Saturday, July 07, 2012

Jane Austen, Sanditon; and The Watsons


Opening Passage of The Watsons:

The first winter assembly in the town of D. in Surrey was to be held on Tuesday, Octr 13th, & it was generally expected to be a very good one; a long list of coutnry families was confidently run over as sure of attending, & sanguine hopes were entertained that the Osbornes themselves would be there.--The Edwards's invitation to the Watsons followed, of course. The Edwards's were people of fortune, who lived in the town & kept their coach; the Watsons inhabited a village about 3 miles distant, were poor & had no close carriage; & ever since there had been balls in the place, the former were accustomed to invite the latter to dress, dine & sleep at their house, on every monthly return throughout the winter.

Summary: The background to the story of The Watsons is that one of the daughters in a family of four daughters and two sons, Emma Watson, is sent at a young age to reside with a wealthy aunt, where she receives a good education, and where it is no doubt hoped that she will gain her fortune. Unfortunately for Emma, however, her uncle dies and her aunt imprudently marries someone else; Emma is sent back to her family, whom she has not seen in a while. The Watsons, as the above opening suggests are poor, and the father is in bad health. All the daughters are desperately seeking husbands, and not averse to stealing potential candidates from others (including their own sisters). Emma is very discouraged by this, although she likes the relative kindness of her sister Elizabeth. The two men who are primarily in sight are Lord Osborne, who is clearly attracted to Emma, and Tom Musgrave, the roguish, self-important young friend of the Osbornes, who is the premium beau of the neighborhood and who is the current -- and somewhat elusive -- object of pursuit for Emma's sister Margaret.

We don't actually have enough to get much of a story, but there is some splendid characterization in this abandoned fragment. Perhaps the best part of the story we currently have occurs when Emma attends the Assembly Ball. At the ball is a ten-year-old boy named Charles Blake, who is very excited because the much-admired Miss Osborne had promised to give him the first two dances, and is thus very disappointed when she breaks the promise in order to dance with her current favorite. Emma shows her character by dancing with the boy instead; this brings her considerable approval from Charles's family (and enthusiastic admiration from Charles himself) and, combined with the fact that she is both elegant and somewhat pretty, gets her noticed by both Lord Osborne and Tom Musgrave, and starts the ball rolling on what promises to be a very intricate chain of events and plants the seeds of the love triangles in the book, of which it seems that there would have been several. It also seems to give us the hero of the novel, Mr. Howard, who is young Charles's bachelor uncle. (He is a parish clergyman, gentlemanly, and is instantly liked by Emma, which all seems to clench the deal. And if that weren't enough, the ten-year-old boy's first introduction of Mr. Howard to Emma is "Oh! Uncle, do look at my partner. She is so pretty!") The whole scene is a masterpiece and deserves study in its own right: we get a precise and concise depiction of the characters of perhaps half the major characters in the fragment from it.

Despite the name, Emma Watson is not really much like the Emma, Emma Woodhouse from the novel Emma; she is sweeter and more restrained. The basic set-up, however, is very Austen-ish. However, it looks like it could have become somewhat dark if it had continued; Mr. Watson was definitely slated to die at some point, and is in bad straits by the end of the fragment.

Favorite Passage from The Watsons:

She was at leisure, she could read & think,--tho' her situation was hardly such as to make reflection very soothing. The evils arising from the loss of her uncle, were niether trifling, nor likely to lessen; & when thought had been freely indulged, in contrasting the past & the present, the employment of mind, the dissipation of unpleasant ideas which only reading could produce, mader her thankfully turn to a book.

Opening Passage of Sanditon:

A Gentleman and a Lady travelling from Tunbridge towards that part of the Sussex Coast which lies between Hastings and E. Bourne, being induced by Business to quit the high road and attempt a very rough Lane, were overturned in toiling up its long ascent, half rock, half sand. The accident happened just beyond the only Gentleman's House near the Lane -- a House which their Driver, on being first required to take that direction, had conceived to be necessarily their object and had with most unwilling Looks been constrained to pass by. He had grumbled and shaken his shoulders and pitied and cut his Horses so sharply that he might have been open to the suspicion of overturning them on purpose (especially as the Carriage was not his Master's own) if the road had not indisputably become worse than before, as soon as the premises of the said House were left behind -- expressing with a most portentous countenance that, beyond it, no wheels but cart wheels could safely proceed.

Summary: The people in the carriage turn out to be a Mr. And Mrs. Parker; they are assisted by a Mr. Heywood. Thomas Parker turns out to be extraordinarily voluble -- the first five chapters consist largely of a little travel, some minor comments by other characters, and endless commentary by Mr. Parker. The commentary is actually quite funny because Thomas Parker is an enthusiast, and what he is an enthusiast for is Sanditon, a tiny little place which he hopes to turn into a seaside resort. Nothing short of actually reading the work can convey just how much of an enthusiast for Sanditon he is; the man can turn anything into an advertisement for Sanditon, and everything he does has something to do with his obsession. The reason he is forcing his driver to drive the carriage where carriages should not go is that he is hoping to find a doctor in Wellingham and persuade him to come back to be yet another one of Sanditon's attractions. As it happens, and this summarizes Parker's character perfectly, he got the wrong Wellingham. Parker twists his ankle and has to stay with the Heywoods for some time; since both couples are quite pleasant, they get along very well and (as one would expect) Parker attempts with all his might to get the Heywoods to come to Sanditon. Since the Heywoods have fourteen children, they are very, very settled, however, so Mr. Parker's exhortations are to no avail. He does succeed, however, in letting one of their daughters go to Sanditon, and thus enters the heroine, Charlotte Heywood, level-headed, sensible, and agreeable. And, fortunately for herself and the hilarity of the novel, quick with a witty but tactful answer in any situation, no matter how absurd.

We meet a number of other characters in Sanditon, including the savvy and stingy Lady Denham and Sir Edward Denham, whose goal in life is to be a dashing and dangerous seducer -- think of a Lord Byron wanna-be who has read too many novels, and you have him down to T. We also meet the rest of the Parker family, enough to learn that all the Parkers seem to suffer from a congenital excess of energy, which they all put into talking too much, and that Thomas Parker's obsession with Sanditon is far and away a healthier use of this energy than is found in his sisters, Diana and Susan, and youngest brother Arthur, all of whom devote it to hypochondria and helping people whether they need it or not. The incomplete fragment we have goes to twelve chapters, but it is only in the last chapter that we meet Mr. Parker's brother, Sidney Parker; and since Austen's own working title for the work was The Brothers (Sanditon was given to it by Austen's family after her death, since we get lots of Sanditon and relatively little of any of the brothers except for Thomas). Sidney would certainly have played an important role, perhaps even as the hero, since he seems quite sensible (no known obsessions in sight), and of the brothers Thomas is happily married and Arthur is a lazy hypochondriac.

A lot of characters! We get a lot more backstory in this fragment, but the story itself doesn't advance any further. This is a pity, because what we have is hilarious. The major novels all have their humor, and should probably be read in a more humorous spirit than some of them are, but it's still very restrained. Anyone who has read Austen's juvenilia, however, knows that she has an unuproarious, and if one may dare say it of Aunt Jane, wicked, sense of humor. We get it full blast here. Some of the characters border on Dickensian, there are jokes, and practically every page has a funny situation. The work was ended by Austen's final illness, and shows what a tragedy that was for the history of the novel, because the end result would have been side-splittingly funny.

Favorite Passage in Sanditon: So many to choose from! Charlotte's discussion with Sir Edward on novels would be one, but it's quite long. Here's a snippet from a discussion Charlotte has with Arthur Parker.

"What! said he--Do you venture upon two dishes of strong green tea in one eveng?--What nerves you must have!--How I envy you.--Now, if I were to swallow onlyone such dish--what do you think its effect would be upon me?--" "Keep you awake perhaps all night"--replied Charlotte, meaning to overthrow his attempts at surprise, by the grandeur of her own conceptions.--"Oh, if that were all!--he exclaimed.--No--It acts on me like poison and wd entirely take away the use of my right side, before I had swallowed it 5 minutes.--It sounds almost incredible--but it has happened to me so often that I cannot doubt it.--The use of my right side is entirely taken away for several hours!" "It sounds rather odd to be sure--answered Charlotte coolly--but I dare say it would be proved to be the simplest thing in the world, by those who have studied right sides & green tea scientifically & thoroughly understand all the possibilities of their action on each other."

Recommendation: This is Austen, so of course they're both very highly recommended, for all that The Watsons was abandoned and Sanditon was left incomplete and in draft by her death. If there is only one incomplete-fragment-of-a-novel that you ever read in your life, both of these, especially Sanditon, are excellent candidates for the honor.

The Thrilling Verse that Wakes the Dead

The Descent of Odin. An Ode.
by Thomas Gray

Uprose the King of Men with speed,
And saddled straight his coal-black steed;
Down the yawning steep he rode,
That leads to Hela's drear abode.
Him the dog of darkness spied,
His shaggy throat he opened wide,
While from his jaws, with carnage filled,
Foam and human gore distilled:
Hoarse he bays with hideous din,
Eyes that glow and fangs that grin;
And long pursues with fruitless yell
The father of the powerful spell.
Onward still his way he takes,
(The groaning earth beneath him shakes,)
Till full before his fearless eyes
The portals nine of hell arise.

Right against the eastern gate,
By the moss-grown pile he sate,
Where long of yore to sleep was laid
The dust of the prophetic maid.
Facing to the northern clime,
Thrice he traced the runic rhyme;
Thrice pronounced, in accents dread,
The thrilling verse that wakes the dead;
Till from out the hollow ground
Slowly breathed a sullen sound.

Pr[ophetess]. What call unknown, what charms, presume
To break the quiet of the tomb?
Who thus afflicts my troubled sprite,
And drags me from the realms of night?
Long on these mouldering bones have beat
The winter's snow, the summer's heat,
The drenching dews, and driving rain!
Let me, let me sleep again.
Who is he, with voice unblest,
That calls me from the bed of rest?

O[din]. A Traveller, to thee unknown,
Is he that calls, a Warrior's son.
Thou the deeds of light shalt know;
Tell me what is done below,
For whom yon glittering board is spread,
Dressed for whom yon golden bed.

Pr. Mantling in the goblet see
The pure beverage of the bee,
O'er it hangs the shield of gold;
'Tis the drink of Balder bold:
Balder's head to death is given.
Pain can reach the sons of Heaven!
Unwilling I my lips unclose:
Leave me, leave me to repose.

O. Once again my call obey.
Prophetess, arise and say,
What dangers Odin's child await,
Who the author of his fate.

Pr. In Hoder's hand the hero's doom:
His brother sends him to the tomb.
Now my weary lips I close:
Leave me, leave me to repose.

O. Prophetess, my spell obey,
Once again arise and say,
Who the avenger of his guilt,
By whom shall Hoder's blood be spilt.

Pr. In the caverns of the west,
By Odin's fierce embrace compressed,
A wondrous boy shall Rinda bear,
Who ne'er shall comb his raven-hair,
Nor wash his visage in the stream,
Nor see the sun's departing beam:
Till he on Hoder's corse shall smile
Flaming on the funeral pile.
Now my weary lips I close:
Leave me, leave me to repose.

O. Yet a while my call obey.
Prophetess, awake and say,
What virgins these, in speechless woe,
That bend to earth their solemn brow,
That their flaxen tresses tear,
And snowy veils, that float in air.
Tell me whence their sorrows rose:
Then I leave thee to repose.

Pr. Ha! no Traveller art thou,
King of Men, I know thee now,
Mightiest of a mighty line—

O. No boding maid of skill divine
Art thou, nor prophetess of good;
But mother of the giant-brood!

Pr. Hie thee hence and boast at home,
That never shall enquirer come
To break my iron-sleep again,
Till Lok has burst his tenfold chain;
Never, till substantial Night
Has reassumed her ancient right;
Till wrapped in flames, in ruin hurled,
Sinks the fabric of the world.

Thomas Gray, despite the relatively small body of his surviving work, is often regarded as the only poet of the eighteenth century to rival Alexander Pope in influence. This, one of Gray's two Norse odes, makes one wish he had done a full cycle; it is easily the best English version of this particular episode in Norse mythology. The Norse original is the Baldrs draumar or VegtamskviĆ°a, an apparently late poem, although certainly based on much earlier sources. In that poem Odin descents into realm of Hel in order to discover the fate of his son, Balder; he raises a volva, a prophetess, who answers his questions in a riddling way, prophesying that Balder will be slain by Hoder and avenged by Vali; at the end, in a fashion that has parallels elsewhere, Odin asks a question only Odin can answer, thus revealing his identity. One of the curiosities of the poem is that the volva is very, very dead: not only is she in the realm of the dead, she is dead in a grave in the realm of the dead. This perhaps parallels the fact that she knows things that are far more secret than even a propetess would usually know, and also is unusually reluctant to divulge them. The poem is also very obscure, perhaps deliberately; it is extremely difficult, for instance, to make much sense of the question that reveals Odin for who he is -- although, again, this is perhaps deliberate. The virgins in the question are probably Aegir's daughters, the wave-maidens, who would weep for Balder so fiercely that the tempests caused would heave ships into the sky; if so, the reveal lies perhaps in the fact that even being able to ask that question in this context would require that the person in question already have intimate knowledge of secret events to come. Gray follows the poem quite closely, although he is not giving a translation in the strict sense (e.g., the triple repetition of the spell is not in the original).

Friday, July 06, 2012

Hot Lyre and Staid Philosophy

A Draught Of Sunshine
by John Keats

Hence Burgundy, Claret, and Port,
Away with old Hock and madeira,
Too earthly ye are for my sport;
There's a beverage brighter and clearer.
Instead of a piriful rummer,
My wine overbrims a whole summer;
My bowl is the sky,
And I drink at my eye,
Till I feel in the brain
A Delphian pain -
Then follow, my Caius! then follow:
On the green of the hill
We will drink our fill
Of golden sunshine,
Till our brains intertwine
With the glory and grace of Apollo!
God of the Meridian,
And of the East and West,
To thee my soul is flown,
And my body is earthward press'd. -
It is an awful mission,
A terrible division;
And leaves a gulph austere
To be fill'd with worldly fear.
Aye, when the soul is fled
To high above our head,
Affrighted do we gaze
After its airy maze,
As doth a mother wild,
When her young infant child
Is in an eagle's claws -
And is not this the cause
Of madness? - God of Song,
Thou bearest me along
Through sights I scarce can bear:
O let me, let me share
With the hot lyre and thee,
The staid Philosophy.
Temper my lonely hours,
And let me see thy bowers
More unalarm'd!

Travel Notes

I went up to Portland, Oregon, to see some dear college friends. They were doing some yurt camping on Beverly Beach, and so I tagged along. Yurt camping is apparently a pretty popular thing in the Northwest; I hadn't really heard of it. It makes sense given the weather, though; certainly beats putting up a tent in the rain.

Portland has an extraordinary beer culture, so I saw (and drank) a great deal of that. We had one dinner at McMenamins when they were doing their live music, and got to listen to Kathryn Claire and Hanz Araki.

We also ran in the Foot Traffic Flat on Sauvie Island, in the 5k. I don't really run at all, and didn't in this race (my first) really push myself (I had a flight the next day!), so timewise it was nothing impressive, but it was fun in its own way.

On Thursday, I was on the MAX going back to the airport and had a pleasant surprise. The Barbershop Harmony Society was in the middle of having its international convention. Massive numbers of participants, mostly but not exclusively seniors, got on, and sang a few songs. I think a lot of them were coming from the Good News Gospel Sing at some Presbyterian church or other. In any case, it's one of those pleasant surprises.

Flying up was quite straightforward -- Southwest really does in many ways seem to do a better job than most other airlines. Flying back was a bit mixed, though. The TSA agents in Portland were actually the nicest TSA agents I've ever come across -- not that that's a high standard, but it was a big difference. Security was as much of a pain as ever, but at least the agents didn't make it worse. (I got patted going and coming; the machine kept registering something or other about my right ankle. I don't know what that's about.) The second leg of my flight was delayed by about fifteen minutes -- I knew that going in -- and then when they got there they had difficulty with their auxiliary power unit, and that had to be fixed, so we ended up leaving an hour after originally scheduled. I got on the plane in Portland at 2:30, Pacific Time, and with travel time from the airport didn't get back to my apartment until after midnight Central Time. Long day.

I miss Portland weather. Their daytime highs now are about where our nighttime lows are here, and I don't mind rain all that much. It will take some adjustment!

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Two New Poem Drafts

In the midst of travel; posting should pick up over the next few days.

Oregon Camping

Babushka pines with shawls of smoke
from glistening needles on heavy boughs
weep, and all things weep, save fire,
which, all-heedless, snaps its fingers;
it dances on the stones below.


Sometimes our most heartfelt dreams
melt away like newest snow;
sometimes our true loves
pass us by in the pouring stream.
Each turn of Fortune's wheel
brings a fall with every rise
and some wounds cut so deep
even time cannot heal.

But still the starlight
shines down upon the waters
with a sparkle of wave
and the peace of night.
And sometimes our heartstrings
start to strum in the morning
as our voices in sunlight
do not falter, but sing.

Sometimes the morning dew
brings not hope but new sorrow.
Sometimes our final chance
is still one chance too few.
Sometimes the good we need
fades away like mirage or mist
and the flowers we plant and tend
are sterile in seed.

But still the moonlight
shines down from the heavens
as the stars like the shoreline sands
are all splendid and bright;
and whatever the hardship, pain, or cost,
each joy is a precious thing --
and those that are kept in heart
will never be lost.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Ruin Hath Taught Me Thus to Ruminate

Sonnet 64
by William Shakespeare

When I have seen by Time's fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

A somewhat chill poem, but Shakespeare is perhaps the best poet of insecurity. Seeing the continual deterioration of the world around: the fineries of past ages harmed, the destructions of cities, the smashing of brass, intrusion of land on sea and sea on land, and so fort, show us that our loves too may be lost to time. That's a poetic thought and most poets end there, but Shakespeare goes that one step further by recognizing that a person can be saddened to have some wonderful thing that can be taken away, simply because it is both a wonderful thing and can be taken away. This is not, perhaps, reasonable; but it is a mood that is not very difficult to find. And the Bard captures it perfectly here.

For a number of reasons, posting will continue to be light over the next few days.