On this day in 1792, one of the greatest English language poets Percy Bysshe Shelley was born. And he did right by the Romantic ideal by dying young. I rather like his poetry, but it exhibits a worldview that is now little more than a joke we associate with adolescent angst. All that really means is that Shelley and the other Romantic poets were too successful at their task. Regardless, like most people today, I would rather have his wife’s one great creation than all of his.
The great Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton was born in 1805. He’s the guy who reformulated Newtonian mechanics into the much more beautiful (and powerful, not that it matters) Hamiltonian mechanics. Fashion designer Louis Vuitton was born in 1821. I don’t have any thoughts about him one way or another. But it amazes me that the company he started sells some of the ugliest bags for the cost of my rent. What’s with that? Essayist Walter Pater was born in 1839. I never knew this was her whole name, but Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother was born in 1900. She lived to be 101, so I figure her daughter will be kicking around for a while longer.
Another great mathematician, American this time, Saunders Mac Lane was born in 1909. He co-founded category theory, something that is very interesting, sounds powerful, and makes very little sense to me. Modern classical composer William Schuman was born in 1910. I very much like him. But his most admired piece—Violin Concerto—is still quite challenging. Give it a try, but if you don’t like it, check out one of his symphonies, which are more accessible:
One of the founding members of Abstract Expressionism, Hedda Sterne was born in 1910 (and only died two years ago). I’m not terribly fond of that art movement, but it is not all equal and Sterne produced some nice work. The painting at the left is a self-portrait (click on it for a larger image or check out this other great self-portrait), and is not Abstract Expressionism, of course. But I wish she had done more stuff like it. It is still quite modern but pulls together a lot of different styles—especially (to my eye) neoclassical and surreal.
And journalist Helen Thomas was born in 1920 and died only just the other day. I always felt she got a bad wrap about her comments about Israelis getting out of the occupied land. I believe what she was getting at (and had she not already been in her 90s, she might have been able to phrase it better) was that the Israeli government actively pushes these illegal settlements. What’s more, my understanding is that it is especially recent refugees who are so encouraged. That isn’t an anti-Israeli (much less anti-Jewish) thought. To me, the mess in Palestine is made ever so much worse because of these illegal settlements and makes a final resolution much harder. And that ultimately makes things worse for the Israelis. Anyway, I think that was what Thomas was getting at. Regardless, we should remember her for all the good work she did when the Washington press corps was something other than a bunch of sycophants.
The day, however, belongs to one of the icons of Jazz, Louis Armstrong was was born on this day in 1901. Today, he is most remembered as a singer, especially of the song “What a Wonderful World.” Too often lost is what an exceptional trumpet player he was. And he was quite an innovator in terms of improvisation. It is not generally understood just how little improvisation went on in that early New Orleans jazz. Armstrong really showed the way forward. Here he is in Europe in 1933. He sings at the beginning, but you get to hear some great playing in the second half:
Happy birthday Louis Armstrong!