“The Listeners” by Walter de la Mare, English (1873-1956)
Imagine you are a weary traveler commissioned to deliver an urgent message to the inhabitants of a remote house, deep, deep in a forest. It is a cold, windy night. You have been riding your horse for several hours. You hear the groaning and snapping of branches above your head and the rustling of dead leaves on the forest floor. At last, you reach your destination. The moon peeps out from behind the clouds. You see the house–a tall, ghostly structure. You dismount your horse and climb the creaking wooden steps to the front door. You hesitate before knocking, for you do not see any lights through the cracks of the boarded windows. Then you speak (please press the PLAY button below).
Dracula by Bram Stoker, Irish (1847-1912)
HOW WELL DO YOU KNOW VAMPIRES?
The first thing you need to know about vampires is that they are “undead”! That’s right; these evil beings hover between this life and the next, sucking the blood from live victims, and turning them into vampires. Vampires sleep in their coffins between sunup and sundown. At night, they take the form of other creatures, especially bats and wolves, roaming the countryside for hapless victims. They do not eat human food, hate garlic, Christian crosses, and are powerless in sunlight. A vampire can only be destroyed by plunging a stake through its heart and cutting off its head–not an easy task.
“Pangur Ban” a 9th Century anonymous poem, translated by Robin Flower
A page from The Book of Kells
Three hundred years before this anonymous poem was written, monasteries sprung up around Ireland. Clonard, Clonmacnois, and Clonfert, the most famous monasteries, became important centers of learning where Irish men and foreigners trained to be artists, thinkers, educators, and scribes. The monks were the first to research and write the history of Ireland. They also used their skills and talents to celebrate God in poetry and song. Before the advent of the printing press, monks created illuminated manuscripts, based on the scriptures, all drawn and written by hand. These sacred manuscripts required advanced literacy and artistry, many of them taking years to complete. The most famous surviving manuscripts are The Book of Kells, The Book of Durrow, and The Book of Armagh. Some of the greatest metal workers, sculptors, and bookbinders of the period worked at the Irish monasteries. Continue reading
Shakespeare Insult Generator by Barry Kraft, 2014
A PLAGUE ON BOTH YOUR HOUSES!
A POX ON YOUR CHICKEN LIVERS!
THOU FAWNING FOUL-MOUTHED FUSTILARIAN!
There I was, on a sweltering summer afternoon, browsing in an air-conditioned bookstore, when I discovered a Shakespearean book by Barry Kraft. Was it an in-depth analysis of the Bard’s 38+ 16th-century plays? An instruction book for aspiring poets on creating sonnets with iambic pentameter? Or a collection of Shakespeare’s famous quotes for the serious Elizabethan scholar? Not even close! Imagine my surprise–and sheer joy–when on page eleven of this nifty little 6″ x 5″ book, I read the first of many Shakespearean insults: “APISH, BALD-PATED ABOMINATION” Continue reading
“The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin, American (1850-1904)
“Great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death.”
I have read Kate Chopin’s short story, “The Story of an Hour,” many times, every time with the same “wild abandonment” as Louise Mallard, the story’s protagonist. I pretend not to have read it before, relishing each word with fresh eyes and an open mind, yet preparing myself for the shocking, realistic ending. I am in awe of Chopin’s skill in drawing me into Mrs. Mallard’s life, even for an hour, taking me on an emotional and psychological roller-coaster ride.
When the story opens, we learn of Mrs. Mallard’s heart trouble, her sister Josephine’s “veiled hints,” and her husband’s friend, Richards, “bearing the sad message.” After weeping on her sister’s shoulder, Mrs. Mallard retires to her room alone. She sits in an armchair in front of an open window.
“She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air. In the street below, a peddler was crying his wares. The notes of a distant song which some one was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves.”
The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy, Russian (1828-1910)
Who among us is not afraid of death? We spend our days working, buying, selling, and hoarding goods to give our lives meaning and permanence. We know we will eventually die, but we ignore the fact. We think that if we avoid the word “death,” we can escape the inevitable. So, we describe death as “demise,” “passed on,” or “passed away,” telling our bereaved friends, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Not Tolstoy!
On the first page of The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy announces, “Ivan Ilyich is dead!” His statement shocks us, sinks into our reluctant brains: We know how the story ends before it begins. So…why read such a morbid story? Can Ivan possibly have a happy ending? Perhaps. It depends on your interpretation of happiness. The story has, however, a realistic ending. It is an intimate, touching, and sometimes terrifying self-analysis of one man’s journey from vibrant health to incurable illness, self-pity to acceptance, and finally, from life to death. In Tolstoy’s short novel, three themes interest me: the hypocrisy, greed, and lack of empathy exhibited by Ivan’s work colleagues, doctors, and family. Even Ivan, as he analyzes his life, recognizes these human weaknesses in himself. Continue reading
“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats, Irish (1865-1939)
I first studied this poem in sixth grade. My teacher, Mrs. O’ Brien, was a fervent Yeats enthusiast, placing him on an Irish poetry pedestal like a mythical, Celtic god. In her opinion, Yeats was the greatest poet ever to walk on Irish soil, and woe betides any child who disagreed with her. Having analyzed and learned the poem by heart–we memorized everything in those days–Mrs. O’Brien instructed us to write a three-page essay on “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” identifying and discussing the aspects of nature. Apart from writing about bee hives, the linnet’s wings, and the lapping lake, I also declared that Yeats was unrealistic in planting nine bean rows. After all, beans spread like crazy, and he would have had enough beans to feed an army. And besides, what about cabbage, potatoes, and carrots? A person couldn’t live on beans, not on an island–not even a poet. You may wonder at my knowledge of beans at the tender age of twelve. Suffice it to say that my father was an avid gardener, and he had “experimented” with beans, carrots, lettuce, and various other vegetables and berry bushes that spread like plagues in our back garden every year. I asked my father about the bean problem. Continue reading