Origin Story

One of my most vocal critics recently commented about this blog, “It’s not like you write anything original; you just rehash the ideas of classical authors.” For the most part, I agree. Even the original poetry that I’ve posted here is absolutely packed with classical references.

But my critic’s observation is, itself, unoriginal. Virtually nothing is wholly original.

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes

“If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” – Issac Newton

“A thought is often original, though you have uttered it a hundred times.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

“When Shakespeare is charged with debts to his authors, Landor replies, ‘Yet he was more original than his originals. He breathed upon dead bodies and brought them into life.'” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, quoting Walter Savage Landor, discussing William Shakespeare

“As the ancients
Say wisely, have a care o’ th’ main chance,
And look before you ere you leap;
For as you sow, ye are like to reap.” – Samuel Butler, paraphrasing John Lyly, John Heywood, and St. Paul

“[The] borrowing and refurbishing of shop-worn goods, as a matter of fact, is the invariable habit of traders in ideas, at all times and everywhere. . . .  At the moment of the contemporary metaphysician’s loftiest flight, when he is most gratefully warmed by the feeling that he is far above all the  ordinary airlanes and has absolutely novel concept by the tail, he is suddenly pulled up by the discovery that what is entertaining him is simply the ghost of some ancient idea that his school-master forced into him in 1887, or the mouldering corpse of a doctrine that was made official in his country during the late war, or a sort of fermentation-product, to mix the figure, of a banal heresy launched upon him recently by his wife.” – H. L. Mencken


Beer of the week: Bavaria Premium – This beer is fairly unoriginal. The name clearly meant to evoke thoughts of the great beer-producing region of Southeast Germany, despite the fact that this beer is from Holland. Similarities in the packaging and price of this beer led me to speculate that Bavaria is a product of the same brewery that gave us Hollandia. A quick search indicates that my hunch was correct. Bavaria is a golden pils with little head retention or aroma. There is a malty sweetness that has a hint of honey. For the price, it is not a bad choice, though I prefer a bit more hops in my lagers.

Reading of the week: In Defense of Women by H.L. Mencken –  The introduction to this book is typical Mencken: plenty of wit and cynicism, and, ultimately, a good deal of sense. “If I knew what was true, I’d probably be willing to sweat and strive for it, and maybe even to die for it to the tune of bugle-blasts. But so far I have not found it.”

Question of the week: Many argue that the word “unique” does not admit of degrees; something either is or is not unique. Is the same true of “original”? Can something be “slightly” or “very” original?

The Goals of Poetry

A beer is for drinking. A sofa is for sitting. A poem is for… enjoyment? Edification? The imagination and expression of the indestructible order of the universe? Fart jokes?

According to Percy Shelley’s essay A Defense of Poetry, poetry “is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.” Stated another way, the work of a poet is to “imagine and express [the world’s] indestructible order.” The problem with trying to create a definition based on these statements is that they are both over and under-inclusive for what we commonly think of as poetry. They are over-inclusive because Shelley means that any expression of eternal truth is poetry regardless of form; he includes the the essays of Francis Bacon and the histories of Herodotus, Plutarch, and Livy as poetry. The content, rather than the form defines the poem according to Shelley. The definitions are also under-inclusive because a dirty limerick, lacking any spark of eternal truth, appears to fall outside of the category of poetry. This sort of content based, distinction seems inappropriate for an art form that includes some very strict formal categories.

Although content based distinction between poetry and non-poetry may not be appropriate, content based criticism of poetry makes a lot of sense. Aristophanes makes a particularly appealing case study for this analysis for two reasons. In the first place, the content of Aristophanes’ plays is superficially very sophomoric; he peppers his work very liberally with scatological and sexual humor. Secondly, despite the ceaseless stream of crude jokes, Aristophanes clearly thinks that there are much bigger things at stake. In an earlier post, I noted that he used the chorus in The Wasps to chide the Athenian audience for not appreciating the good advice that he had provided the city in his plays.

In The Frogs, Aristophanes has the character of Euripides state that the most important trait of the poet is his ability to improve the audience through his wise counsels. This point is taken up by the character of Æschylus and seems very much in line with the tone of the chorus in The Wasps. In the play’s contest between Euripides and Æschylus for greatest all-time tragedian, Æschylus gets the win based not on the beauty of his verse, but on the superiority of his practical advice.

Like the analysis of Shelley, this seems to over-emphasize poetry’s content at the expense of its form. But it is important to note that Aristophanes couches all of this within a work of poetry rather than in a lecture or treatise. He is adamant that he has some very important things to say, but he does so within the structure of his verse. The key, it seems, is the proper balance between form and content. Even the most important and valuable content, if not presented beautifully will not be well received. And the most beautiful verse, without some substantial content, will ring hollow. If the characters in The Frogs are right that the true measure of quality of a poet is his ability to improve his audience, it is clear that the greatest effect on the audience will come from the most skillful combination of form and substance.

