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Robertson Davies

Canadian journalist, playwright, professor, critic, and novelist


Applause we crave, from scorn we take defence
But have no armour 'gainst indifference.
  • Our fate lies in your hands, to you we pray
    For an indulgent hearing of our play
    Laugh if you can, or failing that, give vent
    In hissing fury to your discontent;
    Applause we crave, from scorn we take defence
    But have no armour 'gainst indifference.
  • William Prynne's Histrio-Matrix, the Player's Scourge or Actor's Tragedie (1632), a fat book of more than a thousand pages, which forms an admirable compilation of all the Puritan arguments against the theatre. The work is a classic of abuse and a monument to the misplaced scholarship and zeal of its author. Unluckily for Prynne he referred to women actors as 'notorious whores' meaning a group of French actresses who had appeared at Blackfriars in 1629; the reference was taken to apply to Queen Henrietta Maria and her ladies who were about to perform a pastoral at Whitehall. She made a Star Chamber matter of it and Prynne was fined 35,000 pounds, set in the pillory, shorn of his ears, branded and imprisoned for life. The SL on his cheeks he construed as Stigmata Laudis and bore bravely; it is pleasant to know that the life sentence was revoked by the Parliament of the Commonwealth, for although Prynne was a small-souled and cantankerous zealot with a maggot about homosexuality, he was a courageous fighter and a master of invective.
  • Only in the theatre was it possible to see the performers and to be warmed by their personal charm, to respond to their efforts and to feel their response to the applause and appreciative laughter of the audience. It had an intimate quality; audience and actors conspired to make a little oasis of happiness and mirth within the walls of the theatre. Try as we will, we cannot be intimate with a shadow on a screen, nor a voice from a box.
  • She made a great deal of money in her time and she spent it lavishly. Speaking of herself and her colleagues at the Metropolitan she said: "We were a race of giants." Quite true, and in case you don't know it, being a giant is a very expensive business. The cost of food and drink, not merely for oneself but for one's fellow-giants and one's scores of attendant gnomes, is a very considerable item. And the cost of jewels for a female giant is really fabulous.
  • The fall of France must have been a bitter pill to Calvé. She had a poor opinion of Germans, both as people and as artists. It is sad to imagine what her last days may have been in her "robber-baron's castle" as Peggy Wood calls it. But one thing is certain; when death came, Calvé met it with spirit. No one who knew so well how to greet life could possibly fail to know how to greet death.
    • Emma Calvé (1942).
  • The Wild Hunt is known in all Celtic countries; it is a huntsman with a pack of hounds who is seen or heard to rush through the country. Those who see him are doomed to die. The writer heard the Wild Hunt quite distinctly one night in Wales several years ago, but has not suffered any ill effects from it as yet.
    • Ghost Stories (1942).
Aristocrats need not be rich, but they must be free, and in the modern world freedom grows rarer the more we prate about it.
  • There are people nowadays who think that Irving was a ranter and a ham; quite true, he was, but in the sense that Alexander the Great was a martinet and a butcher. Ranting and hamming are very necessary accomplishments for a great actor, and he is able to invest them with a greatness which lesser actors cannot approach.
  • Aristocrats need not be rich, but they must be free, and in the modern world freedom grows rarer the more we prate about it.
  • One of the great tests of a band, of course, was its manner of playing "God Save the King." … The English did it with effortless superiority, as though to say "We have frequently played this air in the presence of the King-Emperor and have reason to believe that he was perfectly satisfied." The American band gave an impression that every man was treacherously muttering the words of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" into his instrument; which was, of course, intolerable. I have probably misjudged this band, for like most children I was a patriotic bigot.
  • My curiosity was in no way cruel. Deviations from the commonplace attracted me strongly, as they still do; and to me the hermaphrodite and the living skeleton were interesting for the same reason as was Creatore, or the resplendent Guardsmen of the bands — because such people did not often come my way, and I hoped that they might impart some great revelation to me, some insight which would help me to a clearer understanding of the world about me.
    • I Remember Creatore (1948).
One might think, to hear some people talk, that this had been a particularly fine summer. From their point of view, I suppose, it has.
  • One might think, to hear some people talk, that this had been a particularly fine summer. From their point of view, I suppose, it has. They have rushed about the lakes in noisy little boats; they have permitted themselves to be dragged behind other little boats, standing more or less upright on ironing boards; they have immersed themselves in lakes into which countless summer cottage privies drain; they have laboriously pursued summer flirtations, and some of them have achieved gritty conquests on the sands; they have sat in hot little boats waiting to catch fish which they have then had to eat; they have passed many hours changing their skins from pinkish-drab to brown, erroneously believing that they are "storing up sunshine" against the winter months; they have motored penitential distances; they have taken thousands of feet of film of people whose names they will not be able to remember in November. They have amused themselves after their fashion, and I have no quarrel with them.
    • Three Worlds, Three Summers — But Not the Summer Just Past (1949).
  • Every man makes his own summer. The season has no character of its own, unless one is a farmer with a professional concern for the weather.
    • Three Worlds, Three Summers — But Not the Summer Just Past.
  • This was a distilled essence of life; this was the way people behaved when they took off the masks which all adults seemed to me to wear; this was noble. A veil had been rent between the greatness of mankind and myself, and I knew that I would never be the same again. Nor was I. Since that night I have made some progress in my attempt to understand mankind, but I have never made another such giant leap.
    • Three Worlds, Three Summers — But Not the Summer Just Past.
  • If you stay in Canada, I can, too. Everybody says Canada is a hard country to govern, but nobody mentions that for some people it is also a hard country to live in. Still, if we all run away it will never be any better. So let the geniuses of easy virtue go southward; I know what they feel too well to blame them. But for some of us there is no choice; let Canada do what she will with us, we must stay.
    • Fortune, My Foe (1949).
The King had every privilege except that of being at ease. Pompadour provided the atmosphere in which that final luxury was possible.
  • When the time came for Pompadour herself to die, she confessed, was given her viaticum, and was from that time forth forbidden to see her lover. And when her body was borne away from Versailles, Louis was thought to have behaved rather badly because he watched the sad procession from a balcony. Let no one suppose that these people lived lives that were any more free from religious and neighbourly censure than the adulterers in our smallest Canadian villages. Even wealth and privilege could not wholly insulate them from that frost.
    • Madame de Pompadour (1954).
O, how deeply we should thank God for these impossible people like Berlioz and Dylan Thomas! What a weary, grey, well-ordered, polite, unendurable hell this would be without them!
  • The King had every privilege except that of being at ease. Pompadour provided the atmosphere in which that final luxury was possible. She did not do this, as anyone who thinks about the matter for twenty seconds will know, by twenty years of rapt contemplation of the ceilings of Versailles. Indeed, Pompadour was not a physically ardent woman, and love-making tired her. After about eight years of their association Louis XV did not sleep with her... But it was to Pompadour that he talked, and it was to Pompadour that he listened.
    • Madame de Pompadour.
  • Genius is unquestionably a great trial, when it takes the romantic form, and genius and romance are so associated in the public mind that many people recognize no other kind. There are other forms of genius, of course, and though they create their own problems, they are not "impossible" people. But O, how deeply we should thank God for these impossible people like Berlioz and Dylan Thomas! What a weary, grey, well-ordered, polite, unendurable hell this would be without them!
    • Dylan Thomas and Hector Berlioz (1956).
  • The Victorians have been immoderately praised, and immoderately blamed, and surely it is time we formed some reasonable picture of them? There was their courageous, intellectually adventurous side, their greedy and inhuman side, their superbly poetic side, their morally pretentious side, their tea and buttered toast side, and their champagne and Skittles side. Much like ourselves, in fact, though rather dirtier.
    • The Girl with the Swansdown Seat/Abode of Love/1848 (1956).
  • Chaucer shares on the literary stock marker have been rising during the past ten years, owing chiefly to the enthusiasm, literary gifts and scholarship of an Oxford don, Nevill Coghill, and secondarily to the British Broadcasting Corporation. The fluctuations of the literary market are familiar to everyone; sometimes there is a fierce flutter in a virtually unknown commodity (like the John Donne boom in the twenties); occasionally an almost dead commodity bursts in new life (as in the Trollope boom of the forties); Foreign Moderns (Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Sagan) are eagerly pushed but are apt to collapse suddenly, wiping out those critics who have invested too heavily in them; in the USA the Deep South and Proletarian Anguish are solid, though all else fluctuates unpredictably.
  • This is a work which ought to be in every library in Canada; perhaps, after twenty-five years or so, it might silence the recurrent hubbub about nude paintings which is a feature of our national life. Yes, they are erotic. Yes, madam, the painters are often naughty men, and the models are sometimes bad girls. But there are elements involved in the painting of the nude which draw upon what is highest in art and express what is highest in mankind. Now, may we please look at the pictures?
    • Review of The Painter's Eye and The Nude (1957).
