April 26, 2019

“Like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.”

The British stage actor Edmund Kean (1789-1833) was like the James Dean of his time.

He gained celebrity and fame at a young age.

His performances were fiery and highly innovative at the time, especially the new twists he gave to well-known characters in plays by Shakespeare.

For example, instead of playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice the traditional way, as a comic villain, Kean’s Shylock seemed intelligent, intense and dignified.

Many books and websites cite a famous quote about Kean that was uttered by the British poet, critic and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834).

On April 27, 1823, Coleridge said in a conversation:

       “To see him act, is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.”

This comment, recorded by Coleridge’s son-in-law Henry Nelson Coleridge, was included in the book Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a collection of spoken remarks by Sam Coleridge that Henry published in 1835, the year after Sam died.

The “flashes of lightning” line is usually the only part of the what Coleridge said about Kean that is quoted and it is generally assumed to be a complimentary remark about Kean’s electrifying acting style.

In fact, if you read the rest of what Coleridge said about Kean, you realize that he wasn’t actually giving Kean a glowing review.

“Kean is original,” Coleridge acknowledged, “but he copies from himself. His rapid descents from the hyper-tragic to the infra-colloquial, though sometimes productive of great effect, are often unreasonable. To see him act, is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning. I do not think him thorough-bred gentleman enough to play Othello.”

By itself, the phrase “like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning” might seem to suggest something like “illuminating flashes of brilliance.”

However, in context, it seems to mean Coleridge thought Kean’s acting was not consistently illuminating or fathomable.

By the time the quote was published in Table Talk in 1835, Kean was beyond caring about Coleridge’s opinion or anyone else’s.

He died in 1833 at age 46, apparently burnt out by a rock star lifestyle that involved mass quantities of alcohol and wild sex.

According to legend, when Kean was on his deathbed and someone asked him how he felt he responded: “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.”

He may not have actually said that. But it sure is a great exit line.

[Another famous quote by Samuel Taylor Coleridge from Table Talk is “Prose = words in their best order; — poetry = the best words in the best order.” Click this link to read the backstory on that quote.]

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April 05, 2019

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., often referred to as Boswell’s Life of Johnson, is one of the most famous biographies ever written and the best known source of memorable quotations by Samuel Johnson.

Few people today have read this entire work. And, given that it amounts to more than 1,200 pages of text that records thousands of things Johnson did and said on specific dates in minute detail, that’s not likely to change.

But most people who are familiar with famous quotations and classic English literature know at least some of the famed anecdotes and quotes it contains.

One known to many aspiring writers is: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

Boswell recorded that bon mot by Johnson on April 5, 1776 and it’s usually quoted with no context.

If you read the page where it appears in the Life of Johnson, you find that it was one of the few things Johnson said that Boswell pointedly disagreed with, at least after the fact, in a comment in the book.

Here’s the famous quotation in the context of Boswell’s April 5 entry:

“When I expressed an earnest wish for his remarks on Italy, he said, ‘I do not see that I could make a book upon Italy; yet I should be glad to get two hundred pounds, or five hundred pounds, by such a work.’ This shewed both that a journal of his Tour upon the Continent was not wholly out of his contemplation, and that he uniformly adhered to that strange opinion, which his indolent disposition made him utter: ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.’ Numerous instances to refute this will occur to all who are versed in the history of literature.”

Boswell’s comment in that last sentence notes, rightly, that many people write stories and books without knowing whether they will make money from what they are writing — though, of course, almost all aspiring writers hope for financial success from their work.

I suspect Johnson’s “blockhead” quote may have stung a bit for Boswell.

He was a lawyer by trade who wrote almost daily in journals and aspired to be a successful book author.

By 1776, Boswell had published four books, though none generated significant acclaim or money.

His legal career was also less than stellar.

It wasn’t until he finally published his Life of Johnson in 1791 — seven years after Johnson died — that Boswell received major recognition as a writer.

In contrast, by 1776, Johnson was one of the most successful literary critics and authors in England.

In addition to his pioneering and popular Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, Johnson wrote scores of popular essays, poems, pamphlets, periodicals, sermons, literary biographies, and books of literary criticism.

Johnson met Boswell in 1763, when he was 54 and Boswell was 22.

They bonded quickly and dined, traveled and corresponded with each other off and on until Sam died in 1784.

After Johnson passed, it took Boswell six years to compile and publish his detailed account of their meetings, travels and correspondence.

But it was well-received when it was finally published and became viewed as a major, classic piece of English literature.

One of the most entertaining ways to read Boswell’s Life of Johnson I know of is to read the illustrated online edition that uses excerpts chosen by writer Dan Leo, illuminated with quirky, humorous digital artwork by Rhoda Penmarq.

Dan and Rhoda post a new illustrated excerpt each week on their Classix Comix website and Facebook pages.

Taken in these relatively short bites, with Rhoda’s images and Dan’s tongue-in-cheek commentary at the end, reading The Life of Johnson is actually fun. (I also encourage you to check out Dan’s mind-blowing novels on Amazon, Railroad Train to Heaven and This World or Any Other World, and Rhoda’s many unique illustrated books of stories and poetry on Lulu.com.)

James Boswell did earn praise and money from The Life of Johnson in his final years, and it gave him lasting posthumous fame.

But he appears to have been something of a loser through most of his life, plagued by alcoholism, depression and venereal diseases.

He died at age 55, a few years after The Life of Johnson was published.           

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