Thou shalt wander like a breeze


Today is the birthday of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), and so I post this excerpt from one of his poems, Frost at Midnight. Coleridge’s better-known works include the innovative yet strange (one might even say alarming) poems The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, but I chose one that reveals another side of this unhappy, troubled, brilliant man: a tender-hearted and optimistic poem written while caring for his new infant son Hartley. Clearly he anticipates a loftier path for Hartley than the one he has followed himself.

Accompanying it is a detail from a larger painting.

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the interspersed vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shall learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

An Hymn to Phillis

I post this painting and verse (“An Hymn to the Morning”) in honor of poet Phillis Wheatley (circa 1753-1784). Her birth date, and in fact her birth year, are unknown, but today is the anniversary of the day that she was emancipated from slavery. So we might think of that as a kind of birthday.

I chose this image to accompany her poem partly because of its depiction of dawn, but also because it was, unhappily, across the sea that Wheatley came to these shores, kidnapped in West Africa by slavers and sold in Boston. Her age was estimated at around seven or eight, because she had “already lost her front teeth,” a fact that clutches at the heart of any parent reading this unembellished observation. Or of anyone who knows a child… or remembers being a child. No tooth fairy for her, though. Her birth name went unrecorded, and her new owners blithely and undoubtedly without irony gave her the name Phillis, the name of the slave ship that had brought her to Boston, adding their own surname.

Phillis was a thin, sickly child (unsurprising, after such a voyage), and although she was nursed and raised more as a child of the house than a slave, she remained delicate all her short life. Her owners soon recognized that Phillis was bright and precocious and put her education into the hands of their grown daughter Mary. Within sixteen months Phillis was fluent in English and could read even difficult passages in the Bible. Her education included Classical and English literature, geography, history, and Latin, as well as the ubiquitous Bible, and volumes of poetry—an unusual education for a woman of the day, let alone an African slave. (Mary had probably been given the same education.)

At around age twelve, Wheatley began writing her own poetry, and her first published work appeared in a Newport newspaper when she was fourteen. She felt a powerful drive to create poetry, and her owners encouraged her and assisted in its publication in journals in the colonies and in England. Much of the subject matter was quite somber, consisting of tributes to noteworthy personages of the day and elegies composed upon the death of someone’s spouse or child. They are complex in their use of language, employing ambiguity and subtle understatement, and allusions to Greek and Roman history and mythology as well as to the Bible. Wheatley was obviously assuming similar education on the part of her audience, and it’s pretty rough sledding for the 21st century reader. I liked this particular poem because of the rare note of humor in the closing lines, and was glad to imagine her having a small chuckle.

It wasn’t long before Wheatley’s poetry brought her attention. Her owners, unable to find a colonial backer to publish a book of her work, found a publisher in London, who agreed to the project if the work could be prefaced by a statement signed by respectable Bostonians testifying to its authenticity! Phillis was questioned by Boston’s judges, and the required document was procured (one of its 18 signers was John Hancock).

So off she went to England, accompanied by her owners’ grown son, where she spent several months overseeing the publication of her book and meeting both members of the nobility and free Britons of African descent. She was a celebrity. In England there was public criticism of Phillis’ American enslavement, which embarrassed her owners. It probably would have been possible for her to refuse to return to America, and to stay where she would have been free; nevertheless, on hearing of her mistress’ illness, she boarded ship for home, missing an upcoming opportunity to be presented at court. And shortly after her return, her owner signed her emancipation papers.

She was free. What did that mean? Well, that her books belonged to her, and thus she attempted to sell them to help support herself. She authored a tribute to George Washington, who invited her to come call on him, as he wished to meet “the little black poetess.” Phillis had hopes for the Revolution—that the new country, once freed from Britain’s yoke, would turn around and free its own yoked people. Her poetry, which had been ambiguous in its references to slavery, grew more clearly critical. Although she continued to write, while struggling to earn a living as a cleaning woman, she died young, ill and destitute.

Happy Emancipation Day, Phillis. With your gifts and your drive to create, what would you have become in another era? Undoubtedly a published author of many works, interviewed by journalists, embarking on author tours, launching podcasts.

Attend my lays, ye ever honour’d nine,
Assist my labours, and my strains refine;
In smoothest numbers pour the notes along,
For bright Aurora now demands my song.
Aurora hail, and all the thousand dies,
Which deck thy progress through the vaulted skies:
The morn awakes, and wide extends her rays,
On ev’ry leaf the gentle zephyr plays;
Harmonious lays the feather’d race resume,
Dart the bright eye, and shake the painted plume.
Ye shady groves, your verdant gloom display
To shield your poet from the burning day:
Calliope awake the sacred lyre,
While thy fair sisters fan the pleasing fire:
The bow’rs, the gales, the variegated skies
In all their pleasures in my bosom rise.
See in the east th’ illustrious king of day!
His rising radiance drives the shades away–
But Oh! I feel his fervid beams too strong,
And scarce begun, concludes th’ abortive song.

