Tag Archives: literature

Thoughts on “The Western Canon” by Harold Bloom

This is one of those books which was an impulse buy over 20 years ago, which I bought while wandering the aisles of a Borders Bookstore (that should put things into perspective). It has sat on my shelf all this time, waiting to be read, and I finally got around to it. One of the benefits of COVID for book nerds is that it forces us to read what we have and not wander aimlessly in search of more books.

While I was in college, Professor Bloom came and held a lecture at the community college I was attending; quite a coup for a small campus to get a speaker of his eminence. Very few people attended, but I of course showed up early and got to sit with him and have a one-on-one discussion about literature. His knowledge was formidable, to say the least.

In this book, Prof. Bloom addresses what he sees as a dilemma for readers: “What shall the individual who still desires to read attempt to read, this late in history?” (p. 15) He strives to answer this question by focusing on 26 writers that he feels are representative of the 3 key ages of literature: the Aristocratic Age, the Democratic Age, and the Chaotic Age. Understandably, Bloom places Shakespeare at the center of the canon, arguing that all writers who followed Shakespeare are either influenced by his work, or seek to distinguish themselves by trying to contradict his work. He makes a good argument, and as a Shakespeare buff, I am OK placing Shakespeare at the center of a literary canon.

Since this book is essentially literary criticism, it is probably not something a casual pleasure reader would find enjoyable to read; but if one is a lit-nerd, such as myself, it becomes easy to get absorbed into the pages of this book. But again, as Bloom points out in the beginning of the book, it causes one to ask: What else should I read in my limited time here on Earth? I already had a “to-be-read” list that I could never complete, and after reading Blooms book, that list has grown three-fold. But at least I had the satisfaction of having read a good number of books which he references. That gave me a little boost.

Although Bloom was an eminent literary scholar, he stresses that this book is not intended for academics.

This book is not directed to academics, because only a small remnant of them still read for the love of reading. What Johnson and Woolf after him called the Common Reader still exists and possibly goes on welcoming suggestions of what might be read.

(p. 518)

If you are a deep lover of literature, then you may want to give this book a read, or at least refer to the long list of books and writers at the end which Bloom considers canonical (I believe you can find the list on the internet). While I may not agree with all of his choices, it is a good list of stuff to choose from.

Thanks for stopping by, and may you find lots of books to interest and inspire you.

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Thoughts on “The Peaceful Shepherd” by Robert Frost

Painting by Gerard van Honthorst

If heaven were to do again,
And on the pasture bars,
I leaned to line the figures in
Between the dotted stars,

I should be tempted to forget,
I fear, the Crown of Rule,
The Scales of Trade, the Cross of Faith,
As hardly worth renewal.

For these have governed in our lives,
And see how men have warred.
The Cross, the Crown, the Scales may all
As well have been the Sword.

Season’s Greetings, fellow readers.

2020 has been a challenging year, for sure, and I think this poem reminds us of something important.

We have experienced a lot of tension resulting from differences in religious beliefs, social ideology, political leadership, and feelings of fear and inequity. At this time of the year, Frost’s poem reminds us that the spiritual values which are supposed to guide us all too often become twisted and distorted into something destructive.

I have one sincere wish for 2021, and that is that we collectively lay down the Sword and begin to treat our fellow humans with… well… humanity. It really is high time we abandoned our habits of vilifying those who do not agree with us, of harboring fear and distrust of others simply because the news media tells us that they might do something that could possibly cause us some imagined inconvenience.

May you and your loved ones have a safe and happy holiday season. Thank you for sharing my reading journey this past year. Keep reading interesting stuff, and help spread some much-needed kindness.

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“Sonnet 39: O, how thy worth with manners may I sing” by William Shakespeare

O, how thy worth with manners may I sing,
When thou art all the better part of me?
What can mine own praise to mine own self bring,
And what is’t but mine own when I praise thee?
Even for this, let us divided live,
And our dear love lose name of single one,
That by this separation I may give
That due to thee which thou deserv’st alone.
O absence, what a torment wouldst thou prove,
Were it not thy sour leisure gave sweet leave
To entertain the time with thoughts of love,
Which time and thoughts so sweetly dost deceive,
And that thou teachest how to make one twain
By praising him here who doth hence remain!

This seems to me a poignant poem considering what we are all dealing with in regard to the COVID pandemic. In this sonnet, Shakespeare expresses the pain of being separated from someone he deeply loves, loves to the point where they are as one when together. And yet, he acknowledges that it is only because of the separation that he is able to compose poetry praising his beloved, for then they are together, they are one and Shakespeare would not be able to differentiate himself from his love.

In the same way Shakespeare was reaching out to his beloved from a distance through poetry, we are also reaching out to those we love in creative ways, via Zoom, social distance outdoor gatherings, and yes, some of us have even gone back to writing letters.

