Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Mishmash of Masters: My Commonplace Book


Six AM on a weekday morning found me at the breakfast table, bleary from another late night, novel-writing like a madwoman. As I munched my toast and swallowed tea, desperately hoping for an energy burst, I opened up Homer's Odyssey--meals are often my only time for reading-- and stared at the first lines of Book II:

Now when the child of morning, rosy-fingered Dawn, appeared, Telemachus rose and dressed himself. He bound his sandals on his comely feet, girded his sword about his shoulder, and left his room looking like an immortal god.

I almost burst out laughing. Man! Why can't I get up like that in the morning?

The lines, besides making me smile, also struck my poetic imagination. I wanted to remember them. In fact, they delighted me so much that they urged me to restart my commonplace book.

I have kept a commonplace book since May of 2013. I was inspired to begin by a passage in the "Guide to Daily Reading", an introduction to a set of books The Pocket University, published in 1934. Among a series of lovely little essays on books and the art of reading in general, I came across this passage by Richard LeGallienne, in a section on how to remember what one reads:

Yet it often happens that he [the reader] forgets much that he needs to remember, and thus the question of methodical aids to memory arises.

One's first thought, of course, is of the commonplace book. Well, have you ever kept one, or, to be more accurate, tried to keep one? Personally, I believe in the commonplace book so long as we don't expect too much from it. Its two dangers are (1) that one is apt to make far too many and too minute entries, and (2) that one is apt to leave all the remembering to the commonplace book, with a consequent relaxation of one's own attention. On the other hand, the mere discipline of a commonplace book is a good thing, and if--as I think is the best way--we copy out the passages at full length, they are thus the more securely fixed in the memory. A commonplace book kept with moderation is really useful, and may be delightful.

I have certainly found my commonplace book a delight, and in fact a very helpful tool for memory. I don't always copy long passages, but I may enter a short poem, or a few paragraphs of prose, or verses from spiritual reading and Scripture. The book has proven a good way for me to memorize the latter. In some places it has served double duty as a prayer journal, when I copy down Bible verses and reflection to help me through some spiritual trial. The other entries--the poems, the bits of novels, the Gaelic song lyrics, and other miscellania--are my personal treasure trove of fond memories and future inspiration.

My main criterion when choosing passages for a commonplace book entry is the strikingness of them. Occasionally I will enter things that I think I simply ought to memorize--like the Creed, or, more recently, the list of American presidents--but usually I only copy a passage because it plucked some chord in my heart, of drama, or beauty, or romance. Thus, flipping through my commonplace book is a detailed portrait of the characters, scenes, themes and words which have most shaped my thoughts and writing over the past two years.

Many of these entries I have already shared on my blog--like Frost's "My November Guest" and "The Lone Striker", Stevenson's novels and poems, Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, Tolstoy's War and Peace, and others. But many I have not shared. Here, then, is a selection of my favorite passages from my commonplace book. May they inspire you to read some of the beautiful works they come from!

May 22, 2013

"On this level, Ahab's hammock swings within; his head this way. A touch, and Starbuck may survive to hug his wife and child again. -- Oh Mary! Mary! -- boy! boy! boy! -- But if I wake thee not to death, old man, who can tell to what unsounded deeps Starbuck's body this day week may sink with all the crew! Great God, where are Thou? Shall I? Shall I? -- The wind has gone down and shifted sir; the fore and main topsails are reefed and set; she heads her course."

"Stern all! Oh Moby Dick, I clutch thy heart at last!"

Such were the sounds that now came hurtling from out the old man's tormented sleep, as if Starbuck's voice had caused the long dumb dream to speak.

The yet levelled musket shook like a drunkard's arm against the panel; Starbuck seemed wrestling with an angel; but turning from the door, he placed the death-tube in its rack, and left the place.

"He's too sound asleep, Mr Stubb; go thou down, and wake him and tell him. I must see to the deck here. Thou know'st what to say."

~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chapter 123

 
I DARE someone to tell me Moby Dick is a big boring book about a whale.
 
