Literary Devotional: “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

Note: This will be my LAST Literary Devotional in 2010 and, well, EVER if I can’t find something with which to replace it. Sad, I know. Keep on the lookout for more on this later in the week. How fitting that it should be “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” one of my favorite poems and the one that made me love English romantic poetry all those years ago.

Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities and mortals, or of both,
In Tempe of the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Or marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know

Among the English romantic poets of the early nineteenth century, John Keats (1795-1821) is an enduring favorite. His most famous poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819), remains an object of fascination for readers and critics alike, who still dispute the subtle meaning of its key passages. In a way, this ongoing debate is a fitting fate for the poem, which itself expresses wonder about the stories frozen in time on a Greek vase.

Throughout “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the poet’s words are aimed at the vase itself. This technique of addressing a concept or inanimate object directly, called apostrophe, is a staple of Keats’s poetry in general and his odes in particular. The poet is captivated by the vase both as an object of aesthetic beauty and as a thought-provoking symbol, a sliver of permanence in a world of transience and change.

In the first of the poem’s five stanzas (only the first and last of which are reproduced above), the poet characterizes the urn as an embodiment of the ages themselves, calling it an unspoiled “bride of quietness” and a “foster-child of silence and slow time.” He marvels at the images painted on the vase, eager to know the stories behind them: “What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? / What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?” But this mystery and uncertainty only adds to the images’ appeal; as the poet says in the second stanza, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.” Likewise, he envies the vase’s two lovers, who images are frozen eternally on the verge of embrace: “(T)hough thou hast not thy bliss / For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”

Few lines in poetry have come under as much scrutiny as the final two of “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” It is clear that the vase itself addresses the poet with the words “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” which are themselves a cipher. But because of uncertainty about the punctuation in Keats’s original written manuscript, it is unclear whether the last thirteen words of the poem are spoken by the urn or by the poet himself—a timeless mystery fitting for a poem about timeless mystery.

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale


Literary Devotional: Magic Realism

Magic realism has a long tradition in both Western and non-Western literature. Still, only in the twentieth century has it come to be considered as a discrete genre. Although the term magic realism is often associated exclusively with Latin American literature—perhaps because it was first popularized in a literary context by Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier—it can be found in works of authors from other regions as well.

German artist Franz Roh first used the term magic realism in 1925, to describe an emerging visual art movement that depicted the world realistically but had surreal or dreamlike qualities at the same time. The term has roughly the same meaning when used in reference to literature: Literary works of magic realism depict the world in detailed, authentic fashion but weave supernatural or magical events and situations seamlessly into these otherwise realistic narratives. An important characteristic of the genre is the fact that the characters do not perceive these supernatural events as unusual or out of the ordinary; rather, they witness them dispassionately, without amazement or awe.

The author most responsible for bringing magic realism to worldwide notice is Columbia novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Works such as One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) exemplify the genre, mixing vivid, carnal, and often bloody supernatural events into the characters’ everyday lives. Often, these otherworldly events are steeped in elements of local folklore. Many come in the form of signs from nature, such as a torrential flood that occurs on the day of a character’s funeral.

Other prominent works of Latin American magic realism include Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits (1982), Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate (1989), and Jorge Amado’s The War of the Saints (1988), along with Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories. But many authors outside Latin America have displayed elements of magic realism in their stories and novels, from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) to Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) to Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995).

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale

Literary Devotional: “The Second Coming”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming? Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: someone in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmares by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

“The Second Coming” (1920) by William Butler Yeats contains some of the most vivid imagery found in twentieth-century poetry. The work is actually quite atypical for Yeats, who is best known for his contributions to the Celtic revival movement—an attempt to preserve the culture of his native Ireland against English influence. But whereas much of Yeats’s writing is heavily influenced by Gaelic folklore and mythology, “The Second Coming” is imbued with his fascination with the occult.

Yeats had a rather unique view of history that he believed he received in revelations from spirits. He conceived of history as a series of 2,000-year cycles of ascent and decline, which he referred to as gyres. In Yeats’s view, the world’s last rising gyre culminated with the birth of Jesus, which meant that the corresponding declining, or antithetical, gyre was due to reach its bottom sometime in the twentieth century. Having just lived through the horrors that World War I visit upon  Europe, Yeats believed in 1920 that the Christian gyre was losing its hold on the world, and the end could not be far off.

“The Second Coming” is filled with images of chaos and evil. It begins with a dizzying visual of a falcon “turning and turning” in a spiral, unable to hear the call of its handler. Ominous visions pile up before the reader, culminating with the appearance of a sphinx-like beast that arises in the desert. In a perverse reversal of Christian mythology, the beast “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.” Although Yeats’s precise intent is unknown, critics generally see the beast as representing the totalitarian systems of communism and fascism that arose in Europe following World War I.

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale

(Belated) Literary Devotional: “I, Too, Sing America”

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

Langston Hughes’s “I, Too, Sing America” (1926) is one of the great poems of the Harlem Renaissance, the resurgence of African-American cultural awareness and artistic productivity that occurred during the 1920s.  In just a few elegant lines of free verse, Hughes expresses both the sad reality of blacks’ second-class status in American society and his own confident optimism for the future.

“I, Too, Sing America” is a direct response to Walt Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing” (1881).  Whitman had written about the glorious cacophony of different voices that make up America—the mechanic, the carpenter, the mother and so on.  Hughes, in his poem, contends that one major voice has been forgotten and that Whitman’s song is thus incomplete.

The power of Hughes’s poem stems from is minimal, direct language. The narrator begins with the bold declaration, “I, too, sing America,” set into its own stanza for emphasis, followed by a proud, unadorned assertion of his identity—”I am the darker brother.” He describes how he is denied a place at the American “table,” an extended metaphor in which “eat(ing) in the kitchen” stands fro all types of segregation and unequal opportunity.

But the narrator displays virtually no resentment or anger.  Rather, he laughs off the slights against him and brims with confidence that he is strong and beautiful regardless of the denigration he has endured.  Moreover, he is certain that his own strength and achievement will inevitably cause the rest of America to come to its senses.  The last line brings the poem full circle, repeating the opening with a slight but important change: the narrator asserts ,”I, too, am America,” convinced that he will someday be considered a true part of the nation in which he lives, an equal partner in both its freedoms and its responsibilities.

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale

Literary Devotional: Leo Tolstoy

Though history has produced many great novelists, arguably none is held in higher esteem than Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910).  The status this Russian master enjoys amoung readers and critics is exceeded only be his even greater veneration among writers, who have long regarded him as a virtually untouchable genius.  Tolstoy wrte prolifically, but his reputation rests largely on two great works, War and Peace (1865-1869) and Anna Karenina (1875-1877), which have served as archetypes for the modern novel.  These masterpieces of realism combine unprecended depth of characterization and keenness of observation with a profound interest in the philosophical underpinnings of everyday life.

Born to a prominent family in the Russian nobility, Tolstoy began a university education but grew bored and dropped out before earning a degree.  During the restless years that followed, he served in the army, opened a school, and traveled throughout Europe, unable to find direction.  In 1862, Tolstoy settled down in an infamously unhappy marriage that nonetheless produced thirteen children.

During the second half of the 1860s, Tolstoy wrote his first great masterpiece, War and Peace.  This vast novel, set during the Napoleonic Wars, culminates in France’s 1812 invasion of Russia—the famously doomed assault that fell victim to the harsh Russian winter.  The novel mixes fact and fiction, with a large cast of invented characters sharing the stage with Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I, and other real-life figures.  Although much has been made of the work’s length, it reads surprisingly quickly due to its masterful intertwining of individual stories with the wider sweep of history.  Ultimately, Tolstoy concludes that the great shaping force of history is the unpredictability and irrationality of human behavior.

