Jul. 28, 2006


by Percy Bysshe Shelley

FRIDAY, 28 JULY, 2006
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Poem: "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Public domain. (buy now)


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, (books by this author) born in Stratford, England (1844). His parents were Anglicans, and they were horrified when Hopkins informed them that he was converting to Catholicism. So he went into a kind of exile, joined the Jesuits, and traveled to rural Wales to be ordained as a priest. Those months in Wales would be one of the happiest periods of his life. He especially loved the beautiful rural landscape. It was while he was there, in 1877, preparing for his ordination, that he wrote most of the poems for which he is remembered today, poems like "God's Grandeur" (1877), "Pied Beauty" (1877), and "The Starlight Night" (1877). He wrote in his diary at the time, "This world is ... a book [God] has written ... a poem of beauty."

But after his ordination, the Jesuits sent him to teach the poor children of industrial cities in Northern England, Scotland, and Ireland. Hopkins had looked forward to a life of hard work and sacrifice, but he had no idea how much he would hate living in these polluted, ugly cities. In a letter in 1878 he wrote, "Life here is as dank as ditch-water. ... My muse turned utterly sullen in the Sheffield smoke-ridden air."

He wrote less and less, and finally, at the age of forty-four, he died from typhoid, which he'd caught from the polluted water in Dublin. His poetry might never have been remembered, since he published very little of it, except that he had kept up a lifelong correspondence with a friend from college, the poet Robert Bridges. Hopkins had sent Bridges many of his poems, and after Hopkins's death, Bridges began to publish Hopkins's poetry. In 1918, Bridges edited the first Collected Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. It wasn't until 1930, when a second edition of Hopkins's poems was published, that people began to recognize that he was one of the greatest poets of his generation.

It's the birthday of poet John Ashbery, (books by this author) born in Rochester, New York (1927). He was raised on a farm near Lake Ontario, where he worked in the orchards every summer. He did well in school and became a contestant on "The Quiz Kids," a popular 1940s radio program that starred gifted children.

He went on to Harvard, where his two closest friends were the aspiring poets Kenneth Koch and Frank O'Hara. Along with another poet, James Schuyler, they became known as the founders of the New York School of poetry. They believed that poetry of the 1950s was too academic and they wanted it to be looser, funnier, and more colloquial.

In 1976, Ashbery won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his book-length poem Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975).

John Ashbery said, "To create a work of art that the critic cannot even begin to talk about ought to be the artist's chief concern."

It's the birthday of the novelist William T. Vollmann, (books by this author) born in Santa Monica, California (1959). After his college graduation, he traveled to Pakistan and then illegally crossed the border into Afghanistan so that he could help the rebels there fight the Soviet Army. He had the idea that it would be the chance to do something good, to fight for a righteous cause. Unfortunately, he caught dysentery, and he was a terrible solider. He spent most of his time there terrified and exhausted. Though he did befriend some Afghan rebels, they often had to carry him around on their shoulders. Finally, an Afghan general wrote him a letter that said, "You have the brain—but you are not physically fit and you have no money—hence forget about the Afghans. Get down to a serious profession."

Vollmann moved back to the States and took a job as a computer programmer in Silicon Valley, and wrote his first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels (1987).

One of Vollmann's most recent works is Rising up and Rising Down (2004), a seven-volume, 3500-page investigation into the nature of violence.

It's the birthday of children's author Beatrix Potter, (books by this author) born in South Kensington, England (1866). She is best known for her twenty-three illustrated storybooks about Peter Rabbit.

It's the birthday of English novelist Malcolm Lowry, (books by this author) born in Cheshire, England (1909). His masterpiece is Under the Volcano (1947), set on the Day of the Dead in Mexico, 1938. It's about a former British consul who has drinking problems and a troubled marriage.

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