Friday, November 25, 2022

'There’s Good Writing to Be Done Even Now'

In his Dictionary, Dr. Johnson gives us seventeen definitions of a seemingly simple monosyllable: grace. The first is “favour; kindness,” a usage I sense is lapsing. Next, “favourable influence of God on the human mind” – current but fading, perhaps. Then, “virtue; effect of God’s influence” – the same. Virtue is having a rough time of it, as is its origin. On to the eleventh definition: “embellishment; recommendation; beauty.” Here is Johnson’s citation to illustrate that usage: 

“Set all things in their own peculiar place,

And know that Order is the greatest Grace.”


This is John Dryden translating lines from Horace’s Ars Poetica in his translation of De arte Graphica (1668) by the French writer and painter Charles du Fresnoy. The wisdom is pleasing as applied to literature and it reminded me of Swift’s observation in his “Letter to a Young Clergyman” (1720): “Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style.” In other words, orderliness and grace. He adds:


“[P]rofessors in most arts and sciences are generally the worst qualified to explain their meanings to those who are not of their tribe: a common farmer shall make you understand in three words, that his foot is out of joint, or his collar-bone broken, wherein a surgeon, after a hundred terms of art, if you are not a scholar, shall leave you to seek. It is frequently the same case in law, physic, and even many of the meaner arts.”


“Order is the greatest Grace” likewise applies to social life, which increasingly disdains those virtues. My admiration for Dryden is growing. After Shakespeare and Milton, he is the writer most often cited by Johnson in his Dictionary. I’m reading him again after discovering a poem by the Australian writer John McAuley, “A Letter To John Dryden,” which closes:


“It’s true, dear John, I envy other days

When poets had a public, and the bays

Were fresh and green on many a famous brow:

But there’s good writing to be done even now.

For praise, the cordial word of some few score

Contents me, for I dare not hope for more.

And if, as other times and moods come on,

My verse must fall into oblivion,

I don't suppose I'll care when I am gone.”

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