“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.

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 before 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.

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.

Episode 101
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!

A Life and Death Matter

Historically, death masks were used to remember those who had passed away, or to create likenesses in portraits. Life masks are their slightly less macabre twin, and they both close an interpretive gap in physical memory.

By Serena Ypelaar

When I first set foot in Keats House in Hampstead, London almost exactly a year ago, I had long been fascinated by death masks – but life masks would prove to bring a whole other thrill.

Posthumous portrait of the poet John Keats by William Hilton. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

You might wonder why the distinction between the two holds any significance whatsoever. One type of mask is taken from a deceased subject’s face, while the other involves the living individual. What’s the big difference?

From an interpretive standpoint, the fact that historical figures posed for life masks while living and breathing – that they perhaps might have made a remark just before the cast was taken – is staggering. The result, while it may seem trifling at the time, becomes an unrivaled connection to the subject after they have died. A life mask of a historical figure preserves their face in its tangible and living form beyond a photograph or painting, allowing us to interact with it.

Let’s give these abstract notions some context. I first came across the poet John Keats (1795-1821) and his work while studying British literature in undergrad. I quickly came to love Romantic poetry, in which nature, emotion, and the metaphysical take centre stage; Keats’ 1820 Ode on a Grecian Urn (in which the speaker marvels at the beauty of an artifact in the British Museum) captures everything I love about museums and literature.

Keats House in Hampstead Heath, London, where the poet lived from 1818-1820. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

So there I stood in Keats House, ready to connect with my favourite poet in a long-awaited moment of fulfillment. I couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome. For one thing, the house’s interpretation was excellent – I had expected a rather dated presentation of the Romantic poet’s life, but the displays are new, appealing, and most importantly, emotionally evocative. Sensory elements are manifold as we’re given opportunities to visualize Keats’ presence and listen to audio of a first-person interpreter reading his poems and personal writings. And most strikingly, there are masks.

On the ground floor is Keats’ life mask. As a forever fangirl of the poet who lived there from 1818 to 1820, I was instantly drawn to it. (I can’t believe I’m telling you this, because it sounds irredeemably creepy.) My strange urge to reach out for the mask was validated (thank God, I’m not crazy after all!) when I read the label next to it: please touch.

John Keats’ life mask on display at Keats House, next to a label encouraging visitors to touch.
Photo: Serena Ypelaar

And that was how I ended up in Keats’ house touching his face. To further justify my museum nerdiness + mild infatuation, I can only describe the experience as unique and surreal.

With a life mask, you can engage with those who’ve predeceased you, whether you feel the contours of their face or just look. It’s so rare to find this kind of connection with individuals who died before photography gathered steam. Maybe Keats House really knew their audience, but the experience far surpassed trying to picture someone’s face based on portraits: here was the unembellished truth of what Keats really looked like. Since no photographs of him exist, the mask is an invaluable instrument of truth.

Keats’ death mask as reflected in my (perhaps appropriately black) dress. It’s a jarring contrast to the life mask. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Upstairs was a much more sobering reality, but affecting all the same. The lighthearted yet poignant discovery of the life mask was replaced by a sombre shift: here, behind glass, was Keats’ death mask. Keats died of tuberculosis aged 25. The difference in his face was noticeable. His once robust features were gaunt and thinner, a mark of the illness that claimed his life; and like the life mask, coming face to face with Keats was unparalleled in significance. It’s appropriate that this iteration was inaccessible by touch, for obvious ethical (and perhaps spiritual) reasons. No one needs to touch a death mask, unless they’re a collections manager! Regardless, I was glad to have the rare privilege of seeing both a life and death mask of the same person, however grim the comparison.

Life and death masks offer an indisputable connection to the subject of both. The concept is a goldmine as far as historical and biographical interpretation goes. In front of us is the objective image of a person’s likeness, almost as if they were before our eyes. One thing’s for sure: when looking at Keats’ life mask, I felt as mesmerized as the speaker looking at the Grecian urn in the British Museum. I hope to see more life (and death) masks of public figures in the future, because their immersive value is inimitable.

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

John Keats, from “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820)

A Wee Auld Dirge for Auld Robbie Burns

Thes Robbie Burns Day invites us tae ponder th’ continued timelessness ay his works. Burns’ use ay th’ Scottish vernacular (employed thus) illustrates exactly hoo his poems an’ ballads shood be performed alood.

