Friday, May 13, 2016

`God or the Dulcimer May Meet You'

The number of routes followed by serious readers is vast but finite. We operate without benefit of GPS. We favor side roads and off-road detours, and are not intimidated by cul-de-sacs. Speed is not a priority. We are tortoises, not hares. Along the way we stop for other readers and compare itineraries, which often prompts further detours. A life spent reading is filled with fellow travelers carrying news of yet more books to read. Among the most reliable of these is Theodore Dalrymple, who writes of Sir John Collings Squire (1884-1958):

“Now more or less forgotten, he was in his day a critic of such eminence that his rule over the literary world was known as the Squirearchy. He was a wonderful prose stylist, and if I had known him earlier in my life I should have used him as a model.”

Dalrymple fails to mention another good reason to read Squire: Virginia Woolf found him “more repulsive than words can express, and malignant into the bargain.” A wise publisher would use that as a blurb on the cover of a new collection by Squire. I’ve written before about the title that Dalrymple is reading, Books Reviewed (1920), but his mention of it prompted me to read another, Essays at Large, published in 1922 (annus mirabilis) under one of Squire’s pseudonyms, Solomon Eagle.

Squire writes in order to be enjoyed by readers, which sounds self-evident but is in fact rather audacious. His tone is collegial, not confrontational. He confides in us and wants us to share the pleasure he finds in books. His species went extinct a long time ago. In “On Knowing Authors,” Squire writes: “Even a sensitive man’s most intimate friends will seldom get into so close a contact with him as one establishes at once if one reads a good book.” In almost every essay, Squire writes of books in a tone of companionable intimacy, as we might of friends or family. In an essay devoted to the three-hundredth anniversary of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, he offers excellent readerly advice:

“Consecutive reading is unnecessary. Pick it up anywhere, and begin even in the middle of any chapter; you may read on and you will be entertained and informed.”

Explaining Burton’s method, he writes: “He preferred, it pleased his odd taste, to back up the most straightforward of his own reflections with a quotation from some recondite dead man.”

Squire has a quality rare among readers. He reads broadly, in many fields, not all of them strictly “literary.” He knows English literature thoroughly, but is confident enough to pursue other interests, including science and medicine. In “A Veterinary Surgeon,” he writes of a book by Andrew Snape (“Junior Farrier to His Majesty”), published in 1687, with a dauntingly long title:

The Anatomy of an Horse, containing An exact and full Description of the Frame, Situation, and Connexion of all his Parts (with their Actions and Uses) exprest in Forty-nine Copper-Plates. To which is Added An Appendix, containing two Discourses: the one, of the Generation of Animals; And the other, of the Motion of the Chyle, and the Circulation of the Bloud [sic]

Squire’s account makes me want to read Snape’s book (on sale here for £4,500), and I have no particular interest in horses. His enthusiasm stirs mine: “I never thought I should spend half-a-day reading about the nerves and muscles, the livers and midriffs of the horse. I love this goodly creature.” Squire likens Snape’s prose to Thomas Coryat’s, Jeremy Taylor’s, Thomas Fuller’s and Sir Thomas Browne’s, and his encomium to the seventeenth-century urns into a paean to another sadly lost world:

“I said that the old common prose was marked by a general inclination and ability to call a spade a spade, by a readiness to use apt ornament anywhere, by a music to which all men were accustomed. It gained much by the homogeneity of philosophy; everything was looked at in the light of everything else, and God or the dulcimer may meet you on any page of a medical book. But there is often something more—and even now I have not mentioned that adventitious deliciousness that comes from the parade of `knowledge’ now outworn or obvious. I mean the suffusion by a reverent and humble spirit, less common among writers now than it was in the seventeenth century, or at any rate less easily disclosed.”

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