Friday, October 21, 2016

What the Years Have Made

When I was child, I had friends my age, but I still preferred the company of adults. I recall visits where the children went off to play games, but I stayed at the dining room table or in the kitchen to hear what the adults had to say. And inevitably, at some point in the evening, what they had to say would trouble me.

Environmental catastophes. The terminal stupidity of domestic and foreign policy. Nuclear melt-downs -- remember Three Mile Island? Wars, wars, wars. The thermonuclear suicide of the human species. These adults discussed the topics as if they were discussing private matters that no one else around them seemed willing to mention, and I can recall the shift in mood, the hushed voices, that always preceded these frightening conversations.

Decades later, I have become such an adult.

Monday, October 17, 2016

What's New?

Nothing is old-fashioned if we meet it with a young perspective. A Jacobean tragedy, a Parnassian poem, a silent film, a late-Romantic symphony: for the right sort of mind, these are living discoveries, and they can often say more to us, in our midnight moods, than the voices of today.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Economy, Clarity, Force

I agree with Lucas, here, and would go further to say that style is what we need to express our own experience, our own imagery and ideas, with economy, clarity, and force. Modern styles might not allow us to be ourselves.

There are poets who can write vitally of, and in the style of, their own age; there remain others for whom it is equally essential to escape from it. Generations of critics have lost their heads and tempers squabbling which is right. Surely both. Surely it is understandable that a poet may wish to break away to some magic islet of his own, where he can feel himself monarch of all he surveys, because he shares it only with the dead. For they do not cramp our style as the living can. We can learn from them without fearing to become too imitatively like them; and the older the dead, the easier they are to elbow aside when we turn to write ourselves, as if their ghosts wore thinner and more shadowy with the years.

-- From Studies French and English, by F. L. Lucas.
Books For Libraries Press, New York, 1969 (Original publication, 1934).

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Not Merely in Bulk, But in Specific Gravity Also

Macaulay reviews a book that could almost be a modern fantasy bestseller -- at least, one that might succeed if it were padded out to meet the requirements of today's market.

The work of Dr. Nares * has filled us with astonishment similar to that which Captain Lemuel Gulliver felt when first he landed in Brobdingnag, and saw corn as high as the oaks in the New Forest, thimbles as large as buckets, and wrens of the bulk of turkeys. The whole book, and every component part of it, is on a gigantic scale. The title is as long as an ordinary preface: the prefatory matter would furnish out an ordinary book; and the book contains as much reading as an ordinary library. We cannot sum up the merits of the stupendous mass of paper which lies before us better than by saying that it consists of about two thousand closely printed quarto pages, that it occupies fifteen hundred inches cubic measure, and that it weighs sixty pounds avoirdupois. Such a book might, before the deluge, have been considered as light reading by Hilpa and Shallum. But unhappily the life of man is now three-score years and ten; and we cannot but think it somewhat unfair in Dr. Nares to demand from us so large a portion of so short an existence.

Compared with the labour of reading through these volumes, all other labour -- the labour of thieves on the treadmill, of children in factories, of negroes in sugar plantations -- is an agreeable recreation. There was, it is said, a criminal in Italy, who was suffered to make his choice between Guicciardini and the galleys. He chose the history. But the war of Pisa was too much for him. He changed his mind, and went to the oar. Guicciardini, though certainly not the most amusing of writers, is a Herodotus or a Froissart, when compared with Dr. Nares. It is not merely in bulk, but in specific gravity also, that these memoirs exceed all other human compositions. On every subject which the Professor discusses, he produces three times as many pages as another man; and one of his pages is as tedious as another man's three. His book is swelled to its vast dimensions by endless repetitions, by episodes which have nothing to do with the main action, by quotations from books which are in every circulating library, and by reflections which, when they happen to be just, are so obvious that they must necessarily occur to the mind of every reader. He employs more words in expounding and defending a truism than any other writer would employ in supporting a paradox. Of the rules of historical perspective, he has not the faintest notion. There is neither foreground nor background in his delineation. The wars of Charles the Fifth in Germany are detailed at almost as much length as in Robertson's life of that prince. The troubles of Scotland are related as fully as in M'Crie's Life of John Knox. It would be most unjust to deny that Dr. Nares is a man of great industry and research; but he is so utterly incompetent to arrange the materials which he has collected that he might as well have left them in their original repositories.

-- From Critical And Miscellaneous Essays, Volume II, by T. Babington Macaulay. D. Appleton and Company, New York, 1857.

* Memoirs of the Life and Administration of the Right Honourable William Cecil Lord Burghley, Secretary of State in the Reign of King Edward the Sixth, and Lord High Treasurer, of England in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth. Containing an historical View of the Times in which he lived, and of the many eminent and illustrious Persons with whom he was connected; with Extracts from his Private and Official Correspondence and other Papers, now first published from the Originals. By the Reverend EDWARD NARES, D.D., Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Oxford. 3 vols. 4to. London: 1828, 1832.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Your Contemplative Snow, Your Winter Fire

An early version of the sonnet posted here has a major technical flaw: the repetition of two end-rhymes within the body of the verse (Your and seems). I've tried to fix it.

Within the loving cradle of my hands,
The roundness of your head is all entire:
One gentle shape, and all you might require
To house the inner skies and hidden lands,
The river lights, the pebbled autumn strands,
Your contemplative snow, your winter fire,
The rising, fading clouds of your desire --
All held within, as habit understands.

Yet there it is, behind your eyes: the gleam
Of seas that overwhelm the level coast,
The storms that shake the rigid trees apart.
Concealed within the woman that you seem,
A mob of wounded women forms a host,
To batter down the bulwarks of your heart.