Thursday Jun. 2, 2016

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At the Children’s Violin Concert

               Firmly bowed
strands of horse hair
               tightened or
gathered up by
               a small hand to play
               a piece by J.S. Bach
who drank 36 cups of coffee every day.

I like him because he was
inspired by his belief in God
& he played the organ in a church
in Leipzig & he walked on
cobblestone streets to his home
every evening where he fathered
many children & wrote music
for his wife to clean house by.
He worked hard all his life
& when he died, he left us
all the little notes he made
for himself while he was alone.

“At the Children’s Violin Concert” by Susan Cataldo from Drenched: Selected Poems of Susan Cataldo. © Telephone Books, 2003. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Martha Washington, born Martha Dandridge on the Chestnut Grove Plantation in New Kent County, Virginia (1731). When she was 18, she married Daniel Parke Custis, whom she’d met at church. Custis was in his late 30s, and a prosperous landowner of a 15,000-acre plantation called White House. He had never been married because his father disapproved of every woman he had courted. He and Martha had four children, only two of whom — Jack and Patsy — survived beyond childhood. When Custis died in 1757, Martha inherited the plantation, including 300 slaves and well over 17,000 acres of land.

Martha was only 26 when she became a widow. Her marriage had been happy, and she hoped to have more children, so she planned to remarry. What’s more, she was now wealthy and could follow her heart in matrimonial matters, rather than making a financially advantageous match. The 26-year-old military man and fellow Virginian George Washington had also recently inherited an estate — Mount Vernon — upon his brother’s death. While visiting Williamsburg, he heard about the wealthy young widow. He paid a call on her, and made a point to tip her household slaves lavishly. At 2,000 acres, Mount Vernon was small compared to Martha’s plantation, but money was not her first consideration. Colonel Washington was tall and handsome, and had a reputation for bravery and honor. Martha was petite, engaging, and had a cool head for business, as her efficient handling of Custis’s tobacco business had already shown.

George resigned his military commission in 1758, and he and Martha married in January 1759. She trusted him enough that she opted not to draft a prenuptial agreement, as most widows in her situation would have done. She also made him the legal guardian of her two surviving Custis children. She ordered her wedding clothes — including made-to-order, high-fashion purple silk shoes — from London. Throughout their marriage, George took pleasure in ordering shoes for Martha, and was not shy about returning any that were deemed unsatisfactory. In one letter, he wrote, “Mrs. Washington’s slippers and clogs have come safe to hand, the latter, however, are not as she wished to have [...] and will, by the first convenient opportunity, return the clogs to Mr. Palmer and get a pair of galoshes.”

Martha expected to lead a quiet and comfortable life at home. But during the Revolutionary War, her husband did not return home to Mount Vernon for six years. He often requested her presence at the Continental Army’s winter encampment, and she made the exhausting journey to be at his side. She made friends with the other officers’ wives, worked as George’s secretary, and comforted sick and wounded soldiers. She led a drive among area women to knit socks for the army, to keep them warm and dry during the brutal winter. She also hosted social events at the Valley Forge headquarters. But she missed her remaining son, Jack, and his children. Jack died in the war, and she raised two of his children; she had no more children of her own. In 1789, when George Washington was inaugurated as president, she became America’s first first lady. Though she never sought out public life, and said she felt “more like a state prisoner than anything else,” she made the best of it, knowing that she was setting the precedent for all the first ladies to come. She held weekly salons, hosting foreign dignitaries as well as ordinary members of the community. She felt it was important to show that the new government was accessible to all.

The Washingtons returned to Mount Vernon in 1797, after George declined to seek a third term as president. Her social duties continued unabated. When her husband died in 1799, she burned all of their correspondence. She often spoke of how terribly she missed him. She died two and a half years later.

It’s the birthday of novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (books by this author), born in Dorset, England (1840), the son of a rural carpenter and a London woman described as “powerful, rather than tender” with a “dark streak of gloom and anger.” Hardy was apprenticed to be an architect but wanted pursue a literary career. Though fairly educated, he could not vote because he did not own property.

In 1874, he fell in love with and married Emma Lavinia Gifford, but he later became estranged from her. After her death, he married his secretary, who was 40 years younger than he. But he felt intensely remorseful about the estrangement from his first wife, and his Poems 1912–1913 were elegies for her and explorations of his grief. A biographer of Hardy called the collection “one of the finest and strangest celebrations of the dead in English poetry” and said, “The more risks he takes the less he falters.”

He wrote a number of novels that were translated into films. Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), and Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) were all made into silent films by the early 1920s. In the 1970s, the BBC commissioned adaptations of stories from his collection the Wessex Tales (1888).

In 1967, John Schlesinger made a film of Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. Four years later, the BBC did a mini-series of his novel Jude the Obscure, which he had published in 1895. In 1996, director Michael Winterbottom made a movie based on the novel. He called it Jude. In 1979, director Roman Polanski made a version of Tess of the d’Urbervilles entitled simply Tess.

Scholars agree that Hardy’s novels translate well to film because of the “painterly” quality to his writing. He wrote vivid pictorial descriptions that provided good blueprints for filmmaking.

Hardy said: “A lover without indiscretion is no lover at all. Circumspection and devotion are a contradiction in terms.”

And, “If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the Inquisition might have let him alone.

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