Reading, Writing and Concentrating – XXXIX. ‘The Cruel Sea’, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and ‘A Philosophical Enquiry’

(Today, I have decided to chain myself to my desk for each of my lunch breaks at work until Oak Apple Day, and copy from whatever book I happen to have at  hand.

It forces me to read, write and concentrate at the same time, in the hope that it may replace some bad habits with some good ones, and generally help me become a better reader and writer.

This series of posts will be shared, just in case the words being copied might be of interest to you).

A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens





The Period


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

    There were a king with a large haw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.

    It was the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five. Spiritual revelations were conceded to England at that favoured period, as at this. Mrs. Southcott had recently attained her five-and-twentieth blessed birthday, of whom a prophetic private in the Life Guards had heralded the sublime appearance by announcing that arrangements were made for the swallowing up of London and Westminster. Even the Cock-lane ghost had been laid only a round dozen of years, after rapping out its messages, as the spirits of this very year past (supernaturally deficient in originality) rapped out theirs. Mere messages in the earthly order of events had lately come to the English Crown and People, from a congress of British subjects in America: which, strange to relate, have proved more important to the human race than any communications yet received through any of the chickens of the Cock-lane brood.

    France, less favoured on the whole as to matters spiritual than her sister of the shield and trident, rolled with exceeding smoothness down hill, making paper money and spending it. Under the guidance of her Christian pastors, she entertained herself, besides, with such human achievements as sentencing a youth to have his hands cut off, his tongue torn out with pincers, and his body burned alive, because he had not kneeled down in the rain to do honour to a dirty procession of monks which passed within his view, at a distance of some fifty or sixty yards. It is likely enough that, rooted, in the woods of France and Norway, there were growing trees, when that sufferer was put to death, already marked by the Woodman, Fate, to come down and be sawn into boards, to make a certain movable framework with a sack and a knife in it, terrible in history.  It is likely enough that in the rough outhouses of some tillers of the heavy lands adjacent to Paris, there were sheltered from the weather that very day, rude carts, bespattered with rustic mire, snuffed about by pigs, and roosted in by poultry, which the Farmer, Death, had already set apart to be his tumbrils of the Revolution. But that Woodman and that Farmer, though they work unceasingly, work silently, and no one heard them as they went about with muffled tread: the rather, forasmuch as to entertain any suspicion that they were awake, was to be atheistical and traitorous.

    In England, there was scarcely an amount of order and protection to justify much national boasting. Daring burglaries by armed men, and highway robberies, took place in the capital itself every night; families were publicly cautioned not to go out of town without removing their furniture to upholsterers’ warehouses for security; the highwayman in the dark was a City tradesman in the light, and, being recognised and challenged by his fellow-tradesman whom he stopped in his character of ‘the Captain,’ gallantly shot him through the head and rode away; the mail was waylaid by seven robbers, and the guard shot three dead, and then got shot dead himself by the other four, ‘in consequence of the failure of his ammunition:’ after which the mail was robbed in peace; that magnificent potentate, the Lord Mayor of London, was made to stand and deliver on Turnham Green, by one highwayman, who despoiled the illustrious creature in sight of all his retinue; prisoners in London gaols fought battles with their turnkeys, and the majesty of the law fired blunderbusses in among them, loaded with rounds of shot and ball; thieves snipped off diamond crosses from the necks of noble lords at Court drawing-rooms; musketeers went into St. Giles’s, to search for contraband goods, and the mob fired on the musketeers, and the musketeers fired on the mob, and nobody thought any of these occurrences much out of the common way. In the midst of them, the hangman, ever busy and ever worse than useless, was in constant requisition; now, hanging a house-breaker on Saturday who had taken on Tuesday; now, burning people in the hand at Newgate by the dozen, and now burning pamphlets at the door of Westminster Hall; to-day, taking the life of an atrocious murderer, and to-morrow of a wretched pilferer who had robbed a farmer’s boy of sixpence.

    All these things, and a thousand like them, came to pass in and close upon the dear old year one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five. Environed by them, while the Woodman and the Farmer worked unheeded, those two of the large jaws, and those other two of the plain and the fair faces, trod with stir enough, and carried their divine rights with a high hand. Thus did the year one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five conduct their Greatness, and myriads of small creatures – the creatures of this chronicle among the rest – along the roads that lay before them.








