Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Medieval Christmas: The Procession

To celebrate today, the day of days, we look at A Medieval Christmas: The Process by Albert Beck Wenzell (1864-1917).  Our Christmas picture is pastel on canvas and rather large – 6x3’ 10.06.  Though it depicts a holiday pageant of the Middle Ages, the costumes seem more reminiscent of the era of Van Dyke.
Born in Detroit, Detroit, Michigan, Wenzell was a popular illustrator during the Golden Age of magazines.  Though his oeuvre is very much that of John Singer Sargent greatly watered down, Wenzell was a gifted illustrator in his own right. 
I hope your own Christmas procession this year was a merry and joyous one.  We here at the Jade Sphinx are taking some time off for the holiday and will return to you on January 4th, 2012.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen

Men -- Don't Let This Happen To You!

As today is Christmas Eve, I thought we would visit with the only carol actually mentioned in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens:
Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold. If the good Saint Dunstan had but nipped the Evil Spirit's nose with a touch of such weather as that, instead of using his familiar weapons, then indeed he would have roared to lusty purpose. The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge's keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of --
God bless you, merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay!

Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen was an amazingly ubiquitous coral during the age of Victoria.  In fact, William Henry Husk in The Songs of the Nativity (1868) writes: There is no carol, perhaps, so universally known as this. Many, who have heard no other carol, are familiar with " God rest you, merry gentlemen," and speak of it as the Christmas carol. The only carols which at the present time in any degree approach it in point of popularity are "The Seven Joys," and "The Sunny Bank," which many of the broadside printers annually associate with it on the same sheet; accompanied of late years by an English translation of the Latin Christmas hymn, "Adeste, fideles," under the title of the Portuguese Hymn, or as one worthy printer calls it "A favourite Christmas Hymn, translated from the Portuguese," ignorant of the fact that its title of "Portuguese," was given to it by an English nobleman who was a director of the Concerts of Ancient Music and introduced the hymn there, having previously heard it sung at the Chapel of the Portuguese embassy in South Street, Grosvenor Square, and assuming it to be a Portuguese composition. As may be expected of a piece so often printed and sung in districts so widely separated there are several variations in the different copies of this carol, but the version here printed seems the most generally received, and is perhaps the most genuine.
The actual author of God Rest Ye Merry is unknown, though most scholars believe it was written sometime between 1780 and 1800.  Many people today are often puzzled by the opening line, which actually means: may God make you happy, gentlemen.  Dickens, by moving the comma over one word, has accidently changed its meaning, assuming that the gentlemen were merry to being with.

God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay.
For Jesus Christ our Savior,
Was born on Christmas Day;
To save us all from Satan’s power,
When we were gone astray.


O tidings of comfort and joy,
For Jesus Christ our Savior
Was born on Christmas day.

In Bethlehem, in Jury,
This blessed Babe was born,
And laid within a manger,
Upon this blessed morn;
The which His mother Mary
Did nothing take in scorn.


From God our heavenly Father,
A blessed angel came.
And unto certain shepherds,
Brought tidings of the same,
How that in Bethlehem was born,
The Son of God by name:


Fear not, then said the Angel,
Let nothing you affright,
This day is born a Savior,
Of virtue, power, and might,
So frequently to vanquish all,
The friends of Satan quite;


The shepherds at those tidings,
Rejoiced much in mind,
And left their flocks a feeding,
In tempest, storm, and wind,
And went to Bethlehem straightway,
This blessed babe to find:


But when to Bethlehem they came,
Whereas this infant lay
They found him in a manger,
Where oxen feed on hay;
His mother Mary kneeling,
Unto the Lord did pray:


With sudden joy and gladness
The shepherds were beguiled,
To see the Babe if Israel,
Before His mother mild,
O then with joy and cheerfulness
Rejoice, each mother's child. 


Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood,
Each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas,
Doth bring redeeming grace.


God bless the ruler of this house,
And send him long to reign,
And many a merry Christmas
May live to see again;
Among your friends and kindred
That live both far and near.

Alternate Chorus:

That God send you a happy new year,
Happy new year,
And God send you a happy new year.

Friday, December 23, 2011

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

Rembrandt Hears the Angels Sing

Today is the Eve of Christmas Eve, and I wanted to share with you my favorite carol.  It is It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, written by Edmund Sears (1810-1876), pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland, Massachusetts.  It is one of the few carols by an American (Americans have dominated, though, popular Christmas songs), and one of the most beautiful.  The melody to which it is most often sang is by Richard Storrs Willis (1819-1900), who composed a tune initially called Carol.  It is often set in the key of B-flat major in a six-eight time signature.

