Jun. 23, 2006

To Jane: The Keen Stars Were Twinkling

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

FRIDAY, 23 JUNE, 2006
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Poem: "To Jane: The Keen Stars Were Twinkling" by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Public domain (buy now)

To Jane: The Keen Stars Were Twinkling

   The keen stars were twinkling,
And the fair moon was rising among them,
     Dear Jane!
   The guitar was tinkling,
But the notes were not sweet till you sung them

  As the moon's soft splendour
O'er the faint cold starlight of Heaven
     Is thrown,
  So your voice most tender
To the strings without soul had then given
     Its own.

  The stars will awaken,
Though the moon sleep a full hour later,
  No leaf will be shaken
Whilst the dews of your melody scatter

  Though the sound overpowers,
Sing again, with your dear voice revealing
     A tone
  Of some world far from ours,
Where music and moonlight and feeling
     Are one.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Tonight is Midsummer Night's Eve, also called St. John's Eve. St. John is the patron saint of beekeepers. It's a time when the hives are full of honey. The full moon that occurs this month was called the Mead Moon, because honey was fermented to make mead. That's where the word "honeymoon" comes from.

Shakespeare set his play A Midsummer Night's Dream on this night. It tells the story of two young couples who wander into a magical forest outside Athens. In the play, Shakespeare wrote, "The course of true love never did run smooth."

It's the birthday of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, (books by this author) born in a suburb of Odessa in 1889. She was a beautiful, fashionable, twenty-two-year-old woman when she published her first collection of poetry in 1912, and it became a sensation. The book was filled with love poems inspired by her affair with the then-unknown Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, and no Russian woman had ever written so frankly about love. Akhmatova became a celebrity overnight.

But within a few years, life in Russia became much more complicated, and Akhmatova had a lot more to write about than love affairs. In her poem "In Memoriam July 19, 1914," about the start of World War I, she wrote, "We grew a hundred years older in a single hour."

After the Bolshevik Revolution, most writers and intellectuals tried to flee the country, but Akhmatova and her husband decided to stay. She wrote, "No, not under an alien sky, / Not protected by alien wings,— / I was with my people then, / There, where my people, unfortunately, were." Her husband was shot in 1921 for allegedly participating in an anti-Bolshevik plot, and the following year, the government informed her that she would no longer be able to publish her poetry. She began working on translations, and more or less stopped writing her own poems.

Then Akhmatova's son was arrested by the government. She was horrified. For seventeen months, she went to the prison in Leningrad every day to try to get news about her son's well-being. There were crowds of other women there, doing the same thing, and one day a woman recognized Akhmatova as the formerly famous poet. Akhmatova later described the incident, writing, "A woman with bluish lips standing behind me ... woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear, 'Can you describe this?'"

That woman's question helped inspire Akhmatova to begin writing her ten-poem cycle, "Requiem," which many Russians consider the greatest piece of literature ever written about Stalinist Russia.

Even though she wasn't allowed to publish her poetry, the government remained suspicious of her activities, and government agents eventually installed a microphone in her house. To take precautions that her poetry would be preserved, she developed a system: Whenever she wrote a new poem, she would invite a friend over to read and memorize it. Then, she would burn the only copy.

By the end of her life, she had gained more freedom, and she'd become one of the most renowned poets in the world. She died on the thirteenth anniversary of Stalin's death, on March 5, 1966. A complete collection of her poetry didn't come out in the Soviet Union until the late 1980s.

It's the birthday of playwright Jean Anouilh, (books by this author) born in Bordeaux, France (1910). His work spanned five decades, and his plays include The Lark (1953), The Waltz of the Toreadors (1952), and Becket (1961).

Jean Anouilh said, "Life is very nice, but it lacks form. It's the aim of art to give it some."

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