Jul. 8, 2011

Birds of Passage

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Black shadows fall
From the lindens tall,
That lift aloft their massive wall
Against the southern sky;

And from the realms
Of the shadowy elms
A tide-like darkness overwhelms
The fields that round us lie.

But the night is fair,
And everywhere
A warm, soft vapor fills the air,
And distant sounds seem near,

And above, in the light
Of the star-lit night,
Swift birds of passage wing their flight
Through the dewy atmosphere.

I hear the beat
Of their pinions fleet,
As from the land of snow and sleet
They seek a southern lea.

I hear the cry
Of their voices high
Falling dreamily through the sky,
But their forms I cannot see.

Oh, say not so!
Those sounds that flow
In murmurs of delight and woe
Come not from wings of birds.

They are the throngs
Of the poet's songs,
Murmurs of pleasures, and pains, and wrongs,
The sound of winged words.

This is the cry
Of souls, that high
On toiling, beating pinions, fly,
Seeking a warmer clime,

From their distant flight
Through realms of light
It falls into our world of night,
With the murmuring sound of rhyme.

"Birds of Passage" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Public domain. (buy now)

Percy Bysshe Shelley (books by this author) died at sea off the coast of Italy on this day in 1822, just shy of his 30th birthday. He had been living in Lerici for about four years, and his work was maturing; most of his poems prior to that time had been political in nature, but when he got away from the daily annoyance of British politics, he began to realize that he couldn't reshape the outside world, so he transferred his idealism to his poetry.

He had sailed from his home in Lerici to Livorno to visit his friend Leigh Hunt. On the return, the seas were stormy, and his schooner sank. Shelley had never bothered to learn to swim, and he drowned. The conservative London newspaper The Courier reported, "Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned: now he knows whether there is a God or no." Uncharitable obituaries aside, he was almost immediately re-created as a tragic, otherworldly figure. His widow, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, set the ball in motion when she wrote, "I was never the Eve of any Paradise, but a human creature blessed by an elemental spirit's company & love — an angel who imprisoned in flesh could not adapt himself to his clay shrine & so has flown and left it." His friend Edward John Trelawny was even more melodramatic. He organized Shelley's beach cremation, turning it into a pagan ceremony with wine and frankincense, and later wrote an account of Shelley's death, which he revised and embellished heavily as years went on. He added conspiracy theories and deathbed confessions — an Italian fisherman admitted he had deliberately rammed the boat, or so Trelawny claimed— and sometimes implied Shelley had committed suicide.

Trelawny reportedly retrieved Shelley's heart, which had not burned, from the pyre. He presented it to the widow, who was not at the funeral; women were kept away from cremations for their health. She's said to have kept it the rest of her life, wrapped in a copy of his poem Adonais (1821). As for the rest of his remains, his ashes were interred at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. His monument is inscribed with the words Cor Cordium — "heart of hearts" — and a few lines from Shakespeare's The Tempest: "Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange."

 From the last stanza of Adonais:
The breath whose might I have invoked in song
Descends on me; my spirit's bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the Tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!
I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.

This is the day the first issue of The Wall Street Journal hit the newsstands in 1889, at a price of two cents. Charles Dow, of Dow Jones and Company, founded it and at first it was really more of a newsletter than a newspaper. Until the Great Depression, the paper reported news of business and financial interest only, but then its editors began gradually adding more and more articles about things outside the economic world, and today readers are served celebrity profiles and arts reviews alongside their stock tables.

It's the birthday of novelist and poet Richard Aldington (1892) (books by this author). He was born Edward Godfree Aldington in Portsmouth, England, but he chose the name "Richard" for himself while he was still a boy. He married fellow poet Hilda Doolittle, known as H.D., in 1913. Ezra Pound, who had been involved with Doolittle, had introduced them; they were all interested in producing poetry that used vivid images, concise language, keen observation, and apt metaphor as a reaction against Romanticism. Pound coined the term "Imagism" to describe their style.

Aldington joined the army in 1916, and was wounded on the Western Front. He recovered physically, but never fully recovered mentally, and suffered from "shell shock" — what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. His marriage also suffered from the war, and he and Hilda separated, though they weren't divorced until 1938 and remained friends for the rest of their lives. He suffered a breakdown in 1925, and after that he lost interest in writing poetry. He took to writing novels instead, including Death of a Hero (1929). Aldington scholar and biographer Norman Gates called the book "one of the best novels about World War I and a savage satire of the society that [Aldington] felt was responsible for it." Aldington began writing biographies in the 1940s; his 1955 book on T.E. Lawrence was widely seen as a petty attack, and Aldington's reputation never recovered.

He wrote in Roads to Glory (1930), a collection of stories:
"We pass and leave you lying. No need for rhetoric, for funeral music, for melancholy bugle-calls. No need for tears now, no need for regret. We took our risk with you; you died and we live. We take your noble gift, salute for the last time those lines of pitiable crosses, those solitary mounds, those unknown graves, and turn to live our lives out as we may. Which of us were fortunate — who can tell? For you there is silence and cold twilight drooping in awful desolation over those motionless lands. For us sunlight and the sound of women's voices, song and hope and laughter, despair, gaiety, love — life. Lost terrible silent comrades, we, who might have died, salute you."

On this day in 1947, the Roswell Daily Record in New Mexico reported that a flying saucer had crashed near Roswell Army Air Field, New Mexico. On July 2, witnesses reported seeing a disc-shaped object flashing through the sky. The next morning, rancher Mac Brazel was moving sheep from one pasture to another when he came upon some strange debris — scraps of metal of varying sizes, very lightweight and very durable — scattered over a couple of hills. A few days later, the Army's public information officer issued a press release saying that they had recovered a crashed "flying disc." The Air Force contradicted the statement the following day with a statement of their own, claiming it was a weather balloon.

The incident was forgotten until 1978, when physicist and UFO researcher Stanton Friedman interviewed Major Jesse Marcel, who was involved in the original recovery. It was Marcel's opinion that the military had recovered an alien spacecraft, and the weather balloon story was just a cover-up. The National Enquirer tabloid took the story national in 1980, conducting its own interview with Marcel. Hundreds of witnesses — very few of them credible — began to come forward, claiming to have seen alien bodies, or heard about secretly conducted alien autopsies. By the time CNN and Time conducted a joint poll in 1997, most of the public believed that aliens had landed at Roswell and the government was covering it up. The most recent theory, put forth in Annie Jacobsen's 2011 book Area 51, claims that there were indeed bodies recovered at the crash, but that they were the bodies of deformed children, the products of a joint attempt by Joseph Stalin and Josef Mengele to produce a race of child-sized aviators.

It's the birthday of American columnist and novelist Anna Quindlen (books by this author), born in Philadelphia in 1952. She entered journalism as a copy girl for The New York Times at the age of 18; after she graduated from Barnard, she was hired by The New York Post, and later The New York Times, as a reporter. She became a columnist in 1981, and found her niche writing about political and women's issues from a highly personal viewpoint. She left the newspaper business in 1995 to become a full-time novelist, although she returned to periodicals in 1999 when she joined Newsweek to write a regular column, "My Turn."

She told Villanova's graduating Class of 2000: "Consider the lilies of the field. Look at the fuzz on a baby's ear. Read in the backyard with the sun on your face. Learn to be happy. And think of life as a terminal illness because if you do you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived."

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show