Cornish Trilogy

three related novels by Robertson Davies

Quotations from The Cornish Trilogy, a series of three novels by Robertson Davies.

The Rebel Angels

  • Too much cleanliness is an enemy to creation, to speculative thought.
    • Second Paradise I, section 3.
  • "Will you respect me enough not to snoop through my papers?"
    "Perhaps not as much as that. I like to know what's going on."
    • Second Paradise I, section 3.
  • Autumn, to me the most congenial of seasons: the University, to me the most congenial of lives.
    • The New Aubrey I, section 1.
  • As I walked down the avenue of maples that leads toward the University Bookstore I was as happy as I suppose it is in my nature to be; my nature tends toward happiness, or toward enthusiastic industry, which for me is the same thing.
    • The New Aubrey I, section 1.
  • McVarish always reminds me of the fairy-tale about the girl out of whose mouth a toad leapt whenever she spoke. He could say more nasty things in ordinary conversation than anybody I have ever known, and he could make poor innocents like Ellerman accept them as wit.
    • The New Aubrey I, section 1.
  • However much science and educational theory and advanced thinking you pump into a college or a university, it always retains a strong hint of its medieval origins, and the fact that Spook was a New World college in a New World university made surprisingly little difference.
    • The New Aubrey I, section 2.
  • "I'm getting on with the work that will eventually make me a Doctor of Philosophy."
    "Ah, that blessed degree that stamps us for life as creatures of guaranteed intellectual worth."
    • Second Paradise II, section 2.
  • What really shapes and conditions and makes us is somebody only a few of us ever have the courage to face: and that is the child you once were, long before formal education ever got its claws into you — that impatient, all-demanding child who wants love and power and can't get enough of either and who goes on raging and weeping in your spirit till at last your eyes are closed and all the fools say, "Doesn't he look peaceful?" It is those pent-up, craving children who make all the wars and all the horrors and all the art and all the beauty and discovery in life, because they are trying to achieve what lay beyond their grasp before they were five years old.
    • Second Paradise II, section 2.
  • McVarish lectured dully; his stuff was good but he was too much the scholar to make it interesting, lest somebody should accuse him of "popularization".
    • Second Paradise II, section 3.
  • Funny how languages break down and turn into something else. Latin was rubbed away until it degenerated into dreadful lingos like French and Spanish and Italian, and lo! people found out that quite new things could be said in these degenerate tongues — things nobody had ever thought of in Latin. English is breaking down now in the same way — becoming a world language that every Tom, Dick and Harry must learn, and speak in a way that would give Doctor Johnson the jim-jams.
    • Second Paradise II, section 3.
  • I knew I was going to like Prof. the Rev. Darcourt. He seemed to think that learning could be amusing, and that heavy people needed stirring up. Like Rabelais, of whom even educated people like Parlabane had such a stupid opinion. Rabelais was gloriously learned because learning amused him, and so far as I am concerned that is learning's best justification. Not the only one, but the best.
    It is not that I wanted to know a great deal, in order to acquire what is now called expertise, and which enables one to become an expert-tease to people who don't know as much as you do about the tiny corner you have made your own...In a modern university if you ask for knowledge they will provide it in almost any form — though if you ask for out-of-fashion things they may say, like the people in shops, "Sorry, there's no call for it."
    • Second Paradise II, section 3.
  • I had known him for years in a casual way, but I had never seen very deeply into him. He seemed to me to have more conscience than is good for any man. A powerful conscience and no sense of humour — a dangerous combination.
    • The New Aubrey II, section 1.
  • [Maria speaking to Parlabane] "Very likely. You can't bounce me with abuse, Parlabane … by bounce I mean men always want to disconcert women and put them at a disadvantage; bouncing is genial, patronizing bullying and I won't put up with it."
    • Second Paradise III, section 1.
  • Parlabane had done something that had a little unhinged me; he had awakened the Maenad in me, that spirit which any woman of any character keeps well suppressed, but shakes men badly when it is revealed. The Maenads, who tore Pentheus to bloody scraps and ate him, are not dead, just sleeping.
    • Second Paradise III, section 2.
  • Energy and curiosity are the lifeblood of universities; the desire to find out, to uncover, to dig deeper, to puzzle out obscurities, is the spirit of the university, and it is a channelling of that unresting curiosity that holds mankind together.
    • The New Aubrey III', section 2.
  • Because real teaching demands energy as well. To instruct calls for energy, and to remain almost silent, but watchful and helpful, while students instruct themselves, calls for even greater energy. To see someone fall … when a word from you would keep him on his feet but ignorant of an important danger, is one of the tasks of the teacher that calls for special energy, because holding in is more demanding than crying out.
    • The New Aubrey III, section 2.
  • But like everybody else, as Hollier says, I live in a muddle of eras, and some of my ideas belong to today, and some to an ancient past, and some to periods of time that seem more relevant to my parents than to me. If I could sort them and control them I might know better where I stand, but when I most want to be contemporary the Past keeps pushing in, and when I long for the Past … the Present cannot be pushed away.
    • Second Paradise IV, section 1.
  • Oh, I knew what was wrong with me, right enough; I wanted to be an intellectual, to escape from everything Mamusia and the generations of Kalderash behind her meant, and I knew I could do it only by the uttermost violence to myself.
    • Second Paradise IV, section 2.
