Happy Birthday John Crowe Ransom

BlueGirls

Founder of “New Criticism” school and first editor of Kenyon Review, John Crowe Ransom was born on this day in 1888.  He served in the US Artillery in the Great War.

Blue Girls; by John Crowe Ransom

Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the sward
under the towers of your seminary,
go listen to your teachers old and contrary
without believing a word.

Tie the white fillets then about your hair
and think no more of what will come to pass
than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
and chattering on the air.

Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
and I will cry with my loud lips and publish
beauty which all our power shall never establish,
it is so frail.

For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a woman with a terrible tongue,
blear eyes fallen from blue,
all her perfections tarnished — yet it is not long
since she was lovelier than any of you.

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Cavafy Birthday

Cavafy

Born in Alexandria, Egypt to Greek parents on this day in 1863 Constantine Peter Cavafy is 100 and a half years older than me.  Below is a poem inspired by the Odyssey an enduringly favourite theme of mine.  It reads a little clunky because of course it is a translation from the Greek.

The theme is important and a lesson in a philosophy for life.  All life is a journey to a destination, the ultimate destination.  Make sure you stop and listen to the birds, smell the roses along the way.  Don’t rush headlong into your coffin and then complain that you missed out.

Ithaca; by Constantine P. Cavafy

When you set out for Ithaca
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – do not fear them:
such as these you will never find
as long as your thought is lofty, as long as a rare
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – you will not meet them
unless you carry them in your soul,
unless your soul raises them up before you.

Ask that your way be long.
At many a Summer dawn to enter
with what gratitude, what joy –
ports seen for the first time;
to stop at Phoenician trading centres,
and to buy good merchandise,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.

Have Ithaca always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to give you wealth.
Ithaca gave you a splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca hasn’t deceived you.
So wise you have become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithacas mean.

The Coyote Who Fasts

Nezahualcoyotl

When the Spanish conquered the New World they did a pretty thorough job of erasing anything good, positive or civilized from pre-Columbian American culture.  The goal was to say that Americans were savages, Spanish were Civilized Christians and the culture of the latter should erase the culture of the former.

From time to time it is possible to catch a glimpse of something else.  If you look very very carefully you can find traces of the rich tapestry and layered civilization that existed before Cortes arrived in Mexico.

Nezahualcoyotl (the coyote who fasts) was a philosopher king, poet and warrior who ruled about 50 years before the Spanish conquest.  His deeds and his poems were passed down through oral traditions.  When the native Indios learned to write they set down the history of Nezahualcoyotl on paper.

We get a picture of a wise and thoughtful king who would have been celebrated in any Western realm.  He ruled the Acolhua people from his capital of Texcoco.  One of his main preoccupations must have been to keep his people independent of the influence of the larger and more powerful Mexica.

As a child his father was killed by the powerful neighbouring Tepanecs, closely related to the Aztecs, who took control of Texcoco.  The young Nezah was taken to the great city of Tenochtitlan where he was educated by the Mexica, learing about their legal and administrative systems.

He worked over the years to build the alliances that put him at the head of an army of 100,000 troops.  On the battlefield he displayed strategic and tactical genius.  His victory resulted in a new ruling order in the Valley of Mexico, the triple alliance of Texcoco, Tenochtitlan and Tlacopan.

He then demonstrated that he was not just a warlord.  He made his capital into a center of justice, learning and creativity.  Spanish friars later described his capital as the “Athens of the West”.  He assembled a library, built fine water gardens and held a court of “wise men”.  He established strong legal systems and the rule of law.  In lake Texcoco he constructed a dyke to separate fresh water from brackish.  He constructed aqueducts to transport the fresh water to his capital.

He rejected the blood thirsty human sacrifice driven religions of his neighbours, which were such a powerful propaganda tool for Christian conversion by the Spanish.   Instead he constructed a temple which was an empty space for an unknown and unknowable God.  He did not permit any sacrifice and worshiped by the burning of incense.  It was clearly in the interests of Spanish propaganda to sideline the legacy of such an evolved philosopher.

The following poem gives a sense of the man.  Given that it was written 100 years after he lived, and that it was originally Nahuatl, translated to Spanish and subsequently translated to English I have taken some liberties with it.  For instance in the second verse I have assumed that the “Eagles stained red” were battle standards, things we know well from the Roman legions and Napoleonic French Corps.  Also in the same verse I say the Princes are scythed down.  The pre-Columbian Americans had no wheat or barley.  They had no scythes to harvest grain.  But I am trying to convey the metaphor for the battlefield as a harvest of lives and the metaphor of the scythe just works.

