Wednesday, January 03, 2018

`Never So with a Pen in His Hand'

On New Year’s Day a friend wrote to tell me he was reading Macaulay’s essay on Dr. Johnson again. He first read it as a student, an experience he describes as “the moment that I fully understood the power of literature.” Then he clarifies things:

“When Dickinson says that she recognizes great poetry when it feels as if the top of her head is coming off, I think she is right because I felt the same way as I read Macaulay’s essay. His prose had a physical effect on me. It sounds preposterous, histrionic, but to me it seemed, and it still does feel, that I had crossed the demarcation line and moved into another country.”

Others will recall similar moments in their reading lives. In my experience, they are not one-shot deals, though I’ve learned you can’t go looking for them. Surprise is intrinsic to the revelation. I learned that lesson again six or seven years ago reading C.H. Sisson’s poems for the first time. It’s a morale boost, a shot of inspiration that reminds us why we started reading in the first place and have never been able to stop.  

Strictly by coincidence, over the Christmas break, Andrew Rickard at Graveyard Masonry posted a passage from Through the Magic Door (1907) by Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. I haven’t read those stories in fifty years, and the title suggests the book might be devoted to spiritualism, Conan Doyle’s hobbyhorse. Rather, it’s about his lifelong love of books. I borrowed the volume from the library when it reopened on Tuesday. In the first chapter, Conan Doyle writes:       

“I can remember that when I visited London at the age of sixteen the first thing I did after housing my luggage was to make a pilgrimage to Macaulay’s grave, where he lies in Westminster Abbey, just under the shadow of Addison, and amid the dust of the poets whom he had loved so well. It was the one great object of interest which London held for me. And so it might well be, when I think of all I owe him. It is not merely the knowledge and the stimulation of fresh interests, but it is the charming gentlemanly tone, the broad, liberal outlook, the general absence of bigotry and of prejudice. My judgment now confirms all that I felt for him then.”

Conan Doyle confirms my friend’s experience. I wonder if there is a sixteen-year-old in the world today who harbors such enthusiasm and reverence for a great writer. And I mean great. Tolkien, Bradbury and Rowling don’t count. The happy serendipity continues when Conan Doyle goes on to quote Macaulay’s essay on reading Croker’s edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson:   

“As we close it, the club-room is before us, and the table on which stands the omelet for Nugent, and the lemons for Johnson. There are assembled those heads which live forever on the canvass of Reynolds. There are the spectacles of Burke and the tall thin form of Langton, the courtly sneer of Beauclerk, and the beaming smile of Garrick, Gibbon tapping his snuff-box, and Sir Joshua with his trumpet in his ear. In the foreground is that strange figure which is as familiar to us as the figures of those among whom we have been brought up, the gigantic body, the huge massy face, seamed with the scars of disease, the brown coat, the black worsted stockings, the grey wig with the scorched foretop, the dirty hands, the nails bitten and pared to the quick. We see the eyes and mouth moving with convulsive twitches; we see the heavy form rolling; we hear it puffing; and then comes the `Why, sir!’ and the `What then, sir?’ and the `No, sir!’ and the `You don't see your way through the question, sir!’”

Almost nobly, Conan Doyle defends Boswell against Macaulay, who called him “servile and impertinent, shallow and pedantic, a bigot and a sot.” Macaulay can hardly believe that such a man wrote the greatest of all biographies. Conan Doyle dismisses all that and writes the obvious retort: “They say that [Boswell] was a fool and a coxcomb in private life. He is never so with a pen in his hand.” And here is his succinct sketch of Johnson the conversationalist:

“He was a great talker – but his talk was more properly a monologue. It was a discursive essay, with perhaps a few marginal notes from his subdued audience.”

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