Beowulf Read-Along – Starting Week One

Beowulf Read-Along

Week 1 – May 1 – 8; Lines 1 – 709

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VOCABULARY (for those with the Heaney translation):
In case anyone needs a little help 
thole: to bear; endure
torque: a collar or neck chain, usually twisted
reaver: spoiler; plunderer
thane: free servant or attendant to a lord
bolter: covered in (blood)
bawn: enclosure of mud or stone walls around a house or castle
mizzle: mist or fine rain

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Quick Summary:  So Hrothgar’s lineage begins with Shield Sheafson, his great-grandfather who was a foundling but built a prosperous kingdom through battle.  Beow was his son, who was followed by Halfdane, Hrothgar’s father.  Hrothgar is at first smiled on by fortune, but then Grendel appears, to ruin his precious Hall, eat his men, and disrupt his later years of kingship.  After 12 years of Heorot enduring the monster’s carnage, Beowulf arrives to settle a debt, promising to kill the vile creature or die in the attempt.  There is feasting and then Hrothar hands over Heorot to Beowulf to await Grendel ……

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Lines 1-11:


The poem begins with the lineage of Hrothgar. What I find interesting to note is that Shield Sheafson did not inherit the kingship, but was actually a foundling who won it by his bravery and the fact he slaughtered countless numbers of people. “……. scourge of many tribes, a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes …… “ These were the “virtues” that were admired, and allowed an unknown warrior to become king. (Lines 1-11)

Lines 20 – 25:


After Shield becomes king, the kingship seems to follow a path of direct lineage. Beow, Shield’s son, is prudent”, “giving freely while his father lives so that afterwards in age when fighting starts steadfast companions will stand by him ….”, an indication that not only do you need to be brave and a consummate killer, but that loyalty must be purchased for a king to remain in power: (Lines 20-25)
“Behaviour that’s admired is the path to power among people everywhere.” (Lines 24-25)

Lines 26 – 52:


We read about the funeral of Shield Sheafson. I was surprised to see the words: “No man can tell, no wise man in hall or weathered veteran knows for certain who salvaged that load.” They seemed to know that the body could land somewhere and the treasure and offerings be taken by someone else. Interesting ….. (Lines 26-52)

Lines 56 – 82:


Halfdane is Beow’s son and he had the three sons and a daughter, Hrothgar being the second son. When it says: “The fortunes of war favoured Hrothgar……”, we cannot be certain whether his older brother, Heorogar was killed in war, or that Hrothgar won more renown and loyalty than Heorogar, and therefore was accepted as king. Heorot, the great mead-hall, appears to have been built as a tribute to Hrothgar’s greatness …….. (Lines 56-82)

Lines 126 – 147


I thought the author (and Heaney) did a wonderful job of describing Grendel. I almost shiver as I imagine him coming into the mead-hall with all the unsuspecting warriors asleep. Cain was God-cursed for murdering and being unrepentant and, like Cain, so is Grendel. In one swoop, he carries off 30 men! We are not directly told his size, but he must be huge.
What puzzled me in this section (and the upcoming ones) is that Hrothgar does not fight. He is an honoured king who must have reached such renown by the battles he has won and the people he has slaughtered. Why is he so hesitant to fight Grendel?
….”Their mighty prince, the storied leader, sat stricken and helpless, humiliated by the loss of his guard, bewildered and stunned, staring aghast at the demon’s trail, in deep distress….”
WHY? Is he afraid? Even if Grendel is powerful, wouldn’t dying a death to defend your home and people be more honourable than sitting and doing nothing? Is he simply old now and cannot get up the courage to fight? He allows the carnage to go on for 12 years! I am really perplexed by Hrothgar’s lack of action. (Lines 126 – 147)

It sounded like Hrothgar was living in peaceful times, erecting a type of memorial for himself and then all of a sudden this monster appears and starts to wreak havoc. Perhaps he was looking for peace in his old age and, because of his age, is overwhelmed by such a unstoppable demon. I want him to spring up and at least take a few swings at Grendel but he is powerless. Not the response I’d imagine from a respected king of the Spear-Danes. 

Lines 194 – 355
Quite an impressive entrance by Beowulf and his warriors. Their courage, bravery and self-assurance is readily apparent to both the coast-guard and the warrior, Wulfgar, they meet at Heorot. I loved the coast-guard’s response to Beowulf’s statement that he has come to kill the monster: “Anyone with gumption and a sharp mind will take the measure of two things: what’s said and what’s done.” (Lines 287-289)
Even after 12 years of the monster ravaging their halls, the Spear-Dane warriors still have respect for their king; Wulfgar calls him, “our noble king”, “our-dear lord”, “friend of the Danes”, and “giver of rings”.

And why has Beowulf come? Why would he risk the lives of himself and his men? To prove his bravery with a feat no one has been able to accomplish, or is there another reason ….???


Lines 399 – 498
Beowulf is clear with Hrothgar that he only wants his men to contend with the monster:

” ……. my one request is that you won’t refuse me, who have come this far, the privilege of purifying Heorot, with my own men to help me, and nobody else.” (Lines 429-432)

Beowulf does not know the Spear-Danes. He does not know if he can trust them, how much he can trust them, how they fight, what their actions might be during a fight, etc. When he left Geatland, I got the impression that he chose his warriors carefully, as he knew it was going to be a great task and perhaps not one he was willing to share with men who had not been able to deal with the monster and men whom he did not know. (Lines 427 – 441)
  
Ah ha! Now we find out the motivation for Beowulf’s offer of help. Hrothgar payed wergild for one of Beowulf’s father’s (Ecgtheow) killings and gave him shelter in his banishment. Because of his father’s debt, Beowulf owes Hrothgar a favour as well as his allegiance.  Is it telling that Hrothgar brings up this debt instead of Beowulf? Does this fact decrease impression of the unselfish act of bravery Beowulf is presenting? (Lines 456-479)
We also find out that Hrothgar’s older brother, Heorogar had died but we don’t find out why. (Lines 467-469)
Lines 499 – 709
The verbal sparring and boasts between Beowulf and Unferth is a long section of the poem and therefore gives an indication that it is rather important. It is the height of ungraciousness (and not to mention stupidity) to try to make a renowned warrior, and especially one who has arrived to rescue the kingdom, look foolish. Beowulf extinguishes any influence Unferth’s words might have had with a magnificent accusation, basically calling him a coward and accrediting him with murdering his family.  It’s a shocking allegation. Killing other people’s kin is expected, but killing your own is truly heinous. I assume Unferth is left alive after 12 years because of his cowardice, yet Beowulf firmly puts him in his place ….. ” …… you will suffer damnation in the depths of hell …..” (Lines 499 – 606) [Strangely, in the audiobook version read by Seamus Heaney —— wonderful, BTW ——– they chose to delete this whole section, a crime I think, because it is so necessary to later understand Beowulf’s character and motivations]
We also see a rare appearance of a woman in this story, Wealtheow, Hrothgar’s queen. There is obviously a respect for women in this society and Beowulf treats her with great courtesy. (Lines 607 – 641)
As he prepares with his warriors to face the monster, notice that Beowulf says: ” ……There’s nothing you wish for that won’t be yours if you win through alive ….”  A little monetary incentive towards bravery! (Lines 642 – 661)

As to why Beowulf decides to fight Grendel unarmed, I can only assume that he wants an even match.  Honour is all-important in this society.  I can see Unferth accusing him of having an advantage with a sword, but by using only his bare hands, he will win even more glory for himself. It is funny that Beowulf uses a pillow when he sleeps: “Then down the brave man lay with a bolster under his head …. “ 😀 There is quite an emphasis in this section of God having control over the situation ………. previously Hrothgar had gone to his counsellors and pagan gods but it is quite clear here that the author wants us to see that Beowulf has God on his side. (Lines 662 – 709)

 Please put any questions, comments, or answers to the questions below in the comment area even further below!

  1. Why do you think that Hrothgar has not fought Grendel?
  2. Why do you think Beowulf allows Unferth to speak to him in such a manner?
  3. Any thoughts with regard to the pagan vs. Christian references so far?
  4. Did a few of these scenes remind you of any of Tolkien’s works?


Week 2 starting post will go up on May 8th!  

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The following are answers to the above questions.  Please keep in mind, that these answers are my opinions (or often guesses) based on the text.  Often, they may not be the only answer, just aspects of the poem that have stood out for me.

1.      In this culture, the king should have fought.  The fact that he hasn’t is unusual.  Is it because he is too old, or too weak, or too scared, or is Grendel simply too menacing to expect an outcome other than death?  I don’t believe we’ll ever be able to know exactly why, but I do think it’s an important point of the story, in that his behaviour is counter to what is expected.
2.    Again, there is no reason given.  And again, Beowulf’s response is counter-cultural.  He should have challenged Unferth and killed him.  However, his actual response is rather mild.  Another indication of a difference in the cultural norm.
3.    What is so fascinating is that there is an intermixing of both pagan and Christian views.  They neither appear entirely Christian or pagan.  On one hand, they thank God and invoke His goodness and His control over situations, and on the other they profess fate and seek out pagan counsellors.  While both beliefs are still present, they grate against each other, and I can understand, at some point, that one will have to win out over the other.

