Monday, January 29, 2007

Mark Twain on the British Museum

What a place it is!

Mention some very rare curiosity of a peculiar nature—a something which you have read about somewhere but never seen—they show you a dozen! They show you all the possible varieties of that thing! They show you curiously wrought jeweled necklaces of beaten gold, worn by the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Etruscans, Greeks, Britons—every people of the forgotten ages, indeed. They show you the ornaments of all the tribes and peoples that live or ever did live. Then they show you a cast taken from Cromwell's face in death; then the venerable vase that once contained the ashes of Xerxes.

I am wonderfully thankful for the British Museum. Nobody comes bothering around me—nobody elbows me—all the room and all the light I want, under this huge dome—no disturbing noises—and people standing ready to bring me a copy of pretty much any book that ever was printed under the sun—and if I choose to go wandering about the long corridors and galleries of the great building the secrets of all the earth and all the ages are laid open to me. I am not capable of expressing my gratitude for the British Museum—it seems as if I do not know any but little words and weak ones.

Quoted in Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography, chapter 87. Twain wrote hundreds of pages of sketches for a book about England ,which he never completed. Paine explains: "There was too much sociability in London for one thing, and then he found that he could not write entertainingly of England without introducing too many personalities, and running the risk of offending those who had taken him into their hearts and homes. In a word, he would have to write too seriously or not at all."

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