Monthly Archives: July 2017

an email to the editor, about J. M. Synge’s “The Aran Islands”


Dear Tim,

Thanks very much for getting back to me. I apologize for the slight delay in responding to you!

To introduce myself. I live in New York City. I have always been deeply immersed in literature. I taught English at the college level for a while as an adjunct professor, although that was not my major profession. I host two web sites/blogs devoted largely to literature (plus personal writings of mine).

A few weeks ago, on the recommendation of my wife, who had seen it with a friend, I went to a play at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan: The Aran Islands. It was a revelation for me. I came home from the play desirous of reading Synge, whom I hadn’t read before. (I also watched the Robert Flaherty film Man of Aran.)

I purchased the Penguin paperback of The Aran Islands. I loved it and got a lot out of it. Per my usual habit, I read the work slowly and deliberately, often reading certain paragraphs and passages several times, savoring the language and descriptions; the impressions and gleanings one gets from the place and the people; plus, the beautiful descriptions of sea, storms, and sky. It was like taking a trip and getting a taste of a strange, remote place.

Some examples:

“There has been a storm for the last twenty-four hours, and I have been wandering on the cliffs till my hair is stiff with salt. Immense masses of spray were flying up from the base of the cliff, and were caught at times by the wind and whirled away to fall at some distance from the shore. When one of these happened to fall on me, I had to crouch down for an instant, wrapped and blinded by a white hail of foam.

“The waves were so enormous that when I saw one more than usually large coming towards me, I turned instinctively to hide myself, as one blinks when struck upon the eyes.

“After a few hours the mind grows bewildered with the endless change and struggle of the sea, and an utter despondency replaces the first moment of exhilaration. …

“About the sunset the clouds broke and the storm turned to a hurricane. Bars of purple cloud stretched across the sound where immense waves were rolling from the west, wreathed with snowy phantasies of spray. Then there was the bay full of green delirium, and the Twelve Pins touches the mauve and scarlet in the east.

“The suggestion from this world of inarticulate power was immense, and now at midnight, when the wind is abating, I am still trembling and flushed with exultation.”

“My intercourse with these people has made me realize that miracles must abound whenever the new conception of law in not understood. On these islands alone miracles enough happen every year to equip a divine emissary. Rye is turned into oats, storms are raised to keep evictors from the shore, cows that are isolated on lonely rocks bring forth calves, and other things of the same kind are common.”

“It is likely that much of the intelligence and charm of these people is due to the absence of any division of labour, and to the correspondingly wide development of each individual, whose varied knowledge and skill necessitate a considerable activity of mind. Each man can speak two languages. He is a skilled fisherman, and can manage a curagh with extraordinary nerve and dexterity. He can farm simply, burh kelp, cut out pampooties, mend nets, build and thatch a house, and make a cradle or a coffin. His work changes with the seasons in a way that keeps him free from the dullness that comes to people who have always the same occupation. The danger of his life on the sea gives him the alertness of a primitive hunter, and the long nights he spends fishing in his curagh bring him some of the emotions that are thought peculiar to men who have lived with the arts.”

And, a quote Synge heard indirectly from the inhabitants: “Would anyone kill his father if he was able to help it?”

A reviewer of The Aran Islands on, it seems, put well what I think:

People have often said to me that they find Synge’s account of his time spent honing his Irish and collecting folklore on the Aran Islands to be one of the slowest and most boring reads they’ve ever encountered. I must heartily disagree.

While the work doesn’t exactly swing like a pendulum, the rhythms of his narration are very much like that of the changing tide and the rolling of the waves to which the islanders have grown accustomed. Synge’s narration — like time on Inishmaan — moves slowly and steadily, washing over the reader if one will let it.

Yes, “washing over the reader.” This is what happened to me as I proceeded slowly, a page or two at a time, through the book.

Regarding my compliments on your introduction and the edition as edited by you, I should note that I rarely read introductions prior to reading a book. I don’t want my impressions to be “muddied” beforehand. But, as I was reading, I found your footnotes extremely informative and well done. I could see the prodigious amount of work you had done in explaining difficult passages and allusions to local history and folklore and to specific locales as well as (crucially) Irish words and phrases. Then, there was much bibliographic information derived from rare books about Synge and the islands that could be easily overlooked. How do you manage to find such books (such as rare works in Irish)? How many editors of reissued literary works go to such lengths?

