REVIEW POTPOURRI: Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Symphony

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Symphony

After the failure of his 1st Symphony in 1897, Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) had a nervous breakdown that lasted three years, with a loss of confidence in himself as a composer. Relief finally came when he submitted to three months of hypnosis under the supervision of Dr. Nicolai Dahl. His revived creative juices brought the hugely successful 2nd Piano Concerto.

In 1904, he assumed the position of conductor at the Bolshoi Opera House. However 1905 brought increased waves of revolutionary activities in Russia following the massacre by Czarist troops of many protesters at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg; Rachmaninoff himself cared little about politics and found the unrest distracting to his work .

He resigned from the Bolshoi in 1906 after starting work on his 2nd Symphony and moved himself and his family to Dresden, Germany, for four years, while spending summers at his in-laws’ estate in Ivanovka, Russia (that estate was 3,500 miles east of Dresden and made for a long railway round trip.). Both Dresden and Ivanovka gave the peace he needed to compose several works, such as the Isle of the Dead, his 3rd Piano Concerto and the 1st Piano Sonata. But his need to support his family necessitated a concert tour of the United States in 1909 and a prolonged separation from his wife.

The 2nd Symphony was a huge success at its 1908 world premiere in St. Petersburg and a boon to his self-esteem. It is almost 60 minutes and was often performed with cuts until 50 years ago when the complete score became the norm. As the composer did with the 2nd Piano Concerto, he poured his emotions into the Symphony and created a masterfully developed panorama of delectable melody.

It consists of four movements – the soaring Largo/Allegro moderato, a rip-roaring Scherzo, the sweet Adagio and the triumphant Allegro vivace. My first experience of it occurred during my high school sophomore year when I heard the 1959 Columbia LP of Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (It was the Philadelphia Orchestra that gave the U.S. premiere of the symphony under the composer’s direction during his 1909 American tour and, during the ‘20s and ‘30s, Rachmaninoff recorded several works with the Orchestra as pianist with his friends, former Music Directors Leopold Stokowski and Stokowski’s successor, Eugene Ormandy, of the four Piano Concertos and Paganini Rhapsody and himself conducted 78 record sets of his 3rd Symphony and Isle of the Dead.)

A YouTube video of a 1979 performance with Ormandy, then 80, and the Philadelphians is one of the most captivating examples of a great conductor at work. Ormandy left two other recordings of the symphony, one from the early 1930s with the Minneapolis Orchestra and a 1973 one. Other distinguished ones from as early as 1928 through recent years are those of another close friend of the composer Nicolai Sokoloff, Artur Rodzinski, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Alfred Wallenstein, Kurt Sanderling, William Steinberg, Andre Previn, Yuri Temirkanov, Paul Kletzki, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Leonard Slatkin, Simon Rattle, Alexander Gibson, Walter Weller, Lorin Maazel, James Loughran, Adrian Boult,Vladimir Ashkenazy, Edo De Waart, Tadaaki Otaka, Yevgeni Svetlanov, Andrew Litton, Mariss Jansons, Antonio Pappano, etc., the symphony being music that generates conductors’ best efforts.

Despite his extraordinary gifts as a pianist and conductor, Rachmaninoff was happiest when engaged in composition.

REVIEW POTPOURRI – Author: Alfred Kazin

Alice Roosevelt

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Alfred Kazin

A few years ago, I wrote about the biography of Alfred Kazin (1915-1998), one of the finest writers on literature and any other subject he turned his attention to.

Alfred Kazin

In 1988, Knopf published his huge coffee table volume, A Writer’s America, which is a celebration of his lifelong fascination, come horrible Hell or glorious high water, with the American landscape. Chapter 5, entitled Power Centers, devotes several pages to Washington, D.C.; the following two paragraphs might be of interest to a few readers:

“Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1884-1980), Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, spanned the Washington scene from T.R. to Ronald Reagan. Late in life, she described Washington as ‘a small, cozy town, global in scope. It suits me.’ Such superior raillery was unknown to New York, Boston, Chicago. In Los Angeles, it would not have been understood at all. Mrs. Longworth understood (as did Henry Adams [grandson of John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of John Adams – two former presidents, brilliant historian and notorious misanthrope and gossip, 1838-1918]) that the romance of Washington was the show it put on. In a way totally unlike the development of other American power centers, Washington LOOKED consistent, all of a piece along its white Roman fronts. It was what the founders had hoped for, perhaps the only thing that the wildly heterogeneous America of the late 20th century could look up to – a CENTER.

