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.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

`Sentimental Effusions of the Heart'

Evolution does not apply to the realm of emotion. We are no more sophisticated than our forebears, and recent developments suggest the reverse. We love and hate as our ancestors did. Complaint is eternal. One of the reasons we read literature written centuries or millennia ago is to learn to fathom our unchanging nature. Take this passage from a letter Abigail Adams wrote from Boston to her husband on this date, July 16, in 1775:

“All the Letters I receive from you seem to be wrote in so much haste, that they scarcely leave room for a social feeling. They let me know that you exist, but some of them contain scarcely six lines. I want some sentimental Effusions of the Heart.”

John Adams was in Philadelphia, midwifing the birth of the United States. He was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, and would nominate George Washington to serve as commander of the colonial forces in the Revolutionary War. As a congressional delegate, Adams would later nominate Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence. One is tempted to dismiss Abigail Adams as a stereotypical shrew, nagging her work-driven, high-minded husband. Such a judgment would be unfair. She was brilliant and devoted to her family. She could write wittily and eloquently: “I want some sentimental Effusions of the Heart.” Eleven years later, on July 21, 1786, Abigail writes to John Quincy Adams, her son the future president:

“The attention you have always given to your studies, and the fondness You have for Literature, precludes any other injunctions to you than that of taking care of your Health. I believe I ought to except one other—which is a watchfulness over yourself; that the knowledge you have acquired does not make you assumeing [sic], and too tenacious of your own opinions.”

Timeless advice. Abigail goes on to quote Pope’s “Essay on Criticism” and writes of Dr. Johnson:

“I have met with many persons here, who were personally acquainted with the dr. They have a great respect for his memory, but they all agree that he was an unpleasent [sic] companion who would never bear the least contradiction. Your sister Sent you Mrs Pioggi [sic] anecdotes of him. Boswells are too contemptable to be worth reading.”

Saturday, July 15, 2017

`Vary a Verse a Thousand Ways'

Today’s post is a mélange of choice bits plucked from the week’s reading. As Guy Davenport puts it in his translation of Heraclitus’ fragment #40 (Herakleitos and Diogenes, 1981): “The most beautiful order of the world is still a random gathering of things insignificant in themselves.” What follows is not quite random and probably not beautiful but it does contain a covert order. First is a lengthy digression from Partition II, Section 2, Member 2, “Exercise rectified of Body and Mind,” of The Anatomy of Melancholy, in which Burton suggests strategies for ridding one's self of idleness as a way to dispel melancholy. A sufferer, he says:

“. . . may apply his mind, I say, to heraldry, antiquity, invent impresses, emblems; make epithalamiums, epitaphs, elegies, epigrams, palindroma epigrammata, anagrams, chronograms, acrostics, upon his friends' names; or write a comment on Martianus Capella, Tertullian de pallio, the Nubian geography, or upon Aelia Laelia Crispis, as many idle fellows have essayed; and rather than do nothing, vary a verse a thousand ways with Putean, so torturing his wits, or as Rainnerus of Luneburg, 2,150 times in his Proteus Poeticus, or Scaliger, Chrysolithus, Cleppissius, and others, have in like sort done.”

In other words, boys and girls, write a poem. In the Winter 1981 issue of The Sewanee Review, D.E. Richardson reviews Hello, Darkness: The Collected Poems of L.E. Sissman and Innocent Bystander: The Scene from the Seventies, and says of Sissman: “At his best he belongs to the company of ruefully private men of affairs such as Montaigne, Pepys, and Boswell, who are no less men of letters for not seeming so.”

Finally, I was reading the poems of a man better known for his prose. In “Envoi” (One-Way Song, 1933), Wyndham Lewis writes:

“These times require a tongue that naked goes
Without more fuss than Dryden’s or Defoe’s.”

Friday, July 14, 2017

`Every Little Circumstance'

It ranks among Dr. Johnson’s greatest hits, known by hearsay even by those who have never read Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

“Idleness is a disease which must be combated; but I would not advise a rigid adherence to a particular plan of study. I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together. A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.”

The schoolmarms among us will quibble, but Johnson’s prescription is correct for those of us already reliant on free-range reading. I hate to be told to read a book, even casually, and even one I’m already predisposed to reading. I’ve refused for years to read certain volumes I was ordered to read. Not reading some books is at least as important as reading others. This is an aspect of the most precious of all our rights: the right to be left alone. Boswell observes of Johnson’s diktat: “To a man of vigourous intellect and arduous curiosity like his own, reading without a regular plan may be beneficial; though even such a man must submit to it, if he would attain a full understanding of any of the sciences.”  

Johnson was speaking to Boswell on this date, July 14, in 1763. The pair had met less than two months earlier. Their unlikely friendship was deepening. Johnson was fifty-three; Boswell, twenty-two. In The Journals of James Boswell, 1762-1795, we find a less polished but more personal version of the same exchange, set in the Mitre public house on Fleet Street. Johnson dispenses with James Macpherson, the Scottish poet and fraud: “`So would he tumble in a hog-sty,’ said Johnson, `as long as you look at him and cry to him to come out. But let him alone, never mind him, and he’ll soon give it over.’”

Johnson gives a toast to Sir David Dalrymple, the Scottish judge and historian who Boswell tells him had praised Rasselas and The Rambler. Then Boswell paraphrases his friend: “Mr Johnson considered reading what you have an inclination for as eating what you have an appetite for.” Next comes a comic ritual played out by the pair:

 “. . . Mr. Johnson said, `We will not drink two bottles of port.’ When one was drank, he called for another pint; and when we had got to the bottom of that, and I was distributing it equally, `Come,’ said he, `you need not measure it so exactly.’ `Sir,’ said I, `it is done.’ `Well, sir,’ said he, `are you satisfied? or would you choose another?’ `Would you, Sir?’ said I. `Yes,’ said he, `I think I would. I think two bottles would seem to be the quantity for us.’ Accordingly, we made them out.”

The sharing of the port seems to seal the bond of their new friendship. What Boswell next describes gives the lie to Johnson’s reputation as a combative ogre, and suggests that Boswell already had his eye on a future life of Johnson (not published until 1791, seven years after Johnson’s death):

“I take pleasure in recording every little circumstance in so great a man as Mr Johnson. This little specimen of social pleasantry will serve me to tell as an agreeable story to literary people. He took me cordially by the hand and said, `My Dear Boswell! I do love you very much.’ I will be vain, there’s enough.”