Aphorisms by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Just finished reading First We Read, Then We Write by Robert D. Richardson, reflections on the creative writing process gleaned from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays and journals. Richardson, who has written fantastic biographies of both Emerson and Thoreau (and William James), does a magnificent job of curating these Emerson quotes. Emerson is a great aphorist (Geary’s Guide, pp. 83-85) and in these observations and analyses he gets at the heart of what it’s like to write and to read…

 

Work and learn in evil days, in insulted days, in days of debt and depression and calamity. Fight best in the shade of the cloud of arrows.

 

The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say.

 

Good writing and brilliant conversation are perpetual allegories.

 

All that can be thought can be written.

 

There is creative reading as well as creative writing.

 

First we eat, then we beget; first we read, then we write.

 

[While you are reading] you are the book’s book.

 

It happens to us once or twice in a lifetime to be drunk with some book which probably has some extraordinary relative power to intoxicate us and none other; and having exhausted that cup of enchantment we go groping in libraries all our years afterwards in the hope of being in Paradise again.

 

For only that book can we read which relates to me something that is already in my mind.

 

There is a great secret in knowing what to keep out of the mind as well as what to put in.

 

The glance reveals what the gaze obscures.

 

What we are, that only can we see.

 

The way to write is to throw your entire body at the target after all your arrows are spent.

 

Words are signs of natural facts. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts. Nature is the symbol of spirit. The whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.

 

Avoid adjectives. Let the noun do the work.

 

It is the best part of each writer which has nothing private in it.

 

Language should aim to describe the fact, and not merely suggest it.

 

Art lies not in making your object prominent, but in choosing objects that are prominent.

 

[Good style:] Nothing can be added to it, neither can anything be taken from it.

 

An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.

 

If you desire to arrest attention, to surprise, do not give me the facts in the order of cause and effect, but drop one or two links in the chain, and give me a cause and an effect two or three times removed.

 

The moment you putty and plaster your expressions to make them hang together, you have begun a weakening process. Take it for granted that the truths will harmonize; and as for the falsities and mistakes, they will speedily die of themselves. If you must be contradictory, let it be clean and sharp as the two blades of scissors meet.

 

The power to detach and to magnify by detaching, is the essence of rhetoric in the hands of the orator and poet.

 

Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim. This one fact the world hates; that the soul becomes.

 

I lose days determining how hours should be spent.

 

The best part … of every mind is not that which he knows, but that which hovers in gleams, suggestions, tantalizing unpossessed before him. His firm recorded knowledge soon loses all interest for him, but this dancing chorus of thoughts and hopes is the quarry of his future, is his possibility.

 

Always that work is more pleasant to the imagination which is not now required.

 

Our moods do not believe in each other.

 

Life is our dictionary.

 

Skill in writing consists in making every word cover a thing.

 

You must never lose sight of the purpose of helping a particular person in every word you say.

 

The art of writing consists in putting two things together that are unlike and that belong together like a horse and cart. Then have we somewhat far more goodly and efficient than either.

 

The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics.

 

You shall not tell me that your house is of importance in the commercial world. You shall not tell me that you have learned to know men. You shall make me feel that. Else your saying so unsays it.

 

Art is the path of the creator to his work.

 

All things are engaged in writing their history. The planet, the pebble, goes attended by his shadow. The rolling rock leaves its scratches on the mountain.

Aphorisms by John Lyly

John Lyly was born in Kent in 1553 or 1554. He was a student of Magdalen College, Oxford and in 1579 published Euphues, or the Anatomy of Wit, which became one of the very first bestsellers. Euphues is the story of the eponymous hero as he falls in love, betrays his friend to win the girl, then loses the girl to another man, all the while discoursing in high Renaissance style of the relationship between wit and wisdom. The book introduced the literary fad of euphuism (not to be confused with euphemism), the ornate, embellished, verbose style pioneered by Lyly. An euphuism is typically overly-long but also strangely beautiful. If you took a page of euphuistic prose, brought it to a low boil, and let it simmer overnight, you would wake up with an aphorism.Lyly did just that, as these aphorism from Euphues, or the Anatomy of Wit attest:

 

Things of greatest profit are set forth with least price.

