Jun. 1, 2012

Blackberries for Amelia

by Richard Wilbur

Fringing the woods, the stone walls, and the lanes,
Old thickets everywhere have come alive,
Their new leaves reaching out in fans of five
From tangles overarched by this year's canes.

They have their flowers too, it being June,
And here or there in brambled dark-and-light
Are small, five-petaled blooms of chalky white,
As random-clustered and as loosely strewn

As the far stars, of which we now are told
That ever faster do they bolt away,
And that a night may come in which, some say,
We shall have only blackness to behold.

I have no time for any change so great,
But I shall see the August weather spur
Berries to ripen where the flowers were—
Dark berries, savage-sweet and worth the wait—

And there will come the moment to be quick
And save some from the birds, and I shall need
Two pails, old clothes in which to stain and bleed,
And a grandchild to talk with while we pick.

"Blackberries for Amelia" by Richard Wilbur, from Collected Poems. © Harcourt, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the day we celebrate the birth of Dante (books by this author), born in Florence, Italy, in 1265. No one knows for sure the exact date. What is known about the poet is that he met his great love and muse, Beatrice, when he was about nine years old; it was love at first sight. Three years later, he was promised in marriage to another girl, but that didn't stop him from writing about Beatrice in his poetry, where he referred to her as his main reason for living.

Dante had political aspirations, and because the law held that public officials had to be a member of one of the professional guilds, he became a pharmacist. He had wanted the Vatican to have less influence over Florence — but opposing forces came to power, and he was exiled to Rome. With his fortunes left behind and his great love Beatrice now dead, Dante had nothing but time to devote to his poetry; it was then, toward the end of his life, that he began work on his Divine Comedy.

Dante chose to write the poem in colloquial Italian rather that Latin, which had been the language for Western literature for more than a thousand years. It was also the first epic poem in Western literary history in which the author served as the main character.

He was 55 when he died of malaria, shortly after completing Paradiso, the third and final part of Divine Comedy, following the Inferno and Purgatorio. In the years after his death, as the influence of his work helped establish Italian as the world's accepted language of great literature, his hometown of Florence came to regret having banished Dante, and requested that his remains be transferred back for burial, but it wasn't until 2008 that the city officially rescinded his sentence of perpetual exile.

It's the birthday of poet who wrote the lines, "I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, / And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by", in his poem "Sea Fever": John Masefield (books by this author), born in Ledbury, England (1878). An orphan, Masefield was sent to live with an aunt, who soon sent him off on a naval training school ship, convinced it would break his bad habit of reading all the time. In fact, Masefield had lots of spare time aboard the ship, and read more than ever. Within four years, determined to be a writer, he deserted ship in New York City. He got work in a carpet factory and saved enough money to return to England, where he married and began publishing.

Masefield was chosen as the U.K.'s poet laureate in 1930 — a post he kept for 37 years, second in duration only to Tennyson.

It's the birthday of British linguist, translator, and editor C.K. Ogden (books by this author), born in Fleetwood, England (1889). He founded The Cambridge Magazine as an undergraduate, and co-founded the Heretics Society, an organization dedicated to questioning authority and religious dogma; both the magazine and the society went on to become much bigger than a college kid's pastimes. The Magazine, which Ogden continued to edit for more than a decade, published writers like George Bernard Shaw, John Masefield, and Thomas Hardy, and the Society sponsored a forum that hosted speakers like Virginia Woolf and G.K. Chesterton.

Ogden also began translating books from French and German into English, work that took on increasing importance for him through the First World War.

After co-writing The Meaning of Meaning, a work that examined the influence of language on thought, the remainder of Ogden's career was focused on the creation and advocacy of "Basic English." Also known as Simple English, Basic is a simplified version of English that Ogden believed could become a universal language; there was a vocabulary of 850 words, only 18 of which were verbs or, as Ogden called them, "operators." Basic English was the solution to the problem of miscommunication and misunderstanding, Ogden believed, and could achieve world peace. Although it gained some popularity after H.G. Wells and George Orwell both wrote in its favor, Orwell changed his mind about it, and used it in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four as the model for "Newspeak," the state-sanctioned language that has no words to express original thought.

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