A New Squirearchy
by Theodore Dalrymple (October 2012)
Recently I had the pleasure of finding and reading Essays at Large by Solomon Eagle. I would be surprised if you had heard of Solomon Eagle, even under his real name, J C Squire, though he was famous enough in his time. The book was published in November 1922 and reprinted a month later (I possess this recondite knowledge because the verso of the dedication page tells me so). Nobody who likes the English language could fail to enjoy it.
I was in the window seat and he peered across me trying to get yet more numbers as we taxied out. He managed to note a few more numbers before we were airborne.
Needless to say, I felt infinitely superior to this man, I really looked down on him: that is, until I read Solomon Eagle. He says (and he has a wonderful prose style):
own principles his relics should have been buried with him. But disciples will be disciples, and his disciples were wiser than he.
So Henry VIII died, as he had lived, in the odour of sanctity, beloved by his wife (Catherine of Aragon) who was his first and only romance, and revered by his people. His spare features and sympathetic deep-sunken eyes, so vividly preserved for us on the canvases of Holbein, attest the unworldly character of the man and the austerity of his life.
Napoleon, Emperor of the French, a man distinguished for the sacredness which he attached to human life and the implicit trust which he put in human nature, died at St. Helena in 1821. He had abdicated in 1815 owing to failing health, and chose that sunny island on the advice of his doctors, finding a great solace during his last years in the congenial conversation of an Englishman, Sir Hudson Lowe, who exiled himself in order to be near his invalid friend.
His essay, then, is an implicit plea for decent respect for the exigencies of civilised social intercourse while maintaining realism about life as it is actually lived: and the balance requires judgment and the exercise of virtuous restraint.
His essay on Christmas card poetry is hilarious:
of these poems without ever introducing a touch of individuality or novelty. For somebody must write them, even if it is only the chairman of the manufacturing company or the compositor who does the type-setting. Who are these mysterious people? Are they scattered amateurs everywhere? Or is it here that we find the explanation of how our professional and justly celebrated poets earn their living? Or is this one of those industries which are the hereditary monopoly of a few families like flint-knapping, violin-making and gold-beating?
Then Squire thinks of another solution to the problem he has set himself:
extraordinary tribunals [that decided who need not go into the armed forces] exempted them as indispensable?
And long live J C Squire, a man who had in may ways a rather tragic life. He was, by the way, the first poet of the Great War to publish anti-war poems, though he believed in the justice of the Allied cause.
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