There is an old adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder. There is truth here. Not being able to spend time with those I love makes me painfully aware of the love I feel for those people. But at least it seems the end of this isolation is drawing near. We just need to hang on a little bit longer.

I hope this poem provides you with some light in the remainder of these dark days. Many blessings to you and your dear ones.

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“I Was Cleopatra” by Dennis Abrams

My friend Robert sent me this book, knowing that I am a bit of a Shakespeare buff. It’s a work of historical fiction intended for a young adult audience. The story is a fictional memoir of a boy actor, John Rice, who assumed the female roles in performances during the rule of King James I.

Similar to what the world is experiencing now with COVID, the plague was rampant in the Jacobean period, and this led to the closing of theaters as a way to control the spread.

In 1603 the plague once again struck London with a terrible ferocity, bringing about the deaths of thousands of innocent men, women and children. To help stop the spread of the dreaded disease, which at its height was laying more than thirteen hundred innocents dead from one Sabbath to the next, it was ordered that theaters in London be closed.

(p. 17)

As John begins his apprenticeship and is groomed to transform himself into female roles on stage, he must confront questions of gender identity and seems to accept the idea of gender fluidity.

This was, or so it seems to me, at the heart of the questions that has haunted my thoughts and even my dreams throughout my life on stage. What exactly is it that makes one a man? Or a woman? Or is it possible to be composed of elements of both? Is there a difference between how you are seen by the world and how you see yourself?

(p. 50)

Some of the more interesting aspects of this book, for me anyway, are the fictional dialogs between Shakespeare and John Rice, as Shakespeare provides insight into the plays and various roles to help John better embody the role. One in particular stands out, where Shakespeare claims that the Guy Fawkes conspiracy helped inspire the themes he would explore in Macbeth.

“What concerns me, John, now that all involved in the nefarious Gunpowder Plot have been given the justice they deserved, is how and why it could have happened. Not merely the specific political and religious reasons for the plot, but in a larger sense how does a seemingly normal if ambitious Scottish nobleman become a murderous tyrant and perform such truly unthinkable and unutterable acts of violence? What sort of lies and stories and pretended reasons do such men tell themselves to justify their actions? Is the source of evil within themselves, or are they being acted upon by outside forces?”

(p. 115)

These are questions that are just as important today as they were in the 1600s. People somehow convince themselves that the cruel and violent acts they commit are somehow justified, even heroic. Is this a part of who we are as a species, or do we allow the words of others to enter our ears and poison our thoughts?

As always, thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. I hope you are well, and please stay safe and sane in these turbulent days.

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Thoughts on “The Angels” by Rainer Maria Rilke

Gustave Dore – artist

They all have weary mouths,
bright souls without a seam.
And a yearning (as for sin)
often haunts their dream.

They wander, each and each alike,
in God’s garden silently,
as many, many intervals
in his might and melody.

Only when they spread their wings
they awaken a great wind through the land:
as though with his broad sculptor-hands
God was turning
the leaves of the dark book of the Beginning.

(translation by C. F. MacIntyre)

I read this poem a couple times and struggled with it. There is a tension here that is tangible but not easy to identify. I did a little research online about Rilke’s ideas concerning angels, and he would go into deeper exploration of the topic in his Duino Elegies.

Throughout the Duino Elegies, Rilke explores themes of “the limitations and insufficiency of the human condition and fractured human consciousness … mankind’s loneliness, the perfection of the angels, life and death, love and lovers, and the task of the poet”. Philosopher Martin Heidegger remarked that “the long way leading to the poetry is itself one that inquires poetically”, and that Rilke “comes to realize the destitution of the time more clearly. The time remains destitute not only because God is dead, but because mortals are hardly aware and capable even of their own mortality.” Rilke explores the nature of mankind’s contact with beauty, and its transience, noting that humanity is forever only getting a brief, momentary glimpse of an inconceivable beauty and that it is terrifying.

(Source: Wikipedia)

So Rilke appears to be grappling with the contrast between the fragmented human condition and our divine nature as manifested in angelic beings. What is particularly interesting in “The Angels” is that the angels appear sad and lost, just as humans are. Additionally, within each angel is the possibility of sin. It is like every angel recognizes that it has the potential to follow the same path as Lucifer.

Like humans, the angels in Rilke’s poem wander aimlessly, lost and searching for meaning in a reality void of meaning.

Finally, we have the image of an angel taking flight, which causes a “great wind through the land.” This image conjures the myth of Icarus, who tried to escape the world but flew too close to the sun. Do the angels also long to escape from their limited existence, to ascend to new heights? In doing so, are they destined to fall, like Lucifer? Are we as humans, trapped in our reality, fettered to this broken world, and if we attempt to transcend, do we have that brief moment of exaltation before we crash into oblivion?

This poem leaves me with more questions than answers, but that is good. It is important to ponder questions about our existence and our place in the universe, and this poem succeeds in eliciting the deep questions which all of us should be asking.

I hope you enjoyed the poem and my thoughts about it. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Thoughts on “The Dunwich Horror” by H.P. Lovecraft

This is a great short story to read for Halloween. In fact, some of the events in the story take place on Halloween.

That Hallowe’en the hill noises sounded louder than ever, and fire burned on Sentinel Hill as usual; but people paid more attention to the rhythmical screaming of vast flocks of unnaturally belated whippoorwills which seemed to be assembled near the unlighted Whateley farmhouse. After midnight their shrill notes burst into a kind of pandaemoniac cachinnation which filled the countryside, and not until dawn did they finally quiet down.

Essentially, this is a tale about the crossbreeding of a human with a creature from another dimension of existence, the result of which was the birth of something that could no longer be classified as human.

“Inbreeding?” Armitage muttered half-aloud to himself. “Great God, what simpletons! Shew them Arthur Machen’s Great God Pan and they’ll think it a common Dunwich scandal! But what thing—what cursed shapeless influence on or off this three-dimensional earth—was Wilbur Whateley’s father? Born on Candlemas—nine months after May-Eve of 1912, when the talk of queer earth noises reached clear to Arkham—What walked on the mountains that May-Night? What Roodmas fastened itself on the world in half-human flesh and blood?”

When attempting to describe beings or forms of consciousness that exist beyond our realm of reality, one must rely on symbols because the ineffable nature of these manifestations cannot be captured using the limited means of communication with which humans rely. Communication with divine beings are therefore non-verbal by nature. What Lovecraft does in this tale is express the ineffable sounds produced by a being from another dimension, which cannot be comprehended or duplicated by beings in our plane of existence.

Without warning came those deep, cracked, raucous vocal sounds which will never leave the memory of the stricken group who heard them. Not from any human throat were they born, for the organs of man can yield no such acoustic perversions. Rather would one have said they came from the pit itself, had not their source been so unmistakably the altar-stone on the peak. It is almost erroneous to call them sounds at all, since so much of their ghastly, infra-bass timbre spoke to dim seats of consciousness and terror far subtler than the ear; yet one must do so, since their form was indisputably though vaguely that of half-articulated words. They were loud—loud as the rumblings of the thunder above which they echoed—yet did they come from no visible being. And because imagination might suggest a conjectural source in the world of non-visible beings, the huddled crowd at the mountain’s base huddled still closer, and winced as if in expectation of a blow.

I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, so I will end the post here. I’ll conclude by saying this is a very creepy story which also has some interesting social criticism woven in, as well as occult references to texts and mythologies. But most importantly, it is extremely well-written and can be enjoyed by anyone who likes to curl up with an eerie tale at this time of the year.

Thanks for stopping by, and enjoy your reading.

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“Dracula” by Bram Stoker: Exploring the Vampire Archetype

The vampire is a powerful archetype and one that is manifest in our modern society—that being that lives in darkness, feeds of the life-force of others, and is motivated by selfishness and the baser animalistic instincts. This archetype is fully explored in Bram Stoker’s classic horror story, Dracula.

There are such beings as vampires; some of us have evidence that they exist. Even had we not the proof of our own unhappy experience, the teachings and records of the past give proof enough for sane peoples.

(p. 227)

I suspect we have all had experiences with individuals who embody the vampire archetype. They are the ones who drain us when we are around them, with whom we must always keep up our guards, and who seem to thrive on the fear and pain of others.

The nosferatu do not die like the bee when he sting once. He is only stronger; and being stronger, have yet more power to work evil.

(p. 228)

Vampiric individuals do not feel remorse when they inflict pain or suffering on another. On the contrary, they feel empowered. It is a lack of empathy that allows these people to sting again and again, each time feeling more emboldened by feeding on the sense of power experienced over the domination of another person.

One of the best ways to understand the vampire archetype is to contrast it with its opposite.

Well, you know what we have to contend against; but we, too, are not without strength. We have on our side power of combination—a power denied to the vampire kind; we have our sources of science; we are free to act and think; and the hours of the day and the night are ours equally. In fact, so far as our powers extend, they are unfettered, and we are free to use them. We have self-devotion in a cause, and an end to achieve which is not a selfish one. These things are much.

(p. 229)

This paragraph describes the characteristics of individuals who are not vampiric in nature. They are thoughtful and motivated by science and logic. They are free from their baser desires and can therefore act in the best interest of themselves and of those around them. They are balanced (symbolized by the equal parts of night and day), and they are selfless and devoted to causes which further humanity, as opposed to striving solely after personal gain.

While the drinking of blood and transformation into an animal are well-understood symbols of the vampire archetype, another aspect worth noting is the ability to turn into mist.

