Dec. 9, 2003

Seven Deadly Sins

by Virginia Hamilton Adair

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Poem: "Seven Deadly Sins," by Virginia Hamilton Adair, from Beliefs and Blasphemies (Random House).

Seven Deadly Sins

Behold the systematic GLUTTON
who eats the fat first off his mutton,
and while the blessing says, "We're grateful,"
he's asking for a second plateful.

This man is also AVARICIOUS,
finding the smell of dough delicious,
and takes a fierce, uxorious PRIDE
in one possession: his young bride.

His neighbor just across the fence,
a man of strong CONCUPISCENCE,
ENVYING the husband his fair flower,
would buy her favors by the hour.

ANGER inflames the husband's face,
but AVARICE takes the higher place.
He says, "Don't let my ANGER trouble you;
Take her-I'll take your BMW."

The deal is struck; with one car more,
a final sin completes his score.
The sinner says, "I'd shoot them both,
were I not such a slave to SLOTH."

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who wrote the Uncle Remus stories, Joel Chandler Harris, born in Eatonton, Georgia (1848). When he was 13 years old, Harris saw an advertisement for a printer's assistant at a newspaper published at a local plantation. He applied, and got the job. While he was working for the newspaper, he met some of the slaves on the plantation. He loved listening to the stories they told about Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox and other animals in the Briar Patch. When the Civil War began, Chandler left the plantation to work for newspapers in cities all across the South. He wrote in a letter, "It was just lonely enough to bring me face to face with myself and yet not lonely enough to breed melancholy. I used to sit in the dusk and see the shadows of all the great problems of life flitting about, restless and uneasy, and I had time to think about them." He was working for the Atlanta Constitution when he began to publish the tales he had heard years earlier, under the title Uncle Remus, His Songs and Sayings (1880), the first of many Uncle Remus collections. He wrote the tales in a southern, African-American dialect that he claimed was an exact reproduction of the speech he heard as a young man. He said he wanted to teach his readers that "it is not virtue that triumphs, but helplessness; it is not malice, but mischievousness."

It's the birthday of screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo, born in Montrose, Colorado (1905). He's best known as a screenwriter, but his 1939 novel Johnny Got His Gun won the National Book Award. It's about the thoughts of a soldier who has lost his arms, legs, face, sight, and hearing. The soldier decides to become an educational exhibit about the horrors of war. He thinks people who come to see him "would learn all there was to know about war. That would be a great thing, to concentrate war in one stump of a body and to show it to people so they could see the difference between a war that's in newspaper headlines and liberty loan drives and a war that is fought out lonesomely in the mud somewhere, a war between a man and a high explosive shell."

Trumbo joined the Communist party in 1943. He said the meetings were "dull beyond description, about as revolutionary in purpose as Wednesday-evening testimonial services in the Christian Science Church." But he was blacklisted by the film industry and tried by the House Un-American Activities Committee as one of the "Hollywood Ten," a group of writers and actors who refused to speak about their alleged Communist friends and activities. He spent a year in jail and then moved to Mexico, where he continued to write scripts under different pseudonyms. In 1956, he won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay for The Brave One, which he wrote under the name Robert Rich. Three years later, his name was removed from the blacklist, and he wrote the screenplay for Exodus (1960).

It's the birthday of the great English poet John Milton, born in London (1608). He's best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667). But he spent twenty years of his life writing almost nothing but essays on political and religious topics.

He married a woman named Mary Powell in 1642, but she quickly grew tired of him and left him almost immediately after their honeymoon. Milton was furious, but it was against the law to get a divorce on the grounds of incompatibility. The next year, he wrote The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643), in which he argued that couples should be able to divorce if the marriage turns out to be unhappy. He tried to prove that marriage was created to remedy the loneliness of men, and that if a wife failed to perform this function, her husband should have the right to divorce her. He also said that those who had lived freely in their youth were more likely to find happiness in marriage than those who were chaste and inexperienced. Milton addressed his tract to the British Parliament, but it didn't go over well. He remained married to Powell until her death in 1652.

Milton wrote Areopagitica in 1644 to make the case against the government's censorship of books and pamphlets. It's one of the first great arguments in favor of freedom of the press. He argued that no one group should control the number of available opinions from which an individual can choose. He wrote, "As good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself."

After the Civil War ended and Charles II was restored to the throne, Milton devoted himself to the writing of Paradise Lost. The epic poem tells the story of Satan's rebellion against God, his expulsion from Heaven, and his temptation of Adam and Eve. Milton said the poem was an attempt to "justifie the wayes of God to men. Many readers of Paradise Lost come away from it feeling that Satan is the most interesting and sympathetic character in the poem. He's clever and cunning, smart enough to hold sway over the rest of the fallen angels and to trick Adam and Eve into betraying God. At one point Satan thinks, "Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n." Milton's God, on the other hand, comes across as a mean, stodgy old man. William Blake called Milton "a true poet, and of the Devil's party without knowing it."

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