Victor Hugo’s ‘Eye’ in the Dirt

Most people who’ve read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, will list the famous ‘Candlestick’ scene as one of their favorites, I’m sure (Fantine: Book 2: ch. 12). Rightfully so; everything about it is just so powerful and moving and memorable. The movies have all captured it well enough, I suppose; but if you haven’t done the reading yet, you’ve really missed out. Go get a copy, start at the beginning, settle in and when you get to that scene you’ll see why everyone likes it so. Then just take your time and enjoy the rest. Yes, 1200 pages, but what else are you going to do? Watch TV? Listen to more COVID updates?

I’m not going to spoil it for you. I hope you can experience it yourself. Besides, my favorite scene is the one right after that, in the very next chapter. And that I will share a bit with you.

Let’s just say that our tough-as-nails, embittered ex-con, Jean Valjean, has just had the most staggering encounter with grace, forgiveness and mercy, that a person could ever experience! He should have been going back to his chains, back to his “wooden mattress”;1 never to be free again! Apprehended by gendarmes on the street in the middle of the night, Jean Valjean has six silver dishes tucked away in his knapsack; and the gendarmes know exactly where they came from too! Everyone in town knows where this man spent the night, because everyone in town had turned him away. Something about his attire, or his demeanor had stigmatized him as ‘trouble’, as a ‘felon’.

But one kindly woman finally meets him in the street: “Have you knocked at that door yet?” she asks, and she is pointing to the home of the wonderful Bishop, Monseigneur Bienvenu, who never turns anyone away.

At the Bishop’s home, Jean Valjean receives a kinsman’s welcome, an excellent meal, a room, a soft bed and nothing but encouragement from this wonderful man…only to rise up in the middle of the night and make off with the Bishop’s dinnerware. He had even prepared himself with a weapon to kill the good Bishop if he should awaken in the midst of the deed!

The next day, the man is hauled back by the gendarmes to confront the Bishop with his crime. And that’s when…well…like I said…incredible, life-changing mercy and grace!

But it’s in the very next chapter that a more wonderful thing yet happens…

Jean Valjean has left the city. He wanders now in a daze: trying to sort out what has just happened to him. He finds a quiet place, sits down and wrestles with a veritable storm of conflicting feelings that are raging now within him: elation, gratitude, unworthiness, shame, remorse. He’s been absolved of his crime, given his freedom and even a small fortune that will surely bring a new opportunity in life. The Bishop has sent him away with his blessing: “Go! Go in peace” and “never forget…that your soul has now been given to God…that you no longer belong to evil, but to good.” 2

But–hold on!–life, unfortunately, is not quite that simple!

Toward evening, as Valjean sits by the road reflecting on all this, a little 12-year old boy from Savoy passes by. He’s a street entertainer; he has a hurdygurdy hanging on a strap over his shoulder, and a marmot in a box on his back. He’s a happy boy; he’s made some good money today. He’s singing as he walks, and flipping some of his coins in the air and cleverly catching them on the back of his hand.

The Modern Library Edition is an old classic. It would be nice to find an annotated version, but I haven’t located one I like.

One of his coins however–the largest, as a matter of fact: a forty-sous piece–bounces off the back of the boy’s hand, falls to the road and rolls over toward Jean Valjean…

…and Jean Valjean stands up…and puts his boot on it!

The little boy races over and politely asks: “Monsieur! Please! My piece!”

But Jean Valjean doesn’t move. In fact, he seems not to hear. “My piece, monsieur!”

Jean Valjean asks him: “What is your name?”

“Petit Gervais, monsieur,” says the boy.

“Get out!” says Jean Valjean.

“But my piece!” exclaims the boy. “My silver!” And now the boy is getting desperate. He grabs Jean Valjean by the collar and shakes him. “Take away your foot! I want my piece! Move your foot monsieur! My forty sous.” But Jean Valjean is never going to lift that boot! He lifts up his cane instead, and makes a threatening gesture: “You’d better take care of yourself!” And now the poor boy is terrified. He starts to tremble; starts to cry and, after a few seconds, he runs for his life. Jean Valjean is left alone, listening to the boy’s sobbing as it recedes into the distance.

The night has arrived; darkness has settled over the earth. Jean Valjean seems to be in some kind of trance; seems not even to know what he has just done, until…

…until he stoops over to gather up his things and moves his boot in the process.

And there it is: that coin, half buried in the dirt! At first it doesn’t quite register with him; but later, when it catches the light and glistens back up at him, the effect is like an electric shock. Aghast, he draws back a step or two, but then stops, unable to look away: “as if now the thing that glistened there in the obscurity had been an open eye fixed upon him.” 3

It’s a marvelous scene! He lunges toward the piece, picks it up, and then races after the boy: “Petit Gervais! Petit Gervais!” But the boy is gone. He passes a priest on the road: “Monsieur Curè have you seen a child go by?”

No, the priest has not seen him.. “Petit Gervais was his name. A little fellow about ten years old with a marmot I think and a hurdygurdy. One of those Savoyards, you know?”

