Thursday, June 06, 2013

`A Mirrour in Every Mind'

The late Scottish poet Mick Imlah’s speaker in “Gray’s Elegy” (Selected Poems, Faber and Faber, 2010) remembers a schoolmaster whose students think of him as coming “from table-talk / With Lamb and Hazlitt; we guessed he was gay.” He’s a familiar Mr. Chips sort, gentle, pedantic, abstracted, benignly eccentric, harmless. Some of us remember the type. My Medieval History professor made poetry out of the painter Cimabue’s name. Otherwise unaffected in speech, he pronounced it in the manner of a stage Italian, elongating the vowels. It was a performance some of us relished, and it signaled a digression into the life of Giotto and the lingering influence of Byzantine style on Italian art. 

The boys question Hardy’s choice of Madding Crowd in his novel’s title. (I remember a boy in high-school English asking sincerely why they burned faggots in The Return of the Native.) The teacher explains the allusion to Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” and the practice of authors borrowing titles (“commandeered”) from earlier texts.  He “brightened briefly” at the prospect of reading the elegy with the boys, suggesting they look for other familiar phrases in the poem (“The short and simple annals of the poor,” “The paths of glory lead but to the grave”). One senses his boyish delight in such things and the chance to share a favorite poem with his students, but “Gray’s Elegy” closes on a falling note, a disappointing irrelevancy worthy of Chekhov: 

“But there were no Grays left in the stock room,
So we talked about Hardy’s wives till the bell went.” 

Another small disappointment in a life full of them. Imlah memorializes an otherwise forgotten man, one who loves books and hopes to share his love with boys who have other things on their minds. Gray writes and Imlah concurs: “Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault, / If Mem’ry o’er their tomb no trophies raise.” In his “Life of Gray,” Dr. Johnson gives us the schoolmaster and his kin who share a bookish devotion: 

“In the character of his Elegy I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours. The Church-yard abounds with images which find a mirrour in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo.”

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