Monday, January 31, 2011

Thackeray on Swift and Steele: My Morning's Oxymoron:Deeds Not Words in Writing

Facta Non Verba - Deeds Not Words is the motto of Leo High School. It is also a weltansschwang - a world view developing a human temperament and moral code.We can admire the talents and achievements of people without necessarily acting or aping their methods and motivations.

There are some genuinely nasty people breathing our air, folks, and many of them achieve the pinnacle of success and notoriety. Our age of group think censors opinion and inclinations of individuals who might deviate from the group. Most of group think stems from fear of embarrassment or worse. Why must Lady Gaga be accepted as a paragon of talent and taste? I'll let that one dangle.

This morning's task for your Blogger Boy is a return to the opinion of my favorite writer in the English language - not the greatest as that must be Shakespeare and not the most popular as that would be Dickens - William Makepeace Thackeray - author Vanity Fair and arguably the best historical novel of all time The History of Henry Esmond. Thackeray and Charles Dickens were contemporaries, acquaintances and rivals. Dickens is widely read and Thackeray merely admired today and that is unfortunate. Both Dickens and Thackeray travelled in and wrote about America before the Civil War: Dickens hated America and Americans ( called us 'spitting bipeds') and Thackeray loved this wild and youthful land and its people. In fact, Thackeray wrote a sequel to Henry Esmond set in Colonial/Revolutionary - The Virginians.

Thackeray lectured in America and was greeted with wild enthusiasm from Boston to Cincinnati. One of his lectures The 18th Century Humorists ( Addison, Pope, Swift, Steele, Goldsmith, and Congreve) is the source of my theme today - Facta Non Verba.

Thackeray could admire a great writer and still find him repulsive. For Thackeray a writer was no different than a baker, shoemaker, or banker. Each made money from the sales of his product. Thackeray was no better a man because of product - his books, essays, and poems. However, what a writer crafted should help his fellow man in some small way. Here is Thackeray's critical turn of mind.

Humor of the Human Heart - Thackeray's Template:

BESIDES contributing to our stock of happiness, to our harmless laughter and amusement, to our scorn for falsehood and pretension, to our righteous hatred of hypocrisy, to our education in the perception of truth, our love of honesty, our knowledge of life, and shrewd guidance through the world, have not our humorous writers, our gay and kind week-day preachers, done much in support of that holy cause which has assembled you in this place, and which you are all abetting,—the cause of love and charity, the cause of the poor, the weak, and the unhappy; the sweet mission of love and tenderness, and peace and good will toward men? That same theme which is urged upon you by the eloquence and example of good men to whom you are delighted listeners on Sabbath days is taught in his way and according to his power by the humorous writer, the commentator on every-day life and manners.
. . . I have said myself somewhere, I do not know with what correctness (for definitions never are complete), that humor is wit and love; I am sure, at any rate, that the best humor is that which contains most humanity, that which is flavored throughout with tenderness and kindness. This love does not demand constant utterance or actual expression, as a good father, in conversation with his children or wife, is not perpetually embracing them or making protestations of his love; as a lover in the society of his mistress is not, at least as far as I am led to believe, for ever squeezing her hand or sighing in her ear, “My soul’s darling, I adore you!” He shows his love by his conduct, by his fidelity, by his watchful desire to make the beloved person happy; it lightens from his eyes when she appears, tho he may not speak it; it fills his heart when she is present or absent; influences all his words and actions; suffuses his whole being; it sets the father cheerily to work through the long day, supports him through the tedious labor of the weary absence or journey, and sends him happy home again, yearning toward the wife and children.
This kind of love is not a spasm, but a life. It fondles and caresses at due seasons, no doubt; but the fond heart is always beating fondly and truly, tho the wife is not sitting hand-in-hand with him or the children hugging at his knee. And so with a loving humor: I think, it is a genial writer’s habit of being; it is the kind, gentle spirit’s way of looking out on the world—that sweet friendliness which fills his heart and his style. You recognize it, even tho there may not be a single point of wit, or a single pathetic touch in the page; tho you may not be called upon to salute his genius by a laugh or a tear. That collision of ideas, which provokes the one or the other, must be occasional. They must be like papa’s embraces, which I spoke of anon, who only delivers them now and again, and can not be expected to go on kissing the children all night. And so the writer’s jokes and sentiment, his ebullitions of feeling, his outbreaks of high spirits, must not be too frequent. One tires of a page of which every sentence sparkles with points, of a sentimentalist who is always pumping the tears from his eyes or your own. One suspects the genuineness of the tear, the naturalness of the humor; these ought to be true and manly in a man, as everything else in his life should be manly and true; and he loses his dignity by laughing or weeping out of place, or too often.

