The wolf and the lamb: a fable for our times

I was going to post about Elizabeth Taylor’s novel Angel, which I recently finished reading, but was diverted by an entry in an old notebook of mine about this fable of the wolf and the lamb. It resonates even more today, given recent events in the world.

Three fables of Aesop in the Bayeux tapestry By Joseph Jacobs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Three fables of Aesop in the Bayeux tapestry By Joseph Jacobs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. The wolf and the lamb is the last one

The beast fables of Aesop (620-c 560 BCE), themselves often derived from more ancient oriental sources such as the Buddhist Dipi Jatakas, were adapted by the Roman poet Phaedrus (15 BCE-50). The text that follows is from a prose translation by H.T. Riley, published in London, 1887, available at Project Gutenberg; I’ve made minor adjustments in line with the original Latin text.

THE WOLF AND THE LAMB.

Driven by thirst, a Wolf and a Lamb had come to the same stream; the Wolf stood above, and the Lamb at a distance below. Then, the villain (thief or brigand, lit.), prompted by hunger (or ‘wicked throat’), trumped up a pretext for a quarrel. “Why,” said he, “have you made the water muddy for me while I am drinking?” The wool-bearer, trembling, answered: “Please, Wolf, how can I do what you complain of? The water is flowing downwards from you to where I am drinking.” The other, disconcerted by the force of truth, exclaimed: “Six months ago, you slandered me.” “Indeed,” answered the Lamb, “I was not born then.” “By Hercules,” said the Wolf, “then ’twas your father slandered me;” and so, snatching him up, he tore him to pieces, killing him unjustly.

This Fable is applicable to those men who, under false pretences, oppress the innocent.

More pertinent is the alternative version by Christopher Smart (1722-71), which ends :

Abash’d by facts, says he, “I know

’Tis now exact six months ago

You strove my honest fame to blot”—

“Six months ago, sir, I was not.”

“Then ’twas th’ old ram thy sire,” he cried,

And so he tore him, till he died.

To those this fable I address

Who are determined to oppress,

And trump up any false pretence,

But they will injure innocence

By Jean-Baptiste Oudry - artsy.net, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48311782

By Jean-Baptiste Oudry, 1686-1755 – artsy.net, Public Domain

The fable was adapted many times subsequently; La Fontaine (published 1668-94) of course, but also by the Scots makar, Robert Henryson (fl. 1460-1500). Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about his version (adapted slightly):

It’s about widespread social breakdown. The Lamb appeals to natural law, to Scripture, and to statutory law, and is answered by the Wolf with perversions of all these. Then Henryson in his own person comments that there are three kinds of contemporary wolves who oppress the poor: dishonest lawyers; real estate tycoons intent on extending their estates; and landowners who exploit their tenants.

To this could be added, in our day, the power-crazed in all walks of life, including politics.

I shall be going on holiday soon, so may not post much for a while; meantime I hope to post the Angel piece before I go.

Podcast with magpies: another Aside

It’s just over four years since I started this blog. Back then I had no particular vision of what Tredynas Days was to be: I wanted it to be a place where I could express something of my experience, especially in a literary sense.

Among my earliest posts were some random notes from that excellent website, Public Domain Review. I also reviewed the trilogy of Javier Marías novels I was reading at the time: Your Face Tomorrow. (I’m currently reading Thus Bad Begins, bought when it was published last year, but I’ve only just got round to reading it. Hope to post about it soon.)

And I posted a piece of flash fiction. There are just six such pieces in this category if you check the list on my homepage. The last one was back in June 2014.

As my work for this academic year is slowing down and I have a bit more time, I thought I’d post another. Mrs TD says it’s a bit dark, but maybe I was feeling that way back when I wrote it (it’s from a notebook dating from 2011). Here it is.

Magpie

Pica Hudsonia. By Louis Agassiz Fuertes (artist), Olive Thorne Miller (author, pseudonym for Harriet Mann) (The Second Book of Birds) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Podcast

Seven magpies arrange themselves like baubles in the ash tree in my garden. They cackle with an air of conspiracy, as if they’ve planned something nefarious, and have shown up to watch it pan out.

The rain sweeps along the river valley.

It is only three o’clock but already it is getting dark – rather, the pale light dims.

I am listening to her podcast. Her digital voice lives on. When she was ill I looked after her as efficiently as I could, and she asked me every day not to forget her. You’ll listen to my voice, she said, won’t you? To the podcasts I’ve recorded?

