The Nutcracker

I’m currently reading A Gentleman in Moscow, and just read this passage where the main character, Count Rostov, declaims the importance of Tchaicovsky’s Nutcracker ballet.

In the scene, Rostove accepts a challenge by a two travelers–a German and a Brit–to list at least three different Russian artistic/cultural achievements that have contributed significantly to western civilization. The Brit has been arguing with the German about the merits of Russian culture, but the German is skeptical, arguing that the best thing Russia has produced is vodka. Count Rostov, having overheard the conversation, can’t help himself and defends his country. Before doing so, the three characters agree to take a shot of vodka for each example the Count successfully defends.

“Number two?” asked the Brit, as Audrius refilled the glasses.

“Act one, scene one of The Nutcracker.”

“Tchaikovsky!” the German guffawed.

“You laugh, mein Herr. And yet, I would wager a thousand crowns that you can picture it yourself. On Christmas Eve, having celebrated with family and friends in a room dressed with garlands, Clara sleeps soundly on the floor with her magnificent new toy. But at the stroke of midnight, with the one-eyed Drosselmeyer perched on the grandfather clock like an owl, the Christmas tree begins to grow. . . .”

As the Count raised his hands slowly over the bar to suggest the growth of the tree, the Brit began to whistle the famous march from the opening act.

“Yes, exactly,” said the Count to the Brit. “It is commonly said that the English know how to celebrate Advent best. But with all due respect, to witness the essence of winter cheer one must venture farther north than London. One must venture above the fiftieth parallel to where the course of the sun is its most elliptical and the force of the wind its most unforgiving. Dark, cold, and snowbound, Russia has the sort of climate in which the spirit of Christmas burns brightest. And that is why Tchaikovsky seems to have capture the sound of it better than anyone else. I tell you that not only will every European child of the twentieth century know the melodies of The Nutcracker, they will imagine their Christmas just as it is depicted in the ballet; and on the Christmas Eves of their dotage, Tchaikovsky’s tree will grow from the floor of their memories until they are gazing up in wonder once again.”

The Brit gave a sentimental laugh and emptied his glass.

“The story was written by a Prussian,” said the German, as he begrudgingly lifted his drink.

“I grant you that,” conceded the Count. “And but for Tchaikovsky, it would have remained in Prussia.”

During the first few years of marriage, my wife and I would attend a production of The Nutcracker every Christmas. We haven’t been able to attend for the past several years for various reasons, and this passage suddenly made me very nostalgic. Unfortunately, it looks like we’ll miss again this year.

I couldn’t find a recorded version of the Christmas tree scene, but this performance of the pas de deux right afterwards will do:

The passage from A Gentleman in Moscow and the nostalgia served as inspiration for my December poem today:

From floor to ceiling, see the Christmas tree
Expand and grow. The white glow of the light
Intensifies like starlight ’til we see
Reality become a dream tonight.


December Poem-a-day

I’ve set a challenge for myself to write a four line Advent and/or Christmas poem once a day for the month of December and then through the twelve days of Christmas. To hold myself more accountable for writing poems that make sense, I’m going to post some/most of them on this here website.

I just wrote a cycle of poems on Mary, Joseph, and a Donkey that I enjoyed:

Goodnight my lady who in love is wreathed
With gold light glowing from the Christmas tree.
Your eyes bespeak the airy “Yes” you breathed
When Gabriel announced to you God’s plea.

Be not afraid, oh chosen protector!
Betrothed, plight thy troth to God’s young queen.
High Providence is thy sure guarantor–
The strength of arm on which she’ll need to lean.

Oh high and holy race of burdened beasts,
Bearers of earth who come to bear our God.
Now raise your ears, oh honored ones, this feast’s
For you, who with our Lord two roads have trod.

And here is the poem from today:

Unclench your teeth, lower your tired eyes,
Thank God the cosmos does not hang on you–
He’s come to us, his mother sits and sighs
Upon the dirt. Attend! Keep him in view.

This is not Vanity

The final lines from Ezra Pound’s “Canto LXXXI:”

What thou lovest well remains,
                                                  the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
                                            or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
        Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
         Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place
In scaled invention or true artistry,
Pull down thy vanity,
                                        Paquin pull down!
The green casque has outdone your elegance.
“Master thyself, then others shall thee beare”
       Pull down thy vanity
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowst’ou wing from tail
Pull down thy vanity
                        How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity,
                        Pull down thy vanity,
Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity,
Pull down thy vanity,
                       I say pull down.
But to have done instead of not doing
                     this is not vanity
To have, with decency, knocked
That a Blunt should open
               To have gathered from the air a live tradition
or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame
This is not vanity.
         Here error is all in the not done,
all in the diffidence that faltered  .  .  .

And here’s a video of Ezra Pound as an old man reciting these final lines:

waking into the world

Alan Jacobs has mastered the art form of mezzo blogging. For proof, see this brief but insightful reflection on Auden’s poetry and it’s potential literary allusions.

Also, I really hope Alan is right that Auden is referring to Beowulf.

Horae Canonicae,”

“Holy this moment, wholly in the right,
As, in complete obedience
To the light’s laconic outcry, next
As a sheet, near as a wall,
Out there as a mountain’s poise of stone,
The world is present, about,
And I know that I am, here, not alone
But with a world and rejoice
Unvexed, for the will has still to claim
This adjacent arm as my own,
The memory to name me, resume
Its routine of praise and blame
And smiling to me is this instant while
Still the day is intact, and I
The Adam sinless in our beginning,
Adam still previous to any act.”

Most of Auden’s critics know that he read Heidegger, and it’s easy to hear here an echo of Heidegger’s idea of “being thrown” (Geworfen) into the world. John Fuller also finds here echoes of Husserl and Paul Valéry. And all that may be true, but I wonder if there might be another source: Beowulf.

— Read on


Sonnet 30

I’m reading and thinking about Shakespeare’s sonnets this week. And this one always causes me to pause and reflect.


When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

This also happens to be Melvyn Bragg’s favorite Shakespeare sonnet:

The Impeded Stream

This is a poem I’ve needed to hear every day for the past couple months. And I doubt I’m the only one who would benefit from memorizing it and repeating it throughout the day.

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

-Wendell Berry, from Standing by Words.