Friday, August 23, 2013

Memorization Test: Darest Thou Now O Soul

Walt Whitman, in many ways, is like the wizard of poetry. He at least looks a little like Gandalf the Grey. In fact, it is entirely possible that Tolkein, who lived a century after Whitman, found some inspiration for his character in "The Great Grey Poet."

For me, there has always been a shroud of mystery around his life. Even after reading up on him, he feels more distant from me than other authors. In all odds, it is most likely because of the way he writes. Many older poets have a structure that I can relate to. Rhyming couplets, for example, offer just enough rules for a reader to really get in an author's head. We can start to expect a certain ebb and flow from the poems and consequentially feel like we are understanding the way he or she thinks. Walt Whitman, on the other hand, is sometimes called the Father of Free Verse, and in his writing some conventional rules start to go out the window.

Not only will this make the week's Memorization Test a little more difficult (learning rhyming stanzas is definitely easier), it will also make Whitman's sentence structure a little more abstract.

But what do you expect from a man like Walt Whitman? His time did not have the luxury of order. He was born into a poor family with eight brothers and sisters. Three of his brothers were named after founding fathers. When he was a kid he was kissed on the cheek by the Marquis de Lafayette on the Fourth of July. He finished his formal education at age 11.

The man was a volunteer nurse during the Civil War. Later, employed in the Attorney General's office, his job was to interview Confederate soldiers seeking Presidential pardon. If there were ever a confusing time to be an American, it was during his generation. His opinions on slavery illustrate well the polarizing struggle he faced in his turbulent times. He was opposed to extending slavery, he was for the abolishment of slavery and he later saw the end of slavery as a danger to democracy, the root of America.

Whitman was admired by some other incredible authors. When his first book of poetry came out Ralph Waldo Emerson praised him heavily for his work. Later he would be visited by Henry David Thoreau. These men would stand by him while critics railed on his work for being overtly sexual, severely tarnishing his reputation in the public eye.

Darest Thou Now, O Soul, is a beautiful poem that I've found myself repeating during hard times. It is a dialogue from a man addressed to his inner self, his courage. There is something universally mysterious and daunting about the unknown paths in our lives. For a rising generation with college degrees and little work, I think this poem has inestimable value. It assesses the difficulty there is in being a pioneer, an explorer, and carving your own path. It calculates the risks and payoffs of blazing a new trails.

It reminds me of a few intensely spiritual moments in my life. They all stick out in my mind. Moments when I collect information, advice and opinions from those I hold close, and then walk towards my decision, never looking back for a second, and, while squinting at the ever-approaching fog, repeat to myself over and over: Darest Thou Now, O Soul?

Darest Thou Now, O Soul

Darest Thou Now, O Soul
Walk with me toward the Unknown Region,
Where neither ground is for the feet, nor any path to follow?

No map there, nor guide,
Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,
Nor face with blooming flesh, nor lips, nor eyes, are in that land.

I know it not, O Soul;
Nor dost thou-- It is a blank before us;
All waits, undream'd of, in that region -- that inaccessible land.

Till, when the ties loosen,
All but the ties eternal, Time and Space,
Nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds bound us.

Then we burst forth -- we float,
In Time and Space, O Soul -- prepared for them;
Equal, equipt at last -- (O Joy! O Fruit of All!) them to fulfill, O Soul.

-Walt Whitman 1900

Friday, August 16, 2013

Memorization Test: Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Robert Frost is certainly one of the more beloved poets of the 1900s. His poem, The Road Less Traveled, is printed on posters hanging in nearly every American ninth-grade classroom. That poem offers a close up look of a man who truly cut his own path through life.

This week's challenge, Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening is one of Frost's standout poems and communicates deeply to the eternal soul of the individual.

From an early age Frost, son of a newspaper editor, felt his calling was poetry. He spent all of two months at Dartmouth College before ending his formal education. He sold his first poem for $15 and was so proud of his accomplishment he marched down to his girlfriend, Elinor, to propose to her.

Frost is known for rural themes in his writing, but growing up he was a city boy. His true love of the outdoors matured when he worked at his grandfather's farm. While working there for nine years he would rise early in the morning and write what would become some of his most successful poetry. I can sometimes feel that early morning farm atmosphere when I read Frost's work. It's quiet, reverent, mysterious.

Frost went on to teach at various colleges and, despite his meager two years at university, earned over 40 honorary degrees from schools like Harvard, Oxford and Princeton. It demonstrates that while education is important, dedicated passion and vision can be just as valuable.

A man plagued throughout his life with deep personal loss (he would only be outlived by two of six children), he perhaps knew better than most the depth of the human heart. His relationship with rural life seemed spiritually mixed with his relationship with a higher power.

The poem touches me because it reminds me of important moments in my life. Every now and then we come across a simple scene; it can be a visual scenario or even just a feeling in the air, that makes us feel as though the veil between the Earth and the hereafter is much thinner than we ever thought. It's almost as if a voice whispers to our heart to remind us of a greater purpose. Frost remarked that he saw the scene in the poem as if it had been a hallucination after writing all through the night.

Even the rhyme scheme of this poem is reflective of our life here. We establish our own little routines, like the rhyme on lines one, two and four of each stanza, but some new experience comes along to further shape our lives, line three. That new line dictates our new routine until, finally, a brush with some eternal truth changes us. It's beautiful.

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know,
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

-Robert Frost 1922

You can actually see a video of Robert Frost reading his poem here. Word of warning, he is not a performer. He's a writer.
Robert Frost Reading This Poem

Also, Eric Whitacre, arguably the most genius composer of our time wrote a choral piece using this poem for his lyric. He forgot to check the copyright date on the poem though and upon the song's completion he was not legally allowed to publish. In response, a friend, Charles Anthony Silvestri, was commissioned to write a poem using the exact same meter and rhyme scheme. The resulting song "Sleep" was an enormous success. However, it wasn't hard to take the words of Frost's poem and switch them out for Silvestri's lyrics so video of choirs singing the song the way it was originally intended is available. The last stanza is particularly haunting in the song.

If you have five minutes, plug in the old earphones, close your eyes and enjoy.
Listen to Whitacre's interpretation here

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Man of the Hour: Giuseppe Garibaldi

Italy has a very special place in my heart. Many of my most potent life's lessons were learned while I was living there. The language is musical, the people are passionate, the food is to die for and the culture is absolutely enchanting. It moved me so deeply I still dream about its streets, doused with the smell of wine, pastries and nostalgia.

Since I came back to the States I tasked myself with the study of Italian culture and history. It amazed me how long the country remained divided. It wasn't until relatively recently that the language was universalized and the regions united into one nation. Today the regional differences are strong. Different dialects are still spoken, especially by the older generation, and sound like separate languages. The various regions take pride in their local, unique attributes. While these differences are charming to tourists and give depth to the country's overall culture, they are the residue of hundreds of years of conflict. Wars were fought, men died, all in the name of conquest between the princes and republics of territories like Venice, Sardinia and Florence. The eventual unification is largely thanks to a few key individuals that were man enough to believe in something bigger than themselves.

One of these men was Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Hero of Two Worlds.

Garibaldi was greatly admired by men like Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas. If you've read any of their books you'll have a clue about the type of man those authors might idolize. Garibaldi was an idealist, who backed up his words with action.

He was born in Nice, which thrust him into the nucleus of an Italian-French conflict at a young age. When he was born the region belonged to France but after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 it was granted to the King of Sardinia, King Victor Emmanuel I when Garibaldi was just seven. The nationality of Nice would create in him a sense of political activism. This spirit drove him to join La Giovine Italia, a political group dedicated to Italy's liberation from Austrian power and unification within its own borders.

Later he met Giueseppe Mazzini, the man behind La Giovine Italia, and joined a group called the Carbonari, who tried to stage an uprising in Piedmont. It was a failure and Garibaldi was forced to flee to France as a political refuge to escape a death sentence. However this brush with fate and exile from his home did not extinguish his spirit of independence and unification. In fact, it's possible it plunged him deeper into a life full of fiery obsession for liberty.

He sailed to South America and joined the Republic of the Rio Grande do Sul, which was trying to separate from Brazil. There he met his wife, Anita, who fought by his side during these Brazilian campaigns.
Anita Garibaldi

They moved to Uruguay, where he raised an Italian legion to support the Colorados faction of the Uruguayan Civil War.

Meanwhile in Italy, a new Pope, one who seemingly made positive steps in favor of Italian liberation, was elected. It was a turning point that prompted Garibaldi to return to Italy to take part in the First Italian War of Independence. In Italy he went from province to province offering military assistance to anyone struggling to free themselves from Austrian dominion. He eventually made his way to Rome where the French sieged the city and he was forced to leave again, now hunted by Neapolitan, French, Spanish and Austrian troops.

During this time he traveled to New York, down to Central America, went on a merchant voyage to China, sailing underneath the southern shores of Australia, and eventually to Great Britain and back home to Italy.

When the Second War of Independence happened in Italy, he was appointed as a Major General (he was the very model of one) and led successful battles against the Austrians, but his country dealt him a personal blow when they gave the County of Nice, his home, back to the French in return for military assistance.

When he heard about uprising in Sicily, the island off the south west coast Italy, he gathered 1000 volunteers and went to crush Neapolitan occupation there. He was successful, though entirely outnumbered, and declared himself dictator of Sicily, but that was not enough. With swelling support he walked with growing ranks through the south of Italy until he got to Rome, still occupied by Neapolitan troops.

At Rome the fuse ran out.

Garibaldi had 24,000 volunteer troops by then, but there were at least 25,000 hostile soldiers in Rome. In a surge of the spirit that had possessed his soul throughout his life, his thirst for freedom, his hunger for unification and his anger at losing his home to the French, he attacked the city. In an enormous battle, Garibaldi's heroic group of volunteers struggled against the highly trained and experienced Neapolitan troops.

Defeat was imminent until on the horizon, similar thinkers came to terms. King Victor Emmanuel II had arrived with his Piedmontese troops to assist. Together they defeated Napoleon's men and a very awkward situation arose. Garibaldi, dictator of Sicily, the Hero of Two Worlds, leader of thousands of men who had simply volunteered their lives for his cause stood in contrast to the pre-established ruler of Piedmont.

His whole life Garibaldi had been waiting for people to do what he had personally accomplished. Someone to lead the people and force them to action to rid themselves of foreign invaders. He had watched regional governments fail this goal time and time again. Was King Victor Emmanuel II to be any exception the others before him? How could he trust anyone not to blow it when he had so much momentum? Surely he, himself, was the man that could unite Italy.

And he did.

In a historical gesture, Garibaldi rode up to the King, shook his hand, and yelled back to his men, "Hail to the first King of Italy!" He turned all of his territorial gains over to the King and retired.

This act of humility has always been inspiring to me. I often find myself laden with projects, dreams and ideas. They excite me, sometimes even energize me. But really, I need to take a step back and think about Garibaldi. I need to recognize what will and what won't help me accomplish my end goals. We can get so easily sidetracked that it's not hard to lose sight of what we aim to accomplish in the first place.

For me Garibaldi is the man of the hour because he demonstrated the ability to keep his eye on the prize. His whole life he believed Italy could be united and free from foreign rule. When it finally came time for him to realize that dream, he was already 52. It would have been so easy for him to get caught up in the power and influence he had during his march to Rome, but when it came down to it, he kept his head cool and, amidst all the chaos of war, recognized the path to the bigger picture.

Abraham Lincoln wrote to him and invited him to join the Union's cause during the Civil War against the south. Garibaldi reportedly said he would only accept the position if Lincoln would declare then and there that the war's main purpose was the emancipation of slavery. Had the United States been his home, I could see Garibaldi marching through the Confederate States rallying slaves to his cause, fighting his way back to Lincoln.

Obstacles should never distract us from our end goal. They're stepping stones placed in a confusing web to the finish line.

It also illustrates the importance of having dreams in the first place. If we don't have an end goal, how can we expect to have the strength and fortitude to withstand the setbacks that come along the way.

Be unified, be free. Learn from Garibaldi.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Memorization Test: The Builders

This week's test was a little more arduous. The poem is a bit longer than last week's and the author uses words in a way that at first tripped up my mouth. The poem is called The Builders by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Longfellow is considered one of the great American poets and, rare for artists, was actually highly appreciated during his own life. In an age when poetry was read like TV is watched today, Longfellow became a superstar. Admirers asked for his autograph through letters and in person; to criticize him was a major social faux pas (a faux pas Edgar Allen Poe was all too eager to commit by the way). He also had quite the circle of friends, including Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

He was a professor at Bowdoin and Harvard. He knew Latin, French, Spanish, Portuguese and German.... and English. He lived through terrible grief brought to him by the death of two wives (his second wife died at home when her dress caught on fire while she was sealing a few locks of their children's hair in envelopes... absolutely terrifying). He received honorary degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge. He was summoned for a visit by the queen of England. His Robert of Sicily was translated by the Emperor of Brazil. Through it all, he did not glory in his popularity.

They guy had a vision for success. He built something incredible with his time and talents. His poem, The Buildersis an intimate sermon from a master on how to become successful and maximize the efforts of our time. I feel very comfortable taking these words to heart because I know that he followed his own advice. Had he not, this blog post wouldn't even be here now would it?

For me there are two bits of striking advice that stand out from the stanzas. The first: every thing we do will build to something larger. Whether it be working out, writing a novel or playing video games. It all builds up some grander habit, attitude, personality, etc... So we have to be very careful how we shape each day.

The second: laboring our darndest on things no one will ever see is just as important as working hard on the big show-stoppers. For Longfellow it seems clear that the quality of our fate is a reflection of the quality of our character.

The Builders

All are architects of Fate,
Working in these walls of Time;
Some with massive deeds and great,
Some with ornaments of rhyme

Nothing useless is, or low;
Each thing in its place is best;
And what seems but idle show
Strengthens and supports the rest.

For the structure that we raise,
Time is with materials filled;
Our to-days and yesterdays
Are the blocks with which we build.

Truly shape and fashion these;
Leave no yawning gaps between;
Think not, because no man sees,
Such things will remain unseen.

In the elder days of Art,
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part;
For the Gods see everywhere.

Let us do our work as well,
Both the unseen and the seen;
Make the house, where Gods may dwell,
Beautiful, entire, and clean.

Else our lives are incomplete,
Standing in these walls of Time,
Broken stairways, where the feet
Stumble as they seek to climb.

Build to-day, then, strong and sure,
With a firm and ample base;
And ascending and secure
Shall to-morrow find its place.

Thus alone can we attain
To those turrets, where the eye
Sees the world as one vast plain,
And one boundless reach of sky.

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
From The Seaside and the Fireside published in 1846

Monday, August 5, 2013

Man of the Hour: Henry Knox

The other day I was watching a show called American Ride. It's a show hosted by Stan Ellsworth, a big guy with a handle-bar mustache who rides around on his Harley Davidson recounting the tale of America's history. I love it because seeing a tough guy like that get passionate about patriotism is truly inspiring. It helps set things in perspective.

When looking back to incredible men in history, I try to put myself in their shoes, put my character in the ring with theirs for a few rounds. It's always humbling. Not surprisingly I am in every case, found wanting. For that reason when there are men in history that seem more approachable than figures like Da Vinci, Washington or Churchill, I feel I can latch on to them as more practical role models.

Henry Knox, is one such man. He was born in Boston to a ship-builder. His dad passed away when he was still pretty young and he dropped out of school in order to support his mother, which he did by taking up a job as a book clerk. Through hard work Knox was able to open his own book store by the age of 21. It was in this book store he met the daughter of some influential British Loyalists, Lucy Flucker (yeah, be careful reading this blog post out loud). There was some tension between the Flucker family and Knox because he was an active supporter of the Sons of Liberty. He is known to have stood guard at the docks before the Boston Tea Party to ensure no tea was unloaded on Colonial soil. He was also present at the Boston Massacre, where he actually tried to diffuse the situation before things got out of hand.

Lucy Flucker did not care about what her parents thought though; she ran off and married Knox. Later he would stand by the side of George Washington during the Revolutionary War and eventually would become the United States' first Secretary of War. Not bad for a guy that taught himself military strategy from the books in his bookshop.

Right after the battles of Lexington and Concord, the colonists faced a limited force of English troops. Their goal was to expel the troops from the colony and free themselves from the oppression of English taxes. George Washington was the General of what was then the Continental Army, a group of untrained soldiers made up of local militia and minutemen. Washington had secured a strategic location on top of Dorchester Heights where he could effectively target several British strongholds in the city, including, most importantly, the British naval presence in the harbor. However Washington did not have the cannons necessary to fire on them and repel the enemy. The closest guns of that caliber were in New York, over 200 miles away, at Fort Ticonderoga.

Enter Henry Knox. He stood up and volunteered to go retrieve the cannons for Washington. It was a trip of over 400 miles. The entire trip back to Boston, his little group of men had to haul over 60 tons of cannons, all in the middle of December where the cold was bitter and the snow unforgiving. Along the way he had to reason with local towns to help get supplies for his men (which may have been difficult considering the colonies' opinion about separation from England was still pretty polarized) and find materials to haul the iron. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Knox to suggest such a trip to General Washington, but I do know his commitment to duty and his fortitude to follow through to the end changed the fate of our nation.

He successfully completed the trip. Washington had the guns, and blew the British back to Britain, giving the colonists enough peace and quiet for them to draft the Declaration of Independence.

Sometimes when I have to do hard things, I think about Henry Knox. I think about his journey to the white house from such humble beginnings, how he stepped up to the plate when his Dad died and when George Washington needed someone to sacrifice so the colonial cause could advance. I think about how in a lowly book shop he taught himself the principles that would be stepping stones to high places. That was a man who left an example to which I can ascribe.

I can do hard things, even if they're just hard for me. I can sacrifice for good, even if my sacrifice is small. I can find opportunity in everyday.

I think we can all afford to be a little more like Henry Knox.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Memorization Test: Invictus

As part of my pursuit for mental strength I've taken to doing a weekly memorization challenge. I'm starting with poetry because the meter and rhythm makes it easier to remember. Later I might go on to prose, which I find can be entirely more difficult. The point is to memorize at least twenty lines weekly. Learning to improve the memory is an intensely valuable ability when trying to sharpen the mind so I hope that these memorization tests will help me in my journey to manhood.

On Fridays I make a selection for the new week and each Thursday I test myself to see if I've successfully completed my goal.

If you'd like, you can follow along and take on these memorization challenges too, or you can find your own poems. I know at least for me it's easier to memorize words I believe in.

This first poem is called Invictus, written in 1875 by William Ernest Henley. Invictus is latin for "unconquerable" and the poem really resonates with me because it highlights one of the strongest traits of humanity: the power we have to choose our outlook on any situation. No matter how "charged with punishments the scroll" we can break the chains of our circumstance.

I also enjoy this poem because the words don't fall flat; the author had the chops to pen them sincerely. Henley had his leg amputated at 18 and the doctors insisted they needed to amputate his other leg in order to save his life from tuberculosis. Refusing the diagnosis, Henley's life was spent in hospitals trying to overcome the illness through various painful surgeries. Notwithstanding, he completed law school and went on to become editor of the Scots Observer in Scotland.

Fun fact: Robert Louis Stevenson was so moved by the courage of the maimed William Henley that he based a character off of him in Treasure Island. Perhaps you've heard of Long John Silver? Through this character and the life of this, his most famous poem, Henley is deceased but not forgotten.


"Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul."

-William Ernest Henley 1875