I assured her. And I do listen, every day. Until the magpies arrive and watch me.

Berlin redux: Käthe Kollwitz

While in Berlin over the last week, visiting stepson and his family, we (Frau TD and I) took the grandchildren (19 months and nearly 3) to the park in Kollwitzplatz, in the Pankow district. Seriously cool Berliners stood around a drink stall in the street market, sipping white wine and looking achingly hip.

K KollwitzIn the park I took these pictures of a statue by Gustav Seitz,1958; bronze casting of it placed in the park in1960 (he also sculpted the brothers Mann and Bertolt Brecht). It’s of the artist after whom the square is named: Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945).

A fervent pacifist and, later, communist (hence this statue’s presence in former East Berlin), she lost a son in WWI, and was threatened with deportation by the Gestapo during WWII. But by then her worldwide acclaim was such that they left her alone.

Woman with dead child etching 1903 By The original uploader was VeraHutchinson at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46021223

Woman with dead child: etching 1903. The original uploader was VeraHutchinson at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46021223

She worked as a painter, printmaker (including etchings, lithography and woodcuts) and sculptor. Her most famous works depict the sufferings of the working class inflicted by poverty, hunger and war.

One such cycle is The Weavers, a sequence of lithographs and etchings made in the 1890s, inspired by the play of that name by Gerhart Hauptmann. This was a dramatization of the oppression and subsequent (failed) revolt of Silesian weavers in 1844.

The Peasant War cycle was completed 1902-08. It was inspired by a peasant revolt of the early 1520s in southern Germany, and also perhaps by another work by Hauptmann.

KollwitzI thought at first, before spotting the name of the subject of the statue on the plinth, that it was of a monk: Kollwitz has the severe serenity of the cloister, and the fierce gaze of a hawk.

Interesting to see all the yummy mummies and bearded partners with their wine glasses in the street and park, watching over their privileged offspring. Would have to be plastic beakers in the UK. A little touch of civilisation in a world going increasingly crazy.

 

Hello to Berlin

Back in the first year of this blog one of my first posts was about a visit to Berlin, where my stepson and daughter-in-law live. Since that post they’ve had two boys. Mrs TD and I are just back from a week’s visit there.

Every time I return to Berlin I’m impressed by its atmosphere: strangely calm and peaceful for such a big city.

Carl Legien estateRound the corner from TD jnr’s house in Prenzlauerberg is this Weimar/Bauhaus housing development on Erich Weinertstrasse, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Designed in 1929-30 by Bruno Taut (1880-1938), with the cooperation of Franz Hillinger, head of the Draft Office at GEHAG (a Berlin public housing cooperative), the Carl Legien estate is named after the first chairman of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund [German General Trade Unions Association] founded in 1919.

Here’s what the website Architects/Architecture/Architectuul says about it:

Carl Legien againThe brief of the Berlin senate had called for a high-density residential development with five-storey buildings owing to the high cost of land, the estate being located near the city centre. The site itself was framed by a gas container, small factories and a colony of garden allotments. As a model for his design, Taut chose the functional architecture of the Tusschendijken project built in 1919/20 by Jacobus Johannes Pieter Oud, a member of the De Stijl group, in Rotterdam. Taut’s scheme was innovative in that the u-shaped buildings enclosed the courtyards that were open toward the street, separated by a belt of green. The vertically stacked loggias facing the courtyard and the balconies which project beyond the building line into the street result in an interlocking of public and private spaces. As in most housing projects designed by Taut, the planning of green areas was entrusted to Leberecht Migge. Taut and Migge were striving for a consistent design for the entire project. They felt that workers’ quarters should be surrounded by lots of green, much like the villas of the upper class, and the green areas should be laid out in such a way as to provide an “outside living space”. If the design of a similar project designed by Taut, the Hufeisensiedlung was still influenced by the “garden city” concept, the Wohnstadt Legien had a distinctivly urban and integrative expression od contemporary industrialism society.

Taut was associated with the Deutscher Werkbund group of architects, which included Walter Gropius.

Being Jewish, he was obliged to flee Germany with the rise of Hitler and the fascists. He went first to Switzerland, then on to Japan and Turkey, where he died and is buried.

