Literature

Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi” gets the creative juices flowing…


I have been led astray by laziness, bamboozled by banter and have become a dilettante to desire  – which is why I haven’t posted or written in, what seems like (and is), a very long time. The most pertinent part of that last sentence was laziness (I was just trying to sound ridiculously pernicious so as to castigate myself but failing miserably in the process) so forgive my transgression – please.

Please also forgive my language as its just that I am a little out of practice and it feels like getting back into your favourite sports car after an age spent cycling or walking: one is always trying to see whether the turbos still work and pushing the boundaries of good driving. In this case they do, I am happy to admit, though they are in need of a good clean!

What got the creative juices flowing again was a request from my 16 year old son, who has just started his A’Level English Literature course, to help him write something on the late, great, Robert Browning of Fra Lippo Lippi fame (also husband to the late, and perhaps greater poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning). Now the key, when helping our young ‘uns, is to get them to do the thinking rather than write the piece for them – well that is my opinion and I am sticking to it. So, I wrote something that was borderline hard, yet, I hope for his sake, held enough depth in it for him to form an opinion of his own and easily “translatable” into his own words. 

Here it is:

Fra_Filippo_Lippi

Is art shackled by moral strictures forced upon us or freed through them?

An analysis of tone in “Fra Lippo Lippi” by Robert Browning and its effect on the verse

 

As is often the case, the tone of one’s life is reflected in one’s art, and Robert Browning is no exception. Born in the year of the war of the same name, 1812, the sacking of Moscow by Napoleon, and Lord Byron’s initiation into the House of Lords, Browning is considered one of the masters of the soliloquy in drama and the dramatic monologue in poetry. His father was grandson to a wealthy slave plantation owner from the West Indies who eschewed wealth gained through such nefarious means and settled back into life in London as a well-to-do clerk in the Bank of England with a generous stipend that allowed Robert, his son, to live a life of leisure and contemplation and writing. Thus, the influence of a liberal family (his father was an abolitionist) and growing up in an era when the Victorian quest for knowledge was reaching its zenith with Darwin’s Evolution of the Species, meant that Browning could contemplate science, changing social strictures and morality with relative freedom.

It was an age of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and Browning was affected by the growth of cities like London and the effect they had on the morality of the day (notwithstanding the Victorian prudish backlash to loosening morals that resulted from mass migration into places like London and the juxtaposition of extreme wealth and shameful poverty). Browning’s use of the famed Renaissance artist, Fra Lippo Lippi, patronised by the Medici and Cosimo in particular, sets the tone of the piece: a monk and self-taught artist who joined the brotherhood, not because of religious conviction but because of hunger, in the most famed city in Italy at the time birth of the Renaissance when art itself metamorphosed and became something more than just a reflection of the power of the Roman Catholic church, but a questioning of form and morality:

While I stood munching my first bread that month:
“So, boy, you’re minded,” quoth the good fat father
Wiping his own mouth, ’twas refection-time, —
“To quit this very miserable world?
Will you renounce” … “the mouthful of bread?” thought I;
By no means! Brief, they made a monk of me; 

It is with this in the background that the poet enters the fray with Fra Lippo Lippi being accosted by Cosimo’s guards one night as he is tempted out of his closed cloisters in the Medici household by the fragrant waft and sound of merriment. Browning, through the diversity of the tone of his language conjures up an imagery that is almost real in the minds’ eye:

 Ouf! I leaned out of window for fresh air.
There came a hurry of feet and little feet,
A sweep of lute-strings, laughs, and whifts of song, —
Flower o’ the broom,
Take away love, and our earth is a tomb!
Flower o’ the quince,
I let Lisa go, and what good in life since?
Flower o’ the thyme — and so on. Round they went.
Scarce had they turned the corner when a titter
Like the skipping of rabbits by moonlight, — three slim shapes,
And a face that looked up … 

An image that tempts the Friar to forsake his “incarceration” and risk the wrath of his Patron and his minions by frequenting the more ribald parts of Florence and enjoying mortal pleasures as opposed to the paintings that he is forced to make. The verse, with its ellipses, trochees, spondees typifies the mood of Friar. At times deadly serious, at times frivolous, holding a discourse with Medici soldiers, and explaining to them, in “plain” language, how his humanism was dislocating itself from his religion, a reflection of the times perhaps:

We Carmelites, like those Camaldolese
And Preaching Friars, to do our church up fine
And put the front on it that ought to be!”
And hereupon he bade me daub away.
Thank you! my head being crammed, the walls a blank,
Never was such prompt disemburdening. 

Thus he induces realism into his paintings and disguises reverence in a normality that is questioning how religion is portrayed; the imposition of thought on mankind, the imposition of shackles on freedom and the imposition of morality on animals (in the Darwinian context):

Quite from the mark of painting, bless us all!
Faces, arms, legs and bodies like the true
As much as pea and pea! it’s devil’s-game!
Your business is not to catch men with show,
With homage to the perishable clay,
But lift them over it, ignore it all,
Make them forget there’s such a thing as flesh.
Your business is to paint the souls of men — 

With this the tone shifts, and he, Browning, through his alter ego, Lippi, denies with vehemence the chains placed upon him and wishes to be free of his bondage. To paint reality with all its warts and carbuncles and imperfections of the flesh as opposed to the ideology that the Church wishes to portray in the disguise of enlightenment and religion. The skipping tonality of the monologue, at times a diatribe on morality, at other times a friendly conversation with the guards, is inherent to getting the point across – across social, moral and religious boundaries that are imposed rather than accepted. It underlines Lippi’s own confusion of the mortal form: confusion between tangible rewards like food, or intangible ideals like religion where confusion is created to explore ideas like self-representation and conformity and mask immoral thoughts and actions in a holy context:

That woman’s like the Prior’s niece who comes
To care about his asthma: it’s the life!” 

Where the Prior’s mistress is now portrayed as his niece, lest the “curse” of immorality enter into Lippi’s art and shock the masses who come to gaze upon his work. Thus, Browning, a master of the tone of blank verse, explores the reaches of his own conscience and uses the language to portray serious themes that have been discussed in detail (the seriousness or flippancy expressed specifically in the tonality of the introspection or spoken word) or in general throughout English Literature from Shakespeare to the later poets and dramatists like TS Eliot and Ezra Pound who were influenced by his work.

Winning the lottery every time in a second hand bookshop


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After another excruciating day of lessons, one of my students showed remarkable enthusiasm for a book buying spree and asked if I could direct her to a certain second hand bookshop that I had been waxing lyrical about for the past few months. I think it is only the third or fourth time in my life that I have been asked for directions to a bookshop. People generally ask for the local underground station or the way to a monument or sight, a restaurant or bar – but a bookshop, rarely.

So off we toddled, spring in my step bordering on a bounce, torrential excitement mounting as we headed towards what I consider hallowed ground. The thing about a second hand bookshop is that it always feels like I am playing the lottery and winning every time. In a regular bookshop, one is safe in the knowledge that it will indubitably hold one or more books that one will want to buy. It is tedium of sorts – books that are recommended by publishers, best seller tables, organised, well lit and smelling of raw ink and paper – books that have never been read, pristine and prosaic. However, with a second hand bookshop I have the mysterious feeling of entering a treasure trove and having to sift through it to find the one (or three in this case) that I can carry out with me.

The nearer we got to the bookshop, the more excited I became and as we entered, I had the feeling that I was entering Aladdin’s cave. I love this second hand bookshop, mainly because it is not organised as well as it should be, in the normal retailing sense, and thus offers a voyage of discovery upon every visit. It’s a small shop with a high turnover and seldom does one find the same book on two consecutive visits. There are boxes of books lying on the floor, ready to be shelved, dimly lit with a sales person who has their headphones plugged in and reading, dare I say it, a magazine. The whole effect is a little dingy – located in a back alley, nestled in the nook of a decrepit building next to a “Second Hand Bob Marley Record Store.”  Nevertheless, upon entering one has a sense of pearly gates parting, authors beatified and walking among giants.

I like… no that is too trite and “love” is too common – I lust after buying second hand books. Lust, delight, love, all rolled into one. Second hand books are a rapture because I feel they have a story of their own apart from what is written within. Who bought them? Where? What did they feel when they were reading them? Of discovering old receipts from airports inside jacket covers, of messages and torn bookmarks and lives lived by others while they were reading. Character has been added by rain, stuffing into pockets, coffee stains and sometimes, not very often, pencil marks. My imagination runs amok just by looking at the book, tracing its life through previous owners – was it sold or given away, was it left as a gift? So many questions for which there are no concrete answers – a world has to be invented and curiosity sated.

I would urge you to buy all your books from a second hand bookshop for apart from the obvious environmental benefits, who knows what treasures you might come across and where your own imagination might take you…


Friends, netizens, bloggers, lend me your ears


I have had it with politicians. They are a bunch of liars, cheats, and arseholes. Have you ever met an honest politician – have you really? One who actually does what he says, or sticks to his or her guns and beliefs? Don’t answer yes, because I don’t believe you. The ones who were like that are long out of it and woe to us. Now that that little rant is behind me, I would like to look at this objectively – or as objectively as one can.juliuscaesar-resized5

Politics.

What is it? There are so many definitions out there however I will add another one, mine, a fresh take on an old idea using another of my favourite words in the English language:

“Politics is the practice of convincing everyday people that the proposed proposal is in their best interests; by a person or group of people (politician or political party) who will benefit from said proposal themselves, willy nilly.”

One Writer and his Blog

Now you might say that sounds frighteningly similar to a business, or you might like the use of “willy nilly,” I leave that to you. However, you must agree that it has a certain ring to it – as does “willy nilly”. The Business of Politics always reminds me of the Bard’s take on Mark Antony’s speech at the funeral of Caesar – a master class in politics if ever there was one.

To set the scene, Caesar has been murdered in the Senate by Brutus, Cassius and their gang, immortalised by Shakespeare with his last words, “Et tu Brute?” and so on, you remember right? Dead and thoroughly despised by the masses, his murder has left his greatest general, Mark Antony, in a quandary. The only way Mark Antony can turn the situation in his favour and save being lynched by the mob is to use chicanery and rhetoric – Shakespeare’s rhetoric. People are a force to be reckoned with and as any savvy politician worth his salt will tell you, a speech rousing the “rabble” can work wonders – look at recent great political orators, Clinton, Obama, Blair to name a poor few. Before the actual business of government exposed their foibles and failings their rhetoric won them the day and we all cheered. Shakespeare knows this, his ability to express that which we flounder to comprehend, in fluent, succinct and flowing poetry is uncanny (not prose but poetry!).2664-b-william-shakespeare-s-julius-caesar

Brutus did what was best for “the commonwealth,” SPQR and all it represented (modern democracy has its infancy in these times so we should take heed of how they did it then and how our politicians do it now). His murder of Caesar was for the good of Rome, for the people, however, the best laid plans of mice and men and all that tosh. Rhetoric washed it all away as if it were a rickety old bridge facing a torrent of gushing spring water after a long snow-filled winter. Rhetoric can be like that and if used accurately can alter perceptions in a heartbeat of words. It can start wars and quell raging emotions in a jiffy. Rhetoric is the genius bastard child of Ares and Aphrodite, forged into a force through Prometheus’s guile and guided by the wisdom of Athena and the lyricism of Apollo. Vainglorious, vile, vindictive, verbose yet vapid, vilipensive and yet venal, and rarely virtuous. A weapon greater than any invented by mankind, language, and its offspring rhetoric, is a force to be reckoned with. In the right hands Godly in the wrong hellish.

The way Shakespeare’s words, in the hands of Mark Antony, play with the emotions of the citizens makes for compelling reading – a manual on how to make a convincing argument no matter what the subject.

Brutus begins:

If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of

Caesar’s, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar
was no less than his. If then that friend demand
why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:
–Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved
Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and
die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live
all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him;
as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was
valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I
slew him.”

And with this, Brutus lays claim to the moral high ground – his moral high ground. The citizens are, by the end of this monologue, clamouring for satisfaction. So much so, that they are now willing to offer Brutus the crown of Rome – irony was not lost on Shakespeare.

Rhetoric, like alchemy with words, turned a murderer into a King. What is Mark Antony to do now? And that is when Shakespeare’s words shine like gold. Where Brutus’s words were wondrous silver, Mark Antony’s are of a lustrous honey hue:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.”

Imagery and sarcasm drip from this speech and rhetoric crowns Mark Antony’s verbal assault on Brutus without uttering a bad word about him. This is politics at the peak of its existence. An art form of words meant to confuse and arouse our feelings. Does the truth matter? No. For the words have masked the truth in a beauty of their own and we are under their spell, unable to distinguish right from wrong, good from bad. For that is the power of politicians and their sweet tongues and sweeter still rhetoric.

Here is a link to the full text. Take time out to read it – look at how rhetoric is the weapon in a politician’s arsenal that can do the most harm and see how fickle we, the public, really are.

The Blue Dream


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The ringing in his ears shook him from his dream.

It was a blue dream. A blue woman sitting by a blue stream with blue eyes and blue breath in the cold blue air. Upon waking he remembered the blue. The searing blue pain every time she spoke. Her blue words cleaving through his mind. She didn’t communicate in the usual sense but directly into his soul.

Blue pain.

He opened his eyes and fumbled around for his black phone. The bright yellow sunlight was streaming through the window, its rays highlighting the gold dust floating around him. The shrill, crimson sound of the phone dared to be silenced.

He moved and the yellow dust parted. His arm passed through the rays, temporarily cutting them and the dust disappeared to reappear again.

He silenced the sharp red ringing and the ensuing voice was a calming green of leaves in summer and wheat blowing in the breeze. The blue dream was banished from his mind and the voice spoke of autumnal rust and honey-coloured love. A love so rich and deep that it was all around him, its colour bathing him in a warm glow.

 

 

Copyright. 2013 One Man and his Blog

Said the Soul to the Heart


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Within the murky depths of his Being
The Heart began stirring, awakening to foreign sounds.
“Why do you wake?” the Soul asked of the Heart,
“Sleep peacefully and do not fret, for waking is excruciating for you.”
“I wake to see what moves you, without,” said the Heart
“I want to see, why you are so blesséd and I am laid bare,
Why you sing and I do naught but lie?”

 

“The reasons are simple,” the Soul swiftly replied,
“I let love find me in the places where you expect it not,
The cold morning air and the warm birdsong.”
“You search for pain and confuse it with Love
You flit to it, hither and thither, like a moth and its desire.
Be still and let it flit to you.”