Dragon Lore: Origins of the Fire-Breathing Beast

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From ancient Greek myths to Game of Thrones, the legend of the dragon is one of the most enduring and romanticized throughout history. It has been traced back as far as 4000 BC and exists in all parts of the world.

In and around Europe dragons are viewed mostly as monsters of evil intent. In ancient Rome, the army used dragons as symbols of strength.

During the Renaissance, fear of sea monsters kept sailors from venturing too far from known waters, and the edges of their maps would read “Here be dragons.”

The Oxford English Dictionary explains the etymology of the word dragon, which it says entered the English lexicon in around 1220 and was used in English versions of the Bible from the early 14th century.

Dragon derives from Old French, the language used by nobles and law courts following the Norman conquest of 1066. This in turn stems from the Latin draconem or draco meaning “big serpent,” which was derived from ancient Greek δράκων (drakon).

In Greek mythology, the Hesperian Dragon named Ladon was a hundred-headed serpent that guarded the golden apples in the garden of the Hesperides.

Historically, European dragons were viewed as being evil, jealous, and greedy hoarders of treasure.

In the stories, they were generally treated as violent monsters who must be slain by heroes and saints. European dragons could have four legs, two legs, or none, and often had wings.

In Asia, and especially China, the view of these creatures was very different. Dragons were thought to live under the ocean in the winter, arising in the spring with a clap of thunder to bring the rain needed for their crops, according to the American Museum of Natural History.

They breathed clouds and moved the seasons. The dragon was the symbol of the Chinese Emperor, and the Imperial throne was called the Dragon Throne. Known as the Dragon, the emperor ruled in harmony, and brought peace and prosperity to all.

Chinese dragons are depicted as being more serpent-like, with long, snaking bodies and usually had four legs. They are generally seen as wingless.

How people view them and what they believe about them varies widely, but the idea is too widespread not to think there are some common roots.

What made people from cultures that may have never met all come up with the idea of dragons?

There are several theories about what creatures could have been the source of the dragon myths, any or all of them may be true.

Ancient Origins discusses a number of potential roots. The first one is crocodiles. Saltwater and Nile crocodiles are the two largest living reptiles on earth today.

Currently, saltwater crocodiles live in the eastern Indian Ocean region, and Nile crocs in the rivers, marshes, and lakes of Sub-Saharan Africa. But 1,000 years they had a much larger habitat range, and could have been encountered by people living in Greece, Spain, and Southern Italy.

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Nile crocodiles can grow to 20 feet in length, and have the ability to lift much of their bodies off the ground. This may be a hint about why European dragons are often described as rearing up.

Many archaeologists believe that ancient people envisioned dragons when they found the fossils of certain sorts of dinosaurs, specifically, the types that had very long necks.

Having no explanation for the lengthy fossils, they would have imagined a beast that seemed to fit what they were seeing.

There is evidence to suggest that there were discoveries of dinosaur fossils being uncovered in China as early as the 4th century BC. Fossils belonging to flying dinosaurs, such as pterodactyl or pteranodons, could very well be part of why some cultures envision dragons as having wings.

Another, similar, theory is that people imagined dragons when the skeletons of whales washed on shore near early coastal dwellings.

Because early people didn’t have suitable sailing and navigation technology, they would most likely only have seen the immense whales from a distance when the creatures were living.

This could certainly be the root of sailor’s fear of “dragons” in the waters, as well as the ocean-dwelling Asian view. This could also be one of the reasons that some dragons are pictured as having wings.

Snakes are also thought to be a basis for the dragon myth. Although even very large snakes are much smaller than dragons are said to be, humankind has a deeply embedded instinct to fear them.

In ancient Egypt, for example, Apep was a deity known as the Serpent of the Nile. He was viewed as the lord of Chaos, and opposed to light and truth.

Each of these theories show some echo of what we think about when we think of dragons. All of them together show a more complete picture of the huge beasts that feature in so many stories and myths.

 Ian Harvey

1st century A.D. mosaics and paintings buried under volcano damage now being revealed and restored with X-ray technology

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An iron element map (right) made with new X-ray technology reveals the underlying craftsmanship hidden beneath a damaged portrait of a Roman woman (left). Photo credit: Roberto Alberti.

X-rays have allowed us to look at many wondrous things, but can they bring an ancient city back to life?

They can if it’s the city’s artwork.

In 79 A.D. the eruption of Mount Vesuvius near Naples destroyed Pompeii and its lesser-known neighbor, Herculaneum. The cities and their civilizations were lost under the deluge of mud, molten rock, and volcanic ash.

When early researchers began uncovering Herculaneum in the 19th century, they found a treasure trove of mosaics and paintings preserved under that blanket. The problem was, the volcanic blanket had protective properties and once removed, the frescoes were exposed to weather and, even worse, air pollution. Decades of deterioration followed.

Now modern-day technology–the macro X-ray fluorescence instrument–is helping restore some of that ancient art. Researchers working in one of Herculaneum’s most art-rich locales, the House of the Mosaic Atrium, are using the portable instrument placed in close proximity to works of art to virtually peel back layers of contaminants and help reconstruct and even restore paintings.

The instrument helps map elements like iron and copper without doing damage. One analysis revealed the artist had sketched a young woman using an iron-based pigment. Highlights around her eyes had been done using a lead-based paint. Potassium signaled that her flesh was painted using an earth-based pigment.

By establishing the chemical elements in the painting, conservators can more safely choose cleaning solvents and stabilizers. And while they typically don’t paint over what remains, they can use what they learn to digitally re-create a work.

The art of Herculaneum is not the first use of the technique, but it is the first use in the original setting of the paintings. In carefully controlled museum settings, the instrument has been used to analyze work by Picasso, Van Gogh, and the Dutch masters.

