Jan. 18, 2008
A Boy in a Bed in the Dark
Born with a cleft palate,
My two-year-old brother,
Recovering from yet another surgery,
Toddled into our bedroom
Toppled a tower of blocks
That I had patiently built
And in a five-year-old's fury
I grabbed a fallen block
And winged it at him
Ripping open his carefully reconstructed lip.
The next hours were gruesomely compressed
Ending with a boy in a bed in the dark
Mute with fear
Staring out into the hallway with horror
As the pediatrician went in and out of the bathroom
With one vast blood-soaked towel after another
Shaking his head worriedly.
My brother's howls
And my parents' cooed comfort
Became the soundtrack to this milky movie
In my darkest theatre,
The one that I sidle past each night
With a shudder
And a throb in my fist
It's the birthday of the physician and lexicographer Peter Mark Roget, born in London, England (1779). He was a working doctor for most of his life, but he was also a Renaissance man, a member of various scientific, literary and philosophical societies. In his spare time, he invented a slide rule for performing difficult mathematical calculations, and a method of water filtration that is still in use today. He wrote papers on a variety of topics, including the kaleidoscope and Dante, and he was one of the contributors to the early Encylopaedia Britannica.
He was 61 years old and had just retired from his medical practice, when he decided to devote his retirement to publishing a system of classifying words into groups based on their meanings. Other scholars had published books of synonyms before, but Roget wanted to assemble something more comprehensive. He said, "[The book will be] a collection of the words it contains and of the idiomatic combinations peculiar to it, arranged, not in alphabetical order as they are in a Dictionary, but according to the ideas which they express."
He organized all the words into six categories: Abstract Relations, Space, Matter, Intellect, Volition, Sentient and Moral Powers, and within each category there were many subcategories. The project took him more than 10 years, but he finally published his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases in 1852. He chose the word "thesaurus" because it means "treasury" in Greek.
Roget's Thesaurus might have been considered an intellectual curiosity, except that at the last minute Roget decided to include an index. That index, which helped readers find synonyms, made the book into one of the most popular reference books of all time. It is considered one of the great lexicographical achievements in the history of the English language, and it has been helping English students pad their vocabularies for more than 150 years.
It's the birthday of the humorist and children's book writer A. A. [Alan Alexander] Milne, (books by this author) born in London, England (1882). His parents ran a private school for boys, and while Milne was growing up, one of the teachers his parents hired was H. G. Wells, who encouraged him to be a writer.
Milne got into college on a scholarship for mathematics, but once there he spent all his time writing funny poems and essays for campus publications. When he graduated, he got a job at the famous Punch magazine, where he became one of the leading humorists of his day, writing essays about golf, croquet, parties, and cricket.
In 1917, he produced the play"Wurzel-Flummery." He went on to write more than 30 plays, all of them drawing-room comedies and all of them successful, but all quickly forgotten. So he turned to writing novels and specialized in detective stories, which were also successful and forgotten. He also published 19 volumes of essays, but though everything he wrote was entertaining, it was all forgettable. More than anything else, Milne wanted to write something that would stand the test of time.
One of Milne's friends had just started a new magazine for children, and asked him if he would contribute. He didn't have any interest in writing children's literature, even though his own son was three years old and just learning how to read. But during a holiday in Wales, he found himself trapped in the house during a rainstorm with nothing to do.
Milne said, "So there I was with an exercise-book and a pencil, and a fixed determination not to leave the heavenly solitude of that summer-house until it stopped raining ... and there on the other side of the lawn was a child with whom I had lived for three years ... and here within me unforgettable memories of my own childhood." So he began writing a series of poems, most of them addressed to his son, Christopher Robin. The poems were collected in his book When We Were Very Young (1924), which was a huge success.
Around the same time, his son had begun playing with a group of stuffed animals named Pooh Bear, Piglet, Tigger, and Eeyore in the Ashdown forest near their house. Milne loved the idea that his son played with fake animals in a real forest. In his books Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928), he turned that forest into a magical place where there are no adults, but only Christopher Robin and his animal friends.
Since his death, Milne's more than 60 books for adults have almost all gone out of print, but his Winnie-the-Pooh books remain classics of children's literature. They have been translated into more than 20 languages, including Latin.
A.A. Milne wrote, "Wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing."
It's the birthday of the poet Jon Stallworthy, (books by this author) born in London (1935). His parents were New Zealanders who came to England for a temporary visit just before World War II and wound up staying for almost 30 years. Stallworthy grew up in England, but he always felt slightly out of place. He said, "I had an odd, exciting rather than disturbing, sense of not quite belonging in the middle-class world of my friends. My parents were New Zealanders, and their other world was always shimmering like a mirage at the edge of sight."
He went to a school where he was forced to memorize dozens of poems and to write new poems in the style of various authors. He said, "By the time I was thirteen … I had wrestled with Chaucerian couplets, Shakespearean sonnets, Housmanic quatrains, and knew that poetry was music and hard to write."
He went on to write many collections of poetry, including A Familiar Tree (1978) and The Guest from the Future (1995).
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