Tight Spots

By Brad Leithauser

Featured Image: Abstract by Carl Newman 1858-1932

In some purer world than ours, the business of literary re-examination and reappraisal would follow foreseeable lines. You’d read steadily, in ever-widening circles, and retain whatever you read. To each act of rereading you’d bring a broader outlook, a more finely calibrated set of analytical tools. The whole process would be self-nourishing and self-directed.

Instead, what a messy and uncertain business—at least for me—reappraisal turns out to be! Its reigning god isn’t called Autonomy, but Happenstance. His identifying insignia aren’t an oil lamp and a set of bifocals, but a pair of dice. Years ago, I put together an anthology of supernatural fiction. I took my task seriously, compiling many pages of notes, and eventually found I’d digested more than a thousand ghost stories. One of these was Kipling’s “They,” a quiet tale with some benign and diminutive ghosts—the ghosts of children. I admired the story, but provisionally concluded it lacked the finish and power my collection would embody. While making my final selections, I reread “They,” this time prompted by one of my heroes, the poet-critic Randall Jarrell, who said of it, “Chekhov and Tolstoy and Turgenev together couldn’t improve ‘They.’”

This time around, I saw instantly that I’d underestimated Kipling’s story. It had plenty of finish, but wasn’t it lacking some necessary poignancy or power? Regretfully, I again voted no.

Years later, I wound up in a reading room that chanced to include both the Jarrell essay and a Kipling collection. Idly, I drifted into the story’s opening paragraphs, which otherwise I might never have revisited—and I began, gradually but undeniably, shamefacedly but warmheartedly, to perceive how misdirected I’d been in relying on my own judgments: oh, this “They” really was one of the greatest stories anyone ever wrote!

And the role of solitary reappraisal? In my case, I’d needed not only Jarrell to guide me, but also Fate to slip Kipling’s story yet once more into my hands at an opportune moment.

I had a similar experience recently while composing an essay about another of my heroes, Edward Lear. I think of him as someone who brought to the genre of light verse something unfeigned and unfadingly fresh—a congenital obliquity, an irreducible oddity. Shortly after submitting my essay, I met up with my friend Richard Wilbur, another Lear admirer, who recited a passage from a favorite of his, “Some Incidents in the Life of My Uncle Arly.”

Well, Lear’s poetic canon is small, and I’d read all the poems many times. And I’d especially liked “Uncle Arly.” But listening to the poem through the cadences of Wilbur’s much-amused voice, I heard something new to me.

Uncle Arly? He’s the old family relative, you’ll recall, who had an unfortunate incident when reaching down to pick up a fallen railway ticket:

But, in stooping down to pick it
Off the ground,—a pea-green Cricket
Settled on my uncle’s Nose.

I had long ago grasped—no difficult conclusion to reach—that Uncle Arly’s cricket was a smaller, brighter, chirpier cousin of Poe’s raven. Lear’s emphatic and echoing trochaic lines made this unmistakably apparent:

Never—never more,—Oh! never,
Did that Cricket leave him ever . . .

But the encounter with an unshakeable cricket hardly marked the end of Uncle Arly’s story. In Poe’s “The Raven,” the reader leaves the unnamed narrator with the nightmarish realization that the visiting black bird, having perched, has perched for good. But Uncle Arly’s steadfast insect hardly exhausts the “incidents” that the poem’s title speaks of. There is also the matter of Uncle Arly’s feet. His shoes are too tight. We’re informed of this on four occasions in a poem of a mere forty-nine lines. Here is the concluding stanza:

On a little heap of Barley
Died my aged Uncle Arly
And they buried him one night;—
Close beside the leafy thicket;—
There,—his hat and Railway Ticket;—
There,—his ever-faithful Cricket;—
(But his shoes were far too tight.)

Whoever enters Lear’s oddly angled world soon perceives that it is—like Poe’s—subject to fearsome influxes and intrusions. Flames, storms, horrendous household accidents. Less apparent, but no less important, is the way Lear’s limericks and children’s verses and letters and drawings document a contrary aspect of the world—its monotony, its mundanity, its wearying pedestrianism as embodied (in multiple senses) by Uncle Arly’s ill-fitting shoes.

Lear remains a symbol of enviable freedom—the nonsense poet par excellence. But there’s another voice in Lear—a note of resignation, a lively intellect’s tiredness with tedium, with dailiness, with realities so irksome one naturally escapes them any way one can. His ventures into nonsense come out sounding commonsensical.

Originally published in NOR 7

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