Tell Him So

If you hear a kind word spoken
Of some worthy soul you know,
It may fill his heart with sunshine
If you only tell him so.

If a deed, however humble,
Helps you on your way to go,
Seek the one whose hand has helped you,
Seek him out and tell him so!

If your heart is touched and tender
Toward a person, lost and low,
It might help him to do better
If you’d only tell him so!

Anonymous

The Manly Man

The world has room for the manly man, with the spirit of manly cheer;
The world delights in the man who smiles when his eyes keep back the tear;
It loves the man who, when things are wrong, can take his place and stand
With his face to the fight and his eyes to the light, and toil with a willing hand;
The manly man is the country’s need, the moment’s need, forsooth,
With a heart that beats to the pulsing troop of the lilied leagues of truth;
The world is his and it waits for him, and it leaps to hear the ring
Of the blow he strikes and the wheels he turns and hammers he dares to swing;
It likes the forward look on his face, the poise of his noble head,
And the onward lunge of his tireless will and the sweep of his dauntless tread!
Hurrah for the manly man who comes with sunlight on his face,
And the strength to do and the will to dare and the courage to find his place!
The world delights in the manly man, and the weak and evil flee
When the manly man goes forth to hold his own on land or sea!

Anonymous

Ash Wednesday

I

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is
nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

II
Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to sateity
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been
contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each
other,
Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.

III

At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitul face of hope and of despair.

At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jaggèd, like an old man’s mouth drivelling, beyond
repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an agèd shark.

At the first turning of the third stair
Was a slotted window bellied like the figs’s fruit
And beyond the hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene
The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green
Enchanted the maytime with an antique flute.
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair;
Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of the mind
over the third stair,
Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair
Climbing the third stair.

Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy

but speak the word only.

IV
Who walked between the violet and the violet
Whe walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary’s colour,
Talking of trivial things
In ignorance and knowledge of eternal dolour
Who moved among the others as they walked,
Who then made strong the fountains and made fresh the springs

Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sand
In blue of larkspur, blue of Mary’s colour,
Sovegna vos

Here are the years that walk between, bearing
Away the fiddles and the flutes, restoring
One who moves in the time between sleep and waking, wearing

White light folded, sheathing about her, folded.
The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.

The silent sister veiled in white and blue
Between the yews, behind the garden god,
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but spoke
no word

But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken

Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew

And after this our exile

V
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny
the voice

Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season,
time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.

O my people.

VI
Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit
of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

T.S. Eliot

Mary, Queen of Scots

I looked far back into other years, and lo, in bright array
I saw, as in a dream, the form of ages passed away.
It was a stately convent with its old and lofty walls,
And gardens with their broad green walks, where soft the footstep falls;
And o’er the antique dial stones the creeping shadows passed,
And all around the noonday sun a drowsy radiance cast.
No sound of busy life was heard, save from the cloisters dim
The tinkling of the silver bell, or the sisters’ holy hymn.
And there five noble maidens sat beneath the orchard trees,
In that first budding spring of youth, when all its prospects please;
And little recked they, when they sang, or knelt at vesper prayers,
That Scotland knew no prouder names — held none more dear than theirs;
And little even the loveliest thought, before the Virgin’s shrine,
Of royal blood and high descent from the ancient Stuart line;
Calmly her happy days flew on, uncounted in their flight,
And as they flew they left behind a long-continuing light.

The scene was changed: it was the court, the gay court of Bourbon,
And ‘neath a thousand silver lamps a thousand courtiers throng;
And proudly kindles Henry’s eye — well pleased I ween, to see
The land assemble all its wealth of grace and chivalry;
But fairer far than all the rest who bask in fortune’s tide,
Effulgent in the light of youth is she, the new-made bride!
The homage of a thousand hearts — the fond, deep love of one —
The hopes that dance around a life whose charms are but begun —
They lighten up her chestnut eye, they mantle o’er her cheek,
They sparkle on her open brow, and high-souled joy bespeak.
Ah, who shall blame, if scarce that day, through all its brilliant hours,
She thought of the quiet convent’s calm, its sunshine and its flowers?

The scene was changed: it was a barque that slowly held its way,
And o’er its lee the coast of France in light of evening lay;
And on its deck a lady sat, who gazed with tearful eyes
Upon the fast-receding hills that, dim and distant, rise.
No marvel that the lady wept — there was no land on earth
She loved like that dear land, although she owed it not her birth.
It was her mother’s land, the land of childhood and of friends,
It was the land where she had found for all her griefs amends;
The land where her dead husband slept, the land where she had known
The tranquil convent’s hushed repose, and the splendors of a throne.
No marvel that the lady wept — it was the land of France,
The chosen home of chivalry, the garden of romance.
The past was bright, like those dear hills so far behind her barque;
The future, like the gathering night, was ominous and dark.
One gaze again — one long, last gaze, “Adieu, fair France, to thee!”
The breeze comes forth — she is alone on the unconscious sea!

