3 June 2016

High Among the Wise Masters of Life

John Morley, "Aphorisms," Studies in Literature (London: Macmillan, 1901), pp. 68-69
Horace's Epistles are a mine of genial, friendly, humane observation. Then there is none of the ancient moralists to whom the modern, from Montaigne, Charron, Ralegh, Bacon, downwards, owe more than to Seneca. Seneca has no spark of the kindly warmth of Horace; he has not the animation of Plutarch; he abounds too much in the artificial and extravagant paradoxes of the Stoics. But, for all that, he touches the great and eternal commonplaces of human occasion — friendship, health, bereavement, riches, poverty, death — with a hand that places him high among the wise masters of life. All through the ages men tossed in the beating waves of circumstance have found more abundantly in the essays and letters of Seneca than in any other secular writer words of good counsel and comfort. And let this fact not pass, without notice of the light that it sheds on the fact of the unity of literature, and of the absurdity of setting a wide gulf between ancient or classical literature and modern, as if under all dialects the partakers in Graeco-Roman civilisation, whether in Athens, Rome, Paris, Weimar, Edinburgh, London, Dublin, were not the heirs of a great common stock of thought as well as of speech.
A note to myself: The UofT has digitized the 1601 edition of Pierre Charron's De la sagesse.

1 June 2016

Fame in a Footnote

Arthur Helps, Brevia (London: Bell and Daldy, 1871), pp. 77-78:
In a company of learned men there was talk about posthumous fame. Some said that it was a strong motive to exertion with many persons. Others maintained that its potency as a motive was very small indeed, except with a few half-crazy people, like Alexander the Great. All agreed that it was a foolish motive as applied to the mass of men, because anything that was worthy of the name of "fame" was unattainable for them.

A man writes an elaborate work upon a learned subject. In a few years' time, another man writes an elaborate work upon the same learned subject, and is kind enough to allude to the former author in a foot-note. Twenty or thirty years afterwards, this second man's work is also absorbed in a similar manner; and his labours, too, are chronicled in a foot-note. Now, the first man's fame, if you come to look at it carefully, is but small. His labours are kindly alluded to in a foot-note of a work which is also kindly alluded to in a foot-note of a work published forty or fifty years hence.

Surely this fame in a foot-note is not much worth having.

30 May 2016

A Lesson of Profound Humility

Arthur Helps, Thoughts in the Cloister and the Crowd  (London: J. M. Dent & Co., 1901), pp. 15-16:
When we consider the incidents of former days, and perceive, while reviewing the long line of causes, how the most important events of our lives originated in the most trifling circumstances; how the beginning of our greatest happiness or greatest misery is to be attributed to a delay, to an accident, to a mistake; we learn a lesson of profound humility.
A related post: A Line of Incidents

26 May 2016

That Explains Everything

Evelyn Waugh in a review of Henry Green's novel Living, from Graphic magazine (14 June, 1930), reprinted in A Little Order, ed. Donat Gallagher (London: Eyre Methuen, 1977), p. 81:
A few days ago I came upon an illuminating paragraph in a Sunday newspaper. It was in the column where a lady of fashion dispenses advice to those who consult her about their private concerns. A correspondent wrote "... I am not outstandingly brilliant at anything. I can't leave home as my mother is delicate, but I want to do something to earn not less than £3 a week. I've tried chicken farming and it doesn't pay." The answer was, "You might get a job as a reader to a publisher ... that or book reviewing."

That explains everything about our literary critics: they are young ladies, not outstandingly brilliant at anything, who have failed to make a success with poultry.

25 May 2016

Shoulder the Sky and Drink Your Ale

A. E. Housman, "IX," Last Poems (London: Grant Richards, 1922), pp. 24-25:
The chestnut casts his flambeaux, and the flowers
Stream from the hawthorn on the wind away,
The doors clap to, the pane is blind with showers.
Pass me the can, lad; there's an end of May.

