Saturday, March 14, 2015

`Makes No Promises of Any Sort'

On this date, March 14, in 1752, Johnson published The Rambler #207, the final entry in that two-year sequence of periodical essays and a moral/literary apologia after the fact. In his life of Johnson, Walter Jackson Bate puts it in a Johnsonian manner – that is, bluntly: “The Rambler essays were written, he says, partly as a `relief’ from his work on the Dictionary and partly because he needed the money. But he also intended the work as a serious moral effort.” In Rambler #207, Johnson meditates on the job he has just completed, but also on the vanity and tribulations of writers and, by extension, of all men and women. So dense is the essay in feeling and thought, and so aphoristic has his prose become, we are tempted to underline most of the text. Johnson is quoted by Samuel Rogers as saying, “My other works are wine and water; but my Rambler is pure wine.” I think of several much-neglected writers of my acquaintance when reading this passage: 

“I have no design to gratify pride by submission, or malice by lamentation; nor think it reasonable to complain of neglect from those whose regard I never solicited. If I have not been distinguished by the distributors of literary honours, I have seldom descended to the arts by which favour is obtained. I have seen the meteors of fashions rise and fall, without any attempt to add a moment to their duration. I have never complied with temporary curiosity, nor enabled my readers to discuss the topick of the day. . .” 

Almost boasting, Johnson assesses his own worth as a writer: 

“Whatever shall be the final sentence of mankind, I have at least endeavoured to deserve their kindness. I have laboured to refine our language to grammatical purity, and to clear it from colloquial barbarisms, licentious idioms, and irregular combinations. Something, perhaps, I have added to the elegance of its construction, and something to the harmony of its cadence.” 

Purely by coincidence I have been reading for the first time the English poet Vernon Scannell (1922-2007), a contemporary and friend of Philip Larkin. In “The Larkin Room” (The Time for Fires, 1992), Scannell plays off the poem’s epigraph he takes from the Times Literary Supplement: “A Larkin Room is to be established at the University Library.” Instead of the customary mausoleum for a writer, Scannell imagines a room that genuinely reflects the sensibility of its honoree. Close readers of Larkin will know that included in the “fiction, mainly light” found in the Larkin Room is Barbara Pym (“Sly female wit”) and Dick Francis (“rough stuff from the chaps / Who write of race-courses and crooks”). It’s the final stanza (and its muted allusion to “Aubade”), with its suggestion of Larkin’s independence of mind in a time of literary regimentation, his melancholia, modest material needs, mordant humor and indifference to fashion, that most remind me of Johnson: 

“The curtains, faded like a slattern’s skirts,
Conspire to keep the daylight out;
They almost meet, not quite, for one is too short,
Permits thin gleam of sunlight in to flirt
With dancing dust-motes’ prickly rout,
But makes no promises of any sort.”

No comments: