Monday Jan. 25, 2016

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A Red, Red Rose

O my Luve is like a red, red rose,
     That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody,
     That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

So fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
     So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
     Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
     And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
I will luve thee still, my dear,
     While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare the weel, my only luve!
     And fare thee weel a while!
And I will come again, my luve,
     Tho’ it were ten thousand mile!

“A Red, Red Rose” by Robert Burns. Public domain.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of Virginia Woolf (books by this author), born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London (1882). She published her first novel, The Voyage Out, in 1915. She wrote eight more novels, including Night and Day (1919), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), and The Waves (1931). She also wrote a book called A Room of One’s Own (1929), based on lectures she gave at Newnham and Girton Colleges, the women’s colleges of Cambridge. She wrote: “I should never be able to fulfill what is, I understand, the first duty of a lecturer to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece for ever. All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point — a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

Woolf herself managed to find the private rooms she needed to write. In 1924, she and her husband, Leonard, moved into a house in Bloomsbury where they ran their own printing press, Hogarth Press, out of the basement. Woolf wrote in a downstairs storage room, which had once been a billiard room. The room was now packed with hundreds and hundreds of books, a bed, an old chair, fake flowers, and paintings by her sister, Vanessa. The stone floor was cold but there was a skylight in the roof. She wrote for three hours every morning, sitting in a wicker chair and using a board for a table, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.

In 1919, the Woolfs bought Monk’s House in Sussex. For years they spent weekends and summers there, and eventually they left London and moved there permanently. The house didn’t have electricity or plumbing when they moved in, it leaked when it rained, and the Woolfs owned so many books that they were worried the ceilings would cave in under their weight. But Monk’s House did have a shed, which they remodeled into Virginia’s “writing lodge.” The lodge had big windows, with views of the woods and hills. She sat in a chair and put a small tabletop that Leonard made on a cushion on her lap, and wrote on that. She loved the total quiet of her lodge at Monk’s House. She wrote in her diary: “Often down here I have entered into a sanctuary; a nunnery; had a religious retreat; of great agony once; and always some terror; so afraid one is of loneliness; of seeing to the bottom of the vessel. That is one of the experiences I have had here in some Augusts; and got then to a consciousness of what I call ‘reality’: a thing I see before me: something abstract; but residing in the downs or sky; beside which nothing matters; in which I shall rest and continue to exist. Reality I call it. And I fancy sometimes this is the most necessary thing to me: that which I seek. But who knows — once one takes a pen and writes? How difficult not to go making ‘reality’ this and that, whereas it is one thing. Now perhaps this is my gift: this perhaps is what distinguishes me from other people: I think it may be rare to have so acute a sense of something like that — but again, who knows? I would like to express it too.”

In A Room of One’s Own, she wrote: “So when I ask you to earn money and have a room of your own, I am asking you to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life.”

On this day in 1915, she wrote in her diary: “My birthday — and let me count up all the things I had. L. had sworn he would give me nothing, and like a good wife, I believed him. But he crept into my bed, with a little parcel, which was a beautiful green purse. And he brought up breakfast, with a paper which announced a naval victory (we have sunk a German battle ship) and a square brown parcel, with The Abbott in it — a lovely first edition — So I had a very merry and pleasing morning — which indeed was only surpassed by the afternoon. I was then taken up to town, free of charge, and given a treat, first at a Picture Palace, and then at Buszards. I don’t think I’ve had a birthday treat for 10 years; and it felt like one too — being a fine frosty day, everything brisk and cheerful, as it should be, but never is. The Picture Palace was a little disappointing — as we never got to the War pictures, after waiting one hour and a half. But to make up, we exactly caught a nonstop train, and I have been very happy reading father on Pope, which is very witty and bright — without a single dead sentence in it. In fact I don’t know when I have enjoyed a birthday so much — not since I was a child anyhow. Sitting at tea we decided three things: in the first place to take Hogarth, if we can get it; in the second, to buy a Printing press; in the third to buy a Bull dog, probably called John. I am very much excited at the idea of all three — particularly the press. I was also given a packet of sweets to bring home.”

Fifteen years later, in 1930, on the day after her birthday, January 26th, she wrote: “I am 48: we have been at Rodmell — a wet, windy day again; but on my birthday we walked among the downs, like the folded wings of grey birds; and saw first one fox, very long with his brush stretched; then a second, which had been barking, for the sun was hot over us; it leapt lightly over a fence and entered the furze — a very rare sight. How many foxes are there in England? At night I read Lord Chaplin’s life. I cannot yet write naturally in my new room, because the table is not the right height and I must stoop to warm my hands. Everything must be absolutely what I am used to.”

It’s the birthday of Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns (books by this author), born in Alloway, Scotland (1759) to a well-read but impoverished tenant farmer and his wife. He’s best known for his romantic, lyrical poems and songs that celebrate rural Scottish life and culture, such as “A Red, Red, Rose,” “To A Mouse,” “Halloween,” and “Twa Dogs.”

Burns had little regular schooling, spending most of his time helping his father on various farms. The severe manual labor and hardship of his childhood left him with a premature stoop and weakened constitution. But his father valued education and taught Burns arithmetic, history, reading, and geography. Burns soaked up poetry and literature. He began to write poems on his own, particularly about a young woman named Nelly Kirkpatrick. His first poem about Nelly was “O, Once I Lov’d a Bonnie Lass.” Nelly didn’t fancy him back, but it didn’t matter. Burns soon moved on to another girl, and another.

In fact, in between farming, becoming a tax collector, and writing his poetry, Burns was busy working at passionate love. He had a child with his mother’s servant, and not long after, twins with a woman named Jean Amour. Her father was incensed at the “fornication” that had happened without marriage, and Burns was forced to stand before his congregation and repent. His financial and personal situation desperate, Burns accepted a position in Jamaica as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation. He lacked the funds for passage to the West Indies, though, and a friend of his convinced him to gather his poems together and sell them. That collection was published in 1786 as Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. The slight book sold for three shillings and became an immediate success. Burns never made it to Jamaica. He borrowed a pony and fled to Edinburgh, where he was received rapturously.

Burns wasn’t shy about his desire to be the most famous poet in Scotland. He wrote to a friend, “… you may expect to henceforth see my birthday inserted among the wonderful events in the Poor Robin’s and Aberdeen Almanacks […] and by all probability I shall soon be the tenth worthy and the eighth Wise Man of the world.”

Robert Burns is responsible for the song we sing at the end of each year. He took a traditional folk tune and penned new lyrics, which soon became very popular in Scotland. “Auld Lang Syne,” which translates to standard English as “old long since,” is sung the world over on the last day of each year.

After his death at the age of 37, Burns became the National Poet of Scotland. Popular celebrations of his life, known as “Burns Suppers,” are held every year in many countries on the day of his birth. The menu features haggis, Scotch whisky, and Cock-A-Leekie soup. A piper greets guests at the door. Guests take turns reciting Burns’s poems.

The poetry of Robert Burns is extraordinarily popular in Russia, where he is known as “The People’s Poet.” In 1924, a translation of his poems sold more than 600,000 copies. The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to commemorate him with a postage stamp.

Robert Burns fathered 12 children and as of 2012, he had more than 600 living descendants across the world.

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