Apr. 5, 2010

For My Wife

by Wesley McNair

How were we to know, leaving your two kids
behind in New Hampshire for our honeymoon
at twenty-one, that it was a trick of cheap
hotels in New York City to draw customers
like us inside by displaying a fancy lobby?
Arriving in our fourth-floor room, we found
a bed, a scarred bureau, and a bathroom door
with a cut on one side the exact shape
of the toilet bowl that was in its way
when I closed it. I opened and shut the door,
admiring the fit and despairing of it. You
discovered the initials of lovers carved
on the bureau's top in a zigzag, breaking heart.
How wrong the place was to us then,
unable to see the portents of our future
that seem so clear now in the naiveté
of the arrangements we made, the hotel's
disdain for those with little money,
the carving of pain and love. Yet in that room
we pulled the covers over ourselves and lay
our love down, and in this way began our unwise
and persistent and lucky life together.

"For My Wife" by Wesley McNair. Reprinted with permission from the author. (buy now)

It's the birthday of philosopher Thomas Hobbes, (books by this author) born in Westport, England (1588). He was born premature because his mother was so frightened about the approaching Spanish Armada, and Hobbes said, "She brought forth twins, myself and fear." Hobbes was a timid boy, but a good student, and he went on to Oxford. He became a tutor for a rich family, and through them he met all sorts of great thinkers — Galileo, Francis Bacon, Descartes, and Ben Jonson. He became increasingly interested in philosophy, and he started publishing. His masterpiece was Leviathan (1651). Hobbes wrote it in the midst of the English Civil War, arguing for an authoritarian central government and introducing the social contract theory — the idea that those of us who are governed agree to participate in a system of laws and punishments, to let a governor give us rights in return for abiding by the governing rules. Without this governor who could keep peace, he described a state of constant war, in which there were "no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

His book was controversial, in large part because its author was skeptical of Christianity. In 1666, the House of Commons discussed reviving the writ De Heretico Comburendo, which allowed heretics to be burned at the stake. A bill was passed through the House of Commons to investigate "such books as tend to atheism, blasphemy, and profaneness, or against the essence and attributes of God, and in particular ... the book of Mr. Hobbes called the Leviathan." The bill failed to make it through the House of Lords. So Hobbes stayed alive, but he was forbidden to write any more philosophical or political works, and he was so shaken up that he burned a lot of his papers and started attending church. He wrote an autobiography in Latin verse and translated the Odyssey and the Iliad, and he died at the age of 91.

It's the birthday of the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, (books by this author) born in London (1837). He was just over five feet tall. His cousin wrote about him during their school days: "He was strangely tiny. His limbs were small and delicate; and his sloping shoulders looked far too weak to carry his great head, the size of which was exaggerated by the tousled mass of red hair standing almost at right angles to it. Hero-worshippers talk of his hair as having been a 'golden aureole.' At that time there was nothing golden about it. Red, violent, aggressive red it was, unmistakable, unpoetical carrots." Swinburne liked Eton, where he was known as "mad Swinburne," and he hated Oxford. But it was there that he befriended the Pre-Raphaelites, especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who called him "my little Northumbrian friend." As roommates, they kept a pet wombat and got drunk together frequently. Swinburne was famous for his outrageous personality — extremely melodramatic, he liked to slide naked down banisters, and he would literally skip around a room, shrieking his poetry at the top of his lungs. Oscar Wilde called him "a braggart in matters of vice." But he was a popular and respected poet in his own right. His books include Atalanta in Calydon (1865), Poems and Ballads I (1866), and Tristram of Lyonesse (1882).

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