Commonplace Book - Spring 2008


By Anne Matthews | March 1, 2008


I throw myself down in my chamber, and I call in, and invite God and his angels thither, and when they are there, I neglect God and his angels, for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door.

John Donne, Sermons, December 1626

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays,” Collected Poems, 1966

In the spring of 1960 I was invited to serve as commencement speaker at an eighth-grade graduation in a coal camp school. The seven graduates received their diplomas in the dilapidated two-room building which had sheltered two generations of their forebears. A shower sent a little torrent of water through the ancient roof onto one of the scarred desks. The worn windows rattled in their frames and the paper decorations which had been prepared by the seventh-graders fluttered in drafts admitted by the long unpainted walls. Outside, the grassless playground lay in the shadow of an immense slate dump and was fringed by a cluster of ramshackle houses. One of the graduates had been orphaned by a mining accident, and the father of another wheezed and gasped with silicosis. The fathers of three others were jobless. The little ceremony was opened with the singing of “America the Beautiful.” . . . Coal has always cursed the land in which it lies.

Harry Caudill, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, 1963

If you are obliged to neglect any thing, let it be your chemistry. It is the least useful and the least amusing to a country gentleman of all the ordinary branches of science.

Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to his grandson, January 3, 1809

The flatness of this land was awesome. There wasn’t a hill in sight; it was an enormous, unrippled sea of parched and lifeless grass.

“Tata, why is the earth so flat here?”

“These must be steppes, Esther.”

“Steppes? But steppes are in Siberia.”

“This is Siberia,” he said quietly.

If I had been told that I had been transported to the moon, I could not have been more stunned.

“Siberia?” My voice trembled. “But Siberia is full of snow.”

“It will be,” my father said.

Siberia! . . . Summer or no summer—and who had ever talked about hot Siberia?—Siberia was the tundra and mountainous drifts of snow. Siberia was wolves.

I had been careless . . . neglected to pray to God to save us from a gypsum mine in Siberia.

Esther Hautzig, The Endless Steppe, 1968

He could deal with things perfectly, for all his needs, without getting near them. This was the way he dealt with his wife, a large proportion of whose meanings he knew he could neglect. He edited for their general economy the play of her mind, just as he edited, savingly, with the stump of a pencil, her redundant telegrams.

Henry James, The Golden Bowl, 1904

“I quite agree with you,” said Miss de Vine, “about the difficulty of combining intellectual and emotional interests. I don’t think it affects women only; it affects men as well. But when men put their public lives before their private lives, it causes less outcry than when a woman does the same thing, because women put up with neglect better than men, having been brought up to expect it.”

Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night, 1936

When a Bamileke chief took office, Jacques Maquet informs us, he had his statue carved; “after his death, the statue was respected, but it was slowly eroded by the weather as his memory was eroded in the minds of the people.” Where is the form here? In the shape of the statue or the shape of its career? It is, of course, in both. But no analysis of the statue that does not hold its fate in view, a fate as intended as is the arrangement of its volume or the gloss of its surface, is going to understand its meaning or catch its force.

Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge, 1983

And what remains when disbelief is gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. . . .

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Philip Larkin, from “Church Going”

Or take another sort of garden, in which the land to begin with is a collection of rusting bedsprings and immortal boots . . . brambles and bracken and dock, maybe broken up by patches of stinging nettles. Amenities include the remains of an old pig sty. You convert it, let’s say, into one of the sweetest gardens of the world, with roundels of clipped yew and a little alley of lindens, rising over a wide walk, almost a terrace . . . with spaces for a riot of primroses and spring bulbs, bursting out everywhere in lemon and scarlet and gentian and ivory. The lindens all die. The pavement has to be replaced. The primroses start dying out. . . . If I see a garden that is very beautiful, I know it is a new garden.

Henry Mitchell, The Essential Earthman, 1981

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