Far From the Madding Crowd–Worlds Apart

RT hasn’t seen the new movie adaptation of Thomas Hardy’Far From the Madding Crowd, but news of its release, plus a lucky encounter at a used book store, has gotten him to finally read the novel.

Actually, RT hasn’t finished the book, but is far enough into it to have fallen under the novel’s spell. Certainly the world its author presents captivates a world-weary heart; here we find a fresh, untrammeled beauty, a poet’s tribute to nature and man…and woman.

Let any doubts about the book’s style be settled by this sample from chapter 2:

“To persons standing alone on a hill during a clear midnight such as this, the roll of the world eastward is almost a palpable movement. The sensation may be caused by the panoramic glide of the stars past earthly objects, which is perceptible in a few minutes of stillness, or by the better outlook upon space that a hill affords, or by the wind, or by the solitude; but whatever be its origin, the impression of riding along is vivid and abiding. The poetry of motion is a phrase much in use, and to enjoy the epic form of that gratification it is necessary to stand on a hill at a small hour of the night, and, having first expanded with a sense of difference from the mass of civilised mankind, who are dreamwrapt and disregardful of all such proceedings at this time, long and quietly watch your stately progress through the stars. After such a nocturnal reconnoitre it is hard to get back to earth, and to believe that the consciousness of such majestic speeding is derived from a tiny human frame.”

Visionary, massive, gorgeous–and it helps to remember that Hardy’s father was a stone mason.

The plot couldn’t be more attractive. It’s a love story, thank heavens, filled with all the twists and turns you would expect, driven by human foible and heartbreak, illuminated with satirical sketches, and yet deeply aware of tradition, dignity, and the possibilities for happiness.

Then we have the story’s lovers–the shepherd Gabriel Oak, an old-fashioned hero, more than equal to the difficulties set before him, and Bathsheba Everdene, a lady alluring, intelligent, and prone to impulse. She enters the story a milk-maid, rises far in her fortunes, and then encounters a gentleman well-suited to be her husband. But Hardy writes in such a way that it isn’t clear which of the suitors will win Bathsheba’s hand–what is clear to the artist might for others be obscured by the world’s commotions.

As lovely and shrewd as all of this is, the novel’s setting and worldview have made the deepest impression on RT. Did a way of life as simple, communal, and breathtaking as this ever really exist? Hardy’s Wessex may not be the southern England of actual fact, but RT has enjoyed spending some time there. We need more handcraft, more confidence, and more romance. RT

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Painting: Thomas Hardy (1893); Thomas Strang. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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Kingfishers and Dragonflies–Hopkins and the Grail

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RT offers here a powerful and enigmatic poem by the great Victorian poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. By way of unraveling these tightly bound lines, RT notes that kingfishers suggest the Fisher King, that emasculated keeper of the Grail. This is a physical poem, one that embraces the beauty and sheer substance of the world, and the acts of men, that handsome, tremendous spectacle.

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AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme

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AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:                       5

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

 

Í say móre: the just man justices;

Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;                          10

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—

Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

 

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PaintingHopkins, painted 24 July 1866; unknown. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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The Nitrate Angel–A Snippet

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Recently RT was inspired to do a little more research on his grandfather the actor. He didn’t turn up any new information, but he did manage to compose this brief bit for his tentative biography/novel, The Nitrate Angel. (And here is more on Coxey’s Army.)

Panic and poverty—those early memories stayed with him. His father had joined Coxey’s Army, that assemblage of the ill-used, tramping and wending, surging and weaving its way down to Washington. He was too young, even by the standards of the time, to go himself, but the listless eyes and growling stomachs of the other boys, those things he remembered. Later, much later, when his friends, appalled by his grueling schedule, urged him to have some fun, he told them the truth: there is never enough work.

Never enough. He turned his eyes from the Mirror, folded the newspaper under his arm and shoved his hands deep in his pockets, and continued on his way. The day was bitter under a raw December sky, and still the avenue bustled. The terror of war and flu had gone.

“Edward!” someone called out, followed by a clap on the shoulder. It was Hanum.

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Photo: Madison Square, New York City, 1908. LOC Prints & Photos Online Catalog. WikiCmns. Public Domain.

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Emily Dickinson’s Leopard

Léon de Wailly Grande Panthere 1812.jpg

By way of breaking long silence, RT offers this beguiling missive from Ms. Dickinson:

Civilization — spurns — the Leopard!
Was the Leopard — bold?
Deserts — never rebuked her Satin —
Ethiop — her Gold —
Tawny — her Customs —
She was Conscious —
Spotted — her Dun Gown —
This was the Leopard’s nature — Signor —
Need — a keeper — frown?

Pity — the Pard — that left her Asia —
Memories — of Palm —
Cannot be stifled — with Narcotic —
Nor suppressed — with Balm —

Drawing: Grand Panthere. Leon de Wailly. 1812. Public Domain.

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Chia Tao and a New Year

January 8, 2015 8 comments

The New Year has started, and it has been almost exactly a month since RT last posted. By way of explanation, he will say only that various transitions and plottings are afoot and have taken him away from his regular obligations and projects. More will be revealed as some of this work begins to bear fruit (which is to say, in the next post or two). Our distracted blogger’s first contribution of 2015 is his version of a poem by Chan Buddhist monk Jia Dao (old spelling, Chia Tao), 779-843 AD. Highly regarded during his life, JD is not now as well known as the small group of most famous T’ang poets that includes Du Fu and Bai Juyi; on the basis of the following poem, RT thinks this might be a mistake. JD seems to have combined a deep respect for natural process with indications of the intensity of his experience as a monk, linking his internal and external lives in unforgettable images.

Evening; Watching the Snow Stop

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Clutching my staff, I watch the storm lift; 

hills and clouds braid tight, dissolve in dusk.

Woodcutters disappear into their cabins

as a weary sun drops to its bed.

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And later: wildfire flowers in distant grass.

Tattered mist trailing; boulders, pine.

Hushed, I climb the monastery road—

night strikes the mountain like a bell.

Chia Tao/Jia Dao

version by Eric Quinn

copyright 2015, The Rag Tree

Photo: Tetons from Signal Mountain (1941); author, Ansel Adams. National Archives. Public Domain.   *

Du Fu: A Version of China’s Greatest Poet

December 8, 2014 Leave a comment

The An Lushan Rebellion, which broke out on December 16, 755 A.D., devastated China’s Tang Dynasty and brought to a close the era known as the “High Tang,” which is generally considered to be China’s finest cultural and political flowering. The last imperial census taken before the rebellion (in 755) reported a population of 53 million; the census of 764 (the year after the rebellion ended) counted just 17 million. Thirty-six million people had died or been left homeless during the fighting.

Out of the wreckage emerged a remarkable voice, a poet whom the Chinese have honored for centuries as the greatest they have ever produced. This man, Du Fu (712-770), developed a technical mastery of the demanding 5-character Shi form of Chinese poetry that has never been equaled. But while Du Fu’s skill was evident early on, his empathy for the suffering of ordinary people and criticism of the corruption and cruelty of the elite developed in response to the rebellion and place his work in a special category. Not that other Chinese poets didn’t develop a comparable concern for the welfare of the people (Bai Juyi among them), but none of these (admittedly gifted) men spoke with such heartbreaking clarity of the crisis and its place in the Chinese worldview.

To translate a poet as great as Du Fu is to spend significant time with him (or her) via reading, reflection, and writing; RT makes no claim to having invested the requisite energy and time in Du Fu, but offers here a step towards gaining an understanding of the writer the Chinese have called “the god of poets.”

Night Reflection

 

Grass murmurs along the riverbank,

and our mast sways high in the breeze;

stars fall. broad fields, flat, empty,

are gone in the moon’s eruption from water.

 

Has poetry not exalted my name?

old scribblers should know when to quit.

not yet a ghost, flickering, i drift

on a gull’s wings between heaven and earth.

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Copyright © 2014, The Rag Tree.

Photo: Statue of Du Fu (located in Chengdu). Photo author: Fanghong. WikiCmns; CC BY-SA 3.0.

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The DoGs on Winter Circuit: Endangered Languages

November 28, 2014 Leave a comment

It’s snowing in Martinsburg, and the Dragons of Grammar have started pestering RT, making a racket as they clamber all over the modest duplex he inhabits, blowing plumes of smoke at his sealed windows, and generally trying to cause an uproar in the neighborhood, which would be worse, except that nothing much is getting done in Martinsburg today (except last-minute preparations for Thanksgiving). People are paying the polite, if fiery and colorful, creatures no mind.

File:Zitkala Sa Sioux Indian and activist 1898.jpg

Zitkala Sa, “Red Bird”; English name, Gertrude Simmons (1876-1938). Sioux author, musician, composer, activist.

