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Oct. 25, 2014

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Break, Break, Break

by Alfred Tennyson

Break, break, break,
     On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
     The thoughts that arise in me.

O well for the fisherman's boy,
     That he shouts with his sister at play!
O well for the sailor lad,
     That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
     To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
     And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break,
     At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
     Will never come back to me.

"Break, Break, Break" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Public Domain. (buy now)

Today is St. Crispin's Day, dedicated to the patron saint of shoemakers, who was martyred by the Roman Emperor Maximian on this date in 287 A.D. St. Crispin and his brother, St. Crispinian, lived at Soisson in France, where they preached during the day and supported themselves by making shoes at night. It was on St. Crispin's Day in 1415 that English troops, commanded by King Henry V, engaged the French army near the village of Agincourt in France. Despite being outnumbered nearly six to one, the English pulled off one of the most brilliant victories in English military history. In Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth, King Henry addresses his troops on the eve of battle with a memorable speech:

This story shall the good man tell his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered —
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England, now a-bed,
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here;
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon St. Crispin's day.

It was on this day in 1400 that the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer died (books by this author). No one is exactly sure when he was born, but he was probably about 60 years old when he died.

Chaucer had spent his life working as a civil servant. His longest-held position was as Comptroller of Customs, which meant that he kept the books on export taxes for all of the wool, sheepskin, and leather that went through the Port of London. His position ended in 1386, and he seems to have been out of work for three years. He probably began The Canterbury Tales during that period, before he was hired as the Clerk of the King's Works in 1389. When he died in 1400, the Canterbury Tales was unfinished.

The Canterbury Tales is among the first English literary work to mention the use of paper. Books of Chaucer's day were written by hand on scraped and stretched animal skins, and a large Bible could require hundreds of animals to complete, making the distribution of written materials impractical and expensive. For this reason, none of Chaucer's writing was printed in his day, and it is likely that his manuscripts were only circulated among his friends and remained unknown to most people until well after his death.

It was on this day in 1854 that a British military disaster occurred in the Crimean War that inspired Alfred Tennyson (books by this author) to write his famous poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade." The British were fighting in the Crimean War to help defend Turkey from Russia. It was one of the first wars covered extensively by the European media, and British people read about it every morning in their newspapers. On this day in 1854, a British light brigade attempted to charge the Russian troops on a hill, but they misunderstood their orders and charged down the hill instead of up. Hundreds of British soldiers were surrounded and about 200 were killed.

It's the birthday of poet John Berryman (books by this author), born in McAlester, Oklahoma (1914). When he was 12, his father — a failed businessman — shot himself outside of his son's window. Three months later, his mother married their landlord. He studied at Columbia, then began to publish poems, and established his reputation with the books Dispossessed (1948) and Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956).

He said: "You should always be trying to write a poem you are unable to write, a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise you're merely imitating yourself, going nowhere, because that's always easiest."

It's the birthday of the novelist Anne Tyler (books by this author), born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1941), the author of The Accidental Tourist (1985), Back When We Were Grownups (2001), Digging to America (2006), and The Beginner's Goodbye (2012). Early in her career, she decided she did not want to be a public person, so she stopped giving readings and only does occasional interviews in writing. She said: "Any time I talk in public about writing, I end up not able to do any writing. It's as if some capricious Writing Elf goes into a little sulk whenever I expose him."

Ann Tyler also said: "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. It's lucky I do it on paper. Probably I would be schizophrenic — and six times divorced — if I weren't writing."

It's the birthday of the artist Pablo Picasso, born in Málaga, Spain (1881), who was living in a bohemian community in Barcelona painting portraits of his friends and acquaintances when one of his paintings was selected for inclusion in the upcoming world's fair in Paris. He was just 18 — and he went off to Paris for the exhibition, saw paintings by Manet, Cézanne, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec, and came home determined to be an artist.

By the middle of the 20th century, he was generally considered the greatest living artist in the world.

Pablo Picasso, who said, "Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life." And, "I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it."

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

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