My current job forces me to think of the year in terms of quarters. I am glad to report that Q1, which ended this past week, was very productive. Not at work, necessarily, but in the ways that matter.
For one thing, the Major League Baseball regular season started during Q1. This year was the earliest opening day yet. (To be honest, I still believe that March baseball should be played in either Florida or Arizona. I shouldn’t be able to watch a regular season ballgame and then have to shake snow flurries from my hair the same night.)
More importantly, I have stuck with my new year’s resolution though the first three months of the year. This year, I resolved to memorize two poems a month. It has been an enriching and very pleasurable experience. And, because I have made a habit of reciting the poems to myself as I walk to and from the train during my work commute, the project has not been a drain on my time.
January, I memorized Ozymandias by Percy Shelley and Clancy of the Overflow by Banjo Paterson. In the 2018 film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, there is a character who performs dramatic recitations of Ozymandias. I’m not sure that is why I chose to start with that poem, but it seems possible. I chose Clancy because Banjo Paterson has been a favorite poet of mine for a long time.
In February, I memorized Dos Cuerpos by Octavio Paz and The Mouse’s Petition by Anna Laetitia Barbauld. After January went so well, I wanted to stretch myself a bit by memorizing a poem in Spanish. I consulted with a bilingual friend of mine who studied poetry in college. My requirements were that the poem be good, short, and have a manageable vocabulary. (After all, it is well over a decade since my last high school Spanish test.) Dos Cuerpos fit the bill. I read The Mouse’s Petition for the first time last year, and was very taken with it. Aside from the obvious merits of the poem itself, I have been very interested in Joseph Priestly and his experiments since my freshman chemistry classes.
To end the first quarter of the year, I memorized If— by Rudyard Kipling and The Quitter by Robert W. Service. If— is probably my favorite poem of all-time. And as a new father, it has taken on additional significance to me. (Also, The Simpsons did it!) The Quitter was chosen as a follow-up to If— because it is very similar in both tone and message. In fact, if I were to call Robert Service “the poor man’s Kipling,” I would probably not be the first.
Overall, I am very pleased with myself and my choices. I cannot help but believe that memorizing poetry is good for the mind and the soul (if those are different things.) I like to think that I have made a good start on a habit that I will keep for years to come. Maybe next year I will memorize famous speeches. But there is no need to get ahead of myself now; I’ve still got three quarters of 2019 to go.
Beer of the week: Son of a Peach – This unfiltered wheat beer from South Carolina’s RJ Rockers Brewing Company is brewed with Carolina peaches. It is peachy, but not overly sweet. The wheat and a hint of vanilla in the finish reminds me of peaches & cream oatmeal. I rather enjoy this beer.
Reading of the week: Casey at the Bat by Ernest Thayer – Now that baseball season is upon us, I’ve decided to memorize Casey at the Bat. It is undoubtedly the best poem ever written about baseball, and arguably the greatest piece of American comic verse ever written.
Question for the week: Excluding song lyrics, what is the longest written work you have ever memorized?
Science and beer go together like philosophy and beer. Or art and beer. Or pretzels and beer.
Around the time of the American Revolution, brewing played an important role in the early study of chemistry. Dr. Joseph Priestley was one of the first people to isolate oxygen and identify some of its remarkable properties. He wrote a six-volume work entitled Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air in which he describes a number of different “airs” – “gasses” in modern English – and his experiments with them.
His “fixed air” – our “carbon dioxide” – was readily supplied by a nearby brewery. The fermenting beer provided such a great and steady supply of the gas that it became a favorite subject for experimentation. Dr. Priestley found that in fixed air, “a candle would not burn, and a mouse would have died presently.” He even used an upside-down beer glass for his make-shift gas chamber:
If I want to try whether an animal will live in any kind of air, I first put the air into a small vessel, just large enough to give it room to stretch itself; and as I generally make use of mice for this purpose, I have found it very convenient to use the hollow part of a tall beer-glass… which contains between two and three ounce measures of air. In this vessel a mouse will live twenty minutes or half an hour.
For the purpose of these experiments, it is most convenient to catch the mice in small wire traps, out of which it is easy to take them, and, holding them by the back of the neck, to pass them through the water into the vessel which contains the air. If I expect that the mouse will live a considerable time, I take care to put into the vessel something on which it may conveniently sit, out of reach of the water. If the air be good, the mouse will soon be perfectly at ease, having suffered nothing by its passing through the water. If the air be supposed to be noxious, it will be proper (if the operator be desirous of preserving the mice for further use) to keep hold of their tails, that they may be withdrawn as soon as they begin to show signs of uneasiness; but if the air be throughly noxious, and the mouse happens to get a full inspiration, it will be impossible to do this before it be absolutely irrecoverable.
