I’ve always wondered about the annual birthday celebration, so popular once in Bollywood; not even one movie would stay clear of the joy-filled birthday. Birthdays have always been happy occasions. The one birthday celebration that shocked me out of it was a play by Harold Pinter titled The Birthday Party about a birthday party made ugly by absurdity. Stephen Burt has written an interesting article called Happy Birthday to Whom about the role the poet has in the birthday lyric.
Birthdays have been celebrated for around wo millennia, and it’s not surprising that it is the poet who has chronicled this special day. The poet is famed for celebrating the birthdays of his leader or friends, but when it comes to his own birthday he descends into a deep melancholy.
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.”
Birthday presents and birthday books all came into vogue in the late nineteenth century. It was in the Romantic period that birthday poetry really took off, with poets like Lord Byron and Robert Burns. The trend continue well into the twentieth century with Edaward Thomas, Dylan Thomas and Frank O’Hara. Whenever the poet has written about the day of his or her birth, there has been a tone of defeat.
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.
Do you think that birthdays and the now defunct birthday card replaced by WhatsApp congratulations are worth writing poetry about? Does a hand written poem seem to you like a good enough gift? Or is the poet right in being mournful about the passing of yet another year?