Poem:"Because You Left Me A Handful of Daffodils" by Max Garland from The Postal Confessions. © University of Massachusetts Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Because You Left Me A Handful of Daffodils
I suddenly thought of Brenda Hatfield, queen
of the 5th grade, Concord Elementary.
A very thin, shy girl, almost
as tall as Audrey Hepburn,
She wore a dress based upon the principle
of the daffodil: puffed sleeves,
inflated bodice, profusion
of frills along the shoulder blades
A dress based upon the principle of girl
as flower; everything unfolding, spilling
outward and downward: ribbon, stole,
It was the only thing I was ever
Elected. A very short king.
I wore a bow tie, and felt
Like a third-grader.
Even the scent of daffodils you left
reminds me. It was a spring night.
And escorting her down the runway
was a losing battle, trying to march
down among the full, thick folds
of crinoline, into the barrage of her
father's flashbulbs, wading
the backwash of her mother's
perfume: scared, smiling,
tiny, down at the end
of that long, thin, Audrey Hepburn arm,
where I was king.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is May Day, a celebration of the return of spring that goes back thousands of years in European traditions. Various May Day celebrations included the gathering of wildflowers and green branches, the weaving of floral garlands, and the setting up of a decorated May tree, or Maypole, around which people danced.
May Day never developed a Christian equivalent. In order to celebrate the holiday, workers had to stay home from work against their employers' wishes. It became known as a people's holiday, and in 1889, a congress of world Socialist parties held in Paris voted to choose May 1, 1890, as a day of demonstrations in favor of the eight-hour day.
It was on this day in 1786 that Mozart's first great opera, The Marriage of Figaro, premiered in Vienna. Mozart had been struggling for years to live up to his fame as a child prodigy. He spent years in Salzburg as a musician in the archbishop's chapel, but the archbishop had no taste in music. Mozart was poorly paid and treated as a menial servant.
So he quit his job and moved to Vienna where he began to have more success as a composer. But he still couldn't pay his bills. There were bitter rivalries among the composers in Vienna, and many of them conspired to keep Mozart from gaining any success. When Mozart's work was performed, his enemies would actually create disturbances in the audience to sabotage the music. But Mozart still managed to attract notice for his work, and people began calling him the most promising composer of the era.
Mozart was sure he would soon receive an appointment as a court musician, which would give him financial security, so he got married in 1782. But he didn't receive the appointment, and quickly began to fall into debt. He was forced to support his wife by teaching private music lessons. His rivals continued to sabotage his career. But despite everything, he was having one of the most productive periods of his life as a composer. Between 1782 and 1785, he completed six string quartets, which he dedicated to the composer Joseph Hayden.
And then, in 1785, Mozart collaborated with an Italian poet on The Marriage of Figaro. Based on a French play, the opera tells the story of a single day in the palace of Count Almaviva. The count spends the day attempting to seduce Susanna, the young fiancée of the court valet, Figaro. Susanna and the countess conspire to embarrass the count and expose his infidelity.
It was a lighthearted, comic opera, but the musicians and singers could hardly believe the quality of the music. One singer, a man named Michael Kelly, later wrote, "I can still see Mozart, dressed in his red fur hat trimmed with gold, standing on the stage with the orchestra at the first rehearsal, beating time for the music. ... The players ... were electrified. ... Had Mozart written nothing but this piece of music, it alone would ... have stamped him as the greatest master of his art." But The Marriage of Figaro closed after only nine performances.
It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Bobbie Ann Mason, (books by this author) born in Mayfield, Kentucky (1940). She grew up in rural Kentucky, the daughter of dairy farmers. When she got to high school, she realized just how different she was from the city kids. She became the first member of her family to go to college, and she eventually got a Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut. She wrote her dissertation about the novelist Vladimir Nabokov. By the time she was done, she said, "I was so sick of reading about the alienated hero of superior sensibility that I thought I would write about just the opposite."
She began to write short stories about people in her home state of Kentucky.
Bobbie Ann Mason said, "I have always found it difficult to start [writing] with a definite idea about a character, or even a definite emotion. ... But if I start with a pond that is being drained because of a diesel fuel leak, and a cow named Hortense, and some blackbirds flying over, and a woman in the distance waving, then I might get somewhere."
Poem: "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" by William Wordsworth. Public domain. (buy now)
from Ode: Incarnations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparell'd in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it has been of yore;
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more!
The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath pass'd away a glory from the earth.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1611 that the first edition of the King James Bible was published in England. It was produced during a particularly chaotic period for England. An epidemic of the black plague had struck London so severely that the year before work began on the King James Bible, 30,000 Londoners had died of the plague. At the same time, Puritans in the country were beginning to agitate against the monarchy as a form of government. And a group of underground Catholics were plotting to assassinate the king.
King James I thought that a new translation of the Bible might help hold the country together. There had been several English translations of the Bible already, and each English version of the Bible had different proponents. King James wanted a Bible that would become the definitive version, a Bible that all English people could read together.
King James assembled a committee of fifty-four of the best linguists in the country. They believed that the most important quality of the translation would be that it sound right, since it would be read aloud in churches. So when the committee would gather, each man read his verses aloud to be judged and revised by the other men.
The translators also deliberately used old-fashioned language. At the time they were working on the Bible, words like "thou" and "sayeth" had already gone out of fashion. Some scholars believe that the translators wanted to give the sense that the language in the Bible came from long ago and far away.
The first edition came out on this day in 1611, but for decades, most people preferred the Puritan Geneva Bible, because of its plainer language. It was only after England went through a civil war that the King James Bible came into fashion. People were nostalgic for the period before the war and they saw the King James Bible as an artifact of that simpler time. The King James version went on to become the English symbol of God and country, and it influenced the way writers have used the English language for hundreds of years.
It's the birthday of Dr. Benjamin Spock, (books by this author) born in New Haven, Connecticut (1903). His Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946) was a best-seller during the period after World War II, when parents across America were raising the Baby Boom generation. Dr. Spock encouraged parents to be affectionate and he also encouraged them to follow their own instincts. The first sentence of his book was, "You know more than you think you do."
It's the birthday of lyricist Lorenz Hart, born in New York City (1895). He's famous for writing the lyrics to songs like "Blue Moon" (1934), "My Funny Valentine" (1937), and "The Lady Is a Tramp" (1937).
As a young man in his twenties, he was drifting around, writing verse in his spare time, when someone introduced him to a teenage composer named Richard Rodgers. They worked on a series of amateur musical comedies together, but their future didn't seem promising. Rodgers was just about to give up on music and go into the underwear business when their show The Garrick Gaieties (1925) became a huge success. They went on to write several successful musicals together, including Connecticut Yankee (1927), The Boys From Syracuse (1938), and Pal Joey (1940).
Lorenz Hart wrote,
you saw me standing alone
without a dream in my heart
without a love on my own."
It was on this day in 1945 that the Soviet Union announced the fall of Berlin. The Soviet forces employed for the invasion constituted the largest concentration of military power ever assembled on the planet. Those forces included 2.5 million troops, 7,500 aircraft, 6,250 tanks, and 41,600 guns.
The Soviet troops had free reign to commit atrocities against the German people, and by the time the Soviet troops approached Berlin, the city was almost defenseless. The last line of the defense was a group of several thousand senior citizens and young boys from the Hitler Youth. Some of the boys were sent into battle with anti-tank grenades tied to their bicycles.
Hitler monitored the situation from his underground bunker. He had no way to track enemy movements, so he ordered his officers to dial telephone numbers from the phone book, at random, to reach households in suburban areas of Berlin. When people began to answer the phones by speaking in Russian, Hitler knew that the city had been breached.
Just before the city had been officially captured, Hitler arranged for his marriage in the underground bunker to his mistress, Eva Braun. They committed suicide the next day. Word got out among the government staff that Hitler was dead. When Soviet troops burst into the office of the German Chancellery, the city's central government building, they found staff members drunk on wine, listening to jazz records.
Poem: "At Summerford's Nursing Home" by Rodney Jones from Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005. © Houghton Mifflin Company. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
At Summerford's Nursing Home
Like plants in pots, they sit along the wall,
Breached at odd angles, wheelchairs locked,
Or drift in tortoise-calm ahead of doting sons:
Some are still continent and wink at others
Who seem to float in and out of being here,
And one has balked beside the check-in desk
A jaunty shred of carrot glowing on one lip,
He fumbles a scared hug from each little girl
Among the carolers from the Methodist church
Until two nurses shush him and move him on.
There is a snatch of sermon from the lounge,
And then my fourth-grade teacher washes up,
And someone elsewho is it?nodding the pale
Varicose bloom of his skull: the bald postman,
The butcher from our single grocery store?
Or is that me, graft on another forty years?
Will I become that lump, attached to tubes
That pump in mush and drain the family money?
Or will I be the one who stops it with a gun,
Or, more insensibly, with pills and alcohol?
And would it be so wrong to liberate this one
Who stretches toward me from his bed and moans
Above the constant chlorine of cleaning up
When from farther down the hall I hear the first
Transmogrifying groans: the bestial O and O
Repeating like a mantra that travels long
Roads of nerves to move a sound that comes
And comes but won't come finally up to words,
Not the oldest ones that made the stories go,
Not even love, or help, or hurt, but goodbye
And hello, grandfather, the rest of your life
Coiled around you like a rope, while one by
One, we strange relatives lean to be recognized.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the poet, essayist and novelist May Sarton, (books by this author) born in Wondelgem, Belgium (1912). She's known for her poetry and her novels and also for her journals, including At Seventy (1984), After the Stroke (1988), Endgame (1992), and Encore (1993).
It's the birthday of folk singer Pete Seeger, born in New York City (1919). His mother was a violinist and his father was a musicologist. As a teenager he rebelled against his parents' love of music, and decided he wanted to be a painter. But the first time he heard the sound of a banjo at the Folk Song and Dance Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, he fell in love with folk music. He dropped out of Harvard and became a singer.
It's the birthday of Niccolò Machiavelli, (books by this author) born in Florence, Italy (1469). He grew up at an extremely unstable period of Italian history. Italy wasn't even a country at the time, but just a collection of city-states that were constantly at war with each other. Machiavelli lived in the most influential city-state, Florence. He got into politics only after Florence formed a semi-democratic government. By the time he was thirty, he became the secretary to Florence's governing council, which meant he was the most influential bureaucrat in the city. Then, at the height of Machiavelli's career, the influential Medici family took power in Florence, overthrowing the elected city council and purging the government of enemies. Machiavelli's name was put on a list of anti-Medici conspirators. He lost his government position, and then the authorities arrested him and threw him in a dungeon, where he was tortured for twenty-two days.
Machiavelli was eventually released from prison. There was no evidence that he had conspired against the new government, but he was still sentenced to house arrest. All his friends and family were terrified to be associated with him, and so he found himself utterly alone.
He decided that the only way to get his life back was to offer some kind of gift to the Medici family, and the thing he had to give was his knowledge of politics. So he holed up in his tiny villa just outside of Florence and set out to write a handbook, incorporating everything he knew about being an effective ruler in a dangerous and volatile world. It took him just a few months to complete his book in 1513, and that was The Prince, the book for which he is remembered today.
Machiavelli believed most people were weak and wicked, but he also believed that a ruler could take advantage of these weaknesses in order to do good. Machiavelli's main point in The Prince is that an effective ruler should use whatever means possible to keep his country secure and peaceful.
Despite Machiavelli's hopes, The Prince didn't win over the Medicis. He wasn't able to get another government job for the rest of his life.
Nicollò Machiavelli said, "It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both."
Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen
Poem: "Still" by David Romtvedt from Some Church. © Milkweed Editions. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
The children are sleeping
and the cows and chickens are sleeping,
and the grass itself
The machines are off
and the neighbor's lights,
a half mile away, are out,
and the moon is hanging
like a powdered face
in a darkened room,
and the snow
is shining under stars
the way we are shining here
in our cold skins
under warm quilts.
We pull our shirts over our heads
and toss them to the floor
and the only thing grotesque
is the space through which
we stumble each night.
I roll to you and put my hand
on your skin. You shiver and smile,
"Cold. But not too cold.
Some cold I like."
And draw my hand closer.
I pull it away
and jam it in my armpit,
and while I wait for the blood
I look at you, admire your face,
your neck and breasts,
your belly and thighs,
the shadowy double of you
thrown by candlelight to the wall
There is no season, no grass
gone brown, no cold,
and no one to say we are anything
but beautiful, swimming together
across the wide channel of night.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1626 that Dutch explorer Peter Minuit landed on what is now Manhattan Island. Two days later he bought the island from the Algonquin Indians for the equivalent of twenty-four dollars. The settlement was called New Amsterdam.
The Dutch were drawn to Manhattan because of its extraordinary fertility and variety of wildlife. There were tall oaks, chestnuts, walnuts, maples, cedars and pines right up to the edge of the water. A vast array of flowers, including many roses, grew wild on the island, and the fragrance of flowers drifted far out to sea. Sailors coming into harbor said it was one of the sweetest-smelling shores they'd ever approached.
Animals were also in great abundance. There were huge twelve-inch oysters and six-foot lobsters in the bay, and so many fish in the streams that they could be caught by hand.
The Algonquins sold the island for about sixty guilders' worth of cloth, beads, hatchets and other merchandise. On the west side of the island there was a cemetery, a small farm, an orchard, and two wealthy estates. Most of the houses were built along the East River, since its shore was more protected from winds than the shore of the Hudson. The main street was built over an old Indian Path running from the southern tip of the island north. First it was called Heere Straat, which meant Gentlemen's Street, but it eventually came to be known as Breede Weghwhich became the name we know it by today, Broadway.
It was on this day in 1886 that the Haymarket Square Riot broke out in Chicago. The day before, on May 3rd, police had shot several lumber workers, killing one of them, after a strike at the McCormick lumber plant turned violent. To protest the police actions, a second demonstration was held in Haymarket Square on May 4th.
It was a peaceful demonstration, attended by the mayor and about 1,500 men, and after it started to rain, most of the crowd went home. The final speaker, a man named Samuel Fielden, was about to finish his speech when the police arrived and demanded that the crowd disperse. Fielding shouted, "We are peaceable," and suddenly a bomb flew through the air, trailing sparks. It struck the ground near the police and exploded, killing seven policemen. The surviving policemen attacked the crowd with their clubs and pistols.
The identity of the bomber was never proven. Thirty-one prominent labor leaders were arrested, eight were convicted of having planned the bombing, and four were hanged with almost no proof.
It's the birthday of Horace Mann, born in Franklin, Massachusetts (1796). He was the first great American advocate of public education. He believed that in a democratic society, education should be free and universal.
It's the birthday of Thomas Henry Huxley, (books by this author) born in Ealing, England (1825). The grandfather of Aldous Huxley, Thomas was an English biologist and educator. He coined the word "agnostic."
It's the birthday of the man credited with inventing the piano, Bartolomeo Cristofori, born in Padua, Italy (1655). He had replaced the string-plucking mechanism of the harpsichord with hammers, which allowed the player to adjust its volume by applying different degrees of force to the keys. He called his invention, "the harpsichord that plays soft and loud." As the instrument grew more popular, the name was shortened to "soft-loud" and finally to "soft." In Italian, the word for "soft" is "piano."
Poem: "Greeting to Spring (Not Without Trepidation)" by Robert Lax from Tertium Quid. © Stride Publications. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Greeting to Spring (Not Without Trepidation)
Over the back of the Florida basker,
over the froth of the Firth of Forth,
Up from Tahiti and Madagascar,
Lo, the sun walks north.
The first bright day makes sing the slackers
While leaves explode like firecrackers,
The duck flies forth to greet the spring
And sweetly municipal pigeons sing.
Where the duck quacks, where the bird sings,
We will speak of past things.
Come out with your marbles, come out with your Croup,
The grass is as green as a Girl Scout troop;
In the Mall the stone acoustics stand
Like a listening ear for the Goldman band.
At an outside table, where the sun's bright glare is,
We will speak of darkened Paris.
Meanwhile, like attendants who hasten the hoofs
Of the ponies who trot in the shadow of roofs,
The sun, in his running, will hasten the plan
Of plants and fishes, beast and man.
We'll turn our eyes to the sogging ground
And guess if the earth is cracked or round.
Over the plans of the parties at strife,
Over the planes in the waiting north,
Over the average man and his wife,
Lo, the sun walks forth!
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican holiday marking the defeat of French invaders at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. The Mexicans were ill-equipped and outnumbered two to one, but with their general, Zaragoza, they caused 1,000 French casualties and forced a retreat to the Gulf Coast.
It's the birthday of James Beard, (books by this author) a great food writer and food lover, born in Portland, Oregon (1903). He wrote twenty-three cookbooks. He hated the word "gourmet." He was an advocate for imaginative, well-cooked meals, even though it was the 1950s, the age of convenience food. He taught hands-on classes and he was the first chef to cook on television, in 1945.
He said, "I believe that if ever I had to practice cannibalism, I might manage if there were enough tarragon around."
It's the birthday of the novelist Kaye Gibbons, (books by this author) born in Bend of the River in Nash County, North Carolina (1960). She grew up in a four-room farmhouse, her father barely supporting the family as a tobacco farmer. The only books in the house were a Bible and a book on cattle castration, but Gibbons found herself obsessed with reading at an early age, walking three miles to the local bookmobile every week. She said, "Books were the most important thing in my life. ... Because I read, I knew that I could get out of that four-room house."
Her mother suffered from depression and committed suicide when Gibbons was ten years old. Her father drank himself to death a year later. She later said, "[It was] the sort of childhood that encourages someone to either become a writer or to rob convenience stores."
She went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and started a novel based loosely on her own childhood, told in the voice of a young Southern girl. That novel, Ellen Foster, came out in 1987 and got great reviews. It begins, "When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figure out this or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy. ... But I did not kill my daddy. He drank his own self to death the year after the County moved me out."
Gibbons has gone on to write many more novels, and her most recent is a sequel to that first book about Ellen Foster. It's called The Life All Around Me By Ellen Foster (2005). Kaye Gibbons said, "One of the wonderful things about being a writer is that it can be done at home."
It's the birthday of philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, (books by this author) born in Copenhagen, Denmark (1813). He said, "Adversity draws men together and produces beauty and harmony in life's relationships, just as the cold of winter produces ice-flowers on the window-panes, which vanish with the warmth."
And he said, "What is a poet? An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music."
It's the birthday of Karl Marx, (books by this author) born in Trier, Prussia (1818). His theory was that the economic system was a perpetual conflict between those who controlled the capital and those who provided the labor. He believed that the conflict would never be resolved peacefully because capitalism was too volatile.
Marx spent the last years of his life in London, where he worked on his last book, Das Kapital (1867) in the reading room of the British Museum. He slowly sank into poverty, having to avoid creditors, pawn his furniture and fight off eviction. When one of his children died of disease, his wife had to borrow money from a neighbor to buy a coffin. When Marx died in 1883, only eleven people came to his funeral.
Poem: "Small Fundamental Essay" by Hayden Carruth from Toward the Distant Islands: New & Selected Poems. © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Small Fundamental Essay
What many people fail to understand
about the art and science of mechanics
is that you may know perfectly what happens
under the hood of your car when you turn on
the ignition, and you may comprehend
to a nicety how the combination of pump
and pressure tank and heating coils produces
hot water when you turn the tap, and yet
the wonder never ceases. That this can be
and isis what bestirs the mind and heart.
Ours is a faith that never starts a war
nor rips a living child from its warm womb,
a faith that needs no ghastly hierophant
hung dead upon a cross to speak for us.
It is faith in the miracle of the possible,
faith in the peaceful knowledge of what is true.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1937 that the Hindenburg, the largest aircraft ever to take flight, caught fire as it was landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing thirty-five people. The disaster effectively ended the burgeoning business of passenger flight in hydrogen-filled airships.
The Hindenburg was about as big as the Titanic. It traveled at eighty miles per hour, so the trip between Frankfurt, Germany, and Lakehurst, New Jersey, took two and a half days, half the time needed by the fastest ocean liner of the era. Passengers on the Hindenburg paid $400 for a one-way trip. They had sleeping compartments, sitting and dining areas, as well as a 200-foot promenade deck with a spectacular view of the ocean passing below. Passengers were free to roam about, to eat meals at a table on the best china, and to sample the best wines from France and Germany. The passengers could even dance to the music of a lightweight, aluminum grand piano, probably the only grand piano ever to provide entertainment for people in a flying machine.
The Hindenburg wasn't the first airship to crash. There had been more than five crashes already. But the Hindenburg was the highest-profile crash, in part because the destruction was caught on camera.
A photographer Sam Shere saw the ship come into view and drop its heavy mooring lines from the bow. Suddenly there was the sound of an explosion. Sam Shere saw a flash of light, and just at that moment took a picture with his camera, without even looking through the viewfinder. A moment later, the explosion knocked him to the ground, and the camera flew out of his hand. But the photo that he developed became the defining image of the disaster, showing flames erupting out of the top of the ship.
The disaster was also covered live on the radio. Correspondent Herb Morrison described his own horror as he watched the Hindenburg catch fire.
The result of the Hindenburg disaster was that the public soured on traveling by airship. People assumed that the hydrogen gas was too dangerous. It would be two more decades before a Pan American Airways DC-7 made the first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight by a commercial airplane.
It's the birthday of the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, (books by this author) born in the small town of Freiberg in what was then the Austrian Empire (1856). He started out a medical doctor and scientist in Vienna, then decided instead to go into the less crowded field of psychology where he thought he might be able to break new ground. He became interested in the use of hypnosis to treat hysteria. Eventually he developed the idea that all the symptoms of the hysterics he was treating were the result of stories patients hadn't ever been able to tell anyone about their lives.
He knew it would be difficult for a self-respecting woman to talk to her doctor about her darkest thoughts and desires. So he took a couch that had belonged to his wife, covered it with a Persian rug, and asked his patients to lie down on it. Instead of looking at him, he asked them to stare at an empty wall, and he sat behind them as they talked.
Over the next few years, he developed the idea that his patients were not conscious of all their desires and fears, that many of their own thoughts were hidden from them in their unconscious mind. He believed that their unconscious mind would reveal itself in various ways, through slips of the tongue, jokes, and especially dreams.
Freud's ideas are no longer part of modern psychology. But Freud had a tremendous impact on literature. It was after Freud's writings became widespread that novelists began to write fiction that took place entirely inside their characters' minds. His work also gave writers permission to start describing more frankly their characters' sexual desires.
It's the birthday of poet and critic Randall Jarrell, (books by this author) born in Nashville, Tennessee (1914). In his critical essays, collected and published as Poetry and the Age (1953), he revitalized the reputations of Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams.
Poem: "praise god, though he's no place in any" by Robert Lax from Tertium Quid. © Stride. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
praise god, though he's no place in any
praise god, though he's no place in any
astronomic seating plan,
sing still his might for still he can
wreak havoc on the race of man.
he still can shrug the earth a bit
to make your standing towers sit
and quite destroy your joules and volts
with mediocre thunder-bolts.
he still can tear your towns apart
while his surrealistic art
grows grass where hitler's moustache grows
and ferns from hirohito's toes
fills frank sinatra's mouth with ashes
and springs a toad from garbo's lashes
and with some slight celestial mayhem
destroys the shrines of martha graham
and porter cole and coward noel
and splits the earth from pole to pole,
or with some ray you haven't found
sink dante's hell-shaft under-ground.
sing still his might for still he can
wreak havoc on the race of man.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Johannes Brahms, born in Hamburg, Germany (1833). He's one of the few composers whose work was recognized while he was still alive.
It's also the birthday of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, born seven years later in Votkinsk, Russia (1840). He wrote symphonies, operas and three great ballets: Swan Lake (1876), The Nutcracker (1892), and The Sleeping Beauty (1889).
He had a tortured love life, because he was homosexual, which was illegal at the time. Under pressure, he impulsively married a young music student. The marriage was a disaster. Tchaikovsky had a mental breakdown, attempted suicide and left the country. He wrote his brother from Florence: "Only now, especially after the tale of my marriage, have I finally begun to understand that there is nothing more fruitless than not wanting to be that which I am by nature."
It's the birthday of the poet Jenny Joseph, (books by this author) born in Birmingham, England (1932). She was an aspiring poet throughout her twenties, supporting herself with odd jobs. Then in 1960, when she was twenty-eight years old, she published a poem called "Warning," that began with the line, "When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple."
The poem was moderately successful at first, published in several anthologies, but then it began to spread across the world among people who don't usually read poetry. It was photocopied and passed around, stuck up on people's refrigerators. People read it at church gatherings and funerals and senior citizens' homes. It was printed on cards, T-shirts, and posters. It appeared on hundreds of thousands of websites, and in 1996, in a poll conducted by the BBC, it was voted as Britain's favorite post-war poem.
Somehow, as the poem became more and more popular, Jenny Joseph's name as the author was lost. Jenny Joseph eventually published an authorized, illustrated version of the poem in 1997, which sold thousands of copies, but her name is still mostly unknown. She has published many collections of poetry, including The Thinking Heart (1978), Persephone (1986), and Ghosts and Other Company (1996), and she is considered one of the foremost contemporary British poets.
Jenny Joseph doesn't mind that her poem is more famous than she is. When she was recently asked if she would start wearing purple anytime soon, she replied, "I can't stand purple. It doesn't suit me."
It's the birthday of the philosopher David Hume, (books by this author) born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1711). He was born at a time when Edinburgh was one of the poorest and most backward cities in Western Europe. Alcoholism was rampant. The religious climate was extremely strict. If you skipped church on the Sabbath, there was a volunteer group of religious police known as the Seizers who would grab you on the street and forcibly take you to mass. Less than fifteen years before Hume was born, an eighteen-year-old college student was put on trial for saying openly among his friends that he thought Christianity was "ill-invented nonsense." He was convicted and hanged for blasphemy.
But then David Hume came along and became a leader of what is called the "Scottish Enlightenment." Among his circle of friends and associates was Adam Smith, who invented the study of economics; Adam Ferguson, who helped invent sociology; James Hutton; who invented geology; James Watt, who developed the steam engine; Sir Walter Scott, who wrote the first great English novel; and Hugh Blair, who was the first university professor to teach a course in English literature.
David Hume's great contribution to the Scottish Enlightenment was his philosophy, laid out in his first book, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), in which he argued that it may be impossible to know anything for certain about the world. We can experience the world, but we will never fully understand it.
In 1755, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland tried to prosecute and excommunicate Hume for his skepticism about religion. It was only sixty years after a college student was hanged to death for similar charges, but the case against David Hume was dismissed.
David Hume said, "Reading and sauntering and lounging and dosing, which I call thinking, is my supreme Happiness."