ray greenblatt

Roumeli by Patrick Leigh Fermor



By Ray Greenblatt


Parrick Leigh Fermor, known as Paddy to everybody, was bright and dropped out of school at age 18.  He was from an English aristocratic family but preferred to live with the native people of Greece. His fame was confirmed when during World War II fighting with Greek guerilla forces, he captured a German general. For the remainder of his long life (1915-2011) he lived mostly in Greece speaking several dialects of Greek and studying its history.

The Roumeli is a vast mountainous area in central Greece. Paddy was fascinated by and admired the Sarakatsan, the herdsmen he encountered. This is how one man dressed: “A rough black pill-box was tilted askew on his matted and whiskered head. His black double-breasted waistcoat of homespun goats’ hair was tucked into a black sash below which a hairy and broad-pleated black kilt jutted stiffly to his knees.” (4) A contrasting woman: “All was made up of stern black and white lines and angles and so broad and solid-seeming were the black white-banded pleats that if any of the girls made a movement, their heavy and unwieldy clothes moved with the stiffness of armour.” (21)

Internally “those of the mountains are active, lean, spare, hawk-eyed men, with features scooped and chiseled by sun, wind, rain, snow and hail. They give more than an impression, during their occasional descents to the lowlands, of their enemies the wolves, and still more, of eagles. They live beyond the reach of the authorities, and, as we have seen, the border between pastoral life and lawlessness is often vague. They spell, in fact, independence and inviolacy.” (48)

Here is where they lived: “It was an entire village of beautifully thatched Sarakatsan huts, giant beehives swelling and tapering in tiers of cropped reed which overlapped with the precision of the plating on a seven-banded armadillo. They were topped with wooden crosses near holes in the thatch through which thin blue smoke curled.” (9)

It is a very ancient culture little disturbed by modern times: “Almost every sentence uttered and every gesture made is hallowed by usage; it is the accumulation of hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of years; hereditary, patriarchal, established, immutable, conservative, and self-sufficient, everything emerges from a  vast expanse of time as smooth with long handling as the shuttle of a loom, the blurred carving on a distaff or the patina on the shaft of a crook.” (29)

This is what visitors are offered at a feast: “Strangers, on occasions like these, are the objects of eager solicitude: special titbits, forkfuls of liver and kidney, and yet more recondite morsels are constantly being proffered and helpings of brain are delved from heads which have been bisected lengthwise and opened like a casket, each half, sometimes still equipped with a singed and twisting horn.” (16)

They loved their summer pastures: “Whenever their talk veered to their summer pastures in the Zagora, all their eyes lit up like those of the children of Israel at the thought of Canaan, and all spoke at once. That’s where we should come and stay with them. What pigeons, what hares! You didn’t need wine there—the air made you drunk; and as for the shade, the grass, the trees and the water—why the water came gushing out of the living rock as cold as ice, you couldn’t drink it it was so cold, and you could drink it by the oka, and feel like a giant. Words failed them.” (60)

Historically “they must have grazed their flocks in mid-air for aeons, vaguely aware, perhaps, of the War of Troy, the clash of the Greek cities, the elephants of Pyrrhus assembling in the valleys and Alexander’s departure to conquer the world. News of the Roman onslaught, the landing of St Paul on the Macedonian coast and the fall of the West would have reached them late and garbled; the barbarian influx and the long afternoon and evening of Byzantium would have been slow to impinge.” (33)

Religiously to these people “God the Father and Jesus are the same Person and He (or They) is known as Ai, a dialect abbreviation of ayios (hagios)—‘saint’ or ‘holy one.’ Sometimes He is known as Proto Ai, or the First among the saints, sometimes as Aphenti, the Lord, from the ancient Greek word authentes (from which the Turkish title, ‘effendi’, also derives). All over Greece, the army of saints has taken the place of the ancient pantheon.” (35)

A bus driver tells Paddy the limitations of the old beliefs:  “Those old Greeks, our celebrated ancestors, are a nuisance and I’ll tell you why. They haunt us. We can never be as great as they were, nobody can. They make us feel guilty. We can’t do anything, people think because of a few old books and temples and lumps of marble. And clever foreigners who know all about the ancients come here expecting to be surrounded by Apollos and gentlemen in helmets and laurel leaves.” (63)

Paddy’s love of song will transition us into a detailed discussion of his poetic writing style. The Sarakatsan loved music: “These songs unfold with a slow metrical elaboration of semi-tones and recapitulated half-lines and with a force of delivery which seems to strain the singer to the brink of syncope. Their heads are flung backwards with eyes half closed or faraway and the veins of their foreheads and necks project like thongs. The stories, usually heroic narratives, frequently veiled in a parable, are as fierce and melancholy as the music.” (17)

“The music that began to hover through the hut was moving and breathless. It started with long and deep notes separated by pauses; then it shot aloft in patterns of great complexity. Repeated and accelerating trills led to sustained high notes which left the tune quivering in mid-air before plummeting an octave to those low and long-drawn initial semibreves. Notes of an icy clarity alternated with notes of a stirring, reedy, and at moments almost rasping hoarseness. “ (54)

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As we can already observe, Paddy’s writing is rich in description, color and feeling. He employs alliteration to tie images together: “The place was alive with bleating and barking and bells, and gold with evening dust.” (50) Ellipsis emphasizes a person remembering: “. . . I had a few, but good ones, I used to graze them not far from Kios, in Bithynia, near Nicaea on the Asian coast. That was years, years ago . . . Caiques sailing past in the Sea of Marmara could hear my bells . . . But the Rhodope is where we all belong . . .” (14)

Sometimes he uses an unusual word: “The old man’s oakapple-jointed fingers kept pushing a minute saucepan into the embers.” (52) Listing also captures the entirety of a shepherd’s life: “They have their own expressions for all the tupping, lambing, weaning, shearing, carding, spinning, milking, seething, scalding, straining, basket-weaving, path-finding, tent-pitching, camp-striking, trough-scooping and weather-divining round which their whole life turns.” (13)

His descriptions can be so fresh and strong. Here he describes the mountain girls as if in an old painting:  “The faint radiance robbed them all of a dimension. Darkly haloed by their interlocking shadows, they melted into the wall and their black and white figures assumed the aspect of a fresco, half-lit; here and there an earring, a coin, a bracelet, a ring or a necklace gleamed for a moment and dimmed again with the rise and fall of the wick like fragments of gilt or isolated gold tesserae in a mosaic.” (25) Another strong visual in the hut: “When a new faggot was thrown on, the flames made the tall hut dance in a gold hollow above a mob of shadows and highlit the bleached and matted hair and those faces shaped by the blasts of winter and the summer solstice.” (53)

Beside the visual, Paddy also captures smells: “An agreeable and pungent aroma of milk, curds, goats’ hair, tobacco and woodsmoke filled the place.” (53) And he can net pure energy through his words: “Eagerly or ironically, they listened to my stumbling, gesticulating, half-ancient and half-modern onomatopoea-laced pantomime of the tidings.” (53)

The tribesmen share their innermost thoughts with this young Englishman, for whom they have great respect, who is trying so hard to learn Greek and their culture. “Existence, these glances say, is a torment, an enemy, an adventure and a joke which we are in league to undergo, outwit, exploit and enjoy on equal terms as accomplices, fellow-hedonists and fellow-victims.” (53)

Although the shepherds of Roumali dominate this book, Paddy also touched on the Greek monasteries to the north, Crete to the south, and the present situation in Greece. He defines the “old” Greek language as “an expensive faded leather case stamped with a tarnished monogram, holding a set of geometrical instruments; stiff jointed dividers and compasses neatly slotted into their plush beds.” (105) Whereas, “modern” Greek is “an everyday instrument—a spade, an adze or a sickle—the edge thinned and keen with honing and bright from the whetstone; and the wooden shaft, mellow with sweat and smooth with the patina of generations of handling, lies in the palm with an easy balance.” (105)

Each region of Greece is unique: “These regions are not empty landscapes but the mineral backcloth—stage, stage-wings and proscenium—of a theatre flung up for the Greeks themselves . . . Each pair of eyes and each voice is anarchically distinct. Isolated against horizontal and zigzag, magnified by a lens of light, sharpened by the sun’s behaviour, fragmented above blazing thorns or transfigured by lightning, every face in turn is the protagonist of its own drama.” (124)

Of the Greek personality generally he states: “Talk is an addiction and it is conducted with invention, great narrative gifts, the knack of repartee, the spirit of contradiction, the questioning of authority, mockery, self-mockery, satire and humor. Love of pleasure emerges in the pan-hellenic passion for sitting up late eating and drinking and singing whenever the slightest excuse crops up.” (114)

Another amazing fact about Patrick Leigh Fermor is that in 1933 at age eighteen he decided to walk from Holland to Constantinople. After forty-four years he wrote A Time of Gifts (1977) that took him from Holland to then Czechoslovakia. Eleven years later his second installment came out, Between the Woods and the Water (1986) tracing his journey from Czechoslovakia to Romania. These books were written from memory, Paddy having lost his notes long before! The final volume, The Broken Road (2013), only in rough manuscript form, was issued after his death.  However, he had reached Constantinople.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Roumeli-Travels-Northern-Greece-Classics/dp/159017187X


Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.




A Look Back- Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley

By Ray Greenblatt
Early in his career Aldous Huxley was a comic author in the tradition of Thomas Love Peacock and Ronald Firbank; a contemporary of Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell and even P. G. Wodehouse. He was part of a well-to-do famous family: his father Leonard Huxley was a teacher, his grandfather Thomas Henry Huxley was a scientist. His mother Julia Arnold Huxley was the headmistress of a girl’s school and the sister of the author Mrs. Humphrey Ward; also on his mother’s side Matthew Arnold was a renowned poet. Huxley displayed a flare for wit, irony, bombast, bon mot, and psychological probing of character. However, he did more than most satirists: he philosophically explored the questions  of twentieth century life and found them eternal.
In this second novel Antic Hay written in 1923, Huxley employs many writing devices: sometimes he inserts a poem, musical lyrics or a short lecture on architecture, e.g. Yet, everything in this book is wrapped in comedy, whether it runs from light to just plain silly to mordant. I see his two major literary contributions to be description of character but especially philosophy of life including social mores as well as scientific speculation.
                                                                I – IMAGERY
Huxley is skillful at describing a scene. First a road: “Polished by the wheels and shining like an old and precious bronze, the road stretched before them, reflecting the lamps. It had the inviting air of a road which goes on for ever.” (235) Night: “Once more the wind blew; darkness came down and the gas lamps round the square lit up the outer leaves of the plane trees, touched the privet bushes inside the railings with an emerald light; behind them was impenetrable night; instead of shorn grass and bedded geraniums was mystery, there were endless depths.” (13) Stained glass in a church: “The vast window opposite, all blue and jaundiced and bloody with nineteenth century glass.” (1) And a house: “Gumbril senior occupied a tall, narrow-shouldered and rachitic house in a little obscure square not far from Paddington.” (12)
However, he excels at bringing characters to life—no matter how absurd they might be—making each actor in this comedy distinct. Even many of their names could be taken symbolically to reveal their nature. Let us begin with Theodore Gumbril junior, our anti-hero, because he is as lost at the end of the novel as he was at the beginning. He shows flashes of wit, but at heart he is a “glum” young man, on his way to nowhere perhaps by “tumbrel,”  thus his name.
Here is Gumbril in a library: “He had been utterly incapable of thinking of any other book, among the two or three hundred thousand on the shelves, that he wanted to read.” (183) He momentarily thinks that he has found an aid to motivation: “The beard now supplied the deficiencies in the stylobate, and planted now on a firm basement of will, the order of the senses, the aerial attic of ideas reared themselves with  more classical harmoniousness of proportion.” (88)
Mercaptan is a mediocre journalist at best, in love with his own prose and opinions; his scientific name means “a chemical compound with a disagreeable odor.” “Like movable raisins in the suet of his snouty face, Mr. Mercaptan’s brown little eyes rolled amorous avowals.” (201) Another man happy in his ignorance is a scientist who studies kidneys; “Shearwater” certainly suggests that biological process. His fate is to fall in love: “He was silent. Spectrally, like a dim haunting ghost, he had hung about  her; dumbly, dumbly imploring, appealing.” (63)
Casimir Lypiatt is a dreadful painter, which everyone knows except him,  who roars about his greatness; “Casimir” is Slavic for “destroying the peace.” “Even the forehead was ruined when he laughed. Foreheads are generally the human part of people’s faces. Let the nose twitch and the mouth grin and the eyes twinkle monkeyishly as you like; the forehead can still be calm and serene, the forehead still  knows how to be human. But when Casimir laughed, his forehead joined in the general distorting grimace.” (69) Likewise, Coleman (“cold man”) is a total cynic about life including seduction:  “What an intoxication, he said,  looking up to the ceiling like a chicken that has taken a sip of water; he smacked his lips.” (218)
As secondary characters, Bojanus is a simple tailor with many opinions about life: “He cocked his head on one side, and the fine waxed end of his moustache was like a pointer aimed up at some remote star.” (83) And yet, his name scientifically translates as “the excretory organ of a mollusk.” Boldero is a capitalistic investor, “bold” to make a profit. “He was like a caterpillar: he ate all that was put before him, he consumed a hundred times his own mental weight every day. Other people’s ideas, other people’s knowledge—they were his food. He devoured them and they were at once his own.” (109)
Since they are the cynosure for most of the male characters, I have saved for last two ladies of quite different disposition. Myra Viveash is the siren who lures men to her. Indeed, “Myra” in Greek means “extraordinary” and Viveash sounds ironically similar to “vivacious.” However beautiful and enticing a woman, her soul is hollow supposedly due to the loss of her great love in the Great War. “At seven o’clock Mrs. Viveash woke up. She shook her head to feel if the pain were still rolling about loose inside her skull.” (224) And “slowly, walking along her private knife-edge between her personal abysses.” (151)  In startling contrast is Rosie who peers through rose-colored lenses at life: “She looked at him sideways, then closed down the magnolia petals, and smiled. This was going to be the real thing—one of those long, those interminable, or at any rate indefinitely  renewable conversations about love; witty, subtle, penetrating and bold, like the conversations in books, like the conversations across the tea table between brilliant young poets and ladies of quality,  grown fastidious through an excessive experience, fastidious, and a little weary, but still, in their subtle way, insatiably curious.” (95) Conversely Rosie’s husband thinks of her: “She seemed to have been improving lately. And tonight, she had been a model of non-existence.” (107)
                                                            II – PHILOSOPHY
Unlike most comic writers who go for the immediate gag, Aldous Huxley is more far-reaching. The observations about life in his characters ‘  thoughts and mouths are stimulating and for the most part true. Since the novel opens in a school, let us begin with ideas of education. About students: “They were two ugly, stupid-looking louts, who ought to have been apprenticed years ago to some useful trade. Instead of which they were wasting their own and their teachers’ and their more intelligent comrades’ time in trying, quite vainly, to acquire an elegant literary education.” (3) The teachers: “You weren’t sufficiently interested in anything to want to devote yourself to it. That was why you sought the last refuge of feeble minds with classical educations, you became a schoolmaster.” (14) “Until all teachers are geniuses and enthusiasts, nobody will learn anything, except what they teach themselves.” (15) The administrators: “For the Headmaster was as fierce as he was capricious. He was for ever discovering something new. Two terms ago it had been singeing; after the hair-cut and before the shampoo, there must be singeing.” (7)
