31 July 2015

28 July 2015

fun stuff I may or may not get to: August 2015

the BART warning
In what is turning into a monthly ritual, I have another warning about BART service interruptions. Tracks leading to the Transbay Tube need to be replaced so on 1 - 2 August (and also Labor Day weekend) the West Oakland station will be closed and there will be no transbay service. There will be some buses from the 19th Street Oakland Station to the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco, but they are for the desperate and basically you should just plan to stay on your side of the bay, whichever that may be, on those weekends. The trains will be running in San Francisco and in the East Bay; you just won't be able to take them from one to the other. Road traffic will no doubt increase considerably on those days. You can get the official word, for what that's worth, here.

The American Bach Soloists present a rarity: as part of their summer festival centering on Versailles and the Parisian Baroque, they are performing the outside-of-Europe premiere of Marin Marais's complete 1709 opera Sémélé. That's 13 and 14 August at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The rest of the festival line-up can be found under Baroque.

The Lamplighters present Gilbert & Sullivan's HMS Pinafore; or, The Lass That Loved a Sailor on 31 July (evening), 1 August (matinee as well as evening), and 2 August (matinee) in Walnut Creek; 8 August (matinee and evening) and 9 August (matinee) in Mountain View; and 14 August (evening), 15 August (matinee and evening), and 16 August (matinee) at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco; and 22 August (matinee and evening) and 23 August (matinee) in Livermore.

San Francisco Opera's Merola Program for young artists presents the Donizetti comedy Don Pasquale on 6 August and 8 August (matinee) at the Cowell Theater in Fort Mason. Then on 22 August you can hear the Merolini performing arias from Bellini to Heggie at the Grand Finale concert at the Opera House. Click here for more information.

West Edge Opera continues its summer festival with Berg's Lulu, staged in the abandoned 16th Street train station in Oakland, on 2 (matinee) and 8 August; Monteverdi's Ulysses, staged in the American Steel Studios at 1960 Mandela Parkway in Oakland on 1, 7 and 9 (matinee) August; and Laura Kaminsky's new chamber opera As One in the Oakland Metro on 8 August (matinee).

American Bach Soloists present their annual summer festival, always a highlight for music lovers, especially this year since the enticing theme is Versailles & the Parisian Baroque. On 7 and 8 August, there is a two-part concert featuring music by Rebel, Rameau, Aubert, Boismortier, Campra, Couperin, Marais, Philidor, and van Blankenburg; and on 13 and 14 August there are performances (the first complete ones outside of Europe) of Marais's opera Sémélé. In addition, trumpeter John Thiessen plays works by Clarke, Corelli, Fantini, Handel, Scarlatti, and others on 15 August; there is a baroque marathon on 10 and 11 August; and as always the festival includes two performances of Bach's Mass in B Minor (9 and 16 August). There are also master classes and lectures. Most events will be at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. You can check out the whole schedule and get tickets here. You can also go here for ABS's blog, including entries embedding ABS's new thirty-minute documentary on the B Minor Mass and a primer on the upcoming festival with suggestions on music, movies, and books for further exploration of the theme.

If you want to hear the San Francisco Symphony before they head off on a European tour, you can hear them on 21 August playing Schoenberg's Theme and Variations Opus 43b, the Beethoven Piano Concerto 4 with terrific soloist Yuja Wang, and the Tchaikovsky 5. Or you can go on 22 August and hear the Bartók Piano Concerto 2 (again, with Wang as soloist) and the Mahler 1. How come Europe gets to hear some Schoenberg while we keep getting the same pieces by Ravel and Rachmaninoff? (No disrespect to those two gentlemen.)

Sondheim's Company continues until 12 September at the San Francisco Playhouse.

Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice, directed by Erika Chong Shuch, starts at Shotgun Players on 20 August and runs until 20 September. And the third in their new Champagne Reading Series, Bethany by Laura Marks, plays on 3 and 4 August.

The Aurora Theater opens its season on 28 August with Mud Blue Sky by Marisa Wegrzyn, directed by Tom Ross. The play looks at a reunion of three middle-aged flight attendants, women who probably started their jobs when they were called "stewardesses." The show runs until 27 September.

At the SF Jazz Center the Club Foot Orchestra provides live accompaniment to two great Buster Keaton films, the short One Week and the sublime home-grown surrealism of feature-length Sherlock Jr. That's 23 August, with matinee and early evening performances.

Chamber Music
Curious Flights makes a welcome return, kicking off its second season on 29 August at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The all-British program includes: John Ireland's Songs Sacred and Profane with soprano Julie Adams, Herbert Howells's Rhapsodic Quintet with the One Found Sound string quartet and clarinetist (and Curious Flights artistic director) Brenden Guy, choral works by Ralph Vaughn Williams, Benjamin Britten, and Gerald Finzi performed by St Dominic's Schola Cantorum, Arnold Bax's Sonata for Two Pianos with Peter Grunberg and Keisuke Nakagoshi, and Britten's Sinfonietta, Op 1, conducted by John Kendall Bailey.

Tomato Tuesday 2015/12

We're threatened with an oncoming heat wave, and I could feel its approach Sunday afternoon when I went out to the backyard to check on the tomatoes. I also intended to fill the birdbath since, as previously noted, I've been convinced I need to provide water to the wandering cats that have displaced the birds. I had no idea that there was a cat in the yard when I went out. He was sleeping under the dappled shade of the fig tree and blended in with the sun and the shade and the half-dead grass.

He raised his head slightly as I passed, with a look of irritation that he might have to bolt away from the intruder, because he would clearly rather lie there sleeping. I skirted around him, hoping he would not feel obliged to run, because he seemed so comfortable in the sun. Tired creatures deserve their sleep. He must have decided I was safe enough, because he ignored me. I filled the birdbath and managed to dowse myself with water, so I went inside to change my shirt and that was the cat's cue to jump up and lap away before retreating again.

I can't blame him for wanting to sleep under the spreading canopy of the fig tree.

I used to get two crops a year from the fig tree, one around June and one around October. Then, nine years ago this August (I remember the year because this happened about a week before I left for Bayreuth), the tree cracked in half. I guess one side was overloaded and I should have trimmed it back, but still, perhaps because it was a fig tree, the incident seemed absolutely Biblical: The Lord God has smitten my fig tree! Since then, I've only had one crop each year, in the fall. The tree is now full of green figs, and some of them are starting to blush purple towards ripeness, though they are smaller than in previous years. I'm sure this is an effect of the drought; last year, the figs were also smaller, though intensely sweet. And the roses all have smaller flowers this year.

Remember the heirloom lettuce from several posts ago? It's gone to seed, and it's lovely, with tall spires of dusky green and lilac. The photo below is looking down on them; the one below that gives you a better idea of what the stalks look like.

OK, here are the stars of our show. Once again, Michael Pollan is on the left and Cherokee Purple on the right. Both are looking rather extravagantly lacy these days, though I noticed with mild alarm that the lower leaves of Michael Pollan are starting to turn yellow and curl inward. I'm not sure if this is normal or a death-spiral caused by lack of water. Both plants are a bit under four feet tall, measuring from their soil line in the pot.

Here are some of the fruits of Michael Pollan. There are currently 18 on the vines, in various stages of ripeness. This is apparently one of those tomatoes that is green and yellow when it is ripe, so I need to start keeping a sharp eye on it. Red tomatoes have more of a screaming ripeness about them.

Cherokee Purple now has 16 fruits, in various stages of development. Below is a photo of the first to appear; it is now four inches across, and as you can see its unripe green is just starting to give way to riper hues.

The passion flower in the back has been spreading itself all over the surrounding trees. It's one of those plants, beloved of haphazard, time-pressed gardeners like me, that thrives on neglect. It also seems to be very drought-friendly.

And here's a random rose: this is Our Lady of Guadalupe. I posted it a few weeks ago, but those flowers went the way of all flowers and it's now on its second blooming. Most of my roses, except for some of the antique varieties, go through two or three cycles of bloom each summer.

27 July 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/30

Dead Wasp at the Side of the Pool

You with the terrible reputation,
how beautiful you were, your belly black and shining,
legs like honeysuckle tongues,

your tail full and flaccid. An hour ago
I watched you drown, man without parachute,
wings beaten under an august sun.

Janet Kofi-Tsekpo

It must be summer; the speaker is relaxing by the side of a pool. She sees a dead wasp at poolside, a casualty of the season. Her gaze is both attentive and dispassionate – godlike, even, observing this dead wasp closely with a care that might seem like love if it were not also indifferent: she watched the wasp drown, did nothing to save it, and yet an hour later she is still thinking about it, this enigmatic creature with its terrible reputation and its beauty. The world shrinks down to this dead wasp, or the wasp expands to include the world; there is a sense of fullness and vividness about the description: the shiny black of its belly, the tail both full and flaccid, the legs that are like tongues, the tongues of the honeysuckle flower. To the wasp a pool must seem like a vast expanse of water. He drowns in it like a man fallen from the sky into the ocean. The poet italicizes august: a pun, most likely, on the month of August, but also on the august (majestic, impressive) qualities of the sun, which does not even notice the tiny wasp surrender his life. The poet, by the poolside, notices.

I took this from Yellow Iris by Janet Kofi-Tsekpo, one of the eight chapbooks included in 8 New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set, edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani. For those who don't know, a chapbook is basically a pamphlet, offering a brief sampler of a poet's work. Part of the usual definition is that they're cheaply produced, but Akashic Books has put the lie to that with this beautiful set: the box that holds them is sturdy, the chapbooks are elegantly produced on good-quality paper, and both box and chapbooks have rich, intriguing cover art by Imo Nse Imeh. This collection is sponsored by the African Poetry Book Fund and is the second in an annual series of such collections, each to feature seven to ten new African poets.

26 July 2015

Reading Shaw 1: Widowers' Houses

Quite a few years ago, back in the pre-Internet days when a book lover depended on serendipity, I was browsing the drama section of my favorite bookstore, Moe's in Berkeley, when I came across a six-volume set in fairly good condition of Bernard Shaw's Complete Plays with Prefaces (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1963). I had never seen a complete set before and though I hesitated for a moment because it cost $50 and I was already as usual too much in debt, the magic word Complete worked its enchantment on me and I walked out of Moe's the thrilled owner of Shaw's entire dramatic corpus (as well as the indispensable Prefaces). The clerk at the counter told me that they didn't get those sets very often, which reassured me that I had done the right, the only possible, thing, and indeed in the years since I have never seen such a set again in my many subsequent trips to Moe's and other used bookstores (though you can find them on-line).

I had read a fair amount of Shaw in my younger days, but not much recently, though about twenty years ago I read through the three volumes of his music criticism (as edited by Dan H. Laurence and published by The Bodley Head). As is the way of such things, my prize purchase sat on the shelves in a place of honor, but unread. So I've decided to read all the plays in chronological order, then do a post of some sort on each one. Since I'm perpetually behind, I'm not sure how often these entries will appear, but I decided the first one would land today, 26 July, since it is the day on which Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856.

First up is Widowers' Houses, subtitled An Original Didactic Realistic Play, begun in 1885, laid aside, and then finished in 1892. In the preface Shaw discusses his decision to make a living as a writer, his success as a critic, his feeling that his river of critical remarks was starting to run dry and the next generation was starting to rise, and his subsequent decision to leave life as a reviewer and to publish the plays he had started to write (as a bit of math will show you, he was nearing forty when he finished his first play). He then describes his love of the theater and notes that he is, "as intelligent readers of this preface will have observed, [himself] a bit of an actor." He always has this clear-sighted awareness. When describing, earlier in the preface, how he cast about for a career, he noted, "Better see rightly on a pound a week than squint on a million. The question was, how to get the pound a week." The first sentence is witty, but also approaches the bromidic; the second sentence anchors it in the reality of everyday life – high-minded sentences are fine, but not enough to live on.

After describing the lack of serious theater in England and the "new theater" opened up by the works of Ibsen, Shaw describes an attempted collaboration with William Archer (who was, among other things, an early translator of Ibsen into English). The partnership fell apart with the play unfinished. Several years later, Shaw took it up again and completed it, but because socially and culturally aware people often avoided the trivial commercial theater, and because the institution of theatrical censorship severely limited what could be shown on stage, he felt he could reach a wider audience by publishing his plays in a form that made them pleasurable to read (this is why he writes such elaborate stage directions; it's to help readers picture the action as if they were reading a novel).

If you've ever read Shaw, you will recognize that my bald summary does not do justice to the wit and insight with which he discusses his career and the social and theatrical situation of his time.

In his later plays Shaw uses his prefaces to lay out the arguments behind the plays, but this one has a more general introductory purpose; it was written for Volume 1 of Plays: Pleasant and Unpleasant, and covers the three "unpleasant" plays: Widowers' Houses, The Philanderer, and Mrs Warren's Profession. Shaw's explanation for calling these plays unpleasant: "The reason is pretty obvious: their dramatic power is used to force the spectator to face unpleasant facts." I might as well continue quoting and let him sum up Widowers' Houses himself: "No doubt all plays which deal sincerely with humanity must wound the monstrous conceit which it is the business of romance to flatter. But here we are confronted, not only with the comedy and tragedy of individual character and destiny, but with those social horrors which arise from the fact that the average homebred Englishman, however honorable and goodnatured he may be in his private capacity, is, as a citizen, a wretched creature who, whilst clamoring for a gratuitous millennium, will shut his eyes to the most villainous abuses if the remedy threatens to add another penny in the pound to the rates and taxes which he has to be half cheated, half coerced into paying. In Widowers' Houses I have shewn middle class respectability and younger son gentility fattening on the poverty of the slum as flies fatten on filth. That is not a pleasant theme."

Indeed, not a pleasant theme, but the play itself is very entertaining and, given the real estate realities of the Bay Area, some enterprising local theater should schedule it pronto. Shaw's ingenious technique is to take a banal romance of the sort that is ever popular – will young Dr Trench end up marrying Blanche, whom he met traveling with her stern and somewhat mysterious father, Mr Sartorius? Does he have prospects enough? are Blanche and her father respectable enough for a young professional with a small but steady income and aristocratic connections? – and to spell out the social and economic conditions lying underneath the conventional situation. Sartorius has risen to wealth because he is a slumlord. When Trench discovers this, he renounces in a noble way any income from his future father-in-law, until Sartorius tells him a few home truths about his own respectable income. Despite Shaw's declaration in his subtitle that his play is didactic, it is also sharply amusing (perhaps part of what we are supposed to learn is that didactic and amusing are not mutually contradictory concepts). It is filled with clever remarks that seem like things clever people might actually say. The plays of his contemporary Wilde are filled with brilliant remarks, but part of their point is that they are obviously brilliant, to the point of being somewhat detachable from the plays in which they are set like sparkling jewels.

Another important point is that, though the situation is resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned, including the scrubby rent-gatherer fired by Sartorius in one act only to return in the next resplendent in new-found real-estate wealth, that solution will not be to the satisfaction of anyone in the audience who is disturbed by the continuing existence of slums, or by the miserable lives of those who have to live there. This misery is not shown, only described at second-hand and occasionally by characters who would clearly prefer to avoid the topic; the respectable people decry such things abstractly but have no personal experience of such miserable, grinding poverty, while Sartorius, who does have personal experience of it, talks coldly but reasonably about what would happen to his property if he did improve it, and what would happen to his renters, who have nowhere else to live – though at the end, and Shaw subtly does not belabor the point, he does in fact abandon his renters in order to increase gains for himself and the rest of the group. It's left to the audience to remember the cruel life on the streets facing these unseen impoverished renters.

Faced with a happy ending whose very happiness exposes the corruption of its society, the audience must figure out a solution on its own. An indication of the direction to go in is given when Sartorius begins his explanation and justification to Trench by saying, "I assume, to begin with, Dr Trench, that you are not a Socialist, or anything of that sort." To which Trench replies, "Certainly not. I'm a Conservative. At least, if I ever took the trouble to vote, I should vote for the Conservative and against the other fellow." It seems likely that Trench has little idea who "the other fellow" is, or what Socialism is, and so, good-hearted as the young doctor is, he can make no response to the chill blast of Sartorius's exposition.

Sartorius himself is an excellent example of Shaw's psychological and dramatic skill: far from being the villainous, evil-hearted slumlord of melodrama, he is an intelligent man, one capable of analyzing social and economic reality, though not of seeing beyond them into possible alternatives. He perhaps is also not interested in such alternatives because the system did in fact work for him; he raised himself out of desperate poverty into wealth and respectability through skill, hard work, and determination (and, of course, some good luck and a little capital that landed his way). Part of his intimidating exterior is no doubt the wish to hide his origins as well as the source of his income (and the respectable are only too happy to look the other way; Trench has an older friend, Cokane, who constantly urges his blundering young friend towards tact, propriety, and gentlemanly behavior, and though he initially cautions his friend to find out whether the Sartorius fortune is from a respectable source, he is the very first to leap at Sartorius's explanation and sweep aside any further thought of improving conditions for those in the slums – his tact is really a form of complicity).

Sartorius has a wonderful moment when Blanche bursts out with her opinion of his tenants after she sees an official Parliamentary bluebook describing life in his properties. She exclaims, "Oh, I hate the poor. At least, I hate those dirty, drunken, disreputable people who live like pigs. If they must be provided for, let other people look after them. How can you expect any one to think well of us when such things are written about us in that infamous book?" Sartorius's response is, and Shaw specifies that this is spoken "coldly and a little wistfully": "I see I have made a real lady of you, Blanche." It's the classic dilemma of the immigrant – you raise your children to be "better" than where you came from, and it creates an emotional divide – and Sartorius is an immigrant from another class. He has raised his daughter into heartlessness.

Blanche herself is quite an interesting character. She can look, at least at the beginning, like one of the independent "new women" of the late nineteenth century, but it's easy to imagine her aging into a conventionally terrifying dowager. Headstrong, heedless even, her anger has an erotic charge: there's an interesting, sort of Strindbergesque love-hate scene with a parlormaid she mistreats emotionally as well as physically, and there's a key moment towards the end when Trench realizes what lies beneath her fury; as Shaw's stage direction has it: "For a moment they stand face to face, quite close to one another, she provocative, taunting, half defying, half inviting him to advance, in a flush of undisguised animal excitement. It suddenly flashes on him that all this ferocity is erotic: that she is making love to him. His eye lights up: a cunning expression comes into the corners of his mouth. . . ." There is a popular conception that Shaw is rather bloodless, but here in his first play he is as perceptive about the erotics of society as he is about the economics. And the two are connected: it's the drive towards marriage that helps resolve the economic dilemma to the satisfaction of the characters, if not of the audience.

You may have noticed the names, which are as suggestive as those in Dickens. The doctor is Trench, as in a rut, or a ditch he's dug himself into; his friend is Cokane, which brings to mind the medieval myth of Cockaigne, the land of endless ease and plenty, with no need to work for any of it: a fairytale analogous to Cokane's social position. Sartorius brings to mind sartorial, clothing, tailoring: Sartorius both covers and exposes the naked human truth. The name is also a reminder of how crucial outward things like clothing are in signalling class (we see this embodied on stage in Mr Lickcheese, the rent-collector whose initial shabbiness signals his low degree and low spirits and whose return in slightly overdone splendor signals his nouveau riche status). The splendid Latin sound of Sartorius reinforces the formidable, distancing impression made by the man's manners. Sartorius makes me wish I had already read Carlyle's satirical novel Sartor Resartus (The Tailor Re-Tailored); I can't help feeling there's probably some reference there. And his daughter Blanche: blanch can mean to remove color, to whiten something, which brings to mind her family's social ascent to the world where you can wear white clothing because someone else has to wash it; blanch can also bring to mind blench, a sudden flinching out of fear or pain, an action not infrequent in those around her. And Lickcheese: a name both slightly distasteful and ludicrous, indicative of a bootlicking sort of nature, but with something almost endearingly odd and mouselike about it.