Here’s a detail that illustrates his use of colour and shape; stupidly I didn’t take more pictures of my own, so here’s one from the web:

Attribution: By Florianmk (Website: Clio Berlin Blog) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons page URL https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AClio-berlin-carl-legien-siedlung-1-4.jpg

Attribution: By Florianmk (Website: Clio Berlin Blog) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
page URL https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AClio-berlin-carl-legien-siedlung-1-4.jpg

 At no. 101 in this street is our favourite café in the area – Eckstern. The proprietor, Riadh Gose, bought the site with his wife when it was a rundown baker’s, and refurbished it (taking six months, he told us) with his designer partner, Stefan.

He offers Eckstern signseveral types of beans for his excellent coffees – our favourite is the organic one. He makes a mean bircher muesli, and provides delicious filled bagels, breakfasts and cakes. A graphic designer, he and his partner Stefan painted all the murals inside, with themes from sites across the city, while his card and flyer, and my photo of his sign outside, are all in the spirit of the Bauhaus architecture all around.

 

 

ROH Madama Butterfly live stream

Today is my wife’s birthday. To celebrate we went to our local cinema in Cornwall last night to watch the live stream of the Royal Opera House production of Madama Butterfly. Here’s the notice on their website:

Antonio Pappano and Renato Balsadonna conduct two great casts led by Ermonela Jaho and Ana María Martínez in Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s production of Puccini’s deeply poignant opera.

Madama Butterfly ROHErmonela Jaho was breathtaking in the title role. Her singing was sublime, as was her acting. As the interviews before the show and during the interval showed, she managed to convey through her voice as well as her acting the growth and developing maturity in her character.

I’d forgotten that Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) is only 15 when she’s married to the caddish Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton as part of the deal to buy a 999-year lease on a house in Nagasaki. He seems to do this on a whim, as he passes through the port on his navy battleship. What a selfish swine he is! His remorse at the end is dastardly.

Elizabeth DeShong as Butterfly’s maid, Suzuki, was particularly touching in portraying her devotion to her young mistress.

He’s captivated by the girl’s radiant beauty and trusting innocence. There’s a slightly creepy edge to his character, given how young the girl is, and the wedding night scene is slightly unsettling as Butterfly lies passively on the floor at his feet as he salaciously unbuttons his tunic. This production never lapses into sentimentality: it’s hard-hitting and honest.

Some of his words take on a chilling significance in this new era of American politics when he brags about Americans’ view of themselves as having a god-given right to do what they like where they like with whom they like.

The story is simple and heartbreaking, and I’d defy anyone to sit through this magnificent production dry-eyed. The set is beautiful, the musicians, direction and singing spine-tingling. Even the lighting and costumes play an important part in the experience. Although the immediacy of a live performance is diminished by watching it on a screen, there’s a benefit derived from the clever film director’s use of well-prepared close-ups or choice of frame to enhance the story-telling and spectacle.

Butterfly’s big arias in the final third are particularly thrilling, and Ms Jaho sings and acts them with total conviction and passion. This is by far the best production of the opera I’ve seen – better even than the excellent Berlin Deutsche Oper performance we saw one Christmas a few years ago (when the Humming Song became my wife’s favourite part of the piece – maybe mine, too.)

If you get a chance to see one of these ROH live stream performances – they play all over the world – I’d urge you to do so. There’s a link HERE to their searchable schedule.

Living in the far SW of England as I do, it’s not often I get  the chance to go to London for a theatrical performance of this calibre. This is definitely almost as good. Here’s the schedule of future productions, taken from the ROH website (like the lovely poster image; hope I”m not breaking copyright by reproducing it here.)

The V & A revisited: Tobias, Sara and the dog

I posted yesterday about my recent visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London with old friends (one of whom reacted indignantly at being called ‘old’), and the image painted on glass of St Mary of Egypt.

Another that took my fancy was this one, of Tobias and Sara on their wedding night.  It was made (probably) in Germany c. 1520; is clear and coloured glass with printed details and silver stain. It’s in the Medieval and Renaissance Gallery, Room 64: The Wolfson Gallery.

This is the story on the V&A website [with additions of my own]:

The Book of Tobias recounts the story of the pious aged Tobit and how his son, Tobias, with the aid of the archangel Raphael, was able to restore his father’s health and wealth. The archangel Raphael, in disguise, leads Tobias to the lands of his kinsman Raguel. Raguel gives his daughter Sara in marriage to Tobias but warns him that Sara’s seven previous husbands had all been devoured by demons on the wedding night. (Wikipedia adds that ‘the demon of lust, Asmodeus, “the worst of demons” [which implies some of them are really quite nice] abducts and kills every man whom Sarah [spelt with an H] marries, on their wedding night before the marriage can be consummated.

