Sunday, March 25, 2012

For Three-Word Wednesday, Magpie 110 and ABC Wednesday

("K" is for "Knockout"}
What springs to mind as I gaze at this week’s prompt?
Why, the work of Roberrt Burrns, of course.
“O would some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion.”

And that causes something else to spring to mind.

If you ever find yourself with a convivial group of Scotsmen knocking back a few at a local bar-room, and you’d like to win an easy bar bet, ask them – ask any patriotic Scot – “What does ‘Cutty Sark’ mean?”
You’ve got to establish ground rules, right off. No checking with Google. They’ve got to come up with the meaning by themselves. After all, it’s a remnant of Scottish history.

They’ll begin by saying it’s a brand of whisky, of course. (Maybe they’re even aware of the original Scotch name for the fragrant beverage: Whisky in Scottish Gaelic, "uisge beatha," literally means "water of life".)
All true, but that’s just a start.
Then they’ll mention the vessel on the bottle: “Cutty Sark” is the name of a ship, they’ll cry.
True again, but why is it the name of a ship? What does it mean?
Again, no checking with Google.
At this point you’re able to step in and dazzle everyone with the actual meaning.
Believe it or not, “Cutty Sark” means “mini-skirt.”
Here’s the story.

Surely you’ve heard of the tam o’shanter, the Scottish brimless cap. Well, that cap was named after a guy, Tam, who came from Shanter.
In a famous Robert Burns poem of the eighteenth century, Tam has had a few drinks at a local public house and he mounts his horse Meg to ride home.
On his way, he sees something astonishing. There’s a bizarre dance taking place on a local field, something involving witches and warlocks and other such types dancing about and jostling each other.
Tam is terrified; he knows they’ll kill him if they see him.
But he stays in place; he is beguiled by one beautiful young witch – as we might phrase it today, she was a knockout – who was dancing about in a skirt (a “sark”) that had been cut short – a “cutty sark,” in other words.

Suddenly the witches spot Tam on his horse Meg and come after him. He takes off as fast as he can go. He knows if he gets to the bridge over the local river he’ll be safe because witches, as everyone knows, cannot cross running water.
He just barely makes it. One of the witches grabs poor Meg’s tail and it comes off.
The poem ends like thusly:
“Now, who this tale o' truth shall read,
All man and mother's son, take heed:
Whene'er to Drink you are inclin'd,
Or Cutty-sarks run on your mind,
Think ye may buy the joys so dear;
Remember Tam o' Shanter's mare.”

Sunday, March 18, 2012

For Three-Word Wednesday, Magpie 109 and ABC Wednesday

"J" is for "Juggling a Boulder"

I have to wonder how many bloggers, studying the above prompt, will be reminded of the essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” by Albert Camus.

Surely the story is familiar. It compares the absurdity of so much of life today with the situation of Sisyphus, a figure of Greek mythology who was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of juggling a boulder as he pushes it up a mountain, only to see it roll down again.
In the essay, Camus introduced his philosophy: the futile search for meaning, unity, and clarity - and the ability of a man to be honest - in the face of an often unintelligible world.
The world of Albert Camus was indeed unintelligible. He wrote the essay in 1942, during the Nazi occupation of France. At the time he was playing his part to nurture the French resistance movement and he helped publish “Combat,” an underground newspaper. That same year he wrote what is probably his best-known work, the novel “The Stranger.”
His group worked diligently against the Nazis, and in it Camus assumed the nom de guerre “Beauchard.” Camus became the paper's editor in 1943 and was in Paris when the Allies liberated the city.
After the war, Camus began hanging out at the Café de Flore on the Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris with Jean-Paul Sartre and an entire world of amateur philosophers of that era. Although he leaned left politically, his strong criticisms of Communist doctrine did not win him any friends in the Communist parties that were so strong in those days.

I’ve always been fascinated by the answer of Camus to the philosophical questions he poses in his famous essay. He believes that man, like Sisyphus, is involved in an activity that is basically futile, a futile search for meaning, truth, values. His conclusion is surprising.
Since that boulder is going to keep on rolling back down, no matter what, he believes the struggle itself is, for many, enough. Camus wrote: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
(Also submitted to "Sunday Scribblings")

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Three-Word Wednesday, Magpie 108 and ABC Wednesday

"I" is for "Imagine"

Thousands of twelve-year-old students of English literature, from Mumbai to Singapore, stand ready, at the drop of whatever is called a hat in their language, to recite what may be the poet William Wordsworth’s most famous lines (and the weekly prompt, above, reminded me of them):
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

I was one of those twelve-year-olds once, though I had never been to either Mumbai or Singapore, and in my quavering, piping voice, I could recite at least some of Wordsworth’s poetry as well as any other pre-teener.

I found the poet himself of interest. What exactly, I would occasionally ask myself, are his Wordsworth? :-)
He had famously once defined poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility.” He was blown away by the beauty of nature, by a kind of suspended reality, and by the reconciliation of man with his environment, which gives his work an elegant, slightly modern tinge.
But it seemed to me that, no matter how interested you might be in this chap who sort of launched the Romantic Age in English literature back in the late 1700s, the story of his sister is even more fascinating, and more baffling.

