Poetry and the American Civil War

[I’m currently taking a class about the American Civil War, a topic that, in Canada, isn’t even discussed in high schools. I’m ashamed to say that I knew virtually nothing about the Civil War prior to September. However, I’m glad to have fixed that problem and have been finding myself incredibly intrigued by the number of complexities associated with this war. This week I’ve been working on a paper about the role of poetry in the Civil War and have decided to share a bit of it with you this week as the topics explored in this paper fit within the spheres explored by this blog.]


The role of literature in war is that of a shadowless leader. It’s presence is as paramount as it is subtle. Unlike the body, which is ultimately subject to decomposition, war literature offers a voice that lasts, one that reveals attitudes and ideologies crucial to understanding how individuals have interpreted wars throughout history. By analyzing writings that emerged during the American Civil War, it becomes clear that the war’s predominant causes, its effects on American society and feelings developed by American citizens towards the war could be discussed within a literary context. In many senses, the war effort worked its way from the hands of writers onto the page and acted as a goad for political change.

This paper will explore the impact of sentimentality in Civil War literature. Civil War poems not only provide an interesting historiography but were crucial instruments in shaping perceptions of the war. Discrepancies between Southern and Northern literature offers a glimpse into how sentimental literature was used propagandistically to further Union and Confederate efforts. During this era, citizens were exposed to poetry on a regular basis. Holding a less obscure position in society than it would today, poetry extended into the hearts and minds of American citizens. The poems introduced in this essay will therefore demonstrate how sentimentality often infused civil war poems with patriotic emotionalism.

While some critics dismiss civil war poetry as mere rumination, or, in the words of American writer Edmund Wilson, as “versified journalism,” countless poets writing during this era suffused their work with political importance. Northern writers like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, or Herman Melville wrote voraciously in an attempt to end slavery or bolster unionist efforts. Likewise, poets such as Henry Timrod supported confederate efforts. Nevertheless, these works were highly sentimental and the era’s political polarity is therefore reflected in many of the era’s greatest poems. Meanwhile, I’d argue that tensions between the North and the South were uniquely distilled within the poetic genre.

Within the poetic genre, a wide range of poetic topics and modes of expression existed. Poems written by politicians, scholars and soldiers, as well as by women left behind may be categorized as poems belonging to the civil war genre. As a result, historians may study the links between emotionality and the Civil War, which in turn reveals key aspects about the relationships between the Civil War, the home front and the war front. To begin, this paper will analyze a series of poems, the first of which are unionist. In analyzing both unionist and confederate poems, a general commonality emerges. The commonality is one that likens unionist poems to confederate poems while simultaneously highlighting an important distinction. For the sake of this paper, confederate poems and unionist poems will be considered genres unto themselves. The aforementioned commonality is one that rests in the palm of nationalist ideology. Both unionists and confederates turned to poetry as a means to convey and discuss heroism, solidarity and American policy. As a sweeping generalization, the poets of the Confederacy and the poets of the Union might be considered “nationalist poets” and it is this “nationalism” that illuminates their commonality. By further analyzing their work one can note that this very commonality also divides them. The consideration of these poems makes clear that poets belonging to the civil war era viewed poetry as a medium worthy of conducting cultural and political conversations, conversations that would ultimately shape the nation’s future. Whether or not these poems were worthy of conducting cultural and political conversations may be debated. Their sentimentality is likely the result of a closeness to the war’s unfolding events. In For the Confederate and Union Dead: Reflections on Civil War Poetry, Henry Hart argues that the majority of poets only acquired the “distance and aesthetic skill to write about the war effectively” after several decades had passed. Hart further discusses the impact of time and distance by arguing that twentieth-century poets, in reflecting on the war, might attempt to “juxtapose the war’s grim realities with the mythical or naïve conceptions of fighting that perpetuate wars.” Upon analyzing Hart’s argument, one might note that poems produced during the war as opposed to after the war were highly “mythical” or “naïve.”

In an attempt to attribute one word to unionist poetry, one might consider the word “castigating.” The poems written by unionists admonish the South’s desire to secede and a common theme among these poems is that of betrayal. Southerners were typically portrayed as traitors. This theme is apparent in myriads of works. Consider the following excerpt from a poem titled That’s What’s the Matter by Stephen C. Foster:

“We live in hard and stirring times,

Too sad for mirth, too rough for rhymes;

For songs of peace have lost their chimes,

And that’s what’s the matter!

The men we held as brothers true

Have turned into a rebel crew;

So now we have to put them thro’,

And that’s what’s the matter!”

