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Batik Iris

Batik Iris

Irises are flowers in the genus Iris.  They are named after the Greek goddess Iris [ed. So far this seems kind of circular] who traveled on rainbows which were also known as irises.  Thus the familiar beautiful garden flowers are known by the Greek word for rainbow because they were available in a whole rainbow of colors.

Other People's Beautiful German Irises

Other People’s Beautiful German Irises

This is all deeply relevant because four years ago I bought a beautiful iris and planted it in my garden. It started as a little green sprout and then, through the subsequent years grew into a magnificent thicket of sword shaped bright waxy leaves—but it never bloomed.  Time worked its indignant wiles on my memory and I forgot what exactly what variety I had bought.

"Freedom Song" Iris

“Freedom Song” Iris

This year, finally, a bud sprouted on the iris!  I have been so excited to find out the color of the mytery iris.  I scoured the internet trying to figure out what I had bought (the irises pictured above “Batik” and were some of my guesses).  There was even a dark moment when I thought about how quixotic my aesthetics can be and I feared I had bought a huge brown hypnotic werewolf iris!

"Spiced Tiger" looks pretty much like a werewolf to me

“Spiced Tiger” looks pretty much like a werewolf to me

But it turns out that the me of four years ago, made at least one good choice: here is the beautiful mystery iris as it appears now in my garden (along with my sphinx sculpture):

My Iris!  The picture doesn't do it justice at all.  It is so lovely...

My Iris! The picture doesn’t do it justice at all. It is so lovely…

It is darkest violet edging into black with furry deep purple beards!  I am pretty sure it is called “Night Ruler” which sounds like an evil cleric or a death knight!  Yes!  Sometimes my past choices come back to haunt me, but for once that guy did something really amazing and nice!  I love this iris!  Here is another picture of it which I drew.

Iris and Greek Sphinx (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil on paper)

Iris and Greek Sphinx (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil on paper)

“Night Ruler” has awakened my heart to a lust for irises—but any actions I take will require another four years to yield results and by then I will no doubt be living on a tropical beach in Greenland or fighting our robot overlords…or worse I will have again forgotten what I picked out and I will be forced to live beholden to the unfathomable whims of who I used to be.

"Night Ruler" photographed by a professional

“Night Ruler” photographed by a professional

Today’s post seems like it concerns exceedingly trivial matters from a bygone age, but it is actually of much larger import. When I was five, I had the most delightful birthday!  It was a splendid August day with the barest hint of coming autumn in the forget-me-not sky.  There was every food I like.  My mother made a special unlicensed Star Wars cake and, though chocolate Vader looked a bit blobby and brown he tasted amazing.  There were astonishing presents, games with friends, and my splendid loving family telling me how wonderful I was.  There was only one stain upon the luminous day and it came at breakfast through the black-and-white TV screen.

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I was only allowed to watch limited amounts of TV (it makes me feel like some nineteenth century fogy to talk about having one (1) tiny mono-color viewscreen in a whole house), but even in the innocent (?) world of the seventies there were ads everywhere, fiendishly concocted to sink their razor sharp hooks into desires you did not even know you had.  One of these was an ad for a cereal which featured the most miraculous toy—a swimming dolphin which actually dove down into the darkened abyss and then playfully rose back up with an enigmatic dolphin smile.

Through the dark magic of contemporary media saturation, the original ad is available on Youtube. Here it is!

Perhaps the four-year-old me was emotionally moved by the lumbering tragicomic figure of Smeadley the elephant, however I confess I did not remember him until seeing the clip.  But the toy dolphins were magical!  The only thing which could have been better would have been an ichthyosaur. There was a problem—we were not allowed to have sugared breakfast cereal, which my mother regarded as a dangerous abomination (as an aside: I was raised so well…how did I go so wrong?).  The only chances for such a treat were trips to visit grandparents and birthdays—the one day on the calendar where requests for sugared cereal were countenanced in-house.

Maybe don't trust people who have their eyebrows on their hat...

Maybe don’t trust people who have their eyebrows on their hat…

My poor parents were forced to turn down requests for Cap’n Crunch for weeks until the big day finally arrived.  The first thing that went awry was the cereal–I guess Cap’n Crunch is supposed to be artificial peanut butter maybe? But whatever that unearthly bletted corn flavor is supposed to be, I found it vile.  The year before I had had Alphabits when I turned four and they were amazing!  Cap’n Crunch was a real disappointment. No matter—the important thing was the toy. We were supposed to wait to eat down to the bottom of the box to retrieve toys, but I abused my birthday privilege to stick my arm through the crunch and finally extract the coveted dolphin!

The only picture I could find of an original Cap'n Crunch

The only picture I could find of an original Cap’n Crunch “Diving Dolphin” toy (I think this might BE the actual size)

Sadly the actual toy was also a disappointing thing, much smaller and more colorless than it was on TV (and, again, the TV was black and white!).  The dolphin came horrifyingly bisected in a little plastic bag and had to be assembled and filled up with sodium hydrogen carbonate (not included), an operation which involved my father and much muttering and forcing of poorly molded plastic injection joints.

Pictured: Fun

Pictured: Fun

We did not have a perfectly shaped transparent toy dolphin tank as pictured in the ad (not included) so the dolphin went into an opaque gray plastic mop bucket.  It sank to the bottom and fell over on its side.  We all stood there for a while as it was gradually wreathed in a milky cloud. Boring, boring time passed—five-year old 1979 time which I will never recover!  About an hour later, the dolphin began to imperceptibly rise (according to my eagle-eyed mother) whereupon I raced off, and the dolphin was pushed into a corner.  Later we looked at it—and it was floating at the top, on its side like a dead goldfish.

The bad toy was swiftly forgotten…except I have not forgotten it.  I remember it more clearly than many of the awesome beautiful thoughtful toys I received later that day.  It was a harbinger—and a warning.

...junk you don't need

…junk you don’t need

Ninety-five percent of consumer products ARE the diving dolphin. They are cheaply made, poorly conceived and useless except for marketing/merchandising purposes.  Most of what you are looking at on the web and on the news are diving dolphins. So is most of what politicians say.  It was hard for me to recognize so much of human endeavor in a little plastic sack beneath the corn-syrup and artificial flavor, but I assure you it is so. Just put any of that junk in a bucket and watch it sink forlornly to the bottom…

Fake peanut butter Flavor Not included

Fake peanut butter Flavor Not included

Of course diving dolphins do not detract from the real things—happiness, friendship, good memories, family, and love. Not unless you let them.

The author and his sister, 1979

The author and his sister, 1979

Study for "The Voyage of Life: Childhood" (Thomas Cole, ca. 1840, oil on canvas)

Study for “The Voyage of Life: Childhood” (Thomas Cole, ca. 1840, oil on canvas)

I have been thinking a great deal about beautiful & meaningful allegorical paintings (indeed, you can go to this gallery of my own art and look at the strange seething world of symbolic paintings I have been creating under “Allegories”).  Here is a very lovely painting from the nineteenth century American master Thomas Cole.  This is a study for “The Voyage of Life: Childhood” the first painting of his magnum opus “The Voyage of Life,” a series of four huge paintings which portray a human life as a river running through the four seasons (I have put the relevant detail from the finished painting at the bottom of this post, but, for reasons unknown, I like the study better)

This is the beginning of life—an angel is launching an infant out of celestial darkness into the world. The little child is frolicking in delight among a fulsome bouquet of spring flowers little aware of the waterfalls, rapids, and sluggish poisonous bends which lie along the great river.  What the painting lacks in symbolic subtly it makes up for with its boundless energy, personality, and immediate glowing exuberance.

Cole was not a pessimist—he viewed life as a dazzling sojourn of pellucid joy.  This is a view which has fallen out of fashion in art (and maybe in larger realms of thought and endeavor), but the jubilant baby in this picture and the tender solicitous angel from suggests that we might want to revisit Cole’s worldview.

Detail from "The Voyage of Life Childhood" (Thomas Cole, 1840, oil on canvas)

Detail from “The Voyage of Life Childhood” (Thomas Cole, 1840, oil on canvas)

United Launch Alliance Atlas V launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., June 20, 2012 (containing a National Defense mission)

United Launch Alliance Atlas V launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., June 20, 2012 (containing a National Defense mission)

Start getting excited: tomorrow is a big day in space adventuring!  As I write this, last minute preparations are being made on a mighty United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket sitting on a pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  Not only does the rocket contain a tiny cubesat with the Planetary Society Solar Sail, it is also launching the not-very-secret Air Force robot space shuttle, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (currently the world’s only known operational space plane program—each robot lander can spend years in space working on classified missions).

Just tailgatin' in some clean suits with with the Air Force X-37B

Just tailgatin’ in some clean suits with with the Air Force X-37B

All of this amazing stuff, along with 9 other cubesats will be riding into space via the Atlas rocket’s second stage—a next generational launch platform evocatively known as “The Centaur.” According to news sites, the launch window for this mission is Wednesday [May 20th ,2015] from 10:45 a.m. ET and 2:45 p.m.  You can watch live on webcam (but remember lots of things can push a mission back).

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I would be live-blogging this extravaganza, but I have my own mission tomorrow morning: relaunching my imploded career. I will be putting on my navy suit and heading off to the temp company.  Presumably the great masters have some tedious administrative tasks for me to perform and they will not hurl me into the endless black void like little X-37B (although given today’s economy, who can really say?)

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Wish everyone luck! Hopefully there will be no Russian-style crashing and burning with either venture…

This is what happens when you do not bring an extra résumé

This is what happens when you do not bring an extra résumé!

An artist's rendition of a solar sail spacecraft!

An artist’s rendition of a solar sail spacecraft!

The Planetary Society is a club which believes we should spend more resources exploring space.  I used to be a member back in the halcyon days when I could afford their annual dues, but alas, I have merely been following their exploits lately.  Mostly they are a political action committee: they use their money to hire lobbyists to remind recalcitrant leaders of the many, many benefits of space exploration. Also they showcase celebrity explorers, scientists, and astronomers (or other famous folk) in order to popularize space research to the fickle and forgetful public.

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Well, that’s what they do most of the time…Sometimes they spearhead astonishing James Bond schemes of their own.  The most recent of these grand plans involved buying a converted Soviet ICBM and using it to launch a solar sail into outer space!  Sadly (yet somehow predictably) the Russians sold the Society a dodgy bum missile which failed after a minute and a half of flight and exploded over the Arctic Ocean.  This happened ten years ago, and despite the abysmal failure, I felt honored to be part of it!  When did you last cooperate on a project which would make Blowfeld jealous? (I exempt mention of my tax dollars which go to NASA—you federal scientists are awesome and I want you to keep it up, but I am talking about a private club right now).

A Delta-class Submarine Firing a SS-N-18 (of the sort that failed)

A Delta-class Submarine Firing a SS-N-18 (of the sort that failed)

Anyway I bring all of this up, because the Society has scraped together enough pocket change to try again (even without my annual $37.00 membership fee).   In five days they are launching a test flight which will pave the way for a full-fledged solar sail launch in 2016!  The Society learned certain things from the failure a decade ago, most notably “do not trust the Russians” (a lesson which is written upon the very landscapes of Eastern Europe and Central Asia to the extent that it is visible from space, but which was still somehow lost on the Planetary Society until they actually purchased an ICBM).

The Planetary Society's LightSail spacecraft, with its four sails deployed, undergoing tests in Sept. 2014. Credit: Justin Foley/The Planetary Society.

The Planetary Society’s LightSail spacecraft, with its four sails deployed, undergoing tests in Sept. 2014. Credit: Justin Foley/The Planetary Society.

This time they are buying aerospace capacity from more reputable sources—the US Air Force (for the upcoming test flight) and SpaceX for the full mission.  I mention all of this in order to direct your attention to the test flight on May 20th (EDT) which Ferrebeekeeper will definitely revisit and to also point you toward the Kickstarter funding project for next year’s full fledge flight!  If you have some money burning a hole in your pocket, you could always spend it launching a high tech sail the size of a New York apartment into space (well, maybe the actual spacecraft will be larger than that once it unfurls from its breadbox size cubesat).  Aside from buying stunning original artwork, what could be a better use of your petty cash?

I need a job!  If any of you folk out there need a writer/toymaker/artist/analyst let me know.  I will work for you with unflagging fervor, intellect, and creativity.  I only need a smidgen of money for catfood and rent (and someone else to manage the spreadsheet)!

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Sadly, according to the want ads I have been looking at, the world does not want astonishing super creativity.  Right now, the market economy only wants these infernal i-phones and tablets which everyone is looking at all the time.   The majority of jobs available are for low-level sales-clerks and admins to staff humankind’s great transition into a fully functional hive mind (where we humans, the individual neurons, are all always networked together through our androids and blackberries).

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I’m no Luddite. I enjoy technology and I can imagine great benefits arising from the internet when it fully grows up into a vast colony-mind. Yet, so far iphones mostly provide a solipsist diversion—or, at best—a platform for buying and selling more unneeded junk or channeling resources to Carlos Slim and other anointed telecom winners.  Naturally, I exempt Wikipedia from this grumpy jeremiad—it is indeed an amazing realization of the great utopian dreams of the Encyclopedists.  I suppose I should exempt this very blog and you, my cherished readers, as well… but, after a day of looking at ads for junior marketing interns and assistant admin assistants, I can’t entirely.  Here I am creating “content” for free so some MBA higher up the tech food chain can point at an infinitesimal rise or fall on a bar chart while his colleagues clap him on the shoulder and talk of “synergies.”  I certainly don’t want to be that guy either! But what else is there? What are we supposed to do?

Workers at a Microwave Factory in Baotao China

Workers at a Microwave Factory in Baotao China

To escape these circular author-centric thoughts, let’s take a field trip around the world. To provide a more comprehensive vision of the smart phone revolution, today’s post takes us to Inner Mongolia—the vast landlocked desert hinterland of China.  There, amidst the lifeless dunes and the alkaline sink holes is a vast manmade lake—Lake Baotou—which reflects some of the complicated dualities of the globalized market and the technology revolution.  It has been said that each computer screen and cellphone window is a “black mirror” where we watch ourselves. Lake Bautu is a different sort of black mirror.  It is literally a layer of super-toxic black sludge which is left over when the rare-earth elements and heavy metals necessary for smart phones have been processed.

Waste draining into

Waste draining into “rare earth lake” Baotou, Inner Mongolia of China (ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)

Ferrebeekeeper has visited the world’s biggest lake, and we have dipped our toes into the fabled waters of Mount Mazama where the Klamath spirit of the underworld dwells.  We have visited Lake Lonar where a space object slammed into the black basalt of a long dead shield volcano, and we have even been to China’s biggest lake where the world’s largest naval battle took place.  However, Lake Baotou is a whole different manifestation of the underworld.  Sophisticated modern electronics require cerium, neodymium, yttrium, europium, and goodness only knows what else. These so-called rare earth elements are also necessary for wind turbines, electric car arrays, and next generation green technologies.

Giant sludge pond in Baotao China (Photo by Veronique de Viguerie/Reportage by Getty Images)

Giant sludge pond in Baotao China (Photo by Veronique de Viguerie/Reportage by Getty Images)

Yet the refinement process for these elements is unusually corrosive and toxic and the waste products are horrifying.  The raw materials tend to be found in great evaporitic basins (like those of Inner Mongolia, where an ancient ocean dried into vast dunes) but most nations are wary of processing these materials because of the unknown long-term cost. China’s leaders recognized the economic (and defense!) potential of becoming the world’s main (only?) supplier of these esoteric elements and the end result has been cheap consumer electronics, a communication revolution…and Lake Baotao, which slouches dark and poisonous beneath the refining towers and smokestacks of Baotao City.

On the plus side, Baotao (pictured here during rush hour) is evidently the bicyclists' paradise I was wishing for last week!

On the plus side, Baotao (pictured here during rush hour) is evidently the bicyclists’ paradise I was wishing for last week!

A former roommate of mine visited Inner Mongolia and walked the streets of Baotao City. He described a wild-west boomtown filled with brothels, bars, Mongolian barbeque places, and…cell phone stores!  Crime and excess were readily apparent everywhere as were prosperity and success—like old timey Deadwood or Denver.  I wonder if Baotao City will develop into a modern hub like Denver or Chicago, or will it disappear back into the thirsty dunes when this phase of the electronics boom is over (or when its effluviums become insuperable).

