Tag Archives: John Milton

Roger W. Smith, “thoughts about reading”

 

‘thoughts about reading’

 

 

“I seek in books only to give myself pleasure by honest amusement; or if I study, I seek only the learning that treats of the knowledge of myself and instructs me to die well and live well.”

 

— Michel de Montaigne, “of books” (The Complete Essays, translated by Donald M. Frame)

 

 

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“Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. … as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye. … a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

 

Areopagitica: A speech of Mr John Milton for the liberty of unlicenced printing to the Parliament of England

 

 

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I am very desirous to receive letters from You, and hope You will write to me very freely, both about your brother [Charles Cornelius Chambers] and yourself. Pray tell me very particularly the title of every book that You have read at school and every thing that You have learnt since You went thither. Tell me also what books or parts of books You have read for your pleasure, and what plays or exercises You and Charles are fondest of. For my part, when I was of your age, I was fonder of reading Robinson Crusoe and the Seven Champions of Christendom, than I was of any kind of play whatsoever; and, as I suppose that You may probably have the same taste, I have ordered those books and some others to be sent to You.

— Sir Robert Chambers, letter to his son Robert Joseph Chambers, February 12, 1790; in Thomas M. Curley: Sir Robert Chambers: Law Literature and Empire in the Age of Johnson (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998). pg. 516. (Chambers, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal, India, was then residing in Calcutta, and his sons Robert and Joseph in England. The Famous Historie of the Seaven Champions of Christendom was a late-sixteenth, early seventeenth-century romance by the English writer Richard Johnson.)

 

 

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Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? … They are for nothing but to inspire. … Books are for the scholar’s idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings. But when the intervals of darkness come, as come they must,—when the soul seeth not, when the sun is hid and the stars withdraw their shining,—we repair to the lamps which were kindled by their ray, to guide our steps to the East again, where the dawn is. We hear, that we may speak. …

It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us ever with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads. We read the verses of one of the great English poets, of Chaucer, of Marvell, of Dryden, with the most modern joy,–with a pleasure, I mean, which is in great part caused by the abstraction of all time from their verses. There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well-nigh thought and said. …

I would not be hurried by any love of system, by any exaggeration of instincts, to underrate the Book. We all know that as the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge. And great and heroic men have existed who had almost no other information than by the printed page. I only would say that it needs a strong head to bear that diet. One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.

 

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar” (an address delivered in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1837 before the Harvard Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society)

 

 

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My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; … Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind. …

It is not all books that are as dull as their readers. There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.

 

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods

 

 

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Is Literature forever to propose no higher object than to amuse? to just pass away the time & stave off ennui? — Is it never to be the courageous wrestle with live subjects — the strong gymnasia of the mind — must it offer only things easy to understand as nature never does. [italics added]

 

— note, probably late 1850’s, by Walt Whitman; in Walt Whitman: Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, Volume IV: Notes, edited by Edward F. Grier (New York University Press 1984), pg. 1561

 

 

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“I was not an omnivorous reader–just a slow, idle, rambling one.”

 

— Theodore Dreiser, A Hoosier Holiday, Chapter XXXIX

 

 

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“Read, read, read. Read everything–trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.”

 

— William Faulkner, Statement at the University of Mississippi, 1947

 

 

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And then there was his book collection which numbered well into the thousands. Those books, mostly on the history of the fascinating period of his youth including the Spanish Civil War, Stalinism and World War II, were his sacred texts. He brought several tomes with him on his honeymoon in Mexico, much to my mother’s chagrin. He never let anyone read or even touch them. Their presence in every room meant that the apartment could never be painted or properly cleaned. I alternatively worshipped and loathed them, but they influenced me greatly.

 

— “A Jew without a burial site,” by Judith Colp Rubin [an essay about her father, Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr.], The Times of Israel, August 30, 2018

 

 

 

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Books are one of the most important and fulfilling things in my life.

I recall the pleasure long since past, when I was a boy, of curling up with a book, often at bedtime, just before going to sleep. I recall vividly a particular rainy day when I seem to recall we were in some remote location, perhaps a rented summer place. I spent a good part of the afternoon with a book, and felt so warm and cozy, sheltered from the elements.

I used to love that I was allowed to go to the Cambridge Public Library by myself after school when I was in the early grades. It was a rather long walk. I loved being in the children’s room, finding books, and being able to check them out by myself. There was a feeling of ownership and pride, of excitement in discovery, of being able to decide what you yourself wanted to read.

