Category Archives: Literature

What Makes a Classic?

Dr. Johnson asks this question in his preface to Shakespeare (1765):

That praises are without reason lavished on the dead, and that the honours due only to excellence are paid to antiquity, is a complaint likely to be always continued by those, who, being able to add nothing to truth, hope for eminence from the heresies of paradox; or those, who, being forced by disappointment upon consolatory expedients, are willing to hope from posterity what the present age refuses, and flatter themselves that the regard which is yet denied by envy, will be at last bestowed by time.

Antiquity, like every other quality that attracts the notice of mankind, has undoubtedly votaries that reverence it, not from reason, but from prejudice. Some seem to admire indiscriminately whatever has been long preserved, without considering that time has sometimes co-operated with chance; all perhaps are more willing to honour past than present excellence; and the mind contemplates genius through the shades of age, as the eye surveys the sun through artificial opacity.

The great contention of criticism is to find the faults of the moderns, and the beauties of the ancients. While an author is yet living we estimate his powers by his worst performance, and when he is dead, we rate them by his best.

To works, however, of which the excellence is not absolute and definite, but gradual and comparative; to works not raised upon principles demonstrative and scientific, but appealing wholly to observation and experience, no other test can he applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem. What mankind have long possessed they have often examined and compared; and if they persist to value the possession, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour.

As among the works of nature no man can properly call a river deep, or a mountain high, without the knowledge of many mountains, and many rivers; so in the productions of genius, nothing can be styled excellent till it has been compared with other works of the same kind. Demonstration immediately displays its power, and has nothing to hope or fear from the flux of years; but works tentative and experimental must be estimated by their proportion to the general and collective ability of man, as it is discovered in a long succession of endeavours.

Of the first building that was raised, it might be with certainty determined that it was round or square; but whether it was spacious or lofty must have been referred to time. The Pythagorean scale of numbers was at once discovered to be perfect; but the poems of Homer we yet know not to transcend the common limits of human intelligence, but by remarking, that nation after nation, and century after century, has been able to do little more than transpose his incidents, new-name his characters, and paraphrase his sentiments.

The reverence due to writings that have long subsisted arises therefore not from any credulous confidence in the superior wisdom of past ages, or gloomy persuasion of the degeneracy of mankind, but is the consequence of acknowledged and indubitable positions, that what has been longest known has been most considered, and what is most considered is best understood.

The Poet, of whose works I have undertaken the revision, may now begin to assume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of established fame and prescriptive veneration. He has long outlived his century, the term commonly fixed as the test of literary merit. Whatever advantages he might once derive from personal allusions, local customs, or temporary opinions, have for many years been lost; and every topic of merriment, or motive of sorrow, which the modes of artificial life afforded him, now only obscure the scenes which they once illuminated.

The effects of favour and competition are at an end; the tradition of his friendships and his enemies has perished; his works support no opinion with arguments, nor supply any faction with invectives; they can neither indulge vanity nor gratify malignity; but are read without any other reason than the desire of pleasure, and are therefore praised only as pleasure is obtained; yet, thus unassisted by interest or passion, they have past through variations of taste and changes of manners, and, as they devolved from one generation to another, have received new honours at every transmission.

But because human judgment, though it be gradually gaining upon certainty, never becomes infallible; and approbation, though long continued, may yet be only the approbation of prejudice or fashion; it is proper to inquire, by what peculiarities of excellence  Shakespeare has gained and kept the favour of his countrymen.

The answer, of course, is time, the test of time, but I have never heard anyone put it quite so nicely.

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Shakespeare’s Haters

From an appendix to Tolstoy’s A Critical Essay on Shakespeare. I have not read this essay yet, but apparently Tolstoy slams the Bard good and hard. This shocked me because I thought Shakespeare was beloved by all great literary figures all over the world and down through time, as he ought to be. Apparently this is not so at all. The criticism here is not directed at his art or his talent as a writer but apparently more at his role as a thinker and philosopher, in which some find him most wanting.

Another essay appears in the appendix of this volume, Shakespeare’s Attitude towards the Working Classes, by Ernest Crosby, who seems to be some sort of a socialist or leftwinger. This had never occurred to me before, but from the opening lines of his essay, Crosby sets about pounding the life out of Shakespeare for his reactionary, ruling class, near feudal mindset and his utter contempt for the masses, peasants and working classes.

