"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Monday, March 31, 2014

Lines I Wished I’d Written: From “The Pitcher” By Andre Dubus

Baseball season started today, the greatest sport known to mankind.  To commemorate I read a story by Andre Dubus titled, “The Pitcher.”  For your reading pleasure here is a passage I particularly liked.  The story is about a young pitcher who’s wife leaves him.

He spoke to no one.  He went to the far end of the dugout that they left empty for him when he was pitching.  He was too young to ask for that, but he was good enough to get it without asking; they gave it to him early in the year, when they saw he needed it, this young pitcher Billy Wells who talked and joked and yelled at the field and the other dugout for nine innings of the three nights he didn’t pitch, but on his pitching night sat quietly, looking neither relaxed nor tense, and only spoke when politeness required it.  Always he was polite.  Soon they made a space for him on the bench, where he sat now knowing he would be alright.  He did not think about it, for he knew as the insomniac does that to give it words summons it up to dance; he knew that the pain he had brought with him to the park was still there; he even knew it would probably always still be there; but for a good while now it was gone.  It would lie in wait for him and strike him again when he was drained and he had a heart full of room for it.  But that was a long time now, and in the shower or back in the hotel, longer than the two and a half hours or whatever he would use pitching the game; longer than a clock could measure.  Right now it seemed a great deal of his life would pass before the shower.  When he trotted out to the mound they stood and cheered and, before he threw his first warm-up pitch, he tipped his cap.

 -From “The Pitcher” by Andre Dubus. 

Matthew Monday: Florida Beach

As I mentioned we were on vacation down on the Florida Panhandle at a town called Ft. Walton Beach.  Most people who go to Florida for vacation don’t go to the Panhandle area.  It’s a bit removed and it’s culture is more Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana than Florida.  The root purpose of our trip was to attend a wedding, but we extended our stay there for a week since we as a family haven’t had a real vacation in a while, especially with Matthew. 

I really liked the Florida Panhandle.  It’s not crowded, there’s good food around, there’s a good bit to do, and the beaches—did I mention the beaches?—the beaches are beautiful.  Close by were a strip of islands that are connected by bridges to form a beach front strip that’s no bigger than a quarter mile wide and in some places fifty yards wide.  That’s right, you can go from the bay on one side to the Mexican gulf on the other in less than fifty yards.  And the sand on the beaches is literally white as snow.  The first time we drove through there was a spot with sand dunes that seemed to have a dusting of snow on them.  But then we looked carefully and it wasn’t snow.  It was sand.   

Here are some pictures of Matthew on the beach.   

Yes, that’s the sand, and it was really fine.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen sand as fine and white as what we found there.  It was almost like baby powder.  Here's Matthew trying to build a castle, or is it a mountain?


And then sinking his arms into it.


We had sunny days throughout (except for the first and last days) and the temperatures ranged 70 to 75F (21-23C).  The water was a bit cold.  Not too many people ventured in.  It's still early in the season. 

The gulf water gets to be as warm as bath water by mid summer.  But the water was clear and wonderfully sea-green.

And finally Matthew burying his legs to the knees.

It was great to get away from this horrid winter we've had.  



Saturday, March 29, 2014

Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain, Part 2

You can read Part 1 of my reflection of Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain here.

What Twain finds on his journey into the deep south is not just the language differences between North and South, not just the cultural differences that had always and still to this day exist, but psychological differences.  As the nation psychologically suffered a deep wound from the Civil War, the South as loser, suffered the brunt of the change.  The North changed in that it became more industrial; the South changed in that it developed demons. 

IN the North one hears the war mentioned, in social conversation, once a month; sometimes as often as once a week; but as a distinct subject for talk, it has long ago been relieved of duty. There are sufficient reasons for this. Given a dinner company of six gentlemen to-day, it can easily happen that four of them--and possibly five--were not in the field at all. So the chances are four to two, or five to one, that the war will at no time during the evening become the topic of conversation; and the chances are still greater that if it become the topic it will remain so but a little while.  If you add six ladies to the company, you have added six people who saw so little of the dread realities of the war that they ran out of talk concerning them years ago, and now would soon weary of the war topic if you brought it up.

The case is very different in the South. There, every man you meet was in the war; and every lady you meet saw the war.  The war is the great chief topic of conversation. The interest in itis vivid and constant; the interest in other topics is fleeting.  Mention of the war will wake up a dull company and set their tongues going, when nearly any other topic would fail.  In the South, the war is what A.D. is elsewhere: they date from it.  All day long you hear things 'placed' as having happened since the waw; or du 'in' the waw; or befo' the waw; or right aftah the waw; or 'bout two yeahs or five yeahs or ten yeahs befo' the waw or aftah the waw.  It shows how intimately every individual was visited, in his own person, by that tremendous episode.  It gives the inexperienced stranger a better idea of what a vastand comprehensive calamity invasion is than he can ever get by readingbooks at the fireside.

