The Writer's Almanac for May 12th
On this date in 1215, England’s barons delivered an ultimatum to King John, which ultimately led to the Magna Carta.
In 1215, England was on the brink of civil war. King John had taxed the church and the barons heavily to fund the Third Crusade, defend his holdings in Normandy, and pay for unsuccessful wars. The barons met in January 1215 to discuss the matter, and agreed to “stand fast for the liberty of the church and the realm.” It wasn’t the first time that noblemen had risen up against an English king, but in the past the aim had been to put a new man on the throne. This time, the barons aimed to change the nature of the monarchy itself. Over the next few months, they wrote up a list of demands.
The charter limited the monarchy’s absolute power and paved the way for the formation of Parliament, and it is the nearest thing to a “Bill of Rights” that Britain has ever had. It guaranteed, among other things, that “No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send against him, unless by legal judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.”
King John met the barons at Runnymede in June, and set his seal on the “great charter.” He had no intention of upholding the document, however, and it was repealed almost immediately on the grounds that he gave his seal under duress. But it’s harder to kill an idea, and that original document became the basis for the British legal system, as well as the legal systems of most of the world’s democracies.
Today is the birthday of artist and writer Edward Lear (books by this author), born in the London suburb of Holloway (1812). Most people know him today as a nonsense poet and a master of the limerick, a humorous poetic form that had been gaining in popularity since the early 1820s. He was the 20th of 21 children born to Ann and Jeremiah Lear, and he suffered his first epileptic seizure when he was about five or six years old. He felt a lot of embarrassment and guilt because of his seizures, and referred to the disorder as “the Demon.” He also suffered frequent bouts of depression, which he called “the Morbids.” When his father went bankrupt, Edward’s upbringing became his much-older sister Ann’s responsibility.
When he was 15, his father was sent to debtors’ prison, so Lear began working as an artist and illustrator to help pay his family’s expenses. He was very gifted at drawing birds and animals, and got a job with the London Zoological Society. In 1832, Lord Stanley, the Earl of Derby, invited Lear to come and paint the exotic animals in his menagerie. Lear ended up living at Stanley’s estate at Knowsley for several years. When he wasn’t working on his drawings and paintings, he would entertain the youngest members of the Stanley family with silly stories and verses. A Book of Nonsense, which he published in 1846, sold very well and helped make the limerick verse popular.
Lear’s most famous poem is “The Owl and the Pussycat” (1867). He dedicated it to the children of the Earl of Stanley. He also published several travel books. The paintings and illustrations he made of the Stanley menagerie were published as Gleanings from the Menagerie at Knowsley Hall (1846).
On this day in 1908, self-described “practical farmer, fruit grower, and electrician” Nathan B. Stubblefield of Murray, Kentucky, patented his Wireless Radio Broadcasting system, which allowed for the use of short-distance, mobile wireless telephone devices.
Stubblefield made his first big step into wireless telecommunications in 1892, when he shocked his then-neighbor with a wireless telephone conversation between their houses. A few years later, Stubblefield demonstrated the first wireless ship-to-shore phone transmission using wires that had been laid in the water by a steamer boat.
Stubblefield feverishly tried to patent and market his creations, but he struggled to commercialize the idea. His technology was so limited by distance that it was not appealing to many people. At the same time, others began to develop technology to span much longer distances — the birth of radio transmission.
Although Stubblefield’s work did not directly lead to the discovery of radio as a means of communication, his work may have sparked wider interest among the public for the possibilities of wireless sound.
It’s the birthday of poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti(books by this author), born in London in 1828 to Italian exiles. He was born Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti but changed the order of his names to emphasize his kinship with the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri. He and his sister, poet Christina Rossetti, grew up drawing, painting, and writing poetry in both English and Italian.
In 1851, he became engaged to Lizzie Siddal, but they weren’t married until 1860. During that time, he fell in love with Jane Burden, the wife of poet William Morris, and he idealized both Lizzie and Jane in his bold, bright paintings. Lizzie died just two years after she and Rossetti were married, probably by suicide. Rossetti placed all of his unpublished poems in her coffin, only to dig them up a few years later so he could publish them. He wrote: “No one so much as herself would have approved of my doing this. Art was the only thing for which she felt very seriously. Had it been possible to her, I should have found the book on my pillow the night she was buried; and could she have opened the grave, no other hand would have been needed.”
After his wife’s death, he lived in a house with the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne and novelist George Meredith. He collected exotic china and kept a zoo in his backyard that included wombats, owls, woodchucks, parrots, peacocks, rabbits, kangaroos, wallabies, and a Brahmin bull.
In 1871, Robert Buchanan attacked Rossetti’s poetry in a famous article called “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” and Rossetti was so affected by the criticism that he sank into a deep depression, made worse by drug addiction. He continued to paint and write poetry until his death in 1882.
He said, “Color and meter: these are the true patents of nobility in painting and poetry, taking precedence of all intellectual claims.”
And he wrote, “A Sonnet is a moment’s monument, / Memorial from the Soul’s eternity / To one dead deathless hour.”
It’s the birthday of American novelist and poet Rosellen Brown(books by this author), born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1939. Her novels include Tender Mercies (1978), Before and After (1992), and Half a Heart (2000), which tells the story of a white, Jewish woman who is reunited with the biracial daughter she abandoned during the sixties. Her family moved around a lot when she was a child, and Brown began reading writers like Turgenev and Dostoevsky. She said, “I was nine when words began to serve their extraordinary purposes for me: I was lonely and they kept me company, they materialized whenever I called on them, without an argument or a competitive leer.” Brown, who is white, taught at a black college in Tougaloo, Mississippi, during the civil rights era, and began to write politically charged poetry.
She said, “I still write for the same reason I wrote when I was nine years old: to speak more perfectly than I really can, to a listener more perfect than any I know.”
And, “Writing, getting something down on the page, is a gratification that, like a child faced with a candy bar and an empty stomach, I have trouble postponing.”