This is the sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume VI: Poems and Songs, Burns
One obvious observation about the Harvard Classics is the very heavy Anglo-American bias. This is evident even from the very first volume: Franklin, Woolman, Penn. None of those authors are indispensable in a set that purports to be a collection of essential readings for a basic liberal education, but all are Anglo-American. Whether Dr. Eliot’s reliance upon American and British authors is reasonable, it is at very least explainable.
The Harvard Classics was published for an American public, with the intent to provide the framework of a liberal education. As such, at least twa considerations favor American and British works over others.
In the first place, it makes sense that an American liberal education should focus on American thought and literature. If a similar project were undertaken in France, it would be shocking if more French authors and works were not included. The same would be true of Russia, or China, or any other nation or region. British authors similarly feature heavily in the Harvard Classics because the history of American thought and literature is inextricably linked with that of England. (William Penn is an instructive inclusion on this point; he is American in the sense that he is the founder and namesake of Pennsylvania, but he was an English gentleman his entire life.)
In the second place, the inclusion of American and British works avoids the serious problem of translation. The books, intended for an English-speaking public, must needs be in English. To the extent that Dr. Eliot was able to select works already in his native tongue, he was able to avoid the serious, and occasionally impossible, task of finding a good translation.
This consideration brings us to this week’s volume: the poems and songs of Robert Burns. On the one hand, Burns is an important part of the Anglo-American literary tradition. On the other hand, his most famous works were written in Scots. (The debate over whether Lowland Scots is a distinct language or merely a dialect must be put off for another day. For now, it is enough to note that it is has limited mutual intelligibility with English.) Although much of Burns’ Scots writing is clear enough for the average American Reader, his vocabulary often requires notes or a dictionary. For example, in The Twa Dogs, (the title of which, itself, is in Scots but is readily comprehensible,) some lines are practically straight English:
“Love blinks, Wit slaps, an’ social Mirth
Forgets there’s Care upo’ the earth.”
Some lines, however, are all but unintelligible without aide:
“At kirk or market, mill or smiddie,
Nae tawted tyke, tho’ e’er sae duddie,
But he wad stan’t, as glad to see him,
An’ stroan’t on stanes an’ hillocks wi’ him.”
And Burns is but one example of this sort of problem. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English can be a real struggle to understand. Even American authors who write in dialect can be a tough read. Consider this quotation from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn:
“Oh, it’s de dad-blame’ witches, sah, en I wisht I was dead, I do. Dey’s awluz at it, sah, en dey do mos’ kill me, dey sk’yers me so. Please to don’t tell nobody ’bout it sah, er ole Mars Silas he’ll scole me; ‘kase he say dey AIN’T no witches. I jis’ wish to goodness he was heah now– DEN what would he say! I jis’ bet he couldn’ fine no way to git aroun’ it DIS time. But it’s awluz jis’ so; people dat’s SOT, stays sot; dey won’t look into noth’n’en fine it out f’r deyselves, en when YOU fine it out en tell um ’bout it, dey doan’ b’lieve you.”
Difficult to understand, perhaps, but fun.
Beer of the week: Magic Hat #9 – This Vermont beer is a very solid choice. It is clear and amber. The aroma is of malt and some sour, dark fruit. Apricot is certainly the star of the flavor, backed by bready malt. Even so, the beer is not overly sweet, just darn good. And I really dig that the 12 oz. bottle is labeled as “3/4 pint”.
Reading of the week: The Twa Dogs by Robert Burns – This poem is a great piece of satire by Burns. The dogs, one a farmers collie and the other a lord’s Newfoundland(?), discourse about how different the lives of the rich are from those of the poor.
Question for the week: Is it better to have copious notes, explaining even obvious words or analogies, or to have too few notes, requiring lots of guesswork?
Imagine that you live in Vermont and want to be a beer brewer. You don’t only want to be a brewer, you need to be a brewer. It is your calling. You find that there are a lot of options. You could apply for work at The Alchemist Brewing Company. You could apply for work at Hill Farmstead. Or Fiddlehead Brewing Company. Or Long Trail. You could seek work at any of the dozens of breweries in the state. Or you could start your own. To be sure, there are legal and logistical hurdles to starting a brewery. There are some licensing and regulatory issues. But in a state with more breweries per capita than any other, it can’t be too hard.
Now imagine that you live in Taiwan in the 1990’s and you want to be a beer brewer. You don’t only want to be a brewer, you need to be a brewer. You could apply for work at the Monopoly Bureau of the Taiwan Governor’s Office, makers of Taiwan’s only beer: the cleverly named “Taiwan Beer.” And if you did not get the job, you have to give up on your dream. Opening your own brewery is not an option. As the name clearly states: there is a state monopoly on beer production in Taiwan.
These two contrasting scenarios illustrate a necessary defect in centralized economies. Vermont, which is a relatively free market, produces some of the very best beers in the world and provides entrepreneurs with the opportunity to follow their dreams. The result is an excellent environment for both brewers and consumers. Taiwan, on the other hand, produces decidedly mediocre beer. And until 2002, the state run brewery was the only game in town. The result was a stifling of creativity for brewers and a lack of choice for consumers.
Dedicated socialist H. G. Wells wrote in his New World Order that collectivism requires a declaration of human rights. “The more socialisation proceeds and the more directive authority is concentrated, the more necessary is an efficient protection of individuals from the impatience of well-meaning or narrow-minded or ruthless officials and indeed from all the possible abuses of advantage that are inevitable under such circumstances to our still childishly wicked breed.” And he is certainly right that the more power the government has, the more dangerous it is to individuals. (Although his solution of “compose a declaration of rights” is, in my opinion, a poor second to the solution of “just don’t give that much power to the government.”)
Wells’ proposed declaration of rights includes economic freedom. “That he [anyone] may engage freely in any lawful occupation, earning such pay as the need for his work and the increment it makes to the common welfare may justify. That he is entitled to paid employment and to a free choice whenever there is any variety of employment open to him. He may suggest employment for himself and have his claim publicly considered, accepted or dismissed.”
But the Taiwan example shows how hollow this freedom is. In a totally centralized economy, there really is no space for the individual to suggest his own employment. The question of which occupations are “lawful” and “open to” the individual is totally loaded. It is the government itself that decides whether the occupations are lawful or open to any given person. Wells may as well have written “he may engage freely in any occupation that the government gives him permission to.” As long as the power is given to the government to make all economic decisions, there is no freedom at all.
Beer of the week: Sip of Sunshine IPA – Lawson’s Finest Liquids is yet another wonderful Vermont brewery. And Sip of Sunshine sure is a treat. This beer is honey-colored and has a decent head. The aroma is bright and fruity. The taste has lots of tropical fruit and citrus notes from the hops and the sweetness of the malt balances it all very nicely. There is a reason that this beer is very sought after; it is delicious.
Reading of the week: The New World Order by H.G. Wells, Chapter: 10 Declaration of the Rights of Men – I think that the above criticism of Wells is valid, if not original. However, this reading does include a number of very good ideas that cannot be as easily discounted.
Question of the week: Is there anywhere in the world that is better for beer right now than Vermont?
Since this blog is partially devoted to writing beer reviews, the following statement may seem hypocritical: I have very little interest in reading reviews. I have no great love for critics. The very first post on this blog acknowledges that criticism is an art form unto itself, but I don’t have a whole lot of interest in reading what somebody else thinks of a movie or book. I will occasionally let a metacritic score dissuade me from watching a film. I do read beer reviews from time to time, mostly to help me identify subtle flavors that I can’t quite put my finger on. But when choosing a book, I usually rely on personal suggestions or the status of the book as a “classic”.
Recently, however, I read a couple pieces of criticism that are classics in their own right, so I am tempted to give them particular weight. The first is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essay A Defence of Poetry and the second is Ben Jonson’s On Bacon. What links these writings is the fact that each heaps praises on Francis Bacon as not only a great thinker, but as a great writer.
Shelley writes of Bacon: “His language has a sweet and majestic rhythm, which satisfies the sense, no less than the almost superhuman wisdom of his philosophy satisfies the intellect; it is a strain which distends, and then bursts the circumference of the reader’s mind, and pours itself forth together with it into the universal element with which it has perpetual sympathy.” In so many words, Bacon’s writing and philosophy are both mind-blowingly good.
Jonson writes that “No man ever spake more neatly, more presly, more weightily, or suffered less emptiness, less idleness, in what he uttered.” Bacon chose every word perfectly to convey his grand and significant ideas; “His hearers could not cough, or look aside from him, without loss.”
I have never seen Bacon as a poet, although I have read a fair bit of his writing. In fact, two of his essays have been readings on this blog. Perhaps I was so engrossed in Bacon’s ideas that I paid little attention to his writing style. That two of the most influential English poets of all time regard Bacon as a master of the language makes me think that I really should revisit his writing.
Beer of the week: Heady Topper Double IPA – Speaking of rave reviews, Heady Topper may be the highest rated beer in the world. And it’s reputation is nearly matched by its rarity. The Alchemist Brewing Company has limited distribution to a small area around the brewery in Vermont, so this beer is impossible to get unless you visit that area, buy illegally second-hand, or have a Vermonter friend. (Thanks, Ben!) Additionally, it is worth noting that the can has “DRINK FROM THE CAN!” printed across the top. The brewers have determined that this beer is best when consumed straight from the can because the essential hops oils do not have a chance to dissipate. I defer to their expertise on the subject and eschew glassware.
The smell is restricted by the can, but notes of orange and plenty of herby hops come through the opening. The hops do not hit the tongue right away, but their flavor unfolds slowly and leaves a delicious tingle on the tongue. Whether this (or any) beer can possibly live up to all the hype surrounding Heady Topper, this beer certainly is great.
Reading of the week: On Bacon by Ben Jonson – Jonson’s appraisal of Bacon as “the acme of our language” is perhaps more interesting than Shelley’s since Jonson and Bacon were contemporary. In fact, they were more than that; they were friends. Johnson helped Bacon with translations and Bacon supposedly called Jonson “my man, John.”
Question of the week: I acknowledge that I am often at fault for making appeals to authority. But is there not reason to think that most works that have survived through the ages have done so (at least in part) because of their quality?