Sunday, August 28, 2016

`The Greatest Blessing I Can Have'

My favorite among Keats’ letters – written on this date, Aug. 28, in 1819 – begins conventionally, proceeds dully and concludes gloriously. The poet is in Winchester. He writes to his youngest sibling, Fanny, who turned sixteen two months earlier. Like many of us, he opens with an apology for “suffering so long a space to elapse between the dates of my letters.” A dutiful travelogue follows: “There is a fine Cathedrall (sic) which to me is always a sourse (sic) of amusement.” He tells Fanny of the tragedy he has written -- Otho the Great, never performed until 1950, and by all accounts unreadable and unwatchable – and modulates into the oldest of letter-fodder, the weather (“no chill’d red noses—no shivering”), which moves him to rhapsody:

“I adore fine Weather as the greatest blessing I can have. Give me Books, fruit, French wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors, played by somebody I do not know—not pay the price of one’s time for a jig—but a little chance music: and I can pass a summer very quietly without caring much about Fat Louis, fat Regent or the Duke of Wellington.”

Perhaps big brother hopes to allay little sister’s worries about his failing health, or he has sketched an earthly paradise for the sake of his own morale. Regardless, the passage reminds me why I rank Keats’ prose above his poetry, and why it gives me the rare prose pleasure I experience with Browne, Gibbon and Hazlitt – crescendos of exaltation. Keats here is no sylph-like spirit. He is a loving brother, a comedian and an emotionally tough customer. An even grander passage follows:
“I should like now to promenade round your Gardens—apple tasting—pear-tasting—plum-judging—apricot nibbling—peach-scrunching—Nectarine-sucking and Melon carving. I have also a great feeling for antiquated cherries full of sugar cracks—and a white currant tree kept for company. I admire lolling on a lawn by a water lilied pond to eat white currants and see gold-fish: and go to the Fair in the Evening if I’m good --There is not hope for that—one is sure to get into some mess before evening.”

Keats was dead eighteen months later. In 1826, Fanny married Valentin Maria Llanos y Gutierrez, who is said to have met John Keats three days before his death in Rome. The couple moved to France in 1833, and then to Spain, and Fanny never again saw England. She died in 1889 at the age of eighty-six.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

`I Have Not Finished'

Since his death on June 30 I have been sequentially rereading Geoffrey Hill’s work, beginning with the poetry. I’ve done this slowly and casually, when the sight of Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012 on my desk moves me to pick it up. Reading the dominant poet of the age, one I’ve been reading for more than forty years, I’m not expecting to make a significant reevaluation. It’s an act of gratitude. The only way to honor a writer, living or dead, is to read him. The rest is marketing or self-aggrandizement. I’ve read “Funeral Music” again, a sequence of eight sonnets nominally devoted to the War of the Roses, published in King Log (1968). The concluding lines in the final sonnet and much of the rest of the poem stir echoes of the Henry VI plays:

“If it is without
Consequence when we vaunt and suffer, or
If it is not, all echoes are the same
In such eternity. Then tell me, love,
How that should comfort us—or anyone
Dragged half-unnerved out of this worldly place,
Crying to the end ‘I have not finished’.”

It’s the final line that holds me and recalls a similar declaration. Isaac Babel was arrested by Stalin’s goons on March 15, 1939, and taken to Lubyanka Prison. He was accused of working for Trotsky and spying for France and Austria. His twenty-minute trial took place on Jan. 26, 1940, he was executed by firing squad the following day and buried in a communal grave. None of this was known until 1990. The transcript of his trial includes Babel’s final words: 

“I am innocent. I have never been a spy. I never allowed any action against the Soviet Union. I accused myself falsely. I was forced to make false accusations against myself and others . . . I am asking for only one thing -- let me finish my work.”

Friday, August 26, 2016

`Incomparable Physical Portraiture'

“Figure a fat, flabby, incurvated personage, at once short, rotund, and relaxed, with a watery mouth, a snuffy nose, a pair of strange, brown, timid, yet earnest looking eyes, a high tapering brow, and a great bush of grey hair . . .”

