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But the actual poetic discovery that came to me in London did not
concern a living poet, but an artist who at that time was very much
forgotten--William Blake, that lonely and problematical genius who,
with his mixture of helplessness and sublime perfection, still
fascinates me. A friend had advised me to look at the books
illustrated in colour in the Print Room of the British Museum, which
was then directed by
"The Book of Job", which, to-day, have become the great rarities
at the dealers, and I was enchanted. Here for the first time I
saw one of those magic natures who, without planning their own way
in advance, are borne on angel's wings by visions through all the
wilderness of phantasy. For days and weeks I tried to
penetrate more deeply into the labyrinth of that soul, at once naive
and yet daemonic, and to reproduce some of the poems in German.
I yearned to own a single page from his hand, but at first it seemed
no more possible than a dream. One day my friend
Archibald G. B. Russell, already the greatest Blake expert, told
me that in the exhibition which he was putting one, one of the
visionary portraits was for sale--in his (and my) opinion the
master's loveliest pencil drawing, the "King John". "You will
never tire of it," he promised me; and he was right. From the
ruins of my library and my pictures, this one leaf has accompanied
me for more than thirty years; and how often the magic flashing
glance of this mad king has looked down from the wall at me.
Of all that is lost and distant from me, it is that drawing which I
miss most in my wandering. The genius of England, which I
tried tin vain to recognize in streets and cities, was suddenly
revealed to me in Blake's truly astral figure. And now I had
added another to my many world loves.
--The World of Yesterday by Stefan
[N.B.: The World of Yesterday was
published in England in 1943, approximately a year after Stefan
Zweig and his wife committed suicide in Brazil following his
banishment from his beloved Vienna at the hands of Hitler's
henchmen. He died in despair, mourning for that world of
yesterday, which is so poignantly described in the excerpt
above--perhaps he loved "King John" so much because he also saw so
much of himself in that pencil drawing.]
Arthur Symons was the only one of England's poets whom I got to
see. He, in turn, arranged an introduction to W.B. Yeats,
whose poems I liked very much and a part of whose delicate poetic
drama, The Shadowy Waters, I had translated for the pure
joy of doing so. I did not know that it was to be a poetry
reading; a small circle of select people had been invited, we sat
fairly crowded in a not very large room, and some even had to sit on
folding chairs and on the floor. Finally Yeats began, after
two huge altar candles had been lighted next tot he black or
black-covered reading desk. All the other lights in the room
had been extinguished so that the energetic head with its black
locks appeared plastically in the candlelight. Yeats read
slowly with a melodious sombre voice, without becoming declamatory,
and every verse received its full value. It was lovely.
It was truly ceremonious. The only thing that disturbed me was
the preciousness of the presentation, the black monkish garb which
made Yeats look quite priestly, the smouldering of the thick wax
candles which, I believe, were slightly scented. And so the
literary enjoyment--and this afforded me a new charm--became more of
a celebration of poems that a spontaneous reading. I was
reminded involuntarily of how
Verhaeren read his poems--in shirt sleeves, in order the better
to mark the rhythm with him vigour arms, without pomp or staging; or
how Rilke clearly, in tranquil service to the word. It was the
first "staged" poetry reading that I had ever attended, and in spite
of my love for his work I was somewhat distrustful of this cult
treatment. Nevertheless, Yeats had a grateful guest.
--The World of Yesterday by Stefan
What had escaped June's notice in recent weeks
was that Popper had become a drunk. The decline had been
rapid, and she, blinded by affection, had failed to recognize the
signs--the rheumy eye, the splotchy face, the trembling hand, the
loss of appetite, the repetitive monologue, the misbuttoned shirt
and, perhaps most conclusive, the use of ever smaller bottles, this
being the pathetic buying pattern of many alcoholics. She knew
nothing of his solitary drinking, at all hours, in bed, on the
street, in moving vehicles and public toilets.
