Sketch of the Life of Samuel Butler

How delightful to find this brief sketch of Butler’s life from the pen of his pal Henry Festing Jones in 1913. The 40-odd pages are found in the collection of essays Butler’s literary executor put forth as The Humour of Homer and Other Essays. Even better, in Jones’ note at the beginning, he’s hard at work on a full memoir about Butler, which I just tracked down. When SB returned to London in 1864 from his four years in New Zealand (having doubled his capital to £8000) “he took chambers consisting of a sitting-room, a bedroom, a painting-room, and a pantry, at 15 Clifford’s Inn, second floor (north)… [his income from investments] produced more than enough for him to live upon in the very simple way that suited him best, and life in the Inns of Court resembles life at Cambridge in that it reduces the cares of housekeeping to a minimum; it suited him so well that he never changed his rooms, remaining there thirty-eight years till his death.”

In a letter to a friend he’d made in New Zealand, Butler describes his life: “I live almost the life of a recluse, seeing very few people and going nowhere that I can help—I mean in the way of parties and so forth… I find that it is next to impossible to combine what is commonly called society and work.”

In 1886, Butler’s father died and his financial difficulties ended, but he made few changes to his life except to hire a clerk (Alfred Cathie) and buy a new hairbrush and a larger wash-hand basin. Jones says “Any change in his mode of life was an event,” before going on to describe his typical day: up at 6:30a in summer and 7:30a in winter, light a fire and put kettle on for water for his bath, dress, make tea and cook in his Dutch oven something he had bought the day before. Breakfast and read the Times. To the British Museum by 10:30a writing until 1:30p. 3 days a week he dined in a restaurant on the way home, the other 4 days he ate at home whatever his laundress had prepared. Tea, writing letters and attending to accounts with Alfred until 3:45p. At 5:30p he got his evening meal (he called it his tea), usually exactly what he’d had for breakfast. He wrote music until 8p, walked over to Jones’ rooms in Staple Inn, returning to Clifford’s Inn by 10p. After a piece of toast and glass of milk, he paid a game of Patience, prepped his breakfast and things for fire in the morning, smoked his last cigarette of the day and went to bed by 11pm.

On Thursdays he generally went into the country to sketch or walk, and on Sundays he nearly always went into the country walking; “his map of the district for 30 miles round London is covered all over with red lines showing where he had been. He sometimes went out of town from Saturday to Monday, and for over twenty years spent Christmas at Boulogne-sur-Mer.”

Jones met Butler in Italy in 1878 when they were both on the Sacro Monte above Varese, and every year after that they went to Italy together.

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This bit isn’t in the sketch but in Butler’s essay Quis Desiderio, too delicious to not put in here, a rejoinder I’ve been in need of for years: “I replied with modest pride that I was a Bachelor of Arts. I keep all my other letters inside my name, not outside.”

The Note-Books of Samuel Butler

I’m enamored with Sammy Butler and have discovered his notebooks, curated by his pal Henry Festing Jones in 1913 after Butler’s death (1902). The pages in this 100+ year old book are so thick that I would be ashamed to dogear them, so I’ve got post-it notes to lure me back to the hilarious and witty and sage advice he gathers in these pages. Jones’s preface tells us that Butler always carried a notebook to write down anything he wanted to remember, be it something someone said or usually something he himself said. He began to index these in 1874 and worked on organizing them up until his death, in five bound volumes. He wrote the notes in copying ink and gave a pressed copy to Jones for safekeeping in case of fire. Jones has culled these down to a single volume and organized them as he saw fit. Woolf’s comment on reading them: “I have just read a page or two of Samuel Butler’s notebooks… One rather craves brilliance & cantankerousness.”

What life in 1880s London was like

He had rooms in Clifford’s Inn and spent his evenings in his friend Jones’s rooms in Barnard’s Inn then walked home, thinking. He had a camera lucida that he considered using to take a photo of the demolition of Cock Tavern but decided not to (because of “all the trash that had been written about it” by Tennyson, whom he hated). He goes to the dentist and makes jokes about how his dentist always suggested using “the tooth-pick freely” and “the spirit twice a day.” He bought “ready-made boots” that the shopman says are too large for him, but this is how he avoids corns. Fires are events: “I was at one the other night and heard a man say ‘That corner stack is alight now quite nicely.’ People’s sympathies seem generally to be with the fire so long as no one is in danger of being burned.” On Sundays he would go on walks with a friend and then stop by a public-house for beer. The elderly wife of the owner said she hoped she wouldn’t die soon, “You see, I am beginning now to know how to live.” He eavesdrops on a man saying to another, “I went to live there just about the time that beer came down from 5d to 4d a pot. That will give you an idea of when it was.”

His list of humorous ideas for stories

  • The Diseases and Ordinary Causes of Mortality among Friendships.
  • The finding a lot of old photographs at Herculaneum or Thebes; and they should turn out to be of no interest.
  • On the points of resemblance and difference between the dropping off of leaves from a tree and the dropping off of guests from a dinner or a concert.
  • The Complete Drunkard. He would not give money to sober people, he said they would only eat it and send their children to school with it.

Life

  • Life is one long process of getting tired.
  • My days run through me as water through a sieve.
  • The body is but a pair of pincers set over a bellows and a stewpan and the whole fixed upon stilts.
  • Always eat grapes downwards—that is, always eat the best grape first; in this way there will be none better left on the bunch, and each grape will seem good down to the last. If you eat the other way, you will not have a good grape in the lot. Besides, you will be tempting Providence to kill you before you come to the best. This is why autumn seems better than spring: in the autumn we are eating our days downwards, in the spring each day still seems “Very bad.” People should live on this principle more than they do, but they do live on it a good deal; from the age of, say, fifty we eat our days downwards.
  • A man’s style in any art should be like his dress—it should attract as little attention as possible.
  • In addition to all that I inherit from past generations [music, science, art] I receive from my own everything that makes life worth living—London, with its infinite sources of pleasure and amusement, good theatres, concerts, picture galleries, the British Museum Reading-Room, newspapers, a comfortable dwelling, railways and, above all, the society of the friends I value.
  • Every one should keep a mental waste-paper basket and the older he grows the more things he will consign to it—torn up to irrecoverable tatters.

Money

  • Money is the last enemy that shall never be subdued. While there is flesh there is money—or the want of money; but money is always on the brain so long as there is a brain in reasonable order.
  • A man will feel loss of money more keenly than loss of bodily health, so long as he can keep his money. Take his money away and deprive him of the means of earning any more, and his health will soon break up; but leave him his money and, even though his health breaks up and he dies, he does not mind it so much as we think. Money losses are the worst, loss of health is next worst and loss of reputation comes in a bad third. All other things are amusements provided money, health and good name are untouched.

Words

  • We want words to do more than they can. We try to do with them what comes to very much like trying to mend a watch with a pickaxe or to paint a miniature with a mop; we expect them to help us to grip and dissect that which in ultimate essence is as ungrippable as shadow. Nevertheless there they are; we have got to live with them, and the wise course is to treat them as we do our neighbours, and make the best and not the worst of them. But they are parvenu people as compared with thought and action. What we should read is not the words but the man whom we feel to be behind the words.
  • All words are juggles. To call a thing a juggle of words is often a bigger juggle than the juggle it is intended to complain of. The question is whether it is a greater juggle than is generally considered fair trading.
  • Words are like money; there is nothing so useless, unless when in actual use.
  • Gold and silver coins are only the tokens, symbols, outward and visible signs and sacraments of money. When not in actual process of being applied in purchase they are no more money than words not in use are language. Books are like imprisoned souls until some one takes them down from a shelf and reads them. The coins are potential money as the words are potential language, it is the power and will to apply the counters that make them vibrate with life; when the power and the will are in abeyance the counters lie dead as a log.
  • The arts of the musician, the painter and the writer are essentially the same. In composing a fugue, after you have exposed your subject, which must not be too unwieldy, you introduce an episode or episodes which must arise out of your subject. The great thing is that all shall be new, and yet nothing new, at the same time; the details must minister to the main effect and not obscure it; in other words, you must have a subject, develop it and not wander from it very far. This holds just as true for literature and painting and for art of all kinds. No man should try even to allude to the greater part of what he sees in his subject, and there is hardly a limit to what he may omit. What is required is that he shall say what he elects to say discreetly; that he shall be quick to see the gist of a matter, and give it pithily without either prolixity or stint of words.

Writing

  • Fortunately for me there are no academies for teaching people how to write books, or I should have fallen into them as I did into those for painting and, instead of writing, should have spent my time and money in being told that I was learning how to write. If I had one thing to say to students before I died (I mean, if I had got to die, but might tell students one thing first) I should say: “Don’t learn to do, but learn in doing. Let your falls not be on a prepared ground, but let them be bona fide falls in the rough and tumble of the world; only, of course, let them be on a small scale in the first instance till you feel your feet safe under you. Act more and rehearse less.”
  • Think of and look at your work as though it were done by your enemy. If you look at it to admire it you are lost.
  • I never knew a writer yet who took the smallest pains with his style and was at the same time readable. Plato’s having had seventy shies at one sentence is quite enough to explain to me why I dislike him. A man may, and ought to take a great deal of pains to write clearly, tersely and euphemistically: he will write many a sentence three or four times over—to do much more than this is worse than not rewriting at all: he will be at great pains to see that he does not repeat himself, to arrange his matter in the way that shall best enable the reader to master it, to cut out superfluous words and, even more, to eschew irrelevant matter: but in each case he will be thinking not of his own style but of his reader’s convenience… I should like to put it on record that I never took the smallest pains with my style, have never thought about it, and do not know or want to know whether it is a style at all or whether it is not, as I believe and hope, just common, simple straightforwardness. I cannot conceive how any man can take thought for his style without loss to himself and his readers.

Music & Street Noise

  • I should like to like Schumann’s music better than I do; I dare say I could make myself like it better if I tried; but I do not like having to try to make myself like things; I like things that make me like them at once and no trying at all.
  • People say the generous British public supported Handel.  It did nothing of the kind.  On the contrary, for some 30 years it did its best to ruin him, twice drove him to bankruptcy, badgered him till in 1737 he had a paralytic seizure which was as near as might be the death of him and, if he had died then, we should have no Israel, nor Messiah, nor Samson, nor any of his greatest oratorios.  The British public only relented when he had become old and presently blind.  Handel, by the way, is a rare instance of a man doing his greatest work subsequently to an attack of paralysis.  What kept Handel up was not the public but the court.  It was the pensions given him by George I and George II that enabled him to carry on at all.  So that, in point of fact, it is to these two very prosaic kings that we owe the finest musical poems the world knows anything about.
  • My St. Dunstan’s bells near Clifford’s Inn play doleful hymn tunes which enter in at my window; I not only do not dislike them, but rather like them; they are so silly and the bells are out of tune. I never yet was annoyed by either bells or street music except when a loud piano organ strikes up outside the public-house opposite my bedroom window after I am in bed and when I am just going to sleep.

America

  • America will have her geniuses, as every other country has, in fact she has already had one in Walt Whitman, but I do not think America is a good place in which to be a genius. A genius can never expect to have a good time anywhere, if he is a genuine article, but America is about the last place in which life will be endurable at all for an inspired writer of any kind.

The Odyssey & The Iliad

  • They say no woman could possibly have written the Odyssey.  To me, on the other hand, it seems even less possible that a man could have done so.  As for its being by a practised and elderly writer, nothing but youth and inexperience could produce anything so naïve and so lovely.  That is where the work will suffer by my translation.  I am male, practised and elderly, and the trail of sex, age and experience is certain to be over my translation.  If the poem is ever to be well translated, it must be by some high-spirited English girl who has been brought up at Athens and who, therefore, has not been jaded by academic study of the language.
  • When I returned from Calais last December, after spending Christmas at Boulogne according to my custom, the sea was rough as I crossed to Dover and, having a cold upon me, I went down into the second-class cabin, cleared the railway books off one of the tables, spread out my papers and continued my translation, or rather analysis, of the Iliad.  Several people of all ages and sexes were on the sofas and they soon began to be sea-sick.  There was no steward, so I got them each a basin and placed it for them as well as I could; then I sat down again at my table in the middle and went on with my translation while they were sick all round me.  I had to get the Iliad well into my head before I began my lecture on The Humour of Homer and I could not afford to throw away a couple of hours, but I doubt whether Homer was ever before translated under such circumstances.

Art & Traveling

He got into a discussion about art with some strangers while traveling, and everyone threw names as if they were playing cards. “They played Raffaelle as a safe card…” “Then they played Leonardo Da Vinci. I had not intended saying how cordially I dislike him… As for his caricatures he should not have done them, much less preserved them; the fact of his having set store by them was enough to show that there was a screw loose about him somewhere and that he had no sense of humour. Still, I admitted that I liked him better than I did Michael Angelo.”

Erewhon

Samuel Butler’s 1872 novel imagines a forgotten civilization tucked away behind a few mountain ranges in New Zealand. Our hero discovers it when trying to find more land to graze sheep on, after a three week camping trip with a native once the sheep-shearing season is over. These are the best parts of the book, the journey to try and discover new lands, and then once he’s discovered by the Erewhonians. But it dulls once he launches into his main theme, which is to skewer social norms by way of this pseudo-utopian society. In this society, if you get sick, you’re a criminal, but embezzling funds is treated as if it were a physical ailment from which you could recover, topsy turvy to our world. Machines have been outlawed, and our hero’s watch is confiscated immediately upon arrival. Banks circulate worthless currency that everyone pretends to believe in. It’s a crime to be born. The college is called the College of Unreason (needless to say, this book was influential on Orwell).

The Way of All Flesh

Is there a better delight than unearthing a book that you’d never heard of but that is considered “one of the summits of human achievement” by Shaw, “one of the time bombs of literature” by V.S. Pritchett, better than “some of the masterpieces of English fiction” by Woolf? (Woolf’s 1916 review of his biography notes that Samuel Butler “is one of those rare spirits among the dead whom we like… as we do the living, so strong is their individuality and so clearly can we make up our minds about their manners and opinions.”) I stumbled onto this book by way of the 1924 Who Would Be Free, where the book made a huge impact on the main character. And lo, it appears to be on a list of the best 100 novels of all time!

Published posthumously in 1903 so as not to offend his family, it’s semi-autobiographical, a tale of a promising young boy thrust into the clergy and eventually estranged from his domineering pastor father. Unbeknownst to him, his aunt has left him a fortune to come to him upon his 28th birthday, and his godfather Overton (the book’s narrator) oversees the funds until then. The writing is a delight, so fresh and modern for having been written in the 1870s. His passage on marriage can’t be left without note:

A man’s friendships are, like his will, invalidated by marriage—but they are also no less invalidated by the marriage of his friends.  The rift in friendship which invariably makes its appearance on the marriage of either of the parties to it was fast widening, as it no less invariably does, into the great gulf which is fixed between the married and the unmarried, and I was beginning to leave my protégé to a fate with which I had neither right nor power to meddle.  In fact I had begun to feel him rather a burden; I did not so much mind this when I could be of use, but I grudged it when I could be of none.  He had made his bed and he must lie upon it.  Ernest had felt all this and had seldom come near me till now, one evening late in 1860, he called on me, and with a very woebegone face told me his troubles.

As soon as I found that he no longer liked his wife I forgave him at once, and was as much interested in him as ever.  There is nothing an old bachelor likes better than to find a young married man who wishes he had not got married—especially when the case is such an extreme one that he need not pretend to hope that matters will come all right again, or encourage his young friend to make the best of it.