Jun. 18, 2004
Poem: "Destinations," by Dorothea Tanning, from A Table of Content. © Graywolf Press. Reprinted with permission.
Yesterday I saw some bears at the top of a waterfall.
They were watching salmon leap up from the cascade.
It was on television and, moreover, part of an ad.
Not one of them, salmon or bears, was impressed
by the water's will, its weight, its wrath, its wall,
the salmon flying out from that knockout force
like careless birds rising from a field of silver wheat.
The falling water obviously had no intention of getting
in the way of a salmon's destination. It was beautiful.
Trouble was, the bears were there with bear intentions.
Their heads bobbed up and down, perhaps admiring
every quiver and flash, their four feet as firmly planted
in water as the rock-face itself. Now and then one of them
opened its mouth to let a fish dive into it. That was the part
that made me think of my own headlong leaps and dives
when I thought there would be no mouths to receive me.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Amy Bloom, born in New York City (1953). She's the author of the novel Love Invents Us (1996) and the collection of short stories A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You (2000).
It's the birthday of novelist Gail Godwin, born in Birmingham, Alabama (1937). She's the author of A Mother and Two Daughters (1982), The Good Husband (1994), and Evenings at Five (2003), among many other novels.
It's the birthday of film critic Roger Ebert born in Urbana, Illinois (1942). He dropped out of graduate school at the University of Chicago to become a journalist for the Chicago Sun Times, and he eventually became the newspaper's film critic. In 1975, he became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism. He's the author of many collections of movie reviews, including I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie (2000).
And, "Every great film should seem new every time you see it."
Today is the anniversary of the day in 1815 that Napoleon Bonaparte lost his final major battle near Waterloo Village in Belgium. Napoleon was a great French emperor and general, but he came from the island of Corsica; his father sent him to military school in France. When he was in school he hated the French, and his teachers referred to him as "that dangerous islander." He was an impatient person even at an early age. He once went to see a hot air balloon launch, and when the launch was delayed, he walked up and cut the balloon loose with a penknife because he was tired of waiting around.
Napoleon took command of the French army after the French Revolution, and he was the first military leader in Europe to use commoners as officers. He believed that in order to inspire his men, the officers of his army should be dressed in beautiful uniforms, and they should all carry the same flag. Before Napoleon there were many different French flags, but he made sure that there was only one. He handed out specially made medals after every major battle—silver mounted muskets, carbines, drumsticks, axes. He once gave a special ear trumpet to a captain who had gone deaf after a mine explosion.
He declared himself emperor of France in 1804 and started invading and attacking almost everyone in Europe: England, Germany, Russia, Spain. His invasion of Russia became the subject of Tolstoy's novel War and Peace. His invasion of Spain inspired the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya to paint some of the most famous of anti-war paintings of all time, including "Third of May," which shows French soldiers shooting at a crowd of unarmed men.
After a series of defeats, Napoleon abdicated the throne and went to live on the island of Elba. He took long salt baths and read The Arabian Nights. After a year in exile, he got bored and went back to France. He gathered an army and marched north toward Belgium where he hoped to attack and destroy the English and Prussian armies, which were gathering near Brussels.
His plan was to split his own army and attack the English and Prussian armies separately, in order to drive them apart. Then he could defeat them one at a time. But the men in his army were mostly peasants and farmers he had gathered on his way north. They loved him, but they had no real experience on the battlefield. Due to a series of blunders, his two flanks accidentally drove the English and Prussian armies closer together rather than further apart.
Napoleon got the bad news at 11:00 PM on June 17th, and he spent all night worrying about it. There had been a thunderstorm that evening so he'd been forced to delay his attack on the British troops near the village of Waterloo. It was still raining on the morning of this day in 1815, as Napoleon rode his horse around the camp, inspecting his troops. He was so exhausted that later that morning he sat down in a chair and immediately fell asleep.
But despite everything going against him, he still thought he could win. He had 74,000 men compared to the opposing army's 68,000, and he had superior artillery. He told his chief of staff, "This affair is nothing more than eating breakfast." Unfortunately for Napoleon, the rain had delayed the battle so long that the Prussian army had time to arrive with reinforcements and help the British win the battle. Napoleon lost 25,000 men. He signed a second abdication in Paris and went to live on the remote island of St. Helena off the coast of Africa.
The word "Waterloo" has come to mean a decisive and final defeat. It was the abolitionist and orator Wendell Phillips who first said, "Every man meets his Waterloo at last."
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