WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!
On this day in 1849, poet, critic, and editor William Ernest Henley was born. Suffering from tuberculosis since he was 12, Henley was frequently hospitalized. In 1875, his leg was amputated due to complications from the disease. That same year as he recovered from his surgery, he wrote his best-known poem Invictus (Latin for “unconquerable”) (1).
The poem’s brilliance revolves around its expression of the indomitable human spirit. Also, the poem’s generalized statements of human anguish –“bludgeonings of chance,” “fell clutch of circumstance” — make it applicable to all manner of human struggles.
One example of the poem’s influence comes from the life of Nelson Mandela (1918-2013). While imprisoned in South Africa for 27 years, Mandela frequently recited the poem to buoy the spirits of his fellow prisoners.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul. (2)
A short poem like Invictus is perfect for memorization. As Mandela demonstrated, it is the kind of poem that can lift your spirits or the spirits of your compatriots when courage is needed to face what Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
Today’s Challenge: I Am the Master of the Poem
What are the keys to effective memorization and recitation of poetry? What process would you use to learn a poem by heart? Begin the process of memorizing Invictus. Read and reread the poem. Read it aloud. Write the poem down. Break the poem down into smaller parts. Then, memorize it line by line and stanza by stanza. Decide what keywords you want to emphasize and experiment with, reciting it using different tones. Finally, use the words of the poem to inspire your goal of memorizing the poem. Don’t give up! (Speaking and Listening 4 – Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas)
WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!
Today is the anniversary of the death in 1057 of the Scottish monarch Macbeth about whom Shakespeare wrote in his play The Tragedy of Macbeth. The facts of the historical Macbeth differ somewhat from the Macbeth of the Elizabethan stage, but like modern writers, Shakespeare was never one to let history get in the way of telling a good story.
Born in 1005, Macbeth rose to the throne of Scotland by election in place of King Duncan’s 14-year old son Malcolm. Duncan was not murdered at Macbeth’s home as in the play; instead, he was killed in battle. The Macbeth of history was a Christian king who ruled for 14 years until August 14, 1057 (some sources say August 15) when he met Malcolm man-to-man in a fight to the death in a stone circle near Lumphanan. Dunsinane and Birnam Wood, locations referred to in Shakespeare’s play, were actual locations of battles; however, these battles took place earlier than 1057. At Lumphanan, Malcolm was victorious, and it was he, not Macduff, who beheaded Macbeth (1).
Shakespeare adapts history in the Tragedy of Macbeth to examine the themes of free will, fate, ambition, betrayal, good, and evil. In his play, Macbeth transforms from war hero to serial killer after he hears the prophecies of the weird sisters. Although he is warned by his friend Banquo to disregard the witches’ words, Macbeth is unable to shake their spellbinding words. There is not a lot of subtlety or subplot in Macbeth. The action is swift and bloody. Even when the action on the stage is seemingly calm, the imagery of the dialogue is full of violent, grotesque images, such as in Lady Macbeth’s plea to her husband to keep his promise to kill Duncan even though the king has honored Macbeth with a promotion and has come to their home as a guest for the night:
I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me;
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.(Act I, scene 7, lines 58-63)
It’s probably no accident that a play about a Scottish king was written by Shakespeare during the reign of King James, the first Scottish King of England and the king whose most famous act was the commissioning of the King James Translation of the Bible, completed in 1611.
The history of the play’s production, however, is full of accidents and superstition. From the very start, Macbeth acquired a reputation as a cursed play. During its first production in 1606, the boy actor playing Lady Macbeth died backstage. It seems the dark and sinister events of the on-stage plot are echoed backstage. To this day superstitious actors refuse to identify the play by name, alluding to it only by the euphemism: “The Scottish Play” (2).
You’ll get very little argument if you claim that Shakespeare is the single greatest writer in the history of the English language. So if there are any words worth committing to memory, doesn’t it make sense to memorize some Shakespeare? His words are fun to say, even if you don’t know what they mean exactly or if you don’t know the exact context of the words. One thing you do know, however, is that the words are guaranteed to be brilliant, and once you do study the play and the character from which the words originate, you will discover that the words are well worth remembering and are well worth returning to again and again.
Today’s Challenge: Six From Shakespeare What lines from a Shakespearean character would you say are most memorable? Select a favorite character from Shakespeare and select a passage of at least six lines. Commit those words to memory. Write them down, read them carefully, and say them aloud over and over until they are a part of your long-term memory. Practice sharing them aloud with friends and family, and try to catch the right tone based on what you know about the character and what you know about the context of the words within the play. (Common Core – Speaking and Listening 4)
Below are three examples of six-line passages from the character Macbeth:
How is’t with me, when every noise appalls me?
What hands are here? Hah! They pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
-Act 2, scene 2, lines 55-60
Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep,’ the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.
-Act 2, scene 2, lines 46-51
Out, Out brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
-Act 5, Scene 5, Lines 23-28
Quotation of the Day: [Shakespeare] is as a mountain, whose majesty and multitudinous beauty, meaning, and magnitude and impress, must be gotten by slow processes in journeying about it through many days. Who sits under its pines at noon, lies beside its streams for rest, walks under its lengthening shadows as under a cloud, and has listened to the voices of its waterfalls, thrilling the night and calling to the spacious firmament as if with intent to be heard “very far off,” has thus learned the mountain, vast of girth, kingly in altitude, perpetual in sovereignty. -William A. Quayle
On this date in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was shot by an unemployed saloon keeper in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Roosevelt was nearing the end of his campaign for president. Having left politics after his second term as U.S. president in 1909, he returned for a run at an unprecedented third term when his hand-picked successor William Taft did not live up to his expectations. For this campaign, Roosevelt formed a new political party, The Bull Moose Party (officially called the National Progressive Party).
On the evening of October 14th, Roosevelt was leaving his hotel in Milwaukee to make a campaign speech. Just as he was entering the car that would take him to the auditorium, an unemployed saloonkeeper named John Schrank, standing a few feet away, fired a shot from his Colt .38 revolver into Roosevelt’s chest. Schrank was immediately tackled and arrested, and Roosevelt’s handlers prepared to whisk him away to the hospital. Roosevelt, however, refused, demanding to be taken immediately to the auditorium to fulfill his campaign appearance.
Only when he arrived backstage at the auditorium did Roosevelt allow himself to be examined by doctors. Their exam revealed that a bullet had indeed pierced Roosevelt’s chest. Although he was bleeding, the shot was not fatal — fortunately for Roosevelt the bullet’s path had been slowed by the folded 50-page speech he carried in his breast pocket. Stepping up the podium, Roosevelt revealed his bloody shirt and the bullet-pierced manuscript of his speech to the audience. He began his speech by saying: “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot—but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”
Only after speaking for more than an hour did Roosevelt step away from the podium. On Election Day, November 5th, Roosevelt lost the election to the Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson. John Schrank spent the rest of his life in an insane asylum. In a somewhat Shakespearean twist, Schrank claimed that the ghost of President William McKinley had appeared to him and ordered the hit; it was McKinley’s assassination that had made Roosevelt president in 1901.
Today, visitors to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History can view a bullet-pierced page of Roosevelt’s speech. The bullet, however, remained lodged in Roosevelt’s rib for the rest of his lift. He died in his sleep in 1919 and is buried in Oyster Bay, New York.
Unlike many people, Theodore Roosevelt did not fear public speaking. According to the Washington Post, public speaking is the the biggest phobia of Americans, followed by fear of heights, drowning, strangers, zombies, and clowns (in that order) (2).
One antidote to fear of public is a good sense of humor and a realistic understanding that it is an irrational fear, as illustrated by Jerry Seinfeld in the following joke:
I read a thing that actually says that speaking in front of a crowd is considered the number one fear of the average person. I found that amazing – number two was death! That means to the average person if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.
An even better antidote is to face it head on, as explain in the following analogy by Dale Carnegie in his book The Art of Public Speaking:
Did you ever notice in looking from a train window that some horses feed near the track and never even pause to look up at the thundering cars, while just ahead at the next railroad crossing a farmer’s wife will be nervously trying to quiet her scared horse as the train goes by? How would you cure a horse that is afraid of cars—graze him in a back-woods lot where he would never see steam-engines or automobiles, or drive or pasture him where he would frequently see the machines? Apply horse-sense to ridding yourself of self-consciousness and fear: face an audience as frequently as you can, and you will soon stop shying.
Today’s Challenge: I Came, I Saw, I Spoke
How can people best sum up the courage to confront and conquer their fears of public speaking? What are your top three go-to topics for a brief speech?
You’re not always given the chance to pick your own topic; however, choosing and preparing speeches on topics you care about is an excellent way to gain the kind of confidence you need to speak under any circumstances (even with a bullet lodged in your chest). For example, when Julius Caesar was a young man he was kidnapped by pirates; to kill time during his captivity, he composed short speeches and poems and read them aloud to his captors. Brainstorm a list of your go-to speech topics — topics that you know something about and are passionate about. Then compose a short speech sharing your passion with an audience. (Common Core Speaking and Listening 4 – Present Information)
Quotation of the Day: Be sincere, be brief, be seated. –Franklin D. Roosevelt, cousin to Theodore Roosevelt and 32nd President of the Unites States.