Nov. 21, 2005


by Robert Francis

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Poem: "Symbol" By Robert Francis from Robert Francis: Collected Poems. © University of Massachusets Press. Reprinted with permission.


The winter apples have been picked, the garden turned.
Rain and wind have picked the maple leaves and gone.
The last of them now bank the house or have been burned.
None are left upon the trees or on the lawn.

Green and tall as ever it grew in spring the grass.
Grows not too tall, will not be cut again this year.
Geraniums in bloom behind the window glass
Are safe. Fall has fallen yet winter is not yet here.

How warm the late November sun although how wan.
The white house stands a symbol of fulfillment there,
Housing one old woman, a cat, and one old man
After abundance but before the earth is bare.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1864, President Abraham Lincoln wrote one of the most famous letters in American history. It was a letter of condolence to Mrs. Lydia Bixby of Boston, who was reported by the War Department to have lost five sons in battle. He wrote to her: "I pray that our Heavenly father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of liberty." But it was later confirmed that only two of Mrs. Bixby's sons had died in battle; one was later found alive and honorably discharged, and two deserted.

It's the birthday of British diplomat and author Sir Harold Nicolson, born in Teheran, Persia (1886). He was a diplomat and author of dozens of books, including biographies of Tennyson and Swinburne. Harold Nicolson said: "The great secret of a successful marriage is to treat all disasters as incidents."

It's the birthday of the man who helped spark the enlightenment in France, writing under the name Voltaire, born François-Marie Arouet in Paris (1694). He wrote so much in his lifetime that his collected works are still being assembled and edited by French scholars. He's known to us for a single short novel: Candide (1760), about a young man who follows the philosophy of Doctor Pangloss that no matter what misfortunes befall us, this is the best of all possible worlds.

Voltaire grew up at a time when Louis XIV had instituted the persecution of Protestants, turning France into a ferociously intolerant society, with little freedom of speech or religion. Voltaire began his writing career just a few years after Louis XIV had died, and he was one of the first writers to challenge the restrictions by writing satirical poems about the new king. He was sent into exile and then thrown into prison in the Bastille for eleven months. At the time, he wasn't particularly well known, and his imprisonment only served to make him famous. It was when he got out of prison that he began using the pen name Voltaire. No one is sure how or why he picked the name.

He became a well-known playwright and poet, but in 1725 he got into an argument with a nobleman. A few days later, that nobleman hired a group of men to surround Voltaire in the street and beat him with cudgels. The nobleman stood by and watched.

Voltaire was outraged when none of his political friends came to his aid in trying to get retribution for the incident. He had thought that his stature as a poet made him the equal of a nobleman, but this incident made him realize that he was still a second-class citizen. He began writing about what happened and calling for justice, and he was thrown into the Bastille for a second time. He was released only on the condition that he leave France, and so he went to live in England.

Voltaire spent most of the rest of his late in exile, but he continued to write about his home country's religious fanaticism. He became a crusader for human rights and one of the most famous and respected men in Europe. People would cheer when they saw him passing on the street. He wasn't the first person to think about or write about human rights, but he did more to spread the idea of human rights than almost any other European writer.

In the last year of his life, Voltaire was allowed to return home to Paris in 1778, after 28 years in exile. More than three hundred people came to visit him his first day in the city, and one of those visitors was Benjamin Franklin, fresh from helping to lead the revolution in the United States of America.

Voltaire wrote, "People who believe in absurdities will eventually commit atrocities."

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