Hemingway, in some interview, said that he liked to begin the day by reading a page of solid English prose. This, I believe, is where he picked up the phrase from Donne that graces For whom the Bell Tolls.
At least, I believe this was Hemingway. I came across this quotation in my teens, and I have such a bright memory of it that it could be false, fool’s gold, not the real ore. However, similar spiritual exercises were recommended by Flaubert, and Flannery O’Connor in midcareer said that read Henry James because she hoped he’d have an effect on her, although she hadn’t seen any result yet.
The prose conscience, that is what these people were trying to create. I suppose there is one for every specialization, from plumbing to neurosurgery. What makes the arts a bit different is that the writer, painter or musician is building this conscience on a practice of reading. The plumber and neuorsurgeon are, I suppose, acquiring the elements of professiona integrity from experience – even if they also swear by their mentors.
Myself, in the track of Hemingway, I too read some of Donne’s sermons (challenge the person who claims to have read them all – reading them gave me a vast appreciation for the patience of our pew seated ancestors). I’ve read a number of writers as much for their putative music as for, well, what they are trying to say. Sir Thomas Brown, Samuel Johnson, Edmond Burke, John Ruskin. I know that the music can creep upon you and turn up where you least expect it. It would certainly have astonished Pascal to know that his most ardent pupil in the style department was to be Edward Gibbon, who modeled his prose on the Provincial Letters. Gibbon of course was an old reprobate. On the other hand, Pascal owed Montaigne, who was a seignorial reprobate. And the beat goes on.
It is for this reason that every oncet and a while I dip into Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Dying. I am not going to be persuaded by any Anglican arguments to hie me to a chapel, but the rush of the first paragraph is a sort of natural wonder. Here it is:
A man is a bubble, (said the Greek proverb,) which Lucian represents with advantages and its proper circumstances, to this purpose; saying, that all the world is a storm, and men rise up in their several generations, like bubbles descending a Jove pluvio, from God and the dew of heaven, from a tear and drop of rain, from nature and Providence; and some of these instantly sink into the deluge of their first parent, and are hidden in a sheet of water, having had no other business in the world, but to be born, that they might be able to die: others float up and down two or three turns, and suddenly disappear, and give their place to others: and they that live longest upon the face of the waters are in perpetual motion, restless and uneasy; and, being crushed with a great drop of a cloud,sink into flatness and a froth; the change not being great, it being hardly possible it should be more nothing that it was before. So is every man: he is born in vanity and sin; he comes into the world like morning mushrooms, soon thrusting up their heads into the air, and conversing with their kindred of the same production, and as soon they turn into dust and forgetfulness - some of them without any other interest in the affairs of the world, but that they made their parents a little glad and very sorrowful: others ride longer in the storm; it may be until seven years of vanity be expired, and then peradventure the sun shines hot upon their heads, and they fall into the shades below, into the cover of death and darkness of the grave to hide them. But if the bubble stands the shock of a bigger drop, and outlives the chances of a child, of a careless nurse, of drowning in a pail of water, of being overlaid by a sleepy servant, or such little accidents, then the young man dances like a bubble, empty and gay, and shines like a dove’s neck, or the image of a rainbow, which hath no substance, and whose very imagery and colours are fantastical; and so he dances out the gaiety of his youth, and is all the while in a storm, and endures only because he is not knocked on the head by a drop of bigger rain, or crushed by the pressure of a load of indigested meat, or quenched by the disorder of an ill-placed humour: and to preserve a man alive in the midst of so many chances and hostilities is as great a miracle as to create him; to preserve him from rushing into nothing, and at first to draw him up from nothing were equally the issues of an almighty power. And therefore the wise men of the world have contended who shall best fit man’s condition with words signifying his vanity and short abode. Honour calls a man “a leaf,” the smallest, the weakest piece of a short-lived, unsteady plant. Pindar calls him “the dream of a shadow:” another “the dream of the shadow of smoke.” But St. James spake by a more excellent spirit, saying, ‘Our life is but a vapour,’ viz, drawn from the earth by a celestial influence; made of smoke, or the lighter parts of water tossed with every wind, moved by the motion of a superior body, without virtue in itself, lifted up on high, or left below, according as it pleased the sun, its foster-father. But it is lighter yet. It is but appearing; a fantastic vapour, an apparition, nothing real; it is not so much as a mist, not the matter of a shower, nor substantial enough to make a cloud; but it is like Cassiopeia’s chair, or Pelop’s shoulder, or the circles of heaven, φαινορενα, for which you cannot have a word that can signify a verier nothing. And yet the expression is one degree more made diminutive; a vapour, and fantastical, or a mere appearance, and this but for a little while neither, the very dream, the phantasm, disappears in a small time, “like the shadow that departed; or like a tale that is told, or as a dream when one waketh.” A man is so vain, so unfixed, so perishing a creature, that he cannot long last in the scene of fancy: a man goes off, and is forgotten, like the dream of a distracted person. The sum of all is this: that thou art a man, than whom there is not in the world any greater instance of heights and declinations, of lights and shadows, of misery and folly, of laughter and tears, of groans and death.”
The bubble and trouble of that meditation, which leaps from image to image and pulls the argument, what there is of it, after, infests all his instances of the fleeting status of human life. To me, though, the image that most startles me, and is most in concord with the liveliness of raindrops annd the deadliness of admonition is that drowning in a pail of water. It delivers a shock, on the heels of the careless nurse. But it is a carefully hedged about shock, not dwelt upon but let loose in the stream of fluid and watery instances and pictures – for after all, the thing about water is that no shock really disturbs it, or is preserved in it. Unless of course it be ice – the one form of water Taylor doesn’t mention.
So here I am. The morning is over. Time to work.