Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Suddenly I have rediscovered the prose of Lytton Strachey. Perhaps a decade ago I read his biography of Victoria and loved it then, and somewhere along the way I acquired a copy of Books and Characters (1922), but I can't remember ever having opened it until yesterday, when I found this, from Strachey's essay "The Last Elizabethan," about nineteenth-century Gothic poet Thomas Lovell Beddoes--

His character, so eminently English, compact of courage, of originality, of imagination, and with something coarse in it as well, puts one in mind of Hamlet: not the melodramatic sentimentalist of the stage; but the real Hamlet, Horatio's Hamlet, who called his father's ghost old truepenny, who forged his uncle's signature, who fought Laertes, and ranted in a grave, and lugged the guts into the neighbour room. [Beddoes's] character, like Hamlet's, was the tragedy of an overpowerful will--a will so strong as to recoil upon itself, and fall into indecision. It is easy for a weak man to be decided--there is so much to make him so; but a strong man, who can do anything, sometimes leaves everything undone. Fortunately Beddoes, though he did far less than he might have done, possessed so rich a genius that what he did, though small in quantity, is in quality beyond price. "I might have been, among other things, a good poet," were his last words. "Among other things!" aye, there's the rub. But, in spite of his own "might have been," a good poet he was.

This is the sort of prose I would love to write myself, prose in which the sentences do their own thinking, clause by clause, with a formal, measured music. But I am not stately enough, or English enough, or linked closely enough to the nineteenth century. I write like a vulgar colonial who admires those who are not.

Here's a sample of Beddoes's poetry, from Death's Jest Book--

We do lie beneath the grass
    In the moonlight, in the shade
  Of the yew-tree. They that pass
    Hear us not. We are afraid
      They would envy our delight,       
      In our graves by glow-worm night.
Come follow us, and smile as we;
    We sail to the rock in the ancient waves,
Where the snow falls by thousands into the sea,
    And the drown’d and the shipwreck’d have happy graves.

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