Happy birthday Stephen Spender

Ballyfermot

Classroom in Ballyfermot, Dublin, 1968.

A friend of W.H Auden and personally acquainted with the leading lights of the Bloomsbury Set, W.B. Yeats, Louis MacNeice, Raymond Chandler, Dylan Thomas, Sartre, Eliot and Virginia Wolfe.  Yet few have heard of Spender, who was a voice for social protest and the cause of the working classes.  Though less known than his contemporaries he had sufficient nous to be quoted by the likes of Ronald Regan.

Born on this day in 1909, happy birthday.

An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum; by Stephen Spender

Far far from gusty waves these children’s faces.
Like rootless weeds, the hair torn round their pallor:
The tall girl with her weighed-down head. The paper-
seeming boy, with rat’s eyes. The stunted, unlucky heir
of twisted bones, reciting a father’s gnarled disease,
his lesson, from his desk. At back of the dim class
one unnoted, sweet and young. His eyes live in a dream
of squirrel’s game, in tree room, other than this.

On sour cream walls, donations. Shakespeare’s head,
cloudless at dawn, civilized dome riding all cities.
Belled, flowery, Tyrolese valley. Open-handed map
awarding the world its world. And yet, for these
children, these windows, not this map, their world,
where all their future’s painted with a fog,
a narrow street sealed in with a lead sky
far far from rivers, capes, and stars of words.

Surely, Shakespeare is wicked, the map a bad example.
with ships and sun and love tempting them to steal —
for lives that slyly turn in their cramped holes
from fog to endless night? On their slag heap, these children
wear skins peeped through by bones and spectacles of steel
with mended glass, like bottle bits on stones.
All of their time and space are foggy slum.
So blot their maps with slums as big as doom.

Unless, governor, inspector, visitor,
this map becomes their window and these windows
that shut upon their lives like catacombs,
break O break open till they break the town
and show the children to green fields, and make their world
run azure on gold sands, and let their tongues
run naked into books the white and green leaves open
history theirs whose language is the sun.

Spender

Stephen Spender

Happy 103rd birthday Dylan Thomas

Raven

What strikes me most about the poetry of Dylan Thomas is how he speaks of simple daily things but elevates them to religious heights through the power of his words.  That’s pure poetry.

 

October Wind ; by Dylan Thomas

Especially when the October wind
With frosty fingers punishes my hair,
caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire
and cast a shadow crab upon the land,
by the sea’s side, hearing the noise of birds,
hearing the raven cough in winter sticks,
my busy heart who shudders as she talks
sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words.

Shut, too, in a tower of words, I mark
on the horizon walking like the trees
the wordy shapes of women, and the rows
of the star-gestured children in the park.
Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches,
some of the oaken voices, from the roots
of many a thorny shire tell you notes,
some let me make you of the water’s speeches.

Behind a pot of ferns the wagging clock
tells me the hour’s word, the neural meaning
flies on the shafted disk, declaims the morning
and tells the windy weather in the cock.
Some let me make you of the meadow’s signs;
the signal grass that tells me all I know
breaks with the wormy winter through the eye.
Some let me tell you of the raven’s sins.

Especially when the October wind
(some let me make you of autumnal spells,
the spider-tongued, and the loud hill of Wales)
with fists of turnips punishes the land,
some let me make you of the heartless words.
The heart is drained that, spelling in the scurry
of chemic blood, warned of the coming fury.
By the sea’s side hear the dark-vowelled birds.

 

Best thing since…

Bread

Who will save me from this misery?

Today is the birthday of Otto Frederick Rohwedder, born 1880 and went on to become a famous American inventor.  Don’t recognize the name?  He invented the automatic bread slicing, and wrapping machine.  Yes folks this is the man who changed the English language forever.  Before he came on the scene all you could say was that it was the best thing since……bread.

This bread I break; by Dylan Thomas

This bread I break was once the oat,
this wine upon a foreign tree
plunged in its fruit;
Man in the day or wine at night
laid the crops low, broke the grape’s joy.

Once in this time wine the summer blood
knocked in the flesh that decked the vine,
once in this bread
the oat was merry in the wind;
Man broke the sun, pulled the wind down.

This flesh you break, this blood you let
make desolation in the vein,
were oat and grape
born of the sensual root and sap;
My wine you drink, my bread you snap.

Rosetta Stone

The most visited object in the British Museum

The most visited object in the British Museum

It was on this day in the year 1799 that Pierre-Francois Bouchard discovered the Rosetta Stone.  Bouchard was a new man, made up by the French revolution.  Blinded in one eye during a chemistry experiment he went on to become a military engineer.  He joined the expedition to Egypt with Napoleon.

In 1799 he was given the job of repairing an old Mameluke fort in the port town of Rosetta (modern Rashid).  During construction he noticed the inscribed stone, which had been used to build the walls of the fort.  An intelligent man, Bouchard immediately recognised the importance of the find.  A single stone bearing the same inscription in three scripts, Greek, Demotic and Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs.

Plaster casts of the stone were taken and dispatched to linguistic scholars for translation.

The stone itself fell into British hands in 1801 when they drove the French out of Egypt.  It was moved to London and has been on display almost continuously since 1802.

Translation of the text took somewhat longer.

The Greek text was translated by 1803.

It was not until 1822 that Jean Francois Champollion released a translation of the Egyptian elements of the text.  Even then it took many years of work before scholars could confidently translate other ancient Egyptian texts.

Egypt and France both claim rights to the stone, which is  still held in the British Museum.

The Rosetta stone had impacts beyond the translation of Egyptian texts.  The lessons learned in Egypt have helped to unlock other pictographic alphabets such as Mayan.

The term “Rosetta Stone” is now often used to signify a key to unlocking an understanding of a field of knowledge.

And death shall have no dominion; by Dylan Thomas

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.