Dec. 19, 2006

Praising Manners

by Robert Bly

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Praising Manners" by Robert Bly, from The Winged Energy of Delight. © Harper Collins Publishers. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Praising Manners

We should ask God
To help us toward manners. Inner gifts
Do not find their way
To creatures without just respect.

If a man or woman flails about, he not only
Smashes his house,
He burns the whole world down.

Your depression is connected to your insolence
And your refusal to praise. If a man or woman is
On the path, and refuses to praise — that man or woman
Steals from others every day — in fact is a shoplifter!

The sun became full of light when it got hold of itself.
Angels began shining when they achieved discipline.
The sun goes out whenever the cloud of not-praising comes near.
The moment that foolish angel felt insolent, he heard the door close.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1777 that George Washington led his army of about 11,000 men to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, to camp for the winter. For the Americans, it was one of the lowest points of the War for Independence, and it was also one of the lowest points of George Washington's career.

He had been 43 years old when he was unanimously chosen to command the continental forces in 1775, and he had scored his first victory when he forced the British army to evacuate Boston in March of 1776. But after that first success, he'd been in an almost constant retreat. He'd failed to stop the British from invading Philadelphia in September of 1777, and members of the new American Congress had been forced to flee the city. Then, in a battle in Germantown, Pennsylvania, his men had gotten confused in the fog and wound up shooting each other.

By the time they reached Valley Forge on this day in 1777, Washington's men had been marching for days, many of them without jackets, shirts, or even shoes. They left a trail of bloody footprints in the snow. Valley Forge itself was really just a defensible plateau, and at first all they had were tents to shelter against the cold. Even though he could have gone to stay in a nearby house, Washington slept in a tent with his men until they were able to build enough huts to house everyone. They were short on food and many of the men were ill, and some of the soldiers began to desert. Several members of Congress were actually considering replacing Washington as the commander in chief of the Army with a man named Horatio Gates.

Meanwhile, Washington had to concentrate on figuring out how to feed and shelter his troops. He sent his men to seize food from nearby farmers, but there was little food to seize. His men subsisted on flour and water for days at a time. About 12 soldiers deserted every day, and by the end of the winter one in four of them had died from disease or the cold.

As the weather got warmer, Washington trained his men more rigorously, and they became better and better equipped for battle. Then, that spring, word came that the United States had signed a new military alliance with France, which became one of the turning points of the war.

It was on this day in 1843 that Charles Dickens (books by this author) published A Christmas Carol. Dickens wrote the novel after his first commercial failure. His previous novel, Martin Chuzzlewit (1842), had flopped, and he was suddenly strapped for cash. Martin Chuzzlewit had been satirical and pessimistic, and Dickens thought he might be more successful if he wrote a heartwarming tale with a holiday theme.

He got the idea for the book in late October of 1843, and he struggled to finish the book in time for Christmas. He no longer had a publisher so he published the book himself, ordering illustrations, gilt-edged pages and a lavish red bound cover. He priced the book at a mere 5 shillings, in hopes of making it affordable to everyone. It was released within a week of Christmas and was a huge success, selling 6,000 copies the first few days, and the demand was so great that it quickly went to second and third editions.

At the time, Christmas was on the decline and not celebrated much. England was in the midst of an Industrial Revolution and most people were incredibly poor, having to work as much as 16-hour days six days a week. Most people couldn't afford to celebrate Christmas, and Puritans believed it was a sin to do so. They felt that celebrating Christmas too extravagantly would be an insult to Christ. The famous American preacher Henry Ward Beecher said that Christmas was a "foreign day" and he wouldn't even recognize it.

When Dickens's novel became a huge best-seller in both the United States and England, A Christmas Carol reminded many people of the old Christmas traditions that had been dying out since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution — of cooking a feast, spending time with family, and spreading warmth and cheer. Dickens helped people return to the old ways of Christmas. He went on to write a Christmas story every year, but none endured as well as A Christmas Carol.

Charles Dickens wrote, "I have always thought of Christmas time, as ... the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore ... though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show