Category Archives: Literature

What Am I Doing These Days?

Some of you are concerned that I lead some sort of a lousy, boring life. That may be true in a sense but not in the catastrophic sense. For instance, there is usually a woman or maybe even more than one woman floating around my world. Other than that, I don’t see what else I need other than money.

So maybe you are wondering what I am doing these days.

Lately I have been reading Ezra Pound! Not his poetry. God no, not sure if I can make heads or tails out of that. I have been reading his prose! Pound’s prose is little known, but before he went crazy in the 1930’s, he wrote some superb prose.

As far as whether I am happy or not, all I have to say is that no matter what else is going on in one’s life, as long as one is reading Ezra Pound, how could one not be happy as a clam?

Pound’s writing that is available in one way or another on the web is here.

Anyone else like Ezra Pound?


Filed under Literature

Shakespearean English in the Original Accent

I definitely could not understand all of that. I think maybe I got ~78%. Sure you can understand a lot of it but definitely not all.


Filed under English language, Linguistics, Literature

600-650 Years of Linguistic Separation

Sounds something like this.

That is from The Canterbury Tales. They were written around 1390, which is about 620 years ago. I do not know about you guys, but my intelligiblity score of Middle English was 5%. I think there might be around 100 words in that sample, not sure. Middle English is quite simply not the same language as Modern English. It’s a different language altogether.

So if languages are split for 600-650 years, they may only have 5% intelligibility. That is if they do not continue to have connections with each other. If they continue to have linguistic connections with each other via speaking together and living in the same vicinity as the other tongue, the score can be a lot higher.

For instance, Scots separated from English ~500 years ago but I can get a lot more of Scots than I can of Chaucer. My intelligibility of Modern Scots is ~40%. But you see, Scots and English continued to be in regular contact. If Scots had taken off to Sweden or someplace like that, the score might be a lot lower. Scots’ continued interaction with English slows the rate of differentiation between tongues.

So after 500-650 years linguistic separation, you should have separate languages, and intelligibility may only be 5-40% (average 22%).


Filed under Comparitive, English language, Language Classification, Language Families, Linguistics, Literature, Scots

The Ancestor of the Beatniks

That would be Thomas Wolfe, dead way too soon at age 38 right before the Great War broke out.

Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where.

To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth.

Whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending — a wind is rising, and the rivers flow.

Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again (1939).

I am really thinking that I need to get into this guy. Faulkner said Wolfe was the greatest writer of his generation. His reputation has waned somewhat in recent days – the general conclusion is that his novels were overwritten, way too long and could have been written in half the size – but he retains legions of devoted followers. There is even a Thomas Wolfe Journal out there that publishes regularly.

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Mother Water

Regarding poorly-named Pacific Ocean:

There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath; like those fabled undulations of the Ephesian sod over the buried Evangelist St. John.

And meet it is, that over these sea-pastures, wide-rolling watery prairies and Potters’ Fields of all four continents, the waves should rise and fall, and ebb and flow unceasingly; for here, millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming, still; tossing like slumberers in their beds; the ever-rolling waves but made so by their restlessness.

To any meditative Magian rover, this serene Pacific, once beheld, must ever after be the sea of his adoption. It rolls the midmost waters of the world, the Indian Ocean and Atlantic being but its arms.

The same waves wash the moles of the new-built Californian towns, but yesterday planted by the recentest race of men, and lave the faded but still gorgeous skirts of Asiatic lands, older than Abraham; while all between float milky-ways of coral isles, and low-lying, endless, unknown Archipelagos, and impenetrable Japans. Thus this mysterious divine Pacific zones the world’s whole bulk about; makes all coasts one bay to it; seems the tide-beating heart of earth.Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1851.

The sea. Once again the sea. Always again the sea. We always return to the sea. Our mother. Mother water.



Filed under Geography, Literature, Novel

A Lost Shakespeare Play You Never Heard of


The title is Double Falshood; or, The Distrest Lovers, or Double Falsehood, or The Distressed Lovers in modern English.

The play was written by Lewis Theobald, supposedly based on three copies of what he said was a lost Shakespearean play. He never produced the three copies that he had access to, and their whereabouts are presently unknown. The play appears to be based on The History of Cardenio (often referred to as Cardenio), by Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Cardenio is a famous lost Shakespeare play based on a chapter in Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

There has been much controversy about whether or not Double Falsehood is really based on Cardenio, but the consensus now is that Double Falsehood is based on a play written by Fletcher and an unknown author. A recent essay claimed that that unknown author is Shakespeare.

The Arden Shakespeare Series of books recently added this play to the Shakespeare canon, causing quite a bit of controversy.

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Filed under Literature, Theater

The Stupidity of Conservatism

The essence of conservatism: It was always better yesterday than today.

Against the malign domination of the present by the past Mr. Sinclair directs his principal assault. In the arts he sees the dead hand holding the classics on their thrones and thrusting back new masterpieces as they appear; in religion he sees it clothing the visions of ancient poets in steel creeds and rituals and denying that such visions can ever come to later spirits; in human society he sees it welding the manacles of caste and hardening this or that temporary pattern of life to a perpetual order.

– Carl Van Doren, Contemporary American Novelists (1900-1920), 1922, on Upton Sinclair, American revolutionary author and socialist.

How foolish. Clocks go forwards, not backwards, you silly people.

That quote is from a very famous book by the way. Van Doren was a great critic who lived around the turn of the century. That book is famous because it resurrected Moby Dick and Herman Melville. When Moby Dick first came out, it was met with bafflement. Nobody quite new what to make of this doorstop. His other books met much of the same uncomprehending annoyance.

So there they sat, the greatest American books of their time, for over a half century. A full 70 years had passed since Van Doren rose Moby Dick from the grave in the stacks and second hand stores. The book set off a Melville Revival which has not abated yet. There is a Melville Society and even an entire journal dedicated to Melville.

If you have never read anything by Melville, now is the time to start. If you can handle him, that is. He is not an easy writer, and if anything’s beyond highbrow, it’s that one great whale of a tale for which is remembered.


Filed under Conservatism, Literature, Novel, Political Science, Regional, USA

The Doctor Diagnoses the Bard

Dr. Samuel Johnson weighs in his verdict on Shakespeare’s flaws. Now to be fair I should note that in this same essay, Johnson also praises him to the skies, and I believe he says he is the greatest of all writers. But any criticism of Shakespeare is interesting. There is one point we need to note. How many people have written essays or books extolling the greatness of Shakespeare in one way or another? Can we even count them. The cynic might say that if you write a piece praising Shakespeare, nobody is going to read it as it’s old hat. But criticizing Shakespeare? That’s not something that’s often done! So many some of these critics were just trying to get eye mileage out of novelty.

Anyway, this is a gorgeous piece of writing from England before the American Revolution by one of the finest writers of our time.

I changed some of the archaic English, but I left in most of the British spelling.

Shakespeare with his excellencies has likewise faults, and faults sufficient to obscure and overwhelm any other merit. I shall show them in the proportion in which they appear to me, without envious malignity or superstitious veneration. No question can be more innocently discussed than a dead poet’s pretensions to renown; and little regard is due to that bigotry which sets candour higher than truth.

His first defect is that to which may be imputed most of the evil in books or in men. He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose.

From his writings indeed a system of social duty may be selected, for he that thinks reasonably must think morally; but his precepts and axioms drop casually from him; he makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor is always careful to shew in the virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked; he carries his persons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the close dismisses them without further care, and leaves their examples to operate by chance. This fault the barbarity of his age cannot extenuate; for it is always a writer’s duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independent on time or place.

The plots are often so loosely formed, that a very slight
consideration may improve them, and so carelessly pursued, that he seems not always fully to comprehend his own design. He omits opportunities of instructing or delighting which the train of his story seems to force upon him, and apparently rejects those exhibitions which would be more affecting, for the sake of those which are more easy.

It may be observed, that in many of his plays the latter part is evidently neglected. When he found himself near the end of his work, and, in view of his reward, he shortened the labour to snatch the profit. He therefore remits his efforts where he should most vigorously exert them, and his catastrophe is improbably produced or imperfectly represented.

He had no regard to distinction of time or place, but gives to one age or nation, without scruple, the customs, institutions, and opinions of another, at the expense not only of likelihood, but of possibility. These faults  Pope has endeavoured, with more zeal than judgment, to transfer to his imagined interpolators. We need not wonder to find Hector quoting Aristotle, when we see the loves of  Theseus and  Hippolyta combined with the Gothic mythology of fairies.

Shakespeare, indeed, was not the only violator of chronology, for in the same age Sidney, who wanted not the advantages of learning, has, in his Arcadia, confounded the pastoral with the feudal times, the days of innocence, quiet and security, with those of turbulence, violence, and adventure.

In his comic scenes he is seldom very successful, when he engages his characters in reciprocations of smartness and contests of sarcasm; their jests are commonly gross, and their pleasantry licentious; neither his gentlemen nor his ladies have much delicacy, nor are sufficiently distinguished from his clowns by any appearance of refined manners.

Whether he represented the real conversation of his time is not easy to determine; the reign of Elizabeth is commonly supposed to have been a time of stateliness, formality and reserve; yet perhaps the relaxations of that severity were not very elegant. There must, however, have been always some modes of gayety preferable to others, and a writer ought to choose the best.

In tragedy his performance seems constantly to be worse, as his labour is more. The effusions of passion which exigence forces out are for the most part striking and energetic; but whenever he solicits his invention, or strains his faculties, the offspring of his throes is tumor, meanness, tediousness, and obscurity.

In narration he affects a disproportionate pomp of diction, and a wearisome train of circumlocution, and tells the incident imperfectly in many words, which might have been more plainly delivered in few. Narration in dramatic poetry is naturally tedious, as it is unanimated and inactive, and obstructs the progress of the action; it should therefore always be rapid, and enlivened by frequent interruption. Shakespeare found it an encumbrance, and instead of lightening it by brevity, endeavoured to recommend it by dignity and splendour.

His declamations or set speeches are commonly cold and weak, for his power was the power of nature; when he endeavoured, like other tragic writers, to catch opportunities of amplification, and instead of inquiring what the occasion demanded, to show how much his stores of knowledge could supply, he seldom escapes without the pity or resentment of his reader.

It is incident to him to be now and then entangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he cannot well express, and will not reject; he struggles with it a while, and if it continues stubborn, comprises it in words such as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled and evolved by those who have more leisure to bestow upon it.

Not that always where the language is intricate the thought is subtle, or the image always great where the line is bulky; the equality of words to things is very often neglected, and trivial sentiments and vulgar ideas disappoint the attention, to which they are recommended by sonorous epithets and swelling figures.

But the admirers of this great poet have never less reason to indulge their hopes of supreme excellence, than when he seems fully resolved to sink them in dejection, and mollify them with tender emotions by the fall of greatness, the danger of innocence, or the crosses of love. He is not long soft and pathetic without some idle conceit, or contemptible equivocation. He no sooner begins to move, than he counteracts himself; and terror and pity, as they are rising in the mind, are checked and blasted by sudden frigidity.

A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished.

A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.

It will be thought strange, that, in enumerating the defects of this writer, I have not yet mentioned his neglect of the unities: his violation of those laws which have been instituted and established by the joint authority of poets and critics.

For his other deviations from the art of writing I resign him to critical justice, without making any other demand in his favour, than that which must be indulged to all human excellence: that his virtues be rated with his failings: But, from the censure which this irregularity may bring upon him, I shall, with due reverence to that learning which I must oppose, adventure to try how I can defend him.

His histories, being neither tragedies nor comedies are not subject to any of their laws; nothing more is necessary to all the praise which they expect, than that the changes of action be so prepared as to be understood, that the incidents be various and affecting, and the characters consistent, natural, and distinct. No other unity is intended, and therefore none is to be sought.

In his other works he has well enough preserved the unity of action. He has not, indeed, an intrigue regularly perplexed and regularly unraveled: he does not endeavour to hide his design only to discover it, for this is seldom the order of real events, and Shakespeare is the poet of nature: But his plan has commonly what Aristotle requires, a beginning, a middle, and an end; one event is concatenated with another, and the conclusion follows by easy consequence.

There are perhaps some incidents that might be spared, as in other poets there is much talk that only fills up time upon the stage; but the general system makes gradual advances, and the end of the play is the end of expectation.

– Samuel Johnson, Preface to The Plays of William Shakespeare, 1765.

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Filed under Britain, Europe, Literature, Regional, Theater

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