Jan. 13, 2012

Polly Perkins

by Harry Clifton

I am a broken-hearted milkman, in grief I'm arrayed,
Through keeping of the company of a young servant maid,
Who lived on board and wages the house to keep clean
In a gentleman's family near Paddington Green.

            She was as beautiful as a butterfly
               And proud as a Queen
            Was pretty little Polly Perkins of
               Paddington Green.

She'd an ankle like an antelope and a step like a deer,
A voice like a blackbird, so mellow and clear,
Her hair hung in ringlets so beautiful and long,
I thought that she loved me but I found I was wrong.

When I'd rattle in the morning and cry 'milk below',
At the sound of my milk-cans her face she would show
With a smile upon her countenance and a laugh in her eye,
If I thought that she'd have loved me I'd have laid down to die.

When I asked her to marry me, she said 'Oh what stuff',
And told me to 'drop it, for she'd had quite enough
Of my nonsense'— at the same time I'd been very kind,
But to marry a milkman she didn't feel inclined.

'Oh, the man that has me must have silver and gold,
A chariot to ride in and be handsome and bold,
His hair must be curly as any watch-spring,
And his whiskers as big as a brush for clothing.'

The words that she uttered went straight through my heart,
I sobbed and I sighed, and I straight did depart;
With a tear on my eyelid as big as a bean,
Bidding good-bye to Polly and Paddington Green.

In six months she married,—this hard-hearted girl,—
But it was not a Wi-count, and it was not a Nearl,
It was not a 'Baronite', but a shade or two wuss,
It was a bow-legged conductor of a twopenny bus.

"Polly Perkins" by Harry Clifton. Public domain.

It's the birthday of Lorrie Moore (1957) (books by this author), born Marie Lorena Moore in Glens Falls, New York. She said of her childhood: "There was acting, and dressing up. We'd play music, and write crappy songs. We'd draw and paint, and fancy ourselves as artistic. It was part of being a girl in the '60s that you were creative." She won a short-story prize from Seventeen magazine when she was 19 years old, which prompted her to send them everything she'd ever written. She said, "They couldn't get rid of me. I was like a stalker. I sent them everything, and of course they didn't want anything more from me." It was only after she told her parents about her publication that she found out they had both wanted to be writers themselves. Her father went up into the attic and brought down stories that he'd once submitted to The New Yorker, and her mother admitted that she'd given up journalism for nursing.

She published her first book, a collection of stories that she'd written in graduate school at Cornell, when she was 28. That book was Self-Help (1985), a book Moore later said has "too many birds and moons, and space aliens, and struggling artists of every stripe, as well as much illness and divorce and other sad facts of family and romantic life." But the book was received well, and she was compared to everyone from Grace Paley to Woody Allen. She published two novels after Self-Help: Anagrams (1986) and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital (1994); as well as some short story collections, including Birds of America (1998).

Her most recent book is 2009's A Gate at the Stairs; it was her first book in 11 years, and her first novel in 15. She was busy in the intervening years, even if she wasn't writing. "I was teaching. I got divorced (in 2001). I was a single parent raising my kid alone. Look out in the world, find a woman who is teaching, is single, raising a kid and writing books and book reviews. When you find that person, I want to drink her blood."

Today is the birthday of Horatio Alger Jr. (books by this author) born in Chelsea, Massachusetts (1832). He was the oldest of five kids, and he was nearsighted and asthmatic. He was accepted to Harvard when he was 16, and he said, "No period of my life has been one of such unmixed happiness as the four years which have been spent within college walls." He studied under Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was named Class Poet, and wrote essays, poetry, and short sketches. After graduation, he didn't enjoy much publishing success, so he made his living by taking a series of temporary teaching jobs.

He moved to New York City, and began working with homeless and delinquent boys, establishing boarding houses and securing homes and public assistance for them. It was during this time that he started writing dime novels for boys. It was his book Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-Blacks (1868) that finally made him a literary success. Inspired by the street boys he worked with, he had found a formula that he would return to again and again: a young boy, living in poverty, manages to find success and happiness by working hard and never giving up. His books had a powerful influence on America's self-concept as a land of rags-to-riches success stories. If you worked hard, and lived virtuously, and had a combination of "pluck and luck," as Alger said, you could go from the gutter to the mansion.

His popularity waned near the end of the century, as boys' tastes changed. He tried to keep up by making his books more violent, but his income dried up, and he died in near-poverty in 1899. At his request, his sister Augusta burned all of his personal correspondence. Historians have only gradually been able to reconstruct the story of his life.

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