Tuesday, April 21, 2015

`The Past Is a Pledge for the Future'

When writing to or for dullards, a writer must work harder not to write dully. The witty whet our wit. We write up to them, not down. George Gordon writes in “Cowper’s Letters” (More Companionable Books, 1947): “The truth is, of course, that letter-writing is like conversation: a social thing. It takes two to make a good letter. The first article in the equipment of a letter-writer is not a turn for phrases, but a friend; and the first personal requisite is the generosity to value friendship. If these are available no obstacle need be apprehended; you have only to draw your chair in, dip your pen, and be honestly yourself.”

That William Cowper (1731-1800), a suicidally tormented man, should have written letters that are still readably charming, funny and moving after more than two centuries, defies the modern understanding of human personality. As poet and man, Cowper can’t be reduced to clinical categories for easy comprehension. Though depressed and reclusive, comfortable only among a small circle of friends and family, and then only in a rural setting, Cowper wrote letters that rival Keats’ as the finest in the language (that both poets suffered lends a plangent quality to everything they wrote, though that alone is not sufficient to explain their literary qualities). They carry philosophical and emotional freight lightly -- never a sermon or treatise, always a conversation. On Sept. 4, 1787, Cowper writes to his cousin, Lady Harriett Hesketh (1733-1807), whom he addresses as “My dearest coz.” The poet refers to his uncle, Hesketh’s father, who has been ill:

“But years will have their course and their effect; they are happiest, so far as this life is concerned, who, like him, escape those effects the longest, and who do not grow old before their time. Trouble and anguish do that for some, which only longevity does for others. A few months since I was older than your father is now [Cowper had suffered his fourth major breakdown between January and June 1787]; and though I have lately recovered, as Falstaff says, some smatch of my youth, I have but little confidence, in truth none, in so flattering a change, but expect, when I least expect it, to wither again. The past is a pledge for the future.”

The passage is a model of felicitous letter-writing. Cowper is witty, wise and trusting enough of his cousin to tactfully confide in her. He gives, but not too much, and without a hint of self-pity. He feels sufficiently free to cite Shakespeare, whom he misquotes, but in an interesting fashion. In Act I, Scene 2 of King Henry IV, Part Two, Falstaff actually says:

“Your lordship, though not
 clean past your youth, hath yet some smack of age in
 you, some relish of the saltness of time; and I must
 humbly beseech your lordship to have a reverent care
 of your health.

“Smatch” is misremembered, though Shakespeare uses it elsewhere. He gives it to Brutus in Julius Caesar:

“I prithee, Strato, stay thou by thy lord:
Thou art a fellow of a good respect;
Thy life hath had some smatch of honour in it:
Hold then my sword, and turn away thy face,
While I do run upon it. Wilt thou, Strato?”

For “smatch,” the OED gives “taste, smack, flavor.” Cowper uses the word correctly if not accurately. Gordon, in his essay on Cowper’s letters, confirms this:

“Most of his own letters were written out of mere affection, without his knowing when he began what he intended to say, or whether he had anything to say at all. They are totally unpremeditated, and flow from him like talk.”

Monday, April 20, 2015

`A Peep Show'

A Sterne-reading reader has stumbled on “raree-show,” a word William Hazlitt used in a passage I quoted in Sunday’s post. It’s a delicious word, seldom used today but perfectly suited to our world. I learned of “raree-show” more than forty years ago on first reading Tristram Shandy. The Widow Wadman, as usual, is putting the moves on the oblivious Uncle Toby. Something is irritating her eye and she asks Toby to look into it. The Widow is seated beside him and our narrator says: “Honest soul! Thou didst look into it with as much innocency of heart, as ever child look’d into a raree-shew-box; and ’twere as much a sin to have hurt thee.” Just so we get the joke, Sterne, the most smutty-minded of writers, has Tristram observe in the next paragraph: “—If a man will be peeping of his own accord into things of that nature—I’ve nothing to say to it--” 

In the OED, the first definition of raree-show is straightforward, dating from the seventeenth century: “a set of pictures or a puppet show exhibited in a portable box for public entertainment; a peep show.” That latter phrase has salacious modern connotations that Sterne may have been toying with. The dictionary gives nine citations between 1677 and 2003, including quotes from Tom Jones (1749) and Walter Scott’s Peveril of the Peak (1823). 

