Reading. Poetry. If there are artists out there, I ask for a gift. Represent the thought from Walt Whitman’s “Offerings.” There poem in its entirety: “A thousand perfect men and women appear, / Around each gathers a cluster of friends, and gay children and youths, with offerings.”
The poem is one of a set of twenty-nine poems which make up the group “By the Roadside,” placed in Leaves of Grass just before the Civil War poems, “Drum-Taps.” I enjoyed re-reading each this week. There are “A Hand-Mirror” and “I Sit and Look Out,” which show awareness of the dark side of existence. Several, including “A Farm Picture,” “The Runner,” “Beautiful Women,” “Mother and Babe” and the above-mentioned “Offerings,” anticipate the Imagist Movement in US literature of the 1920’s. There is the often anthologized “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” contrasting two ways of knowing. The masterwork of the set is “The Dalliance of the Eagles,” which illustrates the power of free verse in easily recognized techniques, a jewel of a poem to teach. Much of Whitman is incantatory, and I love, “Gods,” which expresses traits which Whitman considers divine, written as if to be recited as a Credo.
Plantings. Friends arrived Memorial Day with a car trunk load of plantings. In borders I planted four kinds of wildflowers, and I made 10 large pots of other kinds of plants. There are also a triad of tiny Japanes maple trees and several lilies, which I planted in a tilled row. I shared with a neighbor several of the plantings. What a fine gift of living things, yes.
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The choir director said, “They’re only going to sing the ‘Glory, glory, hallelujah’ part. For this reason, and because the tempo he set was a slow, rather than a vigorous march tempo, I paid particular attention to the poetry. It’s harrowing in intent. Now is the time for retribution. We are agents of revenge for injustice, and God is here with us as endorsement and initiator. There is a popular choral version in which the martial tempo is revoked in the final stanza and the lyrics there are caressed by warm harmonies and slower, rubato tempo. Sometimes the lyric is changed from “As he died to make men holy / Let us die to make men free” to “Let us live to make men free.” The original version of that line and a keeping of martial tempo let us relive the original inspiration of righteous retribution of the Republic.
A play. Friends in Raleigh invited me to go with them to dinner and to “Two Noble Kinsmen,” presented by Bare Theatre at the Raleigh Little Theatre Amphitheatre. It was a beautiful afternoon and evening. Although the green of trees is now dark and summer-like, the temperature was in the 70’s, and there was almost no humidity. Following a good dinner at an up-scale and new restaurant downtown, we ventured with blankets, cushions, and a fold up chair to the production.
The play is attributed to William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, and, according to the director’s notes, it is a “faithful retelling” of the Knight’s Tale by Chaucer. The notes begin, “No one ever performs this play.” On leaving, one of my friends said, “This was probably the best production of a terrible play that I’ve ever seen.” I agreed. Actors were convincing with unconvincing, dated material. Part of the reason the production worked was that it was enhanced by the excellent work of Cirque de Vol Studios, which provided during the production and at intermission, “Fire Artists, Pyrotechnics, Belly Dancing, Music, and Food Trucks.” Acutely observant guards holding blankets to extinguish fire were stationed nearby the fire performers. There were torches that flared out at dramatic moments in the script, speakers that sputtered out sound, and in once place an unintended live microphone off-stage, which projected onto the action an interesting commentary. It was a grand evening of excellent food, entertainment, and company of good friends.
Reading. Nonfiction. Mansfield’s Book of Manly Men: An Utterly Invigorating Guide to Being Your Most Masculine Self, by Stephen Mansfield. (Nelson Books, 2013). The book was on a shelf for suggestions for gifts for Father’s day, and I thought at first it was satire. The cover, black and gold, sports the title covering the entire front, with a picture of a well-groomed handsome man in formal nineteenth century clothing and wearing a handlebar mustache. I noted that the book was marketed for Christian Life / Men’s Issues. I put it down, but then I returned to it, glanced through it, and decided to read it.
The book, after explaining four basic qualities for responsible actions of men, called “Mansfield’s Manly Maxims,” presents sixteen virtues which men should develop, among them honor, friendship, quest, humor, self-education, integrity, forgiveness, humility, sacrifice, presence. Each quality is illustrated through the life story of famous men. He includes King David, Judah, Jonathan, Mark, Job, and St. Patrick from the Bible and Christian history, and Winston Churchill, General Patton, Jedediah Smith, G.K. Chesterton, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Rudyard Kipling, Booker T. Washington. Included throughout are man didactic poems, many by Edgar Guest. The index provides fifty inspirational quotes, a reading lists of books, and a list of films, all of which illustrate manly ideals. At the end of each chapter is a guide for developing and putting the virtue into action. It’s an interesting, well-conceived book.
Reading. Fiction. Alphonse Daudet, Letters from My Windmill,1866. It’s one of my favorite books, and I wanted to re-read it in French, but I no longer have my French edition. This week I read the first twelve of the twenty-three short tales. I enjoyed all, which vary in subject and tone. “The Beaucaire Stage-Coach” and “Old Cornille’s Secret,” show insight into the darker sides of human nature. “Monsieur Seguin’s Goat,” “The Pope’sMule,” “The Vicar of Cucgnan,” and “The Odd Couple,” present scenes of life in rural Provence. “The Lighthouse of Les Sanguinaires,” “The Custom Men,” and “The Agony of La Semillante” show hardships of life at sea. There is the beautiful and lyrical love story, “Stars,” which is pared with the tragic love story, “The Girl from Arles.” All are interesting tales to read and consider.
I had a sudden remembrance while I read “The Pope’s Mule.” It was part of the curriculum in my first-semester intermediate French class at Wake Forest. There is a scene in which the Pope, after each Sunday Vespers service, would sip a bottle of wine to completion and then return happily to town, riding his mule. “And when he passed over the bridge of Avignon, amid the drums and the farandoles, his mule, aroused by the music, would begin to amble skippingly, while the Pope himself would beat time to the dance with his biretta, thus greatly scandalizing his cardinals, but causing all the people to say: ‘O what a kind prince! What a good Pope!”
The class was taught by Lecturer Eva Rodtwitt, and as she read the above passage in French, she enacted the scene, becoming the mule, imitating the clicking of the mule’s hooves on the bridge with her high heeled shoes, snorting merrily as the mule might have snorted, marking the music and movement of the prose by tapping gently the table. This was just one example of the many moments of magic that Miss Rodtwitt brought to the classroom. Thank you, Eva!
And thank you for reading. I hope all is well with you and yours. June comes on Sunday. Enjoy the last few days of May.