Nov. 29, 2004

This Is the Hay That No Man Planted

by Elizabeth Coatsworth

Monday, 29 NOVEMBER, 2004
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Poem: "This Is the Hay That No Man Planted" by Elizabeth Coatsworth. Printed with the permission of the estate of Elizabeth Coatsworth.

This Is the Hay That No Man Planted

This is the hay that no man planted,
This is the ground that was never plowed,
Watered by tides, cold and brackish,
Shadowed by fog and the sea-born cloud.

Here comes no sound of bobolink's singing,
Only the wail of the gull's long cry,
Where men now reap as they reap their meadows
Heaping the great gold stacks to dry.

All winter long when deep pile the snowdrifts,
And cattle stand in the dark all day,
Many a cow shall taste pale sea-weed
Twined in the stalks of the wild salt hay.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is the birthday of three writers known for their books for children: Louisa May Alcott, Madeline L'Engle and C. S. Louis.

Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania (1832). She had started out writing these sensational stories about duels and suicides, opium addiction, mind control, bigamy and murder. She called it "blood and thunder" literature and she said, "I seem to have a natural ambition for the lurid style." She published under male pseudonyms to keep from embarrassing her family.

But in 1867, an editor suggested that she try writing what he called "a girl's book," and she said she'd try. The result was Little Women (1868), which was based mostly on her own family and her own experience as an aspiring writer. In the book, the character Alcott based on herself decides to give up writing sensationalist stories in order to pursue great literature. But in fact, Alcott was miserable that Little Women was so successful that she was obligated to keep writing more books in the same vein. Ten years after Little Women came out, she wrote in her diary, "[I'm so] tired of providing moral pap for the young."

It was only in 1975 that much of the work she published under pseudonyms was republished in the collection Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott. Scholars had long assumed that it must have been trash, but when they actually read her "blood and thunder" novels, the caused a whole critical reassessment of Alcott the writer.

Madeleine L'Engle was born in New York City (1918). She grew up with parents who were deeply in love with each other, but who didn't give her much attention. She spent most of her time alone, reading, or living in her imagination. When she was twelve, her parents took her to Switzerland. She thought they were just visiting, but while they were there, her parents brought her to a boarding school and left her there. She said, "I shook hands with the matron, and they vanished."

Around the same time, she began writing fiction. She said, "I think that my characters came to me because I didn't have any family, and I wanted to have a family, and it was the only way I could get it.

After school, she moved back to her hometown of New York City and became part of the artistic community. For a while, she lived in an apartment beneath the young Leonard Bernstein. She got involved in theater and tried acting but most of all she worked on becoming a writer. She published a few novels and then suddenly everything she wrote was rejected.

On her fortieth birthday, she got another rejection letter and decided to give up writing all together. She covered up her typewriter and started crying, but when she noticed that her brain was trying to turn this experience into a story, she realized that she had no choice but to go on writing.

All of Madeline L'Engle's books had dealt with more or less ordinary families and ordinary situations, but after reading about the ideas of Albert Einstein, she produced her masterpiece, a science fiction novel called A Wrinkle in Time (1962) about a group of children who have to rescue their father from a planet where individuality has been outlawed.

A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by 26 different publishers, who all felt that the book was too difficult for children but too fantastic for adults. When it finally came out in 1962, the novel won the Newbery Medal, and it has sold steadily ever since. Today it sells about 15,000 copies a year. L'Engle put a clause in her publishing contract that gave her publisher the rights to A Wrinkle in Time in perpetuity in the whole universe except for the Andromeda galaxy.

C.S. [Clive Staples] Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland (1898). He said of his childhood, "I am a product...[of] books. There were books in the study, books in the drawing-room, books in the cloak room, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents' interests, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not. Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves."

Lewis's parents were Anglicans and took him to church as a boy, but he found religion cold and boring. He preferred pagan mythology: Irish, Norse, and Greek myths he read in storybooks. He created an imaginary country called "Boxen" and wrote stories about it. He said, "My early stories were an attempt to combine my two chief literary pleasures—'dressed animals' and 'knights in armour.' As a result, I wrote about chivalrous mice and rabbits who rode out in complete mail to kill not giants but cats."

He began teaching philosophy at Oxford, where he met J.R.R. Tolkien. The night of their first meeting, Lewis wrote in his diary, "No harm in him: only needs a smack or two." Tolkien was a devout Christian and Lewis was an atheist, but they shared a love for mythology. They took a long walks around the Oxford grounds, debating the existence of God. Tolkien tried to persuade Lewis that the story of Jesus was a myth but that it had also actually happened.

The morning after one of those walks, Lewis went with his brother to the zoo. He said, "When we set out [for the zoo] I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion." He came to believe that the pagan stories he had always loved were God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, while the life of Jesus was God expressing Himself through reality.

At a time when European philosophy and science were turning away from Christianity, Lewis became the most prominent Christian apologist in the world. He recorded a series of lectures for radio, which were broadcast in England during World War II, and many people gathered around their radios to take comfort from his ideas in the midst of bombing raids. The lectures were collected into his book Mere Christianity (1952).

But he is best remembered for the seven books in the Chronicles of Narnia, which he started publishing in 1950. Lewis decided to write for children, even though he never had any children himself and had never had any strong relationships with children. He wanted to give children what he had gotten himself from fairytales when he was a child. Lewis said, "When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."

Today, the Narnia books sell about a million copies a year.

C.S. Lewis said, "Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see."

And, "You can't get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me."

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