Aug. 6, 2011

The Round

by Stanley Kunitz

Light splashed this morning
on the shell-pink anemones
swaying on their tall stems;
down blue-spiked veronica
light flowed in rivulets
over the humps of the honeybees;
this morning I saw light kiss
the silk of the roses
in their second flowering,
my late bloomers
flushed with their brandy.
A curious gladness shook me.
So I have shut the doors of my house,
so I have trudged downstairs to my cell,
so I am sitting in semi-dark
hunched over my desk
with nothing for a view
to tempt me
but a bloated compost heap,
steamy old stinkpile,
under my window;
and I pick my notebook up
and I start to read aloud
and still-wet words I scribbled
on the blotted page:
"Light splashed..."

I can scarcely wait till tomorrow
when a new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.

"The Round" by Stanley Kunitz, from The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz. © W.W. Norton, 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1786, Scotland's beloved poet and bard Robert Burns (books by this author), best remembered for romantic classics like "Auld Lang Syne" and "A Red, Red Rose," stood before his church a third and final time as public penance for "antenuptial fornication" with Jean Armour.

Pregnant with fraternal twins she would name after herself and Robert, Armour had been hustled off to stay with relatives in another town when her parents learned of her condition earlier that spring. Her father, hoping there was still time to snag a suitor with better prospects than the penniless Burns, destroyed a document the poet had given Armour promising marriage. But it was all for naught when the local church caught wind of the scandal. Armour officially acknowledged her pregnancy and named Burns as the father.

Whether or not Armour was coerced, Burns declared all this a "desertion" on her part, and stood before the church the required three times to receive a certificate declaring him a single man. Burns may have had motives beyond feeling jilted; letters he sent friends that summer suggested he'd already found a new paramour and may have impregnated her too. In any case, there was at least one other illegitimate child to provide for: "Dear bought Bess," as Burns called her, a daughter born to a servant girl shortly before he'd taken up with Jean Armour. When the publication of his first book seemed likely, Burns, fearing the Armours would make a claim on his future earnings, turned his estate over to his brother to ensure Bess would be taken care of.

Burns left for Edinburgh and found success — with both poetry and women — in the months that followed the birth of the twins. He returned to town less than a year from the day he'd been declared a single man, and Jean Armour's parents, impressed by his new wealth, received him with open arms. So did their daughter Jean, and she became pregnant with a second set of twins.

Eventually — despite claims that he would never again extend her the offer, despite calling her "ungrateful" and "foolish," despite comparing her to a "farthing taper" next to the "meridian sun" of another woman he was busy wooing — Burns married Jean Armour. She bore his philandering with patience and apparent good cheer, just as she continued to bear him children — the ninth was born on the day of Robert Burns' funeral in 1796. "Our Robbie should have had twa [two] wives," she is said to have exclaimed upon taking in one of his illegitimate daughters to raise.

For all his affairs, Burns was also dealt with rather leniently by the church, which had the custom of making men in his circumstances sit on a "creepie-chair," or a low stool reserved for public humiliation. When Burns reported for penance on this day 225 years ago, he was allowed to stand in his usual pew.

Anne Hathaway, the wife of William Shakespeare (books by this author), died on this day in 1623, at the age of 67. Not much is known about Hathaway aside from mentions in legal documents, but we do know she was 26 and pregnant with an 18-year-old Shakespeare's child when they married. She gave birth to their daughter six months after the wedding, and fraternal twins two years after that.

Shakespeare spent much of his remaining life apart from Hathaway, living in London and touring the country while she stayed behind in Stratford-upon-Avon. His will left most of his estate to their eldest daughter, with instructions that it be passed on to her first-born son. To Hathaway, he bequeathed only "my second-best bed." Scholars argue over the significance and meaning of this legacy; some say it's an obvious snub, but others suggest it was a final romantic gesture, referring to their marital bed. Whatever the case, Hathaway was buried in a plot next to her husband seven years later.

There is also no agreement on whether Shakespeare's sonnet 145 was in fact written by him, but the final couplet suggests it may have been one of his first poems, written about his wife. These lines contain possible puns — a Shakespearian favorite — that could identify the subject as his wife: "hate away" for "Hathaway" and "And saved my life" for "Anne saved my life."

Those lips that Love's own hand did make
Breathed forth the sound that said 'I hate'
To me that languish'd for her sake;
But when she saw my woeful state
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet:
'I hate' she alter'd with an end,
That follow'd it as gentle day
Doth follow night, who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away;
'I hate' from hate away she threw,
And saved my life, saying 'not you.'

Jane Austen (books by this author) finished writing Persuasion on this day in 1816, the sixth and final novel she completed in her lifetime. It was published posthumously, after Austen died of a mysterious illness a year later. She was 41 and had never married. She received one proposal, which she accepted — and then declined within a day.

Austen, whose books revolve around the subject of marriage, once advised her niece about a suitor: "Having written so much on one side of the question, I shall now turn around & entreat you not to commit yourself farther, and not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection."

Today in 1781, South Carolina delegate John Rutledge presented a first draft of the United States Constitution to the Constitutional Convention. Written by five committee members over 10 days on 60 proof sheets, the draft compiled all the issues from the Convention's six weeks of debates and inspired nearly six weeks of additional deliberation.

The final draft, signed in mid-September, retained the first three words of this first draft, the famous, "We the people ...." The version that was ratified said, of course, "We the people of the United States ...." The original, however, was a little less succinct: "We the people of the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia ...."

The Battle of Junín was waged today in 1824, a military engagement in Latin America's struggle for independence from the Spanish empire. The clash was brief and fought entirely with swords and sabers, but it was a decisive victory for Simon Bolivar's revolutionary troops, in part because of one Argentine colonel. Manuel Isidoro Suárez led a surprise attack on the royalists from behind, becoming a national celebrity in the process.

But today, Suárez is known as more than a war hero and the namesake of a town in Argentina: He is also the maternal great-grandfather of the short-story writer, essayist, and poet Jorge Luis Borges. Borges, one of the most important and influential writers in the Spanish language, composed three poems about his ancestor: "Sepulchral Inscription," "Colonel Suárez," and "A Page to Commemorate Colonel Suárez, Victor at Junín." The final stanza of the latter poem ("A Page to Commemorate ...") reads:
      His great-grandson is writing these lines
      and a silent voice comes to him out of the past,
      out of the blood:

      "What does my battle at Junín matter if it is only
      a glorious memory, or a date learned by rote
      for an examination, or a place in the atlas?
      The battle is everlasting and can do without
      the pomp of actual armies and of trumpets.
      Junín is two civilians cursing a tyrant
      on a street corner,
      or an unknown man somewhere, dying in prison."

It was 20 years ago today that British physicist Tim Berners-Lee posted a description of a project he called the "World Wide Web" to an online newsgroup, effectively revolutionizing modern life. Working for CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, Berners-Lee invented his service to allow scientists to easily share and access information via the Internet. Although the infrastructure of the "Net" had been growing for years, it was until then a highly technical system known mostly to academics and scientists like Berners-Lee. The World Wide Web, as Berners-Lee conceived it, would use the Net to connect documents with clickable links — or hypertext — and make them searchable.

Under the encouraging headline "Try it," Berners-Lee's post included information on accessing the first Web server and a Web browser prototype, and gave the address — or "coordinates," as he called it then — of an example website he'd created. This Web page — the world's very first — further explained the project he'd nicknamed "W3," explaining how to search the Web and how to build your own page. Academia began using the service first, then industry. In early 1993, Mosaic was released, the first Web-browsing software for PCs and Apple Macintosh computers. Anyone with an Internet connection could now surf — and help create — the Web.

Berners-Lee had written in that first post: "The project started with the philosophy that much academic information should be freely available to anyone." Today the word "much" seems quite an understatement, and "academic" almost laughable. But it is astonishing to be reminded that so much of what's on the Web is "freely available" because Berners-Lee created the Web for free. For his donation, he was named by Time magazine as one of the top 20 thinkers of the 20th century, and was awarded a knighthood in 2004.

Berners-Lee said: "The dream behind the Web is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished."

It's the birthday of Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (books by this author), born in Lincolnshire, England (1809). Tennyson showed early promise as a poet, writing a 6,000-line epic when he was only 12 and publishing a book of poetry with his brother when he was only 17. After being forced to leave Cambridge because of his father's death, after receiving some particularly negative reviews, and after the death of his best friend, Tennyson fell into a period of depression. "I suffered what seemed to me to shatter all my life so that I desired to die rather than to live," he said of that time, during which he refused to publish anything for ten years. When he finally put out his next book, titled simply Poems, it established his career immediately and brilliantly. He went on to succeed William Wordsworth as Britain's poet laureate, and Queen Victoria conferred on him the title of baron, arguably making him the first poet ever to sit in the House of Lords based solely on the merit of his verse. In fact, his fame at the time was probably only eclipsed by that of the prime minister and the queen herself.

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