Category Archives: Literature

What I read in 2012

  • Abelard, Peter. Historia Calamitatum. Translated by Henry Adams Bellows.
  • Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Translated by Richmond Lattimore.
  • Aristotle. Categories. Translated by E. M. Edghill.
  • Aristotle. On Interpretation. Translated by E. M. Edghill.
  • Atwater, Richard & Florence. Mr. Popper’s Penguins.
  • Augustine, St. Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love. Translated by Albert C. Outler.
  • Augustine, St. On Christian Doctrine. Translator not credited.
  • Bacon, Francis. Essays.
  • Balzac, Honoré de. Le Père Goriot. Translated by Henry Reed.
  • Barzini, Luigi, Jr. From Caesar to the Mafia.
  • Baugh, Albert C., & Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language. Third Edition.
  • Bell, Michael. “Julius Evola’s Concept of Race: A Racism of Three Degrees.”
  • Bernard of Clairvaux, St. On Loving God.
  • Carlyle, Thomas. Latter-Day Pamphlets.
  • Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Translated by Nevill Coghill, omitting two of the tales.
  • Chesterton, G. K. The Everlasting Man.
  • Demick, Barbara. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.
  • DuQuette, Lon Milo. The Book of Ordinary Oracles.
  • Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy.
  • Durant, Will & Ariel. The Lessons of History.
  • Evola, Julius. Men Among the Ruins. Translated by Guido Stucco.
  • Evola, Julius. “On the Secret of Degeneration.” Translator not credited.
  • Evola, Julius. “Race as a Builder of Leaders.” Translator not credited.
  • Evola, Julius. Revolt Against the Modern World. Translated by Guido Stucco.
  • Evola, Julius. Ride the Tiger. Translator not credited.
  • Freud, Sigmund. A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Translated by G. Stanley Hall.
  • Hancock, Graham. Fingerprints of the Gods.
  • Harris, John R. Footprints in the Snow of the Moon.
  • Harris, John R. From Arcadia to Empire: The Aeneid‘s Elusive Allegory.
  • Harris, John R., editor. Ivory Rubble: Essays on the Collapse of Literacy in Higher Education (With Modest Proposals for Partial Salvage).
  • Hofstadter, Douglas R. Le Ton beau de Marot.
  • Hutchinson, F. E. Cranmer and the English Reformation.
  • Jerome, Jerome K. Three Men in a Boat.
  • Kermode, Frank. The Genesis of Secrecy.
  • Kopff, E. Christian. “Julius Evola on Tradition and the Right.”
  • Kreeft, Peter, & Ronald Tacelli. Handbook of Christian Apologetics.
  • Larkins, Lisette. Calling on Extraterrestrials.
  • Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding.
  • Locke, John. The Reasonableness of Christianity, as Delivered in the Scriptures.
  • Locke, John. A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity, &c. from Mr. Edward’s Reflections.
  • Lowry, Lois. The Giver.
  • Lucretius. On the Nature of the Universe. Translated by R. E. Latham.
  • Maine, Sir Henry Sumner. Popular Government: Four Essays.
  • McGilchrist, Iain. The Master and His Emissary.
  • Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Essays. Translated by M. A. Screech.
  • Morgan, Alice Rose. Calls to Mystic Alice.
  • Novalis. Henry of Ofterdingen: A Romance. Translated by John Owen.
  • Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
  • Plimmer, Martin, & Brian King. Beyond Coincidence.
  • Plutarch. Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Translated by John Dryden, revised by A. H. Clough.
  • Seth, Vikram. The Golden Gate.
  • Shakespeare, William. Antony and Cleopatra.
  • Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar.
  • Shakespeare, William. Macbeth.
  • Shakespeare, William. Sonnets.
  • Sheldon, William H. The Varieties of Temperament.
  • Singleton, Peter T. Return to Chivalry.
  • Sophocles. Antigone. Translated by David Grene.
  • Sophocles. Oedipus at Colonus. Translated by David Grene.
  • Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Translated by David Grene.
  • Virgil. The Eclogues. Translated by Guy Lee.
  • Weininger, Otto. Sex and Character. Translator not credited.
  • White, E. B. Charlotte’s Web.
  • Williams, Charles. The Place of the Lion.


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Two poems on a single theme

“The Two Trees,” from The Rose, by W. B. Yeats:

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There the Loves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the wingèd sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile,
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For all things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.

“Bond and Free,” from Mountain Interval, by Robert Frost:

Love has earth to which she clings
With hills and circling arms about–
Wall within wall to shut fear out.
But Thought has need of no such things,
For Thought has a pair of dauntless wings.

On snow and sand and turf, I see
Where Love has left a printed trace
With straining in the world’s embrace.
And such is Love and glad to be.
But Thought has shaken his ankles free.

Thought cleaves the interstellar gloom
And sits in Sirius’ disc all night,
Till day makes him retrace his flight,
With smell of burning on every plume,
Back past the sun to an earthly room.

His gains in heaven are what they are.
Yet some say Love by being thrall
And simply staying possesses all
In several beauty that Thought fares far
To find fused in another star.

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Three versions of a choral lyric by Euripides

I’ve just read David Grene’s startlingly beautiful English rendition of Euripides’s Hippolytus — a play which didn’t make nearly as deep an impression on me when I read Paul Roche’s version. Here, side by side, are the Grene and Roche translations of one of the choral lyrics from Hippolytus, with Gilbert Murray’s version (courtesy of thrown in for good measure.

Gilbert Murray (1902) David Grene (1942) Paul Roche (1998)



Erôs, Erôs, who blindest, tear by tear, / Men’s eyes with hunger; Love distills desire upon the eyes, / Eros, Eros, clouding our eyes / With a mist of yearning
thou swift Foe that pliest / Deep in our hearts joy like an edgèd spear; / love brings bewitching grace into the heart / of those he would destroy. / when you sweeten the hearts / Of those against whom you plan your attack. /
Come not to me with Evil haunting near, / I pray that love may never come to me / with murderous intent, / Please never show yourself to wound me. /
Wrath on the wind, nor jarring of the clear / Wing’s music as thou fliest! / in rhythms measureless and wild. / Please never turn everything upside down. /
There is no shaft that burneth, not in fire, / Not in wild stars, far off and flinging fear, / Not fire nor stars have stronger bolts / Neither lightning nor the fall of a star / Wreaks more havoc
As in thine hands the shaft of All Desire, / Erôs, Child of the Highest! than those of Aphrodite sent / by the hand of Eros, Zeus’s child. than Aphrodite’s / Lance when loosed from the hand of Eros, / Zeus’s boy.


In vain, in vain, by old Alpheüs’ shore / The blood of many bulls doth stain the river / And all Greece bows on Phoebus’ Pythian floor; / In vain by Alpheus’ stream, / In vain in the halls of Phoebus’ Pythian shrine / the land of Greece increases sacrifice. / Useless, useless, the pouring of blood / That Greece has shed of slaughtered kine / On the banks of Alpheus or Apollo’s shrine: /
Yet bring we to the Master of Man no store / But Love the King of Men they honor not, / Useless, if Eros isn’t adored. / Dictator of men,
The Keybearer, who standeth at the door / Close-barred, where hideth ever / The heart of the shrine. although he keeps the keys / of the temple of desire, / the keeper of the keys / To Aphrodite’s beds of love–
Yea, though he sack man’s life / Like a sacked city, and moveth evermore / although he goes destroying through the world, / He is the prime wrecker of mortals, /
Girt with calamity and strange ways of strife, / author of dread calamities / and ruin when he enters human hearts. The bringer of catastrophe / When he attacks.
Him have we worshipped never! /    
* * * * *


There roamed a Steed in Oechalia’s wild, / The Oechalian maiden There was a girl in Oechalia /
A Maid without yoke, without Master, / And Love she knew not, that far King’s child; / who had never known / the bed of love, known neither man nor marriage, / A filly unbroken by man: / Unbedded, unbridled, unfettered, /
But he came, he came, with a song in the night. / With fire, with blood; and she strove in flight, / A Torrent Spirit, a Maenad white, / Faster and vainly faster, / Sealed unto Heracles by the Cyprian’s Might. / the Goddess Cyrpis gave to Heracles. / She took her from the home of Eurytus, / maiden unhappy in her marriage song, / wild as a Naiad or a Bacchanal, / with blood and fire, Who was driven by Love, Aphrodite, / And fled like a flame or a Bacchant / Far from her home; and was given / As a bride to Alcmena’s son /
Alas, thou Bride of Disaster! a murderous hymenaeal! In a wedding most gory.


