Tuesday, January 14, 2014

`Almost Forgotten Like an Aztec Temple'

The last of Ford Madox Ford’s many books, The March of Literature (1938), is one of those smorgasbord volumes, consumed once cover to cover like a sumptuous meal and nibbled at for the rest of one’s reading life. In his introduction, Ford describes it as “the book of an old man mad about writing—in the sense that Hokusai called himself an old man mad about painting.” He encourages readers “to taste the pleasure that comes from always more and more reading.” What he says of Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets -- “a mountain of good reading; his vast common sense outweighs with its pronouncements any harm his more prejudicial moods and wrong-headednesses may in their day have caused” – applies with comparable justice to Ford’s eccentric, 800-page digression. 

For instance, Ford detects in Johnson’s style an improvement between the publication of The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia in 1759 and the Lives (1779-81). He attributes the refinement to the annual pension of £300 Johnson was granted by King George III in 1762. The money moved him to complete his long-delayed edition of Shakespeare, published in 1765. Ford, always an advocate for the lives of working writers, continues: 

“The secret of this great change is a simple one. For ten years after receiving his pension Johnson led a life of complete literary idleness and passed his time almost solely in conversation. He made of conversation a fine art for its vigour, its terseness, its clarity, the brilliance of its similes, its humanity, its intolerance, its knowledge of the facts of man, its humaneness.” 

Ford is wrong here, but interestingly, usefully wrong. Johnson was hardly idle, though during the period identified by Ford he produced only one work we judge major, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775). He completed, in addition to the Shakespeare project, a number of political pamphlets, including “The Patriot” (1774) and “Taxation NoTyranny” (1775), finished work on the fourth edition of his Dictionary (1773), and helped assemble the first collected edition of his works (1774). As to conversation, let’s remember he met Boswell, who always encouraged his talk, in 1763, and The Club was organized in 1764, with Johnson, Burke, Boswell, Gibbon, Garrick, Sheridan and Adam Smith among its charter members. By the time the London booksellers approached Johnson in 1771 with a proposal to write prefaces to a collection of poets from Cowley onwards, Ford says, “he had perfected a style in the best of all schools.” At this point, Ford briefly leaves Johnson behind: 

“The province and duty of all writers of the imagination is the expression of facts or thoughts with all the exactitude open to them. For them the proper study of the language they shall employ will be found only secondarily in books and first and last in the vernacular of their day.” 

Here I part company with Ford. He couldn’t have known how poorly many people speak today, and the pride they take in being inarticulate, or how threadbare our vernacular has become. His next sentence qualifies his point somewhat: “This will be the language and vocabulary of a society made up of reasonably communicative and, if possible, reasonably thoughtful individuals.” 

Ford’s final paragraph on Johnson is a moving tribute to a man with whom he must have felt substantial literary kinship (“an old man mad about writing”): 

“But ten years’ rest and the getting into his head of a conversational rhythm and a vocabulary comprehensible to most of the cultivated men of his day had on Johnson the effect of evolving a style that was at once sufficiently learned to save his face and sufficiently actual to let us read his Lives of the Poets with pleasure even in these anti-Latinistic days. It is a work that, had there been no Boswell, must have been a resounding monument to this great man. As it is, it stands almost forgotten like an Aztec temple lost in South American [sic] undergrowths. It is a great pity.”

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