March 25th 1811: Shelley expelled from Oxford
On this day in 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from the University of Oxford for publishing a pamphlet entitled ‘The Necessity of Atheism’. Shelley is best known as a famous English poet, who was part of a group of fellow prominent writers including his wife Mary Shelley and Lord Byron. As well as being as being an author, Shelley was a radical political activist who advocated non-violent protest. Having begun study at Oxford in 1810, it is often said that he only attended one lecture during his time there. He published several works whilst at university, but it was his atheistic pamphlet which led to his appearance before the College fellows and his eventual expulsion as he refused to deny authorship. ‘The Necessity of Atheism’ argued that people do not choose their beliefs and thus atheists shouldn’t be persecuted. However it is unclear whether Shelley was personally an atheist; he may have instead been an agnostic or a pantheist. Either way, this document is an interesting insight into Shelley’s views and shows how atheism was stigmatised in the early nineteenth century.
"Truth has always been found to promote the best interests of mankind. Every reflecting mind must allow that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity"
March 18th 1893: Wilfred Owen born
On this day in 1893, the English poet and soldier was born in Shropshire. Owen is famous for his poetry depicting his experiences in the First World War, especially the horrors of trench and gas warfare which he experienced first hand. His grim portrayal of war was contrary to the optimistic public perception of war. Owen was good friends with fellow World War One poet Siegfried Sassoon whom he met whilst they were both in hospital for shell shock. Perhaps Owen’s most famous poem is 'Dulce et Decorum Est'. In the last lines of this poem Owen laments the “old lie” of the dictum “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” which is Latin for ‘How sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country’. Owen was killed in battle in 1918 aged 25 exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice. He was outlived by his friend Sassoon who died in 1967. This year when we commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, we must remember Owen’s haunting words and understand the horrors these soldiers experienced.
January 27th 1832: Lewis Carroll born
On this day in 1832, the English writer Lewis Carroll was born. His birth name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson but he took Lewis Carroll as his pseudonym. Carroll studied at Rugby School and Oxford University. He is most famous as the author of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ (1865) and its sequel ‘Through the Looking Glass’ (1871). Carroll’s writing is an example of literary nonsense, and displays his aptitude with word play and logic. His works are still widely enjoyed today by adults and children alike.
December 30th 1865: Rudyard Kipling born
On this day in 1865, the English writer Rudyard Kipling was born. Kipling was born in Bombay and in later life wrote frequently about British soldiers in India. However he is best known for his book for children ‘The Jungle Book’. ‘The Jungle Book’ is a collection of short stories and was published in 1894.The book inspired the 1967 Disney film. Kipling was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907. Kipling died in 1936 aged 70.
December 22nd 1943: Beatrix Potter dies
On this day in 1943, the famous English author Beatrix Potter died. She is best known for her children’s books like ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’. Potter was born in London in 1866 to a wealthy family. She began her career as an illustrator and in 1901 published The Tale of Peter Rabbit which she wrote and illustrated. Upon her death in Near Sawrey, Cumbria, Potter left almost all her property to the National Trust. She is thus credited with preserving much of the land that is now the Lake District National Park.
December 3rd 1894: Robert Louis Stevenson dies
On this day in 1894, the author Robert Louis Stevenson died aged 44. Stevenson was best known for his works ‘Treasure Island’, ‘Kidnapped’ and ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde’. He is considered one of the greatest authors of the 19th century. Stevenson died on the evening of 3rd December 1894. He was talking to his wife and trying to open a bottle of wine when he said “What’s that!” and asked his wife “Does my face look strange?”. He then collapsed and died a few hours later from what was most likely a cerebral hemorrhage.
On Stevenson’s tomb is inscribed his ‘Requiem’:
"Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”
October 16th 1854: Oscar Wilde born
On this day in 1854 the famous Irish writer Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin. Wilde studied the classics at Oxford and whilst there became engaged in philosophy and literature. Wilde is best known for his works including his novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and his play ‘The Importance of the Being Earnest’. He is one of the greatest personalities in literature, as a very witty and flamboyant man. Wilde was a homosexual, and was arrested and sentenced to two years of hard labour for ‘gross indecency’. He died in November 1900 in Paris aged 46.
October 6th 1892: Alfred, Lord Tennyson dies
On this day in 1892, the famous British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson died aged 83. Tennyson was Poet Laureate under Queen Victoria from 1850 until his death. His poems include ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and ‘In Memoriam’. The latter poem coined the famous phrase “‘Tis better to have loved and lost, Than never to have loved at all”. Upon his death he was buried in Westminster Abbey in Poets’ Corner alongside notable figures like Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling.
March 20th 1852: ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ published
On this day in 1852, American author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ was published. Previously published as a serial in the anti-slavery periodical the National Era, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ tells the story of a black slave and recounts the harsh reality of his enslavement. Stowe was an ardent advocate of the abolition of slavery, and wrote the novel in response to the passage of the controversial 1850 Fugitive Slave Act which was part of the Compromise of 1850. The Act ordered Northern citizens to assist in the return of runaway slaves from the South, thus forcing the generally anti-slavery North to become complicit in the continuance of the ‘peculiar institution’. Thus the popular discontent over the slavery issue helped make ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century and saw its translation into sixty languages. The novel helped keep the flames of anti-slavery sentiment alive, and is therefore sometimes attributed with helping start the American Civil War. Whilst still hailed as a great anti-slavery work of its day, the novel falls short of modern expectations with its stereotypical portrayal of African-Americans.
"So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war"
- what, according to legend, Abraham Lincoln said upon meeting Stowe in 1862
January 29th 1845: ‘The Raven’ published
On this day in 1845, the poem ‘The Raven’ by American writer Edgar Allan Poe was published in the New York Evening Mirror. The poem made Poe famous and established him as a popular writer. ‘The Raven’ remains one of his best known works today. It tells the story of a raven who comes to a man who has recently lost his beloved. The raven perches on a bust of Pallas and distresses the man by repeating the word “Nevermore”.
The last lines are as follows:
"And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted – nevermore!”
(read the full poem here)
January 11th 1928: Thomas Hardy dies
On this day in 1928, the British novelist and poet Thomas Hardy died aged 87. Hardy is best known for his novels ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’, ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ and ‘Jude the Obscure’ and his poems ‘Convergence of the Twain’, ‘The Darkling Thrush’ and ‘Under the Waterfall’. His novels were mostly set in the fictional region of Wessex. Hardy and his first wife Emma had an unhappy marriage, as latterly they rarely talked. However, upon her death in 1912 Hardy was filled with remorse for his treatment of her and wrote many poems about her. When Hardy died in 1928, despite his wishes to be buried next to Emma, the executor of his will wanted him placed in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. As a compromise, Hardy’s ashes were placed in Poets’ Corner, and his heart was buried with Emma.
December 23rd 1823: ‘The Night Before Christmas’ published
On this day in 1823, the poem' A Visit from St. Nicholas' or 'The Night Before Christmas' was published anonymously in a local newspaper in New York state. The poem is now considered to have been written by Clement Clarke Moore, who accepted authorship in 1844. Moore supposedly wrote the poem for his children, and as a distinguished professor did not want to be publicly associated with the poem. However debates endure as to the poem’s true authorship. The poem helped to establish in popular imagination the idea of Santa Claus.
"Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there”
(read the full poem here)
December 9th 1608: John Milton born
On this day in 1608 the British poet John Milton was born in London. He attended Cambridge in 1625 and began an interest in writing. After leaving university Milton traveled extensively throughout Europe, spending a lot of time in France and Italy. Milton was appointed to Oliver Cromwell’s government as Secretary of Foreign Tongues in 1649. He is most famous for his 1667 epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’, which is still considered one of the greatest poems of all time. Milton died in November 1674.
October 21st 1940: ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ published
On this day in 1940, Ernest Hemingway’s novel ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ was first published. The novel follows Robert Jordan as he fights in a republican guerrilla unit during the Spanish Civil War as an explosives expert. He was inspired by his own experiences during the war. Hemingway wrote the novel in 1939 and began it while he was in Cuba. The novel sold half a million copies within months of publication. It is now considered one of Hemingway’s finest works.
October 13th 1958: Paddington Bear debuts
On this day in 1958 the iconic character of English children’s books, Paddington Bear, made his debut in the first book in the series: ‘A Bear Called Paddington’. He has since appeared in over twenty books. The books were written by Michael Bond, who based the character on a lone teddy bear he saw on a shelf in a shop near Paddington Station on Christmas Eve 1956. In his first appearance, the bear is discovered by the Brown family in Paddington Station in London, thus giving him his name.