Aug. 1, 2009

From Here to There

by Brad Leithauser

There are those great winds on a tear
Over the Great Plains,
Bending the grasses all the way
Down to the roots
And the grasses revealing
A gracefulness in the wind's fury
You would not otherwise
Have suspected there.

And there's the wind off the sea
Roiling the thin crowns of the great
Douglas firs on the cragged
Oregon coast, uprooting
Choruses of outraged cries,
As if the trees were unused
To bending, that can weather
Such storms for a century.

And—somewhere between those places,
Needing a break—we climb out stiff
From our endless drive to stand, dwindled,
On a ridge, holding hands,
In what are foothills only because
The neighboring mountains are
So much taller, and there are the breezes,
Contrarily pulled, awakening our faces.

"From Here to There" by Brad Leithauser, from Curves and Angles. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of astronomer Maria Mitchell, born in Nantucket, Massachusetts (1818). In 1831, King Frederick VI of Denmark announced that he would award a gold medal prize to anyone who could discover a telescopic comet — that is, a comet that couldn't be seen with the naked eye. In 1847, she discovered a comet, which was named "Miss Mitchell's Comet" in her honor, and since female astronomers were so rare, she became internationally known. She was the first woman elected to the Academy of Arts and Sciences, and she became a professor of Astronomy at Vassar College.

She said, "The more we see, the more are we capable of seeing."

It's the birthday of the writer Rose Macaulay, (books by this author) born in Rugby, England, in 1881. She wrote 23 novels as well as travel books and biographies. Her family were all scholars and Anglican clerics. She studied at Oxford and then began a career as a writer. During WWI she worked as a nurse and then in the British Propaganda Department, where she met Gerald O'Donovan. He was a married man, a lapsed Catholic priest, and a novelist. They had an affair that lasted until his death. In her novels, she writes about mystical Christianity and about trying to reconcile adultery with religion. She said, "At the worst, a house unkept cannot be so distressing as a life unlived."

It's the birthday of Herman Melville, (books by this author) born in New York City, (1819). From the age of 12, he worked to support himself as a clerk, farmhand, and teacher. When he was 20, he worked as a cabin boy on a ship that went to Liverpool and back, the first of his many voyages. In 1841, he joined the crew of the whaler Acushnet. Inspired by his adventures at sea, Melville returned to New York and settled down to write about his travels.

Melville got married, had four children, and moved to a farm in Massachusetts, where he became friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melville went to work on Moby-Dick, and Hawthorne encouraged him to make the novel an allegory, not just another adventure story. Melville became consumed with writing Moby-Dick. He would work all day without eating until evening, and he would bellow orders to his wife across the house. When he finished his novel he wrote to Hawthorne (to whom he also dedicated the book), "I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb." He thought it was his best book yet.

But when Moby-Dick came out in 1851, the public did not agree. It was too psychological. His American publisher only printed a few thousand copies, and most of those never even sold. After his next novel, Pierre(1852), got awful reviews, publishers stopped wanting to publish Melville's work. And when he wrote Isle of the Cross a year or so later, no one would publish it, and the manuscript has since been lost. He wrote two more novels just to make money, and he said the experience was like "sawing wood."

He moved to New York and got a job as a customs inspector on the New York docks, where he worked for 19 years. The manuscript of his final work, Billy Budd, was found in his desk after he died, by which time he had become so obscure that The New York Times called him "Henry Melville" in his obituary.

It's the birthday of the novelist Madison Smartt Bell, (books by this author) born on a farm outside Nashville, Tennessee (1957). He is the author of 12 novels, including All Souls' Rising (1995) and The Stone that the Builder Refused (2004). He said, "By the time I was seven, I thought the writer was the most powerful person in the universe, so that's what I wanted to be."

It's the birthday of the man who wrote: "The rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
gave proof through the night that our flag was still there" — Francis Scott Key, born in Frederick, Maryland (1779). In 1814, when he wrote the words that became our national anthem, Francis Scott Key was a 35-year-old lawyer. When Congress had voted in 1812 on whether to go to war with Great Britain, he had spoken out against the war and argued for diplomacy.

It was a hard time for the new United States. The British had set fire to much of Washington, D.C., and President Madison had to flee to safety. Now the British were attempting to destroy Baltimore. Key learned that a friend of his had been detained aboard a British ship, and he offered to help negotiate the man's release. By the time he had convinced the British to release his friend, they were planning their bombardment of Fort McHenry, at the entrance to the Baltimore Harbor, and Key was forced to remain aboard an enemy ship and watch the city be attacked.

The British used rockets, which were a new military weapon adapted from Chinese technology. Key was horrified as he watched these rockets fall on Fort McHenry. He later wrote, "It seemed as though Mother Earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone." He watched all night, and it seemed impossible that the fort could survive the attack.

But just after sunrise he saw the American flag still flying over the fort. In fact, Key might never have even seen the flag if the fort commander, Major Armistead, hadn't insisted on flying one of the largest American flags then in existence: 30 feet long and 42 feet high.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" actually contains four verses, although we rarely sing the last three. They are:
On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, now conceals, now discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines on the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner! O long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wiped out their foul footstep's pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven-rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, for our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner forever shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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