Category Archives: History


Runner Is A Classic, Unsung Piece Of Mid-century Filmmaking

By Nick Ripatrazone

auden-runningIn 1962, Canada’s National Film Board commissioned a first-time director to make an 11-minute, black-and-white movie about a 19-year-old distance runner who would later become an Olympian, and have legendary poet W.H. Auden—not Canadian, and not a runner—write a poem as narration. Runner has receded into the archives of film history, and that’s a shame. This is why you should care about this strange little film.
Runner is the story of Bruce Kidd, a Toronto racer training for the Commonwealth games. I’ve never been one for inspirational videos, but I was hooked on Kidd’s story. Here was a teenager with an unorthodox running style: arms low, scooping the air in a movement newspapers called “dog-paddling.” But Runner is no average runner biopic: with a jumpy jazz soundtrack complemented by Auden’s poetic meditations on the beauty of running, the film is a reminder that running is natural, sleek, and in a word, cool.
The film begins with a side shot of Kidd running along a pier. His metronomic strides on the boards cut through the other sounds: soft waves against the shore, tweeting birds, and the calm narration. Auden’s lyric script was read by Don Francks, a Canadian musician and actor who starred in shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Read the complete article, watch the video and listen to the Auden poem.


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“The White Rose of Paradise” From Dante’s Divine Comedy, “Paradiso”

The White Rose.jpg

O splendour of God! by means of which I saw

The lofty triumph of the realm veracious,

Give me the power to say how it I saw!

There is a light above, which visible

Makes the Creator unto every creature,

Who only in beholding Him has peace,

 And it expands itself in circular form

To such extent, that its circumference

Would be too large a girdle for the sun.

 The semblance of it is all made of rays

Reflected from the top of Primal Motion,

Which takes therefrom vitality and power.

 And as a hill in water at its base

Mirrors itself, as if to see its beauty

When affluent most in verdure and in flowers,

 So, ranged aloft all round about the light,

Mirrored I saw in more ranks than a thousand

All who above there have from us returned.

And if the lowest row collect within it

So great a light, how vast the amplitude

Is of this Rose in its extremest leaves!

My vision in the vastness and the height

Lost not itself, but comprehended all

The quantity and quality of that gladness.

There near and far nor add nor take away;

For there where God immediately doth govern,

The natural law in naught is relevant.

Into the yellow of the Rose Eternal

That spreads, and multiplies, and breathes an odour

Of praise unto the ever-vernal Sun,

As one who silent is and fain would speak,

Me Beatrice drew on, and said: “Behold

Of the white stoles how vast the convent is!

Behold how vast the circuit of our city!

Behold our seats so filled to overflowing,

That here henceforward are few people wanting!


– Canto XXX, “Paradiso” by Dante, translated from Italian by Henry Longfellow
A reminder that we will celebrate the use of the rose as a poetic symbol or metaphor on January 25, 2018. Please bring your own illustration of this for reading and discussion and, if you wish, post it first on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly.

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TODAY:  In 1595

TodayTODAY:  In 1595, Shakespeare’s Richard II is possibly acted at a private performance at the Canon Row house of Sir Edward Hoby, with Sir Robert Cecil attending.

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The 13th-century revolution that made modern poetry possible

The 13th-century revolution that made modern poetry possibleIn the 13th century, English poetry changed dramatically. There were no battles, no pamphleteering, or Ezra Pound-style polemics, and no warring factions. Yet by the end of the century, a poetic revolution had taken place. Modern readers and writers have long since forgotten what happened back then, but poetry today would not be the same without the 13th century.
In the Middle Ages, three major languages were spoken and written in England: Latin, French, and English. English was the least prestigious but, like the others, it had a thriving literary tradition. Before c1200, there was only one way to write poetry in English, known today as alliterative verse. This is the form of poetry used in Beowulf, Piers Plowman, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and approximately 300 other poems.
The alliterative metre is a very strange metre, at least by modern measures. The more we learn about it, the stranger it seems. The number of stresses matters, but it isn’t consistent from verse to verse. The number of syllables matters, too, but it isn’t consistent, either. What’s more, the metre changed quite a bit from the earliest examples, in the 7th and 8th centuries, to the latest examples, in the 15th and 16th centuries. Here’s the ninth line of Beowulf, an anonymous heroic poem composed in the 8th, 9th, or 10th century:

Weox under wolcnum weorthmyndum thah (‘[He] grew under the skies, flourished [thah] in praises [weorthmyndum].’)
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The Rose of Battle

W. B. Yeats, 1865 – 1939

The Rose of BattleRose of all Roses, Rose of all the World!

