Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," by Robert Herrick, from Selected Poems (Everyman's Library).

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
   Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
    Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
    The higher he's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
    And nearer he's to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
    When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
    Times, still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
   And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
   You may for ever tarry.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Samuel Pepys, born in London (1633). He published two works in his lifetime—a report on a hospital and a partial history of the British Navy—but we know him today for his diary, which he kept from 1659 to 1669. He came from a lower-middle class family: his father was a tailor and his mother was a maid. He was a bright child, and he was mentored by his cousin, Edward Montagu, who was a friend of Oliver Cromwell. He got married when he was twenty-two and started working at a series of government jobs that allowed him to meet some of the most influential people of his time. He was twenty-six years old when he started writing his diary in 1659.

Today we have dozens of newspapers, magazines, and Web sites for future historians to sort through, but in Pepys's day only one newspaper was published in London and it was controlled by the government, so much of what we know about this period in history has been taken from Pepys's diary. He started the diary at the time of the Restoration in England—when Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth was on the verge of collapse and King Charles II was getting ready to return to power. Pepys wrote about historical events like the Great Plague of 1665, the Great Fire of 1666 and the Dutch attack on the Medway in 1667.

During the height of the Plague, as many as 10,000 Londoners died every week. Pepys wrote: "The nights (though much lengthened) are grown too short to conceal the burials of those that died the day before . . . my brewer's house shut up, and my baker with his whole family dead of the plague." Once, he took a walk through London, came back and wrote in his diary, "But now, how few people I see, and those walking like people that had taken leave of the world."

During the Great Fire of 1666, which burnt more than 400 acres of London buildings to the ground, Pepys wrote: "Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the River or bringing them into lighters that lay off. Poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats or clambering from one pair of stair by the waterside to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons I perceive were loath to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were some of them burned, their wings, and fell down."

There were other important people in the seventeenth century who kept journals, but they didn't record personal details of their own lives like Pepys did. He wrote about everyday things like going to work, eating dinner, and taking dancing lessons. He was a friendly and talkative man who loved good food and theatre and nights on the town. He was a musician and often went to concerts in London. On one occasion, he scolded himself for being so susceptible to pleasure. Then he wrote, "However, music and women I cannot but give way to, whatever my business is." He was continually resolving to quit drinking, but he never did. Once, he justified his decision to start drinking again by noting that the doctor to whom he had promised to quit had just died of the plague, and so he was free to break the promise.

He quit writing the diary in 1669, because his eyesight was failing and he was worried that he was going to go blind. He didn't go blind, but he never started writing in his diary again. In 1672, he was elected to Parliament, where he was accused of pro-Catholic sympathies and thrown in the Tower of London for a few months. When he died, he was best known for his contribution to the British Navy, for which he worked from 1684 to 1688. He made sweeping reforms during his time there, and probably did more than any other man to make the Navy the dominant international force it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Almost no one had heard of Pepys's diary in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He wrote it in a mixture of Latin, Greek, Spanish, French, German, shorthand, and his own secret code; and no one had tried to translate it until John Smith in the early nineteenth century. The first complete edition of the diary wasn't published until 1970. It fills nine volumes.

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "The Last Hours," by Stephen Dunn, from Different Hours (W.W. Norton).

The Last Hours

There's some innocence left,
and these are the last hours of an empty afternoon
at the office, and there's the clock
on the wall, and my friend Frank
in the adjacent cubicle selling himself
on the phone.
       I'm twenty-five, on the shaky
ladder up, my father's son, corporate,
clean-shaven, and I know only what I don't want,
which is almost everything I have.
       A meeting ends.
Men in serious suits, intelligent men
who've been thinking hard about marketing snacks,
move back now to their window offices, worried
or proud. The big boss, Horace,
had called them in to approve this, reject that--
the big boss, a first-name, how's-your-family
kind of assassin, who likes me.
       It's 1964.
The sixties haven't begun yet. Cuba is a larger name
than Vietnam. The Soviets are behind
everything that could be wrong. Where I sit
it's exactly nineteen minutes to five. My phone rings.
Horace would like me to stop in
before I leave. Stop in. Code words,
leisurely words, that mean now.
       Would I be willing
to take on this? Would X's office, who by the way
is no longer with us, be satisfactory?
About money, will this be enough?
I smile, I say yes and yes and yes,
but--I don't know from what calm place
this comes--I'm translating
his beneficence into a lifetime, a life
of selling snacks, talking snack strategy,
thinking snack thoughts.
       On the elevator down
it's a small knot, I'd like to say, of joy.
That's how I tell it now, here in the future,
the fear long gone.
By the time I reach the subway it's grown,
it's outsized, an attitude finally come round,
and I say it quietly to myself, I quit,
and keep saying it, knowing I will say it, sure
of nothing else but.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of writer George Moore, born in County Mayo, Ireland (1852). He's the author of many novels, including A Modern Lover (1883), Confessions of a Young Man (1888) and Esther Waters (1894). Along with William Butler Yeats, he led the movement to create an Irish national theater at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Moore said, "My one claim to originality among Irishmen is that I have never made a speech."

It's the birthday of Wilhelm Karl Grimm, born in Hanau, Germany (1786). Along with his brother Jakob, he's famous for collecting and editing the stories in Children's and Household Tales (1812), which we know today as Grimm's Fairy Tales. The fairy tales include "Hansel and Gretel," "Cinderella," "Rumpelstiltskin," and "Snow White."

Today is Shrove Tuesday, better known as Mardi Gras. It's a time of celebration and merriment on the day just before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Today, Mardi Gras is celebrated over a period of several days in February leading up to Ash Wednesday. The word "carnival" comes from the combination of the Latin words "carne" and "vale", which mean "meat" and "farewell"—so Mardi Gras carnivals are a farewell to meat before Lent begins.

Mardi Gras is celebrated in many southern U.S. states, but the most famous celebration happens every year in New Orleans, where the first American Mardi Gras was celebrated in 1699 by the French explorer Iberville. During the 1700s, when New Orleans was still under French rule, people there would throw dinner parties and masked balls for Mardi Gras. When the Spanish gained control of New Orleans, they banned these customs, and the ban continued even after New Orleans became a part of the United States. Finally, in 1827, Mardi Gras celebrations were legalized again.

Today, people come to New Orleans for Mardi Gras from all across the country. People wear green, gold, and purple and fill the streets of the French Quarter, throwing plastic beads and eating circular pastries called king cakes.

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poems: "The Last Waltz," by Alden Nowlan, from Selected Poems (House of Anansi); and "In Praise of My Bed," by Meredith Holmes, from Shubad's Crown (Pond Road Press).

The Last Waltz

The orchestra playing
the last waltz
at three o'clock
in the morning
in the Knights of Pythias Hall
in Hartland, New Brunswick,
Canada, North America,
world, solar system,
centre of the universe--

and all of us drunk,
swaying together
to the music of rum
and a sad clarinet:

comrades all,
each with his beloved.

In Praise of My Bed
At last I can be with you!
The grinding hours
since I left your side!
The labor of being fully human,
working my opposable thumb,
talking, and walking upright.
Now I have unclasped
unzipped, stepped out of.
Husked, soft, a be-er only,
I do nothing, but point
my bare feet into your
clean smoothness
feel your quiet strength
the whole length of my body.
I close my eyes, hear myself
moan, so grateful to be held this way.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and critic Anthony Burgess, born in Manchester, England (1917). He was an incredibly prolific writer: he wrote more than thirty novels, hundreds of essays, film and television scripts, translations, and a two-volume autobiography. He once said, "I refuse no reasonable offer of work and very few unreasonable ones." His first love was music: he studied music in college and tried writing symphonies without much success. When he became famous as a writer, he started writing music again with the hope that he would be able to get it performed because of his name recognition. He once said, "I wish people would think of me as a musician who writes novels, instead of as a novelist who writes music on the side."

After fighting in World War II, he worked for five years as a colonial education officer in Malaya. While he was there, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and a doctor told him he had only one year to live. He later wrote: "I had been granted something I had never had before: a whole year to live. I would not be run over by a bus tomorrow, nor knifed on the Brighton racetrack. I would not choke on a bone. If I fell in the wintry sea I would not drown. I had a whole year, a long time. In that year I had to earn for my prospective widow. . . . I would have to turn myself into a professional writer."

Burgess wrote five novels in the year 1960 alone, and continued to write at a frantic pace for the rest of his life. He's best known for his 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, about a violent gang in a bleak futuristic world. It begins: "There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter."

It's the birthday of the "Father of Modern Pathology", Giovanni Battista Morgagni, born in Forli, Italy (1682). He's remembered today for his book On the Seats and Causes of Disease, published in 1761, in which he describes in great detail the results of 640 autopsies he performed on patients who had died from diseases. It's considered one of the most important works in the history of medicine.

It's the birthday of novelist Karl May, born in Ernstthal, Germany (1842). He's famous for writing dozens of novels about the American West at a time when not very many Europeans had been there or knew much about it. He was raised in poverty, and during the 1860s and '70s he spent a lot of time in prison for petty theft and fraud. It was while he was in prison that he began to read about American pioneers and cowboys and Indians. He got the idea for a series of novels about the adventures of a heroic German immigrant named Charley and his Apache Indian friend Winnetou. As soon as he published the books, they became hugely popular, especially among German adolescent boys. His novels became some of the most widely read books in Europe.

Many Europeans first learned about the American West through May's novels. All of his books were subtitled "Travel Experiences" rather than "Travel Novels", and most people thought that May was writing about his own travels in the West. But he had actually never been to America when he started writing the novels, and when he finally did go he never made it farther west than St. Louis.

May's novels are still incredibly popular in Germany. Since his death, about 100 million copies of his books have been sold. Many of his novels have been made into movies and TV shows, and in northern Germany, thousands of people still go to see an annual festival that puts on plays based on May's plots.

It's the birthday of comic playwright Carlo Goldoni, born in Venice (1707). He's one of the greatest playwrights in the history of Italian theater, the author of The Liar, The Coffee House, The Beneficent Bear and many others. In the eighteenth century, most Italian plays were farcical comedies in which the actors wore masks and fancy costumes, and improvised jokes on stage. Moldoni was one of the first playwrights to write more realistic comedies, with believable characters and natural dialogue.

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "The Story We Know," by Martha Collins, used by permission of the poet.

The Story We Know

The way to begin is always the same. Hello,
Hello. Your hand, your name. So glad, Just fine,
and Good-bye at the end. That's every story we know,

and why pretend? But lunch tomorrow? No?
Yes? An omelette, salad, chilled white wine?
The way to begin is simple, sane, Hello,

and then it's Sunday, coffee, the Times, a slow
day by the fire, dinner at eight or nine
and Good-bye. In the end, this is a story we know

so well we don't turn the page, or look below
the picture, or follow the words to the next line:
The way to begin is always the same Hello.

But one night, through the latticed window, snow
begins to whiten the air, and the tall white pine.
Good-bye is the end of every story we know

that night, and when we close the curtains, oh,
we hold each other against that cold white sign
of the way we all begin and end. Hello,
Good-bye is the only story. We know, we know.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who wrote Les Misérables (1865) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Victor Hugo, born in Besançon, France (1802). His father was a general in Napoleon's army, and Victor was raised mostly by his mother. As he was growing up, his godfather read literature to him and taught him about the ideals of the French Revolution. Hugo began writing poetry and plays, and won several prizes from prestigious French institutions. He went to law school to satisfy his father, but while he was there he focused all his attention on reading and writing literature. He and his brother founded a literary magazine, and in 1822, when he was twenty years old, he published his first book of poetry. He quickly became the leader of the French Romantic movement in literature. He had a large apartment and hosted gatherings devoted to the discussion of literature and philosophy. He wrote many more books of poetry and published his first two novels. In the preface to his play Cromwell (1827), he called for a new kind of literature that embraced both beautiful and ugly aspects of life. In 1831, on opening night of his play Hernani, more traditional theatergoers got into a huge shouting and throwing match with supporters of Hugo and the Romantics. The play went on to become a huge success, running for more than 40 nights, and Hugo established his reputation as the best young writer in France.

In 1831 Hugo became an even bigger celebrity with the publication of Notre-Dame de Paris, usually translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It's a historical novel, set in fifteenth-century Paris, about a gypsy girl named Esmeralda and the deaf and deformed bell ringer of the Notre Dame Cathedral, Quasimodo. A priest named Claude Frollo falls in love with Esmeralda, but she is in love with a Captain named Phoebus. Frollo stabs Phoebus out of jealousy, and Esmeralda is accused of the crime. Quasimodo tries to hide her in the cathedral, but Frollo finds her and tries to win her affection one last time. When that doesn't work, Frollo leaves Esmeralda to be caught and executed by the police. Finally, Quasimodo captures Frollo and throws him from the tower of the cathedral. The book ends with the later discovery of two skeletons in Esmeralda's tomb—Esmeralda's and Quasimodo's, locked in an embrace.

After the publication of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hugo began devoting more time to politics than to writing. In 1841, he was elected to the French parliament. He had written about the oppressed in his novels, and now he gave speeches about the misery of the poor and capital punishment. During the revolution of 1848, he started a leftist journal that was eventually repressed by the government. He was violently opposed to Louis Napoleon, who was rising to power at the time, and in 1851 he gave a speech that ended, "Because we have had a Napoleon the Great, must we have a Napoleon the Little?" When Louis Napoleon became president, Hugo was forced to flee the country. First he went to Belgium, then the island of Guernsey, in the English Channel. He began writing poetry and novels again, and in 1865 he published his masterpiece, Les Misérables. Hugo said, "I condemn slavery, I banish poverty, I teach ignorance, I treat disease, I lighten the night, and I hate hatred. That is what I am, and that is why I have written Les Misérables."

Hugo finally returned to France in 1870. As an old man, he continued to publish novels and poetry, and he was enormously popular in France. When he died in 1885, almost two million people attended his funeral.

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "The Wish to Be Generous," by Wendell Berry, from Collected Poems (North Point Press).

The Wish to Be Generous

All that I serve will die, all my delights,
the flesh kindled from my flesh, garden and field,
the silent lilies standing in the woods,
the woods, the hill, the whole earth, all
will burn in man's evil, or dwindle
in its own age. Let the world bring on me
the sleep of darkness without stars, so I may know
my little light taken from me into the seed
of the beginning and the end, so I may bow
to mystery, and take my stand on the earth
like a tree in a field, passing without haste
or regret toward what will be, my life
a patient willing descent into the grass.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, born in Portland, Maine (1807). The most well known and best loved poet of his lifetime, he wrote many poems that ordinary Americans memorized and recited in school throughout the nineteenth century and into the first half of the twentieth century. Some of his most popular works were long poems that told stories, poems such as Evangeline (1947), The Song of Hiawatha (1855), and "Paul Revere's Ride" (1863), about the American revolutionary who warned that the British were coming. It begins:
"Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year."

It's the birthday of the novelist John Steinbeck, born in Salinas, California (1902). He's best known for his novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), about the "Dust Bowl" farmers who had to migrate to California after a drought destroyed their land. To research the book, he bought an old bakery truck, filled it with blankets, food, and cooking utensils, and joined the migration himself, so that he could meet and talk to people without being conspicuous. He was horrified by the condition of the people he saw in the migrant camps. He saw whole families sleeping on the ground with barely enough food to survive, children so exhausted by hunger that they didn't wave the flies away from their faces, and mothers giving birth to babies they didn't have the milk to nurse.

In order to write the novel, he decided to focus on one family, the Joad family, and tell their story. But he interspersed the chapters about the Joad family with short chapters describing the migration as a whole, so that the novel was balanced between the individual experience and the bigger picture. The result was that people read the novel as a social document more than a work of fiction, and it influenced the way the Roosevelt Administration dealt with the migrant farmers. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and Steinbeck went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

It's the birthday of novelist and humorist Peter De Vries, born in Chicago, Illinois (1910). He grew up in an immigrant Dutch section of Chicago that was so insular, he later said he might as well have grown up in Holland. He felt like a foreigner in the United States for the rest of his life. His parents were strict Calvinists, and they wouldn't let him go to the movies, dance, play cards, attend regular public schools, or do anything else they considered secular. He once said, "My father hated radio and could not wait for television to be invented so he could hate that too." He eventually rebelled against his upbringing, but he never quite got over the strangeness of worldly things, and it inspired him to begin writing satirical fiction.

He supported himself as a young man by selling taffy apples and servicing vending machines. He eventually became the editor of Poetry magazine. He once put on a fundraising benefit for the magazine, and invited the writer James Thurber. The two men became friends and Thurber later invited him to join the writing staff of The New Yorker. He worked on cartoons, supplying captions for pictures that other people drew, and he also wrote humorous stories for the magazine. His first collection of these stories was No, But I Saw the Movie (1952), and it became a bestseller. He went on to publish many humorous novels, including Comfort Me With Apples (1956) and The Tents of Wickedness (1962), about men who, like himself, live in the suburbs and find the world ridiculous after losing faith in God. He lost his own faith after his daughter died from leukemia, and he wrote a novel about the experience called Blood of the Lamb (1962), which many critics consider his masterpiece. Near the end, the main character throws a cake in the face of a statue of Jesus.

De Vries said, "Nostalgia isn't what it used to be."

It's the birthday of Kiowa poet, novelist and memoirist N(avarro) Scott Momaday, born in Lawton, Oklahoma (1934). One of the first books Momaday published was a collection of traditional Kiowa narratives about the sacred Sun Dance doll of the Kiowa tribe. While working on the project, Momaday had a chance to view the doll, which is kept in a rawhide bundle and has not been displayed since the Sun Dance of 1888. Seeing it made him feel for the first time that he had a connection to his heritage. He said, "I became more keenly aware of myself as someone who had walked through time and in whose blood there is something inestimably old and undying. It was as if I had remembered something that had happened two hundred years ago."

He tried to write a book of poems based on the experience, but Wallace Stegner helped him turn the poems into fiction, and the book became House Made of Dawn (1969), about an Indian veteran of World War II named Abel who doesn't fit in with mainstream America or the Indian reservation where he lives. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize, and it helped spark an American Indian literary renaissance. Momaday has gone on to write many more books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. His most recent book is In the Bear's House (1999).

It's the birthday of Irwin Shaw, born in the Bronx, New York City (1913). He wrote a series of formulaic, pot-boiler novels, including The Young Lions (1948) and Rich Man, Poor Man (1970). But at the same time he was publishing a series of dark short stories in The New Yorker magazine, and collecting them in books such as Sailor Off the Bremen (1939) and Welcome to the City (1942). (

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Slow Children at Play," by Cecilia Woloch, from Late (BOA Editions).

Slow Children at Play

All the quick children have gone inside, called
by their mothers to hurry-up-wash-your-hands
honey-dinner's-getting-cold, just-wait-till-your-father-gets-home--

and only the slow children out on the lawns, marking off
paths between fireflies, making soft little sounds with their mouths, ohs
that glow and go out and glow. And their slow mothers flickering,
pale in the dusk, watching them turn in the gentle air, watching them
twirling, their arms spread wide, thinking, These are my children, thinking,
Where is their dinner? Where has their father gone?

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Robert Mezey, born in Philadelphia (1935). He's the author of many collections of poetry, including The Lovemaker (1961) and The Door Standing Open (1970). His Collected Poems came out in 2000.

It's the birthday of novelist Kelly Dwyer, born in Torrence, California (1964). She's the author of two novels: The Tracks of Angels (1994) and Self-Portrait with Ghosts (1998).

It's the birthday of playwright and novelist Ben Hecht, born in New York City (1893). When he published his first collection of newspaper writing, 1001 Afternoons in Chicago (1922), it became a kind of bible to newspaper reporters across the country, and greatly influenced how journalists covered human-interest stories. He got involved in the Chicago literary renaissance, along with writers like Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser. He published his first novel in 1921—Erik Dorn, about a jaded journalist who can only speak in newspaper headlines. He also began writing and collaborating on plays. He didn't have any success until he and a newspaper reporter named Charles MacArthur decided to write a play about the newspaper industry called The Front Page (1928). It was a big success on Broadway, and it was later made into the movie His Girl Friday (1940).

It's the birthday of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, born on Long Island, New York (1953). He studied economics at MIT and became one of the leading economists in the U.S., specializing in international trade. In the early 1980s, he worked for President Ronald Reagan's Council of Economic Advisors, but, he said, "[I was disillusioned to learn] that powerful people prefer to take advice from those who make them feel comfortable rather than those who will force them to think hard." He decided that one way he could contribute to the world of economics would be to explain economics to ordinary people, and so he wrote several books in the 1990s for the general public, including The Age of Diminished Expectations (1990), Peddling Prosperity (1994) and Pop Internationalism (1996). He became an op-ed columnist for the New York Times in 1999, and he has since become a fierce critic of the Bush administration. His most recent book is The Great Unraveling (2003).

It's the birthday of the great essayist Michel de Montaigne, born in Perigueux, France (1533). His father was a wealthy landowner and a devout Catholic, with innovative ideas about child rearing. He sent the infant Michel to live with peasant parents, so that he would learn to love the lower classes. Then, when Michel was a toddler, his father required everyone in the household to speak Latin rather than French, so that Latin would be his first language. Michel went off to college and became a lawyer. His father died when Michel was thirty-eight years old, and so he retired to the family estate and took over managing the property. His best friend had died a few years before, so he had no one to write to while living on his estate. He grew increasingly bored, so to occupy himself he began to write down his thoughts for an imaginary reader. He wrote about a wide variety of subjects: sadness, idleness, liars, fear, smell, prayer, cannibals, and thumbs, among other things. He called his short pieces "essays" when he published his first collection in 1580, because the French word "essai" comes from the word for "ttempt", and he considered the short pieces he wrote to be mere attempts at addressing ideas.

Montaigne didn't think he had an extraordinary mind, but he believed that every mind was unique, and he wanted to leave a record of his own. He wanted to capture on paper the movement of his own thoughts. He said, "I take the first subject Fortune offers: all are equally good for me. I never plan to expound them in full. . . . Everything has a hundred parts and a hundred faces: I take one of them and sometimes just touch it. . . . I jab into it, not as wide but as deep as I can; and I often prefer to catch it from some unusual angle. . . . I can surrender to doubt and uncertainty and to my master-form, which is ignorance. Anything we do reveals us."

He lived at a time when religious civil wars were breaking out all over the country. The Black Plague was ravaging the peasants in his neighborhood; he once saw men digging their own graves and then lying down to die in them. Still, while he occasionally wrote about big subjects like hatred and death, he also wrote about the most ordinary things, like his gardening or the way radishes affected his digestion.

Montaigne wrote, "Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. All other things, ruling, hoarding, building, are only little appendages and props, at most."

And he wrote, "Every man bears the whole stamp of the human condition."

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "As I Walked Out One Evening," by W.H. Auden, from Collected Poems (Vintage).

As I Walked Out One Evening

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
     Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
     I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
     "Love has no ending.

"I'll love you, dear, I'll love you
     Till China and Africa meet
And the river jumps over the mountain
     And the salmon sing in the street.

"I'll love you till the ocean
     Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
     Like geese about the sky.

"The years shall run like rabbits
     For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages
     And the first love of the world."

But all the clocks in the city
     Began to whirr and chime:
"O let not Time deceive you,
     You cannot conquer Time.

"In the burrows of the Nightmare
     Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
     And coughs when you would kiss.

"In headaches and in worry
     Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
     To-morrow or to-day.

"Into many a green valley
     Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
     And the diver's brilliant bow.

"O plunge your hands in water,
     Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
     And wonder what you've missed.

"The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
     The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
     A lane to the land of the dead.

"Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
     And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer
     And Jill goes down on her back.

"O look, look in the mirror,
     O look in your distress;
Life remains a blessing
     Although you cannot bless.

"O stand, stand at the window
     As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
     With your crooked heart."

It was late, late in the evening,
     The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming
     And the deep river ran on.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Leap Day, the extra day that we tack on to February every four years to keep the calendar in time with the seasons. We do this because the earth does not orbit the sun in a nice round 365 days, but rather in 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 45 seconds.

Ancient peoples based their calendars on many things, from the movements of the stars to the activities of plants and animals. The Greek poet Hesiod told farmers to begin the harvest when the constellation Pleiades was rising and to begin plowing when it was setting, and to sharpen their farming tools when snails began climbing up plants. Most early calendars were based on the stages of the moon, with lunar months of about 29 days each. But the problem with the lunar calendar is that it's about eleven days short of the actual year, so instead of having to add a leap day every few years, you have to add a leap month. The Egyptians were the one of first civilizations to develop a calendar with twelve months and 365 days. When Julius Caesar rose to power, the Romans were using a calendar that was so faulty they often had to add an extra eighty days to the year. In 46 B.C., after his affair with Cleopatra, Caesar chose to adopt the superior Egyptian calendar, and this became known as the Julian calendar. In the first version of the Julian calendar, February had 29 days most years and 30 days on leap years. Caesar named the month of July after himself, so when Augustus came to power, he decided he needed a month too. He named August after himself, but he had to steal a day from February in order to make August as long as July.

The Julian calendar worked well for a while, but in the thirteenth century, a sick old friar named Roger Bacon sent a letter to the Pope. He had calculated the actual length of the solar year as slightly less than 365.25 days, and he pointed out that the Julian calendar was adding one leap day too many for every 125 years. The result was that Christians were celebrating holy days on the wrong dates. Bacon wrote, "The calendar is intolerable to all wisdom, the horror of astronomy, and a laughing-stock from a mathematician's point of view." Bacon was eventually imprisoned for implying that the Pope had been fallible, and his writings were censored. It wasn't until 1582 that Pope Gregory the Thirteenth hired a group of Jesuits to fix the calendar, and they came up with the complicated system of omitting the leap day at the beginning of each century, except for those centuries divisible by 400. When Pope Gregory made the change, the calendar was about 10 days off, so Gregory deleted 10 days from the year. People went to sleep on Thursday, Oct. 4 and woke up on Friday, Oct. 15.

At first, the Gregorian calendar was only accepted in Catholic countries, and even there people were uncomfortable about losing ten days of their lives. It led to protests and financial uncertainty, since people weren't sure how to calculate interest or taxes or rent for a 21-day month. Protestant countries didn't adopt the new calendar until much later, and this meant that for a long time, if you crossed the border of certain European countries, you had to set your clock back or forward by at least ten days. When Great Britain finally accepted the Gregorian calendar in 1751, eleven days had to be deleted from the year. The change led to antipapal riots, because people believed the Pope had shortened their lives. Mobs gathered in the streets, chanting, "Give us back our eleven days!" When the British colonies in America made the change the following year, Ben Franklin wrote in an editorial, "Be not astonished, nor look with scorn, dear reader, at . . . the loss of so much time. . . . What an indulgence is here, for those who love their pillow, to lie down in peace on the second [day] of this month and not awake till the morning of the fourteenth."

The Gregorian calendar has since been accepted everywhere as the standard. It is so accurate that we will have to wait until the year 4909 before our dates become out of step with the Earth's orbit by a full day.



  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “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.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning