«THE TANNER LECTURES HUMAN VALUES ON Delivered at Yale University February 20-21, 1991 ROBERTSON DAVIES received his B.Litt. degree from Balliol ...»
Reading to hear, rather than merely to comprehend, explains much about the poetry of earlier days. Old ballads, which seem somewhat simpleminded, with their bleak stories and their repeated refrains, when they pass over the eye, leap into vivid life when they are heard, because they belong to a tradition of poetry which had not renounced the delights of rhyme, rhythm, and the quality of incantation which our distant forebears valued in poetry. Poetry which has decided to do without music, to divorce itself from song, has thrown away much of its reason for being, and a recognition of the element of music in poetry narrows the gap between, for instance, Keats and Byron, which might appear to a reader who had never heard them to be almost unbridgeable.
Until quite recently there was an academic fashion for looking down on Tennyson, who was said to be mellifluous but simpleminded. But listen to Tennyson, and his music will tell you something that the closest sort of mute analysis cannot do, and his stature as a poet is restored and perhaps increased thereby.
I have been talking about poetry, and I do urge you to renew your acquaintance with it, if by chance you have not been reading much poetry lately. Perhaps this is the point at which I should advise you, if you are reading for pleasure, to read several books at once, and to keep on your table a book of poetry, as well as a novel, some essays, and perhaps a play or two. The notion that you have to read solemnly through one book before you can allow
2 Wystan Hugh Auden, “Lullaby.” Reading and Writing[DAVIES] 75
yourself to take up another is simple Puritanism, probably left over from childhood. If you choose to be an epicurean reader, which is what I am recommending, there will be times when nothing but poetry will satisfy your appetite, and you must have poetry readily at hand. Perhaps you like to keep up with what the young poets are doing, and that is admirable, but I urge you also to read some poetry that has been tested by time, and which does things that the moderns do not seek to do, or perhaps — I say this almost apologetically — cannot do. One of the things I miss in modern poetry is joy, exuberance, sheer delight in life. That is a quality that preserves a poet marvelously.
Ty hye, ty hye! O sweet delight!
He tickles this age that can Call Tullia’s ape a marmosite And Leda’s goose a swan.
Who writes charming invitations to pleasure in a kind of splendid giggling frolic spirit like that nowadays? Not the people who write lyrics — if they may so be called — for rock music; their joy seems to have its roots in disarray of the mind. But the little squib that I have just quoted springs from joy that is unalloyed, and it was written in a time when the plague and war and the ill-will of nations was just as prevalent on the earth as it is today, and the average expectation of life was about thirty-two years.
I myself have a taste for Browning. There are times when nothing but Browning will do. He is not particularly musical, and that is odd, because he is one of the few poets who was a technically trained and skilled musician. His language is knotty and there are times when his reader feels like The old man of Ashokan Who loved to chew wood, mostly oaken;
Very of ten he’d quip With a smile on his lip, Ah sho’ can gnash oak in Ashokan. 3 3 Morris Bishop.
The Tanner Lectures on Human Values 76 Browning’s tough colloquialism used to be held against him, and
as an undergraduate I encountered professors who would quote:
Irks care the crop-full bird?
4 Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast ?
— and then go off into paroxysms of dusty academic mirth at what they thought was Browning’s willful clumsiness. But once you have accustomed yourself to his voice, Browning has golden things to say, and I have been a lifelong champion of The Ring and the Book, which is neglected by many readers because it is long and intimidating. But it is also a very great poem, and you do not have to read it all at once. But to sense its worth you should read in it, and reread, at various times in your life. Frequently it recalls to me the Loathly Damsel of medieval legend, who was repellent at first encounter but who, when embraced, changed into a girl of inexhaustible charm, wisdom, and beauty.
What I have just said about rereading is a point I should like to stress. The great sin, as I have said, is to assume that something that has been read once has been read forever, As a very simple example I mention Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. People are expected to read it during their university years. But you are mistaken if you think you read Thackeray’s book then; you read a lesser book of your own. It should be read again when you are thirty-six, which is the age of Thackeray when he wrote it. It should be read for a third time when you are fifty-six, sixty-six, seventy-six, in order to see how Thackeray’s irony stands up to your own experience of life. Perhaps you will not read every page in these later years, but you really should take another look at a great book, in order to find out how great it is, or how great it has remained, to you. You see, Thackeray was an artist, and artists deserve this kind of careful consideration. We must not gobble their work, like chocolates, or olives, or anchovies, and think we know it forever. Nobody ever reads the same book twice.
4 Robert Browning, “Rabbi ben Ezra.” [DAVIES] Reading and Writing 77 Of course everybody knows that, but how many people act upon i t ? One of the great achievements of literature in our century is Proust’s A Ia recherche du temps perdu; in the edition I have it runs to twelve convenient volumes. In my experience people tend to read it when young, and never to look at it again.
But it is not a young person’s book. Of course young people should read it, but they should go on reading it or reading in it during the life that follows, When I read it as a young man, the homosexual exploits of the Baron de Charlus seemed extraordinary dispatches from an unknown world; nowadays, when one can meet a mini-Charlus every day of the week, the extraordinary quality has gone. But what has not gone — what is indeed freshly understood — is Proust’s serious and compassionate treatment of this theme in a book of many themes. Charlus is one of those great characters whom we know better than we know most of our contemporaries, and his creator’s attitude toward him and his tenderness toward the Baron’s dreadful disintegration enlarge our own sensibility, and give us a different attitude toward excitable protests on behalf of “gays” — as for some reason they are called, in our own very different, un-Proustian society. The Baron would have shrunk from being typified as “gay.” So it is also with another towering creation of this century, James Joyce’s Ulysses. One cannot, of course, measure what Molly Bloom’s magnificent soliloquy at the end of that book has done to enlarge and reshape our ideas about women, but one knows that its influence has been vast. When Sigmund Freud asked his supposedly unanswerable question — “What do women really want?” — he had not read what Molly wanted or he would have phrased it differently. It is not that she says what she wants, but she makes us feel what she wants, and it is something far beyond the range of any sociological or psychoanalytical answer. Molly wants to live on a mythological level, and that certainly does not mean that she wants to posture as a goddess or indulge in any pseudoclassical antics; it means that she wants a largeness of perThe Tanner Lectures on Human Values ception, a wider dimension of life, a psychological freedom that the modern world does not give her. She wants a rich simplicity.
And that is the whole thrust of the book. Unaware of the fact, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus are living out a great classical theme in their dingy Dublin lives, and the greatness of what they are doing eludes them. Eludes them not because they are stupid — they are nothing of the sort — but because it is part of our fate never to see our destiny as a whole or discern the archetypal forces that shape our lives. Molly does not see these things either, but she has an intuitive sense of them, and thus she is able to long for them when the men, corseted in reason and logic, cannot draw so near to this aspect of truth.
Ulysses is a wonder, and we can recur to it time and again with the certainty of finding new pleasures and new insights. It is also one of the funniest books in our language. The fun lies not in obvious jokes; it is in the grain of the prose, and it rises from the extraordinary mind of the author. When we read, we must always be aware of the mind that lies behind the book. Not that we may be wholly persuaded by it, or that we should have no minds of our own, but that we may share it and be shown new meanings by it.
Also that we should assess it. When I was a professor I seemed to meet a great many students who were wholly possessed and beglamoured by Oscar Wilde, and some of them were, for a few weeks, mini-Wildes, dealing extensively in réchauffé wit of the 1890s. Sometimes I suggested that they examine, not the refulgent surface, the shot-silk elegance of his prose, but whatever they were able to discern behind it of the mind that had created such beautiful things. It is a Fabergé mind, and although we should not like to be without Fabergé, we should not wish to make him our standard of artistic achievement. There are people who insist that Milde ranks with Congreve as a great writer of comedy. Consider both minds: Congreve was wise — worldly wise as well — in a degree that Wilde never achieved, kindly, good, generous, fatuous man that he was.
Reading and Writing [DAVIES] 79 Joyce is an Irishman of a different stripe, and Wilde’s admirers might describe him as a dirty-fingernails writer. If Joyce’s fingernails are dirty, it is because he has no objection to grubbing in the dirt, if the dirt has anything to tell him. And he has taught us one of the lessons of our century, which is that the dirt has very important things to tell us, because it is from the dirt that we all spring, and no disease is so fatal to an adequate understanding of life as overrefinement, which is inevitably false refinement. For refinement of feeling is surely a quality we bring to everything we touch, and not something which cuts us off from a great part of human experience. Modern hygiene has banished much of the physical dirt of an earlier day, but the lessons that are hidden in the dirt must not be forgotten.
Of Joyce’s other remarkable book, Finnegans Wake. I shall not speak, because I have not yet come to any conclusions about it.
I know few people who have read it, and of those, I meet fewer still who appear to me to have come anywhere near to understanding it. I grope in it, holding a candle that is plainly marked “Manufactured by C. G. Jung and Co., Zurich.” It is not a candle that Joyce would have approved — he hated Jung because Jung told him something he didn’t want to hear — but the Jungian candle is the only one I have.
I hope you do not think that I am being trivial, or treating you with less than proper respect, because I am talking so much about novels. When I was an undergraduate there were still academics who thought novel reading an inferior sort of literary enjoyment.
But a good novel has its roots in life as surely as a good poem and usually more truly than the work of most essayists. It was when I was young that I read the opinion of a critic — popular at that time and now almost forgotten — John Middleton Murry, that “A truly great novel is a tale to the simple, a parable to the wise, and a direct revelation of reality to a man who has made it part of his being.” I have never forgotten that and I test the novels I read by its acid, seeking for gold, for gold plate, and for dissembling brass.
The Tanner Lectures on Human Values 80 The simplest function of the novel is the tale, but only someone who has never tried it thinks that the discovery and relation of a tale is simple work. The wish to be told a story never dies in the human heart, and great storytellers enjoy a long life that more subtle writers sometimes envy. Consider the stories of Sherlock Holmes. Unless you are beglamoured by them, they are queer reading. The mysteries that confront the great detective are tailor-made for his style of detection; they are puzzles suited to a particular puzzle solver. Confront Holmes with a simple backstreet murder or theft, and he would probably have to confess his inferiority to the Scotland Yard bunglers he despised. But the tale-telling is so skillful, the contrast between Holmes and Watson so brilliant, the upper-middle-class level of crime which is all that Holmes will touch (you observe that he has no truck or trade with the likes of Jack the Ripper) is all so deftly handled by Arthur Conan Doyle that he has created a legend that seems to be increasing sixty years after the death of its creator. Will Virginia Woolf last so long? It seems to me that I see the mists closing in as her novels give place to scandalous revelations about her life.
Then comes the parable. What is a parable? A moral tale, is it not? Such novels are very popular because, whatever appears on the surface, our time loves a display of moralism; innumerable novels are rooted in the words of Saint Paul: “Be not deceived;
God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” That is the message of Tom Wolfe’s hugely popular best-seller Bonfire of the Vanities. What is its message? It seems to be couched in modern, rather grotty language: keep your nose clean; don’t risk everything for the big bucks; never trust a dame.
But behind this street wisdom is the wisdom of Paul, served up with the pepper and tabasco that persuades so many innocent readers that they are getting something undreamed of in the past.