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D.H. Lawrence in Italy

“Comes over one an absolute necessity to move. And what is more, to move in some particular direction. A double necessity then: To get on the move and to know whither.”

The opening sentences of D.H. Lawrence’s 1921 travel book, Sea and Sardinia. It is one of my favorite sentences ever, first because it expresses an impulse I share, but mostly because of the odd inversion of word order and the way it replicates the order of the impulse hits. 

What I mean is that when such a feeling “comes over one,” it is first unnamed. You don’t originally understand what this need is, just that it rushes your emotions. It is only second that you identify what it is that you are thinking of. To run the sentence in normal order — “An absolute necessity to move comes over one”— implies you understand what it is when it hits. It is a two-part process and the first part is non-verbal, almost primordial. Word order matters.

Lawrence is largely unfashionable these days. His novels — those “bright books of life” — can feel dated. Certainly his phallo-centric worship seem bizarre. It’s hard to read “Lady Loverly’s Chatter” without without laughing, or at least gasping. Of course, it’s not his best book. (Fashion is untrustworthy; you should read one of his novels or short stories to see just how good he is, despite his preaching). 

But in addition to his fiction, Lawrence wrote about his travels and singular writings they are. Do not expect objective recitations of fact, but rather what is left after being filtered through the author’s distinct sensibility. This makes them both more interesting and relevant many decades after they were published. Many travel books are written; most drop out of date within years; a few — a very few — transcend time and place to become, dare I use the word, “literature.” 

Such books are a joy to read, and give you insight not so much into a destination as into how an active mind can interact and react with place and turn its air and soil into words. 

Lawrence wrote four such books. In addition to Sea and Sardinia, there is Twilight in Italy, Etruscan Places and Mornings in Mexico, which includes essays he wrote about New Mexico also and a beautiful encomium to the Hopi Snake Dance. 

“How is man to get himself into relation with the vast living convulsions of rain and thunder and sun, which are conscious and alive and potent, but like the vastest of beasts, inscrutable and incomprehensible? How is man to get himself into relation with these, the vastest of cosmic beasts?”

Such books go back into antiquity. Few books are as readable, or as revealing of their authors, as the Histories of Herodotus. While the book functions mainly as a history of the Persian Wars, in it our gentleman from Halicarnassus takes us everywhere from Egypt to India, serving up travel tidbits that may be true, may be lies, or may be simple misunderstandings. 

His story of ants in India the size of dogs that go into the desert and bring back gold could perhaps be a mistranslation of a word for marmot rather than ant, and a further misinterpretation of Himalayan marmots who dig into the sand and catch gold-bearing sand in their fur. He never says he actually saw such ants, but only heard travelers tell of them.

Herodotus is sometimes called the “father of lies,” but he is always lively. 

There are other classical travels, too, such as the Anabasis of Xenophon and the Description of Greece by Pausanius. Xenophon is pretty straightforward, but others, such as Ctesias of Cnidus stretched the credulity of their readers. Ctesias wrote a book about India, called Indica (existing now only in fragments, but quoted often by other authors), in which he describes such things as a race of men with only one leg, and whose feet are so huge they can be used as umbrellas. 

In the Second Century, Lucian of Samosata ridiculed such outlandish claims in a book he called “A True Story,” in which he reported on “things I have neither seen nor experienced nor heard tell of from anybody else; things, what is more, that do not in fact exist and could not ever exist at all. So my readers must not believe a word I say.” In this, he says, he is therefore much truer than such liars as Ctesias or Herodotus because he admits his tales are all lies from the get-go. 

The most famous of questionable travel books is certainly Livre des Merveilles du Monde or “The Book of the Marvels of the World,” also called the Travels of Marco Polo, which appeared in the late 13th Century. (I say “appeared” rather than “was published” because there is no authoritative version. It sprung up in many languages in many countries at the same time, often with conflicting content.) It was ostensibly compiled by a Venetian hack writer named Rustichello of Pisa who shared a prison cell with Marco Polo in Genoa and transcribed Polo’s tales of his travels to China. 

