Thursday, May 17, 2012

all their winding streams and hamlets

Charles Maturin in Melmoth likes to insert a three-word Biblical excerpt into a sentence when there is no reason why those three words need to come from the Bible, or from any outside source, for, I swear, they're so innocuous he could have written them himself without attributing them. That quote could have stayed a secret forever; only the author would have known. The presence of the Bible there adds nothing to the story, it's as pointless as the word "like" in a conversation, "It's, like, cold today, it's like, freezing," but slang, a category that shouldn't disinclude literary quote-slang -- slang smothers in the mind like subdued fire, it's ever-present, the instant words always ready to bounce out as if they've come from nowhere, not consciously impelled, faster than thought, the quotes lift their heads keenly when they see a nestly setting approaching in the sentence as it forms on the page, realising that somebody is about to shed a tear, so here they come: "he at last yielded to his feelings, and 'lifted up his voice and wept.'" (Genesis 29:11)

Just this morning I said the words, "Come as you are," during a conversation and a Nirvana song said, Aha, in the other person's brain; I know, because they began to sing. Into the dangerous world it leapt piping loud, as in Blake.

Not a passive storehouse, then, the memory waits; the brain like an old mattress is packed with springs, disruptive, maybe useless (not useless: I knew the song too, and I saw we had something in common) but whichever way it goes, we're stuck with it: big rattlebag of info that it is, this coat with a thousand pockets and one thing or another constantly falling out.

Saying "shrimp" in the presence of shrimp is a different thing, I think, the cue is internal but the word is not and it has to be discovered then borrowed.* If the room had presented the buffet man with a plate of ham he would have said that word instead without feeling that he was betraying himself, I mean, he wouldn't have felt as if he had some indigenous proclivity toward the word Shrimp and now Ham had crushed it. He would have been happy saying Ham, like the man who went for a walk with Max Beerbohm in the English countryside and read any sign he came across without minding what was written there. "We pass an inn. He reads vapidly aloud to me: "The King's Arms. Licensed to sell Ales and Spirits." I foresee that during the rest of the walk he will read aloud any inscription that occurs. We pass a milestone. He points at it with his stick, and says "Uxminster. 11 Miles." We turn a sharp corner at the foot of a hill. He points at the wall, and says "Drive Slowly." I see far ahead, on the other side of the hedge bordering the high road, a small notice-board. He sees it too. He keeps his eye on it. And in due course "Trespassers," he says, "Will Be Prosecuted." Poor man!--mentally a wreck."

"I trust," says Maturin in a footnote, "the absurdity of this quotation here will be forgiven for its beauty. It is borrowed from Miss Baillie, the first dramatic poet of the age." He's right, it sounds absurd where he's put it, but with this move he has made Miss Baillie his side-step, he has given himself a reason to write her name, which must have thrilled him; the quote was kept for the sake of the apology. Miss Baillie, Miss Baillie, Miss Baillie is more wonderful than Beatrice, who was introduced into Dante's poem for the same reason, suggests Borges in his commentary. The name is there because it charmed the writer and that charm must have made it feel, to the charmed man, like a kind of power he could borrow. In The Romance of the Forest, by Maturin's contemporary Ann Radcliffe, a character named Adeline cuts a useful conversation short purely because she doesn't want to give her enemy an opportunity to say the name of the man she loves. "Indignation, grief, and fear struggled in the bosom of Adeline; she disdained to give La Motte an opportunity of again pronouncing the name of Theodore." Such unexpected things inspire us, and she wasn't going to give him any triggers.

Maturin uses Shakespeare in other places, and his book is a corridor or mansion or maze leading to other authors. What is Hamlet? you ask, and it answers: one of my antechambers.

* The man at the buffet who said "Shrimp" appeared in one of my posts a few weeks ago. I'm not making self-references to mystify anybody, I promise, but he's useful.

The Beerbohm excerpt comes from his essay, Going Out for a Walk (1918). William Hazlitt published an essay on the same subject almost exactly a century earlier, and wrote, "I cannot see the wit of walking and talking at the same time."

"Miss Baillie" was a poet and playwright from Scotland whose first name was Joanna. The line Maturin admired came from a two-act tragedy called Ethwald, although he misquoted slightly and wrote, "like a stilled infant smiling through its tears" when Baillie's script (which was published in 1802) had the stilled infant smiling in his tears, like this:

When slowly from the plains and nether woods
With all their winding streams and hamlets brown
Updrawn the morning vapour lifts its veil,
And tho' its fleecy folds with soften'd rays
Like a still'd infant smiling in his tears,
Looks thro' the early sun.

But I think Maturin's variation is the natural way for the line to stick in anyone's brain.

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