I loved receiving books as gifts. My parents and relatives were thoughtful gift-givers when it came to books. (I myself seem have inherited this. I have often had someone tell me, how did you know I would like this book, and this has occurred with people I don’t know well. Once I wanted to show appreciation to an editor with the gift of a book. She was thrilled to get the particular book I chose. It was not one, though I knew it was regarded as excellent, that I myself would have desired to read.)

I still love to curl up with a book. They are always there for me. They comfort me and are a solvent for boredom, idleness, and lonely hours.

 

 

 

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My home is filled with books, much as was the case with my former therapist, Ralph Colp, Jr. I have run out of bookshelf space. I have tried to impose some order so that I can find a book. Those on shelves are fairly well organized by broad subject areas and authors.

Dr. Colp told me there was nothing like having a book-lined study. Of having a book on the shelf there when you want it. Of being able to survey, take stock, of the riches there. He quoted to me what Edward Gibbon wrote: “My early and invincible love of reading I would not exchange for all the riches of India.”

Dr. Colp’s consulting office was lined with books, but he told me that this was only a small fraction — most were in his living quarters. He had run out of shelf space and some of the books in his consulting office were on the floor in tall piles. “What do you do when you want a book on the bottom of the pile?” I said to him once. “It seems to me that that would present a problem.”

“You’re right,” he said.

This was at a point in my therapy sessions when Dr. Colp had moved to a co-op in which he had an office and an apartment (his living quarters) on the same floor. Prior to that, I had been seeing him in a suite of offices he shared with another therapist, where there were few books. The first time I visited him in his new office, he spent the whole session showing me his books: a first edition of Darwin, for example. We never got to the session (therapy, that is) — he seemed unaware of time and was carried away by showing me the contents of his bookshelves.

 

 

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What makes a good reader? And why is reading important?

The answers seem to a large extent to be self-evident and, yet, they are questions I enjoy thinking about. Below are some thoughts of my own about reading. A description of my own reading habits. And, my advice to readers. In no particular order.

 

 

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The foundation of reading, like any pastime, should be pleasure, that you enjoy it. If you have a good experience with a good book, a great work of literature, you will want to repeat the experience. I experienced this, for example, with the following books which I read in my youth and my teens: Ben Franklin of Old Philadelphia (a young adult book; sixth grade); Anna Sewall’s Black Beauty (sometime in my elementary school years); Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season (a book about baseball; read by me in high school); Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (high school); and Pitirim A. Sorokin’s Leaves from a Russian Diary (in late adolescence), to name just a few. All were books that totally engrossed me; or, as the cliché goes, I couldn’t put them down.

A former friend of mine, the poet Charles Pierre, said to me that one should make it a point to read books expeditiously — don’t take forever to read them. You would not (although the analogy is not quite exact), for example, want to watch an opera over several evenings. This seems right, but I often violate the rule.

I want to read substantial, deep books that challenge me, fully engage me in deep thought. I get great pleasure from reading, but I do not read for pleasure in the sense of escapism (“literary” junk food).

I have found from the experience of a lifetime that I would rather travel mentally through reading books than travel in the literal sense. Reading a good book — say, a long novel — is akin to me to taking a trip, being on a journey. War and Peace, Moby-Dick, Les Misérables, Great Expectations.

You must be willing to submit yourself to a book, give yourself over to it, get lost in it. This happened to me with Moby-Dick. A critic once called it “a whale of a book.” Well, I devoured every part of it, including the cetology. I was totally wrapped up in it and Melville: the story, the whaling lore, Melville’s tone and style, the Elizabethan or Shakespearean ethos, the beauty of the narrative and descriptive passages.

Effort and stamina are required to get though a long book, including the great ones. But if the experience is worth it, curiosity and motivation (as well as pleasure) keep you going. This happened to me with Moby-Dick. It took me about three weeks to read it, in a copy borrowed from the public library that had wide margins and nice big type. During free time once, I was reading it on the steps of an open space in Midtown Manhattan. A man about my age with his girlfriend approached and, noting what I was reading, asked me if it was for a course. No, I said, I was reading it for myself. This, he plainly showed, pleased him.

I read deliberately and slowly because I want to get everything I can out of a book. (Speed reading to me is almost an oxymoron.) A good reader is an active reader.

The books of most famous writers, invariably serious readers, usually contain marginalia. I no longer make marginal notes, but I do take notes quoting passages that I want to remember and/or be able to refer to. My “marginalia” nowadays consist of typed notes which I email to myself.

Authors whom I enjoy and references within a book to other works often lead me to other books. I always have a mental inventory of books waiting to be read.

