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- The Note-Books of Samuel Butler - 1/87 -

Transcribed from the 1912 A. C. Fifield edition by David Price, email



Early in his life Samuel Butler began to carry a note-book and to write down in it anything he wanted to remember; it might be something he heard some one say, more commonly it was something he said himself. In one of these notes he gives a reason for making them:

"One's thoughts fly so fast that one must shoot them; it is no use trying to put salt on their tails."

So he bagged as many as he could hit and preserved them, re-written on loose sheets of paper which constituted a sort of museum stored with the wise, beautiful, and strange creatures that were continually winging their way across the field of his vision. As he became a more expert marksman his collection increased and his museum grew so crowded that he wanted a catalogue. In 1874 he started an index, and this led to his reconsidering the notes, destroying those that he remembered having used in his published books and re-writing the remainder. The re-writing shortened some but it lengthened others and suggested so many new ones that the index was soon of little use and there seemed to be no finality about it ("Making Notes," pp. 100- 1 post). In 1891 he attached the problem afresh and made it a rule to spend an hour every morning re-editing his notes and keeping his index up to date. At his death, in 1902, he left five bound volumes, with the contents dated and indexed, about 225 pages of closely written sermon paper to each volume, and more than enough unbound and unindexed sheets to made a sixth volume of equal size.

In accordance with his own advice to a young writer (p. 363 post), he wrote the notes in copying ink and kept a pressed copy with me as a precaution against fire; but during his lifetime, unless he wanted to refer to something while he was in my chambers, I never looked at them. After his death I took them down and went through them. I knew in a general way what I should find, but I was not prepared for such a multitude and variety of thoughts, reflections, conversations, incidents. There are entries about his early life at Langar, Handel, school days at Shrewsbury, Cambridge, Christianity, literature, New Zealand, sheep-farming, philosophy, painting, money, evolution, morality, Italy, speculation, photography, music, natural history, archaeology, botany, religion, book-keeping, psychology, metaphysics, the Iliad, the Odyssey, Sicily, architecture, ethics, the Sonnets of Shakespeare. I thought of publishing the books just as they stand, but too many of the entries are of no general interest and too many are of a kind that must wait if they are ever to be published. In addition to these objections the confusion is very great. One would look in the earlier volumes for entries about New Zealand and evolution and in the later ones for entries about the Odyssey and the Sonnets, but there is no attempt at arrangement and anywhere one may come upon something about Handel, or a philosophical reflection, between a note giving the name of the best hotel in an Italian town and another about Harry Nicholls and Herbert Campbell as the Babes in the Wood in the pantomime at the Grecian Theatre. This confusion has a charm, but it is a charm that would not, I fear, survive in print and, personally, I find that it makes the books distracting for continuous reading. Moreover they were not intended to be published as they stand ("Preface to Vol. II," p. 215 post), they were intended for his own private use as a quarry from which to take material for his writing, and it is remarkable that in practice he scarcely ever used them in this way ("These Notes," p. 261 post). When he had written and re-written a note and spoken it and repeated it in conversation, it became so much a part of him that, if he wanted to introduce it in a book, it was less trouble to re-state it again from memory than to search through his "precious indexes" for it and copy it ("Gadshill and Trapani," p. 194, "At Piora," p. 272 post). But he could not have re-stated a note from memory if he had not learnt it by writing it, so that it may be said that he did use the notes for his books, though not precisely in the way he originally intended. And the constant re-writing and re-considering were useful also by forcing him to settle exactly what he thought and to state it as clearly and tersely as possible. In this way the making of the notes must have had an influence on the formation of his style--though here again he had no such idea in his mind when writing them ("Style," pp. 186-7 post)

In one of the notes he says:

"A man may make, as it were, cash entries of himself in a day-book, but the entries in the ledger and the balancing of the accounts should be done by others."