He can come in mist which he create—the noble ship’s captain proved him of this; but, from what we know, the distance he can make this mist is limited, and it can only be round himself. He come on moonlight rays as elemental dust—

(p. 230)

Here, mist becomes a symbol of obfuscation. When we find ourselves in close proximity to the vampire archetype, our humanity begins to become obscured, our thoughts unclear. Our minds are in essence affected by the presence of a toxic individual. Thankfully, our minds are also affected when we are close to a positive and nurturing person. But we should always be aware of the subtle changes in our personalities that result from our associations with others.

There are many expressions of the vampire archetype in our modern culture: the news, social media, advertising, politics, all sucking our life-blood and draining us of our humanity, driving us to embrace our lower instincts and discard our empathy for others. The good news is, once you learn to recognize the vampire, you don’t need garlic to protect yourself; logic, compassion, and when necessary, distance, are all sufficient to ward off the vampire’s effects.

Thanks for stopping by, and stay safe.

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Thoughts on “In a Disused Graveyard” by Robert Frost

Source:Wikipedia

The living come with grassy tread
To read the gravestones on the hill;
The graveyard draws the living still,
But never any more the dead.

The verses in it say and say:
‘The ones who living come today
To read the stones and go away
Tomorrow dead will come to stay.’

So sure of death the marbles rhyme,
Yet can’t help marking all the time
How no one dead will seem to come.
What is it men are shrinking from?

It would be easy to be clever
And tell the stones: Men hate to die
And have stopped dying now forever.
I think they would believe the lie.

I find this poem fascinating on several levels. First, the imagery speaks to me. I have always found graveyards strangely provocative yet comforting. There is a sense of quiet and stillness that somehow soothes my spirit. It also reminds me that Death is the great equalizer, that we all must succumb to the Reaper regardless of status, wealth, power, etc. And it also reminds me that it is important to live each moment of life to the fullest.

The rest of what I find fascinating about this poem are the levels of meaning and the social criticism which Frost weaves in.

We see from the first stanza that the graveyard Frost is describing is no longer used. It is by itself in a rural area and does not appear to be associated with any church or town, and has become but a curiosity for tourists, day hikers looking for a destination. One gets the impression that no one has been buried there for many years.

To me, this speaks of how modern society approaches death as compared with our ancestors. We now inter the dead in manicured memorial gardens, or in hallowed grounds, as opposed to a location close to a homestead. Or even worse, we send or deceased relatives off to some facility where they are industrially incinerated, and the remains are returned in an aesthetically pleasing urn for display on the mantle.

We have denied that death is part of the natural process. In the past, when we accepted death as the natural culmination to life, we would return the dead to the earth close to the home to which there was connection. And this loss, this shift away from our acceptance of death is what Frost sees reflected in the weathered stones of an abandoned graveyard that no longer sees the return of the dead to the earth.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. May you have a blessed day.

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“Alone” by Edgar Allan Poe

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were—I have not seen
As others saw—I could not bring
My passions from a common spring,
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow—I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I lov’d. I lov’d alone.
Then—in my childhood—in the dawn
Of a most stormy life—was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still;
From the torrent, or the fountain,
From the red cliff of the mountain,
From the sun that ’round me roll’d
In its autumn tint of gold—
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by—
From the thunder, and the storm,
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.

This poem was written by Poe in his youth and expresses feelings of isolation and of not belonging, which are common among young people. I can speak from my own experience that growing up I never really felt like I fit in anywhere, even though I tried to fit in everywhere. And like Poe, I found my greatest happiness in times of solitude, when I could finally take off my mask and be myself. And this is the sentiment that Poe conveys when he says “And all I lov’d. I lov’d alone.”

While this poem conveys an almost universal feeling, Poe makes it his own at the end:

From the thunder, and the storm,
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.

Here we are provided with a glimpse into the creative mind of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s feelings of isolation are the source of his literary expression. He does not see the world as “normal” people do. When he looks into the sky, instead of seeing the blue, he sees the clouds, which reflect the demons lurking within his psyche. And just as a child when he projects those inner demons onto the clouds, as a mature writer, he projects those demons onto his pages.

Like so many tortured youth, Poe looked to artistic expression as a way to deal with his loneliness and face his inner demons. Pain, sadness, and loneliness are prime inspiration for painters, writers, and musicians burdened with the need to have the cathartic release which art provides.

I hope this poem inspired you. Have a great day and thanks for stopping by.

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The Complete Plays of William Shakespeare

This past weekend was a milestone for Stuff Jeff Reads. After publishing my thoughts on The Tempest, I have officially covered every Shakespeare play on my blog. Fear not, though. If you are a Shakespeare fan, there are still plenty of sonnets, as well as some longer poems for me to read and write about.

So here is the list of all 38 plays, with links to my reviews. In addition, you can access everything in my archive via the Books & Poems by Author page. Enjoy, and never stop reading!

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