Nov. 21, 2006

Glitter and be Gay

by Richard Wilbur

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Poem: "Glitter and be Gay" by Richard Wilbur, from Collected Poems: 1943-2004. © Harcourt, Inc. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Glitter and be Gay

A second lyric from Candide.


Glitter and be gay,
That's the part I play.
Here am I in Paris, France,
Forced to bend my soul
To a sordid role,
Victimized by bitter, bitter circumstance.

Alas for me, had I remained
Beside my lady mother,
My virtue had remained unstained
Until my maiden hand was gained
By some Grand Duke or other.

Ah, 'twas not to be;
Harsh necessity
Brought me to this gilded cage.
Born to higher things,
Here I droop my wings,
Singing of a sorrow nothing can assuage.

   (Suddenly brighter)

And yet, of course, I rather like to revel, ha, ha!
I have no strong objection to champagne, ha, ha!
My wardrobe is expensive as the devil, ha, ha!
Perhaps it is ignoble to complain...

Enough, enough
Of being basely tearful!
I'll show my noble stuff
By being bright and cheerful!

Ha, ha ha ha...(Sings "ha" at some length)

    (Reciting to music)

Pearls and ruby rings...
Ah, how can worldly things
Take the place of honor lost?
Can they compensate
For my fallen state,
Purchased as they were at such an awful cost?

Can they dry my tears?
Can they blind my eyes to shame?
Can the brightest brooch
Shield me from reproach?
Can the purest diamond purify my name?

    (Suddenly bright again; singing as she puts on enormous bracelets)

And yet, of course, these trinkets are endearing, ha ha!
I'm oh, so glad my sapphire is a star, ha ha!
I rather like a twenty-carat earring, ha ha!
If I'm not pure, at least my jewels are!

    (Puts on three more bracelets)

Enough, enough!
I'll take their diamond necklace,
And show my noble stuff
By being gay and reckless!

Ha ha ha ha ha...

Observe how bravely I conceal
The dreadful, dreadful shame I feel.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha...

(Puts on a giant diamond necklace)


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who helped spark the Enlightenment in France, writing under the name Voltaire, (books by this author) born François-Marie Arouet in Paris (1694). He wrote so much in his lifetime that his collected works are still being assembled and edited by French scholars. He's known to us for a single short novel: Candide (1760), about a young man who follows the philosophy of Doctor Pangloss that no matter what misfortunes befall us, this is the best of all possible worlds. Candide eventually decides that this philosophy is nonsense, and he comes to the conclusion that the secret of happiness is to cultivate one's own garden.

Voltaire grew up at a time when Louis XIV had instituted the persecution of Protestants, turning France into a ferociously intolerant society, with little freedom of speech or religion. Voltaire began his writing career just a few years after Louis XIV had died, and Voltaire was one of the first writers to challenge the restrictions of society by writing satirical poems about the new king. He was sent into exile for the first series of these poems, and then, in May of 1717, he was thrown into prison in the Bastille for 11 months. At the time, he wasn't particularly well known, and his imprisonment only served to make him famous. It was when he got out of prison that he began using the pen name Voltaire. No one is sure how or why he picked the name.

He became a well-known playwright and poet, but in 1925 he got into an argument with a nobleman. A few days later, that nobleman hired a group of men to surround Voltaire in the street and beat him with cudgels. The nobleman stood by and watched.

Voltaire was outraged when none of his political friends came to his aid in trying to get retribution for the incident. He had thought that his stature as a poet made him the equal of the aristocrats he spent all his time with, but this incident made him realize that he was still a second-class citizen. He began publicizing the incident and calling for justice, and he was eventually exiled to England. He spent the rest of his life crusading for human rights.

It was on this day in 1877 that Thomas Edison announced that he had invented a new device for recording and playing back sound, which he called the phonograph. He had been working on a device to record telephone communication when he stumbled upon the right design, using a stylus and a tinfoil cylinder. The first thing he recorded was himself reciting the poem "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

Most people who saw the early demonstrations of the phonograph found it spooky, as though it were playing back the voice of a ghost. Edison demonstrated it for the editors of Scientific American magazine, and the magazine later wrote, "No matter how familiar a person may be with the modern machinery, or how clear in his mind the principles underlying this strange device may be, it is impossible to listen to this mechanical speech without experiencing the idea that his senses are deceiving him."

For the first 10 years or so, most people remained uneasy with the phonograph. Bram Stoker included the invention as a plot device in his gothic novel Dracula (1897). In order to help American customers feel more comfortable with the idea of playing back sound, the Columbia Phonograph Company commissioned a recording of marching music by John Philip Sousa's U.S. Marine Band. The idea was that Americans couldn't be spooked out by patriotic music, and those recordings became some of the first successful musical recordings ever sold.

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