Monday, June 20, 2016

`The Prey of Spleen, Regret, Bad Jokes, Despair'

Five poems by David Middleton, never a prolific poet, appear in the Spring 2016 issue of The Sewanee Review. None is available online but Middleton’s work is worth a trip to the library and the copy machine, or even a subscription. “4 a.m.,” written “in memory of Philip Larkin,” answers the English poet’s last great poem, and one of the last great poems written by anyone, “Aubade.” Middleton’s “Schemes of Life” comes with an epigraph from Samuel Johnson: “I have resolved . . . till I am afraid to resolve again”:

“Another evening wasted in the mist
Of self-deception, sloth, his new-made list
Of good intentions numbered, ranked, and pinned
On that blank wall where good intentions end:

“To go to church well-rested, meek and blithe,
Not late for prelude, hymn, or with his tithe;
To bid farewell to beefsteaks—fatty, rare—
For tofu cakes, bean sprouts, or bleaker fare;
To banish wine and spirits, even ale
For teas that leave him sober, bored, and pale;
To write the late great poem of great old age,
Pure beauty, truth, and goodness page by page.

“Yet when, like all the rest, this scheme of life
Meets the resistant will in final strife,
Succumbing to a dark that’s always here,
He’ll face the day hung over with his fear,
Abstracted by inaction, on the brink,
The waters of oblivion his drink.”

Among the reasons Johnson remains so vivid and pertinent after three centuries is his blunt human fallibility. He is weak, as all of us are, but that knowledge torments him unremittingly. The passage Middleton quotes is from Prayers and Meditations, from an entry Johnson made on Easter Eve 1761:

“Since the Communion of last Easter I have led a life so dissipated and useless, and my terrours and perplexities have so much encreased, that I am under great depression and discouragement, yet I purpose to present myself before God to-morrow with humble hope that he will not break the bruised reed,

“Come unto me all ye that travail.

“I have resolved, I hope not presumptuously, till I am afraid to resolve again. Yet hoping in God I stedfastly purpose to lead a new life. O God, enable me, for Jesus Christ's sake.”

Middleton’s twenty-first-century updating of Johnson’s moral inventory and resolution is at once sincere and comical. Our sins are ridiculous: “beefsteaks—fatty, rare.” We resolve not to renounce sin but to adopt a heart-healthy diet. We substitute lifestyle for moral rehabilitation. Like Johnson, Middleton is no fire-breathing preacher. He is amused – and dead serious, “on that blank wall where good intentions end.” Some years ago, Helen Pinkerton sent me a copy of Samuel Johnson: Selected Latin Poems Translated by Various Hands (1995), edited and published by R.L. Barth. Among the translators are Middleton, Len Krisak, John Finlay, Turner Cassity and Barth himself. On the title page is “To the Reader,” a poem by Dick Davis:

“In these few, graceful pages you will find
Translation of an untranslated mind;
A heart brought home that had aspired to be
At one with a serener clerisy—
Latin and Christian, still, unchanging, true:
And was, as it too intimately knew,
Contingent, fallen, unrelieved by prayer;
The prey of spleen, regret, bad jokes, despair.”

1 comment:

Colville said...

It's all rather drear. Versified depression. Cheer up fellas. As Louis Armstrong said - 'What a wonderful world!'