Monday, August 22, 2011

And See the Land Where Corals Lie

I can see him walking amid the shadows. He breathes in the heady odours of buckram, Morocco, vellum and calf. There are manuscript pages and a book in his left hand as he walks along humming quietly to himself, thinking of an odd passage from an ancient obscure work, the sheltered light glinting off his spectacles as the dust motes rise and fall invisibly between the bookshelves as he passes.

That is my imaginary vision of Richard Garnett in his lair, the British Museum, a phantom amidst the stacks, shifting books and papers in an endless round.

Ford Madox Ford in one of his many books of biographical and autobiographical impressions described him as "a queer, very tall, lean, untidily bearded Yorkshire figure in its official frock-coat and high hat." I wrote about Richard Garnett not too long ago in a post about
Robert Louis Stevenson, and having recently re-read the above mentioned book of memories and impressions by Ford Madox Ford, the author provides a further dimension to his passing physical description of Dr. Garnett, one which I failed to remember. It would have been apt for my post on Stevenson as it included a reference to umbrellas:

Having a passion for cats, Egyptology, palmistry and astrology, the great scholar could assume some of the aspect of deaf obstinacy that distinguishes cats that do not intend to listen to you. He cast the horoscopes of all his friends and reigning sovereigns; he knew the contents of a hundred thousand books and must have stroked as many thousand "pussies" pronouncing the "pus" to rhyme with "bus." He was inseparable from his umbrella with which he once beat off two thieves, when at five in the morning he had gone to Convent Garden to buy the household fruit. He was the author of the most delightful volume of whimsico-classical stories that was ever written and the organiser of the compilers of the catalogue of the British Museum Library--an achievement that should render him immortal if his Twilight of the Gods fails to do so.

In the older post on Stevenson, I quoted a poem he wrote on the other side of the world in his tropical paradise, thinking of his old friend Sidney Colvin and his visits to Colvin's home attached to the British Museum. I feel I should round off this brief revisit with a poem by Richard Garnett, who in his dusty comfortable haunt, thought of Robert Louis Stevenson in his exotic lotus land and wrote a sonnet about him after the young author died in 1894. It was published in his The Queen and other Poems, 1901:

Robert Louis Stevenson

Wondrous as though a star with twofold light
Should fill a lamp for either hemisphere,
Piercing cold skies with scintillation clear,
And glowing on the sultry Southern night;
Was miracle of him who could unite
Pine and the purple harbour of the deer
With palm-plumed islets that sequestered hear
The far-off wave their zoning coral smite.
Still roars the surf, still bounds the herd, but where
Is one to see and hear and tell again?
As dancers pause on an arrested air
Fail the fast-thronging figures of the brain;
And shapes unshapely in dim lair,
Awaiting ripe vitality in vain.

It is interesting to read the line "the far-off wave their zoning coral smite," for it recalls Richard Garnett's poem Where Corals Lie, written in his youth and published with many other poems in his Io in Egypt and Other Poems, 1859. Edward Elgar used Where Corals Lie in a song cycle, Sea Pictures, Opus 37. Perhaps I should leave this post with a recording of Janet Baker singing the song:

Sunday, August 14, 2011


A recent bookish Internet pastime, an internet meme, which rather harkens back to the sortes virgilianae, had me reaching for the nearest book to locate the 5th sentence on the 56th page, a reaching out to the breadth of randomness within a collective readership. (Perhaps these games are unconscious remnant longings for the bicameral brain, a nostalgia of the unconscious mind at play. Our dreams too are perhaps remnant offshoots of this oracular vision.) My eyes alighted on the closest book on the nearest shelf, Michael Dibdin's Cabal, and the sentence: "The Nun backed out, closing the door behind her." This was suitably prosaic in its context. The entertainment and amusement of this pastime being in the out-of-context juxtaposition of this sentence with other randomly chosen sentences posted by other suitably curious individuals. Some sentences were amusing in their singularity.

I am unsure who decided on the page number and sentence chosen, and whether this is but one of many random online bibliographic pastimes, but the specific vectors shared by each book undercut the complete randomness, and add a structural element not present in the ancient pastime of opening Virgil's Aeneid and alighting a finger on a spot whose line or lines of verse would answer a question in mind. But, then again, the latter's randomness was confined to one book and was essentially an event of private divination.

Curiosity led me on and I found myself investigating this specific location in many books. One benefit of this process was it refreshed my view of my bookshelves and the books thereon, many neglected and forgotten. Using this bibliographic dead reckoning I discovered that the great majority of the 5th sentences on page 56 were ones that the eye would sweep over in casual reading, while coming across a blank page was rather like having one's ear up to the sphinx's cold dry lips awaiting the sibilant whisperings of a riddle.

Only a few books provided sentences in that position with some textual weight. Of course that was not the game. It was all about spontaneity and chance, not a search for words dripping with colourful style. The following are a few examples that would go well with “The Nun backed out, closing the door behind her” either preceding or following:

He seemed, leaning on crimson damask, to take in the bright day.
-The Golden Bowl by Henry James.

I liked, as I like still, to make words look self-conscious and foolish, to bind them by the mock marriage of a pun, to turn them inside out, to come upon them unawares.
-Despair by Vladimir Nabokov.

If it wasn't for Anatole's cooking, I doubt if he would bother to carry on.
-Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse.

I fear I wasted too much time on such an amusement, and I apologize Dear Reader, if you have come this far and arrived at the same conclusion. Perhaps to add more gravity to this post, I should resort to a
sortes virgilianae, by the asking of my copy of Virgil's Aeneid, whether the world will ever come together and solve the problems of human suffering:

My random finger fell upon a section of the page after the end of Book 3, without text.

Perhaps I should interpret this as we must all provide our own text for the answer to such an important question.