Thursday, January 21, 2016


unfinished business: a heap of words

Okay, enough gloom and doom.  January's bad enough, already, without lingering on the unspeakable (for long).  Instead of continuing in this vein, staring down various memento mori, I thought I'd take care of a bit of housekeeping instead.  Because for months now (literally) I've wanted to write about Horace Walpole and his opinions about the books and authors of his own time.  One of the great pleasures of reading his Letters has been hearing him voice his decided opinions.  He was such a book-lover, and responded to so many major publications as they happened.  He was not afraid to say what he loved and what he despised, as well as mention the many lukewarm inbetweens.  I've had a stack of my diaries sitting here by my computer for weeks, waiting for a quiet afternoon to go through them and revisit my copious notes from Walpole's Letters, and today is the day.  I usually fill three moleskine diaries a year; this year I filled five.  All the notes I took from Walpole are largely responsible for this state of affairs.  Let's riffle through the pages together and let Walpole speak once more.

Before that, though, I must mention what I actually read.  Late last spring, I began with the two-volume set, A Selection of the Letters of Horace Walpole, edited by Wilmarth Lewis (Harper 1926).  I enjoyed them so much that I then turned to The Letters of Horace Walpole, edited by Peter Cunningham, in nine volumes.  Originally published in 1858, my set is a reprint from 1906, published by John Grant in Edinburgh.  I started with the ninth volume, because I couldn't wait to read more of his letters to his friends during the years just before his death.  Then I went back and started at the beginning, with Volume I.  This all happened last April.  I wonder, if I stretch out my reading just a bit more, if I could spend an entire year in his company...?  That's never happened to me before, with any one author.  I still haven't finished Volume VIII.  And I've never read his famous gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, and I have many other little bibelots of his on hand, also as yet unread.  Hmm.  But, that's for another day.  For now - books and authors.  A lifetime's worth of reading!  (This will be an impossibly long post - I'm sure no one will bother to read it all the way through, since it's only going to be a very long list of quotations from our hero, of all the things I don't want to forget - so please bear with me, as I attempt to cope with my unfinished business...!)

First, in his literary panoply, there is a definite a hierarchy:

"...when I think over all the great authors of the Greeks, Romans, Italians, French, and English (and I know no other languages), I set Shakespeare first and alone, and then begin anew."  (Lewis Volume II p.271)

He also states his general reading preferences:

"I revere genius; I have a dear friendship for common sense; I have a partiality for professed nonsense..."  (Lewis Volume II p.395)

And then spells them out for us even more clearly:

"...I read only to amuse myself, and not to be informed or convinced..."  (Cunningham Volume IX p.338)

After these basic assertions, shall we discuss his loves or hates first?  The hates it is.  Let's start with the big one.  Or rather, ones.  It pains me to write this, but Walpole deeply disliked Samuel Johnson and James Boswell.  His letters are full of anecdotes, disparagement, and mockery of them both.  Johnson reminds me of a bumblebee (*dum-de-dum-de-dum*), and Walpole a wasp (*zing*).  Walpole starts with Boswell:

"Boswell, that quintessence of busybodies, called on me last week, and was let in, which he should not have been, could I have foreseen it."  (Lewis Volume II p.348)

Then Johnson fares no better.  Walpole thought Boswell's Life of Johnson betrayed their mutual friends.  He disliked Boswell for the betrayal, and disliked Johnson for his style and manner:

"He loved to dispute to show his superiority.... Johnson's blind Toryism and known brutality kept me aloof.... In the two new volumes Johnson says... that Gray's poetry is dull, and that he was a dull man!  The same oracle dislikes Prior, Swift, and Fielding.  If an elephant could write a book, perhaps one that had read a great deal would say that an Arabian horse is a very clumsy, ungraceful animal."  (Lewis Volume II pp.447-449)

Walpole gets pretty specific about why he dislikes Johnson so much:

"...Dr. Johnson's 'Tour to the Western Isles.'  What a heap of words to express very little! and though it is the least cumbrous of any style he ever used, how far from easy and natural!"  (Cunningham Volume VI pp.178-179)

And, of Johnson's Life of Pope:

"It is a most trumpery performance, and stuffed with all his crabbed phrases and vulgarisms, and much trash as anecdotes.... How was it possible to marshall words so ridiculously?"  (Cunningham Volume VIII pp.26-27)

