Thursday, December 26, 2013

`Now This Poem, Now This Scrap of Old Furniture'

In his “Life of Gray,” Dr. Johnson gives us a useful appellation, “the common reader.” With it, and with Virginia Woolf’s gloss, we define and defend our need to read independently, without regard for fashion, for pleasure and self-improvement, and to honor and sustain tradition. Johnson says that when reading Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” he rejoices 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.” One hundred fifty years later, Woolf elaborates: 

"The common reader, as Dr Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole--a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out.” 

These are surely the most admirable, common-sensical and rousing sentences Woolf ever wrote, particularly the one beginning “Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial.” There’s comfort in the notion of books as old furniture, with the implication that they are useful, homey and homely, even if salvaged from a consignment shop. We treasure books that work for us, that get the job done, that, in Anthony Powell’s phrase, “furnish a room.” Here, in 1775, as reported by Boswell, is Johnson, honest as ever, sifting poetic wheat from chaff, judging the worth not of the poet but the poem: 

“Next day I dined with Johnson at Mr. Thrale's. He attacked Gray, calling him `a dull fellow.’ BOSWELL. `I understand he was reserved, and might appear dull in company; but surely he was not dull in poetry.’ JOHNSON. `Sir, he was dull in company, dull in his closet, dull every where. He was dull in a new way, and that made many people think him GREAT. He was a mechanical poet.’ 

“He then repeated some ludicrous lines, which have escaped my memory, and said, `Is not that GREAT, like his Odes?’ Mrs. Thrale maintained that his Odes were melodious; upon which he exclaimed, 

“`Weave the warp, and weave the woof; —’ 

“I added, in a solemn tone, 

“`The winding-sheet of Edward's race.’ 

“`There is a good line.’ `Ay, (said he,) and the next line is a good one,’ (pronouncing it contemptuously;) 

“`Give ample verge and room enough.—’ 

“`Nor, Sir, there are but two good stanzas in Gray's poetry, which are in his Elegy in a Country Church-yard. He then repeated the stanza, 

“`For who to dumb forgetfulness a prey, &c.’ 

“mistaking one word; for instead of  `precincts’ he said `confines.’ He added, `The other stanza I forget.’” 

Thomas Gray, the progenitor of all this wonderful writing and conversation, was born on this date, Dec. 26, in 1716, and died on July 30, 1771, at age fifty-four.

1 comment:

George said...

Is refined subtlety or dogmatic learning that allows Woolf to call the common reader "worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously ... hasty, inaccurate and superficial"? Johnson recognizes him as juror, Woolf is out to disqualify him at least as judge.

Better, or anyway kinder, to use the distinction Nock mentions, and Barzun quotes, between those who live to read and those who read to live. (Nock at the end of his biography of Jefferson; Barzun various places, but I believe in The House of Intellect among them.)