Reading of Late (With Added Excerpts of Poetry)

As I came by to maybe put up a dilettante post about what I’ve been reading lately (it’s been a reading, not a writing time) I noticed that I have four comments I’d not seen. Ah, you lurky readers, you – there you are!

Well, as you all know, I do enjoy comments. And the people who comment on this blog, spammers aside, are such decent thoughtful friendly people. I feel really fortunate in you all.

I finished War and Peace. I found the ending very startling. True, everyone ends up where they more or less belong. But then there’s this boy, infused and confused by a mental potpourri of traditional reverence for his father, natural youthful idealism, and the conflicting ideas of his elders. And those ideas we have watched develop and be tested over the course of the book and we know from whence they come. With the kind of affection you develop for fictional characters, we are glad that Pierre and Maria and the rest have become the sorts of people they have, and that they have married so fortunately and so virtuously. But all flesh is as grass…they are passing away just as they reach their zenith, and after them comes a boy who may do anything at all with what they are leaving him. Of course, with the backwards-looking glass of history we know exactly what the youths he represents did do. Ugh.

I don’t think Tolstoy thought much of the French.

Sorry, I know I am no literary critic and I always come out with a different impression than other people. For instance, after reading Orwell’s 1984 I didn’t think it was about politics at all. I thought it was about the malleablity of the human soul: how we can die because we can change…and about how the evil prey on this susceptibility to change, and about the living death that is possible as a result.

I’m reading Flannery O’Connor and detesting every word. I know Christians aren’t supposed to do that! But every story so far is about ugly people suffering ugly things and doing even uglier ones. Penetrating, yes. Insightful, true. But she seems definitely of the tribe of those who produced gargoyles and self-flegellation.

Am I uttering heresy, dear friends?

More pleasurable was a recent if brief return to my old friend Elizabeth Browning. She never fails to fascinate.

Elizabeth Barret grew up in a strict English nonconformist family. Her father’s harshness is too legendary to waste another word on it. Elizabeth was always sick but she would have been less sick if she had been less depressed by her confined, desperate life. And a biography was written of her dog, Flush, by I think Virginia Woolf.

Out of that confined desperate life a fine poet came into existence: Elizabeth Barret began to publish her poems in a small way when she was already in her thirties. A dashing younger poet, Robert Browning, fell in love with what he was sure was her soul. He visited for a while and then at last, because Elizabeth’s father had forbidden all his children to marry, the two English poets eloped to contintental Europe and were there made man and wife, from whence they wrote poetry and supported the Greeks in their war for freedom from the Turks.

Elizabeth’s love poetry to Robert (How do I love thee? Let me count the ways) is justly famous, but in her time she made a splash with many other poems as well, including  her versey tribute to a very popular and controversial statue, The Greek Slave.

Hiram Powers, an American sculptor, liked to specialize in “modest nudes.” In this case he sculpted a ripoff of a famous classical statue of Venus, except he showed her hands conventiently shackled in front of her virgin zone. This woman represents the nation of Greece. He also sculpted an American Indian woman, wearing only a fringed mini-skirt. This statue later inspired Walt Disney’s animated masterpiece of Pocahontas.

That part about Disney I fabricated entirely.

Here’s part of the poem. I left out the silly parts and now it doesn’t rhyme.

They say ideal beauty cannot enter
The house of anguish. On the threshold stands
An alien Image with shackled hands,
Called the Greek Slave! …

…Catch up in thy divine face, not alone
East griefs but west – and strike and shame the strong,
By thunders of white silence, overthrown.

Well, I read lately a couple of rather more interesting works by E. B. Browning. One, A Drama of Exile, about Adam and Eve cast out of Eden, was really stunning. I don’t say she rivals Milton, quite. But it’s theological enough to be worthwhile, straightforward enough to understand, broad enough to develop a mind about it all, and musical enough to please me. If only I could say the same for O’Connor’s stories. Here’s an excerpt.

 First Semichorus:

But wild is the horse of Death
He will leap up wild at the clamour
[of the resurrected dead on the last day]
above and beneath.
And where is his Tamer
On that last day
When he crieth, Ha Ha!
To the trumpet’s blare,
[from Job; but here referring to the “last trump.”]
And paweth the Earth’s Aceldama? [Aramaic “field of blood;” Judas’ grave.]    When he tosseth his head,
The drear-white steed,
And ghastily champeth the last moon-ray –
  [I recall The Last Battle here]
What angel there
Can lead him away,
That the living may rule for the Dead?

Second Semi-Chorus:

Yet a Tamer shall be found!
One more bright than Seraph crowned
And more strong than cherub bold,
Elder, too, than angel old,
By his grey eternities
He shall master and surprise
The steed of Death.
For he is strong, and he is fain
He shall quell him with a breath,
And shall lead him where He will,
With a whisper in the ear,
Full of fear –
And a hand upon the mane,
Grand and still.

Absolutely magnificent; and there’s plenty more where that came from.

The other work I read was Some Account of the Greek Christian Poets, which she must have written during or after her time there, since she speaks of the attitudes of her neighbors about these people.