The trustworthiness of Polo’s Travels has been questioned since it first appeared. Parts of it are surprisingly accurate, geographically and historically, but other sections are cribbed from other books written by Rustichello, ripped whole-cloth from his popular fictions. Scholars have been arguing over the book for hundreds of years. 

It is, however, and despite some tedious repetition, a good read, which is why it came out in six different languages and 20 different editions in just a few years. 

The discovery of the New World led to many journals, books and manuals. Perhaps the most famous is now just called “Hakluyt’s Voyages,” and was published in 1589 by Englishman Richard Hakluyt. His many books informed William Shakespeare’s sense of the world and its peoples. 

The title of his principal work is nearly a book all by itself. There was a fashion for long, descriptive titles back then. For instance, what we now call Shakespeare’s King Lear, was first known as the “True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King Lear and his three Daughters, With the unfortunate life of Edgar, sonne and heire to the Earle of Gloster, and his sullen and assumed humor of Tom of Bedlam: As it was played before the Kings Majestie at Whitehall upon S. Stephans night in Christmas Hollidayes.”

And so, Hakluyt, not to be outdone, titled his travel book: The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation: Made by Sea or Over Land to the Most Remote and Farthest Distant Quarters of the Earth at Any Time within the Compasse of These 1500 Years: Divided into Three Several Parts According to the Positions of the Regions Whereunto They Were Directed; the First Containing the Personall Travels of the English unto Indæa, Syria, Arabia … the Second, Comprehending the Worthy Discoveries of the English Towards the North and Northeast by Sea, as of Lapland … the Third and Last, Including the English Valiant Attempts in Searching Almost all the Corners of the Vaste and New World of America … Whereunto is Added the Last Most Renowned English Navigation Round About the Whole Globe of the Earth.

And that’s why we now call it “Hakluyt’s Voyages.”

But it is in the 18th Century that travel writing went mainstream. It was the era of the Enlightenment, and learning about the other quarters of the globe became a part of what we were enlightening ourselves about. Scores of travel diaries and memoirs were published. 

Samuel Johnson wrote A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, which is about a country he had little affinity for, and his sidekick, James Boswell wrote about the same trip in his The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL. D. Johnson wrote about Scotland; Boswell wrote about Johnson. In one notable episode, they extolled a hearty dinner consisting entirely of cold butter and milk. Yum. 

Novelist Tobias Smollett wrote a popular Travels Through France and Italy, published in 1766, which is not much read these days, but in contrast, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, by Laurence Sterne, is a classic. Smollett didn’t much cotton to foreign ways and pretty well grumped his way through the Continent. Sterne, in his book, from 1768, took a much more amiable view. Sterne actually crossed paths with  Smollett in Italy, and satirized him and his pique as the character Smelfungus. 

HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan

In 1839, Charles Darwin published what is now known as The Voyage of the Beagle, which was his portion of the scientific and geographical expedition of the H.M.S. Beagle around South America and into the Pacific. 

The trip provided Darwin with much of the data that led to his theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. But much of the book is just a good read, with the author’s reactions to what he discovers. 

Bahia jungle

In mid-summer the ship stopped at Bahia in Brazil. Darwin wrote: “The day has past delightfully. Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest. The elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers, the glossy green of the foliage, but above all the general luxuriance of the vegetation, filled me with admiration. A most paradoxical mixture of sound and silence pervades the shady parts of the wood. The noise from the insects is so loud, that it may be heard even in a vessel anchored several hundred yards from the shore; yet within the recesses of the forest a universal silence appears to reign. To a person fond of natural history, such a day as this brings with it a deeper pleasure than he can ever hope to experience again.”

Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft

In 1844, Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, published her Rambles in Germany and Italy, in 1840, 1842, and 1843. The book combines memoir with political analysis and was widely praised at the time. 

It followed the path taken by her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark in 1796. In it, Wollstonecraft wrote that “The art of travel is only a branch of the art of thinking.” And she wrote that travel writers should have “some decided point in view, a grand object of pursuit to concentrate their thoughts, and connect their reflections.”

Mark Twain in the Holy Land

It is the point of view that distinguishes travel literature from mere travel writing. And you get that in spades in four books by Mark Twain. He published The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress in 1869 about a trip he took two years earlier to the Holy Land, with side excursions all through the Mediterranean. It was his best-selling book during his lifetime.  And the source of one of his most famous quotes:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

He followed it up a few years later with Roughing It, an account of his travels and travails in Nevada and California. Then in 1880, he followed with A Tramp Abroad, which details a trip he made through Germany and the Alps. In it, he included a screamingly funny pasquinade on the Teutonic tongue, called “The Awful German Language.” 

For instance, linguistic gender baffled him. “Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in distribution; … In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.”

Finally, he went around the world, including to Hawaii and and India, and wrote about the trip in Following the Equator, published in 1897. The heat in India got to him: “I believe that in India ‘cold weather’ is merely a conventional phrase and has come into use through the necessity of having some way to distinguish between weather which will melt a brass door-knob and weather which will only make it mushy.”

I wish I could mention all the wonderful and quirky travel books I have read: Travels with a Donkey by Robert Louis Stevenson; The Alhambra by Washington Irving; Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig (yes, it’s a travel book, of sorts). 

And those I wish I had read: A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling by Ibn Battuta; Through the Brazilian Wilderness by Theodore Roosevelt; Travels With Myself and Another: A Memoir by Martha Gelhorn (the “other” is Ernest Hemingway); The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara. 

But there are finally three more that I have read and recommend to everyone: 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Matsuo Basho, which recounts a journey he made, mostly on foot, around the wilder parts of the north of Japan in the spring of 1689. It is a haibun, a combination of prose and poetry — mainly haiku — and functions as both a travel diary and a poetry anthology. It also has profound things to say about life, time and consciousness.

“Months and days are travelers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float off on ships or who grow ancient leading horses are also forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them.”

Voyage autour de ma chambre (“Voyage Around My Room”), published in 1794 by French writer Xavier de Maistre. He wrote it while under house arrest, and managed to turn his confinement into a pilgrimage, as he wandered around the room, 36 paces in circumference. 

“I have just completed a 42-day voyage around my room. The fascinating observations I made and the endless pleasures I experienced along the way made me wish to share my travels with the public; and the certainty of having something useful to offer convinced me to do so. Words cannot describe the satisfaction I feel in my heart when I think of the infinite number of unhappy souls for whom I am providing a sure antidote to boredom and a palliative to their ills. … 

“When I travel through my room,” he writes, “I rarely follow a straight line: I go from the table towards a picture hanging in a corner; from there, I set out obliquely towards the door; but even though, when I begin, it really is my intention to go there, if I happen to meet my armchair en route, I don’t think twice about it, and settle down in it without further ado.” 

—Finally, I want to offer George S. Chappell’s 1930 Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera: A Fascinating Trip to the Interior. The title seems self-explanatory, but the book antedates Raquel Welch’s breakout film Fantastic Voyage by three and a half decades. 

Our hero, along with an ornithologist, botanist and cameraman, first enter the mouth, do some spelunking and climb the cliffs of the molars. As they explore the innards of the human corpus, they escape from an enraged Amoeba, and discover the Heeby-Geebies that infest the Nerve Forests of the Lumbar region. Pausing only to carve their initials on the spinal column, the four brave souls reach Lovely Livermore and search for the source of the river Bile. Scarcely have they had time to shoot the rapids at the conjunction of the Gall and the Spleen and view the dance of the Hemoglobins when a violent upset in the interior forcibly ejects them.

What can I say? It isn’t only travel that is fatal to bigotry, but so is reading, especially reading about travel.  

If you were to name the greatest composers in the Western musical tradition, three or four names would come up uncontested.

Yes, you might have your favorites beyond these, and good arguments can be made, but by consensus, you would have to name Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and …

Bach, because he is the source. He towers above everyone in his emotional power and technical brilliance. Different composers can fill the needs of various moods, but you can listen to Bach in any mood. He is universal.

Mozart, because no one ever had such fluency of expression or more immediate melody. Music seemed to grow from him like peaches from a tree.

Beethoven, because no one ever strove higher or struggled more painfully to find the exact note, the exact emotion, the exact nexus of human and transcendent.

And …

You might nominate Richard Wagner, or Franz Schubert. Johannes Brahms or Claude-Achille Debussy. Stravinsky or Schoenberg. All good choices, in their way, but the name that comes up more than any other as worthy of the company of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven is Franz Joseph Haydn, yet he is so often overlooked. His name does not spring up with the alacrity of the Big Three, but is almost always mentioned: And yes, there is Haydn.

Why is he given such short shrift? He is one of the Big Four. He practically invented the symphony and the string quartet; at least gave them the form we have encountered them ever since. And the wealth of his invention is mind boggling. He wrote 104 symphonies (depending on how you count), with almost as many minuets and yet, not one of those minuets  could be mistaken for any other. How can you create that many third movements and yet make each one emotionally, melodically and rhythmically distinct? And memorable.

His music has never left the repertoire, but is so often played as a warm-up piece to start a quartet recital, or tucked into a symphony program before the Big Piece after the intermission. We pay him lip service, but seldom really listen. Mostly, he is a pleasant bit of music before we have to wake up for the Mahler or Sibelius that will follow.

I believe the reason is that for many of the more popular composers, you don’t actually have to listen: You can let the music wash over you in emotional colors and flavors. You just float downstream with the tunes. (I don’t mean that if you do actively listen, you won’t find a logical argument, but that for most concertgoers, the musical argument is beside the point; Tchaikovsky swells your heart whether you recognize a sonata form or a polonaise).

But Haydn is music meant to be listened to actively, because what he does in his work is to give you a pattern of notes, and then take you on a journey of wit, through the permutations afforded by that pattern of notes. Your ability to follow all the clever things he does is the key to your understanding — and your pleasure. Yes, there are some good tunes, but they are the grist for his art, not the point of it.

Certainly, all good composers do this, but none to quite the degree you find with Haydn, or to quite the point. Through most of his career, he wasn’t writing for the common public, but for a sophisticated audience, who could follow his clever construction and deconstruction of the sonata form, or the variation form. In other words, they listened actively. I.e., they got the joke.

Nikolaus I

His boss through most of his time at the Esterhazy estate was Prince Nikolaus, an avid music lover and himself a performer on the baryton — a now obsolete instrument, a sort of combination cello and guitar. Haydn wrote 126 trios for his employer to play on that instrument.

Because the prince was musically knowledgable, his court followed suit, and it meant that Haydn could inject his music with many a musical in-joke his audience would enjoy. I use the word, “joke,” but that doesn’t mean they are meant to be overtly funny. No, the “joke” was some catch or punchline the audience was meant to pick up on, like an odd key change, or the turning upside-down of a them. Some of them are funny, but the point is the wit — the cleverness.

Wit is a word that meant something different, larger and more important in the 18th century than it does now. We tend to use the word as synonymous with “comedy.” We expect to laugh at wit. A witty saying, a witty remark.

But in the century of Haydn (and before, to some extent), wit was an entire class of thinking. It meant, as Sam Johnson expressed it, “a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.” Or in his other formulation: “The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.”

An easy example: his Symphony No. 60 in C, called “Il Distratto,” or the absent minded, or distracted. The first movement is a pile of jokes, from the very first notes: a pompous introductory fanfare that goes absolutely nowhere, followed by a spritely tune. In Haydn’s style, a first theme is usually followed by a second theme in a contrasting key and mood. But here, the second theme also goes nowhere; it consists of just one note and its ornaments, over and over, losing speed and energy until, as if the orchestra has forgotten where it is and what it is doing, suddenly wakes up and charges ahead with renewed energy. (Link here).

The conductor Kenneth Woods describes it as funny and modern. “Possibly the funniest and most modern symphony ever written”, going on to say that “Haydn uses most of the 20th-century ‘isms’ in this piece—surrealism, absurdism, modernism, poly-stylism, and hops effortlessly between tightly integrated symphonic argument and rapid-fire cinematic jump-cutting. This is Haydn at his absolute boldest—he undermines every expectation, and re-examines every possible assumption about music.”

And at the very end, the orchestra stops, mid-phrase, and retunes the violins, before getting back to business. Yes, that is musical slapstick, but no one did it any better before PDQ Bach.

Or the finale of his Symphony No. 61, a sprightly prestissimo punctuated throughout by comic oboes playing the same two notes over and over again. Never changing; over and over. Da-dah. (Link here). Da-dah. (Click on the timing listed in the dooblydoo for the last movement).

Or the opening of final movement his quartet, Op. 76, no. 5, which places the kind of cadential chords used to punctuate the end of a movement instead at the very beginning. (Link here). And, of course, the movement ends with the same final chords.

Fugue theme, Symphony No. 70

My favorite is the finale of Symphony No. 70, which begins with a joke: Five repeated notes, quietly played, repeated several times, lulling you into a reverie, then, the same five notes blasted at full volume, waking you up. It does this again, and you figure, this is going to be one of Haydn’s great jests, then, just when you think you have it figured out, a great, furious and very serious fugue breaks out, occupying the center of the movement. Finally, back to the five-note joke, ending with a forte crash of those notes. Light-hearted, or deadly serious — you can’t tell. (Link here). That is yoking heterogeneous ideas together by violence.

But it all depends on an audience with some knowledgable expectation of what is likely to happen, so when it doesn’t, it comes as a delightful surprise. If you don’t have this background, it just becomes pleasant tunes.

The string quartets came with a knowledgable audience built in. They were not meant so much to be heard by an audience, as played by amateur musicians at home, and so the pleasure in them is as much in the playing as in the hearing. And the wit is there for the musicians to enjoy.

When Prince Nikolaus died, Haydn was freed to travel and make his reputation outside the estate. His music became more public, and instead of his symphonies being made up of cleverness piled on cleverness for the delectation of connoisseurs, he made them bigger, louder and gave each one at least one great joke for the middle-class audiences to remember, like the most memorable scene from a movie they could talk about over coffee after it was over. So, there is the tympani bang in the “Surprise” symphony, the Turkish military band in Symphony No. 100, the tick-tock in his “Clock” symphony and the righteous, bumptious fart joke made by the contrabassoon in the slow movement of his Symphony No. 93.

This is not to imply that Haydn was all punchlines and gags. There is great depth of emotion in many of his works. Take for one, the Seven Last Words of Christ, a liturgical piece, originally for orchestra and later turned into a piece for string quartet (the version most often heard today). It is eight great adagios, one after the other, meant to evoke an introduction and the last seven utterances of Jesus on the cross (Link here). It is Haydn’s genius to be able to write them so distinctly that you never have the feeling of one long slow piece, but rather seven great, separate meditations.

Or, the Piano Variations in F-minor, written over the death of his closest female friend, Maria Anna von Genzinger, one of his most sober compositions.

Sometimes Haydn’s wit is funny. Sometimes, it is profound. It is always surprising. It is meant to surprise.

And Haydn’s wit can be found in some of his most serious works. The opening of his oratorio, The Creation, depicts primordial chaos in a disjunctive series of phrases and fragments in disparate tonalities (Link here). And when, after that, the choir sings, very quietly, “And God said, let there be light, and there was …” all heavens break out in trumpets and kettle drums  in a great C-major chord” “LIGHT!!!!” (Link here). It is a simple, even naive effect, but in live performance can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Wit can also render the sublime.

Of all the great composers, Haydn seems the most sane and even-tempered. Bach could bluster to city officials and get into fights. Mozart could squander his money. Beethoven had his heaven-storming bouts of choler. But Haydn found decent happiness on this earth and expressed in his music a satisfying sense of order and sanguinity, if occasionally a touch of mischief. His is the happiest music I know that is not also simple-minded.