Introductions should be read after — not before — the work itself. I want to form my own impressions — make my own judgments — without being influenced or prejudiced by an introduction. This seems to be most true of fiction. I often find introductions to be well written and very informative. But, first, I want to “meet” the author, with no one telling me what I will find or what to expect. It’s like meeting a new person.

To be ready for a book, say a classic novel, you have to be in the right frame of mind. This has happened to me with many classics. At some point — often this is the case — I feel the urge to read them. There are classics that did not engage me or that I did not understand or appreciate at some point in my life which I pick up later and am thoroughly engaged by. A good example is Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It’s not the kind of novel I would ordinarily read. I tried reading it once not that long ago when perhaps I was just not in the mood. It seemed like a not particularly well written and overrated work. For some reason, I picked it up again recently and was able not only to finish it, but to fully appreciate Shelley’s genius.

Something very similar happened to me with Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I could not get through in college but read years later with great enjoyment.

One should read for as short or long a time as one likes. As for the best “reading position,” I sprawl, read in a reclining position. Dr. Colp read sitting upright behind his office desk, where he did all his intellectual work. I have never been much inclined to read (as opposed to doing research) in libraries.

I have found that the ability to read and focus on non-trivial reading material such as literature and expository or scholarly writing is a reliable measure or barometer of mental health. For me, at least. Meaning, that when I can’t focus enough to read, I am usually mentally troubled, in an agitated frame of mind.

As regards scholarly books — reading for the sake of learning — a deep, scholarly, and (hopefully) engrossing book, by someone who knows more than I do about a subject, I am very willing to submit to instruction, tutelage, by a scholar. In line with what I have just said, such reading seems to put me in a calm, deliberative, objective state — “in neutral,” so to speak. It enables me to get outside of myself mentally, to put aside self-absorption and the concerns of the moment. It is truly a matter of expanding one’s horizons.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2019

“the business of the biographer”

 

His domestick habits, so far as they are known, were those of a severe student. He drank little strong drink of any kind, and fed without excess in quantity, and in his earlier years without delicacy of choice. In his youth he studied late at night; but afterwards changed his hours, and rested in bed from nine to four in the summer, and five in winter. The course of his day was best known after he was blind. When he first rose he heard a chapter in the Hebrew Bible, and then studied till twelve; then took some exercise for an hour; then dined; then plaid on the organ, and sung, or heard another sing; then studied to six; then entertained his visiters, till eight; then supped, and, after a pipe of tobacco and a glass of water, went to bed.

 

— Samuel Johnson, “Milton,” The Lives of the Poets

 

 

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Samuel Johnson, in a famous essay on biography, shows the importance of minute particulars: how they bring a person to life and create reader interest:

It is frequently objected to relations of particular lives, that they are not distinguished by any striking or wonderful vicissitudes. The scholar who passed his life among his books, the merchant who conducted only his own affairs, the priest whose sphere of action was not extended beyond that of his duty, are considered as no proper objects of public regard, however they might have excelled in their several stations, whatever might have been their learning, integrity, and piety. But this notion arises from false measures of excellence and dignity, and must be eradicated by considering that, in the esteem of uncorrupted reason, what is of most use is of most value.

It is, indeed, not improper to take honest advantages of prejudice, and to gain attention by a celebrated name; but the business of the biographer is often to pass slightly over those performances and incidents which produce vulgar greatness, to lead the thoughts into domestic privacies, and display the minute details of daily life, where exterior appendages are cast aside, and men excel each other only by prudence and by virtue. The account of Thuanus is, with great propriety, said by its author to have been written that it might lay open to posterity the private and familiar character of that man, cujus ingenium et candorem ex ipsius scriptis sunt olim semper miraturi, whose candour and genius will to the end of time be by his writings preserved in admiration.

There are many invisible circumstances which, whether we read as inquirers after natural or moral knowledge, whether we intend to enlarge our science or increase our virtue, are more important than public occurrences. Thus Salust, the great master of nature, has not forgot, in his account of Catiline, to remark that his walk has now gone quick, and again slow, as an indication of a mind revolving something with violent commotion. Thus the story of Melancthon affords a striking lecture on the value of time, by informing us that, when he made an appointment, he expected not only the hour but the minute to be fixed, that the day might not run out in the idleness of suspense; and all the plans and enterprises of De Wit are now of less importance to the world than that part of his personal character which represents him as careful of his health, and negligent of his life.

