Dec. 18, 2003

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Poem: "Excelsior," by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed,
A youth, who bore, 'mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device,

His brow was sad; his beneath,
Flashed like a falchion from its sheath,
And like a silver clarion rung
The accents of that unknown tongue,

In happy homes he saw the light
Of household fires gleam warm and bright;
Above, the spectral glaciers shone,
And from his lips escaped a groan,

"Try not the Pass!" the old man said;
"Dark lowers the tempest overhead,
The roaring torrent is deep and wide!"
And loud that clarion voice replied,

"Oh stay," the maiden said, "and rest
Thy weary head upon this breast!"
A tear stood in his bright blue eye,
But still he answered, with a sigh,

"Beware the pine-tree's withered branch!
Beware the awful avalanche!"
This was the peasant's last Good-night,
A voice replied, far up the height,

At break of day, as heavenward
The pious monks of Saint Bernard
Uttered the oft-repeated prayer,
A voice cried through the startled air,

A traveler, by the faithful hound,
Half-buried in the snow was found,
Still grasping in his hand of ice
That banner with the strange device,

There in the twilight cold and gray,
Lifeless, but beautiful, he lay,
And from the sky, serene and far,
A voice fell, like a falling star,

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of playwright Christopher Fry, born in Bristol, England (1907). He wrote plays in blank verse at a time when most British plays were realistic social comedies. He once said, "Poetry has the virtue of being able to say twice as much as prose in half the time, and the drawback, if you do not give it your full attention, of seeming to say half as much in twice the time." He's best known for The Lady's Not for Burning (1948), a play set in the Middle Ages about an ex-soldier who wants to die and a young woman who is accused of being a witch.

Fry said, "Comedy is an escape, not from truth but from despair; a narrow escape into faith."

It's the birthday of hymn writer Charles Wesley, born in Epworth, England (1708). He went to Oxford University, where he formed a small religious study group that included his brother John and a few other friends. They were nicknamed "the holy club" and later "the Methodists" because of their methodical worship and strict discipline. The group eventually broke up, but a few years later John and Charles Wesley founded the first official Methodist Society, laying the foundations for modern-day Methodism.

After graduating from Oxford, Charles grew frustrated with Christianity and began to question his beliefs. He went on a mission to the new American colony of Georgia in 1735. He worked as a secretary of the governor, but he found it hard to adapt the rough lifestyle in America. He wrote, "Life is bitterness to me." When he returned to London, he experienced a conversion that confirmed his religious faith. On May 21, 1738, he wrote, "I now found myself at peace with God .... I went to bed still sensible of my own weakness ... yet confident of Christ's protection." The next day, he wrote his first hymn, which begins:

Where shall my wondering soul begin?
How shall I all to heaven aspire?
A slave redeemed from death and sin,
A brand plucked from eternal fire!
Wesley went on to write over 6,500 hymns, including "Hark! the herald angels sing," and "Oh for a thousand tongues to sing." About a sixth of the 750 hymns in the official hymnal of the Methodist Episcopal Church were written by Wesley.

It's the birthday of the British writer known as Saki, born Hector Hugh Munro in Akyab, Burma (1870). He wrote short, whimsical stories about the British upper class, stories that were full of witty sayings and surprise twists. Munro was raised in rural England by two aunts. When he was 23 years old and still hadn't decided on an occupation, his father found him a job with the military police in Burma. He soon caught malaria and returned to London. While he was recovering, he decided he was going to be a writer. When he was well enough to leave his family's home, he moved to London and spent his days reading and writing at the British Museum. His first book was a history of medieval Russia called The Rise of the Russian Empire (1900).

His next book was a satire of the British government, The Westminster Alice (1902), which he wrote under the pen name Saki. It was hugely popular, and he began to write short stories under the same name. He loved animals, and often wrote about them in his stories. His first story, "Dogged," is about a vicious fox terrier who lives with a stuffy bachelor. In Saki's story "Tobermory," a cat living in a country house learns to talk, and starts repeating what guests say about each other in secret.

Saki said, "A little inaccuracy sometimes saves a ton of explanation."

It's the birthday of Steven Spielberg, born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1946). Even as a child, he knew he wanted to make movies. When he was 13 years old, he won a contest with a 40-minute film called Escape to Nowhere. When he was 16, he produced a movie called Firelight that made a $100 profit at the local movie theater. He wanted to study film at the University of Southern California, but the film school rejected him, so he went to California State University in Long Beach and majored in English. One day, he was taking a tour of Universal Studios when he slipped by security, found an abandoned janitors' closet, cleaned it up, and turned it into an office. According to Spielberg's account, he discovered that if he wore a suit and tie he could walk right past the security guards at the front gate, and he began coming in to his makeshift office every day. While he was there, he started making a short silent movie called Amblin'. It caught the attention of some Universal executives, and he began to make TV movies. His first real breakthrough was Duel (1971), a suspenseful thriller about a man in a small car being terrorized by a man in a large truck for no apparent reason. It came out on TV in the U.S. and in theaters in Europe. Four years later, he directed Jaws (1975), one of the most successful movies ever made.

Spielberg's parents divorced when he was a child, after years of intense arguing. Many of his movies deal with the relationships between parents and children, especially fathers and sons. In Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977), children and parents are abducted from their homes. In E.T. (1982), Elliott befriends an alien, in part to make up for the loss of his father. And in the more recent film Catch Me if you Can (2002), the main character runs away from home and becomes a con man after his parents announce their plans to divorce.

Spielberg said, "I dream for a living."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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