Let us have a conversation, friend, on how to write a sentence, and if we do it right my friend, let it be a pleasure, not a penance.
The ancient Greek poet Homer knew that language needs to be sonorous to be remembered. Long lines of disconnected, harsh sounding words are hard to memorize. Words must make sense and should sound pleasing, language being music to the ears and food for the soul.
In her writing Gertrude Stein famously avoided commas as unnecessary interruptions in the flow of thought. One made up thought floating out there in the internet is this:
Commas are the slaves of the sentence, according to Stein, and we know that slavery is never a good thing. If the sentence can’t make sense without multiple commas, rewrite it.
We know it is made up because it has several commas and repeats. Wait, I take half that back since, “a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”
Stein did say this:
“A comma does nothing but make easy a thing that if you like it enough is easy enough without the comma.”
Now isn’t that nicely said without a pause or a comma?
So, should I say:
Let us have a conversation friend on how to write a sentence; and if we do it right my friend let it be a pleasure not a penance.
If you noticed the switch from comma to semi-colon, give yourself bonus points.
Disons nous une conversation mes amies sur la façon d’écrire une clause; Et si nous nous la faisons bien mes amis laisse faire plaisir et ne pas pénitentiaire.
Does it matter, she asked herself, does it matter that all this must cease to exist – the jagged rocks, the warm sand, the wide ocean and the blue sky, and even the birds that glide on the gentle breeze itself must go away when she dies. Or, is this why we have children?
This is not an original thought, she thought, and then she realized, we do not procreate with a purpose other than to find relief. To momentarily escape reality before reality again rears its ugly head. Oh, she realized, that it is only in the long years of child rearing that one signals one’s hope that life should go on and that others should ask this same question.
Then she had a strange thought that life is an endless series of steps. One starts and stops, like life itself. The distance from beginning to end being both insurmountable and unknowable.
The days in France in September can be glorious. The air is warm, freshened by the evening rains, the autumnal colors begin to show, and the wheat and the grape harvest are well under way with all their attendant festivals.
Not so in the year of 1918 after four years of war.
I had two family members on my mother’s side who were involved in World War I. One is my grandfather, the other my great uncle. One is on a memorial in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France.
The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which began on the 26th of September 1918, ended with the Armistice of 11 November 1918. More than one million American soldiers were engaged. My grandfather, James Madison Pearson took part.
So too did my grandfather’s cousin, Varlaurd Pearson*, as a member of Company I of the 137th Regiment. This regiment was formed in Manhattan, Kansas and was part of the 35th Infantry Division, composed of Kansas and Missouri National Guard units.
This is his story.
It is a short week before the beginning of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the last battle in what was then carelessly called The Great War.
The 137th Regiment, formed from members of the Kansas National Guard, have gathered their gear, their rifles and bayonets for the trip by truck from their staging area in the Foret-de-Haye, between the French towns of Nancy and Toul, for the trip to Auzeville, a small village west of Verdun.
Auzéville en Argonne, Clermont-en-Argonne is the French designation of the small farming community. There is nothing special about the village of less than one hundred souls. It is a place to gather troops for the coming offensive and there are dozens of similar gathering places.
Varlaurd Pearson is at Auzéville. His cousin Madison Pearson is at Graffigny-Chemin. Their existence to each other is probably unknown.
The evening of September 25th, 1918
Five days later, and the sun has set.
It is 7pm, the evening of the 25th of September, 1918. Under the cover of darkness, Sergeant Varlaurd Pearson and the men of the 137th Regiment march to their front-line position near Aubreville and Vauquois Hill. As they walk, an American artillery barrage is laid down upon the German lines and the evening sky lights up. The barrage continues well into the night.
There will be little sleep for soldiers on both sides.
The morning of September 26th
At 5:30 in the morning, the soldiers went “over the top”. The now familiar phrase meant that the troops left the relative security of the trenches where they lived with mud and rats, to cross into no-man’s land through barb wire and a cratered landscape all the while suffering the withering fire of machine guns and artillery fire, and occasionally having to deal with deadly gas attacks.
The regiment’s initial objective is the formidable Vauquois Hill, won and lost many times since the beginning of the war and the scene of battles between French and German troops.The hill now resembles a moonscape with its pock marked landscape. Despite the constant warfare for control and the barrage of the evening before, the Germans are well-entrenched. The hill is honeycombed with tunnels.
Perhaps the Germans are tired of defending it, for Vauquois Hill is captured early in the day. Perhaps the Germans wish to draw the Americans in and then counter-attack. Perhaps it is simply a matter of giving up ground by attrition and hoping that the Americans will be bled dry.
In fact, more than 26,000 Americans will lose their lives in the six weeks of fighting and almost 100,000 will become wounded casualties.
The 137th Regiment is certainly glad to be rid of Vauquois Hill. It then fights its way through the woods towards Varennes and the smaller village of Cheppy, short of Charpentry. The regiment had advanced about three miles.
The 28th Division, fighting to the left of the 137th in the woods of the Argonne, is having a tougher go of it. So, the 137th Regiment shifts its actions to the west and northwest where together with the 28th, they take Varennes and Montblainville.
Then they proceed on to Charpentry and Baulny.
The 137th Regiment has now become a salient into the German lines. Other American units press on trying to keep pace but the battle lines are confused.
By the evening of September 27th, the 137th rests on a ridge east of Charpentry overlooking the ravine of Mollevaux. The Germans take this opportunity to regroup and place machine-gun units on the ridge overlooking the ravine.
On the 28th the Germans counter attack with an artillery barrage and the 137th suffers its heaviest losses while pressing on towards Exermont.
The conditions are describes as this:
There was a cold autumn rain. The soldiers advanced through the open fields under heavy machine-gun fire. Their boots were soggy from the wet grass and the streams they crossed. Artillery support which would have suppressed the fire from the German lines was often missing because of delays in bringing the artillery units up.
Future president, Harry S. Truman was captain of Battery D. It is said that his unit was often in advance of other artillery units and his battery was forced to pull their guns one at a time by double teaming with 12 horses, in order to get them through the muddy, shell-torn and German mine-laid fields. They were lucky to arrive to their forward positions by 10 at night in order to prepare for the assault the following morning at 5:30.
Orders from higher up restricted the use of artillery in support of the advancing units, an order Truman often disobeyed.
Varlaurd Pearson’s citation reads:
Varlaurd Pearson (Army serial number 1449077) sergeant, Company I, 137th Infantry Regiment, 35th Division. For extraordinary heroism in action near Baulny, France, September 28th, 1918. Though wounded three times by shrapnel and machine-gun bullets, he refused to be evacuated and continued to lead the advance of his platoon, remaining in command for several hours, until he received a fourth wound, which proved fatal.
I have tried to discover the origin of the name, but without success. Varlaurd’s father was General Charles Lafayette Pearson of Dadeville, Alabama, who spent time in France. The surname Varlourd appears there, but infrequently.
Sunshine almost always makes me happy, but not today.
Sparrows flutter about the backyard, a blue jay lights upon a deck chair nearby and is soon joined by its mate who passes a worm beak to beak. Honeysuckle blooms; its smell is sweet. The big oak tree shades the yard and the squirrels have not yet descended from their nest above, but I see them watching and waiting for me to leave.
I am sad and know not why. It wearies me the whole day long.
The online dictionary defines moodiness as being “contented one moment, then sad the next, then angry, then joyous, then irritable.” Here I am in Oz, the rain has stopped and the sun is shining down it swarm rays on my face, and still, I am sad.
It’s a bit irrational, but don’t worry, like the weather in Oz, moods change.
I find sometimes sunshine can’t make me happy
The sun shines and the weather’s kind,
but I am sad and know not why,
it wearies me, you say, it wearies you
all day long from dawn til dusk and dusk til dawn
this restlessness that can’t be stilled.
It wears like a rock within a shoe
and can’t be shook.
To learn how it came to be
such a want-wit sadness makes,
and I know it can’t be helped,
it takes too much
to know thyself.
“… you just can’t differentiate between a robot and the very best of humans,” said Isaac Asimov, I, Robot. Except, thank goodness, the fact that we can eat hamburgers; that alone, my friend, might be the only difference.
The Rise of the Machines
Robots are in the workplace, we just haven’t noticed.
Ray Kroc knew this when he pitched his multi-mixer to the MacDonald’s brothers in the 1950’s. Now, one multi-tasker bot from Momentum Machines can patty, flip, and serve 400 made-to-order burgers in an hour, and could soon replace an entire McDonalds crew.
Needed restaurant “generalist” to supervise the machine. No education required.
March 31st, the course of the sun has run halfway through Aries, the sign of the ram. It is Kansas and so it is the South Wind, not the West that warms the earth. The farmers give thanks for the sometimes-gentle rain that falls from the heavens above, and curse instead when it hails.
The earth, which a few weeks ago, was brown and grey is now green and lush, and the morning’s silence is broken by the Robins’ song.
What follows is a modern translation of Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.
Prologue to the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer: Modern English, French, and original Middle English,
English did not become modern until William Shakespeare and the King James translation of the Bible, a fact that will surprise many “modern” high school English students.
When April with its sweet showers
Hath pierced the drought of March to its root,
And bathed every vein in such liquor
By which virtue engenders the flower;
When the West Wind also with his sweet breath,
Has inspired In every woodland and field
The tender crops, and the young sun
Has half its course within the sign of Aries run,
And small fowls make melody,
That sleep all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them in their hearts),
Then folk long to go on pilgrimages,
And pilgrims to seek strange shores,
To distant shrines, known in sundry lands;
And specially from every shire’s end
Of England to Canterbury wend their way,
The holy blessed martyr to seek
Who helped them when they were sick.
When I was a little boy the joke was told,
Q: Why did Peter throw the butter out the window?
A: To see the butterfly.
It is a joke that works in English but not in French, since butterfly in French is papillon.
Language barriers are large but none so great as that observed by the Welsh and English cleric Matthew Henry, There are none so deaf and none so blind, as they who refuse to see and will not listen.
Quand avril avec ses douces douches
La sécheresse de mars à sa racine a percé ,
Et a baigné toutes les veines dans une telle liqueur
Par quoi la vertu engendre la fleur;
Quand le Vent de l’Ouest aussi avec son doux souffle,
A inspiré dans tous les bois et champs
Les plantes tendres et le jeune soleil
A couru la moitié du cours en Bélier,
Et les petites volailles chante la mélodie,
Qui dormir toute la nuit avec l’œil ouvert
(Donc la nature les pique dans leurs coeurs),
Ensuite, les gens souhaitaient faire des pèlerinages,
Et les pèlerins cherchent des rivages étranges,
Aux sanctuaires lointains, connus dans les terres diverses;
Et surtout depuis la fin de chaque cours
De l’Angleterre à Canterbury se promène,
Le saint béni martyr à chercher
Qui les a aidés quand ils étaient malades.
Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 25 October 1400) is the grand daddy of English literature. Thank God he wrote in the vernacular and not in Latin as had been the custom. English is the most polyglot of languages. Sprinkled throughout Chaucer’s English, one observes bits of French, German, and Latin.
If one looks at the words of Chaucer and then listens to the sound, much of the meaning will become clear.
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour,
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem Nature in hir corages),
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
The “hooly blisful martir for to seke”.
Alas, it was St. Thomas Beckett, murdered by followers of the king, who was the “holy blissful martyr” the pilgrims sought to seek. His shrine in Canterbury stood until 1538, when, on orders from King Henry VIII, it and Beckett’s bones were destroyed, and Henry ordered that all mention of his name be obliterated.
Lost in Translation
Even the most literal of translations can be deceiving. Lovers, poets, and politicians know this for that is why words matter. This is a good thing for it means that Google Translate will forever require human intervention.
Who has not spent an hour, a day, or a week searching for the right word, and having found one, will change it for another, then another. And daring to wax poetic we fail, like the child wanting to catch an elusive butterfly, flailing with net, coming up with empty air.
Ye knowe eek, that in forme of speche is chaunge
With-inne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
That hadden prys, now wonder nyce and straunge
Us thinketh hem; and yet they spake hem so,
And spedde as wel in love as men now do;
Eek for to winne love in sondry ages,
In sondry londes, sondry ben usages.
Chaucer’s speech is Middle English, the language spoken after the Norman invasion, influenced by French, but connected to the language of the Saxons and Angles who came to the British Isles in the Middle Ages. With a little study the words and meaning become clear.
Following the rhetorical salutation “you know” we are greeted by the strange sounding word “eek” in line 22 (pronounced like “eck” and not the sound we make when we see a mouse) is derivative of the German “auch” meaning “also” or “besides”.
Third line, the word “prys” is “prize” which is a fair equivalent for value. Line 26, “spedde” is the past tense of “speed”. It is a word familiar even in Shakespeare’s time in the common salutation “Speed well” meaning may your trip go quickly and without mishap. “Fare” and “farewell” is a more modern adaptation. “Eek” appears again in the second to last line. Here it is better to substitute “besides”. The word “sondry” we spell “sundry” but the meaning is the same, “various”.
The last line repeats the word “sondry” twice, referring first to different lands, and second to the usage of speech. The verb “ben” is our “been” expressing a form of the verb “to be”. Today, one might more appropriately say “have been” to imply continuous usage, but “were” fills the bill nicely.
You know also that the form of speech changes
Within a thousand years, words though
That had value then, now seem wondrous nice and strange
We think them; and yet they spoke them so
And fared as well in love as now men do;
Besides, to win love in sundry ages,
in sundry lands, there were sundry usages.
In Chaucer’s day, French was the language of court and had been so for 300 years. Despite this, and the continuing marriages with French princess, and wars in France, England seems to have had an affinity for the language fiven it by the Saxon and Angles who invaded the island in the Middle Ages.
Were I to translate Chaucer’s English to courtly French, I might, without the correct rhyme or meter, have this:
Savez que la forme de la parole change
Dans mille ans, les mots si
Cela a eu une valeur, alors, semble maintenant belle merveilleuse et étrange
Nous les pensons, et ainsi ils les ont parlé
Et aussi bien réussi dans l’amour que maintenant les hommes;
D’ailleurs, pour gagner l’amour dans les âges divers,
dans les terres diverses, il y avait des usages divers.
Leaving Oz, on the Silk Road, destination Ningxia, Guyuan County, Northwestern China.
Traveling by horse. It is autumn and a cavalryman pauses in crossing the Yellow River to allow his horse to drink. The sun has not yet set. The water is cold, the wind cuts like a sword. The horseman remembers another battle long ago beneath the Great Wall in Lingtao. The battle cries were spirited. His thoughts return to the present. The yellow earth stretches out before him. He thinks that the the yellow earth is nothing more than the blanched bones of soldiers who fell in other battles, now mixed in with the bitter sage.
A poem by Wang Changling, usually translated as Beneath the Fortress Wall. The destination of the rider is not given, but one can suppose he was headed north and crossing the Yellow River. Lintao, which is identified by Wang Changling, is far to the west, near the Tibetan Plateau.
A Song at the Pass
Drink, my horse, it is autumn and we cross the river
The river is cold and the wind cuts like a knife
The plain is flat, the sun has not set
Far, far away is distant Lintao
Where we battled day long at the Great Wall
Salty high spirits though we spoke hoarsely
What was then is now Yellow Dust
Bleached bones disturbed in bitter sagebrush