Growing Up With Tennyson: How The Text Takes Us Higher

20180924_120033When I was twelve, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon in the legendary bookshops of the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye. For £5, I purchased an ancient copy of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poetry, published in 1883, nine years before his death.

What a world of wonder it opened up to me! It may have even changed my life.

On one of the front pages, spotted with yellow patches of age, I found an inscription identifying the book’s first owner: “To Lilian Henderson from the Parents of the Infant School of S. Mark’s South Teddington in token of their love and appreciation of her kindness to their children. Jan 31. 1884.” How this excited me! Well over a century before, this woman had held my book in her own hands and loved it when it was new and the golden gilt edges still shone. In my imagination, I created Lilian Henderson. She had dark hair and spoke with a soft voice and wore plain white dresses edged with lace.

20180924_120137Inside her book, I found little slips of verse and a penciled list of titles with their corresponding page numbers. Lilian, I was sure, had written these. I read them over and over, and I carefully worked through her list of what I assumed were recommended titles, prepared to like each one right from the start, reading them like a prospector hunting for gold.

The other slips of paper, those with the excerpts of poetry, planted themselves in my mind and, thirteen years later, I still think of them sometimes. One piece had two neat little maxims penned with great care. I was fascinated by the appearance of the writing. The effect of the inked dip pen on the page was startling and glorious to me, and looking back now, I think my first love for old-fashioned ink lettering was kindled in me that very day.

20180924_120212On the back of this sheet, Lilian (so I like to think) had written out a quatrain from “Lady Clara Vere de Vere.” I didn’t have ready internet access at the time, so I didn’t know the origin of the verse until I discovered it myself in the poem. What fun that was! What a thrill of discovery! The text reads:

Howe’er it be, it seems to me,
’Tis only noble to be good.
Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood.

At the time, I had yet no notion of the tempting lures of classism and snobbery that would come to afflict me later. But I hid these lines away in my heart and they came back to me just this week to shed light and wisdom on a present struggle.

And this, after all, is why I do what I do. It’s why I love to create art out of words that have the power of truth behind them. Because when these words are duly ingested and have truly saturated our hearts, I do believe they are weapons in the good fight of everyday life. It’s as Charlotte Mason wrote in Towards A Philosophy of Education: I heard the other day of a man whose whole life had been elevated by a single inspiring (poetic) sentence which he heard as a schoolboy.” 20180924_120253

That’s real. The text can take us higher. I believe it because it happens to me.

For the rest of my stay in Great Britain, I devoured Tennyson voraciously from this historic volume. I had always enjoyed reading, and had read some of Tennyson already, but the experience of stumbling through pages of blank verse that I knew to be intended for adults was a new kind of challenge. It made me feel grown up and I was eager to rise to the occasion and demonstrate that I could enjoy this book as it was meant to be enjoyed and as thousands of other Victorian Britons (including Lilian) had, I presumed, enjoyed it.

I read the easy ones, like “The Lady of Shallot,” “The Brook,” “Alymer’s Field,” “Marianna in the South,” “Break break break,” and Lady Clare,” (not the same as Lady Clara Vere de Vere. I know, so confusing.) I tried to read “The Princess,” although I understood it not a whit. I even struggled through pages and pages of “In Memoriam.” On the plane back to the Middle East, where my family was living at the time, I tried to hide my tears over “Rizpah” and “In The Children’s Hospital.” And in a cold drizzle in the Welsh countryside, sheltering the book with my jacket, I read a poem that would affect me so much I would write about the experience later in my own first poetry collection.

20180924_120502To contemporary readers, “Enoch Arden” might seem to be trying too hard. The story of a sailor who is lost at sea and returns home after many years to find that his devoted wife has finally given him up for dead and remarried his childhood rival may not sound to us like a fresh plot or a new idea. But reading the story at twelve, still inexperienced both in life and in fiction, I was captivated by the pathos and tragedy of the characters. I was desperate for a resolution, for a happy ending, and genuinely disappointed when I realized that the loss in the story was going to be permanent, that there was not going to be any way out. However, I was able to grasp some little part of what Enoch’s character champions at the end of the story when he chooses not to reveal himself to his wife and her new husband but dies alone, blessing them with his last words and taking comfort that he will soon join their child whose death in infancy had been a great blow.

It doesn’t sound original, perhaps, but this woeful story in blank verse moved my heart so deeply and stirred me to value and adore silent, self-denying heroism, an attribute all too easily forgotten in this era of fanfare and self-promotion. “Enoch Arden” talked to me and it made me better. It talked to me because I had no smartphone to fill up my spare minutes, no little red notifications to distract me from the book in my hands and the great outdoors around me. Because of that, I made connections with words that would stick with me always, and with a woman who lived over a hundred years ago and was kind to the children of the Infant School at St. Mark’s, South Teddington.

