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.

“Beleaguered Cities”

A Poem from My Latest (Re-)Discovery

A Poem from My Latest (Re-)Discovery

On August 4, I wrote a Serendipity posting entitled In Praise of the Short Biography. It was around then that I began reading F. L. Lucas’s In Search of Good Sense: Four Eighteenth Century Characters—Johnson, Chesterfield, Boswell, and Goldsmith. I have now finished the book and fallen quite in love with it. Lucas is the ultimate classicist: There is not even the slightest whiff of the postmodern about him.

I actually find that quite refreshing. Lucas died in 1967. In the early 1960s, he was a name to be reckoned with. I read and loved his book Style while I was in High School, and it had (I hope) a beneficial influence on my own writing style.

Having rediscovered him by sheer chance (scanning the literature stacks of L.A.’s Central Library), I want to read some more of his work in he next year. Below is his most famous poem, entitled “Beleaguered Cities” (1929):

Build your houses, build your houses, build your towns,
Fell the woodland, to a gutter turn the brook,
Pave the meadows, pave the meadows, pave the downs,
Plant your bricks and mortar where the grasses shook,
The wind-swept grasses shook.

Build, build your Babels black against the sky—
But mark yon small green blade, your stones between,
The single spy
Of that uncounted host you have outcast;
For with their tiny pennons waving green
They shall storm your streets at last.

Build your houses, build your houses, build your slums,
Drive your drains where once the rabbits used to lurk,
Let there be no song there save the wind that hums
Through the idle wires while dumb men tramp to work,
Tramp to their idle work,
Silent the siege; none notes it; yet one day
Men from your walls shall watch the woods once more
Close round their prey.

Build, build the ramparts of your giant town;
Yet they shall crumble to the dust before
The battering thistle-down.

As one who has spent many years visiting Mayan and other ruins, I find Lucas’s poetic vision to be profound. He is, after all, a scholar of Classical Greece and Rome who is familiar with many of the ancient sites.

Serendipity: In Praise of the Short Biography

F. L. Lucas (1894-1967)

F. L. Lucas (1894-1967)

I had forgotten classical scholar F. L. Lucas entirely. In high school, I had read his most famous book, Style (1955), and loved it. Today, I was searching the stacks of the Los Angeles Central Library and ran into his The Search for Good Sense: Four Eighteenth Century Characters—Johnson, Chesterfield, Boswell, Goldsmith (1958). It was there I read the following:

On all these men there already exist many books—many of them big. One feels embarrassed at adding to the number. Nothing can be a substitute for Boswell’s Johnson; or for those works on an American scale of magnificence, the Boswell Papers and the fifty volume edition of Walpole’s letters. But, given the brevity and busyness of life, many have not time time to read these large works, or a series of full-scale biographies; still less, to re-read them. There is a need for both long and short biographies, as for large-scale and small-scale maps. And it is not only a question of time. One reads such things not only for the amusement of reading, but also to remember. For this, I feel, biographies tend to grow too long. Just because one is told far more than one really needs, one remembers far less. The impression is blurred by multitudinousness; just as one could not, says Aristotle (with a flash of imagination rare in his austere pages) grasp as a unity a creature ten thousand furlongs in length.

I love to rediscover authors whose existence I had forgotten. Unfortunately, it seems that Lucas has also been forgotten by others as well. I had a hell of a time finding a decent photograph of him on the Internet.

Well, I for one plan to search out more of his books, and the L.A. Central Library is the perfect place for it.  I love his writing style. After all, he influenced mine when I was a teenager in Cleveland. I can only hope that I’ve lived up to his teachings.