Sunday Sep. 18, 2016

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The Last Words of My English Grandmother

There were some dirty plates
and a glass of milk
beside her on a small table
near the rank, disheveled bed—

Wrinkled and nearly blind
she lay and snored
rousing with anger in her tones
to cry for food,

Gimme something to eat—
They’re starving me—
I’m all right I won’t go
to the hospital. No, no, no

Give me something to eat
Let me take you
to the hospital, I said
and after you are well

you can do as you please.
She smiled, Yes
you do what you please first
then I can do what I please—

Oh, oh, oh! she cried
as the ambulance men lifted
her to the stretcher—
Is this what you call

making me comfortable?
By now her mind was clear—
Oh you think you’re smart
you young people,

she said, but I’ll tell you
you don’t know anything.
Then we started.
On the way

we passed a long row
of elms. She looked at them
awhile out of
the ambulance window and said,

What are all those
fuzzy-looking things out there?
Trees? Well, I’m tired
of them and rolled her head away.

“The Last Words of My English Grandmother” by William Carlos Williams from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. © New Directions Press, 1991. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of English essayist, poet, biographer, and lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709) (books by this author), who compiled A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), a massive, 21-pound tome that remained the definitive dictionary for 150 years, until the completion of the first Oxford English Dictionary.

Johnson was born to a bookseller and his wife in Lichfield, Staffordshire. Of his birth, he said, “I was born almost dead and could not cry for some time.” He was in such poor health as a baby, his aunt remarked that “she would not have picked such a poor creature up in the street.” Johnson suffered from scrofula, a form of tuberculosis. He was also slightly deaf, with impaired vision.

Johnson attended Pembroke College, Oxford, for a year before he had to leave for lack of funds. He moved to London and taught for a time, though he had a series of tics and odd gestures that sometimes prevented him being hired. He was even passed over for a position as headmaster. The school’s director found him “a very haughty, ill-natured gent, and that he has such a way of distorting his face (which though he can’t help) the gents think it may affect some lads.” It’s now thought that Johnson suffered from Tourette’s syndrome, which had no diagnosis at the time.

Johnson opened a private school, called Edial Hall School (1735), with his wife’s money, but he had only three students, and the school closed.

He was writing, though, for The Gentlemen’s Magazine (1735), and imitation poems, which were well received, but made him no money. He even wrote a play, Irene, which had a successful run (1749), but was never performed anywhere, ever again, until 1999, making it the most unsuccessful play ever written by a major author.

In 1746, he was approached by a band of London booksellers about the possibility of creating an authoritative dictionary of the English language. Johnson jumped at the opportunity, telling them he could do it in three years. It took him nine, even with assistants. When it was done, the Dictionary of the English Language had over 42,773 entries and was 20 inches wide when opened. It weighed almost 21 pounds and was one of the largest books every printed. Samuel Johnson pronounced it “Vasta mole superbus (Proud in its great bulk).”

One of his innovations was to illustrate the meanings of the words with literary quotations, most commonly from Shakespeare. There were almost 115,000 quotations when the book was done. Johnson also introduced humor. For instance, the definition of “Lexicographer” is listed as “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the significance of words.” “Oats” is defined as “a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Johnson was not fond of Scotland and its people.

The dictionary was widely hailed as a triumph, though Johnson had his detractors, with one Thomas Babington Macaulay calling him “a wretched etymologist.” Johnson was also a bit lazy concerning pronunciation. “Cough” is listed simply as being pronounced “coff.”

Samuel Johnson never became rich, though King George did eventually give him a meager yearly stipend. What we know about Samuel Johnson is mostly because of James Boswell, who befriended Johnson when he was 23 and Johnson was 54. Boswell kept copious diaries and his biography, Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), is considered the finest biography in all of literature. Boswell was so persistent with Johnson that Johnson once quipped, “One would think the man has been hired to spy on me.”

Samuel Johnson died in 1784. His books include Life of Richard Savage (1744) and Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779).

Today is the birthday of Jean-Bernard-Léon Foucault (1819) (books by this author), born in Paris. He was trained in medicine, but became interested in physics. He developed a method for measuring the speed of light, and discovered that light travels more slowly through water than it does through the air. He also invented a gyroscope. But he’s best known for the pendulum that bears his name. He assembled it in 1851, a 62-pound iron ball swinging from a wire 220 feet long. He suspended it inside the dome of the Panthéon in Paris. He used it to prove that the Earth rotates on its axis. Once the pendulum is set in motion, it always swings along the same axis, but its position changes relative to the position of the Earth. As the Earth rotates counterclockwise, the pendulum appears to move in a clockwise direction. His pendulum caused a sensation among scientists and laypeople alike, and soon cities throughout Europe and America had suspended their own versions. You can still see them today in many science museums; sometimes a ring of dominoes is set up around the perimeter of the circle so you can see them being knocked down as the world turns.

It was on this day in 1851 that the first edition of the New York Times was published in a dirty, candlelit office just off Wall Street. It cost one cent. It was founded as the New-York Daily Times by Henry J. Raymond and George Jones. They wanted a serious paper, not another popular sensationalist tabloid.

On the first page, there was an article about mail ships arriving from Europe. There were articles about political affairs being quiet in England, the upcoming presidential election in France, hostility against the government in Austria, and a fugitive slave riot in rural Pennsylvania.

On the second page was printed: “We publish today the first issue of the New-York Daily Times, and we intend to issue it every morning (Sundays excepted) for an indefinite number of years to come [...] Upon all topics, — Political, Social, Moral, and Religious, — we intend that the paper shall speak for itself [...] We do not believe that everything in society is either exactly right, or exactly wrong; — what is good we desire to preserve and improve; — what is evil, to exterminate, or reform.”

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