Beer of the week: Grolsh Lager – Grolsh is best known in the US for its iconic swing-top bottles. It is also available, it seems, in more standard long-necks. Aside from the bottle, this Dutch macro is unremarkable. It is clear, pale gold with lots of carbonation. Light aroma of toasted grain. Not much to it, but not bad at all.

Reading of the week: The Frogs by Aristophanes – A large part of the disagreement between Æschylus and Euripides in this play is whether characters should be realistic or idealized. Æschylus argues that idealized characters make for better role models, and are therefore better suited to improve the audience. Euripides, on the other hand, favors realistic characters because they are more relatable.

Question for the week: Does even the most shallow or juvenile poem deserve the title of “poetry” by virtue of its form alone?

Heavy Lifting

Plenty of people advocate physical exercise in the morning. Exercise in the morning has a way of waking up the body. After a morning run or weight lifting session, one feels energized and alert and ready to face the day.

My morning routine of late has included not only physical exercise, but also mental exercise. After I run and shower, I sit down with my copy of The Bones. The Bones is a pocket companion to Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. It contains all of the propositions and diagrams of the Elements, without the extended proofs. Without the proofs in front of me, I am forced to remember (if I am lucky) or work though how the propositions function and build upon each other. It is occasionally quite difficult, but always a great mental exercise to prepare my mind for an active day.

In the introduction to his famous translation of the Elements, Oliver Byrne claims that the “sublime science” of geometry is “better calculated than any other to call forth the spirit of inquiry, to elevate the mind, and to strengthen the reasoning faculties.” Is it any wonder that starting the day with a few propositions serves as the perfect intellectual exercise to invigorate the mind?


Beer of the week: La Trappe Quadrupel – The International Trappist Association certifies beers as “Authentic Trappist Products.” To qualify the beers must be brewed inside the walls of a monastery, any proceeds that go beyond maintenance of the monks and the monastery must go to charity, and the beer has to be of “irreproachable quality.” And this beautiful, red/amber ale is the first “Authentic Trappist” reviewed for this blog. As a quadruple, this ale has an alcohol content of 10%. The flavor is rich and full, with notes of very ripe fruit. The alcohol does make itself felt in the end, but not in a harsh way.

Reading for the week: The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid, translated by Oliver Byrne – Like Trappist beer, Oliver Byrne was born in the Netherlands. In his introduction Byrne explains that his intention in translating Euclid is to “assist the mind in its researches after truth.”

Question for the week: There are also those who advocate exercise at other times of day, are there advantages to performing the mental labor of geometry at the end of the day?

A Eulogy

When I was seventeen, I visited my uncle in Australia. As he was warming up the barbie (he seriously called the grill that) he said, “Why don’t you go get two beers from the fridge?” “Two?” I replied. “Yeah, one for me and one for you.” It wasn’t my first beer, but it was the first beer that I drank with an adult, as an adult. We were just two men, sipping beers on the back porch while sausages sizzled on the grill. It was special, because we acted like it wasn’t. I passed out immediately after dinner, but that was because of the jet lag, not the beer.

I still have my temporary membership card to the Icebergs Club in Sydney. The rest of the world has “polar bear” clubs, whose members swim in frigid winter waters, but it never gets all that cold in Sydney. So the members of the Icebergs Club have to float blocks of ice in their beachside swimming pool to get the same effect. My uncle and I joined the club for a day, not to swim but to have lunch and beers in the clubhouse.

I know that is not much of a story. I only mention it as an excuse. If we never shared those beers, it would feel wrong to eulogize about my uncle on this blog. This really is not an appropriate venue for a eulogy, but those Australian brews ease my way. He was a man who made others feel comfortable, and casually enjoying a cold beer with such a man is one of the world’s finest pleasures. And it is a damned shame that I will not get to share another one with him.

When a great man’s light goes out, whether it is snuffed out abruptly or it slowly flickers and fades, the whole world becomes a bit darker. And those of us who have been lucky enough to live in that light have a duty to shine a little bit brighter to keep the whole world from going dark. My uncle was a grandfather to a lovely little girl, a father to a beautiful young woman, a husband to two women (not at the same time,) a brother to thirteen(!) siblings, an uncle to dozens of nieces and nephews, and a friend to innumerable people around the world. He gave a lot of light to a lot of people, and now we must do our best to burn brighter to fill the void.

Do me a favor, do yourself a favor, do the world a favor: live well, share freely, make others comfortable. We’ve lost a great man, so we all have to take up some of the slack.


Beer of the week: Hollandia Premium Lager – Most of the beers I had with my uncle were VB’s. When I returned to Australia a few years later, I stayed with my cousin in Melbourne and brought this beer to a party. Beer prices in Australia are pretty steep. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, only Frenchmen and Singaporeans pay more per pint. I was quite surprised to find that this Dutch import was the cheapest beer on offer at a Melbourne liquor store. To be fair, Hollandia seems to be pretty cheap anywhere it can be found. This clear, golden lager is fairly basic. The aroma is very slight, but has sweet hints of cider or champagne. There really is very little flavor to write about. Hollandia doesn’t taste bad, but it sure is bland.

Reading of the week: Crossing the Bar by Alfred, Lord Tennyson –  From Tennyson to Tolkien, sailing off into the night is a popular metaphor for death. It is apt; if life is a journey, the last leg is done alone.

Question of the week: How can you live better?

Parts and Wholes

It is remarkably hard for me to review beers. Actually, it is hard for me to review just about anything thoroughly. In most cases, I suspect this is because I am such a “big-picture” guy and reviews and critiques tend to focus on individual aspects.

I find this especially in the case of things that I like. I am sure that if I really put my mind to it, I could figure out and explain what I love about the movie Raising Arizona or why a delicious shandy is so good on a hot day. But I’d rather not. If something is really, really good, it is because every aspect of it is working perfectly in harmony. Harmony, by the way, is the perfect example of this. Any three musical notes are as good as any other, but when played as a chord, is it possible to say one note is more important? If some part stands there is a problem. To totally enjoy something is to not perceive each part in itself.

Thomas Carlyle wrote in Characteristics that this sort of obliviousness to the parts showed the greatest health of the whole. One may readily perceive that people don’t really notice their own bodies until there is something wrong. We are told that even the pleasant sensation in the muscles caused by exercise is actually the result of muscle tissue tearing. When bodies are functioning perfectly, their functioning is the easiest to overlook.

Carlyle even extends this idea to all of life. When our lives are at their best, we forget all the details and focus on the whole of living. It is only when life is out of order that we get bogged down in details.

Beer of the Week: Heineken – The most popular beer in the Netherlands, this pale lager has long been highly regarded abroad as well.  The initial aroma is crisp and hoppy, but it fades quickly. The flavor is somewhat watery and grainy and lacks a good hops kick. There are heaps of beers that are worse, but also plenty of beers that are better. As far as macro-brews go, it really is an alright beer, but it isn’t good enough that one could get lost in the flavor.

Reading of the week: Characteristics by Thomas Carlyle – “Boundless as is the domain of man, it is but a small fractional proportion of it that he rules with Consciousness and by Forethought,” Carlyle writes. What he means is that the rational mind is only really capable of singling out the smallest and most mechanical bits of life and nature. In general, we perceive the world as a whole. And the world is the more beautiful for it.

Question of the week: Are things more beautiful when they are mysterious or are they more beautiful when we can see and understand their intricacy? For example, I can look inside a watch and be impressed because it is beyond me how all of the little pieces work. How does an expert watchmaker see the inside of a watch?

Good Enough

To paraphrase Voltaire: perfection is the enemy of the good. We often deny ourselves the chance to do something well because we can’t do it perfectly. This is true in so many areas of life.

Many artists and writers endlessly work on their personal masterpieces, but find that they is never perfect enough to show the world. But Christiaan Huygens, the Dutch polymath, knew well the value of publishing imperfect work. In science especially, no understanding or writing is ever absolutely perfect, so the sooner good ideas are made available, the sooner they can be built upon. And at very least, it is better that ideas are allowed to be viewed and critiqued than locked in a desk drawer because the author hasn’t had the time to make every last amendment and correction. Huygens wrote in the Preface to his Treatise on Light, “I have finally judged that it was better worth while to publish this writing, such as it is, than to let it run the risk, by waiting longer, of remaining lost.”

In fields that are less practical than science, specifically in the arts, one is tempted to think that a work should be brought as close to perfection as humanly possible before it is unveiled. Many writers sit on manuscripts for their entire lives, revising and editing to no end. Luckily for you, I am not one of them. In fact, it seems that very few bloggers are perfectionists. Blogging seems to be a medium that has at its heart a “good enough” mentality. People flood the internets with writings of various qualities, but the short, quick nature of blogging makes it a rough and ready system. Few if any blogs are extremely polished, but they don’t need to be perfect, they are good enough.

Beer of the Week: Oranjeboom – The Dutch have given the world the pendulum clock and probability theory (thanks to Huygens.) They’ve also given the world Orangeboom beer. This particular beer strikes me as a “good enough” effort. After a somewhat citrusy and almost grassy aroma, this beer offers a crisp, clean flavor that ends very dry. It is not perfect by any means, but it is good enough for its purpose.

Reading of the week: Preface to Treatise on Light by Christiaan Huygens – The Preface to this treatise is not the most exciting read, but it offers some interesting historical perspective including a reference to the disputes between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz as well as an explanation of the practical differences between geometry and experimental physics.

Question of the week: Is there any work of art that is actually perfect? Any painting that could not have been improved by even a single brushstroke more or less? Any book that could not be made even slightly better by substituting a word or adding a comma?