Jul. 15, 2013

At Emily's In Amherst

by David Ray

On this day of our visit they are spraying the attic
for spiders, hoping to kill a black widow or two,
and I know she would not like that.

Outside, standing between cypresses, I imagine her
as a girl, playing in cool shadows, little Emily
struck through the heart with an icicle of loneliness.

Upstairs, her tiny bed, the white dress with pearl buttons,
and the bureau where she left the poems
folded, each with a stitch or two of blue thread.

I look across the field to where they carried her
on a door, as if to a bed with wrought iron railings.
There she lies silent while we fall to our knees, speak to her.

Sipping wine from the dandelions of her yard, I ask her
about the lover, if there was one. And I feel certain
I am that lover, all she could look forward to.

Yet I am not such a bad choice. I sit devoted for hours,
loving her well, sharing the wine, the growing darkness,
and I promise to come back, to think of her always.

"At Emily's In Amherst" by David Ray, from Music of Time. © The Backwaters Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Thomas Bulfinch (books by this author), born in Newton, Massachusetts (1796). He was well educated and tried his hand at business but was never very successful; at age 41, he settled into a job as clerk at a Boston bank and had no desire to move up the ranks because it left him time to write. He is best remembered for his three-volume study of mythology and legends. The first volume, The Age of Fable (1855), was a retelling of classic Greek and Roman myths; the second, The Age of Chivalry (1858), covers the legends of King Arthur, Robin Hood, and other British folk tales; and the third, Legends of Charlemagne (1863), recounts stories from France, Germany, and Africa. The three books were later combined into one volume, entitled Bulfinch's Mythology, first published in 1881 and never out of print since. The book was one of the most important of the 19th century, making mythology accessible to the common American reader for the first time.

On this date in 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson (books by this author) delivered a commencement address to the Harvard Divinity School. Emerson had graduated from Harvard Divinity in 1826. Before he graduated, he had given a lecture called "The American Scholar" to the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa society, in which he spoke of his philosophy of transcendentalism. The speech was published that same year. It made Emerson famous, and it brought the ideas of transcendentalism to young men like Henry David Thoreau.

Emerson had been a Unitarian minister, but he had resigned and was becoming very critical of the current practice of Christianity, which he made clear in this commencement address. He said: "The true Christianity — a faith like Christ's in the infinitude of man — is lost." Many in the audience were incensed by Emerson's speech, particularly the older faculty and ministers. It was 30 years before Emerson was invited back to speak at Harvard.

It's the birthday of philosopher Jacques Derrida (books by this author), born in El Biar, Algeria (1930). He was one of the founders of the theory of "deconstructionism," which he presented in the book Of Grammatology (1967). The theory assumes that there is no common intellectual structure or source of meaning that unifies a culture. When applied to literary criticism, it holds that a single text can have multiple meanings, which underlie and subvert the surface meaning of the words, often capsizing the author's intended meaning.

Derrida generally refused to define "deconstruction." When asked to do so once in an interview, he said: "It is impossible to respond. I can only do something which will leave me unsatisfied."

He wrote several other notoriously dense books of philosophy, including Writing and Difference (1978), and Monolingualism of the Other; or, The Prosthesis of Origin (1998).

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