Monday, August 01, 2011

`Wisdom and Wilderness Are Here at Poise'

In the half-acre of blogosphere devoted to books, a few square inches are allotted to good books, books we actually wish to read; that is, reread. A reader directs me to a tantrum by a nominal book-blogger reveling in her inability to read Austen, Melville and Henry James – “so-called classics,” she calls them. That the failing may lie within never occurs to her. A day later I came across this: 

“To be able read is important, to be sure, but what a person reads when he is able and free to read is more important. The world is full of people who can read but who, in fact, have read little or nothing. It is also full of others who constantly read but read nothing that is noble, nothing elevating, nothing that really might move their souls.” 

The words are James V. Schall’s in his essay “Liberal Education: `Missing Many Allusions,’” and no doubt they would sound quaint in the ears of the aggrieved blogger whose idea of “classics” are science fiction and political screeds. Her criteria are extra-literary and unserious. She is not reading or thinking, but striking a populist pose. Contrast her silliness with “To a Portrait of Melville in My Library” by Yvor Winters: 

“O face reserved, unmoved by praise or scorn!
O dreadful heart that won Socratic peace!
What was the purchase-price of thy release
What life was buried, ere thou rose reborn?
Rest here in quiet, now. Our strength is shorn.
Honor my books! Preserve this room from wrack!
Plato and Aristotle at thy back,
Above thy head this ancient powder-horn. 

“The lids droop coldly, and the face is still:
Wisdom and wilderness are here at poise,
Ocean and forest are the mind’s device,
But still I feel the presence of thy will:
The midnight trembles when I hear thy voice,
The moon’s immobile when I meet thine eyes.” 

Today we celebrate Melville’s 192nd birthday. He’s a rare exception to another point made by Schall in “Liberal Education”: 

“Almost any book about anything will teach us something. When a book begins to teach us a lot of things about everything, we have to wonder where it got its information. Why is it, we wonder, that we can find out more about ourselves reading a couple of hours in Aristotle or Plato or Cicero or St. Matthew, or Augustine than we can by reading much written in the past five hundred years?”

1 comment:

Helen Pinkerton said...

In his book, "Wisdom and Wilderness: The Achievement of Yvor Winters" (1983) Dick Davis, the poet and translator of Persian poetry, writes:

The phrase not only characterizes Melville's work, it summarizes the major effect of Winters's own mature poetry, indeed, of all his later writings, whose chief preoccupation was the relation between the conscious mind and "wilderness," both internal and external--the strategies by which the mind attempts to know and evaluate the disorder of experience. The "poise" in particular suggests that tact which was of such importance in Winters's sense of the world--neither mind nor experience obliterating the other but each held in precarious balance.

And thanks, Patrick for the referral to Schall's essay.