Saturday 28 February 2015

Reading England 2015

I'm signing up for another reading challenge. That's right, you heard me. But why Jason? You already have so much to read already and can barely get through the pile of books stacked precariously on your floor that is bound to fall over at any moment and crush you to death! Well, for starters, I'm not exactly right in the head and in case you haven't noticed, the name of this blog is Literature Frenzy, baby! My goal is to push myself to read anything and everything to the point of exhaustion. It's my masochistic tendencies, I can't help it. So, once again, I'm late to the party: all the other guests have already arrived, mingled, drank all the best wine and eaten the expensive appetizers. So now here I am, Mr. socially awkward, with a plain tonic water in my hand, eating stale pretzels, failing miserably to make small talk with a pretty girl who tells me she is waiting for her boyfriend to come back from the washroom. Anyways, I digress. I've clearly had too much coffee today.

A round of applause for O at Behold the Stars for organizing this challenge, which to my mind, is too enticing to pass up. My knowledge of England geography is non-existent and considering my fondness towards English writers, this is a great opportunity to learn about the various places and settings in which these stories take place. Plus it gives me an excuse to read more Graham Greene and Muriel Spark, woot woot!

The Rules:
  • This challenge begins on the 1st January 2015 and ends on 31st December 2015, but of course if you really get into it then keep it going :)
  • You can sign up any time between now and the end of 2015. Only books read after 1st January 2015 count, though.
  • Choose a level (below), but do not feel obliged to pick your books or even your counties beforehand. 
  • Because this is a classics blog, I'd encourage people to read classic novels, but how you define classics is up to you.
  • You are not limited to English authors. Henry James, for example, is American but his novel The Turn of the Screw is set in Essex, and so he counts for the challenge.
  • It would be grand if you blogged about the books you read for each county but you don't have to. If you do, you don't have to feel obliged to give any information about the county in general other than, maybe, "This is my review of x which is set in the county of x". You could also include a description of the landscape in your posts, but again you don't have to.
  • You do not have to read the books in their original language, translations are accepted (I only read in English so I would never dream of making other people read in their second language!)
  • Audio books, Kindles, and whatnot are accepted too.
  • Poetry, plays, biographies, and autobiographies count as well as novels. 

The Levels: 
  • Level one: 1-3 counties
  • Level two: 4-6 counties
  • Level three: 7-12 counties
  • Level four: 12+ counties

My list: I have chosen Level Three
  1. Memento Mori by Muriel Spark (London)
  2. Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham (Kent)
  3. The Collector by John Fowles (Sussex)
  4. Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene (Brighton)
  5. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (Lancashire)
  6. Persuasion by Jane Austen (Somerset)
  7. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (Wiltshire)
  8. Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (London?)
  9. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (Derbyshire?)
  10. Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence (Midlands)
My top 7 seems reasonable to finish before the end of the year, whereas the rest are my back-up choices. Thanks again O for compiling a list of books along with their designated counties, very helpful indeed. 

Friday 27 February 2015

The Defense of Poesy by Philip Sidney

"Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with so pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too much loved earth more lovely. Her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden."

I can hear the groans of disapproval already. As if my comprehensive posts on Astrophil and Stella wasn't torture enough (you can read them here and here), I find myself returning again to Philip Sidney. For those select few who haven't already left to re-check your email or look up cute cat videos on Youtube, I implore you to please bear with me! I will do my best to keep this review as short as possible. I am under no illusions that I can be overzealous in my reviews, even prone to incessant ramblings, but sometimes a piece of literature such as Sidney's The Defense of Poesy requires a more thorough analysis than just a few short paragraphs. Granted, I will barely be able to scratch the surface and have decided to present a sparknotes version (against my better judgment), less I lose the few individuals who actually follow this blog, forever. 

I was not planning on reading anything else for February's Renaissance Literary Movement but while making my way through Sidney's large collection of poems, many questions circled around in my mind concerning the nature of poetry, which then brought about more questions about literature in general: what is the purpose of reading poetry? Is it for enjoyment, enlightenment, the intrinsic human desire for knowledge? Why even bother reading a bunch of poems written by some dead white dude from the 1500's? I mean, what value does this bring to my life? Indeed, some of the poems were memorable, others not so much, but what does it all add up to in the end? On the most rudimentary level, they are just words, elaborate fictions, organized within a specific structure on the page. Hence, why do we bother to read literature in the first place when life is so short and there are countless more productive activities to be doing? It just so happened that Philip Sidney wrote an extensive treatise entitled The Defense of Poesy or An Apology for Poetry (depending on the version) which attempts to answer some of these lingering questions.

Sidney's structural framework in composing his argument is influenced largely by Aristotle's Poetics, using the imitation of rhetoric as a legal defense (law speech). There are three important types of rhetoric worth noting:
  1. Forensic: Pleading a case.
  2. Deliberative: Public assembly.
  3. Epideictic: Praise.
Sidney is more inclined to use forensic rhetoric--beginning with an "exordium" (introduction), moving to slightly adjacent matter before arriving at the main argument that relies heavily upon narration. The main ideas presented in his defense include emphasizing the antiquity of poetry, the connection between poet and prophet, the poet as "Maker" or artificer, the relationship between art and nature; being able to create a "second type" of nature that occurs in the realm of imagination. Sidney is well aware of the inherent irony concerning the poet as someone who speaks truth, yet utilizes imitation as their primary aesthetic. There is an another layer of irony at work here because the entire Defense itself, is in fact, a formal fiction.

He outlines three different types of poetry: Divine, Philosophic and Art (containing many subdivisions). He then moves from these categories to specific examinations--focusing on the close relationship between poetry and learning (establishing philosophy and history as inferior) before moving on to refutation. This section is most interesting to me because it touches upon some of my burning questions alluded to earlier. Sidney deals with four main negative arguments against the value of poetry:
  1. Poetry is a waste of time.
  2. Poets are liars.
  3. Poetry as simple fancies and imitations; inconsequential to the "real world."
  4. Plato banished the poets.
Let us try and see how Sidney tries to refute these claims.

First off, Sidney views these attacks as calumnious, false and feeble. For example:
"But truly I imagine it falleth out with these poet-whippers, as with some good women, who often are sick, but in faith they cannot tell where; so the name of poetry is odious to them, but neither his cause nor effects, neither the sum that contains him, nor the particularities descending from him, give any fast handle to their carping dispraise (515).

 Take that naysayers!

The didactic approach or ideas of the fiction that the poet creates along with the execution is important. Good poetry is both an educational tool and creates pleasure:

"Poesy therefore is an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in the word mimesis -- that is to say, a presenting, counterfeiting, or figuring forth - to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture -- with this end, to teach and delight" (505).

The poet has the power to imitate nature but can also make it better. The fusion of simulacrum and poetic imagination allowing the creation of another world; an ironic "counterfeiting" and "figuring forth" to achieve a semblance of divinity in the human mind. 

Sidney is also keen to highlight the importance of wit:

"This purifying of wit -- this enriching of memory, enabling of judgment, and enlarging of conceit -- which commonly we call learning, under what name so ever it come forth, or to what immediate end soever it be directed, the final end is to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of" (506).

In other words, poetry has a religious function to be a spiritual influence, to make us better people, to improve our minds and purify our "degenerate souls."

The poet is not some charlatan who wastes his time scribbling nonsensical gibberish. He is a moral philosopher akin to a religious prophet, an important figure in society who can inspire learning, virtue and righteous action in others:

Poetry represents all of "human learning" and is "the most ancient and of most fatherly antiquity, as from whence other learning have their their beginnings" (515).

As a humanist, it makes sense that Sidney would refer back to the ancients and classical antiquity as supporting evidence for his defense. For him, poetry is a worthy endeavor, a distinguished vocation to instruct others; an important moral duty,  not simply an amusing hobby to indulge in on a lazy Sunday afternoon:

"That a man might better spend his time, is a reason indeed; but it doth being the question. For if it be as I affirm, that no learning is so good as that which teacheth and moveth to virutre; and that none can both teach and move thereto so much as poetry: then is the conclusion manifest that ink and paper cannot be to a more profitable purpose employed" (517).

As far as Sidney is concerned, even though the poet uses the art of imitation ("mimesis"), he is not as untruthful as others, specifically the historians and philosophers--the former being too specific, the latter dealing with abstract generalities. For him, poetry can be more general and is not rooted to particularities which can cause problems:

"That poets should be the principal liars, I will answer paradoxically, but truly, I think truly, that of all writers under the sun the poet is the least liar, and, though he would, as a poet can scarcely be a liar...for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth. For, as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false" (517).

He continues with the argument that the poet's primary concern is not to be an inventor of whimsical fancies to be taken as truth. Once again, above all else, poetry is moralistic:

"The poet never maketh any circles about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true what he writes. He citeth not authorities of other histories, even for his entry calleth the sweet Muses to inspire into him a good invention; in truth, not laboring to tell you what is or is not. but what should or should not be" (517).

The poet seeks out the truth as a moral philosopher. He should aim to teach and  impart guidance ("what should or should not be").

Sidney reveres Plato even though he banished the poets. Plato's arguments are complicated because they are often contradictory. Dialogues and myths are poetic but he believes that the poet possesses a type of "divine madness." In short, he views poetry as an imitation of an imitation. Sidney's counter-argument is a little sketchy but he seems to suggest that there are two types of art: one that spurs proper images that lead to virtuous action and ones that spurs improper images that lead to bad action. He both repudiates and agrees with Plato on certain levels. The defense then undergoes a series of digressions before making its way to the "peroration" (conclusion). Sidney questions the role of poetry in England, asking whether or not English poetry can become a viable form language, showing the juxtaposition between poetry and drama. He wraps up his final defense with a scathing indictment against the detractors of poetry--referring to them as "Poet-apes"-- and I had the compulsion to raise my fist in the air. Preach on brotha, preach on!

As far as literary theory goes, Sidney's defense is not as painful to read as I initially thought it might turn out to be. Sure, his lengthy expository will prove to be an ordeal for some but its worth reading for anyone who might be interested in 16th century literary criticism or perhaps like me, require a little inspiration now and again to continue on with my own literary ambitions. Keep reading, keep writing, it's not a futile endeavor and forget what people might think about your chosen path. Knowing that even Sidney had to contend with people who strongly disapproved of the arts or looked down upon a literary career as folly, is a great source of comfort to me and I am very grateful. Thanks for being on the side that champions the power and importance of literature, Sidney. 

Source: Sixteen-Century Poetry and Prose Course Package compiled by Professor David Galbraith (2010).

Thursday 26 February 2015

Deal Me In Challenge 2015

I was actually planning on doing a short-story reading event in the near future but I'm glad to have discovered the Deal Me In Challenge hosted by Jay over at Bibliopholopolis through Cleo because it saves me from all the necessary leg-work required to host one. Besides, it's unlikely that many people would sign up anyways so this just saves me the headache of trying desperately to get people to join. Here are the challenge details:

What is the goal of the project?
To read 52 short stories in 2014 (that’s only one per week)

What do I need?
1) Access to at least fifty-two short stories (don’t own any short story collections or anthologies? See links to online resources below)
2) A deck of cards
3) An average of perhaps just thirty minutes of reading time each week

Where do I post* about my stories?
(*You don’t have to post about every single story, of course, but if you have something to say about the story you read any given week, your fellow participants would love to hear it.)
1) On your own blog or website if you have one (I will link to your post at the bottom of my weekly post. I currently plan to do my weekly post on Sundays)
2) if you don’t have a blog or website you may comment on my weekly post, sharing thoughts on your own story – or start one at WordPress or blogspot – it’s easy and free to create a basic blog.

How do I pick which stories to read?
(The 52 stories themselves are totally up to you.) Before you get start reading, come up with a roster of fifty-two stories (you can use any source) and assign each one to a playing card in a standard deck of cards. It can be fun to use different suits for different types of stories, but that is optional. Each “week,” (if you’re like me, you may occasionally fall a story or two behind) you draw a card at random from your deck and that is the story you will read. There are links to last year’s participants’ rosters here if you want to see some examples.

What if I don’t have time to read a story every single week?
Try one of the challenge variations noted below, the Fortnight (or “payday” if you prefer) version is one story every two weeks or the “Full Moon Fever” version with just thirteen stories read or selected on seeing each full moon…

How do I sign up?
Leave a comment below with your URL and I will link you. My first wrap-up post of the year (I post weekly, usually Sunday night or Monday morning) will include links to any new Deal Me In posts and a list of the participants with links to their roster of stories.
What is the purpose?
To have FUN and to be exposed to new authors and stories and maybe get in the habit of reading a short story a week. Isn’t that enough?

I obviously have a lot of catching up to do but that shouldn't be too difficult considering the focus will be on short-stories rather than novels. The most difficult task will be narrowing down my list to 52 short stories. The challenge allows for participants to tweak their lists if they see fit and I intend to do just that. I have many short-story collections sitting on my shelf but many of them are thick and contain a lot more than 52 stories to choose from. So, I've decided to designate the card suits to specific categories: Spades is my personalized anthology list. If I happen to draw a spades card, then I will choose a story from that collection at random. Clubs is for science-fiction, Hearts is for Canadian authors and Diamonds is random. Here is my reading list:

Spades: Anthologies

A - Philip K. Dick - The Complete Short Stories
2 - Ray Bradbury - The Stories of Ray Bradbury
3 - John Updike - The Collected Stories
4 - J.D. Salinger - Nine Stories
5 - F. Scott Fitzgerald - Babylon Revisited and Other Stories
6 - D.H. Lawrence - Selected Stories
7 - Dorothy Parker - Complete Stories
8 - J.G. Ballard - The Complete Stories
9 - Graham Greene - May We Borrow Your Husband + Other Stories
10 - John Cheever - The Stories of John Cheever
J - Theodore Sturgeon - The Complete Stories
Q - Katherine Mansfield - Selected Stories
K - Flannery O'Connor - Complete Stories

Clubs: Science Fiction

A - 2BR20B by Kurt Vonnegut
2 - Bloodchild by Octavia Butler
3 - Wang's Carpets by Greg Egan
4 - For a Breath I Tarry by Roger Zelazny
5 - Driftglass by Samuel R. Delany
6 - Mimsy Were the Borogroves by Lewis Padgett
7 - Adam and No Eve by Alfred Bester
8 - All You Zombies by Robert Heinlein
9 - Vintage Season by C.I. Moore
10 - Nekropolis by Maureen McHugh
J - Burning Chrome by William Gibson
Q - Baby, You Were Great! by Kate Wilhelm
K - The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke

Hearts: Canadian

A - Ray by Guy Vanderhaeghe
2 - Rape Fantasies by Margaret Atwood
3 - The Collectors by Rohinton Mistry
4 - A Scarf by Carol Shields
5 - Voices Lost in Snow by Mavis Gallant
6 - Real Life Writes Real Bad by Timothy Findley
7 - Let Me Promise You by Morley Callaghan
8 - Vision by Alistair Macleod
9 - The Baby in the Airmail Box by Thomas King
10 -The Road Past Altamont by Gabrielle Roy
J - Paper Shadows by Wayson Choy
Q - Alice Munro - The Turkey Season
K - Four Stations in his Circle by Austin Clarke

Diamonds: Random

A - The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick
2 - St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russel
3 - Tenth of December by George Saunders
4 - The Drunkard by Frank O'Connor
5 - One of these Days by Gabriel García Márquez
6 - Super-Frog Saves Tokyo by Haruki Murakami
7 - The Passenger by Vladimir Nabokov
8 - Gooseberries by Anton Chekov
9 - Souls Belated by Edith Wharton
10 - Let the Old Dead make Room for the Young Dead by Milan Kundera
J - A Country Doctor by Franz Kafka
Q - Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates
K - The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allen Poe

Wednesday 25 February 2015

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

“The deeds of men, as footprints in the desert. Nothing under the circling moons is fated to last. Even the sun goes down.” 

There are fantasy authors and then there is Guy Gavriel Kay who is in a league of his own. Not only does he deserve to be recognized as one of most talented writers of the genre but should also be regarded as one of Canada's finest writers. I mentioned this fact in my review of his other novel Tigana but it is worth reiterating once again. He often gets overlooked because his works are not taken seriously in contrast to his contemporaries such as Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje or even more recent authors such as Joseph Boyden who tend to deal with "big issues" that reflect Canadian identity. Kay's novels may not be rooted in Canadian culture but they certainly cover a wide range of contentious issues such as religion (a major theme in The Lions of Al-Rassan), class, colonialism, gender, hegemony, power struggles, etc, so to simply say he only writes "entertaining fiction" would be a grave error in judgment. In fact, it is difficult to classify many of his novels, especially Lions, as a fantasy novel in the traditional sense because Kay is unorthodox in his methods, often playing around with genre conventions. It might be more accurate to label this particular work as some kind of hybrid of fantasy/historical fiction instead. 

The particular story is influenced by the history of Moorish Spain where Muslims, Jews and Christians were engaged in civil war. There are no fire breathing dragons, elves, dwarves, wizards or magic of any kind to be found here--only a beautifully written epic story about talented individuals who are forced to do extraordinary things because they live in a world on the verge of collapse and pure anarchy. Conflicting loyalties and religious ideologies create a a rift between friendships, family and love; the brutality of war dividing a nation into various factions, innocent blood spilled in the name of divine providence. While there are fight sequences and epic battle scenes, Kay doesn't indulge in grand gestures; rather, there is a poetic lyricism to the way he presents violence--much of the intense action occurring on the peripheral, a latent narrative strategy that effectively heightens the suspense leading up to those pivotal moments. The final confrontation between the two main characters who have been good friends up until this point and have now become leaders of opposing sides is handled with such precision, grace and unwavering intensity. The reader does not either of them to die in battle but of course, it is inevitable that only one shall triumph. For those who don't read a lot of fantasy or tend to avoid it on general principle, Guy Gavriel Kay is an author worth checking out who might just change your mind about the genre. As a master story-teller, his unique vision, memorable characters and sublime writing deserves nothing but the highest praise.

I only reserve 5-star ratings for masterful literary works that prove to be extra special in some way: The Lions of Al-Rassan easily falls into that select group (that now makes two 5-stars ratings for Mr. Kay so far, well done sir). In addition to containing everything that I look for in a novel--an absorbing story that is a pure joy to read with superb writing, well-drawn characters, having a breadth of ideas, possessing narrative cohesion that all leads up to a satisfactory climax--it is the emotional intensity and the achingly beautiful ending that really stand out. Kay's ability to create such sympathetic characters with depth and complexity is truly remarkable. They are never one dimensional and feel so real, coming to life right there on the page. Flawed, contradictory and perhaps not always acting with the most ethical conduct (heck, one of the main characters is an assassin), they uphold a sense of moral duty; even willing to die for for their beliefs, which makes them wholly unique individuals. Sorry if this sounds corny or cliche but I really cared passionately for these characters and on some level even grew to love them. I never expected to get so emotionally attached but as the story progressed towards its conclusion, I found myself completely entangled up in their lives and dreading what might become of their fate--the experience was almost unbearable. Kay surely knows how to pull on those heart-strings. This brings me to the climax of the novel, which hit me like a ton of bricks. Other than Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, I don't ever recall being so profoundly moved by an ending. No, I didn't bawl my eyes out or anything that dramatic but I do admit to feeling a lump in my throat, choked up by the sheer beauty and magnitude of those final closing moments. An absolutely breathtaking and unforgettable novel.

On a final note, I  had the privilege of actually meeting Guy Gavriel Kay when he was doing a book signing here in Toronto last year. My first meet and greet with an author too. I don't get out much but this was an exception. The place even had live music and free food. Score! Mr. Kay was a very affable gentleman and we spoke briefly. Of course, I was completely awe-struck in his presence, sweating profusely, nervous as hell and tongue-tied the whole time during our brief conversation. Somehow I managed to tell him through all my stuttering that I loved his work and that they were sources of comfort during a recent rough period in my life. He was very humble, thanking me for being so honest and upfront with him. I then proceeded to ask whether or not he had ever been approached by Hollywood to adapt one of his novels but he wouldn't give me a direct answer. He played it coy, saying something along the lines of "Oh, I don't know..." and then gave me a wry smile before signing two of my books--one of which was The Lions of Al-Rassan (I can die happy now), the other being The Song of Arbonne. I would have liked him to have sign Tigana as well but there were others waiting in line and having nearly soiled myself in excitement, I needed to find a restroom quick time. It was such an honor to meet Guy Gavriel Kay and if he happens to be in town again for another one these book signing events or press tours, I'll be sure to attend and try acting less like a gushing fan-boy.

This novel also counts towards my Canadian Reading Project.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

Teaser Tuesdays: Carnival by Rawi Hage

It's been a long while since I've participated in Teaser Tuesday held by MizB of Should Be Reading, so I figured what the hell, let's do this. This is a weekly meme where you open up to a random page of your current read and post one or two teaser sentences from that page without giving away any spoilers. 

Page 4: "For the past five years I have lived in a building that hums with strange people, rodents and insects who come and go as they please."

That cover. It's awesome. This sentence sounds like it come right out of Hage's previous novel, Cockroach. I only started reading this late last night and haven't gotten very far. There's a visceral and raw quality to Hage's writing that really appeals to me. I have no idea what to expect with Carnival and don't have much knowledge about the plot either. Jumping in blind here. Rawi Hage really impressed me with his novel Cockroach and I've been curious ever since to check out more from this author. It happened to be on display at the library and the wacky cover really grabbed my attention. I have also been slacking on my Canadian Reading Project so perhaps Carnival will provide me with more incentive to press forward instead of abandoning ship.

Astrophil and Stella: The Paradoxical Muse - Sonnet #64 and Sonnet #90

Sonnet #64:
No more, my dear, no more these counsels try;
Oh, give my passions leave to run their race;
Let Fortune lay on me her worst disgrace;
Let folk o'ercharg'd with brain against me cry;
Let clouds bedim my face, break in mine eye;
Let me no steps but of lost labour trace;
Let all the earth with scorn recount my case,
But do not will me from my love to fly.
I do not envy Aristotle's wit,
Nor do aspire to Caesar's bleeding fame;
Nor aught do care though some above me sit;
Nor hope nor wish another course to frame,
But that which once may win thy cruel heart:
Thou art my wit, and thou my virtue art.

Sonnet #90
Stella, think not that I by verse seek fame,
Who seek, who hope, who love, who live but thee;
Thine Eyes my pride, thy lips my history:
If thou praise not, all other praise is shame,
Nor so ambitious am I, as to frame
A nest for praise in my young laurel tree:
In truth I swear, I wish not there should be
Grav'd in mine epitaph a poet's name:
Ne if I would, could I just title make, 
That any laud to me thereof should grow,
Without my plumes from other's wings I take.
For nothing from my wit or will doth flow,
Since all my words thy beauty doth indite,
And Love doth hold my hand, and makes me write.

Disclaimer: I realize this is a very long essay but also don't expect many to read it anyways.

The use  of paradox is a recurring pattern of unity found in Astrophil and Stella. Sonnets #64 and #90 both employ this literary technique, developing a meditative discourse on the complex nature of poetry--more specifically, creative ambition, authorship and the ironic representation of Stella as the speaker's inspirational muse. Yet, the resemblance between the poems extends further than mere content. They each share a similar paradox pertaining to the speaker's literary aesthetic that is most vivid in the final rhyming couplet. Although both poems remain relatively analogous in subject matter, there exists a distinctive contrast in tone. Additionally, Sidney's specific use of language and metrical design highlights the speaker's shifting attitudes associated with the dramatic context of each sonnet.

The first lines of sonnet 64 begin with the poet's indignation towards his beloved: "No more, my dear, no more these counsels try / Oh give my passions leave to run their race" (1-2). Sidney's variation on the conventional iambic pentameter is worth noting in which he uses a spondaic substitution in the first line with "No More," as well as the repetition of this phrase to further underline the poet's ardent rejection of Stella's attempts to persuade him that in her view, poetry is inconsequential ("counsels"). One could also interpret the phrase "No more" as a trochee but to classify it as iambic seems erroneous, especially considering the context of these two lines: the speaker is clearly not apathetic towards Stella's approach, his temperament defiant and irascible to say the least. 

Sidney continues the metrical pattern of spondees and repetition with the subsequent lines (3-8) as the speaker emphatically lists a series of self-deprecating contrasts in order to justify his own poetic aspirations. Notice the ironic clash between the speaker's flippant irreverence towards himself and the provocation to defend his artistic sense of self. The repetition and heavy stress on the transitive verb "Let" announces the following rebuke of each line. The speaker's vigorous retaliation is emphasized by the patterns of rhythm--in other words, replacing the traditional iamb with a spondee gives the meter dramatic significance as the tensions in the first quatrain flow progressively into the second without a caesura until reaching the volta in line eight. The subtle irony of "Let Fortune lay on me her worst digrace" (3) and "Let me no steps but of lost labor trace" (6) shows the nihilistic progression in the escalating argument as it moves towards a potential resolution with line eight. Ostensibly, the speaker is pessimistic and discouraged to pursue his aristic endeavors by invoking "Fortune" with an ironic reversal. He personifies it as female ("her"), requesting that she bestow pain and misery upon him ("worst disgrace") rather than the typical benevolence or sanguine blessings associated with her character. However, with the line six, the cynical attitudes of the speaker shift towards an ironic sense of optimism. Despite the antagonism from "Fortune" herself, the intelligentsia ("folk o'erchaged with brain") and nature's disapprobation of his poetic efforts ("clouds bedim my face"), he still prefers to have attempted to master the craft even if the end result is unsuccessful The alliteration of "lost labor" us not just a stylistic decoration but actually serves an important purpose to unite the ironic contrast between these two ideas of artistic failure and achievement. More importantly, it stresses the tension between the speaker's conflicting attitudes.

Although line eight suggests a dramatic shift in tone from the first and second quatrain, it serves an other function to provide the poem's entire structure with equilibrium. The speaker's profound declaration of autonomy links the transition from pessimism in the first two quatrains with the third quatrain that that is far more idealistic by focusing on the subjective self: "But do not will me from my love to fly" (8). The implications of the line change depending on where the stresses are placed. It will hardly be disputed that "fly" is metaphorical, representing the creative imagination and the aesthetics of poetry. Therefore, if the phrase "my love to fly" is iambic, then it comes clear that he is rejecting any previous claim against his desire to purse a poetic vocation. he is determined to persevere against adversity in order to embrace his passion for poetry and no longer wants to be persuaded otherwise. But, if the line is interpreted as a spondee, then the heavy stress on "my love" suggests that the speaker is referring to Stella herself, which is plausible in the context of the previous line where he is attempting to reconcile the conflict between his desire to write poetry and her obstinate condemnation of this artistic lifestyle. Therefore, it can be understood as the speaker passionately advocating the compelling power of poetry to obtain Stella's affections. Sidney returns to this proposition explicitly in the rhyming couplet but uses irony to further to explore poetic ambition.

The metrical pattern in the third quatrain is slightly more irregular, although there is a trochaic substitution instead of a spondee at the beginning of each line. Once more, the speaker is categorizing a series of arguments but the tone is far less hostile and bitter. The repetition of the conjunction "Nor" serves a similar function to "Let" in the previous quatrains to set up defense within a dialogical framework towards a resolution--except, as indicated by the significant change in the speaker's attitude, he opts to persuade Stella by playing the pity card. if he does not model himself after great men such as Aristotle, Caesar or other successful poets as suggested by "though some above me sit" (11), then perhaps it will be easier for her (and others for that matter) to accept his desire to write poetry because they need not take his endeavors too seriously.

Line twelve is a slight reiteration of line eight, the speaker proclaiming his desire to peruse a poetic vocation: "Nor hope, nor wish another course to frame" (12). Moreover, the word "frame" contains highly charged connotations. Surely, it can refer to the speaker's fixed determination to set out on the journey of becoming a great poet ("course" as a verb reinforces this notion) but it is also meta-textual--a representation of the actual sonnet. To be more specific, the poem's intricate structure is enclosed within a "frame" of the iambic pentameter form, which then allows the speaker to "frame" his creative imagination as a means to articulate his ideas with the eloquence of language. Thus, the inevitable questions arises: are we to take the speaker as being ironic or sincere in his humble convictions of poetic aspirations? Considering the many contradictions and context of the poem, it is safe to assume that both answers are correct: he is feigning modesty to legitimize his poetic endeavors and is also serious in these claims. The rhyming couplet attempts to reconcile this ambiguity.

As we have seen so far, the tone shifts dramatically over the course of the three quatrains until finally reaching the resolution of the rhyming couplet. It is true that the poem contains a logical progression through a series of arguments to reach this climactic moment but the paradox seems to both contradict and support the speaker's poetic ambitions. With line thirteen, one notices that his primary motivation to experiment with verse is not entirely genuine because it comes across as a promiscuous strategy to persuade Stella to love him ("win thy cruel heart"). Additionally, the word "may" implies that he remains doubtful of his own talents to write with a level of sophistication and there is also a hint of skepticism concerning poetry in general as an impractical method to obtain romantic affection. The irony of the phrase "cruel heart" to describe Stella's predisposition supports this premise and produces a reversal in gender hierarchy where the male subject is now submissive to the woman. As indicated with subtly by the first line, she has already rejected his amorous advances because of his yearning to be a poet. Hence, from the speaker's perspective, the use of a spondee seems appropriate in expressing his wounded ego. Despite the preceding lines that attempt to defense his case, the tone evoked here (as supported by the rhythm and colloquial language) suggests both desperation and ambivalence.

Regardless of Stella's disapproval of his poetic methods, the last line retracts the cynicism of the previous one and places Stella in a positive light. He ironically proclaims her as his poetic muse ("thou art my wit") that influences his own virtue ("thou my virtue art"). Of course, we cannot simply accept the surface meaning of this line. Much like the rest of the poem, the rhetoric and alternation of tone is influenced by Sidney's specific use of language--in this particular case, the chiasmus of the word "art" has starling implications and reinforces the paradox of the these two lines. The cross-meanings of "art" can be understood in its simplest form (in contemporary vernacular it translates as "are" or "be") or by its usual association with creative expressive. Adopting this premise, "thou art my wit" becomes "thou art my wit" with a heavy secondary stress--that is, Stella not only provides inspiration for the poet but also through her divine "art" (or what will later be referred to as "love" in the last line of sonnet 90), she is elevated to the status of a goddess, having full control over his creative mental faculties. Following this logic, he is indebted to her artistic capabilities because he his channeling her talents through poetry.Furthermore, "thou my virtue art" undergoes a similar reversal of meaning where Stella's virtue is transformed into the speaker's art. Thus, the final paradox is now established: not only does Stella condemn his poetic vocation but she becomes his inspirational muse. As a result, he negates himself true authorship as an accomplished poet even though, of course, he is working self-consciously within the structural parameters of the sonnet form; evoking a parable about poetic ambition and the creative process. Phew.

Sonnet 90 recapitulates the paradox of sonnet 64 but is far more concerned with authorship. In contrast, the speaker addresses Stella more directly, the rhythm and tone appearing less irregular. The speaker maintains a much calmer and self-assured composure as opposed to his fluctuating attitudes in the previous sonnet. The opening line addresses Stella explicitly by name, reminiscent of line ten in sonnet 64 where he denies his poetic ambitions as being self-righteous: "Stella, think not that I by verse seek fame" (1). The word "fame" is used in both poems and contains essentially the same contextual meaning. He is formulating an argument to convince Stella that his main purpose in writing poetry is to express his affections and praise her virtue through creative means. Therefore, the first quatrain seeks to place Stella on a pedestal of admiration akin to idolatry, a similar technique used by Petrarch: "If thou praise not, all other praise is shame" (4). The speaker worships Stella as a goddess and believes it to be a serious disgrace ("shame") to not extol "praise" towards her beauty. Indeed, one can go further: this praise may also refer to his own literary ambitions because he intends to use poetic verse a panegyric in Stella's honor.

Yet again, Sidney uses the word "frame" from sonnet 64 in the second quatrain but here the metaphor is more explicit: "Nor so ambitious am I as to frame / A nest for my young praise in laurel tree" (5-6). The laurel tree is an obvious reference to poetic achievement where in the context of the previous line, the speaker subverts the established literary traditions by acknowledging that he possesses no desire ("nor so ambitious") to follow this path. Instead, he prefers to be a non-conformist and write poetry on his own terms. Consequently, the word "frame" also implies both his idiosyncratic poetic craft as well as the unconventional course of action he plans to take in achieving his creative goals. He admits to be aspiring poet, still in the developing stages and not yet fully confident in his abilities to seek adoration from others ("a nest for my young praise"). A similar argument is made in the third quatrain of sonnet 64 as the speaker attempts to make his poetic ambitions seem inconsequential. He follows the similar pattern of self-deprecation but his attitude is a little more pragmatic rather than cynical. He eschews with another literary convention by claiming to be undeserving in having his tombstone engraved with an inscription proclaiming him as a respected poet: "In truth I swear I wish not there should be / Graved in mine epitaph a poet's name" (7-8). Sidney seems to be suggesting here the possibility of obtaining immortality through poetic achievement. These lines become ironic within the thematic context of the entire poem because the speaker does in fact want to aspire to greatness as indicated by the third quatrain and final line.

The third quatrain sets up the central paradox of poetic authorship that becomes most fully realized in the rhyming couplet, beginning with the speaker denouncing himself as a charlatan: "That any laud to me thereof should grow, / Without my plumes from others' wings I take; / For nothing from my wit or will doth flow" (10-12). These lines eerily resemble the final line in sonnet 64 where the speaker refers to his "wit" as a byproduct pf Stella's influence. Here, one notices the bird feathers metaphor as representing the poet's lack of wit since he affirming to be a fraud by borrowing material from other poets. This line introduces the context for Stella as a paradoxical muse although it will not made explicit until the end. The rhyming couplet contradicts this statement by invoking Stella's divine literary powers in order to produce meaningful and original poetry but the speaker also contradicts himself again since the "plumes" may not be from other notable poets but from Stella. An underlying irony exists in line twelve as well and it also seems to be a direct reference to line fourteen in sonnet 64, which also deals with the concept of wit: "For nothing from my wit or will doth flow" (12). It is ironic; for the speaker is obviously self-conscious in the composition of the poem itself. He is not suffering from writer's block or else the poem would appear haphazard or unfinished. On the contrary, the verse is structured with precision and the imabic pentameter is relatively consistent despite slight variations in the stresses. If "wit" is to be understood as characteristic of one's mental acuity or skill as a poet, then it is difficult not to interpret this line as facetious: the speaker (or Sidney for that matter), clearly understand the fundamental principles of the sonnet form and is experimenting cleverly with language.

The rhyming couplet not only unifies the poem but links it directly with sonnet 64 with a similar paradox: "Since all my words thy beauty doth indite / And love doth hold my hand and makes me write" (13-14). Once again, the speaker invokes Stella as his muse, recognizing her divine influence. The tongue-in-cheek tone of voice in line twelve now shifts towards joyful exuberance as the speaker experiences an epiphany: he no longer needs to devalue his own sense of self-worth or struggle to compose anything of value because he lacks "wit" since Stella is now his muse. She is the creative spark in his mind, inspiring virtue and decorum. In line thirteen, her beauty stimulates his poetic imagination (along with his libido) and now his wit knows no bounds. Moreover, the transitive verb "indite" comes across as ironic too because it suggests that Stella is actually dictating the language of poetry to the speaker.

The ironic contrast is further emphasized by the final line, in which the speaker admits that Stella is responsible for the entire composition of his poetry because her "love" guides him through the creative process. The irony of line eleven now comes into focus since his relationship with Stella is paradoxical. Her influence "makes him write" but in order to compose eloquent and substantial poetry, he must take the angelic plumes from her wing, thus, she is beholden to his poetic achievements. Therefore, the rhyming couplet seems to be a more direct reiteration of line fourteen in sonnet 64: "thou art my wit, and thou my virtue art" (14). In both cases, Stella becomes a paradoxical muse for the speaker--she inspires his poetic craft and ambitions but her overwhelming influence destabilizes the concept of authorship where the title of "poet" becomes ambiguous. 

Monday 23 February 2015

Astrophil and Stella by Philip Sidney

For the month of February, The Literary Movement Challenge focuses on the Renaissance. Initially, I was going to take the easy route and just read Shakespeare but he has already received more attention and scholarly research than any other literary figure in the English language--there really isn't much I can say about any of the bard's works that hasn't been said before. Therefore, I decided to read Astrophil and Stella by Philip Sidney instead: a sonnet sequence of 108 poems and 11 songs that predominantly centers around a lovelorn poet and his infatuation with a woman named Stella. That's a lot of freakin' poems! I knew that signing up for Fanda's reading challenge would  prove to be difficult right from the get-go; requiring a great deal of endurance and commitment on my part, but it finally sunk in after pushing myself to get through all of these poems, just how demanding it really will be in the long-run. Don't get me wrong, I have a strong affinity for poetry but this isn't exactly light reading and to cover such a large amount over a short-period of time was quite exhausting. Yes, I realize it would have been less strenuous to spread out my reading, get through a few poems a day and so on; however, time is always a factor and there is far too much ground to cover. Nevertheless, I did somehow manage to get it done but will surely need to take a long break from reading poetry.  

Anyways, let's get down to business. To simply label the Astrophil and Stella as a collection of love poetry would be an inaccurate assessment--rather, these poems are very complex and there is a lot more going on in them upon a close-analysis. It would obviously be impossible for me to do a write-up on every single one them so I have decided to provide some general thoughts on the collection as a whole and then do a close-reading of two personal favorites by contrasting them with one another. 

In order to better engage with this particular literary work it might help to have some basic knowledge concerning the social and political landscape during Sidney's lifetime, hence the reason for my including a brief historical context throughout this review. I apologize to those who might find such details superfluous or boring but then again, isn't one of the points of this challenge to learn about literary movements? The themes, philosophies, arguments, symbolism, allegories, allusions, motifs, rhetoric and specific structure of these poems is largely influenced by the period in which Sidney is writing. While it is true that authors cannot escape the time period they happen to be writing in, the Renaissance is one of those extraordinary times in human history where so much change was occurring rapidly; thus, it is worth examining closer to gain a clearer sense of Sidney's intentions and contextual framework. 

The Renaissance was a tumultuous period of radical change in England with the reign of Elizabeth I--socially, politically, religiously. This "re-birth" saw a revival of classical antiquity, humanism became a widely popular movement (Sidney being a strong advocate himself) and the English language underwent massive change as well. A new culture emerged from the ashes of the middle-ages: growing populations, increased rural migration to cities, the expansion of empires, discovery of the "new world", religious unrest in England with the the reign of Elizabeth who supplanted Catholicism in favor of Protestantism and a whole host of other changes such as increased attendance to universities and a complete revamp of the educational system. Attending university usually meant studying to join the clergy but now learning institutions were switching over to teaching "rhetoric" and humanism ("studia humanitatis"). As a result, literacy rates skyrocketed along with the stage and drama becoming popular art forms. 

Written sometime around the 1580's, Sidney never lived long enough to see his work published. Printing was fairly new and largely controlled by the monarchy through guilds. Therefore, like many writers of his day, Sidney only circulated his writings amongst close friends in the form of manuscripts. He held a high position in Elizabeth's court, even serving as the ambassador in Ireland. Only after being dismissed from court for causing a dispute with the Earl of Oxford and taking up residence in the countryside did he begin to write: Astrophil and Stella being one of several works that came out of this creative period in his life.

Like many other humanists, Sidney believed that literature and the poetic imagination as a moral obligation to better humanity, inspiring virtue and civility; a way to influence action, establish decorum, achieve personal advancement--the apotheosis of eloquence and dignity. It placed a great deal of attention on the autonomous individual, preferring the study of classics to natural sciences; a moral philosophy including rhetoric, poetry and history--rhetoric serving as a persuasive language, instigating opposition between classical culture and Christan culture. Humanism was still attached to medieval traditions but now that the focus was turning towards individual self-consciousness, Reason and not God became the universal moral guide for these writers and intellectuals. Talk about a radical shift in ideologies and literature. One of the questions this reading challenge proposes is to determine whether or not said author should be categorized within a particular literary movement. Considering Sidney was a humanist through and through, it is safe to say that he would be classified unequivocally as a Renaissance poet.  

He was well-versed in Latin and  idolized Petrarch--the quintessential love poet whose Il Canzoniere had a great impact on Astrophil and Stella. Fragmented and consisting of 366 poems, the bulk of sonnets deal with the speaker's love for a woman named Laura, the transformation of personal experience into poetry with the assertion of subjectivity and articulating secular love--the latter being the important aspect here since religious devotion and the praise of God's love was the primary concern found in most literary works at the time. For Petrarch, love is complex and paradoxical; creating division within the psyche, an on-going dialectic between desire and reason. One falls in love instantly as a Petrarchan lover, the image of "captivity" is a dominant metaphor; an idolatry element exists since the woman is often envisaged as a goddess or muse to the speaker. Ok, so what does all of this have to do with Astrophil and Stella? Well, if it is not obvious already, Sidney uses Petrarch's model as a foundation for his own poems but he does not simply mimic his predecessor; rather, he engages with an ongoing dialogue with Petrarchism, revealing a paradoxical relationship. The denial with one's affiliation with past poets and the affirmation of individuality is ironically conventional for Renaissance poets. Furthermore, the self-dramatizing lover shows up again who worships a woman, the embodiment of goodness and virtue. However, Sidney is far less regular in rhyme and meter, playing with expectation of narrative and psychological conflict (philosophical allegory, properties of the mind: reason, will, sense, etc) with a far greater emphasis on rhetoric. The sonnets follow the traditional 14 lines, with a rhyming couplet at the end but they are not all iambic pentameter as is common with the majority of Shakespeare's sonnets. They are designed in specific rhetorical units (Sonnet #1-35, Sonnet #36-72, Second Song to Sonnet #108) but Sidney plays around with the octet and sextet of the meter in contrast to Petrarch, who rarely deviates from an established pattern. Sidney steps away from the rough diction of Petrarch's generation with more attention on poetic effect and stylistic versification. Similar to Petrarch's  Il Canzoniere, Sidney's Astrophil and Stella is also fragmented with no consistent narrative logic and no definitive resolution at the end.

Many scholars have put forth the argument that the sonnets are biographical in nature, Stella being a pseudonym for one of Sidney's love interests named Penelope Rich, arriving at this conclusion because of the way many of the poems contain puns on the name of "Rich." Such claims seem pointless to me and it is far more interesting to examine the way Sidney cleverly plays with biographical allusions. Personally, the most fascinating aspects of these poems is the way they serve as psychological models, showing love as an internal battle; the  constant internal dialogue of the speaker preoccupied with determining the purpose of writing as well as attempting to establish poetry as a legitimate art form that can use the subject of love as a springboard and transform it into an eloquent philosophical discourse on the complex nature of human experience.