Monday, January 18, 2010

With force renew'd, (if not) to victory aspired

A favorite BBC/PBS program of roughly thirty years back was James Burke's "Connections." Remember that show? A British academic/broadcaster -- a compound noun unknown in the US, but still quite popular across the pound -- in a leisure suit, introduced each episode by standing in some unlikely corner of the globe, excitedly describing the way in which Phoenicians dressed their beards in olive oil and, popping up in a dozen other equally unlikely places along the way, talking about spoons or the origins of tap-dancing, concluded a dizzying series of gradual or abrupt scientific or technological advances by announcing, "All of which brings us here, to --" as the camera reared wildly back to reveal... a jet airliner, a light bulb or The Empire State Building.

"Well, of course," the viewer said "just so."

It was always a dizzy and dizzying ride, that all made perfectly obvious sense -- until one excitedly tried to recreate Burke's connections conversationally an hour later.

I confess, I retain not one actual memory of any of the scientific history told in this way, but I did love the show. So... stimulating! Burke's delight in the unlikely interaction of cultures, history and ideas, no doubt without meaning to, did however provide me with a kind of personal justification, and a model, for my own undisciplined reading of history and literature. Books, I discovered, lead inevitably to other books, and not always in a direct line, going forward, but if viewed in retrospect...

Since those energetic early days as an omnivorous consumer of print, both my time and my tastes have grown increasingly restricted -- the right word, I think. I lack the elasticity of youth. So while I am no longer either as often led away by the new for the sake of its newness or as eager to trace the whole long course of history, and while the pace of my adventures has slackened to almost a stroll, I can not claim to have been slowed by any real refinement of observation or to have settled into any comfortable, and or profitable specialization. I'm just kinda poky, nowadays. Though, truth be told, I still read no less largely but no more deeply or with an real specificity of intent. The point? I've come to accept the absence of any such. I simply like and need to read and perhaps read more widely than most, if no better. And yet, I find I still seek the justification of my all too temporary enthusiasms in the traces left behind, traces I still can not quite concede as being evidence of only my wandering ways. I still map my all too circular, circuitous and sometimes senseless history as a reader in hopes, I suppose, if of nothing else, of remembering not so much my direction or proposed destination as, frankly, just my mileage. I've covered a lot of ground, it seems, in some forty odd years as a reader, even if I haven't gone very far. (If this suggests a devotee of the stationary bicycle rather than a cyclist, that sounds about right.)

So how then, looking only so far back as a week, did I come to find myself today reading John Dryden's "Preface to Albion and Albanius" in the second volume of the Everyman's Library edition of Dryden's Of Dramatic Poesy and Other Critical Essays?

Well, let's see.

I'd been listening to some songs by Purcell. Finding the music lovely, but the lyrics unintelligible, despite being obviously in English, I'd looked the words up online. (Dryden, but not included in either volume of Dryden's poetry I own.) Soon I was listening online to an archived radio program -- from the BBC again, natch, -- about Dryden's opera with Purcell of "King Arthur." I found this on the website for the American scholar, (and as I delightedly learned, semiprofessional flutist!) James Anderson Winn, to which I had repaired after reading a masterly chapter or two of Winn's John Dryden and His World, because I had been reading, among other poetry of his, Dryden's poem on The Great Fire of London, and wanted to understand the poem, and Dryden, better. I'd turned to Winn's scholarly biographical analysis, because, as good as it was, George Saintsbury's John Dryden, in the old English Men of Letters series, had not helped me as much as I'd hoped with the poetry. I'd taken up Saintsbury's book to fill in some of what I hadn't got from just the poems themselves. (The surfaces of which are slick, I've found, and I tend to just glide through Dryden's pages, if unassisted, without ever quite finding my feet.) And I took up Dryden's poems because of the frequency with which Jenny Uglow quotes the poet in her new biography of Charles II, A Gambling Man, which I'd actually finished... I don't remember when exactly, but not long ago, and which I'd only read because I enjoy Jenny Uglow's books so much, I'll read anything she writes.

So, now, why Dryden's preface to an opera other than the one to which I had been listening? Well, because it was there, I guess, and about opera, and music and poetry and the connections betwixt them.

To summarize just the books then (mostly just consulted and or actually read, in one case, to date):

Of Dramatic Poesy and Other Critical Essays, Volume Two, by John Dryden
The Poetical Works of John Dryden & The Selected Poems of John Dryden
John Dryden and His World, by James Anderson Winn
John Dryden, by George Sainstbury
A Gambling Man, by Jenny Uglow

(Not to repeat the list of an earlier post started by the same book by Ms. Uglow.)

Am I suggesting that any or all of this reading has taught me anything or left me better off than I was a week, a month, or twenty years ago? Well, yes, of course I am.

Just don't ask me how, exactly, as it's been more than a hour since I put down that last book.

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