In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads the charming short stories of Karel Čapek
The modern meaning of the word ‘robot’ has its origins in a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Čapek. The play, titled R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), begins in a factory which manufactures artificial people, the ‘universal robots’ of the play’s title. The robots are designed to serve humans and work for them, but the robots eventually turn on their masters, wiping out the human race (shades, or rather a foreshadowing, of The Terminator here). This sense of ‘robot’ is taken from the earlier one defined above – namely, the Czech for ‘slave worker’ or ‘drudge’.
Karel Čapek himself didn’t coin the word. The word ‘robot’ was in existence before he wrote his play. But nor did Čapek come up with the idea of taking the word ‘robot’ and using it to describe the man-made droids that feature in his play. He originally called them labori, from the Latin for ‘work’, but it was his brother, Josef Čapek, who suggested roboti. Josef, himself a gifted artist, would later write a volume of poems from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in which he was interned. In April 1945, just weeks before the end of the war, he became one of the 6 million Jews who were murdered in Hitler’s Final Solution.
Most readers who know the name Karel Čapek associate it with robots and little else. Yet Čapek was also the author of some charming short stories and skits, which were collected together as Apocryphal Stories (Modern Classics). Read the rest of this entry
A reading of a classic early poem by Eliot
‘Portrait of a Lady’ first appeared in T. S. Eliot’s first collection of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, which was published in 1917. The title is a nod to Henry James’s 1878 novel, The Portrait of a Lady, although this is a piece of misdirection on Eliot’s part, since the poem that follows will be much more about its young male speaker than it will about his older female companion. The poem is the other long monologue Eliot wrote satirising early twentieth-century society, alongside ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, the title poem of that debut collection. You can read ‘Portrait of a Lady’ here before proceeding to our short analysis of the poem below.
‘Portrait of a Lady’, in summary, charts the friendship between a man – though this time a younger man than J. Alfred Prufrock – and an older woman. In the first section, they attend a concert together; in the second, she talks regretfully of being old, and envies the young man his youth (he, meanwhile, busies himself reading comics and the sports pages of the newspaper); in the third, he tells her he is going abroad, and she makes him promise to write to her. After he leaves her, he reflects on how he has treated her. Does he have the right to smile? Has he treated her badly? Read the rest of this entry
The best poems for friends
Love may be a bigger topic for poets than friendship, but there are nevertheless some classic poems about friends and friendship to be found in English literature. Here are ten of the greatest poems about friendship, and poems for friends, that poets have come up with over the centuries.
Edmund Waller, ‘On the Friendship betwixt Two Ladies’. In this witty poem, Waller, a Cavalier poet of the seventeenth century, celebrates the close friendship between two ladies but also suggests that they are perhaps too close, and deprive themselves of male company (e.g. Waller’s). ‘Why so careless of our care, / Only to yourselves so dear?’ Not so much ‘hoes before bros’ as ‘sisters before misters’?
Katherine Philips, ‘To my Excellent Lucasia, on our Friendship’. Philips (1632-64), also known as ‘the Matchless Orinda’, was an Anglo-Welsh poet and translator in an age where few women had the chance to succeed at either. ‘To my Excellent Lucasia’ (Lucasia being the alter ego of Philips’ friend Anne Owen) is a poem of friendship but might also qualify as a lesbian love poem. Read the rest of this entry