards of civilized Rome, the Germans were barbarians, which is what Tacitus calls them; in modern terminology, they were part of the Third World of their day. But in Tacitus' eyes they were quite remarkable people. They seemed to be instinctively democratic; all major affairs were discussed by the entire community, and only minor matters were delegated to chieftains. Even the views of a king were heeded, Tacitus tells us, "more because his advice carries weight than because he has the power to command." Similarly, in war, commanders relied on example rather than on the authority of their rank. These natural egalitarians were apparently not bothered by questions of social standing and power. And if they seemed to have the sin of pride well under control, the sin of greed seemed to give them no problems either: Tacitus notes that "the employment of capital in order to increase it by usury is unknown in Germany."

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Kentucky Belle

Kentucky Belle
by Constance Fenimore Woolson

Summer of 'sixty-three, sir, and Conrad was gone away--
Gone to the country town, sir, to sell our first load of hay.
We lived in the log house yonder, poor as ever you've seen;
Roschen there was a baby, and I was only nineteen.

Conrad, he took the oxen, but he left Kentucky Belle;
How much we thought of Kentuck, I couldn't begin to tell--
Came from the Bluegrass country; my father gave her to me
When I rode north with Conrad, away from the Tennessee.

Conrad lived in Ohio--a German he is, you know--
The house stood in broad cornfields, stretching on, row after row;
The old folks made me welcome; they were kind as kind could be;
But I kept longing, longing, for the hills of Tennessee.

O, for a sight of water, the shadowed slope of a hill!
Clouds that hang on the summit, a wind that is never still!
But the level land went stretching away to meet the sky--
Never a rise, from north to south, to rest the weary eye!

From east to west, no river to shine out under the moon,
Nothing to make a shadow in the yellow afternoon;
Only the breathless sunshine, as I looked out, all forlorn,
Only the "rustle, rustle," as I walked among the corn.

When I fell sick with pining we didn't wait any more,
But moved away from the cornlands out to this river shore--
The Tuscarawas it's called, sir--off there's a hill, you see--
And now I've grown to like it next best to the Tennessee.

I was at work that morning. Someone came riding like mad
Over the bridge and up the road--Farmer Rouf's little lad.
Bareback he rode; he had no hat; he hardly stopped to say,
"Morgan's men are coming, Frau, they're galloping on this way.

"I'm sent to warn the neighbors. He isn't a mile behind;
He sweeps up all the horses--every horse that he can find;
Morgan, Morgan the raider, and Morgan's terrible men,
With bowie knives and pistols, are galloping up the glen."

The lad rode down the valley, and I stood still at the door--
The baby laughed and prattled, playing with spools on the floor;
Kentuck was out in the pasture; Conrad, my man, was gone;
Near, near Morgan's men were galloping, galloping on!

Sudden I picked up baby and ran to the pasture bar:
"Kentuck!" I called; "Kentucky!" She knew me ever so far!
I led her down the gully that turns off there to the right,
And tied her to the bushes; her head was just out of sight.

As I ran back to the log house at once there came a sound--
The ring of hoofs, galloping hoofs, trembling over the ground,
Coming into the turnpike out from the White-Woman Glen--
Morgan, Morgan the raider, and Morgan's terrible men.

As near they drew and nearer my heart beat fast in alarm;
But still I stood in the doorway, with baby on my arm.
They came; they passed; with spur and whip in haste they sped along;
Morgan, Morgan the raider, and his band six hundred strong.

Weary they looked and jaded, riding through night and through day;
Pushing on east to the river, many long miles away,
To the border strip where Virginia runs up into the west,
And for the Upper Ohio before they could stop to rest.

On like the wind they hurried, and Morgan rode in advance;
Bright were his eyes like live coals, as he gave me a sideways glance;
And I was just breathing freely, after my choking pain,
When the last one of the troopers suddenly drew his rein.

Frightened I was to death, sir; I scarce dared look in his face,
As he asked for a drink of water and glanced around the place;
I gave him a cup, and he smiled--'twas only a boy, you see,
Faint and worn, with dim blue eyes, and he'd sailed on the Tennessee.

Only sixteen he was, sir--a fond mother's only son--
Off and away with Morgan before his life had begun!
The damp drops stood on his temples; drawn was the boyish mouth;
And I thought me of the mother waiting down in the South!

O, pluck was he to the backbone and clear grit through and through;
Boasted and bragged like a trooper, but the big words wouldn't do;
The boy was dying, sir, dying, as plain as plain could be,
Worn out by his ride with Morgan up from the Tennessee.

But, when I told the laddie that I too was from the South,
Water came in his dim blue eyes and quivers around his mouth.
"Do you know the Bluegrass country?" he wistful began to say,
Then swayed like a willow sapling and fainted dead away.

I had him into the log house, and worked and brought him to;
I fed him and coaxed him, as I thought his mother'd do;
And, when the lad got better, and the noise in his head was gone,
Morgan's men were miles away, galloping, galloping on.

"O, I must go," he muttered; "I must be up and away!
Morgan, Morgan is waiting for me! O, what will Morgan say?"
But I heard a sound of tramping and kept him back from the door--
The ringing sound of horses' hoofs that I had heard before.

And on, on came the soldiers--the Michigan cavalry--
And fast they rode, and black they looked galloping rapidly;
They had followed hard on Morgan's track; they had followed day and night;
But of Morgan and Morgan's raiders they had never caught a sight.

And rich Ohio sat startled through all those summer days,
For strange, wild men were galloping over her broad highways;
Now here, now there, now seen, now gone, now north, now east, now west,
Through river valleys and corn-land farms, sweeping away her best.

A bold ride and a long ride! But they were taken at last.
They almost reached the river by galloping hard and fast;
But the boys in blue were upon them ere ever they gained the ford,
And Morgan, Morgan the raider, laid down his terrible sword.

Well, I kept the boy till evening--kept him against his will--
But he was too weak to follow, and sat there pale and still;
When it was cool and dusky--you'll wonder to hear me tell--
But I stole down to that gully and brought up Kentucky Belle.

I kissed the star on her forehead--my pretty, gentle lass--
But I knew that she'd be happy back in the old Bluegrass;
A suit of clothes of Conrad's, with all the money I had,
And Kentuck, pretty Kentuck, I gave to the worn-out lad.

I guided him to the southward as well as I knew how;
The boy rode off with many thanks, and many a backward bow;
And then the glow it faded, and my heart began to swell,
As down the glen away she went, my lost Kentucky Belle!

When Conrad came home in the evening the moon was shining high;
Baby and I were both crying--I couldn't tell him why--
But a battered suit of rebel gray was hanging on the wall,
And a thin old horse with a drooping head stood in Kentucky's stall.

Well, he was kind, and never once said a hard word to me;
He knew I couldn't help it--'twas all for the Tennessee;
But, after the war was over, just think what came to pass--
A letter, sir; and the two were safe back in the old Bluegrass.

The lad had got across the border, riding Kentucky Belle;
And Kentuck, she was thriving, and fat, and hearty, and well;
He cared for her, and kept her, nor touched her with whip or spur;
Ah! we've had many horses, but never a horse like her!

Barbara Frietchie


Barbara Frietchie
by John Greenleaf Whittier

Barbara Frietchie

Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,

The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.

Round about them orchards sweep,
Apple and peach tree fruited deep,

Fair as a garden of the Lord
To the eyes of the famished rebel horde,

On that pleasant morn of the early fall
When Lee marched over the mountain wall,—

Over the mountains winding down,
Horse and foot, into Frederick town.

Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,

Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.

Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;

Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;

In her attic-window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.

Up the street came the rebel tread,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.

Under his slouched hat left and right
He glanced: the old flag met his sight.

"Halt!"—the dust-brown ranks stood fast,
"Fire!"—out blazed the rifle-blast.

It shivered the window, pane and sash;
It rent the banner with seam and gash.

Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf;

She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.

"Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country's flag," she said.

A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;

The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman's deed and word:

"Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!" he said.

All day long through Frederick street
Sounded the tread of marching feet:

All day long that free flag tost
Over the heads of the rebel host.

Ever its torn folds rose and fell
On the loyal winds that loved it well;

And through the hill-gaps sunset light
Shone over it with a warm good-night.

Barbara Frietchie's work is o'er,
And the Rebel rides on his raids no more.

Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewall's bier.

Over Barbara Frietchie's grave,
Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!

Peace and order and beauty draw
Round thy symbol of light and law;

And ever the stars above look down
On thy stars below in Frederick town!