4.    For me, King Theoden of Rohan shone out from Hrothgar, and Meduseld was Heorot. 

Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week April 24-30

In honour of the birthday month of Elizabeth Goudge, The Emerald City Book Review is hosting an Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week.

I’m a little late with my post but better late and confused, rather than absent!  I was planning to read The Dean’s Watch, but after starting it, I appear to have misplaced it.  I mean REALLY misplaced it!  I can’t find it anywhere!  In any case, quelling my frustration at not being able to find a rather large hardcover book, I’ve abandoned my original plan and have picked up Island Magic to read.  I sat down to read it today and was immediately immersed in the story. Goudge’s writing is so mesmerizing, beautiful and startlingly insightful.  I’m so glad that I decided to participate in this event.

My dream would be to finish Island Magic and be able to find and finish The Dean’s Watch too, but I’m not particularly idealistic and know I will probably only have the time to get through one.  But at least I’ll have an introduction to Goudge’s writing, which I’ve been meaning to read for years and have yet to. Thanks for hosting, Emerald City!

Beowulf Read-Along – Background Information

In another week we’ll be starting our Beowulf Read-Along and, as promised, this post contains some helpful background information, including my brief summary of Tolkien’s essay (for those of you who may not get the time to read it), culture, Anglo-Saxon poetry, Kennings and finally a link to Beowulf read in Old English.

Please feel free to add any information in the comments section that I may have missed; I’ve read the poem numerous times but I am by no means an expert and still have questions about some of the scenes and behaviour of the characters (as you’ll see when I start posting my notes weekly).  I hope that while this is a read-along, it can also be a “read-together” and we’ll all be able to add to each other’s enjoyment of this wonderful classic!

The Monster and the Critics
There was and is quite a bit of controversy about this poem.  When was it written?  Was Beowulf a real person?  Is it a true rendition of a traditional story, or was it later altered by monks to insert Christian themes?  Tolkien addresses some of these questions in this essay where he essentially criticizes the critics of his time. He basically says that the majority of the critics have stripped Beowulf down until it is merely an historical document and then have examined its faults based on this dissection. He makes the case that it is much more than history …… It is fable, myth, story, poetry, history, etc. …….. it is all of these things, but yet none of these things in the way that was understood by the pagan world up until the time of Beowulf. In fact, it is showing the merging of the Christian faith with the old pagan ideas, the poet looking back in time. Yet the fusion is not yet complete, which to me, makes the poem even more fascinating:
“It is through such a blending that there was available to a poet who set out to writea poem — and in the case of Beowulf we may probably use this very word — on a scale and plan unlike a minstrel’s lay, both new faith and new learning (or education), and also a body of native tradition (itself requiring to be learned) for the changed mind to contemplate together ……………”

” …….. But that shift is not complete in Beowulf — whatever may have been true of its period in general. Its author is still concerned primarily with man on earth, rehandling in a new perspective an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die: A theme no Christian need despise. Yet this theme plainly would not be so treated, but for the nearness of pagan time. The shadow of its despair, if only as a mood, as an intense emotion of regret, is still there. The worth of defeated valour in this world is deeply felt. As the poet looks back into the past, surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees all glory (or as we might say ‘culture’ or ‘civilization’) ends in night ……”

You can read the essay here.


Background

The year 410 AD historically marks the withdrawal of the protection and rule of the Roman Empire from Britain.  Increasingly under pressure from barbarian attacks, the British people began to hire mercenaries from Germanic tribes of the European continent.  While this plan was at first satisfactory to both parties, the mercenaries soon began to entertain ideas of expropriating parts of Britain for their own settlements. These tribes of the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes soon began to conquer parts of Britain, driving the peoples into Wales and other far places.  This is where the name Anglo-Saxon originates.  

This history explains the link between the setting of the poem and its poet/author:  Beowulf is from Geatland (modern Sweden), Hrothgar is a Dane (modern Denmark), yet the poet is British.  He is most likely writing about his heritage. 

The dating of the poem is unclear.  Because Anglo-Saxon England was not Christianized until around 600 AD, and scholars believe that it was composed sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries, that gives us a possible 400 year window of time.


Culture

To give a very simplistic overview of a very complex topic, the pagan culture of Beowulf’s time was basically a blood-feud society; if someone offended you, you would simply try to massacre him and his family, which, of course, would require him and/or his relatives to attempt the same. It was a form of justice that was often cyclical and quite bleak.

‘Wergild’ was money that a man or family could pay in compensation for a killing instead of having himself or one of his relatives killed.    

