The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens, by Paul Mariani

Posted May 15, 2016 by Don
Categories: Book reviews, Poetry

In middle-age hoping to twig from
What we are not what we might be next, a question 
The South seems never to raise.
–Auden, “Good-bye to the Mezzogiorno”

Biographies these days challenge the forearms. While pleading for the subject to kick the bucket already, you keep yourself awake in late-night reading bouts, desperate to finish before drowsiness drops the volume onto your nose with ensuing sparks.

So, the reader is grateful for a life that gets it done in 411 pages of text. But still, of course, the reader has whimsies of his own and is impossible to please. Too much is left out! What did Stevens think of Yeats, or Hardy, or Auden? Why did he bull ahead with his blank verse lines, loosening the line only a bit, but never as Eliot did, to melt into prose? How did he handle the apparent rejection of Harmonium when he finally let it loose on the world, publishing for the first time at age forty-three?

There’s no original research shown. The author seems to have flipped through the published Letters, the smaller collections of letters with José Rodriguez Feo and with the poet’s wife Elsie, and the oral biography by Peter Brazeau, Parts of a World. (It is said that there are many letters that Stevens’s only child and literary executor, his daughter, Holly, never let see the light of day, but she has been gone for over twenty years now and should not be able to veto from the grave.) Finally, there are the poems themselves. In any literary biography, there is going to be some analysis of the work product. Mariani makes the curious choice to weave the poetry itself into the narrative. It’s somewhat pleasing if the reader is very familiar with the poems already. Otherwise, it must be very tedious. It would be adventurous to recommend this book to anyone unfamiliar with Stevens’s poetry.

Putting Stevens in our contemporary context would have been useful. One of the finest poems from Ideas of Order cannot be mentioned in polite society these days (and scarcely so when published). He had bourgeois ways of speaking and liked to drink with the boys–too much so, as the author shows, not only on the famous trips to Florida with Judge Arthur Powell, but at literary dinners, too. Do those who care about poetry these days think less of him for all that? They may and likely do, but we are not told.

This is thirty years after the much more ambitious and detailed biography by Joan Richardson. It is good to have a shorter life to read, but more work could have been done to press out the whey and firm things up. The author doesn’t attempt to defend or explain his choices. There is no introduction. The last two pages are an afterword of sorts, though not separate from the main text.

There are not many photographs. Those that are included are not new. In fairness, let us admit that there may not be many to choose from, but it’s too bad that the cover photo is the very same one used on the Library of America’s Collected Poetry and Prose. The photo is not so classic that the choice cannot be ascribed to laziness.

Still, if one admires the poetry of Stevens very much, it is an excuse to dip back in again, if one needs such impetus!


A Fisherman's Paradise - Long Key Fishing Camp (Library of Congress)

A Fisherman’s Paradise – Long Key Fishing Camp (Library of Congress)


Human Voices, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Posted March 6, 2016 by Don
Categories: Book reviews

Fierce is the wind tonight,
It ploughs up the white hair of the sea
I have no fear that the Viking hosts
Will come over the water to me.
–“The Viking Terror,” Irish anon. 9th cent.

This is a fictionalized memoir of the author’s experience as one of many female RP Junior Assistants at the BBC Broadcasting House, Department of Recorded Programmes, during 1940. The office has an unmenacing but comic bureaucratic feel to it, like 1984 or A Clockwork Orange in watercolours. Names and offices assume acronyms and are lost in the ABCs–BH for Broadcasting House, RPD for Recorded Programmes Director, DPP for Director of Programme Planning, ADDG for Acting Deputy Director General, and so on.

The building is compared to an ocean liner early on, then called the “Seraglio” because of the number of young women employed there, and eventually becomes an island of safety during the Blitz. Workers hardly left for weeks at a time, bunking in the concert hall (which gave rise to a headline in the Daily Mirror, “THIS IS THE NINE O’CLOCK SNOOZE”):

The sleepers were obscurely tormented by the need to be somewhere in five, ten, or twenty minutes. Awakened, quite often, by feet walking over them, they struck matches whose tiny flames wavered in every corner of the concert-hall, and had a look at their watches, just to be sure. Yet some slept on, and the walls, designed to give the best possible acoustics for classical music, worked just as well for snoring. Accommodation, who had provided so much, had never thought of this. No barracks or dormitory in the country produced snoring of such broad tone, and above that distinctly rose the variations of the overwrought, the junior announcers rehearsing their cues, correcting themselves and starting again, continuity men suddenly shouting: ‘… and now, in a lighter mood …’, and every now and then a fit of mysterious weeping.

Affairs are begun and broken off amidst the dust and splinters. One of the young women has a boyfriend in the French forces who is evacuated to London. Soldiers stand about waiting for their next assignment after Dunkirk. A French general (not de Gaulle) attempts to broadcast his own wakeup call to the western forces but is stymied by a BBC executive who figures him out and cuts the mic. Life during blackout required counting your steps during the daytime to be able to get about at night. The novel avoids sentiment without being clinical.


Photo source:

Photo source:

KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, by Nikolaus Wachsmann

Posted February 16, 2016 by Don
Categories: Book reviews, Germany

Suum cuique
–Cicero; motto over Buchenwald gate (Jedem das Seine)

Not a history of the Holocaust (which included hundreds of thousands shot in the forests of Eastern Europe) or of all WWII German incarceration (POW camps as such are not included), this thorough but readable history documents the “KL” (Konzentationslager) system overseen by Rudolf Höss and ultimately by Himmler. By defining his subject in this way, Wachsmann also leaves out the extermination camps of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec, which operated independently of the KL, and did not pretend to exist to house anyone for any length of time.

The title may be a place to start. “KZ” is the more familiar German term for the Nazi concentration camps, still taken from the same German word. According to Wachsmann, the SS, which ran the system, called them KL, and so he sticks with that term. (A recent award-winning German film, The People vs. Fritz Bauer, about the Frankfurt prosecutor who helped track down Adolf Eichmann, had the character use “KZ” to describe the camp where he briefly spent time, before exile in Sweden.)

The story begins in Dachau, established almost immediately after January 1933 as a dumping ground for political enemies, later to include other undesirables such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and even common criminals. Jews were not the focus early on–the regime preferred to make life uncomfortable enough so that they would choose emigration. This changed after Kristallnacht, when a large number of Jews were sent to the camps, but they were mostly released within a few months.

The focus shifts to Auschwitz-Birkenau after 1939. The plan originally had been for it to hold Soviet POWs, but that changed to include other persecuted groups, and then the transported Jews who were not killed immediately. One of Wachsmann’s themes is that the concentration camp system did not develop according to a master plan, and conditions even would improve for a short while here and there, then descend again.

The book is a kind of encyclopedia, though presented in a 630-page narrative. More detail is in the 200 pages of endnotes, for those who want it. Issues covered and not often discussed include:

  1. The “Camp SS”–Himmler’s SS took over the concentration camps after the fall of the SA in 1934 and established a dedicated set of guards, the Camp SS. These later were supplemented with captured foreigners who were pressed into duty, reducing the original esprit de corps.
  2. Red Cross packages began to be allowed in late 1942, but only went to prisoners whose names and whereabouts were known to welfare organizations and relatives. Others continued to starve.
  3. The short-lived family camp at Birkenau, housing thousands from Theresienstadt. Conditions were still very poor, but greatly improved over the rest of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. Even children were allowed there and had some normalcy. They even put on a musical based on the Disney movie Snow White. The family camp was only temporary and for the benefit of propaganda. On one night in March 1944, 3,800 of the inmates were wiped out. The rest were eliminated by June 1944.

Individual stories, though brief in themselves (St. Maximilian Kolbe gets seven lines) are what make the history a story and not just a body count. More than one survivor shows that luck made all the difference.

Still, the focus on Auschwitz takes the history away from the camps on domestic soil (primarily Dachau, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, and Mauthausen in Austria) after the war begins. The narrative comes back to these camps when the eastern prisoners are again resettled, but this time west. The remaining political prisoners in Germany in 1945, some who had the leisure to read or play chess, are dumbfounded by the appearance of the “Muselmänner” (the Nazi slang for the walking dead of the east). The camps within prewar borders were overwhelmed with the uprooted, emaciated, and diseased. Such were the conditions when the Americans came across Dachau and the British opened Belsen.

There is a short epilogue on the crude work of justice after the war and in the later decades. Nearly every commandant was tried and hanged. There is a photo of Höss in his gallows on the grounds of Auschwitz in 1947.

Fidelio, playbill of the premiere, Vienna, Kärntnertortheater, 23 May 1814

Fidelio, playbill of the premiere, Vienna, Kärntnertortheater, 23 May 1814

The Pope’s Elephant, by Silvio Bedini

Posted January 6, 2016 by Don
Categories: Book reviews, Catholic culture

Und dann und wann ein weißer Elefant.
 —Rilke, “Das Karussel”

Pope Leo X Medici lived like a king, and all the kings of Europe paid him tribute, even from new possessions reached by sail. King Manuel I of Portugal sent a mission to Rome in 1513 led by explorer Tristão da Cunha, who had named south Atlantic islands after himself. In addition to a gold chalice, gold tabernacle, vestments of gold cloth, and an altar frontal  “sewn with countless pearls and precious stones valued at more than 60,000 ducats, ” the mission included a cheetah, two leopards, “numerous parrots,” a Persian horse, and a three-year-old Indian elephant named Hanno.

Just getting Hanno to Rome was a feat of engineering and doggedness. His weight required special hoists from ship to dock and meant that transport by wagon was out of the question. Hanno made the last leg of seventy miles from Porto Ercole to Rome on his own four legs, stopping from time to time to recuperate from the effects of Roman roads on his footpads.

The arrival of Hanno and presentation to the pope became a story of its own. Hanno’s mahout had trained him to bow down low upon meeting Leo, which he did, and then followed up the obeisance with a burst of water sucked up from a barrel, dousing Leo’s courtiers. The pope was delighted.

Hanno settled down into the papal menagerie, where he was the star attraction. At several points, Bedini tries to make the case for Hanno as the pope’s favorite pet, but there’s not much evidence to support that part of the story.

The pope used Hanno at one point to embarrass an unfortunate abbot, Giacomo Baraballo, who was made to ride the elephant in a kind of fool’s parade. This tale was often a chief exhibit to show the hopeless corruption of the papal court.

Unfairly absent from the book’s title is another unusual papal pet described in the book, the pope’s rhinoceros, who also became known far and wide, even becoming the subject of an influential drawing by Albrecht Dürer. There is a novel by Lawrence Norfolk called The Pope’s Rhinoceros, but Bedini doesn’t mention it here.

The book contains several dozen illustrations, including drawings of the animals, portraits, and maps. This is a scholar’s book; it really is upside-down, with the text less of a narrative than a compilation of notes. You like this kind of thing or you don’t. Once I figured out what I was reading, I admired it immensely.


Giacomo Baraballo on Hanno

Giacomo Baraballo on Hanno


Embattled Rebel, by James M. McPherson

Posted December 13, 2015 by Don
Categories: Book reviews

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm. . . .
  –Richard II

This book is a companion to the author’s previous book Tried by War, which focused on Lincoln’s role as a war president. Here, McPherson gives the same treatment to “Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief,” as the subtitle has it.

Davis resigned his post as Senator from Mississippi and came home as a new major general of the Army of the Mississippi. Before he could plan a battle, the Confederate Congress, meeting in Montgomery, unanimously elected him President. His experience as Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce made him well fitted for presiding over the new nation whose chief business would be war.

The focus of this short book (just over 250 pages) is Davis’s furious effort to keep the Confederacy in the fight, despite the overwhelming odds. It’s not a happy story. Egos abound. Portraits of the leading generals pop up every dozen pages or so. You can imagine them in Davis’s nightmares.

There was a Secretary of War in the Confederacy, but Davis performed much of that function himself, partly because the first Secretary, Leroy P. Walker, was useless, but more because Davis couldn’t help himself. Davis planned an “offensive-defensive” strategy–“the best way to defend the Confederacy  was to seize opportunities to take the offensive and force the enemy to sue for peace.”

He got out of Richmond to the battles himself from time to time. He took a train to Manassas in time to encourage some stragglers to head back to the battlefield. The victory was “perhaps his happiest moment of the war.” From then on, there was a barrage of complaints and pleadings from the generals for promotions, reinforcements, and supplies. Sorting out the promotions was not the hardest part. There were few reinforcements and less and less of any supplies.

The author declares in the Introduction, “My sympathies lie with the Union side in the Civil War.” The impression of Davis from this book is someone who gave his all in trying times. There is a short “Coda” that considers some might-have-beens on strategic decisions, ending:

Davis’s relationship with General Robert E. Lee was one of the brightest features of his tenure as commander in chief. The president recognized Lee’s ability and supported the general in the face of initial criticisms. The two men forged a partnership even closer and longer lasting than the one between Lincoln and Grant on the other side. And while the Lincoln-Grant team eventually won the war, this does not mean that the Davis-Lee team was responsible for losing it. For in the final analysis, the salient truth about the American Civil War is not that the Confederacy lost but that the Union won.


Falls of the James River, by Benjamin Henry Latrobe (Library of Virginia)

Falls of the James River, by Benjamin Henry Latrobe (Library of Virginia)

Richard Strauss, by Matthew Boyden

Posted November 22, 2015 by Don
Categories: Book reviews, Germany, Music

Großmächtige Prinzessin!

This one is a bit of a mittelbrau work, which gives the reader enough history for some reasonable context and enough of the music to keep track of why Strauss was so important for so long. You won’t find a great deal of harmonic analysis, and the only staff is Richard’s own as he climbs the mountains dreaming of his Alpine Symphony.

The back cover of this edition shows the composer in a friendly handshake with Dr. Goebbels. Strauss accepted the leadership of the Reichsmusikkammer (RMK) apparently without qualms of conscience. His anti-Semitism was not something that he came to late in life (he was nearly seventy in 1933), but was part of his generally comfortable Bavarian way of life, as presented by the author. Still, the biography quotes in full Strauss’s letter to his collaborator Stefan Zweig, in which Strauss wrote, “I pose as President of the Reichsmusikkammer . . . to bring about good and to prevent greater disasters! Simply because I know my artistic duty, I would have taken on this tiresome honorary office under any government . . . . So be good, forget Herr Moses and the other apostles for a couple of weeks, and keep on working at your two one-acters.” The letter was opened by the government, and Strauss had to resign his position in 1935. Yet he kept composing and kept his comfortable villa in Garmisch without much, if any, effort to make life a little easier for those who didn’t have it so easy. When the Americans rolled up in April 1945, he came downstairs to announce, “I am Richard Strauss, composer of Salome and Der Rosenkavalier.” He lost the house for a while during de-Nazification, but avoided trial. An American officer who played in the orchestra back home asked him whether he would ever compose an oboe concerto. Strauss blurted out an abrupt no, but wrote one later, giving the American officer the right to the premiere.

At his funeral, the marcia funebre from Eroica was played, and the Rosenkavalier Trio.

