Apr. 15, 2014

Spring Song

by Edith Wharton

"O primavera! Gioventit dell' anno."

The first warm buds that break their covers,
  The first young twigs that burst in green,
The first blade that the sun discovers,
  Starting the loosened earth between.

The pale soft sky, so clear and tender,
  With little clouds that break and fly;
The crocus, earliest pretender
  To the low breezes passing by;

The chirp and twitter of brown builders,
  A couple in a tree, at least;
The watchful wisdom of the elders
  For callow younglings in the nest;

The flush of branches with fair blossoms,
  The deepening of the faint green boughs,
As leaf by leaf the crown grows fuller
  That binds the young Spring's rosy brows;

New promise every day of sweetness,
  The next bright dawn is sure to bring;
Slow breaking into green completeness,
  Fresh rapture of the early Spring!

"Spring Song" by Edith Wharton from Selected Poems. © Estate of Edith Wharton & Watkins Loomis Agency, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Henry James (books by this author), author of 20 novels, 112 stories, 12 plays, and several books of travel and criticism, born in New York City (1843). His father was a friend of Thoreau, Emerson, and Hawthorne, and the family traveled throughout Europe. When James was in his 20s and writing short stories, he moved to Europe because he could live cheaply there and felt at home as an outsider. Then he fell in love with England. He wrote, "The capital of the human race happens to be British." James wrote the majority of his famous novels — like The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and The Wings of the Dove (1902) — and his famous stories — like "The Turn of the Screw" (1898) — either in London or an old house in Sussex, near the ocean.

Although James was the toast of London's literary society for much of his career, he really wished to be a dramatist. But one of his plays was poorly received and James himself was booed on opening night and that discouraged him.

James never managed to make much money or wide acclaim from his writing. It didn't bother him, but it did his friend Edith Wharton. Toward the end of James' life, she lobbied for him to win the Nobel Prize, to no avail, and was in the midst of taking up a collection from his New York friends, intending to send him a 70th birthday present of cash, when he discovered her plot and intervened. But he never knew that one of his final book advances, for a novel that was still incomplete when he died, came from Wharton's own coffers. She'd proposed the scheme to his publisher, Charles Scribner, who wrote James out of the blue with the offer of $8,000 for a new book, a sum far greater than James' previous advances. James accepted, none the wiser. Scribner felt uncomfortable about it: "I feel rather mean and caddish and must continue so to the end of my days," he wrote to Wharton. "Please never give me away." She didn't; their secret was only discovered years later in Scribner's and Wharton's archives.

It was on this day in 1802 that William Wordsworth (books by this author) and his sister, Dorothy (books by this author), happened upon a profusion of daffodils along the banks of the nine-mile-long Ullswater Lake. Dorothy wrote down a detailed description of the daffodils that helped inspire Wordsworth to write the famous poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" five years later. It begins:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

It's the birthday of Leonardo da Vinci (books by this author), born Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, in Vinci, Italy (1452). He's best known for his Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, two of the most famous paintings in the world, but he left fewer than 30 paintings when he died, and most of those were unfinished. He was a perfectionist and procrastinator, having worked on the Mona Lisa on and off for the last 15 years of his life. The Last Supper was likely only finished because his patron threatened to cut off his money. He spent much of his time drawing up plans for inventions like the submarine, the helicopter, the armored tank, and even the alarm clock, none of which came to fruition in his lifetime. Remaining today are at least 6,000 pages of his drawings and notes on everything from astronomy to anatomy — mostly written backward, decipherable only in a mirror. When he died, he apologized "to God and Man for leaving so much undone."

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