Mar. 26, 2006
Poem: "Revelation" by Robert Frost from Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays © The Library of America. Reprinted with permission.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of poet Robert Frost, born in San Francisco (1874). His father was a journalist and a hard drinker who died of tuberculosis when Frost was eleven years old. Frost moved with his mother to New England to live near family. He grew up hating school and his mother let him skip class whenever he wanted, telling him that he would grow up to be a greater man than any of his classmates. He believed her. He graduated from his high school as the co-valedictorian. The other valedictorian was his high school sweetheart, Elinor White.
After graduation, Frost went to Dartmouth and Elinor went to St. Lawrence. But Frost was totally bored by his classes and didn't even finish a single term. He took a job at a mill and tried to persuade Elinor to drop out of school and marry him. He decided to prove himself to her through his writing. He worked hard on a series of five poems, one of which he'd managed to publish in a journal, and had them privately printed in a book. He brought the newly printed book all the way to St. Lawrence, hoping it would persuade Elinor to be his wife. She told him that she thought the poems were unimpressive.
Frost was so devastated that he went home and hopped a Merchant Marine ship to Norfolk, Virginia. From there, he followed a trail into the Dismal Swamp and considered drowning himself. He walked all night through the swamp, but something made him decide to head back home. It took him three weeks, hopping trains and borrowing food from hobos along the road. He and Elinor got married the next year (1895).
Frost supported himself as a teacher for a few years, writing poetry on the side. Then, in 1900, he and his wife lost their first child. He fell into despair. He was barely making ends meet, his marriage was on the rocks and he began considering suicide again. So his grandfather took pity on him and bought him a farm in Derry, New Hampshire, in hopes that it would give him a steady income. Frost never really took to farming. He milked his cows late at night so that he wouldn't have to get up early in the morning. But farm life gave him something to write about, and it was in those years on the farm that he began to write the poems that would make his name.
He developed a new style of poetry that was metrically precise but which sounded like ordinary American speech. In a letter to a friend, Frost wrote, "I alone of English writers have consciously set myself to make music out of what I may call the sound of sense." His first two collections were A Boy's Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914). The latter contains many of Frost's early masterpieces, including "Mending Wall," "The Death of the Hired Man," "After Apple-Picking," and "Home Burial." Several of Frost's early poems read like short stories, and "Home Burial" is about a fight between a husband and wife after the death of their son, which Frost wrote about the loss of his own first child. He never once read it aloud in public.
It's the birthday of dramatist Tennessee Williams, born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi (1911). He wrote the plays The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955).
Tennessee Williams said, "I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person. But these seemingly fragile people are the strong people really."
It's the birthday of Joseph Campbell, born in New York City (1904). He saw Buffalo Bill's Wild West Riders as a child and decided to learn everything there was to know about Indians. He read his way through the children's room at his local library by the time he was eleven and started right in on reports from the Bureau of Ethnology.
In college, he turned to studying Arthurian legend. He abandoned a Ph.D. dissertation about Holy Grail stories and went to live in a shack, where for five years he continued to read. In 1949 he published a monumental study of mythology called The Hero With a Thousand Faces; it traced the common theme of the spiritual quest in myth. All sorts of writers found it a treasure trove for their own work, from the poet Robert Bly to the filmmaker George Lucas, who said that without it, he would never have been able to write Star Wars.
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