"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Friday, September 28, 2012

Penelope, Who Really Cried

Penelope Unravelling Her Work At Night, 1886
by fabric artist Dora Wheeler, 1856 - 1940
(daughter of Candace Wheeler)
for Associated Artists (New York City, 1883–1907)

There are many beautiful depictions of Penelope, loyal wife of the wandering Ulysses, who weaves by day and unravels by night, buying time until her husband reappears. I've chosen the above rendering because, as a silk weaving sadly becoming undone with time, it seems so appropriate; but, in truth, I've picked it primarily because I cannot find the picture that I really want.

What I'm looking for is the "Study for The Nights of Penelope," that once hung in the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame. I admired it many times during the 1980s and often required my students to view it, as did others, according to archived course outlines. Had I looked more carefully, I might have seen that it was on loan from somewhere in Ohio, but the thought that it was not part of the permanent collection never crossed my mind . . . until I visited recently in hopes of seeing it once again.

Not only was it not on view in the Snite, but it has thus far eluded me on the web as well, aside from this former catalog entry, confirming its existence --

Pierre-Paul Leon Glaize (French, 1842 - 1932)
oil on canvas
On loan from Mr. and Mrs. Noah L. Butkin

-- and a passing reference in a late 19th - century guide to artists and artworks, vaguely establishing the whereabouts of the final version somewhere in Brussels.

Two other intricate interior paintings by Pierre-Paul Leon Glaize, are similar in setting and detail to what I recall of the small "Study for The Nights of Penelope," though both of these appear more light - hearted in tone than the subject of long - suffering Penelope, weary and vigilant.

The Sandal Makers


The Bird Charmer

Also by Pierre-Paul Leon Glaize
La Femme de Soldat

This heroine, determined in stance yet subdued in hue also brings to mind the nocturnal vigil that Leon Glaize captures in his "Nights of Penelope" . . . if only I could see it once again!

To accompany the numerous paintings of Penelope, there are also many poems. My favorite, as so often happens to be the case, is by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her poem is about Penelope waiting for Ulysses to come home -- but also, in my interpretation, about any of us whose arms are getting tired and whose necks are getting tight from waiting for that better world to come. It can wear a body out. In this almost - sonnet, she describes the "ancient gesture" of wiping the corner of your eye with the corner of your apron; it could just as likely be a handkerchief perhaps or a Kleenex, but the apron places Penelope in the heart of the home, the oikos. Not that she does a lot of cooking -- mostly, it's weaving. As subtly as Leon Glaize, Millay implies a constellation of gestures: hands busy at the loom; arms stretched for relief above one's head; rubbing a stiff neck with one hand while clinching a tired back with the other; bursting all at once into tears; and finally the silent weeping, discreetly wiping the tears away.

"An Ancient Gesture"
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
Penelope did this too.
And more than once: you can't keep weaving all day
And undoing it all through the night;
Your arms get tired, and the back of your neck gets tight;
And along towards morning, when you think it will never be light,
And your husband has been gone, and you don't know where, for years.
Suddenly you burst into tears;
There is simply nothing else to do.

And I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
This is an ancient gesture, authentic, antique,
In the very best tradition, classic, Greek;
Ulysses did this too.
But only as a gesture,— a gesture which implied
To the assembled throng that he was much too moved to speak.
He learned it from Penelope...
Penelope, who really cried.
(ellipses in original)

In this next brief poem, Parker's message is similar -- Penelope really cries; Ulysses steals the show. Penelope waits courageously; Ulysses gets the kudos.

by Dorothy Parker

In the pathway of the sun,
In the footsteps of the breeze,
Where the world and sky are one,
He shall ride the silver seas,
He shall cut the glittering wave.
I shall sit at home, and rock;
Rise, to heed a neighbor's knock;
Brew my tea, and snip my thread;
Bleach the linen for my bed.
They will call him brave.

Another favorite of mine is the self - composed Penelope envisioned by Wallace Stevens. As I mentioned last month on my daily blog ("Blue Moon, Blue Heart"), this contemplative Penelope wants nothing that Ulysses "could not bring her by coming alone." No diamond rings, no fancy pearls, no souvenirs from afar or treasures from the deep. Her essential exercise is meditation.

"The World As Meditation"
by Wallace Stevens

J’ai passé trop de temps à travailler mon violon, à voyager. Mais l’exercice essentiel du compositeur — la méditation — rien ne l’a jamais suspendu en moi … Je vis un rêve permanent, qui ne s’arrête ni nuit ni jour.
~ Georges Enesco

It is Ulysses that approaches from the east,
The interminable adventurer? The trees are mended.
That winter is washed away. Someone is moving

On the horizon and lifting himself up above it.
A form of fire approaches the cretonnes [curtains] of Penelope,
Whose mere savage presence awakens the world in which she dwells.

She has composed, so long, a self with which to welcome him,
Companion to his self for her, which she imagined,
Two in a deep-founded sheltering, friend and dear friend.

The trees had been mended, as an essential exercise
In an inhuman meditation, larger than her own.
No winds like dogs watched over her at night.

She wanted nothing he could not bring her by coming alone.
She wanted no fetchings. His arms would be her necklace
And her belt, the final fortune of their desire.

But was it Ulysses? Or was it only the warmth of the sun
On her pillow? The thought kept beating in her like her heart.
The two kept beating together. It was only day.

It was Ulysses and it was not. Yet they had met,
Friend and dear friend and a planet's encouragement.
The barbarous strength within her would never fail.

She would talk a little to herself as she combed her hair,
Repeating his name with its patient syllables,
Never forgetting him that kept coming constantly so near.

A few more to look at:

by Carol Ann Duffy

A poem in which Penelope, "self-contained, absorbed, content, / most certainly not waiting," stitches the story of her own life into the tapestry and, somewhat shockingly, licks her "scarlet thread /and aim[s] it surely at the middle of the needle’s eye once more."

"Penelope's Song"
by Louise Gluck

In Gluck's "song," Penelope sends her "little soul" to the top of the spruce tree to watch our for Ulysses -- with a warning: " . . . shake the boughs of the tree . . . carefully, carefully, lest / His beautiful face be marred / By too many falling needles." Pine needles, yes; but also an allusion to Penelope's handiwork? How interesting that both Duffy and Gluck portray or suggest that Penelope is sewing with a needle rather than weaving . . . and those needles can be dangerous!

by Robert Graves

The prolific Robert Graves is always worth noting, especially when it comes to Classical Mythology. Here he catalogs the complicated romantic liasons of the "much - tossed . . . love - tossed" Ulysses.

"Calypso's Island"
by Archibald MacLeish

A beautiful love song from Ulysses to Penelope. His words are addressed to the immortal nymph Calypso, who offers him the possibility "To hold forever what forever passes, / To hide from what will pass, forever." But he chooses his mortal wife, "a woman with that fault / Of change that will be death in her at last!" He leaves Calypso's charmed paradise for the isle of Ithaca where Penelope "wears the sunlight for awhile."

"Penelope for her Ulisses sake"
by Edmund Spenser

For Spenser, the tapestry represents his quest for romance. He is the weaver, like Penelope, but also a suitor. Unlike the opportunists who pursue Penelope, his love is pure; yet even so, it is unreturned. His beloved unweaves his suit with a single word, a mere look.

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

And lastly, Tennyson's tour de force, filled with so many memorable and oft - quoted lines. In this poem, despite his advanced age, the ever - restless Ulysses charts out yet another adventure. No matter that he is only recently reunited with Penelope after twenty long years; he does not intend to stay put.

Lines 1 - 7: "It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an agèd wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees.

Line 12: . . . always roaming with a hungry heart

Lines 18 - 23: I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

Lines 31 - 32: To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

Lines 50 - 53: Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

Lines 56 - 70: Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world
. . . my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die. . .
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

Penelope, 1849
by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829 - 1908)
Penelope, like Ulysses:
"Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."


P.S. One more that I must add in full . . .
with grateful thanks to my friend and professor Jim Barnes
(and to Maureen E. Doalles for this blog post).

Ithaka 2001

Hope all your Ithakas are good ones.

Seems ages on the hill above the rocky point
I have kept my eyes on the horizon where sky
drops to sea. No sign of any ship I do not
recognize, just the ragtag worn-out fishing fleet
about to sink. No single sail grabbing the wind
and fifty men at oars to tell us you are back.
This is no Ithaka now you would own up to,
your old wife mad, your queer son gone, your dog
years dead. The old men gathered here like the food
and wine, but do not give a hoot about the place.
You might as well have gone down in the fishy sea:

this is no Ithaka you would want to rule. Still we
hope for your long return, the foolish old friends of
the foolish king who went away to war for fear
of losing what we have lost anyway, although
you, somewhere landbound or adrift on the deep, still
may dream of coming back to stony Ithaka,
to a faithful wife and infant son. Wherever
you are, I send you these heavy words on a wind
that has treated us all badly: there is little
use for you to come back home old and mortified.
Ithaka is not the Ithaka it was. For god's

sake, be strong. We have grown even older hoping.
Perhaps you have found another Ithaka elsewhere
in the wide world, a soft and welcome country that
nourishes you in a way we never can again.
I wish you well, but I must keep on hoping that
you will come back again. You could teach us a way
at least to cope with the thing that has befallen
us. The tourist's shops and the garish touring boats
prosper, but they are in the hands of foreigners.
The breeding cattle prized by Philoitius bankers
in Pylos hold for the debts Penelope incurred.

The suitors had no staying power when the booze
ran out. No one manned the presses nor tended vines.
Pirates from Samos got the last of goats and sheep
when we tried to take the herds across to Argive
lands. Hardly any of us are left who give a damn
about the state. I am here every day, though hope
runs thin. I know you will return sometime. It is
no Ithaka to brag about. Hope you will bring
our salvation in some form. Yellow gold would help
and medicine that would somehow cure all the pain
of mind and body. We are ill in Ithaka.

By Jim Barnes
Published in The North American Review
and also in Visiting Picasso, 2007

Friday, September 14, 2012

Back to School:
A Scent of Knowledge

Thanks to my husband Gerry McCartney for this slide,
which he uses in his presentations to illustrate the challenges
of classroom instruction -- chatters, sleepers, daydreamers!
It was ever thus!
Henricus de Alemannia Lecturing his Students
from Laurentius de Voltolina, 1350s

Back to School! Always such a heady time of year! That could be a pun, as in Oliver Goldsmith's 18th century characterization of the "Village Schoolmaster": "and still the wonder grew, / That one small head could carry all he knew." But, seriously, it's an energizing, optimistic time, a new season, especially with the weather changing from summer to fall. Breathe deep!

British novelist Andrea Levy captures the exhilaration of a new school year in a sensory passage I recently quoted on my book blog: "My favourite task was to hand out the books at the beginning of term. Those children all had new books, whose turning pages wafted a fragrance of sun on sweet wood; a scent of knowledge" (emphasis added). I remember that scent -- and everything that went with it! Notebooks, pencils, index cards and graph paper; chalkboards, lockers, desks, the library, and best of all -- a cigar box! All those promising, familiar smells that go with education! All that back - to - school shopping; or as Ben and Sam -- raised in the age of Harry Potter -- called it, our annual trip to Diagon Alley. No matter where you get them, there's just something about those school supplies that signifies knowledge itself. Even for college kids.

Contemporary American poet Barry Spacks offers a collegiate version of the first day of school in his poem about Freshman Composition as a rite of passage. I have always loved Spacks' image of the English Composition teacher as a "thought-salesman" with a sample case; and I began to love it even more a couple of years ago when a friend, in reference to my enthusiastic endorsement of a few recent works of new fiction, referred to me as a salesperson -- not a teacher in search of an audience, but a salesperson! Come to think of it, perhaps the two roles go hand in hand, as Spacks suggests:

My freshmen
settle in. Achilles
sulks; Pascal consults
his watch; and true
Cordelia -- with her just - washed hair,

Stern - hearted princess, ready to defend
the meticulous garden of truths in her highschool notebook--
uncaps her ball point pen.
And the corridors drum:
give us a flourish,
flourescence of light, for the teachers come,

green and seasoned, bearers
of the Word, who differ
like its letters; there are some
so wise their eyes
are birdbites; one

a mad grinning gent with a golden tooth, God knows
he might be Pan, or the sub-
custodian; another
is a walking podium, dense
with his mystery -- high

priests and attaches
of the ministry; kindly
old women, like unfashionable watering places;
and the assuming young, rolled tight as a City

thought-salesmen with samples cases,
and saints upon whom
merely to gaze is like Sunday --
their rapt, bright,
cat-licked faces!

And the freshmen wait;
wait bristling, acned, glowing like a brand,
or easy, chatting, munching, muscles lax,
each in his chosen corner, and in each
a chosen corner.

Full of certainties and reasons,
or uncertainties and reasons,
full of reasons as a conch contains the sea,
they wait; for the term's first bell;
for another mismatched wrestle through the year;

for a teacher who's religious in his art,
a wizard of a sort, to call the role
and from mere names
cause people
to appear.

The best look like the swinging door
to the Opera just before
the Marx Brothers break through.
The worst -- debased,
on the back row,

as far as one can go
from speech --
are walls where childish scribbling's been erased;
are stones
to teach.

And I am paid to ask them questions:
Dare man proceed by need alone?
Did Esau like
his pottage?
Is any heart in order after Belsen?

And when one stops to think, I'll catch his heel,
put scissors to him, excavate his chest!
Watch, freshmen, for my words about the past
can make you turn your back. I wait to throw,
most foul, most foul, the future in your face.

by American Poet Barry Spacks (b. 1931)

What a cast of characters! I recognize them all, from both sides of desk. As a student (back in the day before all the smart kids were shown how to test out of Freshman Comp), I was one of those fair Cordelias, my heart an open book. A few years later, there I was, a beginning instructor, rolled tight as a city umbrella, religious in my art, requiring answers to the soul - searching questions: Is carelessness as bad as dishonesty? Worse than? Can Gatsby change the past? What comes after dark vapours have oppress'd our plains? How can a verb be infinite?

Office Hours: In my cubicle awaiting the Freshman

In the following short poem, Ernest Sandeen's recollection of undergraduate days is similar to that of Spacks, who points out that the Freshman Comp instructors are "paid to ask" students troubling existential questions. In turn, Sandeen's poem is a brief speculation of where all that moral questioning has led:

College Yearbook, 1931
How can we forget how eager
these professors were to disturb
our young, unexamined lives
with their own ardent doubts and beliefs?

And now here they lie as if
snugly tucked into their graves.
Did they find no further place
to go than here into our mortal memories?

from the Collected Poems
of Ernest Sandeen (1908 - 1997)
Notre Dame Professor and Poet

I like the way these two poems are connected. Spacks sees the freshmen as "Full of certainties and reasons, / or uncertainties and reasons." Sandeen notices that not only the students but also the professors are filled "with their own ardent doubts and beliefs." Plenty of doubt and uncertainty to go around! Sandeen can't forget how determined, how eager his professors were to disturb the youthful freshmen. Spacks remembers the tightly wound, earnest "assuming young" professors, equally keen to upset the students by throwing "most foul" the future in their faces. As I recall, not only was the future thrown in our face, so was the past, so was the present. Sometimes that scent of knowledge can take your breath away. Other times you have to swallow hard, without breathing.

The Good Old Days?

To conclude with a bit of fun, how about the whimsical college curriculum described by Robert Benchley in his hilarious essay, "What College Did to Me." I am never able to read his course list without laughing out loud, in part because it sounds rather similar to a few of the classes that I really took -- no joke!

The History of Flowers and Their Meanings
The Social Life of the Minor Sixteenth-Century Poets
History and Appreciation of the Clavichord
Early Minnesingers: Their Songs and Times
Doric Columns: Their Uses, History, and Various Heights
French 1C: Exceptions to the verb etre

The History of Lacemaking
Russian taxation systems before Catherine the Great
North American Glacial Deposits
Early Renaissance Etchers
Early English Tradewinds

says "This gave me a general idea of the progress of civilization and a certain practical knowledge which has stood me in good stead in a thousand ways since graduation."

Still, knowing that his degree program might sound on the frivolous side to some, he appends a disclaimer, which, as you'll soon see, he then turns right around and retracts:

"The foregoing outline of my education
is true enough in its way and is what people
like to think about a college course.
It has become quite the cynical thing to admit
laughingly that college did one no good. . . .
I had to write something like that to satisfy the editors.
As a matter of fact, I learned a great deal in college
and have those four years to thank for whatever I know today.
(This note was written to satisfy those of my instructors and
financial backers who may read this.
As a matter of fact, the original outline is true . . . .)"

Haha! ~ Thanks Robert Benchley & Ned Stuckey - French!

Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, September 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading