Sunday, April 30, 2017

`Strike It Out'

On this date, April 30, in 1773, Boswell dined at Topham Beauclerk’s with Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds and other members of the Literary Club, the epicenter of witty, spirited conversation in London, founded in 1764. Edmund Burke was a member, and Edward Gibbon would be voted in soon. Johnson had nominated Boswell for membership. The talk focused at first on Oliver Goldsmith, not present but an inaugural member of the Club:

“JOHNSON. `It is amazing how little Goldsmith knows. He seldom comes where he is not more ignorant than any one else.’ SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS. `Yet there is no man whose company is more liked.’ JOHNSON. `To be sure, Sir. When people find a man of the most distinguished abilities as a writer, their inferiour while he is with them, it must be highly gratifying to them.’”

The observation has applications beyond mere writers. We enjoy deflating those more gifted than ourselves, especially if they are otherwise without gifts. We relish having them around the way some people keep a dog for the purpose of periodically kicking him. Boswell, as usual, baits Johnson, who defends Goldsmith as a historian. (Goldsmith’s talents were modest, and he would take on any writing project that paid.) In contrast, Boswell cites the historians William Robertson, David Hume and Lord Lyttleton, and Johnson dismisses their “verbiage” and “foppery.”

Boswell persists, defending Robertson’s History of Scotland, in which he finds “such penetration — such painting.” Johnson is just getting started. Of Robertson’s writing he says: “It is not history, it is imagination.” He launches a defense of concision:

“Goldsmith tells you shortly all you want to know: Robertson detains you a great deal too long. No man will read Robertson’s cumbrous detail a second time; but Goldsmith’s plain narrative will please again and again.”

The generality is accurate, even if we have little interest in reading Goldsmith’s history of Rome. Every seasoned reader can readily tick off a list of literary gasbags, whether Hemingway or David Foster Wallace. Next, Johnson articulates the wisest practical literary advice I know:

“I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: `Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’”

I suspect the tutor in question was Johnson. When your prose satisfies only your vanity, it’s best to hit the delete key. We may derive immense pleasure and fulfillment from writing, but never forget that other people have to read it.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

`To Him Who Walks Alone Through Life'

Coleridge was cursed with a homing instinct and a lifelong inability or refusal to find a home. Such a contradiction is not rare. A roof over his head, a table and a bed – he had them, but never contentedly or for long. Some find a home and hate it. Some are happily homeless, and by choice. They remain rootless and travel light. Not Coleridge. The reasons – emotional, behavioral, pharmaceutical – are many. By the age of thirty-two he was permanently addicted to opium. His friend Hazlitt, in “My First Acquaintance with Poets,” describes their meeting in 1798, at Coleridge's temporary cottage in Somerset:

“Thus I passed three weeks at Nether Stowey and in the neighborhood, generally devoting the afternoons to a delightful chat in an arbour made of bark by the poet’s friend Tom Poole, sitting under two fine elm trees, and listening to the bees humming round us, while we quaffed our flip.”

Flip, for the uninitiated, is “a mixture of beer and spirit sweetened with sugar and heated with a hot iron.” No wonder the scene is recollected in tranquility. Hazlitt is also temperamentally homeless, but not as cripplingly so as Coleridge. Though he would later turn on Coleridge, his expression of gratitude for his friend’s kindness is heartfelt:

“I had no notion then that I should ever be able to express my admiration to others in motley imagery or quaint allusion, till the light of his genius shone into my soul, like the sun’s rays glittering in the puddles of the road. I was at that time dumb, inarticulate, helpless, like a worm by the way-side, crushed, bleeding lifeless . . . that my understanding also did not remain dumb and brutish, or at length found a language to express itself, I owe to Coleridge.”

He next moved, with wife, to Greta Hall, Keswick, in the Lake District. In an 1802 letter to Thomas Manning, Charles Lamb describes a visit: “Coleridge had got a blazing fire in his study; which is a large, antique, ill-shaped room, with an old-fashioned organ, never played upon, big enough for a church, shelves of scattered folios, an Æolian harp, and an old sofa, half-bed, &c.” It sounds cozy but from at least 1804, Coleridge’s life was ruled around the clock by laudanum. He consumed up to two quarts a week of the tincture of opium. From 1816 he found a surrogate home with Dr. James Gillman and his wife in Highgate, on Hampstead Heath. He completed the long-delayed Biographia Literaria there, and remained with the Gillmans for the last eighteen years of his life.

