Nov 212002

Colby Cosh claims today that P.G. Wodehouse is a greater minor writer than Max Beerbohm, thereby betraying a profound misunderstanding of the principles of minor writerdom. Wodehouse was, to begin with, prolific, while Beerbohm tossed off the occasional slim volume in what he gave the impression was his spare time. The affectation of amateurism is indispensable to minor status. Advantage Beerbohm!

Beerbohm also maintained a sideline in caricature, although perhaps his true sideline was writing, one could never be sure. Wodehouse was a writer strictly. Advantage Beerbohm once again! Beerbohm, at Oxford, won the prize for Latin verse, an almost inconceivably minor activity even in 1890; Wodehouse spent his time at Dulwich (Dulwich!) at boxing and cricket. You make the call.

A Christmas Garland demonstrates Beerbohm’s mastery of parody, the most minor of all prose forms. (Henry James, whom Beerbohm parodied in “The Mote in the Middle Distance,” was once asked his opinion on some matter. He pointed out Beerbohm across the room and said, “Ask that young man. He is privy to all my innermost thoughts.”) And finally I put into evidence this description, from Zuleika Dobson, of the heroine:

Zuleika was not strictly beautiful. Her eyes were a trifle large, and their lashes longer than they need have been. An anarchy of small curls was her chevelure, a dark upland of misrule, every hair asserting its rights over a not discreditable brow. For the rest, her features were not at all original. They seemed to have been derived rather from a gallimaufry of familiar models. From Madame la Marquise de Saint-Ouen came the shapely tilt of her nose. The mouth was a mere replica of Cupid’s bow, lacquered scarlet and strung with the littlest pearls. No apple-tree, no wall of peaches, had not been robbed, nor any Tyrian rose-garden, for the glory of Miss Dobson’s cheeks. Her neck was imitation-marble. Her hands and feet were of very mean proportions. She had no waist to speak of.

If Wodehouse ever wrote anything so dainty, so perfectly structured yet seemingly offhanded, so thoroughly minor, then bring it on.

(Update: Good review, in The New Criterion, of the same biography that got Colby off on this to begin with.)

Nov 192002

I cannot follow a certain kind of historical argument against the war, which runs like this:

We supported Saddam when he was fighting against Iran. We supported the mujahedin when they were fighting the Russians against Afghanistan. Therefore we are hypocritical, or wrong, or both, to war on them now.

Our past support for both the Taliban and Saddam has been exaggerated, but let’s leave the facts aside and consider the structure of this argument. What, exactly, obliges us always to support someone we have supported in the past? The British fought against us in the War of 1812; are they hypocrites to ally themselves with us now?

Or perhaps you don’t care for reductios. Very well: the Russians were our allies in World War II and our enemies after the war: same government, different circumstances. The shift was neither hypocritical nor immoral nor foolish. The Taliban were useful to us when they were fighting the Russians. So was Saddam during the Iran-Iraq War, when Khomeini was a bigger nuisance. The Russians leave, Khomeini dies, things change.

One can argue that supporting Saddam was a bad idea then. One can argue that removing Saddam is a bad idea now. One cannot argue that the two have anything to do with each other.

Nov 172002

You hate poetry, like all self-respecting people who remember the English teacher’s pet in high school, the girl who liked rainbows and Christina Rossetti. As Marianne Moore said, “I, too, dislike it.”

Besides, most of the stuff you had to read was lousy. If your education in lyric poetry was anything like mine, it consisted largely of Milton, Keats and Shelley and a swath of second-rate Elizabethans like Sidney and Spenser. The Norton Anthology of English Literature is an undifferentiated and indigestible mass of mediocrity.

That’s why you need this top five list. There are only five because if I posted ten you wouldn’t read any. They are all under 30 lines long because the attention required to read great poetry properly is difficult to sustain. You never had to read them in school. You probably never read them at all. And they’re far better than anything you did have to read. (Full Disclosure: I wouldn’t know most of these poems myself if not for the great poet and critic Yvor Winters, who formed my taste.)

To Heaven, Ben Jonson (1572-1637). This is a Christian poem that one need not be a Christian to appreciate. Jonson addresses the real issue, which is that in middle age people often grow tired of life; Donne, with his neurotic and overdramatized fear of death, seems phony by comparison.

“As imperceptibly as grief,” Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). Only Stevens, in The Snow Man, which I recommend to anyone who thinks vers libre is a contradiction, and in the fourth and eighth stanzas of Sunday Morning, another great poem but too long to make the list, conveys nature’s alien majesty nearly as effectively. This poem also exploits off-rhyme more brilliantly than any poem ever written in English.

“My spirit will not haunt the mound,” Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). Hardy speaking from beyond the grave again, which he does in his poetry quite often. Note the placement of the caesuras in the last line of each stanza. First between the third and fourth syllables, then between the first and second, and finally between the second and third, resolves the poem the way a musical note resolves a chord. Hardy, Wallace Stevens and Thomas Campion are the best metrists in English.

Exhortation, Louise Bogan (1897-1970). The necessity of hatred.

To the Reader, J.V. Cunningham (1911-1985). On one level this poem is about textual scholarship; on another, about the relationship between experience and the wisdom that can be drawn from it.

Nov 172002


Give over seeking bastard joy
Nor cast for fortune’s side-long look.
Indifference can be your toy;
The bitter heart can be your book.
(Its lesson torment never shook.)

In the cold heart, as on a page,
Spell out the gentle syllable
That puts short limit to your rage
And curdles the straight fire of hell,
Compassing all, so all is well.

Read how, though passion sets in storm
And grief’s a comfort, and the young
Touch at the flint when it is warm,
It is the dead we live among,
The dead given motion, and a tongue.

The dead, long trained to cruel sport
And the crude gossip of the grave;
The dead, who pass in motley sort,
Whom sun nor sufferance can save.
Face them. They sneer. Do not be brave.

Know once for all: their snare is set
Even now; be sure their trap is laid;
And you will see your lifetime yet
Come to their terms, your plans unmade,
And be belied, and be betrayed.

–Louise Bogan