Thursday Dec. 18, 2014

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The First Days

The first thing I saw in the morning
Was a huge golden bee ploughing
His burly right shoulder into the belly
Of a sleek yellow pear
Low on a bough.
Before he could find that sudden black honey
That squirms around in there
Inside the seed, the tree could not bear any more.
The pear fell to the ground,
With the bee still half alive
inside its body.
He would have died if I hadn’t knelt down
And sliced the pear gently
A little more open.
The bee shuddered, and returned.
Maybe I should have left him alone there,
Drowning in his own delight.
The best days are the first
To flee, sang the lovely
Musician born in this town
So like my own.
I let the bee go
Among the gasworks at the edge of Mantua.

“The First Days" by James Wright, from Collected Poems. © Wesleyan Poetry Series, 2007. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of Methodist hymn writer Charles Wesley, born in Epworth, England (1707). He followed his brother John to Oxford, where he started out as a good student but also a fun-loving troublemaker. When his brother begged him to think more seriously about religion, Charles replied: “What, would you have me be a saint all at once?” Before his years at Oxford were through, he became a devoted member of a prayer group led by John. Other students made fun of these serious-minded young men, and called them “Methodists” because they were so methodical in their devotion.

When he graduated from Oxford, his stern father wrote to him: “You are now fairly launched. Hold up your head and swim like a man.” Despite his participation in the Methodist group, Wesley was still hesitant about a religious life. He stayed in Oxford for several years, working as a tutor. John finally convinced Charles to be ordained so that he could join in on a mission to the North American colony of Georgia; but the mission was a total failure, and a depressed Charles went home after about a year, leaving John behind. He wrote in his journal that as he was leaving, he told his employer: “I have no worldly hopes. I have renounced the world. Life is bitterness to me.” The voyage home was miserable. Wesley was severely ill, and he disliked the captain, who gave away his cabin. Wesley wrote of the captain: “The first sight I had of him was upon the cabin-floor, stark naked, and dead drunk.”

Things improved for Wesley once he got home to England. In 1738, he had the religious awakening he had been waiting for. He wrote in his journal that day: “I felt a violent opposition and reluctance to believe; yet still the Spirit of God strove with my own and the evil spirit, till by degrees he chased away the darkness of my unbelief. I found myself convinced, I know not how [...] I went to bed still sensible of my own weakness, (I humbly hope to be more and more so), yet content of Christ’s protection.”

A few days later, John Wesley had a similar conversion, which he described with the famous line: “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” With their newfound conviction, the brothers were determined to bring their religion to regular people. They traveled around the countryside on horseback, preaching to coal miners at mines, to prison inmates, and to anyone who gathered in the open air to see them. En route to Georgia, the Wesley brothers had met a group of Moravians, and were inspired by their simplicity and faith. They were also amazed at how they sang together, and how during some of the worst storms at sea, when everyone else was frightened, the Moravians stayed calm and sang peacefully. That sort of group singing was not practiced in the Church of England. When Charles Wesley began writing hymns, he was not intending them to be sung in the fancy, ritualized setting of a church, but out in the open air or in a meeting house.

While John continued to travel and preach, Charles eventually settled down — his health was suffering from all the traveling, and he was very happily married, and the father of young children.

Wesley published more than 4,400 hymns during his lifetime, and left behind several thousand more. His hymns include “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” and “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown.”

“Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown” was originally published as “Wrestling Jacob,” and is often considered Wesley’s masterpiece. In contemporary hymnals the word mercies is substituted for bowels. Wesley wrote:

’Tis Love! ’tis Love! Thou diedst for me!
I hear thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
Pure Universal Love thou art;
To me, to all, thy bowels move —
Thy nature, and thy name, is Love.

It’s the birthday of the British short-story writer Saki (books by this author), born Hector Hugh Munro in Akyab, Burma (1870). Burma — now Myanmar — was a British colony, and his father was a police officer there. When young Hector was two, his mother went home to England to give birth to a fourth child. She was charged by a cow on a quiet country road and she was so traumatized that she miscarried and died. So Hector and his brother and sister were sent back to England to be brought up by two extremely strict, unmarried aunts.

He went to good schools and then, like his father, he joined the police force in Burma. But he got a bad case of malaria, and he only lasted two years. Back at home, he decided to try his hand at journalism, and he wrote for several newspapers. He published The Rise of the Russian Empire (1900), inspired by Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; and The Westminster Alice (1902), a parody of Lewis Carroll’s work. Then he started writing short stories, and that is what we remember him for. They were usually short — fewer than 3,000 words — because he wrote them to be published in newspapers. They made fun of the stifled, upper-class Edwardian society he had been raised in. He had published many short stories and a couple of novels when he enlisted in the British army at age 43. He was killed by a German sniper in 1916, and apparently his last words were: “Put that bloody cigarette out.”

It’s the birthday of the baseball legend Ty Cobb, born in Narrows, Georgia (1886). His father was a teacher, principal, publisher, and state senator, and he had imagined that his son would follow in his footsteps, or maybe become a doctor or lawyer. He finally gave his blessing to Cobb’s career choice, but he warned him: “Don’t come home a failure.” Three weeks before 18-year-old Cobb made his debut with the Detroit Tigers, his mother shot and killed his father outside their bedroom window — apparently, she thought he was an intruder.

Cobb was furious at the hazing he received from his teammates; he said, “I was just a mild-mannered Sunday-school boy, but those old-timers turned me into a snarling wild-cat.” Cobb became one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Nothing stood in his way — legend has it that he would sit in the dugout where the other team could see him and sharpen the spikes on his shoes, then slide feet-first into each base. He was so mad when he thought the spring training field wasn’t in top condition that he beat up the groundskeeper, then choked the groundskeeper’s wife when she intervened. He attacked a heckler in the stands and almost killed him, and was finally hauled off the man by an umpire and a police officer. The Detroit Free Press described Cobb as “daring to the point of dementia.” He still has the highest lifetime batting average of all time.

He said: “The great American game should be an unrelenting war of nerves. I guess that’s what I miss most in it nowadays. In the battle of wits I was lucky enough to join in, you sat up nights plotting ways to win.”

It’s the birthday of jazz musician Fletcher Henderson, born in Cuthbert, Georgia (1897). He attended Atlanta University, majoring in chemistry and mathematics, then moved to New York City to find work as a chemist. Instead, he was hired to play piano on a Hudson River boat, and several years later (1924), he formed the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. His innovative arrangements, which emphasized the horns and left room for improvised solos between arranged passages, shaped a new sound for big band jazz.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®