Now, RT is well aware that the DoGs love winter–it’s their favorite season, in fact–and at first he thought he also knew the subject that they wanted him to post on–Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics. Now CAS are certainly a worthwhile topic of exploration, but it turns out that that is not the DoGs’ primary concern on the day before Thanksgiving. Rather, they have a weighty matter they want RT to ponder: the definition and ways of helping endangered languages around the world.

Well, RT already knew that there are a lot of endangered languages out there, and a quick browsing of the net suggests that half of all languages, which numbered 6,900 in 2005, are in danger of going extinct (i.e., losing their last native speaker) within the next generation. About half of all languages spoken, moreover, are located either in Asia or Africa, but please take note, Oklahoma also constitutes a hot spot.

RT recollects that on occasion he has posted on endangered languages in these pages, but he thinks that a new post, especially one that contains a listing of items that help reflect the vitality of a language, would be quite useful.

Here is RT’s list:

1) Official Status. Does a language receive political or cultural support, and, in particular, is it taught in schools?

2) Writing System. Does a language have a writing system that was either created or evolved for its use? If so, is there a standardized orthography for the language? How easy is the language’s script to learn?

3) Child speakers. Are children learning the language?

4) Everyday transactions. Do people use the language in their daily routine?

5) Number of speakers. Last, and maybe least, how many people speak the language worldwide, whether as a first or second tongue? To which RT appends perhaps the most vital question: Is the number of speakers growing?

Now we come to subtler considerations.

6) Prestige. Do members of the cultural elite speak the language? Does everyone else in a society regard knowing the language as worthwhile or even as a cultural attainment?

7) National or Personal Identity. Is the language strongly linked to historical or national identity? A good example of this are the Gaelic languages in western Europe.

8) Variant of a Regional Language. Is the language a member of a widespread language family? Can a speaker travel to other areas where his or her native language is to some degree intelligible to others?

9. Global Status. Has a language become a lingua franca? Is it in danger of corruption through overuse? English immediately comes to mind as the lingua franca currently used by the largest number of speakers. How many people would speak English if it weren’t so closely tied to the current power elite?

10. Written and Audio/Video Materials. Here is a vital concern: to what extent is the language recorded in writing? In particular, do any of these materials include native legends and mythology? And do recordings of native speakers exist? Not only do these help preserve the language in the most direct way possible, but they also put a face on the language, another intangible but vital concern.

More than half the world’s languages are located in eight countries (in red): India, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, and Cameroon. These countries and the areas around them (in light blue) are the most linguistically diverse regions in the world.

 Now RT will try to sort out various languages by their vitality:

1) English, Spanish, French: the current global lingua francas.

2) Chinese (1.2 billion native speakers) and Hindi (800 million ns) : the most widely spoken single-nation languages.

3) Basque (720,000 ns, north-central Spain) and Mapundugan (250,000 ns, Chile and Argentina): language isolates (i.e., not related to any known language). Neither language is listed as endangered; both have been officially recognized. To give some idea of how different a language isolate can be, the Basque word for “father” is “aita,” and the word for “welcome” is “ongi.”

4) Insular Celtic: spoken in the British Islands (Welsh (580,000 speakers in Wales), Irish (130,000 ns), and Scottish Gaelic (57,000 ns)) and Brittany (Breton, 210,000 ns): protected minority languages; full to limited instruction in schools; the number of speakers is relatively small but growing. And here, to give some idea of the music of these languages, RT offers a link to a YouTube video on Scottish Gaelic, the IC language with the fewest native speakers:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YwVCrgvvHeE

5) Cree: limited official recognition within Canada; written in a system constructed for the language; limited instruction in school; 170,000 native speakers. Here is a brief sample of the language via YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OdkSD7SeXI

6) Sioux: No official recognition in the U.S.; school instruction, including immersion classes; 44,000 native speakers.

7) ‘Amkoe:  This is a click language found in Botswana. 30 native speakers. Here is RT’s final video, on Xhosa click language:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfPATxJOjF4

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Meanwhile, the snow has stopped and the DoGs have flown off elsewhere to spread their warmth in icy climes… More on all this later.   RT

 PhotoA Quebec stop sign in Cree/English/French. Author: P199. CC3.0 BY-SA. Map: Linguistic Diversity in the World. Author: Davius. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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