For those of you new to the nest, I usually have a neurotic reading process. Each month I read at least part of a non-fiction book, a book about reading/writing/editing/language, and as many books from my color stacks as I can (my books are organized by spine color and I’m going through each color stack, reading every book I haven’t yet read). I’m forgetting all of that and sticking with just my last few green books though, because on the 19th of April I started the Shakespeare/Poe/Frost Challenge. Jake bet me that I couldn’t read the complete works of each in a month. And he won. I calculated that I’d have to read two hours each day to be able to read all of that in a month. And I don’t have two hours a day to read. But I’m going to abandon my normal reading pattern until I read it all, just to see how long it will take me. So expect to be hearing about this until September or something.
I’ve been reading at a much slower pace than is normal for me, mostly because I don’t want to just read this stuff: I want to understand it. So I often find myself reading over a paragraph or a poem twice, or flipping to the character page in a Shakespeare play to ensure I have all of the characters straight when a new scene begins, in order to really feel that I have a grasp on things. Reading these authors also requires a greater amount of concentration than I usually dedicate to reading. I can usually read in chaos, or for only five minutes at a time, but I really have to sink deep into these works to get into a reading groove.
Here’s what I read in May:
I finished the Frost! I ended on page 350 of 642 last month, and I finished the rest of the Frost before my April 19th deadline. So I at least got one out of the three parts of the challenge knocked out.
I was surprised to find how much Frost’s later work differs from his early work. He went from writing about nature observations and country folk to society and politics. I never saw that coming. I don’t agree with a lot of what he wrote (he upholds common sense over science, for one), but the poems are great food for thought in an election year. I disagree with the grand majority of the political poems (Frost was very anti-New Deal, which I think is a triumph of social history), but I enjoy reading a different perspective from a great mind. I did miss, however, the overall feeling of his early work. I felt that the early work was celebrating life and simple people. Towards the end, Frost’s tone is jaded and cynical. The poems I read this month put me into a gloom.
*If you don’t usually read or understand poetry, but would like to try, I highly recommend Frost’s early work. The language is simple and generally easy to understand, but deep meaning can still be gleaned from the stanzas.
Here’s an example of one of Frost’s later poems:
It is as true as Caesar’s name was Kaiser
That no economist was ever wiser
(Though prodigal himself and a despiser
Of capital and calling thrift a miser).
And when we get too far apart in wealth,
‘Twas his idea that for the public health,
So that the poor won’t have to steal by stealth,
We now and then should tak an equalizer.
I didn’t even come close to finishing the Poe. I don’t know where I was on the last day of the challenge, but by the end of May I was to page 198 of 753. That’s about 26 percent. So much for that.
Here are the Poe stories I read in May. I don’t usually write spoilers, but this is going to be packed with them, so don’t read on if you want Poe’s endings to be a surprise.
The Assignation (The Visionary) (1834), like the majority of Poe’s non-satirical work, is all about death and is told by an unnamed narrator. The narrator witnesses a hero rescue a baby from drowning, and the hero is rewarded with the promise of getting to meet the woman who dropped the baby the next day. The narrator was going to pick up the hero to take him to see the woman, but the hero instead receives the news that the woman was poisoned and killed. The hero dies upon hearing this news, and the narrator realizes, with rising dread, that he’s in the room with a dead man.
Bon-Bon (1832) is satirical and is supposed to be funny. But it’s Poe, so it’s depressing. Bon-Bon is an innkeeper who fancies himself a philosopher. He has a conversation with the devil, becomes extremely drunk, and offers his soul to the devil after only the smallest manipulation from the devil. The devil refuses, not wanting to take advantage of Bon Bon’s drunkenness. Poe’s poking fun at philosophers in this one, as the devil describes how the soul of many famous philosophers tasted.
Shadow: A Parable (1835) shows mourners living in a state of darkness and anxiety, becoming hysterical with drunkenness, and being overcome by shadow. The parable describes the cholera outbreak that Poe was witnessing at the time.
Loss of Breath: A Tale Neither In nor Out of “Blackwood” (1832) is another strangely funny story wrapped up in ideas of death. The narrator, after yelling constantly at his wife, literally loses his breath and sets out to find it. The narrator, though a series of events, is thought to be dead, then is confused for a convict, describes in detail being hung, gets stuck in a vault with other dead bodies, finds a neighbor that was also falsely assumed dead, figures out that his neighbor caught his breath, gets it back, and escapes the vault with his neighbor. I’m not sure what to make of all of that, honestly.
King Pest: A Tale Containing an Allegory (1835) is so bizarre and weird, I can’t describe it in a few sentences. I do know that I’ll have to re-read this one, because I have no idea what the allegory is pertaining to.
Metzengerstein (1832) is about two feuding families, revenge, and raging fire. Poe also hints that a horse in the story, who is the one who ends up exacting revenge, is a dead character reincarnated. This is a popular theme in Poe’s work.
