Saturday, December 31, 2011

Give My Heart


Midwinter-blogging, essay 7 of 12 blog entries on
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem by Christina Rossetti

Give My Heart

Rozhdestvo (Christmas), a 1996 short film by Russian animator
Mikhail Aldashin.

Here’s the fifth and final stanza of Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.
 “In the Bleak Midwinter,” fifth stanza
                        Christina Rossetti

Each of the poem’s five stanzas has eight lines.  The second and fourth lines rhyme, as do the sixth and eighth.  In most cases, each of the first seven lines receives three stresses;  a few lines depart from this structure and have four.  The meter is largely driven by trochee—the poetry term for a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable.  (The trochee is the reverse of the iamb favored by Shakespeare.)

I find it hard to read the poem without falling into the rhythms of the popular music setting.  But it’s good to remember that these rhythms are not necessarily Rossetti’s.  I think the last stanza nicely demonstrates how the popular Gustav Holst melody alters the way we hear the poem’s original built-in music.

Stained glass from
L'eglise Notre-Dame
de l'Assomption,
Eymet, Dordogne,
France.
In the original poem, the line “What can I give him” receives three stresses:  What, I, and him.  But in the familiar music setting, the first word “What” is drawn out into two syllables, transforming it into a trochee.  This changes the rhythm, resulting in the stresses falling on:  What, can, give (also sung as if it were two syllables with the stress falling on the first), and him.

This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with the music setting.  The melody is beautiful and the new stresses do no damage to the poem’s meaning.  The only difficulty is in attempting to recover a reading of the line the way Rossetti wrote it—with the stress on the word “I.”

There’s a good reason for the stress to fall on the word “I.”  This concluding stanza takes off in a new direction from the four that precede it.  It collapses the centuries, placing the author on the holy ground of the nativity, forcing her to confront the question:  How should I respond?  It’s a personal question that requires introspection.

When Rossetti writes in the first person in her poems, she frequently deploys a fictional narrator—the “I” is not necessarily Rossetti.  With “In the Bleak Midwinter,” you can’t tell if this is meant to be the case.  The “I” might be Rossetti or might not be.  Personally, I like to think that this really is Rossetti speaking in the first person:  that the question is, “What shall I, Christina Rossetti, give the Christ child?”

The shepherd can give a lamb.  The wise man will give something appropriate (perhaps myrrh, frankincense, or gold if we associate wise man with magi).  Notice how both of Rossetti’s examples are men.  Now we turn to Christina Rossetti.  Growing up middle class in Victorian England, professions were largely closed off to her.  Educational opportunities were limited.  She had little money of her own.  She literally had very little to give, except for the volunteer time that she gave to serving the Anglican church and its missions and, of course, her poetry.

The line “Give my heart” closes the poem, even as it completes her gift of poetry to the child.

"Virgin and Angels Adoring the Christ Child," glazed earthenware,
circa 1460s-70s, by Luca Della Robbia (1400-1482). Frame attributed
to Andrea Della Robbia (1435-1525). From the collection at the
Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Music Room

James Taylor sings “In the Bleak Midwinter”…



Reference Sources

Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by William M. Rossetti
Selected Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by Marya Zaturenska
Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life by Jan Marsh
The Achievement of Christina Rossetti, edited by David A. Kent
Christina Rossetti (Bloom’s Major Poets), edited by Harold Bloom
Christina Rossetti’s Faithful Imagination by Dinah Roe
Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender and Time by Diane D’Amico
Genius by Harold Bloom
The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford
The Pre-Raphaelites by Andrea Rose
Victorian Painting by Christopher Wood
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

© 2011 Lee Price

Friday, December 30, 2011

Angels and Archangels


Midwinter-blogging, essay 6 of 12 blog entries on
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem by Christina Rossetti

Angels and Archangels


Watercolor Illustration by William Blake for
John Milton's On the Morning of Christ's Nativity.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Angels, archangels, cherubim, and seraphim crowd the Bethlehem sky in Christina Rossetti’s poem “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

“In the Bleak Midwinter,” stanzas 3-4
                        Christina Rossetti

Rossetti was deeply knowledgeable about her Anglican faith so we can trust her to tell a cherubim from a seraphim.  She was also well-read on her poetry, so she knew the literary angels of poets like George Herbert, John Milton, and William Blake.

Since people nowadays aren’t always up on angel lore, here are the basic distinctions:
Angels:  The umbrella term for all the spiritual beings that serve as God’s messengers.
Archangels:  The highest ranked angels.
Cherubim:  Spiritual beings with four faces (lion, ox, eagle, and man) and four wings.
Seraphim:  Fiery six-winged spiritual beings that surround God’s throne.

But even though they signal the holy presence, Rossetti’s angels appear in just two stanzas only to be shunted aside in favor of the terrestrial beings. The breastful of milk and the mangerful of hay rank higher in importance than the worship of angels.  Mary’s kiss is valued more highly, too.  And in my favorite comparison, the baby is content with the ox, the ass, and the camel;  the angels are present but they don’t provide the contentment of the beasts.

Throughout Christian history, there have been debates about the position of angels and humans in the universal hierarchy.  Are humans higher than angels or is it vice versa?  Or are angels separate from the hierarchy, so ethereal in their nature that an infinite number can dance upon the head of a pin?

“Birth of Christ,” oil on canvas, 1597,
by Federico Barocci (c. 1526-1612),
from the Museo del PradoMadrid.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The eighth psalm places man “a little lower than angels,” but some Christian theologians suggest that the incarnation of Jesus as man may have exalted man’s status above the angels.  After all, Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Know ye not that we shall judge angels?”

Rossetti seems prepared to begin judging the angels now.  She approves their presence as they crowd around the nativity, but casts her lot with the ox, the ass, and the camel.



The Music Room

Isabel Suckling, known as the Choirgirl, sings “In the Bleak Midwinter”  Up until this point, all the performers in our Midwinter Music Room have sung the Gustav Holst arrangement.  Isabel sings the equally beautiful Harold Darke arrangement.



Reference Sources

Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by William M. Rossetti
Selected Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by Marya Zaturenska
Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life by Jan Marsh
The Achievement of Christina Rossetti, edited by David A. Kent
Christina Rossetti (Bloom’s Major Poets), edited by Harold Bloom
Christina Rossetti’s Faithful Imagination by Dinah Roe
Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender and Time by Diane D’Amico
Genius by Harold Bloom
The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford
The Pre-Raphaelites by Andrea Rose
Victorian Painting by Christopher Wood
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

© 2011 Lee Price

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Paradoxes


Midwinter-blogging, essay 5 of 12 blog entries on
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem by Christina Rossetti

The Paradoxes


Mosaic mural depicting the Nativity by Manuel Perez Paredes in the
Nuestro Señor del Veneno Temple on Carranza Street in Mexico City.
Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Christina Rossetti establishes the bleak setting in the first stanza of “In the Bleak Midwinter.”  The next three stanzas all play with a central paradox that obviously delights Rossetti:

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” stanzas 2-4
                        Christina Rossetti

Each of these stanzas contrasts the infinity of heaven with the cramped poverty of a stable.  More to the point, they contrast the incomprehensible vastness of the nature of God with the tiny newborn baby.  This is Rossetti’s favorite paradox:  the Lord God Almighty—omnipotent and omniscient—compacted into a fragile child.

Many poets have explored this Christian paradox.  My favorite is John Donne, the 16th century English metaphysical poet perhaps best known for his famous sermon line, “No man is an island…”  Donne loved paradoxes and frequently worked his poems around them.  He wrote a 21-sonnet series called “La Corona” which includes a sonnet focused on this particular paradox inherent in the nativity.

Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves his welbelov'd imprisonment,
There he hath made himself to his intent
Weak enough, now into our world to come;
But Oh, for thee, for him, hath th'Inne no roome?
Yet lay him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars, and wisemen will travel to prevent
Th'effect of Herod's jealous general doom;
Seest thou, my Soul, with thy faith's eyes, how he
Which fills all place, yet none holds him, doth lie?
Was not his pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss him, and with him into Egypt goe,
With his kind mother, who partakes thy woe.
                        “Nativity”
                        John Donne

While Rossetti is content to contrast the infinite nature of God with the stable, Donne goes even further by starting with the infinite inside the womb.  Once Jesus is in the stable, Donne continues to stress God’s nature “Which fills all place…”  This is the exact same paradox that Rossetti embraces when she envisions a God so great that even “Heaven cannot hold him.”

To use a modern metaphor that would have been completely alien to both Donne and Rossetti, the baby is like the image of an unimaginably compacted universe in the instant before the big bang.  The power within is infinite.  The size infinitesimal.

Detail of "Crucifixion, Nativity, Annunciation," unknown artist,
possibly made in Padua, Italy, circa 1320-30, from the collection of
the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Music Room

Norwegian a capella group The Funka sing “In the Bleak Midwinter,” including Norwegian lyrics…


Reference Sources

Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by William M. Rossetti
Selected Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by Marya Zaturenska
Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life by Jan Marsh
The Achievement of Christina Rossetti, edited by David A. Kent
Christina Rossetti (Bloom’s Major Poets), edited by Harold Bloom
Christina Rossetti’s Faithful Imagination by Dinah Roe
Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender and Time by Diane D’Amico
Genius by Harold Bloom
The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford
The Pre-Raphaelites by Andrea Rose
Victorian Painting by Christopher Wood
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

© 2011 Lee Price

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

White on White, White on White

Midwinter-blogging, essay 4 of 12 blog entries on
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem by Christina Rossetti

White on White, White on White


A haunting image of impending death in the snow:  “Fox Hunt” (1893)
by Winslow Homer from the collection at
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In Christina Rossetti’s poem “In the Bleak Midwinter,” mention of snow in the fifth line prompts a memorable incantation of endless snowfalls.

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

The repetition of “snow on snow/Snow on snow” has long been my favorite moment in the entire poem.  These are not the pretty snowflakes of Christmas cards.  This snow is defined by the context:  the bleak winter, the frosty winds, the frozen ground, the ice.

Snow is the final ingredient added to the wintry mix.  It coats Rossetti’s bleak landscape in whiteness.  White is a tricky color in art.  There’s one set of traditional imagery that places the good guys in white and the bad in black, but that’s not Rossetti’s way.  The whiteness of her landscape is a frigid blankness.

Rossetti was probably unfamiliar with the work of her American contemporary Herman Melville, who published Moby-Dick in 1851.  Nevertheless, her bleak use of white reminds me of Melville’s exploration of whiteness in Chapter 42 of Moby-Dick, “The Whiteness of the Whale.”  Melville writes:

An illustration by A. Burnham
Shute from an 1892 edition of
Moby-Dick.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
“Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?”

Many years before I read Moby-Dick, I learned about this horrific view of whiteness when reading a book called Horror in the Cinema by Ivan Butler.  In discussing the weird early sound movie Vampyr (1932) by Carl Dreyer, Butler references Melville in his discussion of a nightmarish scene where a doctor becomes trapped in a flour mill.  White eerily predominates in the scene as the character disappears under blankets of flour.  With Melville in mind, Butler suggests that a pervasive whiteness can be more terrifying than the dark.

I think this is the white-upon-white/snow-upon-snow effect that Rossetti summons up in the opening stanza of “In the Bleak Midwinter.”  It’s the vast whiteness of “heartless voids and immensities” and of “a colorless all-color of atheism from which we shrink.”  It is Rossetti’s image of the world without God—infinite, frozen, and devoid of color.

The evil doctor is buried alive in the flour mill in Carl Dreyer's
Vampyr (1932).
The Music Room

Allison Crowe performs “In the Bleak Midwinter” on her live television special Tidings


Reference Sources

Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by William M. Rossetti
Selected Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by Marya Zaturenska
Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life by Jan Marsh
The Achievement of Christina Rossetti, edited by David A. Kent
Christina Rossetti (Bloom’s Major Poets), edited by Harold Bloom
Christina Rossetti’s Faithful Imagination by Dinah Roe
Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender and Time by Diane D’Amico
Genius by Harold Bloom
The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford
The Pre-Raphaelites by Andrea Rose
Victorian Painting by Christopher Wood
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

© 2011 Lee Price

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Frosty Wind Made Moan


Midwinter-blogging, essay 3 of 12 blog entries on
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem by Christina Rossetti

Frosty Wind Made Moan


The Little Match Girl, illustration by Bertall.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

“Frosty wind made moan.”  This line, the second line in the first stanza of Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” reverberates for me.

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Here’s the uncomfortable connection I make with that line.

I take the train into Philadelphia every workday.  If you turn to the left after you pass through the turnstile exit, you enter into a vast underground concourse connecting various Center City stations.  Very wide passageways lead into the distance, punctuated by columns.  Homeless people sleep down here, especially in winter.  It’s cold, but they can escape the frosty winds that blow outside.

On the way to work, I pass other areas where homeless people sleep.  There’s one church that hospitably allows a homeless man to rest in his sleeping bag on the top step of a side entrance.  He always has his back turned as I walk by.  The wind blows off the Schuylkill River and down the street, sometimes creating a fierce wind tunnel.

In winter, I leave the heated train, walk a brisk eight blocks through the cold, and find sanctuary in a toasty office.  Outside, the frosty winds still make moan but I’m comfortable inside.

Christina Rossetti writes about people living outside in the cold.  An inn would have been cold but at least the walls protected visitors from the winds.  For Joseph and Mary, however, a stable-place sufficed.  Along with the animals, they were exposed to the elements, with about as much protection as the homeless man who sleeps by the church door.  This is where Mary gives birth to her baby.

There was poverty in Bethlehem.  There was poverty in Rossetti’s London, where an estimated 30,000 children were living homeless on the streets.  There’s poverty today. 

The frosty winds still blow, the poor remain with us, and Rossetti’s final question continues to haunt:

What can I give him
Poor as I am?

especially when viewed in context of the challenge that Jesus posed as an adult (Matthew 23:45):  “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

The little match girl, warming herself with matches, dreams of a
Christmas tree in Jean Renoir's The Little Match Girl (1928).
The Music Room

Celtic Woman, an all-female ensemble, performs “In the Bleak Midwinter,” featuring violinist Máiréad Nesbitt…


Reference Sources

Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by William M. Rossetti
Selected Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by Marya Zaturenska
Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life by Jan Marsh
The Achievement of Christina Rossetti, edited by David A. Kent
Christina Rossetti (Bloom’s Major Poets), edited by Harold Bloom
Christina Rossetti’s Faithful Imagination by Dinah Roe
Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender and Time by Diane D’Amico
Genius by Harold Bloom
The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford
The Pre-Raphaelites by Andrea Rose
Victorian Painting by Christopher Wood
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

© 2011 Lee Price

Monday, December 26, 2011

England in Winter


Midwinter-blogging, essay 2 of 12 blog entries on
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem by Christina Rossetti

England in Winter

Winter Coast (1890) by Winslow Homer,
American, 1836-1910

The first stanza of Christina Rossetti’s poem “In the Bleak Midwinter” describes a nihilistic landscape.  If it were not for the succeeding stanzas, the location would be indeterminate.

“In the Bleak Midwinter” (first stanza)
by Christina Rossetti

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

I see a link between the setting of the nativity in the first verse of “In the Bleak Midwinter” and her famous artist brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s involvement with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Gabriel Rossetti was one of the founders of the mid-19th century Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a movement which proposed to return art to its roots—which they defined as the art that was popular before the Renaissance achievements of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo Da Vinci.  In practice, the Pre-Raphaelites drew much of their inspiration from 15th century Netherlandish art, which tended to indulge in exquisite precise detail alongside a fairly primitive depiction of perspective.

The Nativity (1425) by Robert Campin
Source: Wikimedia Commons
These early artists, beloved by the Pre-Raphaelites, frequently painted Bible scenes.  But they made little attempt to depict authentic Middle East landscapes or clothes.  The people looked Dutch, they wore contemporary Dutch clothes, and the green rolling landscapes looked more Dutch than Palestinian.  They anchored their Bible stories in their own familiar world.

Christina Rossetti achieves a similar effect in the first verse of “In the Bleak Midwinter.”  Her opening stanza paints a bleak picture that could easily be an English winter.  Although Bethlehem can get cold in December, the deep freeze of the poem—complete with layers of snow—is highly unlikely.  The words conjure a landscape more suggestive of northern Europe than the Middle East.  But the poem’s real emphasis is not on an ambiguous geographical location but on the implied psychological and theological location.

Before Christ is born, the entire world is frozen.  Christina Rossetti carefully works metaphors of both microcosm and macrocosm.  As the world is frozen without Christ, our souls are frozen without Christ.  The poem opens at a low point of the world, hushed and expectant, lifeless as it awaits the thawing effect of Jesus’ birth.

Robert Campin, Gerard David, Rogier Van Der Weyden, and other early Dutch masters, practicing their art in those 15th century pre-Raphaelite days, would have understood Rossetti’s intention.  She was taking her own familiar home landscape and rendering it universal.

In this sense, “In the Bleak Midwinter” is a Pre-Raphaelite poem, taking an ancient story and staging it on a Victorian lawn.

Here’s a gem from Rossetti’s book of children’s poems SingSong (1872) that also poetically captures the English winter, with the last two lines featuring a charming steal from “In the Bleak Midwinter”:

January cold desolate;
February all dripping wet;
March wind ranges;
April changes;
Birds sing in tune
To flowers of May,
And sunny June
Brings longest day;
In scorched July
The storm-clouds fly
Lightning torn;
August bears corn,
September fruit;
In rough October
Earth must disrobe her;
Stars fall and shoot
In keen November;
And night is long
And cold is strong
In bleak December.

The Music Room

Chanticleer, a classical vocal ensemble, sing “In the Bleak Midwinter”…




Reference Sources

Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by William M. Rossetti
Selected Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by Marya Zaturenska
Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life by Jan Marsh
The Achievement of Christina Rossetti, edited by David A. Kent
Christina Rossetti (Bloom’s Major Poets), edited by Harold Bloom
Christina Rossetti’s Faithful Imagination by Dinah Roe
Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender and Time by Diane D’Amico
Genius by Harold Bloom
The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford
The Pre-Raphaelites by Andrea Rose
Victorian Painting by Christopher Wood
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

© 2011 Lee Price

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Poem for the 12 Days of Christmas


Midwinter-blogging, essay 1 of 12 blog entries on
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem by Christina Rossetti

A Poem for the 12 Days of Christmas

Portrait of Christina Rossetti by her brother
Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The wind is moaning outside.  Through my office window, I can see there’s frost on my car windshield.  As I write this introduction to Christina Rossetti’s beautiful poem “In the Bleak Midwinter,” it is the morning following the longest night of the year.

In the Bleak Midwinter
by Christina Rossetti

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

The twelve days of Christmas begin today.  On the first day, December 25, we celebrate the birth of Jesus in a manager, as told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  In the western tradition, Christmas continues for twelve days, concluding with the celebration of the arrival of the Magi (the Three Kings).

At the Methodist church I attend, we sing “Joy to the World” on Christmas Eve to usher in the first day of Christmas.  Then on the Sunday following January 6, we sing “We Three Kings” to close our Christmas celebrations.

“In the Bleak Midwinter” is appropriate for contemplation during the twelve days of Christmas.  The first four stanzas focus on that first day.  The last stanza raises the great question posed by the arrival of the Magi on the last day:  How should I respond?  In the words of Christina Rossetti, “What can I give him,/Poor as I am?”  The twelve days of Christmas conclude with her answer lingering in the air, “Give my heart.”

In another Christmas poem, “The Shepherds Had an Angel,” Rossetti explores the nature of this gift further.  These are the final three stanzas of the nine-stanza poem:

My life is like their* journey,
Their star is like God's book;
I must be like those good Wise Men
With heavenward heart and look:
But shall I give no gifts to God?
What precious gifts they took!

Lord, I will give my love to Thee,
Than gold must costlier,
Sweeter to Thee than frankincense,
More prized than choicest myrrh:
Lord, make me dearer day by day,
Day by day holier;

Nearer and dearer day by day;
Till I my voice unite,
And sing my 'Glory glory'
With angels clad in white;
All 'Glory glory' given to Thee
Through all the heavenly height.

* The Magi’s

Betty Bronson as Mary and Winter Hall as Joseph in Ben-Hur:  A Tale
of the Christ
(1925).
The Music Room

Julie Andrews singing “In the Bleak Midwinter” from her 1973 Christmas special…  




Reference Sources

Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by William M. Rossetti
Selected Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by Marya Zaturenska
Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life by Jan Marsh
The Achievement of Christina Rossetti, edited by David A. Kent
Christina Rossetti (Bloom’s Major Poets), edited by Harold Bloom
Christina Rossetti’s Faithful Imagination by Dinah Roe
Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender and Time by Diane D’Amico
Genius by Harold Bloom
The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford
The Pre-Raphaelites by Andrea Rose
Victorian Painting by Christopher Wood
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)



© 2011 Lee Price

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Fall: A Tribute to Buster Keaton


It’s “down time” again.  Fifteen essays in fifteen days may be easy for some, but not for me!

The next blog series will begin on December 25, with a 12-days-of-Christmas marathon focused on Christina Rossetti’s poem “In the Bleak Midwinter.”  (Yes, I promised a mid-December series on Kihachiro Kawamoto but I’m postponing that until mid-January.)

In the meantime, I highly recommend Kevin Lee’s and Dana Stevens’ Fall, an awesome video tribute to Buster Keaton.  I particular love the clips from Seven Chances (1925), with Buster and boulders tumbling down a mountain.


Note to self:  Must do a Keaton blog series.  When I get to it, it will most likely be on Sherlock Jr. (1924), one of my all-time favorite movies.

© 2011 Lee Price

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Deconstructing Daffy Duck


Daffy-blogging, essay 15 of 15 blog entries on
Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½th Century

Deconstructing Daffy Duck



 

Victory at what cost?  The irony
in this concluding scene runs as
strong as any of the anti-war
satire in Stanley Kubrick's
famous Dr. Strangelove (1964). 
A friend at the International Move Database (IMDb) Classic Film message board responded in dismay when I proposed launching this Duck Dodgers series.  He said he saw no value in deconstructing Daffy Duck.  I completely understand that sentiment.

Viewed simply as a comedy, Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½th Century (1953) is one of the great animated shorts.  It succeeds in delivering the laughs.  And it looks fantastic while doing so.

But I’m diving into the deeper waters nevertheless.  I’ve read enough of Chuck Jones’ writings to know that this guy was no intellectual slouch.  In addition to being very funny, Jones was politically aware, artistically sensitive, and philosophically astute.  He wanted his movies to have resonance.

A Political Interpretation

The United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.  Four years later, the Soviet Union detonated a nuclear bomb in 1949.  Then the United States detonated a hydrogen bomb in 1952.

To quote the final line of
The Bridge on the River Kwai,
"Madness! Madness!"
Mutually assured destruction
in Duck Dodgers.
With these contemporary events in mind, it’s difficult not to see an arms race subtext in Duck Dodgers.  As Duck Dodgers and Marvin (the two Planet X superpowers) face off, their weapons get progressively more destructive.  With these two at the controls, there is no deterrence effect from an assumption of mutually assured destruction.  They blithely destroy the world, with Daffy cackling as he pulls the lever.

I think we can assume that Acme Products continues to receive billions of dollars in no-bid contracts from the Pentagon to this day.

A Metaphysical Speculation

Dangling from the Statue of Liberty
Liberty in Alfred Hitchcock's
Saboteur (1942).
I love literal cliffhangers—movies that build to a climax where the lead characters literally hang from a great height, dangling over an abyss.

This image is one of the great existential metaphors.  It reminds us that we’re all hanging over a metaphorical abyss—it’s the nature of life. 

This metaphor is operating when a villain 
Clinging to the side of Mount
Rushmore in Hitchcock's
North by Northwest (1959).
clings to the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur (1942) and when Eva Marie Saint clings to Cary Grant’s hand on the edge of Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest (1959), but I don’t think you can surpass the latent power of the image than when you place the characters dangling over infinite space.  And to work most effectively as a metaphor, you leave them there with no resolution, suspended forever.

This is exactly what Duck Dodgers does.  It’s double-edged.  Close one eye to the comedy, and you’re left with a bleak and frightening vision.

Iris out on Porky, and the carnival music roars back reminding us that it’s all just good cartoon fun.

That’s all there is, folks!

Above him, Duck Dodgers proclaims, "This
planet is hereby claimed for the Earth!"
"B-b-big deal," says Porky.

Reference Sources

Chuck Amuck by Chuck Jones
Chuck Reducks by Chuck Jones
Hollywood Cartoons by Michael Barrier
Looney Tunes: The Ultimate Visual Guide by Jerry Beck
Warner Bros. Animation Art by Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald
7 Minutes by Norman M. Klein
That's All Folks by Steve Schneider
Stepping Into the Picture by Robert J. McKinnon
Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set, Duck Dodgers commentary by Michael Barrier
Friends at the IMDb Classic Film message board including Rollo Treadway, Chloe Joe Fassbender, Illtdesq, and Fish Beauty
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

Watch Duck Dodgers...
Purchase Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Rent Disc Two of Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set at Netflix or other rental service.

© 2011 Lee Price


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

24 1/2th Things I Love About Duck Dodgers


Daffy-blogging, essay 14 of 15 blog entries on
Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½th Century

Maurice Noble's sleek rocket design in Duck Dodgers in the
24 1/2th Century
 (1953).

Part One, 24 1/2th Things I Love About Duck Dodgers

1.  24 1/2th—I love that 1/2th
Following the taxi, the camera
pulls up and up in the opening
crane shot in Duck Dodgers.
2.  The opening crane shot that introduces the space city
3.  The office is on the 17,000th floor
4.  The giant eye
5.  The “Unknown” cloud where Planet X is located on the map
6.  The way Daffy says, “Indubitably”
7.  The Evaporator that leads “To Studio”
8.  The floppy antennae on Daffy’s and Porky’s head coverings
9.  Porky calls Dodgers “Your heroship, sir.”
10.  Daffy’s sheepish expression after he puts rocket in reverse
11.   “South by downeast” in Daffy’s directions to Planet X.  Downeast???
A tree on Planet X.
12.  The X trees on Planet X
13.  The cloud X on the mountain behind Marvin’s spaceship
14.   “Little does he realize that I have on my disintegration-proof vest.”
15.  Daffy’s vest turns from green to red during the disintegrator blast
16.  Porky’s Acme Integrating Pistol
17.  Daffy gets so angry at Porky that he sticks his hand through his head
18.  Porky doesn’t mind that Daffy’s hand went through his head
19.  Daffy’s disintegrating pistol that disintegrates
20.  Porky calls Marvin, “You thing from another world”
Marvin stands on
a pile of books.
21.  Marvin standing on a pile of books to reach his weapon of mass destruction
22.  The bedraggled uniforms of our heroes after the explosion
23.  The roots that dangle off the bit of dirt left of the planet at the end
24.  Final iris-out on Porky
24½.  All this in 6 minutes and 55 seconds


Part Two, Return to Space

Chuck Jones returned for more science fiction comedy on at least
five occasions after Duck Dodgers, but these later efforts never
reached the heights of Duck Dodgers, The Hasty Hare (1952),
or Haredevil Hare (1948).  In 1955, Jones teamed Porky and
Sylvester for a UFO trip into space in Jumpin' Jupiter. This short
introduced the bird-like alien shown here.  He turns up in several
later Jones' cartoons.

