Wednesday, October 21, 2015

`The Smell of the Old Book'

Most books are not pegged to being read at a specific time of day or year, or to a time of life. You can read Shakespeare’s sonnets and Chekhov’s “Ward No. 6” whenever you wish, without fear of boredom or cognitive dissonance, though some works are best complimented by careful attention paid to time and place. One of the first times I dined alone, with only a book (Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens) for a companion, was in a cheap Italian place in Toledo, Ohio, and it proved the perfect setting for the best novel I’ve ever read set during World War II. That was more than thirty-five years ago, and one of the reasons I have never reread Guard of Honor is fear of compromising that earlier multi-media event. Here is Sir John Betjeman writing in First and Last Loves (John Murray, 1952):

“Every winter I read The Task by William Cowper, and twice or thrice those wonderful books in it where he describes a Winter Evening, a Winter Morning and a Winter Walk at Noon. The frost blades of north Buckinghamshire, the snowed-over woodlands, the dog that gamboled in the snow, the bells and post horns, the cups of tea, melted, dead, silenced, evaporated for nearly two hundred years, come to life again.”  

Betjeman (1906-1984) is a poet and chronicler of English buildings and places who, I sense, has never successfully crossed the Atlantic, perhaps because he sounds so very English to American ears. He writes in a tone we might call enlightened nostalgia, and is honored with his statute in bronze in St. Pancras Station, a building he lobbied to save from demolition in the nineteen-sixties. I returned to Betjeman after reading a review by Nige of Ghastly Good Taste, or a Depressing Story of the Rise and Fall of English Architecture (1933), which I also borrowed from the library but haven’t started reading. I agree with Betjeman that The Task is best read, as I once read Dickens, in winter, even in Houston. Consider this passage from, Book IV, “The Winter Evening”:

“Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups,
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful ev’ning in.”

With Collins and Smart, Cowper was one of the mad English poets of the eighteenth century. At least three times he tried to take his own life, and he spent years in various asylums. His faith and the writing of hymns were his refuge, as was the cozy winter world he depicts in The Task. You can see why Betjeman habitually read the poem during the cold months. He continues:

“Winter is the time for reading poetry and often I discover for myself some minor English poet, a country parson who on just such a night must have sat in his study and blown sand off lines like these, written in ink made of oak-gall:

“`Soon as eve closes, the loud-hooting owl
That loves the turbulent and frosty night
Perches aloft upon the rocking elm
And hallooes to the moon.'”

The author of those lines is a poet new to me, the Rev. James Hurdis (1763-1801), a vicar in West Sussex. The passage comes from “The Favourite Village,” published in 1800, the year of Cowper’s death. Of the poem, Betjeman says it contains “some of the most perfect descriptions of an English winter that were ever written in English. And you and I are probably the only people in England who are reading Hurdis. The smell of the old book is like a country church when first you open its door, the look of the pages is spacious like the age in which it was written and the broad margins isolate the poetry as Bishopstone [Hurdis’ birthplace] must then have been isolated among windy miles of sheep-nibbled downs.”

1 comment:

Marly Youmans said...

"miles of sheep-nibbled downs." Love that.