If that description made you feel bad for the mice, you should know that you are not the first to have that reaction. At least part of the time he was making these experiments, Dr. Priestly was a tutor at the Warrington Academy. A colleague of his at Warrington had a daughter named Anna Laetitia Aikin, later Anna Laetitia Barbauld, who grew up to be a prominent woman of letters. One of her early works was a poem, dedicated to Dr. Priestley, called The Mouse’s Petition. The poem was written from the point of view of a mouse that had been trapped by Dr. Priestley and lamented it’s prospective demise on the alter of scientific research. As the story goes, Anna placed the poem in the trap with the mouse, and when Dr. Priestley found it in the morning, he set the mouse free. Scientists, after all, are not completely heartless.
Beer of the week: Rusty Red Ale – Building on the work of Dr. Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier demonstrated that respiration and combustion are forms of oxidization: oxygen bonding with other elements. Like respiration and combustion, rust forming on iron is a form of oxidization. This red ale is from Wisconsin’s O’so Brewing Company. It pours a dark red-brown with a head that dissipates very quickly. The aroma is mostly of roasted malt. The beer is bready, and the flavor follows. It is pleasant and malty, but I’d like a little more flavor. Even more caramel malt or more hops bitterness. Or both.
Reading of the week: The Mouse’s Petition by Anna Laetitia Barbauld – Barbauld’s narrator mouse makes compelling appeals that are both philosophical and sentimental. The poem also has a line that makes me curious about how intimate the author was with Dr. Priestley’s work. The mouse claims that “The cheerful light, the vital air, / Are blessings widely given.” The term “vital air” was one of the names given to oxygen, so it is possible that Barbauld was making a specific reference to Dr. Priestley’s experiments with different gasses. Also, lest the reader get the wrong idea about the good doctor, Barbauld added a note to this edition of the poem to say that she did not mean to attribute any cruelty to Dr. Priestley, of whom she maintained the highest regard.
Question for the week: The use of animals in scientific research is a touchy subject. Some extremely important discoveries have resulted from the death and suffering of countless animals. Is there anything like a clear line that can be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable animal testing? For example, might we agree that testing cosmetics on animals is never ok, or that testing prosthetics on animals is always ok?
This is the fortieth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XL: English Poetry 1 Chaucer to Grey
I have done Dr. Eliot something of a disservice. In an earlier post, I asserted that the Harvard Classics does not include any works by women. However, that is not the case. In the three volumes of English poetry, Dr. Eliot included poems by just over a dozen women. By my count, excluding the anonymous poets for obvious reasons, women make up just about 7% of the authors in the poetry collection. Considering the number of pages dedicated to Shakespeare, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and a few other “big names,” ladies’ poems make up a significantly less than 7% of the total. (To say nothing of the entire volumes dedicated to Burns and Milton.)
Because the ladies are so under-represented, I’ve decided to quote a line by each:
Lady Grisel Baillie
Were I but young for thee, as I hae been,
We should hae been gallopin’ doun in yon green,
And linkin’ it owre the lily-white lea —
And wow, gin I were but young for thee?
Alison Rutherford Cockburn
Oh, fickle Fortune!
Why this cruel sporting?
Oh, why still perplex us, poor sons of day?
The Flowers of the Forest, that fought aye the foremost,
The prime of our land, are cauld in the clay.
Anna Laetitia Barbauld
Say not Good-night, but in some brighter clime
Bid me Good-morning!
Will ye gang down the water side,
And see the waves sae sweetly glide
Beneath the hazels spreading wide?
The moon it shines fu’ clearly.
Lady Anne Lindsay
I wish that I were dead, but I’m no like to dee;
And why was I born to say, Wae’s me!
Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne
O there arose my father’s prayer, in holy evening calm;
How sweet was then my mother’s voice in the Martyr’s psalm!
The mind wha’s every wish is pure
Far dearer is to me;
And ere I’m forced to break my faith,
I’ll lay me doun and dee.
Tis sad to think the days are gone
When those we love were near;
I sit upon this mossy stone
And sigh when none can hear.
Helen Selina, Lady Dufferin
I’m very lonely now, Mary,
For the poor make no new friends.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love’s sake only…
Riches I hold in light esteem,
And Love I laugh to scorn.
Christina Georgina Rossetti
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
For good measure, I would point out that the work of another lady can be found in a later volume of the set. Volume XLV has a collection of Christian hymns, including Nearer, My God, to Thee by Sarah Flower Adams
Beer of the week: Stella Artois – It is neither inaccurate nor uncharitable to call Stella the Budweiser of Europe. (The existence of that Czech Budvar notwithstanding.) As Budweiser is the flagship beer of AB InBev in the US, Stella is the European flagship. It is pale gold in color with a fluffy white head. It has a faint aroma of cheap grain. The flavor is standard European macro. Stella is totally drinkable, but unremarkable.
Reading of the week: A Lover’s Lullaby by George Gascoigne – I know what you are thinking: how could I possibly pick a poem by a man after a blog post like that? Mainly, I lacked options. The first of the three volumes of poetry has but a single poem by a lady, and that poem is written in Scots. And besides, Gascoigne writes: “And lullaby can I sing too, / As womanly as can the best.”
Question of the week: Gascoigne’s Lullaby connects poetry with caring for children, which may explain why it is the one genre in which women are represented in the Harvard Classics. Aside from other poems, what other works by women would you add to the Harvard Classics?