Saturday, September 20, 2014

`A Natural Distance from Conventional Behavior'

The charm of a good fairy tale is the way it straddles worlds, ours and another that operates with an alternate physics but similar morals. Soft-hearted and -headed teachers and parents try to fob them off as cute and whimsical, and some translations abet the fraud, but kids know better. Despite the bowdlerizers, fairy tales can be savage and unforgiving though not in the way Bruno Bettelheim theorized. Frances Spalding writes in Stevie Smith: A Biography (1988): 

“When she was seven years old her mother gave her for Christmas a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The climate of these chilling fantasies, in which fate is simple and peremptory, had a profound influence on Stevie’s mental landscape. All her life she was to return to Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a copy of which, in German, was found beside her bed at Avondale Road after she died.” 

Spalding’s summary is tersely precise: “fate is simple and peremptory,” amenable to change through trial and ritual but without guarantees. Not everyone lives happily ever after. This appealed to Smith who was more than half in love with death, easeful or otherwise, and who lulled adults into thinking she was writing for children. “The Frog Prince,” accompanied by a Churchill-like drawing of the creature, is her version of a story collected by die Brüder Grimm -- Jacob (1785–1863) and Wilhelm (1786–1859). She adapts their “The Frog Prince; or, Iron Henry” (Der Froschkönig oder der eiserne Heinrich; literally, “The Frog King; or, The Iron Heinrich.”) Smith does away with the story’s third-person narration and its focus on the king’s daughter, and shifts it to the frog who has doubts about becoming a prince again when the spell is broken: 

“The story is familiar
Everyone knows it well
But do other enchanted people feel as nervous
As I do? The stories do not tell. 

“Ask if they would be happier
When the changes come
As already they are fairly happy
in a frog’s doom?” 

Hardly childish thoughts. The frog comes to wonder if feelings of frog-complacency, being comfortable as a tailless amphibian, are a part of the spell. Jack Barbera and William McBrien in Stevie: A Biography (1985) quote a note left by Smith: “`The Frog Prince’ is a religious poem because he got too contented with being a frog and was nervous of being changed back into his proper shape and going to heaven. So he nearly missed the chance of that great happiness, but, as you will see, he grew strong in time.” See the poem’s final lines, in which the adjectives are dense with meanings: “Only disenchanted people / Can be heavenly.” Smith writes in another poem, “How do you see?”: “Oh I know we must put away the beautiful fairy stories / And learn to be good in a dull way without enchantment, / Yes, we must.” Kay Ryan says of Smith: 

“Nobody knows how to be light much of   the time. Maybe not even the Dalai Lama. Stevie Smith had some natural advantages, a natural distance from conventional behavior.” 

Smith was born on this date, Sept. 20, in 1902, and Jacob Grimm died on this date in 1863.

Friday, September 19, 2014

`It Has No Grave Flaws and Is Charmingly Written'

“The weather on Sunday, 19 September was very settled, according to the Meteorological Journal. It came in a fortnight of consistently `Fine’ weather and was on the day in London a minimum of 57 degrees and maximum 60, to rise on the Monday to an unusually clement 70 degrees, amongst the three warmest days in September that year.” 

That is, 1819, the heart of John Keats’ “Great Year,” when he composed most of the poems and letters we remember and read. The weather report is provided by R.S. White in John Keats: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). On this date 195 years ago Keats wrote the last and greatest of his odes, “To Autumn.” That day he walked along the River Itchen near Winchester. Two days later, in a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds, he describes the experience: 

“How beautiful the season is now – How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather – Dian skies – I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now – Aye better than the chilly green of spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm – in the same way that some pictures look warm – this struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it.” 

That same day, Keats transcribed “To Autumn” and sent it in a letter to another friend, Richard Woodhouse. He was not yet twenty-four when he wrote the poem, and would be dead seventeen months later. In one of the best books ever devoted to a single writer, Keats and Embarrassment (1974), Christopher Ricks writes: 

“`To Autumn’ – and it is this which makes its calm poise a thing of such dignity—is a poem of parting: the parting of the day, the parting of the swallows, the parting of Autumn, the parting from life. Partings moved Keats to special sympathy, tact, and pleasure.” 