Coleridge was in flight from a marriage he had ruined. He would never again have anything like a normal family life with Sara and their three children, who remained in the care of his priggish brother-in-law, Robert Southey. Coleridge was also fleeing his unrequited passion for Sara Hutchinson, Wordsworth’s sister-in-law. He had a lifelong knack for creating gratuitous complications. At the Gillmans' home in 1826, less than six years before his death, Coleridge wrote perhaps the most self-pitying Christmas poem in history, “Homeless”:

“O! Christmas Day, Oh! happy day!
        A foretaste from above,
To him who hath a happy home
        And love returned from love!

“O! Christmas Day, O gloomy day,
        The barb in Memory’s dart,
To him who walks alone through Life,
        The desolate in heart.”

Friday, April 28, 2017

`233 Fully Drawn Characters'

My youngest son and I were talking about country music and why some of it is so good and some so dreadful. We share a liking for Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, George Jones and Johnny Cash, among others. I told him that Charlie Parker, according to Nat Hentoff, defended country music when other jazz musicians were making fun of it. We tried to define why the songs can be so memorable, and David came up with a likely explanation. Apart from the music itself, he said, “The songs tell stories about people.” To cite obvious examples, consider Jones singing “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman; Haggard’s “If I Could Only Fly,” by Blaze Foley; and Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” covered by Haggard and Nelson.

Our talk reminded me of a poet, Edwin Arlington Robinson, who brings to life more characters and tell more stories than some novelists. I remembered reading a tally, and after a brief search I found this in Chard Powers Smith’s Where the Light Falls: A Portrait of Edwin Arlington Robinson (1965):

“It is in the other category of greatness, that of size of population, that Robinson is preeminent among poets in English except those who wrote for the stage. His 233 fully drawn characters are approached only by Chaucer’s 188—the latter at a cursory count.”

Here are two of Robinson’s poems that amount to novellas in verse: “Aunt Imogen” (Captain Craig, 1902) and “Bewick Finzer” (The Man Against the Sky, 1916). The concluding lines of the latter encapsulate a life and might be sung by Haggard: “Familiar as an old mistake, / And futile as regret.”

Thursday, April 27, 2017

`The Words Are Pouring'

“You loved the monosyllable and it / Runs through your music.”

Short words, like clusters of consonants shorn of vowels, slow things down. They feel hard and pebble-like, almost punctuation. Longer words are likelier to flow, often briskly like water in a shallow, rocky stream. Together they make music, otherwise known as the English language. In the passage above, Elizabeth Jennings celebrates a seventeenth-century forbear in “For George Herbert” (Tributes, 1989). A Roman Catholic, Jennings praises the example Herbert set as an Anglican priest:

“You’d understand the gratitude I feel,
My need to tell it too.”

Jennings is one of poetry’s great thanks givers. The title of the quoted volume is typical. In the same collection, along with Herbert she honors Philip Larkin and Charles Causley, Goya and Caravaggio, her father and Alec Guinness. To Herbert she says:

“When I’ve been low I’ve felt your deference
To all that dogs mankind
And all that also gives him happiness.”

In Herbert, poetry and spiritual consolation mingle. In perfect iambs, Jennings puts it like this: “It is within your words.” Herbert’s emphasis, she says, “. . . Is on the drama lived in each man’s soul, / His battle with his flawed / Aspirations and you make him whole . . .” The stanza closes with a bold statement: “No one wrote like this before.” The next line is the one cited at the top about the preponderance of one-syllable words in Herbert’s verse. It recalls “The Pearl,” in which the final line of each stanza is strictly monosyllabic: “Yet I love thee” in the first three, “To climb to thee” in the last. The effect is one of conviction and finality. Consider Herbert’s essential lexicon: “love,” “heart,” “life,” “death,” “praise,” “God.”

