Tuesday, February 12, 2019

'A Browner Shade the Evening of Life'

Most writers, even those we enjoy and admire, are fated to remain minor or disappear from memory if not always from the dustiest library shelves. This is an unhappy Darwinian truth. Literature is not a democracy, talent is not fame and good wishes count for nothing. For every Tennyson there are ten thousand Arthur O’Shaughnessys. Consider the case of the English poet Henry Austin Dobson (1840-1921). He studied to be a civil engineer, worked for the Board of Trade in London and turned himself into a poet adept at the triolet -- hardly a prescription for Parnassian immortality. That he titled his second collection of verse Proverbs in Porcelain probably didn’t help. By all accounts he was a good, conventional man who worked earnestly at his craft, and no one reads him.

I’m pleased to have found one book by Dobson that deserves to be remembered, at least briefly and by one reader: A Bookman’s Budget (Oxford University Press, 1917). The title grabbed me. In the preface, Dobson calls his little book a “desultory miscellany.” We might call it a commonplace book. Beware of his late-Victorian, high-caloric diction: “certain forgotten causeries,” “bookish versicles,” “a few original adversaria.” An interesting footnote: the book is dedicated to Arthur Waugh, father of Evelyn and Alec. Many of Dobson’s choice of selections are devoted to the theme of pending mortality (he died four years after the book was published). Dobson quotes a passage from Gibbon’s Memoirs of my Life and Writings:

“When I contemplate the common lot of mortality, I must acknowledge that I have drawn a high prize in the lottery of life. The far greater part of the globe is overspread with barbarism or slavery: in the civilised world, the most numerous class is condemned to ignorance and poverty; and the double fortune of my birth in a free and enlightened country, in an honourable and wealthy family, is the lucky chance of an unit against millions. The general probability is about three to one, that a new-born infant will not live to complete his fiftieth year. I have now passed that age, and may fairly estimate the present value of my existence in the three-fold division of mind, body and estate.”

Dobson notes that Gibbon wrote this less than three years before his death at age fifty-six. Like the rest of us, Gibbon worked hard to be optimistic about longevity. In the late eighteenth century in England, life expectancy is estimated to have been about 40 years. Gibbon, notably plump, and sedentary in his habits, was already bucking the odds of his time. A few sentences later in his Memoir he writes:  

“The present is a fleeting moment, the past is no more; and our prospect of futurity is dark and doubtful. This day may possibly be my last: but the laws of probability, so true in general, so fallacious in particular, still allow about fifteen years.”

Gibbon then recalls a meeting he had with the French thinker Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (dead in 1757 at the age of ninety-nine):

“In private conversation, that great and amiable man added the weight of his own experience; and this autumnal felicity might be exemplified in the lives of Voltaire, Hume, and many other men of letters. I am far more inclined to embrace than to dispute this comfortable doctrine. I will not suppose any premature decay of the mind or body; but I must reluctantly observe that two causes, the abbreviation of time, and the failure hope, will always tinge with a browner shade the evening of life.”

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