Sunday, July 27, 2014

Wilfred Owen - Poetry

Both this poet and this poem are new to me.  The poet is Wilfred Owens and the play is titled 'Dulce et Decorum Est'.  (This is part of a latin phrase that means "it is sweet and proper to die for one's country'.)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys, - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and the thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smother dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing hin his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Simple theme here.  The horrors of war are so horrible, the price so high, that patriotic sacrifice is a bad deal.  The book lists the authors lifespan as 1893-1918.  According to Wikipedia, he was English and fought in WWI.  In fact, he died exactly one week before the armistice was signed.  A terrible waste.
The poem is certainly effective.  All wars involve horrors.  The American civil war happened about 50 years earlier and it chewed up people in awful ways.  WWI was in a different league though, in the 'new horrors' department.  This poem describes a gas attack and I'm sure they were surreally awful.  A look back from the future doesn't help because the war led to little good.
However, I want to push back against the main theme.  My chief objection (taught to me by Heinlein) is that this approach becomes dangerous when it becomes widespread.  If highly civilized country A decides that it won't fight and barbarian country B decides that it still will, then who wins?  If you don't want to think about a simple war between two countries, then replace the above question with cultures.
At some point a country (or culture) will find that it is in a situation where it must fight or be utterly defeated, dismantled and enslaved.  It is a source of shame that the Oxford union voted to not fight against Germany.  Meanwhile, the Battle of the Blitz is one of England's proudest moments. 
Which doesn't mean that the broader point of the poem doesn't still have truth.  War is awful and we should try extremely hard to make those situations where countries must fight rare.  I honestly don't know if the approach of this poem is the best one. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Brothers - Terence (94)

I wrote a bit about Terence here.  To recap, he was one of the more important Roman playwrights.  He was very widely read amongst the learned peoples at least up until the early 1800s.  And he has mostly dropped off of contemporary radars for whatever reason. 

'The Brothers' is about two sets of brothers.  The first set is an older, middle aged, set.  One works on the farm while the other is in the city.  One is married with two sons while the other is a bachelor.  The married brother is letting the unmarried one raise one of his sons.  (And no, I can't picture that either, but different times, different customs.)
The two have different styles of raising children and that's where the most interesting part of the play comes up.  The farm brother is very hands on in guiding and raising while the city one says:
'Tis this then is the duty of a father,
To make a son embrace a life of virtue,
Rather from choice than terror or constraint.
Here lies the might difference between
A father and a master. He who knows not
How to do this, let him confess he knows not
How to rule children.
This sets up the plot as the brothers end up in a very sit-com type plot of mistaken intentions and money paid for wives.  But, no fear, eventually the mistakes are cleared up and weddings abound.  The 'loose-ruled' brother speaks again:
     In these youths I see
The marks of virtue; and, I trust, they'll prove
Such as we wish them. They have sense, I know;
Attention; in its season, liberal shame;
And fondness for each other; all sure signs
Of an ingenuous mind and noble nature:
And though they stray, you may at any time
Reclaim them.
 This is a reasonable set of goals for a parent to set for their children.  I'd be very happy if my three qualify in all respects. 

Did I like it?  It's an ok play, but nothing special.  This is probably one where there is some large benefit from actually seeing a production rather than reading it cold.  (This is true of a very many ancient play.)  I would mostly recommend Terence for historical value, in much the same way that I would Lope de Vega.  In other words, if you find one of his plays in an anthology or elsewhere, go ahead and read it.  It won't be life changing but it will let you better understand just how the entire Dramatic experience got from there to here.

Next up is #93, 'Awake and Sing' by Clifford Odets.  I have now gotten my mitts on a copy of #96, 'Accidental Death of an Anarchist' but I've already started the Odets so I'll come back for it.  My (very loose) plan is to try and power ahead until I get to the point where this is one play per month.  Hopefully by this fall.  My hope is that will make it easier for others to join in.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Lady Macbeth

(I did say that she deserved her own post, right?)

The correct adjective for Lady Macbeth is 'bloodthirsty'.  We know very little of her from before the story.  She is introduced reading a letter from her husband.  In it he tells her of the three weird sisters and there prediction that he will become king.  He then tells her that he wanted to share this with her, his partner, so that she could rejoice in promised greatness.
Her reaction?  Why then, we must kill the king!  No seriously.  She spends a bit of time worrying that Macbeth isn't vicious enough to attain his ambition.  Then she learns that the king will be staying at their castle and says:
     The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty! Mack thick my blood,
Stop up th' access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th' effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd'ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
to cry  "Hold, hold!"
Just a lovely woman.  And remember, this is before she has had any chance whatsoever to talk with her husband.  She doesn't know if he has been put in the line for the throne.  She doesn't know if the weird sisters told him anything else.  All that she knows is 1) someone predicted that he'd be king and 2) the current king is going to be staying at her castle.  Therefore 3) she needs to become murderous.