When I got to your introduction, I was fully absorbed in it and learned a great deal. It was not your routine introduction to a paperback reissue. Your impressive vocabulary alone was worth the trip. I kept jotting down words such as immiserated, nucleate, impercipient, immiscible, detrital, excursus, “inanimate vastitude,” and so forth. The introduction was so pithy and informative, so well researched and insightful. It makes one want to know more about Synge.

I am aware of your two books about the islands, having become so only recently. I hope to be able to find the time to read them.



Roger Smith

July 30, 2017



J. M. Synge, The Aran Islands, edited with an introduction by Tim Robinson (Penguin, 1992)

Tim Robinson is a writer and cartographer. Born in Yorkshire, he lives on the Aran Islands, off the coast of County Galway in Ireland.

Manhattan Island from Bottom to Top; Walking as Exercise


In the spirit of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I will begin with the conclusion, followed by evidence to prove my point.

Walking is a naturally beneficial form of exercise habitual since human origins. It is perfectly suited to the human body and is a form of physical activity from which it seems personal injury cannot come; hence, one can justly say that it is one hundred percent beneficial.

The body welcomes such exercise. In fact, when it is undertaken, the body seems to be saying, “give me more!” It seems to cure all kinds of nagging (but not serious) physical complaints, discomforts, and ills, such as aches and pains, and actually seems to restore energy as much if not more than depleting it.



I love to walk, as was noted by me in a previous post on this blog:

“on walking (and exercise)”

I like to think of new places and routes to walk in the City (i.e., New York City, including Manhattan and the “outer boroughs” of Brooklyn and Queens).

I keep finding new places to explore — in Brooklyn, for example. It could be a neighborhood, such as Williamsburg, or a park, such as Brooklyn Bridge Park, which I only found out about recently. I like to call my walks, playfully, “jaunts,” a favorite term used by the poet Walt Whitman.

The other day, while writing a post, “Walt Whitman on Manhattan”

Walt Whitman on Manhattan (plus my own impressions and thoughts)

I noticed that in his poem “Mannahatta,” Whitman describes Manhattan as “an island sixteen miles long.”

Yes, I thought to myself, sixteen miles long, from the southernmost point of Manhattan, Battery Park (which overlooks New York Harbor and from which boats depart regularly for the Statue of Liberty, which can be viewed from the park), to Inwood at the northernmost point of Manhattan.

Then, on Thursday evening (July 20), I saw a documentary film at the Morgan Library in Manhattan: Henry David Thoreau, Surveyor of the Soul, directed by Huey Coleman. In the film, it is noted that when Thoreau first attended a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson, he walked seventeen miles from Concord, Massachusetts to Boston to attend.

I had been thinking of taking such a walk myself. If Thoreau can do it, I can, I thought. I would like to see how such a long walk feels.



Yesterday I walked, in around 90 degree weather, from Bowling Green, at the southern tip of Manhattan, to the northernmost point of Manhattan Island, Inwood Hill Park, where the Henry Hudson Bridge and the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge link Manhattan to the Bronx.

It took me about ten hours with a couple of pit stops.

I got up in the morning feeling sluggish and achy. I took the subway to Bowling Green, then started walking, taking a few photographs of the harbor and then starting to walk uptown.

I felt sluggish and unsteady on my feet. The heat felt oppressive. I had a pain in my right foot that had persisted for a day or two. But gradually, as my walk and the day progressed, I started feeling better.

At 3:45 p.m., I texted a friend:

have reached 96th St and Broadway

wouldn’t u know it

I seem to have more energy than when I started

my toe is not hurting any more

I feel much less achy and better overall

A couple of hours later, from 155th and Broadway, I texted my friend again, saying “I am getting tired.” I had probably walked over 15 miles already. But, I kept going. It took me over an hour more to reach Inwood Hill Park. The park is entered via Dyckman Street, which is located precisely where West 200th Street would be, were it a numbered street. I walked along the western end of the park, which skirts the Hudson, to the northern end of the park, then back to the subway.

Riding home on the subway, I felt exhausted. I was relieved to get home and after a short while fell into a deep sleep.

I woke up very early after only a few hours of sleep feeling refreshed and very energetic. I haven’t felt so good in a long time. I felt very alert and refreshed. (It is my belief that pleasurable, mentally relaxing exercise such as walking obviates neurasthenia and chronic fatigue.)




I already said it! The body welcomes exercise. It craves it. I can often hear my “brother body” (a term used by Pitirim A. Sorokin, which he undoubtedly got from Saint Francis) telling me, “thank you; give me more.” It is not uncommon after a five to seven mile walk for me to find myself saying to myself, I could do another five miles more. And, I am not a fitness addict or fanatic.


— Roger W. Smith

   July 22, 2017




Battery Park


New York Harbor viewed from Battery Park


Sixth Avenue, Greenwich Village


Broadway, Upper Manhattan


Inwood Hill Park


Hudson River, late evening, viewed from Inwood Hill Park

IMG_7659 (2).JPG

Inwood Hill Park, overlooking Hudson River


northern tip of Inwood Hill Park, overlooking Hudson River and Spuyten Duyvil Bridge

photos by Roger W. Smith



Addendum: On Sunday, August 6, 2017, I reversed myself and walked from the top (northernmost point) of Manhattan Island to the bottom (Battery Park). I found that Manhattan actually ends at Broadway and 218th Street — not at 207th Street, as I had thought.

I did it faster this time. It took me about seven and a half hours.

The weather was cool for August, and I did not experience appreciable fatigue. I felt as if I could have kept going should I have had cause to.



Broadway at 218th Street, 1:34 p.m.; Manhattan’s northern border


Broadway at entrance to Battery Park, 8:44 p.m.; Manhattan’s southern tip; end of my Sunday walk

Walt Whitman on Manhattan (plus my own impressions and thoughts)



I WAS asking for something specific and perfect for my city,
Whereupon lo! upsprang the aboriginal name.

Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly,
musical, self-sufficient,
I see that the word of my city is that word from of old,
Because I see that word nested in nests of water-bays, superb,
Rich, hemm’d thick all around with sailships and steamships, an
island sixteen miles long, solid-founded,
Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender, strong,
light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies,
Tides swift and ample, well-loved by me, toward sundown,
The flowing sea-currents, the little islands, larger adjoining islands,
the heights, the villas,
The countless masts, the white shore-steamers, the lighters, the
ferry-boats, the black sea-steamers well-model’d,
The down-town streets, the jobbers’ houses of business, the houses
of business of the ship-merchants and money-brokers, the river-streets,
Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week,
The carts hauling goods, the manly race of drivers of horses, the
brown-faced sailors,
The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds
The winter snows, the sleigh-bells, the broken ice in the river,
passing along up or down with the flood-tide or ebb-tide,
The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d, beautiful-
faced, looking you straight in the eyes,
Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway, the women, the shops and
A million people—manners free and superb—open voices—
hospitality—the most courageous and friendly young men,
City of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts!
City nested in bays! my city!




What hurrying human tides, or day or night!
What passions, winnings, losses, ardors, swim
thy waters!
What whirls of evil, bliss and sorrow stem, thee!
What curious questioning glances—glints of
Leer, envy, scorn, contempt, hope, aspiration!
Thou portal—thou arena—thou of the myriad
long-drawn lines and groups!
(Could but thy flagstones, curbs, facades tell
their inimitable tales);
Thy windows, rich and huge hotels—thy side-
walks wide;
Thou of the endless sliding, mincing, shuffling
Thou, like the parti-colored world itself—like
infinite, teeming, mocking life!
Thou visor’d, vast, unspeakable show and




The following are some present day thoughts of my own occasioned by the above two poems of Walt Whitman. “Mannahatta” was Whitman’s stomping grounds during what was probably the most creative period of his life. It is my adopted city; my feelings parallel Whitman’s.

“Mannahatta”: Mannahatta is derived from the aboriginal name for the place, most likely meaning island of many hills. Whitman chose to sometimes call Manhattan “Mannahatta” and to call Long Island “Paumanok,” also derived from a Native American word.

