Wednesday, August 17, 2016

`I Would Live and Live Always'

The New Criterion each week sends via email “The Critic’s Notebook,” a tip sheet of things to listen to, see and read. On Monday, Roger Kimball recommended a book new to me, The English Year (Oxford University Press, 1967), compiled by Geoffrey Grigson. It’s composed of extracts from English diaries and letters, keyed to each day of the year, like an almanac. “It is, to alter that saying of Lincoln’s,” Kimball says, “the sort of thing you will like if you like this sort of thing.” There’s little nature worship or mysticism in Grigson’s selections, and even less self-congratulation, unlike much recent writing about the natural world. The cumulative effect is of a sketch book. Grigson calls it “an immediate record—of observations, of something seen, something sensed, something or other felt and enjoyed.” The entry for today’s date, Aug. 17, is from Francis Kilvert’s 1872 diary:

“The sun shone hot and bright down into the little valley among the hills, upon the wild white marsh cotton and the purple heather and the bright green Osmunda ferns with their brown flower spikes, and upon the white shirt sleeves of the peat cutters working amongst the mawn pits on a distant part of the Common . . . the mountains and the valley were glowing blue and golden in the evening sunlight. Above Pen y llan crowd of purple thistles stood in fatal and mischievous splendor among the waving oats.”

Kilvert (1840-1879) was an Englishman clergyman in rural Wales and author of a three-volume diary, edited by William Plomer and not published until more than half a century after Kilvert’s death. (See William Maxwell’s "The Outermost Dream of the Reverend Francis Kilvert" in The Outermost Dream: Essays and Reviews, 1989: "It was a rich, happy life, full of interest, full of affection, but it wasn't the life he had planned for himself.") Only entries by Gilbert White and Dorothy Wordsworth outnumber Kilvert’s in The English Year. On Oct. 26, my birthday, Grigson includes two passages, the first from White’s Journals in 1783:

“If a masterly landscape painter was to take our hanging woods in their autumnal colours, persons unacquainted with the country would object to the strength and deepness of the tints, and would pronounce, at an exhibition, that they were heightened and shaded beyond nature.”

In Houston I miss the autumnal show of color I knew in Ohio, New York and Vermont. No true autumn and few maples in Texas. Grigson’s other passage for Oct. 26 is from a letter William Cowper sent to the Rev. John Newton in 1790:

“A yellow shower of leaves is falling continually from all the trees in the country. . . . The consideration of my short continuance here, which was once grateful to me, now fills me with regret. I would live and live always.”

In his introduction, Grigson describes Cowper in this passage as “wishing, after all, in spite of his old Evangelical conviction that a short life is better in this world of wickedness, to `live and live always.’” Indeed, read the subsequent lines in Cowper’s letter for a thoughtful meditation on mortality:  

“There was a time when I could contemplate my present state, and consider myself as a thing of a day with pleasure; when I numbered the seasons as they passed in swift rotation, as a schoolboy numbers the days that interpose between the next vacation, when he shall see his parents and enjoy his home again.  But to make so just an estimate of life like this, is no longer in my power.  The consideration of my short continuance here, which was once grateful to me, now fills me with regret. I would live and live always, and am become such another wretch as Maecenas was, who wished for long life, he cared not at what expense of sufferings.”

Being Cowper, he adds the unexpected  as he concludes his note to Newton: “Adieu, my dear friend.  We are well; and, notwithstanding all that I have said, I am myself as cheerful as usual.”

Grigson’s book will interest those fond of the English landscape and the changing seasons, and those devoted to good prose and the English literary tradition. Grigson enjoys Ruskin, and notes that his Diaries “mix egoism and petulance (when the weather is not what he wants) with clear perception.” This, from 1872, is Ruskin’s entry for Aug. 13: “Entirely calm and clear morning. The mist from the river at rest among the trees, with rosy light on its folds of blue; and I, for the first time these ten years, happy.”

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