Tag Archives: youth

“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas

ChildsChristmasWales

I was reminded today about why I hate to get rid of books. I was scanning my shelves, looking for something appropriate to read for the holidays, and spotted my old copy of Quite Early One Morning by Dylan Thomas. It had been probably 30 years since I opened this book, but it called to me. As soon as I looked at the table of contents and saw that it contained “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” I knew I had been guided to this book.

Let me start by saying that I loved this piece. It is a prose poem that has the feel and lyrical cadence of some of the most beautiful lyric poetry I have ever read. Reading this stirred memories of holidays when I was a kid, complete with the wonder and imagination and adventure that was such a big part of growing up in the north east.

While I would love to include the entire text in this post, I will limit myself to three passages that I feel capture the essence of this tale. I hope it will inspire you to read the entire piece because it is amazing. In fact, here is a link to an online version if you feel so inclined.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales

The first section I’d like to share is a great example of childhood imagination. It brought back memories of how, as a kid, we stalked the woods with sling-shots hunting small animals, which we never caught, but it was the adventure, fueled by our active imaginations, which made it such a formative experience.

It was on the afternoon of the day of Christmas Eve, and I was in Mrs. Prothero’s garden, waiting for cats, with her son Jim. It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But there were cats. Patient, cold and callous, our hands wrapped in socks, we waited to snowball the cats. Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling, they would slink and sidle over the white back-garden walls, and the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at the green of their eyes. The wise cats never appeared. We were so still, Eskimo-footed arctic marksmen in the muffling silence of the eternal snows—eternal, ever since Wednesday—that we never heard Mrs. Prothero’s first cry from her igloo at the bottom of the garden. Or, if we heard it at all, it was, to us, like the far-off challenge of our enemy and prey, the neighbour’s polar cat. But soon the voice grew louder.

The use of alliteration adds to the music of the writing, and Thomas uses this technique throughout the piece. This next passage—which is a long, single sentence—focuses on his romanticized memories of past Christmases and is another great example of the use alliteration and punctuation to instill a poetic feel into the prose.

Years and years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed.

The last section that I want to share is a paragraph near the end where Thomas recounts the telling of stories beside the fire. In an age of digital media and endless streaming entertainment, this is rapidly becoming a lost art, like hand-written letters on artistic stationery arriving in the mailbox. He also recalls going out caroling, something I too did as a kid, and the thrill of going up to a dark, mysterious house, of which there was always at least one in each neighborhood.

Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver. Ghosts whooed like owls in the long nights when I dared not look over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs where the gas meter ticked. And I remember that we went singing carols once, when there wasn’t the shaving of a moon to light the flying street. At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house, and we stumbled up the darkness of the drive that night, each one of us afraid, each one holding a stone in his hand in case, and all of us too brave to say a word. The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves. We reached the black bulk of the house.

Reading this story kindled warm memories of my childhood. Ever the romantic, I often look back at the past and reminisce about the carefree and adventurous days of my youth. Not that I would ever want to give up the life I have today, but I am grateful that I have those memories.

Have a blessed holiday and New Year!

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“The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson: Exposing the Hidden

JekyllHyde

We are all familiar with the story, even if we have not read it. The image of Dr. Jekyll drinking a potion and transforming into the hideous Hyde has become part of our collective psyches. I confess that this was the first time I had actually read Stevenson’s novella, and even though I was familiar with the general story, I found the text itself to be enlightening.

While I noticed quite a lot of interesting symbolism in the text, I figured I would focus on the one that really stood out for me: the hidden part of the human psyche. This is symbolized by Hyde. I do not think it is a coincidence that Hyde is pronounced “Hide.” He represents that part of our consciousness that we want to hide from others, and which we would also like to hide from ourselves. He is the primal part of our being that drives our urges. Try as we may to suppress that part of ourselves, it is always there, just below the surface, waiting for its chance to surge upwards and wrest control.

Early in the story, Mr. Utterson, Jekyll’s friend and lawyer, senses that there is something that Jekyll is hiding something.

And the lawyer set out homeward with a very heavy heart. “Poor Harry Jekyll,” he thought, “my mind misgives me he is in deep waters! He was wild when he was young; a long time ago to be sure; but in the law of God, there is no statute of limitations. Ay, it must be that; the ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace: punishment coming, PEDE CLAUDO, years after memory has forgotten and self-love condoned the fault.”

