Words, words, words

A few weeks ago I went to an event with some co-workers; it featured a keynote speaker. I knew nothing about them but read the blurb, in between the mingling bustle beforehand, of how they’d admirably overcome extreme obstacles of poverty and limited education. Now, they try to help break the barriers for others by promoting community involvement and outreach.

During one of the segments, there was a short interview with the person’s mother. The lady had no teeth. It wasn’t her lack of teeth I found shocking but the way it jarred the speaker’s message. Yes, it’s very likely the video may have been for dramatic effect– to show the speaker’s roots, as it were, but even that idea is unsettling. Assuming it has been met, and the image of the mother was staged, why? It negates the progress of the speaker’s determination of improving lives. Why not acknowledge that progress?

This vision of helping others is eclipsed by the image of a very basic and unfulfilled need within their very family. It’s so important to care for those closest to you first. Gracefully without hurting their self-respect.

It undermined the altruistic message. Don’t make a speech, show me.

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Poetry must be Heard

When I’m reading a poem for the first time it usually takes the first two stanzas for either my pulse to quicken and I slow down to absorb the poem or nothing happens and I continue reading hoping I’ll find that moment later on. When it does have that stirring force I’m always amazed at how much more powerful it becomes if you read the poem aloud– whisper it even. It’s rhythm takes on a life of its own.

John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale opening line has a shiver of s’ which as you whisper create a languid energy. Languid because as you say the s’ you’re letting breath out and it’s relaxing you but the energy vibrates through the beat of the words, so you actually begin to feel the drowsy numbness:

My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains my sense

Christina Rossetti’s De Profundis uses o’s:

Oh why is heaven built so far, Oh why is earth set so remote?
I cannot reach the nearest star That hangs afloat.

The open sound of the o’s mixed with the tone of what’s written evoke yearning.

Other times it’s the composition of the words, like in this one by Wordsworth; the way they’re placed together. After ‘Why art thou silent!’ Try saying the rest in one breath:

Why art thou silent! Is thy love a plant
Of such weak fibre that the treacherous air
Of absence withers what was once so fair?

By the time you reach the end more than likely you’re on the last puff of air and that feeling reinforces the  ‘withering.’ Or try this, say it in one breath until you reach ‘what was once so fair‘ suddenly it takes on a new meaning, with the new breath the reminder of what was fair revitalizes.

Which poems have moved you? Have you read them aloud?

Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone

The moonstone is an Indian diamond of great price plundered from a Hindu temple. It was left to Rachel Verinder by a spiteful Uncle who grudged the family for cutting him from visiting. What is vindictive in giving such a precious jewel? Along with it comes danger, intrigue, and confusion– and yes, he was well aware of it! Considered one of the first English mysteries (natural as the notion of what we consider a ‘detective’ really evolved in the Victorian era) unlike our modern stories, it’s far more character-driven than plot-driven. Surprisingly, Detective Sergeant Cuff does not figure as the main character, he’s almost a minor character! Swooping in and out, helping or hindering; guiding the mystery.

Collins creates a compilation of eye-witness accounts, each event related to the moonstone’s mischief. The epistolary-like format lets us learn about the characters through various impressions and points of view. Gabriel Betteredge with his trusty old pipe and Robinson Crusoe starts us off with charming (unintentional) humor on his inadequacy in writing. He’s the current butler of the house, which gives a stolid image of him– but such an image would be mistaken. He was the estate’s steward for many years and it’s clear he loved the outdoors and going about managing. Despite whatever he says about women he seems to be a softy who gives in more often than not to the wishes of them: Lady Verinder, his daughter Penelope, and presumably his wife. What a curious character Mrs. Betteredge must have been! He’s a delightful character, especially when he’s struck with ‘detective fever.’

Rachel Verinder doesn’t feel bound to portray herself with pretense; She says and does everything frankly and honestly. It’s the story of her romance with Franklin Blake that really drew me into the novel because there’s a drastic shift in her behavior. Is Betteredge deceived in his opinion of her? Is Cuff right? I felt the answers must be ‘no’ but  why was she suddenly reticent and cryptic? She must have a very good reason but as to what the reason is we are as lost and confused as Franklin.

Miss Clack, unfortunately, is our second narrator. Her sanctimonious interfering is very annoying because she does it with a Pharisee-like hypocrisy: false sympathy, condescending pity, and inopportune interjections. She lacks the understanding of what being a good Christian really means. Her feelings and motives prick out behind the shield of her pen. Collins’ statement is clear: Just because a person professes and appears to be religious doesn’t necessarily mean they are. He uses this idea again with Godfrey Abblewhite whose philanthropy is well-known and admired. He plays with appearances versus reality. It is such a relief when we move onto the next storyteller.

There’s also a dimension on Imperialism. The diamond rightfully belonged to the Indians it had been stolen. While that does not justify their actions it begs the question of whether at the time India, often termed the Jewel in the Crown, ought to have been under British rule? Does the moonstone symbolized the country? And I will stop there as I know very little on the history of that subject. But I imagine this hint wasn’t lost on all of Collins’ contemporaries.

Memorable Quotes

I am asked to tell the story of the Diamond, and, instead of that, I have been telling the story of my own self. Curious, and quite beyond me to account for. I wonder whether the gentlemen who make a business and a living out of writing books, ever find their own selves getting in the way of their subjects like me?

If you will look about you (which most people won’t do),” says Sergeant Cuff, “You will see that the nature of a man’s taste is, most times, as opposite as possible to the nature of a man’s business.”

“I was thinking of you.” The answer almost unmanned me. Something in the tone, even mroe than in the words, went straight to my heart. It was only after pausing a little first that I was able to go on.

W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil

Maugham’s writing flows beautifully, his style is suave and simple but it pulls you in and compels you to read. The Painted Veil is the story of Kitty Fane who married her husband Walter because she was mortified at the idea of her sister, Doris, beating her to the altar. Maybe she also sensed his sincerity but their temperaments couldn’t be more different. She lives like a butterfly flitting from one party or social event to another not thinking or examining herself or others. Walter is independent, a man of science, and socially awkward.

Their marriage brings her to Hong Kong where he’s working as a bacteriologist. At a dinner party she meets Charlie Townsend, a man coming up in the political arena. They’re strongly attracted to one another and share the same shallow, materialistic ideas of living. They become lovers. The way Maugham sets up the story with the handle turning and the door being locked– it’s simple but creates a vivid, suspenseful image and almost like a mystery book, the clues tell Kitty that Walter knows.

Walter decides to go into the heart of a cholera epidemic forcing his wife to come with him– unless Charlie’s wife will consent to divorce, then she can be free. Kitty clutches at the second idea because of her strong feelings for Charlie, but his ambitions are stronger and he turns his back on her. She begins to wonder what’s missing, why hadn’t she realized he was so contradictory and selfish? She feels foolish for  believing he cared for her. The real story is transformation. Kitty begins to discover who she really is, evolving into a better person, coming outside of herself in a realistic and human way; It’s not a sudden transformation, she stumbles.

Maugham reminds us that people alter; they don’t always remain the impression you’ve discerned. Having a static view of people is like Newton’s picture of space and then Einstein came and realized it’s dynamic– it bends and stretches, warps and curves based on what’s there. We are the same way, we alter based on our experiences and hopefully learn and evolve into better, more conscientious people towards those around us.

Memorable Quotes

The morning drew on and the sun touched the mist so that it shone whitely like the ghost of snow on a dying star. Though on the river it was light so that you could discern palely the lines of the crowded junks and the thick forest of their masts, in front it was a shining wall the eye could not pierce. But suddenly from that white cloud a tall, grim and massive bastion emerged. It seemed not merely to be made visible by the all-discovering sun but rather to rise out of nothing at the touch of a magic wand. It towered, the stronghold of a cruel and barbaric race over the river. But the magician who built worked swiftly and now a fragment of colored wall crowned the bastion; in a moment of out the mist, looming vastly and touched here and there by a yellow ray of sun, there was seen a cluster of green and yellow roofs. Huge they seemed and you could make out no pattern; the order, if order there was, escaped you; wayward and extravagant, but of an unimaginable richness. This was no fortress, nor a temple, but the magic palace of some emperor of the gods where no man might enter. It was too airy, fantastic and unsubstantial to be the work of human hands; it was the fabric of a dream.

