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

Friday, February 24, 2017

Poem: “The Festubert Shrine” by Edmund Blunden

Continuing on with last year’s poetry read, Max Egremont’s Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew, I came upon this wonderful poem by Edmund Blunden.  I wrote about Egremont’s book last May while posting a on an Isaac Rosenberg poem.  I had never heard of Blunden, but apparently a poet of some renown both during and after the war.  He was a friend to the more well know Siegfried Sassoon. 

Blunden entered the front in 1916 shortly before a planned spring offensive.  Egremont describes Blunden’s arrival.

The western front was now full of rumours about the coming offensive.  Constant activity was thought to be vital and officers led parties to reconstruct damaged trenches, repair wire and bury the dead.  This was what Edmund Blunden found when he arrived in France in May.

Blunden was already a poet of immense fluency.  One long pre-trench poem, finished in March, was a disquieting account of cruelty’s consequences called “The Silver Bird of Herndyke Mill.”  A dark atmosphere threatens an English churchyard, stream and wood in the kind of Georgian scene that always inspired Blunden.  Early in 1916, with artillery rumbling from across the Channel, death must have seemed near, even in tranquil Kentish fields.

After some training in the camp at Etaples—where a sergeant major was killed by a faulty grenade—Blunden joined his battalion of the Royal Sussex regiment at La Touret, not far from Béthune.  It could seem idyllic until heavy guns and mines exploded, let off by both sides.  Festubert was within reach, where Sassoon and [Robert] Graves had been at the end of 1915, and Blunden looked for the local orchards, finding a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, a peaceful place away from the guns.  Like Sassoon, he went off on a course; then saw the La Bassée canal, a Red Cross barge on it, the rich summer landscape and the now ruined village of Cuinchy, near the treacherous brickstacks.  He was close to Neuve Chapelle by the end of June.  (pp 113-4)

That chapel in Festubert became the subject to this poem.  Some more background before you get to the poem.  Festubert is a little town in northern France and was the focal point of The Battle of Festubert in 1915, the year before Blunden stumbled on the chapel.  The town was destroyed but the chapel, despite taking on projectile fragments, survived, and Blunden apparently taking a diversion looking for apple orchards stumbled upon it and found it would make a fine subject for a poem.  And so now you are ready to read the poem.

The Festubert Shrine
by Edmund Blunden

A sycamore on either side
In whose lovely leafage cried
Hushingly the little winds —
Thus was Mary’s shrine descried.

“Sixteen Hundred and Twenty-Four”
Legended above the door,
“Pray, sweet gracious Lady, pray
For our souls,” — and nothing more.

Builded of rude gray stones and these
Scarred and marred from base to frieze
With the shrapnel’s pounces — ah,
Fair she braved War’s gaunt disease:

Fair she pondered on the strange
Embitterments of latter change,
Looking fair towards Festubert,
Cloven roof and tortured grange.

Work of carving too there was,
(Once had been her reredos),
In this cool and peaceful cell
That the hoarse guns blared across.

Twisted oaken pillars graced
With oaken amaranths interlaced
In oaken garlandry, had borne
Her holy niche — and now laid waste.

Mary, pray for us? O pray!
In thy dwelling by this way
What poor folks have knelt to thee!
We are no less poor than they.

I doubt Blunden was Catholic—perhaps he was high Anglican—or if he was even religious, but the appeal to the Blessed Mother is moving: “Pray, sweet gracious Lady, pray/For our souls.”  I particularly like the image of the stone front scarred with shrapnel.  He refers to it as “War’s gaunt disease,” as if it were the remnants of a pox.  The final image of poor folks kneeling, and he and his fellow soldiers being just as poor reduces the gallantry of war to resignation.

I’m going to count this as a Faith Filled Friday post in addition to a poetry.  Blessed Mother pray for the war dead.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Plans for 2017

Well this is certainly late, and frankly I’ve been wondering whether I should even bother providing reading plans for the year given I deviated dramatically last year from my beginning of the year plans.  But I will.  Two works in my annual goal were left unfinished: Adrian Goldsworthy’s Julius Caesar and Max Egremont collection of  WWI poetry in Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew.  I’m about two thirds deep in both books, but I’ve been reading the Julius Caesar biography for three years now. 

The planned reads I never got to start make quite a list: Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel, Thomas Berger’s Crazy in Berlin, D. H. Lawrence’s novella, The Virgin and the Gypsy, Volume III of Victor Hugo’s, Les Misérables, titled “Marius,.” the third novel in Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy under the heading Parade’s End, titled, A Man Could Stand Up, William Faulkner’s Old Man, Gertrude von Le Fort, The Wife of Pilate, Dante’s third part of The Divine Comedy, Paradisio, Pam Johnson-Bennett’s non-fiction Think Like a Cat, Thomas Cahill’s Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter and Lawrence Rainey’s The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose, an annotation and commentary to T. S. Eliot’s great poem.  That amounts to four novels, three novellas, two works of non-fiction, and two works of book length poetry with commentary.  Add to the unfinished works and you’ve got an annual goal all in itself.

