Monday, March 21, 2016

`Habitually in Distinguished Company'

"My reading has been an indulgence, not a corvée. For most of my life there has been enough I had to know, without burdening my leisure with any programmatic reading, which is not to say that one piece of reading has not often suggested another, nor that there has not at all times been an involuntary connection between what I read and what I wrote."   

Corvée is obscure but precisely used, as we would expect of C.H. Sisson: “A day’s work of unpaid labour due by a vassal to his feudal lord.” (OED) Sisson was an English civil servant as well as a poet, and by 1962 was an under-secretary at the Ministry of Labour. He knew the worth of work, the grind of a job, its costs and rewards. His father had kept a clock and watch repair shop in Bristol. The family was never prosperous. Only when his father qualified as an optician did the family know a degree of security beyond the level of subsistence. More than most, Sisson had reason to complain of his job stealing time from writing. He took early retirement in 1973, at age fifty-nine, and his work flowered. All but a few pages of Collected Poems (1998) were written after age forty. The passage quoted above is from his preface to In Two Minds: Guesses at Other Writers (Carcanet, 1990). My own experience and Sisson’s confession leave me unsympathetic to anyone who complains of not having time to read or write. As he says elsewhere in the preface: 

“Since writing has to be about something, there is no good writing either in prose or verse, which is not the answer to some necessity, independent of both money and other forms of recognition. Perhaps there may be some advantage in being forced to exercise a certain rigour even in one’s reading. An actual preference for the best literature is probably not so common, nor so teachable, as is sometimes alleged, but if one is so constituted as to feel such a preference vividly, one is saved the trouble of reading an awful lot of books. One moves habitually in distinguished company—company distinguished for what it is and not for what is said about it. The company is, naturally, overwhelmingly of the dead, as literature has been going on for a long time.” 

Please don’t tell me you don’t have the time to read Gibbon. You’re a big boy now. You can find the time.

1 comment:

Don said...

The challenge with reading Gibbon, having now waded through the first, is devoting that much of my limited time left on one work by one author. I am enjoying it -- but have to weigh the commitment of substantial time to this one book against all the other books out there to read and re-read.