Monday, July 13, 2020

'Friends, Books, a Garden, and Perhaps His Pen'

A retired seventy-seven-year-old reader who lives alone writes to ask how she might occupy herself during our unending enforced solitude. She foresaw some of my suggestions. “I have reread all of Dickens and what I own of Trollope,” she writes. “I have listened to all of my recordings of operas. I work in my garden, but that becomes difficult in the heat.” What I know of her suggests she is proud and values her self-sufficiency. Her health appears solid, and she wears a mask during her rare trips out of the house. I have promised to ship her a box of books, including a few surprises. She has never read Proust and might be among his ideal readers.

William Cowper is the troubled, gregarious laureate of solitude. This passage from Book III of The Task (1785) comes to mind:

“How various his employments, whom the world
Calls idle; and who justly, in return,
Esteems that busy world an idler too!
Friends, books, a garden, and perhaps his pen,
Delightful industry enjoy’d at home
And nature in her cultivated trim
Dress’d to his taste, inviting him abroad—
Can he want occupation who has these?”

My edition of Cowper footnotes the fourth line just quoted with two lines from James Thomson’s “Autumn” (The Seasons, 1730): “A friend, a book, a stealing hour secure, / And mark them down for wisdom.” Dr. Johnson is amusing in his “Life of Thomson”:

“The benevolence of Thomson was fervid, but not active; he would give on all occasions what assistance his purse would supply; but the offices of intervention or solicitation he could not conquer his sluggishness sufficiently to perform. The affairs of others, however, were not more neglected than his own. He had often felt the inconveniences of idleness, but he never cured it; and was so conscious of his own character, that he talked of writing an Eastern Tale of The Man who loved to be in Distress.”

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