The second definition is even closer to Sterne’s sense: “an exhibition, show, or spectacle of any kind, esp. one regarded as lurid, vulgar, or populist.” We get this usage in a letter of Edward Fitzgerald’s published in 1889: “Do you see Dickens’ David Copperfield? Carlyle says he is a showman whom one gives a shilling to once a month to see his raree-show.” Unexpectedly, the word shows up in William Gaddis’ The Recognitions (1955): “He’ll show you... He'll put up a real maudlin raree-show for you.”

In the third sense, raree-show is1681—2003 “a mass noun: spectacular or lurid display,” as in an 1809 letter by Scott: “Those immense London Stages fit only for pantomime and raree show.” Among the compounds are “raree-show box” and “raree-show performance.” Here, the dictionary cites Sterne’s usage. Now the reader can understand the word’s contemporary relevance and usefulness. Among our counterparts to the raree-show, to entertainments that are “lurid, vulgar, or populist,” are video games, Star Wars and the Harry Potter phenomenon, tacky children's concoctions consumed by adults.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

`The Bustle and Raree-Show of the World'

“‘Tis pleasant, through the loopholes of retreat,
To peep at such a world; to see the stir
Of the great Babel, and not feel the crowd;
To hear the roar she sends through all her gates
At a safe distance, where the dying sound
Falls a soft murmur on the uninjured ear.” 

Among his other qualities, William Cowper is the poet of spectatorship, of diffidence expressed as a willingness to observe the world, not plunge into its swelter. Cowper was a high-strung man, affectionate and loyal as a friend but plagued by depression and thoughts of suicide. He hardly recognized civic affairs and remained blithely immune to politics. His passions were poetry and religion, not troublemaking. The passage above is from Book IV, “The Winter Evening,” of The Task (1785), lines 88-93. The phrase “loopholes of retreat” rang a distant bell, one somehow associated with William Hazlitt. A brief search turned up that essayist’s On Living to One’s-Self” (1821), which I had quoted more than eight years ago:

“What I mean by living to oneself is living in the world, as in it, not of it: it is as if no-one knew there was such a person, and you wished no-one to know it: it is to be a silent spectator of the mighty scene of things, not an object of attention or curiosity in it: to take a thoughtful, anxious interest in what is passing in the world, but not to feel the slightest inclination to make or meddle with it. It is such a life as a pure spirit might be supposed to lead, and such an interest as it might take in the affairs of men: calm, contemplative, passive, distant, touched with pity for their sorrows, smiling at their follies without bitterness, sharing their affections, but not troubled by their passions, not seeking their notice, nor once dreamt of by them. He who lives wisely to himself and to his own heart looks at the busy world through the loopholes of the retreat, and does not want to mingle in the fray…”

Odd coming from Hazlitt, who seldom resisted sticking his nose into others’ business, and who spent his final years writing a four-volume apologia for Napoleon Bonaparte. The OED attributes the phrase’s origin to Cowper and says it “has been used by many later writers,” but doesn’t cite Hazlitt. The other citations are more variations on a theme. In 1853, the Christian Remembrancer includes this sentence: “The loop-holes through which we view the household manners of these times may be few and contracted.” Also cited is George Meredith’s The Egoist (1879): “Dim as the loophole was, Clara fixed her mind on it till it gathered light.”Further searching turned up “The Loophole of Retreat” as a chapter title in an 1861 novel I have not read, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs, an escaped slave who wrote under the pseudonym Linda Brent. The phrase is so attractive and useful, I continued looking and discovered Hazlitt liked it enough to recycle. In a chapter collected in Lectures on the English Poets, “On Swift, Young, Gray, Collins &c.,” he writes of Thomas Gray:

“He is not here on stilts or in buckram; but smiles in his easy chair, as he moralises through the loopholes of retreat, on the bustle and raree-show of the world, or on `those reverend bedlams, college, and schools!’ He had nothing to do but to read and to think, and to tell his friends what he read and thought.”

Saturday, April 18, 2015

`Some Frail Memorial Still Erected Nigh'

In Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place (Granta, 2014), Philip Marsden visits Tregony, a village in Cornwall, and approaches two men in the churchyard of St. Rumon’s. One is digging a grave. The other is “busy leaning on his spade.” Marsden describes the latter as “an elderly man with a jowly face” who is “quite happy to interrupt his leaning for a little chat.” We know the type here in the U.S. He’s the sort of man who leans and loafs at his ease though he is not a goldbricker, exactly, but a man who budgets his time wisely and is comfortable delegating tasks. He would be genuinely affronted if you accused him of feather-bedding. In contemporary terminology he is a consultant. And he is eloquent:

“`Exciting place, a graveyard. Least I always think so. Always something going on.’ We looked around at the headstones and the empty paths and the shadowy places beneath the sycamore. He extended a finger to an age-skewed memorial beside us. `Best stones are they [sic] slate ones – like that. Nice curly writing. Stays hundreds of years on slate – not like the limestone. Weather gets to the limestone and it’s gone in no time, wiped away.’”