At a club one evening, a gentleman turned to me and said, in an aside--

'You notice, of course, that we are nearly always talking about the war. It isn't because we haven't anything else to talk about, but because nothing else has so strong an interest for us. And there is another reason: In the war, each of us, in his own person, seems to have sampled all the different varieties of human experience; as a consequence, you can't mention an outside matter of any sort but it will certainly remind some listener of something that happened during the war--and out he comes with it. Of course that brings the talk back to the war.  You may try all you want to, to keep other subjects before the house, and we may all join in and help, but there can be but one result: the most random topic would load every man up with war reminiscences, and shut him up, too; and talk would be likely to stop presently, because you can't talk pale inconsequentialities when you've got a crimson fact or fancy in your head that you are burning to fetch out.'

The poet was sitting some little distance away; and presently he began to speak--about the moon.

The gentleman who had been talking to me remarked in an 'aside:' 'There, the moon is far enough from the seat of war, but you will see that it will suggest something to somebody about the war; in ten minutes from now the moon, as a topic, will be shelved.'

The poet was saying he had noticed something which was a surprise to him; had had the impression that down here, toward the equator, the moonlight was much stronger and brighter than up North; had had the impression that when he visited New Orleans, many years ago, the moon--

Interruption from the other end of the room--

'Let me explain that. Reminds me of an anecdote.  Everything is changed since the war, for better or for worse; but you'll find people down here born grumblers, who see no change except the change for the worse. There was an old negro woman of this sort. A young New-Yorker said in her presence, "What a wonderful moon you have down here!" She sighed and said, "Ah, bless yo' heart, honey, you ought to seen dat moon befo' de waw!" '

            -from Chpt XLV, “Southern Sports”

All excerpts taken from Literature Network. 
That “everything has changed since the war,” is the central contrast from the two halves of the memoir.  People have changed, the mood has changed, the culture has changed, the landscape has changed.  Twain makes one of the most insightful observations of southern culture, pre and post Civil War.  The pre-Civil War South was built on an idealism largely traced to Walter Scott’s novels.   

Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society.  He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still. Not so forcefully as half a generation ago, perhaps, but still forcefully.  There, the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works; mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried.  But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner--or Southron, according to Sir Walter's starchier way of phrasing it--would be wholly modern, in place of modern and medieval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is.  It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations.  For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them.  Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.

Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.  It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had any war but for Sir Walter; and yet something of a plausible argument might, perhaps, be made in support of that wild proposition. The Southerner of the American Revolution owned slaves; so did the Southerner of the Civil War: but the former resembles the latter as an Englishman resembles a Frenchman.  The change of character can be traced rather more easily to Sir Walter's influence than to that of any other thing or person.

                        -from Chpt XLVI, “Enchantments and Enchanters”

The culture of the old south had been built up on a Romanticized ideal in the manner of Walter Scott’s novels.  It was a culture built on honor and inflated pride and when the Civil War came – actually the Civil War was a result of that honor—the reality and brutality of the war shattered the idealism.  It was a falling from innocence, and, if innocence falls to a maturity, this new state was a dysfunctional maturity.  In the second part of Life on the Mississippi, there is an undercurrent of life tinged with immorality, despite the charm of the steamboat life, despite the beauty of the river scenes, despite the warmth of the people he encounters.  And it’s not just Southerners.  Businessmen trying to rig business deals, gamblers cheating innocent people, cock fights on the farms and thieves and murderers in shady areas.  For Twain, something has happened to the country after the war. 

And then comes the most remarkable turn of events.  Twain arrives to his home town, the very town where he dreamt of piloting river boats in his youth.   

DURING my three days' stay in the town, I woke up every morning with the impression that I was a boy--for in my dreams the faces were all young again, and looked as they had looked in the old times--but I went to bed a hundred years old, every night--for meantime I had been seeing those faces as they are now.

            -from Chpt LV, “A Vendetta and Other Things”

The memoir here is at the climax of the narrative.  Twain has journeyed back to himself and recalls a place where once the town jail stood.  It had burned down. 

THE slaughter-house is gone from the mouth of Bear Creek and so is the small jail (or 'calaboose') which once stood in its neighborhood.  A citizen asked, 'Do you remember when Jimmy Finn, the town drunkard, was burned to death in the calaboose?'

Observe, now, how history becomes defiled, through lapse of time and the help of the bad memories of men. Jimmy Finn was not burned in the calaboose, but died a natural death in a tan vat, of a combination of delirium tremens and spontaneous combustion.  When I say natural death, I mean it was a natural death for Jimmy Finn to die. The calaboose victim was not a citizen; he was a poor stranger, a harmless whiskey-sodden tramp.  I know more about his case than anybody else; I knew too much of it, in that bygone day, to relish speaking of it.

                        -from Chpt LVI, “A Question of Law”

A town drunk who was caught in a fire.  But Twain knows more about that fire and the drunk’s death than anyone else. 