Finally today is given as his birthday so he gets onto my “Poets’ Calendar”. Born April 28th, 1402.  Read the poem below and take note that this was written around the time when Europe was so civilized that the English burned Joan of Arc at the stake for heresy.

 

A poem by Nezahualcoyotl (Edited heavily by Donal Clancy)

He makes the Eagles and Ocelots dance with him.
Come to see the Huexotzinca.
On the dais of the Eagle he shouts out,
loudly cries the Mexica.

On the battlefield we raise toasts with the divine liquor of war,
where the eagle standards are stained red,
where tigers howl,
where precious stones rain from fine armour,
where rich plumed headdresses wave like fields of grain,
where princes are scythed down.

There is nothing like death in war,
nothing like the flowery death
so precious to Him who gives life.
Far off I see it. My heart yearns for it!

And they called it Teotihulcan
because it was the place
where the lords were buried.

Thus they said:
‘When we die truly we die not because we will live,
we will rise, we will continue living, we will awaken,
this will make us happy.’

Thus the dead one was directed when he died:
‘Awaken, already the sky is rosy,
a new dawn has come,
hear the flame-coloured guans sing,
see the fire-coloured swallows and the butterflies fly.’

Thus the old ones said that who has died has become a god,
they said: ‘He has been made a god there’
meaning ‘He has died.’

Even jade is shattered,
even gold is crushed,
even quetzal plumes are torn.
One does not live forever on this earth.
We endure only for an instant.

Will flowers be carried to the Kingdom of Death?
Is it true that we are going, we are going?
Where are we going, ay, where are we going?
Will we be dead there or will we yet live?
Does one exist again?

Perhaps we will live a second time?
Thy heart knows; just once do we live.

Like a quetzal plume, a fragrant flower,
friendship sparkles.
Like heron plumes, it weaves itself into finery.
Our song is a bird calling out a melody,
how beautiful you make it sound!
Here, among flowers that enclose us,
among flowery boughs you are singing.

The earth is a grave and nothing escapes it,
nothing is so perfect that it does not descend to its tomb.
Rivers, streams, springs and waters flow,
but never return to their joyful beginnings.
Eagerly they rush onto the vast realms of the rain god.
As they widen their banks,
so they carve their own burial urn.

The bowels of the earth are filled with detritus,
once flesh and bone,
once animate bodies of men who sat thrones,
judged cases, presided in council,
commanded armies, conquered provinces,
possessed treasure, destroyed temples,
exulted in their pride, majesty, fortune, praise and power.
Vanished are these glories,
just as the fearful smoke vanishes that belches forth from
the infernal fires of Popocatepetl.
Nothing remains of them but the words of a poem.

Happy birthday Samuel Morse

Morse

You can convert this online if you can’t read dots and dashes.

– — -.. .- -.– / .. … / – …. . / -… .. .-. – …. -.. .- -.– / — ..-. / … .- — ..- . .-.. / — — .-. … . –..– / -… — .-. -. / .- .–. .-. .. .-.. / ..— –… – …. / .—- –… —-. .—-

Morse code, the simplest, if very long winded form of electronic/radio signalling.  Can be replicated using signal lights also.  Takes very little bandwidth.  Morse code is not dead yet, and may never be.

I love the story of Morse code and Baltimore in West Cork, Ireland.  In the days of transatlantic sailing the ships from Britain, France, Germany and the rest of Europe left via the “Western Approach” which skirted the south west coast of Ireland.  One of the earliest telegraph lines in Ireland ran from Dublin to Baltimore in West Cork.  An early submarine telegraph ran across the Irish Sea and connected West Cork to the London Market.

Packages were telegraphed to Baltimore in West Cork by Morse Code.  They were pasted onto letters, and placed in the mail.  Then a pilot cutter would sail out to the departing liners and deliver the very last mail to the ships for the New York market.

When the Liners arrived from New York they placed their urgent letters on the pilot cutter on the way East.  The boat sailed into Baltimore and the messages were telegraphed to London.

The local business people in Baltimore realised that for a short few years, before a working transatlantic cable was laid, they lived on a gold mine.  A smart businessman with a fat pocket and a trading account could make a lot of money by buying the right stocks and shares before the news reached the markets.  The smart businessmen living in Baltimore made sure their telegraphs to London arrived on the trading floor before the news from New York.  In the process some fat pockets got even fatter.

