Jul. 6, 2011

How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth

by John Milton

How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
     Stol'n on his wing my three and twentieth year!
     My hasting days fly on with full career,
     But my late spring no bud or blossom shew'th.
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth,
     That I to manhood am arrived so near,
     And inward ripeness doth much less appear,
     That some more timely-happy spirits endu'th.
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,
     It shall be still in strictest measure even
     To that same lot, however mean or high,
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven;
     All is, if I have grace to use it so,
     As ever in my great Taskmaster's eye.

"How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth" by John Milton. Public domain. (buy now)

On this date in 1535, Sir Thomas More (books by this author) was executed in London. More was a lawyer, philosopher, humanist, and statesman, and since 1935, he's also a Catholic saint. He is the author of Utopia (1516) and the unfinished History of King Richard III (1513-1518), which has been called the first masterpiece of English historiography and provided the source material for Shakespeare's play Richard III (1591).

More attracted the attention of Henry VIII in 1515 when he successfully resolved a trade dispute with Flanders, and again when he helped quell a London uprising against foreigners in 1517. Henry appointed him to his Privy Council in 1518, and knighted him in 1521; one of More's early services to the king was to assist him in writing his Defence of the Seven Sacraments, a rebuttal of Martin Luther. Henry named him Speaker of the House of Commons, where More advocated free speech in Parliament. Even though he was not in favor of Henry's divorce of Catherine of Aragon, he still remained the king's trusted advisor, confidant, and friend; he succeeded Thomas Wolsey as Lord Chancellor in 1529, when Wolsey fell from favor.

He was a devout Catholic who had at one time considered becoming a monk, and he grew uncomfortable with Henry's increasing opposition to the pope. When More resigned in 1532, citing ill health, it was probably due as much or more to his unease over the split with Rome. He refused to attend the coronation of the king's second wife, Anne Boleyn, and though he acknowledged that she was the rightful queen, he refused to take an oath that named Henry Supreme Head of the Church of England. He was arrested for treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London on April 17, 1534. He wasn't tried until more than a year later, but imprisonment suited his ascetic tastes; he said to his daughter Margaret that he would have chosen "as strait a room, and straiter too," had he been given a choice. He was tried on July 1, 1535, and the judges — among them Anne Boleyn's brother, father, and uncle — unanimously found him guilty. Traitors were customarily hanged, drawn, and quartered, and that was his sentence, but Henry commuted it to beheading. More spent the five days before his execution writing a prayer and several letters of farewell, and when he mounted Tower Hill to the scaffold, he told his escort, "See me safe up, and for my coming down, let me shift for myself." His last words were, "The King's good servant, but God's first."

More is the subject of Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons (1960). The play's title comes from something that Robert Whittington, an English grammarian and contemporary of More's, wrote about him in 1520: "More is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of a sad gravity. A man for all seasons."

On this date in 1785, the dollar was chosen as the monetary unit of the United States. The word "dollar" actually predates this event by more than 250 years; it's an Anglicized form of "thaler" [TAH-ler], a silver coin that was first minted in Bohemia in 1519. "Dollar" came to be used as a sort of generic term for any large silver coin, like the Spanish eight-real piece, also known as "pieces of eight." There was a shortage of British currency in the American colonies, and Spanish dollars were widely circulated in their place — as were Indian wampum and certificates for tobacco held in Virginia warehouses. During the Revolutionary War, colonists printed their own paper bills, called Continentals, in a variety of denominations; some were in British pounds, others were in dollars. When we won our independence, we rejected the British units in favor of the dollar.

Louis Pasteur successfully tested his rabies vaccine on this day in 1885. Pasteur had begun work on a vaccine in 1882, using a weakened form of the virus taken from the spinal cords of infected animals. The research was time-consuming, because it took several weeks for the virus to reach his test animals' brains after they were infected, but Pasteur soon realized that people didn't need to have the vaccine on board before they were bitten, as with other diseases. The delay between the rabid animal's bite and the outbreak of the disease meant the vaccine could be given only when needed, and it would have plenty of time to work.

In 1885, a nine-year-old boy named Joseph Meister was bitten by a rabid dog. He was brought to Pasteur, and though Pasteur didn't feel his vaccine was sufficiently tested yet, he knew the boy would certainly die otherwise, so he took a chance. It was a tense few weeks waiting to see if Meister would come down with the disease, but the boy recovered, and three months later was pronounced in good health. Pasteur's fame spread quickly, and the era of preventative medicine had begun.

On this date in 1942, Anne Frank (books by this author) and her family went into hiding in a secret warehouse apartment in Amsterdam to avoid being sent to a Jewish "work camp" by the Nazis. The Franks and the Van Pels family — eight people in all — lived in the annex for two years, until they were betrayed; the family was separated and sent to concentration camps in 1944. Anne and her sister, Margot, died of typhus the following March, in the camp at Bergen-Belsen.

She got a diary for 13th birthday, and at first her entries reveal that she viewed the hiding with a kind of determined optimism. She wrote: "I have often been downcast, but never in despair; I regard our hiding as a dangerous adventure, romantic and interesting at the same time. In my diary I treat all the privations as amusing. I have made up my mind now to lead a different life from other girls and, later on, different from ordinary housewives. My start has been so very full of interest, and that is the sole reason why I have to laugh at the humorous side of the most dangerous moments."

It's the birthday of Irish novelist, poet, and short-story writer William Wall (1955) (books by this author). He was born in Cork City and grew up in Whitegate, on Ireland's southeast coast. He published his first collection of poetry in 1997, and his first novel, Alice Falling, in 2000. His work is consciously "anti-idyllic," and he doesn't go out of his way to romanticize Ireland, which makes him somewhat unpopular with sentimentalists. He also writes a political blog, The Ice Moon.

When Wall was 12, he was diagnosed with Still's disease, an inflammatory form of arthritis. It's painful, and he's been on steroids for most of his adult life. "All my joints are shagged, basically," he told The Post. "I've got two plastic hips. I can't turn my neck properly. I can't bend my wrist properly." His parents bought him a typewriter when he was 14, and that helped keep his hands mobile, at least. He writes from 6:30 a.m. until lunchtime, when he goes to teach at a secondary school in Cork.

When he was asked why the bio on his homepage was so brief — only 25 words — he responded: "I don't believe that the details of my life have any relevance to a reading of my work. Besides, in many ways I lead a pretty boring life — I get up early and work as much as I can, I make coffee etc. What I want to say about my life, my thinking and my beliefs is in my books and other published materials. If I wanted to be a 'celebrity' (whatever the hell that is), whose every living moment is of vital interest to 'the public,' I wouldn't be a writer. Writing is an essentially private business. I'd even go so far as to say that it's an intimate one."

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




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