Byron’s House Party – from A COUNTRY HOUSE COMPANION

lord byron

The most flamboyant and notorious of the major Romantics, George Gordon, Lord Byron, was likewise the most fashionable poet of the day.“–THE POETRY FOUNDATION


I lost a whole day rediscovering with delight a wonderful, funny and revealing book on the British aristocracy.  Downton Abbey pales next to this amazing expose’ of the high times at the grand country estates in England, a tradition for over five hundred years.

Why?  I am in the throes of trying to slim down my “library,”I have books coming out my ears, falling out my windows and sometimes find one of my dogs running off with one in his mouth he’s discovered under my bed, in the creases of the sofa or behind the dryer in the laundry room (my dogs are not readers, but they love pictures and my scent soaked through the pages and bindings, and they will sometimes bury them under an oak tree after regaling in the photos and my fingerprints and aroma. They do this with my paddock boots and socks too and God knows what else.  For some reason they always take the the book I’m reading at the time, and the boot for the right foot).

The book that stopped me in my tracks from making difficult choices?  This one.



I digress, but in doing so I realize I am caving into a very British thing about a way of life. Dogs, horses, land, the outdoors…

These books will go eventually when I come to my senses for I have always been a rare book dealer on the side (esp. signed modern first editions), and I know the ropes and how to get my beloved little darlings good loving homes.

But I am also a laggard and backslider whenever I try to do this because I find treasures I’d forgotten about and fall into them head and heart yet again, effectively aborting the whole deal.

This book is an insider’s gossippy account of the infamous house parties of the landed gentry at their magnificent estates.  Woot, woot! I’m green with envy!

In this magnificent tome all the accounts are in the first person by invited guests, and taken from their letters and diaries, and they are oh so rare.

What a high old time they had on these beautiful grand old estates, indulging their every whim, sparing no expense, cavorting, boozing, romancing and just plain acting silly.

So, anyway, Byron had a house party at a country estate in 1809, and if Byron was involved you can bet it was over the top and historic.BYRON 1At the time he was chasing Lady Caroline Lamb, but soon after tired of her. Years later, still sick at heart,  her psyche permanently shattered, she staged a histrionic (fake) lambAuto-Da-Fe at yet another drop dead country estate in the presence of many guests at which she burned all of his letters and a miniature portrait of him on a funeral pyre while several women costumed in white garments danced around the bonfire, singing a song she had written for the occasion. Hysterical!

Sorry I missed it! Oh to be a fly on the wall for that one!

byronNow that’s entertainment!

So it’s very slow going, this  weeding through all these wonderful books, deciding which to sell, which to keep, and I hate every minute of it!  But they are rare, wonderful and valuable, many are signed modern first editions. I’ve been a collector for a long time (and a dealer), so they pile up and up. They deserve a wider audience and appreciation; it’s wrong to horde and hide them, you know. But, drat, If I had a country estate like these blokes did, I could keep them all and create a public library for them. Oh, well, I slog forward with the chore at a snail’s pace and off they go!

Posted in Humor, Literature | Tagged , , , , , | 16 Comments

Slaying Monsters: How Our Notions of Heroes Have Changed – Beowulf


Above: Grendel

“He seized one sleeping man, ‘biting the bone-joints, drinking blood from veins, great gobbets gorging down. Quickly he took all of that lifeless thing to be his food, even feet and hands.'”

This from the first epic in the English language. A heated discussion on the heels of my previous post about the “cruel” and abhorrent atrocities committed by the heroic figures in the Odyssey set off a bottle rocket in my so called mind. I had averred that art must be understood in its cultural historic context and to dismiss or condemn any work of art because we disapprove of the mores and ideals in it is to miss the point.

The history of literature and all art is in a very real sense the vivid history of our moral and ethical evolution.  It is also, IMHO, a fossil record of our species’Cotton Vitellius A. XV, f.132 attempts to restrain our basest most powerful instincts for a higher good: altruism, something that allows people to live harmoniously in communities and for civilization to rise and develop.

From the New Yorker on Beowulf Great overview from a contemporary perspective.

My fav translation of Beowulf is Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, I guess, though I also love Tolkien’s Beowulf.

An interesting thing relative to my previous post is that though Beowulf was brutal and in a sense monstrous, he slays three MORE brutal, hideous monsters–to save his friends.

Inch by inch we become kinder, more considerate.

Posted in Literature, poetry, Reading | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Grey Eyed Athena and the Wine Dark Sea

HomerTonight I’m homing in on Homer (Robert Fitzgerald’s incomparable translation of the Odyssey). Poetry’s omphalos and progenitor.  Where have all the heroes gone?

Sing to me, Muse, and through me tell the story

of that man skilled in all ways contending,

the wanderer, harried for years on end,

after he plundered the stronghold

on the proud height of Troy.


Now they made all secure in the fast black ship,

and setting out the winebowls a-brim.

and they made libation to the gods,

                                  the undying, the ever new,

most of all to the grey-eyed daughter of Zeus.

And the prow sheared through the night into the dawn.


That last line could not be more vivid or effective. Ahhh.




Posted in Literature, poetry | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

Poetry Dare – Can You Poetaster Wags Rise to the Occasion?


I found this in a box of antique ephemera today.  It’s for the old timey 18th-19th century binocular viewer, stereopticon thingy or something. One inserted it and voila! a 3-D tableau of a camel caravan headed for Egypt right before one’s eyes!

Those were the days, weren’t they? What do you suppose the camel traders were talking about? Their aching behinds? Their sunburn?

Take the challenge and write us a nice little poem about this scene.  Something along the lines of  “Ozmandias”  or  “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Post it in the comments below.  The world is waiting.

“Ode to a Camel?” or “Ode to a Camel Driver?”or — “O, Thou Odious Camel Driver Astride Thy Malodorous Camel?”

How ’bout a limerick or two too? hahaha!

What ho! Shelley, Byron, Keats!

Rejoice! It’s Saturday!

[UPDATE: Inspired verses have begun to pour in already from talented word wizards. See comment section below. If we get a selection of poems from others, we might have a vote on them and award a prize. Or give everybody a prize for the imaginative guts just to try. Maybe a banner for your blog? or ?  Hmmm

Anybody up for a sonnet, a villanelle, heroic couplets?] 

Here are some helpful prompts and backgrounders (I didn’t just hatch this versifying inanity out of my own idle fevered brain. It’s a legitamate poetic type.


Goethe thought it was one of the highest forms of poetry. What did he know?




Posted in Humor, Literature, poetry, writing | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Skimming over the Surface of Our Lives and Missing the Point

A disturbing and all too true assessment of our writing, lives and our times. Read it. Your life depends on it.

A Memoir Is Not a Status Update 

by Dani Shapiro

On the absence of depth, insight and hard won wisdom in today’s writing.  From the New Yorker.

Turn off your phone and computer and read, think, reflect tonight. Maybe even write something surprising and lasting (wink).

You have the time. Don’t kid yourself. Use it.





Posted in Literature, Reading, writing | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

The Writing Life and Dealing with the Inevitable Failures (from the New York Times)

[An excerpt from an honest and compassionate look at the terrors and disappointments unique to the writing life.  Recommended!]


 “In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows promise, you keep writing anyway.”–Junot Diaz NYT


“Failure, Writing’s Constant Companion”


Draft is a series about the art and craft of writing

This story is included with an NYT Opinion subscription.
Learn more »

Failure in writing is not like failure in business, where you lose money and have to fire everyone and remortgage your house. When you’re a writer, most of the time, people don’t depend on you to succeed. Although you may starve if your books don’t sell, or your agent might yell at you for producing something that three people will read, failure in writing is more of an intimately crushing day-to-day thing. O.K., minute-to-minute. Measured against your ideal of yourself.

In the last few years, Philip Roth and Alice Munro decided to put down their pens.

Munro told this newspaper that she didn’t know if she had the energy “to do this anymore.” And Roth said, “I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” Roth and Munro have produced many admirable works. They should be allowed to stop failing on a daily basis, if they want to, in their eighth decades.

But the rest of us are stuck.

In writing, failing is not dramatic. There will be no news headline: ANOTHER WRITER FAILED TODAY.

Sure, there are garden-variety failures, the ones everyone can see, like not getting rave reviews, prizes, cushy teaching jobs, fellowships in Tuscany and membership in prestigious intellectual societies. But these are nothing compared to the other ones, invisible to the civilian eye.

Failure in writing is not just external failure. Not having produced a best seller by 23 (or 36 or 54) is the least of your worries.

By the way, unless you come from a family of writers, you can be certain that your family will have no idea what you’re talking about when you mention that you’re failing every day. They will encourage you to become a radiologist. They mean well. They are likely to be worried about the thing that most families are worried about, namely your ability to support yourself in the fashion to which you are accustomed.

But for writers, early on, other kinds of failure demand attention. There is the logistical failure of getting to your desk. Then there is the failure of not being able to stay there. John McPhee once famously tied himself to his chair, which strikes me as a good way to deal with the torpor that overcomes many writers when faced with the blank page or screen.

But even if you succeed here, you can’t stop your mind from getting up and going over to the couch. Another potential failure: pacing. Writing is not like bingeing on “Breaking Bad.” You have to do it every day. Whatever happens.

Sometimes, especially when you’re a young writer, you pay too much attention to what other people think. You worry too much that you are a failure. You measure yourself against other people’s possessions and talent.

Yet, perversely, you have to be inured to success. If you succeed (in the marketplace) right away, you risk failing your talent before you even know what that means. If you don’t succeed, you risk a failure of nerve.

I remember the first time I felt like a bona fide failure as a writer. This feeling of nausea washed over me, but it was confusing because it appeared at the exact moment when I was supposed to be feeling success. It was when I finished my first book and realized there were some things in it that I hated, things that were made all the more hideous to me whenever people said, “You must have such a sense of accomplishment.” I asked a more experienced writer if she ever got over this nauseated feeling. She didn’t reassure me. “Oh, that never goes away.” ….

Read the rest of this terrific piece at

Fascinating up close and personal interviews with major writers on this subject of the writer’s malaise avaIlable FREE in the archives of the legendary archive of the Paris Review Interviews.  All the big shots are there, and are candid, ruthlessly honest, about their languor and pain in dealing with the constant haunting feeling of failure. 

Rachel Shteir is the author, most recently, of “The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.”

Posted in Literature, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

A Whimsical Incoherent Review of Images from Nearly 3 Years of This Licentious Literarly Lalapalooza

Well, I’ve been “playing in my sandbox.” Don’t make too much of this, wordsmiths, for it’s incomplete and mood dependent (as in mine;)).  I was curious to review some images that had appeared here over the years and at the same time experiment with the WordPress “make a gallery” function. It’s truly “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” but seems to me (self-analyzing) reflective of a feverish, eclectic imagination and a maniacal devotion to language, literature and fine writing.

Is that dangerous or contagious?  Hahaha. Enjoy the weekend! Play!

NOTE: If you click on an image, it expands and the whole thing turns into a slide show. Mirabile dictu!


Posted in Literature | 2 Comments