Tuesday Dec. 1, 2015


The Philosopher

Well here’s a salute to
that clean old man who’s

out every day fishing up
coins with a string and

a bit of gum through the
subway gratings on Broad-
way he says that he aver-
ages five dollars a week

and he says that’s enough
for a man who don’t drink.

“The Philosopher” by James Laughlin from The Collected Poems of James Laughlin 1935-1997. © New Directions Book, 2014. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1589 that the first part of Edmund Spenser's epic poem "The Faerie Queene" was registered for publication in London (books by this author). Spenser was English, but he had written most of the poem in Ireland.

Ten years earlier, Spenser had published a book of pastoral poems called The Shepheardes Calender (1579). It had been a great success at court — Spenser found himself admired by the rich and famous, and a powerful lord offered to serve as his patron. But it was virtually impossible to make a living as a poet, and Spenser was short on money, so one of his wealthy admirers pulled some strings and got him a job as a secretary to Lord Grey, the new Deputy to Ireland.

The 28-year-old poet set out for Ireland, where Grey crushed an Irish rebellion against the English. After the rebels were defeated, the English seized land from the Irish, and Spenser was given a piece of land to live on. The land was an estate of about 3,000 acres, with hills, streams, and a castle. For the next 10 years, Spenser worked for Grey and wrote the first part of The Faerie Queene. The work was all-consuming, and as far as anyone knows, he didn't write any other poetry during all those years.

In Ireland, Spenser met English poet and adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh, who had a nearby 12,000-acre estate. In the summer of 1589, Raleigh spent some time in Ireland, where he visited Spenser, who showed him his first three parts of The Faerie Queene.Raleigh was delighted, and insisted that Spenser return to London to personally present the work to Queen Elizabeth; he was sure she would love it. They traveled to England together that fall, and on this day, Spenser registered The Faerie Queene for publication. When it was published, probably early in 1590, Spenser dedicated it to "the most mightie and magnificent empress Elizabeth."

Elizabeth requested an audience with Spenser, to have him read his poem aloud. She did love it, and once again he was at the center of the English court, with more admirers and patrons than ever. He hoped he would receive a royal pension or a government job so he could stay in England. According to legend, after hearing The Faerie Queene, Elizabeth suggested that Spenser be paid £100; but her chief advisor, Lord Burghley, didn't think much of Spenser, and objected to such a generous gift. So Elizabeth told him to pay the poet "what is reason." Burghley didn't pay him at all. After a few months, Spenser sent Elizabeth a poem: "I was promised on a time / To have a reason for my rhyme; / From that time unto this season, / I received nor rhyme nor reason." Spenser got his payment, and the phrase "rhyme or reason" became part of the English language.

It was on this day in 1860 that the first two chapters of Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations were published in All the Year Round, his weekly magazine (books by this author).

Dickens had begun publishing All the Year Round in April of 1859. The first issue contained a mixture of journalism, essays, and fiction, including the first installment of Dickens' novel A Tale of Two Cities. It was an immediate success. After A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens serialized The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, also wildly popular.

But then, in the fall of 1860, he serialized a novel called A Day's Ride by Charles Lever, and it was a total flop. Readership of the magazine dropped more each week, and Dickens was frantic and on the verge of bankruptcy. So he called a staff meeting, and decided he needed to run a new novel of his own. He wrote to his friend, John Forster: "Last week, I got to work on a new story. I called a council of war at the office on Tuesday. It was perfectly clear that the one thing to be done was, for me to strike in. I have therefore decided to begin a story, the length of the Tale of Two Cities, on the 1st of December — begin publishing, that is. I must make the most I can out of the book. When I come down, I will bring you the first two or three weekly parts. The name is, Great Expectations. I think a good name?" And two months later, he had written enough of Great Expectations to begin printing it.

Dickens felt bad about Lever's book. He wrote to him: "I have waited week after week, for these three or four weeks, watching for any sign of encouragement. The least sign would have been enough. But all the tokens that appear are in the other direction." Rather than cut out Lever's novel altogether, he encouraged him to wrap it up as quickly as possible, but he continued to run it, side by side with Great Expectations.

Dickens' approach worked. By the middle of Great Expectations, All the Year Round was selling 100,000 copies each week.

Great Expectations begins: "My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip. I give Pirrip as my father's family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister — Mrs Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith. As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones."

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