Happy Birthday to Whom?
Americans sing “Happy Birthday” for kids on their birthdays and have done for almost a century; the song’s simplicity suits kids’ parties just fine. What if you wanted a more complex song for a birthday, though? What if you wanted to read, or write, a poem? Poets have marked some births and birthdays for more than two millennia, paying homage, or showing affection, to the kids and adults involved. When poets approach their own birthdays, though, they’re less happy—and the line of poems doesn’t go back as far. Poems about other people’s days are sociable or even extroverted, but poets who look back at their own days and years stay melancholy, at best—not just because they are aging (as are we all) but also because they are contemplating their own lives in poems that fit (as poems about other people’s birthdays generally do not fit) the strictest Romantic definitions of lyric poetry: they speak from the self, to the self, and they speak alone.
Birthday parties, and (therefore) poems and songs that honor birthdays, go back pretty far. The biblical King Herod threw himself a birthday party (Mark 6:21); in classical antiquity, the birth dates of rulers, the incarnations of gods, and the births of friends’ children (see Virgil’s famous Fourth Eclogue or Callimachus’s Iambi, no. 12) all occasioned poems. Some Renaissance poets—especially Ben Jonson, a master of occasional verse—wrote for friends’ and patrons’ birthdays frequently: Jonson’s stanzas to William Sydney (or Sidney, born 1585) honor his coming of legal age: “the number of glad years / Are justly summed that make you man.”
Nor were birthdays only for Western writers: poets and artists in Ming China made special books for the birthdays of elderly local dignitaries. But most people’s days were not festive events: “Before the Reformation,” writes the historian Howard Chudacoff, “even when people knew their date of birth, they seldom celebrated it.” Instead, in Christian cultures, they picked days that honored their namesake saints. The English bourgeois widow Martha Moulsworth chose her 55th birthday (“the birthday of myself”) to begin her 55-couplet autobiographical “Memorandum” (1632), now a much-discussed scholarly find; the birthday gave her reason to meditate, not cause to rejoice. Also in 1632, John Milton wondered in a sonnet what time had done with “my three-and-twentieth-year”—he worried because he felt (and looked) younger than that, but he did not seem to expect a party, and his sonnet addresses the year, not the day.
In the early 1700s, English writers could honor the birthdays of their social equals; bourgeois Londoners threw birthday parties (you can find them in the writings of Henry Fielding). Alexander Pope let melancholy color a careful poem to his friend Martha Blount when she turned 33 in 1723: “Is that a birthday? [But] alas! too clear; / ’Tis but the funeral of the former year.” Jonathan Swift wrote seven reflective poems for his friend and pupil Stella’s birthdays between 1719 and 1727, but it took another century for texts about birthdays to take on mass appeal. By the 1870s, cheap printing, widespread literacy, and (not least) Queen Victoria’s German-inspired kinderfesten had made birthday presents, “birthday books” (anthologies), birthday parties, and birthday cards big business on both sides of the Atlantic. “The rise of birthday cards,” Chudacoff concludes, also “reflects the institutionalized age consciousness that emerged in the late nineteenth century,” when many more people cared more often, more deeply, about exactly how old they were.
What would you need, and what would you need to believe, before you would celebrate your birthday? You’d need to know exactly when you were born. You’d also need to be able to see your own life, or any life, as something to glorify, or elevate, for its own sake. In other words, you’d need the introspection and the social leveling that came with (even if they did not quite start with) Romanticism.
No surprise, then, that the first widely noticed and quoted English poem to name a poet’s birthday appears to belong to that moody Romantic individualist, Lord Byron, who titled it “On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year.” At 36, he sees himself as old, worn-out, even accursed: “My days are in the yellow leaf,” Byron reflects; “the pain / And power of Love” belong to the past. His erotic life over, Lord Byron resolves to use his remaining vigor to liberate Greece from the Ottoman Empire: that country will be his “land of honourable Death.” (It proved true; he had three months to live.)
Almost mopey and certainly rueful, Byron’s tone echoes other Romantic authors who wrote on their birthdays and ended up sad. In Robert Burns’s “Sonnet Written on the Author’s Birthday” (1793), Scotland’s national poet sees his fate in an unfortunate bird: “Sing on, sweet thrush, upon the leafless bough … So in lone Poverty’s dominion drear, / Sits meek Content with light, unanxious heart.” It isn’t the first poem you’re likely to hear on Burns night, January 25, when fans honor his birth.
Such rue continued through the 20th century. Edward Thomas, who died in World War I, imagined his 37th birthday in 1915 as a secular, natural replacement for the church holidays in which he would not believe. When that day, March 3, “falls on Sunday, bells / Are a wild natural voice that dwells / On hillsides; but the birds’ songs have / The holiness gone from the bells.” Also beautiful, if not holy, is the reverberating mildness in all those “l” sounds. Always attentive to his own bodily history and eager to make metaphors about it, Dylan Thomas wrote several poems for his own birthdays: “Poem in October” (1944) strains to admire “my thirtieth year to heaven” but ends in a ripe (or overripe) nostalgia for “the true / Joy of the long dead child.” The same writer’s “Poem on His Birthday” (1951) sounds positively Goth: “In the thistledown fall / He sings towards anguish.”
Byron’s shadow touches contemporary poets as well. In 1983, the Australian poet John Tranter stripped the rhyme from Byron’s Sapphic stanzas (returning the form to its Greek roots) and stripped the heroic gloom from Byron’s tone to write “On This Day I Complete My Fortieth Year.” The onetime leader of a Sydney avant-garde muses on middle-aged anticlimax:
at forty, the pieces lie about
waiting to be picked up and puzzled over
and fitted into a pattern, after a fashion,
one I’m not fond of—.