A poor telegraph operator might open the mail packets and slowly stack them up in preparation for sending them.  He might then wait for ten minutes while a smart businessman wrote an instruction and put it to the front of the queue.  I’m pretty sure the poor telegraph operator was rewarded handsomely for the favour.  That would be pretty standard good neighbourliness in a place like West Cork.

Dublin City Bird Market

Linnet

As a small boy I remember my dad bringing us to the Bird Market in Dublin City on a Sunday morning.  Back in those days in the 1960’s you could buy wild songbirds that people trapped in the countryside.  I remember seeing Goldfinches, Chaffinches, Bullfinches and Linnets amongst the Budgies and Canaries.  I don’t know if they still do that, and I hope not.  The wild birds are under too much pressure as it is.

But the market is still there.  A quick scan of the Internet tells me it still convenes on Sunday Mornings in Peter Street, near St Patrick’s Cathedral.

We used to have birds as pets.  I believe we had a linnet once but I don’t remember it.  I do remember a budgie.  My enduring memory is of its rigid dead corpse lying in the bottom of the cage.  Beautiful plumage.

So to a poem and since today is the birthday of Walter De La Mare let’s have a Linnet from him.  The Linnet is a finch who gets his name for his penchant for Flax seeds.  Flax plants are the key ingredient in linen, hence the Linen Finch, or Linnet.  One of the seven subspecies of Linnet was registered by the Scottish ornithologist Philip Alexander Clancey, probably a relative of my dad.

The Linnet; by Walter De La Mare

Upon this leafy bush
with thorns and roses in it,
flutters a thing of light,
A twittering linnet.
And all the throbbing world
of dew and sun and air
by this small parcel of life
is made more fair;
as if each bramble-spray
and mounded gold-wreathed furze,
harebell and little thyme,
were only hers;
as if this beauty and grace
did to one bird belong,
and, at a flutter of wing,
might vanish in song.

Topless towers burnt down

Sophia_schliemann_treasure

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium? asked Christopher Marlowe in Dr Faustus.

Ilium, the city of Troy, canvas of heroes.  On the fields of Troy Homer introduced us to Ajax, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Priam, Hector, Paris and a cast of thousands.  Achilles the almost invincible and his lover Patroclus.  Cassandra who saw the future but was cursed never to be believed.  The wily Odysseus, AKA Ulysses and his 20 year journey home.  The seeds planted in Troy have germinated and multiplied to inspire a wealth of literature from ancient to modern times.

The Julii Caesares, who gave us Caesar and Augustus, claimed descent from the hero Aeneas who fled from burning Troy with his bride, a daughter of Priam.  Virgil made a career of that tale in the court of the First Emperor of Rome.

It was ostensibly on this day, April 24th in the year 1184 BC that Troy was sacked and burned by the Greeks.  For many that was as far as the myth went.  Then Heinrich Schliemann, a German Businessman, decided that there was no smoke without fire.  So he read Homer as a travel guide instead of as a legend.  He followed the clues and lo and behold he found the ancient city.  Burned, exactly as described.

He bedecked his wife in the jewelry he found there and put her on display for high society to see.  Then he followed more clues and found the tomb of Agamemnon at Mycenae.  A new form of archaeology was born and led to many discoveries all over the world.  Today the science has evolved to the point where Satellite images from earth orbit are being used to search for ancient sites.

 

No Second Troy; by William Butler Yeats

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
with misery, or that she would of late
have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
or hurled the little streets upon the great,
had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
that nobleness made simple as a fire,
with beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
that is not natural in an age like this,
being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?

Happy maybe Billy the Bard

Bard

Today, April 23rd, is observed as the birthday of William Shakespeare, Billy the Bard, Will John Gloverson. We don’t know the date of his birthday, someone forgot to register a birth cert, a common occurrence in those days. So we rely on church baptismal records for proof, and that happened on April 26th.

His stature as a writer is such that the world of English Theater is divided into two camps, the works of Shakespeare, and everything else.

If you play the game of Charades and someone makes the sign for a play the default first question should be “Is it a Shakespeare play?”

 

Sonnet CXXX; by William Shakespeare

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
if snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
if hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
but no such roses see I in her cheeks;
and in some perfumes is there more delight
than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
that music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
my mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
as any she belied with false compare.