Papered Over

‘That’s another thing we’ve learned from your Nation,’ said Mein Herr, ‘map-making. But we’ve carried it much further than you. What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?’

‘About six inches to the mile.’

‘Only six inches!‘ exclaimed Mein Herr. ‘We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!

‘Have you used it much?’ I enquired.

‘It has never been spread out, yet,’ said Mein Herr: ‘the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.’

— Lewis Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno, 1889


Thomas Macaulay was a child prodigy — and, one imagines, a trial to his parents:

  • On seeing a chimney as a toddler, he asked his father, “Is that hell?”
  • At 3 his mother told him he must learn to study without his bread and butter. He said, “Yes, mama, industry shall be my bread and attention my butter.”
  • When he was 4 years old a servant spilled hot coffee on his legs; when the hostess inquired how he was feeling, he said, “Thank you, madam, the agony is abated.”
  • When a housemaid threw away some oyster shells he’d been using to fence a garden plot, he marched into the drawing room and said, “Cursed be Sally, for it is written, ‘Cursed be he that removeth his neighbor’s landmark.'”

Reputedly his great gifts stayed with him throughout his life: As an old man he recited two poems he hadn’t seen since age 13.

Bedtime Reading

In a 1952 survey of 200 traditional nursery rhymes, Geoffrey Handley-Taylor found that about half were “glorious and ideal for the child.” The others contained:

  • 8 allusions to murder (unclassified)
  • 2 cases of choking to death
  • 1 case of death by devouring
  • 1 case of cutting a human being in half
  • 1 case of decapitation
  • 1 case of death by squeezing
  • 1 case of death by shriveling
  • 1 case of death by starvation
  • 1 case of boiling to death
  • 1 case of death by hanging
  • 3 cases of death by drowning
  • 4 cases of killing domestic animals
  • 1 case of body snatching
  • 21 cases of death (unclassified)
  • 7 cases relating to the severing of limbs
  • 1 case of the desire to have a limb severed
  • 4 cases relating to the breaking of limbs
  • 1 allusion to a bleeding heart
  • 1 case of devouring human flesh
  • 9 threats of death
  • 1 case of kidnapping
  • 12 cases of torment and cruelty to human beings and animals
  • 8 cases of whipping and lashing
  • 3 allusions to blood
  • 14 cases of stealing and general dishonesty
  • 15 allusions to maimed human beings and animals
  • 2 allusions to graves
  • 23 cases of physical violence (unclassified)
  • 1 case of lunacy
  • 16 allusions to misery and sorrow
  • 1 case of drunkenness
  • 4 cases of cursing
  • 1 allusion to marriage as a form of death
  • 1 case of scorning the blind
  • 1 case of scorning prayer
  • 9 cases of children being lost or abandoned
  • 2 cases of house burning
  • 9 allusions to poverty and want
  • 5 allusions to quarreling
  • 2 cases of unlawful imprisonment
  • 2 cases of racial discrimination

“Expressions of fear, weeping, moans of anguish, biting, pain and evidence of supreme selfishness may be found in almost every other page.”

It’s Official

The soul, aspiring, pants its source to mount,
As streams meander level with their fount.

That’s Robert Montgomery, in “The Omnipresence of the Deity.” Thomas Macaulay writes:

We take this to be, on the whole, the worst similitude the world. In the first place, no stream meanders, or can possibly meander level with its fount. In the next place, if streams did meander level with their founts, no two motions can be less like each other than that of meandering level and that of mounting upwards.

“Those who write clearly have readers,” wrote Camus. “Those who write obscurely have commentators.”

A Literary Eagle

In 1892, J. McCullough, secretary of Scotland’s North Berwick Green Committee, wrote a little book called Golf in the Year 2000, in which a man falls asleep and wakes up in a technologically advanced future. It was largely overlooked at the time but was rediscovered in the millennium, when the future world arrived.

On the links McCullough largely missed the mark — he thought we’d have golf clubs that automatically kept score, driverless carts, and jackets that yelled “Fore!”

But in the wider world he accurately predicted:

  • women’s liberation
  • the conversion of British currency to decimal coins
  • digital watches
  • bullet trains
  • television

McCullough had said he was simply trying to imagine “what we are coming to if things go on as they are doing.” It’s a pity he didn’t write a sequel — one wonders what he might have foreseen in our own future.

Lenore in Indiana,_1913.jpg

Convinced that the public would accept anything from an established author, James Whitcomb Riley bet his friends that he could prove it. He composed a poem entitled “Leonanie” in the style of Edgar Allan Poe and published it in the Kokomo, Ind., Despatch on Aug. 2, 1877:

Leonanie–angels named her;
And they took the light
Of the laughing stars and framed her
In a smile of white;
And they made her hair of gloomy
Midnight, and her eyes of bloomy
Moonshine, and they brought her to me
In the solemn night.

And so on. An accompanying article explained that the poem had been discovered on the blank flyleaf of an old book, and the conspirators scribbled it into a dictionary in case anyone asked to see it.

After the poem was published, Riley wrote a critique in the Anderson Democrat casting doubt on Poe’s authorship. But to his horror his poem was championed by critics and picked up in newspapers nationwide, and soon a Boston publishing house began asking for the original manuscript. The group finally confessed when a rival paper threatened to expose the hoax.

Riley won his bet, but ironically he went on to become a bestselling poet himself, writing in an Indiana dialect distinctive enough to invite lampoons of its own. Whether any of these has been passed off as real is unknown — but it would be poetic justice.

Love’s Labour’s Lost

The diary of Elizabethan lawyer John Manningham reveals a Bugs-Bunny-like episode from the life of William Shakespeare. When Richard Burbidge was playing Richard III, a female audience member “greue soe farr in liking wth him” that she asked him to visit her that evening using the name Richard III. Shakespeare overheard this, beat Burbidge to the lady’s house and “was intertained.” When word came that Richard III was at the door, Manningham says, Shakespeare sent the reply that “William the Conqueror came before Richard III.”

Is it true? Who cares?