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Archive for the ‘Language and Literature’ Category

Betrayal.  Revenge.  Conspiracy.  Murdering your way up the ladder of power.  People usually associate these plot elements with Shakespeare’s tragedies, but I see them operate most strongly in his histories.  That’s one reason why those tend to be my favorite of his works.

Besides just being The Sopranos on an Elizabethan stage, the language here is where Shakespeare gets the most deliciously vicious.

Consider some of the lesser history plays.  Even there, the dialogue tends to be enough to make one’s blood boil.

Henry VI, Part II takes us into the War of the Roses, which was also the historical basis for Game of Thrones, so you know this’ll be full of politically venomous mayhem:

And even now my burthen’d heart would break,
Should I not curse them. Poison be their drink!
Gall, worse than gall, the daintiest that they taste!
Their sweetest shade a grove of cypress trees!
Their chiefest prospect murdering basilisks!
Their softest touch as smart as lizards’ sting!
Their music frightful as the serpent’s hiss,
And boding screech-owls make the concert full!
All the foul terrors in dark-seated hell—  (III.2.320-328)

And this one has my favorite lines of all in Shakespeare’s early plays:

Upon thy eye-balls murderous tyranny
Sits in grim majesty, to fright the world.  (III.2.49-50)


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“Call up your courage again. Dismiss your grief and fear.
A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this.
Through so many hard straits, so many twists and turns
our course holds firm for Latium. There Fate holds out
a homeland, calm, at peace. There the gods decree
the kingdom of Troy will rise again. Bear up.
Save your strength for better times to come.”

This is a quote from Brigham Young.

Here, the Mormon leader motivates discouraged pioneers as they survey the barren, hostile wilderness they’re passing through, after being driven out of their ruined home.  He reminds them that they’ve already suffered greatly before and endured.  He inspires them with a vision of their destined goal: the establishment of a new headquarters for their people in a land to the west.  Their civilization is to be a re-establishment of a great order that had been lost.  This powerful, cheering attitude helps the people strive and successfully realize the prophecy.

Oh, no, wait.  That’s not right.  This is actually a quote from the Trojan hero Aeneas in Virgil’s epic The Aeneid (Book I, lines 238-244, Robert Fagles trans.).

Here, the Trojan leader motivates discouraged soldiers as they survey the barren, hostile wilderness they’re passing through, after being driven out of their ruined home.  He reminds them that they’ve already suffered greatly before and endured.  He inspires them with a vision of their destined goal: the establishment of a new headquarters for their people in a land to the west.  Their civilization is to be a re-establishment of a great order that had been lost.  This powerful, cheering attitude helps the people strive and successfully realize the prophecy.

Sorry, folks.  Don’t know how I could have mistaken those two episodes.

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The Function of Books

“This is the function of books — we learn how to live even if we weren’t there. Fiction gives us access to a very real history. Stories are the best democracy we have. We are allowed to become the other we never dreamed we could be.”

Colum McCann

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Annotating Dan Brown

A bit of harsh language, but hilarious and spot-on:  http://www.themillions.com/2014/01/dumbest-thing-ever-scribbling-in-the-margins-of-dan-browns-inferno.html

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The Art of J.R.R. Tolkien

This link collects some drawings by Tolkien.  They’re quite good.

Reminds me of when we were in Seattle last summer and we visited the EMP museum.  The fantasy wing had an exhibit of Tolkien’s manuscripts and drawings for Lord of the Rings.  Fascinating stuff, but taking pictures wasn’t allowed.

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The best thing about this joke is that, in order to make it work, I only have to write as well as a five-year-old.


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Recently found this great dramatization of the classic poem, set to Loreena McKennitt’s song.

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tumblr_kvj83mv8YY1qz6t3mo1_400I recently finished Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which languished on my to-do list for far too many years.  I loved it greatly.

I knew I was in for a special experience when I saw Hardy defend his controversial work with this quote from St. Jerome in an introduction:

“If an offense come of the truth, better is it that the offense come than that the truth be concealed.”

Hardy’s style impressed me.  It wasn’t loquaciously luxurious, nor was it bitterly Spartan, but as a work of both sympathy and criticism, it melded those two extremes into a lovely new amalgam.  Some examples I liked:

“She thought, without exactly wording the thought, how strange and godlike was a composer’s power, who from the grave could lead through sequences of emotion, which he alone had felt at first, a girl like her who had never heard of his name, and never would have a clue to his personality.” Ch. 13

“Unexpectedly he began to like the outdoor life for its own sake, and for what it brought, apart from its bearing on his own proposed career. Considering his position he became wonderfully free from the chronic melancholy which is taking hold of the civilized races with the decline of belief in a beneficent Power. For the first time of late years he could read as his musings inclined him, without any eye to cramming for a profession, since the few farming handbooks which he deemed it desirable to master occupied him but little time.

“He grew away from old associations, and saw something new in life and humanity. Secondarily, he made close acquaintance with phenomena which he had before known but darkly–the seasons in their moods, morning and evening, night and noon, winds in their different tempers, trees, waters and mists, shades and silences, and the voices of inanimate things.” Ch. 18


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Humor In Ulysses, Part V

From the next-to-last chapter, and illuminated by yours truly to augment the obviousness of the joke:




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I just finished doing last Sunday’s syndicated New York Times puzzle.  I’m pretty proud, because it’s only the 2nd Sunday puzzle I’ve ever finished without having to cheat and Google a single answer.

I’ve done dozens of these now, and it still surprises me how stumped I can get by simple answers, just because of tricky clues.

In this one, 14 across was “Where roots grow.”  I immediately got it into my head that it was about plants.  Five letter answer…SOILS?

It wasn’t until I had a P in the final spot that I realized: it wasn’t about plants, it was about hair.  SCALP.

A good crossword puzzle shows us how we make assumptions, and it challenges us to constantly re-evaluate them.  This is a mental skill sorely lacking in our day and age.

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Humor in Ulysses, Part IV

Part I

Part II

Part III

A little later on in episode 15, Bloom says, “It has been an unusually fatiguing day, a chapter of accidents.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do understatement.

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Now I’m in the middle of chapter 15 of Ulysses, and while it’s one of the densest, more incomprehensible sections, it’s also one of the funniest yet.

Written as a dramatic script, it’s largely a record of daydreams rather than conscious thoughts.  As such, Bloom’s imagination runs freer than before, and the rambling fantasy, plus a growing penchant on Joyce’s part for whimsical puns, makes this chapter a delightful bit of foreshadowing for Finnegans Wake.

Maybe the best part of the chapter so far is the following, where Bloom’s delusions of grandeur–as contrasted with his almost pathetically meek actual self; an Irish Walter Mitty, as it were–find him presiding over a ridiculous bureaucracy.  Joyce lists some mundane minutia in gloriously pompous detail (we’ve all seen government events and publications that take themselves this seriously–begging to be mocked), shares some clever wordplay, and even adds a pure joke at the end.




My beloved subjects, a new era is about to dawn. I, Bloom, tell you verily it
is even now at hand. Yea, on the word of a Bloom, ye shall ere long enter
into the golden city which is to be, the new Bloomusalem in the Nova
Hibernia of the future.

    (Thirtytwo workmen, wearing rosettes, from all the counties of
    Ireland, under the guidance of Derwan the builder, construct the
    new Bloomusalem. It is a colossal edifice with crystal roof, built in
    the shape of a huge pork kidney, containing forty thousand rooms.
    In the course of its extension several buildings and monuments are 
    demolished. Government offices are temporarily transferred to
    railway sheds. Numerous houses are razed to the ground. The
    inhabitants are lodged in barrels and boxes, all marked in red with
    the letters: L. B. Several paupers fill from a ladder. A part of the
    walls of Dublin, crowded with loyal sightseers, collapses.)

                       THE SIGHTSEERS

(dying) Morituri te salutant. (they die)


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Chapter 14 of James Joyce’s Ulysses tells a story of men visiting a hospital for a local woman who’s having a baby.  Stylistically, it starts in the vein of the earliest English and gets more modern as the chapter goes on.

By the following point, Joyce tells of the men discussing some intimately sensitive matters far out of their depth, in a faux-Chaucerian vein.  The combination of highly serious epic poetry with the crudity of the men’s ignorant pontificating strikes me as pretty funny.

Now let us speak of that fellowship that was there to the intent to be drunken an they might. There was a sort of scholars along either side the board, that is to wit, Dixon yclept junior of saint Mary Merciable’s with other his fellows Lynch and Madden, scholars of medicine, and the franklin that high! Lenehan and one from Alba Longa, one Crotthers, and young Stephen that had mien of a frere that was at head of the board and Costello that men clepen Punch Costello all long of a mastery of him erewhile gested (and of all them, reserved young Stephen, he was the most drunken that demanded still of more mead) and beside the meek sir Leopold. But on young Malachi they waited for that he promised to have come and such as intended to no goodness said how he had broke his avow. And sir Leopold sat with them for he bore fast friendship to sir Simon and to this his son young Stephen and for that his languor becalmed him there after longest wanderings insomuch as they feasted him for that time in the honourablest manner. Ruth red him, love led on with will to wander, loth to leave.


But sir Leopold was passing grave maugre his word by cause he still had pity of the terrorcausing shrieking of shrill women in their labour and as he was minded of his good lady Marion that had borne him an only manchild which on his eleventh day on live had died and no man of art could save so dark is destiny. And she was wondrous stricken of heart for that evil hap and for his burial did him on a fair corselet of lamb’s wool, the flower of the flock, lest he might perish utterly and lie akeled (for it was then about the midst of the winter) and now sir Leopold that had of his body no manchild for an heir looked upon him his friend’s son and was shut up in sorrow for his forepassed happiness and as sad as he was that him failed a son of such gentle courage (for all accounted him of real parts) so grieved he also in no less measure for young Stephen for that he lived riotously with those wastrels and murdered his goods with whores.

Which means just what you think it does: Stephen was easy.  Alas.


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