Tuesday, February 21, 2017

`What a Necrology of Notability!'

Last week, Andrew Rickard at Graveyard Masonry posted a passage from “Library of Old Authors,” an essay collected in James Russell Lowell’s My Study Windows (1871). The first sentence – “What a sense of security in an old book which Time has criticised for us!” – echoes my own suspicion that critics are superfluous, and discerning readers are the legitimate arbiters of literary worth. My library’s copy of Lowell’s book is the twenty-third edition, published in 1886, which suggests his one-time popularity. “Library of Old Authors” is eighty-four pages long. Lowell’s style will remind readers of Charles Lamb. Detractors will find it fulsome or fusty. His pacing is leisurely and conversational, more like a storyteller’s than a stiff-necked academic’s. His sentences can be enormously (and comically) long. Lowell is an entertainer as well as a man of letters, and style is a means of charming, not dazzling, offending or boring the reader.

Lowell’s essay is ostensibly a review of Library of Old Authors, a series of reprints published by John Russell Smith of London between 1856 and 1864. Lowell is not uncritical, and he writes in a manner not seen since the triumph of Modernism a century ago:

“It is not easy to divine the rule which has governed Mr. Smith in making the selection for his series. A choice of old authors should be a florilegium [OED: “a collection of the flowers of literature, an anthology”], and not a botanist’s hortus siccus [“an arranged collection of dried plants; a herbarium”], to which grasses are as important as the single shy blossom of a summer. The old-maidenly genius of antiquarianism seems to have presided over the editing of the Library.”       

The Latin tags, elevated vocabulary and stringent whimsy are borrowed straight from Lamb. When Lowell writes, “We confess a bibliothecarian avarice that gives all books a value in our eye,” we recall “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading” and Hazlitt’s “On Reading Old Books.” Lowell preaches respect for his old authors, and condemns the sloppiness of editing he finds in the series: “It is impossible that men who cannot construct an English sentence correctly, and who do not know the value of clearness in writing, should be able to disentangle the knots which slovenly printers have tied in the thread of an old author’s meaning.” Lowell gives a remarkably close and learned reading of many texts, with emphasis on scholarly incompetence, and reaches new heights of invective. Of writers whose work is “mainly bibliographic” (that is, not literary) – a distinction all but evaporated today -- Lowell writes:

“As literature, they are oppressive; as items of literary history they find their place in that vast list which records not only those named for promotion, but also the killed, wounded, and missing in the Battle of the Books. There are hearts are touched with something of the same vague pathos that dims the eye in some deserted graveyard. The brief span of our earthly immortalities is brought home to us as nowhere else. What a necrology of notability!”

In a fractionally more hopeful mood Lowell writes, “There is scarcely any rubbish-heap of literature out of which something precious may not be raked by the diligent explorer,” which has always been one of the working assumptions here at Anecdotal Evidence.
Lowell is amusingly merciless with one of the editors in the series, William Carew Hazlitt, grandson of the great essayist:

“We are profoundly grateful for the omission of a glossary. It would have been a nursery and seminary of blunder. To expose pretentious charlatanry is sometimes the unpleasant duty of a reviewer. It is a duty we never seek, and should not have assumed in this case but for the impertinence with which Mr. Hazlitt has treated dead and living scholars, the latchets of whose shoes he is not worthy to unloose, and to express their gratitude to whom is, or ought to be, a pleasure to all honest lovers of their mother-tongue.”

Monday, February 20, 2017

`Find Them As Strange As You Do'

My oldest son finished the Austin Marathon with a sore right foot. His time was superb until mile-18, when he felt a pain that alternately burned and stabbed. Around mile-21 he contemplated quitting but persevered. He walked and ran, and for the home stretch tore out of sheer Kurp cussedness to the finish line. A doctor diagnosed a stress fracture, and swore him off running for at least  two weeks, which has Josh steaming, of course. I couldn’t be prouder.