The scene was changed: it was an eve of raw and surly mood,
And in a turret chamber high of ancient Holyrood
Sat Mary, listening to the rain and sighing with the winds
That seemed to suit the stormy state of men’s uncertain minds.
The touch of care had blanched her cheek, her smile was sadder now,
The weight of royalty had pressed too heavy on her brow;
And traitors to her councils came, and rebels to the field;
The Stuart sceptre well she swayed, but the sword she could not wield.
She thought of all her blighted hopes, the dreams of youth’s brief day,
And summoned Rizzio with his lute, and bade the ministrel play
The songs she loved in early years — the songs of gay Navarre,
The songs perchance that erst were sung by gallant Chattilor.

They half beguiled her of her cares, they soothed her into smiles,
They won her thoughts from bigot zeal and fierce domestic broils;
But hark, the tramp of armed men, the Douglas’ battle cry!
They come! they come! and lo, the scowl of Ruthven’s hollow eye!
The swords are drawn, the daggers gleam, the tears and words are vain —
The ruffian steel is in his heart, the faithful Rizzio’s slain!
Then Mary Stuart dashed aside the tears that trickling fell:
“Now for my father’s arm!” she cried; “my woman’s heart farewell!”

The scene was changed: a royal host a royal banner bore,
And the faithful of the land stood round their smiling Queen once more;
She stayed her steed upon a hill — she saw them marching by —
She heard their shouts — she read success in every flashing eye.
The tumult of the strife begins — it roars — it dies away;
And Mary’s troops and banners now — and courtiers — where are they?
Scattered and strewn, and flying far, defenceless and undone;
Alas! to think what she had lost, and all that guilt had won!
Away! Away! thy noble steed must act no laggard’s part;
Yet vain his speed, for thou dost bear the arrow in thy heart!

The scene was changed: it was a lake, with one small lonely isle,
And there, within the prison walls of its baronial pile,
Stern men stood menacing their queen, till she should stoop to sign
The traitorous scroll that snatched the crown from her ancestral line;
“My lords, my lords,” the captive said, “were I but once more free,
With ten good knights on yonder shore to aid my cause and me,
This parchment would I scatter wide to every breeze that blows,
And once more reign a Stuart queen o’er my remorseless foes!”
A red spot burned upon her cheek, streamed her rich tresses down,
She wrote the words, she stood erect, a queen without a crown!

The scene was changed: beside the block a sullen headsman stood,
And gleamed the broad axe in his hand, that soon must drip with blood.
With slow and steady step there came a Lady through the hall,
And breathless silence chained the lips and touched the hearts of all.
I knew that queenly form again, though blighted was its bloom;
I saw that grief and decked it out — an offering for the tomb!
I knew that eye, though faint its light, that once so brightly shone;
I knew the voice, though feeble now, that thrilled with every tone;
I knew the ringlets almost grey, once threads of living gold;
I knew that bounding grace of step, that symmetry of mould!

Even now I see her far away in that calm convent aisle,
I hear her chant her vesper hymn, I mark her holy smile;
Even now I see her bursting forth upon the bridal morn,
A new star in the firmament, to light and glory born!
Alas, the change! she placed her foot upon a triple throne,
And on the scaffold now she stands — beside the block — alone!
The little dog that licks her hand the last of all the crowd
Who sunned themselves beneath her glance, and round her footsteps bowed.
Her neck is bared — the blow is struck — the soul is passed away!
The bright — the beautiful — is now a bleeding piece of clay.
The dog is moaning piteously; and, as it gurgles o’er,
Laps the warm blood that trickling runs unheeded to the floor.
The blood of beauty, wealth and power, the heart-blood of a queen,
The noblest of the Stuart race, the fairest earth has seen,
Lapped by a dog! Go think of it, in silence and alone;
Then weigh against a grain of sand the glories of a throne.

Henry Glassford Bell

The Last Hymn

The Sabbath day was ending in a village by the sea,
The uttered benediction touched the people tenderly,
And they rose to face the sunset in the glowing lighted West
And then hastened to their dwellings for God’s blessed boon of rest.
But they looked across the waters and a storm was raging there.
A fierce spirit moved above them–the wild spirit of the air,
And it lashed, and shook, and tore them till they thundered,
groaned, and boomed,
But alas! for any vessel in their yawning gulfs entombed.
Very anxious were the people on that rocky coast of Wales,
Lest the dawns of coming morrows should be telling awful tales,
When the sea had spent its passion, and should cast upon the shore
Bits of wreck, and swollen victims, as it had done heretofore.
With the rough winds blowing round her a brave woman strained her eyes,
And she saw along the billows a large vessel fall and rise.
Oh! it did not need a prophet to tell what the end must be,
For no ship could ride in safety near that shore on such a sea.
Then the pitying people hurried from their homes and thronged the beach.
Oh, for power to cross the waters, and the perishing to reach.
Helpless hands were wrung in terror, tender hearts grew cold with dread,
As the ship urged by the tempest to the fatal rock-shore sped.
She has parted in the middle! Oh, the half of her goes down!
God have mercy! Is His heaven far to seek for those who drown?
So when next the white shocked faces looked with terror on the sea,
Only one last clinging figure on a spar was seen to be.
Nearer the trembling watchers came the wreck tossed by the wave,
And the man still clung and floated, though no power on earth could save.
“Could we send him a short message! Here’s a trumpet, shout away!”
‘Twas the preacher’s hand that took it, and he wondered what to say.
Any memory of his sermon? Firstly? Secondly? Ah, no.
There was but one thing to utter in that awful hour of woe.
So he shouted through the trumpet, “Look to Jesus! Can you hear?”
And “Aye, aye, sir!” rang the answer o’er the waters loud and clear,
Then they listened, “He is singing, ‘Jesus, lover of my soul,'”
And the winds brought back the echo, “While the nearer waters roll.”
Strange indeed it was to hear him, “Till the storm of life is past.”
Singing bravely o’er the waters, “Oh, receive my soul at last.”
He could have no other refuge, “Hangs my helpless soul on thee;”,
“Leave, oh, leave me not!”–the singer dropped at last into the sea.
And the watchers looking homeward, through their eyes, by tears made dim,
Said, “He passed to be with Jesus in the singing of that hymn.”