That tramp was wandering about the streets one chilly evening, with a pipe in his mouth, and begging for a match; he got neither matches nor courtesy; on the contrary, a troop of bad little boys followed him around and amused themselves with nagging and annoying him.  I assisted; but at last, some appeal which the wayfarer made for forbearance, accompanying it with a pathetic reference to his forlorn and friendless condition, touched such sense of shame and remnant of right feeling as were left in me, and I went away and got him some matches, and then hied me home and to bed, heavily weighted as to conscience, and unbuoyant in spirit.  An hour or two afterward, the man was arrested and locked up in the calaboose by the marshal--large name for a constable, but that was his title. 

A group of boys, of which Twain is a part, harass the drunkard, but ultimately Twain gives the tramp some matches for his pipe.   

At two in the morning, the church bells rang for fire, and everybody turned out, of course--I with the rest.  The tramp had used his matches disastrously: he had set his straw bed on fire, and the oaken sheathing of the room had caught.  When I reached the ground, two hundred men, women, and children stood massed together, transfixed with horror, and staring at the grated windows of the jail. Behind the iron bars, and tugging frantically at them, and screaming for help, stood the tramp; he seemed like a black object set against a sun, so white and intense was the light at his back.  That marshal could not be found, and he had the only key.  A battering-ram was quickly improvised, and the thunder of its blows upon the door had so encouraging a sound that the spectators broke into wild cheering, and believed the merciful battle won. But it was not so. The timbers were too strong; they did not yield.  It was said that the man's death-grip still held fast to the bars after he was dead; and that in this position the fires wrapped him about and consumed him. As to this, I do not know. What was seen after I recognized the face that was pleading through the bars was seen by others, not by me. 

With those matches, the drunk accidently set the jail on fire and he stuck behind the bars was burnt to death.   

I saw that face, so situated, every night for a long time afterward; and I believed myself as guilty of the man's death as if I had given him the matches purposely that he might burn himself up with them.  I had not a doubt that I should be hanged if my connection with this tragedy were found out. The happenings and the impressions of that time are burnt into my memory, and the study of them entertains me as much now as they themselves distressed me then.  If anybody spoke of that grisly matter, I was all ears in a moment, and alert to hear what might be said, for I was always dreading and expecting to find out that I was suspected; and so fine and so delicate was the perception of my guilty conscience, that it often detected suspicion in the most purposeless remarks, and in looks, gestures, glances of the eye which had no significance, but which sent me shivering away in a panic of fright, just the same.  And how sick it made me when somebody dropped, howsoever carelessly and barren of intent, the remark that 'murder will out!'For a boy of ten years, I was carrying a pretty weighty cargo.

He believed to be guilty of the man’s death.  He had harassed him; he’d given the matches to a drunkard; he knew the drunk was incapable of being careful.  So the journey back for Twain is to find that he was just as immoral as any other, that at the root of what was innocence harbored sin, and that sin was there all along ready to blossom into full scale immorality.  The Mississippi nurtured innocence and sin alike, a source of joy and a source of gloom.  It was the great bifurcator of the country and also of the soul.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Faith Filled Friday: Agnus Dei

I was on vacation down in Florida last week and into this week.  Unfortunately I wound up missing mass on the first Sunday of the trip since it was the travel day.  But on the second Sunday of my trip I did find a Catholic Church.  The section of Florida was on the pan-handle, up close to Mississippi and Alabama, which is a very different culture than here.  I rather enjoyed it, and I’ll eventually post some pictures. 

One thing I did notice was how much better dressed people were for mass down there than up here.  Men wore jackets and ties and women conservatively stylish.  Even the young were not dressed as if they were headed for the playground.   For the record, I was at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Ft. Walton Beach, a lovely church and seemed like a vibrant parish.  The large church was completely full.

In addition what struck me was that they sang the Lamb of God in Latin, which was a nice change.  I enjoyed it and would like my parish to take it up.  While I’m not a fan of the Latin Mass (see this post adding a touch of Latin makes it more interesting.   

Here is the Agnus Dei  chanted.


Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

In English:

Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Literature In the News: An Essay on Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim

This isn’t truly “in the news” but an online essay by literary critic and former editor of the quarterly, Modern Age, George Panichas.  Actually the article is a reprint from Spring 1986 edition of the periodical in one of my favorite online periodicals, The Imaginative Conservative.  The essay is titled, “The Moral Sense in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.”

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad is one of my favorite novels, and a truly great one.  It’s about a young man, Jim, with Romanticized ideals of the seamanship and the seas, who becomes a first mate of a ship named the Patna.  On a voyage to take 800 Muslims from Malaysia to Mecca for their Hajj the ship crashes, and when it appears the ship will sink and there are only a handful of lifeboats, the dastardly crew abandons the ship.  Jim in a moment of indecision and moral failing jumps from the ship and escapes with the crew, a crew with whom he was never been close and actually an outsider.  However, the ship by some miracle of events doesn’t sink and the crew including Jim, in disgrace, are hauled into court for prosecution.  In court Jim meets Captain Charles Marlow, who feels pity and befriends him and who tells the story of Jim’s life through the novel.  From Panichas essay:  

Beyond the immediate details and the effects of a shipwreck, this novel portrays, in the words of the story’s narrator, Captain Marlow, “those struggles of an individual trying to save from the fire his idea of what his moral identity should be…” That individual is a young seaman, Jim, who serves as the chief mate of the Patna and who also “jumps.” Recurringly Jim envisions himself as “always an example of devotion to duty and as unflinching as a hero in a book.” But his heroic dream of “saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line,” does not square with what he really represents: one who falls from grace, and whose “crime” is “a breach of faith with the community of mankind.” Jim’s aspirations and actions underline the disparity between idea and reality, or what is generally termed “indissoluble contradictions of being.” His is also the story of a man in search of some form of atonement once he recognizes that his “avidity for adventure, and in a sense of many-sided courage,” and his dream of “the success of his imaginary achievements,” constitute a romantic illusion.  Jim’s leap from the Patna generates in him a severe moral crisis that forces him to “come round to the view that only a meticulous precision of statement would bring out the true horror behind the appalling face of things.” 

The novel has several themes: a contrast between the realist Marlow and the Romantic Jim; the psychological struggle for Jim to refit into the world after his disgrace; the struggle to uphold honor and morality in a world filled with manifest evil; inherent alienation; and the need for redemption and atonement.  Panichas focuses his essay on Jim’s striving to uphold his moral code while faced with the disgrace from a moment of panic.   

The assaults of nature on Jim’s outer situation are as vicious at this pivotal point of his life as are the assaults of conscience on his moral sense. These clashing outer and inner elements are clearly pushing Jim to the edge, as heroic aspiration and human frailty wrestle furiously for the possession of his soul. What happens will have permanent consequences for him, as Conrad reveals here, with astonishing power of perception. Here, then, we discern a process of cohesion and dissolution, when Jim’s fate seems to be vibrating unspeakably as he experiences the radical pressures and tensions of his struggle to be more than what he is, or what he aspires to be. Jim, as if replacing the dead officer lying on the deck of the Patna, jumps: “It had happened somehow…,“ Conrad writes. “He had landed partly on somebody and fallen across a thwart.” He was now in the boat with those he loathed; “[h]e had tumbled from a height he could never scale again.” “‘I wished I could die,’” he admits to Marlow. “‘There was no going back. It was as if I had jumped into a well—into an everlasting deep hole.’” 

Marlow goes on to catch glimpses of Jim for the next few years.  The trial has become famous, a sort of media event that we see today, and everyone in civilization recognizes Jim.  Alienated, Jim moves further and further away. 

In a state of disgrace, Jim was to work as a ship-chandler for various firms, but he was always on the run—to Bombay, to Calcutta, to Rangoon, to Penang, to Bangkok, to Batavia, moving from firm to firm, always “under the shadow” of his connection to the Patna “skunks.” Always, too, the paternal Marlow was striving to find “opportunities” for Jim. Persisting in these efforts, Marlow pays a visit to an acquaintance of his, Stein, an aging, successful merchant-adventurer who owns a large inter-island business in the Malay Archipelago with a lot of trading posts in out- of-the-way trading places for collecting produce. Bavarian-born Stein is, for Marlow, “one of the most trustworthy men” who can help to mitigate Jim’s plight. A famous entomologist and a “learned collector” of beetles and butterflies, he lives in Samarang. A sage, as well, he ponders on the problems of human existence: “Man is amazing, but he is not a masterpiece…man is come where he is not wanted, where there is no place for him…,“ he says to Marlow. He goes on to observe that man “wants to be a saint, and he wants to be a devil,” and even sees himself, “in a dream,” “as a very fine fellow—so fine as he can never be….“ Solemnly, he makes this observation, so often quoted from Conrad’s writings: “A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea….The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up.” 

Through Stein Jim is given a job in the fictional South Seas country of Patusan, a primitive and lawless place where he is to try to keep stability.  And he does.  He is so successful that the natives give him the title of “Tuan” or “Lord.” 

The year in which Jim, now close to thirty years of age, arrives in Patusan is 1886. The political situation there is unstable—“utter insecurity for life and property was the normal condition.” Dirt, stench, and mud-stained natives are the conditions with which Jim must deal. In the midst of all of this rot, Jim, in white apparel, “appeared like a creature not only of another kind but of another essence.” In Patusan, he soon becomes known as Lord Jim (Tuan Jim), and his work gives him “the certitude of rehabilitation.” Patusan, as such, heralds Jim’s unceasing attempt to start with a clean slate. But in Patusan, as on the Patna, Jim is in extreme peril, for he has to grapple with fiercely opposing native factions: the forces of Doramin, Stein’s old friend, chief of the second power in Patusan, and those of Rajah Allang, a brutish chief, constantly locked in quarrels over trade, leading to bloody outbreaks and casualties. Jim’s chief goal was “to conciliate imbecile jealousies, and argue away all sorts of senseless mistrusts.” Doramin and his “distinguished son,” Dain Waris, believe in Jim’s “audacious plan.” But will he succeed, or will he repeat past failures? Is Chester, to recall his earlier verdict on Jim, going to be right: “‘He is no earthly good for anything.’” And will Jim, once and for all, exorcise the “unclean spirits” in himself, with the decisiveness needed for atonement? These are convergent questions that badger Jim in the last three years of his life.

