Sunday, January 30, 2011

Poetry Review: Sailing to Byzantium by W.B. Yeats

Buy it from The Tower: A Facsimile Edition

Yeats is one of my Top 5 favorite poets, and while I don't really have a favorite collection of his (overall, I stick to his Selected Works to get a wide range of his writing), The Tower is special because it contains "Sailing to Byzantium," one of the loveliest and most well-known poems he wrote. It's 4 stanzas of ottava rima, rhyming ABABABCC (young, trees, song, seas, long, dies, neglect, intellect), and it sticks pretty close to iambic pentameter.

"Sailing" begins with that famous line, "That is no country for old men," and it becomes clear that the poem is from the POV of an old man. Yeats himself was in his 60's when he wrote the poem, so the concerns of old age weren't far removed from him. Stanza 1:

     "That is no country for old men. The young
      In one another's arms, birds in the trees
     - Those dying generations - at their song,
     The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
     Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
     Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
     Caught in that sensual music all neglect
     Monuments of unageing intellect."

So he's complaining, basically. "That" country seems to be the one he's currently living in, or the one he is leaving or has just now left. It's a land of youth where all the attention is placed on young lovers and on the animals, birds, and fish that live exuberantly and then die without any sort of advancement. Old men aren't commended even if their wisdom is "unageing"--they don't fit into this country. Stanza 2 shows how he proposes to get past his biologically-obsessed environment:

     "An aged man is but a paltry thing,
     A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
     Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
     For every tatter in its mortal dress,
     Nor is there singing school but studying
     Monuments of its own magnificence;
     And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
     To the holy city of Byzantium."

If physical forms are what we're celebrating, then senior citizens aren't much to talk about. An old man is valuable for his wisdom and his soul, and he should learn to appreciate the battle scars of life or tatters in his "mortal dress". Still, to gain this sort of appreciation he'll have to study art, the "monuments of [the soul's] magnificence". And it's for that purpose that he has has arrived in Byzantium, an ancient city known for its art and culture. I personally think he's only in Byzantium in his imagination, not simply because Byzantium's not really around anymore, but because the last two stanzas seem even less like reality than the first two. Stanza 3:

     "O sages standing in God's holy fire
     As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
     Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
     And be the singing-masters of my soul.
     Consume my heart away; sick with desire
     And fastened to a dying animal
     It knows not what it is; and gather me
     Into the artifice of eternity."

He seems to be asking figures in a paining to come out of their artwork and teach him how to appreciate his condition and his soul. He's really done with his broken-down body and wants to be removed from it. His language is very rough at this point, comparing his body to a beast on the verge of death. He wants to belong to the world of eternal art.

     "Once out of nature I shall never take
     My bodily form from any natural thing,
     But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
     Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
     To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
     Or set upon a golden bough to sing
     To lords and ladies of Byzantium
     Of what is past, or passing, or to come."

In Stanza 3 it seemed like the speaker was in Byzantium, talking to the mosaics, but now it seems like it was all in his imagination, because he's still not where he'd like to be. More than just being dissatisfied with his own weak body, he has decided that if he ever has another form, he'll want to be something finely crafted and unnatural (most scholars say that this signing gold object is a mechanical bird). It's so unusual that this is the speaker's ideal self: a beautiful, permanent piece of interactive art who has access to information about the future. As a reader, what do you even do with that? It sure keeps English teachers busy, diving into the possible interpretations.

The speaker is totally wrapped up in reaching that other country of Byzantium, whether it's supposed to be a literal place where old men are revered, a symbolic place representing the artistic imagination, or a depiction of the afterlife. It can be all three or something else entirely, as the reader likes--the main point is that in whatever way we interpret the specifics, we are listening to a speaker who is longing to be reprieved from decay and old age. And aren't we all? This is a beautiful poem that's very pleasing to the ear and it bears up under endless classroom discussion--if I'd written this review on a different day, I probably would have made entirely different points. It's a favorite poem of mine because it's hinting at something important, but it's just unnerving enough to make you wonder if the speaker's philosophy isn't quite as perfect as he thinks. Grade: A

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Deuteronomy

This fifth and final book of the Torah consists mainly of Moses' last instructions to the Israelites before they finally cross over the Jordan river to the land of Canaan. He extensively recaps their history and revisits all they things they've done wrong, but he also emphasizes that they are God's chosen people and even with all the mistakes in their past, it's their destiny to stay close to God.