“Behind the marble columns and the extraordinary museums that late Wash­ington provided on a scale inconceivable even during the New Deal (the rumor then was that the capital had returned from Wall Street to Washington), the business of Washington was compromise, the deal. Everyone in the halls of Congress was involved with everyone else in Washington – lawyers, columnists, bureaucrats. There was not much fine literature about Washington, but there was certainly a lot of information, much in the form of confidential ‘leaks’ from governmental big shots to newspapermen. Washington was the inside story.”

Theodore Roosevelt

One immediately notices Kazin’s hoarding of enough topics of interest to fill a library – the Roosevelts, dead American presidents after Teddy up to and including Reagan, D.C. as both small town and global center, the raillery of other urbane urban power centers, the Adams family, Greek and Roman architectural styles in the nation’s capital, etc. A number of other American writers have been hoarders, catalogers, collectors of U.S. related items – the irreverent H. L. Mencken of our buffooneries, F. Scott Fitzgerald of lifestyles of the rich, Ernest Hemingway of fishing, hunting, bullfights, wars and other athletic contests.

William Faulkner mined his little piece of Mississippi dirt for every ounce of golden ore in the novels Sanctuary, Light in August, As I Lay Dying and Sound and the Fury. Stephen King used tricks from classic horror story writers to cast our Pine Tree state of Maine in it, Salem’s Lot and Bag of Bones.

P.S. Alice Roosevelt was Teddy’s oldest child, from his first wife who died at 23 very shortly after Alice was born, and, like her father, had a strong mind of her own. When Teddy and her stepmother wanted to send her away to a private girl’s boarding school in New York City, Alice threatened them with outrageous behavior and humiliation; they let her go to a day school.

When her father, as president, was receiving a visitor in the Oval Office, Alice intruded three times until he threatened to throw her out the window. She backed down. He then informed his guest that he couldn’t run his daughter and the nation, too.


Peter Catesby Peter Cates


Divertimento, K. 563-
Pasquier Trio; Columbia Masterworks, M-351, recorded 1935, six 12-inch 78s.

Wolfgang Mozart

Wolfgang Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) composed his one and only String Trio for violin, viola and cello in 1788 for a friend/benefactor Johann Michael Puchberg but the circumstances are unknown. The total number of his works are over 600; this piece appeared after his final three symphonies, 39, 40 and 41 or the Jupiter (all 3 composed in 6 to 8 weeks.).

The Trio is, like so many Mozart pieces, a masterpiece from one extraordinary genius who composed his first Symphony at four years old. Still to come in his three remaining years were the 27th Piano Concerto, Magic Flute and Requiem and about 60 other pieces before his death from a variety of health problems mainly related to overwork and alcoholism.

The Pasquier Trio consisted of three French-born brothers – violinist Jean, violist Pierre and cellist Jean – who recorded several works during the 78 era. The above set can be heard on YouTube and is a superb performance.

Johann Puchberg

The 1985 movie Amadeus gives a basically twisted portrayal of the composer from the point of view of his arch-rival Salieri but it is quite entertaining and brimming with his music. Another recommendation is Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s 1975 cinematic treatment of The Magic Flute, which I have seen at least five times.

YouTube has just about every piece of the composer in many historical and current recordings.

Biographical accounts of the composer describe him as vain about his wavy hair, not particularly striking in physique or poise, working long hours under financial pressures, and quite fond of billiards and dirty jokes.

In recent weeks, I have been listening to recordings of his Abduction from the Seraglio, C Minor Mass and Violin Concertos, all of which I recommend as good starting points for those new to the composer, but I might be quite biased.

The very witty Jim Thompson (1906-1977) wrote in his memoir, Bad Boy, about his maternal grandfather ‘Pa’ as a Robin Hoodish personality who gave generously to the less fortunate but thought little of chiseling the rich, stating “that they had probably stolen their money anyway and that he could put it to better use than they could.”

REVIEW POTPOURRI – Films: Road Kill: A Love Story & others

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Road Kill: A Love Story

starring Erika Hoveland, Brandon Culp, Cain Perry etc.; available for free viewing on Amazon Prime; directed by Raphael Maria Buechel; 2014.

Erika Hoveland

The movie Road Kill: A Love Story, was completed by 2014 but took until this year to achieve world wide distribution.

