25 April 2016

The Wretched Poet Coleridge

John Mortimer, Clinging to the Wreckage (London: Penguin Books, 2010), p. 56:
‘How do you get on with those women who live next door. The ones you’re always visiting?’ my father asked.

‘They’re very interesting. They knew Jean Cocteau,’ and I added, in the hope of shocking him at last, ‘Cocteau smoked opium.’

‘Oh, never smoke opium,’ my father warned me. ‘Gives you constipation. Terrible binding effect.’ And he added one of his best lines, ‘Have you ever seen the pictures of the wretched poet Coleridge? He smoked opium. Take a look at Coleridge, he was green about the gills and a stranger to the lavatory.’

Washington Allston, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1814)

21 April 2016

About to Live

Edward Young, Night Thoughts  (London: William Tegg and Co., 1859), p. 19:
Of man's miraculous mistakes, this bears
The palm, "That all men are about to live,"                 400
For ever on the brink of being born.
All pay themselves the compliment to think
They one day shall not drivel; and their pride
On this reversion takes up ready praise,
At least their own; their future selves applauds;      405
How excellent that life they ne'er will lead!

19 April 2016

Other People's Lives

Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012), p. 127:
Most of my married friends now have children, the rewards of which appear to be exclusively intangible and, like the mysteries of some gnostic sect, incommunicable to outsiders. It’s as if these people have joined a cult: they claim to be happier and more fulfilled than ever before, even though they live in conditions of appalling filth and degradation, deprived of the most basic freedoms and dignity, and owe unquestioning obedience to a pampered sociopathic master whose every whim is law... They’re frantic and haggard and constantly exhausted, getting through the days on a sleep deficit of three years, complaining about how busy and circumscribed their lives are, as though they hadn’t freely chosen it all.
Ibid., p. 130:
One of the hardest things to look at is the life we didn’t lead, the path not taken, potential left unfulfilled. In stories, those who look back — Lot’s wife, Eurydice — are irrevocably lost. Looking to the side instead, to gauge how our companions are faring, is a way of glancing at a safer reflection of what we cannot directly bear, like Perseus seeing the Gorgon safely mirrored in his shield. It’s the closest we can get to a glimpse of the parallel universe in which we didn’t ruin that relationship years ago, or got that job we applied for, or made that plane at the last minute. So it’s tempting to read other people’s lives as cautionary fables or repudiations of our own, to covet or denigrate them instead of seeing them for what they are: other people’s lives, island universes, unknowable.

18 April 2016

Drab Uniformity

Evelyn Waugh, "I See Nothing But Boredom... Everywhere," Daily Mail (28 December 1959), reprinted in A Little Order, ed. Donat Gallagher (London: Eyre Methuen, 1977), pp. 47-48:
I see nothing ahead but drab uniformity. The motor-car has already destroyed its own usefulness. Suppose, as seems most unlikely, it once more is rendered mobile by making the whole country into a speedway and a car-park, there will be no inducement to go anywhere because all buildings will look the same, all shops sell the same produce, all people say the same things in the same voices. Foreign travel will be scarcely more attractive for the elderly and experienced. One went abroad to observe other ways of living, to eat unfamiliar foods and see strange buildings. In a few years' time the world will be divided into zones of insecurity which one can penetrate only at the risk of murder and tourist routes along which one will fly to chain hotels, hygienic, costly and second-rate.

13 April 2016

A House Furnished with Books

Henry Ward Beecher, "The Duty of Owning Books," Eyes and Ears (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1862), p. 155:
Give us a house furnished with books rather than furniture! Both, if you can, but books at any rate! To spend several days in a friend's house, and hunger for something to read, while you are treading on costly carpets, and sitting upon luxurious chairs, and sleeping upon down, is as if one were bribing your body for the sake of cheating your mind.

Is it not pitiable to see a man growing rich, augmenting the comforts of home, and lavishing money on ostentatious upholstery, upon the table, upon every thing but what the soul needs? We know of many and many a rich man's house where it would not be safe to ask for the commonest English classics. A few gairish annuals on the table, a few pictorial monstrosities, together with the stock religious books of his "persuasion," and that is all! No poets, no essayists, no historians, no travels or biographies, no select fictions, or curious legendary lore. But the wall-paper cost three dollars a roll, and the carpets four dollars a yard!

Books are the windows through which the soul looks out. A house without books is like a room without windows.

12 April 2016

Poorly-Paid Musicians

Henry Ward Beecher, "Are Birds Worth Their Keeping?" Eyes and Ears (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1862), p. 132:
Although birds undertake to furnish you with the most admirable amusement, and with music such as no orchestra could be hired to give, they do not charge you a penny for their services. You never have to wake them. You have no care of their toilet. You are asked to provide nothing for their breakfast, nothing for dinner, nothing for supper. They draw on you for no linen for their beds, and no space for tenement room. They come to you early in spring; they stay with you till the red leaves grow brown, and even then they leave a rear-guard to watch the winter, and every bright day till after January is sentinelled with some faithful, simple bird on duty.

7 April 2016

A Continuous but Thin Thread

Richard Church, Plato's Mistake (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1941), pp. 24-25:
The fact is that the great majority of people at any one time and any one place or sphere of life are content with an extremely low standard of taste in the arts and literature. The best books, the immortal books, are always being bought and read, but by only a few people at a time. For example, the cheap editions of Turgeniev's novels sell about fifty copies each a year. I think that if the sales of such books as Dante's Divine Comedy, Milton's Paradise Lost, Wordsworth's Prelude, Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici, or Gilbert Murray's Religio Grammatici were examined it would be found that their annual sales were not more than a few hundred copies each per year. The immortality of the best is a continuous, but thin thread.

6 April 2016

Don't Skip the Preface

Henry Peacham, The Compleat Gentleman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906), p. 54:
And ere you begin a booke, forget not to reade the Epistle; for commonly they are the best laboured and penned. For as in a garment, whatsoever the stuffe be, the owner (for the most part) affecteth a costly and extraordinary facing; and in the house of a countrey Gentleman, the porch, of a Citizen, the carved gate and painted postes carry away the Glory from the rest; so is it with our common Authors, if they have any wit at all, they set it like Velvet before, though the backe, like (a bankerupts doublet) be but of poldavy or buckram.

4 April 2016

The Blessing of a Lettered Recess

Edward Young, "Conjectures on Original Composition," English Critical Essays, ed. Edmund D. Jones (London: Oxford University Press, 1922), pp. 271-272:
To men of letters, and leisure, it [the act of reading and composition] is not only a noble amusement, but a sweet refuge; it improves their parts, and promotes their peace: it opens a back-door out of the bustle of this busy and idle world into a delicious garden of moral and intellectual fruits and flowers; the key of which is denied to the rest of mankind. When stung with idle anxieties, or teased with fruitless impertinence, or yawning over insipid diversions, then we perceive the blessing of a lettered recess. With what a gust do we retire to our disinterested and immortal friends in our closet, and find our minds, when applied to some favourite theme, as naturally, and as easily quieted and refreshed, as a peevish child (and peevish children are we all till we fall asleep) when laid to the breast? Our happiness no longer lives on charity; nor bids fair for a fall, by leaning on that most precarious and thorny pillow, another's pleasure, for our repose. How independent of the world is he who can daily find new acquaintance, that at once entertain, and improve him, in the little world, the minute but fruitful creation, of his own mind?
Spare a (night) thought for Edward Young, who died on April 5, 1765.

1 April 2016

A Portrait of John Nash

Ronald Blythe remembers the artist John Northcote Nash (1893-1977) in his Jan. 15 column for The Church Times, via the Wormingford blog:
Perched on a three-legged stool, muffled to the ears, he would shape the water in the fields, fag in mouth, his big grey eyes not only drawing everything in sight, but bringing it into this vision, and returning to the farmhouse with a full sketchbook. This would be carried to the studio and turned into watercolours and oils.

He liked bits of agricultural toil: a hurdle, the tumbling shed, the byre, and particularly his mighty thatched barn — although all that was in it, during the abandonment of farming here, would have been his Ford Herald car, so packed with fishing rods and old military uniforms that the lad — myself — had to squeeze beside him.

He was devoted to plants, but John was none too caring where the farm itself was concerned; and, taking him morning tea, I once saw snow on his face.

Both he and his wife, Christine, also an artist, possessed beautiful voices, which came from the long ago, possibly the late 1890s. These they left behind when they went, plus an avalanche of books with their names on the flyleaves. Their Proust contained instructions on how to read it.

After tea, they would sit side by side on the hefty piano stool, and thump out Schubert, humming bits and laughing. The piano was a 1920s Steinway. Now and then there was a muffled sound, until the cats were evicted.

John Nash and Christine Kühlenthal, c. 1920
Blythe donated this picture to the National Portrait Gallery