Friday Jan. 22, 2016

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She Walks in Beauty

She walks in beauty, like the night
     Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
     Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow’d to that tender light
     Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
     Had half impair’d the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
     Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
     How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
     So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
     But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
     A heart whose love is innocent!

“She Walks in Beauty” by Lord Byron. Public domain.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1938 that Thornton Wilder’s (books by this author) play Our Town was premiered at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey. Our Town is about the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. In the first act, Emily Webb and George Gibbs are children together; in the second act, they marry; in the third, Emily has died in childbirth, and is looking back from beyond the grave with other dead citizens of Grover’s Corners, and she decides to revisit the happiest day of her life, her 12th birthday.

Wilder had trouble writing the third act, but when he finally found inspiration, it came fast. He was in Zurich, entertaining a friend (and probably lover) named Samuel Steward. Steward wrote later: “He insisted we stay up until dawn to hear the bells of Zurich, as Max Beerbohm has described them. That was in my drinking days and I kept going into every café we passed. My feet were getting so wet and so was I, and I kept hollering for an umbrella. When daylight came I went home to dry out and fell into bed and slept all day, but Thornton went to his hotel and wrote the last act of Our Town, which begins with the graveyard scene with the umbrellas. He confessed later that he had ‘struck a match on me,’ and that the graveyard umbrella scene came from my complaining about my walk in the wet.”

Our Town was revolutionary for its time because Wilder decided not to use any scenery and almost no props. He thought that they got in the way of seeing the play as truly universal, and he wanted his play to be more like the great Greek tragedies. So he got rid of the excess visuals and he added the group of the dead people of Grover’s Corners, who commented much like a Greek chorus.

From Princeton, the play moved to Boston, where it was a flop. The Boston critics gave it poor reviews, it played to half-empty houses, and some audience members walked out, including the wife of the governor of Massachusetts. But two New York theater critics, Brooks Atkinson and Alexander Woollcott, convinced the director and producer to give it another try and bring the show to New York. It did much better there, although some people found it inspiring and others depressing. But Our Town won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for drama, and it is now estimated that, on average, Our Town is performed at least once every night somewhere in the world.

It’s the birthday of Howard Moss (books by this author), longtime poetry editor for The New Yorker. Moss was born in Rockaway Beach, in the Borough of Queens (1922). He taught English at Vassar College for a year before taking a post as the fiction editor of The New Yorker. He liked that well enough, but poetry was his first love, and in 1948, after two years, he finagled his way into the position of Poetry Editor, where he stayed for more than 40 years.

Moss was keenly aware of his role in selecting poems for the venerated magazine. He knew that poetry magazines were read primarily by other poets and that The New Yorker was read by a more general audience, like people waiting to see the dentist, or the doctor. Moss was often so excited by the submissions he read that he bought more poems than the magazine could use. When he went on a year’s sabbatical, there was such a backlog of poetry that the magazine stopped accepting submissions and simply used what Moss had stockpiled until he came back.

Moss was responsible for discovering the talents of many poets who would go on to change the landscape of modern poetry. He accepted early poems by Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton, and W.S. Merwin. Moss was kind and funny, but he wasn’t hesitant to ask a poet for revisions. He said, “The words in poems are no more sacred than words in anything else.”

Moss was also an accomplished poet in his own right. His first collection, The Wound and the Weather, was published when he was 24 (1946). He went on to write 12 more volumes of poetry, including The Toy Fair (1954) and Finding Them Lost and Other Poems (1965).

Moss won the National Book Award in 1972 for his poetry collection Selected Poems (1971). In his acceptance speech, he said: “In a period that seems to be distinguished by public lies, when Diogenes would be hard put to find even a decent lamp, it is reassuring to know that poets, though they speak in different voices and in different ways, always try to speak in an individual voice, a voice true to feeling and yet exact in language. I believe in such a voice, and in the effort to find it and the struggle to maintain it. A voice that isn’t true to itself speaks for no one.”

It’s the birthday of poet Lord Byron (books by this author), born George Gordon Noel Byron in London (1788). Byron spent his childhood in Aberdeenshire with his mother, who suffered acute melancholy. Byron’s father, known as “Mad Jack,” treated the family cruelly. He had a habit of marrying women to further his own fortunes. Byron was born with a clubbed right foot and wore a corrective boot, and sometimes a brace. He was an undistinguished student and unskilled at cricket. His mother said, “He has no indisposition that I know of but love, desperate love, the worst of all maladies, in my opinion.”

At age 10, he inherited the title of his great-uncle William Byron and became Lord Byron. His first collection of poems, Hours of Idleness (1807), was published when he was 19. It received nasty reviews. Byron was so incensed he wrote English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), a satire entirely in heroic couplets. He was prone to passionate, brief love affairs with men and women, and also to overspending and gambling. By 1809, he was deeply in debt, but went on the Grand Tour, anyway, a rite of passage for youthful nobility. A young man was expected to learn culture and art by traveling through France and Italy. Mostly, Byron wanted to flee his creditors.

His mother died (1811) just a few weeks after he returned to England. Byron mourned deeply. He said, “I have but one friend, and she is gone.” He began working on a long poem that eventually became Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818). It made him famous, but he was still flighty. He had numerous love affairs, even purportedly with his half-sister. All of London was either enthralled or disgusted by his behavior. He left England and died fighting in the Greek War of Independence at the age of 36, as did his father, and his daughter, Ada Lovelace, who is regarded as the first computer programmer for her work on the Analytical Engine.

Byron’s poem Don Juan (1824), about a sexually precocious man, was deemed “too free” by critics, but was very popular with the public. After the first two cantos were published, Byron wrote to a friend: “You ask me for the plan of Donny Johnny; I have no plan — I had no plan; but I had or have materials ...You are too earnest and eager about a work never intended to be serious. Do you suppose that I could have any intention but to giggle and make giggle? — a playful satire, with as little poetry as could be helped, was what I meant.”

Byron’s works include The Corsair (1814), The Siege of Corinth (1816), and The Vision of Judgment (1821).

He said: “[Passion] is the poetry of life. What should I have known or written, had I been a quiet, mercantile politician or a lord in waiting? A man must travel, and turmoil, or there is no existence.”

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