On the Composition of Charles

Swarmed, by LouFCD on Flickr

Swarmed, by LouFCD on Flickr

In my spare time (haha) I’m again reading Darwin’s Origin of Species. It’s an incredibly insightful work for its day or any other, and even modern biology writers, with all the updated information available at our fingertips, are hard pressed to match its beauty.

In reading it again with my own now more advanced understanding of biology, I’m struck by two things in particular within the first several chapters. The first that stands out to me is Darwin’s mastery of the turn-of-phrase. In World Lit II last semester, the pieces we read were exemplars of their time period. The early and mid-nineteenth century works were chosen specifically to highlight the Romantics’ “rejection” of Enlightenment ideals. The systematic logic and naturalistic view of the universe was traded in for adornment, symbolism, and emotion. Yet even then I noted in an essay on my midterm that Darwin was an outstanding exception to this rule.

Romantics viewed the world around them as a natural extension of their emotions. Emotion and Nature are inextricably intertwined, the one often used as a symbol for the other. This was a rejection of Enlightenment ideals of the logic and order of Nature. They valued this emotion and its connection to the natural world almost to the exclusion of reason. (Charles Darwin was a notable exception, whose seminal 1859 treatise on evolution, “On the Origin of Species &etc” being a work replete with both the reason valued by the Enlightenment and the powerful emotive awe treasured by the Romantics.)

(I may transcribe my entire response as a separate post, just for fun – I was pretty happy with the way it came out, under pressure and unedited, and in response to a perfect prompt for taking modern Creationists to the woodshed – you know I took that bait with reckless abandon.)

I stand by that comment, and this latest read reinforces my opinion that Darwin exemplifies the best of both Enlightenment and Romantic writing. His synthesis is unparalleled among the writers of his day.

An oft-quoted example of his beautiful mastery of emotive language is found in the final passage of Origin:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

The other glaring feature of the first several chapters is my own recurring frustration. On nearly every single page I read, I want to just scream backwards through time words of encouragement to get this greatest of minds to take that one last little step that in retrospect is so very very tiny. Darwin was one thought away from picking up the revolutionary idea of Gregor Mendel. He dances all around it, a ballerina doing elegant pirouettes without ever quite stepping on that one spot in the center – particulate theory of inheritance. (Genes, we call them.)

Thus it is, as I believe, that when the males and females of any animal have the same general habits of life, but differ in structure, colour, or ornament, such differences have been mainly caused by sexual selection; that is, individual males have had, in successive generations, some slight advantage over other males, in their weapons, means of defense, or charms; and have transmitted these advantages to their male offspring.

I have to sigh, and be resigned to the facts of history, else I might scream. Particles, Charles, particles.

From whence came the art:

That image is titled Swarmed, by me, and is © 2009.

From the Seashore, by Anna Petrovna Bunina (1806)

Pelican Sunrise, by LouFCD @ Flickr

Pelican Sunrise, by LouFCD @ Flickr

In 1806, a Russian poet by the name of Anna Petrovna Bunina wrote something strange, and dark, and beautiful. She titled it, “С ПРИМОРСКОГО БЕРЕГА”, roughly translated “From the Seashore”. We read a translation by Pamela Perkins (in the Norton Anthology) early in our semester in my World Lit II class, and honestly it took a while to grow on me.

When it came time to begin work on our creative project for the semester, I turned to this piece for my inspiration. Since I’d been working on my photography it seemed natural to blend the two and see what happened.

The photo above is an outtake from that project. (As usual, all images in this post are linked to their respective Flickr page. For desktop-sized versions, click through to Flickr and then click the “All Sizes” button above each photo.)

I’m very tickled. In fact, I’m so tickled that although it’s usually my policy not to put my school work on the blog until after it’s graded and returned to me, I just can’t wait any more. You’re getting this before it’s even due. (This Thursday, for the record.)

The poem in its original Russian, an English translation by me, my photos from the project, and a few more outtakes are below the fold. (If you have religious nudity-related neuroses, no need to tell me about them, just move along. I don’t really care.)

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To the Virgins, to Make Much of Wooden Horses

My Instructor's remark.

My Instructor's remark.

This is my second reading and response for Paul Verlaine (read the first here). The poem I chose to read and respond to was “Wooden Horses”  (1874), wherein Verlaine takes aim at using a carousel as symbolic for life. While this could have been his best of the lot, the didacticism of his Victorian mores is as sophomorically simplistic as it is blatant. “Wooden Horses” has all the subtlety of a sixteen-pound sledgehammer wielded by a bridge troll.

He uses gross stereotyping to create a strawman version of hedonistic pleasure, with as much negative imagery as humanly possible. I was particularly annoyed by “… the fattest maid / riding your backs as if in their chamber”, roughly translated into modern English as “the big fat ho / fucking the wooden carousel horse like nobody’s business”. Could he be anymore derisive or crass? I found it offensive in the extreme, what with my modern feminist sensibilities and all. That kind of crap is uncalled for in any time period, though it’s pervasive in the writings of fuckaphobes throughout history.

Fuck you in your dead ass, Paul.

I cannot stress enough how much I disliked reading Verlaine. Trite and unimaginative, puritanical and offensive. These are not the traits I look for in a decent writer, much less a poet. Fortunately, we have moved on through Mallarmé and now we’re on to Chekhov, writers with a bit of sense and perspective.

The poem by Verlaine (again translated by C. F. MacIntyre) and my response in rhyming couplets lies below the fold.