It stars Brandon Culp as the mute Mitch who works in a small town car wash; Erika Hoveland as Taryn who moves into the village to open a taxidermy shop, and has a hunger for true love along with a huge thirst for blood; and Cain Perry as Mitch’s brother, Joe, who’s also the local sheriff, an alcoholic drinking too often on the job parked by the side of the road in a squad car, talks often to Madge the dispatcher (their dialog providing some of the funnier moments in the film) and has a girlfriend who’s a psychiatrist.

Strikingly interesting opening scenes include a man stuck at night on the side of the road with his broken down car, a truck pulling up with a woman driving it and ambiguity as to whether or not help has arrived. Then daylight ensues with Mitch arriving at the car wash and having a practical joke played on him by his co-workers. The fast food joint across the street has three women employees who seem to be goofing off, one of them developing a growing attraction to Mitch while her colleagues urge her to do something about it. Neither establishment is doing much business – just another lazy day in a small town on a hot summer day.

Taryn drives up to the car wash in a pickup truck and recruits Mitch for some heavy lifting back at her address. Needless to say, the film keeps getting more interesting; at this point, I refuse to provide any more spoilers, commend everyone who was involved in the film down to the tiniest detail, and, noting a certain resemblance to the American gothic style of the Coen brothers, applaud its otherwise superlative individuality.

A 5 star viewing experience!

Two more films:

Frozen Ground

starring Nicholas Cage, John Cusack and Vanessa Hudgens; 2013 and available on Netflix.

Nicolas Cage

John Cusack

Frozen Ground is based on the true story of Alaska serial killer Robert Hansen and the joint collaboration of an investigator and one woman who escaped being murdered by him while in captivity. It was a well-done suspense film; two qualities in particular stood out: driving around in a winter blizzard after nightfall, which make winters in Maine seem like a summer picnic, and the woman’s close encounter with a mild-mannered bull moose on a city street.

Vanessa Hudgens

Seven Deaths of Maria Callas

starring Marina Abramovic and Willem Dafoe; available online for free viewing until October 7.

The Seven Deaths of Maria Callas was seen live earlier this month at the Bavarian State Opera House, in Munich, Germany, and by myself and others around the world on-line after several months of delays, mainly due to the coronavirus pandemic. It was the fruit of a 60-year fascination with operatic soprano Maria Callas (1923-1977) that began when performance artist/actress/director Marina Abramovic first heard the singer on her grandmother’s kitchen radio at her farm in Yugoslavia.

She read, studied, listened to and absorbed every last detail on the singer’s art and life. She identified her own obsessions with those of her idol in which life and art become one and the same and at risk to one’s health and life (the wikipedia pieces on both women are good places to start for more about them.).

The play features Abramovic portraying Callas moving around the stage and on her deathbed, and Willem Dafoe as a stalking lover/adversary. Callas was quite famous for her brilliant singing/acting of death scenes from operas by Bellini, Bizet, Donizetti, Puccini and Verdi and a different soprano and actress performs each one. Abramovic’s voice is heard commenting on life, love, art, death etc. on tape while neither she nor Dafoe are ever seen speaking.

One of the arias, Un Bel Di (One Fine Day) is from Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, which takes place in early 1900’s Nagasaki, Japan. In light of what happened there and at Hiroshima in early August 1945, figures in hazmat suits are moving around while that aria is being sung.

At the conclusion of Seven Deaths, Callas’s own recording of the Bellini aria is heard.

Marko Nikodijevic composed incidental music for the production while Yoel Gamzou conducted the orchestra.


Henry Beard

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Henry Beard

Poetry for Cats
Villard Books, 1994, 87 pages.

Poetry for Cats is a clever volume in which Henry Beard (1945-) took 39 well-known poems by as many poets, ranging from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Poe, Whitman and Emily Dickinson, and re-wrote them from the point of view of their cats. I now offer Sitting by the Fire on a Snowy Evening, by Robert Frost’s cat, the original Stopping by the Woods is easily accessible via Google:

Sitting by the Fire on a Snowy Evening

Whose chair this is by now I know.
He’s somewhere in the forest though;
He will not see me sitting here
A place I’m not supposed to go.

He really is a little queer
To leave his fire’s cozy cheer
And ride out by the frozen lake
The coldest evening of the year.

To love the snow it takes a flake:
The chill that makes your footpads ache,
The drifts too high to lurk or creep,
The icicles that drip and break.

