Tuesday, November 01, 2016

`Beauty's Cast-Off Clothes'

Why have I never heard of J.B. Morton (1893-1979), who, under the pseudonym “Beachcomber,” took over the “By The Way” column in the Daily Express in 1924? He wrote six columns a week until 1965, when it went weekly, and published his final column in November 1975  ("Lawnmower Used on Vet's Whiskers"). Why do some English products thrive in America and others sink mid-Atlantic? I learned of Morton by way of an American, Morris Bishop (1893-1973), in his essay “On Light Verse,” the introduction to A Bowl of Bishop (Dial Press, 1954). Bishop describes Morton as a practitioner of “surhumor.” That’s his coinage. It’s related, he says, to nonsense, but is characterized by “the elimination of logical mid-terms.” As an example of surhumorous verse he offers this by Morton:

“George Eliot was so like a horse
That bookies on the Gatwick course
Shouted the odds against her when
She came there with some gentlemen;
And there was always quite a stir
When bookies put their shirts on her.

“But doubt creeps in. The Mill on the Floss
Was never written by a hoss.”

A cheap shot? Of course. Insensitive? You bet. Is Eliot the author of two of the greatest novels in English? No argument here. Was Morton mistaken in judging Eliot’s physiognomy a tad equine? Hardly. In 1869, 26-year-old Henry James, after meeting Eliot, wrote to his father: “Yes, behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking.” Was that James’ final word on Eliot? Are you kidding? He judged Middlemarch “a very splendid performance” and, with Balzac and Hawthorne, Eliot was surely the principal novelistic influence on the novelist James would become. My point is that it’s possible for a reasonably complex human being to respect and even love people while making fun of them. Mockery and silliness are not hatred or bigotry. I’ve never read another word by Morton, but I’m grateful to Morris for the laugh. Here’s Bishop in his introduction:

“The aim of poetry, or Heavy Verse, is to seek understanding in forms of beauty. The aim of light verse is to promote misunderstanding in beauty’s cast-off clothes. But even misunderstanding is a kind of understanding; it is an analysis, an observation of truth, which sneaks around truth from the rear, which uncovers the lath and plaster of beauty’s hinder parts.”

Ultimately, Bishop’s apologia for light verse resembles that dreaded thing, a Philosophy of Life: “Sorrow looks inward, meditates and searches; joy laughs, acts, and has no need to think. Sorrow and tears come first, then; joy and laughter are second. Poetry comes first, light verse second. Light verse cannot exist without poetry; light verse is the moon to poetry’s sun.” That last phrase is a prescient echo of the title of Pale Fire (1962) by Bishop’s friend Vladimir Nabokov. The novelist took the phrase from Timon of Athens: “The moon's an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun.” Bishop brought Nabokov to Cornell University in 1948, and remained his closest friend at the school. I’ve read Bishop’s biographies of Pascal, La Rochefoucauld and Petrarch, and recommend them all. He represents a species that went extinct long ago. Bishop is urbane, witty, learned, gentlemanly and without pretentiousness, the besetting sin of academics. He can be brutally funny but never rude. He reminds me of what Shirley Robin Letwin wrote in The Gentleman in Trollope: Individuality and Moral Conduct (1982):

“[The gentleman] has firm convictions about what is good and true, for which he will fight, without forgetting that nothing in nature prevents other men from questioning his verities and that he himself cannot keep hold of them without support from others to keep him aware of what he has overlooked or distorted. But whatever disagreement he encounters, however uncongenial he may find his neighbors or his fortune, he will always be thoroughly at home in the human world because he can enjoy its absurdities and has no ambition to overleap mortality.”

1 comment:

The Sanity Inspector said...

I think John Gross included one of his bits in The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, IIRC, don't have it handy to check.