Apr. 27, 2011

She Was Poor But She Was Honest

by Anonymous

She was poor but she was honest,
  Victim of a rich man's whim,
First he loved her, then he left her,
  And she lost her honest name.

Then she ran away to London,
  For to hide her grief and shame;
There she met another squire,
  And she lost her name again.

See her riding in a carriage,
  In the Park and all so gay:
All the nibs and nobby persons
  Come to pass the time of day.

See the little old-world village
  Where her aged parents live,
Drinking the champagne she sends them;
  But they never can forgive.

In the rich man's arms she flutters,
  Like a bird with broken wing:
First he loved her, then he left her,
  And she hasn't got a ring.

See him in the splendid mansion,
  Entertaining with the best,
While the girl that he has ruined,
  Entertains a sordid guest.

See him in the House of Commons,
  Making laws to put down crime,
While the victim of his passions
  Trails her way through mud and slime.

Standing on the bridge at midnight,
  She says: 'Farewell, blighted Love.'
There's a scream, a splash — Good Heavens!
  What is she a-doing of?

Then they drag her from the river,
  Water from her clothes they wrang,
For they thought that she was drownded;
  But the corpse got up and sang:

'It's the same the whole world over;
  It's the poor that gets the blame,
It's the rich that get the pleasure.
  Isn't it a blooming shame?'

"She Was Poor But She Was Honest" by Anonymous. Public domain.

On this day in 1667, the poet John Milton (books by this author) sold the copyright for his masterpiece, Paradise Lost, for 10 pounds. Milton had championed the cause of Oliver Cromwell and the Parliament over the king during the English Civil War, and published a series of radical pamphlets in support of such things as Puritanism, freedom of the press, divorce on the basis of incompatibility, and the execution of King Charles I. With the overthrow of the monarchy and the creation of the Commonwealth, Milton was named Secretary of Foreign Tongues, and though he eventually lost his eyesight, he was able to carry out his duties with the help of aides like fellow poet Andrew Marvell.

When the monarchy was restored in 1660, Milton was imprisoned as a traitor and stripped of his property. He was soon released, but was now impoverished as well as completely blind, and he spent the rest of his life secluded in a cottage in Buckinghamshire. This is where he dictated Paradise Lost — an epic poem about the Fall of Man, with Satan as a kind of antihero — and its sequel, Paradise Regained, about the temptation of Christ.

Today is the birthday of writer, philosopher, and women's rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft (books by this author), born in London in 1759. Her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is one of the earliest books of feminist philosophy; in it, she argues that it is lack of access to education, not any inherent flaw, that makes women seem inferior to men. She argued that women should be taught to be rational, rather than ornamental, beings and that they should be given skills to help them support themselves in widowhood so that they need never marry out of financial necessity. Her own education was haphazard, because her father had squandered his inheritance and was trying — and failing — to earn a living as a gentleman farmer. The family moved around a lot, and though her brother Ned received a formal education, Mary did not.

She's less well known, but no less influential, as a travel writer. Her book Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796) combined political and social commentary, descriptions of the landscape and culture, and personal revelation, and it influenced Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge. It probably didn't hurt her burgeoning relationship with philosopher William Godwin either; he wrote: "If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book." They became good friends, and then lovers, and she became pregnant. They married in March 1797, and their daughter, Mary, who would grow up to marry Percy Shelley and write Frankenstein, was born in August, but Mary Wollstonecraft died of septicemia 10 days later. Godwin grieved deeply, writing to a friend, "I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again."

Ten years before her death, Wollstonecraft had written to her sister, "You know I am not born to tread in the beaten track — the peculiar bent of my nature pushes me on." Because that was what Godwin loved about her, he published a memoir of her life the following year, intending it as a celebration of her unconventional life, but readers were shocked at her love affairs, her suicide attempts, and her two daughters conceived out of wedlock. Her reputation suffered a near-fatal blow, and the prevailing opinion of the 19th century was that no respectable woman would have anything to do with her except as a cautionary tale. It took almost 80 years, and the advent of the women's suffrage movement, to rehabilitate her in the public eye.

Today is the birthday of Civil War general and 18th President Ulysses S. Grant, born in Point Pleasant, Ohio in 1822. He was born Hiram Ulysses Grant — a large baby, weighing almost 11 pounds — and his family called him Ulysses, or Lyss for short. The Congressman who nominated him for West Point mistakenly listed his name as "Ulysses S. Grant," and since West Point would only honor the name on the nomination form, he kept the fictitious middle initial. His classmates called him Sam, because U.S. also stood for Uncle Sam; he was a fine horseman, setting an equestrian high-jump record that stood at West Point for 25 years.

When the Civil War began, he was working as a clerk in his father's leather goods store. Seven years later, he was president of the United States; it was the first public office he had ever held, and at 46, he was also the youngest man elected to that office up to that time.

His presidency was marred by corruption scandals and cronyism, but he also championed several civil rights causes, including voting rights for African-Americans, and justice for Native Americans who had been forced off their lands. After his presidency, he depleted much of his savings on a trip around the world with his wife, and a crooked investment banker swindled him out of what was left. He had to sell his Civil War mementoes to pay off his debts, and around this time he was diagnosed with throat cancer, probably caused by the cigar habit he picked up during the war. Destitute and in terrible pain from the cancer, he began to write, beginning with a series of articles on his war campaigns for The Century Magazine. Mark Twain encouraged Grant to write his memoirs and he published the book, offering Grant a generous 75 percent share of the royalties. Grant finished the book just days before his death, and it was a critical and commercial success, earning his family $450,000. Twain called it "the most remarkable work of its kind since the Commentaries of Julius Caesar."

Today is also the birthday of Anglo-Irish poet and detective novelist Cecil Day-Lewis (books by this author). Born in Ballintubbert, Ireland, in 1904, he moved with his father to London in 1906, following his mother's death. He attended Oxford and became one of a leftist poets' group led by W.H. Auden. In 1935, he wrote a detective novel, A Question of Proof, to pay for the repair of a leaky roof; it proved so successful that he was able to live off his writing for the first time, and he went on to write 19 more, under the pen name Nicholas Blake.

Much of his early poetry was political, and it wasn't until his collection Word Over All (1943) that he broke free from the Auden school and established his own voice. He was also carrying on a double life at this time, with his long-suffering wife, Mary, and two sons in the country, a long-standing affair with novelist Rosamond Lehmann in London, and occasional trysts (and an illegitimate child) with the farmer's wife next door. Mary put up with his affairs, but when he sent her a copy of Word Over All by post, she found he'd dedicated it to his mistress. Eventually, he left both women for Jill Balcon, a 23-year-old actress. They married and had two children together, including the actor Daniel Day-Lewis.

He died of pancreatic cancer in 1972, and because he admired Thomas Hardy, he requested to be buried as near to Hardy as possible, and there they both lie, in Stinson churchyard in Dorset, England.

And today is the birthday of playwright August Wilson (books by this author), born Frederick August Kittel Jr. in Pittsburgh (1945). The son of a German immigrant baker and an African-American cleaning woman, he is best known for his 10-play series, sometimes known as the Pittsburgh Cycle, about the black American experience in each decade of the 20th century.

Unchallenged by his high school curriculum, and plagued by racist threats, he dropped out in the 10th grade and educated himself at the Carnegie Library, reading such notable authors as Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright. He also educated himself on the streets of the Hill District of Pittsburgh, listening to the everyday voices on the stoops and in the coffee shops and in Pat's Place, a local cigar store.

When his father died in 1965, Kittel changed his name to August Wilson in honor of his mother, whose name was Daisy Wilson. She wanted him to be a lawyer, but he wanted to be a writer, and though he wrote and directed a few plays, poetry was his first ambition. He moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1978 and took a job at the Science Museum, turning Native American stories into plays for children. Later he moved to Seattle, but his soul never really left the Hill District where he grew up, and all but one of his Pittsburgh Cycle plays was set there. He oversaw production of Radio Golf, the final play in the cycle, in 2005, and died of liver cancer six months later.

He said: "I once wrote a short story called 'The Best Blues Singer in the World' and it went like this: 'The streets that Balboa walked were his own private ocean, and Balboa was drowning.' End of story. That says it all ... I've been rewriting that same story over and over again. All my plays are rewriting that same story. I'm not sure what it means, other than life is hard."

His best-known plays were Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984), Fences (1987), and The Piano Lesson (1990).

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