Jonathan Swift was recently raped by Hollywood with Jack Black's portrayal of Lemuel Gulliver. Dr. Swift, by Thackeray's measure was an absolutely miserable prique. The great Joseph Epstein, in a very recent edition of New Criterion, assessed Nobel Prize winner Chicagoan Saul Bellow in much the same way. Click my post title for Epstein's wonderful study of a literary giant and a human midget. But first read Thackeray on old Jack Swift!

Jonathan Swift *

If I do not love Swift, as, thank God, I do not, however immensely I may admire him, it is because I revolt from the man who placards himself as a professional hater of his own kind; because he chisels his savage indignation on his tombstone, as if to perpetuate his protest against being born of our race—the suffering, the weak, the erring, the wicked, if you will, but still the friendly, the loving children of God our Father; it is because, as I read through Swift’s dark volumes, I never find the aspect of nature seems to delight him, the smiles of children to please him, the sight of wedded love to soothe him. I do not remember in any line of his writing a passing allusion to a natural scene of beauty. When he speaks about the families of his comrades and brother clergymen, it is to assail them with gibes and scorn, and to laugh at them brutally for being fathers and for being poor. He does mention, in the Journal to Stella, a sick child, to be sure—a child of Lady Masham, that was ill of the smallpox—but then it is to confound the brat for being ill and the mother for attending to it when she should have been busy about a court intrigue, in which the Dean was deeply engaged. And he alludes to a suitor of Stella’s, and a match she might have made, and would have made, very likely, with an honorable and faithful and attached man, Tisdall, who loved her, and of whom Swift speaks, in a letter to his lady, in language so foul that you would not bear to hear it.

In treating of the good the humorists have done, of the love and kindness they have taught and left behind them, it is not of this one I dare speak. Heaven help the lonely misanthrope! be kind to that multitude of sins, with so little charity to cover them!

For Thackeray, a kind man should be emulated by his fellow creatures, while a louse could be admired. The kindest man of 18th Century British Literature, in Thackeray's estimation was Captain Dick Steele: playwright, wit, essayist, soldier and patriot.

Richard Steele **

Steele, as a literary benefactor to the world’s charity, must rank very high, indeed, not merely from his givings, which were abundant, but because his endowments are prodigiously increased in value since he bequeathed them, as the revenues of the lands, bequeathed to our Foundling Hospital at London, by honest Captain Coram, its founder, are immensely enhanced by the houses since built upon them. Steele was the founder of sentimental writing in English, and how the land has been since occupied, and what hundreds of us have laid out gardens and built up tenements on Steele’s ground! Before his time, readers or hearers were never called upon to cry except at a tragedy, and compassion was not expected to express itself otherwise than in blank verse, of for personages much lower in rank than a dethroned monarch, or a widowed or a jilted empress. He stepped off the high-heeled cothurnus, and came down into common life; he held out his great hearty arms, and embraced us all; he had a bow for all women; a kiss for all children; a shake of the hand for all men, high or low; he showed us Heaven’s sun shining every day on quiet homes; not gilded palace roofs only, or court processions, or heroic warriors fighting for princesses and pitched battles. He took away comedy from behind the fine lady’s alcove, or the screen where the libertine was watching her. He ended all that wretched business of wives jeering at their husbands, of rakes laughing wives, and husbands, too, to scorn. That miserable, rouged, tawdry, sparkling, hollow-hearted comedy of the Restoration fled before him, and, like the wicked spirit in the fairy-books, shrank, as Steele let the daylight in, and shrieked, and shuddered, and vanished. The stage of humorists has been common life ever since Steele’s and Addison’s time; the joys and griefs, the aversions and sympathies, the laughter and tears of nature.

