Nov. 10, 2003

The Mock Turtle's Song

by Lewis Carroll

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Poem: "The Mock Turtle's Song," by Lewis Carroll, from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

The Mock Turtle's Song

"Will you walk a little faster?"
     said a whiting to a snail.
"There's a porpoise close behind us,
    and he's treading on my tail.
See how eagerly the lobsters and
    the turtles all advance!
They are waiting on the shingle—
    will you come and join the dance?
Will you, won't you, will you, won't you,
    will you join the dance?
Will you, won't you, will you, won't you
    won't you join the dance?

"You can really have no notion how
    delightful it will be,
When they take us up and throw us,
    with the lobsters, out to sea!"
But the snail replied "Too far, too far!"
    and gave a look askance—
Said he thanked the whiting kindly,
    but he would not join the dance.
Would not, could not, would not,
    could not, would not join the dance.
Would not, could not, would not,
    could not, could not join the dance.

"What matters it how far we go?"
    his scaly friend replied.
"There is another shore, you know,
    upon the other side.
The further off from England
    the nearer is to France—
Then turn not pale, beloved snail
    but come and join the dance?
Will you, won't you, will you,
    won't you, won't you join the dance?
Will you, won't you, will you,
    won't you, won't you join the dance?"

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Oliver Goldsmith, born in Pallas, County Longford, Ireland (1730). He only wrote for fifteen years, but he produced everything from essays to poetry to fiction and plays. He's best remembered for his novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), his long poem The Deserted Village (1770), and his play She Stoops to Conquer (1773).

It's the birthday of the poet Vachel Lindsey, born in Springfield, Illinois (1879). His parents wanted him to become a doctor, but he dropped out of medical school after three years and tried to make a living drawing pictures and writing poetry. After struggling for several years, and working for a time in the toy department of Marshall Fields, he decided to walk across the United States, trading his poems and pictures for food and shelter along the way. It wasn't nearly as exciting as he thought it would be. He said, "No one cared for my pictures, no one cared for my verse, and I turned beggar in sheer desperation . . . [but] I was entirely prepared to die for my work, if necessary, by the side of the road, and was almost at the point of it at times." In 1913 Poetry magazine published Lindsay's poem "General William Booth Enters into Heaven," and it was a big hit. He went on to write many collections of poetry for adults and children, including The Tree of the Laughing Bells (1905) and Every Soul Is a Circus (1929).

It's the birthday of American novelist John Phillips Marquand, born in Wilmington, Delaware (1893). His father was a wealthy stockbroker, but the panic of 1907 bankrupted him. Marquand was sent to live with his aunts, and he was the first member of his family to go to public instead of private school. He got into Harvard on a scholarship, but he was always ashamed of his family's financial troubles, and it made him very aware of the struggle for social status among the upper class. He went on to write about that struggle in several novels of manners, including The Late George Apley (1937), Wickford Point (1939), and Point of No Return (1949). He was an enormously successful writer while he was alive, earning more than ten million dollars from his writing during the 1950s. Though he had been hailed for his examination of social class in his lifetime, and had won a Pulitzer Prize, he became unfashionable after his death. Critics were suspicious of a writer who not only wrote about rich people, but was himself a rich person. They also didn't appreciate his emphasis on realism rather than literary innovation. His books are now all out of print.

It's the birthday of theologian Martin Luther, born in Eisleben, Saxony (1483), which is now located in Germany. He's best known as the man who sparked the Protestant Reformation, but he was also an extraordinarily productive writer. Between the years of 1516 to 1546, he published an article on religion every other week, totaling more than sixty thousand pages. He wrote theology, hymns, poetry, liturgies, sermons, preaching aids, commentaries, translations, and polemics. It has been estimated that during his writing life, his published writings made up twenty percent of all the literature being published in Germany at the time.

Luther was a priest who hated fulfilling the functions of a priest. He got terribly nervous when he had to serve mass, trembling and knocking things over and stuttering through the prayers. As a teacher, he was unusual because he didn't like to lecture. He would claim he didn't understand passages of the scripture and ask his students to explain them to him.

After he took his famous stand against the Church and its practice of selling indulgencies, he had to leave the University of Wittenberg and go into exile. In isolation, he became more productive than ever, and in addition to his own writing, he completed one of the first translations of the Bible into German. He tried to go beyond a literal translation, and used words that would be understood by common Germans. He said, "[The translator] must ask the mother at home, children in the street, the common man in the market and look them in the mouth, and listen to how they speak, then translate accordingly." And he said, "God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars."

It's the birthday of writer Neil Gaiman, born in Portchester, England (1960). He writes serious comic books and turns them into graphic novels. As a young man, he supported himself as a freelance journalist, and even wrote a best-selling book about the rock band Duran Duran, but what he really wanted to do was to write a comic book for adults. He once said, "The most important dreams, the most manipulable of cultural icons, are those that we received when we were too young to judge or analyze." He wanted to take those icons of his youth and write about them in a serious, literary way. In 1987, DC Comics let him pick one of their old, failed comic book characters and revive him. Gaiman chose a character called The Sandman, who uses sleeping gas to catch criminals. Gaiman kept the name but changed everything else, turning the character into the god of both dreams and stories. He chose different artists to draw the seventy-five issues, and he filled the series with references to myths, folklore and literature, especially Shakespeare. In 1991, a single issue of The Sandman called "A Midsummer Night's Dream" became the first comic book to win the World Fantasy Award for best short story. Gaiman has also written non-graphic novels for adults, including Neverwhere (1996) and American Gods (2001). His most recent book is Coraline (2002), about a little girl who is taken captive by a doll that looks just like her mother, except that she has buttons for eyes.

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