The priest has not seen him. And those Savoyards, why!–they’re all strangers here. Nobody knows them or even notices them at all.

Desperate, the poor man pulls out twenty francs. “Monsieur Abbé, give this to your poor! Monsieur Abbé, have me arrested, I am a robber!”

But those words simply terrify the priest. He puts spurs to his horse and flees the scene.

Frantically, Jean Valjean continues his search, desperate to undo what is already done. He wanders the streets, first shouting, then calling, and finally just murmuring the name “Petit Gervais”, until at last, under the sheer weight of his conscience, his knees just buckle beneath him. He collapses on the cobblestone and, for the very first time in nineteen years, he weeps.

That “eye” in the dirt! Such a marvelous touch! With it, our man was face-to-face with his sin nature: from which no bishop will ever deliver, and no amount of “do-goodery” can ever overthrow! Oh, no! The sin nature is more pernicious than that! Hugo’s marvelous scene just proved it!

And that’s why we have a Savior, of course.

I love how the scene ends:

“How long did he weep? What did he do after weeping? Where did he go? Nobody ever knew. It is known simply that, on that very night, the stage-driver who drove at that time on the Grenoble route and arrived at Digne about three o’clock in the morning, saw as he passed through the bishop’s street, a man in the attitude of prayer, kneeling upon the pavement in the shadows, before the door of Moseigneur Bienvenu.” 4

I love it! And there’s so much more where that came from. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is such a worthwhile investment.

  1. Victor Hugo Les Misérables, complete and unabridged, Modern Library (Random House Inc.), New York (undated) p. 59
  2. ibid. p. 90
  3. ibid. p. 92
  4. ibid. p. 96

What “Heart of Darkness”?

I’m trying to remember if it came from some highly-qualified, erudite literary expert or has it just been my own weightless personal opinion, all these years, that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a perfect novel?

Was it a college professor, perhaps?

Polish-born Josef Theodor Konrad Korzeniowski, or Joseph Conrad after he moved to England. 1857 1924

The” perfect novel is what I’ve always called it. Though a few others do come to mind now.

Of course I’ll be challenged on that these days. The book is not slathered with political correctness and so there’s a ‘flaw’ already. “And, besides, it’s not a novel. It’s a novella.”

Now there’s a distinction I’ve never really cared for. I’ve always flirted with the theory that Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo and probably young Proust all conspired together one night and came up with the concept of the novella: How dare anyone call that a ‘novel’, after all the pages we’ve cranked out? Can’t we come up with some other category for these ‘trinkets’?

Who knows? Melville and Tolstoi might have weighed in as well!

There is a sense in which the 1100-page thing itself could be called a novella. Does more really make better? If it only takes 87 pages to tell a perfect tale, what true artist would add even a single page? And why invent a second-class category for it? Perfection follows its own set of rules–have you noticed?–and it never fits neatly into man’s little boxes.

One thing we know about Joseph Conrad: he didn’t ‘crank’. From page one to the final paragraph, his marvelous account of Captain Marlowe’s journey up the Congo to rescue an ailing ivory trader is sculpted to perfection, with every word, every phrase, a tap of the master’s chisel.

Or–hold on–let’s not forget the title page! There’s perfection there too. What, or where precisely, is this “Heart of Darkness”? Is it there in the deepest recesses of the Congo? Among the primitive warring tribes? Or is it pointing to the rapacious European ivory traders who cast themselves as “agents of civilization” when they came? Of course it describes the heart of Mr. Kurtz, the so-called ‘exemplary genius’ among them all; but should others be included? Should everyone perhaps?

The answer remains wonderfully elusive, but that final suggestion looms largest in the end, as we sit with Captain Marlowe in a parlor in downtown Brussels and listen to Kurtz’ fiancee, now bereaved, go on and on about “his greatness”; “his generous mind”; and “his noble heart”; his wonderful “example” with “goodness shining in every act”. 1 Marlowe listens to it all, knowing that Kurtz’ life has been nothing but a “horror”. With all of civilized Europe sharing the fiancee’s perception of things, quite likely the title is pointing its finger at us all!

Heart of Darkness is a powerful indictment of European imperialism: especially the so-called ‘civilizing’ forces of King Leopold II of Belgium who, in 1878, claimed “personal ownership” of the entire Congo (did you get that? Not “Belgian ownership”…”personal”!) and began wringing the region of all its ivory. “The conquest of the earth,” as Capt. Marlowe describes it, even before he begins his tale, where men just “grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got…just robbery with violence…aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind.” 2

Conrad knew what he was talking about. In 1890, he himself had actually sailed up the Congo on a riverboat and witnessed the atrocities first-hand. For years after that, he apologized for his involvement; though he seems to have tried his best to limit it.

And then he wrote the novel (1899).

