Wet Wet Wet

It’s 2 a.m. and I just finished this week’s Listener puzzle. It seems like a much harder puzzle than the last few weeks’ puzzles have been, even accounting for the fact that I was incredibly tired today and napped most of the afternoon.

I’m too tired to try to explain any of it. For the record, though: I didn’t figure out what the mystery group was till I’d filled in the answers to all but one of the clues. I finally cracked it by way of the seven misprints in the clues; I had only found six of them, but that was enough for me to unscramble the seven-letter word. That led me to a location associated with one of the members of the group, at which point I had the head-slapping moment and everything became clear.

Very clever theme. There are six words you have to discover, and they make up the members of the mystery group; I had made guesses about what two of them might be early on, yet didn’t see what the group was, even though it eventually turned out that both guesses were correct and the group was not unknown to me. Tricky! Lots of theme-related answers in the grid that don’t have clues, so there wasn’t much help from crossing letters in parts of the grid. Lots of clues that made me smile, including 1A, 5A, 24A, 31D, 11D, and 27D.

The Barber of Bagdad

I’ve been on a small binge lately of listening to Peter Cornelius’s opera The Barber of Bagdad (Der Barbier von Bagdad). I’m a bit surprised to find I own five recordings of it. It’s not a well-known opera, but one I like a lot. For one thing, it’s based on a series of stories out of the 1001 Nights, and I have a soft spot for anything taken from the 1001 Nights. But even apart from that, it’s funny and theatrical and it has terrific music. Plus: a first-rate libretto!

It’s sort of a huge shaggy dog story about a young man in love. He has only a narrow window of time during which he can secretly visit his beloved — her very religious father goes to the nearby mosque every day at noon to pray — and as he has some time before he can show up, he decides he will make himself more presentable with a bath and getting his head freshly shaved. His friend suggests a barber that she knows — a brilliant man, she says, master of many arts and sciences. After she leaves, he shouts out the window after her, “Don’t forget the barber!” (“Vergiss den Barbier nicht!”)

Those words are his doom. The barber arrives, but he turns out to be a foolish old man who can’t stop bragging about what an expert he is on so many subjects, going off on one tangent after another. He has cast a horoscope for the young man, which reveals that he has chosen the most fortunate time on earth to be shaved, and the barber explains the chart in detail while the young man pleads with him to get on with it. When the young man gets so exasperated that he calls the barber an outrageous windbag (unverschämter Schwätzer, to be exact), the barber is offended, and he explains at length how he was actually the quiet one in a family of seven brothers — whom he names and describes, one … by one … by one. It takes the poor young man at least half the first act just to get the barber to start shaving him, and much of the rest of it to get him to complete the job.

Worse, in the second act the barber trails the young man to his secret assignation, intending to be helpful. From the street in front of the young woman’s house, he shouts to the young man inside not to worry, he’s on the lookout in case her father returns early — which of course alerts the whole neighborhood that the young man is there. Then the barber hears the shouts of a slave being beaten, and leaps to the conclusion that the young man is being beaten to death by the father, so he shouts to the neighborhood “Help! Murder!”, raising a crowd in the street outside and making it impossible for the young man to get away without being seen. Before long the poor guy is hiding in a trunk while the father rages at the barber and the room fills up with one group of people after another, who come to try to stop the imaginary murder or side with the father or wail in grief. The caliph’s police arrive to stop the near-riot, and finally the caliph himself appears. After some more confusion, all ends satisfactorily at last and the lovers can marry. (The story in the 1001 Nights has much more of a black comedy ending: The young man not only doesn’t get the girl, he gets one leg badly broken in the chaos, entirely due to the barber, and he walks with a limp ever after.)

It’s a great opera, but it really needs a good English version. A lot of the comedy is in the words, first because they’re often very funny in their own right and second because the style is mock-heroic and if you aren’t getting the ironic juxtaposition of the increasingly serious music and the increasingly absurd situation that is developing, you miss a lot.

I know enough German, and have gotten to know the opera well enough, to follow along now as I listen, but it’s got to be a perplexing opera to listen to in a language you don’t know. It’s never been all that successful outside of Germany, and it probably won’t be if it doesn’t at some point get adapted into other languages, and well. There’s an English-language version published; I haven’t really studied it to get a feel for whether I think it’d work in the theater, but from what I’ve read of it, the language seems very stilted and forced. (It also seems possible to me, though, that what I’m seeing as stilted language is intended, at least, to convey the flavor of the Richard Burton translation of the 1001 Nights. At some point I ought to look more closely at it.)

Cornelius wrote two overtures to the opera, writing the second one at the urging of Liszt, who didn’t like the first one. Of my five recordings, only one includes the second overture, and it seems to be obligatory to say in the liner notes that the composer’s original intentions were of course much superior. Well, as a pure piece of music, I agree; if given a choice of hearing the first or second version as a concert piece by itself, I would without hesitation go with the first. It’s a deliciously sly piece of music, full of charm and atmosphere, while the second version is a much more conventional comic opera overture, not doing much more than stringing together all the best melodies and getting the show off to a lively start. Nevertheless, I think Liszt was right and the second overture is the right one to use in the theater; it’s going to put the audience in a much better frame of mind to enjoy the story that follows.

