Sunday, August 28, 2005

Damn Germans and Swedes

with Garrison Keillor


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Poem: "To Anthea, Who May Command Him Anything" by Robert Herrick (1591-1674). Reprinted with permission.

To Johanna, Who May Command Me Anything

Bid me to live, and I will live
Thy Protestant to be;
Or bid me love, and I will give
A loving heart to thee.

A heart as soft, a heart as kind,
A heart as sound and free
As in the whole world thou canst find,
That heart I'll give to thee.

Bid that heart stay, and it will stay
To honour thy decree:
Or bid it languish quite away,
And 't shall do so for thee.

Bid me to weep, and I will weep
While I have eyes to see:
And, having none, yet I will keep
A heart to weep for thee.

Bid me despair, and I'll despair
Under that cypress-tree:
Or bid me die, and I will dare
E'en death to die for thee.

Thou art my life, my love, my heart,
The very eyes of me:
And hast command of every part
To live and die for thee.

Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is believed to be the date when the Roman Empire fell in 474 A.D., when the Emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by a barbarian. What they called barbarians, we might call Germans or Swedes. One tribe, the Goths, had originated in Sweden, migrated to the Black Sea, and split into two groups, the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths. They were driven out of their own homeland by the Huns who had been advancing across Asia from the east. And so 200,000 Visigoths migrated across the Danube into the Roman Empire in 374 A.D. and were tolerated there by the Romans. But then the Romans tried to disarm them, and there was a rebellion. The emperor sent Roman troops into battle at Adrianople, and the Visigoths won and destroyed two-thirds of the Roman army. Their victory was thanks in part to the fact that the Visigoths had developed a horse's saddle with stirrups, which made the horses much more maneuverable. Other Germanic tribes then began to move into the Roman Empire, the Vandals, the Burgundians, the Franks, the Angles, and the Saxons. Rome was sacked by the Goths in 410 and again by Vandals in 455. The Roman Empire was in shambles, and the emperor was deposed on this day in 474 A.D. Edward Gibbon put forward a theory about the fall of Rome, arguing that the Christian Church was to blame, that after Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, the best and the brightest became leaders of the church rather than going into the military or into the government. Another theory says that the aqueducts, which carried the water supply, were lined with lead, and so the Romans slowly went crazy. One of the more recent theories is that the Roman army had been infiltrated by the barbarians themselves, and so when the army was ordered to attack the barbarians, they, of course, refused.

It's the birthday of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, born in Frankfurt (1749). He spent about 50 years writing his masterpiece Faust, about the man who sells his soul to the devil but gets into heaven anyway. Goethe said, "One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words."

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