Monday, December 06, 2021

'But One May Be an Apprentice'

“There cannot be too much excellence.” 

Truer than ever in our slipshod age. I’m always puzzled by people who can’t write but insist on doing so in public, an obvious gesture of contempt for readers and absence of self-respect. What you do at home in the privacy of a notebook, of course, is your business. We’re all clumsy at first, and spontaneity in poetry and prose is no virtue. The rules change when you impose what you’ve written on readers. Whether any of us attain excellence is another question. Here is Marianne Moore’s next sentence:


Wilhelm Meister, Phineas Phinn, The Golden Bowl, The Lost Girl, Dubliners, Esther Waters, we may admire, and the shock of admiration may serve us as an incentive to writing, quite as may that which has been experienced by us; but like the impelling emotion of actual experience, literary excitement must be assimilated before it can be reproduced.”


You can quibble with Moore’s exemplars of excellence. Every serious reader carries around an alternative list. I’ve never read the D.H. Lawrence and George Moore titles. Marianne Moore is suggesting – rightly, I think -- that the “shock of admiration” we experience when reading excellent books can spur us to write and strive for excellence when doing so. “Experiences recounted verbatim,” she writes, “are not fiction and verbiage is not eloquence.”


Moore is writing in the April 1926 issue of The Dial, the magazine she edited from 1925 to 1929. Nominally, it’s a review of two editions of Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Moore’s gift for aphorism is evident even in casual, connecting phrases: “a fondness for compactness and severity of format” and “Boswell’s folly is in its egregious indocility.” Moore has a knack for choosing not the approximate but the precise word. “In this age of curiosity, of excursiveness and discursiveness,” she writes, “one is impelled by the thoroughness even more than by the virtuosity of Doctor Johnson. . . . He felt, says Boswell, that if accuracy is to be habitual, one must never suffer any careless expression to escape one or attempt to deliver thoughts without arranging them in the clearest manner.” Moore’s prose honors by exemplifying Johnson’s style (and, in a very different key, Henry James’):


“In his writings we have so competent a grasp of what was to be said, that we have the effect of italics without the use of them. There is also an abundant naturalness, and a simplicity which like that of Abraham Lincoln’s, was not ashamed to be vulnerable to distress.”


Moore’s final judgment of Johnson:


“On cannot perhaps be an ‘unofficial head of English literature,’ but one may be an apprentice, inferring much from the analytical thinking and ‘spoken essays’ [Johnson’s recorded conversations in Boswell’s Life] of one who was, of one who remarked in speaking of Dryden: ‘He who excels has a right to teach, and he whose judgment is incontestable, may without usurpation, examine and decide.’”


[Moore’s review can be found in The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore (ed. Patricia C. Willis, Viking, 1986).]

1 comment:

Richard Zuelch said...

The opening quotation reminded me of this: "Rock journalism is writers who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read." - Frank Zappa (1940-1993). Another lament at the lack of excellence and the lowering of standards.