Fleas, Flies, and Friars: Children’s Poetry from the Middle Ages by Nicholas Orme (to be published March 2012, Cornell University Press) is something completely different from my normal reading, but I enjoyed it very much. It is part anthology of poetry that children learned and recited from 1200-1500 CE (translated from Middle English or Latin) and part a description (annotation) of how children lived and learned during those years.
At just over 100 pages, it is obviously just a brief glimpse into medieval children’s poetry and society. Yet, because the annotations are written with an informative but friendly tone, it was a pleasant read for me, a curious historian and admirer of poetry in general. Children in the Middle Ages learned standards of behavior from poetry, as well as experienced the to-be-expected pleasures of lullabies and nonsense rhymes. Poetic stories of Robin Hood were immensely popular, and poetic reminders of school learning (Latin grammar, for example) helped the young child study.
Although the volume is slim and I was not a reader familiar with the status or literature of children in the Middle Ages, I highly enjoyed it. In some respects, it reminded me how some things really haven’t changed. Given the songs I learned in elementary school for learning the parts of speech, the nonsense poetry ridiculing silly teachers, and the poetic stories I still read in picture books, I’m simply pleased poetry has continued to define childhood and that there is a lot more of it to enjoy!
Read as a digital review copy from the publisher via netgalley.
Bill Bryson is not a Shakespeare scholar, and his brief biography of Shakespeare (published 2007 for HarperCollins as part of the Eminent Lives series) reflects that. The tone of the book is light, accessible, and succinct. Bryson’s approach to the Bard was to admit the gaps in his life and rather focus on what we do know, that being the era he lived in, Elizabethan and Jacobean England.
For the casual reader interested in knowing a little bit about the Bard, including knowing just how much we don’t know, Shakespeare: The World as Stage will probably satisfy. In less than 200 pages, one gets a general overview of the possibilities for how Shakespeare’s life panned out, for some possible reasons he knew what he was writing about, and some of the controversies and influences his writing made on the culture of the world. It was a very quick and easy read and to be honest, I love the idea of reading more brief biographies in the Eminent Lives series. Those 600+ page biographies really take a long time to get through.
However, as approachable and easy-to-read as Bryson’s book was, I was disappointed. I have heard such great things about Bryson’s biography of the Bard that I was very excited to dive in to it. But the general feel of the book was far from satisfying for me.
I really love to sink in to a deep, many-hundred-page biography about a fascinating person, but I don’t always have time to do so. Jane Smiley’s biography of Charles Dickens (a part of the Penguin Lives series) is the opposite of a deep biography: it’s a succinct but relevant overview of Dickens’ life by looking at the works he created and his correspondence with associates.
To be honest, now that I’ve learned even just 200 pages worth about the man, his personality, and his life, I’m not sure I want to delve deeper. This is a testament to Ms Smiley’s ability to focus on the most important aspects of the author’s life, for her volume satisfied many of my curiosities. It also managed to frustrate me because as I got to know this remarkable author I so admire for his writing, I found he was a rather unpleasant and unforgiving person to his family and friends.
That’s not to say that Charles Dickens is portrayed as all “bad” in this book. In the past, I’ve read a children’s biography of Charles Dickens that focused on his childhood difficulties, his later charity work, and the ways in which his novels promoted social change, all of which are fascinating in considering his impact on society. Ms Smiley likewise reviews these public influences of the author. Yet, Charles Dickens was obviously a complicated man, and learning about his more private life was not as inspiring. (ETA: This paragraph added Jan 27.)
Nevertheless, in the future, I think I’d rather approach Charles Dickens simply through the novels he wrote. (more…)
I wish I could finish off my series of posts on Henry VI with as much enthusiasm as I had for the second play, but 3 Henry VI (written 1595) was simply not as enjoyable as 2 Henry VI was.
In the first place, 3 Henry VI is simply violent from the first scene, when Richard Duke of Gloucester enters with the Duke of Somerset’s head and York and Montague compare bloody swords. The play also has lots of betrayal: no one can trust each other, and promises are broken from one scene to the next. “An oath is of no moment,” says Richard Duke of Gloucester in Act 1, scene 2. The leaders themselves are unsure who they want to follow and they frequently change loyalties from one king to the other. It should be noted that the cast of characters includes King Henry VI and King Edward IV. Obviously, there is a bit of confusion as to who is actually ruling England during the years portrayed in this play.
But by focusing on the fragility of power, Shakespeare manages to poignantly touch on the pointlessness of greed and power. Although I disliked King Henry VI in the previous two plays, in this play, his steadfastness is the most enjoyable aspect. He remarks on his life and the pointlessness of war, and the scenes in which he does so are the most memorable of the play. So, while the play does for the majority of the moving action illustrated the ultimate chaos that comes from power and greed, it also draws the other parallel in its quieter, more subtle scenes: the pointlessness of war, the danger with leadership being an inherited calling, and the tragedies associated with betrayal. (more…)
Although a slim volume, Shakespeare and his Contemporaries by Charles Nicholl (published by the British National Portrait Gallery 2005) accomplishes it’s purpose. As the title indicates, the volume illustrates the various persons, distinguished and not, that Shakespeare was familiar with during the years of his life. Some of these people were associates of the Bard: fellow writers, patrons, and actors. Others were higher class gentlemen and ladies, such as the queen and her ladies in waiting. All were people who were alive during Shakespeare’s writing years, and he probably was familiar with them.
As it was published by the National Portrait Gallery, most of the Bard’s contemporaries’ portraits are shown (although it is interesting to see just which people he associated with do not have any remaining portraits: they will be forever faceless). Nicholl’s text does justice to the limited space the volume was intended to fill: he does not wax long on unnecessary bibliographical details, but rather keeps his succinct thoughts on Shakespeare’s contemporaries relevant to the life details that may be interesting to the scholar of Shakespeare. The tone is official and to the point: it’s not necessarily a light read. That said, given the brevity and succinct nature of the writing, it is a perfect tone.
This volume is not a complete portrait of any contemporary of Shakespeare, nor a complete portrait of the Bard himself. Nonetheless, it is certainly an appropriate scholarly introduction to Shakespeare’s possibly significant contemporaries. The volume’s audience may be limited to scholars: I had to request an Interlibrary Loan from a nearby university library.
Nonetheless, I must remind the reader of this blog once again that I am not a scholar, nor did I read the volume with a scholar’s eye: I’m simply a reader of Shakespeare who was curious about those he may or may not have associated with. Because my purposes in reading are not scholarly, I’m certain the sketches of the various people will not remain with me. All the same, I’m glad I picked up Shakespeare and His Contemporaries right now: it was a perfect glimpse at the significant persons living during Shakespeare’s lifetime.
Another post for Allie’s Shakespeare Month.