Aug. 4, 2006

The Word is Too Often Profaned

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

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Poem: "The Word is Too Often Profaned" by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Public domain. (buy now)

The Word is Too Often Profaned

One word is too often profaned
For me to profane it;
One feeling too falsely disdained
For thee to disdain it;
One hope is too like despair
For prudence to smother;
And pity from thee more dear
Than that from another.

I can give not what men call love;
But wilt thou accept not
The worship the heart lifts above
And the heavens reject not,—
The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion to something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow?

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the crime writer Dennis Lehane, (books by this author) born in Dorchester, Massachusetts (1965). He grew up in a poor Irish neighborhood in Boston that he once described as "[a place] cramped with corner stores, small playgrounds, and butcher shops ... [where] days, the mothers searched the papers for coupons. Nights, the fathers went to bars. You knew everyone; nobody ever left."

Lehane was one of the few kids from the neighborhood who went to college. He got a master's degree in a creative writing program, and moved back to Boston, where he took a job as a valet in a parking garage. He started writing detective novels, the first of which came out in 1994: A Drink before the War. He supported himself as a chauffeur, and wrote most of his next two books on a yellow legal pad while sitting in the front seat of a limousine. The fifth book in the series, Prayers for Rain, was successful enough that Lehane was able to quit his job and write full time.

Once he had the time to devote to writing, Lehane decided to try something more ambitious than what he'd ever done before. Instead of writing another book about his private detectives, he wrote about a part of Boston based on his own old neighborhood, and a murder that effects three men who've grown up in that neighborhood. The result was his novel Mystic River (2001), which got great reviews and became his first major best-seller.

It's the birthday of Knut Hamsun, (books by this author) born in Lom, Norway (1859). Hamsun had almost no formal schooling. When he was nine, he was taken to live with his uncle. His parents were in debt to the man, and so he treated Hamsun like a slave, starving and beating him to make him chop more wood. Finally, at the age of fourteen, Hamsun escaped. In the 1880s he went to the United States in search of literary fame, but all he found was a job as a streetcar operator in Chicago. He had a habit of reading Aristotle and Euripides between tram stops. He was very poor and wore newspaper under his clothes to keep warm in the bitter Chicago winter.

When Hamsun returned to Norway, he wrote his early novels that made him famous. In books such as Hunger (1890) and Mysteries (1892), the heroes were a lot like Hamsun himself: They struggled, starved, and had no family roots.

Hamsun came to hate America and Britain. He saw Western culture as noisy and superficial, and the British he met on his travels were arrogant and unkind. But a German captain of an ocean liner gave him free passage to America in 1882, and the German people appreciated his work, and most critics believe this is why he became a Nazi supporter.

And that was his downfall. He was arrested after the war as a traitor and sent to the Oslo Psychiatric Clinic. His health declined, and he spent the last few years of his life isolated from his family and countrymen, penniless.

It's the birthday of Louis Armstrong, (books by this author) born in the birthplace of American jazz: New Orleans, Louisiana (1901), in a poor section of town known as "The Battlefield." They called him Satchmo, short for "Satchel Mouth." In 1907, Louis formed a vocal quartet with three other boys and performed on street corners for tips. The Karnofskys, a family of Russian Jewish immigrants, hired Louis to work on their junk wagon. Louis purchased his first cornet with money the family lent him.

In 1913, he was sent to a reform school as a juvenile delinquent, and that's where he learned to play the cornet. Jazz was young then, and Armstrong listened to pioneers like New Orleans cornetist King Oliver, who gave Armstrong his big break by letting him play in the Creole Jazz Band in Chicago in 1922. Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings (1925-1928) are among the classics of early jazz.

It's the birthday of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, (books by this author) born in Sussex, England (1792). Although he died before the age of thirty, many of his poems are considered masterpieces, including "The Cloud," "To a Skylark," and "Prometheus Unbound."

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