Reading Essays: An Invitation

By G. Douglas Atkins | Go to book overview

Caged Lions and Sustained Sibilants
E. B. White as “Recording Secretary” in
“The Ring of Time”

Every so often I make an attempt to simplify my life, burning my
books behind me, selling the occasional chair, discarding the
accumulated miscellany. I have noticed, though, that these
purifications of mine—to which my wife submits with cautious
grace—have usually led to even greater complexity in the long pull.

―E. B. White, The Points of My Compass

All through The Elements of Style one finds evidences of the author’s
deep sympathy for the reader. Will felt that the reader was in serious
trouble most of the time, a man floundering in a swamp, and that it
was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this
swamp quickly and get his man up on high ground, or at least throw
him a rope.

―E. B. White, “Will Strunk,” later the introduction to
The Elements of Style

FOR THE READER NEW TO Elwyn Brooks White and the essay, the oft-anthologized “The Ring of Time” may seem problematical, falling abruptly and precipitously into two rather distinct parts and punctuated with a three-paragraph postscript. For the reader familiar with White and versed in the essay, “The Ring of Time” appears layered, carefully crafted, and deeply resonant. For the college or university student, like some others acquainted with the author and conversant with the form of which he was a master, this particular essay may seem characteristically wise, in places very nearly brilliant, and a good “read”—even if it lacks the depth of engagement of “Death of a Pig,” about which I have written extensively in Tracing the Essay, with its rich narrative, memorable characters, humor, and wit, and the poignancy and power of “Once More to the Lake,” with its linguistic and structural successes. “The Ring of Time” is language and form charged with meaning, to borrow from Ezra Pound, although not “to the utmost possible degree.”

-210-

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