Mar. 26, 2011

Acquainted with the Night

by Robert Frost

The audio and text for this poem are no longer available.

"Acquainted with the Night" by Robert Frost, from The Poetry of Robert Frost. © Holt Rinehart Winston, 1969. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Robert Frost, (books by this author) born in San Francisco (1874). He cultivated the image of a rural New England poet with a pleasant disposition, but Frost's personal life was full of tragedy and he suffered from dark depressions.

He graduated from high school at the top of his class but dropped out of Dartmouth after a semester and tried to convince his high school co-valedictorian, Elinor White, to marry him immediately. She refused and insisted on finishing college first. They did marry after she graduated, and it was a union that would be filled with losses and feelings of alienation. Their first son died from cholera at age three; Frost blamed himself for not calling a doctor earlier and believed that God was punishing him for it. His health declined, and his wife became depressed. In 1907, they had a daughter who died three days after birth, and a few years later Elinor had a miscarriage. Within a couple years, his sister Jeanie died in a mental hospital, and his daughter Marjorie, of whom he was extremely fond, was hospitalized with tuberculosis. Marjorie died a slow death after getting married and giving birth, and a few years later, Frost's wife died from heart failure. His adult son, Carol, had become increasingly distraught, and Frost went to visit him and to talk him out of suicide. Thinking the crisis had passed, he returned home, and shortly afterward his son shot himself. He also had to commit his daughter Irma to a mental hospital.

His behavior became erratic at times and worried people. He asked the wife of a colleague to marry him and she refused, though did agree to work for him as a secretary and tour manager. President John F. Kennedy would later say of Frost that his "sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation" and that his poetry had a "tide that lifts all spirits." Even during periods of deep depression, he drew large crowds to his immensely popular poetry readings, which he preferred to call poetry "sayings."

He said: "A poem begins with a lump in the throat; a homesickness or a love-sickness. It is a reaching out toward expression, an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the word."

And, "A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom."

And, "Love is an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired."

And, "In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on."

It was on this day in 1920 that This Side of Paradise was published, launching 23-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald (books by this author) to fame and fortune. It's the story of a young man named Amory Blaine who falls in love with a beautiful blond debutant named Rosalind Connage and then loses her because she doesn't want to marry someone with so little money. He goes on a drinking spree and has a series of bohemian adventures, only to wind up taking the blame for a crime committed by Rosalind's brother. An account of the crime appears in the newspaper alongside the announcement of Rosalind's engagement to another man.

The first version of the book was called The Romantic Egotist, and Fitzgerald had started writing it in the fall of 1917 while awaiting commission as an Army officer. He wrote most of the manuscript at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and sent chapters as he wrote them to a typist at Princeton, where he had been a student. In March 1918, he submitted the novel to Charles Scribner's Sons. Scribner's rejected the novel but encouraged Fitzgerald to revise it. He submitted a new version titled The Education of a Personage to Scribner's in September 1918, but that second version was also rejected.

In July 1919, after his discharge from the Army, Fitzgerald returned to his family's home at 599 Summit Avenue in St. Paul, which he called "a house below the average in a street above the average."

Fitzgerald was at the end of a series of failures and frustrations. He'd dropped out of Princeton in 1917 because of poor grades, spent time in the Army during WWI and never saw combat or went overseas, had a New York advertising job that he hated, and his novel had been rejected. When southern belle Zelda Sayre broke off their engagement because she was afraid he couldn't support her, he spent a week drowning his sorrows. He said, "I was in love with a whirlwind, so when the girl threw me over, I went home and finished my novel."

Scribner's editor Maxwell Perkins, though rejecting The Romantic Egotist, had given Fitzgerald hope that it could be salvaged. Fitzgerald worked hard at revision for the next three months. He pinned revision notes to his curtains and used a speaking tube outside his room to order meals to be sent up. Fitzgerald rewrote much of the novel, using material he had published while a student at Princeton, including the short story "Eleanor" and the play "The Debutante." Fitzgerald also placed typescript pages from earlier versions, with handwritten corrections, into his new draft, producing discrepancies that eventually found their way into print.

Fitzgerald took a walk now and then for a break. He'd walk over to Selby Avenue to meet his friend Tubby Washington for cigarettes and Cokes at W.A. Frost's drugstore.

He was known to wander over to Mrs. Charles Porterfield's Boardinghouse on Summit, where he sat on the porch discussing literature with local teachers and writers.

In August 1919, Fitzgerald finished a new draft of the novel, now titled This Side of Paradise. He gave it to a friend from St. Paul for a final edit and sent the new typescript to Scribner's on September 4, 1919. Two weeks after he mailed the manuscript, Fitzgerald received Maxwell Perkins' letter accepting the book. Fitzgerald was so excited that he ran outside and stopped cars on the street to announce the news. He later wrote, "That week the postman rang and rang, and I paid off my terrible small debts, bought a suit, and woke up every morning into a world of ineffable topflightiness and promise."

The publication of This Side of Paradise on this day in 1920, made Fitzgerald famous almost overnight, and a week later he married Zelda Sayre in New York.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: "Writers aren't people exactly. Or, if they're any good, they're a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person. It's like actors, who try so pathetically not to look in mirrors. Who lean backward trying — only to see their faces in the reflecting chandeliers."

It's the birthday of Tennessee Williams (books by this author), born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi (1911), author of more than 24 full-length plays, including Pulitzer Prize-winners A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955).

His father was a vicious drunk; his mother was the daughter of a genteel family. It was his sister, Rose, he was closest to; they were rarely apart, and the family cook called them "the couple." When Tom was seven, the family moved from the Mississippi Delta to a tenement apartment in St. Louis. The filth and noise of the city shocked them.

In middle age, he was introduced to Princess Margaret at a party, and he said, "I'm afraid we can't talk to each other, ma'am, because we live in such different worlds." She asked him politely what world it was that he lived in. "Are you acquainted with the opera La Bohème, ma'am?" he replied. "That's my world."

In the stage directions to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams wrote, "Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one's own character to himself."

He said, "I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person. But these seemingly fragile people are the strong people really."

And, "A high station in life is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace."

And, "Make voyages. Attempt them. There's nothing else."

It's the birthday of A.E. Housman (books by this author), born in Fockbury, Worcestershire, England (1859). He wrote only two volumes of poetry in his lifetime; A Shropshire Lad (1896), and Last Poems (1922). He studied classics at Oxford, but finished without much distinction, and ended up with a job in the Patent Office. When he finished work every afternoon, he went to the British Museum, where he pored over Latin manuscripts. He had an uncanny gift for identifying errors in transcription, and he began to produce new editions of Latin classics, earning, over a period of years, a towering reputation in the field.

As a classicist and critic, he could be merciless. He kept notebooks primed with devastating phrases to be used against those whose behavior or scholarship had displeased him. In one book review he wrote, "The author's arguments are all two-edged, but both edges are blunt."

He eventually won a professorship at Cambridge. When his students and co-workers discovered he was the author of the poems in A Shropshire Lad, they couldn't believe that the reclusive, dour man they knew had written such openhearted poetry. He began to write the poems while he was still in London; at the time, he had never been to Shropshire. Even after he began to make trips there, he felt free to change the details he saw, transferring hills and steeples to other places. Later, when readers started to make pilgrimages there, they often had difficulty locating the landmarks in the poems; Housman had moved them.

A.E. Housman said: "I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat."

In his poem "Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff," he wrote:
"Down in lovely muck I've lain,
Happy till I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet,
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew."

It's the birthday of Joseph Campbell (books by this author), born in New York City (1904). He saw Buffalo Bill's Wild West Riders as a child and decided to learn everything there was to know about Indians. He read his way through the children's room at his local library by the time he was 11, and started right in on reports from the Bureau of Ethnology.

In college, he turned to studying Arthurian legend. He abandoned a Ph.D. dissertation about Holy Grail stories and went to live in a shack, where for five years he continued to read. In 1949, he published a monumental study of mythology called The Hero with a Thousand Faces; it traced the common theme of the spiritual quest in myth. All sorts of writers found it a treasure trove for their own work, from the poet Robert Bly to the filmmaker George Lucas, who said that without it, he would never have been able to write Star Wars.

He wrote, "[For] the latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change."

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




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