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William Godwin on the Advantages of the Multilingual Mind

How the ability to call your idea “by various names, borrowed from various languages,” empowers you to conceive that idea “in a way precise, clear and unconfused.”

William Godwin on the Advantages of the Multilingual Mind

Language is not the content of thought but the vessel that carries thought, the vessel into which we pour the ambivalences and contradictions of our thinking in order to anneal our understanding of the world. The more spacious the vessel, the more latitude we have to clarify our own thoughts, to reach farther horizons on the waves of the mind. “We die. That may be the meaning of life,” Toni Morrison asserted in her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” In language we fathom ourselves and our own lives; in language we compose, to borrow Leonard Cohen’s lovely phrase, “the Constitution of the inner country.” And yet language is inherently moored to the territory of an outer country — to the lexicon, vocabulary, and folkloric tongue of a people and a place.

Nothing furthers the reach of thought in language more surely than proficiency in multiple lexicons, which confers upon the bilingual or multilingual mind a lush advantage of thought. That is what the radical philosopher William Godwin (March 3, 1756–April 7, 1836) explores in a passage from his altogether excellent 1797 book The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (public library) — the collection of essays he composed while his partner, the philosopher and feminism founding mother Mary Wollstonecraft, was pregnant with their daughter, who would one day write the visionary Frankenstein.

William Godwin. Portrait by James Northcote. (National Portrait Gallery, London.)

Nearly two centuries before Ursula K. Le Guin observed that the function of language is “to give people the words to know their own experience” and James Baldwin lamented the exclusionary nature of any single language, which may not reflect the experiences of the diverse people forced to speak it, Godwin makes an ardent case for how the knowledge of multiple languages liberates the mind and swells the power of the human spirit. (A crucial meta-sensitivity to language as an emissary of time and place is due in reading Godwin: His use of the masculine to address universal humanity is a reflection of his era’s lexical convention — he was writing two centuries before the unsexing of he as the universal pronoun — and not of his beliefs: Godwin was an ardent exponent of gender equality, who courageously bore the opprobrium such radical views earned him, who forged with Wollstonecraft a a trailblazing marriage of equals, and who, in an era when girls were entirely excluded from real education and the world of ideas, raised his daughters with uncompromising focus on the life of the mind.)

Advocating for teaching young people multiple languages, Godwin writes:

He that is acquainted with only one language, will probably always remain in some degree the slave of language. From the imperfectness of his knowledge, he will feel himself at one time seduced to say the thing he did not mean, and at another time will fall into errors of this sort without being aware of it. It is impossible he should understand the full force of words. He will sometimes produce ridicule, where he intended to produce passion. He will search in vain for the hidden treasures of his native tongue. He will never be able to employ it in the most advantageous manner. He cannot be well acquainted with its strength and its weakness. He is uninformed respecting its true genius and discriminating characteristics. But the man who is competent to and exercised in the comparison of languages, has attained to his proper elevation. Language is not his master, but he is the master of language. Things hold their just order in his mind, ideas first, and then words. Words therefore are used by him as the means of communicating or giving permanence to his sentiments; and the whole magazine of his native tongue is subjected at his feet.

Art by Jackie Morris from The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane

Epochs before Susan Sontag insisted that words are a tool of personal agency, Godwin argues that our vocabulary furnishes the building blocks of our understanding, which in turn foments our capacity for effective action in the world:

Words are of the utmost importance to human understanding. Almost all the ideas employed by us in matters of reasoning have been acquired by words. In our most retired contemplations we think for the most part in words; and upon recollection can in most cases easily tell in what language we have been thinking. Without words, uttered, or thought upon, we could not probably carry on any long train of deduction. The science of thinking therefore is little else than the science of words. He that has not been accustomed to refine upon words, and discriminate their shades of meaning, will think and reason after a very inaccurate and slovenly manner. He that is not able to call his idea by various names, borrowed from various languages, will scarcely be able to conceive his idea in a way precise, clear and unconfused.

Complement with The Lost Words — writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris’s courageous act of resistance against the impoverishment of our language, which is an impoverishment of our imagination — and Iris Murdoch on language as an instrument of truth against tyranny, then revisit Godwin on how to raise a reader.

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The Moral of Flowers: An Illustrated Victorian Encyclopedia of Poetic Lessons from the Garden

From the sensuous honeysuckle to the humble daisy, a lyrical journey to where nature meets human nature.

The Moral of Flowers: An Illustrated Victorian Encyclopedia of Poetic Lessons from the Garden

“In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens,” the poetic neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in contemplating the healing power of gardens.