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Sir, You Do Not Know the Moon

My instructor's remarks.

My instructor's remarks.

Paul Verlaine was a French poet whose 19th century work sort of straddled the Romantic and Symbolist movements. Critics seem to love the guy, but I found his stuff rather uninspiring. While the case has been forwarded that Verlaine only sounds trite and prosaic now because it’s old and been done over and over since then, I would argue that it had all been done before by better poets (The Bard of Avon comes to mind).

Our assignment for World Lit was to read two of the five offered (translated by C. F. MacIntyre) selections and write a paragraph in response to each. As I was bored to tears with him and his shallow fling, I went a bit creative with my responses. About the only thing I found interesting about Verlaine was the progression of his style over time.

For my first response, I actually read and addressed two related poems, “Moonlight” (1869) and “The White Moonglow”  (originally untitled from 1870). Those poems and my Sonnet in response lie below the fold. (Read the second reading and response here in another post.)

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A Modest Reponse

Sonnet XVIII, by Lou FCD @ Flickr

Sonnet XVIII, by Lou FCD @ Flickr

Back in the days of yore when I went to high school, there were two kinds of Literature classes: British and American. With few exceptions, our reading selections were confined to the standard pantheon of a select few dead white guys from England or the United States. Both classes were as predictable as the sunrise; Brit Lit started with Beowulf, then Chaucer‘s The Canterbury Tales, then one of Shakespeare‘s plays, and probably finished with DickensA Tale of Two Cities. Variety was defined by whether the class read Hamlet or Macbeth. Poetry hit the five or ten standards like an old country church. Not comparing thee to a summer’s day would have been like not singing “Amazing Grace”. American Lit did the same thing for literature on this side of the pond, with Poe standing in for the Bard (“The Tell Tale Heart” and “The Raven” were the old standards).

To round out my English requirements, lo these many eons hence, I took English 262 this semester. World Lit II looked like it would give me something new and fresh, and it’s already doing just that. Among our first selections was “A Modest Proposal: For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public“, the 1729 political satire by Jonathan Swift. Of course, in my mind to this point, Swift = Gulliver’s Travels. No matter how hard pressed I might have been, that would have been his only work I could have named, his being Irish and all. I’d read it on my own time as a kid. We’ve since moved a bit further from jolly old England and are now reading pieces by Russians and Germans and (gasp!) some of them are even women not named Dickinson or Bronte.

Our first written assignment of the class was to write a response to A Modest Proposal, organically incorporating the answers to five of the six following questions in the response.

Smoothies for cannibals from DavidDMuir

Smoothies for cannibals, by DavidDMuir @ Flickr

  1. What is “the reading” about? Give the simple and most obvious answer. (Substitute title for “reading”).

  2. Is there an experience of your own of which “the reading” has reminded you? Describe it.

  3. What is the most important “word” in the “reading”? Look it up in the dictionary and define it. Explain your choice.

  4. What is the most important statement or line in the “reading”? Directly quote the line if it is short, and paraphrase if the quote is long. Use an in-text citation that lists the page number (or line number). Explain your choice.

  5. What word, not in the “reading,” would you say best explains the “reading”? Define the word and explain your choice.

  6. Pretend that the “reading” is not about the subject you mentioned in #1. Pretend that there is something else, less obvious, that the “reading” is about. What is this “something else”? Define the word and explain your choice.

My response, for which I received a grade of “check +” (oh how I loathe this system already!), lies below the fold. I suggest you read “A Modest Proposal” first, if you’re not familiar with it, to really understand what’s going on.

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For the Love of Frost

An essay I turned in this morning for English 113.

For the Love of Frost

One of my wishes is that those dark trees,

So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,

Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,

But stretched away unto the edge of doom. (Frost, “Into My Own”)

With these words in 1913, an awkward, gangling farm boy inexpertly expressed his interest in the most popular girl in school, the one all the poets wanted. Robert Frost had made written acquaintance with the American public some years prior but it was not until he moved to England that we took notice of our would-be suitor. His adolescent flirting would rapidly mature to the lingering kisses of a timeless affaire d’amour. Though there were some lovers’ quarrels through the years, his voice still whispers the little nothings we love to hear as we think back on relaxing in those peaceful moments of intimate connection. Our relationship with Frost began as an awkward courtship, tarried in sensual consummation, and now drifts restfully in the memories of half-conscious pillow talk.

Though his initial overture was unpolished and inelegant, our débutante’s attention was captured and our interest piqued. We had previously been courted by a boy named Edgar, but he was a bit too brooding for our collective taste. Edgar was fine enough to sigh over but not much fun to date, and we were looking for someone new with whom to share our evenings. We commented in our diary about our new beau, “Mr. Frost’s [A Boy’s Will] is a little raw, and has in it a number of infelicities; underneath them it has the tang of the New Hampshire woods, and it has just this utter sincerity” (Pound – emphasis in the original). Ezra Pound perfectly captured the country’s enchantment with Robert Frost. What set Frost apart from other poets was his skillful use of modest language to talk about everyday life. Grand pronouncements on cosmic-scale themes he left for other poets, and it was exactly those sincere infelicities that won America’s heart and soul.

(Continues below the fold)

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WordPress Staff Visits Elizabeth Wood’s Blog

Dr. Mike and Toni, apparently from WordPress’ staff are at least answering Elizabeth Wood, which is more courtesy than we’ve received thus far.

Elizabeth asks questions similar to our own and has (as yet) not been de-listed.

Please stop by and add your voice to this conversation about WordPress, censorship, and community.