His chair is comfy, soft and deep.
But I have got an urge to leap,
And mice to catch before I sleep.
And mice to catch before I sleep.

Douglas Kenney

Beard started working for the Harvard Lampoon while attending the university during the 1960s, where he first met the late Douglas Kenney (1946-1980); they were two of the founders of the National Lampoon and collaborated on the book, Bored of the Rings. Kenney described Beard as “the oldest guy who was ever a teenager.” In 1975, they each got $2.8 million for a buyout of their magazine.

A closing statement from Gertrude Stein’s cat – “A furball is a furball is a furball.”

Beard’s great-grandfather was John C. Breckenridge (1821-1875) who served as the youngest vice-president of the United States in the nation’s history from 1857 to 1861 under Democratic president James Buchanan.

REVIEW POTPOURRI: Homeland series on the Hulu channel

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Homeland series on the Hulu channel

Originally on Showtime, Homeland ran for eight seasons, was one of the two or three most successful programs in its history and was still attracting new viewers when it came to an end. It starred Claire Danes as C.I.A. agent Carrie Matheson, who is also bipolar while being very good at her work. In addition, Danes was one of the producers.

Claire Danes

I have been watching it regularly for the last two weeks, am now on season six, episode 61, and have ignored all other programs. Due to a combination of storyline, plausibility, quality of all production details, relevance to current events etc., it is an addictive viewing experience.

The opening episode begins with the rescue of a Marine sniper, Nicolas Brody, who has been held in captivity for eight years by Al-Qaeda and long thought dead. Carrie comes to believe that the sniper has been programmed by his captors into a terrorist but is unable at first to convince anybody else. The first three seasons revolve around this premise and has cunningly developed plot twists, including a romantic relationship between her and Brody, superbly portrayed by Damian Lewis, who brings out the complexity of his character and his convincing return to being a decent man in the end.

Damian Lewis

Seasons four and five deal with the invasion of the American embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan; a traitorous C.I.A. station chief in Berlin; a terrorist plot with Sarin nerve gas on a railway line; and the usual political landmines in D.C. Actress Danes’s depiction of Carrie’s bi-polar episodes when she’s off her meds is some of the most convincingly harrowing virtuosity seen in any acting performance. As Carrie warns a later lover at the start of their relationship, “I can get very ugly and violent !”

Other actors warrant attention:

Mandy Pantinkin as Carrie’s agency trainer and mentor, Saul Berenson.

Tracy Letts as the insufferably arrogant Senator Lockhart who leads an investigation into secret agency activities, only to be appointed C.I.A. director himself and who manages to become quite likable before he’s dismissed from his position (Letts is an accomplished playwright and wrote August: Osage County, which became a 2013 film starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.).

Mandy Pantinkin

F. Murray Abraham as Dar Adal, Saul’s longtime agency colleague and expert in black ops (Abraham won an Oscar for his role as Salieri in the 1985 film Amadeus.).

Miranda Otto as Allison Carr, agency chief of the Berlin station, another protegé of Saul and his lover, and a double agent for the Russians, whose basically evil character has its own complicated dynamic and sympathetic context.

Turkish-born Numan Acar as the Afghan terrorist Haqqani. During season four, Haqqani kidnaps Saul for ransom and the conversation between them conveys a powerful other side of the story in the conflict between Western values and those of Islam, although Haqqani is quite despicable.

Claire Danes was supposedly paid $500,000 for every episode, and the production for each one often ran to $6 million.

Again, the series is very, very highly recommended.



REVIEW POTPOURRI: Poet Constance Hunting & Out of print recordings on YouTube

Constance Hunting

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Poet Constance Hunting

Poet Constance Hunting (1925-2006) taught English literature and creative writing at the University of Maine’s Orono campus from 1968 until her death. She originally trained to be a classical pianist but left that to focus on her writing. She also established Puckerbrush Press, edited the Puckerbrush Review, which published and promoted good work by many writers from Maine and elsewhere, and wrote over a dozen volumes of her own poems.

She commented on why Maine was important to her in a quote drawn from the 1989 anthology of Maine literature, Maine Speaks, which was edited by herself and several other members of the Maine Literature Project:

“Maine is important to me as a writer; its atmosphere seems to allow the freedom to try things, to explore possibilities. If one thing doesn’t succeed, try another!….I also like to go to our woodlot and help get ready for that long Maine winter. Maine makes us believe in weather. And that in turn makes us believe in Maine.”

Her poem New England nailed a maximum of substance with a minimum of words:

are the sheep of these
and fog
is the wool of these

For what it’s worth, the poet herself left out a period at the end of the poem.

Out of print recordings available on YouTube

Richard Strauss

Youtube has been beneficial in making available long out of print recordings for free listening on the computer speakers. I wish to mention two very good classical 78 sets.

A. The brilliant German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) conducted a very good 1927 set of Mozart’s 40th Symphony, a work that I consider the toughest of his 41 symphonies to conduct well and, until hearing Strauss’s performance, I felt that Sir Thomas Beecham’s 1937 Columbia recording was the only one that truly breathed. I have heard other recordings that are good, just not great. Strauss’s achieved that level of brilliance and beauty ten years before Beecham did.

Another English conductor Sir Adrian Boult told of Strauss coming to London in 1914 to guest conduct a program featuring three of his own works and the Mozart 40th. He had four hours of rehearsal time with the orchestra, devoted one hour to his own works, and rehearsed the 25-minute Mozart for the other three hours.

B. I have written previously here on other recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony. One very notable 1936 Columbia 78 set was conducted by Philippe Gaubert (1879-1941) and distinguished for its balance of gripping power, delectably understated poetry and dance-like elegance. The Paris Conser­vatory Orchestra was very responsive to his leadership.

REVIEW POTPOURRI: The Best of Tommy Dorsey

Shirley Hazzard

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

I just began reading a 1980 novel, The Transit of Venus, by the Australian-born Shirley Hazzard (1931-2016) and was struck by the descriptive power of one paragraph evoking the atmosphere of the quiet South England countryside just before a violent lightning storm erupts; anyone like myself with finely tuned nerves to these mid-summer meteorological disturbances might appreciate her way with words here:

“That noon a man was walking slowly into a landscape under a branch of lightning. A frame of almost human expectancy defined this scene, which he entered from the left-hand corner. Every nerve – for even barns and wheelbarrows and things without tissue developed nerve in those moments – waited, fatalistic. Only he, kinetic, advanced against circumstances to a single destination.”

For what it’s worth, I got over my 20 years of fear of thunderstorms when I moved to Houston for 16 years.

The Best of Tommy Dorsey

MCA2-4074, 2 LPs, 1975 reissue comprised of early 1930s and 1950s Decca recordings.

Tommy Dorsey

The very brilliant arranger, bandleader and trombonist Tommy Dorsey (1905-1956) led one of the most successful orchestras during the Big Band Era from the early ‘30s to circa 1946, when he had to let his players go because of dwindling engagements. However, around 1947, an RCA Victor 78 set of his records scored on the Billboard top ten, where he had already charted 286 times during the previous decade and provided enough money for him to start another band.

The above set covers his years of recording for Decca before he moved to RCA Victor in 1935 and after he returned in 1950, and contains 20 sides, including the well-known Lullaby of Broadway, Ain’t She Sweet, Cheek to Cheek, I’m Gettin’ Sentimental Over You, the classical favorite Ritual Fire Dance from Manuel De Falla’s Love the Magician and the spiritual Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.

The band’s most famous singers and instrumentalists – Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Connie Haines, Buddy Rich, Bunny Berrigan, Glenn Miller – before 1937, older brother Jimmy Dorsey the clarinettist before their rift in 1934 and after their 1947 reconciliation, Gene Krupa, Nelson Riddle, Doc Severinsen etc.

For me, the centerpiece was Tommy’s trombone playing which, for phrasing and breathing, was admired and followed by Sinatra in how to sing beautifully.

Dorsey had a notorious temper and alienated many.

He gave Glenn Miller a very generous cash loan to start his own band in 1937, considering the loan an investment. When Miller’s band achieved success, Miller resisted sharing any profits with Dorsey.

During the mid-’30s, Tommy Dorsey built his own state of the art record playing system for home listening.

In 1956, the Dorsey Brothers hosted Elvis Presley on their TV show.

REVIEW POTPOURRI – Singers: Henry Burr & Alice Nielsen; TV Series: Marcella

Henry Burr

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Henry Burr

Over Yonder Where the Lilies Grow/Hugh Donovan – The Rose of No Man’s Land; Columbia A2670; ten inch acoustic 78, recorded October, 1918.

