What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then?
“What if you slept...” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Public Domain. (buy now)
On this date in 1512, Martin Luther joined the faculty of the University of Wittenberg. As a young man, Luther planned to study the law, but when he was caught in a powerful storm in 1505, he vowed to St. Anne that he would become a monk if he lived through the storm. He didn’t feel fulfilled by his experience in the monastery, and his disillusionment only grew after he was made a delegate to a church conference in Rome. When he got back to Germany, he decided to pursue his doctorate at the University of Wittenberg. He did so well that he was asked to teach there as a professor of theology. The act of preparing lessons for his students led him to think more deeply about his own faith, and what it was that bothered him about the Roman Catholic Church. In 1517, Pope Leo X announced the sale of indulgences to help finance the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. People could give money to the church to lessen their punishment for their sins. Luther was enraged and wrote a document called “Disputation on the Power of Indulgences” — commonly known as “the Ninety-five Theses” — explaining why the sale of indulgences corrupted people’s faith. He nailed his theses to the door of the university chapel, and kicked off the Protestant Reformation.
It’s the birthday of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (books by this author), born in Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire, England (1772), who was an extremely ambitious young man, giving lectures on religion, writing journalism, and single-handedly trying to launch his own magazine. But he was exhausting himself and falling into a depression when he was introduced to the poet William Wordsworth. They met only briefly in 1795, but they struck up a correspondence and began exchanging poems. Wordsworth encouraged Coleridge to stop writing journalism and focus on poetry, and Coleridge took the advice. His poetry made him happier and happier, and after finishing a long and ambitious poem, he decided he needed to see Wordsworth in the flesh, so he set out to walk to Wordsworth’s house, miles away. The walk took several days and when he approached Wordsworth’s home, he was so overcome with happiness that he leapt over the gate and ran down the field to Wordsworth’s house.
That first year of their friendship was the most productive period of Coleridge’s life. They both liked to compose their poetry while walking, so they took long walks together throughout that summer, though Wordsworth preferred to stay on the path while Coleridge liked rough terrain. That winter, they spent several days hiking along the coast, and to pass the time they made up a gothic ballad about a tragic sea voyage. Coleridge became obsessed with the poem when he got home, filling it with images from nightmares he’d had since he was a kid, and it became his masterpiece, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” (1798), the story of a sailor who brings a curse on his ship when he kills a bird, and for the rest of his voyage he is tormented by sea monsters and the ghosts of his dead shipmates.
But within a few years of writing “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Coleridge’s life began to fall apart. He became addicted to opium, which killed his creativity — and ruined his friendship with Wordsworth. He wrote a great book of literary criticism called Biographia Literaria (1817) but he failed to complete most of his ambitious projects, including a 1,400-page work of geography, a two-volume history of English prose, a translation of Faust, a musical about Adam and Eve, a history of logic, a history of German metaphysics, a study of witchcraft, and an encyclopedia.
His friends hated the fact that he had wasted so much of his talent. They’d all considered him the most brilliant writer and thinker they’d ever known, but he’d accomplished so little. Near the end of his life, his friend Charles Lamb wrote of Coleridge, “His face when he repeats his verses hath its ancient glory, an Archangel a little damaged.”
Today is the birthday of science fiction writer Ursula Kroeber Le Guin (books by this author), born in Berkeley, California, in 1929. Her father was the well-known anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, and she grew up listening to Native American legends. She would later say, “My father studied real cultures and I make them up — in a way, it’s the same thing.” She’s best known for her Earthsea series of books about a world populated by wizards and dragons. It’s been translated into 16 languages. She also worked for 40 years on a translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching.
An interviewer once asked her advice for writers, and she replied: “I am going to be rather hard-nosed and say that if you have to find devices to coax yourself to stay focused on writing, perhaps you should not be writing what you’re writing. And, if this lack of motivation is a constant problem, perhaps writing is not your forte. I mean, what is the problem? If writing bores you, that is pretty fatal. If that is not the case, but you find that it is hard going and it just doesn’t flow, well, what did you expect? It is work; art is work.”
She said, “It is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception and compassion and hope.”
Today is the 60th birthday of Carrie Fisher (books by this author), born in Beverly Hills (1956), a show-biz kid whose parents were Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. She grew up hounded by the press, especially after Eddie left Debbie for Elizabeth Taylor. She started writing when she was a youngster, to cope. “By the time I was 13, maybe even younger, I would write to calm myself down,” Fisher recalled in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “I had an overflowing of words. And I realized that if I put things down on paper I could get out from the emotions and organize myself.”
She also read a lot, starting with the classics and finally finding an idol in Dorothy Parker: “I decided that’s who I wanted to be,” she says. “I worked out that, like me, she was half-Jewish, she was five-foot-one, she had brown hair, brown eyes, and then later on of course she married a gay guy. But she married hers twice, so I didn’t do that. And she was an alcoholic and she was a wordsmith. That was who I admired, and I started writing limericks like hers.”
But she is best known as Princess Leia, from the original Star Wars trilogy (1977–1983). She revisited that character last year in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and had to put up with a lot of fan commentary on how well (or not) she had aged. She fired back: “Youth and beauty are not accomplishments, they’re the temporary happy byproducts of time and/or DNA.” She also broke the bad news to fans of Leia’s romance with Han Solo: their marriage wasn’t happy. “Han and I have a very volatile relationship obviously, which leads to space divorce,” she said.
Fisher has published several books, including the novel Postcards from the Edge (1987) and the memoirs Wishful Drinking (2008) and Shockaholic (2011). Her latest book is The Princess Diarist (2016), taken from the journal she kept on the set of the original Star Wars trilogy.
It’s the birthday of jazz trumpeter and composer Dizzy Gillespie, born in Cheraw, South Carolina (1917), who along with Charlie Parker helped invent the style of jazz known as “bebop” and also incorporated African and Cuban rhythms into his music. He wrote many songs, including “Salt Peanuts” and “A Night in Tunisia.”
He said, “I don’t care too much about music. What I like is sounds.”