Without peeking, what’s your best guess as to who wrote these sentences? Henry James? Makes sense. Rhythmically paced, tricky syntax, a little finicky. Guy Davenport? “Not the mortuary kind” sounds like him. Clearly we’re dealing with a writer given to precision, wit and attention to musicality – prose written like poetry without turning “poetic” in the purple sense. Does this, from the next paragraph, help?: “I want to talk about words, and about how one can hold people’s attention.” The author in question is the poet Marianne Moore, one of my favorite writers of prose, whose acknowledged model was James. Elsewhere in The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore (ed. Patricia C. Willis, 1986) she refers to “the geometrically precise snow-flake forms of Henry James,” and I assume Moore is admiring James’ prose exactitude and elegance.
The quoted passage at the top is from Moore’s contribution to Harvard Summer School Conference on the Defense of Poetry (1951). The previous year, Moore had attended the event alongside, among others, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Lowell and Theodore Roethke. Her title is written in mock-eighteenth-century style: “Impact, Moral and Technical; Independence Versus Exhibitionism; and Concerning Contagion.” She talks about her current project, translating La Fontaine’s fables (to be published in 1954), and translation in general, and then ruminates on something Peter Viereck had said:
“I have a very special fondness for writing that is obscure, that does not quite succeed, because of the author’s intuitive restraint. All that I can say is that one must be as clear as one’s natural reticence allows one to be.”
Moore is cunningly reticent while commenting on her own reticence, and perhaps James’. “Terseness,” she writes, “and that simultaneous double meaning of the pun have been irresistible to writers always.” A customary quilt of quotes follows: Robert Bridges, Stendhal, Katherine Anne Porter, Paul Valéry, Auden, Shaw. And then she concludes: “My observations cannot be regularized, but I might summarize them by saying that I believe verbal felicity is the fruit of ardor, of diligence, and of refusing to be false.”