Monday, June 17, 2013

`Like a Frock Coat on a Mermaid'

A friend once speculated that perhaps the only justification for his existence was his introduction of one person to another. This may have happened years before, and he may have forgotten or was never even aware of his small essential role, like Rosencrantz or Guildenstern. In other words, we may be nothing more than conduits or catalysts for others, mere plot devices, linkages rather than links. A humbling thought, one that downsizes the swollen ego and emphasizes our interconnectedness with others. In the literary world, John Wain (1925-1994) serves as such a figure for this reader. The Observer has reposted Wain’s tribute to his friend Stevie Smith, who died March 7, 1971, at age sixty-eight. He pays her the surpassing compliment of precisely understanding her strategy as a poet: 

“As for her poetry, its most immediately striking feature is the perfect marriage of form and content. Since she perceived the world by the light of an imagination as undeflected as a child’s, traditional poetic form would have hampered her like a frock coat on a mermaid; mere formlessness, on the other hand, would have failed to convey the ritual element in her message.” 

What a superb choice is “undeflected,” a word that outshines “innocent” or “na├»ve,” with its suggestion of courageousness and resolution. Wain says “she had a strong sense of the numinous that pervaded everything she wrote.” “Numinous”: another precise usage, preferable to the more conventional “spiritual.” Smith’s admirers need tactful reminders of her genuine eccentricity, her human and literary oddness. At the time of Smith’s death, Wain was already working on Samuel Johnson, the first post-Boswell biography of Johnson I read, published in 1974. We know Smith knew her Johnson. In his assessment of Smith’s diction, Wain observes that “the familiar and domestic took on an aureole of wonder and, sometimes, of dread” – a formulation that applies with equal justice to Johnson’s work. 

I’ve read little else by Wain, but his biography of Johnson I’ve revisited three or four times in forty years. Only Boswell’s and W. Jackson Bate’s lives I’ve read more often. I sympathize with Wain’s affinity for Johnson, as he expresses it in his introduction. He “lived the same life of Grub Street, chance employment, and the unremitting struggle to write enduring books against the background of an unstable existence.” Stevie Smith writes: 

“Away, melancholy,
Away with it, let it go.”

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