Sunday, January 11, 2015

`There Was Fruit in the Basket'

A good anthology is a mirror reflecting the anthologist and its ideal reader. The anthologist must be broadly well read, committed to good taste and common sense, and willing to ventriloquize his own sensibility through the voices of his or her betters. When the reader opens such an anthology, he knows a sense of recognition and kinship: “I’ve been looking for this.” The best anthologists – Amis, Larkin, John Gross, D. J. Enright, Winters and Fields – are most selfless when most selfish. Add to their ranks Iris Origo (1902-1988), Irish-American-Italian writer whom I knew for Leopardi: A Study in Solitude (1935), War in Val d’Orcia (1947) and Images and Shadows (1970). In 1972 she published The Vagbond Path (Charles Scribner’s Sons). In the preface she writes: 

“An anthologist’s voice is like that of an actor in a Greek play. His stylized mask conceals his features; yet it is in his power to give the words he repeats their full resonance, perhaps even to enhance their beauty. And, oddly enough – perhaps because he feels protected behind his mask – the anthologist may sometimes produce a work more personal, more self-revealing, than most autobiographies or novels.” 

Even her preface is an anthology in miniature, laced with the words of Sappho, Maurice Baring, Ronald Knox, Dryden, Leopardi, Nadezhda Mandelstam and Sir William Temple, among others. Here’s a sample from the anthology proper, one happily read on a cold, drizzly afternoon in January: 

“I should like now to promenade round you[r] Gardens—apple-tasting—pear-tasting—plum-judging—apricot-nibbling—peach-scrunching—nectarine-sucking and Melon-carving. I have also a great feeling for antiquated cherries full of sugar cracks—and a white currant tree kept for company. I admire lolling on a lawn by a water lilied pond to eat white currants and see gold-fish: and go to the Fair in the Evening if I’m good.” 

That’s from the letter John Keats wrote to his little sister Fanny on Aug. 28, 1819. And this is Boswell reporting his friend’s ambiguity-rich words: “How few of his friends’ houses would a man choose to be at when he is sick.” And these bits of mystery recorded by John Aubrey in his Miscellanies:
“Anno 1670, not far from Cyrencester, was an Apparition: Being demanded, whether a good Spirit, or a bad?  returned no answer, but disappeared with a curious Perfume and most melodious Twang. Mr. [William] Lilly [English astrologer] believes it was a Fairie. 

“Another time, as he [Thomas Traherne] was in bed, he saw a basket come sailing in the air, along by the valence of his bed; I think he said there was fruit in the basket; it was a Phantom.” 

Today, reading and writing are preservative acts of defiance. Some of us are committed to sharing with others the best handed down by our forebears. To read and write well are moral acts in an age when illiteracy is prized and beauty and thoughtfulness demeaned. Reading Origo’s selections gives us heart.

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