Monday, October 29, 2012

Verse: Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore

This collection of poems is the pouring out of Rabindranath Tagore's moving and passionate hunger for God.   Of Tagore's poetry W. B. Yeats wrote in 1912:  "I have carried the manuscripts of these translations about with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me."


The rain has held back for days and days, my God, in my arid heart.  The horizon is fiercely naked--not the thinnest cover of a soft cloud, not the vaguest hint of a distant cool shower. 

Send thy angry storm, dark with death, if it is thy wish, and with lashes of lightning startle the sky from end to end. 

But call back, my lord, call back this pervading silent heat, still and keen and cruel, burning the heart with dire despair.

Let the cloud of grace bend low from above like the tearful look of the mother on the day of the father's wrath.


I know that the day will come when my sight of this earth shall be lost, and life will take its leave in silence, drawing the last curtain over my eyes.

Yet stars will watch at night, and morning rise as before, and hours heave like sea waves casting up pleasures and pains. 

When I think of this end of my moments, the barrier of the moments breaks and I see by the light of death thy world with its careless treasures.  Rare is its lowliest seat, rare is its meanest of lives.

Things that I longed for in vain and things that I got--let them pass.  Let me but truly possess the things that I ever spurned and overlooked.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Quick Looks: Stefan Zweig

This little book contains two stories by Stefan Zweig, a 20th-century German author I'm very pleased to have discovered.  The first story, "Twilight," is an imagining of the real-life downfall of Madame de Prie, a lady-in-waiting at  Versailles, after the king banishes her from court.  In the second, "Moonbeam Alley,"  a traveler is drawn into the tragic lives of a couple he meets in a tavern in the waterfront district of a foreign city. 

The stories are strongly reminiscent of Isak Dinesen's stories--moody, old-Europe settings and tales-within-tales wherein the main character meets someone who ends up revealing his life story.  Loved these.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Just Finished: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The fifth anniversary of my wedding day, and, I trust, the last I shall spend under this roof.  My resolution is formed, my plan concocted, and already partly put in execution.  My conscience does not blame me...

I read Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as a plea for women's right to self-determination.  I didn't quite expect to read it that way;  I hadn't realized before that the novel had such a strong feminist message.  It also contains an utterly realistic portrait of a man on the downward spiral of alcoholism.

The novel is comprised of three parts.  In the first, Helen, a widow with a young son, appears in a rural village and rents an isolated mansion.  She refuses to satisfy the curiosity of her neighbors about her origins, and soon becomes the object of malicious gossip.  The second part consists of her diary, which details her marriage to an emotionally abusive alcoholic and her eventual flight from him.  In the third, the story lines are resolved and all characters get their various desserts, good and bad.

In a time and place in which everything a woman possessed became the legal property of her husband, and in which she was expected to obey him in all matters, and in which there were no socially acceptable grounds for leaving him, this book must have seemed incendiary.  Certainly her behavior is tame by today's standards--the husband's moral degeneration and hatred of his wife are chilling, and her forbearance is saintly and lasts far longer than he deserves.  She finally removes herself and her child from the toxic atmosphere, but does not seek divorce, and returns to nurse him through his final illness. She refuses to speak ill of him or allow anyone else to do so.

...two years hence you will be as calm as I am now, --and far, far happier, I trust, for you are a man, and free to act as you please...

This is the crux of the book, I think--that in Helen's society, women did not have the legal right to make even the simplest decisions regarding their own persons, once they were married.

Classics Club

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Verse: Two Romanian Poems

I just love these.

Sentimental Story
by Nichita Stanescu

Then we met more often.
I stood at one side of the hour,
you at the other,
like two handles of an amphora.
Only the words flew between us,
back and forth.
You could almost see their swirling,
and suddenly,
I would lower a knee,
and touch my elbow to the ground
to look at the grass, bent
by the falling of some word,
as though by the paw of a lion in flight.
The words spun between us,
back and forth,
and the more I love you, the more
they continued, this whirl almost seen,
the structure of matter, the beginnings of things. 

A Poem
by Nichita Stanescu

Tell me, if I caught you one day
And kissed the sole of your foot—
Wouldn’t you limp a little afterwards
Afraid you’re going to crush my kiss?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Just Finished: The Social Contract

Full disclosure:  I did not enjoy reading The Social Contract  by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  I found the writing dry, dry, dry, and so very abstract that I frequently had to try to imagine what real-world situation was being described.  There are many passages like this: 

It follows from this dual relationship that the geometric progression between sovereign, prince and people is by no means an arbitrary idea, but a necessary consequence of the nature of the body politic.  It follows further that one of the terms, namely the people as subject, is represented by unity, every time the square of the ratio is increased or diminished, the simple ratio increases or diminishes in the same way, and the middle term, the government, is in consequence changed.  

That said, I am glad to have read it.  Rousseau argues against any natural rights to power, and for the concept of a "social contract."  The social contract is the free agreement of all the citizens of a state to cooperate in securing everyone's rights and interests.  He lays out the components of governments that truly represent everyone's interests.  He discusses potential pitfalls, and examines the successes and flaws of the Roman style of government.  It's a foundational text, and it's one of the sources of modern ideas of representative government.

And it's not completely devoid of linguistic pleasure.  The opening is wonderful: 

Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains. 

Some other memorable lines:

If there were a nation of Gods, it would govern itself.  A government so perfect is not suited to men.

(Referring to hereditary monarchy):  When someone is brought up to command others, everything conspires to rob him of justice and reason.

Where rights and freedom are everything, inconveniences are nothing. 

Classics Club
Mixing It Up