“Wells” — Alice Meynell

“Wells”

by

Alice Meynell

 

The world at present is inclined to make sorry mysteries or unattractive secrets of the methods and supplies of the fresh and perennial means of life.  A very dull secret is made of water, for example, and the plumber sets his seal upon the floods whereby we live.  They are covered, they are carried, they are hushed, from the spring to the tap; and when their voices are released at last in the London scullery, why, it can hardly be said that the song is eloquent of the natural source of waters, whether earthly or heavenly.  There is not one of the circumstances of this capture of streams—the company, the water-rate, and the rest—that is not a sign of the ill-luck of modern devices in regard to style.  For style implies a candour and simplicity of means, an action, a gesture, as it were, in the doing of small things; it is the ignorance of secret ways; whereas the finish of modern life and its neatness seem to be secured by a system of little shufflings and surprises.

Dress, among other things, is furnished throughout with such fittings; they form its very construction.  Style does not exist in modern arrayings, for all their prettiness and precision, and for all the successes—which are not to be denied—of their outer part; the happy little swagger that simulates style is but another sign of its absence, being prepared by mere dodges and dexterities beneath, and the triumph and success of the present art of raiment—“fit” itself—is but the result of a masked and lurking labour and device.

The masters of fine manners, moreover, seem to be always aware of the beauty that comes of pausing slightly upon the smaller and slighter actions, such as meaner men are apt to hurry out of the way.  In a word, the workman, with his finish and accomplishment, is the dexterous provider of contemporary things; and the ready, well-appointed, and decorated life of all towns is now altogether in his hands; whereas the artist craftsman of other times made a manifestation of his means.  The first hides the streams, under stress and pressure, in paltry pipes which we all must make haste to call upon the earth to cover, and the second lifted up the arches of the aqueduct.

The search of easy ways to live is not always or everywhere the way to ugliness, but in some countries, at some dates, it is the sure way.  In all countries, and at all dates, extreme finish compassed by hidden means must needs, from the beginning, prepare the abolition of dignity.  This is easy to understand, but it is less easy to explain the ill-fortune that presses upon the expert workman, in search of easy ways to live, all the ill-favoured materials, makes them cheap for him, makes them serviceable and effectual, urges him to use them, seal them, and inter them, turning the trim and dull completeness out to the view of the daily world.  It is an added mischance.  Nor, on the other hand, is it easy to explain the beautiful good luck attending the simpler devices which are, after all, only less expert ways of labour.  In those happy conditions, neither from the material, suggesting to the workman, nor from the workman looking askance at his unhandsome material, comes a first proposal to pour in cement and make fast the underworld, out of sight.  But fate spares not that suggestion to the able and the unlucky at their task of making neat work of the means, the distribution, the traffick of life.

The springs, then, the profound wells, the streams, are of all the means of our lives those which we should wish to see open to the sun, with their waters on their progress and their way to us; but, no, they are lapped in lead.

King Pandion and his friends lie not under heavier seals.

Yet we have been delighted, elsewhere, by open floods.  The hiding-place that nature and the simpler crafts allot to the waters of wells are, at their deepest, in communication with the open sky.  No other mine is so visited; for the noonday sun himself is visible there; and it is fine to think of the waters of this planet, shallow and profound, all charged with shining suns, a multitude of waters multiplying suns, and carrying that remote fire, as it were, within their unalterable freshness.  Not a pool without this visitant, or without passages of stars.  As for the wells of the Equator, you may think of them in their last recesses as the daily bathing-places of light; a luminous fancy is able so to scatter fitful figures of the sun, and to plunge them in thousands within those deeps.

Round images lie in the dark waters, but in the bright waters the sun is shattered out of its circle, scattered into waves, broken across stones, and rippled over sand; and in the shallow rivers that fall through chestnut woods the image is mingled with the mobile figures of leaves.  To all these waters the agile air has perpetual access.  Not so can great towns be watered, it will be said with reason; and this is precisely the ill-luck of great towns.

Nevertheless, there are towns, not, in a sense, so great, that have the grace of visible wells; such as Venice, where every campo has its circle of carved stone, its clashing of dark copper on the pavement, its soft kiss of the copper vessel with the surface of the water below, and the cheerful work of the cable.

Or the Romans knew how to cause the parted floods to measure their plain with the strong, steady, and level flight of arches from the watersheds in the hills to the and city; and having the waters captive, they knew how to compel them to take part, by fountains, in this Roman triumph.  They had the wit to boast thus of their brilliant prisoner.

None more splendid came bound to Rome, or graced captivity with a more invincible liberty of the heart.  And the captivity and the leap of the heart of the waters have outlived their captors.  They have remained in Rome, and have remained alone.  Over them the victory was longer than empire, and their thousands of loud voices have never ceased to confess the conquest of the cold floods, separated long ago, drawn one by one, alive, to the head and front of the world.

Of such a transit is made no secret.  It was the most manifest fact of Rome.  You could not look to the city from the mountains or to the distance from the city without seeing the approach of those perpetual waters—waters bound upon daily tasks and minute services.  This, then, was the style of a master, who does not lapse from “incidental greatness,” has no mean precision, out of sight, to prepare the finish of his phrases, and does not think the means and the approaches are to be plotted and concealed.  Without anxiety, without haste, and without misgiving are all great things to be done, and neither interruption in the doing nor ruin after they are done finds anything in them to betray.  There was never any disgrace of means, and when the world sees the work broken through there is no disgrace of discovery.  The labour of Michelangelo’s chisel, little more than begun, a Roman structure long exposed in disarray—upon these the light of day looks full, and the Roman and the Florentine have their unrefuted praise.

David Foster Wallace’s blurbs as “a parallel history to the aesthetic agendas he set down elsewhere”

There’s been a bit of DFW overload in the wake of that movie, which has made me wary (and weary) of so many of the “thought pieces” out there. But I really dug Lucas Thompson’s essay “David Foster Wallace and ‘Blurbspeak'” in the L.A. Review of BooksFrom the article:

….I think there are three key reasons why it’s worth paying attention to these blurbs. For one thing, they work as an oblique record of Wallace’s evolving views on what literature is really for, comprising a parallel history to the aesthetic agendas he set down elsewhere. Read carefully, his blurbs reveal intriguing overlaps with these broader agendas, as well as gesturing to the particular qualities he valued in fiction. They also indicate an engagement with a surprising and often counterintuitive range of texts, hinting at Wallace’s broad intellectual interests. And finally, the blurbs themselves are in most cases finely crafted, elegant sentences, which may even represent one of the final frontiers of Wallace’s published — though uncollected — work. Although much of Wallace’s previously uncollected essays, teaching documents, and other work have been published in recent years, the twenty-odd blurbs he composed across his career have, in my opinion, been unfairly neglected. The following survey makes a case for giving these blurbs a closer look.

Some violence is done when I rejoice or grieve at a gift (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

He is a good man, who can receive a gift well. We are either glad or sorry at a gift, and both emotions are unbecoming. Some violence, I think, is done, some degradation borne, when I rejoice or grieve at a gift. I am sorry when my independence is invaded, or when a gift comes from such as do not know my spirit, and so the act is not supported; and if the gift pleases me overmuch, then I should be ashamed that the donor should read my heart, and see that I love his commodity, and not him. The gift, to be true, must be the flowing of the giver unto me, correspondent to my flowing unto him. When the waters are at level, then my goods pass to him, and his to me. All his are mine, all mine his. I say to him, How can you give me this pot of oil, or this flagon of wine, when all your oil and wine is mine, which belief of mine this gift seems to deny? Hence the fitness of beautiful, not useful things for gifts. This giving is flat usurpation, and therefore when the beneficiary is ungrateful, as all beneficiaries hate all Timons,not at all considering the value of the gift, but looking back to the greater store it was taken from, I rather sympathize with the beneficiary, than with the anger of my lord, Timon. For, the expectation of gratitude is mean, and is continually punished by the total insensibility of the obliged person. It is a great happiness to get off without injury and heart-burning, from one who has had the ill luck to be served by you. It is a very onerous business,this of being served, and the debtor naturally wishes to give you a slap. A golden text for these gentlemen is that which I admire in the Buddhist, who never thanks, and who says, “Do not flatter your benefactors.”

From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Manners.”

“An Apology for Idlers,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s defense of idle time

“An Apology for Idlers”
by

Robert Louis Stevenson


Boswell: We grow weary when idle.”

Johnson: That is, sir, because others being busy, we want company; but if we were idle, there would be no growing weary; we should all entertain one another.”

Just now, when every one is bound, under pain of a decree in absence convicting them of lèse-respectability, to enter on some lucrative profession, and labour therein with something not far short of enthusiasm, a cry from the opposite party who are content when they have enough, and like to look on and enjoy in the meanwhile, savours a little of bravado and gasconade.  And yet this should not be.  Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself.  It is admitted that the presence of people who refuse to enter in the great handicap race for sixpenny pieces, is at once an insult and a disenchantment for those who do.  A fine fellow (as we see so many) takes his determination, votes for the sixpences, and in the emphatic Americanism, it “goes for” them.  And while such an one is ploughing distressfully up the road, it is not hard to understand his resentment, when he perceives cool persons in the meadows by the wayside, lying with a handkerchief over their ears and a glass at their elbow.  Alexander is touched in a very delicate place by the disregard of Diogenes.  Where was the glory of having taken Rome for these tumultuous barbarians, who poured into the Senate house, and found the Fathers sitting silent and unmoved by their success?  It is a sore thing to have laboured along and scaled the arduous hilltops, and when all is done, find humanity indifferent to your achievement.  Hence physicists condemn the unphysical; financiers have only a superficial toleration for those who know little of stocks; literary persons despise the unlettered; and people of all pursuits combine to disparage those who have none. Continue reading ““An Apology for Idlers,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s defense of idle time”

“A Human World” — Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“A Human World”

by

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

(from Our Androcentric Culutre; or, The Man Made World)


In the change from the dominance of one sex to the equal power of two, to what may we look forward? What effect upon civilization is to be expected from the equality of womanhood in the human race?

To put the most natural question first—what will men lose by it? Many men are genuinely concerned about this; fearing some new position of subservience and disrespect. Others laugh at the very idea of change in their position, relying as always on the heavier fist. So long as fighting was the determining process, the best fighter must needs win; but in the rearrangement of processes which marks our age, superior physical strength does not make the poorer wealthy, nor even the soldier a general.

The major processes of life to-day are quite within the powers of women; women are fulfilling their new relations more and more successfully; gathering new strength, new knowledge, new ideals. The change is upon us; what will it do to men?

No harm.

As we are a monogamous race, there will be no such drastic and cruel selection among competing males as would eliminate the vast majority as unfit. Even though some be considered unfit for fatherhood, all human life remains open to them. Perhaps the most important feature of this change comes in right here; along this old line of sex-selection, replacing that power in the right hands, and using it for the good of the race.

The woman, free at last, intelligent, recognizing her real place and responsibility in life as a human being, will be not less, but more, efficient as a mother. She will understand that, in the line of physical evolution, motherhood is the highest process; and that her work, as a contribution to an improved race, must always involve this great function. She will see that right parentage is the purpose of the whole scheme of sex-relationship, and act accordingly.

In our time, his human faculties being sufficiently developed, civilized man can look over and around his sex limitations, and begin to see what are the true purposes and methods of human life. Continue reading ““A Human World” — Charlotte Perkins Gilman”

“Men and Art” — Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“Men and Art”

by

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

(from Our Androcentric Culutre; or, The Man Made World)


Among the many counts in which women have been proven inferior to men in human development is the oft-heard charge that there are no great women artists. Where one or two are proudly exhibited in evidence, they are either pooh-poohed as not very great, or held to be the trifling exceptions which do but prove the rule.

Defenders of women generally make the mistake of over-estimating their performances, instead of accepting, and explaining, the visible facts. What are the facts as to the relation of men and women to art? And what, in especial, has been the effect upon art of a solely masculine expression?

When we look for the beginnings of art, we find ourselves in a period of crude decoration of the person and of personal belongings. Tattooing, for instance, is an early form of decorative art, still in practice among certain classes, even in advanced people. Most boys, if they are in contact with this early art, admire it, and wish to adorn themselves therewith; some do so—to later mortification. Early personal decoration consisted largely in direct mutilation of the body, and the hanging upon it, or fastening to it, of decorative objects. This we see among savages still, in its gross and primitive forms monopolized by men, then shared by women, and, in our time, left almost wholly to them. In personal decoration today, women are still near the savage. The “artists” developed in this field of art are the tonsorial, the sartorial, and all those specialized adorners of the body commonly known as “beauty doctors.” Continue reading ““Men and Art” — Charlotte Perkins Gilman”

“The Golden Poppy,” an essay by Jack London

“The Golden Poppy”

by

Jack London

I have a poppy field.  That is, by the grace of God and the good-nature of editors, I am enabled to place each month divers gold pieces into a clerical gentleman’s hands, and in return for said gold pieces I am each month reinvested with certain proprietary-rights in a poppy field.  This field blazes on the rim of the Piedmont Hills.  Beneath lies all the world.  In the distance, across the silver sweep of bay, San Francisco smokes on her many hills like a second Rome.  Not far away, Mount Tamalpais thrusts a rugged shoulder into the sky; and midway between is the Golden Gate, where sea mists love to linger.  From the poppy field we often see the shimmering blue of the Pacific beyond, and the busy ships that go for ever out and in.

“We shall have great joy in our poppy field,” said Bess.  “Yes,” said I; “how the poor city folk will envy when they come to see us, and how we will make all well again when we send them off with great golden armfuls!”

“But those things will have to come down,” I added, pointing to numerous obtrusive notices (relics of the last tenant) displayed conspicuously along the boundaries, and bearing, each and all, this legend:

Private GroundsNo Trespassing.”

“Why should we refuse the poor city folk a ramble over our field, because, forsooth, they have not the advantage of our acquaintance?”

“How I abhor such things,” said Bess; “the arrogant symbols of power.”

“They disgrace human nature,” said I.

“They shame the generous landscape,” she said, “and they are abominable.”

“Piggish!” quoth I, hotly.  “Down with them!” Continue reading ““The Golden Poppy,” an essay by Jack London”

“On Being in Love” — Jerome K. Jerome

“On Being in Love”

by

Jerome K. Jerome

You’ve been in love, of course! If not you’ve got it to come. Love is like the measles; we all have to go through it. Also like the measles, we take it only once. One never need be afraid of catching it a second time. The man who has had it can go into the most dangerous places and play the most foolhardy tricks with perfect safety. He can picnic in shady woods, ramble through leafy aisles, and linger on mossy seats to watch the sunset. He fears a quiet country-house no more than he would his own club. He can join a family party to go down the Rhine. He can, to see the last of a friend, venture into the very jaws of the marriage ceremony itself. He can keep his head through the whirl of a ravishing waltz, and rest afterward in a dark conservatory, catching nothing more lasting than a cold. He can brave a moonlight walk adown sweet-scented lanes or a twilight pull among the somber rushes. He can get over a stile without danger, scramble through a tangled hedge without being caught, come down a slippery path without falling. He can look into sunny eyes and not be dazzled. He listens to the siren voices, yet sails on with unveered helm. He clasps white hands in his, but no electric “Lulu”-like force holds him bound in their dainty pressure.

No, we never sicken with love twice. Cupid spends no second arrow on the same heart. Love’s handmaids are our life-long friends. Respect, and admiration, and affection, our doors may always be left open for, but their great celestial master, in his royal progress, pays but one visit and departs. We like, we cherish, we are very, very fond of—but we never love again. A man’s heart is a firework that once in its time flashes heavenward. Meteor-like, it blazes for a moment and lights with its glory the whole world beneath. Then the night of our sordid commonplace life closes in around it, and the burned-out case, falling back to earth, lies useless and uncared for, slowly smoldering into ashes. Once, breaking loose from our prison bonds, we dare, as mighty old Prometheus dared, to scale the Olympian mount and snatch from Phoebus’ chariot the fire of the gods. Happy those who, hastening down again ere it dies out, can kindle their earthly altars at its flame. Love is too pure a light to burn long among the noisome gases that we breathe, but before it is choked out we may use it as a torch to ignite the cozy fire of affection. Continue reading ““On Being in Love” — Jerome K. Jerome”

The ideal logotopia (William H. Gass)

In the ideal logotopia, every person would possess his own library and add at least weekly if not daily to it. The walls of each home would seem made of books; wherever one looked one would only see spines; because every real book (as opposed to dictionaries, almanacs, and other compilations) is a mind, an imagination, a consciousness. Together they compose a civilization, or even several. Utopias, however, have the bad habit of hiding in their hearts those schemes for success, those requirements of power, rules concerning conduct, which someone will one day have to carry forward, employ and enforce, in order to achieve them, and afterward, to maintain the continued purity of their Being. Books have taught me what true dominion, what right rule, is: It is like the freely given assent and labor of the reader who will dream the dreams of the deserving page and expect no more fee than the reward of its words.

From William H. Gass’s “Gutenberg’s Triumph: An Essay in Defense of the Book.”

“Rain” — Alice Meynell

“Rain”

by

Alice Meynell

Not excepting the falling stars—for they are far less sudden—there is nothing in nature that so outstrips our unready eyes as the familiar rain.  The rods that thinly stripe our landscape, long shafts from the clouds, if we had but agility to make the arrowy downward journey with them by the glancing of our eyes, would be infinitely separate, units, an innumerable flight of single things, and the simple movement of intricate points.

The long stroke of the raindrop, which is the drop and its path at once, being our impression of a shower, shows us how certainly our impression is the effect of the lagging, and not of the haste, of our senses.  What we are apt to call our quick impression is rather our sensibly tardy, unprepared, surprised, outrun, lightly bewildered sense of things that flash and fall, wink, and are overpast and renewed, while the gentle eyes of man hesitate and mingle the beginning with the close.  These inexpert eyes, delicately baffled, detain for an instant the image that puzzles them, and so dally with the bright progress of a meteor, and part slowly from the slender course of the already fallen raindrop, whose moments are not theirs.  There seems to be such a difference of instants as invests all swift movement with mystery in man’s eyes, and causes the past, a moment old, to be written, vanishing, upon the skies.

The visible world is etched and engraved with the signs and records of our halting apprehension; and the pause between the distant woodman’s stroke with the axe and its sound upon our ears is repeated in the impressions of our clinging sight.  The round wheel dazzles it, and the stroke of the bird’s wing shakes it off like a captivity evaded.  Everywhere the natural haste is impatient of these timid senses; and their perception, outrun by the shower, shaken by the light, denied by the shadow, eluded by the distance, makes the lingering picture that is all our art.  One of the most constant causes of all the mystery and beauty of that art is surely not that we see by flashes, but that nature flashes on our meditative eyes.  There is no need for the impressionist to make haste, nor would haste avail him, for mobile nature doubles upon him, and plays with his delays the exquisite game of visibility.

Momently visible in a shower, invisible within the earth, the ministration of water is so manifest in the coming rain-cloud that the husbandman is allowed to see the rain of his own land, yet unclaimed in the arms of the rainy wind.  It is an eager lien that he binds the shower withal, and the grasp of his anxiety is on the coming cloud.  His sense of property takes aim and reckons distance and speed, and even as he shoots a little ahead of the equally uncertain ground-game, he knows approximately how to hit the cloud of his possession.  So much is the rain bound to the earth that, unable to compel it, man has yet found a way, by lying in wait, to put his price upon it.  The exhaustible cloud “outweeps its rain,” and only the inexhaustible sun seems to repeat and to enforce his cumulative fires upon every span of ground, innumerable.  The rain is wasted upon the sea, but only by a fantasy can the sun’s waste be made a reproach to the ocean, the desert, or the sealed-up street.  Rossetti’s “vain virtues” are the virtues of the rain, falling unfruitfully.

Baby of the cloud, rain is carried long enough within that troubled breast to make all the multitude of days unlike each other.  Rain, as the end of the cloud, divides light and withholds it; in its flight warning away the sun, and in its final fall dismissing shadow.  It is a threat and a reconciliation; it removes mountains compared with which the Alps are hillocks, and makes a childlike peace between opposed heights and battlements of heaven.

“A Seventeenth-Century Story” — A. A. Milne

“A Seventeenth-Century Story”

by

A. A. Milne 

There is a story in every name in that first column of The Times- -Births, Marriages, and Deaths—down which we glance each morning, but, unless the name is known to us, we do not bother about the stories of other people. They are those not very interesting people, our contemporaries. But in a country churchyard a name on an old tombstone will set us wondering a little. What sort of life came to an end there a hundred years ago?

In the parish register we shall find the whole history of them; when they were born, when they were married, how many children they had, when they died—a skeleton of their lives which we can clothe with our fancies and make living again. Simple lives, we make them, in that pleasant countryside; “Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath”; that is all. Simple work, simple pleasures, and a simple death.

Of course we are wrong. There were passions and pains in those lives; tragedies perhaps. The tombstones and the registers say nothing of them; or, if they say it, it is in a cypher to which we have not the key. Yet sometimes the key is almost in our hands. Here is a story from the register of a village church— four entries only, but they hide a tragedy which with a little imagination we can almost piece together for ourselves. Continue reading ““A Seventeenth-Century Story” — A. A. Milne”