Monday, December 19, 2011

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 

I read all five of Dickens’ “Christmas Books” and I discovered that the one everybody knows, A Christmas Carol, really is the best of them. And this sets my mind galloping off on one of its favourite hobby-horses.

Here’s to the Common Reader!!

Here’s to Popular Taste!!

In the short run the Common Reader is often dead wrong, and gives her vote to trashy bestsellers and tosh. But in the long run, she’s usually dead right.

Why are Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth better known than his Cymbeline and Love’s Labours Lost? Because they’re better plays, that’s why. The Common Reader has said so for four hundred years. Why do we still read Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale and not his Endymion? Same reason, over two hundred years. Why is it that that vulgarian Dickens is still gobbled up in dozens of new editions, while George Meredith, whom late Victorian intellectuals thought the tops, is now for Eng Lit specialists only? Same reason, over one hundred and fifty years. And didn’t all the highbrows say in the 1920s and 1930s that Charles Morgan was the sine qua non of highbrow novel writing, while that Evelyn Waugh bounder was a cheap sardonic joker? Guess which one still gets read.

Over the long run, it’s Popular Taste that makes the classics. Academic critics can direct their students to read texts and keep the memory of certain books alive longer than might be the case without such an academic push. But even in Academe, students are soon aware of which texts are being studied for the sake of historical interest or academic critics and which because they still live and speak to us.

Literary classics are the books and poems that literate people read by choice fifty or more years after they were first published – not the books and poems they are told to read. So I steal the term that Virginia Woolf used for her series of engaging literary essays and speak of the Common Reader.

She usually knows what’s what.

I will illustrate all these propositions in typically eccentric fashion.

A while back I took it into my head to read all the poems of the eighteenth century poet William Collins (1721-59). I had read and re-read his famous Ode to Evening and had decided it was one of my favourite poems, for all its antique and formal vocabulary. The “short shrill shriek” of the bat and the hailing of evening’s “genial lov’d return” and the mention of “Winter yelling thro’ the troublous air” are my favourite lines. It’s one of those twilight poems, like Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard, and in a way I’m inclined to think it’s better than Gray.

Often enough I’d encountered a handful of Collins’ poems in the standard anthologies, where the Ode to Evening always starred, together with the short verses which begin  “How sleep the brave who sink to rest/ By all their country’s wishes blest” and sometimes accompanied by bits of his verses on Scottish Highland scenery.

I was partly stimulated to read Collins’ collected poems by Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched with Fire – Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament (1993), a book about the effects of mental unbalance on artistic creativity. Knowing virtually nothing about  Collins before I read Redfield, I was surprised to find that he was “melancholy-mad”, that is, a severe depressive. I then read Oswald Doughty’s British Council pamphlet about him (1964), which gave a full account of his life, and found myself even more intrigued. Collins clearly was a wounded man – a reasonably good student at Oxford, and expected to do great things, but “indolent”, which seems to have been indicative of his depression and the torpor and lack of focus that it brings. He left Oxford to seek literary fame in London, but did not achieve much there, although he did become acquainted with major literary figures. In his lifetime, his highest point of fame may have been when his ode The Passions was performed to music at Oxford.

When reduced to a very low financial ebb, he survived because he came into a modest legacy from his uncle, which kept him to the end of his days.

It’s not hard to read all his surviving poems. Shorn of critical commentary, they take up about 45 pages in the edition I got hold of, including his juvenilia. Collins had written all he would write by his early 30s. He was eventually quite insane and was locked up. Apparently he destroyed many poems that others had heard him read aloud, thinking they were not good enough. Apparently his sister – who had the same melancholy temperament – destroyed more of his poems after his death at the age of 38.

I read his collected poems carefully and what did I find?

First there were poems written when he was 17, in iambic pentameters and rhyming couplets, pointing morals in picturesquely exotic settings and with a few felicitous lines. (His adolescent description of Chastity for example - “Cold is her breast, like flowers that drink the dew, /A silken veil conceals her from the view.”).

Then there were more mature works, Odes, most of them addressed to personifications of abstractions – to Mercy, to Fear, to Pity, to the Poetic Character, to Simplicity. Their syntax is nearly always complicated, the allegorical machinery confused, and the imagery conventional Classicism. Once again there are a few good lines here and there. I happily buy Collins’ description of Aeschylus, the patriotic Greek tragedian, in his Ode to Fear:-

 “Yet he, the bard who first invok’d thy name,
Disdain’d in Marathon its power to feel:
For not alone he nurs’d the poet’s flame,
But reach’d from Virtue’s hand the patriot’s steel

Stirring Augustan stuff.

I am loath to fit poets into a slot. Collins has been teamed with Thomas Gray, Christopher Smart, William Cowper, Thomas Chatterton and others as types of the proto-Romantic 18th. century poet driven mad as he strained at the bounds of Classicism. I genuinely admire (I would almost say - revere) any poet who can write even one or two poems that are still worth reading over 250 years after his death; especially a poet whose mind was clogged by habitual depression.

But having read carefully all of Collins’ poems, the best I can say for most of them is that they are quite predictable early eighteenth century stuff. And they do not live.

So what does all this have to do with the Common Reader and Popular Taste?

After diligently reading all of Collins I conclude that, as so often, the anthologists prove to be annoyingly accurate.

Collins’ greatest poem really is the much-anthologised Ode to Evening, with not much else coming anywhere near it. Of his collected works, the poem I most regret is the long Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, because I think it contains some of his best writing and is on a theme where he could describe physical realities rather than straining at abstractions. The regret is that it is incomplete, was never published in his lifetime, and is filled with gaps which he once intended to fill out.

But even here, I find the anthologists have got it right. In the New Oxford Book of English Verse, Helen Gardner reprints two stanzas from the Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland and gives them a title of her own devising, The Stormy Hebrides. They include one of Collins’ best stanzas :-

 “Unbounded is thy range; with varied stile
Thy muse may, like those feath’ry tribes that spring
From their rude rocks, extend her skirting wing
Round the moist marge of each cold Hebrid isle,
To that hoar pile which still its ruin shows:
In whose small vaults a pigmy-folk is found,
Whose bones the delver with his spade upthrows,
And culls them, wondr’ing, from the hallow’d ground.

If I had wanted to read the best of Collins, I could have stuck with the anthologies and the selections that are frequently reprinted. The Common Reader triumphs once again. The bits that are worth reading are the bits that are most often read.

Here’s to William Collins, stuffy, depressed and finally mad as a meat-axe, but still writing a couple of great poems.

And here’s to the Common Reader, who knows what’s worth reading when she reads it.

The anthologies prove it.

[Reid’s Reader will be taking a three-week holiday break. The next posting will be on Monday 16 January]

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