I stood on the bridge at midnight,
As the clocks were striking the hour,
And the moon rose o’er the city,
Behind the dark church-tower.
I saw her bright reflection
In the waters under me,
Like a golden goblet falling
And sinking into the sea.
And far in the hazy distance
Of that lovely night in June,
The blaze of the flaming furnace
Gleamed redder than the moon.
Among the long, black rafters
The wavering shadows lay,
And the current that came from the ocean
Seemed to lift and bear them away;
As, sweeping and eddying through them,
Rose the belated tide,
And, streaming into the moonlight,
The seaweed floated wide.
And like those waters rushing
Among the wooden piers,
A flood of thoughts came o’er me
That filled my eyes with tears.
How often, O, how often,
In the days that had gone by,
I had stood on that bridge at midnight
And gazed on that wave and sky!
How often, O, how often,
I had wished that the ebbing tide
Would bear me away on its bosom
O’er the ocean wild and wide!
For my heart was hot and restless,
And my life was full of care,
And the burden laid upon me
Seemed greater than I could bear.
But now it has fallen from me,
It is buried in the sea;
And only the sorrow of others
Throws its shadow over me.
Yet whenever I cross the river
On its bridge with wooden piers,
Like the odor of brine from the ocean
Comes the thought of other years.
And I think how many thousands
Of care-encumbered men,
Each bearing his burden of sorrow,
Have crossed the bridge since then.
I see the long procession
Still passing to and fro,
The young heart hot and restless,
And the old subdued and slow!
And forever and forever,
As long as the river flows,
As long as the heart has passions,
As long as life has woes;
The moon and its broken reflection
And its shadows shall appear,
As the symbol of love in heaven,
And its wavering image here.
“The Bridge” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Public Domain. (buy now)
Today is the birthday of English novelist and diarist Frances (Fanny) Burney (1752) (books by this author). She was born in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, the daughter of a music historian. She didn’t learn to read and write until she was 10 years old, but once she did learn, she wasted no time in putting her skills to work writing plays, poems, and songs. Her first published novel, Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (1778), was a comedy of manners, informed in large part by her own observations and experience as a young woman in society. She published it anonymously and disguised her handwriting, afraid that publishers would recognize her hand from her work as her father’s literary assistant. The novel was a great success, and she followed it with a second — Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress (1782) — which would inspire Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). Burney succeeded in making novel-writing an acceptable enterprise for women, and she paved the way for many 19th-century social satires.
It’s the birthday of British mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers (books by this author), born in Oxford in 1893. She was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University, which she did in 1915, with a degree in medieval literature. Her first two books were volumes of poetry, published in 1916 and 1919; she published her first mystery novel, Whose Body?, in 1923, and it featured Lord Peter Wimsey, a witty aristocrat who solved mysteries as a hobby. Lord Peter is featured in 11 novels and two collections of short stories.
It’s the 150th birthday of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (books by this author), born in the Dublin suburb of Sandymount in 1865. His parents moved to London when he was only two years old, but he spent a lot of time in Sligo with his grandparents. He studied art in Dublin and then returned to London, where he met other writers like George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde.
Even though he was born into the pro-English Protestant class, he became involved in the cause of Irish nationalism, in part because of Maud Gonne. He first met the beautiful, brilliant, and fiery revolutionary in 1889; he later wrote that that was when “the troubling of my life began.” Yeats fell passionately in love with Gonne. He founded the Irish Literary Theatre in Dublin and wrote plays for her to star in. They shared an interest in mysticism and the occult, and although they didn’t do so much as kiss on the lips until 10 years after they met, they enjoyed what they referred to as a “metaphysical marriage.” In 1908, he wrote in a notebook: “She believed that this bond is to be recreated & to be the means of spiritual illumination between us. It is to be a bond of the spirit only.” Not entirely satisfied with this arrangement, Yeats proposed a more conventional marriage to her on many occasions, but she always turned him down. After his last failed proposal in 1916, he asked for — and received — her permission to propose to her 22-year-old daughter, Iseult. Iseult also turned him down, so he eventually married Georgina Hyde Lees. He never forgot his great love, though, and he wrote the poem “The Bronze Head” about Maud Gonne in 1938.
For many years, Yeats’ approach to Irish nationalism was through the country’s mythology and folklore. He wanted to remind people of what pagan Ireland was like before the two Christian factions began to battle over it. “We might bring the halves together if we had a national literature that made Ireland beautiful in the memory,” he wrote. His early poems, including The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889), were heavily influenced by Celtic mythology. He also published collections of traditional Irish myths, including Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888) and Irish Fairy Tales (1892).
Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923. He wrote, of his medal: “It shows a young man listening to a Muse, who stands young and beautiful with a great lyre in her hand, and I think as I examine it, ‘I was good-looking once like that young man, but my unpractised verse was full of infirmity, my Muse old as it were, and now I am old and rheumatic and nothing to look at, but my Muse is young.’”
Eventually, Yeats gave up on the idea of writing poetry for the collective soul of Ireland, and wrote instead for himself. No longer influenced by dreamy Celtic mysticism, his poems gained new power, and he produced his greatest work after the age of 50. He also became directly involved in politics and served for six years as a senator for the Irish Free State. He remained the director of his Irish Literary Theatre — now renamed the Abbey Theatre — until his death in 1939. He died abroad, in France, with his wife and his latest mistress at his bedside.