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Mark Twain, Pythagoras, poetry, death . . .

I sometimes imagine that I have the soul of a poet, and I would like to believe that my soul is that of a poet, but I do not have a shred of a poet’s talent. My love for poetry began when I first read the lines placed by Mark Twain on the headstone of the grave of his daughter, Olivia Susan Clemens, dead in 1896 at the age of twenty-four. I first read the epitaph as a Junior High School student—now known as Middle School. I was moved to tears, just as I am now while researching and writing this post.

Those words have for many years been attributed to Mark Twain, but they were borrowed from a poem written by Robert Richardson, Annette, published in 1893, three years before Twain’s daughter died. This is the verse Mark Twain placed on his daughter’s tombstone:

Warm summer sun, shine kindly here,
Warm southern wind, blow softly here,
Green sod above, lie light, lie light,
Good night, dear heart, good night, good night.

While writing his autobiography, Mark Twain said that he could not remember the author’s name, and apparently he was uncertain of the exact wording of the poem.
When Twain learned of the author and his work, he added the author’s name to the tombstone without changing the verse. Richardson’s original words are as follows:

Warm summer sun, shine friendly here
Warm western wind, blow kindly here;
Green sod above, rest light, rest light,
Good-night, Annette! Sweetheart, good-night!

The poem, Annette, also included this beautiful verse:

If that ancient ethic view
Of Pythagoras be true,
Your light soul is surely now
In that bird upon the bough,
Singing, with soft-swelling throat,
To the wind that heeds it not;
Or in that blue butterfly,

Flashing golden to the sun.

The ancient ethic view of Pythagoras, mentioned in the above excerpt from Annette, is explained as follows:

The ancient Pythagoreans believed that souls transmigrated into the bodies of other animals, and because of that belief they practiced vegetarianism, hence the poet’s references to the bird upon the bough and that blue butterfly. However, in Richardson’s ode to his daughter he passionately expresses his love for her, his belief in heaven and his hopes for her in the afterlife, saying that:

Somewhere there beyond the blue,
In the mansions that so many are,
They say, is there not
Any one of all, Annette, for you?

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2011 in Childhood, death, Family, funeral

 

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Comments on “A letter from a Union soldier, 1861 . . .”

I recently received an e-mail from my nephew in Mississippi that included a copy of a letter written by a Union soldier on the eve of a battle early in the War Between the States. Click here to read that soldier’s final written words, beautifully written in a fashion that is largely lost to us in this day and age. My posting of the letter garnered a comment from a reader, a comment to which I responded at some length.

This is the reader’s comment:

I was educated in the British system and for a long time, the Civil war meant either the War of the Roses or Cromwell’s war. It was as an adult that I started to understand our own Civil War. It is a sad thing the young man did not survive, consigning his small children to the very horrors of an orphaned existence. That said, I have always been struck by how beautifully young men wrote 150 years ago.

My response to that comment follows:

Thanks for visiting and thanks for the comment. Your observation that the written word was beautifully constructed 150 years ago necessarily invites comparison with today’s pitifully penned letters. Cursive writing is a lost art, soon to be consigned to the graves of history, along with Egyptian hieroglyphics and prehistoric cave drawings.

Our children are not learning penmanship. At best, they learn the art of printing letters, then graduate from there to thumbing letters and numbers on digital devices and clicking on an infinitesimally huge host of pictorial characters that represent thoughts, locations, ideas and emotions, expressing themselves silently without leaving any sort of footprints for the future, other than those captured and held in digital form.

Should the unthinkable occur—nuclear war with the resulting loss worldwide of the atomic movement of electrons, neutrons and protons through electrical circuits, whether land based or hand held—without access to that method of communication mankind will eventually regress to its original system of grunts, groans, hand signals and facial contortions to communicate, and millenniums later will probably advance from there to crudely drawn pictorial representations on rocks and on cliff sides and in various caves around the globe—that is, of course, if anyone remains after the holocaust of nuclear war. Civilization is by far the worst for the deficiency in communication wrought by binary bits.

And finally, just to wrap up this response to your comment, I will quote an unknown contributor to our language:

What goes around, comes around.

That astute observation, obscured in the ancient mists of time, may be reversed without any loss of its meaning, namely, What comes around, goes around, a truism equal to another obscure saying:

There is nothing new under the sun.

It’s useless to Google that affirmation—there are endless variations that effectively say the same thing, whether or not shown on the Internet. Somewhere on our planet, probably penned on a cave wall or on a stone buried in the rubble of some ancient civilization, there is undoubtedly a series of identical crude pictures or symbols. That series ends and continues with unrelated pictures or symbols, and then centuries later, perhaps millenniums later, the original series is repeated.

And even that is not the origin of that contribution to our language. It was undoubtedly expressed in the grunts, groans, hand signals and facial contortions that were used to communicate with others of the human species, and even before humans appeared was expressed by the physical appearance and the sounds and poses adopted by non-humans, the so-called lower orders of animals.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 
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Posted by on January 6, 2011 in civil war, death, Family

 

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A letter from a Union soldier, 1861 . . .

I received the following e-mail from my nephew in Mississippi, the nephew that toils lovingly and highly successfully in his chosen profession of designing and renovating churches of various denominations. The e-mail included a copy of a letter written by a Union soldier on the eve of a battle early in the War Between the States—I refuse to refer to it as a civil war—there was not a trace of civility in that bitter conflict. The letter was untitled and is reproduced in its entirety following my nephew’s e-mail, exactly as I received it.

Note: Letters to and about Janie can be found here, here, here, here, here, here and here. My not-so-humble opinion is that all are worthy of being read—I wrote them and published them to commemorate Janie’s life and to serve as a reminder to all that life is fleeting—in the words of British poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674), Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old Time is still a-flying. Click on that excerpt to read the entire poem and more about Janie.

This is the e-mail I received from my nephew:

Uncle Mike,

Your most recent posts, your letters to Janie, have reminded me of a letter I learned about from a public television series done by Ken Burns. The series documented some of the history of the American Civil War. Specifically, the program included parts of a letter written by a Union soldier who later became a casualty of that war. Although the letter was written before his death, the spirit of the letter, for me, transcends life and death. I believe your letters do the same. A copy of the text of the letter is attached.

Larry

This is the Union soldier’s letter to his wife, written on the eve of battle:

July the 14th, 1861
Washington DC

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure—and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine 0 God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.

But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows—when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children—is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country?

I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death—and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country, and thee.

I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I loved and I could not find one. A pure love of my country and of the principles have often advocated before the people and “the name of honor that I love more than I fear death” have called upon me, and I have obeyed.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar —-that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have oftentimes been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night – amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours—always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.

As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers his and hers I call God’s blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.

Sullivan

A special note: The soldier, Sullivan, did not survive the battle—he died, but his letter and his spirit live on.

That’s the story of my nephew’s e-mail and the letter written by a Union soldier, and I’m sticking to it.

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2011 in civil war, death, Family, marriage, Military

 

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Food for thought: When it’s time to pay the bill . . .

Food for thought: When it’s time to pay the bill . . .

The following obituary appeared in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph of Sept. 16, 1958:

A great poet died last week in Lancieux, France at the age of 84. He was not a poet’s poet. Fancy-Dan dilettantes will dispute the description “great.” He was a people’s poet. To the people he was great. They understood him and knew that any verse carrying the by-line of Robert W. Service would be a lilting thing, clear, clean and power-packed, beating out a story with a dramatic intensity that made the nerves tingle. And he was no poor garret-type poet either. His stuff made money hand over fist. One piece alone, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, rolled up half a million dollars for him. He lived it up well and also gave a great deal to help others. “The only society I like,” he once said, “is that which is rough and tough—and the tougher the better. That’s where you get down to bedrock and meet human people.” He found that kind of society in the Yukon gold rush, and he immortalized it.

I recently spent considerable time on the web, absorbed in the poetry of Robert W. Service. Click here for that site. On its surface, his poetry is just as rough and tough as the society he professed to love, the society he found in the Yukon gold rush. However, if one chooses to look below the surface of his writings, a moving current of his belief in the Deity and of life after death will appear. That current is apparent and can be found in the final three lines of his epic poem, The Reckoning. Click here for more works by Robert W. Service.

The Reckoning

It’s fine to have a blow-out in a fancy restaurant,
With terrapin and canvas-back and all the wine you want;
To enjoy the flowers and music, watch the pretty women pass;
Smoke a choice cigar, and sip the wealthy water in your glass.
It’s bully in a high-toned joint to eat and drink your fill,
But it’s quite another matter when you
Pay the bill.

It’s great to go out every night on fun or pleasure bent;
To wear your glad rags always and to never save a cent;
To drift along regardless, have a good time every trip;
To hit the high spots sometimes, and to let your chances slip;
To know you’re acting foolish, yet to go on fooling still,
Till Nature calls a show-down, and you
Pay the bill.

Time has got a little bill—get wise while yet you may,
For the debit side’s increasing in a most alarming way;
The things you had no right to do, the things you should have done,
They’re all put down; it’s up to you to pay for every one.
So eat, drink and be merry, have a good time if you will,
But God help you when the time comes, and you
Foot the bill.

I hope, and I would like to believe, that if I pay my bills as I go through life—pay them conscientiously on time and in full right up to the time I depart this realm for another—I will arrive with the maximum score possible to be considered for entry into heaven, with no unpaid bills, a credit score over the top and an impressive record of doing unto others as I would have them do unto me, a record of shunning the bad and embracing the good (the image at right is a self-portrait, taken at some time in the future).

In reference to the line in The Reckoning that reads, The things you had no right to do, the things you should have done, I am well aware of the things that I’ve done that I had no right to do, and of the things I did not do that I should have done. Armed with that knowledge, in the time I have left in this realm I will strive mightily—nay, desperately—to do none of the things I’ve done that I had no right to do, and to do all of the things I should have done and did not do.

Got it?

And just one more thought:

I am brazen enough to speculate that some, perhaps many—oh, let’s face it—all of us, not only those that may stumble upon this post—all of us would profit in the long run by establishing and adhering to the plan I’ve outlined above. At the very least it wouldn’t hurt to try, and even if we fail we would perhaps earn points for making the effort—perhaps, and again perhaps not.

That’s my story and I’m sticking  to it!

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2010 in death, Family, friends, funeral, Humor, poetry

 

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Sprezzatura: What the —- does that mean?

Before I begin this posting, I must hasten to explain that the blank spot in the above title is used in lieu of the word heck. In consideration of our restrictions on adult content, I was hesitant to use that word—heck—so prominently. I’m hoping that heck will escape the notice of the content police by placing it (burying it) in the text of the posting. And I offer my apologies in advance to any person or persons who might be offended by my use of the word heck. I used heck because I felt that heck would provide suitable emphasis to learning a new word—sprezzatura, a word delightfully foreign and delightfully obscure.

I am probably the only person online who was not familiar with the word sprezzatura. I discovered it yesterday and found it new, intriguing and interesting enough to prompt me to share it with others. Since viewers who consistently return to my blog are without exception erudite, this will serve them only as a refresher. I’m posting this information in the remote possibility that one or more of potential viewers to my blog would, as did I, find the word new and interesting enough to have them yearning for more learning concerning this unique characteristic.

Hey, “Yearning for learning concerning” is sorta rhythmical—kinda poetic, don’t ya think? It sounds like good material for a rap song—I hope one of our far too numerous millionaire rappers picks it up and runs with it.

How about it, Eminem?

50 Cent?

Alicia?

But I digress, so on to the word and its definition:

The March 2009 issue of Texas Monthly included a full-page advertisement (p.126) entitled “Making something difficult look easy,” written by Andrew T. Lyos, a Houston surgeon. Dr. Lyos wrote that he likes to read in his free time and had just finished Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World.

He defined sprezzatura as follows:

“Sprezzatura is an Italian word that has no corresponding English translation. The best way to define it is that it means doing something difficult so well or so easily, that you make it look effortless.”

I immediately applied the characteristics of sprezzatura to a plethora of gorgeously professional photographs and the overwhelming journalistic quality of the narratives which define and support them—both can be viewed at http://cindydyer.wordpress.com/.

I am convinced that Cindy Dyer’s work qualifies for the term sprezzatura—that’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it. However, at this point I must state, in the interests of full disclosure, that the blogger is one of my three princesses, the one who lives, loves, is loved, works and creates in Northern Virginia. I can also state emphatically that my opinion of her work is in no way influenced by our relationship—well, perhaps a little bit, but not very much—less than one-half of one iota—nay, less than one-fourth of one iota—not even enough to measure.

I found an expanded definition of sprezzatura at
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sprezzatura
:

Sprezzatura is a term that originates from Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier. It is defined as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.” That is to say, it is the ability of the courtier to display “an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them.” Sprezzatura has also been described “as a form of defensive irony: the ability to disguise what one really desires, feels, thinks, and means or intends behind a mask of apparent reticence and nonchalance.”

The Positive and Negative Attributes of Sprezzatura (also from wikipedia)

Sprezzatura was a vital quality for a courtier to have. Courtiers essentially had to put on a performance for their peers and those who employed sprezzatura created the impression that they completely mastered the roles they played. A courtier’s sprezzatura made him seem to be fully at ease in court and like someone who was “the total master of self, society’s rules, and even physical laws, and his sprezzatura created the distinct impression that he was unable to err.”

However, while the quality of sprezzatura did have its benefits, this quality also had its downfalls. Since sprezzatura made difficult tasks seem effortless, those who possessed sprezzatura needed to be able to deceive people convincingly. In a way, sprezzatura was “the art of acting deviously.” This “art” created a “self-fulfilling culture of suspicion” because courtiers had to be diligent in maintaining their façades. “The by-product of the courtier’s performance is that the achievement of sprezzatura may require him to deny or disparage his nature.” Consequently, sprezzatura also had its downsides, since courtiers who excelled at sprezzatura risked losing themselves to the facade they put on for their peers.

The need for illustrative examples (also from wikipedia)

I have read Castiglione many times and I think the best expression of Sprezzatura (with all of the high stakes it entails) was from an eleven year old boy. He was with a small group of boys in front of a New York office building on a summer day. I was early for an appointment. The boy came skating up to a staircase, hopped his board, and himself up on to the banister, sliding all the way down, nailing the landing. As I was at the base of the stairs I could see what his friends could not: the look of sheer terror as he slid, the look of elation and pride as he landed, and the utter nonchalance that swept over his face as he kicked the tail of his board up into his hand as he turned to his friends as if to say, “whatever.” Benfidar (talk) 01:19, 10 November 2008 (UTC) Benfidar.

Now for the epilogue to this posting

If you have reached this point you now know, at the very least, everything that I know about sprezzatura. You might want to consider tucking the word and its definition away in a memory area from which it can be easily retrieved, and in the future perhaps apply the characteristic to your work and the work of others.

An incidental thought necessitates a pause here: Some words seem to offer themselves up to the possibility of a typographical error. The word “tucking” used in the paragraph above, for example—one look at the keyboard shows why—the “t” and the “f” are perilously close. That’s just a random thought, incidental just as I said—really.

And a final thought on sprezzatura: If you recognize that quality in your own work, acknowledge it and glow with it. If you recognize it in the works of others, tell them and compliment them (you may have to refer them to this posting to hasten their understanding).

I’m not qualified for the label—nothing comes easy for me—but if I were I would appreciate being told, and would readily accept it as a nice compliment, as would others.

Perhaps.

And perhaps not—the characteristic appears to be a double-edged sword.

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2009 in Books, Humor, Writing

 

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