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"Trivia", by Logan Pearsall Smith

{Logan Pearsall Smith (1865 – 1946) was an American-born British essayist and critic. Harvard and Oxford educated, he was known for his aphorisms and epigrams, and his Trivia has been highly rated. He was a literary perfectionist and could take days refining his sentences. He is now probably most remembered for his autobiography Unforgotten Years (1938). Wikipedia}

Extracts from :

Logan Pearsall Smith




I woke this morning out of dreams into what we call Reality, into the daylight, the furniture of my familiar bedroom — in fact into the well-known, often-discussed, but, to my mind, as yet unexplained Universe.

Then I, who came out of Eternity and seem to be on my way thither, got up and spent the day as I usually spend it. I read, I pottered, I talked, and took exercise ; and I sat punctually down to eat the cooked meals that appeared at stated intervals.


Green Ivory

What a bore it is, waking up in the morning always the same person. I wish I were unflinching and emphatic, and had big, bushy eyebrows and a Message for the Age. I wish I were a deep Thinker, or a great Ventriloquist.

I should like to be refined-looking and melancholy, the victim of a hopeless passion; to love in the old, stilted way, with impossible Adoration and Despair under the pale-faced Moon.

I wish I could get up; I wish I were the world's greatest living Violinist. I wish I had lots of silver, and first Editions, and green ivory.


The Afternoon Post

The village Post Office, with its clock and letter-box, its postmistress lost in tales of love-lorn Dukes and coroneted woe, and the sallow-faced grocer watching from his window opposite, is the scene of a daily crisis in my life, when every afternoon I walk there through the country lanes and ask that well-read young lady for my letters. I always expect good news and cheques; and then, of course, there is the magical Fortune which is coming, and word of it may reach me any day.

What it is, this strange Felicity, or whence it shall come, I have no notion; but I hurry down in the morning to find the news on the breakfast table, open telegrams in delighted panic, and say to myself "Here it is !" when at night I hear wheels approaching along the road.

So, happy in the hope of Happiness, and not greatly concerned with any other interest or ambition, I live on in my quiet, ordered house; and so I shall live perhaps until the end. Is it, indeed, merely the last great summons and revelation for which I am waiting ? I do not know.


The Busy Bees

Sitting for hours idle in the shade of an apple tree, near the garden-hives, and under the aerial thoroughfares of those honey-merchants — sometimes when the noonday heat is loud with their minute industry, or when they fall in crowds out of the late sun to their night-long labours — I have sought instruction from the Bees, and tried to appropriate to myself the old industrious lesson.

And yet, hang it all, who by rights should be the teachers and who the learners ? For those peevish, over-toiled, utilitarian insects, was there no lesson to be derived from the spectacle of Me ? Gazing out at me with myriad eyes from their joyless factories, might they not learn at last — might I not finally teach them — a wiser and more generous-hearted way to improve the shining hour ?


The Birds

But how can one toil at the great task with this hurry and tumult of birds just outside the open window ? I hear the Thrush, and the Blackbird, that romantic liar; then the delicate cadence, the wiry descending scale of the Willow-wren, or the Blackcap's stave of mellow music. All these are familiar — but what is that unknown voice, that thrilling note ?

I hurry out; the voice flees and I follow; and when I return and sit down again to my task, the Yellowhammer trills his sleepy song in the noonday heat; the drone of the Greenfinch lulls me into dreamy meditations. Then suddenly from his tree-trunks and forest recesses comes the Green Woodpecker, and mocks at me an impudent voice full of liberty and laughter.

Why should all the birds of the air conspire against me ? My concern is with the sad Human Species, with lapsed and erroneous Humanity, not with that inconsiderate, wandering, feather-headed race.


L'oiseau Bleu

What is it, I have more than once asked myself, what is it that I am looking for in my walks about London ? Sometimes it seems to me as if I were following a Bird, a bright Bird that sings sweetly as it floats about from one place to another. When I find myself however among persons of middle age and settled principles, see them moving regularly to their offices — what keeps them going ? I ask myself. And I feel ashamed of myself and my Bird.

There is though a Philosophic Doctrine — I studied it at College, and I know that many serious people believe it — which maintains that all men, in spite of appearances and pretensions, all live alike for Pleasure. This theory certainly brings portly, respected persons very near to me. Indeed with a sense of low complicity I have sometimes followed and watched a Bishop. Was he too on the hunt for Pleasure, solemnly pursuing his Bird ?