--Master of Atlantis by Charles Portis
"We have nothing to tell you but this: to choose
and if you must still obey, we are ready,
your fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, to
a place at our dry table, to greet you as soldiers
with a dry nod, and sit, elbow to elbow
silently for always under the sky of soil:
but know you are choosing. When they begin
to your better nature, your righteous indignation,
your pity for men like yourselves, stand still,
look down and see the lice upon your hide.
--Excerpt from Song for the Heroes by
Alex Comfort collected in New British Poets (ed. Kenneth
Catherine also had a great fascination for
dwarves. She accorded a proper household to her troupe of
them; they had their own footmen, apothecaries, laundresses,
housekeepers, tutors and so on. The Queen Mother kept her
dwarves superbly dressed, wearing furs and precious brocades.
Among her favourites were 'Catherine La Jardinière',
'The Moor', 'The Turk', 'The dwarf Marvile' and 'August Romanesque',
who carried a sword and dagger. There was even a dwarf monk.
Catherine had two favourite fools, both of them Polish, nicknamed
'Le grand Polacre' and 'Le petit Polacron'. They all received
pocket money from her and she married off two of her favourites in a
splendid miniature ceremony. Catherine La Jardinière
was the Queen Mother's best-loved dwarf and this tiny companion
accompanied her almost everywhere. Catherine had two other
peculiar attendants constantly by her; one was a long-tailed monkey
believed to bring good luck, the other a green parrot that lived to
be thirty years old.
--Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of
France by Leonie Frieda
"Mother doesn't cook," Ignatius said
dogmatically. "She burns."
"I used to cook too when I was married,"
Darlene told them. "I sort of used a lot of that canned stuff,
though. I like that Spanish rice they got and that spaghetti
with the tomato gravy."
"Canned food is a perversion," Ignatius said.
"I suspect that it is ultimately very damaging to the soul."
--A Confederacy of Dunces by John
I didn't understand it. He was decent to
me, but I still didn't like him. Some people you never did.
Maybe it was just that he was fool enough to expect his staff to
care about the hotel, and fool enough to tell his staff
that he expected it. Working in pubs, or in any retail
business, was at best a dreary and mindless existence. To be
merely competent at it--to refrain, say, from abusing forty or fifty
per cent of your customers--often took a soul-destroying effort.
To have enthusiasm demanded of you, that was more than the
job was worth.
--Praise by Andrew McGahan
The Nine Deplorable Social Habits
The Loud Voice
The Nine Admirable Social Habits
Relieving of Tension
A sense of dimension
--A Chinese "Litany of Odd Numbers"
from Selected Essays by Hilaire Belloc
The Nine Rules for dealing with the Poor
To be courteous
To be distant
To pay little
To pay exactly
To pity vaguely
To denounce to the Authorities
The Nine Rules for dealing with the Rich
To remember many faces
To love none
To hate very few
To attack only the defeated
To enrich others by counsel
To enrich oneself by all means whatsoever
--A Chinese "Litany of Odd Numbers"
from Selected Essays by Hilaire Belloc
I wondered for a moment why I was bothering to
prolong this conversation. In the first place, no doubt, it
was because Dilys was a girl, a fact not to be lightly set aside.
In the second place, it was because she was on the right side of the
line dividing the attractive from the rest. Nice, that.
What was in the third place, if there was a place so numbered?
Oh, the usual thing, presumably: when nothing's going on or likely
to start going on, which is a lot of the time, I start practicing
certain poses and tones and phrases, for no very clear reason.
Anyway, I often used to behave like that in those days--it's last
year I'm talking of. There must have been something to do with
vanity in it, but vanity, if you train it with enough devotion, can
be the best defense against boredom.
--That Uncertain Feeling by Kingsley
On Christmas Day, 1840, in the Eton workhouse,
Elizabeth Wyse, a married woman, was allowed the rare privilege of
being allowed to comfort here two-and-a-half-year-old daughter
because she had chillblains. (The separation of parents and
children in the workhouses was automatic, and one of the things
which even in the better-run establishments caused most bitterness.)