Even the arch-anti-Romantic Yvor Winters had grudgingly good things to say about “To Autumn.” Keats’ poems, he writes in Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English (1967), “offers melancholy for the most part unexplained, melancholy for its own sake, combined with detail which is sensuous as regards intention but which is seldom perceived with real clarity. There is almost no intellect in or behind the poems; the poems are adolescent in every aspect.” About the final ode, however, Winters adds: 

To Autumn is the most nearly successful of Keats’s poems. It has no grave flaws and is charmingly written. But it is not very serious, and the style, although controlled, is excessively mellifluous. Of all the unintentionally comical poems in the language, the Ode on Melancholy is possibly the most amusing [he cites the final six lines of the second stanza].”

Thursday, September 18, 2014

`Made Artful by Long Commerce with the World'

Secretly, I’ve always felt sympathy for Polonius, the windbag mocked by that other, less critically recognized windbag, Hamlet. Such a reading of the play is unconventional, I know, but the prince is insufferable, a template for today’s over-educated, under-experienced know-it-alls. His posturing and waffling bring about the death of almost every major character in the play, including himself. Hamlet refers to Polonius as “a tedious old fool” but Samuel Johnson, while not ignoring the lord chamberlain’s  failings, thinks otherwise: 

“Polonius is a man bred in courts, exercised in business, stored with observation, confident of his knowledge, proud of his eloquence, and declining into dotage. His mode of oratory is truly represented as designed to ridicule the practice of those times, of prefaces that made no introduction, and of method that embarrassed rather than explained. This part of his character is accidental, the rest is natural.” 

This Polonius recalls another aging man with a daughter in jeopardy, King Lear, one of whose daughters, Goneril, says: “Old fools are babes again.” A man “declining into dotage” deserves our pity if not respect. Elsewhere, in The Rambler #50, Johnson writes: 

“To secure to the old that influence which they are willing to claim, and which might so much contribute to the improvement of the arts of life, it is absolutely necessary that they give themselves up to the duties of declining years, and contentedly resign to youth its levity, its pleasures, its frolics, and its fopperies. It is a hopeless endeavour to unite the contrarieties of spring and winter; it is unjust to claim the privileges of age and retain the playthings of childhood.” 

Polonius is a man of affairs, a diplomat and trusted adviser to Claudius. To retain such a position, he has learned to be an applied psychologist, quick to diagnose motives and sniff out treachery, while skilled in flattering his boss. One wishes he spoke less often and gave more thought to his words, but his loyalties, of necessity, are divided among the king, his son and daughter, and himself. Johnson suggests his age may be taking its toll on his gifts. He goes on: 

“Such a man is positive and confident, because he knows that his mind was once strong, and knows not that it is become weak. Such a man excels in general principles, but fails in the particular application. He is knowing in retrospect, and ignorant in foresight. While he depends upon his memory, and can draw from his repositories of knowledge, he utters weighty sentences, and gives useful counsel; but as the mind in its enfeebled state cannot be kept long busy and intent, the old man is subject to sudden dereliction of his faculties, he loses the order of his ideas, and entangles himself in his own thoughts, till he recovers the leading principle, and falls again into his former train. This idea of dotage encroaching upon wisdom, will solve all the phenomena of the character of Polonius.” 

Here is one of Polonius’ speeches to Ophelia, from Act II, Scene 1: 

“That hath made him mad.
I am sorry that with better heed and judgment
I had not quoted him. I feared he did but trifle
And meant to wreck thee. But beshrew my jealousy!
By heaven, it is as proper to our age
To cast beyond ourselves in our opinions
As it is common for the younger sort
To lack discretion. Come, go we to the king.
This must be known, which, being kept close, might move
More grief to hide than hate to utter love.” 

Johnson praises Polonius’ intelligence in this passage: “This is not the remark of a weak man. The vice of age is too much suspicion. Men long accustomed to the wiles of life cast commonly beyond themselves, let their cunning go further than reason can attend it. This is always the fault of a little mind, made artful by long commerce with the world.” Though probably not aware of the applicability of his words to himself, Polonius’ thinking is original. He is not play-acting, not parroting another’s words. 

In his recent essay on Hamlet, Theodore Dalrymple (a Dr. Johnson for our age) refers to Polonius as “the king’s pompous and verbose adviser.” I might quibble with “pompous” (he has Ophelia and Laertes to think about, after all), but Dalrymple’s conclusions as to the perennial “Hamlet problem” (and, we might add, the Polonius problem) are sound: “Our impatient and hubristic pretense, repeated throughout history, that we fully understand ourselves and others inevitably leads to nemesis.” Shakespeare’s play reminds us that we remain mysteries to ourselves. Hamlet is blind to Hamlet, and Polonius to Polonius. 

Johnson was born on this date, Sept. 18, in 1709, and died Dec. 13, 1784.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

`They Never Stop Working'

I happened on “Spare Time,” an essay by V.S. Pritchett previously unknown to me. He wrote it in 1978 for The Author, the journal of the Society of Authors, founded in England in 1884 as a sort of trade union for professional writers. Tennyson was its first president and among its early members were Shaw, Hardy, Masefield, Galsworthy and Wells. Pritchett’s essay is collected in Author! Author! (Faber and Faber, 1984), an anthology of selections from The Author edited by Richard Findlater. Pritchett begins with a conventional and not very promising theme, writers and money, and quietly turns it into a meditation on the importance of time, “the one necessity of their lives, not simply for high jinks—everyone has that—but time for their particular work.” He distinguishes two sorts of time important to writers: “…the clock time of his prose factory and the vitally necessary unending time of reflection; without the latter his work that clocks in will be dead and automatic.” 

Writing has a long gestation because the writer never knows what might prove useful. If he is, as Henry James suggests he ought to be, “one of those on whom nothing is lost,” he has no spare time, no “down time,” no time to kill. A hastily written pen-for-hire piece of journalism may have decades-old origins unknown even to the writer. Every thought, every experience, every book read, might come in handy. Pritchett alludes to Keats’ notion of “negative capability” and adds: “A writer must have the capacity to become passive and lost in doubt in order to be open to new suggestion. He must alternate between clocking in and clocking out.” With Kipling, Pritchett is the greatest of English story writers, and his observations have obvious relevance for those writing fiction, but also for poets, essayists, critics and even bloggers. The alternating and even simultaneous spells of passivity and rigor sound very familiar. Much of the rest of Pritchett’s essay is given over to anecdotes about how the greats – Balzac, James, Kipling – budgeted their time. In the final paragraphs he turns autobiographical: 

“I find that reading Russian novelists, mainly of the nineteenth century, is good for my `negative capability’ – a state, incidentally, that means a state of vagary, doubt and indecision as well as self-annulment. I get pleasure for its own sake out of Gibbon on an idle Sunday evening; also from classic works of travel. If I work hard it is partly to offset a lazy mind. Painters taught me to love landscape. In London or if I chance to stay in the country I stand staring out of the window at the trees or garden. Gardening is good for writers: pruning and weeding are like proof-correcting. I like sleeping an hour or so in the afternoons. I like doing the local shopping in Camden Town: one hears such strange remarks.” 

Pritchett’s prose, seldom flashy or attention-seeking, is Dickensian but with brains. His sentences can be aphoristic without being sententious. He notices things and makes them pertinent. He has an ear. In his words is a marvelous absence of self-consciousness that doesn't lapse into a faux-naïve impression of naturalness. Pritchett has a gift for using unexpected words. Oddly, the passage just quoted has at least one thing in common with Emerson’s prose: Not one sentence follows inevitably from the proceeding sentence. Whereas in Emerson the effect is of shiny, tawdry little bits arranged in patterns like costume jewelry, in Pritchett the reader is buoyed along by the current of the writer’s gusto for the world and its inhabitants. “I have a lot to say,” Pritchett suggests, “so please pay attention and try to keep up with me.” He was seventy-eight when he wrote “Spare Time” and was still writing stories and reviewing books. In “Gibbon and the Home Guard,” the first piece collected in the 1,139-page Complete Essays (1991), Pritchett writes: 

“Sooner or later, the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

`Even in This State of Wonders'

“I admire the pattern of the collar you sent John very much and thank you for him; also for the [Dickens] book entitled `A tale of two Citys [sic]’. I can hardly say I like it, though it is well written.” 

