Sep. 12, 2012

The Swan

by Mary Oliver

The text of this poem is no longer available.

"The Swan" by Mary Oliver, from Winter Hours. © Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Cave paintings were discovered in Lascaux, France, on this date in 1940. Four French teenagers and their dog, Robot, stumbled upon the caves while they were out exploring one day. The main cave is approximately 66 feet wide and 16 feet high, and is connected to a number of smaller chambers. Assigning a precise date to the art on the cave walls has been difficult. Scientists used carbon dating to estimate the age of some charcoal found in the caves, and according to that method, the drawings are about 17,000 years old.

There are about 2,000 drawings and engravings, mostly of animals: horses, bison, red deer, stags, cats, and aurochs — large, black cattle-like animals that are now extinct. There are also human figures, various geometric shapes, and the outlines of human hands — possibly the signatures of the artists. The chambers have been given dramatic names, like the Great Hall of the Bulls, the Chamber of Felines, and the Shaft of the Dead Man. There also appears to be an Ice Age star chart: clusters of stars that resemble known constellations like Taurus the Bull, the Summer Triangle, and the Pleiades.

Today is the birthday of French scientist Irène Joliot-Curie, born in Paris (1897). She was the daughter of Pierre and Marie Curie. She was homeschooled as part of an educational experiment run by her parents and their friends. Called "The Cooperative," the adults — all experts in their respective fields — took turns teaching one another's children. She then studied at the Sorbonne, but World War I interrupted her university career, so she helped her mother operate mobile X-ray units in field hospitals instead.

She began assisting her mother in the lab at the Institute of Radium at the University of Paris when she was 21. That's where she met a young chemical engineer named Frédéric Joliot; they were married in 1926, and in 1935, the husband and wife team won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, for artificially creating radioactive elements. Unfortunately, like her mother, Joliot-Curie developed leukemia as a result of her close work with radioactive substances; she died in 1956, at the age of 58.

Physicist James Chadwick wrote of her: "She knew her mind and spoke it, sometimes perhaps with devastating frankness; but her remarks were informed with such regard for scientific truth and with such conspicuous sincerity that they commanded the greatest respect in all circumstances."

Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning eloped on this date in 1846. They had been courting in secret for a year and a half, through the mail, unbeknownst to her father. It had begun when Browning (books by this author) wrote Barrett (books by this author) a gushing fan letter, saying, "I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett ... and I love you too." She wrote a long letter in return, thanking him and asking him for ways she might improve her writing. Barrett was an invalid, and was reliant on morphine, and it was some months before Browning convinced her to meet face to face. Barrett's father didn't like Browning, and viewed him as a fortune hunter.

On the day of the wedding, Browning posted another letter to Barrett, which read, "Words can never tell you, however, — form them, transform them anyway, — how perfectly dear you are to me — perfectly dear to my heart and soul. I look back, and in every one point, every word and gesture, every letter, every silence — you have been entirely perfect to me — I would not change one word, one look." They were married at St. Marylebone Parish Church, and Barrett returned to her father's house, where she stayed for one more week before she ran off to Italy with Browning. She never saw her father again. After the wedding, she presented Browning with a collection of poems she'd written during their courtship. It was published in 1850 as Sonnets from the Portuguese.

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