Wednesday, May 22, 2013

`An Old Man, Grave and Reasonable'

Among my most reliable teachers is Mike Gilleland, proprietor of Laudator Temporis Acti, who more than anyone else inhabiting the blogosphere’s bookish precincts introduces me to new books, most of them quite old. Last week he posted two passages from The Prayse of Private Life by Sir John Harington (1561-1612), which its editor describes as “less a translation than a treatise inspired by Petrarch’s De Vita Solitaria.” What attracted me was the notion of praising private life, particularly in an age like ours when public life – that amalgam of government, business, technology and media – has grown omnivorous. I’m reading the edition Mike cites -- The Letters and Epigrams of Sir John Harington, together with The Prayse of Private Life, ed. Norman Egbert McClure (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1930). In his introduction McClure writes: 

“Although Harington follows Petrarch’s plan and in many of his chapters paraphrases the original, there is much in his essay that is his own. Lacking the gaiety and sprightly wit that distinguishes much of his earlier writing, The Prayse of Private Life reveals the author as an old man, grave and reasonable, who found in Petrarch’s treatise much that his busy and disappointing life had convinced him was memorable.” 

Harington’s life at the epicenter of Elizabethan intrigue, where he was known as the queen’s “saucy Godson,” was bruising. He was a courtier forever in trouble, a wit and satirist, a poet, translator of Orlando Furioso and inventor of Britain’s first flush toilet. He was also author of an epigram-- 

“Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason?
 Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.” 

--from which John A. Stoner took the title of his 1964 bestseller, None Dare Call It Treason. It’s one of the few books I can remember my father owning and reading. The Prayse of Private Life is most notable for its tone, one I’m tempted to call sagacious. Instead, I’ll defer to McClure’s “grave and reasonable,” a rare mingling of qualities. Gravity most often is accompanied by unreasonable humorlessness, and reasonableness untempered by gravity and good humor is dull. Harington sounds sober-minded and seasoned, like Montaigne, by his experience of the world (original spellings retained): 

“Tumultuous companie and busines by all endeavor I shoone [shun]: yet so, as if necessitie doe drawe me to the Cittie, I have learned to be solitarie amides the multitude: and in the greatest tempest, I knowe howe to save my selfe in the haven of Solitude. Such is my resolucion grounded upon experience, and supported with authoritie of Auntient Authors: whose opinion is that silence and solitude do make the minde free. I need fewe thinges and desire not muche.”

1 comment:

Ian Wolcott said...

Wonderful stuff. Thanks for the introduction.