Tuesday, May 19, 2015
town and country
As I transition slowly from Volume II into Volume III, I can't help but think that reading Horace Walpole's Letters is a pastime that could keep me happily occupied for the entire summer. I don't recall ever attempting to read such a huge series at this time of year - for the last decade my long reading projects have all taken place during the winter months, when being indoors coincides with a need for increased concentration and perseverance. At that time a sustained reading project feels, in short, worthy. But I have jumped the fence somehow and find myself in the middle of this one, after an extra long winter spent in the company of ancient authors. And I must say it's a lovely place to be, like a wide field out in the open. The experience is certainly helping to alleviate some anxiety about personal events looming on my immediate horizon, including an upcoming solo exhibit of my paintings. Reading is, after all, my anti-anxiety medicine of choice! So calming! Keeps me busy (as does writing) so I don't worry as much! And besides, it's been fascinating in its own right to see Walpole's transition from town mouse to country mouse, as he settles in at Strawberry Hill, and works on his house, gardens, and prospects. Of course he goes back and forth between them constantly and his correspondence reflects that too. I love watching his life unfold, and I love his turns of phrase. More quotes from Volume II (before I set sail with Volume III):
"You deserve no charity, for you never write but to ask it. When you are tired of yourself and the country, you think over all London, and consider who will be proper to send you an account of it. Take notice, I won't be your gazetteer; nor is my time come for being a dowager, a maker of news, a day-labourer in scandal.... The town is empty, nothing in it but flabby mackerel, and wooden gooseberry tarts, and a hazy east wind." (p.283)
"The town is empty, dusty, and disagreeable; the country is cold and comfortless; consequently I daily run from one to t'other, as if both were so charming that I did not know which to prefer." (p.383)
"...the times produce nothing: there is neither party nor controversy, nor gallantry, nor fashion, nor literature - the whole proceeds like farmers regulating themselves, their business, their views, their diversions, by the almanac.... I, who love to ride in the whirlwind, cannot record the yawns of such an age! (p.384)
"Do you get my letters? or do I write only for the entertainment of the clerks of the post office?" (p.436)
His friends must have shouted with laughter as they read. I smile and take notes, which is more my style. One more letter I'd like to quote from at length describes his attempted capture of a robber, in the middle of the night. Again thanks to Yale, I will instead point interested parties to the entire letter. Just so good. He has great comic timing. Can you imagine being the recipient of such a letter! Well, I suppose we all are now, thanks to the publishing arts.
As I read along, I love to take note of how Walpole sees himself. He is a gazetteer, an almanac, historian, socialite, watcher; he describes himself to his friends often, usually in a comic mode. At one point he says:
"The present journal of the world and me stands thus: ..." (p.363)
One letter begins with the place and date written at the top, during an unusually cold May:
"May 4, as they call it, but the weather and the almanac of my feelings affirm it is December." (p.436)
The almanac of my feelings. How wonderful. That phrase reminds me of nothing so much as Frank O'Hara's long poem In Memory of My Feelings (one of my favorite titles of anything, anywhere), which begins:
"My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent
and he carries me quietly, like a gondola, through the streets.
He has several likenesses, like stars and years, like numerals."
And this in turn reminds me of Horace Walpole. Who we will be talking about again soon, I feel quite sure. Meanwhile this country mouse will continue to enjoy reading about his forays into town and back again.