Language so lovely

John Gross is a man of learning, flair and energy. He did a remarkable job as editor of the Times Literary Supplement in the ’70s, and is always worth our attention. Oxford University Press has recently presented or re-presented him in two of his hats: he pulls the strings behind two widely differing anthologies.

The more original and, surely, more arresting of these is his celebration or many-headed critique of Shakespeare: the Don Bradman of Western literature. All manner of writings are assembled here, woven together with Gross’s own observations. These contents range from Borge’s wonderful story in which God finishes up saying to the poet, ‘like me, you are everything and nothing’, to Cole Porter’s ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’; from Zbigniew Herbert’s ‘Elegy of Fortinbras’ back to sturdy Ben Johnson.

As this will suggest, the book is a feast with a great many kinds of dish, with cooks of many schools. There are novelists, critics, poets, diarists, satirists and an 18th-century Swiss weaver, who actually kept a Shakespeare journal. This gentleman was at least the sympathetic opposite of silly Frederick the Great, who complained that in German theatres ‘you will find the abominable plays of Shakespeare being presented, and audiences in transports of joy listening to these ridiculous farces, which are worthy of the savages of Canada.’

Not all monarchs were such neo-classical barbarians: Catherine the Great, we are told, translated The Merry Wives of Windsor into Russian. And now, in an age when we desperately need  Maynard Keynes to be reborn, it is nice to have his sound comment that ‘We were just in a financial position to afford Shakespeare at the moment when he presented himself!’

Once, in Washington, making my way to the airport I listened to the African-American taxi-driver explaining why it has to be the case that Bacon wrote the Bard’s plays; confusingly, he went on to point out how clear Bacon’s style was, and how richly dense Shakespeare’s. There are no Baconians here, nor yet the Marlovian thesis of Mike Rubbo, but there is a charming essay by Leslie Stephen demonstrating how W.S. wrote Bacon’s works.

Again, some kinds of postmodern thinking have sought to dematerialise the man from Stratford, turning him into a series of textual traces and historical sites. This anthology does much to maintain his solidity, as does Brian Vickers’ recent study of the writing processes, Shakespeare, Co-Author. If we are to be deconstructive, we might say that we have all eaten Shakespeare, turning him into our selves and even, miraculously, into our DNA.

Gross has devised many pigeonholes or categories in which to locate his riches. We pass through ‘Worlds Elsewhere’ and ‘Echoes’, ‘Tales of’ and ‘Tales from’. Along the way we may delight in Emily Dickinson, Fielding, Sartre, crazed Ruskin and ever-gentle Max Beerbohm. We can think of omissions, no doubt, over and above all the critical classics which were deliberately excluded: I do like that moment when Tolstoy told Chekhov that his plays were ‘even worse’ than Shakespeare’s. And yes, I miss the Falstaffian Harold Bloom, along with Thom Gunn’s fierce poem, ‘A Mirror for Poets’.

Of course, the business is all about language, and the richness of it. As Lawrence writes in one of his lively pieces of doggerel, ‘How boring, how small Shakespeare’s people are! / Yet the language so lovely! like the dyes from gas-tar.’ Certainly there is nothing boring in After Shakespeare. You will be able to read it tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, at whatever pace you like.

The Aphorisms are easier pickings, plainly, even if they were laborious fossicking for Gross himself. We ramble here among the usual suspects. There are plenty of jots or tittles delivered by those epigrammatical Frenchmen and Germans, from calmative Montaigne down to that Karl Kraus of whom it was written, ‘When the age died by its own hand, he was that hand’: he who must have loved La Rochefoucauld’s ‘We all have strength enough to endure the troubles of others.’ Nothing here is more concise than clever Nietzsche’s ‘No victor believes in chance’, nor anything more platitudinous than Conrad’s ‘In plucking the fruit of memory one runs the risk of spoiling its bloom.’ But Conrad was always a plodding writer in English.

The Rochefoucauld reminds me, though the editor would not have known this, of Evan Jones’s comico-plangent quatrain:

Life feels mainly too like stone,
two things feel like froth:
kindness when one’s all alone
and good luck to you both.

Resignation is a leading actor in aphorisms, it goes almost without saying. There are just the quip and the dead.

Among the extroverts, Oscar Wilde is refulgently here, of course, along with Dr Johnson, much Hazlitt and the two Samuel Butlers. Beckett misses out entirely, as does Clive James; our contemporaries are scarce and could, no doubt, have been expensive: a reflection that lies like a dead weight on the heart of every anthologist.

Women are few—such is the tradition of wit—and Anita Loos entirely absent, but George Eliot does come up with the dwindled observation that ‘A different taste in jokes is a great strain on the affections.’ Blood oath it is! In truth, a great many of the aphorists sound as though they sweated too hard to come up with their punchlines. One relaxes pleasurably when that old crosspatch Dostoevsky offers us the notion that ‘The formula “two and two makes five” is not without its attractions’, when Stevie Smith notes that sin keeps us nasty, or when some obscure Japanese poet writes,

In a policeman’s arms
The lost child points
Towards the sweet-shop.

Some of these examples are maxims, precepts, quips, proverbs and epigrams. The borders between such little provinces lie in dense bush, with the result that they are not easily determined. We readers are here to be improved, but always to be entertained.

As is right and proper, Thomas Hardy wins the gloom prize with ‘The sudden disappointment of a hope leaves a scar which the ultimate fulfillment of that hope never entirely removes.’ I have gone on brooding personally about Princess Bibesco’s claim that endurance may be only a form of indecision, but have kept a careful distance from Kraus’s explosive remark that ‘Some women are not beautiful—they only look as though they are.’

Just possibly, this was the case with Cleopatra.      

After Shakespeare: An Anthology, John Gross (ed). Oxford University Press, 2002. isbn 0 19 280 472 3, rrp $39.95
The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, John Gross (ed). Oxford University Press, 1983, reissued 2003. isbn 0 19 280 456 1, rrp $39.95

Chris Wallace-Crabbe is a poet, essayist and art critic. He is a Professor Emeritus in the Australian Centre, University of Melbourne.



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