But biography has often been allotted to writers who seem very little acquainted with the nature of their task, or very negligent about the performance. They rarely afford any other account than might be collected from public papers, but imagine themselves writing a life when they exhibit a chronological series of actions or preferments; and so little regard the manners or behaviour of their heroes that more knowledge may be gained of a man’s real character, by a short conversation with one of his servants, than from a formal and studied narrative, begun with his pedigree and ended with his funeral.

— Samuel Johnson, Rambler #60, October 13, 1750

 

 

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In his preface to Letters of Theodore Dreiser (1959), edited by Dressier scholar Robert H. Elias, Elias, who knew Dreiser personally, noted that letters “that simply record data, biographical or bibliographical, or that are primarily love letters” had been excluded. My former therapist, Ralph Colp, Jr., said up front, without hesitation, that this was a mistake, a serious omission. I agreed.

I happened once to mention to Dr. Colp the Penguin series of biographies: Brief Lives. I had purchased one of them. Dr. Colp said that a brief life leaving out most or many important details amounted to an insufficient biography. I realized that he was right.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2018

Roger W. Smith, “A Commentary on Nathaniel Philbrick’s Observations about ‘Moby-Dick'”

 

I have been reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick? (2011).

Philbrick is a great admirer of Herman Melville. He states, in the first chapter, that he has read Melville’s novel Moby-Dick “at least a dozen times.”

I read Moby-Dick in a book borrowed from the New York Public Library in the 1970’s. I couldn’t put it down. The book and Melville were a revelation for me.

The following are some thoughts of my own about Moby-Dick based upon my reading of Philbrick’s excellent study cum appréciaton.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

     September 2016

 

 

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(Page numbers below refer to Why Read Moby-Dick?)

 

 

pg. 9

Philbrick says, “I am not one of those purists who insist on reading the entire untruncated text at all costs.”

Although I agree with most of the points Philbrick makes, I disagree strongly here. To fully appreciate the book, you’ve got to take it all in, including the cetology.

 

pg. 17

“free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy”; Ishmael’s, approach to life, in his own words.

An apt characterization. Ishmael, the first person narrator, begins the book with the words “Call me Ishmael”—setting the informal, free and easy tone of the book, and establishing a level of UNformality notably American.

 

pg.  21

Philbrick comments on how, at intervals, Melville “slows the pace of his mighty novel to a magisterial crawl.”

Well put. The book is like a sea voyage under sail. There are very long stretches where land is not in sight, so to speak, and progress seems slow. By the time one finishes the book, one feels that one’s self has been on a long voyage.

 

pg.  22

I don’t agree with Ishmael’s statement (i.e., a statement made in the novel by Melville indirectly in the words of the main character Ishmael, not by Philbrick) that one ought to “forgo the cloying chunks of needless potato” in clam chowder. Clam chowder, which I love (New England clam chowder, that is), is so much better and filling with potatoes, which, in my view, are indispensable.

 

pg. 37

Melville:  “For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.”

Shakespearean language.

The influence of Shakespeare on Melville can be seen as plain as day.

 

pg. 44

Philbrick: “Hidden beneath his [Melville’s] lapidarian surfaces were truths so profound and disturbing that they ranked with anything written in the English language.”

YES. Melville fuses narrative with metaphysical speculation, reality with imagination, grim actuality with underlying truths.

 

pg. 48

Philbrick: “[Melville’s] metaphysical preoccupations perpetually threatened to overwhelm his unsurpassed ability to find the specific, concrete detail that conveys everything.”

Very true. A keen observation.

 

pg.  59

Philbrick writes of the “longings: of the twelve-year-old boy [Melville] for his dead father; of the author for fame; and of the almost-middle-aged man for a friend.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne. Such a heart rending story. Hawthorne was discomfited by Melville’s love and shrunk from it.

 

pg. 61

Philbrick mentions “the wisdom of waiting to read the classics.”

YES. An excellent point.

Waiting until you are ready, motivated, and receptive.

Waiting until the most opportune time.

This is precisely that happened to me with Moby-Dick. And, practically every other classic and/or “great book” I have ever read.

Hardly any of them – almost none – were read by me as school assignments.

 

pg. 64

Philbrick: “Moby-Dick is a true epic, embodying almost every powerful American archetype.”

A personal observation of mine: Moby-Dick is the Great American Novel. Though many admire the book, few, if any, seem to realize this.

 

pg. 64

Philbrick: “There is wonderful slapdash quality to the book.”

Very true. Well put.

Slapdash: The great writers seem to be able to write in this way, as if they were tossing something off and sort of “taking dictation” (from within), telling you a story or something or other in an unrehearsed, unscripted conversation. Their writing does not seem “studied” (does not read that way).

Melville excels at this, beginning with the novel’s opening words:  Call me Ishmael.” He picks up the story there, and, bang, you’re into it.

Another writer who, in my opinion, pulled this off – who would not ordinarily be thought of in this context – was Henry Miller in Tropic of Capricorn. (It seems to me that Melville might be diagnosed today as having been, at times, manic, as I imagine Henry Miller may also have been.)

Also, Daniel Defoe does the same thing. Defoe seems artless, like he’s merely there to write it down. It actually makes him a great read.

 

pg.  64

Philbrick: “Ishmael is the narrator, but at times Melville invests him with an authorial omniscience.”

A good critical insight.

 

pg.  65

Philbrick: “[T]he plot is [often] left to languish and entire groups of characters [in Moby-Dick] vanish without a trace.”

True. Cf. Bulkington.

 

 pg. 65

Philbrick: “… Melville is conveying the quirky artlessness of life though his ramshackle art. ‘[C]areful disorderliness,’ Ishmael assures us, ‘is the true method.’ ”

Right on target as concerns Melville the writer (as well as Melville’s view of life).

 

pp.80-81

Philbrick: “Melville has created a portrait of the redemptive power of intimate human relations, what he calls elsewhere [in Moby-Dick] ‘the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country.’ It is an ideal world that would sadly elude him for much of his married life.”

The quote is from Moby-Dick, Chapter XCLV.

 

pg. 82

Philbrick quotes from Moby-Dick (Chapter LXXXVII): ‘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. …’

This is wonderful descriptive prose. (Remember how, in the experience of most of us, one of the first writing assignments we had in school was to write a paper describing something?)

A personal note: In the 1970’s, when I was living in Manhattan a block away from Riverside Park, along the Hudson River, there was a particularly cold winter. The Hudson froze over, and I can remember the hissing and popping sounds as the ice was breaking up slowly.

 

pg.  83

There is a quote from Chapter XCIII of Moby-Dick (not so indicated by Philbrick): “flatly stretching away, all round, to the horizon, like gold-beater’s skin hammered out to the extremest.”

This is undoubtedly an echo of John Donne’s famous poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” (another scholar confirmed my opinion):

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

Melville, as the scholar put it, “knew seventeenth century English literature.”

 

 pg.  85

“So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense. …” (Moby-Dick, Chapter XCIII).

A profound observation by Melville.

 

pg. 103

Philbrick: “[Melville’s] dangerously digressive, sometimes bombastic novel….”

An apt description — perhaps one should say brilliant — very much on target.

 

pg. 114

Philbrick: “No matter how fantastic it may seem, everything in these last three chapters [Chapters CXXXIII-CXXXV of Moby-Dick] could have happened.”

Very true. And, the ability the pull this off is what makes Melville and the novel great. As philosophic as the book gets, whatever flights of fancy Melville gets carried way with, the book is firmly grounded in reality.

 

pg.  115

Philbrick: “In the destruction of the two whaleboats [in Chapter CXXXIV of Moby-Dick], Melville is also portraying the destruction of his own talent.”

 

pg.  117

“[The Pequod], like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her” (Moby-Dick, Chapter CXXXV).

This passage sounds Miltonic.

 

pg.  119

Philbrick mentions “the loss of [Melville’s] shy muse.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne.

 

pg.  127

“[A]t my years, and with my disposition, or rather, constitution, one gets to care less and less for everything except downright good feeling. Life is so short, and so ridiculous and irrational (from a certain point of view) that one knows not what to make of it, unless–well, finish the sentence for yourself.” (Melville to his brother-in-law Lemuel Shaw, April 23 1849)

Handel’s “Samson”

 

 

Overture

 

 

 

 

ACT THREE, Scene 3

84. Solo and Chorus (“Glorious hero”)

 

 

 

 

 

Israelites
Glorious hero, may thy grave
Peace and honour ever have,
After all thy pains and woes,
Rest etemal, sweet repose!

 

 

ACT ONE, Scene 2

12. Air (“Total eclipse!”)

 

 

 

Samson

Total eclipse! No sun, no moon!
All dark amidst the blaze of noon!
Oh, glorious light! No cheering ray
To glad my eyes with welcome day!
Why thus depriv’d Thy prime decree?
Sun, moon, and stars are dark to me!

 

 

For the complete oratorio, see

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/01/21/handel-samson/

 

 

 

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I have been listening to some music today, mostly Handel, including a bit of “Samson,” an oratorio.

Handel composed “Samson” right after “Messiah.” He wrote “Messiah” in 24 days! He wrote “Samson” in about a month!

