A Thing of Beauty is a Joy For Ever: Keats 200

At the bicentenary of his death, John Keats remains an iconic figure in the literary world. Keats died believing himself a failure, but his work is more admired than he ever knew – and in the midst of a global pandemic, his life story is especially poignant.

By Serena Ypelaar

23rd of February, 1821 – Rome. The English poet John Keats dies, aged just 25 and convinced he had never amounted to anything.

Today, 200 years later, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

While he went largely unrecognized during his lifetime, Keats’ posthumous rise to distinction and his perception as a tragic hero have enshrined him in literary history, never to be removed. This week, the #Keats200 campaign commemorates the bicentenary of the famed Romantic poet’s death.

Portrait of John Keats (detail) c. 1822 by painter William Hilton, who had been acquainted with the poet. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Clever, sensitive, thoughtful, eloquent – these words are often used to describe Keats, yet during his own time he was relatively unappreciated but for the loyalty of his friends and family. His talent has since immortalized him within the English literary canon as a key figure of the second generation of Romantic poets. Keats’ 1819 Odes, as well as “Bright Star”, “To Autumn”, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, “Lamia”, and “Endymion” are among the most studied and admired poems today. His personal letters have been lauded as literary gems in themselves, bringing us closer to Keats the man – and to that morbidly compelling picture of untimely suffering – to which Keats’ current renown is something of an antidote.

The Keats Foundation, Keats House (which I wrote about in 2018), and the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association are leading the worldwide event which culminates today, on the 200th anniversary itself. To fully appreciate Keats’ journey from relative unknown to legendary poet, it’s best if we wind the clock back two centuries: back to 1818.

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on …

John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819), lines 11-12
Copy of Keats’ life mask at Keats House; one of many made for Keats’ friends to remember him by. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Believe it or not, Keats trained as a surgeon in London before quitting his studies to focus on his writing. In June of 1818 he and his close friend Charles Armitage Brown went on a tour of Scotland, Ireland, and the Lake District – and Keats returned with a bad cold. Nursing his younger brother Tom, who had consumption (now known as tuberculosis), Keats was thus exposed to infection.

Although Tom died that December, the following year (1819) was the most fruitful for Keats’ work. His most famous poems were written during that time, but their merits went mostly unrecognized – Keats was still in debt and unable to marry his sweetheart Fanny Brawne as a result.

One day, in early 1820, he coughed up blood.

He realized immediately that he must have consumption. After struggling with mounting symptoms over the following months, Keats agreed to relocate to Rome in the hope that its warmer climate would improve his condition. His friends paid for his passage, with painter Joseph Severn accompanying him. He would never return to England.

I know the colour of that blood! It is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that colour. That drop of blood is my death warrant.

Keats to his friend Charles Brown, upon coughing up blood in early 1820

Keats was fairly well-connected, having met and formed friendships with Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth (my thoughts on him here), Leigh Hunt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and others. Despite the pedigree of many of his peers, however, it was difficult for Keats to establish footholds beyond his circle – he was middle-class, a would-be surgeon without noble birth. His background was fodder for snobbish critics such as Blackwood’s Magazine, who wrote that he was not well-educated enough to be a proper poet or write about classical subject matter. These reviews vexed Keats, putting a pressure on his work (alongside the need to earn a living) that aristocratic poets simply didn’t face.

By the time Keats arrived in Rome in November 1820, it may have been too late. In his final days before succumbing to his illness the following February, he requested that his tombstone bear the following inscription in place of his name: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Keats thought he’d made no mark on the world. He didn’t know his poems would be considered among the best in the English language. He died at the same age as I am now – it’s humbling to think of all he accomplished in his short life.

Keats’ gravestone in the Cimitero Acattolico di Roma (the Protestant cemetery). Photo: Giovanni Dall’orto

And now we’re commemorating the bicentenary of his death. Not just a century later – two centuries later. I’ve always felt it’s important to mark these anniversaries. It makes us reflect on the lives of those before us. And this really is the perfect time to understand Keats’ circumstances. He contracted a widespread disease which ended his life far too soon, robbing him of the opportunity to write more, to enjoy critical acclaim, and to find happiness.

His tragedy resonates during our current pandemic. Lives are being lost in a similar fashion. Keats’ ship was even quarantined before he could disembark in Italy – his letters to Charles Brown during quarantine describe a restlessness that is all too relatable today.

I cannot answer anything in your letter, which followed me from Naples to Rome, because I am afraid to look it over again. I am so weak (in mind) that I cannot bear the sight of any handwriting of a friend I love so much as I do you. Yet I ride the little horse, and at my worst even in quarantine, summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life.

Excerpt from Keats’ final letter to Charles Brown (30th November 1820), in which he describes his restlessness in quarantine

We don’t necessarily need to relate to Keats to empathize with his hardships. But it certainly helps.

Portrait of Keats in Hampstead c. 1821-1823. Painted from memory by Joseph Severn, who was with him at his death in Rome. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A prolific Romantic poet, Keats captures the timelessness of nature, emotion, and beauty. His abstract explorations and emphasis on sensory stimulation transcend any one time or place. From exaltation to lamentation, Keats felt deeply. Those who knew him remarked on his distinctive intensity; and the sensitive among us can take solace in his musings. His writing exemplifies the great care and consideration with which he engaged with his surroundings, documenting his understanding of the world; validating the complexity of our own emotions.

Keats’ works were published and circulated during his lifetime, but he received as many negative reviews as he did positive ones, if not more. It was only posthumously, during the 19th century that his works gradually became more well-known and highly venerated by Victorians (Tennyson chief among them). Today, people love Keats’ poems – and they’re attracted to the story of the emotional young poet whose tragic end came too soon. It goes to show how we can form strong personal attachments to an artist – a collective appreciation that continues to grow over two centuries.

Keats may have thought his name was writ in water – easily washed away and forgotten – but the joy he brings, the sense of feeling he encapsulates in his works – outlive any concept of self-perceived failure. Loved in life by his friends and family, in death Keats has achieved mythical status. I wish I knew how Keats would feel if he learned how successful his work is now, but one thing is for sure – some things will always move us.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

John Keats, “Endymion” (1818), lines 1-5
You can read more about Keats and the significance of his life and death masks here.

Frankenstein: Returning to the Tale in 2021

Returning to a classic, we examine the titular character of Mary Shelley’s 1818 gothic-horror novel Frankenstein and how his behaviours and actions have resonance today.

By Bretton Weir

A personal goal for 2021 is to read more. I figured I’d start this adventure with a classic, and personal favourite, Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein.

Why Frankenstein? It has been a decade since I first picked up the novel for an assignment in my first year university English class. I have such vivid memories of this enthralling and harrowing tale so I needed to see if my memory held up. It did.

If anything, 10 years of lived experience between readings has given me a more mature point of view on the events of the novel.

Illustration of Victor Frankenstein at work in his laboratory, from the 1922 publication of the novel
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Fellow TMR contributor Adriana Wiszniewska wrote back in 2018 that Frankenstein is a story with which we all have some familiarity, whether it be from reading Shelley’s novel or being subjected to the Hollywood adaptations and their associated images. Not only that, but Adriana writes that the story of Frankenstein is one we continue to come back to, so I feel it is appropriate to give the novel another look. This time, looking at the titular character and his motivations, his downfalls and his ultimate demise.

We are introduced to Victor Frankenstein, the child of an upper class Genevan family in the 18th century. His upbringing is one of privilege. He demonstrates intellect, compassion for his family and an eagerness to go to university to advance his studies and expand his mind. All good intentions.

Now, I have historically been critical of Victor. Upon rereading, these feelings toward him do not change. Victor is motivated by his own ego and self interest. He chooses to create a living creature to prove that he can. He chooses to make it at a behemoth proportion for his personal ease. He chooses to abandon the creature instead of accepting his parental responsibilities. He chooses to remain silent while his closest friends, family members and confidantes die at the hand of the creature. Not only all of that, but he’s so self-absorbed that when the creature remarks he will come after Victor on his wedding night, Victor naturally assumes it will be his death at the hand of the creature.

While we can rag on Victor as the true villain of this story, his actions (and inactions) are what lead to his ultimate demise. But what are the lessons here? I can’t help but feel if Victor was honest with his family and friends about the creature, the outcome would have been drastically different for everyone involved. And are we so harsh as to not sympathize with Victor and his personal fear of failure? His family’s expectations of him seem to allege that he is a golden child who cannot do wrong or misstep in any way. Is there not a societal and familial pressure that could drive one mad, independent of the external appearances he feels he must keep up?

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is recorded that Mary Shelley’s idea for this novel came out of a dream she had. While a looming creature given life by the hands of an ambitious and green young adult conjures up frightening imagery, the novel clearly explores fears around adulthood, responsibility and accountability – universal anxieties I feel many of us have experienced to some degree.

While I hope no one is attempting to be a modern Prometheus in this day and age, I do think we can stop, take a minute to breathe and sympathize with the fact that the future is uncertain. Change is constant. And while we might be frightened by the “creatures” in our shadows, perhaps being frank and honest about them will benefit everyone.

Black Lives Matter in the Arts and Humanities too.

The Mindful Rambler blog shares BIPOC-focused arts content and commits to more inclusive discussions regarding the arts and humanities.

2020 continues to demonstrate that it’s a time of great change. Over the past weeks, we’ve witnessed and taken part in the Black Lives Matter movement as it’s unfolded – and we’ve been listening, learning, and reflecting with specific regard to our work as a blog that highlights history, literature, art, and biography.

The truth is, the majority of storytellers and creatives celebrated in the mainstream media are white. We must do more to include diverse perspectives in literature and art beyond just the western canon and “mainstream” history, and talk more about issues in society today – because the humanities don’t exist in a vacuum. Our studies are influenced by the world around us, including the world’s inequalities. In our previous blog posts, we’ve analyzed culture and race – albeit mainly focusing on Indigenous cultural heritage in Canada. We’ve also run posts featuring prominent LGBTQ2S+ individuals, and will continue to do so. However, we haven’t really touched upon anti-Blackness that is present across the disciplines we discuss. It is 2020 and yet the experiences of racialized communities continue to be dismissed and disregarded; queer identities continue to be questioned and invalidated. We cannot overlook the imbalances of power which allow racism, homophobia, sexism, and discrimination to thrive.

Mickalene Thomas, “Portrait of Mnonja” (2010) at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture (Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery). Photo: Adam Fagen

Together as a team, we’ve assembled some articles and social media amplifying the voices and stories of BIPOC creatives, sharing content which discusses race through the contemporary lens of today’s vantage point, as well as content reviewing historical sensibilities and their implications. This article is not intended as a one-time contribution to the ongoing discussion, but rather as a commitment to more inclusive storytelling on this blog moving forward – laying the groundwork of what we’re learning from this movement and applying it. We’d love to hear from you if you know of any resources we could add to this list – the learning process continues every day.

Some content about BIPOC cultural heritage & creative industries

Forgotten Black British Histories | “There is an oversimplification of Black British history”
Akinola Davies

Why I made the series “Black to Life” | “This is British history and not just Black British history”
Akinola Davies

12 Black Scholars on the Black Lives Matter Movement and Canada | “Black scholars in Canada have engaged with public audiences to help contextualize how racism is very much a Canadian problem”
Active History

British Rapper Dave performing “Black” at the BRIT Awards 2020 | “The least racist is still racist”
Dave

A guide to supporting Black trans artists in Philly and beyond | “Black Trans Lives Matter, too, and it’s important that we elevate and listen to those voices”
Kyle V. Hiller

Open Letter to Hollywood from WGAW Committee of Black Writers | “Black writers have been critically underrepresented … at the expense of consistently authentic and diverse storytelling”
Michelle Amor, Hilliard Guess, Bianca Sams, Writers’ Guild of America West

The Skin I’m In | “I’ve been interrogated by police more than 50 times—all because I’m black”
Desmond Cole

Watch Documentary: The Skin We’re In | “Do Black lives matter here [in Canada]?”
Desmond Cole

Why I Teach About Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World | “People are more comfortable with antiquity being racist (and sexist and classist) than they are with it being diverse”
Rebecca Futo Kennedy, Eidolon

Hell is for White People | “A painting from 1515 turns a mirror on its viewers
Alexander Nagel, Cabinet Magazine

Money Talks: About Racism in Canada | “These faces found in our wallets … had a direct hand in harming Canadian citizens who did not fit their ideal image”
Ryan Pilling

Powerful Photos of Black Women in White European Nobility Gowns | Interview
Fabiola Jean-Louis, interviewed by Jessica Stewart

Why It’s So Important that Juneteenth Become a National Holiday | “A national Juneteenth observance can affirm that Black Lives Matter”
Usher

Black authors are on all the bestseller lists right now. But publishing doesn’t pay them enough.
Constance Grady

Kehinde Wiley’s Trickster | Vivid portraits of artists – in pictures
Kehinde Wiley, featured by Guardian staff

Kendrick Sampson, Tessa Thompson and Over 300 Black Artists & Execs Call for Hollywood to Divest From Police | “Hollywood encourages the epidemic of police violence and culture of anti-Blackness”
Kendrick Sampson

Some BIPOC creatives to check out on Instagram

This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are a few BIPOC creatives whose accounts we follow. Please let us know in the comments about more creatives whose accounts we should follow!

reenactorsofcolor | “Acknowledging & celebrating people of color who participate in living history & their historical inspiration.”

dandywellington | “Bandleader #DandyWellingtonBand, producer, style activist. #VintageStyleNOTVintageValues

notyourmommashistory | “Public Historian, Performance Artist, Historical Interpreter, Activist and Abolitionist”

vintageblackcanada | “A Multidisciplinary Creative Initiative Documenting the Transnational Modern History of the African Diaspora in Canada. © Curator @mraaronfrancis

georgian_diaspora | Museum of historic images of multi-ethnic peoples. #history #arthistory #diaspora #fashionhistory #curator

youngsewphisticate | “Seamstress, Weaver & Living Historian”

fabiolajeanlouis | “Haitian Born | New York based | Photographer | Paper Artist | Designer | Interdisciplinary Maker”

jeremydutcher | Musician

blairimani | “Black & bisexual & Muslim. Cohost of @AmericaDidWhat w/ @katerobards | Historian & Author of #MakingourWayHome & @modernherstory. She/Her.”

time.travel.is.possible | “Living History Interpreter | Sharing my love and passion for living history one post at a time”

wearefempire | “Championing female CEOs of minority ethnicities. Helping #DIYentrepreneurs & creatives to scale | Workshops, PanelTalks & The Fempire Sisterhood.”

wu_tsang | Artist

magthehistorian | “Public Historian, Historical Interpreter, Activist, World traveler (He, Him, His) #worldtraveler #livinghistorian #blackhistorian”

shoesfirstthencorset | Glynnis

chippewar | “Jay Soule aka CHIPPEWAR
Chippewas Of The Thames First Nation | Art, Apparel, Indigenize

tiger.lilys.threads | Entrepreneur

mickalenethomas | Artist | Photographer | Filmmaker | Curator | Co-Founder @deuxfemmesnoires

kehindewiley | Artist

scificheergirl | “Hobby costumer, wife, and mom with a dancey-dance problem | Costume Prodigy | Orko #motu2020crew”

labelladonnahistory | “Sociologist. Biologist. Traveler. Thinker. Dreamer. SCA Laurel. #Rievocazione Storica (14th / 15th C living history of Italian city-states).”

thevintageguidebook | “Ayana | Writer & vintage/historical fashion enthusiast | Midcentury & pre-WWII | sewing | books | makeup #vintagestylenotvintagevalues”

broadwayblack | “A theatre enthusiast who fosters artistic diversity & excellence for the love of Black theatre artists. Folk call me Drew Shade! #broadwayblack

museummammy | “author, art lover, and fashion person | currently learning ASL | my book “this is what i know about art” is out now & my book “black futures” is out soon”

blkemilydickinson | “Cree Myles | She/her | I read and start shit”

tawnychatmon | “Photography based artist. Please see links in my profile to stay involved”

Youth in Retreat: The Decameron in Quarantine

In which these most unprecedented times prove to have some precedent after all, and crisis invites us to re-imagine our conditions for living. 

By Jenny Lee 

So they gathered into groups and kept clear of everyone else, shutting themselves up in houses where no one was sick and where they could live comfortably … not speaking to anyone outside or hearing any news of the dead or sick, but enjoying music and what other pleasures they could muster. – Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (trans. J. G. Nichols)

1348: As the Black Death ravages Florence, ten wealthy young people flee the city for the countryside, where they spend ten days telling stories, singing songs, napping, and flirting. This is the set-up for Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a framing narrative surrounding one hundred short stories about love, sex, trickery, and the vicissitudes of fortune.

I opened my copy of the Decameron in mid-March, as public buildings in the city shut their doors indefinitely. Having flown home from Spain via the UK a few days earlier and subsequently developed a dry cough, I was instructed to stay home and monitor my temperature, and made a plague-themed reading list to work through during what I naively hoped would be two weeks of isolation. As two weeks stretched into four, it was this framing narrative, not the stories themselves, that I kept turning back to.

1024px-the_triumph_of_death_by_pieter_bruegel_the_elder
Breugel’s Triumph of Death, painted two centuries after the publication of the Decameron, underscores the cataclysmic effects of the recurrent plague outbreaks on the European psyche. In the corner, a couple grimly clings to love and music-making, stalked by death. Image: Wikimedia Commons. 

Boccaccio opens with a harrowing description of the bubonic plague’s trail of destruction in Florence, including not only gruesome details of the dead and dying, but profound changes in the social fabric of the city: family members deserting each other, the breakdown of law and order, the disappearance of the labour force in the form of the servant class. Florence is a city without boundaries, where distinctions between sibling and stranger, sick and well, and rich and poor blur and then give way to abject chaos.

Even as the narrators of the Decameron try to avoid the pestilence – it’s rarely mentioned after this passage – they’re marked, or changed, by the collapse of the structures they’ve always known. (Half of the population of the city would die from the plague.) In and around their bawdy stories, we glimpse a new social order which this lost generation might dream into being; the microcosmic society they establish in exile is peaceful, leisurely, and gender-equitable.

1024px-john_william_waterhouse_-_the_decameron
In John William Waterhouse’s 1911 painting A Tale from the Decameron, the exiles pass self-isolation in dreamy, pastoral splendour. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. 

The Decameron reads like a long-form negotiation of social and sexual mores, the kind of examination that we perform during a crisis. Boccaccio, writing in the early 1350s, muses that women were noticeably less chaste after the plague year, having dispensed with the taboo against showing their bodies to men. He explicitly critiques the customs which confined well-off women in their homes without recreation or socialization. His storytellers prize wit, quick thinking, and sexual freedom over rank and noble birth. The hypocrisy of priests (a recurring theme) is a worse moral crime for them than sleeping with a married woman.

Between chapters, on Instagram, I scrolled through the words rent strike and mutual aid networks and capitalism is the virus. The luckiest among us, in isolation at home, had time to watch the structures sold to us as natural and inevitable faltering in the face of immense – but predictable – upheaval. Like Boccaccio’s youth in retreat, we thought: there must be a better way we could do this.

On the tenth day, the youths return to Florence without much fanfare, go to church, and return to their homes. It is left for the reader to decide what they bring back with them, and what they have left behind.

“How Soft This Prison Is”: Reading Emily Dickinson in Quarantine

As we spend our days in isolation and uncertainty, we thought it fitting to revisit the poems of Emily Dickinson, who led a singular and solitary life, reminding us of the importance of maintaining a rich inner world.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) spent the majority of her life in and around her father’s homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she lived and died in relative seclusion. She never married, rarely travelled, and most of her interactions with people occurred through letters and other correspondence. By the final years of her life, she barely even left her bedroom.

If that sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. Nowadays, while a pandemic sweeps the globe, most of us spend our days confined to our bedrooms or our living rooms, only interacting with those we care about from a distance. Technology helps, to be sure. But there’s no doubt that a lot of us are feeling isolated and anxious during this uncertain time. Who better to turn to for some solace than Emily Dickinson?

Maureen N. McLane calls Dickinson “a homegrown poet of terror, abjection, and difficulty.” Dickinson often wrote about death and the nature of consciousness, the negation of self and the discomfort of being a body in the world.

dickinson-mood
Big mood. Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson in Apple TV+’s Dickinson, which puts a modern spin on the poet’s life and work. Photo: Giphy

She was no stranger to solitude. In a letter to her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, Dickinson wrote: “I would paint a portrait which would bring the tears, had I a canvass for it, and the scene should be—solitude, and the figures—solitude—and the lights and shades each a solitude. I could fill a chamber with landscapes so lone, men should pause and weep there; then haste grateful home, for a loved one left.”

There’s a lot of debate about why Dickinson self-isolated, whether it was by choice or whether she was forced into seclusion due to illness of some kind (mental or otherwise). But I like what poet Adrienne Rich supposes: “I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed. It was, moreover, no hermetic retreat, but a seclusion which included a wide range of people, of reading and correspondence.”

Black-white_photograph_of_Emily_Dickinson2
Portrait of Emily Dickinson. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Dickinson chose seclusion because that’s what she needed in order to write the astonishing 1,789 poems she left behind.

And what her poems reveal is a sharp-witted, fierce, intelligent woman, who reinvented poetic form and carved her own path in life to the bewilderment of those around her. In short, her poems reveal the vastness of a rich inner life, something we could all work to cultivate during this time. When your external world is limited to a small town, or as is the case for many of us now, to house and home, then our inner worlds become our most important dwelling places. Per Dickinson:

The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside –

(632)

The mind, to paraphrase Milton, is its own place and can contain the whole sky or sea or anything besides, including you and me and everyone we know. Its capacity for imagination and wonder and expansive thought is unfathomable. More than this, our minds give us the ability to read and think and empathize with others, allowing for the expansion of our inner world.

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –

(1263)

Poetry is exceptional in its capacity to transport us. Through her imagination and her poetry, Dickinson could traverse any distance. By returning to her poems, and following her example—her keen observation of the beautiful details of her immediate world and her willingness to look within herself for substance and meaning—we might make the distance we all feel right now a little more bearable. After all,

Distance – is not the Realm of Fox
Nor by Relay of Bird
Abated – Distance is
Until thyself, Beloved.

(1155)

Here, Dickinson tells us that distance is not about physical space, the lengths a fox or a bird can travel. But the final line is tricky to decipher. Dickinson delights in ambiguity (“Tell all the truth but tell it slant”), taking her readers to a place where meaning loses stable footing. “Distance is / Until thyself, Beloved” could mean that distance is nothing more than the space between the speaker and their beloved. But “thyself” could also be an address to the reader or to the speaker herself, suggesting that physical distance pales in comparison to metaphysical distance, the distance that we feel within. Knowledge of self, having an inner life as sharp and imaginative as Dickinson’s, is how we really overcome distance. And we will overcome this distance.

Dickinson sums it up best in one of my favourite poems:

i dwell in possibility
“I dwell in Possibility” manuscript. Photo: Emily Dickinson Archive

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

(657)

Although we remain confined to our houses, Emily Dickinson shows us one way, at least, that we might use this time to dwell not in the physical isolation we feel, but in the inherent possibility of our own minds.

For more on how poetry can be a balm in times of solitude, check out Serena Ypelaar on Wordsworth and the transportive power of nature.

Have No Fear, Shakespeare’s Here!

As we pass William Shakespeare’s birthday, we reflect upon his plays and their readability among modern audiences. Why do some scholars and purists look down on No Fear Shakespeare, Sparknotes’ series of comprehensive Shakespeare “translations”?

By Serena Ypelaar

It’s fascinating to think that William Shakespeare (1564-1616) significantly evolved the English language during his lifetime, introducing new idioms and even new words. He created new verbs from nouns (e.g. “to elbow”), and was especially illustrious for his mastery of insults. Yet despite his achievements in shaping the English language we use today, many people have difficulty understanding his writings.

Laurence Olivier and Claire Bloom in Richard III (1955). Photo: IMDb

There’s a distance between Elizabethan/Jacobean English and contemporary English, of course. So it’s understandable that reading Shakespeare requires some mental gymnastics compared to, say, reading your everyday newspaper or a new novel. This year, to honour the Bard on the occasion of his 456th birthday (presumed April 23 – he died the same day in 1616), I’d like to discuss No Fear Shakespeare.

The Macbeth version of No Fear Shakespeare. Photo: Kobo

No Fear Shakespeare is a student’s dream come true: it’s a modern-day translation, and therefore an interpretation, of Shakespeare’s plays. Published by Sparknotes and known for distinctive blue and white covers, each paperback volume includes the original text of a Shakespeare play, side by side with a modern translation. Depending on how you want to be perceived in English class, copies of No Fear Shakespeare are either coveted or derided among schoolfellows.

At least in my high school, I remember being grateful for No Fear but hesitant to be seen using it. During undergrad, I definitely wouldn’t dare flaunt a copy – to do so might be akin to admitting you didn’t understand Shakespeare. But I’ll readily admit I own copies of No Fear for King Lear, Hamlet, and The Tempest. In truth, it doesn’t hurt to have a translation available for when you’re tired or simply want to read Shakespeare for fun (don’t laugh; it happens worldwide). Literary skills aside, there’s no point pretending translations aren’t useful, no matter how clever you want to appear. Take this translation from King Lear (my favourite tragedy):

It is the cowish terror of his spirit
That dares not undertake. He’ll not feel wrongs
Which tie him to an answer.
Our wishes on the way
May prove effects. Back, Edmund, to my brother.
Hasten his musters and conduct his powers.
I must change names at home, and give the distaff
Into my husband’s hands.

William Shakespeare, “King Lear”, Act IV, scene ii, lines 13-17

He’s a coward and can’t commit himself to doing anything risky. He chooses not to be insulted rather than challenge those who offend him. But what we talked about with longing on the way may soon come true. Edmund, go back to see my brother-in-law. Gather his soldiers and organize his troops. I plan to take charge of my household. From now on I will wear the pants, and my husband can play the housewife.

No Fear Shakespeare, modern translation of “King Lear”, Act IV, scene ii, lines 13-17

Here, Shakespeare’s language may seem oblique or confusing in terms of what Goneril is saying; No Fear has brought it down to a clear-cut modern translation.

No Fear is aptly named, as people often approach Shakespeare’s writing with just that: fear, or at least a feeling of intimidation. We often fear that which is difficult to understand. But among scholars, why is No Fear tacitly shamed? Because there’s a pronounced sense of pride that comes with being able to understand, appreciate, and quote Shakespeare. I say “pride”, but in fact it reeks of elitism. No Fear Shakespeare is seen as cheating – the easy way out, as one avoids doing the bulk of the interpretation one’s self. There’s also a strong case against No Fear translations in the sense that they’ve “stripped” the plays of what makes them great: Shakespeare’s unparalleled writing style.

Kenneth Branagh as Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993). Photo: IMDb

Shakespeare is known for his eloquence, and by interpreting his plays yourself, you can engage with them in a way that No Fear would preclude – unless you can resist looking at the translations on the right-hand side of each page. That’s why English majors don’t bring copies to their university lectures, apart from the actual optics of the thing: even though it’s available, we’d be doing ourselves a disservice by simply reading a translation, and we don’t want to look over-reliant on the watered-down No Fear. If you were to only read translations, you’d be missing the essence of Shakespeare’s writing itself, and that would be a shame.

But using No Fear doesn’t mean you’re unintelligent. As demonstrated above, it can help with those hard-to-understand passages – and I can never fault anyone who’s working to make Shakespeare more accessible. I applaud the No Fear team, because the more barriers we eliminate between people and their enjoyment of literature, the more inclusive literature can be. If No Fear Shakespeare acts as a doorway to a lifetime of loving Shakespeare and his stories, then that can only be a good thing – we should never look down on anyone trying to learn something.

After all, I first got into Shakespeare by reading kids’ comic versions of his plays, adapted by Terry Deary. Film adaptations like She’s the Man (Twelfth Night) and 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew) also offer a contemporary lens. If these adaptations are successful in introducing modern audiences to the Bard, then count me in. Just don’t ever ask me to give up the real deal: Shakespeare’s words, verbatim.

Worthy of His Words: Wordsworth 250

It’s the 250th anniversary of Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s birth, and his love for nature continues to resonate with contemporary audiences.

By Serena Ypelaar

When I learned that April 7th was the 250th birthday of Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), I knew we had to tribute his legacy in some way. And what’s the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Wordsworth’s poems?

That’s right: nature.

As we isolate ourselves these days, it’s easy to feel lonely. But it seems that many of us have turned to nature as our saving grace. Nature is known to boost mental health and well-being – and now, when we’re unable to go to public places, a solo walk outdoors can do us a world of good.

William Wordsworth and his fellow Romantic poets John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Robert Southey professed a profound regard for nature. So what better time to celebrate one of the most famous English writers of all time (and a personal favourite) than now, as we rely on nature to preserve our sanity? The timing of the #Wordsworth250 commemoration may seem unfortunate, but it’s also rather apt. Though events scheduled in the Lake District and northwestern England for the year-long celebration have been cancelled or moved online due to the COVID-19 crisis, that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy the works of England’s former Poet Laureate.

The Lake District, the region where Wordsworth was born and later lived. Photo: Robert J. Heath

Nature’s offerings are bountiful: fresh air, tranquil scenery, ambient sounds and smells. It’s no wonder humans worship nature, in a sense. In remembering Wordsworth, we can appreciate how eloquently he conveys his love of nature, to which I’m sure many of us can relate. The sense of connection we derive from our shared love of nature provides us with some common ground, as the human experience is an integral element of Romantic poetry.

Interestingly enough, Wordsworth wrote much of his most famous work, The Prelude (1799), during a time of intense stress and loneliness while living in Germany. It was intended as part of a larger work titled The Recluse, which was never finished. I think the theme of isolation throughout Wordsworth’s poetry holds some relevance to our current situation, a consoling thought for anyone reading poems alone in their room (ahem, me).

Wordsworth is well-known for his ability to take readers through countryside rambles, using sensory imagery and lines heaving with emotion. His descriptions are vivid but also abstract, allowing us to travel to a site ourselves. Wordsworth’s Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey (1798) does just that. Upon reading, we’re transported to the landscape above the Abbey, taking in the lush scenery and sublime beauty of nature through the experience of the speaker.

Richard Carruthers’ 1818 portrait of William Wordsworth. Collection of The Wordsworth Trust. Photo: Art UK

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world

William Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” (1798), from lines 93-105

Wordsworth lets us witness the scene (and the speaker’s relationship with it) as if we were there too. How does he do this? Through senses and the imagination. Wordsworth saw imagination as a spiritual force. Famous for invoking the power of the sublime – whereby words incite thoughts and emotions beyond the ordinary – Wordsworth confronts the metaphysical, exploring concepts of time, space, knowing, and being. It can therefore reassure us to escape into nature through his words on the page. So even when we can’t walk through the countryside, we can see, smell, and hear it so convincingly as if we are there – through imagination.

William Havell’s painting “Tintern Abbey in a bend of the Wye” (1804). Wordsworth would have walked here a few years earlier when writing his 1798 poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”. Photo: Wikimedia

Why do we love interacting with nature so much, anyway? Here we’re shown how rejuvenated Wordsworth’s speaker feels to be out of doors observing the ruins of Tintern Abbey:

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din,
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: feelings too

Wordsworth, lines 22-30

Nature awakens our senses through sights, sounds, smells, and even touch – sitting in the grass, or feeling the wind lift your hair. Wordsworth was a master at evoking these sensations in his poetry, which is why he’s lauded as one of the most iconic British poets of all time – we really do feel his experiences as if they could be our own. In the year of Wordsworth’s 250th birthday, the pull of our individual relationships with nature still holds weight with readers worldwide.

I’m an ardent fan of Romantic poetry at the best of times (if you couldn’t already tell). But despite the slant of my own opinion, if you’re feeling cooped up, I encourage you to check out Wordsworth’s poems and marvel at the splendour of nature. Perhaps his works will inspire you to take a solitary walk outdoors, or maybe you’ll go there from the comfort of your living room – but either way, you might just feel transported for a while.

After all, there’s nothing quite like a change of scenery to refresh your mind and soul. In remembering Wordsworth, we can do just that.

Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then,
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations!

Wordsworth, from lines 134-146
You can read some of Wordsworth’s poetry here, here, and here.
The Prelude (1799)
Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey (1798)
For more on isolation, poetry, and the power of the mind to take us elsewhere, check out Adriana Wiszniewska on Emily Dickinson’s solitary lifestyle and its impact on her work.

The Longest and Most Charming Love Letter in Literature

A love letter can be one of the most intimate ways to express love and affection to another. Thankfully for us, some of the greatest writers in English literature also wrote beautiful letters, which often take on new life after the deaths of their writers and recipients.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

In 1928, Virginia Woolf published Orlando, a novel about a poet who lives for centuries and changes from man to woman. The book was inspired by Vita Sackville-West, with whom Virginia had a decades-long romance and later friendship. Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, famously described Orlando as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” The book is really an ode to Vita in all her complexities and contradictions and a testament to the power of language and story to express the most complicated human experiences. Fitting, too, that Nicolson likened Orlando to a love letter, since Vita and Virginia wrote letters to one another from their first encounter in 1922 until Virginia’s death in 1941.

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Vita Sackville-West (left) and Virginia Woolf (right). Photo: Time

In the age of Internet dating, it’s easier than ever to stay connected, but convenience has in some ways come at the expense of creativity. Somewhere along the way, sliding into your crush’s DMs became the primary mode of expressing romantic interest. Love letters, by comparison, seem like a dying art form.

There’s something strangely fascinating about reading another person’s intimate letters, like peering behind a curtain you’re not supposed to. Letters, after all, are meant to be private. Yet, our inclination to uncover the private lives of public figures persists.

Writers like John Keats, Franz Kafka, Emily Dickinson, and Woolf, among many others, were all exceptional diarists and letter-writers as well as poets and novelists. It’s a curious thing to read the most intimate writings of our favourite writers—like realizing your professors are human beings who have entire lives outside of the academy. The letters of writers continue to be published posthumously not only because they make for interesting historical documents, but also because they offer insight into the remarkable and mundane inner lives of often exalted figures.

The love letter, in particular, reflects exactly what makes the medium of letters so special. Call me a hopeless romantic, but reading the most intimate expressions of love and desire between two people is kind of swoon-worthy. The power of reading these love letters comes from the medium itself, which is at once private and public, immediate and remote, intimate and mundane, fleeting and permanent.

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Vita and Virginia and dogs! Photo: Charleston

Vita and Virginia wrote letters to each other throughout the entirety of their complex and shifting relationship, and through those letters, we get a glimpse of just how much the two meant to each other, how much impact each left on the other’s life and art. Their letters to each other are a chronicle of human connection, captured across space and time.

In perhaps my favourite love letter of all time, Vita writes to Virginia:

I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it should lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is really just a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any more by giving myself away like this — But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it.

January 1926

That’s the beauty of a letter: it’s there and then it’s gone. Here, Vita puts her feelings in the starkest of terms: simple, honest, vulnerable. But the “little gap” she talks about is present also in the form of the letter. There is always a gap in what we can know from these missives. We get only a glimpse but are unable to fully grasp all that remains unspoken and what happens between the acts. But that’s also what makes reading these letters such a unique experience: we’re only getting a part of the story. Some of it will be forever unavailable to us. And maybe that’s exactly as it should be.

Kindness Among the Unkind: Penny Dreadful and the Art of Adaptation

Showtime’s short-lived horror drama Penny Dreadful embodied the very best of Victorian Gothic. The show’s investment in literature proves that the best adaptations are unafraid to honour their origins. 

By Adriana Wiszniewska

As we discussed earlier this month, the Victorians were much more than their stodgy reputation leads us to believe. Victorian society was slippery and grey, invested as much in the supernatural as the natural. It was, after all, a time of great upheaval. And out of that shadowy underlife emerged some of the most iconic Gothic monsters.

Do you believe there is a demimonde, Mr. Chandler? A half-world between what we know and what we fear? A place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt?

Penny Dreadful, “Night Work” (1×01)

While Gothic literature had its heyday in the late eighteenth century, the genre underwent a massive resurgence in the Victorian era. The old forms of eighteenth-century Gothic were updated to reflect the anxieties of a society teetering on the edge of modernity. It’s remarkable just how many Gothic novels were published in the final decades of the nineteenth century, including classics like Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898).

Among this slew of new horror fiction were penny dreadfuls, cheap, sensational, serialized stories that were looked down upon not just for their lurid subject matter but also for their mass popularity. Which brings me to Penny Dreadful (2014-2016), a TV series that took its inspiration from all of the above.

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Eva Green is mesmerizing as Penny Dreadful‘s Vanessa Ives. If there’s one reason for you to watch this show, it’s Eva Green. Photo: IMDb

Written and created by John Logan (who also wrote the play Red), Penny Dreadful takes the monster-parts of classic Gothic literature, from Dracula to Dorian Gray to Frankenstein, and stitches them together into one exquisite tapestry of postmodern beauty and terror, blurring the edge between the lurid grotesque of pop culture and the high-minded literary aspirations of high art.

Penny Dreadful wears its literary influences on its puffy Victorian sleeve, shamelessly flaunting its literariness at every step. While most obviously shaped by nineteenth-century Gothic, the show is also knee-deep in Romantic poetry.

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She’s not wrong. Sad monsters too, apparently. Photo: Tumblr

In Penny Dreadful, two strangers can casually recite the same poem to each other from memory like it’s nothing. Victor Frankenstein, in seeking a name for his creation, reaches not for the Bible but for Shakespeare, because “theological connotations aren’t very ‘us’, are they?”

The same could be said of Penny Dreadful. In a world of vampires, werewolves, and witches—a world of senseless death and cruelty—existence seems devoid of the divinity and order that the Romantics saw in nature. As Frankenstein’s monster puts it:

I am not a creation of the antique pastoral world. I am modernity personified. Did you not know that’s what you were creating? The modern age? Did you really imagine that your modern creation would hold to the values of Keats and Wordsworth? We are men of iron and mechanization now. We are steam engines and turbines. Were you really so naive to imagine that we’d see eternity in a daffodil?

Penny Dreadful, “Resurrection” (1×03)

The Gothic is the dark underside of Romanticism, anticipating the bloody monstrous mechanized world that Penny Dreadful knows has already arrived and still haunts us to this day. But the show’s investment in poetry, in beauty and love and kindness among the unkind, shows that there are ways to hold back the dark, even if just for a moment.

That’s why all monsters in Penny Dreadful are secretly poets, the Creature perhaps most of all. Just as his creator reached for Shakespeare, the Creature renames himself John Clare after the poet of the same name  in an attempt to shed his monstrous past. And in the cavernous dark beneath London (a place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt), Clare finds kinship with Vanessa Ives, another damaged person who dwells in the halfway place between light and dark (Vanessa, notably an original creation, is the glue that holds the show together). She looks at his scarred face with warmth and the two trade soft words and lines of poetry:

The characters of Penny Dreadful speak in and through literature, finding solace in poetry when the world offers them only pain and loss and darkness. This is a story about monsters—the scary, bloodsucking, evil monsters, of course. But also the sad, lonely, misunderstood monsters—the broken things—the kind of monsters that shed light on what it means to be human and, conversely, what it means to be cast out from humanity.

Stories make up Penny Dreadful‘s blood and bones. Its characters use literary texts to define themselves, to narrate their lives, to make sense of the world around them. They themselves are texts, living and breathing and endlessly generative. That’s what makes literature so powerful to begin with, and Penny Dreadful understands that better than any show on television.

All Spoken Word Poetry Sounds the Same and I Hate It

In which the forces of the market, the conventions of genre, and the tyranny of the Youtube algorithm conspire to ruin poetry.

By Jenny Lee 

Consider: the hills you are willing to die on say more about you than any other aspect of your personality. In a long, compliant grade-school career, I refused to do two things outright, both times to preserve my dignity (which I prize jealously as a somewhat limited commodity).

The first was basketball. The second was writing and performing a slam poem, because I cannot bear to use Slam Poet Voice in the hearing of any living person.

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From the Poet Voice Hall of Fame: T.S. Eliot prepares to Intone. Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt / LIFE

Slam Poet Voice, used in what seems like the vast majority of spoken word poetry, differs from Regular Poet Voice (also annoying, also ubiquitous) in its intensity: the Regular Poet intones weightily, while Slam Poet Voice is more of a yelp, delivered in a pitch slightly above normal speaking register and littered with dramatic but unnecessary pauses. Because slam poets perform without text in hand, they can also add baffling gestures. This … is … (sudden hand gesture) POETRY, says Slam Poet Voice, before rapidly listing eight vivid metaphors. Where did this voice come from and why do I hate it?

Slam poetry took off in large American cities during the 1980s and 90s, drawing on hip-hop and spoken word conventions. It is a sport, where teams of poets compete for points awarded by judges. Button Poetry, a poetry production company, started uploading filmed slam poems to YouTube in 2011; you may know their viral recording of Neil Hilborn’s poem ‘OCD’.

It’s these two factors, the standardization imposed by competition and the tyranny of the Youtube algorithm, which make Slam Poet Voice so ubiquitous. As popular works in a genre (see above) are widely consumed, they become widely imitated, and those imitations get their own imitations. Tropes turn to clichés as poets’ idea of a successful poem becomes ossified. We learn to write and perform through imitating the works that made us want to create in the first place.

Slam poets are working within frameworks that literally reward conforming to certain genre standards with cash prizes, YouTube hits, and book deals. They are implicitly under pressure to produce deeply confessional, emotionally intense works, and to perform them like they’ve seen other people perform their own confessional poems, live and on YouTube. One way of performing a text becomes the only way of performing any text, because coming up with a new delivery is often the hardest part of interpretation (ask any actor who’s played Hamlet; there are a finite number of ways to say a given set of words).

‘OCD’ has 14 million hits on YouTube, which is about as good as it gets for a poetry recitation. It’s a lovely, wrenching poem, and also, it is delivered in an iconic Slam Poetry Voice. This is the tragedy of cliché: not that it makes works bad, but that it renders good work ever so slightly more mediocre. By rendering all texts alike, Slam Poetry Voice stands in between the listener and the reception of any individual text on its own merits.

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I didn’t want to put any one hard-working slam poet on blast, so please click through to see Tom Hanks deliver a pitch-perfect Slam Poet Voice about … Full House? on the Tonight Show. 

In summation: competition and capitalism ruin art, avoid mediocrity by consuming as widely as possible, and I was right about that grade 12 English project, sorry Mr. Wade!