Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

This site is listed in BlogCatalog and
Literature Blogs
Literature blog






Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Index

The index now features hypertext connections. Simply click on any title below to read it.

Though this listing serves, I think, a clear purpose, not every posting falls easily into the categories. One essay might equally be placed under literary theory or medieval texts while another might fit under memoir, politics, or travel. Translations with comment might be either criticism or translation. Poke around a bit.

The categories are:

1. speculative, familiar, performance pieces, and other essays

2. literary theory

3. Greek texts (and a couple of Latin)

4. medieval texts

5. other criticism
A. 16th-19th century
B. 20th century to the present
C. Asian texts
D. songs
E. Notes on Recent Reading
F. Rereading the Classics
G. Every Reader's Poets

6. translation

7. poetry

8. politics

9. memoirs

10. travel



1. Speculative, familiar, performance pieces, and other essays
Agnostic Credo and Vita (October 2015)
Axiology and Subjectivity (October 2014)
Annual Report (August 2014)
Beards (December 2013)
Biking (November 2009)
Biking as a Spiritual Discipline (April 2017)
Cell Phones (June 2017)
Cookbooks (April 2014)
Dead Reckoning (February 2011)
Deer (December 2012)
Documents of the first Surreal Cabaret (March 2012)
Documents of the second Surreal Cabaret (June 2012)
Documents of the third Surreal Cabaret (October 2013)
Documents of the fourth Surreal Cabaret (July 2014)
Documents of the fifth Surreal Cabaret (February 2015)
Drugs and Religion (June 2016)
Dust: a meditative riff (November 2009)
Food for the Gods (December 2011)
Hippie (April 2011)
Immortality (July 2012)
Iowa Communards (December 2011)
A Library’s Commonplaces and Curiosities (May 2011)
The Mannerly Hedonist (February 2013)
Notes and Inserts (June 2016)
Polka (November 2012)
On Pronunciation and Pedantry (September 2015)
In Praise of Bias (November 2014)
Still Biking (November 2012)
A Structural View of Certain Oracles (August 2015)
Supermarkets (October 2010)
Taking Off (November 2009)
This and That (September 2017)
An Uninformed Take on Ballet (June 2018)
Walking the Via Negativa (February 2018)
Worn Tools (June 2013)


2. Literary theory
Afloat on the Ocean of Words (April 2016)
Allusion (March 2015)
Art and the Marketplace (April 2010)
Efflorescences of Female Poets (July 2018)
False and Homophonic Translation (March 2018)
The Familiar Note in Poetry (January 2017)
The Formation of a Christian Rhetoric (April 2011)
How and Why to Signify (July 2011)
Idea of Comedy (January 2012)
The Inconsequential Bayonets of Art: Militant Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde (May 2010)
Lament for the Loss of the Avant-Garde (March 2010)
Millenarian Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde (August 2010)
On the Proper Ends of Literary Study [James Seaton] (July 2014)
Placing the Popular in the Structure of Literature (October 2010)
The Pleasures of the Familiar in Literature (June 2016)
Poetry Amid the Fierce Chaos of the World (December 2009)
Prof. Wellek, Prof. Leavis, and Prof. de Man (December 2015)
The Question of Literary Value (August 2014)
A Range of Visual Poetry (December 2017)
Riddles and Poetry (March 2015)
The Signifying Monkey Talks Literature (April 2010)
Some Notes Toward a Theory of the Avant-Garde (October 2013)
Sontag's "Against Interpretation" (September 2016)
Sweet Treason: Translating Lyric Poetry (November 2009)
Thoughts on Mythology (March 2013)
Transformation of Convention (August 2013)
What is Poetry? (February 2012)
Winged Words: Notes on the Oral Performance of Poetry (May 2010)


3. Greek texts (and two Latin)
Aphrodite’s Bed: Love in the Homeric Hymn (August 2010)
The Birth of Erato: Lyric, Vision, and the Spread of Writing (January 2010)
Dionysos and the Pirates (February 2012)
Ekphrasis in Apollonius: Jason's Cloak (May 2017)
Gorgias (February 2010)
Hermes and the Art of Poetry (March 2013)
Longinus' Sublime (May 2012)
Notes on Pan (June 2014)
Oedipus and the Meaning of Polysemy (July 2011)
Pindar's Athlete in Pythian 8 (January 2018)
Poetry's Long Memory [Horace] (July 2016)
Professors Kick the Willy Bobo [on Athenaeus] (December 2009)
The Role of Rhetoric in Theocritus (February 2011)
The Role of Wine in Nonnus' Dionysiaca (February 2016)
Sappho’s Holy Tortoise Shell: Eros and Poetry in Ancient Greece (December 2009)
Seneca the Elder (March 2010)
A Skeptic's Faith [Sextus Empiricus] (January 2015)
A Structural View of the Ephesiaca (April 2018)
Two Brief Notes on Daphnis and Chloe (May 2018)
Two Passages from Marcus Aurelius (June 2011)
The Web of Myth in the Hymn to Heracles (June 2012)


4. Medieval texts
The Aesthete of Desire: Lancelot and Courtly Love (July 2012)
The Aesthetics of Ambiguity in a Medieval Lyric (December 2012)
Aesthetic Principles of the Middle English Romance (July 2010)
Appropriation of Biblical Narrative in Patience (February 2013)
Bernart and the Music of Ideas (September 2016)
The Buddha in Europe: the Apologue of the Man and the Unicorn in Barlaam and Ioasaph (January 2011)
Chaucer’s Version of the Golden Age (June 2011)
A Conventional Ending in a Middle English Romance (September 2011)
Courtly Love in Romance of the Rose (August 2012)
Distant Rhyme in Two Medieval English Lyrics (August 2011)
The Early English Carol (June 2010)
Geoffrey of Vinsauf (April 2010)
Figures of Love in Lydgate's Temple of Glas (January 2014)
Functions of Alliteration in Thirteenth Century Lyrics (February 2011)
Hypermetric Lines in Beowulf (January 2011)
An Introduction to the Troubadours (January 2010)
Mechthild von Magdeburg (July 2010)
A New Look at Jaufré: Amor de Lonh as Criticism (December 2010)
Odin and Poetry (December 2015)
Openings in the Middle English Romance (July 2010)
The Pearl-Poet’s Use of Link-Rhymes (November 2011)
Phonetics and Semantics in the Last Line of Beowulf (March 2011)
Piers Plowman and the Man in the Moon (October 2011)
The Prima Etade of Literary Ambition [Petrarch] (March 2011
Transformation of Convention in Early Minnesang (April 2011)
Two Early Ballad Tales of Robin Hood (October 2014)
William IX (September 2010)
Who is Piers Ploughman? (June 2013)


5. Other criticism

A. 16th-19th century
Ambivalence in Thomson's The Castle of Indolence (March 2012)
The Archaeology of Gray's "The Progress of Poetry" (November 2017)
Baudelaire's "Painter of Modern Life" (July 2017)
Big Bill Otter's Sprees and Frolics (November 2013)
A Decadent's Dilemmas [Dowson] (March 2015)
Does Crabbe Look Forward or Back? (February 2016)
Dolce's Aretino (September 2015)
The Double Plot of Salem Chapel (December 2016)
Gascoigne's "Notes of Instruction" (September 2013)
Godwin's Theatre of Calamity (September 2015)
Herrick the Divine (August 2014)
Irving's Soft Romanticism (September 2017)

