“Nothing too much but everything a little bit – this describes the classic diet. One needs a bit of Wittgenstein to balance all that Hegel, a dash of Chekhov to counter Dostoevsky, and some Sterne to maintain one’s sanity after a series of unscheduled encounters with Sir Walter Scott. It is a blessed variety, like that of a blooming garden: so many ways to grow, to be fruitful, to captivate, to soothe, and to be beautiful.”
The profusion of metaphor betrays him: That’s William H. Gass in “To a Young Friend Charged with Possession of the Classics” (The Temple of Texts: Essays, 2006). I admire and share Gass’ omnivorousness. Sample something of everything at the literary buffet. That’s how we train our palates to discern the piquant from the bland. To pick up Gass’ other metaphor: Reading is seeding, weeding and feeding. A New Yorker among my readers who summers in New Hampshire writes:
“Can't garden, so this is a good time to send the Virgil -- from his Of Bees, translated by T.F. Royds. Two summers ago up here I was under a great deal of family stress. I discovered this in a charming little anthology. I learned it by heart, & saying it over at night & resting & watching bees at work a lot helped get me through a bad patch.”
Here’s the passage she sent:
“The bees of Cerops, each in office meet.
The old have town to keep and comb to fence
And daedal chambers to construct; the young
Fly homeward late and weary, heavy-breeched
With thyme; on arbutus they also feed,
Grey willow, ruddy crocus, cassia,
And sumptuous lime and umber hyacinth.
“One rest is set for all, one time of toil:
At dawn they hasten out, none loiter then;
Again when eve has warned them to depart
From meadow-pasture, then is shelter sought,
The body's wants supplied, buzzings begin,
And murmured vespers ring round porch and door.
After, when chambers have them safe at rest,
“Silence attends them into night, and sleep,
The sleep they love, broods o'er their tired limbs.
They go not, when rain threatens, far afield,
Nor trust the sky when East grows boisterous,
But, courting safety 'neath the city walls,
Sip water there and make short journeys thence;
And oft, like yachts which cheat the unsteady wave
By ballasting with sand, they lift small stones
To poise them through the unsubstantial cloud.”
I love “heavy-breeched / With Thyme” and the catalog of flowers favored by bees, and understand why my reader found the passage soothing at a difficult time. She adds:
“Could anything be more charming? We have a little thyme-terrace here, so they can take their fill -- and beebalm, which Virgil didn't know about. On foxgloves they also feed -- Virgil might have known those.”
The notion that poems console would have gone unquestioned by our grandparents, assuming they could read. Sophisticates snort at the idea but if literature is more than a sterile game, an arrangement of “signs” signifying nothing, it must be suffused with the world. Are Virgil’s bees models of industry and prudence? Of course, and they’re beautiful and beautifully rendered in Royd’s translation. Even Gass, purportedly the arch-postmodernist, has bragged of his story “Emma Enters a Line of Elizabeth Bishop’s” (Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas, 1998): “I managed to cram the names of 110 weeds into one paragraph.”
[Gass, who turns eighty-six on July 30, has just published an essay, “Retrospective,” in Triquarterly, from which the weed quote is taken. Warning: Edgar “Allen” Poe’s name is misspelled -- a lesson I learned from Guy Davenport.]