31 May 2013

The Influence of Ovid

Havelock Ellis, Impressions and Comments (London: Constable, 1914), pp. 226-227:
The pages of Ovid, as one glances across them, are like a gay southern meadow in June, variegated and brilliant, sweet and pensive and rather luxuriant, and here and there even a little rank. Yet they are swept by the air and the light and the rain of Nature, and so their seduction never grew stale. During sixteen centuries, while the world was spiritually revolutionised again and yet again, the influence of Ovid never failed; it entered even the unlikeliest places. Homer might be an obscure forgotten bard and Virgil become a fantastic magician, but Ovid, lifted beyond the measure of his genius, was for ever a gracious and exalted Influence, yet human enough to be beloved and with the pathos of exile clinging to his memory, filling the dreams of fainting monks at the feet of the Virgin, arousing the veneration of the Humanists, even inspiring the superb and exuberant poets of the English Renaissance, Marlowe and Shakespeare and Milton.
It has sometimes seemed to me that if it were given to the ghosts of the Great Dead to follow with sensitive eyes the life after life of their fame on earth, there would be none, not even the greatest — to whom indeed the vision could often bring only bitterness, — to find more reasonable ground for prolonged bliss than Ovid.

30 May 2013

The Art of Living

A. C. Benson, Escape, and Other Essays (London: Smith Elder, 1915), pp. 278-281:
[A]rt in its largest sense is the faculty we have of observing and comparing and wondering; and the people who make the most of life are the people who give their imagination wings; and then, too, comes in the further feeling, which leads us to try and shape our own life and conduct on the lines of what we admire and think beautiful; the dull word duty means that, that we choose what is not necessarily pleasant because for some mysterious reason we feel happier so; because, however much we may pretend to think otherwise, we are all of us at every moment intent upon happiness, which is a very different thing from pleasure, and sometimes quite contrary to it.
And so we come at last to the art of living, which is really a very delicate balancing and comparing of reasons, an attempt, however blind and feeble, to get at happiness; and the moment that this attempt ceases and becomes merely a dull desire to be as comfortable as we can, that moment the spirit begins to go down hill, and the value of life is over; unless perhaps we learn that we cannot afford to go down hill, and that every backward step will have to be painfully retraced, somewhere or other.
What, then, I would try to persuade anyone who is listening to me is that we must use our wills somehow to try experiments, to observe, to distinguish, to follow what we think fine and beautiful. It may be said that this is only a sort of religion, and indeed it is exactly that at which I am aiming. It is a religion, which is within the reach of many people who cannot be touched by what is technically called religion. Religion is a word that has unhappily become specialised. It stands for beliefs, doctrines, ceremonies, practices. But these may not, and indeed do not, suit many of us. The worst of definite religions is that they are too definite. They try to enforce upon us a belief in things which we find incredible, or perhaps think to be simply unknowable; or they make out certain practices to be important, which we do not think important. We must never do violence to our minds and souls by professing to believe what we do not believe, or to think things certain which we honestly believe to be uncertain; but at the same time we must remember that there is always something of beauty inside every religion, because religion involves a deliberate choice of better motives and better actions, and an attempt to exclude the baser and viler elements of life.

28 May 2013

Industrious Fellows

Robert Louis Stevenson, "An Apology for Idlers," in Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906), p. 31:
A happy man or woman is a better thing to find than a five-pound note. He or she is a radiating focus of good-will; and their entrance into a room is as though another candle had been lighted. We need not care whether they could prove the forty-seventh proposition; they do a better thing than that, they practically demonstrate the great Theorum of the liveableness of Life. Consequently, if a person cannot be happy without remaining idle, idle he should remain. It is a revolutionary precept; but thanks to hunger and the workhouse, one not easily to be abused; and within practical limits, it is one of the most incontestable truths in the whole Body of Morality. Look at one of your industrious fellows for a moment, I beseech you. He sows hurry and reaps indigestion; he puts a vast deal of activity out to interest, and receives a large measure of nervous derangement in return. Either he absents himself entirely from all fellowship, and lives a recluse in a garret, with carpet slippers and a leaden inkpot; or he comes among people swiftly and bitterly, in a contraction of his whole nervous system, to discharge some temper before he returns to work. I do not care how much or how well he works, this fellow is an evil feature in other people's lives. They would be happier if he were dead. They could easier do without his services in the Circumlocution Office, than they can tolerate his fractious spirits. He poisons life at the well-head. It is better to be beggared out of hand by a scapegrace nephew, than daily hag-ridden by a peevish uncle.

27 May 2013

Of All Wishes, Which Is the Best?

Søren Kierkegaard, from Either/Or, quoted in Parables of Kierkegaard, ed. Thomas C. Oden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), p. 125:
Something wonderful has happened to me. I was caught up into the seventh heaven. There sat all the gods in assembly. By special grace I was granted the privilege of making a wish. "Wilt thou," said Mercury, "Have youth or beauty or power or a long life or the most beautiful maiden or any other glories we have in the chest? Choose, but only one thing." For a moment I was at a loss. Then I addressed myself to the gods as follows: "Most honorable contemporaries, I choose this one thing, that I may always have the laugh on my side." Not one of the gods said a word; on the contrary, they all began to laugh. From that I concluded that my wish was granted, and found that the gods knew how to express themselves with taste; for it would hardly have been suitable for them to have answered gravely: "Thy wish is granted."

24 May 2013

My Lost Days Congregate Behind Me

Étienne Pivert de Senancour, Obermann (Letter XLVI), tr. Arthur Edward Waite (London: William Rider & Son, 1909), p. 187:
I repeat to you that time flies with increasing swiftness in the measure that age changes. My lost days congregate behind me. They fill the vague space with their hueless shadows; they heap up their attenuated skeletons; it is the darksome semblance of a funereal pile. And if my restless glance turns seeking some repose upon the chain, more fortunate once, of days that prepare the future, their full forms and their brilliant images have well-nigh lost their beauty. The high colourings have paled; that veiled space which embellished them with heavenly grace in the magic of incertitude, discovers now their naked phantoms all barren and sorrowful. By the austere gleam which reveals them amidst the eternal night, I can see even now the last of all advancing alone over the abyss, and there is nothing in front of it.
The French is available on Gallica: Volume 1 and Volume 2
Matthew Arnold's essay on Obermann can be found in this volume of essays.

23 May 2013

Living in Lemprière

William Ernest Henley, "The Gods Are Dead," in Poems (London: David Nutt, 1898), p. 106:
The gods are dead? Perhaps they are! Who knows?
Living at least in Lemprière undeleted,
The wise, the fair, the awful, the jocose,
Are one and all, I like to think, retreated
In some still land of lilacs and the rose.

Once high they sat, and high o'er earthly shows
With sacrificial dance and song were greeted.
Once ... long ago. But now, the story goes,
The gods are dead.

It must be true. The world, a world of prose,
Full-crammed with facts, in science swathed and sheeted,
Nods in a stertorous after-dinner doze!
Plangent and sad, in every wind that blows
Who will may hear the sorry words repeated:
'The Gods are Dead!'
Lemprière: John Lemprière's Bibliotheca Classica

22 May 2013

Life's Great Conflagration

Søren Kierkegaard, Selections From the Writings of Kierkegaard, tr. L. M. Hollander (Austin: University of Texas, 1923), p. 44:
Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work. Therefore, whenever I see a fly settling, in the decisive moment, on the nose of such a person of affairs; or if he is spattered with mud from a carriage which drives past him in still greater haste; or the drawbridge opens up before him; or a tile falls down and knocks him dead, then I laugh heartily. And who, indeed, could help laughing? What, I wonder, do these busy folks get done? Are they not to be classed with the woman who in her confusion about the house being on fire carried out the fire-tongs? What things of greater account, do you suppose, will they rescue from life's great conflagration?
This is the only English translation of Kierkegaard I could find on Archive.org. However, I did come across this attractive edition of Either/Or in German.

cf. Hank on being burnt

20 May 2013

What Is Life?

Thomas de Quincey, "The Household Wreck," in The Collected Writings of Thomas de Quincey, ed. David Masson, Vol. XII (London: A & C Black, 1896), p. 158:
What is life? Darkness and formless vacancy for a beginning, or something beyond all beginning; then next a dim lotos of human consciousness, finding itself afloat upon the bosom of waters without a shore; then a few sunny smiles and many tears; a little love and infinite strife; whisperings from paradise and fierce mockeries from the anarchy of chaos; dust and ashes; and once more darkness circling round, as if from the beginning, and in this way rounding or making an island of our fantastic existence; that is human life; that the inevitable amount of man's laughter and his tears — of what he suffers and he does — of his motions this way and that way, to the right or to the left, backwards or forwards — of all his seeming realities and all his absolute negations — his shadowy pomps and his pompous shadows — of whatsoever he thinks, finds, makes or mars, creates or animates, loves, hates, or in dread hope anticipates. So it is, so it has been, so it will be, for ever and ever.
Thomas Carlyle answers the same question in verse.