In his preface Shaw refers to Widowers' Houses as "a farfetched Scriptural title"; Holroyd's epic biography of Shaw refers me specifically to Matthew 23:14: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation." Why does Shaw change the houses from widows' to widowers'? Perhaps it is to avoid an automatic sentimental feeling about widows, a sense of humble virtue and propriety that might attach to that social role (a feeling no doubt conventional in the England of the widowed empress Victoria). Widows are traditionally deserving of social protection, from Biblical days on down; widowers are much more ambiguous creatures. And of course Sartorius himself is a widower, and the possessor of these houses; the title's plural possessive is an ironic reminder that the widower who owns the property is inextricably joined to the lonely widowers who have to live there.

I was planning to end each of these entries with quips and quotes from the play or its preface, but I've already pulled some of them into the entry. Maybe I should highlight those words in red, the way some Bibles do the words of Jesus: I think Shaw would be OK with that. So let me flip through the many post-it notes I've stuck in my book and find some lines I haven't already used:

"Can't you say he's a gentleman: that won't commit us to anything."

Blanche: I don't want to marry a fool.
Sartorius: Then you will have to take a husband over thirty, Blanche. You must not expect too much, my child.

From a description of the Sartorius drawing room, a keen observation on that guarantee of respectability, the parlor piano (and an illustration of how carefully Shaw thought about his stage sets): " . . . the pianoforte, a grand, is on the right, with a photographic portrait of Blanche on a miniature easel on a sort of bedspread which covers the top, shewing that the instrument is seldom, if ever, opened."

"Why not have a bit of romance in business when it costs nothing?"

21 July 2015

Tomato Tuesday 2015/11

It's not quite the dead of summer yet. The days are hot and oddly muggy. My water bill came this week and though my daily usage is much reduced from the 2013 number given as a comparison, it's still higher than it's supposed to be. This is too bad as I am starting to think I need to water the tomatoes more than a couple of times a week. They've been looking a bit wilty lately. I suppose I could try watering roughly every other day for a few weeks. I still pass green lawns and sprinklers that end up watering the sidewalk, so either word is not getting out about the seriousness of the drought or people are just ignoring it. Possibly they're counting on the reports that this coming winter will be an El Niño year, bringing with it extra rain (though it will take more than one rainy winter to make up the water deficit and to counteract the warmer temperatures). I guarantee that maybe the first rainy weekend will get a pass, since that will count for ecological awareness, but the second one will get plenty of whiny complaints from people – from some people.

Once again Michael Pollan is on the left and Cherokee Purple is on the right. The former is now about 44 inches high and the latter about 43. I took this pictures Sunday around noon; it was muggy and overcast. I had intended to get out into the garden earlier than that, but I slept so oddly and poorly the night before – I fell asleep around 8:30 PM, woke up about two hours later, and then could not sleep again until after 4:00 AM, and then got out of bed at 7:30 AM, since I could tell sleep was not going to return to me – that it took me a while to acclimate myself to the day.

Here is a closer view of some of Michael Pollan's flowers and fruits. Last week there was a similar close-up of this cluster, and the flowers were still bright and yellow and full; this week they are shriveling and starting to turn into fruit. Currently on the whole plant there are twelve tomatoes in various stages of development, though none of them seem to be anywhere near ripe. I seem to have inadvertently picked the two slowest vines in this year's bunch. Maybe that's the garden equivalent of always getting into the line that is going to move the slowest.

A closer view of some of the Michael Pollan tomatoes. I like the streaked shades of green. I should reread the description on the label, which I always stick in the pot, to see what the ripe fruit is supposed to look like. There are some tomatoes that are green when ripe (usually they are streaked with yellow and the green is paler on the ripe fruits – Green Zebra is like that).

And here's a view of some flowers turning into fruits on Cherokee Purple.

Cherokee Purple currently has ten fruits. I think they will be larger than Michael Pollan's fruits, and they tend to be lobed, while Michael Pollan's look flat and oval.

Below are the first tomatoes to develop on Cherokee Purple. The larger one (on the top) is still about three and a half inches wide. I wonder if its proximity to the other fruit is hindering its development, though I guess it could always expand in the other direction, or the vine could just curl differently.

The vines do tend to go straying, despite the tomato cages. Below is a wanderer from Cherokee Purple. It has a couple of small tomatoes on it, which might be difficult to see against the pale brown background of dead grass, though you can always click on the picture to enlarge it. When the tomatoes get larger and heavier they will pull their vine down to earth. Though this increases the chances that the tomatoes will get damaged (whether by bugs crawling around or by my careless footsteps), I usually don't try to tuck the vines back into the cage when they've reached this point. When I do so they often flop out again, or they snap and there go the tomatoes.

Speaking of bugs crawling by, I weeded around the pots this week (even with reduced watering, it seeps out and so the area surrounding the pots is now the only place where things are green) and discovered more ant colonies. They were already swarming through the compost bin and various other plants like the artichokes and indeed through my kitchen – my very limited counter space is currently reduced even further because of the ants and the ant traps. I've read some E O Wilson and know I should admire this industrious creatures, such marvels of social organization and labor – they're like little miniature versions of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, right in my own backyard, and in my own house! – but despite my life of many dull routines and my regular contributions to a corporate-sponsored 401(k) plan, I am by nature more of a grasshopper person and in that great divide I come down on the side of the heedless summer fiddler. I used to hear crickets every summer when I was young but I rarely hear them now. I haven't heard any so far this year.

Below is Indigo Kumquat, which I mentioned last week. These have ripened enough so that you can't really see the green, so you're not quite getting the beautiful combination of the black-purple on top of the yellow-green. (When they're ripe the yellow-green is replaced with a pale orange). I find these so beautiful I think I will look for them next year as well. With their combination of two deep, lovely colors one on top of the other they're like little ripening Rothkos.

Below is an heirloom pepper I'm growing this year. I bought it because it was named Hot Portugal, which amused me (my surname is Portuguese). You don't quite get the scale here; the plant is about eight inches high, but it looks smaller because it's in a section of the yard that gets a lot of wind (it's been much windier the past few years) so it bends over and looks several inches shorter than it would be if it were upright. The vivid red peppers are about two to three inches each. They hang there like jewels. I should pick some and figure out what to do with them.

20 July 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/29

Achilles rebukes his horses and the prophetic horse answers back x 9

Last week's poem was Keats's memorial to the sense of revelation he felt when he first read George Chapman's Elizabethan translation of Homer, so I thought for this week I would post an excerpt from that version, which I suspect most of us have not read. I have not, though I've had it sitting on the shelves for a very long time – since 1999, according to Amazon, and I don't know if I like it or not that they tell you how long ago you bought something which you still haven't read – and yet I go on buying, and new books get piled on top of the old, and I fool myself that I will get to each one eventually. We all have our ways of pretending we're immortal.

In addition to the Chapman, I have eight other versions of this same passage. I've also added a label, translation, if you want to see the other entries in which I compare different versions of one poem.

I took the photos at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Greek and Roman galleries.

The story so far is this: Achilles, infuriated by the arrogant treatment of him by the Greek leader Agamemnon, has retreated to his tents and refuses to fight. Without their greatest warrior, the Greeks are at a disadvantage on the battlefield, and the Trojans come close to attacking their ships. Achilles still refuses to fight, but his beloved friend Patroclus persuades Achilles to allow him to wear his distinctive armor, hoping thereby to fool the Trojans into thinking the great warrior is on the field. With the assistance of Apollo, Hector kills Patroclus, thinking he is Achilles, and after a struggle the Greeks capture the body and bring it back to the tents. Angry, remorseful, and thirsting for revenge, Achilles rejoins the battle. After he mounts his chariot, he rebukes his horses (which are of divine origin) for abandoning the corpse of Patroclus on the battlefield. One of the horses, abruptly given the power of speech by Hera, rejects the accusation and, underlining the role of the gods and Fate in the war, foretells the rapidly approaching death of Achilles himself. The horse's power of speech is then abruptly taken away by the Furies. Achilles responds that he already knows he is doomed to die at Troy, but before that happens he will give the Trojans their fill of his anger.

This passage is at the end of Book 19. Here are some useful things to know: the horses Xanthos and Balios (whose names refer to the color of their coats, and are translated in some of the passages below) are the offspring of the harpy Podarge and Zephyrus, the god of the west wind (some versions of their story give Zeus as their father). They are immortal. Danaans and Argives are terms Homer uses to refer to the Greeks. The Furies are also known as the Erinyes. The son of Leto is Apollo. (The Latin version of her name, used by Chapman, is Latona; some translators use Latin versions of the names, some Greek, and some transliterate the Greek differently.) Interestingly, given Apollo's role in his impending death, Achilles mounting his chariot is himself compared to Apollo the sun god, which gives a vivid sense of the glory and power seen in Achilles. Links to the translations (if you wish to buy them and I hope you do) are in the translators' names.

First we have Chapman:

       [. . . ] The fight's seate last Achilles tooke behind,
Who lookt so arm'd as if the Sunne, there falne from heaven, had shin'd –
And terribly thus charged his steeds: "Xanthus and Balius,
Seed of the Harpye, in the charge ye undertake of us,
Discharge it not as when Patroclus ye left dead in field.
But when with bloud, for this daye's fast observ'd, Revenge shall yeeld
Our heart satietie, bring us off." Thus since Achilles spake
As if his aw'd steeds understood, twas Juno's will to make
Vocall the pallat of the one, who, shaking his faire head
(Which in his mane (let fall to earth) he almost buried),
Thus Xanthus spake: "Ablest Achilles, now (at least) our care
Shall bring thee off; but not farre hence the fatall minutes are
Of thy grave ruine. Nor shall we be then to be reprov'd,
But mightiest Fate and the great God. Nor was thy best belov'd
Spoil'd so of armes by our slow pace or courage's empaire.
The best of gods, Latona's sonne that weares the golden haire,
Gave him his death's wound through the grace he gave to Hector's hand.
We, like the spirit of the West that all spirits can command
For powre of wing, could runne him off. But thou thy selfe must go;
So Fate ordaines; God and a man must give thee overthrow."
       This said, the Furies stopt his voice. Achilles, farre in rage,
Thus answerd him: "It fits not thee thus proudly to presage
My overthrow. I know my selfe it is my fate to fall
Thus farre from Phthia; yet that Fate shall faile to vent her gall
Till mine vent thousands." These words usde, he fell to horrid deeds,
Gave dreadful signall, and forthright made flie his one-hov'd steeds.

George Chapman (1611)


Next is the celebrated translation by Alexander Pope, which displaced Chapman as the standard version in English:

All bright in heav'nly arms, above his squire
Achilles mounts, and sets the field on fire;
Not brighter, Phoebus in th'ethereal way,
Flames from his chariot, and restores the day.
High o'er the host, all terrible he stands,
And thunders to his steeds these dread commands.
       Xanthus and Balius! of Podarges' strain,
(Unless ye boast that heav'nly race in vain)
Be swift, be mindful of the load ye bear,
And learn to make your master more your care:
Thro' falling squadrons bear my slaught'ring sword,
Nor, as ye left Patroclus, leave your Lord.
       The gen'rous Xanthus, as the words he said,
Seem'd sensible of woe, and droop'd his head:
Trembling he stood before the golden wain,
And bow'd to dust the honours of his mane,
When, strange to tell! (So Juno will'd) he broke
Eternal silence, and portentous spoke.
       Achilles! yes! this day at least we bear
Thy rage in safety thro' the files of war:
But come it will, the fatal time must come,
Not ours the fault, but God decrees thy doom.
Not thro' our crime, or slowness in the course,
Fell thy Patroclus, but by heav'nly force;
The bright far-shooting God who gilds the day,
(Confest we saw him) tore his arms away.
No – could our swiftness o'er the wind prevail,
Or beat the pinions of the western gale,
All were in vain – The fates thy death demand,
Due to a mortal and immortal hand.
       Then ceas'd forever, by the Furies ty'd,
His fate-ful voice. Th'intrepid chief reply'd
With unabated rage – So let it be!
Portents and prodigies are lost on me.
I know my fates: To die, to see no more
My much-lov'd parents, and my native shore –
Enough – When heav'n ordains, I sink in night;
Now perish Troy! he said, and rush'd to fight.

Alexander Pope (1743)

The link is to the Penguin edition, which is the one I used, though it seems to be out of print. Other editions might be available as well.


       Xanthus, hark! a voice hath found,
Xanthus of the flashing feet:
Whitearm'd Herè gave the sound.
       "Lord Achilles, strong and fleet!
Trust us, we will bear thee home:
Yet cometh nigh thy day of doom;
No doom of ours, but doom that stands
By God and mighty Fate's commands.
'Twas not that we were slow or slack
Patroclus lay a corpse, his back
All stript of arms by Trojan hands.
The prince of gods, whom Leto bare,
Leto with the flowing hair,
He forward fighting did the deed,
And gave to Hector glory's meed.
In toil for thee, we will not shun
Against e'en Zephyr's breath to run,
Swiftest of winds: but all in vain:
By God and man shalt thou be slain."
       He spake: and here, his words among,
Erinnys bound his faltering tongue.

W E Gladstone (1858)

Yes, this is the Gladstone who served as Prime Minister of England four times during the nineteenth century. Let us pause for a moment and contemplate a world in which someone could both be the Prime Minister of England and write enough worthwhile essays on Homer to have them published in a three-volume collection midway through his career. He did not translate the entire epic, only portions. This excerpt comes from Homer in English, edited by George Steiner with the assistance of Aminadav Dykman, part of the excellent Penguin series Poets in Translation, all of which now sadly seem to be out of print. Though this version is shorter than the other ones given here, I thought it was worth including it. It's interesting to see a translator still using rhyme for Homer in the mid-nineteenth century.


       "Xanthus and Balius both, ye far-famed seed of Podarga!
See that ye bring your master home to the host of the Argives
In some other sort than your last, when the battle is ended;
And not leave him behind, a corpse on the plain, like Patroclus."
       Then, from beneath the yoke, the fleet horse Xanthus addressed him:
Sudden he bowed his head, and all his mane, as he bowed it,
Streamed to the ground by the yoke, escaping from under the collar;
And he was given a voice by the white-armed Goddess Hera.
       "Truly, yet this time will we save thee, mighty Achilles!
But thy day of death is at hand, nor shall we be the reason –
No, but the will of heaven, and Fate's invincible power.
For by no slow pace or want of swiftness of ours
Did the Trojans obtain to strip the arms from Patroclus;
But that prince among Gods, the son of the lovely-haired Leto,
Slew him fighting in front of the fray, and glorified Hector.
But, for us, we vie in speed with the breath of the West-Wind,
Which, men say, is the fleetest of winds; 'tis thou who art fated
To lie low in death, by the hand of a God and a Mortal."
       Thus far he; and here his voice was stopped by the Furies.
Then, with a troubled heart, the swift Achilles addressed him:
       "Why dost thou prophesy so my death to me, Xanthus? It needs not.
I of myself know well, that here I am destined to perish,
Far from my father and mother dear: for all that I will not
Stay this hand from fight, till the Trojans are utterly routed.
       So he spake, and drove with a cry his steeds into battle.

Matthew Arnold (1861)

This is another rendition taken from Homer in English. Arnold, like Gladstone, did not translate the whole epic, but only certain passages as part of his arguments on how Homer should be rendered in English. He lists four main features of Homer's verse that he feels should be the goal of every translator, and since his list is still mentioned when the subject of Homeric translation comes up, here it is: "eminent rapidity; eminent plainness and directness both in vocabulary and syntax; eminent plainness in 'matter and ideas'; eminent nobility." Those might be Steiner's words I'm quoting (it's a little unclear in the headnote to this version), but if so he's summarizing Arnold.


[. . . ]
while behind him Achilleus helmed for battle took his stance
shining in all his armor like the sun when he crosses above us,
and cried in a terrible voice on the horses of his father:
"Xanthos, Balios, Bay and Dapple, famed sons of Podarge,
take care to bring in another way your charioteer back
to the company of the Danaäns, when we give over fighting,
not leave him to lie fallen there, as you did to Patroklos."
       Then from beneath the yoke the gleam-footed horse answered him,
Xanthos, and as he spoke bowed his head, so that all the mane
fell away from the pad and swept the ground by the cross-yoke;
the goddess of the white arms, Hera, had put a voice in him:
"We shall still keep you safe for this time, O hard Achilleus.
And yet the day of your death is near, but it is not we
who are to blame, but a great god and powerful Destiny.
For it was not because we were slow, because we were careless,
that the Trojans have taken the armor from the shoulders of Patroklos,
but it was that high god, the child of lovely-haired Leto,
who killed him among the champions and gave the glory to Hektor.
But for us, we two could run with the blast of the west wind
who they say is the lightest of all things; yet still for you
there is destiny to be killed in force by a god and a mortal."
       When he had spoken so the Furies stopped the voice in him,
but deeply disturbed, Achilleus of the swift feet answered him:
"Xanthos, why do you prophesy my death? This is not for you.
I myself know well it is destined for me to die here
far from my beloved father and mother. But for all that
I will not stop until the Trojans have had enough of my fighting."
       He spoke, and shouting held on in the foremost his single-foot horses.

Richard Lattimore (1951)


 [. . .] at his back Akhilleus
mounted in full armor, shining bright
as the blinding Lord of Noon. In a clarion voice
he shouted to the horses of his father:
"Xánthos and Balíos! Known to the world
as foals of great Podargè! In this charge
care for your driver in another way!
Pull him back, I mean, to the Danáäns,
back to the main body of the army,
once we are through with battle, this time,
no leaving him there dead, like Lord Patróklos!"
To this, from under the yoke, the nimble Xánthos
answered, and hung his head, so that his mane
dropped forward from the yokepad to the ground –
Hêra whose arms are white as ivory
gave him a voice to say:
                                         "Yes, we shall save you,
this time, too, Akhilleus in your strength!
And yet the day of your destruction comes,
and it is nearer. We are not the cause,
but rather a great god is, and mighty Fate.
Nor was it by our sloth or sluggishness
the Trojans stripped Patróklos of his armor.
No, the magnificent god that Lêto bore
killed him in action and gave Hektor glory.
We might run swiftly as the west wind blows,
most rapid of all winds, they say, but still
it is your destiny to be brought low
by force, a god's force and a man's!"
                                                On this,
the Furies put a stop to Xánthos' voice.
In anger and gloom Akhilleus said to him:
"Xánthos, why prophesy my death? No need.
What is in store for me I know, know well:
to die here, far away from my dear father,
my mother, too. No matter. All that matters
is that I shall not call a halt today
till I have made the Trojans sick of war!"
And with a shout he drove his team
of trim-hooved horses into the front line.

Robert Fitzgerald (1974)


The next excerpt, from Christopher Logue's celebrated version, needs a bit of background. Logue, who did not read ancient Greek, is not exactly translating the Iliad, but rather recreating it, and he embraces anachronisms if they will give a contemporary reader a more vivid sense of what's going on. So in the passage below he compares the movement of the horses by saying "as in dreams, or at Cape Kennedy, they rise": dreams signals to us how unreal these grand and powerful animals would look; Cape Kennedy (its name has since reverted to the original Cape Canaveral) was the site of NASA's rocket launches, and so we get a striking image that reminds us that these majestic horses are of celestial origin and that war machines like the chariot were among the most advanced technologies of their day. But the anachronisms are there for us, the contemporary readers, not the people in this ancient world, and Logue reminds us of its differences from our world: for example, though in other versions Achilles mentions the end of the fighting, here he explicitly gives the reason: the fighting had to pause when the day got too dark for the soldiers to see: when twilight makes the armistice.

He mounts.

       The chariot's basket dips. The whip
Fires in between the horses' ears.
And as in dreams, or at Cape Kennedy, they rise,
Slowly it seems, their chests like royals, yet
Behind them in a double plume the sand curls up,
Is barely dented by their flying hooves,
And wheels that barely touch the world,
And the wind slams shut behind them.

"Fast as you are," Achilles says,
"When twilight makes the armistice,
Take care you don't leave me behind
As you left my Patroclus."

       And as it ran the white horse turned its tall face back
And said:
This time we will, this time we can, but this time cannot last.
And when we leave you, not for dead, but dead,
God will not call us negligent as you have done."

       And Achilles, shaken, says:
"I know I will not make old bones."

And laid his scourge across their racing flanks.

Someone has left a spear stuck in the sand.

Christopher Logue, War Music (1981)


The ellipsis after line 13 below is in the translation. When I've started an excerpt mid-sentence, I've preceded it with an ellipsis in brackets.

          [ . . .] and behind him
Achilles struck his stance, helmed for battle now,
glittering in his armor like the sun astride the skies,
his ringing, daunting voice commanding his father's horses:
"Roan Beauty and Charger, illustrious foals of Lightfoot!
Try hard, do better this time – bring your charioteer
back home alive to his waiting Argive comrades
once we're through with fighting. Don't leave Achilles
there on the battlefield as you left Patroclus – dead!"
       And Roan Beauty the horse with flashing hoofs
spoke up from under the yoke, bowing his head low
so his full mane came streaming down the yoke-pads,
down along the yoke to sweep the ground . . .
The white-armed goddess Hera gave him voice:
"Yes! we will save your life – this time too –
master, mighty Achilles! But the day of death
already hovers near, and we are not to blame
but a great god is and the strong force of fate.
Not through our want of speed or any lack of care
did the Trojans strip the armor off Patroclus' back.
It was all that matchless god, sleek-haired Leto's son –
he killed him among the champions and handed Hector glory.
Our team could race with the rush of the West Wind,
the strongest, swiftest blast on earth, men say –
still you are doomed to die by force, Achilles,
cut down by a deathless god and mortal man!"
       He said no more. The Furies struck him dumb.
But the fiery runner Achilles burst out in anger,
"Why, Roan Beauty – why prophesy my doom?
Don't waste your breath. I know, well I know –
I am destined to die here, far from my dear father,
far from mother. But all the same I will never stop
till I drive the Trojans to their bloody fill of war!"
       A high stabbing cry –and out in the front ranks he drove his plunging stallions.

Robert Fagles (1990)


In the following, the most recent rendition included here, Xanthus address Achilles as huge Achilles. In the other translations, the equivalent phrase is: ablest Achilles (Chapman); Lord Achilles, strong and fleet (Gladstone); mighty Achilles (Arnold); O hard Achilleus (Lattimore); Akhilleus in your strength (Fitzgerald); master, mighty Achilles (Fagles) (Pope and Logue omit the adjective). Huge really struck me here. It's completely unexpected, and unusual, and because of that it conveys and emphasizes the sheer physical size and strength of the legendary hero more vividly than more usual terms like mighty (on the other hand, a word like mighty can also convey a sense of grandeur that doesn't necessarily come with the word huge). Like most of the translators, Verity includes a note explaining his principles, and one is to stick closely to the Greek in preference to trying to give a "poetic" version. If someone knows the original Greek term used, I'd love to hear it.

[ . . . ]
and behind him Achilles mounted, in full armour,
shining brightly in his weaponry like Hyperion the Sun,
and he called to his father's horses with a terrible cry:
"Xanthus and Balios, far-famed children of Podarge!
This time take more care to bring your charioteer back to
the Danaans' soldiery when we have had enough of fighting,
and do not leave him there dead, as you did Patroclus."
       Then from under the yoke the glancing-footed horse Xanthus
spoke to him; it had bent its head down, and all its mane
was drooping to the ground from the yoke-pad beside the yoke,
and the goddess Hera of the white arms had given it speech:
"We shall surely bring you back safe this time, huge Achilles;
but the day of your death is near at hand, and it is not we who
will be its cause, but a great god and your powerful destiny.
It was not through our sloth or carelessness that the Trojans
stripped the armour from the shoulders of Patroclus, but it was
the best of the gods, he whom lovely-haired Leto bore, who
killed him among the front-fighters and gave the glory to Hector.
We two could run with the speed of the West Wind,
which men say is the fastest of all things, but it is your fate
to be beaten down by the might of a god and of a man."
       When it had spoken in this way the Furies silenced its voice;
and swift-footed Achilles, deeply angered, addressed it:
"Xanthus, why do you prophesy my death? There is no need.
I know very well myself that it is my destiny to die here,
far from my dear father and mother; but for all that I shall not
hold back until I have driven the Trojans to eat their fill of war."
       He spoke, and with a yell to the leaders drove out his single-hoofed horses.

Anthony Verity (2011)

17 July 2015

Friday photo 2015/29

Lincoln Park, San Francisco, on the way to the Legion of Honor, 9 July 2015

14 July 2015

Tomato Tuesday 2015/10

After last week's update, in which I discussed the local feral cats who were so thirsty they tolerated my presence in order to jump into the birdbath and lap up the water, I was persuaded to think of it as my St Francis duty to keep these creatures hydrated, no matter how often they darted for the fence as soon as I appeared. I was happy enough to be so persuaded, but it does concern me that I no longer see any birds using the birdbath, and it was a bit of a relief Monday evening when I spotted a young mourning dove hopping along the brick pathway.

In addition to the two beautifully patterned grey cats from last week, I saw one Sunday morning that was all charcoal grey, with short hair and a sleek figure (probably, as with a supermodel, due to hunger as much as genetics). He was silhouetted on top if the wall. He was elegant and regal, like a cat come to life from an ancient Egyptian tomb painting. He was gone by the time I could grab my camera, but I think he returned that afternoon to snarl and tussle with one of the patterned greys. I suddenly feared that my attempt to provide water may be turning into a turf war over scarce resources – Mad Max among the tomatoes and roses. I've also seen a black cat slipping around, and Sunday evening I looked up from the kitchen sink and out onto the driveway and saw an orange tabby sitting on its haunches, giving me a baleful glare. Who knows where this will end!

In previous weeks I've shown one of the lavender bushes and the Flower Girl rose, so here, curling in front of them, is an olive-silvery branch of wormwood, which is very decorative as well as one of the key ingredients in absinthe. I'm always kind of amused by the high price of absinthe, now that it's legal again, since the reason it was so popular with all those painters and poets is that they were poor and it was a cheap way to get high. It tastes kind of like licorice.

Although I've made more of an effort to eat things I grow before they pass their prime, I did miss some artichokes, which you can see below. It's a decorative plant, sort of similar in color to wormwood, and the chokes flower into purple thistles. It can get quite tall. The one shown below is taller than I am, which puts it well over six feet. It is one of those plants that really attract ants, so the artichokes I harvested were rinsed off outside (with a bucket beneath the tap to collect the water) and rushed into an already steaming pot. Ants are pretty tough, but not tough enough to survive forty minutes of steaming. (I'm told that soaking the artichokes in salt water will also eliminate the ants, but I don't know how long you're supposed to soak them.) Ants are all over outside, and inside too, and they climb on me as indifferently as if I were a counter or a plant. The creepy thing about them is that once you've felt them you can continue to feel them even after you've brushed them off (or crushed them to death), which brings us to the interesting word formication, meaning a sensation like insects crawling over (or under) the skin.

On to the tomatoes. Once again Michael Pollan is on the left and Cherokee Purple on the right. Michael Pollan was once noticeably more slender than the bushier Cherokee Purple, but now they are looking about the same. Both are about 39 inches high.

Below are some flowers on Michael Pollan, which still has seven fruits.

This is one of the larger Michael Pollan fruits; it's about one and three-quarters inches long, kind of flat and oval and streaked in shades of green.

Here are several of them!

Below are some Cherokee Purple flowers. There are about five fruits on the plant.

Below are the Cherokee Purples I've been showing the past few weeks. The larger one, on the top, is now about three and a half inches long, up from three and a quarter last week.

Meanwhile, my other tomatoes, as if to rebuke me for not featuring them, are already producing. Last week was V's birthday so I brought her the first fruits of the field. You can see them below. The large one on the top left streaked yellow and green is Green Zebra, which I've grown before. Last year's were particularly good. They have a slightly tart taste that is pleasing. At the bottom of the plate is a variety new to me, Indigo Kumquat, which is quite beautiful as well as tasty. The ripe ones, as you can see, are purple shading into orange, and when they're unripe they're blackish purple and green. I'll try to get some good pictures of those for next week.

13 July 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/28

On first looking into Chapman's Homer

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
   And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
   Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
   That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
   Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
   When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
   He stared at the Pacific – and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise –
   Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

John Keats

Last week's poem on reading Dryden's Virgil brought to mind Keats's famous sonnet on his first reading of Chapman's Homer.

The Chapman referred to is the English Renaissance poet and dramatist George Chapman (1559 - 1634), whose translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, published in 1616 as The Whole Works of Homer, were the first complete versions in English. They remained the most popular until Pope published his renditions in the early eighteenth century. Though Pope and his style – elegant, clear, satirical, moralizing, rational, epigrammatic – were prized by that quintessential Romantic, Lord Byron, many others of the Romantic generation turned away from him towards earlier, craggier poets. After reading Pope's Homer, Keats must have found Chapman's closer to what he felt Homer should be: powerful, primal – somewhat rough and wild, mighty and sublime. It's ironic that one of the most familiar poems in English is a description of what it's like to come across a new poem that blows your mind open.

Keats positions himself throughout not just as an explorer, but one who seeks out the farthest reaches of the world. These territories/poets he has explored are not only at the boundaries of human knowledge, they are described in fanciful and legendary terms, and all these qualities are suitable for poetry. He begins by mentioning the realms of gold, which brings to mind the fabulous El Dorado; goodly states and kingdoms to my mind brings up images from medieval romance, as does the feudal notion of fealty, that is, a vassal's sworn loyalty, in this case to not to a king or baron but to Apollo, the Greek god of (among other things) music and poetry; the western islands suggest lands out where the sun sets, that is, at the very edge of the world (the term can also refer to the Outer Hebrides, a group of islands off the west coast of northern Scotland, which puts them near the edge of Europe).

In the second quatrain, Keats sums up the mighty reputation of Homer: he has often been told of the Greek poet, whom he describes as deep-browed, which suggests a profundity of thought and feeling, and aptly echoes the famous Homeric epithets (the wine-dark sea; Hector, breaker of horses). The territory Homer rules is both wide and an expanse: the terms mutually reinforce a sense of great breadth in the Greek poet, with an implication in expanse that this already broad sweep can only increase. Yet Keats has never truly grasped the reason for this great reputation – until he reads Chapman's translation. He describes it in two ways that help convey the power of Homer. First, continuing the comparison of reading poetry to traveling in foreign lands, he can now breathe the pure serene of Homer (serene here means an expanse of clear and calm sky): that is, he is lifted up, elevated (and perhaps this is a foreshadowing of the heady air upon the peak in Darien) into a state of simplicity and nobility. (These are two of the qualities that Matthew Arnold would insist, years later, were essential to a successful translation of Homer: simplicity, nobility, directness, and rapidity.) Yet Chapman is also loud and bold, with an essential energy and vigor to bring life to the epic poet's monumental and sublime qualities.

Having established that he is an experienced traveler in the far reaches of poetry, that he has heard much of the great Homer, and that he never fully appreciated him until he read Chapman's translation, Keats then uses the final sestet to convey the emotional impact of the discovery. He continues the theme of himself as an explorer, but this discovery has now moved him beyond the earthly realm into the universal: he feels like "some watcher of the skies" who finds a new planet orbiting into his ken, that is, his range of knowledge and/or sight. This isn't just fanciful; Uranus was discovered by Sir William Herschel a few years before Keats was born, and Neptune and Pluto were only noted long after his death; scientific advances must have brought with them an exciting sense of a rapidly expanding, even explosive, growth of world-changing knowledge.

The striking final comparison contains one of the famous errors in English poetry, up there with the seacoast that Shakespeare gave Bohemia: stout Balboa, not stout Cortez, was the first European explorer who crossed the isthmus of Panama and brought back to the wider world knowledge of the vast ocean that would be named Pacific. (Stout in this context means brave or intrepid, not portly.) Well, as they say, even Homer nods. Perhaps Keats misremembered because he was drawn to the crisp sound of Cortez. It's still a terrific image: the searching eagle eyes, the mountaintop in the rough uncultivated terrain they named Darien, the vast and glittering expanse of water, hitherto unknown, that stunned the men into silence as they almost helplessly stare at each other, overcome by a sudden psychic leap forward into knowledge that will leave their map of the world forever altered.

I took this from the Penguin Classics edition of The Complete Poems of John Keats, edited by John Barnard.