Sunday, May 31, 2009

May 31: America's Most Surprising Poet (Vol. 39, pp. 338-339)

Walt Whitman was born this day in 1819. He is the most modern poet included in this series, and I'm certain that some of the editors of the series might have thought him a little too modern. Certainly, when you compare his work to that of his contemporaries, it is like night and day.

But today, we get prose for Whitman's birthday, and what prose! — the preface to "Leaves of Grass."

"The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem," he writes. Whitman believed that the source of that poetry came from the genius of the common people. In these 10 pages, he demonstrates his great love for America and for all the creative energy it contains.

As manifestos go, this is perhaps one of the best for how a person should conduct his or her life:

"This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body..."

And that is why Whitman endures as one of America's greatest poets and writers.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

May 30: When the Throb of the War Drum is Stifl'd (Vol. 42. pp. 1280-1290)

For the traditional Memorial Day, we have "The Building of the Ship," Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem he wrote after the end of the Civil War. It takes about 10 pages before you get to the payoff — the eloquent and immortal final stanza:

"Sail on, O Ship of State!

Sail on, O UNION, strong and great!

Humanity with all its fears,

With all the hopes of future years,

Is hanging breathless on thy fate!"

Our ship of state survived a bloody civil war, two world wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War and eight years of George W. Bush. Humanity with all its fears is breathlessly waiting to see if we can survive the looming catastrophes of a collapsed global financial system, a disrupted climate and ecosystem, peak oil and a human population whose capacity to destroy has outstripped its capacity to think intelligently.

Friday, May 29, 2009

May 29: Adventures in Baghdad (Vol. 16, pp. 177-184)

Another selection from "The Thousand and One Nights," although today's story sounds like it came by way of Aesop. It's about a merchant who daydreams about all the money he is going to make selling a tray of glassware and how he'll be able to marry the king's daughter, but in his reverie, he kicks over the tray. How do you say, "Don't count your chickens before they hatch," in Arabic?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

May 28: Master of Melodious Lyrics (Vol. 41, pp. 816-822)

Thomas Moore was born this day in 1779, so we're treated to more overwrought 19th century English poetry. If poems such as "The Last Rose of Summer" and "The Light of Other Days" turn you on, have at it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

May 27: Lessing's Courageous Stand for Toleration (Vol. 32, pp. 185-195)

"Education is Revelation." That's how Gotthold Ephraim Lessing begins his essay, "The Education of the Human Race."

The piece degenerates into an analysis of the Old Testament. It becomes just another religious tract, until you read a little past today's assignment and find he gets back to the importance of education — that it is a belief in the future and in the steady improvement of the human race, not because it might result in eternal life, but because it might also make for a better life in this realm.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

May 26: Daughter Declares Her Love (Vol. 46, pp. 212-225)

On this day in 1583, Shakespeare's first daughter Susanna was baptized. Why do we have the first act of "King Lear" to mark this occasion? Cordelia, of course.

Monday, May 25, 2009

May 25: Do What You Fear (Vol. 5, pp. 121-131)

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born this day in 1803, and the editors picked out a real barn-burner for his birthday — his 1841 essay, "Heroism," where he forthrightly laid down what it meant to be heroic.

" Self-trust is the essence of heroism. It is the state of the soul at war, and its ultimate objects are the last defiance of falsehood and wrong, and the power to bear all that can be inflicted by evil agents. It speaks the truth and it is just. It is generous, hospitable, temperate, scornful of petty calculations and scornful of being scorned. It persists; it is of an undaunted boldness and of a fortitude not to be wearied out. Its jest is the littleness of common life.

"Times of heroism are generally times of terror, but the day never shines in which this element may not work. The circumstances of man, we say, are historically somewhat better in this country and at this hour than perhaps ever before. More freedom exists for culture. It will not now run against an axe at the first step out of the beaten track of opinion. But whoso is heroic will always find crises to try his edge. Human virtue demands her champions and martyrs, and the trial of persecution always proceeds. "

No matter how dark the times may seem, there is always someone willing to step up, someone who does not fear the axe. The history of our nation is filled with these people — people who meet Emerson's definition of heroism.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

May 24: They Had No Money — Yet Bought and Sold (Vol. 10, pp. 27-33)

Another selection from Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations," this time about how money was invented as a step up from the barter and exchange system.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

May 23: A Plea for an Unfortunate (Vol. 41, pp. 907-911)

The English poet Thomas Hood was born this day in 1799, so we get his poem, "The Bridge of Sighs." It's a about a woman who fell out of love with her husband and was discovered having an affair. She was thrown out of her house and forced to live on the street. Out of luck and out of options, she jumped to her death off a bridge into the Thames.

Hood writes about her body being pulled out of the river, and eloquently pleads her case. Sure, this is just as overwrought as the rest of the poetry of his era, but this one has a little more bite to it than most.

Friday, May 22, 2009

May 22: True Love in Difficulty (Vol. 21, pp. 7-24)

Count Alessandro's Manzoni — author of one of Dr. Elliot's favorite books, "I Promessi Spossi" — died this day in 1873, so we get the opening to this 19th century potboiler.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

May 21: An Honest Man Defined (Vol. 40, pp. 430-440)

Alexander Pope was born this day in 1688, so we get his "Essay on Man," a long poem concerning the state of man that's filled with advice tempered with wit. Not bad.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

May 20: Shakespeare's Finest Work (Vol. 40, pp. 270-276)

On this day in 1609, William Shakespeare's sonnets were entered in the London Stationer's Register. There may be disagreements over which was his finest play, but most are in agreement that Shakespeare's wisdom was distilled and concentrated into these little sonnets. They apparently were personal messages never meant to be published. Posterity is thankful that they were preserved.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

May 19: Golden Advice on Manners (Vol. 2, pp. 128-138)

Some of Epictetus' advice on how to live one's life — mainly to be content with what life offers you and that serenity is the way to happiness. Typical Stoic philosophy.

Monday, May 18, 2009

May 18: The Night Life of Flowers (Vol. 17, pp. 334-341)

Ever wonder why flowers seem so droopy at dawn's first light? Hans Christian Anderson has the answer today. It's because they get tired of standing around during the day, so when the sun goes down, the flowers party the night away.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

May 17: An Honest Life's Reward (Vol. 2, pp. 24-30)

In his "An Apology of Socrates," Plato — one of Socrates' greatest disciples — writes of his mentor's speech to the judges who condemned him to death for impiety. A better translation would have made this selection more understandable.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

May 16: Favorite Superstitions of Celtic Imagination (Vol. 32, pp. 145-155)

Part of Ernest Renan's literary essay, "The Poetry of the Celtic Races" that's an overview of Celtic literature. Not terribly interesting.

Friday, May 15, 2009

May 15: Glimpses Into the Beyond (Vol. 20, pp. 102-114)

Dante was born this day in 1265, so of course, we get the heart of his "Inferno." His fire and brimstone filled description of Hell has become the standard version for how people imagine this place where the wicked and sinful are punished for all eternity. Hallucinatory rubbish!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

May 14: Jenner's Amazing Smallpox Cure (Vol. 38, pp. 145-154)

On this day in 1796, English scientist Edward Jenner administered the first vaccination for smallpox, one of the greatest advances in the history of medicine.

Jenner figured out that cowpox was a close relative of the deadlier smallpox, and that those who had contracted cowpox developed immunity to smallpox. His experiments in using the material in cowpox pustules as a crude form of vaccine against smallpox was a stunning success and opened a new epoch in medicine.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

May 13: What Does Your Dog Think of You? (Vol. 6, pp. 151-157)

Robert Burns' "The Twa Dogs," a poem about two dogs gossiping about their masters, is today's selection. Utter doggerel, pun intended.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

May 12: His Wife's Golden Hair Enshrined His Poems (Vol. 42, pp. 1149-1153, 1178-1181)

Poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born this day in 1828. When his beloved wife died, he buried most of his manuscripts with her. His friends prevailed upon Rossetti to exhume his wife's coffin and print them. After reading these overwrought odes to love, so typical of the poetry of this era, they should've stayed buried.

Monday, May 11, 2009

May 11: Latest Gossip in Malfi (Vol. 47, pp. 721-737)

English dramatist John Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi" is yet another Elizabethian-era tragedy full of nonsense.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

May 10: A Knight Among Cannibals (Vol. 33, pp. 326-341)

Sir Walter Raleigh again, this time writing about a 1595 trip to Guiana as part of his South American voyage in search of gold and treasure to plunder. This is another one of those Elizabethian-era travelogues by an explorer bemused by cultures alien to his own.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

May 9: Relation of Art to Freedom (Vol. 32, pp. 209-217)

German philosopher Friedrich von Schiller died this day in 1805. In this essay, "On Aesthetic Education," he takes a long time to get to his central point — that art and beauty and the appreciation of them are essential to a free society. Seems self-evident today, but it was a radical idea in Schiller's time.

Friday, May 8, 2009

May 8: Behind the Screen in the School for Scandal (Vol. 18. pp. 164-176)

On this day in 1777, Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "School for Scandal" made its premiere. This 18th century comedy of manners was supposedly hot stuff in its time, but after a couple of centuries, it doesn't hold up too well.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

May 7: A Bishop Bargains (Vol. 42, pp. 1074-1078)

The English poet Robert Browning was born this day in 1812, so we get two overwritten poems on vanity. And the maddening pattern of this series continues. You get a compelling stretch with Faraday, Machiavelli and Huxley, followed by bad drama and worse poetry. The selections made by the editors, in my view, are eminently second-guessable.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

May 6: A Poor Artist Defies a Rich Duke (Vol. 31, pp. 373-384)

More from Cellini's autobiography, this time his account of an epic beef with a Duke over how to create a statue. More self-promotion to cement Cellini's status as the Commander McBragg of the Renaissance.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

May 5: Strange Adventures in Man's Clothes (Vol. 26, pp. 7-21)

Spanish playwright Pedro de la Barca Calderon died this day in 1681, so we get the opening to his 1635 masterwork "Life is a Dream." Again, the drama of this era holds no interest for me.

Monday, May 4, 2009

May 4: A Champion of Science (Vol. 26: pp. 209-219)

English botanist and educator Thomas Henry Huxley, who was born this day in 1825, delivers a spirited defense of science and its importance to the future prosperity of mankind in today's selection.

"Science and Culture" is taken from a speech Huxley gave at Mason College (now the University of Birmingham) in 1880. Huxley says that by leaving the enforced certainty of the Middle Ages behind and embracing a new way of thinking, society improved for the better.

"The assertion which outstrips evidence is not only a blunder, but a crime," he said. Words to remember whenever dogma attempts to trump scientific fact.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

May 3: Why Machiavellian? (Vol. 36, pp. 7-17)

Today is Niccolo Machiavelli's birthday, who was born this day in 1469. Today's reading is from the opening to his book, "The Prince," which remains one of the best how-to books on politics nearly five centuries after it was written.

So, how does one become a prince? Machiavelli writes that you either inherit a power base, or you create one. When people want to better their condition, they are always ready to find a new leader. He reminds us that "he who is the cause of another's greatness is himself undone, since he must work either by address or force, each of which excites distrust in a person raised to power."

In other words, one cannot keep power unless you have a united following and have all your potential rivals accounted for.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

May 2: First Sparks of Electricity (Vol. 30, pp. 61-72)

English scientist Sir Michael Faraday explains the principles of magnetism and what make them lead to the existence of electricity and conductivity. He explains it all in a way that makes him the 19th century version of Mr. Wizard, and about 150 years later, this lecture remains a model of fascinating clarity.

Friday, May 1, 2009

May 1: What Would You Ask Judas Iscariot? (Vol. 27, pp. 270-283)

The 19th century English essayist William Hazlett's "Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen," is a rambling mess of an essay about a discussion he and his friends had — what famous people would they most like to meet? Newton, Boccaccio, Cromwell, Chaucer and Judas were among those on the list. It's not the best example of his work, but it is sadly the only one in this series. He deserves better.