Bella Williams was sixteen when she critiqued Dickens’ novel for her brother James on Nov. 25, 1860. With their mother, Eleanor Williams, she had also read Dombey and Son, which she rated “next to Davy Copperfield in my estimation.” When Eleanor read Dickens’ story “The Haunted House,” she wrote in another letter: “Dickens always gives a surprise. It is not what would be expected from the title. [It] is quite interesting but not equal to his other stories that I have read. The caracters [sic] do not seem to live as they do in some others.” Bella also read Nicholas Nickleby and Barnaby Rudge, and Eleanor admired Jane Eyre. In contrast to Eleanor’s assessment of the characters in “The Haunted House,” she and her family come alive in `This State of Wonders’: The Letters of an Iowa Frontier Family (ed. John Kent Folmar, University of Iowa Press, 1986). The book gives the lie to the notion that all American settlers were cretins out to kill Indians and rape the land. 

The patriarch was John Hugh Williams, born in Wales in 1805. He emigrated to Philadelphia at age seventeen, trained as a watchmaker and engraver, and married the boss’ daughter, Eleanor Anderson. They moved west to St. Clairsville, Ohio, near Wheeling, W.V. In 1847, Williams became a leader in founding the Church of New Jerusalem in Ohio. They were followers of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), as were Blake and Emerson (who called him “a colossal soul”). In 1855, the family, now with six children, moved west to the village of Homer in Webster County, Iowa. After the economic panic of 1857, William arranged for his son James to go to work as a watchmaker for a fellow Swedenborgian in Augusta, Ga. Most of the seventy-five letters collected in `This State of Wonders’ were exchanged by James and his family back in Iowa between 1858 and March 1861, on the brink of the Civil War. On Dec. 26, 1860, Bella’s husband George wrote to James, describing an expedition in a snow storm to gather firewood. It recalls Tolstoy’s “Master and Man”: 

“There was a dead buroak [burr oak] up on the hill and John said that he would go and get it; it was burnt down and we loaded it on the sledge and started toward home. We went about ten rods [168 feet] when the off runner hit a little nole [knoll], and threw the wood to the near side and the runner b[r]oke down. We managed to fix it so we could ride home on it.” 

The following date, Bella also wrote to James. Folmar uses a phrase from the final paragraph for the title of his collection: 

“On the 23rd we had the quietest and heaviest fall of snow I ever witnessed even in this State of wonders and it continued calm until yesterday evening when the wind—which was coming out from the south east—rose and the snow began to `kelter’ and has continued to do so since.” 

I’m uncertain whether “State of wonders” refers to Iowa or is a scriptural or Swedenborgian allusion. Nor does the editor explain “kelter” or why Bella puts the word in quotation marks. The OED gives four definitions, all nouns, none of which seem pertinent: “a coarse cloth used for outer garments,” “good condition, order; state of health or spirits” [variation of kilter, as in “out of kilter”]; “money, cash,” and “rubbish, nonsense.” 

In his epilogue, Folmar fills in the very American coda. After Fort Sumter, James Williams, a native-born Northerner, enlisted in the Twenty-first Alabama Infantry Volunteers. He led his company at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862 and was cited for gallantry. By June 1863, he had been promoted to lieutenant colonel. He commanded a small battery, Fort Powell, in the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864 and was regimental commander during the final months of the war. He lived for the rest of his life in Mobile, Ala., and died in 1903. His brothers John, Jr. and Joseph, served in Company G of the First Iowa Cavalry. They died in 1933 and 1891, respectively.

[Dave Lull passes along the definition of “kelter” as an intransitive verb in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “to move restlessly: undulate,” “chiefly Scottish.”]