Le Duc De l’Omelette (1832) is about death, attempted reincarnation, and the devil. Sound familiar? Right. The Duc is pretty funny, as he’s worried about propriety and status while he’s in hell, and he wins his life back from the devil through a game of cards.
Four Beasts in One; The Homo-Cameleopard (1836) is a weird futuristic story about the year 3830. And there’s a homo-cameleopard as a king, which is exactly how it sounds.
A Tale of Jerusalem (1832) is very difficult to understand out of context. I had to look up information about the story after reading it, and it’s apparently a spoof of “Zillah; a Tale of the Holy City” by Horace Smith. I’ll have to read that and come back to this one.
Mystification (1837) is a parody on dueling. Let us be polite and honorable as we arrange to kill each other. (Again, with the death humor.)
Ligeia (1838) reminded me of the other works by Poe named after women that I read in April and is quintessentially Poe. I wasn’t expecting attempted hoaxes and satire galore in the complete works, I was expecting more Gothic horror stories like this one. The narrator falls in love with Ligeia, who is one of the few and far between women in Poe’s works that is actually given a personality. The narrator is mostly talking about her physical beauty as he talks of his love for her, but I was happy to read of Ligeia that, “I have spoken of the learning of Ligeia: it was immense–such as I have never known in woman. In the classical tongues was she deeply proficient and as far as my own acquaintance extended in regard to the modern dialects of Europe, I have never known her at fault…I was was sufficiently aware of her infinite supremacy to resign myself, with a child-like confidence, to her guidance through the chaotic world of metaphysical investigation at which I was most busily occupied during the earlier years of our marriage.” Go Ligeia. But, as with all of the Poe ladies of love, Legeia dies. And the narrator marries someone he hates. And then she dies. And then she’s reincarnated as Ligeia. Dude sticks to his motifs.
How to Write a Blackwood Article (1838) is a funny satirical piece in which a magazine publisher gives advice to an aspiring writer. The aspiring writer is advised to use many soraismus (use of a mix of language to show off, in this case the use of cliche quotes in their original language), a technique Poe himself often employs, and is told to get herself into impossible situations of impending death so that she may write of her experiences. The companion piece A Predicament: The Scythe of Time (1838), which immediately follows, is the aspiring writer’s product. She used each of the quotations that the magazine publisher suggested in the story and the story ludicrously continues in the first person after the narrator has been beheaded. That’s Poe finding the humor in death again. I love that he’s poking fun at himself in these (at least he knows he’s pretentious).
Silence: A Fable (1838) is another story about the devil taunting some poor soul. He poisoned a river in front of a thirsty man, threw the world into turmoil, and then the devil made everything still and quiet, which frightened the man, who ran away.
The Journal of Julius Rodman (1840) was meant to be a novel, but was unfinished. I hated it. I appreciate the technical difficulty of the work: I’m impressed that Poe can take on a tone so different from what he usually employs, as this was written in several installments as a hoax of a true account (the US Senate even believed it). Julius Rodman is a fictional explorer, and this is his “account” of being the first European man to cross the Rocky Mountains. The account is very detailed and realistic: the amount of research that had to be required on the habits of beaver alone is impressive (it’s not like Poe could just Google their habits). But I can’t get past the racism toward the black slave and the Sioux Indians Rodman “encountered” and the very unnecessary shedding of the Sioux’s blood. Rodman later says that he doesn’t want to kill animals just for sport, but he has no problem shooting a cannon at close range with a group of Sioux who were not expressing violent behavior. I know that this attitude reflects the time, but it left me fuming. Also, the whole, long, descriptive thing was a big ‘ole set up so Poe could write about a bear attack. Which took up a third of the space as the account of the beavers, I might add. And that’s me being honest about classics, ladies and gentlemen.
The Devil and the Belfry (1839) was another bizarre, non-sensical story. It also, as the title suggests, is another account of the devil causing needless mayhem. The story describes a fantastical picturesque village in which everything is the same–down to groups of mostly identical people. The devil adds thirteen o’clock to time and suddenly everything goes bonkers.
The Man That Was Used Up (1839) is one of my favorite Poe stories so far. The narrator greatly admires a General, and keeps hearing wisps of the General’s conquests at parties. The stories keep getting interrupted, however, and so the narrator is never able to get a full account of the background of the General, whom the narrator finds to be captivating and physically perfect. The narrator finally gets fed up not knowing and throws propriety out the window. He goes to visit the General only to find there’s nothing really left of the man. The General is completely made of false parts, as he has lost all of his limbs and body in battles. The narrator watches him assemble, which is interesting to read. Poe somehow makes this all very funny instead of terrifying (the use of ridiculous names, which Poe often uses in the humorous works, helps). I do admit that I’m annoyed with the last paragraph. I hate when stories end with the title. Like we didn’t see that coming. Yeesh. I also need to note that racism is also very present in this story in the treatment of the General’s black servant.
That’s the Poe I got through in May! And I still have three fourths of the book to get through. Whew.
Here’s an example of Poe’s writing from Ligeia:
I trembled not–I stirred not–for a crowd of unutterable fancies connected with the air, the stature, the demeanor of the figure, rushing hurriedly through my brain, had paralyzed–had chilled me into stone. I stirred not–but gazed upon the apparition. There was a mad disorder in my thoughts–a tumult unappeasable. Could it, indeed, be the living Rowena who confronted me? Could it be Rowena at all–the fair-haired, the blue-eyed Lady Rowena Trevanion of Tremaine? Why, why should I doubt it? [...] What inexpressible madness seized me with that thought? One bound, and I had reached her feet! Shrinking from my touch, she let fall from her head, unloosened, the ghasty cerements which had confined it, and there streamed forth, into the rushing atmosphere of the chamber, huge masses of long and disheveled hair; it was blacker than the raven wings of the midnight! And now slowly opened the eyes of the figure which stood before me. “Here then, at least,” I shrieked aloud, “can I never–can I never be mistaken–these are the full, and the black, and the wild eyes–of my lost love–of the lady–of the Lady Ligeia
*You can read all of Poe’s work online (legally) for free. Check out this Wikipedia article for all of the links.
I only succeeded in reading two Shakespeare plays in May. Compared to six last month. I really didn’t like the second play that I read, so it took me a long time to get through. I’m currently on page 229 of 1229. And that’s nine plays in. I’m going to be reading this forever and ever.
Love’s Labour’s Lost (mid 1590s) is just silly. A King and his court consider passing a law that requires them to study for three years without talking to women. However, a princess is coming to court to represent her ill father, so the King can’t pass the law. The King and his court each promptly fall in love with someone in the princess’s party. At the end of the play, instead of the weddings that usually end Shakespeare’s comedies, the ladies each ask their fella to do something self-sacrificing for a year and a day to prove their love before they’ll consent to wed the men. There are also a number of humorous sub-plots and, like in Midsummer Night’s Dream, a comically terrible play within the play.
The Merchant of Venice (1596-1598) was hard for me to get through, because the theme of the play centers around anti-semitism. The plot of the play centers around a young man, Bassanio, in need of money so that he can be a suitor to a wealthy woman. He has a friend, Antonio, borrow the money on bond from Shylock, a Jew, who does not want to participate in the deal because of Antonio’s anti-semitism and refusal to lend or borrow with interest. (Historical note: Christians used to be unwilling to deal in usury, or using interest for loans, and considered it against their religion. Usury was not against the Jewish faith, so Jews became an integral part of Christian economy, filling an economic void. This is where the greed stereotypes come from and was a major reason Jews were hated throughout Christendom and were scapegoated for Germany’s financial depression before World War II.) Shylock is reluctant to agree to the deal because Antonio has screwed him over before, but finally agrees to the deal if he may take a pound of Antonio’s flesh if Antonio does not pay up before the agreed upon date. They sign a contract, and Antonio is happy with it because he does not have to pay any interest. I think we can all agree that the deal is morbid in the first place, and Antonio is an idiot for signing it.
The play rages on, Bassanio gets the girl, Portia, (in a manner that treats her as property, I might add), Shylock’s daughter steals from him and runs off with a Christian, and Antonio ends up not being able to pay up on time. Shylock demands that the pound of flesh be taken from Antonio, even after he is offered his repayment with interest after the due date for repayment, and demands that his revenge is legal and just. Portia takes on the guise of a male judge (cross-dressing is a reoccurring theme in almost all of Shakespeare’s comedies) and saves the day through a loophole in the contract. Everyone but Shylock, who is forced to convert to Christianity, give money to Antonio for his lifetime, and leave his estate to his runaway daughter, lives happily ever after.
I know that there is a great debate as to whether or not the play is actually anti-semitic itself, and the main Jewish character, Shylock, has been played on stage as both a sympathetic character and a supreme villan. So it’s all in how you read it (though I’d say that it’s the situation in which the characters are placed and not their actions that show Shakespeare’s anti-semitic intent). The non-Jewish characters, however, are decidedly anti-semitic, and just that made me sick with anger reading it. This may paint me as overly sensitive, and I am usually apt to look at classics as pieces of social history, thus I realize the work accurately depicts the general attitude of the time. But, when reading works like these, I’m constantly running the historical narrative in my head, and can’t shut that part of my brain off enough to enjoy the plot of the work (this is the same problem I had with Poe’s “The Journal of Julius Rodman”).
Here’s the quote that is used to argue against the play’s anti-semitism:
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means,
warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer
as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us,
do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility?
Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his
sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge.
The villainy you teach me, I will execute,
and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
(Act III, scene I)
That’s my Shakespeare for May! I’ve been reading them in the order of the book, but I’ll be skipping around as I read this month to be sure that I’ve read the plays being put on by Shakespeare in the Park this summer before I see them.
You can see all of my other reads posts here.
Have you read any of these? What did you think? What are you reading lately?