Friday, July 31, 2015

`As Big, Perhaps, as Four Oxen'

Handicapping literary reputations is a mug’s game but if I were calculating John Updike’s odds, I’d bet on a handful of his stories, reviews and poems – especially the poems. Leave the novels alone, as readers and critics seldom did during his lifetime. Updike’s first book, The Carpentered Hen (1958), was a collection of poems, and he published seven more. In his review of Collected Poems 1953-1993, Tom Disch acknowledged an obvious truth, one he knew from hard experience: “Updike enjoys such pre-eminence as a novelist that his poetry could be mistaken as a hobby or a foible.” Disch went on to celebrate unfashionable dedication to form: “It is a poetry of civility—in its epigrammatical lucidity.” The same is true of Disch, whose poetry easily eclipses his fiction. Theirs is a poetry of wit. In his Collected Poems, Updike distinguishes between poetry and light verse, and prints them separately. In his preface he formulates the difference:

“My principle of segregation has been that a poem derives from the real (the real, the substantial) world and light verse from the man-made world of information—books, newspapers, words, signs. If a set of lines brought back to me something I actually saw or felt, it was not light verse. If it took its spark from language and stylized signifiers, it was.”

Take “The Menagerie at Versailles in 1775,” from his second book of verse, Telephone Poles and Other Poems (1963). Updike rightly classifies it as light verse, though an earlier generation might have judged it an act of avant-garde audacity. In his notes, Updike describes it as a "found poem" drawn from Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the passage for Oct. 22, 1775. Boswell quotes prose notes kept by Johnson when visiting the French court’s zoo. Updike lineates the prose and revises the punctuation. Otherwise, it’s Johnson verbatim. There’s a poignancy to the passage that Updike may or may not have been aware of. Here’s Johnson:  

“Rhinoceros, the horn broken and pared away, which, I suppose, will grow; the basis, I think, four inches across; the skin folds like loose cloth doubled over his body; and cross his hips; a vast animal, though young; as big, perhaps, as four oxen.”

In his Dictionary, Johnson defines rhinoceros as “a vast beast in the East Indies armed with a horn in his front.” You can quibble with his geography but the definition is typically pithy and common-sensical. In his notebook passage, I detect a muted sympathy for the de-horned beast. Johnson’s ungainly appearance and deportment are often remarked upon. For Europeans of the eighteenth century, a rhinoceros was a monstrous, frightening freak of nature. You’ll find none of that in Johnson’s brief account. Look at this passage in Boswell, dated May 17, 1775:

“I passed many hours with him on the 17th, of which I find all my memorial is, `much laughing.’ It should seem he had that day been in a humour for jocularity and merriment, and upon such occasions I never knew a man laugh more heartily. We may suppose, that the high relish of a state so different from his habitual gloom, produced more than ordinary exertions of that distinguishing faculty of man, which has puzzled philosophers so much to explain. Johnson’s laugh was as remarkable as any circumstance in his manner. It was a kind of good humoured growl. Tom Davies described it drolly enough: `He laughs like a rhinoceros.’”

Thursday, July 30, 2015

`I Love the Light'

Whittaker Chambers, author of the finest American autobiography, was a gloom-minded man divided against himself, serious if not exactly humorless but certainly unburdened with joie de vivre. After the Hiss trial and the publication in 1952 of Witness, Chambers and his family retired to his farm in rural Maryland, where he raised cows and sheep, and continued to write. Chambers died of a heart attack in 1961, and three years later Random House published Cold Friday, a collection of his articles, letters and diary entries. The title is borrowed from the name of a field on Chambers’ land. Of it he writes: “Most fields invite the world; Cold Friday confronts it.” The former communist might be describing himself.

Chambers was an urban man, a journalist at home in big cities. In the pieces devoted to life on the farm, he reveals a need for rootedness and a love of nature and agriculture, though a subdued pastoral theme is detectable in Witness. Chambers is no Thoreau, though Rebecca West, in her review of Witness (Atlantic Monthly, June 1952), described its author as “a Christian mystic of the pantheist school, a spiritual descendent of Eckhart and Boehme and Angelus Selesius.” In his diary on June 12, 1952, Chambers writes:

“Toward dawn, fighting off sleep. To rouse myself, I climbed the ridge. The woods and the opposite ridge pearled with light, the hollows between filled with shadow. Behind, the grey band of concrete state road (no cars or even a truck at that hour). I thought: Quiet the land with sleeping. This is the oldest continuity, known to man—the peace of pre-morning in the fields, within which even I, for an hour, am one of the oldest of human figures—a man watching his flocks by night.”

