Sunday, July 24, 2011

`Slightly Draped with Weeds'

In the last of his many books, The March of Literature, published less than a year before his death in 1939, Ford Madox Ford writes of Samuel Johnson:

“This was a man who loved truth and the expression of truth with a passion that when he spoke resembled epilepsy and when he meditated was an agony. It does not need Boswell to tell us that; the fact shines in every word he wrote, coming up through his Latinisms as swans emerge, slightly draped with weeds, from beneath the surface of a duck pond. His very intolerances are merely rougher truths; they render him the more human – and the more humane.”
In his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, I began to notice how often Johnson judges the accomplishments of poets, their worth as men and writers, by their allegiance to truth. He writes of Dryden: “Subtility and harmony united are still feeble, when opposed to truth.” Of Pope: “The heart naturally loves truth.” Of Cowley: “The basis of all excellence is truth: he that professes love ought to feel its power.” Of Swift: “Wit can stand its ground against Truth only a little while.” Of Milton: “Truth allows no choice.” And of Congreve:
“Falsehoods of convenience or vanity, falsehoods from which no evil immediately visible ensues, except the general degradation of human testimony, are very lightly uttered, and once uttered are sullenly supported.”
Ford was a renowned fabulator, not always a reliable chronicler of his own life and times. He describes The March of Literature in his introduction as “the book of an old man mad about writing—in the sense that Hokusai called himself an old man mad about painting.” He wishes to induce readers “to taste the pleasure that comes from always more and more reading.” In short, he is an enthusiast for the best books and describes Johnson’s Lives as “a mountain of good reading; his vast common sense outweighs with its pronouncements any harm his more prejudicial moods and wrong-headednesses may in their day have caused.”
A reader has sent me a link to a remarkably flippant essay by a contemporary American poet who denies poetry’s capacity for expressing truth. Language, she says, is a sort of trap for the feeble-minded. She pities those of us na├»ve enough to search for truth and celebrate its occasional expression. She’s an academic, of course, a professor of English who willingly, gutlessly surrenders her humanity. Johnson knew her type three centuries ago: He writes in The Rambler #150:
“Truth is scarcely to be heard but by those from whom it can serve no interest to conceal it.”


George said...

In one of Ford's books there is a story of Swinburne meeting de Maupassant at a watering place in Normandy, swimming well out to the latter's boat. A couple of years after I read this, I encountered what is apparently the original, but quite different, in the Goncourt journals, in which de Maupassant sculls over to rescue an Englishman who has gone to swim while incapably drunk.

It is possible that the ability to see the world as he wished it to be was part of Ford's literary toolbox. I don't think that in general it worked to his advantage. Wouldn't a colder or clearer eye have improved No More Parades?

Helen Pinkerton said...

Beautiful quotes from the author of "The Good Soldier" and from Johnson. Thanks.