With commentaries by Dorothy Saunders.
Anthologies are not rare publications; they have appeared regularly for two hundred years or more. However an anthology of prose and poetry accompanied by commentaries on the material anthologised is pretty unusual in English. The well read Dorothy Saunders first brought out The Moon is Up, an anthology on the subject of old age, as a private publication for her friends and family in 1954. A year later a commercial publisher, Phoenix House, were impressed enough to take it on themselves, and a copy of this book is what we found among the piles of volumes at Jot HQ the other day.
One supposes that the publisher saw in this book something unusual—commentaries that outnumbered in words the actual passages anthologised—and these commentaries, though not particularly intellectually demanding, possess a certain appeal in their commonsensical and occasionally perceptive flavour. Saunders was obviously a philosophical and reflective person—the sort of woman you might turn to for comfort at a moment of personal crisis—a serious illness or injury, perhaps—but her reflections generally lack the wow factor. For instance, responding to passages from Walter de la Mare, Wilfred Scawen Blunt and Gerald Bullett she has this to say:
‘ When we were in love we walked on air, exalted, and that is why we sometimes long to be in love again. With no specific object in mind we desire to live once more in that exquisitely heightened climate of the senses. Young men in battle, I have been told, have known this sharpened view of life…Mere existence gains depth and colour when its tenure is precarious…’
Hardly revelatory! Saunders also seems to be very conventional in her views of work/play.
‘ A man who can truthfully say : My work is my hobby, in an exceedingly lucky fellow , for most people have little choice of the way they earn their daily bread in this machine age, and only a minority have interesting and congenial jobs ‘.
Even allowing for the fact that Saunders was writing in the ‘ machine age ‘ of 1954, her unadventurous spirit is depressing , especially in an age where Existentialism was being discussed in cafes in Paris and in milk bars across the UK. Her willingness to buy into the work- slave philosophy implicit in Capitalism is, however, predictable for a woman of her generation. Luckily, our horizons have widened since then.
Saunders is also conventional in her view that most of the population are ‘ordinary ‘folk, without explaining what ordinary actually means:
.” We cannot all be intellectuals even if we would, which is doubtful: ‘she’s an odd woman, she writes, you know! ‘ And those who listen to the Third Programme also switch onto the Light now and again for a spot of jazz. “
Do they? Should they? But we must remember that in the late forties and fifties newly manufactured terms like ‘high brow ‘, ‘middle brow’ and ‘low brow’ were bandied about as if they actually meant something and therefore were useful. In 1951 a writer in Good Times Guide to Londoncould ask quite innocently ‘Are you a high, a middle or a low brow? If you belong to the first category, you are probably a seasoned museum-goer who can tell a Picasso from a Chagall at a single glance. If you are a member of the third (and biggest) class, museums probably give you a headache. But if you profess yourself a middle-brow, you can take or leave it…’
With Saunders the tacit assumption is that the Third Programme was invented ( in 1946) for ‘ highbrows ‘ and ‘ intellectuals ‘, whereas the truth is that most real intellectuals back then would have probably avoided the ‘ wireless ‘ altogether. We don’t know whether Saunders appreciated ‘modern art ‘, but if she couldn’t tell a Picasso from a Chagall then she may have felt that those who could do so were ‘ intellectuals ‘ with superior cognitive powers. The truth is, of course, that an appreciation of art, whether avant garde or traditional, has nothing whatsoever to do with intellect or the height of one’s brow.
Therefore it comes as a surprise when a conventional, though intelligent, thinker like Saunders has genuinely perceptive things to say about the ‘ mirage ‘ of success:
‘The development of a man’s personality usually follows the normal curve: s steady climb towards maturity then a slow decline towards old age with its consequent diminishing powers. But like everything else about this odd animal, man, there are innumerable exceptions to this general process, and these exceptions are those we often find the most interesting and sometimes the most valuable to the community.
Some unfortunates reach their peak early, too early for their own good. Take, for example a young fellow who goes up to one of the universities: he does extremely well there, makes his mark as an undergraduate, and at the end of his time leaves in a blaze of glory, which everyone, including himself, believes heralds the beginning of a successful career. After a few years, however, in the outside word of ‘ telegrams and anger ‘, the disconcerting fact emerges that this promise of success was a mirage; his brilliance is gone , burnt up in the flame of youth, and he has faded into a mediocrity embittered by the memory of his premature triumphs.
The slow starters are more fortunate; these are those occasional sports of nature who arrive at their full stature when it is almost too late, and whose personality reaches the peak of its
power when most people’ begins to dwindle.
When we honour a famous man we seldom stop to consider how much his success is owing to his luck—his luck to be born at the right time and in the right place; nor do we reflect that many as potentially great as he have died unknown and unhonoured by the mere accident of being too early or too late for that precise moment in which the social milieu was favourable to the reception of their genius…’
I am certain that all in the Jottosphere can think of men and women who belong in both of these categories. It may be that Saunders, who wrote The Moon is Up in her advancing years and who did not publish a second book, was thinking of herself when she wrote these words. [RR]