Tuesday

Aug. 23, 2011

IX.

by Wendell Berry

I go by a field where once
I cultivated a few poor crops.
It is now covered with young trees,
for the forest that belongs here
has come back and reclaimed its own.
And I think of all the effort
I have wasted and all the time,
and of how much joy I took
in that failed work and how much
it taught me. For in so failing
I learned something of my place,
something of myself, and now
I welcome back the trees.

"IX." by Wendell Berry, from Leavings. © Counterpoint Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1305, William Wallace was executed for treason in London. The Scottish national hero was born in 1270 or thereabouts. He took up arms in 1296 when England's King Edward I deposed and imprisoned the Scottish monarch, John de Balliol, and declared himself the ruler of Scotland. Wallace assembled an army of commoners and landowners, and began attacking English garrisons. In 1297, the Scots outfought a much larger and better-equipped English army and captured Stirling Castle. He was knighted and declared guardian of the kingdom to rule in place of the imprisoned Balliol. But the Scottish nobles were not fully behind him, feeling that it was more practical to stay on good terms with the English. In 1298, Wallace led an ill-conceived attack on the English at the Battle of Falkirk, which ended in a resounding Scottish defeat and the collapse of Wallace's military reputation. He resigned as guardian of the kingdom and went to France for a while, then dropped out of sight for more than four years. The English never forgot him, nor stopped pursuing him, and he was eventually arrested in Glasgow in 1305 and taken to London to stand trial. In spite of his argument that he had never sworn allegiance to Edward, and therefore could not have betrayed him, he was convicted of treason and sentenced to death.

In the 14th century, a convicted traitor was typically "hanged, drawn, and quartered": First he was dragged behind a horse to the execution site, which was often some miles away. Then he was hanged until he was nearly dead, at which point he was cut down and disemboweled; his entrails were often burned in front of him. At this point, he might be beheaded, and the final step — quartering — involved tying each of his limbs to four separate horses, which were then spurred to run in opposite directions. The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I (1898) reports that Wallace was drawn for treason, hanged for robbery and homicide, disemboweled for sacrilege, beheaded for outlawry, and quartered for "various depredations." The penalty was last carried out in 1803, and it was eventually abolished in 1867.

It's the birthday of English poet William Ernest Henley (books by this author), born in Gloucester in 1849. When he was a young man, he contracted a form of tuberculosis that affects the bones, and he had to have one foot amputated when he was about 17. A few years later, a doctor told him the other one would have to come off as well, but Henley refused to accept the diagnosis, and he sought treatment from the surgical pioneer and founder of antiseptic medicine, Joseph Lister. His treatment took almost two years, and he lived in the hospital for the entire time; although the disease wasn't completely cured, he kept his foot and was able to live in relatively good health for almost 30 years. While he was in the hospital, he began writing poetry about his experiences there, and about the people he met. He published the series in A Book of Verses (1888).

Henley was a gregarious, hearty, red-bearded fellow. He was a close friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, and Stevenson confessed that Treasure Island's Long John Silver was modeled on Henley. His daughter, Margaret, inspired a literary character of her own: Wendy, in J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, was based on the young girl, who was sickly and died at the age of five, long before the play was ever produced. Henley wrote a moving poem, "Margaritae Sorori," after her death. His most famous poem, "Invictus" (1875), is a testament to his irrepressible spirit, and has inspired such diverse figures as Nelson Mandela and Timothy McVeigh.

Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

On this date in 1966, Lunar Orbiter 1 took the first photograph of the Earth from space. The Orbiter program began in 1964; its purpose was to take pictures of as much of the Moon's surface as possible so that scientists could scout potential landing sites for the upcoming Apollo missions. Lunar Orbiter 1 was launched on August 10 and recorded images from the 18th to the 29th. There were five Orbiters in all — the last one launched on August 1, 1967 — and by the time the project was completed, they had images of 99 percent of the lunar surface. The data was recorded on large magnetic tapes, and the resolution wasn't great by modern standards, but it proved invaluable for mapping purposes. It's since been restored and digitized, and the level of detail has allowed scientists to study the weather patterns of that day.

On August 23, just as Orbiter 1 was about to pass behind the Moon, mission controllers sent the command to change the angle of the cameras so that they were pointing at the Earth rather than the surface below. They just managed to capture our home planet's first portrait: a silvery, cloud-swirled crescent rising over the Moon's pockmarked face. Down on Earth, the Beatles were preparing for their last concert at Shea Stadium, the Vietnam war was raging, Muhammad Ali was applying for a "conscientious objector" exemption from the draft, and Star Trek, one of the most influential depictions of space travel in pop culture history, would premiere only two weeks later.

It's the birthday of Edgar Lee Masters (books by this author) born in Garnett, Kansas, in 1868. Masters grew up in the small town of Lewiston, Illinois. His father was a lawyer who didn't approve of his son's ambition to write, so Masters became a lawyer in Chicago. While he practiced law, he started to write and publish poetry and plays under the pseudonym Dexter Wallace, including A Book of Verses (1898) and Maximilian (1902), but he didn't write anything particularly successful. He dreamed of writing a novel about the small-town Illinois of his childhood.

Then in 1909, he received a copy of Selected Epigrams from the Greek Anthology, a book of poems from the Classical and Byzantine periods of Greek literature, as a gift. After Masters read the Greek Anthology, he decided to change the form of his novel and make it into a series of monologues. These monologues would be set in a graveyard, and they would be anecdotes spoken by more than 200 dead citizens of a small town. He based the small town on a combination of Lewiston, where he grew up, and nearby Petersburg, where his grandparents had their farm, but he named it after the river that ran by these towns, and these monologues became Spoon River Anthology (1915). It was an immediate commercial success, one of the most popular books of poetry in American history. But it made Masters an outcast from the small towns where he grew up — he had based many of his characters directly on people there, hadn't even changed their last names, and many of them were horrified by his unflattering depictions of them. And even beyond these towns, lots of people were scandalized by Masters' cynical view of small-town America and considered him unpatriotic. The critic Amy Lowell wrote: "Spoon River is one long chronicle of rapes, seductions, liaisons, and perversions. One wonders, if life in our little Western cities is as bad as this, why everyone does not commit suicide." Masters continued writing but he never achieved the same level of success that he had with Spoon River Anthology.

It's the birthday of English playwright and songwriter Willy Russell (books by this author), born in Whiston, just outside Liverpool, in 1947. He's one of Britain's best-known dramatists. He writes about the lives of working-class Britons, especially in Liverpool, and his works are full of the language of the city. He began writing songs and playing the guitar when he was 14, after seeing the Beatles perform at Liverpool's Cavern Club. "They were like Martians walking on to the stage, dressed all in black with their hair combed forward," Russell told The Telegraph. "Nobody apart from sad kids at school whose dads cut their hair with a pudding basin looked like that. I knew then that life had changed." Russell was a hairdresser and laborer before he was a writer. He owned his own salon, and as the ladies chatted, he paid attention to their dialect. In between appointments, he would write.

When he was 25, three of his one-act plays were noticed at the Edinburgh Festival, and he was commissioned to write a play about the Beatles. John, Paul, George, Ringo ... and Bert (1974) was his first big hit in London's West End. He's also the author of the plays Educating Rita (1980) and Shirley Valentine (1986). His musical Blood Brothers (1982) has been running on the West End since 1983.

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