Almost forty years ago my professor of eighteenth-century English literature, the most lastingly influential of my teachers, observed casually that most of her students seemed unable to read anything written before Hemingway’s short stories. Already I had heard classmates whining about having to read Swift, Sterne, Johnson and Boswell, models of transparency if not always in Papa’s manner. With what writer would my professor date the outermost chronological limit of today’s students, I wonder. Vonnegut? Rick Moody? I remembered her sad jeremiad while rereading portions of Traherne’s Centuries of Meditation and coming upon this sentence:
“Men do mightily wrong themselves when they refuse to be present in all ages and neglect to see the beauty of all kingdoms.”
A gently apt turn of phrase: “present in all ages.” Judging by most blogs and book-related web sites, the cult of diversity has been adopted only by a minority of readers when it comes to pre-contemporary writers. Most remain present only in the impoverished present. Temporal parochialism reigns – an odd prejudice considering the ephemerality of this literary age. To limit one’s reading in time seems a graver foolishness than to do so in space (that is, by the language or nationality of authors). I feel the impulse to ask such time-blinkered readers: “When did you last read `Gusev?’ Religio Medici? `Apology for Raymond Sebond?’”
Ours may be remembered, if at all, as the Age of Geoffrey Hill. Speaking of Traherne, how many writerly echoes from how many centuries (besides Traherne’s) can you hear in Section CXXI of Hill’s The Triumph of Love (1998)?
"So what is faith if it is not
inescapable endurance? Unrevisited, the ferns
are breast-high, head-high, the days
lustrous, with their hinterlands of thunder.
Light is this instant, far-seeing
into itself, its own
signature on things that recognize
am an old man, a child, the horizon
is Traherne’s country."