Wednesday, March 14, 2018

"Sympathy" by Paul Laurence Dunbar

This poem, written by Paul Laurence Dunbar, was the inspiration for Maya Angelou's poem "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." Honestly, I find it superior. 


by Paul Laurence Dunbar

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Retreat by Henry Vaughan

The Retreat 

By Henry Vaughan

Happy those early days! when I
Shined in my angel infancy.
Before I understood this place
Appointed for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy aught
But a white, celestial thought;
When yet I had not walked above
A mile or two from my first love,
And looking back, at that short space,
Could see a glimpse of His bright face;
When on some gilded cloud or flower
My gazing soul would dwell an hour,
And in those weaker glories spy
Some shadows of eternity;
Before I taught my tongue to wound
My conscience with a sinful sound,
Or had the black art to dispense
A several sin to every sense,
But felt through all this fleshly dress
Bright shoots of everlastingness.
O, how I long to travel back,
And tread again that ancient track!
That I might once more reach that plain
Where first I left my glorious train,
From whence th’ enlightened spirit sees
That shady city of palm trees.
But, ah! my soul with too much stay
Is drunk, and staggers in the way.
Some men a forward motion love;
But I by backward steps would move,
And when this dust falls to the urn,
In that state I came, return.

343. To Lucasta, going to the Wars

I have heard the last few lines quoted so frequently over the years that they now sound a bit cliched to my ear.

343. To Lucasta, going to the Wars

By Richard Lovelace (1618–1658)

TELL me not, Sweet, I am unkind,
That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind
To war and arms I fly.

True, a new mistress now I chase,
The first foe in the field;
And with a stronger faith embrace
A sword, a horse, a shield.

Yet this inconstancy is such
As thou too shalt adore;
I could not love thee, Dear, so much,
Loved I not Honour more.

Batter my heart, three person’d God (Holy Sonnet 14)

Batter my heart, three person’d God (Holy Sonnet 14)

- John Donne, 1572 - 1631

Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Martyr by Herman Melville

This blog was supposed to be about the finer aspects of Western culture, and not just about bad movies and TV shows.  So, let's get back on track.  Here is an excellent poem that is fit for Lent.  Notice how Melville manages to blend the crucifixion of Christ with the assassination of Lincoln.  Very clever!

The Martyr

By Herman Melville

Indicative of the passion of the people
on the 15th of April, 1865

Good Friday was the day
Of the prodigy and crime,
When they killed him in his pity,
When they killed him in his prime
Of clemency and calm—
When with yearning he was filled
To redeem the evil-willed,
And, though conqueror, be kind;
But they killed him in his kindness,
In their madness and their blindness,
And they killed him from behind.

There is sobbing of the strong,
And a pall upon the land;
But the People in their weeping
Bare the iron hand:
Beware the People weeping
When they bare the iron hand.

He lieth in his blood—
The father in his face;
They have killed him, the Forgiver—
The Avenger takes his place,
The Avenger wisely stern,
Who in righteousness shall do
What heavens call him to,
And the parricides remand;
For they killed him in his kindness,
In their madness and their blindness.
And his blood is on their hand.

There is sobbing of the strong,
And a pall upon the land;
But the People in their weeping
Bare the iron hand:
Beware the People weeping
When they bare the iron hand.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Cruel to be Kind: A Review of Amazon's "Britannia"

When I first heard about the new Amazon Prime original, Britannia, I was excited.  While dealing with a different historical event, Britannia reminded me of one of my favorite books of all time: William Morris's House of the Wolfings.  This book, one which would prove to be very influential with later authors such as the great J. R. R. Tolkien himself, told the story of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest from the point of view of the Germanic tribes who united to repulse Roman avarice.  Like Homer's The Illiad, Morris's House of the Wolfings was not a strict historical drama but a fantasy-laced tale where flesh and blood mortals strove against Roman might with the mystical aid of pagan goddesses and dwarven enchanted armor.  Trust me: it is a wonderful story of a people fighting for their freedom.

Sadly, it was clear that my (admittedly baseless) hopes were not to be fulfilled with Britannia as the opening title sequence, one that resembled an LSD trip set to 1960's Scottish troubadour Donovan's Hurdy Gurdy Man (a song I have since become fond of thanks to this show), made me suspect the show was going for something different, something more akin to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, or the classic Vietnam War cinematic adaption, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.   This hunch was supported by the early moments of the first episode where Britannia went to great lengths to show how Roman troops were terrified to the point of mutiny by the idea of setting foot on Celtic land rumored to be overrun with demons and magic.  While I would have preferred a show more like House of the Wolfings, a Britannia built around madness and paranoia in an ancient land of unfathomable people got me nearly as excited.  This looked to be good! But in practice, it wasn't. Well, that might be too strong as there is some pleasure to be had here, but the ultimate problem I had with Britannia was how the show was unable to decide just what it wanted to be.  While there is a bit of House of the Wolfings and a bit of Heart of Darkness, ultimately Britannia limps into the barn resembling little more than a Game of Thrones or Vikings copycat with odds bits of humor throne in for good measure.

Despite all the early handwringing about the madness that awaited the Roman troops, the truth turns out to be something much more mundane.  Instead of being greeted by slavering monsters that can swallow entire legions whole, what greets Rome is just a case of homespun politics involving one tribe of Celts attempting to overcome another tribe.  Oh sure, there is some Druid mysticism mumbo-jumbo adding spice to this formula, but it is not particularly well developed and seemed more tacked on than well thought out to me (but more on that later).  Instead, the bulk of Britannia subjects the audience to watching Roman general Plautius play the two Celt tribes - the Cantii and the Regni - against each other for convoluted reasons having to do with Plautius seeing himself as some sort of conquering demon.  It was here that it became apparent that Britannia was criminally under-developing its potentially strongest asset, one initially screamed at us in the opening moments of the series: the otherworldly nature of the Celt people and the challenges of domesticating this wild realm.  Rather than being presented as a mysterious and rebellious people with a strong cult of mysticism, both the Cantii and Regni are blandly presented as Romans of a different flavor.  Heck, the show doesn't even suggest any sort of communication difficulties between the two as Romans and Celts freely converse amongst themselves without any apparent difficulty.  While History Channel's Vikings has its fair share of problems, at least that show did an admirable job of bringing the distinctive Viking culture to life.  After watching the entire first season of Britannia, I could not tell you one distinctive thing about the Celts.  I couldn't even tell you one distinction between the Cantii or Regni  as both are presented as copy-and-paste tribes who are at war for reasons the never transcend a simplistic grudge match over marriage ties (I am simplifying a bit to avoid some spoilers, but just a bit).  This is, frankly, an unforgivable crime for a show supposedly based in history.  I am not asking for hardcore historical narrative - I have long given up hope that any mainstream bit of entertainment will ever care for historical accuracy - but merely a show that demonstrates a modicum of concern for its subject matter.  I hate to say it but I get the distinct impression Britannia was based on little more than a brief glance at a Wikipedia entry.

Now, Britannia does attempt to address the mysticism of the Celt people via the infamous Druids.  Sadly, though, even here the show drops the ball as the Druids are presented as an almost cartoonish faction - complete with a leader who is made to look like the embodiment of Skeletor - who engage in the standard talk-in-riddles-make prophesies-sacrifice people-and-be-the-power-behind-the-throne stuff that is de rigueur Hollywood treatment for any sort of religion.  It all comes across as rather silly and trite to be honest.  When compared to, say, the seriousness with which Game of Thrones portrayed the "Lord of Light" cult, Britannia's presentation of an actual ancient religion looks all the more farcical by comparison.  Frankly, instead of being presented with a haunted house, we instead get a fun-house mirror that distorts rather than terrifies.  Now, this not to say that the various prophesies concerning demons and demi-goddesses does not become intriguing over the course of the first season - it does have its moments - but just that it is largely weak sauce that is overpowered by the mundane politics that drives the bulk of the narrative.  What a missed opportunity to inject some true Heart of Darkness horror into the story!

Another strike against Britannia is that this is one of those all too common shows haunted by the spirit of Harvey Weinstein.  Be prepared to have to suffer through quite a few ham-handed sex scenes that neither develop character nor advance the plot (quite the opposite, actually).  It is really a shame that in the wake of the horror that the Weinsteins of the world have unleashed on actresses everywhere, we still have more than a few directors/producers who have no qualms about using their actresses as sexual playthings in their shows.  Frankly, shows like Britannia make me wonder if the hashtag #MeToo is being interpreted by some in the entertainment industry as a cry of solidarity with Weinstein.  Certainly shows like Britannia make me think so.  Well, either that or we seem to have raised a crop of directors who secretly want to produce porn but lack the guts to just go and do it, so they sneak their predilections into shows like Britannia.  Whatever the reason, add another strike against Britannia for its neanderthal ways.

The writing in Britannia - that is, the dialogue - was mediocre to poor.  While I was not expecting Shakespearean verse or even Paul Kingsnorth'a "Shadow Tongue" from The Wake (that would be too daring for a modern show, I guess), I was at least expecting a Game of Thrones minimalist attempt to avoid street English whenever possible, such as when nobles converse.  Nope.  I had to guffaw a few times as thoroughly modern expressions made their way into the mouths of characters supposedly living almost two millennia ago (my favorite was when Phelan said he had a "typhoon" raging in his stomach, a meteorological term first coined 1500 years after the events of this story).   I don't mean to be pedantic, but anybody with an ear for dialogue should have scratched such obvious anachronisms from the script.  Of course, while the writing lacked any effort to elevate the dialogue, it wasted no opportunity to scatter vulgarities whenever possible, whether or not it sounded right coming from the mouth of a particular character (e.g., having young Cait scream an obscenity that was completely out of character for her - again, the Weinstein School of Filmmaking at work).  Flat dialogue for flat characters.

One of the areas where I did think Britannia deserved a bit of praise was the cinematography.  The show commendably invested some effort to find some absolutely stunning scenery that is truly evocative of what it must have been like to live in a time where nature was so vibrant that it infused the people themselves.  Unfortunately, though, even here I have a bit of criticism as the land is never used as anything more than a pretty backdrop.  One of the things that I loved about House of the Wolfings and Tolkien's various masterpieces was how both authors brought the metaphysical realism that dominated both the ancient and medieval periods to life by demonstrating how the land was a deep part of the people who lived on it; how it shaped their beliefs and practices at a fundamental level (Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake is another good example from contemporary literature).  Even Peter Jackson's masterful cinematic adaption of Lord of the Rings managed to convey how important the land was beyond being mere property to fight over.  Sadly, that metaphysical realism is rarely on display in Britannia, and when it does appear, it is only in the most superficial way possible.

Lastly, the acting is also good for the most part, even if the characters are themselves unimaginative.  David Morrissey is entertaining as Roman general Aulus Plautius, but his performance as a scheming Roman with visions of glory dancing in his head has been done countless times before, from Laurence Olivier's excellent Crassus in Sparticus, to CiarĂ¡n Hinds' Julius Caesar in HBO's Rome.   Mackenzie Crook's Skeletor-inspired Veran can be suitably scary if comic bookish at times, and Liana Cornell's goddess-possessed Ania is more often comical than compelling. Julian Rhind-Tutt's Phelan is so bland he might as well not be there, and his wife Amena, played by Annabel Scholey, aspires to be maniacal in a Cersei fashion but just comes across as a bumbling lush.   Zoe Wanamaker's Queen Antedia is perhaps one of the most tired of all the cliched characters in Britannia as she plays the tough, old matriarch who swears like a sailor and deals death like an executioner.  Yawn.  (Attention Hollywood: this is a tired cliche that needs to be put to rest.  Sure, we all snickered a bit when Betty White started swearing up a storm to get some easy attention, and we all loved how crotchety Maggie Smith was in Downton Abbey, but I think it is time that we moved on already.)   Then we have Kelly Reilly's Kera, a role mostly notable for her abundant pulchritude.  Seriously, this girl is a stunning Irish lass!

She rode out of a fairy tale...
Perhaps the best performances are delivered by Nikolaj Lie Kaas as outcast and somewhat hilariously insane Druid mystic Divis, and Eleanor Worthington Cox as Cait, the girl prophesied to defeat the demon that inhabits General Plautius and throw the Romans back into the sea.  In this role Cox delivers what is perhaps the finest performance by a young actress since Dakota Fanning - give her an Emmy!  Of the entire cast, only these two possess any gravitas.  Even better, when placed together - as they are all too briefly in the earliest episodes and again in the last - their performances absolutely sizzle as they bounce off each other, unleashing comedic gold in process.  Do yourself a favor, Amazon, and spin them off into their own show as the rest of the cast just gets in their way. 

Final Thoughts

I honestly don't know why I took the time to write this lengthy review of what is, at best, a mediocre series.  Well, that is not entirely true.  I DO know why I did so: because Britannia is a tragically wasted opportunity that should have been far better than what it was.  A story about a legion of Roman troops sent to conquer a primeval land populated by magical Druids and wild Celts should pretty much write itself, be it by going down the historical fantasy path of House of the Wolfings or by the intriguing Heart of Darkness path of hell-spawned insanity.    Yet somehow the creative team behind Britannia managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by halfheartedly attempting both, ultimately achieving neither, and just delivering "play it safe" Game of Thrones/Vikings copycatting with some humorI am hoping that if this show gets a second season it will learn from its first season mistakes and kick off the next season with a hardcore focus on either the historical fantasy aspects or the Druid horror ones, and leave GoT's byzantine politics for others.  I do have a bit of hope that this is where the show might be going as the final episode of Season One seemed to suggest that the narrative was going to focus less on banal politics and more on the Druid's otherworldly battle with evil demons.  (There is even something that suggests it could all tie into the rise of Christianity in Rome itself, a very interesting twist to say the least!) Will I watch Season Two, assuming it is granted one?  Probably. But Britannia is going to need to really wow me to hold me for much longer.

