By Brooks Haxton
He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass.
One collector of the psalms
in Hebrew says the wise king
sings this psalm about himself;
translators into the Greek say,
No, the father prophesies
the greatness of his son; some
in Aramaic say the good king
praised here as a king of kings
would be the One Anointed;
psalm and commentaries, all
from unknown hands, descend
through centuries like rain.
Into the living mind, out of a cloud
of hands, these blessings fall,
like rain upon the mown grass.
It's Sunday, so this is from Poet's Choice by Edward Hirsch in The Washington Post, this week about psalms, "sacred songs or hymns...traditionally ascribed to King David, but David seems to be a composite author ensuring the formal integrity of poems composed over a period of more than 500 years...ancient liturgical praise poems with terrific performative power." Haxton has a new collection of poems inspired by the psalms, taking off from lines from scripture. "These poems dwell, as he puts it, 'on the tension in thought and feeling between skepticism and devotion.'"
Also from The Washington Post Book World because I know people here will be interested: Michael Dirda on Sharpe's Escape, a very positive review.
Perfidy and treachery in the continuing battlefield sagas of a British rifleman in the Napoleonic Wars.
By Michael Dirda
Sunday, May 2, 2004; Page BW15
RICHARD SHARPE AND THE BUSSACO CAMPAIGN, 1810
By Bernard Cornwell. HarperCollins. 357 pp. $25.95
A couple of years back I started hearing about the adventures of Richard Sharpe. Set in the early 19th century, they followed the military exploits of a tough, resourceful rifleman, first in India, then in Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. One friend said she preferred them -- sacrilege! -- to Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels. Another said they were almost as good as C.S. Forester's Hornblower books. I was told that their author, Bernard Cornwell, scrupulously followed actual history (as much as fiction allows) and seemed to know everything about warfare in an era when cavalry and bayonet, muskets and rifles were all part of the human face of battle.
Many readers -- I am one -- don't like to start a series in medias res, but I'm glad to have finally read my first Sharpe: It's dryly witty, violent, highly melodramatic, briskly written and an altogether rousing tale of revenge and derring-do. Some of the chapters describe complex battles and infantry maneuvers, and these only a real military buff or West Point graduate will be able to follow. (Compare O'Brian's passion for the technicalities of rigging and seamanship.) Cornwell has written 20 Sharpe novels, ignoring chronological order, and this latest takes place about halfway through the rifleman's career. As a result, the new reader will pick up occasional references to previous exploits and characters, but these don't detract from the current story. To the contrary, they whet one's appetite for those earlier books. In one, Sharpe rescues Wellington in India; in another, he finds that the only way out of a locked room is up through the chimney; and in all of them, he is apparently irresistible to women.
Sharpe's Escape opens with Capt. Sharpe and his sidekick, Sgt. Patrick Harper, leading the South Essex Lights in Portugal. Wellington has instituted a scorched earth policy, hoping to starve the French army under Massena and Ney into retreat. On a simple mission, Sharpe discovers a secret cache of food, destroys it and thus earns the enmity of two Portuguese brothers -- Maj. Ferreira, who supposedly sides with the British, and the massive, utterly evil Ferragus. Though of privileged birth, Ferragus is a brute, sadist and crimelord. He vows to destroy Sharpe, and much of the novel chronicles his attempts to do so.
But Ferragus is only one of Sharpe's problems. Col. Lawford has appointed his brother-in-law Cornelius Slingsby as co-captain of the South Essex. Before long, the former London street urchin, who has laboriously risen through the ranks, has quarreled disastrously with this sycophantic usurper. And so, as the war shifts back and forth, Sharpe must thwart Ferragus, who is out to kill him; suffer the elevation of Slingsby, who seems primed to replace him; and somehow defeat them both.
Such personal conflicts compete with Cornwell's cinematically detailed battle pieces, literal tours de force. "More French guns were crowded close to the road at the northern end of the ridge, which suggested there would be two assaults, and Sharpe supposed they would be like every other French attack he had ever endured: great columns of men advancing to the beat of massed drums, hoping to batter their way through the Anglo-Portuguese line like giant rams." Later Sharpe describes his own troops in action:
"The South Essex had lost a score of men as they clumsily wheeled around on the summit's ridge, but they were in their ranks now and this was what they had been trained to do. To fire and reload. That was the essential skill. To tear off the ends of the thick cartridge paper, prime the gun, close the frizzen, upend the musket, pour the powder, put in the ball, ram the ball and paper, drop the ramrod into the barrel rings, bring the musket to the shoulder, pull the doghead to full cock, aim at the smoke, remember to aim low, wait for the order. 'Fire!' The muskets smashed back into bruised shoulders and the men, without thinking, found a new cartridge, tore the end off with their blackened teeth, began again."
Even those of a pacific nature will find it hard not to thrill at certain moments of battle, or even at single sentences. After round after round, "Sharpe was aware that the Irishmen had stopped firing, and they would only do that to fix the seventeen-inch blades on their muskets." This ultimate soldier's own credo is simple: "I believe in the Baker rifle . . . and in the 1796 Pattern heavy cavalry sword, so long as you grind down the back blade." He adds, " If you don't grind down the back blade . . . then you might as well just beat the bastards to death with it." Sharpe is never a romantic or idealist. "Fair fights are for fools," he says at one point, and at another: " 'Officers,' he told the riflemen, 'sergeants. Look for them. Kill them.' "
Eventually, Sharpe makes his way to Coimbra, the hometown of the Ferreira brothers, who have stockpiled a huge warehouse with food that they hope to sell to the French. There our hero meets the English governess Sarah Fry, on whom Ferragus has already set his predatory eye. Before long, though, the French armies also reach Coimbra, Sharpe is caught in the middle of the rape and pillaging that ensue, and he must soon struggle both to escape the death-trap that Ferragus has prepared for him, even while plotting to strike an unexpected blow against the French. Fortunately, Sharpe does have help. Harper is with him, and as usual Harper carries his seven-barrelled volley gun, originally designed for clearing the decks in naval battles. Still theirs "was not much of a force. Two riflemen, two women and a wounded Portuguese cazador. But Sharpe reckoned it should be enough to break a French dream. So he slung his rifle, hitched the sword belt higher, and led them downstairs."
In the last sentence of Sharpe's Escape Bernard Cornwell writes: "Sharpe and Harper will march again." I suspect that more and more readers will be following them.
Michael Dirda's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com. © 2004 The Washington Post Company
Bad Music Meme: I like pretty much all of them and I'm not afraid to say so. My least favorite songs got to be that way because they have bad personal associations, not because I hate the songs themselves: Kansas' "Dust in the Wind", for instance. Then again I held Blondie and Pat Benatar against a guy I dated in college for awhile, but I got over that.
Today it can't decide whether it wants to rain or not. If the current (drizzly on occasion but sun out right this moment) holds, we are going to the arboretum to sneeze at the azaleas (