David Cecil

In 1975 David Cecil published Library Looking Glass that is an anthology of literary passages with extensive annotations that is in many respects a commonplace book at its very best. The passages are drawn from well known literary works, they are provocative, and most are followed with critical comments that are both autobiographical and a pleasure to read. Like Auden’s A Certain World and Charles Curtis’ A Commonplace Book, Cecil's volume has arranged his topics alphabetically beginning with Art and ending with Wordsworth, leaving blank X, Y, and Z.

Some of the letters have more than one topic, as in "C" with entries on Change of Key, Child in the House, Colour Sense, Comedy, Class System, Classics, Commitment, Complaints, Comparative, Conservation, Content, Contrasts, and Criticism. In addition, more often than not, several passages have been listed for each topic. For example, Cecil has listed nine separate poetry passages for Autumn, while English Landscape has eleven

Cecil was an English aristocrat, literary scholar, and biographer who taught at Oxford for many years. In an amusing introduction to the volume Cecil takes issue with those who recoil from the practice of writing in printed books. He says it is really a compliment to its author saying "It treats him as a living man, with whom one wants, as it were, to converse." In an echo of my own practice, as well as those of most contemporary readers who keep a commonplace book, Cecil writes:

…when anything in the text has especially struck me, I have noted on the end-paper the number of the page where this has occurred. Sometimes my note simply indicated admiration…The passage referred to was beautiful or comical or well-written in ways that had a peculiar appeal to my own taste, or it stated a view which I found especially illuminating; or it stimulated in me a fruitful train of thought.

In a Library Looking Glass, Cecil has assembled a selection of these passages and has usually added a comment suggesting why they have evoked his interest. Cecil admits that his reasons were largely personal and for this reason his anthology can be thought of as a "sort of self-portrait; myself, as mirrored in the looking-glass of my reading."

While his volume may be autobiographical, because there is no temporal order to the alphabetical ordering of the topics, it is difficult to read through from beginning to end, as one would read a personal history. Instead, I prefer to dip into it from to time and skip around from topic to topic in no particular order. Whenever I do this, I find the passages Cecil has selected and his thoughtful commentaries a continuing source of pleasure.

Here is an example of one such annotated passage on the topics of The Classics:

The study of the Classics…teaches us to believe that there is something rally great and excellent in the world, surviving all the shocks of accident and fluctuations of opinion, and raises us above that low and servile fear which bows only to present power and upstart authority…we feel the presence of that power which gives immortality to human thoughts and actions, and catch the flame of enthusiasm from all nations and ages
It is hard to find in minds otherwise formed, either a real love of excellence, or a belief that any excellence exists superior to their own.
William Hazlitt, The Round Table

Cecil comments:

As a teacher of English literature I was sometimes asked what was the use of my subject. Hazlitt answered the question here better than I ever did.
There is a provinciality in time as well as in space. To feel ill-at-ease and out of place except in one’s own period is to be a provincial in time. But he who has learned to look at life through the eyes in turn of Chaucer, of Donne, of Pope and of Thomas Hardy is freed from this limitation. He has become a cosmopolitan of the ages, and can regard his own period with the detachment which is a necessary foundation of wisdom.