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

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Dante's Inferno, Cantos I thru V, Summary

I'm going to provide the summaries and my part of the discussion on our Goodreads Catholic Book Club read of Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy.  Here is a summary of the first five Cantos.

We meet Dante lost in a wood, distraught. and suffering a midlife crises.  To make matters worse, he comes across three beasts, a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf that threatens his life.  While fleeing, he comes across the spirit of Virgil, the Roman poet, who promises to lead him to safety, but he must follow through the parts of hereafter.  Dante, desperate, agrees.  (Canto I)

Having followed Virgil, Dante now stops to question him and doubt his worthiness to make such a journey.  Virgil reassures him by telling Dante how he was summoned for this mission.  It was three ladies in heaven who organized Dante’s salvation.  It started with the Blessed Mother moved to pity for Dante that she summoned St. Lucy, who in turn beseeched Beatrice to take some action.  Beatrice knowing of Dante’s love for the poet Virgil, begged him to lead Dante through this journey.  Dante now reassured agrees and follows Virgil on.  (Canto II)

They stop before the Gate of Hell and absorb its hard message.  They enter and find what some have called the pre-circle (hell proper will be made up of narrowing, descending circles) where the souls who never took a moral stand, either for good or evil, reside.  Their eternity will be spent in mindless activity with no hope of ending and forever envious of those who did.  They move on to the first river in hell, Acheron, where they will be ferried across to hell proper by Charon, who is taken aback by a living man.  Virgil explains, and they are ferried across.  When Dante steps foot in hell, the sounds, the darkness and atmosphere sends terror into him and he suddenly drops to the ground having fainted.  (Canto III)

Thunder awakes Dante from his faint, and the two proceed into the first circle of hell, Limbo, the place where those not baptized and pre-Christians, yet morally good, reside.  This is the place where Virgil normally resides and he tells Dante of one time when Christ came and lifted out the Jewish saints who had resided there.  They walk further and come to the only place in hell where there is natural light and it is the place of the great pre-Christian poets.  A group of four poets invite Dante and Virgil into their group and they discuss poetry.  And they move on to a castle and in the inner meadow and meet great pre-Christians statesmen (active life) and philosophers (contemplative life).  (Canto IV)


The two descend into the second circle – the first circle where everlasting punishment is doled out.  They meet Minos, the King who became a judge in the underworld in Greek mythology.  He is the one who assigns which circle the soul will forever reside in.  He too questions whether a living being can enter, but Virgil explains it as well.  They have come to the circle of lust, where the souls that reside will be forever blown about by swirling, fierce winds, as birds are blown out in a storm.  Dante meets the souls Francesca and Paolo, who committed adultery and then slain together by Francesca’s husband, who was also Paolo’s brother.  Francesca explains the circumstances of how they fell into sin, all stemming from having read of a adulterous love affair in a book.  Upon hearing this, Dante faints for the second time in three cantos.  (Canto V)


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Blog Note: The Divine Comedy

I have not posted yet on my reading plans for the year, but we do know that at my Goodreads Catholic Though book club we are reading Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy.  If you’ve ever wanted to read it, either make plans to read it along with me or come and join our book club here.  It doesn’t cost anything.

Now The Divine Comedy will be read as a recurring read.  A long, recurring read is one that is too long for the group to read in one straight effort, so it gets broken up into segments. After completing a segment, we move on to other reads, and then return to the next segment, and so on until completed. Since The Divine Comedy naturally breaks up into three segments called canticas, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradisio, I plan on a cantica for each segment. So then we will start with Inferno.

In the meantime, obtaining a book will require a decision on which translation to select. Before I get to translations, let me give you forewarning that more than likely you will have to get a separate book for each of the canticas. Most editions come with notes and facing original Italian, and so that usually means that the entire Comedia does not fit into a single binding. For the immediate future, Inferno is what you need to obtain.

So which translation? This Wikipedia page lists all the English translations that have ever been published. Good translations try to balance capturing the aesthetic of the author’s writing with precision of translation. This makes it doubly difficult for the Comedia because it is a poetic work, and the poetry is of the most sublime possible, and it incorporates a rhyme scheme that is near impossible in English for a poem of this length (longer than most novels), the terza rima. You can go with a prose translation but that would strip the sublimity out of the poem. You can go with an English attempt at the rhyme scheme or any rhyme scheme, but that would undoubtedly sacrifice precision of translation as a translator has to make many compromises to force a rhyme. What you want is a poetic translation that doesn’t care about the rhyme.

Since I’ve either partly read or completely read a few of these translations, here’s what I recommend in: (1) The Robert and Jean Hollander, (2) Anthony Esolen, or (3) Mark Musa in that order. Both the Hollander and the Esolen translations combine precision with the sublimity of the poetry. I lean toward the Hollander because it provides extensive notes, much more so than Esolen. Think of it this way: the Esolen is more for undergraduates while the Hollander might be more for graduate students. The Musa is also a fine translation, but it doesn’t capture the poeticism as well as the other two. It also has a great section of notes. You can’t go wrong with any of the three but there is an added reason to go with the Hollander. The Hollander and Hollander (husband and wife team) is also online at the Dante Project from Princeton University, here. That Princeton and the Hollanders would put up this great translation free for people to use is a real blessing, and we should provide a prayer of thanks.

More recently the Mandelbaum translation has been popular. I have not read it extensively, so I can’t speak from personal experience. My side by side quick and simple comparison with the Hollander left it lacking for me. But it has become popular.

As to a more detailed reading plan for the Inferno, let me propose the following. First some background terminology as it pertains to the work. As I mentioned above, the whole Divine Comedy – Dante only named it La comedia, the “divinia” part was added later – is divided into three sections, Inferno, Prugatorio, and Paradisio, each referred to as a “cantica.” Each cantica is divided into 33 cantos, which you can think of as chapters. The premise of the Comedia is that Dante is forced to journey through the sections of the afterlife, hell (Inferno), purgqtory (Purgatorio), and heaven (Paradisio). So Dante becomes a character in his own work of fiction, so you will need to keep straight Dante the writer and Dante the character. (Who says that metafiction started in the 20th century?) Dante the writer is writing from having completed the journey and gained wisdom, while we see Dante the character stumble and learn.

The one exception to the 33 cantos per cantica is Inferno, which has an additional one, an introductory canto. So 1 + 33 + 33 + 33 equals 100 Cantos. Numerology is particularly important to the construction of the Comedia, but you don’t need to pick up on the numerology to understand the work. I think of the number links as a pulling together the work into a harmony. 100 is a perfect number and 33 is the age of Christ at His death. Each canto probably averages about 150 lines, which amounts to three or four pages. Each canto is not long but it’s incredibly compact, and you will probably want to peruse the four or five pages of notes that go with each canto.

So for Inferno, we have 34 cantos and if we go with the six week maximum preference for a Catholic Thought read, that divides to six cantos per week for four weeks and five cantos per week for two weeks. So here’s what I’m proposing. This week is set aside to obtain the book. And the following will be reading schedules.

Wk 1: Jan 7 – 13, Cantos 1 thru 5
Wk 2: Jan 14 – 20, Cantos 6 thru 11
Wk 3: Jan 21 – 27, Cantos 12 thru 17
Wk 4: Jan 28 – Feb 3, Cantos 18 thru 23
Wk 5: Feb 4 – 10, Cantos 24 thru 29
Wk 6: Feb 11 – 17, Cantos 30 thru 34

This way we’ll have five cantos to read on the first and last weeks, and six for each of the four weeks in between. I’ll provide a new folder for each of the weekly group with a little summary.


This will be a great read!


Saturday, January 6, 2018

Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter, Part 2

I provided a reading of the expository background in “Part 1,” hereNow I’ll go through the story proper and how it all relates to the themes and instabilities brought out in the exposition.

The narrative begins in my edition (Mayer and Moore translation, New York Review Books Classics) thirty pages into a 75 page story, nearly 40% in:

One winter, the day before Christmas, when in the valley of Gschaid early dawn had broadened into day, a faint clear-weather haze overspread the sky, so that the sun creeping up in the south-east could be seen only as an indistinct reddish ball; furthermore, the air was mild, almost warm in the valley and even in the upper reaches of the sky as indicated by the unchanging forms of the motionless clouds. So the shoemaker’s wife said to the children: “Since it is such a fine day and since it has not rained for a long time and the roads are hard, and since yesterday your father gave you permission, provided it was the right kind of day, you may go over to Millsdorf to see your grandmother; but first you must ask your father again.”
 
Perhaps one should say something about waiting so long for the narrative to begin.  This was much more prevalent in the 19th century, and actually opposed to the classical notion of storytelling by in medias res, which means to begin in the middle of things.  That means to start the story at a critical point in the narrative, or at least at the beginning of the action, and backfill the exposition.  Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and others do it regularly, but for some reason the 19th century authors weren’t fond f it.  As great a story teller as Dickens was, I don’t recall a work of his where he starts in the middle.  Certainly narrative thrusted at the beginning grabs the reader’s attention, and I would say most times that not it is the best approach to storytelling.  However, here because the themes are more of a hook than the story itself, I think Stifter does well with this extended opening exposition.

 There are two elements to the story that I want to highlight.  After getting their father’s permission to go off to their grandparents, the last thing the mother does is give them a blessing:

The lad slung a calfskin pouch over his shoulder by a strap—a perquisite deftly sewn by his father—and the children went into the next room to bid him farewell. They were soon back, and after their mother had made the sign of the cross over them in blessing, they skipped merrily off down the street.  (p.32)

Secularists might think of the blessing as superstitious, but Stifter doesn’t, as we see with so many of the providential events that lead to the children’s survival.  In a Catholic worldview a blessing endows a physical, spiritual, or supernatural gift upon a person, and while it does not guarantee an outcome (that would be superstition) it links the giver of the blessing and the receiver with the divine.  A blessing is also a sacramental, a sacramental being a sacred sign either abstract like a blessing or physical like holy water that brings us in contact with God.  (Don’t confuse a sacramental with a sacrament, which is a sacred sign implemented by Christ that confers a physical change to the soul.) Sacramentals are not just holy items, but things that are done with God’s love.  That calfskin pouch that Conrad uses is a sacramental since it was put together and given in love.  The mother bundling the children to protect them against the cold is another, and of course the blessing.  The Catholic worldview holds that there is a continuum between the spiritual and the physical, and so we see it in the story.  Notice the sacramentals later when the grandmother provides all sorts of gifts to the children.

Then she [the grandmother] bustled about here and there, packing to overflowing the lad’s calfskin pouch, besides stuffing things into his pockets. She also put divers things into Sanna’s little pockets, gave them each a piece of bread to eat on the way, and in the bag, she told them, were two rolls in case they became very hungry.

“For your mother,” she said, “I am giving you some well-roasted coffee-beans, and in the very tightly wrapped bottle with the stopper is some black coffee extract better than your mother herself usually makes; she can taste some just as it is; it is a veritable tonic, so strong the merest sip warms the stomach so that you cannot feel chilled even on the coldest of winter days. The other things in the bag, in the cardboard box wrapped with paper, you are to take home without opening.”  (p.36)

All these things aid the children in their survival.  All that food was not needed for a normal three hour hike, but it came in handy when they were lost.  Nor would they have received all that food if Conrad didn’t have the bag.  And that coffee allowed them to stay awake and not freeze to death during the overnight rest.  Providence uses the sacramentals to ensure survival.  And let’s not forget the father is a shoemaker who specialized in mountain shoes.  I don’t remember if it was mentioned in the story, but those mountain shoes the children were wearing had to be critical on the climbs and descent on the glacier.  By coordinating the sacramentals for a fortunate outcome, Stifter is presenting a world integrated with the divine.  When the children eat that bread the grandmother puts into Conrad’s bag, it’s most certainly suggestive of the Eucharist, and therefore God’s presence.  In town the priest had postponed high Mass (p. 72) because of the missing children, but the children eat the bread (p. 54) in a thanksgiving, and this happens just when children back in town are supposed to be receiving Christmas gifts (p. 56). 

