18. 5 April 1988 [ES] (Bacon's formulations and imagery; detraction is a distraction; Letters to an Atheist)
greetings, and. thanks for the two extra rashers.
I'm just back from an Easter spent with my poor dear mother; which is not much of a life-enhancing experience; and I've somehow managed to split a fingernail which is not propitious for writing or typing (better for the latter, because it's not one of the very few fingers I type with). So I'm both spiritually and physically handicapped. Forgive me if I sound as stultified as I feel.
First, I found the new helpings of Bacon much more to my taste. 57 begins splendidly. I really wanted to know more, even much more, about the Vergil influence and affinities. The comparison with Shakespeare is interesting to me; he was very little of a Vergilian, but an obsessively devoted Ovidian, of course. I wanted to know more too about the Baconian poetic formulations and imagery, its comparisons and contrasts (as rather memorably presented by Spurgeon). Suspicions like bats in flying by twilight, and so on; really remarkable mental pictures of varied lights and their concomitants. Again, the idea of teaching by extended metaphors (combining the classical with the Biblical tradition) is full of potential fascination.
But then the thread of discourse seemed to slacken somewhat. I found it difficult to trace the connection back to poetic sources from the middle of p.1041 onwards. The thought seems somehow deflected, and in a different direction, by the detractor who appears towards the foot of p. 1042. Detraction is a distraction I'd venture to wonder whether you need the paragraph beginning 'It is only.. ' and ending '..other French borrowings'. It seems mainly to concede, surely rather unnecessarily that Bacon did in fact both borrow and suppress his sources. And I don't see what it has to do with his poetic sources, even on a liberal interpretation of poetry as related to other liberal arts.
When it comes to his sources of happiness, the very first sentence (which bears the weight of exposition) takes us away from that interesting topic into the barren waste lands (as I view them) of detraction. The result is that the reader has to get through two and a half pages without any real mention of the announced subject of this section. And even then we’re soon back with Strachey. And no sooner do Bacon's pleasures get into their stride, p. 1154, that they're made to march off and demonstrate against Anthony Weldon. Even when we get to the Essays we have to be reminded that some unnamed idiot once called them cactuses.
I feel this impulse, despite its depth and strength, which I can well understand, is actively counter-productive. On practically every page the reader is regularly, not to say remorselessly reminded of baseless calumnies which are surely best ignored and forgotten, or at most mentioned once only, to be briefly and finally repudiated. Otherwise they get too much exposure, too much publicity; the cumulative effect is tantamount to anti-Bacon propaganda. So much mud slung and stuck and scraped off, however lovingly and meticulously and justifiably, is still a chronicle of mud.
More positively, consider how beautiful it all sounds when freed of these charwoman chores . Then (and I have to say only then) we hear the clear voice, the fresh fount of style. I think of the sentence beginning 'Striking lines' on p.1039, or the whole section 1155-9; that seems to me (if I may say so) the essential Bacon and the essential you also, and a very sweetly appetising aromatic sizzle the mixture makes. I craved more of it; more on Gardens for example as sources of happiness, the combined intellectual and sensual pleasure of contemplating each growing thing in its due season, a marvellous motif.
Even there, though, I have a mild reservation, which I shall venture to mention for whatever it may be worth; you know your texts so well, and wish to acknowledge them so punctiliously, that the resulting proliferation of quotation marks may mildly distract our attention from the sprightly continuity of the prose.
You're very welcome to further off-the-cuff comments, if you feel you can stand them, on other chapters; I'd be very happy to help, if that's the word, (it's certainly the intention) in any way I can.
Not much news. There's a comic little collaborative booklet just out, called Letters to an Atheist (i.e. me). My son Jeremy's translation of Die Zauberflöte at the English National Opera has been generally well received. The latest Oxford publication is so enthusiastic about the Shakespearean authenticity of Edward III that one wonders how it came to be excluded from what I shall have to call the Oxford Incomplete Works; I can use their comments in liberal quotations on my dust-jacket. Text and notes now established and typed (professionally); only another hundred thousand words of commentary to go. Meanwhile I'm all set for the States, where Virginia and Edmund Ironside are due to celebrate, their quatercentenaries jointly, at a Shakespeare (sic) Festival, this July.
Farewell for now; warmest good wishes, as ever,