Two recent examples are reviews of writers who failed to achieve fame in their lifetimes – or ours.
Start with Ambrose Bierce, profiled by the always-readable Andrew Ferguson in the latest edition of the Standard.
The brave life and mysterious death of Ambrose Bierce.
One golden autumn morning 100 years ago, a few blocks from where I’m writing these words in northwest Washington, D.C., Ambrose Bierce said goodbye to his secretary, turned the key in the door to his apartment on Logan Circle, and went off to God knows where.
I’m not speaking figuratively: God and nobody else knows where Ambrose Bierce ended up—or when, how, or why.
That was fitting for a man “whose fame was not general, even at its most robust,” as Ferguson notes.
“We have produced but one genuine wit,” H. L. Mencken wrote, in a survey of American letters: “Ambrose Bierce. And save to a small circle he is unknown today.” Mencken was writing decades after Bierce had gone off to Mexico, by which time his life was best remembered for the way he had left it. And the circle of those who read him is even smaller now, needless to say. When the Library of America finally got around to issuing a canonical selection of his writing, in 2011, the single volume (Philip Roth got nine!) was relatively slender; it was the 219th in the library’s series of great American writers.
Bierce suffered the unfortunate fate of being a “writer’s writer” – remarkably prolific, superbly epigrammatic, supremely ironic.
Then again, Ferguson says,
[H]e earned the right to be read and remembered for more than his cleverness, sharp as it was—especially now, on the 100th anniversary of his curious exit and in the middle of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. He served in the war with great distinction, and, in the decades that followed, he came closer than any other American to turning the great national cataclysm into art.
Reduced to contemporary terms, Bierce has earned the right to be read and remembered at least in Ferguson’s piece.
Next up: Jesuit priest and poet supreme Gerard Manley Hopkins, who suffered the fate of being a “poet’s poet.”
His bold, innovative syntax and his celebration of “the roll, the rise, the carol” of creation are like nothing in English poetry:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
Truly, Hopkins’ poetry is like nothing you’ve ever experienced. We defy you to read The Windhover and not get shivers.
But, like Ambrose Bierce, Hopkins was unfamous in his own time. From Short’s piece:
When it came to his own verse, Hopkins was human enough to miss fame . . . [But these] letters correct the view that Hopkins resented the religious order that forbade the publication of his verse: “When a man has given himself to God’s service,” he wrote to the poet Richard Watson Dixon in 1881, “when he has denied himself and followed Christ, he has fitted himself to receive and does receive from God a special guidance, a more particular providence.”
Now if you value what I write, if I do myself, much more does our Lord. And if he chooses to avail himself of what I leave at his disposal he can do so with a felicity and with a success which I could never command. And if he does not, then two things follow; one that the reward I shall nevertheless receive from him will be all the greater; the other that then I shall know how much a thing contrary to his will and even to my own best interests I should have done if I had taken things into my own hands and forced on publication.
Contrary to the Lord’s decision (and at ridicule-risk), we’ll publish our favorite Hopkins poem here (via the Poetry Foundation).
That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the ResurrectionCloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they glitter in marches.Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an elm arches,Shivelights and shadowtackle ín long | lashes lace, lance, and pair.Delightfully the bright wind boisterous | ropes, wrestles, beats earth bareOf yestertempest’s creases; | in pool and rut peel parchesSquandering ooze to squeezed | dough, crust, dust; stanches, starchesSquadroned masks and manmarks | treadmire toil thereFootfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, | nature’s bonfire burns on.But quench her bonniest, dearest | to her, her clearest-selvèd sparkMan, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind, is gone!Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous darkDrowned. O pity and indig | nation! Manshape, that shoneSheer off, disseveral, a star, | death blots black out; nor markIs any of him at all so starkBut vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection.Across my foundering deck shoneA beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trashFall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:In a flash, at a trumpet crash,I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, andThis Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,Is immortal diamond.
Immortal, yes? And we’re not even religious.