Some of us still do. It’s a pastime simplified by the coming of the digital age. I’m not always convinced I’ve read something until I’ve transcribed a choice passage or two. That’s the purpose of a commonplace book or “table book,” as George Saintsbury calls it in his introduction to A Calendar of Verse (1892). The practical reason for keeping such a sampler is future reference. Often I discover passages I know will come in handy. It also serves as an act of homage. When I copy a sentence by Johnson or Nabokov, I’m expressing in a small way my gratitude for a writer’s labor.
Saintsbury’s volume is a relic of another age. At 5.5 inches by 4.5 inches, the book is squarish and compact, with a beige cover and gilt lettering – a gift book. The publisher is Rivingtons of London. In his introduction, Saintsbury refers to his anthology as “this poetical ephemeris.” A different English poet is assigned to each of the twelve months: Shakespeare, Spenser, Coleridge, Herrick, Shelley, William Morris, Keats, Byron, Campion, Scott, Wordsworth and Milton, respectively. Of course, tastes change. Few of us read Morris or Scott. Shakespeare is inevitable. Herrick and Campion are inspired choices. The taste reflected is late-Victorian, pre-Modernist. No Donne or Herbert. The Byron selection is heavily weighted toward Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage; nothing from Don Juan.
Some of Saintsbury’s critical readings in the introduction are worthy of attention. He “gets” Coleridge: “No doubt it is right and proper that there should be complete editions of his poetical works; but to read those poetical works as a whole, and ‘straight on,’ must always be a task both ascetic and athletic. Except ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and a very few others, there is no piece of Coleridge’s which is good as a whole.” True but seldom acknowledged. Sadly, Coleridge the man is often more interesting than his work, and he was a junkie. Saintsbury notes his juxtaposition of Coleridge and Herrick in March and April:
“In passing from Coleridge to Herrick the change is perhaps greater and more remarkable than in any other pair of poets in any language, irrespective of date and style; or, rather, the change of date impresses itself almost to the neglect of the change of style. . . .I do not know why opium should be allowed a privilege which is denied to sack and Julia.”