Friday, August 13, 2010

`The Best Companions'

On my father-in-law’s shelves I found a leather-bound volume titled The Pageant of English Poetry, subtitled Being 1150 Poems and Extracts by 300 Authors. The first edition, edited by Robert Maynard Leonard, was published by Oxford University Press in 1909.This is the 1946 printing, lightly foxed but otherwise almost pristine.

According to the bookplate it was awarded to my father-in-law on June 8, 1952, “Ex Collegio Sancti Andreae Apud Aurorenses,” that is, St. Andrews College in Aurora, Ontario, Canada. The head master, K.G.B. Ketchum, signed his name with a fountain pen in a crabbed but legible hand. I asked my father-in-law if remembered the occasion of the award but he has no recollection.

The book has a reassuring heft and inspires a reader, as Hazlitt says, to “shake hands with, and look an old, tried, and valued friend in the face.” The editor enlists familiar names – Spenser, Milton, Tennyson – with strangers – Allan Ramsay, William Julius Mickle, Walter Pope. I relish this couplet from Pope’s “The Old Man’s Wish”:

“With a pudding on Sunday, and stout humming Liquor,
And remnants of Latin to puzzle the vicar…”

Not surprisingly, in earlier, more bookish times, poets wrote in praise of books, and sixteen such poems are noted in Leonard’s subject index. I found this excerpt from The Elder Brother by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger. The comedy is believed to be the final work for the stage by Fletcher, who died in August 1625:

“That place that does contain
My books, the best companions, is to me
A glorious court, where hourly I converse
With the old sages and philosophers;
And sometimes, for variety, I confer
With kings and emperors, and weigh their counsels;
Calling their victories, if unjustly got,
Unto a strict account, and, in my fancy,
Deface their ill-placed statues. Can I then
Part with such constant pleasures, to embrace
Uncertain vanities? No: be it your care
To augment your heap of wealth; it shall be mine
To increase in knowledge. Lights there for my study!”

And this from Book VI of William Cowper’s The Task:

“Books are not seldom talismans and spells
By which the magic art of shrewder wits
Holds an unthinking multitude enthralled.
Some to the fascination of a name
Surrender judgment hoodwinked. Some the style
Infatuates, and, through labyrinths and wilds
Of error, leads them by a tune entranced.
While sloth seduces more, too weak to bear
The insupportable fatigue of thought,
And swallowing therefore without pause or choice
The total grist unsifted, husks and all.”

I have a soft spot for Cowper, for “talismans and spells,” for Latin tags and most of all, like Hazlitt, for old friends.

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

Apropos of virtually nothing, I came upon this, John Berryman's 1968 answer to the Harvard Advocate to the question "why do you write?":

"That's a tough question. I’ll tell you a real answer, I'm taking your question seriously, This comes from Hamann, quoted by Kierkegaard. There are two voices, and the first voice says, 'Write!' and the second voice says, 'For whom?' I think that's marvelous; he doesn't question the imperative, you see that. And the first voice says, 'for the dead whom thou didst love'; again the second voice doesn't question it; instead it says, 'Will they read me?' And the first voice says, 'Aye, for they return as posterity.' Isn't that good?"