Joshua gets several mentions in the book, partly because Moses is passing the torch of leadership on to Joshua. Moses talks about how Joshua and Caleb were the only scouts who weren't overcome by fear when they saw the giants living in Canaan. Moses also shows that the the Israelites shouldn't be afraid of the challenges ahead of them because they've already had a lot of military victories in recent decades. The Israelites are often depicted as literally doing nothing but walking and camping for 40 years, but they took part in several bigtime fights where God protected them and fought for them. The overall tone of this long speech is encouraging. Life has been bad, but it doesn't have to stay that way. 

Moses restates the Ten Commandments, some other important laws and even more history, but the repetition is necessary because he's trying to drive home the point that the Israelites must remember the past and learn from their mistakes. There's only one path to take if they want a prosperous future, but Moses clearly states that they have a choice in the matter: "I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life" (Deut. 30:19). It's not exactly a small-stakes choice.

Finally, Moses blesses each of the tribes of Israel, then climbs to the top of a mountain where God lets him see the land of Canaan before he dies. Israel mourns him for a full month, which is natural, considering how he led them through a whole era of their history. Moses was the real deal as far as godly leadership goes, and Deuteronomy closes out with this thought: "And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face" (34:10). In a certain sense, I think he's still missed.

Interesting laws: 1. The Israelite laws make some interesting provisions for manslaughter. Even if a person kills someone else by accident, the family of the deceased has the right to hunt down the offender and kill them in retaliation. The only reprieve for accidental slayers is fleeing to particular places called cities of refuge where they have immunity from their unintentional crimes. 2. In the new land, every seventh year is supposed to be a debt-forgiving year. All debts are cancelled out completely and all servants go free. 3. If a man dies and doesn't leave an heir, his brother is supposed to marry his widow and the first son they have will count as the son of the deceased brother. Inheritance is a very, very big deal in these times.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Numbers

As the title suggests, the fourth book of the Old Testament deals a lot with counting. It starts (and ends) with a census, numbering the people of Israel by tribes. There are over 600,000 people counted in the first census, but it only counts the men who are over 20 years old and able to go to war, so the population including women and children is much larger. The tribe of Levi's population is also left out of the reckoning because the Levites, as outlined in Leviticus, take care of the holy things and aren't intended to go to war—they're kind of like a whole tribe of clergymen, and though not all of them are priests, all of them have special work to do. The tribes get assigned specific places to camp and move in formation, because organization is important when a nation-sized people group is moving across the desert.

After this, we get procedurals for the Levites in setting up the tabernacle, more laws (including some that I find extra-strange like the “law of jealousies”), instructions on how Nazarite vows work (there aren't many Nazarites in the Bible, perhaps because the rules of observance were so strict—Samson is the one that most people remember, and I think John the Baptist also counts). In Chapter 7, the leaders of each tribe of Israel give very exact offerings to the Lord, and the book is full of other scattered laws and rules and offerings, but mostly this is the book where bad things happen on the road to the promised land.

The Israelites complain and get punished over and over, and their complaints don't even really make sense because they're talking about how wonderful life was in Egypt, the very place they were begging to leave a short while before. Even Moses gets fed up with them and tell God that he doesn't like babysitting these folks. Leadership is not the least bit enjoyable for Moses, but God helps him delegate authority to others so he's not as burdened. The biggest disobedience in the book is when the Israelites are too frightened to go into the promised land of Canaan, so they're punished by having to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.

This isn't easy reading, what with all the lists, numbers, and names of people who were obviously mentioned for an important reason but who don't speak or seem to actively affect any of the happenings in the book. But out of the seldom-mentioned characters, a few become important later on, like Joshua and Caleb who were the only two scouts who said that the Israelites should go ahead and enter Canaan, and were the only two men of their generation who got to survive the 40 years of wandering. I also like the story of Zelophehad's daughters, five sisters who petition Moses so they can inherit their father's property since he didn't have any male heirs.

