Monday

Jan. 27, 2014

Out on the Flats

by Leonard Nathan

Out on the flats, a heron still
as a hieroglyph carved
on the soft gray face of morning.

You asked, when I seemed far away,
what it meant but were gone
when I turned to you with an answer.

Nothing mysterious—hunger,
a taste for salt tides,
distance, and a gift of flight.

"Out on the Flats" by Leonard Nathan, from The Potato Eaters. © Orchises Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, born in Salzburg, Austria (1756). By the age of five, he was proficient at the violin and piano and had begun composing. In his short lifetime, he composed more than 600 works in almost every genre of the day. Joseph Haydn is said to have told Mozart's father, "Before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name." He later wrote of Mozart that "posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years."

Mozart's premature death has been a matter of great interest over the years. He died suddenly at the age of 35, and people seem to want his death to be as remarkable as his life. His death certificate reads only "fever and rash," which are not so much causes of death as they are symptoms. Because there's so little data to go on, rumors have been rife: he was poisoned by a jealous rival; he accidentally poisoned himself with mercury, trying to treat a case of syphilis; he contracted parasites; he was murdered by Jews, or Catholics, or Freemasons. There was no evidence of foul play. He had been productive in his career and was in good health in the months leading up to his death, but two days after his last public performance, he came down quite suddenly with a high fever, headache, muscle pain, and vomiting. His body exuded a foul-smelling odor. Two weeks later, he suffered a seizure, fell into a coma, and died.

Mozart himself started the rumor that he was poisoned, because after he fell ill, he told his wife, "My end will not be long in coming; for sure, someone has poisoned me!" There's a theory that Mozart was having an affair with a married woman whose husband found out and murdered him. In his play Mozart and Salieri (1830), Aleksandr Pushkin speculated that rival composer Antonio Salieri poisoned Mozart, but he would have had no reason to; although they were rivals, the two composers were friendly, and Salieri's position and income were far superior to Mozart's at that time.

A letter written by Mozart not long before he became ill refers to a hearty meal of pork cutlets, one of his favorite foods. It's possible the pork was infested by Trichinella parasites, which cause trichinosis, the symptoms of which are fever, vomiting, swelling, and muscle and joint pain.

In 2009, a paper published in The Annals of Internal Medicine speculated that the great composer was brought down by a common streptococcal infection — like strep throat — that caused his kidneys to fail. Researchers studied death certificates in Vienna around that time, and there were many reports of deaths involving excessive swelling, which can be a sign of renal failure. In his last days, Mozart's swelling was so severe that he was unable even to turn over in bed.

Regardless of the cause of death, the end result was the same, and Mozart died on December 5, 1791, at the age of 35. It's a persistent myth that Mozart was buried in a pauper's grave. While it's true that he was buried in a communal plot, that was common practice in Vienna at the time. Only members of the aristocracy received individual burials as we think of them today; people of Mozart's status and below were sewn, naked, into a linen sack, and placed into a pit with four or five other bodies. Quicklime was sprinkled over the corpses to speed their decomposition. After about seven years, the remains were exhumed and dispersed so that the grave could be reused. As a result, Mozart's body is lost to us, and scientists have never been able to examine it using modern technology.

On this day in 1302, the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri (books by this author) was exiled from Florence for his political sympathies. Dante was a leading supporter of the white Guelph party, which was opposed to extreme papal power. When the Black Guelph party seized power in Florence in 1302, they immediately expelled Dante from the city. He spent the next two decades wandering from place to place in northern and central Italy, estranged from his wife and kids and often living in poverty. His only solace during his exile was writing. He wrote his greatest work, The Divine Comedy, an epic poem about a journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Just before his death, his children visited him in Ravenna; it was the first time he had seen them since he left Florence almost 20 years before.

It's the birthday of the man who wrote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871), Lewis Carroll (books by this author), born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson in Cheshire, England (1832). When he was 24 years old, a new dean arrived at the school where Carroll worked, and the dean brought his three daughters, Lorina Charlotte, Edith, and Alice. Carroll befriended the three girls and began spending a lot of time with them. In July of 1862, while floating in a rowboat on a pond, he came up with the story of a girl's adventures in a magical world underground, and told it to the three girls. Carroll always remembered that day. Late in his life, he wrote: "I can call it up almost as clearly as if it were yesterday — the cloudless blue above, the watery mirror below, the boat drifting idly on its way, the tinkle of the drops that fell from the oars, as they waved so sleepily to and fro, and (the one bright gleam of life in all the slumberous scene) the three eager faces, hungry for news of fairy-land ..."

Alice begged him to write the stories down, and a few months later, he did. The book was illustrated by a well-known cartoonist named John Tenniel, and it was published in 1865. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, along with its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, became one of the most popular children's books in the world.

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

 









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