It’s three weeks since our daughter was bornand only now am I exiting the fog of fear, excitement, and sleep deprivation that comes free with every newborn. It’s safe to say my brain is yet to fully unscramble, and I definitely should not be operating heavy machinery. With that in mind, I’m quite lazily sending you a bunch of letter excerpts, all of which have grabbed me recently for various reasons.
Listen: respect even the bad parts of yourself—respect above all the bad parts of yourself—for the love of God, don’t try to make yourself perfect—don’t copy an ideal, copy yourself—that is the only way to live.
Letter to her sister
6 Jan 1948
Why This World
Which is the more sordidly corrupt activity — dancing or publishing? [...] In a dance club, if any individual fails to behave properly, you chuck him out; in a publishing house, you take him to lunch.
T. S. Eliot
Letter to Geoffrey Faber
7 Jul 1936
The Letters of TS Eliot: Vol 8
How the eternal superficialities do intrude themselves upon life. Things like food & sleep & sex and baths & exercise. One is always interrupting some really poignant emotion to go to bed or to lunch.
Letter to Leland Poole
Selected Letters of Virgil Thomson
There are lots of HUGE dogs in our street, who routinely use our driveway for a dog’s lavatory, with resultant HUGE TURDS every morning. Our next-door neighbour Monique, who is a psychiatrist’s wife hence well-informed on such matters, told Bob that MALE URINE is a certain deterrent to dogs. So Bob’s been doing it . . . The amazing thing is it actually works. Not a single pile of dogshit has been seen since Bob started this routine.
Letter to Michael Tigar
1 Dec 1982
Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford
Inhabitants of different and largely incommensurable worlds can live happily together—but only on condition that each recognizes the fact that the other’s world is different and has just as much right to exist and be lived in as his own. Once the other’s right to live where he or she is temperamentally and, no doubt, physiologically predestined to live is recognized, there can be something very stimulating and liberating about the experience of being joined in a loving relationship with somebody whose universe is radically unlike one’s own. It becomes possible for each of the partners to enlarge his own private universe by taking his stand vicariously, through empathy and intelligence, within the other’s territory and trying to see what reality looks like from that other vantage point. I remember a very touching passage in one of my grandfather’s letters about his own obtuseness—the obtuseness of an immensely intelligent man of the highest integrity—in relation to his wife’s insights, immediate, non-rational and almost infallible, into human character. Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean—which is precisely why it is possible for them to constitute a symbiotic organism superior to each of its components. But, alas, what is possible goes all too often unrealized and, instead of federating their two worlds, the temperamental aliens settle down to a cold war.
Aldous Huxley to Humphry Osmond, 6 May 1959 | Psychedelic Prophets The Letters of Aldous Huxley and Humphry Osmond
There is always more surface to a shattered object than a whole.
Djuna Barnes Letter to Emily Coleman 1960
If you will trust my scheme of making a mental habit of doing the hard thing first, when you are absolutely fresh, and I mean doing the hardest thing first at the exact moment that you feel yourself fit for doing anything in any particular period, morning, afternoon or evening, you will go a long way toward mastering the principle of concentration.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Letter to his daughter
18 Apr 1938
Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald
Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind at least a sense of unease in human beings. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests or the use of force accomplish anything here ‘reasons fall on deaf ears’ facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going one the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer Letters and Papers from Prison 1951
I feel entirely dehumanised by the sun now and wish for fog, snow, rain, humanity.
Letter to E. Sackville-West
Virginia Woolf: The Complete Collection
The world is divided into people who do things and people who get the credit. Try, if you can, to belong to the first class. There’s far less competition.
Letter to his son, Dwight Jr.
Happiness does not await us all. One needn’t be a prophet to say that there will be more grief and pain than serenity and money. That is why we must hang on to one another.
Letter to K. Barantsevich
3 Mar 1888
A Life in Letters
Thank you so much for your lovely messages. Our daughter, Zora, is a delight.
To be clear, I am not operating heavy machinery.
Congratulations on the birth of your daughter! Your life must be between smiles, smells and a little sleep... It's with a little hope that I would like to make a request. I imagine the value of time has doubled in the last few days, but a lover does anything. I'm from Brazil, nerd, first of the family to enter college. I met a boy. 25 years and it's the first time I've slept with a person and dream about him at the same time, not just once. I picked things hard, I got accepted by harvard this year. But more than that, I decided to declare myself to this boy, found out that talking about my feelings is harder than applied math. I met him talking about art. What are the chances of making a copy of Letters of Note: Art arrive in Brazil by November?
A Prayer for My Daughter by W B Yeats
Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory's Wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.
I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour,
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come
Dancing to a frenzied drum
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.
May she be granted beauty, and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger's eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass; for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness, and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.
Helen, being chosen, found life flat and dull,
And later had much trouble from a fool;
While that great Queen that rose out of the spray,
Being fatherless, could have her way,
Yet chose a bandy-leggèd smith for man.
It's certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.
In courtesy I'd have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift, but hearts are earned
By those that are not entirely beautiful.
Yet many, that have played the fool
For beauty's very self, has charm made wise;
And many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.
May she become a flourishing hidden tree,
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound;
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
Oh, may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.
My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
The sort of beauty that I have approved,
Prosper but little, has dried up of late,
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there's no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.
An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty's horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?
Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
And that its own sweet will is heaven's will,
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.
And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all's accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony's a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.
Originally published in Poetry, November 1919.
Source: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989)