“Fragmentary, pale, momentary; almost nothing; glimpsed and gone; as it were, a faint human hand thrust up, never to reappear, from beneath the rolling waters of Time, he forever haunts my memory and solicits my weak imagination. Nothing is told of him but that once, abruptly, he asked a question, and received an answer.”
Who could stop reading after this teasingly cryptic paragraph? Who, we yearn to know, is this insubstantial wraith? We mean not only his name and place of residence but his significance. Why is he worthy of our attention? What was his question and who answered him? If I tell you this paragraph and the subsequent essay are quietly suffused with a delicious sense of irony, that would almost give it away. The author is the most nimble of ironists, Max Beerbohm, in “A Clergyman,” written in 1918 and published in his finest collection, And Even Now (1920).
Beerbohm refers to an exchange recorded by Boswell on April 7, 1778, at the home of Mrs. Thrale. Sir John Pringle had asked Boswell to ask Johnson “what were the best English sermons for style.” Boswell pitches names and Johnson takes a swing at them. This exchange follows: “BOSWELL: What I want to know is, what sermons afford the best specimen of English pulpit eloquence. JOHNSON: We have no sermons addressed to the passions, that are good for anything; if you mean that kind of eloquence. A CLERGYMAN, whose name I do not recollect: Were not Dodd’s sermons addressed to the passions? JOHNSON: They were nothing, Sir, be they addressed to what they may.” Beerbohm follows with this sentence, given its own punchy paragraph:
“The suddenness of it! Bang!—and the rabbit that had popped from its burrow was no more.”
The clergyman evaporates not only from Boswell’s Life but from history, from whatever metaphysical realm a person inhabits when he shows up namelessly in a book. He is one of many insubstantial, often anonymous, possibly fictional personages who haunt literary tradition. Another is “a person on business from Porlock,” the hapless fellow who supposedly interrupts Coleridge while he is composing “Kubla Khan” in a dream. Describing the event in the third person, Coleridge writes that “though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!”
The story has always sounded fishy to me. As a witness, Coleridge, one of literary history’s certified bloviators, is about as reliable as any junkie. I’ve always assumed his inspiration flagged. He was blocked, stuck with a not-bad but forever incomplete fragment of a poem, and came up with a story to explain his fizzling out. Stevie Smith agreed: “the truth is I think he was already stuck / With Kubla Khan.”
Beerbohm’s essay is pure fabulation. By speculating on the clergyman’s identity and spinning increasingly outrageous theories to explain his question and Johnson’s dismissive answer, Beerbohm has good clean fun at the expense of enthusiastically imaginative readers, teachers, critics. He concludes:
“`A CLERGYMAN’” never held up his head or smiled again after the brief encounter recorded for us by Boswell. He sank into a rapid decline. Before the next blossoming of Thrale Hall’s almond trees he was no more. I like to think that he died forgiving Dr. Johnson.”