Wednesday Dec. 21, 2016

0:00/ 0:00

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

“He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” by William Butler Yeats. Public Domain.  (buy now)

In the Northern Hemisphere, today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the longest night. It’s officially the first day of winter and one of the oldest-known holidays in human history. Anthropologists believe that solstice celebrations go back at least 30,000 years, before humans even began farming on a large scale. Many of the most ancient stone structures made by human beings were designed to pinpoint the precise date of the solstice. The stone circles of Stonehenge were arranged to receive the first rays of midwinter sun.

Some ancient peoples believed that because daylight was waning, it might go away forever, so they lit huge bonfires to tempt the sun to come back. The tradition of decorating our houses and our trees with lights at this time of year is passed down from those ancient bonfires. In ancient Egypt and Syria, people celebrated the winter solstice as the sun’s birthday. In ancient Rome, the winter solstice was celebrated with the festival of Saturnalia, during which all business transactions and even wars were suspended, and slaves were waited upon by their masters.

Writer Edward Hoagland turns 84 today (books by this author). Hoagland was born in 1932 in New York City and grew up in New Canaan, Connecticut. His father was a prosperous lawyer, and very straitlaced, and after high school, Hoagland literally ran away to join the circus. He tended the big cats for the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus, an experience he turned into his first novel, Cat Man (1955), published when he was just 23. His father had tried to stop publication, fearing the novel would ruin the family’s reputation and sully Hoagland’s sister’s chance of marrying, but it didn’t work, and the novel was published to great acclaim. Hoagland was in the Army at the time and only found out about all the hubbub when his superior officer approached him and said, “Private Hoagland, do you know your picture is in Time magazine?”

Hoagland wrote another novel, The Circle Home (1960), and then started traveling. He took a series of trips to Africa and Alaska, which he called “the top hat of the continent,” and started writing ruminative essays about travel, nature, and humanity’s role in the universe.

Edward Hoagland’s books include The Peacock’s Tail (1965), Children Are Diamonds (2013), and Sex and the River Styx (2011), in which he writes, “I’ve been publishing books for forty years, and I don’t have a fastball anymore, just a knuckleball, spitball, and other Satchel Paige stuff.”

When asked why writing about nature matters, Edward Hoagland answered: “Because people will want to know what those wild places were like when there are no more wild places. There will be no more wild places! There will be national parks that will be like glorified zoos. But there simply will not be wild places.”

The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock on this date in 1620. They had in hand a charter to settle in the Virginia Colony, which at that time stretched up to the mouth of the Hudson River. Bad weather had forced them off course, and they first landed on the shores of North America at Cape Cod. Because winter was imminent and sea travel was dangerous, they decided to stay where they were rather than set out again for the Virginia Colony. The problem was that their settlement contract specified Virginia. So they hastily drew up a new charter, which they called the Mayflower Compact, promising to create a “civil Body Politick” with “just and equal laws” that would be loyal to the English king. Every adult male had to sign it before he and his family were allowed to go ashore. Most people spent the winter on board the ship, while a few intrepid souls went ashore to begin building some shelter.

The settlers’ new home was not uninhabited wilderness, of course. The region was home to the Wampanoag, which means the People of the First Light. At that time, as many as 40,000 Wampanoag people lived in 67 villages in the area. Their numbers weren’t apparent to the English settlers at first, because the Wampanoag spent the winter living farther inland, in valleys and forests. In the spring, they returned closer to shore, to fish and plant crops. Over that winter of 1620, the Pilgrims occasionally glimpsed a Wampanoag person, but the two parties didn’t meet formally until March 1621. They made a treaty with Ousamequin — known to the English as Massasoit — to establish peaceful relations. One man, named Squanto, had spent some time in London as a captive, and he agreed to live with the Pilgrims and show them how to plant native crops.

Today is the birthday of Irish revolutionary, activist, and suffragette Maud Gonne (1866). Gonne founded the Irish nationalist group The Daughters of Ireland and fought for land rights and prison reform. She was also the lifelong muse of Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who proposed to her several times. She refused each time, mostly because she thought his political views weren’t radical enough, but also because, she told him: “You make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and are happy in that. Marriage would be such a dull affair. Poets should never marry. The world should thank me for not marrying you.”

Gonne was born in Surrey, England. Her parents were distinguished and wealthy, and she was mostly raised by a French nanny. When she was six, her mother died of tuberculosis. Gonne’s father, a military attaché, told her, “You must never be afraid of anything, not even of death.”

She became active in politics early on, advocating for Home Rule and even establishing a French newspaper, L’lrlande Libre (1913). She founded the Women Prisoner’s Defence League (1922) when she discovered many female prisoners were actually locked up in men’s prisons. Gonne established the Irish White Cross to help victims of domestic violence. Her social activism led her countrymen to nickname her “Ireland’s Joan of Arc.”

She was six feet tall, with deep red hair, and when she met W.B. Yeats (1889), they were both 25 years old. She shared his fascination with occultism and the theater. He wrote a play for her called Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902). Gonne played the lead. She married someone else, and had a daughter she named Iseult. Yeats even proposed to Iseult when she turned 23. She turned him down, too.

Yeats wrote some of his finest poems for Maud Gonne, including “This, This Rude Awakening” and “Aedh wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” in which he wrote, “I have spread my dreams under your feet / Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

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