20180923_140605I have yet to mention the Tennyson poem that has been with me the longest. Even before I bought Lilian Henderson’s book in the little Welsh shop, I had memorized one of Tennyson’s most famous pieces in school and copied it out in my best hand-writing on lined paper. I had been given the option to pick a poem to memorize, and the one I chose was “Crossing The Bar.” Yes, I chose it in part because it was shorter than many of the other options. (Although, to be fair, it’s certainly longer than “Flower In The Crannied Wall.” So there’s that.) But also, it held a strange fascination for me. I had only a vague idea of what was being conveyed, and was certainly thrown off by phrases like, “from out our bourne of Time and Place,” and “such a tide as moving seems asleep,” but I just disregarded these odd lines and stuck to what I understood.

I knew that in this poem, Tennyson compares death to a sandbar that separates a ship from the ocean, and hints at his hope of encountering God (the “Pilot”) on the other side of death. This seemed sublime to me, and while I wanted Tennyson to take a bit of a lighter tone and be a little bit more reassuring and less darkly mysterious, I was, on the whole, well satisfied with my choice. Lilian too, it seems, was a fan. “Crossing The Bar” was only poem she wrote out in its entirety and stowed away between the pages of her copy of Tennyson.

It has been something like seventeen years since then. I now know why Tennyson said, “Twilight and evening bell, / And after that the dark!” I know why he said he “hoped,” to see the Pilot, not that he “would” see Him. Like most of the great thinkers and writers in the Victorian age, Tennyson grappled with faith all throughout his life and at times seems to have been overwhelmed by doubt. But the words he wrote in honor of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam in “In Memoriam,” are perhaps equally applicable to their author:

Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
At last he beat his music out.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

Later in his life, Tennyson wrote, “The Pilot has been on board all the while, but in the dark I have not seen him…[He is] that Divine and Unseen Who is always guiding us.” Before his death, he told his son Hallam that he wanted “Crossing The Bar” to appear at the end of all future editions of his poetry.

At last he beat his music out.

20180923_141052A few weeks ago, I set out to create a piece of art that would honor the debt I owe to Tennyson. My artistic rendition of “Crossing The Bar” is a small watercolor painting accompanied by hand-lettered dip pen calligraphy – the kind Lilian Henderson got me sold on back in the day. Thanks, Lilian, whoever you were. It took me several days to complete this piece and although my capitals are still improving, I’m pleased with how it came out. 8×10 prints just became available in my Etsy shop yesterday, so if you want to have one for your own home, click here to view the listing.

[NOTE: I’ve tried to find records of Lilian Henderson, but haven’t been successful so far. If anyone out there knows anything about her, her family, life, or connections, I’d love to hear from you!]

New Things

Well, well. How to catch up after eight months of silence in the weblog world?

wedding coverI got married. To my best friend and my beloved companion. At our ceremony, my sister read from The Little Prince and we both cried like babies on the stage. My husband and I read that book together in the early days of our friendship and it’s so special to both of us.

When we were dating, we spent one hundred days apart one very long summer and I wrote a song to present to him when we were back together again. I couldn’t help drawing from Saint-Exupery: There are no shops where you can buy friends…” it began. And even today, that’s what I treasure the most about my relationship with him — we have a friendship that we took great pains to build and into which we invested many hours long before we ever thought we’d one day be one flesh. And friendship is a glue that holds tighter than any passions.

For our wedding, I created five different works of illustrated calligraphy celebrating books that were particularly meaningful to us as a couple. Sense and Sensibility and Much 20180707_185255 (2)Ado About Nothing were among them, but some of our favorites were quotes from children’s books like The Little Prince and the silly old bear.

Prints of these original paintings are now available in my Etsy shop, so that’s exciting. In other news, I’ve been working on quite a few new art projects and the shop now offers several paintings/calligraphy quotes including some from The Hobbit, Puddleglum, Robert Browning, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Also, there’s two beautiful Wodehouse quotes that I’m particularly attached to.

But some of the biggest recent Etsy news from my end is that I’m now offering custom illustrated calligraphy quotes! So if you like my style but I haven’t offered the specific quote you’re dreaming about hanging on your wall, I can now make it specifically for you and it’ll be your own original work of handmade, hand-lettered art.

There are a lot of other new things in the works, but for now I’ll see you over on Etsy! Also, if you’d like to keep in touch, my instagram has been seeing a lot more action these days, so find me over there at _bryana_johnson to hear about all the new happenings, including a sweet art giveaway that I’ll be posting tomorrow.

2017 Christmas Cards

20170916_182813 (2)I have to say it. I’m a strong opponent of premature Christmas decorations and celebrations. In fact, if I go into a grocery store or department store in October and seeing tinsel and lights and elves, I try to ignore them completely, since I feel like these things spoil the grandeur of the way the Christmas season ought to spring upon us, much-awaited, with the beginning of December.

That being the case, I long debated whether to make this post at all, but I ended up deciding that it might be worth it to some people. So if you’re like me and cringe when you see Christmas things out too soon, don’t worry – I’ll keep this short.

20170916_182413Ever since I opened my Etsy shop two years ago, I’ve dreamed about designing a set of watercolor and calligraphy Christmas cards. This year, I finally had an opportunity to make that dream a reality and I spent part of the summer working on these new paintings and calligraphy pieces. I then turned this original artwork into printed cards that can be used as traditional Christmas cards or framed to be gifted or displayed as unique works of art.

And these new cards are available in my Etsy shop NOW.

So many of my favorite things about Christmas are classic and old – like the rich and beautiful carols and poems celebrating the advent of Christ. My other favorite thing about Christmas is the spirit of generosity and grace that we celebrate and attempt to extend to others during the season. This Christmas, I wanted to make art that would express both of these things and for this reason, 50% of net proceeds from any Christmas card purchases from my Etsy shop will benefit the work of Compassion International, a humanitarian aid organization serving children in poverty around the globe.

20170916_181840 (2)Although it’s only the beginning of November, I wanted to let you know about this now so that you have plenty of time to order them. Please note that these cards can be ordered in any combination you like! There is a listing in the shop for a set of three, and also individual listings. However, if you find you really like two of the designs and don’t care much for the third, you can order as many of these two cards as you like. If you send a custom order request, I can create a listing for you that will include your entire purchase in one listing and will cut down on your shipping costs. I usually respond to convos very promptly and you shouldn’t have to wait long for me to create the listing for you.

Alright, friends, that’s all. You can return to your normal routine and wait for Christmas to come at its proper time.

Thoughts From the Brave New World

20160803_105652
There was a thing, as I’ve said before, called
Christianity…
All the crosses had their tops cut and became T’s.
There was also a thing called God.
We have the World State now and Ford’s Day
celebrations and Community Sings and Solidarity
Services.

There was a thing called Heaven; but all the same
they used to drink enormous quantities of
alcohol…

There was a thing called the soul and a thing called
immortality…

But they used to take morphia and cocaine.

Aldous Huxley puts these words in the mouth of the director of his dystopian society in a scene where the collapse of the world as we know it is narrated with an eery nonchalance.

Huxley’s classic novel has been on my list to read for quite some time and when a friend wanted to read it with me over the summer, I finally got down to it. Based on what I’d heard about the book, I was expecting to find some remarkable parallels between Huxley’s society and our own technological age. However, I wasn’t prepared for just how many powerful ways I would see the Spirit of the Age foreshadowed in this book.

In Huxley’s Brave New World, the old order of struggling for survival and working to achieve your goals has been replaced by a new society where scientific advancement has removed the need for pain, suffering, frustrated desires and social instability. People are genetically engineered to serve the specific needs of society and conditioned from infancy through hypnopaedic sleep training to embrace their lot in life. There is no disease and the effects of aging have been obliterated. There are no longer any causes for dissatisfaction or discontentment. And if anyone should find themselves experiencing strong emotions, there’s always soma, the feel-good drug that provides a euphoric escape from any unpleasantness.

The catch? In order to do away with the strong negative emotions that threaten the stability of the social order, the Brave New World has done away with marriage, family, and all strong and meaningful connections that bind humans to one another. They’ve done away with love. Everyone is trained in uninhibited promiscuous sexuality from childhood and words like fidelity, parents, and God have become indecent expressions. The high arts have been replaced by synthetic music and sensory experiences. Television and soma are ever-present as a constant distraction against any serious contemplation. Pleasure flows through the culture like a steadily dripping intravenous solution, deadening feeling.

Huxley paints a picture of an existence that most of us would no doubt categorize as no way to live. We don’t live in a society where Shakespeare and the Bible are forbidden and marriage is a dirty word. The high arts are still held in high regard by educated people and housed in museums that can be visited free of charge all over the country. We can still listen to opera and classical music radio stations in every major city in this country. Unfortunately, I think these ways in which our culture isn’t like Huxley’s can be a dangerous distraction from a myriad of ways in which it is.

Technology in our time has ushered in an era that is unprecedented in history. Mechanization has drastically reduced the need for quantitative manpower and a few people can easily complete work that once required thousands of laborers. Whereas humanity used to be engaged in a constant struggle for survival, the means of production are rapidly evolving to a point where this struggle is no longer necessary. In order to accommodate the resulting leisure opportunities, virtual and passive entertainment forms have become increasingly central in the lives of millennials.

Gaming provides opportunities for activating the brain’s rewards system and giving users the illusion of accomplishment. Smartphone technology provides instant access to many forms of mindless entertainment or pleasure simulations, from Candy Crush Saga to pornography. Apps like Snapchat allow smartphone users to feel informed about world events and trends with daily news and fashion feeds but all of these news outlets look more and more like tabloids every year. Rather than promoting serious observations, research or deep thought, they stimulate users on a shallow level with short articles centered on pop culture figures, gossip tidbits and useless trivia. They promote a hook-up culture in which meaningful, committed, long-term sexual relationships are replaced by cheap one-night stands and love and friendship are divorced from sexuality.

Are we happier for all this? Are we happier now that we live at a level of physical and material comfort that none of our ancestors ever experienced?

I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we can see that this influx of consumer media has resulted in the loss of many important elements of the human experience. There’s no longer any need for boredom or contemplation or pondering the hard facts of reality and the questions of existence that enhance our humanity. There’s little motivation to expend effort towards achieving long-term goals when so many short-term goals are instantly attainable.

What is it that’s missing? What is it that the human heart hungers for so desperately and that can’t be fulfilled by ending world hunger or unemployment, by giving people everything they want? Why is it that what we think we want is never really what we want after all?

20160803_105741
Hand-Lettered Bookmark Listed on Etsy Here

 

“God, you have made us for yourself,” St. Augustine wrote, exposing the emptiness of all the pleasures in the world, “and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in You.”

An Update and Such

HomeAtLastIt’s been the sort of semester where an empty hour is a precious rarity and face-to-face interactions have more or less replaced the virtual world. I haven’t been reading less, but most of what I’ve been reading is textbooks. I haven’t been writing less, but most of what I’ve been writing is academic papers and conversations in text messages with friends who want to talk about all the issues involved with just living and how we bring all our high ideals into gritty reality. All this is very alright and my days are as happy as ever. But when I got off for winter break and came back to the web to catch up with all of you and your Goodreads lists and your websites and your artwork and your creative minds, I sure did wish I hadn’t been away for quite so long.

My break has involved a lot of hot tea and starlight walks and the happy sounds of running water all over the farm. My little brother still cares a lot that we all sleep under the Christmas tree at night and he’s been reading The New Treasure Seekers to me by the Christmas lights while I catch up on filling in pages and pages of my commonplace book. Last night he read the saga of the Conscience Pudding in as quiet a whisper as he could manage but we couldn’t manage to keep from laughing out loud when the Bastable children washed the currants with Brown Windsor soap. I’m glad you never have to get too old for Edith Nesbit.

But the best thing about being on a break is the chance to make a studio out of the breakfast table in the kitchen and take out watercolors and ink and work on art projects for hours at a time.

The calligraphy piece at the beginning of this post is an illustration of lines taken from The Ballad of the White Horse. My first calligraphy project was a rather crooked and deficient rendition of this quotation and I thought it would be fun to make an updated version. Here are a couple of other projects I completed this week as Christmas presents:

DoNotDare - ResizedThis watercolor features Shasta and Bree from The Horse and His Boy and a quotation from that book added in ink. “You poor, proud frightened Horse,” says Aslan to the conceited and self-conscious Bree. “Draw near. Nearer still, my son. Do not dare not to dare. Touch me. Smell me. Here are my paws, here is my tail, these are my whiskers. I am a true Beast.”

It’s an era full of empty rhetoric about pursuing what we want and who hasn’t seen Shia LaBeouf yelling don’t let your dreams be dreams!! ? But when C.S. Lewis puts these words in the mouth of his Lion King, I don’t think that’s what he’s talking about. There’s a dream that is higher than ideal careers and condos in Florida. And this is the one we owe it to ourselves not to shrink back from chasing as hard as we can.

The model for this illustration was the Narnian castle Cair Paravel where the Hebrews2 ResizedPevensies reigned as kings and queens and once you’re a king or a queen in  Narnia, you’re always a king or a queen. Aren’t we Royalty in a Kingdom that’s coming and is among us and will be here even before we know it?

Later this week, I plan to write up a few reviews for the books I’ve been reading, and before I head back to school for another semester of studying, I’ll be restocking my Etsy shop with a collection of new art creations. So things should stay interesting around here for awhile. Come back! And I’d love it if you come and let me know what you’ve been doing or thinking or reading.