Sep. 16, 2006

Mrs. George Reece

by Edgar Lee Masters

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Poem: "Mrs. George Reece" by Edgar Lee Masters from Spoon River Anthology. © Dover Publications, Inc. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Mrs. George Reece

To this generation I would say:
Memorize some bit of verse of truth or beauty.
It may serve a turn in your life.
My husband had nothing to do
With the fall of the bank—he was only cashier.
The wreck was due to the president, Thomas Rhodes,
And his vain, unscrupulous son.
Yet my husband was sent to prison,
And I was left with the children,
To feed and clothe and school them.
And I did it, and sent them forth
Into the world all clean and strong,
And all through the wisdom of Pope, the poet:
"Act well your part, there all the honor lies."

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Henry V, the king of England immortalized by Shakespeare, born on this day in Monmouth, Wales (1387). At that time, the nobility in England still had strong ties to France, and in fact Henry V was the first king of England to grow up speaking and writing fluently in English.

King Henry V believed that parts of France, including Normandy and Touraine belonged to England, and he was prepared to go to war to claim them.

He met the French at the Battle of Agincourt. There were about 30,000 French soldiers compared Henry's army of fewer than 10,000. It appeared as though Henry had arrogantly led his men to slaughter. But the French chose a tiny, muddy battlefield, which made it difficult for them to maneuver. Henry used his archers and their superior long bows to force the heavily armored French soldiers into a crowded mass, and then his more lightly armored soldiers attacked, hacking down thousands of the almost helpless French.

The battle of Agincourt became a huge patriotic victory, pulling the citizens of England together, even though the campaign in France eventually drove Henry V to an early grave. He died of dysentery just seven years after that battle, and the lands he'd captured in France were quickly lost.

Shakespeare's play about Henry V captured what historians believe was one of the more egregious war crimes in medieval history. At the time, it was almost unheard of for knights to kill prisoners of war. But at the end of the battle of Agincourt, Henry V ordered his men to kill all the French prisoners of war as a way of intimidating any remaining French soldiers in the area. In the play, Henry's soldiers hesitate, and the order has to be repeated three times, until finally the soldiers comply and kill the unarmed Frenchmen. Though Henry V is one of the most popular of Shakespeare's histories, that scene is rarely included in productions of the play. It wasn't included in either of the two film versions in 1944 or 1989.

It was on this day in 1620 that the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth, England, bound for the New World. The passengers called themselves Separatists or Saints, but today we call them Pilgrims. They had come to believe that the only way to practice their religion freely would be to separate themselves from the Church of England. They moved at first to a village near Amsterdam, where the government was more religiously tolerant, but eventually decided to travel to the New World to start a society from scratch.

They originally commissioned two boats for the journey: the Speedwell and the Mayflower. But when they set out, the Speedwell began to leak. They returned to England and tried to repair the Speedwell, but it was not fit for travel. So on this day in 1620, they set sail in the Mayflower, leaving the Speedwell behind.

Having wasted time trying to repair the Speedwell, they had to start their journey later in the summer, when the winds were less favorable. Because of strong crosscurrents, the Mayflower averaged only two miles an hour.

There are no records left as to the size and shape of the Mayflower, but historians believe it was about 90 feet long. In addition to the 102 passengers, it carried food for the journey as well as stores for the winter, livestock, and tools needed to start the new colony. The passengers of the Mayflower had to make themselves comfortable in the large open cargo area called the orlop. One nice thing about the Mayflower was that it smelled sweet, because it had previously been used to transport wine.

Some of the richer families brought partitions for their areas on the boat, but most passengers on the Mayflower had no privacy. There were no sanitary facilities, and there was little fresh water for washing. Many of the passengers became seasick. They ate cold food—cheese and fish or salted beef.

The Mayflower's destination was supposed to be near the mouth of the Hudson River, but it had sailed off course and landed near Cape Cod. The Pilgrims spent the next month searching for a place to settle. On December 21, just over three months after they left England, the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, their new home.

Only half the colonists and crew survived that first winter. But today an estimated 35 million people are direct descendants of those Mayflower Pilgrims.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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