Feb. 23, 2010

Failing and Flying

by Jack Gilbert

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It's the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

"Failing and Flying" by Jack Gilbert, from Refusing Heaven. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2005 . Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of composer George Handel, who wrote the great oratorio Messiah, born in Halle, Germany (1685). His dad wanted him to be a lawyer, not a musician, so as a child he waited till his father went to sleep, then snuck up to the attic and secretly practiced his instruments.

A duke who heard Handel, aged seven, play the organ was so impressed that he handed the boy fistfuls of gold coins. Handel's dad repealed the music ban and the boy was able to study with the town's church organist. He was a child prodigy, and his tutor announced when Handel was 11 that it was time to turn professional. So he went to Berlin.

In 1741, he was asked to do a benefit in Dublin. He decided to write a new oratorio for the performance, and he worked on it zealously, often neglecting to eat or sleep. In 25 days, he'd created the score for the Messiah, which was composed of 50 separate pieces. When he was finished he said, "I think God has visited me."

It's the birthday of Samuel Pepys, born in London (1633), who on New Year's Day 350 years ago — in 1660 — made a resolution to keep a diary. He wrote it in a form of shorthand that was common in the 17th century, developed by Thomas Shelton and called "tachygraphy," ancient Greek for "speedy writing." It basically involved writing consonant letters with fewer penstrokes and eliminating the writing of vowels. Though vowels weren't written, they were indicated by the height at which the following consonant was placed: either above, below, or next to the consonant that came before it. This particular shorthand that Samuel Pepys used in his diary was also used by Sir Isaac Newton and by U.S. President Thomas Jefferson.

But when Pepys was writing about the details of his extramarital affairs and some other things in his diary, he substituted words from French or Spanish German or Latin or Greek, or sometimes code words he made up. In his account of the time where his wife walked in on him and a household servant girl engaged in an intimate act, Pepys wrote that his wife "coming up suddenly, did find me imbracing the girl con my hand sub su coats."

He kept the diary for nearly 10 years and then quit because his eyesight was failing and he'd convinced himself that keeping the journal was making him go blind. The journal wasn't translated until centuries after his death. The first translation was done by a clergyman who refused to translate the parts that were salacious or sexual in nature. A more complete and more accurate translation was done in the 1970s and '80s, and fills nine volumes.

A lot of what we know today from the English Restoration period — that is, the time including the 1660s — we know because of Samuel Pepys. There was only one London newspaper at the time, and it was a government newspaper and censored. From Samuel Pepys, we get eyewitness accounts and commentary about the coronation of King Charles II, the Great Plague of 1665, and the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Pepys loved music, and he was pretty good at playing the violin, the lute, and the flageolet, a sort of simple wooden flute. He had a good singing voice and performed in coffee shops around London. He once wrote, "Music and woman I cannot but give way to, whatever my business is."

And he wrote: "The truth is, I do indulge myself a little the more in pleasure, knowing that this is the proper age of my life to do it; and, out of my observation that most men that do thrive in the world do forget to take pleasure during the time that they are getting their estate, but reserve that till they have got one, and then it is too late for them to enjoy it."

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




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