A Glass Darkly

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Robert Browning spent seven years composing Sordello, a 40,000-word narrative poem about strife between Guelphs and Ghibellines in 13th-century Italy. It was not received well.

Tennyson said, “There were only two lines in it that I understood, and they were both lies: ‘Who will may hear Sordello’s story told’ and ‘Who would has heard Sordello’s story told.'”

Thomas Carlyle wrote, “My wife has read through ‘Sordello’ without being able to make out whether ‘Sordello’ was a man, or a city, or a book.”

Douglas Jerrold opened the book while convalescing from an illness and began to fear that his mind had been destroyed. “O God, I AM an idiot!” he cried, sinking back onto the sofa. He pressed the book on his wife and sister; when Mrs. Jerrold said, “I don’t understand what this man means; it is gibberish,” her husband exclaimed, “Thank God, I am NOT an idiot!”

In Walter Besant’s 1895 novel The Golden Butterfly, one character spends eight hours trying to penetrate Browning’s poetry. “His eyes were bloodshot, his hair was pushed in disorder about his head, his cheeks were flushed, his hands were trembling, the nerves in his face were twitching. He looked about him wildly, and tried to collect his faculties. Then he arose, and solemnly cursed Robert Browning. He cursed him eating, drinking, and sleeping. And then he took all his volumes, and disposing them carefully in the fireplace, set light to them. ‘I wish,’ he said, ‘that I could put the poet there too.'”

Another (apocryphal) story tells of a puzzled friend who asked Browning the meaning of one of his poems. “When I wrote it, only God and I knew,” the poet replied. “Now, God alone knows!”

Shop Talk

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“I’m glad you like adverbs,” wrote Henry James to a correspondent. “I adore them; they are the only qualifications I really much respect, and I agree with the fine author of your quotations in saying — or in thinking — that the sense for them is the literary sense. None other is much worth speaking of.”

As Somerset Maugham prepared to write Of Human Bondage, “I began with the impossible aim of using no adjectives at all. I thought that if you could find the exact term a qualifying epithet could be dispensed with. As I saw it in my mind’s eye my book would have the appearance of an immensely long telegram in which for economy’s sake you had left out every word that was not necessary to make the sense clear. I have not read it since I corrected the proofs and do not know how near I came to doing what I tried. My impression is that it is written at least more naturally than anything I had written before.”

Edgar Allan Poe bewailed the passing of the dash. “The Byronic poets were all dash,” he complained. “The dash gives the reader a choice between two, or among three or more expressions, one of which may be more forcible than another, but all of which help out the idea. It stands, in general, for these words — ‘or, to make my meaning more distinct’. This force it has — and this force no other point can have; since all other points have well-understood uses quite different from this. Therefore, the dash cannot be dispensed with.”

When a Boston girl took Mark Twain to task for splitting infinitives, he confessed that “I have certain instincts, and I wholly lack certain others. (Is that ‘wholly’ in the right place?) For instance, I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me. To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference; it can never give me a pang. … I know thoroughly well that I shall never be able to get it into my head. Mind, I do not say I shall not be able to make it stay there; I say and mean that I am not capable of getting it into my head. There are subtleties which I cannot master at all, — they confuse me, they mean absolutely nothing to me, — and this adverb plague is one of them.”

Permanent Resident

J. Joseph Renaud, the French novelist and dramatic author, to test the popularity of Conan Doyle’s stories, recently sent a letter to a friend living in Baker Street. It was addressed as follows:

Miss Compton,
The same street as Sherlock Holmes,
London.

The letter was delivered by the first post the following morning. The conclusion drawn is that Sherlock Holmes is still fresh in the memory of the English and that the English postal authorities are both erudite and conscientious.

The Morning Post, Feb. 3, 1933

Composing Time

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“You write with ease, to show your breeding, / But easy writing’s curst hard reading.” — Richard Sheridan

“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” — Samuel Johnson

“So did the best writers in their beginnings; they imposed upon themselves care, and industry. They did nothing rashly. They obtained first to write well, and then custom made it easy and a habit. By little and little, their matter showed itself to them more plentifully; their words answered, their composition followed; and all, as in a well ordered family, presented itself in the place. So that the sum of all is: ready writing makes not good writing; but good writing brings on ready writing.” — Ben Jonson

Love Maps

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This “geographical love enigma” appeared on a German postcard in the early 20th century. Travel north to south through each successive country (green, red, purple, yellow), naming the geographical features you encounter in each, and you’ll produce the fourth song in Heinrich Heine’s Buch der Lieder:

Wenn ich in deine Augen seh,
So schwindet all mein Leid und Weh;
Doch wenn ich küsse deinen Mund,
So werd ich ganz und gar gesund.

Wenn ich mich lehn an deine Brust,
Kommt’s über mich wie Himmelslust;
Doch wenn du sprichst: “Ich liebe dich!”
So muss ich weinen bitterlich.

When I look into your eyes,
Then vanish all my sorrow and pain!
Ah, but when I kiss your mouth,
Then I will be wholly and completely healthy.

When I lean on your breast,
I am overcome with heavenly delight,
Ah, but when you say, “I love you!”
Then I must weep bitterly.

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The French greet one another with kisses on the cheek, but the number of kisses varies with the département. In 2007 Gilles Debunne set up a website, Combien de bises?, on which his countrymen could record their local customs; to date, after more than 87,000 votes, the results range from 1 kiss in Finistère to 4 in Loire Atlantique.

“It’s a lot more subtle than I ever imagined,” Debunne told the Times. “Sometimes the number of kisses changes depending on whether you’re seeing friends or family or what generation you belong to.”

