The Ghastly Whim of John Donne

Monday, 31 March 2014

John Donne

Izaak Walton (1593–1683). The Lives of John Donne and George Herbert.
Vol. 15, pp. 364-369 of The Harvard Classics

Monuments are usually made from death masks, but John Donne took pleasure in posing for his, wrapped from head to foot in a shroud. Isaak Walton tells of this in his fascinating biography of the eccentric poet.
(John Donne died March 31, 1631.)

The Life of Dr. Donne

  I must here look so far back, as to tell the reader that at his first return out of Essex, to preach his last sermon, his old friend and physician, Dr. Fox—a man of great worth—came to him to consult his health; and that after a sight of him, and some queries concerning his distempers, he told him, “That by cordials, and drinking milk twenty days together, there was a probability of his restoration to health;” but he passionately denied to drink it. Nevertheless, Dr. Fox, who loved him most entirely, wearied him with solicitations, till he yielded to take it for ten days; at the end of which time he told Dr. Fox, “He had drunk it more to satisfy him, than to recover his health; and that he would not drink it ten days longer, upon the best moral assurance of having twenty years added to his life; for he loved it not; and was so far from fearing death, which to others is the King of Terrors, that he longed for the day of dissolution.”

The Plague of Milan

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Alessandro Manzoni

Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873). I Promessi Sposi.
Vol. 21, pp. 500-512 of The Harvard Classics

"I Promessi Sposi," a seventeenth century novel, vividly describes the devastating plague of Milan. Then whole families sickened in a few hours and died in less than a day's time of strange and violent complaints whose symptoms were unknown to physicians.
(Capuchin monks given charge of the plague hospital in Milan, March 30, 1630.)

Chapter XXXI

THE PLAGUE, which the Board of Health had feared might enter with the German troops into the Milanese, had entered it indeed, as is well known; and it is likewise well known, that it paused not here, but invaded and ravaged a great part of Italy. Following the thread of our story, we now come to relate the principal incidents of this calamity in the Milanese, or rather in Milan almost exclusively: for almost exclusively of the city do the records of the times treat, nearly as it always and everywhere happens, for good reasons or bad. And, to say the truth, it is not only our object, in this narrative, to represent the state of things in which our characters will shortly be placed; but at the same time to develop, as far as may be in so limited a space, and from our pen, an event in the history of our country more celebrated than well known.

Hero and Goddess Break Engagement

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Siegfried (Sigurd)

The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs.
Vol. 49, pp. 307-317 of The Harvard Classics

Brynhild, favorite goddess of Norse mythology, plighted troth with Sigurd, fearless warrior. But Sigurd forgot Brynhild and married Gudrun, whose brother, Gunner, then set out to win the beautiful Brynhild. Complications very like a modern triangle arose.

The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs

XXIV. Sigurd sees Brynhild at Hlymdale

  IN those days came home to Heimir, Brynhild, his foster-daughter, and she sat in her bower with her maidens, and could more skill in handicraft than other women; she sat, overlaying cloth with gold, and sewing therein the great deeds which Sigurd had wrought, the slaying of the Worm, and the taking of the wealth of him, and the death of Regin withal.

Pins and Other Points

Friday, 28 March 2014

Adam Smith

Adam Smith. (1723–1790). Wealth of Nations.
Vol. 10, pp. 9-17 of The Harvard Classics

The making of a simple pin is one of the most complex affairs of modern industry. Adam Smith regards the process from the worker's point of view, and shows the many and varied economic principles that are involved in pin making.

Book I
I. Of the Division of Labour

THE GREATEST improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is any where directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour.

When Is a Lie Not a Lie?

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Robert Louis Stevensom aged 26

Robert Louis Stevenson. Truth of Intercourse
Vol. 28, pp. 277-284 of The Harvard Classics

Is lying or quibbling ever permissible? May one juggle words so a truth is conveyed through a lie and a lie told by a truth? Stevenson unravels this puzzle.

Truth of Intercourse

AMONG sayings that have a currency in spite of being wholly false upon the face of them for the sake of a half-truth upon another subject which is accidentally combined with error, one of the grossest and broadest conveys the monstrous proposition that it is easy to tell the truth and hard to tell a lie. I wish heartily it were. But the truth is one; it has first to be discovered, then justly and exactly uttered. Even with instruments specially contrived for such a purpose—with a foot rule, a level, or a theodolite—it is not easy to be exact; it is easier, alas! to be inexact. From those who mark the divisions on a scale to those who measure the boundaries of empires or the distance of the heavenly stars, it is by careful method and minute, unwearying attention that men rise even to material exactness or to sure knowledge even of external and constant things. But it is easier to draw the outline of a mountain than the changing appearance of a face; and truth in human relations is of this more intangible and dubious order: hard to seize, harder to communicate. Veracity to facts in a loose, colloquial sense—not to say that I have been in Malabar when as a matter of fact I was never out of England, not to say that I have read Cervantes in the original when as a matter of fact I know not one syllable of Spanish—this, indeed, is easy and to the same degree unimportant in itself. Lies of this sort, according to circumstances, may or may not be important; in a certain sense even the may or may not be false. The habitual liar may be a very honest fellow, and live truly with his wife and friends; while another man who never told a formal falsehood in his life may yet be himself one lie-heart and face, from top to bottom. This is the kind of lie which poisons intimacy. And, vice versâ,veracity to sentiment, truth in a relation, truth to your own heart and your friends, never to feign or falsify emotion—that is the truth which makes love possible and mankind happy.

