Friday 3 April 2009

The Art of Sinking in Literature

This is a title asking to be written.

After yet another inspiring Thursday evening at the Calder Bookshop – tonight’s fare was a reading from Graham Greene’s most famous novels, introduced by a tired-looking but anecdotal John Calder – I had dinner with Tom McCarthy, author of Remainder.

We had a long chat about the pitiful state of contemporary British literature. He argues that most people interested in ideas are emigrating to the visual arts or conceptual art, and that the celebrated writers of the day are the most mediocre and boring scribblers we’ve had for decades. We tried to think of one or two literary titles that made it into the top-ten or even top-fifty charts in the last twenty or thirty years. He couldn’t think of any book – neither could I.

I then told him I am currently editing this extraordinary book by Alexander Pope – another of my favourite authors – called Peri Bathous, or The Art of Sinking in Poetry. Pope, with his friends Arbuthnot, Gay, Parnell and Swift, created a literary group, nicknamed the Scriblerus Club, with the intent of ridiculing “all the false tastes in learning”. The Club left behind a number of co-operative works, mostly satires, the most important of which – which I published at Hesperus a few years ago – is The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, a hilarious account of the life and works of a pretentious scholar.

I am not even half way through the editing of Peri Bathous, but I have already found a number of passages that are as true and applicable today as they were almost three hundred years ago, when Pope wrote them. I will give you three examples below, hoping that this will whet your appetite and you will want to read the whole thing when we publish the book next month.

“We come now to prove that there is an art of sinking in poetry. Is there not an architecture of vaults and cellars as well as of lofty domes and pyramids? Is there not as much skill and labour in making of dykes as in raising of mounts? Is there not an art of diving as well as of flying? And will any sober practitioner affirm that a diving engine is not of singular use in making him long-winded, assisting his sight and furnishing him with other ingenious means of keeping underwater?”

“It is affirmed by Quintilian that the same genius which made Germanicus so great a general would with equal application have made him an excellent heroic poet. In like manner, reasoning from the affinity there appears between arts and sciences, I doubt not but an active catcher of butterflies, a careful and fanciful pattern-drawer, an industrious collector of shells, a laborious and tuneful bagpiper or a diligent breeder of tame rabbits might severally excel in their respective parts of the bathos.”

“The physician, by the study and inspection of urine and ordure, approves himself in the science; and in like sort should our author accustom and exercise his imagination upon the dregs of nature. This will render his thoughts truly and fundamentally low, and carry him many fathoms beyond mediocrity.”


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