Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sing to me, my melancholy Burton

Robert Burton, a scholar and a vicar at Oxford, died on this day in 1640. He wrote one of the world's greatest and most unusual books, The Anatomy of Melancholy.

A lifelong melancholiac himself, Burton devoted his days to study so as to, as he said, occupy his heart and his thoughts.

"If there be a hell upon earth it is to be found in a melancholy man's heart,” he wrote. Also this:

"Our wrangling lawyers are so litigious and busy here on earth, that I think they will plead their clients' cases hereafter, some of them in hell."


"All places are distant from heaven alike."

Monday, January 24, 2011

Or perhaps they never met

Winston Churchill died on this day in 1965.

"I am ready to meet my Maker," Churchill said. "Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter."

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Some of us would rather die than dance

Anna Pavlova, the great Russian dancer, died on this day in 1931. As she was dying (of pneumonia), she said, "If I can't dance, then I'd rather be dead."

Her last words were "Get my swan costume ready," followed by "Play that last measure very softly."

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Hail and farewell, Victoria

Queen Victoria, Empress of India, died on January 22, 1901.

"Her 440 million subjects felt safe while Victoria was on the throne; but with her passing, the empire settled uneasily after the official and popular mourning. The empire was, as one sermon preached ex cathedra in South Africa, reflected, 'burying the Great White Queen beloved and revered by races, diverse from our own, within the sway of her sceptre.'

"Hardly any event in those or any other times could have expected to touch so many millions of different race as did the death Victoria. When mourning finished, that same empire contemplated its own mortality. The Anglo-Boer War, had shown that the British were not so invincible as previously thought. The war demonstrated an often hopelessly incompetent military and a political system lacking in direction.

"Moreover, Victoria's death was coincidental with the change to a less confident era of British politics that within a few years would need to introduce reforms in India, contemplate losing Ireland, face the challenge of a recalcitrant House of Lords and be surrounded by the new element in Westminster politics, socialism. There would be a world war to confirm Britain's imperial vulnerability and a series of events in Russia that would signal the biggest single change in world politics that the 20th century would witness. Henry James confessed a grief he had not expected for the running down of an old used-up watch. The death of his 'little mysterious Victoria' had 'let loose incalculable forces for possible ill'.

"But then that was perhaps because he loathed the thought of the Prince of Wales being king. Edward thought that almost everyone had been afraid of Victoria. In a sense, that summed up the Victorians. Until the 1890s, everyone was afraid of them. In that exaggeration is the image of the imperial rule of those six decades. It was a reign of no compromise. Bertie, Prince of Wales now Edward VII meant a new era."

(From the BBC Radio website)

Friday, January 21, 2011

What's to salvage?

George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair) died on this day in 1950. 1984 and Animal Farm are his most famous books.

"(Mankind) is not likely to salvage civilization," Orwell wrote, "unless he can evolve a system of good and evil which is independent of heaven and hell."

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Translated from the Ruskin

John Ruskin, English author, critic of art and architecture, and poet, died on this day in 1900.

"Let every dawn be to you as the beginning of life, and every setting sun be to you as its close," Ruskin wrote.

And also:

"One who does not know when to die, does not know how to live."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, born in 1809.

"The play is the tragedy, ‘Man’," Poe wrote, "and its hero the Conqueror Worm."

Poe was born in Boston, where his itinerant actor parents were performing. Three years later he was orphaned.

Edgar married his 13-year-old, tubercular cousin, Virginia Clemm. (They may have been married a year earlier, when she was 12.)

Baudelaire’s translations of Poe’s works made him more popular in France than the U. S. Unable to find or hold work because of his drinking, Poe nearly starved to death. Following the death of Virginia, he attempted suicide.

Poe died at 40, after a violent bout of drinking left him delirious. His last words were "Lord, help my poor soul."

His epitaph reads: "Quoth the Raven nevermore."

Today’s Perverse verse:

Poe, with his outlook macabre,
Could never hold a real job.
His poems, stories and stuff
Never made him enough.
No one wanted to read
Of becoming worm feed.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sorry to hear about your recent addition

The French philosopher Montesquieu was born on this day in 1689. He wrote:

One must mourn not at the death of men, but at their birth.”

Monday, January 17, 2011

Did he leave behind his own?

Hugh Massingberd, who developed the obituary into entertaining and irreverent brilliance at The Daily Telegraph, died two years ago on December 25 at age 60.

His term as obituaries editor, from 1986 to 1994, was "just a lucky time ... a time when so many legends of the century were dying," Massingberd told The Associated Press in a 1996 interview.

The Daily Telegraph said Massingberd found his inspiration at a theatrical rendering of "Brief Lives" by the waspish 17th century writer John Aubrey who said of a barrister — "He got more by his prick than his practice."

That line inspired Massingberd, as he later wrote, to chronicle "what people were really like through informal anecdote, description and character sketch."

