Somewhere or other Aldous Huxley makes the interesting suggestion of an anthology of last works, or better, late works: Samson Agonistes of Milton, for example, Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken, the last quartets of Beethoven, Verdi's Falstaff, the late paintings and etchings of Goya. [...] The characteristics of such late works include, first, a certain indifference to their effect either on the general reading public or on critics [...] There is an enormous interest in particular kinds of artistic problems lovingly worked out for themselves, regardless of the interest of the whole work. [...]
In the late work of Shakespeare, there is no real resemblance to the real world of time and place. The recognition scenes are fantastic. There are repeated shipwrecks in Pericles and repeated disguises in Cymbeline. Shakespeare is taking up an entirely primitive form-with choruses, dumb shows, and masques. One might think of a modern writer who, after mastering complex forms, takes up the Wild West. The plays show a conscious exploitation of tricks: asides, etc. Late works appeal to lowbrows and very sophisticated highbrows, but not to middlebrows, even to the aristocrat of middlebrows, Dr. Johnson. Critics do not appreciate the pleasure a writer has in consciously writing a simple form-like the masque in Cymbeline.
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
"The aristocrat of middlebrows, Dr Johnson"
Auden's nonfiction is all a little "jumbled in the common box / of my dark stupidity," from which bits unpredictably pop out; earlier today, while reading this Andrew Gelman post on "brow inflation" (i.e., the lowering of middlebrow), I was reminded of Auden's quip about Johnson being the aristocrat of middlebrows. It took me a while to find the quote, which is from a (slightly self-congratulatory) ramble about "late works" in his lecture on Cymbeline -- especially revealing if you consider that the lectures were roughly contemporaneous with The Sea and the Mirror. Here's some of the relevant passage: