Beachcombing, with books
By Anne Matthews
June 5, 2017
I have only to break into the tightness of a strawberry, and I see summer—its dust and lowering skies. It remains for me a season of storms.
—Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye, 1970
Being embraced and sustained by the light-green water seemed not as much a pleasure as the resumption of a natural condition, and he would have liked to swim without trunks, but this was not possible, considering his project. He hoisted himself up on the far curb—he never used the ladder—and started across the lawn. When Lucinda asked where he was going, he said he was going to swim home.
—John Cheever, “The Swimmer,” 1964
Pigeons on the grass alas.
—Gertrude Stein, libretto of Four Saints in Three Acts, 1928
It is neither just nor accurate to connect the word alas with pigeons. Pigeons are definitely not alas. They have nothing to do with alas and they have nothing to do with hooray (not even when you tie red, white, and blue ribbons on them and let them loose at band concerts); they have nothing to do with mercy me or isn’t that fine, either. White rabbits, yes, and Scotch terriers, and blue-jays, and even hippopotamuses, but not pigeons.
—James Thurber, “There’s an Owl in My Room,” 1934
The great American dream that reached out to the stars has been lost to the stripes. We have forgotten where we came from, we don’t know where we are, and we fear where we may be going. … We must believe that it is darkness before the dawn of a beautiful new world; we will see when we believe it.
—Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, 1971
It was surely, save perhaps for oranges, a more informally and familiarly fruit-eating time, and bushels of peaches in particular, peaches big and peaches small, peaches white and peaches yellow, played a part in life from which they have somehow been deposed; every garden, almost every bush and the very boys’ pockets grew them. … We ate everything in those days by the bushel and the barrel, as from stores that were infinite; we handled watermelons as freely as cocoanuts, and the amount of stomach-ache involved was negligible in the general Eden-like consciousness.
—Henry James, A Small Boy and Others, 1913
Humanity is perishable. That may be. But let us perish resisting, and if nothingness is what awaits us, let us not act in such a way that it is a just fate.
—Étienne Pivert de Senancour, Obermann, 1804
O brilliant kids, frisk with your dog,
Fondle your shells and sticks, bleached
By time and the elements; but there is a line
You must not cross nor ever trust beyond it
Spry cordage of your bodies to caresses
Too lichen-faithful from too wide a breast.
The bottom of the sea is cruel.
—Hart Crane, “Voyages,” 1933
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister’d Vertue, unexercis’d and unbreath’d, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortall garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is triall, and triall is by what is contrary.
—John Milton, Areopagitica, 1644
In the afternoon, a great event: we pass a ship that’s following the same route as we are. The greeting that the two ships give each other with three grand prehistoric animal roars, the waving of the passengers lost at sea and alert to the presence of other human beings, the irrevocable separation on the green, malevolent waters—all that weighs on the heart a little. Afterwards I remain staring at the sea for a long time, full of a strange and good exaltation. After dinner I go to the bow. The emigrants play the accordion and dance in the night, where the heat seems to mount as if it were day.
—Albert Camus, sailing to South America, July 1949
I wrote to Mrs. Clarkson and Luff—went with Ellen to Rydale. Coleridge came in with a sack full of books, etc., and a branch of mountain ash. He had been attacked by a cow. He came over by Grisdale. A furious wind. Mr. Simpson drank tea.
—Dorothy Wordsworth, June 1802
The look of things. The weather. Men and women long at rest in the cemetery but vividly remembered. The Natural History of home: the suede glove on the front-hall table, the unfinished game of solitaire, the oriole’s nest suspended from the tip of the outermost branch of the elm tree, dandelions in the grass.
—William Maxwell, All the Days And Nights, 1995
I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a
shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.
—Rebecca Solnit, London Review of Books, August 29, 2013
Is this escape-into-the-frame a fine game for a hot afternoon, or is it rather something that conceals itself beneath a frivolity? To be isolated for ever in some romantic and forlorn landscape, enchanted oneself and imprisoned “out of time,” beyond the necessities of human life, their humilities and importunities, without hope, without hope of return, without the aggravating possibility of some knight-errantry, how delicious, when one is in the mood, the contemplation of such a fate.
—Stevie Smith, “Art,” 1937
[The story] has not been changed since it reached manuscript form, very swiftly, one day when I awoke with it already in mind. One of its sources was a great-limbed poplar tree that I could see even lying in bed. It was suddenly lopped and mutilated by its owner, I do not know why. It is cut down now, a less barbarous punishment for any crimes it may have been accused of, such as being large and alive. I do not think it had any friends, or any mourners except myself and a pair of owls.
—J. R. R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, 1964
Look, stranger, on this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers …
And move in memory as now these clouds do,
That pass the harbour mirror
And all the summer through the water saunter.
—W. H. Auden, “On This Island,” 1937
Anne Matthews is a contributing editor of the SCHOLAR.