The Writer’s Almanac for June 13, 2018

“The Wild Swans at Coole” by William Butler Yeats. Public Domain.  (buy now)

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?


It’s the birthday of the poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, (books by this author) born in Dublin, Ireland (1865).

He grew up at a time when the nation of Ireland was struggling with its identity as an English colony. Most members of the Irish Protestant upper class were pro-British rule, and members of the Catholic middle class were pro-independence. It didn’t help the two sides get along that Catholics were denied equal access to education, jobs, and government positions.

Yeats grew up in a Protestant family, but the only things he cared about were poetry and mysticism. His aunt gave him a popular book of the era called Esoteric Buddhism (1884), about mystical philosophy, and Yeats especially loved its idea that the material world was an illusion. When he was 20, he and a group of friends formed the Dublin Hermetic Society in order to conduct experiments into the nature of ghosts and psychic powers. Later he joined the Order of the Golden Dawn, a group that performed a variety of ancient magic rituals. And he attended séances and tarot card readings.

In 1889, he met Maud Gonne, a beautiful actress who had become an activist and who spoke out for Irish nationalism and independence. She became the love of his life, and though she refused his proposal of marriage, she believed that they were spiritually married, that they could communicate telepathically. She inspired him to use his writing as a force for national unity. Yeats came to believe that if he could get in touch with the deep, mythic history of the Irish people, he could pull the country together with poetry.

Yeats spent years writing plays about Irish nationalism for Maud Gonne to star in. But by 1910, Maud Gonne had married someone else and Yeats had given up on trying to win her love. He also gave up on the idea of writing poetry for the collective soul of Ireland, and wrote instead for himself.

At the same time that he stopped trying to use poetry as a national force, he started getting directly involved in politics, and served for six years in the Irish senate. In 1922, he witnessed the end of the English occupation in all but the northern counties of Ireland. He died in 1939. A few weeks before he died, he wrote: “Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.”


 On this day in 1983Pioneer 10 passed outside Pluto’s orbit and became the first man-made object to leave the solar system. Designed for deep-space exploration, and launched March 2, 1972, the spacecraft passed safely through the asteroid belt (no small accomplishment considering some of the asteroids are the size of Alaska), took the first close-up pictures of Jupiter in 1973, and sent back data about the solar wind in the far reaches of our solar system. The mission — which was originally expected to last only 21 months — was officially ended in 1997, after 25 years, although NASA’s Deep Space Network continued to pick up signals for several more years. Pioneer 10 sent its last, faint communication back home in January 2003.

Even though its communications system is no longer operational, Pioneer 10 continues on its way to Aldebaran, the star that forms the eye of the constellation Taurus; it should make it there in about two million years, give or take, according to NASA.


Today is the birthday of English novelist and diarist Frances (Fanny) Burney (1752) (books by this author). She was born in Kings Lynn, Norfolk, the daughter of a music historian. She didn’t learn to read and write until she was 10 years old, but once she did learn, she wasted no time in putting her skills to work writing plays, poems, and songs. Her mother died when she was 15, and her father remarried that same year; her stepmother didn’t think writing was a suitable hobby for young ladies, and Fanny burned all of her early work.

When she was 16, she began keeping a diary, a practice she maintained for more than 70 years. She was a keen observer of society and manners, and her journals recount visits by such luminaries as Dr. Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, David Garrick, and Sir Joshua Reynolds — all friends of her father. She also described the Battle of Waterloo, the madness of King George III, and her own mastectomy, performed without any anesthesia beyond a single glass of wine.

Her first published novel, Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (1778), was a comedy of manners, informed in large part by her own observations and experience as a young woman in society. She published it anonymously and disguised her handwriting, afraid that publishers would recognize her hand from her work as her father’s literary assistant. The novel was a great success, and she followed it with a second — Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress (1782) — which would inspire Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). Burney succeeded in making novel-writing an acceptable enterprise for women, and she paved the way for many 19th-century social satires.

Burney went to the court of King George III and Queen Charlotte in 1786, and she served as “Second Keeper of the Robes” for five years. She was unhappy in her post, since she was too busy to write novels, though she kept up with her diaries. When she was released from service, she married French expatriate general Alexandre d’Arblay, and proceeds from her third novel, Camilla, or a Picture of Youth (1796), paid for a house for the newlyweds. In 1802, they took their young son to France for a brief stay that ended up lasting 10 years, due to a renewal of the Napoleonic Wars. She recorded it all in her diaries, and her account of the Battle of Waterloo may have provided Thackeray with material for Vanity Fair.

