Aug. 4, 2013


by Percy Bysshe Shelley

We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly! —yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost forever:

Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings
Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
One mood or modulation like the last.

We rest.—A dream has power to poison sleep;
We rise.—One wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:

It is the same!—For, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free:
Man's yesterday may ne'er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutability.

"Mutability" by Percy Bysshe Shelley, from The Complete Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley. © Modern Library, 1994. Public domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (books by this author), born in Sussex, England (1792). His father was rich, landed, a member of the aristocracy and of Parliament, and had a huge inheritance set aside for his young son. Shelley went to prestigious English schools and enrolled at Oxford University where he was eventually expelled for writing a pamphlet called "The Necessity of Atheism." His father showed up at the school to intervene on his son's behalf, and Oxford's deans gave Shelley the option of staying at the university if he recanted the views that had gotten him in trouble. He refused to.

Instead, the 19-year-old Shelley eloped to Scotland with a 16-year-old girl, the daughter of an English pub owner. For this, his father disinherited him. He spent time in Ireland trying to get peasants to revolt. His marriage was not a happy one, and he often traveled alone abroad to escape his wife. Three years after his elopement, he abandoned his pregnant wife and their toddler son, and ran off with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who would eventually become his wife, Mary Shelley, and the author of Frankenstein.

The Shelleys befriended the poet Lord Byron and their conversations helped inspire Shelley to write prolific amounts of poetry, including "Adonais," an elegy for his friend John Keats, and "Prometheus Unbound," a drama in verse. A month shy of his 30th birthday, he drowned in his schooner, the Don Juan, which sank in a storm off the coast of Italy. His decomposed, fish-eaten body washed ashore, and because of quarantine laws, it had to be cremated. Shelley's ashes were placed at Rome's Cemetery for Non-Catholic Foreigners, near an ancient pyramid replica and near the grave of his friend, poet John Keats.

Percy Shelley said: "Chameleons feed on light and air: Poets' food is love and fame."

It's the birthday of the poet Robert Hayden (books by this author), born Asa Bundy Sheffey in Detroit (1913). When he went to college, W.H. Auden was his mentor. Hayden wrote about the black experience, in such poems as "John Brown's Body" and "Middle Passage," about the slave trade. But during the Black Power movement in the 1960s, he was criticized for his lack of militancy; at a writers' conference in 1966, they called him an "Uncle Tom." Still, he insisted on being known as a poet, not a black poet. He said there's "no such thing as black literature. There's good literature and there's bad. And that's all!"

Today is the birthday of President Barack Obama (books by this author), born in Honolulu, Hawaii (1961). He's the author of the New York Times best-selling books Dreams from My Father (1995) and The Audacity of Hope (2006).

It's the birthday of Louis Armstrong, born in the birthplace of American jazz: New Orleans, Louisiana (1901). When asked to define jazz, Louis said: "Man, if you have to ask what it is, you'll never know."

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »