Category Archives: Charles Dickens

damning with faint praise

 

 

Consider … the most popular novelist in the English language–Charles Dickens. His characters are types, not people. With some honorable exceptions like Great Expectations and David Copperfield; his plots are unwieldy and ultimately uninvolving. He exposed alarming social conditions, but these have, for the most part, been taken care of. His comic set pieces, no doubt side-splitting in their day, are coming up on 150 years old and read like it; his sentimentality handed Oscar Wilde his best moment in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. (“One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”)

— Ben Yagoda, The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing (HarperResource, 2004)

To be fair, Yagoda does proceed to praise Dickens for his style. He states: “So why could you roam the Contemporary Fiction shelves at Barnes & Noble for a year and still not find a writer as stirring and alive? Benjamin Disraeli suggested the answer when he observed, ‘It is style alone by which posterity will judge of a great work.’ ” He provides an example of the opening paragraphs of Bleak House.

Yagoda goes on to say:

Flaubert used to submit his sentences to what he called la guelade—the shouting test. He would go out to an avenue of lime trees near his house and proclaim what he’d written at the top of his lungs, the better to see if the prose conformed to the ideal that was in his head. Try that with Dickens’s words. Or, maybe better yet, type them out (as I just did), the better to fall under the spell of this mordant, funny, metaphor-mad, and itchily omniscient voice.

I disagree (overall with Yagoda’s assessment, that is, not with the above paragraph). Charles Dickens is not still read (and, he will continue to be read, long after writers such as J K. Rowling, John Grisham, and Stephen King will be forgotten) because of style alone.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

I agree with Yagoda about Dickens’s “mordant, funny, metaphor-mad, and itchily omniscient voice.” This is well put and totally on target. But, Yagoda has gravely underestimated Dickens. True, his characters are, in a sense, “types,” but in their “improbability” and eccentricity, they are exactly just the opposite of improbable; they are realer than real, completely believable.

Dickens’s plots may perhaps be described as “unwieldy”; they do seem at times contrived. (This was also true of many other great nineteenth-century novelists. Think Les Misérables.) But, “ultimately uninvolving”? No way.

“He exposed alarming social conditions, but these have, for the most part, been taken care of.” So what? The works of a great novelist involve us on many levels, and their function as social commentary/criticism does not wither away over time. (Again, think Les Misérables.)

“His comic set pieces, no doubt side-splitting in their day. …” This is uninformed criticism. A main reason to read Dickens is for his HUMOR. Still true. Completely.

 

*****************************************************

 

The first rule for a newly minted MD is “do no harm.” The first rule for anyone purporting to opine on literature or writing is READ.

You cannot learn how to write or how to judge writing without reading.

This includes the greats. In fact, you will never fully comprehend the above parameters of writing and literature without reading the greats. This means to fully engage with them.

Charles Dickens, for example.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    January 2018

 

 

 

a lover of humanity awash on a sea of words

 

Charles Dickens, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Chapter II

Mr. Pickwick and his companions visit the towns Stroud, Rochester, Chatham, and Brompton:

“The principal productions of these towns,” says Mr. Pickwick, “appear to be soldiers, sailors, Jews, chalk, shrimps, officers, and dockyard men. The commodities chiefly exposed for sale in the public streets are marine stores, hard-bake,* apples, flat-fish, and oysters. The streets present a lively and animated appearance, occasioned chiefly by the conviviality of the military. It is truly delightful to a philanthropic** mind to see these gallant men staggering along under the influence of an overflow, both of animal and ardent spirits;*** more especially when we remember that the following them about, and jesting with them, affords a cheap and innocent amusement for the boy population. Nothing … can exceed their good humour.”

“The consumption of tobacco in these towns (continues Mr. Pickwick) must be very great; and the smell which pervades the streets must be exceedingly delicious to those who are extremely fond of smoking. A superficial traveller might object to the dirt which is their leading characteristic; but to those who view it as an indication of traffic and commercial prosperity, it is truly gratifying.”

 

* hard-bake — a sweetmeat of sugar or molasses and almonds

** philanthropic — meant sarcastically; read naïve

*** ardent spirits — most likely, gin

 

 

*****************************************************

 

Charles Dickens:

a tremendous appetite for life

which he loves and never abhors

actual human life (vices included), free from meddlers’ eyes and hands

drunk on language

awash on a sea of words, flowing from the brain of a master storyteller and literary genius

 

Roger W. Smith

   January 2018

the wrong word?

 

 

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.”

 

— Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas

 

 

 

I have always have felt that “sinner” is the wrong word here and have mentioned this now and then to some English professors. No one ever responded. They didn’t care, apparently. Perhaps because they don’t teach Victorian lit, or don’t like A Christmas Carol. (Maybe they find it not worth deconstructing.) Who knows?

I queried family members about this over the past few days. We had the following exchange.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

Hi, everyone.

Regarding the above Dickens passage, I always have felt that “sinner” is the wrong word here. Any thoughts?

 

 

*****************************************************

 

My brother wrote back: “With what would you replace it?”

 

 

*****************************************************

 

I responded to my brother as follows:

 

 

Thanks for the email. To answer you as best I can:

 

Dickens wrote:

 

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change [by which slang term Dickens meant what we would nowadays call the Stock Exchange], for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. …

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain. …

Scrooge never painted out Old Marley’s name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the ware-house door: Scrooge and Marley. The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley. Sometimes people new to the business called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes Marley, but he answered to both names. It was all the same to him.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner. Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often came down handsomely, and Scrooge never did.

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Scrooge, how are you. When will you come to see me.” No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blindmen’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master! ”

But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call nuts to Scrooge.

 

A Christmas Carol, Stave I, “Marley’s Ghost”

 

What I think:

 

There is nothing in this passage to indicate that Scrooge was immoral, which is how “sinner” is commonly understood. The passage instead conveys, unmistakably, with no other inferences, that Scrooge was a cold fish devoid of human feeling.

We learn throughout the story that Scrooge is uncaring to persons such as his clark, Bob Cratchit; hard edged as a businessman; and feared by his creditors. He lacks the virtue of Christian charity or “fellow feeling,” but he does not appear to have vices normally associated with sinners.

 

I think better would be:

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old ____”

 

miser?

skinflint?

misanthrope?

 

I think “misanthrope” would actually be the best choice.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

A conclusion (as I view it)

 

The following are my thoughts subsequent to the email exchange:

Michael Slater, Charles Dickens’s biographer, describes A Christmas Carol as being “written at white heat.” It was completed in six weeks.

Dickens often wrote hastily, and was always pressured by deadlines (as are most writers).

It has been said that James Joyce (as related by Samuel Beckett, and told in Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce) spent a whole day writing and endlessly rewriting a single sentence of Ulysses (not Molly Bloom’s soliloquy).

Dickens, in contrast to perfectionists like Joyce and Flaubert, wrote hastily, without obsessing over niceties of style. He is a great stylist in his own way, I would be inclined to say, but his genius is broader in scope. Another writer who resembles him on a certain level is Balzac, who churned out novel after novel with characters such as Père Goriot invented out of whole cloth who were idiosyncratic and memorable for that reason — yet entirely human (not abstractions or papier-mâché characters), but you can never forget them or put his books down. (They are eminently readable). Yet, Balzac was a careless writer and seemed not to care about style.

What about Dickens? He outranks Balzac in genius and stature. But, he could occasionally be careless.

Which is a comforting thought for other writers, no?

I think I’m right. “Sinner’ was the wrong word here, and it rings false.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2017

a Christmas thought (and wish)

 

 

“I should be glad to hear … people’s estimate of the comparative danger of a ‘little learning’ and a vast amount of ignorance; I should be glad to know which is considered the most prolific parent of misery and crime. I should be glad to assist them in their calculations by carrying them into certain gaols and nightly refuges I know of, where my own heart dies within me, when I see thousands of immortal creatures condemned … by years of this wicked axiom.”

 

— Charles Dickens, address to the Manchester Athenaeum, October 5, 1843

 

 

*****************************************************

 

The film ends with an idealistic vision of a day: “when … prison bars wrought in the fires of intolerance -” will no longer prevail. Prisoners in striped uniforms in a long corridor shake their fists up toward a prison wall. “Instead of prison walls — Bloom flowery fields.” Brilliant light descends from above toward the exterior of a prison. The prisoners who are gesturing toward the wall suddenly move through it – the prison walls disappear. The exterior of the prison dissolves into an open country scene with a flowering field in the foreground, and mountains in the background.

— plot synopsis of closing scene, Act II of Intolerance (1916), a silent film directed by D. W. Griffith.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 23, 2017

writers: walkers

 

 

In a previous post of mine

 

“on walking (and exercise)”

https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/09/26/on-walking-and-exercise/

 

I wrote that “walking, as is well known, is conducive to thinking and creativity, which is why so many writers and intellectuals have always been walkers.”

Por favor, read on!

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

CHARLES DICKENS

 

Dickens was a man of abundant, restless energy. His chief exercise was walking, and his “daily constitutionals,” as he referred to his long walks, could extend as far as twenty to thirty miles each day. He once wrote, “My only comfort is, in Motion,” and told John Forster that “if I couldn’t walk fast and far, I should just explode and perish.” — gallery text, “Charles Dickens and the Spirit of Christmas,” exhibit at The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, November 2017

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

HENRY DAVID THOREAU

 

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least–and it is commonly more than that-–sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. … When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them–as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon–I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.

“Walking” (The Atlantic Monthly, June 1862)

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

WALT WHITMAN

 

“Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?”

“Song of the Open Road” (1856)

 

I too walked the streets of Manhattan Island, and
bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within
me,
In the day, among crowds of people, sometimes they
came upon me,
In my walks home late at night, or as I lay in my
bed, they came upon me.

“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1860)

 

My joys in the open air—my walks through the Mannahatta

“To My Soul” (1860)

 

I continually enjoy these streets, planned on such a generous scale, stretching far, without stop or turn, giving the eye vistas. I feel freer, larger in them. Not the squeezed limits of Boston, New-York, or even Philadelphia; but royal plenty and nature’s own bounty—American, prairie-like. It is worth writing a book about, this point alone. I often find it silently, curiously making up to me the absence of the ocean tumult of humanity I always enjoyed in New-York. Here, too, is largeness, in another more impalpable form; and I never walk Washington, day or night, without feeling its satisfaction.

In my walks I never cease finding new effects and pictures, and I believe it would continue so if I went rambling around here for fifty years.

Walt Whitman, Letter from Washington, New York Times, October 4, 1863

 

GIVE me the splendid silent sun, with all his beams full-
dazzling; ….
Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers,
where I can walk undisturb’d; …
While yet incessantly asking, still I adhere to my city;
Day upon day, and year upon year, O city, walking
your streets, …
Give me faces and streets! give me these phantoms incessant and endless along the trottoirs! …
Give me such shows! give me the streets of Manhattan!
Give me Broadway, with the soldiers marching—give
me the sound of the trumpets and drums! …
Give me the shores and the wharves heavy-fringed
with the black ships! …
People, endless, streaming, with strong voices, passions,
pageants;
Manhattan streets, with their powerful throbs, with the
beating drums, ….
Manhattan crowds with their turbulent musical chorus
—with varied chorus and light of the sparkling
eyes;
Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me.

“Give Me The Splendid Silent Sun” (1865)

 

NIGHT on the prairies;
The supper is over—the fire on the ground burns
low;
The wearied emigrants sleep, wrapt in their blankets;
I walk by myself—I stand and look at the stars,
which I think now I never realized before.

Leaves of Grass (1867)

 

My little dog is stretched out on the rug at full length, snoozing. He hardly lets me go a step without being close at my heels—follows me in my slow walks, & stops or turns just as I do.

letter from Whitman to his friend Pete Doyle, 26–27 March, 1874

 

SKIRTING the river road, (my languid forenoon walk, my rest,)

“The Dalliance of the Eagles” (1880)

 

I came down yesterday amid sousing rain & cloudy weather—but this forenoon it is sunshiny & delightful—I have just returned from a two hours ramble in the old woods—wintry & bare, & yet lots of holly & laurel—& I only wish I could send you some cedary branches thick with the china-blue little plums, so pretty amid the green tufts— … We had a flurry of snow last evening, & it looks wintry enough to-day, but the sun is out, & I take my walks in the woods.

letter from Whitman to Herbert Gilchrist, 30–31 December 1881

 

Thy windows rich, and huge hotels—thy side-walks wide;
Thou of the endless sliding, mincing, shuffling feet!
Thou, like the parti-colored world itself—like infinite, teeming,
mocking life!
Thou visor’d, vast, unspeakable show and lesson!

“Broadway” (1888)

 

Sunday, October 21, 1888.

7.20 evening. W. lying on the bed, dressed, I entered very quietly: stood there without a word. He had been dozing. Started up. “Come in! Come in!” After we had shaken hands he described his day: “… he [Whitman] asked: “And you—what have you done with the day?” I had been far in the country on a long walk. I said something about “the joy of going on and on and not getting tired.” This aroused him. “I can fully realize that joy—that untranslatable joy: I have known its meaning to the full. In the old days, long ago, I was fond of taking interminable walks—going on and on, as you say, without a stop or the thought of a stop. It was at that time, in Washington, that I got to know Peter Doyle—a Rebel, a car-driver, a soldier: have you met him here? seen him? talked with him? Ah yes! we would walk together for miles and miles, never sated. Often we would go on for some time without a word, then talk—Pete a rod ahead or I a rod ahead. Washington was then the grandest of all the cities for such strolls. In order to maintain the centrality, identity, authority, of the city, a whole chain of forts, barracks, was put about it and roads leading out to them. It was therefore owing to these facts that our walks were made easy. Oh! the long, long walks, way into the nights!—in the after hours—sometimes lasting till two or three in the morning! The air, the stars, the moon, the water—what a fullness of inspiration they imparted!—what exhilaration! And there were the detours, too—wanderings off into the country out of the beaten path: I remember one place in Maryland in particular to which we would go. How splendid, above all, was the moon—the full moon, the half moon: and then the wonder, the delight, of the silences.” He half sat up in bed as he spoke. “It was a great, a precious, a memorable, experience. To get the ensemble of Leaves of Grass you have got to include such things as these—the walks, Pete’s friendship: yes, such things: they are absolutely necessary to the completion of the story.”

Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Volume 2

 

Tuesday, November 20, 1888.

W. had another letter for me. He picked it up from the accustomed place on the table. “It’s from Rossetti,” he said: ” I’ve been reading it over: William Rossetti: full of wise beautiful things—overflowing with genial winsome good will: you ‘ll feel its treasurable quality.” I sat there and read. He said: “Read it aloud: I can easily enjoy it again.” When I got to the passage describing the walks W. interrupted me: “Oh! that’s so fine—so fine, fine, fine: he brings back my own walks to me: the walks alone: the walks with Pete [Doyle, Whitman’s friend]: the blessed past undying days: they make me hungry, tied up as I am now and for good in a room …

Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Volume 3

 

AH, whispering, something again, unseen,
Where late this heated day thou enterest at my window, door,
Thou, laving, tempering all, cool-freshing, gently vitalizing
Me, old, alone, sick, weak-down, melted-worn with sweat;
Thou, nestling, folding close and firm yet soft, companion better than
talk, book, art,
(Thou hast, O Nature! elements! utterance to my heart beyond the
rest—and this is of them,)
So sweet thy primitive taste to breathe within—thy soothing fingers on
my face and hands,
Thou, messenger-magical strange bringer to body and spirit of me,
(Distances balk’d—occult medicines penetrating me from head to foot.)
I feel the sky, the prairies vast—I feel the mighty northern lakes,
I feel the ocean and the forest—somehow I feel the globe itself swift-
swimming in space;
Thou blown from lips so loved, now gone—haply from endless store,
God sent,
(For thou art spiritual, Godly, most of all known to my sense,)
Minister to speak to me, here and now, what word has never told, and
cannot tell,
Art thou not universal concrete’s distillation? Law’s, all Astronomy’s
last refinement?
Hast thou no soul? Can I not know, identify thee?

“To The Sunset Breeze” (1890)

 

Friday, February 14, 1890

On B[uckwalter]. expressing his pleasure that W. got out of doors, W. said: “I got out yesterday—today it has not been possible. Yesterday’s jaunt—and it was quite a jaunt—was a fine one. The sky, the river, the sun—they are my curatives.”

Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden , Volume 6

 

Who was not proud of his songs, but of the measureless ocean of
love within him, and freely pour’d it forth,
Who often walk’d lonesome walks thinking of his dear friends, his
lovers, …
wandering hand in hand, they twain
apart from other men,
Who oft as he saunter’d the streets curv’d with his arm the shoulder of his friend, while the arm of his friend rested upon
him also.

“Recorders Ages Hence” (1891)

 

 

*****************************************************

 

— Roger W. Smith

   originally posted November 2017; updated December 2017

 

 

addendum:

Note that Charles Dickens is said to frequently have taken long walks that could extend to twenty to thirty miles a day, and that Henry David Thoreau wrote: “I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that” walking. I wonder if Dickens really did thirty miles that often.

My record for a single day was two separate walks (one in the morning and one in the afternoon) of a combined total length of twenty-four miles. I try to take one very long walk once a week. This walk is usually about twelve miles, though sometimes I do around fifteen or sixteen miles.

However, it is noted in The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford that Dickens went to work in a blacking factory at age twelve to support his family, which was in financial straits and that, after working all day, he would walk home every night, a distance of five miles.

