Thursday, August 25, 2016

`A More Extensive Exploration of His Work'

I’m a friend to any admiring reader of William Cowper:

“Miltonic in its prosody and diction, the poem [“Yardley Oak”] shows what a gift Cowper had for exact, animated description. No less vivid, sensuous, and detailed is the opening of Book V in The Task (`The Winter Morning Walk’). Even then, freighting every line with sublimity here need not deter a reader today or make us forget how impish Cowper’s strange intelligence could also be . . .”

The admirer here is the late Christopher Middleton, introducing “Yardley Oak” in Poets on Poets (eds. Nick Rennison and Michael Schmidt), published by Carcanet in 1997. The notion of poets choosing favorite poems from the past and writing about them is not new. When young, I repeatedly borrowed Oscar Williams’ Master Poems of the English Language (Trident Press, 1966) from the library. In it, John Berryman’s essay on “The Darkling Thrush” introduced me to Hardy the poet after I had already lost interest in Hardy the novelist. Anthologies are night school, the autodidact’s best friends. Long before college and before anyone with learning or taste could guide me, Williams walked me through English and American poetry. Thanks to him I took an early shine to Thomas Wyatt and Karl Shapiro, a beautifully mismatched pair.

Some of the selections from Poets on Poets have been posted online, including Wendy Cope on A.E. Housman, Fergus Allen on Fulke Greville and Clive Wilmer on Samuel Johnson. Some pairings seem unlikely but prove inspired. This is from Christopher Logue’s introduction to John Dryden: “Satirist, pedagogue, playright, proselyte, pornographer (mild), occasional plaigiary, songwriter, literary critic (our first), expert in three types of translation (including English to English), always, and above all, the master poet of his age, John Dryden (1631-1700), by today’s standards, is worth at least three or four Nobel Prizes for Literature.” All true.  Of course, Logue was himself a sui generis translator (see the definitive War Music: An Account of Homer's Iliad: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). Robert Wells on Thomas Gray and his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” makes the familiar old warhorse new:

“The `Elegy’ is many poems in one. I admire the way that it unfolds and surprises itself. The strong wayward current of its rhetoric is exploratory. Just over half-way through (with the stanza `Yet ev’n these bones . . .’) Gray veers away from the conclusion he had originally planned, and re-enters his subject, to discover the unwritten poem standing at the edge of the one he has been writing, a preoccupation at variance with his conscious theme.”

C.H. Sisson, author of “A Letter to John Donne,” writes of his chosen poet: “Any selection from John Donne (c. 1572-1631) must be inadequate, and the object in making one can only be to tempt the reader to a more extensive exploration of his work. The selector can do no more than choose poems which speak out vividly one of the most forthright and at the same time most subtle minds of the seventeenth century in England. The man who became a famous preacher, as Dean of Saint Paul’s, had been also an exponent of the pleasures of physical nakedness.”

Sisson judges “A Hymn to Christ, at the Author’s Last Going Into Germany” to be “the best of [Donne’s] religious poems,” and singles out this phrase from the third stanza: “The amorousness of an harmonious soul.” 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

`But I Am Ruralising'

One book lover on another:

“Mr. William Combes of Henley, a gentleman who collects with considerable taste, and who loves what he collects with no inconsiderable ardour, is the fortunate owner of Joseph Warton’s OWN COPY of Herrick’s Hesperides — and he carries this book in his right hand coat pocket, and the first edition of Walton’s Complete Angler in his left, when, with tapering rod and trembling float, he enjoys his favourite diversion of angling on the banks of the Thames. A halt — on a hay-cock, or by the side of a cluster of wild sweet-briars — with such volumes to recreate the flagging spirits, or to compensate for luckless sport! — but I am ruralising.”

Thomas Frognall Dibdin records this bibliophilic anecdote in Library Companion: Or, The Young Man’s Guide, and the Old Man’s Comfort, in the Choice of a Library (1824). Combes (whose best-known nickname was Doctor Syntax) had good taste in “beach books” and knew how to live the good life, though in the first sentence of the entry devoted to him, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) characterizes Combes (1742-1823) as a “writer and literary imitator.” Other less polite sources call him a “hack.” In the 1770’s, he faked several posthumous volumes of Laurence Sterne’s letters, and later claimed to have had an affair with Sterne’s paramour, Eliza Draper, before she met Sterne. Centuries before Truman Capote, the ODNB reports:

“He had embarked on a lifelong habit of conflating the factual and the fictional and misleading his contemporaries (as well as subsequent scholars and biographers). Although he always published anonymously, his authorship was an open secret because he frequently acknowledged it in private conversation, and in later works often included his own name on the list of subscribers.”

Today, that copy of Herrick’s Hesperides is part of the Newberry Library collection in Chicago. Herrick’s rakish reputation (“To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”) must have suited Combes’ rakish aspirations, as in “The Vine”:

“I dream’d this mortal part of mine
Was Metamorphoz’d to a Vine,
Which crawling one and every way
Enthrall’d my dainty Lucia.”

Or, more explicitly, “Fresh Cheese and Cream”:

“Wo’d yee have fresh Cheese and Cream?
Julia’s Breast can give you them.
And if more; Each Nipple cries,
To your Cream, Her’s strawberries.”

And in “To Anathea,” an unambiguous come-on:

“There is an act that will more fully please:
Kissing and glancing, soothing, all make way
But to the acting of this private play:
Name it I would ; but, being blushing red,
The rest I’ll speak when we meet both in bed.”

There’s more to Herrick, a self-acknowledged “son of Ben [Jonson],” than salaciousness. In Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English (Alan Swallow, 1967), Yvor Winters says Herrick “learned the art of writing from Jonson but he lacked Jonson’s intelligence.” As usual, Winters focuses not on writers but on individual poems:

"Most of Herrick’s best poems are available in the standard anthologies; the elegies on the flowers, the `Night-Piece to Julia,’ and some of the little epitaphs in the tradition of Jonson. Some of his more ambitious poems on the mortality of man and the immortality of art are impressive: the best are `Now is the time for mirth’ and `Only a little more.’ They are in the classical tradition which has continued almost to our own time . . .”

For Winters, Herrick is the model of a gifted but minor poet: “Herrick’s best poems—and there are many of them—are written with extraordinary finish, but their content is very small.” Herrick was born on this date, Aug. 24, in 1591, and died on Oct. 15, 1674.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

`The Wrong Kind of Rebel'

“Whoever makes an exact image of any thing on the earth, however deformed or insignificant, according to him, must succeed — and he himself has succeeded.”

This is intended by its author, William Hazlitt, to be a damning criticism of its subject, George Crabbe. Hazlitt is misguided and wrong but entertainingly so. Crabbe’s devotion to the ordinary, to the humdrum and non-exalted, is offensive to Hazlitt’s sense of the poet’s role. What some of us find endearing about much of Crabbe’s work -- his attention to the details of village life, the prosiness of his enthusiasms – is precisely   what bothers Hazlitt most in “Mr. Campbell and Mr. Crabbe” (The Spirit of the Age: or Contemporary Portraits, 1825). Consider the opening lines of Book I of Crabbe’s The Village (1783):

“The village life, and every care that reigns
O’er youthful peasants and declining swains;
What labour yields, and what, that labour past,
Age, in its hour of languor, finds at last;
What forms the real picture of the poor,
Demands a song—the Muse can give no more.”

Hazlitt, despite his political affectations, was in no position to give “the real picture of the poor.” Crabbe’s thought is rooted in Christian charity, a virtue Hazlitt may have known from his reading but seldom demonstrated in life. In his critical loves and hates, as in his relations with women, Hazlitt is never less than passionate. No cool assessments for him, no nods to evenhandedness. My favorite line: “. . . the adept in Dutch interiors, hovels, and pig-styes must find in Mr. Crabbe a man after his own heart.” Further on Hazlitt says this of the poet:

“Mr. Crabbe's great fault is certainly that he is a sickly, a querulous, a uniformly dissatisfied poet. He sings the country; and he sings it in a pitiful tone. He chooses this subject only to take the charm out of it, and to dispel the illusion, the glory, and the dream, which had hovered over it in golden verse from Theocritus to Cowper.”

Again, Hazlitt’s vitriol makes for great reading. He is among the prose masters in English, from whom every writer can learn something, but we’re prudent to remember his limitations. One of the reasons critics like to write damning reviews is the opportunity it gives them to be funny and colorful. Praise tends to be dull and is difficult to write convincingly. Here’s an earlier assessment of Crabbe by Hazlitt, from Lectures on the English Poets (1818):    

“He takes an inventory of the human heart in exactly the same manner as of the furniture of a sick room: his sentiments have very much of the air of fixtures; he gives you the petrification of a sigh, and carves a tear, to the life, in stone. Almost all his characters are tired of their lives, and you heartily wish them dead. They remind one of anatomical preservations, or may be said to bear the same relation to actual life that a stuffed cat in a glass-case does to the real one purring on the hearth: the skin is the same, but the life and the sense of heat is gone.”

