Sunday, March 7, 2010

Why not the worst?

You English majors and lovers of literature (not necessarily identical categories), a while back on the old blog I posed a question: What’s the worst writing you ever read?

Before you spring on us extracts from the poetry of William McGonagall or Julia A. Moore, the Sweet Singer of Michigan, or from your cousin’s child’s fifth-grade book report or the latest memo on benefits from your human resources department, or the latest winners of the Bulwer-Lytton contest, observe a couple of rules.

(1) It must be published writing.

(2)It must be of some literary standing, not the work of a misguided amateur but rather that of a misguided professional, a writer of some reputation.

(3)It must be limited to a single, discrete passage.

(4)It must be from literature, broadly defined, rather than from criticism or (save us) from newspaper journalism.  

(5) Dan Brown doesn’t count.

Some of my favorites:

Item:  From Richard Crashaw’s “Saint Mary Magdalene or The Weeper” (referring to Magdalene’s eyes):

And now wher’er he strays,
Among the Galilean mountains,
Or more unwelcome ways,
He’s followed by two faithful fountains;
Two walking baths, two weeping motions;
Portable and compendious oceans.

Item: From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature”:

“Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball¾I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me¾I am part or particle of God.”

Item: From Pecy Bysshe Shelley’s Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude:

At length upon the lone Chorasmian shore
He paused, a wide and melancholy waste
Of putrid marshes.

Item:  From Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited:

So at sunset I took formal possession of her as her lover. It was no time for the sweets of luxury; they would come, in their season, with the swallow and the lime flowers. Now on the rough water, as I was made free of her narrow loins and, it seemed now, in assuaging that fierce appetite, cast a burden which I had borne all my life, toiled under, not knowing its nature ¾ now, while the waves still broke and thundered on the prow, the act of possession was a symbol, a rite of ancient origin and solemn meaning.

(Whew.) Have at it.


  1. From Middlemarch, by George Eliot (or pick any sentence at random from her writing):
    "These characteristics, fixed and unchangeable as bone in Mr. Casaubon, might have remained longer unfelt by Dorothea if she had been encouraged to pour forth her girlish and womanly feeling--if he would have held her hands between his and listened with the delight of tenderness and understanding to all the little histories which made up her experience, and would have given her the same sort of intimacy in return, so that the past life of each could be included in their mutual knowledge and affection--or if she could have fed her affection with those childlike caresses which are the bent of every sweet woman, who has begun by showering kisses on the hard pate of her bald doll, creating a happy soul within the woodenness from the wealth of her own love."

  2. Ludlum from the Bourne Ultimatum

    Footsteps. Slow, hesitant, and through the shadows of the deserted path walked two short men— old men. At first glance they, indeed, appeared to be part of the swelling army of indigent homeless, yet there was something different about them, a sense of purpose, perhaps. They stopped nearly twenty feet away from the bench, their faces in darkness. The old man on the left spoke, his voice thin, his accent strange. “It is an odd hour and an unusual place for two such well-dressed gentlemen to meet. Is it fair for you to occupy a place of rest that should be for others not so well off as you?”
    “There are a number of unoccupied benches,” said Alex pleasantly. “Is this one reserved?”
    “There are no reserved seats here,” replied the second old man, his English clear but not native to him. “But why are you here?”
    “What’s it to you?” asked Conklin. “This is a private meeting and none of your business.” “Business at this hour and in this place?” The first aged intruder spoke while looking around. “I repeat,” repeated Alex. “It’s none of your business and I really think you should leave us

  3. I'm not sure if you can fix this, but recently your posts have been peppered with '3/4ths' symbols. Some kind of error with the blogspot software, I'm sure.

  4. From John Updike's "Gertrude and Claudius": "She sensed her body floating naked away from her thinking head -- her breasts blown roses pink and white, her sex swollen and tender beneath its matted bush, her bare feet forming a distant audience of nail-faced toes."

  5. You beat me to it, Prof. McIntyre! I was going to submit "The Weeper" after I'd read the rules, but then I scrolled down and there it was. As the professor who taught it to me said, it's one of the howlers of literature.