Wednesday, September 16, 2020

"To Facilitate Motion and Unite Levity with Strength'

Among the most heavily annotated, underlined and otherwise defaced volumes I own is a Penguin paperback of Dr. Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759), his only novel or novel-like creation. What we think of as novels were still in a fluid state, though quickly solidifying. Tom Jones had been published a decade earlier and Robinson Crusoe thirty years before that. Call Rasselas a philosophical romance or an Eastern fable if that makes you happy. The taxonomy isn’t interesting unless you’re an especially unimaginative grad student in English lit. I bought my copy of Rasselas and read it for the first time in 1971 and have probably read it a dozen times. It's held together with a rubber band.

In 1956, Raymond Queneau edited Pour Une Bibliothèque Idéale. Among the contributors was Marianne Moore, who compiled a list of essential books. One of her selections was Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. In her Paris Review interview, when asked by Donald Hall about the influence of prose on her poetry, Moore says:  

“Prose stylists, very much. Doctor Johnson on Richard Savage: ‘He was in two months illegitimated by the Parliament, and disowned by his mother, doomed to poverty and obscurity, and launched upon the oceans of life only that he might be swallowed by its quicksands, or dashed upon its rocks…it was his peculiar happiness that he scarcely ever found a stranger whom he did not leave a friend; but it must likewise be added that, he had not often a friend long without obliging him to become a stranger.’”

In other words, Moore was deeply read in Johnson. I’m reading her again and find this in the opening lines of “The Frigate Pelican” (1934): “Rapidly cruising or lying on the air there is a bird / that realizes Rasselas’s friend’s project / of wings uniting levity with strength.” The allusion is to Chap. VI, “A Dissertation on the Art of Flying.” The prince invites to the Happy Valley a man we would think of as an engineer or inventor. Johnson calls him both an “artist” and “a man eminent for his knowledge of the mechanic powers.” He assures Rasselas he can devise a flying machine. Moore refers in her poem to this passage:

“The Prince promised secrecy, and waited for the performance, not wholly hopeless of success.  He visited the work from time to time, observed its progress, and remarked many ingenious contrivances to facilitate motion and unite levity with strength.”

We think of levity as lightness of spirit, good humor, frivolity. It is those things but through the nineteenth century it more often meant “the quality or fact of having comparatively little weight; lightness” (OED). The inventor was attempting to copy the engineering of a bird – light and strong – misguided reasoning discredited by the Wright Brothers, among others. Chap. VI closes with these words:

“The artist was every day more certain that he should leave vultures and eagles behind him, and the contagion of his confidence seized upon the Prince.  In a year the wings were finished; and on a morning appointed the maker appeared, furnished for flight, on a little promontory; he waved his pinions awhile to gather air, then leaped from his stand, and in an instant dropped into the lake.  His wings, which were of no use in the air, sustained him in the water; and the Prince drew him to land half dead with terror and vexation.”

1 comment:

Baceseras said...

First I must demur: my philosophic bent won't let me agree that "taxonomy isn't interesting," not even of literary taxonomy. But enough of that.

This is a lovely post to draw attention to a lovely book, Johnson's Rasselas, and three more as or near as lovely mentioned in passing! The anecdote of the inventor is most charming, especially the sentence from on a morning appointed:

<< on a morning appointed the maker appeared, furnished for flight, on a little promontory; he waved his pinions awhile to gather air, then leaped from his stand, and in an instant dropped into the lake. >>

-- the tenderly god's-eye view of futility. It reminds me of the best-ever title of a book about fly-fishing: Standing in in a River Waving a Stick.