(Roger Mifflin loquitur)
I had a pleasant adventure to-day. A free verse poet came in to see me, wanted me to buy some copies of “The Pagan Anthology.” I looked over the book, to which he himself had contributed some pieces. I advised him to read Tennyson. I wish you could have seen his face.
If you want to see a really good anthology (I said) have a look at Pearsall Smith’s “Treasury of English Prose,” just out. The only thing that surprises me is that Mr. Smith didn’t include some free verse in it. The best thing about free verse is that it is often awfully good prose.
It’s a superb clear night: a milky pallor washed in the blue: a white moon overhead: stars rare but brilliant, one in the south twinkles and flutters like a tiny flower stirred by faint air. The wind is “a cordial of incredible virtue” (Emerson)–sharp and chill, but with a milder tincture. To-day, though brisk and snell on the streets, the sunshine had a lively vigour, a generous quality, a promissory note of the equinox. I felt it from first rising this morning–the old demiurge at work! As I sat in the bathtub (when a man is fifty he may be pardoned for taking a warm bath on winter mornings) my mind fell upon the desire of wandering: it occurred to me that a spread of legs in the vital air would be richly repaid. The windows called me: as soon as shirt and trousers were on, I was at the sill peering out over Gissing Street. Later, even through closed panes, the chink of milk bottles on the pavement below seemed to rise with a clearer, merrier note. Setting out for some tobacco about 8:30, I stopped to study the ice-man’s great blocks of silvery translucence, lying along the curb by a big apartment house. “Artificial” ice, I suppose: it was interesting to see, in the meridian of each cake, a kind of silvery fracture or membrane, with the grain of air-bubbles tending outward therefrom–showing, no doubt, if one knew the mechanics of refrigeration, just how the freezing proceeded. Even in so humble a thing as a block of ice are these harmonic and lovely patterns, the seal of Nature’s craft, inscrutable, inimitable. I might have made a point of this in talking to that free verse poet. I’m glad I didn’t, however: he would have had some tedious reply, convincing to himself. That’s the trouble with replies: they are always convincing to the replier. As a friend of mine used to say, one good taciturn deserves another.
I was thinking, as I took a parcel of laundry up to the Chinaman on McFee Street just now, it would be interesting to write a book dealing solely, candidly, exactly, and fully with the events, emotions, and thoughts of just one day in a man’s life. If one could do that, in a way to carry conviction, assent, and reality, to convey to the reader’s senses a recognition of genuine actual human being, one might claim to be a true artist.
I have found an admirable book for reading in bed–this little anthology of prose, collected by Pearsall Smith. He knows what good prose is, having written some of the daintiest bits of our time in his “Trivia,” a book with which I occasionally delight a truly discerning customer. What a fascination there is in good prose–“the cool element of prose” as Milton calls it–a sort of fluid happiness of the mind, unshaken by the violent pangs of great poetry. I am not subtle enough to describe it, but in the steadily cumulating satisfaction of first-class prose there seems to be something that speaks direct to the brain, unmarred by the claims of the senses, the emotions. I meditate much, ignorantly and fumblingly, on the modes and purposes of writing. It is so simple–“Fool!” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write!”–all that is needful is to tell what happens; and yet how hard it is to summon up that necessary candor. Every time I read great work I see the confirmation of what I grope for. How vivid, straight, and cleanly it seems when done: merely the outward utterance of “what the mind at home, in the spacious circuits of her musing, hath liberty to propose to herself.” Let a man’s mind depart from his audience; let him have no concern whether to shock or to please. Let him carry no consideration save to utter, with unsparing fidelity, what passes in his own spirit. One can trust the brain to do its part. All that is needed is honourable frankness: not to be ashamed to open our hearts, to speak our privy weakness, our inward exulting. Then the pain and perplexity, or the childish satisfactions, of our daily life are the true material of the writer’s art, and that which is sown in weakness may be raised in power. Curious indeed that in this life, brief and precariously enjoyed, men should so set their hearts on building a permanence in words: something to stand, in the lovely stability of ink and leaden types, as our speech out of silence to those who follow on. Indefensible absurdity, and yet the secret and impassioned dream of those who write!
I was about to say that, for the writing of anything truly durable, the first requisite is plenty of silence. Then I recall Dr. Johnson’s preface to his Dictionary–“written not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academic bowers, but amid inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow.”