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Look at his Hands: Some Concluding Thoughts on Eliot’s Daniel Deronda

Titian. Bacchus and Ariadne. Oil on Canvas. 1520-3.

It is difficult to discuss Eliot’s eponymous hero in Daniel Deronda without giving away key aspects of her plot.  But I will share one of the most extraordinary passages in the novel that captures the strength, dignity and grace of Eliot’s hero:

Look at his hands: they are not small and dimpled, with tapering fingers that seem to have only a deprecating touch: they are long, flexible, firmly-grasping hands, such as Titian has painted in a picture, where he wanted to show the combination of refinement with force.  And there is something of a uniform pale-brown skin, the perpendicular brow, the calmly penetrating eyes.  Not seraphic any longer: thoroughly terrestrial and manly; but still of a kind to raise belief in a human dignity which can afford to acknowledge poor relations.

Time and again Deronda’s strong, graceful hands are extended to help those in need.  When he is rowing his boat along the Thames one evening, he finds a woman named Mirah in great distress and he does not hesitate to soothe her and to save her life:  “She stepped forward close to the boat’s side, and Deronda put out his hand, hoping now that she would let him help her in.  She had already put her tiny hand into his which closed round it, when some new thought struck her, and drawing back she said– ‘I have nowhere to go—nobody belonging to me in all this land.'”  Needless to say, Deronda does all he can to ensure not only Mirah’s safety but her happiness.

But Deronda does not discriminate when helping those in need.  He is capable of the most selfless kind of empathy and sympathy and extends kindness and compassion to those whom others might judge as undeserving.  Gwendolen, in her new marriage to Grandcourt, feels herself stuck in a miserable existence.  References to Dante abound in Eliot’s text and sometimes Gwendolen is depicted in a type of purgatory and at other times her life is described as pure hell.  It is just at the point of feeling like she will be pulled into the abyss of pain and sorrow that Deronda offers his steady hand:

Her hands which had been so tightly clenched some minutes before, were now helplessly relaxed and trembling on the arm of her chair.  Her quivering lips remained parted as she ceased speaking. Deronda could not answer; he was obliged to look away.  He took one of her hands, and clasped it as if they were going to walk together like two children: it was the only way in which he could answer, ‘I will not forsake you.’  And all the while he felt as if he were putting his name to a blanck paper which might be filled up terribly.  Their attitude, his averted face with its expression of a suffering which he was solemnly resolved to undergo, might have told half the truth of the situation to a beholder who had suddenly entered.

That grasp was an entirely new experience to Gwendolen: she had never before had from any man a sign of tenderness which her own being had needed, and she interpreted its powerful effect on her into a promise of inexhaustible patience and constancy.

I end my summer vacation of reading “loose, baggy monsters”  on a very high note with this remarkable book.  Middlemarch is still my favorite Eliot novel, but Daniel Deronda is a close second.  Tomorrow begins my twentieth year of teaching secondary school and I am as nervous, anxious, and excited as ever to face a new group of students.  I shall continue my reading of epic books into the autumn as Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Dante’s Divine Comedy have both caught my attention.  It seems fitting that today, for the first time in months, the humidity has broken and the air has a lightness and coolness to it that is refreshing and hopeful.



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Sorting the Stacks: Recent Photos of my Bookshelves

It took me three full days, but I finally reorganized my books. The piles in the living room were really getting out of hand and it was annoying to me how cluttered my collection was getting. On the first day of culling and sorting when most of my books had been pulled off the shelves and stacked into various piles around the house I wanted to give up, lie on the floor and cry. But I pressed on and am very happy with the results.

NYRB books and Fitzcarraldo editions

In a post a while back I discussed the conundrum of how one goes about organizing a large collection of books. Some do alphabetical, some sort by publisher and I’ve even seen a few organize books by color. I decided to go by nationality.

Top shelf are some German and French books, middle shelf is British lit and bottom shelf is American lit.

Well, mostly by nationally, I should say. I have a British section, an American section, a German section, etc. But I kept the Seagull books together as well as the NYRB books and a few other special publishers whose books I collect. I also have special sections dedicated to poetry, letters/memoirs, and essays.

Seagull books collection

This means that the Christa Wolf books are in the German section, except for her three books which are Seagull publications. So it’s definitely not a perfect system.

Persephone, Virago, and Classic Penguins

And the massive amount of classics books which are kept together have their own classification: Latin, Ancient Greek, Roman History, Greek History, Archaeology, etc., etc.

How do you sort your books?


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I Can Remember Still the Sun: A Poem by Gamel Woolsey

Dido and Aeneas. Pierre-Narcisse Guérin. Oil on canvas, c. 1851.

Gamel Woolsey uses one of Vergil’s most famous lines from The Aeneid as inspiration for her imposing yet brief poem:

“Forsan et Haec Olim Meminisse Iuvabit”
(“Perhaps one day it will be a pleasure to remember even this…”)

Why should you feel remorse, regret,
For what was beautiful to me,
As uncommanded as the sea?
The winds blew and the waters sang
All summer: now that summer’s done
I can remember still the sun
That lay upon the mountain grass,
And all the beauty that there was –
Only remember what was fair,
And what was wild and innocent;
The rest is blown upon the air.

Woolsey was born in South Carolina in the United States and lived in New York City for a while before moving permanently to England.  Her love affair with Llewelyn Powys prompted her to take up residence near him in Dorset.  She later married writer Gerald Brenan and they lived together in Spain and England until her death in 1968.

While visiting my favorite bookshop in Maine I came across one of Woolsey’s novels, One Way of Love,  published posthumously in 1987 by Virago Press.  I am hoping to read it before the end of summer.


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Living in the Open: On Not Knowing Greek by Virginia Woolf

After reading Tolstoi’s Love Letters published by The Hogarth Press which collection Virginia Woolf is credited as co-translator although she didn’t know Russian, I reached for Woolf’s essays in which she discusses different cultures and the art of translation.  In “On Not Knowing Greek,” she argues that the Greeks conducted their lives outside, in the open air, and communicated with one another more succinctly and dramatically.  For the English, she argues, who are prone to living indoors, having discussions in the drawing room and writing massive novels filled with thousands of words, Greek literature and culture is something that can never be fully understood.

A people who judged as much as the Athenians did by ear, sitting out-of-doors at the play or listening to argument in the market-place, were far less apt than we are to break off sentences and appreciate them apart from the context.  For them there were no Beauties of Hardy, Beauties of Meredith, Sayings from George Eliot.  The writer had to think more of the whole and less of the detail.  Naturally, living in the open, it was not the lip or the eye that struck them, but the carriage of the body and the proportions of its parts.  Thus, when we quote and extract we do the Greeks more damage than we do the English.  There is a bareness and abruptness in their literature which grates upon a taste accustomed to the intricacy and finish of printed books.  We have to stretch our minds, to grasp a whole devoid of the prettiness of details or the emphasis of eloquence.  Accustomed to look directly and largely rather than minutely and aslant, it was safe for them to step into the thick of emotions which blind and bewilder an age like our own.

She begins the essay by asking why we should bother to learn Greek since the gap between our culture and theirs is so wide.  Her final sentence in the essay answers it perfectly and reminds me how grateful I am to know and study this beautiful language:

With the sound of the sea in their ears, vines, meadows, rivulets about them, they are even more aware than we are of a ruthless fate.  There is a sadness at the back of life which they do not attempt to mitigate.  Entirely aware of their own standing in the shadow, and yet alive to every tremor and gleam of existence, there they endure, and it is to the Greeks that we turn when we are sick of the vagueness, of the confusion, of the Christianity and its consolations, of our own age.


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τι μέγεθος: Some Kind of Magnitude in Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss

In the early chapters of The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot describes Maggie, her young, feisty and vivacious heroine: “There were passions at war in Maggie at that moment to have made a tragedy, if tragedies were made by passions only; but the essential τι μέγεθος (some kind of magnitude) which was present in the passion was wanted to the action.”

τι μέγεθος is a phrase from Aristotle’s Poetics* which he uses to describe an action of “some kind of magnitude” that is an essential part of any tragedy.  Maggie has a passion for life that makes her charge forward into deeds and actions that other “nice” little girls would never dare.  The descriptions of her mop of wild, thick hair and her darker skin also make her stand out amongst other girls her age.  One of my favorite scenes that demonstrates Maggie’s unbridled spirit and her refusal to conform to expectations is when she listens to the music from her Uncle Pullet’s snuff-box.  She can’t sit quietly and listen like the other children, but immediately jumps up and expresses the emotions stirred up through the music by grasping her older brother, Tom: “But when the magic music ceased, she jumped up, and, running towards Tom, put her arm around his neck and said,  ‘O, Tom, isn’t it pretty.'”  Unfortunately for Maggie, Tom had a glass of cowslip wine in his hand which was spilled during Maggie’s enthusiastic embrace.  As a result, Maggie is, once again, subject to a litany of scolding from the adults:

‘Why don’t you sit still, Maggie?’ her mother said, peevishly.

‘Little gells mustn’t come to see me if they behave in that way,’ said aunt Pullet.

‘Why, you’re too rough, little miss,’ said uncle Pullet.

But these numerous reprimands never deter Maggie or dampen her spirit and I find myself admiring the girl because of her bravery.  Eliot is obviously foreshadowing an event that will be much more tragic, of some kind of greater magnitude for her heroine.  I am glad to have this book to keep me company on what is supposed to be a lovely spring weekend here in New England.  I would enjoy hearing about what others are reading this weekend.  Let me know in the comments.


*Aristotle Poetics 1450b: κεῖται δὴ ἡμῖν τὴν τραγῳδίαν τελείας καὶ ὅλης πράξεως εἶναι μίμησιν ἐχούσης τι μέγεθος. (It occurs to us that tragedy is the mimesis (imitation) of a complete and whole action and some kind of magnitude.)


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