An appreciation of the Arts is strong in this novel: “The Chinese statues looked out from the niche; the Maillols passionately meditated, slept and were more than alive. The Goyas hung on the walls, there was a Boucher in the bathroom; and when he entered with his guests, what a Piazzetta exploded about the dining-room mantelpiece!” (9) About classical music: “How pure the passion, how unaffected, clear and without clot or pretension the unhappiness of that slow movement which followed! Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Pure and unsullied; pure and unmixed, unadulterated. Not passionate, thank God; only sensual and sentimental.” (144) Even jazz, a relatively new musical form at that time, is touched upon: “At each recurrence of the refrain the four negroes of the orchestra, or at least the three of them who played with their hands alone—for the saxophonist always blew at this point with a redoubled sweetness, enriching the passage with a warbling contrapuntal soliloquy that fairly wrung the entrails and transported the pierced heart—broke into melancholy and drawling song.” (162)
Architecture, too, is stressed as a Fine Art: “Knowing by a century of experience how beautiful, how graceful, how soothing to the mind is an ordered piece of town-planning, we pull down almost the only specimen of it we possess and put up in its place a chaos of Portland stone that is an offence against civilization.” (130) Architecture to some can be seen as even superior to music: “Architecture is a more difficult and intellectual art than music. Music—that’s just a faculty you’re born with, as you might be born with a snub nose. But the sense of plastic beauty—though that’s, of course, also an inborn faculty—is something that has to be developed and intellectually ripened. It’s an affair of the mind; experience and thought have to draw it out.” (128)
Religion and its concomitant ethics is examined from many angles. “God is a sense of warmth about the heart, God as exultation, God as tears in the eyes, God as a rush of power or thought—that was all right. But God as truth, God as 2+2=4—that wasn’t so clearly all right. Was there any chance of their being the same? Were there bridges to join the two worlds.” (1) “Good; good? It was a word people only used nowadays with a kind of deprecating humourousness. Good. Beyond good and evil? We are all that nowadays. Or merely below them , like earwigs?” (2) “When the future and the past are abolished, when it is only the present instant, whether enchanted or unenchanted, that counts, when there are no causes or motives, no future consequences to be considered, how can there be responsibility.” (156) Coleman cynically reasons: “It’s only when you believe in God, and especially in hell, that you can really begin enjoying life. For instance, when in a few moments you surrender yourself to the importunities of my bloody beard, how prodigiously much more you’d enjoy it if you could believe you were committing the sin against the Holy Ghost.” (217)
Under the heading of science, Gumbril wants to advertise the pneumatic trousers he has invented: “All we have to do is talk about the great nerve centres of the spine; the shocks they get when you sit down too hard; the wearing exhaustion to which long-protracted sitting on unpadded seats subjects them. We’ll have to talk very scientifically about the great lumbar ganglia.” (114) In the laboratory: “The animals devoted to the service of physiology were woken by the sudden opening of the door, the sudden irruption of light. The albino she-rabbits lollopped out and shook their ears and pointed their tremulous noses toward the door. The cock into which Shearwater had engrafted an ovary came out, not knowing whether to crow or cluck.” (246) Huxley even considers the possibility of ESP: “I let my telepathic faculty lie idle, preferring to employ an elaborate and cumbrous arrangement of symbols in order to make my thoughts known to you through your senses . . . If we knew a good method of educating and drawing out the latent faculty, most of us could make ourselves moderately efficient telepaths . . . By the twenty-first century I believe we shall all be telepaths.” (238)
What do politicians look like? “Some wear orchids and eyeglasses, like Joe Chamberlain. Some let their ‘air grow, like Lloyd George. Some wear curious ‘ats, like Winston Churchill. Some put on black shirts, like this Mussolini, and some put on red ones, like Garibaldi. Some turn up their moustaches, like the German Emperor. Some turn them down, like Clemenceau.” (85) “Political liberty’s a swindle because a man doesn’t spend his time being political. He spends it sleeping, eating, amusing himself a little and working—mostly working.” (28) Politics dovetails with sociology: “Had one a right to be contented and well-fed, had one a right to one’s education and good taste, a right to knowledge and conversation and the leisurely complexities of love?” (63) “Cinema, newspapers, magazines, gramophones, football matches, wireless telephones—take them or leave them, if you want to amuse yourself.” (29)
This leads us to Huxley’s humorous views of love through his varied characters. “Whether one can be in love with more than one person at a time, whether love can exist without jealousy, whether pity, affection, desire can in any way replace the full and genuine passion—how often he had to thrash out these dreary questions!” (96) On the other hand, an ideal view of love would be: “She would be waiting for him, expecting him; and they would walk through the twiddly lanes—or perhaps there would be a governess cart for hire, with a fat pony like a tub on legs to pull it—they would look for flowers in the woods and perhaps he would still remember what sort of noise a whitethroat makes.” (154)
And from love to some general views of mankind: “If you will have sanitary conditions that don’t allow plagues to flourish properly. If you will tell mothers how to bring up their children, instead of allowing nature to kill them off in her natural way. If you will import unlimited supplies of corn and meat.  What can you expect? Of course the numbers go up.” (185) From the masses to the individual: “Every one’s a walking farce and a walking tragedy at the same time. The man who slips on a banana-skin and fractures his skull describes  against the sky, as he falls, the most richly comical arabesque.” (208) And finally what does time do to us: “Grief doesn’t kill, love doesn’t kill; but time kills everything, kills desire, kills sorrow, kills in the end the mind that feels them; wrinkles and softens the body while it still lives, rots it like a medlar, kills it too at last.” (152)
I do not agree with the last statement above; only Mrs. Viveash would be so negative. Two passages, it seems to me, contain a subtle meaning and beauty we can adopt. One has to do with silence: “All the regular, habitual, daily part of you would die. There would be an end of bandstands and whizzing factories , and one would have to begin living arduously in the quiet, arduously in some strange un-heard-of manner.” (141) This connects with a magic time that Gumbril senior  experiences: “They sat and chattered till the sun went down and twilight was past,  with intervals every now and then of silence that fell suddenly and inexplicably on all the birds at once, lasted through a few seconds of thrilling suspense, to end as suddenly and senselessly in an outburst of the same loud and simultaneous conversation.” (13) Serenity in nature is what Huxley seems to be inferring in order to find fulfillment.
As the years go on, Aldous Huxley’s novels darken into Brave New World, and his favored genre alters into non-fiction as in Science, Liberty and Peace and The Doors of Perception, in which he experiments with hallucinogenic drugs.  With weakening eyesight and multiple operations, he was to die at a relatively young age of 69. Yet, we have seen him at his most youthful and frothiest. No matter how much he changed, the early comedies will remain scintillating additions to the flow of humorous literature.
You can find the book here: Antic Hay
Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society.His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.

