Monday, August 31, 2009

August 31: America's Greatest Thinker (Vol. 5, pp. 5-15)

On this day in 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his "American Scholar" lecture before the Phi Beta Kappa society in Cambridge, Mass. It is a wordy, convoluted talk about learning and education, and an extremely tough slog even in small bites.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

August 30: Simple Life in a Palace (Vol. 2, pp. 222-228)

Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome, yet lived a quiet and simple life. How? Read today's piece from his "Meditations.'

Saturday, August 29, 2009

August 29: Cleopatra Bewitches Mark Antony (Vol. 12, pp. 339-349)

Speaking of tragic love stories, it was on this day in 30 B.C. that Cleopatra died after her lover, Marc Antony, committed suicide. Plutarch tells the tale in today's selection.

Friday, August 28, 2009

August 28: The World's Love Tragedy (Vol. 19, pp. 158-167)

On this day in 1749, Johann Wolfgang Goethe was born. That's why we get more "Faust" today.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

August 27: Priceless Treasures of Memory (Vol. 6, pp. 317, 417, 442, 511)

More poetry from Robert Burns today. This seems to be his greatest hits package with "Auld Lang Syne," "My Bonie Bell," "Saw Ye Bonie Lesley" and "A Man's A Man For A' That."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

August 26: The Prince of Wales Wins His Spurs (Vol. 35, pp. 27-33)

The Battle of Crecy was fought on this day in 1346. Jean Froissart's "Chronicles" describe what happened in yet another pointless battle from an era of European history filled with pointless battles that we know today as "The Hundred Years' War."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

August 25: Britain Saved by a Full Moon (Vol. 30, pp. 27-33)

On this day in 1882, Sir William Thomson Kelvin delivered a lecture on tidal patterns, which is our reading today.

We'll let Lord Kelvin, who had one of the most creative and wide-ranging scientific minds of the 19th century, take over from here as he discusses how little the Romans knew about tides and how that knowledge foiled Julius Caesar's attempt to conquer Britain.

It is curious to look back on the knowledge of the tides possessed in ancient times, and to find as early as two hundred years before the Christian era a very clear account given of the tides at Cadiz. But the Romans generally, knowing only the Mediterranean, had not much clear knowledge of the tides. At a much later time than that, we hear from the ancient Greek writers and explorers—Posidonius, Strabo, and others—that in certain remote parts of the world, in Thule, in Britain, in Gaul, and on the distant coasts of Spain, there were motions of the sea—a rising and falling of the water—which depended in some way on the moon. Julius Cæsar came to know something about it; but it is certain the Roman Admiralty did not supply Julius Cæsar’s captains with tide tables when he sailed from the Mediterranean with his expeditionary force, destined to put down anarchy in Britain. He says, referring to the fourth day after his first landing in Britain—”That night it happened to be full moon, which time is accustomed to give the greatest risings of water in the ocean, though our people did not know it.” It has been supposed however that some of his people did know it—some of his quartermasters had been in England before and did know—but that the discipline in the Roman navy was so good that they had no right to obtrude their knowledge; and so, although a storm was raging at the time, he was not told that the water would rise in the night higher than usual, and nothing was done to make his transports secure higher up on the shore while he was fighting the Britons. After the accident Cæsar was no doubt told—”Oh, we knew that before, but it might have been ill taken if we had said so.”

If the Roman navy was a little more on the ball, the whole course of history might have changed.

Monday, August 24, 2009

August 24: Survivor's Story of Vesuvius (Vol. 9, pp. 284-291)

On this day in 79 A.D., Vesuvius erupted and buried the city of Pompeii under countless tons of lava, volcanic ash and rocks.

What I didn't realize before today's reading was that Pliny — both the elder and the younger — witnessed the disaster and that Pliny the elder died while trying to rescue refugees. Pliny the younger fled with his mother and survived. It is his account that we have today of the death and destruction at Pompeii.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

August 23: What is a Beautiful Woman? (Vol. 24, pp. 78-88)

From Edmund Burke's essay, "On the Sublime and Beautiful," we get his musings on beauty and see how he addresses this subject with the most dry and boring prose imaginable.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

August 22: Aboard the Old Sailing Ships (Vol. 23, pp. 99-111)

Is it because he was a Harvard man, or because the editors love sailing stories that we get another selection from Dana's "Two Years Before the Mast" just a week after the last one?