(p. 19)

In our youth, we have less control over our primal instincts. We are more likely to succumb to our urges and desires, whereas in our later years, most of us have learned how to control that part of our consciousness.

After Hyde commits murder, Utterson confronts Jekyll and asks whether he is concealing Hyde.

“One word,” said the lawyer. “Carew was my client, but so are you, and I want to know what I am doing. You have not been mad enough to hide this fellow?”

(p. 31)

I love this passage because it is essentially a triple entendre. There is the obvious meaning of hide as concealment. Then there is the homonym connection between hide and Hyde. Finally, there is the alternate definition of hide as skin. Jekyll’s skin, or hide, conceals the darker aspects of his consciousness as embodied in Hyde. Considering all the interpretations, it’s a brilliant metaphor.

The transformative potion which Jekyll drinks is referred to as “transcendental medicine.” As I read this, I couldn’t help thinking that this was some form of psychotropic or hallucinogenic drug. Hallucinogens are believed to unlock the hidden parts of our consciousness, or as Blake would have said, open the doors of perception. I suspect that Jekyll’s potion was intended to represent a mind-altering drug that allows the hidden aspects of our consciousness to rise to the forefront.

“It is well,” replied my visitor. “Lanyon, you remember your vows: what follows is under the seal of your profession. And now, you who have so long been bound to the most narrow and material views, you who have denied the virtue of transcendental medicine, you who have derided your superiors—behold!”

(p. 68)

As the dualistic aspects of human consciousness are explored, the assertion seems to be that the primal subconscious is essentially evil and should be subjugated by reason.

…all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde, alone in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.

(p. 75)

The following passage incorporates two of my favorite symbols: the crossroads and the doors. Here, the crossroads represent the intersection between the conscious and the subconscious mind, as well as the intersection between good and evil, the two contradictions that are embodied within us. The doors represent the passageway to that hidden part of our psyches, where the darker regions of our consciousness exist.

That night I had come to the fatal cross-roads. Had I approached my discovery in a more noble spirit, had I risked the experiment while under the empire of generous or pious aspirations, all must have been otherwise, and from these agonies of death and birth, I had come forth an angel instead of a fiend. The drug had no discriminating action; it was neither diabolical nor divine; it but shook the doors of the prisonhouse of my disposition, and like the captives of Philippi, that which stood within ran forth.

(pp. 75 – 76)

I think the scariest thing about this story is it forces us to recognize that the potential for evil exists within all of us. We like to deny it is there and hide it away, but it is always waiting for the doors to open, to surge up from the depths of our psyches and overthrow our reason. Sanity is fragile, and once it cracks, the hidden crawls forth.

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“Nurse’s Song” by William Blake (from Songs of Experience)

NursesSong_soe

When the voices of children are heard on the green
And whisprings are in the dale,
The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.  

Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Your spring and your day are wasted in play,
And your winter and night in disguise.

This poem corresponds to the poem of the same name from the Songs of Innocence (click here to read about that poem). As with the other poem, this one also is set at a transitional period between day to night, symbolizing the transition from childhood to adulthood. But we also see a transition out of spring and accompanying that the idea of winter coming. This symbolic transition conjures a sense of impending death, that the first stages of the cycle has come to a close and the cycles of maturity and death are beginning.

The nurse, who is the voice in this poem, is clearly troubled as she watches over the children. Their play evokes memories of her past which cause her deep anguish.

The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.

I would assert that the nurse gave up her virginity out of wedlock and as a result, suffered for doing so. Possibly, she bore a child herself and had to give the child away to an orphanage or some such institution. As she watches the children and listens to them, she recalls her own innocence and how it led her to make a mistake that carried long-lasting consequences. She knows innately that at least some of the children she cares for will ultimately make the same mistakes she made.

As with so many of Blake’s poems from the Songs of Innocence and Experience, this poem is short but visceral. I know for me, I spent a lot of time looking back at my youth and punishing myself for choices I made, just as the nurse does. Thankfully, I reached a place of acceptance and even gratitude. If it were not for my mistakes, I would never have learned the lessons that brought me to the place I am today, which is a good place.

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“Sonnet 4: Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend” by William Shakespeare

"Death and the Miser" by Hieronymus Bosch

“Death and the Miser” by Hieronymus Bosch

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thy self thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free:
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums, yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thy self alone,
Thou of thy self thy sweet self dost deceive:
Then how when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,
Which, used, lives th’ executor to be.

Similar to Shakespeare’s first three sonnets, this one also deals with the theme of procreation, but the tone is different. I know there is a lot of debate about whether these sonnets were written for a young man or a young woman. While I feel that the first three sonnets are speaking to a woman, based upon the use of metaphors regarding flowers, mothers, and childbirth, for this one I will adhere to the consensus and say that he composed this for a male youth.

The metaphors used here are primarily associated with business, particularly accounting and money-lending. This would certainly be more within the realm of men during Shakespeare’s time. The entire poem is strewn with words associated with business: unthrifty, spend, lend, profitless, usurer, sums, audit, executor.

The person to whom the speaker is addressing is clearly obsessed with business affairs and is directing all his energy into the pursuit of financial success. The speaker is letting him know that he is wasting his youth in the quest for material gains and that he should shift his focus towards finding a wife and starting a family. If he fails to do so, he will die a lonely, solitary miser, and after his death, the only legacy he will have left will be some money which a lawyer will dispense with.

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“Euthyphro” by Plato

Euthyphro

This is a short dialog that takes place between Socrates and Euthyphro as Socrates is awaiting trial for corruption of Athenian youth. Euthyphro is a seer and an expert on religion who is about to bring manslaughter charges against his own father. This leads to the debate over what is piety, which may also be interpreted as holiness.

Socrates seeks to grasp the ideal of piety, but all Euthyphro is able to provide are examples of pious acts. For Socrates, this fails to get at the essence of what piousness truly is.

Socrates: Well, then, do you recollect that what I urged you to do was not tell me about one or two of these many pious actions, but to describe the actual feature that makes all pious actions pious? – because you said, I believe, that impious actions are impious, and similarly pious ones pious, in virtue of a single characteristic. Or don’t you remember?

Euthyphro: Yes, I do.

Socrates: Then explain to me what this characteristic is in itself, so that by fixing my eyes upon it and using it as a pattern I may be able to describe any action, yours or anyone else’s, as pious if it corresponds to the pattern and impious if it doesn’t.

As the dialog continues, Euthyphro attempts to argue that what is pious is that which is loved by the gods. Socrates disproves this based upon the assertion that being loved by the gods is an attribute of piousness, but not the essence.

Socrates: But if what is god-beloved were identical with what is pious, my dear Euthyphro, what is god-beloved would be loved because it is god-beloved; and if what is god-beloved were god-beloved because it is loved by the gods, then what is pious would be pious because it is loved by them. As it is, you can see that the relation between them is just the opposite; which shows that they are entirely different from each other. The one is loveable because it is loved, and the other is loved because it is loveable. I rather think, Euthyphro, that when I asked you what piety is you were unwilling to disclose its essence to me, and merely stated one of its attributes, saying that piety is the attribute of being loved by all the gods; but you have not yet told me what it is that has this attribute. So, if you have no objection, please don’t conceal the truth from me, but make a fresh start and tell me what piety is that it is loved by the gods or has any other attribute – we shan’t quarrel about that –; tell me without reserve what piety and impiety are.

After the discussion goes around several times, Euthyphro gives up and takes his leave. There is no resolution and the essence of piety is never uncovered. I suspect that the reason is that it is ineffable, as are other ideals. The true essence of an ideal, just like a form or an archetype, exists beyond the grasp of our comprehension. We can only see manifestations of the ideal or the form, but not the thing itself. I personally would venture to assert that these ideals are also subjective, just as beauty and ugliness are subjective. We can claim that something has the attribute of being beautiful, but that does not tell us what beauty is.

OK, that’s enough mental gymnastics for one day.

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“Sonnet 1: From fairest creatures we desire increase” by William Shakespeare

Titian_WomanWithMirror

Titian

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

As I read this poem, I couldn’t help but think how little has changed in 500 years. We are still obsessed with physical beauty.

The opening line states the obvious—we desire sexual relations with those who possess physical beauty. But the word “increase” ties in with the next several lines. Humans not only desire physical beauty in their partners to satisfy their own pleasure, they also seek attractive partners so that they can pass the traits of physical beauty on to their children, thereby creating a fair bloodline. This was probably more important in Shakespeare’s time when upward mobility along the social ladder was usually gained through advantageous marriages. Having a beautiful daughter could certainly score you a nice dowry.

The middle section of the poem has an interesting shift. Here we see the obsession with beauty from a woman’s perspective. The woman is “contracted to thine own bright eyes,” or obsessed with her reflection in a mirror. She knows that if she is to secure a husband, she must do so while she still has the beauty of youth. She examines every aspect of herself and ornaments herself in order to highlight her appearance.

The ending of this sonnet has a dark, ironic twist. While we may focus on beauty, procreation, and securing our lineage, ultimately, we all face the same end: death. Our flesh will rot and we will become food for the worms. Which begs the question—Is it worth it? I’d like to say it’s not, but I have to be honest with myself. There are advantages to being good-looking. It would be naive to think that unattractive people have the same workplace opportunities as attractive people. While I think we have made progress in this area, your appearance will still have an impact on the opportunities that are presented to you.

I wish I could say we have evolved past this, but alas, tis not so. We may have come a long way as a society, but the fact is, human nature is very slow to change.

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“Star Trek: The Ashes of Eden” by William Shatner

StarTrekAshesOfEden

Several months ago, I stopped at a yard sale to look for books and records. Among the various items I discovered a couple of Star Trek novels, one of which was written by William Shanter. A Star Trek novel written by Kirk himself? In hardcover? For one dollar? I couldn’t pass it up. Well, I finally got around to reading it and it was everything I expected: sci-fi adventure, some philosophical ideas to mull over, enough cheesiness to make it endearing, and a healthy portion of Shatner’s ego. In fact, there were several places where other characters wondered what Kirk would do in the situation, which made me chuckle and think “WWKD.” Anyway, combined together, all these things made for a fun, entertaining read, which was what I was in the mood for.

The general theme of this book is how we as humans deal with getting old and our quest for youth. It’s a universal concept, that we seek immortality through fame and that we try to keep ourselves feeling young; but there is always a cost. Early in the book, Kirk reflects on his fame and the issues associated with it.

But then his recognition had moved beyond the Fleet. Civilians began approaching him, asking the same questions, seeking more details. Always details. After the incident with V’Ger, the floodgates had opened. All Earth claimed to know him. Most of the other worlds too.

Now Kirk couldn’t go anywhere without detecting the unsettling flash of recognition in strangers’ eyes. All the more intense because, unlike the sudden recognition awarded a new sports star or politician, people had come to recognize him over decades of his career.

(p. 39)

I see this as very autobiographical. Shatner certainly gained fame as Kirk, but he had plenty of other roles which added to his fame and recognition, such as T. J Hooker and his role as Denny Crane in Boston Legal.

As Kirk struggles to find his place in life as a person who is no longer young, he turns to his memories. There is a great passage about how memories mark your journey through life. By following the path of your memories, you begin to see patterns which enable you to make a reasonable guess at where the path is leading you.

Memories were the markers of the journey through life. It was necessary to know where you had come from. Only then could you know where you were going.

(p. 72)

At one point in the book, Kirk considers a question that resonated with me: “When was it ever right to give up doing what you lived to do?” (p. 126) I have asked myself this question many times throughout my life, particularly in regard to playing music and writing. These are things I love. They are a part of who I am. Would I be more successful if I gave them up and focused all my energy on the pursuit of material gain? Yes, but at what cost? I would be sacrificing a part of who I am. I could never do that and continue living a happy life.

One of my favorite quotes from this book appears in the later part.

… we’re not responsible for the world we’re born into. Only for the world we leave when we die. So we have to accept what’s gone before us in the past, and work to change the only thing we can—the future.

(p. 268)

This is so very true. I make a conscious effort to think about the future whenever I am acting or making a decision. Everything I do, every choice I make, directly affects the future in ways that I may never know. My actions may not have a recognizable impact on the world today, but I know that what I do now will impact the world that my children’s children will inherit.

So I want to close this post with one last quote that ties in with a little nerdy Star Trek trivia.

Then Kirk gave an order he had never given before.
“Beam me up, Scotty.”

(p. 282)

If you’re a Trekkie, you know that Kirk never actually said “Beam me up, Scotty” in any of the Star Trek episodes. I found it funny that Shatner pointed that out in the book.

So, this is not great literature, but it is a fun and easy read, and if you are a Star Trek fan, you’ll definitely get a kick out of it.

Live long and prosper.

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