Marianne Farningham

The hymn in question:

Jesus, Lover of My Soul

Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly,
while the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high:
hide me, O my Savior, hide, till the storm of life is past;
safe into the haven guide, O receive my soul at last!

Other refuge have I none, hangs my helpless soul on thee;
leave, ah! leave me not alone, still support and comfort me!
All my trust on thee is stayed, all my help from thee I bring;
cover my defenseless head with the shadow of thy wing.

Thou, O Christ, art all I want; more than all in thee I find:
raise the fallen, cheer the faint, heal the sick, and lead the blind.
Just and holy is thy name; I am all unrighteousness;
false and full of sin I am, thou art full of truth and grace.

Plenteous grace with thee is found, grace to cover all my sin;
let the healing streams abound; make and keep me pure within:
thou of life the fountain art, freely let me take of thee;
spring thou up within my heart, rise to all eternity.

Charles Wesley

The Fighter

I fight a battle every day
Against discouragement and fear;
Some foe stands always in my way,
The path ahead is never clear!

I must forever be on guard
Against the doubts that skulk along;
I get ahead by fighting hard,
But fighting keeps my spirit strong.

I hear the croakings of Despair,
The dark predictions of the weak;
I find myself pursued by Care,
No matter what the end I seek;
My victories are small and few,
It matters not how hard I strive;
Each day the fight begins anew,
But fighting keeps my hopes alive.

My dreams are spoiled by circumstance,
My plans are wrecked by Fate or Luck;
Some hour, perhaps, will come my chance,
But that great hour has never struck;
My progress has been slow and hard,
I’ve had to climb and crawl and swim,
Fighting for ever stubborn yard;
But I have kept in fighting trim.

I have to fight my doubts away
And be on guard against my fears;
The feeble croaking of Dismay
Has been familiar through the years;
My dearest plans keep going wrong,
Events combine to thwart my will;
But fighting keeps my spirit strong,
And I am undefeated still!

Samuel Ellsworth Kiser

It Couldn’t Be Done

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
      But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
      Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
      On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
      That couldn’t be done, and he did it!

Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
      At least no one ever has done it;”
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat
      And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
      Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
      That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
      There are thousands to prophesy failure,
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
      The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
      Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
      That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.

Edgar Albert Guest

Memory and History

Inspired by the passage from Plutarch quoted below.

Memory[i] and history are inextricably linked, the latter having its origin in the former.  With their typical perceptiveness the Greeks recognized this lineage, all the arts descend from memory and the God.  Hesiod:

[The muses] in Pieria[ii] did Mnemosyne (Memory), who reigns over the hills of Eleuther, bear of union with the father, the son of Cronos, a forgetting of ills and a rest from sorrow. For nine nights did wise Zeus lie with her, entering her holy bed remote from the immortals. And when a year was passed and the seasons came round as the months waned, and many days were accomplished, she bare nine daughters, all of one mind, whose hearts are set upon song and their spirit free from care, a little way from the topmost peak of snowy Olympus. There are their bright dancing-places and beautiful homes, and beside them the Graces and Himerus (Desire) live in delight. And they, uttering through their lips a lovely voice, sing the laws of all and the goodly ways of the immortals, uttering their lovely voice. Then went they to Olympus, delighting in their sweet voice, with heavenly song, and the dark earth resounded about them as they chanted and a lovely sound rose up beneath their feet as they went to their father. And he was reigning in heaven, himself holding the lightning and glowing thunderbolt, when he had overcome by might his father Cronos; and he distributed fairly to the immortals their portions and declared their privileges.

Hesiod, Theogony

The eldest daughter of Memory and Zeus was Clio, the muse of history.  First among her sisters, she commemorates the great deeds of men. It is for this commemoration that the Achaeans and Trojans fought on the plains of Ilium. 

The fragility of this remembrance is the brilliant ambiguity at the heart of the epic, revealed by the one who questions the worth of this remembrance, the exception, the best of the Achaeans, Swift-Footed Achilles.