  • She called it the Bear Chant; it was the music Gypsy bear-leaders played or sang to their animals, but I think it was something older than that; to those gypsies so long ago the bear was not only a valuable possession and money-spinner, but a companion and perhaps an object of reverence. Is it unbelievable? Notice how some people talk to their dogs and cats nowadays; the talk is usually the sentimentality they think appropriate to a not very dangerous animal. But how would one talk to a bear which could kill? How would one ask it for friendship? How would one invite its wisdom, which is so unlike the wisdom of a man, but not impenetrable by a man? This was what the Bear Chant seemed to be — music that moved slowly, with long interrogative pauses, and unusual demands on that low, guttural voice of the fiddle, which is so rarely heard in the kind of music I understand and enjoy.
    • Second Paradise IV, section 2.
  • The house stank; a stench all its own pervaded every corner. It was a threnody in the key of Cat minor, with a ground-bass of Old Dog, and modulations of old people, waning lives, and relinquished hopes.
    • Second Paradise IV, section 2.
  • A strange child, perhaps, but I wouldn't give a pinch of dust for a child who was not strange. Is not every child strange, by adult accounting, if we could only learn to know it? If it has no strangeness, what is the use of it? To grow up into another humanoid turnip?
    • Second Paradise IV, section 5.
  • The Gypsies are not a numerous people, and so the statistics concerning their extermination are unimpressive, if you are impressed chiefly by numbers: there were just a few less than half a million who died thus, but when one human creature dies a whole world of hope and memory and feeling dies with him. To be robbed of the dignity of a natural death is a terrible deprivation.
    • Second Paradise IV, section 5.
  • Half a million Gypsies dead, at the command of this gadjo world; who weeps for them? I do, sometimes. I do.
    • Second Paradise IV, section 5.
  • Secrets are the blood of life. Every big thing is a secret, even when you know it, because you never know all of it. If you can know everything about anything, it is not worth knowing.
    • Second Paradise IV, section 6.
  • She unwrapped the figure, which was bandaged at least six layers deep, and there we saw a violin. "The great lady is undressed for her sleep," said Mamusia, and indeed the violin had no bridge, no strings, no pegs, and looked very much like someone in déshabillé. "You see that the sleep is coming on her; the varnish is already a little dulled, but she is breathing, she is sinking into her trance. In six months she will be wakened by me, her cunning servant, and I shall dress her again and she will go back to the world with her voice in perfect order."
    • Second Paradise IV, section 6.
  • Civilization rests on two things...the discovery that fermentation produces alcohol, and voluntary ability to inhibit defecation. And I put it to you, where would this splendidly civilized occasion be without both?
    • The New Aubrey IV, section 2.
  • A world without corruption would be a strange world indeed — and a damned bad world for lawyers, let me say.
    • The New Aubrey IV, section 2.
  • Late November can be a romantic time of year in Canada; the bare trees, the frosty air and whirling winds, the eerie light which sometimes persists for the whole of the day and then sinks, shortly after four, into steely darkness, dispose me to Gothic thoughts.
    • Second Paradise V, section 1.
  • I have thought a good deal about trees; I like them. They speak eloquently of the balanced dubiety which I told you was the sceptical attitude. No splendid crown without the strong root that works in the dark, drawing its nourishment among the rocks, the soil, hidden waters, and all the little, burrowing things. A man is like that; his splendours and his fruits are to be seen, to win him love and admiration. But what about the root?
    Have you ever seen a bulldozer clearing land? It advances upon a great tree and shoves and pushes inexorably until the tree is down and thrust out of the way, and all of that effort is accompanied by a screaming and wrenching sounds from the tree as the great roots are torn from the ground. It is a particularly distressing kind of death. And when the tree is upturned, the root proves to be as big as the crown.
    What is the root of man? All sorts of things that nourish his visible part, but the deepest root of all, the tap-root, is that child he once was, of which I spoke to you when I was amusing you with the story of my life. That is the root which goes deepest because it is reaching downward towards the ancestors.
    • Second Paradise V, section 2.
  • "No, it is in the story. I saw it in New York. The kings say, We bring you Gold, Frank Innocence, and Mirth." "Sancta simplicitas," said Darcourt. "If only there were more Mirth in the message He has left to us. We miss it sadly, in the world we have made."
    • Second Paradise V, section 4.
  • So what was I to do? To go backward was base: to go forward an adventure into splendour and terror. But it was forward I must go.
    • The New Aubrey V, section 1.
  • Poor woman, I suppose she led a dog's life, and it made her disagreeable, which she mistook for being strong.
    • The New Aubrey V, section 6.
  • The paradox of money is that when you have lots of it you can manage life quite cheaply. Nothing so economical as being rich.
    • Second Paradise VI, section 4.
  • I was offered a lot of money for my story, "John Parlabane as I Knew Him", and the services of a ghost to write it up from my verbal confession. (It was assumed that, as a student, I would not be capable of coherent expression.)
    • Second Paradise VI, section 5.
  • I think he expected me to agree enthusiastically, but I didn't. Nor did I contradict him; I have had too much experience of life to attempt to tell a really rich person anything.
    • The New Aubrey VI, section 1.
  • "I am not convinced such a small library will know how to deal with it," said Jubilei. "Can you guarantee that it will be preserved, page by page, between sheets of acid-free paper?"
    I thought of Parlabane's squalid mess of typescript, and smiled a private smile.
    • The New Aubrey VI, section 3.
  • "I was saying precisely that to my wife this morning at breakfast."
    "And what did she say?"
    "I think she said Yes dear, and went on making a list for her shopping. But that's beside the point…"
    • The New Aubrey VI, section 3.
  • "That is what lends splendour to a university," said the Warden. "Not these dreadful interruptions of the natural order."
    "You lean always toward the light, Warden; perhaps both are necessary, for completeness."
    • The New Aubrey VI, section 3.

The Lyre of Orpheus

  • Like a real academic, she was wary of people outside the academic world — 'laymen' they called them — who seemed to know a lot. Knowledge was for professionals of knowledge.
    • Part 1, section 3.
  • Important rule of professorcraft: never show resentment at a student insult — wait and get them later.
    • Part 1, section 4.
  • They did not murmur the [ Canadian ] national prayer: "O God, grant me mediocrity and comfort; protect me from the radiance of Thy light."
    • Part 3, section 3.
  • A Philistine is someone who is content to live in a wholly unexplored world.
    • Part 3, section 4.
  • It is a firm critical principle that nobody living is quite as good as somebody dead.
    • Part 4, section 3.
  • Like a true university woman she set out on a criticism of the words which was rooted in what she had been taught; she had a critical system, unfailing in its power to reduce poetry to technicalities and to slide easily over its content. It was a system which, properly applied, could put Homer in his place and turn the Sonnets of Shakespeare into critic-fodder. Without intending to be so, it was a system which, once mastered, set the possessor free forever, should that be his wish, from anything a poet, however noble in spirit, might have felt and imparted to the world.
    • Part 6, section 3.
  • There are no great performances without great audiences, and this is the barrier that film and television, by their utmost efforts, cannot cross, for there can be no interaction between what is done, and those to whom it is done. Great theatre, great music-drama, is created again and again on both sides of the footlights.
    • Part 7, section 10.
  • Did you ever hear such enthusiasm? In Canada, I mean, the Home of Modified Rapture.
    • Part 7, section 10.

What's Bred in the Bone

  • What we call luck is the inner man externalized
    • Part 1.
  • A happy childhood has spoiled many a promising life.
    • Part 2.
  • She knew enough about the McRorys to hang them, she told herself, but she held her tongue. Judge not that ye be not judged. Of course, you can't be a Calvinist without judging, but as a Calvinist you know what God's ordinances are, so it isn't really judging. It's just knowing right from wrong.
    • Part 2.
  • Whoever lives in the finest house in a small Canadian town dwells in a House of Atreus, about which a part of the community harbours the darkest mythical suspicions...In lesser houses there may be fighting, covert abortions, children "touched up" with a hot flat-iron to make them obedient, every imaginable aspect of parsimony, incest, and simple, persistent cruelty, but these are nothing to whatever seems amiss at the Big House.
    • Part 2.
  • Nothing is so easy to fake as the inner vision.
    • Part 4.
  • It was a man's mind, the size of a house.
    • Part 4.
  • Catholicism has begotten much great art; Protestantism none at all – not a single painting. But Catholicism has fostered art in the very teeth of Christianity. The Kingdom of Christ, if it ever comes, will contain no art; Christ never showed the least concern with it. His church has inspired much but not because of anything the Master said. Who then was the inspirer? The much-maligned Devil, one supposes. It is he who understands and ministers to man's carnal and intellectual self, and art is carnal and intellectual.
    • Part 5.
  • It was a philosophy deformed by that disease so fatal to philosophers – personal experience.
    • Part 5.
  • The art of the quoter is to know when to stop.
    • Part 6.
  • In the minds of politicians, perhaps more than anywhere, the notion of a million dollars has this accordion-like ability to expand or contract; if they are disposing of it, the million is a pleasing sum, reflecting warmly upon themselves; if somebody else wants it, it becomes a figure of inordinate size, not to be compassed by the rational mind.
    • Part 6.