Feb. 26, 2013
In the Late Season
At the soft place in the snowbank
Warmed to dripping by the sun
There is the smell of water.
On the western wind the hint of glacier.
A cottonwood tree warmed by the same sun
On the same day,
My back against its rough bark
Same west wind mild in my face.
A piece of spring
Pierced me with love for this empty place
Where a prairie creek runs
Under its cover of clear ice
And the sound it makes,
Mysterious as a heartbeat,
New as a lamb.
It's the birthday of the man who said, "To love another person is to see the face of God." That's French novelist Victor Hugo (books by this author), born in Besançon, France, on this day in 1802. He also said, "There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come."
He wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) when he was in his 20s and became a celebrity. He used his fame to advocate for political causes he believed in, like denouncing the autocratic regime of Napoleon III. He encouraged French people to rise up and revolt. Napoleon III declared Hugo an enemy of the state, but Hugo managed to flee the country in disguise just before soldiers showed up to arrest him at his home.
He went to Brussels before landing at Guernsey, an island in the English Channel, where he lived in exile for the next 20 years. There, he wrote at a fast pace. And he wrote standing up, at a pulpit, looking out across the water. He had strict minimums for himself: 100 lines of poetry or 20 pages of prose a day. It was during this time that he wrote his masterpiece, Les Misérables (1862), about a poor Parisian man who steals a loaf of bread, spends 19 years in jail for it, and after his release becomes a successful small businessman and small-town mayor — and then is imprisoned once again for a minor crime in his distant past. The book was a hugely popular, and Hugo returned to Paris, was elected to the Senate of the new Third Republic, and when he died in 1885 at the age of 82, 2 million people showed up to his funeral, a procession through the streets of Paris.
Playwright Christopher Marlowe (books by this author) was baptized in Canterbury, England, on this date in 1564. The son of a shoemaker, he was so intellectually gifted that he was accepted into Cambridge on a scholarship meant for men entering the clergy. He chose to write plays rather than pursue holy orders, and he was frequently absent, possibly because he was spying for Queen Elizabeth I, an occupation he may have held until the end of his life. He may have been posing as a Catholic to gather intelligence on any plots against the Protestant queen; he was almost denied his diploma because it was rumored he had converted to Roman Catholicism, and he was only granted his degree after the queen's Privy Council intervened on his behalf.
Marlowe was one of the bad boys of the Renaissance. We don't know too much about him — even less than we know about Shakespeare — but his plays reveal an author who was cynical about nearly everything: religion, society, and politics. He was most likely gay and an atheist in a time when it was very dangerous to be either, let alone both. But he was also a brilliant poet and dramatist, breaking away from the traditional dramatic form of rhymed couplets to work in blank verse, and inspiring Shakespeare to do the same. One of the plays he wrote while at Cambridge was Tamburlaine the Great, and it was produced in London in 1587. It did well enough that he wrote a sequel; these were the only of Marlowe's plays produced before his untimely death at 29, when he was stabbed in a dispute over a tavern bill. Marlowe also wrote Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, Edward II, and The Massacre at Paris.
President Woodrow Wilson established the Grand Canyon National Park on this date in 1919, after a 30-year opposition from ranchers, miners, and entrepreneurs. Today, the Grand Canyon National Park covers more than 1,900 square miles; the canyon itself is 277 river miles long, 10 miles wide, and a mile deep. The park receives 5 million visitors every year.
In 1903, upon seeing the canyon for the first time, Theodore Roosevelt said: "The Grand Canyon fills me with awe. It is beyond comparison — beyond description; absolutely unparalleled throughout the wide world. ... Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. Do nothing to mar its grandeur, sublimity, and loveliness. You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is to keep it for your children, your children's children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see."
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