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Palette Trouble


In 1858, William Ewart Gladstone noticed something peculiar in Homer: Both oxen and the sea are compared to the color of wine, sheep are “violet,” honey is “green,” and, while the sky is described as starry, broad, great, iron, and copper, it’s never “blue.” He advanced the idea that “the organ of colour and its impressions were but partially developed among the Greeks of the heroic age.”

Building on this idea 20 years later in Nature, William Pole suggested that Homer might even have been color-blind. “It would be a most interesting fact in physiology and optics,” he wrote, “if we could show, in this way, that dichromatism was an early stage of human vision out of which the present more comprehensive and perfect faculty has been gradually developed in the course of some thousands of years.”

The truth awaited a more sophisticated understanding of the interplay of culture and language, one that’s still evolving. In a way that’s a shame — as Pole points out, if this oddity had been the unique mark of a particular writer, then we’d have “the strongest possible proof, by internal evidence, of the existence of a single author, to whom the whole of the poems are due.”

Checking In

Letter from T.S. Eliot to Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Feb. 3, 1940:

Possum now wishes to explain his silence
And to apologise (as only right is);
He had an attack of poisoning of some violence,
Followed presently by some days in bed with laryngitis.

Yesterday he had to get up and dress–
His voice very thick and his head feeling tetrahedral,
To go and meet the Lord Mayor & Lady Mayoress
At a meeting which had something to do with repairs to Southwark Cathedral.

His legs are not yet ready for much strain & stress
And his words continue to come thick and soupy all:
These are afflictions tending to depress
Even the most ebullient marsupial.

But he would like to come to tea
One day next week (not a Wednesday)
If that can be arranged
And to finish off this letter
Hopes that you are no worse and that Leonard is much better.

Long and Short


Othello doesn’t fit. Act I takes place on Othello’s wedding night, when he is sent to Cyprus. Act II takes place on the day of his arrival there, Acts III and IV occur together on the following day, and Act V takes place that evening. Thus the events on Cyprus appear to unfold within a day and a half.

Yet in this brief period the characters speak as if much more time were passing. Iago suggests that Desdemona has slept with Cassio repeatedly in this time, while Bianca complains that Cassio has kept away from her for “seven days and nights.” Emilia says Iago has “a hundred times / Woo’d me to steal” Desdemona’s handkerchief, and Roderigo complains of having “wasted myself out of my means” since their arrival.

Why? Did Shakespeare compress events into a day and a half for his own convenience in plotting, relying on the hope that the timeline would “feel” longer to casual theatergoers? “I find it very hard to believe that he produced this impossible situation without knowing it,” wrote A.C. Bradley in 1904. “It is one thing to read a drama or see it, quite another to construct and compose it, and he appears to have imagined the action in Othello with even more than his usual intensity.”

“On the Play of Hamlet”


Hamlet was a young man very nervous. He was always dressed in black because his uncle had killed his father by shooting him in his ear. He could not go to the theatre because his father was dead so he had the actors come to his house and play in the front parlor and he learned them to say the words because he thought he knew best how to say them. And then he thought he’d kill the king but he didn’t. Hamlet liked Ophelia. He thought she was a very nice girl but he didn’t marry her because she was going to be a nunnery. Hamlet went to England but he did not like it very much so he came home. Then he jumped into Ophelia’s grave and fought a duel with her brother. Then he died.

English as She Is Taught: Genuine Answers to Examination Questions in Our Public Schools, 1887

Breaking In

Gelett Burgess published his first poem through a “literary burglary.” On noticing that most of the “notes and queries” in the Boston Transcript were inquiries about obscure poems, he submitted this letter:

Dear Editor:

Who is the author of the poem commencing ‘The dismal day with dreary pace,’ and can you give me the verses?


Then he submitted a response:

Editor of the ‘Transcript’:

The author of the poem commencing ‘The dreary day’ etc., is Frank Gelett Burgess, and the whole poem is as follows:

The dismal day with dreary pace
Hath dragged its tortuous length along;
The gravestones black, and funeral vase
Cast horrid shadows long.

Oh, let me die, and never think
Upon the joys of long ago;
For cankering thoughts make all the world
A wilderness of woe.


“Of course it was printed,” he wrote later. “You see it’s easy when you know how.”

Shoehorn Poetry

From King John, six feet in five lines:

shoehorn poetry

One critic called this the best line in Shakespeare — Lear’s reaction to Cordelia’s death:

LEAR: Never, never, never, never, never!

Perhaps inspired, Sydney Dobell included this passage in his 1854 poem Balder:

You crowded heavens that mine eyes left but now
Shining and void and azure! — Ah! ah! ah!
Ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah!
By Satan! this is well. What! am I judged?

Harvard scholar Jerome Hamilton Buckley called this “a unique expression of gasping despair” and “surely the most remarkable line of English blank verse.” Perhaps it is.

