Thursday, February 21, 2013

`To Dwell on What is Good and Beautiful'

In a 1959 review of Marianne Moore’s O to Be a Dragon (collected in Prose Vol. IV, 1956-1962, Princeton University Press, 2010) W.H. Auden plays the human game of dividing humans into two grand categories, Alices and Mabels. Of the former he says: 

“The Alices never make a fuss. Like all human beings they suffer, but they are stoics who do not weep or lose their temper or undress in public. Though they are generally people with strict moral standards, they are neither preachers nor reformers. They can be sharp, usually in an ironical manner, and tender, but the passionate outburst is not for them. As a general rule, also, while perfectly well aware of evil and ugliness in the world, they prefer to dwell on what is good and beautiful. Alices are always in danger of over-fastidiousness, as Mabels are of vulgarity.” 

Then Auden pairs some Alices among the artists with their corresponding Mabels: Montaigne with Pascal, Austen with Dickens, and Webern with Berg. The difference, Auden stresses, is “not in artistic merit, but in character.” But in general, except in the case of E.M. Forster (Alice) and James Joyce (Mabel), the merits of the Alices on Auden’s list outweigh the Mabels’. In Auden’s scheme, of course, Moore is a splendid Alice. In conclusion, he asserts that “what any poem says should be true and that, in our noisy, overcrowded age, a quiet and intimate poetic speech is the only genuine way of saying it.” 

Auden was born on this date, Feb. 21, in 1906. He is an undisputed Alice. My youngest son, David, turns ten today. He’s an Alice with recessive Mabel traits, like his father.

1 comment:

Roger Boylan said...

Many happy returns to David, whom I met in the Cafe on the Square. I remember he, his mother, and his brothers went to the Dollar Bookstore and browsed happily there. Alas, the Dollar Bookstore, a brave venture, is no more. Now all we have in San Marcos is Half-Price Books and Hastings, about which the less said the better. Well, there's always the Internet....