Background with Chorus: A Footnote to Changes in English Literary Fashion between 1901 and 1917

Background with Chorus: A Footnote to Changes in English Literary Fashion between 1901 and 1917

Background with Chorus: A Footnote to Changes in English Literary Fashion between 1901 and 1917

Background with Chorus: A Footnote to Changes in English Literary Fashion between 1901 and 1917

Excerpt

Time is like a fashionable host
That slightly shakes his parting guest by the hand,
And with his arms outstretch'd, as he would fly,
Grasps in the comer: welcome ever smiles,
And farewell goes out sighing.

Literary historians record and interpret events, 'schools', 'trends', and such arbitrary systematizations of fact. I do not underrate the value of their documentary research. If, however, we want imaginatively to grasp character, or hear the actual voices of famous men, or understand how or why they impressed their companions or their age, we shall sometimes gain valuable help, not from historians, but from anecdotalists such as Spence, Boswell, J. T. Smith, or Hazlitt in his Conversations of James Northcote. We shall do the same from Haydon autobiography and table talk, The Journal to Stella, Crabb Robinson Diary, or the unconsidered memoirs of Caroline Fox.

I have favourite passages in all these books, such as those referring to Swift's arch, azure eyes or the slight insolence of his talk, to Pope's sister having never seen her brother laugh heartily, to Johnson answering a complaint of lateness from Nollekens with the jovial cry 'Bow- wow-wow!' and to John Stirling reminding the critical young Quaker, Caroline Fox, of what she must always remember about the Roman Church, and to her dry inquiry 'What have you to forget?' answering 'Only yourself'. This last does more than the whole of Carlyle's biography to bring a delightful young man into our comprehension.

Valuing these and other sidelights on the past, I have long made a habit of entreating my older friends and acquaintances, who have lived through three-quarters of a century and more of recent history and seen at close quarters the chief figures of their time, to jot down rough notes of their recollections. I have said, not in these words, but in effect, 'Even if you record only half-a-dozen authenticities, you will have helped to make the days before radio captured all voices a reality for people of A.D. 2,000 and onwards. The exact words a singular man . . .

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