Feb. 8, 2006


by Elizabeth Bishop

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Poem: "Sonnet" by Elizabeth Bishop from The Complete Poems: 1937-1971. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted with permission.


I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1587 that Mary, Queen of Scots, was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in England after she was implicated in a plot to murder her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I.

Mary had never been a passionate Catholic, but when she was told of her execution she decided that for her final act, she would turn herself into a Catholic martyr. Her execution was to take place at 8:00 A.M. on this day in 1587 and so she awoke at 6:00, and her servants dressed her entirely in black, except for a white veil, applied her makeup and put on her wig. She then knelt and prayed until the sheriff knocked on the door telling her it was time to go.

She was led to the scaffold carrying a white crucifix and a Latin prayer book. When the prayers were finished Mary turned to her executioner and said, "I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles." She was forced to kneel and to place her head on the chopping block, and she continued to pray in Latin, saying, "Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit," until the moment of her death.

It's the birthday of the novelist Kate Chopin, born Katherine O'Flaherty in St. Louis, Missouri (1851). She married a wealthy owner of a cotton business and lived with him in New Orleans. But after her husband suddenly died of a fever, a rumor got out that she'd been having an affair with a married neighbor. The town turned against her and she eventually moved back to St. Louis to live with her mother.

It was there that Chopin first began to write. She had six children to take care of, so she wrote on a lapboard in the living room while her children played around her. Because she was so busy, she tried to write as quickly as she could. In less than ten years she produced three novels and more than a hundred short stories.

Chopin's early work was melodramatic and sentimental, but everything changed when she first read the French writer Guy de Maupassant. She wrote, "Here was a man who had escaped from tradition and authority, who had entered into himself and looked out upon life through his own being and with his own eyes ... [who wrote] without the plots, the old fashioned mechanism and stage trapping that in a vague, unthinking way I had fancied were essential to the art of story making."

Chopin began to write more explicitly about dissatisfied wives and marital infidelity. Then she published The Awakening (1899) about a woman who leaves her husband and her children to have an affair and become an artist and then eventually commits suicide by swimming out to sea. It was one of the first novels ever written by a woman about a woman committing adultery and it was almost universally attacked by critics. The St. Louis literary community refused to review the novel at all and libraries and bookstores in Chopin's hometown wouldn't stock the book. Chopin was unable to publish her next book of short stories and she died five years later, in 1904.

Today, The Awakening is considered one of greatest novels of 19th-century American literature.

It's the birthday of poet Elizabeth Bishop, born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1911). Her father died when she was a little girl. Her mother had an emotional breakdown from grief and spent the rest of her life in various mental institutions. Elizabeth spent most of her childhood moving back and forth between her grandparents in Nova Scotia and her father's family in Massachusetts.

She was painfully shy and quiet in college but during her senior year she mustered up all her courage and introduced herself to her idol, the elder poet Marianne Moore. The meeting was awkward at first, but then Bishop offered to take Moore to the circus. It turned out they both loved going to the circus and they both also loved snakes, tattoos, exotic flowers, birds, dressmaking and recipes. Moore became Bishop's mentor and friend.

She was an extremely slow writer and published only 101 poems in her lifetime. She worked on her poem "One Art" for more than fifteen years, keeping it tacked up on her wall so that she could rearrange the lines again and again until she got it right. But she was an obsessive letter writer. She once wrote forty letters in a single day. She said, "I sometimes wish that I had nothing, or little more, to do but write letters to the people who are not here." A collection of her letters, One Art: The Letters of Elizabeth Bishop, was published in 1994.

Elizabeth Bishop wrote, "I'd like to retire ... and do nothing, / or nothing much, forever ... / look through binoculars, read boring books, / old, long, long books, and write down useless notes."

It's the birthday of the poet Lisel Mueller, born in Hamburg, Germany (1924). She fled with her family from Nazi Germany when she was a teenager and she spent the rest of her adolescence in Indiana. She learned to love English by memorizing the lyrics to American songs she heard on the radio. She has gone on to write many books of poetry in English including The Need to Hold Still (1980) and Waving from Shore (1989).

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




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