Saturday Nov. 22, 2014

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The Knight's Tomb

Where is the grave of Sir Arthur O’Kellyn?
Where may the grave of that good man be?—
By the side of a spring, on the breast of Helvellyn,
Under the twigs of a young birch tree!
The oak that in summer was sweet to hear,
And rustled its leaves in the fall of the year,
And whistled and roared in the winter alone,
Is gone,—and the birch in its stead is grown.—
The Knight’s bones are dust,
And his good sword rust;—
His soul is with the saints, I trust.

"The Knight's Tomb" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Public Domain.  (buy now)

It's the feast day of Saint Cecilia, who was the patron saint of musicians because she sang to God as she died a martyr's death. She was born to a noble family in Rome near the end of the second century A.D.

It wasn't really until the 1400s that people really began to celebrate her widely as the patron saint of music. Then, in the 1500s, people in Normandy held a large musical festival to honor her, and the trend made its way to England in the next century. Henry Purcell composed celebratory odes to honor her, and the painter Raphael created a piece called "The Ecstasy of St. Cecilia." Chaucer wrote about her in the Second Nonnes Tale, and Handel composed a score for a famous ode to her that John Dryden had written.

Today, Saint Cecilia is often commemorated in paintings and on stained glass windows as sitting at an organ.

It's the birthday of writer André Gide (books by this author), born in Paris (1869). Raised in Normandy by his mother and a retinue of female family members and maids, Gide was encouraged by these women to explore his interests with almost total freedom. He did so by roaming the countryside as a boy, picking flowers and indulging in his love of nature, but also by examining and analyzing what he saw; this deep introspection and reflection were traits that later defined his writing.

He was traveling in North Africa in 1895 when he met the writer Oscar Wilde, who questioned his sexuality. At first, he was offended by Wilde's suggestion, but the encounter led him to embrace the fact that he was a homosexual. He went on to become one of the first modern writers to openly defend homosexuality, in his book Corydon (1924), which became an underground classic, even though it was denounced and banned in mainstream literary society.

He was one of the most popular writers in France, in part because he was so controversial. For a long time, the Vatican proclaimed that it was a mortal sin to read any of his books. He's best known for his novels The Immoralist (1902) and The Counterfeiters (1926). He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1947.

Gide said: "Do not do what someone else could do as well as you. Do not say, do not write what someone else could say, could write as well as you. Care for nothing in yourself but what you feel exists nowhere else. And, out of yourself create, impatiently or patiently, the most irreplaceable of beings."

It's the birthday of novelist George Eliot (books by this author), born Mary Ann Evans in Warwickshire, England (1819). She was raised in rural England. Her mother died when she was a teenager, and she left school to serve as mistress of the household. When her brother took over the house with his new bride, Evans and her father moved to a house near the city of Coventry. She became friends with a group of radical intellectuals who gathered in the evenings to debate religion, philanthropy, and philosophy. It was a big departure from the conservative, religious atmosphere of her hometown, and she loved it. After her father's death, she changed her name from Mary Ann to Marian and moved to London to write.

She became the assistant editor of — and a major contributor to — a radical journal called The Westminster Review. This work introduced her to an even wider group of intellectuals, and she fell in love with one of them, a married philosopher named George Henry Lewes. For complicated legal reasons, Lewes was unable to get a divorce, so in 1854 he and Evans moved in together, shocking their friends — although affairs were routine in their social circles, it was quite a different thing to flaunt Victorian social convention so openly. Their male friends still visited, but they left their wives at home. Lewes was invited out, but not Evans. She wrote to one disapproving friend: "Light and easily broken ties are what I neither desire theoretically nor could live for practically. Women who are satisfied with such ties do not act as I have done. [...] I indulge in no arrogant or uncharitable thoughts about those who condemn us, even though we might have expected a somewhat different verdict. [...] I should like never to write about myself again; it is not healthy to dwell on one's own feelings and conduct, but only to try and live faithfully and lovingly every fresh day." They lived together for 24 years, until his death.

One of the last essays she wrote for The Westminster Review was called "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" (1856). Her essay began: "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists are a genus with many species, determined by the particular quality of silliness that predominates in them — the frothy, the prosy, the pious, or the pedantic. But it is a mixture of all these — a composite order of feminine fatuity — that produces the largest class." A year later, she first used the pseudonym George Eliot when she published one of the stories that would be published as Scenes of Clerical Life (1857). When she published her first novel, Adam Bede (1859), it was a huge success and inspired endless speculation as to the identity of the writer. Eventually, with another man accepting the hypothesis that he was the author, Marian Evans admitted that she was, in fact, George Eliot. Reactions were mixed. Some praised her, but many were shocked — not just because she was a woman, but also because she was a woman who had radical ideas and was living in an unconventional relationship. She hated the publicity, and considered giving up fiction altogether. But Lewes gave her constant encouragement, and her publisher sent her even more money beyond what he had paid for her manuscript.

So she kept writing, producing The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1863), and Felix Holt, the Radical (1866), but nothing matched the success of Adam Bede, and she worried about her decreasing readership. For years she labored away at a new book, a combination of two different stories. The book became too long, and she worried it would never sell. Her publisher agreed to bring it out in installments, and Middlemarch (1871-72) was a huge literary and commercial success, and is considered her masterpiece.

It was about 12:30 p.m. on this day in 1963 that President John F. Kennedy was fatally shot while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. The Warren Commission published a report concluding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in shooting the president, a conclusion that less than half of all Americans believe. Don DeLillo's novel Libra (1988) is about the Kennedy assassination. He wrote: "What has become unraveled since that afternoon in Dallas is [...] the sense of a coherent reality most of us shared. We seem from that moment to have entered a world of randomness and ambiguity."

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