Friday Aug. 28, 2015

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Keeping Quiet

A friend of mine says that every war
Is some violence in childhood coming closer.
Those whoppings in the shed weren’t a joke.
On the whole, it didn’t turn out well.

This has been going on for thousands
Of years! It doesn’t change. Something
Happened to me, and I can’t tell
Anyone, so it will happen to you.

“Keeping Quiet” by Robert Bly from Talking into the Ear of a Donkey. © W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1963, more than 200,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, now known as the March on Washington. The march was the brainchild of civil rights activists A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, who once said, “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.” They worked diligently for nearly two years, convincing members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to put aside their differences and participate.

The president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, needed support for the passage of his Civil Rights Act, and gave his approval, as long as there would be no violence. Two days of protests, speeches, and sit-ins were planned. On August 27, thousands of people began pouring into the city. They came by bus, train, and air from Milwaukee, St. Louis, Birmingham, California, with water jugs and picnic baskets and Bibles. Chicago and New York declared August 28 “Freedom Day” and gave workers the day off. The city of Washington, D.C., banned liquor sales for the first time since Prohibition, hospitals stocked blood plasma and canceled elective surgeries, and the Pentagon amassed 19,000 troops in the suburbs, just in case things got violent.

There was no violence. There was not one single arrest. Marchers linked hands, they sang, and they chanted all the way from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, where the 16th speaker of the day, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., began what would become one of the greatest speeches in history with, “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

He ended with, “When we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

On this date 170 years ago, in 1845, the first issue of Scientific American was published. It’s the oldest continuously published magazine in the United States, and it started as a four-page weekly newsletter. It was founded by Rufus Porter, son of a wealthy New England family and a painter and inventor in his own right. The first issue focused on improvements to the quality of passenger railway cars. Under Porter’s direction, Volume I frequently featured reports from the U.S. Patent Office; the issues also served up poetry and religious news. Porter sold the magazine 10 months later, for $800, to 22-year-old Orson Munn and 19-year-old Alfred Beach. They took over with the publication of Volume II, doubling the page count and dropping the reports on temperance and religion as being unsuitable for a science publication. They kept the poetry, though.

Today is the birthday of the father of German literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, born in Frankfurt (1749), the author of the epic drama Faust. He moved to Italy in 1786, and when he returned to Germany in 1788, he fell in love with a woman from Weimar, Christiane Vulpius, a 23-year-old who was 16 years his junior. That year, he wrote her an epithalamium, a specific type of poem written for a bride on the way to the marital chamber. But he didn’t actually marry her; instead, the couple lived together for 18 years unwed.

They were still living together in 1806, unmarried and with children, when some of Napoleon’s French soldiers — who were drunk — broke into their home in Weimer one evening. Goethe was terrified, but Christiane started shouting at the soldiers, fending them off in hand-to-hand combat, and protecting the bewildered man of the house. After a prolonged skirmish, she pushed them out of the house and barricaded the kitchen and the cellar so the soldiers couldn’t try to steal any more of their food. Grateful to the brave and steadfast woman who’d saved his life and home, Goethe went down to a church the very next day and married her, his live-in girlfriend of 18 years.

In 1806, the same year of the home invasion and marriage, Goethe published a preliminary version of Part I of his great work, Faust, the story of a brilliant scholar named Heinrich Faust, who makes a deal with the devil. The great epic has it all: seduction, murder, sleeping potions, an illegitimate love child, a stray poodle that transforms into the devil, contracts signed with blood, imprisonment in dungeons, heavenly voices, and redemption. It’s often called “Das Drama der Deutschen,” or “The Drama of the Germans.” It’s also referred to as a “closet drama” because it’s intended to be read, not performed. Goethe spent 50 years working on this two-volume masterpiece, finishing Part II in 1832, the year of his death.

Goethe wrote, “A man can stand anything except a succession of ordinary days.” And, “Divide and rule, a sound motto. Unite and lead, a better one.” And, “That is the true season of love, when we believe that we alone can love, that no one could ever have loved so before us, and that no one will love in the same way after us.”

It’s the birthday of poet John Betjeman (books by this author), born in the Highgate section of London (1906). Members of his family were prosperous furniture makers of Dutch descent; he grew up in the suburbs, where T.S. Eliot happened to be one of his teachers. After studying at Oxford, he taught cricket and English in London. During World War II, he served as a press attaché in Dublin; after the war, he became a book critic. A journalist once said Betjeman looked “like a highly intelligent muffin — a small, plump, rumpled man with luminous soft eyes, a chubby face topped with wisps of white hair and imparting a distinct air of absentmindedness.”

Betjeman succeeded Cecil Day Lewis as poet laureate of England in 1972. When told he’d been named poet laureate, he said, “I like the title and I like old-fashioned things.” His poetry collections include Mount Zion (1933), New Bats in Old Belfries (1945), A Few Late Chrysanthemums (1954), A Nip in the Air (1976), and Church Poems (1981).

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