Dec. 17, 2004

The Three Kings

by Muriel Spark

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Poem: "The Three Kings" by Muriel Spark, from All the Poems of Muriel Spark, © New Directions Publishing, 2004. Reprinted with permission.

The Three Kings

Where do we go from here?
We left our country,
Bore gifts,
Followed a star.
We were questioned.
We answered.
We reached our objective.
We enjoyed the trip.
Then we came back by a different way.
And now the people are demonstrating in the streets.
They say they don't need the Kings any more.
They did very well in our absence.
Everything was all right without us.
They are out on the streets with placards:
Wise Men? What's wise about them?
There are plenty of Wise Men,
And who needs them? -and so on.

Perhaps they will be better off without us,
But where do we go from here?

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1903 that Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully completed the first sustained, power-driven flight, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The Wright brothers had chosen Kitty Hawk because of its consistently high winds, and had practiced there with gliders in 1900 and 1902. By 1903 they had built an engine that would allow them to fly, and discovered a new method for steering during flight. Each brother flew twice, but it was the final flight, made by Wilbur, that was actually controlled and lasted the longest, fifty-nine seconds. The first flight, made by Orville, lasted twelve seconds and was recorded in a now-famous photograph. The flights were witnessed by four adults and a boy. They were reported only by local newspapers, and much of the reporting was not accurate.

Nobody is sure when Ludwig van Beethoven was born, but he was baptized on this day in Bonn, Germany (1770). He is considered one of the greatest composers of the Western European music tradition. Beethoven's talent revealed itself very early, and Beethoven's father subjected young Beethoven to a brutal regimen in the hopes of profiting from his abilities. As a result, Beethoven ceased formal study in everything except music at age thirteen, but in letters Beethoven stated his admiration for Homer and Plutarch, and his enjoyment of reading.

In 1787, Beethoven first visited Vienna, which was considered the center of the music world. During this visit, he performed for Mozart, who was impressed. He later returned to Vienna permanently and took lessons from Haydn, but Beethoven offended him and the lessons stopped. Beethoven's abilities evolved beyond the need for formal instruction not long after.

Throughout his adult life, Beethoven was supported by the aristocracy in Vienna. They were so impressed by his skills as a pianist and composer that they overlooked his poor manners, famous temper and careless appearance. Beethoven was so successful by the 1790's that he no longer was completely dependent on the aristocracy for financial support.

Beethoven's most productive period as a composer coincided with his deafness, which started in 1801 and became total by 1817. As a result, Beethoven could no longer perform in public. He continued composing, and in 1805 he premiered his Third Symphony, called "Eroica." This symphony broke from nearly all formal conventions of the time, and was originally dedicated to Napoleon. Beethoven considered Napoleon a symbol of the freedom and liberation of mankind, but he changed his views when Napoleon named himself emperor. Beethoven renamed his symphony "Heroic Symphony to celebrate the memory of a great man."

It's the birthday of the poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier, born near Haverhill, Massachusetts (1807). Whittier was raised on a modest but debt-ridden farm hidden in an oak woods, and he attended school only twelve weeks a year. The family worked hard to keep their farm, and the intense labor of doing so caused Whittier physical problems throughout his life.

The only book in the farmhouse was an almanac. Whittier was fond of reading, and walked several miles to borrow books on biography or travel. A schoolmaster introduced Whittier at age fourteen to the poetry of Robert Burns. The poetry had such a profound effect on Whittier that he began writing his own verses. He said, "I lived a sort of dual life [...] in a world of fancy, as well as in the world of plain matter-of-fact about me."

Whittier's sister sent some of his poems to the Newburyport Free Press, and the editor William Lloyd Garrison published them. Of seeing his poems in print, Whittier said, "I stood gazing at them in wonder, and my uncle had to call me several times to my work before I could recover myself." Whittier and Garrison were lifelong friends thereafter.

Whittier was against slavery, thinking it "a great and dangerous evil," and as the Civil War approached he became more outspoken on the matter of slavery. He attended the controversial National Anti-Slavery Convention in Philadelphia in 1833 and signed its declaration. That same year, Whittier wrote the pamphlet Justice and Expediency, where he declared himself an abolitionist. Whittier and his fellow abolitionist George Thompson narrowly avoided death at the hands of an angry, pro-slavery mob in Concord, New Hampshire in 1835. After this, he hid Thompson in his remote farmhouse for two weeks.

In the years to follow, Whittier was in the Massachusetts legislature and active in the abolitionist cause. He ran for Congress on the Liberty ticket, and then he edited the abolitionist weekly National Era as well as many books, among them Leaves from Margaret Smith's Journal (1849).

Whittier devoted his energies to poetry following the Civil War. He liked to write poems on the life, history and legend of New England, including his most famous poem Snow-bound (1866). The poem was an idyllic remembrance of his boyhood home near Haverhill. Whittier was also the author of many ballads and hymns, the most famous of which is "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind." He became a popular figure while living because of these ballads and hymns.

"The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon.
Slow tracing down the thickening sky
Its mute and ominous prophecy,
A portent seeming less than threat,
It sank from sight before it set."
   --ll. 1-8, Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyll

It's the birthday of the author known as Ford Madox Ford, born Ford Madox Hueffer in Surrey, England (1873). He is best known as the author of The Good Soldier (1915), but he published over eighty books in his lifetime.

Ford published his first book The Brown Owl (1891) when he was eighteen years old. The book was a fairy tale, and it was illustrated by his grandfather. Ford later became friends with Joseph Conrad, and he imitated Conrad's style of narration in The Good Soldier. He published that book just before serving as a lieutenant in World War I. His poem "Antwerp" was inspired by his experiences in that war.

In 1916, Ford was shell-shocked during the Battle of the Somme, and the next year he returned to England. He lived in isolation for a time, but he became bored and moved to France, where he founded The Transatlantic Review. Ernest Hemingway was the Review's deputy editor. Between the years 1924 and 1928, Ford published his novel Parade's End in four volumes. W.H. Auden said about the book, "There are not many English novels which deserve to be called great: Parade's End is one of them."

Ford Madox Ford said, "Only two classes of books are of universal appeal: the very best and the very worst."

It's the birthday of the columnist for The New York Times, William Safire, born in New York City (1929). He has published his weekly column "On Language" in The New York Times since 1979.

Safire worked as a United States Army correspondent before becoming a speechwriter for Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew in 1969. He wrote Agnew's famous phrase "nattering nabobs of negativism." He began writing for The New York Times in 1973, and in 1978 he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his commentary on Bert Lance's alleged budgetary irregularities, which led to a Congressional investigation. Safire published the historical novel Scandalmonger in 2000. The book is about a journalist who damaged the reputations of both Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

Safire will retire from his weekly column in January 2005. The publisher of The New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. said, "Reaching for [Safire's] column became a critical and enjoyable part of the day for our readers across the country and around the world."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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