Wednesday, May 29, 2013

On Love and Greats

Charlotte Higgins, the arts writer for the Guardian was asked to recommend five books and her choices will be largely familiar to readers of this blog.  She includes Homer, Sappho and Catullus.  This is her answer to whether or not Homer is anti-war:
I think every generation reads The Iliad slightly differently and there are plenty of people who read it as anti-war because it’s so full of pity and sorrow for the victims of war, and for the young soldiers whose lives are cut short by war. And it has characters, notably Achilles, who clearly articulate the complete uselessness of war. At one point in the poem he says that he has two choices: he can go back home and live peacefully to old age or he can continue to fight and be killed as a young man. Whatever you choose you’re going to the same place, you’ll still end up dead: so what’s the point? Paradoxically, though, massive tracts of the poem are beautifully described battle scenes. And, like it or not, the poem does take a certain sort of pleasure in the glory of battle, which can be a bit unpalatable for modern readers.
 I probably don't have to work hard to convince anyone that ends up at this blog on the value of reading the classics.  One of the interesting things, for me personally, about reading the Iliad was how clear the folly of war came through for me.  I don't know if that would have happened even ten years ago, much less twenty. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Famous Lines - Poetry

I mentioned last week that each famous poem seems to have (at least) one line that really sticks out, that pierces the atmosphere and becomes a part of our culture.  I thought I'd go back through what I've read so far and pick out those lines.

Illiad by Homer - My book only covers the first half dozen lines and none of the phrases jump out at me.
He is More Than a Hero by Sappho - A great poem but nothing seems to have stuck, which is a shame.
Psalm 23 - "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."
Song of Songs - Nothing here, or at least nothing on par with Psalm 23.  And my theory is seeming a bit shaky.
Song 5 to Lesbia by Catullus - Another great poem but no quotes that would be readily understood.
The Aeneid by Virgil - "Arms, and the man I sing..."
Metamorphoses by Ovid - Nothing from the section in my book.
Drinking Alone in the Moonlight by Li Po - Still another great poem with nothing.  Maybe in China though.
Moonlit Night by Tu Fu - Same as the previous.
Madly Singing in the Mountains by Po Chu-I - Nothing here, but I am reminded that I need to find a good book of Chinese poetry.  The samples here are fantastic.
Rubyiat 51 by Omar Khayyam - "The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, moves on;"
Inferno by Dante - Nothing from the book, but, as with the other epic poems, this is only the beginning section.
Remembrance by Thomas Wyatt - Nothing here.
Canterbury Tales by Chaucer - Same problem as the other big poems.
The Ballad of Ladies of the Past by Villon - A very nice poem but nothing that has stuck.  Maybe in France?
Sonnet 18 by Shakespeare - "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"
Go and Catch a Falling Star by Donne - Same as the title, "Go and catch a falling star"
Song to Celia II by Ben Johnson - "Drink to me only with thine eyes, And I will pledge with mine"
To The Virgins to Make Much of Time by Herrick - "Gather ye rosebuds, while ye may"
Jordan by George Herbert - Nothing here.
When I Consider How my Light is Spent by Milton - "They also serve who only stand and wait"
The Prologue by Anna Bradstreet - No, but the line "Let Greeks be Greeks, and women what they are" deserves to be well known.
To Althea, from Prison by Richard Lovelace - "Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage"
To His Coy Mistress by Marvell - "Had we but world enough, and time"
An Old Pond by Matsuo Basho - Nothing that stand out.  Off the top of my head, I can't think of any well known haikus.
Epigram: Engraved on the Collar of a Dog... by Pope - This whole thing should be well known but I don't know that it is.
Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray - "Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air"
To Jeoffrey His Cat by Christopher Smart - Nothing here.
Amazing Grace by Newton - "Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound"
Tyger! Tyger! by Blake - "Tyger! Tyger! burning bright, In the forests of the night"
To a Mouse by Robert Burns - "The best laid schemes of Mice and Men, Gang aft agley [often go astray]"

Of the 31 poems that I've read through so far, 16 of them had lines that I thought were fairly well known.  Of the other 15, there were a number of epic poems that are known more for their full story than for a turn of phrase.  There were some that are really outside of western literature and unfair for me to judge.  Which means that only about half a dozen were deemed part of the "100 best poems of all time" even though they didn't have a stand out line.  I'll do this again when I get another third of the way through.  I'll be curious to see if the newer poems have more 'stick' to them or not.
I'm not sure what (if anything) I showed here but at least it was interesting to me.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Numerical Mysticism

I didn't get very much out of Nicomachus, but I do want to point out the very strong feelings he and the other Neo-Pythagoreans had about the importance of numbers.  They had an almost mystical relationship to them.  They weren't just useful tools, they were the key to understanding all of the universe. 
From Chapter VI:
All that has by nature with systematic method been arranged in the universe seems both in part and as a whole to have been determined and ordered in accordance with number, by the forethought and the mind of him that created all things; for the pattern was fixed, like a preliminary sketch, by the domination of number preexistent in the mind of the world-creating God, number conceptual only and immaterial in every way, but at the same time the true and eternal essence, so that with reference to it, as to an artistic plan, should be created all these things, time, motion, the heavens, the stars, all sorts of revolutions.
I don't know that you'd get this fervent praise of pure numbers from any mathematician of today. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

June Reading

Just one piece:

Lucretius: On the Nature of Things (Book1-4) link

To prep for this one, I'm reading a book called 'The Swerve' by Stephen Greenblatt (Amazon link).  The book is about how this poem was found after it had been lost for centuries.  Also about the effect it had on various artists and philosophers from then on.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Robert Burns - Poetry

Next up is famous Scottish poet, Robert Burns.  This one is 'To a Mouse'.

Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
          Wi’ bickerin brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee
          Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
          Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
          An’ fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave
          ’S a sma’ request:
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
          An’ never miss ’t!

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane,
          O’ foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s winds ensuin,
          Baith snell an’ keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste,
An’ weary Winter comin fast,
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,
          Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
          Out thro’ thy cell.

That wee-bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,
          But house or hald,
To thole the Winter’s sleety dribble,
          An’ cranreuch cauld!

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
          Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
          For promis’d joy!

Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
          On prospects drear!
An’ forward tho’ I canna see,
          I guess an’ fear!

I'm not a huge fan of reading in dialect.  I'll say that in some parts of this works, in others it hinders.  The dialect certainly does add though, doesn't it.  Try and mentally read this straight.  You can't!
I've often heard the phrase 'best laid plans of mice and men, often go astray'.  I had no idea that it originated with Robert Burns.  In fact, one thing that this side project has made clear is that great poems often have at least one phrase that sticks out and lives a life outside of the poem itself.  (May have to blog on that.)
Back in high school we sang a song based on a different Burns poem, 'O My Luve's Like a Red, Red Rose'.  I prefer that poem, though that may simply be based on familiarty.  I don't think so.  There is a striking simplicty to 'Red, Red Rose' that makes it a bit heartbreaking.  At least it hits me more in the heart than this ode to a mouse.
The poetry book missed on this poet.

Thursday, May 16, 2013


Ran into this very good article about the difficulties of burying Tamerlan Tsarenev, the elder of the Boston bombers.  You may know that he was refused burial in Massachusetts.  Eventually the body was spirited away to distant cemetery and buried.
The article makes the connection with the intense importance put on burial in the Iliad and also with the circumstances in Antigone.  The whole thing is excellent and I highly recommend it.  An excerpt:
There is, in the end, a great ethical wisdom in insisting that the criminal dead, that your bitterest enemy, be buried, too; for in doing so, you are insisting that the criminal, however heinous, is precisely not a “monster.” Whatever else is true of the terrible crime that Tamerlan Tsarnaev is accused of having perpetrated, it was, all too clearly, the product of an entirely human psyche, horribly motivated by beliefs and passions that are very human indeed—deina in the worst possible sense. To call him a monster is to treat this enemy’s mind precisely the way some would treat his unburied body—which is to say, to put it beyond the reach of human consideration (and therefore, paradoxically, to refuse to confront his “monstrosity” at all).
This is the point that obsessed Sophocles’ Antigone: that to not bury her brother, to not treat the war criminal like a human being, would ultimately have been to forfeit her own humanity. This is why it was worth dying for.
 I'll have to think on that for a while.  It's easier for me to see how the Tsarenev grave would be a nightmare for any cemetery owner.  The vandalism risk is huge and persistent.  Even worse, someone may choose to treat it as a shrine.  Who needs the headache?  And who really wants to give that much effort for a man such as he?  Having said that, I was somewhat relieved when I heard that a spot had been found.  (But why not keep the new location and people involved a secret?)

Back in January and February, I was somewhat puzzled at the importance that the Greeks put on burial.  We don't have anywhere near the same unanimous value on burial rites as they did then.  We don't bat an eye if someone chooses cremation over traditional burial.  We aren't concerned if someone leaves their body for science.  We actually exert pressure to donate organs.  I wonder what Homer would have thought of that?
I talked with my father and he reminded me that we've launched missions in Afghanistan to recover bodies of fallen soldiers.  We've risked blood and treasure for men that were already dead.  This was important and my sense is that it is of great importance to the esprit de corps of our military.  I'm curious what a group of Marines would think of the end section of the Iliad, when Achilles desecrates Hector's body again and again.

