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.”

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.”