A parade of remarkable characters took their last bows in the Telegraph during Massingberd's term — remarkable enough to take a curtain call in a series of anthologies.

There was Maj. Donald Neville-Willing who found his dentures a liability in romance: "I'm unlikely to be successful if the moon is bright." He also believed that World War II was "the best thing that ever happened to English homosexuals."

There was John Allegro, "the Liberace of biblical scholarship," whose promising career as a scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls degenerated into a series of books claiming that Christianity was a hallucinogenic mushroom cult; indeed, that Moses, David and Jesus were fungi. The obituary recalled a reviewer's opinion that Allegro's books "gave mushrooms a bad name."

And also Nerea de Clifford, author of "What British Cats Think About Television," who had concluded: "Most cats show an interest of some kind, though it is often of hostility."

Lawrence Isherwood, who painted celebrities as he imagined them in the nude, also got a Telegraph obit that recorded Lt. Col. A.D. Wintle's opinion — "What I like about Isherwood's paintings is that there is no doubt about which way they hang."

And there was Len Chadwick, outdoor columnist for the Oldham Evening Chronicle, with an obituary that surely left many readers relieved never to have met him:

"A classic autodidact, as he strode along Chadwick would regale the young boys who were his most frequent companions (he was homosexually inclined) with interminable but inspired monologues — often in Esperanto — on subjects ranging from the history of socialism or his prisoner-of-war experiences to the poetry of Ebenezer Elliott."

The Daily Telegraph rarely dwells on the cause of death, though Massingberd said he argued with former editor Max Hastings that it should.

The day after Hastings agreed, "someone had died of a penile implant which had imploded," Massingberd said. The subject was dropped.

Massingberd's creed was that an obituary should give pleasure to relatives and friends, as well as the general reader.

"I think you want more people to say, 'Gosh, what a remarkable life,' and give them a laugh along the way."

People who died last week here in Middle Tennessee included "Tippy," "Sleepy," "Hamburger," "Stream," "Troll," Mother Fanny and Mama K, a man pictured with a coat slung over his shoulder, and a woman shown with her breathing tubes in.  R. I. P. to all.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

He's probably really nasty by now

Today is the birthday of the famous French dramatist Moliere (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin), born in 1622. He wrote:

"Man, I can assure you, is a nasty creature."

Moliere died in Paris in 1673, shortly after playing the lead in his The Imaginary Invalid. The clergy, whom he had offended throughout his career, refused him burial on holy ground. The funeral took place at night to avoid scandal; nonetheless, thousands attended a torchlight procession worthy of one of Moliere’s productions.

Today’s Perverse Verse:

No one could be such a holy terror
As Moliere.
In plays like The Misanthrope
He skewered human love and hope.
While telling people they were vile,
He had them rolling in the aisle

Friday, January 14, 2011

Die, then live it up

We missed January 9, the death date of writer Katherine Mansfield. She wrote:

"If you wish to live, you must first attend your own funeral."

We think his goodbye is full of beans

Humprey Bogart died on this day in 1957. When he was near death, Bogart said, "I never should have switched from Scotch to martinis."

Bogart, of course, was part of one of the most famous farewells in Hollywood history:

"Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble," Bogart intoned,as Rick Blaine in Casablanca,"but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that. Now, now. Here's looking at you, kid."

This is also the anniversary of the death of Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland), who died in 1898. His last words were:

"Take away those pillows. I shall need them no more"

Thursday, January 13, 2011

And the beginning of new ones?

Edmund Spenser, the English poet who wrote The Faerie Queene, died today in 1599. He wrote:

"Death is the end of woes."

Today is also the date of death of Stephen Foster (1864), Wyatt Earp (1929), and writer James Joyce, who said:

"Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age."

Sunday, January 9, 2011

RIP, Kindell Stephens (1942-2008)

My friend Kindell Stephens died January 2, 2008.

Hundreds – maybe thousands -- of others in Middle Tennessee, and elsewhere, can say this very thing. Kindell had more friends than anyone I’ve ever met. Not acquaintances – friends.

Establishing a friendship typically calls for one party to take the initiative. Kindell was determined to be my friend. We met while playing on-on-one basketball at the Y. Kindell was a great player – he had a cup of coffee with the Lakers – and he was surprised – and pleased – that I wasn’t intimidated by him. Whenever he saw the glimmer of pride, the spark of competitive fire, he embraced it.

Kindell cultivated the seeds of self-reliance in dozens of kids down through the years. A young man who spoke at his funeral thanked Kindell for “seeing something in me when nobody else saw anything.”

Kindell saw something in me, as well. Maybe it was a curiosity about him and his culture. I’d been to college and played basketball, but my education hadn’t included becoming real friends with any African Americans. The ones I’d known were as wary of me as I was of them.

