I’ve been feeling in need of a wealthy, dissolute patron, lately. Somebody whose character I can assassinate in London taverns at three am, amid a crowd of literary winos, before writing grovelling letters of apology in the grisly-faced morning. Instead I have to work for a living – and it’s a bit of a struggle. You try mastering the fundamentals of economics while holding down a bank job; it’s fun, but it’s neither cake nor ale. So my conscious mind has recently shrunk to a single infinitesimal point, with just enough agency to move limbs and bowels, but without the wherewithal to talk or operate machinery.
Which is to say, I’ve been shirking my duties, and reading Macaulay on Johnson.
“Johnson grown old, Johnson in the fullness of his fame and in the enjoyment of a competent fortune, is better known to us than any other man in history. Every thing about him, his coat, his wig, his figure, his face, his scrofula, his St Vitus’s dance, his rolling walk, his blinking eye, the outward signs which too clearly marked his approbation of his dinner, his insatiable appetite for fish-sauce and veal-pie with plum, his inexhaustible thirst for tea, his trick of touching the posts as he walked, his mysterious practice of treasuring up scraps of orange peel, his morning slumbers, his midnight disputations, his contortions, his mutterings, his gruntings, his puffings, his vigorous, acute, and ready eloquence, his sarcastic wit, his vehemence, his insolence, his fits of tempestuous rage, his queer inmates, old Mr Levett and blind Mrs Williams, the cat Hodge and the negro Frank, all are as familiar to us as the objects by which we have been surrounded from childhood. But we have no minute information respecting those years of Johnson’s life during which his character and his manners became immutably fixed.”
And in case Macaulay seems a bit too Victorian, a bit too complacently outgoing, let me balance the scales with Beckett’s take on Cham.
“It isn’t Boswell’s wit and wisdom machine that means anything to me, but the miseries he never talked of, being unwilling or unable to do so. The horror of annihilation, the horror of madness, the horrified love of Mrs Thrale, the whole mental monster ridden swamp that after hours of silence could only give some ghastly bubble like ‘Lord have mercy upon us’, the background of the ‘Prayers and Meditations’, the opium eating, dreading-to-go to bed, prayers-for-the dead, past living, terrified of dying, terrified of deadness, panting on to 75 bag of water, with a hydracele on his right testis. How jolly.”
A crowd flowed over London Bridge. It flowed into the station, and through the stationers. Three years ago I worked there, selling cigarettes and chocolate to the crowd, before it flowed, millipedal, onto the trains and out into the suburbs, down towards Croydon. Now I work in a bank – offering loans and credit cards to people struggling to repay mortgage debts.
Q: Why is ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ Eliot’s best poem?
A: ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is Eliot’s best poem because he’s candid there about the repressions, evasions and weaknesses that provide the foundation for his later ethereal art.
We summon an ocean of liquidity, with rites and dances. Then human voices wake us, and we find there is no water, but only dry sterile thunder without rain.
Proper posts to follow, hopefully.