Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection

When the lockdown hit, it was like musical chairs after the music stopped. Whatever books from the library you already had in your possession, that was it. I feel extremely lucky to have already had this book of poems on hand, loaned from the Stanislaus County Library. They brought necessary warmth and comfort during dark, uncertain times.

An earlier version of me, my younger self, proclaimed a hatred of anthologies, including those of poems, but I have corrected that opinion, seeing the value. The editors say it best in the preface, anthologies are “an efficient means for finding beautiful and moving poems. The wrecks and fender-benders in nearly every individual poet’s books have been pushed off onto the shoulder, leaving only the poems still capable of taking us somewhere… Every anthology, too, is an argument for something, an act of persuasion, and this one is no exception.” My only beef is that it’s arranged alphabetical by author last name; so predictable, so boring, why not attempt something new with zetabetical ordering?

The collection came to my attention when I was searching for more poems by Danusha Laméris after appreciating her “Small Kindnesses”:

Small Kindnesses

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”

Lucinda Williams’s dad, Miller Williams, gives good advice:

Compassion

Have compassion for everyone you meet
even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,
bad manners or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
down there where the spirit meets the bone.

This by Rob Jacques:

Inukshuk

Note: On frozen trails of the far north, Inuit people placed five stones in rough human form as a testament of endurance and as warm encouragement from those who had gone before to those who were coming after.

We were here. We saw sorrow.
Across our hearts, emptiness and cold
pulled hard, as they do in you now,
and we pressed on as you will do.
We did all that possibility will allow
and expect nothing less of you.
We stand guard over accomplishment
and a strong journey through all this.

See in gray desolation how we made
this five-piece thing and left it here,
a stone creation to bring you certainty
in this drear, frozen waste, showing
you and we are keepers of the flame
melting chaos. You and we proclaim.

This by Thomas R. Smith:

Trust

It’s like so many other things in life
to which you must say no or yes.
So you take your car to the new mechanic.
Sometimes the best thing to do is trust.

The package left with the disreputable-looking
clerk, the check gulped by the night deposit,
the envelope passed by dozens of strangers—
all show up at their intended destinations.

The theft that could have happened doesn’t.
Wind finally gets where it was going
through the snowy trees, and the river, even
when frozen, arrives at the right place.

And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
is delivered, even though you can’t read the address.

This by Sue Ellen Thompson:

Sewing

The night before my older sister’s wedding,
my mother and I sat up late
hand-stitching a little cloud of netting
to the brim of each bridesmaid’s hat.

To be alone with her was so rare
I couldn’t think of what I had to say.
We worked in silence beneath the chandelier
until it was almost daybreak.

Soon I’d have a room of my own
and she would only be cooking for six.
We drifted among the wreaths we had sewn,
nursing quietly on our fingertips.

That she still had me was a comfort,
I think. And I still had her.

This by Barbara Crooker:

Listen,

I want to tell you something. This morning
is bright after all the steady rain, and every iris,
peony, rose, opens its mouth, rejoicing. I want to say,
wake up, open your eyes, there’s a snow-covered road
ahead, a field of blankness, a sheet of paper, an empty screen.
Even the smallest insects are singing, vibrating their entire bodies,
tiny violins of longing and desire. We were made for song.
I can’t tell you what prayer is, but I can take the breath
of the meadow into my mouth, and I can release it for the leaves’
green need. I want to tell you your life is a blue coal, a slice
of orange in the mouth, cut hay in the nostrils. The cardinals’
red song dances in your blood. Look, every month the moon
blossoms into a peony, then shrinks to a sliver of garlic.
And then it blooms again.

Reading Virginia Woolf during the pandemic

An ongoing collection of relevant quotes from VW as I read my way through her oeuvre. Updated daily.

I never felt anything like the general insecurity.

Aug 12, 1914; Letter to Ka Cox

Well—I wonder what we shall do. I’d give a lot to turn over 30 pages or so, & find written down what happens to us…. At this moment, I feel as if the human race had no character at all—sought for nothing, believed in nothing, & fought only from a dreary sense of duty.

Jan 15, 1915; Diary

The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be.

Jan 18, 1915; Diary

I saw a beautiful woman in the Bus; who could hardly contain her laughter because a great military gentleman was thrown on to her lap, like a sack of coals, which seemed to tickle her greatly, & the more she laughed, the nicer I thought her. About one person in a fortnight seems to me nice—most are nothing at all.

Jan 28, 1915; Diary

keep well, and dont think that life is a thing to be thrown up into the air like a ball, which I’m sure is your present frame of mind.

Feb 12, 1916; Letter to Ka Cox

It is wonderful how entirely detached from sanity the aristocracy are; one feels like a fly on the ceiling when one talks to them.

March 26, 1916; letter to Duncan Grant.

we want to do so many things. Why can’t one be turned back and live everything over again, perhaps rather more slowly?

March 27, 1916; letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davies

I saw Lytton yesterday, who told me he had heard that you and Duncan and possibly others had all got influenza at Wissett. I should be very grateful if anyone who hasn’t go it would send a line to say how you are. I hear Clive had it, and Adrian too, and Nellie went for a holiday and was in bed with it all the time; and Ott’s got it… I saw Ka, who seems rather feeble still. I do hope you are all right. Please dont start a move with the germs still in you.

Oct 9, 1916; letter to Vanessa

If Shakespeare were to awake now! The thought of what he would see in the sky and on the earth is at once appalling and fascinating.

December 21, 1916; review in the TLS

The spring season is full of disease; and a small break in your life might keep you healthy for a year.

March 23, 1917 letter to Vanessa

Clouds brewed over the sea, & it began to rain at tea; then great thunder claps, & lightning. Difficult to distinguish thunder from guns. German prisoners walked across the field.

September 5, 1917; Diary

But oh dear, how little one believes what anyone says now. I feel we’ve sunk lower than ever before this summer.

September 9, 1917 letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davis

Heard guns & saw two airships maneuvering over the sea & valley.

September 11, 1917; Diary

Aeroplanes over the house early, which may mean another raid.

September 29, 1917; Diary

They heard guns over London & saw lights last night. Another raid. We heard nothing, save Mrs Hammond, who heard the guns very loud, as she went home.

September 30, 1917 ; Diary

Anxious about raids. Another last night between 7 & 8: we listened but saw & heard nothing.

October 1, 1917 ; Diary

16 German aeroplanes have just passed over Richmond—They haven’t done us any harm—we went and sat in the cellar and listened to them, and Nelly nearly had hysterics. The people next door saw them perfectly from the top window. A man in the street says one has been brought down in the Park—They sounded quite near, but I dont know if they dropped bombs or whether it was only our guns. Carrington has just rung up to say there were 35 over Gordon Sqre but didnt drop bombs.

October 6, 1917 letter to Vanessa

The K. Shuttleworths advertise the birth of a [posthumous son] with the statement “His Perfect Gift” a good title for an Academy picture, or a Mrs Ward novel, & rather a terrible testimony to the limelight now desired by the rich upon their sacrifices.

October 9, 1917; Diary

We had Zeppelins over last night. They are said to have destroyed Swan and Edgar at Piccadilly. We only heard the guns at a distance, and never heard the warning at all.

October 20, 1917 letter to Vanessa.

Happily… for Alix she didn’t presumably wander in Piccadilly all night, or the great bomb which ploughed up the pavement opposite Swan & Edgar’s might have dug her grave. We heard two soft distant but unmistakable shocks about 9.30; then a third which shook the window; then silence. It turns out that the Zeppelin came over, hovered unseen for an hour or two & left. We heard no more of it.

October 20, 1917; diary

The moon grows full, & the evening trains are packed with people leaving London. We saw the hole in Piccadilly this afternoon. Traffic has been stopped, & the public slowly tramps past the place, which workmen are mending, though they look small in comparison with it… “business goes on as usual” so they say.

October 22, 1917; diary

 

December 6, 1917; diary

Butleriana

I rescued this gorgeous 1932 book (copy # 257 out of the 800 printed) from the library before it shuttered for the next few weeks. The craftsmanship makes your heart swell, perfect font, crisp photographs, handmade paper. It’s another collection of ad hoc writing from Samuel Butler, the one place where his entire Pauli explanation is given without editing; why, for the love of god, was he carving out £200-£300 a year out of his dwindling capital to give to Pauli, a man who he had no real friendship with, for dozens of years?

I think he says it best here: “Pauli impressed me as especially strong precisely in those respects wherein I felt most deficient… The main desire of my life was to conceal how severely I had been wounded [by his father and upbringing], and to get beyond reach of those arrows that from time to time still reached me. When, therefore, Pauli seemed attracted towards me and held out the right hand of fellowship, I caught at it not only because I liked him, but because I believed that the mere fact of being his friend would buoy me up in passing through waters that to me were still deep and troubled, but which to him I felt sure were shallow and smooth as glass.”

And once he was giving it, he was simply too much in the habit to keep giving Pauli his allowance each year. He broached the subject every year at Christmas but Pauli moaned and said (untruly) that he’d be ruined without the money. Butler seems to have recognized it as an obligation that he was required to keep performing until Pauli’s death, when he found Pauli had been earning a considerable amount at the bar and had other wealthy benefactors who knew nothing of Butler and vice versa.

Here also is the anecdote in full about Pauli’s handsomeness: “I remember how the late Captain Buckley, V.C., told me that when he and Pauli were at San Francisco together in 1860 or 1861 they went into the bar of the hotel where they were staying, and the barman asked Pauli to have a drink with him. Pauli tried to get out of it, but the barman said: ‘Oh, but you must; you are the handsomest man God ever sent into San Francisco, so help me God you are!’, with a strong emphasis on the ‘are.'”

Of other interest, Butler mentions that he’s only written two short reviews of books, one of Leslie Stephen’s Essays on Freethinking and Plain-speaking, the other on the philosophy of Rosmini.

Olive, Again

Excellent followup to Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, we pick up almost exactly where the first Olive leaves off. She marries Jack and feels like he’s her “real” husband (not dead Henry), although at the end of the book when she’s in assisted living, she ends up hiding Jack’s smaller portrait and leaving Henry’s up. That’s actually a sweet ending, where she bounces lonely around the old folks until she meets a new inmate who she gets along with. They exchange keys and check in on each other twice a day, in addition to having meals together, but the simple 8am opening the door, waving, not saying anything, and the same at 8pm is so sweet.  Possibly my favorite section was Exiles, about a couple visiting his brother and their sister-in-law, Helen gets wasted on white wine and falls down the stairs after she gets flustered when the sister-in-law declares that hearing about other people’s grandchildren gets tiresome.

The Complete Essays of Montaigne: Book One

My morning routine has been mindfulness, meditation, and Montaigne for the past several weeks as I finally picked up Europe’s “great bedside book” to begin the journey. The chapters are groupings of several ‘assays’ as Montaigne tries to stick a pin in his soul so that he may examine it more clearly. He wrote and distilled his thoughts from his retirement (1571, aged 38) up until his death in 1592.

Going on a Montaigne journey makes you laugh and wonder and be amazed; you have this simply eloquent bridge between pagan and Christian antiquity and our own time. He was raised speaking Latin as his first language, learning French later, and thus finds comfort in the ancient tomes he rips quotes from liberally. In a nod to his preference for quotes (he also had dozens of quotations carved or painted on the beams of his library ceiling), I pull out my own favorites of his:

“An abundance of children is a blessing for the greater, saner, part of mankind: I and a few others find blessings in a lack of them. When Thales was asked why he did not get married, he replied that he did not want to leave any descendants.” (1:14)

On punishing cowards: ‘Suffundere malis hominis sanguinem quam effundere.’ [Make the blood of a bad man blush not gush.] (1:16)

“Always bring those with whom I am talking back to the subjects they know the best.” (1:17)

“I want Death to find me planting my cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening.” (1:20)