One of the things that is most successful in this carol is that is seems to evoke the Biblical passage in Luke that provides the most joyous Christmas message: And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, good will toward men.”  The key word here is saying; this passage is particularly musical, and if saying were replaced with singing, it could almost be set to music.  This passage does have a particularly musical tone to it, perfectly in keeping with a time of joyous Christmas music.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is its exhortation to listen.  The angels sound a note of peace and provide the opportunity for all of humanity to lift its voice in joy.  Though clearly inspired by the nativity, it is not a Christian carol, per se, and is all the more effective for it.  It seems almost as if this carol tells us to slow down for a moment and recognize the quiet miracle of our lives.

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold;
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From Heaven’s all gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.
Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever over its Babel sounds
The blessèd angels sing.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing.
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!
For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet-bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.
There are many excellent recordings of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, but I would recommend that you listen to that of Burl Ives.  It can easily be found on You Tube, and is a perfect Christmas moment.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Good King Wenceslas

In these last few days before Christmas, I thought we would look at some of our most beautiful Christmas carols.  I have always had a deep affection for Good King Wenceslas, not the least for the fact that, when he was a boy, my younger brother insisted the lyric was “Good King Vince, the louse, met his friend named Stephen…”
At any rate, at their best Christmas carols seem to us a bridge between a vanished world of the past and our contemporary lives while retaining a lyric loveliness.  Good King Wenceslas fits, I believe, both of those promises by detailing the legend of a little-remembered saint, telling a tale with the simplicity of a fable and a wonderful musicality.  Despite being in a minor key, the melody of King Wenceslas remains bright, cheerful and pleasing.
The carol details the story of King Wenceslas, who leaves his castle on the Feast of Stephen (December 26th) to feed the poor.  With him is his page, who yearns to give up the quest due to the bitter weather.  However, the very footsteps of the king seem to generate supernatural warmth, allowing King and Page to finish their quest.
The text of Good King Wenceslaus was written by John Mason Neale (1818-1866), the celebrated hymn writer, with an assist by Thomas Helmore (1811-1890).  It first appeared in the 1853 collection Carols for Christmastide.  The melody is based, oddly enough, on a 13th century carol celebrating the advent of spring, Tempus adest floridum.  It has remained one of the most popular Christmas carols ever since.
But who was King Wenceslas?  Most scholars believe that the legend is based on the life of Saint Wenceslaus I, the Duke of Bohemia (907-935).  Wenceslaus seized power when only 18 years old, and was a fair but stern king.  He stopped the persecution of priests and was celebrated for his kindness to the poor.  Many of the Bohemian nobles resented Wenceslas' attempts to spread Christianity, and were displeased when he swore allegiance to the king of Germany, Henry I.
Wenceslas was murdered by his own brother, Boleslav, who joined the nobles to assassinate him.  He invited Wenceslas in 935 AD to a religious festival and then attacked him on his way to mass. As the two were struggling, Boleslav's supporters jumped in and murdered Wenceslas. Wenceslas became Bohemia's most famous martyr and patron saint. 
The historic Wenceslas was not a king, but, rather, a duke; however Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously conferred a kingship on Wenceslas.  He is a revered figure in Czech Republic and several statues of him can be found there.
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather

"Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing

Friday, December 16, 2011

Celebrate the Holidays With Vince Giordano

New York readers have a special treat in store for them this weekend: a free concert featuring Vince Giordano, our finest living interpreter of the Great American Songbook.  Join Vince and the Nighthawks Orchestra for a Holiday Tea Dance Saturday, December 17th, from 3:00 – 6:00 PM, held at Park Avenue Plaza Atrium at 55 East 52nd Street (between Madison and Park Avenue).  Dancing is encouraged – especially by we at The Jade Sphinx.
The event is graciously sponsored by Chartwell Booksellers.  Chartwell has been an independent bookseller for more than 28 years, specializing in the works of Winston Churchill.  They also maintain a select, exclusively hardcover stock of newly-published general nonfiction and fiction, as well as an extensive catalog of rare books.
If you are a bibliophile or music lover, you cannot miss this event.  And if you must miss out, remember that Vince and the Nighthawks play every Monday and Tuesday, 8:00 – 11:00 at Sofia's Restaurant (Downstairs) at the Club Cache adjacent to the Edison Hotel.  You could not find a more sophisticated, romantic setting for a holiday dinner.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christmas at the Line Camp by Charles Russell

I had so much fun thinking about Dan Muller and Buffalo Bill Cody at Christmas yesterday that I decided to venture West again for today’s post. 

