Can Lit, Culture, and “The Hockey Sweater”

The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens haven’t met in the NHL playoffs since 1979. That same year, a pivotal work of Canadian Literature was published: Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater. Whether intended or not, the story reveals an age-old culture clash between Ontario and Quebec.

By Serena Ypelaar

Have you read The Hockey Sweater (1979) by Roch Carrier? If you grew up in Canada and had parents even mildly invested in hockey, chances are you have. 

Titled Le chandail de hockey in its original French, it was illustrated by Sheldon Cohen and translated into English by Sheila Fischman. The story is enjoyed across Canada, among anglophones and francophones alike. It’s a children’s book about a young Roch Carrier growing up in Sainte-Justine, Quebec, who – along with every kid in his village – loves the Montreal Canadiens and wants to be just like Maurice Richard. In the winter of 1946, Roch’s Canadiens sweater becomes too small, and his mother orders him a new one from “Monsieur Eaton” (of the family behind Eaton’s department stores). After a mishap with the order, Roch is sent a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater. How will he cope with the stigma of wearing the wrong jersey? 

Illustration by Sheldon Cohen, from The Hockey Sweater (1979).

Now seems like the perfect time to be writing about The Hockey Sweater. This year’s Stanley Cup playoffs are underway in the National Hockey League (NHL). The Toronto Maple Leafs are facing the Montreal Canadiens in the first round for the first time since 1979 (incidentally the same year The Hockey Sweater was published). The Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens rivalry is the oldest in Canadian hockey history, as they were the only two Canadian teams in the NHL’s Original Six from 1942 to 1967. They have met 16 times in the playoffs: Montreal has won the matchup eight times and Toronto has won seven (potential eighth underway tonight? knock on wood). 

Tim Horton of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Claude Provost of the Montreal Canadiens battling for the puck c. 1960s. Photo: Canadian Press / AP

Unlike the Leafs, who have only won the Stanley Cup once in 1967, the Canadiens – nicknamed “Habs” in reference to Habitants, the early French settlers of Quebec –  have won it 24 times, more than any team in NHL history. Yet despite this discrepancy, the rivalry between the two teams endures. How does The Hockey Sweater help preserve it? 

The Hockey Sweater was adapted into an animated short film for the National Film Board of Canada in 1980, with Carrier narrating his childhood story in both the French and English versions. The film was animated by Montreal-based illustrator Sheldon Cohen, in keeping with the aesthetic style of the picture book. Carrier had a long career in storytelling, receiving the Order of Canada in 1991 and serving as National Librarian of Canada from 1999 to 2004. He helped unify the National Archive and the National Library with Ian E. Wilson, the National Archivist at the time.

The 1980 short film adaptation by the National Film Board of Canada, narrated by Roch Carrier and animated by Sheldon Cohen.

Full disclosure: born and raised in Toronto, I’ll always be partial to the Leafs, albeit in the most passive way possible. We were by no means a hockey family when I was growing up (and still aren’t). My uncles and cousins are big fans, and while my dad also loved hockey growing up, his true passion is soccer. He raised us with that love of soccer, so that’s what we know best. At the same time, my parents enrolled my siblings and I in the Leafs Buds Club, the official kids club of the Toronto Maple Leafs, when we were little. We got to go to Leafs practices and chill with the Leafs’ mascot Carlton the Bear. (I think I’m more invested in Carlton than I am the actual hockey… he’s just so cute!) 

So how come my family and I, along with countless anglophones across Canada, have always loved this little book even though it scorns the Leafs? 

Illustration by Sheldon Cohen, from The Hockey Sweater (1979).

Kids have grown up with the story regardless of their favourite teams because it resonates as a cornerstone of Canadian culture. We can all identify with team rivalries in general, especially in childhood. The Hockey Sweater is incredibly funny and offers a glimpse into life in Quebec during the 20th century. But beyond being a fun piece of Can Lit, it’s also emblematic of wider cultural implications between English Canada and French Canada. And although we might not have known it at the time we read or watched it, we as children were internalizing a key element of Canadian culture from a young age. 

To put it simply, Canada’s post-European contact history is rooted in the French and the British battling over the traditional lands of Indigenous peoples. Ultimately, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham was a decisive victory that paved the way for the British to take over France’s colonial presence, unilaterally establishing British North America to add to their existing American colonies. The ensuing tensions between French and English culture in what would eventually become Canada – from language to religion – set a precedent for the strained interplay between French Canada and English Canada today.

The Hockey Sweater illustrates that cultural clash, whether or not it intends to (more on that later). Despite being a straightforward retelling of the author Roch Carrier’s childhood experience, many critics and readers consider it an allegory for the French-English divide. The issue is complex, and goes beyond the simple act of wearing hockey jerseys, but we see in the story that the Quebecois culture is fiercely defended within society. Roch is not permitted to play hockey with the others while wearing the Leafs sweater; both the referee and young curate discipline him for his lack of conformity. “Just because you’re wearing a new Toronto Maple Leafs sweater, it doesn’t mean you’re going to make the laws around here,” the curate tells him. He’s sent off the ice to go pray in the church, where he asks for the most important thing on his mind: 

“I asked God to send me right away, a hundred million moths that would eat up my Toronto Maple Leafs sweater.” 

The Hockey Sweater (1979)

And so ends the book. It’s punchy, and drives two points home: first, the sense of being othered for non-conformity, especially in a cultural context (Ontario’s team vs. Quebec’s); and second, the fact that hockey rivalries run deep in Canada, and it’s been that way since the NHL first started. 

But whatever The Hockey Sweater may show us about Canadian culture, Roch Carrier insists that he wasn’t trying to make a political statement or promote Quebec nationalism. Instead, he was simply sharing his personal experience.

“I never tried to portray Canada to anyone. I’m just a storyteller. I’m interested by the experience people have and everybody has personal experiences, and everybody has limited experiences about something but that’s what life is made of.”

Roch Carrier at St. Andrew’s College, 2015

There isn’t really a moral to the story. In a children’s book you might expect a lesson about not being embarrassed to be different, or how it doesn’t matter what you wear (Roch’s mother actually says the latter in the book and film). But the young Roch maintains his dislike for the blue sweater. There’s something so endearingly unapologetic about his adamance that readers can’t help but love. As I said before, I’m inclined toward the Leafs even though I rarely even follow hockey, yet I’m not offended by this book at all. It represents a specific point of view and it’s funny. Sports rivalries will always persist, and trying to end them would be futile – we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Illustration by Sheldon Cohen, from The Hockey Sweater (1979).

The Hockey Sweater and its film counterpart are considered standout works within the Canadian canon for a reason, somehow transcending heated cultural (and athletic) frictions to become well-loved across the board. Roch Carrier’s story is strongly emblematic of Quebecois identity, culture, and sport, but the story’s themes are broadly appealing. Sheldon Cohen’s illustrations are stylistically memorable. The whole package manages to be quintessentially Canadian. 

Regardless of whether you’re a Leafs fan, non-Quebecer, anglophone, or all of the above, you can still relate to those feelings portrayed in the book and animated film. We all understand the pressures to conform – sometimes we derive comfort and community simply from the act of conforming. As humans, we’re always seeking connection, and identifying with something that represents home makes us feel united.

BBC’s “Upstart Crow” and Why Shakespeare Makes the Perfect Sitcom Star

As the world still celebrates William Shakespeare’s birth and death day each year, the playwright’s immortal relevance is clear. Among countless reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s life and work, BBC’s sitcom Upstart Crow is a surprisingly fitting way to reinvent Shakespearean comedy.

By Serena Ypelaar

Another year, another Shakespeare day. Having just passed the Bard’s joint birthday and death day (April 23) again, it’s become a tradition here at The Mindful Rambler to feature an interpretation of William Shakespeare’s life and career. 

This year, I’ve been watching BBC’s Upstart Crow during lockdown. The Shakespeare-themed sitcom was created and written by Ben Elton, of Blackadder fame. I watched the historical comedy show Blackadder growing up and I’ve been meaning to write about it for ages … I’ll get there eventually. In the meantime, let’s talk about Upstart Crow and why Shakespeare is an ideal (albeit unlikely) sitcom star.

It’s true – Shakespeare’s continued relevance and success make his life and works the perfect topic for a sitcom. His comedies and their signature plot devices lend themselves well to the modern-day sitcom genre.

David Mitchell as William Shakespeare in Upstart Crow. Photo: BBC / Colin Hutton

Upstart Crow takes place alternately between London and Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown. In the late 16th century and a more or less middle-aged Shakespeare (played by David Mitchell) is an established playwright, travelling back and forth between his Stratford homestead and his lodgings in London – where, of course, all the best playhouses are at the time. The biographical details of the show are hazy, a reminder that Upstart Crow is ahistorical in its approach – it plays with Shakespeare’s life.

For instance, although the real Shakespeare’s relationship with his wife Anne Hathaway is still debated (Did they love each other? Was he snubbing her in his will, or honouring her?), Upstart Crow treats us to a warm and fuzzy family dynamic with plenty of banter between Shakespeare and his wife, children, and parents. The show’s style unites Shakespeare’s well-known stories with modern-day comedy conventions, veiling current pop culture references behind Elizabethan social mores. In a way, the sitcom is both a product of Shakespeare’s time and ours – as a genre, it’s strangely fitting for the playwright’s quirky style. 

The 16th century and 21st century collide as Shakespeare (David Mitchell), Kate (Gemma Whelan), and Bottom (Rob Rouse) discuss poetry.

The series boasts an abundance of Shakespeare references for fans of the Bard, while delivering a well-written sitcom in its own right. In many ways, we can actually read Shakespeare’s comedy plays as precursors to the sitcom as we know it today. Many of Shakespeare’s comedic plotlines have the makings of a situational comedy, whether it’s misunderstandings, disguises, marriage proposals both failed and successful… you get the picture. Elton takes advantage of Shakespeare’s hilarious gags to create premises for Upstart Crow episodes.

Not only that, but the show also subverts Shakespeare’s tragedies, making them into ridiculous scenarios to round out the series with works from across Shakespeare’s bibliography. Even the sonnets are touched upon, regarding the Earl of Southampton, who has long been rumoured to have been Shakespeare’s man-crush (crush? who knows). The popular theory of Christopher Marlowe having written Shakespeare’s plays is delightfully turned on its head, with Shakespeare producing work for an indolent yet charming Kit (who was actually a successful playwright before Shakespeare, despite their being born in the same year). 

Christopher Marlowe (Tim Downie) and William Shakespeare (David Mitchell). Photo: BBC

The show’s subversions bring Shakespeare into a liminal place, an alternate universe of sorts. Upstart Crow doesn’t pursue accuracy, which isn’t technically necessary for good storytelling anyway. The show’s cheeky tone and good pacing make for sound storytelling. There are running jokes about Shakespeare stealing other people’s ideas, and rants about Elizabethan-era transport – anyone who’s taken the tube (the London Underground) or any public transit can relate. Upstart Crow is littered with similar tongue-in-cheek references to present-day pop culture amid the Elizabethan wisecracks. There was even a plague-themed lockdown Christmas special last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, featuring a fifteenth wave of quarantine (God forbid!). 

It’s fascinating to see elements of our society given the Shakespearean treatment. However, Upstart Crow is at times too on-the-nose about social issues such as sexism and racism. I think viewers are meant to understand those gaffes as evidence of the “backwardness” of the time; however, the fact that a lot of those jokes go uncontested make them a bit gratuitous. It’s fairly obvious that the tone is satirical, but at times some of the characters’ overreliance on reductive humour is jarring for a witty and upbeat comedy.

Anne (Liza Tarbuck) giving Shakespeare (David Mitchell) another brilliant idea. Photo: BBC

Nevertheless, that’s not to say that Upstart Crow lacks female characters with agency. Kate (Gemma Whelan), the daughter of Shakespeare’s landlady, is always on the scene to point out regressive themes and problematic elements of Shakespeare’s drafts, her strong moral compass no doubt mirroring the views of many of us who watch. Kate is an excellent bridge from the modern viewer to Elizabethan times, and she often grounds the episodes in a present-day context. Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna is also outspoken, and her bold, sometimes rough manner undercuts the confining idealization of women’s innocence in Elizabethan times.

Finally, Shakespeare’s wife Anne (Liza Tarbuck) is credited with many of the brilliant plot ideas in Shakespeare’s plays: each episode ends with Shakespeare and Anne smoking by the fire in their Stratford home, reflecting on recent events. Anne tosses out insightful suggestions every time; from our knowledge of his plays it’s implied that Shakespeare goes on to use her ideas, riffing on the concept of a woman’s ingenuity being repackaged and sold by a man (often to his benefit) in a patriarchal society. Upstart Crow therefore asserts that Anne is responsible for most of her husband’s iconic storylines and titles. The show doesn’t often slow down long enough to ruminate on the social tensions I’ve illustrated here, as the action trots along at a sprightly pace – but hints of contemporary awareness are definitely present, however they come across.

Kate (Gemma Whelan) raises concerns about Shakespeare’s in-progress works while Bottom (Rob Rouse) and Marlowe (Tim Downie) look on. Photo: BBC

To really achieve a lively Shakespeare adaptation, one must include copious Shakespearean insults, something Upstart Crow excels at. In fact, the show itself is named after an insult from a real-life rival poet, Robert Greene, who published a pamphlet in 1592 deriding Shakespeare as “an upstart crow” – referring to his middle-class birth. Greene (Mark Heap) appears as the show’s snobbish villain, devising dastardly schemes to humiliate Shakespeare – many of which come straight from the Shakespeare canon. For instance, Greene convinces Shakespeare to wear yellow stockings to a high-profile London ball, à la Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

Mark Heap as Shakespeare’s snobbish rival poet Robert Greene in Upstart Crow. Photo: BBC / Colin Hutton

Greene’s antagonism aside, the real payoff of the show is seeing Shakespeare blast other characters with streams of clever insults, slightly modernized but no less verbose. In creating his own inventive barbs, Ben Elton twists the Bard’s talents of language to great comic effect. One such example, so you can get a taste for it: “Spurious unearned social status will polish even the most stinksome turdlingtons – by which, of course, I mean you, Dad.” Or, in Robert Greene’s supercilious words: “Your family be turnip-chewing country bumshankles without influence or connexion.” These linguistic treats are a major asset to the show, making the sitcom-Shakespeare a memorable character.

In bringing together these trademark elements of Shakespeare’s style – complete with witticisms and asides that break the fourth wall – Upstart Crow plays with Shakespeare’s biography to offer a fun and irreverent look at the life of England’s most famous playwright. Celebrations of Shakespeare’s profound effect on the English language are offset by a humorous dressing-down of the Bard in every episode, making the show’s approach truly unique. It’s worth a watch if you enjoy both Shakespeare and sitcoms and want to see how the two spectacularly collide.

After all, even serious heavyweights of literature shouldn’t be taken too seriously. 

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”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.