Top 3 Favourite Landscape Paintings

For many centuries, landscape painting has captured the imagination like no other genre. To begin with, from the rural scenes in Pieter Brueghel the Elder to the classically inspired settings from Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin, mankind was always at the heart of the paintings. There were exceptions, such as Jacob von Ruisdael, who depicted mankind’s insignificance when compared to the vast, overwhelming, panoramas of God’s creation. These poetic strokes of trees, fields and windmills would have a profound influence on John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. Nature in these paintings was often depicted in objective, beautiful terms, but the sea change was the publication of the book A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) by Edmund Burke. For the first time, the sublime was separated and lauded as an experience in its own right, with causes and effects that differ from the beautiful. The Romantic artists, drawing upon the subjective experience of man in relation to nature as found in William Wordsworth and other poets, often depicted nature in sublime terms, as a highly expressive experience in opposition to the scientific, objective study of nature so prevalent since the Age of Enlightenment. Perhaps also, following the Industrial Revolution and a mass migration to the cities, there is a sense of longing. The Romantics tried to depict one’s true inner self, which had been torn from the migrants since moving to the impersonal, oppressive cityscape, with factories appearing like the furnaces of hell. The genre developed further with the Impressionists, as Claude Monet, Camille Pissaro, Paul Cézanne and others each created their own impressions, especially in the play of natural light and colour and its reflection on different surfaces. They were clearly indebted to Turner in this regard.

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J. M. W. Turner   Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842). Tate Britain, London

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An underappreciated painting in his lifetime, but now considered one of his best, Turner manages to turn the sublime into a truly terrifying experience, as the steamboat battles against the elements in the last place mankind has failed to master, the sea. He makes the viewer feel right in the vortex of the snow storm, of which he claims to have been witness, with swirling winds, the crashing and rising waves, the misty light and the steam. It is particularly notable for the way the smoke and brownish tint of the flames, as a signal from the boat, blends into the waves, on what is otherwise a grey and bleak picture.

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Caspar David Friedrich Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818). Kunsthalle, Hamburg

The literal translation of the verb wandern, and the noun der Wanderer, somehow loses the essence of the original German. There are negative connotations in English, for example, to aimlessly wandering, lost in one’s thoughts. However, walking without a fixed direction was once a highly prized pastime, particularly in Germany, whereby the journey is more important than the final destination. There might be a melancholy element to wandering in isolation, or a spiritual aspect to losing oneself completely in nature, but the creative German of two hundred years ago, from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Nietzsche to Ludwig van Beethoven and Caspar David Friedrich, undertook hikes into the heart of nature for creative inspiration. Nietzsche was of the opinion that ‘all truly great ideas are conceived by walking’. Many of these wanderings, ironically, are now carefully planned trails, perhaps for tourist if not conservation purposes, to indicate where such and such an artist might have passed. Such a place is the so-called Sächsische Schweiz, south east of Dresden, where the misty, craggy outcrops of sandstone, with its bizarre rock formations, must have made quite an impression on the imagination. Both the landscape and the hike reached its artistic zenith with Caspar David Friedrich’s most famous work. One can’t be sure who the figure in the painting, with his back turned on us, actually is. Perhaps it is the painter, but the importance is not to focus on him but to imagine what he’s thinking and seeing, to contemplate in self-reflective uncertainty as you gaze out, like he does, over the sea of fog. He is at once the focus of the painting but at the same time insignificant compared to the landscape around him.

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Albrecht Altdorfer The Battle of Alexander at Issus (1529). Alte Pinakotek, Munich

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Altdorfer took the victory of Alexander over the Persians as his subject, but parallels have also been drawn between that and the recent defeat of the Ottomans at the Siege of Vienna. A truly global landscape, such a work even during the Renaissance period was unprecedented for its monumental scale and realistic, minute detail. That said, the work can be appreciated in two halves. In the top half, the mountainous background shows a familiarity with Alpine terrain. The sky is magnificent. Altdorfer depicts the crescent moon in the top left hand corner of the canvas, and the rays of the sun are perhaps a symbol of Alexander’s glory that is reflected in the Mediterranean, but equally signify Christendom’s victory over the Ottomans. The only negative is the geographic features, for example of Cyprus, the Nile and the fictitious mountain, which are falsely depicted in terms of size, ratio and perspective – however, the fault here may well lie in Altdorfer’s sources than the painter himself. In the bottom half, Altdorfer offers a rather fine example of a walled city and a pitched battle camp. It may be an idealised image of what Issus might have looked like, and it may be that Altdorfer had Tarsus in mind, but it also shows knowledge of religious architecture. The battle itself is perhaps less historically accurate than heroically inspired, but painstakingly detailed nonetheless. In spite of these criticisms, if we look at the painting through the eyes of an aesthete rather than an historian, then the overall effect is utterly sublime.

© 2020 AGP

Lucid Dreaming

My dream world is the only place where I

Am really free – it’s where my soul reveals

My true nature. I am the narrator,

Instigator of causes and effects.

I conjure up magical and unique

Stories fashioned in my subconscious mind.

The characters express the words I give

Them through my thoughts, their actions I rewind,

Replay, mould and refine. I guard those who

Help me and discard those who threaten me.

I can experience a long journey in a

Few minutes or freeze time to suit myself.

From flying through the air to scrambling through

Deep caves, from exploring futuristic

Cities to getting lost in alien

Landscapes – with the paintbrush on my canvas,

Using colours on a wide scale, there is

No limit to what I can imagine.

There is no censorship, no control from

Political powers, with no social

Inequalities or injustices.

In my dreams, I can put bankers, elite

Politicians, aristocrats, bishops

And fat corporate pigs at the

Bottom rung of the new ladder of life,

Trampled on by the proletariat.

© 2020 AGP

1789

In that most glorious year of years,

Seventeen Hundred and Eighty-Nine,

All of the Ancien Régime’s fears

Over their lasting fall and decline

Blasted forth like a shrill trumpet call:

The Bourgeois were storming the Bastille,

The State of Oppression was disarmed.

The Church lost possession of its land,

The Nobles exemption from taxes

And the King lost his right to the throne.

None could hide behind swords or axes –

Suddenly, the rulers were alone.

If only for a brief interlude,

Mankind had fulfilled its destiny

Following lifetimes of servitude – 

It broke loose the reins of tyranny,

And exchanged its whips for liberty.

However grand it is to displace

Instruments of untold misery,

No thoughts turned towards their successors

As was so often the sorry case –

Just like when Julius Caesar was

Stabbed on the ill-fated Ides of March,

There was for Anthony no applause,

Nor was there for Cromwell on his march

After the slaying of Charles the First.

The victors are very often cursed

And trampled on by the aggressors

After the ‘noble’ deeds are performed.

For those with the strongest will shall rule,

And a new rule of law is soon formed.

Despots make the masses look like fools,

As they take the fullest advantage

Of chaos, with the lack of an heir

To challenge the newly crowned savage.

Whether the radical Robespierre,

The corrupt, violent Georges Danton

Or that gruff Corsican Bonaparte –

The Devil was replaced by his son,

As if he was born to play the part.

© 2020 AGP

Spirit-Man

Come see, come see, the Spirit-Man!

He’s calling us, come, if you can!

His voice can raise dullest spirits,

He radiates with joy and wit.

He may at first seem fey and strange,

But your future life will be changed.

Listen to what he has to say,

On this majestic day of days:

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring

Wonderful news. The following

I saw within a shrouded mist,

A vision I could not resist.

There were three trees, oak, ash and yew,

And to each tree an eagle flew.

Each bird carried within its beak

An object that made its wings weak.

They dropped those things and flew away,

Their feathers turned from white to grey.

On the oak tree hung a gold crown,

As if it was turned upside down;

On the ash tree hung a stale cross

Of wood, filled with blood, nails and moss;

On the yew tree hung a sickle

And a hammer made of nickel.

Behold! A great fire consumed

The crown and cross! Those two trees bloomed

No more, reduced to charred ashes

After two brief lightning flashes.

Then came God with his giant hands!

He reached up for the hammer and

Sickle, chopped down crumbling statues

And crushed twelve graves with his red shoes.

The crown stood for the monarchy

And all of the nobility.

Their privilege is at an end,

With normal life they shall contend.

The cross stood for state religion,

That instrument of oppression.

So, worship the divine alone,

Not some conman sat on a throne.

You are the seeds of that yew tree,

You bear the fruit of liberty.

The Day of Judgement is at hand,

Soon you shall inherit the land!

The Feet of God will crush the bones

Of those who dare sit on a throne.

They’ll grind to dust the ashes, too,

Of Satan’s men, the elite few.

Those who dress like a democrat

With the mind of an autocrat,

Who defy the Lord’s righteous law

To rule over the helpless poor,

Who exhibit no self-control

And disregard your silenced soul,

Who want your land to rise apart

But will end up breaking its heart,

Who make and break false promises

To the blindly guided masses –

God is watching! Grant what’s to come

When they answer for what they’ve done!

© 2020 AGP

Top 3 Favourite Ludwig van Beethoven Recordings

The modern day approach of interpreting Beethoven is to perform the symphonies either with ‘authenticity’, i.e. period instruments, or with a small scale orchestra that mirrors the size of early nineteenth century orchestras, or both. And so, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, John Eliot Gardiner and others are lauded for their approach. Certainly there is a transparency and urgency to their recordings, which are a breath of fresh air when compared to the slow, cumbersome and indulgent recordings found in interpretations from conductors such as Carl Maria Giulini and Leonard Bernstein, in which rhythms almost grind to a halt. Even a visionary as revered as Wilhelm Furtwängler must be singled out for criticism of this nature. Sticking rigidly to the tempo markings and notations is no bad thing, but fear of sinning against the letter quite often sins against the spirit. Whilst many of these period instrument recordings sound, as far as we know, like they would have sounded in Beethoven’s day, is that really how Beethoven would have wanted his masterpieces to sound? It’s entirely possible that he would have worked with larger forces, had they been available to him. Moreover, taking a strictly direct, ‘play it as you see it’ approach, as fast moving as it is, often glosses over many details and arguably fails to capture the spirit of the composer. This is not a problem for Mozart or Bach, when a chamber orchestra is a necessity, or even for Mendelssohn, their natural heir, but Beethoven was a Romantic composer, who developed an extreme range of expression. True, the symphonies should be played without sentiment or embellishment, but they should never be without tension, drama or rhythmical energy, with an elemental force worthy of the great man. There was, after all, another generation of conductors, the last in a line of a great tradition, from Arthur Nikisch to Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter to Karl Böhm. This includes Furtwängler himself who, though unique, was always closer to Nikisch than the others, and influenced the likes of Eugen Jochum with his exhilarating flexibility of tempo. They emphasised the overarching structure or architecture of these symphonies as if they were Shakespearean dramas in tone. That’s not to say that starting a section slightly slower than standard is correct, but this was often intentional in the way the tension gradually rises and increases to the crescendo. Make of that what you will, but it’s the sheer variety of interpretations from that era that stands out. Some were wayward, but most were exhilarating and, at times, incredibly beautiful, albeit in scratchy mono sound. It is like comparing an automaton to a living, breathing organism.

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Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Opus 67

Orchestra: Wiener Philharmoniker

Conductor: Carlos Kleiber

Label: Deutsche Grammophon

Year of Recording: 1974

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Kleiber grabs you in from the first, perfectly executed eight notes with an intense performance. It’s full of vitality and doesn’t let up until the finale. Kleiber was a renowned perfectionist, and his interpretation offers a clarity and richness of texture that few, if any, have ever matched. The way in which the strings are played between the third and fourth movement, starting softly but gradually increasing in velocity, building towards the outpouring of the brass at the start of the finale, mark this out as the finest example of this transition on record.

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Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Opus 68

Orchestra: Wiener Philharmoniker

Conductor: Karl Böhm

Label: Deutsche Grammophon

Year of Recording : 1971

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There are passages in this recording which are gloriously earthy and lyrical, entirely evocative of the title ‘Pastoral’. It is notable for the final movement, Hirtengesang, which is a charming account of one of Beethoven’s loveliest melodies. Many recordings can appear too light, too rushed, but the moderate tempo and ample size of the string section is just right here, helped by the usual clarity of the orchestra. Where Böhm really excels is in the Gewitter, Sturm movement, both in the orchestral balance and ferocity of the orchestra’s playing. There is a genuine sense of unease in the way the instruments evoke thunder and lightning, rain and wind to a powerful effect.

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Symphony No. 9 ‘Choral’, Opus 125

Orchestra: Philharmonia Orchestra

Chorus: Philharmonia Chorus

Soloists: Aase Nordmo Løvberg, Walther Ludwig, Waldemar Kmentt and Hans Hotter

Conductor: Otto Klemperer

Label: Testament

Year of Recording: 1957

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This was a tough choice, as Wilhelm Furtwängler made the work his own throughout the first half of the twentieth century and, like Klemperer, placed the wind section firmly at the front. It is in the finale where Klemperer’s comes out on top in this Royal Festival Hall performance. It is fast, for sure, and maybe not so forcibly elysian in its beauty as some recordings, but the greatness that separates this from other performances is the glorious chorus. There is a release of exaltation in their singing that is energetic and seemingly life affirming, a true ‘Ode to Joy’.

© 2020 AGP

Tiberius Gracchus

Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus,

A reluctant revolutionary.

The price you paid – for redistributing

The land and supporting Italian

Farmers, negating the veto of a

Tribune, and then bypassing the Senate

To listen to the people on the street,

Among many other social reforms –

Was to be condemned as a usurper,

Craving to wear the crown, doing away

With the unchallenged rule of a handful

Of families governing the state of

The Roman Republic. You lost your life.

Were you aware, a martyr to the cause

Who lit the torch of social liberty?

Were you naïve and lacked the foresight of

Just what a storm you would unleash upon

The state with your agrarian reforms?

Full of vengeance, your great brother Gaius

Went much further in robbing the Senate

Of its power. He met with the same fate.

Did you die for the people or yourselves?

© 2020 AGP

Divine Genius: Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Franz Schubert was the most lyrical composer who ever lived. Nobody else expressed innermost feelings in such a melodious manner. Relative to his time on Earth, a mere 31 years, no composer achieved as much – or promised so much more. Few artists depicted so poetically the contrast between light and shade. There is often a dark undercurrent to even the most charming of melodies.

He was the son of a schoolmaster, and was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps as a teacher’s assistant, but any hopes of this were short lived, such was Schubert’s loathing of the work. He was, however, an accomplished music teacher, and spent a year as tutor to the family of Count Johann Karl Esterházy – but this was one of his rare contacts with wealthy patrons. Compared to Beethoven, he was unassuming in appearance, as a composer and as a businessman. He never wrote a concerto, and although some of his piano works, such as the Wanderer Fantasie D. 760, are technically demanding, they were not composed with a virtuoso soloist in mind. However, he was a performer, along with his musician friends, of his smaller scale works for the burgeoning middle classes, in the coffee houses and salons. These events were known as Schubertiads. He was on the cusp of achieving success in the concert halls, and was most likely viewed as Beethoven’s successor – but the pall bearer of that great man’s funeral had little more than a year to live. It is generally viewed that he contracted syphilis, though this may not have been the primary cause of his death. Either way, his early death was tragic. However, Franz Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann recognised his talents, and revived, or transcribed, many of his unpublished or forgotten works.

Schubert was chiefly remembered in the subsequent century for his songs. These include the ever popular Ave Maria D. 839, Gretchen am Spinnrade D. 118, the epitome of teenage angst, and the enchanting Ständchen from his Schwanengesang song cycle D. 957. The song cycle Winterreise D. 911, a bleak depiction of a poet’s winter’s journey, into the mind as much as the physical landscape, is his masterpiece in the genre. He was also noted, and much derided, for his lighter piano music – mere trifles compared to his weightier works. However, thanks to pianists like Artur Schnabel, and conductors like Wilhelm Furtwängler, his piano sonatas and symphonies are now regularly performed. Indeed, his reputation has risen to the extent that he is now thought of as an equal to the other three Viennese giants: Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart.

The fact that he was Beethoven’s contemporary had two major drawbacks. Firstly, he was living in the great man’s shadow. Indeed, after hearing a performance of Beethoven’s Opus 131 String Quartet, Schubert is reported to have wondered ‘what else is left for us to write?’. Secondly, and crucially, the formal structure of some of his first movements were compared unfavourably to Beethoven’s dramatic, suspense-laden sonata structure. A substantial development section, and a resolution of the tension between the two principle themes, was unquestioned by the musical establishment as the only way to compose a sonata. In that regard, Schubert broke the mould completely. With the first movement of his second Piano Trio, D. 929, for instance, Schubert created one theme, then another, and then another still – but he didn’t develop these themes in a conventional sense. Instead, he created subtle and nuanced variations in harmonies and tone, that paved the way for the next generation of composers.

In his ability to compose soulful slow movements, especially the Adagio of his String Quintet, D. 956, Schubert was without equal. That movement follows a conventional ABA structure, but the content is uniquely his own. Here, we have a long, drawn out, meditative, monothematic melody – but the sharp, sudden passage into the second theme shocks us out of our system. Now, we are faced with a violent surge of romantic intensity, like an outpouring of his innermost nature, his angst penetrating the calm surface. There is also otherworldly beauty to be found in the Andante sostenuto movement of his Piano Sonata, D960. The melancholy resignation of his fate, but also the release from his suffering into the world beyond, is never far from the surface.  There’s a case to be made that his late String Quartets are bleaker, but no less profound, than Beethoven’s, but the majority of his music is joyous and life affirming. One needs to think only of his cheerful Trout Quintet, D. 667, for proof of that. Indeed, Beethoven acknowledged there ‘resides a spark of the divine genius in this Schubert!’. Nowhere else does this spark radiate as brilliantly as in the finale of his 9th Symphony, D. 944. It is, from start to finish, an outpouring of electrifying energy, and leads one to conclude that Schubert was indeed close to the divine.

© 2020 AGP

Age of Reason

Creative thoughts and visions once held sway

In the minds of Blake, Yeats and Mallarmé.

Their words were passageways of mystery

But are largely confined to history.

New Age culture shamefully reigns supreme

To feed those who broke from the old regime –

Wrapping new clothes over a dead body,

Changing the tone of the same melody.

Yet, neither is the truth but sheer nonsense

To the guardians of intelligence.

Ever since the Age of Enlightenment,

We left the cave of disillusionment

And since applied a rational mindset.

For us, received wisdom was soon reset

On what we see and touch and hear and feel –

We’ve disproved all superstition with zeal.

The sacred rites and prayers that once impressed

Had the brains of naïve folk long oppressed.

Now, the only belief that makes us free

Is science and reason in harmony.

© 2020 AGP

Top 3 Favourite Portrait Paintings

The portrait genre is not usually regarded as the most visually inventive or imaginative of genres. Indeed, the subjects themselves were often more important than the artist in question, even if some names and faces only survive to us through their painted form. The subjects of portraits were traditionally wealthy, famous and powerful, with a presupposed standing in society, ranging from aristocrats and bishops to statesmen and merchants. They were nominally chosen for their own posterity, or at least, with the absence of photography, to display their stature and physical appearance for strangers to admire. Some are mysterious, like in Leonardo da Vinci’s La Giaconda, a.k.a. Mona Lisa (c. 1503-1506), others are more symbolic, like Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434). The exception to this rule, of course, is the self portrait, and it is fascinating to see how artists portray themselves and, in the case of Rembrandt, the ageing process. Like all genres, it went through a transformation from the Romantic period onward, as ideals of a courtly life or mercantile wealth gave way to the burgeoning middle class and harsh social realities.

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Théodore Géricault Portrait of a Kleptomaniac (1822). Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent

In his series of ten portraits of inmates at the Salpêtrière asylum in Paris, around the theme of monomania, Géricault broke new ground in portrait painting, paving the way for Gustave Courbet, Honoré Daumier and others. He was commissioned by psychiatrist Étienne-Jean Georget and certainly succeeded in portraying an objective visual account of various diseases, with unflinching realism. Each portrait has a dark, brooding background, with the light directed on to the pale, haggard faces. The most striking facets are the eyes, which convey a sense of their internal suffering. The Portrait of a Kleptomaniac is one of the most resonant of the series.

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Albrecht Dürer  Self Portrait at the Age of Twenty Eight (1500). Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Albrecht Dürer was the greatest polymath of the Northern Renaissance. Had he been born in Italy, he might well have been venerated as highly as any other artist in history, as he was at least the equal of Leonardo da Vinci. He was a fine painter and was especially renowned for his astonishingly vivid watercolours. He was also a mathematician, cartographer and print maker. He succeeded better than anyone in his time in the dissemination of art to a wider public. Yet, like a number of geniuses of supposed God-given talent, he also had a super ego. He even fancied himself as Christ reborn in this self portrait. The most striking, if vain, feature is the luminosity of his long, curly hair. He even holds out his hand as if in an act of devotion. There is much introspection in his eyes, but not much modesty.

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Hans Holbein the Younger The Ambassadors (1533). National Gallery, London

We know who the two ambassadors might be in the portrait, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, the latter the Bishop of Lavaur. However, the greatness of the painting lies not in the subjects, as court ambassadors in the realm of Henry VIII, but the objects. One can hardly escape the illusory skull, albeit obliquely, an allusion, perhaps, to the fleeting nature of life. And yet, the other objects have nothing to do with death. Of course, there are many religious objects, such as a Lutheran psalm book, but also ones relating to discovery, knowledge and adventure. There are globes, instruments both scientific and musical, an arithmetic book and an exotic rug. If ever a painting from the Renaissance captured the progress of the age, it’s this one.

© 2020 AGP

Wisdom of the Wise

In his letter to the Corinthians,

Quoting the book of Isaiah, Paul wrote:

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise.

This bold statement claims that peasants and fools

Are of a purer faith, willing to gain

God’s love and live by the laws of nature.

It asserts that wise men, priests and scholars

Were lost in abstraction, enjoyed worldly

Pleasures and turned away from the true faith.

Maybe this is why his age was lacking

In great teachers, scribes and philosophers

(Seneca and Pliny might disagree),

But to claim it from the mouth of the Lord

Is a deep fraud and surely one of the

Most fallacious statements ever written.

The debt owed to ‘Heathen’ philosophy

By Christian writers is undoubted.

Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas

Straight up to Erasmus were influenced

By Plotinus, Aristotle, Plato

And Boethius, even the great Skeptics

Like Cicero were read by learned monks.

If God can be only known through study

Of The Bible and universal love,

Often confined to some mystics, then the

Likes of Priestley, Newton and Faraday,

Men of the faith, would have taken umbrage

With that backwards looking worldview.

To them, intense study of chemistry,

Laws of motion and electricity

Was the study of the Works of the Lord.

A series of experiments based on

Observation and inductive reason

Rationalised the Creation, the laws

Removed the mystery, natural finds

Undermined the miracles and designs.

Scientists have released Man from bondage

Through their visionary physics,

Like their Greek counterparts, which must be so

In order to retain the wisdom of the wise.

© 2020 AGP