By Serena Ypelaar

If you’re scratching your head at the text above, I’m sure you aren’t alone. For the sake of clarity, here’s what I wrote, in what you might call “plain English”:

This Robbie Burns day invites us to ponder the continued timelessness of his works. Burns’ use of the Scottish vernacular illustrates exactly how his poems and ballads should be performed aloud.

Today is indeed Robbie Burns Day, and what better time to pay homage to Scotland’s national poet than on his 260th birthday?

Born 25 January 1759 in Alloway, Scotland, Robert Burns was a tenant farmer like his father, and was (unlike many poets of his day) not particularly wealthy. His works have hence been lauded as relatable portrayals of Scottish farm life, illustrating class, regional experience, religion, and traditional culture.

“Portrait of Robert Burns, 1787”, painted by Alexander Nasmyth and held in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Photo: Wikimedia

A “dirge”, as referred to in my title, is a lament for someone who has died. In this case, though Burns is gone, we aren’t lamenting him so much as celebrating his legacy.

I’ve been looking forward to this post, as Burns’ works speak so decisively in and of themselves, but also because his writing style lends itself perfectly to The Mindful Rambler’s mission. Exercising his own interpretive power, Burns writes in the Scottish vernacular, meaning he has spelled his words exactly as pronounced. He is known for a number of songs – you might know “Auld Lang Syne” from your New Year’s traditions – that, when performed, reflect the Scottish dialect. In writing this way, Burns has cemented the dialect into his texts, and therefore preserves his Scottish identity while also sharing it with the world.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, here are a few lines from Burns’ poem A Winter Night:

Ilk happing bird, wee, helpless thing!

That, in the merry months o’ spring,

Delighted me to hear thee sing,

What comes o’ thee?

Whare wilt thou cow’r thy chittering wing

An’ close thy e’e?

Robbie Burns, “A Winter Night”, lines 19-24

As you can see, Burns has written the dialect straight into the poem, influencing how we read and interpret it.

I’ll be the first to admit – I tried to read Diana Gabaldon’s romance novel Outlander (an admission in itself) and put the book down for this very reason – the Scottish dialect. Apart from reaching page 178 and feeling that not much had yet happened, I also found it extraordinarily tiring to read the characters’ dialogue as written out in the vernacular, so I quit. (For those who haven’t read/attempted to read Outlander, think Hagrid’s dialogue in Harry Potter, except almost every character speaks that way.)

Nevertheless, in Burns’ short and much more digestible poems, I can appreciate the beauty of writing out the dialect so literally – Burns does half of the interpretive work for us. Instead of trying to envision a Scotsman and how he may sound uttering the words, we get his voice given straight to us. The Scottish vernacular is interwoven with the text itself, and we find ourselves transported into the shoes of the Scottish speaker.

“Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect” (1787) by Robert Burns. The volume was first printed and issued in 1786. Photo: Futuremuseum

Burns was a lyrical poet as well, setting some of his poems to music but also writing words for Scottish folk melodies. His methods involved considering how songs would be sung before developing the lyrics. As a lyricist too, he therefore gave the pronunciation of his words the same consideration he would have us give them, as prompted by his literary style.

During my undergrad, my favourite British literature prof went the full mile and read a couple of Burns’ poems to us out loud, in the Scottish vernacular. It’s a participatory action that I think needs to be done to appreciate the extent of Burns’ literary voice and the conviction with which he proclaimed his identity. While it’s not always clear exactly what Burns is saying, one thing is irrefutable: who better for Scotland to have as its national poet than auld Robbie Burns?

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

One hundred years after the World War I armistice, we continue to remember – and feel – the sacrifice of those who have served in armed conflict. 

By Serena Ypelaar

Trying in dismay to ignore the declining number of poppies I’ve seen on people’s lapels this year (all of theirs probably just fell off, right?), I of course wanted to pay tribute to our fallen soldiers, surviving veterans, and all those affected by war ahead of Remembrance Day.

And what better way to do so on a literary/historical blog than to revisit the famed rondeau poem In Flanders Fields (1915) by Canada’s very own John McCrae?

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Trenches and No-Man’s Land at Flander’s Fields. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

From an interpretive perspective, the strength of the poem lies in its profound ability to foster empathy. Most of us probably haven’t been in the trenches or known what it’s like to fight in a thankless conflict while watching countless friends die. Those of us who haven’t are extremely lucky – yet In Flanders Fields paints such a visceral picture of sacrifice that we get an almost firsthand glimpse of the devastation.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

It is hard to believe that McCrae, a physician and Lieutenant-Colonel during World War I, was dissatisfied with his work and discarded it. He had to be convinced to submit the poem for publication. Yet he uses swift imagery to conjure a painstakingly forlorn scene of war and death, having written it after performing the funeral service for a fellow soldier and close friend, Alexis Helmer. No matter where we read this, we’re hit as though standing there in Belgium: poppies blowing in the wind on the burial site; guns booming in the distance; the keen sting of love and life, all extinguished by the horrors of war.

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Physician and poet Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

I will freely admit that it’s almost impossible for me to read the poem without tearing up. What’s more, it has also been set to music, and the sombre melody combined with McCrae’s stark verse is even more emotional. I always cry when they sing it during the Canadian Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa, and I probably always will, because McCrae delivers empathy right to our doorstep. That is, of course the best storytelling – that which makes us feel things.

McCrae’s use of caesura in the second stanza, a halt with punctuation in the middle of a line, drives the point home: We are the Dead. Short days ago we lived … The dead speak to us in the poem, and we are accountable to them to live with honour and integrity as they no longer can. Those feelings of sadness are so well-preserved in the poem that they don’t dull down with time. Every reread reopens the wound – but justly so.

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A poppy field in Flanders. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Yes, it’s painful to grieve, but it is necessary. Remembrance Day is an ongoing process of empathy and an enduring resolution to defend honour. That is, after all, why we wear the poppy every year. It’s a symbol of our commitment, gratitude, and respect. Perhaps in remembering the contributions of our fellow citizens, whether by sacrificing their lives or through tireless and laborious efforts, we’ll also be wary of the sorrow that accompanies war and conflict. Lest we forget.

The Curse of Not Teaching Cursive

Some school boards won’t teach cursive writing anymore. The impact of this decision bears heavily on the ability to write and read handwritten documents, with possible implications for historical interpretation.

By Serena Ypelaar

In our increasingly digital age, what will become of handwriting?

I’ve always found it fascinating to see people’s handwriting, and I associate the way they write with their personality, almost. At least, it’s a part of their identity. Being able to recognize people’s handwriting is also useful when you’re trying to tell who wrote something (it’s always interesting that Santa seems to have the same penmanship as Mum or Dad…).

cursive
Photo: Michal Jarmoluk

Yet, with the domination of smartphones and laptops, we don’t have to hand-write notes or messages as often as before. As a lover of the written word, and a typography nerd, I feel a bit wistful reflecting on the disappearance of paper and pen.

One thing that strikes me is the choice of some school boards to cease teaching cursive writing to children. It’s something that’s happened in my own province of Ontario – kids are no longer going to learn cursive penmanship, meaning that they will have to resort to printing, in the case that they do write.

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A letter handwritten by Walt Whitman. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I myself write an approximation between printing and cursive writing, wherein I drag my pen to connect the letters (it’s much easier and quicker than printing, but it’s not by-the-book cursive). However, I know how to read cursive writing – but will the people of the future?

Take this letter from American poet Walt Whitman, for instance. We can probably decipher the text, as Whitman’s scrawl is fairly legible compared to countless other cursive letters, but we’ve also learned in school how to recognize the script (the letter “Q” in cursive always looked like a silly “2”, or a swan, but we get taught to recognize it – something our children won’t receive).

It’s difficult to say whether people who haven’t been taught cursive writing will be able to read letters like these. Whitman’s hand is one thing, but how about those who wrote much more sloppily in the past, or with a much steeper slant?

Writing woman a letter, with her maid, by Johannes Vermeer
“Woman Writing a Letter with her Maid”, Johannes Vermeer. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Not too long ago, I was at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, where I completed my master’s degree. I spent a few days reading through the correspondence of General James Wolfe, the leader of the victorious British forces at the fabled Battle of the Plains of Abraham (1763) which defined the colonial future of Quebec and ultimately Canada. Wolfe’s writing was quite elegant, but I often had trouble deciphering some of his words (I’d like to illustrate my point, but the original copies of his letters are protected in the library, so I don’t have photographs).

Letters like these, and early manuscripts, are extremely important documents to study, both in a literary and historical sense. In the humanities, we’re working with written documents all the time, and being able to read as much as we can is a necessity. Even just for leisure, being able to write and read cursive is a special and worthwhile skill. It’ll be interesting to see how reading evolves in the future when most of the documents we produce will be typed.

It’s a little ironic: I almost wish I could have handwritten this post for effect.