But there is a deeper premise in Heart of Darkness that goes beyond the evils of human oppression and “the conquest of the earth”. Marlowe’s fatal decision to leave the sea and “go inland” brings him face to face with the fallen nature of Man. Throughout his narration, on almost every page, Capt. Marlowe comments on what he has witnessed: the human race behaves, acts civil, follows the rules, because society and civil convention make it do so. Not because the human race is a shining paragon of virtue.

We have neighbors who watch us and laws that warn us; we have policemen to apprehend us, and judges to pronounce both verdict and sentence and so, of course, we all live orderly lives; it’s in our best interest to do so. But none of this proves that we are basically good. It simply proves that we are basically ‘controlled’.

But what happens when the ‘trappings’ go away? When the neighbors are gone and there are no police (oh, how relevant today, by the way!). What happens when no one is looking and there are no laws; when a highly ‘civilized’ man finds himself surrounded by wilderness, where actions have no consequence at all? Oh, now we will see the true nature of a man! And that’s what we see in the man, Mr. Kurtz.

Well, I’ll leave the rest to you. I don’t want to spoil a thing. Sit down, curl up, however you like to do it, and enjoy this marvelous work of art. As I said, it is only 87 pages.

Here’s one of my favorite passages. I call it Conrad’s ‘cinematic’ moment. Just four years after the Lumiere brothers made their very first moving picture (1895) Conrad was doing a little ‘cinema’ of his own; with words, not celluloid.

The scene takes place at the first ivory station, not far from the mouth of the Congo River. Marlowe has arrived to find his riverboat broken; it will never make it into the interior to rescue Mr. Kurtz. There’s an excellent mechanic available to him there–a “boiler-maker” by trade and a very dear man–the only decent man in the station, as a matter of fact. But what the riverboat desperately needs is ‘rivets’ and, of course, there are no ‘rivets’. Rivets aren’t important. Only ivory is important.

The rivets are not really that far away–piled on some dock on the coast nearby–but it takes weeks for them to finally arrive and, by that time, the ‘wilderness’ has definitely taken its toll on Marlowe. (There is a sinister aspect to the delay of the rivets, but I’ll let you figure that out on your own).

Upon hearing the news that the rivets are finally coming, Marlowe hunts down the boiler-maker and, right there on the metal deck of the riverboat, starts a celebration:

“I slapped him on the back and shouted: ‘We shall have rivets!’ He scrambled to his feet exclaiming: ‘No! Rivets!’ as though he couldn’t believe his ears. Then in a low voice, ‘You…eh?’ I don’t know why we behaved like lunatics. I put my finger to the side of my nose and nodded mysteriously. ‘Good for you!’ he cried, snapped his fingers above his head, lifting one foot. I tried a jig. We capered on the iron deck. A frightful clatter came out of that hulk, and the virgin forest on the other bank of the creek sent it back in a thundering roll upon the sleeping station. It must have made some of the pilgrims (traders) sit up in their hovels. A dark figure obscured the lighted doorway of the manager’s hut, vanished, then a second or so after, the doorway itself vanished too.

“We stopped, and the silence driven away by the stamping of our feet flowed back again from the recesses of the land. The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence.” 3

I love it! What would you call it? I’m not a cinematographer–“zoom-out to aerial”; “from close-up to bird’s-eye”?–where the camera swiftly retreats skyward, the horizons broaden, the land grows immense, extending forever, and the people diminish until, eventually, they are just swallowed into the wilderness?

Which, after all, was the author’s point.

  1. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and Selected Short Fiction Barnes and Noble, NY, 2003 p. 122-123
  2. ibid. p. 41
  3. ibid. p. 67-68

The Real Mulan

木蘭辭。宋: 樂府詩集。 郭茂倩編 The Ballad of MuLan, Collected Yue-fu Poems edited by Guo Mao Qian

Now that the virus has put the Disney production on hold for a while, it’s probably time to just read the real story of Mulan. I’m talking about the primary source; which I always recommend, especially when it comes to Disney. Goodness!–the historical revisionism in Disney’s Pocahontas is just flagrant to anyone who knows the real story; as in Captain John Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia (1624) and a few other primary sources. Oh the movie is fun; I don’t want to spoil it. I like the songs, and I like artistic embellishment just as much as the next guy, but don’t our kids need to know the truth of our history? Isn’t the historical record important any more? Because Disney’s version of Pocahontas is…well...”as foreign to the truth as firmament to fin”.

Perhaps they’ll do a little better with Mulan.

The story of the girl who dressed up as a soldier and went to war in her father’s place is well-known and greatly loved by everyone in China; anyone who has studied beyond elementary school at least. For decades now, it has been a favorite classroom assignment: to be memorized and recited before all of their classmates.

The poem shows up in an old Song Dynasty collection (Collected Yue-fu Poems, edited by Guō Màoqiàn 樂府詩集。 郭茂倩); but it is much older than that, going back at least to the sixth century.

Our heroine lived in the Kingdom of Wei during one of the most tumultuous and chaotic periods of Chinese history. The great Han Dynasty had fallen apart; the various states were all devouring each other; enemy invaders were pouring in from the west. In fact, the emperor of Wei, mentioned in our story, is actually a foreigner himself, a member of the conquering Tuo-ba clan. He prefers the title ‘Khan’. The title is used interchangeably with ’emperor’ in the poem. But as our story begins, another invading tribe, the Rouran (a Mongol clan), are threatening now.

