Friday, May 27, 2016

Poets in other people's youths

Americans sing “Happy Birthday” for kids on their birthdays and have done for almost a century; the song’s simplicity suits kids’ parties just fine. What if you wanted a more complex song for a birthday, though? What if you wanted to read, or write, a poem? Poets have marked some births and birthdays for more than two millennia, paying homage, or showing affection, to the kids and adults involved. When poets approach their own birthdays, though, they’re less happy—and the line of poems doesn’t go back as far. Poems about other people’s days are sociable or even extroverted, but poets who look back at their own days and years stay melancholy, at best—not just because they are aging (as are we all) but also because they are contemplating their own lives in poems that fit (as poems about other people’s birthdays generally do not fit) the strictest Romantic definitions of lyric poetry: they speak from the self, to the self, and they speak alone.

Birthday parties, and (therefore) poems and songs that honor birthdays, go back pretty far. The biblical King Herod threw himself a birthday party (Mark 6:21); in classical antiquity, the birth dates of rulers, the incarnations of gods, and the births of friends’ children (see Virgil’s famous Fourth Eclogue or Callimachus’s Iambi, no. 12) all occasioned poems. Some Renaissance poets—especially Ben Jonson, a master of occasional verse—wrote for friends’ and patrons’ birthdays frequently: Jonson’s stanzas to William Sydney (or Sidney, born 1585) honor his coming of legal age: “the number of glad years / Are justly summed that make you man.”

Nor were birthdays only for Western writers: poets and artists in Ming China made special books for the birthdays of elderly local dignitaries. But most people’s days were not festive events: “Before the Reformation,” writes the historian Howard Chudacoff, “even when people knew their date of birth, they seldom celebrated it.” Instead, in Christian cultures, they picked days that honored their namesake saints. The English bourgeois widow Martha Moulsworth chose her 55th birthday (“the birthday of myself”) to begin her 55-couplet autobiographical “Memorandum” (1632), now a much-discussed scholarly find; the birthday gave her reason to meditate, not cause to rejoice. Also in 1632, John Milton wondered in a sonnet what time had done with “my three-and-twentieth-year”—he worried because he felt (and looked) younger than that, but he did not seem to expect a party, and his sonnet addresses the year, not the day.

In the early 1700s, English writers could honor the birthdays of their social equals; bourgeois Londoners threw birthday parties (you can find them in the writings of Henry Fielding). Alexander Pope let melancholy color a careful poem to his friend Martha Blount when she turned 33 in 1723: “Is that a birthday? [But] alas! too clear; / ’Tis but the funeral of the former year.” Jonathan Swift wrote seven reflective poems for his friend and pupil Stella’s birthdays between 1719 and 1727, but it took another century for texts about birthdays to take on mass appeal. By the 1870s, cheap printing, widespread literacy, and (not least) Queen Victoria’s German-inspired kinderfesten had made birthday presents, “birthday books” (anthologies), birthday parties, and birthday cards big business on both sides of the Atlantic. “The rise of birthday cards,” Chudacoff concludes, also “reflects the institutionalized age consciousness that emerged in the late nineteenth century,” when many more people cared more often, more deeply, about exactly how old they were.

What would you need, and what would you need to believe, before you would celebrate your birthday? You’d need to know exactly when you were born. You’d also need to be able to see your own life, or any life, as something to glorify, or elevate, for its own sake. In other words, you’d need the introspection and the social leveling that came with (even if they did not quite start with) Romanticism.

No surprise, then, that the first widely noticed and quoted English poem to name a poet’s birthday appears to belong to that moody Romantic individualist, Lord Byron, who titled it “On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year.”

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