Archive for the 'Books' Category

Books briefly noted: plays

May 19, 2023

Quick notes today on a few plays I have read recently.


The Acharnians
Translated from the Greek by Paul Roche
(New American, 2005) [425 BC]
62 p.

The Acharnians was not Aristophanes’ first comedy, but it is the earliest that we have. It won first prize at the Lenaean Festival in 425 BC, when the playwright was about twenty years old. It helps to understand the context: Athens was a half-dozen years into the war against Sparta, and each summer the Spartan army was marching into Attica and attempting to destroy the crops; people fled to the safety of the walls of Athens. In the play, Dikaiopolis, grown weary of the war and its hardships, and frustrated with the hawkishness of the Athenian Council, decides to make a private peace with the Spartans, just for himself and his family, so that he can open up trade in the marketplace and have nice things again. A pretty good premise, but Aristophanian humour must be hard to capture in translation, because I had little more enjoyment from this play than I’ve had with other of his plays in the past: mildly amusing, yes, but not much more. The play felt unstructured, the verse awkward, and I had a hard time imagining how the jokes would land successfully.


The Changeling
Thomas Middleton
and William Rowley

(Oxford, 2007) [1622]
50 p.

This play, a collaborative venture between Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, has earned a good reputation, with a relatively large number of revivals and adaptations in its wake. The story is about a woman who finds herself at the center of a love quadrangle: she is promised in marriage to a man she does not love, beset by advances from a man she despises, and unable to pursue marriage with the man she does love, and who loves her in return.

To untie this knot, she hits on a plan which she hopes will rid her of both unwanted suitors in one fell swoop. But, this being a Jacobean tragedy, the plan goes disastrously awry. It is worth noting, however, that it doesn’t go as totally awry as it might have; in time bodies do litter the stage, but not everyone’s body.

It seems a good play, but it didn’t appeal to me as some other of Middleton’s plays have. I appreciated the set-up, and the central characters are interesting, but I found some of the plot elements, such as a peculiar elixir to be administered to suspect wives by doubtful husbands, a tad bizarre, and a confusing subplot involving an entirely different cast of characters played for me as mere distraction. Maybe I just failed to grasp what Middleton and Rowley were up to. I confess I don’t understand the play’s title.


The Purgatory of St. Patrick
Pedro Calderón de la Barca
Translated from the Spanish by Denis Florence MacCarthy
(Henry S. King & Co., 1873) [before 1635]

Since medieval times there has been a pilgrimage site in the north of Ireland near Lough Derg called St Patrick’s Purgatory. I picked up this play thinking it would be about the site, and I was right. The pilgrimage site became such because it was believed that St Patrick revealed, on that spot, a cave through which one could pass to Purgatory. The play tells the story of how this came about.

In the first Act, Patrick and a criminal called Luis Enius come to Ireland, the former as a slave and the latter as a fugitive. The Irish people are pagans. In the second Act, Patrick performs miracles and reveals the entrance to Purgatory. In the last Act, many years later, Patrick has died and Luis, passing into Purgatory, goes on a Dante-esque journey through the afterlife that results in his conversion.

The robust Catholic piety of the play was pleasing to me; we English speakers are just not used to this in our theatre, but this Spanish playwright, at least, had no compunction about foregrounding religious matters on his stage. The third Act odyssey through the afterlife is quite imaginatively done.

That said, the play is not very good; certainly it is much inferior to the other of Calderón’s plays that I have read recently. The first Act is thrown off balance by a pair of monstrously oversized monologues from Patrick and Luis. The action of the play develops in a haphazard manner, without a clear logic and without character motivation. The characters themselves are thin. The whole thing seemed to lurch from scene to scene without much at stake.

As to the verse, it’s hard for me to say. The 1873 translation — the only one, so far, into English, I believe — makes a valiant effort to be true to Calderón’s metre and rhyme, but I didn’t find much music in it. Late in the play one of the characters exclaims, “Oh! who that’s not insane / Will enter Patrick’s Purgatory again?”, and while I wouldn’t pose the question in just that way, my answer is very likely, and regrettably, “Not I”.

Maritain: Art and Scholasticism

May 11, 2023

Art and Scholasticism
Jacques Maritain
(Scribner’s, 1930) [1923]
177 p.

Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world…

— von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: a Theological Aesthetics, Vol. 1

Not many philosophers, I think, have written convincingly and insightfully about aesthetics. As Balthasar says above, it’s a slippery topic that seems to resist analysis. The ancient world may, as he says, have refused to understand itself apart from beauty, but nonetheless medieval philosophers said more, and more systematically, about truth and goodness. In this book Jacques Maritain gathers up the stray statements about beauty and art to be found in the scholastics, and especially in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, and puts them into order, thereby sketching for us a basic framework for thinking about art, the making of art, and the place of beauty and morality in artistic appreciation.


Art has to do with the practical, rather than the speculative, order. It is not focused simply on truth, as is (say) logic or theology. The practical order has to do with doing and making; doing concerns prudence and ethics and the good of the person acting, but making has to do with the good of the thing made. Art has to do with making.

Art, here, is being treated in its widest connotation: something made. It might be a stool or a Missa Solemnis. The particular distinction that makes something a “fine art” will be discussed below.

Because art as such aims at the excellence of the thing made, it goes astray if it aims at anything else. It may evoke emotion, but it must not aim at doing so. It may earn the artist a living, but that cannot be its purpose. It may give pleasure, but that cannot be its primary aim. It may edify or instruct, but its artistic excellence does not consist in this. It may effect change in the world, but it cannot be made for that reason. Just as a scientist’s intention is only to present his audience with what is true, so the artist must aim only at what is well-made.

Maritain has much to say about the qualities and characteristics of an artist. Following the scholastics, he argues that an artist is someone who possesses the habitus of art. This habitus is a somewhat difficult word; it is not “habit” in the modern sense of something rote and unthinking, for habitus involves intellect and will. It is, he says, a characteristic of the soul that enables a person to do a thing readily and naturally. It is a stable disposition that perfects a faculty of the one possessing it; the habitus of art enables the person to make art naturally, as a capacity of soul. A habitus is a capacity that is realized in a person. The habitus of art involves the intellect inasmuch as the formal element in all art is ruled by the intellect, for art as such is the act of investing matter with form, of imprinting an idea onto matter. A master carpenter is one who knows how to make things from wood. He has a sense of what to do in a given situation, what will work, what will lead to an excellent result. He has the habitus of art as it pertains to woodworking. A mathematician has the habitus of mathematics; he has a sense of it, he knows where he is, he slips into the world of his abstractions as easily as a seal into the water. I’m sure you know people like this, who have a habitus of some kind.

Some habitus can be used for good or for ill, but a habitus that can only do good is what we call a virtue. Justice and courage are virtues. Art, as Maritain means it, is such a habitus. To have it means to have the capacity to make good things.

Art is the investment of matter with form, and as such is addressed to the intellect. Even so, art does not give knowledge but delight (although greater knowledge increases the possibility of delight, which is why there is such a thing as educated or well-formed taste and judgment). Art does not give us an “idea”; a work of art cannot be boiled down to “the point” or “the lesson”. A work of art is what it is precisely because that is the form in which it can be expressed; it cannot be expressed as an idea. “It expresses what our ideas cannot signify.” Art is the one realm in which we know things intuitively and immediately, as angels do, though we know them through our senses rather than (as with angels) abstractly.

God Himself is a maker, and so an artist, and possesses the virtue of art preeminently. God’s love is the cause of beauty, whereas for us beauty is the cause of love. Because beauty involves perception of form, it can be seen more readily by those who know that things have a Creator.

The scholastics did not stress the distinction between the fine arts and other kinds of making. (They distinguished liberal from servile arts, but the division is not the same.) Nonetheless, the distinction between fine arts and other arts is present in their thought: an art is a fine art when it is ordered to beauty as its end, rather than to some other purpose. A shoemaker’s primary purpose is to make good shoes, and making handsome good shoes is part of that purpose but not the whole of it. A chef’s primary purpose is to make an excellent dish, drawing on the many ways in which a dish can be excellent, and the dish may be beautiful, but that is not its main purpose. But a composer aims to make something beautiful per se. That is the source and summit of his labours. What he makes has no other purpose. Likewise for the other fine arts: what sets them apart is that their beauty is the point of their being.

Apprehension of beauty involves perception of form. Maritain argues that we perceive beauty by way of our senses (and specifically sight and hearing). At the same time he defines beauty, following the scholastics, as “being considered as delighting . . . an intellectual nature”. So when we behold a work of art we are integrating our sensory and intellectual capacities in a particularly pure way.

Note well that “beauty” is a multifaceted thing. To say that the fine arts aim at beauty as their end isn’t to confine them to any narrow or conventional standard of beauty. Maritain stresses that “there is always an infinity of ways of being a beautiful work”. We often hear it said that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, meaning that it is relative. Maritain agrees that it is relative in some ways, but not with respect to the subject (as is the usual meaning of the phrase in our time). Rather, he argues that beauty is truly apprehended by the subject, but that beauty is relative to the end and conception of the thing made. That is, how it is beautiful depends on its form and purpose. The last string quartet of Shostakovich isn’t beautiful in a conventional sense; it’s thorny and difficult and even, by some standards, ugly, but it realizes its form — it is proportionate, it is intelligible, it has an organic unity — and it exists for no other reason than to do just that. To say that all works of fine art are distinguished by having beauty as their end is not to narrow their range of expression, but it is to give them all a certain dignity.


Maritain stresses numerous times that for an artist, the good of the thing being made is the highest concern: excellence above all, a full realization of the conception of the work. The artist cannot be distracted by any other consideration without the work suffering. But this raises the question of how art and morality are related, because the moral excellence of a work of art is distinct, it seems, from its specifically artistic excellence.

In response to this question Maritain makes some important distinctions. Although it is true that the artist as an artist aims only at the good of the work made, this cannot be his highest aim as a human person without leading to idolatry. The artist, as a person, must work for something higher than artistic excellence, and it is here, Maritain thinks, that morality enters the picture, for although the artist as an artist is blind to it, the artist as a human person cannot be:

“Art has no right against God. There is no good opposed to God or the ultimate Good of human life. Art in its own domain is sovereign like wisdom; through its object it is subordinate neither to wisdom nor to prudence nor to any other virtue. But by the subject in which it exists, by man and in man it is subordinate — extrinsically subordinate — to the good of the subject; insofar as it finds itself in man and insofar as the liberty of man makes use of it, it is subordinate to the end of man and to the human virtues.”

Since every human artist is a human being, art is therefore always subject to moral evaluation. As we know it must be. Art may be metaphysically superior to prudence, but in the realm of human action prudence sits in judgment. Beauty and morality are both always relevant to anything made by an artist.

Moral evaluation nonetheless poses certain hazards for art. Art that is too deferential to moral expectations can fail on that account by failing to put the artistic good first. Self-consciously pious religious art and politically correct art are vulnerable to this trap. In another way, even works of great artistic excellence can be unwisely spurned because subjected to the judgment of a narrow, puritanical moral view. The seemingly wholesale rejection of our artistic inheritance from “dead, white males” is the most obvious example of this in our own times.


Given the emphasis Maritain puts on the (conditional) autonomy of art, it’s interesting to read his views on religious art, and specifically (since he was a Christian) on Christian art. This is a realm in which, on the one hand, art may be tempted away from its proper good by allowing pious considerations to overrule artistic ones, yet, on the other hand, it is a realm in which the “foreign” good is actually higher than the artistic, and so, perhaps, able to elevate the art even if it, at some level, interferes with its purity.

Maritain makes a distinction between Christian art and religious art. The first is, for him, any art made by a Christian regardless of its content, whereas the second has to do with art intended for an “officially” religious purpose, such as liturgical art. As to the former — “Christian art” — he argues that it refers to no style or technique, but simply to an implicit or latent expression of a Christian view of things, no matter the immediate subject. “Everything belongs to it, the sacred as well as the profane. It is at home wherever the ingenuity and the joy of man extend.” Christianity affects the Christian’s experience of the world in a way that is distinctive and affects his art, for it gives him “simplicity, the peace of awe and of love, [and] the innocence which renders matter docile to men and fraternal”. He finds Christian art wherever a Christian makes art truly and honestly. Like Augustine whose moral counsel was “Love God above all things, and then do as you will”, Maritain’s advice to Christian artists is, “Be a Christian, and simply try to make a beautiful work.”

Religious art, on the other hand, serves a solemn and, at some level, official purpose within a religious tradition. Maritain lays out a few requirements that he thinks such art must satisfy. First, it must be comprehensible by the other adherents of the tradition. The comprehension and appreciation need not be universal, of course, since, as he says, “there are an infinite number of Christians with bad taste”, but it should present itself as intelligible and appropriate by some reasonable standard. Second, it must be well-made, proper, and honest; nothing shabby or substandard should be acceptable in worship. Third, it must be dependent on and deferential to theology; it must be vigilant against doctrinal distortions and against sowing discord or confusion among the faithful. Finally, it should be religious in expression, touched in some way by piety and devotion.

With these criteria in mind, it’s interesting to think of some test cases. The heritage of Gregorian chant, for instance, would be an archetypal example of religious art. We could say with confidence, I think, that Michelangelo’s Last Judgment would qualify. What about one of Vaughan Williams’ hymns? I think so, but is there some friction on the fourth criterion because Vaughan Williams was an agnostic? I hope not. In the last few centuries much Catholic art has fallen under the baleful influence of kitsch, and so fails on the criterion of being well-made, perhaps. (Think of all those images of Divine Mercy.) The dismal parade of folksy music that has displaced the chant since Vatican II fails resoundingly. Maritain thought, in his time, that he could discern “the regermination of a truly Christian art,” and he — and this book — were an influence on, inter alia, Stravinsky, Claudel, and other major artists, but that regermination seems to have fallen afoul of one or more of the hazards outlined in the parable of the sower. Not that we are entirely without hope.


It is a stimulating book, rich in ideas. Although it feels in some respects a little “academic” as he rolls out distinctions between speculative and practical, prudential and artistic, servile and liberal, and so on, I suppose a book about scholastics should be expected to be academic, if etymologists are onto something. I appreciated the wide net; many of his statements about art apply as much to the carpenter as the composer. There is a healthy appreciation that art can serve practical purposes, or, put the other way around, that useful, everyday things can, and should, nonetheless be works of art.

The doctrine that fine arts are those that aim at beauty as their primary end has something to it, but it is important, I think, that it be coupled with an expansive idea of beauty; Maritain is careful about this, but it’s the kind of point that might be easily forgotten or oversimplified. I’m also curious about what doesn’t qualify as a fine art under this definition. I wonder, for instance, if narrative arts, like storytelling (on paper or film) are aiming at beauty in the relevant sense. Maritain doesn’t seem to think much of literature, saying at one point that “Literature puts on the work the grimace of personality.. Literature is to art as self-conceit is to the moral life,” which strikes me as harsh. But then he turns around and says that, “Poetry…is to art what grace is to the moral life,” so the written word isn’t entirely excluded from the tent.

Also worthwhile is the framework for thinking about art and morality. We understand that the proper good of a work of art is not a moral one, but also that art cannot be somehow outside the realm of moral evaluation. The series of distinctions he makes provides a way to retain both sides of the issue and understand how they relate.

The book was, I believe, influential in the early twentieth century. Wikipedia cites a scholar who claims the book “was a key text that guided the work of writers such as Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Francois Mauriac, Thomas Merton, John Howard Griffin, Flannery O’Connor and T.S. Eliot.” A good list. It also does the valuable service of pulling together St. Thomas’ thoughts on aesthetics and putting them in some kind of order. Still, one wishes that the master might have done it himself!


[Art and love]
The artist has to love, he has to love what he is making, so that his virtue may truly be, in Saint Augustine’s words, ordo amoris, so that beauty may become connatural to him… This undeviating love is the supreme rule.

[On Satie]
Never any sorcery, repetitions [what, never?!? — Ed.], suspicious caresses, fevers, or miasmas. Never does Satie ‘stir the pool’. It is the poetry of childhood relived by a master technician.

[Intelligence and reality]
The intellect…seizes being and draws it into itself — it eats being and drinks being — so as “itself to become, in a certain fashion, all things. […] Like a stag at the gushing spring, intelligence has nothing to do but drink; it drinks the clarity of being.

[The medieval period]
Matchless epoch, in which an ingenuous people was formed in beauty without even realizing it.

Fisher: What is Dark Matter?

May 8, 2023

What is Dark Matter?
Peter Fisher
(Princeton, 2022)
179 p.

As Sherlock Holmes might have said, it pays to make careful observations. Astrophysicists and cosmologists would seem to be working with a significant handicap — the object of their study cannot be reproduced in the laboratory, cannot be touched, cannot be experimented upon. It can only be looked at. Nevertheless, over the past century they have made very careful observations of the heavens, and have delivered a whole series of startling discoveries: there are black holes, there are neutron stars, there are supernovas, the universe had a beginning!

But perhaps the strangest and most unexpected of their findings has been that the stuff we observe in the universe accounts for only a small fraction — about 5% — of the stuff that exists out there. The rest, which we don’t see, astrophysicists call “dark”, and it comes in two species: dark energy, and dark matter. The latter, which is believed to account for about 25% of the mass of the stuff in the universe, is the subject of this book.

The reason we think there is any dark matter is that the gravitational effects we observe are not consistent with the amount of matter we observe, assuming the correctness of Newtonian gravity. Fisher outlines the main lines of evidence: galactic rotation curves (stars in galaxies rotate about the center faster than we expect, and extra gravitating matter is needed to hold the galaxy together), gravitational dynamics of galactic clusters, dynamics of galaxy formation, gravitational lensing, the history of the Bullet Cluster, and the fluctuations of the cosmic microwave background. All point to the existence of something that has gravitational influence but is unseen. The picture that emerges is that galaxies seem to be “shadowed” by a sphere of material that is substantially (ie. 3-4x) greater in extent than the visible matter. It is not dense — at our location in the Milky Way, for example, the expectation is that dark matter contributes the equivalent of a few proton masses per cubic centimeter — but there is so much of it that it makes a difference on the large scale.

The inference to dark matter depends on our trust in the correctness of Newtonian gravity on large distance scales. When I was in graduate school I was friendly toward the idea that modifications to gravity could account for the observations without the need to introduce dark matter. Fisher argues that this possibility has been almost entirely excluded in the intervening years. It seems we’re stuck with dark matter.


So what is it? In the early days people thought it might be ordinary matter that just happens to be non-luminous: failed stars, white dwarfs, planetary bodies, interstellar gas. When the neutrino was found to have a small mass it was a candidate for dark matter. Black holes made by earlier generations of supernovae were candidates. But, as Fisher describes, these possibilities have, one by one, been eliminated. Dark matter is not anything we already know about. It’s something new.

Today there are, according to Fisher, three main candidates for dark matter. The first is that it might be primordial black holes; these are small black holes that might have been formed in the very early universe and have not yet radiated away. Their mass range is bounded by data from both below and above. They would be sub-microscopic, having masses in the vicinity of a large asteroid, and would be extremely difficult to detect by any known method. We don’t know if such black holes exist.

A second candidate is what physicists call a WIMP — a weakly interacting massive particle. It’s a pretty generic name, but actually we can say quite a lot about what properties it would need to have, and part of the joy of reading this book is to learn of the very creative and heroically sensitive experimental apparatus’ that have been designed and built to detect them. WIMP detectors are trying to measure recoil of atomic nuclei in the apparatus due to collision with a WIMP. Perhaps my favourite of these experiments is DAMA/LIBRA, which attempts to measure the dark matter “wind” that we would experience if the earth moved through a background of dark matter. Because the earth reverses its direction of motion every six months (during its orbit around the sun), they look for a seasonal variation in their signal, and, to my astonishment, they observe one! I like this experiment not only because it shows a signal (which none of the others have), but because it is so reminiscent of the classic Michelson-Morley interferometer experiment in the late nineteenth-century. It’s quite beautiful. But physicists are generally cautious in interpreting data, and until another experiment can reproduce their findings, there is still a possibility that their signal is due to seasonal systematic errors caused, for instance, by temperature changes in their electronics, or some other hard to identify cause. WIMP searches have been able to put upper limits on the possible masses and interaction strengths of WIMPS with ordinary matter.

The third option for dark matter is a new kind of particle called an axion. Axions were actually invented for another purpose — to account for a peculiar observed feature of our theory of quantum chromodynamics — but it was later realized that, if they exist, they could be dark matter. They would have to have a mass roughly a million billion times less than a proton. Again, a set of fascinating and creative experiments, which Fisher describes, have been done to look for axions, and the lack of success has put upper limits on their masses and interaction strengths with ordinary matter.

Whatever dark matter is, we now know that its probability of interacting with ordinary matter is extremely low. Neutrinos used to be the extreme example of a weakly interacting particle, but the interaction strength of dark matter must be many orders of magnitude smaller. Indeed, the interaction strength is so small that a depressing possibility broods over all efforts to search for dark matter: the interaction strength with ordinary matter might be exactly zero. In that case — the so-called “nightmare scenario” — we will never be able to build an experiment to detect it, and our only hope for studying it would be through its gravitational effects.


I hadn’t been following developments in dark matter research since I finished graduate school, and this was an excellent way to catch up. The book is written in a non-technical, no-nonsense style, and I found it accessible and informative. It’s a little discouraging for me to learn that dark matter actually does, it seems, exist, as I never much liked the idea, but, on the other hand, it was a pleasure to read about the sometimes incredible ingenuity of experimentalists, who are undaunted by even the most formidable technical challenges. An edifying read.

Nero Wolfe, contemplative

May 4, 2023

In his little book Take and Read, Eugene Peterson proposes a surprising but, on reflection, intriguing interpretation of the character of Nero Wolfe in Rex Stout’s novels. I’ve long loved Wolfe as a character — he is, by a good margin, my favourite literary detective — and this way of thinking about him, while perhaps a little idiosyncratic, has enriched my appreciation. I cite Peterson’s comments in their entirety, recommending, at the same time, the book from which they come.


Nero Wolfe, the fat detective featured in the numerous Rex Stout murder mysteries, is not a clergyman, but for 30 years I have amused myself and some of my friends by reading him as a parable of the Christian contemplative presence in the world. The popular imagination, told by contemporaneity, sees nothing in the Nero Wolfe stories but detection. But Stout has written a body of work every bit as theologically perspicuous as Swift with the result that he hits the bestseller list as a clever and resourceful detective novelist. To his financial benefit, of course, but still, for a serious writer to be misunderstood so completely must be humiliating no matter what the bank balance. But once the theological intent is suggested, the barest sleuthing quickly discerns Nero Wolfe as a type of the Church’s presence in the world.

The most evident thing about him, his body, provides an analogue to the Church. His vast bulk is evidence of his “weight,“ recalling the etymology of the biblical “glory.“ More than anything else he’s there, visibly. He must be reckoned with. He is corpulent or nothing. And the church is the body of Christ.

Along with an insistence on bodily presence there is a corresponding observation that there is nothing attractive about that body. His body is subject to calumny and jokes. His genius is in his mind and his style. He does not follow on before customers, nor seek “contacts“ (a word, incidentally, that he would never use. He once was found ripping apart a dictionary, page by page, and burning it because it legitimized “contact“ as a transitive verb).

Wolfe will not leave his house on business, that is, accommodate himself to the world’s needs. He is a centre around which the action revolves, the centre of the wheel and meditation, not a centre of power or activity. He provides a paradigm for Christian spirituality that, while reticent and reserved, is there in vast presence when needed. He has no need for advertising techniques or public relations programs. He is there and needed because there is something wrong in the world (murder and other criminal extremes). He models a contemplative life which is not here to be loved, not designed to inspire affection. It is massive, central, important – a genius, in fact. But you don’t have to like it.

In all this there is an implied criticism of a Church that has succumbed to public relations agents who have mounted Christian pulpits to make the church attractive – to personalize her, to sentimentalize her. Wolfe, as Christian ministry, levels a rebuke against that kind of thing. It follows that there is disdain for defensive explanations – a Barthian avoidance of “apologetics“ to a world that seeks assurance of its reliability and effectiveness. To that kind of inquiry he says: “I can give you my word, but I know what it’s worth and you don’t.“ The spiritual life is cheapened when it tries to defend itself or make itself acceptable in terms the world can understand.

Early Tom Stoppard plays

May 1, 2023

A few months ago I was at a second-hand book sale, and, rummaging around in a box under one of the tables, I discovered a large collection of Tom Stoppard’s plays in, mostly, first edition Faber & Faber paperbacks. Stoppard is one of the few modern playwrights whom I admire — and, to be fair, one of the few whom I know about — but most of the plays I discovered in that box were unknown to me. Over the next few months I plan to read through them, posting occasional notes here.

Not all of his plays were in that box, so, because I’m the type that likes to be orderly and systematic, today I’m backing up to the very beginning, or as close as I know how to get, and reading a few plays that I’ve tracked down in the meantime.


The Dissolution of Dominic Boot

This brief (quarter-hour) radio play was one of the first things Tom Stoppard did; it played on BBC radio a few years before he splashed into the theatre scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. It’s a fun little piece in which we follow a young man, hard up for cash, who rides a taxi from bank to bank, and then from friend to friend, trying to gather together enough money to . . . pay for the taxi. The more doors slam in his face, the higher his fare gets, until, at play’s end, he’s bartering away his last belongings to the cabby himself. It’s well-sculpted, riding a natural slope of escalation as the debt hole deepens with each passing mile. I read the play, and also listened to the archival BBC recording from 1964.


‘M’ is for Moon Amongst Other Things

Another short radio play originally broadcast on the BBC in 1964, this one is more sober and poignant than The Dissolution of Dominic Boot, though not without an undercurrent of humour. A middle-aged couple, one contemplating her fast-approaching forty-second-and-a-half birthday, the other wrapped up in his newspaper and worries about work, turn on the evening news to hear that Marilyn Monroe has committed suicide, which news provokes in her more anxiety about mortality and in him strange expressions of affection for Marilyn, all the more inappropriate inasmuch as he seems unable to give his wife adequate attention and love. Some good comedy about Catholics eating fish on Friday, alas!


