Sunday Jan. 25, 2015


Before the Beginning

Before the beginning Thou hast foreknown the end,
  Before the birthday the death-bed was seen of Thee:
Cleanse what I cannot cleanse, mend what I cannot mend.
  O Lord All-Merciful, be merciful to me.

While the end is drawing near I know not mine end:
  Birth I recall not, my death I cannot foresee:
O God, arise to defend, arise to befriend,
  O Lord All-Merciful, be merciful to me.

“Before the Beginning” by Christina Rossetti. Public Domain.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of W. Somerset Maugham (books by this author), born in Paris (1874). His father was in Paris as a lawyer for the British Embassy. When Maugham was eight years old, his mother died from tuberculosis. His father died of cancer two years later. The boy was sent back to England into the care of a cold and distant uncle, a vicar. Maugham was miserable at his school. He said later: “I wasn’t even likeable as a boy. I was withdrawn and unhappy, and rejected most overtures of sympathy over my stuttering and shyness.” Maugham became a doctor and practiced in the London slums. He was particularly moved by the women he encountered in the hospital, where he delivered babies; and he was shocked by his fellow doctors’ callous approach to the poor.” He wrote: “I saw how men died. I saw how they bore pain. I saw what hope looked like, fear and relief; I saw the dark lines that despair drew on a face; I saw courage and steadfastness. I saw faith shine in the eyes of those who trusted in what I could only think was an illusion and I saw the gallantry that made a man greet the prognosis of death with an ironic joke because he was too proud to let those about him see the terror of his soul.”

When he was 23, he published his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, about a working-class 18-year-old named Liza who has an affair with a 40-year-old married man named Jim, a father of nine. Jim’s wife beats up Liza, who is pregnant, and who miscarries and dies. The novel was a big success, and Maugham made enough money to quit medicine and become a full-time writer. For many years, he made his living as a playwright, but eventually he became one of the most popular novelists in Britain. His novels include Of Human Bondage (1915), The Moon and Sixpence (1919), Cakes and Ale (1930), and The Razor’s Edge (1944).

Somerset Maugham said, “To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.”

It’s the birthday of writer Virginia Woolf (books by this author), born in Kensington, England (1882). She began her professional writing career in 1904 at the age of 22, at the end of a terrible year. Her father had died in February, prompting her second major breakdown (the first had come when she was a teenager, after her mother and half-sister both died within a couple of years). This time, she became suicidal; she attempted to throw herself out of a window, but it was low to the ground and she was not seriously hurt. She refused to eat and began hearing things — she thought that the birds were singing in Greek and that King Edward VII was in the azaleas speaking dirty words. She was sent to the countryside to recover. She was not allowed to do much — her exercise was limited, and the doctors refused to let her write anything besides letters. She was frustrated that her siblings were carrying on the family business without her, including moving out of their old home and into a new one. She finally convinced her sister Vanessa to let her come to London for a 10-day visit.

Her friend Violet Dickinson thought that writing would be good for Woolf, and during that brief stay in London, Dickinson introduced her to Margaret Lyttelton, the editor of the women’s supplement of The Guardian. Lyttelton invited her to submit some work. Once the 10 days were over, Woolf was sent back to the countryside to stay with another relative, this one in Yorkshire. There she wrote an essay about Haworth, the Brontë sisters’ parsonage. She wrote: “It may have been the effect of a sympathetic imagination, but I think that there were good reasons why Haworth did certainly strike one not exactly as gloomy, but, what is worse for artistic purposes, as dingy and commonplace.” She also wrote a review of The Son of Royal Langbirth by William Dean Howells. She sent her pieces to Lyttelton, who published them both in The Guardian that December. It was her first published work. When a friend sent a letter of congratulations, Woolf replied: “Not that a review deserves praise, it is necessarily dull work reviewing I think, and I hate the critical attitude of mind because all the time I know what a humbug I am, and ask myself what right have I to dictate what’s good and bad, when I couldn’t, probably, do as well myself!”

In January of 1905, her doctors decided that she was cured, and allowed her to return to London. Also in January, she received her first payment for her writing. She wrote in her diary: “Found this morning on my plate my first installment of wages — £2.7.6 for Guardian articles, which gave me great pleasure. Also a book ‘Women in America’ for review, so that means more work, & cheques ultimately.” That same month, she wrote a piece for her father’s biographer; worked on a longer essay called “Street Music”;and began writing reviews and articles for the Times Literary Supplement.

Woolf was able to support herself with her journalism, and over the next 15 years she published more than 200 reviews and essays. In 1913, her first novel, The Voyage Out,was accepted for publication, a novel she had been working on for many years. She was terrified that everyone would laugh at it; and after she corrected the proofs, she had another breakdown, her first since she had started writing professionally. This breakdown lasted on and off for two years, and she spent time in a nursing home for mental illness. The Voyage Out was finally published in 1915, after Woolf recovered.

Her other novels include Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and Orlando (1928).

She said: “Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.”

It’s the birthday of poet Robert Burns (books by this author), born in Alloway, Scotland (1759). He farmed, worked as a tax collector, and wrote poems. And he spent more than a decade gathering traditional Scottish folk songs, humming the airs and making sheet music out of the tunes, and writing lyrics to a lot of the tunes, as well.

He went about songwriting in a very ritualistic manner, making sure that his mood was right and his Muse was present. Before he started making up words to go with a folk tune, he said he tried hard to discern the “poetic sentiment” that would correspond to the “idea of the musical expression” of the tune. He would ponder this for a while, and then he would write the first stanza, which was always the hardest part. After that, he would get up from his desk, go outside, walk around, sit on the ground sometimes, and look for things in nature that he said would be “in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and workings of my bosom.” And he would hum whatever tune he was working on.

Then, when he could feel his Muse starting “to jade,” he’d go back to his desk and start writing furiously while rocking back and forth on the back legs of his chair — swinging at intervals that matched for him the rhythm of the song he was trying to write out.

He composed hundreds of songs and poems. Among his most famous are “Auld Lang Syne,” “A Red, Red Rose,” “Ae Fond Kiss,” “Tam O’Shanter,” “To a Mouse,” “A Man’s a Man for A’ That,” and “The Battle of Sherramuir.”

When Burns wrote his first poem, in 1783, he commented in his journal: “There certainly is some connection between Love and Music and Poetry. I never had the least thought or inclination of turning Poet till I once got heartily in love, and then rhyme and song were, in a manner, the spontaneous language of my heart.”

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

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