Dec. 3, 2003

Snow in the Suburbs

by Thomas Hardy

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Poem: "Snow in the Suburbs," by Thomas Hardy.

Snow in the Suburbs

Every branch big with it,
Bent every twig with it;
Every fork like a white web-foot;
Every street and pavement mute:
Some flakes have lost their way, and grope back upward, when
Meeting those meandering down they turn and descend again.
The palings are glued together like a wall,
And there is no waft of wind with the fleecy fall.

A sparrow enters the tree,
Whereon immediately
A snow-lump thrice his own slight size
Descends on him and showers his head and eyes,
And overturns him,
And near inurns him,
And lights on a nether twig, when its brush
Starts off a volley of other lodging lumps with a rush.

The steps are a blanched slope,
Up which, with feeble hope,
A black cat comes, wide-eyed and thin;
And we take him in.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1947 that Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire premiered in New York City. Williams spent months writing and revising the play, and he had three different working titles for it: The Moth, Blanche's Chair on the Moon, and The Poker Night. Then he moved to an apartment in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where he could hear two streetcars rattling by, one named Desire and one named Cemeteries. He changed the setting of his play to New Orleans, and he changed the title to A Streetcar Named Desire. The play is about a southern belle named Blanche DuBois who comes to live with her sister Stella and Stella's working class husband Stanley. Stanley thinks Blanche is trying to swindle the couple, and his anger and physical aggression eventually drive her to insanity. At one point, Blanche says, "I don't want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don't tell truth, I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it!"

The play got a 30-minute standing ovation on opening night, and it ran for over 800 performances. Stella was originally played by Kim Hunter, Blanche by Jessica Tandy, and Stanley by a twenty-three-year-old Marlon Brando. The play was made into a movie in 1951 with most of the original cast, and it was nominated for twelve Academy Awards.

It's the birthday of novelist Joseph Conrad, born in Berdichev, Ukraine (1857), in a region that had once been part of Poland. His father was a poet and translator of English and French literature. Joseph and his father read books written in both Polish and French. By the time he was 12 years old, both of his parents had died of tuberculosis. He went to Switzerland to live with his uncle, but after a few years he decided he wanted to go off and see the world. He joined the French merchant marine, and began a long career as a sailor. He sailed to Australia, Borneo, Malaysia, South America, the South Pacific, and Africa. He joined the British merchant navy, and in 1886 became a citizen of Great Britain.

In the fall of 1889, Conrad settled in London for a few months. One morning, after he finished his breakfast, he told his maid to clear away all the dishes immediately. Normally, he would sit by the window and read from a book by Dickens or Hugo or Shakespeare. But on this morning he felt unusually calm and perceptive. He later wrote, "It was an autumn day . . . with fiery points and flashes of red sunlight on the roofs and windows opposite, while the trees of the square with all their leaves gone were like tracings of an Indian ink on a sheet of tissue paper." He began to write his first novel, Almayer's Folly, which would be published six years later. It's about a man from the Netherlands who trades on the jungle rivers of Borneo. Conrad said, "The conception of a planned book was entirely outside my mental range when I sat down to write." He said he felt "a hidden obscure necessity, a completely masked and unaccountable phenomenon."

Conrad went on to write many more novels, including Lord Jim (1900), The Secret Agent (1907), and Nostromo (1904). But he's most famous for Heart of Darkness (1902), about a man's journey down a river into the middle of Africa. Conrad wrote, in Heart of Darkness, "It is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence,--that which makes its truth, its meaning-its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream-alone."

Conrad said the task of the writer is "to make you hear, to make you feel-it is, before all, to make you see. That-and no more, and it is everything."

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