Despite all the plagues and setbacks the Israelites experience, they're still protected as a nation. They fight a few battles and conquer some mighty people, so they are still a nation to reckon with in this harsh world where big mistakes have even bigger consequences.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Leviticus

This book is a stylistic departure from the previous two books of the Old Testament, because it was written for a different purpose. Genesis and Exodus are narratives, telling the stories of various people, but Leviticus is mainly a rulebook from God to the Israelites. In any society, there's always Things You Don't Do and Things to Deter You From Doing Them Anyway, so in Leviticus, God is building on to the ten commandments and setting up intricate laws to establish a certain lifestyle for his people. There's a complicated thing going on where the sacrifices and burnt offerings aren't just payment for wrongdoing (like a speeding ticket), but are a substitution of sorts where the animal being sacrificed symbolically takes on the sins of the person offering it. It's another one of those things I'm glad I don't have to do. Ever. The people who are assigned to perform these sacrifices are priests from the tribe of Levi, which is where the title of Leviticus comes from.

The interesting thing about the Levites is that, though they have a very special job and take care of the tabernacle and holy things like the ark of the covenant, their tribe had a rocky past. In the next-to-last chapter of Genesis, Jacob talked about what would happen to his sons and their descendants in the future, and Levi, the third son of Jacob, basically gets cursed along with his brother Simeon for their cruelty and anger. But then Moses, the deliverer, comes from the tribe of Levi, so that shows that the tribe is capable of producing great heroes. Still, the Levites being the people who have to butcher animals on a regular basis does seem to be connected with Jacob's words at the end of Genesis, so I'm really not sure if there's some sort of punishment element worked in there with the honor and responsibility of priestly duties.

The possible sacrifices are extensive: Burnt offerings (cattle, sheep, goats, doves, pigeons), grain offerings (flour and oil, raw or cooked), firstfruits offerings (corn), peace offerings, sin offerings, the offering if one person sins out of ignorance, the offering if the whole nation of Israel sins out of ignorance, and many, many more, all with very specific instructions for how the sacrifices work and what they involve. The first 7 chapters go over all of this.

Then Aaron (Moses' brother, and the new high priest) offers some of the sacrifices and in chapter 11, the food laws begin, detailing what is and isn't kosher, pretty much. The next chapters deal with how to handle leprosy, who can marry whom, establishing feasts and sabbaths, and plenty of other laws. God says if the Israelites follow these rules, he'll bless them and everything will go well for them, and if they don't, horrible things will happen. In the history of Israel, the latter seems to happen more often than the former. This is partly because the laws are so extensive, they're nearly impossible to keep, and partly because even if someone keeps the laws, their heart could still be harboring anger or unforgiveness, or other evil thoughts. Even at this point, its clear that the standards of holiness that God sets forth aren't anything that humans can live up to.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Exodus

Joseph brought his whole family to Egypt at the end of Genesis, but when you stay in a country for 400 years, the times they are sure to change. The Hebrew population increases so much that one of the pharaohs has them all enslaved, but their numbers keep growing even in slavery, and fear motivates a pharaoh to order all the baby boys killed. This becomes standard policy in Egypt, but one lady protects her baby by putting him in a floating basket and setting him beside the river. Ironically, he is found and adopted by the Pharaoh's daughter, who names him Moses.

Moses apparently grows up with some knowledge of his true heritage, because when he's an adult, he kills an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew. Moses is now wanted for murder, so he flees Egypt and settles in Midian, where he marries, tends sheep, and wiles away forty years (important phases of time seem to pass in 40-year increments in Exodus). God appears to him in a burning bush and says to go deliver the Hebrews from slavery, but Moses gives a lot of excuses about why he's not the right man for the job. God sends Aaron with Moses as a spokesman, but Moses is still the guy in charge. He meets with Pharaoh and delivers God's “let my people go” message. Pharaoh refuses, a series of horrific plagues ensues, and finally the Hebrews are allowed to go free.

Due to the way the story is portrayed in movies and storybooks, it sounds like we've heard the full and complete story of Exodus at this point, except for Moses getting the Ten Commandments. In actuality, the Hebrews leave Egypt in chapter 12 and the book has 40 chapters total, so there's a lot more ground to cover, most of it dealing with the Hebrews complaining and disobeying God. Some examples of the complaints, going by their location:

-At Marah: The water is bitter. They think they're going to die of thirst. God heals the water.
-At the wilderness: They think they're going to die of hunger. They want to go back to Egypt. God rains bread down from the sky.
-At Rephidim: There's no water. They think they're going to die of thirst. Moses hits a rock, and water flows out of it.

And there are many similar episodes. It's no wonder that the middle and end of Exodus are seldom talked about, because it's very depressing to see God's chosen people acting this way. Also, there are some long sections detailing how the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant were made, which is something that most people will only read about if they are doing a read-through of the whole Bible or if they have a particular historical or bible-study-related interest in the subject. Exodus ends with God's presence filling the tabernacle the Hebrews have made, though, so that's an up note. God hasn't abandoned his people during their rebellion, in fact, he has come to dwell with them.

Note on film adaptations: I'm actually very fond of two film adaptations of the first part of Exodus: The Ten Commandments directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and The Prince of Egypt from Dreamworks. There's a ton of creative licence taken in both movies, though they do give a general idea of the characters and concepts of Exodus. The Ten Commandments is an amazing epic film with a tremendous dramatic cast, and The Prince of Egypt has a score full of awe-inspiring songs.

Review: The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot

The Four Quartets
T.S. Eliot, 1944
Buy it from Four Quartets

These four poems from T.S. Eliot are very complex modern pieces, but they're so lovely, they can be appreciated even if we're not getting the full meaning. Time and redemption are the big themes of the quartets, and each of them is centered in a single location the poet had visited. They also roughly correspond to one of the four elements: "Burnt Norton" (air), "East Coker" (earth), "The Dry Salvages" (water) and "Little Gidding" (fire). Each contains five sections marked  off with Roman numerals, and they are all free verse poems with bits of metered verse showing up in the second and fourth sections of every poem. We get some of that world-weariness shown in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock or The Wasteland, but in these poems we also see the possibility of redemption.


"Burnt Norton" starts off all philosophical: "Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future,/ And time future contained in time past./ If all time is eternally present/ All time is unredeemable." Everything has happened already--we can't change the past and the future will impose itself on us without our permission. But even so, time is the medium we all have to work with, so what little bits of transcendence or clarity we experience are going to happen in time. As in all the quartets, this one has a great musing on the problem of language and the imprecision of words: "Words strain,/ Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,/ Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,/ Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,/ Will not stay still." Words never mean exactly what you want them to--they lose meaning over time, and the more important the thing you have to communicate, the less likely it is that your words will bear up under pressure and adequately express your meaning.

The second quartet is "East Coker," the earthy poem. It begins with the phrase "In my beginning is my end."
and starts discussing the cycles of time; buildings that rise and fall, the lives and deaths of animals, the fertilization and subsequent harvesting of crops. Then there's an appearance by what seem to be faeries, out in the woods, having a rustic dance around a bonfire. Section II notes some disorder in nature--things that are appearing in strange mixes or that are in conflict. Just as the reader is wondering what it all means, a very prosy part of Section II mentions language again, and how it fails to satisfy certain needs and leaves you "still with the intolerable wrestle/ With words and meanings." Section III begins in despair, showing the decline or death of all things, but Eliot turns the dark metaphor around and fashions the horrible darkness into a waiting period, a time of purification that an individual can emerge from. I think this passage may also be talking about England during WWII, how the situation seems desperate, and that to achieve their important cause, a person or a country must "go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy." Section IV drives this point home by saying: "to be restored, our sickness must grow worse." It's going to get worse before it gets better, but thank goodness, it is going to get better. Section IV is particularly full of Christian imagery, and though Buddhist imagery (lotuses, etc.) is used throughout the quartets, Christianity gets more pagetime and seems to be at the heart of all the redemptive passages.

"The Dry Salvages" is the third poem in the sequence, and is my least favorite, probably because it seems the prosiest to me. Also, as the water/ocean poem, it's full of nautical terms that I have to look up if I want to know what the poet's referring to. The supremacy and power of water are established early on--we may use the water for commerce and travel, but we must never suppose that we have tamed it. The poem moves on to Section II, which had always seemed like an awkward passage to me, until I found out that it was a modified sestina. It contains six stanzas with six lines each, and they keep up an extended rhyme scheme that probably took a  lot of labor to sustain, since the rhyme connections are word-strings like: emotionless-devotionless-oceanless, and renunciation-anunciation-destination. Section III shows that "time is no healer," and progress is pretty much an illusion. Section IV is a prayer for the safety of those who navigate the water, and Section V shows that moments of human intersection with the divine purpose are possible.

"Little Gidding" is my favorite of the whole collection, because it serves as an anchor poem that ties all the previous themes together. It deals a lot with chronos time vs. kairos time; the regular tick-tock progressive time, and the moments of transcendence where time seems to stop, but something important is still happening. In “Little Gidding”, the reader is shown that brief moments of sudden illumination are important connections to the divine, and the suffering of human existence is necessary for spiritual purification. Section II is written in verse and counts down the deaths of the four elements. Next comes a long unbroken stanza of prose-like poetry discusses an illuminating experience the speaker had during a German air raid. Section III quotes the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich by saying that “Sin is Behovely, but/ All shall be well, and/ All manner of thing shall be well”. This, combined with Section IV's foray into verse to explore the connection between divine love and human suffering, reflects the more hopeful tone of this final poem. Section V ties together all the previous quartets by re-addressing the problems of language and time, and it contains the famous lines,

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."

My copy of The Four Quartets has been living in my purse for the past four years. I pull it out when I'm standing in a long line, or when I feel the need to revisit some important, complicated literature. I've studied these poems for awhile, but I don't think I'll ever feel like their intellectual equal—for better or worse, they're beyond me. But that's no problem. Regardless of the results, I shall not cease from exploration. Grade: A+

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Genesis

The book opens with Creation. God doesn't fashion the world with his hands, instead he speaks and whatever he says happens. On the first day he makes light by saying “let there be light,” but he doesn't make the sun, moon, or stars until the fourth day, which makes this command even cooler, since the light is compelled to exist without an apparent source. Then he makes the sky, sea, land, plants, animals, and man on various days and rests on the seventh day of creation. This seventh-day rest or sabbath is a symbolic thing—obviously, God is not fatigued—and it becomes an important part of Judaism later on (less so for Christianity, depending on who you ask).

God says that everything he's made is good, so naturally, trouble is just around the corner. Adam and Eve are innocent and haven't done anything wrong yet, but they have free will, aka, the ability to do wrong. They eat fruit from the one tree forbidden to them, and for that transgression, they become subject to death and grow aware of moral taboos. In literature, a change of clothes denotes a change of station, but when Adam and Eve put on their animal-skin clothes, it's showing a negative change—they have definitely come down in the world, and they are sent away from Eden.

Then we get Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and a lot of genealogy in quick succession, but most of Genesis is a march toward Abraham, and most of what happens after Abraham is a march toward Moses in the next book. In chapter 12, God tells Abram to leave his home country and go to a new place. Abram's children and grandchildren are going to become a major nation, and they're going to be blessed and cared for by God himself. This is where, to me, things really get going. God is establishing his people-group, who are eventually known as the Israelites, the Hebrews, and the Jewish nation. God's not just intervening to save one person and his family, like with Noah, he's actively setting up an ongoing relationship with humanity through Abraham and his descendants.

It's interesting that God's people aren't goody-goodys. Sometimes they're downright awful. Even Abraham messed up a few times--he lied about being married to Sarah (twice!) and failed to trust God when he said that Abraham's heir would come through Sarah. His son Isaac pulls the same trick of lying about his wife, and Isaac also favors one of his children over the other, which has some very negative effects. Isaac's son Jacob makes even bigger mistakes when he tricks his brother and fools his father, but he has to pay for his deceit by having to marry a woman he doesn't want and having to work for a father-in-law who cheats him out of his wages for a couple of decades. And as far as romantic connections go--I always notice them, even when reading scripture--the couples are mainly established to produce descendants, so you end up with some odd combinations like Abraham and Sarah, who were half-siblings (which was okay back then) and Jacob and Leah-Rachel-Bilhah-Zilpah, which is presented as a “this was legally permissible, but nobody was happy with it” arrangement. After reading Genesis, the chief feeling I come away with is deep relief that I didn't live back then. Nobody had it good, but the people who were part of God's covenant at least knew that they had an ultimate purpose.

Jacob's son Joseph is really a stand-out character to me. He seems to do less wrong than anybody else, and he accomplishes more obviously helpful and virtuous tasks than most of his immediate ancestors. He refuses to sleep with his boss' wife even when she's hunting him down for that purpose, he rises from being a lowly prisoner to the second most powerful man in Egypt, he forgives his ten older brothers for selling him into slavery, and he trusts God and saves his family and his new country from a seven-year famine. Joseph is just head and shoulders above his brothers in terms of goodness, and we aren't shown that he does anything wrong at all. His whole extended family moves to Egypt with him to sit out the famine, and that's the setup for Exodus, the book where the Moses comes to deliver God's people from slavery.  

Note: I'm a Christian, so I do believe that all of this happened. This isn't a book review, just a quick catalogue of my thoughts on books of the Bible.