“Why I began to write for children,” by Isaac Bashevis Singer:
- Children read books, not reviews. They don’t give a hoot about the critics.
- Children don’t read to find their identity.
- They don’t read to free themselves of guilt, to quench the thirst for rebellion, or to get rid of alienation.
- They have no use for psychology.
- They detest sociology.
- They don’t try to understand Kafka or Finnegans Wake.
- They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff.
- They love interesting stories, not commentary, guides, or footnotes.
- When a book is boring, they yawn openly, without any shame or fear of authority.
- They don’t expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know that it is not in his power. Only the adults have such childish illusions.
(From his 1978 Nobel banquet speech.)
From a letter from Gerard Manley Hopkins to his sister Kate, April 25, 1871:
We were all vaccinated the other day. The next day a young Portug[u]ese came up to me and said ‘Oh misther Opkins, do you feel the cows in yewer arm?’ I told him I felt the horns coming through. I do I am sure. I cannot remember now whether one ought to say the calf of the arm or the calf of the leg. My shoulder is like a shoulder of beef. I dare not speak above a whisper for fear of bellowing – there now, I was going to say I am obliged to speak low for fear of lowing. I dream at night that I have only two of my legs in bed. I think there is a split coming in both of my slippers. Yesterday I could not think why it was that I would wander about on a wet grass-plot: I see now. I chew my pen a great deal. The long and short of it is that my left forequarter is swollen and painful (I meant to have written arm but I cowld not.) Besides the doctor has given us medicine, so that I am in a miserable way just now.
Ernest Thompson Seton called his father “the most selfish man I ever knew, or heard of, in history or in fiction.” In 1881, on Seton’s 21st birthday, his father called him into his study, took down an enormous cash book from a high shelf, and opened it at E.
In the book he had recorded every expense he had ever made on the boy, including the day and date of each outlay, all the way back to the doctor’s fee for his delivery. The total was $537.50.
“Hitherto,” he said, “I have charged no interest. But from now on I must add the reasonable amount of 6 per cent per annum. I shall be glad to have you reduce the amount at the earliest possible opportunity.”
Stunned, Seton staggered to his feet and left the room, refusing his father’s offer “to furnish without expense a full copy of the indebtedness.”
His father called after him, “God bless you, my son. In the natural course of events, you cannot much longer be an inmate of my house; but I must prayerfully trust that, wherever your lot is cast in the near future, you will never forget the debt you owe your father, who is to you on earth the next to God.”
Seton paid the bill and never spoke to him again.
“If Bacon wrote Shakespeare, who wrote Bacon?” — George Lyman Kittredge
Literature often inspires music, but the reverse is less common. Here’s an intriguing exception: In Music and Literature: A Comparison of the Arts (1948), Calvin S. Brown argues that the third part of Thomas De Quincey’s 1849 essay “The English Mail-Coach” is deliberately structured as the literary equivalent of a musical fugue.
That part of the essay, titled “The Dream-Fugue,” tells how De Quincey’s dreams were dominated by a recent experience in which his carriage had nearly collided with that of a young woman. As De Quincey describes his dreams, the fugue subject is a group of ideas (speed, urgency, and a girl in danger of sudden death) that remain static while the shifting settings and details act as a contrapuntal accompaniment: In the first section a girl dances on a ship that is run down by another ship; in the second she escapes; in the third she runs along a shore and is engulfed in quicksand.
[The] middle part begins with Section IV, and is constructed exactly as it should be. The news of Waterloo and victory, the coach carrying that news, the cathedral seen in the distance and rapidly approached and entered — all these are presentations of material closely connected with the subject; but there is a definite departure from the set statements of this subject found in the exposition. In the middle section we expect at least one direct restatement of the subject in addition to this episodic material; hence we look for another vision of sudden death. We are not disappointed. After a considerable interval the girl of the visions, now an infant, appears directly in the path of the coach, which is thundering up the aisle of the vast cathedral. There is a moment of suspense, and then, just as death seems certain, she vanishes. After a dramatic pause, she reappears as a full-grown woman, on an altar of alabaster, within the cathedral and yet among the clouds. On one side of her is dimly seen the shadow of the angel of death, and on the other her better angel prays for her. What we have here is simply a recurrence of the subject and answer, the counter-subject appearing with the answer only. It will be observed that the answer always saves the victim from the immediate peril presented in the subject, but keeps the idea of further danger. In the single instance where fugue-form does not demand an answer (Section III), the girl goes on to her fate.
