Archive for History


Sub Regno Cynarae

Sketch of Ernest Dowson by William Rothentstein in early 1890s

Sketch of Ernest Dowson by William Rothenstein in early 1890s


Ernest Dowson was born in 1867 into a prosperous family in London. His father owned a dock, but had more interest in literature than in business. Ernest spent two and a half years at Oxford, but he did not take a degree, leaving in 1888. The dock fell into debt, and the family became poor. His father took his own life in 1894, his mother following suit a few months later. Ernest Dowson became a homeless, alcoholic poet. He consorted with prostitutes. His most famous poem recalls the shadow of an earlier love:


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Subversive Poetry

frost 1913 x

Robert Frost, 1913

Many poems of Robert Frost (1874-1963) are remembered for something completely different from what the poet actually wrote. Frost’s meaning is often either opposite or orthogonal to what is initially understood.

One of Frost’s early poems is Wall Mending, published in 1914 as the first poem in North of Boston. Many remember the poem as claiming that “Good fences make good neighbors.” Walls serve to keep livestock away from crops. However, Frost points out to his neighbor that there is no need of the particular wall that they are mending:

There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

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Freudian Legacies

Sigmund Freud made significant contributions to our understanding of how the human mind works (Gay, 1988). Recently, however, his ideas have come under intense criticism. Eysenck (1985), MacMillan (1991), Fisher and Greenberg (1995), Webster (1995), Andrews and Brewin (2000) and Gomez (2005) review the issues (with different degrees of politeness and different conclusions). This post comments on some of Freud’s contributions.

cerny freud

The photograph shows the Czech sculptor David Černý’s Hanging Man (1997) in its original location high above Husova Street in Prague. Copies have since been exhibited in various other cities. It is a life-size sculpture of Sigmund Freud, hanging from his right hand which grasps a beam projecting over the street. He seems unconcerned by his precarious position, his left hand remaining insouciantly in his pocket. Like most artists, Černý is noncommittal about the meaning of his art. According to some, the sculpture may represent the role of the intellectual in modern society. Freud goes often unattended, but when noticed he tends to shock. He considers ideas that are not grounded in the normal world; yet he is comfortable in his own thinking.



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Story of Anna O

Bertha PappenheimThe case of Anna O., reported by Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud in their1895 book Studies on Hysteria, provides the initial evidence for the effectiveness of psychoanalytic treatment. The patient’s actual name was Bertha Pappenheim (Gay, 1988; Jones, 1953). For the case study, her initials were shifted one letter earlier in the alphabet, and she was given the pseudonym Anna. Since the publication of her story, so many people have given their opinion of what was wrong with her that truth is difficult to determine in the welter of interpretation (recent review by Skues, 2006).

In 1880, at the age of 21, Bertha Pappenheim became the patient of Josef Breuer. Breuer was 38-years old, a respected Viennese physician, famous for his earlier work in physiology. In 1868 he had shown that inflation of the lungs trigger pulmonary stretch receptors which through the vagus nerve then inhibit the inspiratory centers of the lower brainstem (Hering-Breuer reflex). In 1874 he had shown how the vestibular system was related to the sense of balance and not hearing (Mach-Breuer hypothesis). After his researches, Breuer had become a conscientious and caring physician. He described his new patient:

She was markedly intelligent, with an astonishingly quick grasp of things and penetrating intuition … She had great poetic and imaginative gifts which were under the control of a sharp and critical common sense … Her will-power was energetic, tenacious and persistent  (Freud Standard Edition Volume II, p. 21)

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Wine-Cup Immortal

li bai portrait tokyoLi Bai (701-762 CE), also known as Li Po, was one of the famous Tang dynasty poets who called themselves the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup (an irreverent allusion to the Eight Immortals of Taoism). Li Bai wrote prolifically, and over 1000 of his poems survive. Much of his life is mythical, the stuff of novels rather than of history (Elegant, 1997). He was a devotee of Taoism, a fine swordsman, and a great lover of wine. In his youth he served the emperor. After becoming involved in one of the rebellions, however, he was exiled from the court. He then spent much of his later life wandering “beyond the gorges” in the hinterland of Imperial China. Legend has it that he died drunkenly trying to embrace the moon’s reflection in the Yangtze River, but his death was perhaps a suicide. The illustrated portrait (from the Tokyo National Museum) was painted by Liang Kai in the early 13th century. The seal in the upper right corner signals that the painting was owned by Anigo, an important official in the Imperial court of the Yuan dynasty.

Appreciating Chinese poetry requires seeing as well as hearing. The beauty of the calligraphy is as important to the poetry as the music of the words. The poems are therefore difficult to assess without some feeling for the characters in which they are written, since these allude to meanings beyond those directly expressed by the spoken words. This post therefore begins with a few notes on Chinese characters.

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Journey of the Magi

A blog for the season. One of the most vivid and intriguing Christmas stories concerns the visit of the Magi from the East:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. (Matthew 2: 1-2)

In 1461 Benozzo Gozzoli completed a sequence of frescos depicting the Journey of the Magi for the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence. Illustrated below is the first of these paintings. A crowd of important people follow the Magi toward Bethlehem. At their head can be recognized the great lords of Florence, Sforza and Rimini. Among the crowd are diplomats and scholars from the Byzantine Empire (see previous blog). Indeed, one of the Magi is thought to represent the Emperor John VII Palaeologus. The painting commemorates the Council of Florence (1439), when representatives of the Eastern and Roman Churches had met in an unsuccessful attempt to reconcile their doctrinal differences. The Byzantine visitors were probably as exotic to the Italians of the 15th century as the Magi were to the Jews of the first.

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Late Byzantine

The Byzantine Empire began with the founding of the city of Constantinople by the Emperor Constantine the Great in 330 CE. By the 12th century Constantinople was the largest and richest city in Europe. Byzantium maintained its glory until the sacking of of the city by the forces of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 CE. After this the Byzantine Empire existed only in fragments. The Ottoman conquest of the Constantinople in 1453 CE ended the empire, replacing Eastern Christianity with Islam.

The art and architecture of the Byzantine Empire is justly famous. Buildings such as the Hagia Sophia taught the world the use of space; the mosaics of Ravenna, Venice and Palermo gave the Christian religion its iconography. This is the Byzantium of Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium (1927)

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre
And be the singing-masters of my soul.

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Versions of History

On August 22, 1938, the Nazi government revoked the permits allowing Polish Jews to live in Germany. Between September 27 and 29, 12,000 Jews were deprived of their possessions, transported to the Polish border, and left there without food or shelter. Polish officials allowed them across the border, even though many no longer possessed Polish papers. The Jews were housed in makeshift accommodation in the town of Zbaszyn. They were hungry and desperate.

Among the expelled Jews was the Grynszpan family from Hannover. Esther Grynszpan sent a postcard asking for help to her 17-year-old brother Herschel, who was staying illegally with relatives in Paris. Herschel received his sister’s postcard on November 3. On November 6 he tried to convince his uncle to send money to Poland to help his family. A violent argument developed, and Herschel stormed out into the night.

The next morning Herschel bought a revolver, and went to the German Embassy. He claimed to have important documents to submit to an embassy official, and was ushered into the office of Ernst vom Rath, a 29-year-old diplomat. A few minutes later, Herschel shot vom Rath in the stomach. Herschel was taken into custody by the French police. (The photograph shows him at the time of his arrest.) Vom Rath was taken to hospital where he died two days later on November 9.

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