Sunday Mar. 26, 2017

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Acquainted with the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-by;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

“Acquainted with the Night” by Robert Frost from Collected Poems, Prose & Plays. © The Library of America, 1995. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of English poet and scholar A.E. Housman (books by this author), born in Worcestershire, England (1859). Housman is remembered for his two collections of poems — A Shropshire Lad (1896), about life in the pastoral English countryside, and Last Poems (1922).

A.E. Housman, who said: “Good literature continually read for pleasure must, let us hope, do some good to the reader: must quicken his perception though dull, and sharpen his discrimination though blunt, and mellow the rawness of his personal opinions.”

On this day in 1920, a 23-year-old unknown author named F. Scott Fitzgerald (books by this author) published his debut novel, This Side of Paradise, to wide acclaim.

This Side of Paradise is a love story inspired by Fitzgerald’s romance with Zelda Sayre (books by this author). The summer before the book’s publication, Zelda had broken up with him. Fitzgerald returned to his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota, hoping that writing a successful novel would win her back. He transformed an older unpublished book from his desk, The Romantic Egotist, into This Side of Paradise.

The book’s protagonist, Amory Blaine, enrolls in Princeton as a Midwest native, engages in a failed relationship with a wealthy young woman, joins the Army, and then returns to begin a relationship with a different debutante, much like Scott Fitzgerald himself. The novel was extraordinarily successful, selling out within three days of its first print.

Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald were married in New York a week after the book’s publication.

It’s the birthday of American poet Robert Frost (1874) (books by this author). People assume Frost was a native New Englander, since many of his poems are set there and evoke wintry landscapes and long, leafy walks, but he was born in San Francisco, where his father was a journalist for the San Francisco Bulletin. When he was 11, his father died and his mother packed up Frost and moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts.

His first poem, “My Butterfly: An Elegy,” was published in the New York Independent in 1894. Frost was paid $15.00 for his poem, about $415.00 today, but mostly he received rejections, like one from the Atlantic Monthly, which simply said, “We regret The Atlantic has no place for your vigorous verse.” He was so excited by his first publication that he proposed to his high school sweetheart. She said yes.

Dejected at having no further luck in America with his poetry, Frost and his wife pulled up stakes and moved to England in 1912. There, he found a champion in poet Ezra Pound, who helped get Frost’s first two books, A Boy’s Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914), published. Pound liked to tease Frost. He once showed him jujitsu in a restaurant and threw him over his head. About England, Robert Frost once said, “I went over there to be poor for a while, nothing else.” When he returned to the U.S., it was as a successful poet, a position he held until his death.

Robert Frost bought a farm in in Franconia, New Hampshire, for $1,000.00 and set about writing about farmers and day laborers, though he himself wasn’t much of farmer. He mostly got up at noon and sat on the fence outside. He liked to use a writing board to compose his poems, not a table, and once claimed to have written poems on the soles of his shoes. He traveled the country giving lectures and visiting schools. Once, during a train trip with poet Wallace Stevens, Stevens turned to Frost and said, “The trouble with your poetry, Frost, is that it has subjects,” to which Frost retorted, “You write about bric-a-brac.”

Robert Frost’s collections of poetry include A Further Range (1937), A Witness Tree (1942), Come In, and Other Poems (1943), You Come Too (1964).

It’s the birthday of Tennessee Williams (books by this author), born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi (1911). He had a fairly happy, carefree childhood in Mississippi, but that all changed when the family moved to St. Louis. The family was not used to an urban environment, and his mother was obsessed with finding a suitable neighborhood to live in, so the family moved a lot. That’s when Williams first started writing. He published some of his short stories when he was in high school, and won a few prizes. As a young man, he often turned to writing as an escape from an unsatisfactory daily life. He was especially close to his sister, Rose, who suffered from schizophrenia and, later, from the effects of a lobotomy. After he became a successful playwright, he made sure that a portion of his royalties went to help pay for Rose’s care. Many elements of Williams’ life made it into his work, which prompted filmmaker Elia Kazan to remark, “Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life.”

In 1943, Williams wrote a short story called “Portrait of a Girl in Glass.” The next year, he turned that story into a play about a disabled girl named Laura, her brother Tom, and their domineering mother. He called the play The Glass Menagerie, and it opened in Chicago to good reviews. The play went to Broadway, where it became a smash hit. It was just the first in a string of successes for Williams, including A Streetcar Named Desire (1948) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), both of which were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Williams was prone to deep depression and, in later years, abused alcohol and drugs. But he once said, “If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.”

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