commonplace book

Here I’ve collected some of my favourite passages from writers I admire. I hope you enjoy them too.


W.H. Auden

And, as for sylvan nature, if you take
A snapshot at a picnic, O how short
And lower-ordersy the Gang will look
By those vast lives that never took another
And are not scared of gods, ghosts, or stepmother.


William Blake

There is a Grain of Sand in Lambeth that Satan cannot find
Nor can his Watch Fiends find it: tis translucent & has many Angles
But he who finds it will find Oothoons palace, for within
Opening into Beulah every angle is a lovely heaven.

(Jerusalem Plate 41, lines 15-18)

There is a Moment in each Day that Satan cannot find
Nor can his Watch Fiends find it, but the Industrious find
This Moment & it multiply, & when it once is found
It Renovates every Moment of the Day if rightly placed.

(Milton Plate 35, lines 42-45)


Emily Dickinson

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,—
One clover, and a bee,
And reverie.
The reverie alone will do
If bees are few.

(“To Make a Prairie”)

Alasdair Gray

Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.


David George Haskell

The tree inhales and stills the air’s fibrillating breath, holding it in wood, like a kami. Each year’s growth ring jackets the previous, capturing in layered derma precise molecular signatures of the atmosphere, timbered memories. Wood emerges from relationship with air, catalyzed by the flash of electrons through membranes. Atmosphere and plant make each other: plant as a temporary crystallization of carbon, air as a product of 400 million years of forest breath.

(The Songs of Trees, p. 249)

D. H. Lawrence

You’ll never make me believe the sky is like an empty house with a slate falling from the roof. The world has its own life, the sky has a life of its own, and never is it like stones rolling down a rubbish-heap and falling into a pond. Many things twitch and twitter within the sky, and many things happen beyond us.

(St Mawr)

Robert Macfarlane

“As I watch [the world],” wrote Nan Shepherd in 1945, “It arches its back, and each layer of landscape bristles.” It is a brilliant observation about observation. Shepherd knew that “landscape” is not something to be viewed and appraised from a distance, as if it were a panel in a frieze or a canvas in a frame. It is not the passive object of our gaze, but rather a volatile participant — a fellow subject which arches and bristles at us, bristles into us. Landscape is still often understood as a noun connoting fixity, scenery, an immobile painterly decorum. I prefer to think of the word as a noun containing a hidden verb: landscape scapes, it is dynamic and commotion causing, it sculpts and shapes us not only over the courses of our lives but also instant by instant, incident by incident. I prefer to take “landscape” as a collective term for the temperature and pressure of the air, the fall of light and its rebounds, the textures and surfaces of rock, soil and building, the sounds (cricket screech, bird cry, wind through trees), the scents (pine resin, hot stone, crushed thyme) and the uncountable other transitory phenomena and atmospheres that together comprise the bristling presence of a particular place at a particular moment.

(The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, pp. 254-5)

Karl Marx

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air.

(Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848)

Charlotte Mew

We strain our eyes beyond this dusk to see
What, from the threshold of eternity
We shall step into…. [and] I think we shun
The splendour of that everlasting glare,
The clamour of that never-ending song.
And if for anything we greatly long,
It is for some remote and quiet stair
Which winds to silence and a space for sleep
Too sound for waking and for dreams too deep.

(“Not for that City”, c. 1916)

Toni Morrison

If you are free, then you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.

Sylvia Plath

The only thing to come now is the sea.
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,   
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt.
I follow the sheep path between them. A last hook brings me   
To the hills’ northern face, and the face is orange rock   
That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space   
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths   
Beating and beating at an intractable metal.


Hugh Raffles

What foolishness to judge insects — so ancient, so diverse, so accomplished, so successful, so beautiful, so astonishing, so mysterious, so unknown — by criteria they can never meet and about which they could not care! What silliness to disregard their accomplishments and focus instead on their supposed deficiencies! What pitiful poverty of imagination to see them as resources merely for our self-knowledge! What sad, sad, sad sadness when language fails us.

(Insectopedia, p. 200).

Mary Shelley

We are unfashioned creatures, but half made up.


“But soon,” he cried with sad and solemn enthusiasm, “I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace, or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell.”

He sprang from the cabin-window as he said this, upon the ice raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.


Edward Thomas

Was vain. No more could the restless brook
Ever turn back and climb the waterfall
To the lake that rests and stirs not in its nook
As in the hollow of the collar-bone
Under the mountain’s head of rush and stone.

(“Over the Hills”).

Derek Walcott

“Measure the days you have left. Do just that labour
which marries your heart to your right hand: simplify
your life to one emblem, a sail leaving harbour

and a sail coming in. All corruption will cry
to be taken aboard. Fame is that white liner
at the end of your street, a city to itself …”


Because Rhyme remains the parentheses of palms
shielding a candle’s tongue, it is the language’s
desire to enclose the loved world in its arms …


Eleanor Wilner

Now, nothing but the wind
moves on the rain-pocked face
of the swollen waters, though far below
where giant squid lie hidden in shy tangles,
the whales, heavy-bodied as the angels,
their fins like vestiges of wings,
sing some mighty epic of their own —

a great day when the ships would all withdraw,
the harpoons fail of their aim, the land
dissolve into the waters, and they would swim
among the peaks of mountains, like eagles
of the deep, while far below them, the old
nightmares of earth would settle
into silt among the broken cities, the empty
basked of the child would float
abandoned in the seaweed until the work of water
unraveled it in filaments of straw,
till even that straw rotted
in the planetary thaw the whales prayed for,
sending their jets of water skyward
in the clear conviction they’d spill back
to ocean with their will accomplished
in the miracle of rain: And the earth
was without form and void, and darkness
was upon the face of the deep. And
the Spirit moved upon the face of the waters.

(“Reading the Bible Backwards”)

Shoshana Zuboff

Surveillance capitalism’s antidemocratic and antiegalitarian juggernaut is best described as a market-driven coup from above. It is not a coup d’état in the classic sense but rather a coup de gens: an overthrow of the people concealed as the technological Trojan horse…. It is a form of tyranny that feeds on people but is not of the people. In a surreal paradox, this coup is celebrated as “personalization,” although it defiles, ignores, overrides, and displaces everything about you and me that is personal.

(The Age of Surveillance Capitalism)

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