I have written before about Harry McClaskey (1882-1941), alias Henry Burr, who recorded prolifically 100 and more years ago, while another singer Charles Harrison (1878-1965) alias Hugh Donovan is featured on side 2 of the above, very old record. The two songs were written out of different aspects of World War I from 1914-1918, also known erroneously as The War to End All Wars, and make this record a document of some historical interest.

Over Yonder Where the Lilies Grow is akin to the more famous war poem, In Flander’s Fields, a region of Belgium where two different Battles of Ypres were fought and much loss of life occurred on both sides. The song’s lyrics evoke sadness in the first three lines – ‘Last night I lay a-sleeping a vision came to me/I saw a baby in Flander’s maybe/It’s eyes were wet with tears’, etc. The song mentions the lily of France/Fleur de-Lis and ‘the land of long ago’.

The Rose of No Man’s Land pays tribute to the Red Cross nurses who risked their lives helping the wounded in often makeshift, dangerous settings. ‘It’s the one red rose the soldier knows/It’s the work of the master’s hand/It’s the sweet word from the Red Cross nurse/She’s the rose of no-man’s land.’

Both tenors did very good work here; the tunes were sticky sweet pleasant.

Charles Harrison studied with a New York City voice teacher Frederick Bristol (1839-1932) who operated a summer music camp in Harrison, Maine.

Alice Nielsen

By the Waters of Minnetonka/From the Land of Sky Blue Water; Columbia A1732; ten inch acoustic disc, recorded February, 1915.

Alice Nielsen

Soprano Alice Nielsen (1872-1943) scored huge success on the opera and vaudeville stage with her appearances in Boston, New York City, London and Italy. She recorded opera arias, oper­ettas, popular tunes and hymns. One megahit was a shellac of Home Sweet Home.

The above two selections were popularized by many other singers in concert, on the radio and via records. And, like Charles Harrison, she too studied with Frederick Bristol. By another coincidence, she had a summer home in Harrison, Maine, which later became a dancing school.


The Netflix suspense series, Marcella, has Anna Friel portraying a London detective and giving one of the most powerfully sustained performances over the series 24 episodes that I have seen from anybody. Highly recommended.





Thomas Hardy

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Thomas Hardy

The Man He Killed.

“Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

“But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

“I shot him dead because –
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was:
That’s clear enough; although

“He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like- just as I –
Was out of work-had sold his traps –
No other reason why.

“Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.”

English novelist/poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was quite obsessed by the indifference of the universe to man’s predicament in this life. One feels this thread in such novels as Far From the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure and a sense of hopelessness pervades his poem, The Man He Killed, which first appeared in a 1902 issue of Harper’s Weekly. It was written during the Boer War, which lasted from 1899 to 1902, and mirrored Hardy’s sense of war’s irrationality, which increased even more during World War I (Two younger English poets who served in WW I’s trenches, Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) and Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) were inspired by Hardy’s poems in writing about their own wartime experiences.).

The unnamed narrator in the poem speculates about what if he and the enemy soldier could have met in a pub and had a beer together – ‘Had he and I but met’, the word ‘but’ slightly intensifying the sadness of war’s actuality. And then the second stanza, ‘But….staring face to face,/I shot at him as he at me,/And killed him in his place.’ For this soldier, it is kill or be killed on the spur of the moment; the backlash of guilt hits him later. ‘I shot him dead because – /Because he was my foe, /Just so…That’s clear enough’ but then ‘although.’ This one word, ‘although’ stinging with remorse and despair.

The last two verses deal with the other possible reasons both soldiers are fighting for their country – ‘was out of work ­ had sold his’ { FISHING?} ‘traps – /No other reason why.’

Finally, Hardy tightens the screws on the impersonal nature of war, of men on their respective sides of the battlefield blowing each other’s brains out and how it is so ‘quaint and curious war is.’

Hardy achieved a poise in this evoking of his outrage at war almost on the same level as Homer in the Iliad and the other Greek tragedians, Aeschylus and Sophocles.

A final note: when Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure was published in 1895, its depiction of sex and religion was so controversial that several bookstores sold the volume in brown paper bags and one Anglican clergyman destroyed his own copy. Hardy commented years later that, “After these hostile verdicts from the press, its next misfortune was to be burnt by a bishop – probably in his despair at not being able to burn me.”

Our local Colby College Library has one of the finest, world-renowned collection of Thomas Hardy first editions and other memorabilia in its rare book archives, courtesy of a long-time English professor, curator and Hardy scholar, Carl J. Weber (1894-1966).