Saturday, March 19, 2016

`The Fisherman Mending His Nets'

“It could not be said that he did not speak out before he died, and that is all anybody can do.”

No, we can do more. We can take care when we speak out, avoiding cant and self-indulgence, always speaking impersonally, without regard for fashion. But C.H. Sisson probably implies all of that and more in his brief tribute to A.H. Bullen (1857-1920) in English Poetry 1900-1950: An Assessment (1971). Bullen is best known as an editor and publisher, specializing in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature, and as founder of the Shakespeare Head Press (which published a collected edition of Yeats’ works in 1908). Though virtually forgotten today, Bullen, in Sisson’s judgment, “felt his way among neglected work with a fine tact for the minor purities of language without which no major work is done.”

Bullen’s “English Dramatists” series included complete editions of the plays of Marlowe (1885), Middleton (1886), Marston (1887), and Peele (1888). His seven-volume A Collection of Old English Plays (1882–90) included works never before published. Bullen also brought out Selections from the Poems of Michael Drayton (1883), Lyrics from the Song-Books of the Elizabethan Age (1886) and The Works of Dr Thomas Campion (1889). He wrote more than 150 entries for the early volumes of the Dictionary of National Biography, mostly on English authors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He was, in short, a tireless friend of literature, and I’m ashamed not to have known of Bullen’s contributions years ago. Along with his scholarly gifts, Sisson praises Bullen’s small body of poetry:

“It is impossible to estimate the contribution of such a man to the perceptions of more productive writers. Bullen was patently groping in the direction of the sort of refinement of language which had to be achieved if the century was to find its voices.”

Weeping-Cross and Other Rimes was published in 1921, shortly after Bullen’s death, by Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd. of London. The copy I borrowed from the Fondren Library is a slender, pocket-sized volume with a sticker on the front end-paper from “Myers and Co., 102 New Bond Street, London, W.1, Eng.” On the facing page is an illegible signature dated March, 18, 1932. The seven-page introduction is signed by “M.T.D.,” a friend of Bullen's, who writes:

“. . . among his best-thumbed books were the writings of the Fathers, and Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Lactantius, Augustine, Tertullian, and Gregory, became at last almost as familiar friends as Lucretius, Propertius, Theocritus, Euripides, Plato, Athenaeus, Aulus Gellius, and all the singers and less sombre habit of life. Greek he read for pleasure, and Latin when he could not find a translation to his liking, and would turn a passage without effort into finished verse or balanced prose for those who either never had, or else had forgotten, the learned tongues.”

Sisson says this passage “may astonish even a sympathetic reader, in our illiterate age,” and adds, “Few ages have had more pedantry and less learning than our own.” Sisson doesn’t oversell Bullen’s gifts as a poet (nor does he suggest that minor is the same as lousy). He acknowledges his work has an “antiquarian flavour” but praises its occasional epigrammatic terseness, as in “The Middle Night”:

“You’ve told how waking, in the middle night
You turned your longing arms to left and right
In love’s embrace; alas! she was not there
And you lay lonely in your dazed despair.”

Sisson comments: “Those who think such a small achievement negligible have not reached the point from which the study of poetry starts.” He also praises “Callimachus”:

“Their Crethis, with her prattle and her play,
The girls of Samos often miss to-day:
Their loved workmate, with flow of merry speech,
Here sleeps the sleep that comes to all and each.”

Sisson reserves his most vigorous praise for “Epicharmus’ Counsel”:

“Be wary; practice incredulity
Which makes the soul subtle and sinewy.”

That might almost have been written by J.V. Cunningham. Sisson writes of it, including the sentence cited at the top of this post: “It could not be said that he did not speak out before he died, and that is all anybody can do. This last couplet, in particular, is loaded with the man who wrote it. Free from any suspicion of fashion, Bullen caught the indubitable rhythm of the twentieth century, a language free from pretension as from any effort to be `poetical’, words that follow speech so closely that the reader is hardly aware that he has not merely overheard the sentence. But any rubbish will not do; the lines have the weight of long experience and digested thought.” Here is a poem by Bullen I like, “Senex Loquitur” (“The Old Man Speaks”), not mentioned by Sisson, though he wrote one with almost the same title:

“Right glad, in sooth, am I
That my time comes to die,
For fled is honest mirth
From our distempered earth;
Envy and greed and strife
Stain the clear well of life,
And each succeeding morrow
Brings a new tale of sorrow.
Mayhap for younger eyes
Hereafter will arise
An England fair and free
Laughing from sea to sea;
But for my fading sight
Cometh no vision bright.
So, tired of dust and noise,
From earth’s vain gawds and toys
To my long home I’ll pass
Beneath the quiet grass.”

In his entry on Bullen in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Richard Storer writes:

“A colourful and energetic character, Bullen was admired by his contemporaries for his scholarship and great enthusiasm for Elizabethan literature. As an editor he modernized his texts, so they did not remain standard scholarly editions, but some of his individual insights survive: he was the first editor of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, for example, to realize that the mysterious word `Oncaymaeon’, in Faustus's important opening speech, was a transliteration of the Greek philosophical phrase on kai mē on (`being and not being’). His greatest achievement, both as publisher and editor, was to make the literature he loved more widely known and available.”

There was a time when scholarship and literary accomplishment commonly coexisted in writers, even among "amateurs." Elsewhere in English Poetry 1900-1950: An Assessment, Sisson writes (at some level, of himself and Bullen): “The romantic is, so to speak, a holiday-maker, with vague thoughts of luxurious beauty. The classic is a man no less serious than the fisherman mending his nets.”

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