Sunday, July 15, 2018

'And Empty Both Within'

“Best of all, they spent a good deal of time in a small snuggery behind the bar of the Yacht Inn, smoking cigars and drinking stout while conversing with the landlord, who then took them up to a room to show them the little windowpane where Jonathan Swift had etched with a diamond a bitter comment on the local clergyman who had left him waiting to sup with them.”

Hershel Parker in the second volume of his Melville biography (2002) is describing a meeting of giants. It’s Nov. 15, 1856, and Melville is in Chester, England, with Hawthorne, who is not a giant. I mean Swift and Melville. The latter had published Moby-Dick five years earlier, and he likely knew Swift’s book about another sort of voyage. Parker tells us: “(Melville must have known a great deal more about Swift than we can prove; we have an offhand reference to the ‘Dean’ but no copy of anything by Swift that had been in Melville’s library.)”

In Pat Rogers’ edition of Swift’s Complete Poems (1983), the etched verse is grouped with three others written around 1726 and collectively titled “On Seeing Verses Written upon Windows in Inns”:

“The church and clergy here, no doubt,
Are very near a-kin;
Both weather-beaten are without,
And empty both within.”

Melville had recently finished writing The Confidence-Man. He too was empty “within,” and had lost his faith in the theological notion of immortality. Three days before reading Swift’s lines on the window, Melville and Hawthorne had walked along the shore of the Irish Sea, and Hawthorne famously wrote in his journal:

“. . . we took a pretty long walk together, and sat down in a hollow among the sand hills (sheltering ourselves from the high, cool wind) and smoked a cigar. Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had ‘pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated;’ but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists -- and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before -- in wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.”

Saturday, July 14, 2018

'He Is in Love with Words'

“A troop of these ignorant Doradoes.”

And who are these Doradoes who are so ignorant? Sir Thomas Browne had neither El Dorado nor Doritos in mind. The word appears in a marvelous passage in Part II, Section 1 of Religio Medici (1642), in which he expresses a tolerance and humility uncharacteristic of his age and ours, a quality he calls the “Vertue of Charity”:

“I am of a constitution so generall, that it consorts, and sympathizeth with all things; I have no antipathy, or rather Idio-syncrasie, in dyet, humour, ayre, any thing; I wonder not at the French, for their dishes of frogges, snailes, and toadstooles, nor at the Jewes for Locusts and Grasse-hoppers, but being amongst them, make them my common viands; and I finde they agree with my stomach as well as theirs; I could digest a Sallad gathered in a Church-yard, as well as in a Garden.”

Like any sensible man, the one exception to Browne’s generosity of spirit is his fear and detestation of crowds, “that great enemy of reason, vertue and religion, the multitude, that numerous piece of monstrosity, which taken asunder seeme men, and the reasonable creatures of God; but confused together, make but one great beast, & a monstrosity more prodigious than Hydra.” Whether at a rock concert or a political rally, mobs are unpredictable, loud, smelly and incapable of thought. They react to stimuli like fire ants on a baby. A few lines later comes the passage cited above. Dorado, the OED tells us, is rooted in the Spanish, French, Italian and Latin for “gold.” It can refer to a fish or a southern constellation, “also called Xiphias or the Sword-fish.” Browne’s usage is cited, though labeled “figurative”: “a rich man. Obsolete.” A shame. The most recent citation dates from 1868.

Browne works words the way a sculptor works clay. The language was still young malleable. Among writers most often cited by the OED, Browne ranks seventieth. He is cited 788 times for the first appearance of words in English. On the same day I encountered Doradoes in Browne I was reading an essay Anthony Hecht published in the Fall 2001 issue of The Sewanee Review, in which he says of Richard Wilbur:

“. . . it is not enough to say that he is in love with the visible world. He is in love with words, which, given a moment’s thought, are also encoded. The lover of words seeks for their hidden worth, their forgotten meanings, their playfulness, trickiness, the way they can make us say more than we intended or than we knew we meant or than we knew we knew. ‘Words,’ says the music and literary critic Charles Rosen, ‘will not sit still. They change their meanings, shift from praise to blame, revise their associations.’ They are as evasive as the world they endeavor to describe, so that both the world of language and the visible world, to the thoughtful mind, are fugitive and unstable.”

Friday, July 13, 2018

'Thirsty, Betrayed, and Terrified'

“We fight for no
Slant domino,
Ragged-ass flag,
Or body-bag;
Say, rather, for
Buddies—but more,
Even, for grief
And lost belief.”

