Wednesday Apr. 19, 2017

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People Like Us

      for James Wright

There are more like us. All over the world
There are confused people, who can’t remember
The name of their dog when they wake up, and people
Who love God but can’t remember where

He was when they went to sleep. It’s
All right. The world cleanses itself this way.
A wrong number occurs to you in the middle
Of the night, you dial it, it rings just in time

To save the house. And the second-story man
Gets the wrong address, where the insomniac lives,
And he’s lonely, and they talk, and the thief
Goes back to college. Even in graduate school,

You can wander into the wrong classroom,
And hear great poems lovingly spoken
By the wrong professor. And you find your soul,
And greatness has a defender, and even in death you’re safe.

“People Like Us” by Robert Bly from Stealing Sugar from the Castle. © Norton, 2013. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

The Battles of Lexington and Concord were fought on this date in 1775.

For some years, American colonists had been growing tired of the British crown’s interference in their affairs. It was expensive to defend the colonies, and Britain had imposed a series of revenue-generating and cost-cutting acts. These included the Sugar Act, which limited trade and imposed import duties; the Stamp Act, which required all legal documents to be produced on specially watermarked (and taxed) paper; and the Quartering Act, which required the colonies to bear the cost of housing and supplying British soldiers. The American colonies argued that this was taxation without representation. British troops arrived in Boston in 1768, to quell and manage the growing unrest. In 1773, the British Parliament passed the Tea Act, which allowed the East India Company to sell its tea in America without paying import duties; Americans were angry at being forced to subsidize a British company, and responded by dressing up as Mohawk Indians and dumping the tea in Boston Harbor.

In 1774, the First Continental Congress met illegally in Philadelphia. Fifty-five delegates representing 12 of the 13 colonies convened to discuss the Coercive Acts — a series of acts intended to bring the colonies back into line. In response to the Boston Tea Party, Parliament replaced the local Massachusetts government with royal appointees, strengthened the Quartering Act, shut down Boston Harbor, and gave Britain the right to move any trial back to British courts. The Continental Congress declared the acts void, published a list of American rights, and asked King George III to repeal the Coercive Acts. The king declined.

On April 18, General Thomas Gage — who was serving as the governor of Massachusetts at the king’s command — ordered 700 British soldiers to march to Concord and seize the colonial military stores. From there, the troops were to proceed to Lexington, where colonial leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams were hiding. The colonists weren’t sure whether the British would be coming over land or via the Charles River, so they worked out a system by which the colonial militia could be warned. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized Paul Revere and his role in warning the colonists by way of lanterns in a church steeple:

One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.

When the British regulars arrived in Lexington at about five in the morning, they found 77 armed colonial militiamen waiting for them. In his poem “Concord Hymn,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

It’s not clear who fired the first shot — the “shot heard round the world” — but the greatly outnumbered American militia lost the brief battle. Not so in Concord, where there was a much bigger American force waiting. The British destroyed the arsenal, but were forced back to Boston, under American guerilla fire. By the end of the day, the Revolutionary War had begun.

On this day in 1824, British poet Lord Byron died while fighting in the Greek War of Independence from Ottoman Turkey (books by this author). Byron was a leading figure of Romanic poetry, at once handsome, brooding, and coltish. He was known for his flamboyant affairs with women (and men) and his exotic travels, many of which he immortalized in his best-known poem, the epic Don Juan (1816). He said, “I am such a strange mélange of good and evil that it would be difficult to describe me.” Byron wore curling papers in his hair at night and was a strict vegetarian, often surviving for days on only biscuits and white wine.

Byron was forced to flee England in 1816 amid rumors of an incestuous affair with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. He first settled with Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife, Mary, in Geneva. They spent a cold season trading scary stories, one of which grew into Mary’s classic novel, Frankenstein. But he also had an affair with Mary’s half-sister, Claire, who bore him a daughter named Allegra. Byron, not suited to domestic life, fled once more.

He was invited to join the cause for freedom in Greece. Byron had served in the House of Lords and was a keen purveyor of social justice. In Canto VII of Don Juan, he wrote, “Revolution / Alone can save the earth from hell’s pollution.” He spent 4,000 pounds of his own money to refit the Greek naval fleet and spent his first six months as a rebel fighter miserable and cold in the rainy weather. His plan was to attack the Turkish-held fortress of Lepanto, but he suffered a fever and pains. Byron was bled, according to the custom of the times, but it’s likely the lancet used was not sterilized and he developed sepsis. At his deathbed, he reportedly said: “I have given [Greece] my time, my means, my health — and now I give her my life! What could I do more?”

Upon his death, Greece proclaimed Byron a national hero. And to this day, Byron is still a revered figure in that country. “Vyron,” the Greek form of “Byron,” is a popular name for boys in Greece, and a town near Athens is named “Vyronas” in his honor.

Byron’s body was taken back to England, where he lay in state for two days in London, attracting huge, mournful crowds. It was the custom that individuals of great stature be buried at Westminster Abbey, but the clergy there refused to allow him burial, citing his “questionable morality.” Instead, he was laid to rest in the family vault at Newstead. A marble slab given by the King of Greece was laid directly over his grave.

Not until 1969, after considerable effort, was a memorial to Byron finally placed on the floor of Westminster Abbey, 145 years after his death.

It’s the birthday of diarist Sarah Kemble Knight (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts (1666). Little is known of her early life, except that she took over her father’s merchant business after his death in 1689. It may have been for business reasons, or perhaps to settle a relative’s estate, that she undertook a solo journey on horseback from Boston to New Haven in 1704, when she was 39 years old. She kept a journal of her travels, recording everything that happened and everything she saw along her way. Her diary passed into private hands after her death in 1727, and was not discovered again until 1825, when it was published as The Journal of Madame Knight by Theodore Dwight Junior. It has been reprinted many times since, and is now considered one of the most authentic chronicles of 18th-century colonial life.

It’s the birthday of children’s author and illustrator Jon Agee (books by this author), born in Nyack, New York (1960). He’s the author of The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau (1988), Flapstick: 10 Ridiculous Rhymes with Flaps (1993). He also wrote a book of palindromes — phrases that read the same forward and backward — called GO HANG A SALAMI! I’M A LASAGNA HOG! (1991).

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