Dec. 26, 2003

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

by Robert Frost


Poem: "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," by Robert Frost

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Boxing Day and St. Stephen's Day in England, Canada, and several other countries. The origins of this national holiday are not certain, but it might come from an old custom of wealthy estate owners giving small gifts or money, wrapped in boxes, to their servants and those who worked for them. Servants were needed on Christmas Day to help with their masters' holiday events, so they were often given a rest the next day. St. Stephen is honored today as the first Christian martyr, having been stoned to death for blasphemy.

It's the birthday of the inventor of the first calculating machine, Charles Babbage, born in London, England (1792). He was obsessed with the notion of mathematical accuracy in his work and surroundings. He was fed up with what he called the "intolerable labor and fatiguing monotony" of the hand-calculating of scientific tables, so he invented and built the Difference Engine, which could perform large calculations with the turn of a crank. He then set out to build the steam powered analytical engine, which would have been the size of a locomotive, but he never found a way to make it work. He is also known for inventing the speedometer and the locomotive cowcatcher.

It's the birthday of poet and scholar Thomas Gray, born in London (1716). He gave us the phrase, "Where ignorance is bliss--Tis folly to be wise." All of Thomas's early poems were written in Latin, but we know him for "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," which is considered one of the greatest poems in the English language. It begins: "The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, / The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea, / The plowman homeward plods his weary way, / And leaves the world to darkness and to me."

It's the birthday of author Henry Miller, born in New York City (1891). He was rebellious by nature. He said, "From five to ten were the most important years of my life; I lived in the street and acquired the typical American gangster spirit." With money his father gave him to finance his college education, he went on a trip through the Southwest and Alaska. When he returned, he went to work in his father's tailor shop, but left after trying to unionize the workforce. After that, he ran a speakeasy in Greenwich Village, but eventually moved to France for nine years. While there, Henry wrote about his bohemian experiences in Tropic of Cancer (1934), of which he said, "This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty . . . what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing." The book was immediately banned in the U.S. for its obscenities and graphically sexual content. In 1964, the Supreme Court finally ruled that Tropic of Cancer could not be suppressed. It had already sold two million copies.

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