Tuesday, April 16, 2013

`Embalm Our Mistakes in the Memories of Others'

What sort of poet follows “You have no future so forget the past.” with “Let this be no occasion for despair.”? One who earlier concluded a poem with these lines: 

“The language falls apart before our eyes,
But what it once was echoes in our ears
As poetry, whose gathered force defies
Even the drift of our declining years.
A single lilting line, a single turn
Of phrase: these always proved, at last we learn,
Life cries for joy though it must end in tears.” 

A tough fellow, but not Hollywood-tough, not armored and armed with an endless supply of ammunition. He’s too bluff and remorseful for that, too much a human being. More like Beckett, taciturnly tough but still talking, comically stoical yet dignified, grownup enough to know loss accompanies gifts. See this exchange, and a dozen others, in Endgame: “NAGG: Are you crying again? NELL: I was trying.” The poet is Clive James, age seventy-three. In 2010 he was diagnosed with leukemia and lung disease. The lines quoted at the top are from “Holding Court,” a poem he published in February in the Times Literary Supplement.  The voice is Lear’s, chastened, with two daughters, not three, each a Cordelia who survives. James writes: “Cherish the prison of your waning day. / Remember liberty, and what it cost.” In Act V, Scene 3 of King Lear, the king says to Cordelia: 

“No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news.” 

James uses a passage from Hazlitt’s “On Will Making” as the epigraph to his satirical verse epic Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage Through the London Literary World: A Tragedy in Heroic Couplets (1974): 

“It is the wound inflicted upon our self-love, not the stain upon the character of the thoughtless offender, that calls for condign punishment. Crimes, vices may go unchecked or unnoticed; but it is the laughing at our weaknesses, or thwarting our humours, that is never to be forgotten. It is not the errors of others, but our own miscalculations, on which we wreak our lasting vengeance. It is ourselves that we cannot forgive.” 

Four sentences later, Hazlitt writes: “We often successfully try, in this way, to give the finishing stroke to our pictures, hang up our weaknesses in perpetuity, and embalm our mistakes in the memories of others.”

[ADDENDUM: A reader writes: "In all of literature I cannot think of any response as eloquent or poignant, as laconically sublime, as Cordelia’s to Lear when he wakes up in her presence and says,
 
"`If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.'
"Her simple and brief response is heartbreakingly beautiful: `No cause, no cause.'”]

2 comments:

Gary Baldridge said...

Excellent reportage and combining of various relevant texts. Bravo!

rgfrim said...

A.C. Bradley, the Sjakespearean scholar, maintained that Sjakespeare truly portrayed Lear's character and state of despair and tested the skill of the actor playing the part by inscribing five "no's" in the aforementioned dialogue. Most actors stop at three or four.