Monday, June 08, 2015

`You're Welcome, Clown'

The final poem collected by Kingsley Amis in The New Oxford Book of Light Verse (1978) is “Satie At The End Of Term” by the late Simon Curtis:

“The mind's eye aches from Henry James,
Like arms from heavy cases lugged for miles.
Theme and structure, imagery and tone

“From Lawrence, too; how hard I dug
For insights sunk, yards deep, in turgid prose.
Theme and structure, imagery and tone

“Web of necessity in Daniel Deronda,
Gloom in Dorrit, gloom in Flaubert,
One more week to go at
Theme and structure, imagery and tone.

“So fitful-fresh as April sun.
You’re welcome, clown;
Your good melodic dissonance
Will pierce low clouds of syllabus
With humour's grace,

Mercy of irreverence."

At first I assumed the speaker was a student enrolled in a class on the novel, and I think Curtis intends some ambiguity on that count, but I’ve settled on the instructor as the one complaining, and not so much about Dickens, James & Co. as about the lockstep approach to curriculum and the dullness of the students. James is peerless and I’ve grown sympathetic to a sentiment expressed by Joseph Epstein in Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet (2013) on the subject of Daniel Deronda: “I wonder if it mayn’t be the best of all nineteenth-century English novels, which is saying a great deal.” Helen Gardner in her In Defense of Imagination (1982) quotes Curtis’ poem in full and adds in a footnote: 

“Mr. Curtis, who is a lecturer in comparative literature at Manchester University, tells me that he takes a `Special Subject’ course on England and France in the 1890s, `which is by no means a soft option,’ and as a `Christmas treat’ plays music to the class. `The poem,’ he writes, is a `little teacherly celebration of this Christmas class, sitting in my room, usually on a dour December morning.’” 

Of all the composers Curtis and his speaker could have chosen, Erik Satie is best. His music is quirky and sometimes downright silly but also charming and light as a feather. Temperamentally, he is the diametric opposite of the unreadable D.H. Lawrence, and doesn’t have a lot in common with the great George Eliot. That he was “avant-garde” is the least important thing about him. He is as “fitful-fresh as April sun.” 

Curtis died in December 2013 at the age of seventy. Go here for a remembrance by a friend, and here and here for obituaries.

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