He also says of Johnson:

"Some of his own works show that he had, at times, strong excellent sense; and that he had the virtues of charity to a high degree, is indubitable; but his friends (of whom he made a woeful choice) have taken care to let the world know, that in behaviour he was an ill-natured bear, and in opinions as senseless a bigot as an old washerwoman."  (Cunningham Volume IX p.46)

Ouch!  Hard to read!  He did have good things to say about other contemporaries, however, so let's leaven this conversation with a few notes to that end.  About finishing the early volumes of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Walpole is:

"...extremely pleased.  It is a most wonderful mass of information."  (Cunningham Volume IX p.126)

He even writes directly to Gibbon, that he is " the greatest admiration of the style, manner, method, clearness, and intelligence...." of his writing.  And again to Gibbon, "You have, unexpectedly, given the world a classic history.  The fame it must acquire will tend every day to acquit this panegyric of flattery.... do not suspect me of flattering you.  You will always hear that I say the same of you to everybody."  (Cunningham Volume VI pp.306-308)

Walpole tells us at one point that his favorite book is the Memoirs of the Count de Grammont (Cunningham Volume V p.426); he even reprinted it at his own press, but in a small edition, so as "...not to make my favourite book common."  (ibid)

And one of his very favorite authors is Madame de Sévigné.  Throughout his own letters, he refers to hers, with grace and gratitude.  He calls himself a "Sévignist" and even goes to see her house, when he visits Paris (Cunninham Vol II p.442).  He writes so beautifully about her. I'll just choose one example from the many, which accomplishes what any good reading recommendation should - inspiration to seek her writing out, to see for myself:

"Madame de Sévigné spread her gold-leaf over all her acquaintance, and made them shine..."  (Cunningham Volume VI p.24)

He admires other female writers.  Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and the impending publication of her papers, for instance, which sound fascinating indeed:

"...I do not doubt but they are an olio of lies and scandal.  I should like to see them.  She had parts, and had seen much."  (Cunningham Volume IV p.32)

And other writers of letters, too. Such as Montesquieu:

"...I could not go to bed till I had finished them at nearly three in the morning; and yet there is very little in them but ease and graces.  I am a little scandalised at the notes, which, though very true, are too bitter, considering the persons are alive..."  (Cunningham Volume V p.52)

And Chesterfield:

"I shall go to town to-morrow and send for my Lord Chesterfield's Letters, though I know all I wished to see is suppressed."  (Cunningham Volume VI p.73)  When he does get them, he stays up late reading:  "...without being well entertained, I sat up reading last night till between one and two, and devoured above 140.  To my great surprise they seem really written from the heart, not for the honour of his head..."  (Volume VI p.74)

But then, after all this praise, we swing back to some strong dislikes:

" present nothing is talked of, nothing admired, but what I cannot help calling a very insipid and tedious performance: it is a kind of novel, called 'The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy;' the great humour of which consists in the whole narration always going backwards.  I can conceive a man saying that it would be droll to write a book in that manner, but have no notion of his persevering in executing it.  It makes one smile two or three times at the beginning, but in recompense makes one yawn for two hours."  (Cunningham Volume III p.298)

He comes about, however, with Laurence Sterne's other great work, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, in two volumes:

"They are very pleasing, though too much dilated, and infinitely preferable to his tiresome 'Tristram Shandy,' of which I could never get through three volumes."  (Cunningham Volume V p.91)

Walpole could damn with faint praise, so well.  On Edmund Burke:

"He is a sensible man, but has not worn off his authorism yet, and thinks there is nothing so charming as writers, and to be one.  He will know better one of these days."  (Cunningham Volume III p.420)

He notes the "Stupefying effect of Richardson's novels on the French nation..." (Cunningham Volume IV p.xvi)

And thought Voltaire a genuine genius, who had let his genius go to seed, through complacency and ego:

"I heard last night that Voltaire is dead; now one may buy his works safely, as he cannot write them over and over again."  (Cunningham Volume VI p.21)

Walpole has little tolerance for the boring.  Like Lord Lyttelton's Henry the Second:

"I began it, but, I don't know how, I was tired.  It is so crowded with clouds of words, and they are so uninteresting..."  (Cunningham Volume V p.356)

He gets disappointed, as we all sometimes do, with long-awaited sequels:

"I am reading Montaigne's Travels, which have lately been found; there is little in them but the baths and medicines he took, and what he had everywhere for dinner."  (Cunningham Volume VI p.89)  

Not to mention the times in general:

"What shall we come to?  I am afraid of opening a new book.  The reigning dulness is so profound, that it is not even ridiculous.  (Cunningham Volume VI p.92)

And shall we talk about poetry?  He loves good poetry, and several poets are among his closest friends.  But, he really hates epic poetry.  Says the Aeneid's story is "...silly and unaffecting..." (Cunningham Volume III p.193), but other ancient authors he loves.  Says Lucan's lines "...go to one's soul and one's heart..." (ibid)

But back to epics:  about Fingal/Ossian - "...I cannot at once compass an epic poem now.  It tires me to death to read how many ways a warrior is like the moon, or the sun, or a rock, or a lion, or the ocean."  (Lewis Volume I p.139) And, "Epic poetry is the art of being as long as possible in telling an uninteresting story; and an epic poem is a mixture of history without truth and of romance without imagination."  (Lewis Volume II p.358)  And again, "...I see no materials for making anew an old thing called an Epic poem."  (Cunningham Volume VIII p.251)  Enter Lord Byron! I couldn't help but think! 

I could go on and on.  I will for a bit longer.  Walpole talks about Pope, Hume ("...that superficial mountebank..." Cunningham Volume VIII p.421), Rousseau, Fanny Burney, Hannah More, the other bluestockings, the whole literary scene of the time, for decades.  It's fascinating stuff, in my book, and I wish the Letters would never end.  With that in mind, I'm still considering taking some volumes of the massive Yale set of his correspondence out of the local research library, but can't quite bring myself to do so.  Yet. 

A few more quotations of note, before I wrap up.  Walpole mentions many books I will never, ever read - for instance, something he refers to as Dr. Nash's Worcestershire, Volume One:

"It is a folio of prodigious corpulence..."  (Cunningham Volume VIII p.21)

And Lord Hardwicke's proposed mention of Walpole's father, Robert Walpole, in his forthcoming unnamed book:

"There is generally a little indirect malice, but so much more dullness, that the latter soon suffocates the former.  (Cunningham Volume VIII p.25)

Then Walpole mentions someone named Harris of Salsbury, who wrote two volumes, on a subject unknown:

"Harris was one of those wiseacres whom such wiseacres as himself cried up for profound; but he was more like the scum at the top of a well."  (Cunningham Volume VIII p.36)

Unlike the last few, this next one does make me want to track down the item in question:

"Soame Jenyns's book is a chef d'oeuvre of imprudent profligacy..."  (Cunningham Volume VIII p.180)

Likewise, this - Walpole says of his friend Mason's memoir of the poet Thomas Gray, another dear friend:

"...I shall be reading it and reading it for the rest of my life."  (Cunningham Volume VI p.197) 

Perhaps I will be able to say the same, about Walpole's Letters.  A few months ago an old well-read friend of mine asked me what I was reading, and when I said Walpole, he sighed and said, "Oh, his style is so good. He sounds so contemporary."  Very true.  His prose remains clean and conversational and funny and interesting, throughout his life.  And, I loved reading about all these books and authors, as they happened - in real time, as it were.  A literature class come to life, in the best ways.  I want to write more - Walpole's observations about illness, medicine, and physicians, for instance, are terrible and fascinating.  He spent months and months prostrated by gout, and had many subsequent thoughts about that particular ailment.  Perhaps another day.  Thanks for reading, if anyone made it to the bottom of this long missive.  Bless you!   

Most interesting. Just finished it (on paper with notes etc.)

Do keep on.

I will, thank you! (And a double thank you, for reading all that...) p.s. am reading a wonderful book at the moment, which you might also enjoy - it starts on Mount Athos, and later makes mention of Patrick Leigh Fermor. "A Traveller's Alphabet" By Steven Runciman (Thames & Hudson 1991). I'm a few letters in, so far, and am fascinated!
So many books, so little time. I love reading your blog and then spending time in our fabulous local used book shop it's one of the biggest in Canada I one of the smallest cities. I featured it on my blog.... it out if you have time. Happy reading!
Thank you, writely! Always happy to welcome another used book lover here. I'm off to take a look at your blog...
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