Sep. 19, 2009

The Long Dream of Falling

by John Haag

Half my life ago I read
on the back page of the daily paper
of a boy-child in his eighth year who,
in his father's garage, hung himself
rather than suffer parental
revulsion engendered by
the great, flaming D
D for deficient
D for defeat
D for die
on his report card.

Bad news rains leapers from parapets
and everywhere unrequited lovers,
the irreparably damaged and
the merely gutless spin
the turnstiles to surcease.

So why does this kid
still wake me in the middle of the night?

"The Long Dream of Falling", by John Haag from Stones Don't Float. © Ohio State University Press, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of William Golding, (books by this author) born in St. Columb Minor, Cornwall (1911). He went to Oxford, published a book of poems, became a teacher. Then he joined the navy and served as a lieutenant on a rocket launcher. He was faced with a huge ethical decision when he learned that he would have to take the ship across a minefield in order to be on time for the D-Day operations. He couldn't decide whether to risk the lives of his men or the lives of all those participating in D-Day who needed their help. Finally, he risked it and made it in time. Later, he learned that the minefield wasn't real — it was put on a map to fool the Germans. That experience made Golding think about how moral decisions could rest on things that didn't even exist. He thought a lot about ethical dilemmas, and about the horror of war, and he wrote a novel about a group of good English schoolboys whose plane crashes on a desert island, and who descend into the extremes of savage behavior. For the title of the novel, he translated the word "Beelzebub" from Hebrew into English: "Lord of the Flies." The novel was rejected more than a dozen times, but when Lord of the Flies finally came out in 1954, it became a classic.

It was on this day in 1819 that 24-year-old John Keats (books by this author) wrote the ode "To Autumn." It is one of the most anthologized poems in the English language. He wrote to his friend: "Somehow a stubble plain looks warm — in the same way that some pictures look warm — this struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it."

Keats was despairing about that year of his poetic life. In November, he wrote to his brother, "Nothing could have in all its circumstances fallen out worse for me than the last year has done, or could be more damping to my poetical talent."

But these days, Keats scholars call 1819 the "Living Year," the "Great Year," or the "Fertile Year." Keats had written almost all his great poetry during that year, including a series of odes during that spring and summer, including "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode to a Grecian Urn," and "Ode to Psyche." "To Autumn" was the last of these odes. Keats died from tuberculosis less than two years later, at age 25.

It was on this day in 1863 that the Battle of Chickamauga began, about 12 miles east of Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. A volunteer infantryman from Kentucky wrote:

"At break of day, Sept. 19, 1863, the order came down the line, 'Halt! Close up; front; stack arms and prepare and eat breakfast as rapidly as possible.' …  Many little fires were burning, around each of which were gathered small groups of men eagerly watching the coffee boiling while they toasted slices of bacon on the end of a stick. Just at this inopportune moment, boom! boom!! boom!!! came the sound of cannon. … Every man abandoned his coffee, disposed of his bacon, either by putting it in his mouth or his haversack, and rushed for his gun. When the command "Attention!" came, every man was ready to take arms promptly at the word. "Shoulder arms! Right face! Forward, march!" quickly followed, and we were again on the move.

"The grand rush now made by those who had abandoned their coffee-boilers to regain possession of them, and secure the benefit of the much needed stimulant, was enlivening. To see the attempts made to swallow the hot beverage while marching over the rough road was ludicrous in the extreme. I was one of the party that went through the experience of trying to eat hardtack and bacon, and drinking hot coffee, while marching over rough ground. Many among our regiment went into the Chickamauga battle with both hands full of something to eat or drink."

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