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Sunday: May 1, 2011

Quotation of the Day

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The professor is nothing if not a maker of card-indexes; he must classify or be damned.

(H. L. Mencken, Prejudices: First Series [1919], XVII. “George Jean Nathan”)

Saturday: January 22, 2011

A Familiar Type

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Ada Spelvexit was one of those naturally stagnant souls who take infinite pleasure in what are called “movements”. “Most of the really great lessons I have learned have been taught me by the Poor”, was one of her favourite statements. The one great lesson that the Poor in general would have liked to have taught her, that their kitchens and sickrooms were not unreservedly at her disposal as private lecture halls, she had never been able to assimilate. She was ready to give them unlimited advice as to how they should keep the wolf from their doors, but in return she claimed and enforced for herself the penetrating powers of an east wind or a dust storm. Her visits among her wealthier acquaintances were equally extensive and enterprising, and hardly more welcome; in country-house parties, while partaking to the fullest extent of the hospitality offered her, she made a practice of unburdening herself of homilies on the evils of leisure and luxury, which did not particularly endear her to her fellow guests. Hostesses regarded her philosophically as a form of social measles which everyone had to have once.

(Saki, The Unbearable Bassington, VII)

Monday: December 20, 2010

Saturnalian Pedantry

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“The period of the winter solstice had been always a great festival with the northern nations, the commencement of the lengthening of the days being, indeed, of all points in the circle of the year, that in which the inhabitants of cold countries have most cause to rejoice. This great festival was anciently called Yule; whether derived from the Gothic Iola, to make merry; or from the Celtic Hiaul, the sun; or from the Danish and Swedish Hiul, signifying wheel or revolution, December being Hiul-month, or the month of return; or from the Cimbric word Ol, which has the important signification of ALE, is too knotty a controversy to be settled here: but Yule had been long a great festival, with both Celts and Saxons; and, with the change of religion, became the great festival of Christmas, retaining most of its ancient characteristics while England was Merry England; a phrase which must be a mirifical puzzle to any one who looks for the first time on its present most lugubrious inhabitants.

“The mistletoe of the oak was gathered by the Druids with great ceremonies, as a symbol of the season. The mistletoe continued to be so gathered, and to be suspended in halls and kitchens, if not in temples, implying an unlimited privilege of kissing; which circumstance, probably, led a learned antiquary to opine that it was the forbidden fruit.

“The Druids, at this festival, made, in a capacious cauldron, a mystical brewage of carefully-selected ingredients, full of occult virtues, which they kept from the profane, and which was typical of the new year and of the transmigration of the soul. The profane, in humble imitation, brewed a bowl of spiced ale, or wine, throwing therein roasted crabs; the hissing of which, as they plunged, piping hot, into the liquor, was heard with much unction at midwinter, as typical of the conjunct benignant influences of fire and strong drink. The Saxons called this the Wassail-bowl, and the brewage of it is reported to have been one of the charms with which Rowena fascinated Vortigern.”

(Thomas Love Peacock, The Misfortunes of Elphin, Chapter XII)

The “roasted crabs” of the third paragraph are surely crab-apples rather than crustaceans.

Monday: June 28, 2010

Quotation of the Day

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Tim was so learned, that he could name a Horse in nine Languages; So ignorant, that he bought a Cow to ride on.

(Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1750)

Sunday: June 27, 2010

Quotation of the Day

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Proud Modern Learning despises the antient: School-men are now laught at by School-boys.

(Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1758)

Friday: June 11, 2010

“. . . is often noted”?

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“When people unwittingly eat human flesh, served by unscrupulous restaurant owners and other such people, the similarity to pork is often noted.”

(Galen, On the Power of Foods 3, quoted in J. C. McKeown, A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities, p. 161)

Wednesday: May 5, 2010

Orwellian LOL

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I just read Animal Farm for the first time in 40+ years. I don’t often laugh out loud while reading books (as opposed to blogs), but half of one sentence made me LOL. In Chapter II, the victorious animals inspect the human house, and Orwell notes: “Some hams hanging in the kitchen were taken out for burial, . . .”

Saturday: May 1, 2010

Ouch! (in More Ways than One)

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An economist is a surgeon with an excellent scalpel and a rough-edged lancet, who operates beautifully on the dead and tortures the living.

