Monday, June 10, 2019

'And So he Gave Up the Ghost'

As strictly a writer of prose, one of the reasons I read poetry is to reinforce the virtue of concision. In the best poems, every syllable counts. Poetry is flab-intolerant. It’s not just a matter of logging feet and stresses. It’s about packing energy into small spaces, and the same applies to prose. Consider the life of Thomas Goffe (1591-1929) as written by John Aubrey in Brief Lives:

“Thomas Goffe, the Poet, was Rector here [East Clandon], he was buried in the Middle of the Chancel, but there is nothing in Remembrance of him; his Wife, it seems, was not so kind.”

There, in brief, you have a novel. Aubrey is faulted for treating gossip as gospel but imagine Henry James or Proust without gossip. Imagine life without gossip. Gossip sweetens the air at home and in the workplace. It lubricates the best conversation. Now the plot thickens:  

“I find by the Register-Book, that he was buried, July 27, 1629. His Wife pretended to fall in Love with him, by hearing him preach. Upon which, said one Thomas Thimble (one of the Squire Bedells [beadles] in Oxford, and his Confident) to him: Do not marry her: if thou dost, she will break your Heart.”

Thank God for Thomas Thimble, who might have been named by Dickens. But does Goffe heed his friend?

“He was not obsequious to his Friend’s sober Advice, but for her Sake altered his Condition and cast Anchor here. One time some of his Oxford Friends made a Visit to him; she look’d upon them with an ill Eye, as if they had come to eat her out of her House and Home (as they say); She provided a Dish of Milk, and some Eggs for Supper, and no more. They perceived her Niggardliness, and that her Husband was inwardly troubled at it (she wearing the Breeches) so they resolv’d to be merry at Supper, and talk all in Latin, and laugh’d exceedingly.”

Every man wants such friends – loyal, perceptive, fun-loving. The wife reacts as you would expect:

“She was so vex’d at their speaking Latin, that she could not hold, but fell out a-Weeping, and rose from the Table. The next Day, Mr. Goffe order’d a better Dinner for
them, and sent for some Wine. They were merry, and his Friends took their final Leave of him. ’Twas no long Time before this Xantippe made Mr. Thimble’s Prediction good; and when he died, the last Words he spake were: Oracle, Oracle, Tom Thimble, and so he gave up the Ghost.”

A novel, a fairy tale, a morality play, a sitcom –all in fewer than three-hundred words.

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