May 7, 2008

For an Amorous Lady

by Theodore Roethke

Most mammals like caresses, in the sense in which we
usually take the word, whereas other creatures, even tame
snakes, prefer giving to receiving them.
          -- From a Natural-History Book

The pensive gnu, the staid aardvark,
Accept caresses in the dark;
The bear, equipped with paw and snout;
Would rather take than dish it out.

But snakes, both poisonous and garter,
In love are never known to barter;
The worm, though dank, is sensitive:
His noble nature bids him give.

But you, my dearest, have a soul
Encompassing fish, flesh, and fowl.
When amorous arts we would pursue,
You can, with pleasure, bill or coo.
You are, in truth, one in a million,
At once mammalian and reptilian.

"For An Amorous Lady" by Theodore Roethke, from Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke © Doubleday, 1966. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Johannes Brahms, born in Hamburg (1833), the son of a seamstress and the town musician. He took piano lessons from the age of seven and began studying theory and composition at the age of 13. He remained in northern Germany for the first half of his life, failing to fulfill his ambition of gaining an official conducting position. He met composer Robert Schumann and fell in love with Schumann's wife, Clara, who was 14 years Brahms' elder. He wrote to Schumann, who was in a sanatorium, "How long the separation from your wife seemed to me! I had grown so used to her uplifting presence and had spent such a magnificent summer with her. I had grown to admire and love her so much that everything else seemed empty to me, and I could only long to see her again."

He moved to Vienna, which was at the time under liberal influence, and there found work as a conductor. When his parents separated in 1864, Brahms tried to reunite them. The theme of reconciliation is large in his choral German Requiem (1868) — which premiered in Bremen and featured a full orchestra and a chorus and solo voices — as well as in his later work. He also wrote cantatas, sting quartets, and several symphonies. He wrote no operas. While he composed his famous lullaby, he took naps at the piano.

He often traveled, spending summers in Italy composing. He cleared his head by taking long walks in fresh air. In 1889, one of inventor Thomas Edison's representatives visited Brahms in Vienna and Brahms played a Hungarian dance on the piano for an experimental recording, the earliest recording ever made by a famous composer.

His motto in life was "Frei Aber Froh" — "Free but Happy" — a revision of Romanticist Joseph Joachim's "Free but Lonely."

It's the birthday of English poet Robert Browning, (books by this author) born in Camberwell, south London (1812). Growing up, he had access to his father's enormous library, which had more than 6,000 volumes and contained works in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, and Italian. When he was 12, he was given a book of Shelley poems, and he became such a fan that he asked for the complete collection for his 13th birthday, and mimicked Shelly by becoming an atheist and vegetarian. He read a collection of poems by Elizabeth Barrett and began exchanging letters with her. The two met in 1845 and married the next year. Before they were married, Elizabeth wrote 44 secret love poems for Robert, which were compiled in Sonnets from the Portuguese. One of them is the poem that begins "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. "

A number of Browning Societies were established during his lifetime, and he often made appearances at their meetings. Today, Browning Societies still exist in several major cities, including London, where the society aims "to widen the appreciation and understanding of the poetry of the Brownings … and to collect items of literary and biographical interest." The members arrange lectures and visits, and they publish a Browning journal. The New York Browning Society also celebrates the work of both Robert and Elizabeth and always follows its monthly meetings with tea. It also supports a high school poetry contest.

The readers of several other authors have formed notable clubs, including ones dedicated to James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Jane Austen, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, and C.S. Lewis.

The James Joyce Society of New York first met in 1947 at Gotham Book Mart on West 47th Street and continues to meet there. There are two groups who are reading Finnegan's Wake — a general one, open to everyone, which gets through two to six pages per monthly meeting, and a special subgroup by invitation only, which averages less than 10 pages a year.

Novelist Christopher Morley founded, in 1934, the Baker Street Irregulars to celebrate the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and today there are many groups of Sherlockians, including the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes, who developed in protest to the men-only Baker Street Irregulars. Both of those groups now admit members of both sexes. The London Sherlock Holmes Society, which began in its current incarnation in 1951, has an annual dinner and regular meetings, and produces a Sherlock Holmes Journal twice a year. There are also occasional mock trials, trivia challenges, pub nights, London walks, and cricket matches against the P.G. Wodehouse Society.

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




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