Dec. 9, 2009


by David Lehman

The disappearance of a cat is a good omen,
He said when she told him that hers was missing
A week after moving into her new house.
Cats in captivity violate the natural order,
He said. They should be out prowling, left
To fend for themselves in the streets and alleys
Of cities whose night life depends on them,
Of having them in the picture along with a cigarette,
A lamppost, the lid of an aluminum garbage can,
A police siren, an off-duty nightclub dancer
In a flimsy frock, with a run
In her nylons. A searchlight, a spotlight.
Strapless. The theater poster on the wall.

"Hopper" by David Lehman, from Yeshiva Boys. © Scribner, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Léonie Adams, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn in 1899. She said, "Never, my heart, is there enough of living."

It's the birthday of cartoonist and writer Ashleigh Brilliant, (books by this author) born in London (1933). He's famous as a writer of epigrams, and best known for what he calls his Pot-Shots, which are an illustration with a one-liner below. He limits his sayings to 17 words, and many of them are found in the titles of some of his books: I Have Abandoned My Search for Truth, and Am Now Looking for a Good Fantasy (1980), We've Been Through So Much Together, and Most of It Was Your Fault (1990), and most recently, I'm Just Moving Clouds Today, Tomorrow I'll Try Mountains (1998).

It was on this day in 1854 that Alfred, Lord Tennyson's (books by this author) poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" was published in the London Examiner. The poem described a disastrous charge by the British military six weeks earlier, on October 25th, in the Crimean War. There was a series of misunderstandings between top officials who disliked each other and so did a poor job passing on orders, with the eventual result that one of the generals, confused about who he was supposed to be attacking, led the Light Brigade — lightly armed cavalry soldiers — into battle against a well-defended fort filled with heavily armed Russian soldiers. Out of 600 British soldiers, at least 110 died and many more were wounded, and all because of a military error.

But it wasn't the first military blunder ever, and it wasn't even a particularly devastating loss of life compared to many other battles in other wars. What was so different was that for the first time, there were reporters and photographers right at the scene. They were able to watch the drama unfold, take notes and photos, and in about three weeks all that was in the newspaper for everyone in Britain to see.

That was probably the article that Tennyson read, and he was so moved by the story that he sat right down and in just a few minutes he wrote six stanzas about the battle. Those six stanzas became his famous poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade," which made the battle even more mythic in the eyes of the public. The poem was extremely popular, and Tennyson had a thousand copies printed for the soldiers still fighting in the Crimean War.

It begins:
Half a league, half a league,      
Half a league onward,  
All in the valley of Death          
Rode the six hundred.  
"Forward, the Light Brigade!    
Charge for the guns" he said:    
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

It's the birthday of John Milton, (books by this author) born in London in 1608. We remember him as a poet, but for most of his life, he was best known as a political writer. He published pamphlets and essays on controversial political subjects. His most famous political writings were defenses of divorce and freedom of the press, and his feelings on these topics stemmed from personal experience more than anything. When he was in his 30s, he married a 16-year-old girl whose father owed Milton money. Milton was strict and cold toward her, and she left and went back to live with her family, which frustrated Milton, and he wanted to divorce her — hence the pamphlet The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643). The pamphlet generated a lot of negative criticism, and so in response to that, he wrote Areopagitica (1644), his defense of free speech. A few years later, in 1649, he became the Secretary for Foreign Languages under Oliver Cromwell. When Cromwell was overthrown and the monarchy was restored in England, Milton's writings were burned and he was arrested. He managed to get out of jail, and was possibly saved from death, by the intervention of the younger poet Andrew Marvell.

By this time, Milton was completely blind, probably from glaucoma, and so he was dependent on assistants, including Marvell, to keep on writing. As a younger man, Milton would stay up late working, but now he went to bed early and got up at 4 a.m. in summer and 5 a.m. in winter. One of his assistants would read the Bible to him, then he would sit and think for a couple of hours, and then the assistant would come back and read to Milton or transcribe Milton's thoughts if he wanted to write.

For a long time, he had been planning to write an epic poem, deciding on a religious theme. And so he set out to write the epic story of original sin, of Adam and Eve and their temptation by Satan, of Satan's fall from heaven and a battle between the fallen angels and those in heaven. It took him six years, between 1658 and 1664, to dictate the blank-verse poem to various assistants. He sold it to a publisher for £10 pounds, and in 1667 it was published as Paradise Lost.

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