The tall thought-woven sails, that flap unfurled

Above the tide of hours, trouble the air,

And God’s bell buoyed to be the water’s care;

While hushed from fear, or loud with hope, a band

With blown, spray-dabbled hair gather at hand,

Turn if you may from battles never done,

I call, as they go by me one by one,

Danger no refuge holds, and war no peace,

For him who hears love sing and never cease,

Beside her clean-swept hearth, her quiet shade:

But gather all for whom no love hath made

A woven silence, or but came to cast

A song into the air, and singing passed

To smile on the pale dawn; and gather you

Who have sought more than is in rain or dew,

Or in the sun and moon, or on the earth,

Or sighs amid the wandering, starry mirth,

Or comes in laughter from the sea’s sad lips,

And wage God’s battles in the long grey ships.

The sad, the lonely, the insatiable,

To these Old Night shall all her mystery tell;

God’s bell has claimed them by the little cry

Of their sad hearts, that may not live nor die.

Rose of all Roses, Rose of all the World!

You, too, have come where the dim tides are hurled

Upon the wharves of sorrow, and heard ring

The bell that calls us on; the sweet far thing.

Beauty grown sad with its eternity

Made you of us, and of the dim grey sea.

Our long ships loose thought-woven sails and wait,

For God has bid them share an equal fate;

And when at last, defeated in His wars,

They have gone down under the same white stars,

We shall no longer hear the little cry

Of our sad hearts, that may not live nor die.
Read the poem and the legend about “The Róisín Dubh” (the “Dark Rose,” pronounced “Row sheen dove”) in English and Irish Gaelic.
On January 25 we will celebrate the use of the rose as a poetic symbol or metaphor. Please bring your own illustration of this for reading and discussion and, if you wish, post it first on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly.

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Alan Bennett Keeping OnFrom Keeping On Keeping On, by Alan Bennett

The Legendary Playwright On His Brush With The Great Poet

T.S. Eliot I only saw once, some time in 1964. It was on the old Central Station in Leeds, long since demolished, which was the terminus for the London trains. I was with Timothy Binyon, with whom I had been at college and who in 1964 was a lecturer in Russian at Leeds University and was also teaching me to drive. In the early 1960s there had been a long overdue attempt to reactivate the slot machines which all through the war years and after had stood empty and disconsolate on railway platforms, a sad reminder of what life had been like before the war. Now briefly there was chocolate in the machines again and cigarettes too; it had taken 20 years but austerity was seemingly at an end. One beneficiary of this development was a rudimentary printing machine to be found on most mainline stations. Painted pillarbox red it was a square console on legs with a dial on the top and a pointer. Using this pointer, for sixpence or a shilling one could spell out one’s name and address which would then be printed onto a strip of aluminium which could be attached to one’s suitcase, kitbag or whatever. Astonished to find such a machine actually working after decades of disuse, Binyon and I were printing out our names watched by a friendly middle-aged woman who was equally fascinated.
It was at this point the train came in and after most of the passengers had cleared there came a small procession headed by the friendly lady, whom I now recognized as Mrs. Fletcher, a customer at my father’s butcher’s shop, followed by her daughter Valerie pushing a wheelchair with, under a pile of rugs, her husband T.S. Eliot; all accompanied by a flotilla of porters. It was only when this cavalcade had passed that the person we were waiting for made her appearance—namely the current editor of the London Review of Books, Mary-Kay Wilmers, who at that time worked for Faber and Faber and whose titular boss Eliot had been.
T.S. Eliot died early the following year. Timothy Binyon, having produced a definitive biography of Pushkin, died in 2004 and now Valerie Eliot has died. I only met her a couple of times, though was persuaded to attend her funeral if only because, through her family coming to our shop, I had known her longest—if in some respects least. What Valerie Eliot did do, though, was to send me the notes her husband had made on the inside of his program after their visit to Beyond the Fringe:

An amazingly vigorous quartet of young men: their show well produced and fast moving, a mixture of brilliance, juvenility and bad taste. Brilliance illustrated by a speech by Macmillan (Cook), a sermon (Bennett) and an interview with an African politician (Miller, who otherwise reminded us of Auden). Juvenility by anti-nuclear-bomb scene, anti-capital-punishment scene and the absence of any satire at the expense of the Labour Party. Bad taste by armpits and Lady Astor speech (?). Still, it is pleasant to see this type of entertainment so successful.

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The Lost Poetry of Paradise

The Lost Poetry of ParadiseA thousand years ago, the Iberian peninsula was a cultural oasis – until a million of its Arabic manuscripts were destroyed. Benjamin Ramm explains how its poetry lives on.
On 9 December 1499, the citizens of Granada awoke to a scene of devastation: the smouldering remains of over a million Arabic manuscripts, burnt on the orders of the Spanish Inquisition. The scale of cultural desecration is difficult to comprehend – it stands alongside the burning of the Mayan codices by Conquistadors 60 years later, and the destruction of the library at Alexandria.
A thousand years ago, as much of Europe languished in the Dark Ages, the Iberian peninsula was a cultural oasis, the brightest beacon of civilisation. Under the Umayyad dynasty, the caliphate of Al-Andalus stretched from Lisbon to Zaragoza, and centred on the Andalusian cities of Córdoba, Granada and Seville. From the 8th Century, the caliphate oversaw a period of extraordinary cross-cultural creativity known as La Convivencia (the Coexistence).
Al-Andalus was characterised by cultural hybridity and a spirit of openness, attracting scholars and merchants with spices from India and China and songs from Iraq and Syria. The translation of long-neglected Greek works of philosophy helped lay the intellectual foundations of the Renaissance, and made Al-Andalus the cultural capital of Europe for over 300 years.
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A humourous reminder from The New Yorker that we will feature poetry from the Tang Dynasty on November 23

A humourous reminder from The New YorkerDownload (from Sharon): POETRY OF THE T’ANG

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The Roman de la Rose

The Romance of the RoseThe Roman de la Rose is the work of two authors. Begun by Guillaume de Lorris around 1230 and continued by Jean de Meun approximately forty years later, the Rose is probably the most influential work written in the Old French vernacular. In the centuries following its composition, major poets like Guillaume de Machaut, Jean Froissart, Eustache Deschamps, and Francois Villon continued to write in a tradition dominated by the work which, in some manuscripts, extends to 21,750 lines. In the early 15th century, the Rose was still capable of sparking heated literary debate in France. Other national literatures felt the effect of the Rose as well. The English poets John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer and the Italian poets Dante and Petrarch were astute readers of the work.

The Roman de la Rose is an allegorical love poem which takes the form of a dream vision. The 25-year-old narrator recounts a dream he had approximately five years previously, which has since come to pass. In his dream he journeyed to a walled garden in which he viewed rosebushes in the Fountain of Narcissus. When he went to select his own special blossom, the God of Love shot him with several arrows, leaving him forever enamored of one particular flower. His efforts to obtain the Rose met with little success. A stolen kiss alerted the guardians of the Rose, who then enclosed it behind still stronger fortifications. At the point where Guillaume de Lorris’ poem breaks off, the protagonist, confronted with this new obstacle to the realization of his love, is left lamenting his fate. Jean de Meun concludes the narrative with a bawdy account of the plucking of the Rose, achieved through deception, which is very unlike Guillaume’s idealized conception of the love quest.
Read the complete History and Summary of the Text  of The Roman de la Rose  by Lori J. Walters
Read the full text of The Roman de la Rose (in English).
Download PDF version: the_romance_of_the_rose_illuminated__manuscripts

Watch Helena Phillips-Robins (Cambridge University Library) discuss  the history of The Roman de la Rose.
A reminder that we will celebrate the use of the rose as a poetic symbol or metaphor on January 25, 2018. Please bring your own illustration of this for reading and discussion and, if you wish, post it first on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly.


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Marianne Moore

THE CAMPERDOWN ELMI think, in connection with this weeping elm,

of “Kindred Spirits” at the edge of a rockledge

   overlooking a stream:

Thanatopsis-invoking tree-loving Bryant

conversing with Thomas Cole

in Asher Durand’s painting of them

under the filigree of an elm overhead.
No doubt they had seen other trees — lindens,

maples and sycamores, oaks and the Paris

street-tree, the horse-chestnut; but imagine

their rapture, had they come on the Camperdown elm’s

massiveness and “the intricate pattern of its branches,”

arching high, curving low, in its mist of fine twigs.

The Bartlett tree-cavity specialist saw it

and thrust his arm the whole length of the hollowness

of its torso and there were six small cavities also.
Props are needed and tree-food. It is still leafing;

still there. Mortal though. We must save it. It is

   our crowning curio.
Read the story of the Camperdown Elm tree and the poet who saved it

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