This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me—
The simple News that Nature told—
With tender Majesty
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see—
For love of Her—Sweet—countrymen—
Judge tenderly—of Me
“This is my letter to the World...” by Emily Dickinson. Public domain. (buy now)
On this day in 1389, King Richard II appointed poet Geoffrey Chaucer (books by this author) to the position of Chief Clerk of the King's Works in Westminster. Chaucer, the middle-class son of a wine merchant, spent his lifetime associated with aristocracy: as an adolescent, he served as a page for a wealthy household and later fought in France with Edward III, who paid the ransom when Chaucer was captured during a siege. The clerkship came with a significant salary — 30 pounds per year — but a heavy workload: Chaucer supervised the building and maintenance of several royal projects, including the Tower of London and Westminster Palace. Chaucer traveled widely as Clerk, which afforded him the opportunity to meet people across a spectrum of social classes: peasants, nobles, and clergy. Their voices are the narrative cornerstone of Chaucer's greatest work, The Canterbury Tales, the story of group of pilgrims journeying to St. Thomas Becket's shrine at Canterbury Cathedral.
It's the birthday of poet Pablo Neruda (books by this author), born Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto in Parral, Chile (1904). In 1923, when he was 19, he sold all his possessions in order to publish his first book, Crepusculario (Twilight). Because his father didn't approve of his writing poetry, he published it under the pen name Pablo Neruda. In 1924, he published Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada,known in English as Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, which made him famous. Neruda always wrote in green ink, because he believed it was the color of hope.
In 1927, he began a second career as a diplomat. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1971. In his Nobel lecture he said, "All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are."
It's the birthday of Henry David Thoreau (books by this author), born David Henry Thoreau in Concord, Massachusetts (1817). He went to Harvard, but he didn't like it very much, nor did he enjoy his later job as a schoolteacher. He seemed destined for a career in his father's pencil factory, and in fact, he came up with a better way to bind graphite and clay, which saved his father money. But in 1844, Thoreau's friend Ralph Waldo Emerson bought land on the shore of Walden Pond, a 61-acre pond, surrounded by woods, and Thoreau decided to build a cabin there. It was only two miles from the village of Concord, and he had frequent visitors. During the two years he lived there, Thoreau kept a journal that he later published as Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854). In the conclusion to Walden, Thoreau wrote, "I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."
It's the birthday of (Gaius) Julius Caesar, born in Rome around 100 B.C. He was the great military leader who managed to capture for the Roman Empire most of what became France and Great Britain.
In a series of dispatches from the battlefield, Caesar became his own war correspondent. Unlike many of the Roman poets and historians of the era, Caesar wrote short descriptive prose that was easy for ordinary people to understand. His stories of military victories turned him into a national hero, but the Roman Senate increasingly saw him as a threat. It passed legislation requiring him to lay down his military command and return to Rome.
But Caesar realized that he had the largest and most battle-tested army in the empire under his command. And if he returned to Rome, his political opponents would end his career. And so, on January 10, 49 B.C., Caesar crossed the Rubicon River with his army, directly challenging the authority of the Senate. The result was a civil war. Though he was outnumbered in many of the major battles, Caesar won the war. And he was extremely merciful with captured military leaders, because he wanted them as his allies. That might have been his biggest mistake, since it was a group of those men he spared that began to conspire against him.
He was an absolute dictator of Rome, with ambitious plans to redistribute wealth and land. But a group of senators, led by Brutus and Cassius, wanted to bring back the old republic. So they organized an assassination on the steps of the Senate.
The Roman republic never returned. Instead, Rome would be ruled by a series of emperors for the rest of the empire's existence.