One of the most critical elements of this culture was the relationship between the king (or lord) and his warriors.  The appellation of “ring-giver” in the poem gives us a clue as to how this relationship played out.  In return for loyalty, the king would reward his followers with lavish gifts.  In return for his generosity, the warriors, or “thanes”, would fight for him in times of danger from his enemies.  It was imperative that the lord and his thanes establish this foundation; if it failed in any way, the society surrounding it would collapse.
On a more positive side, this society admired the qualities of loyalty, bravery, courage, and perseverence, although these qualities weren’t necessary extolled for the virtue itself but more in the context of allegiances that would preserve the family unit or oneself.  

“Wyrd” or fate was understood as a man’s destiny: what was going to happen to him without any control on his part. For example, from a modern standpoint, a man might think that by choosing not to go into battle, he would not die. The view of a warrior from Beowulf’s culture would be that honour demanded he fight and ‘wyrd’ would determine whether he lived or he died. My sense is that ‘wyrd’ was not a negative concept (his ‘wyrd’ could cause him to have courage in battle and earn great renown). I also think they did not necessarily view death as emotionally as we do now; it just was, and while there may be regret, it was simply part of life. What was most important is that one died with honour and renown.
Treasure Hunt: With the above in mind, keep special note of Beowulf’s actions and behaviour in certain situations during the poem. I’m going to ask some questions as we go along ….. 🙂

Anglo-Saxon Poetry
Ancient Anglo-Saxon poetry followed old Germanic verse. The meter goes by stress-count (stressed syllables) rather than syllable count as we are used to in, for example, iambic pentameter (five pairs of syllables, second syllable stressed). Anglo-Saxon verse balances two main stresses in each half of a line.
Alliteration (the repetition of sounds) is often used in contemporary poetry, but the Anglo-Saxons used it even more. Beowulf uses alliteration in almost every line, with a least one alliterating words in each half line, but often more.
Kennings
A kenning is a poetic device which uses compound words or phrases that identify persons, places, or things in expressive imagery. Usually colourful figures of speech are used to substitute the common name of the noun, an attribute of it, or something closely related to it.
Examples from Beowulf:
Whale-road & Swan-road = the sea

Bone-lappings = ligaments

Sky-candle = the sun

Heaven’s joy = the dawn

Iron-shower = battle
Beowulf Read in Old English
Here is a link to the opening lines of Beowulf read in Old English by Benjamin Bagby:
Other Sources

In Search of Beowulf (BBC)Historian Michael Wood returns to his first great love, the Anglo-Saxon world, to reveal the origins of our literary heritage. Focusing on Beowulf and drawing on other Anglo-Saxon classics, he traces the birth of English poetry back to the Dark Ages.”  Wood makes a few sweeping statements for dramatic effect, giving information as if we know it, whereas actually we can only guess, but overall this is a very interesting episode, including a glimpse of the original manuscript and a view of a performance of the poem. (approx. 1 hr)
Beowulf – BBC Radio 4“Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the epic poem Beowulf, one of the masterpieces of Anglo-Saxon literature. Composed in the early Middle Ages by an anonymous poet, the work tells the story of a Scandinavian hero whose feats include battles with the fearsome monster Grendel and a fire-breathing dragon. It survives in a single manuscript dating from around 1000 AD, and was almost completely unknown until its rediscovery in the nineteenth century. Since then it has been translated into modern English by writers including William Morris, JRR Tolkien and Seamus Heaney, and inspired poems, novels and films.”  Three professors from Oxford, King’s College London and Worcester College discuss the poem. (43 min.)

*** Excerpts of Beowulf read by Seamus Heaney from the Norton Anthology of Literature site (see #1)  Thanks for the heads up, Dawn!

*** Major Authors: Old English and Beowulf – archived MOOCS course from MIT

*** On Translating Beowulf – Seamus Heaney – I love what he says about people forgetting that with poetry, there is an important relationship between sound and meaning

Of course, some of the above links include spoilers, so you may want to wait until after you’ve read Beowulf to check them out.

I believe that’s it for now.  The opening post for our first section will go up on April 30th.  

(*** = additions to post) 

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Hwæt! We Gar-Dena   in gear-dagum
þeod-cyninga,   þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas   ellen fremedon!
Lo! the glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in days of old we have heard tell, how those princes did deeds of valour. (Tolkien translation)

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

“As the streets that lead from the Strand to the Embankment are very narrow, it is better not to walk down them arm-in-arm.”

