Jane Shore [Rowe]
Nicholas Rowe had edited his acknowledged master Shakespeare, and he would perhaps not be surprised to hear that a modern reader finds his own play Jane Shore suffers by comparison. Rowe’s entire effect depends on the delicious spectacle of the set-upon lady, an appeal in vogue during his time as what the playwright called the “she-tragedy.”
Shore’s public humiliation for promiscuity is only the most piquant instance of this commonplace yet slightly kinky taste, so common through world literature. Shore’s story is well-suited to a wheel of fortune theme as she had had, for a time, very nearly the power of a queen as well as having possessed what all regarded as extraordinary beauty and a sharp wit that led Edward to call her the “merriest” of his consorts. The plot is flat and simple in plot, the poetry thin in imagery, the sentiment almost wholly pathetic. Though words flow with energy, their moving streams are so shallow that they suggest nothing new in the course of the drama.
In contrast to her depiction by Thomas More and Shakespeare (in Richard III), Rowe achieves his effect by treating her sympathetically, depicting her as genuinely repentant for her immorality and politically engaged in combating Richard’s usurpation of power.
Rowe’s widow received a pension from George I in thanks for his translation of Lucan, which demonstrates that, in one way at least, that age was more civilized than our own.
The Master of Ballantrae [Stevenson]
Were Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel a modern movie (it was originally serialized in Scribner’s and filmed at least twice), it might even be labeled a thriller. It may be a “Winter’s Tale” (as the subtitle has it) for its nearly constant suffering, relenting only to make more distinct a succession of plot turns that hold the reader until what some have considered the extravagance of the final twist. The book is highly reminiscent of Scott’s novels, full of Scotland, and concerns with nobility and morality, but Stevenson’s characters are more complex. The master himself possesses wicked charm and immense brio (temporarily even winning some affection from the dour narrator); Alison’s passion betrays her own best interests; and Henry, though the good man from the start, turns out only human as the constant pressure on his flawed virtue finally drives him into moral confusion and madness. All this serves an exciting story which from Scotland moves to colonial New York and finally, the wilds of the Adirondacks which the author knew well (as well as India, which he did not).
The book maintains the old novelistic façade of a true story with supposed lengthy statements and relations from several of the characters as well as from our narrator, Mr. Mackellar. These have the effect of casting a slightly prismatic glow over the whole. Stevenson himself mentioned as a model not Scott but Frederick Marryat whose The Phantom Ship he had been reading. “Let us make a tale,” he recalled proposing to himself, “a story of many years and countries, of the sea and the land, savagery and civilisation; a story that shall have the same large features, and may be treated in the same summary elliptic method as the book you have been reading and admiring.”
Whether one considers his method “summary” and “elliptical” or not, Stevenson was repeatedly capable of composing a ripping yarn. Some may think higher peaks exist on the fiction Parnassus, but few writers reach the heights Stevenson here achieved.
The Year of my Life (Oraga Hara) [Issa, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa]
I confess to little sympathy for the haiku in English, but I relished both verses and prose in this little book, written in 1819, by the author who reinvigorated the form of which Basho was the recognized master. Kobayashi Issa, a lay Buddhist priest, wrote with a passion, often choosing “low” subjects such as insects. While his work struck some as unseemly in his own day, he is now regarded as one of the four great writers of haiku along with Basho, Buson, and Shiki.
The little book defines its tone with its opening with story of the priest who greets the New Year with tears. The succeeding chapters relate autobiographical incidents along with odd stories and folklore yet all the prose aims toward accommodating the poet to the all-but-intolerable conditions of life.
Issa compares what he calls the “thin thread of my life” to that of a tortured tree. In order to “get more experience writing haiku,” following the examples of Saigyo, Basho, and others, the poet sets out traveling with a beggar’s bag and bundle. He proceeds (in the haibun form, mixing prose and verse) to provide a curious succession of information which, while entertaining, supports this theme throughout. In a pleasant mood, the poet and his friends seek to hear a strange “celestial music” of which they have heard. He speculates on the meaning of a children’s game involving killing frogs and recalls an earlier poet’s story of a frog who judged a poetry contest. A physician who kills coupling snakes finds he has brought impotence to his son who had “a huge mushroom-shaped thing between his legs.” Each topic is oddly entertaining while reinforcing a sense of the fragility and impenetrability of earthly life. Most powerfully, the pathetic story of the boy swept away by the stream in whose pockets were found flowers he was carrying to his parents, inspiring a moralizing passage which prepares the ground for death of the author’s beloved daughter later.
The nineteenth century introducer rightly says that Issa’s verses “would tickle even Yama the great king of hell.”