It’s not like I didn’t read enough last year.  I read nearly the amount I normally do.  The problem is I belong to a couple of book clubs now and the books selected come out of a vote, and what’s selected is usually out of my control.  And so I had to put off planned reads.

So here’s what I’m going to do.  I’m going to march down the list above, completing last year’s list.  I’ll have to add works that get chosen from the book clubs but I’m going to limit my participation to them and try to focus on what I want to read.

In addition to those listed above, I’m going to continue reading through the Bible.  On the Old Testament side, I’m up to Wisdom books: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom, and Sirach.  On the New Testament I’ll be completing Paul’s Epistles.  In the past couple of years I’ve read Romans and the two Corinthians.  This year will be the Letter to the Galatians, Letter to the Ephesians, Letter to the Philippians, Letter to the Colossians, First and Second Letters to the Thessalonian, First and Second Letters to the Timothy, Letter to Titus, Letter to Philemon, and Letter to the Hebrews.  It sounds like a lot but many of those works are very short.

I’ll be aiming for two short stories a month as always, and I will also try to sneak in another play of Shakespeare I haven’t read yet.

Some of this I’ve already begun and even completed.  I’ll try to blog more on my readings.  I feel so guilty about dropping that.  I’d hate for my blog to disintegrate.  Well, here’s to another year of reading.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

My 2016 Reads

Completed: First Quarter

“Master and Man,” a short story by Leo Tolstoy.
Interior Castle, a non-fiction book on spirituality by St. Teresa of Avila.
“A Cup of Cold Water,” a short story by Edith Wharton.
Feline Catastrophes, a collection of humorous anecdotes by Victor S. E. Moubarak.
“In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” a short story by Tobias Wolff.
To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel by Harper Lee.
Prayer for Beginners, a non-fiction book of devotion by Peter Kreeft.
“Saint Dymphna,” a short story by Mary O’Connell.

Completed 2nd Quarter:

“A House of Gentlefolks,” a short story by Evelyn Waugh. 
The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times, a non-fiction book by Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B.
White Fang, a novella by Jack London.
The Book of Psalms, (Psalms 51-100) KJV and Ignatius RSV Translations.
“Hallelujah, Family,” a short story by Ludmilla Petrushevkaya, translated by Anna Summers.
“Wingstroke,: a short story by Vladimir Nabokov. 
“A House of Gentlefolks,” a short story by Evelyn Waugh.
“Miles City, Montana,” a short story by Alice Munro. 
“The Cabuliwallah,” a short story by Rabindranath Tagore. 
“1933,” a short story by Mavis Gallant.
“The Man Born Blind,” a short story by C. S. Lewis. 
“After the Storm,” a short story by Earnest Hemingway.

Completed 3rd Quarter:

Saint Dominic, a biography by Sr. Mary Jean Dorcy, O.P.
“Clair de Lune,” a short story by Guy de Maupassant. 
“The Crucifix across the Mountains,” a personal essay by D. H. Lawrence.
“The Woman In White: Emily Dickinson and Friends,” an essay by Joyce Carol Oats.
“The State of Grace,” a short story by Harold Brodkey.
The Book of Psalms, (Psalms 101-150) KJV and Ignatius RSV Translations.
Learning the Virtues That Lead You to God, a non-fiction book of Christian devotion by Romano Guardini.

Completed 4th Quarter:

First Letter to the Corinthians, an epistle from the New Testament by St. Paul the Apostle in both the KJV and Ignatius RSV translations.
Silence, a novel by Shūsaku Endō. 
“Unzen,” a short story by Shūsaku Endō. 
“The Stampeding of Lady Bastable,” a short story by Saki (H. H. Munro).
“The Jesting of Arlington Stringham,” a short story by Saki (H. H. Munro).
Second Letter to the Corinthians, an epistle from the New Testament by St. Paul the Apostle in both the KJV and Ignatius RSV translations.
Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family, a novel by Thomas Mann.
“The Demilitarized Zone,” a short story by Anthony Doerr.
“The Flying Stars,” a Father Brown mystery short story by G. K. Chesterton.
 “The Red-Headed League,” a Sherlock Holmes short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
“In a Grove,” a short story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa.
“Clay,” a short story by James Joyce.
Two Gentlemen from Verona, a play by William Shakespeare.
Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, a non-fiction book on writing by Virginia Tufte.