As the cat is, above all animals, the writer's pet, I suppose I should have written something about it. But I do not care about "weeks", and every week is a cat week with me.
  • Many authors write like amateur blacksmiths making their first horseshoe; the clank of the anvil, the stench of the scorched leather apron, the sparks and the cursing are palpable, and this appeals to those who rank "sincerity" very high. Nabokov is more like a master swordsmith making a fine blade; nothing is amiss, nothing is too much, there is no fuss, and the finished product must be handled with great care, or it will cut you badly.
    • Review of Nabokov's Lolita (1958).
  • Still haunted by Haiku, and tried my hand at it, but I fall pitifully short of the Wordsworthian touch. But failure in this realm turned my mind to an old enthusiasm of mine, the Welsh englyn. This verse form was derived by the Welsh from the inscriptions which their Roman conquerors put on tombs … A good englym must have four lines, of ten, then six, syllables, the last two lines having seven syllables each. In the first line there must be a break after the seventh, eighth, or ninth syllable, and the rhyme with the second line comes at this break; but the tenth syllable of the first line must either rhyme or be in assonance with the middle of the second line. The last two lines must rhyme with the first rhyme in the first line, but the third or fourth line must rhyme on a weak syllable. Got that?
    • "Haiku and Englyn" in The Toronto Daily Star (4 April 1959), republished in The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies (1979) edited by Judith Skelton Grant, p. 241.
  • The first week of this month was International Cat Week, and as the cat is, above all animals, the writer's pet, I suppose I should have written something about it. But I do not care about "weeks", and every week is a cat week with me.
    • mehitabel (1959).
  • It used to be fashionable for authors to have their pictures taken with dogs, but the dogs always looked like models hired from an advertising agency, and probably were.
    • mehitabel (1959).
To be apt in quotation is a splendid and dangerous gift. Splendid, because it ornaments a man's speech with other men's jewels; dangerous, for the same reason.
  • It is in this matter that I fall foul of so many American writers on writing; they seem to think that writing is a confidence game by means of which the author cajoles a restless, dull-witted, shallow audience into hearing his point of view. Such an attitude is base, and can only beget base prose.
    • Elements of Style (1959).
  • Strange reading? It is meant to be. The world is full of romantic, macabre, improbable things which would never do in works of fiction. When those that come within one man's notice are gathered together in a scrapbook, they tell of a world which sobersided folk may not choose to recognize as their own. But it is their own; I have the evidence.
    • Scraps and Morsels (1960).
  • To be apt in quotation is a splendid and dangerous gift. Splendid, because it ornaments a man's speech with other men's jewels; dangerous, for the same reason.
    • Robertson Davies Dangerous Jewels (1960).
  • A life given to determining the best form for the letters of the alphabet — does it seem extraordinary to you? But no day passes that our eyes do not fall upon something that was influenced, and made better, by this extraordinary, eccentric Scot, and if that is not a life well spent, I should be interested in a better definition.
  • For twenty years I have been a writer and never before have I been in a milieu where every consideration came before literary consideration. And the opinion of anybody — minor actor, money accountant or baggage man — weighed equally or more heavily than that of the author. My disgust is like a cap of fire bearing down on my head. Why would an author with any pride submit to the impertinences of theatre people?
    • Diary, during the production of Love and Libel (1960).
The pleasures of love are for those who are hopelessly addicted to another living creature. The reasons for such addiction are so many that I suspect they are never the same in any two cases.
  • Anybody who has had experience of poetesses knows that they may forgive a punch on the jaw, but never a suggestion that they would be wiser to give up versifying.
    • A Curmudgeon (1961).
  • I cannot imagine any boy of spirit who would not be delighted to play a drunkard — even to vomiting — in front of his Sunday school. Indeed, the vomiting might be the chief attraction of the role.
    • Forgotten Dialogues (1961).
  • The pleasures of love are for those who are hopelessly addicted to another living creature. The reasons for such addiction are so many that I suspect they are never the same in any two cases. It includes passion but does not survive by passion; it has its whiffs of the agreeable vertigo of young love, but it is stable more often than dizzy; it is a growing, changing thing, and it is tactful enough to give the addicted parties occasional rests from strong and exhausting feeling of any kind.
    • The Pleasures of Love (1961).
  • I am constantly astonished by the people, otherwise intelligent, who think that anything so complex and delicate as a marriage can be left to take care of itself. One sees them fussing about all sorts of lesser concerns, apparently unaware that side by side with them — often in the same bed — a human creature is perishing from lack of affection, of emotional malnutrition.
    • The Pleasures of Love
Sometimes there was a serious article on a hot topic, and I especially remember one by a bishop headed "Is Nudity Salacious?"
  • The reclusive man who marries the gregarious woman, the timid woman who marries the courageous man, the idealist who marries the realist — we can all see these unions: the marriages in which tenderness meets loyalty, where generosity sweetens moroseness, where a sense of beauty eases some aridity of the spirit, are not so easy for outsiders to recognize; the parties themselves may not be fully aware of such elements in a good match.
    • The Pleasures of Love.
  • The young people, who were all Canadians, immediately formed themselves into a committee of the whole, from which they elected a working committee, which discussed the matter for about an hour, though as it was a committee the time seemed to be a year and a day.
    • The Three Warning Circles (1972).
  • Sometimes there was a serious article on a hot topic, and I especially remember one by a bishop headed "Is Nudity Salacious?" The bishop thought it need not be, if encountered in the proper spirit, but he gave a lot of enlightening examples of conditions under which it might be, in his word, "inflammatory." There wasn't much nudity in our neck of the woods, and I enjoyed that article tremendously.
    • A Rake at Reading (1980).
  • It is lost, lovely child, somewhere in the ragbag that I laughingly refer to as my memory.
    • A Conversation about Dr. Canon's Cure (1982).
I would not for a moment have you suppose that I am one of those idiots who scorns Science, merely because it is always twisting and turning, and sometimes shedding its skin, like the serpent that is its symbol. It is a powerful god indeed but it is what the students of ancient gods called a shape-shifter, and sometimes a trickster.
  • Literary critics, however, frequently suffer from a curious belief that every author longs to extend the boundaries of literary art, wants to explore new dimensions of the human spirit, and if he doesn't, he should be ashamed of himself.
  • If I had to describe my remarks this evening frankly — as if I were in police court and on oath, so to speak — I should have to call it a ramble over several subjects, portions of which may seem to you to be impudent, and portions of which will be ignorant, and portions of which may contrive to be both at once.
    • Can a Doctor Be a Humanist? (1984).
The stones were dancing now...
  • "To which god must I sacrifice in order to heal?" To which of the warring serpents should I turn with the problem that now faces me?
    It is easy, and tempting, to choose the god of Science. Now I would not for a moment have you suppose that I am one of those idiots who scorns Science, merely because it is always twisting and turning, and sometimes shedding its skin, like the serpent that is its symbol. It is a powerful god indeed but it is what the students of ancient gods called a shape-shifter, and sometimes a trickster.
    • Can a Doctor Be a Humanist? (1984).
  • It is not always easy to diagnose. The simplest form of stupidity — the mumbling, nose-picking, stolid incomprehension — can be detected by anyone. But the stupidity which disguises itself as thought, and which talks so glibly and eloquently, indeed never stops talking, in every walk of life is not so easy to identify, because it marches under a formidable name, which few dare attack. It is called Popular Opinion.
    • Can a Doctor Be a Humanist? (1984).
It was the wildest, strangest music you ever heard, full of the sound of birds and the cries of animals and the wind and the rain, and the thunder and the lightning, and the dashing of huge waves against the shores of a great cold ocean...
  • The stones were dancing now. O yes, they were dancing! But it was not hopping and skipping like jigs or reels, nor was it the dismal revolving of a ballroom. Not a stone moved from its place, but they rocked and turned, slowly and with the greatest dignity, as if to say: "We are the lords of the earth and of the water. We shall stand when all has gone. We shall endure until better things come. But what can be better than we? So we shall endure forever."
    • Harper of the Stones (1986).
  • Again he struck the harp and began the jig. But this time it was such music as never came from a harp. It was the wildest, strangest music you ever heard, full of the sound of birds and the cries of animals and the wind and the rain, and the thunder and the lightning, and the dashing of huge waves against the shores of a great cold ocean that was formed from ice that had made its way slowly down from Ultima Thule. It was the sound of a world before mankind. It was the sound of the great merriment God must have known during the long days of Creation.
    • Harper of the Stones (1986).
  • It seemed to me as if the stones sang, in the strangest voices, in the language of Ultima Thule.
    • Harper of the Stones (1986).
  • The US, for historical reasons, mistrusts the concept of a welfare state, and this mistrust shows itself nakedly under present US government, which commits uncounted billions of the national wealth to what it calls defence, and is close-fisted in giving money to plans which would ameliorate the grinding poverty of a great part of its people. Quite simply, in Canada you could not get away with that.
    • Literature in a Country Without a Mythology (1988).
  • What used to be called a Canadian novel was a kind of prairie frontier story, but it was phony. In the plot, people came to the land; the land loved them; they worked and struggled and had lots of children. There was a Frenchman who talked funny and a greenhorn from England who was a fancy-pants but when it came to the crunch he was all courage. Those novels would make you retch.
    • On the generic Canadian novel, in the New York Times (29 December 1988).
  • So, I was to talk about "Opera as Related to Literature", was I not? And because the subject is so vast, I have wandered here and there, trying to illuminate, as if with a candle, a vast chamber full of fascinating corners, mysterious with mirrors, and echoing with some of the loveliest music ever written. I have not succeeded on any high level, but then, I never expected to do so. But perhaps I have thrown out an idea or two which you would like to consider for yourselves.
    • Opera for the Man Who Reads Hamlet (1989).
  • The most dismaying call of this kind came one night at nine o'clock from a youth of sixteen who said: "I've got to have this essay ready to hand in tomorrow morning, and I'm stuck. Can you give me some help with these-here Jungian archeotypes?" It was impossible to explain to him that no telephone conversation could help him; indeed, in his agony, I do not know what would have helped him except sudden and merciful death.
    • Jung and the Writer (1989).
  • May I make a suggestion, hoping it is not an impertinence? Write it down: write down what you feel. It is sometimes a wonderful help in misery.
    • Letter to Horace Davenport (3 April 1989).
  • Speakers' nerves affect them in various ways. Some tremble, some become frenzied. I lose all confidence, and suffer from a leaden oppression that makes me wonder why I ever agreed to speak at all; the Tomb and the Conqueror Worm seem preferable to delivering the stupid and piffling speech I have so carefully prepared.
  • Several children present me with scraps of paper for autographs: obviously don't know who I am and don't care. I sign "Jackie Collins" and they go away quite content.
    • Diary entry describing his appearance at the Gothenburg Book Fair (7 September 1989), published in Happy Alchemy (1999), p. 332.
  • Like it or not, to reach middle age with less money or less prestige than our father had is somewhat to lose face. Stupid of course, when put like that, but who is prepared to argue that we are not stupid in several important ways?
    • "Haunted by Halloween", in the New York Times (31 October 1990).
  • Our forebears are deserving of tribute for one indisputable reason, if for no other: without them we should not be here. Let us recognize that we are not the ultimate triumph but rather we are beads on a string. Let us behave with decency to the beads that were strung before us and hope modestly that the beads that come after us will not hold us of no account simply because we are dead.
    • "Haunted by Halloween", in the New York Times (31 October 1990).
  • What might we profitably do on Halloween? Look backward, and consider those who went before us. The road ahead is inevitably dark, but to see where we have been may offer unexpected hints about who we are, and where we should be heading. Triviality about the past leads certainly toward a trivial future.
    • "Haunted by Halloween", in the New York Times (31 October 1990).
It might be said that until he developed language, man had no soul, for without language how could he reach deep inside himself and discover the truths that are hidden there, or find out what emotions he shared, or did not share, with his fellow men and women.
  • "Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched. Prefer the concrete word to the abstract. Prefer the single word to the circumlocution. Prefer the short word to the long. Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance." … What excellent advice it is, and how it was beaten into my generation of schoolboys... But one may tire of even the best advice, as one may tire of writing according to these precepts. Would we wish to be without the heraldic splendour and torchlight processions that are the sentences of Sir Thomas Browne? Would we wish to sacrifice the orotund, Latinate pronouncements of Samuel Johnson? Would we wish that Dickens had written in the style recommended by the brothers Fowler, who framed the rules I have quoted; what would then have happened to Seth Pecksniff, Wilkins Micawber, and Sairey Gamp, I ask you?
  • Once or twice I have tried to talk to film people about my ugly heroine. I explain to them the extraordinary psychological fascination of the medieval legend of the Loathly Damsel, whose splendour of spirit is confined within a hideous body, and she becomes beautiful only when she is understood and loved. I advise you not to talk to resolutely Hollywood minds about the Loathly Damsel. Their eyes glaze, and their cigars go out, and behind the lenses of their horn-rimmed spectacles I see the dominating symbol of their inner life: it is a dollar sign.
    • Writing (1990).
  • It is mankind's discovery of language which more than any other single thing has separated him from the animal creation. Without language, what concept have we of past or future as separated from the immediate present? Without language, how can we tell anyone what we feel, or what we think? It might be said that until he developed language, man had no soul, for without language how could he reach deep inside himself and discover the truths that are hidden there, or find out what emotions he shared, or did not share, with his fellow men and women. But because this greatest gift of all gifts is in daily use, and is smeared, and battered and trivialized by commonplace associations, we too often forget the splendour of which it is capable, and the pleasures that it can give, from the pen of a master.
    • On Seeing Plays (1990).
  • Of course, fairies are all imported in North America. We have no native fairies. The Little People do not long survive importation — unless they go to California and grow large and beautiful, but haven't much flavour, like the fruit and the film stars.
    • Scottish Folklore and Opera (1992).
That's the nub of the thing, you see — seriousness of spirit. It doesn't mean heaviness of heart, or a lack of fantasy, but it does mean an awareness of influences that touch our lives, sometimes in ways that seem cruel and unfeeling, and sometimes in ways that open up a glory which can never be forgotten.
  • Celtic civilization was tribal, but by no means savage or uncultivated. People who regarded the theft of a harp from a bard as a crime second only to an attack on the tribal chieftain cannot be regarded as wanting in cultivated feeling.
    • Scottish Folklore and Opera (1992).
  • That's the nub of the thing, you see — seriousness of spirit. It doesn't mean heaviness of heart, or a lack of fantasy, but it does mean an awareness of influences that touch our lives, sometimes in ways that seem cruel and unfeeling, and sometimes in ways that open up a glory which can never be forgotten.
    • Scottish Folklore and Opera (1992).
  • The truth is that art does not teach; it makes you feel, and any teaching that may arise from the feeling is an extra, and must not be stressed too much. In the modern world, and in Canada as much as anywhere, we are obsessed with the notion that to think is the highest achievement of mankind, but we neglect the fact that thought untouched by feeling is thin, delusive, treacherous stuff.
    • Introduction to Fortune, My Foe and Eros at Breakfast (c. 1993).
  • We mistrust anything that too strongly challenges our ideal of mediocrity.
    • The Noble Greeks (1993).
  • Motherhood and all the sentimentality that goes with Mother's Day was not congenial to the Greek mind. They were a remarkably unsentimental people; they had no particular reverence for children, nor did they regard them as a special and privileged portion of society. It would not have occurred to them to erect a vast temple to Mickey Mouse. They left that for us.
    • The Noble Greeks.
  • An important aspect of Nonconformity was its cult of the Bible as the fount of all wisdom. But the Bible takes much of its colour from whoever is reading it, and it provides a text to support almost every shade of opinion, however preposterous.
    • Melodrama: The Silver King (1993).
  • Great drama, drama that may reach the alchemical level, must have dimension and its relevance will take care of itself. Writing about AIDS rather than the cocktail set, or possibly the fairy kingdom, will not guarantee importance. . . . The old comment that all periods of time are at an equal distance from eternity says much, and pondering on it will lead to alchemical theatre while relevance becomes old hat.
    • Alchemy in the Theatre (1994).
  • You would not serve junk food at a banquet, and your book must be a banquet. Get your language from Swift, not from Shopsy's.
    • Note on a thesis draft, where a graduate student who had used "hopefully" to mean "it is to be hoped"; published in Robertson Davies : Man of Myth (1994) edited by Judith Skelton Grant
In my collection, to me at least, the theatre of the past lives again and those long-dead playwrights and actors have in me an enthralled audience of one, and I applaud them across the centuries.
  • When John Ryder, for instance, writes "I utter valediction to the author of my being," he means simply that he said goodbye to his mother.
    • How to Be a Collector (1995).
  • In my collection, to me at least, the theatre of the past lives again and those long-dead playwrights and actors have in me an enthralled audience of one, and I applaud them across the centuries.
    • How to Be a Collector (1995).
  • To ask an author who hopes to be a serious writer if his work is autobiographical is like asking a spider where he buys his thread. The spider gets his thread right out of his own guts, and that is where the author gets his writing.
    • From a letter published in The Merry Heart : Reflections on Reading Writing, and the World of Books (1996).
  • Many many heartfelt thanks for your letter of September 25. Though it filled me with shame and remorse, I was grateful for the Christian impulse which moved you to stretch out a hand to me in my wretchedness. You say "We become that with which we busy our mind." Too true! Alas, too true! I recall that as a boy the school chaplain said to my class, "If you tell dirty jokes you will grow to look like a dirty joke!" This is been my hapless destiny.... Would you do me a favour? Will you send me a photograph of yourself, so that I may behold a countenance suffused with Christian love, and perhaps even repent?
    • To a woman in Manitoba, who sent a letter reproaching Davies for writing "barnyard pornography" in The Rebel Angels (1981), quoted in For Your Eye Alone : Letters 1976-1995 (1999).

The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks (1947)Edit

Every man and woman is a mystery, built like those Chinese puzzles which consist of one box inside another, so that ten or twelve boxes have to be opened before the final solution is found.
  • It seems to me that most of us get all the adventure we are capable of digesting. Personally, I have never had to fight a dozen pirates single-handed, and I have never jumped from a moving express-train onto the back of a horse, and I have never been discovered in the harem of the Grand Turk. I am glad of all these things. They are too rich for my digestion, and I do not long for them. I have all the close shaves and narrow squeaks in my life that my constitution will stand, and my daily struggles with bureaucrats, taxgatherers and uplifters are more exhausting than any encounters with mere buccaneers on the Spanish Main.
  • This evening heard Carmen on the radio, and reflected how hard it was to vamp a man while singing at the top of one's voice. That is the operatic problem; the singer must keep up a head of stream while trying to appear secretive, or seductive, or consumptive. Some ingenious composer should write an opera about a group of people who were condemned by a cruel god to scream all the time; it would be an instantaneous success, and a triumph of verisimilitude.
  • The logical thing to do, when the next war comes, is to recruit an army from all those of whatever age or sex who are unable to pass certain basic intelligence tests. This would be a good way of getting rid of a lot of the stupid people who cumber the earth; probably there would be a high percentage of scientists, Civil Servants, uplifters and minor prophets in an armed force collected in such a way. But if every country adopted this method the country with the biggest population of boobs, yahoos and ninnies would win, and I am not entirely sure that we have overall superiority in this respect, though we seem bound in that direction.
  • My brother Fairchild has just bought himself an "electronic janitor", a costly device which, I understand, keeps his house at an even temperature of 70 degrees without any effort on his part whatsoever. I don't know quite how it works, but it has something to do with molecules and the quantum theory.
  • But I wonder if people do not attach too much importance to the first-name habit? Every man and woman is a mystery, built like those Chinese puzzles which consist of one box inside another, so that ten or twelve boxes have to be opened before the final solution is found. Not more than two or three people have ever penetrated beyond my outside box, and there are not many people whom I have explored further; if anyone imagines that being on first-name terms with somebody magically strips away all the boxes and reveals the inner treasure he still has a great deal to learn about human nature. There are people, of course, who consist only of one box, and that a cardboard carton, containing nothing at all.
  • He has lived to see Sex replaced by Fat as the Ultimate Sin, and at the annual shows of the Ontario Society of Water-colourists pictures of Christ Forgiving the Woman Taken in Adultery have given way to a new theme — Christ Forgiving the Woman Surprised in Laura Secord's.
  • I am sure that I would not make a good taxidermist; the temptation to improve upon nature would certainly be too strong for me. Think how easy it would be, when stuffing somebody's pet terrier, to slip a couple of human glass eyes into a sockets, instead of the usual buttons. Then the owner would really be justified in saying that his pet looked almost human. If I were stuffing this two-headed calf, for instance, I could not resist making one head smile and the other one frown, so that they looked like masks of Comedy and Tragedy.
  • I suppose everybody has these softheaded spells, when they think it would be fun to live in a small town. They pass quickly, of course.
  • There stole into my mind Coleridge's poignant lines:
    Ah God! It is fell Christmas-tide
    So to the shops I hie;
    And my shopping-list, like the Albatross,
    About my neck doth lie.
    This was to be included in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" but was dropped to please Wordsworth, who secretly held shares in a large toy-shop and was afraid it might hurt business.
  • Toronto is already in the toils of Christmas, and from several windows the hollow Ho Ho! of a mechanical Santa Claus may be heard. Children watch these creatures with hard, calculating eyes, wondering if the old man is really crazy, or only pretending to be, like Hamlet...
  • Saw also a toy train big enough to pull children and a few adults. Would fain have had a ride on it, but I had no child with me, and feared that I might excite remark and even rebuke if I tried to pass myself off as a nursery-school type. The train had an excellent whistle which sent me, just as Sinatra sends the bobby-sockers. Whoo! it went, mellowly and invitingly: Whoo! Whoo!
  • Why doesn't he throw himself on the ground, saying "You are my Soul, my Better Self, be mine or I stab myself with this pair of protractors"; then she could reply, "Nay, press me not, I am Another's". In that way they could really have some romantic fun and store up things to tell their grandchildren. No style, no breadth, that's the trouble with the modern High School set.
  • It would be nice to be unfailingly, perpetually, remorselessly funny, day in and day out, year in and year out until somebody murdered you, now wouldn't it?
  • People who have taken the [writing] course write eagerly, "Last week I hit "The Country Gentleman"; this week I hit "Mademoiselle"; next week I hope to hit the "American Mother"! Frankly, I don't think this course would suit me; I don't want to hit any of those people, though I might toss a pie at the American Mother, just for fun...
  • When I was born good fairies clustered round my cradle, showering me with wit, beauty, grace, freedom from dandruff, natural piety and other great gifts, but the Wicked Fairy Carabosse (who had not been invited to the party) crept to my side and screamed "Let him be cursed with Inability To Do Little Jobs Around The House", and so it has always been.
  • The world does so well without me, that I am moved to wish that I could do equally well without the world.
  • Not long ago a friend of mine opened the door of the garage at her summer cottage, and found a man inside who had hanged himself about two months before; what is more he had been cut down. She is deeply anxious to know (a) why he hanged himself; (b) if he hanged himself or was hanged; (c) who cut him down; (d) what it was about her garage that appealed to his morbid fancy. She will probably never know any of these things. It is thus that life falls short of the movies.
  • If I tended toward frivolity as a boy, I am incorrigibly settled in it now.
  • As I plodded back and forth I reflected miserably upon my own political rootlessness, in a world where politics is so important. When I am with Tories I am a violent advocate of reform; when I am with reformers I hold forth on the value of tradition and stability. When I am with communists I become a royalist — almost a Jacobite; when I am with socialists I am an advocate of free trade, private enterprise and laissez-faire. The presence of a person who has strong political convictions always sends me flying off in a contrary direction. Inevitably, in the world of today, this will bring me before a firing squad sooner or later. Maybe the fascists will shoot me, and maybe the proletariat, but political contrariness will be the end of me; I feel it in my bones.
  • The life of Man is a struggle with Nature and a struggle with the Machine; when Nature and the Machine link forces against him, Man hasn't a chance.
  • Very often when I am introduced to women, I think, "What is she really like behind the disguise which she wears?" And very often I discover that she is pleasant enough, and probably would expand and glow if she received enough affection.
  • Today I live in the gray, muffled, smelless, puffy, tasteless half-world of those who have colds.
  • Some people I know were telling me of a curious experience which they had recently; they put a collection of old and rejected household articles in their car and drove to a dump to dispose of them. While busy at the dump, they were accosted by a strange figure, a woman of tall and stately presence, wearing a paper crown and carrying a staff in her hand, who strode majestically through the avenues of ashes, tin cans, dishonoured wash-boilers and superannuated bathtubs, attended by a rabble of admiring children. This apparition hailed my friends in a strange, incoherent, but musical language, and her breath was richly perfumed with bay-rum, or it may have been lilac lotion; she was in fact as high as a kite and as mimsy as a borogrove. Having said her say, she strode off in queenly style, and she and her raffish crew were soon lost in the mazes of the dump... My theory is that this was Titania, the fairy queen, fallen upon evil days, but magnificent in ruin; or it may simply have been some rumdumb old bag with a sense of humour. In either case the matter is worth investigating.
  • I don't really care how time is reckoned so long as there is some agreement about it, but I object to being told that I am saving daylight when my reason tells me that I am doing nothing of the kind. I even object to the implication that I am wasting something valuable if I stay in bed after the sun has risen. As an admirer of moonlight I resent the bossy insistence of those who want to reduce my time for enjoying it. At the back of the Daylight Saving scheme I detect the bony, blue-fingered hand of Puritanism, eager to push people into bed earlier, and get them up earlier, to make them healthy, wealthy and wise in spite of themselves.

The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks (1949)Edit

I was a frequent visitor at the London Zoo; in the lion house there were always ninnies who mocked the captive lions. I often wished that the bars would turn to butter, and that the great, noble beasts would practise their particular form of wit upon the little, ignoble men.
  • Men of action, I notice, are rarely humble, even in situations where action of any kind is a great mistake, and masterly inaction is called for.
  • A pig can learn more tricks than a dog, but has too much sense to want to do it.
  • I am not even prepared to meet Professor Einstein or Bertrand Russell; why should I vaingloriously assume that God would find me interesting?
  • If you attack stupidity, you attack an entrenched interest with friends in government and every walk of public life, and you will make small progress against it.
  • It is popularly believed that our grandmothers were unathletic, but no girl who operated a parlour organ lacked exercise, pumping with her feet, clawing at the Vox Humana and Celeste stops with her hands and wagging her head to keep time. But the parlour organ went out when short skirts came in. Many a young fellow of the nineties, charmed by his girl's command of her organ, married her, only to discover on his wedding night that she had legs like an eight-day bicycle racer — the result of furious pedalling. When skirts were raised, the jig was up.
  • Among the most graceful of birds, they have the ugliest faces; in the countenance of a seagull we observe all the bitter hatred and malignance which we usually associate with the faces of money-lenders or book censors.
  • The whole world is burdened with young fogies. Old men with ossified minds are easily dealt with. But men who look young, act young, and everlastingly harp on the fact they are young, but who nevertheless think and act with a degree of caution which would be excessive in their grandfathers, are the curses of the world.
  • God knows I have little interest in animals, but I do not like to see them insulted. I used to feel the same thing in the days when I was a frequent visitor at the London Zoo; in the lion house there were always ninnies who mocked the captive lions. I often wished that the bars would turn to butter, and that the great, noble beasts would practise their particular form of wit upon the little, ignoble men.
  • As for hair in the nose, it is picturesque, and with a little practise it can be made to quiver, like the antennae of one of the more intelligent and sensitive insects. Anything which gives interest to the gloomy, immobile pan of the average Canadian should be cherished and not extirpated with circular scissors.
  • I was reading Dorothy Dix this afternoon; she says that it is permissible for a young man to tell a girl he knows fairly well that she has pretty ankles; from this I assume that the better he knows her the higher he may praise her.
  • Readers will immediately divine that this was written before the advent of the credit card. After this invention grasped commerce in its clutch, Marchbanks found that unless he had one he was without Fiscal Credibility; if he had no debts he did not exist. Modern man is a debtor, or he is nothing, and money becomes more and more illusory.

Shakespeare over the Port (1960)Edit

  • By this time I had discovered that all the gamey bits were cut out of the school texts, because I had a Shakespeare of my own; the Ontario Department of Education was hard at its impossible task of trying to educate the masses without in any permanent way inflaming their minds.
  • The peak of my school experience of Shakespeare came in my senior matriculation year; the set play was "A Midsummer Night's Dream", and it was taught by a solemn donkey who understood nothing but the political organization of fairyland. I well remember him dictating a long note which began, "The fairies live in fairyland full stop. They have a king comma and a queen."
  • The professor who lectured on Shakespeare seemed to be entrapped in a grotesque, retrospective love affair with every one of Shakespeare's heroines. I think he even had a feeling that he could have made a respectable faculty wife out of Lady Macbeth.
  • It was from him I learned that the stage is too coarse a medium for the works of the supreme poet; Shakespeare's depths can only be plumbed in the solitude of the study. So I used to shut myself up and plumb away for hours, and I acquired such aptitude that for a time there was a belief that I might pipe Shakespeare into young minds of the rest of my days, as a full-fledged academic plumber.
  • The greatest gift that Oxford gives her sons is, I truly believe, a genial irreverence toward learning, and from that irreverence love may spring.
  • Principally I played pedants, idiots, old fathers, and drunkards. As you see, I had a narrow escape from becoming a professor.
  • It was easier to keep myself from becoming a success as an actor. Critics were careful not to outrage my modesty by their praise, and the public scrupulously refused to debauch me with applause. I have thought about it a good deal, and my conclusion is that I was ahead of my time. Or behind it.
  • I don't suppose there is a country in the world where a playwright has such a tremendous field for modesty as Canada.

A Voice from the Attic (1960)Edit

The best among our writers are doing their accustomed work of mirroring what is deep in the spirit of our time...
  • People marry most happily with their own kind. The trouble lies in the fact that people usually marry at an age where they do not really know what their own kind is.
  • The world is full of people whose notion of a satisfactory future is, in fact, a return to an idealised past.
  • We are approaching a millennium; the year 2000 draws on apace. The last time mankind had this experience a chaos comparable to our own was observable in many parts of the world; monsters and portents were reported from all quarters of the globe. We need not believe in these monsters and portents as actualities any more than we need believe the reports of flying saucers today; what is significant is that men yielded to an inner compulsion to fancy such things, and in this sense they were artistic creations rooted in fear much as are the pictures and images which we have been discussing.
  • The best among our writers are doing their accustomed work of mirroring what is deep in the spirit of our time; if chaos appears in those mirrors, we must have faith that in the future, as always in the past, that chaos will slowly reveal itself as a new aspect of order.
  • This is an age of groups, clubs, associations, and whatnot; most members of the clerisy belong to enough of these already. It is within the groups to which they already belong that they can best assert the values of the humanist — curiosity, the free mind, belief in good taste, and belief in the human race.
  • For them, in a time when the individual has lost significance (despite loud assertions to the contrary), an informed, rational, and intellectually adventurous individuality must take precedence over all else. In their seeming disunion lies their real strength.
  • Books of the avant-garde either establish themselves as books of lasting value, or they slip from the rear guard into the discard, and I believe the writers I mentioned have not proven trivial.
  • This is, after all, a book about reading, and the kind of reader I am addressing does not care primarily about being in fashion.
  • Sometimes for us in Canada it seems as though the United States and the United Kingdom were cup and saucer, and Canada the spoon, for we are in and out of both with the greatest freedom, and we are given most recognition when we are most a nuisance.
  • It is particularly displeasing to hear professional critics using the term "layman" to describe people who are amateurs and patrons of those arts with which they are themselves professionally concerned. The fact that the critic gets money for knowing something, and giving public expression to his opinion, does not entitle him to consider the amateur, who may be as well informed and as sensitive as himself, an outsider.
  • The clerisy are those who read for pleasure, but not for idleness; who read for pastime but not to kill time; who love books, but do not live by books.
  • There is no reason to suppose that people today feel less than their grandfathers, but there is good reason to think that they are less able to read in a way which makes them feel. It is natural for them to blame books rather than themselves, and to demand fiction which is highly peppered, like a glutton whose palate is defective.
  • Foolish people laugh at those readers a century ago who wept over the novels of Dickens. Is it a sign of superior intellect to read anything and everything unmoved, in a grey, unfeeling Limbo?
  • If you can, and if you are a playgoer and a filmgoer, you should be able to find voices for all the characters in the books you read.
  • The reader cannot create; that has been done for him by the author. The reader can only interpret, giving the author a fair chance to make his impression.
  • It is not my intention to denounce modern education. If it is bad, it may be said that all education is bad which is not self-education, and quite a lot of self-education is going on today — some of it in our schools, under the very noses of the teachers!
  • But in their second-best rank, books of this academic sort are, of all books, the easiest to write. They chew over what has already been well chewed; they grapple with other scholars, seeking to bear them down into the academic ooze; they explore the vast caverns of the creator's spirit with no illumination save the smoky and fitful rushlight of their own critical intelligence.
  • Not all readers are prepared, at all times, to make independent judgments. But the failure of modern education to equip them to do so even when they have the inclination creates a serious gap in modern culture.
  • Why are so many people ashamed of having intelligence and using it? There is nothing democratic about such an attitude. To pretend to be less intelligent that one is deceives nobody and begets dislike, for intelligence cannot be hidden; like a cough, it will out, stifle it how you may. No man has ever won commendation for standing at less than his full height, either physically, morally, or intellectually.
  • If you are an intellectual, your best course is to relax and enjoy it.
  • Our age has robbed millions of the simplicity of ignorance, and has so far failed to lift them to the simplicity of wisdom.
  • Nobody can find fault with legitimate ambition, but when the wealth of the spiritual and intellectual life is reduced to a formula for overcoming sales resistance, we protest.
  • There must be times, in the world of business, when two Peale-powered personalities find themselves in opposition. Number One is determined to achieve success by selling Number Two a great gross of non-molting dust mops; Number Two is equally determined not to have the mops. Both have affirmed an equal number of times that he can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth him. What happens? Theologians will scratch their heads over this, and Immensity itself may feel a tremor.
  • The novels and poems which proceed from writers in the grip of this barren pessimism are of the kind which make narrow moralists fume, and use words like "decadence"; the writers rejoice, because making narrow moralists (who are usually frightened people) hop with rage is a sign that they have hit a mark, and they do not understand how poor and easy a mark it is.
  • Quaint though this attitude seems now, it was unquestionably the prevalent one in the nineteenth century, and it would be over-bold to say that it will never return to favour, for the range of human folly is infinite.
  • If our age is not distinguished for a greatly increased number of happy marriages and a more intelligent approach to the problems of sex, we may surely assert that some forms of misery in the sexual realm are less widespread than they used to be; and of the many people who are unhappy, thousands have some idea of what lies at the root of their unhappiness, and thus far they are better off than their forefathers, who had none, or attributed their distress to sin.
  • If people need a book to tell them that in marriage kindness and forbearance are necessary, and that the sexual act is happier when it is undertaken to give pleasure as well as to receive it, these books are what they want. Possibly people so lacking in understanding of themselves and others do not mind being addressed in the coarse, grainy prose of the marriage counselor.
  • The modern writer is too often a Theseus so enamored of the grotesque appearance and strange cavortings of the Minotaur that he has decided to make his permanent abode in the Labyrinth, and to accept the Minotaur's laws as his own.
  • Perhaps the most striking difference between Malory's Morte d'Arthur and Tennyson's Idylls of the King is that Malory's women are all human beings, and that Tennyson's are, in greater or less degree, prizes for good conduct.
  • It is not as though "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law" was a precept from which splendid fiction could not be drawn; it is rather that what these small-time rebels choose to do is so trivial, so cheap, and in the end, so dreary.
  • Art lies in understanding some part of the dark forces and bringing them under the direction of reason.
  • An old friend of mine who died recently at a great age was, in infancy, held on the knee of an elderly godmother who had been, in her infancy, held on the knee of yet another godmother who had been held on the knee of Queen Anne, who died in 1714. Viewed unsympathetically, this is nothing, a chance association-by-knees; yet if we cherish life, and are not mere creatures of death and sepulcher, deluded by the notion that only our own experience is real and our demise the end of the world, we see in it a reminder that we are all beads on a string — separate yet part of a unity.
  • The past is only partly irrecoverable. The clerisy should accord it at least as much courtesy as they offer to the future.
  • As a boy, I remember serials in Chums (an English paper for schoolboys which is now extinct) in which a Terrible Trio — comprising a conjuror boy, a ventriloquist boy, and an India-rubber boy — made life intolerable for everybody who was so unfortunate as to come near them. It kept me in side-shaking fits of laughter and stirred me to ill-fated excesses of emulation, which a lack of talent and even of rubberiness quickly subdued.
  • That is all there is to it. No doubts, no discussion of earlier affairs, no to-ing and fro-ing, no physical experiment beyond a kiss, none of the complex voodoo which is thought necessary in even the most perfunctory modern novel to clap two ninnies together.
  • The quality of what is said inevitably influences the way in which it is said, however inexperienced the writer.
  • When a man has become a great figure in society as a physician, we must not be surprised if he regards the laws of society as the laws of Nature — but we need not respect him for it.
  • When the book appeared, a few reviewers found this plot incredible; they accused Professor O'Neal of having too little art to persuade them to suspend their disbelief in his assertion that Shakespeare was a precocious girl. Perhaps this was because they knew that the life of literary people is usually devoid of exciting external incident.
  • The critic must be reconciled to his necessary, ambiguous role, and however much he may caper, joke, and posture for us in his writings, we are unlikely to forget that he is a man who may, at any moment, tread heavily upon our dreams — unworthy dreams, foolish dreams, stupid dreams, sometimes — but still dreams.
  • A few years ago I had to answer some searching questions to a Customs official about a book which I had with me, printed in Latin, and which the official suspected to be Russian; it was a jestbook, as a matter of fact, and I was so foolish as to say so, forgetting that a Latin joke is as strange to the modern imagination as a unicorn or an amphisbaena.
  • One receives the impression from his writings that he made it his plan to read any book whatever that no one else can bear to read.
  • It would certainly be better if a writer like Leacock knew always what was best to do and what would look best in the eyes of posterity, but such unnatural foresight cannot be required of any man.
  • Complementary to his is Thurber's remark that "humour is a kind of emotional chaos, told about quietly and calmly in retrospect". Emotional chaos is not pleasant; distillation of that chaos afterward may perhaps be pleasant in some of its aspects, and undoubtedly gives pleasure to others.
  • The search for the sense of humour is as fruitless and as enduring as the hunt for the unicorn; the really wise man knows that the unicorn, being no reality but a life-enhancing myth, must never be hunted, and may only be glimpsed by the well-disposed and the lucky; it cannot be captured, and it is encountered only by indirection.
  • But the temptation to wallow and disport myself in the purple prose of the doting collector is strong, and it will need all my vigilance to resist it.
  • There are great numbers of people to whom the act of reading a book — any sort of book — is wondrous; they speak of the reader in the tone of warm approbation which they use otherwise when referring to pregnant women, or the newly dead.
  • And how often do we meet the man who prefaces his remarks with: "I was reading a book last night..." in the too loud, overenunciated fashion of one who might be saying: "I keep a hippogryph in my basement." Reading confers status.
  • But not to be acquainted with what is happening in literary France is to feel disgraced, and in the pecking order of literary criticism a Frenchman can humiliate an Englishman just as readily as an Englishman can humiliate an American, and an American a Canadian. One of Canada's most serious literary needs at present is some lesser nation to domineer over and shame by displays of superior taste.
  • It was suggested by the late Alfred Knopf that books should be graded like eggs, and that publishing houses should not offer as First Class what they well know to be Fifth. But of course publishers cannot agree about standards for grading, and even if they could, writers would shriek like mandrakes uprooted if their work were sent into the world marked anything less than Strictly Fresh.
  • Any enjoyment or profit we get from life, we get Now; to kill Now is to abridge our own lives.
  • There are, one presumes, tone-deaf readers.
  • I feel that what is wrong with scores of modern novels which show literary quality, but which are repellent and depressing to the spirit is not that the writers have rejected a morality, but that they have one which is unexamined, trivial, and lopsided. They have a base concept of life; they bring immense gusto to their portrayals of what is perverse, shabby, and sordid, but they have no clear notion of what is Evil; the idea of Good is unattractive to them, and when they have to deal with it, they do so in terms of the sentimental or the merely pathetic. Briefly, some of them write very well, but they write from base minds that have been unimproved by thought or instruction. They feel, but they do not think. And the readers to whom they appeal are the products of our modern universal literacy, whose feeling is confused and muddled by just such reading, and who have been deluded that their mental processes are indeed a kind of thought.
  • Bookes give no wisdom where none was before,
    But where some is, there reading makes it more.
  • We all have slumbering realms of sensibility which can be coaxed into wakefulness by books.
  • I do not trust any advice which is given in bad prose.
  • Long toil and short leisure are part of the heavy price we pay for our North American standard of living. It is reputed to be the highest in the world, and so it should be, for it is bought at an inordinate price.
  • There is no democracy in the world of intellect, and no democracy of taste.
  • As for an afterlife, there has been a general decline in the general acceptance of it as a certainty, and though a few rationalists may be pleased, to many people this has added a new terror to death. We are reluctant, in the main, to consider the disappearance of ourselves and consequently all we feel and know. Every man's death is, literally, the end of a world if he dies without hope. We have exchanged Gone Elsewhere for Gone Nowhere.
  • Do they show us the future as it matures in the womb of the present?
  • The true realist is he who believes in both God and the Devil, and is prepared to attempt, with humility, to sort out some corner of the extraordinary tangle of their works which is our world. He cannot use his feeling alone, he must use his intellect.
  • We live in a world where bulk is equated with quality.
  • In an age where public health has never been better provided for, and medical men enjoy a respect formerly reserved for the aristocracy and the clergy, millions of people are unwell, or merely feel unwell, or are in dread lest at some future time they may become unwell.
  • Prayer is petition, intercession, adoration, and contemplation; great saints and mystics have agreed on this definition. To stop short at petition is to pray only in a crippled fashion. Further, such prayer encourages one of the faults which is most reprehended by spiritual instructors — turning to God without turning from Self.
  • Thought and reason, unless matched by feelings, are empty, delusive things.
  • The climate of his mind is so salubrious, so invigorating, that dull thoughts and heavy cares are dispelled by contact with it.
    And is not this the true end of scholarship? It is to make us wise, of course, but what is the use of being wise if we are not sometimes merry? The merriment of wise men is not the uninformed, gross fun of ignorant men, but it has more kinship with that than the pinched, frightened fun of those who are neither learned nor ignorant, gentle nor simple, bound nor free. The idea that a wise man must be solemn is bred and preserved among people who have no idea what wisdom is, and can only respect whatever makes them feel inferior.
  • The day has long passed when a university degree was a guarantee of experience in the humanities, or of literacy beyond its barest meaning of being able, after a fashion, to read and write.

