Tuesday

Feb. 27, 2001

The Cross of Snow

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

TUESDAY, 27 February 2001
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Poem: "The Cross of Snow," by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The Cross of Snow

In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
    A gentle face—the face of one long dead—
    Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
    The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
    Never through martyrdom of fire was led
    To its repose; nor can in books be read
    The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
    That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
    Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
    These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
    And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

It's Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, the last day before the beginning of Lent in the Christian calendar. Originally, the Catholic Church prohibited the use of cooking fat during Lent, so this day was a housewife's last chance to use up her store of it. Mardi Gras, of course, means Fat Tuesday.

It's the birthday of teacher, poet, and playwright Kenneth Koch, born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1925). Along with poets John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara, he became a part of the "New York School" of poetry in the 1950's.

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer James T. Farrell, born in Chicago (1904). He's best known for his series of novels set among the Irish Catholic population of Chicago's South Side—the Studs Lonigan trilogy: Young Lonigan (1932), The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (1934), and Judgment Day (1935).

It's the birthday of novelist John Steinbeck, born in Salinas, California (1902). His first novel, Cup of Gold (1929), was followed by two other unsuccessful books before he won recognition with Tortilla Flat (1935) and Of Mice and Men (1937). His greatest popular and critical success came in 1939 with The Grapes of Wrath, the classic story of the Joads, a family of "Okies" who flee the Dust Bowl to come to California.

It's the birthday of contralto Marian Anderson, born in Philadelphia (1897), the first African American to be named a permanent member of the Metropolitan Opera Company.

It's the birthday of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, born in Portland, Maine (1807). He was the author of some of the most widely read, memorized—and parodied—poems of the nineteenth century: poems such as "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere," "The Wreck of the Hesperus," and "The Song of Hiawatha." When he graduated from Bowdoin College, he wanted to go into literature. His father replied, "A literary life, to one who has means of support, must be very pleasant. But there is not wealth and munificence enough in this country to afford sufficient encouragement and patronage to merely literary men." Longfellow set out to prove his father wrong. He started out as a teacher at Bowdoin college, but gradually the success of his poetry enabled him to devote himself entirely to writing—he became America's first writer to support himself through his own work. In 1861, however, his second wife died from burns after her dress caught fire. In his grief, he turned away from the sort of poems that had made him famous, and produced an English translation of Dante's Divine Comedy (1865-1867).

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