Dec. 4, 2014

First Sight

by Philip Larkin

Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.

As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth's immeasurable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.

"First Sight" by Philip Larkin, from Collected Poems. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1674 that the French priest Father Jacques Marquette built a log cabin on the shores of Lake Michigan in the spot that would become the city of Chicago. The French government wanted to explore the interior of North America. Marquette spoke quite a few Native American languages, and members of the Illinois tribe told him about an important trading river to the west: the Mississippi. In the spring of 1673, Marquette and the fur trader Louis Joliet were chosen to strike out from a mission base on the northeast corner of Lake Michigan. They wanted to find and explore the Mississippi, and Marquette hoped to convert people along the way. They found the Mississippi at Prairie du Chien, in what is now Wisconsin, and followed it south to the Arkansas River, but turned back before the Gulf of Mexico to avoid the Spanish there. They headed north along the Mississippi, and at the mouth of the Illinois River, they got a tip for a shortcut back to Lake Michigan. They arrived at the lake in the area that would become Chicago, and then continued back to their camp.

Marquette returned to that area the following year to set up a mission for the Illinois tribe, but got snowed in on this day in 1674 before he made it to their village. He and two companions built a simple log cabin and spent the winter on the banks of the lake. He wrote in his journal on this day: "There was more snow there than anywhere else, and also more tracks of animals and turkeys. [...] The land along the shore is good for nothing, except on the prairies. You meet eight or ten pretty fine rivers. Deer hunting is pretty good." Marquette died there in 1675.

Joliet made it back to Quebec, barely — his canoes sank, he lost all his notes from the trip, and he only survived by holding on to river rocks for four hours until he was rescued. In Quebec, he explained from memory the location of the beautiful fertile area where he and Marquette had arrived at Lake Michigan. He explained that it was a strategic trading spot, as long as you could establish a canal to connect the Illinois River and Lake Michigan. That place became the settlement and then city of Chicago.

It was on this day in 1791 that the first edition of the British newspaper The Observer was published. It's the oldest Sunday paper in the world.

The publisher, a man named W.S. Bourne, thought the newspaper would make him rich. But instead it sent him spiraling into more than a thousand pounds of debt. And after just a few years, he tried to sell off the paper. First, he tried to convince some anti-government organizations to buy the newspaper. But they didn't want it, so instead he turned around and tried to sell it to the British government. But they didn't want to buy it either. However, the British government — then under the reign of King George III, who'd recently lost the Revolutionary War and 13 colonies in America — did decide to subsidize the newspaper, in exchange for having a say in what sorts of news stories went into it.

The paper spent a lot of the 1800s filled with government propaganda and sensational gossip, but with new editors, it gradually turned toward serious content. In the mid-20th century, news stories replaced advertisements on the front page, and the paper became owned by a trust. It employed a number of famous writers as journalists, including George Orwell, Vita Sackville-West, and Conor Cruise O'Brien.

In 1993, it was acquired by The Guardian, a daily newspaper. In 2005, it became the first newspaper to offer podcasts.

Today is the birthday of poet Rainer Maria Rilke (books by this author), born in Prague (1875). He was a delicate boy, born prematurely. The year before he was born, his mother had given birth to a girl who died after a week, and she wanted her son to fill that place. Rainer's given name was René, and his mother dressed him in dresses, braided his hair, and treated him like a girl. Later, he wrote, "I think my mother played with me as though I were a big doll." But his mother also encouraged him to read and write poetry, and made him copy out verses before he even knew how to read.

He made a career as a poet by seducing a series of rich noblewomen who would support him while he wrote his books. One princess let him live for a while in her Castle Duino near Trieste, a medieval castle with fortified walls and an ancient square tower. Rilke's room had a view of the gulf of Trieste, which he loved. In a letter from his room he wrote, "I am looking out into the empty sea-space, directly into the universe, you might say." It was during the winter of 1912, alone in the castle, that Rilke later said he heard the voice of an angel speaking to him about the meaning of life and death, and he started a poem that began with these lines: "And if I cried, who'd listen to me in those angelic / orders? Even if one of them suddenly held me / to his heart, I'd vanish in his overwhelming / presence. Because beauty's nothing but the start of terror we can hardly bear, / and we adore it because of the serene scorn / it could kill us with. Every angel's terrifying."

Rilke wrote two poems about angels in almost a single sitting, and he knew that he had begun his most important work, but then he got stuck. He eventually left the castle, the First World War broke out, and he struggled to write anything for years. Finally, in February of 1922, he managed to finish in a single month what he'd started a decade before. The result was a cycle of 10 long poems that he called The Duino Elegies, about the difference between angels and people, and the meaning of death, and his idea that human beings are put on earth in order to experience the beauty of ordinary things.

It's the birthday of the British essayist, philosopher, and historian Thomas Carlyle (books by this author), born in Ecclefechan, Scotland (1795). Carlyle moved to London with his wife in 1834, and began work on an ambitious project about the French Revolution. He spent months of hard work on the book, living in poverty and devoting every resource to the project, but when he lent the manuscript to philosopher John Stuart Mill, Mill's maid accidentally threw it in the fire. Even though he wasn't normally a cheerful person, Carlyle refused to let the loss get him down, and he began rewriting it immediately. The French Revolution (1837) became one of his most respected works, and would later serve as Dickens' primary reference when he was writing A Tale of Two Cities (1859).

It's the birthday of mystery writer Cornell Woolrich (books by this author), born in New York City (1903). His first six books weren't crime fiction at all, but were Jazz Age novels inspired by the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He first started writing detective stories under pseudonyms like William Irish and George Hopley. He was a contemporary of other, more famous crime writers like Erle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler, and his stories and novels were adapted for radio and film noir, including The Bride Wore Black (novel: 1940; film: 1968) and Night Has a Thousand Eyes (novel: 1945; film: 1948). His story "It Had to Be Murder" (1942) inspired the Hitchcock classic Rear Window (1954). But Woolrich gave up writing to care for his invalid mother, and became reclusive. By the time of his death in 1968, he had been forgotten, and his funeral was unattended.

It's the birthday of writer Samuel Butler (books by this author), born near Bingham, England (1835). He didn't get along with his family, and as soon as he was old enough, he wanted to get as far away from them as possible. So he moved to New Zealand and worked as a sheep farmer. He moved back to England, but his experience in New Zealand was the inspiration for one of his most famous works, Erewhon, which was published anonymously in 1872. It was a utopian novel satirizing Victorian society. But his true attack on the Victorians was his novel The Way of All Flesh, which he based on his own painful childhood, and which he considered too critical to publish during his life. Samuel Butler died in 1902, and the novel was found and published in 1903.

Samuel Butler wrote, "A friend who cannot at a pinch remember a thing or two that never happened is as bad as one who does not know how to forget."

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