The libretto of “Samson” was based on John Milton’s “Samson Agonistes.”

It is my opinion – perhaps a minority one – that “Samson” is just about equal to “Messiah,” if not in fact equal.

It evokes such an emotional response. Raises goose bumps.

Listen to “Glorious Hero,” for example.

My mother majored in Fine Arts at Radcliffe College. She had quite a few art books from her college days that my siblings and I used to peruse.

There was a reproduction of a painting in one of her art books: “Samson and the Philistines” by Carl Heinrich Bloch, which was painted in Rome in 1863. It made such an impression on me. The painting shows Samson, in captivity, grinding grain on a treadmill. I couldn’t stop looking at it.

So did the Biblical story of Samson itself, which I knew from Sunday school.

 

 

— Roger  W. Smith

     May 4, 2016

 

 

 

 

'Samson and the Philistines'.JPG

Handel, “l’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato”

 

 

 

 

 

“As steals the morn upon the night”

by George Frideric Handel

from L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato

Part the Third

 
Duet (soprano & tenor)

 

As steals the morn upon the night,
And melts the shades away:
So Truth does Fancy’s charm dissolve,
And rising Reason puts to flight
The fumes that did the mind involve,
Restoring intellectual day.

 

 

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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 

L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (“The Cheerful, the Thoughtful, and the Moderate Man”; HWV 55) is a pastoral ode by George Frideric Handel based on the poetry of John Milton.

Handel composed the work over the period of 19 January to 4 February 1740, and the work was premiered on 27 February 1740 at the Royal Theatre of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. At the urging of one of Handel’s librettists, Charles Jennens, Milton’s two poems, L’Allegro and il Penseroso, were arranged by James Harris, interleaving them to create dramatic tension between the personified characters of Milton’s poems (L’Allegro or the “Joyful man” and il Penseroso or the “Contemplative man”). The first two movements consist of this dramatic dialog between Milton’s poems. In an attempt to unite the two poems into a singular “moral design”, at Handel’s request, Jennens added a new poem, “il Moderato”, to create a third movement. The popular concluding aria and chorus, “As Steals the Morn” is adapted from Shakespeare’s Tempest, V.i.65–68.

 

 

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Handel, “l’Allegro ed il Pensero”

 

 

 

The third and final part of this pastoral ode by Handel, “il Moderato,” is missing from this excellent recording.

The lyrics, as noted above, are from a poem by Milton.

I could not hear this piece enough times after first encountering it. It was typically sublime Handel, yet also different from his other works, occupies its own place.

 

 

 

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Below I have added the music from the third section, “Il Moderato.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Libretto

 

 

 

PARTE PRIMA

1. Accompagnato

L’Allegro (tenor):

Hence loathed Melancholy
Of Cerberus, and blackest midnight born,
In Stygian cave forlorn
‘Mongst horrid shapes, and shrieks, and sights unholy,
Find out some uncouth cell,
Where brooding darkness spreads his jealous wings,
And the night-raven sings;
There under ebon shades, and low-brow’d rocks,
As ragged as thy locks,
In dark Cimmerian desert ever dwell.

2. Accompagnato

Il Penseroso (soprano):

Hence vain deluding joys,
Dwell in some idle brain,
And fancies fond with gaudy shapes possess,
As thick and numberless
As the gay motes that people the sunbeams,
Or likest hovering dreams
The fickle pensioners of Morpheus’ train.

3. Air

L’Allegro (soprano):

Come, thou goddess fair and free,
In Heav’n yclep’d Euphrosyne;
And by men heart-easing Mirth,
Whom lovely Venus, at a birth,
With two sister-graces more,
To ivy-crowned Bacchus bore.

4. Air

Il Penseroso (soprano):

Come rather, goddess sage and holy;
Hail, divinest Melancholy,
Whose saintly visage is too bright
To hit the sense of human sight;
Thee bright-hair’d Vesta long of yore,
To solitary Saturn bore.

5. Air and Chorus

L’Allegro (tenor):

Haste thee, nymph, and bring with thee
Jest and youthful jollity,
Quips and cranks, and wanton wiles,
Nods, and becks, and wreathed smiles
Such as hang on Hebe’s cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek,
Sport, that wrinkled care derides,
And laughter, holding both his sides.
Chorus:
Haste thee, nymph, and bring with thee
Jest, and youthful jollity;
Sport, that wrinkled care derides,
And laughter, holding both his sides.

6. Air and Chorus

L’Allegro (tenor):

Come, and trip it as you go,
On the light fantastic toe.
Chorus:
Come, and trip it as you go,
On the light fantastic toe.

