My kinda cats – II

Generally speaking, I'm not a big cat fan, preferring dogs all round. However, although I can be dismissive of the pampered creatures slouching around domestic hearths, some cats with strong characters, or a sassy, streetwise streak, can partially win me...

My kinda cat – III

This is one memorable cat.  Patrick Leigh Fermor had chance to observe the same big tom-cat every night in Athens after the war, performing what was clearly a regular feline routine.  I loved this whole story. For other cat-related Greek tails, see also...

Of facts and poetry

Having also tried various neat distinctions which inevitably crumble in the face of precise examples that don't fit, I liked Thoreau's conclusion that a 'beautiful fact' can't easily be excluded from a notebook on poetry. For similar overlaps between fact...

The scientist and the artist

This quotation, copied from an exhibition in Budapest, seems a neat summary of the similar qualities needed to make a (great) scientist or a (great) artist. It also reminded me of a quotation from Thoreau's journal in which his attempts to keep poetry and...

Cobalt polar lapis blue

A dazzlingly variegated Greek sky. It was under such a sky, which for me also includes hyacinth blue and lilac, that I realised the Greek national flag is simply the pairing of the deep inviting blue of its sky and the blinding whiteness of its church...

Of violet eyes

Only the second example I have come across of violet eyes, never yet seen in real life. Here the 76th Earl of Gormenghast learns from his physician, Dr. Prunesquallor, that the newborn 77th Earl-to-be, Titus, has this glorious oddity. The other, also of...

 

I have discovered that, with the passing of the years, my ignorance in countless areas… has become increasingly perfected while, at the same time, a lifelong practice of haphazard readings has left me with a sort of commonplace book in whose pages I find my own thoughts put into the words of others.   

Source: Alberto Manguel, The City of Words, CBC Massey Lecture Series (Toronto: Anansi Press, 2007), p. 3

Bringing you hundreds and soon thousands of quotations, collected over decades of attentive reading.  Be my guest and delve into this trove of quotes.

 

Half a prayer

A perfect example of mercurial Greek god behaviour. No rhyme or reason, I grant this, I grant that, I refuse one thing, and not the other. May your prayers be granted, in whole or in part, but if in part, let it be the right part. 'God heard his prayer and...

Fortune’s favour

This reminds me of an anonymous Elizabethan verse which I cite from memory:   'Lift up thy heart and courage eke, Be bold and of good cheer; For Fortune most doth favour those Who all things least do fear.'   So, go forth and fear not! This is from Logue's...

Wait your turn!

This observation of a family of swallows over 150 years ago struck me, along with another surprising tale by Thoreau. Apart from the impressive behaviour of the birds on both counts, in reading these immediate, living accounts, I wonder whether Thoreau had...

Airborne support

This touching account in Thoreau's journal has a swallow, injured by a shot from a gun, being given airborne support by another swallow. The duly contrite swallow-sniper thereafter showed reverence towards these lovely small birds. I hope the injured one...

Hospitality protocol 101

Homer is awash with examples of great hospitality and generosity between hosts and guests, even uninvited ones washing up on the beach. Here is a pithy proverb summing up the responsibility of each. Logue's magnificent rendition of several books of the...

To charm, to change …

Odysseus is a tricky hero, part noble, upstanding and brave, part slippery, trickery, too-clever-by-half.  He is a compelling orator, and it is hard to tell if his apparent shuffling shyness is a feint to lull his audience, or win their sympathy. This is...

Singing a stone-song

Water is the principal element in Williamson's assiduously researched, powerfully imagined life of an otter. I loved the idea of its singing a song by flowing over stones on its way to the sea. 'The water sang its stone-song in the dark as it flowed its...

The law of life

We need water for life, and life and water share a fundamental law: change.  They may also share another, apparently contradictory quality, that of being always different and yet somehow the same. 'The law of life was also the law of water - everlasting...

Ferrari on aerodynamics

This is of course an outrageous statement, but I loved it when I saw it spray-painted on the wall of a motor museum in the Netherlands.  Ridiculously macho approach, breezily dismissive of working with the power of physics to add speed.  No, you work with...

The path to alchemy

The route to alchemy?  There is none, there is no set path.  As I understand this enigmatic injunction, we need to find our own path to creating, not seek or follow others' paths. Which isn't to preclude great draughts of inspiration from the alchemy they...

The eyes have it

An imaginative description of an otter's reaction to the firstborn of her first litter.  Williamson spent years studying otters before and while attempting to recreate their lives and feelings in writing.  A masterpiece of human empathy for another...