Mrs Wyse was allowed to sleep with her child for one night, but the
director of the workhouse (like many of them a former
sergeant-major) refused permission for a second night. When
the ex-sergeant-major, Joseph Howe, found Mrs Wyse in the nursery
next day, bathing and bandaging her child's feet, he ordered her to
leave the room at once. She refused. He dragged her
downstairs, locked her in the workhouse cage, and left her in
solitary confinement with no coat, no bedding-straw and no
chamber-pot, in 20°F of frost, for
twenty-four hours. The following morning she was taken to eat
breakfast, which was the remains of cold gruel left by her fellow
inmates, and sent back to the cage and told to clean the
floor--which was inevitably soiled--but with no utensils to do so.
--The Victorians by A.N. Wilson
[N.B.: As Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens's
A Christmas Carol famously remarked, "Are there no workhouses?"
To which came the reply, "Yes, sir, but many would rather die than
go there." And then came Scrooge's equally famous riposte,
"Then they should do so and reduce the surplus population."
(of course, I'm misquoting this exchange from memory so go google it
for the exact verbiage). Many think Dickens intentionally
exaggerated for literary effect the ills of the era immediately
prior to his writing career. As the squib above vividly
illustrates, if anything, Dickens underplayed the worse
excesses of that era.]
The internal head-speed or whatever of
these ideas, memories, realizations, emotions and so on is even
faster, by the way--exponentially faster, unimaginably faster--when
you're dying, meaning during that vanishingly tiny nanosecond
between when you technically die and when the next thing happens, so
that in reality the cliché about people's whole life flashing before
their eyes as they're dying isn't all that far off--although the
whole life here isn't really a sequential thing where first
you're born and then you're in the crib and then you're up at the
plate in Legion ball, etc., which it turns out that that's what
people usually mean when they say 'my whole life,' meaning a
discrete, chronological series of moments that they add up and call
their lifetime. . . . Dr. G. would later say that the whole
my life flashed before me phenomenon at the end is more like
being a whitecap on the surface of the ocean, meaning that it's only
at the moment you subside and start sliding back in that you're
really aware there's an ocean at all. When you're up and out
there as a whitecap you might talk and act as if you know you're
just a whitecap on the ocean, but deep down you don't think there's
really an ocean at all.
--Good Old Neon from Oblivion
by David Foster Wallace
Uncle Jules is as pleasant a fellow as I know
anywhere. Above his long Creole horseface is a crop of thick
gray hair cut short as a college boy's. His shirt encases his
body in a way that pleases me. It fits him so well. My
shirts always have something wrong with them; they are too tight in
the collar or too loose around the waist. Uncle Jules' collar
fits his dark neck like a tape; his cuffs, folded like a napkin,
just peep out past his coatsleeve; and his shirt front: the
impulse comes over me at times to bury my nose in that snowy expanse
of soft fine-spun cotton. Uncle Jules is the only man I know
whose victory in the world is total and unqualified. He has
made a great deal of money, he has a great many friends, he was Rex
of Mardi Gras, he gives freely of himself and his money. He is
an exemplary Catholic, but it is hard to know why he takes the
trouble. For the world he lives in, the City of Man, is so
pleasant that the City of God must hold little in store for him.
I see his world plainly through his eyes and I see why he loves it
and would keep it as it is: a friendly easy-going place of old-world
charm and new-world business methods where kind white folks and
carefree darkies have the good sense to behave pleasantly toward
each other. No shadow ever crossed his face, except when
someone raises the subject of last year's Tulane-L.S.U. game.
--The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
[N.B.: Walker Percy was an amazing
writer--of course, be warned, The Moviegoer is one of my
all-time favorite books. In the paragraph quoted above Percy
brings one of his minor characters vividly to life while at the same
time gently mocking him in Augustinian terms. Indeed, goold-ol'-boy
Uncle Jules epitomizes all that was wrong with the Old South.
As the Civil Rights Era continues to fade into the past, it is
important to keep Uncle Jules vividly before us. He
might slap your back with one hand but would just as likely lynch
you with the other.]
The methods by which the undertakers propose to
silence criticism and hang on to their enormously lucrative traffic
in the artifacts of death were blueprinted early this year by Mr.
Frederick Llewellyn, Executive Vice-President of Forest Lawn
Memorial Park. In a series of articles written for the
American Funeral Director entitled, "Are Funeral Customs Going
the Way of the Buggy Whip?" Mr. Llewellyn sets forth for his
colleagues the major arguments to be used:
There is a great tide sweeping over America today,
washing away at the foundations of decent memorialization. . . . .
If the Communists can help undermine one of the most fundamental of
religious rites, the way in which we care for our dead; if they can
get more and more people asking, not "Is it right?" but "Is it
practical?" they can undermine religion and along with it the laws
of the land. Then, as Mr. Khrushchev said, "America will fall
like a ripe plum!"
Elsewhere in the series he quotes the famous
Khrushchev remark "We'll bury you!"--perhaps fearing that Khrushchev
was actually intending to move in and give Forest Lawn competition
in this respect.
--Americans Don't Want Fancy Funerals
from Poison Penmanship by Jessica Mitford
Wafted through the sun-lit streets in his
taxi-cab, the Earl of Emsworth smiled benevolently upon London's
teeming millions. He was as completely happy as only a
fluffy-minded old man with excellent health and a large income can
be. Other people worried about things--strikes, wars,
suffragettes, diminishing birth-rates, the growing materialism of
the age, and a score of similar subjects. Worrying, indeed,
seemed to be the twentieth century's specialty. Lord Emsworth
never worried. Nature had equipped him with a mind so
admirably constructed for withstanding the disagreeablenesses of
life that, if an unpleasant thought entered it, it passed out again
a moment later. Except for a few of Life's fundamental facts,
such as that his cheque-book was in the right-hand top drawer of his
desk, that the Honourable Freddie Threepwood was a young idiot who
required perpetual restraint, and that, when in doubt about
anything, he had merely to apply to his secretary, Rupert
Baxter--except for these basic things, he never remembered anything
for more than a few minutes.
--Something Fresh by P.G. Wodehouse
Betrothals were so common in the Rome of our
epoch that Pliny the Younger reckons them among the thousand-and-one
trifles which uselessly encumbered the days of his contemporaries.
It consisted of a reciprocal engagement entered into by the young
couple with the consent of their fathers and in the presence of a
certain number of relatives and friends, some of whom acted as
witnesses, while the rest were content to make merry at the banquet
which concluded the festivities. The concrete symbol of the
betrothal was the gift to the girl from her fiancé of a number of
presents, more or less costly, and a ring which was probably a
survival of the arra or earnest money, a preliminary of the
ancient coemptio. Whether the ring consisted of a
circle of iron set in gold or a circle of gold, the girl immediately
slipped it, in the presence of the guests, on to that finger on
which the wedding ring is still normally worn. The French
speak of le doigt annulaire (annularius) with no
recollection of the reason why this finger was originally chosen by
the Romans. Aulus Gellisu has laboriously explained it:
When the human body is cut open as the Egyptians
do and when dissections . . . are practised on it, a very delicate
nerve is found which starts from the annular finger and travels to
the heart. It is, therefore, thought seemly to give to this
finger in preference to all others the honour of the ring, on
account of the close connection which links it with the principal
This intimate relation established in the name of imaginary
science between the heart and the betrothal ring he cites to
emphasise the solemnity of the engagement and above all the depth of
the reciprocal affection which contemporaries associated with it.
The voluntary and public acknowledgement of this affection was the
essential element not only of the ceremony itself but of the legal
reality of the Roman marriage.
--Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Jerome
Carcopino (tr. E.O. Lorimer)
I would find myself pursued by the
photographers, headed up by a scowling blonde with rat-colored roots
and a howitzer-lensed Nikon who had pursued me since my plane landed
in Broome two days before. She kept shoving the camera in my
face and clicking, clicking, clicking; she must have had two hundred
close-ups of me by the end of the trial. Never in my life
before had I realized the exact truth of a remark by that greatest
of documentary photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson: that
photographic portraiture is always an invasion, and if done without
the subject's permission it is a violation.
--Things I Didn't Know by Robert
In this book, the Cambridge University Press
has placed the footnotes at the bottom of the page, and not gathered
them up, as so many publishers incomprehensibly do, as endnotes.
This is a great relief, for Griswold has a sharp nose for
intellectual quarry. When interesting ideas start up from the
thickets of his argument, he chases them to the bottom of the page
and corners them like a pointer quivering at a fallen bird.
Some people might find this irritating. But the high quality
of argument and observation in the text is sustained equally in the
footnotes, so that I set aside all resentment and forgave the
author--on the understanding, however, that he will do better next
time. As for his persistent, sometimes confusing and never
truly comfortable use of the feminine pronoun--well, that can be
--What Cannot Be Forgiven a review by
Roger Scruton of Forgiveness by Charles Griswold in the
December 14, 2007 issue of the Times Literary Supplement
[N.B.: Great simile and raillery against
the modern trend of endnotes. As for pronouns, I've written
elsewhere that I prefer using the plural "them" or "their" for the
universal as opposed to the singular "he" or "she." Oh well,
to each his own.]
But for the children of our town, one frame
alone contained the essence of our pictorial taste. It was
enormous, this canvas by an unremembered French artist, bold and
brave--at least as far as the subject went. It was a giant
illustration of a gruesome scene, designed to make us shudder and
have dreams. A tragic lady in the middle, put to test--facial
and otherwise--must drink a glass of blood, the nice warm fresh
blood of an executed Huguenot (French for Episcopalian, my mother
told me, as she gave me a feeling recital of Catherine de' Medici's
atrocities against our sect), or else her father's blood is let.
The shaggy executioner holds out the glass of blood, which the
wonderfully French painter couldn't resist making look like the best
burgundy. The lady shudders. Grieving victims around
her, by their expressions, sense her lot, but there's not one would
disapprove her thirst.
--I Like What I Know by Vincent Price
His character, so eminently English, compact of
courage, of originality, of imagination, and with something coarse
in it as well, puts one in mind of Hamlet : not the melodramatic
sentimentalist of the stage; but the real Hamlet, Horatio's Hamlet,
who called his father's ghost old truepenny, who forged his uncle's
signature, who fought Laertes, and ranted in a grave, and lugged the
guts into the neighbour room. His tragedy, like Hamlet's, was
the tragedy of an over-powerful will--a will so strong as to recoil
upon itself, and fall into indecision. It is easy for a weak
man to be decided--there is so much to make him so; but a strong
man, who can do anything, sometimes leaves everything undone.
--The Last Elizabethan [regarding
Beddoes] from Books & Characters by Lytton Strachey
For a hundred years and more the monarchy in
France had been absolute and popular. It was beginning now to
lose both power and prestige. A sinister symptom of what was
to follow appeared when the higher ranks of society began to lose
their respect for the sovereign. It started when Louis XV
selected as his principal mistress a member of the middle-class, it
continued when he chose her successor from the streets. When
the feud between Madame Dubarry and the Duke de Choiseul ended in
the dismissal of the minister, the road to Chanteloup, his country
house, was crowded with carriages, while familiar faces were absent
from the Court at Versailles. For the first time in French
history the followers of fashion flocked to do homage to a fallen
favourite. People wondered at the time, but hardly understood the
profound significance of the event. The king was no
longer the leader of society. Kings and Presidents, Prime
Ministers and Dictators provide at all times a target for the
criticism of philosophers, satirists, and reformers. Such
criticism they can usually afford to neglect, but when the
time-servers, the sycophants, and the courtiers begin to disregard
them, then should the strongest of them tremble on their thrones.
--Talleyrand by Duff Cooper
In feudal times the king had had to reckon with
a free and powerful nobility, living upon their own land, and
relying upon the support of their own adherents. The struggle
between king and landed aristocracy had resulted in France in the
defeat of the aristocracy, just as in England it had resulted in the
defeat of the king. And just as in England the king had been
allowed to retain all the outward trappings of sovereignty after he
had lost the reality of power, so in France the aristocracy retained
all their old privileges and the glitter and glamour of greatness
long after they had ceased to take any important part in the
government of the country.
