Monthly Archives: August 2014

Reading Col. James Smith, Christian Wiman, and an Anonymous Icelander


Remarkable Occurrences in the Life of Colonel James Smith, James Smith

James Smith was a young American colonial soldier captured by a band of French-allied Iroquois at the beginning of the French and Indian War, about 1755. After being made to run the gauntlet and recovering from his wounds at Fort Duquesne, he was adopted by a native family in place of a deceased relative. (The initiation ceremony involved a sort of baptism as well as having nose and ears pierced and most of his hair pulled out.) He lived with them for four years, hunting and traveling from the shore of Lake Erie south to the Ohio River and as far west as Detroit. Smith’s captivity narrative, recommended by Francis Parkman in Montcalm and Wolfe, is a fascinating document not only for the unexpected view it provides of the war or for Smith’s tales of winter endurance, but also for its description of native life and Smith’s growing sympathy for his new “family.” Over the course of a couple years he develops a remarkable relationship with a much older adopted brother, Tecaughretanego, who was almost a sort of Native American Socrates. Smith’s remembered conversations with him are the best part of the book. This title is long out of print but you can read it online here.


My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman

In case you overlooked it in every review written for this book – or missed it when Wiman himself mentions it in his first paragraph – the author is a poet. He’s also the former editor of Poetry magazine. If, like me, you believe that no decent poetry is being written these days, this book is not likely to change your mind. On the other hand, the author (who is suffering from a rare form of cancer and has all my sympathy) is a thoughtful person, and well-read, and writes prose that is sometimes lovely. And frankly it’s a pleasure to see questions of religion and faith addressed at all intelligently. Nonetheless, I have to admit that when the author quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s statement that “there are things more important than self-knowledge,” I can’t help wondering if Wiman has really taken this lesson to heart. (To be fair, I’m not sure I have either, but I don’t go around quoting Bonhoeffer). This book, after all, is to a degree an exercise in Wiman’s own striving for self-knowledge after receiving a grave medical diagnosis in early midlife. It stumbles, I think, in certain passages which unwittingly reveal a sensibility too preciously jealous of any faint shudder that passes through the soul of its author.


Njal’s Saga

In the modern era most generations of most families tend to pass their time in unremarkable ways. We’re born. We go to school. We work. We marry and maybe have children or even grandchildren. Then we die. Along the way we move house two or three times and take up a hobby. You are likely to be disappointed in reviewing the list of your known ancestors if you want to discover evidence of blood feuds, rapine, piracy, and superior skills in hand-to-hand combat involving axes and halberds. If we’re to believe the sagas, however, life was almost entirely composed of these activities for the early Icelanders. I’ve read only two of the sagas so far, the Laxdaela Saga and now Njal’s Saga. The former is brief and fairly tight. The latter is richer and better, but sprawling and exhausting. How many decapitations are too many? How many severed limbs or spines? How many curses and oaths? How many impromptu versifyings from the ghostly dead? It’s all very exciting but it’s also enough to make you grateful for an unremarkable life of peace and quiet.

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Marginalia, no.338

Her fortitude was perfect in bearing the sufferings of others and defying dangers that could not touch her.

~ Francis Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe

Kings and their concubines (Parkman refers to Madame de Pompadour) are no different from the rest of us in this regard. What a burden we find it to see precisely what needs to be done only when it’s impossible or ridiculous that we should do it ourselves.

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Notes toward a Philosophy of Camping

Clouds over Dog Lake in Yosemite National Park, August 2014One of the hallmarks of western civilization’s present decadence is the reemergence as leisure activities of things which had previously been counted among life’s unpleasant and often dire necessities. It is only when running is no longer necessary to escape death at the hands of hostile tribes or hungry wolves that people take up jogging for pleasure. Likewise, it’s only after the frontier is closed or the war over and living under canvas without beds or plumbing is no longer required that people take up camping.

Camping as a recreational pursuit seems to have got its start in the nineteenth century. I wonder if the first camper’s friends thought him crazy when he marched out of his gate to pitch his tent in the wilderness. No doubt he was a crusty old pioneer who found the country a virgin when he first settled her but had taken offense at subsequent harlotries as neighbors and government and the railroad moved in. He wanted simplicity, a minimally encumbered relationship to the elements, a reprise of his first encounter with the untrammeled wild. He probably wanted most of all to look out in the morning and not see his neighbor Johnson watering his roses across the street and humming like a goddamned idiot.