Samuel Marchbanks' Almanack (1967)Edit

  • Every man is wise when attacked by a mad dog; fewer when pursued by a mad woman; only the wisest survive when attacked by a mad notion.
  • "There is no disputing about tastes," says the old saw. In my experience there is little else.
  • This strengthens a belief which I have long cherished, that in a few centuries women will be the larger, stronger sex, admired for their biceps and superfluous hair, and that men will be their toys and domestic comforters, exciting tenderness in the female breast by their small feet, pretty soft hands, and general helplessness. I do not think I have a heart, for I have never been able to locate my pulse, or any other symptom of a circulatory system, but I am willing to share any of the benefits of male delicacy.
  • In spite of all this chaos, however, most people seem to lead humdrum lives, and badly want livening up. Do you think we should organize a Chaos-of-the-Month Club, guaranteeing to supply all members with something really unnerving every thirty days?
  • When religion abandons poetic utterance, it cuts its own throat.
  • I like long and unusual words, and anybody who does not share my tastes is not compelled to read me. Policemen and politicians are under some obligation to make themselves comprehensible to the intellectually stunted, but not I. Let my prose be tenebrous and rebarbative; let my pennyworth of thought be muffled in gorgeous habilements; lovers of Basic English will look to me in vain.
  • Was driving through the countryside today with some people who insisted upon frequent recourse to a roadmap in order to discover, as they put it, "Just where they were." Reflected that for my part I generally have a pretty shrewd idea of just where I am; I am enclosed in the somewhat vulnerable fortress which is my body, and from that uneasy stronghold I make such sorties as I deem advisable into the realm about me. These people seemed to think that whizzing through space in a car really altered the universe for them, but they were wrong; each one remained right in the centre of his private universe, which is the only field of knowledge of which he has any direct experience.

One-Half of Robertson Davies (1977)Edit

If I am a moralist — and I suppose I am — I am certainly not a gloomy moralist, and if humour finds its way into my work it is because I cannot help it.
  • I have never consciously "used" humour in my life. Such humour as I may have is one of the elements in which I live. I cannot recall a time when I was not conscious of the deep, heaving, rolling ocean of hilarity that lies so very near the surface of life in most of its aspects. If I am a moralist — and I suppose I am — I am certainly not a gloomy moralist, and if humour finds its way into my work it is because I cannot help it.
    • Ham and Tongue.
  • During the years when my own daughters were pupils in this school I attended many of these gatherings, and heard many speeches made by men who stood where I stand at this moment. They said all sorts of things. I recall one speaker who said that as he looked out at the girls who were assembled to receive prizes, and to pay their last respects to their school, he felt as though he were looking over a garden of exquisite flowers. He was drunk, poor man, and it would be absurd to treat his remark as though he were speaking on oath.
    • What Every Girl Should Know.
  • The usual thing — the statistically normal thing — is for the speaker to tell the graduating class that they are going out into a world torn by dissent, racked by problems of unprecedented knottiness and difficulty, and headed for the abyss of destruction unless the graduating class shoulders its burden and does something splendid to put everything right. The speaker generally admits that he is at the end of his tether: he is old, and broken on the wheel of Fate; his decrepitude and his wounds have been received in this great battle with the world's problems. Nothing — absolutely nothing — is to be expected of him in the future. From his failing hands he throws the torch; he plants the task of setting the world right square on the graduating class. He says that he does it with confidence. But he is usually so gloomy that one wonders how much his confidence is worth. Sometimes one gets the impression that immediately after Convocation he is going home to die.
    • What Will the Age of Aquarius Bring

High Spirits: A Collection of Ghost Stories (1982)Edit

  • The first principle, when you don't know anything about the subject of a thesis, is to let the candidate talk, nodding now and then with an ambiguous smile. He thinks you know, and are counting his mistakes, and it unnerves him... the second principle of conducting an oral, … is to pretend ignorance, and ask for explanations of very simple points. Of course your ignorance is real, but the examinee thinks you are being subtle, and that he is making an ass of himself, and this rattles him.
    • The Ghost Who Vanished by Degrees.
  • Women always think that if they tell a man not to be pompous that will shut him up, but I am an old hand at that game. I know that if a man bides his time his moment will come.
    • The Great Queen is Amused.
  • I am a Democrat. All of my family have been persons of peasant origin, who have wrung a meagre sufficiency from a harsh world by the labour of their hands. I acknowledge no one my superior merely on grounds of a more fortunate destiny, a favoured birth. I did what any such man would do when confronted with Queen Victoria; I fell immediately to my knees.
    • The Great Queen is Amused.
  • The devil gave me a look which made me profoundly uneasy. 'Just because I am enjoying your sympathy, don't imagine that I cannot read you like a book,' he said. 'You think you are cleverer than I; it is a very common academic delusion.'
    • When Satan Goes Home For Christmas

The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks (1985)Edit

  • There can be no doubt that Samuel Marchbanks is one of the choice and master spirits of this age. If there were such a volume as Who Really Ought To Be Who his entry would require several pages.
    • Introduction.
  • "All education is a struggle," said Marchbanks. "I had to struggle against schools and universities, of course, in order to get time to educate myself, which I did magnificently."
    • Introduction.
  • Have you never read the manifesto of the Marchbanks Humanist Party? How does it begin?
    The more taboos and prohibitions there are in the world
    The poorer the people will be.
    The more sharp weapons the people have
    The more troubled the state will be.

    The more cunning and skill man possesses
    The more vicious things will appear.
    The more laws and orders are made prominent
    The more thieves and robbers there will be.
    And who wrote that, do you suppose?" "You, I imagine." "No, you don't imagine. That's what's wrong with you, and your kind; you don't, and can't imagine. Those words were written by the Chinese sage Lao Tzu in the sixth century BC.
    • Introduction.

Conversations with Robertson Davies (1989)Edit

  • After all, we are human beings, and not creatures of infinite possibilities.
    • "Conversations with Gordon Roper".
  • People are not saints just because they haven't got much money or education.
    • "Conversations with Gordon Roper".
  • I think possibly the final sophistication is the recovery of innocence. Where you really get where you take things rather simply. You can't have the innocence of peasants; you are not a peasant; you can't be one of them. But you have to work awfully hard to recover that with a few additional hot licks, by getting smart, wise. I think the final gift of sophistication would be a kind of innocent, clean view of things — which doesn't mean a simple, dumb view.
    • "Conversations with Gordon Roper".
  • Such rebellion is too deep and too constant to express itself in picketing, marching, sitting-in or freaking out; it is the serious, unresting protest of serious people. It is 24-hours-a-day rebellion, not intermittent, showy, status-seeking public uproar. It is rebellion as a way of life.
    • "Prof. Robertson Davies: Courteous Conservative".
  • I think we should see whether we are wise trying to educate everybody to a high standard the way we are trying to do now. There has to be a high level of education so everybody is literate, but whether university education is necessary for everyone is open to question.
    • "College Master Looks at His World: Author Davies Finds Youth Little Changed".
  • I expect that Hell is very heavily populated with just exactly that sort of person [who feels he's accomplished all his goals early in life] because, you know, somebody who fears that he has exhausted what there is for him to do and what he can do at thirty-five, is a fool. What he means is that he's become the sales manager of International Widgets or some wretched thing. That's not a life, that's not a thing that should occupy a man. People drive themselves terribly hard at these jobs, and they develop a sort of mystique about something which does not admit of a mystique. A thing to have a mystique must necessarily have many aspects, many corridors, many avenues, many things that open up. Well, this is not to be found in the business world, and I've known a lot of first-class businessmen and they all tell you this. People have told me that in their particular business there's nothing to be learned that an intelligent man can't learn in eighteen months. But if you've learned it in eighteen months and if you're exhausted by the time you're thirty-five, it's nobody's fault but your own if you haven't found something else to do.
    • "Robertson Davies" [by Paul Soles]
  • Well, I haven't got wealth or fame, but I really think I might say, and I know how dangerous it is to say this — I think I have happiness. And happiness, you know, so many people when they talk about happiness, seem to think that it is a constant state of near lunacy, that you're always hopping about like a fairy in a cartoon strip, and being noisily and obstreperously happy. I don't think that is it at all. Happiness is a certain degree of calm, a certain degree of having your feet rooted firmly in the ground, of being aware that however miserable things are at the moment that they're probably not going to be so bad after awhile, or possibly they may be going very well now, but you must keep your head because they're not going to be so good later. Happiness is a very deep and dispersed state. It's not a kind of excitement.
    • "Robertson Davies" [by Paul Soles]
  • [People] think of saints as people who lived an awfully long time ago and whose validity has disappeared. I think of them as people who didn't live such a long time ago, only a few hundred years or so. There must have been something about them that impressed people who were very much like me. What was it? And they must have been much more like somebody living today than we commonly think. What was behind it? What made these people special and what made a lot of other people regard them as special, either hating them or loving them? This is fascinating. It enlarges the whole world, and because it does so, it gives you great hope and sympathy with the future. You find yourself not an isolated miserable little wretch who has got seventy or eighty years to struggle along and then perish like nothing. You are the continuer of a very great tradition which you are going to pass on to the next lot. And you're right in the middle of the great stream of life. You see? Wonderful thing.
    • "Acta Interviews Robertson Davies".
  • In too many modern churches there is no emphasis on theology at all. There is a kind of justification by works or by keeping up with modern trends — anything that will drag in a few more people.
    • "Author Says Messiah Could Be a Woman".
  • Now, very few [physicians] are men of science in any very serious sense; they're men of technique.
    • "You Should Face Up to Your Death, Says Author".
  • One of the things that puzzles me is that so few people want to look at life as a totality and to recognize that death is no more extraordinary than birth. When they say it's the end of everything they don't seem to recognize that we came from somewhere and it would be very, very strange indeed to suppose that we're not going somewhere.
    • "You Should Face Up to Your Death, Says Author".
  • I think a lot of people have unreasonable expectations because they never stop to consider what life actually has to offer them. They're always looking for some great epiphany from the skies. They never stop to consider the fact which human beings find hardest to recognize: "Maybe I'm not worthy of an epiphany."
    • "You Should Face Up to Your Death, Says Author".
  • You have to come to terms with yourself and your place in the scheme of life — something a good many people don't want to do. In the last century we have extended the normal life-span. Many seem to believe that this means we have extended the period when they should enjoy the things they enjoyed in youth. But I don't think they realize that we've also expanded the period of life when we can learn to think, feel, and experience the largeness and the splendor of life.
    • "You Should Face Up to Your Death, Says Author".
  • Extraordinary people survive under the most terrible circumstances and they become more extraordinary because of it.
    • "Gzowski on FM".
  • Let people alone. Let them find their way. Let them find their level and you may sometimes be delighted and astonished at the extraordinary high level to which they'll rise if they're let alone.
    • "Gzowski on FM".
  • I think a great many marriages would be saved if people would behave toward one another with the same courtesy that they would extend to someone whom they really didn't know as well as a marriage necessarily implies. … It's not very easy to do, but it is surely easier to do than to haggle and nag and fight and bitch and yelp at one another as you hear a lot of married people doing … They seem to feel that the familiarity of affection permits anything, including insult.
    • "Gzowski on FM".
  • Happiness is a by-product. It is not a primary product of life. It is a thing which you suddenly realize you have because you're so delighted to be doing something which perhaps has nothing whatever to do with happiness.
    • "Sunday Morning".
  • Humour very often consists of shrewd perceptions about people. It's usually fun at someone's expense. Nowadays if you're funny at anybody's expense they run to the UN and say, "I must have an ombudsman to protect me." You hardly dare have a shrewd perception about anybody.
    • "World of Wonders".
  • A sense of wonder is in itself a religious feeling. But in so many people the sense of wonder gets lost. It gets scarred over. It's as though a tortoise shell has grown over it. People reach a stage where they're never surprised, never delighted. They're never suddenly aware of glorious freedom or splendour in their lives. This is very unhappy, very unfortunate. The attitude is often self-induced. It is fear. People are afraid to be happy.
    • "World of Wonders".
  • I think we're living in an age which despises humanity and despises bravery and doesn't need bravery because modern warfare has rather gone beyond bravery. It is a kind of warfare where people are fighting enemies they never see, killing people of whom they know nothing.
    • "Sunday Morning".
  • The word "religion" just means "law," the consideration of law and consequence. That's what interests me: what happens as a result of what people do. Also the reluctance people have to learn that certain actions will bring certain consequences … people don't learn. Over and over again they do the same stupid things without having learned what happens. … We are not wise because we are always looking for causes for things which are outside ourselves.
    • "Robertson Davies: Beyond the Visible World".
  • Women tell men things that men are not very likely to find out for themselves.
    • "Robertson Davies: Beyond the Visible World".
  • Are you going to be just kind of a walking monument to a job, or are you going to have some kind of really significant inner life of your own? Because the external things — the job, the house, the this, the that — do not really fill the place inside.
    • "Robertson Davies: Beyond the Visible World".
  • Marriage is a framework to preserve friendship. It is valuable because it gives much more room to develop than just living together. It provides a base from which a person can work at understanding himself and another person.
    • "Dr. Robertson Davies".
  • They [say] everybody's creative. Well, everybody is. But any real creativity has to rest on a basis of an acquired technique and an acquired knowledge; you can't be creative in a void, or you just get a mess.
    • "The Grand Old Man of Can Lit"

Reading (1990)Edit

  • Do not suppose, however, that I intend to urge a diet of classics on anybody. I have seen such diets at work. I have known people who have actually read all, or almost all, the guaranteed Hundred Best Books. God save us from reading nothing but the best.
  • I have no skills with machines. I fear them, and because I cannot help attributing human qualities to them, I suspect that they hate me and will kill me if they can.
  • I have known far too many university graduates, in this country and in my own, who, as soon as they have received the diploma which declares them to be of Certified Intelligence, put their brains in cold storage and never use them again until they are hauled away to the mortuary.
  • Surely we all know scores of professional men and women who, apart from their professional concerns, seem not to have enough brains to butter a biscuit. They probably had intelligence once. But when their university had given them its blessing, they thought that enough had been done for one lifetime.
  • Modern disillusion is unlikely to last forever, and nothing rings so hollow as the angst of yesterday.
  • Poetry which has decided to do without music, to divorce itself from song, has thrown away much of its reason for being...