The ‘Khan’s great military draft’, mentioned early in the poem, was a brutal affair. It demanded that every household send a male to the western regions to fight the invading forces and, apparently, there were no exceptions granted. Mulan’s father is way too old; her little brother way too young. But the law is the law and father must go, and so Mulan armors up! Don’t you love it? In the predawn hours, before the household is awake, she heads off to war in her father’s place, fully disguised as a young man now.

You can see why it’s a favorite.

The story is told in ballad form and it has the distinction of being truly ‘folk’. That means it is free from much of the stodgy baggage of the gentry-class poetry that would later be so highly revered. The structure of this one is simple and free and irregular. The wording is vernacular; the common people sang this. The story is just plain fun. You might bear in mind that the story is supposed to be sung to a drum-beat and some instruments, but any notation of that is now lost.

Mulan’s story has been revised and embellished and retold ever since; and with just about as much liberty as Disney might employ. In the late 16th Century, there was Xu Wei’s (徐渭) two-act play The Female Mulan Goes to War in Her Father’s Place (雌木蘭替父從軍). She shows up again, in the late 17th Century, in Zhu Ren-huo’s historical novel (褚人獲) Heroes of the Sui and Tang (隋唐演義); plus operas, a ballet, two Chinese silent movies, five more modern movies, one Chinese animation, a Hong Kong songbook, a Hong Kong TV series, children’s books, video games, the list goes on. Long before Disney ever picked it up, Mulan was all the rage.

But what you’re about to read, the ancient Yue-fu: The Ballad of Mulan, is the very source of it all. It is simple, unadorned and the only real facts we have. It’s kind of nice to go all the way back to the source, don’t you think?

The translation of Chinese poetry always demands some sacrifice, and the reason for that is simple: Chinese poets can pack an incredible amount of message into just five little words! And always, when they do, it sounds pleasing and perfectly ‘right’.

Statue of Mulan returning to her father, in downtown XinXiang, China

If you look at the original text below, every punctuation mark is the end of a line. I strung the lines together just to make room on my page. Most of the lines are just five words long, sometimes seven or nine for variety’s sake, but always–always–just as concise as can be; and full of meaning.

On the other hand, my English lines are just all over the place. To make them fit your iPhone format, I’ve had to break each English line into two. So two of my lines often represent just five words of the original! Isn’t it amazing? But–hey!–we have to have our articles and conjunctions and prepositions and auxiliary verbs, don’t we? After all, this is the English language, for goodness’ sake!

None of which the Chinese poet needs at all! It is almost impossible to stay true to the form of a Chinese poem and still produce something that ‘works’ in English. And make no mistake about it: this isn’t the stuff of Haiku. There is a story here; a legend; a tale being told; and the subjective impressionism of Haiku (which simply tries to capture a sensation) is not being implemented. If I strictly adhered to the Chinese form of just five words per line, my English rendition would read like some kind of psychological “word-association” test. It is absolutely fascinating how this brevity and precision can work so well in one language, and not at all in the other!

Still, I’ve tried hard to ‘capture’ the important words and be literal with them; and the important ideas within every line and certainly all the story. The story, after all, is the important thing here and I’m not really pretending that this English rendition is a good piece of poetry.

I hope you enjoy it though…


無名著。樂府詩。 郭茂倩

唧唧復唧唧, 木蘭當戶織。 不聞機杼聲, 惟聞女嘆息。
問女何所思, 問女何所憶。女亦無所思,女亦無所憶。
昨夜見軍帖, 可汗大點兵,軍書十二卷, 卷卷有爺名。
啊爺無大兒, 木蘭無長胸, 願為市鞍馬, 從此替爺政。

東市買鵔馬, 西市買鞍鞬, 南市買轡頭, 北市買長鞭。
旦辭爺娘去, 暮宿黃河邊,不聞爺娘嘆女聲,

萬里赴戎機, 關山度若飛。 朔氣傳金柝, 寒光照鐵衣。
將軍百戰死, 狀士十年歸。

歸來見天子, 天子坐明堂。測勛十二轉,賞賜百千強。
可汗問所欲, 木蘭不用尚書郎,願馳千里足,送兒還故鄉。

爺娘聞女來, 出郭相扶將,啊妹聞姊來,當戶理紅妝。
小弟聞姊來, 磨刀霍霍向豬羊。


The Ballad of Mulan

Translated by Robert Schorr (© copyright 2020)

Anonymous Northern Kingdom folk ballad. From Collected YueFu Poems edited by Guō Màoqiàn, but of much earlier origin; probably 6th Century.