Keats' "Thing of Beauty" (November 2016)
A Lost World of Allusion [Nicholas Breton] (May 2018)
Marius the Epicurean as a Modern (April 2015)
Moby Dick and the Density of the Aesthetic Text (January 2016)
"Monk" Lewis, Mr. Coleridge, and Popular Taste (July 2015)
A Note on Dryden and "Dramatick Poesy" (September 2012)
A Note on Radcliffe's The Italian (October 2012)
Pierce Penniless (May 2013)
The Play of Convention in Shakespeare's Sonnet 153 (April 2017)
The Problem with Swinburne (June 2015)
Rimbaud's Use of Montage (October 2016)
Shelley”s “Ode to the West Wind” as Structuralist Charm (May 2011)
Sir Thomas North's The Moral Philosophy of Doni (September 2013)
The Skeptico-Semiotico-Mystic: Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (June 2015)

Skepticism and Poetry in Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes" (February 2015)
A Structural View of Meredith's The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (June 2017)
The Texture of Traherne’s Religious Thought (October 2010)
Thematic Continuity and Development in the Poetry of Christopher Smart: the Jubilate Agno and the Minor Poems (November 2010)
Thomas Love Peacock and the End of Poetry (August 2017)
Travelers [Marco Polo, Twain, Robert Byron](April 2012)
Trollope's Appeal (December 2012)
Two Notes on Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance (July 2014)
The Use of Nostalgia in Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life (August 2015)

B. 20th century to the present
Another Look at The Seven Lively Arts (June 2013)
Apologia for a Fondness for Pound (November 2012)
Are Uncle Tom's Children Bound by History? (April 2014)
The Artist as Demiurge: Seligmann on Space (December 2017)
Banjo (March 2017)
A Brief History of Negritude (February 2017)
Burns' and Lovick's Vietnam (November 2017)
Celebrities of Performance Poetry (July 2018)
Comics (February 2010)
Conrad's Shadow-Line (June 2014)
The Critical Palimpsest: Black African Literature through White American Eyes (January 2010)
Dada in America (April 2012)
Eisenstein's Strike and the Problem of Realism (April 2013)
Epiphanies in Dubliners (May 2016)
An Explication of Stevens' "A Primitive like an Orb" (October 2017)
False Translations (August 2016)
The Fetish of the Primitive in Twentieth Century Art (April 2015)
A Few Films (November 2016)
A Few Proletarian Writers (March 2012)
Flash Reviews of Thirty African Novels (November 2011)
Flyin’ with the Muses: Kirpal Gordon’s Eros in Sanskrit (May 2011)
Hell's House (November 2013)
Kerouac’s Weakness and Strength (January 2011)
Kurt Seligmann's Moderate Surrealism (November 2016)
Kurt Seligmann and the Poets (October 2017)
Kurt Seligmann's Riddlesome Symbols (March 2017)
The Last Poets (March 2016)
The Legacy of the Beats (March 2014)
The Lyricism of the Ugly: Celine's Mort à Crédit (December 2014)
The Man with the Golden Arm and a Friend with Six Seeds (January 2014)
On Marinetti's Avant-Garde Fascism (September 2017)
Norris's Visionary (March 2018)
Onitsha Market Literature (February 2015)
Pig and Possum Teach Poetry (May 2014)
A Poem by Theodore Roethke (September 2011)
The Power of Picasso's Sculpture (November 2015)
Remarks on the Grassroots Poetry Scene (July 2017)
Saki's Novels (April 2015)
Sartre's "Black Orpheus (February 2017)
Some Poetry Reviews (December 2012)
Sound Poetry and Edith Sitwell's Facade (July 2013)
Tristan Tzara, Poet of Manifestos (February 2018)
Two Graffiti (May 2011)
A Very Funny Fellow [Lev] (May 2012)
Wharton's Undine (June 2018)

C. Asian texts
Friendship and Romance in Ming Stories (February 2014)
Han Shan (December 2010)
Journey to the North (December 2013)
Liezi (October 2012)
Lu Xun (October 2010)
Monkey Rides Again (January 2013)
Notes on Liu Xie (August 2011)
Shakuntala (August 2018)
Tang Stories (April 2016)
Theme and Tone In Kokoro (September 2016)
A Tibetan Novel (March 2017)
The Trials of Lady Ochikubo (April 2014)
The View from a Ten-Foot-Square Hut [Chomei] (February 2018)

D. songs
Blind Willie Johnson Preaches (May 2017)
Bukka White's Limpid Lyric Clarity (November 2017)
The Cutty Wren (August 2018)
"Down the Dirt Road Blues" [Charley Patton] (October 2011)
Fishing Blues [Henry Thomas] (October 2015)
Foggy Dew as Symbol (July 2012)
The Heart of the Blues [Robert Johnson] (January 2018)
The Imagery of Hokum Blues Songs (July 2015)
"Lady Maisry" (November 2013)
"Moon Goin' Down" [Charley Patton] (May 2013)
The Mule in Blues Imagery (August 2017)
"Nottamun Town" (April 2018)
The Paraklausithyron Blues (May 2016)
"The Red Rooster" [Willie Dixon] (March 2014)
Robert Johnson and the Devil (September 2012)
Skip James' Blues Imagery (May 2015)
“Spoonful” and the Accretion of Meaning (December 2012)
"The Three Ravens" (August 2013)
Trinidadian Smut (April 2016)
Truckin' (November 2014)
“Walkin’ Blues” [Son House] (December 2011)

E. Notes on Recent Reading
Notes on Recent Reading [Melville, Greene, and Whalen] (September 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 2 [Crane, The Crowning of Louis, Thornlyre] (October 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 3 [Kipling, San Francisco Mime Troupe, Lynn’s Tao-te-ching] (November 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 4 [Sarah Scott, de La Fayette, Wharton] (January 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 5 [The Deeds of God in Rddhipur, Burney, Cooper] (January 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 6 [Jewett, Addison, Crabbe] (February 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 7 [Nabokov, Austen, Grettis Saga] (April 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 8 [Bakhtin, Lewis, Brown] (May 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 9 [Plutarch, Tacitus, Williams](June 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 10 [Voltaire, France, Dryden](July 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 11 [Wright, Kerouac & Burroughs, Gilbert] (August 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 12 [Huxley, Norris, Dōgen](September 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 13 [Mirabai, Wood, Trocchi] (November 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 14 [Algren, Hauptmann, Rolle] (January 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 15 [Hemingway, Orwell, Gaskell]{February 2013}
Notes on Recent Reading 16 [Howells, Ford, Mann] (April 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 17 [McCarthy, Chang, Snorri](July 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 18 [Radcliffe, Stendhal, Erasmus](October 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 19 [Powers, Zhang Ji, Vietnamese folk song] (February 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 20 [Rowe, Stevenson, Issa] (May 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 21 [Fussell, Mahfouz, Watts] (August 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 22 [Waugh, Belloc, Okakura] (October 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 23 [Naipaul, Dinesen, Spillane] (January 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 24 [Fielding; Izumo , Shōraku, and Senryū; Plath] (June 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 25 [Baskervill, Gissing, Capote] (July 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 26 [Tuchman, Premchand, Cocteau] (November 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 27 [Forster, Sackville-West, Capote] (January 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 28 [Verne, Waley, Hurston] (March 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 29 [Achebe, Jewett, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam] (October 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 30 [Bradford, Scott, Marquand] (April 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 31 [Marlowe, Trollope, p'Bitek] (August 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 32 [Morrison, Cary, Kawabata] (October 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 33 [Tourneur, Peacock, Greene] (December 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 34 [Hawthorne, Huncke, Bentley] (January 2018)
Notes on Recent Reading 35 [Scott, Norris, Jacobs] (August 2018)

F. Rereading the Classics
Rereading the Classics [Burton] (November 2011)
Rereading the Classics [Gogol] (August 2012)
Rereading the Classics [Goldsmith] (December 2016)
Rereading the Classics [Kleist] (February 2012)
Rereading the Classics [Montaigne] (December 2013)
Rereading the Classics [Rabelais] (December 2011)

G. Every Reader's Poets
Every Reader's Blake (May 2017)
Every Reader's Donne (April 2018)
Every Reader's Herrick (December 2015)
Every Reader's Hopkins (May 2016)
Every Reader's Milton (January 2017)
Every Reader's Pope (May 2015)
Every Reader's Shelley (November 2014)
Every Reader's Skelton (March 2016)
Every Reader's Wyatt (December 2014)
Every Reader's Yeats (January 2015)
Why Read Poetry? (May 2018)


6. Translation
Alkaios' Happy Hour (January 2017)
Becher's "Someone Stands Up" (October 2012)
Christian and Dedicatory Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (March 2010)
Emmy Hennings (February 2010)
Emmy Hennings Poems (More from Die Letzte Freude) (November 2010)
Erotic Old English Riddles (March 2018)
Four Poems from the German of Richard Huelsenbeck (January 2010)
Four Quatrains by Wang Wei (January 2013)
Hans Arp (April 2010)
The Homeric Hymn to Dionysos (February 2012)
Horace I.21 (July 2016)
Hugo Ball (July 2010)
Hymn to Aphrodite (August 2010)
Hymn to Heracles the Lion-Hearted (June 2012)
Hymn to the Night [Novalis](March 2012)
Hymn to the Night II [Novalis] (July 2012)
Hymn to Pan (May 2014)
Leonidas of Tarentum (May 2010)
A Mixed Bag of German Translations (August 2014)
Rimbaud's "The Lice-Pickers" (March 2014)
Seven Poems from Léon-Gontran Damas (February 2017)
Some Anonymous Middle High German Lyrics (August 2011)
Three Horatian Odes (November 2012)
Translations of William IX (September 2010)
Wordsworth Speaks German (July 2011)
Yet Two More Versions of Wang Wei (June 2011)


7. Poetry
African poems (August 2010)
Domestic Incidents from the Life of the Lama Swine Toil (June 2017)
How to Be a Poet (June 2010)
The Liturgies of the Lama Swine Toil (September 2012)
Mexican poems (September 2010)
Poems from New Mexico (July 2010)
Poems from Turkey (June 2010)
Produce poems (May 2010)
The Soap Opera of the Pair Who Forgot Themselves, but only Temporarily (August 2012)
Some Sonnets (April 2010)
Three Poems from Peru (August 2011)
Two Lyrics on Death from Central America (January 2012)


8. Politics
Black Lives Matter (August 2016)
Economic Democracy (July 2013)
The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Port Huron Statement (June 2012)
Hard Rain Still Fallin’ (September 2010)
How to Get Serious about Fighting Crime (January 2010)
Local Politics (May 2015)
In Memory of a Generation's People's Heroes (October 2015)
Nationalism (June 2018)
Occupy Wall Street (November 2011)
The Role of Higher Education (November 2010)
The Socialist Martin Luther King (February 2016)
The Triumph and Tragedy of Revolution (December 2016)
Two Exemplary Anecdotes from the Sixties Student Movement (September 2013)
Utopia (November 2015)
Voluntary Poverty (October 2011)
Why I am a Socialist (March 2010)


9. Memoirs
Baby Boomer Reads the Beats (April 2012)
A Brief Literary Life (September 2012)
Edouardo (July 2018)
A Garland of Greek Professors (December 2010)
A Glimpse of Robert Bly (August 2012)
Grandparents (December 2009)
High School (August 2014)
Hip Poets of Seventies San Francisco (January 2011)
How I Came to Work at Scott Foresman (July 2017)
How I Was Hired to Teach in Nigeria (May 2011)
IWW (April 2011)
March in Cicero (December 2009)
A Memorable Roomer (June 2014)
My Most Politically Active Year (February 2011)
Nova Academy (March 2011)
Pestering Allen [Ginsberg] (March 2012)
Poetry on the Loose (September 2011)
A Scholar's Debut (October 2012)
Sherman Paul (August 2016)
Suburbanite in the City (November 2010)
Tim West (March 2013)
VISTA Trains Me (June 2011)


10. Travel
Arrival in Nigeria (August 2015)
Acadiana [Lafayette, Louisiana] (May 2010)
An Armenian Family in Bordeaux (December 2014)
Carnival [Portugal] (May 2012)
Cookie Man [Morocco] (October 2011)
Creel (October 2010)
Dame Fortuna in Portugal (May 2012)
Dinner with Mrs. Pea [Thailand] (April 2013)
Election Day in Chichicastenango (January 2012)
An Evening in Urubamba (July 2011)
Festival in Ogwa [Nigeria](January 2011)
On the Ganges' Shore (August 2013)
The Guru of Guinness (July 2016)
Haarlem (July 2010)
Hitchhiking in Algeria (September 2010)
Hitchhiking in France (January 2014)
Hungarian Food (December 2010)
Introduction to Tourist Snapshots (June 2010)
Jemaa el Fna (December 2010)
Knee-deep in History [Vietnam, Cambodia] (February 2014)
Najibe’s Stories (September 2011)
Nigerian Names and Vehicle Slogans (March 2011)
A Palm Wine Shack [Nigeria] (December 2011)
Portraits from a Floating World: Anonymous (October 2016)
Portraits from a Floating World: Najibe and Sandro (February 2010)
Portraits from a Floating World: Gahlia and Jack (June 2010)
Portraits from a Floating World: Leslie Spector and Pa’ahssyzy (August 2010)
A Problem on the Border [Algeria] (June 2011)
A Reading in Kathmandu (November 2009)
Sacred Space as Sideshow [Prague] (February 2010)
St. Joseph’s Day at the Laguna Pueblo (April 2011)
A Stroll around Lake Bled (May 2013)
Strong Stuff [Marrakech] (October 2012)
Tetouan (November 2010)
The Theory of Souvenirs (April 2012)
A Trip to India (January 2016)
Two Parades [India and Peru] (August 2011)
The Valley of Beautiful Women [Eger, Hungary] (March 2010)
Vignettes of Sunny Nigeria (March 2011)
A Waterfall near Marrakech (February 2011)

The Cutty Wren



Certainly in general literary analysis must rest primarily upon the words of the text under discussion, but all readers welcome footnotes at times, and, for some poems, the greater part of understanding must arise from sources outside the text. A poem may in some cases rely upon its original audience’s familiarity with data that, for later readers, can only be supplied by historians or anthropologists. This is especially true of work with mythological elements. Mythic stories also exist in multiple texts. Myth might be considered as the narrative of a culture, rather than the invention of an individual. Poems retell or refer to the myth, but the myth itself is not limited to any single telling.

The interpreter of the old British folk song “The Cutty Wren” [1] must first recognize that the title refers to dozens of different variants and related verses, no one of which is definitive. The casual hearer of most of these versions would be likely to draw the conclusion from its repetitions and silly names that it is a nonsense poem, appealing mainly to children, while in fact the poem is associated with some of the most profound and archaic beliefs of humankind.

The historically sociological focus of many folklore enthusiasts has fueled speculative historical readings which lack supporting evidence. The most popular single recording of “The Cutty Wren” in recent times by the British anarchist punk band Chumbawumba in 2003 included liner notes dating the song to the fourteenth century and associating it with the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381, implying that the bird to be eaten for the benefit of all was the ruling class. [2] Other historical explanations for the hostility to the wren include the bird’s betrayal by singing of either British defenders against the Vikings in the eighth century or seventeenth century soldiers, variously thought to be Irish, Manx, or British. [3]

Rather than kings or soldiers, though, most commentary on “The Cutty Wren” has centered on use of the song in many variants in a wintertime ritual surviving into modern times, the hunting of the wren. In Ireland, England, and parts of Spain, Canada, and France around the time of Christmas, commonly the day after, young men hunt and kill a wren, fasten its body to the end of a pole and parade through town, stopping in front of homes to ask for handouts. This is precisely the pattern central to Frazer’s The Golden Bough and, in fact, Frazer includes a detailed description of such wren hunts. [4] The song seems to have originated in association with wren-hunting, and investigations of that activity by folklorists and anthropologists provide further important clues to its significance (as well as a number of red herrings).

Frazer describes the ritual as a “form of communion in which the sacred animal is taken from house to house, all that may enjoy a share of its divine influence,” thus ensuring life and the potential for prosperity in the year to come. [5] The wren-sacrifice illustrates his general thesis, that religion arose largely from fertility cults that sought to regenerate the earth and assure human well-being through the worship and periodic sacrifice of a divine king who might be a person or an animal. For time to move forward properly, that “king” must, like the crops of the field and the generations of livestock and game, die, though, in a miracle constantly recurring, the divine energy returns again to life. Frazer’s discussion of the wren follows his description of similar customs among the “Snake tribe” of the “Punjaub” where villagers take round a snake made of dough, promising prosperity to all who “obey the snake” and give them gifts. After dealing with wren-hunting, Frazer goes on to treatment of the Hogmanay custom in Scotland in which a man wrapped in a cow-hide goes house to house to perform circumambulations about each the aim of which is to assure the community have “plenty of meat” in the coming year. Frazer’s data make it quite clear than such practices are found around the world focusing on a wide variety of animal, human, and symbolic figures.

Though little is known about the pre-Christian beliefs of oral European cultures the significance of the wren is widespread enough to imply Indo-European roots. Aesop told how the trickster bird defeated the eagle become king, and the bird’s status is signaled by its name in many European languages, such as roitelet in French, winterkoninkje in Dutch, and Zaunkönig in German. In Celtic languages the bird is identified with the pre-Christian scholar/rulers: dryw means both wren and druid in Welsh, and close parallels exist in Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Manx. [6] While once a year the bird is hunted and killed in ceremonial fashion, the remainder of the year its kingship among the animals, its divinity in fact, is indicated by widespread protective taboos.

Why do people perform such rituals? Of course, one motive is the vulgar instrumental magic that considers such activities essential for the progression of time and the seasons, and, in particular, for the renewal of fertility which must occur with every generation to ensure the survival of all living things. The wren-boys hope to bring prosperity to all. The utter ineffectiveness of such attempts to seize control of fate is a poignant expression of human desire, gesturing toward wants that never can be satisfied.

There is, after all, a more profound symbolic meaning of all the dying and reborn gods, whose drama appears in countless myths, including the Christian one. [7] The killing of the wren is also of a piece with the portrayal of tragic heroes in ancient Greek drama, the enactment of gladiatorial contests in Roman times, and countless other dramatic presentations, including the much-deplored violence of today’s films and video games.

All these cultural artifacts serve fundamentally the same role as an ancient Near Eastern sculpture representing a lion taking down its prey. The viewer may pause and contemplate the artist’s representation of the animal’s power over his victim’s life and death. [8] Surely such a theme, whatever else it may be, is a momento mori, reminding the viewer not merely of the inevitability of death, but its dialectical relationship to life. One cannot exist without the other, and their duality is, in the end, deceptive. Death is the conclusion of every life and life lives on life: one can live only by destroying other life, by consuming living things, be they plants or animals. What the hunting of the wren enacts is the inescapable fact that death is the necessary complement of life, the precondition, one might say, of sex and nourishment.

People have often worried about mortality. Among the symbolic techniques for coping with this anxiety is indeed the wish fulfilment of such fantasies as the magical assurance of health and safety or the promise of life after death. Yet the hunting of the wren, like the skull depicted on St. Jerome’s desk, is also a symbolic rehearsal for the moment of death everyone knows will come. Thus people reassure themselves with a comfortable lie while simultaneously preparing through visualization for the inevitable. In the same way the viewer of tragedy feels both pity for the unfortunate suffering on stage and with the satisfaction that, for the moment, the sacrificial victim is someone else and fear, since every member of the audience knows that each will inevitably confront the abyss.

If this important mental programming may be accomplished together with the good fellowship of a party of one’s own kind, and accompanied with fun and food, the result may be not only catharsis but also a kind of exhilaration. Singing nonsense is entertaining, but it also reflects an engagement with a world that must often seem absurd, meaningless, and indifferent to the plaintive cries of human desire. The entire practice of the wren hunt – the date near the winter solstice, the songs accompanying it, the responses of the villagers – constitute a supra-individual work of art as profound and beautiful as a work of an individual genius.




1. I append first the version first published in David Herd's Scots Songs. Walter Scott used some of the material Herd had collected in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Following this are a number of other texts representing a small selection of the many “versions of “The Cutty Wren.” In the United States and Australia, variations called “Billy Barlow” proliferated. These and more are available online. What I have included is chosen nearly at random; their sources, indeed, any of their particular characteristics are insignificant for my purposes here.

2. This unsupported notion, of a song first recorded in the eighteenth century, may arise from a comment by the influential A. L. Lloyd in the 1940s. See A. L. Lloyd, The Singing Englishman, p. 7. Lloyd, a central figure in the British folk revival, while an important singer and collector (and a Communist), was no scholar. In fact, rather than suggesting the song was composed with a political import, he says “Pretty certainly this was originally a magical song, a totem song, which about this time took a strong revolutionary meaning.”
The slogan “eat the rich,” popular during anti-gentrification agitation in the Lower East Side during the 1980s, became the title of a British film and an Aerosmith tune, and more recently reached an epigone as the name of posh restaurants in Washington, D. C. and Munich.

3., “The Irish Wren Tales and Ritual. To Pay or Not to Pay the Debt of Nature,” Sylvie Muller, Béaloideas (journal of An Cumann Le Béaloideas Éireann/The Folklore of Ireland Society), 131-169 1996/1997.

4. Frazer, The Golden Bough (two volume edition), 620.

5. For two reasons I continue to value Frazer and use him as a reference though I am, of course, aware of the strictures on his conclusions by Edmond Leach and others. First, I think that customs such as the carrying about of the wren and similar practices are the very closest to Frazer’s paradigm. Though he may have overgeneralized as Tylor did about sun myths, that does not prove him wrong in every instance. Second, I read and use Frazer as a literary critic, not as an anthropologist. The standards of aesthetic hermeneutics are not the same as those of science.

6. The proto-Celtic *druwits (literally “oak-knower”), from Proto-Indo-European *dóru (“tree”) and *weyd- (“to see”). The wren is, of course, at home in the oak.
Considering an archaic bird deity, one thinks inevitably of the many bird-headed goddesses that fill the works of Marija Gimbutas.

7. Christian objections to Frazer’s treatment of Christ’s story as a myth led him first to move its treatment to an appendix and, in the abridged edition which I used, to excise it altogether.

8. Many variations are possible. There are also many sculptures of lion hunts in which the majestic animal is bent, pierced with spears and arrow, as if to imply the king’s hegemony even over even such a fearsome beast. Yet other images include conflations of king and lion in divine part-human, part-animal beings. All are meant to offer the hapless humans some sense of power over their environment while also reinforcing the social order.



1776 version from David Herd's Scots Songs


Will ze go to the wood? quo' FOZIE MOZIE;
Will ze go to the wood? quo' JOHNIE REDNOZIE;
Will ze go to the wood? quo' FOSLIN' ene;
Will ze go to the wood? quo' brither and kin.
What to do there? quo' FOZIE MOZIE;
What to do there? quo' JOHNIE REDNOZIE;
What to do there? quo' FOSLIN' ene;
What to do there? quo' brither and kin.
To slay the WREN, quo' FOZIE MOZIE:
To slay the WREN, quo' JOHNIE REDNOSIE:
To slay the WREN, quo' FOSLIN' ene:
To slay the WREN, quo' brither and kin.
What way will ze get her hame? quo' FOZIE MOSIE;
What way will ze get her hame? quo' JOHNIE REDNOZIE;
What way will ze get her hame? quo' FOSLIN' ene;
What way will ze get her hame? quo' brither and kin.
We'll hyre carts and horse, quo' FOZIE MOZIE:
We'll hyre carts and horse, quo' JOHNIE REDNOZIE:
We'll hyre carts and horse, quo' FOSLIN' ene:
We'll hyre carts and horse, quo' brither and kin.
What way will we get her in? quo' FOZIE MOZIE;
What way will we get her in? quo' FOZIE MOZIE;
What way will we get her in? quo' FOOSLIN' ene;
What way will we get her in? quo' brither and kin.
We'll drive down the door-cheeks, quo' FOZIE MOZIE:
We'll drive down the door-cheeks, quo' JOHNIE REDNOZIE:
We'll drive down the door-cheeks, quo' FOSLIN' ene:
We'll drive down the door-cheeks, quo' brither and kin.
I'll hae a wing, quo' FOZIE MOZIE:
I'll hae another, quo' JOHNIE REDNOZIE:
I'll hae a leg, quo' FOSLIN' ene:
An I'll hae anither, quo' brither and kin.



Chumbawunba version:


Oh where are you going? said Milder to Moulder
Oh we may not tell you! said Festel to Fose
We're off to the wood! said John the Red Nose
We're off to the wood! said John the Red Nose
And what will you do there? said Milder to Moulder
Oh we may not tell you! said Festel to Fose
We'll shoot the cutty wren! said John the Red Nose
We'll shoot the cutty wren! said John the Red Nose
Oh how will you cut him up? said Milder to Moulder
Oh we may not tell you! said Festel to Fose
With knives and with forks! said John the Red Nose
With knives and with forks! said John the Red Nose
And who´ll get the spare ribs? said Milder to Moulder
Oh we may not tell you! said Festel to Fose
We'll give them all to the poor! said John the Red Nose
We'll give them all to the poor! said John the Red Nose



Les Barker’s version, described as “made popular by the late Percy 'Stupid' Sedgwick, last of the very thin Baroldswick wren hunters”


Where are you going said Millda to Molda,
Where are you going oh where do you go?
I'm off to the forest said Molda to Millda,
I'm off to the forest all in the deep south. (emended to snow)

Why are you going says Millda to Molda,
Why are you going with all of these men?
You nosy old bleeder said Molda to Millda,
You nosy old bleeder we're hunting the wren.

Two dozen hunters says Millda to Molda,
Yet you never catch one won't you tell me how?
Its a bloody small target said Molda to Millda,
Its a bloody small target you stupid old cow.

Then why do you do it says Millda to Molda,
Why do you do it says the wining old voice.
I know it sound silly said Molda to Millda,
Its an old a pagan custom and we got no choice.

Would you walk in the forest says Millda to Molda,
Would you walk in the forest like an old pagan man?
We'll go in my motor said Molda to Millda,
I've got a Toyota its a four wheel drive van.

Where have you been says Millda to Molda,
Where have you been won't you tell me?
Hunting the wren said Molda to Millda,
Hunting the wren has your memory gone?

Pray have you got one says Millda to Molda,
Pray have you got one please tell I'm all ears.
Yes we're enraptured said Molda to Millda,
Its the first one we've captured for two thousand years,

Where did you catch it says Millda to Molda,
Where did you catch it pray tell to me.
We got it at Safeway said Molda to Millda,
We got it at Safeway for 55 p.

Its not very big though says Millda to Molda,
We won't need much stuffing I don't see the sense.
Of course its not big though said Molda to Millda,
Its one of the salient features of wrens.

You should have got a chicken says Millda to Molda,
A chicken or a turkey or maybe a joint.
We should have got a chicken said Molda to Millda,
You silly old woman you're missing the point.

So why hunt the wren then says Millda to Molda,
Why hunt the wren then if its such a small thing?
Its and old pagan custom said Molda to Millda,
And hunting the sausage don't have the same ring .

Where are you going says Millda to Molda,
Where are you going says Millda again.
Off to the Arndale said Molda to Millda,
To open a shop called Kentucky fried wren.



From Sam Henry, Songs of the People, collected in Armagh, 1937


"Where are you goin'?" says Arty Art,
"Where are you goin'?" says Dandrum Dart
"Where are you goin'?" says Brothers-In-Three
"I'm goin' to the fair." says Crickety Wee.

"What will you do there?"
I'll buy a wee pony."

"But what will you do with it?"
"It's for my wife to ride on."

"When will ye get married?"
"The day before the morrow."

"Will there be any drink?"
"A glass and a half."

"It'll not be all drunk."
"I could drink it myself."

"What'll you have to eat?"
"A loaf and a half."

"It'll not get all ate."
"I'll put it under my hat."

"The mice will get at it."
"I'll keep a good cat."

Will ye have any children?"
"Two, and two cripples."

"I doubt they'll not work."
"They'll work for death."



from Gammer Gurton's Garland, and English book of rhymes (published at Stockport, approximately 1760)

We'll go a shooting, says Robin to Bobbin
We'll go a shooting, says Richard to Robin
We'll go a shooting, says John all alone
We'll go a shooting, says everyone
What shall we kill, says Robin to Bobbin
What shall we kill, says Richard to Robin
What shall we kill, says John all alone
What shall we kill, says everyone
We'll shoot at the wren, says Robin to Bobbin
We'll shoot at the wren, says Richard to Robin
We'll shoot at the wren, says John all alone
We'll shoot at the wren, says everyone
She's down, she's down, says Robin to Bobbin
She's down, she's down, says Richard to Robin
She's down, she's down, says John all alone
She's down, she's down, says everyone
How shall we get her home, says Robin to Bobbin
How shall we get her home, says Richard to Robin
How shall we get her home, says John all alone
How shall we get her home, says everyone
We'll hire a cart, says Robin to Bobbin
We'll hire a cart, says Richard to Robin
We'll hire a cart, says John all alone
We'll hire a cart, says everyone
The hoist boys hoist, says Robin to Bobbin
The hoist boys hoist, says Richard to Robin
The hoist boys hoist, says John all alone
The hoist boys hoist, says everyone
So the brought her away after each pluck'd a feather
And when they got home, shar'd the booty together



Shakuntala



When I was hired as an adjunct to teach a course called World Drama at a large and respectable university, I found that the anthology that had been in use, though indeed titled World Drama, contained nothing but European plays. I added a paperback of Chinese works from the Yuan Dynasty, and cautioned the students that I was not pretending to cover the territory promised by the course title, but only aimed to remind them of what was omitted.

Such compromises are unavoidable. The reader who wishes truly to know literature, unrestricted by a single national tradition, must accept the impossibility of wholly realizing such an ambition. Though some scholars have achieved dazzling breadth in linguistic study, one can learn only a limited number of languages, especially considering the depth of knowledge required to handle aesthetic texts. Exploring the literary expanse, the curious will repeatedly encounter vistas startling and grand that reveal vast and previously unknown regions. [1]

Without knowledge of Sanskrit or expertise in Indian literature in any language, I make bold to present a few comments on the comparison of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, generally considered one of the finest plays of ancient Sanskrit drama. I beg the same indulgence from the well-disposed reader offered by a professor who finds that the necessarily fresh readings of inexperienced students, while generally repeating the dullest old errors, occasionally offer a window to an illuminating insight.

A striking contrast with European drama is the insistence of Indian playwrights on a happy ending. This contrast is particularly problematic for Westerners since a naïve prejudice favors tragedy as more serious. [2] This may be due to the fact that the drama in India remained under religious auspices while it was secularized in the European Renaissance. Optimistic conclusions may be an implied consequence of the deities’ mastery of human affairs, though such considerations did not ameliorate the Greeks sense of tragic horror or Christian claims of tragedy in the fall of Satan or the passion of Christ. One expects similarly positive outcomes from popular and mass culture, reassuring the audience that all is fundamentally right in their assumptions about the world, but Kalidasa’s theater was courtly.

Though action does occur in the story, the primary focus of the play is clearly lyrical. Poems succeed poems, some of them almost set pieces that could stand alone. The work’s courtly character is clear from the fact that Kalidasa displays erudition in his familiarity not only with the great Indian epics – the plot is drawn from a passage in the Mahabharata – but also by his adherence to the conventions set forth in such theoretical authorities as the third century Natya Shastra attributed to Bharata Muni..

The courtly performance setting, the artificiality of the form and the concentration on highly conventional forms of aesthetic refinement suggest affinities to the masque, though there are critical differences. The allegorical figures typical of the masque offer even less plot and character, substituting an extravagant fondness for spectacle. The slow pageantry of the masque inspires first of all the appreciation of beauty and secondly seeks to enact general truths, while in both theory and practice ancient Sanskrit drama is centered around emotional affect, called rasa. Though the word in older texts may be defined as “juice,” “essence,” or “taste,” by the time of the Natya Shastra, it means the “flavor” of a scene, conceived as eight or nine possibilities: love, hilarity, pathos (or disgust), anger, compassion, bravery, horror, and astonishment. [3] Later writers added the serenity of enlightenment.

In the context of the Hindu (and Buddhist) philosophic system the intentional excitation of passion may seem incongruous. Yet according to the Natya Shastra drama arose as a fifth Veda with the same goals as the first four: to teach truth (I.14-16) for people in some measure seduced by their senses. (I.12, 108-9) Though in a sense the gods have nothing to do with drama (I.22), which occurs not in the divine realm but in “the three worlds” (I.106), its sacred character is affirmed by the fact that the first play was presented at a festival for Indra (I. 55) and that puja must be offered before performances. (I.125)

Though plays are a mimicry of human actions (I. 111 ff.), plausibility is inconsequential. The author’s goal is to evoke from the audience a series of related “flavors,” [4] or emotions. Initially, the Western reader may wonder why, in a meditative system aimed at freeing individuals from passion and attachment, the intentional generation of such feelings would be desirable. Fiction in general and plays in particular may be considered a form of upaya or “skillful means” by which the consciousness tricks itself into greater enlightenment. [5]

The dramatist seeks to involve the viewer in an encyclopedic range of the varieties of a given human passion, for Shakuntala the erotic, not simply to experience the emotions for their own sake, but as the basis for meditation. If one feels every variety of love in a wholly artificial situation, only to be returned in the end from the setting of the drama to the real world of the playhouse, the result should be a certain detachment from the erotic.

In a comparable conflict between the claims of art and religion, St. Augustine laments his youthful attachment to reading fiction and watching tragedies, thus immersing himself in “false” suffering while ignoring his own sin and indeed the entire suffering world. To him such taste came to seem perverse. [6] For Augustine verbal beauty is justified only when it has the object of furthering salvation. In a similar way, the Indian sages admitted drama as a route to enlightenment.

Even the specific mechanism in which plays serve wisdom differs little from India to Europe. Of course, in the first instance, the play should have some instructive theme. Beyond that however, plays are said to perform a sort of alchemical metamorphosis of human emotion, transmuting potentially destructive feelings into something redemptive.

In Aristotelean tragedy, the viewer will experience the emotions of pity and fear, leading to a salutary catharsis. Critics have differed over whether this describes a purgation in the sense of clearing away the troublesome passions altogether, a sort of flushing out of feelings better done without, or some sort of heightening that replaces the limiting emotions of everyday life with a profounder, nobler, and wiser version that allows the play-goer to sustain life in a more enlightened manner after leaving the world of the stage.

The same dilemma is present in ancient Sanskrit drama. If such entertainments are to serve as a “fifth Veda,” is the mechanism through the elimination of passion or its objectification? Is such emotional expense present in all humans? In what way does consciousness of one’s own emotional susceptibility lead toward enlightenment? The rasas have a long critical history of analysis by learned pandits, so I do not doubt that such questions have been investigated, but I am here concerned only with the most immediate comparisons.

In any event it is clear that both Western and South Asian dramatic systems rely on emotions, the determining factor in human decision-making, often occluded by the desire to consider ourselves rational, as the dynamo for generating changes in consciousness. Both employ recognizable (if unlikely) “imitations” of human action, but operate in a world of assumed universals rather than the incidental particularities of an individual’s fate. Both make use of legendary material couched in rhetorically elaborate language to indicate the gap between their truth and that of mere everyday life.

Kalidasa’s Shakuntala opens with a prologue with what seems like modern self-referentiality. After a pious Shaivite benediction the stage manager interrupts with a blustery “Enough of that!” to introduce a singer. Her song transports him with its beauty to the extent that he forgets the night’s production. In an analogous way the author hopes his audience will be transported by the imagined emotions of the play. The last lines of the prologue provide a transition to the action of the play with the reference to the deer leading the king to his destiny unawares. Thus, the song, the play as a whole, and, within the play, the deer all provide the “cunning means,” or upaya that abstracts the season individual from the mundane and allows access to a more sublime realization of reality. The audience is drawn by the beauty of the play as King Dushyanta is by Shakuntala’s. Through the paradoxical operation of art, the fictional, the artful, and the imaginative allows the consciousness to focus not on the inconsequential details that absorb our daily attention, but on the longer view, of which the horizon is liberation, enlightenment, or, as Kālidāsa would say, moksha.


1. For instance, oral literature, which dominated human culture for most of the history of our species, is still largely neglected or ceded to anthropologists, whose concern is not with the beauty of the texts they collect.

2. Thus Hollywood movies for decades adapted literary classics, both novels and plays, by making their ambiguous or unhappy endings into happy ones. Popular culture tends to affirm received ideas.

3. This system is further rationalized in the Natya Shastra which, with an almost scientific impulse toward economy, maintains that the comic rasa arises from erotic, the pathetic from the furious, the marvelous from the heroic, and the terrible from the odious. (I.39)

4. The rasas are specifically likened to tastes in cooking in I.31.

5. The term (and kaushalya “cleverness”) is more commonly associated with Buddhism, it is used in Hinduism as well and is relevant here.

6. See his Confessions (III, 1-4). Augustine argues that a fondness for tragedy cultivated an absurd “love of suffering.” Elaborating this idea Augustine uses the language of bondage and masochism, recalling tragic stories that "scratched" his soul and became "inflamed spots, pus, and repulsive sores" according to God's justice ("you beat me with heavy punishments"). The bishop did not apparently see any similar sado-masochistic aspect to meditation on the passion of Christ or ascetic practices.
Augustine did find a place for art if it could aid a soul toward salvation. In On Christian Doctrine, Bk. IV, ch 12 to engage the faculty of eloquence on the side of truth to combat those who employ it to further error.

7. Satya Shastra, I.108-9.

Notes on Recent Reading 35 (Scott, Norris, Jacobs)



Ivanhoe (Scott)

Scott like Trollope is a popular and conventional writer I consistently enjoy. The reader must accept that his narratives are romances rather than realistic novels. For this reason their predictability, their reinforcement of received ideas, and the bipolar simplicity of their heroes and villains are rather generic characteristics than faults. One might well quibble, as critics did in Scott’s own time, about the improbable revival of Athelstane or the errancy of the novel’s historical premise, but I for one would prefer to swallow it all. In Scott the formal tightness and exacting plot design make him seem almost a late Neo-classicist, while his regionalism and celebration of fine feelings would suggest a Romantic. Though once thought the equal of Byron, his poetry is little read today. The novels enjoyed a lively second life in Hollywood films, but even these are too corny to attract contemporary attention.