Giving up on revolutions both artistic and political—“England needs liberating but not by me”—Tranter settles down, tongue half in cheek, to enjoy “the fag-end” (that is, the cigarette-end) “of the party.”
Other contemporary poets see themselves at their own parties: they’ll cry if they want to. Tranter’s seriocomic self-analysis finds an analogue in Ted Berrigan’s ingenuous “44th Birthday Evening, at Harris’s” (1978). Berrigan, like Tranter, tries to imagine himself surrounded by “friends”: “On the roof there’s a party” where they use “long bent telescopes” to watch an eclipse. But “[t]he friends are all in shadow. / I can see them from my bed inside my head.” Alone, perhaps sick (though he lived for five more years), the poet consoles himself by projecting a space in which his social life would not be eclipsed.
Berrigan’s verse style throughout his career—sometimes ebullient, always informal—owed a lot to Frank O’Hara, who seems not to have known his real birthday (his parents gave out the wrong one to avoid scandal). O’Hara’s verse celebrates Rachmaninoff’s birthday repeatedly; he also promotes the birthdays of friends and lovers (in, for example, “Ode to Michael Goldberg ['s Birth and Other Births]”).Yet when he started a long poem on (what he thought was) his 30th birthday, “In Memory of My Feelings” (1956), O’Hara did not name the event in the poem. Instead, its Whitmanesque exuberance imagines the people O’Hara might have become: a Venetian, a naval hero, “a dictator,” “a doctor eating a child”: “My transparent selves / flail about like vipers in a pail ... Beneath these lives / the ardent lover of history hides.”
Modern poets don’t have to hide, or sound sad, on their birthdays; they can get angry too. Hoa Nguyen’s recent “Birthday Poem” presents Nguyen—in her usual fragmentary, provocative fashion—at once as the life of the party and as a righteous fury, a feminist avenger:
Fire Horse poet This is a birthday
poem squeaky underfoot
the snow and Jeanine’s cookies
I drive husbands and fathers
to early deaths Push the knife
into the cake to cut it
Nguyen’s confidence—and her kind of delighted aggression—recalls Sylvia Plath, for whom birthdays were also reminders of death: Plath’s seven-part “Poem for a Birthday” (1959) allegorizes the life of a burned witch, “Duchess of Nothing, / Hairtusk’s bride,” a buried victim of prehistoric sacrifice. Plath concludes, characteristically, with death and rebirth: “My mendings itch. There is nothing to do … I shall be good as new.”
None of these poems commemorate happy birthdays. Even Rita Dove’s optimistic “Testimonial” celebrates her birth, not her birthday. Frank Bidart’s “Happy Birthday” compares the poet (then turning 33) to old-time bicycle racers such as “WILLIE HARRADON CYCLIST / THE YOUTHFUL PHENOMENON”: “as the fragile metal of their / wheels stopped turning, as they // took on wives, children, accomplishments ... they could not tell themselves from what they had done.” And Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Bight” (1949), subtitled “on my birthday,” presents the eponymous Key West harbor, the cluttered writing desk that resembles the harbor, and by implication Bishop’s own life as a set of disheveled catastrophes, almost wrecked from “the last bad storm”; nonetheless, “all the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful.” That last line appears on Bishop’s gravestone.
None of the poets gathered here saw the change in their own age, or the occasion of their own birth, as reason to celebrate, even when they thought other people would. And maybe that’s no wonder: few adults feel happy about growing old. But the persistence of the sad-birthday-to-me poem suggests a more specific rationale, especially when put beside all the poems, letters, and Facebook posts, where poets wish festive delight, or glad wisdom, on others.
Birthdays, after all, in our society if not in Martha Moulsworth’s, are supposed to be social occasions, reasons for other people to gather and recognize the enduring self. Such occasions carry one set of tonal possibilities if you’re addressing others but another, gloomier one if you’re writing or speaking about nobody but yourself. A poem for somebody else’s day may serve as a present, a vehicle for gratitude, a means of interaction, but it’s hard to be both happy and introspective if the birth is your own. Edward Thomas’s poem begins when somebody else, perhaps his wife, Helen, reminds him what day it is. That’s why its last line adds an air of restrained gratitude: “how lucky we are.” We: not I or me.
I wrote earlier that memorable poems on poets’ own birthdays began with Romanticism, but I was not quite right. Matthew Prior’s effort, published in 1719, made it into Arthur Quiller-Couch’s long-admired Oxford Book of English Verse (1900), though it is no longer widely known. And Prior’s “On My Birthday, July 21” is the sort of exception that proves a rule. The poet’s “jolly comrades” may celebrate his life all around him, but that life has consisted of “pain and woe”: his true birthday, his “Well-spring” of worldly felicity, will occur only when his beloved, or (as we say now), his crush, takes notice of him:
Shall I my comrades’ mirth receive,
And bless my birth, and wish to live?
Then let me see great Venus chase
Imperious anger from thy face;
Then let me hear thee smiling say—
‘Thou, my dear, wert born to-day.’”
It’s not a great poem—Prior is not subtle like Edward Thomas nor searching like Bishop nor ebullient like O’Hara or Nguyen. You probably won’t want to read the poem aloud at a party. Yet its stylish quips and vulnerable asides tell us something important about poetry, and about celebrating a birthday, in general: both modern poetry and modern birthdays may focus on the self, but neither is best, or happiest, when experienced all alone.
Steph Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006), and...