16 May 2013

Sorrow Lurks Behind All Your Pleasures

Claude Tillier (1801-1844), My Uncle Benjamin, tr. by Adele Szold Seltzer (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1917), pp. 4-5:
[M]y opinion is that a man is a machine made expressly for suffering. He has only five senses through the whole surface of his body. In whatever spot he is pricked, he bleeds; in whatever spot he is burned, he gets a blister. The lungs, the liver, the bowels can give him no pleasure. But the lungs become inflamed and make him cough; the liver becomes obstructed and throws him into a fever; the bowels gripe and give him the colic. There is not a nerve, a muscle, a sinew under your skin that cannot make you howl with pain.
Your machinery is thrown out of gear every moment like a bad pendulum. You raise your eyes to heaven to invoke it, and a swallow's dung falls into them and sears them. You go to a ball, and you sprain your ankle and have to be carried home on a stretcher. To-day you are a great writer, a great philosopher, a great poet; a thread in your brain snaps; they bleed you, put ice on your head – in vain – to-morrow you will be only a poor madman.
Sorrow lurks behind all your pleasures; you are greedy rats whom it attracts with a bit of savory bacon. You are in your shady garden, and cry out, "Oh! what a beautiful rose!" and the rose pricks you; "Oh! what a beautiful pear!" there is a wasp on it, and the pear stings you.
You say, "God has made us to serve and to love him." It is not true. He has made us to suffer. The man who does not suffer is a badly-made machine, a defective creature, a moral cripple, one of nature's abortions. Death is not only the end of life, it is its cure. One is nowhere so well off as in the grave. If you believe me, you will order a coffin instead of a new overcoat. It is the only garment that does not make you feel uncomfortable.
French copy here.

15 May 2013

Dead-Alive, Hackneyed People

Robert Louis Stevenson, "An Apology for Idlers," in Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. William Lyon Phelps (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906), pp. 27-28:
There is a sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation. Bring these fellows into the country, or set them aboard ship, and you will see how they pine for their desk or their study. They have no curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations; they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake; and unless Necessity lays about them with a stick, they will even stand still. It is no good speaking to such folk: they cannot be idle, their nature is not generous enough; and they pass those hours in a sort of coma, which are not dedicated to furious moiling in the gold-mill. When they do not require to go to the office, when they are not hungry and have no mind to drink, the whole breathing world is a blank to them. If they have to wait an hour or so for a train, they fall into a stupid trance with their eyes open. To see them, you would suppose there was nothing to look at and no one to speak with; you would imagine they were paralysed or alienated; and yet very possibly they are hard workers in their own way, and have good eyesight for a flaw in a deed or a turn of the market. They have been to school and college, but all the time they had their eye on the medal; they have gone about in the world and mixed with clever people, but all the time they were thinking of their own affairs. As if a man's soul were not too small to begin with, they have dwarfed and narrowed theirs by a life of all work and no play; until here they are at forty, with a listless attention, a mind vacant of all material of amusement, and not one thought to rub against another, while they wait for the train. Before he was breeched, he might have clambered on the boxes; when he was twenty, he would have stared at the girls; but now the pipe is smoked out, the snuffbox empty, and my gentleman sits bolt upright upon a bench, with lamentable eyes. This does not appeal to me as being Success in Life.

14 May 2013

Not Wholesome in the Stomach

Thomas Fuller (1608-1661), "Mixt Contemplations in These Times," in Good Thoughts in Bad Times and Other Papers (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1863), pp. 198-199:
Two young gentlemen were comparing their revenues together, vying which of them were the best. My demesnes, saith the one, is worth two; but mine, saith the other, is worth four hundred pounds a year. My farms, saith the one, are worth four; but mine, saith the other, are worth eight hundred pounds a year.
My estate, saith the one, is my own; to which the other returned no answer, as conscious to himself that he kept what lawfully belonged to another.
I care not how small my means be, so they be my means; I mean my own, without any injury to others. What is truly gotten may be comfortably kept. What is otherwise may be possessed, but not enjoyed.
Upon the question, What is the worst bread which is eaten? One answered. In respect of the coarseness thereof, bread made of beans. Another said, Bread made of acorns. But the third hit the truth, who said, Bread taken out of other men's mouths, who are the true proprietaries thereof. Such bread may be sweet in the mouth to taste, but is not wholesome in the stomach to digest.

13 May 2013

Puny Modern Civilised Man

Havelock Ellis, Impressions and Comments (London: Constable, 1914), pp. 248-249:
The vast and complex machines to which our civilisation devotes its best energy are no doubt worthy of all admiration. Yet when one seeks to look broadly at human activity they only seem to be part of the scaffolding and material. They are not the Life itself.
To whatever sphere of human activity one turns one's attention to-day, one is constantly met by the same depressing spectacle of pale, lean, nervous, dyspeptic human creatures, restlessly engaged in building up marvellously complex machines and elaborate social organisations, all of which, they tell us, will make for the improvement of Life. But what do they suppose "Life" to be?
A giant's task demands a giant. When one watches this puny modern civilised Man engaged on tasks which do so much credit to his imagination and invention, one is reminded of the little boy who was employed to fill a large modern vat. He nearly completed the task. One day he disappeared. They found him at last with only his feet visible above the rim of the vat.

9 May 2013

Books for Refuge

H. M. Tomlinson, Old Junk (London: Andrew Melrose, 1918), pp. 223-224:
The best books for refuge in times of stress are of the "notebook" and "table-talk" kind. Poetry I have tried, but could not approach it. It is too distant. Romance, which many found good, would never hold my attention. But I had Samuel Butler's Note Books with me for two years in France [i.e., during the First World War], and found that the right sort of thing. You may begin anywhere. There are no threads to look for. And you may stop for a time, while some strange notion of the author's is in contest for the command of the intelligence with your dark, resurgent thoughts; but Butler always won. His mental activity is too fibrous, masculine, and unexpected for any nonsense. But I had to keep a sharp eye on Butler. His singular merits were discovered by others who had no more than heard of him, but found he was exactly what they wanted. If his volume of Note Books is not the best example of its sort we have, then I should be glad to learn the name of the best.
Charles Dana Gibson, A Widow and Her Friends (1900)

8 May 2013

Agricultural Pursuits

Louise-Victorine Ackermann (1813-1890), Pensées d'une solitaire [Thoughts of a Recluse]  (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1882), pp. 44-45. My translation:
Agricultural pursuits have a particular virtue: they calm, and they mollify. They are especially good after great pains or great disappointments. In those moments, it is as if the earth is offering man a foretaste of the definitive rest that it will give him one day.
The French:
Les occupations agricoles ont une vertu particulière : elles calment, elles émoussent. Elles sont surtout bonnes après de grandes douleurs ou de grands mécomptes. Il semble que la terre communique dès lors à l'homme un avant-goût de ce repos définitif qu'elle lui donnera quelque jour.

6 May 2013

I Do Not Often Weep

Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater (London: Taylor & Hessey, 1823), pp. 53-54:
I do not often weep: for not only do my thoughts on subjects connected with the chief interests of man daily, nay hourly, descend a thousand fathoms “too deep for tears;” not only does the sternness of my habits of thought present an antagonism to the feelings which prompt tears — wanting of necessity to those who, being protected usually by their levity from any tendency to meditative sorrow, would by that same levity be made incapable of resisting it on any casual access of such feelings; but also, I believe that all minds which have contemplated such objects as deeply as I have done, must, for their own protection from utter despondency, have early encouraged and cherished some tranquillising belief as to the future balances and the hieroglyphic meanings of human sufferings. On these accounts I am cheerful to this hour, and, as I have said, I do not often weep. 

3 May 2013

A Coveted and Honourable Distinction

Jules Janin, L'Amour des livres [The Love of Books] (Paris: J. Miard, 1866), pp. 23-25. My liberal translation:
Athens and Rome are, in fact, mankind's two great teachers. They have left imperishable masterpieces which have become the most perfect models for modern art and intellect. For three centuries the spirits of Athens and Rome have reigned supreme over France. Their divine spark has animated the poets, orators, philosophers, and historians of our great age. Today it is only the prigs who, in their barbarous language, insist on heaping insults upon these elect men, men without whom this great nation would not exist, and they wanted to have these classical works placed on the index of forbidden books [1]. The public conscience was appalled, and while the Church itself -- the heads of western and eastern Christendom -- pointed out the merits of these great ancients, the most illiterate of men took the side of those who would profane eloquence. A glorious accomplishment! Still, we acknowledge that, in these evil days, the study and admiration of the classics have fallen off terribly. This is due to the invasion of all kinds of sciences, each of which requires its own special language, as well as to the abominable bifurcation of the French educational system (a shame and a dishonour). And then too there is the influence of foreign languages. We have borrowed all kinds of words and adopted the jargon of travelling salesmen.
But for minds that are noble and naturally refined, for those who honestly aspire to the beautiful, this lack of respect for the ancients must be an irresistible encouragement to the serious study and contemplation of these masterpieces. Before long, if the fatal bifurcation remains in effect (you must forgive me for using this barbarous term; it comes from the University itself, the same one that educated that nasty writer Mr. Fortoul) [2], it will soon be rare to find learned men capable of reading the languages of Homer and Virgil -- and this in the nation of Racine and Voltaire, Molière and Bossuet! Alas, in the degenerate days which are not far off you can be sure that, among the men La Bruyère called "honest people", it will be a coveted and honourable distinction to be able to read the Iliad and Aeneid in the original, as the great minds of old once did.
  1. I'm not sure what Janin is talking about here, although I haven't spent much time trying to find out. Presumably some contemporary group wanted to have certain classical works (Plato? Catullus? Who knows.) placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, but I'm not sure which French group was agitating in the mid 1800s, or which works they wanted banned. Perhaps Janin was only speaking in general terms.
  2. The "bifurcation" refers to the French educational reforms of 1850, which required students to choose between two streams of study; classical (arts) and modern (sciences). I believe Mr. Fortoul authored a report recommending the system.
For a time I toyed with translating L'Amour des livres, but much of it is just a discussion of the specific books and editions that Janin believed every learned person should have. It's all sound advice, I'm sure, but if someone is interested in collecting fine copies of French classics, I imagine he or she would be able (and prefer) to read the book in French.

Englishing Janin is good fun, but there's not much point in translating a book that nobody would want or need. So, I've decided to post some of the more amusing bits over the next few weeks and forget the rest. Anyone who'd like to read the original can download a copy from Gallica.

Some previous excerpts:

Update: Mike Gilleland writes with a link to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum for note #1 above, and points out that classical authors sometimes appeared on it, e.g. Lucian in the 1559 index

2 May 2013

A Circle of Books

A. C. Benson, Escape, and Other Essays (London: Smith Elder, 1915), pp. 283-284:
I believe very little in setting the foot on books, as sailors take possession of an unknown isle. One must make experiments, just to see what are the kind of books which nurture and sustain one; and then I believe in arriving at a circle of books, which one really knows through and through, and reads at all times and in all moods, till they get soaked and enriched with all sorts of moods and associations. I have a dozen such, which I read and mark and scribble in, write when and where I read them, and who were my companions. Of course the same books do not always last through one's course. You grow out of books as you grow out of clothes; and I sometimes look at old favourites, and find myself lost in wonder as to how I can ever have cared for them like that! They seem now like little antechambers and corridors, through which I have passed to something far more noble and gracious. But all the time we must be trying to weave the books really into life, not let them stand like ornaments on a shelf. 

1 May 2013

An Education in Words

Arthur Machen, Far Off Things (London: Martin Secker, 1922), p. 88:
And then there was the old-fashioned grammar school education, of which it must be said, by friends and foes, that it is an education in words. One spent one's time, unconsciously, in weighing the values of words in English and Greek and Latin, in rendering one tongue into another, in estimating the exact sense of an English sentence before translating it into one or another of the old tongues. So that a boy who could do decent Latin prose must first have mastered the exact sense and significance of his English original, and then he must also have made himself understand to a certain extent, not only the logic but the polite habit of each language. I remember when I was a very small boy rendering "Put to the sword" literally into "Gladio positi." "Well," said my master, "there is no reason on earth why the Romans shouldn't have said 'gladio positi,' but as a matter of fact they did say 'ferro occisi' — killed with iron." And if one thinks of it, he who has mastered that little lesson has also mastered the larger lesson that literature is above logic, that there are matters in it which transcend plain common sense.