Jun. 5, 2013

Being But Men

by Dylan Thomas

Being but men, we walked into the trees
Afraid, letting our syllables be soft
For fear of waking the rooks,
For fear of coming
Noiselessly into a world of wings and cries.

If we were children we might climb,
Catch the rooks sleeping, and break no twig,
And, after the soft ascent,
Thrust out our heads above the branches
To wonder at the unfailing stars.

Out of confusion, as the way is,
And the wonder, that man knows,
Out of the chaos would come bliss.

That, then, is loveliness, we said,
Children in wonder watching the stars,
Is the aim and the end.

Being but men, we walked into the trees.

"Being But Men" by Dylan Thomas, from The Poems of Dylan Thomas, copyright © 1939 by New Directions Publishing Corp. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. (buy now)

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (books by this author) began its serial run in abolitionist newspaper The National Era on this date in 1851. It ran in weekly installments for 10 months. It generated some interest among opponents to slavery, but it didn't reach a larger audience until it was republished as a book in 1852.

Many critics dismissed the novel as sentimental, and several characters gave rise to persistent stereotypes of African-Americans. Even so, it attracted thousands of Northerners to the abolitionist cause. The book sold 300,000 copies in the United States in its first year in print.

It's the birthday of one of the great men of letters of the 20th century, Alfred Kazin (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1915). He grew up in the Brownsville section, the poor Jewish immigrant sector of Brooklyn. He said, "We were the children of the immigrants who had camped at the city's back door ... a place that measured all success by our skill in getting away from it."

He loved books and spent most of his time sitting on the fire escape of the tenement reading whatever he could get his hands on. In 1934, he was a senior in college when he read a book review in The New York Times that made him so angry, he got off the subway, went to the Times office, and complained in person to the editor, who was impressed and got Kazin a job writing freelance book reviews. He studied literature at Columbia and started writing a historical survey of American literature from 1880 up to the 1930s. The result was his book On Native Grounds, which covered American literature from Dreiser and Stephen Crane to Edith Wharton and William Faulkner. It became one of the most celebrated works of literary criticism of the decade.

When asked why he'd spent so much of his life working as a critic, Kazin said: "I am dissatisfied, profoundly so, with the world as it is. But I would be dissatisfied with any world. And I'd hate to lose my dissatisfaction."

It's the birthday of the poet Federico García Lorca (books by this author), born in Granada, Spain (1898). In 1928, he published a book of poems based on gypsy folklore called The Gypsy Ballads. It made him Spain's most popular living poet. His poems appealed both to the literary critics and the common people, and many of them were set to music. García Lorca once heard a prostitute singing a song in the street, and he was shocked to realize that he had written the lyrics she was singing. In 1998, on the hundredth anniversary of his birth, the Spanish government flew a helicopter over García Lorca's home city of Granada and dropped 100,000 leaflets of his poetry.

Lorca said: "To burn with desire and keep quiet about it is the greatest punishment we can bring on ourselves."

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