Has anyone else thought to compare a poet to a taxidermist? In George Crabbe: An English Life 1754-1832 (Pimlico, 2004), Neil Powell defends his poet against Hazlitt’s charges, while admitting that “long before his death, Crabbe had become not merely unfashionable but inimical to the spirit of his age [a nice slap at Hazlitt].” Then he makes a larger point:

“. . . there was nothing wrong with his antennae when it came to the world in which he actually lived. In any case, the idea that a poet must be `alive to the age’ [a repellent idea] is a highly questionable one: mightn’t it be arguable that the most interesting writers are likely to go against the grain of their times, to be awkward individuals rather than subscribers to cultural fashion. Crabbe’s reputation has perversely suffered from the fact that he was the wrong kind of rebel.”

Monday, August 22, 2016

`The Best and Closest of All Your Friends'

“For the weekend times when there is nothing new in the house to read, and nothing much to think about or write about, and the afternoon stretches ahead all bleak and empty, there is nothing like Montaigne to make things better.”

I read digressively. I remembered Lewis Thomas’ soothing words on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Houston while reading not Montaigne but Zbigniew Herbert’s “Monsieur Montaigne’s Voyage to Italy” (The Collected Prose 1948-1998, 2010):

“. . . it is the antiquities of Rome that made the greatest impression on Montaigne. The author of the Essays, who spends so much attention during his journey on meals and the cleanliness of bedclothes, falls into a truly poetic and exalted mood at the sight of the Forum. His sobriety, formed by ancient authors (Montaigne himself resembles a Renaissance Pliny), does not allow him to fall into sentimental raptures.”

Of course, Herbert is writing autobiographically. He too writes of cathedrals visited and meals consumed, the grit of daily activity, but his focus is not on the preciousness of the merely personal. There is little self-congratulation, though both Montaigne and Herbert clearly find themselves and the lives they lead enormously interesting and perhaps representative – as we all should, with the obvious qualifications. The title of the essay by Thomas I remembered and reread after many years is “Why Montaigne Is Not a Bore” (The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher, 1974), and it applies as well to Herbert. Travel writing and personal essays can be deadly stuff in the wrong hands, solemn fairy rings of epiphany with the writer dancing in the moonlight. At least in theory, a good travel book could be written by a quadriplegic who never leaves his bed. By the time Montaigne was writing his Essays, he was seldom leaving his tower. How did he turn himself into the most companionable of writers and not a crashing bore? Thomas writes:

“He is resolved from the first page to tell you absolutely everything about himself, and so he does. At the greatest length, throughout all 876 pages of the [Donald] Frame translation, he tells you and tells you about himself. This ought to be, almost by definition, the achievement of a great bore. How does it happen that Montaigne is not ever, not on any of all those pages, even a bit of a bore?”

It’s a matter of rare and unlikely balance, an omnivorous appetite for almost everything. We know this from experience. Consider the one-subject obsessive who brings everything back to his hobbyhorse, whether religion, crackpot politics or vegetarianism. Montaigne is never dogmatic or theoretical. He doesn’t proselytize. He admits his mistakes and even finds them interesting. Most importantly, he knows something about the world and is happy to share it. Montaigne is fascinated with the endlessly amusing experience of being Montaigne, but never loses a comparable fascination with the rest of creation, including, at several removes, you, the reader. Thomas writes:

 “Montaigne makes friends in the first few pages of the book, and he becomes the best and closest of all your friends as the essays move along. To be sure, he goes on and on about himself, but that self turns out to be the reader’s self as well. Moreover, he does not pose, ever. He likes himself, to be sure, but is never swept off his feet after the fashion of bores. He is fond of his mind, and affectionately entertained by everything in his head.”

Sunday, August 21, 2016

`I Did Not Emerge from an Alien World'

“An object or mark raised or made by man on a scene is worth ten times any such formed by unconscious Nature. Hence clouds, mists, and mountains are unimportant beside the wear on a threshold, or the print of a hand.”

