Thursday, September 13, 2012

`A Playground of Easy Freedom'

Rose Macaulay (1881-1958) is remembered for her 1956 novel The Towers of Trebizond and its splendid, Wodehousian opening sentence – “`Take my camel, dear,’” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” – and perhaps for my favorite among her books, Pleasure of Ruins (1953), but her remaining twenty-two novels and dozens of other books (poetry, travel, biography and such sui generis confections as Personal Pleasures) seem to have evaporated from cultural memory. Of late I’ve been catching up on some of her lesser-known works, including the posthumous Letters to a Friend 1950-1952 (1962) and Last Letters to a Friend 1952-1958 (1963), which collect her correspondence with the Rev. John Hamilton Cowper Johnson (1877-1961), her English-born cousin whom she hadn’t seen since 1916 when he moved to the United States. The period corresponds to the years of her return to the Anglican Church after a thirty-year lapse. 

Both Macaulay and her cousin are funny, animated, well-read people, deeply civilized. The pleasure (a favorite word of Macaulay’s) of their company will remind some readers of the six-volume Lyttelton/Hart-Davis Letters, though Macaulay and Johnson are less amusingly vicious, confessional and given to gossip. Their literary talk goes in both directions. In 1953, Johnson asks his cousin if she is familiar with Musophilus, or a General Defense of Learning (1599) by the poet and historian Samuel Daniel. She dutifully checks out a copy from the library, reads it and replies on Nov. 16: 

“How sane it is! Every merit except poetry and clarity, don’t you think, for poetical or clear it isn’t. But eloquent and moving, and oh what good sense!” 

In her next letter, dated Dec. 2, Macaulay resumes her discussion of Daniel and launches a celebration of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English poetry and prose: 

“As regards his poetic gifts I rather agree with Ben Jonson, who said he was `an honest man, but no poet’ and with Michael Drayton, who thought that his manner better suited prose. Ben Jonson, of course, disliked his anti-Latinism, and was probably prejudiced. But as to Tudor English, surely he had many splendid models…The great and smaller poets, the great musical translators, such as North, Philemon Holland, Florio, the travel writers collected by Hakluyt, Sidney, Tyndale and Coverdale, Cranmer, Hooker, the racy Latimer, Nashe and the romance-writers, Bacon—what models to choose among!” 

Indeed, add Burton and Browne and a few others, and you’ve described the pinnacle of literature in English. Daniel, alas, ranks among the “smaller poets” described by Macaulay, though Yvor Winters favored his sonnet “Beauty, sweet love, is like the morning dew.” And three years ago Clive James championed this verse from Daniel’s “To the Reader”: 

“And howsoever be it, well or ill
What I have done, it is mine owne, I may
Do whatsoever therewithal I will.
    I may pull downe, raise, and reedifie.
It is the building of my life, the fee
Of Nature, all th’inheritance that I
Shal leave to those which must come after me.” 

James goes on to say, and he might be speaking of Macaulay’s work, and of his own, and of yours and mine, we can only hope: 

“Unless we are scholars of the period, we might have small knowledge of [Daniel’s] work in general, but this one stanza is quite likely to have got through to us. It is often quoted as an example of how there were poets much less important than Shakespeare who nevertheless felt that they, too, might be writing immortal lines to time, and were ready to drub any popinjay who dared to suggest that they weren’t. But clearly the stanza did not get through to us just because of the story it tells or the position it takes. It got through by the way it moves. Within its tight form, it is a playground of easy freedom: not a syllable out of place, and yet it catches your ear with its conversational rhythm at every point.”

1 comment:

B.R. said...

What a wonderful twisty-turny ride through this entry. Thank you for the corridors out to Daniel's sonnet(s), and to the Clive James essay, and for the generosity before the ending quotation.

"Reedifie" - what a great word.