The laughter and tears of nature is a precious blessing that is, it seems to me at times, a too easily dispensable set of commodities.

*Jonathan Swift (30 November 1667 – 19 October 1745) was an Anglo-Irish[1] satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer (first for the Whigs, then for the Tories), poet and cleric who became Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin.

He is remembered for works such as Gulliver's Travels, A Modest Proposal, A Journal to Stella, Drapier's Letters, The Battle of the Books, An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity, and A Tale of a Tub. Swift is probably the foremost prose satirist in the English language, and is less well known for his poetry. Swift originally published all of his works under pseudonyms—such as Lemuel Gulliver, Isaac Bickerstaff, M.B. Drapier—or anonymously. He is also known for being a master of two styles of satire: the Horatian and Juvenalian styles.

Sir Richard Steele (bap. 12 March 1672 – 1 September 1729) was an Irish writer and politician, remembered as co-founder, with his friend Joseph Addison, of the magazine The Spectator.

Steele was born in Dublin, Ireland in March 1672 to Richard Steele, an attorney, and Elinor Symes (née Sheyles); his sister Katherine was born the previous year. Steele was largely raised by his uncle and aunt, Henry Gascoigne and Lady Katherine Mildmay.[1] A member of the Protestant gentry, he was educated at Charterhouse School, where he first met Addison. After starting at Christ Church in Oxford, he went on to Merton College, Oxford, then with joined the Life Guards of the Household Cavalry in order to support King William's wars against France. He was commissioned in 1697, and rose up in the ranks to captain of the 34th Foot in 2 years.[2] He disliked British Army life, and left the army in 1705, perhaps due to the death of the 34th Foot’s commanding officer, and with him, his opportunities of promotion. It may then, be no coincidence that Steele's first published work, The Christian Hero (1701), attempted to point out the differences between perceived and actual masculinity.

In 1706 Steele was appointed to a position in the household of Prince George of Denmark, consort of Anne of Great Britain. He also gained the favour of Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford.

In 1705, Steele married a widow, Margaret Stretch, who died in the following year. At her funeral he met his second wife, Mary Scurlock, whom he nicknamed "Prue" and married in 1707. In the course of their courtship and marriage, he wrote over 400 letters to her. They were a devoted couple, their correspondence still being regarded as one of the best illustrations of a happy marriage, but their relationship was stormy. Mary died in 1718, at a time when she was considering separation. Their daughter, Elizabeth (Steele's only surviving legitimate child), married John Trevor, 3rd Baron Trevor.

Steele became a Member of Parliament of the United Kingdom in 1713, but was soon expelled for issuing a pamphlet in favour of the Hanoverian succession. When George I of Great Britain came to the throne in the following year, Steele was knighted and given responsibility for the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London. While at Drury Lane, Steele wrote and directed The Conscious Lovers, which was an immediate hit. However, he fell out with Addison and with the administration over the Peerage Bill (1719), and in 1724 he retired to his wife's homeland of Wales, where he spent the remainder of his life.[3]

A member of the Whig Kit-Kat Club, Steele remained in Carmarthen after Mary's death, and was buried there, at St Peter's Church. During restoration of the church in 2000, his skull was discovered in a lead casket, having previously been accidentally disinterred during the 1870s.

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