Tag Archives: idealism

“Song of Saul Before His Last Battle” by Lord Byron

“Suicide of Saul” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Warriors and chiefs! should the shaft or the sword
Pierce me in leading the host of the Lord,
Heed not the corse, though a king’s in your path:
Bury your steel in the bosoms of Gath!

Thou who art bearing my buckler and bow,
Should the soldiers of Saul look away from the foe,
Stretch me that moment in blood at thy feet!
Mine be the doom which they dared not to meet.

Farewell to others, but never we part,
Heir to my royalty, son of my heart!
Bright is the diadem, boundless the sway,
Or kingly the death, which awaits us today!

To understand this poem, you should be familiar with the biblical story of the death of Saul, as told in I Samuel 31. Saul is leading a battle against the Philistines, and things do not go well for the Israelites. Saul’s sons are slain, and the warriors flee. So Saul decides to take his own life, rather than be abused and killed by the “uncircumcised.”

Byron sees this as the ultimate heroic act, to sacrifice yourself rather than compromise your ideals. There is nothing weak about Saul’s decision to take his own life. It is totally an act of courage and bravery.

So why would this be so important to Byron? There are a couple possibilities. He could be expressing his unwavering commitment to a romantic love, vowing to die rather than allow another to pierce his heart. But I think a more plausible interpretation is that Byron is asserting his staunch adherence to his artistic ideals. Byron has a clear vision of his poetry and what he wishes to convey through his works. He would rather die than compromise his artistic integrity and create baser works intended for the Philistine masses.

I confess I looked online to see what others thought about this poem, and really did not find any out there, so these are just my personal thoughts on the poem. Feel free to let me know if you have a different impression of what Byron was trying to express. I would love to hear your thoughts. Cheers!

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“Prometheus Unbound” by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Part 1 – Overview

PrometheusUnbound

By the time I was halfway through reading this again (I had read it a couple times in college), I realized that there was no way I could just write a single post about this work. It is just too complex. So, I am going to write a short series of posts on it. This is the first and I will update it with links to the subsequent posts after I get them written.

In his preface to the play, Shelley states that he drew inspiration from the lost drama of the same name by Aeschylus. Shelley uses the Prometheus myth to represent Satan as opposition to tyranny (symbolized by God/Jupiter) and as the champion of humankind.

The only imaginary being, resembling in any degree Prometheus, is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which, in the hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest. The character of Satan engenders in the mind a pernicious casuistry which leads us to weigh his faults with his wrongs, and to excuse the former because the latter exceed all measure. In the minds of those who consider that magnificent fiction with a religious feeling it engenders something worse. But Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.

Throughout the play, Shelley asserts that love is the ultimate human emotion which will ultimately lead to the defeat of fear, tyranny, and oppression. Love is the energy which permeates everything in the world, and the highest goal of art is the expression of this universal love which will ultimately deliver humanity to freedom.

Shelley, in his preface, seems as defiant as Prometheus and Satan. He asserts that he would rather burn in Hell than bow artistically to Christian law.

For my part I had rather be damned with Plato and Lord Bacon than go to Heaven with Paley and Malthus. But it is a mistake to suppose that I dedicate my poetical compositions solely to the direct enforcement of reform, or that I consider them in any degree as containing a reasoned system on the theory of human life. Didactic poetry is my abhorrence; nothing can be equally well expressed in prose that is not tedious and supererogatory in verse. My purpose has hitherto been simply to familiarize the highly refined imagination of the more select classes of poetical readers with beautiful idealisms of moral excellence; aware that, until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and endure, reasoned principles of moral conduct are seeds cast upon the highway of life which the unconscious passenger tramples into dust, although they would bear the harvest of his happiness.

In my subsequent post, I will look closer at specific passages which in my opinion represent some of the key issues in this drama. As I mentioned, this is a very dense and complex work, and I will not be able to cover everything, but I will do my best to hit some of the main aspects.

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“Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens – My 500th Blog Post

GreatExpectations

My friend Jerry gave me a copy of this book since I had never read it before. I wanted to read more Dickens (a writer whose works were noticeably missing from the list of books I’d read) and this was a great one.

To briefly sum up this book, it is the story of Pip, an orphaned boy who is brought up by his harsh aunt and her kind but timid husband Joe. Pip is “hired” by the rich and bitter Miss Havisham to spend time with her foster daughter, Estella, with whom Pip falls hopelessly in love. Pip then mysteriously comes into wealth from an unknown source and moves from the country to London to become a gentleman. As the story plays out, it becomes an exploration of social contrasts: expectation and reality; country life and city life; rich and poor; public and private; free and incarcerated; and so forth.

Throughout the book, people with great expectations often suffer the pain of having those expectations crushed by reality. I found this as a representation of Romantic idealism failing in the harsh light of social realism. A great example of this early in the book is Miss Havisham, who was duped by a con-man and left on her wedding day. Her shattered dreams and expectations caused her to crumble and decay internally. This internal decay is also reflected in her surroundings, as she allows her grand home to decay around her.

“On this day of the year, long before you were born, this heap of decay,” stabbing with her crutched stick at the pile of cobwebs on the table but not touching it, “was brought here. It and I have worn away together. The mice have gnawed at it, and sharper teeth than teeth of mice have gnawed at me.”

She held the head of her stick against her heart as she stood looking at the table; she in her once white dress, all yellow and withered; the once white cloth all yellow and withered: everything around, in a state to crumble under a touch.

(p. 98)

One of the sad realities of life that I have personally come to accept is the loss of friendship, not as a result of anything drastic, but just because people end up taking different paths in life which often lead us in divergent directions. Dickens poignantly expresses this in a scene where Joe accepts that he will no longer share the close relationship with Pip because Pip’s life has taken a different course.

“Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together, as I may say, and one man’s a blacksmith, and one’s a whitesmith, and one’s a goldsmith, and one’s a coppersmith. Diwisions among such must come, and must be met as they come. If there’s been any fault at all to-day, it’s mine. You and me is not two figures to be together in London; nor yet anywheres else but what is private, and beknown, and understood among friends. It ain’t that I am proud, but that I want to be right, as you shall never see me no more in these clothes. I’m wrong out of the forge, the kitchen, or off th’marshes. You won’t find half so much fault in me if you think of me in my forge dress, with my hammer in my hand, or even my pipe. You won’t find half so much fault in me if, supposing you should ever wish to see me, you come and put your head in at the forge window and see Joe the blacksmith, there, at the old anvil, in the old burnt apron, sticking to the old work. I’m awful dull, but I hope I’ve beat out something nigh the rights of this at last. And so God bless you, dear old Pip, old chap, God bless you.”

(pp. 248 – 249)

One of the things I found fascinating about this book is how relevant it still is to today’s society. We are still obsessed with wealth and often judge individuals by their material success. We also judge people by appearance, especially those we feel fall into the category of criminal types (I’m thinking about racial profiling here). There is no doubt that incarceration in prison changes a person, but we as a society see that as a permanent stain on that individual’s character, regardless of any effort made by that individual to change. This is expressed in a scene where Pip is harboring the escaped convict, Provis. Regardless of Pip’s attempts to disguise him, he still looks like a convict in Pip’s eyes.

Next day the clothes I had ordered, all came home, and he put them on. Whatever he put on, became him less (it dismally seemed to me) than what he had worn before. To my thinking there was something in him that made it hopeless to attempt to disguise him. The more I dressed him and the better I dressed him, the more he looked like the slouching fugitive on the marshes. This effect on my anxious fancy was partly referable, no doubt, to his old face and manner growing more familiar to me: but I believe too that he dragged one of his legs as if there were still a weight of iron on it, and that from head to foot there was Convict in the very grain of the man.

(p. 372)

At first, it was difficult for me to feel pity for Pip, because he is often so arrogant and treated those who loved him poorly because he was embarrassed by their social standing. But then as I thought about it, there were certainly times, particularly in my youth, when I was embarrassed by certain friends and family and didn’t want to appear to be too close with them while with other acquaintances that I wanted to make a good impression with. But like Pip, as I matured and went through life experiences, I changed and became a better person (I think). By the time I reached the end of the book, I saw more of myself in Pip, a person humbled by life’s experiences, willing to take responsibility for mistakes made, and eager to make amends to the loved ones he had harmed.

As I mentioned in the title, this is my 500th post on Stuff Jeff Reads. I have to say that this has far surpassed my expectations for this blog. At this point, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts and to share yours. It’s only because of the interesting, creative, and supportive people I’ve met through blogging that I have continued thus far. Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts and I hope your day is filled with books and happiness!

