Tag Archives: Charles Pierre

Roger W. Smith, “thoughts about reading”

 

‘thoughts about reading’

 

 

“I seek in books only to give myself pleasure by honest amusement; or if I study, I seek only the learning that treats of the knowledge of myself and instructs me to die well and live well.”

 

— Michel de Montaigne, “of books” (The Complete Essays, translated by Donald M. Frame)

 

 

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“Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. … as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye. … a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

 

Areopagitica: A speech of Mr John Milton for the liberty of unlicenced printing to the Parliament of England

 

 

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I am very desirous to receive letters from You, and hope You will write to me very freely, both about your brother [Charles Cornelius Chambers] and yourself. Pray tell me very particularly the title of every book that You have read at school and every thing that You have learnt since You went thither. Tell me also what books or parts of books You have read for your pleasure, and what plays or exercises You and Charles are fondest of. For my part, when I was of your age, I was fonder of reading Robinson Crusoe and the Seven Champions of Christendom, than I was of any kind of play whatsoever; and, as I suppose that You may probably have the same taste, I have ordered those books and some others to be sent to You.

— Sir Robert Chambers, letter to his son Robert Joseph Chambers, February 12, 1790; in Thomas M. Curley: Sir Robert Chambers: Law Literature and Empire in the Age of Johnson (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998). pg. 516. (Chambers, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal, India, was then residing in Calcutta, and his sons Robert and Joseph in England. The Famous Historie of the Seaven Champions of Christendom was a late-sixteenth, early seventeenth-century romance by the English writer Richard Johnson.)

 

 

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Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? … They are for nothing but to inspire. … Books are for the scholar’s idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings. But when the intervals of darkness come, as come they must,—when the soul seeth not, when the sun is hid and the stars withdraw their shining,—we repair to the lamps which were kindled by their ray, to guide our steps to the East again, where the dawn is. We hear, that we may speak. …

It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us ever with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads. We read the verses of one of the great English poets, of Chaucer, of Marvell, of Dryden, with the most modern joy,–with a pleasure, I mean, which is in great part caused by the abstraction of all time from their verses. There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well-nigh thought and said. …

I would not be hurried by any love of system, by any exaggeration of instincts, to underrate the Book. We all know that as the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge. And great and heroic men have existed who had almost no other information than by the printed page. I only would say that it needs a strong head to bear that diet. One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.

 

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar” (an address delivered in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1837 before the Harvard Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society)

 

 

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My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; … Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind. …

It is not all books that are as dull as their readers. There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.

 

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods

 

 

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Is Literature forever to propose no higher object than to amuse? to just pass away the time & stave off ennui? — Is it never to be the courageous wrestle with live subjects — the strong gymnasia of the mind — must it offer only things easy to understand as nature never does. [italics added]

 

— note, probably late 1850’s, by Walt Whitman; in Walt Whitman: Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, Volume IV: Notes, edited by Edward F. Grier (New York University Press 1984), pg. 1561

 

 

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“I was not an omnivorous reader–just a slow, idle, rambling one.”

 

— Theodore Dreiser, A Hoosier Holiday, Chapter XXXIX

 

 

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“Read, read, read. Read everything–trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.”

 

— William Faulkner, Statement at the University of Mississippi, 1947

 

 

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And then there was his book collection which numbered well into the thousands. Those books, mostly on the history of the fascinating period of his youth including the Spanish Civil War, Stalinism and World War II, were his sacred texts. He brought several tomes with him on his honeymoon in Mexico, much to my mother’s chagrin. He never let anyone read or even touch them. Their presence in every room meant that the apartment could never be painted or properly cleaned. I alternatively worshipped and loathed them, but they influenced me greatly.

 

— “A Jew without a burial site,” by Judith Colp Rubin [an essay about her father, Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr.], The Times of Israel, August 30, 2018

 

 

 

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Books are one of the most important and fulfilling things in my life.

I recall the pleasure long since past, when I was a boy, of curling up with a book, often at bedtime, just before going to sleep. I recall vividly a particular rainy day when I seem to recall we were in some remote location, perhaps a rented summer place. I spent a good part of the afternoon with a book, and felt so warm and cozy, sheltered from the elements.

I used to love that I was allowed to go to the Cambridge Public Library by myself after school when I was in the early grades. It was a rather long walk. I loved being in the children’s room, finding books, and being able to check them out by myself. There was a feeling of ownership and pride, of excitement in discovery, of being able to decide what you yourself wanted to read.

I loved receiving books as gifts. My parents and relatives were thoughtful gift-givers when it came to books. (I myself seem have inherited this. I have often had someone tell me, how did you know I would like this book, and this has occurred with people I don’t know well. Once I wanted to show appreciation to an editor with the gift of a book. She was thrilled to get the particular book I chose. It was not one, though I knew it was regarded as excellent, that I myself would have desired to read.)

I still love to curl up with a book. They are always there for me. They comfort me and are a solvent for boredom, idleness, and lonely hours.

 

 

 

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My home is filled with books, much as was the case with my former therapist, Ralph Colp, Jr. I have run out of bookshelf space. I have tried to impose some order so that I can find a book. Those on shelves are fairly well organized by broad subject areas and authors.

Dr. Colp told me there was nothing like having a book-lined study. Of having a book on the shelf there when you want it. Of being able to survey, take stock, of the riches there. He quoted to me what Edward Gibbon wrote: “My early and invincible love of reading I would not exchange for all the riches of India.”

Dr. Colp’s consulting office was lined with books, but he told me that this was only a small fraction — most were in his living quarters. He had run out of shelf space and some of the books in his consulting office were on the floor in tall piles. “What do you do when you want a book on the bottom of the pile?” I said to him once. “It seems to me that that would present a problem.”

“You’re right,” he said.

This was at a point in my therapy sessions when Dr. Colp had moved to a co-op in which he had an office and an apartment (his living quarters) on the same floor. Prior to that, I had been seeing him in a suite of offices he shared with another therapist, where there were few books. The first time I visited him in his new office, he spent the whole session showing me his books: a first edition of Darwin, for example. We never got to the session (therapy, that is) — he seemed unaware of time and was carried away by showing me the contents of his bookshelves.

 

 

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What makes a good reader? And why is reading important?

The answers seem to a large extent to be self-evident and, yet, they are questions I enjoy thinking about. Below are some thoughts of my own about reading. A description of my own reading habits. And, my advice to readers. In no particular order.

 

 

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The foundation of reading, like any pastime, should be pleasure, that you enjoy it. If you have a good experience with a good book, a great work of literature, you will want to repeat the experience. I experienced this, for example, with the following books which I read in my youth and my teens: Ben Franklin of Old Philadelphia (a young adult book; sixth grade); Anna Sewall’s Black Beauty (sometime in my elementary school years); Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season (a book about baseball; read by me in high school); Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (high school); and Pitirim A. Sorokin’s Leaves from a Russian Diary (in late adolescence), to name just a few. All were books that totally engrossed me; or, as the cliché goes, I couldn’t put them down.

A former friend of mine, the poet Charles Pierre, said to me that one should make it a point to read books expeditiously — don’t take forever to read them. You would not (although the analogy is not quite exact), for example, want to watch an opera over several evenings. This seems right, but I often violate the rule.

I want to read substantial, deep books that challenge me, fully engage me in deep thought. I get great pleasure from reading, but I do not read for pleasure in the sense of escapism (“literary” junk food).

I have found from the experience of a lifetime that I would rather travel mentally through reading books than travel in the literal sense. Reading a good book — say, a long novel — is akin to me to taking a trip, being on a journey. War and Peace, Moby-Dick, Les Misérables, Great Expectations.

You must be willing to submit yourself to a book, give yourself over to it, get lost in it. This happened to me with Moby-Dick. A critic once called it “a whale of a book.” Well, I devoured every part of it, including the cetology. I was totally wrapped up in it and Melville: the story, the whaling lore, Melville’s tone and style, the Elizabethan or Shakespearean ethos, the beauty of the narrative and descriptive passages.

Effort and stamina are required to get though a long book, including the great ones. But if the experience is worth it, curiosity and motivation (as well as pleasure) keep you going. This happened to me with Moby-Dick. It took me about three weeks to read it, in a copy borrowed from the public library that had wide margins and nice big type. During free time once, I was reading it on the steps of an open space in Midtown Manhattan. A man about my age with his girlfriend approached and, noting what I was reading, asked me if it was for a course. No, I said, I was reading it for myself. This, he plainly showed, pleased him.

I read deliberately and slowly because I want to get everything I can out of a book. (Speed reading to me is almost an oxymoron.) A good reader is an active reader.

The books of most famous writers, invariably serious readers, usually contain marginalia. I no longer make marginal notes, but I do take notes quoting passages that I want to remember and/or be able to refer to. My “marginalia” nowadays consist of typed notes which I email to myself.

Authors whom I enjoy and references within a book to other works often lead me to other books. I always have a mental inventory of books waiting to be read.

Introductions should be read after — not before — the work itself. I want to form my own impressions — make my own judgments — without being influenced or prejudiced by an introduction. This seems to be most true of fiction. I often find introductions to be well written and very informative. But, first, I want to “meet” the author, with no one telling me what I will find or what to expect. It’s like meeting a new person.

To be ready for a book, say a classic novel, you have to be in the right frame of mind. This has happened to me with many classics. At some point — often this is the case — I feel the urge to read them. There are classics that did not engage me or that I did not understand or appreciate at some point in my life which I pick up later and am thoroughly engaged by. A good example is Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It’s not the kind of novel I would ordinarily read. I tried reading it once not that long ago when perhaps I was just not in the mood. It seemed like a not particularly well written and overrated work. For some reason, I picked it up again recently and was able not only to finish it, but to fully appreciate Shelley’s genius.

Something very similar happened to me with Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I could not get through in college but read years later with great enjoyment.

One should read for as short or long a time as one likes. As for the best “reading position,” I sprawl, read in a reclining position. Dr. Colp read sitting upright behind his office desk, where he did all his intellectual work. I have never been much inclined to read (as opposed to doing research) in libraries.

I have found that the ability to read and focus on non-trivial reading material such as literature and expository or scholarly writing is a reliable measure or barometer of mental health. For me, at least. Meaning, that when I can’t focus enough to read, I am usually mentally troubled, in an agitated frame of mind.

As regards scholarly books — reading for the sake of learning — a deep, scholarly, and (hopefully) engrossing book, by someone who knows more than I do about a subject, I am very willing to submit to instruction, tutelage, by a scholar. In line with what I have just said, such reading seems to put me in a calm, deliberative, objective state — “in neutral,” so to speak. It enables me to get outside of myself mentally, to put aside self-absorption and the concerns of the moment. It is truly a matter of expanding one’s horizons.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2019

“I don’t have to be afraid”

 

 

 

… if sleeplessness

or passiveness keeps you from the usual
go-round of night and day : take this message
and imagine it was sent to you alone

with these words: I don’t have to be afraid
of you now, since you no longer listen.
I’m tired of thinking about going on

with it all. I will never understand
why you ever needed me for anything.
These are the last words I will ever send you.

 

— Charles Pierre, “The Dark Muse” (excerpt), Green Vistas: Poems 1969-1979 (New York: Northpoint Press, 1981)

Walt Whitman: simplicity and complexity

 

 

 

“No one makes craft, carefully wrought, seem more casual than Walt Whitman.”

 

— Richard Rhodes, How to Write: Advice and Reflections (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1995), pg. 12

 

 

A former friend of mine, the poet Charles Pierre, made a comment to me — I wish I could remember exactly what he said — to the effect that Walt Whitman is actually very difficult. Difficult for the reader, that is. That he presents a level of difficulty that requires acute understanding of? I think Pierre would have said: an understanding of what Whitman is doing; of his poetic technique, of his originality, poetic genius, and ingenuity. That Whitman, who seems on the surface so simple, is not really simple.

And yet, I find Whitman to be easy to become acquainted with and comprehend without necessarily being (as in the case of myself) expert at poetry. I “got” his poetry almost right away.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   February 2019

“I Hear America Singing”

 

 

 

R-62128

 

 

 

 

 

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I Hear America Singing

By Walt Whitman

 

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

 

 

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In the 1970’s, when I first lived in New York, I used to frequently borrow LP records from the New York Public Library. I once borrowed an LP on the Caedmon label (a pioneer in audio recordings) of the actor Ed Begley (1901-1970) reading selections from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

I told my poet friend Charles Pierre, a great admirer of Whitman, whose poetry influenced the former’s own book of poetry (his first), Green Vistas, about the marvelous (as I found it to be) recording.

“Who was the reader?” he asked.

“Ed Begley,” I said.

“Ed Begley,” he answered. “Oh, he’s wonderful.”

I was wondering how he knew this (when it came to Whitman).

 

 

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“I Hear America Singing” was the first poem by Whitman – THE poem — that got me into Whitman. I had to hear it out loud, it seemed.

Listen.

I heard the poem being read (by a different reader) on an audiotape yesterday.

It is a very short poem. Notable for:

Utter simplicity. Saying just enough to convey the meaning, profoundly, without anything else (and no extraneous references or allusions, literary or otherwise). For example: “The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing.” Just that: a girl sewing or washing. Nothing more needs to be said. (Normally, we might expect to hear “sewing a new coat,” or “washing clothes.”)

Biblical cadences and parallelism: “The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;” “the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown.” Giving the reader an exquisite sense of aesthetic satisfaction and of completion.

Parallelism achieved by the use of grammatical constructions — i.e., gerunds such as “sewing” or “washing.”

Repetition in the way one might hear in a nursery rhyme: “The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck”; “the day what belongs to the day.”

The use of adjectives that one might not expect in the context, adjectives that delight: “the delicious singing of the mother.”

A manner of stating things so that what seems simple and apparent has profound implications, and what is not said or left out is as important as what is said. For example: “the hatter singing as he stands.” This phrase invites us to “fill in the blanks” and envision the hatter standing at a workbench. Whitman tells only so much and invites the reader to complete the picture in his or her mind. It is a kind of addition by subtraction.

The poem itself sings.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 2018

manifesto (my response to critical comments on this site)

 

 

Montaigne wrote about everything under the sun; he’s my model. Samuel Johnson in his essays did something similar. A former English teacher colleague of my wife told me once, “You could write about a doorknob and make it interesting.”

I’m a writer, not a professor, policy wonk, or doctor.

I do not pretend to expertise I don’t have or put on airs.

I write ESSAYS. I know they are consistently good and of a consistent level of excellence. If you like good writing, you will like my blog. Which is my followers keep coming back, regardless of subject matter.

I write from personal experience. MY experience. Which is exactly what Montaigne did. Which is what good writers do. If I tried to write from an omniscient stance and pose as an authority, my writing would fall flat. Any writer will give the same advice: write about what you KNOW (and have experienced).

It is not surprising that some people will not find my writing interesting or appreciate it. To appreciate it, you have to be able to appreciate good writing.

If I write about Mozart, I’m not fooling myself that I am an authority. But I think that the writing is good and interesting. That’s what matters. If someone wants a self-help piece, or to bone up on history or politics or classical music, my blog is unlikely to be of interest or value to them. Its appeal lies solely in its excellence of writing.

I do do an awful lot of background research to ensure that my pieces are factually accurate and that I have covered the material. I rarely make factual errors or wild assertions or claims. This is different from stating opinions, when it’s clear that that’s what I’m doing.

Good essay writing should have a point of view. We’re not talking about a scholarly monograph. But, when I provide facts or background material, it’s usually reliably accurate.

Some of my writing is whimsical, impressionistic, or what have you. A light piece playing with or sometimes floating an idea or trying to convey an impression or mood. This is well within the essay writing tradition.

I don’t know quite how I would compare alongside acknowledged masters. But, I am convinced that my essays are very good and worth reading mainly for the pleasure and enlightenment that can be derived from good writing.

An artist paints in his studio. A lot of what motivates him is the pleasure of painting and doing it well. Once you’ve gotten good at something, it’s a lot of fun to keep doing it. You get pleasure every time, and there’s a feeling of self-affirmation.

The artist wants his work to be exhibited … craves recognition.

The pleasure of writing well, of meeting my own standard of excellence, is its own reward. I know when I’ve done justice to a topic and met my own high standards. There’s great satisfaction in carrying it off.

A lot of my pieces probably don’t seem that substantial. But, if one looked closely, they would see the craftsmanship and how well done they are. Yet, think of all the people who buy a pair of shoes or a bottle of wine with no idea which ones are best or appreciation of what production entails.

Largely because of having had professional experience, I know I’m not fooling myself when I say my stuff is good, unlike a lot of people who fancy themselves writers or poets. But I know what I can and cannot do. I do not write fiction or poetry. It’s a matter of what kind of writing I am qualified or prepared to do, not whether I can or cannot write well.

I have a small, slowly growing coterie of followers. I get great satisfaction out of their positive feedback and knowing I have reached them. It speaks well for me and them that they are discerning readers who can see the person embedded in the piece as well as the words and who appreciate my range of interests and integrity.

That’s enough for me — it means so much to me — but I do crave recognition and believe I deserve it.

The best man at my wedding, Charles Pierre, is a poet who had at that time just self-published his first book of poetry. He always made it clear that, in his opinion, he was good, despite not getting recognition, for the most part. I know very little about poetry, but I read his poetry and somehow, I knew that what he claimed was true.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2018

 

hats

 

 

The other day, I used a cliché in conversation with a friend. I had shared an audiotape of an interesting lecture with him. “If you don’t find it interesting,” I said, “I’ll eat my hat.”

He joked that I don’t wear a hat.

“Yes,” I replied, “nobody does. Since JFK.”

 

 

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Afterwards, I got to thinking about a remark a friend of mine, the poet Charles Pierre, once made to me.

In the preface to his Collected Stories (1978), the author John Cheever wrote: “These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat [italics added].”

Alluding to this, my friend Charlie observed that this indicates something that was true of what he called the “New Yorker writer” and New Yorker stories.

“They trade off on what you already know,” he said. “It’s a commonplace that men used to wear hats.” The implication: such stories are not really original in content; they don’t take us into new realms of consciousness, thought, or experience.

 

 

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Another thought, a memory, about hats occurred to me because of my friend’s jest the other day.

When I was in the seventh grade, I rode a bike to school every day. It was freezing cold in the winter months. We lived in New England. Often, I would get to school and would be rubbing my hands at my desk; they would seem almost frostbitten. There would be tears in my eyes.

I didn’t wear gloves; nor, for the most part, did I wear a hat.

Actually, I had a knit cap. My mother would insist that I put in on every morning.

It was probably something stupid such as that I didn’t want to mess up my hair (slicked with hair tonic). That must have been the reason. Anyway, I didn’t want to comply. But I would give in and put on my hat.

When I got just past our front yard, I would take the knit cap off and stick it my back pocket.

My mother in later years would joke with me about this. She said that she would be watching me, through the kitchen window, leave for school. (She was the solicitous type — although she was not overbearing — and undoubtedly wanted to make sure I got off okay.) She said she would be amused to see me take my hat off, without fail, when I thought I was out of sight.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   September 2017

missed opportunities

 

 

 

… if sleeplessness

or passiveness keeps you from the usual
go-round of night and day : take this message
and imagine it was sent to you alone

with these words: I don’t have to be afraid
of you now, since you no longer listen.
I’m tired of thinking about going on

with it all. I will never understand
why you ever needed me for anything.
These are the last words I will ever send you.

 

 

— Charles Pierre, “The Dark Muse” (excerpt), Green Vistas: Poems 1969-1979 (New York: Northpoint Press, 1981)

 

 

 

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“Мне отмщение, и Аз воздам” (Vengeance is mine, I will repay)

 

“Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” Romans 12:19 (quoting from Deuteronomy 32:35); used as epigraph on title page of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

 

 

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Alexey Alexandrovitch went into her boudoir.

At the table, sitting sideways in a low chair, was Vronsky, his face hidden in his hands, weeping. He jumped up at the doctor’s voice, took his hands from his face, and saw Alexey Alexandrovitch. Seeing the husband, he was so overwhelmed that he sat down again, drawing his head down to his shoulders, as if he wanted to disappear; but he made an effort over himself, got up and said:

“She is dying. The doctors say there is no hope. I am entirely in your power, only let me be here … though I am at your disposal. I…”

Alexey Alexandrovitch, seeing Vronsky’s tears, felt a rush of that nervous emotion always produced in him by the sight of other people’s suffering, and turning away his face, he moved hurriedly to the door, without hearing the rest of his words. From the bedroom came the sound of Anna’s voice saying something. Her voice was lively, eager, with exceedingly distinct intonations. Alexey Alexandrovitch went into the bedroom, and went up to the bed. She was lying turned with her face towards him. Her cheeks were flushed crimson, her eyes glittered, her little white hands thrust out from the sleeves of her dressing gown were playing with the quilt, twisting it about. It seemed as though she were not only well and blooming, but in the happiest frame of mind. She was talking rapidly, musically, and with exceptionally correct articulation and expressive intonation.

“For Alexey–I am speaking of Alexey Alexandrovitch (what a strange and awful thing that both are Alexey, isn’t it?)–Alexey would not refuse me. I should forget, he would forgive…. But why doesn’t he come? He’s so good he doesn’t know himself how good he is. Ah, my God, what agony! Give me some water, quick! Oh, that will be bad for her, my little girl! Oh, very well then, give her to a nurse. Yes, I agree, it’s better in fact. He’ll be coming; it will hurt him to see her. Give her /to the nurse.”

“Anna Arkadyevna, he has come. Here he is!” said the midwife, trying to attract her attention to Alexey Alexandrovitch.

“Oh, what nonsense!” Anna went on, not seeing her husband. “No, give her to me; give me my little one! He has not come yet. You say he won’t forgive me, because you don’t know him. No one knows him. I’m the only one, and it was hard for me even. His eyes I ought to know–Seryozha has just the same eyes–and I can’t bear to see them because of it. Has Seryozha had his dinner? I know everyone will forget him. He would not forget. Seryozha must be moved into the corner room, and Mariette must be asked to sleep with him.”

All of a sudden she shrank back, was silent; and in terror, as though expecting a blow, as though to defend herself, she raised her hands to her face. She had seen her husband.

“No, no!” she began. “I am not afraid of him; I am afraid of death. Alexey, come here. I am in a hurry, because I’ve no time, I’ve not long left to live; the fever will begin directly and I shall understand nothing more. Now I understand, I understand it all, I see it all!”

Alexey Alexandrovitch’s wrinkled face wore an expression of agony; he took her by the hand and tried to say something, but he could not utter it; his lower lip quivered, but he still went on struggling with his emotion, and only now and then glanced at her. And each time he glanced at her, he saw her eyes gazing at him with such passionate and triumphant tenderness as he had never seen in them.

“Wait a minute, you don’t know … stay a little, stay!…” She stopped, as though collecting her ideas. “Yes,” she began; “yes, yes, yes. This is what I wanted to say. Don’t be surprised at me. I’m still the same…. But there is another woman in me, I’m afraid of her: she loved that man, and I tried to hate you, and could not forget about her that used to be. I’m not that woman. Now I’m my real self, all myself. I’m dying now, I know I shall die, ask him. Even now I feel–see here, the weights on my feet, on my hands, on my fingers. My fingers–see how huge they are! But this will soon all be over…. Only one thing I want: forgive me, forgive me quite. I’m terrible, but my nurse used to tell me; the holy martyr–what was her name? She was worse. And I’ll go to Rome; there’s a wilderness, and there I shall be no trouble to any one, only I’ll take Seryozha and the little one…. No, you can’t forgive me! I know, it can’t be forgiven! No, no, go away, you’re too good!” She held his hand in one burning hand, while she pushed him away with the other.

The nervous agitation of Alexey Alexandrovitch kept increasing, and had by now reached such a point that he ceased to struggle with it. He suddenly felt that what he had regarded as nervous agitation was on the contrary a blissful spiritual condition that gave him all at once a new happiness he had never known. He did not think that the Christian law that he had been all his life trying to follow, enjoined on him to forgive and love his enemies; but a glad feeling of love and forgiveness for his enemies filled his heart. He knelt down, and laying his head in the curve of her arm, which burned him as with fire through the sleeve, he sobbed like a little child. She put her arm around his head, moved towards him, and with defiant pride lifted up her eyes.

“That is he. I knew him! Now, forgive me, everyone, forgive me!… They’ve come again; why don’t they go away?… Oh, take these cloaks off me!”

The doctor unloosed her hands, carefully laying her on the pillow, and covered her up to the shoulders. She lay back submissively, and looked before her with beaming eyes.

“Remember one thing, that I needed nothing but forgiveness, and I want nothing more…. Why doesn’t he come?” she said, turning to the door towards Vronsky. “Do come, do come! Give him your hand.”

Vronsky came to the side of the bed, and seeing Anna, again hid his face in his hands.

“Uncover your face–look at him! He’s a saint,” she said. “Oh! uncover your face, do uncover it!” she said angrily. “Alexey Alexandrovitch, do uncover his face! I want to see him.”

Alexey Alexandrovitch took Vronsky’s hands and drew them away from his face, which was awful with the expression of agony and shame upon it.

“Give him your hand. Forgive him.”

Alexey Alexandrovitch gave him his hand, not attempting to restrain the tears that streamed from his eyes.

“Thank God, thank God!” she said, “now everything is ready. Only to stretch my legs a little. There, that’s capital. How badly these flowers are done–not a bit like a violet,” she said, pointing to the hangings. “My God, my God! when will it end? Give me some morphine. Doctor, give me some morphine! Oh, my God, my God!”

And she tossed about on the bed.

The doctors said that it was puerperal fever, and that it was ninety-nine chances in a hundred it would end in death. The whole day long there was fever, delirium, and unconsciousness. At midnight the patient lay without consciousness, and almost without pulse.

The end was expected every minute.

Vronsky had gone home, but in the morning he came to inquire, and Alexey Alexandrovitch meeting him in the hall, said: “Better stay, she might ask for you,” and himself led him to his wife’s boudoir. Towards morning, there was a return again of excitement, rapid thought and talk, and again it ended in unconsciousness. On the third day it was the same thing, and the doctors said there was hope. That day Alexey Alexandrovitch went into the boudoir where Vronsky was sitting, and closing the door sat down opposite him.

