Saturday, July 22, 2017

Poems in their kind


Oct. 10, 1858. The simplest and most lumpish fungus has a peculiar interest for us, compared with a mere mass of earth, because it is so obviously organic and related to ourselves, however remote. It is the expression of an idea, growth according to a law, matter not dormant, not raw, but inspired, appropriated by spirit. If I take up a handful of earth, however separately interesting the particles may be, their relation to one another appears to be that of mere juxtaposition generally. I might have thrown them together thus. But the humblest fungus betrays a life akin to my own. It is a successful poem in its kind. There is suggested something superior to any particle of matter in the idea or mind which uses and arranges the particles.

— Henry David Thoreau, Journal

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Sibyl's Testament


Pausanias (Book X in Peter Levi's edition) mentions a sibyl named Herophile who prophesied at various sanctuaries, including those at Samos, Delphi, and the Alexandria near Troy (not to be confused with the more famous Egyptian one). In the last she was temple-keeper to Apollo Smintheus — the name means, or was interpreted to mean, Apollo of the Mice — and after her death the following epitaph was inscribed in stone above her remains. (Phoibos — Φοῖβος — is Apollo.)
I Sibylla, Phoibos's wise woman,
am hidden under a stone monument:
I was a speaking virgin but voiceless
in this manacle by the strength of fate.
I lie close to the Nymphs and to Hermes:
I have not lost my sovereignty.
An earlier and more pedestrian translation of the epitaph reads: "Here hidden by stone sepulchre I lie, Apollo's fate-pronouncing Sibyl I, a vocal maiden once but now for ever dumb, here placed by all-powerful fate, and I lie near the Nymphs and Hermes, in this part of Apollo's realm."

In one of his copious footnotes Peter Levi tells us that the Sanctuary of Apollo Smintheus was identified in 1853 and excavated in 1866. "The bronze votive mice associated with this sanctuary turn up from time to time."

Monday, July 17, 2017

Naima



Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Coltrane. Richard Williams has a brief appreciation at The Blue Moment. Below is a track from Giant Steps (1959).

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Liu Xiaobo



The Chinese critic and activist Liu Xiaobo has died. A related New York Times article by Chris Buckley reflects on the bleak prospects for democracy and free expression in China. With authoritarianism of various stripes firmly entrenched in Russia, Turkey, Hungary, the Philippines, and elsewhere, and the lack of interest in human rights issues shown by our own current administration, the optimistic days of 1989 now seem very distant. Never forget.

Here is the full text of Charter 08.

Also in today's obituaries is one for Irina Ratushinskaya, former Soviet-era political prisoner and author of a fine memoir, Grey Is the Color of Hope.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Pale arrivals



One of my favorite moments of the year — the emergence of Monotropa uniflora, familiarly known as Indian pipes. They've waited out the spring, and with the first days of summer they pop up in little clusters here and there among last year's fallen leaves, in decent abundance if it's a good year and you know where to look. True flowering plants, they don't photosynthesize but take their energy from an association with fungi concealed in the ground, often in the vicinity of beech trees. They rise and unfurl, and as summer wears on fade into inconspicuous brown stalks. But for now, standing there ghostly white or faintly pink, silent, inoffensive, they seem welcome and restorative.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Tracts (2): Jerry McAuley's Story


Me father was a counterfeiter, and ran away from justice before I can remember him. There was a lot of us, and they put me with me grandmother. She was old an' a devout Romanist, an' many's the time when she was tellin' her beads an' kissing the floor for penance I'd shy things at her just to hear her curse an' swear, an' then she'd back to her knees. I'd got well beyond her or anybody by the time I was thirteen. They let me run loose.
I've posted a bit at various times about New York City's Water Street Mission, founded by ex-convict Jerry McAuley. This little leaflet was published some years after his death in 1884 by the Free Tract Society of Los Angeles, which, like the Water Street Mission, apparently still exists. The Free Tract Society was founded in 1897, and this copy bears a handwritten date of 7-11-45.