“nested in nests of water-bays, superb,

The fact of Manhattan’s being surrounded by water is one of its greatest and most appealing attributes. (This is also stressed by Herman Melville in the opening chapters of Moby-Dick). The rivers and bays act as a natural counterweight to urban sprawl.

“hemm’d thick all around with sailships and steamships”

Not true anymore, for the most part. Too bad. But, Manhattan Island, being bounded on all sides by water, retains a unique appeal because of this.

“an island sixteen miles long”

Sixteen miles from Battery Park (the southern tip of Manhattan Island) to Spuyten Duyvil (the northern end of the island).

“Numberless crowded streets”

Still true. Crowded, which is a blessing. You don’t find lonely, deserted spots or forsaken places. Crowed, yes, but the crowds usually aren’t oppressive.

“high growths of iron, slender, strong,
light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies”

Space is limited in Manhattan. Tall buildings reaching to the skies create a sense of awe.

“Tides swift and ample, well-loved by me, toward sundown,
The flowing sea-currents, the little islands, larger adjoining islands,
the heights, the villas”

Still true. There are islands, rivers with eddies, great vistas. All can still be seen by someone who strolls along the East River, the Battery, the banks of the Hudson, or the rarely visited but wonderful stretches of parkland at the upper tip of the island.

“the lighters, the ferry-boats”

Ferries still run, to the delight and for the convenience of many. A lighter is a barge used in unloading or loading ships. In one of Whitman’s greatest poems, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” there is a reference to a “belated lighter.”

“The down-town streets, the jobbers’ houses of business, the houses
of business of the ship-merchants and money-brokers, the river-streets”

The small businesses are mostly gone, but there are still “river-streets.” Yet, access to the rivers is not so convenient anymore, since highways on the East and West Sides impede (but do not entirely prevent) access.

“Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week”

New York is still a city of immigrants, thank God. Mostly immigrants speaking, it seems, practically every imaginable tongue.

“The carts hauling goods, the manly race of drivers of horses”

Whitman loved to ride with and become acquainted with the drivers of horse drawn omnibuses on the main thoroughfares of Manhattan.

“The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds aloft”

So true, still. See photo below.

Central Park 11-36 a.m. 5-14-2017 (4).jpg

Central Park; photograph by Roger W. Smith

The winter snows, the sleigh-bells, the broken ice in the river,
passing along up or down with the flood-tide or ebb-tide”

Herman Melville, in Moby-Dick (Chapter LXXXVII), also mentions ice breaking up on the Hudson: “A low advancing hum was soon heard; and then like to the tumultuous masses of block-ice when the great river Hudson breaks up in Spring, the entire host of whales came tumbling upon their inner center. …” I myself have observed this (once) during wintertime on the Hudson. The river froze over, and I can remember the hissing and popping sounds as the ice was breaking up slowly.

“The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d, beautiful-
faced, looking you straight in the eyes”

People in Manhattan — pedestrians passing — still look at you, often, with friendly eyes, not averting their gaze. There is a wonderful openness about them. The City fosters it.

Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway”

It is still the case that the streets are thronged, with cars, pushcarts, bicycles. I love it. It drives the city traffic engineers crazy.

Trottoir is the French word for sidewalk. Whitman, who was not well versed in foreign languages, loved to use foreign words, on occasion, mostly French ones. He has been faulted for this. Some people can’t realize that one is not required to always say “sidewalk” when another word might be substituted. For various reasons, including a delight in language.

“the women, the shops and shows”

Manhattan is a wonderful place for shopping and window shopping. The “shows” continue to go on. And on. The women — a friend of mine, Charles Pierre, once remarked — are Manhattan’s “last great natural resource.” They range from classic beauties to exotic looking women with natural beauty of all backgrounds and races.

“A million people—manners free and superb—open voices—
hospitality—the most courageous and friendly young men”

This is all so true. The concentration of humanity is wonderful. The people are open and friendly.

“City of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts!
City nested in bays! my city!”

All still true, except for the “masts.” The current in the rivers is swift; they do indeed sparkle in the sunlight.




