Archive for the Literature Category

“The Whale”, by John Donne

Posted in Literature with tags , , , on August 2, 2022 by telescoper

A beached Sperm Whale (Dutch woodcut, 1598)

At every stroake his brazen finnes do take,
More circles in the broken sea they make
Than cannons’ voices; when the aire they teare:
His ribs are pillars, and his high arch’d roofe
Of barke that blunts best steele, is thunder-proofe:
Swimme in him swallow’d Dolphins, without feare,
And feele no sides, as if his vast wombe were
Some inland sea, and ever as he went
He spouted rivers up, as if he meant
To joyne our seas, with seas above the firmament.

He hunts not fish but as an officer,
Stayes in his court, at his own net, and there
All suitors of all sorts themselves enthrall;
So on his backe lies this whale wantoning,
And in his gulfe-like throat, sucks every thing
That passeth neare. Fish chaseth fish, and all,
Flyer and follower, in this whirlpool fall;
O might not states of more equality
Consist? and is it of necessity
That thousand guiltlesse smals, to make one great, must die?


These are Stanzas XXXII and XXXIII from “Metempsycosis” by John Donne (1572-1631); posted because they feature in the programme I watched yesterday.


R.I.P. James Lovelock (1919-2022)

Posted in Literature, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on July 28, 2022 by telescoper

I heard this week of the death, on his 103rd birthday, of scientist and writer James Lovelock. He started out as a chemist but became what is now called an “independent scientist” and “futurist”. These terms are often applied to people who are simply cranks, but he wasn’t just that. Unorthodox he was, certainly, but there was depth to his thinking that mere cranks never reach.

James Lovelock was best known to me – and I suspect to many others – for his work on the Gaia Hypothesis, which is roughly speaking the idea that the system of life on Earth functions as a single organism that defines and maintains the conditions necessary for its own survival.

I’ve just had a rummage around my bookshelves and found my copy of his famous book on this topic, which I bought and read back in the 80s. The first edition was published in 1979, but the one I bought was the version published in 1987 after the topic had been featured on the BBC TV programme, Horizon:

The Gaia hypothesis has been widely criticized by biologists and ecologists but I remember finding it a very thought-provoking book, though I interpreted more as a metaphor than a mechanism. At any rate it seems to me to be a useful counter to the extreme reductionism of many prominent life scientists. It’s also very well written and definitely worth reading over 40 years after it was written. James Lovelock was as inventive and ingenious a thinker as he was unorthodox.

Rest in peace, James Ephraim Lovelock (1919-2022).

Epilogue, by Oliver Tearle

Posted in Poetry with tags , on July 8, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday I was looking around for a poem on the subject of goodbyes to post facetiously about the departure of Boris Johnson when I stumbled accidentally on this gem which I’m posting now, not facetiously and definitely not in any way about Boris Johnson…

Maybe our paths will cross
when this universe folds in and makes another.
Maybe, at the point

when all that is, and all that’s ever been,
collapses into everything else and is remade,
our paths will cross, however briefly, and

our terminus become a junction.
It may be a long shot. I will take it
and hope and trust our paths will cross again.

by Oliver Tearle


The Song of Wandering Aengus

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on July 2, 2022 by telescoper

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)


Bloomsday 2022

Posted in Biographical, Literature with tags , , , , on June 16, 2022 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. This year the Bloomsday Festival marks the centenary of the first publication of the complete Ulysses in Paris; it had been published in instalments before that but 2022 was when the full novel was published.

Here is a little video produced by the Irish Foreign Ministry spreading the impact of Bloomsday around the world:

This is also the first time for a few years that Bloomsday events have been held in person. 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. One day I should try to write a paraody of Ulysses about a day in the life of a man who doesn’t go anywhere or do anything except spend the whole day on Microsoft Teams while real life passes him by.

If time permits, however, I will go out and buy the ingredients for a Gorgonzola and mustard sandwich, although unfortunately I shall have to forego the glass of Burgundy that Mr Bloom had with his.

Update: I tried the Gorgonzola and mustard sandwich. It’s an interesting (!) taste, but I don’t think I want to taste it again.

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….)

The Brief Span of Life…

Posted in Art, Literature, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 7, 2022 by telescoper

I found this rather poignant cartoon on Facebook because a friend shared it. Some people have told me they find it depressing. I don’t. I think the finiteness of life is one of the things that makes it bearable.

I don’t know the name of the artist. If anyone does please let me know.

Halley’s Comet last visited us in 1986 when I was 23 and living in Brighton. It will next be visible in 2061, when I shall be 98!

The comet’s orbital period of 75 years or so is brief by astronomical standards, as is the duration of a human life. As Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace to you and me) put it in one of his Odes (Book I, Ode 4, line 15):

Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam

What would I do without this world – #PoetryDayIRL

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on April 28, 2022 by telescoper

what would I do without this world faceless incurious
where to be lasts but an instant where every instant
spills in the void the ignorance of having been
without this wave where in the end
body and shadow together are engulfed
what would I do without this silence where the murmurs die
the pantings the frenzies towards succour towards love
without this sky that soars
above its ballast dust

what would I do what I did yesterday and the day before
peering out of my deadlight looking for another
wandering like me eddying far from all the living
in a convulsive space
among the voices voiceless
that throng my hiddenness

by Samuel Beckett (1906-89)

Asleep, by Wilfred Owen

Posted in Poetry on April 23, 2022 by telescoper

Under his helmet, up against his pack,
After the many days of work and waking,
Sleep took him by the brow and laid him back.
And in the happy no-time of his sleeping,
Death took him by the heart. There was a quaking
Of the aborted life within him leaping …
Then chest and sleepy arms once more fell slack.
And soon the slow, stray blood came creeping
From the intrusive lead, like ants on track.

Whether his deeper sleep lie shaded by the shaking
Of great wings, and the thoughts that hung the stars,
High pillowed on calm pillows of God’s making
Above these clouds, these rains, these sleets of lead,
And these winds’ scimitars;
—Or whether yet his thin and sodden head
Confuses more and more with the low mould,
His hair being one with the grey grass
And finished fields of autumns that are old …
Who knows? Who hopes? Who troubles? Let it pass!
He sleeps. He sleeps less tremulous, less cold
Than we who must awake, and waking, say Alas

by Wilfred Owen (1897-1918)

I read this poem a few weeks ago. The phrase “in the happy no-time of his sleeping, Death took him by the heart” has been in my head ever sense. For a soldier in a terrible war like World War 1, or indeed that being waged right now in Ukraine, to die in your sleep must be one of the least bad ways to go.

I’ve often said that, when the time comes, I’d like to die during a seminar, peacefully in my sleep…


Resurrection, by R. S. Thomas

Posted in Literature with tags , , on April 17, 2022 by telescoper

Easter. The grave clothes of winter
are still here, but the sepulchre
is empty. A messenger
from the tomb tells us
how a stone has been rolled
from the mind, and a tree lightens
the darkness with its blossom.
There are travellers upon the road
who have heard music blown
from a bare bough, and a child
tells us how the accident
of last year, a machine stranded
beside the way for lack
of petrol, is crowned with flowers.

by R.S. Thomas (1913-2000)

“March” by A.E. Housman

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , , on March 22, 2022 by telescoper

The Sun at noon to higher air,
Unharnessing the silver Pair
That late before his chariot swam,
Rides on the gold wool of the Ram.

So braver notes the storm-cock sings
To start the rusted wheel of things,
And brutes in field and brutes in pen
Leap that the world goes round again.

The boys are up the woods with day
To fetch the daffodils away,
And home at noonday from the hills
They bring no dearth of daffodils.

Afield for palms the girls repair,
And sure enough the palms are there,
And each will find by hedge or pond
Her waving silver-tufted wand.

In farm and field through all the shire
They eye beholds the heart’s desire;
Ah, let not only mine be vain,
For lovers should be loved again.

by Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936)