Tuesday, August 15, 2006

They sure don't write poems like this anymore:

"Design, or chance, makes others wive;
But nature did this chance contrive;
Eve might as well have Adam fled,
As she denied her little bed
To him, for whom heaven seemed to frame,
And measure out, this only dame."
--Waller, Of the Marriage of the Dwarfs

Or this, one of my favorite couplets of all time, from an author whose name I forget commenting on the popular new wood of the early 1700s:

"Odious! Upon a walnut plank to dine?
No! The red-veined mahoggany (sic) be mine!"

Here is a good one regarding the jollities to be had in a good dining club:

"He that of honour, wit, and mirth partakes,
May be a fit companion o'er beef steaks.
His name may be to future times enrolled
In Estcourt's book, whose gridiron's made of gold."

Estcourt was a well-known actor, and apparently the leader and provider of festive dinner parties.

One thing I like about the 18th century is that even disfiguring and possibly fatal diseases could be called into the service of light verse. Our modern ladies probably will not care much for this snippet of Goldsmith, from a poem called The Double Transformation, in which a haughty beauty learns to behave modestly after an attack of smallpox ravages her complexion:

"No more presuming on her sway,
She learns good nature every day:
Serenely gay, and strict in duty,
Jack finds his wife--a perfect beauty."

My wife, who has excellent taste and a more modern sensibility than I do, such that she need not fear to encounter even the best of the modernists (or even the postmodernists) as equal intellectual creatures, does not share my amusement at this kind of writing, and has judged the specimens here in varying degrees from silly to insulting, taking especial offense at the poem about the dwarves, which at the first reading I laughed out loud. This inclination to be humorous however I have always taken to be the single distinguishing factor of English language literature, including most of what is best in our American literature, where we are often led astray into seeking grander themes and demons than perhaps naturally present themselves to the sorts of minds our educated classes at least have developed. One must be able to fit whatever language he possesses to his real ideas, and his real perceptions, as precisely as possible, to contribute anything to literary culture. But without a well-developed sense of poetry in one's own language, (at the very least) and of the peculiar characteristics and powers (such as humor) which one's language has developed to broach and clarify more difficult and refined ideas over many centuries, there is no possibility of communication, either serious or pleasant, between man and man, or author and reader.

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