With Raphael’s aid, Tobias prepares a potion, the smell of which drives the demons out. He and Sara are able then to successfully consummate their marriage.

The dog sleeping on their bed belonged to Tobias and accompanied him and Raphael on their journey. In this context he may also symbolise marital love and fidelity.

Wikipedia adds [edited]:

‘Along the way [on his journey to Media], whilst [Tobias] washes his feet in the river Tigris, a fish tries to swallow his foot. By the angel’s order, he captures it and removes its heart, liver and gall bladder.

Upon arriving in Media, Raphael tells Tobias of the beautiful Sarah, whom Tobias has the right to marry because he is her cousin and closest relative. The angel instructs the young man to burn the fish’s liver and heart to drive away the demon when he attacks on the wedding night.

The two marry, and the fumes of the burning organs drive the demon to Upper Egypt, where Raphael follows and binds him. Sarah’s father has been digging a grave to secretly bury Tobias (whom he assumed would die). Surprised to find his son-in-law alive and well, he orders a double-length wedding feast and has the grave secretly filled…After the feast, Tobias and Sarah return to Nineveh. There, Raphael tells the youth to use the fish’s gall to cure his father’s blindness. Raphael then reveals his identity and returns to heaven, and Tobit sings a hymn of praise…’

Sadly, the dog that is said to accompany Tobias and the angel on his journeys disappears from the story – though this glass panel clearly shows him curled up asleep on the newlyweds’ bed (another nice domestic touch is the slippers left beside the bed – a visual reminder, perhaps, that domestic/marital order has been restored with the banishing of the demon).

Michael Gilmour has a small piece in The Huffington Post Blog, suggesting the dog is in fact an angel, too. I find this unlikely. Look at him, snugly snoring on the duvet. Not very angelic, is he?

When my old friends and I looked at this image, we were puzzled by the matter-of-fact way Tobias agrees to marry and sleep with a woman whose previous seven bridegrooms hadn’t survived the night. OK, Raphael had given him the smelly fish potion, but that wouldn’t have put my mind at rest in Tobias’s position. It’s a charming image, nonetheless. It looks strangely familiar: I’ve seen it somewhere before, but can’t recall where. A Penguin book cover? A postcard I once had?

I recall writing in a notebook many years ago a line from the Apocryphal Book of Tobit: mercifully ordain that we may become aged together (Bk 8.8) I’ve a vague feeling it has a DH Lawrence connection, but an online search turned up nothing. I’d be grateful if anyone knows of his having used the line anywhere; maybe I’m just imagining it.

Mary of Egypt

Nothing particularly literary about this brief post. Just wanted to share my excitement at coming across this image a couple of weekends ago. I was with two of my oldest friends, who live in Chiswick, West London, and we went up to the Victoria and Albert Museum in S. Kensington. I don’t think I’ve ever been there before.

It holds a weird pot-pourri of randomly collected objects, loosely arranged into galleries that seem ostensibly to have a logical connection, but don’t.

After a while we found ourselves passing through a hall filled with stained glass images. Out of habit, I checked a few for my saint, Mary of Egypt, the one whose medieval English lives I’d researched as a postgrad so many years ago, when I was a hagiographer. What were the chances…and there she was, as I looked at a random sequence of panels.

Dating from 1670, made in Cologne, the panels depict the penitent saint kneeling before the Virgin and child. It seems to have been made to celebrate the marriage of Anna Geilsbach. Here’s what the V&A say about it on their website (though I’d be happy to update their cursory summary of her legend):

This painted oval panel was probably commissioned by Anna Geilsbach as a marriage panel. It may have been in her home originally, or donated to her local church.

In the middle of the 16th century, new techniques for producing decorated glass were introduced. Glass paints known as ‘enamels’ were used to paint directly onto the glass, similar to painting onto a canvas. To produce the colours, metallic oxides were added to a glass frit mixture. The resulting colour range included delicate blues and greens, as we see here in this panel.

The V&A is one of the strangest, most fascinating museums I’ve ever visited. It’s as if benefactors across the years and continents have said to the directors: I have all this eclectic stuff, would you like it? And they’re like, yeah, please. And they stick it all into galleries.

And it’s all free. Wonderful. Here’s another nice image from another irrelevant room: it’s St Jerome, but I neglected to make a note of who made it, or when. But it’s rather splendid – even without his usual attribute (as a hermit) of a mournful lion:

 

Asides: ex-votos, curse tablets and voces mysticae

I was given a copy of the Complete Stories of Elizabeth Taylor for Christmas, and was hoping to post about them today. I’m about 3/4 through (it’s over 600 pp) and would prefer to wait until I’ve finished, so this will be an interim post.