In my view, she, Dorothy Wordsworth and the conditions of her life, are a few of the main reasons why we have a feminist movement today.
From time to time, writers like Virginia Woolf have wondered what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say. Just imagine...
“Her brother Will had some wild-oats adventures as a youth and finally became a successful actor who lived at the hub of the universe, meeting everybody, knowing everybody, practicing his art on the boards, exercising his wit in the streets, and even getting access to the palace of the Queen.
“Meanwhile his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother's perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers.”
Will Shakespeare had no such sister. Will Wordsworth did.
His sister was a writer. Dorothy Wordsworth's works came to light a century or so after her death when literary critics began to re-examine women's role in literature.
But Dorothy had a negative view of her own works. She did not believe what she wrote should be published; that was for men, that was for her brother.
She literally lived for him. And with him. When William married Mary Hutchinson in 1802 Dorothy of course continued to live with them. There was nothing else she could do; she was thirty-one years old and in 1802 that was considered to be too old for marriage.
So everything she did, everything she wrote, was to support, to be of service to, her brother. She did not really exist away from him.
It’s interesting to speculate just how many gifted women writers there were a century or two ago – or three or four centuries ago - who were never given a chance to actually write, to express themselves, to publish their work.
(Also submitted to Sunday Scribblings.)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

For Three-Word Wednesday, Magpie 107 and ABC Wednesday

"H" is for "Handyman"

“Drink to me only with thine eyes…”
If you’ve ever asked yourself what type of person writes poetry – (tho perhaps you haven’t) – the answer is simple.
All types; all kinds.
Take, for example, my old friend Ben J.

Ben started out very low on life’s ladder. He was a bricklayer and a sort of general handyman.
And he wound up as one of the greatest writers – playwright as well as poet – in the history of English literature.
Like most bricklayers of 400 or so years ago Ben, whose last name was Jonson by the way, was unable to go to university, so he decided to educate himself. He became one of the best-educated men in the country.

Ultimately, Oxford University, which earlier wouldn’t have allowed him to so much as deliver a pizza to the back door, granted him an MA.
When he wasn’t occupied writing poetry and plays, he kept busy by getting in trouble. He was a kind of psychological train wreck (which wasn’t all that easy hundreds of years before trains). If you check out his rap sheet it’s almost unbelievable:
He killed two people. You'd have to search for quite a while before you could find many other poets about whom you could you say such a thing.
He had killed a soldier in man-to-man combat in the Low Countries, and he killed another man in a duel. He was also locked up in the poky from time to time just for “leude and mutynous” behavior, which seemed to sort of sum up his life.
(It’s worth pointing out that the report of his heroic man-to-man combat experience while he was in the army came from him; no one else ever mentioned it.)
As for the duel, that actually happened, and Ben was in trouble. It was not trivial; he could have been hanged for such a killing.
He managed to get off by using a legal ploy, something that says a lot about Elizabethan life. He got off by pleading “benefit of clergy.”
It worked, even though there were few who knew him who would ever have described Ben Jonson as clergy, or even having much to do with clergy.
You see, there were so few educated people in England at that time that authorities decided it would be best not to execute a person if he could prove he could read and write. In that case he would be considered to be “clergy.” Ben did well in this test: he aced the exam. He got off lightly: he was just branded with the mark of a felon.

This tough guy was capable of magnificent writing. Check out this week’s prompt. How many bricklayers do you know who could write a poem as light and lovely as “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes,” which Ben did.
"Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine.
Or leave a kiss within the cup
And I'll not ask for wine."

If Ben Jonson were around today, my guess is he would probably be described as “deviant”; he would be a writer of plays for off-off-Broadway, and he would usually be dressed, even for formal occasions, in worn-out jeans and a dirty T-shirt with an offensive motto printed on the front, and he would be sporting a huge bushy beard, with minuscule bits of whatever he had for breakfast embedded in it.
Jonson was Will Shakespeare’s friend/competitor/nag and general pain-in-the-neck.

Ben regarded with amusement his pal Will’s efforts to turn himself into a gentleman. It would seem Ben especially got a kick out of the Shakespeare coat of arms, with its “Not Without Right” motto. We know this because Jonson proceeded to write a play that features a character who has received a coat of arms (which he got through bribery); the character, by the way, is a clown.
His coat of arms has a picture of a boar, with a three-word motto beneath: “Not Without Mustard.”
Everyone who was in any way connected with the theatre in London at that time undoubtedly found that hysterically funny. It’s probable that Our Will wasn’t as amused.

As a totally irrelevant side comment, Pocahontas – yes that Pocahontas – was in England and was actually in the audience for one of Ben’s productions.
Ben Jonson died on Aug. 6, 1637. His story ends in this way: once he was safely dead, the country decided that he was one of the foremost men of letters of his age and he was buried with great ceremony in Westminster Abbey.
(He was one up on his friend Will; Shakespeare was not buried in Westminster Abbey.)

Ben was buried under a slab on which was carved the words, “O Rare Ben Jonson!”
He was rare; there were none rarer.
(Submitted also to "Sunday Scribblings.")
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