There's one spoilt spring to scant our mortal lot,
One season ruined of our little store.
May will be fine next year as like as not:
Oh ay, but then we shall be twenty-four.

We for a certainty are not the first
Have sat in taverns while the tempest hurled
Their hopeful plans to emptiness, and cursed
Whatever brute and blackguard made the world.

It is in truth iniquity on high
To cheat our sentenced souls of aught they crave,
And mar the merriment as you and I
Fare on our long fool's-errand to the grave.

Iniquity it is; but pass the can.
My lad, no pair of kings our mothers bore;
Our only portion is the estate of man:
We want the moon, but we shall get no more.

If here to-day the cloud of thunder lours
To-morrow it will hie on far behests;
The flesh will grieve on other bones than ours
Soon, and the soul will mourn in other breasts.

The troubles of our proud and angry dust
Are from eternity, and shall not fail.
Bear them we can, and if we can we must.
Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.
An unpaid endorsement: Muskoka Brewery's Detour  India Pale Ale is glorious.

20 May 2016

Creatures of Time and Space

R. S. Thomas, "The Making of a Poem," Selected Prose, ed. Sandra Anstey (Bridgend: Seren, 1995), p. 87:
But creatures of time and space as we all are, we are yet haunted by dreams of eternity and we have a conception of ourselves as arresting the flow of time. When we love somebody, or we see something beautiful, or when we are experiencing something very wonderful or very strange which has a dreamlike quality about it, there is on that occasion something within us which wants to arrest this and keep it for ever, and we know that in so far as we are creatures of time and space this does not seem to be possible. Almost before we have really had our attention drawn to it either we have passed on or it has gone in the slip-stream and is no more. Most of us would feel that if only we had the gift of language, or if only we had the hand of the painter, or if only we were musicians, we should try to formalize and crystallize or trap this evanescent experience, and arrest it and take it out of the time-flow. And this is surely what the better poets are able to do.
Related posts:

18 May 2016

The Spectacle of Human Folly

Auguste-Barthélemy Glaize, Le spectacle de la folie humaine (1873):

Painting at the Musée des beaux-arts d'Arras, image from Gregory Lejeune

16 May 2016

Resort to Books or Memory

Charles Horton Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1902), p. 208:
No one can permanently maintain a standard of honor in his own mind if he does not conceive of some other mind or minds as sharing and corroborating this standard. If his immediate environment is degrading he may have resort to books or memory in order that his imagination may construct a better environment of nobler people to sustain his standard; but if he cannot do this it is sure to fall. Sentiments of higher good or right, like other sentiments, find source and renewal in intercourse. On the other hand, we cannot separate the idea of honor from that of a sincere and stable private character. We cannot form a habit of thought about what is admirable, though it be derived from others, without creating a mental standard. A healthy mind cannot strive for outward honor without, in some measure, developing an inward conscience training himself from the outside in, as Goethe says.

13 May 2016

Fifteenth-Century People

Peter Ackroyd, The Life of Thomas More  (London: Vintage, 1999), pp. 33-34:
The 'frankness' of fifteenth-century people about the body and its functions has often been observed; if you believe human nature is to be fallen from grace, and irredeemably flawed, then there is no reason to be discreet or fastidious about its natural properties. It might be useful, even beneficial, to exploit or parody them.
Related posts:

10 May 2016

The Vowing Age

V. S. Pritchett, Midnight Oil (London: Chatto & Windus, 1971), p. 14:
My earliest pleasure was therefore in being alone; and to be alone in Paris, knowing nobody, was an intoxication; it was like being on the dizzy brink of knowing everybody. I felt I was drinking the lights of the city and the words I heard spoken by passers-by... I walked to the Place de la Concorde and there by the bridge in the shade of the warm trees looked over the stone wall into the river. I was instantly under a spell. The water looked still yet it rustled like a dress. I had never seen water and stone in such pleasant conversation, the stone moonish, shading to saffron like the cheese of Brie, the water womanish and velvet. My solemn young eyes were seeing order and feeling united. I was so moved that I could feel myself grow into a new being. I repeated to myself my vow — for I was at the vowing age — never to leave France and I was so entranced that tears came to my eyes.

