Ask a person who loves to read books, “What makes you dedicate hours each day/week to books?” and you will, likely, get as many different answers as the people you ask. There is even a strong likelihood that you might find it difficult to find enough booklovers in your acquaintances to ask this question of, given how the most dominant medium today — for reading, writing, watching, listening, etc. — is the internet. [For the record, I’m not one of those who thinks that the internet is killing the old-fashioned textual medium. It’s just creating more options for reading text. A topic for another time, though.]
For the most part, in addition to the sheer hedonistic pleasure in the art of literature, people go to it to find answers to questions through the lives of others, real or fictional. These may be questions about themselves and/or about things larger than themselves. But, mostly, these questions are not clearly-articulated or known, even to one’s self — taking the shape of, simply, a nagging restlessness (which some call escapism) to “know” or to “perceive” something that eludes us. And yes, in today’s world, knowledge and perception is possible through various forms — story/fiction is not the only one —and various media, with books being, possibly, the least popular one these days. So this is a poem for those who enjoy stories and prefer to get them from stories in books.
[A side-note: I believe in and celebrate stories across diverse media, as you might know. But these are entirely different experiences — books versus art or photography or movies or plays or music. For one, the worlds that each medium creates is different: textual versus aural versus visual. For another, how we inhabit these worlds also varies. In the end, it comes down to, what else, personal tastes. And, with those, the more various and unique we are, the better, right?]
A few words on Margaret Widdemer. She was an award-winning poet and novelist in her time and had also won the Pulitzer (in the early years, when it was called the Columbia University Prize) for her poem collection, ‘The Old Road to Paradise’. This poem is from that latter collection. She shared the Prize that year with poet, Carl Sandburg, who went on to win 2 more Pulitzers.
Born in Pennsylvania and growing up in New Jersey, she started writing poetry while still very young. As she grew older, she socialized with many of the famous literati of her time: Pound, Eliot, Fitzgerald, St Vincent Millay, etc. She wrote about them and many others in her memoir, ‘Golden Friends I Had’.
With 32-some novels, many essays, reviews and short stories in magazines, regular lectures, and even a recurring appearance on an NBC radio show called “Do You Want To Write?”, she was both prolific and highly-regarded in her own time.
Her own poetry, like this one, was very much in the traditional forms, despite her association with the Modernists. This might be one reason why her works have not endured in popular consciousness as those of her literary friends and acquaintances.
Nowadays, Widdemer is mostly known in academic and scholarly circles for an essay called “Message and Middlebrow”, which was published in ‘The Saturday Review of Literature’ in February 1933. She is credited for having coined the word “middlebrow”. But, the essay is much more than the invention of a word. And, since it relates to her worldview of literature, reading, writing, and this poem itself, let’s spend a bit of time on it here. You’ll find that it is, despite the 81 years gone, still very relevant today.
Widdemer starts the essay with a conversation about the requirements laid down by Mr Pulitzer for the Pulitzer Prize concerning how the best literature should embody the “ideals in American life, or what have you”, which she personally thought were not being paid much heed to in the awarding of the Prize. In the discussion with an unnamed literary critic, she asks why morality no longer seemed to matter in literature, while immorality was fine and thriving (she does not appear to be a fan of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses‘). The critic’s response is that “artistic merit” is the most important thing, ethics and art should not be conflated and that the award is not about trying to appeal to the average “clubwoman” (this was a generic snobbish reference to people who organized literary club events where authors met with readers and fans of their works) who cared about the “message” in a literary work. So Widdemer goes on to describe that, actually, that “clubwoman” and those readers are indeed the reading public that matters. Here’s how she put it:
For, unless we take the tabloid addict class as the norm, or the tiny group of intellectuals, what is the reading public but the public that reads; the men and women, fairly civilized, fairly literate, who support the critics and lecturers and publishers by purchasing their wares? And they are not highbrow or lowbrow; they are middle- brow. They are the group whose mores were to be found in the excellent second- rate novels of that shameless Victorian time which was so sure of itself that it betrayed what it really thought and felt about books and life and steam engines and everything in the world.
In the end, the essay is really an all-round critique of both the literary scholars and critics who impose their vision of literary art on the reading public, making them believe that they must read this or that and also of the vast reading public who does not think for themselves.
I recall a lecture I gave once, in which I recommended thinking for one’s self. I pointed out fervently that it was useless for my hearers to read, or refrain from reading, books merely because they were told to. Afterwards, I was approached with gratitude by a gentle lady.
“I want to thank you,” she breathed. “Now that you’ve told me I may think for myself, I won’t ever have to read D. H. Lawrence again!”
But she said it softly; the Chairman of Literature was near.
Let’s now turn to this poem. Widdemer’s focus is the classics: books that have endured the test of time and continue to influence readers and writers of contemporary and modern works.
The poem starts with an observation that, when we’re young and lack enough life experiences, people, and our experiences with them, fascinate us more. But, as we grow older and the cares of our own lives start to weigh us down, those same exciting, interesting people and experiences don’t seem to be quite as enticing. Either we don’t find in them the things or answers we’re seeking now, as older people, or, perhaps, they become more incomprehensible to us. Of course, all this is, likely, because they are also in similar situations of trying to get on with their own lives and faced with their own challenges and concerns.
To Widdemer’s narrator, as he/she addresses the reader, this is when books can be the most helpful to one who loves them. They are the quiet friends and counselors who never change, the friends who stay constant and who have all the understanding and knowledge that one often needs but finds, mostly, lacking or inaccessible in average daily interactions.
I love this next bit, line 6 onwards, where the narrator refers to several different classic works as if they’re speaking directly to the reader and mirroring the reader’s own life and mind. Much like the best books we read seem to be speaking directly and privately to us with the most personal messages and knowledge of our worlds. So there are references to the happenings in Cleopatra’s story, from Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’; the stories and jokes in Sappho’s songs from ancient Greece; the secret thoughts that were sung aloud when Orlando courted Rosalind in ‘As You Like It’ by Shakespeare; and so on. And how all of these are timeless in their similarity to the reader’s own experiences, stories and secret thoughts. Meaning, of course, that the reader is not alone in his/her seemingly inexplicable or confusing searches, challenges, or preoccupations.
Also, how those things that hurt the reader, but could not be articulated, also happened to, say, a someone in ancient Babylon (referring, perhaps, to the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh‘ or even to the Bible), thus making that person a soul sister to the reader. And, how that sudden amusement that no one else in the reader’s real world seems able to share was also felt in King Francis’ Court in Victor Hugo’s ‘Le Roi S’amuse’ (The King’s Amusement) such that the reader shares a bond across the ages with the courtiers who laughed with the King.
How, really, all the things in life that the reader must undertake and the paths he/she must travel have been, somewhere, in some past, been taken by characters in books. And how discovering those kindred spirits through their stories will give the reader a sense of not being entirely alone in his/her endeavors or thoughts.
Beyond all that, the narrator says that reading helps us understand and know our own worlds and loved ones better. How, in reading about a dead boy, say, we might discover a sad truth hidden by a real-life lover (this may well be another allusion to a lesser-known classic work of literature). Or how we might come upon, as in a mirror, a psychological reflection of ourselves that we have not seen or admitted to before.
In the last few lines, the narrator talks about those real people who were described, in the beginning, as becoming less interesting or incomprehensible to the reader. At first, the reference seems to be to those who wrote or created the wonderful books. The authors who took all those things they could not or would not say out loud, the secrets that beat within their hearts and put everything onto their pages to give to readers. These are the same people whose well-meant words and deeds might have caused hurt and tears, even as they searched and tried to do their best. But, of course, it’s not just the actual creators of the words and books that the narrator is eventually referring to because these stories are universal and represent more than just their authors. They represent all the people around us. They are the stories of all of us. They include all those things that we often do not, or cannot, accomplish as well as we would like to. And, through the reading of these stories, there may come some understanding of people’s true intentions, desires and hopes — ours and those who we know and live and work with. So that we, the readers of those books and stories, might find it easier to, sometimes, look past the clumsy attempts of the people around us, see deeper into their thoughts and come to appreciate the best that they intended. This understanding and this knowledge is what these trusty, old books offer to the reader who loves them.
I can’t resist some footnotes. See the very end.
The people up and down the world that talk and laugh and cry,
They’re pleasant when you’re young and gay, and life is all to try,
But when your heart is tired and dumb, your soul has need of ease,
There’s none like the quiet folk who wait in libraries–
The counselors who never change, the friends who never go,
The old books, the dear books that understand and know!
“Why, this thing was over, child, and that deed was done,”
They say, “When Cleopatra died, two thousand years agone,
And this tale was spun for men and that jest was told
When Sappho was a singing-lass and Greece was very old,
And this thought you hide so close was sung along the wind
The day that young Orlando came a-courting Rosalind!”
The foolish thing that hurt you so your lips could never tell,
Your sister out of Babylon she knows its secret well,
The merriment you could not share with any on the earth
Your brother from King Francis’ court he leans to share your mirth,
For all the ways your feet must fare, the roads your heart must go,
The old books, the dear books, they understand and know!
You read your lover’s hid heart plain beneath some dead lad’s lace,
And in a glass from some Greek tomb you see your own wet face,
For they have stripped from out their souls the thing they could not speak
And strung it to a written song that you might come to seek,
And they have lifted out their hearts when they were beating new
And pinned them on a printed page and given them to you.
The people close behind you, all their hearts are dumb and young,
The kindest word they try to say it stumbles on the tongue,
Their hearts are only questing hearts, and though they strive and try,
Their softest touch may hurt you sore, their best word make you cry.
But still through all the years that come and all the dreams that go
The old books, the dear books, they understand and know!
– Margaret Widdemer, from the collection, ‘The Old Road to Paradise‘
1) Such unabashed love for literature, as in this Widdemer poem, is unfortunately rather passé in our world today. Generally speaking, we’re more apt to seek out so-called experts or self-help books or even self-medication than we are to sink into the fictional world of a story as a way to understand our world and to gain an intellectual growth or psychological ease of mind. There are many reasons for this, but, the foremost is the inverted snobbery of the non-readers. This sub-culture, which is growing exponentially and exists in practically every society now, sees the reading of literature as a subversive activity — anti-social, escapist and self-indulgent. We might explore the whys and wherefores of this another time.
2) There is a small subset of literature lovers who try to combat the above-mentioned inverted snobbery by imputing exalted qualities to the act of reading, or even writing, literature — that these acts make us better human beings. Several academic studies continue to be cited across the internet if you’re interested. But consuming or creating literature does not necessarily bring out the best in us. For the most part, books expand our awareness and consciousness and give us more options and considerations for how to live. As Susan Sontag once said, in response to a question about whether literature educates us about life:
Well, it does educate us about life. I wouldn’t be the person I am, I wouldn’t understand what I understand, were it not for certain books. I’m thinking of the great question of nineteenth-century Russian literature: how should one live? A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.
But, being “bookish” (and, in this, I include the fetishization of all things related to books that seems to be very popular — shelves, bookmarks, clothing) is not the same as being a good, attentive reader, just as being an intellectual is not the same as being a good, decent person. Sadly, in both cases, the world often conflates the two things. Which leads us back to the inverted snobs above who are able to crow delightedly, “We told you so.” In other words, the vociferous defenders of literature have been nailing their own coffins, if I may use a crude metaphor.
3) And, finally, even with those who love literature, there is another sub-culture which agrees with Widdemer’s critic from her essay, ‘Message and Middlebrow’ — that art is art and should not be confused with ethics or morality. Yet, let us not forget that all stories carry some message — words, are, after all, thoughts (unless you’re reading or writing gibberish) and thoughts contain some meaning, good or bad or somewhere in between. The story is simply a way to put that meaning or message across within a construct or context — fictional or real — so that it might seem less abstract, more engaging, even insightful. This is how all conversation began, from the time that we humans started to communicate with each other. It has always been about the need to communicate “something” — our message to each other or the world or, sometimes, just to ourselves.