 

— Roger W. Smith

the snow shovelers

 

 

Our front doorbell just rang while I was busy on my computer. Somewhat annoyed, since it was the umpteenth time today (lots of Christmas deliveries), I trundled downstairs and answered the door. Saw no one on the doorstep.

Within a second or two, two boys were in front of my stoop. Nice looking boys with cherubic faces. About age eleven, I would guess. Snow shovels in hand. A few inches of snow had just fallen.

Without giving them a chance to speak, figuring I didn’t want to waste their time, I told them, peremptorily (and recalling a few times when we have gotten ripped off in the past by boys we agreed to let shovel our driveway), “No, thanks. Don’t need shoveling.”

They politely left.

I was thinking about how, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when I was about the same age, my friends and I used to go around knocking on doors asking to shovel people’s front porches and walks. What a golden opportunity a snowstorm presented to make pocket money. Fifty cents to shovel their front steps and walk. A whole two dollars sometimes for a driveway.

I ran upstairs to tell our tenant about the cute kids I had just seen. My wife wasn’t home; I couldn’t tell her.

“No, she [our tenant] won’t care,” I thought.

What to do with my good holiday feelings? Let them shovel our walk!

I ran downstairs to see if the boys were still around. No one in sight. I shouted as loud as I could, “Boys! Snow shoveling!” They reappeared.

“How much to shovel our stoop and walk?” I asked. They didn’t have a figure in mind.

“Would five dollars be all right?” I asked. They nodded yes.

A few minutes later, my bell rang again. The boys were standing there, wishing to discuss some “technicalities” regarding ice (or something of that sort) on the sidewalk. Handsome lads with ruddy faces, one with a parti-colored knit cap. Obviously wanting to do a good job. Impressive conscientiousness.

“Looks like you did a good job,” I told them. “Here’s two more dollars.”

I asked them what school they attended, and they told me they were both in the sixth grade.

I felt like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Day. When he asks a boy whom he espies through his upstairs window to buy a prize turkey for the family of his clark.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  December 15, 2017

 

 

*****************************************************

 

‘It’s Christmas Day!’ said Scrooge to himself. ‘I haven’t missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can. Hallo, my fine fellow!’

‘Hallo!’ returned the boy.

‘Do you know the Poulterer’s, in the next street but one, at the corner?’ Scrooge inquired.

‘I should hope I did,’ replied the lad.

‘An intelligent boy!’ said Scrooge. ‘A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there? — Not the little prize Turkey: the big one?’

‘What, the one as big as me?’ returned the boy.

‘What a delightful boy!’ said Scrooge. ‘It’s a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck!’

‘It’s hanging there now,’ replied the boy.

‘Is it?’ said Scrooge. ‘Go and buy it.’

‘Walk-er!’ exclaimed the boy.

‘No, no,’ said Scrooge, ‘I am in earnest. Go and buy it, and tell them to bring it here, that I may give them the direction where to take it. Come back with the man, and I’ll give you a shilling. Come back with him in less than five minutes and I’ll give you half-a-crown!’

 

— Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave Five

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

serendipity (or, should I say, the paranormal)

 

 

It usually is the case that if two people don’t get along, they can’t have a successful working relationship.

This applies to an instructor and a student.

If the thing being taught is something technical, you would think that if the instructor has the knowledge and expertise, personality wouldn’t matter.

It does for me. I have had experiences taking lessons (briefly) in swimming, tennis, and piano, all of which didn’t work out mostly because I could not establish rapport with the instructor.

 

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

This was true of George Cohen of Newton, Massachusetts, a well known and very successful piano teacher.

My father, who became a professional pianist and himself a piano teacher, was a student of Mr. Cohen in his youth. My younger brother took lessons with Mr. Cohen for years and was one of his best students.

I myself decided that I wanted to try taking piano lessons for a second time when I was a junior in college. I had taken them briefly at age eleven with a very nice, attractive, and vivacious Japanese woman, Marsha Fukui, in Cambridge, Mass. We hit it off, but I lost interest in piano after a few months and stopped taking lessons.

I tried again in my late teens, when I was in college, with Mr. Cohen. I thought the fact that I was my father’s son and that my father must have been one of his best students would have meant something, also the fact that my younger brother was his student for a long time. This didn’t seem to matter to Mr. Cohen. Personal relationships were not of interest to him. One could say, why should they matter? You were there to learn how to play the piano. But in my case — from my perspective — such things are very important. I have to feel connected to the other person, have to be able to make conversation. If I don’t, I can’t get anywhere with them.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

But that’s not the key point of this post. I wish to share a couple of amazing, serendipitous things that happened to me. One involved my lessons with Mr. Cohen.

Mr. Cohen kept telling me that I needed to strengthen my fingers as an older piano student. He said that stiffness in the fingers (they are, apparently, much more limber in a grade schooler) was a problem that had to be overcome if I was ever going to make progress. He told me to take a book and put it over my hand when playing, as a finger muscle strengthening exercise. So, I took a book at random off the bookshelf in the living room of my home and used it when practicing. A while later, I happened to look at the book. The title was The Physiology of Piano Playing.

A totally coincidental occurrence. What were the odds that that would be the book I would use?

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

The other anecdote involved, indirectly, my former therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr.

From time to time during the course of our therapy sessions, Dr. Colp, who was a prolific writer and well known scholar, would ask me to do unpaid research for him. I remember once when he was writing an article updating some aspect of the psychiatric literature and he asked me to make an inventory of new publications in the field.

Dr. Colp’s fees were every low, well below professional norms. He made it clear to me personally and also in comments he made to interviewers that he was not in medicine for the money.

Perhaps he regarded “hiring” me to do research as a form of barter, with the research amounting to partial payment. But he only asked me to do it when he was stumped by something and absolutely could not find anything.

I told him that I was flattered to be asked. Yet, sometimes I was thinking, what will he ask me to find now? He always gave me the hardest things to look up.

Often, the research concerned, usually indirectly, Charles Darwin, Dr. Colp’s major research interest, about whom he wrote two books and many articles.

Dr. Colp was interested in learning everything he could about Darwin’s personal (as well as his scientific) life, including how he spent his leisure time and what his tastes in books (e.g., novels) and music were. He had found out that Darwin liked a popular song of the Victorian era, “Will He Come?,” composed by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame).

Could I find out where the lyrics came from?

It was known that the lyrics to the song were by Adelaide Procter. Adelaide Anne Procter (1825–1864) was a very popular poet of her day; she was the favorite poet of Queen Victoria. She burst on the literary scene as a teenager. She died of tuberculosis at age thirty-nine.

So, what poem of Procter’s were the lyrics to the song taken from? Dr. Colp, like me, was a stickler for details. He wanted to be exact.

I couldn’t find out what poem of Procter’s the lyrics came from. She published three books of poetry in her lifetime. There is no poem with the title “Will He Come?”

It seems that it would have made sense for me to consult her books, but they weren’t available to me. I cannot remember why I didn’t. This was pre-internet days. Somehow, I found out that Procter had known Charles Dickens, who admired her work, and that some of her earliest poems had been published in Household Words, a weekly magazine edited by Dickens. (I doubt that nowadays many people know that Dickens was an editor.)

I went to the New York Public Library and put in a call slip for several issues of Household Words from the 1850’s. A big fat volume with a faded green cover was handed over to me. It was comprised of several issues of the magazine that had been bound together into a single volume. The pages were old and showed their age.

I placed the big, weighty book on a table in front of me and opened it carefully, not wanting to damage it. I opened it at random to a page somewhere in the middle.

On that very page was THE poem. Miss Procter’s poem. Published under the title “Hush!”

The exact same words, verbatim, as the lyrics in the Arthur Sullivan song.

How had it happened that I had requested the right volume of the magazine, and then, amazingly, opened to the very page on which there was not only a poem by Proctor, but the very poem I was looking for?

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017

 

 

 

*****************************************************

 

Hush!
“I CAN scarcely hear,” she murmured,
“For my heart beats loud and fast,
But surely, in the far, far distance,
I can hear a sound at last.”
“It is only the reapers singing,
As they carry home their sheaves,
And the evening breeze has risen,
And rustles the dying leaves.”

“Listen! there are voices talking.”
Calmly still she strove to speak,
Yet her voice grew faint and trembling,
And the red flushed in her cheek.
“It is only the children playing
Below, now their work is done,
And they laugh that their eyes are dazzled
By the rays of the setting sun.”

Fainter grew her voice, and weaker
As with anxious eyes she cried,
“Down the avenue of chestnuts,
I can hear a horseman ride.”
“It was only the deer that were feeding
In a herd on the clover grass,
They were startled, and fled to the thicket,
As they saw the reapers pass.”

Now the night arose in silence,
Birds lay in their leafy nest,
And the deer couched in the forest,
And the children were at rest:
There was only a sound of weeping
From watchers around a bed,
But Rest to the weary spirit,
Peace to the quiet Dead!

 

Adelaide Procter