Monday, January 21, 2019

'Live Merrily and Trust to Good Letters'

“He never defended himself and he did very little complaining. He loved to quote Dr. Johnson, who said, ‘Live merrily and trust to good letters.’”

Excellent advice, though I’m unable to locate its source. Given that Janice Biala is quoting her former lover, Ford Madox Ford, who valued impressions over facts and memory over documentation, it’s hardly a surprise. It sounds like something Johnson might have said, though he indisputably did say, “Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment.” Biala’s brief memoir of Ford, written in 1961, is collected in The Presence of Ford Madox Ford: A Memorial Volume of Essays, Poems, and Memoirs (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), edited by Sondra J. Stang. Biala writes:

“I cannot remember any time when Ford admitted defeat or gave in to despair. As far as he was concerned the artist’s life was the only one work living. You do what you like and take what you get for it and no complaints, and that is how he lived his life.”

How refreshing to read in our era of subsidies, grants and workshops. One recalls Kingsley Amis’s observation in Jake’s Thing (1978): “If there’s one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since the war, it’s Workshop. After Youth, that is.” Writing is a person alone in a room with the English language, to paraphrase John Berryman. Biala continues:

“It was rare when good letters brought him in an income equal that of a street cleaner—but then he boasted that every member of his family died poorer than he’d been when he was born. The most important thing about Ford was that he was an artist. He had infinite indulgence for anything human except cruelty and stupidity. He was himself intensely human in his faults as well as his virtues.”

[Biala (1903-2000) was a fine painter. Go here to see her “Portrait of a Writer (Ford Madox Ford),” painted in 1938, the year of Ford’s death.]

Sunday, January 20, 2019

'An Exquisite Edge to the Razor'

“Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement. I remember a wash-ball that had a quality truly wonderful—it gave an exquisite edge to the razor.”

The other day I found myself singing the jingle that accompanied a commercial for Bryllcreem in 1965, the year I turned thirteen. I watched lustra of television when I was a kid and must have heard hundreds of such jingles over the years. What confounds me is why I remember so many of them and what triggers their periodic return. I feel no nostalgia for such spontaneous revivals of wasted time, nor do they possess camp appeal. Boomers are never so tedious as when they sentimentalize such things. I’ve always found memorization easy, and I suspect memory has no limit, unlike a measuring cup or a sonnet. Memory is elastic. But what I’m describing is involuntary memory. It helps, I suppose, that the words are set to music, which is why we can easily memorize songs and poems.  The fact that never in my life have I bought Bryllcreem or any of the other products entombed in the jingles in my memory is irrelevant. What I bought was the commercial.

The author of the observation at the top is Dr. Johnson. He is writing on this date, Jan. 20, in 1759, in The Idler #40. It’s remarkable that advertising was already worthy of attention from so fine a mind:

“The true pathos of advertisements must have sunk deep into the heart of every man that remembers the zeal shown by the seller of the anodyne necklace, for the ease and safety of poor teething infants, and the affection with which he warned every mother, that she would never forgive herself, if her infant should perish without a necklace.”

Saturday, January 19, 2019

'For Every Peeping Fop to Jeer'

“Who that had wit would place it here,
For every peeping fop to jeer?”

The lines are from Swift’s “Verses Wrote in a Lady’s Ivory Table-Book.” The object in question is, the OED tells us, “a notebook.” Swift used the word in his Journal to Stella: “He thanked me for telling him, and immediately put his name in his table-book.” In Swift’s poem, the lady’s table-book is open for inspection, “Exposed to every coxcomb’s eyes, / But hid with caution from the wise.” Swift’s strategy is to mock the lady with her own words: “Here you may read (Dear Charming Saint) / Beneath (A new Receipt for Paint.)” That is, makeup. The lady may be beautiful, but her notebook reveals her as trivial-minded as an adolescent. To expand its meaning beyond Swift’s context, the couplet at the top might be applied to anyone who chooses to write in public without being able to write. Does such a person have “wit”?

In The English Spirit: Essays in History and Literature (1945), A.L. Rowse includes “Jonathan Swift.” He states the obvious – that Gulliver’s Travels is the only book by Swift that “the world has chosen.” For most readers, he remains a one-book author, which is a shame because Swift is brilliant throughout his work, in prose and verse. Once again, Rowse states what ought to be self-evident: “The poetry of Swift is, it would appear, an esoteric taste. There is hardly anyone who in our literary history, so far as I can call to mind, who had a liking for Swift’s poetry.” He names Yeats as an exception, and explains that the indifference to Swift’s verse may be explained by “the dominance of the romantic tradition in our literature.” This makes sense. If Shelley or Emerson is your idea of great poetry, you’re unlikely to appreciate “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” Rowse makes an admirable defense of Swift:

“There is so much in his poetry that should appeal to  this age: the uncompromising intellectualism of his attitude to his experience, its essential hardness, realism, absence of illusions, its force, clarity and candour, its complete self-consciousness. There is no reason why his poetry should be an esoteric taste, except that the romantic tradition formed an idea of what poetry should be, an extremely rarefied and confined one, excluding much of our experience, and imposing that view upon the rich and natural variety of the subject matter of poetry.”

Things have changed somewhat, at least in the margins, though romanticism remains contagious. J.V. Cunningham and Louise Bogan, both of Irish descent, learned from Swift and wrote poems about him. He’s everywhere in Joyce and Beckett. Turner Cassity, master of the couplet, may be Swift reborn, and I detect the Irishman's ghost among the better contemporary writers of light verse, which is often quite dark.

Friday, January 18, 2019

'Less Subject to Being Overawed by Solemn Humbug'

“[I]f you read Mr. Beerbohm at his best you receive a certain stimulation and, if you follow him, you will be lead up to a point of view, which will enable you subsequently to be less subject to being overawed by solemn humbug.”

That’s as succinct a description of Max Beerbohm’s charm as I have encountered, though the source is somewhat unlikely. Ford Madox Ford was a deft writer of prose and a shrewd critic, but one wouldn’t expect the arch-Modernist to praise the arch-late-Victorian ironist, who was Ford’s senior by only sixteen months. Ford nominally reviews Beerbohm’s Seven Men and W.H. Hudson’s Birds in Town and Village in the November 6, 1919 issue of the Piccadilly Review (collected in Critical Essays, Carcanet, 2002). I say “nominally” because the review, titled “The Serious Books,” tells us almost nothing about the books in question. The “lede,” as the boys in the press room like to say, is buried. In the review’s four pages, Beerbohm is mentioned by name three times, and Seven Men not at all. Hudson gets the same treatment. Ford, I suspect, perhaps in homage to Beerbohm, is spoofing the form.    

Ford starts with and never quite recovers from a lengthy digression about his late friend Arthur Marwood who, in a few years, would serve as a model for Christopher Tietjens in the Parade’s End tetralogy (1924-28). Marwood maintained, he tells us, “that for any proper man there could only be four books in the English language that could be worth reading.” This is the sort of outrage I would lay down as a drunken undergraduate, just to watch the ears steam, though secretly I sort of believed what I was saying. “Two of these four he was dogmatic about”: Clarendon’s History of the Great Rebellion and Ancient Law by Sir Henry James Sumner Maine. Now Ford gets to the theme expressed in his title:

“Gentlemen with no literary gifts, with no love of literature, and with no literary insight – though this tendency is mostly Teutonic – produce lives of Keats, Shelley, Browning, Crabbe, George Darley, Donne, in the hope of obtaining the fame that descends upon the erudite, of the rewards that are reserved for the persistently dull. These are the most pernicious of all writers of serious books – but there are an enormous number of others.”

Ford is just warming up. He’s already at the halfway point, and still no mention of Beerbohm or Hudson. Here’s the “nut graf,” to revert again to journalistic lingo:

“As written today, then, the Serious Book is generally Teutonic in its origin – that is to say, it is produced by gentlemen more distinguished for their industry than for their gifts, insight, or love of their subjects. That a serious book should possess form, imaginative insight, or interest for anyone not a specialist, would, generally speaking, be considered a very unsound proposition. To say that its writing should be distinguished by the quality of style, would be universally condemned.”

As to Beerbohm, Ford calls him “the last survivor of the English school of essayists,” which was certainly true as of 1919. To read Beerbohm is, he says, “to acquire little or no factual instruction,” and that, of course, is one of the reasons we read him.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

'These Nameless Dilettanti'

Both amateur and professional ought to be words of commendation, and the distinction should not always be rooted in money. The former has been claimed by snobbery and is applied with contempt. The OED confirms that the word has come to be used “disparagingly” to describe a “dabbler, or superficial student or worker.” I prefer the word’s etymological sense – doing something out of love for it. In Chap. 4 of Robert Browning (1903), G.K. Chesterton writes of how Browning’s poems on painting – “Fra Lippo Lippi,” “Andrea del Sarto,” “Pictor Ignotus” – “do not merely deal with painting; they smell of paint.” Browning was no painter but the art for him was not “a valley of bones: to him it is a field of crops continually growing in a busy and exciting silence.” In short, Browning, when it came to painting, was an amateur:   

“The word amateur has come by the thousand oddities of language to convey an idea of tepidity; whereas the word itself has the meaning of passion. Nor is this peculiarity confined to the mere form of the word; the actual characteristic of these nameless dilettanti is a genuine fire and reality. A man must love a thing very much if he not only practises it without any hope of fame or money, but even practises it without any hope of doing it well. Such a man must love the toils of the work more than any other man can love the rewards of it.”

