Over the years, my friend (and one-time collaborator) Dr. Paul O’Brien has guest-lectured for my classes in various capacities, e.g., to introduce Beowulf or Hamlet or the genre of poetry. In the poetry intro, he begins by reciting “Who Goes with Fergus” in his rich baritone but then admits he doesn’t exactly know what it means:
Who will go drive with Fergus now,
And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,
And dance upon the level shore?
Young man, lift up your russet brow,
And lift your tender eyelids, maid,
And brood on hopes and fear no more.
And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love’s bitter mystery;
For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all disheveled wandering stars.
But he does know that he loves the way it sounds, its imagery.
He goes on to tell the students that poetry can be “your companion, your friend.”
In this context, I’ve found Yeats’ “To a Friend’s Whose Work Has Come to Nothing” a comfort on days like today when I’m down:
Now all the truth is out,
Be secret and take defeat
From any brazen throat,
For how can you compete,
Being honor bred, with one
Who were it proved he lies
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbors’ eyes;
Bred to a harder thing
Than Triumph, turn away
And like a laughing string
Whereon mad fingers play
Amid a place of stone,
Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known
That is most difficult.
However, this phenomenon of literary friendship is not only limited to poetry; I count Frank Bascombe, the narrator of Richard Ford’s trilogy, a pal, and every time I finish one of the Bascombe novels it’s like saying good-bye to someone I’ll miss hanging out with. I’ll miss Frank’s voice. (Though rumor has it Frank survived Hurricane Sandy and will tell us about it in a new short story).
I’ve recently run across a new companion, J.I.M. Stewart, whose Eight Modern Writers is the final volume of The Oxford History of English Literature, published in 1963. Now you might expect – or should I say one might expect – a critical volume sporting such a title to be as dry as unbuttered melba toast; however, reading Stewart is like listening to an erudite uncle with a whiskey in his hand and a barb in his throat.
Here he is one Yeats, the featured poet above:
Yeats has too vigorous a dramatic sense to make any kind of grateful stroll out of old age’s necessary descent from Helicon to the Academy, or to accompany it with pleasant murmuring of years that bring the philosophic mind. Rather he is going to be carried down kicking, and his masters are going to find a rebellious pupil:
I mock Plotinus’ thought
And cry in Plato’s teeth
And here is Stewart chiding the master:
[In “Under Ben Bulben”] there are no such things, we want to tell him, as “Base-born products of base beds.”
And one more on reading the first part of Joyce’s Ulysses:
Indeed, it’s as if we’re locked inside of Dedalus’s mind, and although an interesting place, we sometimes find ourselves beating our fists wishing to get out.
As it turns out, Stewart (1906- 1994) was a novelist himself, and in a less serious pursuit wrote over 50 detective novels under the pseudonym Michael Innes.
At any rate, I’m very happy to be spending this week in his company.