Sep. 28, 2004

God's Grandeur

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

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Poem: "God's Grandeur," by Gerard Manley Hopkins, from Poems and Prose (Knopf).

God's Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
   It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
   It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
   And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
   And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
   There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
   Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
   World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Literary Notes:

It was on this day in 1066 that William the Conqueror of Normandy arrived on British soil. He defeated the British in the Battle of Hastings, and on Christmas day he was crowned King of England in Westminster Abby. One of the most important consequences of the Norman conquest of England was its effect on the English language. At the time, the British were speaking a combination of Saxon and Old Norse. The Normans spoke French. Over time, the languages blended, and the result was that English became a language incredibly rich in synonyms. Because the French speakers were aristocrats, the French words often became the fancy words for things. The Normans gave us "mansion"; the Saxons gave us "house." The Normans gave us "beef"; the Saxons gave us, "cow." The Normans gave us "excrement"; the Saxons gave lots of four letter words. The English language has gone on accepting additions to its vocabulary ever since the Norman invasion, and it now contains more than a million words, making it one of the most diverse languages on Earth. Writers have been arguing for hundreds of years about whether this is a good thing. Walt Whitman said, "The English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all." On the other hand, the critic Cyril Connelly wrote, "The English language is like a broad river ... being polluted by a string of refuse-barges tipping out their muck." And the poet Derek Walcott, who grew up in a British colony in the West Indies, said, "The English language is nobody's special property. It is the property of the imagination: it is the property of the language itself."

It's the birthday of cartoonist Al Capp, born Alfred Gerald Caplin in New Haven, Connecticut (1909). He's the creator of the cartoon strip L'il Abner, about a hillbilly named Abner Yokum who lived in the fictional town of Dogpatch, Kentucky. The strip ran from 1934 to 1977. It's been called the greatest cartoon strip of all time. John Steinbeck once said that Al Capp was one of the greatest living writers in the world and should receive the Nobel Prize. The strip was so popular that when Capp wrote about an imaginary tradition called Sadie Hawkins Day, on which an eligible male is forced to marry any woman who catches him, high schools across America started having Sadie Hawkins Dances.

It's the birthday of a man who shaped popular culture in America for almost twenty-five years, Ed Sullivan, born in Manhattan, New York City (1901). He wrote a gossip column called "Little Old New York" for the New York Daily News. He made extra money working as master of ceremonies for local variety shows, war benefits and dance contests. He was working at a giant dance competition called the Harvest Moon Ball when someone asked him if he'd like to try hosting a show on this new thing called television. He was forty-six years old. The Ed Sullivan Show, originally called Toast of the Town, premiered live on CBS in 1948, and within a few years about 50 million people watched it every Sunday night. Television was so new at the time that people didn't know what to do with it. Sullivan modeled it on vaudeville and did a little of everything. It had opera singers, rock stars, novelists, poets, ventriloquists, magicians, pandas on roller skates, and elephants on water skis. At a time when Hollywood saw television as a threat, Sullivan was the first person to persuade movie stars to come on his show and talk about their new movies. He brought celebrities into everyone's living room. His formula was "Open big, have a good comedy act, put in something for children, and keep the show clean." Women were not allowed to show cleavage. When Elvis Presley performed, the camera shot him from the waist up. When the Rolling Stones came on the show to play their song, "Let's Spend the Night Together," he made them change the words to "Let's Spend Some Time Together."

Sullivan was a shy, awkward man who couldn't tell jokes or sing or dance. He had been handsome when he started the show, but a car accident in 1956 severely damaged his face and his teeth. Comedians said he looked like he was in pain on stage, and he was. He suffered from terrible ulcers. But he loved performers, and he personally chose every guest for his show. He spent most of his free time searching for talent in nightclubs, often staying out until 4:00 in the morning. He discovered the violinist Itzhak Perlman on the streets of Tel Aviv. Even though his sponsors begged him not to, he invited African American performers and celebrities onto his show, including Jackie Robinson, Duke Ellington, Richard Pryor, and James Brown. All he cared about was talent. At the end of his career in 1971, there were twenty different variety shows on television, all appealing to different demographics. When his show was canceled, he said, "Vaudeville has died a second death." He was the last television host who tried to appeal to everyone in America. He said, "If you do a good job for others, you heal yourself at the same time, because a dose of joy is a spiritual cure. It transcends all barriers."

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