Monday, August 06, 2018

'Written As a Conversation is Maintained'

“The purpose for which letters are written when no intelligence is communicated or business transacted, is to preserve in the minds of the absent either love or esteem; to excite love we must impart pleasure, and to raise esteem we must discover abilities.”

There was a spell many years ago when I wrote a letter a day, sometimes more, hoping to preserve in her mind “either love or esteem,” preferably the former. Letter writing came easily, a natural extension of conversation. Starting a letter felt like resuming our interrupted talk. Needless to say, I was young. Putting aside emails, I’m certain I haven’t written so ardent, lyrical and fluent a letter in decades. It has all been “business transacted.” The letter is a form nearing extinction. The passage above is from the final paragraph of The Rambler #152, published Aug. 31, 1751. Here is the conclusion of Johnson’s essay:

“Pleasure will generally be given as abilities are displayed by scenes of imagery, points of conceit, unexpected sallies, and artful compliments. Trifles always require exuberance of ornament; the building which has no strength can be valued only for the grace of its decorations. The pebble must be polished with care, which hopes to be valued as a diamond; and words ought surely to be laboured, when they are intended to stand for things.”

“Unexpected sallies” is perfect but may require explanation. In his Dictionary, Johnson defined essay as “a loose sally of the mind; an irregular undigested piece; not a regularly and orderly composition.” In other words, an essay, blog post or even a superior email or Tweet. All are artlessly artful. The OED offers many definitions. Here is the closest to Johnson’s spirit: “a sprightly or audacious utterance or literary composition; now usually, a brilliant remark, a witticism.” When he writes that “trifles always require exuberance of ornament,” we recall that email that charmed us by its manner of expression. A fact put bluntly may bore us. The same fact, charged with wit, is amusingly memorable. Among the epistolary masters in English, only a notch below Keats, Lamb and Flannery O’Connor, is William Cowper. On this date, Aug. 6, in 1780, he writes to his friend the Rev. William Unwin:

“You like to hear from me: this is a very good reason why I should write. But I have nothing to say: this seems equally a good reason why I should not. Yet if you had alighted from your horse at our door this morning, and at this present writing, being five o’clock in the afternoon, had found occasion to say to me ‘Mr. Cowper, you have not spoke since I came in; have you resolved never to speak again?’ it would be but a poor reply, if in answer to the summons I should plead inability as my best and only excuse.”

Friends and loved ones do not expect manifestoes, tracts, laundry lists, instruction manuals or white papers. All they ask for is a little piece of us, wittily expressed. As Cowper puts it: “when I have any epistolary business in hand, that a letter may be written upon any thing or nothing just as that any thing or nothing happens to occur. . . . A letter is written as a conversation is maintained, or a journey performed; not by preconcerted or premeditated means, a new contrivance, or an invention never heard of before, but merely by maintaining a progress, and resolving as a postilion does, having once set out, never to stop till we reach the appointed end.”

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