There’s nothing wrong with being paid for what one loves, so long as there is nothing wrong with doing it without financial recompense, out of love. Professional originally referred to a profession or vow made when one entered a holy order. Centuries later it became associated with payment, yet another “oddity of language.”  In Chap. 2 of his Autobiography, Chesterton again plays with the words. By profession, his father was a real estate agent, though he had considered becoming an artist when he was young. However, as hobbies he enjoyed painting, taking photographs and making stained-glass windows. His son writes: “On the whole, I am glad that he was never a professional artist. It might have stood in his way of becoming an amateur. It might have spoilt his careerhis private career.”

As with amateur, professional has mutated over the centuries. Today, the OED recognizes a newer meaning as an adjective: “has or displays the skill, knowledge, experience, standards, or expertise of a professional; competent, efficient.” We say, “He’s a pro,” meaning he gets the job done. You can rely on him. The ideal is to be a professional amateur, or vice versa.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

'I Have a Different Clock'

All of my sons when young went through a geology phase. I did too. My uncle was a house painter and he once had a job in the salt mine under Whiskey Island at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. He brought us fist-sized chunks of rock salt as specimens for our collection. Naturally we licked the samples like deer at the salt lick, and the chunks lost their edges and got smaller. (I can still taste them.) Another time, we visited relatives in western New York who lived on a farm. The pasture behind their house was dotted with chunks of limestone rich in fossils. We took home a bushel of them.

Why rocks? What’s the attraction? They’re common. You find them everywhere. At first, it’s a lazy hobby for the unambitious. There is the aesthetic angle – quartz and other crystals. I took my oldest son to gem and mineral shows and shops, and he fell for bismuth, a crystalline metal. Mica has its adherents, as do slate, pyrite and chalcedony. But something more essential is involved. Rocks feel permanent. They’re older than us, tougher and more enduring, evidence of an earlier, pre-human Earth. Rocks are indifferent. Deborah Warren suggests some of this in her poem “Pressure”:
“Put a little pressure and heat on rock,
give it time, and shale turns into slate.
It’s the same with calcium carbonate
slowly reinventing itself as chalk.

“Limestone’s in no hurry; it started to harden
during the Lower Jurassic into marble.
Graphite spends millennia on diamond:

“The luxury of eons.
At any rate,
slow or slower, they move in mineral time
with plenty of leisure for maturing late.
Nice for them. I have a different clock,
skin-shallow. Animals can’t afford to wait.”

Our timeline is brief and accelerated. In his poem “In Praise of Limestone,” Auden calls us “the inconstant ones.” We can’t compete with rocks, though even they are impermanent, if you think geologically.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

'To Read an Honest-to-God Masterpiece'

I love the tartness of Elizabeth Bowen’s sentences: “When a writer has been brought to a halt by death, one kind of activity in him has to replace another: he can no longer cover more ground, like a tractor; he has to work upon us with a static persistence, like an electric drill.” Perhaps it’s her Irishness or her conviction that writing is best thought of as another species of work. Precision counts. So do dedication and a sort of ameliorated perfectionism. You can’t be sloppy or self-indulgent. That’s how people get hurt or disappointed, and you don’t want to hurt or disappoint your readers. The sentence quoted above is from Bowen’s 1936 review of Edward Crankshaw’s Joseph Conrad: Some Aspects of the Art of the Novel, collected in her Collected Impressions (1950). Conrad had been dead for twelve years and his reputation was in danger of fading:

“[H]is books come under the shadow of mortality and, if they are to live, have to reinstate themselves with us. To live, they must be either classics or curiosities—and curiosities have not much life. Their particular, personal element tells, for a time, against them—possibly we are more estranged from the lately dead than we know—they have to stand on their general, major qualities. The entertainer has now to become a monument, outside our own variations of taste and fancy. If his books are to outlive him, we expect them to outlive us.”

Bowen isn’t afraid to state the obvious: “Only perversity or smallness of spirit could deny Conrad’s stature.”

I remembered Bowen’s review after Dana Gioia told me he is reading Nostromo, Conrad’s greatest novel, the one I most often reread: “I’ve been saving the book for years,” he says. “I’ve read everything else by Conrad. The novel is even better than I had hoped. It is so good to read an honest-to-God masterpiece.”