Seldom have I meditated so long on a paragraph drawn, after all, merely from a book review. In the Nov. 15, 1941, issue of The Nation, Marianne Moore reviewed Poems and New Poems by Louise Bogan, who was already a decade into her thirty-eight-year tenure as poetry editor for The New Yorker. The review, “Compactness Compacted,” is collected in Predilections (1955). Here is Moore’s final paragraph:
“Those who have seemed to know most about eternity feel that this side of eternity is a small part of life. We are told, if we do wrong that grace may abound, it does not abound. We need not be told that life is never going to be free from trouble and that there are no substitutes for the dead; but it is a fact as well as a mystery that weakness is power, that handicap is proficiency, that the scar is a credential, that indignation is no adversary for gratitude, or heroism for joy. There are medicines.”
This reminds me of nothing so much as the prose of Sir Thomas Browne, an association strengthened by Moore’s mention two paragraphs earlier of “a certain residual, securely equated seventeenth-century firmness” in Bogan’s verse. Browne’s prose, like Moore’s, is pleasingly rich, sonorous, witty and gnomic, and for those reasons I love it even when meaning exceeds understanding. The failing is mine not the writer’s.
In her Paris Review interview in 1960, Donald Hall asks Moore about the influence of prose stylists on her work. She acknowledges and cites passages (in the process composing a sort of spontaneous commonplace book) from Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Francis Bacon, Benvenuto Cellini. Julius Caesar, Xenophon, Henry James, Ezra Pound – and Browne:
“`States are not governed by Ergotisms.’ He calls a bee `that industrious flie,’ and his home his `hive.’”
The first citation she takes from Christian Morals, Part 2, Section IV:
“Natural parts and good Judgments rule the World. States are not governed by Ergotisms. Many have Ruled well who could not perhaps define a Commonwealth, and they who understand not the Globe of the Earth command a great part of it. Where natural Logick prevails not, Artificial too often faileth.”
The “flie” reference is drawn from a bit of verse Browne incorporates into Religio Medici, Part 1, Section XIII:
“Thus shall my humble feathers safely hover,
And though neere earth, more then the heavens discover.
And then at last, when holmeward I shall drive
Rich with the spoyles of nature to my hive,
There will I sit, like that industrious flye,
Buzzing thy prayses, which shall never die
Till death abrupts them, and succeeding glory
Bid me goe on in a more lasting story.”
In his life of Browne, Dr. Johnson complains that the “exuberance of knowledge, and plentitude of ideas sometimes obstruct the tendency of his reasoning, and the clearness of his decisions…” Johnson here is a fuddy-duddy. It’s not Browne’s “exuberance of knowledge” (a wonderful thought) or “plenitude of ideas” that sometimes fail him but the limits of sixteenth-century medical and scientific learning. We don’t, however, read Browne in lieu of the Merck Manual.
Johnson describes Browne’s style as “vigorous, but rugged; it is learned, but pedantick; it is deep, but obscure; it strikes, but does not please; it commands, but does not allure…” But Johnson precisely describes Browne’s allure, which I find always pleasing, and Moore’s. In the penultimate paragraph of her Bogan review Moore writes:
“For mortal rage and immortal injury, are there or are there not medicines? Job and Hamlet insisted that we dare not let ourselves be snared into hating hatefulness; to do this would be to take our own lives. Harmed, let us say, through our generosity—if we consent to have pity on our illusions and others’ absence of illusion, to condone the fact that `no fine body ever can be meat and drink to anyone’—is it true that pain will exchange its role and become servant instead of master? Or is it merely a conveniently expunged superstition?”