 

Envy braggeth but draweth no blood, the malicious have more mind to grip than might to cut.

 

In all perfect shapes a blemish bringeth rather a liking every way to the eyes than a loathing any way to the mind.

 

That wit is the better if it be the dearer bought.

 

Is not he accounted most wise whom other men’s harms do make most wary?

 

A fine wit, a sharp sense, a quick understanding, is able to attain to more in a moment or a very little space than a dull and blockish head in a month.

 

As the sea-crab swimmeth always against the stream, so wit always striveth against wisdom; and as the bee is oftentimes hurt with her own honey, so is wit not seldom plagued with his own conceit.

 

The vine water with wine is soon withered … yea, man the more witty he is the less happy he is.

 

The blind man doth eat many a fly.

 

They commonly are soonest believed that are best loved, and they liked best whom we have known longest.

 

Sloth turneth the edge of wit, study sharpeneth the mind; a thing be it ever so easy is hard to the idle, a thing be it never so hard is easy to the wit well employed.

Aphorisms by Ma Changshan

Ma Changshan lives in Beijing and has been writing aphorisms for more than 20 years. It all started in 1990 when he read Mark Twain’s saying, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes.” “I was shocked by his paradox,” Ma Changshan says. “That’s when I began to write aphorisms, never stopping. My ambition is to publish 10,000 aphorisms. Hopefully, the 10,000 aphorisms will be finished in 2012.” Ma Changshan’s comments on his audience will not doubt sound familiar to fellow aphorists: “Some Chinese reader understand me, but only a few.”

 

A great man is one who moves slowly but resolutely and with whom the masses must run to keep up.

 

Conservatives are a group of people with noble virtues: They leave to others the fun of blazing new paths and leave to themselves the drudgery of passing judgment on the effort.

 

Human society is organized such that seldom is there a position occupied by one who best suits that position.

 

Opportunism may yield instant gratification; altruism leads to eternal happiness.

 

The perfect man is said to have only virtues but not shortcomings. It may be deduced from this that the perfect man is not a complete man.

 

Those who have suffered know what suffering is like. Those who haven’t can only imagine what suffering is like. Suffering for the latter is more boundless.

 

Embrace your enemy; this allows you to launch a sneak attack on him.

 

(English translations by Xiang Hua)

 

Happiness is everywhere but still in short supply.

 

I will never join in a chorus, especially the one that has a conductor.

 

I would rather be seen from below by the public; that way they will never realize I am bald.

 

(English translations by Feng Tong)

More Aphorisms by Marty Rubin

Marty Rubin is back with some characteristically poignant, Zen-inflected aphorisms. I’ve blogged about Marty’s aphorisms before (click here to read that post) and for more of Marty’s musings, check out his blog: Out Of Context: Pieces of a Life.

 

No one can think clearly who thinks only with their head.

 

The moon is always full, though you can’t always see it.

 

Rain or shine, the cicadas find something to sing about.

 

When you win an argument, what do you win?

 

The world makes sense to those who don’t try to make sense of it.

 

Not trying makes everything easy.

Aphorisms by Christopher Phelps

Christopher Phelps describes himself as “a fledgling poet,” but in these aphorisms he is certainly in full flight. These sayings, which Phelps calls epigrams, play off stock phrases as they slyly subvert and elevate contemporary bumper sticker mentality. “Occasionally in my work I notice that an epigram says more than a longer, more landscaped poem would,” he writes—and he’s right. Enough said.

 

Is necessity a single mom, or does invention have a dad?

 

Tides aside, it is also the tears of the boaters that raise their boats.

 

A poem is, if divinely inspired, humanly proportioned. A poem is spirit and letter sitting together in talks. A poem is graven imagination. A poem is sacrilegible.

 

In a world of paraphrase—a slope that slips from one end to its opposite—a poem is what remains of the exact quotation.

 

Outside the box there is a glut of slain dragon, pushing down the price of dragon meat for the rest of us.

 

“Don’t believe everything you think” is a paraphrase of Aristotle. Bumper stickers: check and source yourselves.

 

To paraphrase Simone Weil, we all partake of the same hell, but hell pretends we suffer separately. That’s hell’s lie.

 

To the soul? I don’t know. But our eyes are windows. For the glass to glow, you have to wash the words out.