Tag Archives: poetry

#historymajornotes Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God; Anne Bradstreet needs some lovin’

20 Sep

This is not an online comic.  Once, I had dreams of fame for my Protestant Reformation doodles, but I gave that up when it quickly became apparent that:

1. I can’t draw.  And

2. Protestant Reformation comics kind of have a limited audience.  (For the record, when I told my Reformation/Counter-reformation professor that I thought he looked like Johann Froben, he thought it was hilarious.)

But I still draw things in the margin of my notes, and I’m just conceited enough to put them online for the world.

Today, in the American lit class that feels like a history class (because the literature we’re reading is pretty much a bunch of Puritans griping about how hard it is to save people’s souls), the prof informed our class that, quote: “When I was your age, I thought Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God would be a really cool name for an indie rock band.”  Probably not what Johnny Edwards had in mind.  And cool, of course, is used in a very loose sense.

I’m an atheist, and that sermon still provoked some serious existential dread.  Let me share a passage:

If you cry to God to pity you, he will be so far from pitying you in your doleful case, or showing you the least regard or favour, that instead of that, he will only tread you under foot.

And though he will know that you cannot bear the weight of omnipotence treading upon you, yet he will not regard that, but he will crush you under his feet without mercy; he will crush out your blood, and make it fly, and it shall be sprinkled on his garments, so as to stain all his raiment.

So… what happened to “Jesus loves you”?  Anyone?  Anyone?  Buehler?

Meanwhile (and by meanwhile I mean mid-17th century), Goody Bradstreet the poet’s missing her husband, absent upon public employment.  The prof says it’s as close to Puritan erotica as you’re going to get:

… My Sun is gone so far in’s zodiac,
Whom whilst I ‘joyed, nor storms, nor frost I felt,
His warmth such frigid colds did cause to melt.
My chilled limbs now numbed lie forlorn;
Return; return, sweet Sol, from Capricorn;
In this dead time, alas, what can I more
Than view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?
Which sweet contentment yield me for a space,
True living pictures of their father’s face.
O strange effect! now thou art southward gone,
I weary grow the tedious day so long;
But when thou northward to me shalt return,
I wish my Sun may never set, but burn
Within the Cancer of my glowing breast,
The welcome house of him my dearest guest …

Which is all nice and sweet, but we know what she’s really saying is:


Macabre, monstrous, gruesome and ghastly Gormenghast: Why aren’t we reading it in the States?

16 Apr

After three years living in Tuscaloosa, I’m beginning to despair that I’m the only person in the state of Alabama who’s read anything by Mervyn Peake.  If I get that Lifestyles columnist gig on the campus paper, the first thing I’m doing is plugging Titus Groan and Gormenghast like crazy.  Mervyn Peake is the grandfather of steampunk, the dedicatee of Perdido Street Station, and the forerunner of PKD’s psychological madness.  In sum:

Why aren’t we reading him in the States?

I realize this is an indie speculative fiction blog, but Mervyn Peake is so little-known in this dear city (and state… and country) of mine that I’m going to give him a well-deserved blog post–for in truth, he deserves a blog of his own.  One that deals in Literature with a capital L.

So, a little background:

Mervyn Peake was a brilliant, badass English artist, illustrator, poet, and writer–today, he’s best-known for his Titus books (Titus Groan, Gormenghast, Titus Alone, and, in a few short months, the posthumous Titus Awakes).  He was the child of medical missionaries in China, a soldier in WWII, a war artist, an author and, tragically, a victim of Parkinson’s Disease.  I’m no fan of C.S. Lewis in general (he reminds me of a smug, Modernist Thomas More), but I can agree with him on this: “[Peake’s books] are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience.”

Mystical-sounding?  Definitely.  But it’s about as good a description of Mervyn Peake’s writing as anyone could give.  Peake’s poetry and the Gormenghast books are less about plot, shall I say?, than effect.  It’s often categorized as fantasy, but Peake doesn’t write about elves or magic.  His writing is surrealist, gothic, and something of a social comedy.  And threading through the themes of stagnant tradition and freedom and oppression, there’s that element of madness.  Gormenghast is grotesque, gory, ghastly, mystical, lyrical, monstrous, mind-bending, and inarticulably beautiful.  His characters are strange, sympathetic, and Machiavellian by turn, and he names them with Dickensian flair (Steerpike, Flay, Fuchia and Sepulchrave, the Earl of Groan).

I had Titus Groan on my bookshelf since I was eight.  Didn’t pick it up until I was eighteen, of course, but that’s another story.  This story, in fact (hey, you clicked on the link; you get the self-indulgent, semi-autobiographical book reviews):

A very long time ago, my dear beloved mother took me to a used book store.  I wandered around the disorderly stacks of books, sneezing, because unlike many people who love the smell of musty old books (the same people, I might add, who sniff haughtily and turn away when they see my Kindle 2 with the Dharma Initiative decal) stale, yellowing paper just makes my eyes water.  Unless it’s part of a 19th-century historical manuscript collection–then it’s cool.  Anyway–

Seriously--wouldnt this give you nightmares when you were eight?

I came to a straight-backed wooden chair piled with books.  Sliding down the side was a book with a brightly-colored cover, Titus Groan.  My mother was at the check-out, so I grabbed the book, ran back to her, and smiled, as always quite pleased with myself, when she purchased it without a second glance as the clerk bagged up her nth copy of Jane Eyre.  For better or worse, she let me read whatever I wanted from the moment I could.

Of course, when we got home and I looked more closely at the cover, I was a little disturbed.  And the title was a bit frightening too.  So I hid it at the back of the bookshelf and trained my eyes to slide over it every time I looked up there.

Ten years later, college freshman me was packing boxes to ship to the University of Alabama, surreptitiously taking books from the family cache and slipping them into my suitcase with the justification that having read them more than my sisters, they were “mine.”  But Titus Groan really was mine, and I read it my first semester, and praised Palgolak that serendipity had led me to the best series I’d ever (and still have ever) read.

The book shortly fell apart, and is currently held together with scotch tape.  My copy was thirty years old when I got it, and I’ve never worried about breaking spines.

Neither was Steerpike… but that’s another story too.  And how about, instead of me boring you, you read it yourself?  This has the Scattering’s eternal seal of approval.

Here’s the link to Titus Groan on Amazon

“What is this love of mine?”–the poet Kabir, part 3 of 3

2 Apr

The syncretism of Kabir’s philosophy of simple love of God is reflected as well in the apocryphal tales surrounding his personal life.

Legends that he lived to over 120 years of age must be critically examined, and the notion that his body disappeared from its coffin before burial more than hints at allegory.

These stories surrounding his death and followers, however, do highlight the inclusive, syncretic nature of his writings: anti-caste and thoroughly unorthodox, Kabir had disciples of both Hindu and Muslim persuasions.  When during a supposed argument over the proper method of interring their master’s remains—whether burial or cremation—the coffin is found empty, both groups of followers are able to point to divine intervention and claim a miracle, reflecting their teacher’s own non-sectarian attitude.

But these ideas central to the bhakti path continued on in Indian philosophy long after the death of Kabir and the other sants—“of the various paths based on the teachings of sants who adored the Formless God and the Name, the only one that has established itself as a thriving separate religion is that of Guru Nanak” (Heehs 375), supposedly a disciple of Kabir and the first of those today called the Sikh Gurus.

A Hindu who, inspired by the more democratic teachings of Islam, rejected caste, Nanak’s Sikh faith, which means “disciple,” shares much in common with its bhakti predecessor: an emphasis on emotion, personal devotion, and a loose definition of God.

Sikhism too was “conceived by Nanak as a doctrine of loving devotion to the ‘one God, the Creator,’ whose name was Truth” (Wolpert 125).  And as Kabir was known as an opponent of orthodoxy in all forms, Nanak, comparably, is said to have pronounced “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim” after a mystical experience of the formless “Presence of God” (Heehs 377).

With its roots in theistic devotion and Islamic Sufism, and giving rise to a modern-day successor in Sikhism, the north Indian bhakti movement of the 14th and 15th centuries produced mystic poets such as Kabir, whose non-sectarian contemporaries focused on direct connection to the divine and an intense, personal romantic love for God.

Preaching accessibility to the divine for all, but also promoting vernacular literature that gave even non-elites access to contemporary philosophical thought, sants such as Kabir encouraged the spiritual equality of all people, diversity of religious opinion, and syncretic fusions of contemporary faiths—values which, incredibly modern in their democratic nature, ensure that Kabir’s poetry continues to be relevant and moving even 600-odd years later.

This is the final excerpt from a paper I wrote for an Asian Civ class at the University of Alabama.  My sources can be found below–and YOUR sources, if you choose to use this, is this:

Morales, Isabela. “What is this love of mine?–the poet Kabir.” <https://thescattering.wordpress.com&gt;, 2 April 2010.

Look at that!  I put it in MLA just for you!  I guess Alabama’s made me polite…

Works Cited:

Stanley Wolpert, A New History of India

Peter Heehs, Indian Religions: A Historical Reader of Spiritual Expression and Experience

“What is this love of mine?”–the poet Kabir, part 2 of 3

2 Apr

The bhakti path makes more than salvation available to the masses of disenfranchised and socially ostracized in Indian society: by producing vernacular literature, sants such as Kabir “served as a conduit of Hindu ideas to those beyond the pale of organized Hinduism” (Heehs 358).

Kabir himself may have been illiterate, his songs transmitted orally until they were finally recorded in the vernacular tongue—consequently, in diction that may be “rough, sometimes even crude, but always infused with frankness and vitality” (Heehs 359).

None of this fervency and frankness is lost in translation: “my body and my mind are in depression because you are not with me,” he writes; “I don’t really care about food, I don’t really care about sleep, I am restless indoors and outdoors.”

These verses project heartfelt emotion that sounds strikingly modern—the loss of appetite, insomnia, and restless frustration known to any person in love cross spatial, temporal, and cultural lines.

In keeping with a tendency toward universality—such as in his unmistakable description of love and its vicissitudes, throughout the poem Kabir refers to the object of his devotion as “the Guest,” an ambiguous title equally applicable to Allah, any one of the Hindu pantheon of gods, or other contemporary deities.

His loose definition of God highlights, again, the inclusiveness of the bhakti path: no person is to be excluded based on social class, gender, or in this case, religious disposition.

And once more, inclusiveness and accessibility produce a direct challenge to religious orthodoxy and institutionalized priesthoods.

After all, by Kabir’s time, bhakti no longer referred to the theistic devotion it originally described in the Bhagavad Gita—bhaktas who worshipped some form of Shiva, Vishnu or one of his incarnations, or a mother goddess.  Ramanand and his disciples devoted themselves to a nameless God without form or articulable characteristics—called, for this, nirgun, or “attributeless.”

It at first appears paradoxical that deep personal love and devotion can be felt for an impersonal God, a divinity with no form or attributes—this seeming contradiction can be resolved, however, by noting that theistic faiths do not have a monopoly on love.

As one modern scholar speculates:

“When was bhakti born?  The answer shall depend on… when did the human heart come into being?  Bhakti is as old as human being.  It is not meant that highly developed concept of bhakti was present in the primitive past of humanity… [but] that the basic element is quite old” (Singh 78).

Love, in other words, pulses through every human heart as surely as blood.

In his poetry, Kabir hints at such sentiments—“When I hear people describe me as your bride I look sideways ashamed, because I know that far inside us we have never met,” he writes; nevertheless, as though his deep-set devotion is an inherent part of his nature, Kabir cries out: “Then what is this love of mine?”

In this view, an ambiguous definition of God among the sants, while challenging the religious establishment, only serves to reinforce the innate capacity human beings have to experience love and intense emotion.

This is an excerpt from a paper written for an Asian Civ class at the University of Alabama.  References for my citations can be found at the end of part 3.  And please remember: if you’re going to use any of this, cite your/my sources, because I’m quite fond of my long sentences and careful citing, and I’d hate for it to be abused.

The Internet will avenge me.

“What is this love of mine?”–the poet Kabir, Part 1 of 3

2 Apr

Perhaps we could posit a universal link between love and philosophy.  The etymology of the English word “philosophy,” after all, testifies to this with its Latin and Greek origins—the root word philia meaning “love.”

But few philosophical traditions throughout history have embodied this concept of love for knowledge more deeply than the bhakti movement of India, whose name literally means “devotion” and whose central tenet reflects, rather than exclusive ritual or ceremonial observances, an intense personal connection to and love for a non-sectarian god.

Out of this philosophical tradition flourished poets such as Kabir, who in the late 14th and early 15th centuries composed works of a deeply emotional nature, such as the song beginning with the line “My body and my mind.”

My body and my mind are in depression

because you are not with me.

How much I love you and want you in my house!

When I hear people describe me as your bride

I look sideways ashamed,

because I know that far inside us

we have never met.

Then what is this love of mine?

I don’t really care about food,

I don’t really care about sleep

I am restless indoors and outdoors.

The bride wants her lover

as much as a thirsty man wants water.

And how will I find someone

who will take a message to the Guest from me?

How restless Kabir is all the time!

How much he wants to see the Guest!

In this poem, Kabir vividly imagines himself yearning for the love of God as passionately as a newly-married woman longs for her husband’s love and attention—the imagery suggests a radical redefinition of relationships between worshipper and divinity.  “The essential meaning of bhakti as love,” which the work of Kabir intensely illustrates, is indeed “human love, love between persons” (Singh 78).

This very personal meaning of love or devotion encompassed by bhakti, then, lays the foundation for a more intimate relationship between God and man than traditionally experienced through ritual prayer or sacrifice, an intimacy hinted at in the metaphor of a bride and bridegroom—in their poetry, Kabir and other contemporaries thus “write with the passion of intoxicated lovers consumed by bliss” (Wolpert 101).

This imagery of marital union as the ideal relationship between the human and divine, notably, is one that would be used throughout history in many devotional religions, such as Christianity—notably in its mystical strains, such as the poetry of Theresa of Avila.

But while presaging the forms and imagery that would characterize future faiths, the bhakti movement at the same time drew on the ideas of other, particularly mystical, strains of contemporary religions.

Islamic Sufism shares a number of similarities with Hindu bhakti, one of them being the same emotional yearning for union with God.  Wandering Sufi preachers, the “God-intoxicated” pirs, brought to the Indian subcontinent a “message of divine love to impoverished peasants” (Wolpert 122) during the 13th-century.

Finding particularly fertile ground in Bengal, Sufism—revitalizing Islam for many through a break with orthodoxy—“struck a responsive chord in the mass of Bengal’s population, especially among the lowest class of Hindu outcastes and former Buddhists, who were left without a priesthood to turn to for spiritual guidance” (Wolpert 121) after Buddhist monasticism’s recent virtual exile from India during its brutal persecution by Turkish invaders.

The disenfranchised and low-status people of India were similarly drawn to bhakti—a pattern particularly true of the sants, often transliterated as “saints,” the bhakta practitioners of bhakti who “flourished especially in the Hindi-speaking North between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries” (Heehs 357).

This group, to which the poet and sant Kabir belongs, was uniquely inclusive of both ideas and people on the periphery of the Hindu world:

The sant Ramanand, said to be Kabir’s teacher, welcomed disciples as diverse as “the Jat farmer Dhana, the outcaste cobbler Raidas,” and even “Padmavati, a woman” (Heehs 359).

Kabir himself is believed to have been the son of a Muslim weaver, a member of the artisan class—an unorthodox individual to be considered “saintlike” by any movement in the rigidly-stratified Brahmanical system of Indian Hinduism.

But the bhakti movement was almost inherently anti-establishment.  The very concept of a direct, personal relationship between an individual believer and God seems to make the priestly class redundant—a problem almost identical to that which the Roman Catholic Church would face some centuries later during the rise of Protestantism.

Even early uses of the very word “bhakti” in the Bhagavad Gita, of perhaps the fifth century BCE but certainly well before the movement of Kabir’s time in the 14th and 15th centuries CE, stress accessibility of salvation:

“Those who revere me with devotion (bhakti), they are in me and I too am in them,” Krishna, revealing himself as Vishnu, declares, adding that: “Even if a very evil doer reveres me with single devotion, he must be regarded as righteous in spite of all… even those who may be of base origin, women, men of the artisan class, and serfs too” (Wolpert 82).  This litany of the saved neatly tallies with the roster of Ramanand’s disciples.

This is an excerpt from a paper written for an Asian Civ class at the University of Alabama.  References can be found at the end of part 3–and please, please, please cite your/my sources if you’re going to use any of this.  Because Turnitin will find you.

The Internet will avenge me.

“Step Aside, Shakespeare” ?

31 Aug

Don’t mess with the Bard.

So, maybe we don’t know if “Shakespeare” was an alias, or whether the writer of the plays and poetry was Sir Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere or really and truly the son of a farmer from Stratford-upon-Avon.  What we can agree on, however, is that he was one of the greatest (heck, he was the greatest) writers in English history.

Or at least, I thought we could agree on that.

Apparently not, according to my lovely university student newspaper, which ran an article today stating that the consensus of the editorial board wants a “reform” of English education.  “Learning,” they say:

Should not be a chore.  Rather, it should be a pleasure.  It’s time to reform the way we teach people to embrace reading.  Make way for education, not anguish.  Step aside, Shakespeare.

Now generally, I have little to complain about when it comes to the Crimson White.  Mediocre writing on moderately interesting topics usually makes for a thoroughly mild reading experience.  There’s the occasional angry letter to the editor, of course, and the self-important guest column from some student luminary, but overall—there’s just not much to say about the Crimson White.

Which is why I’m not too surprised to find contempt for “a thick classic filled with incomprehensible prose and old-fashioned themes” within its pages.

I agree with the editorial board that English education in most high schools and elementary schools doesn’t always instill a ravenous hunger for knowledge in its students.  But don’t fault the material for that—fault the completely undeserved stigma that you, campus journalists, are perpetuating in your own columns.

Shakespeare was a friggin’ genius.

You might not understand some of his “incomprehensible prose,” but did anyone ever tell you just how much of the prose we use today, in our most prosaic conversations, was invented by good ol’ Bill?  Here’s a small sample:

“All that glitters is gold” (Merchant of Venice)

“The be-all and end-all” (Macbeth)

“Best foot forward”  (King John)

“Dog will have his day” (Hamlet)

“Eaten me out of house and home” (Henry IV)

“Jealousy is the green-eyed monster” (Othello)

“Kill with kindness” (Taming of the Shrew)

“In a pickle” (The Tempest)

“There’s a method to my madness” (Hamlet)

“Neither rhyme nor reason” (As You Like It)

“Too much of a good thing” (As You Like It)

“Wild goose chase” (Romeo and Juliet)

And that’s only a small selection.  Along with common turns of phrase we use, he coined words as well:  accused (n), accommodation, amazement (n), bachelorship, bandit, birthplace, cold-blooded, coldhearted, to compromise, dauntless, deafening, dexterously, to educate, enthroned, eyeball, eyesore, fortune-teller, gloomy, hoodwinked, housekeeping, invitation, lackluster, leapfrog, majestic, manager (n), multitudinous, obscene, puppy-dog, bedazzled, and many many more.

(Yes—you can thank William Shakespeare for the name of that staple of infomercials with which you can stick rhinestones on your jeans, or whatever.)

So while the sentence structure might be difficult for us today, just think: people in Shakespeare’s time didn’t know what the heck he was talking about either.

But not only this (and this is no small matter, to essentially reinvent the English language into its modern form), Shakespeare also wrote some of the most beautiful poetry in this language:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts  (As You Like It)

This is by no means the best example, but it does refute the Crimson White’s assertion that “classics” deal only with “old-fashioned themes.”  Read the lines above and tell me that they don’t apply just as well today as they did in Elizabethan England.

Not to mention that Shakespeare was way ahead of his time dealing with issues such as race (Othello) and gender (Merchant of Venice, As You Like It), which a lot of Americans didn’t start thinking about until the 1960s and 70s.

Even the structure of his plays show how far ahead in the game Shakespeare was: Antony and Cleopatra, for example, switches between wildly different settings– Rome, Alexandria, Messina, Syria, on board a ship at sea.  And he didn’t have CGI, either.  Shakespeare was anticipating the screenplay.

Yes, I agree that English education is not always inspiring, but that doesn’t mean we should take writers such as Shakespeare off of the pedestal they very rightfully deserve.  Don’t lower the bar and erect a monument to Averageness: show students that there already are monumental works of literature, and that they are understandable, and that they are incredibly relevant even today.


Coined quotes and words from: