Jul. 13, 2013

Summer Evening

by John Clare

The frog half fearful jumps across the path,
And little mouse that leaves its hole at eve
Nimbles with timid dread beneath the swath;
My rustling steps awhile their joys deceive,
Till past,—and then the cricket sings more strong,
And grasshoppers in merry moods still wear
The short night weary with their fretting song.
Up from behind the molehill jumps the hare,
Cheat of his chosen bed, and from the bank
The yellowhammer flutters in short fears
From off its nest hid in the grasses rank,
And drops again when no more noise it hears.
Thus nature's human link and endless thrall,
Proud man, still seems the enemy of all.

"Summer Evening" by John Clare, from Poems. © Ulan Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1798 that William Wordsworth (books by this author) wrote one of his greatest poems, which he called "Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey on revisiting the banks of the Wye Valley during a tour, July 13, 1798." The poem is now referred to as "Tintern Abbey."

Tintern is a village in Wales, on the River Wye, the site of spectacular medieval ruins that date back to the year 1131. The abbey originally housed an order of Roman Catholic monks who lived an austere life, wore white gowns, and supported themselves by farming and making malted-barley beer.

Wordsworth, he recounted that after visiting Tintern Abbey, he composed his famous poem entirely in his head. He claimed: "No poem of mine was composed under circumstances more pleasant for me to remember than this. I began it upon leaving Tintern, after crossing the Wye, and concluded it just as I was entering Bristol in the evening, after a ramble of four or five days with my sister. Not a word of it was altered, and not any part of it was written down till I had reached Bristol."

It's an impressive feat, considering that the poem is more than 1,200 words long. It begins:
      Five years have past; five summers, with the length
      Of five long winters! and again I hear
      These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
      With a soft inland murmur. — Once again
      Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs [...]

It's the birthday of the poet John Clare (books by this author), born in Nottinghamshire, England (1793). He may be the poorest person ever to become a major writer in English literature. His father was a peasant farmer. The family often had to live off the proceeds from a single apple tree in their yard. John Clare went to the village school between the ages of five and 11. He learned to read and write and decided he wanted to write poetry.

He had to support himself as a farm laborer, but because malnutrition had stunted his growth, he was never more than five feet tall, so he couldn't do heavy work. He mostly weeded and stacked hay bales and looked after animals. He couldn't afford to buy paper, so he made his own out of birch bark and made his own ink as well. Some of his poems were written on old envelopes.

Other romantic poets were writing nature poetry, but they wrote about nature as a metaphor for something, whereas John Clare always tried to write about nature as it was, the thing itself.

His first book came out in 1820. The fact that he was a peasant helped to make the book a best-seller. But within a few years, there was a bank crash, and there was a recession in England. His books sold fewer and fewer copies, and he moved back to the farm.

He began to suffer from a psychiatric disorder. His behavior grew more and more erratic. He began to see things — spirits and demons. He was committed to an asylum where he forgot who he was. Sometimes, he thought he was Lord Byron and wrote some poems in Byron's style. He escaped from the asylum at one point but was returned and lived there for the rest of his life.

John Clare wrote about 3,500 poems, of which only 400 were published in his lifetime, and his great importance as an English poet has only become clear in the last few decades.

There was a blackout in New York City on this date in 1977. Lightning struck three times that night, hitting Con Edison substations and shutting down the power grid. The city went dark at about 9:30 p.m. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports had to be shut down for eight hours, tunnels in and out of the city were closed, and thousands of people had to be evacuated from the subways.

There had been a similar blackout in 1965, and people had faced it with good humor, but in 1977, New York was in the middle of an economic crisis, and unemployment rates were high. There was also a serial killer, who called himself "Son of Sam," on the loose, and the city was in the grip of a brutal heat wave. It was the worst time for a catastrophic blackout; the city was a powder keg.

In the 25 hours that it took workers to fully restore power, more than 1,600 stores were looted, more than a thousand fires were set, and nearly 3,800 looters were arrested. Damage was later estimated at $300 million.

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




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