A Paraphrase of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale

I am sad at heart, and numb to the world,
Like Socrates who drank hemlock,
Or as if I drank laudanum (like Coleridge)
Recently, and sank into forgetfulness:
Not because I envy you,
But because I am too happy for you,
That you, nightingale of the forest,
In some beautiful copse
Of shadowy beeches
Sing carelessly of summer.

Oh for a taste of really well-aged wine, that has been
Stored and cooled in deep earthen cellar,
Tasting of the Goddess of Spring, and greenery,
And dance, and folk tunes, and a hot day at the fair!
Oh, I wish I had some southern wine in a glass,
The good stuff, dark crimson, Continue reading

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Coals

(This is a tribute to Dostoevky’s novel Crime and Punishment. For those who have not read the work, this man Raskolnikov is a murderer who has killed an old moneylender, and is suffering from guilt. He is being investigated by Porfiry, the astute and worringly intelligent police detective. Raskolnikov has a tendency to talk to himself, and frequently drifts off into philosophy. His whole goal was to transcend the laws of ordinary men by getting away with murder, and thus become extraordinary, but he has failed, for his conscience will give him no peace. We enter the story several nights after the murder.)

Raskolnikov was walking during the night. He was wearing a yellow coat, not the one from that night. This one he had borrowed from Razumikhin. The night was cold against his feverous forehead. He was talking to himself. The memory of the money which he had given away to that poor family for the funeral grated on him. Didn’t he have need for that money just as much as them? How would a truly extraordinary man do anything without the power, not even power, the basic necessity, of money? The cobblestone under his thin boots was cold and hard. He reflected on his own conscience. His heart was not like this cobblestone, was it? Or rather, was it not becoming like a cobblestone? He had murdered two women in cold blood, and that cold blood flowed through his heart this very moment. Could all the remorse in the world warm that cold-hearted moment again? “But what am I saying?” he exclaimed to himself. “What happened to my resolve? Am I truly planning on turning myself in? If anything could take away my cold heart it would be that. But that is the one thing I cannot do. No, I must stick to my resolve. But this misery…it is not to be borne. There must be an escape… a release for the man who thought himself extraordinary and broke himself over the laws of the ordinary man. For that is it! I am an ordinary man.” And he despised himself. But his thoughts fell around his mind like a cold twilight.

Suddenly Raskolnikov became aware that he was lost. Where had his thoughts led him so blindly? It was no part of the town that he frequented, but his stomach tightened and bile burned in his throat when he realized that he was only a short way from her house…what devil had drawn him so blindly towards the open grave of his guilt?…His guilt should have died with the old woman, but instead it rose again with blood on its head, and stalked behind him in the empty streets. He looked around himself and found that although it must have been past midnight at this point, there was a glow on the horizon. “Could it be the sun?” he asked in confusion. But that would be impossible: it must rather be some large fire that was giving off this light. The cold of the night and the shapelessness of his own musings pushed him towards the fire, like a moth to a candle flame that is sure to scorch it in the end. As he drew nearer, he could hear a hubbub rising over the rooftops and winding its way down the streets towards him. There were cries, and shouts of directions: plainly the fire had struck a house, and men were attempting to put it out. As he rounded a final corner, he saw that his deductions were correct. A large and rich-looking house was flaming like a star in the night. Its beams were blazing with a fierce flame, withering in the tumultuous destruction. The surrounding houses were in danger of catching fire, and men were dashing buckets of water over their walls, attempting to shield them from the destructive lashes of flame that burst out from the house frequently, as some wall or other collapsed inside. The wind was blowing the flames away from the rest of the house, so that it burned quite slowly. Continue reading

On Mirrors

(This is an essay in the style of Montaigne. His essays were usually reflections about some aspect of man. Quotes were unattributed, but I have here quoted from Shakespeare, Cervantes, Machiavelli, and Montaigne himself.)

In every mirror I have ever seen, there is a soliloquy of me: but reflections are silent, so I must speak my reflections. I cannot see the story of myself, for even a mirror cannot represent the complexities of any man. Rather let us turn one mirror to face another. We can see the infinity of depths that the reflection brings with it: and yet every iteration becomes darker and more obscure. Thus it is with man: we all stand between two mirrors, seeking to understand ourselves.

To each man, he himself is an unfathomable depth. And yet we have a sacred duty to examine each and every layer, tossing out this and that, polishing, amending, considering. For though the reflections go on forever, yet we must know ourselves. We do not seek
all delusions and deceits of the sight…all demonstrations of shadows.
But rather we seek the truth.

And yet one might consider himself forever without making progress, for despite what we have said, we can neither comprehend infinity nor penetrate the dark tempest that our minds are the Prospero’s of. Indeed, we might become a man of La Mancha:
so with too little sleep and too much reading, his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind.
Let us not embark on any wild adventures, then, lest we receive a metaphysical thrashing from metaphysical mule-drivers, but let us see whether there is a better way for men to know themselves. For those who pretend to knowledge have the least love for their fellow humans.
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?

And let me here note that nothing is plainer than the proposition that man wants to know himself. For what other reason do we write plays and pretenses and put them on display? The subject of plays are always men themselves, the characters and their actions. We want to stand outside life for a moment and be a spectator only. Offered such a godlike opportunity to know life, who could refuse?

From this it is plain that men are able to know themselves by knowing others and comparing themselves with what they have seen.
Just as those who paint landscapes set up their easels down in the valley in order to portray the nature of the mountains and peaks, and climb up into the mountains in order to draw the valleys, similarly in order to properly understand the behavior of the lower classes one needs to be a ruler, and in order to properly understand the behavior of rulers one needs to be a member of the lower classes.
Even so, in order to understanding the living, one must be dead, or at least standing outside of life for a moment.
…For the soul can find no rest while she remains afraid of him (death). But once she does find assurance she can boast that it is impossible for anxiety, anguish, fear, or even the slightest dissatisfaction to dwell within her. And that almost surpasses our human condition.
For even though to conquer death is to surpass our human condition, we find ourselves strangely reversed in this matter, for we also must go through a sort of death to even learn what our human condition is.

It is for this that men so bravely place their bottoms in hard chairs to sit for hours at a time watching a make-believe story. What else could induce them to endure such discomfort but the prospect of getting to know themselves and mankind a little better, and being better prepared to face
that sleep of death?
The Prince of Denmark, finding it necessary to reveal the truth about his father’s murder, and paint the killer’s cheek red with the blush of guilt, chose the medium of a play – if a conscience may be caught by players speaking canned words upon a stage, what more proof do we need that real men are the mirrors wherein we may know ourselves? King Harry, when wandering among his men during the night before Agincourt, plays a part, as it were, cloaked under another character, and yet the character he reveals is his own true self: the self who could not be shown in public. An actor may reveal the truth more handily than an honest man: for he cares not for the reputation of the assumed character. What a loss it would be to suffer the end of drama, by whose unashamed mirroring nature we so often receive a reflected image of ourselves!
…the purpose of playing, whose end, both first and now, was and is, to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.

A painting might seem to fall short of our standard of reflection – for it cannot move so freely as men or a mirror. But this is the painter’s genius: no other man is forced tell a story so still, or reveal so much character in so small a space! Many paintings can tell us whether the model is good, or bad, or happy, or melancholic, or kind, or cruel, what his station is in life, and many other things: and all this by immobile coloured daubs on a bit of cloth! For my part I will not deny the talent of the painters.

And all these paintings and plays shows man who he is: he is an explorer: he was reborn, Renaissanced, in order to find that among all he studies he had neglected to study himself. From this we have gotten the humanist movement of education: a system of teaching men how to be men, not books; how to judge history, and not merely record it to spit it up again. Man must be appreciated as man: did not the good Lord make us? Then let us glory in His creation and include us among the many things that are submitted to us for consideration, naming, and dominion.

So here sit I, contemplating myself: an armchair philosopher. But an armchair philosopher, however much he knows himself, knows only his sitting self: and that is a very limited self indeed! How much better it is to know oneself in sport or conversation, to know oneself in gaming or feasting, to know oneself in sorrow, in danger, in love, in religious reverence and awe, and
the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to?
How much better to know yourself living than to know yourself as one who sits in a chair and thinks! I am inclined to believe that Plato would have been a better man for a good ride on a bicycle. It is not only the soul that man must know, for the good Lord gave us bodies as well as our souls. So how can a philosopher or any man, indeed, know himself if he knows not his body? A good game of rugby, played well, will tell you once and for all, how well your reason has your body in hand. A hard-earned try tells you as much about yourself as any syllogism. A closely held tackle gives as much glory to God as a finely crafted sonnet.
Mens sana in corpore sano. [A sound mind in a sound body]

Let us be healthy and sane, and taught by both Leonidas and Socrates, by Sparta and Athens. While we may not yet know ourselves, yet we know how to know.
γνῶθι σεαυτόν. Know thyself.

Holy Sonnet: in imitation of John Donne

Donne was noted for his intricate, complex, and intellectual poetry, and vivid imagery. I have deviated from the typical rhyme scheme of a sonnet: Rather than ABBAABBACDCDEE, I have followed this pattern: ABBACBBCDEDEFF.

 

 

My bootstraps, weary with my tugging,
At last give way before my law-filled eyes,
And falls the hope my self-strong soul will rise,
Or that my ills will numb from self-made drugging.
The castle that I built upon the specks
Of sand I dug so oft from other’s eyes,
Unshored by planks from mine, and filled with lies,
Has crumbled down. And I it is who wrecks
This life of mine; undone, unloving I,
Self-unsaved selfish soul, yet saved from self,
By living God I’m called to death to die,
From living death to die to live, to shelf
My lonely pride, on righteousness to hold:
‘Tis Christ’s deeds, and not mine, have made me bold.

Had Montaigne Seen Rugby

This is a fragment of an essay I wrote in the style of Montaigne, on the subject of knowing oneself.

So here sit I, contemplating myself: an armchair philosopher. But an armchair philosopher, however much he knows himself, knows only his sitting self: and that is a very limited self indeed! How much better it is to know oneself in sport or conversation, to know oneself in gaming or feasting, to know oneself in sorrow, in danger, in love, in religious reverence and awe, and

the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to?

How much better to know yourself living than to know yourself as one who sits in a chair and thinks! For that reason, I now set down this essay and turn myself to the far more helpful activity of running around the block once or twice. When I am back, I shall perhaps not have progressed as far as Socrates: but at the least I shall have lived better (and I’ll have the advantage of saying that I’ve been around the block a few times.) I am inclined to believe that Plato would have been the better for a good ride on a bicycle. It is not only the soul that man must know, for the good Lord gave us bodies as well: they are as much a part of us as our souls.

So how can a philosopher or any man, indeed, know himself if he knows not his body? Did not the fathers tell us that we must keep our bodies in check, and under our reason’s control at all times? A good game of rugby, played well, will tell you once and for all, how well your reason has your body in hand. And what better way to mortify the flesh than with the bruises and knocks that come of hard sport? I daresay a seasoned rugby player has mortified his flesh as much as, if not more than, any flagellant. A hard-earned try tells you as much about yourself as any syllogism. A closely held tackle gives as much glory to God as a finely crafted sonnet.

Beknighted

(Upon reading Don Quixote)

 

The stubborn whitewashed walls
Of my old mind’s house cling to me: I must ride.
Lead me forth dubiously, dangerously, undecided and undaunted.
I will be Mr. Grey-No-More beside you,
Bonfiring the false oldness of mockery.
You! In your ramshackle armour,
Cardboard sword,
Batter my mind with your outworn words,
And never worn shall your welcome be.
Make me mad as you are mad,
Inflict your ramblings on my senses,
For I cannot see giants as clearly as I must,
And enchantment flees my approach like some wild thing,
When I would rather romp with it.
Enfeeble my arms , and let life bruise me in passing:
The rough-and-tumble of reality has yet to rattle
My skeptic, armoured heart.

I wonder as I wander through the fields of my thoughts,
Marveling at the holes left behind
In the windmills of my mind.

Ye Knight Bertram (in imitation of Spenser)

(A quick note. The “v’s” tend to be “u’s” and vice versa. There are also several “j’s” as “i’s”. If you think that’s ridiculous, you should read the original Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser. It’s way harder.)

The gentle knight vpon his fire-hearted steed around that lake
Did canter, spear in hand, precaution against foul mischief’s hand
Awaiting th’revelation of his foe’s abhorrent shape, the drake
Which fire breathed against the good and helpless people of the land.
Good Bertram was his name, yclad with yron’s stout and stvrdy band,
Forthsent by Faerie Queene the euil, fiery snake straightway to qvell,
Right brauely did Bertram, iollie knight, obey her stern command.
Beside the fire of euil Discontent it’s ne’er safe to dwell;
So waited he, beneath the moon, that wicked dragon to dispell.

Before the moon had passed its midnight mark, vpheaued from the mere
The dragon, jaws a-drip with coals of uengeance, enuy’s lvstful flames
Belched and blooming red into the siluer night, to others deadly fear.
Not so our Bertram; that good knight, like wise men all, his terror tames
And couches spear against the drake’s aduaunce, denying all his claims
To souereignty ouer the people of the queene. With horrid howl,
For, brauely striking strongly, Bertram in one foot has made it lame,
The dragon slithers near and lashes with his deadly tail foul.
The knight has fallen, hands warding off dragon’s poysonous iowl.

But glory be the Lord, who ‘bandons not his own, gvarding saints
From death at hands of deadliest foes. With forearm strong by faith in God,
Good Bertram grips the dragon’s jaw, and might applying, reacqvaints
His foe with pain, both breaking bone and tendon tearing, though clawed
His body vnder talons fearful is. And lo! The drake, vnjawed,
His black and wicked blood outpours onto the shore. Vnto the throes
Of well-deserued death he giues him: Hell did greet him, who the sod
Now bites in mouthless pain. Braue Bertram gets him vp, and straight he goes
To prayers of thanks to God, who uictory to Bertam’s hand bestows.