W. H. Auden’s “Good Angel”

Hannay, Lynton; Professor W. P. Ker (1855-1923)

Extending from the reign of Queen Victoria to the aftermath of World War II, Britain produced a bumper crop of great literary scholars and essayists. I have already written about F. L. Lucas (1894-1967). I am currently exploring the work of W. P. Ker, short for William Paton Ker. It was poet W. H. Auden who, in The Dyer’s Hand, penned this tribute to the Scottish scholar:

[w]hat good angel lured me into Blackwell’s [Oxford Bookstore] one afternoon and, from such a wilderness of volumes, picked out for me the essays of W. P. Ker? No other critic whom I have subsequently read could have granted me the same vision of a kind of literary All Souls Night in which the dead, the living and the unborn writers of every age and tongue were seen as engaged upon a common, noble and civilizing task. No other could have so instantaneously aroused in me a fascination with prosody, which I have never lost.

I have been reading Volume I Ker’s Collected Essays, which one of the literature librarians at the Los Angeles Central Library entrusted me to take out, though it belongs to the Reference Collection. I read with interest until, suddenly, beginning with Page 109, I hate pay dirt. No doubt the name of Horace Walpole probably doesn’t mean much to most people, unless they suffered through the gothic The Castle of Otranto in college English. Instead, Ker concentrates on Walpole’s letters. Here he describes the country around Chamonix in the Alpes in a letter to his friend Paget Toynbee on September 18, 1739:

But the road, West, the road! winding round a prodigious mountain, and surrounded with others, all shagged with hanging woods, obscured with pines, or lost in clouds. Below, a torrent breaking through cliffs, and tumbling through fragments of rocks! Sheets of cascades forcing their silver speed down channeled precipices, and hastening into the roughened river at the bottom. Now and then and old footbridge, with a broken rail, a leaning cross, a cottage or the ruin of an hermitage. This sounds too bombastic and too romantic to one who has not seen it, too cold for one that has. If I could send you my letter post between two lovely tempests that echoed each other’s wrath, you might have some idea of this noble roaring scene, as you were reading it.

There are almost no collections of literary letters being written now, because there are no letters. There are scads of e-mails, tweets, text messages—few of which will be (or deserve to be) saved. Ker himself explains why such letters are valuable:

There is an interest in reading a series of letters like this which is not found even in personal memoirs. It may be a childish idea, but somehow in reading letters one seems to be nearer to the reality than in reading any other history. The phantoms of the past rise there less pale and shadowy than in common history, they come nearer to us, the colours deepen, the voices are more distinct. Letters like those of Cicero are not a record of the time; they are the life itself, the very accents of the time. He does not write any more to Atticus or to his brother: he writes to us: he tells us how Caesar came to stay with him, how they talked at dinner, how they spoke, Caesar spoke.

I wasted no time in buying Volume I of Horace Walpole’s collected letters (only 99 cents on Kindle). And I will, of course, finish reading Ker’s Collected Essays.

Ker’s Excellent The Dark Ages (1904)

This is not the first work of Ker’s that I have read. I own an old Mentor paperback edition of his The Dark Ages, and I have read portions of his Epic and Romance (1908), which is still available through Dover Publications.