In the book, Brown even presents a chart identifying the exposition, the development, and the final section of the fugue. “Most commentators have brushed aside the title of this section with some meaningless comment, but De Quincey’s knowledge of music and his interest in it, together with his passion for intellectual analysis, make it reasonable to suppose that his title was something more than a fanciful name. Actually, De Quincey’s method of producing the musical effect was to follow, as far as the limitations imposed by a different medium would permit, the structure of the musical form. He succeeded in following it far more closely than has been generally realized.”
There was one moment in Stratford the other afternoon when I really did feel I was treading upon Shakespeare’s own ground. It was in the gardens of New Place, very brave in the spring sunlight. You could have played the outdoor scene of Twelfth Night in them without disturbing a leaf. There was the very sward for Viola and Sir Andrew. Down that paved path Olivia would come, like a great white peacock. Against that bank of flowers the figure of Maria would be seen, flitting like a starling. The little Knott Garden alone was worth the journey and nearer to Shakespeare than all the documents and chairs and monuments. I remember that when we left that garden to see the place where Shakespeare was buried, it didn’t seem to matter much. Why should it when we had just seen the place where he was still alive?
— J.B. Priestley, Apes and Angels, 1927
More wisdom from Poor Richard’s Almanack:
- Thirst after desert — not reward.
- Gifts much expected, are paid not given.
- Children and princes will quarrel for trifles.
- Praise little, dispraise less.
- The Child thinks 20 Shillings and 20 Years can scarce ever be spent.
- Industry need not wish.
- ‘Tis great Confidence in a Friend to tell him your Faults, greater to tell him his.
- Neglect kills Injuries, Revenge increases them.
- Observe all men; thyself most.
- Do not do that which you would not have known.
- He that resolves to mend hereafter, resolves not to mend now.
- The honest Man takes Pains, and then enjoys Pleasures; the knave takes Pleasure, and then suffers Pains.
- All would live long, but none would be old.
- Nothing more like a fool, than a drunken man.
- What e’er’s begun in anger, ends in shame.
- As often as we do good, we sacrifice.
- There is much difference between imitating a good man, and counterfeiting him.
And “Cut the Wings of your Hens and Hopes, lest they lead you a weary Dance after them.”
Dismissals of Shakespeare:
- “An upstart crow beautified with our feathers.” — Robert Greene
- “The most insipid, ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.” — Samuel Pepys, on A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- “His rude unpolished style and antiquated phrase and wit.” — Lord Shaftesbury
- “A disproportioned and misshapen giant.” — David Hume
- “Shakespeare never had six lines together without a fault. Perhaps you may find seven, but this does not refute my general assertion.” — Samuel Johnson
- “I cannot read him, he is such a bombast fellow.” — George II
- “Was there ever such stuff as the greater part of Shakespeare? Only one must not say so.” — George III
- “Shakespeare — what trash are his works in the gross.” — Edward Young
- “One of the greatest geniuses that ever existed, Shakespeare, undoubtedly wanted taste.” — Horace Walpole
- “I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.” — Darwin, Autobiography
- “The undisputed fame enjoyed by Shakespeare as a writer is, like every other lie, a great evil.” — Tolstoy
- “If all the work of Shakespeare could be gathered up and burned in one pile, the world would witness the most beneficial action for the sake of literature since the invention of alcohol.” — Waterloo, Iowa, Times-Tribune, 1920
After seeing Henry Irving’s production of Cymbeline, George Bernard Shaw wrote, “With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his. The intensity of my impatience with him occasionally reaches such a pitch, that it would positively be a relief to me to dig him up and throw stones at him, knowing as I do how incapable he and his worshippers are of understanding any less obvious form of indignity.”
