Oct. 31, 2005
My November Guest
Poem: "My November Guest" by Robert Frost from Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays.© Library of America. Reprinted with permission.
My November Guest
My Sorrow, when she's here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.
Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She's glad the birds are gone away,
She's glad her simple worsted gray
Is silver now with clinging mist.
The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.
Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
For they are better for her praise.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is Halloween, one of the oldest holidays in the Western European tradition.
Today, 70 percent of American households will open their doors and offer candy to strangers, most of them children; 50 percent of Americans will take photographs of family or friends in costume; and the nation as a whole will spend more than six billion dollars. In terms of dollars spent, it is the second most popular holiday of the year in this country, after Christmas.
For the Celtic people of Northeastern Europe, November 1st was New Year's Day, and October 31 was the last night of the year. Celts believed it was the night that spirits, ghosts, fairies and goblins freely walked the earth. Archaeologists aren't entirely sure what all the traditions were, but they believe the holiday involved bonfires, dressing up in costumes to scare away evil spirits, and offering food and drink to the spirits of family members who had come back to visit the home.
It was Pope Gregory III in the eighth century A.D. who tried to turn Halloween into a Christian holiday to divert Northern Europeans from celebrating an old pagan ritual. He made November 1st All Saints Day, and October 31 became All Hallows Eve. Instead of providing food and drink to the spirits, Christians were encouraged to provide food and drink to the poor. And instead of dressing up like animals and ghosts, Christians were encouraged to dress up like their favorite saints.
In the United States, Puritans tried to outlaw Halloween, in part because of its association with Catholicism. So it was the Irish Catholics who brought Halloween to this country, when they immigrated here in great numbers after the potato famine in the 1840's. Since the Irish were largely poor and oppressed, Halloween became a holiday for them to let off steam by pulling pranks, hoisting wagons onto barn roofs, releasing cows from their pastures, and committing all kinds of mischief involving outhouses. Treats evolved as a way to bribe the vandals and protect homes.
But by the late 1800's, Victorian women's magazines began to offer suggestions for celebrating Halloween in wholesome ways, with barn dancing and apple bobbing. And by the early 20th Century, it became a holiday for children more than adults. In 1920, the Ladies' Home Journal made the first known reference to children going door to door for candy, and by the 1950's it was a universal practice in this country. By 1999, 92 percent of America's children were trick-or-treating.
What's interesting about Halloween is that it has no real connection to the majority religion of this country, it does not celebrate an event in our nation's past, it does not involve traveling to visit family, and it doesn't even give us a day off work. But it gives us the chance to try out other identities. For one day, people can feel free to dress as the opposite gender, as criminals, as superheroes, celebrities, animals, or even inanimate objects. But Halloween retailers report that the most popular costumes remain some variation on witches, ghosts, and devils.
It's the birthday of English poet John Keats, born in London (1795). Keats's short life was marked by the deaths of friends and family members. His father died when he was nine, and one year later his grandfather died. When he was fifteen, his mother died of tuberculosis, the disease that eventually killed his brother and, later, Keats himself. Keats said he felt "a personal soreness which the world has exacerbated."
He began writing poetry after he had started his career as an apothecary in London. He published the sonnet "O Solitude" (1816), which called the city a "jumbled heap of murky buildings." His first book, Poems (1817), was not well received. His publishers dropped him, but other poets saw promise in his work. His breakthrough poem was a sonnet called "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer." Keats had stayed up all night reading George Chapman's translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey with a friend. They stopped reading at 6:00 a.m., and by 10:00, Keats had written the poem and set it on the breakfast table for his friend.
Keats wrote most of the poetry for which he is famous in one twelve-month period, from September 1818 to September 1819. He wrote "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode on Melancholy," "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," and "To Autumn."
It's the birthday of the journalist Susan Orlean, born in Cleveland, Ohio (1955). She's best known as the author of The Orchid Thief (1998), about a self-taught botanist named John Laroche, who tried to steal an endangered species of orchid from a protected Florida state park in order to clone it and make it available in grocery stores everywhere.
The book started as a single article that Orlean wrote for The New Yorker magazine when she first read about the court case. She became fascinated by the strange subculture of orchid enthusiasts, and she began to do research on the long history of obsessive orchid hunters traveling the globe to find rare, exotic orchid specimens. She also wound up writing about the Seminoles' ongoing battle with the U.S. Government for control of their tribal lands, the destruction of Florida's swamps by land developers, and her own relationship to obsession.
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