Dec. 20, 2003

The Last Waltz

by Alden Nowlan

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Poem No. 1: "The Last Waltz," by Alden Nowlan from Selected Poems (House of Anansi Press)

The orchestra playing
the last waltz
at three o'clock
in the morning
in the Knights of Pythias Hall
in Hartland, New Brunswick,
Canada, North America,
world, solar system,
centre of the universe —

and all of us drunk,
swaying together
to the music of rum
and a sad clarinet:

comrades all,
each with his beloved.

Poem No. 2 (In honor of Maude Gonne): "When You Are Old," by William Butler Yeats from Selected Poems (Gramercy)

When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
You eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

And bending down beside the glowing bars
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Hortense Calisher, born in Manhattan (1911). Though she has written several novels, she's best known for the many short stories she published in The New Yorker magazine, most of which are compiled in The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher (1975). After she got married and moved to a small town in New York State, she began to feel paralyzed living the life of a mother and housewife. She said, "I was becoming more and more separated from people and from reality. I had to confirm reality by making a new piece of it." One day, she got the idea for her short story "A Box of Ginger" while walking her son to school. She typed it up and sent it to The New Yorker, and it was published in 1948. Her first collection of short stories, In the Absence of Angels (1951), came out three years later to great acclaim.

Many of her most anthologized stories are based on her childhood. She once said, "A happy childhood can't be cured. Mine'll hang around my neck like a rainbow, that's all, instead of a noose."

Today is believed to be the birthday of the woman who inspired William Butler Yeats to write many of his poems and plays, Maud Gonne, born in Aldershot, England (1865). She was the daughter of an Irish army officer, and she became an Irish nationalist and revolutionary who helped stir up opposition to British rule in Ireland.

She was one of the most beautiful women of her time, and Yeats fell in love with her the first time he saw her. He said, "[When I met her] the troubles of my life began." He described her as "Tall and noble but with face and bosom / Delicate in colour as apple blossom." He proposed marriage soon after their first meeting, and she refused. But they both believed in magic and the occult, and in their letters they referred to their mystical marriage, and their telepathic communication. Gonne later told Yeats that she couldn't marry him because she believed they had been brother and sister in a previous life.

Yeats spent most of his life pining for her while she traveled around Europe, breaking other men's hearts as she made the case for Irish liberation. After she refused Yeats's second marriage proposal, he wrote that he might as well have offered his love to a statue in a museum. When she married an Irish solider, he was devastated. He described the day he heard the news as, "the day / When, the ears being deafened, the sight of the eyes blind / With lightning, you went from me." After her husband died in an armed uprising, Yeats proposed marriage again, and Gonne again refused. So he proposed to her daughter, and she refused him, too. He finally gave up and decided that he disagreed with many of Gonne's political positions. But his love for her inspired some of the most beautiful love poems in the English language, including "When You Are Old" (1892).

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