More than two centuries earlier, gardening had taken on a new symphonic resonance with the psychological and physiological score of human nature when the philosopher Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, published The Botanic Garden — a book-length poem using scientifically accurate verse to enchant the popular imagination with the scandalous new science of sexual reproduction in plants. Botany was suddenly both sensual and poetic, seeding a new genre of literary botanica in the early nineteenth century. Crowning it is a book of especial loveliness — the 1833 gem The Moral of Flowers (public library | public domain) by the poet, painter, and self-taught naturalist Rebecca Hey.

Passionflower. Available as a print.

Perched partway in time and sensibility between Elizabeth Blackwell’s illustrated encyclopedia of medicinal plants and Emily Dickinson’s wildflower herbarium, this illustrated encyclopedia presents a singular fusion of Hey’s original verse, poetic prose, and perfectly selected quotations from celebrated poets about each flower, coupled with beautiful engravings drawn from life by William Clark, former draughtsman and engraver of the London Horticultural Society.

Honeysuckle. Available as a print.

The unexpected success of the book — all the rarer in an era when hardly any women were published authors — emboldened Hey to learn to paint and pursue an improbable dream that became, fifteen years later, the world’s first illustrated encyclopedia of trees, featuring her own original art.

Almond blossom. Available as a print.

From fragrant favorites like the honeysuckle and jasmine, to humble beauties like the daisy and wild wallflower, to literary symbol-corsages like the violet, which Emily Dickinson cherished above all other flowers for its “unsuspected” splendor, and the almond blossom, on which Albert Camus predicated his timeless metaphor for strength through difficult times, Hey’s catalogue of blooming splendor traces the etymologies of flower names, describes their habitat, and invokes Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth to explore their cultural symbolism, aiming to “pursue such a train of reflection or draw such a moral from each flower that is introduced as its appearance, habits, or properties might be supposed to suggest.”

Field wildflowers (frontispiece). Available as a print.

Flowers of the field, how meet ye seem,
Man’s frailty to pourtray,
Blooming so fair in morning’s beam,
Passing at eve away;
Teach this, and oh! though brief your reign,
Sweet flowers, ye shall not live in vain.

Snow-drop and crocus. Available as a print.

Just as poet Jane Hirshfield would draw, nearly two centuries later, a buoyant lesson in optimism from a tree, Hey draws on flowers to contemplate questions of mortality, grit, adaptability, how to find beauty in melancholy and cheerfulness in solitude, how to live “heedless of all obstacles.”

Hare-bell. Available as a print.
Rusty-leaved rhododendron. Available as a print.
Bittersweet. Available as a print.
Rosemary and violet. Available as a print.
Daisy. Available as a print.

There is a flower, a little flower,
With silver crest and golden eye,
That welcomes every changing hour,
And weathers every sky.

It smiles upon the lap of May,
To sultry August spreads its charms,
Lights pale October on his way,
And twines December’s arms.

Forget-me-not. Available as a print.

In vain I searched the garden through,
     In vain the meadow gay,
For some sweet flower which might to you
     A kindly thought convey.
One spake too much of hope and bloom
For those who know of man the doom ;
Another, queen of the parterre,
Thorns on her graceful stem did bear;
A third, alas ! seemed all too frail
For ruder breath than summer gale.

I turned me thence to where beneath
     The hedgerow’s verdant shade,
The lowliest gems of Florals wreath
     Their modest charms displayed.
Lured by its name, one simple flower
From its meek sisterhood I bore,
And bade it hasten to impart
The breathings of a faithful heart,
And plead — “Whatever your future lot,
In weal or woe — Forget-me-not.”

Primrose. Available as a print.
Lily of the Valley. Available as a print.
Wild wallflower. Available as a print.
Violet. Available as a print.

Complement with The Spirit of the Woods — Hey’s poetic encyclopedia of trees, illustrated with her own paintings — and 18th-century artist Sarah Stone’s trailblazing natural history illustrations of exotic, endangered, and extinct animals, then revisit a 17th-century English gardener on what fruit trees can teach us about human nature and relationships.

BP

How to Live and How to Die

“Leave something of sweetness and substance in the mouth of the world.”

A year ago, I lost my darling friend Emily Levine (October 23, 1944–February 3, 2019). Figuring, in which she rightly occupies the first line of the acknowledgements, was just being released. The book would not have existed without her, nor would The Universe in Verse — several years earlier, Emily had swung open for me the doorway to the world of poetry in an incident of comical profundity emblematic of her singular and irreplaceable spirit, which I recounted with ample affection and no small dose of embarrassment about fifty minutes into the inaugural Universe in Verse.

After her terminal diagnosis in 2016, I began taking Emily on periodic getaways in nature. We called them poetry retreats — weekends of soaring, meandering conversation, inventive cooking (one instance involving a thallus of kelp collected at low tide, which we had used as a dog leash before dining on it), and delicious poetry-reading, which we recorded on a phone as tender mementos from these precious hours, not fully realizing in the moment the bittersweetness of the act.

This poem, originally published in The Sun in 2010, is the last poem Emily read at the last poetry retreat three weeks before she returned her stardust to the universe.

COLD SOLACE
by Anna Belle Kaufman

When my mother died,
one of her honey cakes remained in the freezer.
I couldn’t bear to see it vanish,
so it waited, pardoned,
in its ice cave behind the metal trays
for two more years.

On my forty-first birthday
I chipped it out,
a rectangular resurrection,
hefted the dead weight in my palm.

Before it thawed,
I sawed, with serrated knife,
the thinnest of slices —
Jewish Eucharist.

The amber squares
with their translucent panes of walnuts
tasted — even toasted — of freezer,
of frost,
a raisined delicacy delivered up
from a deli in the underworld.

I yearned to recall life, not death —
the still body in her pink nightgown on the bed,
how I lay in the shallow cradle of the scattered sheets
after they took it away,
inhaling her scent one last time.

I close my eyes, savor a wafer of
sacred cake on my tongue and
try to taste my mother, to discern
the message she baked in these loaves
when she was too ill to eat them:

I love you.
It will end.
Leave something of sweetness
and substance
in the mouth of the world.

Taste a little more of the raisined delicacy of Emily’s voice with her bittersweet reading of “You Can’t Have It All” — a buoy of a poem by Barbara Ras — then savor her extraordinary TED talk about learning to die.

Portrait by John Keatley

BP

Patti Smith on Libraries and the Transformative Love of Books

On books, bronchitis, and a mother’s “sympathetic exasperation.”

Patti Smith on Libraries and the Transformative Love of Books

“Libraries are sanctuaries from the world and command centers onto it,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in reflecting on how she saved herself by reading. “A library is a rainbow in the clouds,” Maya Angelou harmonized in recollecting how a library saved her own life. Her contemporary and titanic peer Ursula K. Le Guin located the source of that salvation in the portal to personal and intellectual liberty that opens up between the shelves of the public library, between the covers of a book: “Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom.”

A generation after a little boy named James Baldwin reached for that liberty and read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon at the local library, a little girl named Patricia Lee Smith read her way from a poor rural community in southern New Jersey to the world’s stage and the world’s heart, soon to become the voice of generations and one of the most original, revolutionary, and generous artists of her time, of our time, and of all time.

In Year of the Monkey (public library) — her unclassifiable, symphonic exploration of dreams, love, loss, and mending the broken realities of lifePatti Smith recounts how her local childhood library nurtured her inner life, tilling the soil of her becoming.

In consonance with that lovely parenthetical line from one of Nikki Giovanni’s poems celebrating libraries and librarians — “(You never know what troubled little girl needs a book.)” — Smith writes of the endearing, almost unreasonable devotion with which she sought solace for her nine-year-old troubles amid the stacks:

Every Saturday I would go to the library and choose my books for the week. One late-autumn morning, despite menacing clouds, I bundled up and walked as always, past the peach orchards, the pig farm and the skating rink to the fork in the road that led to our sole library. The sight of so many books never failed to excite me, rows and rows of books with multicolored spines. I’d spent an inordinate amount of time choosing my stack of books that day, with the sky growing more ominous. At first, I wasn’t worried as I had long legs and was a pretty fast walker, but then it became apparent that there was no way I was going to beat the impending storm. It grew colder, the winds picked up, followed by heavy rains, then pelting hail. I slid the books under my coat to protect them, I had a long way to go; I stepped in puddles and could feel the icy water permeate my ankle socks. When I finally reached home my mother shook her head with sympathetic exasperation, prepared a hot bath and made me go to bed. I came down with bronchitis and missed several days of school. But it had been worth it, for I had my books, among them The Tik-Tok Man of Oz, Half Magic and The Dog of Flanders. Wonderful books that I read over and over, only accessible to me through our library.

Art by Isabelle Arsenault from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Complement this tiny fragment of the wholly enchanting Year of the Monkey — which crowned my favorite books of 2019 — with Oliver Sacks, reflecting on the early character-sculpting role the local library played in his own life, on the library as a locus of intellectual freedom and community-building, then revisit Patti Smith on the two kinds of literary masterpieces and her fifty favorite books. (One might hope that letting her spinach get cold is now among her qualifying criteria for a favorite book.)

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