O at Behold the Stars is a Virginia Woolf aficionado and when she suggested a read-along of Woolf’s, The Voyage Out, I was immediately on board (excuse the pun!).  I’d loved To The Lighthouse, but Mrs. Dalloway had left me in a rather uncertain and confused stupor, while Orlando somehow didn’t resonate with me at all, so I wondered how I would react to this novel.  It could have gone either way.

The Voyage of Life Childhood (1842)
Thomas Cole
source Wikipedia

“The voyage had begun, and had begun happily with a soft blue sky, and a calm sea.  The sense of untapped resources, things to say as yet unsaid, made the hours significant, so that in future years the entire journey perhaps would be represented by this one scene, with the sound of sirens hooting in the river the night before, somehow mixing in.”

The Voyage of Life: Youth (1842)
Thomas Cole
source Wikipedia

In The Voyage Out, we meet a myriad of characters, but the main focus is on Rachel Vinrace, a young sheltered English girl who departs on a voyage with her uncle and aunt to South America.  The only accomplishment in life that she has mastered is playing the piano, which she does with artistic efficiency.  During the voyage and at their destination she encounters a number of characters, from Mr. and Mrs. Dalloway (do they sound familiar?  Yes, these are the characters from Woolf’s later novel, Mrs. Dalloway) on the ship, to Hirst and Hewet, two young men who capture her interest and stimulate her introspection, as well as various other male and female characters.  Through this cast Woolf conducts an examination, from the microscopic world of human nature, giving the reader an insightful tapestry of the faults and dreams of the various personalities, to the macroscopic world of Edwardian England with all its characteristics of pleasure, luxury and hope. Just as the era brought a change in social structure, we can see changes in Rachel, as she is rather abruptly pulled from her sheltered, unadventurous world and introduced into active society and more pointedly, the admiration of men.  Still, the alterations in Rachel’s character from her experiences, happen in a rather muted and introspective manner and one must wonder at the end, if any true changes occurred at all.

The Voyage of Life: Manhood (1842)
Thomas Cole
source Wikipedia

The sense of isolation seeps and oozes out of the pages of the novel and its characters appear immersed in it, as if in a fog.  The voyage itself isolates the characters from the society with which they are familiar, the country they visit being new and exotic, yet the book also indicates an emotional detachment from each other and even oneself.

“…… To feel anything strongly was to create an abyss between oneself and others who feel strongly perhaps but differently ….”

“….. What solitary icebergs we are, Miss Vinrace!  How little we can communicate! ….”

“….. A feeling of emptiness and melancholy came over them; they knew in their hearts that it was over, and that they had parted forever, and the knowledge filled them with far greater depression than the length of their acquaintance seemed to justify.  Even as the boat pulled away they could feel other sights and sounds beginning to take the place of the Dalloways, and the feeling was so unpleasant that they tried to resists it.  For so, too, would they be forgotten ….”

” …… She became a ship passing in the night — an emblem of the loneliness of human life, an occasion for queer confidences and sudden appeals for sympathy…..”

“Although they had talked so freely they were all uncomfortably conscious that they really knew nothing about each other.” 

A sense of beginnings and endings also permeate the pages, and while Woolf’s delightful prose and descriptions can bring a lightness to the situations, there is an uncomfortable sense of the unknown that hovers just outside of our sight.  It is life, life in an essence that Woolf is a master at capturing.

The Voyage of Life: Old Age (1842)
Thomas Cole
source Wikipedia

   
The word that jumps out at me when I think of this novel is capricious.  Woolf stream-of-consciousness style of writing allow ideas and images to float in and out of the narrative, weaving a tapestry of a story, and like a tapestry, the picture is not always crystal clear.  As the character of Rachel does not settle comfortably into her society and her surroundings, neither does this novel sit comfortably with a recognizable label or description.  It exemplifies the Woolf I’m beginning to know, and while I’m not yet at ease with her writing, I can certainly say that I’m getting used to it and am developing an enthusiastic appreciation.

Other Reviews:

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

“Dear Son, I have ever had a Pleasure in obtaining any little Anecdotes of my Ancestors.”

Known as one of the founding fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin grew up in Boston, but after being apprenticed as a printer to his brother, they had a heated disagreement and Franklin ran away to Philadelphia.  Single-handedly, he built his own printing business and later became recognized for organizing the first lending library, starting a volunteer fire department and inventing the Franklin stove, along with numerous other sterling accomplishments.  His autobiography ends in 1757 with his involvement in the French-Indian Wars but, as most people know, Franklin went on to great feats, being involved in the Revolutionary War, and helping draft the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war.

Benjamin Franklin drawing electricity
from the sky (1816)
Benjamin West
source Wikipedia

I particularly enjoyed the first part of this autobiography, as Franklin describes his boyhood, his apprenticeship to an overbearing brother and his flight to Philadelphia where he eventually lands a job as a printer and later runs his own company.  His ability to examine a situation thoroughly and quickly and then be able to proceed with aptitude and insight into any challenges, was his trademark, and the reader can understand how he rapidly won the respect of the community and his fellow businessmen.  Being self-educated, Franklin had a love of good literature and along with that, good discussion, which led him to found the Junto club where he, along with other like-minded young men, hoped that by improving their minds through reading, they could better their community around them.

The main emphasis of Franklin’s discourse was on “Wealth and Distinction” through accomplishment, employing “Industry and Frugality” to meet his goals. He noticed everything to the minutest detail and had an idea for the betterment of everything, including housekeeping, the communicating of instruction, virtue, personal growth, and even religion.  Virtue was a particular focus of Franklin’s, as he was convinced that “vicious Actions are not hurtful because they are forbidden, but forbidden because they are hurtful, the Nature of Man alone consider’d: That it was therefore every one’s Interest to be virtuous, who wish’d to be happy even in this World.”  He set up a system to eradicate his faults and instil virtue, by working on one shortcoming at a time and moving to the next, only when the former was perfected.  His list read as follows:

1.  Temperance
Eat no to Dullness
Drink not to Elevation

2.  Silence
Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself.
Avoid trifling Conversation.

3.  Order
Let all your Things have their Places.
Let each Part of your business have its Time.

4.  Resolution
Resolve to perform what you ought.
Perform without fail what you resolve.

5.  Frugality
Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself: ie. Waste Nothing

6.  Industry
Lose no Time.  Be always employ’d in something useful.  Cut off all unnecessary Actions.

7.  Sincerity
Use no hurtful Deceit.
Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

8.  Justice
Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.

9.  Moderation
Avoid Extremes.  Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.

10.  Cleanliness
Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Clothes or Habitation.

11.  Tranquility
Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.

12.  Chastity
Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dullness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s Peace or Reputation.

13. Humility
Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Through using this method, Franklin expressed himself surprised at his numerous faults.  Though it did not have the success he had expected, at least through application he was able to temper his faults to a greater degree than if he had never attempted the experiment.

Benjamin Franklin (center) at work on printing press
Reproduction of Charles Mills painting
source Wikimedia Commons

Franklin’s style is rather continuous and so often muddled that it required effort to follow his train of thought.  He states that he’s writing the biography for his son, but it was almost as if he was writing for himself, in that he had all the experiences and all the information in his head, and therefore didn’t need to give additional details, which would have been useless for him, but perhaps helpful to the uninformed reader.  He sounded like quite a character though, rather impressed with himself and his achievements in spite of the feeble dose of humility that he attempted to add as an ingredient to his narrative.

The Declaration of Independence (1818)
John Trumbull
source Wikipedia

In fact, from the recent biographies that I’ve read, I’ve been struck by the pride and almost cavalier self-esteem of some of the authors.  While there can be a humbleness to their communication, it appears to be a forced diffidence that still smells of a hubris that they can’t quite shake.  Perhaps this type of arrogance is needed in all great men, but, as I travel chronologically through these biographies, I certainly sense less of a reliance on external sources (respectable mentors, family and God/religion) and more of a sole reliance on self and philosophical ideas.

The next biography is Walden by Henry David Thoreau, an appropriate read for the month of May!

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Inspiring/ Wise Quotes

Okay, I know that I protested and said that I wasn’t going to participate in this weeks The Broke and the Bookish Top Ten Tuesday for lack of time, but seeing everyone else’s wonderful quotes, I just couldn’t resist the temptation. Income taxes be hanged; here I go …….

1.  

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. ~ Aristotle

2.

Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book. ~ Marcus Tullius Cicero

3.

Knowledge is a matter of knowing facts. Wisdom is a matter of understanding and applying principles. A certain amount of knowledge is necessary for wisdom, and without wisdom, knowledge is not only useless, it’s dangerous. ~ Hilda van Stockum (The Winged Watchman)

4.

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself. ~ Leo Tolstoy

5.


Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. ~ C.S. Lewis

6.  

We let our young men and women go out unarmed in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects… We have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it. ~ Dorothy L. Sayers

7.

 True freedom is impossible without a mind made free by discipline.

If you never ask yourself any questions about the meaning of a passage, you cannot expect the book to give you any insight you don’t already possess

To agree without understanding is inane. To disagree without understanding is impudent.

The truly great books are the few books that are over everybody’s head all of the time.

~ Mortimer J. Adler

8.

One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words. ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

9.

I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them. ~ Thomas Jefferson

10.  

Perfer et obdura, dolor hic tibi proderit olim.