I don’t understand anything. Life is so  strange. I feel like some one who’s lived all his life by a duck-pond and suddenly is shown the sea. It makes me a little breathless, and yet it fills me with elation. I don’t want to die, I want to live. I’m beginning to feel like one of those old sailors who set sail for undiscovered seas and I think my soul hankers for the unknown.

I want her to be fearless and frank. I want her to be a person independent of others because she is possessed of herself, and I want her to take life like a free man and make a better job of it than I have.

L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables

We’re drawn into the world of Avonlea by Mrs. Rachel Lynde, very appropriate as she’s the local busybody who so efficiently runs her household and the community events, she still finds time to meddle in everyone else’s business. She’s amazed when she learns Marilla and her brother Matthew Cuthbert are adopting an orphan boy to help out with the farm and raise. Marilla is so sensible and Matthew so shy that a child at Green Gables just seems out of place. They’re all in for a surprise when instead of a boy they meet red-haired Anne Shirley.

Matthew takes to her right away, charmed by her expression, she loves to talk and that puts him at perfect ease. He senses her sensitive soul and despite all her wonder and appreciation for things feels she’s not been taken care of nor loved. Marilla is bewildered by Anne’s romantic notions but soon their lives would be unimaginable without her.

Anne is such a wonderful heroine because she’s always getting into scrapes and making mistakes but instead of being frustrated or letting them jade her she comes out smiling with a positive attitude and learns from them. Her optimism and enjoyment of life shine off the page. She’s taken the very real struggles in her early life and used them to foster an imagination and appreciation for nature. Where others may only see Barry’s Pond, thrilled by it’s beauty, she sees the Lake of Shinning Waters. Sometimes she crosses into the boundaries of her imagination so far that she forgets to put flour in the cake she’s trying to bake or frightens herself out of her wits in the Haunted Woods.

Peel back the layers of the ‘flowery’ prose and fancy and underneath is a novel that inspires activity, determination, and community involvement. Anne is driven by a desire to make others proud of her, particularly at school. Her ambitions aren’t what define her, she’s flexible and alters them based on her circumstances and opportunities. She takes setbacks as bends in the road. Perhaps one reason I feel to akin to Montgomery’s works is because in each is a deep love for home. In the end it’s her home and family that matter most to Anne and there’s that warm glow of her message of ceaseless hope.

Memorable Quotes

Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive–it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we know all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?

There’s such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I’m such a troublesome person. If I was just the one Anne it would be ever so much more comfortable, but then it wouldn’t be half so interesting.

Oh, Marilla, looking forward to things is half the pleasure of them… You mayn’t get the things themselves; but nothing can prevent you from having the fun of looking forward to them. Mrs. Lynde says, ‘Blessed are they who expect nothing for they shall not be disappointed.’ But I think it would be worse to expect nothing than to be disappointed.

W. Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale

Cakes and Ale is a parody on the literary world and biographies; the difference between perceptions and the truth. It follows William Ashenden’s recollections of acclaimed novelist Edward (Ted) Driffield, thought by many to be inspired by Thomas Hardy though Maugham denied the connection. Driffield’s origins are humble and his life varied with color. His official biography will be written by Alroy Kear, who is well practiced in the art of manipulating everything into it’s most flattering light. Episodes such as moonlighting from Blackstable leaving unpaid debts and details on the divorce from his first wife, Rosie, are best left glossed over. He must be stainless and respectable. Otherwise how can he be revered?

Remembering the past, I asked myself curiously what he thought of this grand company, his neatly-turned out wife, so competent and discreetly managing, and the elegant surroundings in which he lived. I wondered if he regretted his early days of adventure. I wondered if all this amused him or if the amiable civility of his manner masked a hideous boredom. Perhaps he felt my eyes upon him, for he raised his. They rested on me for awhile with a thoughtful look, mild and yet oddly scrutinizing, and then suddenly, unmistakably this time, he gave me another wink.

The son of a bailiff and former sailor, Ted’s background is considered common. Rosie was a bar-maid before their marriage and rumors cast a shadow on her virtue. At first young Ashenden only sees her friendly, mischievous, and open-hearted nature but he begins to wonder when he sees her familiarity with coal merchant ‘Lord’ George. He joins in their afternoons of banjo music, whist, which Rosie is very good at, and conversation. He’s hurt when he gets back from school holidays and learns they’ve left. Financial difficulties happen to everyone but it’s their deceit in sneaking away during the night that shocks him. More so because they’d so much credit from the merchants and lived comfortably.

Ted’s novels are about ordinary people like him. At first they’re not recognized because the working class aren’t in vogue, but as he grows older popular taste turns to the plight of working men and his books gain popularity as well as some controversy, and his name greatness. Ted tries to remain in the shadows but people want him to mix with high society, they invite Rosie out of courtesy. She puts no restrictions on herself, she wants to make those infatuated by her happy and enjoy herself. Maugham portrays her with an aura of purity, her conscience is clear and it’s that ease that makes those at the tea parties & etc. uncomfortable. It’s agreed, especially by Mrs. Barton Trafford (his patron/society press agent), that Ted has a most unsuitable wife.

The three men each have writing in common: Ashenden is unpretentious about his work. The surname seems to be Maugham’s favorite for his fictional self– it’s also used in his collection of short stories, Ashenden: The British Spy, inspired by his experiences in MI6 during the warDriffield’s a quiet writer, it’s others who talk about his novels. Kear uses his loquacious talent to puff up his writing, befriend his critics, and make a name for himself among the public, who are, unfortunately, taken in. Driffield’s second wife, Amy, and Kear are kindred spirits, I imagine Kear’s infatuated by her. They both use others to benefits themselves. Amy treated Ted like a child and bordered on spying on him: writing down what he said and saving tidbits of things all to be used after his death so she could sponge off his fame and mould his image into how she’d like it presented. It must also be said Kear was based on Hugh Walpole and although Maugham, again, denied a connection Walpole retaliated with a portrait of him in John Cornilieus.

It’s about differences between the truth and perceptions and assumptions. About letting go of perfection and accepting peoples flaws. Remembering that greatness can sometimes be missed, between the lines I think Ashenden was the greater writer of the three but he passed under the radar.

Memorable Quotes

But the weather was dreadful, a boisterous wind whistled down the street, piercing you to the bone, and the few who had an errand were swept along by their full skirts like fishing boats in a half gale. The cold rain scudded in sudden squalls, and the sky, which in summer had enclosed the friendly country so snugly, now was a great pall that pressed upon the earth with awful menace.

I wish now that I had not started to write this book in the first person singular. It is all very well when you can show yourself in a amiable or touching light, and nothing can be more effective than the modest heroic or pathetic humorous which in this mode is much cultivated; it is charming to write about yourself when you see on the reader’s eyelash the glittering tear and on his lips the tender smile; but it is not so nice when you have to exhibit yourself as a plain damned fool.

E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End

“It was the kind of scene that may be observed all over London, whatever the locality— bricks and mortar rising and falling with the restlessness of a water in a fountain, as the city receives more and more men upon her soil.”

The only permanence in the novel is Howard’s End, a place which has a pivotal effect towards all the characters. Even though the main setting is in London, it’s presence is felt throughout. The Wilcox’s wrongfully keep the home after Mrs. Ruth Wilcox passes. She wrote a note in pencil that she wished her friend, Margaret Schlegel, to have it. Despite that none of the family want to live there and feel it’s outdated they value it as a piece of property and don’t feel right parting with it to a stranger.

The Schlegel’s are very different from the Wilcox’s.They have an appreciation for the arts and for emotions. They challenge their thoughts and look at other points of view, associating with diverse people– they want to know life beyond the norm of society. Margaret, Helen, and Tibby each are very different individuals; they have their own personalities and interests. Margaret has a strong backbone, she’s witty, understanding and thoughtful. Helen’s wild, impulsive, and passionate. Tibby doesn’t try to impress anyone and is not worldly ambitious, he studies what he finds interesting and works very hard at it. The Wilcox’s struggle is to stay within the norm. They suppress emotion, seeing it as a weakness and are determined to be successful in the material world. Those in the family share common characteristics, very little differentiates them from one-another.

Margaret had often wondered at the disturbance that takes place in the world’s waters when Love, who seems so tiny a pebble, slips in. Whom does love concern beyond the beloved and the lover? Yet his impact deluges a hundred shores.

What really intrigued me is how and if Margaret Schlegel could care for Mr. Henry Wilcox. The same might be said for Ruth. Was it his vulnerability, which only they saw, that was part of his attraction? The worldly comfort? or just the desire of marriage? It’s not because he’s flawed that I fail to grasp the two’s choice of husband but because their minds and spirits and so dissimilar to his. Ruth and Margaret both have very sensitive souls, although Margaret’s more forward-thinking. But they both marry this man who doesn’t try to understand himself, doesn’t really have independent thoughts– just stands with what he’s been brought up to do and think. He seems imperceptive to humanity and the side of the world which Margaret really is a part of.

Helen and Mr. Wilcox were both tangled in adulterous affairs– they both crossed the boundaries of Edwardian morality but where Helen recognizes this, Mr. Wilcox refuses it. He was married to Ruth. Leonard Bast was married to Jacky. Jacky Bast was Mr. Wilcox’s mistress years ago. When he learns of Helen’s pregnancy he refuses to let her stay at Howard’s End. She has done wrong. That he did the same thing can’t be admitted. Margaret tries to make him face his hypocrisy but he keeps it buried under unrelenting denial. He wants to portray himself as the ‘model gentleman’ and because this illusion has been broken and Margaret knows the truth it’s the end of their marriage. He doesn’t forgive himself nor anyone else, even though as humans we cannot be perfect.

Helen’s moment with Leonard might have been her way of showing him they are equals. While Mr. Wilcox sees his previous affair as degrading, he never saw Jacky as an equal. He leaves Jacky stranded without a care for her welfare. Leonard sticks by his promise to marry her and is cut off from his family. He feels responsibility. Something Helen chides Mr. Wilcox for his lack of. Especially when his information about the Porphyrion causes a lot of problems for the Basts.

Leonard really wants to improve himself but in the beginning he forces it too much. When he plays a bit of Grieg on the piano, it’s described as harsh and vulgar. I think Forster means Leonard doesn’t understand the piece and plays it tempestuously thinking, perhaps that he’ll feel more– convey more and forgets the nuances, the contrasts of the piece, and probably technique. He has great fear of his own ignorance and when he first meets the Schlegels all he can do is be silent and wary. He fails to discern they wouldn’t judge him harshly but be intrigued by his eagerness.

When he goes out for his all-night walk he begins to realize that the true greatness of culture isn’t always analyzing or comparing but having those works influence his life, inspire him to transcend beyond his daily routine.

Mr. Wilcox with all of his wealth and privileges doesn’t come to this realization. But he begins to sense the imbalance of how he interprets life after he’s broken by the scandal of his son’s actions which hurry on Leonard’s end. Done because of a belief that he must defend Helen’s honor, another erroneous assumption because it was probably Helen who seduced Leonard– but Mr. Wilcox is taken into Margaret’s wing and the ending leaves a sense that maybe he will understand. Surrounded as he is now by Margaret, Helen, and Helen’s son. Learning along with the child?

Memorable Quotes

What is the good of your stars and trees, your sunrise and the wind, if they do not enter into our daily lives? They have never entered into mine, but into yours, we thought–Haven’t we all to struggle against life’s daily greyness, against pettiness, against mechanical cheerfulness, against suspicion? I struggle by remembering my friends; others I have known by remembering some place–some beloved place or tree–we thought you one of these.

Charles and Tibby met at Ducie Street, where the latter was staying. Their interview was short and absurd. They had nothing in common but the English language, and tried by its help to express what neither of them understood.