The intimate focus of Tolstoy’s second masterpiece, Anna Karenina, is evident from its legendary opening: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  The title character is an intelligent, beguiling woman who seeks the romantic love that her husband, a devoted but bland government official, fails to provide.  After falling in love with a debonair military officer, Anna gives up her marriage and young son to pursue love, only to receive society’s scorn for her adultery.  Tolstoy’s description of the moments before Anna’s final, tragic suicide is a masterpiece of realism and considered one of the finest scenes in literature.

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale

Literary Devotional: Romanticism

The last catch-up Literary Devotional…

Romanticism was a wide-ranging intellectual and artistic movement that swept Europe and the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century.  It was a direct relation against the rationalism, precision, and restraint that had dominated Western intellectual thought during the Enlightenment period of the 1700s.  Once romanticism took root, it found its place in many arenas, from literature to art to music.

Whereas Enlightenment thinkers valued empirical and rational thought, romantics held that human emotion and passion were truer guides than reason or the intellect.  Romantic literature thus celebrates creativity, the imagination, the senses, and the rejection of convention in favor of one’s own individual vision—a perspective that English romantic poet William Blake encapsulated in his famous declaration, “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.”  Not surprisingly, many works of romantic literature exhibit a fascination with anomalous or misunderstood characters, such as a geniuses or madmen.  These figures may be grotesque, such as the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), or merely marginalized from society, such as the wrongly imprisoned Edmond Dantes in Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo (1844-1845).

The start of the romantic period in literature is often identified as 1798, when English poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published a joint collection of poems entitled Lyrical Ballads.  In 1800, Wordsworth added a highly influential forward to Lyrical Ballads that defined poetry as a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”  This blatant rejection of reason became a call to arms for the romantic movement.

The early figureheads of romantic literature were its English poets: Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge, along with John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron.  Before long, romanticism infiltrated prose and spread to other parts of Europe, influencing such novels as Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831).  It later crossed the Atlantic, where American transcendentalist writers built upon the romantics’ appreciation of nature.  In fact, most of the major figures of mid-nineteenth-century American literature—Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and others—fall solidly in the romantic tradition.

By the late 1800s, romanticism subsided in favor of realism, which was ushered in by works such as Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857).  Its influence has remained significant, however, and the works of romantic poets and novelists remain among the most popular of the Western canon.

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale

Literary Devotional: ‘This Is My Letter to the World’

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me—
The simple News that Nature told—
With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see—
For love of Her—Sweet—countrymen—
Judge tenderly—of Me

Though she remained a virtual unknown during her lifetime, since her death, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) has been acknowledged as one of America’s greatest poets.  Her short, epigrammatic poems, revolutionary in both style and technique, illuminate a vast inner life.

Dickinson was born and raised in her family’s hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts.  After finishing her secondary education in the late 1840s, she made her first forays into writing poetry.  Her early works are more conventional, utilizing meter from ballads, hymns, and other traditional forms.  By the 1860s, however, Dickinson had begun to twist these established forms, experimenting boldly with rhythm, rhyme, word choice, and punctuation.  The result was a body of poems that create tension between the familiar and the unexpected and that have an unmistakable look on the printed page.

“This Is My Letter to the World” (c. 1862) typifies Dickinson’s style, form, and voice.  Like all of her poems, it is untitled, known simply by its first line.  Composed of two four-line stanzas, or quatrains, it is written in rhymed iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines, alternating with each other—a standard ballad form in which each line consists of six or eight syllables in an unstressed-stressed pattern.  But Dickinson played with this standard form: In the first line, she begins not with an iambic foot but with its opposite, a trochaic foot (stressed-unstressed), which emphasizes the world “This.”  Typical of her style, she interspersed the poem with dashes that break up the flow of the lines and lend prominence to certain words.

The poem exemplifies the introspective themes of Dickinson’s work—in this case, artistic creativity.  She revealed her insecurity about releasing the product of her creative energies out into the world, the gamble inherent in committing the “Message” of her works “Hand [she] cannot see.” In the last line, “Judge tenderly—of Me,” she encapsulated the anxiety of probably every artist or writer who has ever walked the earth.

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale