Wednesday

Oct. 15, 2014

Temple

by Jeffrey Harrison

Not a place of worship exactly
but one I like to go back to
and where, you could say, I take
sanctuary: this smooth area
above the ear and around the corner
from your forehead, where your hair
is as silky as milkweed.
The way to feel its featheriness best
is with the lips. Though you
are going gray, right there
your hair is as soft as a girl's,
the two of us briefly young again
when I kiss your temple.

"Temple" by Jeffrey Harrison, from Into Daylight. © Tupelo Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (books by this author), born in the Prussian village of Röcken (1844). He was a philosopher who loved literature, and he experimented with different literary styles to express his philosophy. His most famous book, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883), describes a prophet who comes down from the mountains to teach people about the coming of a new kind of superman, but the people he speaks to only ridicule and laugh at him.

He's perhaps best known for claiming that "God is dead," but most people forget that he actually said, "God is dead ... and we have killed him!" He thought that the absence of God from the world was a tragedy, but he felt that people had to accept that tragedy and move on. He wrote that God was like a star whose light we can see, even though the star died long ago. Much of his philosophy is about how people might live in a world without God and without absolute morality. At the time of his death on August 25, 1900, almost no one had heard of him, but after his work was republished, it had a huge impact on the philosophers of the 20th century.

He said: "[W]e should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once."

It's the birthday of novelist P.G. Wodehouse (books by this author), born Pelham Grenville Wodehouse in Guildford, England (1881). He's best known for his novels and short stories about the butler Jeeves. He said: "I was writing a story, 'The Artistic Career of Corky,' about two young men, Bertie Wooster and his friend Corky, getting into a lot of trouble, and neither of them had brains enough to get out of the trouble. I thought: Well, how can I get them out? And I thought: Suppose one of them had an omniscient valet? I wrote a short story about him, then another short story, then several more short stories and novels. That's how a character grows."

He wrote more than 100 books, including Summer Lightning (1929), Thank You Jeeves (1934), Young Men in Spats (1936), The Code of the Woosters (1938), and Joy in the Morning (1946).

He said: "Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start. I think the success of every novel — if it's a novel of action — depends on the high spots. The thing to do is to say to yourself, 'Which are my big scenes?' and then get every drop of juice out of them. The principle I always go on in writing a novel is to think of the characters in terms of actors in a play. I say to myself, if a big name were playing this part, and if he found that after a strong first act he had practically nothing to do in the second act, he would walk out. Now, then, can I twist the story so as to give him plenty to do all the way through? I believe the only way a writer can keep himself up to the mark is by examining each story quite coldly before he starts writing it and asking himself if it is all right as a story. I mean, once you go saying to yourself, 'This is a pretty weak plot as it stands, but I'm such a hell of a writer that my magic touch will make it okay,' you're sunk. If they aren't in interesting situations, characters can't be major characters, not even if you have the rest of the troop talk their heads off about them."

It's the birthday of the Roman poet Virgil (books by this author), born Publius Vergilius Maro near Mantua, Italy (70 B.C.E.). He grew up in a rural area, in a farming family, and was well educated. When he was 20 years old, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon into northern Italy, and the region descended into civil war.

These civil wars destroyed the countryside Virgil loved. Men died, farms were abandoned, and the countryside became a battlefield. Then Caesar was assassinated and his heir Octavian took over; Octavian confiscated land and handed it out as a reward for veterans. Virgil may have been mourning the loss of his own farm, or just of the way of life he loved, when he wrote a group of poems called the Eclogues (39–38 B.C.E.). They were pastoral, and erotic, and very popular. The success of the Eclogues earned Virgil an invitation to meet Octavian himself, and he became a favored poet among the Roman elite. Under the patronage of one of Octavian's top political advisors, he spent seven years working on another poem cycle, the Georgics (29 B.C.E.), another celebration of farming life: of beekeeping, raising livestock, and tending crops. It is said that the Georgics was read aloud to Octavian shortly after the suicides of Antony and Cleopatra left him as the ruler of the entire Roman Empire.

Virgil began working on an epic poem that would show his vision of a perfect Rome and celebrate the new peace brought by Octavian (now renamed Augustus). He based it on the story of an early Roman hero, Aeneas, who fled the city of Troy after it was burned by the Greeks and laid the foundation for the settlement that became Rome. Virgil was still working on The Aeneid when he died of a fever in 19 B.C.E. He wanted his unfinished manuscript to be burned, but Augustus overruled his final wishes.

It was on this day in 1764 that Edward Gibbon (books by this author) thought up the idea of writing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His six-volume work, published between 1776 and 1788, covered more than a thousand years of Roman history, from 180 A.D. to the fall of Constantinople.

Gibbon wrote in his autobiography: "It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing Vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started to my mind. After Rome has kindled and satisfied the enthusiasm of the Classic pilgrim, his curiosity for all meaner objects insensibly subsides."

Gibbon became known as "the first modern historian." He tried to write objectively, and in departure from his predecessors, he relied heavily on primary source documents rather than on secondary sources such as official Church histories. He made extensive — and eccentric — use of footnotes.

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