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.

The Portable Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

The Portable Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman EmpireMy rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was an extremely readable work that taught me many new things and also brought up memories of long-ago classes. When Gibbon is on, he is the master of prose and points. This work still has much to teach us and remind us. One thing that popped out was his belief that isolation and xenophobia hastened the ruins of Athens and Sparta (p. 55). Wise words for those in America, Britain and elsewhere, who would turn their eyes inward and create artificial barriers between members of the single human race.

Gibbon writes a great deal about religion, especially the rise of Christianity and its impact on the decline and eventual fall of the Empire. He frames his task as: “The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings” (p. 261).

Chapter VIII (XV-XVI in the original) is hardcore, discussing literally fanatic Christians and how much they actively stood apart from all others (p. 271, etc.) This included refusing to participate in civil and military service. Polytheists asked why these Christians shouldn’t have to contribute to the public welfare (p. 291). Virgil, Homer, poetry, music or even sayings in Greek or Latin, were seen as evil, demonic and corrupting (p. 272). Prior to the rise of this sect, Rome respected, or at least tolerated, many religions, incorporating foreign gods of conquered peoples into their own pantheon. Christians had no respect or toleration for any other religion but their own. Early Christians were not as persecuted as the later Church claimed (p. 325), though harsh repression did occur at the end of Diocletian’s reign (p. 326). Finally, under Gratian and Theodosius, Christianity was made the privileged religion and paganism was outlawed (p. 547).

Achilleid by Statius

AchilleidMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

I stumbled across a reference to this work and was intrigued. It contains the first extant reference to Achilles being dipped in the River Styx to make him invulnerable (p. vii). In a Latin text, not even a Greek one! His mother, the goddess Thetis, held him by his heel, thus keeping that part from being invincible and giving us the term Achilles’ heel. I had to read this short work and I picked up the translation by Stanley Lombardo with an introduction by Peter Heslin. I’d rate the story 4-5 and the translation 3-4, so I picked 4 for my overall rating.

The story covers Achilles, from after he was left with the Centaur Chiron and up to when he sails away with the Greek fleet to go to Troy. It mostly covers his mother’s attempt to hide him from the Greeks so that he would not go to Troy and die as he was fated to from birth. An interesting love story that has Achilles hiding dressed as a girl and being found out by Odysseus. It’s short, unfinished likely due to Statius’s death, but still, it is polished and was presented to the public before he died. It stands on its own and tells a fun and interesting story.

I’ve read so much about Achilles, Greek and Latin mythology, etc. but hadn’t heard this tale. There is so much more for me to learn. And yet, the saddest part is that so little has survived from antiquity. What we do have is but a small portion of these great myths and epics. Writers like Statius, Ovid and others knew these stories as did their readers. How much more did they know that we only see flashes and glimpses of, or never hear about at all.

So … keep reading. I picked up Ovid’s Metamorphoses based on Heslin’s introduction!

The Siege of Corinth and Parisina, by Lord Byron

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Byron’s The Siege of Corinth and Parisina were published in 1816. They show his developing style that is fast, fluid and full of information. It’s like he’s writing prose in verse form. Both poems read so fast and grab your attention from the first word and hang on to you until the last breath.

The Siege of Corinth tells the story of a man who left Corinth, converted from Christianity to Islam and then helped the Turks siege and destroy that city. There are bits of ghost story, nervousness before battle, fighting, religion, morality and how mothers grieve for their children. It includes thoughts on hearing the Muslim call to prayer (lines 221-228), something I felt and wrote similarly about when I was in Morocco (lines 221-228):

As rose the Muezzin’s voice in air
In midnight call to wonted prayer;
It rose, that chaunted mournful strain,
Like some lone spirit’s o’er the plan:
‘Twas musical, but sadly sweet,
Such as when winds and harp-strings meet,
And take a long unmeasured tone,
To mortal minstrelsy unknown.

Also, Stanza XVIII (lines 450-461) really reminded me of Percy Shelley’s poem Ozymandias in its discussing a temple ruin. Shelley’s poem was written during the Christmas season of 1817-1818, over a year after The Siege of Corinth came out. While it has a different focus, I wonder if Shelley had Byron’s piece, which he most certainly would have read, in the back of his mind:

There is a temple in ruin stands,
Fashion’d by long forgotten hands;
Two or three columns, and many a stone,
Marble and granite, with grass o’ergrown !
Out upon Time ! it will leave no more
Of the things to come than the things before !
Out upon Time ! who for ever will leave
But enough of the past for the future to grieve
O’er that which hath been, and o’er that which must be:
What we have seen, our sons shall see;
Remnants of things that have pass’d away,
Fragments of stone rear’d by creatures of clay !

Parisina, like the Siege of Corinth, is based on true events, though some license has been taken. Like the other poem, it flows rapidly and in just 585 lines, it tells a gripping and story around three central characters (a marquis, his wife and his son by a different woman).

Well worth the time to engage with these two poems.

Wilderness: The Lost Writings, Vol. 1 by Jim Morrison

Wilderness: The Lost Writings, Vol. 1My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I bought this volume of Jim Morrison’s poetry at Starrlight Books, a great shop in Flagstaff, Arizona. I’ve been fascinated with Morrison since I first started listened to the Doors back in high school in the 80s. This is a wonderful collection that goes, in my opinion, far beyond his writings with that band. I’m so glad to have picked it up and will place it among my other treasured books.

I read this volume straight through it on the plane ride home a few days later. A few of my recent reading selections haven’t grabbed my interest. I’ve even resorted to skimming through parts. That wasn’t the case with this work. I read every word of each poem, sometimes flipping back a few pages to reread one that was echoing in the back of my mind. I scribbled a quick note saying that he wasn’t like most modern poets I’ve read. Morrison reminded me more of 18th and 19th century poets. Perhaps that’s because of what I mostly read nowadays, but I think it’s also since he drew a lot of inspiration from poets of that era, such as Blake and Rimbaud.

While everything resonated with me, there were a few lines that stood out. Echoing the second generation of Romantics (e.g. Shelley and Keats), Morrison writes: “Shrill demented sparrows bark / The sun into being. They rule / dawn’s Kingdom” (p. 35). In a poignant commentary on social relationships (p. 117), he says

Actors must make us think
they’re real
Our friends must not
make us think we’re acting

Reminding me of my own youth, when we didn’t have 24-hour radio or online streaming: “When radio dark night existed / & assumed control, & we rocked in its web / consumed by static, & stroked with fear / we were drawn down long from / a deep sleep” (p. 135). Finally, from his poem “As I Look Back” (p. 201):

As I look back
over my life
I am struck by post
Ruined Snap shots

faded posters
Of a time, I can’t recall

The Nature of Things by Lucretius (A. E. Stallings, transl.)

The Nature of ThingsMy rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up The Nature of Things (De rerum natura) since I was curious to see a verse form applied to what amounts to a lecture. I enjoyed engaging with Lucretius and his treatise on Epicurean philosophy and science. I think A. E. Stallings did a great job translating the text and rendering into rhyming fourteeners. I think it made the text flow more easily and pulled me through the work.

Epicurean philosophy posits a materialistic world, one where natural science is applied to understand the world and its processes. The world is made up of indivisible atoms and all events and processes are merely the effects of their movement, hence there is no need for supernatural explanations (p. ix). It also espouses a pursuit of pleasure, not a hedonistic approach, but one of the abstract joys of philosophical contemplation and friendship.

What strikes me as impressive is how things Lucretius describes are still true today. He notes how jaded people have become to the natural beauty around them: “Behold the pure blue of the heavens, and all that they possess, / The roving stars, the moon, the sun’s light, brilliant and sublime– / […] Now, however, people hardly bother to lift their eyes / To the glittering heavens, they are so accustomed to the skies” (II: 1030-1031, 1038-1039). And some people never change: “For idiots admire things all the more / when they discern them hidden in tangled words, and set great store / In anything that tickles the ear, in phrases dyed a shade / of purple” (I 641-644).

On religion, Lucretius writes “More often, on the contrary, it is Religion breeds / Wickedness and that has given rise to wrongful deeds” (I: 83-84). And “So potent was Religion in persuading to do wrong” [I:101]; a line Voltaire said was so important it would last as long as the world (p. 241).

The ideas are intriguing, Stallings translation is strong and the introduction by Richard Jenkyns is wonderful.

The Pre-Raphaelites: From Rossetti to Ruskin, edited by Dinah Roe

The Pre-Raphaelites: From Rossetti to RuskinMy rating: 1 of 5 stars

The Pre-Raphaelites From Rossetti to Ruskin was pulled together by Dinah Roe. Her introduction and brief chronology of this short-lived art movement were really enjoyable, and for me, the best part of the volume. I really never got into any of the poets in this collection. That’s not a comment on all of them, but it just didn’t do it for me. Some of the selections did remind me of high school gloom, doom and unrequited love poetry. This was one of the claims thrown at the PRB during their time on the scene. So, please take my one star rating as a reflection of my interest in the Pre-Raphaelites rather than a comment on this particular collected work.