We have written about self-proclaimed ‘cowboy artist’ Charles Russell (1864-1926) before.  Reading his letters and diary snippets, it is amazing to find how wonderfully boyish and enthusiastic Russell was in person.  Russell never fully grew-up and he often approached his life, like his art, with a child-like sense of wonder.

So it comes as no surprise that Russell loved the Christmas season.  He would often retreat into his studio weeks before the holiday, designing his Christmas card(s), writing letters to close friends and oft-times painting a holiday-themed picture.  One Christmas painting showcases Russell’s most whimsical side: a cowpuncher riding a storm at night and seeing, faint in the distance, Santa Claus and his sleigh.

The picture we are looking at today is Christmas at the Line Camp, painted in watercolor in 1904, and currently in the Amon Carter Museum in Forth Worth, Texas. 

Line Camp is painted with a true minimalist’s touch.  The dominant color is white, of course, but Russell’s mastery of composition and gesture underscore the joviality of the scene.  While white often is the color most associated with death or emptiness, here Russell manages to imbue a mostly white composition with warmth, friendliness and high cowboy spirits.  (And more than a touch of puckish humor – the horns mounted over the front door are located directly over the head of one of the figures – perhaps the first time someone was captured in a picture with ‘horns.’)

Winter was a particularly treacherous season for the cowboy.  The work remained hard, and was often made more difficult by dangerous weather conditions.  Not as many men were needed during the winter months, and it was not uncommon for a pair of saddlehands to hole up in a cabin on the outskirts of the range, overlooking cattle.  These hands were equipped with winter horses that could support a rider and, if necessary, a weakened or frozen calf. 

In this painting, two riders from the home ranch have ridden through the rough Christmas weather to greet the two cowboys stationed in the cabin.  They bring the makings of a festive holiday meal, a freshly killed pronghorn, along with high spirits.  The two saddlehands in the cabin emerge, one with hands in his pockets, the other slightly hunched.  Part of Russell’s genius is demonstrated in these poses – the two figures are clearly ‘awakening’ by their pose and gestures, while the raised hat and highly held reins of the other figures connote energy, life and good humor.

A veteran cowboy himself, Russell pays close attention to the details.  The lead rider wears a coat of canvas lined with wool fleece (standard issue in the winter for westerners) and heavy chaps to keep out the cold.  The outer walls of the cabin are lined with wolf skins, probably taken from wolves threatening the heard, to help insulate them from the cold.  (And look at stream coming from the nostrils of the horses – it is clearly very, very cold outside.)

Russell keeps his sky neutral, maintaining focus on his people and their surroundings.  Bits of dead scrub emerge from the frozen earth, but the men are very much alive and very much attuned to holiday jollity.

Russell and his wife spent most of their winters in California starting in the 1920s, but the Christmas winter scenes of the American West were a potent part of his memory.  On a Christmas card written weeks before his death, Charlie wrote, "Heres hoping the worst end of your trail is behind you / That Dad Time be your friend from here to the end/And sickness nor sorrow dont find you."

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Dan Muller, Cowboy Artist

I often find myself pulling down familiar books during the Christmas season.  Some, like the Christmas novels of Charles Dickens, are about the holiday itself.  Others, like the superb novel Monte Walsh (1963) by Jack Schaefer, have a Christmas-themed chapter that I find irresistible.
In the latter group I include My Life With Buffalo Bill by the artist Dan Muller.  Muller has a somewhat unique place in both Western American art and Buffalo Bill studies because his autobiography has met with controversy since its publication in 1948.
Let’s deal with the controversy first.  Daniel Cody Muller (1889-1976) was born in Choteau, Montana.  Muller’s father was killed by a horse when the artist was nine years old, and he was adopted by the famous frontiersman and showman, Col. William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody.  In his memoir (one of several books written by Muller), he writes of the 18 years he spent with Cody and of his time on both the Cody ranch and working the Wild West shows.
Muller records meeting cowboy artist Charles Russell in 1900, and that his art was influenced by Russell.  He served in World War I, breaking horses for the army, and later worked as both an artist and a ranch-hand.  (In My Life With Buffalo Bill, he ruefully remarks that he has had more success as a cowboy than an artist.)
Muller painted three 100-foot murals for the Travel and Transport exhibit of the Century of Progress Chicago World’s Fair, and spent the rest of his artistic career illustrating books and magazine covers, and painting as well.
The controversy of all this springs from the fact that there is very little documentation about Muller’s life with Cody, other than his own word.  Cody scholars are divided on whether the events happened as described by Muller, or whether Muller was mildly acquainted with Cody and that his powers of invention did not begin and end with graphic art alone.
As someone who has spent the better part of the last 15 years reading about Buffalo Bill Cody, I think that much of Muller's book has the ring of truth.  While he gets the occasional fact wrong, Muller almost always seems to get the emotional tenor of the man correct.  Cody was open-handed, warm-hearted, an easy touch for any friend in need, and a man of deep compassion and sympathy.  Muller would not be his only unofficially-adopted child: Cody also raised Johnny Baker, a sharpshooter with the Wild West, as his own son, and his love for children was nearly legendary.
Muller describes a Christmas morning at the Cody ranch: My presents were first because they were the last added to the pile.  Aunt Louisa [Cody’s wife] kissed me when she took off the rough wrapping paper and saw the picture of Irma [Cody’s daughter] I’d drawn for her.  Irma, when she opened hers and found the picture of the young man who had hung around the most just before she’d gone off to school, laughed and laughed and laughed.  “Dan, you old innocent, you,” she said.  “I haven’t even written that young man.  But now I see his picture I think I will.”
And Uncle Bill took his picture – it was as big as I could make it – and stood it up on the mantle.  “Why, Dan, that sure is scrumptious,” he said, grinning under his moustache.  “There’s your Pa, and the Mormon in the tree, and there, can yuh believe it, is me.  ‘Course I was younger ‘n that in those days.  But it sure ‘nough is me.  Look here,” he urged May, “Dan sure ‘nough got a good likeness!”
May [Cody’s sister] looked.  She didn’t sniff, but she looked like she wanted to.  “It’s pretty crude,” she said.
“Well, he didn’t have much t’work with, May,” Uncle Bill said.  “It’ll be different now.  Wait a minute, Dan, ‘til I find something here.”  He fished around in the pile and came up with a great big package.  “There, now, Dan, yuh’ll have all the fittin’s for drawin’.”
I tore off the wrapping in a hurry.  Inside was paper, great big sheets of paper much finer than the art paper they gave us to use in school.  Uncle Bill dug around some more and fished out two other packages.  “An’ here’s some more for yuh, Dan.”
My eyes got big.  More than one present for me.  I got the wrapping off in a hurry, you bet.  Inside were pencils of different kinds, a lot of crayons, some water colors, even some tubes – I later found they were oil paints – and lots of brushes!
I didn’t pay much attention to what other people were getting.  I just sat and handled those paints and brushes, thinking what pictures I could make with all those things to make them with!
Then Uncle Bill said loudly, “Dan, here’s something more for yuh.”
It was a great big package at the very bottom of the pile.  Uncle Bill spread his two arms wide to pick it up, and set it down in front of me.
“Yuh can’t always be makin’ pictures,” he said.  “Here’s somethin’ for yuh t’have some fun with, boy.”
There was an awful lot of wrapping paper around it.  I tore it away in great strips.  And then I saw what it was – a big red-painted wagon.
“Come spring,” Uncle Bill said, his eyes smiling along with his mouth, “yuh c’n start trainin’ that ol’ billygoat t’harness.”
Gosh!  What a Christmas!
There’s nothing in that Christmas morning description inconsistent with the Colonel Buffalo Bill Cody known and loved by many.
As for his art, Muller was a talented draftsman and a painter with a keen eye for composition.  Muller had a true gift in his depiction of horses, and managed to draw and paint pictures where rider and horse looked like a single connected unit, rather than poorly fitted-together components of different works. 
The Christmas card above comes from the Thomas Sica collection.  It was addressed to Buck Burshears, founder of the Koshare Indian Museum.  It amply demonstrates Muller’s deft touch and pleasantly illustrative style.
Collectors of Western art, unless they have very deep pockets indeed, can no longer acquire a Remington or a Russell.  However, there are many western artists of the second rank who are eminently collectible, and few have as interesting a back story as Dan Muller.  People interested in Muller should visit Tom Sica’s Web site, which is a treasure-trove of images and information.  It can be found here at:

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Awaiting Admission to the Casual Ward by Sir Luke Fildes

