Monday, June 30, 2014

For the Little Ones

Daily Dose

From The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Brooks Atkinson


"At last comes Plato, the distributor, who needs no barbaric paint, or tattoo, or whooping; for he can define."

From Plato, or, the Philosopher

Sunday, June 29, 2014

From the Gift Shop

Daily Dose

From Not To be Missed: 54 Favorites from a Lifetime of Film, by Kenneth Turan


"When I'm asked to pick an all-time personal favorite, this is the title I most often cite."

From Children of Paradise, 1945

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Adapted & Abridged for the Modern Reader

Daily Dose

From Lincoln's Bishop: A President, A Priest, and the Fate of 300 Dakota Sioux Warriors, Gustav Niebuhr


"Whipple would be neither the first nor the last American to come up against the rhetoric of men and women who -- despite being firmly in the majority -- regard themselves as victims and respond with fear and a clamor for the harshest penalties against their opponents."

From Chapter Five, A "War of Extermination"

Friday, June 27, 2014

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell


"Sometimes I was merely bored by the whole affair, paid no attention to the hellish noise, and spent hours reading a succession of Penguin Library books which, luckily, I had bought a few days earlier; sometimes I was very conscious of the armed men watching me fifty yards away."

From Chapter X

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Introducing Mrs. Keillor's Little Boy

(What follows is a very slightly expanded version of my introduction for Garrison Keillor's recent appearance at the bookstore.  This was something of a last minute assignment for me, though one I undertook gladly.  I only mention this by way of apology that what follows is not perhaps my best effort in this line, but nevertheless the best I could do at the time.  So nervous was I the night of, it wasn't until I saw the video later that I actually heard Mr. Keillor's response:

"Somehow I wish I had come out before that introduction, and, ugh, I only wish my mother were alive to hear it.  My goodness, she had no idea who she produced.  Well, I suppose, maybe she does hear it, somewhere."

That's both flattering and and a rather sly correction of flattery, may I say.  Still, for all it's obvious faults, here more or less is what I meant to say.)

This evening I have the privilege of introducing a writer who, among his many accomplishments, has just achieved, with this book, A Keillor Reader, a rare distinction in American letters. Some of you will be old enough to remember the Oscar winning actor and comedian, Red Buttons, a man who basically made a living for decades with just the one joke, for example:

“Alexander the Great, who said on his wedding night, 'It’s only a nickname.' Never got a dinner!”


“Lot, who said to his wife as she was being turned into a pillar of salt, 'Salt we got plenty. Coffee we need.' Never got a dinner!”

And on he would go; this one and that one... never got a dinner.

Just jokes of course, good ones, as our guest tonight might say, but the point is there to be made once more; there's been many a great and good man, and woman, as Mr. Buttons might have said, who “never got a dinner.”

More directly to the point this evening, the list of great American writers who have achieved the body of work, the readership and the reputation to justify the publication of a “Reader”is not long. (For any who might not know or remember, a “Reader” in the sense of the word just here, is an anthology of one writer's work, meant to introduce or recall the style and personality of some singular author.) Surveying just the shelves of my personal library last night, I find the following American authors with a“Reader” in my collection: Abraham Lincoln, Ring Lardner, James Thurber, S. J. Perelman, Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, H. L. Mencken, A. J. Liebling and Florence King. You will note the common ancestry of everyone on my list but Lincoln can be traced back, one way or another to Twain, and thence, I would hazard, to Washington Irving. There's good, common and economic sense to this precedent – though I admit to not having noticed it before last night.

Without excepting the 16th President of the United States, every writer on my list has, one way or another, at one time or another, been dismissed with the epithet of “humorist,” as if to suggest that amusement was somehow the mark of an inferior, or fundamentally un-serious artist. I need not remind this audience of the truth in the old saw as to which is more difficult, tragedy or comedy. Furthermore, I would argue that the reason every writer on my list – and again, not entirely excepting The Great Emancipator – has continued in the affection of the reading public to this day, is precisely because in addition to the quality of their poetry and prose, we recognize and appreciate a good time when and where we find one. (Any that don't, often as not, in my experience, teach literature. And the ones who think they can tell a joke and can't, teach “theory.”)