Kindell came to Nashville in the mid-‘60s, when segregation was yet in full flower. He went to Fisk, starred in basketball, had that stint in the pros, and came back to Nashville. He counseled young athletes, first at Fisk, later at Tennessee State, where he was sports information director and the “Voice of the Tigers” on radio broadcasts.

After Kindell and I met, he asked me to play on a basketball team with him. I was the only white on a team of blacks – I got an inkling of what it was like to be a minority. Kindell helped me feel at ease.

The more I got to know Kindell, the more I learned about empathy – not the refined and ethereal kind of empathy the philosophers recommend, but empathy in action. I seldom saw Kindell without several charges in tow – the kids whose causes he took up and made his own. As Howard Gentry, a longtime friend and broadcast associate of Kindell’s, said at a memorial tribute attended by hundreds: “If you knew Kindell, chances are that he helped you in some way.” Gentry also said, “Kindell brought me out of myself.”

As pastor Darrell Drumright said in his splendid and stirring eulogy, and as the dozen or more illustrious speakers echoed at the memorial celebration: Kindell Stephens was a facilitator, an ambassador, an encourager. He brought people together…

Why did he do it? Kindell’s brother Leonard, speaking at the tribute, recounted Kindell’s happy childhood. He wasn’t a former waif himself, on a mission to return good for evil. He was simply a good man.

We are all strangers to one another. Our hearts are restless, St. Augustine said, because earth is not our true home.

Kindell has gone home.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Out with the old, in with the new

Galileo died on this day in 1642. It was the year that Isaac Newton was born.

Friday, January 7, 2011

I thought I was God's gift to man

Poet John Berryman committed suicide on this day in 1972.

"Amid the sufferings of life on earth, suicide is God's best gift to man." -- Pliny the Elder.

Berryman, whose father shot himself when John was 12, jumped to his death from a bridge over the Mississippi River. His poems, especially those in his book The Dream Songs, describe agonies and despairs, his own and those of the Poet in exile.

Berryman was a student at Columbia under Mark Van Doren, whose son, Charles, was the star felon in the quiz-show scandals of the 1950s. (Vividly portrayed in the movie Quiz Show.)

Today's Perverse Verse:

When Pliny
Was tiny,
He wooed and courted hunger.
When elder,
Dispelled her --
Good thing for P. the Younger!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Did he scorn the horn?

On this date in 1960, French existentialist and author Albert died in a car crash. He once wrote:

"There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn."

Also on this date, in 1965, poet T. S. Eliot died in London. He once wrote, cryptically enough:

"I had seen birth and death but had thought they were different."

Monday, January 3, 2011

Ruby was no gem

On January 3, 1967, Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner who killed the alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy, died of cancer in a Dallas hospital. The Texas Court of Appeals had recently overturned his death sentence for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald and was scheduled to grant him a new trial.

On November 24, 1963, two days after Kennedy's assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald was brought to the basement of the Dallas police headquarters on his way to a more secure county jail. A crowd of police and press with live television cameras rolling gathered to witness his departure. As Oswald came into the room, Jack Ruby emerged from the crowd and fatally wounded him with a single shot from a concealed .38 revolver. Ruby, who was immediately detained, claimed he was distraught over the president's assassination. Some called him a hero, but he was nonetheless charged with first-degree murder.

Jack Ruby, originally known as Jacob Rubenstein, operated strip joints and dance halls in Dallas and had minor connections to organized crime. He also had a relationship with a number of Dallas policemen, which amounted to various favors in exchange for leniency in their monitoring of his establishments. He features prominently in Kennedy assassination theories, and many believe he killed Oswald to keep him from revealing a larger conspiracy. In his trial, Ruby denied the charge, maintaining that he was acting out of patriotism. In March 1964, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.

The official Warren Commission report of 1964 concluded that neither Oswald nor Ruby were part of a larger conspiracy, either domestic or international, to assassinate President Kennedy. Despite its seemingly firm conclusions, the report failed to silence conspiracy theories surrounding the event, and in 1978 the House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded in a preliminary report that Kennedy was "probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy" that may have involved multiple shooters and organized crime. The committee's findings, as with the findings of the Warren Commission, continue to be widely disputed. (From Today in History)

Saturday, January 1, 2011

O, lonesome him

Country singer Hank Williams died on this day in 1953, at the tender age of 30.

Here are the lyrics to Williams' song, "Angel of Death":

In the great book of John, you're warned of the day
When you'll be laid - beneath the cold clay;
The Angel of Death - will come from the sky
And claim your poor soul - when the time comes to die.
When The Angel of Death - comes down after you
Can you smile and say - that you have been true?
Can you truthfully say - with your dying breath
That you're ready to meet - the Angel of Death?
When the lights all grow dim - and the dark shadows creep
And then your loved ones - are gathered to weep,
Can you face them and say - with your dying breath
That you're ready to meet - the Angel of Death?

Read about Williams death