This struck home to me the other night.  Some years ago both of my very loved cats died with the span of a few months.  We buried them both in the back yard, under a sapling that we planted.  This was before we had any children.  The other night the older kids were playing back there and I went to check on them. 
They had dug a fairly deep hole right about where the kitties are and I was very worried that they would dig them up.  Oh, I didn't want a hole in the yard.  And if they opened up the boxes, they'd find something pretty grisly. 
But it was more than that.  I didn't want the cats to be disturbed.  Whether it makes sense or not, I didn't want their rest to be disturbed.  I don't know if cats have an afterlife.  Sometimes I think that the cats would love the birds and squirrels that play above them, sometimes I think they'd be frustrated that they can't get them.  I often wonder what they'd think of the kids, especially when they play near the tree.  But they've passed on and I didn't want them to be connected like that. 
I guess I'm not as indifferent to burial rites as I'd thought.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Introduction to Arithmetic - Nicomachus

Let me start by being honest.  I thought this piece was by far the most difficult and hardest to understand piece in the project.  I didn't understand nearly enough of it.  I was able to follow the first two third of the first book and very little after that.  I'll have some things to say on that part, but I really can't comment on the rest.
My wife teaches math in elementary school and she seemed interested in the things I was reading.  However, this is testing time of year so she couldn't really jump in with me.  It's possible that I'll come back and hit Nicomachus in more depth this summer. 

Another stumbling block is that I don't have a very good head for math.  This feels like something of a cop-out but experience has shown it to be true.  I'm quite good with kitchen math (adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing), even to the extent that I can give fairly trustworthy estimates of figures without breaking the numbers down.  Where I fail is in the very abstract stuff, which unfortunately is well represented in 'Introduction to Arithmetic'. 
I also have trouble with math when I can't see the goal of it.  I know that even the parts of it that seem the most impractical have led to real breakthroughs and important things.  But this is an area where my mind wants some concrete resolution.  In school I had trouble with Algebra but really excelled in Geometry. 

Anyway, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

William Blake - Poetry

Next up is William Blake's very famous poem, 'Tyger! Tyger!'.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame they fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder; and what art,
Could twist the sinews of they heart?
And when they heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

The 'burning bright' imagery is incredibly potent.  I like the idea of questioning exactly how a Creator would go about making such a savage and beautiful beast.  If you assign roles of good and evil to animals, it's hard to see how tigers and lambs can come from the same source.  (Of course if you go the 'circle of life' route, then it all makes sense pretty quickly.)
I've known this poem for years and I'lll now admit that I'm bothered by the lack of rhyme with the word 'symmetry'.  I'm sure there has been a phonetic shift since this was written but it really does clang in my modern ears.  Probably best to just get over it.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Biography of Nichomacus

Very little is known of the life of Nichomacus.  It is believed that he lived sometime around 100AD.  That figure is based on clues from his writing; who he did and did not mention.  He was probably from a Greek city in the area of Palestine.  He probably studied at Alexandria, in Egypt.
He was an important popularizer of Neo-Pythagoreanism, publishing books on Harmonics and Arithmetic.  It is believed that he also wrote 'An Introduction to Geometry' and a 'Life of Pythagoras' but those works are now lost.  It's possible that he also wrote about Plato and may have written an 'Introduction to Astronomy'.
His 'Introduction to Arithmetic' was used as a text book into the Middle Ages.  Which must make it one of the most studied math books in all of history.  Nichomachus was considered part of the 'golden chain' of true philosophers (or at least that was claimed by a a fifth-century Neo-Platonist named Proclus).
In short, we don't know much about him personally, but he played a key role in spreading the knowledge of Greek mathematicians into later ages.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

John Newton - Poetry

The next poem in the book is by John Newton and is one of the most recognized songs in the world.  The poem is 'Amazing Grace' and the book says that the melody probably originated from African slaves.

Amazing Grace! how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear;
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come;
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.

I've sung the first stanza many times but I don't know if I was ever aware of the rest of it.  Somehow I've never really thought of the theme of 'grace' with it.  Amazing, considering that it's literally in the opening line.  But the familiar sometimes remains unexamined.
In this poem, grace teaches fear but also relieves fear.  It is precious and sweet.  In the third stanza grace saves the poet from 'dangers, toils, and snares' and will lead him home.  This is heady stuff, and I can only try to imagine how powerful it must have been to the slaves on the ships.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Author Timeline

For the first time in year two, we dip into AD.

Homer 7th or 8th Cent(?)
Aeschylus 525-456
Sophocles 497-405
Herodotus 484-425
Plato 428-347
Aristotle 384-322
Lucretius 99-55
Nicomachus 60-120
Marcus Aurelius 121-180
Hobbes 1588-1679
Milton 1608-1674
Pascal 1623-1662
Swift 1667-1745
Rousseau 1712-1778
Kant 1724-1804
Mill 1806-1873

Wednesday, May 1, 2013