This all makes sense when we learn what a tightwad and miser Shakespeare was that he even shafted his own family in his will, pinched pennies everywhere, filed endless lawsuits against acquaintances trying to recover petty amounts of cash, and perhaps worst or all but exemplary of his feudal mindset, hoarded food during a famine. During famines, food hoarding is considered a near-capital offense. If you are found to be hoarding food, a mob will raid your food, take all of it, beat you up in the process and quite possibly kill you. The law in famines is share or die.

So it seems that as with so many great artists and thinkers, Shakespeare was a nasty little bug of a man, while at the same time, I believe he was one of the greatest writers in English or perhaps any language of all time. A lot of artists were great artists but terrible humans. Sort of goes with the territory, sad to say. It’s well known that Dostoevsky was a miserable fellow, but he was also such a bastard some of his greatest contemporaries refused to attend his funeral.

I find it fascinating the Nicholas Rowe and especially Dr. Johnson pounded the Bard a few new ones.

Lord Byron and William Morris took Shakespeare to town? Wow. Morris makes sense as he was a socialist, but Byron?

And Voltaire, who earlier in life was a Shakespeare fanatic, grew to hate him more and more as he aged and presumably wised up? Unbelievable.

I am sorry to say that I am not familiar with the gist of these Bard slams is all about, but the fact that they exist at all is amazing. Perhaps there is more to Man from Avon than meets the eye, and it’s not all good. I am actually shocked. It’s hard to see a lifelong hero crumble right in front your eyes. Downright painful.

Letter from George Bernard Shaw to Leo Tolstoy (Extracts)

As you know, I have striven hard to open English eyes to the emptiness of Shakespeare’s philosophy, to the superficiality and second-handedness of his morality, to his weakness and incoherence as a thinker, to his snobbery, his vulgar prejudices, his ignorance, his disqualifications of all sorts for the philosophic eminence claimed for him…

The preface to my Three Plays for Puritans contains a section headed Better than Shakespeare? which is, I think, the only utterance of mine on the subject to be found in a book…

There is at present in the press a new preface to an old novel of mine called The Irrational Knot. In that preface I define the first order in Literature as consisting of those works in which the author, instead of accepting the current morality and religion ready-made without any question as to their validity, writes from an original moral standpoint of his own, thereby making his book an original contribution to morals, religion, and sociology, as well as to belles letters.

I place Shakespeare with Dickens, Scott, Dumas père, etc., in the second order, because, though they are enormously entertaining, their morality is ready-made; and I point out that the one play, Hamlet, in which Shakespeare made an attempt to give as a hero one who was dissatisfied with the ready-made morality, is the one which has given the highest impression of his genius, although Hamlet’s revolt is unskillfully and inconclusively suggested and not worked out with any philosophic competence.

May I suggest that you should be careful not to imply that Tolstoy’s great Shakespearean heresy has no other support than mine. The preface of Nicholas Rowe to his edition of Shakespeare, and the various prefaces of Dr. Johnson contain, on Rowe’s part, an apology for him as a writer with obvious and admitted shortcomings (very ridiculously ascribed by Rowe to his working by “a mere light of nature”), and, on Johnson’s, a good deal of downright hard-hitting criticism.

You should also look up the history of the Ireland forgeries, unless, as is very probable, Tolstoy has anticipated you in this.

Among nineteenth-century poets, Byron and William Morris saw clearly that Shakespeare was enormously overrated intellectually.

A French book, which has been translated into English, has appeared within the last ten years, giving Napoleon’s opinions on drama. His insistence on the superiority of Corneille to Shakespeare on the ground of Corneille’s power of grasping a political situation, and of seeing men in their relation to the state, is interesting.

Of course you know about Voltaire’s criticisms, which are the more noteworthy because Voltaire began with an extravagant admiration for Shakespeare, and got more and more bitter against him as he grew older and less disposed to accept artistic merit as a cover for philosophic deficiencies.

Finally, I, for one, shall value Tolstoy’s criticism all the more because it is criticism of a foreigner who can not possibly be enchanted by the mere word-music which makes Shakespeare so irresistible in England. In Tolstoy’s estimation, Shakespeare must fall or stand as a thinker, in which capacity I do not think he will stand a moment’s examination from so tremendously keen a critic and religious realist.

Unfortunately, the English worship their great artists quite indiscriminately and abjectly; so that is quite impossible to make them understand that Shakespeare’s extraordinary literary power, his fun, his mimicry, and the endearing qualities that earned him the title of “the gentle Shakespeare” – all of which, whatever Tolstoy may say, are quite unquestionable facts – do not stand or fall with his absurd reputation as a thinker.