I appreciate writers who suggest the interiors of people through artful characterizations of their appearance. In crude hands it’s invective; in cruder hands, caricature or clumsy allegory. It’s a trick I first associated with Dickens. He’s strictly a cartoonist – sometimes amusing but seldom revealing of inner states or essential qualities. More sophisticated are Gogol,Kipling, Nabokov, Bellow – and V.S. Pritchett. This is from Pritchett’s story “The Voice” (It May Never Happen, 1945), set during a rescue effort in London during the Blitz:

“Lewis was a wiry, middle-aged man, but the white dust on his hair and his eye-lashes, and the way he kept licking the dust off his dry lips, moving his jaws all the time, gave him the monkeyish, testy and suspicious air of an old man.”

And this, from “Many Are Disappointed,” in the same collection:

“He was a lanky man with a high forehead and a Hitler moustache and his lips lay over his mouth as if they were kissing the air or whispering to it. He was a dark, harsh-looking, cocksure man, but with a gentle voice and it was hard to see his eyes under his strong glasses. His lashes were long and his lids often half lowered which gave him an air of seriousness and shyness. But he stuck his thumbs in his waistcoat and stuck out his legs to show his loud check stockings and he had that ring on his finger.”

A friend has lobbied me to pick up Carlyle again. Years ago I read Sartor Resartus because Melville read him. I found the Scot embodied a quality that triggers an allergic reaction in me – earnestness crossed with a prophet’s righteous anger. The later Tolstoy suffers from a related condition. This time I’ve started small, hunting and pecking among the less central works, in particular the letters. He’s awfully good, and indefatigable. The passage at the top is from a letter Carlyle wrote to his brother John on June 24, 1824, after his first visit to Coleridge at Highgate. The letter continues:

“. . . you will have some faint idea of Coleridge. He is a kind, good soul, full of religion and affection, and poetry and animal magnetism. His cardinal sin is that he wants will; he has no resolution, he shrinks from pain or labour in any of its shapes. His very attitude bespeaks this: he never straightens his knee joints, he stoops with his fat ill shapen shoulders, and in walking he does not tread but shove and slide my father would call it skluiffing [Scots: “to trail the feet along the ground in walking”]? . . . The conversation of the man is much as I anticipated. A forest of thoughts; some true, many false, most part dubious, all of them ingenious in some degree, often in a high degree. But there is no method in his talk; he wanders like a man sailing among many currents, whithersoever his lazy mind directs him; and what is more unpleasant he preaches, or rather soliloquizes: he cannot speak; he can only “tal-k” (so he names it) . . . I reckon him a man of great and useless genius, a strange not at all a great man.”

In “The Carlyles” (Complete Collected Essays, 1991), Pritchett praises his “pungency, his incomparable physical portraiture and power of image-making,” and judges Carlyle “a writer as great as Swift, if he had lived a hundred years earlier – or perhaps in some more solid period ahead of us.”

Thursday, August 25, 2016

`A More Extensive Exploration of His Work'

I’m a friend to any admiring reader of William Cowper:

“Miltonic in its prosody and diction, the poem [“Yardley Oak”] shows what a gift Cowper had for exact, animated description. No less vivid, sensuous, and detailed is the opening of Book V in The Task (`The Winter Morning Walk’). Even then, freighting every line with sublimity here need not deter a reader today or make us forget how impish Cowper’s strange intelligence could also be . . .”

The admirer here is the late Christopher Middleton, introducing “Yardley Oak” in Poets on Poets (eds. Nick Rennison and Michael Schmidt), published by Carcanet in 1997. The notion of poets choosing favorite poems from the past and writing about them is not new. When young, I repeatedly borrowed Oscar Williams’ Master Poems of the English Language (Trident Press, 1966) from the library. In it, John Berryman’s essay on “The Darkling Thrush” introduced me to Hardy the poet after I had already lost interest in Hardy the novelist. Anthologies are night school, the autodidact’s best friends. Long before college and before anyone with learning or taste could guide me, Williams walked me through English and American poetry. Thanks to him I took an early shine to Thomas Wyatt and Karl Shapiro, a beautifully mismatched pair.

Some of the selections from Poets on Poets have been posted online, including Wendy Cope on A.E. Housman, Fergus Allen on Fulke Greville and Clive Wilmer on Samuel Johnson. Some pairings seem unlikely but prove inspired. This is from Christopher Logue’s introduction to John Dryden: “Satirist, pedagogue, playright, proselyte, pornographer (mild), occasional plaigiary, songwriter, literary critic (our first), expert in three types of translation (including English to English), always, and above all, the master poet of his age, John Dryden (1631-1700), by today’s standards, is worth at least three or four Nobel Prizes for Literature.” All true.  Of course, Logue was himself a sui generis translator (see the definitive War Music: An Account of Homer's Iliad: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). Robert Wells on Thomas Gray and his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” makes the familiar old warhorse new:

“The `Elegy’ is many poems in one. I admire the way that it unfolds and surprises itself. The strong wayward current of its rhetoric is exploratory. Just over half-way through (with the stanza `Yet ev’n these bones . . .’) Gray veers away from the conclusion he had originally planned, and re-enters his subject, to discover the unwritten poem standing at the edge of the one he has been writing, a preoccupation at variance with his conscious theme.”

C.H. Sisson, author of “A Letter to John Donne,” writes of his chosen poet: “Any selection from John Donne (c. 1572-1631) must be inadequate, and the object in making one can only be to tempt the reader to a more extensive exploration of his work. The selector can do no more than choose poems which speak out vividly one of the most forthright and at the same time most subtle minds of the seventeenth century in England. The man who became a famous preacher, as Dean of Saint Paul’s, had been also an exponent of the pleasures of physical nakedness.”

Sisson judges “A Hymn to Christ, at the Author’s Last Going Into Germany” to be “the best of [Donne’s] religious poems,” and singles out this phrase from the third stanza: “The amorousness of an harmonious soul.” 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

`But I Am Ruralising'

One book lover on another:

“Mr. William Combes of Henley, a gentleman who collects with considerable taste, and who loves what he collects with no inconsiderable ardour, is the fortunate owner of Joseph Warton’s OWN COPY of Herrick’s Hesperides — and he carries this book in his right hand coat pocket, and the first edition of Walton’s Complete Angler in his left, when, with tapering rod and trembling float, he enjoys his favourite diversion of angling on the banks of the Thames. A halt — on a hay-cock, or by the side of a cluster of wild sweet-briars — with such volumes to recreate the flagging spirits, or to compensate for luckless sport! — but I am ruralising.”

Thomas Frognall Dibdin records this bibliophilic anecdote in Library Companion: Or, The Young Man’s Guide, and the Old Man’s Comfort, in the Choice of a Library (1824). Combes (whose best-known nickname was Doctor Syntax) had good taste in “beach books” and knew how to live the good life, though in the first sentence of the entry devoted to him, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) characterizes Combes (1742-1823) as a “writer and literary imitator.” Other less polite sources call him a “hack.” In the 1770’s, he faked several posthumous volumes of Laurence Sterne’s letters, and later claimed to have had an affair with Sterne’s paramour, Eliza Draper, before she met Sterne. Centuries before Truman Capote, the ODNB reports:

“He had embarked on a lifelong habit of conflating the factual and the fictional and misleading his contemporaries (as well as subsequent scholars and biographers). Although he always published anonymously, his authorship was an open secret because he frequently acknowledged it in private conversation, and in later works often included his own name on the list of subscribers.”

Today, that copy of Herrick’s Hesperides is part of the Newberry Library collection in Chicago. Herrick’s rakish reputation (“To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”) must have suited Combes’ rakish aspirations, as in “The Vine”:

“I dream’d this mortal part of mine
Was Metamorphoz’d to a Vine,
Which crawling one and every way
Enthrall’d my dainty Lucia.”

