Nov. 28, 2011
that guests no longer come unannounced
or that the photo album contains pictures
of much younger people than we remember being
never mind that swallows etch Sanskrit
on the wrinkled sky
and the present is emptying its wine
into our glasses
never mind that we're not touching now
because our shadows are holding hands
in the dark behind our backs
Today is the birthday of the British poet and artist William Blake (1757) (books by this author), born in London. He wanted to be an artist, which was an unusual aspiration for the child of a haberdasher; his father sent him to a drawing school, but after five years, he could no longer afford the tuition. He took young William instead to train with an engraver, William Wynne Ryland. The boy, who was then 14, objected, saying, "Father, I do not like the man's face. It looks like he will live to be hanged!" Ryland was indeed hanged for forgery 11 years later, on the Tyburn gallows.
Blake began seeing visions in childhood. When he was four, he began screaming when he saw God "put his head to the window." Four or five years later, he saw "a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars." His parents punished him for telling lies, but they also seemed to realize he wasn't like other children. Throughout his life, he claimed to converse freely with dead loved ones, including his younger brother, who taught him a new engraving process from beyond the grave. He also related a conversation with the archangel Gabriel, who told him Michelangelo painted a better angelic portrait than Raphael. Blake was suspicious that he was speaking to an evil spirit masquerading as an angel. According to Blake, Gabriel retorted, "'Can an evil spirit do this?' I looked whence the voice came, and was then aware of a shining shape, with bright wings, who diffused much light. As I looked, the shape dilated more and more: he waved his hands; the roof of my study opened; he ascended into heaven; he stood in the sun, and beckoning to me, moved the universe. An angel of evil could not have done that — it was the arch-angel Gabriel."
Blake was scarcely noticed in his lifetime, unless it was to be labeled a lunatic. Reviews of his art were mixed, and his poetry was not widely known. Wordsworth said of him, "There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott." He sold watercolors and illustrations to various patrons, but they tended to buy them out of friendship, rather than a sense that they had artistic merit; if a potential patron should try to make him conform to conventional styles of the day, or make his work less oblique, Blake often responded in anger. "That which can be made Explicit to the idiot is not worth my care," he told one patron. The 20th century brought a new appreciation for Blake's art and verse. One of his poems, "And did those feet," which appeared in the introduction to his poem Milton, was set to music during World War I; it has become a second, unofficial national anthem in Britain, where it's known as "Jerusalem":
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among those dark Satanic mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold,
Bring me my Arrows of desire,
Bring me my Spear; O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have build Jerusalem
In England's green & pleasant Land.
The first American automobile race took place on this date in 1895. It was put on by the Chicago Times-Herald, and it was open to cars with at least three wheels that could carry two or more people (the driver and a judge). The race, 54 miles in all, ran from Chicago's Jackson Park out to Evanston, Illinois, and back.
It was Thanksgiving Day, and it had snowed the night before. None of the automobiles had roofs, and none of the roads were paved, so conditions for a race weren't optimal. Out of the original 89 entrants, only six were at the starting line on race day. Two of them were American-made electric cars; the other four — one of them American and three built by German manufacturer Karl Benz — were gasoline-powered. Four of the cars eventually dropped out due to the poor conditions, and it came down to American Frank Duryea and one of the Benz machines. Duryea prevailed, reaching a top speed of 7.5 miles per hour, and crossing the finish line after several breakdowns and a little over 10 hours. The German car limped home two hours later, driven by the referee; its driver had collapsed, exhausted. Duryea used his $2,000 winnings to start the Duryea Motor Wagon Company.
Today is the birthday of the man who said, "I have complete faith in the continued absurdity of whatever's going on": Jon Stewart (books by this author), born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, in 1962. Because of his job hosting the news parody program The Daily Show since 1999, British newspaper The Independent has called him America's "Satirist-in-chief."
He said: "If you don't stick to your values when they're being tested, they're not values — they're hobbies. You know, one of the genius moves of The Founders was not writing The Bill of Rights on the back window of a dusty van."
Today is the birthday of novelist, biographer, and essayist Nancy Mitford (1904) (books by this author), born in London. She was unapologetically aristocratic, but that didn't stop her from satirizing her own class. Her parents were illiterate, and anti-education; she and her five younger sisters called their father "Old Subhuman." Mitford wrote: "I grew up as ignorant as an owl, came out in London and went to a great many balls. ... Here I met various people who were not ignorant at all — I made friends with the sort of people which included Messrs. Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman, Sir Maurice Bowra and the brilliant Lord Berners. Very soon I became an intellectual snob. I tried to educate myself, read enormously and wrote a few indifferent novels." She published her first novel, Highland Fling, in 1931.
She also wrote four biographies, and served as a regular columnist for the Sunday Times. She wrote a controversial essay on upper- and non-upper-class grammar called "The English Aristocracy" (1954). She intended the essay on "U and non-U English" to be a light-hearted tease, but it served to cement her reputation as a snob.
She wrote to a friend, "If one can't be happy, one must be amused, don't you agree?"
The Grand Ole Opry began broadcasting from Nashville on this date in 1925. It was called the "WSM Barn Dance" at first. WSM was a new radio station that had been started in Nashville by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company, who wanted to use the station to sell insurance; the call letters stood for "We Shield Millions," which was the company's motto. WSM had recently hired George D. Hay, a former Memphis reporter-turned-program director, and at 8 o'clock p.m. on this date, he introduced himself as a "Sober Old Judge" (he was 30) and launched the station's first radio barn dance.
It's the birthday of novelist Rita Mae Brown (1944) (books by this author), born in Hanover, Pennsylvania, just three miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line; she said, "I have had to live down this three-mile error all my life." As a child, she loved visiting her father's family in Virginia, and if she was a good girl, she got to play with her grandfather's foxhounds. If she was a very good girl, she got to sleep in the kennels with them. Once she had sold enough books to make it possible, she bought her own Virginia farm, where she keeps horses and hounds. She started the Blue Ridge Polo Club, the first women's polo club in America.
Her first two books were poetry collections; she moved on to novels with Rubyfruit (1973). Since 1990, she has been "co-authoring" a series of mystery novels with her cat, Sneaky Pie Brown; the latest, Hiss of Death, came out this year. She's also written two other mystery series: one centered on a Virginia fox-hunting club (the "Sister" Jane Foxhunting Mysteries); and a second, the "Mags Rogers" series, about a woman and her dog, Baxter.
Brown said, "There's no such thing as a dumb dog, but God knows there are continents full of dumb human beings," and "I can never understand how authors can write books without having animals become important characters. We share the earth with other sentient creatures and they often do a better job of living full lives than we do."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®