And the whole of the joke is that the words are long

From E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case

But that wouldn’t be a very good opening for a letter of strictly formal, not to say sinister, character. I have got as far as “Dear Mr. Marlowe.” What comes next?’

‘I am sending you a manuscript,’ she prompted, ‘which I thought you might like to see.’

‘Do you realize,’ he said, ‘that in that sentence there are only two words of more than one syllable? This letter is meant to impress, not to put him at his ease. We must have long words.’

‘I don’t see why,’ she answered. ‘I know it is usual, but why is it? I have had a great many letters from lawyers and business people, and they always begin, “with reference to our communication”, or some such mouthful, and go on like that all the way through. Yet when I see them they don’t talk like that. It seems ridiculous to me.’

‘It is not at all ridiculous to them.’ Trent laid aside the pen with an appearance of relief and rose to his feet. ‘Let me explain. A people like our own, not very fond of using its mind, gets on in the ordinary way with a very small and simple vocabulary. Long words are abnormal, and like everything else that is abnormal, they are either very funny or tremendously solemn. Take the phrase “intelligent anticipation”, for instance. If such a phrase had been used in any other country in Europe, it would not have attracted the slightest attention. With us it has become a proverb; we all grin when we hear it in a speech or read it in a leading article; it is considered to be one of the best things ever said. Why? Just because it consists of two long words. The idea expressed is as commonplace as cold mutton. Then there’s “terminological inexactitude”. How we all roared, and are still roaring, at that! And the whole of the joke is that the words are long. It’s just the same when we want to be very serious; we mark it by turning to long words. When a solicitor can begin a sentence with, “pursuant to the instructions communicated to our representative,” or some such gibberish, he feels that he is earning his six-and-eightpence. Don’t laugh! It is perfectly true. Now Continentals haven’t got that feeling. They are always bothering about ideas, and the result is that every shopkeeper or peasant has a vocabulary in daily use that is simply Greek to the vast majority of Britons. I remember some time ago I was dining with a friend of mine who is a Paris cabman. We had dinner at a dirty little restaurant opposite the central post office, a place where all the clients were cabmen or porters. Conversation was general, and it struck me that a London cabman would have felt a little out of his depth. Words like “functionary” and “unforgettable” and “exterminate” and “independence” hurtled across the table every instant. And these were just ordinary, vulgar, jolly, red-faced cabmen.

They would just swallow the skepticism because it was skepticism

From The Hole in the Wall in G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Knew Too Much

You’ve got to understand one of the tricks of the modern mind, a tendency that most people obey without noticing it. In the village or suburb outside there’s an inn with the sign of St. George and the Dragon. Now suppose I went about telling everybody that this was only a corruption of King George and the Dragoon. Scores of people would believe it, without any inquiry, from a vague feeling that it’s probable because it’s prosaic. It turns something romantic and legendary into something recent and ordinary. And that somehow makes it sound rational, though it is unsupported by reason. Of course some people would have the sense to remember having seen St. George in old Italian pictures and French romances, but a good many wouldn’t think about it at all. They would just swallow the skepticism because it was skepticism. Modern intelligence won’t accept anything on authority. But it will accept anything without authority.

As when you find a trout in the milk

From The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes:

…..“I think that I shall have a whisky and soda and a cigar after all this cross-questioning. I had formed my conclusions as to the case before our client came into the room.”

“My dear Holmes!”

“I have notes of several similar cases, though none, as I remarked before, which were quite as prompt. My whole examination served to turn my conjecture into a certainty. Circumstantial evidence is occasionally very convincing, as when you find a trout in the milk, to quote Thoreau’s example.”

The Thoreau reference is to an entry from his Journals dated Nov. 11 of 1850:

Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.

In its original context the comment is a complete non-sequitur – sandwiched between remarks on his evening walk and an observation on appreciating the land – but the reference seems to be to the practice of watering down milk to squeeze out some extra profit. This would be hard to prove generally but if the farmer was so unobservant as to let a fish slip in – presumably while using water drawn from a stream – then you’d of course have a stronger case.

