Joy In Mudville

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?

If only…

Rudyard Kipling’s poem If— pretty much deserves a line by line analysis of how it is awesome description of what it is to be a virtuous man.* Unfortunately, that would take too long and would be redundant since most of the poem is self-explanatory. A few lines take a bit of thought to sort out, however.

For example, the line “If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,” is not self-evidently virtuous. “If you can think—” is an interesting clause. Every person thinks, so it seems likely that Kipling means “If you can think well.”  The ability to organize one’s thoughts and to use one’s reason seems like a sort of virtue in itself, but there is more to it than that. The ability to think may be the very source of virtue. One could argue that without rational thought, virtue is impossible. Rarely do we ascribe virtue (and even more rarely vice) to animals and plants; their actions are guided by instinct, not reason. Is it virtuous to breathe? Or to blink? Can any action be virtuous that is involuntary? And what is a “voluntary” action except one that requires thought?

But the second half of that line, “and not make thoughts your aim,” is a bit trickier. If “thoughts” are not the proper aim, what is? Are “thoughts” being set up in opposition to “thought” in general? That is, is Kipling exhorting his son to avoid becoming obsessed with specific ideas instead of properly appreciating a more rounded “life of the mind”? Many intellectuals would like this to be the answer:  thought (in the sense of philosophy) as the proper aim of life. However, I suspect that Kipling has a more active aim in mind.

The whole poem seems to be a call to action, but action is not a proper aim in itself. Unlike philosophy, which may exist for its own sake, action ought to have a separate aim. Little harm can come of thinking for the sake of thinking, but acting for the sake of acting can be dangerous. One ought “not make thoughts or action their aim,” action must be toward some external goal.

So what is the proper aim of life? It seems by the end of the poem that it is to “be a man”. Perhaps simply fulfilling the promise of this poem is the real aim one should strive for.

Beer of the Week: Kunstmann Bock – Goodness, how very dark this beer is! The head is rather quick to fade, but is a lovely tan color on top of the nearly black beer. The taste is absolutely dominated by smokey malt. Some burnt caramel may be detected in the flavor and there is a hint of dark roasted coffee in the finish.  The beer is smooth and thick (for a lager) and although I do not particularly care for such dark beers, this offering from Kunstmann is quite good. Not altogether surprising after reviewing Kunstmann’s Pale Ale.

Reading of the week: If— by Rudyard Kipling – This poem is just about impossible to read without feeling inspired. It encourages level-headedness,  a stoic attitude toward adversity, and always giving one’s best effort.

*Question of the week: Kipling was writing to his son. Would his advice be different if he were writing to his daughter?

“Worse things happen at sea…”

Last week I was very anxious and rather depressed. The sources of my anxiety and depression were varied and would not make for good reading. But from several quarters I have been reminded that my life is much easier and less beset by troubles than most. Naturally, this calls to mind the words of the Epicurean poet Lucretius:

How pleasant it is, when windstorms lash
the mighty seas, to gaze out from the land
upon another man in great distress—
not because you feel delightful pleasure
when anyone is forced to suffer pain,
but because it brings you joy to witness
misfortunes you yourself do not live through.

Perhaps Lucretius over-states his case here. He rightly asserts that pleasure should not come directly from the suffering of others, but only from the awareness that the suffering is not one’s own. Actually witnessing the suffering of others seems thoroughly unpleasant though. The general awareness (without specifics) of others’ suffering is much more palatable, but still is not a source of pleasure for me, only an occasion to put my own problems into perspective.

A more reasonable source of pleasure may be the recollection of personal suffering that is now past. The narrator in Rudyard Kipling’s Gunga Din speaks not from the perspective of Lucretius looking down on the field of battle and reveling in the fact that he is not in any personal danger. Rather, he speaks from his own experience. He personally endured a great deal of hardship “in Injia’s sunny clime,” but now he is stationed in relative safety. He can look back at the times when he used to drink water that “was crawlin’ and it stunk” and rejoice in the fact that he is now at leisure to “talk o’ gin and beer”. (In the poem itself the narrator does not seem to take much joy in comparing the relative ease of his current life with his past experiences, but there is no reason to think that he couldn’t.)

If life gets tough, remember this: there are people in this world who have no beer and there are people who can’t read poetry. All things considered, you have it pretty good.

Beer of the Week: Golden Eagle – This is the first beer that I’ve ever had from “Injia”. At first, there was something in the aroma that I couldn’t place. It was a certain sweetness but it was a bit harsh in a very familiar way. Then I recognized it: cheap wine. It doesn’t smell exactly like cheap wine of course; there are also hints of honey and malt. The taste really follows the aroma, with the strange sweetness dominating. I really don’t know what to make of it, this beer is so much unlike other beers I’ve had. At any rate, it’s certainly better than Gunga Din’s “pint o’ water-green”.

Reading for the Week: Gunga Din by Rudyard Kipling – Kipling, of course, also wrote The White Man’s Burden. Having not conducted any serious study of that work, I will not proffer any interpretation of Kipling’s views on race relations. When reading Gunga Din, let us attempt (if possible) to lay aside the obvious questions of race and focus on the men in terms of their occupations and characters. The narrator has acted brutally toward Din, but Din is steadfast, brave, and loyal despite the abuse from his (military) superiors. For this reason, regardless of skin color, the narrator admits, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”

Question for the week: The narrator expects to see Gunga Din in hell, “Givin’ drink to poor damned souls”. Taking for granted that Din is in hell because he is not a Christian, what is to be made of the assertion that he will continue his life’s work in hell? Is bearing water in hell an honor or an added punishment?