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.

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Falling Awake by Alice Oswald

Falling Awake: PoemsMy rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read Alice Oswald’s Memorial with such joy that I pre-ordered Falling Awake and had it delivered the day it was released. I enjoyed this collection of poems but for me, it fell short of Memorial. I had hope for Tithonus, as it reminded me of the work she did with Memorial. The myth of Tithonus, who was granted immortality but not forever youth, is ripe for exploring, but I felt this was more a performative piece for a public venue rather than one to be read and savored in print.

Two poems really stood out for me and made this collection worth the time to engage. “A Short Story of Falling” was excellent. There was so much to unpack from such a short piece that I reread each stanza twice the first time through. I also adored “A Rushed Account of the Dew”. To me, it was about being present in the moment. She writes “I who can hear the last three seconds in my head / but the present is beyond me / listen”.

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The Pleasures of Memory With Other Poems by Samuel Rogers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An enjoyable read of a poet who was friends with Byron and Shelley and one of only three people to turn down the post of Poet Laureate of the UK. The main poem, “The Pleasures of Memory”, was good. But for melancholic and nostalgic poetry, I prefer Thomas Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”. The other long poem in this volume, “An Epistle to a Friend”, was nice, especially in the preface about the difference between true and false taste. Rogers says true taste is confined to “a few objects, and delights in producing great effects by small means” versus false taste which is “forever sighing after the new and the rare” (p. 87). Well said, even if I don’t always follow that philosophy.

I really enjoyed the notes to this work, especially the items on Edward Gibbon (p. 75) and Lord Chesterfield (p. 109). The latter describes the quote from Horace’s Satires (ii 6. 60-62) Chesterfield had inscribed in his library: “nunc veterum libris, nunc somno, &c.”, which translates to “now the books of the ancients, now sleep, etc.”

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The Archimedes Codex by Reviel Netz and William Noel

Archimedes codexMy rating: 2 of 5 stars

Like several other reviews of this book, I thought it should have been two short volumes instead of one. The two authors tell two stories, alternating chapters between each other. The stories are very different in that Noel tells the story of the actual manuscript over time while Netz focuses on the mathematical content of these found Archimedes items. Their authorial voices are very different so it’s a sudden jerk as you go between chapters. I’m not sure if better editing would have helped as these were just two distinct stories to be told.

Netz’s hagiographic view of Archimedes put me off throughout his chapters. I’m sure this is mostly due to having devoted, necessarily, an incredible amount of time and effort on this one important project. But, it seems as if that focus pushed out other considerations of the material. It seems that Netz knew what he wanted the manuscript to say and then finds examples of his ideas in the material, instead of the other way around. He might be right but I didn’t feel he made his case as best as he could.

Rating this was a bit tough as I was much more interested in the discovery and recovery of this palimpsest. I’d rate the topic a 4. I’d give 3 for Noel’s chapters on the history and work on the physical item. I’d give Netz’s chapters a 1-2. So, overall, I went with 2 for this work.

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Virgil’s Aeneid (John Conington, transl.)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first time I returned to Virgil’s Aeneid since the late 1980s. I’d read Robert Fitzgerald’s translation in a college classics course. In high school, I’d read Homer’s Odyssey and absolutely adored it. In college, just before the Aeneid, I re-read the Odyssey and read Homer’s Iliad for the first time. I didn’t like the Iliad as much, but in recent years, and with different translations, I’ve grown to like it more. But, I detested the Aeneid. I thought it was a cheap rip-off of Homer, trying to compress both of his works into the single Aeneid, and doing a poor job of it. If Goodreads existed back then, I’d have given the book one star and moved on.

However, after much time and reengagement with Greek and Latin classical works, I decided to try the Aeneid again. This time, I chose John Conington’s mid-19th century translation. I really enjoyed his verse. In the great preface, he praises John Dryden’s translation, a copy of which I picked up for a few dollars not long ago. Conington notes that from time to time, new translations are a good idea to bring modern language in to reignite interest in a story and also to bring new insights into the text that have been learned since the last major translations (p. viii). While I was reading this edition, I kept by my side Seamus Heaney’s 2016 posthumous translation of Book VI, as well as Dryden’s 17th century version and a copy of the Aeneid in Latin. It got to be a bit unwieldy at times, but it was a lot of geeky fun!

