Saturday, July 22, 2017

`The Fate of Other Pretty Things'

Dr. Johnson’s most readable and rereadable book for those still reading in the twenty-first century is probably Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779–81), containing fifty-two portraits mingling biography and criticism. Some of his renderings and judgments remain indelible. Despite the efforts of modern biographers, Swift will always have “a kind of muddy complexion, which, though he washed himself with Oriental scrupulosity, did not look clear.” I first read that in 1971 and it never leaves me. The same goes for his assessment of Dryden’s work habits: His “performances were always hasty, either excited by some external occasion, or extorted by domestic necessity.” Any honest writer will understand. For Friday’s post I read Johnson’s “Life of Prior” again. Hooked, I reread his “Life of Waller” and found this field of gems:

“Genius now and then produces a lucky trifle. We still read the Dove of Anacreon, and Sparrow of Catullus; and a writer naturally pleases himself with a performance, which owes nothing to the subject. But compositions merely pretty have the fate of other pretty things, and are quitted in time for something useful: they are flowers fragrant and fair, but of short duration; or they are blossoms to be valued only as they foretell fruits.”

Johnson goes on to commend Waller’s “On Love,” which begins: “Anger, in hasty words or blows, / Itself discharges on our foes.” Rereading Johnson on Weller loosens a dozen memories and associations. As a young man he translated Anacreon’s Ode IX, and here is C.H. Sisson’s translation of Catullus II (The Poetry of Catullus, Viking, 1966):

“Sparrow my Lesbia likes to play with,
The one she likes to hold in her lap
To whom she gives her finger tip
To make him bite, as she likes, more sharply,
When, shining because of my desire
She finds it a precious thing to play with
(I think, when her grave fire acquiesces
She finds it a solace for her pain).
If I could play with you just as she does
I’d have a way of lightening my cares.”

Johnson’s “merely pretty” sounds an alarm. None of the writers thus far cited in this post is “merely pretty.” All, to varying degrees, are rough-hewn, plain-spoken (though eloquent) and “useful,” to use Johnson’s corrective. As to Waller, any mention of him recalls Anthony Hecht’s elegy for his friend and fellow poet, “To L.E. Sissman, 1928-1976” (The Transparent Man, 1990):

“Dear friend, whose poetry of Brooklyn flats
And poker sharps broadcasts the tin pan truths
Of all our yesterdays, speaks to our youths
In praise of both Wallers, Edmund and Fats . . .”

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