Stop walking in the well-worn tracks of other shows.  That is not the way to rule, Britannia.

Score: C

[I have reduced the score from C+ to C because I have noticed that I am already forgetting about this show.  Not a good sign.]

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Happy Halloween!

Tam o' Shanter (Translation) by Robert Burns
via Alexandria Burns Club

When the peddler people leave the streets,
And thirsty neighbours, neighbours meet; 
As market days are wearing late,
And folk begin to take the road home, 
While we sit boozing strong ale,
And getting drunk and very happy,
We don’t think of the long Scots miles, 
The marshes, waters, steps and stiles, 
That lie between us and our home,
Where sits our sulky, sullen dame (wife),
Gathering her brows like a gathering storm, 
Nursing her wrath, to keep it warm.

This truth finds honest Tam o' Shanter,
As he from Ayr one night did canter;
Old Ayr, which never a town surpasses,
For honest men and bonny lasses.

Oh Tam, had you but been so wise,
As to have taken your own wife Kate’s advice!
She told you well you were a waster,
A rambling, blustering, drunken boaster,
That from November until October,
Each market day you were not sober;
During each milling period with the miller,
You sat as long as you had money,
For every horse he put a shoe on,
The blacksmith and you got roaring drunk on;
That at the Lords House, even on Sunday,
You drank with Kirkton Jean till Monday.
She prophesied, that, late or soon,
You would be found deep drowned in Doon,
Or caught by warlocks in the murk,
By Alloway’s old haunted church.

Ah, gentle ladies, it makes me cry,
To think how many counsels sweet,
How much long and wise advice
The husband from the wife despises!

But to our tale :- One market night,
Tam was seated just right,
Next to a fireplace, blazing finely,
With creamy ales, that drank divinely;
And at his elbow, Cobbler Johnny,
His ancient, trusted, thirsty crony;
Tom loved him like a very brother,
They had been drunk for weeks together.
The night drove on with songs and clatter,
And every ale was tasting better;
The landlady and Tam grew gracious,
With secret favours, sweet and precious;
The cobbler told his queerest stories;
The landlord’s laugh was ready chorus:
Outside, the storm might roar and rustle,
Tam did not mind the storm a whistle.

Care, mad to see a man so happy,
Even drowned himself in ale.
As bees fly home with loads of treasure,
The minutes winged their way with pleasure:
Kings may be blessed, but Tam was glorious,
Over all the ills of life victorious.

But pleasures are like poppies spread:
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow fall on the river,
A moment white - then melts forever,
Or like the Aurora Borealis rays,
That move before you can point to their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form,
Vanishing amid the storm.
No man can tether time or tide,
The hour approaches Tom must ride:
That hour, of night’s black arch - the key-stone,
That dreary hour he mounts his beast in
And such a night he takes to the road in
As never a poor sinner had been out in.

The wind blew as if it had blown its last;
The rattling showers rose on the blast;
The speedy gleams the darkness swallowed,
Loud, deep and long the thunder bellowed:
That night, a child might understand,
The Devil had business on his hand.

Well mounted on his grey mare, Meg.
A better never lifted leg,
Tom, raced on through mud and mire,
Despising wind and rain and fire;
Whilst holding fast his good blue bonnet,
While crooning over some old Scots sonnet,
Whilst glowering round with prudent care,
Lest ghosts catch him unaware:
Alloway’s Church was drawing near,
Where ghosts and owls nightly cry.

By this time he was across the ford,
Where in the snow the pedlar got smothered;
And past the birch trees and the huge stone,
Where drunken Charlie broke his neck bone;
And through the thorns, and past the monument,
Where hunters found the murdered child;
And near the thorn, above the well,
Where Mungo’s mother hung herself.
Before him the river Doon pours all his floods;
The doubling storm roars throught the woods;
The lightnings flashes from pole to pole;
Nearer and more near the thunder rolls;
When, glimmering through the groaning trees,
Alloway’s Church seemed in a blaze,
Through every gap , light beams were glancing,
And loud resounded mirth and dancing.

Inspiring, bold John Barleycorn! (whisky)
What dangers you can make us scorn!
With ale, we fear no evil;
With whisky, we’ll face the Devil!
The ales so swam in Tam’s head,
Fair play, he didn’t care a farthing for devils.
But Maggie stood, right sore astonished,
Till, by the heel and hand admonished,
She ventured forward on the light;
And, vow! Tom saw an incredible sight!

Warlocks and witches in a dance:
No cotillion, brand new from France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
In a window alcove in the east,
There sat Old Nick, in shape of beast;
A shaggy dog, black, grim, and large,
To give them music was his charge:
He screwed the pipes and made them squeal,
Till roof and rafters all did ring.
Coffins stood round, like open presses,
That showed the dead in their last dresses;
And, by some devilish magic sleight,
Each in its cold hand held a light:
By which heroic Tom was able
To note upon the holy table,
A murderer’s bones, in gibbet-irons;
Two span-long, small, unchristened babies;
A thief just cut from his hanging rope -
With his last gasp his mouth did gape;
Five tomahawks with blood red-rusted;
Five scimitars with murder crusted;
A garter with which a baby had strangled;
A knife a father’s throat had mangled -
Whom his own son of life bereft -
The grey-hairs yet stack to the shaft;
With more o' horrible and awful,
Which even to name would be unlawful.
Three Lawyers’ tongues, turned inside out,
Sown with lies like a beggar’s cloth -
Three Priests’ hearts, rotten, black as muck
Lay stinking, vile, in every nook.

As Thomas glowered, amazed, and curious,
The mirth and fun grew fast and furious;
The piper loud and louder blew,
The dancers quick and quicker flew,
They reeled, they set, they crossed, they linked,
Till every witch sweated and smelled,
And cast her ragged clothes to the floor,
And danced deftly at it in her underskirts!

Now Tam, O Tam! had these been young girls,
All plump and strapping in their teens!
Their underskirts, instead of greasy flannel,
Been snow-white seventeen hundred linen! -
The trousers of mine, my only pair,
That once were plush, of good blue hair,
I would have given them off my buttocks
For one blink of those pretty girls !

But withered hags, old and droll,
Ugly enough to suckle a foal,
Leaping and flinging on a stick,
Its a wonder it didn’t turn your stomach!

But Tam knew what was what well enough:
There was one winsome, jolly wench,
That night enlisted in the core,
Long after known on Carrick shore
(For many a beast to dead she shot,
And perished many a bonnie boat,
And shook both much corn and barley,
And kept the country-side in fear.)
Her short underskirt, o’ Paisley cloth,
That while a young lass she had worn,
In longitude though very limited,
It was her best, and she was proud. . .
Ah! little knew your reverend grandmother,
That underskirt she bought for her little grandaughter,
With two Scots pounds (it was all her riches),
Would ever graced a dance of witches!

But here my tale must stoop and bow,
Such words are far beyond her power;
To sing how Nannie leaped and kicked
(A supple youth she was, and strong);
And how Tom stood like one bewitched,
And thought his very eyes enriched;
Even Satan glowered, and fidgeted full of lust,
And jerked and blew with might and main;
Till first one caper, then another,
Tom lost his reason all together,
And roars out: ‘ Well done, short skirt! ’
And in an instant all was dark;
And scarcely had he Maggie rallied,
When out the hellish legion sallied.

As bees buzz out with angry wrath,
When plundering herds assail their hive;
As a wild hare’s mortal foes,
When, pop! she starts running before their nose;
As eager runs the market-crowd,
When ‘ Catch the thief! ’ resounds aloud:
So Maggie runs, the witches follow,
With many an unearthly scream and holler.

Ah, Tom! Ah, Tom! You will get what's coming!
In hell they will roast you like a herring!
In vain your Kate awaits your coming !
Kate soon will be a woeful woman!
Now, do your speedy utmost, Meg,
And beat them to the key-stone of the bridge;
There, you may toss your tale at them,
A running stream they dare not cross!
But before the key-stone she could make,
She had to shake a tail at the fiend;
For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie pressed,
And flew at Tam with furious aim;
But little knew she Maggie’s mettle!
One spring brought off her master whole,
But left behind her own grey tail:
The witch caught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.

Now, who this tale of truth shall read,
Each man, and mother’s son, take heed:
Whenever to drink you are inclined,
Or short skirts run in your mind,
Think! you may buy joys over dear:
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.