A few days ago, while I was attempting to get the piles of books here in my study into some kind of order, I was delighted to rediscover my aged, hardback copy of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. The cover, illustrated by the famous painting When Did You Last See Your Father? long ago disintegrated and was lost, sadly, but I remember reading a review from Anthony Burgess on it somewhere, in which he stated that this book could be viewed as “The iron rations of literature in a knapsack”.
That always seemed an accurate appraisal to me, because this volume is a cornucopia of wonders that I’ve been browsing with delight for decades, so it meant a lot to me to be able to hold it once more and to be entranced by rereading the endlessly engaging entries that range from about the eighth century BC to the late 1970s.
When I opened this book once again, one of the first quotations that imprinted itself on my gaze was by William Hazlitt [1778 – 1830] and it came from Lectures on the English Poets, Lecture viii, On Living Poets. The precise words were “He [Coleridge] talked on for ever; and you wished him to talk on for ever” and upon reading them, a whole host of thoughts immediately sprang back to life and clamoured for my attention.
The first thing that came to mind, curiously enough, was an observation by Bill Bryson in his enthralling 2007 study of Shakespeare, when he wondered how it must have been for the Bard’s audience to see plays such as Macbeth, the Tempest and others performed for the first time. I don’t know why I should have remembered this intensely satisfying and thought-provoking observation after having read Hazlitt’s quote, other than that both dealt with the quality or the property of wonderment, but I also recalled that Bill Bryson looked into the bard’s mysterious ‘lost years’, something that immediately brought to mind a similar literary exercise of my own from 2009.
Thereafter, I found myself pondering Coleridge at some length, and not for the first time. This great man was born on October 21st 1772 in Ottery St Mary, a small village just a few miles away from where I sit typing this; along with his friend William Wordsworth, he was a founder of the Romantic movement in Britain, which encompasses some of my favourite verse and favourite poets, such as Keats, Shelley, Byron and Blake. I could write about these outstanding men for hours on end, but if all that existed of their collective works were this one verse by Coleridge, from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner…
“He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.”
…then I would still regard it as a supreme poetic, philosophical and religious accomplishment to match anything else created by man or woman. This is all very gratifying, but Hazlitt’s words on hearing Coleridge speak brought to mind another potent memory, something that I wrote about in detail in my autobiographical work A Tale of Sound & Fury. In brief, I was always struck by how the author Dennis Wheatley regarded the magician Aleister Crowley as the most engaging conversationalist he had ever encountered; given the nature of Wheatley’s life, work and acquaintances, I think of his assessment of Crowley as a truly stunning accolade, while ever since reading of it in the late 1970s, in Wheatley’s engrossing volume The Devil and All His Works, I considered it to be a form of acclaim that I’d love to earn and acquire for myself.
I feel as if I could go on forever when writing or speaking about a range of subjects, although I do not flatter myself that I’m as engaging a writer or speaker as Samuel Coleridge was. Perhaps, however, this is why I find myself increasingly bemused by the almost palpable silence that exists as far as some parts of my life are concerned, most notably, but not exclusively, relating to Stonehenge.
I’m aware of a few outlets on the internet that deal with the ruins on Salisbury Plain, but as far as I can see, they deal almost exclusively with reporting developments such as the proved nonexistence of the hundred or so sarsens that were once presumed to lie in a stately row beneath the crumbling banks of Durrington Walls. What was unearthed instead was to my mind even more fascinating, with its clear echoes of specific ancient mysteries found at Bluestonehenge to the south, so were it not for the debilitating sorrows I endured around the time of the Ides of March this year, I’d have written a small booklet on this subject alone.
There is also the ongoing excavation at Blick Mead, but very little seems to be being written about the place by interested observers other than the archaeologists working on the site and their detractors. Then there’s Vespasian’s Camp, the Cursus, the Avenue and the remains of the stone monument at Stonehenge, to name just four more elements in this strange landscape, all of which are endlessly fascinating and all of which can surely provide far more engrossing food for thought than the current meagre fare on offer. Does no one write illustrated essays on Stonehenge anymore? Or is the literary fashion just for short reports and observations?
“When Kleiner showed me the sky-line of New York I told him that man is like the coral insect — designed to build vast, beautiful, mineral things for the Moon to delight in after he is dead.”
—H.P. Lovecraft in a letter to Frank Belknap Long, May 3 1922