Archive for the Literature Category

Villanelle for Our Time – Leonard Cohen

Posted in Music, Poetry on July 1, 2021 by telescoper

Today (1st July) is Canada Day so here is something by Canada’s finest, the great Leonard Cohen.

We miss you, Leonard.

This is the faith from which we start:
Men shall know commonwealth again
From bitter searching of the heart
We rise to play a greater part


Canal Bank Walk, by Patrick Kavanagh

Posted in Maynooth, Poetry with tags , , on June 19, 2021 by telescoper

The Royal Canal, Maynooth (Picture Credit: M. Maher)

Written in 1954 when the poet was recovering from a life-threatening illness this poem – a sonnet by Patrick Kavanagh – is a celebration not only of nature’s powers of regeneration but of the delight in taking things slowly. As he expressed in his lecture Man and Poet:

We are in too great a hurry. We want a person or thing to yield their pleasures and their secrets to us quickly for we have other commitments. But it is the days when we are idle, when nothing appears to be happening, which provide us, when no one is looking, with all that is memorable.

Here is the poem Canal Bank Walk:

Leafy-with-love banks and the green waters of the canal
Pouring redemption for me, that I do
The will of God, wallow in the habitual, the banal,
Grow with nature again as before I grew.
The bright stick trapped, the breeze adding a third
Party to the couple kissing on an old seat,
And a bird gathering materials for the nest for the Word
Eloquently new and abandoned to its delirious beat.
O unworn world enrapture me, encapture me in a web
Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech,
Feed the gaping need of my senses, give me ad lib
To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech
For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.

Marking Bloomsday 2021 with beard power

Posted in Beards, Biographical, Literature on June 16, 2021 by telescoper

Although my primary research interest is in the area of astrophysics and cosmology I think it is important to get involved whenever possible in interdisciplinary scholarship. My latest such contribution was to use the “find” facility on the online version of Ulysses by James Joyce to establish that the word “beard” appears 59 times in that work. A thorough analysis of the role of beards in Ulysses would make an interesting PhD topic, in my opinion.

Kmflett's Blog

As former Beard of Ireland Peter Coles noted on twitter there are 59 references to beards in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

On Bloomsday 2021 the Beard Liberation Front salutes the hirsute canon of Joyce.

A typical Ulysses reference is below:

Mastiansky and Citron approach in gaberdines wearing long earlocks. They wag their beards at Bloom

(page 438)

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#Bloomsday and Things Joycean

Posted in Literature with tags , , on June 16, 2021 by telescoper

So it’s 16th June, a very special day in Ireland – and especially Dublin – because 16th June 1904 is the date on which the story takes place of Ulysses by James Joyce. Bloomsday – named after the character Leopold Bloom – is an annual celebration not only of all things Joycean but also of Ireland’s wider cultural and literary heritage. Of course it’s mainly virtual this year, as it was last year.

I was toying with the idea of going into Dublin and wandering about some of the locations described in Ulysses, but I have too much work to do. Maybe next year.  Instead I thought I’d prepare dinner this evening in a style that Leopold Bloom would enjoy:

He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with breadcrumbs, fried hen cod’s roe. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

Or perhaps not.

If you haven’t read Ulysses yet then you definitely should. It’s one of the great works of modern literature. And don’t let people put you off by telling you that it’s a difficult read. It really isn’t. It’s a long read that’s for sure -it’s over 900 pages – but the writing is full of colour and energy and it has a  real sense of place. It’s a wonderful book.

(There’s also quite a lot of sex in it….)

I’ve read Ulysses twice, once when I was a teenager and once when I was in my thirties. I then lent my copy to someone and never got it back. The copy shown above is a new one I bought last year with the intention of reading the novel again now that I live in Ireland but I sadly have not had the time yet. I will, though.

I did manage to read all of Finnegans Wake last summer which I think is quite a difficult read so I approached it by rationing myself to ten pages per day and going slowly, often reading it out loud. In many ways it’s really a more like a very long poem than a prose work. It is

Incidentally if you would like to limber up before making an attempt on either  Ulysses or Finnegans Wake I recommend this set of short stories.

But if you don’t fancy reading it you can listen to an epic 29 hour dramatisation of Ulysses on the radio via RTÉ; see here for details.

A Legacy of Spies

Posted in Literature with tags , on May 19, 2021 by telescoper

When the writer John Le Carré passed away in December 2020, I ended my little tribute to him with the following:

The last John le Carré book I bought was A Legacy of Spies (2017), which I haven’t yet got around to reading. I’ll put that on the list of Christmas reading, and drink a toast to an author who has given me so much to enjoy and to think about over so many years.

I didn’t actually get around to reading the book at Christmas. I did however notice it the other day still among my (substantial) pile of as-yet-unread books while I was looking for a distraction from examination marking, and decided to read it now, which I have. It’s very good, and also brought back a lot of memories of the entire Smiley sequence, so I heartily recommend it.

I watched the two TV series based on books by John le Carré – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People – when they were broadcast so decided to read those books, and after those read all the others he had written by that time.

Not all his early books were great, but The Spy who came in from the Cold is excellent as are Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People – the so-called Karla trilogy. A Legacy of Spies is based on many of the characters to be found in these other novels. The central character, Peter Guillam, appears in the Karla Trilogy and the plot itself revolves around the failed operation described in The Spy who came in from the Cold that resulted in the death of Elizabeth Gold and Alec Leamas at the Berlin Wall. There are even short appearances by Jim Prideaux (the British agent captured during Operation Testify in Tinker Tailor) and right at the very end by George Smiley himself.

Smiley’s remarks at the end, looking back over his career as a spy, with all the cruelty and death and amorality that entailed, are apposite:

‘So was it all for England, then?’ he resumed. ‘There was a time, of course there was. But whose England? Which England? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere? I’m a European, Peter.

No prizes for guessing where that phrase came from!

A Legacy of Spies has an unusual narrative structure, the story told in part through flashbacks and documents. Guillam, in retirement in Brittany in his old age, is dragged into an investigation into alleged wrongdoings by the Circus and has to prepare some sort of defence but lots of important evidence is missing. He has to rely on his own memory but there are things he must withhold to protect himself and others. It’s a gripping read and made me want to read the entire sequence again right from the beginning.

April is the cruellest month

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , , on April 15, 2021 by telescoper
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

So begins Part I, The Burial of the Dead from The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. I thought of it yesterday when I was working in the garden, though I have no lilacs.

The poem is rightly regarded as one of the most important poems of the 20th Century and Eliot one of the most important poets but in my opinion one thing he wasn’t good at was reading his own work. I always found his readings of his own work rather flat and dreary. He’s not the only poet I think that of either, but perhaps that’s just me.

Anyway, here is T.S. Eliot reading all of The Waste Land so you can make your own mind up:

Easter Hymn, by A.E. Housman

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , , on April 4, 2021 by telescoper

If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.

by A.E. Housman (1859-1936)

Housman was an atheist. This poem was not published in his lifetime, but is the first poem in More Poems which was published shortly after his death.


The Dead Christ

Posted in Art, Literature with tags , , , on April 3, 2021 by telescoper

The Dead Christ, 1521 (oil on limewood) by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543)

Twitter reminded me this evening of this extraordinary painting by Hans Holbein the Younger and I thought I’d share it here because I realize it was painted in 1521, which means it is 500 years old this year. Despite its age this work still has the power to shock, not least because it is so different from so many works of religious art of its period. The depiction of the dead Christ is 2m long, life-size (so to speak). His eyes and mouth are open, the clear signs of putrefaction appearing in the colouring of his face, hands and feet, the body marked by wounds, is brutal in its frankness and shocking in its authenticity.

But what is the message of this work? Was Holbein questioning the reality of Christ’s bodily resurrection? Or was he emphasizing how miraculous it must have been? And where was a painting of this enormous size and peculiar shape supposed to be displayed? What purpose was it meant to serve? And what’s the reason for the extended middle finger?

I’m not the only one to have asked these questions. The author Fyodor Dostoevsky was famously moved by this work, so much so that in his novel The Idiot he has a character remark “Why, a man’s faith might be ruined by looking at that picture!”.

I don’t expect we’ll ever know what Holbein was trying to say, but perhaps that doesn’t matter. Great art should make you think, but should not necessarily tell you what you should think…

Good Friday Break

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, Poetry with tags , , on April 2, 2021 by telescoper

Garden Update: the daffodils are done but the tulips are still going…

Well, here we are. It’s Good Friday, the start of an extra-long weekend (Friday to Monday inclusive). I’m making it a bit longer by taking a few days off next week too. It’s officially Easter break so there are no lectures next week anyway.

I need a break. This term has been exhausting, and the busiest bit is yet to come. We return for four weeks of teaching then, after a short hiatus, we’re into the examination period followed by marking, Exam Boards and all the rest. Oh and there’s the small matter of yet another virtual Open Day at the end of this month.

I’ve put out-of-office replies on my work email and won’t be attending to messages there until I get back to work at the end of next week. Part of me feels a bit guilty for doing that, but only a very small part.

As it’s a nice day, I spent a couple of hours this morning doing some remedial work in the garden. I may have a late lunch out there too as the weather is nice and I recently invested in a garden table and chairs which I have yet to use properly. If the weather holds I might get the mower out and give the lawn a trim. Judging by the constant noise this morning it seems that everyone in the neighbourhood is doing that too. Some people seem to enjoy the sound of their own lawn mowers.

Talking of which I also trimmed my beard this morning, for the first time since Christmas. I have also acquired some clippers and may actually cut the hair on my head at some point over the weekend too.

That’s enough inconsequential rambling for today. Here is a poem on the subject of Good Friday by Christina Rossetti:

Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?

Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter, weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;

Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon –
I, only I.

Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.

Thought for the Day

Posted in Literature, Politics on March 30, 2021 by telescoper

I don’t have time for a full post today but let me just say that I think that the move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony is bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Comments welcome.