O.Wilde, Preface to 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'

The artist is the creator of beautiful things. (...)
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.
They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. (...)

No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. (...)
All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself...

O. Wilde (1854-1900),
Preface to 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Constantin François de Chassebœuf, Comte de Volney

Constantin François
de Chassebœuf,

Comte de Volney

(1757 – 1820)  

French philosopher, historian,
orientalist and politician.


Born of a noble family, he was initially interested in Law and Medicine, but then he decided to study Classical languages.
In 1782 he left for a long journey to the East. At first he spent nearly seven months in the Ottoman Egypt where he retreated into a Coptic convent to learn Arabic. Then he went to live for nearly two years in Greater Syria (what is today Lebanon and Israel/Palestine).
He returned to France in 1785 where he spent the following two years compiling his notes about his travelling experiences. His « Traité sur la simplification des langues orientales » published in 1795, is the earliest treatise dedicated by Volney to his great works about this theme which will make him famous. Soon after he wrote his ‘Voyage en Egypte et en Syrie’ which  was published 1787, and his Considérations sur la guerre des Turcs et de la Russie followed only  a year later.
After the outbreak of the French Revolution (1789-1799), Chassebœuf became a member both of the Estates-General and of the National Constituent Assembly.
In 1791 appeared Les Ruines, ou méditations sur les révolutions des empires, an essay on the philosophy of history, containing a vision which predicts the final union of all religions by the recognition of the common truth underlying them all.

Volney’s text is a strong criticism of tyranny and celebration of liberty, quite typical in his time, and partly inspired by the battles between Russia and Turkey that broke out in 1788.
But his book is also one of the strangest in the genre. After some pages on the perfidy of the Turks and the sufferings of the oppressed Greeks and Arabs, the author wanders through the ruins talking to a holy spirit for about two hundred pages. This spirit shows him a future in which all nations have come together in an international democratic government. Together they decide then to interrogate all the religions of the world to understand what it is true in each. Basically, they conclude that all of them are largely false and are simply  degraded versions of the ancient Egyptian astrology. It is important to point out that even the historicity of Jesus is questioned here, and that Chassebœuf was one of the earliest writers to deal with such a a matter.
In the end the text contains a vision which predicts the final union of all religions by the recognition of the common truth which is at the base of them all (= as, in origin, all religions were one at their root).

Volney was thrown into prison during the Jacobin Club triumph, but escaped the guillotine; he was some time professor of history at the newly founded École Normale. In 1795 became a member of the Académie française.
In that same year, he travelled to the United States, where he intended to spend some time.  In 1797 he was accused by John Adams' administration of being a French spy sent there to prepare for a French  reoccupation of Louisiana. As a result he was forced to return to France in 1798. Thanks to his travels in the New World, he wrote his Tableau du climat et du sol des Etats-Unis’ which was published in 1803.
He was not a partisan of Napoleon Bonaparte, but, being a moderate Liberal, he served in the First French Empire, and Napoleon made him a count and put him into the senate.
Constantin François de Chassebœuf assumed the name of Volney  (= contraction of Voltaire, a writer he greatly loved, and Ferney, the town on the Swiss border where Voltaire spent the years between 1759 and 1778 and that it was than renamed Ferney-Voltaire).
After the Bourbon Restoration and upon recognition of his hostility towards the Empire,  the Comte of Volney was later made a Peer of France.
Constantin François de Chassebœuf, Comte de Volney, died in Paris and was buried at the Père Lachaisen Cemetery.


Monday, February 14, 2011

Saint Valentine's Day

Saint Valentine's Day  (February 14th)  celebrates love and affection between intimate companions. The day is named after one or more early Christian martyrs, Saint Valentine, and was established in 496 AD by Pope Gelasius I.  In 1969 was then deleted from the Roman calendar of saints by Pope Paul VI.
The day first became associated with romantic love in High Middle Ages (when the tradition of courtly love flourished) particularly thanks to Geoffrey Chaucer.
As a matter of fact, the first recorded association of Valentine's Day with romantic love is in Parlement of Foules (1382) by Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote:

‘For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make’.

["For this was Saint Valentine's Day,
when every bird cometh there to choose
            his mate."]

This poem was written to honor the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia. A treaty providing for a marriage was signed on May 2, 1381. (When they were married eight months later, they were each only 15 years old).

(= in the liturgical calendar, May 2nd is the saints' day for Valentine of Genoa. This St. Valentine was an early bishop of Genoa who died around AD 307).

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

P.B. Shelley, A Cat in Distress

Percy Bysshe Shelley


major English Romantic poet
(2nd generation)

    A Cat in Distress
         'Verses On A Cat' 
A cat in distress,
Nothing more, nor less;
Good folks, I must faithfully tell ye,
As I am a sinner,
It waits for some dinner
To stuff out its own little belly.

You would not easily guess
All the modes of distress
Which torture the tenants of earth;
And the various evils,
Which like so many devils,
Attend the poor souls from their birth.

Some a living require,
And others desire
An old fellow out of the way;
And which is the best
I leave to be guessed,
For I cannot pretend to say.

IV.                                                                    V.
One wants society,                                          But this poor little cat
Another variety,                                               Only wanted a rat,
Others a tranquil life;                                       To stuff out its own little maw
Some want food,                                              And it were as good
Others, as good,                                              Some people had such food,
Only want a wife.                                              To make them HOLD THEIR JAW!

The earliest surviving poetry by Percy Bysshe Shelley is a piece entitled “A Cat in Distress”, written by the author when he was a child. According to a note written by his sister Elizabeth on the extant manuscript, Percy wrote this poem at “10 years of age.” Elizabeth, who would have been eight at the time, copied the poem and drew the illustration of the cat as well. Then she probably gave it to a younger sister, Hellen, as a present. This fact is quite representative of the close intimacy which characterised the Shelley’ s siblings of whom Shelley was the oldest.  In his family, Percy was the only male among the five children of Sir Timothy and Elizabeth Shelley, who were newly wealthy Sussex landowners. Before the age of 10, when he was sent to a boys’ school at Syon House Academy, Shelley had thus been exclusively in the company of his adoring sisters who (like his wife Mary afterwards), occasionally collaborated with him on his projects.

Elizabeth was the Cazire of the book they published together in 1810, at ages 18 and 16, with the title of Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire. Amusements of the young Shelleys included storytelling and ritual fires for ghost summoning. Percy used to play with his sister a great deal, and it is also said that he used them in a variety of childish “scientific experiments” (as, for instance, curing them of colds and flu by passing electricity through their bodies. ‘Galvanism’ was obviously ‘in the air’, and it is interesting to see how Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was later inspired, in part, by such a parallel interest!).

‘A cat in distress’  comes down to us thanks to his sister Hellen, who described it in a letter to his brother’s friend and early biographer Thomas J. Hogg: “I have in my possession a very early effusion of Bysshe’s, with a cat painted on the top of the sheet, I will try and find it: but there is not promise of future excellence in the lines, the versification is defective”
In this early poem critics see evidence of the themes and variations of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s later work, including a kind of determined and radical concern with the welfare of the local tenant farmers. Through the lines it is also possible to perceive the young poet’s interest in the fauna of the country estate, as are his embryonic republican feelings.
The poem was published in ‘Life of Shelley’  (1858) by Thomas Jefferson Hogg.

P.B. Shelley, Adonaies

Percy Bysshe Shelley 


major English Romantic poet
(2nd generation)


In  the spring of 1821 Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote the pastoral elegy Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, Author of Endymion, Hyperion, etc. (Adonaies) in memory of his friend  John Keats . This elegy,  which is in 495 lines, is nowadays widely regarded as one of Shelley's best and most well-known works. The poem was published by Charles Ollier in July 1821 with a preface in which Shelley made the mistaken assertion that Keats had died from a rupture of the lung induced by rage at the unfairly harsh reviews of his verse in the Quarterly Review and other journals. In it, Shelley also thanked the painter Joseph Severn for caring for Keats in Rome. This praise increased literary interest in Severn's works.
Shelley had met Keats in Hampstead towards the end of 1816 thanks to their mutual friend, Leigh Hunt, who was soon to transfer his enthusiasm from Keats to Shelley. Shelley's huge admiration of Keats was not entirely reciprocated. Keats had reservations about Shelley's dissolute behaviour, but it is also possible that Keats resented Hunt's transferred preference. Despite this, the two poets exchanged letters when Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley moved to Italy. When Keats fell ill, the Shelleys invited him to stay with them in Pisa but Keats decided to travel with Severn.
Despite all this,  Shelley's affection for Keats remained undimmed until his death in 1822, when a copy of Keats' works was found in a pocket on his drowned body.

Here it follows a part of Shelley’s elegy. Such a fragment of Adonais was read by Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones on the Brian Jones memorial concert at London's Hyde Park on July 5, 1969. Jones, founder and guitarist of the Stones, had drowned July 3, 1969 in his swimming pool.
Before an audience of about  250,000 / 300,000 people, Jagger read the following verses from Adonais:

Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep
He hath awakened from the dream of life
'Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit's knife
Invulnerable nothings. — We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.

The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven's light forever shines, Earth's shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments. — Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!
Follow where all is fled! — Rome's azure sky,
Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words, are weak
The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak.

P.B. Shelley, Mont Blanc


Percy Bysshe Shelley

1792- 1822

major English Romantic poet
(2nd generation)

'Mont Blanc:
Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni”  

The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls in rapid waves,
Now dark — now glittering — now reflecting gloom —
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tributes brings
Of waters, — with a sound but half its own.
Such a feeble brook will oft assume
In the wild woods, among the mountains lone,
Where waterfalls around it leap forever,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.
Thus thou, Ravine of Arve — dark, deep Ravine —
Thou many-coloured, many-voiced vale,
Over whose pines, and crags, and caverns sail
Fast cloud shadows and sunbeams: awful scene,
Where Power in likeness of the Arve comes down
From the ice gulphs that gird his secret throne,
Bursting through these dark mountains like the flame
Of lightning through the tempest; — thou dost lie,
Thy giant brood of pines around thee clinging,
Children of elder time, in whose devotion
The chainless winds still come and ever came
To drink their odours, and their mighty swinging
To hear — an old and solemn harmony;
Thine earthly rainbows stretched across the sweep
Of the etherial waterfall, whose veil
Robes some unsculptured image; the strange sleep
Which when the voices of the desart fail
Wraps all in its own deep eternity; —
Thy caverns echoing to the Avre's commotion,
A loud, lone sound no other sound can tame;
Thou art the path of that unresting sound —
Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee
I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
To muse on my own separate phantasy,
My own, my human mind, which passively
Now renders and receives fast influencings,
Holding an unremitting interchange
With the clear universe of things around;
One legion of wild thoughts, whose wandering wings
Now float above thy darkness, and now rest
Where that or thou art no unbidden guest,
In the still cave of the witch Poesy,
Seeking among the shadows that pass by
Ghosts of all things that are, some shade of thee,
Some phantom, some faint image; till the breast
From which they fled recalls them, thou art there!
Some say that gleams of a remoter world
Visit the soul in sleep, — that death is slumber,
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber
Of those who wake and live — I look on high;
Has some unknown omnipotence unfurled
The veil of life and death? or do I lie
In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep
Spread far around and inaccessibly
Its circles? For the very spirit fails,
Driven like a homeless cloud from steep to steep
That vanishes among the viewless gales!
Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears, — still, snowy, and serene —
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
And wind among the accumulated steeps;
A desart peopled by the storms alone,
Save when the eagle brings some hunter's bone,
And the wolf tracts her there — how hideously
Its shapes are heaped around! rude, bare, and high,
Ghastly and scarred, and riven. — is this the scene
Where the old Earthquake-dæmon taught her young
Ruin? Were these their toys? or did a sea
Of fire, envelope once this silent snow?
None can reply — all seems eternal now.
The wilderness has a mysterious tongue
Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,
So solemn, so serene, that man may be
But for such faith with nature reconciled;
Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, of deeply feel.
The fields, the lakes, the forests, and the streams,
Ocean, and all the living things that dwell
Within the dædal earth; lightning, and rain,
Earthquake, and fiery flood, and hurricane,
The torpor of the year when feeble dreams
Visit the hidden buds, or dreamless sleep
Holds every future leaf and flower; — the bound
With which from that detested trance they leap;
The works and ways of man, their death and birth,
And that of him and all that his may be;
All things that move and breathe with toil and sound
Are born and die; revolve , subside and swell.
Power dwells apart in its tranquillity
Remote, serene, and inaccessible:
And this, the naked countenance of earth,
On which I gaze, even these primæval mountains
Teach the adverting mind. The glaciers creep
Like snakes that watch their prey, from their far fountains,
Slow rolling on; there, many a precipice,
Frost and the Sun in scorn of mortal power
Have piled: dome, pyramid, and pinnacle,
A city of death, distinct with many a tower
And wall impregnable of beaming ice.
Yet not a city, but a flood of ruin
Is there, that from the boundaries of the sky
Rolls its perpetual stream; vast pines are stewing
Its destined path, or in the mangles soil
Branchless and shattered stand: the rocks, drawn down
From yon remotest waste, have overthrown
The limits of the dead and living world,
Never to be reclaimed. The dwelling-place
Of insects, beasts, and birds, becomes its spoil;
Their food and their retreat for ever gone,
So much of life and joy is lost. The race
OF man, flies far in dread; his work and dwelling
Vanish, like smoke before the tempest's stream,
And their place is not known. Below, vast caves
Shine is the rushing torrents' restless gleam,
Which from those secret chasms in tumult welling
Meet in the vale, and one majestic River,
The breath and blood of distant lands, for ever
Rolls its loud waters to the ocean waves,
Breathes its swifts vapours to the circling air.
                     Mont Blanc yet gleams on high: — the power is there,
                     The still and solemn power of many sights,
                     And many sounds, and much of life and death.
                     In the calm darkness of the moonless nights,
                     In the lone glare of day, the snows descend
                     Upon that Mountain; none beholds them there,
                     Nor when the flakes burn in the sinking sun,
                     Or the star-beams dart through them: — Winds contend
                     Silently there, and heap the snow with breath
                     Rapid and strong, but silently! Its home
                     The voiceless lightning in these solitudes
                     Keeps innocently, and like vapour broods
                     Over the snow. The secret strength of things
                     Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome
                     Of heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!
                     And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
                     If to the human mind's imaginings
                     Silence and solitude were vacancy?

"Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni”  is an ode by the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
The poem was composed between the end of July 1816 and the end of August 1816 when, along with Mary Godwin (who soon after became his wife) and Claire Clairmont (Mary Godwin's half-sister) Percy Shelley toured the Chamonix Valley and visited Mont Blanc.
The poem was first published in 1817 in Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley's History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland’.
After Percy Shelley's early death in 1822, Mary Shelley published two collected editions of her husband's poetry, both of which included "Mont Blanc".
In the composition of the poem, Percy Shelley was inspired by the scenery surrounding a bridge over the Arve River in the Valley of Chamonix in Savoy, near Geneva, and decided to set his poem in a similar landscape. In his Preface to his History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland, he wrote that his verse was "composed under the immediate impression of the deep and powerful feelings excited by the objects which it attempts to describe; and, as an undisciplined overflowing of the soul, rests its claim to approbation on an attempt to imitate the untamable wilderness and inaccessible solemnity from which those feeling sprang".
In "Mont Blanc",  P. B. Shelley compares the power of the mountain against the power of human imagination and emphasises the ability of the human imagination to uncover truth through the study of nature. In the poem the power of the mountain, of Mont Blanc, symbolises the universe (= and so the author is examining the relationship between the human mind and the universe).
In particular the poem discusses the influence of perception on the mind, and how the world can become a reflection of the operation of the mind. Although Shelley believed that the human mind should be free of restraints, he also recognized that nothing in the universe is truly free as he believes that there is a force in it to which the human mind is connected and by which it is influenced.
The author concludes that only a select few can truly understand the secrets of the universe. Moreover, this privileged few, seeing nature as it really is, can express its benevolence and malevolence through the device of poetry. Thus the importance of the poet who can use the truth found in nature (he interprets the mountain’s ‘voice’) to guide humanity through his composition.
Although nature can teach one about the imagination and offer truths about the universe, the poem denies the existence of natural religion.