Tuesday, March 19, 2013

`The Spirit of the Spirit'

The first meaning of urbane, one largely unused today, recalls the word’s kinship with urban: “Of, relating to, or characteristic of a town or city, esp. as opposed to the countryside.” Rural folk, by definition, are not urbane. Three entries later, the Oxford English Dictionary gives the meaning we recognize: “Of a person: elegant and refined in manners; courteous, civil; suave, sophisticated.” In my private lexicon, the word carries a faintly derogatory connotation, unsubstantiated by the dictionary but shading into snobbery and affectation. Gore Vidal was urbane, so it can’t be a good thing. It’s not a word I often use, making me, to borrow a Sternean coinage from Tristram Shandy, “un-urbane.” 

That didn’t stop E.V. Lucas (1868-1938), the tireless essayist, editor and biographer of Charles Lamb, and friend to Chesterton, from giving The Friendly Town a suggestive subtitle: A Little Book for the Urbane. Henry Holt published it in 1906. The edition I found in the Fondren Library dates from June 1926 and appears never to have circulated. The cover is hunter green with gold lettering, and a book dealer would judge it “fine.” It should not be confused with another Lucas title, Urbanites: Essays New and Old (1921). 

The Friendly Town is an anthology of more than two-hundred bits of poetry and prose collected by Lucas from more than one-hundred writers. He takes his epigraph from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 109: “That is my home of love; if I have ranged, / Like him that travels, I return again.” In lieu of a conventional introduction, Lucas appends one of his own poems, “The Argument,” which includes these lines: “But O to hunt books in / The Charing Cross Road!” One page before the table of contents he places the final sixteen lines of Henry Vaughan’s “To His Retired Friend, an Invitation to Brecknock,” which concludes “we care for a jest.” That suggests the tone of Lucas’ selections – Lambian, good-humored, a little dusty and very English, though Hawthorne and a few other American writers, and selections from the Greek Anthology, are included as the work of honorary Englishmen. 

Lucas devotes a chapter, “Midnight Darlings,” to bookish pleasures, and takes its title from Lamb’s “New Year’s Eve”: “And you, my midnight darlings, my Folios! must I part with the intense delight of having you (huge armfuls) in my embraces? Must knowledge come to me, if it come at all, by some awkward experiment of intuition, and no longer by this familiar process of reading?” Other selections include Andrew Lang’s “Ballade of the Bookworm,” Austin Dobson’s “My Books,” Beverly Chew’s “Old Books Are Best,” Longfellow’s “Chaucer,” and the first four lines of Ben Jonson’s “To Sir Henry Goodyere.” 

The Friendly Town is an old-fashioned book, and probably was judged so by many of the urbane readers and critics of its day. If its contents are urbane, I resolve to reevaluate my disparagement of the word. I plan to add it to my “midnight darlings,” those volumes I can open when between books or as a respite from them, a reliable palate-cleanser and consolation, a companionable book. Lucas writes in his postscript, which is mostly taken up with copyright acknowledgements: 

“A book that represented at all fully the urbane spirit in English literature would run to many volumes. I have attempted only to give, as it were, the spirit of the spirit.”

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