STONES OF ARAN: Labyrinth by Tim Robinson

Stones of Aran
By Ray Greenblatt
I took the ferry beneath a gray sky through a choppy sea to Aran. When I arrived in the small harbor surrounded by a scattering of buildings, I thought the island was almost all stone. Stones of Aran by Tim Robinson taught me that I had to stay awhile and really look at what was around me.
Robinson and his wife arrived in 1972. He was a British artist but was soon to fall in love with Aran and become a self-taught cartographer of the island. His writing shows that he also had a highly competent prose style and a poetic sensibility.
He wrote Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage in 1986. The second and final volume, Stones of Aran: Labyrinth, was finished in 1995. Since my trip there was made in 1996 and both books are similar, I will focus on the latter. In the course of Stones of Aran, Robinson explores the geology, the history, and the life-styles of the islanders. First we will meet the man who dedicated those many years to an island no more than nine miles by two miles in area.
I – The Author
Tim Robinson loves to write and nature often inspires him: “Somehow this is not so bad on winter days, with the rain splattering on the window and the oil-heater singeing my shins, but on a still, hot afternoon it is sometimes unbearable. The intensely alert silence of the garden, the white emptiness of the road going by the gate, the wide amnesia of the world toward me—and then the sudden fidget of a blackbird in the shadow under a bush, exactly ‘the sound of the clapping of one hand’. Turns of words cunningly composed to disorientate the mind reveal their banality.” (297)
He also shows great imagination, sentence control, and use of word play: “The last of the daylight, sodden with porter, eased itself out of the door, but the creature of sticks and crumpled brown paper behind the bar showed no inclination to replace it with the cheer of a lantern. Three or four elderly islanders on a wooden bench along one wall looked down as if observing the occasional involuntary shiftings of their boots on the concrete floor, glanced from under their brows at the stranger on the bench opposite, looked down again, left the silence to thicken, broke it with a brief sardonic interchange about the old sack that had been thrown over the vomit left in the corner from the previous night, let their eyes stray across the stranger again.” (141)
His wife and he fixed up their humble cottage: “The bedroom has become our secret retreat too, from both nature and society. With the wooden shutters on the inside of the window closed and a blanket stuffed into the crack between them, our Tilly-lamp can tell no one we are at home, and even when the wind gets one fist down the chimney and the other somehow into the wall-cupboard, it cannot buffet us here, while the oil heater toasts the dampness into a cosy fug and we lie on the floor examining with voluptuous lingerings a newly arrived parcel of books.” (295)
Sometimes he was able to “read” the land: “I used to browse from field to field here as if leafing through a well-loved anthology, or find myself caught wordless in the middle of a page by the disappearance of a question-mark, a lizard’s tail, into the margin. If the text frequently held me up with obscurities, long practice gave me great fluency in its grammar, though perhaps memory flatters in showing me drifting across this terrain as little impeded by stones and thorns as a cloud-shadow.” (236)
From his writing but especially his map-making, Robinson establishes himself in this close-knit community. He is also able to objectify and laugh at himself: “Yes, we all have our ad-hucksterish ways of living off the stones of Aran, and it is a good thing we have the daily bread of nature’s beauty to supplement them . . .they give us identities too, they validate our going up and down the hill in the eyes of society . . .But now I have an island nickname . . .I am Fear na Mapai, the man of the maps, and that is why I am on this hill.” (178)
II – The Stones
The island of Aran is composed of limestone. In the stones are many fossils: “A nautiloid, a cephalopod mollusk related to the modern octopuses and squids, and to the extinct belemnites whose conical shells are to be found here and there in the Aran rocks. Many species of nautiloids, some with straight or curved shells, others with coiled shells like this specimen, inhabited the waters from which the limestone was deposited. Their shells were divided by thin partitions into a number of compartments, the outer of which was occupied by the animal itself while those farther back were full of gas and functioned as buoyancy-chambers.” (339)
Not only are there stone surfaces under foot but many stone walls: “To cross a wall without bruising one’s shins or jolting one’s spine, one should look for stones that run right through the wall and stick out on either side, and step up and over on these as on a stile, refraining from leaning out from the wall or clutching at the topmost stones to lever oneself upright, but keeping one’s centre of gravity as close to the wall and as low over its top as possible.” (13)
A closely scanned boulder may teach us things:  “There is something of the classroom or examination-hall about the crag this boulder stands in; everything here is well lit, separated out, reduced to essentials, so that if we cannot understand, it is our fault. The boulder itself, pedagogical on its podium, demands clarity of thought: observe this, comment on that, deduce the other. A few long straight fissures draw elementary geometrical figures on the blackboard-smooth pavement.” (241)
Many holy people came to Aran over the centuries, none so famous as St Enda in the fifth century who arrived on a stone boat: “Thinking now of how this invisible tower sings in the winds of history, in a spacious antiphony with those other towers . . . of the monasteries founded by alumni of St Enda’s foundation. I do in imagination what I never did while living in Aran—climb down into that stone drum, lie there among the herbs, looking up at swallows darting through the vanished rooms piled above me, and try to remount the cloudy centuries, from the last known abbot of Aran back to the coming of St Enda himself.” (57)
That chapel Robinson imagines might be the remains of this one: “The arch dividing the nave from the chancel is Romanesque, as is the lovely, slim, round-headed lancet window-light in the east gable. The chancel is a little narrower than the nave at ground-level and has been fitted onto the east end of the older building between its antae, but it has projecting parapets along its eaves bringing it out to the full width of the rest, probably added in the fifteenth century. These ragged crenellations give the church a romantic air.” (358)
Around these mostly ruined churches are significant slabs with inscriptions: “Despite their great age, such Early Christian cross-inscribed slabs, of which there are about twenty to be seen in and around Aran’s churches, have the freshness of works from the first decade of modern abstract art, and in one or two of them Kandinsky would have recognized a spiritual fervour behind the ingenuous charm of their oddly balanced crosses and circles.” (49) The tombs are classified as: passage, portal, court, and wedge tombs. On Aran are only the wedge: “The Wedge-shaped Gallery Graves have one main chamber, sometimes with a small portico or antechamber and a small closed rear chamber, and usually decreasing in height and width from front to rear.” (231)
Robinson wonders what prayer can accomplish beside these ancient holy places: “But how can one pray for a soul of whom one knows so little? Only a believer in a vast essentialist bureaucracy of the hereafter can send up a prayer labeled with a name and a date of decease, and be confident that it will be credited to the right account. The secular equivalent is more difficult.  These people, Sara, John, Patrick and the rest, have gone beyond hearing; they will not answer to our historical echo-soundings, and the pious best we can do—for ourselves, not for them—is to inform ourselves enough to understand something of them and their times, and so, by reflection, of ours.” (33)
Dun Aonghasa is by far the most popular tourist attraction; it has been called a citadel, castle, cathedral, even a city. Yet, archaeologists to date debate its antiquity—it could go back to 2500 B.C.– as well as true function.  Robinson tends to agree with Prof. Etienne Rynne who writes: “When visiting Dun Aengus, therefore, . . . the visitor should conjure up an image of druids, ollavs, bards, kings and nobles, all processing formally through the Dun’s impressive entrance, some to perform rituals on the stage-like platform, some to assist in the innermost enclosed area, and others to stand on the surrounding terraced wall chanting incantations or singing sacred songs while viewing the solemn proceedings taking place against the dramatic backdrop of the wild Atlantic ocean whose waves sonorously thunder against the rock-face  far out of sight below.” (395) I was duly impressed by its grandeur hulking on a cliff that plunged three hundred sheer feet!
III – Flora, Fauna, Phenomena
Robinson is constantly amazed at the variety of plant life on such a small northern island: “The lesser spearwort, and wet tangles of bogbean, the tiny white marsh bedstraw, lady’s smock and marsh pennywort. The water speedwell roots in the muddy bottoms of little holes a foot or so below ground level.” (92) The nearly extinct corncrake bird lives on Aran: “To us the plaintive creaking of the corncrake, repeated as endlessly as the distant whispered thunder of waves falling on the beach, was part of the natural pulse of the night.” (351)
The farmers develop the knack and rhythm of planting; here they are cutting rye: “And yet every stage of the harvest is visually charming—the area of stubble or bare ground, decorated with the lines of fistfuls, slowly widening through the day as the standing crop dwindles, the sheaves each belted with a twist of straw, the plump stacks of sheaves topped off with an upside-down sheaf like a huge sun-hat, the donkey waiting to carry the stacks one by one to the outhouse.” (18)
Their tools are also important; here a farmer is planting potatoes with a spade: “The handle itself was grey, its varnish worn off long ago, and smooth, fed by the copious spittle with which Seamaisin lubricated his hands. The left-hand bottom corner of the blade was worn into a large quarter-circle, and before tackling the second trench he took the spade over to a granite boulder that sparkled in the wall, and sharpened it until its edge gleamed like a scimitar.” (260)
The author learned many skills from weaving to ponyriding. He even learns to milk a cow: “I got the knack of it to some degree, and then there were many dawns in which the cow’s overhang sheltered me from the drifting rain while I participated in the ancient insanitary magic of milking a cow in Aran, dipping my finger and thumb into the milk to lubricate her warty teats, cursing her when she suddenly let fall a splatter of dung, dipping into the milk again when I had finished to make the sign of the cross on her haunch.” (252)
After a time of proving himself with the islanders, he made many friends. This is a countrywoman who lives nearby:  “She was an ample, soft, welcoming person; remembering her, I think of well-risen bread. In between stuffing a chicken and boiling potatoes and making tea for me and eating biscuits, she would bring me out to the little area at the back of the house, half flagged, half grassy, with hens and kittens and the interesting weeds she wanted me to see, the pair of us bobbing over them like hens.” (411)
Robinson is exhilarated by the view from the highest point on the island: “Above and around all the vast circus of the elements one commands from the top of this climb is the protective envelope of sky, the delicate translucent skin of the globe. Its depths are of many intersuffusing layers, visible and invisible; the tenderness of its bending down to and wrapping over the horizon is often clear to the feeling eye. Sometimes dull, bruised by departed gales, sometimes glowingly reminiscent of kind weather.” (182)
On Aran the night seems absolute and controlling: “Sometimes in the dark all things reveal the secret we keep from ourselves by daylight and lamplight, that below the skin of what we see of them they are fathomless pools of potential appearances; it is as if other creatures’ deeper vision of them takes priority and forces itself on our own eyes. And we too are objects of those alien visions; our self-recognitions are shaken.” (183)
It can be exhilarating when the author bikes home: “If the rain is not blinding us it is an exciting ride. For the first mile, the road takes the outside edge of one of the great steps of the island’s northern flank, and the ground falls away so sharply on the right that it feels as if one were riding the crest of a huge breaker. Often a winter sunset exploded by the last of the gale into ragged purples and oranges comes flying to meet us from the western skyline; we know that our chimney draws well in such winds and a glowing fire will greet us with the proposal of long hours of reading.” (204)
“Here one is in intimate contact with a world withdrawn into the past. Seeing it revealed thus in its obsessional, finicky, obsolete way is touching, and at the same time illicitly exciting. If there is haunting here, it is not that some returned frequenter of these fields is peering into our time, but that I myself am trespassing back through gaps in walls of the past.” (193)
I missed a lot on my trip to Aran. Since then I have learned to look closely. My Scots-Irish wife and the paintings of Andrew Wyeth pointed out a variety of colors in a seemingly drab autumn landscape after the bright flourish of leaves. In Stones of Aran Tim Robinson has walked me over nearly every square foot of the island in close to one thousand pages: around the coastline in Pilgrimage and down the central spine in Labyrinth. He states what truly applies to himself: “Not everyone is as sure of the necessity of their own life-world as the poet, whose mirror-lined skull brings the reflections of formative years to a focus of definitive brightness.” (410) For his writing I will always be grateful.
Ray Greenblatt has recently been published in: Abbey, Apiary, Boston Literary Magazine, Comstock Review, Clarion, and Painters & Poets.  His experimental novel TWENTY YEARS ON GRAYSHEEP BAY, half poetry and half prose, is being republished by Sunstone Press.