And it does end with a delicious joke, though one that you have to get to know the opera to catch: The final cadence quotes the melody of “Don’t forget the barber!”

Vegetable Love

Since my first Palm Pilot over a decade ago, I’ve kept some of my favorite poems on my PDA, or in recent years on my iPhone. A couple weeks ago I had the urge to reread Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”, and thought I’d like to add it to the collection. I looked for it online so that I could cut and paste it into my notes instead of typing it in from a book.

So that you don’t have to look it up, here’s how the poem starts:

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, Lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

So while doing a web search for the poem, I happened across this usage note from the American Heritage Dictionary, and it caught my attention:

Word History:  Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” contains many striking phrases and images, but perhaps most puzzling to modern readers is one in this promise from the speaker to his beloved: “Had we but world enough, and time …/My vegetable love should grow/Vaster than empires and more slow.” One critic has playfully praised Marvell for his ability to make one “think of pumpkins and eternity in one breath,” but vegetable in this case is only indirectly related to edible plants. Here the word is used figuratively in the sense “having the property of life and growth, as does a plant,” a use based on an ancient religious and philosophical notion of the tripartite soul. As interpreted by the Scholastics, the vegetative soul was common to plants, animals, and humans; the sensitive soul was common to animals and humans; and the rational soul was found only in humans. “Vegetable love” is thus a love that grows, takes nourishment, and reproduces, although slowly. Marvell’s 17th-century use illustrates the original sense of vegetable, first recorded in the 15th century. In 1582 we find recorded for the first time the adjective use of vegetable familiar to us, “having to do with plants.” In a work of the same date appears the first instance of vegetable as a noun, meaning “a plant.” It is not until the 18th century that we find the noun and adjective used more restrictively to refer specifically to certain kinds of plants that are eaten.

Now, this much is true: Obviously Marvell was using vegetable in the “animal, vegetable, or mineral” sense and not in the “eat your broccoli or you’re not getting any dessert” sense. He meant pertaining to plants in general, not the edible ones in particular.

But … the Scholastics? The medieval philosophical notion of the tripartite soul? You guys reeeeally think that’s what Marvell was writing about?

I mean, OK, I know that publishers sell most of their dictionaries to schools and to public libraries and to students themselves, and are therefore obliged to think of the children, or at least to think of their parents, some of whom will scream bloody murder if they catch you talking frankly about you know what. But then, why are we trying to teach this poem to high school students at all if we aren’t willing to tell them frankly what it means? Why not just leave it off the curriculum entirely rather than turn somersaults pretending that it isn’t about what it’s obviously about?

Come on. We’re all grownups here; let’s be honest and admit, just among ourselves and safely out of earshot of any high school students looking for material they can crib from for their term papers, that we all get the bawdy joke lurking in the highfalutin phrase vegetable love, and we all know perfectly well that Mr. Marvell meant to put it there. He was alluding, with the greatest mock-delicacy of expression, to the fact that — in contrast to animals, which perpetuate their own kind through the distasteful practice of rutting like, well, animals — plants don’t fuck.

Some very odd analyses of the poem can be found online. (OK, not exactly a surprise.) The oddest I’ve found is this one that interprets the poem as a call for Christians to conquer the world by procreating until they outnumber everybody else. Of the first line (“Had we but world enough …”), for example:

This lack of worldly space refers to the Christian percentage of the global population. The speaker here is implying that there are not enough Christians in the world and to refrain from producing more Christian offspring is criminal.

My “that’s-not-literary-analysis-that’s-free-association” meter was flashing red at this:

The rhyme scheme of the poem is nearly entirely in perfect-rhyme couplets with a meter of iambic tetrameter. However, at the mention of the flood, the rhyme becomes imperfect: “Of Humber would complain. I would/Love you ten years before the Flood.” Here, Marvell inserts variation into his own rhyme pattern to give the line its own slightly disrupted sound. He is calling the reader’s attention to the line in an attempt to remind the reader that the biblical flood was God’s reaction to a world full of heathens; those who did not obey God’s word were drowned in a global purging. The speaker goes on to state that in such a timeless, spaceless world, his mistress may “refuse/Till the conversion of the Jews.” This line marks a return to the established rhyme scheme and, thus, may represent the world’s return to normalcy or perfection at the apocalypse when the world’s non-Christians repent.

This already far-fetched theory completely breaks down, unfortunately, on the fact that in Marvell’s time “flood” was pronounced to rhyme with “good” and “hood”; would and flood formed as perfect a rhyme to Marvell’s ears as any of the others.

These lines turn out not to be about the lady at all (even though she’s explicitly mentioned in them):

An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest

No, according to the writer:

The speaker is saying that the features of the lady will be present in her offspring and will be admired for tens of thousands of years if she and her offspring continue to propagate. This explains why there are only a few centuries spent on admiring physical characteristics of the mistress, which might begin to thin out of the generations at this time.

And as for “vegetable love”, where I started out:

[T]he “vegetable love” is the first reference in the poem to the offspring of the couple. Marvell is applying the characteristics of vegetables and plant growth to the development of a human child. This child, once grown, would have the ability to produce its own children, just as a vegetable produces seeds.

But of course. It’s so obvious once it’s been pointed out to you!