Thursday, May 13, 2010

`A Spiritual Music in Words'

In the “Postscript” to Twelve Stories (1997), a selection from four earlier collections of his short fiction, Guy Davenport writes:

“Instigations, however, are deceptive guides into imaginative structures, and the maker of the structure may be as deceptive a guide. The imagination sees with the eyes of the spirit; the maker, finished with his making, must then see what he has done, like the reader, with corporeal eyes. Thoreau on an afternoon in 1852 when he had been looking at birds, trees, cows, squirrels, and flowers for hours raged that he had no words for the music he felt in every muscle of his body.”

I’m unable to locate the passage Davenport is describing in Thoreau’s journals, letters or essays. How peculiar it is that so punctilious a writer offers neither attribution nor direct quotation. I’d be grateful to a reader with sharper eyes than mine who can find it. Davenport’s paraphrase carries an irony, for few writers have with such regularity transmuted “music” into words as Thoreau. A journal entry dated Sept. 2, 1851, sounds like an antidote to the “rage” Davenport describes:

“We cannot write well or truly but what we write with gusto. The body, the senses, must conspire with the mind. Expression is the act of the whole man, that our speech may be vascular. The intellect is powerless to express thought without the aid of the heart and liver and of every member. Often I feel that my head stands out too dry, when it should be immersed. A writer, a man writing, is the scribe of all nature; he is the corn and the grass and the atmosphere writing. It is always essential that we love to do what we are doing, do it with a heart.”

“Gusto” is an artistic quality also valued by two other writers, an unlikely pair – William Hazlitt and Marianne Moore (for the latter it was one in an admirable trinity of virtues: “humility, concentration, and gusto”). To express gusto (from the Latin gustare, “to taste”) – enthusiasm, vitality, savory appreciation – in prose is among the rarest writerly gifts, the product of much hard work. In the next paragraph of his “Postscript” Davenport writes:

“To see that Thoreau could achieve a spiritual music in words you have only to look at any page he wrote. His frustration is the habitual anguish of all writers. A congeries of essences must find a form, and the form must be coherent and harmonious.”

Note the presence of three familiar constellations of words among these few lines from Thoreau and Davenport: corporeal, body, muscle, vascular; mind, essences; spirit, spiritual. To write well, to compose “spiritual music in words,” calls for wholeness. We too must be “coherent and harmonious,” at least as we write.


Michael Gilleland said...

Perhaps Thoreau, Journal, Sept. 28, 1852 (at end of entry): "Ah, if I could put into words that music that I hear; that music which can bring tears to the eyes of marble statues! — to which the very muscles of men are obedient!"

Richard Rice said...

Gusto has a more musical twin in brio. Thoreau is scored 'con brio', Davenport too, but since February 2006 rare writerly gifts have been closer to hand.