Be patient and tough; someday this pain will be useful to you. ~ Ovid

Christianity and the Survival of Creation by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is an American essayist, novelist, poet, fifth-generation farmer, and environmental activist.  He has written copious numbers of short stories, essays, novels and poems during his rather interesting life.  Berry argues that the breakdown of communities has been aggravated by large corporate farming and that living in harmony with nature is a necessity, as its destruction will lead to our own.

Swiss Alps
source Wikipedia

Berry essentially first gained recognition as a poet, but his hard-hitting essays have earned him notoriety and a wider audience.  This essay was delivered as a lecture at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Berry hits hard right from the beginning of the essay, immediately punching home his topic:

“I want to begin with a problem: namely, that the culpability of Christianity in the destruction of the natural world and the uselessness of Christianity in any effort to correct that destruction are now established clichés of the conservation movement.”

He establishes on one hand, that the “indictment is just” in that Christian priests, missionaries, organizations, etc. have been “largely indifferent to the rape and plunder of the world and of its traditional cultures” and that Christians are often as complicit as anyone else “to join the military-industrial conspiracy to murder Creation,” yet there is a problem with the conservationists’ indictment; the anti-Christian conservationists dismiss the Bible, without having an understanding of it.  In effect, they “have not mastered the first rule of the criticism of books: you have to read them before you criticize them.”  The error is not that the Bible has not given Christians a tradition of respect, stewardship and love for the earth, they have simply chosen to ignore it.

Kauai, Hawaii
source Wikipedia

Berry then examines Biblical tenants with regard to the earth, stating that the world is not owned by humans, but by God: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof: the world and they that dwell therein. (Ps. 24:1)”   John 3:16 states that God loves the world, not as it might be but as it is, and He “continues to love it and find it worthy, despite its reduction and corruption by us  ……..  Creation is not in any sense independent of the Creator, the result of a primal creative act long over and done with, but is the continuous, constant participation of all creatures in the being of God …….  Creation is God’s presence in creatures.”

Not only does Berry use the Bible to support his thesis, but he draws from Dante, William Blake, Thoreau, and others to support his views on the importance of nature and our human interaction with it.

“The Bible leaves no doubt at all about the sanctity of the act of world-making, or of the world that was made, or of creaturely or bodily life in this world.  We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy.  Some people know this, and some do not.  Nobody, of course, knows it all the time.  But what keeps it from being far better known than it is?  Why is it apparently unknown to millions of professed students of the Bible?  How can modern Christianity have so solemnly folded its hands while so much of the work of God was and is being destroyed?”

Tornado, Oklahoma
source Wikipedia

Berry urges us on to a re-thinking of our ideals.  We think we can contain God within what we create, but God is much bigger. “He is not to be fenced in, under human control, like some domestic creature; He is the wildest being in existence.  The presence of His spirit is us in our wildness, our oneness with the wilderness of Creation.  That is why subduing the things of nature to human purposes is so dangerous and why it so often results in evil, in separation and desecration.  It is why the poets of our tradition so often have given nature the role, not only of mother or grandmother, but of the highest early teacher and judge, a figure of mystery and great power.”

Outdoors we encounter the miraculous, indoors we meet the common.

source Wikipedia

Berry continues the thread of his argument through religious issues, through economy, or the ways humans live in relation to nature, then finally reaches the question of art in the context of what we, as humans, create.

“If we think of ourselves as livings souls, immortal creatures, living in the midst of a Creation that is mostly mysterious, and if we see that everything we make or do cannot help but have an everlasting significance for ourselves, for others, and for the world, then we see why some religious teachers have understood work as a form of prayer”

Berry offers some astute observations as to the traditions of art:  “Traditionally, the arts have been ways of making that have placed a just value on their materials or subjects, on the uses and the users of the things made by art, and on the artists themselves.   They have, that is, been ways of giving honor to the works of God.  The great artistic traditions have had nothing to do with what we call ‘self-expression.’  They have not been destructive of privacy or exploitive of private life.  Though they have certainly originated things and employed genius, they have no affinity with the modern cults of originality and genius.”

The end of the essay is comparatively weak, contrasting the villainies of modern Christianity with the (probably more traditional), truly biblical focussed Christianity, where man is encouraged to root out and work on his weaknesses in the scope of a broader community base, and for the good of, not just oneself, but for all.

What I love about Berry is that he is not wholly on the side of any one group. He has developed his own personal thoughts and ideals through reading, discussion, experience, and observation and is quite adept at targeting strengths and weaknesses accordingly.  Though I’ve been meaning to read Berry for ages, this is my first taste of his writing and it was quite delicious.  I can’t wait to jump in for another bite!

The complete essay can be found here.

Essay found in:

Deal Me In Challenge #13 – Four of Spades

Further reading:

Classics Club Spin #9 ……. and The Winner Is ………

Number 2 !!
Which, of course, means that I’ll be reading Samuel Butler’s Erewhon.
I’m happy with this choice because it’s relatively short, and because of the tie-in with my last spin, Gulliver’s Travels.  Like Gulliver’s Travels, its setting is a fictional place, and the book itself is a satire on Victorian society.  I’m getting rather a good dose of satire over the last year or so, and have quite enjoyed it.  
From Utopia to Gulliver’s Travels to Erewhon, I should be able to make some intriguing comparisons.
How did everyone else do with their choices?

Father Brown: The Worst Crime in the World by G.K. Chesterton

Father Brown has plans to meet his niece in a picture gallery, but before he finds her, he encounters lawyer Granby who wants his opinion.  Should he trust a certain Captain Musgrove enough to advance him money on his father’s estate?  The estate is not entitled and it is not conclusive that Musgrove Jr. will be the heir.  Upon the arrival of his niece, Father Brown learns that she is planning to marry the same Musgrove and meets the young man himself.  Musgrove invites both Father Brown and Granby to his father’s castle, but then bows out of the trip at the last moment due to an arrival of a couple of shady characters in the background, but encourages the men to make the trip without him.

After they arrive at the castle (having to leap the moat due to a rusty, disabled drawbridge), they meet Old Musgrove, who assures them that his son will inherit, yet he will never speak to him again, due to the fact that he perpetrated the worst crime in the world.  Granby returns to town, secure in his knowledge, but Father Brown remains in the village, determined to discover the details of this dastardly crime.  Will he be able to discover the truth in time to save his niece from the clutches of a villain, or is the old man merely playing with him and there is nothing sinister about his son?  You will only find out, if you read the full story which can be found here:  The Worst Crime in the World – G.K. Chesterton

source Wikimedia Commons

I love Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries and this one does not disappoint.

Deal Me In Challenge #12 – Seven of Clubs

Sonnet XXIX by Garcilaso de la Vega

Born in Toledo in 1501, de la Vega was one of the first Spanish poets to introduce Italian verse forms and techniques to Spain.  Mastering five languages as well as having a good aptitude for music, de la Vega eventually joined the Spanish military and died at 35 years old from a wound sustained in battle in Nice, France.  His poetry has been fortunate to be consistently popular during his life and up until present times.

In Sonnet XXIX, de la Vega explores the Greek myth of Hero (Ὴρὠ) and Leander (Λὲανδρος).  Each night Leander swam the Hellespont (the modern Dardanelles) to be with his lovely Hero, who lived in a tower in Sestos by the sea.  She would hang a lamp for him in her high tower to guide his path, however, on a particularly stormy night, the waves buffeted Leander, the wind blew out Hero’s lamp, and brave Leander tragically drowned in the raging waters.  Bereft, Hero threw herself from her tower into the pitiless sea, which joined them in death, as it had kept them apart in life.

Hero and Leander (1828)
William Etty
source Wikimedia Commons
Sonnet XXIX
   Garcilaso de la Vega
    Brave Leander, dauntless, crossing the sea,
on fire with the lazing flames of love,
when winds blew strong and waters rose and swirled
with frenzied rage and driving, crashing swells.
    Vanquished by struggle, nearly overcome,
he could no longer battle with the waves,
and dying because of the love he’d lose
and not because his own life ebbed away,
    he raised his weary voice and faintly called,
speaking his final words to roiling waves,
but they ne’er heard his voice, his lover’s plea:
    “Waves, I know I cannot escape death,
but let me swim across; when I return
you can vent your wrathful surge upon my life.”
translation: Edith Grossman

Hero and Leander (1621/22)
Domenico Fetti
source Wikimedia Commons


Original Spanish: 

    Pasando el mar Leandro el animoso,
en amoroso fuego todo ardiendo
esforzó el viento, y fuése embraveciendo
el agua con un impetus furioso.
    Vencido del trabajo presuroso,
contrastar a las ondas no pudiendo,
y más del bien que allí perdía muriendo
que de su propia visa congojoso
    como pudo esforzó su voz cansada
y a las ondas habló desta manera,
mas nunca fuéla voz dellas oída:
    — Ondas, pues no se escusa que yo muera,
dejadme allá llegar, es y a la tornada
vuestro furor esecutá en mi vida. —-

Hero finding Leander (c. 1932)
Ferdinand Keller
source Wikimedia Commons

Deal Me In Challenge #11 – Four of Diamonds