(Products of the Perfected Civilization: Selected Writings of Chamfort, tr. W. S. Merwin, San Francisco, 1969, p. 185)

Sunday: November 8, 2009

Method in Madness

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There nearly always is method in madness. It’s what drives men mad, being methodical.

(G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Knew Too Much, VI. “The Fad of the Fisherman”)

Monday: November 2, 2009

A Journalist in 1922

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Harold March was the sort of man who knows everything about politics; and nothing about politicians. He also knew a good deal about art, letters, philosophy and general culture; about almost everything, indeed, except the world he was living in.

(G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Knew Too Much, I. “The Face in the Target”)

Monday: September 28, 2009

Quotation of the Day

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“I don’t like men that are always eating cake.”

(Gertrude Wentworth, in Henry James, The Europeans, I)

Friday: June 19, 2009

Are My Tastes Hopelessly Proletarian?

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In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell twice quotes a song popular among the proles of his imagined future, “composed without any human intervention whatever on an instrument known as a versificator”. He calls it “dreadful rubbish” and a “driveling song”, but it seems to me that it would fit right in to the Great American Songbook. Of course, we cannot judge the music, but I have certainly heard worse words. Here are the lyrics, with the proletarian (Cockney) mispronunciations edited out:

It was only a hopeless fancy,
It passed like an April day,
But a look and a word and the dreams they stirred
They have stolen my heart away!

They say that time heals all things,
They say you can always forget;
But the smiles and the tears across the years
They twist my heartstrings yet!

(George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, II.iv and II.x)

It is not deep, but other than the awkward rhythm of the fifth line, I don’t see anything embarrassingly wrong with it. Do I need a taste-bud transplant?

Wednesday: May 13, 2009

Quotation of the Day

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Emily Dickinson at her coldest and clearest:

The heart asks pleasure first,
And then, excuse from pain;
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering;

And then, to go to sleep;
And then, if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor,
The liberty to die.

Saturday: January 3, 2009

Horace Kippled

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D. A. West, in Horace Odes I: Carpe Diem, Oxford 1995, 6-7:

In Horace the tone is often elusive. Perhaps the nearest thing in English is the parody [of Odes 1.1] by Kipling in ‘A Diversity of Creatures’:

There are whose study is of smells,
    Who to attentive schools rehearse
How something mixed with something else
    Makes something worse.

Some cultivate in broths impure
    The clients of our body; these,
Increasing without Venus, cure
    Or cause disease.

Others the heated wheel extol,
    And all its offspring, whose concern
Is how to make it farthest roll
    And fastest turn.

Me, much incurious if the hour
    Present, or to be paid for, brings
Me to Brundisium by the power
    Of wheels or wings,

Me, in whose breast no flame has burned
    Life long, save that by Pindar lit,
Such lore leaves cold; nor have I turned
    Aside for it,

More than when, sunk in thought profound
    of what the unaltered Gods require,
My steward (friend but slave) brings round
    Logs for my fire.

Friday: January 2, 2009

The Usefulness of Classics

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Another British policeman (Pumphrey) interrogates the headmaster (Crumwallis) of a worse than mediocre private school:

‘Hmmmm’, said Pumphrey. ‘You seem to do a lot of classics.’

It was not the remark Mr. Crumwallis had been expecting, but he perked up, as he frequently did in interviews with parents, when an opportunity for fraudulent self-congratulation presented itself.

‘Yes, indeed’, he said. ‘We lay great stress on them. So sad to see their decline — their so rapid decline — in other schools, elsewhere. But if the private schools will not be custodians of the great classical tradition, who will be?’

Mike Pumphrey did not feel called upon to reply. He wondered whether, in view of the decline of classics elsewhere, classics teachers might not be in a state of glut upon the market, and therefore to be had cheap. He rather thought they might be. He looked cynically at Mr. Crumwallis, swelling with spurious pride.

(Robert Barnard, School for Murder, 1983, ch. 9)

Thursday: January 1, 2009

Royal Edward

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A British policeman is looking for a millionaire at a posh hotel in Bradford:

It was called the Royal Edward, and for once it lived up to its name. The foyer was all white and gold and plush pink, with spotty mirrors in gilt frames; scattered around were pink and gold velvet sofas, on which one could imagine Royal Edward perching his ample frame, perhaps placing his hand on a not-unwilling knee the while, or pinching a bebustled bottom while whispering an assignation. Through the door to the left I caught a glimpse of an oak-panelled dining-room, where one could imagine him eating one of his piggish meals. It was all rather daunting — as if I’d strayed on to the set of one of those BBC historical serials for television.

(Robert Barnard, The Case of the Missing Brontë, 1983, ch. 8)

Was ‘bebustled’ an attempt to make it into the next revision of the OED?

Sunday: May 25, 2008

Paradise Lost II

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Notes from my reading of Book II:

1. Again the passage that most struck me was a classicizing bit, a simile describing Satan’s journey through Chaos (943-50):

As when a Gryfon through the Wilderness
With winged course ore Hill or moarie Dale,
Persues the Arimaspian, who by stelth
Had from his wakeful custody purloind
The guarded Gold: So eagerly the Fiend
Ore bog or steep, through strait, rough, dense, or rare,
With head, hands, wings, or feet persues his way,
And swims or sinks, or wades, or creeps, or flyes:

This has some resemblance rhetorically to 7.501-3, though the latter is more neatly laid out in threes:

                    Earth in her rich attire
Consummat lovly smil’d; Aire, Water, Earth,
By Fowl, Fish, Beast, was flown, was swum, was walkt
Frequent;

Milton does not mention that the Arimaspians were traditionally one-eyed: did he not think it important, or assume that his readers already knew? ‘Moarie’ is not in the Shorter O.E.D. or www.dictionary.com, and must be a form of ‘moory’, meaning ‘marshy, fenny’.

2. The account of the origins of Sin and Death, featuring rape, incest, head-birth, and bestial transmogrification, manages to outdo Hesiod in gruesomeness.

3. It’s interesting that the music of the fallen angels (546-51) is epic or panegyric, sung “With notes Angelical to many a harp” about themselves and their deeds. The effect is rather Homeric.

Saturday: May 24, 2008

Paradise Lost I

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I started a new job two months ago, and now teach part-time at two different high schools. Oddly, I seem to have more spare time for reading now, partly because I have to get to work at the new school at 7:00 to avoid rush-hour traffic, but don’t meet any of my students until 8:15. In the last month, I’ve read half a dozen novels and the first seven books of Paradise Lost, a work I had not read since college. (That would have been 1972 or 1973.) It seems appropriate to blog some desultory thoughts on the work, perhaps three per book. I’ll write about the novels tomorrow.

1. The passage in Book I that most struck me as particularly worth quoting was the description of Mammon, principal architect in Heaven and now in Hell (738-51):

Nor was his name unheard or unador’d
In ancient Greece; and in Ausonian land
Men calld him Mulciber; and how he fell
From Heav’n, they fabl’d, thrown by angry Jove
Sheer ore the Crystal Battlements: from Morn
To Noon he fell, from Noon to dewy Eve,
A Summers day; and with the setting Sun
Dropd from the Zenith like a falling Starr,
On Lemnos th’ Aegaean Ile: thus they relate,
Erring; for hee with this rebellious rout
Fell long before; nor aught availd him now
To have built in Heav’n high Towrs; nor did he scape
By all his Engins, but was headlong sent
With his industrious crew to build in Hell.

2. The only non-famous line that was particularly familiar after all these years was 307:

Busiris and his Memphian Chivalrie

3. Right from the start, I’ve found the poem entertaining, sometimes even hypnotic, but also insubstantial: far more words than matter. So far from being a peer of Homer, Vergil, and Dante, Milton seems a poet in roughly the same class as Statius or Claudian. Is this unfair? He seems to do a mediocre job of justifying the ways of God to men.

Sunday: May 11, 2008

What About Copies of Copies?

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Les seules bonnes copies sont celles qui nous font voir le ridicule des méchants originaux.

The only good copies are those which show up the absurdity of bad originals.

(La Rochefoucauld, Maximes 133, translated by Leonard Tancock)

Monday: November 19, 2007

Aphorism Of The Day

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Every stink that fights the ventilator thinks it is Don Quixote.

(Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, Unkempt Thoughts, tr. Jacek Galazka, New York, 1962, p. 67)