Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Letters written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark

 "...I adhere to my determination of giving you my observations, as I travel through new scenes, whilst warmed with the impression they have made on me."

In the summer of 1795, Mary Wollstonecraft sailed from Hull, England for Scandinavia, making her first stop Gothenberg (Göteberg) in Sweden. 

By 1795 Wollstonecraft is an established author, with several important and popular books in her past, including Vindication of the Rights of Men (a response to Burke's attack on the French Revolution) and Vindication of the Rights of Women.

She travels with her older daughter, Fanny, and a French nurse. She mentions she has business reasons, though the text doesn't offer details. But it's also clear that it's an opportunity for a new book and while the 'you' of the letters, the 'you' of the quote above, is an actual person, it is also you, the reader.

But the original you is Gilbert Imlay, Fanny's father, who was capable of claiming to be married to Wollstonecraft without having done so, and had just left her for another woman. He was engaged in some dodgy commerce, likely trading confiscated Bourbon wealth for food, and the ship on which his goods were traveling had gone missing somewhere in Scandinavia. Wollstonecraft volunteers to go look, hoping to win Imlay back.

I liked this even better than Vindication of the Rights of Women. Vindication is, whether we've read it or not, a book we know--it's been that influential. And by and large (though, alas, not entirely) the grounds for debate have moved beyond it. This was more of a surprise. 
"Talk not of bastilles! To be born here, was to be bastilled by nature..." [of Sweden]

"...the Danes are the people who have made the fewest sacrifices to the graces." 

Of the three countries Norway is her clear favorite. Since the Other Reader is a quarter Norwegian, I was pleased to be able to report this. 

But it's not all snark--much as I enjoy a good snark. There's some fine nature writing, which leads her to meditate on our relative need for nature and civilization. 

"...the line of beauty requires some curves..."

She compares government and society in the three countries: at this time Sweden is going through a conservative, anti-Jacobin phase, and its finances are problematic because of a recent war against Russia and Denmark; Denmark is led by a Crown Prince who's an enlightened despot, which is (marginally) better than a plain despot; and Norway, nominally under Danish suzerainty, is suffering benign neglect, and its sturdy yeomanry little troubled by aristocrats. Anyway, that's what she says...

A map of her travels:

I read the book in the Oxford edition shown above, which has some nice additions: an introduction, the map, contemporary reviews, and several of the Wollstonecraft's original letters to Imlay. And notes. Glad to have them, though the description of England as 'impatient at the neutrality of Denmark' struck me as rather an odd phrasing. Not how the Danes thought of English actions when I was there. The book is also available from Gutenberg.

Then I read Sylvana Tomaselli's overview of Wollstonecraft, which came out from Princeton earlier this year. I think I would have preferred a more biographical approach, though this was quite good. Tomaselli organizes Wollstonecraft's thought by subject. Wollstonecraft is an important thinker, and one of the nice things about Letters is watching her think; still, for better or worse, she's a (successfully) practicing journalist, not an academic philosopher, and I'm not sure there's entirely a system there to be found. I'm suspicious of systems anyway. 

But it was fun to discover that Letters was Wollstonecraft's most successful book, rapidly translated into the Scandinavian languages. Coleridge was inspired by the book to plan a trip to Scandinavia, but like a lot of Coleridge's projects, it didn't come off. Likely he got no further than Porlock

The book works for a couple of my challenges this year:

"Adieu! I must trip up the rocks..."

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Gwendolyn Brooks (#NationalPoetryMonth)


a song in the front yard

I've stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it's rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.

I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.

They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it's fine
How they don't have to go in at a quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George'll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate.)

But I say it's fine. Honest, I do.
And I'd like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face.

'a song in the front yard' is from Gwendolyn Brooks' first book of poems A Street in Bronzeville. Brooks was the Poet Laureate of Illinois from early in my childhood until her death in 2000 at 83. Bronzeville is a Black neighborhood on the near south side of Chicago. 

She's always been a favorite of mine.

Poem For A Thursday is a meme created by Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness. 

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Robert Hass (#NationalPoetryMonth)



Amateurs, we gathered mushrooms
near shaggy eucalyptus groves
which smelled of camphor and the fog-soaked earth.
Chanterelles, puffballs, chicken-of-the-woods,
we cooked in wine or butter
beaten eggs or sour cream,
half expecting to be
killed by a mistake. "Intense perspiration,"
you said late at night,
quoting the terrifying field guide
while we lay tangled in our sheets and heavy limbs,
"is the first symptom of attack."

Friends called our aromatic fungi
"liebestoads" and only ate the ones
that we most certainly survived.
Death shook us more than once
those days and floating back
it felt like life. Earth-wet, slithery,
we drifted toward the names of things.
Spore prints littered our table
like nervous stars. Rotting caps
gave off a musky smell of loam.
'Fall' is from Robert Hass' first book of poetry Field Guide (1973). It won the Yale Younger Poets prize that year. One could cook from it for weeks, eating well the whole time. The younger Robert Hass from the back of the book:

He looks like he just came back from mushrooming. Or maybe it was something else that 'late at night' messed up his hair.

Poem for a Thursday is a meme started by Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness. Brona has a poem by H.D. this week.