 As for the original settings in the shadow of Vesuvius, much has been recorded about Pompeii, where volcanic material formed eerie molds around people who perished there. Relatively few human remains were found at Herculaneum.

Another key difference between Pompeii and Herculaneum is the compact mass of material that buried the latter city under more than 50 feet of crust; it made excavation difficult, preserving Herculaneum and staving off looting.

Even more significantly, special ground moisture conditions preserved wooden frameworks of houses, wooden furniture, the hull of a boat, fabric–and even food. Extra toasty loaves of bread remained preserved in Herculaneum’s ancient ovens.

Out of sight is often out of mind in ancient history, so over the years, the modern city Ercolano was built over the forgotten Herculaneum. And for many years, the latter-day residents had no idea of the treasures buried deep beneath their feet.

 It wasn’t until well diggers struck an underground wall in 1709 that Herculaneum was rediscovered. Tunnels were dug and treasure seekers did appear at that point, removing artifacts related to an ancient theater. Other excavations were undertaken, but when military engineer Karl Weber took over from 1750 to 1764, careful diagrams of the ruins were made, and artifacts were well documented. Weber logged an entire library of papyrus documents, recorded bronze and marble statues, and impressive paintings.

His work is considered among the earliest examples of what evolved into archaeology. The archaeology continued on and off under different oversight, but began in earnest again in 1927 with funding from Italy.

The work has also brought insight into the architecture and lifestyles of the ancient city of around 5,000 residents. The houses of nobles overlook the water, but the homes of middle class are interspersed nearby.

Public monuments uncovered include sports grounds, a large central swimming pool, and public baths.

In 1997, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and their sister, Torre Annunziata, which was also destroyed, were named UNESCO World Heritage Sites for their cultural importance. As such, they are protected by international treaty.

 Terri Likens

Why Is the Mona Lisa So Famous?

Mona Lisa, oil on wood panel by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1503-06; in the Louvre, Paris, France. 77 x 53 cm.
© Everett-Art/Shutterstock.com

Five centuries after Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa(1503–19), the portrait hangs behind bulletproof glass within the Louvre Museum and draws thousands of jostling spectators each day. It is the most famous painting in the world, and yet, when viewers manage to see the artwork up close, they are likely to be baffled by the small subdued portrait of an ordinary woman. She’s dressed modestly in a translucent veil, dark robes, and no jewelry. Much has been said about her smile and gaze, but viewers still might wonder what all the fuss is about. Along with the mysteries of the sitter’s identity and her enigmatic look, the reason for the work’s popularity is one of its many conundrums. Although many theories have attempted to pinpoint one reason for the art piece’s celebrity, the most compelling arguments insist that there is no one explanation. The Mona Lisa’s fame is the result of many chance circumstances combined with the painting’s inherent appeal.

There is no doubt that the Mona Lisa is a very good painting. It was highly regarded even as Leonardo worked on it, and his contemporaries copied the then novel three-quarter pose. The writer Giorgio Vasari later extolled Leonardo’s ability to closely imitate nature. Indeed, the Mona Lisa is a very realistic portrait. The subject’s softly sculptural face shows Leonardo’s skillful handling of sfumato, an artistic technique that uses subtle gradations of light and shadow to model form, and shows his understanding of the skull beneath the skin. The delicately painted veil, the finely wrought tresses, and the careful rendering of folded fabric reveal Leonardo’s studied observations and inexhaustible patience. And, although the sitter’s steady gaze and restrained smile were not regarded as mysterious until the 19th century, viewers today can appreciate her equivocal expression. Leonardo painted a complex figure that is very much like a complicated human.

Many scholars, however, point out that the excellent quality of the Mona Lisa was not enough by itself to make the painting a celebrity. There are, after all, many good paintings. External events also contributed to the artwork’s fame. That the painting’s home is the Louvre, one of the world’s most-visited museums, is a fortuitous circumstance that has added to the work’s stature. It arrived at the Louvre via a circuitous path beginning with Francis I, king of France, in whose court Leonardo spent the last years of his life. The painting became part of the royal collection, and, for centuries after, the portrait was secluded in French palaces until the Revolution claimed the royal collection as the property of the people. Following a stint in Napoleon’s bedroom, the Mona Lisa was installed in the Louvre Museum at the turn of the 19th century. As patronage of the Louvre grew, so too did recognition of the painting.

The identity of the portrait’s sitter soon became more intriguing. Although many scholars believe that the painting depicts Lisa Gherardini, wife of the Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo, no records of such a commission from Francesco exist, and the sitter has never been conclusively identified. The unknown identity has thus lent the figure to whatever characterization people wanted to make of her. During the Romantic era of the 19th century, the simple Florentine housewife who may have been portrayed was transformed into a mysterious seductress. The French writer Théophile Gautier described her as a “strange being…her gaze promising unknown pleasures,” while others went on about her perfidious lips and enchanting smile. The English author Walter Pater went so far as to call her a vampire who “has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave.” The air of mystery that came to surround the Mona Lisa in the 19th century continues to define the painting and draw speculation.

Meanwhile, the 19th century also mythologized Leonardo as a genius. Throughout the centuries after his death, he was well regarded—but no more so than his esteemed contemporaries Michelangeloand Raphael. Some scholars have noted, however, that, as interest in the Renaissance grew in the 19th century, Leonardo became more popularly seen not only as a very good painter but also as a great scientist and inventor whose designs prefigured contemporary inventions. Many of his so-called inventions were later debunked, and his contributions to science and architecture came to be seen as small, but the myth of Leonardo as a genius has continued well into the 21st century, contributing to the Mona Lisa’s popularity.

The writers of the 19th century aroused interest in the Mona Lisa, but the theft of the painting in 1911 and the ensuing media frenzy brought it worldwide attention. When news of the crime broke on August 22 of that year, it caused an immediate sensation. People flocked to the Louvre to gape at the empty space where the painting had once hung, the museum’s director of paintings resigned, accusations of a hoax splashed across newspapers, and Pablo Picasso was even arrested as a suspect! Two years later the painting was found in Italy after an art dealer in Florence alerted the local authorities that a man had contacted him about selling it. The man was Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian immigrant to France, who had briefly worked at the Louvre fitting glass on a selection of paintings, including the Mona Lisa. He and two other workers took the portrait from the wall, hid with it in a closet overnight, and ran off with it in the morning. Unable to sell the painting because of the media attention, Peruggia hid it in the false bottom of a trunk until his capture. He was tried, convicted, and imprisoned for the theft while the painting toured Italy before it made its triumphant return to the Louvre. By then, many French people had come to regard the work as a national treasure that they had lost and recovered.

The Mona Lisa was certainly more famous after the heist, but World War I soon consumed much of the world’s attention. Some scholars argue that Marcel Duchamp’s playful defacement of a postcard reproduction in 1919 brought attention back to the Mona Lisa and started a trend that would make the painting one of the most-recognized in the world. He played against the worship of art when he drew a beard and mustache on the lady’s face and added the acronym L.H.O.O.Q. (meant to evoke a vulgar phrase in French) at the bottom. That act of irreverence caused a small scandal, and other cunning artists recognized that such a gag would bring them attention. For decades after, other artists, notably Andy Warhol, followed suit. As artists distorted, disfigured, and played with reproductions of the Mona Lisa, cartoonists and admen exaggerated her further still. Over the decades, as technology improved, the painting was endlessly reproduced, sometimes manipulated and sometimes not, so that the sitter’s face became one of the most well known in the world, even to those who had little interest in art.

A tour of the painting to the United States in 1963 and to Japan in 1974 elevated it to celebrity status. The Mona Lisa traveled to the United States in no less than a first-class cabin on an ocean liner and drew about 40,000 people a day to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., during the portrait’s six-week stay. Large crowds greeted the portrait in Japan about ten years later. What’s more, as travel has become increasingly affordable since the late 20th century, more and more individuals have been able to visit Paris and pay their respects in person, contributing to the unyielding crowds of today.

Although the Mona Lisa is undoubtedly good art, there is no single reason for its celebrity. Rather, it is hundreds of circumstances—from its fortuitous arrival at the Louvre to the mythmaking of the 19th century to the endless reproductions of the 20th and 21st centuries—that have all worked together with the painting’s inherent appeal to make the Mona Lisa the world’s most famous painting ever.

WRITTEN BY:  Alicja Zelazko 
PUBLISHED: 

Poetry: An Insight

Poetryliterature that evokes a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience or a specific emotional response through language chosen and arranged for its meaning, sound, and rhythm.

Poetry is a vast subject, as old as history and older, present wherever religion is present, possibly—under some definitions—the primal and primary form of languages themselves. The present article means only to describe in as general a way as possible certain properties of poetry and of poetic thought regarded as in some sense independent modes of the mind. Naturally, not every tradition nor every local or individual variation can be—or need be—included, but the article illustrates by examples of poetry ranging between nursery rhyme and epic. This article considers the difficulty or impossibility of defining poetry; man’s nevertheless familiar acquaintance with it; the differences between poetry and prose; the idea of form in poetry; poetry as a mode of thought; and what little may be said in prose of the spirit of poetry.

Attempts To Define Poetry

Poetry is the other way of using language. Perhaps in some hypothetical beginning of things it was the only way of using language or simply was language tout court, prose being the derivative and younger rival. Both poetry and language are fashionably thought to have belonged to ritual in early agricultural societies; and poetry in particular, it has been claimed, arose at first in the form of magical spells recited to ensure a good harvest. Whatever the truth of this hypothesis, it blurs a useful distinction: by the time there begins to be a separate class of objects called poems, recognizable as such, these objects are no longer much regarded for their possible yam-growing properties, and such magic as they may be thought capable of has retired to do its business upon the human spirit and not directly upon the natural world outside.

Formally, poetry is recognizable by its greater dependence on at least one more parameter, the line, than appears in prosecomposition. This changes its appearance on the page; and it seems clear that people take their cue from this changed appearance, reading poetry aloud in a very different voice from their habitual voice, possibly because, as Ben Jonson said, poetry “speaketh somewhat above a mortal mouth.” If, as a test of this description, people are shown poems printed as prose, it most often turns out that they will read the result as prose simply because it looks that way; which is to say that they are no longer guided in their reading by the balance and shift of the line in relation to the breath as well as the syntax.

That is a minimal definition but perhaps not altogether uninformative. It may be all that ought to be attempted in the way of a definition: Poetry is the way it is because it looks that way, and it looks that way because it sounds that way and vice versa.

Poetry And Prose

People’s reason for wanting a definition is to take care of the borderline case, and this is what a definition, as if by definition, will not do. That is, if an individual asks for a definition of poetry, it will most certainly not be the case that he has never seen one of the objects called poems that are said to embody poetry; on the contrary, he is already tolerably certain what poetry in the main is, and his reason for wanting a definition is either that his certainty has been challenged by someone else or that he wants to take care of a possible or seeming exception to it: hence the perennial squabble about distinguishing poetry from prose, which is rather like distinguishing rain from snow—everyone is reasonably capable of doing so, and yet there are some weathers that are either-neither.

Sensible things have been said on the question. The poet T.S. Eliot suggested that part of the difficulty lies in the fact that there is the technical term verse to go with the term poetry, while there is no equivalent technical term to distinguish the mechanical part of prose and make the relation symmetrical. The French poet Paul Valéry said that prose was walking, poetry dancing. Indeed, the original two terms, prosus and versus, meant, respectively, “going straight forth” and “returning”; and that distinction does point up the tendency of poetry to incremental repetition, variation, and the treatment of many matters and different themes in a single recurrent form such as couplet or stanza.

American poet Robert Frost said shrewdly that poetry was what got left behind in translation, which suggests a criterionof almost scientific refinement: when in doubt, translate; whatever comes through is prose, the remainder is poetry. And yet to even so acute a definition the obvious exception is a startling and a formidable one: some of the greatest poetry in the world is in the Authorized or King James Version of the Bible, which is not only a translation but also, as to its appearance in print, identifiable neither with verse nor with prose in English but rather with a cadence owing something to both.

There may be a better way of putting the question by the simple test alluded to above. When people are presented with a series of passages drawn indifferently from poems and stories but all printed as prose, they will show a dominant inclination to identify everything they possibly can as prose. This will be true, surprisingly enough, even if the poem rhymes and will often be true even if the poem in its original typographical arrangement would have been familiar to them. The reason seems to be absurdly plain: readers recognize poetry by its appearance on the page, and they respond to the convention whereby they recognize it by reading it aloud in a quite different tone of voice from that which they apply to prose (which, indeed, they scarcely read aloud at all). It should be added that they make this distinction also without reading aloud; even in silence they confer upon a piece of poetry an attention that differs from what they give to prose in two ways especially: in tone and in pace.

Major differences

In place of further worrying over definitions, it may be both a relief and an illumination to exhibit certain plain and mighty differences between prose and poetry by a comparison. In the following passages a prose writer and a poet are talking about the same subject, growing older.

Between the ages of 30 and 90, the weight of our muscles falls by 30 percent and the power we can exert likewise…. The number of nerve fibres in a nerve trunk falls by a quarter. The weight of our brains falls from an average of 3.03 lb. to 2.27 lb. as cells die and are not replaced…. (Gordon Rattray TaylorThe Biological Time Bomb, 1968.)

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been….

Before objecting that a simple comparison cannot possibly cover all the possible ranges of poetry and prose compared, the reader should consider for a moment what differences are exhibited. The passages are oddly parallel, hence comparable, even in a formal sense; for both consist of the several items of a catalog under the general title of growing old. The significant differences are of tone, pace, and object of attention. If the prose passage interests itself in the neutral, material, measurable properties of the process, while the poetry interests itself in what the process will signify to someone going through it, that is not accidental but of the essence; if one reads the prose passage with an interest in being informed, noting the parallel constructions without being affected by them either in tone or in pace, while reading the poetry with a sense of considerable gravity and solemnity, that too is of the essence. One might say as tersely as possible that the difference between prose and poetry is most strikingly shown in the two uses of the verb “to fall”:

The number of nerve fibres in a nerve trunk falls by a quarter

As body and soul begin to fall asunder

It should be specified here that the important differences exhibited by the comparison belong to the present age. In each period, speaking for poetry in English at any rate, the dividing line will be seen to come at a different place. In Elizabethan times the diction of prose was much closer to that of poetry than it later became, and in the 18th century authors saw nothing strange about writing in couplets about subjects that later would automatically and compulsorily belong to prose—for example, horticulture, botany, even dentistry. Here is not the place for entering into a discussion of so rich a chapter in the history of ideas; but the changes involved in the relation of poetry and prose are vast, and the number of ways people can describe and view the world are powerfully influenced by developments in science and society.

Poetic diction and experience

Returning to the comparison, it is observable that though the diction of the poem is well within what could be commanded by a moderately well-educated speaker, it is at the same time well outside the range of terms in fact employed by such a speaker in daily occasions; it is a diction very conscious, as it were, of its power of choosing terms with an effect of peculiar precision and of combining the terms into phrases with the same effect of peculiar precision and also of combining sounds with the same effect of peculiar precision. Doubtless the precision of the prose passage is greater in the more obvious property of dealing in the measurable; but the poet attempts a precision with respect to what is not in the same sense measurable nor even in the same sense accessible to observation; the distinction is perhaps just that made by the French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal in discriminating the spirits of geometry and finesse; and if one speaks of “effects of precision” rather than of precision itself, that serves to distinguish one’s sense that the artwork is always somewhat removed from what people are pleased to call the real world, operating instead, in Immanuel Kant’s shrewd formula, by exhibiting “purposefulness without purpose.” To much the same point is what Samuel Taylor Coleridge remembers having learned from his schoolmaster:

I learnt from him, that Poetry, even that of the loftiest and, seemingly, that of the wildest odes, had a logic of its own, as severe as that of science; and more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, and dependent on more, and more fugitive causes. In the truly great poets, he would say, there is a reason assignable, not only for every word, but for the position of every word. (Biographia Literaria, chapter 1.)

Perhaps this is a somewhat exaggerated, as it is almost always an unprovable, claim, illustrating also a propensity for competing with the prestige of science on something like its own terms—but the last remark in particular illuminates the same author’s terser formulation: “prose = words in the best order, poetry = the best words in the best order.” This attempt at definition, impeccable because uninformative, was derived from Jonathan Swift, who had said, also impeccably and uninformatively, that style in writing was “the best words in the best order.” Which may be much to the same effect as Louis Armstrong’s saying, on being asked to define jazz, “Baby, if you got to ask the question, you’re never going to know the answer.” Or the painter Marcel Duchamp’s elegant remark on what psychologists call “the problem of perception”: “If no solution, then maybe no problem?” This species of gnomic, riddling remark may be determinate for the artistic attitude toward definition of every sort; and its skepticism is not confined to definitions of poetry but extends to definitions of anything whatever, directing one not to dictionaries but to experience and, above all, to use: “Anyone with a watch can tell you what time it is,” said Valéry, “but who can tell you what is time?”

Happily, if poetry is almost impossible to define, it is extremely easy to recognize in experience; even untutored children are rarely in doubt about it when it appears:

Little Jack Jingle,
He used to live single,
But when he got tired of this kind of life,
He left off being single, and liv’d with his wife.

It might be objected that this little verse is not of sufficient import and weight to serve as an exemplar for poetry. It ought to be remembered, though, that it has given people pleasure so that they continued to say it until and after it was written down, nearly two centuries ago. The verse has survived, and its survival has something to do with pleasure, with delight; and while it still lives, how many more imposing works of language—epic poems, books of science, philosophy, theology—have gone down, deservedly or not, into dust and silence. It has, obviously, a form, an arrangement of sounds in relation to thoughts that somehow makes its agreeable nonsense closed, complete, and decisive. But this somewhat muddled matter of form deserves a heading and an instance all to itself.

Form In Poetry

People nowadays who speak of form in poetry almost always mean such externals as regular measure and rhyme, and most often they mean to get rid of these in favour of the freedom they suppose must follow upon the absence of form in this limited sense. But in fact a poem having only one form would be of doubtful interest even if it could exist. In this connection, the poet J.V. Cunningham speaks of “a convergence of forms, and forms of disparate orders,” adding: “It is the coincidence of forms that locks in the poem.” For a poem is composed of internal and intellectual forms as well as forms externally imposed and preexisting any particular instance, and these may be sufficient without regular measure and rhyme; if the intellectual forms are absent, as in greeting-card verse and advertising jingles, no amount of thumping and banging will supply the want.

Form, in effect, is like the doughnut that may be said to be nothing in a circle of something or something around nothing; it is either the outside of an inside, as when people speak of “good form” or “bourgeois formalism,” or the inside of an outside, as in the scholastic saying that “the soul is the form of the body.” Taking this principle, together with what Cunningham says of the matter, one may now look at a very short and very powerful poem with a view to distinguishing the forms, or schemes, of which it is made. It was written by Rudyard Kipling—a great English poet somewhat sunken in reputation, probably on account of misinterpretations having to do more with his imputed politics than with his poetry—and its subject, one of a series of epitaphs for the dead of World War I, is a soldier shot by his comrades for cowardice in battle.

I could not look on Death, which being known,
Men led me to him, blindfold and alone.

The aim of the following observations and reflections is to distinguish as clearly as possible—distinguish without dividing—the feelings evoked by the subject, so grim, horrifying, tending to helpless sorrow and despair, from the feelings, which might better be thought of as meanings, evoked by careful contemplation of the poem in its manifold and somewhat subtle ways of handling the subject, leading the reader on to a view of the strange delight intrinsic to art, whose mirroring and shielding power allows him to contemplate the world’s horrible realities without being turned to stone.

There is, first, the obvious external form of a rhymed, closed couplet in iambic pentameter (that is, five poetic “feet,” each consisting of an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable, per line). There is, second, the obvious external form of a single sentence balanced in four grammatical units with and in counterpoint with the metrical form. There is, third, the conventional form belonging to the epitaph and reflecting back to antiquity; it is terse enough to be cut in stone and tight-lipped also, perhaps for other reasons, such as the speaker’s shame. There is, fourth, the fictional form belonging to the epitaph, according to which the dead man is supposed to be saying the words himself. There is, fifth, especially poignant in this instance, the real form behind or within the fictional one, for the reader is aware that in reality it is not the dead man speaking, nor are his feelings the only ones the reader is receiving, but that the comrades who were forced to execute him may themselves have made up these two lines with their incalculably complex and exquisite balance of scorn, awe, guilt, and consideration even to tenderness for the dead soldier. There is, sixth, the metaphorical form, with its many resonances ranging from the tragic through the pathetic to irony and apology: dying in battle is spoken of in language relating it to a social occasion in drawing room or court; the coward’s fear is implicitly represented as merely the timorousness and embarrassment one might feel about being introduced to a somewhat superior and majestic person, so that the soldiers responsible for killing him are seen as sympathetically helping him through a difficult moment in the realm of manners. In addition, there is, seventh, a linguistic or syntactical form, with at least a couple of tricks to it: the second clause, with its reminiscence of Latin construction, participates in the meaning by conferring a Roman stoicism and archaicgravity on the saying; remembering that the soldiers in the poem had been British schoolboys not long before, the reader might hear the remote resonance of a whole lost world built upon Greek and Roman models; and the last epithets, “blindfold and alone,” while in the literal acceptation they clearly refer to the coward, show a distinct tendency to waver over and apply mysteriously to Death as well, sitting there waiting “blindfold and alone.” One might add another form, the eighth, composed of the balance of sounds, from the obvious likeness in the rhyme down to subtleties and refinements beneath the ability of coarse analysis to discriminate. And even there one would not be quite at an end; an overall principle remains, the compression of what might have been epic or five-act tragedy into two lines, or the poet’s precise election of a single instant to carry what the novelist, if he did his business properly, would have been hundreds of pages arriving at.

It is not at all to be inferred that the poet composed his poem in the manner of the above laborious analysis of its strands. The whole insistence, rather, is that he did not catalog 8 or 10 forms and assemble them into a poem; more likely it “just came to him.” But the example may serve to indicate how many modes of the mind go together in this articulation of an implied drama and the tension among many possible sentiments that might arise in response to it.

In this way, by the coincidence of forms that locks in the poem, one may see how to answer a question that often arises about poems: though their thoughts are commonplace, they themselves mysteriously are not. One may answer on the basisof the example and the inferences produced from it that a poem is not so much a thought as it is a mind: talk with it, and it will talk back, telling you many things that you might have thought for yourself but somehow didn’t until it brought them together. Doubtless a poem is a much simplified model for the mind. But it might still be one of the best models available. On this great theme, however, it will be best to proceed not by definition but by parable and interpretation.

Poetry As A Mode Of Thought: The Protean Encounter

In the fourth book of the Odyssey Homer tells the following strange tale. After the war at Troy, Menelaus wanted very much to get home but was held up in Egypt for want of a wind because, as he later told Telemachus, he had not sacrificed enough to the gods. “Ever jealous the Gods are,” he said, “that we men mind their dues.” But because the gods work both ways, it was on the advice of a goddess, Eidothea, that Menelaus went to consult Proteus, the old one of the sea, as one might consult a travel agency.

Proteus was not easy to consult. He was herding seals, and the seals stank even through the ambrosia Eidothea had provided. And when Menelaus crept up close, disguised as a seal, and grabbed him, Proteus turned into a lion, a dragon, a leopard, a boar, a film of water, and a high-branched tree. But Menelaus managed to hang on until Proteus gave up and was himself again; whereupon Menelaus asked him the one great question: How do I get home? And Proteus told him: You had better go back to Egypt and sacrifice to the gods some more.

This story may be taken as a parable about poetry. A man has an urgent question about his way in the world. He already knows the answer, but it fails to satisfy him. So at great inconvenience, hardship, and even peril, he consults a powerful and refractory spirit who tries to evade his question by turning into anything in the world. Then, when the spirit sees he cannot get free of the man, and only then, he answers the man’s question, not simply with a commonplace but with the same commonplace the man had been dissatisfied with before. Satisfied or not, however, the man now obeys the advice given him.

A foolish story? All the same, it is to be observed that Menelaus did get home. And it was a heroic thing to have hung onto Proteus through those terrifying changes and compelled him to be himself and answer up. Nor does it matter in the least to the story that Menelaus personally may have been a disagreeable old fool as well as a cuckold.

A poet also has one great and simple question, simple though it may take many forms indeed. Geoffrey Chaucer put it as well as anyone could, and in three lines at that:

What is this world? what asketh men to have?
Now with his love, now in his colde grave,
Allone, with-outen any companye.

(“The Knight’s Tale”)

And a poet gets the simple answer he might expect, the one the world grudgingly gives to anyone who asks such a question: The world is this way, not that way, and you ask for more than you will be given, which the poet, being scarcely more fool than his fellowmen, knew already. But on the path from question to answer, hanging onto the slippery disguiser and shape-shifter Proteus, he will see many marvels; he will follow the metamorphoses of things in the metamorphoses of their phrases, and he will be so elated and ecstatic in this realm of wonders that the voice in which he speaks these things, down even to the stupid, obvious, and commonplace answer, will be to his hearers a solace and a happiness in the midst of sorrows:

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silver’d o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties must themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ’gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

Like Menelaus, the poet asks a simple question, to which, moreover, he already knows the unsatisfying answer. Question and answer, one might say, have to be present, although of themselves they seem to do nothing much; but they assert the limits of a journey to be taken. They are the necessary but not sufficient conditions of what really seems to matter here, the Protean encounter itself, the grasping and hanging on to the powerful and refractory spirit in its slippery transformations of a single force flowing through clock, day, violet, graying hair, trees dropping their leaves, the harvest in which, by a peculiarly ceremonial transmutation, the grain man lives by is seen without contradiction as the corpse he comes to. As for the answer to the question, it is not surprising nor meant to be surprising; it is only just.

On this point—that the answer comes as no surprise—poets show an agreement that quite transcends the differences of periods and schools. Alexander Pope’s formula, “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expresst,” sometimes considered as the epitome of a shallow and parochial decorum, is not in essence other than this offered by John Keats:

I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess, and not by Singularity—it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance. (Letter to John Taylor, 1818.)

In the 20th century, Robert Frost was strikingly in agreement:

A word about recognition: In literature it is our business to give people the thing that will make them say, “Oh yes I know what you mean.” It is never to tell them something they dont know, but something they know and hadnt thought of saying. It must be something they recognize. (Letter to John Bartlett, in Modern Poetics, ed. James Scully, 1965.)

And the American poet and critic John Crowe Ransom gives the thought a cryptically and characteristically elegant variation: “Poetry is the kind of knowledge by which we must know that we have arranged that we shall not know otherwise.” Perhaps this point about recognition might be carried further, to the extreme at which it would be seen to pose the problem of how poetry, which at its highest has always carried, at least implicitly, a kind of Platonism and claimed to give, if not knowledge itself, what was more important, a “form” to knowledge, can survive the triumph of scientific materialism and a positivism minded to skepticismabout everything in the world except its own self (where it turns credulous, extremely). The poet’s adjustment, over two or three centuries, to a Newtonian cosmos, Kantian criticism, and the spectral universe portrayed by physics has conspicuously not been a happy one and has led alternately or simultaneously to the extremes of rejection of reason and speaking in tongues on the one hand and the hysterical claim that poetry will save the world on the other. But of this let the Protean parable speak as it will.

There is another part to the story of Menelaus and Proteus, for Menelaus asked another question: What happened to my friends who were with me at Troy? Proteus replies, “Son of Atreus, why enquire too closely of me on this? To know or learn what I know about it is not your need: I warn you that when you hear all the truth your tears will not be far behind….” But he tells him all the same: “Of those others many went under; many came through….” And Menelaus does indeed respond with tears of despair, until Proteus advises him to stop crying and get started on the journey home. So it sometimes happens in poetry, too: the sorrowful contemplation of what is, consoles, in the end, and heals, but only after the contemplative process has been gone through and articulated in the detail of its change:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste;
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight.
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

(Shakespeare, Sonnet 30)

This poem, acknowledged to be a masterpiece by so many generations of readers, may stand as an epitome and emblem for the art altogether, about which it raises a question that must be put, although it cannot be satisfactorily and unequivocally answered: the question of whether poetry is a sacrament or a confidence game or both or neither. To reply firmly that poetry is not religion and must not promise what religion does is to preserve a useful distinction; nevertheless, the religions of the world, if they have nothing else in common, seem to be based on collections of sacred poems. Nor, at the other extreme, can any guarantee that poetry is not a confidence game be found in the often-heard appeal to the poet’s “sincerity.” One will never know whether Shakespeare wept all over the page while writing the 30th sonnet, though one inclines to doubt it, nor would it be to his credit if he did, nor to the reader’s that he should know it or care to know it.

For one thing, the sonnet is obviously artful—that is, full of artifice—and even the artifice degenerates here and there into being artsy. “Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow.” Surely that is poesy itself, at or near its worst, where the literal and the conventional, whatever their relations may have been for Shakespeare and the first reader of these sugar’d sonnets among his friends, now live very uncomfortably together (Ben Jonson’s “Drink to me only with thine eyes” is a like example of this bathetic crossing of levels), though perhaps it has merely become unattractive as a result of changing fashions in diction.

Moreover, while the whole poem is uniquely Shakespearean, the bits and pieces are many of them common property of the age, what one writer called “joint stock company poetry.” And the tricks are terribly visible, too; art is not being used to conceal art in such goings-on as “grieve at grievances” and “fore-bemoaned moan.” “He who thus grieves will excite no sympathy,” as Samuel Johnson sternly wrote of John Milton’s style in the elegy “Lycidas,” “he who thus praises will confer no honour.”

Nor is that the worst of it. This man who so powerfully works on the reader’s sympathies by lamenting what is past contrives to do so by thinking obsessively about litigation and, of all things, money; his hand is ever at his wallet, bidding adieu. He cannot merely “think” sweet silent thoughts about the past; no, he has to turn them into a court in “session,” whereto he “summons” the probable culprit “remembrance”; when he “grieves,” it is at a “grievance”—in the hands of the law again; finally, as with the sinners in Dante’s Divine Comedy, his avarice and prodigality occupy two halves of the one circle: he bemoans his expenses while paying double the asking price.

And still, for all that, the poem remains beautiful; it continues to move both the young who come to it still innocent of their dear time’s waste and the old who have sorrows to match its sorrows. As between confidence game and sacrament there may be no need to decide, as well as no possibility of deciding: elements of play and artifice, elements of true feeling, elements of convention both in the writing and in one’s response to it, all combine to veil the answer. But the poem remains.

If it could be plainly demonstrated by the partisans either of unaided reason or revealed religion that poetry was metaphorical, mythological, and a delusion, while science, say, or religion or politics were real and true, then one might throw poetry away and live honestly though poorly on what was left. But, for better or worse, that is not the condition of human life in the world. And perhaps people care for poetry so much—if they care at all—because, at last, it is the only one of many mythologies to be aware, and to make us aware, that it, and the others, are indeed mythological. The literary critic I.A. Richards, in a deep and searching consideration of this matter, concludes: “It is the privilege of poetry to preserve us from mistaking our notions either for things or for ourselves. Poetry is the completest mode of utterance.”

The last thing Proteus says to Menelaus is strange indeed:

You are not to die in Argos of the fair horse-pastures, not there to encounter death: rather will the Deathless Ones carry you to the Elysian plain, the place beyond the world…. There you will have Helen to yourself and will be deemed of the household of Zeus.

So the greatest of our poets have said, or not so much said, perhaps, as indicated by their fables, though nowadays people mostly sing a different tune. To be as the gods, to be rejoined with the beloved, the world forgotten…. Sacrament or con game? Homer, of course, is only telling an old story and promises humankind nothing; that is left to the priests to do; and in that respect poetry, as one critic puts it, must always be “a ship that is wrecked on entering the harbor.” And yet the greatest poetry sings always, at the end, of transcendence; while seeing clearly and saying plainly the wickedness and terror and beauty of the world, it is at the same time humming to itself, so that one overhears rather than hears: All will be well.

Written by Howard Nemerov

Marcel Marceau, the famous mime performer, was a member of the French Resistance who saved hundreds of Jewish children during WWII

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The French mime artist Marcel Marceau made a name for himself as the silent Bip the Clown, whose performance was comedic and tragic at the same time, echoing life itself in its mixture of happiness and sadness.

What is far less known about Marcel Mangel, who changed his name to Marceau during the German occupation of France in World War II, was that he was an active participant within the French resistance, who managed to evacuate an entire orphanage full of Jewish children just before they were to be deported to a concentration camp.

Coming from a Jewish family living in Strasbourg, in the border area between France and Germany, Marcel, who was 16 at the time, was among the first to witness the horror of German invasion. Together with his family, the teenage Marcel was evacuated from Strasbourg, just before it was overrun. They headed south to Limoges, a municipality in central France.

From that point on, Marcel Mangel knew he had to fight for his survival. As the French Army capitulated after a month of fighting, Mangel changed his name to Marceau after a general from the French Revolution, François Séverin Marceau-Desgraviers.

Together with his cousin, George Loinger, he joined the Resistance, staying undercover by using his nom du guerre, even though his father, Charles, was caught and sent to Auschwitz, where he died. His knowledge of both English and German, in addition to his native French, and the acting talent which young Marcel expressed at an early age, all came in handy during numerous diversions and intelligence missions conducted by the resistance.

He managed to avoid detection from the Gestapo throughout the war years with the help of forged papers and fake identities. In 1944, the Nazis were in a hurry to dispose of the remaining Jewish population in France, as the war was approaching its bitter end.

There were several hundred Jewish children living in an orphanage just west of Paris, whose evacuation became a top priority for the Resistance. Marcel was given the task to somehow get the children out of the orphanage without alerting the Nazi authorities and to transport them to Switzerland.

He disguised himself as a boy scout and managed to convince the orphanage staff that he was taking the kids on a field trip organized by the French scouts. Did they believe him, or did they comply because it was well-known what kind of grim future awaited the children if they weren’t evacuated? This remains a mystery, but the anecdote of how exactly Marcel managed to make three runs from the orphanage to the Swiss border, evacuating hundreds of children, is both remarkable and inspiring.

