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Literature

An Inadvertent Effigy

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In 1813 Samuel Coleridge received the news of his own death. A gentleman in black had hanged himself from a tree in Hyde Park; authorities had found no money or papers in his pockets, but his shirt was marked “S. T. Coleridge.”

According to Charles Robert Leslie in Autobiographical Recollections, “Coleridge was at no loss to understand how this might have happened, since he seldom travelled without losing a shirt or two.”

Hung Jury

In Don Quixote, Cervantes tells of a bridge at one end of which stand a gallows and a tribunal charged with enforcing this law:

If anyone crosses by this bridge from one side to the other he shall declare on oath where he is going to and with what object; and if he swears truly, he shall be allowed to pass, but if falsely, he shall be put to death for it by hanging on the gallows erected there, without any remission.

The tribunal allows many travelers to pass freely, as it is easy to see that their declarations are truthful. But one day a man appears who swears that he has come expressly to die upon the gallows.

“It is asked of your worship, señor governor, what are the judges to do with this man?”

A Sign

In 1612, John Donne accompanied Sir Robert Drury to Paris, leaving his pregnant wife in London.

Two days after their arrival there, Mr. Donne was left alone, in that room in which Sir Robert, and he, and some other friends had dined together. To this place Sir Robert return’d within half an hour; and, as he left, so he found Mr. Donne alone; but, in such Extasie, and so alter’d as to his looks, as amaz’d Sir Robert to behold him: insomuch that he earnestly desired Mr. Donne to declare what had befaln him in the short time of his absence? to which, Mr. Donne was not able to make a present answer: but, after a long and perplext pause, did at last say, I have seen a dreadful Vision since I saw you: I have seen my dear wife pass twice by me through this room, with her hair hanging about her shoulders, and a dead child in her arms: this, I have seen since I saw you. To which, Sir Robert reply’d; Sure Sir, you have slept since I saw you; and, this is the result of some melancholy dream, which I desire you to forget, for you are now awake. To which Mr. Donnes reply was: I cannot be surer that I now live, then that I have not slept since I saw you: and am, as sure, that at her second appearing, she stopt, and look’d me in the face, and vanisht.

Donne and Drury immediately sent a messenger to London. He returned to say that Mrs. Donne had borne a dead child at the hour her husband thought he had seen her in Paris.

(From Izaak Walton, Life of Dr John Donne, 1675)

Fair Exchange

An admirer once wrote to Rudyard Kipling: “I see you get a dollar a word for your writing. I enclose a check for one dollar. Please send me a sample.”

Kipling responded: “Thanks.”

Isn’t It Romantic?

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti revered his wife, and when she died in 1862 he laid his journal in her coffin.

Seven years later he decided he needed the poems, so he had her exhumed.

Bard Capers

According to Oliver Goldsmith, Thomas Parnell once overheard Alexander Pope reading a draft of The Rape of the Lock to Jonathan Swift, memorized the description of the Toilet, and translated it into monkish Latin. The next day he confronted Pope with the counterfeit verse and accused him of plagiarism, “and it was not till after some time that Pope was delivered from the confusion which it at first produced.”

Also: “Mr. Harte told me that Dryden had been imposed on by a similar little stratagem. One of his friends translated into Latin verse, printed, and pasted on the bottom of an old hat-box, that celebrated passage, ‘To die is landing on some silent shore,’ &c. and that Dryden, on opening the box, was alarmed and amazed.”

Telegraphic

During World War II, Evelyn Waugh served as a war correspondent in Ethiopia. One day his editor asked him to investigate a rumor that an American nurse had been killed in an explosion during an Italian air raid. The cable read:

REQUIRE EARLIEST NAME LIFE STORY PHOTOGRAPH AMERICAN NURSE UPBLOWN.

Waugh found that the rumor was false, so he wired back:

NURSE UNUPBLOWN.

Odd Duck

This is the opening of Chapter 4 of Mark Twain’s A Double Barrelled Detective Story:

It was a crisp and spicy morning in early October. The lilacs and laburnums, lit with the glory-fires of autumn, hung burning and flashing in the upper air, a fairy bridge provided by kind nature for the wingless wild things that have their home in the tree-tops and would visit together; the larch and the pomegranate flung their purple and yellow flames in brilliant broad splashes along the slanting sweep of woodland, the sensuous fragrance of innumerable deciduous flowers rose upon the swooning atmosphere, far in the empty sky a solitary oesophagus slept upon motionless wing; everywhere brooded stillness, serenity, and the peace of God.

Twain later recalled that few readers noticed anything wrong with it.

Stumper

Plutarch wrote that Homer died of exasperation because he couldn’t solve a fisherman’s riddle:

“What we have caught we threw away; what we could not catch we kept.”

The answer is “fleas.”

Unquote

“Summer afternoon — summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” — Henry James

“Book-Larceny”

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How hard, when those who do not wish
To lend–that’s lose–their books,
Are snared by anglers–folks that fish
With literary hooks;

Who call and take some favorite tome,
But never read it through;
They thus complete their sett at home,
By making one of you.

I, of my Spenser quite bereft,
Last winter sore was shaken;
Of Lamb I’ve but a quarter left,
Nor could I save my Bacon.

They picked my Locke, to me far more
Than Bramah’s patent worth;
And now my losses I deplore,
Without a Home on earth.

Even Glover’s works I cannot put
My frozen hands upon;
Though ever since I lost my Foote,
My Bunyan has been gone.