I have been in heavy thought over a cavalier I’d had

From Paul Blackburn’s Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry – this one by Beatritz de Dia, the only female troubadour (trobairitz) to have an entry in this collection. Her biography seems as fraught as any of the rest but that takes nothing away.

Estat ai en greu cossirier

I have been in heavy thought
over a cavalier I’d had.
I want it clear to everyone
that I’ve loved him to excess,
and now I see he’s left me: pre-
text, I refused him my love.
I seem to be mistaken, then,
as to what was going on,
dressed or in bed.

I’d love to hold my cavalier
naked one evening in my arms,
he would think he were on fire
if I’d be his pillow then.
For I burn more for him than
Floris did for Blancheflor,
deliver him my love, my heart, my
sensuality, my eyes, my life.

My dear and lovely friend, if ever
I come to have you in my power
and get into bed with you one night
and give you love-kiss, know it:
I’d have such a great desire
to hold you in my husband’s place,
if you’d promise me to do
everything I’d want you to.

A vast museum where the little wicket that admits you is perpetually turning and creaking

From Henry James’ Italian Hours. It’s hard to find a stopping point with James once he gets up and running so I’m leaving the section in full.

It is possible to dislike Venice, and to entertain the sentiment in a responsible and intelligent manner. There are travellers who think the place odious, and those who are not of this opinion often find themselves wishing that the others were only more numerous. The sentimental tourist’s sole quarrel with his Venice is that he has too many competitors there. He likes to be alone; to be original; to have (to himself, at least) the air of making discoveries. The Venice of to-day is a vast museum where the little wicket that admits you is perpetually turning and creaking, and you march through the institution with a herd of fellow-gazers. There is nothing left to discover or describe, and originality of attitude is completely impossible. This is often very annoying; you can only turn your back on your impertinent playfellow and curse his want of delicacy. But this is not the fault of Venice; it is the fault of the rest of the world. The fault of Venice is that, though she is easy to admire, she is not so easy to live with as you count living in other places. After you have stayed a week and the bloom of novelty has rubbed off you wonder if you can accommodate yourself to the peculiar conditions. Your old habits become impracticable and you find yourself obliged to form new ones of an undesirable and unprofitable character. You are tired of your gondola (or you think you are) and you have seen all the principal pictures and heard the names of the palaces announced a dozen times by your gondolier, who brings them out almost as impressively as if he were an English butler bawling titles into a drawing-room. You have walked several hundred times round the Piazza and bought several bushels of photographs. You have visited the antiquity mongers whose horrible sign-boards dishonour some of the grandest vistas in the Grand Canal; you have tried the opera and found it very bad; you have bathed at the Lido and found the water flat. You have begun to have a shipboard-feeling—to regard the Piazza as an enormous saloon and the Riva degli Schiavoni as a promenade-deck. You are obstructed and encaged; your desire for space is unsatisfied; you miss your usual exercise. You try to take a walk and you fail, and meantime, as I say, you have come to regard your gondola as a sort of magnified baby’s cradle. You have no desire to be rocked to sleep, though you are sufficiently kept awake by the irritation produced, as you gaze across the shallow lagoon, by the attitude of the perpetual gondolier, with his turned-out toes, his protruded chin, his absurdly unscientific stroke. The canals have a horrible smell, and the everlasting Piazza, where you have looked repeatedly at every article in every shop-window and found them all rubbish, where the young Venetians who sell bead bracelets and “panoramas” are perpetually thrusting their wares at you, where the same tightly-buttoned officers are for ever sucking the same black weeds, at the same empty tables, in front of the same cafés—the Piazza, as I say, has resolved itself into a magnificent tread-mill. This is the state of mind of those shallow inquirers who find Venice all very well for a week; and if in such a state of mind you take your departure you act with fatal rashness. The loss is your own, moreover; it is not—with all deference to your personal attractions—that of your companions who remain behind; for though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors. The conditions are peculiar, but your intolerance of them evaporates before it has had time to become a prejudice. When you have called for the bill to go, pay it and remain, and you will find on the morrow that you are deeply attached to Venice. It is by living there from day to day that you feel the fulness of her charm; that you invite her exquisite influence to sink into your spirit. The creature varies like a nervous woman, whom you know only when you know all the aspects of her beauty. She has high spirits or low, she is pale or red, grey or pink, cold or warm, fresh or wan, according to the weather or the hour. She is always interesting and almost always sad; but she has a thousand occasional graces and is always liable to happy accidents. You become extraordinarily fond of these things; you count upon them; they make part of your life. Tenderly fond you become; there is something indefinable in those depths of personal acquaintance that gradually establish themselves. The place seems to personify itself, to become human and sentient and conscious of your affection. You desire to embrace it, to caress it, to possess it; and finally a soft sense of possession grows up and your visit becomes a perpetual love-affair. It is very true that if you go, as the author of these lines on a certain occasion went, about the middle of March, a certain amount of disappointment is possible. He had paid no visit for several years, and in the interval the beautiful and helpless city had suffered an increase of injury. The barbarians are in full possession and you tremble for what they may do. You are reminded from the moment of your arrival that Venice scarcely exists any more as a city at all; that she exists only as a battered peep-show and bazaar. There was a horde of savage Germans encamped in the Piazza, and they filled the Ducal Palace and the Academy with their uproar. The English and Americans came a little later. They came in good time, with a great many French, who were discreet enough to make very long repasts at the Caffè Quadri, during which they were out of the way. The months of April and May of the year 1881 were not, as a general thing, a favourable season for visiting the Ducal Palace and the Academy. The valet-de-place had marked them for his own and held triumphant possession of them. He celebrates his triumphs in a terrible brassy voice, which resounds all over the place, and has, whatever language he be speaking, the accent of some other idiom. During all the spring months in Venice these gentry abound in the great resorts, and they lead their helpless captives through churches and galleries in dense irresponsible groups. They infest the Piazza; they pursue you along the Riva; they hang about the bridges and the doors of the cafés. In saying just now that I was disappointed at first, I had chiefly in mind the impression that assails me to-day in the whole precinct of St. Mark’s. The condition of this ancient sanctuary is surely a great scandal. The pedlars and commissioners ply their trade—often a very unclean one—at the very door of the temple; they follow you across the threshold, into the sacred dusk, and pull your sleeve, and hiss into your ear, scuffling with each other for customers. There is a great deal of dishonour about St. Mark’s altogether, and if Venice, as I say, has become a great bazaar, this exquisite edifice is now the biggest booth.

