Apr. 21, 2003

The Skylight

by Seamus Heaney

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Poem: "The Skylight," by Seamus Heaney from Opened Ground (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux).

The Skylight

You were the one for skylights. I opposed
Cutting into the seasoned tongue-and-groove
Of pitch pine. I liked it low and closed,
Its claustrophobic, nest-up-in-the-roof
Effect. I liked the snuff-dry feeling,
The perfect, trunk-lid fit of the old ceiling.
Under there, it was all hutch and hatch.
The blue slates kept the heat like midnight thatch.

But when the slates came off, extravagant
Sky entered and held surprise wide open.
For days I felt like an inhabitant
Of that house where the man sick of the palsy
Was lowered through the roof, had his sins forgiven,
Was healed, took up his bed and walked away.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of the writer who created Rumpole of the Bailey, John (Clifford) Mortimer, born in London in 1923. In addition to writing over fifteen Rumpole novels and adapting many of them for television, he has worked as a lawyer for over 50 years. First he was a divorce lawyer, but then he switched to criminal law, saying murderers were nicer to work with than divorcing spouses.

It's the birthday of American humorist Josh Billings, born Henry Wheeler Shaw in Lanesboro, Massachusettes in 1818. The son of a congressman, he wrote articles for New York newspapers. He also wrote funny and instructive books, including Josh Billings on Ice (1868) and Josh Billings' Farmers' Allminax (1870), a parody of the Old Farmers' Almanac. Billings said: "Don't take the bull by the horns, take him by the tail; then you can let go when you want to."

It's the birthday of the woman who wrote Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë, born on the rolling, windy moors of Thornton, Yorkshire, England in 1816. Her mother and two older siblings died when Charlotte was young, and she was brought up by her father, an Anglican clergyman. When she was ten years old, her father brought home a box of wooden soldiers for her brother Branwell. But she and her two sisters, Emily and Ann, used the soldiers to invent an imaginary world that they called Angria, and soon they began to write stories about the place. One day, Charlotte discovered Emily's poems, and decided to gather the poetry of the three sisters together for publication under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Their Poems (1846) were not a success, but they were hooked by the literary life and began writing regularly. Within a year, Ann had published Agnes Grey (1847) and Emily had published Wuthering Heights (1847). Charlotte had written two novels: The Professor was rejected for publication, but Jane Eyre (1847) was published to immediate success. The novel is about a poor orphan who finds a job as a governess and eventually falls in love with her mysterious employer; it makes fun of people who think that women "ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing the piano and embroidering bags." Bronte was obsessed with her own ugliness -- George Lewes described her as "A little, plain, provincial, sickly-looking old maid." Bronte said, "I am neither a man nor a woman but an author."

It's the birthday of the "Father of our National Parks," John Muir, born in Dunbar, Scotland in 1838. He immigrated with his family to Hickory Hill Farm in Wisconsin when he was eleven. He left college after three years to travel through the northern United States and Canada, working at odd jobs to earn a living. He walked for a thousand miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico, and later sailed to Cuba, Panama, and California, the state he would eventually call home. He traveled his entire life, visiting Alaska, Australia, South America, Africa, Europe, China, and Japan. He was largely responsible for the creation of Yosemite National Park in 1890, as well as many other national parks. In 1892, he helped found the Sierra Club, to "make the mountains glad." He was the Club's first president until he died, in 1914. When he was older he began a strict program of writing, eventually publishing over 300 articles and 10 books, including The Mountains of California (1894). He encouraged people to "Climb the mountains and get their good tidings," and inspired many city-dwellers to take a break from work and spend some time in the country. He said, "This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls."

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