Another part of the story we need to consider is the landscape and environment.  We see the harshness of nature; we see the spot the baker died and realize the danger is real.  One should begin to think, is this story an allegory?  And if so, what does it mean for the children to pass through a snowstorm unable to cognitively process the signs that would lead home, and all on Christmas Eve, for that matter?  Here is the moment they begin to realize they are lost.

“Will we be at the post soon?” asked Sanna. “I don’t know,” answered her brother. “This time, I can’t make out the trees, or the road because it is so white. We may not see the post at all, because there is so much snow it will be covered up, and hardly a grass-blade or arm of the cross will stick out. But that’s nothing. We’ll just keep straight on; the road leads through the trees and when it gets to the place where the post is, then it will start downhill and we keep right on it and when it comes out of the woods we are in Gschaid meadows; then comes the footbridge, and we’re not far from home.” (p.41)

But obviously they have drifted and are not on the way home. 

However, as they went, they could not tell whether they were going down the mountain or not. They had soon turned downhill to the right but then came to elevations leading up. Often they encountered sheer rises they had to avoid; and a hollow in which they were walking led them around in a curve. They climbed hummocks that became steeper under their feet than they expected; and what they had deemed a descent was level ground or a depression, or went on as an even stretch.

“But where are we, Conrad?” asked the child.

“I don’t know,” he answered. “If only my eyes could make out something and I could get my bearings.”

But on every side was nothing but a blinding whiteness, white everywhere that none the less drew its ever narrowing circle about them, paling beyond into fog that came down in waves, devouring and shrouding everything till there was nothing but the voracious snow.  (p.44)

As the children step through the strange rocks, as they climb up an unfamiliar ascent, as they enter a cave for shelter, the children have entered a new world, a different world.  Physically they are wandering lost in a snowstorm, but allegorically they have entered a world beyond.  Snow is sometimes taken as a symbol for death (winter, frozen, burial, universality as it falls covers everything), and death brings one into a new world.  And the children try to learn about this unfamiliar world.

It was a blessing the snow was dry as sand, so it shook off easily and slid from their feet and little mountain shoes without caking and soaking them.

At last they again came to something with form, immense shapes heaped in gigantic confusion, covered with snow that was sifting everywhere into the crevices; the children had, moreover, almost stumbled on them before they had seen them.  They went close to look. 

Ice—nothing but ice.

There were great slabs lying, covered with snow but on the edges glassy green ice showed; there were mounds of what looked like pushed-up foam, the sides dull but with inward glimmers as if crystals and splinters of precious stones had been jumbled together; there were, besides, great rounded bosses engulfed in snow, slabs and other shapes slanting or upright,--as high as the church steeple or houses in Gschaid.  (p. 48)

Despite the harshness of the weather, the children still get a blessing from the snow.  And it’s no coincidence that the simile for the height of the slabs is the church steeple, for the children have entered a divine world.  And the ice upon the rock slabs glimmers like crystals and precious stones, from which the story gets its title.  When Sanna suggests the ice was made by “a great deal of water,” Conrad disagrees, “No, it wasn’t made by water, it’s ice of the mountain, and always here since God made it so” (p. 48).  It is an amazing world, a world filled with God’s wonder.  Conrad continues,

“And down where the snow ends, you see all manner of colors if you look hard,—green, blue, and a whitish color—that is the ice that looks so small from down below because you are so far away, and that, as Father said, is going to be there as long as the world lasts.  And then I’ve often noticed that the blue color keeps on below the ice,—probably stones, I’ve thought, or maybe ploughed ground and pastures, and then come the pine woods that go down and down, and all kinds of rocks in between, then the green meadows, then the woods with leaves....”  (p.48-49)

Finally the children enter a cavern with a canopy of ice above them and a most intense color of blue: “But the whole cavern was blue, bluer than anything on earth, a blue deeper and finer than the vault of heaven itself, blue as azure grass with a faint light inside” (p. 50).  Why blue?  Blue, the color of the Virgin Mary, the color of heaven, here I believe is supposed to suggest harmony and order and the unity with the divine.  Providence led the children to a safe spot with no ice and enclosed from the elements just as it got dark.  Stifter is I think reaching for the theology of creation, where God’s handiwork of nature blesses humanity with goodness.

The children spend that holy night of Christmas safe and fed with the sacramentals from their parents and grandparents under an “arch of heaven [that] was an even blue, so dark it was almost black, spangled with stars blazing in countless array” (p. 57).  That arch of heaven, which gets elaborated several pages later (p. 61), suggests the rainbow as a sign from God in Genesis.

And so when the children on Christmas Day see a flame (representing Christ) coming toward them, it turns out to be the flag of a rescue team, and the first words from Philip the herdsman is “Praise be to God!” (p. 68).  When the children are led back to town to their anxious parents, the mother sees them first,

“Sebastian, they are here,” cried his wife.

Speechless and trembling, he ran toward them.  His lips moved as if to say something but no words came, he pressed the children to his heart, holding them close and long.  Then he turned to his wife and locked her in his arms, crying “Sanna, Sanna.” (p.70-71)

And then the father turns to the rescuers and says, “Neighbors, friends, I thank you” (p. 71).  So because of the children’s safe passage through the dangerous, divine world, we see then the resolution of the discords set out in the exposition.  The father does love his children, and the wife is now convinced of it; the grandparents are brought over and become unified with their daughter’s family; the wife is now embraced and become part of her new home town of Gschaid.  We see a unity of family, a unity of town, and a unity of the universe under God’s arch of heaven.  Having rescued the children, the town turns to go to church where the postponed Mass can now resume.


What a beautiful story.  This is how life should be!


Monday, January 1, 2018

Matthew Monday: My Little Drummer Boy

I’ve mentioned that Matthew is in the children’s choir at our parish, St. Rita’s Church, and there has been a tradition that the choir performs a little children’s concert on Christmas Eve, and in the past the choir has performed “Little Drummer Boy” with one boy playing the drums.  Well that boy has graduated and Matthew is the only boy in the children’s choir, and he so desired to take the mantle of the drummer for the song.

So you would think the choir would practice this at least a few times before the performance?  The music director planned to practice it twice, but she forgot the drum sticks for the first practice, and so all that was left was one practice.  As it turned out I went early to pick Matthew up at that practice and heard his first attempts.  Matthew kept screwing up. He's supposed to keep time for most of the song but his impulse is to go with the rum-pum-pum pum rhythm of the choir. And to make it more complicated on the third verse he is supposed to shift and join the rum-pum-pum pum, and then return to the slow beat for conclusion. Yikes, that's a bit much for an eight year old, and he only practiced it once. So we practiced it all weekend at home.

He had three performances altogether: The Christmas Eve concert with the children’s choir, with the adult choir at the 10:30 Christmas Day Mass as the communion hymn, and at the 12:30 Christmas Day Mass back with the children’s choir again during the communion hymn.  I videoed the first and third performances, and as it turned out the one I didn’t video was the flawless one.  Though I he played slightly better for the third performance, I think the video of the first came out better, so that’s the one I’ll post.

So here’s Matthew on the drums with the children’s choir on “Little Drummer Boy.”



I have to admit, I love that song, even though it’s kind of schmaltzy.  I always choke up on the first time I hear it during each Christmas season.  The thought of having nothing to give Jesus but one’s talent as best as one can perform is very touching.

After the third performance, the pastor mentioned Matthew by name and he got a round of applause. 

By the way, our altar was beautifully decorated with a new nativity set, I decided to take a picture. 






It’s a small, humble church, but we’re proud of it.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter, Part 1

This is not a well-known Christmas story in the United States, but Rock Crystal by Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter is certainly better known in German speaking countries.  It was selected as a short read at my Catholic Thought book club at Goodreads as lighter read for the Christmas holidays.  My co-moderator at my Catholic Thought book club, who happens to be a German immigrant, told me about it.  At seventy-something pages it is not a novel and not a short story.  It falls into that middle ground called a novella.  But this is such a good novella I want to somehow make it better known in the English reading world.



Stifter, who lived from 1805 to 1868, was born in Bohemia in what is now the Czech Republic, was a noted writer of nature, a Roman Catholic, and highly regarded teacher who was hired to tutor children of aristocrats.  From what I’ve read, Stifter’s work is imbued with faith and morality as well as beautiful descriptions and settings of nature.  Rock Crystal, though not overtly theological, I would say has a Roman Catholic world view.  More on that later.

Thomas Mann, the Nobel Prize winning German writer from the 20th century was an admirer of Stifter and this particular work.  W. H. Auden, who wrote the Introduction for the Mayer and Moore translation, praises Stifter’s skill as a writer where he points out “What might so easily have been a tear-jerking melodrama becomes in his hands a quiet and beautiful parable about the relation of people to places, of man to nature.”  As one reads the work, one does realize the incredible brevity of the work, and yet it feels that one has read a long novel.  It feels epic in length but concise in delineation, a work of real artistry.

Rock Crystal is the simplest of stories, as Auden points out in my Introduction. Two siblings travel over a mountain ridge to their grandparent’s home on the morning of Christmas Eve, spend the day, and are sent off onto their journey home in time before dark set. On their journey back, an unexpected snow fall ensues and obscures their path, which causes the two children to get lost. They spend the night in the elements, survive, and continue to look for their way and are rescued by a search party Christmas Day. (Sorry if I ruined the suspense.)  And while the story is simple, there are a number of things going on that add complexity. Without those complexities it wouldn’t be much of a story; it would be an anecdote. We can get into those complexities as we go along.

Though there are no fixed divisions within the story, there are some natural divisions. There is a lengthy expository section, part of which describes the Austrian locale, part of which describes the towns and townsfolk in the setting, and part of which describes the children’s parents and their maternal grandparents, and the relationships between them. That all adds into the complexity.

There are two translations available, one by Lee M. Hollander and one by the combined duo of Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore. I read the Mayer and Moore translation. Though the Hollander translation is in the public domain, and you can read it online at Gutenberg, hereThe text on that link provides several German novellas, but if you scroll down you can find Stifter’s.  Also Libravox has an audio version available free. I checked it out and it sounds pretty good. My edition has 76 pages with the introduction, but it reads faster than that. I read it in two or three sittings, which amounted to about three or four hours. I enjoyed, so much so I intend to read it again this week.


So let’s start with the beginning.  I find Stifter’s expository introduction fascinating.  He starts with town’s ceremonies for the Christmas holiday, then he describes the hamlet as situated in the mountains, then the village people in a general way, then he goes into a lengthy description of the mountains and landscape.  That leads to a description of the neck or col that separates the mountains, which leads into a description of the two villages on separate sides of the col, Gschaid and Millsdorf.  It’s not until 12 pages in of a 70 page story that specific inhabitants are mentioned.  Obviously there is some sort of significance to all that.

From the opening chapter:

One of the most beautiful of Church festivals comes in midwinter when nights are long and days are short, when the sun slants toward earth obliquely and snow mantles the fields: Christmas. In many countries the evening that precedes our Lord’s nativity is known as Christmas Eve; in our region we call it Holy Eve, the day following Holy Day, and the night between, Holy Night. The Catholic Church observes Christmas, birthday of our Saviour, by magnificent and holiest ceremonial. In most places, midnight as the very hour of his birth is solemnized by ritual of great splendor, to which the bells ring out their heartsome invitation through the still darkness of the wintry air; then with their lanterns, along dim familiar paths, from snow-clad mountains, past forest-boughs encrusted with rime, through crackling orchards, folk flock to the church from which solemn strains are pouring,—the church rising from the heart of the village, enshrouded in ice-laden trees, its stately windows aglow.

Right there you have three of the most important motifs that will be of importance to the theme: the sacredness of the season, the integration of nature with the life of the town, and the ceremony which binds the season with the life.  Ceremony is very important to story; shortly after Stifter goes on to describe a custom of giving gifts to the children:

It is the custom to present children with gifts the Blessed Christ-child has brought; given usually on Christmas Eve when dusk has deepened into night. Candles are lit, generally a great many, that flicker together with the little wax lights on the fresh green branches of a small fir or spruce tree that has been set in the middle of the room.

Again religion and nature with the tree branches are brought to the fore.  Also significant is that the people are unidentified.  Stifter could have started the story with Conrad and Sanna and their parents.  That would have been the natural thing to do, but he speaks here in a generic mode.  All the townspeople go through these rituals.  What Stifter is emphasizing is the harmonious integration of the townsfolk, Christianity, and their environment.  And you can see this as Stifter begins to focus on the hamlet, the church-spire being the prominent feature.  The main person of the village is the priest, who the villagers “regard with veneration.”  Stifter goes on to describe the village as “a separate world.”

The village people thus constitute a separate world, they know one another by name and are familiar with all the grandfathers’ and great-grandfathers’ tales. All mourn when anyone dies; all know the name of the new-born; they speak a language which is different from that used in the plain; they have their quarrels and settle them; they help one another, and if anything unusual happens, come flocking together.

The village people are said to adhere “to the ancient ways.”  This is a village after my own heart. 


What I’ve described so far is a sense of harmony.  You can’t have a story with only harmony and without introducing a disruptive element that causes a disequilibrium, resulting in tension.  The children losing their way through the mountains in a snow storm is the disruptive element, but there is a greater context which makes the story transcend the lost and found adventure.  The second part of the exposition, describing the histories of the two children’s parents and grandparents, introduces the tension that will be resolved back to a harmonious state.  Let me skip over the landscape description for now, but I’ll come back to show how it’s all symbolic. 

Let’s start with the children’s father, as Stifter does.  He is a shoemaker from Gschaid, but in his youth he was not the model citizen he grew to be, and in contrast to his own father. 

The shoemaker on the square, before he inherited his house, had been a chamois-poacher and in general, so people said, not too model a youth. In school he had always been one of the best pupils. Later he had learned his father’s trade, and after working as a wandering journeyman, had finally come back to the village. But instead of wearing a black hat as becomes a tradesman—such as his father had worn all his life—he perched a green one on his head, stuck every available feather in it, and strutted about wearing the shortest frieze coat in the valley, whereas his father had always worn a dark coat, preferably black—since he was a man of trade—and invariably cut long. The young shoemaker was to be seen on every dance floor and at every bowling alley. If anyone tried to reason with him, he just whistled a tune. He and his marksman’s rifle were at every shooting match in the neighborhood and sometimes he carried home a prize—treasured by him as a great trophy. The prize was usually a set of coins artistically arranged. But the shoemaker, in order to win it, had to disburse many more similar coins, in his usual spendthrift fashion. He went to all the hunts in the neighborhood and had quite a reputation for being a good marksman. Sometimes, however, he fared forth alone with his blunderbuss and spiked shoes, and it was rumored that he had once received a serious wound on his head.

Poacher, spendthrift, wayward, even perhaps prodigal, the young shoemaker stands in contrast to the harmony inherent to the village.  But he changes, and he changes to be able to marry the beautiful girl over the col in the town of Millsdorf, the daughter of the prosperous dyer.
 
Some time after the death of his parents when he had become proprietor of the house where he now lived all alone, the shoemaker changed into a wholly different person. Whereas till then he was always rollicking about, he now sat in his shop, hammering away on sole-leather, day and night. He boasted that no one could make better shoes and footgear, and engaged only the best workmen whom he nagged and pestered a good deal as they sat at their work, making them follow his instructions and do exactly as he told them.

The shoemaker’s youthful eccentricities had caused a discord in the town’s natural harmony, but the nature of the town’s life—and a desire for marriage, which by the way is a church sacrament—caused the discord to be resolved.  Ultimately he wins over the dyer’s family and the daughter, marries her, and takes over to his town of Gschaid. 

But now a new set of discords arise.  Being new to Gschaid, which has very different customs from Millsdorf and being away from her family, she feels isolated, even alienated. 

Since the people of Gschaid seldom leave their valley and almost never go to Millsdorf, from which they are separated by mountain and by customs—and since, furthermore, no one ever leaves his valley to settle in a neighboring one—although removals to great distances occur—and lastly since no girl ever leaves her valley except on the rare occasion when, obeying the dictates of love, as a bride, she follows her husband into another valley—so it came about that after the beautiful daughter of the dyer of Millsdorf married the shoemaker of Gschaid she was still regarded by the people of Gschaid as a stranger; and although they were not unkind to her, and even loved her for her charm and virtue, there was always something, reserve or a sort of shy respect, that kept her from enjoying the same familiarity and warm intimacy that existed between the people that belonged to the valley.

And that’s not the only discord.  After bearing two children, the wife “felt, however, that he did not love the children as much as she thought he ought to, and as she herself loved them; for he looked so serious most of the time and was always preoccupied with his work. He rarely petted or played with them, and always addressed them quietly as one speaks to grown persons.” 

And that completes the exposition of the circumstances leading up to that Christmas Eve where the children venture out to their grandparents in Millsdorf. 

But let’s now look at the description of the mountains, and what it means to the themes in the story.  We are told that the dominating mountain is in the shape of two “horns.” 

South of the village you see a snowy mountain with dazzling horn-shaped peaks, rising, as it seems, from the house-tops themselves, but actually quite far away. All year round, summer and winter, there it is with its jutting crags and white expanses, looking down upon the valley. As the most prominent feature of the landscape and ever before the eyes of the villagers, the mountain has been the inspiration of many a tale.

We are told of the rocks and snow, brooks and meadows, and the steep inclines and sharp descents, all of which pose a danger to the traveler, and we are told of an actual death, a baker, carrying his basket.  But the most prominent feature of the landscape is the col.

Ascent of the mountain is made from the valley. One follows in the southerly direction a smooth, well-made road that leads by a neck or “col” into another valley. A col is a mountain-range of moderate height, connecting two larger, more considerable, ranges; and following it, one passes between the ranges from one valley into another. The col which links the snow-mountain with the corresponding range opposite, is thickly studded with pines. At about the highest point of the road before it descends into the further valley, stands a little rustic memorial.


That memorial is a marker of where the baker died, right on the col.  So picture this: you have two peaks, the “horns” and in between is a neck or col of some elevation too, though not as high as the horns.  On one side of the col is the valley that leads to Millsdorf, and the other is the valley that leads to Gschaid.  Two horns, two valleys, two towns, two cultures, two families.  Some writers like to work in an aesthetic of twos and some of threes.  Stifter is clearly working with twos, and the aesthetic of twos is one of a dialectic, and a dialectic resolves into a synthesis.  The young shoemaker had a division with him of a person born to a tradition but felt the longing of self-realization.  But the desire for marriage and the act of marriage synthesized him to the standout craftsman of his trade.  The story can now take place to synthesize the new divisions.


Friday, December 29, 2017

The First Part Henry VI by William Shakespeare

I have finally gotten around to reading one of William Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays, and of course one starts with the first of the trilogy.  For the record, I’ve now read 29 of the 37 authentically identified Shakespearian plays.  A good portion of the unread plays happen to be Histories.  If you are unaware, critics categorize the Bard’s play into Comedies, Tragedies, and Histories.  I’ve read all the great history plays: Richard III, Richard II, the two Henry IV plays, and Henry V.  What’s left are the three Henry VI plays, King John, and Henry VIII, all lesser plays in stature and reputation.  Scratch one of the Henry VI off.  Admittedly it’s hard to motivate to read the lesser plays given one has come to appreciate the wonder of the great plays, but still one has to complete them all.  Some people have bucket lists of traveling across the world; my bucket list consists of reading all of Shakespeare.


Most people are more familiar with the great tragedies, since they are probably forced to read those in school.  And it’s true, there is something beyond superlative in Shakespeare’s tragedies.  They were absolutely groundbreaking in form and range.  But Shakespeare’s great comedies and histories are also head-and-shoulders above what was written in his day, and perhaps outside of France’s Moliere, you cannot find another playwright until several hundred years later with Ibsen and Strindberg that has as many great dramas as Shakespeare.  Shakespeare’s great comedies and histories also stand with greats of their respective genre.

The reason I decided to read Henry VI was mentioned back in the first post I wrote on Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc and that is because the same historical events are part of both works.  Indeed, the historical figures are in both, and since the historical events were fresh in my mind it would make sense.  Plus I was curious how Shakespeare would portray Joan, and I’ll get to that eventually.

Now it’s quite possible that Henry VI, Part 1 was Shakespeare’s first complete drama, and as the Wikipedia entry states, he may have had some help by either Christopher Marlowe and/or Thomas Nashe, both dramatists in Shakespeare’s day.  It’s quite possible.  The Shakespeare-Online site – a very good resource and way better than some of the other Shakespeare sites on the web—suspects that someone other than the Bard crafted Joan of Arc’s speeches.  There may be something to that.  Most of the language in the play certainly rings of Shakespeare’s voice, except for Joan.  I can’t put my finger on it, but Joan does not sound like a Shakespearean character.  Again, more on Joan later.

Given it was Shakespeare’s first play, one sees some of the inexperience, but one sees some real great flourishes as well.  That scene in Act II, Scene IV where the nobles of York and Lancaster pluck white and red roses off a bush, setting in motion the seeds of the War ofthe Roses, is brilliant.  The poetic flourishes can rise with the greatest of Shakespeare’s.  For instance, the play begins with the dead body of the heroic King Henry V, and the Dukes of Bedford and Gloucester eulogize in sweeping language to capture the greatness of the fallen man.  From the plays very opening lines in Act I, Scene 1:

BEDFORD     Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry's death!      5
King Henry the Fifth, too famous to live long!
England ne'er lost a king of so much worth.

GLOUCESTER          England ne'er had a king until his time.
Virtue he had, deserving to command:
His brandish'd sword did blind men with his beams: 10
His arms spread wider than a dragon's wings;
His sparking eyes, replete with wrathful fire,
More dazzled and drove back his enemies
Than mid-day sun fierce bent against their faces.
What should I say? his deeds exceed all speech:       15
He ne'er lift up his hand but conquered.

I’m using the online text at Shakespeare-Online for this and all subsequent quotes. 

And so we have of the great King Henry V, model of leadership, soldiery, and virtue to be contrasted with the King VI and the governing aristocracy.  Now Henry VI has somewhat of an excuse, he’s rather young.  Shakespeare doesn’t quite follow the time scale; Henry VI was less than a year old when his father died, and the events of the drama would have occurred when Henry VI would have been about nine years old.  He was a child king, under the Protectorate of the Duke of Gloucester.  But in the play he sounds more like a teenager than a nine year old.  I have never seen this acted out, so I don’t know how directors cast it.

It is a long play, with an exorbitant number of characters, thirty-five in all, not including attendants and messengers, and of course the armies of soldiers.  Perhaps that is what speaks to Shakespeare’s inexperience the most.  After a while I could not recall the distinction between the Earls of Warwick, Somerset, Suffolk, Salisbury, and so on.  They became a sort of blur, and perhaps are under characterized, even though it’s a long play. 

What makes it a long play are the divisions.  First off there is the division between the French and the English fighting over the French territories.  But what speaks to the play’s central theme are the divisions and hostilities within the English side.  There is the division inside the English King’s court fighting over the influence on the child king.   Then there is a secular verses ecclesiastical division.  There is a subtle division between lords in England with the English fighting in France on how to fight the war.  And of course there is the great division between the Houses of York and Lancaster that will blossom into the War of the Roses.  That may be following the history of the events, but it does make it difficult to follow.  But as it turns out, this was a popular play in its day, so perhaps the divisions were second nature to the contemporary audience, enough so that they could easily follow it. 

This division on the English side is dramatized early on in what seems a rather unimportant little scene.  Gloucester, the Lord Protector of the realm as overseer of the child king, comes to London Tower, which I believe was the royal palace, and is prevented from entering.  Here’s the beginning of Act I Scene 3:

London. Before the Tower.   
[Enter GLOUCESTER, with his Serving-men in blue coats]

GLOUCESTER          I am come to survey the Tower this day:
Since Henry's death, I fear, there is conveyance.
Where be these warders, that they wait not here?
Open the gates; 'tis Gloucester that calls.

First Warder    [Within] Who's there that knocks so imperiously?     5

First Serving-Man       It is the noble Duke of Gloucester.

Second Warder           [Within] Whoe'er he be, you may not be let in.

First Serving-Man       Villains, answer you so the lord protector?

First Warder    [Within] The Lord protect him! so we answer him:
We do no otherwise than we are will'd.         10

GLOUCESTER          Who willed you? or whose will stands but mine?
There's none protector of the realm but I.
Break up the gates, I'll be your warrantize.
Shall I be flouted thus by dunghill grooms?

[ Gloucester's men rush at the Tower Gates, and WOODVILE the Lieutenant speaks within ]

WOODVILE  What noise is this? what traitors have we here?         15

GLOUCESTER          Lieutenant, is it you whose voice I hear?
Open the gates; here's Gloucester that would enter.

WOODVILE  Have patience, noble duke; I may not open;
The Cardinal of Winchester forbids:
From him I have express commandment        20
That thou nor none of thine shall be let in.

GLOUCESTER          Faint-hearted Woodvile, prizest him 'fore me?
Arrogant Winchester, that haughty prelate,
Whom Henry, our late sovereign, ne'er could brook?
Thou art no friend to God or to the king:       25
Open the gates, or I'll shut thee out shortly.
Serving-Men   Open the gates unto the lord protector,
Or we'll burst them open, if that you come not quickly.

And so after the scene eulogizing Henry V (scene 1), and a scene where the French resistance unifies in strategy around Joan (scene 2), we get a scene where the highest lord in England other than the child king is blocked by the Cardinal of Winchester from entering the seat of government.  But notice the stage directions right after Gloucester’s words above: “[Enter to the Protector at the Tower Gates BISHOP OF WINCHESTER and his men in tawny coats].”  So the Bishop’s men have tawny coats which contrast with the blue coats (see the stage directions at the beginning quoted above).  Blue coats verses tawny coats, white rose verses red rose, English banners verses French banners, the divisions are visually laid out for the audience.


I’m not going to present details of the various divisions; I think you now have the key to the play.  The divisions are made possible because the weakness of the king.  That’s not to say that Henry VI doesn’t say the right things.  He does, for instance here when once again Gloucester and Winchester are at each other’s throats:

KING HENRY VI     Uncles of Gloucester and of Winchester,
The special watchmen of our English weal,
I would prevail, if prayers might prevail,        70
To join your hearts in love and amity.
O, what a scandal is it to our crown,
That two such noble peers as ye should jar!
Believe me, lords, my tender years can tell
Civil dissension is a viperous worm    75
That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth.
            (III.1:65-73)

Yes exactly, it “gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth.”  And do they stop in that very scene?  No.  Gloucester, in Machiavellian mode, offers his hand of peace to Winchester, who at first refuses, but then in counter Machivellian mode, accepts it with an aside snark, “[Aside] So help me God, as I intend it not!” (III.1: 141).  And the King in all his innocence is gleeful.

KING HENRY VI     O, loving uncle, kind Duke of Gloucester,
How joyful am I made by this contract!
Away, my masters! trouble us no more;
But join in friendship, as your lords have done.
            (III.1: 142-145)

Join in what friendship?  There is only friendship within the various factions, but the seeds of the realm’s chaos are sown. 

And the fruits of these divisions are being born on the battlefields of France, where the English, despite heroic effort, are being defeated.  The French through Joan take Orléans and Reims, and Charles VIII, the Dauphin, is crowned King of France.  The heroism of the English fighting in France is dramatized through the fighting and death of John Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury, and his son, young John.  Before the battle at Bourdeaux, with the English facing annihilation, old John tries to send young John away from the battle to avoid certain death.  Young John refuses and wishes to die if he must fighting with his father.  The exchange is delineated in rhyming couplets.  Here’s a sample:

TALBOT        Shall all thy mother's hopes lie in one tomb?

JOHN TALBOT         Ay, rather than I'll shame my mother's womb.           35

TALBOT        Upon my blessing, I command thee go.

JOHN TALBOT         To fight I will, but not to fly the foe.

TALBOT        Part of thy father may be saved in thee.

JOHN TALBOT         No part of him but will be shame in me.

TALBOT        Thou never hadst renown, nor canst not lose it.         40

JOHN TALBOT         Yes, your renowned name: shall flight abuse it?

TALBOT        Thy father's charge shall clear thee from that stain.

JOHN TALBOT         You cannot witness for me, being slain.
If death be so apparent, then both fly.

TALBOT        And leave my followers here to fight and die?          45
My age was never tainted with such shame.

JOHN TALBOT         And shall my youth be guilty of such blame?
No more can I be sever'd from your side,
Than can yourself yourself in twain divide:
Stay, go, do what you will, the like do I;       50
For live I will not, if my father die.

TALBOT        Then here I take my leave of thee, fair son,
Born to eclipse thy life this afternoon.
Come, side by side together live and die.
And soul with soul from France to heaven fly.          55
            (IV.5: 34-55)

Why the couplets?  I think it’s there to imply disagreement in love rather than division and discord.  And then at the battle, old Talbot comes into the scene mortally wounded and asks for his son.

  [Enter Soldiers, with the body of JOHN TALBOT]

TALBOT        Thou antic death, which laugh'st us here to scorn,
Anon, from thy insulting tyranny,
Coupled in bonds of perpetuity,         20
Two Talbots, winged through the lither sky,
In thy despite shall 'scape mortality.
O, thou, whose wounds become hard-favour'd death,
Speak to thy father ere thou yield thy breath!
Brave death by speaking, whether he will or no;        25
Imagine him a Frenchman and thy foe.
Poor boy! he smiles, methinks, as who should say,
Had death been French, then death had died to-day.
Come, come and lay him in his father's arms:
My spirit can no longer bear these harms.       30
Soldiers, adieu! I have what I would have,
Now my old arms are young John Talbot's grave.
[Dies]
            (IV.7: 18-32)


What a visually dramatic moment that is, father and son dead in each other’s arms.

As to Joan of Arc, or Joan La Pucelle as she is mostly referred to in the play, one has to be disappointed.  “La Pucelle” translates into “the maid.”  Shakespeare took the common English view as Joan as some sort of sorceress, but I guess what other view could he have taken?  This is supposedly haw she is portrayed in Holinshed's Chronicles, Shakespeare’s source for English history.  But she is more than a sorceress.  At first she is an Amazon.  She isn’t just a strategist and inspirational leader, she wields a sword and fights real duels.  Here is the exchange between Joan and the Dauphin when they first meet and she convinces him of her supernatural abilities.

JOAN LA PUCELLE            Dauphin, I am by birth a shepherd's daughter,
My wit untrain'd in any kind of art.
Heaven and our Lady gracious hath it pleased           75
To shine on my contemptible estate:
Lo, whilst I waited on my tender lambs,
And to sun's parching heat display'd my cheeks,
God's mother deigned to appear to me
And in a vision full of majesty           80
Will'd me to leave my base vocation
And free my country from calamity:
Her aid she promised and assured success:
In complete glory she reveal'd herself;
And, whereas I was black and swart before,  85
With those clear rays which she infused on me
That beauty am I bless'd with which you see.
Ask me what question thou canst possible,
And I will answer unpremeditated:
My courage try by combat, if thou darest,     90
And thou shalt find that I exceed my sex.
Resolve on this, thou shalt be fortunate,
If thou receive me for thy warlike mate.

CHARLES     Thou hast astonish'd me with thy high terms:
Only this proof I'll of thy valour make,          95
In single combat thou shalt buckle with me,
And if thou vanquishest, thy words are true;
Otherwise I renounce all confidence.

JOAN LA PUCELLE            I am prepared: here is my keen-edged sword,
Deck'd with five flower-de-luces on each side;         100
The which at Touraine, in Saint Katharine's
churchyard,
Out of a great deal of old iron I chose forth.

CHARLES     Then come, o' God's name; I fear no woman.

JOAN LA PUCELLE            And while I live, I'll ne'er fly from a man.     105

[Here they fight, and JOAN LA PUCELLE overcomes]

CHARLES     Stay, stay thy hands! thou art an Amazon
And fightest with the sword of Deborah.

JOAN LA PUCELLE            Christ's mother helps me, else I were too weak.
            (I.2: 73-108)



This isn’t the only place she overcomes men in a physical bout.  It’s interesting that the Blessed Mother is invoked as the source of her strength.  This might have raised eyebrows in Protestant, Elizabethan London, and probably would have been a signal to the audience to disdain her.  Notice too there is a suggestion of future sexual liaison between the two (“warlike mate”) which gets expanded a little further in the scene.  But the French do put faith in her as sent from Providence.  Indeed the religious faith of the French contrast with secular/religious division of the English side, and may have been a reflection of Shakespeare’s contemporaries.  For I’m convinced that Shakespeare was a closet “papist” as one neighbor of his in his home town of Stratford-upon-Avon famously said after Shakespeare had died.

Frankly I find the delineation of Joan’s character altogether baffling.  One moment she is an Amazon, another a saint, another a witch, another a strumpet, another a liar as she tries to escape execution.  Though she contrives victories for most of the play, her powers suddenly cease, and she is captured.  As I said above, her character does not feel it came from Shakespeare’s hand. 

With Joan’s capture and the hostilities between the English and French come to an end, the play concludes.  The French/English division is resolved, but none of the other divisions get resolved.  They are left hanging, but of course this is the first part of a trilogy.  The next two parts of Henry VI will resolve those loose ends.