Friday, June 02, 2017

`Elegant & Pleasing Thoughts'

A nice convergence of books, both devoted to strong personalities: At the same time I am reading John Jay Chapman: An American Mind (1959) by Richard B. Hovey and Dr. Johnson by Mrs. Thrale: The `Anecdotes’ of Mrs. Piozzi in Their Original Form (1984), a collection of anecdotes and sound-bites written and recorded by Hester Thrale and edited by Richard Ingrams. In the former, Hovey refers to the “fierceness of Chapman’s fighting instincts” and his “inward need to assault figures of authority.” Hovey writes, long before the age of social media:

“His conduct puzzled Americans then; its like still does today. Except in politics, we are not used to it. We forget that such behavior is in the tradition of great criticism. We forget the harshness of Ben Jonson, the murderous couplets of Dryden and of Pope, Dr. Johnson’s pulverization of the creator of Ossian, the Scotch reviewers’ lambasting of Byron and his fellow poets, Hazlitt’s pugnacity, Carlyle’s sulphurous invectives, Samuel Butler’s idol-smashing, Shaw’s dexterity with either bludgeon or needle, Mencken’s use of heavy artillery. This is Chapman’s company.”

We might add Swift and Yvor Winters, great critics and greater poets, and Randall Jarrell in his role as critic (not poet). Even the most pacifistic reader is secretly reassured that such critics are out there, patrolling the perimeter, laying down suppressive fire. Hovey cites a letter by Chapman in which he describes James Russell Lowell (“And what is so rare as a day in June?”) as the author of “too many truffled essays and champagne odes and lobster sonnets, too much Spanish olives, potted proverbs—a gouty old cuss in his later essays . . . so expressive of hems and haws and creased literary trousers. I feel like running him in the belly and singing out Hulloo! old cockalorum.”

Remember Dr. Johnson’s disparagement of Swift in his “Life”: “He is querulous and fastidious, arrogant and malignant; he scarcely speaks of himself but with indignant lamentations, or of others but with insolent superiority when he is gay, and with angry contempt when he is gloomy.” Here is Johnson on Swift as reported by Mrs. Thrale: “Of Swift’s Style which I praised as beautiful he observed; that it had only the Beauty of the Bubble, The Colour says he is gay, but the Substance slight.” Johnson always seems uneasy around Swift, suggesting his identification with the satirist is too intimate. Here is a revealing report by Mrs. Thrale:

“Nothing seemed to disgust Johnson so greatly as Hyperbole; he lived not to hear of Sallies of Excellence; Heroick Virtues said he one day are the bons Mots of Life, they seldom appear & are therefore when they do appear – much talked of, but Life is made up of little Things, & that Character is best which does little. Of continued Acts of Beneficence; as that Conversation is the best which consists in little, but elegant & pleasing Thoughts; expressed in easy, natural and pleasing Terms.”

With Johnson, even at his most ferocious, one is aware of his essential humility and his recognition that he, like the objects of his wrath, is a deeply flawed creature. He is endearing because his vanities and pleasures are ours. He is a hero on a human scale, one we can emulate. Here is Mrs. Thrale again:

“Mr. Johnson’s own Pleasures – except those of Conversation – were all coarse ones; he loves a good Dinner dearly – eats it voraciously, & his notions of a good Dinner are nothing less than delicate—a Leg of Pork boyl’d till it drops from the bone almost, a Veal Pye with Plumbs & Sugar, & the outside Cut of a Buttock of Beef are his favourite Dainties, though he loves made Dishes Soups &c: sowces his Plumb Pudden with Melted Butter, & pours Sauce enough into every Plate to drown all Taste of the Victuals.”

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