Sep. 28, 2011

Reverie and Invocation

by William Carlos Williams

Whether the rain comes down
or there be sunny days
the sleets of January or the haze
of autumn afternoons, when
we dream of our youth our gaze
grows mellow, wise man or fool,
we were young, the future
beckoned us.

Now we grow old and grey
and all we knew is forgotten
there comes alive in
the ash of today, memory! a god
who revives us! the apple trees
we climbed as a boy
the caress on our necks of
a summer breeze.

Come back and give us
those days when passion drove us
to break every rule.
We weren't bad, but good!
May our preachers find us
the courage still to sin so
and win so! and win so!
a life everlasting.

"Reverie and Invocation" by William Carlos Williams, from Collected Poems. © New Directions, 1962. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of scrivener and alchemist Nicholas Flamel, who was born on the outskirts of Paris in the year 1300 to a poor but respectable family. He was given a good education, and when he was an adult set up shop in the Rue de Marivaux, copying texts, writing letters, selling manuscripts, and apparently sometimes writing his own original poetry. His business grew, and by about 1360, he was able to consider taking a wife. He married an intelligent and attractive widow named Perenelle, a woman reputed to have been a serious scientist and alchemist in her own right.

There is nothing legendary or particularly exceptional about the early life of Nicholas Flamel; the official documents relating to his life — his marriage contract, the deeds of gifts he gave, his will — are still on record on the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and describe a rather ordinary existence, but a grand and epic legend has been added to the historical record so that it now supersedes any of the more normal facts of his life.

Flamel is said to have come into possession of curious book, which he bought for two florins from a stranger who'd come to his bookstall in need of money and with a manuscript to sell. The book was bound in worked copper, engraved with curious symbols and characters, its 21 leaves made of the bark of young trees and inscribed with a sharp metal point, and even a seventh leaf illuminated with the picture of a serpent, or serpents: swallowing swords, crucified on a cross, and trailing from a bubbling fountain in the middle of a treeless desert. This was the Book of Abraham the Jew, and it contained a complete exposition on the art of transmuting base metal to gold, using the legendary philosopher's stone, and the means by which one could distill from the stone the Elixir of Life and extend human life indefinitely.

The historical record does show the humble booksellers became rich rather quickly in their middle years and, because they had no children, became benefactors to the poor, establishing low-income housing, free hospitals, and endowing Catholic churches to do good works. The Flamels lived the quiet lives of scholars, apparently passing their time studying alchemy and writing texts on the subject. When they reached their 80s they died, first Perenelle and then Nicholas a few years later, and were buried in the Cemetery of the Innocents under a tombstone Nicholas had designed for them, that he'd inscribed with curious figures and a sun above a key and a closed book. Soon after Nicholas's death, the Flamel tomb was broken into, presumably by thieves hoping to find the philosopher's stone, and was found to be empty — devoid of gold and the precious Abraham book, and also free of the bodies of the Flamels.

Of course, this was proof to students of the Flamels' work that Nicholas and Perenelle had indeed distilled the Elixir of Life and had staged their own deaths in order to begin the next, much longer portion of their lives. Three hundred years later, an 18th-century archaeologist artifact-hunting for Louis XIV in Turkey met a kind of philosopher who seemed able to speak almost every known language and who knew detailed histories of the Flamels, who told the archaeologist that Nicholas and Perenelle were in fact still alive, having arranged their sham funerals to slip away from France to India, to seek adepts and mystics with abilities beyond the scope of science. From time to time since, there have been claims that the Flamels have been seen or met or heard of, still alive, and still at their studies.

A new generation has been introduced to Nicholas and Perenelle Flamel, who were close friends of Albus Dumbledore, wizard and headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where Harry Potter and his friends attended school. In the first book of the series, The Sorcerer's Stone, the Flamels were in their upper 600s, living in Devon and kept immortal by regular infusions of the Elixir of Life, but were forced to destroy their philosopher's stone to keep it from the clutches of the dark wizard Voldemort and so, finally, passed away.

Today is also the feast day for Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, best known from the Christmas carol that bears his name, "Good King Wenceslaus," who was born in Bohemia in the year 907.

Wenceslaus's father had been raised in a Christian household; his mother, Dragomir, was from a clan of pagan Slavs, but had been baptized at the time of her marriage. When Wenceslaus was 13, his father died. Wenceslaus inherited his place as Duke of Bohemia, and Wenceslaus's grandmother, Ludmilla, who would become a saint herself, and Dragomir fought for control of the boy. By some accounts, Dragomir had Ludmilla killed and then, once again in charge of Wenceslaus and therefore in control of the duchy as his regent, set about trying to convert him and the public to her old, pagan religion.