Unfinished Reading:

Julius Caesar: Life of a Colossus, a biography by Adrian Goldsworthy.
Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew, a book of history and collected poetry by Max Egremont.

I’m late on summarizing last year’s reads.  Really late.  On balance I would say this was again not a great year for reading, perhaps just short of average.  But more importantly I was distracted from my plans.  I don’t think I read half of what I planned to read at the beginning of the year.  Two reasons I think.  First the Thomas Mann novel Buddenbrooks taken up in May but not completed until the end of summer was so long that I did not plan accordingly and once I fell behind it destroyed the pace and plan I envisioned.  Second belonging to Goodreads book clubs forces one to accommodate the poll winner for the reading selection,  I don’t get to decide all the time.  Before I summarize, if you wish to read my beginning-of-the-year plans and the quarterly updates for 2016 you can find them here:

As you break down my reads you will find twelve full length works, six books of non-fiction, five books of fiction, and one play, maintaining the one book per month goal I set out every year.  The fact that there were more works of non-fiction than fiction is not typical of my reading patterns, but I think this may have been a function of being part of a Catholic Book Club on Goodreads, where the book selections tend to be Catholic devotional works or about Catholic theology.  There were four such books on the list: St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, Peter Kreeft’s Prayer for Beginners, Jean-Charles Nault’s The Noonday Devil, and Romano Guardini’s Learning the Virtues that Lead You to God.  I have to say I thought the Kreeft book and the Guardini book were so-so.  I didn’t dislike them, but I didn’t think they were that insightful.  Interior Castle is a great classic and well worth the read, and Nault’s book on acedia—a complicated emotional state of boredom, sloth, and inertia—is fascinating and perceptive.  Nault makes the case that acedia is what drives people to lose devotion and perseverance, both in religious life and even every day activity, and Nault points out is particularly problematic in today’s hyper distracting world.  It’s a rather heavy read, but interesting.

Another non-fiction work, also with a Catholic subject was the biography of St. Dominic de Guzmán by Sr. Mary Jean Dorcy.  This read was not associated with the book club but was something I did to honor the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Order of Preachers.  And the last non-fiction book I read was my annual read on the art of writing, this year being Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style.  Tufte’s book is a magnificent work.  It goes through every possible sentence structure and their rhetorical implications.  I meant to post some of the grammatical points here, but unfortunately I haven’t been so consistent in my blogging.  Perhaps on occasion I still will post something from this wonderful book.

The four full length fiction works were all outstanding and all four classics.  Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird from mid-20th century American South dealt with issues of racism through the eyes of a young girl.  Jack London’s White Fang is an early 20th century American novel from the point of view of a wolf-dog as he goes from wild to domesticate.  Shūsaku Endō’s Silence is a 20th century Japanese historical novel set in the 16th century of Catholic persecution.  And Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks is an early 20th century German epic set in the 19th century of a family’s decline.  I immensely enjoyed all four novels.  The fifth fiction work, Feline Catastrophes, is Victor Moubarak’s humorous collection of anecdotes—somewhere between short stories and jokes—centered on the house cat and the trouble he causes.  Victor you may realize is a frequent reader of this blog.  As with his many other publications, Feline Catastrophes, was a fun read.

The one play I read was one of Shakespeare’s early comedies, Two Gentlemen from Verona.  While the plotting seemed a little awkward and the character’s conversions too convenient, the play was still enjoyable and worthwhile, least of all for Shakespeare’ language.   It was a play obviously where he was learning his craft, but his poetry had already developed into the Bard that he would be.  This play checks off another of the ones I’ve read from the Shakespeare opus.  That makes 28 plays read of Shakespeare’ 37 officially credited plays.  I’m getting there.

I also made headway on my track through the Bible.  From the Old Testament I read Psalms 50 through 150 both in the KJV an Ignatius RSV translations, and from the New Testament I read First and Second of Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians, also in both translations.  That puts me about half way on the Old Testament and significantly through the New.

I completed 22 short stories but if you add the two essays I’ve listed, which are about short story length, I read 24 short works this year.  That’s spot on the two per month I set as a goal.  I guess that’s not too bad.  Both essays were well worth reading, but Lawrence’s “The Crucifix Across the Mountains” is exceptional, a classic.  Not only was D. H. Lawrence a great novelist, great short story writer, and great poet, but he was a fine essayist as well.  “The Crucifix Across the Mountains” starts out as a travel essay where the author traverses across the Alps from Germany to Italy.  But near Innsbruck the author comes across a series of crucifixes, and as he goes from mountain to mountain he encounters more crucifixes.  The essay is a contemplation of art, Christ, and death.

