Oct. 21, 2012
This is as far as the light
of my understanding
has carried me:
an October morning
a canoe built by hand
a quiet current
above me the trees arc
green and golden
against a cloudy sky
below me the river responds
with perfect reflection
a hundred feet deep
a hundred feet high.
To take a cup of this river
to drink its purple and gray
its golden and green
a bend in the river up ahead
It's the birthday of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (books by this author), born in Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire, England (1772). He was a very ambitious young man, who lectured on religion, wrote journalism, and single-handedly tried to launch his own magazine. But he was exhausting himself and falling into a depression when he was introduced to the poet William Wordsworth. They met only briefly in 1795, but they struck up a correspondence and began exchanging poems. Wordsworth encouraged Coleridge to stop writing journalism and focus on poetry, and Coleridge took the advice.
That first year of their friendship was the most productive period of Coleridge's life. They both liked to compose their poetry while walking, so they took long walks together throughout that summer, though Wordsworth preferred to stay on the path while Coleridge liked rough terrain. That winter, they spent several days hiking along the coast, and to pass the time, they made up a gothic ballad about a tragic sea voyage. Coleridge became obsessed with the poem when he got home, filling it with images from nightmares he'd had since he was a kid. It became his masterpiece, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798), the story of a sailor who brings a curse on his ship when he kills a bird. And for the rest of his voyage, he is tormented by sea monsters and the ghosts of his dead shipmates.
Within a few years of writing "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Coleridge's life began to fall apart. He became addicted to opium, which ruined his friendship with Wordsworth. He had a habit of starting enormous projects that he could not then finish, including a 1,400-page work of geography, a two-volume history of English prose, a translation of Faust, a musical about Adam and Eve, a history of logic, a history of German metaphysics, a study of witchcraft, and an encyclopedia.
His friends hated the fact that he had wasted so much of his talent. They'd all considered him the most brilliant writer and thinker they'd ever known, but he accomplished so little. Near the end of his life, his friend Charles Lamb wrote of Coleridge: "His face when he repeats his verses hath its ancient glory, an Archangel a little damaged."
It was on this day in 1879 that Thomas Edison finally struck upon the idea for a workable electric light. People had been trying to make electric lights since the 1820s to replace kerosene and gas lamps, but they had chosen the wrong material for the filament: platinum. And Edison tried carbonized cotton thread, carbon filament that worked much better. He later improved the design with a tungsten filament that lasted longer and glowed brighter.
It's the birthday of science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin (books by this author), born in Berkeley, California (1929). She grew up in a family of academics. Her mother, Theodora Kroeber, was a psychologist and writer. Her father, Alfred Kroeber, was the first person to receive a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University—he's been called the "Dean of American anthropologists." He specialized in researching Native American cultures, and so Ursula grew up with Native American myths.
When she was young, over the course of 10 years, she wrote five novels, none of which were published. Publishers in the 1950s thought her writing was too "remote." So she began to write science fiction and fantasy, and she has been incredibly prolific for the last four decades. She has published more than 100 short stories, 20 novels, 11 children's books, six volumes of poetry, and four volumes of translation. She's best known for her Earthsea books, a fantasy series that takes place in a world populated by wizards and dragons. She also wrote the Hainish Cycle — science fiction novels set in an imaginary universe where the residents are genderless.
An interviewer once asked her advice for writers, and she replied: "I am going to be rather hard-nosed and say that if you have to find devices to coax yourself to stay focused on writing, perhaps you should not be writing what you're writing. And if this lack of motivation is a constant problem, perhaps writing is not your forte. I mean, what is the problem? If writing bores you, that is pretty fatal. If that is not the case, but you find that it is hard going and it just doesn't flow, well, what did you expect? It is work; art is work."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®