O Mouth of Dirce, O god-built wall, / That Dirce’s wells run under, / O holy walls of Thebes and Dirce’s fountain / You hallowed Theban ramparts / And mouth of Dirce’s stream, /
Ye know the Cyprian’s fleet footfall! / bear witness you, to Love’s grim journeying: / You can tell how gently / Aphrodite comes.
Ye saw the heavens around her flare, / When she lulled to her sleep that Mother fair / Of twy-born Bacchus, and decked her there / The Bride of the bladed Thunder. / once you saw Love bring Semele to bed, / lull her to sleep, clasped in the arms of Death, pregnant with Dionysus by the thunder king. But the mother of Bacchus she flared / To bed with bloody Death.
For her breath is on all that hath life, and she floats in the air, / Bee-like, death-like, a wonder. Love is like a flitting bee in the world’s garden / and for its flowers, destruction is in his breath. Over the earth she breathes: / A bee, she hovers.

These three translations are too different from one another to allow for the kind of close line-by-line comparison I used in evaluating 15 versions of Dante. Nor can I recognize enough Greek words to be able to compare each translation directly to the original and make an educated guess as to how faithful each is, as I was able to do to some extent with the Dante translations. Nevertheless, here are some general comments and impressions on the three versions.

(I tell myself that I have no business learning Greek until after I’ve at least mastered the language of the country I live in — but I can’t say I’m not tempted. In the meantime, I’m trying to learn the useful skill of evaluating translations without being able to read the original.)

Strophe I

As English poetry, Grene’s version is by far the best of the three — though drawing from that fact any conclusions about its quality as a translation is obviously risky. In general, a translation which reads superficially like poetry (like Murray’s, which rhymes and scans) is suspect. On the other hand, it may actually be a sign of fidelity when a translation is poetic in a deeper sense. I base this judgment on the assumption that the writer being translated — generally considered to be one of the greatest in the whole history of Western literature — was a far better poet than any of his translators could ever dream of being, and that therefore wherever the translations touch greatness it is likely that their pale fire was snatched from the sun.

Grene slips in a few rhymes in the first strophe (intent and sent, wild and child), but these are apparently serendipities; the rest of the poem is evidence that he followed no policy of forcing the lines to rhyme. What seems more significant to me is that he knows where to put his line breaks and how to preserve ambiguity long enough to give added force to the line which resolves it. “Love distills desire upon the eyes, / love brings bewitching grace into the heart / of those he would destroy” — in that order, with those line breaks — is perfect. Murray tips his hand too early by starting right off with tears and hunger, and by calling Eros a “swift foe” first and making an afterthought of the joy he brings to human hearts. Roche does a passable job in this regard — certainly better than Murray — but his lines don’t pack the same punch as Grene’s.

Grene’s is the only version which talks about Eros rather than addressing him directly. Since he’s the odd man out here, he’s likely to be the one who is straying from the original Greek.

Murray’s “All Desire” instead of “Aphrodite” is unforgivable, a clear sacrifice of reason to rhyme.

Antistrophe I

It’s hard to judge which version is most accurate here. The disagreement over what exactly Eros bears the keys to is surprising: “the heart of the shrine,” “the temple of desire, ” and “Aphrodite’s beds of love” are all quite different things.

Strophe II

Grene lacks the horse metaphor of the other two and is probably in the wrong. Roche makes no mention of the Naiads which appear in the other two versions (I’m assuming that’s what Murray’s “Torrent Spirit” is meant to be), and his version also lacks the “blood and fire” pairing found in the other two.

As usual, Murray throws in a lot of rhyming crap that doesn’t belong in the poem.

Antistrophe II

Here Grene is talking about “Love” (i.e., the masculine god Eros), while the other two versions are about Aphrodite. Grene is clearly in the wrong here, as it interferes with the meaning of the poem. When he has the masculine Love bring Semele (not mentioned by name in the other two) to bed, it’s easy to misinterpret what’s going on — a problem which does not arise when it is Aphrodite. Also, Grene’s otherwise perfect ending is marred by its confusing image of a male bee flitting through the garden of life.

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Idealizing the real, realizing the ideal

Just some notes from recent reading.

From James Joyce’s Stephen Hero:

The artist who could disentangle the subtle soul of the image from its mesh of defining circumstances most exactly and ‘re-embody’ it in artistic circumstances chosen as the most exact for it in its new office, he was the supreme artist.

From Ernest de Selincourt’s introduction to Spenser: Poetical Works:

The idealist, starting from the actual world of which he has experience, distils from it what seems to be its essence, and creates another world of spiritual and moral conceptions which becomes as real for him as that from which he created it. This other world is not peopled with dead abstractions. The prosaic analyst may ‘murder to dissect’: the artist does not merely extract and isolate, he recreates. To him ideas depend for their reality upon the vividness with which they kindle his imagination. His mind has, as it were, a centre in two worlds, and it may work with equal freedom upon material drawn from either. That imaginative vision, which gives to the world of fact a higher reality by expressing the soul that informs it, gives to the world of ideas a sensuous incarnation which utters its voice in song.

In the allegory of the Faerie Queene these two worlds meet and fuse. But the fusion is not complete, and the children of each world bear upon their forms traces of their origin. Hence, two types of allegory may often be distinguished. At times the poet starts from the idea, and the process of incarnation follows. Human qualities are then abstracted into the rarefied atmosphere of thought and presented to his imagination for conscious artistic handling. The result is somewhat formal personification, cast in the traditional mould of mediaeval allegory, and executed in the manner of a pageant or a Morality. At its worst it is mechanical in structure and somewhat arbitrary in its symbolism; but it is seldom unrelieved by vivid detail that gives it an independent life, and at its best it turns an abstract conception with triumphant success into concrete living form. The Masque of Cupid (III. 12) embraces the quaintly emblematic figures of Dissemblance twisting her two clewes of silk, and Suspect peeping through his lattis, and along with them the haunting picture of Fear, ‘all armed from top to toe,’ yet taking fright even at the clash and the glitter of his own coat of mail. Of this kind is much of the incidental allegory in the Faerie Queene, and Spenser has used to the full the opportunities it offers to his rich power over colour and form, and his genius for imaginative description. But when his mind is turned rather upon the warm realities of life itself, the process is different. Human qualities, justice, temperance, and the rest, are still realized in their essence, but they are seen to be present in living human beings. Hence he does not present an abstract conception by a human symbol, but accepts under his idealizing vision a human being as the symbol of his conception. Britomart is not the abstract conception of Chastity, but a real woman who expresses in her personality and her conduct, along with many other powers and some human weakness, the essential quality of chastity. Una may be Truth, but she is far more. She is a woman with sufficient individuality to be ‘pre-eminently dear’ to that poet who of all others delighted to find his happiness ‘in this world, which is the world of all of us.’ And such in the main is the structural allegory of the Faerie Queene. The characters, indeed, are seldom presented with the subtle and complex detail of a realist. Spenser’s whole artistic method is that of idealization, and of emphasis on the essential. But for all that he bases it on life. Sometimes, indeed, it is impossible to determine whether the ideal conception or the character which expresses it was his initial inspiration, whether in Sir Calidore he thought first of Courtesy or of Sir Philip Sidney, whether he drew Timias from Ralegh or found himself in his delineation of reckless honour falling back unconsciously upon his knowledge of his daring and impetuous friend. Allegory of this kind can easily be distinguished from the more obvious personification, however vivid; it has all the character of myth, which, apart from its symbolism, has complete artistic life.

Thus Spenser idealizes real persons, and he breathes life into abstractions. He sees Hope not merely as a symbolic figure leaning upon an anchor, but as a living woman, whose face bears signs of the anguish hidden at her heart. He sees Lord Grey not simply as a sagacious and just-minded man, but as the faery knight of Justice. By his side he sets Talus, the iron man, that most powerful embodiment of Justice in the abstract. In Sir Artegal and his remorseless squire the different types of allegory are seen at once in their boldest contrast and in perfect harmony. . . . The real meets the ideal in faery land, and its kinship is acknowledged.

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The accidental is second only to the ideal

The following is Constantin Constantius (a.k.a. Kierkegaard) in Repetition, commenting on the farce (Posse, the German equivalent of vaudeville) performances at the Königstädter Theater in Berlin. The translation is Howard and Edna Hong’s, and I’ve added paragraph breaks.

Two . . . geniuses are enough for a farce theater; . . . The rest of the cast need not be talented; it is not even good if they are. Nor do the rest of the cast need to be recruited according to standards of good looks; they should instead be brought together by chance. . . . No one needs to be excluded even for a physical abnormality; on the contrary, such an accidental feature would be a splendid contribution. . . . That is, the accidental is second only to the ideal.

A wit has said that mankind can be divided into officers, servant girls, and chimney sweeps. In my opinion, this remark is not only witty but also profound, and it would take a great speculative talent to make a better classification. If a classification does not ideally exhaust its object, the accidental is preferable in every way, because it sets the imagination in motion. A somewhat true classification cannot satisfy the understanding, is nothing at all for the imagination, and for that reason it should be completely rejected, even though in daily use it enjoys great honor, because people for one thing are very stupid and for another have very little imagination.

