Jul. 12, 2011
In southern France live two old horses,
High in the foothills, not even French,
But English, retired steeplechasers
Brought across to accept an old age
Of ambling together in the Pyrenees.
At times they whinny and kick
At one another with impatience,
But they have grown to love each other.
In time the gelding grows ill
And is taken away for treatment.
The mare pines, pokes at her food,
Dallies on her rides until the other
She is in her stall
When the trailer rumbles
Through the gate into the field,
And she sings with impatience
Until her door is opened.
Of sound and speed, in need of
Each other, they entwine their necks,
Rub muzzles, bumping flanks
To embrace in their own way.
Together they prance to
The choicest pasture,
Standing together and apart,
To be glad until
They can no longer be glad.
It's the birthday of Henry David Thoreau (books by this author), born in Concord, Massachusetts (1817). He got his first glimpse of Walden Pond as a young boy; he wrote later: "When I was five years old, I was brought from Boston to this pond, away in the country, — which was then but another name for the extended world for me. [...] That woodland vision for a long time made the drapery of my dreams."
Thoreau was a bright young man, but also good with his hands, and he planned to become a carpenter. His parents sent him to Harvard, and he excelled there, but he didn't like it much. He graduated in 1837, but had no career ambitions, and after a failed two-week stint as a teacher, he moved back home to work in his family's pencil factory. He and his brother opened a school, which also failed. A few years later, his beloved brother died, and Thoreau was even more lost. He spent a couple of years working for the Emerson family as a handyman and tutor, then went back to the pencil factory. He improved his family's business when he discovered an economical way to bind graphite and clay, and he seemed on track to spend the rest of his life manufacturing pencils.
Then, in 1844, 26-year-old Thoreau took a vacation and went fishing on the Sudbury River with a friend. It hadn't rained much lately so the woods were unusually dry. The two men lit a fire to cook up some fish chowder, but they lost control of the fire. The fire spread from the grass along the river to the trees, and eventually burned down nearly 300 acres of the Concord woods. Local citizens were furious, and whispered "woodsburner" behind Thoreau's back for years.
No one knows whether Thoreau's guilt over burning the woods had any connection to his decision, about a year later, to move to a cabin in the woods on the shore of Walden Pond — the experience that would inspire his most famous book, Walden (1854). He didn't write about the fire until six years later, in 1850, by which point he acted nonchalant about the whole thing. He wrote: "I once set fire to the woods. [...] I said to myself, 'Who are these men who are said to be the owners of these woods, and how am I related to them? I have set fire to the forest, but I have done no wrong therein, and now it is as if the lightning had done it. These flames are but consuming their natural food.' It has never troubled me from that day to this more than if the lightning had done it. The trivial fishing was all that disturbed me and disturbs me still. So shortly I settled it with myself and stood to watch the approaching flames. It was a glorious spectacle and I was the only one there to enjoy it."
It was on this day in 1389 that Geoffrey Chaucer (books by this author) was appointed "clerk of the king's works" for Richard II. In his official notice, Chaucer was declared to be in charge of "our works at our Palace of Westminster, our Tower of London, our Castle of Berkhamstead, our Manors of Hennington, Eltham, Clerendon, Shene, Byfleet, Chiltern, Langley, and Feckenham, our Lodges of Hathebergh in our New Forest, and at our other parks, and our Mews for falcons at Chering Cross; likewise our gardens, fishponds, mills and park enclosures pertaining to the said Palace, Tower, Castles, Manors, Lodges, and Mews, with power (by self or deputy) to choose and take masons, carpenters and all sundry other workmen and laborers who are needful for our works, wheresoever they can be found, within or without all liberties (Church fee alone excepted); and to set the same to labor at the said works, at our wages."
It was a good deal for Chaucer — his salary more than tripled from his previous appointment as a manager of customs — but he only stayed in the position for two years. No one knows whether he quit or was fired. His next job was managing a royal forest; and for a few years, there are official records that the government paid Chaucer yearly annuities of money and of wine. In 1399, he took out a 53-year lease for a house on the grounds of Westminster Abbey, and then completely disappeared from the record. His gravestone says that he died in 1400, but since the gravestone was probably erected in the 1550s, there is no evidence that the date is accurate, and no one knows how or when he died. He was buried in Westminster Abbey because he lived there and because of his position as clerk of the king's works. In the 16th century, a larger tomb was erected for Chaucer, and Edmund Spenser was buried nearby. This began a tradition of burying writers in what became known as "Poets' Corner."
At the age of 19, he set out to publish his first book. His family disapproved of his writing, so he chose a pen name: Pablo Neruda. He struggled to find a publisher. Eventually the Chilean Students' Federation agreed to publish the manuscript, but Neruda had to pay all the expenses. He said: "I had setbacks and successes every day, trying to pay for the first printing. I sold the few pieces of furniture I owned. The watch which my father had solemnly given me, on which he had had two little flags enameled, soon went off the pawnbroker's. My black poet's suit followed the watch. The printer was adamant and, in the end, when the edition was all ready and the covers had been pasted on, he said to me, with an evil look: 'No. You are not taking a single copy until you pay me for the whole lot.'"
His second book, published a year later, was a book of love poems: Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, 1924). This book made the 20-year-old poet famous.
He wrote all of his poems in green ink because he thought it was the color of esperanza, hope. Along with passionate love poems, Neruda wrote odes to everyday objects. These odes, as well as his green ink, and some of his outfits, were the inspiration for a fashion show earlier this year. For New York Fashion Week, the Honduran designer Carlos Campos debuted an entire menswear collection inspired by Neruda — green was the featured color.
In Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, Neruda wrote:
My words rained over you, stroking you.
A long time I have loved the sunned mother-of-pearl of your body.
I go so far as to think that you own the universe.
I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains, bluebells,
dark hazels, and rustic baskets of kisses.
to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.
(translated by W.S. Merwin)
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®