Thursday, December 04, 2014

`Make Our Appearance Together'

A reader has been rereading the essays of Joseph Addison (1617-1719), about whom Dr. Johnson wrote, “Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the study of Addison.” It’s safe to assume that Johnson’s advice has been routinely ignored by writers for several centuries, and that contemporary readers hardly recognize the name. My reader says of “On Westminster Abbey,” first published in The Spectator on Good Friday in 1711: “I never tire of it. The last paragraph is, to my mind, as sublime as prose can be.” Here is the essay’s first paragraph: 

“When I am in a serious Humour, I very often walk by my self in Westminster Abbey; where the Gloominess of the Place, and the Use to which it is applied, with the Solemnity of the Building, and the Condition of the People who lye in it, are apt to fill the Mind with a kind of Melancholy, or rather Thoughtfulness, that is not disagreeable.” 

The tone is sober but inviting. Addison strikes a modern note while tipping his hat to Montaigne. He personalizes a conventional occasion – in effect, a visit to the graveyard, and on Good Friday. Compare his opening with another from 140 years later:   

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.” 

Or with this one from “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” (The Bottom of the Harbor, 1961) by Joseph Mitchell, the great nonfiction writer for The New Yorker: “When things get too much for me, I put a wildflower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries there.” Each writer finds the presence of the dead not morbid – in modern parlance, it’s no “downer” – but invites contemplation, what Addison calls “Thoughtfulness.” We’re in the neighborhood of the “Graveyard Poets,” that loose affiliation of English writers who meditated on transience and death’s imminence in the decades following Addison’s death. Chief among them are Thomas Parnell, Robert Blair, Edward Young and, most eminently, Thomas Gray. We might think of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” as a more solemn, countrified mutation of “On Westminster Abbey.” Addison writes: 

“…I entertain’d my self with the digging of a Grave; and saw in every Shovel-full of it that was thrown up, the Fragment of a Bone or Skull intermixt with a kind of fresh mouldering Earth that some time or other had a Place in the Composition of an humane Body. Upon this, I began to consider with my self, what innumerable Multitudes of People lay confus’d together under the Pavement of that ancient Cathedral; how Men and Women, Friends and Enemies, Priests and Soldiers, Monks and Prebendaries, were crumbled amongst one another, and blended together in the same common Mass; how Beauty, Strength, and Youth, with Old-age, Weakness, and Deformity, lay undistinguish’d in the same promiscuous Heap of Matter.” 

Here is Gray rendering of Death’s Democracy: 

“Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect,
         Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,
         Implores the passing tribute of a sigh. 

“Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse,
         The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
         That teach the rustic moralist to die.” 

The final paragraph, as my reader notes, is sublime, a small masterpiece of rhythmical prose, as in the final sentence: “When I read the several Dates of the Tombs, of some that dy’d Yesterday, and some six hundred Years ago, I consider that great Day when we shall all of us be Contemporaries, and make our Appearance together.” 

Here is Johnson again, this time on the quality of Addison’s prose: 

“His prose is the model of the middle style; on grave subjects not formal, on light occasions not grovelling; pure without scrupulosity, and exact without apparent elaboration; always equable, and always easy, without glowing words or pointed sentences. Addison never deviates from his track to snatch a grace; he seeks no ambitious ornaments, and tries no hazardous innovations. His page is always luminous, but never blazes in unexpected splendour.” 

No, the “splendour” is muted and modest. Addison understands that his words on this occasion are meant to softly glow, not outshine the solemnity of the final resting place. Eight years after publishing “On Westminster Abbey,” Addison was interred there, in the north aisle of Henry VII’s Chapel.

[While rereading Edmund Blunden’s World War I memoir, Undertones of War (1928), I came upon this: “During this period my indebtedness to an eighteenth century poet became enormous. At every spare moment I read in Young’s Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality, and I felt the benefit of this grave and intellectual voice, speaking out of a profound eighteenth century calm, often in metaphor which came home to one even in a pillbox. The mere amusement of discovering lines applicable to our crisis kept me from despair.”]

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

Yes superb final paragraph and compare "Thoughts in timorous Minds and gloomy Imaginations; but for my own Part, though I am always serious, I do not know what it is to be melancholy; and can, therefore, take a View of Nature in her deep and solemn Scenes, with the same Pleasure as in her most gay and delightful ones." with Larkin's unedifying moping and whinging in the face of mortality. Larkin does offer an antidote to modern scientific optimism that attempts to hoodwink us about death's proximity but, surely, an awareness of mortality is the setting of the gemstone of life's jewel that increases its lustre and makes its edges keen.