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint Exupery

By Ray Greenblatt
          I had never reviewed a memoir in translation for fear that it would not equal the original in quality. However, the literary reputation of Lewis Galantiere (1895-1977)–the French translator of Saint Exupery’s book—greatly reassured me. Not only was he an intimate friend of the author, but he had translated another Saint Exupery best seller Night Flight (1931). In addition, Galantiere had translated the dramatist Jean Anouilh into English and was president of PEN, the oldest international literary organization. These two friends were so close that when Saint Exupery was having trouble naming his book—and suggestions abounded: Land of Humans? Land of Men? Stars in Windy Conditions? etc.—Galantiere’s title immediately struck Saint Exupery as perfect: Wind, Sand and Stars (1939). And this translation has sold unchallenged into the present era!
                                                          I – The Art of Aviation
          Antoine de Saint Exupery avidly began to fly in 1922 in the still early stages of aviation. His first book Southern Mail published in 1929 and all subsequent works were about flying. In his career he flew to the Far East and South America; however, his main focus was the Saharan region.
          The author puts us into the cockpit: “Already one has a foretaste of the treasures about to be garnered on the way—the green and brown and yellow lands promised by the maps; the rosary of resounding names that make up the pilot’s beads; the hours to be picked up one by one on the eastward flight into the sun.
          “There is a particular flavor about the tiny cabin in which, still only half awake, you stow away your thermos flasks and odd parts and over-night bag; in the fuel tanks heavy with power; and best of all, forward, in the magical instruments set like jewels in their panel and glimmering like a constellation in the dark of night. The mineral glow of the artificial horizon, these stethoscopes designed to take the heartbeat of the heavens, are things a pilot loves. The cabin of a plane is a world unto itself, and to the pilot it is home.” (171)
          The crew make an interdependent team, even the men on the ground tracking them: “The operator sits in the light of his lamp, dutifully setting down figures; the mechanic ticks off points on his chart; the pilot swerves in response to the drift of the mountains as quickly as he sees that the summits he intends to pass on the left have deployed straight ahead of him in a silence and secrecy as of military preparations. And below on the ground the watchful radio men in their shacks take down submissively in their notebooks the dictation of their comrade in the air.”  (24)
          A veteran pilot kept the novices humble by telling sobering tales.“The very curtness of his replies on these tempestuous days was matter enough out of which to build a fabulous world filled with snares and pitfalls, with cliffs suddenly looming out of fog and whirling air-currents of a strength to uproot cedars. Black dragons guarded the mouths of the valley and clusters of lightning crowned the crests—for our elders were always at some pains to feed our reverence.”  (12) Saint Exupery enjoyed incorporating mythology into his writing.
          A pilot must be able to read the landscape. “The hours during which a man flies over this mirror are hours in which there is no assurance of the possession of anything in the world. These palms beneath the plane are so many poisoned flowers. And even when the flight is an easy one, made under a shining sun, the pilot navigating at some point on the line is not gazing upon a scene. These colors of earth and sky, these traces of wind over the face of the sea, these clouds golden in the afternoon, are not objects of the pilot’s admiration, but of his cogitation. He looks to them to tell him the direction of the wind or the progress of the storm, and the quality of the night to come.” (33)
          What is the true nature of an airplane: “In this spirit do engineers, physicists concerned with thermodynamics, and the swarm of preoccupied draughtsmen tackle their work in appearance, but only on appearance they seem to be polishing surfaces and refining away angles, easing this joint or stabilizing that wing, rendering these parts invisible, so that in the end there is no longer a wing hooked to a framework but a form flawless in its perfection completely disengaged from its matrix, a sort of spontaneous whole, its parts mysteriously fused together and resembling in their unity a poem.” (66)  The author is able to define science in terms of the Fine Arts.
          Saint Exupery believed that machinery could reconnect man with nature: “And thus, also, the realities of nature resume their pride of place. It is not with metal that the pilot is in contact. Contrary to the vulgar illusion, it is thanks to the metal, and by virtue of it, that the pilot rediscovers nature. As I have already said, the machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.” (67)
          The value of flying:  “Flying is a man’s job and its worries are a man’s worries. A pilot’s business is with the wind, with the stars, with night, with sand, with the sea. He strives to outwit the forces of nature. He stares in expectancy for the coming of dawn the way a gardener awaits the coming of spring. He looks forward to port as to a promised land, and truth for him is what lives in the stars.”  (227)
                                                          II – Men of the Air
          Those early aviators took many chances since planes were so unsophisticated. “Flying by the seat of your pants,” was a common expression. Many of Saint Exupery’s colleagues crashed. Here is Guillaumet after his place went down, facing death in the snow. Saint Exupery addresses him as if the author were there: “Already you were beginning to taste the relief of this snow that had now become an insidious poison, this morphia that was filling you with beatitude. Life crept out of your extremities and fled to collect round your heart while something gentle and precious snuggled in close at the centre of your being. Little by little your consciousness deserted the distant regions of your body, and your body, that beast now gorged with suffering, lay ready to participate in the indifference of marble.” (56) Only the intense guilt about his wife and children being alone forced him to struggle on to eventual safety.
          Another friend Mermoz crashed on a high mesa in Chile: “Mermoz and his mechanic had been forced down at an altitude of twelve thousand feet on a table-land at whose edges the mountain dropped sheer on all sides. For two mortal days they hunted a way off this plateau. But they were trapped. Everywhere the same sheer drop. And so they played their last card.
          “Themselves still in it, they sent the plane rolling and bouncing down an incline over the rocky ground until it reached the precipice, went off into the air, and dropped. In falling, the plane picked up enough speed to respond to the controls. Mermoz was able to tilt its nose in the direction of a peak, sweep over the peak, and, while the water spurted through all the pipes burst by the night frost, the ship already disabled after only seven minutes of flight, he saw beneath him like a promised land the Chilean plain.
          “And the next day he was at it again.” (40)
          However, it was Saint Exupery himself who seemed to need the nine lives of a cat or more. Here he is temporarily caught in a tornado: “The mountain range stood up like a crenellated fortress against the pure sky while the cyclone crushed me down to the surface of the waters. How hard that wind was blowing I found out as soon as I tried to climb, as soon as I became conscious of my disastrous mistake: throttle wide open, engines running at my maximum, which was one hundred and fifty miles an hour, my plane hanging sixty feet over the water, I was unable to budge. When a wind like this one attacks a tropical forest it swirls through the branches like a flame, twists them into corkscrews, and uproots giant trees as if they were radishes. Here, bounding off the mountain range, it was leveling out the sea.” (86)
          After another crash he has this physical sensation: “When I opened my eyes I saw nothing but the pool of nocturnal sky, for I was lying on my back with out-stretched arms, face to face with that hatchery of stars. Only half awake, still unaware that those depths were sky, having no root between those depths and me, no branches to screen them, no root to cling to, I was seized with vertigo and felt myself as if flung forth and plunging downward like a diver.” (105)
