Apr. 21, 2014

The New Song

by W. S. Merwin

For some time I thought there was time
and that there would always be time
for what I had a mind to do
and what I could imagine
going back to and finding it
as I had found it the first time
but by this time I do not know
what I thought when I thought back then

there is no time yet it grows less
there is the sound of rain at night
arriving unknown in the leaves
once without before or after
then I hear the thrush waking
at daybreak singing the new song

"The New Song" by W.S. Merwin, from The Moon Before Morning. © Copper Canyon Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Charlotte Brontë (books by this author), born in Thornton, England (1816). A fellow writer described her as "a tiny, delicate, serious, little lady, with fair straight hair and steady eyes." Her father was an Anglican clergyman, and she grew up in the small village of Haworth in the moors of West Yorkshire, a place she later described to her publisher as "a strange uncivilized little place." Her mother died when she was young, and her father sent Charlotte and three of her sisters off to boarding school. The school was an unpleasant place — the girls were fed burnt porridge, bathed in freezing water, and supervised by harsh teachers who were not afraid of physical punishment. The school record of Charlotte from those years says: "Reads tolerably — Writes indifferently — Ciphers a little and works [sews] neatly. Knows nothing of Grammar, Geography, History or Accomplishments. Altogether clever for her age but knows nothing systematically." The conditions were so terrible that two of the Brontë sisters died there, at which point their father brought Charlotte and her sister Emily back home to join their two surviving siblings, and they were raised by their father and aunt. Life back in Haworth was a huge improvement for the girls, although the parsonage was drafty, and their aunt was a strict woman — villagers said she was so rigid that they could set their watches to the routine at the Brontë household.

In between their studies, the Brontë children had periods of freedom to do whatever they liked. They roamed across the moors and read from their father's library, which included books by Sir Walter Scott, John Bunyan, and John Milton. In June of 1826, when Charlotte was 10 years old, her father came home from a trip to Leeds with a gift for Branwell: a box of wooden soldiers. The four siblings created an elaborate world for the soldiers, and soon it became their obsession. They wrote about this world, called Angria, and the stories of the people who lived there. Their stories were full of romance, political intrigue, and revenge.

As she grew older, Charlotte continued to write. She left Haworth for periods of time — to finish her schooling, to work as a governess, to study in Brussels — but she always came back to the parsonage. She found work as a teacher, because it was one of the only available careers for a middle-class woman, but she didn't actually like teaching. She wondered if she could make a living with her writing. In 1845, she accidentally discovered a manuscript of poems written by her sister Emily. Inspired, Charlotte decided that they should publish a book of poetry with work by all three sisters, using androgynous pseudonyms — Currer for Charlotte, Ellis for Emily, and Acton for Anne. Brontë became Bell. She wrote: "The ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine' — we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise." They self-published the book, and only two copies were sold.

Next, Brontë wrote a novel, The Professor, but it was rejected. One publisher, George Smith, wrote a note saying that he would be happy to see other work by Currer Bell, and she found that sufficient encouragement to immediately begin work on a second novel. She hauled her portable wooden writing desk out to a flat stone on the banks of a nearby stream, and she wrote constantly. One year later, she had finished that second novel, called Jane Eyre. In August of 1847, she sent it to George Smith. He received the manuscript on a Sunday morning. He wrote: "The story quickly took me captive. Before twelve o'clock my horse came to the door but I could not put the book down. Before I went to bed that night I had finished reading." Six weeks later, Jane Eyre was published. It was a huge sensation, and soon Smith's rival publisher agreed to publish a book by the mysterious Ellis Bell, which was Emily's novel Wuthering Heights (1847). In 1848, Branwell died of bronchitis, brought on by years of drinking and opium use. Emily died two months later. Charlotte herself died in 1855 at the age of 38.

She also wrote the novels Shirley (1849), Villette (1853), and The Professor (published posthumously in 1857).

It's the birthday of writer and naturalist John Muir (books by this author), born in Dunbar, Scotland (1838). In 1867, he was working at a carriage parts shop in Indianapolis when he almost lost one of his eyes in a freak accident. He later said, "I felt neither pain nor faintness, the thought was so tremendous that my right eye was gone — that I should never look at a flower again." He was so affected by the incident that he decided to quit his job and walk across the country, living as close to nature as possible.

He walked for a thousand miles, from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico, and then he sailed to Cuba, Panama, and finally California, which would become his home for the rest of his life. He fell in love with the Sierra Mountains in California, and spent much of his time hiking and camping there. He also visited Alaska, South America, Australia, Africa, China, Europe, and Japan, studying plants, animals, rocks, and glaciers. He was largely responsible for the creation of Yosemite National Park in 1890, and in 1892, he helped found the Sierra Club.

It's the birthday of John Clifford Mortimer (books by this author), born in London (1923). He's best known as the author of the novels featuring the lawyer Rumpole of the Bailey. He wrote his first novel when he was in law school, and he's continued to practice law his entire life, writing plays, novels, and screenplays in his spare time. He once boasted — with no particular vanity — of being "the best playwright ever to have defended a murderer at the Central Criminal Court." He became well known in Great Britain, but most Americans hadn't heard of him until the BBC's adaptation of his Rumpole books aired on PBS in the early '80s.

As a lawyer, Mortimer developed a reputation for fighting for civil rights and free speech. Mortimer once said that comedy is "the only thing worth writing in this despairing age, provided the comedy is truly on the side of the lonely, the neglected, and the unsuccessful, and plays its part in the war against established rules."

It's the birthday of writer Nell Freudenberger (books by this author), born in New York City (1975). After graduating from Harvard, she turned down a job offer from Random House and instead spent a year teaching English to teenagers in Thailand. She said, "I didn't really have anything to say about being an American until I went and lived in that high school." After Thailand, she traveled in India, then came home and got a job at The New Yorker. She wrote every morning before work, and one day she started a story about an American woman in Delhi coping with the death of her married Indian lover. She said, "I liked working on that story because it wasn't work; it was simply an hour and fifteen minutes of nostalgia every morning, before I got on the train to go to my real job." A year later, that story, "Lucky Girls," was published in The New Yorker, and it sparked a bidding war for a book. Lucky Girls, a collection of five stories, was published in 2003, followed by a novel, The Dissident (2006). Her most recent novel is The Newlyweds (2012).

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