7. Accompagnato

Il Penseroso (soprano):

Come, pensive nun, devout and pure,
Sober, steadfast, and demure;
All in a robe of darkest grain,
Flowing with majestic train.

8. Arioso

Il Penseroso (soprano):

Come, but keep thy wonted state,
With even step, and musing gait,
And looks commercing with the skies,
Thy rapt soul sitting in thine eyes.

9. Accompagnato and Chorus

Il Penseroso (soprano):

There held in holy passion still,
Forget thyself to marble, till
With a sad leaden downward cast
Thou fix them on the earth as fast.
And join with thee calm peace, and quiet,
Spare fast, that oft with gods doth diet,
And hears the muses in a ring
Round about Jove’s altar sing.
Chorus:
Join with thee calm peace, and quiet,
Spare fast, that oft with gods doth diet.

10. Recitative

L’Allegro (tenor):

Hence, loathed Melancholy,
In dark Cimmerian desert ever dwell.
But haste thee, Mirth, and bring with thee
The mountain nymph, sweet Liberty.
L’Allegro (soprano):
And if I give thee honour due,
Mirth, admit me of thy crew!

11. Air

L’Allegro (soprano):

Mirth, admit me of thy crew,
To live with her, and live with thee,
In unreproved pleasures free;
To hear the lark begin his flight,
And singing startle the dull night;
Then to come in spite of sorrow,
And at my window bid good morrow.
Mirth, admit me of thy crew!

12. Accompagnato

Il Penseroso (soprano):

First, and chief, on golden wing,
The cherub Contemplation bring;
And the mute Silence hist along,
‘Less Philomel will deign a song,
In her sweetest, saddest plight,
Smoothing the rugged brow of night.

13. Air

Il Penseroso (soprano):

Sweet bird, that shun’st the noise of folly,
Most musical, most melancholy!
Thee, chauntress, oft the woods among,
I woo to hear thy even-song.
Or, missing thee, I walk unseen,
On the dry smooth-shaven green,
To behold the wand’ring moon
Riding near her highest noon.
Sweet bird. . . da capo

14. Recitative

L’Allegro (bass):

If I give thee honour due,
Mirth, admit me of thy crew!

15. Air

L’Allegro (bass):

Mirth, admit me of thy crew!
To listen how the hounds and horn
Cheerly rouse the slumb’ring morn,
From the side of some hoar hill,
Through the high wood echoing shrill.

16. Air

Il Penseroso (soprano):

Oft on a plat of rising ground,
I hear the far-off curfew sound,
Over some wide-water’d shore,
Swinging slow, with sullen roar;
Or if the air will not permit,
Some still removed place will fit,
Where glowing embers through the room
Teach light to counterfeit a gloom.

17. Air

Il Penseroso (soprano or tenor):

Far from all resort of mirth,
Save the cricket on the hearth,
Or the bellman’s drowsy charm,
To bless the doors from nightly harm.

18. Recitative

L’Allegro (tenor):

If I give thee honour due,
Mirth, admit me of thy crew!

19. Air

L’Allegro (tenor or soprano):

Let me wander, not unseen,
By hedge-row elms on hillocks green.
There, the ploughman, near at hand,
Whistles over the furrow’d land,
And the milkmaid singeth blithe,
And the mower whets his scythe,
And every shepherd tells his tale
Under the hawthorn in the dale.

20a. Air

L’Allegro (soprano):

Straight mine eye hath caught new pleasures,
While the landscape round it measures
Russet lawns, and fallows grey,
Where the nibbling flocks do stray.

21. Accompagnato

L’Allegro (soprano or bass):

Mountains, on whose barren breast
The lab’ring clouds do often rest:
Meadows trim with daisies pied,
Shallow brooks, and rivers wide
Tow’rs and battlements it sees,
Bosom’d high in tufted trees.

20a. Air

L’Allegro (soprano):

Straight mine eye hath caught new pleasures,
While the landscape round it measures
Russet lawns, and fallows grey,
Where the nibbling flocks do stray.

22. Air and Chorus

L’Allegro (soprano or tenor):

Or let the merry bells ring round,
And the jocund rebecks sound
To many a youth, and many a maid,
Dancing in the checquer’d shade.
Chorus:
And young and old come forth to play
On a sunshine holiday,
Till the livelong daylight fail.
Thus past the day, to bed they creep,
By whisp’ring winds soon lull’d asleep.

