Here is a wintry verse for your household.
It’s snowing like crazy here in Washington DC. How about where you are?
Today is the birthday of [James] Langston Hughes (1902-1967), born in Joplin, Missouri. After his parents’ divorce, Hughes spent his childhood with a number of relatives, including his grandmother, who was one of the first women to graduate from Oberlin College. She taught him Bible stories, hymns, and the history of African-American heroes, among them Hughes family members. We can here speculate that this probably had a long-term effect on a thoughtful child with an ear for language.
During his rather isolated early childhood, Hughes began writing his own stories and poems. Despite his father’s disapproval (his father wanted him to become an engineer), he persisted, developing a sensitive, passionate voice that was influenced by jazz, blues, and the speech and concerns of ordinary black Americans. Frustration led him to drop out of Columbia University and try something else. Before he achieved recognition for his writing, Hughes worked as a merchant seaman, busboy, cook, dishwasher, and Paris doorman(!). Wanderlust and perhaps a hopeful temperament made a traveler of him. Hughes said, “Most people are essentially good, in every race and in every country where I have been.”
In his life he spent time in Mexico, West Africa, Europe, and the Soviet Union, as well as all over the States, but of all places he loved Harlem best. His first (and prize-winning) book of poems was about Harlem life. He went on to write many books of poetry, novels, essays, short stories, song lyrics, and plays. In the 1930s his work was attacked by critics as disturbingly dark; by the 1960s it was attacked as insufficiently radical. This may be the inevitable fate of many a creative person who lives long enough to endure it.
Today is the birthday of Robert Burns (1759-1796), national poet of Scotland, who wrote over 900 poems and songs and collected and made available hundreds of traditional Scottish songs as well. This is all the more astounding when you consider his impoverished background, spotty education, delayed launch into literary life, and, sadly, his premature death at age 37. All over the English-speaking world today, Burns’ birthday is celebrated with recitation of his poetry; the festive presentation, and even the consumption, of haggis; toasts, speeches and songs; and a concluding round of Auld Lang Syne.
Although Burns is probably best known for his beautiful and poignant love poems, generally written in honor of one of the numerous ladies Burns admired, my offering today is a seasonal verse appropriate for a Monday morning in January.
Move your buttocks, you lazy fool. It’s breakfast-time!
Stop talking nonsense, you unmannerly blockhead.
Another verse from our dinner-table collection, from a longer poem by Matilda Betham-Edwards (1836-1919). I came across this verse long ago by chance, never having heard of its author, and recently learned that she was an extremely prolific writer of poetry, short stories, novels, and accounts of her travels in Europe and North Africa, unusual for a single woman of her day.
The dinner hour is pretty much the only time the whole family is together, and we customarily begin the meal with a verse. Sometimes it’s our old standbys; but, to avoid the meaninglessness engendered by repetition, I have illustrated a number of the verses we use in homeschooling and keep a binder of them at the table. Some are seasonal, like this one; a few are humorous; many are simply reminders to be conscious of and thankful for our blessings.