The Yak

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As a friend to the children commend me the Yak,
You will find it exactly the thing:
It will carry and fetch, you can ride on its back,
Or lead it about with a string.
The Tartar who dwells on the plains of Thibet
(A desolate region of snow)
Has for centuries made it a nursery pet,
And surely the Tartar should know!
Then tell your papa where the Yak can be got,
And if he is awfully rich
He will buy you the creature — or else he will not.
(I cannot be positive which.)

— Hilaire Belloc

Dickens and Eliot

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A revealing letter of Charles Dickens to George Eliot, 1858:

Dear Sir:

I have been so strongly affected by the two first tales in the book you have had the kindness to send me through Messrs. Blackwood, that I hope you will excuse my writing to you to express my admiration of their extraordinary merit. The exquisite truth and delicacy, both of the humor and the pathos of the stories, I have never seen the like of; and they have impressed me in a manner that I should find it very difficult to describe to you, if I had the impertinence to try.

In addressing these few words of thankfulness to the creator of the sad fortunes of Mr. Amos Barton, and the sad love-story of Mr. Gilfil, I am (I presume) bound to adopt the name that it pleases that excellent writer to assume. I can suggest no better one; but I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman. I have observed what seems to me to be such womanly touches, in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me, even now. If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself, mentally, so like a woman, since the world began. …

The Green Children

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“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” wrote Albert Einstein. “It is the source of all true art and science.”

That was true even in the Dark Ages, though the mysteries were a lot iffier back then. William of Newburgh records an “unheard-of” prodigy in East Anglia around 1150, when reapers were gathering produce during the harvest near some “very ancient cavities” known as the Wolfpittes. “Two children, a boy and a girl, completely green in their persons, and clad in gaments of a strange colour, and unknown materials, emerged from these excavations.”

Taken in by the villagers, they learned to eat beans and bread, which in time “changed their original color” until they “became like ourselves.” The boy died shortly after he was baptized, but his sister continued in good health and eventually married.

On being taught English, they told this story:

  • “We are inhabitants of the land of St. Martin, who is regarded with peculiar veneration in the country which gave us birth.”
  • “The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight, which, among you, precedes the sunrise, or follows the sunset. Moreoever, a certain luminous country is seen, not far distant from ours, and divided from it by a very considerable river.”
  • “On a certain day, when we were feeding our father’s flocks in the fields, we heard a great sound, such as we are now accustomed to hear at St. Edmund’s, when the bells are chiming; and whilst listening to the sound in admiration, we became on a sudden, as it were, entranced, and found ourselves among you in the fields where you were reaping.”

William closes: “Let every one say as he pleases, and reason on such matters according to his abilities; I feel no regret at having recorded an event so prodigious and miraculous.” It’s poetic, in any case.

The Imbeciles

Here’s Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud” as rendered by Jean Lescure’s “N+7” procedure, replacing each noun with the seventh following it in a dictionary:

The Imbeciles

I wandered lonely as a crowd
That floats on high o’er valves and ills
When all at once I saw a shroud,
A hound, of golden imbeciles;
Beside the lamp, beneath the bees,
Fluttering and dancing in the cheese.
Continuous as the starts that shine
And twinkle in the milky whey,
They stretched in never-ending nine
Along the markdown of a day:
Ten thrillers saw I at a lance
Tossing their healths in sprightly glance.
The wealths beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling wealths in key:
A poker could not be but gay,
In such a jocund constancy:
I gazed – and gazed – but little thought
What weave to me the shred had brought:
For oft, when on my count I lie
In vacant or in pensive nude,
They flash upon that inward fly
That is the block of turpitude;
And then my heat with plenty fills
And dances with the imbeciles.

Immortal, no? It’s an example of an “oulipo” (“ouvroir de littérature potentielle” or, roughly, “workshop of potential literature”), one of a series of constrained writing techniques invented by French-speaking authors in the 1960s. Art, I suppose, is where you find it.

London Children’s Deaths

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Children’s deaths listed in the London calendar of coroner’s rolls, 1301-1307:

  • 1301. “On Tuesday the Feast of St Philip and James [May 4] a certain Hugh Picard was riding a white horse after the hour of vespers, when Petronilla, daughter of William de Wyntonia, aged three years, was playing in the street; and the horse, being strong, quickly carried Hugh against his will over Petronilla so that it struck her on her right side with its right forefoot. Petronilla lingered until the next day, when she died, at the hour of vespers, from the blow. Being asked who were present, the jurors know only of those mentioned. The corpse viewed, the right side of which appeared blue and badly bruised, and no other hurt. The horse valued at a mark, for which Richard de Caumpes, the sheriff, will answer. Hugh fled and has no chattels; he afterwards surrendered to John de Boreford, sheriff.”
  • 1301. “On Tuesday [July 19], Richard, son of John le Mazon, who was eight years old, was walking immediately after dinner across London Bridge to school. For fun, he tried to hang by his hands from a beam on the side of the bridge, but his hands giving way, he fell into water and was drowned. Being asked who were present, the jurors say a great multitude of passers-by, whose names they know not, but they suspect no one of the death except mischance.”
  • 1322. “On the Sunday before the Feast of St Dunstan, Robert, son of John de St Botulph, a boy seven years old, Richard, son of John de Chesthunt, and two other boys whose names are unknown were playing on certain pieces of timber in the lane called “Kyrounelane” in the ward of Vintry, and one piece fell on Robert and broke his right leg. In course of time Johanna his mother arrived and rolled the timber off him and carried him to the shop, where he lingered until the Friday before the Feast of St Margaret, when he died at the hour of prime, of the broken leg and of no other felony; nor do the jurors suspect anyone of the death, but only the accident and the fracture.”
  • 1324. “On Monday [in April] at the hour of vespers John, son of William de Burgh, a boy five years old, was in the house of Richard le Latthere and had taken a parcel of wool and placed it in his cap. Emma, the wife of Richard, chastising him, struck him with her right hand under his left ear so that he cried. On hearing this, Isabella, his mother, raised the hue and carried him thence. He lingered until the hour of curfew of the same day, when he died of the blow and not of any felony. Emma forthwith fled, but where she went or who received her the jurors knew not. Afterwards she surrendered herself to the prison at Newgate.”
  • 1337. “On Tuesday in Pentecostweek John, son of William atte Noke, chandler, got out of a window in the rent of John de Wynton, plumber, to recover a ball lost in a gutter at play. He slipped and fell, and so injured himself that he died on the Saturday following of the fall.”

Harry Stephen Keeler

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Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967) wrote mystery novels so bad they’ve been called “coincidence porn.” In The Ace of Spades Murder he introduces the guilty character on the third-to-last page; in X. Jones of Scotland Yard he explains on the last page that Napoleon Bonaparte is the culprit.

And his gifts extend beyond plotting. His characters are called Criorcan Mulqueeny and Screamo the Clown and Scientifico Greenlimb and Wolf Gladish and State Attorney Foxhart Cubycheck, and he writes titles like Finger, Finger!, The Yellow Zuri, The Amazing Web, Find the Clock, and The Face of the Man From Saturn.

Even at the level of simple prose, he’s entirely helpless. Here’s a typical passage from The Case of the 16 Beans:

The door now opened, revealing, as it did so, a strange figure — a half-man, no less, seated on a “rollerskate” cart! — framed against the bit of outer hallway. But no ordinary half-man this, for he was a Chinaman; quite legless, indeed, so far as the presence of even upper leg stumps went; but amply provided with locomotion, of the gliding kind, anyway, in the matter of the unusually generous rubber-tired wheels under the platform cart.

There’s even an appreciation society now, which is fortunate, because most of Keeler’s numerous works are now out of print. In 1942, the New York Times wrote, “We are drawn to the unescapable conclusion that Mr. Keeler writes his peculiar novels merely to satisfy his own undisciplined urge for creative joy.” Amen.