Sunday, November 29, 2009

Nightingales and strumpets

I am reading The Oxford Book of Essays, a fat volume that starts with Francis Bacon writing loftily about Truth in 1625: 'What is Truth?' said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer. The book ends with Clive James sneering at the popular fiction of Judith Krantz in 1980: To be a really lousy writer takes energy. The average novelist remains unread not because he is bad but because he is flat.

In the early 1700s, the great essayist Joseph Addison set the standard for the casual English essay. The depth, precision, and humanity of Addison are represented in the book by four of his Spectator essays. My favorite of the four, Sir Roger at Vauxhall, tells of the writer of the Spectator essays accompanying his friend Sir Roger de Coverley to Spring-Garden. An excerpt:

We were now arrived at Spring-Garden, which is exquisitely pleasant at this time of year. When I considered the fragrancy of the walks and bowers, with the choirs of birds that sung upon the trees, and the loose tribe of people that walked under their shades, I could not but look upon the place as a kind of Mahometan paradise. Sir Roger told me it put him in mind of a little coppice by his house in the country, which his chaplain used to call an aviary of nightingales. 'You must understand (says the knight), there is nothing in the world that pleases a man in love so much as your nightingale. Ah, Mr. Spectator! the many moonlight nights that I have walked by myself, and thought on the widow by the music of the nightingale!' He here fetched a deep sigh, and was falling into a fit of musing, when a mask, who came behind him, gave him a gentle tap upon the shoulder, and asked him if he would drink a bottle of mead with her? But the knight being startled at so unexpected a familiarity, and displeased to be interrupted in his thoughts of the widow, told her, 'She was a wanton baggage,' and bid her go about her business.

We concluded our walk with a glass of Burton ale, and a slice of hung-beef. When we had done eating ourselves, the knight called a waiter to him, and bid him carry the remainder to a waterman that had but one leg. I perceived the fellow stared upon him at the oddness of the message, and was going to be saucy; upon which I ratified the knight's command with a peremptory look.

As we were going out of the garden my old friend, thinking himself obliged, as a member of the Quorum, to animadvert upon the morals of the place, told the mistress of the house, who sat at the bar, 'that he should be a better customer to her garden, if there were more nightingales and fewer strumpets.'