Monday, June 4, 2007

T. H. White on Potted Diction

[October 12, 1930]
The Dingle, Reigate, Surrey
Dear L. J. P.*

Forgive my tardiness in writing about your POEMS. I despised them heartily at first and put them by me in despair, not knowing what I could say to you. Just now I thought I really must face them again and make a dreadful effort at diplomacy. So I started reading them again, and I've only got as far as 3 b (not a very good one, by the way) and I'm writing at once, because its past ten o'clock and I have a full day's work before me tomorrow. I just haven't time to read them right through tonight, so I'm going to write about the first five or six and perhaps continue this letter when I've had time to finish them off with a considered judgement.

Well, first of all, it has just dawned upon me that I disliked them for a very good and superficial reason, i.e., the diction. And secondly and finally and lastly and in conclusion I've just had the excitement of seeing the poems through the diction. In spite of it, I mean. They say something superlatively worth saying and once you have got through the language they even justify that. I should by all means urge you to publish them--so long as you are going to go on writing, and preferably in a modern tongue. Unless you will do this it will be useless to publish them, for your personality will require a weight of evidence before it can break through the present medium enough to impinge upon the consciousness of the reader. The reason why it has impinged on mine is that I already know you personally to some extent. You see, they are reflection poems (that is why I like them so much) and it takes a lot of familiarity to find out the way a man reflects. If one hadn't discovered the mental angle of Blake what bosh all that stuff about caterpillars in a cage would be. So with your mental angle. It will need a lot of publication before you can establish it to any but those who know you. It is not facile like mine.
But to return to this diction. Have you ever heard of the English language? And will you give me your no doubt all-sufficient reasons for saying: "life is but a task" instead of "only", "nought" instead of "nothing" and so forth ad nauseum. . .

You are writing in the idiom of the 1820s. It is so pronounced that I can date it to within a decade, except where it is tainted with Rupert Brooke. And then I could say "by 1823 out of 1914" just as if it were a horse. The things positively reek of retrogression.

I am so emphatic for a rather dreadful reason: they almost convert me to the retrograde. But not quite, but not quite.
On second thoughts I shall send this off but keep the poems for a further onslaught and instalment.
So tremble. I daresay I shall burn them.

*Leonard James Potts, M.A. Lecturer and Director of Studies in English, Junior Bursar, Praelector, Tutor, Senior Tutor, Librarian. University Lecturer in English Queens' College, Cambridge. d.1960.

-from Letters to a Friend: The Correspondence Between T. H. White and L. J. Potts. Edited and Introduced with Notes by Francois Gallix (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1982) p. 19-21.

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