Recent links of note:

“After-Meditation”
Thomas Keynmer, London Review of Books

William Wordsworth’s longevity was unique among his comrades in the camp of English Romantic poetry. Of Wordsworth’s exact contemporaries, Coleridge made it to the respectable age of sixty-one, but only after many unproductive years of poor health and drug addiction. Of the younger Romantic poets, Shelley and Keats died in their twenties; Byron in his thirties.  However, it was the elder Wordsworth who outlasted all of them, his poetic star flickering on until 1850, when the comfortably pensioned poet laureate of Britain finally died at the ripe age of eighty. 

For Wordsworth’s younger contemporaries, the urgency with which they lived their brief lives was matched in equal measure by the prolificity of their muses. Yet the last forty or so years of Wordsworth’s life present a peculiar problem for scholars: although he was the undeniable genius of the romantic movement’s early period, most critics consider Wordsworth’s last decades to be a period of artistic decline, stagnation, and even embarrassment. Whereas recent criticism has attempted a reappraisal of this period, Jonathan Bate’s new biography Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World argues for a return to the prior assessment of Wordsworth’s latter years. In his review, Thomas Keynmer pairs Bate’s new book with Stephen Gill’s 1990 biography, which advances a more appreciative judgement of the elder Wordsworth’s output. Keynmer examines Wordsworth’s political inclinations, tracing his early, somewhat cautious “radicalism,” his time spent in Paris during the French Revolution, and his eventual disgust at the arbitrary executions and violence he witnessed there. This disgust precipitated his turn towards a conservative, royalist worldview that he held for the rest of his life, a break with many of his comrades-in-arms from the early days of the Romantic movement. 

“Naked Souls”
Rachel Polonsky, New York Review of Books

It may come as a surprise to non-Slavs that the Russians rank among the Romans, the Turks, and the Scandinavians as one of history’s most bath-obsessed cultures. For Pushkin, the banya was his people’s “second mother,” an eternal source of comfort and rejuvenation for the Russian soul. A Russian banya is a type of sauna, centering around a piping hot steam room called a parilka. Banya culture brings with it its own unique set of accoutrements and practices, including donning a felt hat dipped in cold water and lashing oneself with birch branches to stimulate sweating. But the Russian banya should not be mistaken for a localized version of the serene Nordic bathhouse. For Russians, a visit to the banya is a boisterous and social affair, best capped off with a shot of vodka and either a douse from a bucket of ice water or a dip in a nearby lake or stream. Ethan Pollock’s Without the Banya We Would Perish: A History of the Russian Bathhouse, reviewed in the New York Review of Books by Rachel Polonsky, delves into the history of this tradition and its survival through multiple watershed changes in Russian culture, from the sweeping westernizing reforms of Peter the Great to the social restructuring and devastation under Communism. 

“Saudi Arabia’s Secret Plans to Unveil Its Hidden da Vinci—and Become an Art-World Heavyweight”
Kelly Crow, The Wall Street Journal

The “discovery” in 2005 and record-breaking sale in 2017 of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi hardly needs retelling here. Both events set off a tempest of speculation and media frenzy. The painting’s anonymous buyer turned out to be a prince from Saudi Arabia’s royal family, and, for the past few years, it has been unknown if, when, and where the work would end up on public display. Reports pointed to it being stored on the prince’s yacht, perhaps destined for installment at the Abu Dhabi branch of the Louvre. Putting aside questions of the work’s art-historical or aesthetic value, in sheer mercenary terms, one could hardly imagine letting such a headline-grabber go to waste. Sure enough, Saudi Arabia now plans to employ Salvator Mundi as a means of drawing art tourists to the country, as reported by Kelly Crow in the Wall Street Journal. Leonardo’s painting is by no means the only focus of Saudi Arabia’s plans, however; the article details an intriguing array of galleries and museums the government hopes to open in the coming years. Although the point is to demonstrate cultural clout, Saudi Arabia’s tendency to collect the flashiest and trendiest artists in the market runs the risk of only reminding the public of its vast wealth and purchasing power. To counter this, the government intends to mix these offerings from Western and other cultural traditions with domestic archaeological objects and work by native-born artists. The end results will include an “oil museum,” to whose holdings the Saudis apparently hope to someday add one of Edward Hopper’s iconic depictions of gas stations.

Podcasts:

“Music for a While #27: Vexed & unvexed”
Jay Nordlinger, music critic of The New Criterion, talks music—but, more important, plays music.

Dispatch:

“Two for the road”
Timothy Jacobson on Paddy Leigh Fermor and Jan Morris.