Oct. 14, 2013

O Sweet Spontaneous

by E. E. Cummings

O sweet spontaneous
earth how often have

               fingers of
prurient philosophers pinched

, has the naughty thumb
of science prodded

         beauty                  how
often have religions taken
thee upon their scraggy knees
squeezing and

buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive

to the incomparable
couch of death thy

              thou answerest

them only with


"O Sweet Spontaneous" by E.E. Cummings, from Complete Poems 1904-1962. © Grove Press, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

In 1066 on this day, William the Conqueror defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings. In September of 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, left France with 600 ships and up to 10,000 men. He disembarked at Pevensey, in Sussex, and moved along the coast to Hastings. Meanwhile, in the north of England, Harold II was fighting off his brother and an army of Vikings. When he heard of William's invasion, he hurried his bedraggled army south, to a ridge about 10 miles northeast of Hastings.

William sent his army to attack, archers in front, infantrymen behind, and knights in the rear. Although the Normans suffered many early casualties, they feigned retreat twice, luring the Englishmen from their positions. They then turned and annihilated them. When Harold was killed, the leaderless army fought on for a while, then scattered. The victorious Normans moved on to London, where William I was crowned king on December 25.

It's the birthday of Dwight D. Eisenhower, born in Denison, Texas (1890). His father cleaned train locomotives for a living, but he was offered a better job at a creamery back in his hometown of Abilene, Kansas; so Dwight grew up in Abilene, one of seven brothers. All the boys were called "Ike" as a nickname for Eisenhower, but only Dwight's nickname stuck long-term.

During World War I, Eisenhower's supervisors recognized his natural leadership skills, so he was assigned to train troops for combat. The work frustrated him because he wanted to be on the battlefield, and he was continually denied the overseas assignments he applied for. Finally, he was given permission to take command of a unit in France on November 18th, 1918. Exactly one week before that, on November 11th, an armistice was signed, ending the War. He told a friend: "By God, from now on I am cutting myself a swath and will make up for this." After the war, he served under some of the top generals, and he quickly worked his way up. After Pearl Harbor, he was transferred to the War Plans Division in Washington, D.C. The Army Chief of Staff was so impressed by Eisenhower that he promoted him to major general; and by December of 1943, he was Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.

As the Allied commander, Eisenhower orchestrated Operation Overlord, the massive invasion of Allied forces in Europe in June of 1944 that culminated in the landing at Normandy and D-Day. Planning the June invasion was not easy. Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander, but he shared the planning with a group of six other men, all top commanders with decades of military experience. And they were attempting to bring together the air, sea, and land divisions of the Allied troops. Much of the operation's success depended on a strategy Eisenhower designed called the "Transportation Plan," to be carried out in the months leading up to the actual invasion. It was a risky strategy that was unpopular with many of his fellow commanders. He wanted Britain's Royal Air Force to focus all their resources on destroying rail lines and bridges in Northern France, so that the Germans could not reinforce their troops once the Allies attacked. The British objected, preferring to concentrate on German cities and other strategic targets, but Eisenhower threatened to resign unless he got his way. Winston Churchill was especially concerned with the possibility of civilian casualties, but Eisenhower insisted it was necessary; they finally compromised to accept up to 10,000 civilian deaths.

Then there was the issue of timing the invasion. The Allies needed a full moon so they could see well enough to land in the dark, and so the tides were in their favor. Eisenhower tentatively settled on the full moon of June 6th. The weather was clear for most of May, but storms set in at the beginning of June. The sky was too cloudy for airplanes to see their targets, and high winds and rough seas made it impossible for smaller landing boats to make it to shore. Eisenhower's chief meteorologist was convinced that there would be a break in the weather on June 6th. The commander of the naval forces agreed, the commander of the Air Force objected; in the end Eisenhower ordered that they proceed. The Germans had been on alert for an attack, but observing the terrible weather, they let down their guard.

Eisenhower projected total confidence in the project; he said, "This operation is planned as a victory, and that's the way it's going to be." In reality, he knew it might fail. On June 5th, while the Allies were crossing the English Channel toward Normandy, he wrote a speech and put it in his wallet just in case. It announced that the campaign had failed, and ended: "The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone."

Eisenhower's planning paid off, and the landing at Normandy turned the tide of the war. Eisenhower ended the war a hero, and in 1952, he ran for president. In the end, his childhood nickname turned out to be a great one — his campaign slogan was "I Like Ike," and he won in a landslide.

It's the birthday of the poet E.E. Cummings (books by this author), born Edward Estlin Cummings in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1894), who wrote, "Since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you." He penned nearly 3,000 poems, a couple of autobiographical novels, and several essays and plays. In his verse, Cummings tended to substitute verbs for nouns, he used patently eccentric punctuation, and he disregarded norms of capitalization. But despite unconventional style, he wrote about traditional themes like love and nature.

It's the birthday of short-story writer Katherine Mansfield (books by this author), born Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp in Wellington, New Zealand (1888). An extremely rebellious young woman, she had affairs with men and women, lived with indigenous people, and published scandalous stories under a variety of pseudonyms. In a letter to a publisher she wrote, "[I have] a rapacious appetite for everything and principles as light as my purse." Mansfield's family gave her an allowance so she could leave New Zealand and move to London, and she lived so freely in the bohemian scene that her mother came to visit and threatened to throw her into a convent.

Then, in the summer of 1915, her younger brother came to visit. She hadn't seen him in years, they had long talks about growing up in New Zealand, and Mansfield found herself remembering things she hadn't thought about in years. It inspired her to write a series short stories about her childhood, including "The Garden Party," which made her famous. She died of tuberculosis a few years later in 1923, at the age of 34.

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