Mar. 5, 2006

Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room

by William Wordsworth

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Poem: "Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room" by William Wordsworth. Public Domain.

Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room

Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room;
and hermits are contented with their cells;
and students with their pensive citadels;
maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
high as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
in truth the prison, into which we doom
ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
in sundry moods, 'twas pastime to be bound
within the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground;
pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
should find brief solace there, as I have found.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the anniversary of the so-called Boston Massacre, which took place in 1770. British soldiers had occupied Boston for eighteen months to protect the tax collectors for the King of England. It was a cold, snowy night when an argument broke out between a young barber's apprentice and a British officer about payment for a haircut.

A crowd of young men who were watching shouted at the officer, and they began throwing snowballs and pieces of ice at him. Other soldiers came out of the Customs House to help defend the man. The crowd grew rowdier, throwing oyster shells and lumps of sea coal. The soldiers brandished their weapons, and the crowd dared them to shoot. They did, and five colonists were killed.

It was hardly a massacre, but the more revolutionary members of the colonies played it up as much as they could. Paul Revere made an engraving of the incident, showing the British soldiers lining up like an organized army to execute the colonists. Printed under the engraving were verses that described the soldiers as "fierce barbarians grinning over their prey."

The soldiers were put on trial, and it turned out that the man chosen to represent them was the American patriot John Adams. He didn't support the British by any means, but he was told that no one else would take the case and he believed that all men deserve a good defense under the law. So he took the case, even though he was terrified that the case would ruin his reputation and that it might even put his family in physical danger.

Ultimately, Adams managed to get most of the soldiers acquitted. Only two were convicted of manslaughter. Adams' reputations suffered a little in the aftermath. He lost many of his clients. But there were no riots in the days following the verdict, and eventually the case became a famous example of Adams' extraordinary fairness and good judgment.

John Adams later said, "[Taking that case] was one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country."

It was on this day in 1933 that the Nazi Party won the majority of the seats in the German parliament, known as the Reichstag, effectively taking control of the country. It was the last free election in Germany until the end of World War II. Adolf Hitler had secured the chancellorship after the November 1932 elections, but he still didn't have a majority in the Reichstag, so he set March 5, 1933 as the date for new elections. Six days before the election, the Reichstag building caught fire, and the Nazis used the fire as a symbol of the chaos that they would help correct, though some historians believe that the Nazis set the fire themselves. After the elections, Hitler passed a law that gave him absolute power over the country.

Just five days after the election, Victor Klemperer, a Jewish professor of romantic languages living in Germany, wrote in his diary: "It's astounding how easily everything collapses. ... Since [the election,] day after day commissioners appointed, provincial governments trampled underfoot, flags raised, buildings taken over, people shot, newspapers banned, etc., etc. ... A complete revolution and party dictatorship. And all opposing forces as if vanished from the earth. ... No one dares say anything anymore, everyone is afraid."

On the same day in 1933, across the Atlantic from Germany, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered a four-day bank holiday in an effort to curtail the devastating "bank runs" of the Great Depression when panicky investors withdrew their money from the banks.

Twenty years later, on this day in 1953, one of the most ruthless dictators of the twentieth century, Josef Stalin, died in Moscow.

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