WHEN I AM DEAD, MY DEAREST (by Christina Rossetti)

Christina Rossetti, as depicted by her brother, the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.

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NEFERTITI by Nick Drake (Review)

This is by any standards a perfect example of the classic detective story: a tough, cynical investigator straight off the mean streets of Thebes, a setting – Akhetaten, Egypt, 1800 BC – that is almost mythical in its connotations, and a villain and heroine who make their counterparts in most other books seem insipid by comparison and hardly worth bothering with at all.

Akhetaten is the city of Akhenaten, the pharaoh who attempted to reform the complex Egyptian religious system and introduce monotheism by imposing on all the worship of one god, the Aten, symbolised by the sun. Akhetaten, the new capital, was built out in the desert, far away far away from the other great cities of Egypt: and this was its weakness. It became something of a retreat from reality, and Akhenaten, his mind entirely on his religion, gradually lost control of what was, at the time, the greatest kingdom (and greatest empire) in the world.

Then Nefertiti, the Queen, disappears, and it is Rahotep’s job to find her – or her dead body and the name of her murderer. He has only ten days before a great festival at which she must be present; if he fails, Akhenaten tells him, he will die a horrible death, and his wife and children back in Thebes will die with him. But he is a stranger in Akhetaten: where can he start and who can he trust?

Nick Drake’s Nefertiti is the most convincing recreation I know of the queen whose beauty shines down through the millennia. She is Nefertiti to me now.

And the villain? Read it and see. There are some evil men involved and the author keeps the reader guessing, so I must too.

The best mystery set in ancient Egypt since Agatha Christie’s Death Comes As The End.

I DIED FOR BEAUTY (by Emily Dickinson)

I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
‘For beauty,’ I replied.
‘And I for truth, – the two are one;
We brethren are,’ he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

This beautiful poem aways reminds me of Keats’ lines

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

from ADONAIS: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (by Percy Byshe Shelley)

View of the Keats-Shelley House beside the Spanish Steps in Rome. It is the house where John Keats died.

Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep,
He hath awakened from the dream of life;
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife
Invulnerable nothings. We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.

He has outsoared the shadow of our night;
Envy and calumny and hate and pain,
And that unrest which men miscall delight,
Can touch him not and torture not again;
From the contagion of the world’s slow stain
He is secure, and now can never mourn
A heart grown cold, a head grown gray in vain;
Nor, when the spirit’s self has ceas’d to burn,
With sparkless ashes load an unlamented urn.

He lives, he wakes – ’tis Death is dead, not he;
Mourn not for Adonais. Thou young Dawn,
Turn all thy dew to splendour, for from thee
The spirit thou lamentest is not gone;
Ye caverns and ye forests, cease to moan!
Cease, ye faint flowers and fountains, and thou Air,
Which like a mourning veil thy scarf hadst thrown
O’er the abandoned Earth, now leave it bare
Even to the joyous stars which smile on its despair!

He is made one with Nature: there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird;
He is a presence to be felt and known
In darkness and in light, from herb and stone,
Spreading itself where’er that Power may move
Which has withdrawn his being to its own;
Which wields the world with never-wearied love,
Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above.

He is a portion of the loveliness
Which once he made more lovely: he doth bear
His part, while the one Spirit’s plastic stress
Sweeps through the dull dense world, compelling there
All new successions to the forms they wear;
Torturing th’ unwilling dross that checks its flight
To its own likeness, as each mass may bear;
And bursting in its beauty and its might
From trees and beasts and men into the Heaven’s light.

ELEGY FOR JANE (by Theodore Roethke)

(My student, thrown by a horse)

I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought,
A wren, happy, tail into the wind,
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,
And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.

Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,
Even a father could not find her:
Scraping her cheek against straw,
Stirring the clearest water.

My sparrow, you are not here,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light.

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.

THE BURNING TIMES by Jeanne Kalogridis (Review)

In Carcassonne, in the south of France (in the heart of the Occitan – Cathar and Templar country), Marie-Françoise, a nun, the Abbess of the Convent of Poor Clares, is arrested on a charge of heresy and witchcraft. A young Dominican inquisitor, Michel, finds himself appointed to interrogate her, his superior having fallen ill, and there being no time to bring in a replacement.

In fact, they have already encountered one another: she once performed a healing miracle in his presence, he considers her a saint, and she herself refuses to speak to anyone other than Michel.

Michel, however, is shocked when it transpires that the Church has already condemned her, that the hearing is just a formality, that she is to burn. He insists on listening to her, hearing her story. And what a story it is.

Who is this woman, this healer, whose real name is Sybille and who has brought down the wrath of the Church upon herself? Is she one of the last of the Race, as she claims?

And who is Michel? Is he simply the young monk he seems to be? Or is he something else altogether, as the Abbess, Sybille, appears to believe?

There are wonderful descriptive passages – the dead and dying at the Battle of Creçy, several appalling burnings, one in Toulouse, one in Avignon, and one in Carcassonne, and a description of Avignon and the Palais des Papes that is quite unforgettable:

Heaven and Hell, it is. Never have I ridden through streets narrower, filthier; nor seen more whores, brigands, beggars and charlatans gathered in one place. (They say in Avignon there are so many reliquaries containing a lock of the Magdalen’s hair, it must have been long enough to encircle the world; and so many fingers belonging to Saint John the Divine that he was obviously a monster, graced by God with a dozen arms.)

Likewise have I never beheld such beauty, such grandeur, such wealth. More ermine exists in Avignon, they say, than in the rest of the world combined, and I can vouch for it now. On my arrival, I let myself be led by the Goddess into the great square in front of the Papal palace, and watched the glorious display of finery: the nobles in their canary, peacock and purple silks and brocades, the Papal gendarmes in uniforms blue as the broad Rhône, the cardinals in wide-brimmed carmine hats and snowy furs. Across from me stood the Palais des Papes, the Palace of the Popes, that magnificent cacophony in stone, built upon a cliff that dropped precipitously to the shores of the Rhône. Tall as a great cathedral, it was much broader in span – in fact the size of a king’s estate, grand enough to house several hundred, its massive walls enclosing dozens of spires and turrets. And those walls faced a great city square.

As I neared the Papal palace, my steed atremble as if he sensed the Evil residing there, I saw a platform.

A platform for inquisitors, and before it an execution berm. …

It is a book you need to read twice. Not that it doesn’t come over first time – it does – I was awed – but when you re-read the Prologue after finishing the book, you suddenly appreciate nuances you missed first-time round, and are drawn on unresisting into Part I again.

JOHN ANDERSON, MY JO (by Robert Burns)

John Anderson, my jo, John,
When we were first acquent;
Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonie brow was brent;
But now your brow is beld, John,
Your locks are like the snaw;
But blessings on your frosty pow,
John Anderson, my jo.

John Anderson, my jo, John,
We clamb the hill thegither;
And mony a cantie day, John,
We’ve had wi’ ane anither:
Now we maun totter down, John,
And hand in hand we’ll go,
And sleep thegither at the foot,
John Anderson, my jo.