With the whirring and the whirring 
and the whirring of the loom
Mulan is busy with the household weaving. 
But no one pays attention 
to the sound of the machine, 
They only hear the sighs 
of a young girl grieving.
If you ask this girl what she is thinking, 
if you ask her why she grieves, 
she’ll find no words to express those thoughts; 
she’ll not be able to explain that grief. 
A government notice was posted last night, 
announcing the Khan’s great military draft.
Page after page of stern decree, 
and her dear father’s name on every one! 
Her father is old with no son to enlist. 
Mulan has no older brother. 
So she sets out to purchase a saddle and horse; 
she will go to the war in her father’s place! 
East of town, she buys a war horse. 
West of town: a saddle and blanket.
South of town: a bridle and bit. 
North of town: a good horse-whip. 

At daybreak she leaves her folks behind. 
Come nightfall she camps by the Yellow River.  
Too far away to hear her parents, 
crying for their daughter,  
She only hears the murmur 
of the river’s mournful flow.  
At daybreak she leaves the river behind. 
By nightfall it’s Black Mountain Pass. 
Too far away to hear her parents, 
crying for their daughter,   
She only hears the dreadful neigh 
of enemy steeds on Swallow Mountain.
For thousands of miles, over steep mountain passes, 
they’ve all come to throw themselves into the fray! 
And now, in the icy northern air, 
pierced by the sound of the watchman’s clacker, 
The warriors wait, their armor agleam, 
under the wintry lights of the night.

Through a hundred battles they fought 
and they died: soldiers and officers alike.
After ten long years, as heroes now, 
the survivors make the long journey home.
They stand before the Emperor's throne, 
in the great Ceremonial Hall,
where awards and appointments 
and thousands of treasures 
are offered to them all. 
But when the great Khan asks her what she desires, 
Mulan has no need of reward,
“But--oh for a thousand-mile steed that can speed 
me back to my old home town.” 

When her dear parents finally hear the news: 
“Your daughter has come back!” 
they hobble out, supporting each other, 
to the city gate to meet her.
When big sister hears that her little sis is home, 
she decorates the door in brilliant red. 
When little brother hears that his big sis is home, 
he hurries to sharpen the blade for a feast.
“Open that door in the East Pavilion. 
Let me sit on that West Chamber couch. 
Help me take off this military gear, 
and--oh!--bring me the skirts that I used to wear.”
And there by the window, as in the old days, 
she lets down that beautiful cloud of hair.
Looks in the mirror, puts on some makeup, 
then heads back out to her fellow warriors. 
And the fellow warriors are shocked to discover: 
“This one fought with us twelve long years
and we never knew that our ‘Mulan’ was a woman!”  

“The male rabbit’s steps are impossible to follow; 
the female has those mysterious eyes. 
But when male and female travel side-by-side, 
who can tell? Which one am I?” 

Well, whenever our “Plague Year” draws to a close and the movie Mulan finally screens, at least you can say to your friends when it’s over: “That was pretty good, but have you read the original?” RAS


A Fatal “Expertise”

The Letters of Emily Dickinson Edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, Dover Publications, Mineola, New York, 2003

Have you read any T.W. Higginson poems lately? Didn’t think so. Don’t feel bad. I’ve never met anyone who has. There’s a very profound and compelling reason for that: he didn’t write any poems worth reading.

Not that I should disparage him for that; he had his share of redeeming qualities: a faithful soldier for the Northern cause; a passionate abolitionist; manned a few ‘stations’ of the Underground Railway: all of that much to his credit. He was also an author and a publisher. He styled himself a “literary expert”.

But…poet? Nah!

Need a sample? How about these lines from what he surely considered one of his ‘best’:

Over the field where the brown quails whistle,
Over the ferns where the rabbits lie, 
Floats the tremulous down of a thistle
Is it the soul of a butterfly?

The rest of his repertoire goes downhill from there.

So someone–please!–tell me how Thomas Wentworth Higginson became Emily Dickinson’s “literary mentor”–her “expert” adviser on all things poetic! For 24 years, he enjoyed that role–uncontested–and never gave her the slightest encouragement; never helped her publish even one of her many masterpieces! As a matter of fact, all her life, he repeatedly discouraged her from doing so.

Emily Dickinson was 31 years old when she read an article by Higginson in the Atantic Monthly, advising young writers on how to break into publishing. Well, she had already written 300 poems by then. She tucked four of her favorites into an envelope and sent them off to the Master. “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” she timidly asked. And that was the beginning of a long correspondence.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson: Emily
Dickinson’s lifelong literary ‘advisor’.

Of course, his answer was ‘no’ on both counts: no, he was not too deeply occupied; and no her verse was not “alive”. Isn’t that what literary “experts” and agents are for? I’m paraphrasing actually; we don’t have his letter of reply; but from her subsequent correspondence with him, it is not at all hard to glean what he had written to her. She thanks him, for example, for “the painful surgery” of his initial rejection (Letter 261). She quotes his complaint that she is “uncontrolled”, that she is afflicted with a “spasmodic gait” (meter). And when he urges her “not to publish” (Letter 265) she sadly dismisses the idea as being “as foreign to my thought as Firmament to fin.” (There she goes! Don’t you love it? We would have written: “as far from my thoughts as heaven is from the deep blue sea”, but when would she ever be so mundane?)

Sometimes “experts” aren’t what they’re hyped up to be; have you noticed? And it has always been that way. Thomas Edison had Mr. Engle. Rachmaninoff had Cesar Cui. The Wright Brothers had Samuel Langley who, with all the powers that be, belittled them and their humble contraption…until the humble contraption flew! Then all of a sudden, people were asking: “what precisely do ‘experts’ do?”

And Emily Dickinson had Thomas Higginson. Her correspondence with him went on for many years, but after just a few of them, Emily gave up all thought of being a “published” poet. Sadly, she rarely mentioned it again.

But she didn’t give up writing! Oh, no! This ‘contraption’ was going to fly too! (And here’s a lesson dear aspiring writer!) Within just a year of that first rejection, she finished her 600th poem, and that was just the beginning.

After her death in 1886, Emily’s sister, Lavinia found an old box in the back of her closet upstairs. The box contained dozens of packets, neatly tied with twine and safely tucked away. The packets contained almost all of her writings–1775 poems–a great majority of which were exquisite masterpieces.

Need an example? Oh, where to begin? Let’s try this profound thing (#318), which was among the very first to be rejected by our “expert”, Mr. Higginson:

I'll tell you how the Sun rose--
A Ribbon at a time--
The Steeples swam in Amethyst--
The news like squirrels ran--
The Hills untied their bonnets--
The Bobolinks--begun--
Then I said softly to myself--
"That must have been the Sun"!

But how he set--I know not--
There seemed a purple stile
That little Yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while--
Till when they reached the other side, 
A Dominie in Gray--
Put gently up the evening Bars--
And led the flock away.

Sharilyn and I had a fun conversation about this one once. I had shared it with her as one of my favorites; but she didn’t seem too impressed with it. “Sorry, I don’t really get it,” she handed it back to me. “Well, that’s probably because you’ve never seen a sunrise.” Don’t worry, it brought a laugh, and I knew it would. In all the years I’ve known her, she’s never been the slightest bit ashamed of that fact. “If the sun wants to come up at 8:00 some time, I’ll be perfectly happy to watch it,” she replied. “Now just explain the poem.”

“Well, I’ve seen the sun do this in the morning in the Sierras: illuminate the ground, piece-by-piece, a ribbon at a time, as the light advances over the peak. And I’ve seen the light ‘run’ too, across the canyon floor, starting and stopping as it goes: exactly the way “squirrels run”. And I think it’s brilliant what she does! And as for “the hills untied their bonnets“? Suddenly flashing brilliant blonde, as soon as the sunlight hits.

“But now, the last half, about the sunset: well if you don’t quite get that part yet, it’s because it isn’t talking about a sunset anymore, but something much more profound.”

How about this marvelous piece (#67): which surely was a product of her sad longing to succeed at publishing her work:

Success is counted sweetest 
By those who ne'er succeed. 
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need. 

Not one of all the purple Host 
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition 
So clear of victory 

As he defeated--dying--
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

When her sister Lavinia found those ‘packets’, she knew she’d uncovered a treasure! And she knew they had to be published! She brought them to her best friend, Mabel Loomis Todd, a professor’s wife at Amherst College. “Oh yes,” Mrs. Todd agreed, “these must be published.” And she knew the perfect man for the job, too. Why, the literary “expert” Mr. Higginson, of course. Together Todd and Higgison worked through the packets, picking out 115 of the very best, and…

…and then Thomas Wentworth Higginson went to work; changing every poem; re-writing almost every one; smoothing out the “awkward” rhymes; correcting the “spasmodic” rhythms and–oh!–those obnoxious odd metaphors of hers! Surely they had to go. Oh, it was hard work, refining and perfecting this poor girl’s primitive stuff!

Today, Higginson’s “expertise” is the laughingstock of the literary world. No one wants his versions any more. Subsequent publishers threw them away and dove back into those packets as if they were mining for gold. They dug out the priceless originals that we all enjoy today.

And doesn’t that all speak volumes about the “experts” in our world today, which seem to be multiplying year after year?


The Footprint

Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, Illustrated by N.C. Wyeth, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1983

One of the greatest narrative ‘finesses’ in literature, if you ask my opinion, is that footprint in the sand on Robinson Crusoe’s island. Just one. No need for more. Daniel Defoe stretched his credibility a bit, leaving only one print there on the beach like that. What had happened to the rest of the tracks? But no! The author specifically wanted only one!

“The Footprint” from
N. C. Wyeth’s beautifully
illustrated edition.

Later his man would see even more disturbing things but, right now, this was enough to completely eradicate the peace, contentment and sense of well-being that he had been enjoying for eleven years already. Isn’t it incredible?

The print of a beast would be disturbing as well; but never to this degree!

Several days after his initial flight from the scene, Crusoe races back to it with an afterthought: perhaps the print is his own! Of course! What was he thinking? Why hadn’t he thought of that before?

