Wednesday, August 31, 2016

`A Wondrous Buckram Style'

“They are sincere words, those of his; he means things by them. A wondrous buckram style, . . .”

And what is buckram? “A kind of coarse linen or cloth stiffened with gum or paste.” The OED notes Falstaff’s usage in Henry IV, Part 1: “Foure rogues in Buckrom let driue at me” – Sir John’s customary blarney. Perhaps “buckram” is not complementary after all. The word came to mean stiffness, “a stiff and starched manner.” Hazlitt used it like this: “Laying aside the buckram of pedantry and pretence.” And a related meaning: “Stiff, `starched’, `stuck up’; that has a false appearance of strength.” When I first read Carlyle’s sentences above, referring to Dr. Johnson in “The Hero as Man of Letters,” I assumed he intended “buckram” to mean tough, durable, humble, masculine – the opposite of, say, taffeta. Here’s the rest of the passage:

“. . . — the best he could get to then; a measured grandiloquence, stepping or rather stalking along in a very solemn way, grown obsolete now; sometimes a tumid size of phraseology not in proportion to the contents of it: all this you will put up with. For the phraseology, tumid or not, has always something within it.”

Some readers find Johnson’s style solemn and ponderous, annoyingly Latinate, in contrast to today’s breezy Twitter-speak. What I admire is the way his words marshal his thoughts. He is orderly and exact, and then he’ll surprise you with an unexpected metaphor or muted witticism. Take this from The Rambler #152, on the writing of letters, published on this date, Aug. 31, in 1751:

“The qualities of the epistolary style most frequently required, are ease and simplicity, an even flow of unlaboured diction, and an artless arrangement of obvious sentiments. But these directions are no sooner applied to use, than their scantiness and imperfection become evident. Letters are written to the great and to the mean, to the learned and the ignorant, at rest and in distress, in sport and in passion. Nothing can be more improper than ease and laxity of expression, when the importance of the subject impresses solicitude, or the dignity of the person exacts reverence.”

Carlyle suggests Johnson writes well, “the best he could get to then,” leaving “then” unspecified and his meaning ambiguous. His lecture identifies three heroic men of letters, a peculiar trio – Johnson, Voltaire and Burns. In Carlyle’s judgment, all lived with failure and humiliation. Each endured “galling conditions.” They were not “heroic bringers of the lights, but heroic seekers of it.” One senses Carlyle’s identification less with Johnson, Voltaire and Burns than with his highly personalized understanding of them. He skirts Shelley’s ridiculous notion of poets as “unacknowledged legislator of the world,” and goes on to propose a frightening scheme:

“The man of intellect at the top of affairs: this is the aim of all constitutions and revolutions, if they have any aim. For the man of true intellect, as I assert and believe always, is the noblehearted man withal, the true, just, humane and valiant man.”

The twentieth century demolished that romantic pipedream. “Intellectuals,” however you define them, are precisely the last people you want in power. That’s like giving car keys and whiskey to teenagers.    

1 comment:

Colville said...

Could you not praise Johnson better than by saying his style was an improvement on 'breezy twitterspeak?'

Would like hear who you think should rule us.