I've never actually seen Macbeth on stage and now I'd really like to.  I watched a rather recent movie adaptation with Patrick Stewart in the title role.  I can't recommend it.  Lady Macbeth was played by Kate Fleetwood; I'm not familiar with her.  They played her almost like a horror movie villain and I thought that was too much.  She wasn't believable as a person.  Or at least not a person that anyone would choose to be in the same room with.
Having said that, I'm having trouble picturing just how that tightrope would be walked.  Her she is, a bloodthirsty Lady.  A contradiction of sorts.  Maybe she'd be secretly passionate but the really awful stuff would just bubble to the top when she couldn't hide it anymore?  Or maybe she really is just full evil at all times and poor Macbeth is somewhat bullied by her.  Or maybe there is some other reading that I'm not seeing.  (If I was a woman, I'd jump at the chance to play her once, just to see what I could come up with!)
I wonder if she is Shakespeare's most vicious main character?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Edna St. Vincent Millay - Poetry

This is a new poet to me, Edna St. Vincent Millay.  The poem itself is new to me too, though the subject isn't.  The name of it is 'First Fig'.

My candle burns at both ends;
     It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends-
     It gives a lovely light!

What a fun little poem!  The idea that burning the candle at both ends, while maybe not smart, can still have an added benefit is a good one.  I think what really sells this for me is the 'ah, my foes' bit.  It's almost like a little bit of a taunt thrown in.  A little salt.  A little zest.
I fully approve.

Reading for August

One poem.

August
Milton: Paradise Lost link

If you're afraid of epic poetry, this is a good one to get your feet wet with.  The story makes sense, the written scheme is unforced and Milton is a (can't resist the pun) damned good writer.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Macbeth - Shakespeare

This was the first time that I'd read 'Macbeth' since high school.  I remembered the basics and I think that they're fairly well known.  To wit: Macbeth is a Scottish lord who is tricked by some witches so that he kills his king.  He is then proclaimed king and has to kill more and more people.  Finally, battling both his guilt and some remaining lords, he is killed.
Things that I didn't remember?
  • The three weird sisters are wildly clever.  The whole mechanism where they play on his ambition is wonderful.  They foresee one promotion and promise another.  When the first prediction is proved, the second one seems like a lock.  The hook is baited and the fish bites hard.
  • The reaction from Lady Macbeth is wildly extreme.  Shockingly so.  (But I think I'll give the Lady her own blog post.)
  • I think there is an element here that doesn't translate well in our time.  Macbeth was guilty of murder, of regicide really.  But what really made it bad was that he killed a guest.  If you read about someone in the paper that killed a guest, you'd be horrified by the murder but wouldn't care about the 'guest' part.  
  • In some ways 'Macbeth' was a big ol suck up to the new King James.  James was of Scottish descent and the play makes it clear that the future Scots were wonderful in comparison to that awful Macbeth.  Even though he was just trying to flatter his king, he wrote a wonderful play.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

T.S. Eliot - Poetry

Ok, I've heard of T.S. Eliot before.  The poem, 'The Love Song of Alfred Prufrock' is unknown to me.  I have to believe that Eliot's best known poem is 'The Wasteland' but the title of the book is 'The 100 Best Poems of all Time', not the 100 best known.  The full poem is too long for me to type out, so I'll just give you part near the beginning.  The full deal can be found here.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-desterted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, 'What is it?"

Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michaelangelo.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That life and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And fora  hundred visions and revisions,
Before taking of a toast and tea.

That's the first part.  As I said, the full poem is available up ahead.  You can read the full thing if you'd like.  Frankly, I didn't understand it.  (Full disclosure: I don't claim to understand 'The Wasteland' either.)  Oh, there are phrases that I like.  Further on than I typed is this: 'I have measured out my life with coffee spoons'.  What a lovely phrase!  In fact, the most meaning that I could get is that this is a long worry about life passing by.
A quick look at Wikipedia tells me that Eliot started writing this when he was about 22 and it was published five years later.  Now that I've passed forty, I can't help but . . . sigh . . . at twenty-somethings that worry about their old age.  Also per Wikipedia: "Because the poem is concerned primarily with the irregular musings of the narrator, it can be difficult to interpret."  So good, it's not just me.
Maybe someday, someone will sit me down and explain Eliot to me.  Until then, I'm lost.  (And I will dare to eat a peach.)