Levi Stahl has reminded me of D.J. Enright’s death eight years ago today, New Year’s Eve, at age eighty-two. His was among the deaths early in the new century that accelerated our literary culture’s rendezvous with enfeeblement. On the cusp of the New Year let’s remember Guy Davenport, Saul Bellow, Anthony Hecht, Penelope Fitzgerald, Czeslaw Milosz, Edgar Bowers, W.G. Sebald, R.S. Thomas, William Maxwell, C.H. Sisson, Donald Justice and Thom Gunn – all gone in a bleak span of less than five years.
I’m reminded of a story Boswell tells in his Life of Johnson. It was April 20, 1781. David Garrick’s widow was hosting her first party since the death of her husband, the actor and friend to both Johnson and Boswell, more than two years earlier. In attendance were others from the Johnson Circle -- Sir Joshua Reynolds, Mrs. Boscawen, Mrs. Elizabeth Carter and Dr. Burney. Boswell describes the widow’s grief as “sincere as wounded affection and admiration could produce,” but adds the company was “elegantly entertained.” He writes of the gathering:
“I spent with him [Johnson] one of the happiest days that I remember to have enjoyed in the whole course of my life.”
“We were all in fine spirits [perhaps enhanced by the consumption of “Lichfield ale, which had a peculiar appropriate value,” Lichfield being Johnson’s birthplace and Garrick’s childhood home]; and I whispered to Mrs. Boscawen, `I believe this is as much as can be made of life.’”
What a happy celebration of a dear friend’s memory. That’s how I choose to remember Enright and his departed coevals in literature. No ostentatious mourning, only the spirit of what Enright says in an early poem, “Stop that clowning at once, if not sooner”:
“Giggling on the edge of a precipice –
Shameful! They’ll think you haven’t noticed it.
Or worse, that you’re the sort of person
for whom abysses don’t exist,
being one coarse-grained vacant space yourself…
“For the time needs –
stop giggling on the brink of precipices
while I’m talking to you –
heavyweight intellects, sober serious men.
“`Unfortunately it gets them,’
Giggling on the verge of nothing.
`Here’s a profound hole, yet no deeper than a coffin.’
Hoping that not too many (even that he may not) fall into it,
Wagging his arms and legs, and hoping…”