Friday, March 31, 2023

'Books That Are As Altars Where We Kneel'

“Perhaps you would like to know what I have been reading since I last wrote you.” 

That’s not an overture you can safely make to just anyone. It can prove to be an effective  conversation-killer. I’m happy to hear what some friends and my middle son are reading because I know their taste in books is good (that is, similar to mine). They’re sturdy, exploratory readers who don’t stick to a single narrow genre or subject. I trust their judgments and often read what they have recommended.


Edwin Arlington Robinson is writing to his friend George W. Latham on March 31, 1894. The future poet is twenty-four and had been forced the previous year to drop out of Harvard after the death of his father. It’s the letter of a young man from the provinces – Gardiner, Maine. He’s smart and still unformed, and dreams of becoming a writer. His reading is fairly ambitious:    


“I fear I have been using my eyes a little too much, but somehow I cannot keep away from the book-shelves in my room. You may judge for yourself whether this list is too long for a man with my infirmity: Daudet: Jack, Tartarin de Tarascon; De Musset: Pierre et Camille, Croisilles, On ne sauraita penser de tout, and some of his poems; Prévost: Manon Lescaut; Milton: Samson Agonistes; Swinburne: Atalanta in Calydon; Cowper: The Task, Book I.”


A sophomore’s list, though not sophomoric. Cowper’s presence is no surprise. He’s the one writer named by Robinson in whom I see the affinity. Cowper writes in The Task (1785): “Books are not seldom talismans and spells.” He's contrasting meditation and books, and favors the former. Here’s the larger context:


“Knowledge dwells

In heads replete with thoughts of other men;

Wisdom in minds attentive to their own.

Knowledge, a rude unprofitable mass,

The mere materials with which wisdom builds,

Till smooth’d and squared and fitted to its place,

Does but encumber whom it seems t’enrich.

Knowledge is proud that he has learn’d so much;

Wisdom is humble that he knows no more.

Books are not seldom talismans and spells

By which the magic art of shrewder wits

Holds an unthinking multitude enthrall’d.”


Robinson would go on to write several poems about writers he admired, including Verlaine, Zola and Thomas Hood. The best is the sonnet “George Crabbe,” devoted to Jane Austen’s favorite poet:


“Give him the darkest inch your shelf allows,

Hide him in lonely garrets, if you will,

But his hard, human pulse is throbbing still

With the sure strength that fearless truth endows.

In spite of all fine science disavows,

Of his plain excellence and stubborn skill

There yet remains what fashion cannot kill,

Though years have thinned the laurel from his brows.


“Whether or not we read him, we can feel

From time to time the vigor of his name

Against us like a finger for the shame

And emptiness of what our souls reveal

In books that are as altars where we kneel

To consecrate the flicker, not the flame.”

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