In my review of John Banville's The Newton Letter I mentioned that in the book Banville speaks of two letters from Newton to John Locke, although in historical fact there was only one. At the end of the book Banville provides a "Note" in which he states that the second letter is a "fiction" and then adds that it's "tone and some of the text...is taken from Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Ein Brief ('The Letter of Lord Chandos')." I'm not sure why I hadn't focused on this at the time I finished the book or when I was writing it up a few days ago, but in a kind of delayed reaction this "Note" popped in to my head and with a bit of searching in my own library the explanation became clear: a few years ago the wonderful New York Review Books published a collection of Hofmannsthal's shorter prose pieces under the title The Lord Chandos Letter and Other Writings, with an introduction by...John Banville!
In the letter, addressed to Francis Bacon (who lived from 1561 to 1626), Lord Chandos, a young man in his twenties, who has apparently written brilliant literary works, tries to explain how it is that he has despaired of the use of words, in some part because the words have somehow become detached from the things that they are — or ought to be — representing.
He says: "A watering can, a harrow left in a field, a dog in the sun, a shabby churchyard, a cripple, a small farmhouse--any of these can become the vessel of my revelation. Any of these things and the thousand similar ones past which the eye ordinarily glides with natural indifference can at any moment...suddenly take on for me a sublime and moving aura which words seem too weak to describe."
If you are intrigued by The Newton Letter, by all means give yourself a treat and read this Hofmannsthal volume; its remaining content is a number of short pieces, mostly fiction, that you will also find quite impressive.
— Jeremy Nussbaum