As I was preparing dinner this evening, I put on a recording of Handel's great work Alexander's Feast, with John Eliot Gardner conducting. The text is taken from Dryden's poem of the same name, which has always, for some reason, been one of my favorites. Here is the first stanza, for those who may have forgotten:
'Twas at the royal feast, for Persia won
By Philip's warlike son:
Aloft in awful state
The godlike hero sate
On his imperial throne;
His valiant peers were plac'd around;
Their brows with roses and with myrtles bound:
(So should desert in arms be crown'd.)
The lovely Thaïs, by his side,
Sate like a blooming Eastern bride
In flow'r of youth and beauty's pride.
Happy, happy, happy pair! None but the brave,
None but the brave,
None but the brave deserves the fair."
The last line is one of the great lines in English poetry, and yet it is just seven simple words. [The poem presents certain problems, inasmuch as Alexander was gay, but I think we can cut Dryden some slack.] I know very little about poetry, and my tastes are therefore rather scattered and odd. When I was a teenager, Susie and I loved the poetry of e. e. cummings, and would read it aloud to oneanother. A little later, I fell in love with Sandburg and The People, Yes. During my marriage to Cynthia Griffin, I read whatever she was writing about, which took me from Thomas Hardy to Samuel Richardson to Edith Wharton, and finally to Emily Dickinson.
In that strange way the mind has of associating quite unlike things, as I listened to the Handel, I thought of another extraordinary passage built around just seven words, this from James Baldwin's essay Fifth Avenue, Uptown. It can be found in a huge volume containing all of Baldwin's non-fiction writings, called The Price of the Ticket. In the doctoral program in Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts that I was privileged to be associated with for the last dozen years of my career, the first year students were required to read the entire 690 page volume as one of their two reading assignments in a single week. Here is the passage, for those who have not read it:
"Negroes want to be treated like men: a perfectly straightforward statement, containing only seven words. People who have mastered Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Freud, and the Bible find this statement utterly impenetrable."
My secret wish is to be able to write with the power, beauty, and compactness of Dryden and Baldwin. Perhaps that is why so many of my books are quite short.