Some of us would concur. A visit to a graveyard is less morbid than a prompt for contemplation. There’s much to read, wildflowers in abundance and quiet. Often the company is excellent. Marsden has come to St. Rumon’s in search of John Whitaker (1735-1808), historian and hot-tempered clergyman. Marsden says of him: “He knew Dr Johnson. He was friends with Edward Gibbon (who showed him for comment the manuscript of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). In 1771 he was elected Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.” Johnson scoffed at Whitaker’s two-volume History of Manchester. Marsden agrees but adds: “…in the couple of miles around his rectory, Whitaker discovered a fresh way of revealing the past: through old walls and rubbish piles, ruins, fields, oral history and toponymy.”

Thomas Gray wrote the primal text on English churchyards when Whitaker was still a boy. It remains among the most popular and rereadable poems in the language:

“Yet even these bones from insult to protect
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture decked,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

“Their name, their years, spelt by the unlettered muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.”

Dr. Johnson had serious reservations about Gray’s poetry, but about the “Elegy” he was generous and grateful:

“In the character of his Elegy I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours. The Church-yard abounds with images which find a mirrour in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo. The four stanzas beginning `Yet even these bones’ are to me original: I have never seen the notions in any other place; yet he that reads them here persuades himself that he has always felt them. Had Gray written often thus it had been vain to blame, and useless to praise him.”

Friday, April 17, 2015

`And in Fact Adonize'

No sound is so amusingly plaintive as a writer bewailing his inability to write, the grim labor of it all and the likely ingratitude of readers. On Thursday I found such a lament online and it cheered me for the rest of the day. You’d think the poor thing was slaughtering hogs or pumping out septic tanks. Naturally, I thought of Dr. Johnson’s common-sense retort: “A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it” (reported by Boswell in The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, 1785). If “doggedly” sounds a little vague, here is more practical how-to advice from working writers: 

“Whenever I find myself growing vapourish [OED: “inclined to depression or low spirits”], I rouse myself, wash and put on a clean shirt brush my hair and clothes, tie my shoestrings neatly and in fact adonize as I were going out – then all clean and comfortable I sit down to write. This I find the greatest relief –” 

That would be John Keats in a letter to his brother and sister-in-law, George and Georgiana Keats, in September 1819. The poet was already coughing up blood from tuberculosis, and was dead seventeen months later at the age of twenty-five. Another writer who died from tuberculosis was Laurence Sterne. Even before he started writing Tristram Shandy, Sterne showed symptoms, as does the novel’s narrator. In fact, the book can be read as an account of a comic race against mortality so long as the title character keeps writing, he can continue evading death. Sterne published Tristram Shandy in nine volumes between 1759 and 1766, then A Sentimental Journey  Through France and Italy in 1786, and then died three weeks later. In Chapter 4, Section LXXII, Tristram, like Keats, also “adonizes”:    

“Now in ordinary cases, that is, when I am only stupid, and the thoughts rise heavily and pass gummous through my pen— 

“Or that I am got, I know not how, into a cold unmetaphorical vein of infamous writing, and cannot take a plumb-lift out of it for my soul; so must be obliged to go on writing like a Dutch commentator to the end of the chapter, unless something be done— 

“—I never stand conferring with pen and ink one moment; for if a pinch of snuff, or a stride or two across the room will not do the business for me—I take a razor at once; and having tried the edge of it upon the palm of my hand, without further ceremony, except that of first lathering my beard, I shave it off; taking care only if I do leave a hair, that it be not a grey one: this done, I change my shirt—put on a better coat—send for my last wig—put my topaz ring upon my finger; and in a word, dress myself from one end to the other of me, after my best fashion.” 

A man should always dress and groom well when performing work in which he takes pride, even if he’s dying.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

`It Will Remain a Meadow, Wild'

“An essay is a walk, an excursion, not a business trip.”

The only itinerary the best essays heed is serendipity. Route and destination are plotted by the GPS of sensibility, not a thesis. Unplanned is not the same as aimless. The seasoned traveler trusts his feet and never hurries to get home and go to bed. Call it creative dawdling. Joseph Epstein titled his 1992 essay collection A Line Out for a Walk. In his “Note on the Title,” Epstein identifies his source as Paul Klee and says: “A subject is all the familiar essayist needs. Character, point of view, observation, past reading, these he has, or ought to have, in his kit.”

The quote at the top was written by Michael Hamburger (1924-2007), a German-born English poet I know as the translator of Paul Celan and a character in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. You’ll find it in “An Essay on the Essay,” collected in Testimonies: Selected Shorter Prose 1950-1987 (Carcanet, 1989). Here, Hamburger extends his walking metaphor:

“. . .this essay passes over a certain field—but with no intention of surveying it. This field will not be ploughed or cultivated. It will remain a meadow, wild. One walker is interested in wildflowers, another in the view, a third collects insects. Hunting butterflies is permitted—everything except the intentions of surveyors, farmers, speculators.”

And yet he describes the essay as “an outmoded genre,” but promptly seems to reverse himself by adding, parenthetically: “(`Form’ is what I almost wrote, but the essay is not a form, has no form; it is a game that creates its own rules.)” Only a confident essayist can casually, without apology, contradict himself and continue walking along. Consistency is an overrated virtue, after all (another essayist said something like that). The fun of essays (reading them, writing them) is their mingled sense of security and surprise. It’s never enough merely to drift like a rudderless boat. Johnson titled The Rambler well. Hamburger writes:

“The essay is not a form, but a style above all. Its individualism distinguishes it from pure, absolute or autonomous art. The point of an essay, like its justification and its style, always lies in the author’s personality and always leads back to it.”

And yet, style alone is insufficient if by style we mean poeticisms and attitudinizing. An essay can have its genesis in something as mundane as journalism, fiction, a blog post or a book review. “The spirit of essay-writing,” Hamburger says, “walks on irresistibly, even over the corpse of the essay, and is glimpsed now here, now there, in novels, stories, poems or articles, from time to time in the very parkland of philosophy, formidably walled and strictly guarded though it may seem, the parkland from which it escaped centuries ago to wander about in the wild meadow. . . somewhere or other the spirit of essay-writing is walking on; and no one knows where it will turn up. Perhaps in the essay again, one day?” Hamburger’s prognostication was at least half right. He was writing in 1964. The subsequent half-century would give us Guy Davenport, Joseph Epstein, Theodore Dalrymple, Cynthia Ozick, Oliver Sacks and a few others.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

`More in Notions Than in Facts'

Jane Austen concludes a letter to her older sister Cassandra on Feb. 8-9, 1807:

“There, I flatter myself I have constructed you a Smartish Letter, considering my want of Materials. But like my dear Dr Johnson I beleive [sic] I have dealt more in Notions than Facts.—I hope your Cough is gone & that you are otherwise well.—And remain with Love, Yrs affectionately, J.A.”

Joseph Epstein reports that someone asked the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle if he ever read novels. Ryle is supposed to have replied, “Yes, all six.” That is, Austen’s, whose novels are those that most resemble poetry. Not because they are “poetic” – as in flowery or inflated with self-importance – but because they run like well-engineered machines of wit. Nothing loose, baggy or monstrous about them. In the passage quoted above, Austen refers to a letter Johnson wrote to Boswell on July 4, 1774. Included by Boswell in his Life, it begins:

“I wish you could have looked over my book before the printer, but it could not easily be. I suspect some mistakes; but as I deal, perhaps, more in notions than in facts, the matter is not great; and the second edition will be mended, if any such there be.”

The book in question is A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, an account of Boswell and Johnson’s eighty-three-day tour of Boswell’s native country in 1773. That the lexicographer makes a distinction in a proofreading context between “notions” and “facts” is surprising. Some writers are maniacally strict when it comes to the purity of their text.  This is the man, after all, who said, “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure” (ed. G.B. Hill, Johnsonian Miscellanies, 1897). Johnson uses “notions” the way we might use “understandings” or “impressions.” They are less rigorous than facts, just as off-the-cuff descriptions of events are less rigorous than equations.

The Idler #100 (March 15, 1760) is written in the voice of “Tim Warner,” who complains of his wife: “She smiles not by sensation but by practice. Her laughter is never excited but by a joke, and her notion of a joke is not very delicate. The repetition of a good joke does not weaken its effect; if she has laughed once, she will laugh again.”

“Miss Gentle,” in short, is precisely the opposite of Miss Austen, who never married, never repeated a joke, and wrote “all six.”