Wednesday, April 26, 2017

`Something Solid in That Kind of Wit'

When I’m told a writer is forgotten or only obscurely known my instinct is to rescue him. I’m not a sucker, and many writers are deservedly erased from memory. (Here’s a diverting pastime: Think of all the writers you wish were forgotten.)  In Tuesday’s post I mentioned a poet, Henry Carey (c. 1687-1743), new to me. He handily qualifies as obscure. We don’t know with certainty when or where he was born, and scholars argue over his parentage. And yet, in his day, Carey was an immensely popular writer of songs, ballads and poems that often resemble modern light or nonsense verse. He also composed music to accompany them. His best-known work is “The Ballad of Sally in Our Alley,” which he claimed was written “to set forth the Beauty of a chaste and disinterested Passion, even in the lowest Class of Human Life.”

In 1930, Frederick T. Wood edited The Poems of Henry Carey for The Scholartis Press: Eric Partridge Ltd., London. The copy I borrowed from the Fondren Library hasn’t circulated since 1946. Wood’s edition was the first attempt, almost two centuries after the poet’s death, to collect all of Carey’s known work. In his introduction, Wood suggests Carey may have been “the most completely forgotten of them all.” As he puts it: “It is a feature of history that it can show a number of mystery personages who from time to time make their appearance as it were from nowhere, pass dimly across the literary horizon, and then vanish.” Carey’s better lines have a raucous, defiant charm. In “The Surly Peasant,” he treads on Edward Lear’s turf:

“Let whimsical monarchs of state
Imagine themselves to be great;
With my spade in my hand
Sole monarch I stand
Of twenty good acres of land.

“A fig for your sir or your madam;
Our origin all is from Adam;
Then why should I buckle,
Palaver or truckle
To any pragmatical chuckle?”

It may be doggerel, but it’s honest fun, without aspirations to anything grander. Humor is tethered in time and place, and doesn’t always travel well, but certain themes endure.
Here is “The Rival Lap-Dog”:

“Corinna, pray tell me
Why thus you repell me,
When humbly I sue for a kiss;
While Dony at pleasure
May kiss without measure,
And surfeit himself with the bliss?

“How hard’s my misfortune,
That I must importune,
For what I must still be deny’d;
While the rapturous duty
I owe to your beauty
Must be by a lap-dog supplied.”

Carey never resorts to what comedians used to call “working blue,” which is a shame. A little smut would perk things up. See also “An Ode in Praise of Coffee” (“Thou sacred liquour of nectarous taste”) and “Love à la Mode” (“If she loves you—then forsake her; / ’Tis the modish way of wooing”). My favorite in Wood’s edition is the final poem, “The Author’s Quietus (Address’d to his Dear Friend, Jemmy Worsdale)":

“This itch of scribbling has no end, no ease,
Damn’d if you fail, and envy’d if you please;
Uncertain pleasure for most certain pain:
Well, Solomon says right, All things are vain;
’Tis better that a man should eat and drink.
Here! — Take away this ugly pen and ink!
Come, James! — let’s have a bottle and a bit;
There's something solid in that kind of wit.”


Tim Guirl said...

I don't know if there is any connection between the song, 'Our Sally is in the Alley' and the detective story 'Sally's in the Alley' by Norbert Davis. Ludwig Wittgenstein read Davis's books and wrote him a fan letter.

bachiolator said...

Forgive a longish post, but it explains eclipsed poets while offering a criticism of criticism. I summarize a page or two from Rosemond Tuve's discussion of G. Herbert (much of it against Empson), in A Reading of George Herbert.

Old poems "die" because critics do not keep them alive for new readers. Vivification requires the critic, not to supplant the poem with self-assertive theorizing wherein the poem becomes primarily an occasion for new critical thoughts and exempla of ideological and moral corruption. Vivification requires the critic to explain the poem's thoughts, its beauty, attractiveness, its meaning: to show the new reader that the old poem is valuable.

" . . . the critic does this revitalizing service . . . by giving us the grateful and excited sense that here is something which will still keep us dry in a damp world. [The reader then] looks at the poem . . . and says 'How beautiful'."
p. 20.

A reader's knowledge both grows and decays. Herbert knew nothing whatever of DNA, but young readers know little to nothing that Herbert knew, and fatally infer he is of no value. The critic must vivify Herbert by teaching us what Herbert knew and felt; what we no longer know and feel. Good criticism is no easy task, given broader cultural decay that suffocates the reader.

"The major purpose of [criticism] is not to study or illustrate critical theories but to read the [poem]."

Reading 'antient poetrie' is a lot of work, particularly with the metaphysicals who presuppose not only a classical education but an ingested Christian tradition.

Herbert, for example, loved music. "Prayer" includes these lines:

A kind of tune . . .
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss . . .
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
. . . something understood.

Line 3 takes an image from Donne's Meditation 17, combines it with Platonic cosmology and Aristotelian psychology. The sphere of the stars, Plato thought to be the last sphere of the heavens, and contributes to the music of all the other spheres, however faintly. The stars, being intelligent, influence human behavior and thought. Herbert claims that prayer is a response to a sound beyond Plato's last sphere, another "kind of tune", from intelligence beyond that of the stars, farther off, more real, yet influential.
H. then cleverly reverts/inverts Aristotle's belief that soul animates body via blood: the soul is the prior life-giver. Pace Aristotle, H. claims that there is a "blood" animating the soul; something prior to and animating even the soul. Again, prior, more real, and vital: not to be ignored.
This "new cosmology", upgraded astronomy and psychology generate "something understood" which we may not [or may] articulate. And thus, H claims there is some mysterious understanding prior to language, an understanding effected by prayer.

Remarkably beautiful, after critical appreciation.