Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Due to Travels, Currently Posting at My Other Blog, Elizabeth Varadan's Fourth Wish

To My Blog Friends,

Right now we are in Spain, and I am also working on my "cosy mystery", set in Portugal, so my posting is being done mainly on my other blog, Elizabeth Varadan's Fourth Wish. You can go right to it by clicking on it in the upper righthand margin. I hope to get back to Victoriana soon, but Iberia is saturating my imagination.

Hope to see you next door!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Henry David Thoreau

This retouched photo of a
painting is in the Public Domain
I have Thoreau on my mind today, because yesterday I finished reading the latest middle grade fantasy by jane Langton in her Hall Family Chronicles, The Dragon Tree. 

Before I launch into Thoreau, let me just tell you a bit about this series and why I like the books in it so much. The eccentric Hall family live at 148 Walden Street, in Concord, MA. Professor Frderick Hall heads the family and is forever working on a book about Thoreau. His wife, Professor Alexandra Hall, manages to keep everyone else calm and focused, while being extremely absent-minded herself. The three children, Eleanor (currently in Paris), Edward (now in high school), and Georgie (now in sixth grade), periodically take on righteous causes, inspired by their father's devotion to Emerson and to Thoreau (whose bust graces a stand in the front hall). 

In The Dragon Tree, a strange family moves in next door to the Halls. The wife collects stuffed and mechanical animals. The young girl with them seems to live a Cinderella life (before the arrival of the fairy godmother). And the husband, Mortimer Moon, is the new tree warden in town. Almost immediately, he starts cutting down the local trees. Shortly after he fells the trees in his own yard, a mysterious little plant pushes up from the ground between his house and that of the Hall family, growing at an amazing pace. Soon it turns into a sapling, and then a tree, and then a bigger tree. It turns out to be the dragon tree of the book title; an enchanted tree: Thoreau's "dragon tree".  (And if you want to know what that means, you'll have to read this delightful book and maybe a little of Thoreau as well.) 

Jane Langton has written twelve books about the Hall family, and each one offers a different kind of magic. Evil is confounded in each book by the characters in this family, but it's a different kind of evil: the kind you might encounter in real life. Refreshingly, these books don't require a dystopian universe to engage a reader, and the magic differs in each book, drawing a reader into a new adventure where good hearts win the day. You can find her books and reviews Here and Here .

And now to Thoreau: 
In the public domain.
Picture is by his sister.

All my life I had heard about (and read parts of) his most famous book, Walden, basically a spiritual quest, eschewing distractions of the cluttered life in favor of what one can learn from living simply in nature. When I was growing up, my mother had a copy of this. She was also enamored of the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a transcendentalist. What I didn't realize then was that Thoreau, too, was a transcendentalist. The transcendentalists believed in the inherent goodness of individuals and that corruption came from entrenched institutions -- a point that resonates with me these days, considering the state of today's politics. They believed that people are at their best when they are independent. (My mother treasured her copy of Emerson's Self Reliance, along with her copy of Walden.)

I didn't realize that Thoreau was an ardent abolitionist and that a great deal of his writing addressed the cause. I was aware of his Civil Disobedience. Mohandas Ghandi (Mahatma Ghandi) took inspiration from this philosophy. Later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., took his inspiration from Ghandi -- testimony to the power of great ideas to reach across time and space and kindle the flame of justice in the human heart. Ghandi and King have been two of my heroes, and it's wonderful to realize that the ideas of this fairly quiet man from Massachussettes were able to emit such a beam of light a century later.

He was also a poet, and you can read his poems HERE 
He had quite a range: Some of the poems are philosophical, some ironic and humorous, and some quite clearly paeons to nature in all her beauty. 

How about you? Has any novel or piece of fiction turned your thoughts to a famous historical or literary figure? Is there any author you thought you knew about suprised you by their other writings?
Please share your thoughts.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Abe Lincoln, the Poet

Since the sixteenth President of the U.S., Abraham Lincoln, lived and died during the Victorian Era in America, it seems fitting to include a post about him on Victorian Scribbles.
Young Lincoln,
by Charles Keck, Sculptor, 1945

by Alexander Gardner, 1863

I didn't realize Lincoln wrote poetry until I came across a small book, The Poems of Abraham Lincoln, published by Applewood Books, Inc., in 1991. "Small" is the definitive word: There are three poems in all, inspired by a 1844 trip to his childhood home in Indiana.              
(Both pictures here, by the way, are in the public domain.)

It shouldn't be surprising to learn Lincoln was attracted to poetry. He wrote his own speeches with such eloquence and imagery, it was clear he loved language. Still, it was touching to realize he turned to poetry to express matters close to his heart—a new slant on someone who has always ranked in my own heart as one of my most admired American "heroes".

The first poem, "My Childhood's Home," is a bittersweet poem about returning to the childhood home of the title and sadly realizing everyone is gone. Its closing lines are tinged with sadness:

     "I range the fields with pensive tread
          And pace the hollow rooms.
      And feel (companion of the dead)
           I'm living in the tombs."