Some will find offense in Thomas Hardy’s sentiment. Too anthropocentric. Not sufficiently respectful of Mother Earth. Of course, some find offense in everything and make a career of nurturing hurt feelings, but there are worse things than being offended (ask the Syrians). Hardy was no cheerleader for humanity, so the passage from his journal dated Sept. 28, 1877 deserves attention. A novelist’s medium is manners and morals. He is concerned in the broadest sense with “an object or mark raised or made by man.” We have evolved to recognize and prize evidence of our fellows. Many years ago while hiking in the Adirondacks, I came upon a beech tree with initials at shoulder height carved into its trunk. I had seen no human evidence, not even a faded trail, for several hours. The old letters, now black with healing, came like a hearty “Hello.”

The first chapter in Zbigniew Herbert’s Barbarian in the Garden (trans. Michael March and JarosÅ‚aw Anders, 1985), “Lascaux,” is devoted to the poet’s visit to the caves in southwestern France where Paleolithic paintings were discovered in 1940, three months after the fall of France. I was reminded of Herbert’s account by Hardy’s mention of “the print of a hand.” I was mistaken, though, because few handprints were found at Lascaux, and Herbert never mentions them. They are present in caves in Spain and elsewhere. Herbert, on vacation from post-Stalinist Poland, is exhilarated by the cave paintings and their revelation of millennia-old humanity:

“Though I had stared into the `abyss’ of history, I did not emerge from an alien world. Never before had I felt a stronger or more reassuring conviction: I am a citizen of earth, an inheritor not only of the Greeks and Romans but of almost the whole of infinity.”

The other day I happened on a book titled The Broken Mirror: A Collection of Writings from Contemporary Poland, edited by Pawel Mayewski and published in 1958 by Random House. Lionel Trilling wrote the introduction. Included is a three-act play, “The Philosopher’s Den,” by Herbert. The date is significant. Stalin had been dead five years. Khrushchev had delivered his “secret speech” at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, the year Herbert published his first book of poems, A Chord of Light, at the age of thirty-two. Perhaps this is the first appearance of his work in English translation. His biography at the back of the book is prescient:

“He is predominantly a philosophical poet, but this applies only to his choice of subject matter; technically, he is a lyricist with a strong feeling for the physical world. He does not hesitate to deal with the grand themes of truth and chaos, or reality and illusion, but he always uses concrete personalized word and images.”

Saturday, August 20, 2016

`The Once-Loved Works Remain'

Turner Cassity’s aside in Friday’s post sent me back to George Crabbe (1754-1832). It’s revealing that Crabbe’s name first triggers memories of E.A. Robinson’s “George Crabbe” (“Give him the darkest inch your shelf allows”) rather than any work by Crabbe himself. I never read him in school and no one has ever suggested I read him. His reputation, at best, is ghostly, and yet his lines are often better than most poems cranked out today by workshops and “open mic nights.” Here is a sample from his apprentice poem “The Library” (1781):  

“Lo, all in silence, all in order stand,
And mighty folios first, a lordly band;
Then quartos their well-order’d ranks maintain,
And light octavos fill a spacious plain:
See yonder, ranged in more frequented rows,
A humbler band of duodecimos;
While undistinguish’d trifles swell the scene,
The last new play and fritter’d magazine.”

More than two centuries later, Crabbe’s lament on the vanity of bookish wishes remains pertinent. Printed volumes are on a suicide watch in many libraries. Even in Crabbe’s day, the complaint was familiar. Thirty years earlier, in The Rambler #106, Dr. Johnson wrote: “No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library; for who can see the wall crowded on every side by mighty volumes, the works of laborious meditations and accurate inquiry, now scarcely known but by the catalogue . . .” There was a time when library books were chained in place to discourage theft. Security measures are a waste of time, Crabbe says:

“Ah! needless now this weight of massy chain;
Safe in themselves, the once-loved works remain;
No readers now invade their still retreat,
None try to steal them from their parent-seat;
Like ancient beauties, they may now discard
Chains, bolts, and locks, and lie without a guard.”

Almost invariably, Crabbe writes in heroic couplets, the poetic lingua franca of his day. His lines are as sturdy as first-rate prose. He seldom pads. His tones are nuanced between satirical and melancholy. He captures details of his day, and gives them a twist. This is from “The Newspaper” (1785):  

“I sing of News, and all these vapid sheets
The rattling hawker vends through gaping streets;
Whate’er their name, whate’er the time they fly,
Damp from the press to charm the reader’s eye;
For, soon as morning dawns with roseate hue,
The Herald of the morn arises too;
Post after Post succeeds, and, all day long,
Gazettes and Ledgers swarm, a noisy throng
When evening comes, she comes with all her train
Of Ledgers, Chronicles, and Posts again,
Like bats, appearing, when the sun goes down,
From holes obscure and corners of the town.”

In at least one sense, Crabbe was a pioneer. Years before Coleridge and De Quincey nodded off, Crabbe was an opium user, but with a difference. As Alethea Hayter writes in Opium and the Romantic Imagination (1968): “Crabbe is the most unexpected of opium-addict writers. In his private life he was a respectable, reasonably hard-working country parson, living a regular life with an affectionate family on a sufficient income. . . . Nobody now accepts Hazlitt’s condemnation of Crabbe as a flat unimaginative writer concerned only with drab realistic details; but neither his life nor his poetry suggests at first sight the romantic extravagance usually associated with opium addiction.”

Crabbe had been trained as an apothecary before he became a clergyman. He had a professional understanding of narcotics, and was that rarest of junkies – a regular consumer for forty years who seems to have suffered little from his addiction. We know of his drug use only because his son mentions it in passing in the biography of his father he published after the poet’s death. Crabbe never wrote about, let romanticized, his drug use. I think of Crabbe as a “regular guy” among poets, betraying some kinship with the coming Romantics, but more level-headed and even sober-minded, despite his dependence on dope. And he could be funny. In an 1822 letter to the sculptor Francis Leggatt Chantrey, who the year before had sketched a portrait of the poet, Crabbe examines his own oxymoronic name: 

“I cannot account for the vanity of one of my ancestors who first (being dissatisfied with the four letters which composed the name of `Crab,’ the sour fruit, or `Crab,’ the crusty fish) added his be by way of disguise. Alas! he gained nothing worth his trouble; but he has brought upon me, his descendent after I know not how many generations, a question beyond my abilities to answer.”

Friday, August 19, 2016

`Perhaps the Larger Part of Life'

The meaning of certain words always eludes me. All are rare, if not extinct, and have an exotic sound that attracts my attention, like a mockingbird in full improvisational mode, and promptly loses it. Such words are too rich for use, and soon forgotten. A recent example is "lagniappe." I was confusing it with la mordida (a notion I learned from Malcolm Lowry). While looking up its meaning I was reacquainted with Mark Twain’s usage (“a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get”) in Life on the Mississippi. Even better, I stumbled on a 1975 interview in the journal Crazyhorse with the poet Turner Cassity (1929-2009), who uses “lagniappe” deftly: “I had no way of knowing I should acquire such impeccable Old Africa Hands qualifications as to be a veteran of the Transvaal Provincial Administration, but lagniappe is perhaps the larger part of life.”

Cassity’s conversation is so arch and richly convoluted I won’t even try setting up the context of that remark. He always makes amusing company. Like his verse (the word he prefers), Cassity’s conversation is a model of craft and wit. What follows is a sampler drawn from the interview. Lauding the removal of the poet from the poem, he says: “From the first, poetry has been for me a medium for conveying information, like prose or like a mathematical formula—more concise than the one, more immediate than the other.” Cassity’s understanding reminds me of the narrator’s in Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957): “He regarded his books as objects which he had made, things quite external to himself to be used and judged by others.” After blandly stating that “99 percent of the poems written today are pure drivel,” Cassity adds:

“I shall not rail against free verse and loose forms, as these are not really the problem. I have no theoretic objection to free verse; some of it I find very beautiful, though I could not possibly write it. The problem is simply that the ninety and nine have trivial minds, which, unaccountably, they wish to psychologize. I am afraid that few of us are so complicated that what we are is not brilliantly apparent in what we do. Psychology is mostly wasted effort, and serves no real purpose except as a crutch for the unobservant.”

Truer today than forty-one years ago. Left alone with language, trivial minds produce trivial poems (and prose): “By and large we have poems written in the first person about personal emotions.” Cassity calls Edmund Spenser “the great disaster” in English poetry, and prescribes George Crabbe as the cure – “but no one reads him.” He recommends Robinson and Stevens, who are “full of devices for removing the poet from the poem.” And this, a refreshingly right judgment: “The poem half of Nabokov’s Pale Fire is the best long poem written since the death of E.A. Robinson.” Think of all the erstwhile candidates for that title Cassity so casually dismisses. He concludes with excellent career counseling:

“Arrange your life as if you were not a poet and then be one. Espouse the viewpoint not your own, forbid yourself to write in the first person, pick the subject least amenable to poetic treatment and treat it.”