Sunday, July 23, 2017

`Boxer's Vigilance and Poet's Rigour'

The best allusions are unannounced and kept under wraps. That eliminates the showoffs who want only to parade their learning. The second time I read Ulysses, I did so with the goal of thoroughly annotating it – a ridiculous ambition for a twenty-year-old autodidact even to contemplate. I did pretty well with Shakespeare but muffed the opera and Irish history references, among other things. Still, with subsequent readings, I filled the margins of my old black-covered Random House edition and taped in additional sheets with further annotations. Now the book is swollen held together with rubber bands and is less a novel that a curious artifact of my prideful youth. I’m unlikely ever again to read Joyce’s novel.

In 1954, Yvor Winters brought Thom Gunn to the United States and Stanford University. Gunn had graduated from Cambridge the previous year and published his first collection, Fighting Terms. He had never visited the United States. On Aug. 28, 1954, Winters writes to the young Englishman (The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters, ed. R.L. Barth, 2000), welcomes him to the U.S. and invites him to come to supper when he arrives. Winters quickly chucks his formidable reputation:

“I am not a Don; I am merely a professor. My most intimate friends are Airedales, but I enjoy my poets, and during the school year I have not the time to see as much of them off the campus as I would like.”

Winters expresses sadness that Gunn’s first glimpse of the U.S. will be the Atlantic seaboard: “It is a dismal province, and you will like the west the better, I suppose, for having seen the worst the first.” Winters drily balances wit and West Coast chauvinism:

“In New Mexico and Arizona . . . the earth is read. These are good states. In California the earth is red on the western slope of the Sierras, and when you get down into the great valley, the grass will be dead and the air will be yellow. I find that I cannot endure to be far from the yellow air for very long. It is like gold to airy thinness beat, but it smells better.” 

A good allusion flatters the recipient. It’s a gift. Winters knew Gunn had read his Donne, and Gunn saw in Winters a “boxer’s vigilance and poet’s rigour.”   

Saturday, July 22, 2017

`The Fate of Other Pretty Things'

Dr. Johnson’s most readable and rereadable book for those still reading in the twenty-first century is probably Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779–81), containing fifty-two portraits mingling biography and criticism. Some of his renderings and judgments remain indelible. Despite the efforts of modern biographers, Swift will always have “a kind of muddy complexion, which, though he washed himself with Oriental scrupulosity, did not look clear.” I first read that in 1971 and it never leaves me. The same goes for his assessment of Dryden’s work habits: His “performances were always hasty, either excited by some external occasion, or extorted by domestic necessity.” Any honest writer will understand. For Friday’s post I read Johnson’s “Life of Prior” again. Hooked, I reread his “Life of Waller” and found this field of gems:

“Genius now and then produces a lucky trifle. We still read the Dove of Anacreon, and Sparrow of Catullus; and a writer naturally pleases himself with a performance, which owes nothing to the subject. But compositions merely pretty have the fate of other pretty things, and are quitted in time for something useful: they are flowers fragrant and fair, but of short duration; or they are blossoms to be valued only as they foretell fruits.”

Johnson goes on to commend Waller’s “On Love,” which begins: “Anger, in hasty words or blows, / Itself discharges on our foes.” Rereading Johnson on Weller loosens a dozen memories and associations. As a young man he translated Anacreon’s Ode IX, and here is C.H. Sisson’s translation of Catullus II (The Poetry of Catullus, Viking, 1966):

“Sparrow my Lesbia likes to play with,
The one she likes to hold in her lap
To whom she gives her finger tip
To make him bite, as she likes, more sharply,
When, shining because of my desire
She finds it a precious thing to play with
(I think, when her grave fire acquiesces
She finds it a solace for her pain).
If I could play with you just as she does
I’d have a way of lightening my cares.”

Johnson’s “merely pretty” sounds an alarm. None of the writers thus far cited in this post is “merely pretty.” All, to varying degrees, are rough-hewn, plain-spoken (though eloquent) and “useful,” to use Johnson’s corrective. As to Waller, any mention of him recalls Anthony Hecht’s elegy for his friend and fellow poet, “To L.E. Sissman, 1928-1976” (The Transparent Man, 1990):

“Dear friend, whose poetry of Brooklyn flats
And poker sharps broadcasts the tin pan truths
Of all our yesterdays, speaks to our youths
In praise of both Wallers, Edmund and Fats . . .”

Friday, July 21, 2017

`His Verses Always Roll, but They Seldom Flow'

Like the Arthurian legend and Lana Turner’s discovery at Schwab’s, Matthew Prior’s public entrée to literature stirs the hopes and imaginations of all who feel they have gone unrecognized. In 1675, when Prior was eleven, he worked as a bookkeeper in his uncle Arthur Prior’s Rhenish Tavern in Westminster, London. Pepys was a patron, drinking wine by the pint, eating anchovies, gossiping and eyeing the ladies. In Matthew Prior: Poet and Diplomatist (Columbia University Press, 1939), Charles Kenneth Eves sets the scene:

“Matt from his seat behind the bar had ample opportunity to observe the free, easy manners and conversation of the patrons. Much that came out in his own life and verse afterwards is plainly traceable to the tavern, proving, said Dr. Johnson, the truth of the Horatian aphorism: `The vessel long retains the scent which it first receives’ . . . Yet it is to be questioned whether Prior’s coarseness, his love of drink, his ribaldry, are to be attributed so much to the influence of the tavern as to that of the times.”

Eves tells us Prior’s enemies in later life taunted him with such nicknames as “Matthew, the Pint Boy” and “Matthew Spindleshanks, the Tavern Boy.” Among the patrons of the Rhenish was Charles Sackville, Sixth Earl of Dorset, already the patron of Dryden and Congreve, among others. In his remembrance of the poet, Sir James Montague, who lived across the street from the tavern and remained Prior’s lifelong friend, writes:  

“[Lord Dorset] surprised this youth, Matthew Prior, with a Horace in his hand, which taking from him to see what book he had got, he asked him what he did with it. Young Matthew answered he was looking upon it. How, said Lord Dorset, do you understand Latin? He replied, a little, upon saying which the noble lord tried if he could construe a place or two, and finding he did, Lord Dorset turned to one of the odes, and bid him put it into English, which Matt did in English metre, and brought it up to the company before they broke up, and the company was so well pleased with the performance, and the address of the thing, that they all liberally rewarded him with money; and whenever that company met there, it was certainly part of their entertainment to give Odes out of Horace, and verses out of Ovid to translate.”

Prior became Lord Dorset’s protégé, enabling him to resume study at the Westminster School (Prior had been forced to drop out after his father’s death). Among the school’s distinguished alumni were Jonson, Cowley, Dryden, John Locke and Christopher Wren.
A few years later, Prior won a scholarship to St. John’s College, Cambridge. While there he wrote occasional poems in English and Latin, and soon became the most accomplished English poet between Dryden and Pope.

Here are two of Prior’s epigrams, a minor but pleasant form in his hands (The Literary Works of Matthew Prior, Vol. I, eds. H. Bunker Wright and Monroe K. Spears, 1959):

“Ovid is the surest Guide,
You can name, to show the Way
To any Woman, Maid, or Bride,
Who resolves to go astray.”

And this:

“No, no; for my Virginity,
When I lose that, says Rose, I’ll dye:
Behind the Elmes, last Night, cry’d Dick,
Rose, were You not extreamly Sick?”

In his “Life of Prior,” Dr. Johnson obviously feels an affinity with the poet when he describes him as “one of those that have burst out from an obscure original to great eminence.” His assessment of Prior’s gift is fair:

“Some of his poems are written without regularity of measures, for when he commenced poet, we had not recovered from our Pindarick infatuation; but he probably lived to be convinced that the essence of verse is order and consonance. His numbers are such as mere diligence may attain; they seldom offend the ear, and seldom sooth it; they commonly want airiness, lightness, and facility; what is smooth is not soft. His verses always roll, but they seldom flow.”

Prior was born on this date, July 24, in 1664, and died on Sept. 18, 1721. Three days later, Jonathan Swift concludes the letter he is writing to William King, the Archbishop of Dublin: “I am just now told from some newspapers, that one of the king’s enemies, and my excellent friend, Mr. Prior, is dead; I pray God deliver me from many such trials. I am neither old nor philosopher enough to be indifferent at so great a loss; and therefore I abruptly conclude, but with the greatest respect, my lord.”

Thursday, July 20, 2017

`The Task Is Not Very Agreeable to Me'

How do you tell a correspondent not seen in decades that you have grown old and not make it sound self-evident, self-pitying or dull? You write like William Cowper. Despite bouts of madness, Cowper as a letter writer can be dignified, playful and witty, often simultaneously. On this date, July 20, in 1780, he writes to his cousin Harriet Cowper:

“You see me sixteen years older, at the least, than when I saw you last; but the effects of time seem to have taken place rather on the outside of my head, than within it. What was brown, is become grey, but what was foolish, remains foolish still. Green fruit must rot before it ripens, if the season is such as to afford it nothing but cold winds and dark clouds, that interrupt every ray of sunshine.”

Cowper manages to sound charming while recounting incipient old age (he was fifty and would live until 1800) and a difficult life (suicide attempts, asylums). He continues writing to his cousin, who was later Lady Hesketh:

“My days steal away silently, and march on (as poor mad Lear would have made his soldiers march) as if they were shod with felt; not so silently, but that I hear them; yet were it not that I am always listening to their flight, having no infirmity that I had not, when I was much younger, I should deceive myself with an imagination that I am still young.”

Cowper alludes to the wit of another mad man, King Lear, who in Act IV, Scene 6, says “It were a delicate stratagem, to shoe / A troop of horse with felt.” Age is a ready-made, temptingly easy subject for joking, one that lends joke-making confidence even to the humorless. Cowper winningly turns the subject on himself. Abruptly he changes subject, and articulates a familiar writer’s lament:

“I am fond of writing, as an amusement, but do not always find it one. Being rather scantily furnished with subjects, that are good for anything, and corresponding only with those, who have no relish for such as are good for nothing, I often find myself reduced to the necessity, the disagreeable necessity, of writing about myself. [Not unlike contemporary poets and memoirists.] This does not mend the matter much; for though in a description of my own condition, I discover abundant materials to employ my pen upon, yet as the task is not very agreeable to me, so I am sufficiently aware, that it is likely to prove irksome to others.”

If only more writers shared Cowper’s understanding of self-as-subject. Unless your name is Montaigne, beware. The self, like dreams, is of interest only to the self in question. Cowper continues:         

“A painter, who should confine himself, in the exercise of his art, to the drawing of his own picture, must be a wonderful coxcomb, if he did not soon grow sick of his occupation, and be peculiarly fortunate, if he did not make others as sick as himself.”

This sample suggests why Cowper, after Keats, is the most touching, amusing and stylistically accomplished letter writer in English. Both men never, despite their obvious suffering, succumbed to self-pity, bitterness or lousy writing.

[Addendum on Lady Hasketh: On Jan. 10, 1781, Dr. Johnson’s friend, Hester Lynch Piozzi, writes in her diary (Thraliana, ed. Katharine Balderston, 1942): “Dear Lady Hesketh! And how like a Naples Washball [a bar of soap for bathing] She is: so round, so sweet, so plump, so polished, so red, so white . . . with more beauty than almost any body, as much Wit as many a body; and six Times the Quantity of polite Literature, Belles Lettres as we call ’em. Lady Hesketh is wholly neglected by the Men: why is that? . . . I never can find out what that Woman does to keep the people from adoring her.”]

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

`Like the House in the Clearing'

Two essays anchor my thoughts regarding the care and feeding of a personal library, the books we hold on to for reasons both talismanic and practical. Someday, we’re certain, we will reread them, and most we have already reread at least once, whole or in part. The world’s opinion means nothing. The only critic whose judgment matters is the proprietor: you, the free-lance librarian. The first foundational essay is L.E. Sissman’s “The Constant Rereader’s Five-Foot Shelf” in Innocent Bystander: The Scene from the 70’s (1975). Sissman’s tastes are literally eccentric, away from the center, even more so today than when he was writing more than forty years ago. He claims Dryden and Swift, Defoe and Orwell, Anthony Hecht and Jane’s Fighting Ships (the 1914 and 1939 editions). Here is Sissman’s apologia, in words I wish I had written:

“A list of books that you reread is like a clearing in the forest: a level, clean, well-lighted place where you set down your burdens and set up your home, your identity, your concerns, your continuity in a world that is at best indifferent, at worst malign. Since you, the reader, are that hero of modern literature, the existential loner, the smallest denominator of moral force, it behooves you to take counsel, sustenance, and solace from the writers who have been writing about you these hundred or five hundred years, to sequester yourself with their books and read and reread them to get a fix on yourself and a purchase on the world that will, with luck, like the house in the clearing, last you for life.”

I too, at some atavistic level I trust, associate books with home. I miss them when I’m away, and feel slightly unhinged. More stringent and less sentimental is Joseph Epstein in “Books Won’t Furnish a Room” (In a Cardboard Belt!: Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage, 2007). Epstein evaluates what he can’t live without and what he can, however reluctantly, jettison. As Dr. Johnson said of friendship, a library must be kept “in constant repair.” Epstein proceeds systematically through his shelves. In poetry, his tastes overlap heavily with mine. He keeps Sissman and Larkin, Leopardi and Cavafy, for instance. With the Russians, our paths diverge. He lets go of Chekhov’s stories, which to me is a form of amputation, though he retains War and Peace, and two Nabokov titles (though, bafflingly, no Lolita). He partially redeems himself by holding on to Lampedusa and Svevo. In summation, Epstein writes, and I concur: 

“I tried to devise principles for keeping the books I did. Usefulness and rereadability were the best I could come up with.”

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

`Strength and Weakness of the Human Intellect'

“Whilst in Florence, Hazlitt, attired in a dress-coat and nankeen trousers half-way up his legs, leaving his stockings well visible over his shoes, presented himself at the Palazzo Medici and demanded to see Landor, an act of courage which excited the admiration and aroused the fears of the English residents.”

Yes, but for whom, Landor or Hazlitt? This was a meeting of tempestuous tempers. Both men raged at the world, perceiving insults where none was intended and issuing them for the sheer cranky fun of it. Arthur Krystal writes of Hazlitt: “The man suffered from intellectual Tourette’s syndrome: he simply could not keep his mouth shut.” And Adam Roberts, author of Landor’s Cleanness (2014), writes: “Landor was a choleric individual, given to sudden rages, whilst also magnanimous, kind-hearted and loyal to his friends.” It’s foolish to expect consistency of either man, except in the brilliance of much of their writing. The passage at the top is from Augustine Birrell’s William Hazlitt (1902), a title in the “English Men of Letters,” a series of biographies by prominent writers (Henry James on Hawthorne, Leslie Stephen on Dr. Johnson) and published by Macmillan. Birrell loves Hazlitt unconditionally, despite his prickly nature. Of the meeting with Landor he continues:

“The two men got on exceedingly well. Hazlitt has reviewed the first two volumes of the Imaginary Conversations in the Edinburgh [Review]; and though he had, with all the `spectacled gravity’ of an austere critic, found his author guilty of a strange lack of temper and decorum, and full of arrogance and caprice, he had also greatly delighted in many of the Conversations, and had written of them with feeling and enthusiasm.”

With volatile, mercurial temperaments, it’s futile to look for constancy, and it’s naïve to expect those we admire to unwaveringly like and admire each other. One would love to read the “imaginary conversations” of Hazlitt and Landor. Birrell notes that the two men shared “obvious resemblances,” and adds: “Both hated kings far better than they loved peoples. Neither of them was the least a democrat.” Here is Landor speaking of Hazlitt, giving praise while taking it away, as quoted by John Forster in his Life of Landor (1868):

“Hazlitt’s books are delightful to read, pleasant always, often eloquent and affecting in the extreme. But I don’t get much valuable criticism out of them. Coleridge was worth fifty of him in that respect. A point may be very sharp, and yet not go very deep; and the deficiency of penetrating may be the result of its fineness. A shoemaker whose shoes are always well pollisht [sic] and always neatly cut out, but rarely fit, is not of much use to us.”

And from 1824, here is the opening of Hazlitt’s review of Landor’s Imaginary Conversations:
“This work is as remarkable an instance as we have lately met with of the strength and weakness of the human intellect. It displays considerable originality, learning, acuteness, terseness of style, and force of invective — but it is spoiled and rendered abortive throughout by an utter want of temper, of self-knowledge, and decorum.”  

Monday, July 17, 2017

`It Adds Something to the Fragment of Life'

“. . . I was born to travel out of the common road, and to get aside from the highway path, and he had sense enough to see it, and not to trouble me with trammels. I was neither made to be a thill-horse, nor a fore-horse; in short I was not made to go in a team, but to amble along as I liked; and so that I do not kick, or splash, or run over any one, who in the name of common sense has a right to interrupt me?”

I mistook thill for thrill, and thought Sterne meant a horse trained to perform tricks, like a horse in a rodeo, or else he was lisping. Not so. A thill is the “pole or shaft by which a wagon, cart, or other vehicle is attached to the animal drawing it.” (OED) The dictionary defines thill-horse as the “shaft-horse or wheeler in a team,” the opposite of an unbroken wild horse or mustang. We know untrammeled but you can watch Sterne’s equine metaphor unfold beginning with trammels if you know it means “a hobble to prevent a horse from straying or kicking.” The secret engine driving Tristram Shandy (1759-67) is identical – a wayward and comical association of ideas, digressions within digressions, philosophical japes, smutty puns and double entendres. In the hands of an earnestly humorous writer, the strategy is deadly. Forty-five years ago, the professor who introduced me to Sterne warned me against imitating him if I ever chose to write fiction. I did, briefly, and she was right. Some styles are meant to be savored and left severely alone. In his letter, written on this date, July 17, in 1764, Sterne is describing both his sensibility and his manner of writing, which, as with any good writer, are identical. He goes on:

“Let the good folks laugh if they will, and much good may it do them. Indeed, I am persuaded, and I think I could prove, nay, and I would do it, if I were writing a book instead of a letter, the truth of what I once told a very great statesman, orator, politician, and as much more as you please—that every time a man smiles—much more so—when he laughs—it adds something to the fragment of life.”

Sterne, the author of two death-haunted masterpieces, was dead in less than four years.