Thursday, December 29, 2011

"What These Can Only Memorize and Mumble'

My friend in Juba, South Sudan (“the world’s newest nation,” he reminds us), assumed I had read “Grandeur of Ghosts” by Siegfried Sassoon, a poet I know mostly by reputation, not experience. My friend’s taste in poems is reliably good and this one he calls “a keeper.” I read it the same day I learned of someone who compared reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead to “watching paint dry” (a stupid judgment and a cliché, facts not unrelated). Here is “Grandeur of Ghosts”:

“When I have heard small talk about great men
I climb to bed; light my two candles; then
Consider what was said; and put aside
What Such-a-one remarked and Someone-else replied.

“They have spoken lightly of my deathless friends,
(Lamps for my gloom, hands guiding where I stumble,)
Quoting, for shallow conversational ends,
What Shelley shrilled, what Blake once wildly muttered ....

“How can they use such names and be not humble?
I have sat silent; angry at what they uttered.
The dead bequeathed them life; the dead have said
What these can only memorize and mumble.”

The only way to speak of great writers is humbly, with gratitude, which doesn’t mean uncritically. Sassoon proposes not ancestor worship or genuflecting before someone’s canon but good manners, good sense and openness to the notion that we are small people inhabiting a small and rather mediocre backwater in history. We are desperately in need of instruction. Some of our forebears, Sassoon’s “deathless friends,” forgot more than we’ll ever know. To ignore them is discourteous and suicidal.

The cult of the new is self-regarding and delusory, though it forms the unexamined rationale for most bookchat (“small talk about great men”), online and elsewhere. David Myers often suggests a ten-year moratorium on critically examining works of literature. If enforced, a good ninety percent of the bookish blogosphere would evaporate in a yoctosecond, a happy prospect. Look at it common-sensibly: Little written in any era is worth reading. The past is a hell of a lot bigger than the present. Even if we dwelled in a Golden, not Leaden Age, most books worthy of our time would have been written decades or centuries ago. In his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau exhorts us to “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all” (every reader’s most dire anxiety, save blindness).

By the way, all of Shelley and most of Blake are unreadable. And I’m not overly fond of Sassoon.


WAS said...

A particularly nice post, the way you harmonize to your spirit some inhospitable materials. I say you don't have to read anything less than 10 years old as long as you can drop into actual sentences newfangled terms like South Sudan and yoctosecond before they become irrelevant. And you don't have to read Shelley or Blake if you build your own canon, for such efforts are always as much monuments to great reading as to great writing. "The past is a hell of a lot bigger than the present" may not be true in population terms, but history dominates our sense of the present, forever guiding the new as the new reshapes the past.

George said...

I see that the copyright date on Gilead reads 2004. I do very much admire the novel, ten-year limit or not.

In literary terms, I think one must recast "Judge not, lest ye shall be judged" as "judge, and know that you will be judged." Remember the excellent writers and critics who have made judgments that look very wrong to our eyes.