Titian, "Bacchus and Ariadne"

Titian, “Bacchus and Ariadne”

Homer’s Iliad, translation by Alexander Pope

Posted November 5, 2015 by Don
Categories: Book reviews, Poetry

Think of a raked sky-wide Venetian blind.
Add the receding traction of its slats
Of its slats of its slats as a hand draws it up.
Hear the Greek army getting to its feet.

Then of a stadium when many boards are raised
And many faces change to one vast face.
So, where there were so many masks,
Now one Greek mask glittered from strip to ridge.
–Christopher Logue, All Day Permanent Red

It is long past time for an especially daring Regissieur to mount a production of Wagner’s Ring in the style of Peter Jackson’s LOTR films. In that way, the influence of Wagner on Tolkien, as seen by Jackson, comes back to the source material.

Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad is something like that. The weighty preposition of Milton’s epic must have inspired the next century’s poet. He brooded a bit and borrowed the Miltonic style, in couplets this time, to translate Homer. There is no attempt to be too Greek; Roman names are generally, if not always, used. We have Jupiter/Jove and Juno, Venus and Mars, Minerva and Neptune, Apollo, and so on, as well as their nicknames for variety (Cytherea, Saturnia, Pallas). This Penguin edition is massive because it contains Pope’s own commentary on each Book, often with long quotations from prior commentators. In all, it’s something like a Handelian opera; very pleasant and tuneful, and never too insistent.

Here are a few favorite passages. This is Juno’s seduction of Jupiter in Book XIV, which begins as the goddess beautifies herself as well as she can, even calling on Venus to give up her almighty girdle, which no male can resist:

Touch’d with her secret key, the doors unfold:
Self-clos’d behind her shut the valves of gold.
Here first she bathes; and round her body pours
Soft oils of fragrance, and ambrosial show’rs:
The winds perfum’d, the balmy gale convey
Thro’ heav’n, thro’ earth, and all the aërial way:
Spirit divine! whose exhalation greets
The sense of Gods with more than mortal sweets.
Thus while she breath’d of heav’n, with decent pride
Her artful hands the radiant tresses ty’d;
Part on her head in shining ringlets roll’d,
Part o’er her shoulders wav’d like melted gold.
Around her next a heav’nly mantle flow’d,
That rich with Pallas’ labour’d colours glow’d;
Large clasps of gold the foldings gather’d round,
A golden zone her swelling bosom bound.
Far-beaming pendants tremble in her ear,
Each gemm illumin’d with a triple star.
Then o’er her head she casts a veil more white
Then new fal’n snow, and dazling as the light.
Last her fair feet celestial sandals grace.
Thus issuing radiant, with majestic pace,
Forth from the dome th’ imperial Goddess moves,
And calls the Mother of the Smiles and Loves.
How long (to Venus thus apart she cry’d)
Shall human strifes celestial minds divide?
Ah yet, will Venus aid Saturnia‘s joy,
And set aside the cause of Greece and Troy?
Let heav’n’s dread empress (Cytherea said)
Speak her request, and deem her will obey’d.
Then grant me (said the Queen) those conqu’ring charms,
That pow’r, which mortals and immortals warms,
That love, which melts mankind in fierce desires,
And burns the sons of heav’n with sacred fires!

(XIV 195-228)

A fair test of any translation of the Iliad is how the many fights come off–is it just one damn thing after another, or is there enough variety to keep the reader awake? Pope passes this test, as in this telling of one of Hector’s many kills:

As when a lion, rushing from his den,
Amidst the plain of some wide-water’d fen,
(Where num’rous oxen, as at ease they feed,
At large expatiate o’er the ranker mead;)
Leaps on the herds before the herdsman’s eyes;
The trembling herdsman far to distance flies:
Some lordly bull (the rest dispers’d and fled)
He singles out; arrests, and lays him dead.
Thus from the rage of Jove-like Hector flew
All Greece in heaps; but one he seiz’d, and slew.

