“Oh! That abominable Mr. Darcy!”

Humans rate their own ideas too highly. They hold on to them stubbornly. They defend them valiantly. They stand by them faithfully, even when powerful evidence is brought to bear against them. They do this because these ideas are “theirs” and not because these ideas are correct or even plausible.

But here’s the thing. Humans don’t admit that they do this. They act like they are just following the evidence. In this way, self-deception walks hand-in-hand with pride.

Jane Austen paints a humorous yet tragic picture of how pride and self-deception go together in the character of Elizabeth Bennett in her classic work, Pride and Prejudice. Her description of it contains powerful lessons that can help us think through how our own prejudices keep us from seeing the truth, all the while deceiving ourselves that this is not happening. Continue reading ““Oh! That abominable Mr. Darcy!””

10 Quotes Illustrating the Virtue of Beowulf

It’s hard to translate a poem from one language to another. The power of the poem is in the sounds and connections of the language in which it was written. I’ve read quite a few translated poems over the past couple of years. Some capture the power of the original, many do not, even though they convey its general meaning. Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf is one translation that is a wonderful poem in its own right. It feels and sounds like you would expect an epic Medieval poem to sound. I have cited examples in the quotes below.

Before I give the quotes, just a brief note about the story. You may find it interesting that it was J.R.R. Tolkien who brought this story to the attention of modern critics as a great work of art. He did his own translation with notes (I have not read it). The connections between Tolkien’s work and Beowulf are obvious and clear in the story.

The story makes you feel like you are in the midst of battle and sitting at the bench of the mead hall. Beowulf is a beautiful work of art that also gives a sense of how Anglo-Saxons might have viewed the world in the first part of the Middle Ages. It’s well worth a read. I would recommend reading it out loud to hear the sounds that Heaney has put into his poem. You will feel the poem more, if you can hear it as well as read it. It’s also understandable enough that young children can probably follow along (as yet untested hypothesis). If you are into olde English, you can get the bilingual edition with the olde English on one side and the modern on the other.

I have divided the quotes into three sections. The first set is the description of the monsters. The second set is the description of fate and providence that brings men into conflict with the monsters. The third set is the proper response that men must show to being placed in such a fate. These quotes illustrate the main lesson of the book and its poetry.

The Terror of the Monster
“Then out of the night came the shadow-stalker, stealthy and swift . . .” (47).

“The hero observed that swamp-thing from hell, the tarn-hag in all her horrible strength…” (105).

“The dragon began to belch out flames and burn bright homesteads; there was a hot glow that scared everyone, for the vile sky-winger would leave nothing alive in his wake” (157).

The Power of Fate
“Fate goes ever as fate must” (31).

“First and foremost, let the Almighty Father be thanked for this sight. I suffered a long harrowing by Grendel. But the heavenly Shepherd can work His Wonders always and everywhere” (63).

“Past and present, God’s will prevails. Hence, understanding is always best and a prudent mind. Whoever remains for long here in this earthly life will enjoy and endure more than enough” (71).

The Call to Virtue
“Behaviour that’s admired is the path to power among people everywhere” (5).

“Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning. For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark” (97).

“Thus Beowulf bore himself with valour; he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour and took no advantage; never cut down a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper and, warrior that he was, watched and controlled his God-sent strength and his outstanding natural powers” (149).

“They said that of all the kings upon the earth he was the man most gracious and fair-minded, kindest to his people and keenest to win fame” (213).

10 Quotes that Illustrate Moby Dick

Moby Dick is not a page turner. It moves slowly on like a whaler lumbering through the Pacific Ocean. Nevertheless, it is one of the most profound novels I have ever read. In both its details and larger story, it explores the depths of the human consciousness in unparalleled ways. Melville explains every aspect of whaling in the 19th century and connects it to a broad range of human experiences, philosophies, and challenges.

Here are 10 of my favorite quotes from this marvelous book. Some have deeper meanings. Others are humorous. Others are just intriguing ways of expressing sentiments.

1. “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian” (3.44).

2. “I say, we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects. . . . and Heaven have mercy on us all–Presbyterians and Pagans alike–for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending” (17.96).

3. “The whale has no famous author; and whaling no famous chronicler, you will say” (24.120).

4. “I promise nothing complete; because any human thing supposed to be complete, must for that very reason infallibly be faulty” (32.140).

5. “Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness, he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperation . . . all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest has been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it” (41.186).

6. “But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demonic phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed” (52, 235).

7. “You is sharks, satin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not’ing more dan de shark well goberned.”
“‘Well done, old Fleece!’ cried Stubb, ‘that’s Christianity; go on’” (64.290).

8. “It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! Admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own” (68.303).

9. “One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. . . . Such and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it” (104.432).

10. Queequeg carved a copy of his tattoos on the canoe that was going to carry his dead body out to sea. “And this tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining the truth: so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the lying parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last” (110.456).


Photo by Snappy Shutters on Unsplash

Ovid, Shakespeare, and the Beatles

Imagine a story where two lovers secretly meet but are forbidden from marriage by the rivalry of their parents. So, they decide to run away. When they go to their secret meeting place, one lover believes the other lover has died and so ends his own life. The other lover returns to find her lover dead and so does the same.

If you think of Romeo and Juliet, you would not be wrong. However, this is the ancient Greek story of Pyramus and Thisbe. Romeo and Juliet is really simply the story of Pyramus and Thisbe re-imagined in another time and setting.

I have been listening to Peter Saccio’s lectures on William Shakespeare. In it, he noted that Ovid’s stories in his book Metamorphoses were one of the greatest inspirations for plays and stories in the Renaissance period.

This insight from Saccio was in line with what I had learned from Thomas Foster’s helpful book How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Foster explains that the writing of literature is not something that happens in a vacuum. It is the telling and re-telling of stories that have been told before. In Western literature, it is the Bible and Roman and Greek literature that provide the foundational story lines.

So, I began to read Ovid. I read stories that I knew and stories that I did not know. I could see, however, their significance for understanding Western literature. Then, I came to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. I could not believe it. There was the story of Romeo and Juliet in exact outline! It was a clear confirmation of Saccio’s insight. I read both stories to my homsechooled girls (a short version of Romeo and Juliet), and they easily saw the connection.

My oldest daughter decided to homeschool this year for her 12th grade year rather than attend the public school she has attended for the last three years. I am studying British literature with her. One of the stories she wanted to study was A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I started reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and what did I find in Act 1, Scene 2? Peter Quince, Bottom, and a group of common folks were preparing a play for the upcoming wedding of Thesus and Hyppolyta. And what is the play? Peter Quince tells us, “The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby.” It is a humorous play within a play. The actors at first seem to know nothing of the story. One of the actors, Flute, asks, “What is Thisby? A wandering night?” The players are uneasy about doing a play where two lovers end their lives for a wedding. Their attempts to modify the play to make it more fit for a wedding feast are hilarious.

So, clearly, Pyramus and Thisbe made a big impact on Shakespeare. This is a clear confirmation of what Foster and Saccio had said. It also encourages me to continue reading broadly in Western literature, focusing on the most influential works such as Ovid’s Metamorpheses, Homer, and Shakespeare (who influenced later witers).

The telling of stories is no isolated activity. It is a community project. We can still go back to that community and draw inspiration for ourselves today. Apparently, that’s what the Beatles did. On television, they did their own performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. You can watch it below:

Be Like the Whale

I’m slowly making my way through Herman Melville’s class, Moby Dick. It is not a page turner, but it is a powerful book. It is at once a story of whaling, a naturalist discussion of whales, a book of philosophy, and much, much more.

“Call me Ishmael.” Thus begins Moby Dick. Throughout the book, Ishmael describes feature after feature of whaling and whales, but he never leaves it there. He always turns these observations into larger considerations of life and philosophy. I find them both interesting and humorous. Ishmael takes the most mundane things and stretches them out to fit some great point of philosophy and human wisdom.

One of these has become a sort of mantra for my life lately. “Be like the whale” goes through my head often. Ishmael describes the whale’s ability to be in both the warmest and the coolest of waters:

It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! Admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own (68.303).

In this paragraph, Ishmael describes how proper boundaries and significant internal reflection can enable us to engage in human life without being tossed to and fro by the situations and emotions of people around us. Continue reading “Be Like the Whale”