Posts Tagged ‘Percy Bysshe Shelley’

Bodleian’s treasures on display: paradise as a library

Saturday, November 26th, 2011
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"Marco Polo's Travels," 14th century. Copyright Bodleian Libraries,University of Oxford

As you enter the darkened room,  a 1623 Shakespeare First Folio is to your right.  Enigmatic scraps of a poem by Sappho, circa 2nd century A.D., are to your left.  And all around you the wonders of the world: weighted with heavy seals, a 1217 “engrossment” of the Magna Carta is nearby (it was reissued under Henry III); so is a 1455 Gutenberg Bible.  In the corner of one glass case –  an exquisite 18th-century miniature scroll of the Bhagavad Gita, which shines like a cache of jewels, somehow pressed and rolled into paper.

William Shakespeare, First Folio,1632. Copyright Bodleian Libraries,University of Oxford

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” Jorge Luis Borges famously said. And here, in the Bodleian Library’s current exhibition, “Treasures of the Bodleian,” 30 Sept. – 23 Dec. 2011, everyone could see that, well, he had a point.  The exhibition anticipates a permanent gallery in the Weston Library in 2015.  The exhibition shows some of the Bodleian’s rarest, most important, and most evocative rarities.

To wit:  In a corner, a single page of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley‘s Frankenstein describes the ominous night of the creature’s creation. Her scrawled text is corrected and amended by her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.  Other handwritten manuscripts are the work of Jane Austen, John Donne, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Others are the work of a brush rather than a nib: an exquisite 17th-century picture scroll of the sad Tale of Urashima, a classic Japanese fairy tale which I had read as a child.

For Sir Thomas Bodley, who basically created the museum that opened its doors in 1602, the Shakespeare first folio did not seem like the greatest find. According to the exhibition guide, he “would likely have dismissed this as one of the ‘idle books, and rife raffes’ that had not place among the Library’s predominantly theological collections.”

The volume left the library under mysterious conditions in 1674, and resurfaced only in 1905.  By that time, “the Bodleian was prepared to pay the unheard-of sum of £3,000 to buy back ‘its original long-lost copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare.'”

William Shakespeare,First Folio,1632. Copyright Bodleian Libraries,University of Oxford

I visited the exhibition in the company of my friend, Oxford’s Eliza Tudor, and we gravitated towards our favorites.  Hers seemed to be J.R.R. Tolkien‘s brilliant golden watercolor of Bilbo Baggins, rendered invisible by a magic ring, as he converses with a dragon.  She also took a liking to the Selden map of China, from the Ming era – the earliest Chinese map to show not only shipping routes, but also to depict China as part of a greater East and Southeast Asia. And for me … well, what a choice!  Perhaps I’ll plump for one of the earliest editions of Dante‘s Divine Comedy, fully illustrated, made within decades of his death (see video below).

But there are littler treasures, too – Mohandas Gandhi wrote to his friend, the Anglican missionary Charles Andrews, in a 1932 prison letter exhibited in the collection: “I can therefore never say beforehand what will occupy my attention exclusively or for the most part at a given moment and since a civil resister bargains for the punishment he receives for his resistance, he must not fret over it. Therefore and to that extent I am content with my lot.”

Letter from an Egyptian boy to his father, 2nd or 3rd century A.D. Copyright Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Eliza arrived with her young son Fabian, who was mildly ill and did not attend school that day. His own choice was no surprise.  The exhibit that intrigued him the most was one of the earliest – about the same era, perhaps a little later, as the Sappho fragments: on a sheet of papyrus, an Egyptian schoolboy Theon complains to his father:

Theon to his father Theon, greetings. A nice thing to do, not taking me with you to the city. If you refuse to take me with you to Alexandria, I shall not write you a letter or speak to you or wish you good health. So: if you go to Alexandria I shall not take your hand or greet you ever again. If you refuse to take me, this is what happens. And my mother said to Archelaos, “He’s upsetting me, take him away!” A nice thing to do, sending me these grand presents, a hill of beans. They put us off the track that day, the 12th, when you sailed. Well then, send for me, I beg you. If you don’t send for me, I shan’t eat, I shan’t drink. There! I pray for your health.

Getting personal: NBCC’s quiet winner Clare Cavanagh

Thursday, March 17th, 2011
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“Poetry makes nothing happen,” W.H. Auden famously observed.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t try.

One of the more unnoticed of this year’s National Book Critics Circle award-winners is Clare Cavanagh‘s Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West. Clare takes on the notion of poets as “unacknowledged legislators” (Percy Bysshe Shelley) and “the would-be prophet, who publicly takes his people’s suffering upon himself so that his oppressed, applauding nation might be free.”

The secret police may be the true unacknowledged legislators, but it takes the secret police both to make and to break a nation’s acknowledged, if unauthorized poet-prophets.  … Tyrants make the rules, not poets, and dictators’ deeds change worlds far more often than artists’ words do.  Poetic legislation has its limits: “No lyric has ever stopped a tank,” [Seamus] Heaney remarks. Indeed, by the mid-eighties … [Adam] Zagajewski had challenged his compatriots preoccupation with poetry as a form of collective resistance. He chose to “dissent from dissent,” to break ranks with would-be artist-legislators by setting his lyric “I” against the defiant “we” that had shaped his poetic generation. The “unacknowledged legislator’s dream” has a nasty habit of becoming the acknowledged prophet’s nightmare, as Zagajewski suggests in his programmatically unprogrammatic Solidarity, Solitude.

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Of course, being immersed in Polish literature, I’ve known Clare by name for years before I met her in person.

And were it not for Ewa Domanska, I still might not have met her.  Ewa, who teaches at Stanford every spring and then returns to Poznań, gave me a heads-up about a “Workshop in Poetics” on May 27, 2008, led by Clare.  Of course I dropped by.

Clare was a surprise.  Given her heavyweight credentials (she is, among other things, Milosz’s official biographer), I expected someone intimidating.

She is not.  This daughter of Eire is affable and down-to-earth.  I should have expected as much from her chapter, “Job and Forrest Gump,” in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, describing the period after Carol Miłosz ’s death, including a few travails in her own role as biographer:

The visiting got more difficult. I knew he had black moods when Carol was alive, but Carol was famous among his friends for driving them away. But I really saw the doubts, the moods, and the black sides—he could give Jehovah a run for the money when it came to striking terror—only after Carol died. Sometimes it would be yet another younger poet attacking him; “He called me ‘Moscow’s dancing bear,’” I remember Miłosz saying bleakly about one young writer. The attacks came on a fairly regular basis, and he took them all to heart. I suppose this was the reverse side of the childlike joy at every compliment. I once gave a Kraków cabdriver Miłosz’s street address—I never mentioned his name—and he recognized it right away. “Are you going to visit Czesław Miłosz? Please give him the best regards of the cabdriver in the red Mercedes,” he asked requested. Miłosz beamed.

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Sometimes the doubts ran deeper—his life, his poetry, his soul. And sometimes the doubts were about me: “You will produce not my life, but only some facsimile,” he said with a scowled in the summer of 2003. He spent several weeks that summer putting me through the biographer’s equivalent of boot camp. I’d come armed daily with the best questions I could muster, written with the help of a small army of poets, professors, and Miłosz specialists. And every day he gave the same response: “Takie oszywiste pytania,” “(Such obvious questions).” Then he’d would invite me for another session the next day, when yet another set of questions would be dismissed and after an excruciating hour or two, I’d would be sent home to think up some “questions no one’s asked me yet.” Questions no one has ever asked Miłosz. It was like Rumpelstiltskin in Polish, but worse.

Finally, after a sleepless night spent reading and rereading Druga przestrzeń (the then-untranslated Second Space), I went in and asked about the poems, and about religion. Those were the questions he wanted. And that was what I’d wanted to talk about, too, but I’d thought biographers were supposed to do something different. We talked about “Father Seweryn” and “The Treatise on Theology”—I said I’d been surprised by the Virgin at the end, and he laughed and said, “I was, too.”

The next morning, Clare and I chatted and gossiped at Starbucks, at the impossible and dangerous intersection of Stanford and El Camino, before she returned to the Northwestern University.

I don’t remember much of what she said during that seminar (I have notes somewhere), but she read Miłosz ’s canonical “Dedication,” which opens:

You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.  …

As she does in her new book, she pointed out that something obvious that slipped away in the English translation:  The first word, in Polish, is singular, not plural.  Read that way, this is not the declamatory, rhetorical address to nations and peoples.  It is personal, not something to be read over a public address system. He’s speaking urgently to a particular person who perished, in a plea that ends:

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.