Aretha Put a Spell on Us


In thinking of a poem that would capture the spirit of Aretha Franklin, I thought of Lucille Clifton’s “homage of my hips” (1980). Like Aretha, the speaker demands r-e-s-p-e-c-t, whatever the rest of the world might think of a non-conforming woman who insists on center stage. And because of her forcefulness, the world says, “Okay,” and goes along.

Both women played large roles is bolstering the self-esteem of black women. And of oppressed people everywhere.

The rest is history.

homage to my hips

By Lucille Clifton

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,   
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!

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What Lit Is Good For–A Debate

John Singer Sargent, “Man Reading”


Tim Parks has written a provocative essay for The New York Review of Books, asking,

Is literature wise? In the sense, does it help us to live? And if not, what exactly is it good for?

If you follow this blog, you already know my answers:

–Yes, literature is wiser than we are (and often wiser than the author);

–Yes, it can help us to live a deeper and richer life; and

–In addition to helping us to live, it delights us (which is another way of helping us to live).

While I disagree with much of what Parks says, I appreciate the conversation, which dates back to Plato and Aristotle. To get us thinking, Parks pokes us with some counterfactuals, such as the fact that many authors have been unhappy:

One way into that question might be to look at how great writers themselves have benefited. Or haven’t. The situation is not immediately promising, since the list of writers who committed suicide, from Seneca the Younger to David Foster Wallace, would be long; Nerval, Hemingway, Plath, Pavese, Zweig, Mayakovsky, and Woolf all spring to mind. But I suppose you could argue that there are situations where suicide is the wise decision, or that without literature these talented people might have gone much earlier. The list of those who have driven themselves to an unhappy death would likely be longer still. Dickens, Tolstoy, Joyce, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Henry Green, Elsa Morante, and Dylan Thomas arguably fall in that category. Not to mention those forever frustrated by insufficient recognition and other occupational hazards; the gloom of Giacomo Leopardi would appear to have been oceanic.

Parks then wonders if a literary sensibility is the cause of this unhappiness:

Is there, then, something in the nature of the literary that renders the author, but perhaps also the reader, more vulnerable than most people to unhappiness, being troubled, or perhaps simply to the kind of emotional turbulence that writers as far apart as Shelley and Simenon seem invariably to have created around themselves? In short, could it be that there is something about our conception of the literary that not only does not help us to live, but actually makes things more difficult?

The thought here is a literary variation of an age-old question: are dull people happier than intelligent people because they are less troubled by thinking? Parks, however, takes the argument in a different direction.

As he sees it, the essence of modern storytelling is “the struggling self…seeking some kind of definition or stability in a world that appears hostile to such aspirations”:

[L]ife is precarious, tumultuous, fickle, and the self seeks in vain, or manages only with great effort, to put together a personal narrative that is, even briefly, satisfying. Of course, the story can end in various ways, or simply stop at some convenient grace-point; happy endings are not entirely taboo, though certainly frowned on in the more elevated spheres of serious literary fiction. And even when things do come to a pleasing conclusion, it is either shot through with irony or presented as merely a new beginning, with everything still to fight for.

“They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed,” Dickens tells us of Little Dorrit and Clennam after their five hundred pages of misery, “and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar.”

How promising is that?

I think Parks’s example gives his rhetorical question a different answer than he anticipates. Okay, so Arthur Clennam and Little Dorrit may not live a life that is always pure bliss, but their lives together will be far richer than they would have been alone. Is Parks saying that, because there will be shade as well as sunshine, that negates the sunshine? Their hard-won love doesn’t fit what Parks says next:

In short, at the core of the literary experience, as it is generally construed and promoted, is the pathos of this unequal battle and of a self inevitably saddened—though perhaps galvanized, too, or, in any event, tempered and hardened—by the systematic betrayal of youth’s great expectations. Life promises so much, but then slips through one’s fingers.

What if one were to reverse this observation and say that, although life may slip through one’s fingers, it also has transcendent moments? Perhaps we in a glass half full/half empty debate. In the end, we’re all going to grow old and die, but does this fact render life meaningless?

Actually, Parks seems to be saying as much with his idea that literature is nothing more than a

bitter pill dressed up or administered in such a way that, at least in the telling, it becomes a pleasure. There is the excitement of drama, of complex and unstable situations, there is immersion in fine description, that heightened sense of engagement that comes with recognizing an accurate portrayal of things we know, and, of course, there is the satisfaction of seeing the desperate human condition brilliantly dissected. Sometimes, the more brilliantly pessimistic the dissection, the more stimulating the reading experience, the greater the sense of catastrophe, the more noble, profound, and grand the writer who eloquently expresses it…

What is on offer, then, is the consolation of intelligent form and seductive style, but enlisted to deliver a content that invariably smacks of defeat, or at best a temporary stay of execution.

Having taken up this line of thought, Parks runs with it. Because we invariably lose our childhood optimism—he sounds like Wordsworth here—we need literature to help us cope. We become addicted to its beautiful depictions of our suffering:

[F]or all its magnificent achievements, [literature] becomes as much a part of the problem as the solution, an addiction that feeds the sufferings it consoles. One enjoys Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, one admires Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! or Bernhard’s Gargoyles, but one comes away with a heightened sense of how much more literature will be required to console such a desperate human condition.

By the end of the article, Parks has written himself into the absurdism of Samuel Beckett, with anything optimistic seen as nothing more than a vain illusion. Ultimately, his answer as to what literature is good for is (wait for it):

The pleasure the mind takes in dwelling on its downfall–

And because we become addicted to this masochistic pleasure, authors function as our suppliers, constantly coming up with new product.

So does this mean that, if we were to kick the reading habit, we would find a new peace of mind? Or at least not exacerbate our exquisite sensibilities, which do nothing other than make us miserable? Parks seems to hint as much. But if that’s the case, why not just take a cue from Brave New World and zone out on soma?

Speaking of “brave new world,” which appears in The Tempest, Parks thinks we should ditch Shakespeare’s shallowly optimistic romances (Tempest, Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline) for Lear and Macbeth. In the romances, he says, “all becomes reversible, and seemingly ruinous behavior is set to right,” whereas the tragedies “are closer to the core of our narrative tradition.”

Notice how Parks has defined this narrative tradition, even Dickens, as invariably dark. To be sure, this would leave out such works as Tom Jones, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, War and Peace, and the Kitty-Levin half of Anna Karenina, not to mention many of literature’s comic masterpieces. But okay, let’s play on Parks’s turf and take a look at King Lear.

Of course the work is dark, featuring as it does Shakespeare’s most nihilistic ending. But in the midst of the tragedy, Lear discovers a love that is more powerful than anything he has ever experienced. Once he knows what love offers us, I can imagine him choosing 24 hours of that love over a lifetime of narcissistic self-absorption. From watching King Lear I don’t experience pleasure at dwelling upon my inevitable downfall. I get a sense of what is really important in life.

I get the same from many of the other works that Parks mentions, from Education Sentimentale to Catcher in the Rye. Writing of Emma Bovary, Frankfurt scholar Herbert Marcuse takes away her “great refusal” to accept the stultifying conventions of her day, not her defeat. The novel feeds his determination to work for a better world.

Why does Parks dwell so much on Beckett when he could be talking about the life force found in comedy, from Twelfth Night to Way of the World to The Importance of Being Earnest to Pygmalion? Or don’t they fit neatly into the tradition that he claims defines most of literature, a tradition where individuals are crushed by society?

As I see it, literature puts us in touch with our desire to grow into our deepest selves, even when it ends unhappily. We do not find some placid happiness by refusing to read. Instead, as Thoreau puts it, we live lives of quiet desperation.

Like Lear, we remain stuck in our narcissism.

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Existential Stargazing

Van Gogh, “Starry Night over the Rhone”


This past weekend Julia, my mother and I went out onto Sewanee’s Lake Eva dock to watch the meteor shower. Although we saw only a single falling star, that one was spectacular. I share today a William Bronk poem about gazing at the stars.

Bronk is a poet’s poet, which is to say he is exceedingly difficult, even though he appears fairly straightforward. I can’t pretend to plumb his depths but I like some of the thoughts that float up. Here he reflects on how the mind can never wrap itself around the immensity of the universe:

The Various Sizes of the World

By William Bronk

We all get used to the regular stars in time. 
After the start of learning how far they are, 
what distances from earth, and even more 
what space they keep apart from star to star, 
where centuries divide the closest star’s faint light 
from light beyond, the mind comes back at last 
making the sky seem shallow like the earth 
where, from the air, we see a city’s lights 
spread out across the surface crust below 
in constellations we read without surprise.

The sky is a similar surface pierced with lights 
until, another morning, the sensitive plate 
of a telescope has fixed a light so far 
we never knew, so huge that a galaxy needs 
to hold it. What address ever really finds 
us in the endless depths the world acquires? 
The earth has mass to hold our own mass down, 
and the huge sun holds earth as though 
a whirled cord were taut with it. But the mind 
responds to the pull of its own gravities.

The mind is shifted outward into space 
beyond the sun, where the surface sky explodes 
softly forever like an endless wind. 
Out and back the mind, the slide of the rule. 
Where shall we add the logarithm of what 
to find the actual product of any hour? 
What point can fix the decimal of space 
that joins the least remoteness of the earth 
by tiny increments to the last star? 
No, here’s an incongruous world, too large, too far. 

In the first stanza, the poet talks about how we use the science of astronomy to situate ourselves. In doing so, the sky comes to seem “shallow like the earth.” It’s as though we are looking at our earth from an airplane, where we see

a city’s lights 
spread out across the surface crust below 
in constellations we read without surprise.

Then we learn that a telescope “has fixed a light so far/we never knew, so huge that a galaxy needs/ to hold it.” The universe has just grown again, so large that we can’t say we have an address within it.

But we do feel we have a solid location because “the earth has mass to hold our own mass down.” After feeling lost in space, suddenly we feel on stable ground. The size of the world has just changed again.

And then it changes yet again when we recall that this earth is held by a huge sun millions of miles away, as though a whirled cord were taut with it. Back and forth we go as “the mind responds to the pull of its own gravities.”

In the final stanza, gravity gives way once again as our mind drifts into space beyond “the surface sky.” Sometimes we think we know the universe and where we are in it and sometimes we don’t. Out and back we go, like a slide rule that claims to fixate definite points, only to be defeated at last.

Even the world that we thought we knew, that we use as grounding, is incongruous–which is to say, not in accord with our understanding. Like the vast reaches of interstellar space, this world seems “too large, too far.” Our mind always comes up short.

That’s how it seemed to us as we looked up into the heavens, searching for meteors.

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Dryden Had Trump’s Number

John Dryden


This past Sunday at Otey Parish, our minister preached a sermon about David and Absolom that appeared to reference Donald Trump’s noxious influence on race relations. Rev. Lamborn noted that David’s shenanigans with Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite gave permission for his children to act out, including Absolom killing his half brother for raping their sister.

To be sure, the Trump parallel was not the sermon’s major point, which focused on exploring our own racial history. Just as the Hebrew Chronicles are willing to expose the failings of even Israel’s greatest king, so we need to acknowledge that Bishop Otey was a slave owner. The sermon, however, got me thinking about Dryden’s Absolom and Achitophel and how it might apply to the president.

Dryden walks a fine political line in this brilliant allegory. Absolom is the Duke of Monmouth, Charles I’s oldest illegitimate son, who eventually led a revolt so that he, an Anglican, would succeed Charles rather than Charles’s Catholic brother James.  Dryden opposed Monmouth’s plots but, because of Charles’s fondness for Monmouth (like David’s fondness for Absolom), blamed everything on the Duke of Shaftesbury, Monmouth’s scheming advisor whom the poet casts as David’s turncoat counselor.

Applied to our situation, Trump would be a combination of Absolom, Achitophel, and Corah (who rebelled against Moses), the latter representing Titus Oates. Oates panicked the nation with his anti-Catholic conspiracy theories, most notably “the Popish Plot”:

On 28 September, Oates made 43 allegations against various members of Catholic religious orders—including 541 Jesuits—and numerous Catholic nobles. He accused Sir George Wakeman, Queen Catherine of Braganza‘s physician, and Edward Colman, the secretary to Mary of ModenaDuchess of York, of planning to assassinate Charles. 

Although Oates may have selected the names randomly, or with the help of the Earl of Danby, Colman was found to have corresponded with a French Jesuit who was confessor to Louis XIV, which was enough to condemn him….Despite Oates’ unsavoury reputation, his confident performance and superb memory made a surprisingly good impression on the Council. (Wikipedia) 

As a result of his efforts, 15 innocent people were hanged.

I equate Trump with Oates because he is just as ready to fabricate to gain power. Note Dryden’s sarcasm as he describes the Oates figure:

His memory, miraculously great, 
Could plots exceeding man’s belief, repeat; 
Which therefore cannot be accounted lies, 
For human wit could never such devise. 

If Oates/Corah is Trump the Conspiracy Monger, then Shaftesbury/Achitophel is Trump the Intriguer.  Dryden describes him as “bold and turbulent of wit,” “unfixt in principles and place,” “a fiery soul,” and someone who is most effective “when the waves went high.” He is “in friendship false, implacable in hate,” leading Dryden to conclude, “Great wits are sure to madness near allied”:

Of these the false Achitophel was first: 
A name to all succeeding ages curst. 
For close designs, and crooked counsels fit; 
Sagacious, bold and turbulent of wit: 
Restless, unfixt in principles and place; 
In pow’r unpleas’d, impatient of disgrace. 
A fiery soul, which working out its way, 
Fretted the pigmy-body to decay: 
And o’er inform’d the tenement of clay. 
A daring pilot in extremity; 
Pleas’d with the danger, when the waves went high 
He sought the storms; but for a calm unfit, 
Would steer too nigh the sands, to boast his wit. 
Great wits are sure to madness near alli’d; 
And thin partitions do their bounds divide… 

I think of the way that Trump thrives best in chaos, constantly stirring the pot so that everyone is off balance.

Shaftesbury/Achitophel jockeys for power by breaking up the “triple bond” of England, Sweden, and the Netherlands (think NATO), which in turn makes England/Israel more susceptible to “a foreign yoke” (France for Dryden, Russia for us). And to ward off attacks, he loudly proclaims himself a patriot, which Dryden says is a great way “to cancel private crimes”:

In friendship false, implacable in hate: 
Resolv’d to ruin or to rule the state. 
To compass this, the triple bond he broke; 
The pillars of the public safety shook: 
And fitted Israel for a foreign yoke. 
Then, seiz’d with fear, yet still affecting fame, 
Usurp’d a patriot’s all-atoning name. 
So easy still it proves in factious times, 
With public zeal to cancel private crimes…

Just as Trump rallies his base to distract attention from the charges leveled against him, Achitophel appeals to the people to cushion himself against charges of treason:

How safe is treason, and how sacred ill, 
Where none can sin against the people’s will: 
Where crowds can wink; and no offense be known, 
Since in another’s guilt they find their own. 

Along with Trump the Conspiracy Monger and Trump the Intriguer, there is Trump the Candidate (Monmouth/Absolom). Here there are fewer similarities (Monmouth is young and good looking and affects a modest air), but both are charismatic and generate great enthusiasm:

Th’ admiring crowd are dazzled with surprise, 
And on his goodly person feed their eyes: 
His joy conceal’d, he sets himself to show; 
On each side bowing popularly low: 
His looks, his gestures, and his words he frames, 
And with familiar ease repeats their names. 
Thus, form’d by Nature, furnish’d out with arts, 
He glides unfelt into their secret hearts…

His fans are entranced. In the following passage, substitute “government” for “kings” and “Learjet” for “chariots, horsemen, and a num’rous train”:

The crowd, (that still believe their kings oppress,) 
With lifted hands their young Messiah bless: 
Who now begins his progress to ordain; 
With chariots, horsemen, and a num’rous train: 
From East to West his glories he displays: 
And, like the sun, the Promis’d Land surveys. 
Fame runs before him, as the Morning-Star; 
And shouts of joy salute him from afar: 
Each house receives him as a guardian God; 
And consecrates the place of his abode… 

Why should people turn to a usurper when times are good? The monarchist Dryden, suspicious of the mob, says it’s because they have it so good:

The Jews, a headstrong, moody, murm’ring race, 
As ever tri’d th’extent and stretch of grace; 
God’s pamper’d people whom, debauch’d with ease, 
No king could govern, nor no God could please…

In Dryden’s imagined happy ending, the law wins out as Charles II/David arises from his lethargy and reminds people of his prerogatives as king. To apply the poem to ourselves who are not monarchists, let’s say our “lawful lord” is the Constitution:

For lawful pow’r is still superior found, 
When long driv’n back, at length it stands the ground. 

He said. Th’ Almighty, nodding, gave consent; 
And peals of thunder shook the firmament. 
Henceforth a series of new time began, 
The mighty years in long procession ran: 
Once more the god-like David was restor’d, 
And willing nations knew their lawful lord. 

There is some wish fulfillment on Dryden’s part here, just as many of us are wishing that the GOP-run Congress would stand tall against Trump’s excesses. I wonder if Dryden, looking at us, would believe his fears of mob rule confirmed. After all, if Republican legislators fear the anger of their Trump-supporting base, and if some of them also colluded with Russia, then Dryden’s words directly apply:

How safe is treason, and how sacred ill, 
Where none can sin against the people’s will: 
Where crowds can wink; and no offense be known, 
Since in another’s guilt they find their own. 

Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky today has a column explaining how Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani are angling for precisely this result:

[Giuliani] understands that his client, as the president of the United States, can’t face indictment and trial in the normal way any other American citizen can. The legal system can’t catch up with him, at least while he’s president. Only the political system can. Congressional action is the only remedy for a lawless president. And Congress obeys (in theory) the will of the people. Get the people to hate the law, to believe that the law itself is lawless, and the people’s representatives will be cowed into inaction.

So that’s what Giuliani is up to: He, a former federal prosecutor, is trying to get the mob to destroy the law.

Dryden’s poem contributed towards the outcome he wanted: Charles played hardball with Parliament, dissolving it rather than sign a bill excluding his brother from the throne. And although Monmouth, like Absolom, led a rebellion, he suffered a similar defeat and was beheaded for treason. James ascended to the throne after Charles died.

Parliament won in the end, however, overthrowing James in “the Bloodless Revolution” and replacing him with his Anglican daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange. The “lawful lord” became a constitutional monarchy.

Additional note: Although Charles II stood up to Oates and Parliament as Dryden wanted, he needed independent money to do so given that Parliament controlled the purse strings. This he did, as Dryden feared, by relying on a “foreign yoke”–which in his case was Louis XIV of France, who wanted a Catholic James to succeed Charles and so made him financially independent of Parliament. Think of Louis as a 17th century Putin messing in Great Britain’s internal affairs.

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When School Drives All Joy Away

Duverger, “The Naughty School Children”

Returning to the state where I was raised, I’d forgotten how early Tennessee’s school year begins. Although it may still seem like summer to many, school has already been underway a week, with August 6 the first day back. This makes Blake’s poem “The Schoolboy,” which I shared two years ago, particularly apropos. Here’s what I wrote then.

 Reprinted from August 24, 2016

The children and teachers in our Maryland county public schools started school yesterday so here’s a William Blake poem to mark the occasion. Think of it as a protest against bad schooling rather than against all schooling. After all, education at its best taps into our natural love of learning and enlivens rather than deadens. A good teacher is worth his or her weight in gold.

Blake, however, saw many M’Choakumchilds (to borrow the figure from Dickens’s Hard Times), which is why he inveighs against people and systems that nip young buds before they can blossom. “The Schoolboy” appears in Songs of Experience and shares themes with “The Chimney Sweeper” (“They clothed me in the clothes of death,/And taught me to sing the notes of woe”) and “The Garden of Love” (“And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, /And binding with briars my joys and desires”). The image of the bird in the case, meanwhile, shows up in “Proverbs of Hell”: “A Robin Redbreast in a Cage/Puts all Heaven in a Rage.”

May all of us who are teachers keep our eyes on the prize–which is to nourish young people.

The Schoolboy

By William Blake

I love to rise in a summer morn,
When the birds sing on every tree;
The distant huntsman winds his horn,
And the skylark sings with me:
O what sweet company!

But to go to school in a summer morn, —
O it drives all joy away!
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.

Ah then at times I drooping sit,
And spend many an anxious hour;
Nor in my book can I take delight,
Nor sit in learning’s bower,
Worn through with the dreary shower.

How can the bird that is born for joy
Sit in a cage and sing?
How can a child, when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing,
And forget his youthful spring!

O father and mother if buds are nipped,
And blossoms blown away;
And if the tender plants are stripped
Of their joy in the springing day,
By sorrow and care’s dismay, —

How shall the summer arise in joy,
Or the summer fruits appear?
Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy,
Or bless the mellowing year,
When the blasts of winter appear?

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Mourning the Loss of a Son

Chagall, “David Mourns Absalom”

Spiritual Sunday

As one who has lost a son, the story of Absolom—today’s Old Testament reading—resonates with me. Although Absolom rose up in rebellion against David, the king ordered his men to “deal gently” with him, and he experienced heartrending grief when they killed Absolom instead:

The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem about the episode for a friend who lost his son to yellow fever. The poem is the best kind of condolence since it does no more than acknowledge the pain—which is to say, it does not moralize or offer shallow consolations.

Through the image of the grieving king, the poem gives the father something to hold on to. Even though the episode occurred “so long ago,” Longfellow’s friend is not alone but one of a long line of fathers who have lost sons. In my own case, I derived a little comfort in knowing I was one of many. If others had trod that path before, then I could as well.

In such moments, one is simultaneously aware of present pain and past history. Or perhaps more accurately, the present merges with the past and one sees oneself as an ancient king, his head in his hands. In the word “chamber” I hear the chambers of the heart, opening themselves to grief as a gate opens. Distinctions are swept away as all parents throughout history mourn as one:

There is no far nor near,
There is neither there nor here,
There is neither soon nor late,
In that Chamber over the Gate,
Nor any long ago
To that cry of human woe,
    O Absalom, my son!

The poem also gets it right in noting that the death being “a common grief” doesn’t lessen the pain.  Ours indeed is the bitterest loss.

The Chamber over the Gate

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Is it so far from thee
Thou canst no longer see
In the Chamber over the Gate
That old man desolate,
Weeping, and wailing sore
For his son, who is no more?
    O Absalom, my son!

Is it so long ago
That cry of human woe
From the walled city came,
Calling on his dear name,
That it has died away
In the distance of to-day?
    O Absalom, my son!

There is no far nor near,
There is neither there nor here,
There is neither soon nor late,
In that Chamber over the Gate,
Nor any long ago
To that cry of human woe,
    O Absalom, my son!

From the ages that are past
The voice comes like a blast,
Over seas that wreck and drown,
Over tumult of traffic and town;
And from ages yet to be
Come the echoes back to me,
    O Absalom, my son!

Somewhere at every hour
The watchman on the tower
Looks forth,  and sees the fleet
Approach of the hurrying feet
Of messengers, that bear
The tidings of despair.
    O Absalom, my son!

He goes forth from the door,
Who shall return no more.
With him our joy departs;
The light goes out in our hearts;
In the Chamber over the Gate
We sit disconsolate.
    O Absalom, my son!

That ‘t is a common grief
Bringeth but slight relief;
Ours is the bitterest loss,
Ours is the heaviest cross;
And forever the cry will be
“Would God I had died for thee,
    O Absalom, my son!”

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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