Saturday

Nov. 22, 2003

The North

by Charles Simic

SATURDAY, 22 NOVEMBER 2003
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Poem: "The North," by Charles Simic, from The Book of Gods and Devils (Harcourt, Brace and Company).

The North

The ancients knew the sorrows of exile:
If you weren't hanged, they'd pack you off
To the far ends of the Earth,
To go on grumbling, writing endless petitions
That would never reach the Emperor.

The North always the place of punishment:
Unforgiving cold, rags on your back,
And the company of a few sullen barbarians
At day's end when the wind parts the clouds
And the stars seem to be mocking.

Every few years a garbled message from home.
Memory paying a call in the wee hours:
A mother's face; the company of merry friends
At the long table in the garden;
Their wives baring their throats in the afternoon heat…

"The sages suffered, too, exiled from truth,"
That's what you tell yourself…
Not many are meant to retrace their steps
And behold the splendors of the capital
Even more seductive than when you knew them.

The North always the place of punishment.
Deep snow. Blue-veined trees and bushes
Rising against the pink-colored morning sky…
So that briefly, in that one spell,
Your heartache hushes at the beauty of it.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of composer Benjamin Britten, born in Suffolk, England (1913), whose most famous operas include Billy Budd (1951), The Turn of the Screw (1954), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960), and Death in Venice (1973).


It's the birthday of novelist George Robert Gissing, born in Yorkshire, England (1857). He's best known for his novel New Grub Street (1891).


It's the birthday of prolific letter writer and first lady Abigail Adams, born in Weymouth, Massachusetts (1744).


It's the birthday of (Hoagland Howard) "Hoagy" Carmichael, born in Bloomington, Indiana (1899). He said that he wrote many songs, including "Stardust" and "Georgia on My Mind," out of a powerful sense of inferiority, and that he wished he was someone like George Gershwin, who seemed to be so technically adept and so sure of himself.


It's the birthday of writer and André (Paul-Guillaume) Gide, born in Paris, France (1869). He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947. He used his writings to examine moral questions, in such works as The Immoralist (1902), a novel about illicit sensuality that reflected the dilemma of his own marriage and his conflicting sexual urges, and The Counterfeiters (1926), which exposes its characters' hypocrisy and self-deception. Gide said, "Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does, the better." He also said, "It is better to be hated for what you are than loved for what you are not. And he said, "One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time."


It's the birthday of novelist Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot, born in Warwickshire, England (1819). She's the author of many novels, including The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), and Middlemarch (1871). The writer Henry James described her as "magnificently, awe-inspiringly ugly." James also said, "What is remarkable, extraordinary--and the process remains inscrutable and mysterious--is that this quiet, anxious, sedentary, serious, English lady . . . without adventures, without extravagance, assumption, or bravado, should have made us believe that nothing in the world was alien to her; should have produced such rich, deep, masterly pictures of the multifold life of man."

Virginia Woolf called Middlemarch a "magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people."

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