Feb. 22, 2014

Scheming in the Snow

by Jack Gilbert

There is a time after what comes after
being young, and a time after that, he thinks
happily as he walks through the winter woods,
hearing in the silence a woodpecker far off.
Remembering his Chinese friend
whose brother gave her a jade ring from
the Han Dynasty when she turned eighteen.
Two weeks later, when she was hurrying up
the steps of a Hong Kong bridge, she fell,
and the thousand-year-old ring shattered
on the concrete. When she told him, stunned
and tears running down her face, he said,
"Don't cry. I'll get you something better."

"Scheming in the Snow" by Jack Gilbert, from Collected Poems. © Knopf, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the first president of the United States, George Washington, born in Westmoreland County, Virginia (1732). He came from a prosperous family, but when he was young, his father died after a long inspection of his plantation in terrible weather. His mother gave up on plans to send her son to school in England, and instead he was educated by his half-brother Lawrence, 14 years older. Lawrence introduced George to his neighbor Lord Fairfax, one of the most powerful men in Virginia. George wasn't very educated, but he was strong, handsome, pleasant, and good at math. Fairfax offered Washington a job surveying land in the Shenandoah Valley. Washington was good at surveying, and he was happy to get away from his family, earn a decent income, and see some more of the country.

At the Fairfax estate, 16-year-old Washington met Sally Fairfax, the young wife of a member of the Fairfax clan. She was beautiful, charming, and well-educated. Sally took it on herself to teach the young man from the countryside how to behave in high society. She taught him about literature, world politics, history, and spelling, but also how to converse with wealthy politicians and dance the minuet. Washington fell in love with Sally. In the meantime, his half-brother Lawrence died and left George his estate of Mt. Vernon, next door to the Fairfaxes. Washington went off to fight in the French and Indian War, where he distinguished himself — he managed to survive despite having two horses shot out from under him and four bullets go through his coat. After the war, he returned home and was soon engaged to Martha Custis, the richest young widow in Williamsburg, who brought to the marriage $100,000 worth of land and two children. After his engagement, Washington wrote Sally Fairfax a letter and confessed his love for her: "'Tis true I profess myself a votary to love. [...] You have drawn me, my dear Madam, or rather have I drawn myself, into an honest confession of a Simple fact. Misconstrue not my meaning, 'tis obvious; doubt it not, nor expose it. The world has no business to know the object of my love, declared in this manner to you, when I want to conceal it. One thing, above all things, in this World I wish to know and only one person of your acquaintance can solve me that, or guess my meaning — but adieu to this till happier times, if ever I shall see them." Sally didn't acknowledge what Washington was saying, and after he and Martha settled at Mt. Vernon, the two women became friends.

The next few years were quiet ones for Washington. He retired from the military, had a seat in the lower Virginia legislature, and enjoyed life as a gentleman farmer. But resentment of the British was growing; the revolutionary excitement took awhile to reach the Southern colonies, but by the early 1770s, Washington was a strong supporter of American independence. In 1774, he was elected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. A year later, he arrived for the Second Continental Congress dressed in a military uniform, and was elected commander in chief of the Continental Army. In addition to his military experience and natural leadership style, he was a Virginian, and the New England revolutionaries knew they needed the strong support of the South. Washington spent the next six years leading an army of poorly trained, poorly equipped soldiers. Although he lost as many battles as he won, his use of guerrilla warfare and his strategic decisions about which battles to fight eventually wore down the British army. In 1783, America officially gained its independence, and Washington resigned his position as commander in chief. He was excited to retire back to Mt. Vernon. But the newly formed Congress wanted to make him president of the new United States, and after months of hesitation, he reluctantly accepted and was elected unanimously.

After serving two terms, Washington was exhausted by politics. He gave a farewell address urging Americans not to fall into the trap of partisanship, and to remain focused on American interests above foreign alliances. He finally retired to Mt. Vernon in 1797, where he oversaw his estate and started a whiskey distillery. In 1798, he wrote to Sally Fairfax, now living in England; her husband had died, she had not inherited the aristocratic title she was expecting, and her health was suffering. He wrote: "Such changes in men and things have taken place, as the compass of a letter would give you but an inadequate idea of. None of which events, however, nor all of them together, have been able to eradicate from my mind, the recollection of those happy moments, the happiest in my life, which I have enjoyed in your company." Washington died the following year; much like his father, he became sick after inspecting his plantation on horseback in snow and freezing rain. The whole country mourned — the Army wore black armbands for 30 days, more than 700 eulogies were given, towns staged mock funerals, and many regular Americans dressed in funeral attire.

It's the birthday of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (books by this author), born in Rockland, Maine (1892). She was raised by her mother, who supported the family by making wigs and working as a nurse. By the time she was 14, she was publishing poems in the children's magazine St. Nicholas. Her mother couldn't afford to send her to college, but when she was 19, she entered a poem called "Renascence" in a poetry contest hoping to win the large cash prize. Her poem didn't win first prize, but when she recited it at a public reading in Camden, Maine, a woman in the audience offered to pay for her to go to Vassar College, and Millay accepted.

At Vassar, she was the most notorious girl on campus, famous for both her poetry and her rebelliousness. Vassar's president, Henry Noble MacCracken, once wrote to her: "You couldn't break any rule that would make me vote for your expulsion. I don't want a banished Shelley on my doorstep." She wrote back, "Well, on those terms I think I can continue to live in this hellhole." She moved to Greenwich Village after college, and most of the men in the literary scene fell in love with her, including the critic Edmund Wilson, who proposed to her and never got over her rejection.

Millay wrote poems about bohemian parties and free love in her collection A Few Figs from Thistles (1920), and she became one of the icons of the Jazz Age. When she gave readings of her poetry, she drew huge crowds of adoring fans. She recited her poetry from memory, delivering the poems with her whole body. Many critics considered her the greatest poet of her generation. The poet Thomas Hardy famously said that America had produced only two great things: the skyscraper and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. She became the first woman poet to win the Pulitzer Prize, in 1923.

Millay wrote, "My candle burns at both ends; / It will not last the night; / But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends — / It gives a lovely light!"

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