Monday, September 03, 2012

`Cunning in His Arrangement'

In his review of Roger Kimball’s most recent book, The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia, Theodore Dalrymple situates Kimball in the long-extinct company of Walter Bagehot, Augustine Birrell, Leslie Stephen and Sir John Collings Squire – names unknown to academics and half-remembered by ambitious readers. They represent a tradition of English belles-lettres quaint in its innocent dedication to the life of books. Dalrymple writes:

“None of these men was an academic, and all would have disdained to write a sentence which it was necessary to read a dozen times to perceive a faint glimmer of meaning, as so many literary academics now habitually do with pride in their own obscurity; they had the knack of extracting the significance from the lives and works of the authors whom they read, and conveying it with elegance and precision.”
None was “major” and all were enthusiastic about reading and writing, and  assumed others, given sufficient knowledge, would share their enthusiasm. Taking a hint from Dalrymple, I read Squire’s Books Reviewed (1920), published in the boom years of modernism but reflecting the tastes of a quintessentially nineteenth-century man. I cited Squire (1884-1958) once last year, though even by the standards of most writers he was a simpleton when it came to politics, attracted as a young man to Marx and Fabian socialism, and later developing an unholy and hardly unprecedented fondness for Mussolini and Oswald Mosley. None of these seemingly contradictory sympathies, nor the credulousness they imply, is apparent in Books Reviewed, which is bookended by pieces about two of the mad English poets – John Clare and Christopher Smart. Squire praises the former’s devotion to the physical world of nature and men:
“…with Clare we look over a common farmyard gate or walk along an ordinary field path, fully aware of all that we see: oaks, hazels, and brambles, weeds under foot, mud grasshoppers, ants, snails on thorns, pine-needles, the remains of a gipsy-camp, barking dogs, louts watching sheep, children picking cowslips (`and, aye, the youngest ever lags behind’), ducks dabbling in ponds, dogs sunning themselves, turkeys, geese, grunting hogs, and strutting cocks. He does not tumble his details out without discrimination. There is always cunning in his arrangement, and he has a sound instinct for emotional significance.”
This accomplishes a critic’s principle obligation: To suggest a writer’s flavor, and either rouse interest in it or discourage further involvement. Squire is ahead of the critical consensus when it comes to Clare, still regarded a century ago as a mere case study or folk artist. “Cunning in his arrangement” is shrewd about a poet still sometimes dismissed as “primitive.” About Melville, whose revival was underway as he was writing, Squire is already ahead of many critics even today in his understanding of the American’s evolution as a literary artist:
“…in Moby-Dick itself, the struggles of the intellect with the enigma are not yet out of the control of the artist; moreover, one is liable to give a false impression in saying that the book is pessimistic. It has nothing in common with the grey miseries of the enfeebled. Its darkest passages are passionate in the writing and produce an exhilaration in the reader; both the glory as well as the awfulness of life are celebrated at white heat…Melville’s laugh is as loud as his brooding is deep…”
Squire’s tutelary spirit as a reader/critic is Samuel Johnson, who appears at least in passing in most of the book’s thirty-eight essay-reviews. Of the Dictionary, he says Johnson “deliberately made his work at once as accurate and as entertaining as he could.” Even better, in a review of The Amenities of Book-Collecting and Kindred Affections‎ (1918) by the American bookman A. Edward Newton, Squire writes: “His favourite book is Boswell, his heroes are Johnson and Lamb: There are none better.”


George said...

"half-remembered by ambitious readers."

Bagehot has fared better than that, hasn't he, for his political and economic writings at least? The Oxford Classics series keeps his The British Constitution in print, and you can find that and his book on the banking system on line. Jacques Barzun has said good things about Bagehot in two or three of his books.

"They represent a tradition of English belles-lettres quaint in its innocent dedication to the life of books." Well enough, if it is not supposed that the life of the belletrist is so dedicated. Birrell served as Chief Secretary for Ireland in Asquith's cabinet. Bagehot had an active enough life outside the library, as editor of The Economist for example. The few of his literary essays I have read hold my memory less than the rest of his work. Samuel Schoenbaum, in Shakespeare's Lives does notice an essay of Bagehot's.

Bruce Floyd said...

Anybody who loves Samuel Johnson knows what he said about Christopher Smart's madness, but it won't hurt to reveal once again Johnson's great compassion and understanding.

In a conversation about Smart with Dr. Burne, Johnson firmly asserts that Smart should not have been placed in a madhouse,saying, "His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else."

Knowing Johnson's slovenly habits, we have to smile when Johnson adds, "Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no great passion for it."

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Dan Koch