June 10, 2013
 
The Gobhaun Saor and his son were left in the dun without light, without food, and without companions. Outside they could hear the heavy-footed Fomorians, and the night seemed long to them. "My sorrow," said the son, "that I ever brought you here to seek a fortune! But put a good thought on me now, father, for we have come to the end of it all." "I needn't blame your wit," said the father, "that had as little myself. [...]"
 
"If we had light itself," said the son, "it wouldn't be so hard, or if I had a little pipe to play a tune on." He thought of the little reed pipe he was making the day the three Fomorians came to him, and he began to search in the folds of his belt for it. His hand came on the lock of wool he got from Mananaun, and he drew it out, "Oh, the fool that I was," he said, "not to think of this sooner!" "What have you there?" said the Gobhaun. "I have a lock of wool from the Sea God, and it will help me now when I need help." He drew it through his fingers and said: "Give me light!" and all the dun was full of light. He divided the wool into two parts and said: "Be cloaks of darkness and invisibility!" and he had two cloaks in his hand colored like the sea where the shadow is deepest.
 
"Put one about you," he said to the Gobhaun, and he drew the other round himself. They went to the door; it flew open before them; a sleep of enchantment came on the guards and they went out free. "Now," said the son of the Gobhaun Saor, "let a small light go before us"; and a small light went before them on the road, for there were no stars in Balor's sky. When they came to the Dark Strand the son struck the waters with his cloak and a boat came to him. It had neither oars nor sails; it was pure crystal, and it was shining like the big white star that is in the sky before sunrise. "It is the Ocean-Sweeper," said the Gobhaun. "Mananaun has sent us his own boat!" "My thousand welcomes before it," said the Son, "and good fortune and honor to Mananaun while there is one wave to run after another in the sea!"
 
They stepped into the boat, and no sooner had they stepped into it than they were at the White Strand, for the Ocean-Sweeper goes as fast as a thought and takes the people she carries at once to the place they have their hearts on. "It is a good sight our own land is!" said the Gobhaun when his feet touched Ireland. "It is," said the son, "and may we live long to see it!"
 
~ From "How the Son of the Gobhaun Saor Shortened the Road", retold by Ella Young
 
This is Irish fairy-tale at its most striking and moving. Elements of this story haunt my own Celtic tale.
 
August 8, 2013
 
Hotspur: He shall be welcome too. Where is his son,
The nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales,
And his comrades, that daff'd the world aside,
And bid it pass?
Vernon: All furnished, all in arms;
All plumed like estridges that with the wind
Baited like eagles having lately bathed;
Glittering in golden coats, like images;
As full of spirit as the month of May,
And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer;
Wanton as youthful goats, wild as young bulls.
I saw young Harry, with his beaver on,
His cuisses on his thighs, gallantly arm'd,
Rise from the ground like feather'd Mercury,
And vaulted with such ease into his seat,
As if an angel dropp'd down from the clouds,
To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus
And witch the world with noble horsemanship.
Hotspur: No more, no more: worse than the sun in March,
This praise doth nourish agues. Let them come;
They come like sacrifices in their trim,
And to the fire-eyed maid of smoky war
All hot and bleeding will we offer them:
The mailed Mars shall on his altar sit
Up to the ears in blood. I am on fire
To hear this rich reprisal is so nigh
And yet not ours. Come, let me taste my horse,
Who is to bear me like a thunderbolt
Against the bosom of the Prince of Wales:
Harry to Harry shall, hot horse to horse,
Meet and ne'er part till one drop down a corse.
 
William Shakespeare, Henry IV Part I, Act 4, Scene 1
 



Could you possibly heap any more praise on an enemy than Vernon does on young Prince Harry (the future King Henry V of Agincourt fame)? And can't you just see Hotspur fuming in envy as he leaps astride his charger? This Shakespeare play is as gripping as an adventure novel!

~
 
Epilogue: If you have actually read to the end of this post, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. There's a heck of a lot more I'm dying to share from my commonplace book, and this post makes me realize I should do it more often. Until next time--happy reading.