from the middle ages to me: my voracious appetite for the not-so-edible “salad of many herbs”
florilegium, or “gathering of flowers,” they’re called. or were called in medieval times.
one wealthy 15th-century italian wool merchant declared his zibaldone, or book of hodgepodgery, “the salad of many herbs.” a snip here, a pungent bit there.
it was his self-inscribed anthology of esoterica and knowledge, the pages into which he stuffed everything from recipes to tables of weights and measures to the latest smart something he’d heard rumbling on the florentine sidewalks. decidedly, it was not a journal, no catch-all for memoir, nothing like a diary. nary a rambling of the soul found here, this was strictly the province of accumulated knowledge — and things not to forget.
more commonly known as commonplace books, i’ve just discovered i’ve been keeping one — or four or five, more like it — for years and years. (“commonplace,” you should know, is a translation of the latin term locus communis (from greek tópos koinós), or “common place,” and, according to our friends at harvard university’s library, suggests a storehouse, or clearinghouse — in ink, on paper — of ideas and arguments, easily located for ready application. say, when engaged in verbal jousting at the medieval village pub.)
and i just thought i was a hoarder of the literary kind, demonstrating my rodent-like tendencies for squirreling away little bits and snips of enchantment. of the poetic species.
they live in assuming places, my commonplace books, my cache for what tickles my imagination, delights my word-ly fancy, catches my breath. for years, one lived on my laptop’s desktop, but it grew to be so long, so unwieldy, so likely to bring down my hard drive, i only recently birthed its second generation, both titled, “words and lines worth saving,” iterations I and II.
two more, the kind made of cardboard and paper pressed between covers, they live atop my desk, my actual old pine desk, one to my right and one to my left. as i flip through them now, i see i’ve stuffed inside a post-it note with a german address (in case i visit, i suppose), an advent calendar from 2012, a rosary (still in plastic) from the basilica of holy hill. and as i flip through the left-hand book, one i’ve titled, “notes of wonder,” i see that it’s bulging with snipped-out pages from the new york times book review, notes i scribbled on the back of someone’s eighth-grade essay, and assorted ponderings, including this: “God’s first language, which is silence.”
the one i count among my life’s truest treasures, though, is the unwieldy one on my desktop. there, if you scroll along, you’ll find among its 9,938 words unfurled across 35 pages, the turkish word for “moonlight on water” (gumusservi), the definition of epistemology (after stumbling across the line, “the epistemology of loss,” in a john berryman poem), or this from galway kinnell: “to me,” he said, “poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.”
it’s my digital memory box, the place where i commit the things that take my breath away, stir my soul, make my heart beat double-time. it’s my independent study in the literary arts, and poetry in particular.
little did i know that no less than jonathan swift prescribes one thusly:
“A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that ‘great wits have short memories:’ and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there.”
—from “A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet”
apparently, the practice, with its roots in antiquity, has been unbroken since the middle ages, with a particular up-bump in renaissance times. the idea — brought on with a bang not long after the invention of the gothenburg press, “largely because literate people were discombobulated by the flood of information the printing press had unleashed upon them,” according to alan jacobs, writing in the atlantic — was that particularly pithy or otherwise catchy little thoughts were to be hand-copied and tucked into one’s commonplace book. in arranging topically, it was thought, the literate raconteur would have, at fingertips’ reach, a ready arsenal of neatly tucked-away poetry and argument. need a zippy rejoinder? oh, just wait, it’s right here, on page 23 of my florilegium (the latin name pinned onto the practice by the medievals, who found them particularly handy for stockpiling thought of theological and religious theme. for what little it’s worth, i much prefer to think of mine as that “salad of many herbs”).
why, thomas jefferson was a prodigious keeper of the commonplace (writing in english, latin and greek, of course). as were henry david thoreau and ralph waldo emerson. the british library’s renaissance project boasts a collection of some 50, many penned inside the iron bars of prison cells and locked towers (sir walter raleigh, so imprisoned from 1606 to 1608, filled his penitent hours with library lists, poetry and an illustrated guide to the middle east). in fact, clear through the early 20th century, students and scholars were long required to keep them. and so, if you tiptoe into the bowels of any of the western world’s great libraries, just ask to see the commonplace collections, and you’ll soon stumble on the jottings of john milton, victor hugo, sarah orne jewett, samuel clemens, and john quincy adams, to name but a smattering.
i found out i was such a keeper of the commonplace only by accident. because i happened to ask a dear friend of mine, one who unfurls great lines of poetry at the drop of a hat, how it was that she had such a stockpile at the ready. here’s how my poetic friend, dear amy, replied:
“Yes, I have books and journals filled with favorite quotes, as well a hefty computer file with snippets of words I want to remember. I’ve been a nut about quotes and have collected them all my life, but it wasn’t until recently that I discovered that the squirreling away of meaningful quotes is called keeping a commonplace book, a practice that hearkens back to the likes of Marcus Aurelius and Montaigne and Thomas Jefferson. I just LOVE words of beauty and wisdom, and like a magpie, I love to feather my nest with them, as it were!”
it is the dearest thing to encounter a fellow magpie, both of us flitting through the air with words dangling from our beaks. i’ve long said that if my house began to burn, one of the few things i’d tuck to my bosom would be my long-kept compendium of beauty and breath-taking.
for that, in the end, is what animates so much of my imagination. and puts flight to the task of typing so many hours of my lifetime. there is something deeply holy about tripping upon depths of meaning in thoughts thought before you, in words committed to paper long ago, or just the other afternoon.
i can’t imagine my world without knowing that, at the click of a computer key, i could unlock these lines, copied and pasted long ago, breath-catching beauties from dear virginia woolf:
from “Mrs. Dalloway”: “…she was like a bird sheltering under the thin hollow of a leaf, who blinks at the sun when the leaf moves; starts at the crack of a dry twig.”
on sewing: “…her needle, drawing the silk smoothly to its gentle pause, collected the green folds together and attached them, very lightly, to the belt.”
describing grand houses of London: “….halls laid in black and white lozenges…”
“turning one’s nerves to fiddle strings….”
“long streamers of sunlight…”
on “the compensation of growing old”: “the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! — the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, — the power of taking hold of experience, turning it round, slowly, in the light.”
“thunderclaps of fear”
i copy to remember. i paste to never forget. as mr. swift so finely put it: it’s my “supplemental memory,” my “record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation.”
excuse me while i amble off to imbibe on my salad of many, many herbs.
do you keep a salad of many herbs, a gathering of flowers, a book of hodgepodgery, otherwise known simply as a commonplace book? and do you not think the practice a wholly invigorating one? a holy one, too?
and, most deliciously, what would be among the herbs you’ve snipped from your literary garden?
finally, happy blessed launch of spring on this day of equal light and darkness, the vernal equinox, when, as my beautiful brother david says, “you can hear the earth breathing.” but only if you listen, of course…..