Monday, April 30, 2018

`A Whoreson Book-Worm'

Online I discovered a wonderful word: candle-waster. With finicky precision, the OED defines it as “he who or that which wastes candles by late study at night.” A scholar, bookworm or Casaubon-like pedant. I remember as a kid, for the sheer romance of it, trying to read by candlelight. The flicker and absence of focus was maddening, almost as bad as those blindness-inducing spiral lightbulbs that became fashionable several years ago. Edison’s discovery of reliable incandescent light ranks among the chief accomplishments of our species. Now we’ve voluntarily regressed into the shadows.

The OED gives two citations for candle-waster. The first is from Act V, Scene 1 of Much Ado About Nothing. The speaker is Leonato. I’ll quote at some length, for the joy and wisdom of the language:

“I pray thee, cease thy counsel,
Which falls into mine ears as profitless
As water in a sieve: give not me counsel;
Nor let no comforter delight mine ear
But such a one whose wrongs do suit with mine.
Bring me a father that so loved his child,
Whose joy of her is overwhelm'd like mine,
And bid him speak of patience;
Measure his woe the length and breadth of mine
And let it answer every strain for strain,
As thus for thus and such a grief for such,
In every lineament, branch, shape, and form:
If such a one will smile and stroke his beard,
Bid sorrow wag, cry `hem!’ when he should groan,
Patch grief with proverbs, make misfortune drunk
With candle-wasters; bring him yet to me,
And I of him will gather patience.
But there is no such man: for, brother, men
Can counsel and speak comfort to that grief
Which they themselves not feel; but, tasting it,
Their counsel turns to passion, which before
Would give preceptial medicine to rage,
Fetter strong madness in a silken thread,
Charm ache with air and agony with words:
No, no; 'tis all men's office to speak patience
To those that wring under the load of sorrow,
But no man's virtue nor sufficiency
To be so moral when he shall endure
The like himself. Therefore give me no counsel:
My griefs cry louder than advertisement.”

Much to love in that passage. I especially like “preceptial medicine to rage.” (The OED cites this line in its entry for “preceptial,” which it defines as “consisting of or conveying precepts; instructive.”) The second citation for candle-waster is from Ben Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels, or The Fountain of Self-Love. In the opening lines of Act III, Scene 2, Hedon says to Anaides: “Heart, was there ever so prosperous an invention thus unluckily perverted and spoiled, by a whoreson book-worm, a candle-waster?” Sounds like a worthy epitaph for a dedicated reader.

1 comment:

mike zim said...

Though he was likely a Herculean lucubrator, Johnson allowed that it could be overdone:

"Sir, you must not neglect of doing a thing immediately good; from fear of remote evil; -- from fear of its being abused. A man who has candles may sit up too late, which he would not do if he had not candles; but nobody will deny that the art of making candles , by which light is continued to us beyond the time that the sun gives us light, is a valuable art, and ought to be preserved." --Boswell: Life