Wednesday, June 12, 2013

`Make You Understand in Three Words'

“For, how perfect soever a man may have been in any science, yet without continual practice he will find a sensible decay of his faculty. Hence also, and upon the same natural ground, it is the wisdom of cats to w[h]et their claws against the chairs and hangings, in meditation of the next rat they are to encounter.” 

The context calls for glossing. In 1672-73, Andrew Marvell is writing a polemical pamphlet against Samuel Parker, a vigorously anti-Dissenter churchman, the Bishop of Oxford under James II, and author of Discourse of Ecclesiastical Politye (1670).  In “The Rehearsal Transposed,” Marvell’s prose is elegantly ironic, savage and playful in a manner that recalls Swift, his junior by forty-six years. With Dryden and Swift, Marvell is an excellent prose model for writers aspiring to forcefulness and clarity. In the “Apology” he added to A Tale of a Tub, Swift wrote of Marvell’s pamphlet, “We still read Marvell’s answer to Parker with pleasure, though the book it answers be sunk long ago.” 

The passage works because of its familiarity and homeliness. My cat, despite the presence of a scratching post and two scratching boxes in the house, prefers to whet his claws on the couch and the underside of our box-spring mattress. Otherwise, errant spiders or flies on the window sill are his exclusive prey. Marvell’s image recalls a passage in Gulliver’s Travels: 

“In the midst of my dinner, my mistress’s favourite cat leaped into her lap. I heard a noise behind me like that of a dozen stocking-weavers at work; and turning my head, I found it proceeded from the purring of that animal, who seemed to be three times  larger than an ox, as I computed by the view of her head, and one of her paws, while her mistress was feeding and stroking her.” 

Gulliver is recounting his visit to Brobdingnag, the land of giants. It’s his second voyage, after the shipwreck in Lilliput: 

“The fierceness of this creature's countenance altogether discomposed me; though I stood at the farther end of the table, above fifty feet off; and although my mistress held her fast, for fear she might give a spring, and seize me in her talons. But it happened there was no danger, for the cat took not the least notice of me when my master placed me within three yards of her. And as I have been always told, and found true by experience in my travels, that flying or discovering fear before a fierce animal, is a certain way to make it pursue or attack you, so I resolved, in this dangerous juncture, to show no manner of concern. I walked with intrepidity five or six times before the very head of the cat, and came within half a yard of her; whereupon she drew herself back, as if she were more afraid of me: I had less apprehension concerning the dogs, whereof three or four came into the room, as it is usual in farmers' houses; one of which was a mastiff, equal in bulk to four elephants, and another a greyhound, somewhat taller than the mastiff, but not so large.” 

This is funny, of course, and humbling of human pretensions, but also marvelously vivid. Nothing is extraneous. The prose is simultaneously concise and exactingly precise. Nothing is blurred. In his “Letter to a Young Clergyman” (1720), Swift famously said “Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style,” but added: 

“…professors in most arts and sciences are generally the worst qualified to explain their meanings to those who are not of their tribe: a common farmer shall make you understand in three words, that his foot is out of joint, or his collar-bone broken, wherein a surgeon, after a hundred terms of art, if you are not a scholar, shall leave you to seek. It is frequently the same case in law, physic, and even many of the meaner arts.”

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