Apr. 22, 2004


by Mary Oliver

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Poem: "Spring," by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems. © Beacon Press. Reprinted with permission.

The text of this poem is no longer available.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Henry Fielding, born in Sharpham Park, Somerset, England (1707). He was one of the first great novelists to write in English. His books include Joseph Andrews (1742), Amelia (1752) and his masterpiece, Tom Jones (1749). He invented characters with names like Harry Luckless, Bookweight, Judge Squeezum, Captain Merit, Lord Richly, Mother Bilkum, Puzzletext, Colonel Promise, Squire Tankard, and Mrs. Slipslop.

He went off to London to become a writer when he was seventeen years old. For four years, he didn't have much money and struggled just to get by. He called himself a "great, tattered bard." He was a socialite and a womanizer, famous for his inspired bouts of drunkenness. Once he was charged with assaulting a servant, but nothing came of it. In 1728, he got his first play produced, Love in Several Masques, but it was a flop. Fielding left London to go to a university in Holland, because it was cheaper than British universities, but when he was twenty-two he ran out of money and had to go back to London.

In 1730, he had his first major theatrical success, The Tragedy of Tragedies; or The Life and Death of Tom Thumb The Great, a parody of the epic tragedies that were popular at the time. According to legend, the play made Jonathan Swift laugh for just the second time in his life. After Tom Thumb, Fielding wrote more than twenty more hit plays, and became known for making fun of the politicians of his day.

Fielding never would have become a novelist if it weren't for an act of censorship by the British government. The prime minister at the time, Sir Robert Walpole, was fed up with all of the rowdy political satires that had become so popular in London theatres. He thought that Fielding in particular had gone over the line with some of his jokes; and so in 1737 the Theatrical Licensing Act was passed, which said that only plays licensed by the government could be performed.

Fielding knew that none of his plays would ever be approved by the government, so he quit writing plays and went to law school. When he graduated in 1740, he started a magazine of literary essays called the Champion, and two years later he published his first novel, Joseph Andrews (1742). It was a parody of the best-selling novel at the time, Pamela, by Samuel Richardson, about a virtuous servant girl.

Seven years later, Fielding published his most famous novel, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. In the novel, Tom Jones is left on the bed of an aristocrat, who decides to raise him himself. As a young man, Tom is expelled from the house, and he goes on to have a series of adventures. Fielding said his goal in Tom Jones was "to laugh mankind out of their favorite follies and vices." Tom Jones is full of passages that don't have much to do with the book's plot, but are included anyway to explain the narrator's intentions and to make us laugh. Fielding wrote in Tom Jones, "Reader, I think proper to acquaint thee that I intend to digress, through this whole history, as often as I see occasion, of which I am myself a better judge than any pitiful critic whatever; and here I must desire all those critics to mind their own business, and not to intermeddle with affairs or works which no ways concern them."

Fielding said, "What is commonly called love [is] merely the desire of satisfying a voracious appetite with a certain quantity of delicate white human flesh."

It's the birthday of James Norman Hall, born in Colfax, Iowa (1887). He was a fighter pilot in World War I and spent the last six months of the war in a prison camp. While he was in the army, he met another pilot named Charles Nordhoff. They both went on to write travel articles for the Atlantic, and then, in 1932, they co-wrote the historical novel Mutiny on the Bounty. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and Hall and Nordhoff went on to write several more novels together.

It's the birthday of novelist O(le) E(dvart) Rolvaag, born in Helgeland, Norway (1876). He grew up on Donna Island, a tiny treeless island just south of the Arctic Circle. When he was fifteen he dropped out of school and began to go on daylong fishing expeditions. Five years later, he quit his life as a fisherman and sailed to the United States. Eventually, he made his way to South Dakota, where he worked on his uncle's farm for three years. He got a degree from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota and went on to write novels chronicling the experiences of Norwegian immigrants in the American Midwest, including his most famous book, Giants in the Earth (1927).

It's the birthday of poet Louise Gluck, born in New York City (1943). She's the author of many collections of poetry, including The Seven Ages (2001), The Wild Iris (1992) and Firstborn (1968). She said, "From the time . . . I first started reading poems . . . I loved those poems that seemed so small on the page but that swelled in the mind; I didn't like the windy, dwindling kind."

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