Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Love of Bare November Days: Frost's "My November Guest"

November is typically the month people start complaining about the cold. I personally don't feel the need to complain about weather, unless there's a tornado in the vicinity. But there are particular reasons I actually enjoy the "ugliest" month in the year. Mostly they relate to Advent.
The season of Advent, for most of the Catholic Church, starts ten days from now. But for us Eastern Catholics, it's already here. Our "Advent", called Philip's Fast (it begins on the feast of the Apostle Philip), lasts six weeks instead of four. The middle of November is just the time when the soul-stressing noise and empty glister of the "holiday season," begin in earnest. It is just at this time, that Mother Church opens her arms to us, hushes us, and tells us to steady our hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.
Fasting, good works, and re-focused prayer are the main tools she gives us. But even nature itself encourages the ascetic ethos. By mid-November, the blazing autumn colors have withered. The grass is damp and yellowing. The wind begins to have a vicious bite. Beauty has gone, at least until the first real snow. Or has it?
Robert Frost might disagree. Recently while reading his volume of poetry, A Boy's Will, I ran across this short piece which is truly a November gem:
My November Guest
by Robert Frost
My Sorrow, when she's here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.
Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks, and I am fain to list:
She's glad the birds are gone away,
She's glad her simple worsted gray
Is silver now with clinging mist.
The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.
Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.
At first it seems as if Frost views November like anyone else--a cold, dark, unpleasant, even unnecessary time of year. As we see, his Sorrow persuades him otherwise. But how can we understand this strange love of bare trees and cold fog? Is it a morbid obsession with pessimism and death? I think not. I also think the Church's wisdom can give us insight into Frost's fondness.
The two major fasting seasons of the year, in the Eastern Church, both posses an ethos of what we call "bright sadness". This is in obedience to our Lord's command, "And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men" (Mat. 6:16). It is a fused spirit of deep repentance and buoyant hope, which prepares us for the greatest feasts of the Church year.
Bright sadness and Frost's Lady Sorrow are close cousins. In fact, November as a season epitomizes this attitude. The world has been stripped of its outward beauty and warmth, just as we strip ourselves of bodily pleasures. Nature grows stiller, darker, more rigorous, as we strive to keep a more peaceful spirit and a deeper prayer life. For six weeks we humble ourselves, preparing for the coming of Christ, just as November becomes naked, in preparation for the baptism of glittering December snow.
This is the "love of bare November days"--a love of quiet, repentance, and purification. It's not always pleasant--I don't like a November blast breathing down my neck any more than the rest of us--but it is good. A good chill, which reawakens our souls to the task before them: the task of loving God and each other. Ponder that the next time you're tempted to grumble about the forecast.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Battle of the Round-house: Robert Louis Stevenson's "Kidnapped" (Part 2)

Happy 164th, RLS
One hundred and sixty-four years ago on this day, in Edinburgh, Scotland, a great storyteller was born. Yes--Robert Louis Stevenson. Those of you who have followed my blog for a while already know how much I admire him. This post, the second in a series of posts on his novel Kidnapped, is the one "birthday present" I can give to the fine writer who only lived 44 years. So thank you, Stevenson, and happy birthday.
What is it about great stories that is so real to us? My siblings and I talk of the Shire, Minas Tirith, and Mordor as if they were quite real places. Not in a literal sense, I suppose. But it seems that way, because although Middle-earth can only ever live in our imaginations, it's still something we share. We feel the fireside at Bag End must have really existed, in some sense, because we've all "been" there; we have the same memories of it, though we all read Lord of the Rings at different times. Those worlds--in books that are very precious to us--seem to take on a life that does not depend on our imagination.
Perhaps this is foolishness. But I bet that at least a few--if not many--book-lovers have had the exact same experience. So allow me, over the next few posts, to share with you a handful of the places I've lived, and loved, between the covers of a book called Kidnapped.
The Round-house

The roundhouse was built very strong, to support the breaching of the seas. Of its five apertures, only the skylight and the two doors were large enough for the passage of a man. The doors, besides, could be drawn close: they were of stout oak, and ran in grooves, and were fitted with hooks to keep them either shut or open, as the need arose. (Kidnapped, Chapter 9, "The Man with the Belt of Gold")

Welcome to the captain's quarters of the merchant ship Covenant. If you're an ordinary sailor, you're probably not in here much. But if you're a lad named David Balfour, this is where you lived for a while--an involuntary cabin boy, waiting on a dour captain and a drunken first mate, on your way to seven years of slavery in the American colonies. By all rights, the round-house should be one of your least favorite memories.
But it's also the place where you meet Alan Breck Stewart. It's the place where you decide to save a man's life, though he is a stranger--indeed, might have been an enemy in any other situation. You're a law-abiding citizen; he's a wild outlaw. And yet, for the sake of the right, you throw in your lot with his:

...I walked right up to the table and put my hand on his shoulder.
"Do ye want to be killed?" said I.
He sprang to his feet, and looked a question at me as clear as if he had spoken.
"O!" cried I, "they're all murderers here; it's a ship full of them! They've murdered a boy already. Now it's you."
"Ay, ay," said he; "but they haven't got me yet." And then looking at me curiously, "Will ye stand with me?"

Your answer to that question is the true beginning of your story. In the next few hours, through the heat of battle, you will forge a friendship with this "wild Hielander" that will change your life. "Let your hand keep your head, for the grip is coming," says Alan. It comes fiercely, and against all the odds--you win out. So far you've been deceived by malicious relatives and kidnapped by greedy sailors; the round-house is your first victory. 

The roundhouse was like a shambles; three were dead inside, another lay in his death agony across the threshold; and there were Alan and I victorious and unhurt.
He came up to me with open arms. "Come to my arms!" he cried, and embraced and kissed me hard upon both cheeks. "David," said he, "I love you like a brother! And O, man," he cried in a kind of ecstasy, "am I no a bonny fighter?"
So he is, though you're rather too shaken by shedding your first blood (albeit in self-defense) to compliment your new friend on his swordsmanship. But the night isn't over yet. You and Alan have driven off the treacherous sailors for now, but there's no sense taking any chances. Inside the little fortress of the round-house, you set up your night-watch:
So I made up my bed on the floor; and he took the first spell, pistol in hand and sword on knee, three hours by the captain's watch upon the wall. Then he roused me up, and I took my turn of three hours; before the end of which it was broad day, and a very quiet morning, with a smooth, rolling sea that tossed the ship and made the blood run to and fro on the round-house floor, and a heavy rain that drummed upon the roof.
There's something haunting about that muted rain, after the clash and fury of last night. But you are glad of it. It gives you a chance to take a breath, regain your wits, ponder this strangely fortunate twist of fate. Your comrade-in-arms stretches out in the captain's bunk, sleeping like a child. Who is this Alan Breck Stewart, after all? Well--you'll know him better presently.
The triumphant duo
To be continued

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A Very Old Friend: Robert Louis Stevenson's "Kidnapped" (Part 1)

It's an undisputed fact among book lovers that some tomes simply feel like friends. These titles may or may not be on the Great Books list. They may or may not have led you to deep insights on the nature of man, or the purpose of the universe. They are simply the books you fall in love with, the ones you crave to live inside, for a little while.

This book, for me, was Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped. I could try to make some profound literary analysis of it, or unravel its eternal themes. But I can't say that Kidnapped ever pointed me, directly, towards those lasting truths that I typically look for in a good story. And yet it is a good story--a braw tale, to put it in the Scots--easily my favorite, and strangely monumental in my memory.

This is simply my excuse for the fact that this post, and any other posts I write on Kidnapped, are less like a literary analysis and more like a love story, littered with random details no one is interested in except myself. But it's the only way I can ever hope to convey my experience with this book. Kidnapped is an old friend. I couldn't write about it any other way.

I met this friend on a gray Sunday morning in February of 2011, on my older brother's dresser. I had wandered into his room bored, looking aimlessly for something to do in the half hour or so before we left for church. The book was a fat red one, a collection of Stevenson's more popular poems, short stories and novels. I couldn't tell you why I decided on Kidnapped. I had heard the title before, of course, but had no conception of the plot. Actually I had a vague notion the whole story was set in America. So I had no preparation for a plunge into 1750s Scotland.
Straightaway I fell in with Davie Balfour's honest, pleasant narration. So what if the style was a bit old-fashioned? So what if the dialogue threw out these strange Scottish words I'd never seen before, like "muckle", "siller", "kittle". It all drew me into a new, entrancing, very real world.

For the rest of the day, I could hardly tear myself from the book. It didn't matter that I knew, at the time, virtually nothing about the Jacobite Rebellions. The pure thrill of story carried me along at a breakneck pace. Each emotion-packed scene made a deep impression--David's first dark hours aboard the brig; the victory of the roundhouse; the flight through the heather; the quarrel...scenes that I read and re-read, almost trembling with excitement. Kidnapped had kidnapped me, completely.

I finished the book that same afternoon, in a kind of delirium. Never had I been so utterly absorbed in a story for an entire day. And yet the experience was exhausting. I had read so furiously that the plot was a blur, and even the names of the characters did not stick in my mind. Only those particular scenes, those moments of high romance, the memory of the thrill.

Besides that, hardly a thought of the book crossed my mind for the next year. Then one night in March 2012, a friend in church choir gave us a big box of books (always an event in the Woods household). Wedged somewhere between a coffee-table book on Versailles and a Michael Crichton novel, sat a splendid old edition of Kidnapped. Charles Scribners's Sons, 1946. Dark blue cloth binding, only a wee bit tattered, emblazoned on the front with a gorgeous N.C. Wyeth illustration. (N.C. Wyeth deserves a blog post all to himself; I have a mini-obsession with his work.) Inside, pages softly browned, deeply scented with that wise, musty, old-book smell.  Graced throughout with more N.C. Wyeth gems.

Delighted, I immediately claimed this treasure as my own. That night, flipping through it almost with awe, I fell upon this passage, at the beginning of Chapter 7, which had overwhelmed me a year ago:

I came to myself in darkness, in great pain, bound hand and foot, and deafened by many unfamiliar noises. There sounded in my ears a roaring of water as of a huge mill-dam, the thrashing of heavy sprays, the thundering of the sails, and the shrill cries of seamen. The whole world now heaved giddily up, and now rushed giddily downward; and so sick and hurt was I in body, and my mind so much confounded, that it took me a long while, chasing my thoughts up and down, and ever stunned again by a fresh stab of pain, to realise that I must be lying somewhere bound in the belly of that unlucky ship, and that the wind must have strengthen to a gale.

Instantly I was there again; no, I was David Balfour again, bound and despairing in the stormy bliges of the Covenant. The adventure had not faded. It awaited me once more.

To be continued

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Mountain Song, by Bjornstjerne Bjornson

Wind River Peak, WY. Photo by Hannah Rose Shogren Smith

I don't have much time to enjoy them now, but I am a big fan of audiobooks. The experience of listening to a story, rather than silently reading it, has its own special charm. My first exposure to Jules Verne was through a book-on-tape version of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, at the age of 6 or 7. (It was an abridged edition--still terrifying.) The scene where Axel becomes separated from his two companions in the pitch-black subterranean tunnels still rings extremely vividly in my memory, in a way I'm sure it wouldn't if I'd first read it in a book. The human voices pulled me almost physically into the story.

