Recent Reads: Shakespeare, Vintage Horror, and Modernism

This past long weekend, having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I settled down in my big blue chair for a mini readathon. I’m dreadfully behind on the 100-book Goodreads goal, so my nefarious scheme is to read a bunch of short works to try to catch up.

The Wife (Kristin Lavransdatter #2) by Sigrid Undset

Now, this is one I actually finished a couple weeks ago, but I owe y’all an update. Without going into spoilers, I did like The Wife a great deal better than The Wreath (book 1). We get the whole fallout of Kristin’s “happily ever after” which, as it turns out, is happily ever disaster. (Ok, it’s not all bad, but it almost is.) I appreciated the realism. I didn’t love the sensationalism, which seems to be a trademark of the book (think the TV series Poldark or Downton Abbey). It’s a decent middle book, and I’m still curious how the trilogy ends, though not champing at the bit to read the last book yet.

Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser

This is a novel, a Kafka precursor, I wanted very much to love but honestly didn’t. I’ll fully admit I wasn’t in the happiest frame of mind while reading it, so there maybe some personal bias seeping in. But I found Jakob to be a deeply unsettling, sinister story, much more than Kafka even. The writing is more accessible; there were some beautiful passages, too, even some that moved me to tears—I will probably do a follow-up post of favorite quotes. Overall, I wouldn’t recommend it personally, but it’s worth a try (your mileage may vary). I would probably still read more by Walser since I like this kind of writing for itself.

Sonnets by Shakespeare

I have a poor track record with Will… I’ve only read a handful of his plays and the only one I enjoyed was Hamlet. I actually bought this book mainly out of politeness (I hate going into a small bookshop and not buying anything to support the place). All that aside—I really got into the sonnets! Of course, we all know the very famous ones like “Love is not love” and “Shall I compare thee,” but I found some I’d never heard before that touched me deeply. There were two on time I liked very much and some on love and loss that were quite powerful. I think my favorite is 87.

Prufrock and Other Observations by T.S. ELIOT

I read this on good ol’ Wikisource. I’m glad I haven’t bought any Eliot yet because I was underwhelmed by this collection and even “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” failed to amaze. I enjoy his style and he has some good rhymes and imagery. I just found these poems to be rather forgettable, if I’m being honest. “Portrait of a Lady” was probably the best.

The Willows by Algernon Blackwood

Wikisource again. I specifically marked this one as “list for 2021,” so read it, I did. It was a bit overwrought in parts, but I found it sufficiently creepy, when read at night. I enjoyed the premise—two guys canoeing down the Danube, the “sensible” one and the “imaginative” one. Pretty soon they start seeing some weird stuff. It reminded me a lot of Malicroix by Henri Bosco (another review I failed to give you, I’m sorry). But like Malicroix, it tried to be a bit more than it could live up to. Still a fun read, though.

“The Call of Cthulhu” by H.P. Lovecraft

Wikisource again (again)! Amazingly, this was my first time reading Lovecraft. It won’t be my last, but I’ve been extremely spoiled by the horror stories of Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells. By comparison, “Cthulhu” seemed to be too much tell and not enough show. I liked that it was a compilation of notes of other people, but somehow Lovecraft’s version of this isn’t as interesting as Doyle’s or even Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He told me many times how Cosmic, Cyclopean, and Bad things were, but I wasn’t feeling it, even at the end. Still, I do love old sci-fi/horror, so I will read more of his stories to get my fix.

In fact—if you have any sci-fi/horror to recommend from this general time period (late Victorian to 1920s), do let me know!

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“The Valley of Unrest” by Edgar Allan Poe

Once it smiled a silent dell
Where the people did not dwell;
They had gone unto the wars,
Trusting to the mild-eyed stars,
Nightly, from their azure towers,
To keep watch above the flowers,
In the midst of which all day
The red sun-light lazily lay.
Now each visitor shall confess
The sad valley’s restlessness.
Nothing there is motionless—
Nothing save the airs that brood
Over the magic solitude.
Ah, by no wind are stirred those trees
That palpitate like the chill seas
Around the misty Hebrides!
Ah, by no wind those clouds are driven
That rustle through the unquiet Heaven
Uneasily, from morn till even,
Over the violets there that lie
In myriad types of the human eye—
Over the lilies there that wave
And weep above a nameless grave!
They wave:—from out their fragrant tops
External dews come down in drops.
They weep:—from off their delicate stems
Perennial tears descend in gems.

This poem reminds me very much of “The City in the Sea,” though far gentler and shorter. The opening suggests the inhabitants of this empty Valley got caught up in world affairs and left home, a kind of negligence (rather than the evil we find in the City). In his signature style, Poe ushers in the imagery of death, although it is not clear if there are any graves or ghosts—perhaps just a suggestion of them in the flowers that grow in the Valley.

I love how he expresses a sense of space and time in his use of words: wars, towers, trees, seas, and Heaven. A sense of looking up—and also far down. The emptiness conveyed is only rescued from City-like dystopia by the emphasis on beauty, even in sorrow, along with perpetual movement. There is life after death and loss; voids shall be filled by new growth. Still, those who remember the Valley as it was before keep a piece of the old life in their hearts.

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Poetry Reading: Dedication by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

From The Seaside and the Fireside. This is one of my favorite poems, although somewhat obscure. Longfellow seemed to have a special regard for his readers – one that also reflects how I feel about the online book community, which I have been a part of since 2009. Across time and space, we have shared our thoughts about the books we’ve read and authors we treasure. I’ve made many long-time friendships, and learned more than I could ever possibly have on my own. Thanks for sticking around… the voyage isn’t over yet. 🙂

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The Last Chapter – A Poem for Frodo

One of the things I owe to Tolkien is inspiring in me a love of poetry. Before I read The Lord of the Rings, I had little interest in reading poetry, let alone writing it. It was the poems of Middle Earth that changed my mind…the way he used poems and songs to emphasize the emotional moments just made it “click” for me.

Early during my poetry exploration, I wrote this poem about Frodo in Mordor. It’s not really how I write poetry anymore, but it was definitely inspired by Tolkien. This seems like the right time to share it. 🙂

The Last Chapter

I wander through this valley of gloom
Seeking the mountain of death
Where has fled my strength, I wonder?
Uttering life’s last breath

So close around is darkness
It is all I understand
The mist around me, in my eyes
The stench of evil land

My greatest hope is victory
A sunrise for my kin
White daisies in the pastures
And gentle summer wind

Nearer and closer have I come
The slopes are at my feet
Somewhere a tower looms in dusk
Waiting for my defeat

If I can but reach that summit
And set my people free
Then I shall die, content and ready
To face the silver sea

Marian H. Rowe
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