Jun. 5, 2004

At Tea

by Thomas Hardy

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Poem: "At Tea," by Thomas Hardy, from The Complete Poems (Macmillan Publishing Co.).

At Tea

The kettle descants in a cosy drone,
And the young wife looks in her husband's face,
And then at her guest's, and shows in her own
Her sense that she fills an envied place;
And the visiting lady is all abloom,
And says there was never so sweet a room.

And the happy young housewife does not know
That the woman beside her was first his choice,
Till the fates ordained it could not be so. . . .
Betraying nothing in look or voice
The guest sits smiling and sips her tea,
And he throws her a stray glance yearningly.

Literary and Historical Notes:

We don't know when Adam Smith was born, but it was on this day in 1723 that Smith, the economist who popularized the idea of free trade, was baptized in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. His first important book was The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) in which he argued that all people are selfish, but that the combined selfishness of many people benefits everyone. He wrote, "[We are] led by an invisible hand . . . without knowing it, without intending it, [to] advance the interest of the society." He developed this idea in the book for which he is best remembered, An Inquiry into the nature and causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). That book established many of the most important principles for economists for the next two hundred years.

Adam Smith wrote, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."

Today is also the birthday of the economist John Maynard Keynes, born in Cambridge, England (1883). He's best known for his book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, published during the Great Depression in 1935. He argued that governments can correct severe depressions by spending lots of money, even if it means running a deficit, to put people back to work. Keynes greatly influenced Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal policies, and his ideas have been used to justify budget deficits ever since.

It's the birthday of David Wagoner, born in Massillon, Ohio (1926). He's written many books of poetry, including Baby, Come On Inside (1968), Whole Hog (1976), and The Hanging Garden (1980).

It's the birthday of novelist Margaret Drabble, born in Sheffield, England (1939). She's the author of many novels, including The Millstone (1965) and The Needle's Eye (1972). Her most recent novel is The Seven Sisters, which came out last year.

It's the birthday of essayist and critic Alfred Kazin, born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York (1915). He was the son of poor Jewish immigrants, and he had a sense from the time he was very young that the only way he would escape poverty was through his education. He became obsessed with literature, and he spent most of his spare time sitting on the fire escape of his tenement building, reading whatever he could get his hands on. He said, "I read as if books would fill my every gap, legitimize my strange quest for the American past, remedy my every flaw, let me in at last into the great world that was anything just out of Brownsville."

Kazin spent most of his career as a journalist and book critic, but he's also remembered for having written one of the great American memoirs: A Walker in the City (1951). He got the idea for the book while living in an artist's loft in Columbia Heights. The building had once caught fire, and Kazin could still smell the smoke on the walls. One day, he was sitting on his bed, smelling that smoke, when he decided that he wanted to write a book about it that wouldn't be a novel or a work of history, but instead a kind of sensory tour of his old neighborhood. He would just describe what he saw and smelled and heard there, and all the memories wrapped up in his sensations.

A Walker in the City begins: "Every time I go back to Brownsville it is as if I had never been away. From the moment I step off the train at Rockaway Avenue and smell the leak out of the men's room, then the pickles from the stand just below the subway steps, an instant rage comes over me, mixed with dread and some unexpected tenderness. . . . As I walk those familiarly choked streets at dusk and see the old women sitting in front of the tenements, past and present become each other's faces; I am back where I began."

When asked why he'd spent so much of his life working as a critic, Kazin said, "I am dissatisfied, profoundly so, with the world as it is. But I would be dissatisfied with any world. And I'd hate to lose my dissatisfaction.

It's the birthday of the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, born in Granada, Spain (1898). In 1928 he published a book of poems based on gypsy folklore called The Gypsy Ballads. It made him Spain's most popular living poet. His poems appealed both to the literary critics and the common people, and many of them were set to music. Lorca once heard a prostitute singing a song in the street, and he was shocked to realize that he had written the lyrics she was singing. In 1998, on the hundredth anniversary of his birth, the Spanish government flew a helicopter over Lorca's home city of Granada and dropped 100,000 leaflets of his poetry.

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