“I am the sworn enemy of binding obligations, continuous toil and perseverance.” (1:21)

“When the Cretans wished to curse someone, they prayed the gods to make him catch a bad habit.” (1:23)

(What Plato taught about education:) “Spewing up food exactly as you have swallowed it is evidence of a failure to digest and assimilate it; the stomach has not done its job if, during concoction, it fails to change the substance and form of what it is given.” (1:26)

Horace: “It is reason and wisdom which take away cares, not places affording wide views over the sea.” (1:39)

“I always write my letters at the gallop, with so headlong a dash that I prefer to write them by hand than to dictate them (despite my appalling writing) since I can never find anyone who can keep up with me… as soon as I flag, that is a sign that my heart is not in it. I prefer to begin without a plan, the first phrase leading on to the next.” (1:40)

Ancient customs he gives details about (in 1:49): the ancients watered their wine, took a gulp of breath when they drank, ate between meals, used snow to cool their wine, wiped their arses with a sponge on a stick, kept jars on the street corners to piss into.

Explaining his process of writing the essays: (1:50) “Everything has a hundred parts and a hundred faces: I take one of them and sometimes just touch it with the tip of my tongue or with my fingertips, and sometimes I pinch it to the bone. I jab into it, not as wide but as deep as I can; and I often prefer to catch it from some unusual angle. I might even have ventured to make a fundamental study if I did not know myself better. Scattering broadcast a word here, a word there, examples ripped from their contexts, unusual ones, with no plan and no promises, I am under no obligation to make a good job of it nor even to stick to the subject myself without varying it should it so please me;  I can surrender to doubt and uncertainty and to my master-form, which is ignorance.”

 

 

Soundscapes and Cognition in Post-Conquest Granada

Up on the hill, squirreled away in a room on Lone Mountain campus of USF, I heard Professor Jarbel Rodriguez (Associate Professor of Medieval Studies, San Francisco State University) muse about how the soundscape of Granada changed after 1492 when it transitioned from Muslim-domination to being under Christian control.

Fascinating stuff, how the Castillians used sound as a weapon as well as guns, carrying bells with artillery in the army. To the Muslim faithful, bells were a tool of the devil, plus the cacophony added to the distress of the defending troops.

The conquest for Granada had taken 10 years, from 1482 through 1492, and Prof Rodriguez wants to determine what impact the change in soundscape had on the inhabitants of the city, going from muezzin’s call for the Muslim faithful to bells and chants.

The aural landscape acts as a marker (like DNA) of a group, you can ID a group by sound. For the Granadan conquest, the queen and her daughter helped create the sonic spectacle with bugles, hornpipes, sackbuts (medieval trombone), timbals, and drums. In response was the silence of the Moors. However, they encoded the right to have their call to prayer in the actual surrender treaty, so those sounds continued.

Instead of a unified acoustic community, there were 2 overlapping communities trying to drown each other out. Bells gave shape to the day: calling people to wake up, have lunch, dinner, go to evening service, then go to sleep.

Christian know-how around bell-making actually gave them a leg up on being able to produce cannons, the same type of heavy thick metal required.

Prof Rodriguez was trying out some “experimental” thoughts on how this change in soundscape caused the Moors to lose their memories; more to come on this.

References: The Soundscape by Schafer, Rosenfeld’s On Being Heard, The soundscape of modernity : architectural acoustics and the culture of listening in America, 1900-1933 by Emily Thompson (which I’ve tried reading but abandoned), Garrioch’s Sounds of the city: the soundscape of early modern European towns; The Extended Mind by Clark & Chalmers

An audience member mentioned Peter Cole’s translations of poetry of that era as something else in the soundscape: The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492

Rat Bohemia

I much prefer Sarah Schulman’s nonfiction work, like Gentrification of the Mind, but this was mentioned in a recent Jeremiah Moss article so I acquired a copy. I think the main problem is in switching up the narrator—each section whiplashes you into a different person’s viewpoint, which was jarring. It’s based in NYC in the 80s and 90s, and the characters watch each other die off from AIDS, helpless, while watching rats swarm.

Still, there were good bits worth quoting: “In the fifties, the Beats, those guys were so all-American. They could sit around and ponder aesthetic questions but a cup of coffee cost a nickel. Nowadays, with the economy the way it is, you can’t drop out or you’ll be homeless. You gotta function to be a boho. You have to meet the system head-on at least once in a while and that meeting is very brutal. Nowadays you have to pay a very high price to become a bohemian.”

And this is a hilarious description of San Francisco (from the David character—seemingly based on Wojnarowicz? He’s a writer who dies of AIDS and is in ACT UP):

“San Francisco… It’s so different. You walk out the door and there are three different kinds of trees, each with flowers of a different color. Yellow, red, white. Then there’s another tree with little hanging plants that look like a string of bells. But, actually, they’re petals. No rats, drug dealers or urine-soaked sidewalks in every neighborhood. It’s all confined to a few, so just by walking you can actually get away from it and have time to have feelings and other emotions. You know, Rita, living daily in very hostile circumstances isn’t good for us.”

Further Extracts from the Note-Books of Samuel Butler

When Butler died, he left his precious notebooks to be ravaged by his literary executors. This edition came out in 1934 and is still quite sanitized. I hope to get more of the real Butler from another source winging its way toward me.

Still, there are some worthwhile or funny bits.

Canadian Jokes: “When I was there I found their jokes like their roads—very long and not very good, leading to a little tin point of a spire which has been remorselessly obvious for miles without seeming to get any nearer.”

Pure snark: “I don’t like Plato, but I suppose I prefer him to Carlyle.”

On tourists: “On one of our Sunday walks Jones and my Cousin and I were at Gad’s Hill. An American tourist came up and asked if that was Charles Dickens’s house, pointing to it. I looked grave and said, ‘Yes, I am afraid it was,’ and left him.”

The miracles of Jesus Christ: “He should have gone about killing the rich old people who would not die.” (This from a man who almost became a priest, at a point where he’s waiting for his dad to kick the bucket so he can inherit).

Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress

Fanny Burney’s second novel was published in 1782 in five volumes, coming to a whopping 919 pages. It’s evident that Burney has writing talent but, my god! oh for an editor to show her a trick or two about pacing!

Cecilia has just lost her beloved uncle and is now in the hands of her three London guardians which are very reminiscent of Goldilocks and the Three Bears— one spends way too much money, one is parsimonious beyond belief, and the last is a perfect blend of gentility and tact and manners. She has a large fortune but one of the stipulations in her uncle’s will is that whoever she marries keep her name, which turns away her beloved, Mortimer Delvile, until he suggests that they privately elope. It’s a massive whirlwind, and I refer you to the Wikipedia page if you need all the particulars of the story. My biggest takeaway is that all the chaos was caused by a lack of frank discussion. People would insinuate and demur to say things due to propriety, and that caused endless series of plot lines to pour forth.

I enjoyed early in the story where she’s settling into a horrid living situation with her first guardian, so she goes on a book buying spree: “Her next solicitude was to furnish herself with a well-chosen collection of books; and this employment, which to a lover of literature, young and ardent in its pursuit, is perhaps the mind’s first luxury, proved a source of entertainment so fertile and delightful that it left her nothing to wish. “

Northanger Abbey

The last remaining novel of Jane Austen’s that I’d not yet read. Published posthumously along with Persuasion, Northanger Abbey was the first she wrote although her publisher delayed printing it until after her death. It’s definitely clunkier, but you can see Austen developing the wings she’d soon soar with. In Chapter 5 she goes off about how novels get a short shrift and name checks novels by Fanny Burney (Cecilia, Camilla) and Maria Edgeworth (Belinda). The whole book leaves us breadcrumbs of other works to consider, as I’ve discovered that most well-mannered books do; she mentions late 18th century authors like Ann Radcliffe, Eliza Parsons, Regina Maria Roche, Eleanor Sleath, Francis Lathom).

There’s a delicious swerve in the conversation when Henry (object of Catherine’s adoration) rails against the new meaning of the word ‘nice:’ “Oh! it is a very nice word indeed!—it does for every thing. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement; —people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”

Austen flexes her feminist muscles a bit in Chapter 14: “To come with a well-informed mind, is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can.”

Samuel Butler (1835-1902): a memoir by Henry Festing Jones – volume 2

Volume 2 of Jones’s memoir drags a bit but still has interesting and surprising facts; mostly it’s filled with letters to and from Butler, and reminisces about him by his friends once he’s gone.

An Italian woman asks Butler which is best: prose or poetry, and Butler decides “Poetry, because there is less of it on a page.”

I’m also reminded of the existence of savings banks at the post office; something that’s commonly referred to through English lit but is strange to think about, something that’s I think still in existence.

Mrs. Alfred Bovill writes: “He was not the sort of person one met casually; he never made a practice of going to parties, and therefore whenever we did meet it was a regular arrangement and was all the pleasanter as one could arrange not to have people there who would not be interesting or interested—just a few real friends.”

Of real interest was Appendix E, wherein Jones includes the lists of items that Butler took when away from home because he found himself always saddled with things he didn’t need and was missing things he did. Different lists for different locations. Boulogne is where he Christmas’ed (in France), Shrewsbury is where his family lived (NW of Birmingham), then there were the “foreign” travels (e.g. Switzerland, Italy, Greece). What on earth could “portfolio fully charged” mean in the 1880s?

Samuel Butler biography by Peter Raby

A 1991 biography of Sam that I scoured for clues about the Pauli mystery. Raby references a pamphlet by A.C. Brassington that argues Pauli’s overtures were homosexual, but Raby himself disagrees with that assessment: “This seems, in the light of Butler’s future complex relationships with men and women, too straightforward an explanation, and inherently improbably. Butler observed a traditional and rigid social code, to which he adhered the more punctiliously because it was removed from any religious context. He paid for sex with women. The habits of his London life… make him a likely customer for a Christchurch brothel. There is no hint of physical homosexuality in any of his notes or letters.”

Later we’re told that Butler’s upstairs neighbor, Mr Butterfield, was an elderly bachelor who received a “weekly visit from a buxom woman known by the laundresses as ‘Mr Butterfield’s nurse’. Butler had made a regular arrangement with a dark, fine-looking young Frenchwoman, Lucie Dumas, whom he had come across near the Angel, Islington. She had had predecessors, according to Jones, but no rivals during the next twenty years. It was fifteen years before Butler revealed his name and address. They spoke in French, and he visited her regularly, paying her a pound a week, including holidays… ‘Oh bother, Alfred,’ he would say to his man-servant (in later years), ‘it’s Wednesday today, and I’ve got to go to Handel Street.’ He would leave at about two-thirty and be back by five, walking both ways.”

In Butler’s Note-books, vol. 6, ‘Blackguardisms and Improprieites,’ he has much more to say, especially of a trip to Italy where there was no bawdy house. Butler complains, ‘I had the greatest difficulty in getting a woman but at last was taken to the house of an old lady who kept a half idiot loathsome creature whom I had to put up with as the only thing that was to be got.’

He also organized H.F. Jones’s sex life, making an arrangement with his own lady, Madame Dumas to include a visit from Jones each Tuesday, and Butler paid for Jones.

But back to the Pauli mystery, it seems that Pauli was just a slimy character. After his death, Butler learned that Pauli had an extensive estate (£9,000) even though Butler had loaned him ~£7500 over 30 years. They had lunch together 3x a week, from 1:20pm to 2pm. Pauli had a similar arrangement with a Mr Swinburne, and neither Swinburne nor Butler knew of each other, but both had been paying Pauli an allowance in addition to large sums Pauli earned as a lawyer. Pauli left no message or remembrance of Butler in his will, but Butler managed to find humor in this, telling Pauli’s lawyer that ‘though he left me nothing in his will, he has, in effect, left me from £200-£210 a year, clear of all outgoings, for the luncheons must be taken into account. We both of us laughed heartily when I took in the luncheons.’

the infamous Pauli
Alfred Cathie, Butler’s clerk/butler
Butler and Henry Festing Jones

Melville in The English Notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne

In 1853 Hawthorne received the appointment of United States Consul at Liverpool from his pal President Pierce, a well-paying and prestigious post. He kept the position for four years, then left England in 1859, and kept notebooks during his stay.

Volume 22 of The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne has the quote about Gray’s Inn I was trying to verify the source of. I kept skimming through the book to see what else was of interest and found that Melville visited him in 1856. Hawthorne was embarrassed that he’d been unsuccessful in getting Melville a similar consular appointment from Pierce, but they smoothed things over quickly.

A week ago last Monday, Herman Melville came to see me at the Consulate, looking much as he used to do (a little paler, and perhaps a little sadder), in a rough outside coat, and with his characteristic gravity and reserve of manner…. [W]e soon found ourselves on pretty much our former terms of sociability and confidence. Melville has not been well, of late; he has been affected with neuralgic complaints in his head and limbs, and no doubt has suffered from too constant literary occupation, pursued without much success, latterly; and his writings, for a long while past, have indicated a morbid state of mind…. I do not wonder that he found it necessary to take an airing through the world, after so many years of toilsome pen-labor and domestic life, following upon so wild and adventurous a youth as his was.

I invited him to come and stay with us at Southport, as long as he might remain in this vicinity; and, accordingly, he did come, the next day, taking with him, by way of baggage, the least little bit of a bundle, which, he told me, contained a night-shirt and a tooth-brush.  He is a person of very gentlemanly instincts in every respect, save that he is a little heterodox in the matter of clean linen.

He stayed with us form Tuesday till Thursday; and, on the intervening day, we took a pretty long walk together, and sat down in a hollow among the sand hills (sheltering ourselves from the high, cool wind) and smoked a cigar. Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated”; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists —and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before —in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.

…[I parted] from Melville at a street-corner in Liverpool, in the rainy evening. I saw him again on Monday, however. he said that he already felt much better than in America; but observed that he did not anticipate much pleasure in his rambles, for that the spirit of adventure is gone out of him. He certainly is much overshadowed since I saw him last; but I hope he will brighten as he goes onward. He sailed from Liverpool in a steamer on Tuesday, leaving his trunk behind him at my consulate, and taking only a carpet-bag to hold all his travelling-gear. This is the net best thing to going naked; and as he wears his beard and moustache, and so needs no dressing case—nothing but a tooth-brush—I do not know a more independent personage. He learned his travelling-habits by drifting about, all over the South Sea, with no other clothes or equipage than a red flannel shirt and a pair of duck trowzers. Yet we seldom see men of less criticizable manners than he.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902): a memoir by Henry Festing Jones – volume 1

Volume 1 of Jones’s memoir of Butler was delightful. Jones lets Butler’s letters do most of the talking, interspersing with explanations and backstory where necessary.

Miss Savage

Especially useful was the extensive correspondence between Butler and Miss Savage, the prototype for the Alethea character in The Way of all Flesh (although Jones is quick to point out how physically ugly Savage was). She was clever, witty, kind, his confidant for many years through frequent letters; they both lived in London but saw each other rarely.

Savage plied him with books and encouraged him endlessly in his writing. At her suggestion he reads Middlemarch, and his opinion: “I call it bad and not interesting: there is no sweetness in the whole book, and though it is stuffed full of epigrams, one feels that they are lugged in to show the writer off. The book seems to me to be a long-winded piece of studied brag, clever enough I daresay, but to me at any rate singularly unattractive.”

Butler could indulge his catty opinions to Miss Savage, which he did re: Goethe and Carlyle: “[Wilhelm Meister] seems perhaps the very worst book I ever read… I cannot remember a single good page or idea, and the priggishness is the finest of its kind that I can call to mind. Is it all a practical joke? If it really is Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister that I have been reading, I am glad I have never taken the trouble to learn German. What a wretch Carlyle must be to run Goethe as he has done.” Later he and Savage snicker about Carlyle: “it was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle marry one another and so make only two people miserable instead
of four, besides being very amusing.”

His fight with Charles Darwin

Too many pages are devoted to this battle wherein Butler discovers that Darwin wasn’t the first to propose evolution. Books attacking one side or the other fly back and forth, as well as letters. Of note for me is that before the hoopla began, Darwin was on good terms with Butler and wrote saying that Leslie Stephen had known that Butler was the author of the anonymous work (Stephen being VW’s dad, of course). I get irrationally excited when accidentally bumping up against the Stephen clan anywhere I don’t expect them to be. Later we learn that Stephen was ordained in 1855 but he left Cambridge for London in 1864 “where he engaged in literary pursuits and we hear no more of him as a clergyman.”

His bizarre and complicated relationship with Pauli

I really don’t understand this bit. He became friends with a man, Charles Paine Pauli, in New Zealand, and was instrumental in helping him return to London. In exchange for a promise of repayment once Pauli came into his inheritance, Butler paid him an allowance of £200 a year out of his own dwindling capital, even after it became clear that Pauli would never be able to pay him back. Butler provided for Pauli for 30 years, but Pauli wouldn’t even tell Butler where he lived or whether he was making any money lawyering at the Bar. They “never met except when Pauli came over to lunch at Butler’s early dinner in Clifford’s Inn.”

Sunday walks

Butler would take the train out to the country and go on long walks on Sunday. “He used to take something to eat in a sandwich box and get his beer in a public-house.” He was accompanied by his cousin Worsley, Jones, and sometimes Jones’s brother and a few others. On one of these walks “he had a homoeopathic medicine bottle full of Worcester sauce in his watch pocket. In getting over a stile he slipped and fell so that the bottle cracked one of his ribs, and it was a long time before he was able to breathe freely.”

Seeing London get electricity

[March 1879]- “I went the other night to see the British Museum lit with the electric light, the superintendent of the Reading Room having offered me a ticket; it looked very well; and I also went last night to the Albert Hall… and there I found more electric light, but not so good as at the British Museum.”

And yet only a few years later, Jones is still noting hearing the watchman, Tom, “going his rounds and calling the hours: ‘Past three o’clock and a stormy morning.'” Later Jones meets Tom who tells him that between midnight and six AM he doesn’t call very loud for fear of disturbing the gentlemen.

Other notes

“When I was going over to America with [Lord Houghton] he asked me what I thought of the Americans. I said I did not know ; but I had seen them eating rhubarb in the month of July, and it had made a great impression on me.” (Butler lives in Montreal for a few years trying to save a company he’s invested lots of money in from going under, unsuccessfully).

I highly approve of the format of the memoir where every page has a small notation of what year is being discussed and the abbreviation “Aet.” to show what age Butler was. I have had to do the quick math myself countless times when reading bios so appreciate this previously common technique which has fallen out of favor.

Butler quotes his cousin’s laundress about how things will eventually turn out ok: “It will all come right in the wash.”

Butler was also a talented painter; his Mr. Heatherley’s Holiday was in the National Gallery before being acquired by the Tate in 1911:

Butler’s room, from a photograph he took
A corner of his sitting room

Drives My Green Age

Beautifully written book from the perspective of a Kansas girl (Chris) on the cusp of puberty who lives with her aunt and uncle, a new teacher comes to town and boards with them so Chris is able to see how a man creeps into her teacher’s room at night, and one spring night watches them go at it in the backyard, setting in motion the ouster of the teacher from the house, which means her sick uncle won’t have to climb the stairs to a bed anymore. She’s precocious, dreaming up a sermon she wants to give that centers around the Bible verse “O God, shatter their teeth in their mouths.” Her best friend is a year older and getting breasts and a boyfriend and Chris realizes this is the last year of her childhood. The writing will make you swoon: “There was nothing left of summer but the last hot September pocket which opened a stitch at a time into fall.”