6 May 2016

Mother's Day

Roland Jaccard, L'âme est un vaste pays  (Paris: Grasset, 1984), my translation:
A mother and her little girl are beside me. The mother constantly devalues her child, criticizing her, humiliating her. It is something I have often observed: a daughter has no worse enemy than her mother. Across the generations, each one takes revenge for the harm her own mother inflicted.

A côté de moi, une mère et sa fillette. La mère ne cesse de dévaloriser son enfant, de la critiquer, de l’humilier. Je l’ai souvent observé : il n’y a pas de pire ennemi pour une fille que sa mère. A travers les générations, chacune se venge de ce que sa propre mère lui a infligé.
A related post: Women Who Procreate

5 May 2016

Forget the Lusitania

Melville Hastings, Lieutenant in the 52nd Battalion (Manitoba Regiment), Canadian Expeditionary Force, quoted in The War Letters of Fallen Englishmen, ed. Laurence Housman (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1930), pp. 123-124:
I write this outside a German dug-out wrecked by one of our sixty-pounders. The explosion has thrown five men lifeless down the stairway. Their boy officer, a young Absalom, is suspended head downwards by one of his Bluchers from two viced beams in the roof. Get the harrowing details out of the mind; remember only the faithful service.

It seems to me that so many of our journals urge the remembering of the worthless, the forgetting of the worth remembering. "Remember the Lusitania, remember Nurse Cavell." Rather keep them out of the mind. Heaven consists largely in thinking of mothers and wives and children and other things that are thus beautiful. Get the habit. Increase Heaven by thinking of the homely, fat but selfless Frau and the lad who hangs from the ceiling by his foot. Hell consists largely in thinking of our own nastiness. We cannot forget them even when forgiven, and so this Hell survives, but other people's nastiness we can forget quite easily. Forget the Lusitanias, the Louvains — there are paid servants of the State who will attend to these....

German food and British food, examine them closely, they are the same. The same in terms of stomach, of ears, of eyes or of the immortal soul. A week since I was lying out in no man's land. A little German dog trotted up and licked my British face. I pulled his German ears and stroked his German back. He wagged his German tail. My little friend abolished no man's land, and so in time can we.

According to the Queen's University archives,
 Hastings died of wounds on 3 October 1918.
He is buried in the Etaples Military Cemetery.

3 May 2016

The Importance of Style

John Mortimer, Clinging to the Wreckage (London: Penguin Books, 2010), p. 79:
And the  writers I admired, an ill-assorted gallery now peopled by Dickens, Chekhov, Firbank (for the dialogue), Evelyn Waugh, P. G. Wodehouse, Raymond Chandler and Lytton Strachey (who still seems to me to have had the best prose style of any writer this century, and to be the only true genius of the Bloomsbury Group), could hardly be said to have had the documentary approach. What they all had in common, I suppose, apart from an admirable determination to entertain, was a belief in the importance of style and a preference for trying to catch some fleeting truth in a web of artifice, rather than bashing it on the head with a camera and a tape-recorder.

29 April 2016

Disappointed

Evelyn Waugh, "Was Oxford Worth While?" Daily Mail (21 June 1930), reprinted in A Little Order, ed. Donat Gallagher (London: Eyre Methuen, 1977), p. 16:
All the misunderstanding of the value of university life seems to me to come from two extreme heresies. On the one hand are those who expect a University to be a kind of insurance company into which so much money is paid and from which so much, eventually, is extracted. They expect a B.A. degree to be a badge which will gain them instant preference over poorer competitors, and in nine cases out of ten they are disappointed.

On the other hand, there are those who expect Oxford to be like an Oxford novel. A place of easy living, subtle conversations, and illuminating friendships. They expect it to be a kind of microcosm of eighteenth-century Whig society, combined with infinitely sophisticated modernism. They, too, are disappointed.
See also: 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School

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.
Id., 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.