Commonplace Book - Winter 2020

Winter 2020

By Anne Matthews | December 2, 2019

Is not January the hardest month to get through? When you have weathered that, you get into the gulf-stream of winter, nearer the shores of spring.

—Henry David Thoreau, Journal, February 2, 1854

[T]he pure luxury of a cloudless sky designed not to warm the flesh, but solely to please the eye; the sheen of sledge-cuts on the hard-beaten snow of spacious streets with a tawny tinge about the middle tracks due to a rich mixture of horse-dung; the brightly coloured bunch of toy-balloons hawked by an aproned pedlar; the soft curve of a cupola, its gold dimmed by the bloom of powdery frost; the birch trees in the public gardens, every tiniest twig outlined in white; the rasp and twinkle of winter traffic …

—Vladimir Nabokov on Saint Petersburg, The Real Life of  Sebastian Knight, 1941

The history of the world? Just voices echoing in the dark; images that burn for a few centuries and then fade; stories, old stories that sometimes seem to overlap; strange links, impertinent connections. We lie here in our hospital bed of the present (what nice clean sheets we get nowadays) with a bubble of daily news drip-fed into our arm.

—Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, 1989

The taste of Barberries, which have hung out in the snow during the severity of a North American winter, I have in my mouth still, after an interval of thirty years; for I have met with no other taste, in all that time, at all like it. It remains by itself, almost like the impression of a sixth sense.

—William Hazlitt, “Why Distant Objects Please,” Table-Talk, 1821

Good cooking is a moral agent.

—Joseph Conrad, preface to Jessie Conrad, Handbook of Cookery for a Small House, 1923

Never again elude the choice of tints!
White shall not neutralize the black, nor good
Compensate bad in man, absolve him so:
Life’s business being just the terrible choice.

—Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book, 1868–1869

And worse I may be yet: the worst is not
So long as we can say “This is the worst.”

—William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act IV, Scene 1

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—

—Archibald MacLeish, “Ars Poetica,” 1926

The magician seemed to promise that something torn to bits might be mended without a seam, that what had vanished might reappear, that a scattered handful of doves or dust might be reunited by a word, that a paper rose consumed by fire could be made to bloom from a pile of ash. But everyone knew that it was only an illusion. The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed in the first place.

—Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, 2000

We set out cold, we arrived at church colder: during the morning service we became almost paralysed. …

At the close of the afternoon service we returned by an exposed and hilly road, where the bitter winter wind, blowing over a range of snowy summits to the north, almost flayed the skin from our faces.

—Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, 1847

The Talmud’s generative doctrine of law holds equally true for language: Moses might be all at sea with today’s Hebrew sounds and scripts—and current Jewish ways of life—but, suitably sedated, he would find relatively clear sailing with an Israeli novel or a fine-print contract. At root, it is the same tongue.

—Lewis Glinert, The Story of Hebrew, 2017

And if I failed to mention this detail in its proper place, it is because you cannot mention everything in its proper place, you must choose, between the things not worth mentioning and those even less so.

—Samuel Beckett, Molloy, 1955

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everybody whispered there):

“Can you describe this?”

And I said: “I can.”

Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.

—Anna Akhmatova, Requiem, 1935–1940

[W]hen we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow. … This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or what follows, we know nothing.

—The Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, tr. by Leo Sherley-Price, 731 C.E.

[T]he top-gallant sails were loosed, and then we had to furl them again in a snow-squall, and shin up and down single ropes caked with ice, and send royal yards down in the teeth of a gale coming right from the south pole. … [A]ll that canvas, which a few days before had covered her like a cloud, from the truck to the water’s edge, spreading far out beyond her hull on either side, now gone; and she, stripped, like a wrestler for the fight.

—Richard Henry Dana Jr., Two Years Before the Mast, 1840

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return …

The imperfect is our paradise.

—Wallace Stevens, “The Poems of Our Climate,” 1942

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