Friday, August 03, 2007

Stepping stones

Earlier in the week, I mentioned John Aubrey in a post, and, thinking of him as I flipped between a biography of John Donne and a book of memories of Thomas Hardy, I began to wonder if I could get from Donne to Hardy through a game of literary stepping stones. The answer, I'm sure, is yes--but the real question is whether we can do so with a lazy game of stepping stones, on a Friday night, with just the resources at hand?

Well, no. But who knows what we might learn along the way? If you're willing to give it a try, to the bookshelves, and may we stay dry!

We start with Donne, who died in 1630 while the Dean of St. Paul's, where he is memorialized with a statue of himself in his shroud that he had carved late in life; Anthony Powell says the older Donne "looks a trifle like Lord Olivier as Lear." John Aubrey, only four years old when Donne died, doesn't profile him in Brief Lives, but the book is full of his contemporaries, and Donne turns up several times. One of those contemporaries is Donne's friend John Hoskyns, a lawyer and poet in his own right. According to Aubrey:
His verses on the fart in the Parliament house are printed in some of the Drolleries. He had a booke of Poemes, neatly written by one of his Clerkes, bigger then Dr. Donne's Poemes, which his sonn Benet lent to he knowes not who, about 1653, and could never heare of it since.
Of Hoskyns we also learn that he
Was wont to say that all those that came to London were either Carrion or Crowes.

Hoskyns doesn't really move us forward, though. I only included him because, well, how could I not share the story of his wastrel son and the misplaced book? Instead, in the nature of stepping stones, we drop back a step, as Aubrey leads us to Isaak Walton, Donne's first biographer, who used to feed Aubrey anecdotes about Ben Jonson. I suppose we could have reached Walton directly from Donne--but isn't any path that travels through Brief Lives more fun than the direct route?

With Walton, because of my relatively limited acquaintance with writers of the late-sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, we ought to have our first splash between stones--but just before we fall, I change the rules! No longer do we need to rely on personal acquaintance--and thus here is James Boswell reaching out a hand to help us over the gap!

In his Life of Johnson Boswell records the following conversation:
He talked of Isaac Walton's Lives, which was one of his most favorite books. Dr. Donne's Life, he said, was the most perfect of them. He observed, that 'it was wonderful that Walton, who was in a very low situation in life, should have been familiarly received by so many great men, and that at a time when the ranks of society were kept more separate than they are now." . . . BOSWELL. "No quality will get a man more friends than a disposition to admire the qualities of others. I do not mean flattery, but a sincere admiration." JOHNSON. "Nay, Sir, flattery pleases very generally."
Surely Boswell, one of literature's great flatterers, took those words to heart.

Boswell was of course much more than a flatterer; his skills as a biographer allow us to make another big jump, now to the nineteenth century, to Thomas Babington Macaulay, who called him "the first of biographers. He has no second." Macaulay leads us to Trollope, who wrote in a letter to G. S. Rusden in 1879 that
An historian is bound to be true. Who can say otherwise? But amongst historians who is so often read as Macaulay,--who is inaccurate, but whose style is charming? What so readable as Herodotus, who tells us tales? What so unreadable as Allison who tells us facts? Men now very seldom are laborious readers. You must charm or you have no chance.
To be fair, we really ought to splash down again here, as the only link I find between Trollope and Hardy is the slimmest of threads, a line in a letter from a young Hardy to his sister Mary, that Barchester Towers "is considered the best of Trollope's." And if I'm going to allow as tenuous a connection as that, I might as well cut right back to Donne directly, as Claire Tomalin notes in her biography of Hardy that his friend Edmund Gosse sent him an edition of Donne's poems, for which Hardy offered "1000 thanks."

Oh, but I've shown so little regard for the rules so far that I'm no longer sure even gravity applies, and we float through the air, dry as can be, to the point I wanted to reach all along, safe on shore in Dorset, where we meet Hardy at his home. He's entertaining Princeton professor Henry Van Dyke in 1909, and as recounted by Van Dyke (and collected in the absolutely fascinating new book, Thomas Hardy Remembered), Hardy tells Van Dyke that Tess was his favorite character:
"Yes," he said gravely, "I love her best of all."

"Why, then, did you kill her? Was there no other way to end the book"

"There was no other way," he replied, still more gravely. "I did not kill her. It was fated."
That does sound like Hardy, doesn't it? If there's one active force you can feel behind all of his novels, it's an inexorable and dangerous fate.

Hardy at least would have understood how we made it over all those yawning gaps and got from Donne to him: clearly, it was fated.

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