Sunday, April 19, 2015

`The Bustle and Raree-Show of the World'

“‘Tis pleasant, through the loopholes of retreat,
To peep at such a world; to see the stir
Of the great Babel, and not feel the crowd;
To hear the roar she sends through all her gates
At a safe distance, where the dying sound
Falls a soft murmur on the uninjured ear.” 

Among his other qualities, William Cowper is the poet of spectatorship, of diffidence expressed as a willingness to observe the world, not plunge into its swelter. Cowper was a high-strung man, affectionate and loyal as a friend but plagued by depression and thoughts of suicide. He hardly recognized civic affairs and remained blithely immune to politics. His passions were poetry and religion, not troublemaking. The passage above is from Book IV, “The Winter Evening,” of The Task (1785), lines 88-93. The phrase “loopholes of retreat” rang a distant bell, one somehow associated with William Hazlitt. A brief search turned up that essayist’s On Living to One’s-Self” (1821), which I had quoted more than eight years ago:

“What I mean by living to oneself is living in the world, as in it, not of it: it is as if no-one knew there was such a person, and you wished no-one to know it: it is to be a silent spectator of the mighty scene of things, not an object of attention or curiosity in it: to take a thoughtful, anxious interest in what is passing in the world, but not to feel the slightest inclination to make or meddle with it. It is such a life as a pure spirit might be supposed to lead, and such an interest as it might take in the affairs of men: calm, contemplative, passive, distant, touched with pity for their sorrows, smiling at their follies without bitterness, sharing their affections, but not troubled by their passions, not seeking their notice, nor once dreamt of by them. He who lives wisely to himself and to his own heart looks at the busy world through the loopholes of the retreat, and does not want to mingle in the fray…”

Odd coming from Hazlitt, who seldom resisted sticking his nose into others’ business, and who spent his final years writing a four-volume apologia for Napoleon Bonaparte. The OED attributes the phrase’s origin to Cowper and says it “has been used by many later writers,” but doesn’t cite Hazlitt. The other citations are more variations on a theme. In 1853, the Christian Remembrancer includes this sentence: “The loop-holes through which we view the household manners of these times may be few and contracted.” Also cited is George Meredith’s The Egoist (1879): “Dim as the loophole was, Clara fixed her mind on it till it gathered light.”Further searching turned up “The Loophole of Retreat” as a chapter title in an 1861 novel I have not read, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs, an escaped slave who wrote under the pseudonym Linda Brent. The phrase is so attractive and useful, I continued looking and discovered Hazlitt liked it enough to recycle. In a chapter collected in Lectures on the English Poets, “On Swift, Young, Gray, Collins &c.,” he writes of Thomas Gray:

“He is not here on stilts or in buckram; but smiles in his easy chair, as he moralises through the loopholes of retreat, on the bustle and raree-show of the world, or on `those reverend bedlams, college, and schools!’ He had nothing to do but to read and to think, and to tell his friends what he read and thought.”

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

Hazlitt speaks of a "raree-show". Now what manner of thing is that? I have, perchance, encountered it twice in one day as, Tristram has Uncle Toby peering into Widow Wadman's eye the better to remove the mote that has fallen into it just as if he had been gazing into a "rarer-show!" I read it today!