Austin update: the hipster-to-civilian ratio in our capital has peaked at 30-to-1. Visible tattoo density is higher still. I borrowed from my daughter-in-law her beat-up hardback copy of the posthumously published Meyer Berger’s New York (Random House, 1960). The volume collects samples of his column, “About New York,” published in The New York Times between 1953 and 1959. Berger was a great American writer who never stopped being a great reporter. Apropos of Austin, Berger writes in his preface “Our Town: Open Letter to a Visitor”: 

“If you wander into Greenwich Village and come across men and women who affect Bohemian dress and Bohemian manner, don’t go away with the impression that they alone represent New York. The visitor from Flatbush and from Hunt’s Point in the Bronx find them as strange as you do.”  

Sunday, February 19, 2017

`Things One Must Not Leave Undone'

Today we are in Austin to watch my oldest son run his first marathon. Few settings could be more alien but I’m curious to see how Josh will run 26 miles, 385 yards. He’s twenty-nine, and started running only a year ago, but is gifted with an ironclad work ethic. If he does something, he does it. No skimping, no half-measures, no distractions. I wish I had been like that at twenty-nine. The run in Austin reminds me of a poem by Guy Davenport -- “At Marathon” (Thasos and Ohio: Poems and Translations 1950-1980, 1986) -- just as Josh reminds me of Pheidippides, who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.:

“Marianne Moore saluted the battlefield.
Her frail hand at the brim of her hat
round as a platter, she stood at attention
in her best Brooklyn Navy Yard manner,
or as years before she and Jim Thorpe
raised the school flag at Carlisle.
Here in long scarlet cloaks the ranks
advanced with ashlared shields, singing
to the thrashed drums and squealing fife
the pitiless hymn of Apollo the Wolf,
spears forward, horsetails streaming
from the masked helmets with unearthly eyes.
The swordline next and the javelineers,
More red cloaks, Ares wild in their blades.
The javelins whistled up like partridges
flushed in a brake and fell like sleet.
The Persians bored in, an auger of hornets.
The Greeks flowed around their thrust
as fire eats a stick. Wise to the ruse,
the Persians pulled back to the sea
and made hard in their ships for Athens,
which, the Greek army there on the plain,
lay naked to their will, tomorrow’s victory.
But the Greeks were there on the morrow
to cut them back. They had run all the way
from Marathon, twenty miles, in bronze.
Two thousand, four hundred and fifty-five
years ago. There are things one must not
leave undone, such as coming from Brooklyn
in one’s old age to salute the army
at Marathon. What are years?”

Moore visited Greece in 1962 with her Bryn Mawr classmates Frances and Norvelle Browne. She stopped at Marathon. Davenport would admire the reverence of such a gesture. He refers in his final line to Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” in which she says “how pure a thing is joy. / This is mortality, / this is eternity.”

Saturday, February 18, 2017

`A Genteelish Toothpick Case'

In 1782, William Cowper published his first book, cumbersomely titled Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple, Esq. In a letter to his stalwart friend, the Rev. William Unwin, written on April Fool’s Day, Cowper thanks him for publicizing the publication: “I could not have found a better trumpeter.” When not insane, Cowper was the most wittily gracious of men. He never says “thank you” when a more baroque expression of gratitude is handy. Two sentences later, and extending the musical metaphor, Cowper writes:

“Methinks I see you with the long tube at your mouth, proclaiming to your numerous connections my poetical merits and at proper intervals levelling it at Olney, and pouring into my ear the welcome sound of their approbation. I need not encourage you to proceed, your breath will never fail in such a cause; and thus encouraged, I myself perhaps may proceed also, and when the versifying fit returns produce another volume.”

Cowper was a fragile soul. His sense of self-worth was brittle at best. Writers tend to be children when it comes to wanting attention and approval. Cowper thanks Unwin for recognizing this need. He goes on to feign indifference to Edward Thurlow of the Inner Temple, who had become Lord Chancellor in 1778. Thurlow has said nothing about Cowper’s book. He feels unjustly snubbed, calling it a “mortification” -- but pretends otherwise. Cowper writes:
“. . . Mr. Newton tells me that my book is likely to run, spread, and prosper; that the grave cannot help smiling, and the gay are struck with the truth of it; and that it is likely to find its way into [King George III’s] hands . . . Now, if the King should fall in love with my muse, and with you for her sake, such an event would make us ample amends for the Chancellor's indifference, and you might be the first divine that ever reached a mitre, from the shoulders of a poet.”

