Friday, December 13, 2019

'A Chartered Libertine, and a Law Unto Himself'

To us the prose style reads a little stilted, sometimes sentimental, even moralistic, but I love the way certain English profs used to write. The time, 1914, was Edwardian but the sensibility at work remained Victorian in the best sense: “Lamb’s friends loved him and admired him; and yet they had more than a suspicion that in the weightier matters they were his superiors. They were not. Lamb was, among other things, one of the wisest men of his time.” Today, this would never do. With-it academics don’t speak of wisdom.

Hugh Walker is writing in The English Essay and Essayists (J.M. Dent & Sons, 1915). He was born the year of the siege of Sevastopol and died just months before Hitler invaded Poland. In his introduction Walker tries with little success to define the essay, though he does cite Dr. Johnson’s attempt, which is still my favorite: “a loose sally of the mind.” For three and a half pages he rambles about, trying out definitions, finding none comprehensive, which seems appropriate to so idiosyncratic a form. But he does teach me a new word: “It is the literary form of the pococurante.” News to me, but the OED proves him right: “a careless, indifferent, or nonchalant person.” It probably derives from Seigneur Pococurante, “a fictional apathetic Venetian senator in Voltaire’s Candide.”

Walker refers to “essays more strictly so called in which we do detect a special literary form.” He names Montaigne and Lamb as the embodiment of this quality. Modern scholars would find his taxonomy flabby and inexact, but essays seem to be the formless form – not chaotic but answering in a very private way to a writer’s sensibility. No one ever wrote like A.J. Liebling, V.S. Pritchett or Hubert Butler. They make their own rules and cavalierly violate them when it serves their purpose. Walker nicely quotes his fellow Scot, Alexander Smith (1830-1867), in his “On the Writing of Essays”:

“The essay, as a literary form, resembles the lyric, in so far as it is moulded by some central mood—whimsical, serious, or satirical. Give the mood, and the essay, from the first sentence to the last, grows around it as the cocoon grows around the silkworm. The essay-writer is a chartered libertine, and a law unto himself.”

The essay today is enduring a dry spell. We have Joseph Epstein and – who? Guy Davenport is dead. Who is our Swift, Hazlitt or Beerbohm?

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