The sense of loss and betrayal in Foster’s work evokes immediate empathy by conjuring the familial, by depicting secession as a divorce that will destroy the American family. Lee Steinmetz, in discussing Northern writer F.O. Sayles, a poet who considered himself both a satirist and political and social critic, introduces Sayles as “a child of his time.” He further argues that Northerners were portrayed as embodying justice, while the South was depicted as responsible for the war. Sayles, Lee explains, found it “impossible to forget that the South has been guilty for the twin crimes Slavery and Rebellion.” The following is an excerpt from Sayles poem Follies of the Day, a Satire, in which Sayles laments Southern betrayal and glorifies Northern loyalty:

“The union of the States, which blood had bought,

To sunder, made Rebellion vainly sought.—

Its hellish enginery caused blood to flow,

And fill the land with mourning and with woe;—

It wasted treasure, and it slew the brave!

Yet, loyal patriots had power to save

The sacred bond, the adamantine chain,

Unbroken,—and the triumph will remain,

The proudest monument of ages past,

And, to the end of time, shall all its glory last.”

Sayles’ emphasis on “the sacred bond” and “loyal patriots” certainly radiates patriotic emotionalism. Meanwhile, one could argue that sweeping generalizations such as depicting the North as inherently loyal or the South’s “hellish enginery” as having caused “blood to flow” is propagandist as a result of its narrow consideration of the war’s origins. Writers, as proponents of Southern or Northern values, thus appealed to the people’s hearts by tailoring their poems’ language to reflect either Unionist or Confederate definitions of justice. Lee Steinmetz accurately describes the dramatic flair attributed to much of the era’s writing as “highly coloured diction.” The lack of realism infused within these works enabled sentimentalism to creep in and affect the tone of many such poems.

While many poems were written as direct attacks on the South, such as Union Dixie, in which the South was vilified as “the land of traitors, Rattlesnakes and Alligators,” other poems strayed from such vague generalizations to focus on identifying with the individual soldier. By focusing on the individual soldier, the poet could effectively articulate the atrocities of war. Henry Hart argues that poets tended to ruminate on the importance of family connection and accounts offered by soldiers were influenced by their biased affiliations. The notion of the “individual soldier” is perhaps best depicted in the work of Walt Whitman, since Whitman wrote based on his personal experiences (many other poets did too but none became as iconic as Whitman.) In 1862, Whitman traveled to Virginia to find his brother George, a Union soldier who’d been wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg. Hart discusses Whitman’s collection of poems, Drum-Taps, by considering them to be Whitman’s “firsthand encounters with soldiers, which included dressing wounds, helping with amputations, and consoling the dying.” The focus on “consoling the dying” is also prominent in civil war poetry and may be considered in connection to the previously mentioned theme of “patriotic emotionalism.” Poems often attempt to console the dying soldier by extending commendation and associating their death with acts of valiance.

The focus on death, however, is a general trend that may not be an exclusive result of the war. One explanation for this is given by Lee Steinmetz. He describes a mid-nineteenth century tendency that involves writing obsessively about death. Death, he explains, was conceived as the most poetic of subjects “whether they were writing about war between Northerners and Southerners, war between the Flesh and the Spirit, or war between God and Satan for the souls of men.”



[As mentioned, this is just an excerpt from a work in progress. The research thus far has proved quite interesting and as I carry on writing I plan to explore the differences between unionist and confederate poetry. Thank you for reading and if you have any questions please comment below and I’ll happily get back to you.]


Steinmetz, Lee, James M. Lundberg, and Inc ebrary. 2013;2012;. The poetry of the american civil war. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

Henry Hart. “For the Confederate and Union Dead: Reflections on Civil War Poetry.” Sewanee Review 121, no. 2 (2013): 205-224. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed March 12, 2017).


The Brothers Grimm

I’ve been meaning to look into the Brothers Grimm for quite sometime now. Today, feeling tired and indecisive, I could not decide on a blog topic. Then, about twenty minutes ago, my professor made a comment about the Brothers Grimm and I thought “of course! I’ll write about them.” As  a lover of both literature and Disney movies, I have to admit I’m curious about the depiction of these fairy tales in contemporary culture. In this same vein, the writing of these fairy tales was an attempt to capture elements of a dying popular culture.

I’ll begin with a brief biographical introduction. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, known conjointly as the Grimm Brothers, were the oldest siblings in a family of five brothers and one sister. Their father had been a lawyer and later a justiciary before passing away in 1796. Their father’s death brought social hardship to the family, which was further exacerbated by their mother’s passing in 1808. At this time, Jacob was 23 years old and left to care for his younger siblings.

With intentions of entering the world of civil service and following in the footsteps of their father, the brothers enrolled in law school at the University of Marburg. Here they were influenced by a number of figures who inspired their interest in folktales and folk poetry. Until 1816, and I won’t bother to go over the details, both brothers worked varying jobs ranging from private librarians to secretaries.

By this point the brothers decided to pursue a purely literary career, one they would pursue frugally and determinedly. Meanwhile, the 18th and 19th centuries were greatly shaped by Romanticism, primarily “Gothic” Romanticism, which as the name implies was deeply preoccupied with gloom and terror. They were not, it’s said, adherent to the fashions of their time and considered themselves more of realists than romantics. Their interests were therefore grounded less in their own era and more so in that of antiquity. Interestingly, their study of antiquity allowed them to form understandings and conclusions about the social institutions of their own day.

If you’re interested in their lives, you can read up on their later activities. While they are remembered for their collection of fairy tales they certainly made other contributions.

The Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), or, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, was published several times. The first edition came out in 1812 and contained 86 stories but was then revised and enlarged seven times before 1857. The final edition contained 211 stories. Now, while these stories are fantastical, it’s important to note that they were not entirely conjured by the Grimm Brothers. Instead, they relied on oral traditions and other modes of research to unpack and examine existing stories. The stories compiled in Grimm’s Fairy Tales are in fact the culmination of a rich oral history, one to which they paid close attention. As society grew more industrial, these folktales began to fade and thus Jacob and Wilhelm set off on a mission to preserve and revive disappearing tales, relying, especially, on interviews. If you ever find yourself questioning the importance of oral history, just remember the gift they’ve offered the world! On that note, the lasting influence of these tales is remarkable.

Biography.com questions our modern fascination with fairy tales (a fascination that isn’t exactly modern… but the living always seem to believe that the world revolves around them) and writes: “whatever the reason, it’s as clear as Cinderella’s glass slipper that our entertainment owes a lot to the Brothers Grimm.” This is true (the part about entertainment) but if you read Cinderella you’ll find that her shoes were in fact gold and not glass as was depicted in the Disney edition. Meanwhile, these stories offer a glimpse into popular culture before our time. I’ve compiled a few lines from Cinderella to give you a taste.

Be good and pious, and then the good God will always protect you.

Piety used to play a far more central role in the lives of lay people. I was ruminating on how religion is depicted in other fairy tales and would love to investigate the role of witches who were, historically, associated with the devil.

It happened, however, that the king gave orders for a festival which was to last three days, and to which all the beautiful young girls in the country were invited, in order that his son might choose himself a bride.

I’m currently taking a course on religion and politics in early modern Europe and we’ve spent the past few days discussing the ways in which the Catholic Counter-Reformation attempted to “squash” various elements of popular culture, one of which was the presence of festivals. Festivals/carnivals were, to the Catholic Church, often associated with paganism, sloth and unscrupulous behaviour. Over time carnivals became less prevalent and so the enthusiasm exhibited by the characters in Cinderella is certainly reminiscent of medieval culture.

So her mother gave her a knife and said, cut a bit off your heel, when you are queen you will have no more need to go on foot.

To put this strange quote in context… Unlike the movie, which simply depicts the evil stepsisters attempting to squeeze a foot into Cinderella’s glass shoe, the stepsisters in the text version actually, as shown above, mangle their feet in an attempt to make them fit. I picked this line because, other than making me laugh, I feel it accurately reflects the gore and violence commonly attributed to Grimm fairy tales (again, probably a result of their exposure to Gothic culture.)

I am certainly intrigued by these writers and feel inspired to research their work in the future. The topics to explore are innumerable and include obvious choices like the role of gender, power and violence in folklore. For now, however, I must redirect my attention to the world of contemporary literature and scurry off to another class. Thank you for reading and please feel free to share any thoughts in the comment section below!

Mind Your Manners!

Should I have the desire or opportunity to personally address a cardinal, I now know that I’d greet him by saying “Your Eminence.” Should I write him by mail I’d write “Most Rev. John Cardinal Doe” then end said letter with the following words: “I have the honour to remain, My Lord Cardinal, Your Eminence’s devoted and obedient child.”

I also know that, should I be invited to join a game of cards, I should inquire as to whether the game is “serious or social or chatty.” Likewise, I know that kumquats (a small lemon-like fruit that grows on trees belonging to the flowering plant family Rutaceae) are to be “picked up in the fingers, bitten into or eaten whole, depending on the size.”

How on earth do I know such things? How do I know that perfume should be a “subtle, not overpowering reminder of the presence”? Well, I recently inherited a book called Mind Your Manners: A Complete Dictionary of Etiquette for Canadians by Claire Wallace, a Harlequin book that, in 1953, cost fifty cents. This book is a gem. I am absolutely in love, not only with its bewitching “old book smell” but with what the books represents… It provides a kind of portal that transports me to an earlier time. Today I know few women who would inquire (using an alphabetized etiquette dictionary nonetheless) how to eat frogs’ legs, serve fruitcake or candy (note: candy should be served in bon-bon dishes placed between candelabra at a formal dinner.)

While I’ll admit to getting a kick out of this book (who knew that one should pay attention to pedestrians?) this book offers my life a lot more than mere humour. I discovered this book on my dear Aunt Mary’s bookshelf (my great Aunt who, at 97, passed away only last week.) I felt as though I’d found a treasure chest. Why, you ask? Well, my first thought was the following: “this book is going to give me so many ideas for stories!” So I suppose it depends on what “treasure” means to you.

The book’s description begins with: “Every day you meet situations in which you are unsure of yourself.” This book was published to provide women (at least women were the targeted audience, especially considering the book is bright pink and the “i” in “mind” is topped with a curly heart) guidance when navigating everyday social situations. Meanwhile, I was born in 1994 so writing about the fifties is a tad outside my comfort zone.

You often hear people say “write what you know.” As many writers learn, this advice is rarely followed. Sure, I could write about topics I’ve studied or my own personal life, that of my family or friends, but eventually I’ll develop a desire to learn and grow as a writer. Writing what you don’t know, however, requires careful research and genuine curiosity. So while this book was published to guide Canadian women of the fifties, I, too, am benefitted. I am provided with the necessary tools to properly portray how a woman might react in those very “unsure situations” of which the book speaks. Meanwhile, if I may offer one small piece of advise… never underestimate the power of research and for those of you who imagine research as an act conducted solely in libraries and stuffy archive rooms, you are mistaken! This book is proof of that.

I may now write about a particular woman’s garden party, knowing how one should dress, act, eat etc. Thus, this book is, in many senses, a research tool. At the moment, it’s also a reminder of my wonderful Aunt who always dressed and acted in an appropriate, though incredibly loving and genuine, manner. I’m not quite sure what I’d like to write about yet but as I flip through the book’s pages (carefully as it’s beginning to fall apart) I am continually prompted and day-dream of writing a series of short stories about manners misused or parties gone awry.


Beatrix Potter: Her Life and Works

I’ve always loved Beatrix Potter. In terms of children’s authors, she’s always been one of my literary heroes. The movie, Miss Potter, was also one of my favourite films growing up. Her persistence as an artist and as a woman is inspiring. She was, ultimately, more than an illustrator and an author. She was a woman who carved out a space for herself in a male dominated world, made independent choices and investments.

She was, in some ways, a classically Victorian writer. In others, she was far from it. Born in 1866 to a wealthy family, Helen Beatrix Potter lived a life of privilege. Nevertheless, her talents were evident from a young age as she was said to have been restless, keenly observant and like the rest of her family, somewhat nonconformist.

Family holidays were tbeatrix_potter3aken in the countryside where nature fuelled her imagination and inspired her art. Her fascination with small creatures and various plants manifested itself in more than just her artwork.

The mycological aspect of her life has been greatly ignored, though given more attention in recent few years.

Historian Linda Lear wrote that Beatrix Potter:

“was drawn to fungi first by their ephemeral fairy qualities and then by the variety of their shape and colour and the challenge they posed to watercolour techniques.”

Her obsession developed beyond artistic interests and Potter’s investment in mycology (the study of fungi) led her to draw hundreds of specimens. By studying various specimens microscopically, Potter eventually became interested in spore germination. In 1897 she wrote a paper on germinating fungal spores. The paper was presented to the Linnean Society of London, the world’s oldest biological society.

So while Beatrix Potter is remembered as Jemima Puddleduck and Peter Rabbit’s creator, Potter was equally interested in the study of fungi. Historians and scientists have debated her contributions. Some claim that her contributions were subject to the patriarchal suppression commonly attributed to Victorian society while others described her work as ambitious, of lesser importance and given more credit than deserved. Her connections, in particular, gave her her standing. Nevertheless, she challenged the era’s gender stereotypes by developing and pursuing interests in the sciences.

p03jnc4gIn 1892, she met with Charles McIntosh, a naturalist she’d known since the age of four. With his support, Potter went on to produce some 350 accurate sketches of fungi and mosses. Later, McIntosh advised in a letter:

Since you have begun to study the physiology of the funguses you seem to see your drawings of them as defective in regard to the gills, but you can make them more perfect as botanical drawings by making separate sketches of sections showing the attachment of the gills, the stem, if it be hollow or otherwise, or any other details that would show the characteristics of the plant more distinctly.

Then, after being introduced to a mycologist at Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens, George Massee, Potter began to further experiment with spore germination, using her microscope to measure growth. She considered her work groundbreaking despite Massee’s skepticism and advice. He advised her to read the work of an older German mycologist but she paid him little attention. 

That said, in March 1897, Massee agreed to submit Potter’s paper, “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae” to the Linnean Society. As the Society didn’t admit females until 1905, Potter was absent when her paper was discussed. Despite comments that it was “well received,” she withdrew the paper. It was never published and no copy exists today.

Her work is fascinating and I advise anyone interested to read more elsewhere. For now, however, I loop back to Potter’s social and artistic life.

In addition to challenging gender stereotypes in the wold of science, Beatrix Potter sought financial independence through her art. She began by seeking a publisher. Norman Warne of Frederick Warne & Co. agreed to publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1902. Four more of her books were published following Peter Rabbit’s story, including Potter’s personal favourite, The Tailor of Gloucester. What ensued was far more than the printing of a book. Within three years Norman Warne and Beatrix Potter fell madly in love. If you’re looking for a tear jerker, watch Miss Potter. The movie provides a heartfelt account of their love story and unless you have a heart of stone, you’re sure to feel moved.


Norman Warne

When Warne proposed in 1905, Potter accepted despite her family’s opposition. As a tradesman, Potter’s family scorned Warne and disapproved of their union. Their love, meanwhile, was a story unto itself, a love that was tragically cut short when Norman Warne died of Leukemia a month later. The following years of Potter’s life were thus characterized by intense grief, solitude and a flourishing of her creative side. In the wake of Warne’s death, Potter purchased a farm called Hill Top near Sawrey, Lancashire. She purchased the 34 acres as a single woman at 39 years old using the royalties from her books and a small inheritance from her aunt. It was the home she and Warne had planned to share. Thus, in purchasing Hill Top, Potter was, in a sense, memorializing their unfinished story.

Over the next years, Potter wrote and illustrated 13 new stories. The farm provided a sanctuary where she could write and paint in peace. As she embraced country life, The Tale of Tom Kitten, The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck and The Tale of Samuel Whiskers reflected joys derived from life on the farm. At Hill Top, though artistically productive, Potter’s endeavors were not limited to writing and painting. She’d become a woman of the countryside with a myriad of responsibilities such as tending to her many animals. Included in her initial stock were ducks and hens, sixteen Herwick sheep, collies, six dairy cows and some fourteen pigs. She’d later own sizeable flocks of turkeys and chickens.

Then, in 1909, Beatrix Potter purchased a second property. Aided by a local solicitor, William Heelis, Potter bought Castle Farm, a property across the road from Hill Top. In 1913, at the age of 47, Potter and Heelis married. Their relationship had developed companionably and steadily. Prior to their engagement, Heelis had become Potter’s principal legal advisor and managed her properties when she returned to London (for a period, she spent a significant amount of time in the city caring for her elderly parents.) Nevertheless, she married Heelis in 1913 and they would remain together for thirty years.

Linda Lear reflects on Potter’s two great loves:

She had loved Norman for his imagination and his humour, and she similarly delighted in William’s love of nature, his knowledge of the countryside and his zest for being out in it.

In 1914, Potter’s father passed away and she was further engaged with caring for her mother. Additionally, the onset of war added to her struggles. Labour and food shortages forced her to kill rabbits, something she particularly disliked having to do. Her favourite collie, Kep, also died and the loss added to her gloom. But of course the war came to a close and for the most part life at Hill Top reclaimed a normal pace. Over the course of her lifetime, Potter became committed to her community and various causes such as opposing hydroplanes on Lane Windermere or founding a nursing trust to improve local health care. Eventually her eyesight began to wear, making The Tale of Little Pig Robinson her last book.

Her contributions were enormous as her stories continue to thrill us today. Just last year I sat in my room making water colour paintings inspired by her characters. I feel delight upon revisiting her books and am certain they’ll continue to enchant following generations.


Sources/Further Reading:





Book Burnings

Book burnings…The ritual destruction of written work, tragic acts that are so often conducted communally and en mass. These burnings are the result of heavy censorship and represent an attempt to suppress opposing politics, cultures or religious beliefs. They are a part of our story, the dark underbelly of certain supremacist pursuits.

If you’re unfamiliar with the history of book burning, I’ll start by discussing what is (at least in the western world) the most famous book burnings to have ever taken place…

In May 1933 some 25,000 (perhaps more) so called “un-german” books were burned by German students in Berlin. Approximately 40,000 people gathered as Joseph Goebbels delivered a speech affirming Nazi Germany’s radical right-wing “values.”

Let’s rewind a bit. Remember Martin Luther? His 95 Theses? Luther is often accredited with having kickstarted the Reformation (though this is a general conception and scholarly debates regarding the Reformation’s genesis persist) but the memory of Luther tacking his Theses to a church door in Wittenberg held strong. The belief that these Theses spurred an intellectual revolution that spread across Europe was reflected in Theses presented by a group of German students. Their hopes were to stimulate a similarly revolutionary “purification.”

Beginning on April 6, 1933, the Nazi German Student Association’s Main Office for Press and Propaganda called for “Action against the Un-German Spirit,” a proclamation that would witness an attempt to “ethnically cleanse” Germany in the following years. On April 8th a group of students drafted their “12 Theses,” a deliberate evocation of Luther’s 95 Theses. In sum, these 12 called for the “purification” of German culture.

Fast-forward to Joseph Goebbels standing in front of 40,000 people in Berlin. He speaks:

“Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Gläser, Erich Kästner.”

The famous burning saw the written works of Ernest Hemingway, Karl Marx, Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann and Jack London burst into flames. The list extends far beyond these names. But while Nazi book burning are well known, having been photographed and documented, book burning have lived a much longer history.

To put things in perspective, check out Wikipedia’s list of book burning incidents.


Let’s consider the many complexities that accompany book burning. Obviously they infringe on civil and intellectual freedoms. They represent heavy censorship and in turn, are replaced by myriads of propagandist works. But I want to consider the power of the written word. It’s a topic I’ve thought deeply about and feel needs to be discussed.

I remember hearing kids chant “sticks and stones might break my bones but words will never hurt me.” As a child, unaware of how literacy shapes both an individual and a nation, I agreed. I thought, “sure, words can’t hurt me” and I imagined ghostly letters racing towards me, bursting through my skin, incapable of doing any harm. As I got older I started to consider this chant more critically and began to think “well… I don’t know, words inflict emotional wounds and emotional wounds disperse into people’s lives in varying ways.” So I began to disagree. Upon further thought, I came to consider historical events. Can words hurt a person? Well, yes, I realized, they can. They have. Words are far more powerful than we give them credit for. So powerful, in fact, that rulers have felt the need to burn books throughout history in order to protect given ideologies. That engaging with such works, words, could cost a person their life is proof enough that words can hurt.

I’m currently taking a class in Chinese military strategy. The first week we studied Confucian classics… We spoke about China’s tumultuous military history, the overturning of dynasties and in this conversation we touched on China’s history of book burning. The Qin dynasty controlled China from 221-206 BCE and under Qin rule, massive burnings destroyed nearly all copies of the Confucian classics. Emperor Qin Shi Huang is remembered as the man who unified China and developed one of the world’s first centralized bureaucratic empires. He is also remembered as a paranoid man who was responsible for the death of some 400 scholars and the burning of Confucian works. He feared the written word as he did the enemy’s sword.

Following the Qin dynasty, the Han dynasty was founded and ruled between 206 BCE and 220 CE. During these years, China witnessed a kind of classical revival. The re-introduction of Confucianism influenced educational standards and national values. Confucianism was easily targetable during Qin rule because it appeared to clash with Legalism, which encouraged strict laws and uniform justice in order to maintain civil order. Meanwhile, Confucianism encouraged deep thought and a philosophical approach to civil and military matters. The book ban was lifted in 191 BCE.

Meanwhile, burnings continue to reflect violent attitudes towards politics, religions or cultural ideals. These barbarous acts attempt to smother ideas that espouse beliefs opposing those of the “leaders.” We continue to witness burnings in the contemporary world. ISIS, for example, burned thousands of rare manuscripts in 2015. Ransacking the Mosul Library in Northern Iraq, ISIS proceeded to burn thousands of books, once again casting a light on what is, ultimately, a cultural and intellectual tragedy.

There have been many, many more incidents throughout history. My heart breaks to think of them but I believe that books are stronger than fire for they hold ideas and an idea may be condemned, argued, hated, but it cannot be burned. So despite the heinous nature of these crimes, I have hope that individuals will fight censorship, fight for their intellectual freedom and hold onto valuable ideas whether they exist in print or not.

“It hardly matters why a library is destroyed: every banning, curtailment, shredding, plunder or loot gives rise (at least as a ghostly presence) to a louder, clearer, more durable library of the banned, looted, plundered, shredded or curtailed.”
Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

I’ll conclude by encouraging you to acknowledge the power of words, to recognize their strength and use them wisely and bravely. They are a gift, a weapon and a shield. How you use them is up to you. 



The Great Library of Alexandria

Nowadays, we’re quite familiar with the concept of centralized information. We can browse the web with any given question or visit a public library, returning home with books ranging in topics from Mediterranean style cooking to plant care. We understand that libraries are centres wherein learning is facilitated and encouraged. In many ways, these gifts are a given. While access to information is still an ongoing discussion, especially in reference to politics, we expect access to information. We not only crave it, we see it as a right. Curious about knitting? The nature of fire? Why the sun rises and sets? Today, these questions are easily answerable. In fact, these answers are centralized and categorized within refined search systems in order to enable access.

The city in which I live has 18 public libraries in addition to private libraries, such as the many libraries belonging Calgary’s various educational institutions. When I walk through the library at school, the shelves are filled with volumes exploring every historical era, genetics, the psychology of love… There are more books than one could read in a lifetime. But while libraries are normalized, ingrained in our society, this wasn’t always the case. There were, supposedly, attempts to build such a massive library prior to the Great Library of Alexandria (hereafter referred to as the Great Library) but the near mythic institution built by the ancient Greeks was the first lasting attempt, an attempt that, in its grandness, persists within the cultural consciousness of modern societies. There were other libraries but drawing global works together made this endeavor unique.

The Great Library  is so well known that it’s become enshrouded by myth, even glorified. It’s said that Alexander the Great, upon witnessing the great library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh (a library established in the 7th Century BCE in Assyria, named after the last great king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire), felt inspired to combine the works belonging to the nations he’d conquered. He would have them translated and centralized. While the desire to consolidate information certainly played a role, the endeavor also speaks to Alexander’s desire to establish a multicultural empire unified under the influence of Hellenism. In other words, he wished to form a library combining the works of various nations as a way to bolster Greek authority.

Unfortunately Alexander died before he could create the Great Library, thus his successor, Ptolemy I, oversaw the beginnings of its creation. The Great  Library was a massive undertaking. For this reason, its construction would extend beyond the influence of a sole ruler. Speculations hold that Ptolemy I (a.k.a Ptolemy Soter) began its construction and his son, Philadelphius, contributed to its continued growth.

In a previous post, I spoke of the the strangeness surrounding book ownership, how some will go so far as to steal books to satisfy an innate craving. The ancient Greeks were no different. The Great Library had between 400,000 and 700,00 rolls in its collection. These rolls, however, were acquired in various ways, some of which might be considered immoral. The first three Ptolemies were bibliomaniacs. They contributed to the growth of the Great Library in ways that are undeniable. The following is one example of the lengths taken to acquire not only books, but the “the best, most original, most authoritative copies.” Under Ptolemy Eurgertes’ reign, the Great Library borrowed the official copies of plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides from Athens. They paid what would today be the equivalent of millions of dollars. Note the word “borrowed.” They paid to borrow the plays, ensuring their return. Scribes working for the Great Library went on to copy the plays using the finest parchment. They returned the newly made copies to Athens and kept the originals for the Great Library.


That a library with such a large, unique collection was destroyed is perhaps part of the reason the Great Library is mythicized. The story of the library’s destruction is in fact unknown, leaving four possible stories to account for its ruination. The most popular story involves a massive fire some 2000 years ago that destroyed the Great Library’s many works, including works by the likes of Homer, Socrates and Plato. Because it seems people want someone to blame, many have turned to point a finger at Julius Caesar. In 47 BCE a series of skirmishes were fought between Caesar, who’d entered Alexandria during the Roman Civil War in his pursuit of Pompey, and various figures, including Ptolemy VIII. The Siege of Alexandria ensued. It is around this time that the Library is thought to have been burned (if a burning was, in fact, the cause of destruction.) The story goes on to tell of Caesar’s occupation of Alexandria in 48 BCE wherein he found himself cornered by an Egyptian fleet in the harbour. He ordered his men to set the Egyptian fleet on fire and the fire is said to have lost control and spread into the city, destroying warehouses, depots and, perhaps, the Great Library.

Other possible causes of destruction include an event occurring in 272 CE wherein the Emperor Aurelian (the Roman Emperor from 270 to 275 CE) sacked Alexandria during his war with Queen Zenobia (Queen of the Palmyrene Empire in Syria). Another possibility is destruction in 391 CE during a series of religious riots or again, in 415CE during fights between Alexandria’s Jewish and Christian populations. The ultimate cause remains unknown and it is for this reason, perhaps, that the Great Library intrigues us so.

This is a very brief overview of the Great Library. Of course scholars have conducted in-depth research, much of which you can find by accessing online archives and searching various libraries! If you have any questions please comment below and I’ll happily get back to you with an answer. Likewise, if you have any comments or would like to expand on part of the Great Library’s story please feel free to do so.

Main Sources:
Phillips, Heather. “The Great Library of Alexandria?” Library Philosophy and Practice (2010). Academic OneFile (accessed January 23, 2017). http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=ucalgary&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA241615976&sid=summon&asid=f6ffcee5a94e9357cc87f25f7158482b.https://

Perception and the History of Reading

“The keenest of our senses is our sense of sight”- CICERO

What does it mean to read? Nowadays, the answer might seem obvious. Reading begins with sight. One looks at a page and from that page a new idea, place or story bursts free. Of course we understand that reading and sight are inherently linked but centuries ago humans began to study the relationship between the eye and the page. The link between seeing and reading inspired anatomical advances, cultural and philosophical revolutions.

Today, we understand that seeing and comprehending aren’t synonymous. Reading fits into this notion because it requires comprehension and sight. It requires deciphering, analysis. When a child picks up blocks representing letters of the alphabet they see shapes but perhaps struggle to understand the shapes’ meanings. But as the child begins to understand that the shape represents something more, they may start moving the blocks around. In the same way that writing requires construction, reading relies on deconstruction.

I recently read “A History of Reading” by Alberto Manguel wherein Manguel introduces the reader to optical evolutions. In the fifth century BC, Empedocles, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, put forth the idea that fiery light streams from the eye making objects visible. Over a century later, Epicurus built on this idea. He proposed that these flames were in fact sheaths of atoms that ascended from the surface of a given object, thereby entering the eye. Of course these theories were riddled with enigmas. Various philosophers and physicians sought to solve these riddles. Perhaps my favourite theory is that of a Greek physician named Galen. Galen claimed that human senses fed into a general repository. This repository, often called the “common sense,” held memory, fantasy, knowledge and dreams. The medieval idea that the brain was compartmentalized is, actually, quite brilliant.

While a relationship between one’s ability to read and the physical eye grew all the more apparent, Ibn al-Haytham (known to the West as Alhazen), established himself as the father of modern optics. Born in 965 AD in Basra (Iraq), the scientist distinguished between “seeing” and “reading.” He explained that one’s perception of the outside world reached conclusions by drawing on our faculty of judgment. He followed Aristotelian arguments that what we see enters the eye through the air, but Alhazen pushed farther and highlighted the difference between “sensation” and “perception.” The first is involuntary. For instance, we might feel cold, or warm. But the second requires recognition. To take note, for instance, of how snow melts in one’s hand. In the 1980’s, Dr. Merlin C. Wittrock wrote: “to comprehend a text we not only read it, in the nominal sense of the word, we construct a meaning for it.” Alhazen laid the groundwork for Wittrock’s 20th century claim.

Of course our relationship to books has changed as well. It’s no coincidence that some people prefer to curl up by a fire with a hard-copy book instead of, say, a Kobo e-reader. The method of reading can inform our perception. I know that I tend to read PDF documents time after time, reaching the bottom of the page with little understanding. This is because I drift off. I see the words on the document but struggle to process them. Give me a book, however, and I’ll happily read for hours. The brain is a truly curious organ.

Meanwhile, I’ve begun to notice trends in how I read. For instance, I might seek out an article to further support an idea that’s come to me and the sheer fact of my “seeking” that article is likely to inform my ensuing perception of it. The way in which I deconstruct the text’s meaning is shaped by my excavating. This has been going on for ages. Slavery, for example, was long defended because the word “slave” exists in the Bible. Surely scripture did not intend to facilitate mass kidnappings or treacherous migrations but in that act of deciphering, which we’ve established as perception, we interpret.

eyesWhile writing this, I did some additional research on Alhazen and found the following picture. How strange, I thought to myself, that in researching the difference between sight and reading, I find an incredibly beautiful image that is, to me, indecipherable. I could draw meaning based on the fact that I, 1-Google searched it and 2- could interpret the illustration. But in this scenario, my perception was informed by context. If I’d found a flyer floating through the streets with the same image I’d likely have found myself feeling rather confused. Alas! Perception is informed by a great many things.

So here I leave you to ponder what reading means to you. What you read, why you read, where and how you read… Such strange questions to ask yourself and yet the answers might surprise you.