Monday, July 27, 2015

`A Well-Stocked Head'

The most entertaining book I have read this year is The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature by Gilbert Highet (1906-1978), first published by Clarendon Press in 1949 and reissued this year in a paperback edition by Oxford University Press (with an eminently ignorable new foreword by Harold Bloom). Highet’s learning is massive and lightly worn. His book is greatly entertaining because Highet is entertained by the greatest books and writers. His manner is not pedantic or school-marmish, and he doesn’t proselytize. One could fill a commonplace book with passages from The Classical Tradition. Highet respects readers enough to assume they too wish to read the best books. Take his treatment of Petrarch: 

“Dante had a bookshelf, a large one. But Petrarch had the first living and growing library, in the modern sense. The ideal which grew up in the Renaissance and has not yet died away, that of the many-sided humane thinker with a well-stocked head and a better-stocked library, the ideal personified in Montaigne, Ronsard, Johnson, Gray, Goethe, Goethe, Voltaire, Milton, Tennyson, and many more—that ideal was in modern times, first and most stimulatingly embodied in Petrarch.” 

What a marvelous phrase, representative of Highet’s epigrammatic style: “a well-stocked head and a better-stocked library.” About my mention of respect: I’ve read hardly anything by Ronsard, and now I’ve made a note to remedy that. Art is not democratic (most of us, for instance, can’t write or play the violin well), but access to art has never been more democratic, with ready digital availability of almost any work. Highet continues: 

“The books which Dante knew, he knew deeply; but they were not many. Petrarch knew neither the Bible nor Aristotle so well, but he knew classical literature better than Dante, and he knew more of it. For he discovered much of it, and stimulated others to discover more. He did not discover it in the sense in which Columbus discovered America, or Schliemann Troy. The books were there, in libraries, and still readable. But they were in the same position as out-of-print works nowadays, of which only one or two copies exist, in basements or forgotten dumps. Hardly anyone knew they were there; no one read them; and they were not part of the stream of culture.” 

A book without a reader is half a book or less. Readers complete the job only started by writers. One thinks of the great Melville revival, circa 1920. A decade earlier he was remembered, if at all, as a writer of South Sea romances, loosely clumped with those other salty dogs, Stevenson and Conrad. Within a few years he was acknowledged as author of that mythical beast, the Great American Novel. Highet describes Petrarch’s central role in the rediscovery and reevaluation of Cicero. The poet befriended literature, as all true writers do. Near the conclusion of his pages devoted to Petrarch, Highet writes movingly: 

“Much to his grief, Petrarch never managed to read a book in Greek; but he did search for Greek manuscripts (he acquired a Homer and some sixteen dialogues of Plato) and finally, through Boccaccio, got hold of a Latin rendering of both the Homeric epics. Like a true book-lover, he was found dead in his library, stooping over a book; and the last large-scale work he began was to annotate the Latin version of the Odyssey.”

1 comment:

Brian said...

I remember when I took my education year in 1970. I did not think I could last in the grips of the measuring men who ran the department. Thankfully, I found Gilbert Highet's "The Art of Teaching" which gave me the necessary assurance that there was another way.