Bloomfield’s “Summer”

In keeping with the schedule I put forth yesterday, I present a literary piece for your perusal today.

There are few things I love so much as good English pastoralism; give me Vaughn Williams, Butterworth, Parry, and Bridge most any day, and I’ll have all the music I need to feel all the feelings of life.  Which is perhaps why the pastoral is so seductive to someone like me–in its seeming simplicity, its lack of pretension, it very quietly speaks the truths of human life that we (post)moderns so eagerly try to escape: limitations, frustrations, pain, discipline…and joy, peace, quietness, and beauty, things that exist as a result of the former group, not in spite of it.

I have a similar attraction to pastoral literature, though my education in this regard is very spotty (and is thus very much like my education in pastoral music), especially with regard to the English pastoral.  But the concepts of place, and peace, and discipline are always so close to my mind, especially as I grow older, especially as I become more comfortable with who and where I am, and as these are the essential concerns of the pastoral, I always become excited and wonderfully anxious when I encounter a bit of pastoralist writing.  Which is what I’ve come across today, in the form of “Summer,” the second section of English poet Robert Bloomfield’s The Farmer’s Boy.

I know nothing about Bloomfield, having never heard of him before today, except for what the Encyclopedia tells me:

English poet, was born of humble parents at the village of Honington, Suffolk, on the 3rd of December 1766. He was apprenticed at the age of eleven to a farmer, but he was too small and frail for field labour, and four years later he came to London to work for a shoemaker. The poem that made his reputation, The Farmer’s Boy, was written in a garret in Bell Alley. The manuscript, declined by several publishers, fell into the hands of Capell Lofft, who arranged for its publication with woodcuts by Bewick in ‘Soo. The success of the poem was remarkable, over 25,000 copies being sold in the next two years.

Bloomfield died in 1823.  Several things interest me about Bloomfield, then.  First, he came from humble origins, and produced, as we shall see, poetry of real quality–even if it is not brilliant poetry, even if nothing in The Farmer’s Boy approaches Gray’s “Elegy,” it is still strong, moving, robust, challenging, and most importantly beautiful poetry.  Its ostensible simplicity is its strength, the source of its complexity, as we see in pastoral work, generally.  Secondly, that Bloomfield was poor and apprenticed out, and not sent to school, suggests that he was likely an autodidact.  This, I am certain, is the only real kind of education one can ever have.  Perhaps the autodidact never becomes a master at anything; perhaps for every Henry Adams, who was a brilliant autodidact, there are ten millions of dilettantes.  I say so be it.  The dilettante, the amateur, this is what we simple folk, those of us who do not expect to ever be a great man, but merely a simple person living our simple life–and thus a person who recognizes and resists the destructive siren song of hubris, and who perhaps makes life a little more worth the living–we should all strive to be like this.  Bloomfield is perhaps not a great poet, but he is a good poet; more to the point, he is an amateur, he is one who loves.  That love shines through in this poem.  Finally, the success of Bloomfield’s poem points to the fact that popular culture can be edifying, and challenging, and point us to how different our lives and our world can be.  This is as true for us as it was for Bloomfield’s day; the challenge is to work towards bringing about a popular culture of this type, and to replace the popular culture that is dominant today and was surely dominant then–one that promotes hubris, and licentiousness, and disregard for our fellow humans, and disrespects our own humanity, asking that we give it up for the fulfilment of our basest instincts, things that find cessation, only to immediately crave again.

The poem is, as I said, the second of the series that is The Farmer’s Boy.  Here, we see Giles, the eponymous boy, as a mediocre worker, too enraptured with the world around him to actually accomplish the tasks set before him with any real skill or care.  Yet, things are still bounteous.  This is, of course, romantic myth-making of the countryside–and Bloomfield knows this.  The rains fall early on, yet the harrowing still kicks up too much dust, revealing drought as still a constant companion.  The ending consists of a powerful chat about the failures of the farm for small people, the possibilities of not being able to continue the work that gives one’s life its meaning.  Bloomfield thus plays the realities of rural life against the myth of the pastoral, and in so doing, he creates a dreamy, beautiful world, that feels as hazy as summer itself.  There is life here, there is community, there is no ostentation.  There is the experience of pleasures made all the greater because of their need to be earned; the draught the maid brings is not merely there for the taking, for the ordering, but is the reward for work done, for tasks struggled through.  This world is then the antithesis of modernity; it is our most joyous dream, and our most dreaded reality.

The Weekly Schedule/Readings for Monday, 29 July 2013

I’ve gone back and forth mentally many times over what it is I want to do and not do here; such back-and-forth has kept me from doing too much here.  I’ve decided on a weekly writing schedule.  Inevitably, I will miss some days, but I will also hopefully get a good bit of momentum going, and will discipline myself into keeping to this schedule.  The stuff I’m going to be doing will be good for me to do, and perhaps someone will read the things I’m writing and posting, and will find some good in it for them, too.

The schedule, then:

  • Mondays: A brief list of a few short articles of interest to read
  • Tuesdays: Posting of a short literary piece.  This could be a (few) poem(s), a short story, essay, a selection from some larger work–something that can be consumed in a sitting, and hopefully digested over time.
  • Wednesdays: A meditation on the week’s lectionary readings, along with a selected work of art and a selected prayer.  I am no theologian, and do not pretend to be.  I am, however, a person who is contending with my own faith, and this sort of work is both powerful and necessary for me.
  • Thursdays: A posting of some public-domain bit of multimedia, whether it be a film, or an image, or a piece of music, or something similar, with perhaps a brief comment appended to it.
  • Fridays: Writings of a part of a “series.”  These will be longer writings, essays of a sort, that will be me waxing personally on whatever takes my fancy for a period of time.  I am going to begin (and spend some time with) writing about reading through the Harvard Classics, which is something I’ve been meaning to do with some seriousness for a time now.
  • Saturdays: A recap of the week, some postings of random bits of interest, maybe a Storify description of what I talked about on Twitter that week.

Hopefully, these things will help me meet my real goal for this site: exploring, and being instructed and challenged by, those things that can broadly be described as coming ex libris humanitas.

Let’s start, then, with a few readings for today, Monday, 29 July 2013.

  • Google Books is an excellent, intriguiging, and often very frustrating tool.  My recent work has found me using it quite a bit, and it has, in a very palpable way, helped me to rediscover the 19th century.
  • Seattle grunge never seemed like the kind of world that viewed military service as a good; which is what makes the story of an ex-member of Nirvana and Soundgarden all the move fascinating.
  • Allen Tate remains one of the more talented, most frustrating, and little-understood literary figures of the 20th century.  I have often felt that his contributions to American literature and our understanding of the South, poetry, and conservatism are necessary things to revisit and contend with in a world that is so different than the one he advocated for.  And in he few places did he advocate this world so clearly as in his Phi Betta Kappa address at the University of Virginia.
  • No consideration of Tate, that address, and and being an unapologetic Southerner and dedicated traditionalist conservative can be responsibly made without first thinking through the issues Alan Jacobs raises.

Brief Commentary: The Southern Tradition at Bay

The Southern Tradition at Bay: A History of Postbellum ThoughtThe Southern Tradition at Bay: A History of Postbellum Thought by Richard M. Weaver

An absolutely superb book. Weaver spells out in great detail the contours and complexities of the intellectual life of the South from Reconstruction to the early 20th century, a period that saw southerners trying to make sense of why they had just fought one of the most destructive wars in history, and what their defeat in that war meant for their place in the once-again United States of America, as well as the modern world, generally. Weaver’s exploration of these attempts does the classic job of spelling out the logic and ends of that genus of conservatism native to the American South, in ways that are still very useful today, in 2013, as we still struggle to understand the significant sectional differences in our country. In many ways, then, this continues to be essential and necessary reading for those interested in how and why American politics continues to hit roadblocks, and continues to be based in the side-by-side articulation of two largely incompatible ways of political, social, economic, and moral thinking.

To be clear, Weaver’s book is based on synthesis and analysis, and not critique, and this can be jarring to the modern reader accustomed to political writings that try to present a particular viewpoint as the viewpoint, while destroying all others as problematic, at best. This is perhaps most clearly illustrated in Weaver’s neutral presentation of Southern racial thinking–a symptom of both Weaver’s approach, and the time in which he was writing this, the early 1940s. But despite such frustrations and trepidations a reader in 2013 might feel, Weaver’s central argument is still sound and compelling: the Old South was a place of real complexity, nuance, and intellectual vitality that provides us with a different version of what America could be. When placed into juxtaposition with modernity, we begin to see flaws in both modernity and the Old South. The fifty or so years after the Civil War showed us a people thinking through the ramifications of this juxtaposition, and we, all these many years later, can still find things of value and challenge in visiting their thinking. Weaver avoids all romantic presentation of the South, Old or New, and that is to his credit. To paraphrase his closing lines: only a fool would want to go back and live in this world, but that world can perhaps tell us challenging things about how to live in our world–something that only a fool would reject, whole-cloth.

Southern Passages and Pictures

As part of my work at the William Gilmore Simms Initiatives, I’m engaged in processing and providing metadata for the author’s scrapbooks, one-of-a-kind collections of clippings, manuscripts, and other such materials he put together, likely during the late 1860s.  Eventually, all seven scrapbooks will be digitized, and available to anyone-something that’s been impossible heretofore.

For the last several days, I’ve been coming across multiple pages he’s clipped directly from an 1839 book of poetry he published, Southern Passages and Pictures.  And a lot of these are some very, very strong and moving poems.  For your perusal, then:

Brief Commentary: Pelayo

Pelayo: A Story of the GothPelayo: A Story of the Goth by William Gilmore Simms

(Matt’s Note:  I’m currently employed by the William Gilmore Simms Initiatives as a researcher and database specialist.  As a part of this work, I’m reading and writing new introductions to a few Simms novels that have been out of print for over 150 years, hoping to bring at least new scholarly attention to them.  This is the first of the novels I’m working on, and I’ve just finished reading it.  While my critical introduction will be a fairly robust examination of the work, this is, as the title says, a brief commentary, that provides my most general reactions to the book and what Simms is doing in it.)

A flawed novel, with odd bits that read more like an Elizabethan play than prose fiction, and a plot that is at times too complicated, and some really over-the-top scenes. Simms conceived of this work as the first of a two-novel series that would tell of the last days of Gothic Spain, and the sequel was supposed to tie up the complex plot (I’ll be reading the sequel soon). In that, I can cut him some slack. Yet, Pelayo still has its flaws.

Nevertheless, I still find this to be a solid, and in a lot of ways very good, novel. As an adventure story, it’s top-notch. Intriguingly, it works quite well as a “novel of ideas.” Simms seems be trying to take the concepts of the American Revolution and write this novel of Gothic Spain through those , challenging us to think about liberty, good government, justice, and the roles we owe to one another politically, as well. And in doing this, Simms also sets these political ideals against their personal costs, and shows us some deeply complicated characters struggling to act with virtue. The heroes of the work come off as almost myopic in their monomaniacal pursuits of liberty; Simms forces us to ask if their virtues are, in fact, vices. In this, he seems to be channeling an Aristotelian notion of virtue.

An imperfect, though nevertheless interesting and in many ways quite good, novel, that is rarely read today, but would find an audience amongst readers who enjoy the headier, more philosophical types of historical fiction and fantasy. If you’re of one of those types, it’s worth picking up.

Vol I:

Vol II:

Brief Commentary: Jefferson’s Creme Brulee

Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to AmericaThomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America by Thomas J. Craughwell

While an interesting conceit, Craughwell manages to do very little here that we don’t already know. Here’s the gist: Jefferson, as we all know, was our epicurean, polymathic Founding Father, and he had a love for the French–their land, their plants, their people, their culture. We also know that Jefferson owned slaves, and that one particular slave family, the Hemmingses, were kin to him by marriage and quite special to him.

But did we know that Jefferson took James Hemmings to France with him during his diplomatic tenure, and that he had Hemmings trained in French haute-cuisine?

Well, no, we didn’t. And that’s an interesting story. And furthermore, the complications that are presented because of the illegality of slavery in France, and how Jefferson promises James freedom after mastering this craft, and how the slave ended up speaking fluent French while the master never could–well, that’s a very interesting story. And so, Craughwell’s book is promising.

The problem is that the story is fairly simple, if not straightforward. And furthermore, Hemmings is the most interesting character, but little is known of him. But still, a good story, an interesting narrative, something that would have made an excellent essay in one of our better high-brow magazines, like Harper’s or the New York Review or the like.

But to fill it out to book length, we’re given the same facts of Jefferson’s life we know so well, presented yet again, with no really new revelations or interpretations or angles. The Adamses and Ben Franklin show up, likely because they have to, but really do nothing. Tedious, and tediously long, explanations of French politics and the causes of the French Revolution abound, and the book just drags. The appendices, while interesting, tell you nothing you don’t learn walking through the museum at Monticello; if you’ve not been there, then they’ll be great–but ultimately, what they reveal, like what the museum at Monticello reveals, is ephemera, things that are only marginally part of the story.

Craughwell writes well enough, and tells an interesting story. But to make the story fit into a genre it doesn’t lend itself to take excessive padding and hurts the overall product. This is a great idea, and would have been a fine essay, but is a mediocre, at best, book.

Brief Commentary: Consider the Fork

Consider the Fork: How Technology Transforms the Way We Cook and EatConsider the Fork: How Technology Transforms the Way We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson

A highly entertaining book that provides a satisfying and intriguing history of the things we use to eat. But beyond this, Wilson’s greatest achievement in this book is providing a straightforward, unpretentious exploration of technology itself.

Those of us who question technological progress–even as we use technologies–are often seen as hypocrites or crazies. Yet Wilson is able, somehow, to do just that sort of interrogation of technological progress, asking why we use the things we use, how the things we use are often counter-productive, how technologies often create new needs and new problems instead of meeting existing needs and solving existing problems, Wilson presents us with just that kind of techno-skepticism while not coming off as a hypocritical crazy.

This is, then, a wonderful fascinating book. While its stories of how and why we eat the way we do will, quite rightly, be the things that bring people to the book, and be the things that move the book along in a joyful way, its greatest achievement–and the thing I think will be its most enduring contribution to our culture in this overtly-technological moment–will be its quiet suggestion that perhaps we don’t need all the stuff we think we need. We use it, yes; but use does not imply its superiority, nor does newness, or any such thing. Technologies come about and come to be used for extremely complex reasons–and beginning to consider and think through those reasons can help us to enjoy the technologies we use in a more satisfying way, as well as prevent us from being somehow made a captive of a technological progress that exists only for its own existence, and not to make our lives better.

A movie for a gloomy evening

It’s Palm Sunday evening, but it’s dark and rainy and cold.  Meredith and I built a fire, after thinking a few days ago that the andirons and other fireplaces tools would be retired to the attic for several months.  It’s a night that needs a good noir film.

Quicksand, from 1950: