Saturday, December 06, 2014

`With This Harmless Anodyne'

“This edition was planned, and in great part executed, in Macedonia, in the summer of 1918. I had a camp behind Smol Hill, on the left bank of the Vardar, and a six-inch gun (Mark XI, a naval piece, on an improvised carriage; `very rare in this state’), with which I made a demonstration in aid of the French and Greek armies, when they stormed the heights beyond the river; I think in June. This was in the early hours of the morning, and a very pretty display of fireworks. Twelve hours later, I remember, Mark XI was still too hot to touch.” 

The writer is an Oxford University scholar, R.W. Chapman (1881-1960), briefly transformed by history into a soldier. The passage begins his preface to a slender one-volume edition of Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D., published in 1930. Like Wittgenstein, Edward Thomas and Apollinaire, Chapman continued his literary labors in the trenches. The preface continues: 

“But long weeks of inactivity followed. I had a hut made of sandbags, with a roof constructed of corrugated iron in layers, with large stones between, to allow perflation; and here, in the long hot afternoons, when `courage was useless, and enterprise impracticable,’ a temporary gunner in a khaki shirt and shorts, might have been found collating three editions of the Tour to the Hebrides, or re-reading A Journey to the Western Islands in the hope of finding a corruption in the text.” 

Chapman seeks solace in the painstaking labors of scholarship. In a Nabokovian twist, he footnotes “perflation” to its usage by Johnson in the very text we are holding (p. 72): “…the harvest is seldom brought home dry, as by perpetual perflation to prevent the mow from heating.” The passage Chapman quotes, “courage was useless, and enterprise impracticable,” is drawn from “Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland's Islands,” a pamphlet Johnson wrote during the 1770-71 diplomatic standoff between Great Britain and Spain. In a backwater of the Great War, Chapman is engaged in a modest effort to preserve civilization. The preface continues: 

“Ever and again, tiring of collation and emendation, of tepid tea and endless cigarettes, I would go outside to look at the stricken landscape—the parched, yellow hills and ravines, the brown coils of the big snaky river at my feet, the mountains in the blue distance; until the scorching wind, which always blew down that valley, sent me back to the Hebrides. These particulars are doubtless irrelevant; but I like to think that the scene would have pleased James Boswell.” 

In 1922, Chapman published The Portrait of a Scholar and Other Essays Written in Macedonia 1916-1918 (Oxford University Press). In the title essay, a tribute to the classical scholar and bibliophile Ingram Bywater, Chapman contrasts his surroundings on the Salonika Front with the pleasures of bookish civilization: 

“The graces of civilization and the delights of learning are far from me now. But my nomadic and semi-barbarous existence is still solaced by a few good books; and the best odes of Horace, the best things in Boswell or Elia, often awake memories of Attic nights. Memories and visions, in which gleaming mahogany and old morocco are seen darkling in a haze of smoke, and an old man in his big chair by the fire draws forth, for my pleasure and his, the hoarded treasures of his rich old mind.” 

In another essay, “Reading Aloud,” Chapman writes: 

“Elia preferred to read aloud alone, or `to some single person listening. More than one—and it degenerates into an audience.’ I often read aloud, and oftener declaim from memory, if I am sure I am unheard. An ode of Horace lightens the labour of dressing; and on long marches, or quiet nights at the observation post, I have soothed the aching hours with this harmless anodyne. But all pleasures are better shared.”

1 comment:

George said...

It seems that Oxford has let Chapman's edition go out of print, which is a shame. But I don't know that I'd call it a slim volume.