Archive for the Literature Category

R.I.P. Thomas Kinsella

Posted in Poetry on December 22, 2021 by telescoper

The renowned Irish Poet Thomas Kinsella has passed away at the age of 93. By way of a small tribute I thought I would post again a poem by him that I first posted about 7 years ago when I had no inkling that I would move to Ireland. Probably his most famous and definitely his most anthologised work Mirror in February gives us a reflection (in more ways than one) on the inexorable and irreversible process of ageing. Kinsella actually wrote this in May 1962 when he would have been just 34 years old and probably had no idea he would live almost another sixty years. Apart from everything else this poem confirms my opinion that shaving is to be avoided…

The day dawns with scent of must and rain,
Of opened soil, dark trees, dry bedroom air.
Under the fading lamp, half dressed – my brain
Idling on some compulsive fantasy-
I towel my shaven jaw and stop, and stare,
Riveted by a dark exhausted eye,
A dry downturning mouth.

It seems again that it is time to learn,
In this untiring, crumbling place of growth
To which, for the time being, I return.
Now plainly in the mirror of my soul
I read that I have looked my last on youth
And little more; for they are not made whole
That reach the age of Christ.

Below my window the awakening trees,
Hacked clean for better bearing, stand defaced
Suffering their brute necessities,
And how should the flesh not quail that span for span
Is mutilated more? In slow distaste
I fold my towel with what grace I can,
Not young and not renewable, but man.

by Thomas Kinsella (1928-2021)

At Day-Close in November by Thomas Hardy

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on November 21, 2021 by telescoper

The ten hours’ light is abating,
And a late bird wings across,
Where the pines, like waltzers waiting,
Give their black heads a toss.

Beech leaves, that yellow the noon-time,
Float past like specks in the eye;
I set every tree in my June time,
And now they obscure the sky.

And the children who ramble through here
Conceive that there never has been
A time when no tall trees grew here,
That none will in time be seen.

by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

Unsolved, by John McCrae

Posted in History, Poetry with tags , , , , on November 11, 2021 by telescoper

The poet John McCrae served with distinction in the Canadian Field Artillery during the First World War, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He died in 1918, of pneumonia, shortly before the end of the conflict.
McCrae is best known for writing the poem In Flanders Fields, the imagery of which led to the adoption of the poppy as the emblem of Remembrance Day (11th November i.e. today). He wrote many other interesting poems, however, so I thought I’d share one here to celebrate his life.

Amid my books I lived the hurrying years,
Disdaining kinship with my fellow man;
Alike to me were human smiles and tears,
I cared not whither Earth’s great life-stream ran,
Till as I knelt before my mouldered shrine,
God made me look into a woman’s eyes;
And I, who thought all earthly wisdom mine,
Knew in a moment that the eternal skies
Were measured but in inches, to the quest
That lay before me in that mystic gaze.
“Surely I have been errant; it is best
That I should tread, with men their human ways.”
God took the teacher, ere the task was learned,
And to my lonely books again I turned.

by John McCrae (1872-1918)

 

Writing Papers for Scientific Journals

Posted in Literature, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on October 14, 2021 by telescoper

Knowing that not all readers of this blog have a flair for writing like what I have got, I thought I’d pass on a link to a paper that appeared on the arXiv earlier this week. Here is the abstract:

Writing is a vital component of a modern career in astronomical research. Very few researchers, however, receive any training in how to produce high-quality written work in an efficient manner. We present a step-by-step guide to writing in astronomy. We concentrate on how to write scientific papers, and address various aspects including how to crystallise the ideas that underlie the research project, and how the paper is constructed considering the audience and the chosen journal. We also describe a number of grammar and spelling issues that often cause trouble to writers, including some that are particularly hard to master for non-native English speakers. This paper is aimed primarily at Master’s and PhD level students who are presented with the daunting task of writing their first scientific paper, but more senior researchers or writing instructors may well find the ideas presented here useful.

Knapen et al. 2021, arXiv:2110.05503

The title of the paper is actually Writing Scientific Papers in Astronomy, which seems curious wording to me – rather like Writing Scientific Papers in French (for example) – which is why I didn’t use it for the title of this post. Not that I’m pedantic or anything.

One of the problems with the scientific literature is that most journals have their own style rules which are often in conflict with one another so the detailed guidance on grammar, etc is probably of lesser value than the good tips on how to structure a paper. Those bits apply to any scientific field really, not just astronomy.

I remember very well what a struggle I found it when I wrote my first scientific paper. I had invaluable help, though, from my supervisor, who was an excellent writer. This is well worth reading for those early career researchers who want to avoid at least some of the pain!

The only tip I can offer to a postgraduate student struggling to write a paper is to think of who is going to be reading it. In most cases that will mainly be other early career researchers, so write in such a way that you can connect with them. That usually means, for example, taking special care to explain the things that you found difficult when you started in the area. In other words, you should put enough in your paper to allow someone else entering the field to understand it.

Other tips are of course welcome through the Comments Box.

Thomas Mann the Magician

Posted in Literature with tags , , , on October 9, 2021 by telescoper

This week I had visitors from Cardiff, one of whom runs a bookshop in Penarth, as a consequence of which on Thursday evening I attended a Zoom event featuring acclaimed author Colm Tóibín whose book The Magician is on sale now. It’s a fictionalised account of the live of Thomas Mann. The event was so interesting that today I went to the local bookshop in Maynooth and bought a copy.

The life of Thomas Mann was colourful to say the least. Born in the German city of Lübeck in 1875, Mann’s father was a wealthy merchant and his mother was from Brazil. His elder brother Heinrich Mann was also a novelist essayist and playwright of considerable reputation. Despite his homosexuality, Thomas Mann married Katia Pringsheim in 1905, his wife seemingly not minding about his sexual orientation. He led a comfortable life until he began to see the signs of the coming descent of Europe into the First World War. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929 and went into exile from Nazism in 1933, becoming an American citizen in 1944. He spent the last year’s of his life in Zurich, where he died in 1955.

I haven’t read The Magician yet – I’ll post a review when I have – but the event inspired me to dig out my copy of Mann’s greatest novel, The Magic Mountain. The stamp inside reveals that I bought it in 1987, while I was doing my DPhil at Sussex.

In 1912 – the year Death in Venice was published – Thomas Mann and his wife spent some time in a sanatorium where he got the idea for his greatest novel, The Magic Mountain, though it took him over a decade to finish it. It was finally published in 1924 and in my view it merits a place among the greatest works of 20th Century literature.

I had read Death in Venice before The Magic Mountain and there are definite thematic similarities, illness and death being metaphors for the state of Europe at the time. In The Magic Mountain Hans Castorp goes to a Swiss sanatorium for a three-week stay and ends up spending seven years there on a kind of spiritual journey, his isolation from the rest of the world and the ever-present shadow of death heightening his emotional awareness. When he eventually leaves for “real life” outside the dream-like sanatorium, he heads straight for the Great War with the inevitable consequence.

But trying to summarize The Magic Mountain in terms of a plot is pointless. It’s a novel of atmosphere and internal questioning. I found it hard going but immensely rewarding. I always intended to follow up with Buddenbrooks and the Confessions of Felix Krull, but for some reason I never got around to them. I suppose there’s still time, though.

A Day in Autumn, by R.S. Thomas

Posted in Maynooth, Poetry with tags , , on October 5, 2021 by telescoper

Tree-lined Avenue at Maynooth University

 

It will not always be like this,
The air windless, a few last
Leaves adding their decoration
To the trees’ shoulders, braiding the cuffs
Of the boughs with gold; a bird preening

In the lawn’s mirror. Having looked up
From the day’s chores, pause a minute,
Let the mind take its photograph
Of the bright scene, something to wear
Against the heart in the long cold.

by R.S. Thomas (1913-2000)

 

Musée des Beaux Arts

Posted in Art, Poetry with tags , , , on September 11, 2021 by telescoper

Reminiscing about the events of twenty years ago I was reminded of this poem by W.H. Auden, arguably his greatest, which for some reason I have never posted before. The painting referred to in the second part of the poem is Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel the Elder which is in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels, a visit to which inspired Auden to write this poem in 1938. I remember being quite amused when I saw it in the same gallery about 15 years ago, because it took me a while to spot Icarus! It made me think of one of those Where’s Wally cartoons…

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

The Wasp, by John Kendall (aka Dum-Dum)

Posted in Poetry on August 29, 2021 by telescoper

Of those uncertain creatures
Who take a simple joy
In swelling up one’s features
On purpose to annoy,
Things void of natural sweetness,
Aggressive and inhosp.
(Pardon the incompleteness)
You are the first, O wasp.

There is no place we visit
In England’s pleasant land
(It isn’t your place, is it?)
But you must take a hand;
You set the nerves a-jangle,
You turn the tan to chalk
Of anglers when they angle,
Of walkers when they walk.

In no uncertain manner
You bid the bather flee;
You foil the caravanner
Who merely wants his tea;
You raid the earnest hopper,
You break upon our sports,
And are, I’m told, improper
To river girls in shorts.

We slap at you and swat you;
We fell you as we may
(The rapture when we’ve got you
Is more than words can say);
One may see great deeds daily
When men unused to strife
Brave you, albeit palely,
For screaming child or wife.

And we have learnt to fashion
A lure that cannot fail,
Born of a lasting passion
That you confess for ale;
An artful jar that cozens
You in and, when you’re tight,
Drowns you in drink by dozens,
A most immoral sight.

But when the day is sinking
And you retire to rest
That, to my private thinking,
Is where man comes out best;
Armed with his apparatus
He tracks you to the comb
Whence you come forth to bait us;
Then, when the last wasp’s home,

Bring forth, O man, your funnel;
With oil and poison come;
Take heed lest haply one’ll
Pass down a warning hum;
Insert with care the former;
Pour down the latter thick;
That should have made things warmer;
That will have done the trick.

Thus with discreet defiance
We tackle you, and yet,
For all the arts of science,
You don’t seem much upset;
Alert and undiminished
You still appear to prosp.;
I leave the word unfinished
To rhyme with you, O wasp.

by John Kaye Kendall (aka Dum-Dum)

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.