On Happiness with a Classical Twist

Vespers, Op. 37 – “Come, Let Us Worship”

Sergi Rachmaninov_

USSR Ministry Of Culture Chamber Choir


On Happiness with a Classical Twist


Photograph of the colorful "mushroom" dooms of the Orthodox Cathedrals in Russia's Red Square

The Cathedral of Intercession of the Virgin on the Moat (St. Basil’s Cathedral)

Photograph by Christophe Menebeouf



Even someone without religious convictions can appreciate, I think, the irony of a choir representing an atheistic state singing sacred music. Of course the music is beautiful and one need not be religious to appreciate the beauty of the music. Stephen Jay Gould, the author and Harvard professor of Evolutionary Biology used to take part in an annual performance of Hayden’s oratorio The Creation. This too is a beautiful piece of music based on the book of Genesis, and, though not religious, Gould took great delight (or so he said to Christopher Lydon on at least one occasion) in performing it. There is, of course, great happiness to be gotten from listening to great music, reading great stories, looking at great art, and all the other cabinets of the classical tradition. The photograph is of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square in Moscow. To me it seems out of keeping with the image I have of Russia. When I think of Russia I think of a very cold place and its literature often evokes a tragic people (though this is by no means the same as a humorless people). The colors of the cathedral are bright and they are vibrant and they make me smile. I believe it was created with that intention.

A friend of mine was reading Crime and Punishment by Fydor Dostoevsky a few years ago. She was in the middle and was finding it a very moving but a very sad book. I told her that much of the book was sad, but that it ended happily. I do not think many think the ending of Crime and Punishment a happy one; my friend did not. But I think it is happy. Albert Camus in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” tells us, after pointing out that Sisyphus’s life is a cycle of anguish, forlornness, and despair, that we must imagine Sisyphus happy.

If this is so, how much more happy must Raskolnikov be. He is a man who has committed a heinous crime. He is a man who appears through most of the novel to be devoid of conscience. He evokes for me in his intensity the line from Yeats “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” He finds, though, at the end of the novel, redemption and forgiveness. He finds peace with himself, his world, and his God. He accepts responsibility for his actions and he is sent to Siberia, one of the harshest, most forlorn locations on the planet. Yet he goes into this harsh physical environment at peace with himself and no longer fighting the much harsher and more relentless demons of his mind and spirit, of his inner self. In addition, he goes into this exile with the woman he loves.


Painting of an ideal kingdom as viewed from the mountain above


Ivan Bilibin



Granted, just as Cinderella, though we are told she lived happily ever after with her prince, must have had moments of conflict with her beloved in the process of that happily ever after. No doubt Raskolnikov and Sonya had their moments of tension as well, but there is no reason to believe they did not live happily every after. Also, for all its civilized refinements and comforts, St. Petersburg has its own impediments to happiness. The issue of happiness is an important one in the novel. Does it rest in our ambitions, our self-image or does it live somewhere else? Does happiness depend on external circumstance or does it come from within us? There are other issues raised in the book, of course, but I think for our time, the idea of where happiness is found and what it proceeds from is an important question. It is one of the questions humans hope to find answered in the books that they read. The painting above is of Buyan, a mythical place, a kind of paradise. It is a place of fairy tales. Neither Siberia nor St. Petersburg are such a place, but on the other hand, perhaps, Buyan and the other earthly paradises of myth, folklore, and story are more of an inner than an outer reality and to a certain extent stories help us to find that inner reality.

There was an essay in the Los Angeles Times recently by James M. Cain (author of hard boiled detective novels like The Postman Always Rings Twice). The essay is titled “Paradise” and it looks at how California in the 1930’s was portrayed in advertising as a paradise. Cain considers issues like truth in advertising, but more importantly he considers what makes any place, not just Southern California, a paradise. The essay finds much in Southern California that ought to make it a paradise, a “Buyan,” but like St. Petersburg in Dostoyevsky’s novel it takes more than creature comforts and cultivated society to make a paradise and, considering Raskolnikov’s Siberian destination, more than sunshine, warmth, and a day at the beach as well.

