Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The hot fudge of literary lectures

"Beetles, minerals, gases, may be classified; and to have them classified is not only convenient but a genuine advance of knowledge. But if you had to make a beetle, as men are making poetry, how much would classification help?"--Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, "On the Capital Difficulty of Prose"
I had started reading Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's On The Art of Writing online, but didn't manage more than the first few lectures until I finally ordered a copy of the book.  Some books are like that for me: I just prefer them with covers.  Also, Helene Hanff's description of her "wait here" approach to Q worried me; maybe it would take me eleven years to get to the end.

But Lectures V and VI are simply amazing.

To avoid such abstraction, perhaps I should rather say that they're a banana split of words and language.

"For all these writers were alive: and I tell you it is an inspiriting thing to be alive and trying to write English."--Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
V.  Interlude: On Jargon might mislead in its title, because it's just as much about concrete language in poetry as it is about avoiding obfuscation.  Why is Shakespeare easier to read than Marlowe?  He uses more concrete imagery.  Marlowe:  "She’s sad as one long used to ’t, and she seems  / Rather to welcome the end of misery / Than shun it: a behaviour so noble / As gives a majesty to adversity..."  Shakespeare:  "She never told her love, / But let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud, / Feed on her damask cheek; she pined in thought, / And with a green and yellow melancholy / She sat like Patience on a monument / Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?"  Sir Arthur points out that even when Shakespeare uses an abstract word like "concealment," he quickly balances it out with "worms."

But the best yet is  VI.  On the Capital Difficulty of Prose.  "I feel indeed somewhat as Gideon must have felt when he divided his host on the slopes of Mount Gilead, warning back all who were afraid," says Sir Arthur.  "In asking the remnant to follow as attentively as they can, I promise only that, if Heaven carry us safely across, we shall have ‘broken the back’ of the desert."

He talks about some of the marvellous early writing in English, both in verse and in prose, and how there was still something of a gap both in words and in thought.  There were early poems about "love," but the concept of "love" was generally an unsophisticated one, or at least it was not able to be explored deeply within the limits of English as it was then.  The Renaissance, with the rediscovery of classical literature, bridged the gap, and opened the way for Shakespeare: writers now asked, what is love?  Our poetry moved from the 15th-century "The Nut-Brown Maid"

"And sure all tho that do not so
True lovers are they none:
For, in my mind, of all mankind
I love but you alone"

to Shakespeare's

"Thy bosom is endearéd with all hearts
Which I by lacking have supposéd dead:
And there reigns Love, and all Love’s loving parts,
And all those friends which I thought buriéd."

And the door that opened for poetry, also opened the way to a new standard in prose: the King James Bible.

Yes, the Bible.  That same dangerous, hate-filled Bible that the province of Alberta wants excised.  Sir Arthur believed that, though it was a translation rather than an original English work, the Authorized Version was still the first post-Renaissance, full-bore, with-nuts-on-top piece of English prose.
"When a nation has achieved this manner of diction, those rhythms for its dearest beliefs, a literature is surely established. Just there I find the effective miracle, making the blind to see, the lame to leap. Wyclif, Tyndale, Coverdale and others before the forty-seven had wrought. The Authorised Version, setting a seal on all, set a seal on our national style, thinking and speaking. It has cadences homely and sublime, yet so harmonises them that the voice is always one. Simple men—holy and humble men of heart like Isaak Walton or Bunyan—have their lips touched and speak to the homelier tune. Proud men, scholars,—Milton, Sir Thomas Browne—practice the rolling Latin sentence; but upon the rhythms of our Bible they, too, fall back....The Bible controls its enemy Gibbon as surely as it haunts the curious music of a light sentence of Thackeray’s. It is in everything we see, hear, feel, because it is in us, in our blood."
Go, read, enjoy.

Linked from the Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival at Jimmie's Collage.


Jeanne said...

I've been wanting to read Q since learning about him in 84, Charing Cross Rd, but your post makes me wonder whether he is too erudite for my poor little brain. It sounds fascinating, though.

I do agree that some books are online books and others need paper. Books that you want to jump about it need paper.

Mama Squirrel said...

Sir Arthur is definitely challenging but not impossible. He also has a sense of humour; I think he probably gave the students some occasional laughs. That's why I said "banana split" instead of something like "tough meat."

Woman of the House said...

I forwarded this post to my 15yo daughter, who has read this book and adores Q. We ordered his re-tellings of fairy tales for her for Christmas, and it sits in a place of honor in her room. :)

Mama Squirrel said...

Dear Woman of the House,

Thanks for stopping by! I'm glad to hear that your daughter liked the book too.

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