The fact is that literature may equally attack, interrogate, and affirm readers’ ideas. I would argue that the development of a critical attitude toward conventions and conventional beliefs is a phenomenon of the last few hundred years, and that not only such modern works as this one or, say, a musical like Oklahoma (or Gold Diggers of 1933), but also virtually all oral, folk, and, popular art are highly conventional and similarly bear themes that reassure the consumer of the rightness of his pre-existing attitudes. Still, I cannot deny that Scott richly deserved Thackery ‘s satirical sequel Rebecca and Rowena and Mark Twain’s comment in Life on the Mississippi that Scott was “in great measure responsible for the war.” Later, in his “Disappearance of Literature” speech, Twain said Ivanhoe could be read only at the ages of eighteen or ninety but not between. I would dispute the latter number with him.


McTeague (Norris)

Norris’ novel brings old San Francisco to life, describing the McTeague’s Polk Street neighborhood with precision. But while Norris the naturalist, a conscious disciple of Zola, thought he was tracing the deterministic course of an individual’s fate with cool objectivity, the reader is more likely to be impressed with the pregnant dream-like symbols, though one might easily object that Norris goes altogether as mad as his characters with gold the symbolic significance of which mounts far beyond verisimititude: the giant tooth, Maria’s imaginary gold dining service, Trina’s cache of double eagles, the canary, the sudden rich vein in the earth he discovers before fleeing.

We are without doubt in Frye’s low-mimetic mode. Was there ever such a lurid anti-Semitic character as Zerkow? For that matter, Norris insists upon McTeague’s stupidity to the point of constantly representing him as wondering what is going on. It is sometimes a bit hard to take. The final confrontation between Marcus and McTeague is anything but realistic; indeed, it is utterly unlikely, but nonetheless perfectly right. Their possibilities vanish one by one as the alkali sands of Death Valley get the better of them in an artificial but elegant ending with a theme and scene that recalls the denouement of B. Traven’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Though Norris also conceived of himself as an artist engagé, society is assigned little blame here. If Uncle Oelbermann is thoughtless, that is merely because the rich so often are. Poverty’s suffering is here portrayed, but with no suggestion of a practical alternative. The novel is, of course, the source of Von Stroheim’s great film Greed.


Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Jacobs)

Once, in a university library with open stacks, I recall stumbling upon the reminiscences of one-time slaves collected by workers in the Federal Writers’ Project of the WPA. I was staggered simply by the reflection that, during the 1930s, many people were still alive who had experienced the full rigors of America’s peculiar institution. Such narratives provided powerful propaganda prior to the Civil War when slave autobiographies fueled support for the abolitionist movement – at least sixty-five were published before 1860. These texts, along with Native American autobiographies, provided the first relatively authentic voices from these oppressed American minorities. (Indeed, as in this work, the distortions and inaccuracies are themselves meaningful.)

While far less rhetorically grand than Frederick Douglass’ Narrative, Harriet A. Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl possesses considerable power based on the story it records. Jacobs as a woman personally suffered the sexual exploitation inherent in the system. The mixed race complexions of so many Americans socially considered black testify to how very commonplace such brutality had been. Before she was able to make her way northward, she hid out under her master’s nose for almost seven years, an ordeal that would have sounded barely credible were it not for similar stories from fascist Spain and Nazi Europe. Her experiences make it plain as well how unfree the non-slave-holding North was, especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act.

The Harvard Press edition is edited thoroughly and expertly by Jean Fagan Yellin.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Efflorescences of Female Poets



This sketchy essay aims at little beyond description. Perhaps other readers will be intrigued with these poets, or the phenomenon of their appearing when they did. Further, these authors provide data for testing whether women’s writing differs in general from men’s.


Upon being told of a female Quaker preacher, Dr. Johnson reacted, "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." His attitude was, like most of Johnson’s opinions, as reactionary as it was witty, but his asperity was doubtless due in part to the fact that in his own time that the issue of female speakers, writers, and intellectuals became contested. By the eighteenth century not only did female preachers appear; women writers were proliferating. Women made up a good percentage of both the authors and consumers of fiction, and they were just making their way into the list of the period’s poets.

Yet, surveying the globe through all the centuries of literacy, in the written records of our species the voices of half the species are all but absent. Were there no other evidence of human culture, the record of literature would itself be sufficient to trace the patriarchal bias of civilization since the Bronze Age. Apart from the sporadic appearance of extraordinary individuals, there have been as well as some fascinating efflorescences of groups of female poets, blossoming out of societies that seem otherwise as male chauvinist as their geographical and chronological neighbors.

In the Western tradition, doubtless the most celebrated female poet is Sappho whose reputation, though not much of her poetry, has survived the centuries. A towering figure very close to the beginning of European literature, she was called “the poetess” just as Homer was “the poet” (or, in more modern times, “the bard” means Shakespeare“). She was celebrated with statues and coins and called by at least three ancient poets “the tenth muse.” One of her most celebrated poems describes the physical manifestations of passion.


The man's all but a god
who sits with you and pays such heed
to your sweet talk
and lovely laugh --

listening excites me --
my heart's at odds, unsettled.
And when I look at you my mouth
can't form a word.

My tongue stopped, I'm filled
with thin flames -- vision fades,
and my ears hear the beating
of my blood.

Cold sweat on my side, I'm taken
with trembling and blanch like straw.
Little short of death,
I must last it out,

without you . .


Her once substantial collected works have dwindled over time to a few scattered fragments with one single whole poem, standing almost miraculous amid the ruins. Indeed, the greater part of ancient Greek lyrical poetry as a whole has been lost, but nonetheless, Sappho was hardly a unique figure in her own day. Other female poets from the time are known, though some by little more than name and a few hints of reputation.

Kleobulina (6th century BCE) is associated in legend with philosophers. She enjoyed sufficient celebrity that two comedies, one by Kratinos and one by Alexis, featured choruses of “Kleobulinas.” All that survives of her work are portions of three riddles. She seems to have specialized in these gnomic formulations which lie at the foundation of metaphor and poetry as a whole. Whether hers were profound or trivial or simply mysterious must be judged by a few examples. The solution to “a dead ass boxed my ear with his horned shin-bone” is a Phrygian flute. More ambitious and universal , though perhaps little more profound is a version of the year riddle, familiar from many sources including the Rig Veda and the Mahabharata: “There is one father and twelve children; of these each Has twice thirty daughters of different appearance: Some are white to look at and the others black in turn; They are immortal and yet they all fade away.” [1]

Even in D. L. Page’s prose translation the reader hears an eloquent and natural voice in Erinna’s sixth century “Distaff,” written in memory of her childhood friend Baucis.


These traces of you, dear maid, lie still glowing in my heart : all that we once enjoyed, is embers now. We clung to our dolls in our chambers when we were girls, playing Young Wives, without a care. And towards dawn your Mother, who allotted wool to her attendant workwomen, came and called you to help with the salted meat. Oh, what a trembling the Bogy brought us then, when we were little ones! - On its head were huge ears, and it walked on all fours, and changed from one face to another!


Among the others female poets who flourished in archaic and early Classical Greek times were Korinna, who according to Aelian and Suidas defeated Pindar five times in competitions. Her choral lyrics were performed by troupes of girls in partheneia; Megalostrata from the 7th century BCE, whom Alkman called a "golden-haired maiden enjoying the gift of the Muses", and Myrtis of the 6th century, first of a line of female Boeotian poets.

These writers flourished and were not only accepted but celebrated by coinage and statuary as well as by critics. Though their culture was highly patriarchal, goddess-worship provided some occasion for female poetic agency. Thus Sappho’s lines are in a ritual as well as a psychological sense an offering to Aphrodite. Yet it would be a millennium and a half before Europe would see another such flowering of female poets.

