May 20, 2011


by Donald Hall

When I was twelve I sat by myself in the steamliner
with a shoebox of sandwiches and deviled eggs
my mother made, and ate everything right away
as the train headed north by the Sound where trestles
of derelict trolley lines roosted nations of seagulls.
From South Station I took a taxi across Boston
to a shabby, black locomotive with coal car
that pulled two rickety coaches. It puffed past
long lines of empty commuter trains, past
suburbs thick with houses, past the milltowns
of Lawrence and Lowell, until the track curved
into New Hampshire's pastures of Holstein cattle.
My grandfather waited in his overalls at the depot
with horse and buggy to carry me to the farmhouse,
to fricasseed chicken, corn on the cob, and potatoes.
At nine o'clock, after shutting up the chickens
from skunk and fox, we sat by the cabinet radio
for Gabriel Heatter booming news of the war.
I slept through the night on my goosefeather bed.

"Goosefeathers" by Donald Hall, from The Back Chamber. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1946, English-born poet W.H. Auden (books by this author) became a U.S. citizen. Auden began writing poetry in high school, studied at Oxford, and made friends with other writers, including Cecil Day-Lewis and Christopher Isherwood. He published Poems (1930), a collection of poetry that brought him renown as a writer.

He traveled widely during the following years, visiting Germany, Iceland, and China. He served in the Spanish Civil War, but was so disturbed by the destruction of Roman Catholic churches that he returned to England. He married Thomas Mann's daughter, Erika, in 1935 to help her escape Nazi Germany, though the two had never met. Much of his work during this time focused on political unrest and economic issues.

The central focus of Auden's work switched from politics to religion when he moved to the United States in 1939. It was also in the U.S. that he met his lover Chester Kallman. While their sexual relationship only lasted two years, they remained friends and occasional housemates for the rest of their lives. Auden dedicated two collections of poetry to Kallman.

Between 1940 and 1s941, he shared a house in New York with other artists, including the writer Carson McCullers and the composer Benjamin Britten. He also began reading Soren Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr and his interest in Christianity deepened. He joined the Episcopal Church in 1940, returning to a religious tradition he left behind as a young boy.

He volunteered to go back to England and serve in the army when war broke out, but was told that, at 32, he was too old. He taught English at the University of Michigan, was drafted into the U.S. Army but dismissed on medical grounds, received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1942-43 but didn't use it. He taught at Swarthmore between 1942 and 1945. He visited Germany after the war to study the effects of the Allied bombing on German morale. He returned to Manhattan, worked as a freelance writer, lectured at The New School, and taught occasionally at Bennington and Smith.

His writings on religion continued to evolve, moving from highly personal explorations of Protestantism to interest in the Roman Catholic focus on the body and ritual. He studied the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who explored religion and the significance of human suffering.

In later years, Auden lived on a farm in Austria, teaching interstitially at Oxford and writing for The New Yorker and other magazines. He died in Vienna in 1973.

He said, "It's a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it."

It is the birthday of American recording artist and actress Cher, born Cherilyn Sarkisian in El Centro, California (1946). Cher has hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts in each of the past six decades, and she has won an Oscar, a Grammy, an Emmy, three Golden Globes, and a Cannes Film Festival Award.

She said, " In this business it takes time to be really good — and by that time, you're obsolete."

And, "I've always taken risks and never worried what the world might really think of me."

On this day in 1845, Robert Browning met Elizabeth Barrett (books by this author) in person for the first time. Elizabeth was one of the most popular writers in England at the time, and Robert Browning wrote her a letter in praise of her work. Elizabeth, who was suffering from a "nervous disorder" and was confined to bed, wrote him back and thus began one of the most famous courtships-by-letter in all of history.

Elizabeth was six years older than Robert and in poor health, and she had trouble believing he really loved her. But his letters convinced her, and they continued their correspondence and eventually married. But their entire relationship was carried out in secret because Elizabeth's father had forbidden all of his children to marry. When he found out that Elizabeth had married Robert, he disinherited her. But Elizabeth had some money of her own and the couple settled in Italy, where Elizabeth bore one son, Pen, at the age of 43.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's most famous work was written after she met Robert Browning and includes Sonnets from the Portuguese (1846), a collection of 44 love sonnets and Aurora Leigh (1856), an epic novel/poem. At first, she thought the poems were too personal to publish, but Robert proclaimed them the finest sonnets since Shakespeare's. "Portuguese" was Robert's nickname for Elizabeth.

She wrote, "I love you not only for what you are, but for what I am when I am with you."

From the archives:

Shakespeare's (books by this author) sonnets were first published on this day in 1609, most likely without Shakespeare's permission. The book contained 154 sonnets, all but two of which had never been published before. Shakespeare (or perhaps the publisher Thomas Thorpe) dedicated the collection to "Mr. W.H." whose identity has never been known. The poems are about love, sex, politics, youth, and the mysterious "Dark Lady," and they have given young lovers and the hopelessly romantic words for the ages:

Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, a
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometimes declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade,
Nor loose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wand'rest in his
When in eternal lines to time though grow'st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

On this day in 1927, at 7:52 a.m., Charles Lindbergh set off from Roosevelt Field in Long Island on the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic. He landed in Paris a little over 33 hours later. And five years later to the day, Amelia Earhart, nicknamed the "Lady Lindy" after Charles Lindbergh, departed from Newfoundland, Canada, on the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic by a woman. Fifteen hours and 18 minutes later she landed in Ireland.

It is the birthday of American movie actor James Stewart, born in Indiana, Pennsylvania (1908). He starred in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), and Rear Window (1954). He was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning once, for The Philadelphia Story (1940).

It is the birthday of French writer Honoré de Balzac (books by this author), born in Tours, France (1799). Balzac maintained a superhuman writing schedule, and the slavish hours he kept are a main subject of his correspondence. In an 1833 letter, he wrote: "I go to bed at 6 or 7 in the evening, like the fowls. At 1 in the morning, I am awakened, and I will work until 8. At 8 o'clock I sleep again, for an hour and a half. Then I take some slight refreshment and a cup of pure coffee: and then I put myself once more in harness."

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




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