Dec. 17, 2003

Whispered the old rhyme

by John Greenleaf Whittier

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Poem: "Whispered the old rhyme: 'Under the tree,
When fire outdoors burns merrily,
There the witches are making tea.'
by John Greenleaf Whittier

The moon above the eastern wood
Shone at its full; the hill-range stood
Transfigured in the silver flood.
Its blown snows flashing cold and keen.
Dead white, save where some sharp ravine
Took shadow, or the somber green
Of hemlocks turned to pitchy black
Against the whiteness at their back.
For such a world and such a night
Most fitting that unwarming light,
Which only seemed where'er it fell
To make the coldness visible.

Shut in from all the world without,
We sat the clean-winged hearth about,
Content to let the north-wind roar
In baffled rage at pane and door,
While the red logs before us beat
The frost-line back with tropic heat;
And ever, when a louder blast
Shook beam and rafter as it passed,
The merrier up it roaring draught
The great throat of the chimney laughed;
The house-dog on its paws outspread
Laid to the fire his drowsy head,
The cat's dark silhouette on the wall
A couchant tiger's seemed to fall;
And, for the winder fireside meet,
Between the andirons' straddling feet,
The mug of cider simmered slow,
The apples sputtered in a row,
And, close at hand, the basket stood
With nuts from brown October's wood.

What matter how the night behaved?
What matter how the north-wind raved?
Blow high, blow low, not all its snow
Could quench our hearth fire's ruddy glow.
O Time and Change! - with hair as gray
As was my sire's that winter day,
How strange it seems, with so much gone
Of life and love, to still live on!
Ah, brother! only I and thou
Are left of all that circle now, —
The dear home faces whereupon
That fitful firelight paled and shone.
Henceforward, listen as we will,
The voices of that hearth are still;
Look where we may, the wide earth o'er,
Those lighted faces smile no more.
We tread the paths their feet have worn,
  We sit beneath their orchard trees,
  We hear, like them, the hum of bees
And rustle of the bladed corn;
We turn the pages that they read,
  Their written words we linger o'er,
But in the sun they cast no shade,
No voice is heard, no sign is made,
  No step is on the conscious floor!
Yet love will dream, and Faith will trust,
(Since He who knows our need is just,)
That somehow, somewhere, meet we must.
Alas for him who never sees
The stars shine through his cypress-trees!
Who, hopeless, lays his dead away,
Nor looks to see the breaking day
Across the mournful marbles play!
Who hath not learned, in hours of faith,
  The truth to flesh and sense unknown,
That life is ever lord of Death,
  And Love can never lose its own!

Literary and Historical Notes:

Nobody is sure when Ludwig van Beethoven was born, but he was baptized on this day in Bonn (1770). As a young man he was a virtuoso piano player, and he wrote most of his famous compositions after he began to go deaf.

Beethoven's music became immensely popular during his lifetime, but he never stopped having troubles with money. Since his father spent much of his time drinking, Beethoven became in charge of the family finances when he was still a teenager, working as a court organist for the Elector of Cologne. He took a trip to Vienna to try to make his way as a musician, but he had to return home before he could gain a foothold. A few years later he went back for good, playing the piano at private parties for the city's aristocrats. He wrote home to his brother, saying, "My art is winning me friends and renown, and what more do I want? And this time, I shall make a good deal of money."

Just before he turned forty, a small group of princes and archdukes agreed to give him an annual salary with no conditions attached. The arrangement made Beethoven more independent than almost any composer before him. But he still struggled with all of his expenses. When his brother died, he had to pay for the education of his young nephew. The price was 2,000 florins, which was half of his yearly salary. He also kept servants, enjoyed fine wine and lived in a summer house each year. When his Ninth Symphony premiered in 1824, he tried to raise the ticket prices in order to help pay his debts. But he didn't make nearly as much from the concert as he had hoped.

Beethoven once said of himself, "Thank God, Beethoven can compose--but, I admit, that is all he is able to do in this world."

On this day in 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright took off on the world's first airplane flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They'd spent several weeks camping on the Outer Banks, a narrow, sandy peninsula on the Atlantic. The day began with gray skies and sharp winds, and the brothers huddled in a shed to warm themselves. Orville said years later that he should have realized it was much too dangerous to fly in that weather. But they had already waited several days for the right flying conditions, and they wanted to get home before Christmas. Around mid-morning, they decided to give their machine a try. Orville shook hands with his brother and climbed into the pilot's seat.

The machine built up a speed of about 10 miles an hour, rose about ten feet off the ground, and landed almost immediately. The brothers made two more attempts, and still they barely got anywhere. Then Wilbur tried again. He flew straight into the wind for nearly a full minute, covering 852 feet. After he got out of the plane, it promptly rolled over and tumbled straight toward the ocean. The plane would take months to repair, but they had made their first successful flight.

It's the birthday of William Safire, born in New York City (1929). He was the senior speechwriter for President Nixon, and since 1973 he's been a political columnist for the New York Times. He won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary in 1978. During his time in the White House, he was called upon to perform a variety of unusual tasks. Before the Apollo 11 spacecraft took off for the moon, he had to prepare a statement for Nixon to deliver in the event that the astronauts never made it back. He wrote a speech that began, "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace."

In 1979 he began writing his "On Language" column, which lays out the dos and don'ts of grammar and usage. He has continued the column to this day. He once wrote a list called "William Safire's Rules for Writers" as an aid for the use of correct English. The rules included, "Remember to never split an infinitive"; "The passive voice should never be used"; and "Last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague." Safire is a novelist as well as a columnist, and his books include Freedom (1987), a novel about President Lincoln.

William Safire said, "Never assume the obvious is true."

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