Oct. 21, 2004

Gathering Leaves

by Robert Frost


Poem: "Gathering Leaves," by Robert Frost, from The Poetry of Robert Frost (Holt, Rinehart and Winston).

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of jazz trumpeter and composer Dizzy Gillespie, born in Cheraw, South Carolina (1917). He founded a new style of music called "bebop," and he taught people how to play jazz using African and Cuban rhythms. He's the man who wrote "Salt Peanuts" and "A Night in Tunisia." He said, "I don't care too much about music. What I like is sounds."

It's the birthday of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor who founded the Nobel Prize. He was born in Stockholm (1833) and moved with his family to St. Petersburg, Russia when he was nine. His father was an engineer who made weapons for the Russian army. Alfred grew up thinking he might like to be a scientist too. As a young man, he moved back to Sweden and worked with his father at an explosives factory. But it was dangerous work. Just after he turned thirty, his younger brother died in a terrible explosion. So Alfred conducted experiments to try to find ways to make explosives safer. In 1867 he patented his greatest invention, which he called dynamite. Alfred became very wealthy and ran an international explosives empire. He continued to dream up new inventions all his life. He wrote, "If I come up with 300 ideas in a year, and only one of them is useful, I am content." But he also thought about becoming a writer, and wrote a play called Nemesis that was finally published in 1991.

Nobel was known as a gloomy sort of person; he never married and he tended to keep to himself. He was called "a man nobody knew." Even though he invented a powerful new weapon, he later became an advocate for world peace. He said, "I should like to be able to create a substance or a machine with such a horrific capacity for mass annihilation that wars would become impossible forever." In 1888 his brother Ludvig died and a French newspaper mistakenly reported Alfred's death instead. The obituary called him the "dynamite king." He read that he was a "merchant of death" who spent his life finding new ways to "mutate and kill." He was so upset to be leaving that kind of a legacy that he rewrote his will to establish a set of prizes celebrating the greatest achievements of mankind. The Nobel Prizes are awarded every year for chemistry, physics, economics, medicine, literature and peace. Nobel wrote, "I am a misanthrope yet utterly benevolent." And he said he was "a super-idealist who digests philosophy more efficiently than food."

It's the birthday of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, born in Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire, England (1772). Coleridge is the author of poems such as "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "Christabel," and "Frost at Midnight." As a small boy, he spent a lot of time reading. His favorite book was The Arabian Nights . His father died when he was ten, and then he had to go off to boarding school at Christ's Hospital in London. It was known as the "blue-coat school," where everyone had to wear a blue gown, a blue cap and yellow stockings. Coleridge hated it there. He would later write that "I was reared / In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim, / And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars." But he had one teacher who helped inspire him to become a poet. He said he learned that "in the truly great poets . . . there is a reason assignable, not only for every word, but for the position of every word."

Coleridge went to college in Cambridge. Then he dropped out to join the army. He didn't want anyone to know who he was, so he called himself Silas Tomkyn Comberbache. He wasn't a very good soldier, though, and soon he left to rejoin society and talk about the new ideas of the French Revolution. He also spent time with the poet Robert Southey. The two of them dreamed up an idea to start a utopian village along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. They said it would be a place where there was no aristocracy. Southey said, "When Coleridge and I are sawing down a tree we shall discuss metaphysics: criticise poetry when hunting a buffalo, and write sonnets whilst following the plough."

Coleridge never went to Pennsylvania, and instead he ended up getting married to a woman named Sara Fricker. In 1797, Coleridge and Fricker moved to a small house in the country. There he tended a vegetable garden and doted over his newborn son. That same year he became good friends with the poet William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy. One winter evening, the three of them took a long walk in the nearby hills called the Quantocks. They timed their walk so they would be able to watch the sunlight change to moonlight over the sea. It was then that Coleridge came up with the idea for "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," a poem about a sailor who brings a curse upon his ship after he kills an albatross. In 1798, he included the poem in a collection he published with Wordsworth called Lyrical Ballads . The book was the foundation of the Romantic movement in poetry. Wordsworth said they were trying to write poems where "ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way."

Coleridge was often sick. The doctors prescribed him small doses of opium, and he gradually became addicted to it. Once, he began to hallucinate under the drug's influence, and wrote the fantasy poem "Kubla Khan." The poem begins, "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure dome decree / Where Alph, the sacred river, ran / Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea." By the age of 30 he had become very depressed. He quarreled with his wife and fell in love with Wordsworth's sister-in-law. He wrote a poem called "Dejection: An Ode," and then sailed to the island of Malta to improve his health. He gradually regained his strength and lived to write many more poems. Coleridge said, "I could inform the dullest author how he might write an interesting book—let him relate the events of his own Life with honesty, not disguising the feelings that accompanied them."

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