Apr. 22, 2006


by Billy Collins

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Poem: "House" by Billy Collins from The Trouble With Poetry: And Other Poems. © Random House. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


I lie in a bedroom of a house
that was built in 1862, we were told—
the two windows still facing east
into the bright daily reveille of the sun.

The early birds are chirping,
and I think of those who have slept here before,
the family we bought the house from—
the five Critchlows—

and the engineer they told us about
who lived here alone before them,
the one who built onto the back
of the house a large glassy room with wood beams.

I have an old photograph of the house
in black and white, a few small trees,
and a curved dirt driveway,
but I do not know who lived here then.

So I go back to the Civil War
and to the farmer who built the house
and the rough stone walls
that encompass the house and run up into the woods,

he who mounted his thin wife in this room,
while the war raged to the south,
with the strength of a dairyman
or with the tenderness of a dairyman

or with both, alternating back and forth
so as to give his wife much pleasure
and to call down a son to earth
to take over the cows and the farm

when he no longer had the strength
after all the days and nights of toil and prayer—
the sun breaking over the same horizon
into these same windows,

lighting the same bed-space where I lie
having nothing to farm, and no son,
the dead farmer and his dead wife for company,
feeling better and worse by turns.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Norwegian-American novelist O. E. (Ole Edvart) Rolvaag, (books by this author) born in Helgeland, Norway in 1876. He grew up on Donna Island, a tiny treeless island just south of the Arctic Circle. When he was fifteen, he dropped out of school and began to go on daylong fishing expeditions. Five years later, he quit his life as a fisherman and sailed to the United States.

He landed in New York with almost no money and no prospects, and ended up walking the entire night to find a farm where the family could speak Norwegian. Eventually, he made his way to South Dakota, where he worked on his uncle's farm for three years. He got a degree from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, and went on to write novels chronicling the experiences of Norwegian immigrants in the American Midwest, including his most famous book, Giants in the Earth (1927).

It's the birthday of American novelist Ellen Glasgow, (books by this author) born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1873. She penned realistic novels about Virginian society in the nineteenth century. She wrote The Deliverance (1904), about class conflicts in the wake of the Civil War, and she wrote In This Our Life, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1942.

It's the birthday of philosopher Immanuel Kant, (books by this author) born in Königsberg, Germany, in 1724. He wrote hugely influential treatises, including Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and Critique of Judgment (1790).

He never traveled more than one hundred miles from his home city and held to a strict daily routine. It has been said that the people of Königsberg set their watches by his daily afternoon walks.

It's the birthday of Henry Fielding, (books by this author) born in Sharpham Park, Somerset, England (1707). He was one of the first great novelists to write in English.

He was a socialite and a womanizer, famous for his inspired bouts of drunkenness. He wrote more than twenty hit plays and became known for making fun of the politicians of his day. The prime minister at the time, Sir Robert Walpole, was fed up with all of the rowdy political satires that had become so popular in London theaters. He thought that Fielding in particular had gone over the line with some of his jokes; and so in 1737 the Theatrical Licensing Act was passed, which said that only plays licensed by the government could be performed.

Fielding knew that none of his plays would ever be approved by the government, so he quit writing plays and went to law school. Seven years later, he published his most famous novel, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, about a boy who is left on the bed of an aristocrat who decides to raise the child himself. As a young man, Tom is expelled from the house and goes on to have a series of adventures.

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