(XV, 760-769)

In the next book:

In equal arms two sons of Nestor stand,
And two bold brothers of the Lycian band:
By great AntilochusAtymnius dies,
Pierc’d in the flank, lamented youth! he lies.
Kind Maris, bleeding in his brother’s wound,
Defends his breathless carcase on the ground;
Furious he flies, his murd’rer to engage,
But godlike Thrasimed prevents his rage,
Between his arm and shoulder aims a blow;
His arm falls spouting on the dust below:
He sinks, with endless darkness cover’d o’er,
And vents his soul effus’d with gushing gore.

(XVI, 376-387)

Throughout, Jupiter ensures that the Greeks’ victory is never in doubt, but doesn’t come too soon. His messenger, Iris the rainbow (“the many-colour’d maid”), carries his commands to earth:

Now storms the victor at the Trojan wall;
Surveys the tow’rs, and meditates their fall.
But Jove descending shook th’ Idaean hills,
And down their summits pour’d a hundred rills:
Th’ unkindled light’ning in his hand he took,
And thus the many-colour’d maid bespoke.
Iris, with haste thy golden wings display,
To god-like Hector this our word convey.
While Agamemnon wastes the ranks around,
Fights in the front, and bathes with blood the ground,
Bid him give way; but issue forth commands,
And trust the war to less important hands:
But when, or wounded by the spear, or dart,
That chief shall mount his chariot, and depart:
Then Jove shall string his arm, and fire his breast,
Then to her ships shall flying Greece be press’d,
Till to the main the burning sun descend,
And sacred night her awful shade extend.

(XI, 235-252)

Notice Pope’s use of English and very Miltonic sounds in the passage above, as shown below in bold:

Now storms the victor at the Trojan wall;
Surveys the tow’rs, and meditates their fall.
But Jove descending shook th’ Idaean hills,
And down their summits pour’d a hundred rills:
Th’ unkindled light’ning in his hand he took,
And thus the many-colour’d maid bespoke.
Iris, with haste thy golden wings display,
To god-like Hector this our word convey.
While Agamemnon wastes the ranks around,
Fights in the front, and bathes with blood the ground,
Bid him give way; but issue forth commands,
And trust the war to less important hands:
But when, or wounded by the spear, or dart,
That chief shall mount his chariot, and depart:
Then Jove shall string his arm, and fire his breast,
Then to her ships shall flying Greece be press’d,
Till to the main the burning sun descend,
And sacred night her awful shade extend.

(Something should be said here about the rhymed couplet, so very Eighteenth Century. Pope is magisterial indeed. Once the ear hears what’s going on, the form does not intrude. The rhymes almost always work out. There is at least one instance of world/hurled, which elsewhere might be painful, but is hard to blame in this book, given the topic. That important English word world is notoriously hard to rhyme.)

While Achilles is on his way to Troy to find Hector and destroy him, the river Scamander itself appeals to him:

O first of mortals! (for the Gods are thine)
In valour matchless, and in force divine!
If Jove have giv’n thee every Trojan head,
‘Tis not on me thy rage should heap the dead.
See! my choak’d streams no more their course can keep,
Nor roll their wonted tribute to the deep.
Turn then, impetuous! from our injur’d flood;
Content, thy slaughters could amaze a God.
In human form confess’d before his eyes
The river thus; and thus the Chief replies.
O sacred stream! thy word we shall obey;
But not till Troy the destin’d vengeance pay,
Not till within her tow’rs the perjur’d train
Shall pant, and tremble at our arms again;
Not till proud Hector, guardian of her wall,
Or stain this lance, or see Achilles fall.

(XXI, 231-246)

Perhaps it is the structure of this edition, with Pope’s one-paragraph summary (“Argument”) at the head of each Book, and then lengthy notes (“Observations”) following, but the massiveness of the story is unavoidable. This Iliad is a kind of library of storytelling.


Quaker Guns at Manassas

Quaker Guns at Manassas