Oh, but he already knows that that’s not the case! He had already noticed that the footprint was larger; and yet–wouldn’t you know?–he places his foot into the print anyway! Wouldn’t you? Just…out of sheer desperation? Hoping somehow to find some assurance!

What a marvelous touch! The presence of Another, and the fear it engenders! How fraught with the Fall of Man is this passage!

And how typical of this marvelous classic!

It happens some 200 pages into the narrative and, immediately, everything has changed! The tone of the narrative is now frantic with dread and suspicion. For the rest of the book, we will never be far from a constant, repetitive rehearsing of perils, uncertainties and dangerous contingencies. At one point, Robinson actually considers destroying everything he has built; everything he has enjoyed all these years: his two homes, his crops, his flocks and their pens, his boat—every vestige of his existence must now be removed from the possibility of detection. And all because of a single footprint!

It is precisely at this point that our castaway gives us yet another of his priceless reflections:

“O what ridiculous resolutions men take when possessed with fear…Thus fear of danger is ten thousand times more terrifying than danger itself…and we find the burden of anxiety greater, by much, than the evil which we are anxious about…”

Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY 1983, p. 210

Spoken like Winston Churchill himself! In fact, I’m sure Churchill grew up with this treasure! And loved every page!

What makes this such a marvelous work is how, over and over again, on almost every page, we keep sensing that this is more than the tale of just… one…castaway!



We Need A Monster-Slayer

Why Beowulf still thrills us.

Beowulf: A new verse translation by Seamus Heaney, bilingual edition. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2000

I am trying to figure out just how, on earth, this most ancient relic of English literature still manages to thrill me every time I open its pages. A few months back I bought a copy for my 12-year old granddaughter, and I must confess she gave me a rather puzzled look when she opened it up.

I gave her sheepish.

Yeah, not exactly the trendiest thing I could give her; and maybe a bit too early too. But, she’ll get it one day and when she does, she’ll love it, or I don’t know my granddaughter!

Maybe it’s the translation. Seamus Heaney’s is wonderful and I don’t remember the older versions being so forceful and readable and…well…alive. I do love playing with the bilingual page, too. It’s just perfect for a poser like myself, who likes to think he can read some of the Old English anyway.

But, no, the real reason why this ancient epic poem still thrills…is the man! If Beowulf (the man) doesn’t strike a chord in you, then…well…you might need some kind of transplant!

The story begins with Heorot—the great and glorious royal hall of the King of the Danes—now empty, abandoned, and falling into ruin. No man goes there anymore. They used to. It used to be a wonderful place, full of joy and excitement, where all the king’s warriors would gather and celebrate their victories, share their treasures, and have fellowship together. 

But not now; those days are over. Ever since…

“…a fiend out of hell began to work his evil in the world. Grendel was the name of this grim demon haunting the marshes, marauding round the heath and the desolate fens…”

Beowulf, Trans. Seamus Heaney, p. 9, lines 100-104

Every night, in the middle of the night, this horrible creature has been coming up from the marsh. Swiftly, viciously he rips the massive doors from their hinges and “grabs thirty men from their resting places and rushes to his lair…blundering back with their butchered corpses.” Night after night it keeps happening until the King’s forces are just decimated. The bravest and the best in the land have been devoured and are gone. And everyone else has just fled, so that, now, the once-glorious Heorot Hall is just an abandoned ruin. 

But that’s when a young soldier named Beowulf shows up. He comes from the faraway land of the Geats (southern Sweden). He’s heard about the problem. In fact, he’s been somewhat intrigued by the challenge of it all; and now, with his band of mighty men in tow, he has come to solve it.

Well, everyone warns him that it can’t be done: No man fights Grendel and lives, they say. He’s a God-cursed brute; a descendant of Cain. No one has even yet harmed him. Why, his skin is so tough that no sword will even pierce him

“Then I won’t use a sword,” Beowulf calmly announces.

And instantly you love this man!  

That night, Beowulf and fourteen of his men move into Heorot Hall and everyone settles down for the night. Before too long, the whole place is asleep. Except, that is, for one. One of them is pretending to sleep. Finally, late in the depths of the night, as the hall resounds with the dreadful noise of the front doors being ripped from their hinges again, young Beowulf is ready…and waiting!

Well, of course I’m not going to spoil it for you. You need to read it on your own. Let’s just call it “problem solved”. The next morning, the King of the Danes and his handful of surviving warriors come timorously back to Heorot Hall. They’re expecting the worst, of course. But—oh!—the sun is shining; it’s a beautiful day and Beowulf’s men have had a great night’s sleep. Everything’s fine. Everyone’s safe; and our “God-cursed brute” is not coming back. How do we know? Well…let’s just say there’s a ‘piece’ of evidence, now nailed to one of the rafters in the Royal Hall!

I love it! I love the clarity of good vs. evil. I love the virtue and the moral strength of the monster-slayer; and the hero’s ‘calm’; his unshakable resolve to go ‘hand-to-hand’. With all due respect to Harry Potter and his wand, give me Beowulf and his two bare hands any day.

