Apr. 6, 2004

Rain Travel

by W. S. Merwin

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Poem: "Rain Travel," by W.S. Merwin, from Travels (Knopf).

Rain Travel

I wake in the dark and remember
it is the morning when I must start
by myself on the journey
I lie listening to the black hour
before dawn and you are
still asleep beside me while
around us the trees full of night lean
hushed in their dream that bears
us up asleep and awake then I hear
drops falling one by one into
the sightless leaves and I
do not know when they began but
all at once there is no sound but rain
and the stream below us roaring
away into the rushing darkness

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1327, one of the most important events in the history of poetry took place: the Italian poet Petrarch saw the woman he called Laura for the first time. He would go on to write dozens of sonnets to Laura, providing a model for generations of sonnet-writers, including Shakespeare.

Petrarch was born in Arezzo, Italy in 1304, and spent his adolescence traveling through Europe in search of old Latin manuscripts. He settled in Avignon in 1326, and it was the next year, on a Good Friday service in the church of Sainte-Claire, that he first saw Laura. She was beautiful, with long golden hair and dark eyes, and he fell in love with her at first sight.

Petrarch spent the rest of his life working on a book of sonnets about Laura, Canzoniere (1374). He declared his love for her, but she never returned it, which meant that he was able to write great poems about unrequited love his entire life. The kind of poems he wrote have come to be known as Petrarchan sonnets, poems of fourteen lines divided by their rhymes into one section of eight lines and one section of six.

Most historians now think Petrarch's Laura was Laura de Noves, the wife of a nobleman named Hugues de Sade. She died on April 6, 1348, twenty-one years after Petrarch had first seen her.

In one poem Petrarch wrote:

"She ruled in beauty o'er this heart of mine,
A noble lady in a humble home,
And now her time for heavenly bliss has come,
'Tis I am mortal proved, and she divine."

It was on this day in 1909 that Robert Peary, Matthew Henson, and four Eskimos became the first men to reach the North Pole. Peary was a U.S. Navy lieutenant who had dreamed of reaching the North Pole since reading about the arctic as a child. He began working toward the North Pole in 1893, and in 1906 he got within 150 miles. On March 1, 1909, he set off from Ellesmere Island with a group of 23 men, 133 dogs, and 19 sleds. As they got closer to the North Pole, they gradually reduced the size of their party until, finally, there were only six men left.

On the morning of April 6, 1909, Peary wrote in his diary, "A dense, lifeless pall of gray overhead, almost black at the horizon, and the ice ghostly chalky white with no relief." By the time he reached the North Pole, Peary was hungry and sleep-deprived. He later said, "I was actually too exhausted to realize at the moment that my life's purpose had been achieved." He stuck an American flag in the ice, along with a glass jar containing two notes officially declaring his accomplishment. Then he wrote a postcard to his wife Josephine from "90 North Latitude" and put it in his pocket so he could send it later.

It was on this day in 1895 that Oscar Wilde was arrested on the charges of sodomy. For the past two years, he had been the lover of Alfred Douglas, a young poet and student at Oxford. In February of 1895 Douglas's father left a note at Wilde's club that accused Wilde of being a sodomite. Wilde sued Douglas's father for libel, but the judge ruled that he was justified in calling Wilde a sodomite. Wilde knew he would be arrested, and his friends urged him to leave the country, but instead he accepted his fate and went to prison.

At the time, he was at the height of his popularity as a playwright, but once he was arrested audiences turned against him. His plays An Ideal Husband (1895) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) were selling out every night in London, but they soon closed. A tour of A Woman of No Importance (1893) had been planned in the U.S., but it was cancelled. Newspapers wrote editorials denouncing Wilde's homosexuality; even close friends spoke out against him.

The first trial took place in late April. On the night before the final day of the trial, Wilde wrote a letter to Alfred Douglas that said, "Your love has broad wings and is strong, your love comes to me through my prison bars and comforts me, your love is the light of all my hours. . . . If I have been the butt of a terrible tragedy, it is because the nature of that love has not been understood."

The first trial ended in a hung jury, but Wilde was convicted in the second trial. He was sentenced to two years in jail, and while he was there he wrote his most famous poem, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," and his autobiographical essay De Profundis (1905). He was released in 1897 and died three years later in a hotel in Paris, estranged from his family.

Wilde said, "It often happens that the real tragedies of life occur in such an inarticulate manner that they hurt one by their crude violence, their absolute incoherence, their absurd want of meaning, their entire lack of style."

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