16 May 1985 (Aptitudes, Housman, Keats and Wilde, sensuous consciousness, libretti, Edmund Ironside)


Dear Erik,

   I'm writing this in the train to London, so it may not be very legible. The train keeps on the lines (I hope) better than I do. Many thanks for your splendid birthday present. I had no idea that your gifts extended to drawing and portraiture. You're high on the list of the most multifaceted people I know, of any age. Neither I nor my sons ever had much elective affinity with anything but books and music, except chess. I suppose you play that too? But we have to follow our own inclinations in these matters; aptitudes are their own justification, as my admired mentor A. E. Housman said: "If a certain department of knowledge specially attracts a man, let him study that, and study it because it attracts him; and let him not fabricate excuses for that which requires no excuse, but rest assured that the reason why it most attracts him is that it is best for him". I'm sure the same sage advice applies also to the artist, his interest and influences; and you, my dear Erik, seem to be an artist in every sense of that word. I was impressed by your Piano piece, and the interview. You seem to be a celebrity already. I'm glad you like Keats and Wilde, as I did too at your age, and still do. They have something quite unexpected in common. It's hard to define, if easy to perceive: a certain immediacy of linguistic effect which makes them both easily accessible at the first level of approach, and then once inside their minds and work, and feeling at home there, you can look around at leisure and discover new delights, such as further (and perhaps deeper) layers of meaning. Much the same is true of Housman, already cited; the same good sound brainwork (he was the finest classical scholar of his generation) and the same appeal, in his poetic output (try A Shropshire Lad: let me know if you have trouble in finding a copy) to the realm of instant response - adjectives of colour, for example, and other instinctual imagery of touch and sight. And he stands between Keats and Wilde, extending a hand to both, in being a wit. The joke too is something that lies very near the surface of sensuous consciousness, however deep its subconscious springs. I clearly recall that at 16 I was also much preoccupied with the early (first?) symbolist poetrs, in which category I'd place Baudelaire and Mörike: they too have retained their places in the private pantheon. But I fear we're fixed in time by the accident of birthyear, and you'll certainly be open to much more modern influence than I, which is as it should be. I wouldn't have thought, incidentally, that Wilde would make the ideal libretto: too sui generis perhaps, already tied too tightly to the verbal mode, apart from Salome, which (as you say!) has already been appropriated. Have you looked, by the way, at the original (I believe) French text, in which it also sounds rather well. So it does in German too, especially perhaps the rather brutal finale Die Soldaten stürzen vor und zermalmen unter ihren Schilden, etc.

      German reminds me, agreeably, of the Gruner competition: although not doing any more adjudicating this time, I'm on the Committee, and shall turn up, out of interest, to hear some at least of the next two stages, and if possible all the finals. I have to get back into the Swing of the Lied, so that I can make a start on Brahms.

      I've just finished a big book on an anonymous Tudor drama c. 1588 which I'm boldly attributing to the young Shakespeare. Now there's a librettist for you! I think the Verdi Falstaff is actual a better work of art than Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor.

      But that must suffice for now. Look after yourself: most cordial good wishes as ever

      Yours Eric