Cell-Phone-Subscribers

In the mean time we all have to flow with the shifting vicissitudes of vast entwined global networks.  We must make ends meet in a way which hopefully doesn’t harm the world too much. Now I better get back to scouring the want ads!  Keep your eyes open for a job for me and please keep following me, um, on your computers and smart phones…

Celeste Green 1981 Bianchi Super Pista

Celeste Green 1981 Bianchi Super Pista

I love to bicycle! It is the perfect way to get around. Bicycling is fast, environmentally friendly, cheap, and good for you. From the saddle you can see nature and society up close with an intensity which hermetically sealed up car drivers will never know as they vroom past. And this brings us to the one problem with bicycling. I live in America, where laws, culture, and geography conspire to put everyone behind the wheel of a car. Traveling around by means of a giant steel death chariot driven by explosions is a crazy basis for society (the toxic explosive benzene is refined from the fossil leftovers of long-dead ecosystems!). Unless one is a tradesman or lives deep in the country, a car is just a giant lethal status symbol useful only for impressing shallow people and crushing good-hearted bicyclists and pedestrians. It makes one yearn for Europe, where drivers actually get in trouble for hitting bicyclists with their automobiles (in America, whenever you kill someone with your car the authorities give you a high-five and a sparkly sticker—if you collect five you get a free cheeseburger).

Or can we all hybridize and live together safely?

Or can we all hybridize and live together safely?

But today’s post is not really about bicycles or national transportation policy. I have no strong opinions about the abject idiocy of our slavish reliance on evil automobiles. Today’s post is instead about bicycle color! This is “celeste” a pale greenish turquoise color which is instantly identifiable with Bianchi bicycles. Pale greens are among my favorite colors, and celeste is particularly pretty (although, over time, the exact shade has varied according to taste and manufacturing circumstance).

I hope your legs are as good as your taste!

I hope your legs are as good as your taste!

Most trade colors have a story or myth associated with them and celeste is no exception. In fact there are three stories of how it came into being. The name itself (Italian for “celestial”) evokes crystal clear Mediterranean skies. The first story of “celeste” is that it is the color of the skies above Milan. I have never been to Milan, but I find it hard to believe the sky there is quite so green! The second (and best) story is that Edoardo Bianchi built a bicycle for a queen with pale green eyes and he became so enthralled with the color that he subsequently painted all of his bicycles that color. As with the sky story this tale requires a certain suspension of disbelief. I have never met a queen (or any other human being) with mint color eyes! But Eduardo lived in a different time and clearly had a closer relationship with royalty than I do.

"Thank you EDUARDO, but our princess is in another castle..."

“Thank you EDUARDO, but our princess is in another castle…”

The final story is the most believable but least poetic. Early on in the history of Bianchi bikes, they had some green paint and lots of white paint and they mixed them together to paint all of their bicycles the same color. That is certainly a story that anyone who has ever painted something can easily believe!

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Personally I think celeste green was an aesthetic choice from the start. It is an extremely attractive and distinctive color. My only complaint with it is that I have never been able to afford a vintage Bianchi bike!

What? This is a car...were you listening to anything I said?

Hey! This is a car! Were you listening to anything I said? But it really is pretty seductive… Maybe I’ll just take it for a quick spin, you know, for research.

We all know that South Asia and East Asia feature the most populous cities and nations on the planet…in terms of human life. But is this true for ducks as well? Here is a humorous/nightmarish/cute/troubling (?) video clip of hundreds of thousands of ducks stampeding through the roads of a town in Thailand. I was unable to find out all the details, but I will let the madness speak for itself. Keep watching the video—there is an intermission, but more ducks are on the way!
By means of translation and interviews, Yahoo news has provided us with some of the details of this avian stampede writing that, “Jack Sarathat lives in Thailand and was driving through Nakhon Pathom, about an hour west of Bangkok. Suddenly he was forced to bring his car to a halt. About 100,000 ducks were on the loose and taking over the rural road in the Bang Len district.”

Although we know the place and the person on camera, we still don’t know why these ducks were on the move or where they were from (though it must have been some sort of industrial duck farm clearing inventory). The article says that none of the ducks were injured, but they look far too delicious for me to believe that without question.
This video contextualizes the earlier post about Zhu Yigui, a Fujianese duck farmer, who rose to be rebel king of Formosa before the Chinese authorities of the day crushed him like an egg. It is possible I snickered some when I read that his qualification for leadership was the ability to train and lead ducks. I am not laughing now—it is obvious that ducks in aggregate are a mighty force!

Artist's Interpretation

Artist’s Interpretation

Blossom Monster (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, paper mache and mixed media)

Blossom Monster (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, paper mache and mixed media)

Today’s post touches on larger aesthetic and moral issues, but first let’s showcase some weird art!  This is “Blossom Monster” a 3 foot by 7 foot chimerical monster which I made to celebrate the annual reappearance of the cherry blossoms.  It is a sort of cross between a deep sea fish, a scorpion, and a horse. The creature is crafted from paper mache (or papier-mâché?) and has LED-light up eyes and fluorescent pink skin which glows faintly in the dark.  I initially placed it beside the tulip bed, but then I realized it was on top of the iris, so now the creature has been shuffling aimlessly around the garden looking for a permanent display spot. “Blossom Monster” is made of discount glue which I bought in bulk from the 99 cent store, so, as soon as it rains, the sculpture will probably dissolve into a heap of gelatinous ooze and that will be that.

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There is nothing more beautiful than cherry blossoms, so why did I make a weird ugly fluorescent monster to go with them? I have a story to answer that question: every year the Brooklyn Botanic garden has a famous cherry blossom festival which is attended by tens of thousands of people (at the least).  Although I think the tree in my garden is prettier than any individual specimen they have, the Botanic Garden has orchards full of Kwanzan cherry trees along with hawthorns, quinces, magnolias, plums, horse-chestnuts, and other splendid flowering trees.  The effect is truly ineffable—like the Jade Emperor’s heavenly court in Chinese mythology.  Yet over the years people became bored with the otherworldly beauty of trees in full flower, so the Botanic Garden was forced to augment their festival by adding odd drum performances, strange post-modern theater, and K-pop music.  They also invited cosplayers–so now the blossom festival is filled with space robots, ronin, mutant turtles, and provocatively attired cat-people (in addition to the already heterogeneous citizenry of Brooklyn).

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Adding layers of kitsch, tragic drama, manga, and human aspirations (of all sorts) has greatly augmented the peerless beauty of the blossoms.  The prettiness of the garden has been elevated into high-art by the plastic hats, spandex, and makeup.  The blossom festival now has a fascinating human element of ever-changing desire, aspiration, and drama which the blossoms lacked by themselves (except maybe to gardeners, who know exactly how hard it is to get perfect flowers to grow).

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Of course the shifting annual particulars of novelty do not match the timeless beauty of the cherry trees. In a few years we will all hate princesses, k-pop, and furries which will seem like hopelessly outdated concepts from the ‘teens. The blossom festivals of tomorrow will be attended by future people wearing neo-puritan garb, or hazmat suits, or nothing! Who knows? The allure of the cherry blossoms will never change, but the whims of the crowd beneath will always make the blossoms seem new.

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Novelty has always struck me as weak sauce, but it is, by nature, a new sauce.  It needs to be drizzled on things to make them appealing (even if they are already the best things—like cherry blossoms).  This is a monstrous truth behind all fads, tastes, and art movements.  I have represented it in paper mache and fluorescent paint! Once my monster dissolves I will have to come up with a new act for next year.

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April is poetry month!  I love poetry…and poets! Many of my friends and close associates are contemporary poets, scrambling to make ends meet as they rework language to capture the elusive meaning and rhythm of life.  I really enjoy talking to them about literature…including poetry, but much of my favorite poetry is Victorian poetry…and it’s frustrating to watch my poor friends’ smiles curdle when I say such a thing.  The rhythm and the themes of 19th century poetry are very different from modern poetic tastes, but not quite sufficiently different that it can be neatly archived away in the hallowed halls of ancient poetry. To modern poets a great deal of Victorian poetry seems fusty and overly-detailed.  It has a repetitive classical-music rhythm which (to ears more used to the syncopation of rap and rock) can sound like a monotonous drone.  Thematically, Victorian works are insufficiently focused on identity politics to rate approval from the academic literary establishment right now.  The canonical poets of the 19th century were seemingly unconcerned with the complexities of gender, class, race which hold the so much of the attention of the literati in today’s democracies (although this stereotype is less true on careful re- reading—indeed many of the great Victorian poets were passing, or gay…or even women!).

I am making the same mistake which drove me away from literature—talking about politics, historiography, the biography of authors, and suchlike “meta” concerns, when what really matters is the actual poetry!  At its zenith English poetry of the 19th century is unrivaled. The sumptuous language immerses the reader in a fulsome world where colors burn brighter than in real life and supernatural epiphany lurks around every verdant garden corner.  The great English poets of the nineteenth century were too concerned with the greater meanings of humankind, life, and the universe to become unduly caught up in the grasping web of daily politics…but that doesn’t mean humankind’s scheming clannish nature and self-delusions are not addressed.

Here is one of my favorite passages of poetry, from Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., a vast elegy which Tennyson wrote for a beloved friend who died unexpectedly of a brain hemorrhage.  The work is an attempt to make sense of loss and human fragility.  It was written at a time when the simplistic certainties of religion were rapidly fading away. The scientific breakthroughs of the 18th century were driving technology and civilization forward at a breakneck pace during the 19th century but some of the other larger implications of these scientific breakthroughs were also becoming apparent. Victorians were relentlessly trained to be religious, but thinking people could see past the fraudulent stagecraft of the priests and begin to apprehend how vast, ancient, and uncaring the world really is.

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Tension between the ersatz facade of religion, and the darkness of a world without any magical beings, was much at the center of Victorian thinking…and it made for dramatic and interesting poetry! Here is Tennyson’s poem (or actually the 69th canto thereof), a lament about the pain of death and loss…and about the larger nature of life…and about faith.

LXIX.

I dream’d there would be Spring no more,

That Nature’s ancient power was lost:

The streets were black with smoke and frost,

They chatter’d trifles at the door:

I wander’d from the noisy town,

I found a wood with thorny boughs:

I took the thorns to bind my brows,

I wore them like a civic crown:

I met with scoffs, I met with scorns

From youth and babe and hoary hairs:

They call’d me in the public squares

The fool that wears a crown of thorns:

They call’d me fool, they call’d me child:

I found an angel of the night;

The voice was low, the look was bright;

He look’d upon my crown and smiled:

He reach’d the glory of a hand,

That seem’d to touch it into leaf:

The voice was not the voice of grief,

The words were hard to understand.

The work is Christian in meaning and symbolism, but right away the narrator experiences problems with the dogma and the real nature of his faith. The poet picks up and puts on a wreath of thorns which is meant to represent grief for his dead friend and the larger grief of mortality itself.  This thorn crown obviously also has a special religious significance: it is the same crown which Jesus Christ wore during the passion.  Jesus was both human and divine.  In Christian mythology he was a person who died and then transcended death. Christianity extends the same promise to its followers.

Angel of Death (Evelyn De Morgan. 1881, oil on canvas)

Angel of Death (Evelyn De Morgan. 1881, oil on canvas)

In his broken sadness, the narrator attempts to bridge the gap between death and eternity by wearing the same garb as Christ, but right away society condemns the narrator as pitiful and childlike.  Grief is not meant to so undo a person.  Additionally, the promise of eternal life—of any divine compact at all—is in doubt.  Spring will not come again.  The streets are black with industrial grime. His friend is dead…as we all must die, and yet religion is no so longer a sovereign remedy. The world of society is founded on religious strictures—but laughs off expressions of those beliefs.  Worse the beliefs themselves have been undermined…by life’s sorrow sand by greater knowledge of the world.

When the narrator does encounter an actual angel–a numinous from beyond who represents the true meanings of existence—the angel transmutes the crown of thorns into a living wreath and says something which lies beyond the poet’s grasp.   It is a tremendous combined message of hope, uncertainty and grief…yet this sacred message lies beyond the poet.

The words were not the words of grief, but neither were they comprehensible to Tennyson…We all must keep fumbling towards meaning in a world without any certainty.

Divine messages are jumbled whispers from our dreams and from angels of the night…and from poets who keep delivering beautiful and ambivalent truths which the priests and politicians certainly would never dare utter.

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