Ralph Waldo Emerson writes “Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your reading have been to you like the blast of a trumpet out of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John and Paul.” Harold Bloom writes “In a phantasmagoria that I believe to be already existent, many of us shape a still inchoate and perhaps heretical new Torah out of the writing of Freud, Kafka and Scholem.” These are grand statements but point to something important about collecting what matters to us.
I came across John Bayley’s Good Companions: An Anthology to Inspire, Amuse or Console, and realized that this blog has a genre, though a little known one: the personal anthology. Bayley was the husband of novelist Iris Murdoch (played by Kate Winslet in the film Iris) and supervisor of my supervisor at Oxford. Good Companions collects extracts from novels, poems, letters and diaries that he found useful in his daily life: everything from Victorian nonsense poetry to a passage in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. He introduces each short quotation with a small paragraph about why he thinks it matters. Bloom does something similar in his later books. His book Genius has massive quotes with short commentary; change the balance a little and you get Bloom’s anthology The Best Poems of the English Language : From Chaucer Through Frost, in which he, like Bayley, writes short introductions to each poet he anthologizes (and the collection, though it is supposed to be universal, is of course very personal). Terry Eagleton slights Bloom by identifying his work as coming from the “quote and dote” school of literary criticism, which – while a fair complaint – misses how nice these kinds of personal anthologies can be.
So let’s call this blog a personal anthology of sorts, at least so far. I can feel like I am working on a book and you can feel like you are getting one for free. I am even going to give it a title: Remarkable: Short Appreciations of Poetry and Popular Culture.