Mon 29 Mar 2010
Beat poet and literary critic Kenneth Rexroth (1905-82) of San Francisco back in the 1960s wrote a column called Classics Revisited for the now-defunct Saturday Review. In the spirit of Rexroth’s column, I myself would now like to revisit a modern classic.
In 1970, the poet W.H. Auden published A Certain World: a Commonplace Book. Auden (1907-73) was born and educated in England but in 1946 became a US citizen. Many people consider him one of the best poets of the last century.
Incredibly well read, Auden over the years collected telling quotations from numerous sources, and his commonplace book presents them arranged by topic in alphabetical order.
The poet said he compiled the book instead of writing his memoirs because “biographies of writers, whether written by others or themselves, are always superfluous and usually in bad taste…. [A writer’s] private life is, or should be, of no concern to anybody except himself, his family, and his friends.” Nonetheless, A Certain World is revealing as to what influenced, interested and amused Auden.
Some thoughts on money, for example:
• “You will never find people laboring to convince you that you may live very happily upon a plentiful fortune.” — Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-84), English essayist and lexicographer
• “Many priceless things can be bought.” — Baroness Marie Von Ebner-Eschenbach (1830-1916), Austrian writer
• “Two evenings spent at La Scala, Milan, one of them standing up, the other sitting down. On the first evening, I was continually conscious of the existence of the spectators who were seated. On the second evening, I was completely unaware of the spectators who were standing up (and of those who were seated also).” — Simone Weil (1909-43), French philosopher and social activist, seen at right
• “I am not sure just what the unpardonable sin is, but I believe it is a disposition to evade the payment of small bills.” — Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915), American writer and publisher
• “If the rich could hire other people to die for them, the poor could make a wonderful living.” — Yiddish proverb
• “Many promising reconciliations have broken down because, while both parties came prepared to forgive, neither party came prepared to be forgiven.” — Charles Williams (1886-1945), British writer
• “No one ever forgets where he buried the hatchet.” — Kin Hubbard (1886-1930), American humorist and journalist
On the human face:
• “If the eyes are often the organ through which the intelligence shines, the nose is generally the organ which most readily publishes stupidity. ” — Marcel Proust (1871-1922), French novelist, seen at right
• “Our notion of symmetry is derived from the human face. Hence, we demand symmetry horizontally and in breadth only, not vertically nor in depth.” — Blaise Pascal (1623-62), French scientist and philosopher
• “When indifferent, the eye takes stills, when interested, movies.” — Malcolm de Chazal (1902-81), Mauritian writer and painter
• “The wink was not our best invention.” — Ralph Hodgson (1871-1962), English poet
On immaculate conception:
• “Behind this ingenious doctrine lies, I cannot help suspecting, a not very savory wish to make the Mother of God an Honorary Gentile. As if we didn’t all know perfectly well that the Holy Ghost and Our Lady both speak British English, He with an Oxford, She with a Yiddish, accent.” — Auden, seen below
I’ve seen them listed for $5.65 hardbound, with copies in mint condition for $22.95. I paid more than that 30 years ago when I bought a paperback copy in a London bookstore.