…and a celebration for Colette, Elijah Wood, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (published on this day in 1813). With apologies all around.
Where in Washington, DC—a city not known for its ancient fanciful mythology, except of the political kind—can you find an outdoor sculpture of Yggdrasil, the World Tree of Norse legend?
If you are zipping along in a car, you’ll miss it. But if you are traveling by foot or bicycle, you can take a break on a small green island (which I discovered by accident on a family bike ride, and returned to sketch) at the intersection of Ohio Drive and Independence Avenue, along the Potomac River. There at the foot of Yggdrasil sits John Ericsson (1803-1889), whose birthday it is today.
Ericsson, born in a Swedish village and son of a mining engineer, was a precocious child who demonstrated early an aptitude for all things mechanical. At five he created a working windmill from clock parts and household utensils. There is no historical record of his mother’s reaction to the missing tableware. At eight his education included informal instruction from his father’s engineering colleagues, and eventually he joined the team (although still too small to reach all the equipment), drawing up plans and supervising crews. During a period in the army he worked on designs for steam and fume-propelled engines, but finding no funding he took himself to England (leaving behind an out-of-wedlock son to be raised by his mother), which was then the hub of the Industrial Revolution and a showcase for new canals, railways, factories, and every sort of engine and mechanical device.
But despite his innovations in locomotive and marine engine designs, and his best-known creation, the screw propellor—which rendered vessels far more efficient and whose descendants are still in use worldwide—the English were unresponsive, perhaps because of Ericsson’s reputedly uncompromising nature, or perhaps because of his foreign origins. So Ericsson (leaving behind an English wife) betook himself to the young United States, with its energetic, ambitious entrepreneurs, and settled in New York, where pretty much everyone had (as today) foreign origins.
Here Ericsson sought supporters within the Navy and private industry for his screw-propellor vessel designs. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to interest the French Emperor, then engaged in the Crimean War, in a new rather peculiar-looking design for an iron-clad vessel (iron-clad ships having shown their effectiveness against the traditional wooden model).
But it was the American Civil War that delivered his opportunity. When the Southern states seceded from the Union in 1861, taking with them the Navy Yard at Norfolk and the USS Merrimac, which the Confederacy began to sheath with iron, it became obvious that the U.S. needed its own ironclad ship to protect the Northern coastal blockade. Ericsson’s industrial business contacts, who saw war as a terrific opportunity to increase their fortunes patriotically, used their influence within Congress and the U.S. Navy to advocate the implementation of Ericsson’s ingenious design, negotiate a contract, and launch construction of a vessel, in an unbelievably short period.
Ericsson’s ironclad ship (named the Monitor by Ericsson, as it was intended to monitor the coastline), with its iron sheath extending below the water line, its revolving turret that permitted it to fire in all directions, and its screw propellor, kept iron works, foundries, rolling mills, and manufacturers busily employed for months. For the sake of speed, some of its innovations (such as the underwater torpedo) were set aside, to be adopted later. Some were ignored, to the ship’s peril, as we will see.
Because the strange new vessel was untested, its crew was composed primarily of volunteers. Some observers (untutored in the laws of physics) predicted she would sink instantly when launched on March 6, 1862, headed for Norfolk. However, although the Monitor endured rough weather (and leaks, due to the Navy’s having ignored Ericsson’s instructions for the turret’s sealing), she arrived safely in Hampton Roads on March 8th, to find disaster: two ships already destroyed by the Confederacy’s Merrimac, and two others run aground awaiting their own coups de grâce.
For, during the past few months, the Confederacy had been hurriedly adapting the Merrimac (which they renamed the Virginia), preparing it to ram and sink the Yankee ships at Hampton Roads, to break the blockade and enable the resumption of Southern trade. Because the Union and the Confederacy were both riddled with spies, each knew something of the other’s ship-building progress, so perhaps it is not simply an amazing coincidence that the two vessels were completed and launched only a couple of days apart. In any case, news of the Merrimac’s success ran through the telegraph lines, thrilling the South and alarming the North, who feared that the Merrimac would next turn northward to destroy its coastal cities. This was impossible; the Merrimac was clumsy, leaky, and barely seaworthy enough to have made it across Hampton Roads. But the North didn’t know that.
When the Merrimac returned to finish off the last two vessels, it found a small, oddly shaped object—the Monitor—pluckily barring its way. At first the Merrimac’s crew believed the Monitor to be a supply barge, until it fired upon them. Battle between the two ironclads continued for several hours, with each trying to inflict damage upon the other, the Merrimac attempting simultaneously yet unsuccessfully to attack the nearby remaining Northern ships. The Monitor, small, nimble, and quick, protected the ships from further damage, and eventually the Merrimac retired leaking to its port.
Both sides (naturally) declared victory in the battle, but the ultimate outcome was a contract between John Ericsson and the U.S. Navy for a fleet of ironclads, and the successful blockade of the South. The poor Monitor, however, caught in a storm at sea later that year (the Navy still ignoring Ericsson’s instructions on the proper sealing of its turret), went down with sixteen hands off the coast of Cape Hatteras. (Some of her artifacts have since been recovered and conserved.)
Ericsson, who had had a number of professional disappointments, was now vindicated and rewarded, and went on to work in maritime and naval technology and experiment with various sources of power—steam, electric, solar. Three Navy ships have been named after him, and in 1926 the monument pictured above, created by sculptor James Earle Fraser, was dedicated to him. There sits Ericsson (curiously, looking inland rather than out over the Potomac) beneath the Norse World Tree, with Vision standing behind him, flanked by Labor and a Viking warrior. It’s one of your more surprising Washington, DC sculptures. Go have a look.
Although Ericsson regularly sent funds for the support of that son and wife back in Sweden and England, his true passion was engineering, and neither ever joined him in the New World. Thus his days and nights were uninterrupted by the distracting joys and troubles of family life. Ericsson had a reputation for being stubborn, imperious, and single-minded, and perhaps these qualities do not a family man make… but they might enable one to overcome opposition and discouragement and press forward undespairing. Happy Birthday, husband and father of the Monitor.
On this Valentine’s Day, a poem by Christina Rossetti, and a painting.
For another beautiful Valentine poem, and a different painting, please see The Song of Wandering Aengus.
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these,
Because my love is come to me.
Raise me a daïs of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.
—Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)
For the First Day of Christmas, a detail of a larger painting (part of a long-ongoing series, on which more later), and an excerpt from a letter written by a 16th century monk to a friend.
I wish you all a heavenly, peaceful, and joyful Christmas season.
I salute you.
There is nothing I can give you which you have not,
but there is much that while I cannot give, you can take.
No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today.
No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant.
The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy.
And so at this Christmastime, I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks, and the shadows flee away.
—Fra Giovanni, 1513
On this day in 1773 a committee of the Charlestown (South Carolina) Library Society established the first public museum in the United States. Except that there wasn’t yet a United States. South Carolina was still a British colony, and the Charlestown Library Society’s inspiration for its project was the British Museum, the world’s first national public museum, founded in 1753. But by the time the doors of the new museum opened to the public in 1824, South Carolina was, and has mostly remained, part of the U.S.A. To this day you can visit and admire its displays of local natural history specimens, which the [now] Charleston Museum has continued to acquire over the centuries, along with South Carolina memorabilia.
Collecting is undoubtedly a natural human impulse, ever since our hairy ancestors stored up grain for the winter. Once basic necessities were taken care of, human beings with leisure time and/or disposable income continued for millennia to assemble various collections, from seashells to sapphires, but they were primarily for private enjoyment, profit, or study. Royalty and the well-to-do collected, and even commissioned, statuary, paintings, and elaborate furnishings for their palaces. Scholars created and collected manuscripts to share with other scholars. Scientists and amateurs alike collected unusual plants, animals, fossils, and other natural specimens, increasingly so from the 18th century onward as human beings questioned assumptions about the origins of life, the earth and the universe.
But what we now call a Museum did not exist until rather recently. The word comes from the Mouseion at Alexandria, Egypt, which was not a collection of objects for perusal by curious passersby but rather a gathering place for scholars to share scientific and mathematical discoveries (option #2 above). If you were an educated Greek male living in the Mediterranean world in the 3rd century BC and possessed both scholarly interests and travel funds, off you went to Alexandria, which had by then replaced Athens as a cultural center. Euclid studied there. So did Archimedes. The Mouseion included the famous Library of Alexandria, which sought to collect works (or copies thereof) from all over the ancient world, and at its height boasted hundreds of thousands of papyrus scrolls. Eratosthenes served as one of its librarians.
The name Mouseion indicated an institution dedicated to the Muses, who are the nine daughters of Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. Each daughter embodies a different pursuit—Lyric Poetry, Tragedy, History, etc.—and is responsible for its nurture and inspiration. These are offspring to brag about at any parent gathering. “So, what are your daughters up to these days?” “Oh, they’re the Muses of Choral Poetry… Dance… Astronomy… .” References to the Muses abound in painting and literature, from Raphael to Moreau, Homer to Shakespeare.
We honor them still when we speak of Music, or when we cross the threshold of one of the world’s thousands of Museums, which today often still serve as centers for scholarly study, but in addition are open to ordinary citizens like you and me and contain fabulous collections of every imaginable kind of art, artifact, and animal, in every possible subject—science, history, transportation, sports, toys, bananas (I kid you not)—where we can open our eyes and our minds in wonder. And even get a slice of pizza and a postcard. Thank you, oh Muses.
This is a drawing of five of them, from my daughter’s homeschooling Ancient Greece main lesson block.
Every year Washington National Cathedral exhibits a number of examples from its large collection of Nativity scenes from around the world. The exhibition runs through January 7th, 2011.
This is one of my favorites, a scene made from mud and animal dung by children in Kenya.
For a long time I wanted a Nativity scene, and several years ago I suddenly realized I might make one myself from stuffed wool felt. My delusional scheme was to create one figure each Advent until we would eventually have a vast elaborate setup resembling the creches of Italy and Provence and the angel tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Except in wool felt.
However, once I had completed the Holy Family, a donkey, a shepherd, and a sheep, and my husband had built a stable from branches and a lovely fragment of bark (thanks, Leah!), the time available for handwork had pretty much evaporated, aside from necessities like sock-mending and the occasional Halloween costume. Perhaps one day…
I wish you all a joyful, loving, and peaceful Christmas.
Today is the birthday of John Milton (1608-1674), and in his honor I post the closing lines of his masterpiece Paradise Lost, along with a drawing by my daughter from our homeschooling Old Testament block several years ago. It’s not exactly a match, but I couldn’t resist.
Her drawing belies the solemnity of the poem. Adam and Eve actually look rather pleased at their departure from the Garden of Eden.In either hand the hastening angel caught Our lingering parents, and to the eastern gate Led them direct, and down the cliff as fast To the subjected plain; then disappeared. They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld Of Paradise, so late their happy seat, Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate With dreadful faces thronged, and fiery arms: Some natural tears they dropt, but wiped them soon; The world was all before them, where to choose Their place of rest, and Providence their guide: They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, Through Eden took their solitary way.
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.