Hope Leslie Deserves to be a Household Name

Hope Leslie

Hope Leslie, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, 1826

You know how in certain movies, when someone is so excited about the money they’ve scored, they feel the need to roll around in it, euphorically tossing bills in the air? I want to do that with the pages of Hope Leslie by Catharine Maria Sedgwick.  That’s how much I love it. You know how when a kitty or a puppy is so cute that petting it is not enough and you feel compelled to rub your face directly on its fur? I want to rub my face on this book.

Why? Because the heroine is flawed. I mean, in my eyes she’s pretty much perfect, but by the moral standards at the time the book was set (1643) or written (1826) she is very flawed. In earlier literature women are either villainous hussies or perfect paragons. Authors demonstrated the merit of their female characters by showing how very rigid their morals are and how very strictly they obey the will of their patriarchs. Well, Elizabeth Bennet is an exception to this rule. She’s a bit defiant. Hope Leslie is way more defiant.

Sedgwick picked “Early Times in Massachusetts” as the setting for Hope Leslie, a time that was incredibly oppressive for everyone, but particularly oppressive of women and Native Americans. Yet, her main characters follow their own moral strictures. Previous heroines obey the law and their fathers against their own moral inclinations. Not Hope Leslie. Like Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther King Jr, she believes that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. […] Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” (MLK, Letter from Birmingham Jail).

For example, Hope Leslie convinces her tutor to leave off studying for an afternoon in favor of a hike up a large hill. The tutor gets bitten by a venomous snake. Hope wants to suck the poison out, but the tutor refuses the offer, fearing that she’ll be poisoned. Anxious for the survival of her tutor, Hope asks an old Native American woman, Nelema, to help her; a very sensible idea considering that the locals had been dealing with snake bites for centuries, but Brits had no experience with venomous snakes. Thanks, St. Patrick!

Nelema cures the man. As part of the process she does some witch-doctorish dancing and chanting. Word gets out that Nelema is a witch and she is thrown in jail. We all know what happened to witches in this time period. Hope Leslie, not being a complete fool, does not want Nelema to die for her generous action. After all, she saved the man’s life. So what if her culture’s customs seem weird and heathenish? Hope sneaks away, steals the jailor’s keys and frees Nelema, because it’s the right thing to do.

Later, she frees another Indian woman, Magawisca, to save her from being executed for plotting the extermination of the Pilgrims. Magawisca is guilty, but Hope frees her anyway, because many years earlier Magawisca saved the life of Hope’s beloved. Also, the Pilgrim’s wiped out Magawisca’s village and held her captive as a young girl; so Hope feels that her animosity is justified. Check out the progressive, enlightened concepts of feminism and race relations on Catharine Maria Sedgwick! Dang!

It’s really great to read a book from this era that does not espouse the inherent superiority of white men. Of course, the book was immediately forgotten and nobody reads it anymore, because the English canon is for white guys. But I haven’t forgotten you, Sedgwick! Hope Leslie is balm for my feminist spirit. It’s an uplifting and inspiring piece of literature, not because it ignores the evils in society, but because it allows for triumph over those evils.

I want to give it an affectionate cheek rub. I just wanna lovingly nuzzle Hope Leslie.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Here’s a quote:

Nothing could be more unlike the authentic, “thoroughly educated,” and thoroughly disciplined young ladies of the present day than Hope Leslie—as unlike as a mountain rill to a canal—the one leaping over rocks and precipices, sportive, free, and beautiful, or stealing softly on, in unseen, unpraised loveliness; the other, formed by art, restrained within prescribed and formal limits, and devoted to utility.

You might like Hope Leslie if:

  • you like Anne Shirley, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jo March and other plucky girls who mature into wonderful women.

You might not like Hope Leslie if:

  • that quote was too old-timey for you.

Final thoughts:

Hey! Shame on generations of literati for not giving Sedgwick her due. Hope Leslie deserves a place alongside Anne Shirley and Jo March as an inspiring, revered heroine of literature.

My Last of the Mohicans Fantasy

Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper, 1826

Last of the Mohicans is a strange beast. A classic that nobody reads. An original American adventure story that Americans love, but only in its movie version. Why do we love the film Last of the Mohicans, but disregard James Fenimoore Cooper’s novel? Both are epic, romantic adventure stories set during the French and Indian war. The trick is that in the 166 years between the book and the movie, our sensibilities changed. Our ideas of romance, heroism, racial relations, Colonists, the British and the French have all changed. At heart, both versions offer a fantasy of American origins and American identity.

Our concept of the ideal—white—man, has changed dramatically since 1826. The leading men transform almost past the point of recognition. Make of it what you will, but the movie versions of the female and Native American characters are not as altered. Here’s a breakdown of how the main characters change and what this tells us about the change in our fantasies or ideals.

Book Hawkeye/Scout/La Long Carrabine/Natty Bumppo

  • Raised by Delaware Indians
  • Misogynist
  • Has no time to love a woman
  • Perpetually rants about religion
  • Gets involved because rescuing women is the chivalrous thing to do

The Fantasy: Hawkeye is a worldly outsider. He exists outside society and is free of its restrictions. He doesn’t try to fit in, but he tries to do the right thing, based on his own concepts of morality.

For some reason he brays on and on about being a “Man without a Cross.” I don’t know what that means. It’s not made clear in the books. I haven’t found any one else who knows what this means. Maybe he’s not burdened by society? I have to mention that he never calls Cora or Alice by their names. He usually calls them “the Gentle Ones” or some other nauseatingly dismissive epithet.

Movie Hawkeye

  • Raised specifically by Chingachgook
  • Appreciates Cora’s strength and resilience
  • Would die for Cora
  • Terse
  • Gets involved to protect the interests of the Colonists against the heartless British Army

The Fantasy: Still a fiercely individualistic outsider. Still woodsy. Still has more respect for bonds between individuals than for society. But movie Hawkeye is capable of dedicated, passionate love for a woman. Movie Hawkeye cares about the little guy. He sticks up for the rustic Colonists against the stuffy Brits. Movie Hawkeye has long, dreamy hair.


Book Cora

  • Strong
  • Resilient
  • Self-sacrificing
  • Beautiful
  • Mixed-race (gasp!)
  • Dedicated to her family

The Fantasy: Like a good 19th Century woman, her main drive is to obey her father’s wishes and slavishly devote herself to her family. Also, she overcomes her suspicious origin to become a virtuous, wise woman who defies norms by never, ever fainting.

Movie Cora

  • The same, except that there’s no mention of her having a mulatto mother.
  • In love with Hawkeye
  • A shameless hussy by 1820s standards, but we don’t mind if unmarried couples passionately make out in a burning fort these days.

The Fantasy: Rich aristocrat chooses LOVE and an exhilarating life of adventure over money and society.

Book Alice

  • Meek
  • Swooning

The Fantasy: Delicate, innocent young lass needs protection from smarter, stronger males.

Movie Alice

  • I hate to say it, but she doesn’t really change.

The Fantasy: Whoops, same fantasy. Some of us still want to see big strong men protect useless females. I’m looking at you, Twilight.

Book Heyward

  • Plucky, handsome young chap
  • Loves Alice
  • Brave Virginian, but loyal to the crown.
  • Surprise! He’s the hero of the book.

The Fantasy: Loyal British Colonist disregards prejudice, teams up with noble savages to save women from evil savages.


Movie Heyward

  • Plain looking.
  • English
  • Uptight, entitled, stuffy.
  • Loves Cora.
  • Has his moment of heroism, in spite of being a patsy for most of the film.

The Fantasy: Americans are way manlier and attractive than Englishmen. Stupid imperialist Englishmen with your shiny pewter buttons and linen suits; in America men only wear buckskin. Keep sitting there with your fancy tea cups, drinking fancy tea. Meanwhile, Daniel Day Lewis is standing in front of some trees, leaning on a long rifle, looking like a man. A man with dreamy hair who runs around a lot with his dreamy hair streaming behind him.

Book Uncas

  • Young
  • Sexy
  • Capable
  • In love with Cora

The Fantasy: Smokin hot noble savage.

Movie Uncas

  • The same, except he’s in love with Alice.

The Fantasy: Smokin hot Native American is smokin hot. Runs around with Daniel Day Lewis, both with dreamy long hair blowing behind them. So determined, so quiet. Watch Cora tend to the wound on his thick, strong leg.

So, the movie turned Hawkeye into a romantic lead and he ends up with Cora, the superior woman, which leaves Alice for Uncas. The book’s pairing of Cora with Uncas and Heyward with Alice makes more sense. Uncas lives in the wilderness, he respects Cora’s strength under pressure. Heyward’s ideal of femininity was passed down from English parlors, where women are meant to be fluffy confections of ribbon and lace. Alice is right up Heyward’s alley; it never made sense to me that Uncas would be drawn to her.


Book Magua

  • Evil
  • Seeks revenge against the Munro girls’ father, because he once had Magua whipped for public drunkenness.
    • Wants Cora to be his squaw

The Nightmare: Sneaky, evil Indian antagonist, pretends to be your friend while setting up a sabotage. Magua has legions of loyal Mohawk Indians and other allies that help him with his brutal revenge plans.

Movie Magua

  • More evil
  • Wants to kill Munro’s daughters, because Munro’s troops killed his children.

The Nightmare: White guilt, plain and simple. The wrongs we inflict on Native Americans turn them into powerful enemies. The crimes of the white patriarchs are visited upon everybody, complicit or not.

I could watch Last of the Mohicans every month. The filmmakers did an excellent job of capturing the excitement and danger in Cooper’s novel. Cooper himself kind of bungled his material. He frequently mars the drama of a scene with comedy or excessive dialogue. To his credit, he does create great drama before he destroys it. For example, he establishes the urgent struggle of our desperate and capable heroes as they attempt to evade gunfire from a pursuing canoe. Very scary and tense. Meanwhile, our heroes discuss their situation and strategy in long paragraphs of dialogue. Please. If Copper had ever taken even a leisurely paddle in a canoe, he would have known that you have to keep your conversation brief, because hearing is difficult over the sound of the river and the splash of the oars. Also, you literally need to save your breath.

At one point in the book, Hawkeye infiltrates Magua’s camp by putting on a bear skin and waddling around on all fours. Really. Consider how many absurd premises are necessary here:

  • Indians are so earthy and close to nature that they let bears wander around their villages.
  • Indians are so earthy and close to nature that they let ANY bear wander around their village, even if they have never seen that particular bear before.
  • Despite their extensive knowledge of the natural world and familiarity with bears, Indians can’t tell the difference between a bear and a man wearing a bear suit.

I can tell the difference between bear and a person draped in a bear skin, and I don’t spend a lot of time around bears. I’m all for bears in literature. This was kind of my favorite part of the book, but it does make the scene ludicrous instead of suspenseful.

Cooper also inserts humor into the middle of battle scenes, which is not how comic relief is done. It works better to cut from a battle to a lighthearted moment between different characters in a different setting. Jokes in the middle of a brutal massacre trivialize the violence and distract from the action.

That being said, I cried my eyes out at the end of this book. Cooper writes an elegy given by Native American women to two fallen characters and it’s so beautiful and poignant. That piece of writing is so great; it made me want to believe in an afterlife.

You might like Last of the Mohicans if:

  • you’re very interested in early American literature and early American history.
  • you can wade through irrelevant religious arguments to get to the action and comedy.

You might not like Last of the Mohicans if:

  • you love the movie and you don’t want to see it altered.
  • you are like most people.

Final thoughts: My boyfriend looks like Uncas. I’m basically living out my personal Last of the Mohicans fantasy all the time. Hooray.


Percy Shelley’s Gender-bending Pagan Fantasy

witch of atlas

The Witch of Atlas, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1820

Shelley dedicated this poem to his wife and the ungrateful sow told him it was no good, because it “contains no human interest.” More evidence that Mary Shelley knew nothing about literature. She didn’t like that the poem has no plot. Shelley simply describes his character, her home, and gives a few examples of how she spends her time.

The unnamed witch lives in a cave illuminated by magic baubles. She is beautiful and compassionate. All the creatures in the forest, including the dryads, naiads, satyrs and so on want to live with her and dedicated their lives to following her. She refuses, because she knows she’ll grow affectionate towards them and mourn them when they die.

What does she like to do with the endless days of her immortality? Well, her mystical ancient forefathers left her a supply of magical trinkets and tools; she uses their power to amuse herself. She starts off by making herself a non-gendered flying creature to ride around on:

Then by strange art she kneaded fire and snow
Together, tempering the repugnant mass
With liquid love—all things together grow
Through which the harmony of love can pass;
And a fair Shape out of her hands did flow—
A living Image, which did far surpass
In beauty that bright shape of vital stone
Which drew the heart out of Pygmalion.

A sexless ting it was, and in its growth
It seemed to have developed no defect
Of either sex, yet all the grace of both,—
In gentleness and strength its limbs were decked;
The bosom swelled lightly with its full youth,
The countenance was such as might select
Some artist that his skill should never die,
Imaging forth such perfect purity.

From its smooth shoulders hung two rapid wings,
Fit to have borne it to the seventh sphere,
Tipped with the speed of liquid lightenings,
Dyed in the ardours of the atmosphere


Soon, she decides she doesn’t want to live in a cave anymore. She summons a troop of minions to build her a dome carved of ivory and hung with silks. But, her favorite pastime is messing with sleeping humans. She has the ability to mingle her souls with the souls of sleeping mortals and she uses this power to play pranks on them, such as making a king abdicate in favor of his pet monkey. Pretty neat.

Mary was right; the poem doesn’t have a plot. It’s not a story, but a detailed fantasy. It’ll go straight to the pleasure centers of those who like the sorcery part of the sword and sorcery genre.

You might like The Witch of Atlas if:

  • you love fantasy.
  • you love witches.
  • you love hermaphrodites.

You might not like The Witch of Atlas if:

  • you, like Mary Shelley, need everything you need to have a plot.

Final thoughts:

I enjoyed this poem. I picked it out of Shelley’s oeuvre, because I like witches, fantasy and magic. It certainly delivered the witch. Best of all, she’s a powerful woman with mystical powers who, for once, is not portrayed as an evil, corrupting influence on the hearts of men. Shelley was a loud, proud atheist. So, he could just write about a magic woman without stipulating that she was under the influence of Satan. Shelley wasn’t exactly a model human, but I appreciate the chance to read a 200 year-old piece of literature with no trace of Christian patriarchy.

Byron’s Don Juan: Origin of the Rap Battle?

