Thursday, September 01, 2011

"The Essay-Writer Has No Lack of Subject-Matter'

“A man’s power in literature, as in everything else, is best measured by his accomplishment, just as his stature is best measured by his coffin.”

In other words, literature humbles readers and writers alike. When I’m tempted to congratulate myself on the breadth of my reading, if not always the depth, a worthy but previously unknown writer sets me straight. The mordantly witty sentence above was penned by the Scottish poet and essayist Alexander Smith (1830-1867) in “Essayists Old and New,” and I had never heard of him before last weekend.

After discovering Smith and his work online, I found three of his books in our library. If City Poems (MacMillan and Co., 1857) is representative of his verse, Smith was wise to turn to prose. His poems read like warmed-over Keats with a side of Tennyson, sometimes comically so. In “Glasgow” he writes:

“The beech is dipped in wine; the shower
Is burnished; on the swinging flower
The latest bee doth sit.
The low sun stares through dust of gold.
And o'er the darkened heath and wold
The large ghost-moth doth flit.
In every orchard Autumn stands,
With apples in his golden hands.”

The other Smith titles are prose. He published A Summer in Skye in 1865. This undated American edition was published by John W. Lovell Company in New York (“14 and 16 Vesey Street”). Stamped on the first page of the text in purple ink is “Presented by Teolin Pillot, Bookseller and Stationer, Houston, Texas.”

Dreamthorp: Eight Essays (1863) is the second prose volume. The library's edition is a beautiful piece of book crafting put out by Peter Pauper Press of Mount Vernon, N.Y., in 1940 – slipcase, a thistle pattern on the cover, and wood engravings by Boyd Hannah. Among the essays is “On the Writing of Essays,” with observations readily applicable to blogs:

“The essay, as a literary form, resembles the lyric, in so far as it is moulded by some central mood—whimsical, serious, or satirical. Give the mood, and the essay, from the first sentence to the last, grows around it as the cocoon grows around the silkworm. The essay-writer is a chartered libertine, and a law unto himself. A quick ear and eye, an ability to discern the infinite suggestiveness of common things, a brooding meditative spirit, are all that the essayist requires to start business with.”

When Smith writes “mood,” read “style” – language suffused with sensibility, not gingerbread. Like his mentors Montaigne and Charles Lamb, Smith may be an egotist, yes, but a benign egotist, as contradictory as that sounds. His work starts with self but extends outward to absorb the bigger, more interesting world. Egotism is not narcissism.

With some writers we establish a teacher-student bond – Guy Davenport, Yvor Winters and Hugh Kenner come to mind. All taught for a living and fashioned out of prose a natural extension of teaching beyond the classroom. With others, the relation is preacher-to-parishioner, in the best non-dictatorial sense – think of Isaiah, Samuel Johnson and sometimes Thoreau.

With Smith, the readerly bond is friend-to-friend. His tone is confiding and affectionate but not fawning. Friendliness often is confused with toadying, an abject wish to ingratiate and not offend, but true friends don’t care about such things. Of the essayist -- I would amend that with "blogger" -- Smith writes:

"His main gift is an eye to discover the suggestiveness of common things; to find a sermon in the most unpromising texts. Beyond the vital hint, the first step, his discourses are not beholden to their titles. Let him take up the most trivial subject, and it will lead him away to the great questions over which the serious imagination loves to brood,—fortune, mutability, death,—just as inevitably as the runnel, trickling among the summer hills, on which sheep are bleating, leads you to the sea; or as, turning down the first street you come to in the city, you are led finally, albeit by many an intricacy, out into the open country, with its waste places and its woods, where you are lost in a sense of strangeness and solitariness. The world is to the meditative man what the mulberry plant is to the silkworm. The essay-writer has no lack of subject-matter."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

“Another brother is Mr. Teolin Pillot, proprietor of Teolin Pillot Company, booksellers and stationers at Houston. This store is likewise a landmark in the City of Houston, and is the largest and most representative concern of its kind in Southern Texas.” --Frank White Johnson, A history of Texas and Texans, Vol. 5 (1916)