Modern Essays: Trivia

By Logan Pearsall Smith

It would be extravagant to claim that Pearsall Smith’s Trivia, the remarkable little book from which these miniature essays are extracted, is well known: it is too daintily, fragile and absurd and sophisticated to appeal to a very large public. But it has a cohort of its own devotees and fanatics, and since its publication in 1917 it has become a sort of password in a secret brotherhood or intellectual Suicide Club. I say suicide advisedly, for Mr. Smith’s irony is glitteringly edged. Its incision is so keen that the reader is often unaware the razor edge has turned against himself until he perceives the wound to be fatal.

Pearsall Smith was, in a way, one of the Men of the Nineties. But he had Repressions—(an excellent thing to have, brothers. Most of the great literature is founded on judicious repressions). He came of an excellent old intellectual Quaker family down in the Philadelphia region. His father (if we remember rightly) was one of Walt Whitman’s staunchest friends in the Camden days. But when the strong wine of the Nineties was foaming in the vats and noggins, Mr. Smith (so we imagine it, at least) was still too close to that “guarded education in morals and manners” that he had had at Haverford College, Pennsylvania (and further tinctured with docility at Harvard and Balliol) to give full rein to his inward gush of hilarious satirics. Like a Strong Silent Man he held in that wellspring of champagne and mercury until many many years later. When it came out (in 1902 he first began to print his Trivia, privately; the book was published by Doubleday in 1917) it sparkled all the more tenderly for its long cellarage.

But we must be statistical. Logan Pearsall Smith was born at Melville, N. J., in 1865. As a boy he lived in Philadelphia and Germantown (do you know Germantown? it is a foothill of that mountain range whereof Parnassus and Olivet are twin peaks) and was three years at Haverford in the class of ’85. He went to Harvard for a year, then to Balliol College, Oxford, where he took his degree in 1893. Ever since then, eheu, he has lived in England.


They sit there for ever on the dim horizon of my mind, that Stonehenge circle of elderly disapproving Faces—Faces of the Uncles and Schoolmasters and Tutors who frowned on my youth.

In the bright center and sunlight I leap, I caper, I dance my dance; but when I look up, I see they are not deceived. For nothing ever placates them, nothing ever moves to a look of approval that ring of bleak, old, contemptuous Faces.

The Stars

Battling my way homeward one dark night against the wind and rain, a sudden gust, stronger than the others, drove me back into the shelter of a tree. But soon the Western sky broke open; the illumination of the Stars poured down from behind the dispersing clouds.

I was astonished at their brightness, to see how they filled the night with their soft lustre. So I went my way accompanied by them; Arcturus followed me, and becoming entangled in a leafy tree, shone by glimpses, and then emerged triumphant, Lord of the Western Sky. Moving along the road in the silence of my own footsteps, my thoughts were among the Constellations. I was one of the Princes of the starry Universe; in me also there was something that was not insignificant and mean and of no account.

The Spider

What shall I compare it to, this fantastic thing I call my Mind? To a waste-paper basket, to a sieve choked with sediment, or to a barrel full of floating froth and refuse?

No, what it is really most like is a spider’s web, insecurely hung on leaves and twigs, quivering in every wind, and sprinkled with dewdrops and dead flies. And at its center, pondering for ever the Problem of Existence, sits motionless the spider-like and uncanny Soul.

L’Oiseau Bleu

What is it, I have more than once asked myself, what is it that I am looking for in my walks about London? Sometimes it seems to me as if I were following a Bird, a bright Bird that sings sweetly as it floats about from one place to another.

When I find myself, however, among persons of middle age and settled principles, see them moving regularly to their offices—what keeps them going? I ask myself. And I feel ashamed of myself and my Bird.

There is though a Philosophic Doctrine—I studied it at College, and I know that many serious people believe it—which maintains that all men, in spite of appearances and pretensions, all live alike for Pleasure. This theory certainly brings portly, respected persons very near to me. Indeed, with a sense of low complicity, I have sometimes watched a Bishop. Was he, too, on the hunt for Pleasure, solemnly pursuing his Bird?

I See the World

“But you go nowhere, see nothing of the world,” my cousins said.

Now though I do go sometimes to the parties to which I am now and then invited, I find, as a matter of fact, that I get really much more pleasure by looking in at windows, and have a way of my own of seeing the World. And of summer evenings, when motors hurry through the late twilight, and the great houses take on airs of inscrutable expectation, I go owling out through the dusk; and wandering toward the West, lose my way in unknown streets—an unknown City of revels. And when a door opens and a bediamonded Lady moves to her motor over carpets unrolled by powdered footmen, I can easily think her some great Courtezan, or some half-believed Duchess, hurrying to card-tables and lit candles and strange scenes of joy. I like to see that there are still splendid people on this flat earth; and at dances, standing in the street with the crowd, and stirred by the music, the lights, the rushing sound of voices, I think the Ladies as beautiful as Stars who move up those lanes of light past our rows of vagabond faces; the young men look like Lords in novels; and if (it has once or twice happened) people I know go by me, they strike me as changed and rapt beyond my sphere. And when on hot nights windows are left open, and I can look in at Dinner Parties, as I peer through lace curtains and window-flowers at the silver, the women’s shoulders, the shimmer of their jewels, and the divine attitudes of their heads as they lean and listen, I imagine extraordinary intrigues and unheard-of wines and passions.

The Church of England

I have my Anglican moments; and as I sat there that Sunday afternoon, in the Palladian interior of the London Church, and listened to the unexpressive voices chanting the correct service, I felt a comfortable assurance that we were in no danger of being betrayed into any unseemly manifestations of religious fervor. We had not gathered together at that performance to abase ourselves with furious hosannas before any dark Creator of an untamed Universe, no Deity of freaks and miracles and sinister hocus-pocus; but to pay our duty to a highly respected Anglican First Cause—undemonstrative, gentlemanly, and conscientious—whom, without loss of self-respect, we could decorously praise.


The other day, depressed on the Underground, I tried to cheer myself by thinking over the joys of our human lot. But there wasn’t one of them for which I seemed to care a button—not Wine, nor Friendship, nor Eating, nor Making Love, nor the Consciousness of Virtue. Was it worth while then going up in a lift into a world that had nothing less trite to offer?

Then I thought of reading—the nice and subtle happiness of reading. This was enough, this joy not dulled by Age, this polite and unpunished vice, this selfish, serene, life-long intoxication.

The Kaleidoscope

I find in my mind, in its miscellany of ideas and musings, a curious collection of little landscapes and pictures, shining and fading for no reason. Sometimes they are views in no way remarkable—the corner of a road, a heap of stones, an old gate. But there are many charming pictures too: as I read, between my eyes and book, the Moon sheds down on harvest fields her chill of silver; I see autumnal avenues, with the leaves falling, or swept in heaps; and storms blow among my thoughts, with the rain beating for ever on the fields. Then Winter’s upward glare of snow appears; or the pink and delicate green of Spring in the windy sunshine; or cornfields and green waters, and youths bathing in Summer’s golden heats.

And as I walk about, certain places haunt me; a cathedral rises above a dark blue foreign town, the color of ivory in the sunset light; now I find myself in a French garden, full of lilacs and bees, and shut-in sunshine, with the Mediterranean lounging and washing outside its walls; now in a little college library, with busts, and the green reflected light of Oxford lawns—and again I hear the bells, reminding me of the familiar Oxford hours.

The Poplar

There is a great tree in Sussex, whose cloud of thin foliage floats high in the summer air. The thrush sings in it, and blackbirds, who fill the late, decorative sunshine with a shimmer of golden sound. There the nightingale finds her green cloister; and on those branches sometimes, like a great fruit, hangs the lemon-colored Moon. In the glare of August, when all the world is faint with heat, there is always a breeze in those cool recesses, always a noise, like the noise of water, among its lightly-hung leaves.

But the owner of this Tree lives in London, reading books.