In the cold and malicious society in which I live, I must never mention the Soul, nor speak of my aspirations. If I ever once let these people get a glimpse of the higher side of my nature, they would tear me in pieces.

I wish I had soulful friends — refined Maiden Ladies with ideals and long noses, who live at Hampstead or Putney, and play Chopin with passion. On sad autumn afternoons I would go and have tea with them, and talk of the spiritual meaning of Beethoven's posthumous quartettes, or discuss in the twilight the pathos of life and the Larger Hope.


The Quest

"We walk alone in the world," the Moralist, at the end of his essay on Ideal Friendship, writes somewhat sadly, "Friends such as we desire are dreams and fables," Yet we never quite give up the hope of finding them.

But what awful things happen to us ? what snubs, what set-downs we experience, what shames and disillusions. We can never really tell what these new unknown persons may do to us. Sometimes they seem nice, and then begin to talk like gramophones. Sometimes they grab at us with moist hands, or breathe hotly on our necks, or make awful confidences, or drench us from sentimental slop-pails. And too often, among the thoughts in the loveliest heads, we come on nests of woolly caterpillars.

And yet we brush our hats, pull on our gloves, and go out and ring door-bells.



Is there, then, no friend ? No one who hates Ibsen and problem plays, and the Supernatural, and Switzerland and Adultery as much as I do ? Must I live all my life as mute as a mackerel, companionless and uninvited, and never tell anyone what I think of my famous contemporaries ? Must I plough always a solitary furrow, and tread the winepress alone ?



"But there are certain people I simply cannot stand. A dreariness and sense of death come over me when I meet them — I really find it difficult to breathe when they are in the room, as if they had pumped all the air out of it. Wouldn't it be dreadful to produce that effect on people ! But they never seem to be aware of it. I remember once meeting a famous Bore; I really must tell you about it, it shows the unbelievable obtuseness of such people."

I told this and another story or two with great gusto, and talked on of my experiences and sensations, till suddenly I noticed, in the appearance of my charming neighbour, something — a slightly glazed look in her eyes, a just perceptible irregularity in her breathing — which turned that occasion for me into a kind of Nightmare.



Oh, to be becalmed on a sea of glass all day; to listen all day to rain on the roof, or the wind in pine trees; to sit all day by a waterfall reading the 'Faërie Queene,' or exquisite, artificial, monotonous Persian poems about an oasis garden where it is always spring — where roses bloom, and lovers sigh, and nightingales lament without ceasing, and groups of white-robed figures sit by the running water and discuss all day, and day after day, the Meaning of Life.



"Yes, aren't they odd, the thoughts that float through one's mind for no reason ? But why not be frank — I suppose the best of us are shocked at times by the things we find ourselves thinking. Don't you agree," I went on, not noticing (until it was too late) that all other conversation had ceased, and the whole dinner-party was listening, "don't you agree that the oddest of all are the improper thoughts that come into one's head — the unspeakable words I mean, and Obscenities ?"

When I remember that remark, I hasten to enlarge my mind with ampler considerations. I think of Space, and the unimportance in its unmeasured vastness, of our toy solar system; I lose myself in speculations on the lapse of Time, reflecting how at the best our human life on this minute and perishing planet is as brief as a dream.


The Spider

What shall I compare it to, this fantastic thing I call my Mind ? To a waste-paper basket, to a sieve choked with sediment, or to a barrel full of floating froth and refuse ?

No, what it is really most like is a spider's web, insecurely hung onv leaves and twigs, quivering in every wind, and sprinkled with dewdrops and dead flies. And at its centre, pondering forever the Problem of Existence, sits motionless the spider-like and uncanny Soul.


My Mission

But when in modern books, reviews, and thoughtful magazines I read about the Needs of the Age, its Complex Questions, its Dismays, Doubts, and Spiritual Agonies, I feel an impulse to go out and comfort it, to still its cries, and speak earnest words of Consolation to it.


The Great Work

Sitting, pen in hand, alone in the stillness of the library, with flies droning behind the sunny blinds, I considered in my thoughts what should be the subject of my great Work.

Should I complain against the mutability of Fortune, and impugn Fate and the Constellations; or should I reprehend the never-satisfied heart of querulous Man, drawing elegant contrasts between the unsullied snow of mountains, the serene shining of stars, and our hot, feverish lives and foolish repinings ?