          He then has a dream about his imperturbable and eternal nanny: “Ah, I owe you a page, Mademoiselle! When I came home from my first journeyings  I found you needle in hand, up to the knees in your white surplices, each year a little more wrinkled, a little more round-shouldered, still preparing for our slumbers those sheets without creases, for our dinners those cloths without seams, those feasts of crystal and of snow.
          “I would go up to see you in your sewing-room, would sit down beside you and tell you of the dangers I had run in order that I might thrill you, open your eyes to the world, corrupt you. You would say that I hadn’t changed a whit.” (108)
          When Saint Exupery and his mechanic Prevot crashed in the Sahara, after days without sustenance they began to hallucinate: “When we had struggled up to the top of the black hump we sat down and looked at each other. At our feet lay our valley of sand, opening into a desert of sand whose dazzling brightness seared our eyes. As far as the eye could see lay empty space. But in that space the play of light created mirages which, this time, were of a disturbing kind, fortresses and minarets, angular geometric hulks. I could see also a black mass that pretended to be vegetation, overhung by the last of those clouds that dissolve during the day only to return at night. This mass of vegetation was the shadow of a cumulus.” (201)
          Then later: “Amazement stopped me in my tracks. Joy surged up and filled my heart with its violence. In the firelight stood Prevot , talking to two Arabs  who were leaning against the motor. He had not noticed me, for he was too full of his own joy. If only I had sat still and waited with him! I should have been saved already. Exultantly I called out:
          ‘Hi! Hi!’
          The two Bedouins gave a start and stared at me. Prevot left them standing and came forward to meet me.  I opened my arms to him. He caught me by the elbow. Did he think I was keeling over? I said:
          ‘At last, eh?’
          ‘What do you mean?’
          ‘The Arabs!’
          ‘What Arabs?’
          ‘Those Arabs there, with you.’
          Prevot looked at me queerly, and when he spoke I felt as if he was very reluctantly confiding a great secret to me:
          ‘There are no Arabs here.’
          This time I know I am going to cry.” (215) Notice how effective the sudden  switch to present tense intensifies his dilemma.
          Saint Exupery lived from 1900 to 1944. His writing shows strong philosophical and poetic traits. I feel that he was fortunate to have lived that long. After so many accidents he was in chronic pain. He had trouble turning his upper body so had to be helped getting into his plane. He grew depressed and began to drink heavily. However, his writing became a compulsion as if he was budgeting the small amount of time left before he disappeared into the sea on his final mission.
                                                       III – Men of the Earth
          Foremost, Saint Exupery believed in individual freedom. He wanted no part of a bureaucrat’s life. “You, like a termite, built your peace by blocking up with cement every chink and cranny through which the light might pierce. You rolled yourself up into a ball in your genteel security, in routine, in the stifling conventions of provincial life, raising a modest rampart against the winds and the tides and the stars.” (23)
          The author had fallen in love with the desert: “This sea of sand bowled me over. Unquestionably it was filled with mystery and with danger. The silence that reigned over it was not the silence of emptiness but of plotting, of imminent enterprise. I sat still and stared into space. The end of the day was near. Something half revealed yet wholly unknown had bewitched me. The love of the Sahara, like love itself, is born of a face perceived and never really seen. Ever after this first sight of your new love, an indefinable bond is established between you and the veneer of gold on the sand in the late sun.” (130)
          He grew to respect the desert nomads’ way of life:
          “’What is he saying?’ I ask once again.
         ‘That he will shoot you if he meets you outside the fort.’
          ‘He says you have airplanes and the wireless; you have Bonnafous {a French leader}; but you have not the Truth.’
          Emotionless in the sculptured folds of his blue cloak, Mouyan has judged me.
          ‘He says you eat greens like the goat and pork like the pigs. Your wives are shameless and show their faces—he has seen them. He says you never pray. He says, what good are your airplanes and wireless and Bonnafous, if you do not possess the Truth?’
          And I am forced to admire this Moor who is not about to defend his freedom, for in the desert a man is always free; who is not about to defend his visible treasures, for the desert is bare; but who is about to defend a secret kingdom.” (149)
          Saint Exupery found other truths when he flew into Spain during the Civil War in 1936. “Truth is not that which can be demonstrated by the aid of logic. If orange-trees are hardy and rich in fruit in this bit of soil and not that, then this bit of soil is what is truth for orange-trees. If a particular religion, or culture, or scale of values, if one form of activity rather than another, brings self-fulfillment to a man, releases the prince asleep within him unknown to himself, then that scale of values, that culture, that form of activity, constitute his truth. Logic, you say? Let logic wangle its own explanation of life.” (240)
          Another question he asks is why a man would risk his life. “The call that stirred you must torment all men.  Whether we dub it sacrifice, or poetry, or adventure, it is always the same voice that calls . . . What, Sergeant, were the visions that governed your destiny and justified your risking your life in this adventure? Your life, your only treasure! We have to live a long time before we become men. Very slowly do we plait the braid of friendships and affections. We learn slowly. We compose our creation slowly. And if we die too early we are in a sense cheated out of our share. We have to live a long time to fulfill ourselves . . . A great wind swept through you and delivered from the matrix the sleeping prince you sheltered—Man within you. You are the equal of the musician composing his music, of the physicist extending the frontier of knowledge, of all those who build the highways over which we march to deliverance. Now you are free to gamble with death. What have you now to lose?” (287)
          After someone’s death, what do we really love in him? “Gone was the feeble spark of humanity. And while in the man’s throat there was brewing that shriek which I know not what deferred, he had the leisure to reflect that it was not those lips he had loved but their pout, not them but their smile. Not those eyes, but their glance. Not that breast, but its gentle swell. He was free to discover at last the source of the anguish love had been storing up for him, to learn that it was the unattainable he had been pursuing. What he had yearned to embrace was not the flesh but a downy spirit, a spark, the impalpable angel that inhabits the flesh.” (265) Saint Exupery was asking this through the mind of a soldier but that man represented all men including the author.
          And what truly fulfills a man? “To come to man’s estate it is not necessary to get oneself killed round Madrid, or to fly mail planes, or to struggle wearily in the snows out of respect for the dignity of life.  The man who can see the miraculous in a poem, who can take pure joy from music, who can break his bread with comrades, opens his window to the same refreshing wind off the sea. He too learns a language of men.” (301)
          Qualities of Saint Exupery’s best selling book for children The Little Prince (1943)—translated into over two hundred languages—are also found in Wind, Sand and Stars. It is a blend of bare realism with a mystic view of man in the universe. From another planet the Prince has come to the Sahara to observe the ways of men. Saint Exupery is a man who many times met extreme rigors between life and death. From these experiences, instead of a jaundiced view of life, he—like the Prince—developed a deep love for the world and his fellow human beings.


Ray Greenblatt has recently been published in: Abbey, Apiary, Boston Literary Magazine, Comstock Review, Clarion, and Painters & Poets.  His experimental novel TWENTY YEARS ON GRAYSHEEP BAY, half poetry and half prose, is being republished by Sunstone Press.



Readers Picks For The Holidays

Looking for that special book for a holiday present? Here are the top 10 books based on readership at North of Oxford for 2017 as of November.


Magnesium by Ray Buckley



Guess and Check by Thaddeus Rutkowski


Martin Fierro - Jose Hernandez

Martin Fierro by Jose Hernandez



Shoot the Messenger by John Dorsey



100 Selected Poems by e.e. cummings


f h

Seek the Holy Dark by Clare L. Martin



Justine by Lawrence Durrell



Unmaking Atoms by Magdalena Ball


the way back

The Way Back by Joyce Meyers



Bird Flying through the Banquet by Judy Kronenfeld




Literature & the Great War by Randall Stevenson

By Ray Greenblatt
          I, an educated, middle-aged American, learned so much from this outstanding book. So many pieces of information filled in my spotty familiarity with the Great War. Prof. Stevenson has studied a staggering number of books about the War, as well as individual letters, military documents, etc. He also has a broad overview not only of literature written during the War, but of writing that preceded it as well as later literature influenced by the War. 
          The organization of Stevenson’s work is lucid: the uniqueness of the Great War; prose about the War; the poetry; and the influence of the Great War on culture generally. My discussion will follow those four divisions.
          Peace for Britain had lasted for a hundred years, with only distant skirmishes in the Empire. However, some more prescient writers, like H.G. Wells, sensed tensions growing in Europe centered in Germany. Once the War began, the government asked many authors to write encouraging comments about events taking place. Most agreed; individuals like G.B. Shaw continued to voice their own concerns. Before very long the press was censored; newspaper headlines—even cinema—were tilted toward the positive for morale sake.
          Letters from the front became a new and vital concept. What resulted was exposure in writing to the spoken word, local dialects, foreign languages, swearing, and especially “militarese.” Even then, many soldiers did not want to relate the horrors. Likewise, the older generation on the home front, who had lived more of a romantic ideal, did not want to hear the gruesome truths. Perhaps, suggests Stevenson, if the government and press had been truthful, the War might have stopped sooner!
          Since the Great War was truly titanic in scope with science developing gas masks, steel helmets, airplanes, tanks, and long-distance bombs, the average soldier felt diminished. Perhaps only the Air Force felt cavalier about one-to-one air duels. Time became meaningless in the trenches; time for those at home meant either a letter or a death notice.
          Prof. Stevenson cannily points out that lines blurred between the autobiography, memoir and novel. Coherency was often missing because that was how the mind worked during war. It was even difficult to use the right tense because under extreme stress time could freeze or rush helter-skelter.
          Siegfried Sassoon had his two selves talk in The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston. T.E. Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom stated that soldiers felt dwarfed by Nature. R.H. Mottram‘s Spanish Farm consisted of multiple books: one about the War, another about a love affair during the War. Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End explored the inner consciousness of soldiers.
         Since I have been a working poet for nearly forty years, I think it fitting to include one of the most moving poems to come out of the Great War, since Prof. Stevenson did not have space for complete poems:
Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfrid Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
          As Prof. Stevenson writes, poems by soldiers as well as civilians dominated the depiction of the Great War. Poetry is essentially a song that is an inherent part of mankind.  It represents emotion, exaltation, spirit, soul. Compared to a novel a poem can be quickly written; it can also be fragmentary. These qualities best fit the atmosphere of battle. Edward Thomas, a noted prose writer about Nature before the War, changed to poetry very successfully while serving in the War.
          Historically poetry had strongly been about Nature, so the tradition continued although the environment was no longer soothing. Down deep in trenches, men looked up to the sky and clouds and stars for inspiration.  But as the War progressed, idealism and heroism, as written about in many of Rupert Brooke’s poems, grew bleaker. After the battle of the Somme in 1916, the entire tenor of the War and literature as well became negative, as in Wilfrid Owen’s poetry.
          Prof. Stevenson writes that in Britain 40,000 war memorials were dedicated to the Great War. As an American I see WWI memorials fused with WWII, even the Korean and Viet Nam Wars. Many American monuments are raised to the American Revolutionary War and even more so to the American Civil War. The same horrors occurred, like tourists searching for souvenirs on the battlefield. Many say that the Great War caused history to break and progress to regress; that war will always happen.
          Without  the War no debts would have accrued and perhaps more schools and hospitals could have been constructed.  Women were offered more opportunities during and after the War. The working class man became the backbone of the army.
          Prof. Stevenson states that some things are sure, with which I agree wholeheartedly.  Poetry in English class, rather than in history class, brought the Great War vividly alive. What history disturbs, culture restores. More experimental and abstract writing was spurred by the War.  In poetry, specifically, varied line lengths and half-rhymes became more accessible. It took until well into the 1920’s for authors to be read without censorial interference. Indirect influences from the Great War can be seen in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1921), E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924), Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). And those literary changes caused by the Great War continue today!

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Literature-1914-1918-Oxford-Textual-Perspectives/dp/019959645X


Ray Greenblatt has recently been published in: Abbey, Apiary, Boston Literary Magazine, Comstock Review, Clarion, and Painters & Poets.  His experimental novel TWENTY YEARS ON GRAYSHEEP BAY, half poetry and half prose, is being republished by Sunstone Press.

