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Showing posts from March, 2020

The Ghastly Whim of John Donne

John Donne Izaak Walton (1593–1683). T he 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;

The Plague of Milan

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 T HE 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 e

Hero and Goddess Break Engagement

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   I N  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

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 T HE 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?

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 A MONG  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

"2,500 Years Ago Æsop Said . . ."

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

How Conscience Makes Cowards of Us All

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.) Act III Scene I [...] Enter  H AMLET    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, W

A Queen Pleads

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 B UT,  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

Sheherazade 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 I T  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

From Puppet Show to Majestic Drama

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.) NIGHT A high vaulted narrow Gothic chamber.  F AUST,   restless, seated at his desk. F AUST I  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 tr

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

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, the

Apples, Feathers, and Coals

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 T HE 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

Seeing Old Egypt

Herodotus 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

New Way to Pay Old Debts

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 [ Enter ] O RDER,  A MBLE,  F URNACE,   and  W ATCHALL 1   O RD.   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.   A MB.         You are merry, Good master steward.   F URN.         Let him; I’ll be angry.   A MB.   Why, fellow Furnace, ’tis not twelve o’clock yet, Nor dinner taking up; then, ’tis allow’d, Cooks, by their places, may be choleric.   F URN.   You think you have spoke wisely, go

An Old Irish Legend

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 contradiction 1 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 tha

Crabs Climb Trees?

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 s

Beware the Ides of March!

Plutarch 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 th

A Maiden's Forfeit

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 silve

Before Nobility Ran Tea Rooms

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 T HE 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

An Irish Bishop's Wit

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 H YLAS .  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

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 1841 E VER  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 see

Beaumont - The Adonis of Elizabethan Playwrights

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 Enter  D ION,  C LEREMONT,   and  T HRASILINE   1   C LE.   H ERE’S  no lords nor ladies.   D ION.   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.   C LE.   Can you guess the cause?   D ION.   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.   D ION.   Faith, sir, the multitude, that seldom know

Common Sense and Good Manners

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 G OOD  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

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 ‘I N  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 hi

Bacon Warns Judges

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.) LVI Of Judicature J UDGES  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.  T

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

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.’