Elizabeth Barret Browning did not think too much of the Greek Christian poets as poets, with the exception of Gregory Nazianzen. She admires their piety, however, when they are not writing for emporers. Their piety, but not their ecclesiology. For, she says, as to the claim made continually by her new neighbors, that their Orthodox church adhered to the tradition of the fathers: why, it was obvious that as many traditions could be created from Justin Martyr alone as there are religions already existing in the world. However, she says, in the work of these poets was nurtured the last dying embers of the tradition created by Homer and the classical Greek poets. And they kept it alive until Shakespeare fortunately arrived on the scene and established the English language as the new great language of poetry.

What I like about Browning is that she wears her learning like a lady wears a really fine tailored dress. None of this sterile objectivity for her; she is a real person – a female one, no less! – with personal and feminine feelings and opinions, and she sees nothing wrong with expressing them as such. Thus, her arrogance if there is any, does not come out as pretentiousness. There’s something innocent about her. No wonder her heart went out to The Greek Slave. My heart goes out to the Greek Slave.

Hiram Powers is a different matter.


  1. “I noticed that I have four comments I’d not seen. Ah, you lurky readers, you – there you are!”

    Well, there was such a time gap between the Facebook post and the Riots in Greece post, that I started checking less frequently, which resulted in a rather tardy comment. I think Firefox has a plug-in for that. I’ll have to look into it.

    I’ve never seen Disney’s Pocahontas. Now I’m afraid to. 😀

    Thanks for the post.


  2. Eh, I’ve been writing infrequently of late, I know. It’s probably better that my readers don’t see my stuff the moment I publish it. I always come back to it compulsively throughout the twenty-four hours afterward, revising and fixing. For some reason I can’t seem to see my work the same before I putit out there as I do afterwards. This does not bode well for my later career in publishing.

    I think we can safely say that you and I could both go down happy to our respective graves never having seen Disney’s Pocahontas.

    Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for the comment!


  3. OK, now I will have to say a word about Flannery O’Connor. True, her stories are about shockingly ugly situations/people. However, I have come to admire her very much – for this reason. Her characters are souls, really, and so often the outside does not match the inside. Two of her short stories, ‘Revelation’ and ‘Parker’s Back,’ are my favorites. The stories are about salvation, and the work of God in someone’s life to bring them to a point of repentance. In some of the sadder stories, it is clear what God is doing, but the person doesn’t repent. She is very realistic that way. There is a theme of ‘the first shall be last, and the last first.’ I like Revelation, because it is easy to see what is going on, and the woman does repent. And, as an Orthodox person, you have to be astounded at the use of the icon of the Pantocrator in ‘Parker’s Back.’ I find her imagery to be remarkably vivid – I would love to be able to paint the way she writes. And, I remember reading her collected letters (Mystery and Manners) and crying over them, thinking that if she hadn’t died so early, I might just possibly have been able to meet her. So, you never know – you might come to like her eventually… maybe she is an acquired taste.


  4. Well, that is your place, you know, as a lady of literary learning. I would have been surprised had you said nothing! Yes, I can see in a few of the stories that God is present regardless of how people respond to him. For instance, I just read one in which a son goes from being a decent quiet sort to a raving maniac who shoots his mother dead, just by being forced to live in close proximity to some real charity. There was also the one where the woman gets gored by the bull…the outward circumstances seem completely bereft of God but the few insertions about her inner life show that God was dawning on her throughout the days prior to her death, and she was doing her best to shut him out. It was very poignant and I completly “got it” but only because I’ve read the River of Fire. Anyway, after those particular stories I can begin to see, as I wrote over at Unknowing, how someone might want to write a story that shows us God is there in the worst things around us, because it’s all too easy to see the worst things and think God isn’t there.

    But I can’t see God in all the stories yet. Judgment Day completely baffled me. And those three early stories about Hazel going to the city…Is it acceptable to compose stories that really are nothing more than a contemplation of vileness? (Although Scottie thinks that the last of the Hazel stories might be about how people try to make up for the lack of the sacrament of confession.)

    Joel at Unknowing also took issue with my statement, and he thought, too, that Flannery O’Connor might be an acquired taste.


  5. ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find,’ or ‘Good Country People’ are two representative ‘starter’ stories that were assigned when I was in college – my own favorite is “Revelation,’ though – maybe because I feel I have been in that waiting room with those people in my Southern childhood… maybe even my Southern adulthood. Mostly, I like the vision at the end, with the line of souls going to heaven and the more ‘respectable’ people towards the back. Maybe being Southern predisposes me to like her writing…

    Have you seen the talk given by Fr. Paul Yerger at the Diocesan Assembly in Dallas a few years ago? It is on his church’s webpage: Orthodoxy and the Christ-haunted Culture of the South [] . The title is a direct reference to Flannery O’Connor’s own assessment of southern culture – and the talk has a lot of quotes from ‘Parker’s Back.’


  6. I saw that talk. It was beautiful and I liked ‘Parker’s Back.’ Maybe it gave me unrealistic expectations about what the rest of her stories would be like. However, I have yet to experience the whole body of her work, so I say no more. I do see your point, Beth, and I understand, I think, why Flannery O’Connor and her stories would be beloved by you and many others.

    Scott, I hope Beth answered your question to your satisfaction? I don’t feel qualified to make any recommendations at this point.


  7. Hello old friend…I can just about guarantee that you would love Flannery’s letters, titled “The Habit of Being.” I will commit further heresy and confess that I detest Walker Percy’s books! Every single one of them!


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