Apr. 23, 2004

Oh Mistress Mine

by William Shakespeare

FRIDAY, 23 APRIL, 2004
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Poem:"Oh Mistress Mine," by William Shakespeare, from Twelfth Night. © Washington Square Press. Reprinted with permission.

Oh Mistress Mine

Oh mistress mine! where are you roaming?
Oh! stay and hear; your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
    Every wise man’s son doth know.

What is love? ’tis not hereafter;
  Present mirth hath present laughter;
    What’s to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,
      Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Barry Hannah, born in Clinton, Mississippi (1942). He's the author of the story collection Bats out of Hell (1993), and the novels Geronimo Rex (1972) and Yonder Stands Your Orphan (2001), among many others.

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Charles Johnson, born in Evanston, Illinois (1948). He's the author of novels such as Black Humor (1970) and Middle Passage (1990). His most recent book of fiction is Soulcatcher and Other Stories (2001).

It's the birthday of the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, born in St. Petersburg, Russia (1899). His father was one of the founders of Russia's Constitutional Democratic party and served in the short-lived Imperial Parliament. But Nabokov's family had to flee Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution.

Nabokov never saw Russia again, and he missed it terribly. While living in exile in England and Germany, he memorized an unabridged dictionary of the Russian language, and began to write poetry and fiction about loss and nostalgia. His novels were banned in his home country, but among Russian expatriates he came to be known as one of the greatest writers of his generation. Then, at the outbreak of World War II, he had to flee the Nazis with his wife and son. In 1940, they sailed to America, and Nabokov arrived in New York City poor and almost completely unknown.

He struggled to support his family with a series of jobs teaching at New England colleges. They moved every year, living in the rented houses of professors on sabbatical leave. He eventually got a job at Cornell University teaching modern literature, where he forced his students to memorize the details of Madame Bovary's hairdo, a diagram of Anna Karenina's railway carriage, and a map of James Joyce's Dublin. His course became one of the most popular on campus, and many students later said that he was the first person who really taught them how to read. But Nabokov hated how much time he had to spend teaching. He wanted to distinguish himself as a writer in America, so he decided to switch to writing in English, but he found the transition agonizing.

In one of his first poems in English, about giving up the Russian language, Nabokov wrote, "Just here we part, / softest of tongues, my true one, all my own . . . / And I am left to grope for heart and art / and start anew with clumsy tools of stone." He later said, "My private tragedy . . . is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English." In his letters to friends, he began to refer to English as his mistress, and he felt that by writing in that language he was cheating on his Russian wife.

Just before he sailed to America, he'd gotten an idea for a novel about a man who falls in love with a young girl. He didn't think he'd be able to sell a novel on such a risqué subject, so he kept putting it off for other things. The idea wouldn't go away, but even after he started writing it, he considered giving up. He said, "I was on the point of burning the unfinished draft and had carried [it] as far as the shadow of the leaning incinerator on the innocent lawn, when I was stopped by the thought that the ghost of the destroyed book would haunt my files for the rest of my life."

In the summer of 1951, he and his wife drove to Colorado in their Oldsmobile station wagon, and he began to work on his novel in the car. He wrote in pencil on index cards, so that he could write scenes from the novel out of order and rearrange them later. When he got back to Cornell in the fall, he began doing research on young girls, traveling on city buses to learn current slang, writing down popular song titles and phrases from teen magazines and Girl Scout manuals.

He finished the novel in 1953, but when he sent the draft to friends, most of them were horrified, and told him that he could never publish it. It was rejected by all the major publishing houses in the United States, so he finally had it brought out anonymously in France by a publisher who specialized in pornography. He played around with different titles, including "The Kingdom by the Sea," but in the end the novel was called Lolita (1955). After a few years of controversy, it was published in the United States in 1958, and went on to become a bestseller and a movie. Nabokov had put off writing it for so many years partly because he was afraid that it wouldn't make any money, but in the end it was the success of Lolita that allowed him to retire from teaching. He moved with his wife to Switzerland and spent the rest of his life writing novels in the upper floor of a luxurious hotel.

Nabokov said, "Existence is a series of footnotes to a vast, obscure, unfinished masterpiece."

Today is believed to be the birthday of William Shakespeare, born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England (1564). He was a playwright and poet, and is considered to be the most influential and perhaps the greatest writer in the English language. He gave us many beloved plays, including Romeo and Juliet (1594), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595), Hamlet (1600), Othello (1604), King Lear (1605), and Macbeth (1605).

We don't know much about his life, but we do know that he started out as an actor and later acted in his own plays. Scholars believe that he usually played the part of the first character that came on stage, and that in Hamlet he played the ghost.

He used one of the largest vocabularies of any English writer, almost 30,000 words, and he gave us many of our most common turns of phrase, including "foul play," "as luck would have it," "your own flesh and blood," "too much of a good thing," "good riddance," "in one fell swoop," "cruel to be kind," "play fast and loose," "vanish into thin air," "the game is up," "truth will out," and "in the twinkling of an eye."

Shakespeare has always been popular in America; many colonists kept copies of his complete works along with their Bibles. Puritans thought acting was a sin, so the first recorded performance of a Shakespeare play in the United States didn't take place until 1730 in New York City. It was an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet. He fell out of favor after the Revolutionary War, but then pioneers revived his work out West. An illiterate mountain main named Jim Bridger became famous for having memorized most of Shakespeare's plays, and he would recite them for audiences of miners and cowboys. Many of the mines and canyons across the West are named after Shakespeare or one of his characters. There is a city of Shakespeare in New Mexico, a Shakespeare Mountain in Nevada, a Shakespeare Reservoir in Texas, and a Shakespeare Glacier in Alaska. Colorado has mines called Ophelia, Cordelia, and Desdemona.

Shakespeare continues to be the most produced playwright in the world. There are currently about 200 professional Shakespeare stage productions playing theaters in the United States, and that doesn't take into account amateur productions in high schools and community theaters. More than 300 movies and TV shows have been made of or adapted from his plays, including the musical West Side Story (1961) and the science fiction movie Forbidden Planet (1956). Hamlet alone has been made into a movie more than twenty times.

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