Mr. Garrison Keillor has written short stories for the New Yorker, novels, reminiscence and politics. He's written what's called a “straight” play and screenplay in his time, satire, poetry, and books for children And, I understand, he is working on a musical. And all this, I might add, while keeping what might be called his “day job” in radio since, at least, 1974.*

I can think of no other contemporary writer with whom we may all be said to feel both so familiar and foolish fond, and no other American writer of our time on whom we may still count for such wit as this:

“It is a sin to believe evil of others but it is seldom a mistake.” Worthy, I should think, of Ambrose Bierce, that. And, I know of no other American writer of whom I might unquestionably accept the truth and sincerity of the following sentiment:

“Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people.”

So, tonight, joining that select company of American writers, finally, with well deserved “Readers,” it is my honor and pleasure to give you, gentle people, a great American writer, a writer who has created in Lake Wobegon a better world even than we remember, perhaps a world better than we deserve, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average,” ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Garrison Keillor.

*I would add, that in his books of Good Poems and it's sequels, and likewise Good Jokes, etc., Garrison Keillor has also contributed something every bit as rare to American letters, anthologies of lasting value.  That's no small or easy thing to do.

Daily Dose

From The Charterhouse of Parma, by Stendhal, translated by Richard Howard


"After casting about for veiled expressions by which to mitigate the fatal announcement, he nevertheless ended by telling her everything; it was not in his power to keep a secret which she sought from him."

From Chapter 20

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Caricature

Clerihew of the Missionary's Daughter


While Nobel Prizes
Come in all sizes,
It's just our luck
We got Pearl S. Buck.

Daily Dose

From Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, by William Hazlitt


"Coriolanus is a storehouse of political commonplaces.  Any one who studies it may save himself the trouble of reading Burke's Reflections, or Paine's Rights of Man, or the debates in both Houses of Parliament since the French Revolution or own own."

From Coriolanus

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Never Underestimate a Man With Flying Monkeys

Daily Dose

From Notebook, by Robert Lowell


"God help the headlong rush of this existence"

From Rush

Monday, June 23, 2014

Quick Review

Olivier, by Phillip Ziegler

Since retiring from the Foreign Office in 1967, Philip Ziegler has devoted himself to writing history and biography, including a popular history of The Black Death (1969) -- strange as that sounds --that is still read (it's quite good, by the way,) and the official life of Lord Louis Mountbatten (1985), whose diaries he also edited.  More recently, and very much more to my interest, Ziegler wrote an excellent biography of a great English publisher and belle-lettrist, Man Of Letters: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Literary Impresario Rupert Hart-Davies (2005.)  Ziegler's new book would seem to be something of a departure, as the biographer has never before addressed the theater or film, however, the biography he's written, now that I've read it, seems to me very much of a piece with his previous work.  Call it, Tory Pop.

Here we have the greatest classical actor of the last century as stout-fellow-well-met; a nice enough chap of undistinguished origin who, by dint of genius and jolly hard work became a by-God Baron.  Not too shabby for a theatrical-gentleman, what?

I may exaggerate -- a bit.   Ziegler is by no means such a hearty as this, nor is he so bad a writer.  His is, in many ways, a perfectly serviceable life of "Sir." (The name by which even such distinguished actors as Derek Jacobi, himself now a knight, can not help still calling him to this day, despite having been repeatedly encouraged by the older man to call him "Larry.")  A certain deference to Olivier, even after death, is perfectly understandable.  Olivier towered.  It's no bad thing to be reminded why, even, as here, in fairly broad strokes.  From an early age, in nearly every major Shakespearean part, and not a few minor ones, in film as both star and director, as actor-manager of some legendary productions and companies, and eventually, triumphantly as the founding artistic director of the National Theatre Company, Olivier came to be not only the greatest classical actor of the last century, but in the estimation of many in his profession, perhaps the greatest actor who had ever lived.  There can be little question that such an artist deserves the continued interest of not just the public but of historians and biographers as well.  Zeigler's is far from the first biography then, and unlikely to be the last.

So why this book then?  According to the author, he is the first to have full access to the many hours of recorded reminiscences Olivier made with a man hired to ghost-write the official memoirs.  These tapes were never used.  For reasons that remain obscure even after reading Ziegler's book, Olivier fired the ghost and chose instead to write his book unassisted.  The explanation offered is that Olivier had been indiscreet about persons then living and subsequently regretted some of the theatre tittle-tattle he had committed to tape.  Having read both of the books Olivier wrote, Sir's memoirs might have done with a bit of livening up.  It's a point Zeigler makes himself, not without irony.  There's little enough evidence here of indiscretion.  While he's careful to promise no major revelations, it is Zeigler's access to these unedited interviews for his book that's been used to promote the new biography.  Much ado about very little, as it turns out.  To be fair to Zeigler, he does give us more of what Olivier actually said privately of contemporaries, and his wives, but none of it is very shocking.  Moreover, none of it will be unfamiliar to anyone who's read other biographies, theatrical memoirs and or letters of the period. Every English actor of a certain age has at least one or two stories, often unflattering about Sir.  Peter Hall diaries, and Kenneth Tynan's letters, both offer less guarded versions of the Great Man, come to that, and much more in the way of theatrical history from the inside.  Also, considerably more fun.

Still, Ziegler is not wrong in emphasizing Olivier's place in what used to be called, somewhat derisively by those excluded from it, "the establishment."  Olivier simply became, for most of his audience, his fellow thespians and for more than one generation, an institution. That's a remarkable story, that transformation of an actor into a national treasure.  Additionally, his biographer is right, I should think, in seeing the actor's personal taste and character as fundamentally conservative.  A brilliantly inventive and exciting actor, and eventually a tireless administrator, Olivier was always careful to describe himself as neither an intellectual nor a theatrical revolutionary.  He was, first and foremost a man of the theatre, and despite multiple marriages and not a few affairs, otherwise largely unremarkable in his personal tastes and interests.  The honest portrayal of this ordinary man behind the legend is both the strength of this portrait, and it's great weakness; the legendary actor being the only reason we continue interested in the man. A man of the theatre, even, it seems a great fan thereof, Ziegler is not.  As a popular historian, he has perhaps a better grasp of his subject's times than previous biographers, but little command of theatrical criticism or any special gift for the telling anecdote or recreating the lingering glow of a great performance.  On the politics of fame and the vicissitudes of running companies, he does better; revenues accounted, honours noted, reviews reviewed. He traces the career, or the course of his star, so to say then, rather than making much of an effort to explain the dazzling light shed along the way. Celebrity he can describe, as that was a thing of newspaper stories, travel-itineraries, awards and Royal Command Performances.  He is particularly good at Olivier's transformation from prewar matinee idol and movie star into a great patriot with his Shakespeare films during the War. Likewise, the sheer, grinding work of actually making a National Theatre has nowhere been more plainly explained.  Ziegler has a genuine appreciation for the unrecognized, middle-aged Sir, in mac and trilby taking the train to his house in the Home Counties after a jolly hard day at the office, making British theatre great again.  And, if anything, the biographer's sympathetic description of the actor/manager's somewhat reluctant but savvy embrace of the next generation -- as embodied in the person and plays of that "Angry Young Man," John Osbourne -- reinforces this impression of brave, adult forbearance in the face of unrecognizable cultural change.  As it happened, Olivier's star-turn in The Entertainer proved to be one of the peaks of his later career. Doesn't mean a fellow has to like that sort of thing.

Ultimately, this biographer hasn't much patience with anything not a matter of record.  None of that nonsense about Sir kissing Danny Kaye or any of that kind of smutty gossip here.  Well and good, really, if a little adamantly prudish.  Less understandable is the lingering question of why Phillip Ziegler should have been asked in the first place to make this minor Mountbatten out of the great Lord Larry, lion of the stage.  May be perfectly true, Ziegler's Olivier, obviously,  scrupulously fair, but rather more of a bore than the original.

Daily Dose

From The Monkey's Wrench, by Primo Levi, translated by William Weaver


"Nothing can be said: nothing sure, nothing probable, nothing honest.  Better to err through omission than through commission: better to refrain from steering the fate of others, since it is already so difficult to navigate one's own."

From The Aunts

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Persuasion, by Jane Austen


"The character of his manner was embarrassment.  She could not have called it either cold or friendly, or any thing so certainly as embarrassment."

From Chapter 19

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Bookstore Bird

Daily Dose

From Cool, Calm & Collected: Poems 1960 - 2000, by Carolyn Kizer


- after Pope

When from his cave, young Mao in his youthful mind
A work to renew old China first designed,
Then he alone interpreted the law,
And from traditional fountains scorned to draw:
But when to examine every part he came,
Marx and Confucius turned out much the same.

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, edited by Tim Hunt


"I can tell lies in prose."

From Self-Criticism in February

Thursday, June 19, 2014

On Another Front

Daily Dose

From Who Stole the American Dream? by Hedrick Smith


"Among the eighty-seven new House Republicans elected in 2010, low taxes suited not only their politics but their pocketbooks.  Thirty-three of the sixty members of the House Tea Party caucus were millionaires when elected.  Six were worth more than $20 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. 'What unites these freshmen,' said the center's Dan Auble, 'is that, on balance, they're rich.'"

From Chapter 19, The Rise of the Radical Right, 1964 - 2010

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Clerihew of Anarchic Method


Paul Karl Feyerabend
To a truly dire extent
Proved to everything there is a season,
In his book, A Farewell to Reason.

Daily Dose

From Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point, by Lewis E. Lehrman


"'When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government -- that is despotism.'"

Abraham Lincoln, quoted from Chpater IV., The Peoria Speech: The Ideas and Arguments

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Later Roman Empire, by Averil Cameron


"Alongside the highly educated bishops such as Ambrose and John Chrysostom, who took so well to public life, were monks, nuns and hermits who ostentatiously rejected any attachment to secular culture or education and thus directly challenged the values of their surrounding society.  Like similar challenges to conventional mores in our own day, this pose often had more than a little affectation about it, and the alternative lifestyle adopted had it's own conformism."

From Chapter X, Culture in the Late Fourth Century

Monday, June 16, 2014

Cowper Finished

An Epitaph #4 (from the Greek)

 At threescore winters' end I died
A cheerless being sole and sad;
The nuptial knot I never tied,
And wish my father never had. 

April 25th was the anniversary of the death of William Cowper, in 1800.  I posted his final poem, "The Castaway," to mark the occasion.  Just the night before, by coincidence rather than design, I happened to have finished reading both The Life of William Cowper, by Thomas Wright and the third of the four volumes of Wright's 1905 edition of The Correspondence of William Cowper.  (I had read already two smaller, and in some ways superior, selections of the letters, as well as a much briefer biography, all reprinted for me on the Espresso Book Machine at the bookstore where I work.)  Now, with genuine regret, I've finished the last of the letters. 

Already, I miss him.

I have been reading my way through Cowper's poems for a few years now, in a rather hideous old edition in double columns, which can be rather daunting to aging eyes, but as I've found no better, on I go.  I can't say I honestly remember now why I took him up in the first place, though I would imagine I knew at least a few of the poems: "The Diverting History of John Gilpin," "Epitaph On a Hare," etc., from other times and other sources.  To be honest, as a poet known now, if at all, primarily for his piety, I would probably have avoided him still, were it not for his letters.  I can say, it was the letters that led me to the poems, not the other way 'round.  (As a child raised if not quite in then regularly in and out of the Methodist Church, I might well have heard more than one of Cowper's contributions to the Olney Hymns.  I don't remember.  I've listened to them since, but more from curiosity than from admiration for the sentiments expressed.)  Certainly, I've posted a number of readings here, of both letters and poems, as well as reprinted a number of poems I admired, and any number of quotes from both his poetry and prose.  I've been recommending him and writing about him here since nearly the start of this enterprise.  None of this, I need hardly say, has been from any interest in or sympathy with his religion.

I'm sure I've said this more than once then, but it seems appropriate to point out yet again that William Cowper is not the most obvious of my enthusiasms.  His God repels me.  His madness breaks my heart.  His indolence, his stubbornness and his selfishness, particularly now I've read a proper biography, ffrustrates and depresses me. As a poet he sits sometimes uncomfortably between the polished little Gods of the Enlightenment and dashing Romantics of the next generation.  His interest to modern literary scholars and anthologists of the Norton school would seem to be confined largely to this.  About this, I frankly could not care less.  I don't read by movements, or pick poets by their placement in the lists.  For all that, and unlike poets very much his superior, like Blake and Milton, I've come to love Cowper, as I never shall either of those geniuses.

 But then, it's never fair to judge our affection for a writer exclusively by his place in the Pantheon.  (I admire, for instance, Balzac, but I love Dickens, to turn to novels for a moment where I am, after all more comfortable and less likely to sound a perfect ass.)  Yet, even among lesser lights of English poetry, Cowper may not be said to shown much ambition beyond his translations of Homer.  Unlike Crabbe, for instance, so similarly situated in some ways, he hasn't much interest, really, in other people, and rarely feels any need to extend himself into minds or experience unlike his own.  This is, in my reading of great letters anyway, more the rule than not.  It doesn't suggest anything unsympathetic in the character of the writer, in my reading, so much as it does an isolation, both physical and emotional that would seem to require letters as a substitute for, rather than just a supplement to conversation.  Just one other example might be Keats, whose great letters come to us from an equally lonely place.  Keats, however it need hardly be said, was a greater poet for his isolation being less a matter of self-exile than of circumstance.  Cowper's poetry might be called garden verse, even when he took on subjects beyond the view available from his greenhouse.  His metaphors are all within walking distance.   Even Cowper's most famous poem, "The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk," is fundamentally autobiographical.  The poet's newspaper gave him the story, and he'd never been, so far as I know, in so much as rowboat, but his understanding being wrecked did not.  Hopelessness, Cowper knew intimately.  Again, unlike his near contemporary John Claire, so like Cowper both in his direct appreciation of the natural world, and sadly like him also in having a history of mental frailty, Cowper seldom seems to have drawn any unfamiliar reference or original conclusion from his time out in Creation.  Clair as a man of the country rather than just a gentleman retired thereto, goes out into nature as into his natural element, his workplace and his place of worship.  Claire is directly familiar with the violence of the natural world, for example, and hasn't Cowper's orderly universe always before his eyes.  Perhaps because of this absence of a frame, from inclination and education, Claire's poems can still be quite original both in observation and language, whereas Cowper seldom surprises and almost never startles.

As for Cowper's letters -- a subject on which I find myself on surer ground -- he is not always so congenial as Edward Fitzgerald, and certainly less erudite and self-aware, and he is neither so consistently comic nor so generous a spirit as Charles Lamb.  Nonetheless, having actually studied Cowper more seriously in recent days, and more closely than another other writer save Carlyle this past year, I now believe him to be not just an important poet, but occasionally a great one.  There are passages in The Task (1785) fully the equal for beauty and style of any lines in English.  More to the point of my recent reading, I believe Cowper easily one of the greatest letter-writers in English, and if not the greatest, then certainly the most endearing, for all his religious mania.

And that, his faith not just in his God, but his faith unto derangement in the reality of damnation, is the very thing that has best kept his name alive, regrettably.  This to me is not just the least attractive part of his biography, but at times an almost unbearable burden to the reader -- as it so clearly was if not to the poet, than to the obviously fragile equilibrium of the man.  (This is why I would recommend the more strictly edited editions of his letters, as these exclude, as a real kindness to the reader, his sometimes daily if not weekly consultations with various dissenting divines on the state of his soul, as these are tedious in the extreme, when not actually maddening to the secular reader -- meaning me, I guess.)  His surprising popularity as a rather narrowly defined presence online would seem to be confined largely and unironically to his contributions as a Christian hymnist and his friendship with the Rev. John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace.  Fair enough, so far as history goes, that would seem to have been significant enough to make a name.  It does seem to me quite telling though that few if any of those still singing "There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood" draw the explicit connection between the morbidity of the poet's imagination and his regular deployment of such disturbing, if entirely traditional images of violence and debasement.

All of which still begs the question of why I love William Cowper.

As his last poem and the brief "Epitaph" above so movingly express, despite, or perhaps as a result of the sincere religious conversion in his early thirties that was to frame both the nature and purpose of the rest of his life, William Cowper died convinced of his personal exclusion from the grace of God.  No one knows why he held to this unhappy conviction.  In 1763, shortly after having been called to the bar and securing a modest living from a bureaucratic appointment arranged by a relative, Cowper suffered a mental collapse from which he never wholly recovered.  He was to suffer a series of such prolonged periods of immobilizing despair, every few years, for the rest of his life.  By the time he came to die at last at the age of seventy, this favorite of the pious public and most fervent Christian poet since George Herbert hadn't been able to pray in years, and hadn't willingly spoken in months.  He refused any and all consolation on his deathbed from even his dearest friends and the Evangelical ministers he most respected.  Convinced of his damnation, he died a sadly tormented man.  And yet...

Here, his last poem in full:

The Castaway

Obscurest night involv'd the sky,
         Th' Atlantic billows roar'd,
When such a destin'd wretch as I,
         Wash'd headlong from on board,
Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,
His floating home for ever left.

No braver chief could Albion boast
         Than he with whom he went,
Nor ever ship left Albion's coast,
         With warmer wishes sent.
He lov'd them both, but both in vain,
Nor him beheld, nor her again.

Not long beneath the whelming brine,
         Expert to swim, he lay;
Nor soon he felt his strength decline,
         Or courage die away;
But wag'd with death a lasting strife,
Supported by despair of life.

He shouted: nor his friends had fail'd
         To check the vessel's course,
But so the furious blast prevail'd,
         That, pitiless perforce,
They left their outcast mate behind,
And scudded still before the wind.

Some succour yet they could afford;
         And, such as storms allow,
The cask, the coop, the floated cord,
         Delay'd not to bestow.
But he (they knew) nor ship, nor shore,
Whate'er they gave, should visit more.

Nor, cruel as it seem'd, could he
         Their haste himself condemn,
Aware that flight, in such a sea,
         Alone could rescue them;
Yet bitter felt it still to die
Deserted, and his friends so nigh.

He long survives, who lives an hour
         In ocean, self-upheld;
And so long he, with unspent pow'r,
         His destiny repell'd;
And ever, as the minutes flew,
Entreated help, or cried—Adieu!

At length, his transient respite past,
         His comrades, who before
Had heard his voice in ev'ry blast,
         Could catch the sound no more.
For then, by toil subdued, he drank
The stifling wave, and then he sank.

No poet wept him: but the page
         Of narrative sincere;
That tells his name, his worth, his age,
         Is wet with Anson's tear.
And tears by bards or heroes shed
Alike immortalize the dead.

I therefore purpose not, or dream,
         Descanting on his fate,
To give the melancholy theme
         A more enduring date:
But misery still delights to trace
   Its semblance in another's case.

No voice divine the storm allay'd,
         No light propitious shone;
When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
         We perish'd, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm'd in deeper gulfs than he.

   My first inclination is to try to take the gentle and good humored author of Cowper's best letters, and the poet who so movingly memorialized his pets and made his walks immortal, and separate this man from the man who wrote that last poem, but it can't be done, by me anyway.  Perhaps a better reader, certainly some better critic might be able to draw some clear distinction between the author of the poem that begins, "I sing the sofa" and the story in a letter of his runaway hare, from the author of "The Savior Hides His Face."  But I'm afraid I must take him as I find him, and that means, however unhappy the thought, taking him whole; God-riddled, guilty, and yes, even glorious in his faith, as he was never out of it from the day he put it on.  And there has been, if I may say, a lesson in that.

It is no bad thing to make a friend among the God-fearing, among even the mad, anymore than it is strange to me now to count new friends among the dead.  At the simplest, I am reminded what a trial I might be to even my nearest and dearest without intention or a thought to their discomfort.  There is a necessary reminder too in respecting the sincerity of religion even when I have no patience for the argument.  It's influence may seem wholly bad to me in Cowper's life and work only if I willfully deny the comfort of his true friends; the friends that took him in because of the faith they kept in common, and supported him, and encouraged his writing, and kept by him even when he could neither work, nor pray, nor even speak.  Still, one need not be Christian to read Cowper.  To read him as I now have and will probably for the rest of my life, to count him now a friend, I need not be persuaded, as those friends nearly all were, that he was right with God even when he was most convinced he wasn't.  I can't save him from his God anymore than they could save him with Him.  What I must do, if I'm to read the author of The Castaway with anything like the respect the author of that poem deserves is to take his religion seriously, even if I don't acknowledge the God he so loved and feared.

It's a tricky thing, reading people with whom one may feel a great personal sympathy, while having no experience in common with, or sympathy for the philosophy and or theology that provided the whole context for their lives and much if not all of their work.  It means, for me, not reading 'round what makes me uncomfortable, or just through it to the next amusing anecdote or bit of lighter verse, but reading respectfully opinions and perspectives antithetical to my own, and counting on my admiration for the work and my affection for the writer to see me through to a better understanding of minds in such important ways unlike my own.

Johnson is a teacher like this.  Reading beyond the good company and wisdom recorded in Boswell, reading Johnson in his essays, and even in his prayers has meant, for me, getting to know the great man better, even when I do not like all I might learn.  Reading Twain when he is old and unedited and inclined to think too much of what, indeed has proved to be too little considered or shaped into anything like the autobiography he seemed to think he was dictating, I would not presume to call an exercise in forbearance.  There is much in even those ungainly new volumes I am glad of having read, and I genuinely look forward to the next!

So too now with Cowper and his letters.  I was not unhappy to have read his letters first without so much of his unhappiness included, but I can't regret having now read the lot.  We benefit by knowing better perhaps only those we already have reason to love.  Cowper has been and continues good company to me.  I looked forward to hearing from him, night after night.  I read his poems with a new understanding.  I read his life with gratitude for having access to so much of what his biography could not include.  Not since I read the letters of Charles and Mary Lamb have I found better company in such an unhappy home with such happiness constantly breaking out through the gloom.

Reading my way through Froude's life of Carlyle, told through his letters, and in another volume from the same source, those of his wife, was a far worse trial than any I have mentioned here, but even that experience I would recommend.  Great writers may have unhappy lives, so long as the reader can recognize that they record their unhappiness better than we have any expectation of being able ourselves to memorialize even our own joys.  That is what makes a writer great, not the particulars of their politics, necessarily, or their example of how to be happy.

With Cowper I do find an example though, and not just his humor and wit, but in his capacity to get on, in even his small and troubled way with the business of making a life, of getting on.  As a reader I am grateful that so small, so narrow a plot bore such bounty.  As a friend, I wish him rest.

Daily Dose

From Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe, by Simon Singh


"George Gamov had once boasted: 'The elements were cooked in less time than it takes to cook a dish of duck and roast  potatoes.'"

From Cosmic Alchemy

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel


"As Danton says, now we can find a lot of other things to worry about."

From Chapter 3: The Visible Exercise of Power

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Countryside Music

Dsily Dose

From How to Live or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell


"Today, stones can be broken up using sound waves to make the passage easier, but in Montaigne's time one could only hope the spheres, spikes, needles and burrs would find their own way to exit... Once, he took 'Venetian turpentine, which they say comes from the mountains of Tyrol, two large doses done up in a wafer on a silver spoon, sprinkled with one or two drops of some good tasting syrup.'  The only effect was to make his urine smell like March violets."

From 14. Q. How to live? A. See the World, Travels

Friday, June 13, 2014

A Caricature

Garrison Keillor introduces his newest book The Keillor Reader at Univer...

Daily Dose

From The Works of John Donne


"Hence comes it, that your Beauty wounds not hearts,
As Others, with prophane and sensuall Darts,
But as an influence, vertuous thoughts imparts."

From Letter to the Lady Carey, and Mrs. Essex Riche, From Amyens

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Caricature

Liberty of the Individual

Daily Dose

From Kim, by Rudyard Kipling


"It is an awful thing still to dread the magic that you contemptuously investigate -- to collect folk-lore for the Royal Society with a lively belief in all Powers of Darkness."

From Chapter 10

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright's Universe, by Dan Falk


"In spite of Montaigne's avowed devotion to his Catholic faith, many people came to see the Essays as an irreligious, even dangerous work.  A century after its publication, the Vatican, which had seen no problems with the book initially, decided not to take any chances, and placed the Essays on its Index of prohibited works."

From Chapter 13

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

To Robert Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Daily Dose

From Poems, by John Masefield


"For all her love, she cannot tell
Whether I use it ill or well,
Nor knock at dusty doors to find
Her beauty dusty in the mind."

From C. L. M.