The Crucifix of San Damiano

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(The San Damiano Cross. Image appears to be in the public domain. Source Wikipedia)

Christians can argue and debate amongst themselves all they like, but I believe the San Damiano crucifix is arguably the most famous and revered crucifix ever created. It is often referred to as the “Crucifix that spoke to St. Francis”. The Crucifix itself is an icon of Christ in glory. The actual artist is unknown, but some believe that it was painted by a Syrian monk. Evidence of this is seen in the many features of the painted crucifix, particularly the blood flowing from the right side of Jesus over the disciple, a Syrian tradition dating back to the sixth century. Apparently, Syrian monks lived around Spoleto (Assisi) in Italy for centuries, which also gives more credence to the above theory. It also makes this particular crucifix unmistakably Byzantine in character. If you focus your attention to the women with her left hand raised under her chin, that is apparently Mary Magdala, expressing “confusion and the struggle of human reason before the mystery of faith”, a classic Byzantine representation. Some of the further obvious Byzantine influences are the many angels that surround Jesus, the long hair that encircles the face of Christ and the sheer size of the cross itself that Jesus appears to be holding up. It is believed that even though the artist was likely aware of the important significance of the passion of Christ, the emphasis was clearly on portraying Christ not in sorrow but triumph. Therefore, the appearance of Jesus holding up the cross is Christ’s ‘victory over death’.

Some eight hundred years ago in 1205, Francis Bernadone entered the abandoned Chapel of San Damiano. Struggling to find his place in life, he was beset with difficulty and anguish. Upon seeing the imposing two metres high by 1.3 metres wide crucifix he dropped before it to pray. Suddenly he heard a voice calling from the crucifix instructing him on a mission from God. “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling completely into ruin.” Dumbstruck, Francis rose to his feet believing he literally had to rebuild the Chapel. He began to repair the church by begging for stones across Assisi. Later, Francis and the followers of his order came to believe that God meant for Francis to ‘rebuild’ the gospel to the world.

This famous cross, which allegedly spoke to St. Francis, has been in the hands of the Poor Clare Sisters since the early days Francis brought them to San Damiano. Some thirty years after his death, in 1257, the Sisters left San Damiano taking the crucifix with them. For over eight hundred years, the order of Sisters has been carefully preserving the original crucifix (painted on linen glued to a cross made of walnut). It is currently located in the Church of St. Chiara, where since 1958, it has been suspended in a spot accessible to pilgrims worldwide. A beautiful replica has been hung in the ancient Chapel of San Domiano out of reverence.

The deep affection Franciscans and pilgrims alike have for St. Francis and the crucifix is immense. My apologies that I have not gone into more detail about the description and theories of what the portrait of Christ on the crucifix represents. I am unfortunately not well versed in such things and don’t see a sense in repeating everything I read. I can only tell you that the cross itself oozes with life and humanity. The expression on Christ face alone with his slightly tilted head speaks volumes to me. “It is the one Christ, human and divine, whom we meet through this icon”.

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The amazing galactic toy empire: the story of the original Star Wars action figures.

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You simply cannot underestimate the power of the action figure. Collectors worldwide, mostly grown men, empty out aisle after aisle of toy stores just to get their hands on plastic ‘gold’. Often it’s “Hey kid get out of the way !” Like Sean, when I was 8 or 9 years of age, I discovered Star Wars (Who didn’t ?) and fell in love with “a galaxy far, far away”. I, too, was given Star Wars action figures for birthdays, Xmas and occasionally as a treat. We could only afford to buy one or two figures every now and then. I appreciated what little I had and kept them safe for years. By the time I was 11 or 12, I put them away for safe keeping. In total I had around 50 figures including the original 12. Years later as an adult I rediscovered them lost in a shoe box and was determined to collect as many as I could possibly find. Tucked in another shoe box today I have around 90 original action figures that spanned the first trilogy movies. My son is just as obsessed with Star Wars action figures, though nowadays they are Lego figures. Please enjoy Sean Munger’s short history on the original plastic wonder toy!

Originally posted on www.seanmunger.com:

starwars figures

If you grew up in the late 1970s or during the 1980s in America or many other countries around the world, chances are very good that you had Star Wars action figures. If you were a boy between the ages of 6 and 13 at any time during the run of the original Star Wars films (1977 to 1983), they were probably your favorite toys. Certainly they were mine. I had seemingly hundreds of Star Wars action figures, and in fact many of them still reside in a box in my parents’ garage, awaiting that magical day (for which most of my age-peers are also waiting) when they’re suddenly worth a fortune to collectors. This article is not about that, but rather, how this little toy empire got started, and how it grew seemingly as large as the galaxy it depicted.

You must understand first that almost nobody anticipated the…

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A history of the First World War in one hundred blogs ! No.5 Mobilisation and the groundswell of enthusiasm !

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(German soldiers in a railway carriage on the way to the front in August 1914. The message on the carriage reads From Munich via Metz to Paris. Source Wikipedia)

I often wonder if the belligerent powers of the First World War had a magical crystal ball to see into the future would they have all been so enthusiast for war ? Of course, not all were so keen for war, in particular Serbia, whose men had only recently return from a localized Balkan war in 1913 or the reluctant Russians, who out of ancestral loyalty decided to throw their support behind Serbia and the Slav Peoples against a bullying Austria. The greatest reluctance of all arguably lay with Britain itself, who was caught in a fight to uphold the rights of smaller nations like Belgium and forestall the greatest threat not seen since the early nineteenth century when French forces under Napoleon Bonaparte reeked havoc across Europe. Sir Edward Grey summed up the British governments reservations for war best with his now famous “The lamps are going out all over Europe. I doubt that we shall see them lit again in our lifetime.” On the other end of the spectrum, Austrian and German warmongers were promoting fear amongst its people, that the rest of Europe was ‘out to get them’. Germany, in particular believed it had to defend its authority as a new leading world power. War was seen as a tool to achieve its aims of expansion, growth and dominance. These were some of the rhetoric and arguments presented to its people. Though, it is believed that in the end, the people of Europe did not have to be fooled or tricked by propaganda to join the war effort. A groundswell of enthusiasm was quite simply aroused by the fact that it was “the right thing to do” or a patriotic duty.

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(Germans marched to war with flowers in their rifles or stuck between their top buttons of their tunics. This image appears to be in the public domain. I believe my inclusion of this image constitutes as ‘fair use’ to highlight a unique historical moment.)

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(British soldiers mobilising for war in August 1914. This image appears to be in the public domain. I believe my inclusion of this image constitutes as ‘fair use’ to highlight a unique historical moment.)

Enthusiasm for war across Europe, in particular, Germany was greeted strongest in the cities. Young Germans marched off to battle with illusions of grandeur even arguably with a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality. In Berlin, the Kaiser addressed a riotous crowd compelling them to unite and pray for their brave soldiers. In Munich, a young Adolf Hitler, who would cause the world so much heartache, oozed with enthusiasm. Across Europe’s other major cities like London and Paris young men viewed war as an ‘adventure’ and a test of their ‘manhood’. In St. Petersburg thousands of men praised the Czar, knelt before Icons and sang Russia’s national anthem. Though in greater rural France there was also a mood of stoic resignation. Nevertheless, people were supportive of their governments as far away as places like Australia. When a cable reached the offices of the Australian Prime Minister and Cabinet about Britain’s declaration of war against Germany, Australian broke out in an unprecedented manner of enthusiasm and support for their ‘mother country’. Germany had initially feared bringing Britain into the war for this particular reason. Its vast empire stretched across the world from India to New Zealand and its populations were keen to help in any upcoming war effort.

Mobilisation began almost immediately for Britain’s furthest outposts by ship. Though it would be months before commonwealth countries like Australia, Canada and New Zealand had any impact in Europe, Africa or the Middle East. Though, for instance, Australia’s initial involvement in the Great War was a naval operation closer to home in the capture of German possessions in New Guinea in September 1914. It also made a significant naval contribution when HMAS Sydney destroyed the German raider SMS Emden in November. These expeditionary engagements were a prelude of that was to still to come in the war for Australian forces, a world away on the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915.

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(Canadian soldiers leaving Toronto for the battlefields of Europe during the First World War. Image source City of Toronto. I believe my inclusion of this image constitutes as ‘fair use’ to highlight a unique historical moment during mobilization of countries worldwide, like Canada, during the First World War.)

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(The Russian army swelled upwards of one million men in the opening weeks of the war. They were unfortunately often hampered by problems of mobilisation,  poor equipment and training. This image appears in the public domain. I believe my inclusion of this image constitutes as ‘fair use’ to highlight a unique historical moment.)

Mobilisation in Europe was different. It didn’t necessarily mean war at first, as Europe’s Great powers often used mobilisation as a threat (staying within its own frontiers), while at the same time carrying out diplomacy. However, by 1914 something had gone horribly wrong. Mobilisation meant war ? Things had changed. The faster an army mobilised the greater change it had to take the initiative against it enemy. There was a frenzy of movement in the days before (and after) Austria fired the first salvo at Belgrade. Germany reacted first by imposing war on Europe by ‘railway timetables’ by moving against the French first via Belgium, while keeping an eye on the Russians in it rearview mirror. Troop trains delivered millions of men to the frontiers as close as possible. Some of the numbers are staggering, upwards of 11,000 trains departed railway lines of Germany in the first few weeks alone. Along with the trains came eager soldiers, horses, draught animals for the artillery and other transport wagons. The numbers of men mobilized, across all the belligerent powers, in the first week of war was also ‘mind blowing’. Austria, for instance, mobilised 600,000 soldiers, the Germans 715,000 and the Russians upwards of one million men. Britain, initially sent a small professional force of 150,000 but numbers swelled quickly enough, as it realized that it wasn’t going to be no lightning war !

As millions of men began their march, from detrainment points in small rural towns, they travelled many miles each day towards what would be on the western front (at least) the first battles of the war. What lay ahead was the Battle of the Frontiers, the Mons and Austria’s war in the east.

Notes and Further Reading

Norman Davies, Europe: A History, Pimlico, 1997.

Paul Ham, 1914: The Year The World Ended, Doubleday, 2014.

John Keegan, The First World War, Hutchinson, 1998.

Max Hastings, Catastrophe: Europe goes to war 1914, William Collins, 2013.

Norman Stone, World War One: A short history, Allen Lane, 2007.

A.J.P. Taylor, The First World War: An Illustrated History, Penquin, 1966.

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The Day We Almost Lost Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ Forever !

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(The Last Supper, circa 1520, by Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli (Giampetrino), is an exact, full-scale copy of Da Vinci’s painting. Image is in the public domain and the painting is currently in the Royal Academy of Arts, London, collection. Source Wikipedia)

On this day 15th August, 1943, bombing destroyed the great cloister of the Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery but miraculously spared the three walls of the refectory, including the one with Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous ‘The Last Supper’. Was it a case of divine intervention or just dumb luck ? Maybe we should thank the British and American air bombers for their bad aim ? (It wasn’t until the US obliterated the monastery at Monte Cassino, Italy in February 1944, that US attitudes changed to the preservation of historical monuments and sites.) Nevertheless, it was the frantic efforts of the people of Milan, who helped stabilize and sandbag the painting against any further bombing splinters. Then, after the Second World War, the monastery was rebuilt with a ‘clean and stabilise’ resortation undertaken by Italian restorer and painter, Mauro Pellicioli between 1951 and 1953.

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(This is an image of what remains of the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery after the 15th August bombing. You can see the protective sheets that were assembled to protect the Da Vinci wall painting of the Last Supper. I believe my inclusion of this image constitutes as ‘fair use’ to highlight a unique historical moment in time. Furthermore I believe that words alone cannot describe how close we came to losing Da Vinci’s famous painting. Source Wikipedia.)

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(This is another view of the Santa Maria delle Grazia, in Milan, after the allied bombing on 15th August 1943. The Da Vinci ‘Last Supper’ was arguably within metres of being destroyed. Image appears to be in the public domain with an expired copyright. I believe my inclusion of this image constitutes as ‘fair use’ to highlight a unique historical moment in time. Source Wikipedia)

It wasn’t the first time in its history that Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Super needed some love and care. Its last major restoration took placed between 1979 to 1999. (The main source for the restoration was Giampetrino’s extract copy of The Last Supper which he copied in 1520. It includes lost details such as Jesus missing feet and the salt-cellar spilled by Judas. Giampietrino is believed to have been one of  Leonardo Da Vinci’s pupils who worked closely with him when he was in Milan.) Today, the refectory wall that the painting sits on is sealed in a climate controlled room. Hopefully, generations of art experts, people and pilgrims can enjoy viewing the original for a few more centuries.

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(Da Vinci wasn’t the first to paint a Christian view of the Last Supper. This is Ugolino di Nerio’s The Last Supper circa 1325-30. Judas is the only one without a halo. Image source Wikipedia)

Why is Da Vinci’s masterpiece so important that we feel obligated to preserve it year after year, or should I say century after century ? Certainly, other great artists have painted the ‘last supper’ of Christ before, but arguably not quite like Da Vinci. His remarkable interpretation of Jesus sharing a meal with his disciples (in what is the first Eucharist where Jesus announces that one of them will betray him) shows everyone interacting with each other with amazing emotion. Furthermore, from an artistic or technical point of view, Da Vinci draws our attention straight to the centre of the painting with Jesus, before we scan with our eyes to see what is going on around him. Many have seen this, as the quintessential reason why preserving it is so important. Art and history at its zenith ?

Whether Da Vinci painted it purely for financial reward or for a higher spiritual reason, it is frustrating to think, why didn’t he put more thought into it, in terms of making sure it would still be around for future generations to admire. Almost immediately after he had finished painting it in 1498, it began to flake off. Da vinci’s problem was that he was such an imaginative artist and inventor that he was always trying to invent the next best thing and remain one step ahead of his contemporaries. He tried coating the Santa Maria refectory wall with an experimental waterproof undercoat, which he believed would help him in his process of painting. Unfortunately, as already mentioned, it was a disaster. If we are to believe Leonardo Da Vinci’s biographer Giorgio Vasari, he describes the painting as ‘ruined’ and unrecognizable by 1556.

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(Da Vinci’s painting as it looked in the 1970’s prior to its major restoration between 1979 and 1999. Image source Wikipedia)

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(Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ after its major restoration works in 1999. Notice the undesirable doorway that was cut into the painting in 1652. Source Wikipedia)

We almost lost Da Vinci’s painting ‘forever’ on several other notable occasions throughout its history. The most notable being in 1652, when somebody thought it appropriate to insert another door to the refectory. In defence of the guilty party involved, in placing the door beneath Jesus feet, Da Vinci’s painting was then unrecognizable. Further mishaps saw restoration artists in the eighteenth unintentionally damage the painting by applying, removing and then re-applying oil paint and vanish. French troops in 1796 apparently threw stones at the painting chipping it and later even scratched out the eyes of the disciples. To add further insult to injury, another so-called expert tried removing the painting to a safer location before realizing he had damaged a major middle section of the painting. But don’t worry, he glued it back together ! Finally, as mentioned, we came awfully close to losing the painting in 1943 during the allied bombings.

Only around ten completed paintings by Da Vinci survive today. The Last Supper is one of them. Though, there is also another one of his great works and arguably the most famous painting of all time that I would one day like to give some attention to: Mona Lisa. Thank goodness, he decided to use a more traditional method to paint her and so we don’t have to worry whether or not she will flake! But, Da Vinci and the Mona Lisa will be our focus for another day.

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(Da Vinci’s greatest work ? The Mona Lisa. Image source Wikipedia)

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Amazing Women Who Inspire Us ! Ada Lovelace and Elizabeth Montague

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(Watercolour portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, 1840. Source Wikipedia. )

Ada Lovelace

Author and reader alike have undoubtedly heard of Bill Gates and Steve jobs. These two men are modern giants of computer science. What many of us rarely or never recall is the contribution of women in this field. Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace is one of those amazing women of history that we all should be aware of, especially her contribution to mathematics, logic and the early history of computers.

She was born almost two hundred years ago, on 10th December 1815, as the only daughter of Lord Byron, one of Britain’s greatest poets and his wife Anne Isabelle Byron. Ada’s mother despised her father Byron so much, that she had Ada educated in mathematics to spite him. Ada’s mother had hoped that by channeling Ada’s talents towards mathematics, it would alleviate in Ada her father’s fondness for poetry and compulsions. It unfortunately didn’t, Ada remained interested in him until the very end (She died in 1852). She inherited many of his compulsions. She was often associated with loose relationships with men other than her husband and her addiction to gambling. In spite of this oversight, she was otherwise a very driven individual in a field of study (mathematics) that not many women excelled in.

At the age of seventeen, she became friends with Charles Babbage, a mathematician and inventor, and grew fascinated by his idea to build an “Analytical Engine”. He only envisaged it as a calculator, but Ada realized the engine could represent more than just numbers with a wider potential. In 1843, Ada published a description of Babbage’s machine with extensive notes for how the machine might calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers (in collaboration with Babbage). This conceptual leap became the basis of the world’s first process or set of rules to be followed in calculation, very similar to how we use computers today.

Furthermore, she hypothesized that the ‘Analytical Engine’ could likely be used to compose “elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.” If this is not visionary or inspirational, then I don’t know what is ?

 

Elizabeth Montague

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(Sketch of Elizabeth Montague by an unknown artist. Image source Wikipedia.)

I have to admit I had no real idea of who Elizabeth Montague was until a friend of mine suggested I look at her for my amazing women series. I was pleasantly surprised what an inspirational women she was, particularly in the field of education. She was also I believe ahead of her time as a social reformer. One has to say though, if it wasn’t for her considerable wealth, would she have left such an overwhelming legacy in education and the relief of the poor ? What cannot be disputed though, is her devotion to literature and abilities as a writer and critic.

There is nothing new I can add or write about that hasn’t already been said about Elizabeth. Her amazing life speaks for itself and is often the subject of many University dissertations, particularly her correspondence and letters with British Enlightenment coteries. Many British libraries hold many of the most important letters she had written. Furthermore, the Huntington Library, California, USA has a sizeable collection of her letters.

Why she is an inspirational women is notably found in her enthusiasm for English and Scottish literature. She was a ‘celebrated hostess’ and founding member of the Bluestocking Society. It was a literary discussion group of privileged women that often also invited many leading and otherwise educated men to participate. Interestingly enough, the bluestock society was revolutionary for its time. The old stereotypes that a woman’s place was in the home were being broken down by Montague and her fellow female companions through this group. Why should men only have an education and attend university, should it not be a universal choice for all ? In many ways Montague’s society was an advocacy group for the betterment of women. It was also a support network where members supported each other through reading, artwork and writing. It was arguably the first group of feminists ?

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(Elizabeth Montague sits with her hand on her chin in Richard Samuel’s ‘Portrait in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo’ 1778. Source Wikipedia)

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The Chimera

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(La Chimera 1590-1610. This tiny 32cm x 42cm drawing is accredited to the Italian master Jacopo Ligozzi. It is from the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, part of the Spanish Royal collection.)

Mythology often dates back to antiquity. That is where my head is often buried, in a book about ancient Rome or Greece. In antiquity, we can find many of the best myths. They are usually about gods, supernatural heroes (often associated with the paranormal) and humans. Some of my favourite myths are associated with creation stories, like my article on The Churning of the Ocean of Milk and legends or folklore, like my recent outing about Roman god’s Pomona and Vertumnus. Today, I will focus on another one of my favourite legends about the Chimera.

In one of my favourite epic Greek poems, The Illiad, Homer briefly describes the Chimera as an immortal creature, made up of three animal parts, a lion with a snake tail and a grotesque goat as its middle. In Greek mythology, I have also read about a variation of this creature that has a dragon at its hind. In Ligozzi’s drawing, you can see the dragon at the rear, breathing out what appears to be fire or a tongue of flames. Though, in both versions, the Chimera is a female fire-breathing monster.

According to legend, the Chimera was the daughter of horrible monsters called Typhon and Echidna. The Chimera wreaked havoc in Lycia and the surrounding regions. She was associated with destruction, in particular, storms, shipwrecks and natural disasters. Eventually though she was killed by a Greek hero, called Bellerophon, with the aid of the winged horse Pegasus. As Bellerophon rode Pegasus, he fired his arrows from above at the beast until she dropped dead.

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(Greek hero Bellerophon depicted killing the Chimera on this Attic red-figure epinetron (pottery) 425-420 BC. Image used under the creative commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 license. Source Wikipedia)

The Chimera is depicted in many ancient works of art such as mosaics, pottery and plates. Apparently by the end of the seven century depictions of the Chimera in medieval art changed. She was largely forgotten as a three-headed beast and came to be represented with more human characteristic.

Jacopo Ligozzi’s ‘La Chimera’ is arguably a rare depiction of the Chimera in her ancient form by a great artist. What is amazing about the Chimera by Ligozzi is that it is a miniature of only some 32 x42cm. Drawing as a form of art, allowed artists like Ligozzi, to train as draftsmen before they eventually picked up a brush to paint. Why this drawing never graduated to the canvas, we will never know. However, just take a look at the detail of the drawing itself and how detailed the lion’s mane is or how the webbed claws of the dragon grips the ground. Ligozzi has truly done justice to this mythical monster.

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I AM MINE

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(I Am Mine was the first single of Pearl Jam’s Riot Act album. I believe my inclusion of this single cover may constitute as ‘fair use’ in illustrating their artistic genius. Furthermore no free alternative seems to exist.)

Two events literally shook rock band Pearl Jam to its core in the early 2000’s. One was personal and the other was global. At Roskilde, in 2000, around 40 minutes into their set, the concert audience tried to rush towards the stage, in effect, crushing nine people to death. In New York and Washington, in 2001, we had the 9/11 terrorist attack that shocked the world. Reeling from sadness, anger even guilt, Pearl Jam pulled themselves together to record a new album entitled Riot Act. Incorporating the mood of the time, Eddie Vedder and company set about recording new songs that were respectful to the tragic events (as mentioned above). The bigger picture, in terms of songwriting for the album, would involve issues of love, existentialism, loss, life and death. Love Boat Captain is the standout on the album, but a sentimental favourite of mine is ‘I Am Mine’.

A few days ago, I published an interview with a friend of mine, who is a very talented poet, and it got me thinking about poetry in the form of music lyrics. I am possibly biased here, but there is no one better than Eddie Vedder, in being able to pour out his soul on paper as a songwriter. Like Bob Dylan, I believe he is also a great storyteller.

“I Am Mine’ is essentially about feeling at ease with yourself. You cannot control the beginning or end of your life, but what is in between, that is for you to decide what you want to do with it.

Please enjoy reading the lyrics to this wonderful song with the music playing with the clip.

I AM MINE words and lyrics by Eddie Vedder.

The selfish, they’re all standing in line…
Faithing and hoping to buy themselves time.
 Me, I figure as each breath goes by, 
I only own my mind.

The north is to south what the clock is to time.
 There’s east and there’s west and there’s everywhere life. 
I know that I was born and I know that I’ll die. 
The in between is mine. I am mine.

And the feeling it gets left behind…
All the innocence lost at one time. Significant, behind the eyes. There’s no need to hide.
..We’re safe tonight.

The ocean is full ’cause everyone’s crying,
 The full moon is looking for friends at high tide.
The sorrow grows bigger when the sorrows denied. 
I only know my mind. I am mine.

And the meaning, it gets left behind…
All the innocents lost at one time. Significant, behind the eyes. There’s no need to hide…We’re safe tonight

And the feeling it gets left behind…
All the innocents broken with lies.
 Significant, between the lines (We may need to hide)

And the meaning, that gets left behind…All the innocents lost at one time. We’re all different behind the eyes. There’s no need to hide.

 

 

 

 

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