One of the most remarkable tricks of time is its habit of turning true hardship into a kind of wistful nostalgia.  Today, readers of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) most often leave with pleasant visual impressions of Fezziwig’s ball, or of the reformed Scrooge spending a glorious Christmas morning walking the streets of Victoria’s London.  This holds true for even the most wrenching parts: the horrid children Ignorance and Want, the privation of the Cratchits, the visitations to prisons and lonely seafaring men, these all acquire a rosy glow in our mind’s eye.
Nothing could be further from Dickens’ intent.  He wrote A Christmas Carol in response to the dreadful conditions of working children throughout the United Kingdom, and with a horror for the current Poor Law and debtors prisons.  None of the wretched encountered by Scrooge should be seen with a twinkle; indeed, a resurrected Dickens would point with shame at the miniscule progress we’ve made in terms of humane and equitable treatment of the world’s poor.  (I can well imagine Dickens, rosy with cold weather and fired with poetry, excoriating the One Percent from the center of Zuccotti Park…)
Few painters better captured the often appalling conditions we fail to recollect in the throes of Victoria-mania than Sir Luke Fildes (1843-1927).  Fields is little remembered or valued today, which is a telling indictment more against the sins of Modernism than it is a critique of his talent.
Fildes entered the Warrington School of Art when he was just 17 years old.  He studied under Frederick Walker, the great leader of the social realist movement in the UK, and was an avid advocate on behalf of the poor and destitute.  He  joined the staff of The Graphic in 1869, using his art to underscore the suffering so commonplace around him. 
Fildes was asked to provide an illustration for an article on the Houseless Poor Act, which provided temporary shelter for the homeless in the casual ward of a workhouse.  The drawing, called Houseless and Hungry, was so accomplished that he set it aside to later turn into a finished painting.
Fellow artist and contributor to The Graphic, John Everett Millais (1829-1896) was so impressed by this picture that he showed the engraving to his friend Charles Dickens (1812-1870). Dickens commissioned Fildes to illustrate The Mystery of Edwin Drood and the artist had finished 12 illustrations when Dickens invited him to his home, Gad’s Hall.  Just as he was about to start the journey, Fildes received word that Dickens had died.
Dickens’ family invited Fildes to come and finish illustrating the book.  While at Gad’s Hall, Fildes drew The Empty Chair, showing Dickens' empty desk and chair.  The drawing was published in the 1870 Christmas edition of The Graphic, and was so widely celebrated that thousands of prints were sold to mourners throughout the realm.
Millais persuaded Fildes that he had the talent and vision to become a serious painter.  He urged Fildes to turn Houseless and Hungry into a painting, along with another drawing done for the Graphic, Fair Quiet and Sweet Rest. 
Houseless and Hungry became Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward, finished in 1874.  The picture took the Royal Academy by storm, where it could only hang under police protection from behind a railing.  The picture dramatically illustrated the disparity between rich and poor in the Victorian England, and has lost none of its power to move. 
Casual is an enormous canvas – some nine feet long.  Fildes became quite friendly with several of the homeless who served as models, often inviting them to his home.  It is not simply Fildes’ virtuosity that makes this painting so remarkable, but the unflinching recognition of human suffering and the artist’s empathy for his subjects.  The ragged mother carrying an infant and leading a scruffy child moves forward with her head tilted, as if beaten by both the cold and shame.  Her hand cradles the shawl holding the child, who is completely invisible.
The background figures are remarkable, each individual and with an appreciable story.  There is a neer-do-well with his hands in his pockets, belly out and topper cocked, clearly drunk.  Four children – is the boy a cripple? -- huddle round exhausted parents, the father nearly asleep against the wall as he holds his child.  Even the dog, in the lower left corner, is meager, scrawny and ravaged by disease.
The wall is drab, and the prints on the wall offer no respite from misery as the words Missing and Murder are clearly visible on the handbills.  The gaslight throws no light or warmth and the police officer directs a man on the downward path towards the hell that awaits. 
The triangular composition, stretched-out much like a police line-up, reads almost like a checklist of misery, poverty and despair.  It is one of the most remarkable pictures of its era.
Fildes would later spend much time painting in Venice.  He became a full member of the Royal Academy in 1998 and was knighted in 1906.  His own life was not untouched by tragedy, his son Philip dying of tuberculosis in 1877.
For Fildes, like Dickens, the poor were not props to be pulled out at the Christmas season to provide contrast, and nothing else.  Perhaps we should all take the words of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred to heart, when he said: There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say … Christmas among the rest.  But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.
There would be no place for a talent like Sir Luke Fildes in our contemporary art scene, which is interested only in stunts and flummery and not an examination of the human condition seen through an artist’s vision.  We are all poorer for it.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Christmas Bells

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Christmas Bells is a magnificent poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) that has also been set to music to make for one of our most beautiful Christmas carols.  As with most art, the gestation period was not an easy one…
Longfellow was a celebrated American poet, nearly as famous today as he was in his own era.  Most of us can recite snippets of Longfellow without necessarily knowing who it is we quote – it was Longfellow who wrote Paul Revere’s Ride and The Song of Hiawatha, as well as Evangeline. 
Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine (then part of Massachusetts) and spent some time abroad before becoming a professor at his alma mater, Bowdoin.  He taught for several years before retiring in 1854 to focus on his poetry and translations (he is the first American to translate Dante’s Divine Comedy). 
Longfellow was married twice, his first wife dying in childbed and his second wife died tragically when her dress caught fire (a not-uncommon occurrence at that time). 
In March 1863, Longfellow’s oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, left the house late at night and vanished.  It was not until weeks later that Longfellow received a letter explaining what had happened.  Charles ran off to join the Union army, then embroiled in the Civil War.  Charles initially reported to Captain W. H. McCartney, commanding Battery A of the 1st Massachusetts Artillery, to enlist. McCartney knew the family and wrote to Longfellow asking his advice.  Longfellow granted his permission and Charles served honorably, attaining the rank of lieutenant, before he was severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church during the Mind Run Campaign.
Charles was shot through the left shoulder, the bullet travelling around his back, nicking his spine and exiting through his right shoulder.  When Charles returned to Washington, D.C. to recover, Longfellow and his other son Ernest went there to take the boy back home.  They arrived back in Cambridge on December 8 (today marks the 147th anniversary of this event) and Charles spent the next many months recovering.
On Christmas Day of that year, Longfellow wrote Christmas Bells:
    I HEARD the bells on Christmas Day
    Their old, familiar carols play,
        And wild and sweet
        The words repeat
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
    And thought how, as the day had come,
    The belfries of all Christendom
        Had rolled along
        The unbroken song
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
    Till ringing, singing on its way,
    The world revolved from night to day,
        A voice, a chime,
        A chant sublime
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
    Then from each black, accursed mouth
    The cannon thundered in the South,
        And with the sound
        The carols drowned
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
    It was as if an earthquake rent
    The hearth-stones of a continent,
        And made forlorn
        The households born
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
    And in despair I bowed my head;
    "There is no peace on earth," I said;
        "For hate is strong,
        And mocks the song
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
    Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
    "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
        The Wrong shall fail,
        The Right prevail,
    With peace on earth, good-will to men."
The poem was first published in February 1865 in an edition of the popular magazine Our Young Folks.  It was first set to music in 1872 by John Baptiste Calkin, wedding the words to a melody he had written as early as 1848.
The Calkin rendition was extremely popular for a long while, but it was supplanted (to this listener, at least) by a melody written by Johnny Marks (1909-1985). The Marks version, often called I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day, has been recorded by such artists as Fred Waring, Kate Smith, Frank Sinatra and, most successfully, Bing Crosby.  In almost all recordings, verses Four and Five of the poem/carol are omitted.  If you can, track down the Crosby version on You Tube; it is a remarkable recording.
Charles Longfellow recovered, but never sufficiently to return to active military duty.  Using family money, he became a global traveler with a taste for the Far East.  He died of pneumonia in 1893 and the souvenirs of his travels are on view at Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Christmas Wishes From Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson
Painted By John Singer Sargent

Any man who creates the Master of Ballantrae, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the palmy shores of Treasure Island must be a romantic.  All swashbucklers, both real and literary, have something warm-spirited and generous in their nature, and as such, Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was not a writer to let the Christmas season pass unremarked.

Christmastime 1887 found Stevenson in Saranac Lake, mostly miserable.  The temperature was freezing, the weather was wretched and Stevenson found himself “grey and harsh.”  He was recovering from a lung ailment there, under the care of Dr. E. L. Trudeau, and writing much of his masterpiece, The Master of Ballantrae.  The bleak and uncompromising weather may have had significant influence on some of the gloomier set pieces of the novel, including the wonderful moment where the two brothers nearly kill each other during a midnight swordfight and the closing moments in a desolate and deserted American forest.
He also wrote many essays, among them, A Christmas Sermon.  Stevenson’s sermon is available on the invaluable for download to your Kindle or e-reader, and can also be found in its entirety here:  It can be read in a single sitting and comes highly recommended.
I think what is so refreshing about Stevenson’s Christmas thoughts is just how little Christmas is to be found in them.  Instead, Stevenson questions the motives of professional moralists, those who seek to control or condemn the behavior of others without taking time to think of the wrongs they do themselves.   In this age when questions of morality have taken down one presidential hopeful and counting, it is a refreshing change.  As Stevenson says, if your morals make you dreary, depend upon it they are wrong. I do not say ‘give them up,’ for they may be all you have; but conceal them like a vice, lest they should spoil the lives of better and simpler people.
Stevenson is one of the great novelists of the 19th Century; initially a popular writer who has eventually been embraced by academia and the literati (a process that can sometimes take a surprisingly long time.)  Readers seeking literary art along with concise and vivid storytelling could hardly do better than Stevenson.  Ballantrae (written in 1889 and already covered in these pages) is highly recommended, as are Treasure Island (1883) and Kidnapped (1886).
Let’s close with a few more Christmas thoughts from the man who was both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:
It may be argued again that dissatisfaction with our life's endeavor springs in some degree from dullness. We require higher tasks, because we do not recognize the height of those we have. Trying to be kind and honest seems an affair too simple and too inconsequential for gentlemen of our heroic mould; we had rather set ourselves to something bold, arduous, and conclusive; we had rather found a schism or suppress a heresy, cut off a hand or mortify an appetite. But the task before us, which is to co-endure with our existence, is rather one of microscopic fineness, and the heroism required is that of patience. There is no cutting of the Gordian knots of life; each must be smilingly unraveled.
To be honest, to be kind—to earn a little and to spend a little less, to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence, to renounce when that shall be necessary and not be embittered, to keep a few friends but these without capitulation—above all, on the same grim condition, to keep friends with himself—here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy. He has an ambitious soul who would ask more; he has a hopeful spirit who should look in such an enterprise to be successful. There is indeed one element in human destiny that not blindness itself can controvert: whatever else we are intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted. It is so in every art and study; it is so above all in the continent art of living well. Here is a pleasant thought for the year's end or for the end of life: Only self-deception will be satisfied, and there need be no despair for the despairer.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

By the Christmas Fire

Posterity has not been particularly kind to Samuel McChord Crothers (1857-1927), but we here at the Jade Sphinx have been paging through his 1908 book, By The Christmas Fire with great satisfaction.  This book is happily available for free download to your Kindle or e-reader, and can be had, for example, at
Crothers was a Unitarian Universality minister at the First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  He is the author of many then-popular essays, collected in The Understanding Heart (1903), The Gentle Reader (1903) and The Pardoner’s Wallet (1905).  Crothers was a graduate of Wittenberg College and the College of New Jersey, earning his divinity degree at Union Theological Seminary in 1877.  He was first a Presbyterian minister before converting to the Unitarian church in 1882.
Most of his essays appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and reading them, one has the sense of a profound and sweet soul.  His is the type of gentle intellect and warm-hearted humanity that calls to us at the Christmas season.  (Look at his photo above.  Does he not bear a remarkable resemblance to A. A. Milne, author of the Pooh books?)  By The Christmas Fire is broken up into several essays, including Christmas and the Literature of Disillusion, The Ignominy of Being Grown-up and Christmas and the Spirit of Democracy.  Here is a snippet from The Ignominy of Being Grown Up where Crothers talks of the transition from happy childhood to adulthood:
What becomes of these imaginative, inquisitive, myth-making, light-hearted, tender-hearted, and altogether charming young adventurers who start out so gaily to explore the wonder world?
The solemn answer comes, “They after a while are grown-up.”  Did you ever mediate on that catastrophe which we speak of as being “grown-up?”  Habit has dulled our perception of the absurd anti-climax involved in it.  You have only to compare the two estates to see that something has been lost.
You linger for a moment when the primary school has been dismissed.  For a little while the stream of youthful humanity flows sluggishly as between the banks of a canal, but once beyond the school limits it returns to nature.  It is a bright, foaming torrent.  Not a moment is wasted.  The little girls are at once exchanging confidences, and the little boys are in Valhalla, where the heroes make friends with one another by indulging in everlasting assault and battery, and continually are “refreshed with blows.”  There is no question about their being all alive and actively interested in one another.  All the natural reactions are exhibited in the most interesting manner. 
Then you get into a street car, invented by an ingenious misanthropist to give you the most unfavorable view possible of your kind.  On entering you choose a side, unless you are condemned to be suspended in the middle.  Then you look at your antagonists on the opposite side.  What a long, unrelenting row of humanity!  These are the grown-ups. You look for some play of emotion, some evidence of curiosity, pleasure, exhilaration, such as you might naturally expect from those who are taking a little journey into the world … Growing is like falling – it is all right so long as you keep on; the trouble comes when you stop.
By The Christmas Fire is a little book – it can easily be read in two sittings.  It is common at this time of year for us to fall back into the Christmas novels of our youth – A Christmas Carol, Little Women, The Chimes – but with so much wonderful holiday material out there in the public domain, it seems a shame not to do a little exploring ourselves this holiday season.  Start with By The Christmas Fire – it does not disappoint.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King by William Joyce