Treading water

Tarka's mother cleverly entices her cubs into the water, first by putting the food she has caught close to the water, then teaching them to hunt for themselves by various feints and incentives. Water is their element but there is a momentary fear when they...

Long term thinking

A family gathering for the christening of the heir to the Gormenghast title, Titus, appears to be the first time this disfunctional family gets together since the christening of his now 15 year old sister. Here, Lady Groan, Countess of Gormenghast, seeing...

A thinking breakfast

This is one of two delightful quotations from Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan in which the characters mention their need to think.  Here we have 15 year old Fuchsia, daughter of the Earl of Gormenghast, eccentric but saner than many of the adults around her,...

Zeus dispenses with practicalities

Zeus here neatly rebuffs his daughter Athene's requests. I like his suitably arch reaction, which puts all supplicants in their petty place, even gorgeous goddesses, allowing the god of gods to just hang out on Olympus undisturbed. ‘Child, I am God, Please...

Of leaderless leadership

'Leadership' litters newspapers and networks such as LinkedIn, with people claiming to embody it, or vaunting the leadership of others. It's perhaps one of the most over-hyped terms of our time, and rarely less convincingly than when combined with the term...

Otters at play

Henry Williamson's spare writing is single-point focussed on getting inside the mind and life of an otter, as nearly as a human can.  He observed them in their natural context for years and his revisions to the draft were aimed solely at removing anything...

A mouth filled with eat-water

Henry Williamson's slim study of otters is a masterpiece of limpid writing and of human empathy for other species. Through minute observation and honest intent, he has cleaved as closely as he can to conveying an authentic sense of what it might be like to...

A fondness for roofs

Clarice and Cora are two halves of an insane echo-chamber - a pair of identical twins who need to get out more.  They live in the south wing of a vast pile of masonry, drawing life force from the rankling resentment of apparently lost power. They are so...

From happiness to revolt

An intriguing view of happiness which would surely resonate with totalitarian regimes and dictatorial mindsets. In this case and on this occasion, Flay can tolerate the momentary happiness around him as it is triggered by an event - the birth of a male...

Dying for a song

A surprising, refreshing view of God as one who forgives singers as sinners because he just loves their song. "Shrewd devil, you know very well that God pardons singers no matter what they do, because he can simply die for a song... "   Source: Nikos...

A sweetened world

This is a beautiful description of a moment of understanding or enlightenment.  Wherever you are, and whatever you are grappling with, may you have moments when the world about you sweetens, grows circular and fills your grasp.  And death vanishes into the...

When does a world disappear?

When does a world disappear? When inequality goes too far. Inequality seems much in the news these days, an apparently growing bane regardless of how well people are doing at either end of whatever spectrum. This stark and extreme example sums up the...

The cry of justice

Sooner or later, someone, somewhere will cry out against a wrong, no matter how small and despised their voice to begin with, nor how long they have tolerated it previously. This pithy assertion caught my attention just as three former Presidents - who...

Of strength and tenderness

This comes from Kazantzakis's account of Jesus' life and death, and I found the prayer he puts in Christ's mind astonishing as he prepares for the coming crucifixion. What an original and touching test of endurance: the capacity to undergo indescribable...

From mud to spirit

Yes, there is much you can do to transmute mud into brightness if you have enough time. I love the variety of interpretations I find regarding time and our relationship to it, and here it is cast at its most helpful, as the element that can 'ripen all'. Of...

A rotting bog of security

In Kazantzakis' lively version of Christ's life, Jesus' mother wishes only that his spiritual struggles don't get in the way of his marrying a nice girl and giving her grandchildren she can parade in the Biblical equivalent of the park.  She never quite...

Of love and torment

Kazantzakis' bold and imaginative retelling of Christ's life - and death - gives a new take on some of the Biblical characters you may have thought you knew through Sunday schools or other religious (Christian) instruction. In his version, Mary is...

Man in a hurry

Jesus lays out a few ground rules to Judas whom, it seems, could have done with a dose of quinuituq. I loved this lesson in patience, and the idea that men and trees are bound by the same laws of God.   "If you love me, be patient.  Look at the trees.  Are...

Steady as she goes

Sometimes the world - at least our human version of it - feels wobbly, so I found this affirmation of its steadiness and solid foundations in some sense reassuring. But of course, it depends which - or  whose - world we are talking about, and then there is...

When God mixes with man

An uplifting depiction of a potentially winning combination? I also liked the intimacy and proximity implied here, not a distant thunderer in the heavens or up some inaccessible mountain lobbing brickbats and lightening bolts, but to his left and to his...

Where hope begins

At first glance this posits the last place you would think to look for the beginnings of hope: where there is none. Yet, once in a while, when despair is caused by temporary sorrows, there can be a point when you know, raw and wrung out as you are, that...

Oddly hinged

A beautiful way to remind us that all may not be as it seems. Oddly hinged is more interested than 'unhinged' as it allows some latency for the unexpected, some room for the numinous to astound us, or for us to astound ourselves, some space to be more...

A visitation from a minor god

The past is a place which enriches me in almost all I do, and I love travelling there as much as I love travelling abroad.  As Henry Miller said, it 'fructifies the present', and I see history as a vertical version of geography - a place you can visit and...

When is a virtue not a virtue?

This struck me - virtues that are but by-products of fear and poverty, may not be virtues at all.  If you have no money (or credit), lauding your frugality is hardly meaningful. May your virtues come from you naturally rather than being forced upon you by...

Of time and water

A heartening description of time as the great irrigator of the world. See another such ripening interpretation by Kazantzakis. 'Time ran on like immortal water, and irrigated the world.'   Source: Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation, trans. P.A. Bien...

Time in two dimensions

A striking metaphor for time hovering or collapsing, in two versions of a bird, alive and flying, or keeling and dying. 'Time still hovers above the tundra like the rough-legged hawk, or collapses altogether like a bird keeled over with a heart attack,...

The slope of time

The more I connect with the past, the more I connect with the present, and I liked this use of quietness as a way to 'feel the slope of time'. And yes, how far we have come from Mesopotamia, but similarly, how far back we go, both to and beyond...

Time as landscape

How many of us live day to day doling out time fretfully!  I liked this alternative, easy, generous, striding engagement with time, allowing you to traverse other vastnesses confidently. 'If the mind releases its fiduciary grip on time, does not dole it...

Lasting and reciprocal

Ah, therein lies the rub. This strikes me as a pithy and poetic definition of environmental sustainability: to be lasting, it must be reciprocal. We aren't quite there yet, we haven't quite figured out what 'reciprocal' means in our engagement with...

Cooling the ardour of the Archduke

A wonderful, quirky episode in Orlando: a bizarre game played for hours, days, weeks, by Orlando and the Archduke whose amorous attentions she is trying to rebuff.  They play the Fly Loo Game, which seems to involve trying slip dead flies unnoticed where...

On growing up

An interesting definition of growing up - losing your illusions.  But then humanly allowing the possibility that you will acquire new ones. 'I am growing  up,' she thought, taking her taper.  'I am losing my illusions, perhaps to acquire new ones'...  ...

Toads versus rapiers

Having roundly failed to deter the advances of an Archduke by brazenly cheating him out of tens of thousands of pounds, Orlando resorts to even baser means.  Her self-justification is a wonder, as if a rapier were a more noble way of dealing with an...

Trick or miracle?

I love the idea of trusting in Nature, but have to wonder whether it is capable of such apparently conscious agency in our lives, whether playing tricks or working miracles. If such agency is real, may it ever work miracles for you. 'And then Nature, in...

Dead or alive?

This marvelously stark encounter with a dark stranger proves to be Orlando's first meeting with the man she will marry.  Her energetic statement is a reflection of having been pursued for a century or so with a sackload of court cases, many of which...

Up and out at dawn

Orlando, who at this stage in her 400 year life has only quite recently woken up to find herself transformed into a woman, has finally come back to her vast old family home.  Her staff, who accept her new gender without batting an eyelid, still detect...

Of life, lovers, spaniels and sympathy

Orlando's four hundred year span seems to boil down to the search for Life, Love and Authorship.  Here she is learning that lovers aplenty may not be enough to provide either Life or Love (let alone Authorship). This is not the first time that it is to a...

Of long and short time

While I have seen many comments on the elasticity of experienced time, this is the first one connecting its length or shortness with whether the time is spent doing or thinking. I can't immediately see the correlation, as it would surely depend on what it...

Sickle and circular

What a beautifully fresh alliteration for the usual 'wax and wane' of the moon. 'He saw the moon sickle and then circular.'   Source: Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography, ed. with an introduction by Rachel Bowlby (Oxford: World's Classics, 1992), p. 94...

Time of the mind

Time and our perceptions of it fascinate me.  Here Orlando comments on its strange elasticity inside the mind. Indeed in need of further investigation. 'The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time.  An hour, once it lodges...

A comprehensive indictment

Orlando's elaborate life includes a depressing barrage of lawsuits as conflicting as they are outrageous.  While the law trundles through its processes, she is allowed to retire to her estates and live incognito and in limbo between being male or female on...

Of signs, sympathies and presentiments

Still unravelling the mystery on this one, and enjoy the playfulness and acuity with which we appear to 'pick up' signals when in fact we may be intuitively choosing to see something as a form of subtle self-guidance. Another mystery is the degree to which Jane Eyre's...

Who loves you best, whom you love best …

The sweet playfulness of Jane's relationship with Rochester, and, finally, the happy ending.   'That depends on circumstances, sir - on your choice.' 'Which you shall make for me, Jane.  I will abide by your decision.' 'Choose then, sir - her who loves you...

Busy busy busy

One of the inconsequential but socially better placed characters Jane has to endure, at least until she finds her heart's home.   'Eliza still spoke little: she had evidently no time to talk.  I never saw a busier person than she seemed to be; yet it was...

A wanderer

Jane's days in the wilderness are terrifying, taking her close to 'death's door'.   The first refuge she finds from wandering later proves to include another trap, and so she sets off again. But she finds it.  Finds her place on this earth. And so stops...

A plain without bounds

Again, a reference to a cramped and constraining existence and her desperate need to escape its shackles.   I had remembered the passionate relationship with Mr. Rochester but had forgotten the other attempt to bind her, when her Puritanical cousin...

Of frantic birds and free human beings

A withering riposte to any attempt at ensnarement or wing-clipping.  Mr. Rochester tries to bind Jane to him but soon learns that nothing will drive her away faster.   'Jane, be still; don't struggle so, like a wild frantic bird that is rending its own...

Enlarging your destiny

The touching, palpable sense of expansion and hope that comes of being treated with respect and affection.  This is a powerful and recurring theme: the need for freedom and being loved strongly and simply and for yourself.   'My thin crescent-destiny...

Gasping for freedom

The departure of the one kind person in the orphanage where she has spent more than half her young life, triggers - in a single afternoon - Jane's realisation that she can no longer stay there. She immediately sets about planning her escape, seeking and...

Of the unspoken

A short and thoughtful statement.  He doesn't elaborate and it is hard to know what drew him to this conclusion.  Given how much religion is spoken, it's an interesting comment. 'What is religion?  That which is never spoken.'  18 August 1858   Source:...

Wrong by a jugful

A charming way to say that someone is seriously wrong - not right by a jugful.  I will try to slip this into my daily speech and see if anyone notices. '... he says that his account is not right by a jugful, that he does not come within half a mile of the...

Studying the ways of men

So that's the secret of the fox's cunning - they hide out of sight and study us!  Thoreau has dozens of these tiny observations about animals. 'Farmer said yesterday that he thought foxes did not live so much in the depth of the woods as on open hillsides,...

The past as a concertina of time

I collect comments on and perceptions of time.  This one is striking and I am as guilty of it as anybody.  While we allow significant differences between recent centuries (the 18th century being Very Different from the 20th) we readily assume that the...

Which would you choose?

I would be hard put to choose but I think I would opt to leave behind a wall where peaches ripen.  And certainly better to go unknown than to burn like a meteor. 'Better was it to go unknown and leave behind you an arch, a potting shed, a wall where...

Trust in dogs and roses

When humans fail you, dogs and roses remain, which has the advantage of simplifying the business of living and stripping it down to a couple of reliable essentials. See the full quotation below. 'Two things alone remained to him in which he now put any...

Of newt’s slobber and peacock’s gall

A high opinion of doctors, clearly.  I loved this scattergun approach to diagnosis and treatment: throw the whole therapeutic cabinet at your patient and see if something sticks - see the full quotation below. All this is due to their bafflement at...

People to go with the furniture

Orlando goes on a massive interior design spree, lavishing huge expense on new furniture and other luxuries for the 365 room sprawl that is his-her ancestral pile. Then she notices something is missing: people to sit or lie in them. 'Chairs and tables,...

Affluence of life and certainty of flow

How about that for a well-wishing phrase to fling into the world!  May you enjoy both affluence of life and certainty of flow, as the strong, fine, kind Diana does.   One of the most attractive characters in this book. Shame about the brother, though he...

Heart and soul

As we begin to grapple with the implications of artificial intelligence and robots, this allusion more than 150 years ago to an automaton and machine without feelings is striking. And, yet again, Jane cannot prevent herself confronting her interlocutor...

Of original, vigorous and expanded minds

A wonderful description of how Jane's potential to blossom intellectually and emotionally is triggered by her relationship with Mr. Rochester.  Both of them defy the conventions of their time and she, having far fewer resources to draw on both financially...

Of freedom and flight

Again, Mr. Rochester has to face the fact that the more he tries to bind Jane to him, the more he drives her away, though he has no idea to what degree.  See also 'Of frantic birds and free humans'.   'Of yourself you could come with soft flight and nestle...

Upright and unflinching

A touching and imaginative fictional description of the complexity of Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603).  Orlando is a young boy of about 16 when he meets her, by then an elderly queen. I like the word 'caparisoned' to convey her always glorious power-dressing,...

No plebeians here

How noble can you get?  Most aristos trace back to some humble origin until they got a knighthood or some such for pleasing their king and master.  But Orlando's, no, they came out of the mists their coronets already in place. 'His fathers had been noble...

The vegetables of another age

Something wonderfully down to earth about this quick survey of differences between us and the Elizabethans, particularly in that last flourish of differentiated veg. 'The age was Elizabethan; their morals were not ours; nor their poets; nor their climate;...

The elegant disposal of offensive documents

Remember this next time you receive an email or other document which offends you.  Simply summon the footman and have him file it appropriately.  And be sure to protect yourself from further contamination by the deft use of a pair of tongs. I looked long...

Hell and how to avoid it

Brontë's Jane Eyre plumbs depths of emotion both in the child and woman, but there is also a certain wry humour.  Here the tiny Jane, whose small body can barely contain her strong and uncrushable spirit, responds with astounding and refreshing logic,...

Shock and reverberation

Charlotte Brontë captures the lasting impression of fear and injustice, and the emotional outrage caused by both, in a child treated with cruelty.  Here the young Jane Eyre, poor cousin and ward of a hard-hearted distant aunt, is locked up in a dark and...

Of love and kindness

Jane Eyre boils down to two powerful essential needs: to give and receive love amply, and to have the liberty to determine how you live and think, and to do both in a generous, whole-hearted way. After being alternately neglected and tormented by her...

Pleasant things

Jane the young woman is now entering a milieu where her deprived childhood is in stark contrast with her employer's wealth.  She has just emerged from a Victorian penitentiary masquerading as a charity orphanage, where even adequate quantities of...

That grand old poem called Winter

To celebrate the winter solstice, a few crisp quotations.  I loved Thoreau's description of winter as an epic in blank verse, and his words are themselves a grand old poem.  Enjoy. 'That grand old poem called Winter ... What a poem!  an epic in blank verse, enriched...

Sign of the clime

A ready way to reckon with the weather, according to an old boy Thoreau knew.  Can't really go wrong with this formula. Old John Nutting used to say, "when it is cold it is a sign it's going to be warm," and "When it's warm it's a sign it's going to be cold."   22 Jan...

The great freeze of London

Virginia Woolf's Orlando gets under the skin of different moments in a 400 year stretch of English history.  Here she zooms in on the Great Frost of 1608, prising out of the ice images from an historical account given by Thomas Dekker of a rare winter when the Thames...

A poet’s sister or a sister poet?

In Dorothy Wordsworth's journals, you sense the extent to which she supported her brother's writing. Some things she records become material for his poems. She also reads aloud to him, including his own compositions, and copies out his poems. But beyond this, she has...

Need some negus?

A hot drink of port, sugar, lemon, and spice, named after a Colonel Francis Negus (d. 1732), who invented it.  In Dorothy Wordsworth's journal, it seems to have been used medicinally, along with broth.  A delicious sounding toddy for a miserable winter cold. 'We also...

How to win a train ticket to Tashkent

This vast novel, full of war and suffering, also has moments of levity.  Here we have someone refusing to curtail his right to say whatever he thinks about literature, life and politics, talking and arguing his way into being given a free train ticket. 'In 1926...

In praise of senseless, eternal kindness

Another plea by Grossman for uncomplicated, unplanned and even unwitnessed kindnesses, as opposed to those commandeered by ideologies. Whatever your beliefs, may you give and receive such random acts of kindness in equal measure. 'The private kindness of one...

Of eyes that saw too much

This is part of a detailed, detached account of what happened when people entered a gas chamber, as experienced by Sofya, a Russian doctor in Grossman's 800 page novel of the Second World War in and around Russia. I found it moving that he focuses on her eyes, which...

Captain Grekov’s eyes

This is a memorable description of Captain Grekov, commander of House 6/1 in the rubble of Stalingrad, summing up so much of the man by the look in his eyes. See also in the same book a touching account of the eyes of a woman - with much of what they had seen in the...

The kernel of human kindness

Having been caught between the colliding tectonic plates of two totalitarian systems, it is easy to see how Grossman saw history not in terms of a matched battle between good and evil, but of a juggernaut trying to mow down seedlings of kindness. Despite - or because...

Kindness maketh man

What makes us human?  Simple kindness is a key element according to Grossman.  It depends partly on how you define 'human' of course, whether to describe a particular species, or in the sense that is redolent with tenderness, vulnerability, feeling, sensitivity. 'This...

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