This world will always need a monster-slayer. Where do you find a people that doesn’t feel overwhelmed when the crisis looms large and the problem can’t be pierced? This world needs a monster-slayer. That’s why, after more than a thousand years, the book still resounds. That’s why the author of this marvelous thing, whoever he was, spoke of our Savior on almost every page. He saw the parallels in this ancient legend.

Oh, that reminds me. I love the realism too! Oh, yes—didn’t you know?—this ancient relic of an epic poem is brutally realistic; there’ll be no simplistic happily ever after formula at the end of this thing! Which makes it just as relevant as can be for us, as we fight the battles of our day and age. Because—you see?—this story is not over. One battle doesn’t win the war! As soon as the problem of Grendel is solved…

…we discover that he has a mother! And she is not pleased…


Old Volumes

The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson Ed. Thomas H. Johnson, Little, Brown and Co., New York, 1960

Of all the books that fill all the shelves, only one I believe, has to be hard-bound. I mean: must be–as by law. A paperback edition of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson is an affront to…well…many people, really, but certainly its author. I have one of those and it’s an affront to me. The last time I took it down from the shelf, it spilled forth forty pages all over my study floor.

Those were good pages too.

I picked them up and tucked them back in with a shake of the head: Published in the ’60’s, what did you expect? Who did this thing? Oh! Et tu, Little, Brown. I am certain that, if she had been there with me, she would have been shaking her head as well:

“What possessed you to purchase such a thing?”

“A college budget. C’mon!”

No, for Emily Dickinson, let it be hard-bound. In fact, ‘vellum’ would be nice; with a certain fragrance of ‘must’; and pages gracefully yellowed. For…

“A precious–mouldering pleasure–’tis–

To meet an Antique Book–

In just the dress His Century wore–

A privilege–I think…

…His presence is enchantment–

You beg him not to go–

Old volumes shake their Vellum Heads

And tantalize us so.”



The Waldensians and Their Scandalous Book

This being Good Friday, let’s remember one thing: the only book that is truly a ‘treasure’ is the one that God has written. And He has written it just for you. It is the only book ever written with a message that can save you! I’ve loved so many books over the years, and still do: all the great classics; they are all my favorites. But I’ve never once found–nor expected to find–salvation in any of them. No, no! The Word of God stands alone in this. Trade everything else you have for this one! Empty your shelves if you must, but lay hold of this treasure and don’t let go:

“Thy Word is a light unto my path and a lamp unto my feet.” Psalm 119:105

I read the most interesting thing about the Bibles of those faithful, sweet-hearted Waldensians. Never heard of the Waldensians? Oh, you need to look into it! Long before Luther and Knox and the Reformation proper–about 300 years before, as a matter of fact!–these dear people were experiencing a ‘Reformation’ of their own. They had pulled away from the evils of a corrupt church to worship on their own in the spirit of the Scriptures. They weren’t trying to start a ‘movement’. They had no plans to force their views on all the world. They just wanted to be left alone to live and worship in peace among themselves. They did so, quietly, in Lyons, France for quite a while. Later they moved up into the Alps of southern France and northern Italy. But that didn’t stop the powers-that-be from viciously hunting them down and persecuting them; almost completely wiping them out.

Oh, but I was going to tell you about their Bibles. Yes. Perhaps 150 years before Wycliffe and others began translating the Bible into common tongues for the common man to read, the Waldensians had already done it. It was a controversial thing to do. It was one of the reasons why they were hounded so. The hierarchies of the church had strictly forbidden translations of any kind. The only sanctioned translation of the Bible was the Latin one, which only priests and scholars could understand. The common, ordinary Christian was not allowed to carry a Bible. In fact, Bibles in many of the cathedrals around Europe were chained to their pulpits and padlocked shut, and only the priests and the elite had the key.

But every Waldensian carried his Bible! It was only a New Testament actually, translated into the Romaunt tongue: the common language of Southern Europe back in Medieval times. Romaunt was the language of troubadours, poets, authors and playwrights and so, of course it was a great scandal.

Though there must have been hundreds–perhaps thousands–of these scandalous books at one time, there are now only six of them left in the world. They say there is a copy in Dublin, Lyon, Grenoble and Zurich and two copies in a museum in Paris. The scarcity of them today has only one explanation: these people wore them out!

Waldensian Bibles were humble little things. J. A. Wylie describes them well in his wonderful work, The History of the Waldensians.

“These were small, plain, portable volumes, contrasting with those splendid and ponderous folios of the Latin Vulgate, which were penned in characters of gold and silver, richly illuminated, their bindings decorated with gems, inviting admiration rather than study, and unfitted by their size and splendor for the use of the people.”

J.A. Wylie The History of the Waldensians, Cassell and Company, London 1860, p 15

“Small…plain…portable volumes…” Don’t you love it? Especially the ‘portable’ part!

You can tell an awful lot about a people, just by looking at their Bibles.

He is Risen! RAS

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