Murther and Walking Spirits (1991)Edit

  • I was never so amazed in my life as when the Sniffer drew his concealed weapon from its case and struck me to the ground, stone dead.
    • First line.
  • His face was tense with pain. But then, who notices when they meet a theatre critic whose face is tense with pain? It is one of the marks of the profession.
    • Part 1, section 2.

Opera and Humour (1991)Edit

Moderation, the Golden Mean, the Aristonmetron, is the secret of wisdom and of happiness. But it does not mean embracing an unadventurous mediocrity: rather it is an elaborate balancing-act, a feat of intellectual skill demanding constant vigilance. Its aim is a reconciliation of opposites.
  • I once had a dispute with a group of Swedish professors at the University of Uppsala as to which country, Sweden or Canada, was the dullest in the world. It was a draw; they claimed superiority because of their long history, and I claimed it because of Canada's immense land mass, which gives us space for tremendous expansion, even of such things as dullness.
  • The mind of man, though perhaps the most splendid achievement of evolution, is not, surely, that answer to every problem of the universe. Hamlet suffers, but the Gravediggers go right on with their silly quibbles.
  • Moderation, the Golden Mean, the Aristonmetron, is the secret of wisdom and of happiness. But it does not mean embracing an unadventurous mediocrity: rather it is an elaborate balancing-act, a feat of intellectual skill demanding constant vigilance. Its aim is a reconciliation of opposites.
    • "Aristonmetron" is an unusual formation of the Greek άριστον μέτρον (ariston metron or metron ariston: "Moderation is best").
  • No, the Golden Mean is not a sunny, untroubled nullity, but a deep awareness of possibilities, with one eye cocked toward Comedy and the other eye skewed toward Tragedy, and out of this feat of balanced observation emerges Humour, not as a foolish amusement or an escape from reality, but as a breadth of perception, and what Heracleitus called "an attunement of opposite tensions, like that of the bow and the lyre". A reconciliation of opposites, indeed.
  • The people who fear humour — and they are many — are suspicious of its power to present things in unexpected lights, to question received opinions and to suggest unforeseen possibilities.
  • Perhaps the word for the feeling I mean is serenity, a high acceptance, a recognition that Heracleitus's doctrine of eternal flow is a great truth, and while we may not, in ourselves, find the moment when the one element changes into the other, that moment will come and the consciousness of its inevitability may give us courage in adversity, and balance in good fortune.

The Cunning Man (1994)Edit

The ironist is not bitter, he does not seek to undercut everything that seems worthy or serious, he scorns the cheap scoring-off of the wisecracker... He speaks from a certain depth, and thus he is not of the same nature as the wit, who so often speaks from the tongue and no deeper. The wit's desire is to be funny; the ironist is only funny as a secondary achievement.
  • Clarity is not a characteristic of the human spirit.
    • Part 1, section 4.
  • Whoever declares a child to be "delicate" thereby crowns and anoints a tyrant.
    • Part 1, section 6.
  • I knew that he prayed a great deal, of course for help in the examinations. But subsequent clinical experience has convinced me that God is not particularly interested in examinations, just as he won't be dragged into the Stock Market, or being a backer in show business.
    • Part 1, section 13.
  • When irony first makes itself known in a young man's life, it can be like his first experience of getting drunk; he has met with a powerful thing which he does not know how to handle.
    • Part 2, section 6.
  • The ironist is not bitter, he does not seek to undercut everything that seems worthy or serious, he scorns the cheap scoring-off of the wisecracker. He stands, so to speak, somewhat at one side, observes and speaks with a moderation which is occasionally embellished with a flash of controlled exaggeration. He speaks from a certain depth, and thus he is not of the same nature as the wit, who so often speaks from the tongue and no deeper. The wit's desire is to be funny; the ironist is only funny as a secondary achievement.
    • Part 2, section 6.
  • Art is always at peril in universities, where there are so many people, young and old, who love art less than argument, and dote upon a text that provides the nutritious pemmican on which scholars love to chew.
    • Part 2, section 11.
  • Naked anger may sometimes be seen in priests of the Church of Rome, but the Church of England prefers the icy smile, the false bonhomie, the sword concealed in the palm-branch.
    • Part 3, section 15
This is the Great Theatre of Life. Admission is free but the taxation is mortal. You come when you can, and leave when you must. The show is continuous. Good-night.
  • The inert mind is a greater danger than the inert body, for it overlays and stifles the desire to live.
    • Part 4, section 1.
  • A Library goes on as far as thought can reach.
    • Part 4, section 4.
  • But what ailed Little Eva St. Clair, in Uncle Tom's Cabin? What carried off Little Nell?...They have no clear symptoms, and seem to die of Ingrowing Virtue.
    • Part 4, section 20.
  • The problem for a Paracelsian physician like me is that I see diseases as disguises in which people present me with their wretchedness.
    • Part 4, section 21.
  • "Can you tell me the time of the last complete show?"
    "You have the wrong number."
    "Eh? Isn't this the Odeon?"
    I decide to give a Burtonian answer.
    "No, this is the Great Theatre of Life. Admission is free but the taxation is mortal. You come when you can, and leave when you must. The show is continuous. Good-night."
    • Part 4, section 28. The last lines of the novel.

Lewis Carroll in the Theatre (1994)Edit

  • The really great eccentrics are all inimitable; they are not possessed by a single oddity; they are, in their deepest selves, unlike the generality of mankind.
  • Childhood may have periods of great happiness, but it also has times that must simply be endured. Childhood at its best is a form of slavery tempered by affection.
  • Try some Symbolic Logic on your little Couch Potato when you go home, and see what happens.
  • Those of you who have visited Oxford know what a busy, crowded, noisy place it now is and you might perhaps not guess that it was a university town if it were not that, now and then, the traffic is halted while the Vice-Chancellor, preceded by his two mace-bearers, crosses the street. It must be one of the few places left in the world where self-assertion, covetousness, and the whole world of the combustion engine must come to a halt because somebody distinguished for his intelligence is going about his business.
  • He was born into, and seems never to have questioned, that English "class system" which has been so much abused in the present century. Indeed, several governments have announced their intention of abolishing it, and the most recent prime minister to retire showed her egalitarian principles by accepting the title of Baroness Thatcher.

The Golden Ass (1999)Edit

Music by Randolph Peters, libretto by Robertson Davies
  • He sets a thief to guard his purse
    Who trusts a dial with his hours

    Or bids a sand-glass bleed away his nights,
    His days, his loves, his pleasures and his powers.
    The burthen of his years
    Is Time's soft footfall, Time's soft
    Through his joys and tears.
  • They live and laugh who know the better part —
    Count length of pleasure not by dial or glass
    But by the heart
    What are our fears
    When Time's slow footfall, fall, fall
    Turns lovers' hours to years?
  • Love, though sweet, must know its proper station
    And never seek to rival education.
  • The brigand's life is a very fine life
    For men of generous mind;
    We rob the rich to help the poor
    And succour oppressed mankind.
    The rich, dear souls, are close around
    And it's easy work to skelp 'em;
    But the poor — damn their eyes — can never be found
    When we're in the mood to help them.
  • We are Brigand Philosophers
    Our hearts are high and cheery,
    For we know our robbery rests upon
    A sound economic theory!

Judith Grant interview (1999)Edit

By trying to ally ourselves with the totality of things, we may get into Tao as they say in the East and be part of it, really take part in it, and not just regard ourselves as a kind of miraculous creation and the rest just sort of stage scenery against which we perform.
Interview by Judith Skelton Grant at Penguin Books (1999)
  • I literally never meet anybody who ever talks about God as something other than a kind of big man. I think God is a wondrous spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, but only interested in men as part of a giant creation which is pulsing with life.
    People say, when a relative dies: "Oh, how could God have taken her away so young and with so much before her?" God doesn't give a bugger about how young she is. He probably isn't noticing particularly. That's just the way a lot of things happen. A lot gets spilled, you know, in nature. When you look at what's going on out there now, those trees are dropping seeds by literally the hundreds of thousands and millions, and one or two of them may take on. I think that that is the way that God functions. He doesn't care nearly as much about individuals and individual fates as we would like to suppose. But by trying to ally ourselves with the totality of things, we may get into Tao as they say in the East and be part of it, really take part in it, and not just regard ourselves as a kind of miraculous creation and the rest just sort of stage scenery against which we perform.

Quotes about DaviesEdit

  • Famous author (and former newspaperman) Robertson Davies recently gave a reading from his latest novel to a packed library theatre in Calgary. After the reading, he took questions from the audience. One young man asked, "Professor Davies, how can a practicing journalist find time to write fiction?" "Oh dear," Davies replied, "that question shows a great deal of innocence about journalism."
    • Jim Tubman

External linksEdit