Areopagus Volume XXXVI
Welcome one and all to the thirty sixth volume of the Areopagus. My grandmother's lifelong interest in poetry and music is part of what inspired me to start writing this newsletter. It was a year ago this week that she died, and so today's volume is dedicated to her.
One of the poems she quoted most often was by the little known Welsh poet W.H. Davies. Little known, that is, apart from Leisure. Here are its opening lines:
Famous words, but famous for a reason. And now we shall do a little standing and staring of our own...
I - Classical Music
The Humming Chorus from Madame Butterfly
Music by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (1904)
Performed by the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Mediterranean Port at Night by Joseph Vernet (1771)
Opera during the late 19th and early 20th centuries can be divided into three camps. You've got the lavish French grand opera, the serious German Gesamtkunstwerk of Wagner, and Italian verismo (meaning realism). That being said, these Italian operas were only realistic inasmuch as, rather than the epic biblical and historical productions of France or the grandiose might of Germany, they told the stories of ordinary people. But these were no ordinary stories; Italian verismo was a form of heightened realism in which recognisable themes were elevated and melodramatised. That was its greatest strength - and, for some, its greatest weakness.
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) was the master of this style. His Romantic Realism was suffused with immediately relatable, shamelessly theatrical musical storytelling. Unrequited love, requited love, doomed love, death and betrayal and - above all, in its many guises - human feeling; this was Puccini's language. But Puccini knew that music couldn't always soar. For every crescendo of passion there had to be a moment of doubt; for every rising hope a lament; for every romantic swell a threnody.
If these words sound a little abstract you need only consider the Humming Chorus. Here is one of those contemplative moments, a brief and dreamlike repose admist a sea of naivety and anguish. Even if you don't know the context of this piece - the titular character stays awake all night as she awaits the return of her lover from overseas - it hardly matters. Who cannot, hearing these gentle and melancholy trills, feel suddenly freed from life's many anxieties? The music is enough.
While Wagner invites us to think and challenges his audience, Puccini allows us to feel; he reflects us. Few composers could so masterfully orchestrate and balance their operas. From start to finish we are carried along by a procession of perfectly pitched arias and tightly-woven drama. At no point does the audience need to ask themselves what is going on - even if they do not understand the words or the narrative - because the music tells us everything. Some people prefer music (and art generally) which makes the audience work, and so Italian verismo is sometimes dismissed because of its unflinching appeal to emotion. But I think there's something to be admired about what Puccini achieved. It can't have been easy to create music with such universal appeal and relatibility.
When he died in 1924 his final opera, Turandot, was unfinished. For many it is his masterpiece. Indeed, it probably contains what is (currently) the world's most famous piece of opera: Nessun Dorma. That, too, has stirred the hearts of millions despite most of them having no clue what the words mean or what the narrative role the aria plays. But that's Puccini for you. Opera has rarely been as potent as it was in his hands.
II - Historical Figure
Golden Age Great
Thus begins the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, one of the world's most famous and beloved poetry collections, as translated by Edward Fitzgerald in 1859. This was a little book my grandmother always had to hand. Its name comes from rubāʿiyāt, the Persian word for quatrains, which are verses composed of four lines.
Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) was born in Nishapur, the then-capital of the Seljuk Empire, which had recently taken the Middle East by storm and pushed the Byzantine Empire all the way back into Europe. It was against these Seljuks that the First Crusade would war over Antioch and Jerusalem. But Omar Khayyam was far away from all that. In Nishapur, a stopping point on the Silk Road and a city of considerable cultural importance, he spent his time thinking rather than fighting:
Fitzgerald saw in Omar Khayyam a comparison with the Roman philosopher and writer Lucretius. Khayyam's quatrains, so Fitzgerald thought, were filled with a form of secular wisdom; philosophical but never mystical, spiritual but never religious, and ever-aware of the fragility of human life.
The theme of transience haunts the Rubaiyat:
But so too the gentler pleasures of life:
That being said, there has been plenty of debate about the extent to which we can take Khayyam's verse literally. Some prefer to understand his frequent allusions to wine as allegorical. Then again, Khayyam himself wrote of the pointlessness of too much discussion:
The Rubaiyat became incredibly popular in the late 19th century, and countless new editions were printed, often with fabulous illustrations and frontispieces.