If there is to be a representation of a person in the theater, what is required is either a concrete creation thoroughgoingly portrayed in ideality or the accidental. The theaters that exist not only for entertainment should produce the first. . . . In farce, however, the minor characters have their effect through that abstract category “in general” and achieve it by an accidental concretion.

In this way, one gets no further than actuality. Nor should one, but the spectator is comically reconciled to watching this accidental concretion make a claim to be the ideal, which it does by stepping onto the artificial world of the stage.

This is very perceptive, as the bit about officers, servant girls, and chimney sweeps demonstrates. That haphazard classification does indeed set the imagination in motion in a way that a more systematic attempt would not. Upon reading it, I immediately began to think about which category Kierkegaard himself would fit into, and then to consider myself and various people I know, and it was a very useful and mind-expanding exercise.

Tarot cards, when I first discovered them, had a similar effect on me. Any fortune-telling system is an attempt at a universal ontology of things that can happen. Cartomancy’s implicit claim is that anything that could conceivably happen to the querent can be symbolically represented in the 40-morpheme language which is the tarot deck — and trying to force the cards to make good on that promise sets the imagination in motion like nothing else. And the reason it works as well as it does is that the cards are such a haphazard conglomeration of what-have-you — the virtue of temperance, a conjuror, a tower being struck by lightning, and ten cups, to name a few. The haphazardness is indispensable; my attempts to create an alternative deck with a more systematic structure have been complete failures. I’ve also tried replacing the too-systematic Minor Arcana with an even more haphazard assortment, though (with such cards as “walking the dog,” “glyptodon,” “monkey with a shovel,” and “Zeppo”), and that works just fine.

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Smoking and creativity: 20th-century data

Collecting data on the smoking habits of 18th-century writers wasn’t working out so well. After going through the 20 most eminent writers on my list but only being able to find anything for about half of them (and realizing that this track record could only get worse as I moved on to the more obscure authors), I decided I needed to find a more cooperative sample.

Figuring that there would be more biographical information available for more recent figures, and that English-speaking writers would have more biographies in English, I looked at male writers from English-speaking countries (Britain, Ireland, and America) who turned 40 (or died, for those who didn’t make it to 40) between 1900 and 1950. As before, the list of significant writers comes from Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment.

This time I was much more successful. My list includes 59 men, and I was able to find some kind of information for all but 6 of them. You can see the spreadsheet here.

I had hoped to analyze the data to see if higher levels of literary accomplishment were associated with higher rates of smoking. But unfortunately the early 20th century, unlike the 18th, seems to have been a time when just about everyone smoked. My sample includes a grand total of three, count them, three unambiguous non-smokers (Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser, and Robert Frost), plus three more (Eugene O’Neill, Graham Greene, and William Carlos Williams) who smoked but later quit. For whatever it’s worth, all three of the non-smokers are relatively eminent (scoring 15, 10, and 6, respectively, on a list where the median score is 4), but it’s hard to draw any real conclusions from such small numbers.

Another problem is that, though some are more eminent than others, everyone in my sample is an eminent writer. If I want to compare highly creative people to those who are less creative (rather than comparing the super-super-creative to the merely super-creative), I need a control group of people from the same period who did not work in a creative field. Of course, they must still be famous enough to have left behind adequate biographical information, which rather limits the choices. Athletes are out, for obvious reasons. Politicians are a possibility, but they may well have below-average rates of smoking for image-related reasons. (Certainly this is true today; I’m not sure whether it would have been true in the early 20th century.) Captains of industry could work, I suppose, if I could find a list somewhere, and if a sufficient number of them have gone down in history. I don’t have any other ideas.

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Tobacco use among 18th-century writers

As a follow-up to my post on smoking and creativity, I’ve compiled a list of all the significant 18th-century figures in Western literature (as listed by Charles Murray in Human Accomplishment) and am in the process of gathering information on who smoked and who didn’t.

In contrast to my previous post, I am here restricting myself to a limited time period (the 18th century)  and am considering relatively minor literary figures as well as major ones — from Goethe and Rousseau all the way down to George Farquhar and Maler Müller. The idea is to compare the major figures with the minor ones to see if tobacco use is associated with higher (or lower) levels of literary accomplishment.

I have put my data (what I have so far) on a spreadsheet here, which anyone can read and edit. So take a look, and if you happen to know anything about any of these people’s smoking habits or lack thereof, just add it to the spreadsheet. After I’ve collected enough data, I’ll put up another post analyzing it.

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