. . . End of the Century

. . .

Something to Believe In

First, End of the Century is respectful. Good. It's the Ramones, man; show some respect.

Then, from a rock documentary yet, insight.

Why did Joey/Jeff stay in the band instead of finishing that solo album? Why did Dee Dee snuff out when exposed to fresh air? How could both be so solidly and lastingly led by a guy who couldn't write, sing, solo, produce, or charm? The answer hangs like leather reek over the parade of celebrities who saw a band with "no talent" and realized "anybody could do that."

Wrong and wrong. Songwriting aside, the Ramones had something from the start those other kids didn't and kept it longer than those other kids would care to: Ineradicable irreducible loyalty to the idealized group. A fervor to "succeed" in the sense of not dishonoring that stoopid ideal, no matter what the individual costs might be.

And there was Johnny Ramone's unique talent. Casualties meant nothing to him (except insofar as they impinged on the honor of the ideal); being liked meant shit. He was a self-made drill sergeant who turned 4-F fuckups into jarheads. The drummers took their one tour of duty and sanely returned to civvies. Joey and Dee Dee were lifers.

Those early Ramones lyrics weren't literally fascist like the dopiest parents thought. But they weren't just jokes like me and my jerkoff friends thought either. They were the closest the band could come to describing the near-unstoppable heart of the organism itself. Semper Fi.

. . .

Fear more the heat o'the sun

For thirty years I've shelved William Congreve's comedies near the center of my personal canon, and it shames me that I can't contort myself to enter what contemporaries considered his most serious work: monotonic blank verse tragedy, heroically coupleted epistles and translations, sheepish elegies, and authentically bootlicking Pindaric odes. I gaze and glaze and it's as if Preston Sturges spent the 1950s filming CinemaScope epics about Mamie Eisenhower.

Congreve's shorter lyrics, many meant for singing, go down more easily, like vodka punch at a dull party. They push a glossy, genial cynicism or, since most of the singers are male, genial misogyny unencumbered by Herrick's manic invention or Rochester's Black Jack medical calling.

Tell me no more I am deceiv’d;
That Cloe’s false and common:
I always knew (at least believ’d)
She was a very Woman;
As such, I lik’d, as such, caress’d,
She still was constant when possess’d,
She could do more for no Man.
But oh! her Thoughts on others ran,
And, that, you think a hard thing;
Perhaps, she fancy’d you the Man,
And what care I one Farthing?
You think she’s false, I'm sure she’s kind;
I take her Body, you her Mind,
Who has the better Bargain?

Indicating how little in this thin-blooded vein sparks Congreve's interest, three of the better poems share a closing (and maybe a germinal) image: the sun, lost without regret.

Doris, a Nymph of riper Age,
Has ev’ry Grace and Art;
A wise Observer to engage,
Or wound, a heedless Heart.
Of Native Blush, and Rosie Dye,
Time has her Cheek bereft;
Which makes the prudent Nymph supply,
With Paint, th’injurious Theft.
Her sparkling Eyes she still retains,
And Teeth in good Repair;
And her well-furnish’d Front disdains
To grace with borrow’d Hair.
Of Size, she is nor short, nor tall,
And does to Fat incline
No more, than what the French wou’d call,
Aimable Embonpoint.
Farther, her Person to disclose
I leave let it suffice,
She has few Faults, but what she knows,
And can with Skill disguise.
She many Lovers has refus’d,
With many more comply’d;
Which, like her Cloaths, when little us’d,
She always lays aside.
She’s one, who looks with great Contempt
On each affected Creature,
Whose Nicety would seem exempt,
From Appetites of Nature.
She thinks they want or Health or Sense,
Who want an Inclination;
And therefore never takes Offence
At him who pleads his Passion.
Whom she refuses, she treats still
With so much sweet Behaviour,
That her Refusal, through her Skill,
Looks almost like a Favour.
Since she this Softness can express
To those whom she rejects,
She must be very fond, you’ll guess,
Of such whom she affects.
But here our Doris far outgoes,
All that her Sex have done;
She no Regard for Custom knows,
Which Reason bids her shun.
By Reason, her own Reason’s meant,
Or if you please, her Will:
For when this last is Discontent,
The first is serv’d but ill.
Peculiar therefore is her Way;
Whether by Nature taught,
I shall not undertake to say,
Or by Experience bought.
But who o’er-night obtain’d her Grace,
She can next Day disown,
And stare upon the Strange-Man’s Face,
As one she ne’er had known.
So well she can the Truth disguise,
Such artful Wonder frame,
The Lover or distrusts his Eyes,
Or thinks ’twas all a Dream.
Some, Censure this as Lewd and Low,
Who are to Bounty blind;
For to forget what we bestow,
Bespeaks a noble Mind.
Doris, our Thanks nor asks, nor needs,
For all her Favours done
From her Love flows, as Light proceeds
Spontaneous from the Sun.
On one or other, still her Fires
Display their Genial Force;
And she, like Sol, alone retires,
To shine elsewhere of Course.
To a Candle. Elegy.
Thou watchful Taper, by whose silent Light,
I lonely pass the melancholly Night;
Thou faithful Witness of my secret Pain,
To whom alone I venture to complain;
O learn with me, my hopeless Love to moan;
Commiserate a Life so like thy own.
Like thine, my Flames to my Destruction turn,
Wasting that Heart, by which supply’d they burn.
Like thine, my Joy and Suffering they display,
At once, are Signs of Life, and Symptoms of Decay,
And as thy fearful Flames the Day decline,
And only during Night presume to shine;
Their humble Rays not daring to aspire
Before the Sun, the Fountain of their Fire:
So mine, with conscious Shame, and equal Awe,
To Shades obscure and Solitude withdraw;
Nor dare their Light before her Eyes disclose,
From whose bright Beams their Being first arose.
The Decay. A Song.
Say not, Olinda, I despise
The faded Glories of your Face,
The languish’d Vigour, of your Eyes,
And that once, only lov’d Embrace.
In vain, in vain, my constant Heart,
On aged Wings, attempts to meet
With wonted speed, those Flames you dart,
It faints and flutters at your Feet.
I blame not your decay of Pow’r,
You may have pointed Beauties still,
Though me alas, they wound no more,
You cannot hurt what cannot feel.
On youthful Climes your Beams display,
There, you may cherish with your Heat,
And rise the Sun to gild their Day,
To me benighted, when you set.

Probably I only noticed this reuse because the image was presented so plainly, and always with the same associations. They could easily have been varied, by, for example, cautioning against flights too near the sun. (In Congreve's two myth-based libretti, Apollo appears only to lead the audience in a drinking song after a heroine's tragic death.) Or by referencing the use of pinhole projection to view sun-spots.

The era's new-found sense of propriety likely snuffed any such impulse. 1 Congreve wouldn't want to risk The Double Dealer's workshop scene:

For as the sun shines every day,
So, of our coachman I may say

BRISK. I’m afraid that simile won’t do in wet weather; because you say the sun shines every day.

LADY FROTH. No, for the sun it won’t, but it will do for the coachman: for you know there’s most occasion for a coach in wet weather.

BRISK. Right, right, that saves all.

LADY FROTH. Then, I don’t say the sun shines all the day, but that he peeps now and then; yet he does shine all the day too, you know, though we don’t see him.

BRISK. Right, but the vulgar will never comprehend that.

His casts included no author's mouthpiece; each part's in its place and he in his, the untouched retoucher. His gifts were observational and structural, not egocentric the impulses of a novelist, just a few years too early for novels. His teenage romance 2, Incognita, thrills to the sound of its own voice 3 and the sight of its own Tinkertoy mechanics, but must respect generic proprieties with traditional characters of wood.

Which confined Congreve-the-observer to the wicked stage, Puritan bait. Congreve's sense of the proper was dear to him, and he seems to have felt genuinely wounded when an increasingly stringent hypocrisy turned against his plays. His damning response was a defense of his craft, not his faith. And by the end of the century, Fanny Burney's Evelina would feel properly scandalized by Love for Love, despite novel-deep submersion in a wickeder plot.

Out of the light, Congreve can see rather than be seen. In lyric first person, he displays a cabinet of withdrawal; he has nothing to show except what he's found. The only verse in which a Romantically-schooled reader might recognize human feeling is an exsanguinated Keatsian swoon:

On Mrs. Arabella Hunt, Singing.
Let all be husht, each softest Motion cease,
Be ev’ry loud tumultuous Thought at Peace,
And ev’ry ruder Gasp of Breath
Be calm, as in the Arms of Death.
And thou most fickle, most uneasie Part,
Thou restless Wanderer, my Heart,
Be still; gently, ah gently, leave,
Thou busie, idle thing, to heave.
Stir not a Pulse; and let my Blood,
That turbulent, unruly Flood,
Be softly staid:
Let me be all, but my Attention, dead.
Go, rest, unnecessary Springs of Life,
Leave your officious Toil and Strife;
For I would hear her Voice, and try
If it be possible to die.

Suicide by appreciation: the liebestod of the critic.

1   Donald McKenzie helpfully cites James Boaden's later praise for "To a Candle": "Here we have none of the perverse ingenuity of the metaphysical poets. The points of contact seem obvious, and not to be missed; but such a parallel, so continued and so exact, was never made out before."

2   By which I mean a romance written by a teenager.

3   This aside seems made to footnote:

Now the Reader I suppose to be upon Thorns at this and the like impertinent Digressions, but let him alone and he’ll come to himself; at which time I think fit to acquaint him, that when I digress, I am at that time writing to please my self, when I continue the Thread of the Story, I write to please him; supposing him a reasonable Man, I conclude him satisfied to allow me this liberty, and so I proceed.



Tsui Hark? Well, I haven't myself read his lyric poetry, but I doubt it's as interesting as Peking Opera Blues.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.