Among the written records of the remarkably luxuriant poetic growth of the south of France in the later Middle Ages are the names of twenty female troubadours or trobairitz. [2] The development of fin’ amors -- what came to be called courtly love in English – doubtless was influenced by Arabic poetry [3], Mariolatry, and the absence of men during the Crusades. Eventually romantic and artistic skills came to be included among the accomplishments required of a courtier.

Five poems are extant attributed to the Comtessa de Dia, four cansos and a tenson. For one canso, “A chantar m’er de so qu’eu no volria,” music has survived as well. The poem is a complaint of an unsatisfied lover who feels that her beloved behaves toward her in a “proud,” standoffish manner (“orguoill”) while being “open-hearted“ (“franc”) with everyone else. Still, she remains steadfast in her own dedicated love, preserving her nobility and virtue while he betrays his own “great worth” (“rics pretz”) by failing to return her affection.


I must sing of that which I would rather not:
I am so aggrieved by him of whom I am the friend.
For I love him more than anything that be,
But pity and courtliness do not avail me with him,
Nor my beauty, nor my worth, nor my wits:
For I am thus tricked and betrayed
As I should be if I were ugly


The canso by Bieiris de Romans "Na Maria, pretz e fina valors" provides a dramatic example of the complex hermeneutic challenges these texts can present. The poem, clearly attributed to Bieiris de Romans, contains a suite of recognizable courtly love conventions, yet is addressed to a woman named Maria. Her peerless excellences, the poet says, elicit true love and a “pure heart” (“cor truan”). She begs for some sign that her love-service will be accepted. In the beloved the poet finds “gaiety and happiness” (“gajess’ e alegranssa”). [4] Scholars, puzzling over what to make of this poem, have sometimes attributed it to a male author or at any rate to a male persona. Some regard the poem as a straightforward expression of lesbianism, while others prefer to view it as an expression of intense but non-sexual friendship. Inevitably, the beloved has also been identified with the Virgin Mary. [5] To some the words of the poem seem a sincere heart’s overflowing, while to others they are ironic or a purely aesthetic game with little relation to lived experience.

In Heian Japan (794-1185) two of the greatest writers were women. Murasaki Shikibu wrote the lyric-filled Tale of Genji of which Kenneth Rexroth says “most people who have read it agree that it is probably the world’s greatest novel.” [6] This masterful work combines the most intensely self-conscious aestheticism with a highly wrought eroticism and a mystical Buddhism, all from an almost painfully sensitive point of view, as refined as any page of Proust. The lovers, indeed most of the characters, exchange subtly significant verses, often heavily allusive; indeed, the entire book, long as it is, has a lyric sensibility.


Murasaki:
The troubled waters
are frozen fast.
Under clear heaven
moonlight and shadow
ebb and flow.

Answered by Prince Genji:
The memories of long love
gather like drifting snow,
poignant as the mandarin ducks
who float side by side in sleep. [7]


Genji was so successful that it became itself the source of countless later references and works of visual art. Murasaki (the name is both the author’s pseudonym and the name of the heroine in the novel) also wrote a journal and a book of waka.

In her diary, Murasaki says waspishly of one of her contemporaries: "Sei Shonagon is very arrogant. She thinks herself so clever and litters her writings with Chinese characters, but when you look at them carefully you will find many errors. Those who want to behave as if they were superior to others will lower their reputation. Will their future be brighter?" [8]

Though Shonagon’s lyrics are included in contemporary anthologies, her Pillow Book, a sort of informal journal belonging to the Japanese genre zuhitsu, is her most well-known work. Her super-cultivated sensibility and the extraordinary refinement of the Heian court, are evident on every page. She compiles lists of “things that should be large” “Nothing annoys me so much,” she says as “someone who arrives at a ceremony in a shabby, poorly decorated carriage.” After including “rice starch that has become mixed with water” in a list of “things without merit,” she apologizes at length for mentioning such a vulgar item, saying “I never thought these notes would be read by anyone else.”

Though she also wrote waka, the prose of the Pillow Book is highly poetic. The books opens with this passage.


In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills, their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.
In summer the nights. Not only when the moon shines, but on the dark nights too, as the fireflies flit to and fro, and even when it rains, how beautiful it is. [9]


In an example of a curious dialectic potential within sexist custom, women were not considered appropriate for the study of Chinese and the composition of prestigious Chinese poetry or kanshi, (though some acquired Chinese anyway). One result was that women writers concentrated on waka, in Japanese, and were thus likely to write more apparently natural and sincere verses than the practitioners of a learned and artificial tradition. The breadth of participation of women in the literary life of the time may be suggested by the title The participation of women in the literary life of the time may be suggested by the title of Akazome Emon’s volume Thirty-Six Female Poetic Sages. Among the many other poets writing during the Heian era were Lady Ise who became concubine to Emperor Uda, the Princess Shikisi, and Izumi Shikibu considered by many the greatest poet of the time. [10]


Though I claim no professional expertise in any of the three cultures in which these poets lived, I will nonetheless venture a few suggestions toward an explanation of their popularity. Ancient Greek, Heian Japan, and the Languedoc during the high Renaissance were all societies which placed an unusual value on the aesthetic. The refined cultivation of the pursuit of beauty is evident in such phenomena as the well-organized program of pleasures at ancient Greek symposia, the courts of love under Eleanor of Acquitaine, the Countess of Champagne, and others during the High Middle Ages, and the moon-viewing and poetry parties that originated in Heian era. These practices all imply a certain space for hedonism, though all include intellectual or artistic as well as corporeal pleasures.

Undeniably each culture also has individual characteristics that may have been influential in making space for female poets: tolerance for homosexuality in archaic Greece, Buddhist aesthetics in Japan, Mariolatry and chivalry in the Western European Middle Ages. Critics have argued is whether certain of these texts represent authentic women’s voices or merely women who have gained acceptance by learning to compose patriarchal poetry. What cannot be disputed is that, in spite of their comparative silence through much of history, women have figured conspicuously in certain great eras of poetry. The phenomenon of these efflorescences of female poets and their individual works themselves deserve greater attention.




1. Both may be found on p. 165 Greek Elegy and Iambus I, J. M. Edmonds (Loeb Library).

2. The accessible text is Meg Bogin’s The Women Troubadours (W. W. Norton: New York and London, 1980). I acknowledge the substantial service she provided in assembling this volume, though I find her unreliable both as to facts and interpretations. She relied for texts on Oscar Schultz’s Die Provenzalischer Dichterinnen (Leipzig : G. Fock, 1888).

3. See Alois Nykl ‘s convincing Hispano-Arabic Poetry And Its Relations With The Old Provencal Troubadours.

4. The Consistori del Gay Saber "Consistory of the Gay Science") was a poetic institution founded at Toulouse in 1323 to foster the revival of Old Occitan verse.

5. Proponents of male authorship include François Zufferey, Oskar Schultz-Gora, Gianfranco Folena, Jean-Baptiste de Lacurne de Sainte-Palaye and Elizabeth W. Poe. Those who consider the work lesbian include Pierre Bec, Magda Bogin, Renat Nelli, and John Boswell, which an advocate of affection is Angelica Rieger.

6. “Tale of Genji” in Classics Revisited.

7. Kenneth Rexroth, Translations from the Japanese.

8. The Diary of Lady Murasaki, translated by Richard Bowring, 1996, Penguin, p. 54.

9. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, translated by Ivan Morris (Penguin), p. 201, 159, and 21.

10. Asian poetry was highly influential for European and American Imagism in the early twentieth century. Amy Lowell introduced a collection titled Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan, translated by Annie Shepley Omori and Kochi Doi, with an introduction by Amy Lowell. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1920.