Friday, February 05, 2010

One of the Heroes

In old family letters my cousin found this poem written in the fine script of a woman's handwriting. There is no name or date. The paper and handwriting indicate that it was written a long time ago, perhaps as early as 1883, the earliest date found so far. The author is unknown and may be a family member or a poem copied because they liked it.

If you know who the author might be, please leave a comment.

One of the Heroes

Hark, through the wild night's darkness rings out a terrible cry,
And the woman shudders to hear it, in the room up close to the sky:
"Fire!" in accents of terror, and voices the cry repeat,
And the firebells join in the clamor out in the stormy street.
"God grant we are safe, my darling," she says to the child in her arms,
While the voices far down in the darkness add to the bells' alarm.
Then she thinks of the two little children who are sleeping peacefully near],
And, "God pity the people in danger," she adds with a thrill of fear.

The voices ring louder and louder. She hears the swift tread of feet
And the sound of engines rumbling below in the stormy street.
"It must be the fire is near us." She listens: a step on the stair.
Then the door is flung wide and beyond it she sees the red flames aglare.
"Give me the child!" cried the fireman, "There's not a moment to spare!"

The flames like a glittering serpent are writhing up the stair.
"No, I will carry my baby," and then she points to the bed
Where the light from the hall shines brightly over a golden head.
One little head on the pillow - one only - the fireman sees,
With flossy curls stirring about it in the firey breeze.
He lifts the child while the other is cuddled away from sight.
And springs down the stair where the flame-hounds snarlafter their prey in its flight.

On, on, through the fire that leaps round as a swimmer breasts the wave,
Scorched and blinded and breathless, to go by, and he comes not back.
The flames leap higher and higher.
The weak walls sway and crack.
"Oh! My lost child!" cries the mother, forgetting the babe at her breast.
In this moment of awful anguish, she loveth the lost child best.
Up from the crowd, all breathless with horror and doubt and fear
Goes a cry: "Thank God, he's coming with the child!" and cheer on cheer

Rings through the night, blending strangely with the wind and the wild flame's roar,
As out of the tottering building, the fireman springs once more.
Straight to the mother he staggers with the rescued child and cries:
"I left him, and I have saved him!"


Author Unknown

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum


The Sonoran Desert is one of the largest stretches of protected arid ecosystems in the world, and its biological diversity is vast. If you ever pass through Tucson this is the best place for me to astonish guests! The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum will celebrate its fiftieth year this Labor Day having displayed living plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert, Southern California, Sonora and Baja California since 1952.

Spending a good week camped nearby our group of college science majors lived off of peanut butter sandwiches, oranges and oatmeal. (shh-- don't tell; I threw in raisins to hide the weevils). This is defiantly the Disneyland for geologist, anthropologists, biologists or any other 'ologist' you could dream up. You could spend days here and by the time you think you've seen everything they've built something new to grok.

There is always a piece of nature anywhere you go in Tucson. Nature and wilderness are as close as anyplace else. It can be 110º in the shade and there are all of these amazing plants that survive while waiting months and months until it rains again. And so many colors of green, that's another special thing about this desert. Many times people think that a desert is all brown but that's not true. The plants here are every kind of green imaginable. There are bobcats, coyotes, and great horned owls that live in the city limits, Peregrine falcons take off from the city towers. There are birds everywhere, in the back alley or a vacant lot; there might be a pocket mouse or beetles feeding in cacti, or a pack rat nest, there is always something to see.

Back then most of the animals lived in cement and chain-linked cages. Since my colleg days they have built biomes of artificial rocks and boulders, and invented Invisinet, a net type fencing that out lines the animal's enclosures and is nearly invisible. So much so that when Chras4 and I were there I thought a coyote was on the loose when he strolled by. It is so much better now to see the large enclosures, open to the sky and planted with desert vegetation to provide a comfortable and more natural habitat.

For years the Desert Museum has endeavored to be an environmentally perfect zoological site. They strive to save endangered animals, aiding the Mexican Grey Wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) breeding program, and researching ways to help with the survival of certain desert plants, fish (yes there are fish here, a most amazing story), reptiles, mammals and birds. The Mexican Grey wolf was common to the woodlands of the Sonoran mountain ranges. About a century ago the wolves were almost hunted to extinction.

    "When wolves were eliminated in the early 1900's," says one Desert Museum scientist, "there was a whole different mind-set. The intent wasn't to control them, but to eliminate them. But times have changed and now people see that the wolves are part of the ecosystem.
Today wolves roam the forests of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico because in 1983 a program was initiated to save and reintroduce it back into the wilderness. A captive breeding program to protect and build up the population of these wolves began from just seven specimens growing to 215. The first litter of Mexican wolves were born in 1978 at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum , by the spring 1992 the number of Mexican wolves stood at 42. On March 29, 1998, 11 Mexican wolves were released into the wild in Arizona. The area they were released into is called the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area in the Apache-Sitgreaves and Gila national forests. It's hoped that these are remote enough areas to avoid run-ins with people and cattle, but still many ranchers are very worried even though there are plenty of deer and elk for the wolves to hunt.

The wolves have been fitted with radio collars to keep track of where they are. As of January 2002 there were 33 with radio collars and about a dozen more without collars. Some have fit in very well in the wild roaming for miles and having pups. Others have died from natural causes, been hit by cars or shot.

The Desert Museum was founded by William H. Carr and Arthur N. Pack. Both were convinced of the importance of educating others about plants and animals and their relationships to one another and to mankind. Many times people will wonder what all the fuss is about building in a particular spot here in the desert. Sometimes there are ongoing discussions in the paper and on the news. On more than one occasion I have been told, "What's the big deal? The animals will just move to another place." While this may be true in some cases for highly adaptable animals, but not so in other cases like the pygmy owl. Some critters will only nest and breed in a particular plant and only at a certain height. In turn the plants they live in can only survive at a specific altitude; when these plants disappear sometimes this leads to the extinction of the animal. One of the most controversial endangered species in Tucson is this mild mannered "earless" owl. That doesn't mean it doesn't have ears, but that it doesn't have the feather tufts that are seen on more common owls like the screech owl. The pygmy owl is only six inches tall, barely weighing 2.5 ounces, but it's tough enough to hunt and eat other birds, lizards and wee mammals. It's flight is long and undulating like a shrike's with a call that is a long repetition of single or double dove like notes. A black patch at the side of its hind neck distinguishes it from most owls. Pygmy owls like to live in the holes of the giant saguaro and trees where they sometimes store food. The saguaro has such a slow growth rate of many decades one can see why the pygmy owl would disappear well before a sagauro was tall enough to nest in. Most recently this feathered creature has brought the construction of roads and schools to an abrupt halt near our home on the northwest side of Tucson.

George L. Mountain lion was the mascot for the museum. Arriving there in 1953 when the museum was only 6 months old he had been raised by people in California he was very friendly, purring ---very loudly. He enjoyed having his ears and chin scratched and when he was excited to see someone he knew he would say, "Yap,yap yap!" He was usually walked on a leash and visitors were allowed to pet him. Sometimes he would perform in his cage for visitors by holding on to his hind foot or tail and do somersaults.

When George passed away he was buried in the grounds. Today his gravestone can be found on the History Patio near the restaurant. There was a George the II and George the III was donated by The San Diego Zoo. George the IV's sisters Honey and Georgette were the first to produce off spring at the Desert Museum in 1971.

There are summer camps, special classes and family activities galore. For more than three decades Hal Gras drove a station wagon called the Desert Ark to schools. He would bring along such animals as badgers, porcupines, snakes, ringtail cats and sometimes-special young animals, such as a baby mountain lion. Today the museum has the Desert Trek Outreach Program along with the Amigos del Desierto Program that focuses on bilingual and natural history educational activities. Classes visiting the museum on field trips receive suggestions for activities for both before and after their visits.

One special organization is The Coati Club for ages 6-12. For teens there is the Junior Docent Program where participants study desert ecology and provide useful services to the museum on a regular basis. This program grew out of a similar one led by Mr. Carr when a number of teens helped build paths and care for the animals. One of these teens at the age of 18 became the youngest curator of small animals there while two others received their Ph.D. degrees in biology and taught at the University of California.

The world-renowned museum is divided into sections, so you can easily head for your favorite animals or plants. Mine of course, is the Hummingbird Aviary which is at this time under construction. Sadly Chra4 and I couldn't see it when she was here for a visit, but that didn't stop us from seeing my second favorite stop and that is a Walk-in Aviary filled to the brim with cardinals, Gambel's quail, ducks, doves and one unusually brazen and smart aleck Black-Headed Oriole.

There is the Cactus Garden with over 140 species of desert fauna. Sagauro, cholla, beavertail and hedgehog to name a few catcus along with the beautiful Palo Verde trees with their green trunks and beautiful yellow flowers. You can see from the top or go underground and view the Cat Canyon with it's musky smelling ocelots, as well as, margays, jaguarmundis and coatimundi. Visit the incredible Bighorn Sheep exhibit. Just imagine how incredible these majestic creatures are with their ability to climb rock faces that would puzzle the most well-equipped mountain climber. At the Riparian Habitat, otters and beavers can be observed through underwater glass panels.

There is more to see at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum than I can describe. I haven't even mentioned the reptiles and invertebrates, the chuckwalla or the colorfully exquisite parrots that are found in this desert and south into Mexico.

Bring your camera, bring you field notes and binoculars. Most of all bring a lunch or plenty of money. A vegetarian burrito, small bag of Saguaro chips and soda cost me an astounding ten dollars!

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a fantastic oasis in the desert with the Tucson Mountains with their Kitt Peak Observatory as a back drop. Located 15 miles outside the city in the dusty desert at 2021 N. Kinney Road, Tucson, AZ 85743-8918. To get there take the Speedway exit off of I-10 and turn west, rive though the breath taking Gates Pass and into the amazingly beautiful Saguaro National Monument West and follow the signs. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is also located very close to the historic Old Tucson Studios where movies such as Rio Bravo, Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Three Amigos , and more recently, Tombstone with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, were filmed there. The television series High Chaparral made its home at Old Tucson, as well as episodes of Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie and countless TV commercials.

for Chras4.

Sources:

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Larson, Peggy. "Happy Birthday, Desert Museum." Arizona Daily Star. 20 January 2002, p 3-4.

Picture Source

Robbins, Bruun, Zimm, Singer.A Guide to Field Identification, Birds of North America. Racine, Wisconsin.: Golden Press, 1966.

Decadence

Decadence describes an attitude of poets as opposed to a type of poetry. As the word suggests, there is a 'going down', however the decline is from the attitudes of a preceding generation of poets. A decadent poet thinks of things in particulars of what they mean to him or her and not what they might mean in a general sense. This characterizing word was initially used in the 1880s to describe a group of flamboyant and self-conscious poets, publishers of the journal Le Décadent in 1886 . The decadents venerated the French symbolists and Baudelaire , the group with whom they are commonly and mistakenly identified. Oscar Wildes's Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) presents a vivid fictionalized portrait of the 19th-century decadent, a synopsis of his moral inversion, restlessness, and spiritual confusion. The decadent movement during the latter part of the 1800s in England was embodied by the works of the likes of Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, Ernest Dowson, and Aubrey Beardsley, as well as, the writers of the Yellow Book and J. K. Huysmans's À rebours (1884) .

It's not really a very definitive word because poets as different as Walt Whitman, Yeats and T.S. Eliot could be called 'decadent' Frequently applied to Greek literature and works from the Alexandrian period (c. 300- 30 B.C.) and in Latin literature to the period after the death of Augustus (14 A.D.). In the arena of modern literature it's frequently associated with the French literature of the late nineteenth century that unfolded along lines of symbolism and demonstrated anti-social, hermetic, egotistical, and eccentric behavior that brandished loftily the label "decadent".

The authors centered their experiences as one of a private and personal one, confined within narrowly egocentric limits. Outcomes of the work displayed usually but not always unsatisfied desires concerned with the 'experience itself' and with private sensations rather than the 'fruit of the experience'

Alfred G. Engstrom lists several distinguishing traits he found common in the poems of French Decadents.

  • The search for novelty with attendant artificiality and interest in the unnatural;
  • Excessive self-analysis;
  • Feverish hedonism, with poetic interest in corruption and morbidity;
  • Abulia (inability to make decisions), neurosis, and exaggerated erotic sensibility; (the "erotic" sensibility did not always involve a quest for carnal knowledge; sometimes it involved the opposite -- an eroticism made keener and intellectually / spiritually more productive by chastity)
  • Aestheticism, with stress on "Art for Art's Sake" with the evocation of exquisite sensations and emotions this was at its source a reaction to the naturalism of the European realists, the decadents espoused that art should exist for its own sake, independent of moral and social concerns;
  • Scorn of contemporary society and mores; (scorn is most frequently directed at the bourgeoisie and values connected with positivism and industrialization)
  • Restless curiosity, perversity, or eccentricity in subject matter;
  • Overemphasis on form, with resultant loss of balance between form and content -- or interest in jewel-like ornamentation, resulting at times in disintegration of artistic unity (the Nazis destroyed a number of Gustav Klimpt's masterpieces for this alleged "problem");
  • Bookishness;
  • Erudite or exotic vocabulary;
  • Frequent employment of synaesthesia (describing one sense in terms of another: "it tasted yellow");
  • Complex and difficult syntax;
  • Attempt to make poetry primarily a means of enchantment, with emphasis on its musical and irrational elements;
  • Experiments in the use of new rhythms, rich in evocative and sensuous effects, alien to those of tradition and often departing from the mathematical principles of control in established prosody;
  • Anti-intellectualism and stress of the subconscious;
  • Abandonment of punctuation, and use of typography for visual and psychological effects;
  • Substitution of coherence in mood for coherence and synthesis in thought;
  • 'Postromantic' irony in the manner of Corbiere, Laforgue, and the early Eliot;
  • Obscurity, arising from remote, private or complicated imagery or from a predominantly connotative and evocative use of language, with obvious reluctance to name an object ('Le suggerer, voila le reve' -- "To suggest it -- there's the dream." says one scholar);
  • An over-all aura of something lost -- a nostalgic, semi-mysticism without clear direction of spiritual commitment, but with frequent reference to exotic religions and rituals, or to such mysterious substitutes as Tarot cards, magic, alchemy, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, The Kabbala, Satanism, and the like.

R. L. Patterson writes....In my view the mysticism was quite serious, though often only half-consciously "absorbed" from the spirit (or, more exactly, the spirits) of the age and it reflects the eclecticism of the Decadents. I think that Theosophy and Gnosticism were most congenial to the Decadents, the former because it is an eclectic system that attempts to bring together into one more or less harmonious, though necessarily incomplete, mosaic all religions and the latter because of its similar blending of religious thought and its emphasis on the heretical and individualistic religious quest....adding

Let us add another characteristic of Decadence: Spleen: The neo-Romantic Decadents, like their Romantic forebears, tended to be "splenetic" (at least in the first phase of Decadence).

Patterson applies decadence to Baudelaire's work Spleen in the sense that Spleen is a 'precondition to abulia' among other attitudes with it's setting of sadness and 'protracted annoyance, boredom over the actuality that nothing seems justified or, perhaps, justifiable.'
The nature of Decadence has been divided into three phases by some:
Youthful Decadence where pose and efforts are to shock the bourgeoisie are in the forefront; exploring of language and stylistic resources; experimenting artistically; energies directed at going beyond human limitations by way of drugs, sex, spiritism, automatic writing, "unconscious" symbolism
Mature Decadence the appearance of greater emphasis on cognition, method, philosophy, religion, significance and intelligibility
Theosophy or Gnosticism where sometimes one of the orthodox religions, (for example Huysmans ultimately returned to Catholicism) accepted as a religious frame, with maximal retreat into Art and the Self.
Sources:








DISTINGUISHING CHARACTERISTICS OF DECADENCE

infoplease.com

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mesquite


    Over the past several centuries, no one plant has probably played a greater and more vital role in the lives of humankind in the southwestern United States than the short stature, crooked mesquite. Relied on for a myriad of necessities such as food, weapons, shelter, and medicine, early southwestern aboriginal inhabitants drew upon the mesquite in most every aspect of their lives, even to a position of honor in their religious ceremonies. Mesquite during times of drought and pestilence supplied early western travelers and settlers with survival, both in food and shelter, as most all parts of the tree were used. Mesquite that dominated the dense brush on millions of acres of the southwestern United States conveyed many emotions to humans who looked at it as a noble warrior, who confronted it as a powerful adversary, or who drew to it for survival.
    (excerpted from The Magnificent Mesquite, Ken E. Rogers)

Mesquite (Prosopis pallida) is pronounced mess-KEET, it's also known as algarroba in most South American countries. In Spanish it's spelled mezquite, and the Nahuatl Indians spell the word mizquitl. When the Conquistadors searched for gold in the 1500's through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, mesquite seedpods served as a dense, high-energy horse fodder; three centuries later, the southwest is still plush with these hardy trees.

A common desert tree here in Arizona currently enjoying a great popularity for outdoors grilling. It's almost smokeless and burns very slowly, with its dark wood of tangled grains it burns hot with an unmistakable aroma. There's nothing like a thick slab of yellow crookneck squash grilled to crunchy and tasty perfection. And while cooking with wood and mesquite chips is good but nothing compares to cooking with the dried mesquite bean pods. The flavor is much richer.

It's one of the few trees that thrive in the desert heat. It has no known insect or disease pest and spreads readily by seeds or sprouting from its crown. There are two on the west side of our home in our backyard that provide shade in the summer and since they are deciduous they lose their leaves in the winter allowing the sun in along with some warmth an energy wise saving strategy. I put them there because nothing can kill a mesquite tree, not even me. When the world ends, I will be dead and only Cher and my mesquite trees will survive. The Tucson Electric Company may still provide them to homeowners for two dollars to help cut costs of delivery. With the canopy pruned high they make a nice landscape plant and with their graceful branches, feathery leaves, and fragrant flowers give the impression of cool almost tropical feeling. Wielding sharp three-inch thorns, and growing in dense thickets, birds are attracted to them for shelter and long thorns as protection from them feline varmints.

If you've ever thought they look a lot like the acacias of the African deserts that have been trimmed into feathery graceful arches across the landscapes by browsing giraffes you're in the right family! Both belong are legumes that belong to the Pea family or the more scientific name Fabaceae.

They range across the Sonoron, Mojave and Chihuahuan deserts from western Texas, west to extreme southwestern Utah, southeastern California and into Mexico. Typically found at elevations below 5,000 feet they are well adapted to the desert and are especially valuable for uses such as lumber. Its wood is hard and fine grained that polishes beautifully. It's a common sight to see them used as fence posts and the roots are amazingly large in comparison to the size of the tree. For example, Acacia roots in Egypt average around 98 feet deep, while mesquite roots may reach up to 175 feet deep.

Many Texas farmers consider this tree to be an aggressive and invasive pest among their crops, while others find creative ways to put them to good use. Some times after a late summer rain when the ground was soft, Granddaddy and Dad would dig up the roots and set them in a kiln to dry for fire wood to heat the house in the winters. Here in the Santa Cruz valley south of Tucson is a stand of mesquite forest that has trees reaching as tall as 20 feet high while out on the drier mesas they tend to be scrubbier and thicker, yet still a fair shade tree at half the height.

Did you know that the seed of the mesquite bean is so hard that it will tear up a good coffee grinder? What is needed is a mill called a hammer mill. To make mesquite flour meal, you can grind them with a coffee grinder but remove the seeds first. You will still have the same taste and much of the nutrition, just a little less protein. You may be interested to know that while the soybean's protein content is about 35% the mesquite bean has a protein content of approximately 39%.

Here's a charming little recipe for Mesquite Bean Jelly I found on line. If you try it let me know how it turns out.

    Mesquite Bean Syrup/Jelly/Sugar
      Pick the beans from the tree after they are ripe - - tan to reddish brown.
      An apron full.
      Break pods into short lengths. Cover with water and boil slowly for 45 minutes.
      Mash with a potato masher, or the like.
      Strain through cheese cloth. Set first brew aside.
      Boil the mashed pulp again for 45 minutes with water to cover.
      Strain again. Discard pulp.
      Combine again, strongly over high heat at first, then low until liquid becomes light to medium syrup.
      Add pectin or Sure-Jell and lemon juice (1/2 lemon for each of cups of liquid) for jelly.
      Continue boiling, carefully, until crystallization, for sugar.

It is as native as rattlesnakes and mocking birds; as blended into the life of the land as cornbread and tortillas. The tree exudes a gum that is equal to the gum Arabicand was used by untold generations before the pyramids were built; we are still making use of it. The mesquite trees greatest asset lies in its seedpods, which look similar to green beans and grow in clusters, nourishing about everything that either walks or flies in the desert. Cattle that feed on the open range will leave good grass to browse on a mesquite bush. Traditionally the desert dwelling Native Americans have gathered the seeds to make mesquite meal for breads called pinole and use it as a condiment or spice because of its natural sweet taste. They also make use of the bark for fabrics and baskets, as well as, in medicines for stomach ailments and as eyewash. Many critters such as the Harris Ground Squirrel eat the seeds too. The coyote's diet in late summer and fall is composed of 80 percent or more of mesquite beans.

    Primroses burn their yellow fires
    Where grass and roadway meet;
    Feathered and tasseled like a queen,
    Is every old mesquite.
There are three types of mesquites found in the American southwest; the Honey Mesquite, sometimes called the Texas Mesquite, (Prosopis glandulosa), Screwbean Mesquite (Prosopis pubescens ) and Velvet Mesquite (Prosopis velutina).

Honey Mesquite

    This tree grows into a large spreading mesquite 30 feet wide and 25 feet high, with a weeping form. Under hot and dry conditions it will stay a shrub. The bright fern like leaves are 4 inches long with individual leaflets 1/8 inch wide by 1 inch long. Thorns grow among the foliage, which vary from ¼ inch to 2-3 inches long. They bloom in April and May producing straw colored leathery pods about 5 inches in length and ½ in width. It's native distribution ranges from Kansas and Oklahoma, much of Texas, eastern New Mexico, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas, Mexico. It is typically found growing on desert plains and along washes its deep roots carrying it through periods of drought. It grows well in the full sun and will adapt to shallow rocky soil but its growth will remain stunted. As you might have guessed from the northerly extent of its range, this tree is very cold hardy, to 0º .

Screwbean Mesquite

    Uncommonly but sometimes called the Tornillo the Screwbean Mesquite gets it's moniker from its unusually shaped seedpods. Coiled and 1-2 inches long and ¼ inch wide, they are dark tan and grow in clusters. Fuzzy yellow flower spikes, two inches long appear from April to June and even into the summer months. A large shrub with multiple trunks it can reach heights of 15 feet and a canopy with a similar spread. The foliage is a medium green with compound leaves measuring a dainty two inches long and ½ inches wide, with as many as eighteen tiny leaflets per leaf. Three quarter inch spines grow in pairs along the branches and the bark is shaggy. It grows well in areas that get periodic water like flood plains and washes. Found up to 4,000 feet in elevation it grows in California, southern Nevada, southwestern Utah, southern Arizona and New Mexico, and western Texas, as well as in Baja California, Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico.
Velvet Mesquite
    This is probably the mesquite most commonly found in Tucson landscaping because it can be grown on golf courses and lawns. In its natural habitat, Velvet Mesquite grows along washes, in valleys, and on desert plains. It ranges form 1,000 to 5,000 feet in elevation and is distributed throughout southeastern California, southern Arizona, southern New Mexico, west Texas, and Sonora, Mexico. This tree is gnarled and quite shaggy with fine soft hairs that cover the young growth. The fernlike compound leaves are 3-4 inches long and up to 1 inch wide, divided into tiny leaflets. The gray green foliage is deciduous in winter. Spines are present at the base of the leaves and are ¾ inches long and often in pairs. Velvet Mesquite is a large shrub to a tree depending on growing conditions. Near watercourses it can reach heights of 20 –30 feet and 15 feet wide. Springtime and sometimes in summer, 3 inch long light yellow fuzzy flowers, droop from the branches. Pods 5 inches long by ½ inch wide mature from the flowers, typically tan in color, but sometimes beautifully streaked with red.

Would you like another recipe from mesquites?

Sources:

Judy Mielke, Native Plants for Southwestern Landscapes,227-230 (1993).

Mesquite Majic

Picture Source

Rogers, Ken E., The Magnificent Mesquite (2000)

Here lies one whose name was writ in water

Utter this phrase to just about any English Lit major and chances are they will know whom you are talking about. So why the nebulous expression and what body of water is the author referring to?

In many literary circles water can indicate a cleansing and certainly Shakespeare's The Tempest is awash with it. Water in Genesis is a means of destroying the wicked and in Matthew as a way of remitting sins. It can also symbolize the river of life or the extinguishing of baptism by fire and re birth.

Calling it his "posthumous life" in 1820 John Keats dutifully headed to the warmer climes of sunny Italy after being diagnosed with an almost certain death sentence, tuberculosis. After declining Percy Bysshe Shelley's invitation to join him at Pisa, Keats went to Rome with his friend, the painter Joseph Severn where they lived in the Piazza of the Spanish Steps. Not far from the bottom of the steps is the Fontana della Barcaccia (1627) or "leaky old boat" created by Pietro Bernini, the son of Giovanni.

In a city famed for its fountains, this one stands out from the rest. Pope Urban VIII commissioned the Fontana della Barcaccia and even reopened an ancient aqueduct from the 17th century to provide water to the arid region. Instead of spouting grandeur with the magnificence of great crashing torrents, the streams flow with gentle murmurs. Carved in the shape of a half sunken ship with water overflowing its bows, researchers differ on what it is a tribute to. Some say that its mild mannered form was simply a necessity in a part of the city with such low water pressure, while others conjecture that it is symbolic of the Catholic Church ceaselessly afloat in the face of unfeasible odds. Another theory suggests that the fountain is a reminder of the Tiber River which frequently flooded this area of Rome. Still many like to imagine this is the where Domitian, a Roman emperor, held splendid sea battles in his great water stadium.

Keats could hear the sound of the water flowing soothingly from his deathbed and perhaps the marble carving echoed Charon's leaky boat upon the river Styx. He said it reminded him of the lines from the 17th century play Philaster Or: Love Lies A-bleeding (1611) by playwrights Beaumont and Fletcher. They often portrayed stories about the loyal devotion of both men and women to king, lover, or friend and Philaster is one of their best. The tragedy is about a Sicilian king whose kingdom was taken by the father of the woman he loves. It is a romance and tragicomedy about forgiveness. Thinking he is about to be put to death King Philaster observes:

    Sir, let me speak next,
    And let my dying words be better with you
    Than my dull living actions; if you aime
    At the dear life of this sweet Innocent,
    Y'are a Tyrant and a savage Monster;
    Your memory shall be as soul behind you
    As you are living, all your better deeds
    Shall be in water writ
    , but this in Marble:
    No Chronicle shall speak you, though your own,
    But for the shame of men.

    Philaster. Act v. Sc. 3.

Beaumont and Fletcher's published Philaster in 1714 having borrowed the line from another tragicomic romance. These kinds of plays were rising in popularity at the time and it was a genre Shakespeare frequently used nearly a century earlier. In this instance the expression comes from Henry VIII a different play that centers on the instabilities of another royal court. Only this one dates from the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The Bard's intentions are to portray the warning signs of far-ranging consequences of infighting among the members of the court. One historian says, "The king of Shakespeare's day, James I, was a direct descendent of the royal family in this play. The merging of romance and history provides the suggestion that fate or providence helped to determine the unfolding of English history of the previous century."

In the fourth act Queen Katherine is being divorce from Henry VIII and discovers Cardinal Wolsey has schemed against her for political reasons. Angry, she swears him as her enemy. The Cardinal is put to death for his plans and hearing of his demise Katherine speaks out against him again and her attendant Griffith observes:

Katharine is eventually convinced by Griffith to exonerate Wolsey with his elegy of forgiveness and pity that is encouraged throughout the play. So perhaps it is with speech and pardon in mind that Keats desires his pithy epitaph. There is no doubt that there are a few readers who are wondering what has brought this 25-year-old poetic genius in the making to such a humble summit.

The lower class son of a livery stable owner John was apprenticed to a surgeon only to discard a medical career in pursuit of a passion for poetry. By the fall of 1816 two of his sonnets, O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell and On First Looking into Chapman's Homer were published in the Examiner, a literary magazine edited by journalist and poet Leigh Hunt. Hunt introduced Keats to an upper class circle of literary men including poet Percy Shelly Blythe. With the support of this group Keats was able to get his first volume of verse Poems by John Keats published in 1817. His thesis was a justification of Romantic poetry and it main beliefs as publicized by Hunt and the assailing of the practice of Romanticism as represented by Lord Byron.

Two years later a follow up volume by Keats was published, Endymion. It was brutally criticized by the Quarterly Review and in particular Blackwood's Magazine who called it "nonsense" recommending Keats abandon poetry altogether. One biographer writes:

    Keats's second book, the woefully ambitious Endymion (1818), was savaged by the Tory press. Blackwood's sneered: "It is a better and wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr. John." Undeterred, Keats entered a period of rapid intellectual and poetic development, beautifully charted in his remarkable and moving letters. With astonishing speed, supreme confidence, and the greatest artistic mastery, Keats wrote virtually all his major poetry between January and September of 1819.
Blackwood's was relentless with their criticisms calling the romantic verse of Hunt's literary circle, "the Cockney school of poetry." But in spite of the disparagement Keats most impressive production of verse followed and by the summer of 1820 his third and best volume Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems was published. Not only did he benefit from a huge critical success, Keats also fell madly in love with Fanny Brawne (1801-1865) and it was also the year that he first showed signs of tuberculosis.

Dying in a small room in Rome Keats realized that his accolades on the publication of the volume Lamia, Isabella would be the end of his career as a poet. Keats told Joseph Severn that he wanted no dedications on his gravestone not even his name, but simply the words: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."

After Keats death Severn deliberated on a variety of combination of Keats' words that would explain his choice was from the poet's sense of disregard by his peers. Nevertheless he kept his word for the time being and although the common sentiment towards the remembrance of Keats between English residents and visitors were for the most part considerate, there were a few insolent jeers, -"his name was writ in water"; yes, and his poetry in milk and water.' Even so his friend Shelley nobly defied Keats vague phrase in his own poem Adonais with," He lives, he wakes - 'tis Death is dead, not he."

Over the years Joseph Severn eagerly looked for any signs of growing admiration of his friend's poetry, or of change in attitude from the scoffers, but reprints of Keats's poems weren't published until nearly a decade later, "and then only by the Paris house of Galignani, who printed for the continental market, in a single tall volume with double columns, a collective edition of the poems of Shelley, Coleridge, and Keats."

Severn felt regret at agreeing to such an insignificant tombstone and after much deliberation among his group of friends that included several proposals of change Keats tombstone was carefully re-cut more than half a century later. A design of a lyre with only two strings attached was added perhaps as a symbolic metaphor for lyricists life cut tragically short. Today Keats's tombstone rests upon a green, sunny slope in the Rome's Protestant Cemetery. In addition to the lyre is the inscription:

    This Grave
    contains all that was Mortal
    of a
    YOUNG ENGLISH POET
    Who
    on his death bed
    in the Bitterness of his Heart
    at the Malicious Power of his Enemies
    Desired
    these Words to be engraved on His Tomb Stone
    "Here Lies One
    Whose Name was writ in Water"

    Feb 24 1821

When John Keats died it had only been a handful of years after he had begun to write and the value of his legacy was only evident to his friends. There was a deep desire to ensure that Keats' brief work became well known, and it soon attained great popularity. Not only is it a reminder to many that the poet was a victim to the malice of his enemies, but that he was also capable of forgiveness. And like Shakespeare's plays about court rivalries and the ripples they cause across time, the simple epitaph has had its own far-ranging consequences of infighting among the poetical elites because today Keats' odes are to be found in almost every anthology of English poetry.

Sources:

CCS Web Academy - English IV - Unit 6, Lesson 1

Fontana della Barcaccia

John Keats

JOHN KEATS: HIS LIFE AND POETRY, HIS FRIENDS, CRITICS AND AFTER -FAME

The Literature Network

Philaster

A Pilgrim in Paradise

Teaching Letters