Friday, May 13, 2011

Parallel Texts: Yeats and Newman

A couple of winters ago I found myself reading Yeats's Autobiographies, part of which I had read 25 years before. Then I must have read it as stories--of Dowson, of Lady Gregory and so on--this time I was struck by his reflections on all sorts of matters, and particularly by his sentences. The book was full of sentences that made me wonder, "How does he do that?"

One paragraph,

"Yet even if I had gone to a university, and learned the classical foundations of English literature and English culture, all that great erudition which once accepted frees the mind from restlessness, I should have had to give up my Irish subject-matter, or attempt to found a new tradition.... I was of those doomed to imperfect achievement, and under a curse, as it were, like some race of birds compelled to spend the time needed for the making of the nest, in argument as to the convenience of moss and twig and lichen."

reminded me of passages of Newman's suggestion that the English language had its classics behind it:

"There never was a time when men wrote so much and so well, and that, without being of any great account themselves. While our literature in this day, especially the periodical, is rich and various, its language is elaborated to a perfection far beyond that of our Classics, by the jealous rivalry, the incessant practice, the mutual influence, of its many writers. In point of mere style, I suppose, many an article in the Times newspaper, or Edinburgh Review, is superior to a preface of Dryden's, or a Spectator, or a pamphlet of Swift's, or one of South's sermons.

Our writers write so well that there is little to choose between them. What they lack is that individuality, that earnestness, most personal yet most unconscious of self, which is the greatest charm of an author."

NPR pours out highly polished three-minute essays, which wear on me. The lighter sections of the New York Times often carry pieces of highly polished, indistinguishable individuality. I could name a since-deceased NYT columnist, who could manage an elegiac tone to make Horace look like a bumbler; yet when I tried to think why I was reading her columns, I could find no good answer.

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