Mar. 17, 2004

The Trees

by Philip Larkin

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Poems: "The Trees," by Philip Larkin, from Collected Poems (Noonday Press).

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is St. Patrick's Day, the feast day of the patron saint of Ireland. There will be parades and celebrations in cities all across the world, but the holiday has always been most popular in the United States, especially in cities with large Irish-American populations. The first large-scale St. Patrick's Day celebration in America took place in Boston in 1737, and that city still draws huge crowds for its annual parade. In Chicago, they dye the Chicago River green every year. And in New York City, there's a big parade that goes up Fifth Avenue from 44th Street to 86th Street, past St. Patrick's Cathedral.

St. Patrick was born around the year 385, in a village in Wales. When he was sixteen, a group of Irish pirates raided his village and took many of the young men back to Ireland to work as slaves. Patrick worked for six years as a herdsman in the Irish countryside. In his sixth year, he escaped and made his way back to Wales. But, according to his autobiography, soon after he got back home he heard a voice telling him to go back to Ireland and convert the Irish to Christianity. That's eventually what he did, but first he went to France to visit monasteries and study religious texts. After twelve years in France, he went back to Ireland, where he founded monasteries, schools, and churches and converted much of the island to Christianity.

It's the birthday of playwright and novelist Paul (Eliot) Green, born on a farm near Lillington, North Carolina (1894). He's known for writing about conflicts between whites and blacks in the southern United States, at a time when it was hugely controversial to write about such things. He grew up on his father's farm in North Carolina, where he picked cotton, shucked corn and cut wood side by side with black laborers. He bought as many books as he could and read them as he plowed the fields. He taught himself how to play violin by taking a correspondence course and practicing in the pine woods. As a young man, he played semi-professional baseball until he saved enough money to go to the University of North Carolina.

Several of his early one-act plays had all-black casts, which was almost unheard of at the time and allowed many black actors to act in their first starring roles. His first full-length play was Abraham's Bosom, produced by the Provincetown Players in 1926. It's about a black man who, against the opposition of his white half-brother, opens a school in rural North Carolina to try to improve the education of blacks in the area. He ends up killing his half-brother, and is then killed by members of the Ku Klux clan. Abraham's Bosom won the Pulitzer Prize in 1927. In 1941, Green collaborated with Richard Wright to produce a dramatic version of Wright's novel Native Son (1940). The first production of the play was directed by Orson Welles.

In 1937, Green began a new movement in American theater when he wrote the first of what he called his "symphonic dramas," The Lost Colony, about the first British settlement in America. It combined drama with music, dance, poetry, and folklore, and had a cast of more than 150 people. It was first produced in a huge amphitheater on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, and there are still performances of the play every summer. In the following decades, many southern cities commissioned him to write "symphonic dramas" about events in their local history. He would do research on the city, find a story he thought looked interesting, and write a play about it. He even composed much of the music for the plays and helped to build many of the amphitheaters where his works were performed.

It's the birthday of Kate Greenaway, born in London (1846). She was one of the most famous illustrators of children's books in the nineteenth century. Her father was a wood engraver for the London magazine Punch, and Kate spent six years working as a designer of Christmas and Valentine cards. One of her cards sold more than 25,000 copies in less than a month, but she didn't make very much money off them. She began drawing illustrations for children's books in 1877, specializing in little children wearing bonnets and playing in the English countryside. The 20,000 copies of her first book sold out in just a few weeks, and 70,000 more were printed. She became hugely popular; people sold pirated copies of her books in Europe and America, and manufacturers came out with Kate Greenaway wallpaper, plates, vases, scarves, dresses, and dolls. She eventually made enough money to have a mansion built for her in one of the nicest neighborhoods in London, where she spent the rest of her life drawing illustrations, painting watercolors, and walking through her gardens.

It's the birthday of novelist and children's author Penelope Lively, born in Cairo, Egypt (1933). She's the author of the novels The Road to Lichfield (1977), Treasures of Time (1979) and According to Mark (1984), among many others.

Lively wrote, "We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse: we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard. . . . Words are more durable than anything, that they blow with the wind, hibernate and reawaken, shelter parasitic on the most unlikely hosts, survive and survive and survive."

It's the birthday of Frank B. Gilbreth, born in Plainfield, New Jersey (1911). He worked for years as a journalist for newspapers in New York, North Carolina and South Carolina—but he's best known for a book he wrote with his sister about his family, Cheaper by the Dozen (1949). His father, Frank Gilbreth Sr., was a renowned construction engineer and efficiency expert, and his mother was also an efficiency engineer. In Cheaper by the Dozen, Gilbreth wrote about how his parents applied the same time- and energy-saving techniques that they developed for their jobs to raising their children. They planned a family of twelve children, and held weekly "family councils" to work out the family budget by giving contracts for household tasks to the lowest bidder. They eliminated all of the repetitive aspects of education by having their children skip grades and holding them out of unnecessary classes. And instead of writing to all of their relatives, they made a family magazine with articles contributed by each of the children, which was sent out to the entire extended family. Cheaper by the Dozen was a bestseller in 1949.

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