Since childhood, Marcel was fascinated with Charlie Chaplin. In fact, his later career as a mime performer was largely influenced by the charm of Chaplin’s Little Tramp character. Once the Jewish orphans were ready for transport, Marcel needed to keep them quiet in order to avoid detection.

But how does one keep so many children quiet? By captivating their imagination with a miraculous mime performance―one that Marcel Marceau personally devised. It worked every time.

Phillipe Mora, whose father fought alongside Marcel, said in an interview for the Sunday Morning Herald in 2009:

“Marceau started miming to keep children quiet as they were escaping. It had nothing to do with show business. He was miming for his life.”

George Loigner also remembered how his cousin calmed the children and persuaded them to stay quiet in an interview for the Jewish Telegraph Agency in 2007, just after Marcel’s death:

“The kids loved Marcel and felt safe with him. He had already begun doing performances in the orphanage, where he had met a mime instructor earlier on. The kids had to appear like they were simply going on vacation to a home near the Swiss border, and Marcel really put them at ease.”

Soon after, the Allies embarked upon the shores of Normandy, liberating France in the following months. Marcel and his cousin George joined the Free French Army and continued their push towards Berlin. What the mime performer later called his greatest exploit as a soldier was when he captured an entire German unit, together with several other French soldiers, as he acted like they were the advance guard of a much larger French force. In fact, Marceau and a few men were all alone, but the Germans assumed that it was better to surrender than face a whole French division in battle.

This story, in particular, grew into a myth which widely circulated for years. The myth stated that Marceau used his mime to demonstrate to the Germans from a distance that a large French force was approaching, making them retreat, but this was denied by Marceau and Loigner, who gave the exact account during his interview, following Marceau’s death.

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His military service actually got young Marceau into acting and performing, as he was invited to appear in front of 3,000 US troops in Frankfurt, Germany, just after the war ended. Marceau himself recalled the moment when the army shaped his future, at a Wallenberg Medal acceptance speech in 2001:

“I played for the G.I.s and two days later I had my first review in the Stars and Stripes.”

His contribution to the French Resistance was never forgotten and the pain of his father’s death in Auschwitz determined the sadness that remained forever present in his mime skits. Marcel Marceau died in 2007, leaving a legacy that defined the art he pioneered.

By Nikola Budanovic

The Pulitzer Prize is named after Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher who helped introduce “yellow journalism” to the world

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William C. Gaines, Harold E. Martin, Miriam Ottenberg, Deborah Nelson, and Buzz Bissinger. What do all of these names have in common? Well, every single one of them has won the Pulitzer Prize award for investigative journalistic achievement.

Since its launch in 1917, the Pulitzer Prize has come to be regarded as a prestigious mark of recognition in the fields of journalism and literary arts. There are today 21 categories up for grabs in the annual presentation, with the jury members reserving the right to withhold an award if they believe no submissions in that category reach the standard. To wear the badge of Pulitzer Prize Winner is an accolade that is highly coveted.

It is definitely an acknowledgment of serious journalism. But there is a curious part to its inception, and that is the name of the award itself.

The “Oscar” of journalism is named after a man who arguably laid the grounds for what would be known later as “yellow journalism,” a sensationalist press that is the predecessor of today’s tabloid news.

Joseph Pulitzer was born in Hungary and immigrated to the United States as a teenager. He was involved in the newspaper business in 1868, when he started working for the Westliche Post. However, it took some 20 years for him to make a true mark in the field of journalism. By then, he had accumulated enough experience and wealth to own a newspaper; he purchased the New York World for a reported sum of $345,000.

With Pulitzer on top, the newspaper thrived and its circulation began breaking records. This was all due to Pulitzer’s knack for appealing to the masses. He knew what the common people wanted to read and he gave it to them. There were legitimate news stories, but also stories ranging from scandalous affairs to street crimes.  People gobbled it up; they couldn’t get enough. Every new day had a new story to tell.

Pulitzer was active in the Democratic Party and interested in social causes. He recruited the investigative reporter Nellie Bly, who is famous for both her undercover reporting and headline-chasing exploits. Business was going well for Pulitzer right up until 1895 when William R. Hearst bought the New York Journal and became involved in the same business. This kick-started a great rivalry between them with a single goal in mind: Who would outsell the other. The crime-and-scandal-fueled rivalry soon turned into an all-out circulation war, giving birth to yellow journalism as we know it today.

So, in retrospect, if Joseph Pulitzer can be considered the one who set the foundation, then Hearst can be viewed as the one who set the course for the tabloids of the future.

Although both newspapers had high circulations, for the critics they were nothing more than low-brow publications. They despised them, especially their methods of reporting and affinity for sensationalism. It was around this period when the term “yellow journalism” became widely known, which brings us to its inception.

The term was already in use among journalists and reporters of the era, but it was Erwin Wardman, the then-editor of the New York Press, who published it first. Among peers, especially serious journalists, the term was often used in a derogatory sense for the news that they made fun of.

Also introduced by Wardman is another expression that was popular at the time–“yellow kid journalism.” For this phrase, he specifically alluded to the main character in Richard Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley comic strip that was published in the two rival newspapers. The Yellow Kid ran first in Pulitzer’s paper. When Outcault was lured away with a bigger salary by Hearst, Pulitzer hired another cartoonist to continue drawing the cartoon for his New York World.

Who invented the tabloids can be debated forever. However, the fact remains that it was Pulitzer who left $250,000 in his will to Columbia University to establish that now most prestigious prize. If it was the other way around, we might be talking about the Hearst Prize.

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The Pulitzer Prize remains one of the most important awards for writing. And Joseph Pulitzer made sure that it would be named after him. Whatever his history, the board gives the award based on the quality of the writing itself.

 Goran Blazeski