Numismatics and Poetry, High School Daze Flashback
March 27, 2008
Each morning I get a subscription email from NPR called the Writer's Almanac. It is also played on many NPR stations at about 8:30.
Today it noted the birthdays of four important people - Robert Frost, Tennessee Williams, Joseph Campbell and A. E. Housman. The first three are generally well known, but it was the last that struck me.
Frost is known to poetry readers for the Yankee / New England viewpoint of things; his poem presented during the Kennedy inauguration, and the famous line of "a road less traveled." I have often been on those roads.
Joseph Campbell is known through the 1990s Mythology series with Bill Moyers which was presented on PBS. I knew about him earlier in the 1980s as he was a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, and my friend Michael Druck spoke about him on occasion.
Tennessee Williams wrote many classic plays, and Streetcar Named Desire is a favorite of mine. Not at first for the story, but the use of the streetcar. My first trip to New Orleans was as a teenager in the late 1970s, and I got to ride on those stalwart streetcars, as well as photograph the unrestored New Orleans Mint.
However, it was the mention of poet A. E. Housman that struck me most. It was in speach class as a sophomore in Brooklyn Technical High School that I became familiar with his work. We were assigned a project to recite a poem. I decided to choose one which had a numismatic connection, and as a collector of British type coins at the time (I exhibited coppers of George III at the NY ANA in 1976, yikes that was a traumatic experience). I fell into Houseman's "When I was one and twenty" which includes the lines: "When I was one-and-twenty / I heard a wise man say, 'Give crowns and pounds and guineas / But not your heart away. / Give pearls away and rubies / but keep your fancy free. / But I was one and twenty / no use to talk to me."
Many of those lines I could still recite today.
Written in the last part of the 19th century, I knew that crowns and pounds were coins, but the guinea did not exist as a coin after the 1820s. But it continued in use as a measure of account, usually to make expensive items sound cheaper. (The guinea is 21 shillings, the pound is 20 shillings). Thus houses, cruises and other items were rendered often in guineas rather than pounds.
I was leaning economics as well as poetry.
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