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April 19th, 1775

Minute Man in Concord

Minute Man in Concord

For people living in Massachusetts April 19th is more than the day of the Boston Marathon, it’s Patriots Day —  the day and date in 1775 when the British army, stationed in Boston, sent a force across the Charles River in the dark of night, planning a surprise march to Lexington to capture Samuel Adams and John Hancock, and from there to Concord to seize gunpowder and other supplies stored by the disaffected citizenry.

The rebellious farmers had established a militia, the Minute Men, and now aroused by the warnings of Paul Revere and William Dawes —  “The British are coming!”  —  the armed men gathered at dawn on the Lexington Common. The advancing British ordered them to disperse, the Minute Men refused, a shot was fired, the political revolution became an armed insurrection. John Hancock and Samuel Adams, half a mile away, escaped even as the firing of musketry on the Common began. But the locals were no match for the British Regulars who continued their march to Concord where another group of Minute Men had gathered on a rise overlooking at a bridge over the Concord River. The British occupied the town center and left a small detachment to guard the bridge while others searched for the rebels’ military supplies. The Minute Men, seeing smoke rising from town, thought the British had set fires, so they marched down to the bridge and to engage and overwhelm the outnumbered British troops.

Here’s a stanza from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s elegiac commemorative poem written for the monument erected by the bridge:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

As the British Redcoats marched back to Boston they were harassed continuously by the Minute Men. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wonderful narrative poem, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” contains these lines about those events:

You know the rest. In the books you have read,
How the British Regulars fired and fled, —
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farm-yard wall,
Chasing the red-coats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

In Concord, inscribed over the grave of two British soldiers who were killed in the Concord skirmish, is a stanza of a poem called “Lines” by James Russell Lowell:

They came three-thousand miles and died
To keep the past upon its throne
Unheard beyond the ocean tide
Their English mother made her moan.

(If you’re interested in poetry, we can recommend the elegy by Emerson, and we do enjoy the stirring poem by Longfellow, but we’re happy to avoid Lowell’s knotted and at times incomprehensible verses.)

Nowadays, April 19th is celebrated on the third Monday in April. In Lexington, early in the morning of every 19th of April, no matter when it’s celebrated, the Minute Men gather on the Green under the leadership of Captain John Parker, and the Red Coats come marching in neat rows under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith. The armed farmers are told to disperse, but they refuse. A shot is fired, then a fusillade of British musketry, and when the smoke clears, some of the Minute Men have fallen, and the British regulars continue their March toward Concord.

Pride and Bananas

We can love a story without treating it as sacred text. One of Marilyn Robertson‘s favorites is  Pride and Prejudice and, in fact, she was reminded of that novel while at the produce counter.  (It can happen anytime and anyplace.)  And so we have the poem “Pride and Bananas.”

Yesterday in the market, a man stood in front
of the bananas for the longest time,
brooding over one greenish bunch after another.
He looked like Mr. Darcy might have looked,
minus the ruffled shirt and top hat,
and I began to think about the real Darcy,
deftly slicing up a banana on his bowl
of cornflakes at Pemberley,
then gazing out one of its ninety-five windows
at the pleasantest prospect in England
and wondering what in the world
he was going to do all day —
while in the next county, Miss Elizabeth Bennet
strolled from one bright field to the next,
wondering what her chances were of running into someone
who had an extra banana
and happened to own a large estate as well.

(more…)

Take a Break, Read Some Keats

As you probably know, Greece is close to defaulting on its debts, the Euro nations can’t agree on a coherent fiscal policy, the European banking system appears more fragile every morning, the Palestinians have reasons to ask the UN to recognize them as a nation, the Israelis have reasons to occupy ever more of the land the Palestinians regard as their nation, Egypt is having trouble being re-born as a democracy, the US stock market plunged 300 points the other day, unemployment remains high, the recession my repeat itself or, avoiding that calamity, this one may last for years, Congress remains deadlocked, and a recent study reveals that men who take care of their children suffer a decline in testosterone. But you know all that.

On the other hand, if you live in a city, you probably don’t know that this is the season when early morning mists blanket the landscape. You could say it’s the season of mists. In fact, John Keats wrote a poem about this season and it begins Season of mists…  To put you in the mood, here’s a photo of a misty morning landscape provided by the writer Francesca Forrest.Misty morning landscape

Keats’s poem, “Ode to Autumn,” is a complex and linguistically rich poem. Today’s common reader may be put off by the dense, gorgeous language. But you’re not a common reader…

(more…)

“The Classics So Far”

Illustration for Jane Austen novel by Hugh ThomsonWe appreciate Great Novels, especially Great British Novels, but every now and then our attention flags.  And this isn’t limited to Great British Novels; there are also Great Russian Novels in which we’ve found our attention wandering. There are even some Great American Novels — OK, let’s admit it, we’re thinking of Henry James — in which we’ve fallen asleep, even though we do admire Henry James. Mostly admire him, anyway. At least we feel obliged to say so whether we do or not. So we were delighted to come across the following poem by Marilyn Robertson.

