May 21, 2012

Excerpt from "An Essay on Man"

by Alexander Pope

ALL are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul;
That, changed through all, and yet in all the same,
Great in the earth, as in th' ethereal frame,
Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees,
Lives through all life, extends through all extent,
Spreads undivided, operates unspent:
Breathes in our soul, informs our mortal part;
As full, as perfect, in a hair as heart;
As full, as perfect, in vile man that mourns
As the rapt Seraphim, that sings and burns:
To him no high, no low, no great, no small—
He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all....
All nature is but art, unknown to thee:
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see:
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good.

Excerpt from "An Essay on Man" by Alexander Pope. Public domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Alexander Pope (books by this author), born in London (1688). Shortly after Pope was born, the country erupted into anti-Catholic sentiment, so his family left London for the countryside, where they felt they would be safer. As a Catholic, Pope was not allowed to attend public school. His aunt taught him to read, and a priest taught him Latin and Greek. He was eight years old when he first fell in love with the works of Homer. He told a friend: "In a few years I had dipped into a great number of the English, French, Italian, Latin, and Greek poets. This I did without any design but that of pleasing myself [...] I followed everywhere as my fancy led me, and it was like a boy gathering flowers in the woods and the fields just as they fall in his way. These five or six years I still look upon as the happiest part of my life."

When Pope was 12 years old, he developed tuberculosis, which affected his bones and stunted his growth. He was hunchbacked, and he never grew above 4'6". Since Pope published satires, he made plenty of enemies, and they often mocked his appearance as much as his ideas.

The criticism didn't stop Pope, who went on to write many satirical poems, including The Rape of the Lock (1712), a mock epic about the theft of a noblewoman's lock of hair. Although not many of his poems are read today, Pope is one of the most quoted writers in the English language.

He said, "To err is human; to forgive, divine."

And, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."

And, "Be not the first by whom the new are tried, Nor yet the last to lay the old aside."

It's the birthday of poet Robert Creeley (books by this author), born in Arlington, Massachusetts (1926). He was two years old, riding in the car with his father, when a piece of coal hit the car and shattered the windshield. A piece of glass entered Robert's eye, which had to be removed. His father died two years later, and his mother moved the family to a farm in rural Massachusetts. He said: "Growing up with five women in the house [...] I didn't have a clue as to what men did, except literally I was a man. It's like growing up in a forest attended by wolves or something [...] So that for me to get to be a man was extremely awkward at times."

Creeley got a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school, where he was suddenly surrounded by boys his age. He loved the school and the social life, and he decided to become a writer. He went on to Harvard, but was unhappy there. So he joined the American Field Service as an ambulance driver in India and Burma, which he thought would be "a great adventure."

When he came back, he dropped out of Harvard for good and married his girlfriend. He still wanted to write, but spent most of the next few years drinking too much and getting in fights. After the birth of his son, Creeley realized that he needed a change of scene, so the young family moved to a chicken farm in New Hampshire. He said, "I learned more about poetry as an actual activity from raising chickens than I did from any professor." He started writing more seriously, and he corresponded with other poets, including Charles Olson. Olson went on to teach at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina and served as the ringleader of the group of poets who formed there, including Creeley himself. Creeley said: "Olson, I believe, was a decisive influence upon me as a writer, because he taught me how to write. Not how to write poems that he wrote, but how to write poems that I write. This is a very curious and specific difference."

In 1952, Creeley published his first book of poems, Le Fou, followed by more than 60 books before his death in 2005.

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