This year I’ll rate the short stories as either exceptional, good, ordinary, or duds.  Of the duds there were two: “The Man Born Blind” by C. S. Lewis and “The State of Grace” by Harold Brodkey.  Lewis’s story was a posthumously published work and I suspect it was never refined, if it ever meant to be published.  It felt more like a sketch than a complete story.  Brodkey’s story was boring and depressing and was supposed to have all sorts of Freudian significance, which in today’s age is meaningless.  Six stories I considered ordinary: “Saint Dymphna” by Mary O’Connell, “Clare de Lune” by Guy de Maupassant, “The Jesting of Arlington Stringham” by Saki, “The Flying Stars” by G. K. Chesterton, “The Demilitarized Zone” by Anthony Doerr, and “Clay” by James Joyce.  The one surprise to some in those six I think would be Joyce’s “Clay.”  It’s about a spinster who going on a visit to the family of a man who she nursed when he was a child, forgets the cake she bought for the occasion on the train ride because she became flustered when a drunken man flirted with her.  It was well written but the lack of sympathy the author displays for the woman made it feel harsh and pitiless, and the theme wasn’t exactly profound.  I’m probably not with the majority, but I don’t find James Joyce that great a short story writer. 

Nine stories I’d rate in the good category:  Tobias Wolff’s “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” Ludmilla Petrushevkaya’s “Hallelujah, Family,” Vladimir Nabokov’s “Wingstroke,” Evelyn Waugh’s “A House of Gentlefolks,” Alice Munro’s “Miles City, Montana,” Rabindranath Tagore’s “The Cabuliwallah,” Mavis Gallant’s “1933,” Shūsaku Endō’s “Unzen,” Saki’s “The Stampeding of Lady Bastable,” I could probably distinguish a couple of those in a very good category (Gallant’s and Petrushevkaya’s ) since I had a hard time deciding if they were exceptional.  What’s notable about this group is just how international the group of writers are. 

Four stories I’d rate in the exceptional category: Leo Tolstoy’s “Master and Man,” Edith Wharton’s “A Cup of Cold Water,” Earnest Hemingway’s “After the Storm,” and Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s “In a Grove.” “Master and Man” is a story of rich landlord and a peasant caught in a blizzard; “A Cup of Cold Water” is about a poor, young man in love with a rich lady but uses his last pocket money to save another lady.  “After the Storm” is about a scavenger who finds a sunken vessel after a hurricane and tries to steal the valuables.  “In a Grove” is a series of testimonies to the police about a murder, each account varying and telling us something about the witness.  When you add up the accounts you get to the heart of the murder.

As I do every year, I give a prize to the best short story read in that year.  First the honorable mention and runner up is…drum roll please… Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s “In a Grove.”  Akutagawa is early 20th century Japanese writer known as the "Father of the Japanese short story.”  I had never read any of his stories, but was totally impressed with “In a Grove.”  The sequencing of accounts, varying and conflicting with each other, creates a complex situation where truth is distorted through perception.  Finally, the winner is…more drum roll…Tolstoy’s “Master and Man.”  This was an incredible story about a selfish landlord who faced with death of the peasant under him freezing to death saves him by using his body warmth.  While doing he has a mystical experience of meeting Christ, but while keeping the peasant warm he is exposed and dies.  The landlord maybe master over the peasant, but the Lord is master over him.  You can find both those stories on line if you want to read them.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Faith Filled Friday: Compassionate Blood by Fr. Romanus Cessario, O.P

For those looking for a devotional book to read for Lent, the monthly Catholic magazine, Magnificat, has put out a devotional this season, Compassionate Blood, written by Fr. Romanus Cessario, O.P. Fr. Romanus using the thoughts and words of my dear St. Catherine of Siena creates a meditation on Christ’s Passion.  Here’s what the ad blurb says:  

“What do we learn from this description of the suffering Christ? What does Catherine teach us about the transformation that brings the world stillness on Good Friday from noon until three o’clock?

“The answer is simple: We discover that because of his enormous love, Christ’s sufferings and death cause the transformation of all that exists, the transformation we call Christian salvation….
The transformation that Catherine announces is one that creates in those persons who remain united with Christ a new ground for love, a new sort of loving…. The transformation affects both our persons and our actions.”

Father Romanus Cessario, O.P.
Senior Editor of Magnificat

Of course given St. Catherine is my patroness, as soon as I saw the flyer in this month’s edition of Magnificat I went and ordered it right away.  It just came in the mail today.  Flipping through the pages, it looks like a great little read, especially if you’re looking to learn something about St. Catherine’s theology.  And remember St. Catherine of Siena is one of the doctors of thechurch.  It’s 86 pages not including the footnotes and about the size of a well-constructed paperback.  Here’s an image of the book.

You can order it here  for $9.95, three dollars off the regular price.  I don’t know when the sale ends, so hurry if you are interested.  March 1st is Ash Wednesday, and if you order now it should arrive before then.