Blog

Poems That Celebrate Mothers

May 10, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I am blessed with strong women in my ancestry. Like most women, however, I find that their strength is often invisible. This invisible strength appears daily, hourly, routinely, in the way they made time for others, spent late hours fixing others’ problems, carrying the weight of the household in more ways than one. I love Alberto Ríos’s poem “Nani” which eloquently demonstrates this idea of invisible love. In the poem, Nani serves albondigas to a grandchild. In the poem, they have apparently lost a common language. The narrator explains that he is full, but then asks for more, realizing that she intends to serve. He writes, “All my words/ make her smile. Nani never serves/ herself, she only watches me/ with her skin, her hair. I ask for more.” They speak through an unwritten language which involves gratitude, faith, love. The narrator calls her the “absolute mamá,” which is a phrase that puzzles me, but I imagine that this absolute power grants her an ability to intuit scenarios of right and wrong, to offer help and sustenance.

Much of his poem speaks of a language divide which embarrasses the narrator. Yet, the two do communicate, and even though the foreign words make her smile, she does understand the narrator. Furthermore, there is so much unspoken dialogue in this poem. The narrator notes grandmother’s wrinkles, or the way her fingers work tortillas. Ríos writes, “I watch her/ fingers in the flame for me./ Near her mouth,/ I see a wrinkle speak/ of a man whose body serves/ the ants like she serves me….” She tempts fire for her family. She tends the stove and hearth. She bears the burden of the dead. She works steadily, aware of her grandchild, attentive to his needs. Furthermore, the poet links her to mother earth, and the relentless nature of nature. In describing the essence of this strong woman he writes, “Her insides speak/ through a hundred wrinkles, now, more/ than she can bear, steel around her,/ shouting, then, What is this thing she serves?” Though there is no dialogue in this poem, the reader feels a real connection between the two. The dynamic imagery, the string of actions we observe really ask us to question the language barrier that divides them. What is language? What does it mean to serve someone? The poem ends with: “Even before I speak, she serves,” which makes me wonder in what way(s) is language important to this poem and these two characters?

“Nani” celebrates a matriarchal figure. The way that the speaker critically narrates their own language gives the poem a bit of nostalgia. In Ríos’s poem, the reader feels the narrative presence of two figures, of the stove and albondigas, of the mint that sustains them all. That food is central makes sense for this poem, as it is another form of conversation.

However, in a poem like ee cummingsif there are any heavens my mother will,” word and deed and life have all been abstracted. cummings replaces any actual lived experience with an abstract expression of love. This poem describes the mother by comparing her to flowers. He writes, “if there are any heavens my mother will(all by herself)have/ one. It will not be a pansy heaven nor/ a fragile heaven of lilies-of-the-valley but/ it will be a heaven of blackred roses.” The image of blackred roses invokes both strength and beauty, as opposed to the fragility of lilies-of-the-valley or the common pansies. The poet’s mother, then, is extraordinary in some important, and perhaps indefinable, way.

The poem also depicts the father gently swaying in this garden of blackred roses. His eyes are petals, and their faces sway, much like the poem’s line breaks, fluidly moving in and out. Regardless of what the father actually does for a living, cummings calls him a poet, perhaps because he lingers over beauty, or because he loves with such devotion. Whatever it is, the narrator describes the richness of love with the way his father lingers over the deceased mother. This man is tall and strong and devoted. The poet, too, recognizes the genuine beauty of love in the act of lingering. As the father sways, he performs an act of gratitude to this incredible woman. The poem ends:

(suddenly in sunlight

he will bow,

& the whole garden will bow)

The interconnected world of flowers is the same as the interconnected world of humans. cummings gives voice to, what I believe, is one of the most elemental aspects of humanity: the idea that one act has the potential to reverberate. Here we see the father bow and, in response, the whole garden is likewise moved.

These poems of love and gratitude are interesting because they both involve unspoken language. The two characters of “Nani” share a room, but not a language. cummings’s poem, on the other hand, demonstrates a type of nostalgic devotion that exists when the mother is no longer present. Their care and nourishment remains, however, and in fact increases as the poets discover language adequate to represent such forceful emotions. These mothers are strong, capable, enduring, much like mothers everywhere.

Happy Mother’s Day!

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

Shakespeare's Troilus Versus Chaucer's Criseyde

September 14, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Shakespeare is a favorite topic of mine, and of many of our students. Recently, I read and discussed Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Though we didn’t have time to compare it to Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, I wanted to spend a few moments doing just that. Before I do, however, I will list a few of my lingering questions about Shakespeare’s play.

1] Based upon the title, I thought this play was about love, but where is the romance?

2] Why, after lamenting about the loss of order, does Ulysses allow Ajax to face Hector? If Ulysses is so concerned with the natural order of things, shouldn’t Achilles, the best Greek fighter, face Hector, the best Trojan fighter?

And 3] Why does Shakespeare end the play with Pandarus moaning about his own degradation? I thought this play was about the romance, not the middleman.

It would be safe to assume that a story titled Troilus and Cressida would mostly be about Troilus and Cressida. Yet, if you have read Shakespeare’s play, then you’d be surprised to find how little time is spent upon the love affair. In fact, Shakespeare’s Troilus laments about love for a few scenes, and only one scene involves the actual love affair. The play’s focal points involve talk of war, such as Ulysses’s long speech on order in Act III, and Achilles’s tragic slaying of Hector. The play questions what it means to be noble or heroic. Framed by an unjust war (stemming from a love affair), these characters face the very modern problem of living in a fallen society. Troilus and Cressida become lost in the societal conflicts at the play’s center. Love becomes a lens with which to judge the nobility of the characters. Often labeled one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, Troilus and Cressida offers difficult, but very worthwhile, questions.

Some differences between the two works are easy to note, such as the fact that Chaucer wrote a metered poem, whereas Shakespeare chose to write a play. Chaucer’s poem does focus on the lovers. Shakespeare’s play, on the other hand, spends much of the time on discussion of war. Shakespeare wrote long speeches for Ulysses, Hector, and even Nestor. They discuss war at length, introducing the idea of honor in a fallen state. After Criseyde has been sent to the Greek camp, Chaucer focuses on Troilus’s plans to wait for her each night. Shakespeare’s characters must decide whether or not to fight a dishonorable war.

I find the last lines of these two works very interesting. Chaucer ends his poem with Troilus’s death which grants a final release of Troilus’s damaged soul. In this poem, it is fitting that Troilus dies by the heroic sword of Achilles. Chaucer writes, “And having fallen to Achilles’ spear,/ His light soul rose and rapturously went/ Towards the concavity of the eighth sphere,/ Leaving conversely every element,/ And, as he passed, he saw with wonderment/ The wandering stars and heard their harmony,/ Whose sound is full of heavenly melody.// As he looked down, there came before his eyes/ This little spot of earth, that with the sea/ Lies all embraced, and found he could despise/ This wretched world, and hold it vanity,/ Measured against the full felicity/ That is in Heaven above” (273A)*. In other words, Troilus is released from his earthly cares and upon reflection he realizes that earthly life is a truly “wretched world.” There is a feeling of rejoice as he rises. Throughout the poem, Troilus is consistently loyal, honorable and (other than his inability to act on love unaided) he demonstrates virtue. Clearly, then, Troilus find peace, not in love, but in heaven.

On the other hand, Shakespeare gives the play’s final word to Pandarus, who appears to be the least honorable character in the play. In the last scene, he asks the audience to weep at “Pandar’s fall.” These ironic lines underscore the brutality and depravity of the previous scene in which Achilles and his men slaughter an unarmed Hector and then drag his brutalized body behind Achilles’s horse. Through Achilles’s actions, Shakespeare questions the often idyllic view of ancient myth. Pandar’s words, then, become doubly painful. Hector is the true hero, not Pandarus, but it is Pandarus who lives to beg for the audience’s sympathy. He also invites the audience to join him in this fallen future. In Shakespeare’s play, Hector, perhaps, comes closest to attaining nobility, but even he falls prey to tradition or pride or duty. In this play, the characters act as pawns, which makes Pandarus’s final words even more fitting. Troilus and Cressida is about the fallen state. The tangle of love affairs play off each other nicely to demonstrate the fallen state. Through these characters, we must ask: What is love? What is honor or nobility? And how do they display any signs of love?

Chaucer clearly elevates the idea of love from earthly to celestial. Though Troilus’s passion is true and he remains loyal to Cressida, he realizes the folly of this love as he leaves earth. Cressida, likewise, understands that earthly love will not save her soul. Chaucer’s Cressida is complicated. She sincerely loves Troilus, but is unable to stay with him. Her choice of a Greek lover seems more rational, more necessary, than Shakespeare’s. The reasons for this decision once again highlight the impossibility of earthly love. Furthermore, by forcing Cressida/Criseyde away from Troilus, both play and poem reflect how little choice women have in their lives. The one man she wants is the one man that she cannot have.

Shakespeare turns that idea of love on its head by the parallel stories of Helen and Paris, Troilus and Cressida. In the following passage, Shakespeare treats love (brotherly love, romantic love and patriotic love) with irony and sarcasm. (It is good to know that the Trojan war began because Paris stole Helen from King Menelaus.) During the play, Greece offers to trade a Trojan prisoner for Cressida. Hector accepts the trade, much to Troilus’s dissatisfaction. Then, Troilus laments to Paris (his brother, and also the cause of the war) the fact that Cressida must leave Troy. Troilus says, “I’ll bring her to the Grecian presently;/ And to his hand when I deliver her,/ Think it an altar, and thy brother Troilus/ A priest there offering to it his own heart.” Paris offers only this: “I know what ‘tis to love;/ And would, as I shall pity, I could help!” (128A)*. How ironic that the man who began this war by stealing Helen, could not find a solution to Troilus’s problem. He feels pity, but very little remorse. If Troilus’s love is true, Paris’s feels rather covetous, rash, impersonal and selfish. The play highlights the immorality of these actions purportedly based upon love.

There is so much more that I could say. Reading Chaucer’s Troilus in tandem with Shakespeare’s version enlightened great ideas of love, world, and honor. With wonderful skill and wit, these authors question nobility and virtue. Both pieces are worthy of much discussion, more than I have given them here. If you have a thought on these works, I invite you to post it below.

If you enjoy this topic, you may also enjoy this lecture on more of Shakespeare's play: Harvard lecture (~1.5 hours).

* All citations are from the Great Books of the Western World, volumes 19 (Chaucer) and 25 (Shakespeare), published 1990.

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

 

Augustine and Monica

March 2, 2018

Thanks to James Keller, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

In leaving Carthage, Augustine abandoned his mother, Monica. A widow, she pleaded with her son not to leave - or, if he must go, not to leave her behind. She would come with him. He lied to his mother, offering her the false comfort that he was not leaving but was only seeing off a friend. In the night, he slipped away, sailing to Rome. Monica suffered a second bereavement. This story, related by Augustine in his Confessions reveals a certain callousness on the part of Augustine toward his mother. Yet, throughout The Confessions, he appears to revere his mother, praising her virtue. How could a man that so loved his mother treat her so despitefully?

That he thought highly of his mother is beyond doubt. He relates several stories of her remarkable virtue and piety. In the third book of The Confessions, he relates how Monica prayed fervently that her son might come to know the Christian god and how she wept over his state of spiritual death. Monica was rewarded with a divinely-authored dream that assured her that Augustine would one day convert to Christianity. In the ninth book, he relates how her mother-in-law originally despised her due to the rumor-mongering of the servants and how Monica, through patience, kindness, and gentleness, won her mother over, so that the two women became quite close. Similarly, she won her husband over to the Christian faith. Augustine sees her as the model wife, never complaining about her husband but defusing his anger with her gentle forbearance. Augustine frequently expresses love and admiration for his mother.

But like most relationships between children and parents, the relationship between Augustine and Monica was complicated. Augustine’s reverence for his mother was mingled with resentment. Though Augustine’s ostensible aim is to confess his own guilt, at times he absolves himself of that guilt by putting the blame on his mother.

For example, even though Monica spent much time praying that her son would become a Catholic, she did not take the opportunity to make him a Catholic when she could. In his childhood, Augustine became quite ill, and it was thought that he should be baptized in order to ensure the saving of his soul. However, he recovered quickly and his baptism was delayed. Monica worried that if he lived a life of profligacy after being baptized, his baptism would be undone and he would be damned. While Augustine praises his mother for her teaching and understands the reason she delayed his baptism, he disagrees with the decision, likening the delay to withholding medicine from the sick man (6). Moreover, he implies that the later sins of his life might not have happened if he had been baptized and purified at that young age and that those years that he wasted as a prodigal son could have been spent in service to the Christian god.

Indeed, that he wasted years serving himself is due in part to Monica’s confused priorities, at least, according to Augustine. It was important to her that he become skilled in rhetoric and be able to make a living at it. To this end, she put him in schools where he was beaten when he did not complete his work, preferring to play games instead. Augustine was quite bitter about the beatings administered by his teachers. He found his teachers to be hypocrites. They too wasted their time with amusements (5). He could not understand why parents would turn their children over to the rough punishment of these teachers. As he grew older, he discovered the intense sexual desire of youth, but he found that his parents did nothing to help him. His mother did not want him to marry, lest he be distracted from his studies and his future career be jeopardized. So, instead of having licit sexual relations with a wife, he sought the illicit relations of a mistress (11-12). Later, he would find the life of a rhetorician empty, the fame that accompanied it hollow. Monica’s emphasis on his career led him to a life of sin and vanity. Moreover, it ultimately delayed his conversion to the Catholic faith, as he did not want to give up his life of sexual libertinism.

Even when he writes of abandoning Monica, while confessing his own callousness, he finds fault with his mother. She is a jealous mother, too desirous of his company. In his opinion, she loves him disproportionately. His leaving her, therefore, is a punishment sent from her god, so that she will learn to love her god first and her son second. Or, to put it more accurately, her distorted love of Augustine, which is the cause of her emotional suffering, is both the cause of her punishment and the punishment itself: “...[God] used her too jealous love for her son as a scourge of sorrow for her just punishment” (39). In this way, Augustine mitigates the guilt he feels over leaving his mother - she has brought this sorrow upon herself.

This attribution of guilt to Monica creates a fascinating dichotomy in The Confessions. On the one hand, he wishes to accept responsibility for his sins. His constant refrain is that every wrong thing he ever did originated from himself. Contradictorily, he relieves himself from guilt by placing the blame on his mother, at least in part. She did not protect him from temptation. She did not purify him through baptism. She taught him to pursue illusory goods - fame and wealth. She drove him away through her neediness and too fervent love. Augustine writes that Monica “inherited the legacy of Eve, seeking in sorrow what with sorrow she brought into the world” (39). But Augustine’s writing echoes the defense of Adam after eating the forbidden fruit, as if Augustine said to his god, “The mother you gave to me, she caused me to sin.”

One can now understand why Augustine, though he adored his mother, abandoned her. He bore her a good deal of ambivalence. While he considered her a model of virtue and religious devotion, he also found her to be negligent of his spiritual good. Though he ostensibly tries to accept responsibility for his own wrongdoing, he finds himself laying much of the blame on his mother: his guilt is her guilt. In confessing his sins, he publicly confesses her sins as well. The mixed feelings that his mother was a most remarkable woman and yet had failed him help explain why he could lie to his mother and leave her lonely in Carthage.

Works Cited

Augustine. The Confessions. Translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin. The Great Books of the Western World, edited by Mortimer J. Adler et al., vol. 16, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1990, pp. 1-159.

To post a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

Love in Troilus and Criseyde

December 15, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post. Also, thanks to HMU Tutor Dominique Wagner for a wonderful discussion which resulted in some of the questions posed in today's blog.

“There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly as love.” - Erich Fromm

Listen to John Cage's Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard while reading of love.

What kind of love do Troilus and Criseyde share? Courtly love, romantic love, passionate love, committed love, friendly love, dutiful love? I could go on. We have so many types of love, and we use the word so often that it may refer to our favorite food (as in “I love pie”) all the way down to the essential core of our being. More than merely defining what type of love they share, however, I propose that Troilus and Criseyde do not share love at all. Let me explain.

Let me start with a note on the style of the work. Chaucer wrote Troilus and Criseyde in Rhyme Royal. This just sounds like the form that such an idealized notion would take – that love be represented in Rhyme Royal sounds fitting, doesn't it? Rhyme Royal consists of stanzas that contain 7 lines of iambic pentameter rhymed in ababbcc format. It is common to fuse elevated speech with elevated notions (or nobility). Shakespeare often employs this tactic, as does Chaucer. And both do it with great success. So, the rhyme scheme alone may be a hint to the reader.

In the story, Troilus, the son of Priam, has fallen in love with Criseyde. He pines away for her and finds himself growing weaker at the idea of both having her love, and of being scorned by her. As Troilus pines away, his friend Pandarus offers help. Pandarus also happens to be Criseyde's uncle. After a few schemes and ruses, the affair begins. Yet, from the very outset, Criseyde's participation is at a different level than Troilus'. He has fallen in love with her by sight and, perhaps, reputation. She has yet to truly notice the noble knight. And when Pandarus explains the love that Troilus feels for her, she reasons to herself:

“'Alas, since I am free,/ Am I to love and put myself in danger?/ Am I to lose my darling liberty?/ Am I not mad to trust it to a stranger?/ For look at others and their dog-in-manger/ Loves, and their anxious joys, constraints and fears!/ She who loves none has little cause for tears.

“'For love is still the stormiest way of life,/ In its own kind, that ever was begun;/ There's always some mistrust, some silly strife/ In love, some cloud that covers up the sun;/ We wretched women! What is to be done/ In all our grief? We sit and weep and think;/ Our grief is this, that it's our grief we drink.

“'And then there are these wicked tongues whose fashion/ Is to speak harm; and men are so untrue;/ Immediately they cease to feel their passion,/ They cease to love; they're off to love anew; But harm that's done is done, that's certain too:/ Those are the very ones that passion rends;/ But violent delights have violent ends.'” (Book II, #111-113)

She explains how the violence of a passionate relationship can go awry. She even advocates for her liberty over security in marriage. In fact, she does not address marriage in a contemporary sense, but only the instability of passionate love. Throughout the text, I feel that Criseyde's character is fairly flat. She is not given a lot of depth, but I wonder more and more about her actions. In this speech, she demonstrates her hesitation and her concern for herself. Yet, she does fall into Pandarus' schemes and begins to see Troilus.

Criseyde is not new to the pain of love. Previously widowed, she was also abandoned by her father who foretold the fall of Troy and left. Her father fled to the Greek stronghold just outside Trojan walls. In Book V, her father enacts a deal that trades Criseyde for a Trojan prisoner, and thus, she is forced to leave Troilus. They part among tears and promises, however, Criseyde does not keep her promises. Instead she is courted by the Greek Diomedes and eventually falls in love with him. Once Troilus learns of her betrayal, he pushes harder on the battlefield until he is killed by Achilles. Chaucer writes, “And, having fallen to Achilles' spear,/ His light soul rose and rapturously went/ Towards the concavity of the eighth sphere,/ Leaving conversely every element,/ And, as he passed, he saw with wonderment/ The wandering stars and heard their harmony,/ Whose sound is full of heavenly melody.” (Book V, #259) As Troilus ascends to heaven, he recognizes the futility of worldly love. It would be easy to say that the moral of the story is that the only true love is devotion to God. If so, I wonder why Chaucer used a pre-Biblical setting for his moral? However, I can overlook this based upon the fact that Troilus and Criseyde was an incredibly popular story of Chaucer's time. (In fact, the narrative had been written at least twice - first in French, then in Italian- before he recounted it in English.) In other words, I can imagine that Chaucer used a popular tale to demonstrate his ideal of heavenly love.

There are two things that I cannot overlook, though. First, Troilus and Criseyde display an almost cheapened sense of self-serving love. Troilus, a great warrior, pines away and devotes every moment of his life (even those in battle) to his love Criseyde. In doing so, he implores the gods for help to win her love. Then, when he wins her love, he curses the gods (for making sunlight which signals his time to leave). He chooses not to eat and drink, he foresakes all pleasure save that which he experiences with Criseyde. The entire time, Troilus is acted upon by others, unable to create a plan of action on his own. On the other hand, Criseyde reluctantly enters into the love affair after numerous tricks (created by her uncle Pandarus). Therefore, their love was never truly about the other. The warrior who cannot act for himself and is so devoted to fulfilling his own desire enters into love for his own sake, not for any noble reason. Criseyde, whose main reason for starting the affair with Troilus was so that her uncle would be happy, does not have much choice in the matter. She does not want to lose her newfound liberty. She does not want to be attached to pain and ridicule and gossip. Furthermore, she realizes that the type of love exhibited by Troilus (the intense passion) often has violent ends. She knows, however, that women have little choice, and so in a sense of self-defeat, she takes pity on him. Troilus has yet to realize this, and perhaps he never fully realizes it. Instead, after his death, his soul flies into heaven mocking those who participate in worldly love. Yet, I feel it is unfair to mock love and then claim that all earthly love is untrue. And second, I wonder why Chaucer dedicated five books to tell the tale of their love, and then introduce the idea of virtue only in the last 10 stanzas of the poem. What is the purpose for such a short discussion of virtue?

My point, though, is not whether or not this is a tale of Christian love, but rather, what our actions say about us. Did Troilus truly love Criseyde, or did he love himself, or his own idea of Criseyde? Did Criseyde truly love Troilus? In leaving him for Diomedes, she perhaps chose the smarter path, since Troy was falling and Diomedes appears stronger and more decisive than Troilus. So, is self-preservation a type of love? Would Chaucer say that religious love can also be seen as a type of self-preservation? And, in classic Chaucerian style, what do we know about truth after reading of this love affair? Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, can we only gain access to divine love through an experience of mortal love?

Read the full text of Troilus and Criseyde on Project Gutenberg.

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.