Hawthorne Predicts the Future! in The House of The Seven Gables

house green
By Ray Greenblatt
          In his Preface Nathaniel Hawthorne clearly lays out what he proposes to do in his novel: “The point of view in which this tale comes under the Romantic definition lies in the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us.  It is a legend prolonging itself, from an epoch now gray in the distance, down into our own broad daylight, and bringing along with it some of its legendary mist, which the reader, according to his pleasure,  may either disregard,  or allow it to float almost imperceptibly about the characters and events for the sake of a picturesque effect.”
          Thus, Hawthorne had no intention of writing a Realistic novel. Within his rubric his characters could be ideal or totally debased; his plot could involve many coincidences and a pat conclusion; his writing style could be ornate, wandering—even bordering on the supernatural. But I observe that the floor supporting this dreamland has many realistic planks that reveal actual life in 1851 when this story was first published and into the possible future. He delves into diets, diversions, professions, inventions, and more.
          Let us begin our discussion in the kitchen, for a person’s breakfast can reveal his heart, caloric or aerobic.  The cooks are perusing an old recipe volume that features: “Venison, turkeys, capons, larded partridges, puddings, cakes, and Christmas pies.” (“The Guest”) However, their reality is a bit more humble. They fry an egg with a fresh broiled mackerel, mocha coffee, a golden Indian cake and fresh churned butter smelling of clover-blossoms.  As moderns we say Bravo! to the fish broiled, and hope the butter is used sparingly.
          We also know today that “presentation” contributes greatly toward a satisfying meal. So they selected from among their many antiques: “a small and ancient table, supported on its slender and graceful legs,” a damask jug, old china cups and saucers, crested spoons, a silver cream jug, and fresh roses in a glass pitcher.  The table sat beside a large window looking out on the garden where “the early sunshine came twinkling through the branches of the pear tree.”
          What can a young woman’s elbow grease do to save an old house, in this case a two hundred year old mansion. “The grime and sordidness of the House of the Seven Gables seemed to have vanished since her appearance there; the gnawing tooth of the dry-rot was stayed among the old timbers of it skeleton frame; the dust had ceased to settle down so densely, from the antique ceilings, upon the floors and furniture of the rooms below . . .the shadows of gloomy events that haunted the else lonely and desolate apartments; the heavy, breathless scent which death had left in more than one of the bedchambers.” (“Clifford and Phoebe”)
          We have to remember that the House of the Seven Gables is a real structure in the old port town of Salem, Massachusetts. It was owned by Hawthorne’s cousin whom he visited many times. Over the years the building has been preserved since it is the oldest surviving 17th century wooden mansion in New England. But no cement foundation nor sump pump, no weather-stripping nor thermal windows, no non-flammable shingles nor smoke detectors.
          Let us stroll into “The Pyncheon Garden”—which can scarcely be called that—for that is where the egg and the roses came from. In one section there are squashes, bean-vines, currant bushes, bees and hummingbirds, and a well for water. The remainder of the plot was badly overgrown with weeds. A rooster, two hens, and a baby chick are all that remain of the flock . Certainly they can’t compare with Mr. Perdue’s hundreds of thousands on his chicken ranches.   If this garden were better cultivated, it could provide sufficient protein and vitamins from fruits and greens in our dietary pyramid for a family.
          Now that we have sustenance under our belt, let us observe what family-run cent-shops were selling. In “May and November” a young woman has given her much older relative new ideas for items to sell: raisins, apples, flour, thread; and gingerbread cookies, molasses candy, and toys like Dutch wooden milk-maids, whistles, trumpets which are mostly for children.
          These shops cannot compete with the newly rising large-volume stores: “Groceries, toy-shops, dry-goods stores, with their immense panes of plate-glass, their gorgeous fixtures, their vast and complete assortment of merchandise, in which fortunes had been invested; and those noble mirrors at the farther end of each establishment, doubling all this wealth by a brightly burnished vista of unrealities! On one side of the street this splendid bazaar, with a multitude of perfumed and glossy salesmen, smirking, smiling, bowing, and measuring out the goods.” (“The First Customer”)
          It’s starting to sound a bit like Dickens with that extended string of present participles. Ironic that in this admittedly unreal novel Hawthorne is branding the department stores of the early 19th century as “unreal.” The mom & pop stores always had a difficult time. Today polyconglomerates like Walmart are bestowing the final deathblow.
          Let’s go to a parade. So many novels have had parade sequences in them, perhaps circus parades, mummers parades, Easter parades, etc. Hawthorne’s parade is not a gaudy one. It is for elders with idle time; it brings life to them when they can’t actively pursue it. From “An Arched Window” a man can view over the course of a day: a horse cab, omnibus, water-cart, butcher’s cart, fish-cart, a cart of vegetables, baker’s cart, scissor-grinder, barrel-organ with monkey.
          Now comes what we today consider a more typical parade, a political procession “with hundreds of flaunting banners and drums, fifes, clarions, and cymbals, reverberating between the rows of buildings, marched all through town,  and trailed its length of trampling footsteps, and most infrequent uproar . . .He can distinguish the tedious commonplace of each man’s visage, with the perspiration  and weary self-importance on it, and the very cut of his pantaloons, and the stiffness or laxity of his shirt-collar, and the dust on the back of his black coat.”
          Fortunately there is no sound amplification to send those with sensitive ears scurrying. However, in another decade (Hawthorne was to die in 1860 prematurely at age sixty) there would be veterans’ parades of Civil War combatants as the years rolled on; those participants eventually dwindled so that Southerners and Northerners commingled and marched in a more brotherly manner together.
          Since various trades and professions have been mentioned, let us investigate what jobs were open to a 19th century man. Of course, a woman was almost exclusively relegated to the home. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance if a man from a family of position was fortunate enough to be the oldest son, he would inherit the entire estate, becoming essentially a gentleman farmer. A younger brother—short of begging some property or financial settlement from his oldest brother—could enter the military (the cavalry was often a dashing choice) or enter the clergy. As time went on, becoming an attorney was also a gentleman’s option.
          The young man in our novel was flexible and daring for those times. Since America was still on the frontier in the 19th century, perhaps this was not so unusual in comparison with Europeans in a more rigidified society. Although Holgrave was just twenty-two, here are some of the positions he had already held with a limited amount of education but with keen intelligence and excess energy: schoolmaster, salesman in a store, newspaper editor, itinerant pedlar of perfumes, a dentist, hand aboard a packet-ship, member of a Fourierist community, lecturer on hypnotism, and presently in the novel a photographer, thus the chapter title “The Daguerreotypist.”
          These jobs had enabled him to travel not only throughout New England and the Middle Atlantic states but to France, Italy and Germany. Many younger people today get varied experience by working in summer jobs. As college tuitions soar, they are forced to think of many more creative ways to make a living. The future dictates that a worker of any age—up to his or her retirement—will change positions every four or five years in the natural course of an adult working life. Holgrave was ahead of the curve.
          In this novel we can even look at a man who has made it to the top; perhaps in a questionably ethical manner. This is naturally the villain of our piece, Jaffrey Pyncheon. What does a wealthy man’s day consist of? Visit an insurance office or bank directors’ meeting, meet a State Street broker, attend a real estate auction, buy a horse (today read that as a car), sit on the board of a charitable society, consult a family physician and ironically purchase a new tombstone for the long deceased wife.   Did Michael Milken or Bernie Madoff also do things like this recently?
          But truly his major goal is to meet with a political committee where the possibility is strong that Judge Pyncheon could be nominated to become “Governor Pyncheon.” ”Five-and-twenty years for the enjoyment of his real estate in town and country, his railroad, bank, and insurance shares, his United States stock—his wealth, in short, however invested, now in possession, or soon to be acquired; together with the public honors that have fallen upon him, and the weightier ones that are yet to fall! It is good! It is excellent! It is enough!” But for a greedy, immoral man it is never enough.
          Amid this Romance’s shadowy settings, complications of a half-dozen characters, and strokes of the Gothic, in one of the culminating chapters, “The Flight of Two Owls,” many controversial topics contemporaneous to Hawthorne’s time are raised. He posits through a character that perhaps we live too much by routine and rote: “The soul needs air; a wide sweep and frequent change of it. Morbid influences, in a thousand-fold variety, gather about hearths, and pollute the life of house-holds. There is no such unwholesome atmosphere as that of an old house, rendered poisonous by one’s defunct forefathers and relatives.”
          In its most positive light our two major characters consider a train:  “It was novelty enough, indeed, that there were fifty human beings in close relation with them, under one long and narrow roof and drawn onward by the same mighty influence that had taken their two selves into its grasp. It seemed marvelous how all these people could remain so quietly in their seats, while so much noisy strength was at work in their behalf . . . sleep; sport; business; graver or lighter study; and the common and inevitable movement onward! It was life itself!”
          Hypnotism has its merits in that it might reveal things not known in conscious life. Electricity can transform all of us in ways not yet understood. Hawthorne feels that the telegraph by making the world so much smaller can also limit man’s privacy. What would he think of computer chips implanted in our brains!
          In 1854, three years after The House of the Seven Gables, H. D. Thoreau from an opposite direction but not less critical, wrote in Walden about the vapidity of the telegraph: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing to communicate.” About trains he was even more cynical: “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man!” And perhaps we rue the fact that when trains were largely discontinued in the mid-twentieth century, the ties were pulled up. Critics now say that we should have developed rail service rather than encourage autos with their concomitant pollution of gasoline.
          As a coda since Dickens was mentioned earlier in this writing, let us examine Dr. Manette from A Tale of Two Cities (1859). The poor old man served fifteen years in the Bastille, unjustly sentenced by evildoers.  When he emerges, he is barely a shell of a man but slowly heals physically and emotionally. Nearly a decade before Dickens’ novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne had Clifford Pyncheon leave a prison term of thirty years perpetrated by our villain, cousin Jaffrey Pyncheon.  He, too, so close to insanity and death, slowly recovers due to those who love him. Hawthorne was ahead of his time in many ways, as well as ahead of the other major authors of his era.
          Hawthorne’s explanation of Romance, the style in which he wrote The House of the Seven Gables, is full of words which create a certain mood: “bygone, flitting, legend, gray, distance, mist, float, picturesque.” And yet, in a book he suggests far removed from the reality of the day, he has provided for us a very realistic look at major elements that define the society of his time, indeed, a civilization for our 21st century.

You can find a copy here: https://www.amazon.com/House-Seven-Gables-Thrift-Editions/dp/0486408825

Ray Greenblatt has written articles for: English Journal, Sea Change, Drexel Online Journal, Joseph Conrad Today, Bookmark Quarterly, Sunstone Press. He is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal and teaches a Joy of Poetry course at Temple University-OLLI