Or should I confine myself to denouncing contemporary Vices, crying "Fie !" on the Age with Hamlet, sternly unmasking its hypocrisies, and riddling through and through its comfortable Optimisms ? Or with Job, should I question the Universe, and puzzle my sad brains about Life — the meaning of Life on this apple-shaped Planet ?


The Stars

Battling my way homeward one dark night against the wind and rain, a sudden gust, stronger than the others, drove me back into the shelter of a tree. But soon the Western sky broke open; the illumination of the Stars poured down from behind the dispersing clouds. I was astonished at their brightness, to see how they filled the night with their soft lustre.

So I went my way accompanied by them; Arcturus followed me, and becoming entangled in a leafy tree, shone by glimpses, and then emerged triumphant, Lord of the Western sky. Moving along the road in the silence of my own footsteps, my thoughts were among the Constellations. I was one of the Princes of the starry Universe; in me also there was something that was not insignificant and mean and of no account.


The Starry Heaven

"But what are they really ? What do they say they are ?" the small young lady asked me. We were looking up at the Stars, which were quivering that night in splendid hosts above the lawns and trees. So I tried to explain some of the views that have been held about them.

How people first of all had thought them mere candles set in the sky, to guide their own footsteps when the Sun was gone; till wise men, sitting on the Chaldean plains, and watching them with aged eyes, became impressed with the solemn view that those still and shining lights were the executioners of God's decrees, and irresistible instruments of His Wrath; and that they moved fatally among their celestial Houses to ordain and set out the fortunes and misfortunes of each race of newborn mortals. And so it was believed that every man or woman had, from the cradle, fighting for or against him or her, some great Star, Formalhaut, perhaps, Aldebaran, Altaïr : while great Heroes and Princes were more splendidly attended, and marched out to their forgotten battles with troops and armies of heavenly Constellations.

But this noble old view was not believed in now; the Stars were no longer regarded as malignant or beneficent Powers; and I explained how most serious people thought that somewhere — though just where they did not know — above the vault of Sky, was to be found the final home of earnest men and women; where, as a reward for their right views and conduct, they were to rejoice forever, wearing those diamonds of the starry night arranged in glorious crowns.

This notion, however, had been disputed by Poets and Lovers: it was Love, according to these young astronomers, that moved the Sun and other Stars; the Constellations being heavenly palaces, where people who had adored each other were to meet and live always together after Death. Then I spoke of the modern and real immensity of the unfathomed Skies. But suddenly the vast meaning of my words rushed into my mind; I felt myself dwindling, falling through the blue.

And yet, in these silent seconds, there thrilled through me in the cool sweet air and night no chill of death or nothingness; but the taste and joy of this Earth, this orchard-plot of earth, floating unknown, far away in unfathomed space, with its Moon and meadows.



For one thing I hate Spiders — I dislike all kinds of Insects. Their cold intelligence, their empty, stereotyped, unremitted industry repel me. And I am not altogether happy about the future of the Human Race; when I think of the slow refrigeration of the Earth, the Sun's waning, and the ultimate, inevitable collapse of the Solar System, I have grave misgivings.

And all the books I have read and forgotten — the thought that my mind is really nothing but a sieve — this, too, at times disheartens me.


At The Bank

Entering the Bank in a composed manner, I drew a cheque and handed it to the cashier through the grating. Then I eyed him narrowly. Would not that astute official see that I was only posing as a Real Person ? No; he calmly opened a little drawer, took out some real sovereigns, counted them carefully, and handed them to me in a brass-tipped shovel. I went away feeling I had perpetrated a delightful fraud. I had got some of the gold of the actual world !

Yet now and then, at the sight of my name on a visiting card, or of my face photographed in a group among other faces, or when I see a letter addressed in my hand, or catch the sound of my own voice, I grow shy in the presence of a mysterious Person who is myself, is known by my name, and who apparently does exist. Can it be possible that I am as real as any one else, and that all of us — the cashier and banker at the Bank, the King on his throne — all feel ourselves like ghosts and goblins in this authentic world ?



But how Is one to keep free from those mental microbes that worm-eat people's brains — those Theories and Diets and Enthusiasms and infectious Doctrines that we are always liable to catch from what seem the most innocuous contacts ?

People go about laden with germs; they breathe creeds and convictions on you whenever they open their mouths. Books and newspapers are simply creeping with them — the monthly Reviews seem to have room for nothing else. Wherewithal then shall a young man cleanse his way; and how shall he keep his mind immune to Theosophical speculations, and novel schemes of Salvation ? Can he ever be sure that he won't be suddenly struck down by the fever of Funeral, or of Spelling Reform, or take to his bed with a new Sex Theory ?

