A Curious Specimen

‘The life of Lilly the astrologer, written by himself, is a curious work. He is the Sidrophel of Butler. It contains so much artless narrative, and at the same time so much palpable imposture, that it is difficult to know when he is speaking what he really believes to be the truth. In a sketch of the state of astrology in his day, those adepts, whose characters he has drawn, were the lowest miscreants of the town. They all speak of each other as rogues and impostors. Such were Booker, George Wharton, Gadbury, who gained a livelihood by practising on the credulity of even men of learning so late as in 1650, to the eighteenth century. In Ashmole’s Life an account of these artful impostors may be found. Most of them had taken the air in the pillory, and others had conjured themselves up to the gallows. This seems a true statement of facts. But Lilly informs us, that in his various conference with angels, their voice resembled that of the Irish!’

Isaac d’Israeli, ‘English Astrologers’, Curiosities of Literature, 1807.


‘But the revilers of the people have not spared even their speech. Of the species of abuse usually resorted to, a curious specimen may be found in the prejudiced Stanihurst, (temp. Elizabeth,) who assures his readers, that the Irish was unfit even for the prince of darkness himself to utter, and to illustrate this, the bigotted Saxon gravely adduced the case of a possessed person in Rome, who “spoke every known tongue except Irish, but in that he neither would nor could speak, because of its intolerable harshness.”‘
James Hardiman, Irish Minstrelsy, Or Bardic Remains of Ireland, Vol I, introduction, 1831.

In the Hour of Confidence and Tranquillity

‘I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, I speak like a child.’

Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions.

‘I write differently from what I speak, I speak differently from what I think, I think differently from the way I ought to think, and so it all proceeds into deepest darkness.’

Franz Kafka, letter to Ottla Kafka, July 10, 1914.

‘If you love the man of letters, seek him in the privacies of his study. It is in the hour of confidence and tranquillity that his genius shall elicit a ray of intelligence, more fervid than the labours of polished composition.

The great Peter Corneille, whose genius resembled that of our Shakespeare, and who has so forcibly expressed the sublime sentiments of the hero, had nothing in his exterior that indicated his genius; on the contrary, his conversation was so insipid that it never failed of wearying. Nature, who had lavished on him the gifts of genius, had forgotten to blend with them her more ordinary ones. He did not even speak correctly that language of which he was such a master.

When his friends represented to him how much more he might please by not disdaining to correct these trivial errors, he would smile, and say—“I am not the less Peter Corneille!” Descartes, whose habits were formed in solitude and meditation, was silent in mixed company; and Thomas describes his mind by saying that he had received his intellectual wealth from nature in solid bars, but not in current coin; or as Addison expressed the same idea, by comparing himself to a banker who possessed the wealth of his friends at home, though he carried none of it in his pocket; or as that judicious moralist Nicolle, one of the Port-Royal Society, said of a scintillant wit—“He conquers me in the drawing-room, but he surrenders to me at discretion on the staircase.” Such may say with Themistocles, when asked to play on a lute,—“I cannot fiddle, but I can make a litte village a great city.”

The deficiencies of Addison in conversation are well known. He preserved a rigid silence amongst strangers; but if he was silent, it was the silence of meditation. How often, at that moment, he laboured at some future Spectator!


Virgil was heavy in conversation, and resembled more an ordinary man than an enchanting poet.

La Fontaine, says La Bruyere, appeared coarse, heavy, and stupid; he could not speak or describe what he had just seen; but when he wrote he was the model of poetry.

It is very easy, said a humorous observer on La Fontaine, to be a man of wit, or a fool; but to be both, and that too in the extreme degree, is indeed admirable, and only to be found in him. This observation applies to that fine natural genius Goldsmith. Chaucer was more facetious in his tales than in his conversation; and the Countess of Pembroke used to rally him by saying that his silence was more agreeable to her than his conversation.

Isocrates, celebrated for his beautiful oratorical compositions, was of so timid a disposition, that he never ventured to speak in public. He compared himself to the whetstone which will not cut, but enables other things to do this; for his productions served as models to other orators. Vaucanson was said to be as much a machine as any he had made.

Dryden says of himself,—“My conversation is slow and dull, my humour saturnine and reserved. In short, I am none of those who endeavour to break jests in company, or make repartees.”’

Isaac D’Israeli, ‘Men of Genius Deficient in Conversation’, Curiosities of Literature.

France and Spain, and What they May Bring Our Traveller

‘A LITTLE work, published after that famous intermarriage which overcame the enmity of the two Courts of France and Spain, though it could not that of the two nations; presents us with a humorous contrast of their manners; dispositions, habits, &c.

“A Frenchman,” says our author; “entering his friend’s house, will immediately ask for some refreshment: a Spaniard would rather perish with hunger or thirst. A Frenchman salutes a lady by kissing her: a Spaniard, on presenting a lady his hand, will cover it with his cloak, and retreat back several paces to bow to her at a hundred steps distant.”

“I have often been tempted,” says the author, who was a Spaniard, “to ask the midwives if it was possible that a French child could be brought into the world in the same manner as a Spanish infant—so dissimilar they prove from their birth!