But it's strange that Omar Khayyam is most famous for being a poet. Among other things he was also a mathematician, geometrician, astronomer, musician and proto-physicist. In this way he is emblematic of the Islamic Golden Age, a period of cultural, scientific, economic, and political flourishing which lasted from the 8th to the 13th centuries. There were libraries and universities in Baghdad and Cairo and everywhere in between. The Christian world simply couldn't keep up, and military conquest says as much. It was because of the Seljuks that Byzantine Emperor Alexios called for aid from Western Europe, and even their short-lived Crusader Kingdoms were soon wiped off the map by Saladin and the Egyptians.
Omar Khayyam was identified by contemporary sources as a poet, but it seems that there arose a tradition of attributing to him quatrains written even centuries after his death. And so many of those verses contained in Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat were almost certainly not composed by Khayyam himself. Does that detract from their legitimacy? Perhaps not. He was evidently an extraordinary man, not only naturally gifted and scientifically minded but a deep and impactful thinker. If people were later inspired to write poetic verse according to Khayyam's style and beliefs than that is only to his credit.
III - Painting
Claude Monet (1914-1926)
The Impressionists started out as rebels. Their name comes from a Claude Monet painting called Impression, Sunrise, whose title one critic used to ridicule this group of young and unorthodox artists. They had broken away from the Parisian Academy and taken art outdoors. Away from the studio and surrounded by the bustle of city life or the shifting light of nature, the Impressionists paid less attention to what concerned the traditionalist Academic artists - draughtsmanship, form, perspective, and appropriate classical or historical themes - and more to colour and mood.
Several decades later the Impressionists were victorious, and by the turn of the century Claude Monet (1840-1926) was no longer a rebel but a critically and commercially successful artist. He had moved to Giverny, northern France, in 1883, and dedicated the last twenty years of his life to painting his gardens there. No wonder. Flowers by their nature are among the most colourful and changeful things of all; translucent leaves and petals, shifting in the wind or in the ripples of water, blossoming in spring, dried out in summer, withering and golding in autumn, bare in winter. With every passing hour and day they appear different. This was the bread and butter of Impressionism: that the "real world" rarely appears as a single, fixed frame, but is constantly morphing. Hence Monet's two hundred and fifty paintings of the water lilies - they were, for Monet, different every time.
But Monet was growing out of Impressionism; what had once been liberating became a limitation. And so he let go of it. I think this is part of what makes Monet's later works so infinitely delightful. They were endeavours of passion and nothing else - the product of an enduring fascination with and admiration for the beauty of the natural world. The water lilies, the haystacks, and the Agapanthus; these represent the artistic movement of one man.
Monet's Agapanthus is, in some ways, more realistic than any photograph or photorealistic painting of these flowers could ever be. My grandmother loved flowers and her garden was a miracle of blossoms and bushes and pots and arbours. In this painting I am reminded of what it felt like to walk through that garden.
IV - Architectural Masterpiece
Abadan Island, Iran
In 1948 my grandmother went to Abadan Island. It lies just off the coast of Iran, in the northern crook of the Persian Gulf. And in Abadan there is a rather unusual mosque. How old do you suppose this building is? Somewhat surprisingly, the Rangooniha Mosque is barely more than a hundred years old. It was completed in 1921. Of all buildings it seems to be in places of worship that older architectural styles endure longest. That isn't universally true, of course, but there's nothing strange about a mosque, church, synagogue, or temple which looks (more or less, let's say) like it might have been built at any point in the last several hundred years. We can't say the same thing about houses, town halls, libraries, schools, or just about any other type of building. It's worth wondering why that is.
Rangooniha Mosque was built by workers from Myanmar who came to Abadan in the early 20th century to work on the new oil refineries there. As such, even though Iran has one of the richest architectural heritages of any country in the world, this mosque was designed according to the style known to those who built it. Hence its name - these workers largely came from Myanmar's capital, which was then called Rangoon. It is through buildings like this that we see how much architecture means to people; how much a building's appearance, no less than its function, means to people. Apparently these workers even brought over the brightly coloured paints themselves.
It's also worth noting that the many decorative elements of the mosque, including its minutely detailed facade, were created entirely with stucco - a mixture of cement, sand, and water. That is to say, rather than with ceramics or with carved marble or limestone. It was against such "needless" ornamentation that several modern architects first took their stand, most notably of all the Austrian Adolf Loos. But even if the Rangooniha Mosque is covered with elaborate floral motifs which aren't structurally necessary, it's hard to imagine how it might look without them. This is a place of worship, after all, and perhaps decoration is part of the function of such places. Those who designed this mosque didn't have to include their stucco detailing, but we can see why they did.
Given its proximity to the oil refinery, which had only recently been built, the mosque was partially constructed with materials which would otherwise have been used for industrial infrastructure, including oil pipes and rebar. This, like its age, is something we probably wouldn't otherwise have guessed. Remarkable how many secrets a building can conceal. The Rangooniha Mosque was restored in 2001 and since 2010 it has served as the Museum of Historical Documents And Manuscripts.
V - Rhetoric
The Best Way to Read Poetry
My grandmother firmly believed that one should learn poems by heart. She had done so in her youth and could recall them without a moment's delay over eight decades after first committing them to memory. Not so long ago I came across something written by the notorious literary critic Harold Bloom which reminded me of this:
There is something to be said for this method, because poetry predates the written word. It was once entirely oral and passed from person to person or generation to generation by word of mouth alone; people had to learn it. Rhyme, repetition, alliteration, metre, and rhythm were all created as tools to aid this process of memorisation.
In the modern world we have everything - including poetry - available at a moment's notice. That's a blessing and a curse. For why learn poetry by heart when you can pull it up on your phone in seconds? Such convenience can deprive us of poetry's true power. For when the words are inside you and you can recite them without hesitation, those words will take on a new life and reveal to you the full depth of their meaning. It can, strangely, start to feel as if you wrote the poem yourself.
So I thoroughly recommend this method. Choose a poem. It need only be a short one. Learn it. Recite it to yourself. Possess it. The magic that follows is more than worth the efforts required to do all this, for it's a kind of artistic and intellectural engagement so rare (and, to give ourselves some slack, difficult) in the twenty first century.
VI - Writing
In Our Time
My grandmother was always excited about new technology. Typewriters, radios, televisions, telephones, calculators, computers, laptops, bluetooth, the internet, and social media. All, in their time, fascinated her. And she was insistent that one ought to learn about these new technologies - how to use them and what they could be used for.
This reminds me of something another literary critic - Arthur Quiller-Couch - wrote in his 1914 treatise On the Art of Writing. It's a marvellous work, and if you can get past his slightly archaic prose there are some real gems within. Here's one of them:
*He is referring to Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the Anglo-Irish politician, philosopher, and writer
These words are more important than ever. The internet has fundamentally changed the writing landscape and it is conceivable AI will do much the same - though, as so often, probably not how we think. In any case, Quiller-Couch's point was that we cannot escape the context in which we work and write. There's no use imitating Shakespeare, and that's not only (or even mainly) because of his genius, but because his plays were created in a world which no longer exists.
We can (and ought) still to learn from writers outside our own era, but Quiller-Couch reminds us that every great writer had a specific audience and a specific environment. That doesn't mean conditions can't change and nor does it mean we cannot work to alter the conditions in a way that might recapture something good or useful about what has come before. But they cannot be precisely recreated, for times change and nothing is ever the same. We must write for the world we find ourselves in. New technology, then, is to be welcomed rather than despised.
VII - The Seventh Plinth
Spring remains far away, but with February comes the bloom of a beautiful yellow flower, one about which a very famous poet once wrote a very famous poem. You'd be hard pressed to find a poetry anthology in the United Kingdom which doesn't feature William Wordsworth's Daffodils, first published in 1807. But it's a classic for a reason, and these delightful words seem like a fair companion to Monet's Agapanthus.
I should add that William Wordsworth is an aptronym - that's when somebody's name is suited to their profession or characteristics. Usain Bolt is perhaps the most famous example.
Question of the Week
Last week's question to test your critical thinking was:
Is it possible to justify compliance with an immoral regime?
Timilehin O suggested a place for nuance and practicality:
While Haleemah T made a subtle delineation between justify and excuse:
Many of you pointed out the uncertainty present in the question itself, such as David K:
And Sandro S:
Gaspard B explored the gulf between what is theoretically and practically possible:
And, to end, here is Sean G's answer:
For this week's question to test your critical thinking:
Can science be reconciled with religion?
And that's all
Another of my grandmother's favourite poems (committed to memory, of course) was Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Here are its famous final lines. A worthy end, I think, to this week's Areopagus.
These words are sent to you all, as ever, in gratitude and fellowship.