Over the Top

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An infantryman’s view of World War I combat, from veteran Henry Williamson’s 1930 novel Patriot’s Progress:

… Half the sky leapt alight behind them, there were shouts and cries, a cascade of sound slipped solidly upon them, seeming to John Bullock to swell and converge upon the place where his now very trembling body was large and alone. He saw a long pale shadow before him an instant before it vagged and vanished in the shock of the earth rushing up in fire before him. He was aware of men going forward, himself with them, of the unreality of all movement, of the barrage which was all-weight and all-sound, so that he was carried forward effortlessly over a land freed from the force of gravity and matter. As in a nightmare of rising green and white showers of light about the rending fire he shouted without sound in a silent world, and his senses fused into a glassy delirium which lasted until he realized that of the figures on either side of him some were slowly going down on their knees, their chins on their box-respirators, their rifles loosening from their hands. He was hot and swearing, and his throat was dried up. That sissing noise and far-away racketting must be emma-gees. Now the fire wall was going down under his nose and streaking sparks were over and he was lying on his back watching a great torn umbrella of mud, while his head was drawn down into his belly …

(The vacuum of a dud shell falling just behind him.) He retched for breath. His ears screamed in his head. He crawled to his knees and looked to see what had happened. Chaps going on forward. He was on his feet in the sissing criss-cross and stinking of smoking earth gaping — hullo, hullo, new shell-holes, this must be near the first objective. They had come three hundred yards already! Cushy! Nothing in going over the top! Then his heart instead of finishing its beat and pausing to beat again swelled out its beat into an ear-bursting agony and great lurid light that leapt out of his broken-apart body with a spinning shriek

and the earth was in his eyes and up his nostrils and going away smaller and smaller

into blackness

and       tiny       far       away

Rough and smooth. Rough was wide and large and tilting with sickness. He struggled and struggled to clutch smooth, and it slid away. Rough came back and washed harshly over him. He cried out between the receding of rough and the coming of smooth white, then rough and smooth receded …

Shell-shocked at the Somme, Williamson was invalided back to England in 1917, where he wrote seven novels about his wartime experiences. He died in 1977.

Pro Tips

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“Dancing is a sweat job. … When you’re experimenting you have to try so many things before you choose what you want, that you may go days getting nothing but exhaustion. This search for what you want is like tracking something that doesn’t want to be tracked. It takes time to get a dance right, to create something memorable. There must be a certain amount of polish to it. I don’t want it to look anything but accomplished, and if I can’t make it look that way, then I’m not ready yet. I always try to get to know my routine so well that I don’t have to think, ‘What comes next?’ Everything should fall right into line, and then I know I’ve got control of the bloody floor.” — Fred Astaire

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“How to hit home runs: I swing as hard as I can, and I try to swing right through the ball. In boxing, your fist usually stops when you hit a man, but it’s possible to hit so hard that your fist doesn’t stop. I try to follow through in the same way. The harder you grip the bat, the more you can swing it through the ball, and the farther the ball will go. I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can.” — Babe Ruth

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“Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. … I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. … The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he has read but something that has happened to himself. That’s the true test of writing.” — Ernest Hemingway

Prior Investigations

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In 1915, critic Arthur Guiterman addressed a poem “To Sir Arthur Conan Doyle”:

Holmes is your hero of drama and serial;
All of us know where you dug the material
Whence he was moulded — ’tis almost a platitude;
Yet your detective, in shameless ingratitude —
Sherlock your sleuthhound with motives ulterior
Sneers at Poe’s “Dupin” as “very inferior!”
Labels Gaboriau’s clever “Lecoq”, indeed,
Merely “a bungler”, a creature to mock, indeed!
This, when your plots and your methods in story owe
More than a trifle to Poe and Gaboriau,
Sets all the Muses of Helicon sorrowing.
Borrow, Sir Knight, but be decent in borrowing!

Conan Doyle responded with “To an Undiscerning Critic”:

Sure there are times when one cries with acidity,
“Where are the limits of human stupidity?”
Here is a critic who says as a platitude
That I am guilty because “in ingratitude
Sherlock, the sleuth-hound, with motives ulterior,
Sneers at Poe’s Dupin as very ‘inferior’.”
Have you not learned, my esteemed commentator,
That the created is not the creator?
As the creator I’ve praised to satiety
Poe’s Monsieur Dupin, his skill and variety,
And have admitted that in my detective work
I owe to my model a deal of selective work.
But is it not on the verge of inanity
To put down to me my creation’s crude vanity?
He, the created, would scoff and would sneer,
Where I, the creator, would bow and revere.
So please grip this fact with your cerebral tentacle:
The doll and its maker are never identical.

“Clothes”

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In Shakespeare’s plays
Nobody knows
For days and days,
Till the very end,
His closest friend
If he’s changed his clothes.

Prospero has
But to put on his hat
And he’s what he was,
A duke, like that!

They gladly aver,
Who knew him before,
“You are what you were
When you wear what you wore.”

— Henry G. Fischer

The Paradox of Fiction

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How can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina when we know she’s not a real person?

In order to have an emotional response to a character or event, we must believe that it really exists. We know that this belief is lacking when we read a work of fiction. Yet we’re commonly moved by such works. Why?

It can’t be the case that we’re simply “caught up” in a story and forget that it’s fiction. If that were true then the fear, sadness, and pity we feel should be unpleasant rather than enjoyable. (Also, we’re not moved to intervene and help a fictional character.)

University of Kent philosopher Colin Radford concludes that our emotional responses to fiction are ultimately irrational, that “our being moved in certain ways by works of art, though very ‘natural’ to us and in that way only too intelligible, involves us in inconsistency and so incoherence.”

See Push and Pull.