My life is wasting fast away;
I suffer from these shocks;
And though I’ve fixed a lock on Gray,
There’s gray upon my locks.

They still have made me slight returns,
And thus my grief divide;
For oh! they’ve cured me of my Burns,
And eased my Akenside.

But all I think I shall not say,
Nor let my anger burn;
For as they have not found me Gay,
They have not left me Sterne.

“Sir Walter Scott said that some of his friends were bad accountants, but excellent book-keepers.”

– Charles Carroll Bombaugh, Gleanings for the Curious From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, 1890

Bad Actor

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Molière collapsed on stage in 1673 and died hours later.

The play was called The Hypochondriac.

Postscript

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Lawrence Sterne, after a lifetime of peculiarities, and becoming notorious as an eccentric, curious and able writer, at his death was buried in a graveyard near Tyburn, belonging to the Parish of Mary-le-bone, and the ‘resurrection man’ disinterred his corpse and conveyed it to the professor of anatomy at Cambridge where being laid upon the dissecting table, was at once recognized by one of those present who knew him well while living.

Bizarre Notes & Queries, February 1886

Infinite Composition

In Tristram Shandy, the title character laments that he’ll never be able to finish his autobiography, as he seems to need a year to record each day’s events. “It must follow, an’ please your worships, that the more I write, the more I shall have to write.”

But Bertrand Russell noted that if Shandy’s eventful life had lasted forever, no part of his biography would have remained unwritten — for the hundredth day would be recorded in the hundredth year, the thousandth in the thousandth, and so on. “This paradoxical but perfectly true proposition depends upon the fact that the number of days in all time is no greater than the number of years.”

The New World Prophecy

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There’s a passage in Seneca’s Medea that seems to have foretold the discovery of America 1400 years before the event:

Venient annis secula seris,
Quibus Oceanus vincula rerum.
Laxet, et ingens pateat tellus
Tethysque novos detegat orbes
Nec sit terris ultima Thule.

“The times will come in later years when ocean may relax the chain of things, and a vast continent may open; the sea may uncover new worlds, and Thule cease to be the last of lands.”

Garish

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On a trip to America, G.K. Chesterton was taken one night to see the lights of Broadway.

“What a glorious garden of wonders this would be,” he said, “to any one who was lucky enough to be unable to read.”

“That Apparition, Sole of Men”

On June 15, 1822, Jane Williams claimed to have seen a doppelgänger of her friend Percy Bysshe Shelley. Two, in fact. Mary Shelley described the episode in a letter:

She was standing one day … at a window that looked on the Terrace with [Edward] Trelawny — it was day — she saw as she thought Shelley pass by the window, as he often was then, without a coat or jacket — he passed again — now as he passed both times the same way — and as from the side towards which he went each time there was no way to get back except past the window again (except over a wall twenty feet from the ground) she was struck at seeing him pass twice thus & looked out & seeing him no more she cried — ‘Good God can Shelley have leapt from the wall? Where can he be gone?’ Shelley, said Trelawny — ‘No Shelley has past — What do you mean?’ Trelawny says that she trembled exceedingly when she heard this & it proved indeed that Shelley had never been on the terrace & was far off at the time she saw him.

Three weeks later, Shelley drowned in the Bay of Spezia.

Trick or Treat

Dorothy Parker once attended a Halloween party where she noticed a group of people around a tub of water. She asked what they were doing and was told they were ducking for apples.

“There, but for a typographical error,” she said, “is the story of my life.”

Wherever

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At the height of Mark Twain’s popularity, a group of his friends in New York wanted to send him a birthday greeting.

But Twain was traveling abroad and none of them knew where to direct the letter.

After some hopeless havering they simply addressed it “Mark Twain, God Knows Where.”

Several weeks later a note arrived from Twain.

It said: “He did.”

Science Fiction

In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift describes two fictional moons of Mars:

They [the Laputan astronomers] have likewise discovered two lesser stars, or ‘satellites,’ which revolve about Mars, whereof the innermost is distant from the centre of the primary planet exactly three of his diameters, and the outermost five; the former revolves in the space of ten hours, and the latter in twenty-one and a half; so that the squares of their periodical times are very near in the same proportion with the cubes of their distance from the centre of Mars, which evidently shows them to be governed by the same law of gravitation, that influences the other heavenly bodies …

That was in 1726. A century and a half later, two Martian moons were discovered. Phobos and Deimos were in fact about 1.4 and 3.5 diameters from Mars’ center, and they revolved in 7.7 and 30.3 hours, respectively. Voltaire had made a similarly prescient guess in his romance Micromegas of 1752.

Fittingly, two craters on Deimos have been named Swift and Voltaire.

Overruled

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A razor company once invited George Bernard Shaw to shave his famous beard. He responded with a postcard:

Gentlemen:

I shall never shave, for the same reason that I started a beard, and for the reason my father started his. I remember standing at his side, when I was five, while he was shaving for the last time. “Father,” I asked, “Why do you shave?” He stood there for a full minute and finally looked down at me. “Why the hell do I?” he said.

– GBS

Less Is More

Mark Twain once received this telegram from a publisher:

NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS.

He responded:

NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES.

Unquote

“There is no worse robber than a bad book.” — Italian saying

Flash Fiction

Ernest Hemingway’s shortest story was six words long:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

He’s said to have called it his best work.