Rejected Addresses [by Horace & James Smith]

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fun little book of parodies of poets and authors that was pulled together to celebrate the 1812 reopening of the Drury Lane Theatre after a fire. Originally anonymous, it was revealed to be the work of two brothers, Horace and James Smith. Many of the parodies are spot on, mimicking with a delightfully wry wit the cadences and techniques of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lord Byron, Walter Scott, and others. At first, I was a bit distracted by all the notes embedded within each selection, but as I read them, they were full of humorous and informative stories.

A fun read!

The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse, ed. by Roger Lonsdale

The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century VerseMy rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you love poetry, or even just like it, you should have this volume in your collection. For a reasonable price and a small footprint, you will have access to a wide swath of poetry from the 18th century that spans from the base to the heights, the profane and the holy, the everyday and the unique. Roger Lonsdale, the editor, has done a great job pulling together such a diverse crowd of people. You’ll find poets you know, but I’d bet there are a bunch of names (not including the various anonymous entries) you’ve never heard of. I didn’t love every poem in this work but am glad to have been exposed to each and every one of them. A fine collection.

In his introduction, Lonsdale writes: “As usual, readers will be struck by apparently inexplicable decisions in my selections from some of the better known poets: I am consoled only by the knowledge that limitations of space were always going to prevent illustration of the full range of, for example, Pope’s achievement. Pope will, however, survive my attentions. I am more haunted by the lingering memory of some of the totally forgotten men and women whose literary bones I disturbed after they had slumbered peacefully for some two hundred years, who had something graphic or individual to say, however modestly, and for whom I had envisaged some kind of minor literary resurrection, but who necessarily fell back into the darkness of the centuries, perhaps irretrievably, at the last stage of my selection” (p. xxxix-xl). Lonsdale may be too harsh on himself here, for he has resurrected or at least brightened the light shining on so many people who wrote poetry that has been forgotten for too long. And, for me and I hope others, we will take this volume as a challenge to continue looking for lost voices across various centuries to listen to what they said about their times and what they can say to us today.

Women’s rights and experiences were nicely featured in this volume. It’s sad that many of these woman I never heard of yet I will be told of Shelley, etc. on the rights of people. Thank you, Mr. Lonsdale, for highlighting them to me. Lady Mary Chudleigh’s “To the Ladies” (#17, 1703) comments on how men treat wives as if they were their servants. Strong words even though couched in a soft tone. Well done. Sarah Fyge Egerton’s “The Emulation” (#18, 1703) is in a similar vain and quite good.

Mary Collier’s excerpt from “The Woman’s Labour. An Epistle to Mr. Stephen Duck” (#218, 1739) was a fantastic piece on class difference and indifference as the lady of the house sleeps in then tells her woman servants to clean up, be very careful, don’t be wasteful, etc. The narrator says “When bright Orion glitters in the skies / In winter nights, then early we must rise” (p. 325). They also continue to work long past dark until their work is done. This excerpt ends “For all our pains, no prospect can we see / Attend us, but old age and poverty” (p. 326). As was, as is, as it always will be?

Lots of poetry from the 18th century, and even among the Romantics in the early 19th, focused on the beauties of rural life. It sometimes went overboard, idealizing a life that existed in their minds and not in reality. George Crabbe wrote a dense piece “The Village, Book I” (#432, 1783) that sharply contrasted this idealized rural life with the lived experience of the poor people working the land. One line that just jumped off the page for me was: “Yes, thus the Muses sing of happy swains / Because the Muses never knew their pains” (p. 670).

On the vices we surround ourselves with, we find Lawrence Spooner (#16, 1703) “On Giving up Smoking”. Still spot on 303 years later, for when I quit in 2006. A hilarious yet also sad piece on the love and horrors of gin was in an anonymous piece “Strip Me Naked, Or Royal Gin For Ever. A Picture” (#299, 1751). Another piece on perils of alcohol was John Wolcot’s “To a Fly, Taken out of a Bowl of Punch” (#488, 1792). It hilariously finds a fly that appears dead in a punchbowl. Fished out, he is shown to be alive, but possibly very drunk. He revives slowly and is eventually able to fly away.

On just the beauty of savoring the moment, there were many pieces. John Gay’s “Trivia: or The Art of Walking the Streets of London, Book II” (#83, 1716) is fun to read about school boys making snowballs to throw at the coaches. I also enjoyed Isaac Hawkins Browne’s (#266, 1746) “The Fire Side. A Pastoral Soliloquy”. One needs not kings and courts, but hearth and home, the scent of flowers, good books, drink and friends. A refuge from the larger world. “Now I pass with old authors an indolent hour / And reclining at ease turn Demosthenes o’er” (p. 404). I really enjoyed Thomas Warton’s (#276, 1747) excerpt on “The Pleasures of Melancholy”.

This collection also covers strong emotional scenes. John Hawthorn wrote a powerful piece on death in an excerpt from “The Journey and Observations of a Countryman” (#421, 1779). It was strong and hard to read for the emotions it conveyed of the death of a father while his wife, daughters and drunken son surround him. For cat owners, Anna Sweard’s “An Old Cat’s Dying Soliloquy” (#498, 1792) is a very sad and touching piece.

We also see many poets calling out social and political problems. The famous Quaker poet John Scott’s anti-war “Ode” (#426, 1782) was fantastic and still valid today. In a perfect riposte to the second Bush years and the 2016 election, we find Josep Mather’s “God Save Great Thomas Paine” (#522, 1792?). “Facts are seditious things / When they touch courts and kings” (p. 791). James Cawthorn wrote a great satire on fine food, stuck-up culture, feigned piety, etc. in an excerpt from his “Of Taste. An Essay” (#324, 1761). Samuel Wesley (#130, 1726) wrote “On the Setting Up of Mr. Butler’s Monument in Westminster Abbey”, calling out those who would memorialize the poet and satirist Samuel Butler in death but ignored him as he died in poverty. “The poet’s fate is here in emblem shown: / He asked for bread, and he received a stone” (p. 178).

A Parallel; in the Manner of Plutarch by Joseph Spence

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Using Plutarch’s Parallel Lives model of comparing and contrasting two people, Spence chose Antonio Magliabechi (1633-1713) of Florence and Robert Hill (1699-1777) of England. The former was a famed bibliophile, scholar and librarian to Cosimo III de’ Medici. The latter was much lesser known, who worked as a tailor and taught himself Latin, Greek and Hebrew to study the bible and religion.

Following Plutarch, the text is laid out in three parts: an essay on Magliabechi, one on Hill and then a compare and contrast of the two people. The first two parts were fascinating and filled with interesting trivia. The final piece sought to show how similar the two were but Spence then illustrates how Hill was the better person in that he wasn’t simply a repository of information with an eidetic memory as Magliabechi seemed to be, but that Hill was able to exercise judgement and use the knowledge he gained.

A very enjoyable and fast read.

Sidereus Nuncius by Galileo Galilei (transl. & analysis by Albert Van Helden)

Sidereus Nuncius, or The Sidereal MessengerMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this book, which felt more like two in one. The first was Galileo’s observational work, where he used a telescope he built to describe the Moon’s surface, stars invisible to the naked eye and the moons of Jupiter. This breakthrough piece was sandwiched between an introduction and conclusion by Albert Van Helden.

To hear Galileo’s work through Van Helden’s translation was thrilling, but the best parts of this work were the introduction and conclusion. In an easily readable style, he fills in the backstory, context and impact of Galileo’s work when it was published. The telescope itself was controversial: did it really show what was in the heavens or did it only create illusions and distortions? Van Helden briefly explores the philosophical, religious and secular impact of the device and its discoveries. It was a fascinating read and well worth the short time required to engage with this book.

Manfred by Lord Byron

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading an excerpt of Byron’s Manfred in a collection of his poetry, I knew I had to read the full closet drama. It is a fascinating work that develops ideas of spirits, power originating from oneself instead of from gods or nature, dying on your own terms, trying to forget past sins, living a life without the need for a final redemption. The Poetry Foundation’s biography of Byron says its main theme is defiant humanism, and I find those words perfect. Many have speculated that Manfred’s horrible, unnamed sin regards a forbidden love with his half-sister Augusta. This is developed in the play when Manfred and an evil spirit conjure up Astarte who remains speechless except for uttering a prophecy of his impending death (Act II, scene IV).

My copy of Manfred also included Byron’s Lament of Tasso and the poem Beppo. I didn’t really get much from Tasso, a short poem that never really caught my ear or mind. But, my first thought on starting Beppo was “Wow”. It is a stunning satire, which includes nice “burns” of other poets, an attack on paying off one’s sins with contributions, and a comparison of morals between Italians and some self-righteous English folk. Beppo reminded me a bit of Byron’s English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, from the pacing, biting wit and frequent use of asides to the reader.

The Portable Medieval Reader, edited by James Bruce Ross & Mary Martin McLaughlin

The Portable Medieval ReaderMy rating: 2 of 5 stars

Let me say that my choice of 2 stars is more a reflection of my own interest in this book and not necessarily of the book itself. I picked it up from a used bookstore since I was kind of approaching the medieval period from two sides (forward from the ancient world and ever backward from the 17th century). I figured it was time to delve a little deeper. After reading these selections, I can see my interests are elsewhere. However, there were things I learned, including some neat nuggets, and I will keep this volume as a reference for the future.

Of what I liked, there were some that stood out, such as the two pieces on Arnold of Brescia, a precursor to the people who would lead the Reformation (p. 338, 341). I liked reading about the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, a learned man who promoted literature, fought against popes and furthered law and government (p. 362). I enjoyed the selection from the poet Usámah (Usama ibn Munqidh), who wrote of his experiences with the Crusaders (p. 447), although some historians today say his work cannot always be trusted.

It was fun to see that students never change, with some in the 12th century wanting to postpone their studies to play and enjoy life (p. 502). Coluccio Salutati was very cool in his piece on the Defense of Liberal Studies, calling out those religious conservatives who would forbid the reading of Virgil and other “heathen” poets (p. 613). Finally, Leonardo Bruni’s “In Praise of Greek” (p. 618) resonates with me and is still valid today. So much of our logic, philosophy and great poetry came from Greek, so he writes that it is worthwhile to study the language to engage with the texts in their original voice.