When I began to write the Memoir of Butler on which I am still engaged, I marked all the more autobiographical notes and had them copied; again I was struck by the interest, the variety, and the confusion of those I left untouched. It seemed to me that any one who undertook to become Butler's accountant and to post his entries upon himself would have to settle first how many and what accounts to open in the ledger, and this could not be done until it had been settled which items were to be selected for posting. It was the difficulty of those who dare not go into the water until after they have learnt to swim. I doubt whether I should ever have made the plunge if it had not been for the interest which Mr. Desmond MacCarthy took in Butler and his writings. He had occasionally browsed on my copy of the books, and when he became editor of a review, the New Quarterly, he asked for some of the notes for publication, thus providing a practical and simple way of entering upon the business without any very alarming plunge. I talked his proposal over with Mr. R. A. Streatfeild, Butler's literary executor, and, having obtained his approval, set to work. From November 1907 to May 1910, inclusive, the New Quarterly published six groups of notes and the long note on "Genius" (pp. 174-8 post). The experience gained in selecting, arranging, and editing these items has been of great use to me and I thank the proprietor and editor of the New Quarterly for permission to republish such of the notes as appeared in their review.

In preparing this book I began by going through the notes again and marking all that seemed to fall within certain groups roughly indicated by the arrangement in the review. I had these selected items copied, distributed them among those which were already in print, shuffled them and turned them over, meditating on them, familiarising myself with them and tentatively forming new groups. While doing this I was continually gleaning from the books more notes which I had overlooked, and making such verbal alterations as seemed necessary to avoid repetition, to correct obvious errors and to remove causes of reasonable offence. The ease with which two or more notes would condense into one was sometimes surprising, but there were cases in which the language had to be varied and others in which a few words had to be added to bridge over a gap; as a rule, however, the necessary words were lying ready in some other note. I also reconsidered the titles and provided titles for many notes which had none. In making these verbal alterations I bore in mind Butler's own views on the subject which I found in a note about editing letters:

"Granted that an editor, like a translator, should keep as religiously close to the original text as he reasonably can, and, in every alteration, should consider what the writer would have wished and done if he or she could have been consulted, yet, subject to these limitations, he should be free to alter according to his discretion or indiscretion."

My "discretion or indiscretion" was less seriously strained in making textual changes than in determining how many, and what, groups to have and which notes, in what order, to include in each group. Here is a note Butler made about classification:

"Fighting about words is like fighting about accounts, and all classification is like accounts. Sometimes it is easy to see which way the balance of convenience lies, sometimes it is very hard to know whether an item should be carried to one account or to another."

Except in the group headed "Higgledy-Piggledy," I have endeavoured to post each note to a suitable account, but some of Butler's leading ideas, expressed in different forms, will be found posted to more than one account, and this kind of repetition is in accordance with his habit in conversation. It would probably be correct to say that I have heard him speak the substance of every note many times in different contexts. In seeking for the most characteristic context, I have shifted and shifted the notes and considered and re-considered them under different aspects, taking hints from the delicate chameleon changes of significance that came over them as they harmonised or discorded with their new surroundings. Presently I caught myself restoring notes to positions they had previously occupied instead of finding new places for them, and the increasing frequency with which difficulties were solved by these restorations at last forced me to the conclusion, which I accepted only with very great regret, that my labours were at an end.

I do not expect every one to approve of the result. If I had been trying to please every one, I should have made only a very short and unrepresentative selection which Mr. Fifield would have refused to publish. I have tried to make suck a book as I believe would have pleased Butler. That is to say, I have tried to please one who, by reason of his intimate knowledge of the subject and of the difficulties, would have looked with indulgence upon the many mistakes which it is now too late to correct, even if knew how to correct them. Had it been possible for him to see what I have done, he would have detected all my sins, both of omission and of commission, and I like to imagine that he would have used some such consoling words as these: "Well, never mind; one cannot have everything; and, after all, 'Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien.'"

Here will be found much of what he used to say as he talked with one or two intimate friends in his own chambers or in mine at the close of the day, or on a Sunday walk in the country round London, or as we wandered together through Italy and Sicily; and I would it were possible to charge these pages with some echo of his voice and with some reflection of his manner. But, again; one cannot have everything.

"Men's work we have," quoth one, "but we want them - Them palpable to touch and clear to view."

The Note-Books of Samuel Butler - 1/87

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