Everyone experiences absentmindedness from time to time, but authors seem to be especially afflicted.
Jean de La Fontaine was perhaps the most beloved French author of the seventeenth century. He wrote simple animal stories that contained elements of satire and social criticism. Known for his kind and gentle disposition, he was also famous for his absentmindedness.
He once called at the house of a friend whom he hadn't seen in some time. When reminded that his friend had died six months earlier, La Fontaine at first expressed surprise but then said, "True! True! I recollect I went to his funeral."
Another time he met his son at a social gathering but didn't recognize him. Told who the young man was, La Fontaine replied, "Ah, yes, I thought I had seen him somewhere."
The Reverend William Lisle Bowles was a friend of the Lake Poets. He was a minor poet himself, but perhaps his most distinguishing characteristic was absence of mind. One evening he gave a dinner-party for some of his friends only to keep them waiting downstairs for his appearance. Finally his wife went up to see what was keeping him and found him searching all around his room for a stocking. After a great deal more searching, Mrs. Bowles discovered that her husband had put two stockings on one foot while occupied in thinking about a poem he was writing.
Another time the Reverend Bowles presented a Bible to a lady parishioner as a birthday present. She asked him to write his name in the volume, and he did so, inscribing it to her as a gift "from the Author."
G. K. Chesterton was certainly one of the most absentminded of authors. Chesteron wrote the Father Brown detective stories, as well as numerous essays, novels, and biographies. He lived in London but spent most of his waking hours in the world of imagination, paying little heed to the bustling city around him. One day he went up to the ticket window of a train station and asked the agent for a cup of coffee. After recollecting himself and straightening out that bit of confusion, he proceeded into the station restaurant and ordered a ticket to Battersea.
Another time he needed a corkscrew and went next door to borrow one. Returning home, he found that he couldn't get back into his house. The key wouldn't work. Then he suddenly realized that with the latchkey in his left hand, he had been trying to unlock the door with the corkscrew.
Chesterton was so absentminded that he used to walk about London thinking over a story or an essay and then come to himself and find that he was lost. He would then go to a pay phone and call his wife to find out where he was.
His wife once heard him in the bathroom taking a bath. She heard him get out of the tub; then after a long pause there was a splash, and she heard him say, "Damn, I've been here before."
Sir Isaac Newton was sometimes very absentminded. One day a Dr. Stukely called at his house. A servant told Stukely that he would have to sit down and wait, for Sir Isaac was in his study and no one was allowed to disturb him there. Soon another servant brought in Newton's dinner--a boiled chicken under a cover--and sat it close to the visitor. After an hour passed and Newton still did not appear, the doctor found that he was hungry and so proceeded to eat the chicken.
Newton finally came in and apologized for having kept his visitor waiting so long. He said, "Give me but leave to take my short dinner, and I shall be at your service; I am fatigued and faint." On removing the cover to his dinner he saw only a pile of bones. Embarrassed at appearing so ridiculous before a stranger, he put back the cover and said, "See what we studious people are: I forgot I had dined."
Clergymen are also noted for being absentminded. Perhaps it is easy to get so preoccupied with the everlasting life to come that you lose touch with the life passing before you at the moment. At any rate, the minister of Thames Ditton, Mr. George Harvest, used to get so absorbed in his thoughts that he would lose track of time. One Sunday he walked down to his church with a gun in his hand to find out what all those people were doing there.
Another clergyman, Canon Sawyer, once started out for the train station to meet a visitor. On the way he necessarily got lost in thought, arrived at the station, boarded a departing train, and disappeared.
The absentmindedness of professors, of course, is proverbial. The constant demand placed upon their attention by academic responsibilities sometimes make them unfit for the ordinary affairs of life. "I never met anyone so absent-minded as Professor Sylvester, the great mathematician," said one of his former students. "One afternoon, just as I was going for a walk, he handed me an ink-bottle, begging me to drop it in the letter-box, as he was anxious to have an immediate answer."
Another remarkably absentminded professor, as well as clergyman, was the Reverend William Archibald Spooner of Oxford. He once concluded a sermon by stating, "In the sermon I have just preached, whenever I said Aristotle, I meant St. Paul."
One evening Spooner was found wandering about the streets of Greenwich. "I've been here for hours," he said. "I had an important appointment to meet someone at the Dull Man, Greenwich, and I can't find it anywhere; and the odd thing is that no one seems to have heard of it." He returned home late at night and told his wife about his fruitless search. "You idiot!" she said. "Why, it was the Green Man, Dulwich, you had to go to."
For more anecdotes of the extraordinary Reverend Spooner, see the essay "Spoonerisms."
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