500

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“Into The Wild” by Jon Krakauer

IntoTheWild

This book has been on my list of books to read for quite a long time. I finally got around to it. For those who do not know the premise of the book, it is the true story of Chris McCandless, a young man who decided to journey into the wilderness of Alaska alone and ended up dying of starvation. It’s a powerful story and extremely well-written. I found it difficult to put down.

In the book, Krakauer uses journal entries, letters, photos, and interviews to piece together the events of Chris’ odyssey into the wild, which he undertook immediately upon graduating college and did not inform his friends or family about. He basically severed his ties to society and decided to live on the fringe. In a letter he wrote to Ron Franz, a person he met while traveling, he expresses his belief in the importance of living an adventurous life.

I’d like to repeat the advice I gave you before, in that I think you really should make a radical change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may previously never have thought of doing, or been too hesitant to attempt. So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, Ron, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty.

(pp. 56 – 57)

Throughout the book, Krakauer includes quotes from writers regarding experiences in the wilderness. One of these quotes really struck me.

Wilderness appealed to those bored or disgusted with man and his works. It not only offered an escape from society but also was an ideal stage for the Romantic individual to exercise the cult that he frequently made of his own soul. The solitude and total freedom of the wilderness created a perfect setting for either melancholy or exaltation.

Roderick Nash,
Wilderness and the American Mind

(p. 157)

I have always found the wilderness to be a powerful symbol for the dark, primordial realm of the subconscious mind. That, combined with the fact that much of America was wilderness for a long time, the symbol of wilderness has become part of the American collective consciousness. It is the wild, unexplored part of ourselves that always seems to lure us.

McCandless traveled around the United States for about two years before finally heading out into the Alaskan bush. There is a great journal entry that describes his feeling as he finally found his solitude in the wilderness.

Two years he walks the earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou shalt not return, ‘cause “the west is the best.” And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution. Ten days and nights of freight trains and hitchhiking bring him to the great white north, no longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.

(p. 163)

For my entire life, I always believed that burning had to be the worst way to die, and while I still think that it is probably the worst, after reading the description of what happens to a person who starves to death, I believe that this is a close second.

Starvation is not a pleasant way to expire. In advanced stages of famine, as the body begins to consume itself, the victim suffers muscle pain, heart disturbances, loss of hair, dizziness, shortness of breath, extreme sensitivity to cold, physical and mental exhaustion. The skin becomes discolored. In the absence of key nutrients, a severe chemical imbalance develops in the brain, inducing convulsions and hallucinations. Some people who have been brought back from the edge of starvation, though, report that near the end the hunger vanishes, the terrible pain dissolves, and the suffering is replaced by a sublime euphoria, a sense of calm accompanied by transcendent mental clarity. It would be nice to think McCandless experienced a similar rapture.

(p. 198)

In my younger days, I took a lot of risks and had some pretty close calls. I suppose that is why I related to this book. I could see myself in Chris McCandless. I share his romantic idealism, the longing to live a full life, the reverence of nature, and the love of literature.

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Magneto: Issue #12 – Is Peaceful Coexistence Possible?

Magneto_12a

This issue details the battle between the super-villains and the Red Onslaught. It basically moves the general story along, and as with all the installments in the series, it is richly illustrated and the writing is good. There is one panel that stands out for me, though. Magneto is remembering a discussion he had with Charles Xavier regarding mankind’s prospect of peaceful coexistence.

Charles: Don’t you think… can’t you imagine… that mankind has learned from past mistakes? Peaceful coexistence is more than just a dream.

Magneto: It’s madness, Charles. And it saddens me to think of the day such a realization will crush you.

Magneto_12b

This is something that has been on my mind lately. As I watch the news footage of the unrest in Ferguson, MO and the continued fighting and hatred in the Middle East, I cannot help but wonder if humans will ever learn to exist together peacefully. Are we capable as a species to learn and evolve, or is there some instinct that is hard-coded in our DNA that triggers the tendency toward anger, fear, envy, and resentment, the core issues at the heart of humanity’s intolerance toward others?

While my views on humanity are stained with cynicism, I am still a romantic and an idealist at my core. So yes, I feel that someday, although not likely in my lifetime, humans will evolve to an enlightened state where peaceful coexistence will become a reality. Unfortunately, I see a lot of death and destruction before that Phoenix can rise and become a reality.

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