Here’s a special kind of genius: In 1992 Daniel Nussbaum rewrote Oedipus Rex using vanity license plates registered with the California Department of Motor Vehicles:
ONCEPON ATIME LONG AGO IN THEBES IMKING. OEDIPUS DAKING. LVMYMRS. LVMYKIDS. THEBENS THINK OEDDY ISCOOL. NOPROBS.
OKAY MAYBE THEREZZ 1LTL1. MOTHER WHERERU? WHEREAT MYDAD? NOCALLZ NEVER. HAVENOT ACLUE. INMYMND IWNDER WHOAMI? IMUST FINDEM.
JO MYWIFE GOES, “OED DON’T USEE? WERHAPPI NOW LETITB.” IGO, “NOWAY. IAMBOSS. DONTU TELLME MYLIFE. INEED MYMOM. II WILLL FINDHER. FIND BOTHOF THEM.”
SOI START SEEKING DATRUTH ABOUT WHO IAM. ITGOEZ ULTRAAA SLOWE. THE SPHYNXS RIDDLE WAS ACINCH BUT NOTTHIZ.
SUDNLEE WEHEAR SHOCKING NEWS. WHEN IWASA TINY1 THISGR8 4SEER SED IWOOD OFF MY ROYAL OLDMAN THEN MARREE MYMAMA. SICKO RUBBISH, NESTPAS? WHOWHO COUDBE SOGONE? STIL MOMNDAD SENT MEEEEE AWAY. MEE ABABI AWAAAY.
NOWWWWW GETTHIZ. MANY MOONS GOBY. IMEET THISGUY ONATRIP. WEDOO RUMBLE. WHOKNEW? ILEFTMY POP ONE DEDMAN.
UGET DAFOTO. MAJOR TSURIS. JOJO MYHONEE, MYSQEEZ, MYLAMBY, MIAMOR, MYCUTEE, JOJOY IZZ MYMOMMY.
YEGODS WHYMEE? YMEYYME? LIFSUX. IAMBAD, IAMBADD, IMSOBAD. STOPNOW THISS HEDAKE. FLESH DUZ STINK. ITZ 2MUCH PAYNE 4ONE2C. TAKEGOD MYEYES! AIEEEEE!
The world’s most beautiful book is also its most mysterious. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, published anonymously in 1499, recounts the “struggle for love in a dream” of Poliphilo, who pursues his beloved Polia through 370 pages of gorgeous woodcuts and epoch-making typography. Their story is told in a cryptic polyglot text of Tuscan, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic, replete with arcane references and hidden meanings.
“The Hypnerotomachia is a catalogue of every possible and imaginable foil to understanding,” writes Liane LeFavre in her 2005 exploration of the text. “On every page one is confronted by words whose meaning must be deciphered, inscriptions that have to be interpreted, episodes whose conclusion is ambiguous, a hero and a heroine who embody ideas that have to be divined. Texts and images in code, symbolic images and their interpretation, are recurrent patterns in these cryptic tactics.”
The author’s enormous erudition continually interrupts his story: He fills 200 pages with architectural descriptions and another 60 with botanical lore. The book’s patron, Leonardo Crasso, wrote that it contains “so much science that one would search in vain through all the ancient books [for its meaning], as is the case for many occult things of nature.” The author, he wrote, “devised his work so that only the wise may penetrate the sanctuary.”
Why would anyone produce such a prodigious work of art and learning and then conceal his identity? No one knows for certain. A century and a half after its publication, a French reader discovered an acrostic concealed in the first letters of the book’s 39 chapters. These spell out “Poliam Frater Francescus Columnia Peramavit,” or “Brother Francesco Colonna loved Polonna immensely.” Who was Francesco Colonna? There are two candidates by that name, a Venetian friar and a Roman aristocrat. But both lived on for decades after 1499 and neither claimed to be author of this remarkable book. His identity, and that of the illustrator, remain uncertain.