May 3, 2004
Poem: "Metamorphosis," by May Sarton, from Collected Poems 1930-1993. © W.W. Norton and Co. Reprinted with permission.
Always it happens when we are not there--
The tree leaps up alive into the air,
Small open parasols of Chinese green
Wave on each twig. But who has ever seen
The latch sprung, the bud as it burst?
Spring always manages to get there first.
Lovers of wind, who will have been aware
Of a faint stirring in the empty air,
Look up one day through a dissolving screen
To find no star, but this multiplied green,
Shadow on shadow, singing sweet and clear.
Listen, lovers of wind, the leaves are here!
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Niccolo Machiavelli, born in Florence, Italy (1469). He was a prominent statesman, but in 1512 he was accused of conspiring against the government. Florence had just fallen into the hands of the Medicis, and Machiavelli was seen as a threat to their rule. He was tortured and imprisoned for three weeks, and then sent into exile. He went to live on his family farm and began writing a pamphlet to try to gain the favor of the Medici family. That pamphlet became his masterpiece, The Prince (1532), which is full of practical advice on how rulers can stay in power. Among other things, he advocated killing potential rebels, and said that it's better to be feared than to be loved.
Machiavelli has never had a good reputation. Shakespeare referred to him as "Murderous Machiavel," and others in the sixteenth century called him "Old Nick," a nickname for Satan. In 1827, poet and philosopher Lord Macaulay wrote that he doubted "whether any name in literary history be so generally odious." Twentieth-century philosopher Bertrand Russell called The Prince "a handbook for gangsters." Some people say Machiavelli was a big influence on dictators like Hitler and Stalin. Today, the word "Machiavellian" has come to mean "marked by cunning, duplicity or bad faith."
Machiavelli's main point in The Prince is that the most important task for a ruler is to keep his country secure and peaceful, using whatever means possible. Sometimes, this means doing things that most people would consider immoral, but Machiavelli said that that's just part of the job.
He was cynical about human nature: he argued that it was natural for most people to be selfish, and so a great ruler has to accept that he lives in an immoral world. He wrote, "A man who might want to make a show of goodness in all things necessarily comes to ruin among so many who are not good. Because of this it is necessary for a prince, wanting to maintain himself, to learn how to be able to be not good and to use this and not use it according to necessity."
He also argued that most people value their property more than the lives of their friends and family, and so in some situations it's okay for rulers to kill their citizens, but it's almost never okay to take away their property. He wrote, "Men must be either pampered or crushed, because they can get revenge for small injuries, but not for grievous ones. So any injury a prince does a man should be of a kind where there is no fear of revenge."
Despite Machiavelli's hopes, The Prince didn't win over the Medicis. A few years later, a new republic was established in Italy, but his name had already become so associated with evil and violence that he wasn't able to get another government job for the rest of his life. He wrote two more books, and died in 1527.
It's the birthday of May Sarton, born Eleanor Marie Sarton in Wondelgem, Belgium (1912). She wrote more than fifty books in her lifetime, including novels, poetry collections, memoirs and journals. In 1929, she saw Eva Le Gallienne perform in The Cradle Song, and she fell in love with the theater. She got a scholarship to Vassar College, but instead of accepting it she went off to New York to work for Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Theatre. She continued to write poetry while she was there, and when the theater closed in 1935 because of the Great Depression, she decided to abandon her dream of becoming an actress so she could focus on writing. Two year later, she published her first collection of poetry, Encounter in April (1937), and the following year she published her first novel, The Single Hound (1938).
It's the birthday of playwright and screenwriter William Inge, born in Independence, Kansas (1913). He wanted to be an actor from a very young age, but after he graduated from college he decided that he wasn't good enough and he became a teacher instead. He taught for over ten years; he kept a journal and occasionally wrote book and movie reviews for a newspaper, but he never considered himself a writer until he started going to plays in St. Louis in the mid-1940s. He thought he could write something better, and he decided he'd give it a shot. His first play was Farther Off From Heaven, produced in Dallas in 1947.
Three years later he had his first big hit, Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), about a cynical, alcoholic man and his wife, who fantasizes about her happy childhood and her lost beauty. Inge went on to write Picnic (1953), Although Bus Stop (1955) and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957).
It's the birthday of songwriter and playwright Betty Comden, born in Brooklyn, New York (1915). She and Adolph Green had one of the longest-running collaborations in the history of Broadway. Together they wrote the lyrics for On the Town (1944), Wonderful Town (1953), Subways are for Sleeping (1961), Hallelujah, Baby (1967), and the movie Singin' in the Rain (1952).
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®