Thursday, September 26, 2013

A sentimental break

It’s the night before the move, and I’ve just taken a last stroll around the Radcliffe Camera. Hardly anyone there, but a party of Spanish bankers calling affectionately at each other. Oxford is soaked in nostalgia, and my dose has arrived early. I'm not going far, nor am I going to move to a radically different environment. I swap bogs for fens. I’m looking through Brideshead to find the words to salute Oxford, especially in this week of low mists and unseasonably wintry light.

There aren’t any, I suppose.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Trains, planes, and automobiles

We had underestimated the journey. The train to Gatwick was fine; the plane to Pisa was fine. A. watched out the window for nearly two hours, fascinated by the wings, and the clouds, and our view of the Alps. Our bags came off the conveyer belt first; we ordered our Panini and café in Italian with ease, and we ate outside, beaming with our luck, watching Pisans slowly cycle by in khaki shorts and neck bling. But this was where the streak of luck ended, or at least, became chronically uncertain. I had, in a rush of enthusiasm, volunteered to drive us to the rural place we’d rented for ten days. There was no other mode of transportation. To save money, we rented a manual car. I’d earned my license on a manual car ten years ago, but haven’t practiced since, though I drove an automatic for nearly as long. It couldn’t be that difficult, I told myself. There’d be a baptism by fire, and then we’d sail onto the other side. This was woefully wilful idealism.

We got our rental car by the skin of our teeth. It turns out that not having the correct credit card is a problem. The tired rental desk attendant eventually agreed to sign it over, more out of annoyance at our continued presence than anything else, after we agreed to pay for a second package of excess coverage. We sat in the Renault Clio and tried to locate the necessaries. But there were nine variations of lighting (and none seemed right for night driving), and the car started by on/off button, not a key, but something like a TV remote, and all the switches seemed cunningly hidden away by a maddened and devious engineer. (The hazard button was not found until the fourth or fifth day.) The very possibility of correctly handling the clutch seemed ambitious, though I padded my feet up and down as though playing the organ, trying to tell myself that it worked just like this.

We were lucky enough to take a series of correct turns and emerged onto the Fi-Pi-Li (Firenze-Pisa-Livorno) autostrada. It was ten minutes before we realised where the lights were. I argued to A. that we were not the only hazards on the road, given one driver’s single working headlight. In fact, the Italian approach to headlights was baffling: most vehicles kept their lights on throughout the day, and this in summer.

But the autostrada was our friend: not for nothing had I once driven from Minneapolis to Seattle in two days. The anxious differences between a manual and an automatic are erased when the roads are empty. Until you hit a diversion, and are bumped along onto the tiny slip of a road between Montelupo and Empoli, sandwiched between hulking trucks and zippy Fiats and have to pull over onto a road shoulder to wail, convincing your boyfriend that you are very, very close to losing your mind and will have to spend the night in the car with nothing to eat but two Eat Me apricot bars.

To the average reader, this is a dull tale. To A. and me, our journey from Pisa to Vigliano was The Odyssey. For twelve years, we drove over hills, and stopped suddenly, swerved irresponsibly, were forced into hill starts, and stalled on side roads, and got lost on different roads with identical names, behind villas which resembled each other as haystacks do. The signs were hidden beneath ghostly trees, alongside country shrines; no streets illuminated. To outsiders, no knowledge of how steep the next hidden hill is available; one is driven by the road instead of vice versa.

When we arrived at the villa, the stars were bright and fierce, and the sound of our burning clutch revving echoed across the hills. ‘Move the car tomorrow,’ said Anna, our host. ‘The neighbours will hear you.’

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Questions of Travel

I’m stuck in something of a conundrum. I’ve realised that writing about Italy – Tuscany in particular – leads otherwise capable writers into committing themselves to the most self-satisfied, plummy language. There are other places in the world in which this becomes equally tempting: India occasionally, rural England, Burgundy, Provence, New England, the Pacific Northwest, one’s own garden, etc. But Italy is particularly bad. It is difficult, when writing about Italy, to avoid harping on upon the vivaciousness of the Italian tomato, or the quirkiness of the stray Italian who happens upon your path. This is problematic. It may be a pleasure for the writer to descant on la dolce vita, but the reader suspects there is degree of the writer’s self-romancing, suspects she has read it before somewhere (or everywhere) else. Such writing does no favours to anyone. It comes to no realisation. It smacks of privilege (and a lack of the imagination). It is best kept for the self to feed over. It is a kind of pornography.

I’m particularly aware of the general irrelevance of my experience in Italy as a friend has just come back from Jordan and the West Bank. Her observations are moral, political, historical, social. She has seen guns, poverty, and injustice. I’ve just driven around a few hill towns.

So it is difficult to think of the adequate or just word to explain my recent trip to Italy. How do you say what it was like without slipping into syrup? I’m at a loss, and will have to just try to avoid wobbling into treacle as much as I can.

I’ve wanted to go to Italy for several years, and besieged A. to go. He finally agreed, as long as we avoided cities. A. did not like Barcelona. He is not a fan of Paris. So, no Rome, no Florence, no Naples. No museums or art galleries or hours trying to fit everything in. We would try to lie low, eat good food, see new vistas, survive in someone else’s normal, not try to conquer the landscape as though it’d never been done before.

I learned a bit of Italian. A. gave me an Italian Pimsleur course, which I would practice while getting dressed in the morning and undressed in the evening for two months. A bombastic American voice would announce, ‘Say “I’d like some white wine”’, and I would dutifully mangle or parrot back what I’d retained. David Sedaris has written about the entertaining codification of national biases in various Pimsleur courses, and the Pimsleur Italian course prepared me to ward off unwanted insistent admirers, to contradict everything my male companion said, and to describe my large brood of children.

I coupled that with a textbook called Ciao! which was mostly for vocabulary and spelling (Italian does have a few silent or elided letters), and found a conjugation handbook at the £2 bookstore. This, plus a smattering of reading on the Medicis, was all our preparation. I packed my new Dante, which I envisioned myself translating piecemeal on a sunburnt hill, and my textbooks (read: crutches) and Pietro Grossi’s new novel in English and set off.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The sun has risen in some kind of send-off, and the journey to Florence (or, rather, just outside Florence) is about to begin. I'm accompanied by Dante's Inferno and a dictionary, three of Nabokov's early novels, the diary of Cesar Pavese, and a book to review. A sketch-book, two notebooks, a diary, and my language books. One packs too much, but one always wants the luxury of choice. Wish us buon viaggio...

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Domestic vices

I have just discovered that one of my tutors contributes marvellous posts on tea to a culture blog. As befitting Sally, a curator of a moveable salon of former pupils, artists, and literary junkies, these posts are evocative of a social past. And they further evoke generously articulate comments about readers’ own tea experiences.

Directly after reading her posts, I went down to make myself a thimbleful of coffee, which I tell myself I need to do in order to avoid a headache the next morning. (For the record, A. believes I make this up.) As I washed the caffetiere and brought out from the cupboard my little ceramic eggshell blue pot with COFFEE on the outside and Taylor’s Café Brazilia inside, I began to think about the culture of coffee and the society of its drinkers.

Coffee is dark, ambitious, the drink of workers, of pioneers; and it’s the drink of poseurs, of salons, of fashionable 18th century Londoners gathering to exchange rumours, scandal, and political opinions. Here is Addison in an edition of his journal The Spectator in 1711: ‘The Coffee-house is the Place of Rendezvous to all that live near it, who are thus turned to relish calm and ordinary life’. But elsewhere Mr. Spectator talks about the ‘Round of Politicians at Will’s’ - a coffee-house which Pepys, too, frequented, when it was the centre of wit and conversation – suggesting a social space a little more rough and tumble than Addison’s ‘calm and ordinary life’.

The cementers of afternoon rendezvous, coffee may be sociable and provocative. Now it’s as sexy as cigarettes, and as necessary to the aspiring writer trying to forge an alliance with the glamorous literary communities of the past: the cafes of fin de siècle Vienna or those frequented by the Beats. But the café is now more often filled with pale and melancholy individuals, sitting at solitary tables with their Mac laptops. This is the selfish drink, the self-conscious beverage, now blatantly hawking its associated image of literariness with the spread of café culture & bookstores. When seen on the streets in its take-out cardboard-holstered form, it is one of the cheapest indications of disposable wealth.

My real introduction to coffee was late. As a child, I was given mugs of Nescafe when visiting my friend’s Western Cape farm, surrounded by her great-grandmother’s dusty Afrikaner heirlooms, the smell of ostrich feathers and spine-ruffled antelope sables. We drank the elicit brew while watching Titanic with wide caffeinated eyes. But this was rare and discouraged.

Coffee was something of a family tradition. When we went to visit my extended family in the States every two years, and stopped on the Florida coast to visit my mother’s parents, it would take a few days to adjust from jet lag. I’d wake at four in the morning and smell my grandfather’s percolating coffee from down the corridor. I’d steal out of bed and down into the living room, where he’d be sitting under the sole light, eyebrows raised, reading the newspaper in his dressing gown. It never occurred to me that I was disturbing his favourite morning hours, his dark solitude. While he’s never told me as much, I’m a lark myself, and guard my first few hours along with the first, most potent cup.

I began drinking coffee in college in the form of watery instant coffee. From there I graduated to mocha frappes and frappechinos, which I thought included coffee, the rousing effect now attributed to a combination of placebo and sugar. Then onto drip coffee with heavy doses of flavoured, powdered milk. Vanilla was the old favourite, but I dabbled in hazelnut and, in winter, the heart-cheering ‘Christmas’ blend.

When I moved from Seattle to Oxford, I decided to start taking my coffee black. It seemed like a gesture of inner strength, a renunciation of the female froth and frivolity in favour of grit and pluck. Good, tough prose begins with your coffee black. I respect the drinker of black coffee who is willing to taste coffee without the interference of milk or sugar, and learning to tell a good cup from a bad, rather than that which is merely strong. (Admittedly, mochas – which I was introduced to on a trip to Australia, where coffee is particularly and oddly good even at McDonalds – are still a weak spot.)

All people need domestic vices. Tea is not a vice but a virtue, a consolation. Coffee is the surly guest in the corner. Tea may be the purveyor of memories, but coffee electrifies the associating power, and the quality of perception.

Oxford’s High Street claims two quarrelling historical sites for coffee-lovers. On the northern side of the High is Queen’s Lane Coffee House which traces its founding to 1654, apparently the first site in which coffee was served in England. Opposite, is its more glamorous rival the Grand Café (see photo above), an ornate and mirrored space which makes deciding its dimensions difficult, and which also serves a very good Brandy Alexander. The Grand Café defends its title as England’s first coffee house by tracing its lineage to 1650 in Pepys’ diary. (Unfortunately for the Grand Cafe, the Diary was not begun until 1660).

Coffee is bombastic, a little belligerent, and it loosens the tongue. Its sociability is twitchy and erratic, but it too has its public ceremonies and its gleeful offer of seconds. While it lacks the Jamesian gentility of the tea service, it is still a small luxury, a daring departure from the onward march of the afternoon. But it is also a private ritual, a secret vice to nurse at the hours when one is alone with a pen.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Pleasures of Father Brown

When the BBC showed their new series of GK Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries in January, featuring the lovably familiar mug of Mark Williams, better known in the comforting role of dear Mr Weasley, I felt that at last I would acquaint myself with Chesterton. I have come across him before in passing – either in his relation to CS Lewis, a figure who hovered over my growing up like an ancestor, or as a patron saint of the literary journal where I worked for six months – but was never familiar with his work.

But this BBC incarnation - which, to my surprise, has received a commission for a second series – is no way to get to know the clerical sleuth or his author. Even before I read a single Father Brown story, it was clear that the adaptation was dull, blunted, amplified, and misshapen. With additions and new characters to stretch out Chesterton’s jewels into forty-five minute segments, the series drafted a Keep Calm and Carry On tea-and-bunting brigade, resetting the stories in the post-war years (twenty or so years too late), adding various village caricatures to make up an ensemble cast. Much better were the radio dramatizations which were aired on BBC radio 4 simultaneously.

Nevertheless, I found my way to Father Brown – the real Father Brown – through Borges, whose own stories and paradoxes exist because of Chesterton. If Chesterton seemed dumpy at first, Borges’ sleek cosmopolitanism tempted me to reconsider. With Borges’ commendation in mind, I checked out a homely relic of the Father Brown stories published in 1929 with a gradually fracturing spine. (The English Faculty Library has decided Chesterton is just as worthy as disregarding as the popular press, as Penguin has recently reissued the complete stories and there were no other editions of the stories available). No biographies, and very few critical studies, seemed to be on the shelves. Despite Chesterton occupying a significant place between Wilde and modernism, with pockets of De Quincey, Dickens, and Poe, there is silence. When I mentioned to my tutors that I was reading him – avidly, hungrily, almost narcotically – they were all delighted but quizzical. Why Chesterton?

Despite the BBC series and its evident popularity, there has been a telling lack of critical response in the papers, a moribund silence emphasizing Chesterton as being determinately out of fashion. The kind of moral certainty found in the Father Brown stories – searing, uncompromising, profoundly Roman Catholic (and with tinges of unwelcome political analysis, if Christopher Hitchens is to be believed) – is unacceptable in a society which misreads it as offensively fundamentalist and as a vehicle for proselytising.

Instead, Chesterton’s Catholicism attracts me by its polar strangeness. For all the stories’ modernist setting – indeed, spiritualists and Freudians are often drafted in as the spooks – and his own intuition, Brown believes in reason, uncovering a criminal masquerading as a priest by saying that any priest who preached against reason could not be authentic; it would be bad theology. Brown is knowingly old-fashioned, even flamboyantly old-fashioned. Chesterton’s Catholicism – or rather, the Catholicism made vivid in Brown – is something fierce and iron-like, uncompromising. Take his announcement in ‘The Wrong Shape’ that in the crime there was a

‘twisted, ugly, complex quality that does not belong to the straight bolts either of heaven or hell. As one knows the crooked track of a snail, I know the crooked track of a man’.

His declarations display a moral strength which is heroic and entirely out of place in our world of hedging and clarifications, but is as impressive as a wrought iron construction, with its visible slivers of air around the bars. I admire it as a made, a resistant thing.

The stories are brief and crystalline. They are halls of mirrors which rebound in likenesses, duplication, sleight of hands, tricks, illusions. Reading them continually teaches one to look backwards and upside down, becoming eager to invert and rearrange. The mystery genre condenses into a conundrum, a fuse of the mystical and the logical. Brown’s world is one where blood is controlled and aesthetic and the atmosphere is lurid. Sex is largely absent, or unbelievable. Rape never happens, nor mutilation. This genre it is a celibate form, although it can be endlessly reworked, like a machine, an algorithm, an equation. (Hitchens called this ‘scheme of plot little more than a clanking trolley’, but I read them straight through. It’s comparable, perhaps, to those who complain – falsely – that Jane Austen wrote the same book six times.)

These stories are also romance: Brown does not age, has no childhood, but rather always returns to his parish in Essex or to London, his courts. But one can build up fondness for this unobtrusive, unselfconscious, shabby man – whose face is described as being ‘as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling’ – during the sequence, and for his rangy Continental friend Flambeau.

It seemed like a pity to devour all of them in one go. I felt I should perhaps pace myself to avoid the terrible moment at which there are no more to read. And yet, I came across a volume of the complete stories for £2 at a second hand store. It had Mark Williams’ BBC-fied face – alas – on the cover. And yet, inside there were another twelve stories I hadn’t come across. For the 1929 volume had not the advantage of Chesterton's 1936 compilation, The Scandal of Father Brown. A reprieve.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Read at Oxford

I’ve been scanning my notes from the last few years and presented with the big compost heap – the muddle – that makes one’s reading life. There have been times over the past three years when I’ve wondered (and other people have asked me) why I returned to university; As a literature student, surely it would have been prudent to have just saved my money and read everything on my own. This course of all courses is one which might suit the nominal autodidact. This may well be so, but there is no way I can imagine having the time (not leisure; not really) to read so much – or having the expertise to guide my reading – in three years without the structure of the course. (This is without the added benefits of tutorials, relentless essay-writing, the large libraries, societies, lectures, and other resources.)

Nevertheless, for those who are interested in what might read during three years at Oxford, I’ve compiled a list, which is equally a personal aide-mémoire, in all its raggedyness. I am essentially a list-making animal.

Victorian (1837-1900):

Robert Browning
Henry James, What Maisie Knew, Turn of the Screw
Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wreck of the Deutschland, selected poems
Tennyson, In Memoriam, selected poems
Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Mayor of Casterbridge, Jude the Obscure, Tess of the D’ubervilles
Dickens, Bleak House, Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit, Hard Times
Charlotte Bronte, Villette, Jane Eyre
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
George Eliot, Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, The Lifted Veil, Adam Bede
Wilde, Plays, and the fairy tales
Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White, the Moonstone
Mrs Henry Wood, East Lynne (half)
ME Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret
Trollope, The Way We Live Now
Gissing, New Grub Street
Gaskell, North and South, Cranford

Modern (1900 +):

Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent, Heart of Darkness
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway, The Waves, Jacob’s Room, Orlando, Woolf’s Diary, essays
DH Lawrence, The Rainbow, Sons and Lovers, Women in Love
Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners, (bits of Ulysses)
Mary Butts’ Armed with Madness (v. good)
Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage v. 1
Some Yeats
Some Eliot
Auden Selected Poems
Beckett Waiting for Godot, Krapp’s Last Tape, that novel, Endgame
Harold Pinter

Middle English (1150-1509):

Malory’s Morte Darthur (Books I, IV, VIII)
Thomas Hoccleve
Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Erkenwald, Patience, Cleanness
Sir Orfeo, Sir Launfal
Croxton Play of the Sacrament
Mactatio Abel, Noe
York Crucifixion
Second Shepherd’s Play
Chaucer – Canterbury Tales, Troilus and Criseyde, Parliament of Fowls, Book of the Duchess, House of Fame
Assembly of Ladies
Pistil of Swete Susan
Boke of Cupide, God of Love
Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich (selections)
Mandeville’s Travel (selections)

The Renaissance (1509-1639):

Thomas Kyd - Spanish Tragedy
Christopher Marlowe, Edward II, Dr Faustus, Tamberlaine Part I and II, Massacre at Paris, The Jew of Malta
Ben Jonson, Epicoene, Bartholemew Fair, Volpone, The Alchemist, bits of poems, bits of Timber, or Discoveries (his commonplace book)
George Herbert, Poems
John Donne, Poems, selected sermons
Anatomy of Melancholy, selections
Thomas Browne, Urne Buriall, Religio Medici
Bacon, selected essays
Bits of Hakluyt’s Voyages & Discoveries
Bits of Ralegh’s Voyage to Guinea
John Skelton, Bowge of Court, Magnificence
Thomas Wyatt
Sidney, Astrophil and Stella
Spenser, Amoretti

(I wish I’d had time for was Ralegh’s Ocean to Cinthea)


Milton – Paradise Lost, selected poems
Marvell (ed. Nigel Smith)
Defoe, Moll Flanders, Robinson Crusoe, half of the Plague Year
Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of a Tub, Battle of the Books, stray poems
Pope Windsor Forest, Rape of the Lock, The Dunciad, stray poems
Pepys journal (first volume)
Aphra Behn, 8 love letters to a nobleman, Oronooko, The Rover (part I), ‘The Disappointment’
Earl of Rochester, various poems
Lucretius, De rerum Natura (bits)
Lucan, Civil War (bits)
Bits of Hobbes’ Leviathan


Half of Don Quixote
Samuel Richardson, Half of Clarissa, Pamela
Henry Fielding, Shamela, Joseph Andrewes, Tom Jones
Sterne, Tristram Shandy, journal to Eliza, Travels through France and Italy
Fanny Burney, Evelina
Austen, Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Persuasion, Emma, half of Mansfield Park, some letters
Wordsworth, The Prelude, Tintern Abbey and other poems
Dorothy Wordsworth, bits of the Grasmere Diary
Coleridge, Frost at Midnight, Kubla Kahn, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, notebooks, Shakespeare criticism and lectures, bits of Biographia Literaria
Byron, First IV cantos of Don Juan, Childe Harold
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Johnson, various essays from the Rambler and the Idler, introduction to his dictionary (and his programme for it)
Boswell, half of his London Journal, beginning of Life of Johnson (and bits and pieces throughout)
Smatterings of Hume and Smith
Bits of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France
Some Blake
Paulin’s book on Hazlitt
Richard Holmes, Age of Wonder, and Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer
Adam Sisman’s The Friendship (half) on Wordsworth & Coleridge


All Shakespeare except Thomas More, Double Falsehood, Edward III
Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem
Half of Peter Hall’s Diary
Emily Dickinson, Poems, Letters
Poe, selected
Thoreau, from his Diary
Emerson, essays, notebooks
Hawthorne, House of the Seven Gables, bits of his American Notebooks
Henry James, half of The Golden Bowl
Gordon’s book on Dickinson
Susan Howe’s book on Dickinson
Sewell’s Dickinson biography
Lucy Brock Broido, The Master letters
Robert Lowell, Poems, Letters, Prose
Elizabeth Bishop, Poems, Letters, Prose
Rilke’s Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge
Randall Jarrell Complete Poems, Letters, some criticism, Pictures from an Institution
Some Marianne Moore, some Wallace Stevens
Tiny bits of Baudrillard, Foucault, Derrida, Freud, Fish, Barthes
Achebe, Things Fall Apart
B S Johnson, Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry
Grant Allan, The Woman Who Did

With Embarrassing Omissions:

Spenser’s Faerie Queene
The rest of Clarissa

For mental whetting:

Geoffrey Hill, poems and criticism

Saturday, June 15, 2013


It is the last day of 8th week of Trinity Term. All the finalists are finished wearing sub fusc, trading carnations, reading weak-eyed in the afternoons and through the night, frantically flipping through their notes. They no longer have to be herded into the tent outside the exam schools where the shell-shocked students bleat in panic. There’re no more sober hours under the large round face of the clock in the North Schools, and all the dour faces of the ruffed portraits. The irregularities – a blood-curdling scream, the to-ing and fro-ing of a room of people continually going to the bathroom, the intrusion of rock music from the street – are all behind us and part of the pomp and circumstance of the whole event. Everyone has processed out the back door with their red carnations into the cobbled street behind the exam schools where friends wait with flowers, champagne, confetti, silly string, balloons, hats, flour, milk, water guns and in our unfortunate case, an uncooked trout, which left a sticky trail down my sleeve. Now only the occasional dream comes back, tossing up the crumbs of the hours of study, the detritus of books piled on the floor and untidy notes. G dreams of being licked by a gigantic giraffe; I dream of sitting to write a paper (The History of British Thought) I’ve never studied.

The books go back to the library. The notes wait in piles in my room, in limbo. We meet our tutors one last time for dinner with great affection. Suddenly all the stories and anecdotes come out: of their secret lives, of their youths, or the currents of familiarity or power (mostly) hidden from students. For a time, there is a lowering of the barriers, and some mutual jovial irreverence.

I’ve been going over my journals for the last three years and thankful for the details that have been lodged and pegged down. Some record of the reading done, some thoughts of the material. Much doubt, much admiration, much censure. Early uncritical Anglophilia tempers into something less ecstatic, more familiar. Three months left, a summer in Oxford, and then another (smaller) migration.

Monday, May 20, 2013

It's the night before my final exam, and there's an inevitable pulse of nostalgia. It feels a bit like Donne's 'the world's last night'; fittingly, as this last exam is on the Renaissance. A red carnation day.

Monday, April 1, 2013

After Easter, my resolution begins anew. Apparently, the French celebrated Easter as the first day of the year until 1563 when Charles VI changed it to the first of January, so I'll be reviving that practice.

Knee-deep into finals revision, I am reading the wonderful Montaigne alongside Donne on death:

'I want a man to act, and to prolong the functions of life as long as he can; and I want death to find me planting my cabbages, but careless of death, and still more of my unfinished garden.'

- from his essay 'That to philosophize is to learn to die' (I. X)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

I believe them now: Robert Frost WAS cranky:


Well, you once said in my hearing that Robert Lowell had tried to connect you with Faulkner, told you you were a lot like Faulkner.


Did I say that?


No, you said that Robert Lowell told you that you were a lot like Faulkner.

(Whole interview here)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

An arresting title from Aquinas' Summa Theologica:

Article 6. Whether penance is a second plank after shipwreck?

This is surely the title of a poem. Apparently it's from St. Jerome.

Monday, February 4, 2013

beau ideal

Will you come and visit me next year? I shall undoubtedly have a large circle of witty and interesting friends by then and life will be on a very high plane – elegant, literary, and in perfect order… On the roofs of the brick houses and on the island in the pond there will be all sorts of romantic musicians, and supper will be served on the island too – strung with lanterns. It will be very pleasant, reminiscent of Venice, and the Last Days of Rome and the Chinese Emperors, with a bit of Coney Island thrown in. - Elizabeth Bishop to Frani Blough, 1934

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Music do I hear?
Ha, ha! Keep time: how sour sweet music is
When time is broke and no proportion kept! - Richard II

Monday, January 28, 2013

After the ceilidh

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.
Robert Burns' Address to the Haggis

Sunday, January 27, 2013

'Harriet has made a contrapuntal composition, so intricate she is unable to play it. What can be played sounds post Schoenberg, but that may be due to her faulty command of what Allen would call traditional skills.’ - Robert Lowell on his daughter to Peter & Eleanor Taylor

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Blessing for someone using the Bodleian libraries:

May everything you want be there in the right order.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Space seems to be either tamer or more inoffensive than time: we're forever meeting people who have watches, very seldom people who have compasses.

Georges Perec, Species of Spaces

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Saturday Night

Theseus: Say, what abridgement have you for this evening?
What masque? what music? How shall we beguile
The lazy time, if not with some delight?

Midsummer Night's Dream V:i

Friday, January 18, 2013

Because of the snow

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow...

From Wallace Stevens' The Snow Man

Thursday, January 17, 2013

‘I have a vague theory that one learns most – I have learned most from having someone suddenly make fun of something one has taken seriously up until then.’ Elizabeth Bishop to Anne Stevenson

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

'To write: to try meticulously to retain something, to cause something to survive; to wrest a few precise scraps from the void as it grows, to leave somewhere a furrow a trace, a mark, or a few signs.’ - George Perec, Species of Spaces

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

proposition for a commonplace book

Over Christmas my dad said he’d noticed that nothing had been happening on this blog, and it’s true. Moreover, it’s probably going to get – in a way – worse, as I prepare for my final examinations in May. My good angel says keeping a blog – writing for its own sake – would be a welcome alternative to weekly work, but the truth is that the quality would be very low and uninspired. I predict as the next two terms wear on that my trips outside the garret (I’m living once more in my happy attic room overlooking Holywell Street) will be less and less and that my excursions into books not necessary to my passing Finals will be similarly restricted. I’d still like to keep this moving, however, if only as a record to myself of what I’m reading.

So, in that spirit I’d like to post a quotation every day – long or short – from something I’ve read during the day. I’m going to try to avoid the purely inspirational and vary it from day to day and present amusing things from the newspaper, from poetry or prose, drama, criticism, diaries, letters etc. Anything is game. It’s likely that certain characters will figure quite highly, at least at first: this term I’m writing an extended essay on Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and Randall Jarrell, so mid-century American poets may particularly feature. Shakespeare, too, is studied this term. Then, over the Easter break, things should descend into madness. This and, I hope, organ lessons in our chapel, will minimize that madness.

I’ll begin with this elegant observation:
‘Oxford graduates smell…’ Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell, August 26th, 1963