Showing posts from February, 2009

Project 1929: "The True Heart"

Sylvia Townsend Warner, The True Heart. Originally published by Chatto & Windus, 1929. Reprinted by Virago Modern Classics.

The True Heart, as Sylvia Townsend Warner reveals in her very brief introduction to the Virago reprint, is based on the story of Eros and Psyche as told in Apuleius's The Golden Ass. The story in Apuleius is a folktale embedded in the larger narrative, a tale about the love of a beautiful mortal girl, Psyche, for the immortal Eros (Cupid), and about the quest she must undergo before she can be united with her love. Warner's veiled retelling is set in Victorian England, in the year 1873. Sukey Bond (Psyche) is a poor orphan who goes into service as a maid for a farm family in the Essex marshes, where she falls in love with Eric (Eros), the "idiot" son whom Mrs. Seaborn (Venus) has sent away to live on the farm. When Sukey's love for Eric is revealed, Mrs. Seaborn arrives to take him home, and Sukey begins her long journey to find hi…

The Poplar Field

In Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, Mr. Rushworth takes the Bertrams, Crawfords, and Fanny Price to visit his magnificent country home, Sotherton, for which he has various plans of improvement. One thing that has to go, he says, is the long, tree-lined avenue leading up to the house. Hearing of the plan to cut down the trees, Fanny murmurs to Edmund: "Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does not it make you think of Cowper? 'Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.'" Fanny is old-fashioned, and likes things—landscapes, morals, relationships—to remain in their "old state." Unfortunately for Fanny, things don't remain as one imagines or remembers them to be. Perhaps readers are disappointed with Mansfield Park (a favorite of mine, but of almost no one else) because it's a novel about disappointment—about the failure of people and places to live up to one's expectations.

I've written a little about this subject in my guest b…


On his fifty-second birthday, Abraham Lincoln was in Cincinnati, Ohio, en route to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration at the 16th President of the United States. In Cincinnati, he was asked to address an audience of German immigrants. In his brief remarks, Lincoln told his audience:
I hold that while man exists, it is his duty to improve not only his own condition, but to assist in ameliorating mankind; and therefore, without entering upon the details of the question, I will simply say, that I am for those means which will give the greatest good to the greatest number."The greatest good to the greatest number." This is the basic principle of utilitarianism, the philosophical theory associated most closely with John Stuart Mill (whose book Utilitarianism was published in 1861). Both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin absorbed the utilitarian idea of maximizing the good. Both men believed in moral progress that would result in increased goodness; both men believed in t…

New Shower

Our bathroom remodeling. At the end of the demolition phase, and the finished product. Excellent work by Charlie Legare (Legare Construction), Paul's Plumbing, Innovative Surfaces, and Polzin Glass.

"Nothing, Like Something, Happens Anywhere"

Among the survivors of the Coventry blitz on November 14, 1940 were the city treasurer, Sydney Larkin, and his wife Eva. Two days before the air raid, Mr. Larkin received a letter from his son, Philip, who had just matriculated at St. John's College, Oxford. Young Larkin was running low on cash. The future librarian was spending it all on books.

Years later, Philip Larkin—sitting in a train bound for somewhere else—pulled into the Coventry train station—
I remember, I remember

Coming up England by a different line
For once, early in the cold new year,
We stopped, and watching men with number-plates
Sprint down the platform to familiar gates,
'Why, Coventry!' I exclaimed. 'I was born here.'

I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign
That this was still the town that had been 'mine'
So long, but found I wasn't even clear
Which side was which. From where those cycle-crates
Were standing, had we annually departed

For all those family hols?... A whistle went:
Things mo…

Reading Journal: "Coventry"

Helen Humphreys , Coventry. W.W. Norton 2009. 177 pp. $23.95.

Helen Humphrey's new novel, Coventry, begins as the fire-watchers stand guard on the roof of old Coventry Cathedral on the night of November 14, 1940. One of the watchers is Harriet Marsh, a woman in her forties whose husband died at Ypres in the First World War. From the marvelously evocative first scene on the cathedral roof, the narrative returns to the day in 1914 when Harriet's husband left for the war. On the way home from seeing her husband off at the station, Harriet walks past the cathedral, where she meets another young woman, Maeve, who is sketching the cathedral spire:
Harriet looks at the detail on the church spire, detail she has never noticed herself. Each piece of stone has been drawn by Maeve as either shadow or light. Her talent fills Harriet with wonder and admiration. The church looks more alive in the drawing than in reality.Although more momentous events will follow, including the destruc…

Not Fade Away

Today is the 50th anniversary of "The Day the Music Died." On February 3, 1959, a plan crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa, taking the lives of the pilot and the three musicians on board: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. Here's a link to a blog post from Paste Magazine: "The Day the Music Was Re-Born: 17 Tracks in Memory of Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper."

"Say It Plain"

Two great American poets share a birthday today: Langston Hughes (born in 1902) and Galway Kinnell (born in 1927). Galway Kinnell's Mortal Acts Mortal Words (1980) has long been one of my favorite books of poetry. Here are links to two of the most memorable poems from that book: "After Making Love We Hear Footsteps" and "St. Francis and the Sow."

And here is a link to Langston Hughes' "Let America Be America Again." Or you can hear poet Nikki Giovanni reading the poem last November, a week after the election of President Barack Obama. The poem is about the promise and the failure of America, about the American dream and the waking reality of injustice and inequality, about the continuing struggle of Americans to live up to their founding ideals. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted Hughes' poem in the April 1967 speech in which he declared his opposition to the war in Vietnam. Elizabeth Alexander echoed it again when she said, in her inaug…