Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"Early in Life He Was Taken from His Books'

“Both of us are readers of out of the way books, and have long been apt to think over the literature of England in the light of that, though not solely that, kind of reading.” 

So write, invigoratingly, Edmund Blunden and Bernard Mellor in their preface to Wayside Poems of the Early Eighteenth Century (Hong Kong University Press, 1964), an anthology too easily described as “out of the way.” The copyright page says “First printing 2,000 copies,” and we wonder if there was a second. Blunden (1896-1974) is remembered as a poet, veteran of the Great War and all-around man of letters. Mellor (1917-1998) was a student of Blunden’s at Oxford, author of the winningly titled Ration Cooking for Small Detachments and longtime registrar for the University of Hong Kong. Such is literary fame. 

One of the privileges of working for a university is having ready access to its library. I know Blunden’s poems and his work on Charles Lamb but the Fondren catalog led me to his bibliographical backwaters. Of the thirty-nine poets represented in Wayside Poems, I knew only six by name, one of whom, Tobias Smollett, I knew only as a novelist. Most of these poets were the Philip Levines of their day, safely earnest and dull though more metrically gifted, but even the dullest has his moments, and some produced occasional lines or phrases that sound suspiciously memorable. Take “A Description of London” by John Banks (1709-1751), a poem that earned some currency during last year’s Olympics. I have a weakness for catalogs, as in these stanzas: 

“Warrant, bailiffs, bills unpaid,
Lords of laundresses afraid;
Rogues that nightly rob and shoot men,
Hangmen, aldermen and footmen. 

“Lawyers, poets, priests, physicians,
Noble, simple, all conditions:
Worth beneath a threadbare cover,
Villainy bedaubed all over.” 

Sounds like Chicago. It also recalls two other poems about London, both much better but roughly contemporaneous – Swift’s “A Description of a City Shower” (1710) and Johnson’s “London” (1738). In a note, Blunden and Mellor describe the poem as an “imitation” of Paul Scarron’s “Description of Paris.” In their brief biography of Banks, they report his father died when the poet was an infant and he was raised by his grandfather, “a master tailor in Reading.” Sad sentences follow: 

“Early in life he was taken from his books to work in the fields at a plough and as a thresher. From his Weaver’s Miscellany (1730) it appears that by then he had taken upon himself what he called `a mark of shame,’ having entered the weaver’s trade, until disabled by an accident. After setting up an unprofitable bookstall in Spitalfields he joined a bookseller and binder. There is no record of his having married.” 

The editors tell us Banks also wrote biographies of Christ, Cromwell and William III, produced much journalism, and that his favorite reading was Francis Quarles, a younger contemporary of Shakespeare. They quote Banks as saying “his own poems were written `merely for the diversion of myself, and a few intimate friends,’ but [he] preferred nevertheless to be known not as a poet, but as a teller of tales.” 

This is where “out of the way” books take us, on visits to forgotten writers who were once as alive and well-meaning as you and I. In the final paragraph of Middlemarch, George Eliot bids goodbye to Dorothea Brooke and others like her, including Blunden, Mellor and Banks, and declares: “...for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

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