“The French have a lively apprehension, hating idleness, and reducing their knowledge into practical use ; but they do not penetrate deeply into any matter. The Spaniard, on the contrary, is fond of abstract and abstruse speculation, and dwells continually on an object. The French are afraid of believing too much; the other of believing too little. The former will dispatch the weightiest business in the midst of noise and tumult, amidst the levity of assemblies, or gaieties of the table; whilst the grave Spaniard cannot bear the buzzing of a fly to disturb his fixed attention. In love, the one are light and talkative; the other, constant and secret. The Spaniard will disguise his poverty under a thousand pretences, and invent as many fictions to persuade you his appearance is owing to the necessity of concealing his person; whilst the Frenchman will press his wants upon you with the most persevering importunity. In every minutia, this difference is traced; both at the toilette and table: in mixing wine, the Spaniard puts the water first in the glass; whilst the Frenchman puts the wine first. A troop of Frenchmen will walk abreast in the street with abundance of tattle; whilst the Spaniards will walk with measured gravity, in a defile, like a procession. A Frenchman, discovering a person at a distance, beckons with an uplifted hand, drawn towards his face: the Spaniard bends his hand downwards, and moves it towards his feet.”

This contrast of humours and manners he seems inclined to attribute to the difference of climate: in the one country, settled and constant; in the other, ever varying, as the genius of its inhabitants.’

Isaac d’Israeli, ‘French and Spaniards’, Curiosities of Literature.

‘What is there in France to be learned more than in England, but falsehood in fellowship, perfect slovenrie, to love no man but for my pleasure, to swear  ah par le mort Dieu, when a man’s but hammes are scabd. For the idle traveller, (I mean not for the soldier), I have known some that have continued here by the space of a half a dozen years, and when they come home, they have hid a little wee-Irish lean face under  a broad French hat, kept a terrible coil with the dust in the street in their long cloakes of grey paper, and spoke English strangely. Nought else have they profited by their travel, save learned to distinguish of the true Bordeaux grape, and know a cup of neat Gascoigne wine from wine of Orleance: yeah, and peradventure this also, to esteem of the pox as a pimple, to wear a velvet patch on their face, and walk melancholy with their arms folded.

From Spain what bringeth our traveller? a skull-crowned hat of the fashion of an old deep porringer, a diminutive Alderman’s ruffe with short strings like the droppings of a man’s nose, a close-bellied doublet coming down with a peak behind as far as the crupper, and cut off before by the breast-bone like a partlet or neckercher, a wide pair of gascoynes which ungathered would make a couple of women’s riding kyrtles, huge hangers that have half a cow hide in them, a rapier that is lineally descended from half a dozen Dukes at the least. Let his cloak be as long or as short as you will: if long, it is faced with Turkey grogeran ravelled; if short, it hath a cape like a calf’s tongue, and it is not so deep in his whole length, nor hath so much cloath in it, I will justify, as only the standing cape of a Dutchman’s cloak. I have not yet touched all, for he hath in either shoe as much taffatie for his tyings as would serve for an ancient; which serveth him (if you will have the mystery of it) of the own accord for a shoe-rag. A soldier and braggart he is (that concluded); he jetteth strouting, dancing on his toes with his hands under his sides. It you talk with him, he makes a dishcloth of his own country in comparison of Spain, but if you urge him more particularly wherin it exceeds, he can give no instance but in Spain they have better bread than any we have; when (poor hungry slaves) they may crumble into water well enough, and make mizers with it, for they have not a good morsel of meat except it be salt piltchers to eat with it all the year long: and, which is more, they are poor beggars, and lie in fowl straw every night.’

Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveller, (1594).

Some Strange Region of the Universe

Thus, when –out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God– the loveliness of the many-colored gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner.

Abbot Suger’s description of the interior of the Basilica of Saint-Denis, from De Administratione.

It is one of the absurdities of DANTE, who… like Gothic architecture itself, has many things which “lead to nothing” amidst their massive greatness.

Isaac d’Israeli, ‘The Origin of Dante’s Inferno’, Curiosities of Literature.


‘Speaking for myself, I have already had more than my full measure of this exquisite enjoyment, so much that for many years my life was little short of continuous rapture. I am credited with being one of the hardest workers and perhaps I am, if thought is the equivalent of labour, for I have devoted it almost all of my waking hours. But if work is interpreted to be a definite performance in a specified time according to a rigid rule, then I may be the worst of idlers. Every effort under compulsion demands a sacrifice of life-energy. I have never paid such a price. On the contrary, I have thrived on my thoughts.’

Nikola Tesla, My Inventions.

‘Invention depends upon patience; contemplate your subject long; it will gradually unfold, till a sort of electric spark convulses for a moment the brain, and spreads down to the very heart a glow of irritation. Then come the luxuries of genius! the true hours for production and composition; hours so delightful that I have spent twelve and fourteen successively at my writing desk, and still been in  a state of pleasure.’

Comte de Buffon, as quoted by Isaac d’Israeli.