Saturday, September 30, 2017

`Impossible But Not Uncharming'

“From first to last there seems to have been on him a sense that literature ought above all things to be scholarly in form and elegant in substance, that it ought not to deal with trivial things, that `words to the wise,' cryptic raptures, enigmatical sentences were the things to attempt.”

Who is being described? Hopkins? Early Edgar Bowers? Geoffrey Hill? The answer is a poet probably fated for obscurity, endlessly retrieved from neglect only to be neglected yet again. Fulke Greville, 1st Baron Brooke, will never be a fashionably admired poet (the past, like the present, has its vogues), even among the Elizabethans, though he has been championed by readers as shrewd as Yvor Winters and Thom Gunn. The latter edited a Selected Poems in 1968, reissued in 2009 by the University of Chicago Press. The writer quoted above is George Saintsbury in A Short History of English Literature (1898). In verse and prose, Saintsbury says, Greville “exhibit[s] this characteristic of labored remoteness as do hardly any other things in English. In both he is eccentric, unpopular, impossible but not uncharming.” Muted praise, unlikely to draw readers. Here is late Greville, excerpted from a long poem published posthumously, A Treatie [sic] of Human Learning (1633):


“The mind of man is this world’s dimension,
And knowledge is the measure of the mind;
And as the mind, in her vast comprehension,
Contains more worlds than all the world can find:
    So knowledge doth itself far more extend,
    Than all the minds of men can comprehend.


“A climbing height it is without a head;
Depth without bottom, way without an end;
A circle with no line environèd;
Not comprehended, all it comprehends;
    Worth infinite, yet satisfies no mind,
    ’Till it that infinite of the Godhead find.”

Another admirer of Greville was Charles Lamb, whose literary tastes were reliably contrary, antique and severe. In his essay “Of Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen,” William Hazlitt recounts a parlor game with a simple premise that he played with Lamb at a party: Name the person from the past you would most like to meet, and give your reasons. Hazlitt’s essay was published in 1826, and the party in question had occurred about 20 years earlier. Lamb rejected the nominations proposed by another guest: Sir Isaac Newton and John Locke. The other partygoers pushed Lamb to name his choices “from the whole range of English literature,” and he obliges:

“Lamb then named Sir Thomas Browne and Fulke Greville, the friend of Sir Philip Sidney, as the two worthies whom he should feel the greatest pleasure to encounter on the floor of his apartment in their nightgowns and slippers, and to exchange friendly greetings with them.”

Lamb explains: “The reason why I pitch upon these two authors is, that their writings are riddles, and they themselves the most mysterious of personages. They resemble the soothsayers of old, who dealt in dark hints and doubtful oracles; and I should like to ask them the meaning of what no mortal but themselves, I should suppose, can fathom.” Browne and Greville are writers of enormous linguistic gifts. They wrote when English was young and malleable. A writer could forge and hammer words into shapes confined only by the audacity of his imagination. Lamb reveled in such linguistic exaltation.

Last year I attended the memorial service for a colleague who, more than most engineers, was a reader. On the program were printed Romans 12:12, a stanza from Dickinson and Greville’s Caelica LXXXII:

“You that seek what life is in death,
Now find it air that once was breath.
New names unknown, old names gone:
Till time end bodies, but souls none.
            Reader! then make time, while you be,
            But steps to your eternity.”

Greville was born on Oct. 3, 1554, and died on this date, Sept. 30, in 1628.

1 comment:

Conor Kelly said...

Good to see his poetry still being lauded. My favourite poem of his is this sonnet:

In night when colours all to black are cast,
Distinction lost, or gone down with the light ;
The eye a watch to inward senses plac'd,
Not seeing, yet still having power of sight,
Gives vain alarums to the inward sense,
Where fear stirr'd up with witty tyranny,
Confounds all powers, and thorough self-offence
Doth forge and raise impossibility ;
Such as in thick-depriving darkness
Proper reflections of the error be ;
And images of self-confusedness,
Which hurt imaginations only see,
And from this nothing seen, tells news of devils ;
Which but expressions be of inward evils.