Nov. 7, 2006

Breathes There the Man with Soul So Dead, from The Lay of the Last Minstrel

by Walter Scott

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Poem: "Breathes There the Man with Soul So Dead" from The Lay of the Last Minstrel by Sir Walter Scott. Public domain. New words: Garrison Keillor, © Garrison Keillor. (buy now)

Breathes There the Man with Soul So Dead

Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
           Who never to himself hath said,
           This is my day, election day!
Who heart hath ne'er within him burn'd,
As toward the polling place he turned
           And there to promptly made his way—
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour'd, and unsung.
                                from The Lay of the Last Minstrel

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Election Day. Millions of people across the country will be going to the polls today to elect new legislators, judges, sheriffs, and school board members. For the first 50 years of American elections, only 15 percent of the adult population was eligible to vote. To be eligible to vote at the time, you had to be a white male property owner. In Connecticut, you had to be a white male property owner of a "quiet and peaceable behavior and civil conversation."

Thomas Dorr was one of the first politicians to argue that poor people should be given voting rights. As a member of the Rhode Island legislature, Dorr argued that all white adult men should have the vote, regardless of their wealth. He incited a riot to protest the governor's election of 1842 and went to prison for treason, but most states began to let poor white men vote soon after. Women were given the right to vote in 1920, and many African Americans were prevented from voting in the South until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Today, the only group of adult American citizens who are regularly prevented from voting are convicted felons.

Gore Vidal said, "Half of the American people never read a newspaper. Half never vote for president. One hopes it is the same half."

W.C. Fields said, "I never vote for anyone. I always vote against."

It's the birthday of one of the most influential literary critics alive today, Stephen Greenblatt, (books by this author) born in Boston (1943). His grandparents were Jewish Lithuanian immigrants, and growing up in the suburbs, he was always aware of the history of his family. He said, "My maternal grandparents escaped from the Russian authorities by hiding in the bottom of a hay wagon; in this country they had a small hardware shop. My paternal grandfather was a rag-picker, complete with horse and wagon. My father chose not to take up the reins but went to law school instead."

It was a high school English teacher who taught Greenblatt to love literature and especially Shakespeare. Greenblatt went on to study literature at a time when most literary critics believed that to study a work of literature you should only examine the work of literature itself. You should only care about the words on the page. But Greenblatt came up with a style of criticism called New Historicism, which was the idea that in order to examine a work of literature, or any work of art, the critic should examine everything that was going on in the world of the artist at the time the work of art was created.

For most of his career, Greenblatt was famous only among academics. But he put his theory to work in a book for a general audience. And that was Will in the World, a book about Shakespeare. It came out in 2004, and it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Stephen Greenblatt said, "I am constantly struck by the strangeness of reading works that seem addressed, personally and intimately, to me, and yet were written by people who crumbled to dust long ago."

It's the birthday of writer Albert Camus (books by this author) born in Mondovi, Algeria (1913). He's the author of The Stranger (1942), as well as The Plague (1947) and many other books.

It was on this day in 1917 that the Russian Revolution took place. Vladimir Lenin gave the order for the workers' militia to seize government buildings, and the coup met almost no resistance. Then next day, Lenin was elected chairman of the Council of the new Soviet government.

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




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