Wednesday

Jun. 13, 2012

Majority

by Dana Gioia

Now you'd be three,
I said to myself,
seeing a child born
the same summer as you.

Now you'd be six,
or seven, or ten.
I watched you grow
in foreign bodies.

Leaping into a pool, all laughter,
or frowning over a keyboard,
but mostly just standing,
taller each time.

How splendid your most
mundane action seemed
in these joyful proxies.
I often held back tears.

Now you are twenty-one.
Finally, it makes sense
that you have moved away
into your own afterlife.

"Majority" by Dana Gioia, from Pity the Beautiful. © Graywolf Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of British mystery writer Dorothy L. (for Leigh) Sayers (books by this author), born in Oxford in 1893. She was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University, which she did in 1915, with a degree in medieval literature. Her first two books were volumes of poetry, published in 1916 and 1919; she published her first mystery novel, Whose Body?, in 1923, and it featured Lord Peter Wimsey, a witty aristocrat who solved mysteries as a hobby. Lord Peter is featured in 11 novels and two collections of short stories.

Today is the birthday of English novelist and diarist Frances (Fanny) Burney (1752) (books by this author). When she was 16, she began keeping a diary, a practice she maintained for more than 70 years. She was a keen observer of society and manners, and her journals recount visits by such luminaries as Dr. Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, David Garrick, and Sir Joshua Reynolds — all friends of her father.

She also described the Battle of Waterloo, the madness of King George III, and her own mastectomy, performed without any anesthesia beyond a single glass of wine.

Her first published novel, Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World (1778), was a comedy of manners, informed in large part by her own observations and experience as a young woman in society. She published it anonymously and disguised her handwriting, afraid that publishers would recognize her hand from her work as her father's literary assistant. The novel was a great success, and she followed it with a second — Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress (1782) — which would inspire Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813). Burney succeeded in making novel-writing an acceptable enterprise for women, and she paved the way for many 19th-century social satires.

Burney went to the court of King George III and Queen Charlotte in 1786, and she served as "Second Keeper of the Robes" for five years. She was unhappy in her post, since she was too busy to write novels, though she kept up with her diaries. When she was released from service, she married French expatriate general Alexandre d'Arblay, and proceeds from her third novel, Camilla, or a Picture of Youth (1796), paid for a house for the newlyweds. In 1802, they took their young son to France for a brief stay that ended up lasting 10 years, due to a renewal of the Napoleonic Wars. She recorded it all in her diaries, and her account of the Battle of Waterloo may have provided Thackeray with material for Vanity Fair.

It's the birthday of the poet and playwright William Butler Yeats (books by this author), born in Dublin, Ireland (1865).

He grew up at a time when the nation of Ireland was struggling with its identity as an English colony. Most members of the Irish Protestant upper class were pro-British rule, and members of the Catholic middle class were pro-independence. It didn't help the two sides get along that Catholics were denied equal access to education, jobs, and government positions. Yeats grew up in a Protestant family, but he only cared about poetry.

In 1889, he met Maud Gonne, a beautiful actress who had become an activist and who spoke out for Irish nationalism and independence. She became the love of his life. She inspired him to use his writing as a force for national unity. Yeats came to believe that if he could get in touch with the deep, mythic history of the Irish people, he could pull the country together with poetry. Yeats spent years writing plays about Irish nationalism for Maud Gonne to star in. But by 1910, Maud Gonne had married someone else and Yeats had given up on trying to win her love. He also gave up on the idea of writing poetry for the collective soul of Ireland, and wrote instead for himself.

At the same time that he stopped trying to use poetry as a political force, he started getting directly involved in politics, and served for six years in the Irish senate. In 1922, he witnessed the end of the English occupation in all but the northern counties of Ireland. He died in 1939. A few weeks before he died, he wrote: "Man can embody truth but he cannot know it."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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