Sep. 13, 2006

Long Afternoon at the Edge of Little Sister Pond

by Mary Oliver

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Poem: "Long Afternoon at the Edge of Little Sister Pond" by Mary Oliver from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays. © Beacon Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The text of this poem is no longer available.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1814 that Francis Scott Key (books by this author) was inspired to write the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner," by witnessing the British attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. It had been a dark summer for the young United States. Just three weeks previous, on August 24, British troops had set fire to much of Washington D.C., including the Capitol, the Treasury, and the president's house. President James Madison had been forced to flee for his safety. Americans were terrified that the British might choose to invade New York or Philadelphia or Boston and destroy those cities as well.

The British had recently begun using rockets, a new military weapon adapted from Chinese technology. Francis Scott Key was horrified as he watched these rockets raining down on Fort McHenry, at the mouth of Baltimore harbor. He watched the bombardment all night, and he had little hope that the American fort would withstand the attack. But just after sunrise he saw the American flag still flying over the fort. In fact, Francis Scott Key might never have even seen the flag if the fort commander, Major Armistead, hadn't insisted on flying one of the largest flags then in existence. The flag flying that day was 42 feet long and 30 feet high.

Francis Scott Key began writing a poem about the experience that very morning. It turned out that the battle at Baltimore was the turning point of the war. Before the war, the American flag had little sentimental significance for most Americans. It was used mainly as a way to designate military garrisons or forts. But after the publication of "The Star-Spangled Banner," even non-military people began to treat the flag as a sacred object.

It's the birthday of Sherwood Anderson, (books by this author) born in Camden, Ohio (1876). He grew up in a small town, and often had the sense that he'd been born too late, after the pioneer times and the Civil War. He felt that life had grown too ordinary. As a young man, he got a job as an advertising copy writer, and eventually got a job managing a mail-order paint company in Elyria, Ohio. But one day, out of the blue, he stood up from his desk and walked out of the office, ignoring everyone who asked where he was going, and decided to become a writer.

Anderson was 43 years old when he published Winesburg, Ohio (1919), a collection of stories about a group of characters in a small town who look ordinary on the surface but are full of misery and sexual frustration and violent desires. His simple prose style had a great influence on other writers, including Ernest Hemingway. He also encouraged the young William Faulkner, whom he met in New Orleans. He inspired Faulkner to write his first novel and helped him get published.

It's the birthday of English man of letters J. B. (John Boynton) Priestley, (books by this author) born in Bradford, England (1894). He wrote more than 100 books of fiction, essays, and drama. But he never wrote about World War I. He had served in the war, and it was the defining experience of his life. Most of his friends were killed, and he believed that England was never the same afterward. He thought that writing about the war would be disrespectful. His favorite of his own novels was Bright Day (1946), about his hometown before the war. He said, "I belong at heart to the pre-1914 North Country."

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