Herbert’s poem carries the epigraph “MATTHEW xiii,” in which Jesus relates seven parables, two of which refer to a valuable pearl, as in Matthew 13:46 in the King James Version: “Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.” Crudely put, “The Pearl” is the story of a reasonably successful man who, nagged by a sense of emptiness, mends his way. The poem concludes:

“Yet through these labyrinths, not my groveling wit,
But thy silk twist let down from heav’n to me,
Did both conduct and teach me, how by it
To climb to thee.”

Here is the conclusion of Jennings’ poem, addressed to Herbert: “You have released my spirit, sent it on / Audacious flights by what you’ve said and done.”

In Jennings’ poems, words often become animated, even personified, and move about the world like discrete beings. In “The Words are Pouring,” from Praises (1998), she writes:

“The words are pouring. Listen to their sound,
Their implications, weather, strength and cry,
Let dictionaries shout against the wind
And lyricism find its weather there.”

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

`Something Solid in That Kind of Wit'

When I’m told a writer is forgotten or only obscurely known my instinct is to rescue him. I’m not a sucker, and many writers are deservedly erased from memory. (Here’s a diverting pastime: Think of all the writers you wish were forgotten.)  In Tuesday’s post I mentioned a poet, Henry Carey (c. 1687-1743), new to me. He handily qualifies as obscure. We don’t know with certainty when or where he was born, and scholars argue over his parentage. And yet, in his day, Carey was an immensely popular writer of songs, ballads and poems that often resemble modern light or nonsense verse. He also composed music to accompany them. His best-known work is “The Ballad of Sally in Our Alley,” which he claimed was written “to set forth the Beauty of a chaste and disinterested Passion, even in the lowest Class of Human Life.”

In 1930, Frederick T. Wood edited The Poems of Henry Carey for The Scholartis Press: Eric Partridge Ltd., London. The copy I borrowed from the Fondren Library hasn’t circulated since 1946. Wood’s edition was the first attempt, almost two centuries after the poet’s death, to collect all of Carey’s known work. In his introduction, Wood suggests Carey may have been “the most completely forgotten of them all.” As he puts it: “It is a feature of history that it can show a number of mystery personages who from time to time make their appearance as it were from nowhere, pass dimly across the literary horizon, and then vanish.” Carey’s better lines have a raucous, defiant charm. In “The Surly Peasant,” he treads on Edward Lear’s turf:

“Let whimsical monarchs of state
Imagine themselves to be great;
With my spade in my hand
Sole monarch I stand
Of twenty good acres of land.

“A fig for your sir or your madam;
Our origin all is from Adam;
Then why should I buckle,
Palaver or truckle
To any pragmatical chuckle?”

It may be doggerel, but it’s honest fun, without aspirations to anything grander. Humor is tethered in time and place, and doesn’t always travel well, but certain themes endure.
Here is “The Rival Lap-Dog”:

“Corinna, pray tell me
Why thus you repell me,
When humbly I sue for a kiss;
While Dony at pleasure
May kiss without measure,
And surfeit himself with the bliss?

“How hard’s my misfortune,
That I must importune,
For what I must still be deny’d;
While the rapturous duty
I owe to your beauty
Must be by a lap-dog supplied.”

Carey never resorts to what comedians used to call “working blue,” which is a shame. A little smut would perk things up. See also “An Ode in Praise of Coffee” (“Thou sacred liquour of nectarous taste”) and “Love à la Mode” (“If she loves you—then forsake her; / ’Tis the modish way of wooing”). My favorite in Wood’s edition is the final poem, “The Author’s Quietus (Address’d to his Dear Friend, Jemmy Worsdale)":

“This itch of scribbling has no end, no ease,
Damn’d if you fail, and envy’d if you please;
Uncertain pleasure for most certain pain:
Well, Solomon says right, All things are vain;
’Tis better that a man should eat and drink.
Here! — Take away this ugly pen and ink!
Come, James! — let’s have a bottle and a bit;
There's something solid in that kind of wit.”

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

`Or Any Other Reason Why'

First, the title grabbed me: A Tankard of Ale. Then the subtitle rewarded my curiosity:  An Anthology of Drinking Songs. The anthologist is Theodore Maynard (1880-1956), an English-born Roman Catholic apologist, follower of G. K. Chesterton and longtime resident of the United States. His collection was published by Erskine Macdonald, Ltd., London, in 1919, the year the Volstead Act became law in the U.S. Maynard expresses his thoughts on the subject in the first sentence of his introduction: “With the advent of the social reformer the very word `beer’ seems to have taken on a sinister sound, and is as much tabooed in polite society as the word `trousers’ was once said to have been.” Macdonald claims “conviviality is a lost art” and that his book is “rather intended for tapsters than for antiquaries.”

Most of the poets in Maynard’s anthology are unfamiliar to me. His first selection is “Reasons for Drinking” by Henry Aldrich (1647-1710):

“If all be true that I do think,
There are five reasons we should drink:
Good wine, a friend, or being dry,
Or lest we should be by and by,
Or any other reason why.”

This works because it replicates a drinker’s logic, and because the lines come with a built-in melody. You can sing them. Henry Carey (c. 1687-1743) embodies generosity of spirit in “With an Honest Old Friend”:

“I envy no mortal though ever so great,
Nor scorn I a wretch for his lowly estate;
But what I abhor and esteem as a curse,
Is poorness of spirit, not poorness of purse.”

Maynard obviously associates drinking not with DT’s and moral turpitude but with celebration of life. In a gather-ye-rosebuds vein is “Drinking Commended” by Sir John Suckling (1609-1642):

“Come, let the State stay,
And drink away,
There is no business above it:
It warms the cold brain,
Makes us speak in high strain.
He’s a fool that does not approve it.

“The Macedon youth,
Left behind him this truth.
That nothing is done with much thinking;
He drank and he fought,
Till he had what he sought:
The world was his own by good drinking.”

And here is the gather-ye-rosebuds man himself, Robert Herrick (1591-1641):

“Come sit we by the fireside,
And roundly drink we here;
Till that we see our cheeks ale-dyed
And noses tann’d with beer.”

In his introduction, Maynard disparages “intemperate teetotalism” and captures the sour spirit of Prohibition’s boosters: “the earnest face of the Puritan, whose pale disgust is like a skeleton at his feet.” He declares: “Perfect social reform casteth out conviviality.” Maynard’s thinking has a political subtext, particularly welcome in our age of micro-regulation and social engineering: “The political mind, which can only find a complex solution (which by the way never does solve) for what it euphemistically terms the `drink problem,’ always misses what is direct and effective.” To which Maynard appends these anonymous lines:

“Damn their eyes if ever they tries
To rob a poor man of his beer—
For I likes a drop of good beer.”

For those of us who drank our share (and more), and no longer indulge, Maynard’s anthology is a consolation prize, a reminder of good times and bad behavior. My incapacity is no reason to spoil your party.

Monday, April 24, 2017

`Do Not Over-Broider Things'

“Words as plain as hen-birds’ wings
Do not lie,
Do not over-broider things --
Are too shy.”

A chicken wing has eight bones and three sorts of feathers. To call it plain may be misleading. Only in death – that is, in the kitchen or at table -- is the complexity and elegance uncovered. It’s a part of the chicken I never cared for (I’m a breast man, so to speak). The bones of all birds are the envy of structural engineers. “Over-broider” appears nowhere else in the language. “Broider,” an echo of our “embroider,” is now in linguistic hibernation. The OED gives “to ornament with needle-work.” Larkin’s meaning is clear, and states an ideal. Such words are every honest writer’s aspiration.

“Thoughts that shuffle round like pence
Through each reign,
Wear down to their simplest sense
Yet remain.”

Another ideal. One would like to think of our best thoughts as those that survive, tested against reality, like stones polished in a rock tumbler. Larkin uses the more familiar image of coins worn smooth by time and use. Their worth remains unchanged.

“Weeds are not supposed to grow
But by degrees
Some achieve a flower, although
No one sees.”

Some of the prettiest flowers – including my favorite, G.K. Chesterton’s dandelion – are weeds in anybody’s book. But “weed” is among the most ambiguous nouns in the language. I once discovered a small rural cemetery in upstate New York, a plot of perhaps four-hundred square feet surrounded by a low wall of field stones. The four or five markers were submerged in a sea of blooming phlox.

“Modesties” appeared in Philip Larkin’s self-published XX Poems in 1951. His biographer, James Booth, calls it a “concise manifesto for a poetry of reticence and sincerity,” but he may be over-broidering.