Jul. 10, 2014

Pied Beauty

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things—
    For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;
        For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
    Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
        And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
    Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
        With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                               Praise him.

"Pied Beauty" by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Public Domain. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the city of Dublin, founded in 988. The area had been occupied, more or less, since before the Roman invasion of Britain, and it appeared in Ptolemy's Guide to Geography in the year 140, but the first verifiable settlement came with the Vikings in about 831. They called it "Dyflin," which came in turn from the Irish Dubh Linn, which means "black pool." The reason it's considered to be founded in 988 rather than 831 is because that's the year the Irish king Máel Sechnaill reclaimed the city for Ireland. It's also the year he first forced people to pay him taxes, so Dublin has belonged to the Irish ever since, bought and paid for.

Dublin's contribution to literature alone has been remarkable. Ireland was one of the first countries to produce writing in the vernacular, and it's long had a tradition as a nation of scholars. A partial list of writers who are from Dublin, or who adopted it as their home, includes Jonathan Swift, Francis Bacon, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Bram Stoker, Patrick Kavanagh, Oliver Goldsmith, Oscar Wilde, Sean O'Casey, Brendan Behan, John Millington Synge, and Seamus Heaney.

"When I came back to Dublin I was court-martialed in my absence and sentenced to death in my absence, so I said they could shoot me in my absence." — Brendan Behan

"When I die I want to decompose in a barrel of porter and have it served in all the pubs in Dublin." — J.P. Donleavy

Today is the birthday of Marcel Proust (books by this author), born in Auteuil, France, in 1871. His major work is the seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past (or, more literally, In Search of Lost Time) (1913-27). It's Proust's own life story, told as an allegorical search for truth.

He had started the book as early as 1905, but he kept setting it aside. Finally, he realized that he had to do two things first: He needed to purge his writing of all his literary influences, which he did by writing a series of parodies for Le Figaro in the styles of Balzac, Flaubert, and others; and he needed to clarify what the philosophical underpinnings of the novel would be. He accomplished this by writing an essay stating that the artist's task is to access and revive long-buried memories. He experienced his "rusk epiphany" in January 1909, and he began the novel the following June.

It's the birthday of Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro (1931), born Alice Laidlaw in Wingham, Ontario (books by this author). Her father was a farmer who built the family house and raised foxes and mink for their pelts. She married young and had her first child when she was 21. She took writing time wherever she could find it: during her children's naptimes and, later, when they were at school. "I used to work until maybe one o'clock in the morning and then get up at six," she told The Paris Review. "And I remember thinking, You know, maybe I'll die, this is terrible, I'll have a heart attack. I was only about 39 or so, but I was thinking this; then I thought, Well even if I do, I've got that many pages written now. They can see how it's going to come out. It was a kind of desperate, desperate race. I don't have that kind of energy now."

She often sets her stories in provincial Ontario towns. She says: "The physical setting is perhaps 'real' to me, in a way no other is. I love the landscape, not as 'scenery' but as something intimately known. Also the weather, the villages and towns, not in their picturesque aspects but in all phases. Human experience though doesn't seem to me to differ, except in fairly superficial ways, no matter what the customs and surroundings."

Her latest collection, Dear Life, was published in 2012.

And today is the birthday of French theologian John Calvin (books by this author), born in Noyon, Picardy (1509). He was the fourth of five sons, and was born into a family of modest means. Luckily for young Calvin, his father — who was a notary — had a good relationship with one of the local nobles. The nobleman allowed John to be educated along with his own children. Calvin studied law and Greek in addition to theology, and he was influenced by secular Humanists, especially Erasmus. He did so well in his studies that the Catholic Church awarded him a benefice, or stipend, when he was 12; he received another one when he was 14. He completed his master's degree at the Collège de Montaigu in Paris by the time he was 18.

He experienced a religious epiphany sometime between 1528 and 1533, when, he said, "God subdued my soul to docility by a sudden conversion." His father, who had insisted that Calvin study law, died in 1531, leaving the son free to pursue a spiritual path. He cut all ties with the Catholic Church and embraced Protestantism at a time when that was a dangerous thing to do; in 1534, two dozen Protestants were burned at as heretics in France. Calvin took up a nomadic lifestyle for the next several years, traveling throughout France, Italy, and Switzerland.

He was the leader of the second generation of Protestant reformers, following the lead of Martin Luther. But where Luther was passionate, Calvin was rational and unemotional. He approached theology with the coolheadedness of an intellectual.

In 1536, Calvin published Institutes of the Christian Religion; it was intended for a general readership and answered basic questions about the foundations of Protestantism. The book was popular and sold out within a year. Word got around, and he made a name for himself among religious reformers. When he passed through Geneva, the pastor of the city urged him to stay around awhile and help with the new church. William Farel, the pastor, wouldn't take "no" for an answer, and even threatened to put a curse on Calvin if he refused. Calvin stayed for a year and a half, and although Geneva was ripe for religious reform, there was still conflict between Calvin, who wanted to install a theocracy, and those who wanted less drastic reform. Calvin was driven out of the city and went to Strasbourg. He returned three years later, and he spent the rest of his life in Geneva. He ran a strict regime; during his first five years there, he outlawed all art except for music, and that had to be vocal only — no instruments. He exiled 76 people and executed 58 for impiety, dissent, and heresy. Some people set their dogs on him, or sent him death threats, or went out of their way to disrupt his sermons. Even when his health began to fail, he carried on his work, saying, "What! Would you have the Lord find me idle when He comes?" Calvin died in 1564 and was buried in an unmarked grave at his own request, to avoid tempting anyone into idolatry. Geneva became the center of European Protestantism and gave rise to several Protestant movements over the years: Scottish Presbyterians, English Puritans, and Dutch Reformed Protestants.

The foundations of Calvinism can be spelled out with the acronym TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. Calvin and his followers believed that every person deserves damnation, because we are all hopeless sinners, but God in his mercy has chosen some for salvation. If you are not chosen, nothing you can do will earn you salvation; if you are, nothing you can do will take that salvation from you.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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