The Classics So Far

The heroine is choosing the wrong man.
If she were not sitting next to him at the dinner party,

she could see him as we do —
a man in love with his own brains.

Yet the handsome baronet who has made her a gift
of a small yapping dog — is he any better?

Surely, somewhere in the next five hundred pages
there’s a third man: a maker of violins, say, or

the vicar’s second cousin once-removed, who, after
several misadventures of his own, is going to turn up

in that village and change everything.
But I may not last that long if these other two characters —

the fat one in the waistcoat and the churlish earl —
don’t stop debating the principles of land reform,

completely oblivious to how little patience
we have these days for eloquence.

Medical Marijuana & The Lotus Eaters

Sixteen states plus Washington, D.C., now permit the use of medical marijuana. Federal law doesn’t recognize medical marijuana, and the blue-nose mean-minded Bush administration made life difficult for certain doctors, patients and marijuana dispensaries. State law still doesn’t beat federal law, but the Obama administration has said it won’t prosecute people who use the drug if it’s prescribed by a physician, nor will the feds attempt to close down the marijuana dispensaries. Maybe you thought that California had a lot of marijuana dispensaries; you’re right, it does. But Colorado stands out by having more marijuana outlets than it has Starbucks coffee shops.

Marijuana leaf

Marijuana leaf

Our attention was caught by the names of some of the Colorado dispensaries as well as what they have to offer. The Ganja Gourmet claims to be “America’s First Medical Marijuana Restaurant-Dispensary!” And we believe it’s a reasonable claim. The Herbal Cure doesn’t offer gourmet dining but does provide massage therapy as well as the weed. Then there’s Denver Relief which describes itself as “a wellness and medical marijuana center dedicated to assisting people with making positive and natural changes in their lives.” If that’s too fancy an enterprise for you, there’s the simpler and more direct Discount Medical Marijuana. And we can’t forget Lotus Medical, a name which joins the antiseptic “medical” to Alfred Tennyson’s “The Lotus Eaters,” his extraordinarily lush poem about a land “In which it seemed always afternoon.”

“All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.
Full-faced above the valley stood the moon;
And, like a downward smoke, the slender stream
Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.”

Tennyson was drawing on that passage in the Odyssey where a few men from Odysseus’s crew go ashore on an island where the inhabitants eat the narcotic lotus and spend their lives in dreamy passivity.  In fact, a couple of Odysseus’s men who eat the lotus succumb and give up all thought of returning home.

It certainly isn’t cool to read Alfred Tennyson today but, you know, the man had a way with words. You’re right, you won’t get high reading a Victorian poet, unless you can read and smoke at the same time.  (It’s not that difficult.)  If you’re curious about the poem you can read it here. It’s really lush.

“The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”

You probably know  about Sarah Palin’s novel misinterpretation of Paul Revere’s ride – the famous gallop he made through the countryside to warn the militias, the Minute Men, that the British were coming. According to Palen, Paul Revere rode through Boston warning the British that “they weren’t going to be taking away our arms.” In addition to giving comics another opportunity to skewer the irrepressible Sarah, her remarks have drawn attention to the ride and to Longfellow’s poem about it.

Paul Revere's Ride

Paul Revere's Ride

“The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” is a wonderful poem to memorize and to recite. It’s an exciting, colorful narrative and the lines go at a great gallop — yes, yes, we know it’s a romanticized rehearsal of the facts, but it’s still a great, rousing poem with many memorable passages. And what’s wrong with a burst of rousing rhymed patriotism? Let’s enjoy this.

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,–
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.”

Then he said “Good-night!” and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide. (more…)

Garrison Keillor at Poetry’s Grave

Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is a very funny guy. Whether in his variety show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” or simply telling tales about the folks at Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average,” he’s a superb low-key comedian. He has a unique brand of humor which, for lack of a better phrase, we can call Minnesota Lutheran. On occasion, he’s been a serious and thoughtful writer who knows what it means to be human and humane.

But for years Garrison Keillor has been killing poetry. His mini radio show, “The Writer’s Almanac,” is broadcast on XM Satellite Radio, podcasts, National Public Radio, and more stations than you can count. The radio spot, introduced by an old-fashioned piano tune, is only a few minutes long. Keillor tells us about some notable literary events or birthdays that occurred on that date in the past – much like an almanac – and then, alas, he recites the poem chosen for that day.

Garrison Keillor’s recitation technique is a good definition of lugubrious. His is a sad, depleted voice, rather mournful. No matter the poem, no matter the lines, he speaks with the gentle, falling tones of a mortician. The casual listener will come away reinforced in the common belief that poetry is a nice old ladies’ pastime, genteel, rather like pressing flowers. Certainly it doesn’t sound like a vibrant part of our everyday world. Garrison Keillor’s voice is sorrowful and respectful. And it’s poetry he’s burying.

More Notes


Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.