Great Expectations was recently voted, by readers of The Guardian, (“Great Expectations voted readers’ favourite Dickens novel”) Dickens’ best novel. This, too, is a book about a man looking for happiness in many of the wrong places who eventually comes to find a bit of it. But like many of us he has to learn it in a very difficult way. Though we may not ever have had Pip’s expectations or Raskolnikov’s demons we understand, and hopefully empathize, with their struggles. Raskolnikov is especially difficult to like. His crime is a brutal one, his self-justifications are very troubling, and his behavior throughout the novel is very hard to forgive. But at the end of the book, I find myself drawn to his character. In some ways Raskolnikov is a kind of Macbeth in reverse. We begin by seeing Macbeth as likeable, as having remarkable qualities and a potential for greatness. We end by seeing him as something of a monstrosity. Raskolnikov is villainous at the outset but by the story’s end he wins our empathy and we care about what happens to him and want him to be well.


Painting of three men; two looking at each other with another man in front, who appears to be blind, looking forward

The Parnassus (detail of Dante, Homer, and Virgil)




There was an article in The New York Review of Books, “Do the Classics Have a Future?” by Mary Beard, a classics professor at Cambridge University. She makes the point that classics have been eulogized and declared dead on a fairly regular basis over the centuries. Jonathan Swift wrote a short story called “The Battle of the Books” that focused on the conflict between the classical tradition and the upstart modernists of his day. Many of the moderns that Swift found wanting have gone on to find their place in the “classical canon” of Western Literature but most of the classical canon of Swift’s day remains intact. The books may be difficult to understand at times, their characters and concerns may seem strange to us, at least they probably will if they are not properly introduced, but if understood these books continue to speak to us and their characters and concerns are found not be as odd as they first appeared. Beard also points out that the classics were written in what are now dead languages, or, as is the case with Chaucer or Dante, a language that no longer resembles the vernacular of our day no matter how vernacular the languages were in their own day. This is what language does, it grows, it develops, it changes.

Beard suggests that one of the better modern translations of The Iliad was done by Christopher Logue who knows no Greek, but has retold the story, using various translations as reference points, in a modern style and idiom. She and others have found Logue’s poetry to be very moving. It has been dramatized and performed successfully suggesting there is something in this story that still resonates. Stephen Mitchell has recently come out with another modern translation of The Iliad. Why such fuss over such an old book if no reads it anymore? The answer is, of course, that people do read it, and will probably go on reading it for quite some time.

One of my “History of the English Language” books when I was in college was called In Forme of Speche is Chaunge. It was a collection of readings from different periods n the growth and development of the English Language, from it’s earliest written forms to its most modern and the earliest bore little resemblance to the latest. Because language is constantly changing books written in other languages have to be constantly retranslated, because an 18th century translation, for example, of a book like The Iliad will present difficulties to the modern English reader. I remember while reading Spenser’s Faerie Queene that for the English reader there were advantages to reading someone like Dante who is always re-translated into the current form of the language, but with Spenser I had to struggle through a language that was a bit anachronistic when it was written and was even more anachronistic to a 20th century reader like myself. Still, I believed at the time and still believe Spenser was worth the time I invested in him.


Trojan Women


Michael Cacoyannis, Director


The play, Trojan Women, on which this film was based, was written by the Greek playwright Euripides in the 5th century B. C. It is set even earlier in the Trojan War, the subject of Homer’s epic The Iliad mentioned above. This film version was made in the 1970’s and was seen as a commentary on the Vietnam War. Were it to be done again today there are conflicts aplenty about which it would have much to say. The scene in the clip focuses on a young child taken from his mother and killed. The child’s parentage makes him a threat to the Greek occupation. Easier to kill him now instead of later. The play at the very least reminds us that the horrors of war have always been seen as horrors. When Euripides wrote the play it was seen as a commentary on the Peloponnesian Wars and the behavior of the Athenians in that war. Like Swift’s Gulliver in the conflict between the Lilliputians and the Blefuscans, Euripides did not want to play a part in the subjugation of a free people.

Happiness often has a social component. It could be argued that Euripides wrote his play because the behavior of the society of his day impinged upon his happiness. It is difficult for a conscientious people to be happy when the behavior of the society in which they live disturbs their conscience. It is generally true that the majority of the people in a society, especially a free society, are relatively content. But at what cost is that contentment purchased? And if that cost is largely born by others, how easy is it to ignore the cost? Reading stories, even the classics, will not make one wise or virtuous in and of itself. But these books often raise the issues that a people of conscience ought to consider.

Swift once said of satire that it “is a kind of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” The problem with reading, even when that reading is in the wisest and most revealing of books, is that we often take only from them what we wish to take and leave the rest alone. Often it is the bit that is left alone that is essential for us to comprehend. Raskolnikov ended happily because he allowed himself to be changed. We all are shaped by history and we all have a history. One of the lessons that stories teach us is that all change begins with individuals and that to change a society we often need to begin by changing ourselves. It is often in these changes that happiness is found.


Painting of a woman guiding the hand of a child as he stands next to her and writes


Nikolaos Gyzis


Chapters and Verses

“Fern Hill”
Dylan Thomas

Chapters and Verses

Dylan Thomas

Augustus John


My first memory of college is of a professor who when he found out I liked poetry took me to the audio-visual center of the college and set me up with a record player and a two disk recording of Dylan Thomas reading his poetry. The poem, “Fern Hill”, that opened things up was on this recording; in fact the record included most of Thomas’ known recordings to that date. I went out afterwards and bought my own copy of the record. It was produced by Caedmon Records, a company that specialized in spoken word recordings.

Years later when I went to England I rode my bicycle from London to Swansea, Wales on a kind of pilgrimage to Thomas’s hometown. I was nearly run over by a student driver in Windsor and had a horrendous climb up a mountain in a coal mining section of South Wales just above Cardiff (I was told later that I should have visited the north of Wales, that the north was much more beautiful). It was an arduous uphill climb but the ride down the other side was a pleasant coast much of the way. But I finally made it to Swansea and the seashore. I went into the local bookshop and bought a copy of Thomas’s poetry so that I would have an edition that came from his hometown.

T. S. Eliot

Wyndham Lewis


This same professor later checked out recordings of T. S. Eliot reading his poetry and he also gave me my first copy of Eliot’s poetry, a paperback book with a yellow cover that included most of Eliot’s major poems. The critic Edmund Wilson was quoted on the cover of the record as saying no one read poetry better than Eliot. After listening to the recording I thought Edmund Wilson could not have listened to many poets. In any event the recording did not impress me, though I have always enjoyed Eliot’s poetry. What did impressed me was the time the professor took with me and how he cultivated and fed my interest in poetry. I still have the yellow paperback copy of the poems.

I remember the first poem that I read that captured me. I do not know if it is a very good poem, it is often anthologized and it was in my twelfth grade English textbook. It is John Masefield’s “Sea Fever”. I still teach it when I get a class of seniors and I tell them that it is Masefield’s fault I devote as much time to poetry as I do in the classes I teach. I also tell them that I am often moved by poems I do not understand, that the poem makes me feel something but it is difficult to pin down why it makes me feel as it does. I often cannot point to specific passages and explain the meaning of the words in a way that clarifies the feelings evoked by the poem. This is not always a bad thing.

So what is it about poetry that moves people? It never sells as well as fiction, but it does maintain an audience over the years. Bookstores still set aside a section for poetry. People still write poetry. Most of it may come to us through other channels like radio and popular music, but it is always present. And even when it is not highly valued there seems to be an aura about it that leads some to cultivate the “image” of being a poet. There are some that say Yeats wanted to be thought of as a poet before he worked seriously at becoming a poet.

W. B. Yeats

Augustus John


Yeats also represents the power that poetry can wield over a culture. His poems captured the turmoil that produced the emergence of an Irish state. But he did it in a way that speaks to cultures in tumult to this day. He also speaks to those trying to age gracefully and to those who are in love, as well as to the mythology of his culture and of others cultures and what that mythology has to say us about how to live our lives. This is what poets do. In his poem “Lapis Lazuli” he talks about the poets capacity for gaiety. He speaks of Hamlet and of Lear who suffered greatly but whose suffering was transfigured by the gaiety of the poems they recite in their few hours upon the stage.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce. (lines 9-24)

Even when the poet is sad there is a celebration somewhere in the language that they use. No matter how tragic the scene, the tragedies growth is stunted by something the poet brings to the event.

Poetry often does not translate well because there is in it a marriage of a specific language to a specific cultural or human experience that often gets lost in translation. The music of the poems is in the words that are used and it is in part the music that awakens the emotions. The ideas that are contained in a poem are often easily captured in translation but the ways the words talk to each other in the poem are often difficult to capture. There was an article in the New York Times Review of Books a few weeks back that looked at how different translators put the words of the Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides into English. It was a review of a translation of A House of Atreus done by the poet Anne Carson.

In comparing Carson’s translation with that of other poets and translators there is a discussion of translation and how it is most effectively done. The translators of these plays struggled with the language employed by the original and the language that would most effectively reach a 21st century English speaking audience. All versions had their strengths and shortcomings and none fully succeeds. Perhaps the poetry is a bit like an incantation and it is not enough to get the meanings right but for the spell to work the charm must be spoken in its original language. It is not the ideas that awaken the spirits but something that sings from within the original words.

The Death of Chatterton
Henry Wallis

This image of Thomas Chatterton is the stereotype that many carry of the Romantic poet, a bit of tragedy and a noble gesture in the face of a world that does not understand. But one of 20th century America’s finest poets was an insurance salesman, as was one of its finest composers. In the poems of Wallace Stevens it is impossible to read for meaning the way we read an essay or a story. There are images of snowmen, of boats in a harbor in Key West, of cigar rollers and emperors of ice cream. It is very difficult to read the words and find a meaning. But often a poem moves us long before we understand it.

I was moved by The Waste Land the first time I read it, but to this day I do not know precisely what it means. I know mostly how it makes me feel and how the images and symbols and other tricks of language help to shape that emotion. But it is not like “The Gettysburg Address” where a word can be seen to mean a specific thing and to contribute a specific idea to an overarching argument. The mind plays a part in untangling the mystery in a poem but in most cases the mind must listen to the heart if it is to find meaning.

“Night Driving”
Ad by Volkswagen
Richard Burton reading from Dylan Thomas’ play for voices Under Milkwood

That poetry can move people to do things that they would not do if they were thinking clearly is attested to by this ad. It uses the poetry of Dylan Thomas to sell automobiles. I do not know how successful the ad campaign was, but the ad itself has a beauty to it that is enhanced by the power of Dylan Thomas’ language. Poetry often wins people over and the poet has a power. The skaldic poet Egil Skallagrimsson wrote a poem in praise of a king he despised in order to escape execution. The poem was so finely done the king had no choice but to let Egil go. Once free Egil created a different kind of poem, a curse, that expressed his actual feelings.

This week’s New York Times Review of Books, no doubt because April is poetry month, ran an article on memorizing poetry. The article is titled “Got Poetry” and was written by Jim Holt. At the end of the day the only reason to memorize poetry, according to the author, is because of how it changes the memorizer and brings the poetry to life inside the mind. Reciting a poem from memory is vastly different from reading it off the page. He mentions the suffering that English teachers of his generation inflicted upon students by requiring them to memorize large chunks of poems the students did not really understand. This sort of memorization is rarely fruitful and is often no more successful than requiring students to memorize words for a vocabulary test, once the exercise is finished the memory begins to go blank.

For a poem to live in the imagination it does not really need to be understood, but it needs to be valued and attention needs to be paid to how the poem is working on the imagination. Poetry ought to be an essential part of any curriculum, or so I believe. I think poetry trains the mind and the imagination to work in ways that prose fiction or non-fiction cannot. There are many English teachers who do not agree; that think studying a poem kills the poem. There is truth to this, but it is a statement that is equally true when applied to the teaching of any text and there are some that think the English classroom should focus only on writing and leave the teaching of literature to others.

I think that poetry touches us in ways that other writing does not. Whether the magic resides in the rhythms and meters, in the rhyme, or in the sound of the words themselves I do not know, it probably involves all these things. I think this love of poetry, though, is a relationship that needs to be cultivated; it does not happen of itself. There need to be introductions, a period of liking and friendship and getting acquainted, and then perhaps a betrothal. It is very like a courtship.