An Uncommon Dozen: Commonplace Quotes from August-September 2018

As a CM student, I keep a commonplace book—a practice which was once common to most well-educated people.  This is a place where I can copy down and keep near me especially beautiful or important or thought-provoking or amusing quotes from what I read.  While I’m backlogged on copying these into my physical commonplace book, I’ve encountered some lovely thoughts recently, and I thought I’d share some of them with you.

To start, some common sense from George MacDonald.  The Princess and the Goblin  is the second book I have read aloud.  Hannah, Justin, and I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe together, then Irene and Curdie’s first adventures.  We’re onto The Princess and Curdie now.

“That’s all nonsense,” said Curdie.  “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Then if you don’t know what I mean, what right have you to call it nonsense?” asked the princess, a little offended.

George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin

On a rather different note, a quote from Roman history quite applicable to American history:

Long before our time, the customs of our ancestors molded admirable men, and in turn these eminent men upheld the ways and institutions of their forbears.  Our age, however, inherited the Republic as if it were some beautiful painting of bygone ages, its colors already fading through great antiquity; and not only has our time neglected to freshen the colors of the picture, but we have failed to preserve its form and outlines.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, The Republic, quoted by Russel Kirk in The Roots of American Order

On perhaps an even more clearly serious note, as a more direct one, some words from Frederick Douglass:

“Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.  Now,” said he [Mr. Auld], “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him.  It would forever unfit him to be a slave.  He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.  As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm.  It would make him discontented and unhappy.”  These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. … I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. … In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress.

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Also considering liberation offered by learning, Russel Kirk:

[T]he Ten Commandments, the Decalogue, are not a set of harsh prohibitions imposed by an arbitrary tribal deity.  Instead, they are liberating rules that enable a people to diminish the tyranny of sin; that teach a people how to live with one another and in relation to God, how to restrain violence and fraud, how to know justice and to raise themselves above the level of predatory animals.

Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order

Now, woefully abridged, a quote from The Princess and Curdie:

[H]e was at first much inclined to consider himself a very good fellow on the whole.  “I really don’t think I did anything else that was very bad all day,” he said to himself.  But at the same time he could not honestly feel that he was worth standing up for.  All at once a light seemed to break in upon his mind…
“I know now, ma’am; I understand now,” he said.  “Thank you, ma’am, for spinning it into me with your wheel.  I see now that I have been doing wrong the whole day, and such a many days besides! …
“I was doing the wrong of never wanting or trying to be better.  And now I see that I have been letting things go as they would for a long time.  Whatever came into my head I did, and whatever didn’t come into my head I didn’t do.  I never sent anything away, and never looked out for anything to come. … And I know I have been grumbling at my work and doing a hundred other things that are wrong.”
“You have got it, Curdie,” said the old lady, in a voice that sounded almost as if she had been crying.  “When people don’t care to be better they must be doing everything wrong.”

George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie

Back to history (and quoting quotations) with William Lee Miller:

The historian David Potter, in his book The Impending Crisis, notes the difficulty under which historians labor (he might have said citizens, too) in understanding the stretch of time with which he deals—from the end of the Mexican War in 1848 to the outbreak of the civil War in 1861—because they know that the Civil War, with all its consequences, will come.  They (we) interpret “antebellum” America as exactly that: before-the-war America.  And because we know what it is “before,” we bend our interpretations to fit that outcome and have great difficulty fathoming the situation, and the choices, of those who were living at that time.

William Lee Miller, Arguing About Slavery

And let’s finish off these quotes with one of those delightful moments which Monseigneur Bienvenu is so generous with:

One day he [Monseigneur Bienvenu] arrived at Senez, which is an ancient episcopal city. He was mounted on an ass. His purse, which was very dry at that moment, did not permit him any other equipage. The mayor of the town came to receive him at the gate of the town, and watched him dismount from his ass, with scandalized eyes. Some of the citizens were laughing around him. “Monsieur the Mayor,” said the Bishop, “and Messieurs Citizens, I perceive that I shock you. You think it very arrogant in a poor priest to ride an animal which was used by Jesus Christ. I have done so from necessity, I assure you, and not from vanity.”

Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

As you will have observed by now, I am studying the first half of the nineteenth century, and draw many commonplace quotes from The Roots of American Order and Arguing About Slavery—books crafted with such lucidity and substance that there are times in reading each when I feel as if I could use whole pages for my commonplace.  I also sometimes manage to read to my little siblings, and find George MacDonald eminently quotable; besides which I am very much enjoying and impressed by Les Miserables (though you knew that already).

I’m feeling somewhat snowed under with schoolwork right now—snow collects so much more quickly when you don’t shovel diligently—but I’m still managing to work on memorizing some poetry.  It helps that one can memorize poetry while washing the dishes: and I’ve found by experience that these do not vanish when ignored.  I recently succeeded at last in memorizing the Magnificat in English, and have the first two lines of the Latin down, but most of my memorizing recently has been work on G. K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse.  This is a quite beautiful, quite long poem—according to Wikipedia, it is 2,684 lines long.  Yes, I intend to memorize all of it.  So far, out of eight books, I’ve memorized Book III, “The Harp of Alfred,” 80 stanzas long, and Book I, “The Vision of Alfred,” 57 stanzas long, with a dozen stanzas of Book II, “The Gathering of the Chiefs.”  I started with Book III to see how I liked memorizing The Ballad of the White Horse.  If I was only to memorize one book, I thought I’d like it to be that one.

The verdict was that I like memorizing The Ballad of the White Horse, and so I’ve been continuing to work on it.  It’s surprisingly easy to memorize—Mom’s years of forcing me to memorize are paying off, and now I’m fairly easily going off and finding, learning, and practicing my own pieces to memorize.  Almost all of The Ballad of the White Horse is beautiful, but some stanzas I especially like, so let’s finish off this post with some poetry.

This, I think, is my favorite verse of Book I, describing Mary when she appears to King Alfred:

Her face was like an open word
When brave men speak and choose,
The very colours of her coat
Were better than good news.

G. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse, Book I

Among other things, Mary tells Alfred this:

The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.

The men of the East may search the scrolls
For sure fates and fame,
But the men that drink the blood of God
Go singing to their shame.

The wise men know what wicked things
Are written on the sky,
They trim sad lamps, they touch sad strings,
Hearing the heavy purple wings,
Where the forgotten seraph kings
Still plot how God shall die.

G. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse, Book I

I prefer the first two verses of that; but I include the third because it reminds me of Wormtongue riding up to Isengard with no thought but that the fortress will stand forever as he knows it and—more aptly—Screwtape writing about progesses of the war department.  Satan is eternally behind the times.

In Book III, “The Harp of Alfred,” King Alfred disguises himself as a poor minstrel, enters the Danish camp, and engages in poetic duel with three Danish earls and King Guthrum himself.  While I agree with Chesterton, Alfred, and Guthrum that the Danish king’s mournfully atheistical viewpoint is profoundly sad, and with Chesterton and Alfred that it is not a true one, I still like these stanzas:

It is good to sit where the good tales go,
To sit as our fathers sat;
But the hour shall come after his youth,
When a man shall know not tales but truth,
And his heart fail thereat.

When he shall read what is written
So plain in clouds and clods,
When he shall hunger without hope
Even for evil gods.

For this is a heavy matter,
And the truth is cold to tell;
Do we not know, have we not heard,
The soul is like a lost bird,
The body a broken shell.

And a man hopes, being ignorant,
Till in white woods apart
He finds at last the lost bird dead:
And a man may still lift up his head
But never more his heart.

G. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse, Book III

But while I fancy that these verses of Guthrum’s express how I might feel it I became convinced of athiesm, having been brought up in the joy of meaning that a Christian life gives to all the beautiful world, I like better these verses of Alfred’s:

Sirs, I am but a nameless man,
A rhymester without home,
Yet since I come of the Wessex clay
And carry the cross of Rome,

I will even answer the mighty earl…

Your lord sits high in the saddle,
A broken-hearted king,
But our king Alfred, lost from fame,
Fallen among foes or bonds of shame,
In I know not what mean trade or name,
Has still some song to sing;

Our monks go robed in rain and snow,
But the heart of flame therein,
But you go clothed in feasts and flames,
When all is ice within;

Nor shall all iron dooms make dumb
Men wondering ceaselessly,
If it be not better to fast for joy
Than feast for misery.

G. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse

Isn’t that lovely?

If anyone is still around at the bottom of this long post, that is!  But if anyone is around, well, there you are: a post in which Emma has tried to sound clever and well-educated while blatantly copying the thoughts of others.