Nearly everyone experiences absentmindedness at one time or another, but authors seem to be especially afflicted, along with clergymen, professors, and other contemplative people.
Take, for example, Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695). Perhaps the most beloved French author of the seventeenth century, La Fontaine wrote simple animal stories that contained elements of satire and social criticism. Known for his kind and gentle disposition, he also distinguished himself for his absentmindedness.
Jean de La Fontaine
He once called at the house of a friend whom he had not seen for a while. When reminded that his friend had died six months earlier, La Fontaine at first expressed surprise and then said, “True! True! I recollect I went to his funeral.” Another time he met his adult son at a social event but did not recognize him. Told who the young man was, La Fontaine replied, “Ah, yes, I thought I had seen him somewhere.”
Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), author of Principia Mathematica (1687) and other influential scientific works, could be very absentminded.
Sir Isaac Newton
One day a Dr. Stukely called at Newton’s 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 set it close to the visitor. After an hour passed and Sir Isaac still did not appear, the doctor found himself getting hungry, so he ate 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 found 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.”
G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), who wrote the Father Brown detective stories as well as numerous essays, novels, and biographies, was certainly one of the most absentminded of authors.
G. K. Chesterton
Chesterton lived in London but spent much 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 straightening out that bit of confusion, he walked 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 could not get back into his house. The key would not fit. 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 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.”
The Reverend William Lisle Bowles (1762-1850), besides being a friend of the Lake Poets, was a minor poet himself. Yet perhaps his most distinctive characteristic was absence of mind.
William Lisle Bowles
One evening he gave a dinner-party for some friends, only to keep them waiting downstairs for his appearance. Finally his wife went up to see what kept him and found him searching all about the room for a stocking. After a great deal more searching, Mrs. Bowles discovered that her husband, while occupied in thinking about a poem he was writing, had put two stockings on the same foot.
Bowles once 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.”
Clergymen, like Bowles, apparently get so preoccupied with writing sermons and thinking about the life hereafter that they lose touch with life in the present moment. At any rate, the minister of Thames Ditton, George Harvest (1716-1780), was notoriously forgetful. According to The Absent Man; or, Life & Singular Eccentricities of George Harvest, Pastor and Comedian (1808), Harvest “was known to write a letter to one person, direct it to another, and address it to a third, who could not devise who it came from, because he had forgot to subscribe his name to the bottom of it.”
Harvest would also lose track of time and forget what day it was. On more than one occasion he walked down to his church on Sunday morning with a gun on his arm to find out what all those people were doing there.
Another clergyman, a Canon Sawyer, once started for the train station to meet a visitor, got lost in thought, arrived at the station, boarded a departing train, and disappeared.
The absentmindedness of professors is, of course, proverbial. Constantly thinking on recondite subjects renders them at times unfit to deal with the ordinary affairs of life. Such was the case with Professor James Joseph Sylvester (1814-1897) of Johns Hopkins and later Oxford University.
James Joseph Sylvester
“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 academic, as well as clergyman, was the Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930) of Oxford.
William Archibald Spooner
Spooner once concluded a sermon by stating, “In the sermon I have just preached, whenever I said Aristotle, I meant St. Paul.”
One evening he was found wandering 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.”
When he returned home late at night and told his wife about his fruitless search, she said to him, “You idiot! Why, it was the Green Man, Dulwich, you had to go to.”
In addition to being absentminded, Spooner achieved even greater notoriety for occasionally and unconsciously transposing the sounds and syllables of words as he spoke, something known technically as metathesis. But we’ll have more to say about Archibald Spooner and spoonerisms in a later article.