Apr. 13, 2004

1333 A little Madness in the Spring

by Emily Dickinson

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Poem: "A little Madness in the Spring," by Emily Dickinson.

A little Madness in the Spring

A little Madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown--

Who ponders this tremendous scene--
This whole Experiment of Green--
As if it were his own!

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Thomas Jefferson, born on his father's plantation in Albermarle County, Virginia (1743). While studying law in college, he began to read contemporary philosophers such as Adam Smith, John Locke, and Voltaire, who gave him ideas about freedom of thought and expression. He ran for political office in 1769 and was elected a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. Though he had grown up with slaves, and later kept them himself, his first legislative act was a failed attempt to emancipate the slaves under his jurisdiction. He later said, "The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise . . . in tyranny. . . . The man must be a prodigy who can retain his . . . morals undepraved by such circumstances."

When the British government began to crack down on self-rule in the colonies, Jefferson got involved in revolutionary activities, and wrote an essay called "A Summary View of the Rights of British America" (1774). It was partly due to the success of the essay that Jefferson was asked to write the Declaration of Independence, which includes the lines, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

It's the birthday of poet Seamus Heaney, born in Mossbawn, Northern Ireland (1939). He's the oldest of nine siblings. His father was a cattle dealer, and Heaney grew up in a three-room thatched house. In the 1960s, he began publishing poems in magazines, about his childhood memories of ordinary things like potatoes and bullfrogs. He received a letter from the editor of Faber & Faber asking if he'd like to publish a collection. Faber & Faber had published T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Robert Lowell; Heaney said, "Getting that letter was like getting a letter from God the Father." That first collection was Death of a Naturalist (1966), and it made his name as a poet.

He's gone on to write many more books of poetry and prose, and in 1995 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His most recent book of poetry is Electric Light (2001).

Heaney said, "[Poems] rinse things. . . . [They] rinse the words. . . but also perhaps rinse—and hang out again on the line—values of freedom, of spirit, and play."

It's the birthday of writer Eudora Welty, born in Jackson, Mississippi (1909). Her mother was a schoolteacher, and taught Welty to love books before she was even able to read them. Welty said, "It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass." She moved to New York City as a young woman, but when her father grew sick with leukemia, she moved home to help her mother, and spent the rest of her life in the family home in Jackson.

She tried getting a job in advertising but, she said, "It was too much like sticking pins into people to make them buy things they didn't need or really want." So she got a job writing reports for the Works Progress Administration, traveling to county fairs, market days, and Fourth of July celebrations, interviewing local people and taking their photographs. Over the course of her life she took many photographs of rural poverty in Mississippi. When she began to write short stories in the early 1930s, she thought of the fiction and the photographs as parts of the same project. Her first book of short stories was A Curtain of Green (1941).

She wrote her fiction by a window in her house, where she could hear the music from a nearby music school. She wrote and rewrote, revising her stories by cutting them apart at the dining-room table and reassembling them with straight pins. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Optimist's Daughter (1972), but most critics consider her masterpiece to be The Golden Apples (1949), a book of stories about a magical Mississippi community called Morgana.

Welty said, "I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within."

It's the birthday of playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett, born in Foxrock, a rich suburb of Dublin, Ireland (1906). His mother was a tall, strict woman, famous in her neighborhood for her short temper. Beckett studied French literature in college, and then went to graduate school in Paris, against his mother's wishes.

It was in Paris that he met James Joyce, who by that time was growing blind and working on his novel Finnegans Wake. Beckett became one of Joyce's research assistants. He read books to Joyce, took dictation, and walked with him around Paris. Beckett said, "There wasn't a lot of conversation between us. I was a young man, very devoted to him, and he liked me. . . . I was very flattered when he dropped the 'Mister.' Everybody was 'Mister.' There were no Christian names, no first names. The nearest you would get to a friendly name was to drop the 'Mister.' I was never Sam. I was always 'Beckett' at the best." He so idolized Joyce that he began to smoke like Joyce and carry himself like Joyce; he even wrote like Joyce in his first long work of fiction, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, which wasn't published until 1993, after his death.

He decided to write his dissertation about Joyce and Proust, but when he submitted his proposal to the University, they rejected it on the grounds that the writers were too contemporary. He lost his teaching post and spent the next few years in despair, struggling to make a living on translations of surrealist poetry. He finally gave up and moved home to Dublin, where he fought with his mother and drank too much and started to suffer from panic attacks. He felt trapped and paralyzed and began to see Ireland as a kind of prison. After his father's death, he resolved to return to Paris, even if it meant living in poverty.

On one of his first nights back in Paris, Beckett was attacked and stabbed in the chest by a pimp named Prudent, who barely missed his heart. Beckett later met his attacker at the police station, and asked why he had stabbed him. The man replied, "I don't know, sir." Beckett would later make the phrase "I donít know, sir" a prominent line in his most famous play, Waiting for Godot (1952).

In 1940, he witnessed the German occupation of France, and he watched as many of his Jewish friends were rounded up and sometimes shot in broad daylight. In 1941, he joined the French Resistance, collecting military intelligence, translating it, and transporting it to the allies inside matchboxes and cigarettes. When the war ended, Beckett was overjoyed. He suddenly had more energy than he'd ever had in his life. In the course of three years, he wrote a trilogy of novels—Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnamable (1953). During the same period he wrote the play Waiting for Godot (1952), about two men named Vladimir and Estragon who are trying to kill time while they wait for a man named Godot. In 1969, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Beckett wrote, "Where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on."

And he wrote, "What do I know of man's destiny? I could tell you more about radishes."

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