“A Technical Distinction”

The following note has made a deal of fun in London: ‘Dear Sir: How comes it that I have had no proofs of Love from you since last Saturday? I have waited with the utmost impatience.’ Signed, Charlotte Burry. But the fun vanishes when the reader learns that Lady Charlotte Burry had a novel entitled Love in press, and that the note was to her printer.

– Kazlitt Arvine, The Cyclopaedia of Anecdotes of Literature and the Fine Arts, 1853

Basic Training

Excerpts from the style sheet of the Kansas City Star, where Ernest Hemingway worked as a reporter in 1917:

  • Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.
  • Eliminate every superfluous word, as “Funeral services will be at 2 o’clock Tuesday,” not “The funeral services will be held at the hour of 2 o’clock on Tuesday.” “He said” is better than “He said in the course of conversation.”
  • Avoid the use of adjectives, especially such extravagant ones as “splendid,” “gorgeous,” “grand,” “magnificent,” etc.
  • Be careful of the word “also.” It usually modifies the word it follows closest. “He, also, went” means “He, too, went.” “He went also” means he went in addition to taking some other action.
  • Be careful of the word “only.” “He only had $10″ means he alone was the possessor of such wealth; “He had only $10″ means the ten was all the cash he possessed.
  • A long quotation without introducing the speaker makes a poor lead especially and is bad at any time. Break into the quotation as soon as you can, thus: “‘I should prefer,’ the speaker said, ‘to let the reader know who I am as soon as possible.’”

“Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing,” Hemingway told a reporter in 1940. “I’ve never forgotten them. No man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides with them.”


When Warren Harding invited sportswriter Grantland Rice to play golf, Ring Lardner tagged along.

“This is an unexpected pleasure, Mr. Lardner,” said the president as they began. “I only knew Granny was coming. How did you happen to make it, too?”

Lardner said, “I want to be ambassador to Greece.”

“Greece?” asked the president. “Why Greece?”

“Because my wife doesn’t like Great Neck.”


  • Christopher Lee is Ian Fleming’s cousin.
  • £12.12s.8d = 12128 farthings
  • ii is real.
  • Shouldn’t Juliet have asked, “Wherefore art thou Montague?”
  • “Of soup and love, the first is the best.” — Thomas Fuller

First and Last

As the computer HAL is being shut down in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it begins singing the song “Daisy Bell”:

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do,
I’m half crazy, all for the love of you.
It won’t be a stylish marriage–
I can’t afford a carriage–
But you’ll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two.

That’s poetic, in a way. During a visit to Bell Labs in 1961, novelist Arthur C. Clarke had witnessed the first singing computer — physicist John Kelly had programmed an IBM 704 to sing using a speech synthesizer.

The song it sang was “Daisy Bell.”

False Father


For more than a century, the cover of the Saturday Evening Post claimed that it was “founded in A.D. 1728 by Benj. Franklin.”

This has never been true. Franklin died in 1790, and his Pennsylvania Gazette ceased publication in 1815. The Post did not appear until six years later, and it proclaimed itself “Founded, A.D. 1821″ for the next 77 years, until publisher Cyrus H.K. Curtis acquired it in 1897.

Only then did the reference to Franklin appear — apparently based solely on the fact that the Post had been launched in the same building that had once housed Franklin’s newspaper.

Condensed Fiction

At 503 words, this is the shortest Sherlock Holmes story that Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote. It was inscribed in a book 1.5″ high and contributed to the library of a dollhouse built for Queen Mary, the wife of George V:

How Watson Learned the Trick

Watson had been watching his companion intently ever since he had sat down to the breakfast table. Holmes happened to look up and catch his eye.

‘Well, Watson, what are you thinking about?’ he asked.

‘About you.’


‘Yes, Holmes. I was thinking how superficial are these tricks of yours, and how wonderful it is that the public should continue to show interest in them.’

‘I quite agree,’ said Holmes. ‘In fact, I have a recollection that I have myself made a similar remark.’

‘Your methods,’ said Watson severely, ‘are really easily acquired.’

‘No doubt,’ Holmes answered with a smile. ‘Perhaps you will yourself give an example of this method of reasoning.’

‘With pleasure,’ said Watson. ‘I am able to say that you were greatly preoccupied when you got up this morning.’

‘Excellent!’ said Holmes. ‘How could you possibly know that?’

‘Because you are usually a very tidy man and yet you have forgotten to shave.’

‘Dear me! How very clever!’ said Holmes. ‘I had no idea, Watson, that you were so apt a pupil. Has your eagle eye detected anything more?’

‘Yes, Holmes. You have a client named Barlow, and you have not been successful with his case.’

‘Dear me, how could you know that?’

‘I saw the name outside his envelope. When you opened it you gave a groan and thrust it into your pocket with a frown on your face.’

‘Admirable! You are indeed observant. Any other points?’

‘I fear, Holmes, that you have taken to financial speculation.’

‘How could you tell that, Watson?’

‘You opened the paper, turned to the financial page, and gave a loud exclamation of interest.’

‘Well, that is very clever of you, Watson. Any more?’

‘Yes, Holmes, you have put on your black coat, instead of your dressing gown, which proves that your are expecting some important visitor at once.’

‘Anything more?’

‘I have no doubt that I could find other points, Holmes, but I only give you these few, in order to show you that there are other people in the world who can be as clever as you.’

‘And some not so clever,’ said Holmes. ‘I admit that they are few, but I am afraid, my dear Watson, that I must count you among them.’

‘What do you mean, Holmes?’

‘Well, my dear fellow, I fear your deductions have not been so happy as I should have wished.’

‘You mean that I was mistaken.’

‘Just a little that way, I fear. Let us take the points in their order: I did not shave because I have sent my razor to be sharpened. I put on my coat because I have, worse luck, an early meeting with my dentist. His name is Barlow, and the letter was to confirm the appointment. The cricket page is beside the financial one, and I turned to it to find if Surrey was holding its own against Kent. But go on, Watson, go on! It ‘s a very superficial trick, and no doubt you will soon acquire it.’

J.M. Barrie, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, and Somerset Maugham also contributed volumes for the dollhouse, which is still on display at Windsor Castle. George Bernard Shaw declined to participate.

Gumshoe Polish

In 1930 Dashiell Hammett reviewed mystery fiction for the New York Evening Post. Dismayed at the blunders he encountered, he published 24 “suggestions that might be of value to somebody.” Excerpts:

  • The Colt’s .45 automatic pistol has no chambers. The cartridges are put in a magazine.
  • When a bullet from a Colt’s .45, or any firearm of approximately the same size and power, hits you, even if not in a fatal spot, it usually knocks you over. It is quite upsetting at any reasonable range.
  • When you are knocked unconscious you do not feel the blow that does it.
  • Fingerprints of any value to the police are seldom found on anybody’s skin.
  • Not nearly so much can be seen by moonlight as you imagine. This is especially true of colors.
  • Ventriloquists do not actually “throw” their voices and such doubtful illusions as they manage depend on their gestures. Nothing at all could be done by a ventriloquist standing behind his audience.
  • Even detectives who drop their final g’s should not be made to sayin “anythin’” — an oddity that calls for vocal acrobatics.
  • “Youse” is the plural of “you.”
  • A lawyer cannot impeach his own witness.

Also: “A trained detective shadowing a subject does not ordinarily leap from doorway to doorway and does not hide behind trees and poles. He knows no harm is done if the subject sees him now and then.”

Deeds and Words


“‘There really are fictional heroes’ sounds true, but ‘Fictional heroes really exist’ sounds false.”

– James Cargile, Paradoxes, 1979

The Price of Fame


[Walter Scott] was scrupulously careful … to answer all letters addressed to him. In those days of high postage this was a tax not only on his time and his temper, but on his purse as well. He spent as much as one hundred and fifty pounds a year in postage. Once a mighty package came from the United States. Five pounds were due on it. When opened it was found to contain a manuscript called ‘The Cherokee Lovers,’ a drama written by a New York lady, who begged Scott to read and correct it, write a prologue and an epilogue, and secure a manager and a publisher. A fortnight later another package of similar size, charged with a similar postage, was placed in Scott’s hands. When opened, out popped another copy of ‘The Cherokee Lovers,’ with a note from the authoress explaining that, as the mails were uncertain, she had deemed it prudent to forward a duplicate.

– William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892

Lear in Limericks


GONERIL/REGAN: Pop’s tops!
LEAR: True Cordelia?
LEAR: I banish you!
KENT: Gad!
LEAR: Vanish!
FOOL: Mad!
Believe me, these sisters
Deceive you.
LEAR: The twisters!
GLOUCESTER: And my boy’s a bastard.
EDMUND: Too bad.
EDGAR: I’m disguised. Tom’s a fruitcake.
LEAR: Me too!
GONERIL/REGAN: Prise those eyes out.
GLOUCESTER: I’m blinded! Boo-hoo!
EDMUND: I fix my own odds.
GLOUCESTER: The gods are such sods.
EDGAR: No they’re not. Jump! All right!
GLOUCESTER: And that’s true.
REGAN: My hubby’s just snuffed it. To bed!
EDMUND: My lady?
GONERIL: He’s mine!
ALBANY: You’re still wed.
LEAR: The law is an ass;
Forgive me, my lass.
CORDELIA: Of course!
ALBANY: They’re all dead!
Good old gods! Three cheers!
KENT: I feel queer!
LEAR: She’s dead. Howl. Fool. Gurgle.
ALBANY: Oh dear!
KENT: He’s dead and I’m dying.
EDGAR: It’s time to start crying;
I’m king. That’s your lot. Shed a tear.

– Bill Greenwell




“My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water.” — Mark Twain



  • Tarzan’s yell is an aural palindrome.
  • CONTAMINATED is an anagram of NO ADMITTANCE.
  • The Swiss Family Robinson have no surname (“Robinson” refers to Robinson Crusoe).
  • x2 – 2999x + 2248541 produces 80 primes from x = 1460 to 1539.
  • “A great fortune is a great slavery.” — Seneca

“Take Heart, Illiterates”

For years a secret shame destroyed my peace–
I’d not read Eliot, Auden or MacNeice.
But then I had a thought that brought me hope–
Neither had Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope.

– Justin Richardson, Punch, 1952

Character Study

Story magazine nearly foundered for a lack of Ws. The publishers, Whit Burnett and Martha Foley, lived on Majorca, and their Spanish printer’s character set could not accommodate their English prose.

They bought some supplementary Ws from a Madrid foundry, but the new type was distractingly sharp on the page. So the printer advised them to “make those new letters old.”

“We sandpapered those Ws,” wrote Foley, “we stamped on them, we hammered them and hurled them around to give them in an hour all the wear and tear the printer’s other type had endured for many years. We finally subdued them so that they lost most of their prominence. But I have been W-conscious ever since.”

The Branded Pen

In the early 1980s Doris Lessing published two novels under a pseudonym. “I wanted to highlight that whole dreadful process in book publishing that ‘nothing succeeds like success,’” she told the New York Times. “If the books had come out in my name, they would have sold a lot of copies and reviewers would have said, ‘Oh, Doris Lessing, how wonderful.’”

It appears her concerns were justified. Diary of a Good Neighbor was rejected by Lessing’s regular U.K. publisher as “not commercially viable”; another house said it was “too depressing to publish.” When it did appear and no one recognized her work, she wrote a second novel, If the Old Could, under the same pseudonym. Each book received promotion typical for a novel by an unknown author, garnered few reviews, and sold only a few thousand copies.

“Some of the so-called experts on my work, people who I know looked at the novels by Jane Somers, didn’t recognize it was me,” Lessing said. “And many of the readers’ reports to the publishers were very patronizing and very nasty. … What happens mostly is that an immense amount of space will be given to not very good books by established writers.”

Hat Exchanges

After leaving a Cambridge party, H.G. Wells realized he had picked up the wrong hat. The owner’s name was inside the brim, but the hat fit well, and Wells liked it. So he sent a note instead:

“I stole your hat; I like your hat; I shall keep your hat. Whenever I look inside it I shall think of you and your excellent sherry and of the town of Cambridge. I take off your hat to you.”

Letter from Mark Twain to William Dean Howells, London, July 3, 1899:

Dear Howells,— … I’ve a lot of things to write you, but it’s no use — I can’t get time for anything these days. I must break off and write a postscript to Canon Wilberforce before I go to bed. This afternoon he left a luncheon-party half an hour ahead of the rest, and carried off my hat (which has Mark Twain in a big hand written in it). When the rest of us came out there was but one hat that would go on my head — it fitted exactly, too. So wore it away. It had no name in it, but the Canon was the only man who was absent. I wrote him a note at 8 p.m.; saying that for four hours I had not been able to take anything that did not belong to me, nor stretch a fact beyond the frontiers of truth, and my family were getting alarmed. Could he explain my trouble? And now at 8.30 p.m. comes a note from him to say that all the afternoon he has been exhibiting a wonder-compelling mental vivacity and grace of expression, etc., etc., and have I missed a hat? Our letters have crossed.

Yours ever,


Prince and Misprints


In 1889 Fredericka Beardsley Gilchrist advanced a theory that the entire meaning of Hamlet has been confused because of a typographical error. In Act I, Scene V, the ghost reveals to Hamlet his mother’s adultery and his father’s murder. Hamlet responds:

O all you host of heaven! O earth! what else?
And shall I couple hell? O fie!

Gilchrist maintains that the second line should read:

And shall I couple? Hell! O fie!

In other words, “And after this shall I also marry? No!” He gives up his love for Ophelia, and the rest of the play is the story of “an unhappy lover.”

For Gilchrist this is “the one key that unlocks every difficulty in the play”: “For nearly three hundred years it has been possible to misunderstand, not special passages only, but the fundamental intention of the play; during that time no satisfactory explanation of all its obscurities has been advanced. I believe this theory explains them; and this belief, based on careful study and comparison, ought to excuse the seeming vanity and presumption of the preceding statement.”

Decide for yourself — her book is here.