Saturday, February 04, 2017

`Put Fresh Cheese Curds to a Red Face'

“This is not a book about Dreams; it is meant for those whose `continual cares, fears, sorrows, dry brains,’ drive rest away; it contains some of the composing and calming beauties that, in their compiler's own experience, bring a happy sleep in their train.”

Had Marianne Moore kept and published a commonplace book, it might have resembled Planet and Glow-Worm: A Book for the Sleepless (Macmillan & Co., 1944), compiled by Edith Sitwell. Even the passage quoted above, the first sentence of Sitwell’s preface, contains a Moore trademark – the apt but unidentified allusion. It also reflects Moore’s taste for broad, recondite reading. The quote within the quote above is borrowed from The Anatomy of Melancholy, a Sitwell favorite.  Happy serendipity led me to the slender blue volume, once in the personal library of Edgar Odell Lovett, the first president of Rice University, and now in the collection of the Fondren Library. I know Sitwell and her brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell (both generously represented in the book), largely by reputation, and they impress me as an eccentric English phenomenon that never successfully crossed the Atlantic.

A paradox is built into the notion of bedtime reading. Do we wish to read books strictly as soporifics? If so, we would reach for a title by the dullest writer imaginable – Joyce Carol Oates. Or do we select a good book, one that will be difficult to close and will postpone sleep and induce the next morning’s hangover. Sitwell at first does little to resolve the dilemma: “The greatest of all works of literature, in a certain kind, bring comfort to the heart, but they do not bring sleep . . . they awaken the heart and the soul to what lies beyond grief.” And she includes in Planet and Glow-Worm samples of thegreatest of all works of literature” – Shakespeare, Keats, Baudelaire. Here is another passage from Burton included by Sitwell:

“And withal to refrigerate the face, by washing it often with rose, violet, nenuphar, lettuce, lovage waters, and the like . . . Quercetan commends the water of frog’s spawn for ruddiness in the face. Crato would fain have them use all summer the condite flowers of succory, strawberry water, roses . . . It is good overnight to anoint the face with hare’s blood, and in the morning to wash it with strawberry and cowslip water, the juice of distilled lemons, juice of cucumbers, or to use the seeds of melons, or kernels of peaches beaten small, or the roots of Aron, and mixed with wheat bran to bake it in an oven, and to crumble it in strawberry water, or to put fresh cheese curds to a red face.”

The risk here, of course, is that Burton’s recipes might make you hungry and inspire a midnight visit to the refrigerator, further postponing sleep. If Sitwell’s strategy after all is to encourage tedium, yawning and sleep, she includes a useful excerpt from a writer even duller than La Oates, Gertrude Stein, who is represented by a mercifully brief excerpt from The World Is Round. Similarly, you’ll find samples from Finnegans Wake and Blake’s “Book of Thel.”
I love miscellanies and detest manifestos. Sitwell’s compendium takes its place among the commonplace books and kindred creations that serve as models for the sort of writing that comes naturally to me -- brief essays (Dr. Johnson called them "sallies of the mind") unified only by a common sensibility. One of the reasons I’ll never be a critic is that I lack the necessary analytical and organizational skills. The late David Myers identified the species I represent, and then he joined us:

“Book blogging on the model of the commonplace book has attracted some of the most interesting foxes now writing about books . . . These are writers united not by doctrine or ideological commitment, but by an ambition to copiousness and eloquence—and the secret handshake that passes between those who have spent a life among books. They are proud to be foxes. They don’t avoid hedgehogs; they just don’t want to be one. They are happy knowing many small tricks. Or, rather, such knowledge brings them great happiness.”

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