May 7, 2003

Meeting at Night

by Robert Browning

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Poem: "Meeting at Night," by Robert Browning from The New Oxford Book of English Verse (OUP).

Meeting at Night

The gray sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i' the slushy sand.

Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, through its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of Australian novelist Peter Carey, born in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria (1943). In 2001 he won the Booker Prize for the second time, for his novel The True History of the Kelly Gang.

It's the birthday of poet, playwright, and statesman Archibald Macleish, born in Glencoe, Illinois (1892). He did his best writing in the 1920's and 30's, starting when he quit his job as a lawyer and moved his family to Paris to concentrate on poetry. He wrote The Pot of Earth (1925), Streets in the Moon (1926), and Einstein (1929). He wrote radio verse plays, including The Fall of the City (1937), Air Raid (1938), and The Great American Fourth of July Parade (1975).

Today is the birthday two famous composers: Johannes Brahms, born in Hamburg, Germany (1833), and Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, born seven years later in Votkinsk, Russia (1840). Brahms, one of he "three B's" along with Bach and Beethoven, was discovered on a concert tour when he was twenty. He met Robert Schumann, a well-known composer, and Schumann wrote an article about him that made his famous. Brahms was one of the few composers whose work was recognized while still alive. He wrote symphonies, concertos, chamber music, and more than 200 songs. His first well-known composition was his German Requiem (1868), which commemorated the death of his mother. His Hungarian Dances (1869) for piano duet were arrangements of Gypsy tunes; they were a phenomenal success and played all over the world. And Piotr Tchaikovsky was born today, the most popular Russian composer of all time. He wrote symphonies, operas, and three great ballets: Swan Lake (1876), The Nutcracker (1892), and The Sleeping Beauty (1889). Tchaikovsky was a homosexual, which was officially illegal in Russia 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 English poet Robert Browning, born in London (1812). Along with Alfred, Lord Tennyson he was considered the most important poet of his day, but he didn't come into his own until late in life, when he published The Ring and the Book (1868-1869), based on a 1698 murder trial in Rome. He did have his early admirers: the poet Elizabeth Barrett praised Browning in her poetry, he wrote to thank her, they met, and they fell in love. She had been an invalid, stuck in her room for years, and doctors thought she was incurable. But the two of them eloped to Italy, Elizabeth's health improved remarkably, and they had a happy marriage. Many of his poems were dramatic monologues; the poem "My Last Duchess" is one of his most famous. His poetry could be obscure. When he published Sordello (1840), almost everyone called it incomprehensible. Once, when readers asked him what a certain passage meant, Browning said, "When I wrote that, God and I knew what it meant, but now God alone knows." After his wife died in 1861, Browning reentered the London social scene. When Henry James met Browning in person he didn't understand how a person who rambled on about such trivial things could write such dense high-sounding poetry. He said there must be "two Brownings," one that stays home and writes the poems and one that goes out on the town.

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