Friday, December 15, 2017

`Evanescent Brilliancy and Tremulous Imbecility'

In Lectures on the English Poets, William Hazlitt begins his evisceration of Samuel “Breakfast” Rogers and his poem “The Pleasures of Memory” (1792) rather delicately. He calls him “a very lady-like poet.” Given the female poets of the day and Hazlitt’s chronic idiocy when it came to women, that’s mild. He’s just warming up:

“He is an elegant, but feeble writer. He wraps up obvious thoughts in a glittering cover of fine words; is full of enigmas with no meaning to them; is studiously inverted, and scrupulously far-fetched; and his verses are poetry, chiefly because no particular line, or syllable of them reads like prose.”  

Whenever I read a memorably savage takedown by a critic, I automatically think of the contemporary writers to whom it applies. The two sentences quoted serve as a rubber-stamp review for thousands of recent volumes. As described by Hazlitt, Rogers is the template for today’s poets. But Hazlitt isn’t finished. Poetry like Rogers’ is “a tortuous, tottering, wriggling, fidgety translation of every thing from the vulgar tongue, into all the tantalizing, teasing, tripping, lisping mimminie-pimminie of the highest brilliancy and fashion of poetical diction.”

Let’s pause for a moment to savor “mimminie-pimminie.” As a noun, two citations show up in the Oxford English Dictionary, both by Hazlitt, including the one just quoted. Clearly, Hazlitt had happened upon a useful word. The OED defines it as “finicky or affected writing; verbosity, prolixity,” and calls it an “alteration” of the adjective “niminy-piminy,” and suggests it might derive from “mim”: “reserved or restrained in manner or behaviour, esp. in a contrived or priggish way; affectedly modest, demure.” It also calls the word “imitative of affected speech,” and I find myself wanting to sound the word sniffily through my nose when I say it aloud. Hazlitt has more on his mind:

“You have nothing like truth of nature or simplicity of expression. The fastidious and languid reader is never shocked by meeting, from the rarest chance in the world, with a single homely phrase or intelligible idea. You cannot see the thought for the ambiguity of the language, the figure for the finery, the picture for the varnish. The whole is refined, and frittered away into an appearance of the most evanescent brilliancy and tremulous imbecility.”

It’s a pleasure and a privilege to watch a writer having so good a time.

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