--Talleyrand by Duff Cooper
Whatever the importance of grammar in reading
or writing, as an image of human life it seems to me out on its own.
I have never since had any patience with the apostles of usage.
Usage needs no advocates, since it goes on whether one approves of
it or not, and in doing so breaks down the best-regulated languages.
Grammar is the bread-winner of language as usage is the housekeeper,
and the poor man's efforts at keeping order are for ever being
thwarted by his wife's intrigues and her perpetual warnings to the
children not to tell Father. But language, like life, is
impossible without a father and he is forever returning to his
thankless job of restoring authority. As an emotional young
man, I found it a real help to learn that there was such a thing as
an object, whether or not philosophers admitted its existence, and
that I could use the accusative case to point it out as I would
point out a man in the street. In later years George Moore
fell in love with the subjunctive--a pretty little mood enough,
though, as his books show, much too flighty for a settled man.
--An Only Child by Frank O'Connor
For, if he is a man of the least spirit he will
have fifty deviations from a straight line to make with this or that
party as he goes along, which he can no ways avoid. He will
have views and prospects to himself perpetually soliciting his eye,
which he can no more help standing still to look at than he can fly;
he will moreover have various
Accounts to reconcile;
Anecdotes to pick up:
Inscriptions to make out:
Stories to weave in:
Traditions to sift:
Personages to call upon:
Panegyrics to paste up at this
Pasquinades at that:----All
which both the man and his mule are quite exempt from. To sum
up all; there are archives at every stage to be looked into and
rolls, records, documents, and endless genealogies, which justice
ever and anon calls him back to stay the reading of:---In short,
there is no end of it;---for my own part, I declare I have been at
it these six weeks, making all the speed I possibly could,--and am
not yet born:--I have just been able, and that's all, to tell you
when it happened, but not how;--so that you see
the thing is yet far from being accomplished.
--Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
[N.B.: Note that that digression on
digressions encompasses a mere two sentences. The second, and
by far the longest, shows an imaginative use of punctuation far
beyond the self-conscious ken of moderns such as Cormac McCarthy
(don't get me wrong, I love his early work before he decided to take
the money and run).]
"It is unfair" was a perpetual cry of the
Radletts when young. The great advantage of living in a large
family is that early lesson of life's essential unfairness.
--The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Linda and I were very much preoccupied with
sin, and our great hero was Oscar Wilde.
"But what did he do?"
"I asked Fa once and he roared at me--goodness,
it was terrifying. He said: 'If you mention that sewer's name
again in this house I'll thrash you, do you hear, damn you?'
So I asked Sadie and she looked awfully vague and said: 'Oh, duck, I
never really quite knew, but whatever it was was worse than murder,
fearfully bad. And, darling, don't talk about him at meals,
"We must find out."
"Bob says he will, when he goes to Eton."
"Oh, good! Do you think he was worse than
Mummy and Daddy?"
"Surely he couldn't be. Oh, you are so
lucky to have wicked parents."
--The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
[N.B.: Nancy Mitford was the most clever
and the best writer of the famous Mitford Girls (the Mitford product
is still being manufactured in some particularly squalid back room
in the otherwise modern capitalist-college complex). Nancy's
two famous fictional fairy tales for adults, lightly fictionalized,
that is, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate,
have led to some claiming her as the twentieth-century version of
Jane Austen. Oh, without the sense of plot and timing.
Or biting sarcasm. Or proportion. Or wit. But,
other than that, she does populate her books with a number of
characters drawn from real life which are immensely entertaining,
particularly Uncle Matthew and Lord Merlin. If you liked the
movie Gosford Park and English country houses, you'd love
these two books. And if you don't, you're just a sewer anyway
and of no interest. I'll have to write your name down and
stick it in a drawer, right next to Labby's.]