Nov. 20, 2001

To a Very Beautiful Lady

by Ruthven Todd

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Poem: "To a Very Beautiful Lady," by Ruthven Todd.

To a Very Beautiful Lady

And when you walk the world lifts up its head,
Planets are haloed by the unembarrassed stars,
The town lies fallow at your feet, the ancient dead
Recall their loves, their queens and emperors,
Their shepherds and the quiet pastoral scene.
For less than you Troy burned and Egypt fell,
The corn was blasted while it still stood green,
And Faustus went protesting into Hell.

Be careful, sweet, adored by half the world,
Time to its darlings is not always kind,
There lie the lovelies whom the years have scored
Deeper than all the hearts which once repined.
The knife you hold could cut an empire low
Or in your own breast place the suicidal blow.

It's the birthday of South African novelist Nadine Gordimer, born in Springs, South Africa (1923). She's the author of 16 collections of short stories and 13 novels, most of which explore the issue of race in her homeland. They include A Guest of Honor (1970); The Conservationist (1974), which won the Booker Prize in Great Britain; and The House Gun (1998). Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991, and has served as a member of the African National Congress. She has said: "People make the mistake of regarding commitment as something solely political. A writer is committed to trying to make sense of life. It's a search. So there is that commitment first of all: the commitment to the honesty and determination to go as deeply into things as possible, and to dredge up what little bit of truth you with your talent can then express."

It's the birthday of Swedish novelist Selma Ottiliana Lovisa Lagerlöf, born in Mårbacka, Värmland, Sweden (1858). She was raised on her family's estate in rural Sweden, where she grew up listening to legends and fairy tales at her grandfather's knee. She left home at 23, to become a teacher at a girl's school. During her years as a teacher, she began to write a novel, published in 1891 as Gösta Berling's Saga (The Story of Gösta Berling). This first novel remained her best known work until 1906, when she published The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, about a young boy's adventures while traveling over Sweden on the back of a wild goose. In 1909, she became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

On this day in 1820, the 280-ton whale-ship Essex, out of Nantucket, was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale, west of the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Twenty crew members escaped from the wreckage on three open boats. Three months later, two of those boats were found and rescued. Only eight crew members remained. Of those who died, seven died of natural causes and were eaten by their shipmates. On one of the boats, lots were drawn and a cabin boy, Owen Coffin, was shot and eaten. One of the survivors, Owen Chase, wrote up an account of the ordeal, which he called A Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex, which was published in 1821. Twenty years later, in 1841, Owen Chase was the captain of the whaler "Acushnet," commanding a crew that included a young foremast hand named Herman Melville. The captain's history was a topic of constant discussion among the crew, and an intrigued Melville finally managed to get his hands on a copy of the captain's book. He read the book on the voyage, which covered some of the same waters as the "Essex" did 20 years earlier. He wrote: "The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea, and close to the very latitude of the shipwreck, had a surprising effect on me." A few years later, Melville was inspired by the story of the whale-ship "Essex" to start work on his masterpiece, Moby Dick (1851).

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