Or, more explicitly, “Fresh Cheese and Cream”:

“Wo’d yee have fresh Cheese and Cream?
Julia’s Breast can give you them.
And if more; Each Nipple cries,
To your Cream, Her’s strawberries.”

And in “To Anathea,” an unambiguous come-on:

“There is an act that will more fully please:
Kissing and glancing, soothing, all make way
But to the acting of this private play:
Name it I would ; but, being blushing red,
The rest I’ll speak when we meet both in bed.”

There’s more to Herrick, a self-acknowledged “son of Ben [Jonson],” than salaciousness. In Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English (Alan Swallow, 1967), Yvor Winters says Herrick “learned the art of writing from Jonson but he lacked Jonson’s intelligence.” As usual, Winters focuses not on writers but on individual poems:

"Most of Herrick’s best poems are available in the standard anthologies; the elegies on the flowers, the `Night-Piece to Julia,’ and some of the little epitaphs in the tradition of Jonson. Some of his more ambitious poems on the mortality of man and the immortality of art are impressive: the best are `Now is the time for mirth’ and `Only a little more.’ They are in the classical tradition which has continued almost to our own time . . .”

For Winters, Herrick is the model of a gifted but minor poet: “Herrick’s best poems—and there are many of them—are written with extraordinary finish, but their content is very small.” Herrick was born on this date, Aug. 24, in 1591, and died on Oct. 15, 1674.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

`The Wrong Kind of Rebel'

“Whoever makes an exact image of any thing on the earth, however deformed or insignificant, according to him, must succeed — and he himself has succeeded.”

This is intended by its author, William Hazlitt, to be a damning criticism of its subject, George Crabbe. Hazlitt is misguided and wrong but entertainingly so. Crabbe’s devotion to the ordinary, to the humdrum and non-exalted, is offensive to Hazlitt’s sense of the poet’s role. What some of us find endearing about much of Crabbe’s work -- his attention to the details of village life, the prosiness of his enthusiasms – is precisely   what bothers Hazlitt most in “Mr. Campbell and Mr. Crabbe” (The Spirit of the Age: or Contemporary Portraits, 1825). Consider the opening lines of Book I of Crabbe’s The Village (1783):

“The village life, and every care that reigns
O’er youthful peasants and declining swains;
What labour yields, and what, that labour past,
Age, in its hour of languor, finds at last;
What forms the real picture of the poor,
Demands a song—the Muse can give no more.”

Hazlitt, despite his political affectations, was in no position to give “the real picture of the poor.” Crabbe’s thought is rooted in Christian charity, a virtue Hazlitt may have known from his reading but seldom demonstrated in life. In his critical loves and hates, as in his relations with women, Hazlitt is never less than passionate. No cool assessments for him, no nods to evenhandedness. My favorite line: “. . . the adept in Dutch interiors, hovels, and pig-styes must find in Mr. Crabbe a man after his own heart.” Further on Hazlitt says this of the poet:

“Mr. Crabbe's great fault is certainly that he is a sickly, a querulous, a uniformly dissatisfied poet. He sings the country; and he sings it in a pitiful tone. He chooses this subject only to take the charm out of it, and to dispel the illusion, the glory, and the dream, which had hovered over it in golden verse from Theocritus to Cowper.”

Again, Hazlitt’s vitriol makes for great reading. He is among the prose masters in English, from whom every writer can learn something, but we’re prudent to remember his limitations. One of the reasons critics like to write damning reviews is the opportunity it gives them to be funny and colorful. Praise tends to be dull and is difficult to write convincingly. Here’s an earlier assessment of Crabbe by Hazlitt, from Lectures on the English Poets (1818):    

“He takes an inventory of the human heart in exactly the same manner as of the furniture of a sick room: his sentiments have very much of the air of fixtures; he gives you the petrification of a sigh, and carves a tear, to the life, in stone. Almost all his characters are tired of their lives, and you heartily wish them dead. They remind one of anatomical preservations, or may be said to bear the same relation to actual life that a stuffed cat in a glass-case does to the real one purring on the hearth: the skin is the same, but the life and the sense of heat is gone.”

Has anyone else thought to compare a poet to a taxidermist? In George Crabbe: An English Life 1754-1832 (Pimlico, 2004), Neil Powell defends his poet against Hazlitt’s charges, while admitting that “long before his death, Crabbe had become not merely unfashionable but inimical to the spirit of his age [a nice slap at Hazlitt].” Then he makes a larger point:

“. . . there was nothing wrong with his antennae when it came to the world in which he actually lived. In any case, the idea that a poet must be `alive to the age’ [a repellent idea] is a highly questionable one: mightn’t it be arguable that the most interesting writers are likely to go against the grain of their times, to be awkward individuals rather than subscribers to cultural fashion. Crabbe’s reputation has perversely suffered from the fact that he was the wrong kind of rebel.”

Monday, August 22, 2016

`The Best and Closest of All Your Friends'

“For the weekend times when there is nothing new in the house to read, and nothing much to think about or write about, and the afternoon stretches ahead all bleak and empty, there is nothing like Montaigne to make things better.”

I read digressively. I remembered Lewis Thomas’ soothing words on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Houston while reading not Montaigne but Zbigniew Herbert’s “Monsieur Montaigne’s Voyage to Italy” (The Collected Prose 1948-1998, 2010):

“. . . it is the antiquities of Rome that made the greatest impression on Montaigne. The author of the Essays, who spends so much attention during his journey on meals and the cleanliness of bedclothes, falls into a truly poetic and exalted mood at the sight of the Forum. His sobriety, formed by ancient authors (Montaigne himself resembles a Renaissance Pliny), does not allow him to fall into sentimental raptures.”

Of course, Herbert is writing autobiographically. He too writes of cathedrals visited and meals consumed, the grit of daily activity, but his focus is not on the preciousness of the merely personal. There is little self-congratulation, though both Montaigne and Herbert clearly find themselves and the lives they lead enormously interesting and perhaps representative – as we all should, with the obvious qualifications. The title of the essay by Thomas I remembered and reread after many years is “Why Montaigne Is Not a Bore” (The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher, 1974), and it applies as well to Herbert. Travel writing and personal essays can be deadly stuff in the wrong hands, solemn fairy rings of epiphany with the writer dancing in the moonlight. At least in theory, a good travel book could be written by a quadriplegic who never leaves his bed. By the time Montaigne was writing his Essays, he was seldom leaving his tower. How did he turn himself into the most companionable of writers and not a crashing bore? Thomas writes:

“He is resolved from the first page to tell you absolutely everything about himself, and so he does. At the greatest length, throughout all 876 pages of the [Donald] Frame translation, he tells you and tells you about himself. This ought to be, almost by definition, the achievement of a great bore. How does it happen that Montaigne is not ever, not on any of all those pages, even a bit of a bore?”

It’s a matter of rare and unlikely balance, an omnivorous appetite for almost everything. We know this from experience. Consider the one-subject obsessive who brings everything back to his hobbyhorse, whether religion, crackpot politics or vegetarianism. Montaigne is never dogmatic or theoretical. He doesn’t proselytize. He admits his mistakes and even finds them interesting. Most importantly, he knows something about the world and is happy to share it. Montaigne is fascinated with the endlessly amusing experience of being Montaigne, but never loses a comparable fascination with the rest of creation, including, at several removes, you, the reader. Thomas writes:

 “Montaigne makes friends in the first few pages of the book, and he becomes the best and closest of all your friends as the essays move along. To be sure, he goes on and on about himself, but that self turns out to be the reader’s self as well. Moreover, he does not pose, ever. He likes himself, to be sure, but is never swept off his feet after the fashion of bores. He is fond of his mind, and affectionately entertained by everything in his head.”