Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Supreme Moments

As the epigraph to a highly readable biography of Daniel Defoe, the biographer, Richard West, lifts a passage from one John R. Moore, otherwise unknown to me:*

It is striking that when Robert Louis Stevenson wished to describe the supreme moments in imaginative literature, he instanced only two examples from modern writers, and those two writers were Defoe and Bunyan. Crusoe recoiling from the footprint ... Christian running with his fingers ears; each has been printed on the mind's eye for ever.
Here's the beginning of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress:

As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep; and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and, behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the book, and read therein, and as he read he wept and trembled; and not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying, "What shall I do?

In this plight, therefore, he went home, and refrained himself as long as he could, that his wife and children should not perceive his distress; but he could not be silent long, because that his trouble increased; wherefore, at length, he brake his mind to his wife and children, and thus he began to talk to them: "O! my dear wife, (said he,) and you the children of my bowels, I, your dear friend, am in myself undone, by reason of a burden that lieth hard upon me. Moreover, I am for certain informed, that this our city will be burnt with fire from heaven; in which fearful overthrow both myself, with thee my wife, and you my sweet babes, shall miserably come to ruin, except (the which yet I see not) some way of escape may be found, whereby we may be delivered." At this his relations were sore amazed; not for that they believed that what he had said to them was true, but because they thought that some frenzy distemper had got into his head; therefore, it drawing towards night, and they hoping that sleep might settle his brains, with all haste they got him to bed: but the night was as troublesome to him as the day; wherefore, instead of sleeping, he spent it in sighs and tears. So, when the morning was come, they would know how he did; he told them, Worse and worse. He also set to talking to them again; but they began to be hardened. ...

So I saw in my dream, that the man began to run: now he had not run far from his own door, when his wife and children, perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying, Life, life, eternal life! So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the plain.
Here's Crusoe finding the footprint:
But now I come to a new scene of my life. It happened one day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man's naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen on the sand. I stood like one thunderstruck, or as if I had seen an apparition. I listened, I looked round me, but I could hear nothing, nor see anything; I went up to a rising ground to look farther; I went up the shore and down the shore, but it was all one; I could see no other impression but that one. I went to it again to see if there were any more, and to observe if it might not be my fancy; but there was no room for that, for there was exactly the print of a foot - toes, heel, and every part of a foot. How it came thither I knew not, nor could I in the least imagine; but after innumerable fluttering thoughts, like a man perfectly confused and out of myself, I came home to my fortification, not feeling, as we say, the ground I went on, but terrified to the last degree, looking behind me at every two or three steps, mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump at a distance to be a man. Nor is it possible to describe how many various shapes my affrighted imagination represented things to me in, how many wild ideas were found every moment in my fancy, and what strange, unaccountable whimsies came into my thoughts by the way.

When I came to my castle (for so I think I called it ever after this), I fled into it like one pursued.
Moore, as quoted by Bass, also mentions two ancients: "Achilles shouting over against the Trojans; Ulysses bending the great bow.  In his great anthology, The Limits of Art, Huntington Cairns does not quote Defoe at all; of Bunyan, he quotes the beginning and the end, but does  not include the fingers in the ears.  From the ancients, he is silent on Odysseus' bow. He does quote the shout of Achilles, and appends a comment from Thomas de Quincy:
Simply by his voice he changes the face of the battle.  He shouts, and nations fly from the sound.  Never but once again is such a shout recorded by a poet--
He called so loud, that all the hollow Deep
Of Hell resounded.
Who called?  That shout was the shout of an archangel.
De Quincy is quoting Milton, Paradise Lost, i, 314.

Query would anybody accept Moore's judgment today?  Would anyone care about the judgment of Stevenson?  How would one rewrite the passage?
*But Moore has a Facebook page

No comments: