Jan. 4, 2002


by W. S. Merwin

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Poem: "Carol," by W. S. Merwin from The First Four Books of Poems (Copper Canyon Press).


Lady, the dew of years
Makes sodden the world
And yet there is no morning.
Lady, we cannot think you
Indifferent or far,
And we lean and call after
You who in the night,
As a morning, among
This our heaviness came
And our eyes called you maiden.
We are in the darkness,
Our eyes turned to the door,
Waiting. Because you passed
Through the room where we are,
Your form not cumbered
With our weight and gesture;
Waiting, because you went
Uncontained by our shadows,
As a light, quietly;
Leaning, as though you might
Come again where our eyes
Are lost that follow after
You who as a light
Through the room where we are
With grace carried a flower.

It's the birthday today of Louis Braille, born in a small town called Coupvray on the outskirts of Paris in 1809. His father was a harness- and shoemaker, and as a toddler the young Louis was playing with an awl in his father's workshop when it slipped and pierced his eye, damaging it forever. By the time he was four, his remaining eye had been blinded by infection, and he lost his sight permanently. He showed a lot of promise in school, though, especially in music, and he was sent to Paris, to the Royal Academy for the Blind, on scholarship. He was taught to read there by feeling raised print on paper; that was the best system available at the time. The reading material was made by impressing letters made of copper wire into the paper. It was cumbersome to produce and slow-going to read, because it was difficult to differentiate the letters by touch, and although it enabled blind people to read, they couldn't write on their own. Then in 1821, the young Braille was introduced to a military communications technique called "night writing," a complicated system of 12 raised dots that were combined to represent certain sounds. It had been rejected by the Army because it was too difficult to catch on, but Braille saw promise in the system. He spent the next few years experimenting with it, and simplified it, using just 6 dots, to create the Braille language, first for words and then for math and music. The first book in Braille was published in 1827, but the system didn't catch on in Braille's lifetime; he died in 1852 of tuberculosis at age 43, and it was only after his death that the system slowly rose in popularity. In fact, the magnitude of Braille's achievement wasn't recognized until the 20th century, and 100 years after his death, in 1952, the French government exhumed Braille's body and buried it in the Pantheon in Paris, along with other great heroes of France. Braille is now used worldwide, and has been adapted to almost every known language.

It's the birthday of Jacob Ludwig Grimm, of the Brothers Grimm, born in Hanau, Germany, in 1785. Jacob was a passionate philosopher, and a linguist and librarian by trade. But with his younger brother Wilhelm Carl Grimm he is the reason that children all over the world read stories like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel. The Brothers Grimm wrote down and published for the first time the fairy tales and folklore that had been passed down orally in Germany for generations. The tales they wrote were provided to them both by educated friends and by peasants from the surrounding countryside. At first, the brothers aimed to record the stories exactly as they'd been told. But the tales themselves were quite grim, often very cruel and scary, and in later revisions they changed some of the details and endings to make them a little softer, a little friendlier, and a little more moral.

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