Last week, facing a blank blog page, I distractedly tuned in to Radio 4. Fortunate in my timing, I caught the book of the week - 'The Unexpected Professor', John Carey's gentle reminiscence of his days as an Oxford undergraduate in the 50s.
In this brief 15 minute interlude, the root of my loss of words became all too clear. Carey had studied real English literature, but not the technicolour syllabus of today, which involves scanning the bright and comfortable publications of the 20th century.
He discovered that for Oxford then, educational Don-led literature stopped in the 1830s and it was the impenetrable medieval works that were to be his first awakenings in the foothills. He soldiered on, climbing step by step through the diversions of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, on and on to the headier spaces of Wordsworth and Tennyson, ever upward.
So tough was this path, Carey noted that Auden had wallowed in the Eighth Century lowlands. The since celebrated poet's failure to master Beowulf had led to him being awarded a desultory Third, for his troubles.
Not that Carey had any note of triumph in his own words. He was in a part-dream, part-guilt state realising that he was free, if not compelled to read all day and every day.
What secret language did Carey encounter, I wonder? What inspiring couplets did he cast forever to memory? From whose pen came the trigger words that set him forever on his course of joining the golden ranks in the British Library?
For me, this brief encounter with the names from my distant and half-attended educational past was a sharp reminder that I fall woefully short of guile, craft and knowledge when it comes to putting pen to paper. No wonder, for the 'get at it', instant and 'no time to hesitate' style of Blog, mail, text and Twitter is both restricting and destructive. Along with the guttural slop of spoken 'inglish', the pleasure of the well-considered and rounded phrase is tragically dying.
We are challenged to communicate with as few words as possible and I fear for the world of anacronym.
This is a subject to which I can do little justice. But prompted by association with my possible literary forebear (all we Milton's claim him), these words of Wordsworth make a compelling call to action:
MIlton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen, Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower, Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
O raise us up, return to us again,
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power!
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way, In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.Suggest a correction