A letter received by 12-year-old Enid Stevens, April 7, 1891:
So you think you’ve got the courage to come a walk by yourself with me? Indeed! Well, I shall come for you on April 31st at 13 o’clock, and first I will take you to the Oxford Zoological Gardens, and put you into a cage of LIONS, and when they’ve had a good feed, I’ll put whatever is left of you into a cage of TIGERS. Then I’ll bring you to my rooms, and give a regular beating, with a thick stick, to my new little friend. Then I’ll put you into the coal-hole, and feed you for a week on nothing but bread and water. Then I’ll send you home in a milk-cart, in one of the empty milk-cans. And after that, if ever I come for you again, you’ll scream louder than a COCKATOO!
Your Loving friend,
Once upon a time, a long while ago, there were four little people whose names were
and they all thought they should like to see the world. So they bought a large boat to sail quite round the world by sea, and then they were to come back on the other side by land. The boat was painted blue with green spots, and the sail was yellow with red stripes: and, when they set off, they only took a small Cat to steer and look after the boat, besides an elderly Quangle-Wangle, who had to cook the dinner and make the tea; for which purposes they took a large kettle.
For the first ten days they sailed on beautifully, and found plenty to eat, as there were lots of fish; and they had only to take them out of the sea with a long spoon, when the Quangle-Wangle instantly cooked them; and the Pussy-Cat was fed with the bones, with which she expressed herself pleased, on the whole: so that all the party were very happy.
During the daytime, Violet chiefly occupied herself in putting salt water into a churn; while her three brothers churned it violently, in the hope that it would turn into butter, which it seldom if ever did; and in the evening they all retired into the tea-kettle, where they all managed to sleep very comfortably, while Pussy and the Quangle-Wangle managed the boat.
After a time, they saw some land at a distance; and, when they came to it, they found it was an island made of water quite surrounded by earth. Besides that, it was bordered by evanescent isthmuses, with a great gulf-stream running about all over it; so that it was perfectly beautiful, and contained only a single tree, 503 feet high.
When they had landed, they walked about, but found, to their great surprise, that the island was quite full of veal-cutlets and chocolate-drops, and nothing else. So they all climbed up the single high tree to discover, if possible, if there were any people; but having remained on the top of the tree for a week, and not seeing anybody, they naturally concluded that there were no inhabitants; and accordingly, when they came down, they loaded the boat with two thousand veal-cutlets and a million of chocolate-drops; and these afforded them sustenance for more than a month, during which time they pursued their voyage with the utmost delight and apathy.
— Edward Lear, “The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Around the World,” from The Complete Nonsense Book, 1921
Do not suppose that I didn’t write, hundreds of times: the difficulty has been with the directing. I directed the letters so violently at first, that they went far beyond the mark — some of them were picked up at the other end of Russia. Last week I made a very near shot, and actually succeeded in putting ‘Earls Terrace, Kensington,’ only I over-did the number, and put 12,000, instead of 12. If you inquire for the letter at No. 12,000, I dare say they’ll give it you. After that I fell into a feeble state of health, and directed the letters so gently that one of them only reached the other side of the room. It’s lying by the side of the window now.
— Lewis Carroll, letter to Mary MacDonald, Nov. 5, 1864
So much ado, so much stress, so much passion and repetition about an Handkerchief! Why was not this call’d the Tragedy of the Handkerchief? … We have heard of Fortunatus his Purse, and of the Invisible Cloak, long ago worn thread bare, and stow’d up in the Wardrobe of obsolete Romances: one might think, that were a fitter place for this Handkerchief, than that it, at this time of day, be worn on the Stage, to raise every where all this clutter and turmoil. Had it been Desdemona’s Garter, the Sagacious Moor might have smelt a Rat: but the Handkerchief is so remote a trifle, no Booby, on this side Mauritania, cou’d make any consequence from it.
— Thomas Rymer pans Othello in A Short View of Tragedy, 1693
In 1932 C.K. Ogden translated the last four pages of Anna Livia Plurabelle into Basic English, “the International Language of 850 words in which everything may be said.”
Here’s Joyce’s text:
Well, you know or don’t you kennet or haven’t I told you every telling has a tailing and that’s the he and the she of it. Look, look, the dusk is growing. My branches lofty are taking root. And my cold cher’s gone ashley. Fieluhr? Filou! What age is at? It saon is late. ‘Tis endless now senne eye or erewone last saw Waterhouse’s clogh. They took it asunder, I hurd thum sigh. When will they reassemble it? O, my back, my back, my bach! I’d want to go to Aches-les-Pains. Pingpong! There’s the Belle for Sexaloitez! And Concepta de Send-us-pray! Pang! Wring out the clothes! Wring in the dew! Godavari, vert the showers! And grant thaya grace!
And here’s Ogden’s translation:
Well are you conscious, or haven’t you knowledge, or haven’t I said it, that every story has an ending and that’s the he and she of it. Look, look, the dark is coming. My branches high are taking root, And my cold seat’s gone grey. ‘Viel Uhr? Filou! What time is it? It’s getting late. How far the day when I or anyone last saw Waterhouse’s clock! They took it to pieces, so they said. When will they put it together again? O, my back, my back, my back! I would go then to Aix-les-Pains. Ping pong! That the bell for Sachseläute — And Concepta de Spiritu — Pang! Take the water of your cloths! Out with the old, in with the new! Godavari keep off the rains! And give us support!
“The simplest and most complex languages of man are placed side by side,” Ogden wrote. “The reader will see that it has generally been possible to keep almost the same rhythms.” Judge for yourself.
After taking opium at Malta, Coleridge dreamed of the sentence “Varrius thus prophesied vinegar at his door by damned frigid tremblings.”
Delirious with fever in Scotland, Maria Edgeworth was haunted by the words “A soldier of the forty-second has lost his portmanteau.”
In a vision at Lerici, Shelley met his own figure, which asked, “How long do you mean to be content?”
Poet William Mickle regretted that he could not remember the poetry he composed in his dreams, which he said was “infinitely superior to anything he produced in his waking hours.” But his wife recited two lines he had spoken in his sleep:
By Heaven, I’ll wreak my woes
Upon the cowslip and the pale primrose.
Robert Browning dreamed that he attended a performance of Richard III and heard a line “immensely finer than anything else in the play. … When I woke I still had hold of the stupendous line, and it was this:
‘And when I wake my dreams are madness — Damn me!'”
As readers, we remain in the nursery stage so long as we cannot distinguish between taste and judgment, so long, that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a book are two: this I like; this I don’t like.
For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.
— W.H. Auden, A Certain World, 1970
After Hart Crane’s death in 1932, scholars discovered that his poem “Emblems of Conduct” was largely a collage of lines borrowed from an unsuccessful Austrian poet named Samuel Greenberg, who had died of consumption in a New York hospital in 1917.
Critic William Murrell Fisher had shared some of Greenberg’s work with Crane in the early 1920s, noting that “when his eyes lighted on some of the poems, he became very excited. He flared up in a corner with it.” Crane later called Greenberg “a Rimbaud in embryo” whose work radiated “a quality that is unspeakably eerie.” To a friend he praised the “hobbling yet really gorgeous attempts that boy made without any education or time except when he became confined to a cot.”
Crane borrowed Greenberg’s notebooks from Fisher and began to arrange his favorite lines into a collage, which he called “Emblems of Conduct” after Greenberg’s poem “Conduct,” and Allen Tate and Malcolm Cowley persuaded him to include it in his first book of poems without knowing its origin.
Discovery of the debt raised charges of plagiarism against Crane, but there’s little indication that he intended to take credit for Greenberg’s work, and “Emblems of Conduct” brought attention to Greenberg that he might never have found otherwise. “All artists are plagiarists until they become transcenders,” wrote Clive Fisher in his 2002 biography of Crane, “but the fact remains that although we can never know what Greenberg might have achieved in a fairer world, there is nothing in the corpus of his work to equal even the secondary achievements of his famous admirer.”
H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror tales describe a world that’s literally beyond human understanding — his characters glimpse a universe ruled by monstrous gods whose very aspect imperils our sanity.
For his 2011 experimental poem Cthulhu on Lesbos, David Jalajel reflected this by taking phrases from Lovecraft’s 1928 story “The Call of Cthulhu” and arranging them into Sapphic stanzas without regard to conventional syntax:
Dark to visit faithful But Great had ever
Old The carven idol was great Cthulhu,
None might say or others were like the old but
Things were by word of
Mouth. The chanted secret — was never spoken
Only whispered. chant “In his house at R’lyeh
Dead Cthulhu waits of the found be hanged, and
Rest were committed
It ends, fittingly, on a fearsome but enigmatic note:
Prance and slay around in by sinking black else
World by now be screaming with fright and frenzy.
Knows the end? has risen may sink, and sunk may
Rise. and in deep, and
Once there was a blue Dyspeptic, who attempted to Kill Time by reading Novels, until he discovered that all Books of Fiction were a Mockery.
After a prolonged Experience he came to know that every Specimen of Light Reading belonged to one of the following Divisions:
- The Book that Promises well until you reach the Plot, and then you Remember that you read it Summer before last.
- The book with the Author’s Picture as a Frontispiece. The Author is very Cocky. He has his Overcoat thrown back, so as to reveal the Silk Lining. That Settles it!
- The Book that runs into a Snarl of Dialect on the third Page and never gets out.
- The delectable Yarn about a Door-Mat Thief, who truly loves the Opium Fiend. Jolly Story of the Slums.
- The Book that begins with a twenty-page Description of Sloppy Weather: ‘Long swirls of riven Rain beat somberly upon the misty Panes,’ etc., etc. You turn to the last Chapter to see if it Rains all the way through the Book. This last Chapter is a Give-Away. It condenses the whole Plot and dishes up the Conclusion. After that, who would have the Nerve to wade through the Two Hundred and Forty intermediate Pages?
- The Book in which the Pictures tell the Story. After you have seen the Pictures there is no need to wrestle with the Text.
- The Book that begins with a Murder Mystery — charming Picture of Gray-Haired Man discovered Dead in his Library — Blood splashed all over the Furniture — Knife of Curious Design lying on Floor. You know at once that the most Respected and least suspected Personage in the Book committed the awful Crime, but you haven’t the Heart to Track him down and compel him to commit Suicide.
- The Book that gets away with one Man asking another: ‘By Jove, who is that Dazzling Beauty in the Box?’ The Man who asks this Question has a Name which sounds like the Title of a Sleeping Car. You feel instinctively that he is going to be all Mixed Up with that Girl in the Box before Chapter XII is reached; but who can take any real Interest in the Love Affairs of a Man with such a Name?
- The Book that tells all about Society and how Tough it is. Even the Women drink Brandy and Soda, smoke Cigarettes, and Gamble. The clever Man of the World, who says all the Killing Things, is almost as Funny as Ally Sloper. An irritable Person, after reading nine Chapters of this kind of High Life, would be ready to go Home and throw his Grandmother into the Fire.
- The dull, gray Book, or the Simple Annals of John Gardensass. A Careful Study of American Life. In Chapter I he walks along the Lane, stepping first on one Foot and then on the Other, enters a House by the Door, and sits in a four-legged wooden Chair, looking out through a Window with Glass in it. Book denotes careful Observation. Nothing happens until Page 150. Then John decides to sell the Cow. In the Final Chapter he sits on a Fence and Whittles. True Story, but What’s the Use?
Why continue? The Dyspeptic said that when he wanted something really Fresh and Original in the Line of Fiction he read the Prospectus of a Mining Corporation.
MORAL: Only the more Rugged Mortals should attempt to Keep Up on Current Literature.
— George Ade, Fables in Slang, 1899