Tuesday, December 17, 2013

`I Could Just Read Him Over and Over'

Helen Bevington takes her title, Beautiful Lofty Things, from Yeats but discards most of his sententious posturing. The cover of her 1974 volume describes its contents as “light, witty essays and verse on literary and other people,” though “light” is open to convenient misunderstanding, as in “light verse” or “light-hearted.” Bevington taught English at Duke for thirty-three years but judging from her writing she seems to have been a happy, well-adjusted person who loved life and literature equally. In her introduction, an apologia for her choice of subjects, she writes: “They were lofty in their search for something, or in their singular view of life, never toplofty.” 

That’s a fine word, toplofty. The OED gives three citations, all from the nineteenth century, and labels it “humorous colloq.”: “Lofty in manner or character; elevated; haughty, ‘high and mighty.’” Bevington is never toplofty. She writes about some of her favorites – Sir Thomas More, Montaigne, Colette, T.S. Eliot, Rabelais and Sydney Smith, as well as unknowns and little-knowns. Explaining her choice of title, she writes: “The idea of the men and women one loves for their own sake caught in a lofty moment, intense with life, may help to explain the inclusion here of a slut and a drunkard like Bet Flint. And no harm done.” 

In particular she loves Montaigne (she calls him “Wonderful Montaigne”) and Colette. Of the former she writes: 

“How did Montaigne achieve serenity? In his biography of the man, Donald frame writes: `What draws us to Montaigne is not something we share but something we lack: the scandalous serenity of his self-acceptance.’ I do nothing, said Montaigne, without blitheness.” 

Of Colette, that wonderful storyteller, she notes that her last word before death was regarde – look: “Colette was a lifewatcher. To look she used all her sense at once—she heard, she touched, she breathed the world in, she started with intense care, fixedly like a cat, hypnotized.” 

Bevington quotes with approval Sydney Smith’s words on his deathbed: “I am, upon the whole, a happy man, have found the world an entertaining place, and am thankful to providence for the part allotted to me in it.”  

[Bevington showed up at the Neglected Book Page almost a year ago but I dawdled.] 

[A reader was invited recently to speak on the importance of the humanities to students at his alma mater, where he graduated with a double major in classics and English, and a minor in computer science.  Now he works as a stock analyst. He sent me a copy of the speech, including this: “Basically, in those few hours each day when I’m not living my own life, I’m reading books. And as I get older, I get pickier, and I get less tolerant of wasting my time with anything but the best. So right now on my bedside table, I’m reading the Aeneid, in the Loeb version with the facing translation; I’m reading Shelby Foote’s history of the Civil War, which is just wonderful; Chekhov’s short stories, and Will Durant’s book on Voltaire. And Montaigne of course; I’ve got the complete writings on Montaigne there too, which is this giant brick of a book, and I could just read him over and over again.”]

1 comment:

John Trotman said...

I have recently found your blog and am enjoying it hugely : thank you. Today I laughed aloud at the incisive though deceptively quiet 'but' in: 'Bevington taught English at Duke for thirty-three years but judging from her writing she seems to have been a happy, well-adjusted person who loved life and literature equally.' Sad, though, that it is a 'but' which most of us will so readily understand.....