Aug. 31, 2003

Auguries of Innocence

by William Blake

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Poem: from "Auguries of Innocence," by William Blake.

from Auguries of Innocence

To see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all Heaven in a rage.
A dove-house filled with doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell thro' all its regions.
A dog starved at his master's gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
A horse misused upon the road
Calls to Heaven for human blood.

Each outcry of the hunted hare
A fibre from the brain does tear.
A skylark wounded in the wing,
A cherubim does cease to sing.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of educator Maria Montessori, born in a small village near Ancona, Italy (1870). She developed the theory that children should not be forced to sit still while they are learning. She believed that if children are allowed to move around and interact with things, they will discover new ideas on their own.

It's the birthday of William Saroyan, born in Fresno, California (1908). He wrote many novels and collections of short stories, including Love, Here Is My Hat (1938) and My Name Is Aram (1940). His parents were Armenian immigrants, and after his father died, he and his siblings had to live for a while in an orphanage. He started working to help support the family when he was eight years old. When he was 14, he used some of his income as a telegram messenger boy to buy a second-hand typewriter. He dropped out of high school a year later and educated himself at the local public library. He hung out at gambling parlors, lunchrooms, bars, and barbershops and wrote about the people he met there. He tried and tried to publish, and said that he had a stack of rejection letters as high as his desk. In 1934, he published his first story, "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze," about a struggling writer who dies of starvation. He was so happy that he'd finally published something that he sent out dozens of stories to other magazines, and they were all published. His collection, also titled The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (1934), was published that same year. The book made him famous. It was about people who are happy even though they are living through the Great Depression. People loved his seemingly spontaneous, artless style of writing. After the 1940s, he became a chronic gambler, and his books got worse and worse as he tried to write to pay off his debts. Near the end of his life, he estimated that he had lost 2 million dollars gambling. William Saroyan said, "The role of art is to make a world which can be inhabited."

It's the birthday of William Shawn, born in Chicago, Illinois (1907). He is known for succeeding Harold Ross as the editor of The New Yorker magazine. He hated to be photographed, he didn't give interviews, and even after he became editor of The New Yorker, he never once gave a speech in public. He was known for his attention to detail, and went over every single word before it was published in the magazine. He once argued with a writer until 2:30 in the morning over a single hyphen. He was shy and polite, and even people who had known him for years still called him Mr. Shawn. J.D. Salinger called him the "Genius domus of The New Yorker, lover of the long shot, protector of the unprolific, defender of the hopelessly flamboyant, most unreasonably modest of born great artist-editors."

It's the birthday of song lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, born in New York City (1918). He's best known for writing the lyrics for the musical My Fair Lady (1956), based on George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion (1913).

It was on this day in 1837 that Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a speech titled "The American Scholar" to the Phi Beta Kappa society of Harvard University. Emerson wasn't especially well known at the time. He was actually filling in for the orator Reverend Dr. Wainwright, who had backed out of the speaking engagement at the last minute. The speech was the first time he explained his transcendentalist philosophy in front of a large public audience. He said that scholars had become too obsessed with ideas of the past, that they were bookworms rather than thinkers. He told the audience to break from the past, to pay attention to the present, and to create their own new, unique ideas. He said, "I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low." The speech was published that same year. It made Emerson famous, and it brought the ideas of transcendentalism to young men like Henry David Thoreau. Oliver Wendell Holmes called "The American Scholar" "[The] intellectual Declaration of Independence."

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