Literature · Memorable words · NPR · The Writer's Almanac

the length and height of happiness

Today is the birthday of Tennessee Williams and Robert Frost.

Here are 2 excerpts from today’s Writer’s Almanach, both really beautiful:

It’s the birthday of Tennessee Williams (books by this author) born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi (1914). He’s the author of the plays The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). It was his sister, Rose, he was closest to; they were rarely apart, and the family cook called them “the couple.” When Tom was seven and Rose was nine, the family moved from the Mississippi Delta to a tenement apartment in St. Louis. The filth and noise of the city shocked them. Their mother forced Rose out into society, where she suffered a series of exquisite humiliations; she had a breakdown, she was institutionalized, and her parents forced her to undergo a lobotomy. He said, “I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person. But these seemingly fragile people are the strong people really.”

It’s the birthday of the man who said, “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” Robert Frost, (books by this author) born in San Francisco (1874). He’s one of the most famous poets in American history, and the man who wrote “The Road Not Taken,” “Mending Wall,” “The Death of the Hired Man,” “After Apple-Picking,” and “Home Burial.” He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry four different times. He drew large crowds to his immensely popular poetry readings, which he preferred to call “sayings.” He suffered from dark depressions. He once said, “Happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in length.”

When John F. Kennedy was elected president, he asked Frost to read at his inauguration, and hinted that Frost might compose a new poem for the occasion. Frost did write one, called “Dedication,” but on inauguration day the sun shone brightly, making a glare on the page, which made it difficult for the nearly 87-year-old Frost to see the poem he’d recently composed. He started and stumbled; LBJ tried to shield the page with his hat, but Frost gave up and instead recited a poem that he knew by heart, “The Gift Outright,” which ends:

Something we were withholding made us weak.
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

He died a couple of years later, the same year as the much younger President Kennedy.


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