An Eighteenth-Century Gentleman Who Hated Exercise Even More Than I Do

One of my favorite acquisitions from my summer of bookstore love is this little gem, The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes (1975). It’s just what the title suggests: little anecdotes about famous literary figures, from Caedmon to Dylan Thomas. The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes photo by C.R. Oliver

Now, as I’ve written before, my parents are prolific readers who read aloud to me and my siblings well into our teenage years. My dad read me Queen Margot (Dumas), From Dawn to Decadence (Barzun), and Moby-Dick, among others.

But we never made it through Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, not because I disagreed with his analysis of the decline in civic virtue, but because I was bored to tears. Gibbon is a renowned stylist, and his footnotes are chatty and ironic. But frankly, my dear Gibbon, I don’t give a damn. I’m fairly certain that this was the start of my distaste for the eighteenth century’s history and literature. After all, it’s pretty difficult to top Paradise Lost and the Defenestration of Prague.

However, reading this little anecdote—

Gibbon took very little exercise. He had been staying some time with Lord Sheffield in the country; and when he was about to go away, the servants could not find his hat. ‘Bless me,’ said Gibbon, ‘I certainly left it in the hall on my arrival here.’ He had not stirred out of doors during the whole of the visit. (109)

—made me feel as if perhaps the pudgy English lord and I would have gotten along after all. As long as we didn’t talk about the Roman Empire.

Musings on Moby-Dick

Here’s a little story about me and Moby-Dick. (Since Ahab’s Wife is up next in the Literary Wives series, I thought I should probably have a look at Moby-Dick; it’s been a few years. I’ll be posting about it every once in awhile as I go along.)

Yes, I know this is a Maine lighthouse, but I don't have any recent pictures of harpooned whales or peg-legged ship captains.

Yes, I know this is a Maine lighthouse, but I don’t have any recent pictures of harpooned whales or peg-legged ship captains.

Now, there was a time when I hated Moby-Dick with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. That was when I was about eleven.

You see, my parents were and are big believers in reading aloud. My Mom read aloud to us when we were little, and when she went back to work and Dad started staying home,  he read aloud individually to us until we left for college (though less in high school when extracurriculars took up more of our time). He chose books in consultation with us, so my brother might be listening to Ivanhoe an hour after Dad read “The Twin Brothers” to our younger sister.

It was a delightful tradition. We’d settle into the comfy chairs in the living room, and Dad would read in his perfectly cadenced voice while I listened, sometimes working on whatever craft project I was trying out that week (never with success, I might add). When I was about eleven, we decided to settle in for a challenge: Moby-Dick.

We hated it. We hated the chapter on Cetology and the long philosophical disquisitions and the drawn-out plot. For years we said it would have been a great story if it had been fifty pages, not the 500 of our hardcover version. We hated it so much that eventually we decided to finish it just so we could say we had done it — we had killed Moby-Dick.

To this day, of all the books Dad read to me, it’s the one I remember best, the one we joke about the most often. Dad gave me the Cliffs Notes to the novel as a Christmas present one year, even though I hated the book so much that I avoided any American Lit course that mentioned it in the course description — and I was an English major!

And yet, something in the back of my brain needled me, like a tooth-pick-sized harpoon. What if I hadn’t given it a fair shot? What if I was too young when I read it? Why did other people (including one of my uncles, a brilliant English teacher) like it so much?

So, more than ten years after I’d read the book with my dad, I tried again. And I loved it. Because it’s musical. Because it’s exciting. Because it’s funny.

No, really. It is.

Consider the very first chapter. We all know the famous first three words, but what follows is a riot. Ishmael decides to put to sea not because the ocean calls to his soul (that bit comes later), but because he’s hilariously, hyperbolically depressed:

whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can (3).

See? Told you it was funny. Now if only I could convince my dad.

“Sweet love, renew thy force”

After the awful and exhausting events of last week, I felt drained just contemplating the search for this week’s poem. Then I realized that today is the Bard’s birthday, and my dear Aunt Rita’s, and the choice was clear.

A sonnet!

Who doesn’t love fourteen lines of love poetry? I’ve taught the sonnets whenever I could, and students are always amazed at just how much meaning Will packs into those lines (and that the first cycle is addressed to a man — that’s mind-blowing to them, and perhaps unsurprising, since some editions “regularize” the pronouns in the earlier poem. Don’t get me started.).

My favorite is 116, which we asked a friend to read at our wedding, and which is probably one of the five most famous. I remember hearing it (or rather, part of it) first in Sense and Sensibility (adapted by Emma Thompson, bless her, and directed by Ang Lee), and that’s one of my favorite literary combinations.

But that’s not the first time I heard a sonnet. I can precisely date my first memory of one of the poems: my tenth birthday. At the time, my father was working out of state, but he and my uncle (my mother’s brother) took the time to sit in my uncle’s kitchen and record a tape (yes, I’m that old) of songs and poems for me. I treasure it; it’s on my desk as we speak. My uncle played the guitar and my dad attempted the drums, and they both sang and read. Simon and Garfunkel, Gordon Lightfoot, Robert Frost, Shakespeare, and even a few originals made it on to the tape. I listen to it every year on my birthday, but it’s been so long that I can hear clips of the tape in my mind if I choose to.  The banter and the squeaky chair are hilarious.

My father is an excellent reader (more on that some other time), and so I’m choosing to memorize the sonnet he read for me, “Sonnet 6–Number 56,” as he corrected himself.

William Shakespeare

Sonnet 56

Sweet love, renew thy force, be it not said
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite,
Which but to-day by feeding is allay’d,
To-morrow sharp’ned in his former might:
So, love, be thou: although to-day thou fill
Thy hungry eyes even till they wink with fullness,
To-morrow see again, and do not kill
The spirit of love with a perpetual dullness:
Let this sad int’rim like the ocean be
Which parts the shore, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banks, that, when they see
Return of love, more blest may be the view;
As call it winter, which being full of care
Makes summer’s welcome thrice more wish’d, more rare.


Happy birthday Shakespeare!