Monday, June 25, 2012

`I Sat Down Again'

In 1902, future poet Edward Thomas published his second book, Horae Solitariae, a collection of essays. It’s a young man’s production, written by a young man (Thomas was twenty-four) and probably best read by young men of a romantically bookish nature who have read Lamb and Belloc with enthusiasm. The title can be translated Solitary Hours or Time Alone. Thomas alludes to Lamb throughout, and the book’s first essay, “Inns and Books,” is a covert reply to Elia’s “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading.” In a blindfold test, you might mistake Thomas’ opening lines for Lamb’s:

“With senses not averse from the savoursome domesticities of the house, I looked patient as I waited for dinner. Presently, unable to sit still, I went to the shelf of books. Every one was religious and of the eighteenth century. I sat down again.”

Compare Lamb:

“I confess that it moves my spleen to see these things in books' clothing perched upon shelves, like false saints, usurpers of true shrines, intruders into the sanctuary, thrusting out the legitimate occupants.”

Thomas channels Lamb’s Elia, complaining about dull volumes while celebrating the central importance of books to his life. He lauds old favorites – Izaak Walton, Johnson, Sterne – while cultivating a tone of mock-crankiness:

“I have been caged for hours in a newly-papered room, with four large Bibles and a treatise on something, while on the walls is hung `Swearing is forbidden.’ I am not superstitious, but once, at The Three Dragons, finding Johnson’s Dictionary, I practiced sortes with it, and found this quotation from Donne, illustrating the verb `inn’:--

“In thyself dwell;
Inn anywhere: continuance maketh hell.”
[from “To Sir Henry Wotton”]

Dedicated readers will sympathize with Thomas and his stylized persona. To be trapped without sufficient and appropriate reading matter – “bokeless,” to use Milton’s word – is a torment. Once, in Nova Scotia, poor planning sparked a mercifully short-lived panic. I finished reading the book I had packed and scanned the shelves for a likely successor. What I found were bestsellers of the nineteen-fifties and early sixties, and books about ships, Canadian maritime law and other nautical matters. Except for Melville and Conrad, I don’t read about oceans. At last, in an unoccupied bedroom, I found a cache of Peter De Vries novels, Penguin editions published in England. I felt like Robinson Crusoe after the shipwreck but before meeting Friday – not rescued but happy again to be alive. I read Comfort Me with Apples, The Mackerel Plaza and the others the way De Vries, in a 1964 interview, claimed he liked to read:

“I’m past admiring [in literature] anything I don’t enjoy; divorce of appreciation from enjoyment…is the curse of academic literary analysis.”

As Lamb puts it in “Detached Thoughts”: “I can read any thing which I call a book. There are things in that shape which I cannot allow for such.”

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