Dec 042018
 

Today is the birthday (1875) of René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke better known as Rainer Maria Rilke, a Bohemian poet and novelist who is known for his lyrically intense poetry and prose. He invokes images that focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude and profound anxiety. While Rilke is most known for his contributions to German literature, over 400 poems were originally written in French and dedicated to the canton of Valais in Switzerland. Among English-language readers, his best-known works include the poetry collections Duino Elegies (Duineser Elegien) and Sonnets to Orpheus (Die Sonette an Orpheus), the semi-autobiographical novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge), and a collection of ten letters that was published after his death under the title Letters to a Young Poet (Briefe an einen jungen Dichter). In the later 20th century, his work found new audiences through use by New Age theologians and self-help authors, which could explain why I find his work unappealing.

Rilke was born in Prague, then capital of Bohemia. His father, Josef Rilke (1838–1906), became a railway official after an unsuccessful military career. His mother, Sophie (“Phia”) Entz (1851–1931), came from a well-to-do Prague family, the Entz-Kinzelbergers, who lived in a house on the Herrengasse (Panská) 8, where Rilke also spent many of his early years. The relationship between Phia and her only son was colored by her mourning for an earlier child, a daughter who had died only one week old. During Rilke’s early years Phia acted as if she sought to recover the lost girl through the boy by dressing him in girl’s clothing. His parents’ marriage failed in 1884. His parents pressured him into entering a military academy in St. Pölten, Lower Austria, which he attended from 1886 until 1891, when he left owing to illness.

He moved to Linz, where he attended trade school. He was expelled from the school in May 1892, and returned to Prague. From 1892 to 1895 he was tutored for the university entrance exam, which he passed in 1895. Until 1896 he studied literature, art history, and philosophy in Prague and Munich.

In 1897 in Munich, Rilke met and fell in love with the widely traveled, intellectual – but married – woman of letters Lou Andreas-Salomé. Rilke changed his first name from “René” to “Rainer” at Salomé’s urging because she thought that name to be more masculine, forceful, and Germanic. His relationship with her lasted until 1900. But even after their separation, Salomé continued to be Rilke’s most important confidante until the end of his life. Having trained from 1912 to 1913 as a psychoanalyst with Sigmund Freud, she shared her knowledge of psychoanalysis with Rilke.

In 1898, Rilke undertook a journey lasting several weeks to Italy. In 1899, he traveled with Salomé and her husband, Friedrich Andreas, to Moscow where he met Leo Tolstoy. Between May and August 1900, a second journey to Russia, accompanied only by Salomé, again took him to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, where he met the family of Boris Pasternak and Spiridon Drozhzhin, a peasant poet.

In 1900, Rilke stayed at the artists’ colony at Worpswede. Here he met the sculptor Clara Westhoff, whom he married the following year. Their daughter Ruth (1901–1972) was born in December 1901. Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876–1907), an early expressionist painter, became acquainted with Rilke in Worpswede and Paris, and painted his portrait in 1906. In the summer of 1902, Rilke left home and traveled to Paris to write a monograph on Auguste Rodin. His wife left their daughter with her parents and joined Rilke there. The relationship between Rilke and Clara Westhoff continued for the rest of his life; a mutually-agreed-upon effort at divorce was bureaucratically hindered by Rilke’s “official” status as a Catholic, though a non-practicing one.

At first, Rilke had a difficult time in Paris, an experience that he called on in the first part of his only novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. At the same time, his encounter with modernism was stimulating: Rilke became deeply involved with the sculpture of Rodin, then the work of Paul Cézanne. For a time, he acted as Rodin’s secretary, also lecturing and writing a long essay on Rodin and his work. Rodin taught him the value of observation and, under this influence, Rilke dramatically transformed his poetic style from the subjective and sometimes incantatory language of his earlier work into something quite new in European literature. The result was the New Poems, famous for the “thing-poems” expressing Rilke’s rejuvenated artistic vision. During these years, Paris increasingly became his main residence.

Between October 1911 and May 1912, Rilke stayed at the Castle Duino, near Trieste, home of Princess Marie of Thurn und Taxis. He began the poem cycle called the Duino Elegies there in 1912 which would remain unfinished for a decade because of a long-lasting creativity crisis. Rilke had developed an admiration for El Greco as early as 1908, so he visited Toledo during the winter of 1912/13 to see his paintings. Subsequently, Rilke spent extended periods in Ronda, the famous bullfighting center in southern Spain. He kept a permanent room at the Hotel Reina Victoria from December 1912 to February 1913.

The outbreak of World War I surprised Rilke during a stay in Germany. He was unable to return to Paris, where his property was confiscated and auctioned. He spent the greater part of the war in Munich. From 1914 to 1916 he had a turbulent affair with the painter Lou Albert-Lasard. Rilke was called up at the beginning of 1916 and had to undertake basic training in Vienna. Influential friends interceded on his behalf, and he was transferred to the War Records Office and discharged from the military on 9th June 1916. He returned to Munich, interrupted by a stay on Hertha Koenig’s Gut Bockel in Westphalia. The traumatic experience of military service, a reminder of the horrors of the military academy, almost completely silenced him as a poet.

On 11th June 1919, Rilke traveled from Munich to Switzerland. The outward motive was an invitation to lecture in Zurich, but the real reason was the wish to escape the post-war chaos and take up his work on the Duino Elegies once again. The search for a suitable and affordable place to live proved to be very difficult. Among other places, Rilke lived in Soglio, Locarno and Berg am Irchel. Only in mid-1921 was he able to find a permanent residence in the Château de Muzot in the commune of Veyras, close to Sierre in Valais. In an intensely creative period, Rilke completed the Duino Elegies in several weeks in February 1922. Before and after, Rilke rapidly wrote both parts of the poem cycle Sonnets to Orpheus containing 55 entire sonnets. Together, these two have often been taken as constituting the high points of Rilke’s work. In May 1922, Rilke’s patron Werner Reinhart bought and renovated Muzot so that Rilke could live there rent-free.

During this time, Reinhart introduced Rilke to his protégée, the Australian violinist Alma Moodie. Rilke was so impressed with her playing that he wrote in a letter: “What a sound, what richness, what determination. That and the Sonnets to Orpheus, those were two strings of the same voice. And she plays mostly Bach! Muzot has received its musical christening…” From 1923 on, Rilke increasingly had to struggle with health problems that necessitated many long stays at a sanatorium in Territet, near Montreux, on Lake Geneva. His long stay in Paris between January and August 1925 was an attempt to escape his illness through a change in location and living conditions. Despite this, numerous important individual poems appeared in the years 1923–1926 (including Gong and Mausoleum), as well as his abundant lyrical work in French.

In 1924, Erika Mitterer began writing poems to Rilke, who wrote back with approximately fifty poems of his own and called her verse a Herzlandschaft (landscape of the heart). This was the only time Rilke had a productive poetic collaboration throughout all his work. Mitterer also visited Rilke. In 1950, her Correspondence in Verse with Rilke was published.

Rilke supported the Russian Revolution in 1917 as well as the Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919. He became friends with Ernst Toller and mourned the deaths of Rosa Luxembourg, Kurt Eisner, and Karl Liebknecht. He confided that of the five or six newspapers he read daily, those on the far left came closest to his own opinions.[30] He developed a reputation for supporting left-wing causes, and thus, out of fear for his own safety, became more reticent about politics after the Bavarian Republic was crushed by the right-wing Freikorps. Yet, in January and February 1926, Rilke wrote three letters to the Mussolini-adversary Aurelia Gallarati Scotti in which he praised Benito Mussolini and described fascism as a healing agent.

Shortly before his death, Rilke’s illness was diagnosed as leukemia. He suffered ulcerous sores in his mouth, pain troubled his stomach and intestines, and he struggled with increasingly low spirits. Open-eyed, he died in the arms of his doctor on December 29th, 1926, in the Valmont Sanatorium in Switzerland. He was buried on January 2, 1927, in the Raron cemetery to the west of Visp.

Rilke had chosen as his own epitaph this poem:

Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch, Lust, Niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter soviel Lidern.

Rose, o pure contradiction, desire to be no one’s sleep beneath so many lids.

A legend developed surrounding his death and roses. It was said: “To honor a visitor, the Egyptian beauty Nimet Eloui Bey, Rilke gathered some roses from his garden. While doing so, he pricked his hand on a thorn. This small wound failed to heal, grew rapidly worse, soon his entire arm was swollen, and his other arm became affected as well”, and so he died.

Here is a Bohemian recipe for baked rabbit that I have selected for Rilke, partly because he reminds me of a rabbit (don’t ask), and partly because I miss rabbit since I left Italy.

Bohemian Baked Rabbit

Ingredients

1 rabbit, jointed
1 tbsp caraway seeds
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
100ml white wine vinegar
2 tbsp plain flour
oil, for frying
100 gm pitted prunes, halved
250ml beer
2 tbsp sour cream
salt and white pepper

Instructions

Soak a clean tea towel with vinegar. Place the rabbit pieces on the towel and press the caraway seeds into the meat. Scatter the chopped onion over the rabbit, and then wrap it up in the tea towel. Place the wrapped meat on a dish and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat the oven to 150°C. Unwrap the pieces of meat and dust them with the flour. Heat a little oil in large skillet over a medium heat and sauté the rabbit pieces until browned on all sides. Transfer the rabbit pieces to a lidded casserole and add the prunes and beer. Cook in the oven for 1 hour, turning the pieces over from time to time. About 15 minutes before the end of cooking, season with salt and pepper.

Remove the meat from the casserole and leave to stand, covered, for 7–8 minutes. Add the sour cream to the sauce and stir. Place the rabbit pieces on a heated serving dish, pour the casserole sauce over the rabbit, and serve.

 

Jan 192016
 

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Today is the birthday (1809) of Edgar Allan Poe, best known now for his poetry and short stories, particularly his tales of mystery and the macabre. But Poe is sometimes considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre and is also credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction. In his day he was perhaps best known as a literary critic with a sharp tongue and bitter wit. He was the first well-known U.S. writer to try to earn a living through writing alone, resulting in a financially difficult life and career. Nowadays commentators are often quick to point out that Poe’s hard times were “his own fault” (in those words). I find such a judgment hard to take. Yes, he was an alcoholic, and, yes, he made some poor decisions. But he was a man of integrity and honesty. I certainly don’t see his desire to live by writing as a flaw, but, rather, as an enviable stance to take, requiring a dedication that few are capable of.

So . . . I’ll leave you to read about his life if you are interested – his childhood abandonment by his father and death of his mother; his troubled relationship with his stepfather; his lifelong addiction; the death of his brother; the full scope of his literary career; his marriage to his cousin when he was 26 and she was 13; etc. etc. Instead I want to dwell on three things: his death, the Poe toaster, and “The Cask of Amontillado.” The last, first.

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I’m not a fan of Poe’s writing in general. I find it all a bit bleak and troubling. But I return to “The Cask of Amontillado” once in a while. I am not sure of the precise nature of my fascination. Some of it lies in the inherent vagueness of the plot. Under it all is the tale of a man whose fortunes have suffered, he believes, at the hand of another, and seeks revenge. His revenge via murder is cunning and brutal. The details in the story are at one and the same time crystal clear and obscure, yet the broad strokes are straightforward enough – “you have wronged me, so I am going to kill you in a way that is cruel and undetectable.” Poe, master of the detective story, presents us with a perfect crime. I don’t doubt there was an element of fantasy in the tale, as many have suggested, of Poe seeking revenge on a real opponent. With whom do you empathize – murderer or victim? I’ve tended to vilify the victim, but I can’t bring myself to praise or identify with the murderer. The story is complex and keeps me pondering from time to time. Does revenge solve anything?

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On October 3, 1849, Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore delirious, “in great distress, and… in need of immediate assistance”, according to the man who found him, Joseph W. Walker. He was taken to the Washington Medical College, where he died on Sunday, October 7, 1849, at 5:00 in the morning (at the age of 40). Poe was never coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in his dire condition, and, oddly, was wearing clothes that were not his own. Poe is said to have repeatedly called out the name “Reynolds” on the night before his death, though it is unclear to whom he was referring. Some sources say Poe’s final words were “Lord help my poor soul.” All medical records, including his death certificate, have been lost. Newspapers at the time reported Poe’s death as “congestion of the brain” or “cerebral inflammation”, common euphemisms for deaths from disreputable causes such as alcoholism. The actual cause of death remains a mystery. A fitting end for the master of the macabre. Yet . . .

“Poe Toaster” is a media name popularly used to refer to an unidentified person (or more probably two persons in succession, possibly father and son) who, for over seven decades, paid an annual tribute to Poe by visiting the cenotaph marking his original grave in Baltimore, Maryland, in the early hours of January 19, Poe’s birthday. The shadowy figure, dressed in black with a wide-brimmed hat and white scarf, would pour himself a glass of cognac and raise a toast to Poe’s memory, then vanish into the night, leaving three roses in a distinctive arrangement and the unfinished bottle of cognac. Onlookers gathered annually in hopes of glimpsing the elusive Toaster, who did not seek publicity and was rarely seen or photographed.

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According to eyewitness reports and notes accompanying offerings in later years, the original Toaster made the annual visitation from some time in the 1930s (though no report appeared in print until 1950) until his death in 1998, after which the tradition was passed to “a son.” Controversial statements were made in some notes left by the post-1998 Toaster, and in 2006 an unsuccessful attempt was made by several onlookers to detain and identify him. In 2010 there was no visit by the Toaster, nor has he appeared any year since, triggering speculation that the 75-year tradition has ended (2009 being the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth).

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Reports have it that Poe survived on bread and molasses during his more impoverished times. Washed down with a glass of brandy (or amontillado) that would certainly be a fitting, if sparse, tribute. Otherwise I can find precious little indication of his food tastes. However, the rather small, regional pizza chain, Dewey’s (Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri) offers the “Edgar Allan Poe.” I cannot find the reasoning behind the name. If you can’t travel to a Dewey’s location you can make a reasonable simulacrum. You’ll need to make a thin crust (I buy the dough), brush it with good olive oil, then top with mushrooms, kalamata olives, whole roasted garlic cloves and three cheeses: mozzarella, fontina, and crumbles of fresh goat cheese.

Oct 142015
 

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Today is the birthday (1894) of Edward Estlin Cummings, usually going by his middle name, Estlin, but quite often referred to in lowercase letters without punctuation as e e cummings. This usage mimics the style of his poetry, but was mostly something others did. The use of lowercase for his initials was popularized in part by the title of some books, particularly in the 1960s, printing his name in lower case on the cover and spine. In the preface to E. E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer by Norman Friedman, critic Harry T. Moore notes, “He [Cummings] had his name put legally into lower case, and in his later books the titles and his name were always in lower case.” According to Cummings’s widow, however, this is incorrect. She wrote to Friedman: “You should not have allowed H. Moore to make such a stupid & childish statement about Cummings & his signature.” On February 27, 1951, Cummings wrote to his French translator D. Jon Grossman that he preferred the use of upper case for the particular edition they were working on. Cummings himself occasionally used lower case initials when he signed, but normally he used upper case.

Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father was a professor at Harvard University and later the nationally known minister of Old South Church in Boston, Massachusetts. He exhibited transcendental leanings his entire life. As he grew older, Cummings moved more toward an “I, Thou” relationship with God. His journals are replete with references to “le bon Dieu,” as well as prayers for inspiration in his poetry and artwork (such as “Bon Dieu! may I some day do something truly great. amen.”). Cummings “also prayed for strength to be his essential self (‘may I be I is the only prayer—not may I be great or good or beautiful or wise or strong’), and for relief of spirit in times of depression (‘almighty God! I thank thee for my soul; & may I never die spiritually into a mere mind through disease of loneliness’).”

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Cummings wanted to be a poet from childhood and wrote poetry daily from 8, exploring assorted forms. He went to Harvard and developed an interest in modern poetry which ignored conventional grammar and syntax, aiming for a dynamic use of language. Upon graduating, he worked for a book dealer.

In 1917, with the First World War ongoing in Europe, Cummings enlisted in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps, along with his college friend John Dos Passos. Due to an administrative mix-up, Cummings was not assigned to an ambulance unit for five weeks, during which time he stayed in Paris. He fell in love with the city, to which he would return throughout his life. During their service in the ambulance corps, they sent letters home that drew the attention of the military censors, and were known to prefer the company of French soldiers over fellow ambulance drivers. The two openly expressed anti-war views; Cummings spoke of his lack of hatred for the Germans. On September 21, 1917, just five months after his belated assignment, he and a friend, William Slater Brown, were arrested by the French military on suspicion of espionage and undesirable activities. They were held for 3½ months in a military detention camp at the Dépôt de Triage, in La Ferté-Macé, Orne, Normandy.

They were imprisoned with other detainees in a large room. Cummings’ father failed to obtain his son’s release through diplomatic channels and in December 1917 wrote a letter to President Wilson. Cummings was released on December 19, 1917, and Brown was released two months later. Cummings used his prison experience as the basis for his novel, The Enormous Room (1922), about which F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “Of all the work by young men who have sprung up since 1920 one book survives—The Enormous Room by e e cummings… Those few who cause books to live have not been able to endure the thought of its mortality.”

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Cummings returned to the United States on New Year’s Day 1918. Later in 1918 he was drafted into the army. He served in the 12th Division at Camp Devens, Massachusetts, until November 1918. Cummings returned to Paris in 1921 and remained there for two years before returning to New York. His collection Tulips and Chimneys came in 1923 and his inventive use of grammar and syntax is evident. The book was heavily cut by his editor. XLI Poems, was then published in 1925. With these collections Cummings made his reputation as an avant garde poet.

During the rest of the 1920s and 1930s Cummings returned to Paris a number of times, and traveled throughout Europe, meeting, among others, Pablo Picasso. In 1931 Cummings traveled to the Soviet Union, recounting his experiences in Eimi, published two years later. During these years Cummings also traveled to Northern Africa and Mexico and worked as an essayist and portrait artist for Vanity Fair magazine (1924–1927).

In the 1930s Samuel Aiwaz Jacobs was Cummings’ publisher; he had started the Golden Eagle Press after working as a typographer and publisher. In 1952, his alma mater, Harvard University awarded Cummings an honorary chair as a guest professor. The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures he gave in 1952 and 1955 were later collected as i: six nonlectures.

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Cummings spent the last decade of his life traveling, fulfilling speaking engagements, and spending time at his summer home, Joy Farm, in Silver Lake, New Hampshire. He died of a stroke on September 3, 1962, at the age of 67 in North Conway, New Hampshire at the Memorial Hospital. His cremated remains were buried in Lot 748 Althaeas Path, in Section 6, Forest Hills Cemetery and Crematory in Boston. In 1969, his third wife, model and photographer Marion Morehouse Cummings, died and was buried in an adjoining plot.

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I’ve been a huge fan of Cummings’ poetry since the age of 15 when my English teacher, John Pearce, who was enormously influential on me (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/world-teachers-day/ ), introduced my class to “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” I can’t honestly say I grasped much about the poem then, but it sowed a seed. For many years I kept a complete anthology of his poems on my nightstand, and frequently dipped into it for old favorites or new finds. His style, marked by a disregard for grammar and syntax, is immediately recognizable. This is the first stanza of a well-known favorite:

my father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through haves of give,
singing each morning out of each night
my father moved through depths of height

Cummings’ father was killed in a tragic car accident which Cummings grieved dreadfully, and this poem is his eulogy. There is no mistaking Cummings’ style here – especially the odd pairings of images and the seemingly meaningless phrases created by lack of grammar (e.g. “sames of am”), which freak out my word processor more than when I write in Spanish. Once in a while I’ll read an “interpretation” of one of his poems and am instantly horrified by the attempt to pin his poetry down. You can’t. I do the same when somebody tries to “explain” a painting or a piece of music. The meanings are ineffable. I just let his words wash over me in waves of feeling. When I mention Cummings to friends, they more often than not have a favorite to tell me about; it touches them in ways that cannot be articulated. Many people (especially students) try to imitate him, but it is useless. His poems are unique. Of course, they are not all pearls, but that may be, in part, because some do not speak to my own life experiences.

Here is the last stanza of “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond”

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

I would not dream of trying to “explain” such a poem. It simply resonates with me and my feelings.

Despite Cummings’s familiarity with avant-garde styles, much of his work is quite traditional. Many of his poems are sonnets, often with a modern twist, and he occasionally made use of the blues form and acrostics. Many of his most striking poems do not involve any typographical or punctuation innovations at all, but purely syntactic ones.

Cummings, who was also a painter, understood the importance of presentation, and used typography to “paint a picture” with some of his poems. This one is a classic:

l(a
le
af
fa
ll
s)
one
l
iness

I could tell you what critics have said about this poem, but I’m not going to. It should be easy enough to pull your own meanings out of it without my help. If you want a little help try writing it out horizontally:

l (a leaf falls) oneliness

The seeds of Cummings’ unconventional style appear well established even in his earliest work. At age six, he wrote to his father:

FATHER DEAR. BE, YOUR FATHER-GOOD AND GOOD,
HE IS GOOD NOW, IT IS NOT GOOD TO SEE IT RAIN,
FATHER DEAR IS, IT, DEAR, NO FATHER DEAR,
LOVE, YOU DEAR,
ESTLIN.

It’s amazing to me that a 6 year old could write this. His affection for his father is palpable.

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I could use the fact of his confinement in Normany in La Ferté-Macé as an excuse to write about a culinary specialty of the town – tripe fertoise – but I’ll spare you. Maybe one day I’ll recount the story of my pilgrimage to La Ferté-Macé. For now I turn to another famed Cummings poem, “as freedom is a breakfastfood.” This reminds me of discussions I have had over the years with people over the notion of “breakfast food.” Different cultures and different times have their own ideas of what you should eat for breakfast. I’ve mention the full English breakfast many times. Here’s an image to make the mouth water.

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Many Western cultures see eggs as the quintessential “breakfast food” whether fried, scrambled, poached, or in an omelet. But this is mere habit. In Yunnan my students tell me that noodles in broth is classic breakfast food.  They would NEVER eat rice for breakfast — unthinkable. And so it goes. In London workers at all-night markets have steak, chips (fries), and a pint of beer for breakfast (then go to bed). My father told me when I was young that when he was a Royal Navy officer the crew ate what they felt like eating. I firmly remember his image of eating curry for breakfast. Sounded good to me at the time, and still does.

In accord with my general philosophy about eating, I eat what I want when I want. I don’t have set meal times, and I don’t have set foods for set times. In fact it’s clear that in the Western world breakfast is a popular dish all day.  Many road joints offer “breakfast all day.” I once saw a sign that read “breakfast at any time” and I was tempted to order “poached eggs on toast in the Renaissance.” Yeah, I’m a smart ass. But you get the idea. Put something together like a Cummings poem. It doesn’t matter if it breaks “the rules,” in the same way that he broke the rules of grammar and syntax. Just have at it, and be happy.

Jul 272015
 

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Today is the birthday (1870) of Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc, an Anglo-French writer and historian. He was one of the most prolific writers in England during the early twentieth century. He was known as a writer, orator, poet, sailor, satirist, man of letters, soldier and political activist. He is notable for his Catholic faith, which had a strong impact on his works, and his writing collaboration with G. K. Chesterton. He was President of the Oxford Union and later MP for Salford from 1906 to 1910. He was a well known disputant, with a number of long-running feuds, but also widely regarded as a humane and sympathetic man. Belloc became a naturalized British subject in 1902, but kept his French citizenship.

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His most lasting legacy is probably his verse, which encompasses comic verses for children and religious poetry. Among his best-remembered poems are from his humorous Cautionary Tales for Children, including “Jim, who ran away from his nurse, and was eaten by a lion” and “Matilda, who told lies and was burnt to death”. The full text can be found here.

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/27424/27424-h/27424-h.htm

A great variety of poems of all sorts can be found here:

http://www.poemhunter.com/i/ebooks/pdf/hilaire_belloc_2012_7.pdf

Belloc was the kind of man I would have liked to have as a friend – kind, amusing, smart, kind, loving, and generous, as well as stubborn and pig headed with strong convictions. Here’s some memorable quotes:

When I am dead, I hope it may be said: “His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
Benedicamus Domino!

For no one, in our long decline,
So dusty, spiteful and divided,
Had quite such pleasant friends as mine,
Or loved them half as much as I did.

The Church is a perpetually defeated thing that always outlives her conquerers.

It has been discovered that with a dull urban population, all formed under a mechanical system of State education, a suggestion or command, however senseless and unreasoned, will be obeyed if it be sufficiently repeated.

Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not.

The Llama is a woolly sort of fleecy hairy goat, with an indolent expression and an undulating throat; like an unsuccessful literary man.

From quiet homes and first beginning

Out to the undiscovered ends
There’s nothing worth the wear of winning
But laughter and the love of friends.
 
Oh, you should never, never doubt what nobody is sure about.

Write as the wind blows and command all words like an army!

If we are to be happy, decent and secure of our souls: drink some kind of fermented liquor with one’s food; go on the water from time to time; dance on occasions, and sing in a chorus.

When friendship disappears then there is a space left open to that awful loneliness of the outside world which is like the cold space between the planets. It is an air in which men perish utterly.

Loss and possession, death and life are one, There falls no shadow where there shines no sun.

“No, she laughed.” How on earth could that be done? If you try to laugh and say ‘No’ at the same time, it sounds like neighing — yet people are perpetually doing it in novels. If they did it in real life they would be locked up.

For I know that we laughers have a gross cousinship with the most high, and it is this contrast and perpetual quarrel which feeds a spring of merriment in the soul of a sane man.

Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight,
But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right. 

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Belloc grew up in Slindon and spent most of his life in West Sussex. He always wrote of Sussex as if it were the crown of England and the western Sussex Downs the jewel in that crown. He loved Sussex to the point of idolatry as the place where he was brought up and as his spiritual home. Belloc wrote several works about Sussex including Ha’nacker Mill, The South Country, the travel guide Sussex (1906) and The County of Sussex (1936). One of his best-known works relating to Sussex is The Four Men: a Farrago (1911), in which the four characters, each aspects of Belloc’s personality, travel on a pilgrimage across the county from Robertsbridge in the far east to Harting in the far west. The work has influenced others including Sussex traditional singer, Bob Copper, who retraced Belloc’s steps in the 1980s. Belloc was also a lover of Sussex songs and wrote lyrics for some songs which have since been put to music. Belloc is remembered in an annual celebration in Sussex, known as Belloc Night, that takes place on the writer’s birthday, 27 July, in the manner of Burns Night in Scotland. The celebration includes reading from Belloc’s work and partaking of a bread and cheese supper with pickles.

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So have at it tonight. There are a number of excellent Sussex cheeses courtesy of the modern revolution in English cheese making including Sussex Slipcote, High Weald Duddleswell, Sussex Charmer, and Olde Sussex. Sussex cheeses are made from both sheep’s and cow’s milk. I’ll give the prize to Brighton Blue, a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese which is quite mild when young, but becomes stronger with age. It is a little hard to find but the producer, High Weald, has a website:

http://www.highwealddairy.co.uk/

Belloc was a great lover of Burgundy too, so I suggest a pairing of French wine with the English cheeses to celebrate his Anglo-French heritage.

Jun 172015
 

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Today is the birthday (1867) of Henry Archibald Hertzberg Lawson, Australian writer and poet. Along with his contemporary Banjo Paterson, Lawson is among the best-known Australian poets and fiction writers of the colonial period and is often called Australia’s “greatest short story writer”. He was the son of the poet, publisher and political activist, Louisa Lawson, subject of one of my very earliest posts here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/louisa-lawson-and-the-dawn-club/

Henry Lawson was born on the Grenfell goldfields of New South Wales. His father was Niels Hertzberg Larsen, a Norwegian-born miner from Tromøya near Arendal. Niels Larsen went to sea at 21 and arrived in Melbourne in 1855 to join the gold rush, along with partner William Henry John Slee. Lawson’s parents met at the goldfields of Pipeclay (now Eurunderee New South Wales). Niels and Louisa Albury (1848–1920) married on 7 July 1866 when he was 32 and she 18. On Henry’s birth, the family surname was Anglicized and Niels became Peter Lawson. The newly married couple were to have an unhappy marriage. Louisa took a significant part in women’s movements, and edited a women’s paper called The Dawn (published May 1888 to July 1905). She also published her son’s first volume, and around 1904 brought out a volume of her own, Dert and Do, a simple story of 18,000 words. In 1905 she collected and published her own verses, The Lonely Crossing and other Poems. Louisa likely had a strong influence on her son’s literary work in its earliest days

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Lawson attended school at Eurunderee from 2 October 1876 but suffered an ear infection at around this time. It left him with partial deafness and by the age of fourteen he had lost his hearing entirely. However, his master John Tierney was a kindly man and did all he could for Lawson, who was quite shy. Lawson later attended a Catholic school at Mudgee, around 8 km away. The master there, Mr Kevan, taught Lawson about poetry and literature. Lawson was a keen reader, and reading became a major source of his education because, due to his deafness, he had trouble learning in the classroom.

In 1883, after working on building jobs with his father in the Blue Mountains, Lawson joined his mother in Sydney at her request. Louisa was then living with Henry’s sister and brother. At this time, Lawson was working during the day and studying at night for his matriculation in the hopes of receiving a university education. However, he failed his exams. At around 20 years of age Lawson went to the eye and ear hospital in Melbourne but nothing could be done for his deafness.

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In 1896, Lawson married Bertha Bredt, daughter of Bertha Bredt, the prominent socialist. The marriage was unhappy due to Lawson’s alcoholism. They had two children, son Jim (Joseph) and daughter Bertha. However, the marriage ended badly and with poor relations between them ever after.

Lawson’s first published poem was ‘A Song of the Republic’ which appeared in The Bulletin, 1 October 1887. His mother’s republican friends were an obvious influence. This was followed by ‘The Wreck of the Derry Castle’ and then ‘Golden Gully.’ Prefixed to the former poem was an editorial ‘note:

In publishing the subjoined verses we take pleasure in stating that the writer is a boy of 17 years, a young Australian, who has as yet had an imperfect education and is earning his living under some difficulties as a housepainter, a youth whose poetic genius here speaks eloquently for itself.       

Lawson was 20 years old, not 17.

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From 1890-1891 Lawson worked in Albany. He then received an offer to write for the Brisbane Boomerang in 1891, but he lasted only around 7–8 months as the Boomerang was soon in trouble. While in Brisbane he contributed to William Lane’s Worker; he later angled for an editorial position with the similarly-named Worker of Sydney, but was unsuccessful. He returned to Sydney and continued to write for the Bulletin which, in 1892, paid for an inland trip where he experienced the harsh realities of drought-affected New South Wales. He also worked as a roustabout (general hand) in the woolshed at Toorale Station. This resulted in his contributions to the Bulletin Debate and became a source for many of his stories in subsequent years. One critic describes the trek Lawson took between Hungerford and Bourke as “the most important trek in Australian literary history” and says that “it confirmed all his prejudices about the Australian bush. Lawson had no romantic illusions about a ‘rural idyll’ such as projected by Banjo Paterson.

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Lawson’s most successful prose collection is While the Billy Boils, published in 1896. Lawson created his own style and defined Australians in a new way: laconic, egalitarian, and humane. Most of his work focuses on the Australian bush, such as the desolate “Past Carin’ ” a starkly realistic of Australian life as it was at the time, or “The Drover’s Wife” a bleak description of loneliness. It is regularly studied in schools and has often been adapted for film and theater. Lawson was a firm believer in the merits of the sketch story, commonly known simply as ‘the sketch,’ claiming that “the sketch story is best of all.”  Lawson’s “On The Edge Of A Plain,” is often cited as one of the most accomplished examples of the sketch.

Like the majority of Australians, Lawson was a city dweller, but he had had plenty of knowledge of outback life, and, in fact, many of his stories reflect his experiences of Australian urban life. In Sydney in 1898 he was a prominent member of the Dawn and Dusk Club, a bohemian club of writer friends who met for drinks and conversation.

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In 1903 he took a room at Mrs Isabel Byers’ Coffee Palace in North Sydney. This marked the beginning of a 20-year friendship between Byers and Lawson. Despite his position as the most celebrated Australian writer of the time, Lawson was deeply depressed and perpetually poor. He lacked money due to unfortunate royalty deals with publishers. His ex-wife repeatedly reported him for non-payment of child maintenance, resulting in jail terms. He was jailed at Darlinghurst Gaol for drunkenness and non-payment of child support, and recorded his experience in the haunting poem “One Hundred and Three” – his prison number – which was published in 1908. He refers to the prison as “Starvinghurst Gaol” because of the meager rations given to the inmates. At this time, Lawson became withdrawn, alcoholic, and unable to carry on the usual routine of life.

Byers was an excellent poet herself and although of modest education, had been writing vivid poetry since her teens in a similar style to Lawson’s. She was long separated from her husband and elderly, and was, at the time she met Lawson, a woman of independent means looking forward to retirement. Byers regarded Lawson as Australia’s greatest living poet, and hoped to sustain him well enough to keep him writing. She negotiated on his behalf with publishers, helped to arrange contact with his children, wrote to friends and supporters to help him financially, and assisted and nursed him through his mental and alcohol problems. She wrote countless letters on his behalf and knocked on any doors that could provide Lawson with financial assistance or a publishing deal.

Lawson died, of cerebral hemorrhage, in Abbotsford, Sydney in 1922. He was given a state funeral. His funeral was attended by the Prime Minister Billy Hughes and the Premier of New South Wales, Jack Lang (who was the husband of Lawson’s sister-in-law Hilda Bredt), as well as thousands of citizens. He is interred at Waverley Cemetery. Lawson was the first person to be granted a New South Wales state funeral (traditionally reserved for Governors, Chief Justices, etc.) on the grounds of having been a ‘distinguished citizen’.

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I knew almost nothing about Lawson when I was a schoolboy in South Australia in the 1950s and ‘60s. We studied poetry and short stories in English classes but very little of it was bred in Australia. Most of our poetry diet was the classics of the 19th century, such as Kipling and Newbolt; our set books were Wind in the Willows, Gulliver’s Travels, and Treasure Island. When we did read Australians it was Banjo Paterson, not Lawson – too honest for the education department of the era, I suppose. The only reason I even knew his name was that I was an avid stamp collector and there was a nice sepia image of him on a 1949 stamp. I hope things are different now. In hindsight it seems to me that Australia was ashamed of its homegrown life back then. When television arrived it was all shows from the U.S. and England; history classes favored the English Tudors and Stuarts over Australian explorers. I know more about Australian history, poetry, and art now than when I was 14.Lawson wrote, “We shall never be understood or respected by the English until we carry our individuality to extremes, and by asserting our independence, become of sufficient consequence in their eyes to merit a closer study than they have hitherto accorded us.”

Here’s an epitaph in his own words: “Beer makes you feel the way you ought to feel without beer.”

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The lack of much in the way of Australian indigenous cuisine is also, I believe, a reflection of the Australian heritage of European immigration which fostered a sentimental look back at “the old country.” My mainstay for dinner was my mum’s English cooking. Sundays we always had a Sunday roast, and it was always lamb. Lamb was sometimes called “365” because it was cheap enough to eat every day. Mum put a shoulder of lamb on to cook before we went to church, and it was ready to serve when we got home. There might be leftovers for Monday. Despite it being just about all I ate on Sundays I’m still a huge fan. But you have to do it right. First and foremost, roast lamb should be pink inside. Too many people think it should be uniformly grey inside – why not roast some cardboard instead? And you should serve it with roast potatoes. Mine, I humbly state, were legendary – I had to make bucketloads to satisfy my guests.

A shoulder of lamb can be boned and rolled (makes for easy carving), but I think it is more flavorful on the bone. Bring it to room temperature several hours before cooking, slice several cloves of garlic rather thickly, and insert them under the skin. With the point of a sharp paring knife puncture shallow slits all over the skin of the lamb and push the garlic in as deeply as you can. Don’t be a slacker – make it look like a hedgehog. Roast at 450°-500°F for about 90 minutes, depending on weight. The skin should be crisply golden and the inside pink, not bloody.

You’re on your own with the roasties. I’ve instructed dozens of cooks and they cannot replicate mine. I peel them, cut them in chunks, and put them in a separate baking pan from the joint with a couple of tablespoons of drippings and put them in with the roast on the top shelf. Every 15 minutes or so I shake the pan and flip them around so that they brown evenly. The result is a very crisp outside and a soft floury inside.

I’ve never liked the classic mint sauce with lamb, although you can serve it if you want. I cook a gravy by making a dark roux with pan drippings and flour (equal amounts), then add stock, mashed garlic, and fresh rosemary, and simmer until medium thick (pints of it usually).

I tend to prefer a green vegetable, usually spinach or Brussels sprouts, as an accompaniment.

Always, always, always make shepherd’s pie with the leftovers and Scotch broth with the bone —

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-andrew/

May 182015
 

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Today is the birthday (1048) of Omar Khayyám; born Ghiyāth ad-Dīn Abu’l-Fatḥ ʿUmar ibn Ibrāhīm al-Khayyām Nīshāpūrī (Persian: ‏غیاثالدینابوالفتحعمرابراهیمخیامنیشابورﻯ‎, ), Persian mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and poet. He also wrote treatises on mechanics, geography, mineralogy, music, and Islamic theology. He was born in Nishapur, in northeastern Iran also known as Persia, and at a young age he moved to Samarkand and obtained his education there. Afterwards he moved to Bukhara and became established as one of the major mathematicians and astronomers of the medieval period. He is the author of one of the most important treatises on algebra written before modern times, the Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra, which includes a geometric method for solving cubic equations by intersecting a hyperbola with a circle. He also made major contributions to calendar reform which were more accurate than the Gregorian reform made centuries later. His significance as a philosopher and teacher, and his few extant philosophical works, have not received the same attention as his scientific and poetic writings. Al-Zamakhshari referred to him as “the philosopher of the world”. He taught the philosophy of Avicenna for decades in Nishapur.

Outside Iran and Persian-speaking countries, Khayyám has had an impact on literature and societies through the translation of his works and popularization by other scholars. The greatest such impact was in English-speaking countries; the English scholar Thomas Hyde (1636–1703) was the first non-Persian to study him. The most influential of all was Edward FitzGerald (1809–83),[6] who made Khayyám the most famous poet of the East in the West through his celebrated translation and adaptations of Khayyám’s rather small number of quatrains (Persian: رباعیات‎ rubāʿiyāt) in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

He spent part of his childhood in the town of Balkh (in present-day northern Afghanistan), studying under the well-known scholar Sheikh Muhammad Mansuri. He later studied under Imam Mowaffaq Nishapuri, who was considered one of the greatest teachers of the Khorasan region. Throughout his life, Omar Khayyám was tireless in his efforts; by day he would teach algebra and geometry, in the evening he would attend the Seljuq court as an adviser of Malik-Shah I, and at night he would study astronomy and complete important aspects of the Jalali calendar.

Omar Khayyám’s years in Isfahan were very productive ones, but after the death of the Seljuq Sultan Malik-Shah I (presumably by the Assassins sect), the Sultan’s widow turned against him as an adviser, and as a result, he soon set out on his Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. He was then allowed to work as a court astrologer, and was permitted to return to Nishapur, where he was renowned for his works, and continued to teach mathematics, astronomy and even medicine.

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I’ll spare you a long rambling discourse on the importance of his mathematical work and simply say that he was centuries ahead of the West which owed him a great debt when his works were finally discovered and translated. I get a little tired of reminding Westerners what a great debt in general the West owes the Medieval Islamic world, not just in preserving the great works of the classical Greek world (including Euclid, Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle – which Westerners undervalued and generally lost), but in moving their ideas forward. From idiotic Western history textbooks you might, if you are lucky, get a nod to the great Islamic writers of the age, but otherwise you get the impression that the West moved forward all on its own. Particularly in the modern political climate people like Khayyám deserve a great deal more respect. I take it as a personal mission here to right this wrong. See, for example:

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/averroes/

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/ulugh-beg/

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/ibn-khaldoun/

Let me simply say that it took the West 600 years to catch up with Khayyám in the fields of geometry and algebra, and even then many of their “advances” were eventually proven wrong !!

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The Jalali calendar was introduced by Omar Khayyám alongside other mathematicians and astronomers in Nishapur. Today it is one of the oldest calendars in the world as well as the most accurate solar calendar still in use. Since the calendar uses astronomical calculation for determining the vernal equinox, it has no intrinsic error, but this makes it an observation based calendar.

The Jalali calendar remained in use across Greater Iran from the 11th to the 20th centuries. It is the basis of the Iranian calendar, which is followed today in Iran and Afghanistan. While the Jalali calendar is more accurate than the Gregorian, it is based on actual solar transit, similar to Hindu calendars, and requires an ephemeris (table) for calculating dates. The lengths of the months can vary between 29 and 31 days depending on the moment when the sun crosses into a new zodiacal area (an attribute common to most Hindu calendars). This means that seasonal errors are lower than in the Gregorian calendar.

Omar Khayyám was a notable poet during the reign of the Seljuk ruler Malik-Shah I. Scholars believe he wrote about a thousand four-line verses (quatrains) or rubaiyat, many now lost. He was introduced to the English-speaking world through the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which are poetic, rather than literal, translations by Edward FitzGerald (1809–1883). Other English translations of parts of the rubáiyát  exist, but FitzGerald’s are the most well known. Ironically, FitzGerald’s translations reintroduced Khayyám to Iranians who had long ignored.

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Here’s a small sample – well known in English:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

 Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit,

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

 Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

 

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

 A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou,

Beside me singing in the Wilderness,

 And oh, Wilderness is Paradise enow.

 

And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,

 Whereunder crawling coop’t we live and die,

Lift not thy hands to It for help—for It

 Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.

 

I sent my Soul through the Invisible,

 Some letter of that After-life to spell:

And by and by my Soul return’d to me,

 And answer’d “I Myself am Heav’n and Hell:”

Modern scholars are generally dissatisfied with Fitzgerald’s translation, believing it to be more Western than Eastern, not truly reflecting Khayyám’s philosophy. But if it gets you started, I’m happy. However, it’s a good plan to seek out more literal translations with commentary.

Anything approximating a usable recipe from Khayyám’s era does not exist. Even recipes from as late as the 16th century need heavy interpretation. So instead here is a recipe for Ash Reshteh a modern bean and noodle soup that has its roots in medieval Persia – and, yes, Persia had noodles centuries before Marco Polo supposedly brought them back from China. I’m using a video because, as ever, I am pressed for time.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tc1vDEK1UbI

Jun 182014
 

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On this date in 618 Li Yuan became Emperor Gaozu of Tang, initiating three centuries of Tang Dynasty rule over China. Under the failing Sui dynasty, Li Yuan was the governor in the area of modern-day Shanxi, and was based in Taiyuan. In 615, Li Yuan was assigned to garrison Longxi. He gained military and administrative experience by dealing with the incursions of Göktürks from the north. Li Yuan was also able to gather support from these successes and, with the disintegration of the Sui dynasty in July 617, Li Yuan – urged on by his second son Li Shimin (the eventual Emperor Taizong) – rose in rebellion. Using the title of “Great Chancellor” (大丞相), Li Yuan installed a puppet child emperor, Emperor Gong, but eventually removed him altogether and established the Tang Dynasty in 618 as Emperor. His son and successor Li Shimin honored him as Gaozu (“high founder”) after his death.

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Emperor Gaozu’s reign was focused on uniting the empire under the Tang see map). Aided by Li Shimin, whom he created the Prince of Qin, he defeated all the other contenders, including Li Gui, Dou Jiande, Wang Shichong, Xue Rengao and Liu Wuzhou. By 628, the Tang Dynasty had succeeded in uniting all of China. On the home front, he recognized the early successes forged by Emperor Wen of Sui and strove to emulate most of Emperor Wen’s policies, including the equal distribution of land amongst his people. He also lowered taxes. He abandoned the harsh system of law established by Emperor Yang of Sui as well as reforming the judicial system. These acts of reform paved the way for the reign of Emperor Taizong, which ultimately pushed Tang to the height of its power, and a cultural golden age.

In 626, Li Shimin, in a dispute with his brothers Li Jiancheng, the Crown Prince, and Li Yuanji, the Prince of Qi, ambushed Li Jiancheng and Li Yuanji at Xuanwu Gate, killing them. Fearful of what Li Shimin might do next, Emperor Gaozu passed the throne to him and became Taishang Huang (retired emperor). He died in 635.

Both the Sui and Tang Dynasties turned away from the more feudal culture of the preceding Northern Dynasties, in favor of staunch civil Confucianism. The governmental system was supported by a large class of Confucian intellectuals selected through either civil service examinations or recommendations. In the Tang period, Daoism and Buddhism reigned as core ideologies as well, and played a large role in people’s daily lives, as did indigenous folk religion.

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The Tang capital of Chang’an was the largest city in the world at its time, the population of the city wards and its suburban countryside reaching 2 million inhabitants. Chang’an was very cosmopolitan, with residents from Persia, Central Asia, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet, India, and other places. With widely open access to China via the Silk Road, many foreign settlers were able to move east to China; the city of Chang’an itself had about 25,000 foreigners living there. At first under the Tang, foreign men could marry Chinese women, but they were required to remain in China. Eventually segregation laws were passed requiring foreigners to wear their ethnic dress at all times, and forbidding marriage with Chinese women.

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The Tang period was a golden age of Chinese literature and art. There are over 48,900 poems written by around 2,200 Tang authors that have survived until modern times. Skill in the composition of poetry was required for those wishing to pass imperial examinations. Poetry was also heavily competitive; poetry contests amongst guests at banquets and courtiers were common. Poetry styles that were popular in the Tang included gushi and jintishi, with the renowned poet Li Bai (701–762) famous for the former style, and poets like Wang Wei (701–761) and Cui Hao (704–754) famous for their use of the latter. Jintishi poetry, or regulated verse, is in the form of eight-line stanzas of seven characters per line with a fixed pattern of tones that required the second and third couplets to be antithetical (all of which is lost in translation to other languages).

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The Classical Prose Movement was spurred on in large part by the writings of Tang authors Liu Zongyuan (773–819) and Han Yu (768–824). This new prose style broke away from the poetic, or ‘piantiwen’ style, begun in the Han dynasty. Although writers of the Classical Prose Movement imitated ‘piantiwen’, they criticized it for its often vague content and lack of colloquial language, focusing more on clarity and precision to make their writing more direct.

Short story fiction and tales were also popular during the Tang, one of the more famous ones being Yingying’s Biography by Yuan Zhen (779–831), which was widely circulated in his own time and by the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) became the basis for plays in Chinese opera. Love tales were exceptionally popular, following a basic plot design of quick passion, inescapable societal pressure leading to the abandonment of romance, followed by a period of melancholy. Unlike Western classics such as Romeo and Juliet, love always bows to social pressure.

There were extensive encyclopedias published in the Tang era on a variety of subjects. The Yiwen Leiju encyclopedia was compiled in 624 by the chief editor Ouyang Xun (557–641) as well as Linghu Defen (582–666) and Chen Shuda (d. 635). The encyclopedia Treatise on Astrology of the Kaiyuan Era was completed in 729 by Gautama Siddha (fl. 8th century), an ethnic Indian astronomer, astrologer, and scholar born in the capital Chang’an.

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Chinese geographers such as Jia Dan wrote accurate descriptions of places far abroad. In his work written between 785 and 805, he described the sea route going into the mouth of the Persian Gulf, and that the medieval Iranians (whom he called the people of Luo-He-Yi) had erected ‘ornamental pillars’ in the sea that acted as lighthouse beacons for ships that might go astray. Confirming Jia’s reports about lighthouses in the Persian Gulf, Arabic writers a century after Jia wrote of the same structures, writers such as al-Mas’udi and al-Muqaddasi. The Tang dynasty Chinese diplomat Wang Xuance traveled to Magadha (modern northeastern India) during the 7th century. Afterwards he wrote the book Zhang Tianzhu Guotu (Illustrated Accounts of Central India), which included a wealth of geographical information.

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Women’s social rights and social status during the Tang era were notably liberal-minded for the period, although urban women of elite status benefited the most. There were many women in the Tang era who gained religious authority by taking vows as Daoist priestesses. The owners of the bordellos in the North Hamlet of the capital Chang’an acquired considerable wealth and power. Their high-class courtesans, who probably influenced the development of Japanese geishas, were well respected. They were known as great singers and poets, supervised banquets and feasts, knew the rules to all the drinking games, and were trained to have impeccable table manners. Although they were renowned for their polite behavior, the courtesans were known to dominate the conversation amongst elite men, and were not afraid to openly castigate or criticize prominent male guests who talked too much or too loudly, boasted too much of their accomplishments, or had in some way ruined dinner for everyone by rude behavior (on one occasion a courtesan even beat up a drunken man who had insulted her). When singing to entertain guests, courtesans not only composed the lyrics to their own songs, but they popularized a new form of lyrical verse by singing lines written by various renowned and famous men in Chinese history.

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Technology during the Tang period advanced considerably, based on the work of former eras. Clockwork and timekeeping developed rapidly. Tang engineer, astronomer, and monk Yi Xing (683–727) invented the world’s first clockwork escapement mechanism in 725. He used this mechanism in conjunction with a clepsydra (water flow) clock and waterwheel to power a rotating armillary sphere to astronomical observations. Yi Xing’s device also had a mechanically timed bell that was struck automatically every hour, and a drum that was struck automatically every quarter hour. Yi Xing’s astronomical clock and water-powered armillary sphere became well known throughout the country, since students attempting to pass the imperial examinations by 730 had to write an essay on the device as an exam requirement. However, the most common type of public and palace timekeeping device was the inflow clepsydra. Its design was improved c. 610 by the Sui-dynasty engineers Geng Xun and Yuwen Kai. They provided a steelyard balance that allowed seasonal adjustment in the pressure head of the compensating tank and could then control the rate of flow for different lengths of day and night.

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Woodblock printing made the written word available to vastly greater audiences. One of the world’s oldest surviving printed documents is a miniature Buddhist dharani sutra unearthed at Xi’an in 1974 and dated roughly from 650 to 670. The Diamond Sutra is the first full-length book printed at regular size, complete with illustrations embedded with the text and dated precisely to 868. Among the earliest documents to be printed were Buddhist texts as well as calendars, the latter essential for calculating and marking which days were auspicious and which days were not. With so many books coming into circulation for the general public, literacy rates improved, which meant the lower classes were able to obtain cheaper sources of study. Therefore, there were more lower-class people taking, and passing, the Imperial Examinations by the later Song dynasty. Although the later Bi Sheng’s movable type printing in the 11th century was innovative for his period, woodblock printing that had become widespread in the Tang era would remain the dominant printing type in China until the more advanced printing press from Europe became widely accepted and used in East Asia. The first use of the playing card during the Tang dynasty was an auxiliary invention of the new age of printing.

Since the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), the Chinese had drilled deep boreholes to transport natural gas from bamboo pipelines to stoves where cast iron evaporation pans boiled brine to extract salt. During the Tang dynasty, a gazetteer of Sichuan province stated that at one of these 182 m (600 ft) ‘fire wells,’ natural gas was stored in portable bamboo tubes which could be carried for considerable distances and still produce a flame.

The inventor Ding Huan (fl. 180 AD) of the Han dynasty invented a rotary fan for air conditioning, with seven wheels 3 m (10 ft) in diameter and manually powered. In 747, Emperor Xuanzong had a “Cool Hall” built in the imperial palace, which the Tang Yulin (???) describes as having water-powered fan wheels for air conditioning as well as rising jet streams of water from fountains.

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During the earlier Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589), and perhaps even earlier, tea drinking became popular in southern China. Tea was viewed then as both a beverage for pleasure and as medicinal. During the Tang dynasty, tea became synonymous with everything sophisticated in society. The Tang poet Lu Tong (790–835) devoted most of his poetry to his love of tea. The 8th-century author Lu Yu (known as the “Sage of Tea”) wrote a treatise on the art of drinking tea, called the Classic of Tea (Cháj?ng).

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In ancient times, the Chinese had codified the five most basic foodstuffs known as the “five grains” – sesamum, legumes, wheat, panicled millet, and glutinous millet. The Ming dynasty encyclopedist Song Yingxing (1587–1666) noted that rice was not counted amongst the five grains from ancient times because its cultivation was not fully developed in China until the 2nd millennium BCE. I guess the concept of “ancient” is relative!

During the Tang era, the most common vegetable cooking ingredients in addition to those already listed were barley, garlic, turnips, soybeans, pears, apricots, peaches, apples, pomegranates, jujubes, rhubarb, hazelnuts, pine nuts, chestnuts, walnuts, yams, and taro. Various meats included pork, chicken, lamb (especially preferred in the north), sea otter, bear (which was hard to get, but there were recipes for steamed, boiled, and marinated bear), and even Bactrian camels. In the south along the coast protein from seafood was the most common. Recipes include jellyfish with cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, cardamom, and ginger, as well as oysters with wine, fried squid with ginger and vinegar, horseshoe crabs and red crabs, shrimp, and pufferfish, which the Chinese called ‘river piglet.’ Some foods were off-limits; the Tang court encouraged people not to eat beef (since the bull was a valuable draft animal), and from 831 to 833 Emperor Wenzong of Tang even banned the slaughter of cattle based on his Buddhist beliefs.

From foreign trade by land and sea the Chinese acquired peaches from Samarkand, date palms, pistachios, and figs from Persia, pine seeds and ginseng roots from Korea, and mangoes from Southeast Asia. There was a great demand for sugar in the Tang era. During the reign of Harsha (c. 606–647) in North India, Indian envoys to Tang China brought two sugar specialists who successfully taught the Chinese how to cultivate sugarcane and produce sugar.

Methods of food preservation were important, and practiced throughout China. The common people used simple methods of preservation, such as digging deep ditches and trenches to contain brined and fermented foods. The emperor had large ice pits located in the parks in and around Chang’an for preserving food, while the wealthy and elite had their own smaller ice pits. Each year the emperor had laborers carve 1000 blocks of ice from frozen creeks in mountain valleys, each block with the dimension of 3 ft (0.91 m) by 3 ft by 3½ ft (1.06 m). There were many frozen delicacies enjoyed during the summer, especially chilled melon.

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Here I give you Dong’an chicken (東安子雞) from the town of Dong’an in Hunan province. It is one of the signature dishes of Hunan cuisine. Recipes date back to the Tang Dynasty. Dong’an style chicken is unusual in that it uses parboiled chicken along with hot peppers, and spices, stir fried in vegetable oil and vinegar. Be sure not to overcook the chicken during the parboil stage, or it will be tough. A wok is preferable for this, but a good cast iron skillet works well enough. The chief problem for Western cooks is not having gas burners that are hot enough to reach desirable temperatures for proper stir frying.

Dong’an Chicken

chicken stock
¾ inch piece fresh ginger, unpeeled
3 scallions
1 fresh hot red pepper
3 dried peppers (optional)
2 tbsp Shaoxing wine
2 tbsp clear rice vinegar
1 tsp sesame oil
4 tbsp lard or vegetable oil
½ tsp Sichuan pepper oil or ½ tsp whole Sichuan pepper
¾ tsp potato flour, mixed with 2 teaspoons cold water
salt
1 chicken (about 2 ¾ lbs)

Instructions

Rinse the chicken and remove the skin. Bring the stock to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Add the chicken and return the liquid to a boil, skimming the surface as necessary. Crush half the ginger and one scallion with the flat side of a cleaver or heavy object, then add to the pan with the chicken. Reduce the heat and poach the chicken for 10 minutes. Remove the chicken from the cooking liquid and allow it to cool; reserve the cooking liquid. The chicken should be about three-quarters cooked.

Remove the flesh from the carcass and cut into bite-sized strips, along the grain of the meat.

Cut the fresh hot pepper in half lengthwise and discard the seeds and pith. Then cut it into very fine slivers. Peel the remaining ginger and cut it into slices and then slivers. Cut the green parts off the remaining 2 scallions into slivers.

Heat the wok over a high flame until smoke rises, then add the oil and swirl it around. When the oil is warming up but before it is smoking hot, add the fresh hot peppers and ginger, along with the dried chilies and Sichuan pepper, if using, and stir-fry until fragrant, taking care that the seasonings do not take on color.

Add the chicken and continue to stir fry. Splash the Shaoxing wine around the edges of the chicken. Add the vinegar, Sichuan pepper oil, if using, and salt to taste. Add up to ½ cup of the chicken poaching liquid (if the chicken is very juicy no additional liquid will be necessary), bring to a boil and then turn the heat down a little and simmer briefly to allow the flavors to penetrate the chicken, spooning the liquid over it.

Add the potato flour mixture to the liquid and stir as the sauce thickens. Throw in the scallion greens and stir a few times. Remove from heat and stir in the sesame oil.

Serve immediately with steamed rice.

[As a small postscript for interested readers, I am planning to go to China in July and am learning some Mandarin Chinese in preparation.  I am using LearnChineseEZ and finding it very user friendly and helpful — especially with pronunciation. Here is the URL:

http://www.learnchineseez.com ]

Jun 132014
 

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Today is the birthday (1865) of William Butler Yeats, Irish poet and one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature. He was not only a pillar of both the Irish and British literary establishments, in his later years he served as an Irish Senator for two terms. Yeats was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival and, along with Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn, and others, founded the Abbey Theatre, where he served as its chief during its early years. In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature as the first Irishman so honored for what the Nobel Committee described as “inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.” Yeats is generally considered one of the few writers who completed many of their greatest works after being awarded the Nobel Prize; such works include The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1929). Yeats was a very good friend of American expatriate poet and Bollingen Prize laureate Ezra Pound. He also wrote the introduction for Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali.

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Yeats was born in Dublin and educated there and in London; he spent his childhood holidays in County Sligo. He studied poetry in his youth and from an early age was fascinated by both Irish legends and the occult. Those topics feature in the first phase of his work, which lasted roughly until the turn of the 20th century. His earliest volume of verse was published in 1889, and its slow-paced and lyrical poems display Yeats’s debts to Edmund Spenser, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the poets of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. From 1900, Yeats’s poetry grew more physical and realistic. He largely renounced the transcendental beliefs of his youth, though he remained preoccupied with physical and spiritual masks, as well as with cyclical theories of life.

Rather than give you a long exposition on Yeats’s life and ideas, which could take up volumes, I will focus on two aspects of his life and work. First, his relationship with Maud Gonne, which gives us insight into his passions and personality, and second, one of his most famous poems, “The Second Coming” which reflects his lifelong interest in the mystical and in alternatives to common Christian visions of history.

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In 1889, Yeats met Maud Gonne, then a 23-year-old English heiress and ardent Irish Nationalist. Gonne was eighteen months younger than Yeats and later claimed she met the poet as a “paint-stained art student.” Gonne had admired “The Isle of Statues” and sought out his acquaintance. Yeats became obsessed with her, and she had a significant and lasting effect on his poetry and his life thereafter.

In later years he admitted, “it seems to me that she [Gonne] brought into my life those days—for as yet I saw only what lay upon the surface—the middle of the tint, a sound as of a Burmese gong, an over-powering tumult that had yet many pleasant secondary notes.” Yeats’s love initially remained unrequited, in part due to his reluctance to participate in her ardent nationalist activism. Yeats was an Irish nationalist himself, but his beliefs and activities were more muted.

In 1891, he visited Gonne in Ireland and proposed marriage, but she rejected him. He later admitted that from that point “the troubling of my life began.” Yeats proposed to Gonne three more times: in 1899, 1900 and 1901. She refused each proposal, and in 1903, to his horror, married the Irish nationalist Major John MacBride. Subsequently there was a strong element of jealousy and wounded pride in his letters and poetry.

The marriage, as forecast by both their sets of friends and relations, was an early disaster. This pleased Yeats because Gonne began to visit him in London. After the birth of her son, Seán MacBride, in 1904, she and MacBride agreed to end the marriage, although they were unable to agree on the child’s welfare. Despite the use of intermediaries, a divorce case ensued in Paris in 1905. Maud made a series of allegations against her husband with Yeats as her main ‘second’ (her word), though he did not attend court or travel to France. A divorce was not granted as the only accusation that held up in court was that MacBride had been drunk once during the marriage. A separation was granted with Maud having custody of the baby and John having visiting rights.

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Yeats’s friendship with Gonne persisted, and, in Paris, in 1908, they finally consummated their relationship. “The long years of fidelity rewarded at last” was how another of his lovers described the event. Yeats was less sentimental and later remarked that “the tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul.” The relationship did not develop into a new phase after their night together, and soon afterwards Gonne wrote to Yeats indicating that despite the physical consummation, they could not continue as they had been: “I have prayed so hard to have all earthly desire taken from my love for you and dearest, loving you as I do, I have prayed and I am praying still that the bodily desire for me may be taken from you too.” By January 1909, Gonne was sending Yeats letters praising the advantage given to artists who abstain from sex. Nearly twenty years later, Yeats recalled the night with Gonne in his poem “A Man Young and Old”:

   My arms are like the twisted thorn
   And yet there beauty lay;
   The first of all the tribe lay there
   And did such pleasure take;
   She who had brought great Hector down
   And put all Troy to wreck.

By 1916, Yeats was 51 years old and determined to marry and produce an heir. John MacBride had been executed by British forces for his role in the 1916 Easter Rising, and Yeats thought that his widow might remarry. His final proposal to Maud took place in mid-1916. Gonne’s history of revolutionary political activism, as well as a series of personal catastrophes in the previous few years of her life, including chloroform addiction and her troubled marriage to MacBride means it is likely that Yeats’s last offer was motivated more by a sense of duty than by a genuine desire to marry her. Yeats proposed in an indifferent manner, with conditions attached, and the consensus is that he both expected and hoped she would turn him down.

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That September, Yeats proposed to 25-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees (pictured next to Yeats on his right). She was universally known as George, Yeats met her through a mutual friend, Olivia Shakespear. Despite warnings from her friends—”George … you can’t. He must be dead”—Hyde-Lees accepted, and the two were married on 20 October. Their marriage was a success, in spite of the age difference, and in spite of Yeats’s feelings of remorse and regret during their honeymoon. The couple went on to have two children, Anne and Michael. Although in later years he had romantic relationships with other women and possibly affairs, George herself wrote to her husband “When you are dead, people will talk about your love affairs, but I shall say nothing, for I will remember how proud you were.”

During the first years of his marriage, he and George experimented with automatic writing, and George contacted a variety of spirits and guides they called “Instructors.” The spirits communicated a complex and esoteric system of characters and history, which the couple developed into an exposition of phases of history in terms of cones, gyres (spirals), and other physical metaphors. The spirits notified George that they were ready to communicate by filling the house with the scent of mint leaves. Yeats devoted much time to preparing this material for publication as A Vision (1925). In 1924, he wrote to his publisher T. Werner Laurie admitting: “I dare say I delude myself in thinking this book my book of books.” I dare say he was quite correct! As a vision of history the book is not worth reading. But as a pathway into Yeats’s poetic imagery it is invaluable.

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For our purposes now the most important image is that of history as a gyre – a conical spiral with a fixed starting point that spirals upward and outward for 2,000 years, fragments, and then starts again. This image is evident in the first lines of the poem “The Second Coming.”

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
   The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
   Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
   Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
   The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
   The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
   The best lack all conviction, while the worst
   Are full of passionate intensity.

   Surely some revelation is at hand;
   Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
   The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
   When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
   Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
   A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
   A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
   Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
   Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

   The darkness drops again but now I know
   That twenty centuries of stony sleep
   Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
   And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
   Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats wrote this in 1919 in the aftermath of the devastation of the First World War. “Things fall apart” about sums up the feeling of the time. I am not going to give you a whole analysis of the poem; you can do that for yourself. What I do want to point out, though, is that Yeats expresses a sentiment here that is shockingly current. “The centre cannot hold” expresses a key concept. The “centre” is the starting point of the gyre of history that acts as its anchor and foundation. But as things spiral upward and outward we lose track of the “centre” – we lose our purpose; we lose our way. “The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” We are lost and adrift in history. At this point, Yeats believes, “things fall apart,” chaos reigns, and so we start the gyre all over again. This supposedly happens every 2,000 years. So the present gyre began in Bethlehem with the birth of Jesus.

However, the world did not fall apart in 1919 even though it descended into another world war in 1939, and many people in the contemporary world believe that things continue to fall apart through endless wars, destruction of the environment, loss of basic values, and so forth. Yeats speaks to us as much now as to his own generation. Perhaps some time soon all will collapse and we will find a new idea to anchor us slouching towards Bethlehem.

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I have chosen Irish stew to honor Yeats. Irish stew is a traditional stew made from lamb, or mutton as well as potatoes, onions, and parsley. It may sometimes also include carrots or be made with goat. Oxford Companion to Food says:

Irish stew is a celebrated Irish dish, yet its composition is a matter of dispute. Purists maintain that the only acceptable and traditional ingredients are neck mutton chops or kid, potatoes, onions, and water. Others would add such items as carrots, turnips, and pearl barley; but the purists maintain that they spoil the true flavour of the dish. The ingredients are boiled and simmered slowly for up to two hours. Mutton was the dominant ingredient because the economic importance of sheep lay in their wool and milk produce and this ensured that only old or economically non-viable animals ended up in the cooking pot, where they needed hours of slow cooking. Irish stew is the product of a culinary tradition that relied almost exclusively on cooking over an open fire.

This should be enough for cooks to work with, but I can add some more details. When cooking in an iron pot suspended over a fire the ingredients were probably not browned first, but in the modern kitchen you can. Also I like to add carrots even though, strictly, they are not traditional. But I’ve never had the stew without carrots. I’ve also had Irish stew many times in Ireland with suet dumplings. Pearl barley, however, seems to me to be going too far because the barley fundamentally alters the flavor. If you can get mutton, so much the better. The essence of Irish stew is the savor of the meat. Here’s my generalized recipe.

Sauté 2 roughly diced onions in oil until translucent. Transfer to a large pot. Lightly brown in batches about 2 lbs of meaty lamb neck bones. Transfer to the pot and cover generously with light stock. Add chopped parsley, salt, and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Bring to a boil and simmer for 2 to 3 hours until the meat is tender and falling from the bones. Cool and then refrigerate overnight. In the morning there will be a thin film of hardened fat on the top of the stock. Take this off (reserve it for frying), and return the pot to the stove over medium heat. The stock will be a jelly at first. As soon as it is liquid and slightly warm, remove all the lamb, strip the meat from the bones and return it to the stock. Discard the bones. Add about 1 ½ lbs of potatoes scrubbed well, roughly diced in big chunks, but not peeled. Add carrots prepared in the same manner if you wish. You may also add another ½ onion chopped and some additional parsley and pepper to boost the flavors lost in the long simmering. Simmer uncovered until the potatoes (and carrots) are thoroughly cooked through. Serve in deep bowls with crusty bread and butter.

Serves 4

Jan 252014
 

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Today is the birthday (1759), of Robert Burns commonly called Rabbie Burns in Scotland, poet and lyricist. He is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland and is celebrated worldwide. He is the best known of the poets who have written in the Scots language, although much of his writing is also in English with a light Scots dialect, accessible to an audience beyond Scotland. He also wrote in standard English, and in these works his political or civil commentary is often at its bluntest.

He is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement, and after his death he became a great source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism, and a cultural icon both in Scotland and among the Scottish Diaspora around the world. Celebration of his life and work became almost a national charismatic cult during the 19th and 20th centuries, and his influence has long been strong on Scottish literature. In 2009 he was chosen as the greatest Scot by the Scottish public in a vote run by Scottish television channel STV.

As well as making original compositions, Burns also collected folk songs from across Scotland, often revising or adapting them. His poem (and song) “Auld Lang Syne” is often sung at Hogmanay (the last day of the year), and “Scots Wha Hae” served for a long time as an unofficial national anthem of the country.

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Burns was born two miles (3 km) south of Ayr, in Alloway, South Ayrshire, the eldest of the seven children of William Burnes (1721–1784) (Robert Burns spelled his surname Burnes until 1786), a self-educated tenant farmer from Dunnottar, and Agnes Broun (or Brown) (1732–1820), the daughter of a tenant farmer from Kirkoswald, South Ayrshire. He was born in a house built by his father (now the Burns Cottage Museum), where he lived until Easter 1766, when he was seven years old. William Burnes sold the house and took the tenancy of the 70-acre (280,000 m2) Mount Oliphant farm, southeast of Alloway. Here Burns grew up in poverty and hardship, and the severe manual labor of the farm left its traces in a premature stoop and a weakened constitution, which would lead to an early death.

Burns had little regular schooling and got much of his education from his father, who taught his children reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and history and also wrote for them A Manual Of Christian Belief. He was also taught by John Murdoch (1747–1824), who opened an “adventure school” in Alloway in 1763 and taught Latin, French, and mathematics to both Robert and his brother Gilbert (1760–1827) from 1765 to 1768 until Murdoch left the parish. After a few years of home education, Burns was sent to Dalrymple Parish School during the summer of 1772 before returning at harvest time to full-time farm laboring until 1773, when he was sent to lodge with Murdoch for three weeks to study grammar, French, and Latin.

By the age of 15, Burns was the principal laborer at Mount Oliphant. During the harvest of 1774, he was assisted by Nelly Kilpatrick (1759–1820), who inspired his first attempt at poetry, “O, Once I Lov’d A Bonnie Lass”. In the summer of 1775, he was sent to finish his education with a tutor at Kirkoswald, where he met Peggy Thompson (b.1762), to whom he wrote two songs, “Now Westlin’ Winds” and “I Dream’d I Lay”.

Despite his ability and character, William Burnes was consistently unfortunate, and migrated with his large family from farm to farm without ever being able to improve his circumstances. At Whitsun, 1777, he removed his large family from the unfavorable conditions of Mount Oliphant to the 130-acre (0.53 km2) farm at Lochlea, near Tarbolton, where they stayed until William Burnes’ death in 1784. Subsequently, the family became integrated into the community of Tarbolton. To his father’s disapproval, Robert joined a country dancing school in 1779 and, with Gilbert, formed the Tarbolton Bachelors’ Club the following year. His earliest existing letters date from this time, when he began making romantic overtures to Alison Begbie (b. 1762). In spite of four songs written for her and a suggestion that he was willing to marry her, she rejected him.

In December 1781, Burns moved temporarily to Irvine, North Ayrshire, to learn to become a flax-dresser, but during the workers’ celebrations for New Year 1781/1782 (which included Burns as a participant) the flax shop caught fire and was burnt to the ground. This venture accordingly came to an end, and Burns went home to Lochlea farm. During this time he met and befriended Captain Richard Brown who encouraged him to become a poet.

He continued to write poems and songs and began a commonplace book in 1783, while his father fought a legal dispute with his landlord. The case went to the Court of Session, and Burnes was upheld in January 1784, a fortnight before he died. Robert and Gilbert made an ineffectual struggle to keep on the farm, but after its failure they moved to the farm at Mossgiel, near Mauchline, in March, which they maintained with an uphill fight for the next four years. During the summer of 1784 Burns came to know a group of girls known collectively as The Belles of Mauchline, one of whom was Jean Armour, the daughter of a stonemason from Mauchline.

His first child, Elizabeth Paton Burns (1785–1817), was born to his mother’s servant, Elizabeth Paton (1760–circa 1799), while he was embarking on a relationship with Jean Armour, who became pregnant with twins in March 1786. Burns signed a paper attesting his marriage to Jean, but her father “was in the greatest distress, and fainted away.” To avoid disgrace, her parents sent her to live with her uncle in Paisley. Although Armour’s father initially forbade it, they were eventually married in 1788. Armour bore him nine children only three of whom survived infancy.

Burns was in financial difficulties due to his lack of success in farming, and to make enough money to support a family he took up a friend’s offer of work in Jamaica, at a salary of £30 per annum. The position that Burns accepted was as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation. Burns’ egalitarian views were typified by “The Slave’s Lament” six years later, but in 1786 there was little public awareness of the abolitionist movement that began about that time.

At about the same time, Burns fell in love with Mary Campbell (1763–1786), whom he had seen in church while he was still living in Tarbolton. She was born near Dunoon and had lived in Campbeltown before moving to work in Ayrshire. He dedicated the poems “The Highland Lassie O,” “Highland Mary,” and “To Mary in Heaven” to her. His song “Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary, And leave auld Scotia’s shore?” suggests that they planned to emigrate to Jamaica together. Their relationship has been the subject of much conjecture, and it has been suggested that on 14 May 1786 they exchanged Bibles and plighted their troth over the Water of Fail in a traditional form of marriage. Soon afterwards Mary Campbell left her work in Ayrshire, went to the seaport of Greenock, and sailed home to her parents in Campbeltown. In October 1786 Mary and her father sailed from Campbeltown to visit her brother in Greenock. Her brother fell ill with typhus, which she also caught while nursing him. She died of typhus on 20 or 21 October 1786 and was buried there.

As Burns lacked the funds to pay for his passage to the West Indies, Gavin Hamilton suggested that he should “publish his poems in the mean time by subscription, as a likely way of getting a little money to provide him more liberally in necessaries for Jamaica.” On 3 April Burns sent proposals for publishing his Scotch Poems to John Wilson, a local printer in Kilmarnock, who published these proposals on 14 April 1786, on the same day that Jean Armour’s father tore up the paper in which Burns attested his marriage to Jean. To obtain a certificate that he was a free bachelor, Burns agreed on 25 June to stand for rebuke in Mauchline kirk for three Sundays. He transferred his share in Mossgiel farm to his brother Gilbert on 22 July, and on 30 July wrote to tell his friend John Richmond that, “Armour has got a warrant to throw me in jail until I can find a warrant for an enormous sum … I am wandering from one friend’s house to another.”

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On 31 July 1786 John Wilson published the volume Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Known as the Kilmarnock volume, it sold for 3 shillings and contained much of his best writing, including “The Twa Dogs,” “Address to the Deil,” “Halloween,” “The Cotter’s Saturday Night,” “To a Mouse,” “Epitaph for James Smith,” and “To a Mountain Daisy,” many of which had been written at Mossgiel farm. The success of the work was immediate, and soon he was known across the country.

For 10 years Burns was the toast of Scotland with a prolific output of poems, lyrics, and social commentary.  Thus he moved from the humblest of origins to mingling with the elite of Scottish society.  It is undoubtedly this dual life that gives his work such an edge.  He cared nothing for people of rank and wealth as such; he was concerned only with a person’s character whether rich or poor.  He was able to take this position because he lived in both worlds and saw them for what they were.  These sentiments are expressed most plainly in the immortal “For A’ That.”  Burns often wrote in Lowland Scots which is pretty well incomprehensible to English speakers unfamiliar with the language, but “For A’ That” (and many other of Burns’ poems of social commentary) is written in English with a sprinkle of dialect words.  You should be able to grasp the meaning from this video from the printed lyrics:

On the morning of 21 July 1796 Burns died in Dumfries, at the age of 37.  He probably had a rheumatic heart condition and his years as a farm laborer had weakened his constitution considerably.  It has also been suggested, although the evidence is not definitive, that he was a heavy drinker, which would have weakened him further. He was at first buried in the far corner of St. Michael’s Churchyard in Dumfries with a simple headstone, but his body was later moved to a mausoleum in the same cemetery.

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Burns is one of my favorite poets for a variety of related reasons.  First and foremost he was a poet of the people with a strong sense of social justice.  He championed the core values of the French Revolution, which, in fact, got him into a certain amount of trouble.  But he was fearless in his belief in egalitarianism and spoke out freely.  Second, his values were straightforward – hard work, honesty, intelligence, wit, kindness, and love.  Anyone, rich or poor, who shared those values was his friend. Third, he knew how to speak to all people.  When he wanted to convey a general message he wrote in English, but when he wanted to enfold the “lower” classes of Scotland he wrote in Lowland Scots.  It really is no wonder that the Scots loved him then and love him now.

On or near 25th January Scots worldwide hold Burns suppers. Burns suppers may be formal or informal. Both typically include haggis (recipe below), whisky, and the recitation of Burns’ poetry. Formal dinners are hosted by organizations such as Burns clubs, the Freemasons, or St Andrew’s Societies and have a traditional order. I’ve done both.  When my family lived in Australia my father (who was born in Glasgow and whose family came from Glasgow and the Shetland Islands) would round up all the Scots in town and invite them over to our house for haggis, whisky and song.

My paternal grandparents in the Shetlands

My paternal grandparents in the Shetlands

For years I did much the same when I lived in New York, but when I became pastor of a parish that had a large Scots population I organized formal suppers at the church. I am so sorry that I do not have any photos of me in my kilt as master of ceremonies to share.  Formal dinners have the following order:

Start of the evening (piping in the guests)

Host’s welcoming speech

Selkirk Grace

Although attributed to Burns, the Selkirk Grace was already known in the 17th century, as the “Galloway Grace” or the “Covenanters’ Grace”. It came to be called the Selkirk Grace because Burns was said to have delivered it at a dinner given by the Earl of Selkirk.

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae let the Lord be thankit.

First course

The supper starts with the soup course. Normally a Scottish soup such as Scotch Broth, Potato Soup or Cock-a-Leekie is served.

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“Piping” of the haggis

Everyone stands as the main course is brought in. This is always a haggis on a large dish. It is usually brought in by the cook, generally while a piper plays bagpipes and leads the way to the host’s table, where the haggis is laid down.

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The host, or perhaps a guest with a talent, then recites the “Address to a Haggis.”  Here is a staged version of this ceremony which is the highlight of the evening.  It’s in pure Lowland Scots (with no subtitles), so unless you are familiar with the language you’ll be lost.  But you’ll get the general drift from the reciter’s actions.

At the end of the poem, a whisky toast is drunk by the host, piper, and cook, and the haggis is served with bashed neeps and tatties (mashed yellow turnip and potatoes). There may or may not be a dessert course such as Tipsy Laird (whisky trifle).

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The toasts

Over coffee there is a series of toasts.

Immortal memory

One of the guests gives a speech, remembering some aspect of Burns’ life or poetry. This may be light-hearted or intensely serious depending on the audience.

Everyone drinks a toast to Robert Burns.

Appreciation

The host will normally say a few words thanking the previous speaker for his speech and may comment on some of the points raised.

Tae to the Lassies

This was originally a short speech given by a male guest in thanks to the women who had prepared the meal (it being a male only affair). However, nowadays, with women and men as guests, it is much more wide-ranging and generally covers the male speaker’s view on women. It is normally amusing but not offensive, particularly bearing in mind that it will be followed by a reply from the “lassies” concerned.

The men drink a toast to the women’s health.

Tae the Laddies (sometimes called The Lassies’ Reply)

Like the previous toast, it is generally quite wide-ranging nowadays. A female guest will give her views on men and reply to any specific points raised by the previous speaker. Like the previous speech, this should be amusing, but not offensive. Quite often the speakers giving this toast and the previous one will collaborate so that the two toasts complement each other.

Works by Burns

After the speeches there may be singing of songs by Burns — Ae Fond Kiss, Parcel o’ Rogues, A Man’s a Man, etc. — and more poetry — To a Mouse, To a Louse, Tam o’ Shanter, The Twa Dugs, Holy Willie’s Prayer, etc. This may be done by the individual guests or by invited experts, and it goes on for as long as the guests wish and may include other works by poets influenced by Burns, particularly poets writing in Scots.  Afterwards there may also be dancing or dancing displays.

Closing

Finally the host will call on one of the guests to give the vote of thanks, after which everyone is asked to stand, join hands, and sing Auld Lang Syne bringing the evening to an end.

In my experience haggis is one of those dishes you either like or hate.  Personally I love it and find a way to make some version every year for Burns Night.  This is my version from last year (with neeps and tatties).

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In its traditional form it is essentially a boiled pudding made by mixing together the chopped up organ meats of a sheep with oats, suet, and spices which are then sewn inside a sheep’s stomach and boiled for several hours.  When we lived in sheep country in Australia my father had no trouble getting all the ingredients from the local butcher who kept his own flock and did his own slaughtering.  These days it’s even tough to get all the right things in Scotland.  So you improvise.  I find that practically any organ meats mixed with oats, fat, and spices, and boiled in a muslin bag is adequate even if not fully authentic.  Here’s a completely traditional recipe. The actual spices used vary from cook to cook, and professional producers in Scotland keep their mixes a closely guarded secret.  I use allspice, nutmeg, and cloves.

Traditional Haggis

Ingredients:

1 sheep’s pluck — heart, liver, and lights (lungs).
1 sheep’s stomach.
1lb lightly toasted pinhead oatmeal (medium or coarse oatmeal).
1-2 tablespoons salt.
1 level tablespoon freshly ground black pepper.
1 tablespoon freshly ground allspice.
1 level tablespoon of mixed herbs.
8oz finely chopped suet.
4 large onions, finely chopped

Instructions:

Wash the stomach in cold water until it is thoroughly clean and then soak it in cold salted water for about 8-10 hours.

Place the pluck in a large pot and cover with cold water. The windpipe ought to be hung over the side of the pot with a container beneath it in order to collect any drips. Gently simmer the pluck for approximately 2 hours or until it is tender and then leave the pluck to cool.

Finely chop or mince the pluck meat and then mix it with the oatmeal. Add about half a pint of the liquor in which the pluck was cooked (or use a good stock). Add the seasonings, suet and onions, ensuring everything is well mixed.

Fill the stomach with the mixture, leaving enough room for the oatmeal to expand into. Press out the air and then sew up the haggis. Prick the haggis a few times with a fine needle. Place the haggis it in boiling water and simmer for approximately 3 hours.