THIS is the story—the long and true story—of one ocean, two ships, and about a hundred and fifty men. It is a long story because it deals with a long, and brutal battle, the worst of any war. It has two ships because one was sunk, and had to be replaced. It has a hundred and fifty men because that is a manageable number of people to tall a story about. Above all, it is a true story because that is the only kind worth telling.

    First, the ocean, the steep Atlantic stream. The map will tell you what that looks like: three-cornered, three thousand miles across and a thousand fathoms deep, bounded by the European coastline and half of Africa, and the vast American continent on the other side: open at the top, like a champagne glass, and at the bottom, like a municipal rubbish-dumper. What the map will not tell you is the strength and fury of that ocean, its moods, its violence, its gentle balm, its treachery: what men can do with it, and what it can do with men. But this story will tell you all that.

    Then the ship, the first of two, the doomed one. At the moment she seems far from doomed: she is new, untried, lying in a river that lacks the tang of salt water, waiting for the men to man her. She is a corvette, a new type of escort ship, an experiment designed to meet a desperate situation still over the horizon. She is brand-new; the time is November 1939; her name is H.M.S. Compass Rose.

    Lastly, the men, the hundred and fifty men. They come on the stage in twos and threes: some are early, some are late, some, like this pretty ship, are doomed. When they are all assembled, they are a company of sailors. They have women, at least a hundred and fifty women, loving them, or tied to them, or glad to see the last of them as they go to war.

    But the men are the stars of this story. the only heroines are the ships: and the only villain the cruel sea itself.   



A Philosophical Enquiry into the  Origin of our Ideas of the  Sublime and Beautiful




 THE author hopes it will not be thought impertinent to say something of the motives which induced him to enter into the following enquiry. the matters which make the subject of it had formerly engaged a great deal of his attention. But he often found himself greatly at a loss; he found that he was far form having any thing like the exact theory of our passions, or a knowledge of their genuine sources; he found that he could not reduce his notions to any fixed or consistent principles; and he had remarked, that others lay under the same difficulties.

    He observed that the ideas of the sublime and beautiful were frequently confounded; and that both were indiscriminately applied to things greatly differing, and sometimes of natures directly opposite. Even Longinus,* in his incomparable discourse upon a part of this subject, had comprehended things extremely repugnant to each other, under one common name of the Sublime. The abuse of the word Beauty, has been still more general, and attended with still worse consequences.

    Such a confusion  of ideas must certainly render all our reasonings upon subjects of this kind extremely inaccurate and inconclusive. Could this admit of any remedy, I imagined it could only be from a diligent examination of our passions in our own breasts; from a careful survey of the properties of things which we find by experience to influence those passions; and form a sober and attentive investigation of the laws of nature, by which those properties are capable of affecting the body, and thus of exciting our passions. If this could be done, it was imagined that the rules deducible from such an enquiry might be applied to the imitative arts, and so whatever else they concerned, without much difficulty.

    It is four years now since this enquiry was finished;* during which time the author found no cause to make any material alteration in his theory. He has shewn it to some of his friends, men of learning and candour, who do not think it wholly unreasonable; and he now ventures to lay it before the public, proposing his notions as probably conjectures, not as things certain and indisputable; and if he has any where expressed himself more positively, it was owing to inattention.


* 1- Even Longinus: Longinus: thought to be the author of the famous Greek treatise On the Sublime. While evidence suggests that it was written in the first century AD its actual date and authorship are unknown. The oldest surviving MS (tenth century Paris) attributes it to ‘Dionysius or Longinus’. The standard English translation during the eighteenth century was by the Revd William Smith, which was first published in 1739 and reached 5th edition in 1800. Burke’s first reference to Longinus, in a letter to his friend Richard Shackleton (24 Jan. 1746), probably refers to Smith’s edition: ‘I could not get e’er a Second hand Longinus but rather than you should want it I bought a new one—2s.  2d. Tis I think a very good translation and has no bad notes.’


*2- finished: the 1st edition was published 21 Apr. 1757 by Robert and James Dodsley. In the same year Hume published his Four Dissertations (‘The Natural History of Religion’, ‘Of The Passions’, ‘Of Tragedy’, and ‘Of The Standard Of Taste’).

Office clerk.

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