Books I-VI are laid out a bit like the Odyssey and Books VII through XII are similar to the Iliad. For Virgil, the Odyssey is that of Aeneas, a son of a god (Venus) and a Trojan prince (Anchises). He leaves Troy after the fall, and eventually makes his way to the shores of Italy. In the second half, he works to establish what will eventually grow into Rome and the Roman Empire. As Virgil tells his story, we do learn more about the Trojan war (including how it ended) and even hear about one of Odysseus’s crew left behind after Odysseus blinded Polyphemus, the Cyclops.

Virgil’s work, on one level, is a political one. His patron was Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome. From notes I read elsewhere, the Aeneid can be read as both subversive of the new Emperor and reaffirming his place as a great leader. Virgil also works in other political issues, such as giving history to the struggle between Carthage and Rome (set in play by Aeneas sneaking away and Dido’s suicide, Book V). On a more Greek vs Roman level, I felt there were direct comparisons made between Aeneas and Homer’s Odysseus and Achilles, wherein Virgil always seems to show Aeneas in a better light.

I thought the translation was worth 5 stars, the “Odyssey” part of the Aeneid worth 4 and the “Iliad” part worth 3, so I thought I’d go with 4 stars for the experience as a whole.

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The Burial at Thebes by Sophocles (transl. Seamus Heaney)

The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles' AntigoneMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nicely done translation with an excellent note by Heaney at the end that explained how he worked on this volume. The story is very good and I’ve been lucky to have see different versions performed live. Sophocles’s story still resonates today in how power can be used and abused.

One line of the play that really hit strong was Antigone explaining that her brother would not be upset by her burying her other brother: “The dead aren’t going to begrudge the dead” (p. 33).

Heaney writes in his note that “Greek tragedy is as much musical score as it is dramatic script” (p. 79). I would generalize this to all poetry in that the performance of verse (be it play or poetry) is a major component of the work.

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Rara Arithmetica by David Eugene Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another book on books, this time a rare treat for me that combines my bibliophilia with my love of mathematics. Rara Arithmetica is a detailed catalogue of arithmetic books and manuscripts in George Arthur Plimpton’s library that were written before 1601. It includes detailed bibliographic information, biographies of the authors and important facts about each book including its audience, reception and impact. It includes many reproductions of title pages and other pages within the books.

There were four types of arithmetic in the Middle Ages that were inherited by the Renaissance (pp. 4-7). They are theoretical, algorisms, abacus mathamatics and computi (computus). Theoretical works were based primarily on Boethius, a 6th century CE scholar who drew on Nicomachus and Euclid. Algorisms were practical works used by merchants and business for computations and weights, often using Hindu and Arabic number systems. Abacus arithmetics used roman numerals and were also used for commercial purposes. Computi were the arithmetics used for church calendars and various date calculations, especially for movable religious feasts.

Some highlights from Rara Arithmetica:

A book written in 1488 by the astronomer and poet Anianus, which also includes work by a 13th century astronomer, is a treat. Anianus has, for the first time in print, the Latin version of what we know in English as the 30 days hath September…’ (pp. 31-33):

Junius aprils september et ipse nouember
Dant triginta dies reliquis supadditur vnus
De quorum numero februarius excipiatur. (pp. 31-33)

Johann Widman’s arithmetic in German (2nd edition, 1500) is the first time that plus and minus signs were used in a printed work, although they weren’t used as addition or subtraction “but as symbols of excess or deficiency in warehouse measures” (p. 39).

The first modern encyclopedia in print was Gregorius Reisch’s Aepitoma omnis phylosophiæ (1504). It includes the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy), along with the natural and moral sciences.

There were several books written on numerical finger and arm symbolism, i.e. how to use your hands and arms to display a number. One neat one was Johannes Aventinus’s 1532 book. It provided illustrations for how to represent numbers up to one million that was useful in both the East and the West during the Middle Ages (pp. 137-138).

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