"2,500 Years Ago Æsop Said . . ."

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Rackham's illustration of "The Ass in the Lion's Skin"

Æsop. (Sixth century B.C.) Fables.
Vol. 17, pp. 21-30 of The Harvard Classics

Men in all ages have recognized the ingenuity of the practical philosophy and freshness of Æsop's allegories. Spend a few delightful moments with the wit and wisdom of Æsop.
(Caxton prints Æsop's Fables, March 26, 1484.)

The Bat, the Birds, and the Beasts

A GREAT conflict was about to come off between the Birds and the Beasts. When the two armies were collected together the Bat hesitated which to join. The Birds that passed his perch said: “Come with us”; but he said: “I am a Beast.” Later on, some Beasts who were passing underneath him looked up and said: “Come with us”; but he said: “I am a Bird.” Luckily at the last moment peace was made, and no battle took place, so the Bat came to the Birds and wished to join in the rejoicings, but they all turned against him and he had to fly away. He then went to the Beasts, but soon had to beat a retreat, or else they would have torn him to pieces. “Ah,” said the Bat, “I see now,

How Conscience Makes Cowards of Us All

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Edwin Booth as Hamlet

William Shakespeare (1564–1616). The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark.
Vol. 46, pp. 144-158 of The Harvard Classics

Hamlet pondered over which course contained the least unhappiness - whether to suffer here and not incur new dangers, or whether to end it all and chance the unknown terrors of the next world. See how Hamlet reasoned.
(Shakespeare makes his will, March 25, 1616.)

Scene I



  Ham.  To be, or not to be: that is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die; to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ’Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die; to sleep;—
To sleep? Perchance to dream! Ay, there ’s the rub; 1
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffl’d off this mortal coil, 2
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of dispriz’d 3 love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? 5 Who would fardels 6 bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn 7
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, 8
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.—Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins rememb’red

A Queen Pleads

Monday, 24 March 2014

William Morris

William Morris (1834–1896)
Vol. 42, pp. 1183-1193 of The Harvard Classics

Guenevere, King Arthur's queen, justly accused but harshly treated, makes a noble and brave attempt to convince her court that Gawaine lied and that Launcelot was true.
(William Morris born March 24, 1834.)

The Defence of Guenevere

BUT, knowing now that they would have her speak,
She threw her wet hair backward from her brow,
Her hand close to her mouth touching her cheek,

First of a Thousand Harem Stories

Sunday, 23 March 2014


Stories from the Thousand and One Nights.
Vol. 16, pp. 15-24 of The Harvard Classics

Shahrazad, favorite of the treacherous Sultan's harem, selected a most thrilling story for her bridal night. By leaving it unfinished she was privileged to live to continue it the next night - and so on for a thousand and one nights.

Nights 1–3
The Story of the Merchant and the Jinni

IT has been related to me, O happy King, said Shahrazad, that there was a certain merchant who had great wealth, and traded extensively with surrounding countries; and one day he mounted his horse, and journeyed to a neighbouring country to collect what was due to him, and, the heat oppressing him, he sat under a tree, in a garden, and put his hand into his saddle-bag, and ate a morsel of bread and a date which were among his provisions. Having eaten the date, he threw aside the stone, and immediately there appeared before him an ‘Efrit, of enormous height, who, holding a drawn sword in his hand, approached him, and said, Rise, that I may kill thee, as thou hast killed my son. the merchant asked him, How have I killed thy son? He answered, When thou atest the date, and threwest aside the stone, it struck my son upon the chest, and, as fate had decreed against him, he instantly died.

From Puppet Show to Majestic Drama

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). Faust. Part I.
Vol. 19, pp. 23-36 of The Harvard Classics

The Faust legend, which can be traced to puppet shows of earlier days, portrays a philosopher who, through Satan's aid and in return for the price of his soul, works magic at will. From this rude framework Goethe has reared a drama of sublime grandeur.
(Goethe died March 22, 1832.)


A high vaulted narrow Gothic chamber. FAUST, restless, seated at his desk.

HAVE, alas! Philosophy,
Medicine, Jurisprudence too,
And to my cost Theology,
With ardent labour, studied through.
And here I stand, with all my lore,
Poor fool, no wiser than before.
Magister, doctor styled, indeed,
Already these ten years I lead,
Up, down, across, and to and fro,
My pupils by the nose,—and learn,
That we in truth can nothing know!
That in my heart like fire doth burn.
’Tis true I’ve more cunning than all your dull tribe,
Magister and doctor, priest, parson, and scribe;
Scruple or doubt comes not to enthrall me,
Neither can devil nor hell now appal me—
Hence also my heart must all pleasure forego!
I may not pretend, aught rightly to know,
I may not pretend, through teaching, to find
A means to improve or convert mankind.
Then I have neither goods nor treasure,
No worldly honour, rank, or pleasure;
No dog in such fashion would longer live!
Therefore myself to magic I give,
In hope, through spirit-voice and might,
Secrets now veiled to bring to light,
That I no more, with aching brow,
Need speak of what I nothing know;
That I the force may recognise
That binds creation’s inmost energies;
Her vital powers, her embryo seeds survey,
And fling the trade in empty words away.
O full-orb’d moon, did but thy rays
Their last upon mine anguish gaze!
Beside this desk, at dead of night,
Oft have I watched to hail thy light:
Then, pensive friend! o’er book and scroll,
With soothing power, thy radiance stole!
In thy dear light, ah, might I climb,
Freely, some mountain height sublime,
Round mountain caves with spirits ride,
In thy mild haze o’er meadows glide,
And, purged from knowledge-fumes, renew
My spirit, in thy healing dew!
Woe’s me! still prison’d in the gloom
Of this abhorr’d and musty room!
Where heaven’s dear light itself doth pass,
But dimly through the painted glass!
Hemmed in by volumes thick with dust,
Worm-eaten, hid ’neath rust and mould,
And to the high vault’s topmost bound,
A smoke-stained paper compassed round;
With boxes round thee piled, and glass,
And many a useless instrument,
With old ancestral lumber blent—
This is thy world! a world! alas!
And dost thou ask why heaves thy heart,
With tighten’d pressure in thy breast?
Why the dull ache will not depart,
By which thy life-pulse is oppress’d?
Instead of nature’s living sphere,
Created for mankind of old,
Brute skeletons surround thee here,
And dead men’s bones in smoke and mould.

Up! Forth into the distant land!
Is not this book of mystery
By Nostradamus’ proper hand,
An all-sufficient guide? Thou’lt see
The courses of the stars unroll’d;
When nature doth her thoughts unfold
To thee, thy soul shall rise, and seek
Communion high with her to hold,
As spirit doth with spirit speak!
Vain by dull poring to divine
The meaning of each hallow’d sign.
Spirits! I feel you hov’ring near;
Make answer, if my voice ye hear!  

1,000 Years of History on the Surface of a Shield

Friday, 21 March 2014

Virgil reading the Aenid

Vergil (70 B.C.–19 B.C.). Æneid.
Vol. 13, pp. 280-292 of The Harvard Classics

Venus, mother of Æneas and wife of Vulcan, obtained from her husband, by seductive witchery, a marvelous shield whose surface reflected a thousand years of future events. Venus describes the wonders of the magic armor.

The Eighth Book of the Æneis

THE ARGUMENT.—The war being now begun, both the generals make all possible preparations. Turnus sends to Diomedes. Æneas goes in person to beg succors from Evander and the Tuscans. Evander receives him kindly, furnishes him with men, and sends his son Pallas with him. Vulcan, at the request of Venus, makes arms for her son Æneas, and draws on his shield the most memorable actions of his posterity.


Then saw two heaps of ruins, (once they stood
Two stately towns, on either side the flood,)
Saturnia’s and Janicula’s remains;
And either place the founder’s name retains.
Discoursing thus together, they resort
Where poor Evander kept his country court.
They view’d the ground of Rome’s litigious hall;
(Once oxen low’d, where now the lawyers bawl;)
Then, stooping, thro’ the narrow gate they press’d,
When thus the king bespoke his Trojan guest:
“Mean as it is, this palace, and this door,
Receiv’d Alcides, then a conqueror.
Dare to be poor; accept our homely food,
Which feasted him, and emulate a god.”
Then underneath a lowly roof he led
The weary prince, and laid him on a bed;
The stuffing leaves, with hides of bears o’erspread.
Now Night had shed her silver dews around,
And with her sable wings embrac’d the ground,
When love’s fair goddess, anxious for her son,
(New tumults rising, and new wars begun,)
Couch’d with her husband in his golden bed,
With these alluring words invokes his aid;
And, that her pleasing speech his mind may move,
Inspires each accent with the charms of love:
“While cruel fate conspir’d with Grecian pow’rs,
To level with the ground the Trojan tow’rs,
I ask’d not aid th’ unhappy to restore,
Nor did the succor of thy skill implore;
Nor urg’d the labors of my lord in vain,
A sinking empire longer to sustain,
Tho’ much I ow’d to Priam’s house, and more
The dangers of Æneas did deplore.
But now, by Jove’s command, and fate’s decree,
His race is doom’d to reign in Italy:
With humble suit I beg thy needful art,
O still propitious pow’r, that rules my heart!
A mother kneels a suppliant for her son.
By Thetis and Aurora thou wert won
To forge impenetrable shields, and grace
With fated arms a less illustrious race.
Behold, what haughty nations are combin’d
Against the relics of the Phrygian kind,
With fire and sword my people to destroy,
And conquer Venus twice, in conqu’ring Troy.”
She said; and straight her arms, of snowy hue,
About her unresolving husband threw.
Her soft embraces soon infuse desire;
His bones and marrow sudden warmth inspire;
And all the godhead feels the wonted fire.
Not half so swift the rattling thunder flies,
Or forky lightnings flash along the skies.
The goddess, proud of her successful wiles,
And conscious of her form, in secret smiles.

Apples, Feathers, and Coals

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Isaac Newton

François Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694–1778). Letters on the English.
Vol. 34, pp. 113-124 of The Harvard Classics

Sir Isaac Newton was aided in his momentous discoveries by the most insignificant objects - even apples, feathers, and coal. Voltaire discusses the wondrous discoveries of Newton.
(Sir Isaac Newton died March 20, 1727.)

Letter XV—On Attraction

THE DISCOVERIES which gained Sir Isaac Newton so universal a reputation, relate to the system of the world, to light, to geometrical infinities; and, lastly, to chronology, with which he used to amuse himself after the fatigue of his severer studies.