Chambers echoes Psalm 35:20 in the King James Bible: “For they speake not peace: but they deuise deceitfull matters against them that are quiet in the land.” He almost tries on the role of King David as a shepherd boy. In “Exercises,” a sketch written in both prose and verse, Chambers stands on a hill on his land with “a young man, cut wholly to the modern fit,” who finds the skull and bones of a groundhog. (See Richard Eberhart’s poem.) The bones elicit a characteristic Chambers meditation, as he sees in “any seeming-peaceful field a scene of incessant death struggle and murder as horrifying as a battlefield.” He continues:

“I thought, too, of the multitudinous necessity of death—the multitudes, in numbers defying the mind, who have lived, died, been killed, without leaving any memory, without trace or so much as a pathetic small skull and crumbling bones. Millions upon millions, vanished absolutely, as if they had never been at all—no smallest memento or memory; no apparent meaning. The thought of those meaningless numbers thunders like surf in the mind, and drowns our probities in the surge of energy without purpose. The point is not that God notes every sparrow that falls, but that he lets it fall—without trace. I love the light. The groundhog loved the light. The sparrow loved the light. Night falls.”

I hear Sophocles, Matthew 10:29-31 and Matthew Arnold. Chambers must be thinking of the anonymous millions already claimed by communism, with millions more to follow in subsequent decades. And remember the lines in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:

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

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

Gray died on this date, July 30, in 1771, at the age of fifty-four.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

`Speak Again'

Words are tools but also toys. If their job is communication, their avocation is amusement. Not every writer and reader would agree. I admire George Orwell’s best essays (not the fiction) but his sense of humor is vestigial. When he says that “the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes,” he’s only fractionally correct. People choose to enfeeble language out of laziness and an eagerness to sound like everyone else. Linguistic distinction (that is, precision, concision, color and music, not necessarily profanity or gibberish) is discouraged. Thus: awesome, cool and the poetry of Mary Oliver. The late D.J. Enright thought otherwise. He advises in the first stanza of “First Words, Last Chances” (Old Men and Comets, 1993): “Words you’ve never used / And have always wanted to – / Get them in quickly.” What follows is a tour-de-force of rare words teetering on the cusp of nonsense, A Clockwork Orange or Finnegans Wake. For instance:

“It fell on your head
Her old boyfriend’s framed photo –
Fearsome xoanon!”

I didn’t know that Scrabble-friendly xoanon. From the Greek for “to scrape, carve,” it means “a primitive rudely carved image or statue (originally wooden), esp. of a deity.” Apparently the ex-boyfriend is still idolized. This stanza is particularly good:

“Vox angelica
(Voicing vale or ave?)
Or vox humana?”

I learned what a vox humana was in 1967 from “The Intro and the Outro.” This stanza can be decrypted with a dictionary handy:

“Jalousies muffle
Criminal conversation –
Discalced and unfrocked
Ithyphallic, perforate –
A case of jactitation.”

That last word I learned from Tristram Shandy: “After much dispassionate enquiry and jactitation of the arguments on all sides,—it has been adjudged for the negative.” Such games, indulged unrelentingly, grow tiresome. Some occasions call for plain speaking and sobriety of manner. But limiting our words to one narrow frequency, as advised by the more humorless among the language police, spells tedium. Monotonal words stripped to utilitarian starkness come to signify nothing. Remember Lear’s contemptuous command to Cordelia: “Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

`Prose Is the Language of the Intellect'

Chapter 18 of Gilbert Highet’s The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature, “Baroque Prose,” opens audaciously. Highet christens the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries “the age of prose” (he’s not the first to do so), and says the era’s prose is “superior in quality” to the poetry produced in the same period. Limiting our sample exclusively to poets writing in English, this is the era that gave us Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Herbert, Milton, Marvell, Dryden, Swift, Pope and Johnson, and that represents a mere skimming of genius. But Highet makes a compelling case:

“The reason for the superiority of baroque prose is plain, and may sound like an over-simplification; but no better has been suggested. It is that intellect predominated over emotion and imagination in the life of the time, and controlled them: prose is the language of the intellect.”

Highet identifies two general schools of prose. One he traces to the influence of Cicero; the other, to Seneca and Tacitus. The Ciceronian strain he describes as a “full, ornate, magnificent utterance in which emotion constantly swells up and is constantly ordered and disciplined by superb intellectual control.” Its critics felt that “the `big bow-wow’ style of speaking and writing was bogus.” They argued for a plainer, more “natural” handling of language. Of this second style, Highet lists seven masters in English and French: Bacon, Browne, Burton, La Bruyère, Milton, Montaigne and Pascal. Representing the first, neo-Ciceronian style he gives Addison, Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac, Bossuet, Louis Bourdaloue, Burke, François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon, Gibbon, Swift and Johnson. It’s pleasing to know such lists are not mutually exclusive. Readers and writers need not be partisans of either. Johnson, in fact, wrote a largely admiring life of Browne, and told Boswell that The Anatomy of Melancholy was “the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.” The names of at least half of my favorite writers, the ones whose books I return to most frequently, can be found on the two lists. Here’s Highet on Browne:

“Yet prose is not only a tool. It can also be an instrument of music. The most skillful, least monotonous, and subtlest of the baroque musicians in words was Browne, who produced his finest effects by blending simple Anglo-Saxonisms with organ-toned words from Rome.”

And here is Highet on Gibbon, whose great history he criticizes harshly, especially for its well-known antagonism to Christianity and its sometimes “monotonous” prose, but deeply admires as literature:

“Gibbon’s great range would be useless without his analytical power. He had a highly developed sense of intellectual and aesthetic structure. Through this he controlled the enormous and shapeless mass, a thousand processes and a million facts, so that they arranged themselves in large but manageable groups, seventy-one of which made up the entire work, and, uncluttered by appendixes and excursuses and annexes, formed an architectural whole of truly baroque grandeur.”

One of the signal events of my life was reading The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire some fifteen years ago. Finishing it left me elated and mildly depressed, the way we feel after leaving a household where one has been generously welcomed as a member of the family. Even non-readers of his history know that Gibbon said “history is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind,” but the Decline and Fall at the same time documents a noble achievement in human history, despite all the political savagery (which has remained steadily present in subsequent centuries). I have never found Gibbon’s sonorities “monotonous.”

As readers born into English, we have reason to be proud. Our inheritance is enormous and we come by it naturally, without effort. Is it possible to be a patriot for one’s language? Patriots secure in their gratitude don’t feel the need to loudly demean citizens of other countries or speakers of other languages. They merely celebrate (and defend) their gifts. Highet, for instance, is respectful of Dr. Johnson but not an enthusiast. He praises the non-Ciceronian stylists for the “great deal of quiet solitary thinking and reading [they did] in large libraries,” adding parenthetically, (”poor Johnson in his father’s bookshop).” Consider this from The Rambler #38, published on this date, July 28, in 1750:

“There is one reason, seldom remarked, which makes riches less desirable. Too much wealth is very frequently the occasion of poverty. He whom the wantonness of abundance has once softened, easily sinks into neglect of his affairs; and he that thinks he can afford to be negligent, is not far from being poor. He will soon be involved in perplexities, which his inexperience will render unsurmountable; he will fly for help to those whose interest it is that he should be more distressed, and will be at last torn to pieces by the vultures that always hover over fortunes in decay.”

Monday, July 27, 2015

`A Well-Stocked Head'

The most entertaining book I have read this year is The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature by Gilbert Highet (1906-1978), first published by Clarendon Press in 1949 and reissued this year in a paperback edition by Oxford University Press (with an eminently ignorable new foreword by Harold Bloom). Highet’s learning is massive and lightly worn. His book is greatly entertaining because Highet is entertained by the greatest books and writers. His manner is not pedantic or school-marmish, and he doesn’t proselytize. One could fill a commonplace book with passages from The Classical Tradition. Highet respects readers enough to assume they too wish to read the best books. Take his treatment of Petrarch: 

“Dante had a bookshelf, a large one. But Petrarch had the first living and growing library, in the modern sense. The ideal which grew up in the Renaissance and has not yet died away, that of the many-sided humane thinker with a well-stocked head and a better-stocked library, the ideal personified in Montaigne, Ronsard, Johnson, Gray, Goethe, Goethe, Voltaire, Milton, Tennyson, and many more—that ideal was in modern times, first and most stimulatingly embodied in Petrarch.” 

What a marvelous phrase, representative of Highet’s epigrammatic style: “a well-stocked head and a better-stocked library.” About my mention of respect: I’ve read hardly anything by Ronsard, and now I’ve made a note to remedy that. Art is not democratic (most of us, for instance, can’t write or play the violin well), but access to art has never been more democratic, with ready digital availability of almost any work. Highet continues: 

“The books which Dante knew, he knew deeply; but they were not many. Petrarch knew neither the Bible nor Aristotle so well, but he knew classical literature better than Dante, and he knew more of it. For he discovered much of it, and stimulated others to discover more. He did not discover it in the sense in which Columbus discovered America, or Schliemann Troy. The books were there, in libraries, and still readable. But they were in the same position as out-of-print works nowadays, of which only one or two copies exist, in basements or forgotten dumps. Hardly anyone knew they were there; no one read them; and they were not part of the stream of culture.” 

A book without a reader is half a book or less. Readers complete the job only started by writers. One thinks of the great Melville revival, circa 1920. A decade earlier he was remembered, if at all, as a writer of South Sea romances, loosely clumped with those other salty dogs, Stevenson and Conrad. Within a few years he was acknowledged as author of that mythical beast, the Great American Novel. Highet describes Petrarch’s central role in the rediscovery and reevaluation of Cicero. The poet befriended literature, as all true writers do. Near the conclusion of his pages devoted to Petrarch, Highet writes movingly: 

“Much to his grief, Petrarch never managed to read a book in Greek; but he did search for Greek manuscripts (he acquired a Homer and some sixteen dialogues of Plato) and finally, through Boccaccio, got hold of a Latin rendering of both the Homeric epics. Like a true book-lover, he was found dead in his library, stooping over a book; and the last large-scale work he began was to annotate the Latin version of the Odyssey.”

Sunday, July 26, 2015

`I Loved My Aunt'

Stevie Smith recognized that much of life is consumed with giving and receiving casual, low-grade hurts. They color our days. Some are almost benign, reminding us to preserve our self-respect. Some are cold-blooded, spawning, with time, murder and suicide. Lock two humans in a room and someone’s ego will start agitating. A friend reminds me of Smith’s “Pad, pad” (Harold’s Leap, 1950): 

“I always remember your beautiful flowers
And the beautiful kimono you wore
When you sat on the couch
With that tigerish crouch
And told me you loved me no more.

“What I cannot remember is how I felt when you were unkind
All I know is, if you were unkind now I should not mind.
Ah me, the power to feel exaggerated, angry and sad
The years have taken from me. Softly I go now, pad pad.”
 

The first stanza is almost a limerick. For three and a half lines, until “tigerish crouch,” we expect greeting-card sentiments. Then comes the “Dear John.” The speaker, evidently a man, hath no fury. He is a little man, defeated, resigned, some might say a wimp. The drawing that accompanies the poem makes this explicit. The woman, seated on a couch, is dressed like a flapper. She’s smiling and looks ready for the next dance. The man, drawn in profile and only from the chest up, looks stricken. His mustache sags. His appearance almost justifies her ruthlessness. She’s having a grand time at his expense. Smith was no sentimentalist when it came to love, romance, friendship and other human relations. In the preceding poem, “Le Singe Qui Swing (To the tune of Green-sleeves)” and the accompanying drawing, the title creature stands on a swing hanging from a branch. He is male. His tormentor, again, is female and smiling, hanging out a window. The second stanza belies the drawing: 

“Oh ho the swinging ape,
The happy peaceful animal,
Oh ho the swinging ape,
I love to see him gambol.” 

In the poem after “Pad, pad,” “The Broken Friendship,” both characters are female. Here we have a nursery rhyme devoted to human hurt and desolation – Smith’s defining dissonance: 

“Jolie Bear is gone away
Easter Ross’s heart is broke,
Everything went out of her
When Jolie never spoke.” 

Smith’s persona was girlish, whimsical and faux-naïve. In her own way she was “tigerish” – not predatory but cunning. Near the end of her life, Smith told Neville Braybrooke: “People think because I never married, I know nothing about the emotions. When I am dead you must put them right. I loved my aunt.”

Saturday, July 25, 2015

`Exempt from Future Service All His Days'

“But few that court Retirement, are aware
Of half the toils they must encounter there.
Lucrative offices are seldom lost
For want of pow’rs proportion’d to the post.”

Perhaps it’s merely an urban legend fueled by the bitter among us who still must work for a living, but folklore claims retirement after long service amounts to a death sentence. The newly emancipated with their fat pensions find leisure appalling. How much golf can one man play? Idleness breeds boredom, irritability and self-loathing. Bad habits follow – drinking, gambling, daytime television. Death comes as respite.

We are confident, however, that another fate awaits Dave Lull, the Omnipresent Wisconsin Librarian (OWL), who on Friday served his final day as Technical Services Manager at the Duluth Public Library.  Dave, I trust, has no plans to retire from his other job as the tutelary spirit of Anecdotal Evidence. Modestly, Dave calls himself “nitpicker.” I call him copy editor, fact-checker, hunter-gatherer and friend. My foolishness would appear even more blatant without his unheralded assistance. The ominous lines quoted above are drawn from William Cowper’s “Retirement” (1782). Here are the subsequent lines:

“Give ev’n a dunce th’ employment he desires,
And he soon finds the talents it requires;
A business with an income at its heels,
Furnishes always oil for its own wheels.
But in his arduous enterprize to close
His active years with indolent repose,
He finds the labours of that state exceed
His utmost faculties, severe indeed.
’Tis easy to resign a toilsome place,
But not to manage leisure with a grace,
Absence of occupation is not rest,
A mind quite vacant is a mind distress’d.
The vet’ran steed excused his task at length,
In kind compassion of his failing strength,
And turn’d into the park or mead to graze,
Exempt from future service all his days.”

Have an industrious retirement, Dave. As always, I’m grateful there’s a Lull in my life.