The text of the tract loosely follows the narrative of McAuley's colorful story that was published in versions issued while he was still alive, but the wording and punctuation seem closer to the text published by Helen Campbell as "Light in Dark Places: Jerry McAuley's Water Street Mission" (Methodist Magazine 1893) and in a book entitled Darkness and Daylight. Campbell claimed to have received the narrative verbatim from McAuley, and it's quite possible that he could recite it from memory. Below, for comparison, is the corresponding passage from McAuley's own Transformed, Or, the History of a River Thief: Briefly Told, "published by himself" in 1876. This "original" version (below) doesn't play up McAuley's dialect, although it preserves the convert's anti-Catholicism.
I was born in Ireland. Our family was broken up by sin, for my father was a counterfeiter, and left home to escape the law, before I knew him. I was placed at a very early age in the family of my grandmother, who was a devout Romanist. My first recollections of her are of her counting her beads, and kissing the floor for penance. I would take the opportunity while she was prostrated upon her face, to throw things at her head, in my mischievous play, and when she rose from her knees, it was to curse and swear at me. At such times I can distinctly remember thinking, though I could not have formed the thought into words, "What sort of religion is this that requires such foolish worship, and allows such sinful ways?" I can trace my infidelity to Rome to just these incidents.

In the margins of the page above are a few printed lines of unattributed verse, noteworthy for a pungent rhyme of "illy clad" and "will he had." (From other sources I gather that the versifier responsible was one Francis S. Smith.)
Poisoned by alcohol, blear eyed and illy clad,
Cursing his fate as he shuffles along;
Crushed and bereft of the once earnest will he had,
Penniless, homeless, jeered by the throng.
Friends have assisted him, pastors have prayed o'er him,
He has been rescued and lost o'er and o'er;
Oh, do not give him up,
Pull from his lips the cup,
Tell him of Jesus and try him once more!

The margins between the last two pages bear this plea:
Don't let this tract die, pass it on.
All Tracts Free, as the Lord permits, as this work is
Conducted on the Free-Will Offering Plan
Free Tract Society (Inc.)
746 Crocker St., Los Angeles, Cal., U. S. A.

Previous Water Street Mission posts:

The Madonna of Cherry Hill
Death of a Salesman
A Manhattan Mission
Cassie Burns
The Water Street Mission, Revisited

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Poison of the Age



"Novel reading has been fearfully on the increase during the last fifteen or twenty years, and especially in the last ten years; and may we not say that the increase of suicides is due, in a considerable measure, to such reading? May we not also say that it has had a baneful effect, also, on the spirituality of many professing Christians? Will anyone deny that the practice of reading the cheap, sensational novels of the day does not naturally lessen one's taste and desire for frequent and devout reading of the Bible? — No. The truth is, no one can pursue the habit of reading the trashy novels of the day without having his moral taste and tone ruinously debilitated and damaged.

"Read what a discerning and judicious writer says on the subject: 'Novels are the poison of the age. The best of them tend to produce a baneful effeminacy of mind, and many of them are calculated to advance the base designs of the licentious and abandoned on the young and unsuspecting. But were they free from every other charge of evil, it is a most heavy one that they occasion a dreadful waste of that time which must be accounted for before the God of heaven. Let their deluded admirers plead the advantages of novel reading, if they will venture to plead the same, before the great Judge eternal. If you are a novel reader, think, the next time you take a novel into your hands, How shall I answer to my tremendous Judge for the time occupied by this? When he shall say to me: "I gave you so many years in yonder world to fit you for eternity; did you converse with your God in devotion? Did you study his word? Did you attend to the duties of life, and strive to improve, to some good end, even your leisure hours?" then shall I be willing to reply, "Lord, my time was otherwise employed! Novels and romances occupied the leisure of my days, when, alas! my Bible, my God, and my soul were neglected"?' O novel reader, think on these things!" — C. H. Wetherbee


(From Pacific Health Journal and Temperance Advocate, 1891.)