Aug. 4, 2003

Frederick Douglass

by Robert Hayden

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Poem: "Frederick Douglass," by Robert Hayden from Collected Poems (Liveright).

Frederick Douglass

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues' rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, born in Sussex, England (1792). Although he died before the age of 30, many of his poems are considered masterpieces, including "The Cloud," "To a Skylark," and "Prometheus Unbound." As a student at prep school he was bullied by his classmates for being different: he didn't like sports, and he conducted scientific experiments in his room. They called him "Mad Shelley." He was a published author before he even enrolled in college at Oxford; his first book was a gothic novel called Zastrozzi (1810). As a young man, Shelley was more interested in politics than poetry. He was expelled from college for writing a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism (1811). He married Harriet Westbrook, a girl of sixteen, and together they moved to Dublin, where Shelley wrote more pamphlets and tried to get the Irish to revolt. A year after his first child with his wife Harriet was born, Shelley fell in love with another woman and ran away with her to France. The Shelleys went to Italy to meet Byron in the summer of 1818. Their two children, Clara and William, died there, but still it was Percy Shelley's most productive period. He wrote "Adonis," an elegy on the death of John Keats; "Prometheus Unbound," a lyrical drama; and The Cenci, a tragedy. Shelley died on a sailboat that sank in a storm off the Italian coast. His body washed up on the shore at Viareggio; in his pocket was a copy of a book of poems by Keats. He said, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

It's the birthday of Knut Hamsun, born Knut Pedersen in Lom, Norway (1859). He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, and he's considered one of the greatest Scandinavian novelists of all time. Hamsun had almost no formal schooling. In the 1880s he went to the United States in search of literary fame, but all he found was hard labor: he worked as a streetcar conductor in Chicago and a farmhand in North Dakota. When Hamsun returned to Norway, he wrote his early novels that made him famous. In books such as Hunger (1890) and Mysteries (1892) the heroes were a lot like Hamsun himself: they struggled, starved, and had no family roots. Hamsun came to hate America and Britain. He saw Western culture as noisy and superficial, and the British he met on his travels were arrogant and unkind. But a German captain of an ocean liner gave him free passage to America in 1882, and the German people appreciated his work. He supported the Nazi occupation of Norway during World War II. Even though he supported the Nazis, Hamsun sent countless telegrams to help get Norwegian prisoners, including some writers and publishers, out of concentration camps. Still, he was arrested after the war as a traitor and sent to the Oslo Psychiactric Clinic. He spent the last few years of his life isolated from his family and countrymen, penniless.

It's the birthday of Louis Armstrong, born in the birthplace of American jazz: New Orleans, Louisiana (1901). They called him Satchmo, short for "Satchel Mouth." In 1913 he was sent to a reform school as a juvenile delinquent, and that's where he learned to play the cornet. Jazz was young then, and Armstrong listened to pioneers like New Orleans cornetist King Oliver, who gave Armstrong his big break by letting him play in the Creole Jazz Band in Chicago in 1922. Armstrong's autobiographies include Swing That Music (1936) and Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (1954).

It's the birthday of Robert Hayden, born Asa Bundy Sheffey in Detroit (1913). He couldn't afford college right after high school, so he spent most of his free time at the public library, reading Carl Sandburg and Edna St. Vincent Millay and the poets of the Harlem Renaissance. When he did go to college W.H. Auden was his mentor. Hayden wrote about the black experience, in such poems as "John Brown's Body," about black reaction to General Sherman's Civil War march through Georgia; and "Middle Passage," about the slave trade. Hayden wrote about his boyhood home in a poem called "Those Winter Sundays." The father in the poem can't express his love directly, so instead he polishes his son's shoes. The boy is indifferent. Once, Hayden confided that whenever he read this poem publicly, he feared he might break down.

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