Wednesday Aug. 23, 2017

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Choose Something Like a Star

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, ‘I burn.’
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

“Choose Something Like a Star” by Robert Frost from Collected Poems, Prose & Plays. © The Library of America, 1995. Reprinted with permission. Other editions of this poem may appear as “Pick Something Like a Star.”  (buy now)

On this date in 1966, Lunar Orbiter 1 took the first photograph of the Earth from space. The Orbiter program began in 1964; its purpose was to take pictures of as much of the moon's surface as possible so that scientists could scout potential landing sites for the upcoming Apollo missions. Lunar Orbiter 1 was launched on August 10, and recorded images from the 18th to the 29th. There were five Orbiters in all — the last one launched on August 1, 1967 — and by the time the project was completed, they had images of 99 percent of the lunar surface. The data was recorded on large magnetic tapes, and the resolution wasn't great by modern standards, but it proved invaluable for mapping purposes. It's since been restored and digitized, and the level of detail has allowed scientists to study the weather patterns of that day.

It's the birthday of the poet and editor William Ernest Henley (books by this author), born in Gloucester, England, in 1849. He had a bad case of tuberculosis, which affected his bones, and when he was 25, he spent time in the hospital at Edinburgh. He wrote bitter poems about his experiences there, and he sent them to Cornhill Magazine. The editor of the magazine liked the poems, and he went to visit Henley in the hospital, and he brought along another contributor to the magazine, Robert Louis Stevenson. The two writers became good friends, and after Henley had his leg amputated at the knee, Robert Louis Stevenson modeled his character Long John Silver in Treasure Island after Henley.

William Ernest Henley kept writing poetry, but he wrote that he "found himself about 1877 so utterly unmarketable that he had to own himself beaten in art and to addict himself to journalism for the next ten years." Henley edited the Scots Observer (later the National Observer), a literary newspaper, and he admitted that the paper had almost as many writers as it had readers, but it was important in literary circles, and Henley became friends with many writers. His young daughter, Margaret, couldn't speak well, and she called J.M. Barrie "friendy Wendy," which is where Barrie got the name Wendy for his character in Peter Pan. Eventually Henley did make a living at his art, publishing A Book of Verse in 1888 and The Song of the Sword (1892; later published as London Voluntaries in 2nd ed., 1893).

His most famous poem, "Invictus" (1875), is a testament to his irrepressible spirit.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

It's the birthday of American poet, novelist, and lawyer Edgar Lee Masters (books by this author), born in Garnett, Kansas (1868). Masters' father was a lawyer who struggled financially with his own practice. He moved the family to Lewiston, Illinois, situated not far from Spoon River, a place that would inspire Master's best-known work, The Spoon River Anthology (1915).

 His father didn't support his literary dreams, so Masters ended up studying law. He was admitted to the bar (1891) and moved to Chicago, where he worked as a bill collector for the Edison Company. He practiced law for eight years before becoming a partner in Clarence Darrow's law firm. Darrow would later earn notoriety as the counsel for John Scopes, the high school teacher at the center of the evolutionary trial that became known as the "Scopes Monkey Trial."

Masters wrote his early work under pseudonyms like Dexter Wallace and Webster Ford so that it wouldn't interfere with his law practice. He was heavily influenced by the work of Edgar Allan Poe and published his first collection of poems, A Book of Verses, in 1898. He was also submitting poems to a magazine called Reedy's Mirror in St. Louis (1914). They were very popular and in 1915, published under the title The Spoon River Anthology, and became an instant sensation.

Edgar Lee Masters drew some of the inspiration for the short, free-form Spoon River poems from the book Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (1906), which had poems in the form of monologues and epigrams. Masters thought that was the perfect way to write about Spoon River and its inhabitants, the place he'd grown up. The poems in Spoon River are epitaphs, each told from the point of view of a deceased townsperson. Characters in the book include A.D. Blood, Fiddler Jones, and Amos Sibley, and there are 212 of them, along with 244 accounts of lives and losses.

Masters wasn't shy about exposing small-town hypocrisy, sexuality, and moral quandaries, and while the book was a hit, and he made enough money to quit the law and write full time, he also made enemies in Spoon River and could never live there again. He was glad to quit the law, saying, "Law and poetry go together like oil and water."

Poet Ezra Pound loved the book. He said, "At last. At last, America has discovered a poet." But other critics and writers were not pleased with the book. Poet Amy Lowell said, "One wonders, if life in our little Western cities is as bad as this, why everyone does not commit suicide."

Masters was unrepentant. He called the book "combinations of my imagination drawn from the lives of the faithful and tender-hearted souls whom I had known in my youth about Concord, and wherever in Spoon River they existed."

Masters continued to write, especially novels and poetry, but he never again achieved the success of Spoon River Anthology, which influenced writers like Theodore Dreiser and Carl Sandburg, and is still studied in high schools and colleges today. His novels include Mitch Miller (1920) and The Nuptial Flight (1923). He even wrote a biography of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln: The Man (1931). He died in a nursing home in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania.

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