Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Ronald Knox, by Evelyn Waugh

One of the books I devoured over Lent was Msgr. Ronald Knox, by Evelyn Waugh. Knox (1888-1957) was a priest, and Waugh (1903-1966) is probably best known for Brideshead Revisited; both were converts to Catholicism and both were successful writers.

It's a bit curious that I so enjoyed-- or even began to read at all-- the biography of the one by the other, since I'd never read a word by either of them before! But Knox was a interesting character and Waugh's a heck of a biographer. (And they were friends, though you'd hardly know it from this book.) Knox comes across as diffident, introverted, and a bit gloomy, as well as hilarious, brilliant, and great company. I suppose that means Waugh has drawn a nuanced portrait.

It's just a bit depressing that finishing this one book has added about twenty others to the always-growing list of stuff I want to read. Knox seems to have turned out all sorts of interesting stuff, and my ignorance of anything by Waugh is apparently a shameful gap in my reading. Alas that many of the Knox works I'm most interested in seem to be out of print and available only as very old and expensive copies. There's The Rich Young Man, Difficulties, Let Dons Delight, God and the Atom, his singlehanded translation of the entire Bible together with an NT commentary, A Spiritual Aeneid, The Mass in Slow Motion, On Englishing the Bible, Bridegroom and Bride, Enthusiasm, and several volumes of sermons and conferences. He's written lots more; those are just the ones I want to tackle first. :)

I'm going to die with a thousand wonderful books still unread; I may as well resign myself to it now.

Want to read an excerpt from the biography that contains an excerpt of a poem Knox wrote when he was sixteen? Shut up, I'm quoting it anyway.
...In the summer of 1906 he issued his first book, Signa Severa, bound in Eton blue and published by Spottiswoode, a collection of verses in English, Latin, and Greek, dating from July 1903 to May 1906. The little volume ran into six editions, but copies are jealously guarded by their owners and seldom come into the market. He continued to write verses durning his last half and published a selection of them four years leater in his Oxford book, Juxta Salices. His facility and ingenuity were dazzling. The best known and most quoted of these verses is 'The Wilderness', which appeared in the Eton Poetry Book and was learned by many generations of Etonians. It was written when he was sixteen, under the spur, it is said, of finding a neat rhyme for hollyhock. It is a fanciful plea for the planting of a garden in Schoolyard.

Powers of the Bursary [it begins] who on a cursory
Glance at the ruinous state of Schoolyard,
Made us travel securely on gravel, --
Is not that gravel a little too hard?
Does not the scenery call for some greenery?
Call for a garden, in which we might lop
Calceolarias of suitable areas,
Worthy to rest on the bosoms of Pop?

and contains the lines:

Look you where Gaffney [the School Clerk] is tending the Daphne!
Idly the pedagogues murmur and fret,
Clamouring 'Tolle hoc improbum hollyhock!
Quid est absentiae cum mignonette?'
From what I remember of high school, sixteen-year-old boys seem to have changed a lot.

And check this out:
'During my last half [at Eton],' Ronald wrote in A Spiritual Aeneid, 'I am afraid I was something of a nuisance to the authorities.'

Such misdemeanours as are remembered would not trouble any but a very delicate conscience. He annoyed the Headmaster by a joke at Hugh Dalton's expense. 'Sunday Questions' are an institution at Eton. Boys are required to write a short essay for their division masters on a set biblical theme. The Sixth Form do this for the Headmaster. The questions were sent to College, and Oppidan Sixth Formers sent fags to collect them. One Sunday Lyttelton asked: 'What are the oldest parts of the book of Exodus?' Ronald intercepted Dalton's copy and changed 'oldest' to 'oddest'. The astute young politician quoted the grosser texts from the book and attached to his paper the question in the form in which he had received it. Next day inquiries were made and Ronald confessed. Lyttelton, a humourless man, thought this conduct unbecoming to the Captain of the School.


James Bernard said...

What is that date doing there? Sunday, February 15, 2009??
Are you just checking to see if we are paying attention?

Rachel Gray said...

Um... that's as good an answer as any, and better than the real one, which is that I was postdating my drafts to keep them on the top of my list of posts, but then I forgot to change that one back to real time before publishing it.

James Bernard said...

I would have enjoyed hearing about the oddest texts!

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Waugh also wrote a good bio of St. Edmund Campion.