Haidee finding Don Juan

Don Juan, Lord Byron, 1820

In his long poem “Don Juan” Byron reimagines the legendary Latin Lover as a luckless young man, tossed about by circumstance in 1820s Europe. Highly susceptible to feminine charms, he falls in love over and over again. We tend to think of Don Juan as a scheming seducer. Byron turns him into a well-intentioned, affectionate chap who inspires consuming passions in the opposite sex. Those passionate females create a lot of trouble for Juan.

As you might imagine, Don Juan has a number of lovers. Byron describes intimate scenes with more detail than previous poets dared to use. The poem was declared immoral by many critics. Byron’s publisher often hesitated to publish new installments and some of Byron’s friends begged him to stop writing it. However, many of his fellow poets declared it a work of genius and it was popular with the public.

I agree that it has elements of genius. When Byron manages to stay focused on his plot, the poem is amazing. His passages about falling in love are breathtaking. I read from one of them during my brother’s wedding ceremony:

     They look'd up to the sky, whose floating glow
       Spread like a rosy ocean, vast and bright;
     They gazed upon the glittering sea below,
       Whence the broad moon rose circling into sight;
     They heard the wave's splash, and the wind so low,
       And saw each other's dark eyes darting light
     Into each other—and, beholding this,
     Their lips drew near, and clung into a kiss;

     A long, long kiss, a kiss of youth, and love,
       And beauty, all concentrating like rays
     Into one focus, kindled from above;
       Such kisses as belong to early days,
     Where heart, and soul, and sense, in concert move,
       And the blood 's lava, and the pulse a blaze,
     Each kiss a heart-quake,—for a kiss's strength,
     I think, it must be reckon'd by its length.

He really captures the gigantic, encompassing feelings born of little, intimate moments between two people. No?

Byron very successfully describes these things too:

  • The bittersweet feeling of leaving your home behind to go on an adventure.
  • The charms of Middle Eastern women.
  • Don Juan’s courage in battle or when sparring with a lover’s huband/father.
  • Petty jealousies.
  • Scenery.
  • Unhappy marriages.

Haidee finding Don Juan


Unfortunately, he grants an enormous number of lines to insulting other poets, insulting social institutions and rambling on about his personal philosophy. I think satire is most effective, not to mention entertaining, when contained within the plot. When Byron directly attacks society, the quality of his poetry diminishes. Fact: philosophy is boring. Don Juan is over 16,000 lines long, but to me it only drags when Byron goes off on philosophical tangents.

Bryon dedicated Don Juan to Robert Southey. Sounds nice, right? I like Southey. Byron didn’t. The caustic, ironic dedication sets the tone for Byron’s other acerbic digressions. Byron’s good friend Shelley escapes his harsh pen, but the Lake Poets take a beating, in verse of course. He tears into Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats. As far as I’m concerned, he can have at Wordsworth, but Coleridge? Keats? Back off Byron; those guys are paragons. At first, the idea of viciously attacking other artists in your genre seemed really odd to me. Also, it’s a precarious perch for Byron, who was far from perfect. Then I thought of rap battles. We certainly have a contemporary equivalent of abusing your artistic competition in rhyme. Let’s pretend that Byron originated the rap battle, shall we?

You might like Don Juan if:

  • you want to read beautiful verse about the misadventures of a dashing young man as he’s tossed across Europe by Lady Fortune.

You might not like Don Juan if:

  • you don’t want to dig through Byron’s philosophy, social commentary and bile to get to the adventure story.

Final thoughts: I loved/hated Don Juan, but mostly I loved it. When it is good, it is very, very good. When it is bad, it is boring. The story is gripping and told so incredibly well, that I got really annoyed with Byron for all his digressions. I am very glad I read it. To me it was worth the long slog. However, I hesitate to recommend it. Realistically, most readers will not have the requisite patience

The Corsair

The Corsair, Lord Byron, 1814

For a swashbuckling good time try Lord Byron’s The Corsair, a truly epic epic poem about everybody’s favorite type of outlaw: pirates!  If you like your pirates tall, dark and angsty you will love Conrad, the leading man.  Lord Byron kind of invented tall, dark and angsty.  No, really, he developed a new literary prototype inspired by himself.  Gone is the valiant, morally righteous young whippersnapper/knight errant.  Enter the Byronic hero!  He’s a smart, moody outcast.  He’s mysterious, cynical and sexy.  He’s an introverted rebel who scorns social norms and society generally.  Most importantly, he has a dark, guilty past that torments his conscience.  Yum.

Byron introduced this self-modeled hero in the epic poem Childe Harolde, a semi-autobiographical travelogue that I started reading and then was all “naw.”  I found it boring and obscure.  If you’ve been following this blog for a while you know that boring and obscure is right up my alley, but I am definitely not the perfect reader of Childe Harolde.  I am not familiar with the ins and outs of world events circa 1814 or with the landmarks of continental Europe.  When Byron refers to Colonel Thus-and-Such by some nickname, the allusion goes right over my head, because I’ve never heard of said Colonel or his diminutives.  So, I skipped Childe Harolde and moved straight on to The Corsair.  Whooeee, so much more fun.

Our anti-hero, Conrad, inspires extreme loyalty in his band of followers despite his dour demeanor.  One day he’s sitting in his pirate hideout feeling a little glum about the troubled past that got him rejected from society.  He decides to distract himself with his favorite occupation: piracy!  It’s going to take a big victory to get him out of this funk, so he sets his sight on the home city of his arch nemesis.  Enemy #1 is Seyd, a higher up in the Ottoman Empire.  Conrad says goodbye to his beloved, sneaks into his rival’s palace and sets that place on fire!  He’s feeling pretty good about himself when he sees that Seyd’s harem is burning.  Oh no!  Conrad will kill men left, right and center in the name of. . .robbing them, but no women.  Ok?  No women!   He orders his men to run into the flaming harem and carry out a flaming lady.  They prove their loyalty by following him into that burning building.  Amid the smoke Conrad blindly clutches for a lady and runs out with her.  Turns out she’s Seyd’s lead sex slave and she has such lovely charms.  Her name is Gulnare, which is unfortunate, but I guess it rhymes with stuff.


Turning back to rescue the women costs Conrad the battle.  He gets captured.  Fortunately (?), Gulnare has fallen in love with Conrad, duh.  Inspired by her love, she sneaks into Seyd’s chambers at night and assassinates the bejesus out of him, thus enabling Conrad’s escape.  Conrad had been feeling some uncomfortable sensations of attraction toward the lovely Gulnare, but now that she’s a murderer he is completely repulsed by her.   This guy kills people professionally and steals their lucre.  But girls are supposed to be sweet and innocent, ya know.  I can’t get over what a stinking hypocrite Conrad is.   If murder is ever justifiable, and I’m not exactly saying that it is, killing the man who has made you his sex slave has got to be near the top of justifiable slayings.  Way more morally correct than killing someone because they have money and you want it.  Uhhhhhhhhhhgh.


Warning: feminist rant commencing now.  If you are a patriarch it makes sense to perpetuate the idea that women should never dirty their hands.  I know that I am probably about to make the error of conflating Byron with his character.  In my defense, Byron typically tells the reader when he thinks his characters are making an error of judgment.  I really thought he was going to point out how ridiculous Conrad is being when he scorns Gulnare’s crime.  But he doesn’t.  So, he perpetuates the patriarchal precept that if a woman is in a terrible situation she should just stay in it rather than lift her hand to free herself.  Rage.  Remember ladies, if you are feeling oppressed, don’t ever fight back.  It’s unfeminine.

Anyway, aside from this giant glaring flaw, I really loved this poem.  Byron is a fantastic poet.  He really made me feel zeal for the open ocean and other piratey emotions.  Let me supply you with a quote:

Oh, who can tell, save he whose heart hath tried,

And danced in triumph o’er the waters wide,

The exulting sense—the pulse’s maddening play,

That thrills the wanderer of that trackless way?


You might like The Corsair if:

  • you love swashbuckling.
  • you like The Three Musketeers.
  • you are looking for “Pirates of the Caribbean” in epic poem form.


You might not like The Corsair if:

  • you have no interest in the Romantic Era or epic poetry.


Final thoughts: I really enjoyed this poem.  If you are curious about epic poetry and want to see if you have the appetite for it, The Corsair is a good starting point.  It’s not too long and it has a lot of spirit.  As far as long poems go, this one is easy to love.


Waverley, Sir Walter Scott, 1814

Waverley Sir Walter Scott

Waverley is an odd novel that kind of captured my heart.  Sir Walter Scott was a prominent Scottish poet before he published his first novel anonymously.   It was immediately crazy popular.  Waverley is often called the first historical novel, which I guess it might be, if you choose to ignore Gothic novels.  I suppose you could argue that Gothic novels are their own genre and Waverley launched the historic novel genre.  It certainly is not the first novel with a historical setting.

Scott set his first novel during the Jacobite Revolution.  Briefly, in 1688 England deposed King James II in favor of the much less Catholic King William of Orange.  As you can imagine, not everyone in Great Britain was on board with this decision.  The Scots mostly remained loyal to King James as he was part of the Scottish Stuart dynasty.  In 1745, James II’s grandson, who went by the adorable name Bonnie Prince Charlie, landed in Scotland and made an ill-fated attempt to take back the throne.  Waverley is set during this exciting time.

The main character is Edward Waverley and he is the silliest main character I have encountered so far.  I have so many problems with his personality, but I am smiling while I think about them.  His silliness doesn’t ruin the novel for me; it just makes me laugh.  Edward is a naïve, young English nobleman who joins the King’s army and sets off to Scotland to fight the Jacobites.  The Jacobites were loyal to the House of Stuart.  Apparently, if you were a nobleman in the army at this time, you could just take off whenever you wanted and go visit your noble friends.  Who knew?  Edward goes to visit his uncle’s dear friend the Baron Bradwardine, a Jacobite.  Baron Bradwardine.  Such a great name.

While visiting the honorable Baron, Edward learns about his arrangement with a certain Highland chief.  Get ready for the best name of any literary character ever.  Are you ready?  Fergus Mac Ivor Vich Ian Vohr.  Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!  Oh, I love him.  I love Fergus Mac Ivor Vich Ian Vohr so much.  He is the chief of Clan Ivor.  As Edward learns, Scottish chieftains were basically mafia bosses.  Baron Bradwardine paid Fergus Mac Ivor a fee for protection from other chieftains.  Basically, if Bradwardine pays up, Mac Ivor wont steal his cows.  If another chieftain steals Bradwardine’s cows, Mac Ivor will fight them and get the cows back or he will go steal cows from one of his enemies and give them to Bradwardine.  When Edward hears about this he thinks exactly what you are thinking right now: “That’s awesome!  I want to go visit this awesome guy.”  So, he sets out into the rugged highlands to pay a visit to the local chiefs.  That is the best idea that Edward has in the course of the book, and the only decision he makes for himself.  Everything else that happens is someone else’s idea.

Edward is quite passive, like a female character from this era of literature.  Also like a female, he constantly needs assistance from men.  Every time he tries something manly, he gets injured or sick and has to be rescued and nursed.  At one point he gets a nasty letter which “filled him with such bitter emotions, that after various attempts to conceal them, he at length threw himself into Mac-Ivor’s arms, and gave vent to tears of shame and indignation.”  Adorable, right?  I would like to fling myself into Mac Ivor’s arms, cuz that guy is manly and effective.  The only emotions he gives vent to are pride and loyalty.  Like a man.  (Ok, I know, reinforcing the gender binary.  Sorry.  Whatever.)

The bromance between Fergus and Edward can only be attributed to opposites attracting.  Fergus is a man of conviction.  He believes in the restoration of the Stuart monarchs SO HARD.  I started to believe in his cause too, that’s how powerful Fergus Mac Ivor Vich Ian Vohr’s convictions are.  Edward, on the other hand, is a freaking turncoat.  Really!  No foolin.  He joins the English army, cuz, whatever, he didn’t have anything better to do.  Then he changes sides, but not because he believes in Mac Ivor’s cause.  He joins the opposing army, because his original army is mean to him.  I am not kidding.  Also, they kind of kick him out.  Then when he is fighting with the highlanders he gets all upset when they try to kill British noblemen (you know, because it doesn’t matter if you kill a commoner, but it’s just a terrible shame to spill blue blood) and tries to save them.  Make up your mind, Edward Waverley!  This may be a result of indoctrination during American history classes, but there is something in me that hates a turncoat.

Anyway, Sir Walter Scott’s style is dense and often dull.  He includes many obscure references that only a highly educated British reader from the early 1800s would get.  Also, he makes the fatal flaw of writing a boring character.  Baron Bradwardine is notorious for telling long, boring stories.  Walter Scott includes many examples of those long, boring stories in Waverley.  I don’t think I need to explain to you why that’s not a good thing to do as a novelist.  Honestly, the book is pretty boring overall and the characters have incomprehensible motivations.  Waverley is basically unmotivated.  I can’t relate to Mac Ivor’s royalism.  It’s completely out of my realm of understanding to want to give up your life to make another man king of somewhere.  Just don’t get it. I do admire Mac Ivor though.   I did enjoy the book, mostly because of the incredibly romantic setting.  I got super excited about the highland Scots.  They have a loyalty to each other that I do understand.

Despite its faults, I actually enjoyed reading Waverley quite a bit.  Scott hides a unique sense of humor within all those extra words he uses.  I got swept away by his romanticized vision of 18th century Scotland.  His descriptions of Clan Mac Ivor in their cave hideout are so vivid that I could smell the damp wool of their kilts.  I never liked the main character even a little, but I fell head over heels for Fergus Mac Ivor Vich Ian Vohr.  Heeheehee.  Fergus Mac Ivor Vich Ian Vohr.  Delightful.

You might like Waverley if:

  • you went to St. John’s College or some other Great Books school and are trying to get your money’s worth out of your education by reading literature that references all those great books.
  • you yearn for tales of old Scotland so fervently that you don’t mind slogging through some incredibly dense prose.

You might not like Waverley if:

  • you have a low tolerance for pretentious literary references. 


Final Thoughts: Fergus Mac Ivor Vich Ian Vohr!  That is all.

Queen Mab

Queen Mab

Queen Mab, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1813

Queen Mab is Shelley’s first long poem.  Based on the title I was hoping for a mystical, Arthurian tale about a Fairy Queen.  No such luck.  The Mab of this poem is more of a philosopher than a ruler.  The poem contains neither knights nor dragons, but is chock full of vitriol.  Shelley’s Mab is a dusky, ethereal, nebulous, purple beauty who appears riding a chariot through the dawn sky.  She spies just the prettiest, sweetest blonde mortal you can imagine, innocently sleeping.  Based on how lovely and sinless she looks in her slumber, Mab decides to separate the maiden’s unspoiled soul  from her exquisite form so she can take her into outer space and impart some knowledge on her.

Please forgive me, I have neither the inclination nor the aptitude to excel at philosophy.  So, my summary of this poem may lack clarity and intellectual rigor.  Anyway, Queen Mab uses her magic viewy-thing to show all of. . .human history, I guess, to the disembodied Spirit.  Cuz her job now, as the disembodied Spirit of a virtuous maiden, is to know about all of human history; past, present and future.  I’m not sure why.  Anyway, Shelley’s summary of human history is quite misanthropic.  Three strongly held opinions emerge: tyrants are bad, nature is good, religion is evil and the cause of all suffering.  Unlike most poets before the Modern Era, Shelley wears his atheism loud and proud.  Good for him, I say.  Freedom of religion should include freedom to not have religion.

This poem is bit of a jumbled mess.  It left me wondering “What?  Why?  I mean, sure, I guess.”  However, Percy Bysshe Shelley sure does know his way around imagery.  Listen to this amazing thing he wrote about lizard love:

“Those deserts of immeasurable sand,

Whose age-collected fervours scarce allowed

A bird to live, a blade of grass to spring,

Where the shrill chirp of the green lizard’s love

Broke on the sultry silentness alone”

Aw, lizard love calls!  Aw.  Shucks.

You might like Queen Mab if:

  • you are looking for corroboration of your misanthropic, atheist world view.

You may not like Queen Mab if:

  • you like epic stories in your Romantic poetry.

Final thoughts: I’m hoping the other long Shelley poems on the list will have more plot to them.

The Lady of the Lake

The Lady of the Lake

The Lady of the Lake, Sir Walter Scott, 1810

The Lady of the Lake is an epic poem set in medieval Scotland.  Surprisingly, the title is probably not a reference to Arthurian myth.  When I got to this poem on the list, I really thought I was going to have to jump in a lake in the middle of February and hold up a sword.  I would have done it too, but fortunately the titular Lady simply lives near, not in, a lake.

I had a hard time following the plot of this poem, but I’ll do my best to lay out the scenario for you.  A knight is out hunting and gets lost in the mystical Scottish wilderness.  He sees a beautiful maiden (he can tell she’s a maiden, because Scottish maidens at this time braided ribbons into their hair to indicate that they were unwed and. . .unspoilt) paddling a little boat on a lake.  She is wary of him at first, but noble ladies do not allow noble men to go without food and shelter, so she invites him back to her abode.  Don’t worry, there’s an old bard and some other servants there too.

What follows is not so much a love triangle, but a love square with three men competing for the hand of our maiden.  Oh, and hidden identities.  The knight is King James V.  The maiden is Ellen Douglas, the daughter of his former friend and advisor turned enemy.  Roderick Dhu, a bloodthirsty highland chief who has been helping Ellen’s fugitive father, thinks he’s earned her hand in marriage.  However, Ellen only has eyes for Malcolm Graeme, a lithe young whippersnapper in Roderick Dhu’s retinue.

In my opinion, Scott does a poor job of introducing characters.  By the end of the poem, I had a solid grasp of the temperaments of all our main guys and gals, but it was difficult to understand who was who in the beginning.  “The Lady of the Lake” is not my favorite epic poem, but it does have some highlights.  There is an exciting battle scene involving boats sneaking up on a dear little island.  Canto IV describes a very spooky Druidic sacrifice committed by Roderick Dhu’s priest.  That canto is a strong and entertaining bit of poetry worth reading on its own.

Here’s a quote of Ellen Douglas sarcastically explaining why she does not admire Roderick Dhu:

I grant him liberal to bring,

When back by lake and glen they wind

And as in the Lowland leave behind,

Where once some pleasant hamlet stood,

A mass of ashes slaked with blood.


You might like this poem if:

  • you are one of those Scots who is obsessed with romanticized Scotland of yore.

You might not like this poem if:

  • following narratives in poetic form is difficult for you.


Final thoughts: “The Lady of the Lake” is not the greatest poem in the English language, but it’s an enjoyable romantic vision of medieval Scotland.

The Curse of Kehama

Lorrinite the evil sorceress.

Lorrinite the evil sorceress.

The Curse of Kehama, Robert Southey, 1810

So here I am reading about poets on Wikipedia as I am wont to do and I see something about a Robert Southey.  He was one of the Romantics and part of the Lake Poet group that includes Wordsworth and Coleridge.  Despite holding the title Poet Laureate for 30 years, he is not so well known today.  I was thinking of skipping him until I saw his poem titled “The Curse of Kehama.”  Well, if there’s a curse, I’m in!  I prefer sorcery and mystical beasts in my literature.

Let me tell you gang, this poem has it all!  (I want to you read this list in your most enthusiastic voice, so you get an impression of how excited I am about this poem.)

  • Dragons
  • Tigers
  • Curses
  • Vengeance
  • Sea monsters
  • Elephant gods
  • Statues that come to life
  • An evil sorceress
  • A ghost
  • A trip to the underworld
  • Romance between a mortal and some sort of demi-god with wings  Wings!
  • Underdogs overcoming the odds
  • Many-armed deities
  • An underwater temple
  • Potential apocalypse
  • A tyrant
  • Dancing

I mean, dang.  “The Curse of Kehama” is kind of a Frankenstein’s monster of a poem.  It is an incredibly long epic poem, about 250 pages.  Let me define that term for all you non-English majors.  An epic poem is simply a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds and victory over some sinister force.  Southey sets the action in India, but the poem contains a hodgepodge of Hindu, Greek, Christian and Zoroastrian mythology.  Or so I read; I wouldn’t recognize Zoroastrian mythology if it appeared before me incarnate.  Unlike many poets, Southey does not stick to any one meter, rhyme scheme or stanza length.  Which is fine by me.

Kehama is a powerful sorcerer and raja.  The poem begins with the funeral of his son, Arvalan, who was killed by a peasant, Ladurlad, when Arvalan tried to force himself on Ladurlad’s daughter.  Arvalan’s character is not improved by death.  He makes a nasty ghost.  Kehama curses Ladurlad to a life of perpetual agony.  He is constantly in pain and can seek no relief.  Wind, water, fire and even plants shun him.  He is also immune to blows from weapons, so he can’t escape his curse through death.  Do you see what Kehama did there?  He inadvertently turned Ladurlad into an unstoppable superhero who can walk into fire, withstand any assault and go to the bottom of the ocean.  Dummy.


Com’st thou, son, for aid to me ?
Tell me who have injur’d thee,
Where they are, and who they be;
Of the Earth, or of the Sea,
Or of the aerial company
Earth, nor Sea, nor Air is free
From the powers who wait on me,
And my tremendous witchery.

That’s the kind of mother I am going to be.  Did someone mess with you, child?  I will jack them up with witchcraft!

You might like “The Curse of Kehama” if:

  • you’re into fantasy.  Don’t lie, you are.  You’ve seen the “Lord of the Rings” series ten times. 

You might not like “The Curse of Kehama” if:

  • you don’t have the patience for epic poetry.

Final thoughts:  This poem is amazing.  I loved it so much I almost put a dozen “o”s in the word “loved” in this sentence.  If you have any interest in epic poetry, you should give it a whirl.  It’s so much fun.

Lyrical Ballads

Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner

Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798

Notable for:

  • initiating the Romantic Era in literature. 
  • containing the first known Public Service Announcement about albatross curses.

In 1798 Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth wanted to go on a walking tour of the Lake District in northern England.  Their conversation went something like this:

Wordsworth: Would you like to go on vacation?

Coleridge: Yes, but I haven’t any money.

Wordsworth: Hmm.  Shall we write some poems?

Coleridge: That will surely provide the necessary funds.

So they each wrote some poems and published a little volume called Lyrical Ballads.  The publication funded their walking tour and launched a new era in English literature.  Jealous?  Are you wishing you were a Romantic poet and this was your life?  I wish that.  Almost every day.


In 1800 Wordsworth produced a second, highly modified, version of Lyrical Ballads.  He removed the best poem in the original volume, Coleridge’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.”  I read both versions.  “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” is a ballad about a sailor who shoots an albatross. Why? Why!  Killing the bird dooms the entire crew.  Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that they spend some time undead and the mariner must spend eternity spreading the message “Did you know that the gods love the albatross?  Well they do, so don’t mess with them!”  It is creepy and wonderful and one of my favorite poems.

The majority of the remaining poems are by Wordsworth.  It took me a long time to get through this volume, because I have a limited attention span for Wordsworth.  He was dedicated to making poetry more accessible to the Joe Plumbers of his time by using simpler language than his predecessors with their predilection for ornate style, classical references and sporadic Middle English phrases.  Ironically, I don’t find Wordsworth all that relatable.  In poems such as “The Female Vagrant,” “The Complaint of a forsaken Indian Woman” and “Song for the wandering Jew” Wordsworth writes from the perspective of common people, but ends up romanticizing and dramatizing their experiences so thoroughly that the poems feel disingenuous and bizarre. I mentioned before that I think his attempts to emulate Robert Burns failed.   Wordworth wanted to write about being a poor farmer, but he was not a poor farmer so his odes to poverty and rural living lack Burns’ sincerity and vitality.  Wordsworth is much better when he writes about his own experiences, as in “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey.”  You can probably tell that good old WW is not my favorite Romantic poet (Keats! Coleridge!), but I found myself enjoying “Tintern Abbey” immensely.  I was actually inspired by the sentiment contained in the poem, and I can definitely relate to Wordsworth’s description of himself recalling scenes of natural beauty to ease his mind whilst in the city.  I do that.


You may like Lyrical Ballads if:

  • you love Romantic poetry.
  • you are interested in the origin of the Romantic movement.

You may not like Lyrical Ballads if:

  • you are not a huge fan of William Wordsworth.

Final Thoughts: This is an incredibly important work in the history of English literature.  If you’re a literature nerd, you should read it.  If you’re more casual in your poetry reading, you would probably prefer selected poems by these two authors.