3 June 2014

Words and Phrases

Adam Sisman, An Honourable Englishman (New York: Random House, 2010), pp. 108-109:
Hugh [Trevor-Roper] wrote a portrait of "Logan Pearsall Smith in old age," which he sent to his subject for approval. In it he summarized the philosophy of "the Sage of Chelsea" thus: "that humanity is ridiculous, but that there is pleasure in observing its antics even amid our own gesticulations, and that it is redeemed from utter meaninglessness by its ideals, though many of these are very odd; and that style is an ideal too, style of living, style of writing, born of disinterested thought and sweat to ennoble and preserve the thoughts and memory of an else insignificant existence." He repeated one of Smith's aphorisms: "The indefatigable pursuit of an unattainable Perfection, even though it consists of nothing more than the pounding of an old piano, is what alone gives meaning to our life on this unavailing star."

Smith was as much concerned with style as with scholarship. He endlessly polished his Trivia, seeking Hugh's suggestions for improvements forty years after the first edition had been published. No care was too great in the quest for perfect prose, no effort too much. "Words & phrases are the only things that matter," he wrote to Hugh early in their friendship. Two weeks before his death in 1946, Smith was asked if he had discovered any purpose to life. "Yes," he replied: "there is one thing that matters — to set a chime of words tinkling in the minds of a few fastidious people."
Also see Patrick Kurp's Gleams and Flashes of Light