She wrote one more novel, The Wanderer (1814), and several plays, only one of which was staged in her lifetime. And near the end of her life, she dedicated herself to publishing her father’s memoirs and to organizing her sizable collection of diaries and personal papers. She died in 1840, at the age of 88.


It’s the birthday of British mystery writer Dorothy L. (for Leigh) Sayers (books by this author), born in Oxford in 1893. She was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University, which she did in 1915, with a degree in medieval literature. Her first two books were volumes of poetry, published in 1916 and 1919; she published her first mystery novel, Whose Body?, in 1923, and it featured Lord Peter Wimsey, a witty aristocrat who solved mysteries as a hobby. Lord Peter is featured in 11 novels and two collections of short stories.

 


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The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 9, 2018

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It was on this day in 1635 that Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for spreading “newe and dangerous opinions.” He left and founded Providence, Rhode Island.

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Writing

Standing around, watching people suffer

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

George Will is a great American conservative essayist and I am an aging liberal doing the best I can, but even in divisive times I am capable of appreciating him, and his recent column for the Washington Post is so excellent, a new prize is needed, the Pulitzer isn’t good enough, we need a Seltzer or a Wurlitzer. You can Google this at your leisure; “Abolish the death penalty” is the title.

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Old man goes to hear an old man sing

A sweet warm fall night, Sunday in New York, and my love and I stood outdoors with friends who, like us, had caught Paul Simon’s farewell show and were still in awe of it, a 76-year-old singer in peak form for two and one-half hours nonstop with his eminent folk orchestra. John Keats died at 25, Shelley at 29. Stephen Crane was 28. Franz Schubert was 31, and each of them had his triumphs, but Simon sustained a career as an adventurous artist and creator who touched millions of people and whose lyrics held up very well in a crowded marketplace.

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Old man in his pew among the Piskies

A whole string of perfect summery September days and we sit outdoors eating our broiled fish and cucumber salad and the last of the sweet corn crop while looking at news of people stranded in flooded towns in North Carolina, unable to evacuate because they are caring for an elderly bedridden relative. They stand on their porch, surrounded by filthy floodwater, waiting for rescue, and meanwhile we pass a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and look forward to ice cream.

This is why a man goes to church, to give thanks for blessings and to pray for the afflicted, while contemplating the imbalance, us on the terrace, them on the porch. And to write out a check for flood relief.

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Old man spends Sunday among Lutherans

Back when I did a radio show in Minnesota, I liked to make fun of Lutherans for their lumbering earnestness, their obsessive moderation, their dread of giving offense. I felt obliged to make fun of them because they were the heart of my audience, but now that I’m old and out of the way, I feel obliged to do penance, and so last weekend I traveled to Bayfield, Wisconsin, to speak at an old Norwegian church, Bethesda Lutheran, celebrating its 125th anniversary there on the shore of Lake Superior. I was not paid to do this but I was offered coffee and doughnuts.

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Old man alone on Labor Day weekend

Our long steamy dreamy summer is coming to an end and it’s time to stop fruiting around and make something of ourselves. You know it and I know it. All those days in the 90s when we skipped our brisk walk and turned up the AC and sat around Googling penguins, Szechuan, engine, honorable mention, H.L. Mencken.

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A man watching his own heartbeat

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My annual birthday column, no extra charge

It is a beautiful summer, says I, and I cannot offhand recall any that were beautifuler, not that I am unaware of human suffering, I am aware. I have elderly friends my age who are facing dismal prognoses and friends who are sunk in the miseries of divorce and I feel for all of them but does this mean I can’t feel fresh and eager and be crazy about my wife? No, it does not.

I like to impress her, which I did on Sunday. I went cheerfully to a vegan restaurant with her — me, a cheeseburger guy, a slider guy if the truth be told — and ordered a cucumber soda, toasted tofu slices, and a kale salad big enough to feed a goat. I ate it all. She was impressed.

The world is falling apart around us, but that’s no reason to be unhappy. The world has been falling apart for thousands of years. Nevertheless, one can accentuate the positive and eat out of the goat’s feed trough. Get over yourself. Pretend to be thrilled by tofu.

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