I’ve read the novel I think three times in my life and I never surmised that detail, that Jim is thirty when he starts his mission and thirty-three when he dies, and is given the title, “Lord” and his name begins with a “J.”  That is not to say that Conrad intends for Jim to be a Christ, but the allusion signifies the redemptive element that is achieved through his life.

I’ll stop here and not cover any further.  Read the entire essay if I’ve piqued your interest, but more importantly read this great novel.  Like most Joseph Conrad  novels, it’s not an easy read.  But given that he has written four or five of the greatest novels of the twentieth century (Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and possibly even Victory) he is among the very top of English novelists of the past century.
You might also enjoy this orchestral suite, titled "Lord Jim" composed by Branislaw Kapur.  The music is overlaid with scenes from the movie starring Peter O'Toole as Jim. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain, Part 1

Just like the great river bisects the country, this combination memoir/travel book by Mark Twain bifurcates in many ways.  It is shaped as a contrast of opposites, a dualism in perspective.  I had intended for this exploration of Life on the Mississippi to be held to one post, but the complexity of the work stretched this into two posts.  It may just be a memoir and a travel log, but it captures the life and times of two moments in the history of the country, that of pre and post Civil War America.  The work is not as simple as it appears on the surface.

The memoir was written in two distinct moments.  The first part of the novel was written in 1876, the second in 1883, where the two parts were married together.  Second there are a multitude of contrasting perspectives: the inexperienced versus the skilled; the innocent versus the jaundiced; the child versus the adult; the virtuous versus the reprobate; the rural versus the industrial; the north versus the south; the pre-civil war versus the post; the upstream versus the downstream, as Twain voyages aboard Mississippi riverboats. 

That first part, the first twenty-one chapters, is a look back to his childhood growing up on a riverside town and of his initiation into the piloting of river steamboats.  Desire and Romanticism shapes the young boy, and the elder Twain looking back feels nostalgia of an innocent time.  He becomes a trainee pilot, a cub pilot.   

WHAT with lying on the rocks four days at Louisville, and some other delays, the poor old 'Paul Jones' fooled away about two weeks in making the voyage from Cincinnati to New Orleans.  This gave me a chance to get acquainted with one of the pilots, and he taught me how to steer the boat, and thus made the fascination of river life more potent than ever for me.

It also gave me a chance to get acquainted with a youth who had taken deck passage--more's the pity; for he easily borrowed six dollars of me on a promise to return to the boat and pay it back to me the day after we should arrive. But he probably died or forgot, for he never came.  It was doubtless the former, since he had said his parents were wealthy, and he only traveled deck passage because it was cooler.  ['Deck' Passage, i.e. steerage passage.]

I soon discovered two things. One was that a vessel would not be likely to sail for the mouth of the Amazon under ten or twelve years; and the other was that the nine or ten dollars still left in my pocket would not suffice for so imposing an exploration as I had planned, even if I could afford to wait for a ship.  Therefore it followed that I must contrive a new career.  The 'Paul Jones' was now bound for St. Louis. I planned a siege against my pilot, and at the end of three hard days he surrendered.  He agreed to teach me the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis for five hundred dollars, payable out of the first wages I should receive after graduating. I entered upon the small enterprise of 'learning' twelve or thirteen hundred miles of the great Mississippi River with the easy confidence of my time of life.  If I had really known what I was about to require of my faculties, I should not have had the courage to begin. I supposed that all a pilot had to do was to keep his boat in the river, and I did not consider that that could be much of a trick, since it was so wide.

The boat backed out from New Orleans at four in the afternoon, and it was 'our watch' until eight. Mr. Bixby, my chief, 'straightened her up,' plowed her along past the sterns of the other boats that lay at the Levee, and then said, 'Here, take her; shave those steamships as close as you'd peel an apple.'  I took the wheel, and my heart-beat fluttered up into the hundreds; for it seemed to me that we were about to scrape the side off every ship in the line, we were so close.  I held my breath and began to claw the boat away from the danger; and I had my own opinion of the pilot who had known no better than to get us into such peril, but I was too wise to express it.  In half a minute I had a wide margin of safety intervening between the 'Paul Jones' and the ships; and within ten seconds more I was set aside in disgrace, and Mr. Bixby was going into danger again and flaying me alive with abuse of my cowardice.  I was stung, but I was obliged to admire the easy confidence with which my chief loafed from side to side of his wheel, and trimmed the ships so closely that disaster seemed ceaselessly imminent.  When he had cooled a little he told me that the easy water was close ashore and the current outside, and therefore we must hug the bank, up-stream, to get the benefit of the former, and stay well out, down-stream, to take advantage of the latter.  In my own mind I resolved to be a down-stream pilot and leave the up-streaming to people dead to prudence.
            -from Chpt VI, “A Cub Pilot’s Experience”

All excerpts taken from Literature Network.  