Tolstoy will certainly treat that side of his reputation with the severity it deserves; and you will find that the English press will instantly announce that Tolstoy considers his own works greater than Shakespeare’s (which in some respects they most certainly are, by the way), and that he has attempted to stigmatize our greatest poet as a liar, thief, forger, murderer, incendiary, drunkard, libertine, fool, madman, coward, vagabond, and even a man of questionable gentility.

You must not be surprised or indignant at this: it is what is called “dramatic criticism” in England and America. Only a few of the best of our journalist-critics will say anything worth reading on the subject.

Yours faithfully,

G. Bernard Shaw


Filed under History, Literature, Philosophy, Theater

The Roots of Nazism

Amazing. That is straight out of Mein Kampf. The road from 1855 to 1940 is short indeed. As you can see, the Nazi project had roots going back quite some ways in German history. The destruction of the Jews and subjugation of Poles and other Slavs had been seen as the historical mission of the German people for nearly a century before Hitler embarked on his rampages. So you see that historical actors seldom act alone but instead they are merely the latest players in long-running cultural productions which often started long before their time.

In that sense, Nazism was not alien to German culture at all; instead it was integral to it, and Hitler was simply fulfilling the destiny of the German people.

From Wikipedia:

Gustav Freytag’s literary fame was made universal by the publication in 1855 of his novel, Soll und Haben (Debit and Credit), which was translated into almost all European languages. It was translated into English by Georgiana Harcourt in 1857.

It was hailed as one of the best German novels and praised for its sturdy but unexaggerated realism. Its main purpose is the championing of the German middle class as the soundest element in the nation, but it also has a more directly patriotic intent in the contrast it draws between the supposedly homely virtues of the Germans, while presenting Poles and Jews in a negative light.

In the novel a Jewish merchant is presented as a villain and a threat to Germany. German colonists are presented as “superior” to “wild”, “inferior” and “uncivilized” Poles who are also sometimes depicted sometimes in racist terms.

The novel affirmed the claim of German “masters” to seize the land of the “weaker race” and justified this seizure by supposedly “superior” German culture. The novel applied blatant racism to Slavs while focusing on Poles; the author stated that Poles have “no culture” and are unable to create civilization. Freytag also claimed that Poles will only become proper human beings through German rule and colonization and giving up their language and culture.

Soll und Haben set an example for a body of colonial literature about “eastern marches” and also started a public reinterpretation of the Ostsiedlung, which was now presented as the historical mission of the Germans (Kulturtrager), legitimizing continued the occupation of Polish areas and suppression of the Polish population.


Filed under Culture, Europe, European, Europeans, Fascism, Germans, Germany, History, Jews, Literature, National Socialism, Nazism, Novel, Poles, Political Science, Race/Ethnicity, Regional

Original Language Titles and Translated Titles in Literary Criticism

Let us look at the novels of great French novelist Emile Zola.

The first series is the list of novels with their original French titles. The second series is the list of novels with the names of their most popular English translations. Novels which did not have an English translation were not included.


1. When an English speaker is referring to Zola’s novels in an article on the Internet, which would be the best way to name any given book, with its French title or with its English title? Everyone reading the article would be an English speaker, but a number of them would be second language speakers from other countries, mostly in Europe.

Justify your choice.

2. Which would be the best way to describe any given book for a piece in a English language magazine in the US where most all readers would be English first language speakers, with its English title or with its French title?

Justify your choice.

As an added question, which types of titles of books in foreign languages would translate most easily into English? That is, which types book titles would be most likely to translate into English best without changing the name of the book.

Justify your choice.

List of Zola’s novels in French

La Confession de Claude
Les Mystères de Marseille
Thérèse Raquin
Madeleine Férat
Nouveaux Contes à Ninon
Jacques Damour
Les Rougon-Macquart

La Fortune des Rougon
La Curée
Le Ventre de Paris
La Conquête de Plassans
La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret
Son Excellence Eugène Rougon
Une Page d’amour
Au Bonheur des Dames
La Joie de Vivre
La Terre
Le Rêve
La Bête Humaine
La Débâcle
Le Docteur Pascal

Les Trois Villes


Les Quatre Évangiles


List of Zola’s novels in English.

The Confession of Claude
The Mysteries of Marseille
Therese Raquin
Madeleine Férat
New Tales for Ninon
Jacques Damour

The Rougon-Macquart series

The Fortune of the Rougons
The Quarry
The Belly of Paris
The Conquest of Plassans
The Sins of Father Mouret
Son Excellence Eugène Rougon
The Dram Shop
A Page of Love
Pot Luck
The Ladies’ Paradise
The Joy of Life
His Masterpiece
The Dream
The Human Beast
The Downfall
Dr. Pascal

The Three Cities


The Four Gospels


By the way, if have not read any of Zola, the best books are considered to be Nana, Germinal, Father Moure’s Sin, Therese Raquin and The Human Beast, but anything in the Rougon-Marquart series and in the two final series, The Three Cities and The Four Gospels, is worth your time.

Zola wrote in the late 1800’s, mostly set his books in Paris, and was the founder of a literary movement called Naturalism.

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Greatest Comic Series Ever?

This city is afraid of me…I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”… and I’ll look down and whisper “No.”

They had a choice, all of them. They could have followed in the footsteps of good men like my father or President Truman. Decent men who believed in a day’s work for a day’s pay. Instead they followed the droppings of lechers and communists and didn’t realize that the trail led over a precipice until it was too late. Don’t tell me they didn’t have a choice. Now the whole world stands on the brink, staring down into bloody Hell, all those liberals and intellectuals and smooth-talkers… and all of a sudden nobody can think of anything to say.

Walter Joseph Kovacs/Rorschach

While we are at it with the superlatives, how about greatest graphic novel ever too?


Filed under Art, Cinema, Literature, Novel

“The Taoist Influence on Japanese Martial Arts,” by Dota

New essay from Dota. Very nice!

The Taoist Influence on Japanese Martial Arts

By Dota

The Japanese Samurai Miyamoto Musashi acknowledged a number of influences on Japanese thought, chief among which were Confucianism and Buddhism. Yet not once does he directly mention the Old Master whose philosophy is so entrenched in the martial arts that the Samurai once pursued with inexhaustible zeal. Yet despite this seeming negligence, Mushashi’s epic martial arts treatise, “A Book of 5 Rings“, is laden with Taoist ideas and analogies. Indeed the very nature of the Japanese martial arts has been shaped and molded by Taoist thinking.

In the interest of brevity one can sum up Taoist thought as being primarily concerned with conforming to nature by finding “the way.” According to the very first verse of the Tao te Ching (the poem attributed to Lao Tzu): “The Tao (way) that can be described is not the real Tao.” Indeed, Lao Tzu devoted considerable energy into conveying the indescribable nature of the way. One could not describe the way, one merely walked it or one didn’t. Could one verbally instruct another on how to ride a bicycle? One either knew how to or didn’t.

Philosopher Arthur Danto astutely observed that the Taoists had a deep mistrust of prepositional knowledge, or what one would refer to as the discursive intellect. Taoism isn’t concerned with the knowledge of the scholar, but rather, with what we would refer to as “intuitive knowledge.” Those that knew the way were able to execute the perfect brush stroke or carve a pumpkin with exceptional ability.

To further illustrate this point, Chuang Tzu narrates the story of the old wheel maker. The latter approached a King and told him that reading his book was a waste of time. He explained to the King that true knowledge couldn’t be expressed in words but could only be grasped. He illustrated this point by describing his own trade as thus:

The other secret of my trade has to do with the roundness of the wheel. If I chisel away at the wheel too quickly, I may be able to complete the work in a short time, but the wheel won’t be perfectly round. Even though it may look quite acceptable upon casual inspection, in actual usage it will cause excessive shaking of the carriage…In order to create the best wheels possible in a timely manner, I must chisel at just the right speed – not too fast and not too slow. This speed is also guided by a feeling, which again can only be acquired through many years of experience.

He then concluded his lesson with the following observation:

Your Majesty, the ancient sages possessed the feelings that were at the heart of their mastery. Using words, they could set down the mechanics of their mastery in the form of books, but just as it is impossible for me to pass on my experience to anyone else, it is equally impossible for them to transmit their essence of wisdom to you. Their feelings died when they passed away. The only things they left behind were their words. This is why I said Your Majesty was reading the leftovers of a dead man.

Karate is taught via instruction and perfected through rigorous practice. Form, movement, and balance can be learned by executing a sequence of gestures and movements known as Kata. The master guides the student to the way but the student is tasked with walking on it and not deviating from it. In the first Karate Kid film Mr Miyagi scoffs at Daniel Larusso’s attempt to “learn Karate from book.” Musashi similarly stated in his treatise that “Language does not extend to explaining the Way in detail, but it can be grasped intuitively,” (Water Book).

But what is the difference between those men that follow the way and those that don’t? Those that follow the way properly are able to execute actions with minimal effort. But while effort is minimized the outcome of their actions is maximized.

This is known as the principle of WuWei (literally non doing). WuWei is also often understood as carefully calibrated action. Consider for example, a perfectly executed Karate shoulder throw. By using a lunging opponents force against him, one can disable an opponent with a shoulder throw; a move that would ordinarily require considerable effort to execute. Actions become effortless for those that know the way.

Musashi’s duels typically lasted only a few seconds. Consider his duel with Kojiro for example. He charged at his opponent and provoked Kojiro into making the first attack. Musashi effortlessly dodged the attack and decisively struck his opponent on the head killing him in a single blow. Musashi almost echoes Lao Tzu when he urges martial artists to be like water which is gentle yet destructive. It is the principle of WuWei that gives the Japanese martial arts their characteristic finesse that many have come to admire. The ancient masters would be repulsed by the drawn out UFC slug fests and would dismiss these fighters as not truly knowing the way.

The Japanese word for way is michi, which literally refers to a path through the Cosmos. The Way has no destination, and simply finding the way is an end in itself. Since Taoism is primarily concerned with each pursuing his own way, it stands to reason that every one of us is (potentially) a wanderer. The wanderer is also a common motif in Taoist art – he who walks a path without apparent destination.

I must point out that many of Japan’s cherished heroes were wanderers too, such as Musashi and Yagyu Jubei. Both of these individuals refused to hang up their swords and become artisans during the largely peaceful Tokugawa Period of Japanese history. They wandered the countryside (the Samurai had no restrictions on travel) and dueled several opponents that crossed their paths.

Musashi is said to have won 80 duels during his lifetime. So entrenched is the image of the wandering martial artist that it has left its imprint on contemporary Japanese pop culture as well. The characters Ryu and Akuma of the Street Fighter franchise are wanderers pursuing the way of the martial artist. In a statement saturated with Taoist overtones Akuma proclaims: “For some, it is the path, not the goal,” (Street Fighter Alpha 1).

Ultimately, while the spirit of the Japanese martial arts is obviously Japanese, their character is clearly Chinese.


Filed under Asia, China, Disciplines, Guest Posts, Japan, Literature, Metaphysics, NE Asia, Philosophy, Regional

Julie Covington, “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”

The best version ever, from the play Evita from 1977. There have been many covers of this song including a famous one by Madonna. None of them really come anywhere close to the original, which still reigns. Sarah Brightman and Madonna’s versions are simply not as good, though they have their fans. Better than Karen Carpenter’s too, and Karen is one of the finest female singer-songwriters of the modern era.

The only version that nearly matches this one is by Elaine Paige. It is the one good cover of this song, but even it does not quite match the original.

This is the Elaine Page version. Very beautiful, and her theatrics are the best of all. Very nearly as good as the original. Versions by Nicolle Scherzinger, Madelena Alberto, Babara Streisand, Patti Lu Pone, and Suzann Eren and Lea Salonga all have their fans, particularly those by Eren and Scherzinger.

This really is an operatic song, but it is nevertheless perfectly suitable for pop as Madonna showed us two decades later to great success.

Reactive in death, polarizing in life, for better or worse, Eva Person continues to define modern Argentine politics and culture.


Filed under Literature, Music, Theater

Robert Burns, “Tam O Shanter”

This poem was written in and is being read in a language called Scots, which is not a dialect of English as many people think. Scots split off from English in ~1500, or 500 years ago. This is approximately what two languages sound like when they have been split apart for 500 years. I listened to this, although I can make out some words and even phrases here and there, honestly, I do not have the faintest idea what he is talking about, and I am missing most of this language. I can hear ~25% of it, if that.  However, a good friend of mine from England listened to it and she said she could make out ~70%. So there you go. See if you can make heads or tails of this stuff.


Filed under Balto-Slavic-Germanic, English language, Germanic, Indo-European, Language Families, Linguistics, Literature, Poetry, Scots


Do any of you like John Keats? Famous English Romantic poet who lived in the Romantic Era. Born 1795, died young of tuberculosis in 1821 at age 25. He led a pretty sad life. Other Romantic poets were Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sidney Lamb, Thomas Carlyle and William Wordsworth. There sure was a lot of great poetry around back in those days. Except for the tuberculosis and doctors who tried to cure you via blood loss, it was probably a great time to be alive.

I have wandered through quite a few of Keats’ poems, but that doesn’t mean that I understood what was going on in all of them. Keats’ poems are often hard to understand. But even if can’t figure out what the poem is about, they often feel real nice to read due to the beauty of the language. However, Ode to a Nightingale seems pretty straightforward to me. It’s beautiful stuff!

Ode to a Nightingale

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

One minute last, and Lethe-wards had sunk:

‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,

But being too happy in thine happiness,

That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,

In some melodious plot

Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,

Singest of summer in full-throated ease.


O for a draught of vintage! That hath been

Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,

Tasting of Floa and the country-green,

Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!

O for a beaker full of the warm South!

Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,

With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,

And purple-stained mouth,

That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,

And with thee fade away into the forest dim-


Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget

What thou among the leaves hast never known,

The weariness the fever and the fret

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,

Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;

Where but to think is to be full of sorrow

And leaden-eyed despairs;

Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,

Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.


Away! Away! For I will fly to thee,

Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,

But on the viewless wings of Poesy,

Though the dull brain perplexes and retards.

Already with thee! Tender is the night,

Clustered around by all her starry Fays;

But here there is no light,

Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown

Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.


I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,

Nor what soft incense hands upon the boughs,

But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet

Wherewith the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild –

White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;

Fast fading violets covered up in leaves;

And mid-May’s eldest child,

The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,

The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.


Darkling I listen; and, for many a time

I have been half in love with easeful Death,

Called hi soft names in many a mused rhyme,

To take into the air my quiet breath;

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,

To cease upon the midnight with no pain,

While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad

In such an ecstasy!

Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain –

To thy high requiem become a sod.


Thou wast born for death, immortal Bird!

No hungry generations tread thee down;

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown:

Perhaps the self-same song that found a path

Through the sad heart of Ruth, when sick for home,

She stood in tears amid the alien corn;

The same that oft-times hath

Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam

Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.


Forlorn! The very word is like a bell

To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Adieu! The fancy cannot cheat so well

As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.

Adieu! Adieu! Thy plaintive anthem fades

Past the near-meadows, over the still stream,

Up the hill-side; and now ‘tis buried deep

In the next valley-glades:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music – Do I wake or sleep?


Filed under Literature, Poetry


Turgenev is usually listed as one of the great Russian writers of the 19th Century along with Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov and Nikolai Gogol. He was the favorite Russian novelist of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, who both said he was better than Dostoevsky. Vladimir Nabokov rated him below Tolstoy, Chekhov and Gogol but ahead of Dostoevsky.

Although Turgenev quarreled with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky during his lifetime, both eventually came to praise him.

After he died, Tolstoy said:

His stories of peasant life will forever remain a valuable contribution to Russian literature. I have always valued them highly. And in this respect none of us can stand comparison with him. Take, for example, Living Relic, Loner, and so on. All these are unique stories. And as for his nature descriptions, these are true pearls, beyond the reach of any other writer!

Turgenev never married but had many lovers and affairs. He had a lifelong affair with a Spanish-born opera singer who was raised in Paris. He spent most of his time in Western Europe, especially Germany and France. He preferred cosmopolitan Western Europe over his native land. He died at age 64.

He was particularly noted for his great ear for dialogue, as you can see in the excerpt below. Just to give you a taste of what he is like, here is a passage from the play, A Month in the Country:

You know, Ratikin, I noticed this a long time ago …You are wonderfully sensitive to the so-called beauties of nature, and talk about them exquisitely … very intelligently … so exquisitely, so intelligently, that I feel sure nature should be indescribably grateful to you for your beautifully chosen, happy phrases about her; you court nature, like a perfumed marquis on his little red-heeled shoes, pursuing a pretty peasant girl … the only trouble is, I sometimes think that nature will never be able to understand or appreciate your subtle language – just as the peasant girl wouldn’t understand the courtly compliments of the marquis; nature is simpler, yes, cruder than you suppose – because, thank God, she is healthy …Birches don’t melt, they don’t have fainting fits like ladies with weak nerves.


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Filed under Eurasia, Literature, Novel, Regional, Russia, Theater