Friday, August 21, 2009

August 21: Hidden Treasures in an Old Book (Vol. 7, pp. 118-126)

And speaking of more hallucinatory religious nonsense, here comes more of St. Augustine's "Confessions." Today, he writes of the treasures that can be found in the Bible.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

August 20: Plot Against Eve (Vol. 4, pp. 154-164)

Milton's "Paradise Lost" was published this day in 1667, so we get the story of how Satan plotted against God to bring sin to mankind by using Eve to carry out the plot. More hallucinatory religious nonsense.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

August 19: Roses Boiled in Wine (Vol. 38, pp. 50-58)

Ambroise Paré was a famed military surgeon of the 15th century, and he outlines some of his treatments in today's reading, "Journeys in Diverse Places." The editors single out the "astonishing treatments and cures," but the real gist of Paré's writing is the total futility of war and the barbaric (by modern standards) medical treatment that the wounded received at the time.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

August 18: "I Took Her By The Hair and Dragged Her Up and Down" (Vol. 31, pp. 312-323)

More from Cellini's "Autobiography," this time about how models were treated by the artists of the Renaissance. From the title of today's reading, you can guess that they weren't treated very well.

Monday, August 17, 2009

August 17: Three Walls Luther Saw (Vol. 36, pp. 263-275)

Continuing the religious theme, we get some of Martin Luther's "Address to the Nobility" today, part of his campaign to reform the Catholic Church which eventually led to the breakaway Christian sects we classify today as Protestants.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

August 16: Inspiring Ritual of Temple Worship (Vol. 44, pp. 286-295)

More of David's psalms today. Something for the divinity students to chew over.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

August 15: Into Death's Face He Flung This Song (Vol. 49, pp. 166-173)

Roland died this day at Roncesvaux in 778 in battle against the armies of Charlemagne. So, we get "The Song of Roland" (not to be confused with "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner," by Warren Zevon, which is infinitely better than the song about the other Roland).

Friday, August 14, 2009

August 14: A College Boy Goes to Sea (Vol. 23, pp. 30-37)

On this day in 1834, Richard Henry Dana Jr. shipped out of Boston to start his two-year voyage immortalized in "Two Years Before The Mast."

Ill health forced Dana to drop out of Harvard, but he wanted adventure and to see the world. He instead ended up with a great yarn and returned to Harvard a hero.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

August 13: Too Close to See the Battle (Vol. 41, pp. 732-735)

The Battle of Blenheim happened this day in 1704, when the armies of England and France clashed in a town in Bavaria. Thirty thousand French and Bavarian soldiers died, while just 11,000 of the Duke of Marlborough's men perished.

It's a rather obscure moment in European history immortalized in today's poem by Robert Southey. Because it breaks down this poem better than I can, here's an analysis of "After Blenheim" from the 1912 book "Historic Poems and Ballads," edited by Rupert S. Holland.

"Southey's poem tells how a little girl found a skull near the battle-field many years afterward, and asked her grandfather how it came there. He told her that a great battle had been fought there, and many of the leaders had won great renown. But he could not tell her why it was fought or what good came of it. He only knew that it was a 'great victory.' That was the moral of so many of the wars that devestated Europe for centuries. The kings fought for more power and glory; and the peasants fled from burning homes, and the soldiers fell on the fields. The poem gives an idea of the real value to men of such famous victories as that of Blenheim."

Southey died in 1843, years before the carnage of other larger wars would litter Europe with tens of millions of corpses. But he instinctively understood the futility and stupidity of war.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

August 12: Zekle's Courtin' (Vol. 42, pp. 1376-1379)

James Russell Lowell's poem "The Courtin'" is today's selection, and it's in a Robert Burns-like dialect style. Nineteenth century lovin' for those who care.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

August 11: Clever Repartee of Epictetus (Vol. 2, pp. 176-182)

More aphorisms from "The Golden Sayings," by the ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus today. He advises that when someone speaks ill of you, make no defense, but answer, "He surely knew not my other faults, else he would not have mentioned these only."

Monday, August 10, 2009

August 10: "Give Them Cake," said the Queen (Vol. 24, pp. 143-157)

On this day in 1792, the French royal family was imprisoned and they certainly earned their trip to the slammer. The title of today's reading is an allusion to Marie Antoinette's famous reply to the protests of starving Parisians complaining of bread shortages, "Well, then, let them eat cake."

We get the details today from Edmund Burke in his essay, "The Revolution in France."

Sunday, August 9, 2009

August 9: English Bridal Party Jailed (Vol. 15, pp. 326-334)

Issak Walton was born this day in 1593, and I will again protest here that the editors of the classics should've included "The Compleat Angler," instead of Walton's biographical essays such as this one on John Donne and how Donne was arrested after marrying his employer's niece.

Her father was enraged, and he had the entire bridal party jailed. Donne eventually was release, but he ended up without a position, without money and without his bride.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

August 8: Men Transformed by Circe's Wand (Vol. 22, pp. 133-144)

More of Odysseus' adventures today from Homer's "Odyssey." This time, our hero and his crew are stranded on a remote island governed by an enchantress. But the crew ticked off Circe, so she turned them into pigs.

Friday, August 7, 2009

August 7: The Last Golden Words of Socrates (Vol. 2, pp. 45-54)

In today's reading from Plato's "Phaedo," he and his friends are visiting with Socrates in the final hours before his death sentence was to be carried out.

Needless to say, they were hanging on Socrates' every word, trying to glean one last moment of enlightenment before the end.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

August 6: A Prophet of Aerial Warfare (Vol. 42, pp. 979-986)

Alfred Lord Tennyson was born this day in 1809. Flying machines weren't yet invented, yet Tennyson wrote this line: "For I dipt into the future — saw the nation's airy navies grappling in the central blue."

That comes from the poem "Locksley Hall," which is today's reading. Inadvertantly, since the editors chose this piece long before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which happened this day in 1945, this poem has extra added resonance. In particular, these lines:

Men, my brothers, men the workers, ever reaping something new:
That which they have done but earnest of the things that they shall do:

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;

Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.
There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.
So I triumph’d ere my passion sweeping thro’ me left me dry,
Left me with the palsied heart, and left me with the jaundiced eye;
Eye, to which all order festers, all things here are out of joint,
Science moves, but slowly slowly, creeping on from point to point:

Slowly comes a hungry people, as a lion creeping nigher,
Glares at one that nods and winks behind a slowly-dying fire.

Yet I doubt not thro’ the ages one increasing purpose runs,
And the thoughts of men are widen’d with the process of the suns.

What is that to him that reaps not harvest of his youthful joys,
Tho’ the deep heart of existence beat for ever like a boy’s?
Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers, and I linger on the shore,
And the individual withers, and the world is more and more.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

August 5: Joys of the Simple Life (Vol. 6, pp. 134-140)

On this day in 1788, Robert Burns married Jean Armour, the excuse for the editors giving us another Burns poem. Today, it's "The Cotter's Saturday Night," a Scotch ode to the joys of home and hearth.

The best line in this poem: "An honest man's the noblest work of God."

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

August 4: World's Greatest Bedtime Stories (Vol. 17, pp. 221-230)

Hans Christian Anderson died this day in 1875, and he is more than deserving of the title of today's reading.

Monday, August 3, 2009

August 3: When the Greeks Sacked Troy (Vol. 13, pp. 110-117)

Aeneas and his boys lay waste to Troy in today's selection from Virgil's "Aeneid." Unfortunately for Aeneas, his target, King Priam, gets away.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

August 2: Poems from a Heart of Love (Vol. 40, pp. 326-330)

Seventeenth century English poet William Drummond is featured today, and overwrought love poems is what you get.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

August 1: His Influence Still Lives (Vol. 39, pp. 27-33)

Heavy-handed religious piety from the heavy-handed John Calvin is today's reading.

H.L. Mencken's definition of Puritanism, "The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy," certainly applies to today's reading.