Phillis Wheatley

Justice of the Peace


This sketch is from a canal barge tour we took on the C&O Canal as part of our homeschooling Local History & Geography block. It was mid-week, and my daughter and I were the only non-senior citizens on the trip, so she was definitely the focus of kindly attention (being small and cute with long blond braids), which was fine with her. The restored barge was beautiful, the costumed guide was excellent, the mules were friendly, and it was a lovely day.

ANYWAY, I post the sketch in honor of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas (1898-1980), whose birthday it is today. What, you may ask, is the connection?

Well, some of you may know that Douglas, in addition to serving for 36 years on the Supreme Court, was an avid outdoorsman and supported various environmental causes, even serving briefly on the board of the Sierra Club.

In the 1950s, an era newly keen on the divine glory of automobiles and expanses of concrete pavement, there was a movement in Congress, supported by The Washington Post, to replace the canal with a highway. Douglas, familiar with the canal’s scenery and wildlife, thought this an idiotic and short-sighted idea and challenged the Post’s editorial staff to accompany him on a hike of the canal’s entire length.

Douglas expected that perhaps a handful of folks might accompany him; however, news of the challenge spread, and by the departure date there were 58 in the group, including conservationists, historians, geologists, ornithologists, and zoologists. Each night when they crashed, the group had a free, informative lecture, offered by one of their traveling companions, on some aspect of the canal.

Word got around, and thousands of newspapers carried updates on the hikers. Organizations along the way hosted them and prepared meals. Children and townspeople watched for them and shouted their support. Some joined in for parts of the route.

Even given the ongoing attention, it was a tough hike. The C&O Canal is 185 miles long, and Douglas, age 55, maintained an average pace of 23 miles a day. This was a man who had, after all, hiked the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail. Only eight of his companions made it to the end. By then, public support to save the canal was enormous. Douglas organized and worked with a committee to plan its restoration and preservation, and The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park Act finally passed in 1971.

Canal-lovers, imagine this place as a highway! Today it’s one of the most popular national parks in the U.S., enjoyed by millions of hikers, boaters, bicyclists, and birdwatchers. Not to mention the birds themselves, as well as countless fish, frogs, beaver, fox, and deer. Happy Birthday, Justice Douglas! We have you to thank for this gift, all year round.


CakeYellowRosesAunt Bett

Opera Look-In


Each year the Washington Opera presents “Opera Look-In,” at the Kennedy Center Opera House to educate children about opera. The program presents opera in a highly accessible manner, combining storytelling, brief scenes in costume, and selected arias (accompanied by the full Opera House Orchestra!) with behind-the-scenes explanations of the use of lighting, music, costumes, and props. School groups attend from all over the Washington, DC area, including homeschool groups—lucky us.

Last year the program revolved around the opera Carmen, and included an exhibition of costumes created by fashion design students at Duke Ellington School for the Arts. This year’s program featured Ellington School students supposedly lost in an opera house, encountering as if by accident scenes from The Barber of Seville, Madame Butterfly, Lucia di Lammermoor, The Magic Flute, and (big crowd-pleaser) Cosi Fan Tutte. It’s not easy to sketch in the dark, and by the end I gave up and settled back to enjoy the humorous last quintet.

To engage an auditorium packed with elementary school students is no easy task, and the kids were riveted. I wonder how many go home and ask their parents to rent Cosi Fan Tutte so they can see the rest of the story.

this is the garden

In honor of Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962), whose birthday it is today, a painting and a poem.


this is the garden: colours come and go,
frail azures fluttering from night’s outer wing
strong silent greens serenely lingering,
absolute lights like baths of golden snow.
This is the garden: pursed lips do blow
upon cool flutes within wide glooms, and sing
(of harps celestial to the quivering string)
invisible faces hauntingly and slow.

This is the garden. Time shall surely reap
and on Death’s blade lie many a flower curled,
in other lands where other songs be sung;
yet stand They here enraptured, as among
the slow deep trees perpetual of sleep
some silver-fingered fountain steals the world.

—ee cummings

Columbus Day


Today, October 12th, is the REAL Columbus Day, despite its being established in 1971 to fall always on a Monday and to be celebrated festively by taking the day off from work to shop for reduced-price merchandise.

The arrival of Columbus being a difficult event to “celebrate,” given the centuries of death, destruction, and mad land-grabbing that followed the encounter with two great big plentiful American continents, we recognize the day here at home with a short Columbus bio read aloud, and a Native American blessing, followed by a consciously created Old World-New World meal. Encounters between civilizations, often marked by pain and loss, can also bear promising fruit. Not only botanically speaking, but in terms of eventual (even if it takes centuries) mutual enlightenment.

Tonight we will have sweet potatoes, black beans, and corn on the cob, followed by apple pie and ice cream.