Cowper launches into the obligatory writer’s rant, leavened with humor, against reviewers: “[They] are such fiery Socinians that they have less charity for a man of my avowed principles than a Portuguese for a Jew.” Spend a few hours unwrapping those metaphors. Cowper’s on a roll. He suggests to Unwin that each of them write a book and have the other review it (which, of course, is how book reviewing has always worked). More shenanigans follow, and a garden update, but my favorite part of Cowper’s letter is the coda, the post scriptum not preceded by a P.S.:

“If your short stay in town will afford you an opportunity, I should be glad if you would buy me a genteelish toothpick case. I shall not think half a guinea too much for it; only it must be one that will not easily break. If second-hand, perhaps it may be the better.”

Cowper was a man of modest needs, but with a taste for accessorizing. Elsewhere, he asked for a stock-buckle, a new hat (“not a round slouch, which I abhor, but a smart well-cocked fashionable affair”) and a cuckoo clock (a penchant he shared with Wordsworth).  

Friday, February 17, 2017

`The Horrible Sanity of the Institution'

Where would I have been without libraries? Scarcely literate. I never had a lot of money as a kid. My parents lived through the Great Depression and were tight. I learned early not to be a spendthrift (or miser). To this day I know a twinge in my gut when I shell out cash for a book. Online purchases make the pain abstract, so I remind myself to be strong. The other day, after much internal debate, I ordered the fat (624 pages) critical edition of Basil Bunting’s Poems recently published by Faber & Faber. While I was on the web site, mouse in hand, I almost ordered C.H. Sisson’s translation of the Divine Comedy, which I read last year – thanks to the library – and Dana Gioia’s 99 Poems, another library loan, but I was strong, at least until book-hunger strikes again.

Later this month we’ll observe the centenary of Anthony Burgess, a writer who stirs in me mixed reactions. I met him once, in April 1971, at Bowling Green State University. I was an eighteen-year-old freshman and Burgess, at fifty-five, was approaching the zenith of his fame. Less than a year later Stanley Kubrick would release A Clockwork Orange, his botched adaptation of Burgess’ 1962 novel. He read from his upcoming novel, M/F, and I was star-struck. I still admire Burgess’ industriousness, his learning and linguistic verve. I read Earthly Powers (1980) several years ago and enjoyed it. I’ve read little that he published after that, but he was an old-fashioned bookman, a solid nut-and-bolts professional. In person he was charming in an Irish sort of way, a gifted talker and literary raconteur. In Urgent Copy: Literary Studies (1968), Burgess collects the essay “What’s All This Fuss about Libraries?” He doesn’t like them. They are “monstrously unnecessary.” He writes:

“I’ve never been able to think of a library as a thing to be used, nibbled or eaten piecemeal. A library encloses, and any one of its items seeks to possess the brain that approaches it: the things are alive and malevolent.”

I have never felt this way. There’s nowhere I’m happier or more at home than in a library; more, even, than in a bookstore. I still feel that little-boy tingle of greed and incipient satiation as I walk through the front door. Libraries suggest Borgesian universality. Thanks to Dewey or the Library of Congress, I can act on any bookish whim, find any volume I want, even if it means filling out an interlibrary loan request. The internet, invented by Borges, makes book location and acquisition even more effortless. But Burgess partially redeems himself:

“I prefer my library at home—and I mean a library, not just bookshelves in the sitting-room. I've bought these books, or, if they’re review copies, neglected to sell them: they can be ravished, defaced, spent pagemeal in the privy, arranged in disorder, lost and found again, used. But there ought not to be too many of them: that way, the shelves mount to the ceiling, library steps have to be imported, a simple classification system begs to be given a trial. Soon you start filling gaps, hungering after completeness, throwing out tattered paperbacks, judging things you once loved unworthy. That way madness lies, or rather the horrible sanity of the institution.”

Thursday, February 16, 2017

`No Matter How Few Seemed to Notice'

Whether barbershop anecdote or a story by Chekhov, the brief narrative is best suited to the lives of loners, “isolatoes” (Melville’s word), drifters and others never quite at home. In theory, one could tell a good story about a Congressman (come to think of it, Ward Just did), but the lives of the obscure and forgotten, and those on the margin (not necessarily in the social-justice sense), seem best adapted to short, tightly focused accounts. A novel would stretch and pad and thus dilute the essentials. Novels are social; stories, personal. Frank O’Connor in his study of the short story, The Lonely Voice (1963), says short stories, unlike novels, are characterized by “an intense awareness of human loneliness.” Or at least aloneness.

Before he wrote poetry, Edwin Arlington Robinson tried his hand at prose fiction, and even chose a title for a possible collection of these pieces: Scattered Lives. (That might have served Joyce instead of Dubliners or Sherwood Anderson instead of Winesburg, Ohio.) They were never published and only fragments survive. Robinson turned to poetry without giving up narrative, and 1896 self-published his first book, The Torrent and the Night Before.  In “Calverly’s” (The Town Down the River, 1910), Robinson recycles the title of his abandoned fiction collection: 

“No fame delays oblivion
For them, but something yet survives:
A record written fair, could we
But read the book of scattered lives.”

The title refers to a tavern in New York City, and Robinson memorializes his drinking companions who have died. Throughout his verse, he strives to preserve the memory of those for whom “no fame delays oblivion.” Robinson is one of the great storytellers in our literature. Everyone knows the stories of “Richard Cory” and “Miniver Cheevy.” “Mr. Flood’s Party” (Collected Poems, 1920) was famous in its day but less so now. Eben Flood has walked into town to buy a jug. He’s an old man who lives alone. He pauses in the dark, places the jug on the ground, “With trembling care, knowing that most things break,” and talks to himself. Flood addresses Flood:       

“`Well, Mr. Flood, we have not met like this
In a long time; and many a change has come
To both of us, I fear, since last it was
We had a drop together. Welcome home!’”

Critics have dragged in the Rubáiyát (“A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou”) and La Chanson de Roland to explicate a poem about a drunk falling off the wagon. We’re witnessing what’s known in recovery parlance as a “slip,” and potentially a fatal one, given Flood’s advanced age. The self-addressed monologue is histrionic and typical of alcoholics, who like to dramatize their psychodramas. Flood sings, as many of us have, when primed with whiskey. Who are we to condemn a superannuated drunk who lives alone for taking a drink?

“He raised again the jug regretfully
And shook his head, and was again alone.
There was not much that was ahead of him,
And there was nothing in the town below—
Where strangers would have shut the many doors
That many friends had opened long ago.”

What might Robinson have made of his story if he had told it in prose? Verse was the preferable option. Scott Donaldson writes in the introduction to his Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet's Life (2007):

“Usually he took for his subjects those who had failed in life and love. He wrote about the derelict and downtrodden, the old and bereft. Who wanted to read about successful aldermen, anyway? Those who led `scattered lives’ interested him, not least because for a long time he thought of himself as one of them. Recognition came late to Robinson. He spent two decades struggling  to get his poems published, surviving on the edge of poverty. Drink and depression dogged his days, yet he was sustained by a persistent belief in his calling—that he had been put on the earth to write poems. It was the only thing he could do, and he meant to do it, no matter how few seemed to notice.”

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

`It Pains a Man When ’t Is Kept Close'

I wish I had known Sir John Suckling’s poem, sometimes called “Love’s Offence”, when I was young and too easily infatuated. It might have served as prophylaxis for the more delicate sentiments:

“If when Don Cupids dart
Doth wound a heart,
    we hide our grief
    and shun relief;
The smart increaseth on that score;
For wounds unsearcht but ranckle more.”

On this day after St. Valentine’s Day, obligatory card and candy consumed, it’s good to take a refresher course in the booby traps of love. It’s not all nectar and ambrosia. Suckling suggests we suck it up – a wounded heart, that is – and put a lid on it. No Swain, no gain, as the boys say down at the gym. The Cavalier poet goes on:

“Then if we whine, look pale,
And tell our tale,
    men are in pain
    for us again;
So, neither speaking doth become
The Lovers state, nor being dumb.

Suckling discourages both “sharing,” as moderns would call it, and also shutting up. So what’s a lover to do?

“When this I do descry,
Then thus think I,
    love is the fart
    of every heart:
It pains a man when ’t is kept close,
And others doth offend, when ’t is let loose.”

In his Dictionary, Dr. Johnson cited that final stanza in his entry for fart, which he defined rather delicately as “wind from behind.” J. Geils articulated Suckling’s insight for contemporary sensibilities.