Dec. 21, 2004

Oft in the Stilly Night

by Thomas Moore

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Poem: "Oft in the Stilly Night" by Thomas Moore.

Oft in the Stilly Night

Oft in the stilly night
      Ere slumber's chain has bound me,
Fond Memory brings the light
       Of other days around me;
              The smiles, the tears,
       Of boyhood's years,
The words of love then spoken;
              The eyes that shone,
       Now dimmed and gone,
       The cheerful hearts now broken!
Thus in the stilly night
       Ere Slumber's chain has bound me,
Sad Memory brings the light
       Of other days around me.

When I remember all
       The friends so linked together,
I've seen around me fall
       Like leaves in wintry weather:
              I feel like one
              Who treads alone
       Some banquet-hall deserted,
              Whose lights are fled,
              Whose garland's dead,
       And all but he departed!

       Thus in the stilly night
              Ere slumber's chain has bound me,
       Fond Memory brings the light
              Of other days around me.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Joseph Stalin, born in the Russian colony of Georgia (1879). He ruled over communist Russia through World War II, and it was his decision to take control of most of the countries in Eastern Europe at the end of the war that turned Russia into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In the last twenty-five years of his life, he held absolute power over more people than anyone in history, before or since.

He may also have been responsible for more human deaths than anyone in history. Historians aren't sure how many people he ordered to be executed in his many political purges, but some estimate about 20 million.

When he had someone arrested and executed for treason, he also arrested and executed all of their family members. When he felt that the people in general were growing disloyal, he ordered his underlings in each major city to round up and execute a few thousand people at random. But he also killed people he knew very well. Of the hundred or so people who belonged to his ruling inner circle, he eventually had more than half of them murdered.

But even though he was such a brutal murderer, he was also deeply interested in the arts. He personally oversaw and approved all the works of art, fiction, music, theater, and cinema produced in the Soviet Union. He loved theater so much that he often contributed to the scripts and even wrote lyrics for songs in several musicals. He loved to sing, and he sang well enough that he could have been a professional performer.

Stalin also read books all the time, and he was a fan of great literature. His favorite writers were Balzac and Zola, Hemingway, and James Fenimore Cooper. He loved Last of the Mohicans so much that he sometimes dressed up as an Indian to entertain guests.

But even though he loved great literature himself, he didn't want his own people to read it. He said, "Nobody understands human psychology like Dostoyevsky, and that's why I've banned him." He told the writers under his power that they should write about how life should be and not how life was. He said, "The writer is the engineer of the human soul," and he wanted to make sure he had control of that engineering operation.

Joseph Stalin also said, "Ideas are far more powerful than guns. We don't allow our enemies to have guns, why should we allow them to have ideas?"

In the northern hemisphere, today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year and the longest night. It's officially the first day of winter and one of the oldest known holidays in human history. Anthropologists believe that solstice celebrations go back at least 30,000 years, before humans even began farming on a large scale. Many of the most ancient stone structures made by human beings were designed to pinpoint the precise date of the solstice. The stone circles of Stonehenge were arranged to receive the first rays of midwinter sun.

Ancient peoples believed that because daylight was waning, it might go away forever, so they lit huge bonfire to tempt the sun to come back. The tradition of decorating our houses and our trees with lights at this time of year is passed down from those ancient bonfires.

In ancient Egypt and Syria, people celebrated the winter solstice as the sun's birthday. In Ancient Rome, the winter solstice was celebrated with the festival of Saturnalia, during which all business transactions and even war were suspended, and slaves were waited upon by their masters.

Henry David Thoreau said, "In winter we lead a more inward life. Our hearts are warm and cheery, like cottages under drifts, whose windows and doors are half concealed, but from whose chimneys the smoke cheerfully ascends."

It's the birthday of the essayist Edward Hoagland, born in New York City (1932). His many essay collections include The Courage of Turtles (1970), Red Wolves and Black Bears (1976), and Balancing Acts (1992).

For most of his life, he suffered from a terrible stutter, and so to avoid awkward social situations he became an obsessive walker. When he was in college in Boston, he estimates that he walked about fifty miles a week all around the city. He also grew to love animals, because they didn't require him to talk, and he worked a job as a lion keeper in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. But most of all, his stutter made him admire language, because it came with such difficulty. He said, "Being in these vocal handcuffs made me a devoted writer at twenty, I worked like a dog choosing each word."

After college, he moved to New York City tried to be a novelist, and his first two books got generally good reviews. But his third novel was such a failure that he decided he needed to get away from everything for a while and went up to live in the remote wilderness of British Columbia. He walked for hundreds of miles through the forests and along the rivers, and when he got home he published his first book of non-fiction Notes from the Century Before: A Journal From British Columbia (1969), and it was a big success.

Since then, Edward Hoagland has become one of the few writers working today who writes almost nothing but personal essays. He's written about his own thoughts on go-go dancers, jury duty, boxing gyms, mountain lions, suicide, and the loss of his eyesight.

A new collection of his nature writing, Hoagland on Nature, came out last year.

Edward Hoagland said, "I'd die if I didn't write...[I'd] die from hurrying, worrying, and scurrying, if I didn't have something so worth hurrying about. I love life and believe in its goodness and rightness, but I seem not to be terribly well fitted for it—that is, not without writing. Writing is my rod and staff. It saves me, exults me."

It's the birthday of the novelist Anthony Powell, born in London (1905). He wrote the longest novel in the English language, A Dance to the Music of Time, which he published in twelve volumes, starting in 1951. It follows a group of English men from their time together in public school just before World War II, through the next fifty years of their lives.

Though he was already a successful writer by the time he started working on it, he wrote the whole thing, more than a million words, on an ancient typewriter at a card table squeezed into his bedroom.

Anthony Powell said, "As far as I can see, writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work."

It was on this day in 1913 that the very first crossword puzzle appeared in a newspaper. It was the invention of a journalist named Arthur Wynne, who worked for the New York World. He called it a "Word-Cross," but the typesetter made a mistake and called it a "Cross-Word" and the name stuck. Early on, the editors found it difficult to avoid making errors in the puzzles, so they decided to drop it. Hundreds of addicted readers wrote into to protest, so it was reinstated after one week.

In 1924, two men named Richard Simon and Lincoln Schuster decided to set up a publishing house, and as they were casting about for ideas of what to publish, they decided to try a book of crossword puzzles. That book sold half a million copies in less than a year. The book's success launched a worldwide crossword puzzle craze and helped put Simon & Schuster on the publishing map. The enthusiasm for crosswords also helped to drive up the sales for dictionaries and encyclopedias. Libraries were forced to ration the use of reference books. By the end of the 1930's most daily newspapers featured crossword puzzles. One of the last newspapers to do so was the New York Times, which finally began printing a daily puzzle in 1950.

Perhaps the most famous crossword ever published was one in London's Daily Telegraph for the month of May, 1944. Just before the launching of D-Day, five highly classified code words for beaches that had been selected as landings appeared as crossword answers: Utah, Omaha, overlord, Mulberry and Neptune. England's department of military intelligence investigated the incident, thinking that secret messages were being passed to the Germans, but it was ruled a coincidence.

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