Sep. 2, 2012

The Night Piece

by Thom Gunn

The fog drifts slowly down the hill
And as I mount gets thicker still,
Closes me in, makes me its own
Like bedclothes on the paving stone.

Here are the last few streets to climb,
Galleries, run through veins of time,
Almost familiar, where I creep
Toward sleep like fog, through fog like sleep.

"The Night Piece" by Thom Gunn, from Collected Poems. © Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1901 that Theodore Roosevelt uttered his famous words "Speak softly and carry a big stick." He was vice president at the time and was giving a speech at the Minnesota State Fair. He continued: "If the American nation will speak softly and yet continue to build and keep at a pitch of the highest training a thoroughly efficient Navy, the Monroe Doctrine will go far."

This Monroe Doctrine that he was talking about was a policy dating back to 1823, from a speech that President Monroe delivered at one of his State of the Union addresses. At the time, a lot of colonies in Latin America were struggling for independence from Spain, and the U.S. was worried that other European powers might step in and take over these fledgling republics, claiming them their own colonies instead.

So President Monroe said that if any European nations tried to newly colonize any Latin American lands, the United States would consider this a sign of aggression and would intervene to fight off these would-be European colonizers.

Monroe likely meant for this policy to deal with immediate problems of protecting newly independent lands, but the words he said took on a life of their own. Teddy Roosevelt bolstered and expanded the idea of America policing the Western Hemisphere with his Big Stick diplomacy, which he described as "the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis." He passed it off as a corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.

The Monroe Doctrine and its spinoffs have served as a central part of America's foreign policy since then, invoked by many presidents. In the intervening years, it's been the precedent for U.S. intervention in Latin American countries like Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Cuba.

Less than two weeks after Vice President Teddy Roosevelt uttered these famous words at the Minnesota State Fair, President William McKinley was assassinated, and Teddy Roosevelt found himself the youngest person ever to serve as president of the United States. His Big Stick diplomacy, as it came to be known, served as the centerpiece of America's foreign policy under his administration.

On another occasion, he said, "If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble, and neither will speaking softly avail, if back of the softness there does not lie strength, power."

It's the birthday of the founder of Cirque du Soleil: Guy Laliberté, born in Quebec City (1959), Canada. His résumé lists skills like accordion playing, stilt walking, and fire eating. He formed an acrobatic troupe out of a band of street buskers in 1984, with the support of a grant from the provincial government of Quebec; it was originally set up as a one-year project but the government asked him to take it on tour. There are now 21 different Cirque du Soleil shows.

Forbes estimates Laliberté's net worth at $2.5 billion.

The Great Fire of London started on this date in 1666. The fire broke out near London Bridge, at the house of Thomas Farynor, the king's baker. One of his workers awoke at two in the morning to the smell of smoke, and the family fled over the rooftops. The blaze spread rapidly, helped by strong winds and drought conditions. Samuel Pepys, who lived nearby, took matters into his own hands and went to Whitehall to inform King Charles II of the situation. Pepys then went home to evacuate his own household and join the throngs of escaping Londoners choking the streets and the River Thames. He reported digging a hole to bury "[his] Parmazan cheese as well as [his] wine and some other things," and contemplated ways to slow or stop the blaze. "Blowing up houses ... stopped the fire when it was done, bringing down the houses in the same places they stood, and then it was easy to quench what little fire was in it."

It was the worst fire in London's history. It burned for four days and destroyed 80 percent of the city: most civic buildings, more than 13,000 homes, and nearly 90 churches, including St. Paul's Cathedral, whose lead roof melted and flowed away down Ludgate Hill. A catastrophic fire of this sort was inevitable, really; the buildings were made of timber and pitch, and the lanes were narrow and crowded; overhanging upper stories nearly touched their counterparts across the way. Remarkably, there were only four reported casualties, although the death toll was probably much higher. There was one positive outcome from the fire, though: It may have halted the progress of the plague, which had been ravaging the city for the past few years. The rats and their disease-carrying fleas perished in large numbers.

Within days of the fire, architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, and diarist John Evelyn, had all submitted plans for the rebuilding of the city; all of them called for making the streets more regular. In the end, almost all the original layout of the city was preserved, although the streets were widened. Wren was given the task of rebuilding 50 of the churches, including St. Paul's Cathedral, which remains one of his masterpieces.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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