A Separate Peace

In the middle of the night a middle-aged man, amiable and apparently perfectly healthy, steps into a hospital ward and announces that he intends to stay. He won’t say where he comes from, but he has a large suitcase full of cash to pay for his keep. The staff, naturally, doesn’t know what to do with him. Beds are available; why mayn’t a healthy man occupy one? He likes the regularity of the schedule; he likes being able to stay in bed without feeling guilty about it — where else but in a hospital?

The point is not breakfast in bed, but breakfast in bed without guilt — if you’re not ill. Lunch in bed is more difficult, even for the rich. It’s not any more expensive, but the disapproval is harder to ignore. To stay in bed for tea is almost impossible in decent society, and not to get up at all would probably bring in the authorities. But in a hospital it’s not only understood — it’s expected. That’s the beauty of it.

Such is the setup for this short play, which I believe was written for television, and was broadcast on the BBC in August 1966, the same month in which Rosencrantz premiered. It’s an enjoyable little piece — I’d estimate that it probably ran about half an hour in performance? — that might, given the premise, have become an absurdist comedy à la Beckett, or a sober meditation à la Mann, but instead became a winsome, recognizably Stoppardian, marriage of wit and human warmth.

To my knowledge the original television broadcast has not been archived, or at least is not available to the public, but the play has been reprinted in Volume 3 of Faber and Faber’s edition of Stoppard’s complete plays.

Books briefly noted: crime and detection

April 24, 2023

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Robert Louis Stevenson
(Penguin, 1996) [1886]
98 p. Second reading.

It had been many years since I last read this famous story, but, after recently watching an early film adaptation, I thought it would be good to revisit the original. I was right. It’s a very good tale, written in Stevenson’s customary sturdy prose with his usual sound instincts. I had forgotten how he tells the story mostly through the eyes of third parties, such that we don’t know who Hyde is, nor understand his relationship to Jekyll, until the end. It’s a structure that obviously would have worked especially well for first-time readers, but I found my foreknowledge didn’t greatly impair my enjoyment.

The story bears a thematic relationship to other tales of scientific hubris, especially Frankenstein, and I expect it stands in the ancestry of the stories of H.G. Wells and later science-horror tales. I have at times recalled the story mainly as one of science spun out of control, with Jekyll split from Hyde in a way that he cannot prevent. And, indeed, it does come to that eventually, but it doesn’t start that way: in the beginning, Jekyll explicitly plans to shelter behind Hyde in order to enjoy illicit pleasures that he, on account of reputation, is reluctant to grant to himself:

I next drew up that will to which you so much objected; so that if anything befell me in the person of Dr. Jekyll, I could enter on that of Edward Hyde without pecuniary loss. And thus fortified, as I supposed, on every side, I began to profit by the strange immunities of my position.

At one point, Hyde is described as being “pure evil”, a description we can charitably temper — Stevenson, for all his merits, clearly didn’t know his Aquinas. The moral heart of the story is the judgment that Hyde’s wickedness proceeded from his selfishness and hedonism:

This familiar that I called out of my own soul, and sent forth alone to do his good pleasure, was a being inherently malign and villainous; his every act and thought centered on self; drinking pleasure with bestial avidity from any degree of torture to another; relentless like a man of stone.

We might be tempted — again, with Aquinas in mind — to put the root of the evil further back, in Jekyll’s own pride: in his achievements, his intellectual daring, his station in life, all of which are pertinent to his undertaking the series of experiments that produced Hyde in the first place.

He does eventually lose control, of course, as the shadow marshals strength and eventually consumes the original. In a closing reflection, Jekyll abstracts from the uniqueness of his situation and applies his predicament to the soul of each reader, and rightly so:

Strange as my circumstances were, the terms of this debate are as old and commonplace as man; much the same inducements and alarms cast the die for any tempted and trembling sinner; and it fell out with me, as it falls with so vast a majority of my fellows, that I chose the better part and was found wanting in the strength to keep to it.


In the Best Families
Rex Stout
(Viking, 1950)
246 p.

I had been away from Nero Wolfe for a few years — I’d have said 5 or 6, but, on checking, actually nearly 15! — and I’d been missing him. This, it turns out, was a peculiar book with which to attempt a reunion because its chief feature is that Nero Wolfe isn’t in it — mostly. This is Archie Goodwin’s book — mostly. I discovered early on, however, that I’d been missing Archie too, and read in a state of happy contentment.

My memory of the Nero Wolfe novels is that they are basically upbeat and genial; that’s Archie’s personality, and he’s always our narrator. The mysteries that Wolfe is asked to solve are, if memory serves, usually matters of life and death, of course, but not all that serious. We know how it will turn out, and the twists and turns of the story occur under a benign light that lets the characters, especially Wolfe, stand forth in greater splendour, upstaging the story in a pleasing way. But this novel, in which Wolfe is absent — mostly — surprised me with its dark tone, its complicated subterfuges and double-crossings, its sense of danger. It is almost as though Stout were writing a real hard-boiled noir. Almost. But I should have anticipated that in the end Wolfe, with Fritz in the kitchen, wouldn’t put up with anything being actually hard-boiled.


The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Arthur Conan Doyle
(Castle, 2009) [1892]
188 p.

After publishing a few Sherlock novels, Conan Doyle turned to short stories. This, the first collection of such stories, contains tales published in The Strand during 1891-92.

In a sense, there’s not much to say about them; the format is so familiar to us that it seems unremarkable. The perplexing facts of each case are presented to Holmes. He typically focuses on something that seems incidental, or asks a question we would not expect. Sometimes he conducts an investigation of his own. And, in the end, the perplexities are resolved as the true facts are revealed. The Holmes and Watson partnership is still, at this stage, dominated by Holmes, and I wonder if Watson will come into his own in future stories. For now, he’s very much just a sidekick who doesn’t understand things any better than we do, but who writes them down.

It is in one of these stories (“The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet”) that the famous Holmesian maxim re-appears: “…when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” I’m still not sure it makes much sense.

Of these twelve stories, my favourites were “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” in which a precious gem was found inside a turkey, and “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” in which Holmes and Watson uncovered a disturbing and exotic method of murder. I was able to solve one (and a half) of the stories myself.

Calderón: The Mighty Magician

April 20, 2023

The Mighty Magician
Pedro Calderón de la Barca
Translated from the Spanish by Edward Fitzgerald
(MacMillan and Co, 1906) [1637]
72 p.

Dr Faustus meets St Felicity in this delightful and surprising play about a group of early Christians facing persecution.

Set in Antioch sometime in the early centuries of the Church, it introduces us to Cipriano, a scholar who doubts the reality of the pagan gods but is convinced on philosophical grounds that a high God must exist. His contemplations, however, being disturbed by two quarreling students, both rivals for the heart of Justina, a young woman of the town, he offers to mediate between them and her in order to discover which, if any, she will consent to have. Unbeknownst to all of them, Justina is one of the despised Christians.

But a surprise is in store, for Cipriano’s philosophical meditations have disturbed the equanimity of Old Scratch himself.  The first meeting with Lucifer has its amusing aspect:

CIPRIANO. And have you travell’d much?
LUCIFER: Ay, little else,
One may say, since I came into the world
Than going up and down it.

Lucifer goes on to disparage Cipriano’s quest for natural knowledge of God, arguing that mankind

LUCIFER: … having of this undigested heap
Composed a world, must make its Maker too,
Of abstract attributes, of each of which
Still more unsure than of the palpable,
Forthwith he draws to some consistent One
The accumulated ignorance of each
In so compact a plausibility
As light to carry as it was to build.

and tosses in the old adage about religion being the kill-joy of the masses:

… [the gods are] nothing more
Than the mere coinage of our proper brain
To cheat us of our scanty pleasure here
With terror of a harsh account hereafter.

Lucifer knows that Cipriano’s students have been fighting over Justina, and he sees in his forthcoming visit to her a chance to ensnare his soul:

LUCIFER: For I will lend you wings to burn yourself
In the same taper they are singed withal.

Not only that, but he considers that entanglement with Cipriano might give him an entry point to claim Justina, who has thus far proved impervious to his temptations:

Of this detested race would hinder all
From joining in the triumph of my fall
Whom I may hinder; and of these, these twain;
Each other by each other snaring; yea,
Either at once the other’s snare and prey.

(I’d like to pause to admire the verse, which is nicely compact and elegant: “…these, these…”, and “each other by each other”. Although I note with some disapproval that Lucifer is allowed to rhyme, which goes against tradition and all sound reason.)

Sure enough, when Cipriano sees Justina he is smitten, at which Lucifer rejoices:

The shaft has hit the mark; and by the care
Of hellish surgery shall fester there.

The whole of the middle Act is devoted to an epic encounter between Lucifer and Cipriano, in which Satan offers not only the conquest of Justina, but also immense powers over nature if Cipriano will but consent to become his protege and helper.

LUCIFER: What if I make you master at a blow,
Not only of the easy woman’s heart
You now despair of as impregnable,
And wanting but my word to let you in,
But lord of nature’s secret, and the lore
That shall not only with the knowledge, but
Possess you with the very power of him
You sought so far and vainly for before:
So far All-eyes, All-wise, Omnipotent —
If not to fashion, able yet to shake
That which the other took such pains to make.

Cipriano agrees to the bargain, and Lucifer, it seems, is triumphant.

But in the final Act all his plans, and all his empty promises, come unraveled. It begins, naturally enough, with a betrayal: instead of giving Cipriano Justina, as he had promised — he has no power over a pure Christian soul — he presents only a ghostly image of her, whereon Cipriano, invested now with mighty powers of magic, demands that Lucifer reveal what power could subdue him (Lucifer). To Cipriano’s great surprise, the devil confesses that only Jesus Christ has power over him. Cipriano sees what he must do:

CIPRIANO: And all the gods I worship’d heretofore,
And all that you now worship and adore,
From thundering Zeus to cloven-footed Pan,
But lies and idols, by the hand of man
Of brass and stone—fit emblems as they be,
With ears that hear not; eyes that cannot see;
And multitude where only One can be—
From man’s own lewd imagination built.

He returns to Justina, and converts to Christianity just in time to be caught up in a violent uprising against the Christians. Confessing his love to Justina, both he and she march to the scaffold and martyrdom.


There are a number of things that could be said about the play, but the first is that it’s very good. I began reading without any idea of what I would find, and I read in amazement and delight. The devil! A Faustian bargain! A dramatic conversion! I enjoyed every page, and it was over too soon.

Granted, the play may have some problems of balance. Of the three Acts, the first two are set-up, and most of the play’s action is packed into the last. But I, at least, didn’t have the sense from the page that it was moving too fast or abruptly through those last scenes.

It is an overtly Christian play, the first that I have encountered in this survey of early-ish modern drama, which is a little surprising. I’m not sure whether to ask why so many plays were not overtly Christian, or to ask why this one was. Is it a difference between English and Spanish cultures? Protestant and Catholic? Or is it just a peculiarity of Calderón (who, recall, became a priest later in life)? In any case, though it is far too pious to be tolerated by your average theatre company today, there is no reason why modern Christians should not take an interest. It’s the work of a major playwright, and it belongs to us. I’m grateful to have discovered it. Are there more like it?

This particular play has been translated into English more than once. I read a 1906 translation by Edward Fitzgerald, and, as I’ve already suggested, I thought it was outstanding. He translated a group of Calderón’s plays, and I may well read another in the near future.

Herodotus: The Histories

April 17, 2023

The Histories
The Landmark Herodotus
Edited by Robert B. Strassler
(Pantheon, 2007) [c.430 BC]
lxiv + 950 p. Second reading.

Many things could be said about Herodotus’ great history, which ranges widely through Greece and Persia in the century or so leading up to the Greco-Persian wars of the early 5th century BC. It’s a book of anthropology, of politics, of military history, of biography. He was fortunate to have chosen a subject of such great and enduring interest, full of fascinating characters and events.

I think what I most appreciated, on this fairly relaxed revisit, were the anecdotes. Herodotus is full of them, and I imagine he would have been a wonderful after-dinner conversationalist, with his plentiful supply of lore and tales. We get the story of Gyges’ bloody ascent to the throne of Lydia, of Solon’s sage and, as it turned out, life-saving advice to Croesus (“Call no man happy until he is dead.”), and of Polycrates’ ominous good-fortune and his boomeranging ring. There is the story about the Macedonians who dressed up as women to entertain the Persians after dinner, and then slaughtered them while their guard was down. Then there is the gruesome but satisfying tale of the Persian Harpagos, who was commanded to kill the infant Cyrus, didn’t do so, and had his children killed and served to him at dinner for his disloyalty, but who later engineered the downfall of the tyrant who had injured him. The stories about the Persian emperors, Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes, are almost all wonderful: Cyrus, like Oedipus, faced mortal danger as an infant but circled around, by fateful chances, to take the throne; Darius, who, defeated by Athenians, had a slave whose job was simply to stand near him and occasionally say, “Sire, remember the Athenians.”; and Xerxes, who had the sea whipped giving him trouble while crossing the Hellespont. Splendid.