  I will now acquaint you (without prolixity if possible) with the few things I have been able to comprehend of all these sublime ideas. With regard to the system of our world disputes were a long time maintained, on the cause that turns the planets, and keeps them in their orbits; and on those causes which make all bodies here below descend towards the surface of the earth.

Seeing Old Egypt

Wednesday, 19 March 2014


Herodotus, An Account of Egypt: Being the Second Book of His Histories Called Euterpe
Vol. 33, pp. 72-84 of The Harvard Classics

The mysterious Egyptian temples, the floating islands, the huge pyramids and the many wonders of ancient Egypt are pictured for you by Herodotus.
(Last recorded event in Herodotus' history dated March 19, 478 B. C.)

  Among the Hellenes Heracles, and Dionysos and Pan are accounted the latest-born of the gods; but with the Egyptians Pan is a very ancient god, and he is one of those which are called the eight gods, while Heracles is of the second rank, who are called the twelve gods, and Dionysos is of the third rank, namely of those who were born of the twelve gods. Now as to Heracles I have shown already how many years old he is according to the Egyptians themselves, reckoning down to the reign of Amasis, and Pan is said to have existed for yet more years than these, and Dionysos for the smallest number of years as compared with the others; and even for this last they reckon down to the reign of Amasis fifteen thousand years. This the Egyptians say that they know for a certainty, since they always kept a reckoning and wrote down the years as they came. Now the Dionysos who is said to have been born of Semele the daughter of Cadmos, was born about sixteen hundred years before my time, and Heracles who was the son of Alcmene, about nine hundred years, and that Pan who was born of Penelope, for of her and of Hermes Pan is said by the Hellenes to have been born, came into being later than the wars of Troy, about eight hundred years before my time. Of these two accounts every man may adopt that one which he shall find the more credible when he hears it. I however, for my part, have already declared my opinion about them. For if these also, like Heracles the son of Amphitryon, had appeared before all men’s eyes and had lived their lives to old age in Hellas, I mean Dionysos the son of Semele and Pan the son of Penelope, then one would have said that these also had been born mere men, having the names of those gods who had come into being long before: but as it is, with regard to Dionysos, the Hellenes say that as soon as he was born Zeus sewed him up in his thigh and carried him to Nysa, which is above Egypt in the land of Ethiopia; and as to Pan, they cannot say whither he went after he was born. Hence it has become clear to me that the Hellenes learnt the names of these gods later than those of the other gods, and trace their descent as if their birth occurred at the time when they first learnt their names.

  Thus far then the history is told by the Egyptians themselves; but I will now recount that which other nations also tell, and the Egyptians in agreement with the others, of that which happened in this land: and there will be added to this also something of that which I have myself seen.

New Way to Pay Old Debts

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Philip Massinger

Philip Massinger (1583–1640). A New Way to Pay Old Debts.
Vol. 47 pp. 859-870 of The Harvard Classics

A cunning uncle cheats his worthless nephew out of his fortune. The nephew, laughing stock of his former servants, sets out to retrieve his old position and riches.
(Massinger buried March 18, 1640.)

Act I
Scene II


  ORD.  Set all things right, or, as my name is Order,
And by this staff of office that commands you,
This chain and double ruff, symbols of power,
Whoever misses in his function,
For one whole week makes forfeiture of his breakfast,
And privilege in the wine-cellar.
  AMB.        You are merry,
Good master steward.
  FURN.        Let him; I’ll be angry.
  AMB.  Why, fellow Furnace, ’tis not twelve o’clock yet,
Nor dinner taking up; then, ’tis allow’d,
Cooks, by their places, may be choleric.
  FURN.  You think you have spoke wisely, goodman Amble,
My lady’s go-before!
  ORD.        Nay, nay, no wrangling.
  FURN.  Twit me with the authority of the kitchen!
At all hours, and all places, I’ll be angry;
And thus provok’d, when I am at my prayers
I will be angry.
  AMB.        There was no hurt meant.
  FURN.  I am friends with thee; and yet I will be angry.
  ORD.  With whom?
  FURN.        No matter whom: yet, now I think on it,
I am angry with my lady.
  WATCH.        Heaven forbid, man!
  ORD.  What cause has she given thee?
  FURN.        Cause enough, master steward.
I was entertain’d by her to please her palate,
And, till she forswore eating, I perform’d it.
Now, since our master, noble Allworth, died,
Though I crack my brains to find out tempting sauces,
And raise fortifications in the pastry
Such as might serve for models in the Low Countries;
Which, if they had been practised at Breda,
Spinola might have thrown his cap at it, and ne’er took it 2
  AMB.  But you had wanted matter there to work on.
  FURN.  Matter! with six eggs, and a strike 3 of rye meal,
I had kept the town till doomsday, perhaps longer.
  ORD.  But what’s this to your pet against my lady?
  FURN.  What’s this? Marry this: when I am three parts roasted
And the fourth part parboil’d, to prepare her viands,
She keeps her chamber, dines with a panada 4
Or water-gruel, my sweat never thought on.
  ORD.  But your art is seen in the dining-room.
  FURN.        By whom?
By such as pretend love to her, but come
To feed upon her. Yet, of all the harpies
That do devour her, I am out of charity
With none so much as the thin-gutted squire
That’s stolen into commission.
  ORD.        Justice Greedy?
  FURN.  The same, the same; meat’s cast away upon him,
It never thrives; he holds this paradox,
Who eats not well, can ne’er do justice well.
His stomach’s as insatiate as the grave,
Or strumpet’s ravenous appetites.  Knocking.
  WATCH.        One knocks.

An Old Irish Legend

Monday, 17 March 2014

Ernest Renan

Ernest Renan. The Poetry of The Celtic Races
Vol. 32, pp. 174-182 of The Harvard Classics

(St. Patrick's Day.)
An old Irish legend tells how, while St. Patrick was preaching about Paradise and Hell, several of his audience begged to be allowed to investigate the reality of these places. St. Patrick actually satisfied their curiosity.

  Without contradiction1 the legend of St. Brandan is the most singular product of this combination of Celtic naturalism with Christian spiritualism. The taste of the Hibernian monks for making maritime pilgrimages through the archipelago of the Scottish and Irish seas, everywhere dotted with monasteries, 2 and the memory of yet more distant voyages in Polar seas, furnished the framework of this curious composition, so rich in local impressions. From Pliny (IV. xxx. 3) we learn that, even in his time, the Bretons loved to venture their lives upon the high seas, in search of unknown isles. M. Letronne has proved that in 795, sixty-five years consequently before the Danes, Irish monks landed in Iceland and established themselves on the coast. In this island the Danes found Irish books and bells; and the names of certain localities still bear witness to the sojourn of those monks, who were known by the name of Papæ (fathers). In the Faröe Isles, in the Orkneys, and the Shetlands, indeed in all parts of the Northern seas, the Scandinavians found themselves preceded by those Papæ, whose habits contrasted so strangely with their own. 3 Did they not have a glimpse too of that great land, the vague memory of which seems to pursue them, and which Columbus was to discover, following the traces of their dreams? It is only known that the existence of an island, traversed by a great river and situated to the west of Ireland, was, on the faith of the Irish, a dogma for mediæval geographers.

Crabs Climb Trees?

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Charles Darwin

Charles Robert Darwin (1809–1882). The Voyage of the Beagle.
Vol. 29, pp. 466-475 of The Harvard Classics

Many amazing things happen in the Malay jungles. For example, Darwin tells about a crab that climbs trees and walks down the trunks for an occasional bath in a pool.

Chapter XX

  During another day I visited West Islet, on which the vegetation was perhaps more luxuriant than on any other. The cocoa-nut trees generally grow separate, but here the young ones flourished beneath their tall parents, and formed with their long and curved fronds the most shady arbours. Those alone who have tried it, know how delicious it is to be seated in such shade, and drink the cool pleasant fluid of the cocoa-nut. In this island there is a large bay-like space, composed of the finest white sand: it is quite level and is only covered by the tide at high water; from this large bay smaller creeks penetrate the surrounding woods. To see a field of glittering white sand, representing water, with the cocoa-nut trees extending their tall and waving trunks around the margin, formed a singular and very pretty view.

Beware the Ides of March!

Saturday, 15 March 2014


Plutarch (A.D. 46?–c.A.D. 120). Plutarch’s Lives.
Vol. 12, pp. 315-321 of The Harvard Classics

(Ides of March, March 15.)
Twice warned of the danger that threatened him on the Ides of March, although "the earth rocked and the stars fell and headless men walked in the Forum," Cæsar goes to the doom awaiting him in the Senate Chamber.

  Fate, however, is to all appearances more unavoidable than unexpected. For many strange prodigies and apparitions are said to have been observed shortly before the event. As to the lights in the heavens, the noises heard in the night, and the wild birds which perched in the forum, these are not perhaps worth taking notice of in so great a case as this. Strabo, the philosopher, tells us that a number of men were seen, looking as if they were heated through with fire, contending with each other; that a quantity of flame issued from the hand of a soldier’s servant, so that they who saw it thought he must burnt, but that after all he had no hurt. As Cæsar was sacrificing, the victim’s heart was missing, a very bad omen, because no living creature can subsist without a heart. One finds it also related by many, that a soothsayer bade him prepare for some great danger on the ides of March. When the day was come, Cæsar, as he went to the senate, met this soothsayer, and said to him by way of raillery, “The ides of March are come;” who answered him calmly. “Yes, they are come, but they are not past.” The day before this assassination, he supped with Marcus Lepidus; and as he was signing some letters, according to his custom, as he reclined at table, there arose a question what sort of death was the best. At which he immediately, before any one could speak, said, “A sudden one.”

A Maiden's Forfeit

Friday, 14 March 2014

The Damsel of the Sanct Grael 

Sir Thomas Malory (d. 1471). The Holy Grail.
Vol. 35, pp. 194-200 of The Harvard Classics

"This gentlewoman that ye lead with you is a maid?" demanded the knight. "Sir," said she, "a maid I am." "Then she must yield us the custom of this castle."
(Malory, recorder of King Arthur stories, died March 14, 1470.)

The Seventeenth Book
Chapter X
How They Were Desired of a Strange Custom, the Which They Would Not Obey; and How They Fought and Slew Many Knights

THIS gentlewoman that ye lead with you is a maid? Sir, said she, a maid I am. Then he took her by the bridle and said: By the Holy Cross, ye shall not escape me tofore ye have yolden custom of this castle. Let her go, said Percivale, ye be not wise, for a maid in what place she cometh is free. So in the meanwhile there came out a ten or twelve knights armed, out of the castle, and with them came gentlewoman which held a dish of silver. And then they said: This gentlewoman must yield us the custom of this castle. Sir, said a knight, what maid passeth hereby shall give this dish full of blood of her right arm. Blame have ye, said Galahad, that brought up such customs, and so God me save, I ensure you of this gentlewoman ye shall fail while that I live. So God me help, said Percivale, I had lever be slain. And I also, said Sir Bors. By my troth, said the knight, then shall ye die, for ye may not endure against us though ye were the best knights of the world. Then let them run each to other, and the three fellows beat the ten knights, and then set their hands to their swords and beat them down and slew them. Then there came out of the castle a three score knights armed. Fair lords, said the three fellows, have mercy on yourself and have not ado with us. Nay, fair lords, said the knights of the castle, we counsel you to withdraw you, for ye be the best knights of the world, and therefore do no more, for ye have done enough. We will let you go with this harm, but we must needs have the custom. Certes, said Galahad, for nought speak ye. Well, said they, will ye die? We be not yet come thereto, said Galahad. Then began they to meddle together, and Galahad, with the strange girdles, drew his sword, and smote on the right hand and on the left hand, and slew what that ever abode him, and did such marvels that there was none that saw him but weened he had been none earthly man, but a monster. And his two fellows halp him passing well, and so they held the journey every each in like hard till it was night; then must they needs depart. So came in a good knight, and said to the three fellows: If ye will come in to-night and take such harbour as here is ye shall be right welcome, and we shall ensure you by the faith of our bodies, and as we be true knights, to leave you in such estate to-morrow as we find you, without any falsehood. And as soon as ye know of the custom we dare say ye will accord. Therefore for God’s love, said the gentlewoman, go thither and spare not for me. Go we, said Galahad; and so they entered into the chapel. And when they were alit they made great joy of them. So within a while the three knights asked the custom of the castle and wherefore it was. What it is, said they, we will say you sooth.

Before Nobility Ran Tea Rooms

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Alessandro Manzoni

Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873). I Promessi Sposi.
Vol. 21, pp. 318-332 of The Harvard Classics

Manzoni has pictured in this thrilling romance of the seventeenth century nobility, the pompous and sporting life of those good old days when nobles lived sumptuously in spacious castles surrounded by vast estates.

Chapter XX

THE CASTLE of the Unnamed was commandingly situated over a dark and narrow valley, on the summit of a cliff projecting from a rugged ridge of hills, whether united to them or separated from them it is difficult to say, by a mass of crags and rocks, and by a boundary of caverns and abrupt precipices, both flanking it and on the rear. The side which overlooked the valley was the only accessible one; rather a steep acclivity, certainly, but even and unbroken: the summit was used for pasturage, while the lower grounds were cultivated, and scattered here and there with habitations. The bottom was a bed of large stones, the channel, according to the season, of either a rivulet or a noisy torrent, which at that time formed the boundary of the two states. The opposite ridges, forming, so to speak, the other wall of the valley, had a small cultivated tract, gently inclining from the base; the rest was covered with crags, stones, and abrupt risings, untrodden, and destitute of vegetation, excepting here and there a solitary bush in the interstices, or on the edges of the rocks.

An Irish Bishop's Wit

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Bishop George Berkeley

George Berkeley (1685–1753). Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous in Opposition to Sceptics and Atheists.
Vol. 37, pp. 228-238 of The Harvard Classics

Berkeley believed in a great religious future for America. He lived three years in Rhode Island, and made plans for a college in Bermuda.
(Bishop Berkeley born March 12, 1685.)

The Second Dialogue

HYLAS. I beg your pardon, Philonous, for not meeting you sooner. All this morning my head was so filled with our late conversation that I had not leisure to think of the time of the day, or indeed of anything else.

  Philonous. I am glad you were so intent upon it, in hopes if there were any mistakes in your concessions, or fallacies in my reasonings from them, you will now discover them to me.

Gain Gleaned from Suffering

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson. (1803–1882). Essays and English Traits.
Vol. 5, pp. 85-92 of The Harvard Classics

We are paid for our suffering and we pay for our happiness. Every ache, every sorrow receives its recompense here on earth. Emerson gives the basis for this conviction.
(Emerson ordained Unitarian minister, March 11, 1829.)

V. Compensation
EVER since I was a boy I have wished to write a discourse on Compensation; for it seemed to me when very young that on this subject Life was ahead of theology and the people knew more than the preachers taught. The documents too from which the be doctrine is to drawn, charmed my fancy by their endless variety, and lay always before me, even in sleep; for they are the tools in our hands, the bread in our basket, the transactions of the street, the farm and the dwelling-house; the greetings, the relations, the debts and credits, the influence of character, the nature and endowment of all men. It seemed to me also that in it might be shown men a ray of divinity, the present action of the Soul of this world, clean from all vestige of tradition; and so the heart of man might be bathed by an inundation of eternal love, conversing with that which he knows was always and always must be, because it really is now. It appeared moreover that if this doctrine could be stated in terms with any resemblance to those bright intuitions in which this truth is sometimes revealed to us, it would be a star in many dark hours and crooked passages in our journey, that would not suffer us to lose our way.

Beaumont - The Adonis of Elizabethan Playwrights

Monday, 10 March 2014

Francis Beaumont

Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Philaster.
Vol. 47, pp. 667-677 of The Harvard Classics

In the days when contact with the theatre meant exile from the best society, Beaumont and Fletcher, men from good families, dared to ally themselves with the stage as playwrights. "Philaster" won them immortal praise.