Defoe, Tour of BritainI’ve been reading a lot of material for a course I’m teaching about literature and sense of place. My elderly copy of Daniel Defoe’s Tour through the whole island of Great Britain (1727), in its ‘Suggestions for further reading’, cites an essay on the text by Edmund Blunden in Votive Tablets (1931) – which I’ve not managed to find a copy of yet. It’s a collection of his unsigned pieces on English authors published in the TLS, where he was assistant editor in the late 40s.

I vaguely knew what ‘votive tablets’ were, but looked up the term to be sure. Wikipedia defines thus:

votive deposit or votive offering is one or more objects displayed or deposited, without the intention of recovery or use, in a sacred place for broadly religious purposes.

These ‘ex-votos’, as they’re also known, are made in the anticipation or hope of supernatural assistance, such as cure of an illness, or as an offering of thanks when such a wish has been fulfilled. In the Catholic church (and many Anglican ones) the practice of lighting votive candles serves a similar purpose. There are also votive paintings, statues, crowns and so on.

I remember seeing near Paphos in Cyprus a tree by a sacred site that was festooned with ribbons and handkerchiefs left as votive offerings. I used to live near Holywell in N. Wales, and the eponymous well was surrounded by votive offerings, often in the shape of body parts that afflicted the supplicant, or items symbolic of affliction, such as crutches. It was a mini Lourdes.

A related object is the defixio or curse tablet. These were common in the Graeco-Roman world. They were usually tin sheets on which an inscription was scratched wishing misfortune on someone. They could also be used in the hope of restoring stolen property or punishing a thief, as a means of facilitating litigation favourably, or as love spells to speed erotic ambitions. (It’s worth checking the related term ‘anathema’, if you’re interested.)

In pagan use they were addressed to infernal or liminal gods like Hecate, Charon or Pluto.

Voces Mysticae were often found on curse tablets. These were meaningless words from no known language, like Bazagra, Bescu, or Berebescu, seemingly in order to lend them a kind of supernatural efficacy. They came from no known language, and were thought to be the language that only demons could understand. Wikipedia again:

Scholars from antiquity, like Christian philosopher Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200 CE), believed that human language was not appropriate for addressing the gods. Therefore, some of the inscriptions of these curse tablets are not easily translatable, because they were “invocations and secret names” which would only be understood by the spirits themselves. Another possibility is that curse tablets were produced by professionals who wished to lend their art a degree of mystique through the use of an apparently secret language that only they could understand.

This was thought to be a way to control the natural world.

The very early Ephesia Grammata were similar magic formulae or mantras, possibly originally inscribed on cult images of Artemis at Ephesus.

Their power was believed to reside in their sound rather than meaning. If uttered by people possessed by demons, it was believed they would be exorcised.

Spells, invocations, prayers: the magic power of language. Who says ‘words will never hurt’ like sticks and stones?

Some time ago I posted on apotropaic magic – not verbal, but visual.

Asides: marrying upwards

Some years ago I read Robin Dunbar’s Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language (Faber, 2004). His argument was that ‘small talk’ or gossip plays a similarly important role in human social groups as grooming does in those of primates: it facilitates social cohesion and mitigates conflict.

Because we came to live in larger groups – up to 150 – than apes and monkeys, grooming became an impossibly time-consuming task for that social function. For this reason social talk evolved. Far from being trivial, it therefore fulfils a vital role in human interaction; it’s what linguists call phatic talk. People who are no good at it are often seen as outcast or sociopathic.

While leafing through Dunbar’s book again recently I came across a word I’d highlighted: HYPERGAMY. Here’s the OED online definition:

Cultural Anthropol.

 A term first used by W. Coldstream, to denote the custom which forbids the marriage of a woman into a group of lower standing than her own; also transf., of any marriage with a partner of higher social standing.

It derives from the Greek elements ‘hyper-‘ (over, beyond or above) + ‘gamy’ – pertaining to marriage. In Byzantine Greek the word signified ‘a late marriage’.

In social groups it’s therefore a key concept. Novels, especially from the 18th and 19th centuries, are full of marriages of this kind; the first that I recall is one I wrote about here last summer: George Gissing’s New Grub Street. Emma Bovary is maybe another case, although she is perhaps more of an aspiring or thwarted hypergamist.

Much of the plot element in Jane Austen’s work involves the pressure on women to marry in an upwardly social sense.

A related term is ISOGAMY: marrying one’s social equal.

Hogarth, Marriage à la Mode

Hogarth, Marriage à la Mode, scene 1: Settlement

William Hogarth’s celebrated sequence of six paintings made 1743-45, ‘Marriage à la Mode’, satirically represents the disastrous arranged marriage between the bankrupt Earl of Squanderfield’s son and the daughter of a wealthy but miserly city merchant. Here’s the Wikipedia account of the narrative in this first scene:

 

Construction on the Earl’s new mansion, visible through the window, has stopped and a usurer negotiates payment for further construction at the center table. The gouty Earl proudly points to a picture of his family tree, rising from William, Duke of Normandy. The son views himself in the mirror, showing where his interests in the matter lie. The distraught merchant’s daughter is consoled by the lawyer Silvertongue while polishing her wedding ring. Even the faces on the walls appear to have misgivings. Two dogs chained to each other in the corner mirror the situation of the young couple.

Not surprisingly, the marriage fails from the start. The young husband is serially adulterous and catches syphilis from his consorting with prostitutes. His wife is as disenchanted with him as he is with her, and has affairs of her own. After the Earl’s death this son, the new Earl, catches his wife in flagrante, and is fatally wounded by her lover, the lawyer. The husband dies, the lawyer is hanged for his murder, and the wife poisons herself.

That’s hypergamy for you.

Poe and Marginalia

I intended posting today about the book I recently finished, Patrick Kavanagh’s autobiographical The Green Fool, but I’ve been busy on other tasks, such as preparing classes on the Romantics and nature, doing the laundry, supervising the gasman (boiler service) and keeping tabs on delayed trains for my homecoming spouse.

Instead, so that the end of November doesn’t slip quietly into oblivion on Tredynas Days, here’s a little something that I hope will be of interest: the Marginalia of Edgar Allan Poe.

‘In the United States Gazette and Democratic Review of November 1844, volume XV, pages 484-94, Poe published the first of the seventeen installments of the Marginalia, a word that he invented for this collection of observations and brief essays…they took shape as a “farrago”… of remembered bons mots, puns, excerpts from his past reviews, and new observations on matters of literature, social events, personalities, psychology, and the arts in general. Many might be shown to contain the germ of his own creative efforts and sometimes those of his readers, such as Baudelaire and Valéry…The allure of the “form” of the Marginalia for Poe must have been the “abandonnement” as he terms it…, or the relaxed ease of the short discursive essay, so different from the neat and predetermined construction that he had always demanded for the tale and the poem.’ (from the online introduction to his 1985 edition by Burton R. Pollin).

Poe in 1898 (from WikiMedia Commons)

Poe in 1898 (from WikiMedia Commons)

The electronic text contains almost 300 ‘articles’ and many more ‘instalments’. In an old notebook of my own such ‘marginalia’ I found this item, published in the online Works of Poe in the Introduction to his own jottings; the symmetry of sentiment with which I like to make such jottings chimed pleasingly with Poe’s cheerful words:

IN getting my books, I have been always solicitous of an ample margin; this not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of pencilling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general. Where what I have to note is too much to be included within the narrow limits of a margin, I commit it to a slip of paper, and deposit it between the leaves; taking care to secure it by an imperceptible portion of gum tragacanth paste.

This making of notes, however, is by no means the making of mere memoranda — a custom which has its disadvantages, beyond doubt. “Ce que je mets sur papier,” says Bernardin de St. Pierre, “je remets de ma mémoire, et par consequence je l’oublie;” — and, in fact, if you wish to forget anything upon the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered…

just as the goodness of your true pun is in the direct ratio of its intolerability, so is nonsense the essential sense of the Marginal Note.

I’ve posted before on ‘obiter dicta’ and other such random notes. It’s long been my habit to make such jottings and marginalia, for reasons very like Poe’s stated above. What he whimsically calls their ‘helter-skelter-iness’ is also what appeals to me.

Do you do this? If so, what form do your marginalia or jottings take? Do you revisit them, or, as Poe suggests, do they slip quietly out of mind, never to be revisited? And do you commit the ultimate horror of annotating books in INK not pencil? (let alone glueing in slips of paper, as Poe confesses. I’m reminded of reading about a visitor’s horror at the sight of Wordsworth cutting pages of newly delivered books with a greasy butterknife at the breakfast table.)