Wednesday, August 24, 2016

`But I Am Ruralising'

One book lover on another:

“Mr. William Combes of Henley, a gentleman who collects with considerable taste, and who loves what he collects with no inconsiderable ardour, is the fortunate owner of Joseph Warton’s OWN COPY of Herrick’s Hesperides — and he carries this book in his right hand coat pocket, and the first edition of Walton’s Complete Angler in his left, when, with tapering rod and trembling float, he enjoys his favourite diversion of angling on the banks of the Thames. A halt — on a hay-cock, or by the side of a cluster of wild sweet-briars — with such volumes to recreate the flagging spirits, or to compensate for luckless sport! — but I am ruralising.”

Thomas Frognall Dibdin records this bibliophilic anecdote in Library Companion: Or, The Young Man’s Guide, and the Old Man’s Comfort, in the Choice of a Library (1824). Combes (whose best-known nickname was Doctor Syntax) had good taste in “beach books” and knew how to live the good life, though in the first sentence of the entry devoted to him, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) characterizes Combes (1742-1823) as a “writer and literary imitator.” Other less polite sources call him a “hack.” In the 1770’s, he faked several posthumous volumes of Laurence Sterne’s letters, and later claimed to have had an affair with Sterne’s paramour, Eliza Draper, before she met Sterne. Centuries before Truman Capote, the ODNB reports:

“He had embarked on a lifelong habit of conflating the factual and the fictional and misleading his contemporaries (as well as subsequent scholars and biographers). Although he always published anonymously, his authorship was an open secret because he frequently acknowledged it in private conversation, and in later works often included his own name on the list of subscribers.”

Today, that copy of Herrick’s Hesperides is part of the Newberry Library collection in Chicago. Herrick’s rakish reputation (“To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”) must have suited Combes’ rakish aspirations, as in “The Vine”:

“I dream’d this mortal part of mine
Was Metamorphoz’d to a Vine,
Which crawling one and every way
Enthrall’d my dainty Lucia.”

Or, more explicitly, “Fresh Cheese and Cream”:

“Wo’d yee have fresh Cheese and Cream?
Julia’s Breast can give you them.
And if more; Each Nipple cries,
To your Cream, Her’s strawberries.”

And in “To Anathea,” an unambiguous come-on:

“There is an act that will more fully please:
Kissing and glancing, soothing, all make way
But to the acting of this private play:
Name it I would ; but, being blushing red,
The rest I’ll speak when we meet both in bed.”

There’s more to Herrick, a self-acknowledged “son of Ben [Jonson],” than salaciousness. In Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English (Alan Swallow, 1967), Yvor Winters says Herrick “learned the art of writing from Jonson but he lacked Jonson’s intelligence.” As usual, Winters focuses not on writers but on individual poems:

"Most of Herrick’s best poems are available in the standard anthologies; the elegies on the flowers, the `Night-Piece to Julia,’ and some of the little epitaphs in the tradition of Jonson. Some of his more ambitious poems on the mortality of man and the immortality of art are impressive: the best are `Now is the time for mirth’ and `Only a little more.’ They are in the classical tradition which has continued almost to our own time . . .”

For Winters, Herrick is the model of a gifted but minor poet: “Herrick’s best poems—and there are many of them—are written with extraordinary finish, but their content is very small.” Herrick was born on this date, Aug. 24, in 1591, and died on Oct. 15, 1674.

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