Act the First
Scene I


  CLE.  HERE’S no lords nor ladies.
  DION.  Credit me, gentlemen, I wonder at it. They receiv’d strict charge from the King to attend here; besides, it was boldly published that no officer should forbid any gentleman that desired to attend and hear.
  CLE.  Can you guess the cause?
  DION.  Sir, it is plain, about the Spanish Prince, that’s come to marry our kingdom’s heir and be our sovereign.
  THRA. Many that will seem to know much say she looks not on him like a maid in love.
  DION.  Faith, sir, the multitude, that seldom know any thing but their own opinions, speak that they would have; but the prince, before his own approach, receiv’d so many confident messages from the state, that I think she’s resolv’d to be rul’d.
  CLE.  Sir, it is thought, with her he shall enjoy both these kingdoms of Sicily and Calabria.
  DION.  Sir, it is without controversy so meant. But ’twill be a troublesome labour for him to enjoy both these kingdoms with safety, the right heir to one of them living, and living so virtuously; especially, the people admiring the bravery of his mind and lamenting his injuries.
  CLE.  Who, Philaster?
  DION.  Yes; whose father, we all know, was by our late King of Calabria unrighteously deposed from his fruitful Sicily. Myself drew some blood in those wars, which I would give my hand to be washed from.
  CLE.  Sir, my ignorance in state-policy will not let me know why, Philaster being heir to one of these kingdoms, the King should suffer him to walk abroad with such free liberty.
  DION.  Sir, it seems your nature is more constant than to inquire after state-news. But the King, of late, made a hazard of both the kingdoms, of Sicily and his own, with offering but to imprison Philaster; at which the city was in arms, not to be charmed down by any state-order or proclamation, till they saw Philaster ride through the streets pleased and without a guard; at which they threw their hats and their arms from them; some to make bonfires, some to drink, all for his deliverance: which wise men say is the cause the King labours to bring in the power of a foreign nation to awe his own with.

Common Sense and Good Manners

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)
Vol. 27, pp. 99-103 of The Harvard Classics

Swift regretted the laws against dueling because dueling at least was a good means of ridding the country of bores and fools. His keen eye penetrated social customs and saw the common sense that governed good manners.
(Passage of laws against dueling in England, March 9, 1679.)

A Treatise on Good Manners and Good Breeding

GOOD manners is the art of making those people easy with whom we converse.

  Whoever makes the fewest persons uneasy is the best bred in the company.

  As the best law is founded upon reason, so are the best manners. And as some lawyers have introduced unreasonable things into common law, so likewise many teachers have introduced absurd things into common good manners.

  One principal point of this art is to suit our behaviour to the three several degrees of men; our superiors, our equals, and those below us.

Dangerous Experiment with a Wife

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Miguel de Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547–1616).  Don Quixote, Part 1
Vol. 14, pp. 307-319 of The Harvard Classics

Anselmo and Lothario were close friends. Anselmo, anxious to learn if his wife were perfect, as he believed her to be, makes an unusual proposal to his old friend.

The Fourth Book
VI. Wherein Is Rehearsed the History of the Curious-Impertinent
‘IN Florence, a rich and famous city of Italy, in the province called Tuscany, there dwelt two rich and principal gentlemen called Anselmo and Lothario, which two were so great friends, as they were named for excellency, and by antonomasia, by all those that knew them, the Two Friends. They were both bachelors, and much of one age and manners; all which was of force to make them answer one another with reciprocal amity. True it is that Anselmo was somewhat more inclined to amorous dalliance than Lothario, who was altogether addicted to hunting. But when occasion exacted it, Anselmo would omit his own pleasures, to satisfy his friend’s; and Lothario likewise his, to please Anselmo. And by this means both their will were so correspondent, as no clock could be better ordered that were their desires. Anselmo being at last deeply enamoured of a principal and beautiful young lady of the same city, called Camilla, being so worthily descended, and she herself of such merit therewithal, as he resolved (by the consent of his friend Lothario, without whom he did nothing) to demand her of her parents for wife; and did put his purpose in execution; and Lothario himself was the messenger, and concluded the matter so to his friend’s satisfaction, as he was shortly after put in possession of his desires; and Camilla so contented to have gotten Anselmo, as she ceased not render Heaven and Lothario thanks, by whose means she had obtained so great a match. The first days, as all marriage days are wont to be merry, Lothario frequented, according to the custom, his friend Anselmo’s house, endeavouring to honour, feast, and recreate him all the ways he might possibly. But after the nuptials were finished, and the concourse of strangers, visitations, and congratulations somewhat ceased, Lothario also began to be somewhat more slack that he wonted in going to Anselmo his house, deeming it (as it is reason that all discreet men should) not so convenient to visit or haunt so often the house of his friend after marriage as he would, had he still remained a bachelor. For although true amity neither should nor ought to admit the least suspicion, yet notwithstanding a married man’s honour is so delicate and tender a thing, as it seems it may be sometimes impaired, even by very brethren; and how much more by friends? Anselmo noted the remission of Lothario, and did grievously complain thereof, saying that, if he had wist by marriage he should thus be deprived of his dear conversation, he would never have married; and that since through the uniform correspondency of them both being free, they had deserved the sweet title of the Two Friends, that he should not now permit (because he would be noted circumspect without any other occasion) that so famous and pleasing a name should be lost; and therefore he requested him (if it were lawful to use such a term between them two) to return and be master of his house, and come and go as he had done before his marriage, assuring him that his spouse Camilla had no other pleasure and will, than that which himself pleased she should have; and that she, after having known how great was both their friendships, was not a little amazed to see him become so strange.

