Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Overcoat

I was inspired yesterday at the blog of my friend, Derrick, whose posts are full of historical signifcance and wonder. It got me thinking about my own love affair with history, which began, oddly enough, with Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind.

So it was, when I was 14 years old, that I found history all wrapped up in a wonderful novel about the American Civil War. I was hooked. Enthralled, I read about places I'd heard about and studied in other, drier contexts. With sudden clarity of mind and heart, I finally grasped that history is not made up merely of facts and events, but of people whose lives and decisions are shaped, impacted, affected by all that happens around them. I was seeing history-in-the-making through the eyes of those to whom it mattered deeply. Because my beloved characters cared deeply, I began to care deeply, as well.

There is a weight and comfort and substance I feel when reading/studying history. What has gone before shapes us all in large and small ways; it is our constant shadow. The significance of history deserves a poem, and so here I share my hands-down favorite.


The Lesson

In the morning when I found History
snoring heavily on the couch,
I took down his overcoat from the rack
and placed its weight over my shoulder blades.
It would protect me on the cold walk
into the village for milk and the paper
and I figured he would not mind,
not after our long conversation the night before.
How unexpected his blustering anger
when I returned covered with icicles,
the way he rummaged through the huge pockets
making sure no major battle or English queen
had fallen out and become lost in the deep snow.

--Billy Collins

19 comments:

sizzie said...

Again you surprise me with a poem I had not yet read. Thank you. When did you last re-read Gone With The Wind? I have read it several times, as I am sure you have. Once, I only read the pages MM wrote while wearing her journalist hat.

Meri Arnett-Kremian said...

Such great timing for this post, when we have been able to witness something historians will take note of for generations. I don't know if you saw Doris Kearns Goodwin on an Oprah show panel, but she was jiggling with pure joy and excitement, knowing she -- the renowned presidential historian -- had witnessed events personally.

Peggy said...

Sizzie, isn't Billy Collins great? This is by far my favorite poem about history. He so well captures how I experience it.

You asked about "Gone with the Wind"... I reread it every three or four years. It's one of the VERY few books I like as well as the movie. But there's just something about holding a book and smelling its dusty-paper smell and feeling the binding "give" a bit when you open it up. Such a tactile experience!

larkspur said...

Peggy...my favorite! Thanks.

Carol said...

Hi Peggy.........You know I'm Margaret Mitchell reincarnated right? HA..just kidding ! I named my only daughter Melanie because of GWTW. I am a history freak, always seeking out historical places. Come by the porch and read a little Civil War history.

Cynthia said...

Hi Peggy, I've come by before and noticed that we sometimes write about the same themes. I'm on the last few pages of "A Year in Provence." Do you like it? I think we might be the only people who waited so long to read it. (just kidding)<3

Eleanor said...

Just come in from Canada (not where I live!) from Poetikat to find your lovely and very interesting blog. That is a striking poem. I also love history. I suppose I just love stories! Peter Mayle's books were my husband's great favourites. He used to read extracts aloud punctated with his own bursts of laugther. Nice to meet you...

Bee said...

Another great Collins poem; I didn't know it.

We saw "Valkyrie" this afternoon, and one couldn't help but wonder how the course of history would have changed if they had managed to kill Hitler and "take" Germany back.

Gone With The Wind: loved to watch its annual TV outing when I was a child. A sunset picture reminded me of Scarlett's "I'll never be hungry again" speech the other day.

Jo said...

hen we study history in school, it is presented to us from dry, dusty text books. You have given me a new way to look at it. History is made up of real people.

You have a wonderful, beautifully written blog.

Jo said...

I meant "when". :-) Somehow the "W" got chopped off.

Jan said...

Peggy,
I think this statement of yours is profound.
"Because my beloved characters cared deeply, I began to care deeply, as well." I think this is so true, and I have never heard it put quite this way before. Kudos!

Like you, one of my early literary heroine's was Scarlett O'Hara. I loved her spunk and passion for life, for the land. And though she was sometimes misguided (aren't we all, at times?), she was intelligent and fiesty enough to learn from her mistakes. Historical characters do reflect us back to ourselves, don't they?

Blessings of wisdom to you.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Such a wonderful poem. History always fascinated me as a child. Queen Elizabeth I was almost more real to me than the faces I saw on the six o'clock news. How amazing that we all got to see such glorious history being made this past week.

Peggy said...

Carol (aka Ms. Mitchell), I knew you looked familiar to me! I'll stop by your blog for another visit in a little bit.

Cynthia, I'm actually re-reading "A Year in Provence." I get into moods during the winter when I need a slower read. This fits my bill!

Eleanor, welcome! What a wonderful anecdote about Mayle's stories and your husband's reading aloud! It's so nice to meet you, too. :-)

Peggy said...

Bee, what an unforgettable sunset scene that was in GWTW, clenched fist and all!

Jo, it's wonderful to see you again! Thanks so much for stopping by.

Jan, I'm so overdue on an email to you. I'll get there soon; don't give up on me! It's great to see you again.

Pamela, I understand exactly what you mean about historical figures seeming more real than people in the grocery store... A bit ago, I read a great story about Mary Todd Lincoln, and she became so alive to me, much more so than the weatherman on the evening news!

Joanne said...

A few years ago, GWTW was shown in one of our movie theaters on the big screen, and I took my daughters, who had never seen it. There's nothing like seeing some of those scenes up on that screen, images of Tara, oh that green velvet dress, the staircase! It would be nice if it was shown in the theaters more often! (And much thanks for the Award, it is so appreciated - I've commented on the post below)

Peggy said...

Joanne, that is so great your daughters were introduced to GWTW on the big screen! I bought a 50th Anniversary edition of the movie in 1989. It's on two video tapes, so we have to dust off the VCR, but it's so worth it!

willow said...

I love this Billy Collins poem and it is new to me! I thought I had read every one of his poems. Thanks, Peggy! I loved this post.

Derrick said...

Hello Peggy,

Sorry I'm rather late checking-in here!! Thanks for the mention. I'm thrilled to have been an inspiration and really enjoyed reading the poem. History really is about people and I'm sure many more would be able to relate to it if they thought that way!

Peggy said...

Willow, I'm so glad you enjoyed it. It's a special poem, isn't it?

Derrick! You're welcome for the mention. Thank you for the inspiration! :-)