Whitman’s Broadway would have, in the mid-1850’s, meant an area of the city below 14th Street.

“What hurrying human tides, or day or night!”

“thy side-walks wide;”
“Thou of the endless sliding, mincing, shuffling

The sidewalks in Manhattan are indeed wide and welcoming. No thoroughfare lacks them. The pedestrian is not shunted aside or forced to walk (as is the case in the suburbs) on a faux sidewalk. The sidewalks in the City are always full of trampers, day and night.

Note: “Broadway” was originally published in the New York Herald of April 10, 1888. “Mannahatta” exists in a couple of versions published in Leaves of Grass.


— Roger W. Smith

   July 2017

regarding Professor Strunk’s admonition, “Omit Needless Words.” (or, are long, complex sentences bad?)


Should long, complex sentences be considered, a priori, evidence of bad writing? Ask Samuel Johnson. Or practically any other great writer one can think of.

Sometimes the shortest sentences can be extremely powerful: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).

But, note what Professor Brooks Landon has to say in his lecture ““Grammar and Rhetoric” (lecture 2, “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft”; The Great Courses/The Teaching Company).


— Roger W. Smith

   July 2017



… unless the situation demands otherwise, sentences that convey more information are more effective than those that convey less. Sentences that anticipate and answer more questions that a reader might have are better than those that answer fewer questions. Sentences that bring ideas and images into clearer focus by adding more useful details and explanation are generally more effective than those that are less clearly focused and that offer fewer details. In practice, this means that I generally value longer sentences over shorter sentences as long as the length accomplishes some of those important goals I’ve just mentioned.

Many of us have been exposed over the years to the idea that effective writing is simple and direct, a term generally associated with Strunk and White’s legendary guidebook The Elements of Style, or we remember some of the slogans from that book, such as, “Omit needless words.” … [Stunk concluded] with this all important qualifier: “This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.” [italics added] … Strunk’s concern is specifically with words and phrases that do not add propositions to the sentence [e.g., “owing to the fact that” instead of “since”].”

… simple does not mean simplistic. Direct does not mean short. And, simple and direct does not mean that we should all write like Ernest Hemingway in a hurry. “Omit needless words” is great advice, but not when it gets reduced to the belief that shorter is always better, or that “needless” means any word without which the sentence can still make sense.

… I like Faulkner, as well as I like Hemingway. And, I’d like to believe that even Professor Will Strunk and certainly E. B. White would not have tried to edit Faulkner out of existence.

… Strunk and White do a great job of reminding us to avoid needless words, but they don’t begin to consider all of the ways in which more words might actually be needed. … in many cases, we need to add words to improve our writing … rather than trying to pare our writing down to some kind of telegraphic minimum.




from Wikipedia


Jesus wept (Greek: ἐδάκρυσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς, edákrysen o Iesoús lit. “Jesus shed tears”) is a phrase famous for being the shortest verse in the King James Version of the Bible, as well as many other versions. It is not the shortest in the original languages. It is found in the Gospel of John, chapter 11, verse 35.

This verse occurs in John’s narrative of the death of Lazarus of Bethany, a follower of Jesus. Lazarus’ sisters – Mary and Martha – sent word to Jesus of their brother’s illness and impending death, but Jesus arrived four days after Lazarus died. Jesus, after talking to the grieving sisters and seeing Lazarus’ friends weeping, was deeply troubled and moved.

Mussorgsky, “Pictures at an Exhibition” (original piano version; 1874); Мусоргский, «Картины на выставке» (оригинальная версия для фортепиано, 1874)



“Pictures at an Exhibition” (Russian: Картинки с выставки – Воспоминание о Викторе Гартмане; literally, “Pictures from an Exhibition – A Remembrance of Viktor Hartmann”; French: Tableaux d’une exposition) is a suite of ten pieces (plus a recurring, varied Promenade) composed for the piano by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (Russian: Модест Петрович Мусоргский) in 1874.

The suite is Mussorgsky’s most famous piano composition. It has become further known through various orchestrations and arrangements produced by other musicians and composers, with Maurice Ravel’s arrangement being by far the most recorded and performed.



As noted in a Wikipedia entry:


Contemporary opinions of Mussorgsky as a composer have varied from positive to ambiguous to negative. Mussorgsky’s eventual supporters, Stasov and Balakirev, initially registered strongly negative impressions of the composer. Stasov wrote Balakirev, in an 1863 letter, “I have no use for Mussorgsky. His views may tally with mine, but I have never heard him express an intelligent idea. All in him is flabby, dull. He is, it seems to me, a thorough idiot”, and Balakirev agreed: “Yes, Mussorgsky is little short of an idiot.”

Mixed impressions were recorded by Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, colleagues of Mussorgsky who, unlike him, made their living as composers. Both praised his talent while expressing disappointment with his technique. Rimsky-Korsakov wrote that Mussorgsky’s scores included “absurd, disconnected harmony, ugly part-writing, sometimes strikingly illogical modulation, sometimes a depressing lack of it, unsuccessful scoring of orchestral things… what was needed at the moment was an edition for performance, for practical artistic aims, for familiarization with his enormous talent, not for the study of his personality and artistic transgressions.”

While preparing an edition of Sorochintsï Fair [an opera], Anatoly Lyadov remarked: “It is easy enough to correct Mussorgsky’s irregularities. The only trouble is that when this is done, the character and originality of the music are done away with, and the composer’s individuality vanishes.”

Tchaikovsky, in a letter to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck was also critical of Mussorgsky: “Mussorgsky you very rightly call a hopeless case. In talent he is perhaps superior to all the [other members of The Five], but his nature is narrow-minded, devoid of any urge towards self-perfection, blindly believing in the ridiculous theories of his circle and in his own genius. In addition, he has a certain base side to his nature which likes coarseness, uncouthness, roughness. He flaunts his illiteracy, takes pride in his ignorance, mucks along anyhow, blindly believing in the infallibility of his genius. Yet he has flashes of talent which are, moreover, not devoid of originality.”

Western perceptions of Mussorgsky changed with the European premiere of Boris Godunov in 1908. Before the premiere, he was regarded as an eccentric in the west. Critic Edward Dannreuther, wrote, in the 1905 edition of The Oxford History of Music, “Mussorgsky, in his vocal efforts, appears willfully eccentric. His style impresses the Western ear as barbarously ugly.” However, after the premiere, views on Mussorgsky’s music changed drastically. Gerald Abraham, a musicologist, and an authority on Mussorgsky: “As a musical translator of words and all that can be expressed in words, of psychological states, and even physical movement, he is unsurpassed; as an absolute musician he was hopelessly limited, with remarkably little ability to construct pure music or even a purely musical texture.”


— Roger W. Smith

    July 2017





1 Promenade

2 No. 1 “The Gnome”

3 Promenade (2nd)

4 No. 2 “The Old Castle”

5 Promenade (3rd)

6 No. 3 “Tuileries (Children’s Quarrel after Games)”

7 No. 4 “Cattle”

8 Promenade (4th)

9 No. 5 “Ballet of Unhatched Chicks”

10 No. 6 “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle”

11 Promenade (5th)

12 No. 7 “Limoges. The Market (The Great News)”

13 No. 8 “Catacombs (Roman Tomb)”\

14. Con mortuis in lingua mortua

15 No. 9 “The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba Yaga)”

16 No. 10 “The Bogatyr Gates (In the Capital in Kiev)”

a pregnant thought


conveyed to me by a long time friend, Bill Dalzell, in a phone conversation this morning

he was quoting a statement made by a philosophy professor in a college class he was enrolled in many years ago

the statement, as paraphrased by my friend: the question is not whether a philosophy or belief system is TRUE, it’s whether you like it nor not; does it appeal to you, say something to you? … the same thing applies to art [in the broad sense of the word]

my friend was wresting with religious doubts at the time; his professor’s statement was a consolation and revelation to him … what I would say, to the extent I understand, “translating” my friend’s inferences as best as I can, is that one can believe, engage with, bow to genius and inspiration (and, yes, truth!) without fear of being ridiculed for stupidity and credulity because something hasn’t been scientifically proved or some assertion or other has been disputed

a thought of my own: this statement has wide ranging implications … think of all the narrow minded, benighted people who want to find fault with art because they DISAGREE with something or other; to dissect, eviscerate it because they feel it is not CORRECT


— Roger W. Smith

   July 13, 2017

Emerson and Whitman


In his [Ralph Waldo Emerson’s] view the material creation is but an emblem of spiritual life. … To trace the operations of a subtle divine Presence in the mysteries of being—to ascend from the visible phenomena to universal laws—to embody the absolute, the unchanging, the perfect in the expressive forms of poetry—these are the problems which have challenged his warmest interest, and made him a retired and meditative sage, instead of a man of affairs. … Relying on certain mystic revelations to the soul of the individual, he shows scarcely any trace of logical faculty. … You look in vain for any consecutive order in the array of his thoughts. … Mr. Emerson’s predominant individualism leads him to ignore the past, and live in the present. … He believes in the perennial influence of inspiration. … The individual soul now conceals the elements of poetry, and prophecy, and the vision of God, as in the days of yore. … With this faith, Mr. Emerson attaches no importance to traditional opinion. … No school of philosophy or religion can hold this broad, untrammeled thinker within its walls. Even the great teachers of humanity do not win his fealty. Hints and monitions he may receive from their works, but authority never. … Mr. Emerson, although a rigid observer of the conventional proprieties of life, has little respect for a formal, imitative, stereotyped virtue. The stamp of nature and originality, in his view, would sanction almost any episode from the regular highway of ethics. He judges of character not by its accordance with any artificial code, but by the test of genuineness and native individuality. He rejects no coin that has the true ring, for want of the sign of some approved mint. An idealist in theory … he cherishes a most persistent and unrelenting attachment to reality. … He unites the dreamy mystical contemplation of an Oriental sage with the hard, robust, practical sense of a Yankee adventurer.

— anonymous, “Ralph Waldo Emerson. Phrenology, Physiology, Biography, and Portrait.,” Phrenological Journal, March 1854, quoted in Floyd Stovall, The Foreground of Leaves of Grass (University Press of Virginia, 1974), pp. 292-293



It is quite possible — indeed probable — that Walt Whitman read this article. What is said about Emerson seems to apply also to him.



I admire such thinkers. I would be pleased if such words were used to describe my outlook on life.

— Roger W. Smith

   July 2017

Immersing Oneself Is To Be Desired


‘Immersing Oneself Is To Be Desired’


If you trap the moment before it’s ripe,
The tears of repentance you’ll certainly wipe;
But if once you let the ripe moment go
You can never wipe off the tears of woe.

— William Blake, “If You Trap the Moment,” from the poet’s notebook



I have had several experiences over the past couple of weeks that have no obvious relation to one another.

Yet, they have caused me to think earnestly and to have an epiphany of sorts.

The experiences were as follows:

After not having done much reading for a while, putting it off, being distracted by activities such as research and writing — and by daily life — I took up a book that I had started a while ago and began reading it in earnest.

I went to a play on an impulse, because someone else (namely, my wife and a friend) had seem it the day before and it piqued my interest.

I had occasion to think earnestly about personal relationships of mine, relationships with persons long intimate with me but with whom friction has arisen from time to time.

What, you may ask, does reading a book have to do with personal relationships? And, what does seeing a play have to do with them both, or at least the latter? The relationships are important to me, the book is of interest, but it’s only a book. And, I saw a play. Nice, but how does that relate to my epiphany?

A common thread ran through all the experiences. I will try to illustrate it below. Sometimes, things that engage our attention can get us to do “mental stretching,” as it were, to think anew about things, to entertain new thoughts, to reexamine our preconceptions, to look at things from another’s point of view, to enlarge our mental horizons. Such things often do not seem that important in and of themselves, but they can serve as catalysts and turning points.



The various spokes of the wheel, the driving factors underlying my epiphany, were not uniform and did not occur all at once. To give an example of how something seemingly inconsequential can affect one’s outlook, the other day I saw a play, as I mentioned above: specifically, a stage adaptation of J. M. Synge’s The Aran Islands. My thoughts were wandering, as they often do, when one, say, is in a theater or lecture hall. I started thinking deeply about another person. My thoughts were totally focused on that person; there was a wonderful, edifying (perhaps I should also say liberating) feeling of being outside of one’s self. How or why did this occur? I think in part because of a “change of venue.” I am not a habitual playgoer. I did not know what to expect from then play. Such an experience and setting can result in things getting rearranged in one’s mind, in a fresh perspective.

The Synge play stimulated me in other ways as well. Though I was having trouble focusing on the words, I was interested in the language used by Synge (his vocabulary and style, that is); in the Aran Islands, its people with what I guess one might call their peculiarities; and Synge himself. I purchased his book The Aran Islands. It never would have occurred to me to have done so otherwise.



I am reading a scholarly book about Walt Whitman, The Foreground of Leaves of Grass by Floyd Stovall. It demands full attention, which is amply rewarded. What a pleasure to read for knowledge. Tutelage. When someone else knows much more than you do about a subject. To broaden one’s horizons. Become more learned. Concentrate (the locution of Samuel Johnson, in a memorable phrase), engage, and focus the mind. It puts one’s mind in neutral gear, so to speak. Obviates self-absorption and petty concerns. Or, to put it another way, forces you to stop and think.

Also, concentrated reading — and its corollary, scholarship — enable one to achieve a state of intense concentration in which the mind is very focused and becomes cleansed. It’s a liberating experience. Being able to do such mental work is an indicator of having achieved for a duration mental stability, in which petty concerns and upsets have to take a back seat, at least as long as one is engaged in the mental “task.”

I suspect that that same thing occurs with activity, work, that is not necessarily or exclusively mental. Say craftsmanship, perhaps drawing or carpentry; building or engineering; professional activities such as medicine and health care; and so on.



The morale of this brief post: it’s often beneficial to act on impulse when something arises that gives you the impetus to do so.

To be willing to say, guess what, I would like to see that play too. This book, film, or whatever looks interesting. I’m going to read or watch it. You have to kind of “clear the decks” to do so. Make a little space in your life and your schedule. But, you know what? I have found that “room” to do it can always be found somehow.



Here’s a final thought. People. Relationships that begin casually. Somehow you make a link. Often, because you click somehow on some point or other, perhaps a shared interest or enthusiasm.

I don’t want to get too personal on this site, but I met my wife by serendipity. It would have seemed that we would have not had much that much in common, but we clicked off the bat. A relationship developed just like that. Without premeditation. It just happened. Once or twice, I was inclined to ask myself what was happening, but I LET IT HAPPEN. Thank God I did. My life was changed so much for the better.



A corollary. Things take one by surprise. The big things in life. The important things, that is. You have an idea perhaps that you would like to get married in the future (though perhaps you’re not quite sure) and envision it, vaguely, happening. When it happens, it’s never quite like what you expected. You know in the abstract, or as a medical certainty, that someone is likely to die soon, but when it happens, you’re never prepared for it.



I would be inclined to say that we can’t actually control things, can’t stage manage our lives, when it comes to the big things. Best policy: don’t try. Let them happen. Welcome them (as Walt Whitman said in his poems on the topic of death), and, when it comes to tragic events, accept them. And, when you get an impulse from above, a siren call, heed it.


— Roger W. Smith

   July 2017

Harold Bloom on Walt Whitman


[Whitman] is the poet of our climate, never to be replaced, unlikely ever to be matched. Only a few poets in the language have surpassed “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”: Shakespeare, Milton, perhaps one or two others. Whether even Shakespeare and Milton have achieved a more poignant pathos and a darker eloquence than Whitman’s “Lilacs,” I am not always certain. The great scene between the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester; the speeches of Satan after he has rallied his fallen legions—these epitomize the agonistic Sublime. And so does this, but with preternatural quietness:

In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle—and from this bush in the dooryard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break. [from “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” section 3]

— Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York: Riverhead Books, 1994), pp. 270-271



Walt Whitman. Concluded formal schooling at age eleven. Subsequently worked as an office boy, printer’s devil (apprentice), compositor (typesetter), schoolteacher, pressman, journalist, and editor. Began writing what would become Leaves of Grass in his early thirties. Published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 when he was age 36. A remarkable ontogenesis.


— Roger W. Smith

   July 2017