So imagine my delight when a few years ago I came across a website completely devoted to producing free audiobooks. This website is They are a worldwide group of volunteers who record works in the public domain and post them on the site for anyone to download and enjoy. So it's a perfect place for someone like me, who loves both audiobooks and the classics. They also encourage recordings in other languages than English (so that, when I was studying French last year, I was able to listen to Verne and Dumas in their original tongue--not that I understood it well, but it was an interesting exercise). But one of my favorite things about Librivox is the fact that whenever I'm there I always stumble upon some gem I had no idea existed. A year ago I discovered Stevenson's Father Damien letter (see my post on that here). More recently, I tripped over George Macdonald's Phantastes--the fairy tale that proved crucial in the conversion of C.S. Lewis. And just a few weeks ago, I uncovered a delightful little poem about mountains by a Norwegian author, Bjornstjerne Bjornson.

The poem, "Mountain Song", is an English translation of the original Norwegian from Bjornson's novel A Happy Boy. Although the poem refers to the mountains of Norway, it attracted me at once because it reminded me of my experience hiking in Wyoming--both physically and spiritually. Here it is--and here is a link to the Librivox page, if you care to listen along!

Mountain Song
By Bjornstjerne Bjornson
When you will the mountains roam
And your pack are making,
Put therein not much from home,
Light shall be your taking!
Drag no valley-fetters strong
To those upland spaces,
Toss them with a joyous song
To the mountains' bases!
Birds sing Hail! from many a bough,
Gone the fools' vain talking,
Purer breezes fan your brow,
You the heights are walking.
Fill your breast and sing with joy!
Childhood's mem'ries starting,
Nod with blushing cheeks and coy,
Bush and heather parting.
If you stop and listen long,
You will hear upwelling
Solitude's unmeasured song
To your ear full swelling;
And when now there purls a brook,
Now stones roll and tumble,
Hear the duty you forsook
In a world-wide rumble.
Fear, but pray, you anxious soul,
While your mem'ries meet you!
Thus go on; the perfect whole
On the top shall greet you.
Christ, Elijah, Moses, there
Wait your high endeavor.
Seeing them you'll know no care,
Bless your path forever.
The language is deceptively simple. Anyone who's ever travelled on foot in the mountains will be familiar with those "purer breezes", that "unmeasured song of solitude". Naturally I am now curious about this Bjornson fellow. Aside from Norse legends, I've never touched Scandinavian literature. Perhaps I should try it?  

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Citizenship of Language

I'm happy to announce that one month from now I will be returning--briefly, at least--to Wyoming Catholic College. I am participating in their first-ever Founders' Scholarship competition, which involves two days in Lander writing an essay, giving a speech, and having an interview. The award is a four-year full tuition scholarship--so you can be sure I'm keyed up!

In preparation for speech and essay writing, I recently finished an excellent little book called The Office of Assertion, by Scott F. Crider, an English professor at the University of Dallas. The book, covering topics of invention, organization, and style, is a brief but handy overview of the "art of rhetoric for the academic essay". It was a good, sound refresher for me on techniques of essay writing--but I also loved the way Professor Crider talked about the purpose of writing. Quoting a fine passage from Richard Weaver, he reminds us that even a single sentence is a thing of power: "[T]he right to utter a sentence is one of the very greatest liberties.... The liberty to impose this formal unity is a liberty to handle the world, to remake it, if only a little, and to hand it to others in a shape which may influence their actions." Crider specifically emphasizes that the purpose of an academic essay is to lead the soul of the reader towards some truth inherent in the subject. I'd never heard it put that way before. But I liked it a lot.

Near the end of his book, Crider quotes again from Richard Weaver (it seems I shall have to read some Weaver after this), introducing a concept he called "the language citizen": "Like the political citizen defined by Aristotle, language citizenship makes one empowered to decide. The work is best carried on, however, by those who are aware that language must have some connection to the intelligential world...."

This phrase--language citizenship--intrigued me and plunged me into a long muse. If there are language citizens, then, by extention of metaphor, there must be a language city. But what is this city? Is it the collective sphere of the ideas, thoughts, and words of humanity? Do we all have this citizenship--by virtue of being creatures who communicate--or do we have to "earn" it through diligent study of using language well? Does this citizenship imply a duty? What is that duty? Is it merely to keep the rules of grammar and good style, or does it run deeper? Does it have something to do with "soul-leading"--using language to bring the light of truth to another human being?

It occurred to me at this point that if this last point were correct--if the proper use of language were to communicate truth--then the concept of language citizenship is not a mere metaphor. It's actually the lifeblood of real citizenship. Demagogues abuse freedom and justice through their abuse of language--by clouding the truth through words instead of revealing it. Remember how Weaver said above that even a sentence has the ability to influence others' actions? This, then, is the duty of the actual citizen and language citizen--to both seek the truth through skillful use of words, and to act upon it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Batter My Heart: John Donne's Holy Sonnet 14

More John Donne this week, as promised. This contemporary of Shakespeare has been criticized for writing poetry that's too intellectually convoluted, but his Holy Sonnet 14 must be one of the most emotional love poems to God in the English language. I will let the master speak for himself.

Holy Sonnet 14
by John Donne
Batter my heart, three-personed God; for You
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me,'and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I like an usurpsed town to'another due,
Labour to'admit You, but O, to no end.
Reason, Your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captive, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly'I love You, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto Your enemy;
Divorce me,'untie or break that knot again,
Take me to You imprison me, for I,
Except You'enthral me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.
Read it slowly. Read it aloud. And marvel at the sheer beauty.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Cross In All Things

This past Sunday the Church celebrated the glorious feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. The story behind the feastday is an extraordinary one: on the fourteenth of September we commemorate the day St. Helen, mother of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine the Great, discovered the True Cross on which Jesus Christ gave His life for the world.

I will not attempt today to plunge the profundities that such a feast holds. So many wiser and more beautiful things have been said about the Cross than I could ever write. I simply want to share a few tidbits of this literature on the Cross that have recently caught my attention.

First, a hymn from Vespers before the feast from the Eastern tradition. I love our prayers for Vespers and Matins on holy days. They dive into poetic and theological raptures on the feast, and we bring them to life again every year with voice and melody. Through these prayers we are truly immersed in the mysterious presence of the feast:

O Cross, you are the radiant sign among the stars.
In prophecy you have revealed the sign of victory to the godly king;
And when his mother Helena found you,
She displayed you in the sight of all the world.
Today the choirs of the faithful shout aloud as they raise you on high:
Enlighten us by your brightness, O life-giving and all-venerable Cross.
Make us holy by your might;
Strengthen us by your exaltation,
For you are raised up against our enemies.

Today the choirs shout; today make us holy. The emphasis on the present shifts the focus from a mere commemoration of the feast, to an actual participation in it. It reminds us that we are Christians today and galvanizes us to live as such.

Moving westward, I take my second piece of literature from the Elizabethan poet John Donne.

Although a contemporary of Shakespeare, Donne was not half as famous, probably because his poetry is so intellectually rigorous and not all easy to understand. Nonetheless he wrote some very profound and beautiful lyrics, particularly religious poems. His Holy Sonnets are deservedly called gems and I may well write on them in more detail in the future. But today I draw attention to a few lines from a longer poem that he wrote called, simply, "The Cross":

Who can deny me power and liberty
To stretch mine arms and mine own cross to be?
Swim, and at every stroke thou art thy cross;
The mast and yard make one, where seas do toss.
Look down, thou spiest out crosses in small things;
Look up thou see'st birds raised on the crossed wings;
All the globe's frame, and spheres, is nothing else
But the meridians crossing parallels.
("The Cross", lines 17-24)

In other words, we may as well embrace the cross--because we can hardly avoid it! "All the globe's frame" reflects the astounding and glorious sacrifice of our Creator.

May the Holy Cross protect and sanctify all of us this week in our minds and hearts.