We at the Jade Sphinx ring in the holiday season with a great treat – a look at the new book about Santa Claus by celebrated children’s author and illustrator, William Joyce.
“Children’s author,” though, seems something of a misnomer, considering the breadth and range of Joyce’s ambitions and accomplishments: he has also designed film characters (Toy Story and A Bug’s Life), has formed a new company, Moonbot, a Shreveport-based animation and visual effects studio, and he has recently produced a 13-minute animated short film and an e-book app called The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.  Joyce manages to do these things with an amazingly light touch and great insight – perhaps his real title should be Kid-in-Chief.
Earlier this year, Joyce started a remarkable undertaking: the creation of an entire cosmology incorporating all of the great myths of childhood (Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Boogeyman, etc) detailed in a series of picture books and young adult novels.  The first book in this series, which are all under a banner title The Guardians of Childhood, was The Man in the Moon, which was released this autumn to rave reviews.  He now picks up the Guardians saga with Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King, co-written by Laura Geringer, which continues the overall story while introducing a key character who will later evolve into the Santa Claus beloved by folklore.
The concept of inter-connected picture books and prose novels is a unique one, and facilitates Joyce’s mythology nicely.  The Guardians of Childhood series is new territory for Joyce.  Most of his celebrated picture books were really chamber pieces: A Day With Wilbur Robinson (1990) detailed a simple afternoon, Dinosaur Bob and His Adventures With The Family Lazardo (1988) described the summer of a sophisticated family and their pet brontosaurus, even his first stab at the Santa Claus legend, Santa Calls (1993), was really a one-night adventure story.  But Joyce’s goal with the Guardians is more complex and symphonic, and like L. Frank Baum and Oz, he is creating a whole alternate history, a densely packed saga of fantastic fiction that brings to life a fully-realized fantasyland.
Joyce has also rather heroically altered his signature style for his Guardians conception.  Rather than the vibrantly colored, sun-kissed slices of Americana that Joyce fans have sought in the past, Guardians tells a somewhat darker tale, with influences that run more deeply to European fantasies.  This beautifully designed book is filled with ‘illuminations’ (illustrations) by Joyce in pencil and charcoal.  The book design provides ample opportunity for Joyce to delight readers with full-page drawings and marginalia, and changes from white pages with black text to black pages with white text for a somber and effecting flashback.
Though darker than his other conceptions, Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King is filled with typical Joycean joie de vivre and insouciance.  Despite the darkness of tone, Joyce’s prose is optimistic, zestful and fun.  (Some chapter titles include: Wherein Speaking Insect Languages Proves to Be of Value, Where the Impossible Occurs with Surprising Regularity, and Partly Cloudy and Most Unfair.)
The plot of the book is simple:  Pitch, the Nightmare King, was imprisoned previously by the Man in the Moon.   After an accidental escape, he threatens the children in the haven of a great wizard, Ombric Shalazar.  In much need of help, Ombric is joined by the swashbuckling bandit and freebooter, Nicholas St. North.
Re-imagining Santa Claus as a reformed swashbuckler is a stroke of genius.  There has always, perhaps, been a touch of roguishness in the Big Man From the North, just as there was more than a touch of Santa Claus in swashbuckling figures as diverse as Robin Hood, Simon Templar and Zorro.  Here is how Joyce first introduces the man who would be Santa:  Later that night, in the raggedy camp of the wildest ruffian of the Russian plains, there slept a young bandit chief named Nicholas St. North.  No one knew exactly how old he was, for even he did not know his birthday, but he was old enough for the beginnings of a beard and was without argument the most daring young rascal in all the Russias.  A hero he was not.  But it was said that he once defeated an entire regiment of cavalry with a bent steak knife – while he was eating.  Impressive swordsmanship indeed, but not the kind of achievement that would make a mother proud.
Joyce also returns to the notion of a haven, or contained paradise in this book.  This recurring them can be found in the art deco mansion in Wilbur Robinson, Toyland in Santa Calls, the enchanted forest in The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs (1996), and even the oversized house in George Shrinks (1985).  Even in his nonfiction book The World of William Joyce (1997) his studio seems to be a place where the rules of adulthood are suspended.  Here, Ombric Shalazar rules over Santoff Claussen, a land with talking bugs, owl sentries, trees that become homes, and all manner of magic. 
Like figures as diverse as Michael Chabon and Ray Bradbury, Joyce has drunk deep at the well of Americana.  His influences are many, and you can catch the current of many of them in his new book:  Oz, Robin Hood, robots, Superman, and Little Nemo in Slumberland.  But William Joyce is his own thing, almost his own genre.  Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King is a deeply satisfying continuation of his magnum opus, which is estimated to run a full 15 volumes.  It is eminently possible that, once he is done, William Joyce will truly inherit the mantle of L. Frank Baum, and enter into the folklore of children’s lit himself.