Unlike the rest, Achilles knows his fate, [iii] and thus has that most precious of things: a choice.  He can fight under the walls of Troy, achieve eternal glory, and die, or he can return home to bucolic Phthia and die unremembered after a long and happy life.[iv]

Knowledge of his choice leaves Achilles deeply conflicted; in particular because he is himself half-divine yet, despite his demigoddery, condemned to die.[v]  Given the opportunity by Agamemnon’s slight, he abdicates choice all together and goes off to sulk on the beach, leaving his companions to be slaughtered as his internal turmoil rages.[vi]

In the end, he does not choose to fight for the sake of eternal glory, but for love.[vii]  Over the course of the poem, the locus of his rage shifts, from Agamemnon to his fate and, therefore, himself.[viii]  Patroclus, his blood brother, is struck down, unfairly, by the gods and by Hector while standing in for Achilles–leading Achilles’s men, wearing Achilles’s armor, with the fighting prowess of his blood-brother.[ix]  Only then does Achilles storm into the fray, the murder of his friend and the murder of himself co-mingled, love of self and love of his brother twisted into god-like anger.[x]

Ultimately, the resolution of this anger comes only through divine intervention and sacrificial propitiation.[xi] This triggers the recognition of his father’s grief in Priam’s grief for Hector, allowing him to accept that he will, like his mortal father and unlike his sea-goddess mother, die, leaving only the fragile immortality of remembrance.[xii]

And this immortality is a small comfort indeed, no use to the dead, as we see in the Odyssey: when summoned from the land of shades, Achilles tells Odysseus that glory is worthless to the dead, better to be a living slave then a dead hero. 

In the Iliad itself, there is the haunting image of the long-dead tree, the turning point of the chariot race run in the funeral games of Patroclus:

Now, the turn itself-it’s clear, you cannot miss it.
There’s a dead tree-stump standing six feet high.
it’s oak or pine, not rotted through by the rains,
and it’s propped by two white stones on either side.
That’s your halfway mark where the homestretch starts
and there’s plenty of good smooth racing-room around it
it’s either the grave-mound of a man dead long ago
or men who lived before us set it up as a goal.

Iliad, Book XXIII


Either an honored grave or a marker of a game long forgotten.  Think of the sheer casualness with which the observation is made, the ease with which they’ve forgotten.  What the heroes lack in this moment, though it is present at many other points in the epic is the moral duty to remember, for it is only because of this duty that glory is possible at all.[xiii] 

Most obviously, this is manifest throughout the Iliad in the emphasis on lineage.  Homer spends just as much if not more time speaking about the “sons of Atreus” as Agamemnon and Menalaus.  All men live in the shadow of their fathers.[xiv] The living embodiment of the previous generation is Nestor, never failing to remind those around him of the deeds of the dead and their superiority to the living.[xv]

The spirit of Nestor lives on in the historians: 

I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus  am here setting forth my history, that time may not draw the color from what man has brought into being, nor those great and wonderful deeds, manifested by both Greeks and barbarians, fail of their report, and, together with all this, the reason why they fought one another. 

Herodotus, Histories

The duty of the historian, therefore, first emerges from the moral duty to commemorate the dead, to prevent their images from being lost to time.[xvi]  We hold this duty not only to men of the past but to the other residents of memory, those in the future (see footnote 1) including our future selves.  Witness Herodotus’s adversary, and general stick-in-the-mud, Thucydides’s insistence that his history is useful:

Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it. This belief was not without its grounds. The preparations of both the combatants were in every department in the last state of perfection; and he could see the rest of the Hellenic race taking sides in the quarrel; those who delayed doing so at once having it in contemplation. Indeed this was the greatest movement yet known in history, not only of the Hellenes, but of a large part of the barbarian world- I had almost said of mankind. For though the events of remote antiquity, and even those that more immediately preceded the war, could not from lapse of time be clearly ascertained, yet the evidences which an inquiry carried as far back as was practicable leads me to trust, all point to the conclusion that there was nothing on a great scale, either in war or in other matters….

The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 1

And the dead, properly commemorated serve as guides to the future, see Patroclus’s ghost, Anchises in Elysium, Virgil and the innumerable counselors Dante meets in the underworld, examples multiply. 

But representations of the human face, like that face itself, are subject to decay and dissolution, whereas the essence of man’s mind is something everlasting, which you cannot preserve or express in material wrought by another’s skill, but only in your own character.  All that we loved and admired in Agricola abides and shall abide in the hearts of men through the endless procession of the ages; for his achievements are of great renown.  With many it will be as with men who had no name or fame: they will be buried in oblivion.  But Agricola’s story is set on record for posterity, and he will live.

Tacitus, Agricola, 99

In memory these shades can live, albeit as mere images, recalling the past, shaping the future and ameliorating the pains of the present.[xvii]

It was for the sake of others that I first commenced writing  biographies; but I find myself proceeding and attaching myself  to it for my own; the virtues of these great men serving me as  a sort of looking-glass, in which I may see how to adjust and  adorn my own life. Indeed, it can be compared to nothing but daily living and associating together; we receive, as it were,  in our inquiry, and entertain each successive guest, view —

  ” Their stature and their qualities,”  

and select from their actions all that is noblest and worthiest to know.  

” Ah, and what greater pleasure could one have? ”  

or what more effective means to one’s moral improvement?  Democritus tells us we ought to pray that of the phantasms  appearing in the circumambient air, such may present themselves to us as are propitious, and that we may rather meet  with those that are agreeable to our natures and are good  than the evil and unfortunate; which is simply introducing  into philosophy a doctrine untrue in itself, and leading to  endless superstitions. My method, on the contrary, is, by the  study of history, and by the familiarity acquired in writing, to  habituate my memory to receive and retain images of the best  and worthiest characters. I thus am enabled to free myself  from any ignoble, base, or vicious impressions, contracted from  the contagion of ill company that I may be unavoidably engaged  in ; by the remedy of turning my thoughts in a happy and calm  temper to view these noble examples. Of this kind are those  of Timoleon the Corinthian and Paulus Aemilius, to write  whose lives is my present business; men equally famous, not  only for their virtues, but success; insomuch that they have  left it doubtful whether they owe their greatest achievements  to good fortune, or their own prudence and conduct. In us, they can live again and that is, it seems, why we at least in part, write history. [xviii] 

Plutarch, Life of Timoleon

[i] Memory is a far more expansive and powerful capacity than we typically think.  It’s not merely the storehouse of past ideas and impressions but a vast landscape in which those fragments are assembled into wholes.  The present is a product of memory, the intersection of past remembrances and future expectations extrapolated from these remembrances (themselves, therefore, both extant only in memory).  We live suspended, therefore, between memories.

[ii] The birthplace and resting place of Orpheus as well, surely this is no accident.

[iii] Hector, too, has an intuition of his doom.  Though, befitting his inferior status in comparison, he cannot seem to fully grasp it, alternatively acknowledging and ignoring his destiny in the same moment.  One second bemoaning the inevitable destruction of his city, the enslavement of his wife; the next proclaiming that his son—who will die cruelly at the hands of his killer’s son—will be a greater man than he. 

[iv] It is easy to forget that it is in fact a true prophecy.  Achilles did fight, did die, and did attain eternal glory.  Even in our culturally benighted age we know the name of Achilles, while the images of innumerable others have faded to dust, even the best of them. Diomedes fought the gods themselves, yet who today remembers Diomedes?

[v] Any complaint that Homer lacks psychological realism shatters against the character of Achilles.

[vi] That Agamemnon’s offense is not truly what motivates Achilles to refuse to return to battle is seen clearly in his contradictory responses to the embassy in Book IX.  Notice also whose argument comes closest to swaying him, Ajax who appeals to friendship. 

And what is Achilles doing when the ambassadors arrive: Reaching the Myrmidon shelters and their ships,

they found him there. delighting his heart now,
plucking strong and clear on the fine lyre
beautifully carved, its silver bridge set firm
he won from the spoils when he razed Eetion’s city.
Achilles was lifting his spirits with it now,
singing the famous deeds of fighting heroes …

Iliad, Book IX

And who is the muse of the lyre?  Clio, of course. 

[vii] A deep bond of friendship, not erotic love, as certain later commentators whose stunted imaginations are incapable of recognizing that a deep friendship between men does not require fucking.

[viii] Rage over our fate is ultimately sourced in rage at our place within the cosmos, our own finite and limited nature.  This is, incidentally, the rage of the primordial revolt, the rage of Satan.

[ix] Patroclus in his aresteia is capable of storming Troy himself, though it is Achilles who is destined to conquer Troy by killing its embodiment, Hector.  He will, of course, die before the city is finally destroyed, that task being largely accomplished by the near psychotic rage of Neoptolemus, motivated by the memory of his lost father. 

[x] Divine wrath is, of course, founded in love, cf. the inscription Dante finds over the gates of Hell: “MY MAKER WAS DIVINE AUTHORITY,/AND THE PRIMAL LOVE” (Inferno, Canto 3)

[xi] cf. David Malouf’s Ransom for a poignant treatment.

[xii] It’s fucking beautiful.

[xiii] Remember though before you judge them too harshly for this lack that the order of society has been terribly disrupted by the eruption of Achilles’s rage and not yet restored by these games and the sacrificial self-offering of Priam, itself deeply bound up in the relation between father and son. 

[xiv] I almost wrote, “save Achilles,” but Achilles lives more in the shadow of his father, a father he is doomed to surpass and pre-decease, than anyone.  That’s the whole problem.   

[xv] Surely in the background here we should also keep Fustel de Coulanges’s contentions about the centrality of ancestor-worship to the Greeks in mind.

[xvi] Compare Jewish history, not of men but God, whose image only emerges in negative space, between and behind the lines, as famously described by Auerbach in “Odysseus’s Scar.”  It’s not an accident that the memory’s place in the trinity of our mind most closely corresponds to God the Father, and that history is one of the dominant genres of the Old Testament. 

[xvii] “The living do not have a constitutive need to speak as much as to hear themselves spoken to, above all by the ancestor.  We lend voice to the dead so that they may speak to us from their underworld–address us, instruct us, reprove us, bless us, enlighten us, and in general alleviate the historical terror and loneliness of being in the world.” (Robert Pogue Harrison, Dominion of the Dead, 151)

[xviii] What happens next is, of course, the collision with and assimilation of Jewish history into this model, a topic for another day.

2019 in Books

Prior years

Compared to other years, 2019 was a bit odd. My reading was dominated by two long series, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin books, about which more below, and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer books (which were good, but not truly excellent detective novels). Together, these accounted for more than 20% of all the books I read. As a consequence, there are less entries in the “Notable Books” section than normal.

At the same time, there were quite a few books that I found worthwhile, interesting, and would certainly recommend, but that didn’t quite meet the criteria that normally merits mention in this post. This is not an uncommon problem, I mentioned it last year and thought (mildly) hard about how to overcome it, but it seems especially notable this year. I don’t have a solution, so I’ll simply mention a few books that you might also want to check out:

  • Traditional Japanese Poetry ed. Carter – Very good, just barely missed the list. Too many poems that didn’t captivate me to make it.
  • Plutarch’s Lives, Livy’s History of Rome, Aeschylus’s Oresteia – All classics, all excellent, all likely worthy of inclusion on this list, but somehow did not lodge in my heart the way others did (the Oresteia came closest)
  • Gardens and The Dominion of the Dead by Robert Pogue Harrison – Excellent wide- ranging studies moving effortlessly through literature, philosophy, and history. When I think about how and what I want to write two authors always come to mind: Pogue Harrison and WG Sebald. I don’t know why I didn’t mark this as notable at the time, but I’ve come to trust my in-the-moment apprehension on these things.
  • The Office of Assertion by Scott Crider – Great book on the rhetoric of academic writing, accessible, loaded with detail and practical. Too much of a textbook for me to mark as notable, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject.
  • Shop Class as Soulcraft and The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew Crawford – I agreed with essentially everything that Crawford wrote in these two philosophical/psychological examinations of the value of craftwork. A vital and timely imperative, presented in a compelling, accessible fashion. If you’re a craftsman of any sort or, even more so, if you’re not, you should read these.

Now, on to some stats. I read a total of 168 books in 2019. 29% of which were read on my Kindle (I believe this is a record high) and the rest of which I read in physical form.

Genre
Thanks to the Aubrey-Maturin books, historical fiction dominated the list with 25 entries (20 of which came from O’Brian’s series). Next, in what was a surprise to me, came philosophy, with 21 books. I truly don’t know when I read all that, but the fact that it dominated the list in a year when I had few true favorites might mean something. Next was detective novels (19), thanks to the Lew Archer books that accounted for 18 of them, followed by Sci-Fi (18) and academic books (17).

Authors
As you’ve probably been able to guess O’Brian easily takes the crown this year with 20 books, followed by Macdonald with 18. No one else is even close. EC Tubb, who will finally get his due in the notable section, reappears for what is certainly the last time with 4 books, and Alan Akers, who I thought might be a worth successor to Tubb but whose books were below my lax standards for pulp sci-fi (I found them an overwraught imitation of Edgar Rice Burroughs) had 5 entries. No one else had more than 2 books, another demonstration of how this was an unconventional year (compare last year, where no author had more than 10 books on the list and where Tubb and Akers would not have made the cut for mention in this section).

Notable Books
These are books that I found especially memorable and would recommend without (much) reservation. In another departure from previous years, there are, depending on how you count, only two (or 21) reread entries. Let’s do those first:

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton – I’ve always found Chesterton, despite what his detractors might think, to be a titanic intellect. The apparent glibness of his style is perhaps the greatest indication of that intellect, as there is terrific insight buried behind apparently simple word play and humorous contradiction. He puts it well himself, first on his use of humor:

My critics think that I am not serious but only funny, because they think that “funny” is the opposite of “serious.”  But “funny” is the opposite of “not funny” and of nothing else.  Whether a man chooses to tell the truth in long sentences or in short jokes is a problem analogous to whether he choose to tell the truth in French or in German.  The two qualities of funny and seriousness have nothing whatever to do with each other…If you say that two sheep added to two sheep make four sheep, your audience will accept it patiently–like sheep.  But if you say if  of two monkeys, or two kangaroos, or two sea-green griffins, people will refuse to believe that two and two make four.  They seem to believer that you must have made up the arithmetic, just as you have made up the illustration of the arithmetic.  They cannot believe that anything decorated with an incidental joke can be sensible.  Perhaps it explains why so many successful men are so dull-or why so many dull men are successful.

Then on the depth of his thought revealed in its apparent frivolousness:

A man who deals in harmonies, who only matches stars with angels, or lambs with spring flowers, he indeed may be frivolous, for he is taking one mood at a time, and perhaps forgetting each mood as it passes.  But a man who ventures to combine an angel and an octopus must have some serious view of the universe.  The more widely different the topics talked of, the more serious and universal must be the philosophy which talks of them.  The mark of the light and thoughtless writer is the harmony of his subject matter.  The mark of the thoughtful writer is his apparent diversity.

And he is a very thoughtful writer indeed.

Both of these quotes come from Simon Leys’s wonderful essay on Chesterton: “The Poet Who Dances with a Hundred Legs” (Leys has such marvelous titles). Leys explains that title:

Chesterton once said that he suspected Bernard Shaw of being the only man who had never written any poetry. We may well suspect that Chesterton never wrote anything else.
But what is poetry? I t is not merely a literary form made of rhythmic and rhyming lines–thought Chesterton also wrote (and wrote memorably) a lot of these.  Poetry is something much more essential.  Poetry is grasping reality, making an inventory of the visible world, giving names to all creatures, naming what is…Poetry is our vital link with the outside world–the lifeline on which our very survival depends–and therefore also, in some circumstances, it can become the safeguard of our mental sanity

Simon Leys, The Hall of Uselessness, 100

He later suggests that the essay might have been called, ” The Man Who Was in Love With Daylight.” And its this title that, I think, gets to the core of Orthodoxy and what makes Chesterton such a delight to read. His concern is with joy and wonder, this is what led him (and through him, in a large part, led me) to recognize the truth of Christianity. In his own words:

This, therefore, is, in conclusion, my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive; it turns out to be right, like my father in the garden. Theosophists for instance will preach an obviously attractive idea like re-incarnation; but if we wait for its logical results, they are spiritual superciliousness and the cruelty of caste. For if a man is a beggar by his own pre-natal sins, people will tend to despise the beggar. But Christianity preaches an obviously unattractive idea, such as original sin; but when we wait for its results, they are pathos and brotherhood, and a thunder of laughter and pity; for only with original sin we can at once pity the beggar and distrust the king. Men of science offer us health, an obvious benefit; it is only afterwards that we discover that by health, they mean bodily slavery and spiritual tedium. Orthodoxy makes us jump by the sudden brink of hell; it is only afterwards that we realise that jumping was an athletic exercise highly beneficial to our health. It is only afterwards that we realise that this danger is the root of all drama and romance. The strongest argument for the divine grace is simply its ungraciousness. The unpopular parts of Christianity turn out when examined to be the very props of the people. The outer ring of Christianity is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests; but inside that inhuman guard you will find the old human life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom.

Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 155

Joy, wonder, and the deep gratitude we owe reality for its very existence, as in a short poem, from before Chesterton’s conversion (also quoted in Leys):

EVENING
Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?

Anyway, you should read this book, it’s joyous on the most profound level.

The Aubrey-Maturin Books by Patrick O’Brian – While O’Brian’s chronicles of the adventures of the heroic, albeit sometimes bumbling, sea captain Jack Aubrey and his closest companion, the doctor and spy Stephen Maturin, cover 20 books (and a 21st unfinished novel that I refuse to read), they are, in a very real sense, one grand historical novel, perhaps the greatest historical novel ever written (I certainly haven’t encountered a better one). Marvelously detailed, at turns–and often all at once–poignant, gripping, hilarious, and profound, it’s almost impossible to turn away once you’ve entered into O’Brian’s world. The characters, locales, ships, battles all are beautifully drawn and enthralling. Truly, I would reread this series every year if I had the time. I found on this, my second read through, depths that I hadn’t even imagined were there previously and this, to me, is always the mark of a truly great book. O’Brian easily takes the coveted award for author of the year. I could not recommend the series more strongly.

Plus, he gets points for inspiring my favorite movie of all time.

On Power by Bertrand de Jouvenel – A deeply perceptive, and more than a little depressing, study of the character of power written at the height of World War II. Very different, though not necessarily opposed to, Romano Guardini’s similarly excellent study of the subject. Far too deep to cover even the basics here, but you’ll never look at politics the same again after reading it.

The Dumarest Series by EC Tubb – For years, Tubb’s Dumarest series has been a standby on my list of read books and, having finally finished the series and seen Dumarest arrive (though not necessarily safely) at his long-sought home, I’m sad to see it go. This is pulp sci-fi–of the planetary romance variety–of the highest order (not quite as excellent as Leigh Brackett or Burroughs, but very enjoyable nonetheless). The basic plot of virtually all of the 33 books in the series are the same: Earl Dumarest, wayward child of Earth, possessed with a desperate longing for home, preternatural speed, indomitable will, and a secret that the malevolent Cyclan (think evil Vulcans) will stop at nothing to attain arrives at a planet run by a degenerate aristocracy where he finds himself lusted after by beautiful women, combating deadly beasts, fighting at least one combat to the death in the arena, and embroiled in byzantine plots of revenge and domination. Always seeking for clues to the lost location of Earth, he triumphs over a multitude of dangers, thwarts the Cyclan agents who are ever on his tail and escapes, often seeing his hopes of finding home dashed cruelly at the last moment. Despite this repetitiveness, Tubb gives you enough variety to keep going and the stories certainly don’t drag. You can easily power through any of them in a few hours and they’re a welcome respite from academic works and denser literature.

Tubb has provided me with years of entertainment. I truly am sad to see the series end.

Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti – My affection for Rossetti should be obvious from the sheer number of her poems that I’ve posted here. I’m hard pressed to think of another poet who so deeply stirs the waters of my soul. Many of these entries have used the word “profound” or “deep”, and perhaps that’s a theme of this year, but, despite the repetition, it is nonetheless apt. Rossetti is a beautiful poet, to be read and savored.

It’s difficult for me to speak about the virtues of poetry. Their own words are their best argument. Ignore what I have to say and just read the poems I’ve linked above. They’ll tell you much more than I can about why she is great.

The Centurions by Jean Larteguy – A gripping novel about the nature of war and the men who fight it, which follows a group of French paratroopers from the disaster at Dien Bien Phu to the disaster of Algeria with a brief stop in a France to which they can no longer return. Most reviews speak about how relevant the novel is, it’s depiction of guerrilla warfare and the horrors required to fight it especially pertinent to the modern experience, but I’ve long thought that what makes a book great is not its relevance, but its timelessness. This is a book worth reading not because America finds herself embroiled in an endless succession of Algerias, but because there’s something at the heart of the novel that speaks to the timeless reality of empire and of men, the violence we beg them to commit and what that violence makes them become. Larteguy himself certainly saw this eternal resonance. We can see that from the title, evoking lonely centurions on the periphery of Rome as the walls begin to crumble.

The enjoyed the sequel The Praetorians far less, perhaps because it seemed to require a more in depth understanding of mid-20th century French history about which I know essentially nothing (save for reading a single book about the Algerian conflict in the aftermath of reading Larteguy).

With Fire and Sword by Henryk Sienkiewicz – A epic of the purest and most wonderful sort, following noble (and less-than-noble) Polish knights as they battle against a massive Cossack uprising. It’s exciting and bloody, filled with virtue and vice, terrifying but never one-dimensional villains and excellently drawn characters throughout. Most notable is the Falstaffian knight, Zagloba (he’s the less-than-noble one, though he still has a heart of gold), who has stuck with me more than any other character in a book I’ve read this year. I think that might by Sienkiewicz’s greatest strength, he makes you care about the characters. You want to be around them. You want to see what happens to them. Even the villains are captivating, you await their fates with bated breath. The book is massive, the sequels (which I promise I’ll get to someday) even more so, but for sheer adventure and fun, I’m hard pressed to think of a book since Frans Bengtsson’s The Long Ships that I’ve enjoyed more. A real delight.

Pere Goriot by Honore de Balzac – Balzac is a strange author. On the surface there’s nothing I can point to in his works that I find especially amazing. Indeed, there are a number of times when his prose seems outright bad, where the plots feel rushed, where I lose my grip on his characters (I worried that this was an artifact of translation, but see that others have complained about it too). Nevertheless, his books are utterly captivating. Below the prose, somehow not contained within the words themselves but lying behind them, is a raw, vital energy. His books, and the people within them, are alive. Balzac poured his own life into his works, you might plausibly claim that doing so killed him–the exhaustion of marathon writing sessions fueled only by gallons of coffee, the spiritual depletion of leaving your life on the page. If so, what a sacrifice! What a titanic amount of life he had to give! That’s his achievement, this vitality, this energy. Pere Goriot is one of the most famous of his novels, a key part of his massive La Comédie humaine series of inter-woven works, and thus one of the greatest examples of Balzac’s excellence. You ought to experience it, if only once. It’s different than any other author I’ve ever encountered.

Gilgamesh – How do you praise a four thousand year-old incomplete Sumerian epic? I’ve already mentioned my feeling of inadequacy whenever I try to express why poetry is valuable. So, I’ll simply say that I found Gilgamesh far more accessible than I expected, but what truly drew me in was that this accessibility lightly masked an ever-present air of mystery, of the numinous lurking just behind the scenes. In this way, Gilgamesh reminded me of the Book of Genesis, quite possibly the single most mysterious (in a number of senses of the word) thing ever written. It felt like a poem that I could read over and over again, perpetually feeling like I was on the brink of a great revelation but never quite attaining it. That’s a special and wonderful feeling.

To evoke Chesterton and to paraphrase what I wrote last year, reading brings us many things, the most important of these is wonder and joy. Each of these books, in their own way, brought me wonder and joy, and I hope that they can bring you the same. Read more!

The Loom of Time

Man’s life is laid in the loom of time
To a pattern he does not see
While the weavers and the shuttles fly
Till the dawn of eternity

Some shuttles are filled with silver threads
And some with threads of gold
While often but the darker threads
Are all that they may hold.

But the weaver watches with
Skilful eye
Each shuttle fly to and fro
And sees the pattern so deftly wrought
As the loom moves sure and slow

God surely planned the pattern
Each thread, the dark and fair
Is chosen by his masters skill
And placed in the web with care.

God only knows it’s beauty
And guides the shuttles which hold
The threads so unattractive
As well as the threads of gold

Not till each loom is silent
And the shuttle cease to fly
Shall God reveal the pattern
And explain the reason why
The dark threads were as needful
In the weavers skilful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
For the pattern which he planned.

Anonymous