Saturday, July 20, 2019

'Nor Cast One Longing Lingering Look Behind'

Msgr. Ronald Knox begins his essay “Birmingham Revisited,” collected in Literary Distractions (1958), like this:

“It is alleged by a friend of my family that I used to suffer from insomnia at the age of four; and that when she asked me how I managed to occupy my time at night I answered ‘I lie awake and think of the past.’”

Knox, a Roman Catholic priest and son of an Anglican bishop, is one of the last century’s unacknowledged masters of English prose. Like Max Beerbohm, Knox calibrates his words until they attain the precise edge of irony he seeks. The passage above arouses in this reader pensive amusement with a hint of sadness. The notion of a four-year-old even having a past to contemplate is funny – and poignant. We’ve all known boys and girls who carry the gravitas of old men and women. They seem to inhabit two ages and have access to precocious wisdom.

Nige has been visiting cemeteries and reading Thomas Gray, the poet I thought of when reading Knox’s essay. Knock “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” if you wish; call it sentimental, pious or sententious, but the poem has touched millions of people, most of whom have not been poets or critics but thoughtful, private, non-aligned readers who value music and consolation. This stanza recalls the four-year-old Knox:     

“For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e’er resigned,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?”

Nige speaks for generations of Gray’s readers: “[Y]ou wonder how many poets of the twentieth century had such appeal, convincing the reader that his lines reflect the things the reader has always him(her)self felt – Kipling of course, and later Betjeman, none of the modernists except maybe sometimes Eliot . . . maybe sometimes Auden and Yeats, even Larkin once in a while? But the century produced nothing with such strong and enduring appeal as Gray’s Elegy. Or did it?”

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