Monday, March 22, 2010

"For some are so gently melancholy, that in all their carriage, and to the outward apprehension of others it can hardly be discerned."

{Photo by rocketlass.}

The fickleness of Chicago's perennial false spring, as perhaps best evidenced by the delusions of returning robins and the stubborn redoubts of filthy snow curled about the gravestones in the cemetery behind my apartment, brought on a thoughts of melancholy on Sunday--thoughts which, as they tend to do, led me to Robert Burton, who reminds us that "It comes to many in fits, and goes; to others it is continuate:many in spring and fall only are molested." Burton himself led, inevitably, to Anthony Powell. It is time, hints the weather, to recommence my perpetual re-reading of A Dance to the Music of Time.

Next up is the fourth volume, which, while I've defended it before from its overly ardent detractors, is nonetheless the least overtly satisfying of the batch. There are pleasures, many pleasures, to be found there, but they are for the most part the pleasures of life drawing in rather than of life setting out: if the first two books are about discovery and attempts to set the terms on which one is to enter the lists of adult life, and the third about the catastrophes and losses that begin to assail us, then the fourth is about realizing that the shadows of our day are growing longer, even as we watch closely those who are still learning the earliest steps of the dance.

So it seemed right to begin the fourth volume by returning briefly to the close of the third, the end-of-war memorial service at St Paul's that closes The Military Philosophers. It's a moving scene, less for what happens there than for the way that, prompted by the familiar hymns and ritual words of the service, narrator Nick Jenkins lets his mind wander, memories of the war and its losses side by side with casually habitual close readings of the lyrics, a reminder that even at life's most solemn moments, it is twined about with the words we've used to try to understand it.

Early in the service, Nick recalls his old friend Stringham:
Hymns always made me think of Stringham, addicted to quoting their imagery within the context of his own life.

"Hymns describe people and places so well," he used to say. "Nothing else quite like them. What could be better, for example, on the subject of one's friends and relations than:

    Some are sick and some are sad,
    And some have never loved one well,
    And some have lost the love they had.

The explicitness of the categories is marvellous. Then that wonderful statement: 'fading is the world's best pleasure.' One sees very clearly which particular pleasure its writer considered the best."
For an incurably rackety and fragile character like Stringham, such kidding carries notes of whistling past the graveyard; he would have fared far, far better in a world of precision and order.

A quotation from Blake--"as impenetrable as Isaiah; in his way, more so"--brings on general reflections on poetry, "its changes in form and fashion," which leads to the recollection of some lines from Abraham Cowley:

    Thou with strange adultery
    Doest in each breast a brothel keep;
    Awake, all men lust for thee,
    And some enjoy thee while they sleep.

No poet deserved to be forgotten who could face facts like that, the blending of conscious and unconscious, Love's free-for-all in dreams.
The service, as one would expect, ends with "God Save the King," all three verses:
God save our gracious King!
Long live our noble King!
God save the King!
Send him victorious
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us;
God save the King!

O Lord, our God arise,
Scatter his enemies,
And make them fall.
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix,
God save us all.

Thy choicest gifts in store,
On him be pleased to pour;
Long may he reign:
May he defend our laws,
And ever give us cause
To sing with heart and voice,
God save the King!
Which leads Nick into a reflection that brings out many of his characteristics as a narrator: honesty, attention to detail, a fine discrimination of feeling, an eye for historical resonances and anachronism, and, most of all, an acceptance of things as they are:
Repetitive, jerky, subjective in feeling, not much ornamented by imagination or subtlety of thought and phraseology, the words possessed at the same time a kind of depth, an unpretentious expression of sentiments suited somehow to the moment. It would be interesting to know whether, at the period they were written, "reign" had been considered an adequate rhyme to "king"; or whether the poet had simply not bothered to achieve identity of sound in the termination of the last verse. Language, pronunciation, sentiment, were always changing. There must have been advantages, moral and otherwise, in living at an outwardly less squeamish period, when the verbiage of high-thinking had not yet cloaked such petitions as those put forward in the second verse, incidentally much the best; when, in certain respects at least, hypocrisy had established less of a stranglehold on the public mind. Such a mental picture of the past was no doubt largely unhistorical, indeed, totally illusory, freedom from one sort of humbug merely implying, with human beings of any epoch, thraldom to another. The past, just as the present, had to be accepted for what it thought and what it was.
Burton reminds us that we, like Powell's characters, "according to the continuance of time . . . have been troubled"; but without that trouble, where would we be?

And now I think I'm ready for volume four.

1 comment:

  1. Andrea M.1:36 PM

    That whole Victory Memorial Service section is wonderful. I read it last night. It almost approaches stream-of-consciousness except it isn't quite that -- Nick's thoughts at times are more analytical. And some of the analysis, such as that of the passage from Isaiah, is hilarious:

    "Who, for example, were the wayfaring men? Were they themselves all fools, or only some of them? Perhaps, on the contrary, the wayfaring men were contrasted with the fools, as persons of entirely different sort. One thing was fairly clear, the fools, whoever they were, must keep off the highway; 'absolutely verboten', as Biggs, staff Officer Physical Training, used to say."