But later we find he has become a fine upstream pilot as well.  Here he finds details the splendor and magnificence of a pilot’s life in the golden age of Mississippi river steam boating. 

By the time we had gone seven or eight hundred miles up the river,  I had learned to be a tolerably plucky up-stream steersman, in daylight, and before we reached St. Louis I had made a trifle of progress in night-work, but only a trifle.  I had a note-book that fairly bristled with the names of towns, 'points,' bars, islands, bends, reaches, etc.; but the information was to be found only in the notebook--none of it was in my head.  It made my heart ache to think I had only got half of the river set down; for as our watch was four hours off and four hours on, day and night, there was a long four-hour gap in my book for every time I had slept since the voyage began.

My chief was presently hired to go on a big New Orleans boat, and I packed my satchel and went with him. She was a grand affair. When I stood in her pilot-house I was so far above the water that I seemed perched ona mountain; and her decks stretched so far away, fore and aft, below me, that I wondered how I could ever have considered the little 'Paul Jones' a large craft. There were other differences, too. The 'Paul Jones's 'pilot-house was a cheap, dingy, battered rattle-trap, cramped for room: but here was a sumptuous glass temple; room enough to have a dance in; showy red and gold window-curtains; an imposing sofa; leather cushions and a back to the high bench where visiting pilots sit, to spin yarns and 'look at the river;' bright, fanciful 'cuspadores' instead of abroad wooden box filled with sawdust; nice new oil-cloth on the floor;a hospitable big stove for winter; a wheel as high as my head, costly with inlaid work; a wire tiller-rope; bright brass knobs for the bells; and a tidy, white-aproned, black 'texas-tender,' to bring up tarts and ices and coffee during mid-watch, day and night.  Now this was 'something like,' and so I began to take heart once more to believe that piloting was a romantic sort of occupation after all.  The moment we were under way I began to prowl about the great steamer and fill myself with joy. She was as clean and as dainty as a drawing-room; when I looked down her long, gilded saloon, it was like gazing through a splendid tunnel; she had an oil-picture, by some gifted sign-painter, on every stateroom door; she glittered with no end of prism-fringed chandeliers; the clerk's office was elegant, the bar was marvelous, and the bar-keeper had been barbered and upholstered at incredible cost.  The boiler deck (i.e. the second story of the boat, so to speak) was as spacious as a church, it seemed to me; so with the forecastle; and there was no pitiful handful of deckhands, firemen, and roustabouts down there, but a whole battalion of men. The fires were fiercely glaring from a long row of furnaces, and over them were eight huge boilers!  This was unutterable pomp. The mighty engines--but enough of this.  I had never felt so fine before. And when I found that the regiment of natty servants respectfully 'sir'd' me, my satisfaction was complete.
            -from Chpt VI, “A Cub Pilot’s Experience”

The second part of the work, Twain decides to return to the river a couple of decades later and journey incognito.  He wants to see what is changed on the river from the pre-Civil War days to the industrialized Gilded Age.   

AFTER twenty-one years' absence, I felt a very strong desire to see the river again, and the steamboats, and such of the boys as might be left; so I resolved to go out there.  I enlisted a poet for company, and a stenographer to 'take him down, 'and started westward about the middle of April.

As I proposed to make notes, with a view to printing, I took some thought as to methods of procedure.  I reflected that if I were recognized, on the river, I should not be as free to go and come, talk, inquire, and spy around, as I should be if unknown; I remembered that it was the custom of steam boatmen in the old times to load up the confiding stranger with the most picturesque and admirable lies, and put the sophisticated friend off with dull and ineffectual facts: so I concluded, that, from a business point of view, it would be an advantage to disguise our party with fictitious names.  The idea was certainly good, but it bred infinite bother; for although Smith, Jones, and Johnson are easy names to remember when there is no occasion to remember them, it is next to impossible to recollect them when they are wanted.  How do criminals manage to keep a brand-new ALIAS in mind?  This is a great mystery. I was innocent; and yet was seldom able to lay my hand on my new name when it was needed; and it seemed to me that if I had had a crime on my conscience to further confuse me, I could never have kept the name by meat all.

We left per Pennsylvania Railroad, at 8 A.M. April 18.
            -from Chpt XXII, “I Return to My Muttons”

And so he is going incognito since in the interim years he had become world famous as a writer.  The fact that he left by railroad is germane.  What in the 1850s was the most natural way to head down the center of the country, that is by river boat, was now outdated.  The industrial revolution had created better, more efficient means of traversing the huge country, railroad. 

The further we drove in our inspection-tour, the more sensibly I realized how the city had grown since I had seen it last; changes in detail became steadily more apparent and frequent than at first, too: changes uniformly evidencing progress, energy, prosperity.

But the change of changes was on the 'levee.' This time, a departure from the rule. Half a dozen sound-asleep steamboats where I used to see a solid mile of wide-awake ones!  This was melancholy, this was woeful. The absence of the pervading and jocund steam boatman from the billiard-saloon was explained.  He was absent because he is no more. His occupation is gone,
his power has passed away, he is absorbed into the common herd, he grinds at the mill, a shorn Samson and inconspicuous.  Half a dozen lifeless steamboats, a mile of empty wharves, a negro fatigued with whiskey stretched asleep, in a wide and soundless vacancy, where the serried hosts of commerce used to contend!  Here was desolation, indeed.

'The old, old sea, as one in tears,
Comes murmuring, with foamy lips,
And knocking at the vacant piers,
Calls for his long-lost multitude of ships.'

The towboat and the railroad had done their work, and done it well and completely. The mighty bridge, stretching along over our heads, had done its share in the slaughter and spoliation.
Remains of former steamboat men told me, with wan satisfaction, that the bridge doesn't pay. Still, it can be no sufficient compensation to a corpse, to know that the dynamite that laid him
out was not of as good quality as it had been supposed to be.

The pavements along the river front were bad: the sidewalks were rather out of repair; there was a rich abundance of mud.  All this was familiar and satisfying; but the ancient armies of drays, and struggling throngs of men, and mountains of freight, were gone; and Sabbath reigned in their stead. The immemorial mile of cheap foul doggeries remained, but business was dull with them; the multitudes of poison-swilling Irishmen had departed, and in their places were a few scattering handfuls of ragged negroes, some drinking, some drunk, some nodding, others asleep.  St. Louis is a great and prosperous and advancing city; but the river-edge of it seems dead past resurrection.

Mississippi steam boating was born about 1812; at the end of thirty years, it had grown to mighty proportions; and in less than thirty more, it was dead! A strangely short life for so majestic a creature.  Of course it is not absolutely dead, neither is a crippled octogenarian who could once jump twenty-two feet on level ground; but as contrasted with what it was in its prime vigor, Mississippi steam boating maybe called dead.

It killed the old-fashioned keel-boating, by reducing the freight-trip to New Orleans to less than a week.  The railroads have killed the steamboat passenger traffic by doing in two or three days what the steamboats consumed a week in doing; and the towing-fleets have killed the through-freight traffic by dragging six or seven steamer-loads of stuff down the river at a time, at an expense so trivial that steamboat competition was out of the question.
            -from Chpt XXII, “I Return to My Muttons”

In that interim period, Twain had also left living in the south and became a northerner.  The return to southern culture certainly pulls him back into his roots, providing a divide between who he was and who he is now.  As one might expect with Twain, language is part of the dichotomy.  Here he has traveled down to New Orleans and starts hearing distinctions.

I found the half-forgotten Southern intonations and elisions as pleasing to my ear as they had formerly been.  A Southerner talks music. At least it is music to me, but then I was born in the South. The educated Southerner has no use for an r, except at the beginning of a word.  He says 'honah,' and 'dinnah,' and 'Gove'nuh,' and 'befo' the waw,' and so on. The words may lack charm to the eye, in print, but they have it to the ear. When did the r disappear from Southern speech, and how did it come to disappear?  The custom of dropping it was not borrowed from the North, nor inherited from England. Many Southerners--most Southerners--put a y into occasional words that begin with the k sound.  For instance, they say Mr. K'yahtah (Carter) and speak of playing k'yahds or of riding in the k'yahs. And they have the pleasant custom--long ago fallen into decay in the North--of frequently employing the respectful 'Sir.'  Instead of the curt Yes, and the abrupt No, they say 'Yes, Suh', 'No, Suh.'

But there are some infelicities. Such as 'like' for 'as,' and the addition of an 'at' where it isn't needed.  I heard an educated gentleman say, 'Like the flag-officer did.'  His cook or his butler would have said, 'Like the flag-officer done.'  You hear gentlemen say, 'Where have you been at?' And here isthe aggravated form--heard a ragged street Arab say it to a comrade:'  I was a-ask'n'  Tom whah you was a-sett'n' at.' The very elect carelessly say 'will' when they mean 'shall'; and many of them say, 'I didn't go to do it,' meaning 'I didn't mean to do it.'  The Northern word 'guess'--imported from England, where it used to be common, and now regarded by satirical Englishmen as a Yankee original--is but little used among Southerners.  They say 'reckon.' They haven't any 'doesn't' in their language; they say 'don't' instead. The unpolished often use 'went' for 'gone.'  It is nearly as bad as the Northern 'hadn't ought.' This reminds me that a remark of a very peculiar nature was made here in my neighborhood (in the North) a few days ago: 'He hadn't ought to have went.  'How is that? Isn't that a good deal of a triumph?  One knows the orders combined in this half-breed's architecture without inquiring: one parent Northern, the other Southern.  To-day I heard a schoolmistress ask, 'Where is John gone?'This form is so common--so nearly universal, in fact--that if she had used 'whither' instead of 'where,' I think it would have sounded like an affectation.
                        -from Chpt XLIV, “City Sights” 

