Jan. 3, 2014


by Mary Oliver

The text of this poem is no longer available.

"Mindful" by Mary Oliver from Why I Wake Early. © Beacon Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1841, the whaler Acushnet sailed from New Bedford, Massachusetts, with Herman Melville on board (books by this author). Melville had been born into an affluent family, but the family suffered a series of financial disasters. First, his father's business failed, and then his father caught an illness and died. His brother might have saved the family with his own business, but it was wiped out by a fire. So Melville was pulled out of school and forced to take a job.

He worked for a while at a bank, and then spent a few weeks as a merchant mariner, sailing to England and back. He tried to head out West to start a farm, but he didn't like farming. So he took off to the whaling port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, looking for a ship that would be willing to hire someone with almost no experience at sea. The ship he found was the newest of America's whaling fleet, a 359-ton ship with two decks and three masts, which would be heading to the Pacific Ocean.

At that time, whales were extremely valuable. Their teeth and bones were used to make buggy whips, umbrella ribs, skirt hoops, collars, and corsets. But they were probably most valuable for their oil. Until 1859, when petroleum was discovered in Pennsylvania, the oil from whale blubber was the most widely available fuel for artificial lights, powering household lamps, streetlights, and even lighthouses. It was also one of the most popular lubricants, used in factory machines, sewing machines, and clocks.

And whaling was one of the most dangerous and adventurous jobs a young man could get. By signing up on a whaling ship in 1841, Melville joined the last generation of men who hunted whales by hand, which involved drawing up close to the creature and stabbing it with harpoons. The sperm whale, which was the whale of choice, could weigh up to 60 tons and grow up to 60 feet long and swam at a speed of 20 knots. Whales had been known to kill numerous men and to destroy whole ships during a hunt.

Melville experienced his first whale hunt somewhere off the coast of Brazil in March of 1841. To catch the whale, four or five smaller whaleboats would be lowered into the water for the chase. When a hunter managed to sink a harpoon, the whale would take off, and the boat would be towed in its wake. Whalers called this the "Nantucket sleigh ride," and they held on for dear life as the whale swam frantically about. If the whalers were successful, they would tow the dead whale back to their boat and begin the laborious and extremely messy process of skinning it on deck.

Melville ultimately spent four years at sea, and he would spend much of the rest of his life writing about his experiences. He later said, "A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard."

It was on this day in 1882 that the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde docked in New York (books by this author). Customs asked him if he had anything to declare. Oscar Wilde replied, "Nothing but my genius."

Wilde had come to the United States for a lecture tour. He was part of a movement of literature and art known as Aestheticism, which valued beauty in art over moral or sentimental ideas. The lecture tour was set up for an unusual reason. The comic opera duo Gilbert and Sullivan wrote an operetta called Patience (1881), which poked fun at the Aesthetic movement. It was a big success in England and New York, but Gilbert and Sullivan's manager, Richard D'Oyly Carte, was concerned that the rest of the United States wouldn't know what Aestheticism was, and they wouldn't think Patience was funny. So in order to educate the general public about Aestheticism before trying to satirize it, he decided to arrange for a lecture tour from England's most prominent Aesthete personality, Oscar Wilde.

Wilde's lectures got a lot of criticism. Many people thought he was ridiculous. But he got to meet American personalities like Walt Whitman and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And his lecture tour did well in surprising places, like the rough mining town of Leadville, Colorado, where he was a hit. It was there in Leadville that he saw a sign at the local salon that said: "Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best." Oscar Wilde later said that it was "the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across."

It was on this day in 1521 that Pope Leo X excommunicated Martin Luther for condemning the Catholic Church in his 95 theses. Luther was a professor of biblical interpretation at the time in Germany, and he could find no text that permitted the Church to make money by selling indulgences for the forgiveness of sins. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V called him to defend himself later that year, but Luther was defiant and he was declared an outlaw and heretic.

It's the birthday of the Roman orator and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, born in 106 B.C. in Arpinum, Italy. He believed in the ideal of Rome as a republic at the time that a series of powerful leaders were making it into an empire. Cicero spoke out against those leaders, and he was executed. He believed that speaking well and speaking the truth were inseparable. Many of his rhetorical devices are still used by public speakers today.

It's the birthday of Father Damien, born Joseph de Veuster in Belgium (1840), the priest who served the leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Kalaupapa. At that time, victims were dumped off the boat in the shallows because the captains were terrified to go ashore. Doctors left medicine on the beach and fled. Damien, however, dressed the wounds of his patients himself, ate with them, and buried them when they died. Eventually, he developed the illness himself, and he died on the island, having roofed its buildings and made its hospital beds with his own hands. He said: "I would not be cured if the price of the cure was that I must leave the island and give up my work [...] I am perfectly resigned to my lot. Do not feel sorry for me."

It's the birthday of Danish poet and resistance fighter Morten Nielsen, born in Ålborg, Denmark (1922). Nielsen was a young man when the Germans occupied Denmark during World War Two, and like many of his generation, he felt he had no choice but to work for his country's liberation. He not only joined the Danish Resistance, his poetry became its guiding spirit. The Gestapo executed Nielsen for the anti-German content of his work in Copenhagen (1944). He was 22 years old.

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