The second, "But Here's an Object . . ," conveys deep distress over the life of a childhood schoolmate, Matthew Gentry. Matthew, as a child, tried to hurt himself, his mother, and his father; apparently he grew up mad. In the 1944 visit, Lincoln saw that Matthew was still in a terrible state. You can read the full poem, and some history of Matthew's condition HERE . The closing lines of this poem evoke the old cliche, "a fate worse than death," that some states of "madness" inflict—particularly in those days, when mental illness was so little understood and so poorly dealt with:

     "Oh death! Thou awe-inspiring prince,
           That keepst the world in fear;
     Why does thou tear more blest ones hence,
           And leave him ling'ring here?"

The third poem, "The Bear Hunt," is the only one of the three with a touch of humor. He describes in great detail, the chase and the hunt, with the dogs tracking the quarry. At the end, even though the bear has been killed by hunters, the dogs are fighting over the corpse, as if to take credit for the outcome. Lincoln's verdict?

     "Conceited whelp! We laugh at thee—
          Now mind, that not a few
     Of pompous, two-legged dogs there be,
          Conceited quite as you."

You can read all three of these poems in their entirety HERE .

So, now I wonder: Were any other U.S. presidents drawn to poetry?
What surprising things have you learned about Lincoln or any other person you consider a hero?


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: The Children's Poet -- And More

Photogaph by
Julia Margaret Cameron
in Public Domain

About a year ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing for Sacramento/San Francisco Book Review, Sydelle Pearl's lovely book, Dear Mr. Longfellow, Letters to and from the Childrens Poet.  I was particularly interested in that book (we get to choose from an extensive list) because in school I had learned "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." At home, my mother had read The Song of Hiawatha, an epic poem, to my brother and me when we were children, and I had never forgotten the tom-tom beat in the lines of Hiawatha.

Pearl's book charmed me. She interspersed bits and pieces of Longfellow's life with the letters children wrote to him and his replies. (You can read the review, now at City Book Review, HERE.) I hadn't thought of him as a "children's poet," but apparently children loved his poems.

Longfellow (February 27, 1807 - March 24, 1882), was a Victorian Era poet and has been considered one of America's greatest poets. "The Children's Hour," a poem written to his three daughters, is still one of the sweetest poems I've ever read, and you can read it HERE. A versatile poet, he also went on to write a translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, published in 1867.

When my husband and I went on a cruise along the St. Lawrence River last October, I had the opportunity to purchase a copy of Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, another epic poem, this one a tragic love story, and perhaps Longfellow's most famous poem. I was intrigued, because the poem is about the historic deportations of Acadians from Nova Scotia in 1755-1763, and our cruise actually stopped at two cities in Nova Scotia: Sydney and Halifax. (You can read a little more about the Nova Scotia part of our cruise HERE.)

Coincidentally, one of the women on our cruise was Cajun. Cajuns' ancestors were the Arcadians who were expelled from Arcadia by the British after the French and Indian War, primarily because they wouldn't take an oath of allegiance that might commit them to fighting the French in the future. Some went to Louisiana, some to Texas, some back to France and then Louisiana. Generations later, some families returned to Canada and live there today.

I'm a history buff, and so, after hearing the history and meeting someone with distant ties to the subject matter, of course I had to buy the book.

Evangeline is written in a very different form from either "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" or The Song of Hiawatha. The meter is "dactylic hexameter" or "heroic hexameter", a form used in the Greek epics (think the Iliad) or Latin epics (think Virgil's Aenid), neither of which I have read, because I always found those long masterpieces daunting. I do have to admit that Evangeline is a tough read. For example, compare:

        "Listen, my children, and you shall hear
         The midnight ride of Paul Revere . . ."


         "By the shores of Gitchee Gumee,
          By the shining Big-Sea-Water . . ."


          "In the Acadian land, on the shores of the Basin of Minas,
          Distant, secluded, still, the little village of Grand-Pré
          Lay in the fruitful valley. Vast meadows stretched to the eastward . . ."

          Beautiful and haunting writing, yes, but 77 pages of it was taxing at times. Still, it's an extremely moving tale of unforgettable, star-crossed lovers, the way Romeo and Juliet are unforgettable. No daggers or poison, here, only the separation of Gabrielle and Evangeline during the Arcadian expulsion. They are separated when the villagers are all rounded up and loaded onto ships. They are reunited by accident when Evangeline -- who has joined the Sisters of Mercy, after years of searching for him -- finds her beloved Gabrielle in Philiadelphia, a victim in the smallpox epidemic. He dies in her arms, and she dies soon after.

Evangeline is apparently based on a true story: The "Gabrielle" of the poem was based on Louis Areceneaux. "Evangeline" was based on an orphan named Emmaline, whose adoptive family went first to Maryland then to Louisiana.

The particular edition of Evangeline I have is a paperback, published by Nimbus Publishing, You can get a copy of the book HERE.

In the meantime, Longfellow still ranks as one of my favorite American poets.

Do you have favorite poems or poets? Please share one or two. I'm always on the look-out for a good poetic read.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Blog Break Until Feburary 1st

Dear Blog Friends,

Right now I'm working on a writing project that has a deadline. Please come back February 1st. Meanwhile, I'll still surf around, reading yours and commenting.

Thanks so much for your patience.