Advent I: I Heard an Angel Singing


This year the First Sunday of Advent happens to fall on the birthday of visionary poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827). And so it seems appropriate to post this poem, with its manifestation of hope in the midst of bleak reality.

I heard an Angel singing
When the day was springing,
“Mercy, Pity, Peace
Is the world’s release.”
Thus he sung all day
Over the new mown hay,
Till the sun went down
And haycocks looked brown.
I heard a Devil curse
Over the heath and the furze,
“Mercy could be no more,
If there was nobody poor,
And pity no more could be,
If all were as happy as we.”
At his curse the sun went down,
And the heavens gave a frown.
Down pour’d the heavy rain
Over the new reap’d grain …
And Miseries’ increase
Is Mercy, Pity, Peace.

—William Blake

On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness

Today, on the birthday of humorist Arthur Guiterman (1871-1943), I post one of his poems, along with a monument to a mouse.


The tusks which clashed in mighty brawls

Of mastodons, are billiard balls.

The sword of Charlemagne the Just

Is Ferric Oxide, known as rust.

The grizzly bear, whose potent hug

Was feared by all, is now a rug.

Great Caesar’s bust is on the shelf,

And I don’t feel so well myself.

—Arthur Guiterman

For He Is An Englishman

Today is the birthday of humorous librettist, dramatist, and director W.S. (William Schwenck) Gilbert (1836-1911), a man who knew how to make a line scan perfectly. It makes singing his verses so very satisfying.

In his honor, I post these sketches from a fabulous performance of The Mikado, probably Gilbert and Sullivan’s best-known and most often performed comic opera. This one took place at the Pittsburgh Public Theater a few seasons back.

The “Japanese” names, like the nonsensical G&S plots and their occasionally offensive point of view, must be taken, like most forms of entertainment, in historical context—this one, that of a supremely confident 19th-century colonial power. It’s still fun.


Mother of Pippi

There are some people who give joy not only during their time on this earth but who continue to spread it after they have moved on. One of them is Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002), whose birthday is today, and whose fruitful 94 years brought forth so many literary offspring. Her best-known heroine, Pippi Longstocking, was an icon of my childhood, and then of my children’s, and she will undoubtedly bring smiles to the faces of my grandchildren, if I am someday fortunate enough to have them. But we also love Lindgren’s other books, including stories of the rambunctious Emil and Lotta, and Ronia the Robber’s Daughter, and especially the lively, funny and cozy Children of Noisy Village, which lets us pretend for a while that we are living in small-town Sweden.

I post this sketch of my own active little “Pippi” in honor of the day. Happy, happy birthday, and many thanks, Astrid Lindgren. I hope the afterlife resembles Noisy Village.




Hungry for music

Today is the birthday of passionate and controversial itinerant poet Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931), and I post in his honor this poem, along with a sketch of a lone violinist my daughter and I encountered this summer during an evening stroll through downtown Charlottesville.


Hungry for music with a desperate hunger
I prowled abroad, I threaded through the town;
The evening crowd was clamoring and drinking,
Vulgar and pitiful—my heart bowed down—
Till I remembered duller hours made noble
By strangers clad in some suprising grace.
Wait, wait, my soul, your music comes ere midnight
Appearing in some unexpected place
With quivering lips, and gleaming, moonlit face.

—Vachel Lindsay


If you lived in 17th century England and were found guilty of stealing, consequences could be severe: whipping, branding, a term in the pillory, even hanging. An alternative was transportation to the New World and seven years of indentured servitude. The colonies needed laborers.

For some people what was essentially permanent exile might have seemed worse than hanging. But it apparently worked out well for one Molly Welsh, a dairymaid who was transported and indentured to a Maryland tobacco planter in 1683 when she was found guilty of stealing, or at least knocking over, a pail of milk. It was a life-changing accident. After working a seven-year term, Molly had earned enough to buy a tobacco farm of her own, and bought a slave named Banneka (or Banneky) to help work it. Although interracial marriage was illegal at the time, love triumphed. Molly freed Banneka; the two were married and had four daughters.

One of their daughters also fell in love with a slave, so her parents bought his freedom to enable them to marry. Because like many slaves he had no surname, when they married he took their name (now Banneker) as well. And these were the parents of Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806), whose birthday it is today.


Benjamin was from all accounts a very bright child. His grandmother Molly taught him to read and write, and he was eager to learn from any available source. But books were few. Around 1770, three Ellicott brothers from a large Pennsylvania Quaker family built a mill, homes, and store nearby, which eventually became the hub of a prosperous community (now Ellicott City). The Ellicotts and their offspring were mechanically inclined and enjoyed experimenting with mechanical and scientific inventions. The family befriended their knowledge-hungry neighbor Benjamin and lent him books, tools, and a telescope.

From that moment Banneker was devoted to astronomy, which he taught himself from the books and from studies of the night sky he made (in addition to carrying on the work of the family farm). He became so skilled that in 1791, when Andrew Ellicott, who had helped complete the Mason-Dixon Line survey, was hired to survey the land for the nation’s new capital city, he asked Benjamin Banneker to help him with the necessary astronomical observations. It’s pretty rough spending your nights outdoors for months stretched out on the cold ground measuring the stars when you’re 59 years old, but Banneker agreed. (This is the scene depicted above in my daughter’s Main Lesson book from our homeschooling Local History and Geography block.) So off they went to lay out the boundaries for the ten-by-ten-mile square that was to become Washington, DC. Some of the original boundary stones are still visible.

In the course of this project Banneker grew ill and was obliged to retire to the farm. But he was undeterred from his studies, and by 1792 he had created and published an almanac that included forecasts of weather, tides, eclipses and other movements of heavenly bodies—all calculated by Banneker—as well as festival days, essays and poetry (including work by Phillis Wheatley), instructions for home medical care, and Banneker’s views on free public education and religion.

The almanac was distributed in four states and went through several editions, one of which included an exchange of correspondence between Banneker and Thomas Jefferson, then serving as Secretary of State under George Washington. Banneker pointed out in his letter the irony of Jefferson’s having stated in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” while simultaneously “detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression.” In Jefferson’s polite and complimentary response, however, he avoids addressing this conundrum in his life, as he adroitly managed to do whenever it was mentioned.

Abolitionists in the colonies and Great Britain were thrilled with the almanac as another piece of evidence for the immorality—in fact, the downright senselessness—of slavery. Happy Birthday, Benjamin Banneker. Your work is another milestone on the road to freedom.


Dans la rue


Today is the birthday of Andre Malraux (1901-1976), writer, art historian, explorer of Indochina, anti-Franco fighter in the Spanish Civil War, member of the French Resistance, and France’s first Minister of Cultural Affairs, and it is in his honor that I post this sketch from his home town.

Youth is a religion from which one always ends up being converted.—Andre Malraux

Joy of Pancakes


Today is the birthday of Irma Rombauer, author (with her daughter Marion Rombauer Becker) of that kitchen classic, The Joy of Cooking. In her honor, I post, along with this sketch, my family’s favorite whole-grain pancake recipe, a standard here for everyone’s birthday breakfast, as well as for many Saturday mornings. I have tried out quite a few pancake recipes on the gang over the years, but they always insist on this one from good old Joy. Happy Birthday, Irma Rombauer! I hope that wherever you are the food is good.

Joy of Cooking Whole Grain Griddle Cakes

Sift and measure:
3/4 cups whole grain flour
3/4 cups cake flour (but I use unbleached white)
Resift with:
1 tsp salt (but I use just a pinch)
3 T sugar plus 2 T molasses (but I use 3 T brown sugar instead)
1-3/4 tsp baking powder
Beat lightly:
1-2 eggs (depends on egg size)
If you double the recipe (which I ALWAYS do), you can separate the eggs and beat the whites separately.
Mix beaten egg (or yolks) with:
3 T melted butter
1-1/4 cups milk (but I use buttermilk)
Then blend wet and dry ingredients. Fold in stiffly beaten whites gently, if you have reserved them.
If it’s a birthday, I make shaped pancakes (animals, hearts, initials). I use a pointy spoon.

Fern Hill

Today I celebrate the birthday of Dylan Thomas, who lived way too short a life (1914-1953), with the first verse of one of my favorites, “Fern Hill,” and a painting of the wonderful farm in Virginia that used to host our organic CSA. Not exactly Wales, but in the right spirit.


Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light…

—Dylan Thomas