(Horses, rifles, and knives see a party of adventurers through the land of expansive plains, craggy mountains, buffalo, and the Sioux.)
“Shaw! Buddy!” Imagine a young, spontaneous Yankee calling out to his friend, both of them just out of college. He proposes that they leave the effeminate comforts of the East, and spend a summer adventuring westward into the untamed lands where life is dangerous and fascinating. Francis Parkman explains (ch.II):
“The restlessness, the love of wilds and hatred of cities, natural perhaps in early years to every unperverted son of Adam, was not our only motive for undertaking the present journey. My companion hoped to shake off the effects of a disorder that had impaired a constitution originally hardy and robust; and I was anxious to pursue some inquiries relative to the character and usages of remote Indian nations, being already familiar with many of the border tribes.”
So they did it. In 1846. Francis was 23. And the recollections of that journey, The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life, remain with us as one of the best treatments of the early West that we will ever have. Parkman’s prose has the feel of a chronicle—it is obviously nonfiction, a travelogue. But it is not a ponderous journal of trivia and redundancy through which we must wade for hours to find the few interesting episodes; nor is each sunset a springboard for a forced flight of sentimental fancy in poor imitation of Byron’s Childe Harold or other Old World sketches. Rather, it is an engaging selection of vignettes, personalities, and anecdotes that admit us to the ranks of the “ragamuffin cavalcade” that was Parkman’s expedition. Parkman’s writing is like Parkman himself—the stereotypical American at his best, one might say: direct yet perceptive, practical yet romantic, hearty yet insightful.
(A man of intellect and of spiritual sensitivity contemplates the purpose of life and its struggles.)
“Unwelcome shroud of the forgotten dead,/ Oblivion’s dreary fountain, where art thou”. What a dark way to begin one’s poetical efforts, at 18 years of age! And we need read no further to suspect (correctly) that in Matthew Arnold we are in for something very different from the Romantics, and quite different also from his Victorian contemporaries Browning and Tennyson. The essence of the distinction is in his preoccupation with the meaning of life, and by extension death and the loss of faith. This spiritual decline that disturbed him so much, often called the maladie du siècle or the “sickness of the century”, had been treated more seriously on the continent, while in England Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley were grasping at Nature or the humanism of the Greeks for their spiritual anchor. Arnold was a more melancholic, more skeptical poet, and doubted that the sickness could ever be cured, although he certainly loved the ancients (many of his early poems have classical subjects), and he also did look to nature for inspiration. Even as a teen he presaged the Existentialists, and indeed much of the spirit of the twentieth century, in trying to devise a way to preserve our spirituality and sense of wonder while being brutally honest about our mortality and the fleeting nature of all human endeavor. Matthew Arnold was a great poet not mainly because he was imaginative, morally sensitive, and wonderstruck, nor on the other hand because he was freethinking, scholarly, and skeptical; he was great because he was somehow both of these sorts of people at once. If his poetry could be said to have a single goal, it was to merge these two halves of his consciousness, the spiritual and the intellectual.
(Une nuit de Cléopâtre)
(A young hunter is willing to die to be with queen Cleopatra for just one evening.)
Alexandre Cabanel’s 1887 painting, Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Those Condemned To Death (Cléopâtre essayant des poisons sur des condamnés à mort). It can be seen at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA), Antwerp.
Word for word, this little novella (three times the length of a typical short story at about 12,700 words) probably paints the most vibrant description of ancient Egypt in all of literature. This is my favorite aspect of the work, though for others it might be the engaging romantic plot, or the typical though attractive take on the queen’s psychology. It is a simple tale, but richly set and beautifully told.
(A young man is thrown into the sweet agony of unrequited love for his beautiful new neighbor.)
Russian Beauty, by Konstantin Makovsky (1839-1915). This painting appears to be in a private collection. See Makovsky’s paintings at Wikiart.
Woldemar, a young man of sixteen, experiences the whirlwind of love descending on him for the first time, as he becomes acquainted with the beautiful and elegant Zinaida, the daughter of a princess, who has moved in next door. She enjoys a crop of suitors, and in her charming and carefree way pits them against each other. They make fools of themselves competing for her attention and smiles; but Woldemar is different, so awed he is in her presence. She is very kind towards him, and eventually gives him more attention than any other. He is enraptured, able to think of nothing else, obsessed with thoughts and dreams of her. He is overcome with the pain of his unrequited feelings, and is blissful when with her, sent into reverie with every careless touch or soft look. In this experience he realizes the power of love, and the strong—even dangerous—grip it can have on a person. Meanwhile, although he pays little attention to it, his home life is unsettled, with his parents often arguing.