Bacon Warns Judges

Friday, 7 March 2014

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon. (1561–1626). Essays, Civil and Moral.
Vol. 3, pp. 130-134 of The Harvard Classics

Bacon pointed out that a judge's duty was to interpret laws and not to make laws. This single essay of Bacon's is a richly condensed summary of the ethics of law.
(Bacon made Keeper of the Great Seal of England, March 7, 1616.)

Of Judicature

JUDGES ought to remember that their office is jus dicere, and not jus dare; to interpret law, and not to make law, or give law. Else will it be like the authority claimed by the Church of Rome, which under pretext of exposition of Scripture doth not stick to add and alter; and to pronounce that which they do not find; and by show of antiquity to introduce novelty. Judges ought to be more learned than witty, more reverend than plausible, and more advised than confident. Above all things, integrity is their portion and proper virtue. Cursed(saith the law) is he that removeth the landmark. The mislayer of a mere-stone 1 is to blame. But it is the unjust judge that is the capital remover of landmarks, when he defineth amiss of lands and property. One soul sentence doth more hurt than many foul examples. For these do but corrupt the stream, the other corrupteth the fountain. So saith Solomon,Fons turbatus, et vena corrupta, est justus cadens in causa sua coram adversario [A righteous man falling down before the wicked is as a troubled fountain or a corrupt spring]. The office of judges may have reference unto the parties that sue, unto the advocates that plead, unto the clerks and ministers of justice underneath them, and to the sovereign or state above them.

West Point's Outcast, America's First Great Poet

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Edgar Allen Poe

Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849). The Raven

Vol. 42, pp. 1227-1230 of The Harvard Classics

(Poe expelled from West Point, March 6, 1831.)
Edgar Allan Poe was expelled from West Point and disinherited. So poor was he that when his young wife lay dying, he could not afford a fire to warm her. The weirdness and despair of "The Raven" is particularly symbolic of his life.

The Raven

ONCE upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
‘’Tis some visiter,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door—
    Only this and nothing more.’ 

Laughed at Locks

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Benvenuto Cellini

Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571).  Autobiography.

Vol. 31 pp. 214-224 of The Harvard Classics

Prison walls were the least of Cellini's troubles. "Lock me well up and watch me, for I shall certainly contrive to escape." In spite of this warning, the utmost care of the jailers only furnished amusement for the dauntless Cellini.


THE CASTELLAN was subject to a certain sickness, which came upon him every year and deprived him of his wits. The sign of its, approach was that he kept continually talking, or rather jabbering, to no purpose. These humours took a different shape each year; one time he thought he was an oiljar; another time he thought he was a frog, and hopped about as frogs do; another time he thought he was dead, and then they had to bury him; not a year passed but he got some such hypochondriac notions into his head. At this season he imagined that he was a bat, and when he went abroad to take the air, he used to scream like bats in a high thin tone; and then he would flap his hands and body as though he were about to fly. The doctors, when they saw the fit coming on him, and his old servants, gave him all the distractions they could think of; and since they had noticed that he derived much pleasure from my conversation, they were always fetching me to keep him company. At times the poor man detained me for four or five stricken hours without ever letting me cease talking. He used to keep me at his table, eating opposite to him, and never stopped chatting and making me chat; but during those discourses I contrived to make a good meal. He, poor man, could neither eat nor sleep; so that at last he wore me out. I was at the end of my strength; and sometimes when I looked at him, I noticed that his eyeballs were rolling in a frightful manner, one looking one way and the other in another.

Penn - Pioneer, Thinker, and Builder

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

William Penn

William Penn. (1644–1718).  Fruits of Solitude.
Vol. 1, pp. 321-330

(King Charles grants Penn charter of Pennsylvania, March 4, 1681.)
Penn, true to Quaker beliefs, came before the king with his hat on. The king overlooked this and later made him governor of Pennsylvania. A sagacious Penn is revealed in his writings.

Part I


1. It is admirable to consider how many Millions of People come into, and go out of the World, Ignorant of themselves, and of the World they have lived in.

2. If one went to see Windsor-Castle, or Hampton-Court, it would be strange not to observe and remember the Situation, the Building, the Gardens, Fountains, &c. that make up the Beauty and Pleasure of such a Seat? And yet few People know themselves; No, not their own Bodies, the Houses of their Minds, the most curious Structure of the World; a living walking Tabernacle: Nor the World of which it was made, and out of which it is fed; which would be so much our Benefit, as well as our Pleasure, to know. We cannot doubt of this when we are told that the Invisible Things of God are brought to light by the Things that are seen; and consequently we read our Duty in them as often as we look upon them, to him that is the Great and Wise Author of them, if we look as we should do.

3. The World is certainly a great and stately Volume of natural Things; and may be not improperly styled the Hieroglyphicks of a better: But, alas! how very few Leaves of it do we seriously turn over! This ought to be the Subject of the Education of our Youth, who, at Twenty, when they should be fit for Business, know little or nothing of it.

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