Still More Essays

by Paul Mathers

ImageJonathan Swift, by William Makepeace Thackeray

In America, to say “he was a great writer, but in a lot of ways an obstreperous man and he ended badly” is sort of the institution. Poe, Kurt Vonnegut, Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, Ernest Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Truman Capote, Faulkner, and the list could go on and on, could all have that quote applied to them with very little objection. This is, essentially, Thackeray’s statement about Swift.

It was another thumbnail biography, one of the more enjoyable ones. While biographical, the bulk of the focus was on Swift’s literary output and legacy, both of which are formidable.

Good and enjoyable? Yes. Gained from it? Well, enjoying is gaining, I suppose. I was already predisposed to like Swift’s work, so I’m not really sure how to answer this. Recommend it? Yes, but more to the point, I recommend Swift.

The Idea of a University, by John Henry Newman

This was an odd read. He begins on the subject of, as the title might suggest, what is a university. He proceeds to talk about Oxford, its history, how great of a thing it is, how much better it would be if its “citadel of academia” aspects were highlighted even further. He ends by talking about ancient Athens as a hub of learning. And that is pretty much it.

Good? Readable. I think it would get demerits in rhetoric. Enjoyable? To a degree if I subtract my confusion over the lack of cohesiveness. Gained from it? The part about “citadels of academia” was inspiring. Recommend it? Probably not for general reading and I’m not sure why I had to read it.

The Study of Poetry, by Matthew Arnold

I like Arnold’s poetry to begin with. He begins by talking about the discipline of studying poetry. He champions the necessity of gravitas in great poets. All of which I appreciated, but he then went on to do two things that grate on my nerves.

First, he began to compare poets for levels of greatness, a sort of Western Canon argument, which in and of itself does not bother me. What bothered me was that he would take, for example, a line from Chaucer or Burns and place it next to a line from Dante or Shakespeare and then say, “See! It’s clearly not nearly as great.”

I did not see this in any of his examples. I think Chaucer and Burns are among the greatest poets of all time and comparing in that manner is intellectually dishonest.

But even worse, Arnold did the “Boo-Hoo, there is no great poetry being written today” schtick that we still see in magazines every few years today (one was just published in Harper’s a few weeks ago). I also find this intellectually dishonest as well as lazy.

Sesame and Lilies: Parts 1 & 2, by John Ruskin

This was one of my favorite essays. It was two lectures, delivered a week apart in the late 1860s. In the first part, Ruskin argues for the primary importance in a society of a love of books. Bless his heart. At one point, he goes on a bit of a rant toward Victorian England:

“Above all a nation cannot last as a money-making mob: it cannot with impunity,- it cannot with existence,- go on despising literature, despising science, despising art, despising nature, despising compassion, and concentrating its soul on Pence. Do you think these are harsh or wild words? Have patience with me but a little longer. I will prove their truth to you, clause by clause.”

Ah, and he keeps his promise in words that could just as well be leveled at contemporary America. It left me with that increasingly familiar deep sorrow from the end of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or upon hearing the Television is a Vast Wasteland speech. It’s a sorrow over realizing the thing that was being righteously spoken out against here has, in fact, won and become the rule of the day. Ruskin essentially laid out my non-negotiable political views in this piece.

At least in part 1.

Part 2 deals with the education of women. He began by talking about the role of women in society, which can be a little dodgy when coming from a Victorian. In this case, my personal feeling was what he said did not stray far from how Laurie and I treat our marriage. However, it would be difficult to prescribe what he says across the board in post-feminist America. Do not mistake what I am saying. I love that we live in a time which is more equitable and where women can do anything men can do. I also grieve over and would seek to change the places in which that equality has failed. I have a marriage in which we strengthen one another. In our case, what Ruskin suggests is pretty much the practice. I could not present his ideas dogmatically in, say, a classroom setting.

And we are not going to be so Freudian as to bring up Ruskin’s well known issues with his wife.

Although, I think one of the valuable contributions of this second lecture was his survey of the women of Shakespeare. He points out that, save for possibly Henry V, there are no pure heroes in Shakespeare. However, with the possible exception of Ophelia and Lady Macbeth, there is nothing but exemplary heroines in Shakespeare (although, in mentioning this statement to Laurie, she brought up The Taming of the Shrew. Again, Ruskin was a Victorian).

Good? Great! Enjoyed it? YES! Gained from it? Heavens, yes! Recommend it? Uh… well, the first part unequivocally. The second part with the aforementioned caveats.