Jan. 25, 2005

Bonie Doon

by Robert Burns

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Poem: "Bonie Doon" by Robert Burns.

Bonie Doon

Ye flowery banks o' bonie Doon,
     How can ye blume sae fair?
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
     And I sae fu o' care?

Thou'll break my heart, thou bonie bird,
     That sings upon the bough;
Thou minds me o' the happy days
     When my fause luve was true.

Thou'll break my heart, thou bonie bird,
     That sings beside thy mate;
For sae I sat, and sae I sang,
     And wist na o' my fate.

Aft hae I roved by bonie Doon
     To see the wood-bine twine,
And ilka bird sand o' its luve,
     And sae did I o' mine.

Wi' lightsome heart I pu'd a rose
     Frae aff its thorny tree;
And my fause luver staw my rose
     But left the thorn wi' me.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Robert Burns, born in Alloway, Scotland (1759). He's the man who wrote the lines: "Oh, my luve's like a red, red rose, / That's newly sprung in June; / Oh, my luve's like the melodie / That's sweetly played in tune."

He only published one book in his lifetime, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), but many of the poems were set to music and are still sung today in Scotland and around the world. A few years after his death, friends began to gather on his birthday to celebrate his life, and the event slowly grew in size and became a Scottish tradition. This day is now a Scottish national holiday.

It's the birthday of W[illiam] Somerset Maugham, born to English parents in Paris, France (1874). His early childhood was comfortable and happy, but his mother died when he was eight and he never got over the loss. He kept three pictures of her next to his bedside for the rest of his life. His father died a few years later, and he had to go live with an unaffectionate uncle. He developed a terrible stutter and became incredibly shy. He later said, "Had I not stammered I would probably... have gone to Cambridge... become a don and every now and then published a dreary book about French literature." Instead, he read voraciously and eventually began to write fiction.

Maugham decided to study medicine, because he knew his uncle would disown him if he admitted that he wanted to be a writer. After medical school, he became an obstetrician, and got a job making house calls to deliver babies in the worst slums of London. He stayed up for hours every night to work on his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897), which was about the extreme poverty he had witnessed as a doctor. The book was successful enough to allow him to quit his job and devote his life to writing.

He went on to become one of the most popular authors of his lifetime, writing many plays, essays, short stories, and memoirs. He's best known for his novel Of Human Bondage (1915), based on his own childhood. He once read the book on the radio, and when he came to the passage describing the death of the main character's mother, he broke down weeping and was barely able to continue.

Maugham said, "Few misfortunes can befall a boy which bring worse consequences than to have a really affectionate mother."

And, "Beauty is an ecstasy; it is as simple as hunger. There is really nothing to be said about it. It is like the perfume of a rose: you can smell it and that is all."

It's the birthday of the novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf, born Virginia Stephen in London (1882). She came from a family of distinguished scholars and literary critics. She said, "[The] Stephens are difficult, especially as the race tapers out towards its finish—such cold fingers, so fastidious, so critical, such taste... How I wish they had hunted and fished instead of dictating dispatches and writing books."

She never went to school, but her father chose books for her to read from his own library. Her brothers all went to the best universities, and she wrote letters to them about her reading. She was only allowed to move out of her family home after her father's death, when she was twenty-two. She moved into a house with her brothers and sister, and instead of writing letters about what she'd been reading, she began to write literary criticism for the Times Literary Supplement, and she became one of the most accomplished literary critics of the era.

Of Charles Dickens, she wrote, "Dickens makes his books blaze up not by tightening the plot or sharpening the wit, but by throwing another handful of people upon the fire." Of George Moore, she wrote, "Literature has wound itself about him like a veil, forbidding the free use of his limbs."

In 1917 Woolf and her husband founded Hogarth Press, a printing press that they ran out of their home. It allowed her to publish whatever she wanted, without having to submit her work to editors, and as a result she began to produce a series of experimental novels that might not have been published otherwise, in which she attempted to capture the inner lives of her characters.

Woolf believed that the problem with 19th century literature was that novelists had focused entirely on the clothing people wore and the food they ate and the things they did. She believed that the most mysterious and essential aspects of human beings were not their possessions or their habits, but their interior emotions and thoughts.

She wrote: "We all indulge in the strange, pleasant process called thinking, but when it comes to saying... what we think, then how little we are able to convey! The phantom is through the mind and out of the window before we can lay salt on its tail, or slowly sinking and returning to the profound darkness which it has lit up momentarily with a wandering light."

She considered her first few novels failures, but then in 1922, she began to read the work of Marcel Proust, who had died that year. She wrote to a friend, "Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that!" Later that summer, she wrote in her diary "There's no doubt in my mind, that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice."

Her next book was her first masterpiece: Mrs. Dalloway (1925) about all the thoughts that pass through the mind of a middle-aged woman on the day she gives a party. Woolf wrote: "In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jungle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what [Mrs. Dalloway] loved; life; London; this moment of June."

Woolf went on to write many more novels, including To the Lighthouse (1927) and The Waves (1931), but she was also one of the greatest essayists of her generation. Many of her essays were collected in The Common Reader (1925).

In one of her most famous essays, "The Death of a Moth," Woolf described the experience of watching a moth trapped between two windowpanes. She wrote, "Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body... as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life. Thus displayed one could not get over the strangeness of it."

And in her long essay about women and literature, A Room of One's Own (1929), she wrote: "So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity, which used to be said to be the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea-bite in comparison."

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