I spend this much time on Haydn, because I love him. As I get older, I find that Haydn’s music has a staying power that sustains me. I can confidently turn to any piece and find deep and abiding pleasure.

Johnson dictionary

I love long sentences. I’m tired of all the short ones. Hemingway can keep them. Newspapers can urge them. Twitter can mandate them. To hell with them.

My ideal can be found in the long serpentine railways of words shunted hither and thither over dependent clauses, parenthetical remarks, explanatory discursions and descriptive ambiguities; sentences such as those found in the word-rich 18th century publishing world of Fielding, Sterne, Addison, Steele, or Boswell, and perhaps most gratifyingly in the grand, gravid, orotund sentences of Edward Gibbon, whose work I turn to not so much for information about the grandeur that was Rome, but for the pure sensuous pleasure to be had from those accretive tunes built from the pile of ideas and imagery (to say nothing of ironic asides), and peppered liberally with the notations of colons, semicolons, dashes and inverted commas.

Johnson by Joshua ReynoldsNeedless to say, my love of such sentences caused me some embarrassment during my years as a practicing journalist, where I was encouraged to keep my sentences simple and clear. I am sure I must have tested the patience of many an editor over those years. I did pick up one countervailing habit: My paragraphs tend to be short. Often a single sentence per.

It is not only 18th century writing I enjoy. The same love of the trailing, dawdling sentence gives me pleasure in William Faulkner, James Agee and Lawrence Durrell. I want to settle into each sentence as if it were a good book.

I remember in the second or third grade learning to diagram sentences. Noun, verb, object; subject, predicate. This was the armature upon which was built increasingly baroque structures. (When we had assignments to use our newly learned vocabulary words in sentences, I always tried my best to use the entire list in a single sentence.)

What kind of sentence am I talking about? When Gibbon talks ironically about how the spiritual “gifts” of early Christians as well feathered their own nests as proved their piety, he follows with: “Besides the occasional prodigies, which might sometimes be effected by the immediate interposition of the deity when he suspended the laws of nature for the service of religion, the Christian church, from the time of the apostles and their first disciples, has claimed an uninterrupted succession of miraculous powers, the gift of tongues, of vision, and of prophecy, the power of expelling daemons, of healing the sick and of raising the dead.”  I like that: “suspending the laws of nature for the service of religion.” Gibbon has a way of making clear his own skepticism through irony while at the same time never crossing the line into a simple “Nya-nya.” It is a performance of extreme delicacy.tristram shandy hogarth

Tristram Shandy lays the (comic) misfortune of his life to the interrupted coitus of his conception, explaining in one grand run-on sentence: “Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it; — you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, etc., etc. — and a great deal to that purpose: — Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man’s sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world, depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracts and trains you put them into, so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, ’tis not a half penny matter, — away they go cluttering like hey-go mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to it, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it.”

The extreme pleasure of the book is as much linguistic as it narrative.

Or from The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling: “For the reasons mentioned in the preceding chapter, and from some other matrimonial concessions, well known to most husbands, and which, like the secrets of freemasonry, should be divulged to none who are not members of that honourable fraternity, Mrs. Partridge was pretty well satisfied that she had condemned her husband without cause, and endeavored by acts of kindness to make him amends for her false suspicion.”

Simple thoughts may be satisfied with simple sentences, but knotty thoughts, thoughts of subtlety and complexity, require longer compound and compound-complex sentences; sentences in which ideas are parsed, turned over, elucidated, tested and rubbed up against themselves.

(I am reminded that in The Bear, a portion of Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, a single sentence continues for 11 pages. To say nothing of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. Hurrah.)

These sentences I admire and enjoy, are not mere coagulations of verbiage, but rather like puzzle pieces that fit together ultimately to make a perfect construction. Or the worms and gears of an intricate machine turning smoothly. They might be compared to their advantage to the miserable word salad of unfinished thoughts and undefined terms of the blather of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump: long empty strings of cliches and bigotry, and cliched bigotry, in a never-ending stream of inanities and incoherencies that never reach that concluding peroration that brings all the eggs into a single meaningful basket. It is language spewed, not built. My heroes learned their lessons from the classical languages, whence Aeschylus can have his opening speaker in The Agamemnon go on for a full page before punctuating his speech with the single concluding verb that ties the whole performance up in a word that makes sense of all that came before. Grammar can be used to effect: Trump hardly knows there is such a thing as grammar. He is a bilge pump.

But all this is only prolog to my actual subject for today: The odd and magical concatenation of entries, definitions, etymologies and examples found in the famous dictionary of Dr. Johnson. Johnson has his many prejudices that today strike the reader as comical, as when he defines “oats” as “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Or defines “stateswoman” as: “A woman who meddles with publick affairs. In contempt.”

rhinoNevertheless, if you consider the immensity of the task he set himself in 1746 — a task that wound up taking away nine years of his life — you must admire his profound sincerity and deep devotion. He put together the first comprehensive English dictionary, and in doing so, pretty well had to come up with the plan for it ab ovum. (There were glossaries and word lists, and a few dictionaries before him, but none complete or even attempting to be so). If his definitions sometime seem a trifle punctilious, it must be remembered he was pretty much inventing the whole idea. The definitions range from those that hardly convey what we would consider sufficient information (“Rhinoceros: A vast beast of the East Indies armed with a horn on his front”) to those that seem to do verbal somersaults to convey their meaning (“Network: Anything reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.” By the way: “To Decussate: To intersect at acute angles” and: “Reticulated: Made of network; formed with interstitial vacuities.”)swine

We are so used to a more casual and informal speech these days, that it is a pleasure to see these words in their after-five formal dress. (“Rosin: Inspissated turpentine; a juice of the pine.”) Remember, Johnson had to invent his definitions from sheer air. How would you do if you were faced with defining several thousand words from scratch? How would you define “lard,” for instance. For Johnson, it was “the grease of swine.” There is both an elegance to that terse explanation, but also, to our ears, a kind of humor. We don’t speak that way anymore.

Or how would you explain “smoke?” Johnson: “ The visible effluvium, or sooty exhalation from anything burning.” “Sun?” “The luminary that makes the day.”

Den? “A cavern or hollow running horizontally, or with a small obliquity, under ground; distinct from a hole, which runs down perpendicularly.” The nicety of the distinction is deeply felt for someone who cares about language.

“Mouth: The aperture in the head of any animal at which the food is received.”

“Tree: A large vegetable rising, with one woody stem, to a considerable height.”

“Wolf: A kind of wild dog that devours sheep.”

“Orgasm: Sudden vehemence.”

Can you do better? Well, in some cases, yes, but only because we have several hundred years worth of lexicography behind us (and less delicacy about sex). Remember, Johnson was inventing the thing, a first draft.

I like it when the language is wearing its white tie and waistcoat: “Cough: A convulsion of the lungs, vellicated by some sharp serosity. it is pronounced coff.” If you flip the pages, you find also: “To Vellicate: To twitch; to pluck; to act by stimulation.”

Or: “Whey: The thin or serous part of milk, from which the oleose or grumous part is separated.”

Some of the definitions bear the wisdom of Johnson’s worldview, giving us more than we may actually need to know: “Compliment: An act, or expression of civility, usually understood to include some hypocrisy, and to mean less than it declares.”

There are many words that no longer survive in any meaningful form: “Stirious: Resembling icicles.” And there are words where Johnson threw up his hands: “Stammel: Of this word, I know not the meaning.” (OED says, “A coarse woolen cloth,” and “a shade of red in which the cloth was commonly dyed”).

There are moments where the lexicographer simply got things wrong, or took a metaphorical use as a second definition. He defined “pastern” as “the knee of a horse.” It is rather, part of the foot of a horse. When a woman  asked Johnson how he came to make such a mistake, he answered, “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.”