“Alexey Alexandrovitch,” said Vronsky, feeling that a statement of the position was coming, “I can’t speak, I can’t understand. Spare me! However hard it is for you, believe me, it is more terrible for me.”

He would have risen; but Alexey Alexandrovitch took him by the hand and said:

“I beg you to hear me out; it is necessary. I must explain my feelings, the feelings that have guided me and will guide me, so that you may not be in error regarding me. You know I had resolved on a divorce, and had even begun to take proceedings. I won’t conceal from you that in beginning this I was in uncertainty, I was in misery; I will confess that I was pursued by a desire to revenge myself on you and on her. When I got the telegram, I came here with the same feelings; I will say more, I longed for her death. But….” He paused, pondering whether to disclose or not to disclose his feeling to him. “But I saw her and forgave her. And the happiness of forgiveness has revealed to me my duty. I forgive completely. I would offer the other cheek, I would give my cloak if my coat be taken. I pray to God only not to take from me the bliss of forgiveness!”

Tears stood in his eyes, and the luminous, serene look in them impressed Vronsky.

“This is my position: you can trample me in the mud, make me the laughing-stock of the world, I will not abandon her, and I will never utter a word of reproach to you,” Alexey Alexandrovitch went on. “My duty is clearly marked for me; I ought to be with her, and I will be. If she wishes to see you, I will let you know, but now I suppose it would be better for you to go away.”

He got up, and sobs cut short his words. Vronsky too was getting up, and in a stooping, not yet erect posture, looked up at him from under his brows. He did not understand Alexey Alexandrovitch’s feeling, but he felt that it was something higher and even unattainable for him with his view of life.

 

 

Anna Karenina, Part Four, Chapter 17

 

 

 

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The mistake made by Alexey Alexandrovitch in that, when preparing for seeing his wife, he had overlooked the possibility that her repentance might be sincere, and he might forgive her, and she might not die–this mistake was two months after his return from Moscow brought home to him in all its significance. But the mistake made by him had arisen not simply from his having overlooked that contingency, but also from the fact that until that day of his interview with his dying wife, he had not known his own heart. At his sick wife’s bedside he had for the first time in his life given way to that feeling of sympathetic suffering always roused in him by the sufferings of others, and hitherto looked on by him with shame as a harmful weakness. And pity for her, and remorse for having desired her death, and most of all, the joy of forgiveness, made him at once conscious, not simply of the relief of his own sufferings, but of a spiritual peace he had never experienced before. He suddenly felt that the very thing that was the source of his sufferings had become the source of his spiritual joy; that what had seemed insoluble while he was judging, blaming, and hating, had become clear and simple when he forgave and loved.

He forgave his wife and pitied her for her sufferings and her remorse. He forgave Vronsky, and pitied him, especially after reports reached him of his despairing action. He felt more for his son than before. And he blamed himself now for having taken too little interest in him. But for the little newborn baby he felt a quite peculiar sentiment, not of pity, only, but of tenderness. At first, from a feeling of compassion alone, he had been interested in the delicate little creature, who was not his child, and who was cast on one side during her mother’s illness, and would certainly have died if he had not troubled about her, and he did not himself observe how fond he became of her. He would go into the nursery several times a day, and sit there for a long while, so that the nurses, who were at first afraid of him, got quite used to his presence. Sometimes for half an hour at a stretch he would sit silently gazing at the saffron-red, downy, wrinkled face of the sleeping baby, watching the movements of the frowning brows, and the fat little hands, with clenched fingers, that rubbed the little eyes and nose. At such moments particularly, Alexey Alexandrovitch had a sense of perfect peace and inward harmony, and saw nothing extraordinary in his position, nothing that ought to be changed.

But as time went on, he saw more and more distinctly that however natural the position now seemed to him, he would not long be allowed to remain in it. He felt that besides the blessed spiritual force controlling his soul, there was another, a brutal force, as powerful, or more powerful, which controlled his life, and that this force would not allow him that humble peace he longed for. He felt that everyone was looking at him with inquiring wonder, that he was not understood, and that something was expected of him. Above all, he felt the instability and unnaturalness of his relations with his wife.

When the softening effect of the near approach of death had passed away, Alexey Alexandrovitch began to notice that Anna was afraid of him, ill at ease with him, and could not look him straight in the face. She seemed to be wanting, and not daring, to tell him something; and as though foreseeing their present relations could not continue, she seemed to be expecting something from him.

Towards the end of February it happened that Anna’s baby daughter, who had been named Anna too, fell ill. Alexey Alexandrovitch was in the nursery in the morning, and leaving orders for the doctor to be sent for, he went to his office. On finishing his work, he returned home at four. Going into the hall he saw a handsome groom, in a braided livery and a bear fur cape, holding a white fur cloak.

“Who is here?” asked Alexey Alexandrovitch.

“Princess Elizaveta Federovna Tverskaya,” the groom answered, and it seemed to Alexey Alexandrovitch that he grinned.

During all this difficult time Alexey Alexandrovitch had noticed that his worldly acquaintances, especially women, took a peculiar interest in him and his wife. All these acquaintances he observed with difficulty concealing their mirth at something; the same mirth that he had perceived in the lawyer’s eyes, and just now in the eyes of this groom. Everyone seemed, somehow, hugely delighted, as though they had just been at a wedding. When they met him, with ill-disguised enjoyment they inquired after his wife’s health. The presence of Princess Tverskaya was unpleasant to Alexey Alexandrovitch from the memories associated with her, and also because he disliked her, and he went straight to the nursery. In the day nursery Seryozha, leaning on the table with his legs on a chair, was drawing and chatting away merrily. The English governess, who had during Anna’s illness replaced the French one, was sitting near the boy knitting a shawl. She hurriedly got up, curtseyed, and pulled Seryozha.

Alexey Alexandrovitch stroked his son’s hair, answered the governess’s inquiries about his wife, and asked what the doctor had said of the baby.

“The doctor said it was nothing serious, and he ordered a bath, sir.”

“But she is still in pain,” said Alexey Alexandrovitch, listening to the baby’s screaming in the next room.

“I think it’s the wet-nurse, sir,” the Englishwoman said firmly.

“What makes you think so?” he asked, stopping short.

“It’s just as it was at Countess Paul’s, sir. They gave the baby medicine, and it turned out that the baby was simply hungry: the nurse had no milk, sir.”

Alexey Alexandrovitch pondered, and after standing still a few seconds he went in at the other door. The baby was lying with its head thrown back, stiffening itself in the nurse’s arms, and would not take the plump breast offered it; and it never ceased screaming in spite of the double hushing of the wet-nurse and the other nurse, who was bending over her.

“Still no better?” said Alexey Alexandrovitch.

“She’s very restless,” answered the nurse in a whisper.

“Miss Edwarde says that perhaps the wet-nurse has no milk,” he said.

“I think so too, Alexey Alexandrovitch.”

“Then why didn’t you say so?”

“Who’s one to say it to? Anna Arkadyevna still ill…” said the nurse discontentedly.

The nurse was an old servant of the family. And in her simple words there seemed to Alexey Alexandrovitch an allusion to his position.

The baby screamed louder than ever, struggling and sobbing. The nurse, with a gesture of despair, went to it, took it from the wet-nurse’s arms, and began walking up and down, rocking it.

“You must ask the doctor to examine the wet-nurse,” said Alexey Alexandrovitch. The smartly dressed and healthy-looking nurse, frightened at the idea of losing her place, muttered something to herself, and covering her bosom, smiled contemptuously at the idea of doubts being cast on her abundance of milk. In that smile, too, Alexey Alexandrovitch saw a sneer at his position.

“Luckless child!” said the nurse, hushing the baby, and still walking up and down with it.

Alexey Alexandrovitch sat down, and with a despondent and suffering face watched the nurse walking to and fro.

When the child at last was still, and had been put in a deep bed, and the nurse, after smoothing the little pillow, had left her, Alexey Alexandrovitch got up, and walking awkwardly on tiptoe, approached the baby. For a minute he was still, and with the same despondent face gazed at the baby; but all at once a smile, that moved his hair and the skin of his forehead, came out on his face, and he went as softly out of the room.

In the dining room he rang the bell, and told the servant who came in to send again for the doctor. He felt vexed with his wife for not being anxious about this exquisite baby, and in this vexed humor he had no wish to go to her; he had no wish, either, to see Princess Betsy. But his wife might wonder why he did not go to her as usual; and so, overcoming his disinclination, he went towards the bedroom. As he walked over the soft rug towards the door, he could not help overhearing a conversation he did not want to hear.

“If he hadn’t been going away, I could have understood your answer and his too. But your husband ought to be above that,” Betsy was saying.

“It’s not for my husband; for myself I don’t wish it. Don’t say that!” answered Anna’s excited voice.

“Yes, but you must care to say good-bye to a man who has shot himself on your account….”

“That’s just why I don’t want to.”

With a dismayed and guilty expression, Alexey Alexandrovitch stopped and would have gone back unobserved. But reflecting that this would be undignified, he turned back again, and clearing his throat, he went up to the bedroom. The voices were silent, and he went in.

Anna, in a gray dressing gown, with a crop of short clustering black curls on her round head, was sitting on a settee. The eagerness died out of her face, as it always did, at the sight of her husband; she dropped her head and looked round uneasily at Betsy. Betsy, dressed in the height of the latest fashion, in a hat that towered somewhere over her head like a shade on a lamp, in a blue dress with violet crossway stripes slanting one way on the bodice and the other way on the skirt, was sitting beside Anna, her tall flat figure held erect. Bowing her head, she greeted Alexey Alexandrovitch with an ironical smile.

“Ah!” she said, as though surprised. “I’m very glad you’re at home. You never put in an appearance anywhere, and I haven’t seen you ever since Anna has been ill. I have heard all about it–your anxiety. Yes, you’re a wonderful husband!” she said, with a meaning and affable air, as though she were bestowing an order of magnanimity on him for his conduct to his wife.

Alexey Alexandrovitch bowed frigidly, and kissing his wife’s hand, asked how she was.

“Better, I think,” she said, avoiding his eyes.

“But you’ve rather a feverish-looking color,” he said, laying stress on the word “feverish.”

“We’ve been talking too much,” said Betsy. “I feel it’s selfishness on my part, and I am going away.”

She got up, but Anna, suddenly flushing, quickly caught at her hand.

“No, wait a minute, please. I must tell you … no, you.” she turned to Alexey Alexandrovitch, and her neck and brow were suffused with crimson. “I won’t and can’t keep anything secret from you,” she said.

Alexey Alexandrovitch cracked his fingers and bowed his head.

“Betsy’s been telling me that Count Vronsky wants to come here to say good-bye before his departure for Tashkend.” She did not look at her husband, and was evidently in haste to have everything out, however hard it might be for her. “I told her I could not receive him.”

“You said, my dear, that it would depend on Alexey Alexandrovitch,” Betsy corrected her.

“Oh, no, I can’t receive him; and what object would there….” She stopped suddenly, and glanced inquiringly at her husband (he did not look at her). “In short, I don’t wish it….”

Alexey Alexandrovitch advanced and would have taken her hand.

Her first impulse was to jerk back her hand from the damp hand with big swollen veins that sought hers, but with an obvious effort to control herself she pressed his hand.

“I am very grateful to you for your confidence, but…” he said, feeling with confusion and annoyance that what he could decide easily and clearly by himself, he could not discuss before Princess Tverskaya, who to him stood for the incarnation of that brute force which would inevitably control him in the life he led in the eyes of the world, and hinder him from giving way to his feeling of love and forgiveness. He stopped short, looking at Princess Tverskaya.

“Well, good-bye, my darling,” said Betsy, getting up. She kissed Anna, and went out. Alexey Alexandrovitch escorted her out.

“Alexey Alexandrovitch! I know you are a truly magnanimous man,” said Betsy, stopping in the little drawing-room, and with special warmth shaking hands with him once more. “I am an outsider, but I so love her and respect you that I venture to advise. Receive him. Alexey Vronsky is the soul of honor, and he is going away to Tashkend.”

“Thank you, princess, for your sympathy and advice. But the question of whether my wife can or cannot see anyone she must decide herself.”

He said this from habit, lifting his brows with dignity, and reflected immediately that whatever his words might be, there could be no dignity in his position. And he saw this by the suppressed, malicious, and ironical smile with which Betsy glanced at him after this phrase.

 

Anna Karenina, Part Four, Chapter 19

 

 

 

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“A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!” cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.

“Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!”

He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge’s, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.

“Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “You don’t mean that, I am sure?”

“I do,” said Scrooge. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”

“Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”

Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”

“Don’t be cross, uncle!” said the nephew.

“What else can I be,” returned the uncle, “when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”

“Uncle!” pleaded the nephew.

“Nephew!” returned the uncle sternly, “keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”

“Keep it!” repeated Scrooge’s nephew. “But you don’t keep it.”

“Let me leave it alone, then,” said Scrooge. “Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!”

“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

The clerk in the Tank involuntarily applauded. Becoming immediately sensible of the impropriety, he poked the fire, and extinguished the last frail spark for ever.

“Let me hear another sound from you,” said Scrooge, “and you’ll keep your Christmas by losing your situation! You’re quite a powerful speaker, sir,” he added, turning to his nephew. “I wonder you don’t go into Parliament.”

“Don’t be angry, uncle. Come! Dine with us to-morrow.”

Scrooge said that he would see him—yes, indeed he did. He went the whole length of the expression, and said that he would see him in that extremity first.

“But why?” cried Scrooge’s nephew. “Why?”

“Why did you get married?” said Scrooge.

“Because I fell in love.”

“Because you fell in love!” growled Scrooge, as if that were the only one thing in the world more ridiculous than a merry Christmas. “Good afternoon!”

“Nay, uncle, but you never came to see me before that happened. Why give it as a reason for not coming now?”

“Good afternoon,” said Scrooge.

“I want nothing from you; I ask nothing of you; why cannot we be friends?”

“Good afternoon,” said Scrooge.

“I am sorry, with all my heart, to find you so resolute. We have never had any quarrel, to which I have been a party. But I have made the trial in homage to Christmas, and I’ll keep my Christmas humour to the last. So A Merry Christmas, uncle!”

“Good afternoon!” said Scrooge.

“And A Happy New Year!”

“Good afternoon!” said Scrooge.

His nephew left the room without an angry word, notwithstanding. He stopped at the outer door to bestow the greetings of the season on the clerk, who, cold as he was, was warmer than Scrooge; for he returned them cordially.

 

— Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, Stave One

 

 

 

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He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk—that anything—could give him so much happiness. In the afternoon he turned his steps towards his nephew’s house.

He passed the door a dozen times, before he had the courage to go up and knock. But he made a dash, and did it:

“Is your master at home, my dear?” said Scrooge to the girl. Nice girl! Very.

“Yes, sir.”

“Where is he, my love?” said Scrooge.

“He’s in the dining-room, sir, along with mistress. I’ll show you up-stairs, if you please.”

“Thank’ee. He knows me,” said Scrooge, with his hand already on the dining-room lock. “I’ll go in here, my dear.”

He turned it gently, and sidled his face in, round the door. They were looking at the table (which was spread out in great array); for these young housekeepers are always nervous on such points, and like to see that everything is right.

“Fred!” said Scrooge.

Dear heart alive, how his niece by marriage started! Scrooge had forgotten, for the moment, about her sitting in the corner with the footstool, or he wouldn’t have done it, on any account.

“Why bless my soul!” cried Fred, “who’s that?”

“It’s I. Your uncle Scrooge. I have come to dinner. Will you let me in, Fred?”

Let him in! It is a mercy he didn’t shake his arm off. He was at home in five minutes. Nothing could be heartier. His niece looked just the same. So did Topper when he came. So did the plump sister when she came. So did every one when they came. Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness!

 

A Christmas Carol, Stave Five

 

 

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posted by Roger W. Smith

June 2017