Friday, January 27, 2012

Putting the Right Quote in His Mouth

I came across a delightful quote today reading Current Book No. 1. The quote was attributed to George Santayana (1863-1952). It said: “There is no God and Mary is His Mother.” Tell you the truth, that didn’t sound like Santayana to me; but then my memories of that gentle philosopher go too many years back. This one has wit, to be sure, but there is also bite. So on returning home from Jeffrey’s Honda, where, believe it or not such delights visit me at right regular intervals while waiting, I turned to Bartlett’s—and amazed actually to find the quote attributed to Santayana. But the attribution, while assigned to the philosopher, was actually to the poet Robert Lowell (1917-1977), and specifically to a poem in Lowell’s Life Studies titled “For George Santayana.” So the search didn’t end there. Finally I found the poem and herewith reproduce its first stanza:

In the heydays of ‘forty-five,
bus-loads of souvenir-deranged
G.I.’s and officer-professors of philosophy
came crashing through your cell, 
puzzled to find you still alive,
free-thinking Catholic infidel,
stray spirit, who’d found 
the Church too good to be believed.
Later I used to dawdle
past Circus and Mithraic Temple
to Santo Stefano grown paper-thin
like you from waiting. . . .
There at the monastery hospital,
you wished those geese-girl sisters wouldn’t bother
their heads and yours by praying for your soul:
“There is no God and Mary is His Mother.”

Now I’ve been a writer, a poet—and also an editor. So I have sympathies for the editor of Bartlett’s who decided to stick this one in—and under Santayana. Irresistible. Particularly to certain Catholics of the damaged sort like me…


  1. It also brings to mind Ezra Pound, but he found a "cell" after the G.I.s came crashing through.

    1. Don't know Ezra Pound except by name. Quite a story that...


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