But is this struggle for a healthy mind in a maggoty universe really after all worth it ? Are there not soporific dreams and sweet deliriums more soothing than Reason ? If transmigration can make clear the dark Problem of Evil; if Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy can free us from the dominion of Death; if the belief that Bacon wrote Shakespeare gives a peace that the world cannot give, why pedantically reject such kindly solace ? Why not be led with the others by still waters, and be made to lie down in green pastures ?


Tu Quoque Fontium

Just to sit in the Sun, to bask like an animal in its heat — this is one of my country recreations. And often I reflect what a thing after all it is still to be alive and sitting here, above all the buried people of the world, in the kind and famous Sunshine.

Beyond the orchard there is a place where the stream, hurrying out from under a bridge, makes for itself a quiet pool. A beech-tree upholds its green light over the blue water; and there, when I have grown weary of the sun, the great glaring indiscriminating Sun, I can shade myself and read my book. And listening to this water's pretty voices I invent for it exquisite epithets, calling it silver-clean or moss-margined or nymph-frequented, and idly promise to place it among the learned fountains and pools of the world, making of it a cool green thought for English exiles in the dust and glare of Eastern deserts.


The Burden

I know too much; I have stuffed too many of the facts of History and Science into my intellectuals. My eyes have grown dim over books; believing in geological periods, cave-dwellers, Chinese Dynasties, and the fixed stars has prematurely aged me.

Why am I to blame for all that is wrong in the world ? I didn't invent Sin and Hate and Slaughter. Who made it my duty anyhow to administer the Universe, and keep the planets to their Copernican courses ? My shoulders are bent beneath the weight of the firmament; I grow weary of propping up, like Atlas, this vast and erroneous Cosmos.


Mental Vice

There are certain hackneyed Thoughts that will force themselves on me; I find my mind, especially in hot weather, infested and buzzed about by moral Platitudes. " That shows —" I say to myself, or, "How true it is —" or, "I really ought to have known !"

The sight of a large clock sets me off into musings on the flight of Time; a steamer on the Thames or lines of telegraph inevitably suggest the benefits of Civilization, man's triumph over Nature, the heroism of Inventors, the courage, amid ridicule and poverty, of Stephenson and Watt. Like faint, rather unpleasant smells, these thoughts lurk about railway stations. I can hardly post a letter without marvelling at the excellence and accuracy of the Postal System.

Then the pride in the British Constitution and British Freedom, which comes over me when I see, even in the distance, the Towers of Westminster Palace — that Mother of Parliaments — it is not much comfort that this should be chastened, as I walk down the Embankment, by the sight of Cleopatra's Needle, and the Thought that it will no doubt witness the Fall of the British, as it has that of other Empires, remaining to point its Moral, as old as Egypt, to Antipodeans musing on the dilapidated bridges.

I am sometimes afraid of finding that there is a moral for everything; that the whole great frame of the Universe has a key, like a box; has been contrived and set going by a well-meaning but humdrum Eighteenth-century Creator. It would be a kind of Hell, surely, a world in which everything could be at once explained, shown to be obvious and useful. I am sated with Lesson and Allegory, weary of monitory ants, industrious bees, and preaching animals. The benefits of Civilization cloy me. I have seen enough shining of the didactic Sun.

So gazing up on hot summer nights at the London stars, I cool my thoughts with a vision of the giddy, infinite, meaningless waste of Creation, the blazing Suns, the Planets and frozen Moons, all crashing blindly forever across the void of space.



The other day, depressed on the Underground, I tried to cheer myself by thinking over the joys of our human lot. But there wasn't one of them for which I seemed to care a hang — not Wine, nor Friendship, nor Eating, nor Making Love, nor the Consciousness of Virtue. Was it worth while then going up in a lift into a world that had nothing less trite to offer ?

Then I thought of reading — the nice and subtle happiness of reading. This was enough, this joy not dulled by Age, this polite and unpunished vice, this selfish, serene, life-long intoxication.


A Fancy

More than once, though, I have pleased myself with the notion that somewhere there is good Company which will like this little Book — these Thoughts (if I may call them so) dipped up from that phantasmagoria or phosphorescence which, by some unexplained process of combustion, flickers over the large lump of soft gray matter in the bowl of my skull.

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