PARTE SECONDA

23. Accompagnato

Il Penseroso (soprano):

Hence, vain deluding joys,
The brood of Folly without father bred;
How little you bestead,
Or fill the fixed mind with all your toys.
Oh, let my lamp, at midnight hour,
Be seen in some high lonely tow’r,
Where I may oft out-watch the Bear
With thrice-great Hermes, or unsphere
The spirit of Plato to unfold
What worIds, or what vast regions hold
Th’immortal mind that hath forsook
Her mansion in this fleshly nook.

24. Air

Il Penseroso (soprano):

Sometimes let gorgeous Tragedy
In sceptred pall come sweeping by,
Presenting Thebes, or Pelops’ line,
Or the tale of Troy divine;
Or what (though rare) of later age
Ennobled hath the buskin’d stage.

25. Air

Il Penseroso (soprano):

But oh, sad virgin, that thy pow’r
Might raise Musaeus from his bow’r,
Or bid the soul of Orpheus sing
Such notes as, warbled to the string,
Drew iron tears down Pluto’s cheeks
And made hell grant what love did seek.

26. Recitative

Il Penseroso (soprano):

Thus night oft see me in thy pale career,
Till unwelcome morn appear.

27. Solo & Chorus

L’Allegro (bass):

Populous cities please me then,
And the busy hum of men.
Chorus:
Populous cities please us then,
And the busy hum of men,
Where throngs of knights and barons bold,
In weeds of peace high triumphs hold;
With store of ladies, whose bright eyes
Rain influence, and judge the prize
Of wit, or arms, while both contend
To win her grace, whom all commend.
Populous cities. . . da capo

28. Air

L’Allegro (soprano or tenor):

There let Hymen oft appear
In saffron robe, with taper clear,
And pomp, and feast, and revelry,
With mask, and antique pageantry;
Such sights as youthful poets dream

On summer eves by haunted stream.

29. Accompagnato

Il Penseroso (soprano):

Me, when the sun begins to fling
His flaring beams, me goddess bring
To arched walks of twilight groves,
And shadows brown that Sylvan loves;
There in close covert by some brook,
Where no profaner eye may look.

30. Air

Il Penseroso (soprano):

Hide me from day’s garish eye,
While the bee with honied thigh,
Which at her flow’ry worth doth sing,
And the waters murmuring,
With such consort as they keep
Entice the dewy-feather’d sleep;
And let some strange mysterious dream
Wave at his wings in airy stream
Of lively portraiture display’d,
Softly on my eyelids laid.
Then as I wake, sweet music breathe,
Above, about, or underneath,
Sent by some spirit to mortals good,
Or th’unseen genius of the wood.

31. Air

L’Allegro (tenor):

I’ll to the well-trod stage anon,
If Jonson’s learned sock be on,
Or sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy’s child,
Warble his native wood-notes wild.

32. Air

L’Allegro (soprano):

And ever against eating cares,
Lap me in soft Lydian airs
Married to immortal verse,
Such as the meeting soul may pierce
In notes, with many a winding bout
Of linked sweetness long drawn out;
With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,
The melting voice through mazes running,
Untwisting all the chains that tie
The hidden soul of harmony.

33. Air

L’Allegro (soprano):

Orpheus’ self may heave his head
From golden slumbers on a bed
Of heap’d Elysian flow’rs, and hear
Such strains as would have won the ear
Of Pluto, to have quite set free
His half-regain’d Eurydice.

34. Air and Chorus

L’Allegro (tenor):

These delights if thou canst give,
Mirth, with thee I mean to live.
Chorus:
These delights if thou canst give,
Mirth, with thee we mean to live.

35. Recitative

Il Penseroso (soprano):

But let my due feet never fail
To walk the studious cloister’s pale,
And love the high-embowed roof,
With antic pillars’ massy proof,
And storied windows richly dight,
Casting a dim religious light.

36. Solo & Chorus

Chorus:

There let the pealing organ blow
To the full voic’d quire below,
In service high and anthems clear!
Il Penseroso (soprano):
And let their sweetness, through mine ear,
Dissolve me into ecstasies,
And bring all Heav’n before mine eyes!

37. Air

Il Penseroso (soprano):

May at last my weary age
Find out the peaceful hermitage,
The hairy gown and mossy cell,
Where I may sit and rightly spell
Of ev’ry star that Heav’n doth show,
And ev’ry herb that sips the dew;
Till old experience do attain
To something like prophetic strain.

38. Solo and Chorus

Il Penseroso (soprano):

These pleasures, Melancholy, give,
And I with thee will choose to live.
Chorus:
These pleasures, Melancholy, give,
And we with thee will choose to live.