I’ll make a song of pure nothing

A poem by Guilhelm de Poitou/Guillaume IX de Poitiers/William IX, Duke of Aquitaine. He’s likely better known now as the grandfather and source of inheritance of Eleanor of Aquitaine but he was also the first of the troubadours (or at least first whose works at all survived). Here first is W.S. Merwin’s translation (from Mays of Ventadourn, pg 99-100).

I’ll make a song of pure nothing,
not about me or another being,
not about love or being young
or anything.
It came to me while I was sleeping
on my horse riding.

The hour I was born is unknown to me.
I am not happy nor unhappy,
neither aloof nor friendly,
and the choice is not mine:
I am what a fairy made me
at night on a mountain.

I cannot say whether I
am asleep or awake. Somebody tell me.
My heart is nearly broken by
a pain I feel
for which I will not even sigh,
by St. Martial.

I’m sick and fear that I will die
and all I know if it is hearsay.
I want a doctor who pleases me
I don’t know who.
He’ll be good if he can cure me;
if it gets worse, no.

I have a lover I don’t know.
Never saw her. No use to.
No good or ill to me did she do
that I could notice
nor ever was Norman or Frenchman who
was in my house.

I never saw her but love her warmly.
I was never right and she never wronged me.
When I don’t see her I manage nicely,
don’t give a rooster.
I know one with more charm and beauty,
and her better.

I’ve made the verse, whose is unknown,
and I’ll give it to that one
who’ll pass it on to someone
going toward Anjou
so she’ll send back a countersign
in his portmanteau.

And here is the original in Occitan, which is far less terrifyingly odd than first appears if you set it alongside a French translation. But I include it more as textual accompaniment to this performance. I imagine the music is an educated approximation.

Farai un vers de dreit nien,
Non er de mi ni d’autra gen,
Non er d’amor ni de joven,
Ni de ren au,
Qu’enans fo trobatz en durmen
Sus un chivau.

No sai en qual hora-m fui natz,
No soi alegres ni iratz,
No soi estranhs ni soi privatz,
Ni no-n puesc au,
Qu’enaisi fui de nueitz fadatz
Sobr’un pueg au.

No sai cora-m fui endormitz,
Ni cora-m veill, s’om no m’o ditz!
Per pauc no m’es lo cor partitz
D’un dol corau,
E no m’o pretz una fromitz,
Per saint Marsau!

Malautz soi e cremi morir,
E re no sai mas quan n’aug dir.
Metge querrai al mieu albir,
E no-m sai cau:
Bos metges er si-m pot guerir,
Mas non, si-m mau.

Amigu’ ai ieu, non sai qui s’es,
C’anc no la vi, si m’aiut fes,
Ni-m fes que-m plassa ni que-m pes,
Ni no m’en cau
C’anc non ac Norman ni Franses
Dins mon ostau.

Anc non la vi et am la fort,
Anc no-n aic dreit ni no-m fes tort;
Quan no la vei, be m’en deport,
No-m prez un jau,
Qu’ie-n sai gensor e belazor,
E que mai vau.

Fait ai lo vers, no sai de cui,
Et trametrai lo a celui
Que lo-m trameta per autrui,
Enves Peitau,
Que-m tramezes del sieu estui
La contraclau.

And the deity begged the man to die lest people make fun of him

From Paul Radin’s Primitive Man as Philosopher – an anecdote on the horror of ridicule in primitive societies (and Radin, writing in the early decades of the 20th century, very much worked to give ‘primitive’ its share of dignity and complexity so the terminology may now be outdated but the author’s intention is not)

Even the deities are not exempt from this horror of ridicule. Among the Winnebago there exists a delightful story of a man who dared to state that he disbelieved in the powers of the most terrifying and holiest of the Winnebago deities, and who in public expressed his contempt for him. A short time later, the deity in question appeared to the skeptic and pointed his finger at him, an action that was supposed to bring immediate death. The man stood his ground and did not budge and the deity – Disease-Giver was his name – begged the man to die lest people make fun of him!

Read seeds not twigs

From W.S. Merwin’s The Mays of Ventadorn – his meeting Ezra Pound as a young college student (with Pound still locked in St. Elizabeth’s).

He told me he imagined I was serious, and that if I was I should learn languages, “so as not to be at the mercy of translators.” And then I should translate, myself. “If you’re going to be a poet,” he said, “you have to work at it every day. You should write about seventy-five lines a day. But at your age you don’t have anything to write about. You may think you do, but you don’t. So get to work translating. The Provencal is the real source. The poets are closest to music. They hear it. They write to it. Try to learn the Provencal, at least some of it, if you can. Meanwhile, the others. Spanish is all right. The Romancero is what you want there. Get as close to the original as you can. It will make you use your English and find out what you can do with it.”
[afterwards] we managed to maintain a flurry of correspondence for a while. He sent me bits of gnomic instruction on post cards, always scrawled in pencil, the handwriting clearly reflecting his quick impulsiveness. The most memorable of them read, in full, “Read seeds not twigs EP.”

If you seek a memorial, look about you.

Christopher Wren’s epitaph in Saint Paul’s

which translates as:

Buried below is the founder of this church and city, Christopher Wren, who lived more than ninety years [and lived] not for himself but for the public good. Reader, if you seek a memorial, look about you.

Conditor I’m rendering as ‘founder’ to emphasis the honorific over the more technically appropriate to Wren definitions of ‘maker, builder, framer, establisher.’