At 18, Wenceslaus fully took his place as Duke of Bohemia and had his mother exiled. He held his seat for just 10 years, until his younger brother plotted his end and hired three friends to murder Wenceslaus on his way to church.

Wenceslaus was said to have had a kindly, giving nature, and those aspects of his personality are memorialized in the story of his carol, when the good king wanders out into a freezing winter night, bringing gifts of food and warmth and wine to those with none, pressing into the snow footprints that radiated back the heat of his goodness. Wenceslaus is the patron saint of the Czech Republic and the brewers of beer, and it is said that he and an army of his knights sleep under the mountain Blaník, waiting to rise in the darkest of times, to save the Czech people from ruin.

Award-winning English author Edith Pargeter (books by this author) was born on this day in 1913. She was the youngest of three children, and though there was no particular literary streak in the rest of her family, Pargeter would later write that she thought her mother had probably been a writer lost for want of opportunity. The Pargeters lived in the countryside set between the broad, green Welsh Marches and the Shropshire coalfields, a landscape that turned Edith's imagination first to the past and then to reflecting on the people around her, and she decided that telling their stories would become her life.

Pargeter was educated at the local school and began writing as soon as she learned how. When she graduated high school, she worked at "whatever came handiest," including a position as a dispenser in a pharmacist's shop, and began publishing short stories and novels, including the mysteries Murder in the Dispensary and The Victim Needs a Nurse, for which she called upon her professional knowledge of medicine, chemicals, and poisons.

In World War II, Pargeter joined the Women's Royal Naval Service because, as she would later say, "Nothing then seemed doing that was not directly connected to the war against Nazism," and was awarded the British Empire Medal for meritorious service. When she was demobilized at the end of the war, Pargeter was finally able to concentrate full time on her writing and with her great ability to make historical contexts real and to use research and gather information from real-life experiences, she published her "Eighth Champion of Christendom" trilogy, an account of the war from the vantage point of a young British infantryman. Critics were baffled by how such a young woman could so skillfully describe in such detail the gritty realism of modern warfare across far-flung theaters.

Pargeter never attended college, but was a self-taught polymath and a self-scholar in any area that interested her, from Welsh history to music; when she developed a long-abiding passion for the Czech culture, following a visit to that country, she began teaching herself the language with a set of 78 rpm "Teach Yourself" records, and was eventually so fluent that she became an important translator of Czech poetry and literary classics. Whatever she wrote, no matter the genre, she did it with absolute conviction.

All told, Edith Pargeter produced approximately 90 books, but it was in later life that she created the character for whom she is best remembered: Brother Cadfael, a 12th-century Welsh knight-errant turned Benedictine monk and herbalist, who applies his keen mind to solving murders and mysteries in 20 historically accurate novels published under the pseudonym Ellis Peters. Pargeter chose a pseudonym for publishing these books to distinguish her mysteries from her other work, pulling together her brother's name — Ellis — and the name of a friend in Czechoslovakia — Petra — to create her fictional persona. The first Cadfael book was published when Pargeter was 63 — an age when many people are beginning to think of their retirement — and the last in 1994, the year before her death, for more than twenty successful books in just eighteen years. The Independent, in their obituary of her, praised Edith Pargeter for having popularized the historical mystery, which has become one of the most enthralling subgenres of detective fiction, and for consequently giving encouragement to so many other writers to try the same.

Today is the birthday of English plumber Thomas Crapper, born in Yorkshire in 1836 and who, contrary to popular belief, did not invent the flush toilet, which had existed for centuries before his birth.

Crapper apprenticed as a plumber when he was a boy and as an adult started his own business, Thomas Crapper & Co. Ltd. He patented nine different innovative plumbing mechanisms, including the floating ball cock, which itself could have leant the English language a number of mildly offensive expletives, but instead it is his serendipitous or unfortunate last name, depending on how you look at it, for which we remember him best.

The name Crapper in fact has nothing to do with the familiar pejorative. Crapper is variation of the name Cropper, an occupational surname apparently related to agriculture. Crappe, according to Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary and numerous etymological sources, was one of a handful of words applied to discarded thing — the weeds growing among corn, the dregs at the bottom of a glass of beer, the waste products of rendering fat. In the 18th century, it was also the underworld slang for "money," but all these uses most likely derive from the much older Medieval Latin word crapinum, "chaff."

As historically amusing as it would be for Thomas Crapper to be the father of the flush toilet, he is not. That, however, has not stopped people from making childish jokes about his name, nor has it stopped the Westminster Abbey manhole covers that bear his name from being a minor tourist attraction.

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