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Dahlias: Elegance and Dignity

No idle wish

To rival her compeers;

Of her own passing loveliness, e’er stirs

Her tranquil soul.  She brightly shines

Amid the lesser lights that round her beam,

Eclipsing all with her effulgent rays.


This will be an unusual post from me, and since I am no photographer, and not a highly skilled gardener either, the results will be questionable!  But I had to share my joy with all of my readers as I have recently begun a new love affair.  No, I’m still happily married to my darling husband Russ, but in May I began a quest for dahlias.  This was in view of my dear son Josh’s upcoming wedding, as the reception was to be held in our backyard.  His lovely fiancée Grace, had decided upon an unusual color–hot chocolate roses, with which I wanted to try to coordinate the garden flower beds.  So dahlia’s seemed the logical choice to give some whimsy and vibrant color to the event.  I ordered 25 different varieties in the red and coral genre and planted away.  When the tubers arrived, I was struck by the unpromising (and downright hideous) aspect of a dahlia tuber as it stands in remarkable contrast to what its unassuming seed state portends.  Brown, shriveled and humble, this tuber has something to say about the nature of transformation.

And transform they did!  The glorious color, variety, and shapes of dahlias astound and thrill me every time I return to the garden to fertilize, trim and deadhead.  Not to say that getting them to this point didn’t take heroic efforts.  It did.  I have gone from being an organically green fundamentalist to a free-wheeling chemical and pesticide nazi.  I mean all of this figuratively, of course.  While I have always maintained a strict pesticide and chemical free garden ethos, my dahlias forced me into denying everything I have hitherto maintained about being green.  Dahlias are high maintenance flowers and at least this summer (which was unusually cool on the central coast of California), are subject to every pest and disease known to the botanical world.  So I sprayed, fertilized, dusted, and sprayed some more.  I did seriously doubt my own sanity when I found myself on successive mornings literally scrubbing powdery mildew off of my dahlia leaves with a toothbrush.  Oh, the lengths we (well, I ) will go to have a nice garden for a wedding!  But now, my hard work is paying off and so I am delighted to share some dahlia pictures I took this morning.  By the way, the wedding was beautiful and the dahlias were eclipsed into the background of all the other lovelinesses, especially the bride herself!

Finally, since this is in reality a blog devoted to children’s literature, I must have a tie-in to some aspect of children’s lit.  So, I’m happy to share that Monet too, loved dahlias and Renoir painted Monet in his garden painting dahlias.  Here it is!  Which brings to mind that there is a wonderful children’s book on the topic of Monet’s garden entitled Linnea in Monet’s Garden.  Check it out!

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The Tempest Part II

In my last post, I introduced some of my favorite children’s works for studying Shakespeare’s The Tempest with young students.  For the older elementary and high school student, the full text is the most appropriate choice, and there are numerous editions which will make this play a bit more approachable.  First of all, no one should ever feel embarrassed to read a simple child’s edition as an introduction to any of the Bard’s works, and this holds true for The Tempest as well.

In college (as most English majors do) I purchased the Riverside Shakespeare and today, despite its very weighty and bulky mass, I love it.  Mine is highlighted and marked through many of the works, and it is always a joy to return to those old notes and remember inspired lectures by beloved professors. The wide margins and onion skin feather-light paper speak of importance and an almost scripture-like quality. The annotations and definitions are very helpful as are the textual notes before and after each play.

The Tempest contains a number of themes but this brief introduction will concentrate on three: reality and illusion, natural man vs. civilized man, and most importantly,vengeance vs. forgiveness. The plot involves Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, his daughter, Miranda, and a native islander named Caliban.  These three are the only inhabitants of a magical island home until a fateful storm (thus The Tempest), brings upon the island Prospero’s brother Antonio, (who usurped the Dukedom), his co-conspirator Sebastian, Alonso–the King of Naples, his son Ferdinand, and a few other minor players.

Set on an indeterminate island, The Tempest is Shakespeare’s play that comes closest to having an early colonial connection, as the island setting draws upon descriptions of Bermuda (Bermoothes) brought back to England after one of the early Virginia expeditions was shipwrecked on this beautiful and habitable isle.  Subsequent pamphlets published describing Bermuda are the likely source of Shakespeare’s “mixing the atmosphere of a Mediterranean island with that of a New World discovery” (Riverside, 1657).  Also, the colonial connection relates to Prospero and Caliban.  Prospero (along with his daughter, Miranda) essentially “colonizes” the island, and attempts to civilize the native Caliban by teaching him English, while Caliban opens to Prospero the secrets of the island. But the relationship sours and the surly Caliban complains to Prospero, “This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother,/ Which thou tak’st from me” (I. ii. 331-332).  But Prospero defends the “kindness” and “human care” he showed Caliban until Caliban sought to “violate the honor of [his] child [Miranda]” (I. ii. 347-349).  The theme of natural man represented by Caliban, and civilized man, represented by Prospero, continues throughout the play and becomes more complex as Caliban mistakes two drunken sailors for gods, and as Prospero confronts the murderous and savage behavior of his civilized brother Antonio.  When King Alonso and the good Gonzalo are visited by strange-shaped creatures of Prospero’s magic, the two believe they are natives of the island and the astonished Gonzalo notes that “Though they are of monstrous shape, yet note/ Their manners are more gentle, kind, than of/ Our human generation” and Prospero remarks aside, “Honest lord/ Thou hast said well; for some of you there present/ Are worse than devils” (III. iii. 31-35).

Prospero represents the quintessential Renaissance man–deeply devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, “the liberal arts”, and this knowledge enables him to harness the powers of magic to serve his ends in bringing Antonio and Sebastian to justice.  Prospero’s magic is actually an “art which he has learned after laborious study” and in which “he uses some secret powers of nature” (Riverside 1656).  This is where the theme of illusion and reality comes in and Prospero has created a magical island world for all of us.  Like Shakespeare himself, each play is his created illusion of reality, and we the spectators.  This is a theme that Shakespeare uses often, and like Hamlet, we find “the play’s the thing” that opens up our understanding of reality.  In anticipation of Miranda and Ferdinand’s wedding, Prospero provides entertainment for his island guests.  But when he suddenly interrupts the play his explanation is thus:

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.” (IV. i. 148-157)

Prospero reminds us that all of life is a grand play with its gorgeous palaces, towers, solemn temples, the great globe itself (and here of course his double-meaning–the Globe Theater, and the earth) is clear.  The material world to which we are so devoted, will one day vanish into “thin air” and we will not leave a “rack” (a wisp of cloud) behind.  Our life is rounded with a sleep–the sleep of night’s rest, but also the eternal rest of death.  Prospero’s transcendent perspective also informs what it seems to me is the strongest theme of the play: his forgiveness of his enemies.

Prospero demonstrates what is a repeating theme of Shakespeare’s works–the forgiveness of those who have deeply wronged us.  Betrayed by his brother, and put out to sea and an almost certain death, nonetheless, Prospero chooses mercy.  “Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,/ Yet, with my nobler reason, ‘gainst my fury/ Do I take part.  The rarer action is/ In virtue than in vengeance” (V. i. 24-28).  And later to his brother he says, “And you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother/ Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive/ Thy rankest fault–all of them” (V.i. 130-132). And even the malicious Caliban who conspires to murder Prospero, receives mercy from his intended victim, which inspires him to reform his ways promising “I’ll be wise hereafter,/ And seek for grace” (V. 1. 295-296).  And so, The Tempest begins with treachery and betrayal and ends, as often Shakespeare does, with grace.  Enjoy this delightful play with your students!

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Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Dear Reader,

Shakespeare’s The Tempest can be a delightful experience for those wanting to incorporate a bit more of the Bard into their studies of the Reformation and Renaissance era. The themes are not difficult in this play and unlike many of Shakespeare’s other works, the plot sequence is rather simple and easy-to-follow, even for young students. For the youngest reader there are two delightful approaches to take which should make this an enjoyable experience for all!  Marcia Williams in her Tales from Shakespeare has done an adaptation that will provide a worthy introduction; her detailed and colorful illustrations will hold the attention of the youngest reader.  Her well-selected passages retain the beauty of Shakespeare’s language.  Those introducing The Tempest to the youngest readers will be delighted to learn that the BBC produced an animated edition (though an abbreviated 30 minutes–it is well worth watching) which covers the main plot and themes for the youngest student of the Bard.  Though it isn’t readily available for purchase, it can be watched on YouTube in 3 ten minute parts. You can access Part 1 here.

For middle readers, Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb remains the classic revision of the Bard’s most beloved tales, and while it was originally published in 1906, it is still popular today.  Charles Lamb, a nineteenth-century essayist and his sister Mary, understood the importance of retaining the intricate twists and turns of the play’s plot while retaining the beauty of Shakespeare’s language as often as possible.  For any reader who needs an introduction, or even a refresher, these delightful re-tellings will not disappoint.  Many editions of this title include the illustrations of Elizabeth Shippen Green Elliot.  I am partial to the work of nineteenth-century children’s illustrator Arthur Rackham, who did some of the earliest illustrations for the Lamb’s edition.  At left, note his delightful depiction from The Tempest of Ariel teasing Caliban.  When Prospero relates to his daughter Miranda the story of her birth and upbringing,  she recalls a time when she had nursemaids to care for her (see at right).   And below, Rackham depicts Miranda’s lovely lines to Ferdinand, “Alas, now, work not so hard, I pray you.”

Another of my favorite nineteenth century illustrators is Edmund Dulac.  You can see here two of his illustrations from The Tempest.  His vision of Miranda and Ferdinand is stunning and his fairies conjure up all the mystery of this fantastical work.  Hunting down either of these extraordinary artists will enhance and enrich your literary experience with some of the finest art ever produced for children.  In my next post, I will provide a simple overview of the plot, themes, and fun historical facts that will, hopefully, make studying this delightful work even more enjoyable!  So, good night, and as good Prospero says,

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on;

And our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.”