For Twain the sound of a language, its nuances, are just as much a locator of time and place than is the rugged landscape. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Poetry Analysis: Spring by Gerard Manly Hopkins

My poet to read and absorb this year is Gerard Manly Hopkins, an English, Victorian poet.  Hopkins was a Catholic convert and a Jesuit priest, and was among the most original of poets.  I’ll go into the nuances of his style in a later post, but let’s get a feel for his poetry. 

To commemorate spring, that most wonderful of seasons, here is his poem titled, simply. 

by Gerard Manly Hopkins 

Nothing is so beautiful as spring—
  When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
  Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
  The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
  The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
  A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.—Have, get, before it cloy,
  Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
  Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

First, it’s an Italian sonnet, and the first two quatrains (the first eight lines) describe a beautiful pastoral scene at the start of the season.  Thrush’s eggs are near hatching, but what’s interesting is that the blue of the eggs reflect the blue of the sky, suggesting a relationship between the pastoral scene and paradise.  The “descending blue” of line seven is sort of a blessing coming down from God.

In the sestet (the final six lines) Hopkins asks in his inventive way (“What is all this juice and all this joy?”), what’s this all about?  His answer is that the beauty of spring is a remnant of earth’s original state, the “cloy” of nature, before sin entered the world and Christ and innocence was the state of things.
But notice Hopkins style.  He loves the Anglo-Saxon-esk alliteration: weeds/wheels, long/lovely/lush, richness/racing, flair/fling, and so on.  And he loves rhythmic phrasing, even if it awkward on the tongue.  Notice the jumbled syntax of the last four lines to alter the rhythm to emphasize Christ: “Have, get, before it cloy,/Before it cloud, Christ, lord…”  Look at the symmetry of that phrase: “Have, get” balances with “Chrst, lord” while “before it cloy” echoes with “Before it cloud.”  That is so excellent.

Here’s a really nice reading of the poem.
Hope you enjoyed it, and hopefully spring is here to stay

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Music Tuesday: Spring from the Four Seasons by Vivaldi

It’s been such a hard winter around here.  I don’t know if this makes it as the coldest on record, but if it isn’t it’s close.  I know it’s not the snowiest on record, but we’ve had a good share of that too.  Every time we think spring is finally here, the weather regresses back.  Most people are begging for spring to come.

Well, if you’re begging, here it is, the “Spring” Concerto from the set of concertos by Antonio Vivaldi named The Four Seasons. 

Here’s some background information.  Vivaldi is considered one of the great composers of the Baroque era, a favorite of Johann Sebastian Bach.  His nickname was the il Prete Rosso, “the red priest” because he was a priest and had red hair.  A Venetian and the the musical director of at an woman’s orphanage where many women went on to be musicians, he reached notariety from his violin virtuosity and then as a composer. 

Vivaldi wrote many violin concerti, and one factoid that surprised me in my research was that Vivaldi in his conceretos established the fast/slow/fast tempos of a concerto’s three movements.  This became a general rule, and not just for concertos.  So many pieces of music are set to a fast/slow/fast pattern, down to our very day. 

The Four Seasons (Le quattro stagioni) are a set of concerti where each of the seasons are an individual concerto.  Each concerto is rendered to reflect a sense of its respective season.  It has been claimed that each season was based on a series of sonnets, also respective to a season, but the sonnets are so dreadful as literary works, a counter claim has been made that the sonnets were backformed from the musical work.  Nonetheless whether the music was based on the sonnet or on elements of the season, it does make the concerti program music.  

Here is the Spring Sonnet from which the composition was supposedly based on. 

Springtime is upon us.
The birds celebrate her return with festive song,
and murmuring streams are softly caressed by the breezes.
Thunderstorms, those heralds of Spring, roar, casting their dark mantle over heaven,
Then they die away to silence, and the birds take up their charming songs once more.

On the flower-strewn meadow, with leafy branches rustling overhead, the goat-herd sleeps, his faithful dog beside him.

Led by the festive sound of rustic bagpipes, nymphs and shepherds lightly dance beneath the brilliant canopy of spring.

So in the first Allegro movement, which is in ritornello form, birds singing make up the theme while stream and thunder motifs offer a contrast.  In the slow Largo we have a picture-scape with goats and dogs.  And in the final Allegro we have a folk spring time dance.  I’ve never been a fan of program music.  I hardly ever see the pictures or drama they are supposed to be represent. 
But this is such a joyful work.  Here is the great Itzhak Perlman with the israel Philharmonic.

So did you catch the birds singing, the thunder resonating, and the dogs barking?