The times call forth the man, the saying goes, and in her hour of peril several great men rose to the challenge in Greece. Foremost among them, of course, was Leonidas, the Spartan king who led the resistance to the Persian advance at Thermopylae; that is among the greatest of the stories Herodotus has for us. I was also greatly impressed by the Athenian Themistocles, who not only showed vision and foresight in promotion of Athenian naval superiority, but who more than once used remarkable cunning to deceive and manipulate the Persians.

Modern accounts of the Greco-Persian wars are legion, but an advantage of going back to Herodotus is that we see what he, and presumably other Greeks of his time, thought were the important details. For him, the divinations and oracles surrounding political and military decisions are at least as important as the niceties of who flanked whom. The Spartans, in particular, despite their military prowess, seemed often to be late or absent when called upon because of some religious or ceremonial scruple that couldn’t be resolved.

Once again, I read the Histories in the “Landmark” edition edited by Robert Strassler. Replete with maps, marginal notes, summaries, timelines, and background essays, it is a triumph in every respect.

Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury

April 10, 2023

The Sound and the Fury
William Faulkner
(Modern Library, 1946) [1929]
320 p.

Of course I knew about Faulkner, as one does. But when I actually sat down with the man I discovered, first, that I didn’t really know him, and, second, that he’s worth knowing, and, third, that he doesn’t make it easy. I expected a story about the South; I expected to encounter, I suppose, a kind of Depression-era amalgam of Cormac McCarthy and Walker Percy. From the former I foresaw a certain casual disregard for the niceties of English grammar and the conventions of written language, and from the latter a bourbon-inflected aristocratic interest in social and personal malaise. And I suppose that he does, in certain ways, meet those expectations, but he’s bigger.

What I did not expect was to find all the hallmarks of high literary modernism bearing down on me from the pen of a man from such a traditional, “backward” part of the world. There is much that I do not know about Faulkner’s literary debts, but I think that Joyce must have been living off the interest. I admit it surprised me.

Thomas Mann, in his early masterpiece Buddenbrooks, chronicled, as he put it, “the decline of a family,” and this is what we have in The Sound and the Fury as well. Or, at least, we have a few slices of that story. The Compsons are an aristocratic family in Mississippi, but their wealth is failing, and a slow process of gentrification is overtaking their once lavish estate. But more than this, the personal failings of the Compsons are their undoing.

There are four children — Jason, Quentin, Caddy, and Benjy. Their mother is sickly, and their father a distant, acerbic figure who usually appears only to hush them or to utter some caustic remark. The children have more to do with the servants — all black, of course — who run the household.

In both structure and style the novel is a formidable challenge. Divided into four sections, each narrated by a different character, and in a distinctive voice, Faulkner gives us numerous points of view from which to consider the family. Each of the sections is labelled with a particular date, but the timeline of the narrative is flagrantly dismissive of this restraint, ranging back and forth through time with a fluidity that defies comprehension. (I am told that Faulkner originally wanted the book published with text in fourteen different colours to reflect the different time periods, but what we got instead was an alternation between italic and roman fonts that seems to have nothing to do with any consistent time mapping.) Three of the sections take place on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday (though not in that order) of 1928; if, like me, you started to look for parallels to the Divine Comedy, I wish you better success than I had.

The manner in which Faulkner tells his story is remarkable. A coherent tale emerges slowly from a thicket of dialogue and description. At the three-quarter mark of the novel I confess I had little idea what was happening, nor where I was to look to find out. But by the end the pieces, enough of them, at least, to make sense of the thing, had fallen into place. I suspect that a second reading, with the overall shape already understood, would be significantly more straightforward than this first.

All the same, he places enough difficulties in the way of our following the “plot” that it’s reasonable to think the plot isn’t the point; he wants us to focus elsewhere. Two good alternatives would be the psychology of the characters, in which we’re immersed throughout, and the relationships between them, which in a real sense constitute the substance of the novel. Family ties are ties that bind, and Faulkner shows us how the actions of certain members of the family radiate out to affect the others. It’s a book about being in community, for better or worse (though mostly for worse). But there’s no alternative; we are all bound up with those around us. Even if we try to cut those ties by some dramatic gesture, the effort fails, for that very act radiates effects of its own.

Faulkner is a very great writer, of course. He is able to give each of the book’s four sections an entirely unique feeling. He has sovereign control, it seems, over grammar, diction, and perspective, and he can use them to create character from the inside. A bad writer certainly could not write like this, but maybe a merely good writer would not, and a great writer sometimes cannot stoop to being merely good. I found one sentence that went on for a half dozen pages. I have a question about the second section of the book, in particular, which is written in a stream of consciousness style that I, at least, found so confusing that it might have been ten times shorter with no loss of effect. If it comes down to attributing faults, and on one side stands The Sound and the Fury and on the other myself, I think I know who’s going to lose, but I’ll go down fighting.

For me, the best sections of the book are the first and the last. In the first, we see the world through Benjy’s eyes; he is mentally deficient, a man-sized child with a “sweet vague gaze”, whose experience of the world is simplified and intensified. From a literary point of view, it’s a remarkable technical achievement in which the rudimentary psychology is expressed in grammatically rudimentary prose, and the result is quite emotionally affecting. The last section, by contrast, is narrated in the third person but focuses on Dilsey, the aged servant who is most responsible for the everyday management of household duties: care of Benjy, cooking, maintenance, and all the little things needed to keep a family home on an even keel. She’s a wonderful character, warm, patient, and, it seems, contented. Somehow she has managed to live many years in the company of this troubled family without losing her soul.

Reading the novel was, in the end, a peculiarly rewarding experience for me. For some not insignificant fraction of the time I was bewildered, and I was occasionally exasperated, but by the time I reached the end, and thought about it, and talked about it with a friend, I realized how much depth and substance there was, despite the fact that, to a good approximation, nothing happens. I’m not clamouring to read another Faulkner novel in the near term, but I am glad to have read this one.

I read it as part of a book and film club in which it was paired with Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. A good match! But that’s a story for another day.

Whitman: Leaves of Grass

April 3, 2023

Leaves o   G   s
Walt Wh   a
(Aventine, 1931) [1855-1889]
580 p., for completists

Listen, I have friends who are Americans. I’ve been to a couple of dozen of the states, and by-and-large I liked being there. I think the American national anthem is wonderful. I like country music, and I don’t dislike baseball.

I did not, however, much like Leaves of Grass, a poem that, all too often, I was tempted to call Leaves of Gas. After dragging myself through nearly half of it, I was in such a sour mood that I thought I had best stop. I leap-frogged through the back half, landing on well-known passages that I had been kinda sorta looking forward to, and now I am, for now, done.

What went wrong? Perhaps I should begin by saying that I did enjoy some of it. Whitman, famously, “contains multitudes,” and he makes much of his ambition to take into himself every man, every woman, all walks of life, and to praise their uniqueness, their variety. He wants to treat them not as the historians do, from the heights, or with attention only to the grand scale, but “treating of him as he is in himself / in his own rights, / Pressing the pulse of life that has seldom exhibited itself”. He is a poet of the common man, sees the dignity of each one, and shows it to us. I respect him for this.

He is a political poet, in the sense that he is a poet of democracy. Not of voting booths and lawn signs, but of the democratic spirit, which I suppose is one important way in which he is a canonical “American” poet. He is so democratic, though, so unwilling to make distinctions between better and worse, so exuberant in his all-embracing delight that he sometimes comes off as positively Nietzschean, praising men in all their works as Nietzsche praised the eagle seizing its prey.

He sings willy-nilly, about almost anything, but at times strikes the really stirring note of joy and camaraderie that warms the heart, and at such times I was able to understand why he might deserve the attention and gratitude of readers:

I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America,
and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,
I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,
By the love of comrades,
By the manly love of comrades.

For you these from me, O Democracy, to serve you ma femme!
For you, for you I am trilling these songs.
(Book V)


Whitman has had a wide influence, and I enjoyed stumbling across passages that I recognized, or that reminded me of something made downstream of him. It seems that there was a group of English composers around the year 1900 who liked Whitman a good deal; I ran across Holst’s text for The Mystic Trumpeter, and Delius’ text for Sea Drift. Vaughan Williams went to Whitman for inspiration quite often: I found texts from his Dona Nobis Pacem, and from Toward an Unknown Region, and of course from his Sea Symphony.

I was occasionally reminded of Bob Dylan, which I suppose is not too surprising. A section like this, for instance, must stand somewhere in the background of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”:

What do you hear Walt Whitman?

I hear the workman singing and the farmer’s wife singing,
I hear in the distance the sounds of children and of animals early
in the day,
I hear emulous shouts of Australians pursuing the wild horse,
I hear the Spanish dance with castanets in the chestnut shade, to
the rebeck and guitar,
I hear continual echoes from the Thames,
I hear fierce French liberty songs,
I hear of the Italian boat-sculler the musical recitative of old poems,
I hear the locusts in Syria as they strike the grain and grass with
the showers of their terrible clouds,
I hear the Coptic refrain toward sundown, pensively falling on the
breast of the black venerable vast mother the Nile,
I hear the chirp of the Mexican muleteer, and the bells of the mule,
(Book VI)


A common objection to Whitman’s poetry in the early days was his earthiness, and his willingness to bring anything and everything into his poems, even things that might best be discreetly veiled. When he announced, on the first page, that “Of physiology from top to toe I sing”, he wasn’t kidding. I understand the objections, but I also noted that his sexual poetry is very often focused on its procreative ends (In you I wrap a thousand onward years / On you I graft the grafts of the best-beloved of me and America), which makes him a reactionary by today’s standards. O Fortuna.


But, to return to the main theme, why am I giving up on Whitman mid-stream? The main reason is the sprawling shapelessness of the thing. Is it one poem or a collection? I incline to the latter, but there is so little tonal variation, so few metrical variations or structural ideas that it all runs together for me into one long liquid ramble. Skip ahead ten pages or a hundred and I find him doing pretty much the same thing.

And it is shapeless on the small scale as well as the large. The lines are of irregular length; there are no rhymes. I don’t quite agree with those who complain that Whitman’s poetry is just prose with carriage returns inserted, because the language is often compressed and richer than we would normally find in prose, but I also understand the complaint. It may be true, as I read, that Whitman revised and polished his verse, but it feels slap-dash and meandering, as though he wrote whatever came into his head and left it at that.

I can’t quite get over the lists. Here’s an excerpt from a list of body parts:

Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears,
Eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye, eyebrows, and the waking or
sleeping of the lids,
Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws, and the jaw-hinges,
Nose, nostrils of the nose, and the partition,
Cheeks, temples, forehead, chin, throat, back of the neck, neck-slue,
Strong shoulders, manly beard, scapula, hind-shoulders, and the
ample side-round of the chest,
Upper-arm, armpit, elbow-socket, lower-arm, arm-sinews, arm-bones,
Wrist and wrist-joints, hand, palm, knuckles, thumb, forefinger,
finger-joints, finger-nails,
Broad breast-front, curling hair of the breast, breast-bone, breast-side,
Ribs, belly, backbone, joints of the backbone,
Hips, hip-sockets, hip-strength, inward and outward round,
man-balls, man-root,
Strong set of thighs, well carrying the trunk above,
Leg-fibres, knee, knee-pan, upper-leg, under-leg,
Ankles, instep, foot-ball, toes, toe-joints, the heel …
(Book IV)

Later there was this list of jobs and tools:

House-building, measuring, sawing the boards,
Blacksmithing, glass-blowing, nail-making, coopering, tin-roofing,
Ship-joining, dock-building, fish-curing, flagging of sidewalks by flaggers,
The pump, the pile-driver, the great derrick, the coal-kiln and brickkiln,
Coal-mines and all that is down there, the lamps in the darkness,
echoes, songs, what meditations, what vast native thoughts
looking through smutch’d faces,
Iron-works, forge-fires in the mountains or by river-banks, men
around feeling the melt with huge crowbars, lumps of ore, the
due combining of ore, limestone, coal,
The blast-furnace and the puddling-furnace, the loup-lump at the
bottom of the melt at last, the rolling-mill, the stumpy bars
of pig-iron, the strong clean-shaped Trail for railroads,
Oil-works, silk-works, white-lead-works, the sugar-house,
steam-saws, the great mills and factories,
Stone-cutting, shapely trimmings for facades or window or door-lintels,
the mallet, the tooth-chisel, the jib to protect the thumb,
The calking-iron, the kettle of boiling vault-cement, and the fire
under the kettle,
The cotton-bale, the stevedore’s hook, the saw and buck of the
sawyer, the mould of the moulder, the working-knife of the
butcher, the ice-saw, and all the work with ice,
The work and tools of the rigger, grappler, sail-maker, block-maker,
Goods of gutta-percha, papier-mache, colors, brushes, brush-making,
glazier’s implements,
The veneer and glue-pot, the confectioner’s ornaments, the decanter
and glasses, the shears and flat-iron …
(Book XV)

There’s nothing wrong with making lists, and nothing wrong with celebrating the body, and all its bits, or ingenious tools, and all their uses, but if this is good poetry I’ll eat my hat.

In any case, I grew to dislike it.

And beyond the character of the verse, I came to find Whitman’s persona trying. So many exclamation marks. So much enthusiasm. So much shouting. So much so much the same. I became convinced that Whitman and I would not have been friends. It was time to stop.