I’ve been a tent camper all my life and I’ve put my children into the same habit. Once or twice each summer we drag the camping gear out from storage: the tent, the sleeping bags, the lantern, the axe, the folding military shovel, the tarp and ropes, the Coleman stove, the kettle and the speckled blue enamelware cups and plates, everything musty and soiled and stinking of adventure. Here in Northern California camping generally means an eastward trek to the Sierra Nevada. More specifically for our family it means a trip to the back country of Yosemite National Park – not the postcard corners of the park but the higher mountains where oxygen gets scarce, the weather is unpredictable, and the people are few.

In Roughing It Mark Twain writes of camping in another corner of the Sierra Nevada: “Three months of camp life on Lake Tahoe would restore an Egyptian mummy to his pristine vigor, and give him the appetite of an alligator. I do not mean the oldest and driest mummies, of course, but the fresher ones.” A single week achieves a similar miracle in me. A week of no mobile phone reception, of no television, no computers, no news of any kind. A week of evening fires, starry nights, bright mornings, simple meals, and of hiking every day with my wife and kids or sitting around with nothing to do but listen to the birds and the wind in the forest.

One evening during this summer’s camping trip we heard a lady park ranger wax philosophical about the wilderness. Why is it, she asked, that we go into the wilderness – like we go into our homes – and not out to the wilderness instead? Perhaps it’s because the wilderness is our natural habitat. We didn’t evolve in cities or in farming communities but as nomads moving across the face of unknown continents, chasing seasons and herds. And for how many hundreds of thousands of years have our ancestors been gathering around fires like this one at night? There’s a human comfort in the halo of light, even while the threatening shadows gather.

In the city I begin to feel like a cranky old man. I’m sick to death of trends, of politics, of work, and of the sensed obligation to be informed about whatever it is that society is making a fuss about at any given moment. In the mountains I become a younger brother of the world again. I am the ephemeral thing, the briefest fad that passes through the trees, unworthy even of notice. The pines and the rocks are practically immortal by comparison to myself. They will be here still, fresh as infants, when my great-grandchildren are dead.

Considered as a voluntary refusal of bathing and electricity, camping may be a sign of decadence from a certain perspective. But heaven to me is not a city with streets paved in gold or a disembodied commingling of essences – it is a particular meadow of the high sierra at ten thousand feet above sea-level where the glaciers dropped their granite boulders only recently and the mossy tundra springs beneath the feet and the clouds pile up like fairytale Himalayas. There, one August day, despite the thinning air, my children in ecstasies of delight netted dozens of little green and blue and orange butterflies.

The shores of Upper Gaylor Lake in Yosemite National Park, August 2014

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Over at The Dabbler today they’ve published a retread of my piece on the current fad among some Americans for genealogical research.

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Maginalia, no.337

Snorri’s father was Thorgrim, son of Thorstein Cod-biter, son of Thorolf Monster-beard, the son of Ornolf Fish-driver. Ari the Learned, however, says that Thorolf was the son of Thorgils Whale-side… Ingjald’s mother was Thora, the daughter of Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye, the son of Ragnar Shaggy-breeches…

~ Njal’s Saga

Depending on who you ask, the most popular name for baby boys in the United States today is Noah, or Liam, or (though it sounds unlikely) Asher. The fourteen-year reign of Jacob – with its dreadful variant, Jake – only recently came to a welcome end. That’s nothing, however. I understand that “Thorolf Monster-beard” held the top spot among boys in medieval Iceland for nearly forty years.


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An old French magazine ad featuring woman in a colorful hat

Neither the smartest nor prettiest among her friends, Claudia managed to outshine everyone with the aid of her new hat.

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Let Us Now Praise Awful Poets

I’ve been camping, hence the radio silence. I wrote the following article for The Dabbler and it was published there a week ago, but I wanted to share it here as well. Enjoy, if you dare.

It is a sad truth not often recognized that the glory days of bad poetry – no less than the glory days of good poetry – are behind us. In the dewy springtime of bad verse a sorry line or a limp sonnet was received with joy. “Dalkey, you know, has written a truly rancid couplet,” you might say to a friend over coffee in 1781, and he would foam at the mouth till able to confirm it for himself. In our own benighted era, the best that Dalkey’s great-grandson can manage to elicit is a shrug or a fart.

The trouble is not that people no longer write poetry. A casual browser of blogs today may be tempted to conclude that the Internet exists primarily to facilitate the distribution of amateur verse. It’s nose-deep in the fervid free-verse emotings of approximately 1.6 billion teenage poetesses and balding, fifty-year-old beta males. But none of them is worth reading. None is sufficiently terrible, or terrible in the right way. Verse published offline suffers the same curse: none of it is especially good, but none of it is bad enough to be anything very special.

The patron saint of awful poets is William Topaz McGonagall, the “Tayside Tragedian,” born in 1825. Stephen Pile in The Book of Heroic Failures writes that McGonagall was “so giftedly bad he backed unwittingly into genius.” Memory of that genius was so pungent and enduring that more than a half century after his death he inspired a bit-character on The Muppet Show. Performances of Angus McGonagle the Argoyle Gargoyle (who “gargled Gershwin”) were about as well received as the real McGonagall’s public recitals, which often closed in a storm of rotten veggies. “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” McGonagall’s most famous poem, opens with these immortal lines:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remembered for a very long time.

Equally winning, in my opinion, is McGonagall’s poem commemorating the premature demise of Queen Victoria’s fourth son, “The Death of Prince Leopold.” A particularly moving stanza reads:

Oh! noble-hearted Leopold, most beautiful to see,
Who was wont to fill your audience’s hearts with glee,
With your charming songs, and lectures against strong drink:
Britain had nothing else to fear, as far as you could think.

Not all connoisseurs of bad poetry appreciate McGonagall. Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee, in their introduction to The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse (1930), distinguish between “bad Bad Verse and good Bad Verse.” McGonagall they exclude as too clearly a producer of the former. The better bad stuff may be the off-day work of poets positively gifted. It may be grammatical and keep its meter. It is typically marked, however, by such qualities as bathos, sentimentality, and unintended humor.

So in The Stuffed Owl we are not surprised to find Wordsworth (“Spade! with which Wilkinson hath tilled his lands”), Henry Vaughan (“How brave a prospect is a bright backside!”), Tennyson (“He suddenly dropt dead of heart-disease”), Leigh Hunt (“Not without virtues was the prince. Who is?”), and Browning (“Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?”). But the work of less familiar names is no less delightful. Christopher Smart (1722-1771), for example, spent years in Bedlam and was devoted to drink and prayer without ceasing but in Book II of his long poem “The Hop-Garden” he offers this bit of sound advice:

When in the bag thy hops the rustic treads,
Let him wear heelless sandals; nor presume
Their fragrancy barefooted to defile…

Meanwhile, John Dyer (1700-1758), whose magnum opus, “The Fleece,” was heartily denounced by Dr Johnson, gives us the following iambs on lambs:

Wild rove the flocks, no burdening fleece they bear,
In fervid climes: Nature gives naught in vain.
Carmenian wool on the broad tail alone
Resplendent swells, enormous in its growth:
As the sleek ram from green to green removes,
On aiding wheels his heavy pride he draws,
And glad resigns it to the hatter’s use.

Another poet with a gift for untrod subject matter was Samuel Carter, who published a volume of verse titled Midnight Effusions in 1848. In a poem titled “London” he praises the metropolitan sewer system:

Magnificent, too, is the system of drains,
Exceeding the far-spoken wonders of old:
So lengthen’d and vast in its branches and chains,
That labyrinths pass like a tale that is told:
The sewers gigantic, like multiplied veins,
Beneath the whole city their windings unfold…

Though not included in The Stuffed Owl, it turns out that Frederic the Great of Prussia – “Der Alte Fritz,” his soldiers called him – was a backward student of the muse as well. In Francis Parkman’s Montcalm and Wolfe (a history of the Seven Year’s War), we learn that “surrounded by enemies, in the jaws of destruction, hoping for little but to die in battle, this strange hero solaced himself with an exhaustless effusion of bad verse.” I’ve looked in vain for some of Old Fritz’s stuff in English translation but all I could find was a scrap of erotica (“Everything that speaks to eyes and touches hearts / Was found in the fond object that inflamed his parts”).

But I like this notion, in Parkman’s quote, of turning to bad poetry for solace at one’s failure to die in battle. It contains, I perceive, an accusation against our own weakling age, and a likely explanation for the decay of bad verse. Unfortunately, you see, no one nurses the ambition to die in battle anymore. Hence no one finds himself in need of solace on discovering at the end of the day that he has, yet again, failed to do so. And hence it also follows – o tempora! o mores! – that no one really gives it the old college try when it comes to writing bad poetry.

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