Friday, December 20, 2013

`One of the Masters of Pity'

A reader rightly deduces that my admiration for Dr. Johnson means I might enjoy Poem XXVI from Philip Larkin’s first collection, The North Ship (1945): 

“This is the first thing
 I have understood:
 Time is the echo of an axe
 Within a wood.” 

This is the only Larkin poem I know by heart, first word to last, because it’s brief and because of Larkin’s rhythmic cunning.  He was twenty-one or twenty-two and precociously mature as a poet when he wrote it, yet it reads like a wise old man’s poem.  The middle-aged and older hear the strokes of time’s axe in the forest, seldom the young, for whom the sound of laughter and song are more compelling. In his notes to The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin, editor Archie Burnett suggests Larkin may have been echoing lines from Auden’s first poetic drama, Paid on Both Sides (1928): “death seems / An axe’s echo.” Of course, he also cites the famous stage direction near the end of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard: “only the sound is heard, some way away in the orchard of the axe falling on the trees.” Both are plausible but I might propose another literary echo, this one from the writer who moved my reader to send me the Larkin. I refer to Johnson’s Latin poem, “In Rivum a Mola Stoana Lichfieldiae diffuentem,” translated by David Ferry as “The Lesson.” I wrote about it here and still find Ferry’s version, free as it is, very moving. Mike Gilleland gives the Latin text and two additional English versions here. On the tercentenary of Johnson’s birth, Ferry contributed an essay, “What Johnson Means to Me,” to Samuel Johnson After 300 Years (Cambridge University Press, 2009). He writes: 

“Johnson is, to my mind, in his prose and in his verse, one of the masters of pity, unsentimental pity founded on his awareness of our situation in a universe we cannot fully explicate; and it is founded on his awareness that our limitations, our vulnerability, are what we, all fellow creatures, share, the actualities of our natures and of our circumstances. In thinking of Johnson’s writing, pity is a name for looking steadily at things. The evidence is everywhere in him, in the Ramblers, in The Vanity of Human Wishes, in the `Life of Pope,’ in the Tolstoyan severity and sympathy of the `Life of Savage,’ his Hadji Murad.”

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