Rocket Squad from 1956 had an excellent script by Tedd Pierce that
parodied 1950s  TV detective shows like Dragnet.  Background
artist Ernie Nordli provided a number of imaginative designs
but the short also borrows backgrounds straight from Duck Dodgers,
as in this shot.

Rocket-Bye Baby, also from 1956, was an unusual effort for Chuck
Jones who was working without most of his usual collaborators.
Ernie Nordli provided the very UPA-like background art and Daws
Butler and June Foray did the voices (no Mel Blanc involvement!).
The story concerned an alien baby mix-up.

Bugs Bunny fought Marvin the Martian again in Hareway to the
Stars
(1958).  Background artist Maurice Noble provided a memorable
floating space city and the bird-like aliens from Jumpin' Jupiter
returned to torment Bugs.

Coming at the very end of Chuck Jones' long run at Warner Bros.,
Mad As a Mars Hare (1963) boasted an imaginative design,
courtesy of co-director Maurice Noble, but the story and the
animation were much weaker than the standard in the golden days.

Reference Sources
Chuck Amuck by Chuck Jones
Chuck Reducks by Chuck Jones
Hollywood Cartoons by Michael Barrier
Looney Tunes: The Ultimate Visual Guide by Jerry Beck
Warner Bros. Animation Art by Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald
7 Minutes by Norman M. Klein
That's All Folks by Steve Schneider
Stepping Into the Picture by Robert J. McKinnon
Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set, Duck Dodgers commentary by Michael Barrier
Friends at the IMDb Classic Film message board including Rollo Treadway, Chloe Joe Fassbender, Illtdesq, and Fish Beauty
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

Watch Duck Dodgers...
Purchase Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Rent Disc Two of Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set at Netflix or other rental service.

© 2011 Lee Price


Monday, November 28, 2011

Science Fiction Maps and Martians


Daffy-blogging, essay 13 of 15 blog entries on
Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½th Century

Part One, Directions to Planet X

The Mapquest directions:  "Starting from where we are, we go 33,600
turbo miles due up..."

"Then west in an astro-arc deviation to here..."

"... then following the great circle seven radiolubes south by
downeast..."

"... by astro-astrolab to here... here... then to here..."

"... and here..."

"... by thirteen point strato-cumulus bearing four million light-years...
and thus to our destination."

Part Two, My Favorite Martian

Marvin the Martian from his
introductory shot in
Haredevil Hare (1948).
I used to think Marvin the Martian was a parody of aliens in 1950s science fiction movies but I was wrong.  Marvin predates them.  Marvin came first.

A 1951 alien: Klaatu in
The Day the Earth
Stood Still
.
As I wrote in an earlier blog entry, the Chuck Jones Unit anticipated the Hollywood science fiction boom by two years when they made Haredevil Hare in 1948 (two years before George Pal released Destination Moon, Hollywood’s first modern-style science fiction hit).

In the old-style science fiction serials and pulp magazine stories, intelligent aliens were usually human.  For instance, Flash Gordon’s nemesis Ming the Merciless is your typical evil human mastermind who just happens to live on another planet.

Another 1951 alien from
The Thing (From
Another World)
.
Marvin the Martian has the build of one of Warner Bros. trademark short human villains but—except for the expressive eyes—his face is an otherworldly black void.  He has no mouth and only the barest suggestion of nostrils.  (Incidentally, he must have been the easiest character to animate since the animators never had to match a mouth to the dialogue!)

In his book Chuck Reducks, Chuck Jones suggests that the source of Marvin’s face was something very un-humanlike indeed.  He writes:  “Then, I figured, black ants are scary, so I put an ant-black face and a couple of angry eyes inside his helmet.”
The perfect roundness of Marvin’s head suggests an ant as well.

Approached realistically, this would be a radically creepy alien.  So that’s where all the light touches come in, allowing Jones to play up the comedy.  Marvin gets decked out with a scrub brush on his helmet and over-sized sneakers on his feet.  Above all, the large anime-sized eyes are able to vividly convey his most frequent mental activities—conniving and confusion.

K-9 as seen in Haredevil Hare.
In Haredevil Hare (1948) and The Hasty Hare (1952), Marvin travels with a pet alien dog/assistant called K-9.  But in Duck Dodgers the cast is kept to a minimum, dispensing with the presence of the cute but unnecessary K-9.

Perhaps Marvin can also be seen as a precursor of Star Trek’s iconic Mr. Spock in his comically unemotional responses to all setbacks.  While Marvin sometimes says that he is angry, his emotions remain under tight control when compared to characters like Daffy and Bugs.  The pragmatic Marvin simply goes back to work, diligently planning the destruction of Daffy or the Earth or anything else that he’s irritated by.  Putting aside his destructive tendencies, there really does seem to be something Vulcan-like in Marvin’s eminently practical approach to dealing with life’s unexpected obstacles.

Marvin the Martian and K-9 in Haredevil Hare.

Reference Sources
Chuck Amuck by Chuck Jones
Chuck Reducks by Chuck Jones
Hollywood Cartoons by Michael Barrier
Looney Tunes: The Ultimate Visual Guide by Jerry Beck
Warner Bros. Animation Art by Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald
7 Minutes by Norman M. Klein
That's All Folks by Steve Schneider
Stepping Into the Picture by Robert J. McKinnon
Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set, Duck Dodgers commentary by Michael Barrier
Friends at the IMDb Classic Film message board including Rollo Treadway, Chloe Joe Fassbender, Illtdesq, and Fish Beauty
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

Watch Duck Dodgers...
Purchase Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Rent Disc Two of Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set at Netflix or other rental service.

© 2011 Lee Price



Sunday, November 27, 2011

Also Starring Porky Pig


Daffy-blogging, essay 12 of 15 blog entries on
Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½th Century

Porky Pig in Drip-Along Daffy (1951).
Also Starring Porky Pig

The Space Cadet in
Duck Dodgers (1953).
In Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½th Century (1953), Porky plays the “eager young space cadet,” looking very young for his years.  In his introductory shot, he looks downright baby-ish.

In reality, Porky was the oldest, most-seasoned member of the cast.  Marvin the Martian was a newcomer (first appearing in 1948), Daffy Duck was a long-term dependable star (first appearing in 1937), but Porky was the very first Warner Bros. cartoon superstar, with his initial screen appearance dating back to 1935.

Porky and Daffy as friends in Porky's Pigs Feat (1943).
Porky was an odd candidate for stardom.  His only distinguishing characteristic was his stutter.  Aside from that, his age varied, his weight shifted wildly, and his character changed to fit the short.  But, somehow, stardom was his destiny.  When the Warner Bros. team started having him stutter “Abba-de, abba-de, abba-de, Th-that’s All Folks!” at the close of every
Looney Tune, his immortality was assured.

Porky was always a different kind of star.  Both Daffy and Bugs could easily carry a picture—they had “leading man” personalities.  As parts for Daffy and Bug grew, Porky receded into supporting roles under directors Tex Avery, Frank Tashlin, and Bob Clampett in the 1940s.

Chuck Jones struggled to find a comic personality for Porky that he could identify with.  Through trial and error, Jones eventually decided to stress the role of Porky as an “observer.”  Jones explained this new identity for Porky in his book Chuck Reducks:

“The role became significant in Duck Dodgers, in which (Porky) acts as Daffy’s assistant.  The film’s leading man could not appear heroic unless he had somebody to bounce off of, and a character such as Daffy required someone relatively meek for the role.  Porky, responding on behalf of the audience, makes us realize the true craziness of what we are seeing.”

Marvin the Martian meets his match in Duck Dodgers.
While Daffy and Porky were sometimes teamed as partners in the 1940s, Porky’s new role as a wiser observer appears to have debuted in Drip-Along Daffy in 1950.  Daffy plays the western-type hero and Porky is the stubble-bearded comic relief, riding behind on a donkey.  As with his space cadet in Duck Dodgers, Porky plays the character who can actually read the unfolding situation correctly and win a confrontation with the villain.  In Drip-Along Daffy, Porky defeats villain Nasty Canasta by sending a toy soldier out to fire a gun at him.  In Duck Dodgers, Porky hands a stick of dynamite to Marvin the Martian and the ruse works.

The new Daffy-Porky relationship continued to develop through at least two more excellent Jones Unit cartoons, Deduce, You Say (1956) with Daffy as Dorlock Holmes and Porky as Watkins and Robin Hood Daffy (1957) with Porky as Friar Tuck.

Daffy and Porky in Deduce, You Say (1956).

Daffy and Porky in Robin Hood Daffy (1957).

Reference Sources
Chuck Amuck by Chuck Jones
Chuck Reducks by Chuck Jones
Hollywood Cartoons by Michael Barrier
Looney Tunes: The Ultimate Visual Guide by Jerry Beck
Warner Bros. Animation Art by Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald
7 Minutes by Norman M. Klein
That's All Folks by Steve Schneider
Stepping Into the Picture by Robert J. McKinnon
Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set, Duck Dodgers commentary by Michael Barrier
Friends at the IMDb Classic Film message board including Rollo Treadway, Chloe Joe Fassbender, Illtdesq, and Fish Beauty
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

Watch Duck Dodgers...
Purchase Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Rent Disc Two of Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set at Netflix or other rental service.

© 2011 Lee Price