Monday, August 09, 2010

History of My Own Time

Gilbert Burnet is my favorite prose writer. Not the greatest, not the most literary, no ingenious stylist moving the goalposts for English. But in the last few years, hes the writer I turn to most when I cant sleep or need to quiet the drone that passes for thinking. I read novels to distraction; if they’re good enough to keep reading, they become obsessions that last till the books consumed. I like Burnet too much to treat him like that. I dip in and out guiltlessly, mix up who’s who across paragraphs, come back after leaving for weeks, forget everything he’s said up to the bookmark then skim old sections, or leaf ahead, unsure if I’m moving forward or how far to go back.

The small interest I take in his subject enhances the comfort I find in his syntax, which I experience almost like pure syntax, much more so than with most experimental writing which claims that as an aim. The particular names and verbs in Burnet are largely occasions for placement, and the economy of his sentences exceeds the need to deliver story cleanly by so much as to become an ethic all its own, information freed from every burden but circulation. Here
’s a characteristic passage, picked more or less at random from his chapter on Queen Anne:
“The Prince of Baden drew together the troops of the empire. He began with blocking up Landau, and that was soon turned to a siege. Catinat was sent to command the French army in Alsace, but it was so weak that he was not able to make head with it. In the end of April the Dutch formed three armies: one, under the Prince of Nassau, undertook the siege of Kaiserwerth; another was commanded by the Earl of Athlone, and lay in the duchy of Cleve, to cover the siege; a third, commanded by Cohorn, broke into Flanders, and put a great part of that country under contribution. Marshal Boufflers drew his army together, and having laid up great magazines in Roermond and Venloo, he passed the Maese with his whole army. The Duke of Burgundy came down post from Paris to command it. The States apprehended that so great a prince would at his first appearance undertake somewhat worthy of him, and thought the design might be upon Maestricht; so they put twelve thousand men in garrison there. The auxiliary troops from Germany did not come so soon as was expected, and cross winds stopped a great part of our army, so that the Earl of Athlone was not strong enough to enter into action with Marshal Boufflers, but he lay about Cleve watching his motions. The siege of Kaiserwerth went on slowly; the Rhine, swelling very high, so filled their trenches that they could not work in them. Marshall Tallard was sent to lie on the other side of the Rhine, to cannonade the besiegers, and to send fresh men into the town. The King of Prussia came to Wesel, from whence he furnished the besiegers with all that was necessary. There was one vigorous attack made, in which many were killed on both sides. In conclusion, after a brave defense, the counterscarp was carried, and then the town capitulated, and was razed, according to agreement.

Gilbert Burnet, History of My Own Time (1714)
Apparently Burnets style was once a subject of hot discussion, Swift, Pope, and Johnson against it, Walpole, Lamb, and Macaulay great fans. David Allens Introduction in my Everyman edition points out that Burnet wrote for the ear, drawing on the rich oral culture of the theater and pulpit, and not for the high-flown Latinate page. I was reading somewhere that the structure of Bachs fugues parallels the instructions given in guidebooks for Lutheran preachers at the time, and theres an interplay between simplicity and sinuosity in Bishop Burnetthe directness of the matter and his pleasure in the mannerthat reminds me a little of Bach. Or finally, the manner becomes the matter, until the sentence can be a metaphor for whatever its describing, while the world comes to mimic the movement in the grammar used to describe it. Let me think about that for a little, but whatever your level of sleep debt, so filled their trenches that they could not work in them is great English.


Sam Lohmann said...

I love this: "the Earl of Athlone was not strong enough to enter into action with Marshal Boufflers, but he lay about Cleve watching his motions." I'd never heard of Burnet before, thanks for the tip!

rodney k said...

Sam I think you'd love Burnet. That line about Cleve was my second favorite from the passage.

rodney k said...

The switch to the passive voice in the last two sentences, after all those active verbs, is deft, too. He wants to simultaneously celebrate a victory and acknowledge men dead and a town razed. His solution to the contradiction comes off, to me at least, as discretion, guilt, and dignified epitaph all at once.