Monday, September 15, 2014

`What Is Read with Delight'

My middle son is studying trigonometry and second-year French, and last week he experienced the Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus realization that schooling is often reducible to brute memorization. Public school didn’t prepare him for this reality. Rote learning is disapproved of today, by students and teachers, but there’s no other way to embed functions and irregular verbs in one’s primary data base – that is, memory, preferably long-term. I reached the same conclusion at thirteen, a year younger than Michael, while studying Latin. Vocabulary and grammar must be reviewed with sufficient frequency to become second nature, and it’s a grind. Only then can fluency and ready application follow. Dr. Johnson puts it like this in The Idler #74, published on this date, Sept. 15, in 1759: 

“The necessity of memory to the acquisition of knowledge is inevitably felt and universally allowed, so that scarcely any other of the mental faculties are commonly considered as necessary to a student: he that admires the proficiency of another, always attributes it to the happiness of his memory; and he that laments his own defects, concludes with a wish that his memory was better.” 

The fault is not in capacity. My Uncle Kenneth once referred to an ample-figured woman as “ten pounds of sausage in a five-pound casing.” The metaphor doesn’t work for memory. In my experience, its capacity is elastic and possibly infinite, especially when we are young. That’s the only way I could have memorized so much Longfellow and Eliot, not to mention commercial jingles, sit-com theme songs, Latin verbs and much of the Burl Ives songbook. Strangely, and contrary to much modern thinking, Johnson disapproves of marginalia and the copying of favorite passages. His own memory was legendary, of course, and perhaps its prodigality blinded him to the capacities of lesser mortals. He continues:      

“If the mind is employed on the past or future, the book will be held before the eyes in vain. What is read with delight is commonly retained, because pleasure always secures attention; but the books which are consulted by occasional necessity, and perused with impatience, seldom leave any traces on the mind.”

Common sense commonly disregarded.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

`Part of This Camaraderie'

“At the library I felt free—free to look at the thousands, tens of thousands, of books; free to roam and to enjoy the special atmosphere and the quiet companionship of other readers, all, like myself, on quests of their own.” 

Almost daily during the work week I visit the university library. The walk under the live oaks is bracing but I never confuse the hike with anything so mundane as cardiovascular health. Walking is its own reward – an allegory in miniature of life -- and I feel no need to justify it philosophically. Besides, the payoff, guaranteed, is books, almost anything I might want to read. When weighed alongside online access and such gifts as interlibrary loan, we inhabit a reader’s (and writer’s) paradise. We have no excuse for boredom. 

“It was in the Bodleian that I stumbled upon the now-obscure and forgotten works of Theodore Hook, a man greatly admired in the early nineteenth century for his wit and his genius for theatrical and musical improvisation (he was said to have composed more than five hundred operas on the spot). I became so fascinated by Hook that I decided to write a sort of biography or `case-history’ of him.” 

Reading has always meant writing, as eating means cooking. The first book I wrote, with volumes from the public library and my own, was a collection of presidential biographies, from Washington to Kennedy, one page each in a spiral-bound notebook. Next came the biography of a fellow Ohioan, started the day (Feb. 20, 1962) John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. I was nine, and used the newspapers and television news reports for reference. I still love biography. 

“It was there, too, that I saw all of Darwin’s works in their original editions, and it was in the stacks that I found and fell in love with all the works of Sir Thomas Browne—his Religio Medici, his Hydrotaphia, and The Garden of Cyrus (The Quincunciall Lozenge). How absurd some of these were, but how magnificent the language! And if Browne’s classical magniloquence became too much at times, one could switch to the lapidary cut-and-thrust of Swift—all of whose works, of course, were there in their original editions.” 

My editions were humbler, usually paperbacks, though I share his seemingly incompatible tastes for Browne’s sumptuous prose and the lethal K-Bar economy of Swift’s. How do people learn to write without reading widely, culling the weak and diseased from the strong and healthy? There’s no sustenance in lousy writing. 

“All of us in the library were reading our own books, absorbed in our own worlds, and yet there was a sense of community, even intimacy. The physicality of books—along with their places and their neighbors on the bookshelves—was part of this camaraderie: handling books, sharing them, passing them between us, even seeing the names of previous readers and the dates they took books out.” 

With dedicated readers I sense true solidarity, stronger than mere politics or demographics. Reading old books from the library is like digging the first stratum of an archeological site, unearthing traces of bookish forebears and, at the deepest levels, the writer. Some books are best read that way. 

[The quoted passages are drawn from "On Libraries by Dr. Oliver Sacks in the fall issue of The Threepenny Review.]