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The ass and the angel of the commonplace book

Jonathan Swift recommended keeping a commonplace book. Milton and Thomas Hardy both did.

Ian Hunter writes that he began keeping a commonplace book four decades ago, collecting passages from other writers that he especially wanted to remember -

Ironically, the only criterion for inclusion in a commonplace book is that the entry not be commonplace; mine contain poetry, aphorisms, snatches of song (particularly from early Scottish border ballads: “Is there any room at your head, Saunders?/ Is there any room at your feet?/ Is there any room at your side, Saunders?/ Where fain, fain, I would sleep”) and sundry quotations from a wild variety of sources. Anything that one is afraid to entrust to the vagaries of memory is worth preserving in a commonplace book.

Commonplace books originated in the 16th century, and were uniquely English.

"When John Bunyan married in 1649, the sum total of his wife’s dowry was two commonplace books". Had they been passed down in her family? What did they contain? Possibly poems and prayers, medical recipes, tables of weights and measures, legal formulas and assorted other pearls.

Looking back over four decades, Hunter finds that the authors who appear most frequently in his commonplace books are Shakespeare, Blake, Samuel Johnson and Robert Burns.

I think I would like to start a commonplace book, and if I did, WH Auden's comment about commonplace books would be one of the first I'd note - a commonplace book is like a mirror — if an ass peers in, you cannot expect an angel to look out.


Cat remarks that the first quote she would write in a commonplace book would be from an anonymous 10th century Anglo-Saxon poet -

The stranger paused. He marvelled
At a heart-rooted pain.
The thorn ran deep, the bud
Spread a crimson stain.
He would not pluck it, for fear
The rose scattered like rain.

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