But by and large, his work was an admirable thing, for which I thank him. And thank him for the pleasure I gain both from his formality, his erudition, and the not infrequent (and often unintended) humor. It is impossible to read through the dictionary and not sense the very particular and idiosyncratic man behind it. Most dictionaries feel distant, academic, objective. Not Johnson’s book: Who read it, hears the blood and bones behind it. Everything in it — and especially its preface — its intensely personal. Its triumphs and its failings are human and profoundly so.

This shows nowhere more than in his botany and zoology. There were many animals with which he clearly had no first-hand information. Some of these were merely legendary, and often a skepticism of such hippogryphs comes out in his entry. Sometimes not.

alligator crocodile“Alligator: The crocodile. This name is chiefly used for the crocodile of America, between which, and that that of Africa, naturalists have laid down this difference, that one moves the upper and the other the lower jaw; but this is now known to be chimerical, the lower jaw being equally moved by both.”

“Salamander: An animal supposed to live in the fire, and imagined to be very poisonous. Ambrose Parey has a picture of the salamander, with a receipt for her bite; but there is no such creature, the name being now given to a poor harmless insect.”

“Tarantula: An insect whose bite is only cured by musick.”

camelopard“Camelopard: An Abyssinian animal, taller than an elephant, but not so thick. He is so named because he has a neck and head like a camel; he is spotted like a pard, but his spots are white upon a red ground. The Italians call him giaraffa.”

It is fun to read through the dictionary as a kind of bizarro-world view of 18th century natural science, punctuated by Johnson’s peculiar phraseology and word choice: “Tadpole: A young shapeless frog or toad, consisting only of a body and a tail; a porwiggle.” As for the tail: “That which terminates the animal behind; the continuation of the vertebrae of the back hanging loose behind.”

I wish I could go on with so many more entries, but I can only end with a few.

starfish“Starfish: A fish branching out into several points.”

“Frog: A small animal with four feet, living both by land and water, and placed by naturalists among mixed animals, as partaking of beast and fish. There is likewise a small green frog that perches on trees, said to be venomous.”

“Toad: An animal resembling a frog; but the frog leaps, the toad crawls: the toad is accounted venomous, I believe truly.”

“Wasp: A brisk stinging insect, in form resembling a bee.”

“Serpent: An animal that moves by undulation without legs. They are often venomous. They are divided into two kinds; the viper, which brings young, and the snake, that lays eggs.”

“Lizard: An animal resembling a serpent, with legs added to it.”

“Shrewmouse: A mouse of which the bite is generally supposed venomous, and to which vulgar tradition assigns such malignity, that she is said to lame the foot over which she runs. I am informed that all these reports are calumnious, and that her feet and teeth are equally harmless with the mouse. Our ancestors however looked on her with such terrour, that they are supposed to have given her name to a scolding woman, whom for her venom they call a shrew.” (vide:  “Shrew: A peevish, malignant, clamorous, spiteful, vexatious, turbulent woman.”)

elephant“Elephant: The largest of all quadrupeds, of whose sagacity, faithfulness, prudence , and even understanding, may surprising relations are given. This animal is not carnivorous, but feeds on hay, herbs and all sorts of pulse; and it is said to be extremely long lifed. It is naturally very gentle; but when enraged, no creature is more terrible. He is supplied with a trunk, or long hollow cartilage, like a large trumpet, which hangs between his teeth, and serves him for hands: by one blow with his trunk he will kill a camel or a horse, and will raise a prodigious weight with it. His teeth are the ivory so well known in Europe, some of which have been seen as large as a man’s thigh, and a fathom in length. Wild elephants are taken with the help of a female ready for the male: she is confined to a narrow place, round which pits are dug; and these being covered with a little earth scattered over hurdles, the male elephants easily fall into the snare. In copulation the female receives the male lying upon her back; and such is his pudicity, that he never covers the female so long as anyone appears in sight.”

And the elephant also brings us back to the GOP and its excrescences: “Trumpery: Something fallaciously splendid; something of less value than it seems.”