Let's thank Adam Gilbert, author of A Shadow on Our Hearts: Soldier-Poetry, Morality, and the American War in Vietnam (University of Massachusetts Press, 2018), for including a handful of poems by R.L. Barth in his study. Barth’s work is too little known. He is a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War from Kentucky, and the war is nearly his exclusive subject, as his titles suggest: Deeply Dug In, Forced-Marching to the Styx: Vietnam War Poems, Small Arms Fire, Looking for Peace. The poem quoted above, “Why We Fight,” is from Simonides in Vietnam: And Other Epigrams, which hints at Barth’s classicism. His lines are metrically regular and usually rhyme. As poetry, they recall not Rupert Brooke but Martial. Another collection, A Soldier’s Time, takes its title from a letter written by Dr. Johnson and quoted by Boswell in his Life: “A soldier’s time is passed in distress and danger, or in idleness and corruption.”

I wish Gilbert had devoted a discrete chapter to Barth’s work but his book is organized thematically, and Barth’s poems (and Gilbert’s comments on them) are sprinkled among those by other soldier-poets. Gilbert follows “Why We Fight” with “Epitaph,” in which Barth “situates this ‘lost belief’ among the above-mentioned burdens of physical hardships and fear”: “Tell them quite simply that we died / Thirsty, betrayed, and terrified.” Death is blunt, without romance or ennobling sentiment. Gilbert includes “One Way to Carry the Dead”:

“A huge shell thundered; he was vaporized
And, close friends breathing near, internalized.”

For years, Barth published chapbooks by some of our best poets, including Helen Pinkerton, Dick Davis, Charles Gullans and Turner Cassity. He edited editions of poems by Yvor Winters and Janet Lewis, and Winters’ letters. Barth’s most recent collection is No Turning Back (Scienter Press, 2016), a sequence of poems about the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. It takes work to find Barth’s books. He is not a “protest poet," as conventionally understood, and his formalist rigor will frighten some readers. His most readily available book is probably Deeply Dug In (University of New Mexico Press, 2003). In his introductory poem, “Reading The Iliad,” Barth juxtaposes Vietnam and another war:

“Volume and desk, coffee and cigarette
Forgotten, the reader, held in Homer’s mind,
Looks on both Greeks and Trojans fighting yet
And heroes and foot-soldiers, thin and blind,

“Forced-marching for the Styx. But suddenly
Stunned by the clamor under smoky skies,
Boastings and tauntings, he looks up to see?
Not the god-harried plain where Hector tries

“His destiny, not the room--but a mountain
Covered with jungle; on one slope, a chateau
With garden, courtyard, a rococo fountain,
And, faces down, hands tied, six bodies in a row.”

Thursday, July 12, 2018

'The Dead Require a Stand'

“It’s foolish to be nice.”

Americans are nice people, or at least we used to be. Among the components of our niceness were courtesy, generosity and instinctive sympathy for underdogs. We resented bullies and rooted for heroes. We favored the good guys, a role we happily took on ourselves. One expression of that impulse was patriotism. We had it good, better than most, so it only made sense to defend the country, the Constitution, the culture that gave it to us, and celebrate those who defended it. Call it gratitude.

A reader sees it otherwise. I’ve written several recent posts about my middle son entering the U.S. Naval Academy. He has exceeded all of our expectations, and we are prouder than we knew it was possible to be. “He wants to fight for Trump?” my reader asks. “He wants to kill for the American Empire?” And so on, for many paragraphs. His rant is better written than most – no misspellings or misuse of the uppercase – nor does he (I'm sure it's a man, though anonymous) threaten my life or my son’s, which is a reassuring. But is he nice? 

In her most recent collection, A Memory of Manaus: Poems (Mercer University Press, 2017), Catharine Savage Brosman includes “For the Paris Dead,” an elegy for those murdered by Muslim fanatics in the November 2015 attacks in Paris. In it she writes:
“We see too well
how new attackers want the West to rot;
they’d kill the culture with the infidel.—
It’s foolish to be nice.  De Gaulle was not,
nor Patton, nor was Charles Martel, who drove
the Saracens from Tours, quite nasty work—
essential, though— nor John, the king who strove
for Christendom, and won, against the Turk.”

Baldomero Lopez definitely wasn’t nice. Nor were Robert Dale Reem, James B. Stockdale and John James Powers. Brosman’s poem concludes:

“Past errors stain us, but do not excuse
today’s; and suicide remains a crime.
The dead require a stand. Who could refuse?”

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

'I Wish to Make a Pleasant Object'

While reading Evelyn Waugh’s 1950 novel Helena for the first time, I came across sentences spoken by Lactantius, the Christian convert who helps bring the title character to the true faith, that seem to express Waugh’s writerly credo:  

“He delighted in writing, in the joinery and embellishment of his sentences, in the consciousness of high rare virtue when every word had been used in its purest and most precise sense, in the kitten games of syntax and rhetoric. Words could do anything except generate their own meaning.”

The novel concerns St. Helena, the discoverer of fragments of the True Cross and mother of Constantine, the first Christian emperor. Waugh judged it his best book, which it is not, but Helena embodies his interest in “joinery,” “the construction of wooden furniture, fittings, etc.” (OED). Before Waugh resolved to be a writer, he considered devoting his life to painting, and then contemplated carpentry and printing. Writing, for him, is a species of making, not an emotional pressure valve. His books are usually funny, yes, but always exactingly crafted. In a 1953 interview with the BBC, when asked if he was conveying a “message” in his work, Waugh replied:

“No, I wish to make a pleasant object, I think any work of art is something exterior to oneself, it is the making of something, whether it’s a bed table or a book.”

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

`Sustained Many a Wavering and Fearful Heart'

Along with around-the-clock drill and other sorts of physical and psychological training, Plebes at the U.S. Naval Academy are required to memorize and recite on demand vast quantities of text, including Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena,” an excerpt from “Citizenship in a Republic,” a speech the former president and assistant secretary of the Navy delivered in 1911. On Sunday, our son was permitted to telephone us for the first time since the start of Plebe Summer, and he mentioned another mandatory feat of memorization: W.E. Henley’s “Invictus,” with its stirring closing lines: “I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul.” We were required to learn and recite the poem in eighth-grade English class, and I remember declaiming it to myself as I walked home from school. The poem makes an unexpected appearance in The Earl of Louisiana (1961), where A.J. Liebling calls it “the Long family anthem”:

“As Earl [Long, brother of Huey, the Kingfish] sat there, one of the assisting speakers, a fellow with a strong voice, grabbed the microphone and declaimed the family battle ode, ‘Invictus.’

“When the man came to the part where it says:

“‘Under the bludgeonings of fate
Ma haid is bloody, but unbowed
“Earl flung up his head like a wild horse and got up like a fighter about to go into a dance to prove he hasn’t been hurt. He called for a show of hands by everybody who was going to vote for him, and I waved both of mine.”

“Invictus” is a barn-burner, a shout of courage and self-reliance, virtues very much out of fashion today. To enhance enjoyment of the poem, it’s useful to know something of Henley’s history. Born in 1849 in Gloucester, England, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone at the age of twelve, and several years later his left leg was amputated below the knee. The great Joseph Lister saved his other leg in 1873, when Henley spent a lengthy period of treatment in the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh. There he started writing poetry, including “Invictus.” Henley went on to edit the Scots Observer and befriend Rudyard Kipling, whose “If—” is comparably rousing. Henley was also a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, who based Treasure Island’s Long John Silver, in part, on Henley. In W.E. Henley (Constable, 1949), biographer John Connell writes:

“A poem which is so full and accurate an exposition of any man’s tried and constant temper, which is indeed the reflection of a very  large part of his life, cannot be treated as contemptible merely because it is hackneyed. The causes of human suffering are diverse and mysterious; but the individual soul’s response to its challenges is of insistent significance. It is inescapably true that this poem of Henley’s has, in the appalling years since it was first published, supported and sustained many a wavering and fearful heart through lonely hours of pain, humiliation and apparent defeat. A single example: a survivor of the fall of Singapore and of the Bangkok-Moulmein Railway has recorded that he repeated the last verse to himself as he went into captivity.”

Invictus, by the ways, means “invincible.”

Monday, July 09, 2018

'I Hope I Shall Get Quite Stout and Lively'

We ignore minor characters, in literature and life, at our peril. Often interesting in their own right, it’s through them we learn more about the true nature of the major figures. Take Mary Lamb, the factoid version: In 1796, during a fit of insanity, she fatally stabbed her mother and was confined to Fisher House, an asylum in Islington. Her brother Charles, author of Essays of Elia (1823), remained her caretaker and described their bond as “a double singleness.” Together they wrote Tales from Shakespeare (1807). Mary was subject to bouts of insanity for the rest of her life. Charles died in 1834, Mary in 1847.

Mary Lamb was no mere victim, passively defined by her illness. William Hazlitt was not the most even-tempered of personalities, and about women he remained a fool, but Thomas Talfourd in Final Memorials of Charles Lamb (1848) reports: “Hazlitt used to say, that he never met with a woman who could reason, and had met with only one thoroughly reasonable -- the sole exception being Mary Lamb.” Hazlitt and the Lambs were safely dead when Talfourd published his account, but the remark rings true. Mary’s shrewdness, good heart and touching devotion to her brother are on display in the letter she wrote on this date, July 9, in 1803. The recipient is another underrated sister, Dorothy Wordsworth:

“Charles is very well and very good—I mean very sober, but he is very good in every sense of the word, for he has been very kind and patient with me and I have been a sad trouble to him lately. He has shut out all his friends because he thought company hurt me, and done everything in his power to comfort and amuse me. We are to go out of town soon for a few weeks, when I hope I shall get quite stout and lively.”