Christmas comes but once a year and yet the Christmas spirit can endure throughout the year, given the proper attitude and the right books! There are some words that only the heart can express. Those words must be chosen with care, by the writer and by the reader!
This holiday season offers us a time to look ahead and to look back, hopefully and happily, at some gifts from writers of yore.
The fables of Jean de La Fontaine are little chef d’oeuvres of charm, humor, wisdom, common sense, wit, irony, truth, and that most beloved of French virtues: a sense of rightness or proportion.
La Fontaine carefully selected each word of each fable to produce the most dramatic effect in terms of sound. Alliteration, sonority, pauses, and enjambement were all used to the hilt to create rhythms and patterns of sound which blend seamlessly with the meaning of each word, each line, and each fable. Although this 17th-century French poet and fabulist did not succeed in an arranged marriage, he did succeed in the perfect marriage of form and substance in his fables, largely through arranging exquisite models of style.
Gustave Flaubert, the novelist who agonized over rhythms and sounds within his novels, stated that Jean de La Fontaine was the only French poet to understand and to master the texture of the French language before Victor Hugo. Morris Bishop (author, scholar, historian, and professor of Romance Literature at Cornell University) wrote that La Fontaine and Hugo are probably the two greatest masters of French poetic technique.
I would not say “probably,” but “sans aucun doute” -- without a doubt.
“La Chêne et le Roseau,” “The Oak Tree and the Reed,” is reputed to have been the favorite fable of La Fontaine. The form flawlessly fits the substance. The first lines are gentle and delicate; the fable then progresses in resonance, elegance, and bold symbolism to its solemn, splendid, spectacular ending. Bear in mind that the symbolism of this writer was created during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV.
Translating this French fable into English involves dispensing with the brilliant sound effects that La Fontaine labored to achieve, but this tale is also touching and informative in English.
The Oak Tree, one day, says to the Reed:
You have good reason to complain of nature;
A wren for you is a heavy burden;
The smallest wind which by chance
Wrinkles the face of the water
Compels you to bow your head;
While my forehead, like the Caucasus mountains,
Not content to stop the rays of the sun,
Defies the efforts of the storm.
What for you is a north wind is for me but a zephyr.
Yet if you were to grow within the shelter of the shade
Of which I cover the neighborhood,
You would not have much to suffer,
I would protect you from the storm:
But you most often grow
On the wet borders of the wind’s kingdom.
It seems to me that nature has been most unjust to you.
-- Your compassion, replied the shrub,
Comes from a good nature; but do not worry:
The winds for me are less formidable than for you;
I bend, and do not break. You have until now
Withstood their dreadful blows
Without bending your back;
But let us wait for the end.” As he said these words,
From the edge of the horizon rushed up with fury
The most terrible of children
That the North until then had brought forth from its flanks,
The tree stands firm; the Reed bends,
The wind redoubles its efforts,
And does so well that it uproots
The one whose head was neighbor to the sky,
And whose feet touched the dominion of the dead.
One would scarcely know that the Civil War was raging during the time that Emily Dickinson penned her poems in Amherst, Massachusetts. This recluse wrote of love and loss, melancholy and the mystery of life, friends and nature, and death and immortality in ways that are still being analyzed to death. She was an original, beyond compare to any poet who came before or who came after her. Her poems are enigmatic, symbolic, and so extremely private that perhaps only Emily knew of their meanings.
Fewer than a dozen of her poems were published during her lifetime. Emily did not title them because she never had any intention of them being read. After her death in 1896 at the age of fifty six, her sister found the nearly 1,800 poems which were published in 1900. The poems were numbered. (Editors often use the first line as the title, a convention that I find odd, considering the elliptical nature of Dickinson’s poems.) The first volume was a smashing success, something that likely would have horrified this intensely introverted woman.
The following are a few of my favorite selections of her compressed, sometimes cryptic compositions.
A slash of Blue --
A sweep of Gray --
Some scarlet patches on the way,
Compose an Evening Sky --
A little purple -- slipped between --
Some Ruby Trousers hurried on --
A Wave of Gold --
A Bank of Day --
This just makes out the Morning Sky.
You left me, sweet, two legacies, --
A legacy of love
A Heavenly Father would content,
Had He the offer of;
You left me boundaries of pain
Capacious as the sea,
Between eternity and time,
Your consciousness and me.
“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see --
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.
While we are on the subject of faith, I offer some fine words from J.M. Barrie, the Scottish novelist and playwright (Peter Pan):
“The reason birds can fly and we can't is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.” - The Little White Bird
Ralph Waldo Emerson, born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1803, became the cornerstone of the Romantic Movement in America as well as the leader of the nation’s Transcendentalist movement. He is fondly known in my household as Waldo.
His essays, lectures, and poems are intriguing, at times combative, often true, and utterly emblematic of the man. I believe that Waldo enjoyed being contrary, but the following statement convinces me that his contrarian nature also grasped the essentials of faith:
“All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.”
Of fate, these words still ring true from the supreme Italian poet of the Middle Ages, Dante Alighieri:
“Do not be afraid; our fate
Cannot be taken from us; it is a gift.” -- The Inferno
William Sydney Porter (1862-1910) was an American writer who was better known by his pen name, O. Henry. He lived a tempestuous busy life of crime, drama, jail time, flight from jail time, and alcoholism. While on the lam in Honduras, he wrote a novel entitled Cabbages and Kings in which he invented the term, “banana republic,” to describe the type of nation which it still is, a seedy small dictatorship.
English writer G. K Chesterton observed, "He is a sane man who can have tragedy in his heart and comedy in his head.” O. Henry was such a man, even if his life was more tragic than comic. His stories are a touching mix of tenderness, sadness, optimism, playful realism, wit, deft narration, wordplay, and the unexpected or “twist” ending.
I grew up reading a lot of O. Henry; my children also enjoyed reading his stories. It became a Christmas Eve tradition for Mom to read “The Gift of the Magi.” After a few years, however, the focus became placed more on the reader than on the story being read. Each child knew precisely the places in the story where the voice of Mom would start to falter, then regain composure, and then “la voix aux larmes” (the voice in tears) would occur before, at last -- after valiant attempts to control the weepie, Mom performed her stutter-cry through the recitation.
If I had been reading to an audience, I would have done fine, but reading to my family, well, I was “a wet.” The children were always most gracious about a sentimental occasion that inadvertently became almost comedic.
In each short story, O. Henry gives to the reader the quintessential moment in time that is the pinnacle of any short story. And that moment in time is unforgettable. I shall not spoil anyone’s experience of delight and endearment from “The Gift of the Magi” with any mention (tearful or otherwise!) of the plot or even character names. Simply read it, silently or aloud. You may shed a tear! The story is an American original that endures.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was an American poet, novelist, and professor whose life spanned almost the entire 19th century. For a very long time, I believed that he was British. His poems are decidedly of the Romantic school and many are decidedly long. I am not one to enjoy lengthy lyric poems, especially those filled with mythology and legend. They serve too well to remind me of my ignorance of far too much mythology and legend!
Longfellow did, however, compose one poem that is quite beautiful, even if it is lengthy. The words were written on 25 December 1864, during the American Civil War. In 1872, the composer Jean Baptiste Calkin set some of the verses to music, thereby rendering them into lyrics for “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
Below is the original poem, in its entirety, with the Civil War verses:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day Their old familiar carols play, And wild and sweet The words repeat Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come, The belfries of all Christendom Had rolled along The unbroken song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till, ringing, singing on its way, The world revolved from night to day, A voice, a chime A chant sublime Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black accursed mouth The cannon thundered in the South, And with the sound The carols drowned Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent The hearth-stones of a continent, And made forlorn The households born Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head; “There is no peace on earth,” I said; “For hate is strong, And mocks the song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead; nor doth he sleep! The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Emily Dickinson wrote, “I dwell in possibility.” May the coming New Year bring to you every possibility of happiness, contentment, laughter, and good will! And may you have a good time today, tomorrow, and all the other days that follow!