Oct. 21, 2013
Sonnet 73: That Time of Year Thou Mayst in Me Behold
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
It was on this day in 1879 that the inventor Thomas Edison finally struck upon the idea for a workable electric light. People had been trying to make electric lights since the 1820s to replace kerosene and gas lamps, but they had chosen the wrong material for the filament: platinum. And Edison tried carbonized cotton thread, carbon filament that worked much better. He later improved the design with a tungsten filament that lasted longer and glowed brighter.
One of the effects of the invention of the electric light is that people sleep less than they once did. Before 1910, people slept an average of nine hours a night; since then, it's about seven and a half. Sleep researchers have shown in the laboratory that if people are deprived of electric light, they will go back to the nine-hour-a-night schedule.
It's the birthday of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (books by this author), born in Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire, England (1772). Coleridge is the author of poems such as "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "Christabel," and "Frost at Midnight." As a small boy, he spent a lot of time reading. His favorite book was The Arabian Nights. His father died when he was 10, and then he had to go off to boarding school at Christ's Hospital in London. It was known as the "blue-coat school," where everyone had to wear a blue gown, a blue cap and yellow stockings. Coleridge hated it there. He would later write that "I was reared / In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim, / And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars." But he had one teacher who helped inspire him to become a poet. He said he learned that "in the truly great poets ... there is a reason assignable, not only for every word, but for the position of every word."
Coleridge went to college in Cambridge. Then he dropped out to join the army. He didn't want anyone to know who he was, so he called himself Silas Tomkyn Comberbache. He wasn't a very good soldier, though, and soon he left to rejoin society and talk about the new ideas of the French Revolution. He also spent time with the poet Robert Southey. The two of them dreamed up an idea to start a utopian village along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. They said it would be a place where there was no aristocracy. Southey said, "When Coleridge and I are sawing down a tree, we shall discuss metaphysics; criticise poetry when hunting a buffalo, and write sonnets whilst following the plough."
Coleridge never went to Pennsylvania, and instead he ended up getting married to a woman named Sara Fricker. In 1797, Coleridge and Fricker moved to a small house in the country. There he tended a vegetable garden and doted over his newborn son. That same year he became good friends with the poet William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy. One winter evening, the three of them took a long walk in the nearby hills called the Quantocks. They timed their walk so they would be able to watch the sunlight change to moonlight over the sea. It was then that Coleridge came up with the idea for "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," a poem about a sailor who brings a curse upon his ship after he kills an albatross. In 1798, he included the poem in a collection he published with Wordsworth called Lyrical Ballads. The book was the foundation of the Romantic movement in poetry. Wordsworth said they were trying to write poems where "ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way."
Coleridge was often sick. The doctors prescribed him small doses of opium, and he gradually became addicted to it. By the age of 30, he had become very depressed. He quarreled with his wife and fell in love with Wordsworth's sister-in-law. He wrote a poem called "Dejection: An Ode" and then sailed to the island of Malta to improve his health. He gradually regained his strength and lived to write many more poems.
Coleridge said, "I could inform the dullest author how he might write an interesting book — let him relate the events of his own Life with honesty, not disguising the feelings that accompanied them."
Today is the birthday of novelist Ursula Le Guin (books by this author), born Ursula Kroeber in Berkeley, California, in 1929. She became interested in writing at age five, almost as soon as she began reading, and her parents taught her that if she had a talent, she should work hard at it. Her father, a university professor, encouraged her to also develop a marketable skill with which to earn a living, so she studied and taught French and Italian literature. When she married historian Charles Le Guin in 1953, he never questioned her desire to continue writing, which has inspired her advice to young writers: "If you can't marry money, at least don't marry envy."
She submitted her first story at age 11, to a magazine called Astounding Science Fiction. It was rejected. But she didn't let that stop her. As of last March (2013), she has published 21 novels, 11 volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, 12 books for children, six volumes of poetry and four of translation. She's best known, though, for her science fiction and fantasy novels — particularly the six-volume Earthsea series. She is noted for incorporating elements of psychology, sociology, and anthropology into her work, leading some to dismiss her books as "soft science fiction."
She's received many offers from Hollywood to turn her books into movies; she turns most of them down, and has been disappointed in those she has allowed to go ahead, including Goro Miyazaki's version of Earthsea. Though she thought it was beautiful visually, she felt the moral message had become muddled and confused. "[E]vil has been comfortably externalized in a villain ... who can simply be killed, thus solving all problems," Le Guin wrote in an open letter to her Japanese fans. "In modern fantasy (literary or governmental), killing people is the usual solution to the so-called war between good and evil. My books are not conceived in terms of such a war, and offer no simple answers to simplistic questions."
She has a collection of essays called Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (1989). It includes a somewhat unconventional commencement address that she delivered at Mills College in 1983. It was titled "A Left-Handed Commencement Address," and in it she said:
"Success is somebody else's failure. Success is the American Dream we can keep dreaming because most people in most places, including thirty million of ourselves, live wide awake in the terrible reality of poverty. No, I do not wish you success. I don't even want to talk about it. I want to talk about failure.
"Because you are human beings you are going to meet failure. You are going to meet disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. You will find you're weak where you thought yourself strong. You'll work for possessions and then find they possess you. You will find yourself — as I know you already have — in dark places, alone, and afraid.
"What I hope for you, for all my sisters and daughters, brothers and sons, is that you will be able to live there, in the dark place. To live in the place that our rationalizing culture of success denies, calling it a place of exile, uninhabitable, foreign."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®