Friday, June 17, 2016

`To Make Literature Serve Life'

“[Austin] Dobson was only a spare-time litterateur, working for 45 years at the Board of Trade. His first book other than some poems was The Civil Service Handbook of English Literature, not exactly a title to set the heart racing. It is strange how many clerks in such offices were men of letters.”

Besides Dobson (1840-1921), Theodore Dalrymple mentions Sir Edmund Gosse and Charles Lamb, and I would add, more recently, C.H. Sisson (who published The Spirit of British Administration in 1959), Dennis O’Driscoll and A.M. Juster (aka Michael J. Astrue), though “clerk” is a needlessly patronizing title. Poets who hold down militantly un-bohemian jobs inspire the rest of us. Poetry is about the writing, not the posturing.

From the library I borrowed Dobson’s Later Essays 1917-1920 (1921), the book purchased by Dalrymple, and A Bookman’s Budget (1917), a volume once in the personal library of Edgar Odell Lovett, the first president of my employer, Rice University. Some of the pages remain uncut. Budget is a sort of commonplace book, a sampler of Dobson’s reading, and is dedicated to Arthur Waugh, Evelyn’s father. In his preface, Dobson calls the book a “desultory miscellany” and “the disconnected and, possibly, contradictory commonplace-book of a journeyman of letters.” Modest but true. Like any grab-bag assembled by an intelligent, broadly read person, the book is irresistibly readable from the first epigraph:

“When we are employed in reading a great and good Author, we ought to consider ourselves as searching after Treasures, which, if well and regularly laid up in the Mind, will be of use to us on sundry Occasions in our Lives.”  

The author is Henry Fielding in “On Reading for Amusement” (1752), and here is his subsequent sentence: “If a man, for instance, should be overloaded with prosperity or adversity (both of which cases are liable to happen to us), who is there so very wise, or so very foolish, that, if he were a master of Seneca and Plutarch, could not find great matter of comfort and utility from their doctrines?”

If a theme runs through Dobson’s commonplace book, it might be the interleaved quality of literature and life. Each feeds on the other. A dedicated reader is not fleeing life but embracing it with each book he absorbs. The first entry in Dobson’s assemblage is from Arthur Waugh’s Reticence in Literature and Other Papers (1915). This is a novel experience for me. I have read almost everything Evelyn Waugh published, and was aware his father also was a writer, but I don’t remember having ever read anything by Arthur. The father’s passage echoes with the themes of his son:

“The small-minded man, having achieved one little thing, puffs himself out into a semblance of greatness. The large-minded man, who may have done many things excellently, looks round upon the immeasurable work of the world and realises the poverty of his own share in it. He lives in short, by ideas, and ideas save him from conceit . . . To make literature serve life; to lighten the burden of existence by reflection upon the infinite suffering of the world; to regard oneself, in all humility, as less than the mote that flickers in the sunlight of eternity; and out of that sense of insignificance, to gather—not despair, but the larger and austerer hope; that is the lesson of such a life.”

Contra pedantry and excessive pride in books read, Dobson includes an excerpt from an anonymous article, “Pitfalls in Bookland,” in the Feb. 20, 1915 issue of the Spectator. This describes the “well-read man”: 

“He has exercised his eyes at the expense of his brains. He prefers heavy work in many volumes, covering long periods with vast detail. He is a perfect arsenal of titles. His idea of rational conversation is to pin you in a corner and compare the number of books he has read with the number you have read, in the eager hope of making you ashamed of yourself.”

1 comment:

Mudpuddle said...

there's a 3 volume set, publ. by oxford: "18th c. vignettes" that contains many of Dobson's shorter pieces. it's very enjoyable and fairly well obtainable... tx for the clue to arthur waugh; i may have read him at some point, but i'd like to have some of his work... tx