Thursday, December 24, 2015

`Due Veneration Towards the Dead'

“I spoke just now of servility towards the living; and I think it significant that this is so often found in company with lack of due veneration towards the dead. My counsel is to invert this attitude, and to think more of the dead than the living.” 

The counselor here is A.E. Housman, in his 1911 inaugural lecture at Cambridge University (Collected Poems and Selected Prose, 1988, ed. Christopher Ricks). Housman refers specifically to the rigors of his academic specialty, classical scholarship. Early in the lecture he says, “As engraving to the great art of painting, so is translation to the great art of poetry.” Clearly, the deference he pays to his forebears in Greek and Latin scholarship applies also to poetry, literature generally and probably to the rest of life. By fetishizing the contemporary we erect the walls of a ghetto around the present, shutting out vital supplies from the past and turning it into a shriveled, parochial place. Look around: Ours is a small, darkening age. We coast on our inheritance. The most insidiously foolish thing Ezra Pound ever said was “make it new.” No, Ezra, make it good or, if you possess sufficient skill, excellent. 

More than forty years ago, a professor of English lamented to me that most of his undergraduates, some of them putative English majors, could make little sense of anything written before Hemingway. He was referring to any language not written according to the most reductive subject-verb-object model. Even Dickens, once the most popular novelist in the Anglophone world, was too challenging to read, and today, Hemingway would stump some our brightest young minds. (Consult your spell-check software for what today’s literate minds deem “proper” English.) Housman continues: 

“The dead have at any rate endured a test to which the living have not yet been subjected. If a man, fifty or a hundred years after his death, is still remembered and accounted a great man, there is a presumption in his favour which no living man can claim; and experience has taught me that it is no mere presumption. It is the dead and not the living who have most advanced our learning and science; and though their knowledge may have been superseded, there is no supersession of reason and intelligence.” 

In a letter written in 1933, three years before his death, Housman named the songs from Shakespeare’s plays, the Scottish “Border Ballads” and Heinrich Heine as the strongest influences on his poetry. The cagiest of men, Housman was being disingenuous by explicitly denying the influence of Horace, whose spirit suffuses Housman’s verse. In the final sentence of his Cambridge lecture, the poet says: 

“Do not let us disregard our contemporaries, but let us regard our predecessors more; let us be most encouraged by their agreement, and most disquieted by their dissent."

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