Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Letters

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I spend a fair bit of time reading volumes of selected and collected letters - another arrived yesterday: the writer Robert Southey, poet laureate in his time but now regarded as one of the minor Lake Poets of whom the greatest were Wordsworth and Coleridge.

(We once spent three holidays renting Southey's house in Keswick, staying in Coleridge's rooms.)

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I heard that Southey's letters were good from reading C.S Lewis's collected letters - three chunky volumes that I have been browsing for the past couple of years. (I also have Lewis's earlier selected letters and the specific sequence of the letters to his childhood friend Arthur Greeves.)

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I began to get interested in reading letters as an extension of biographies - perhaps it was Tolkien's selected letters which opened my eyes to how good this form could be?

When I read through the New England Transcendentalists and their biographies, I naturally read the available letters of Emerson and Thoreau (as well as their journals) - but I particularly enjoyed the letters of Robert Frost, and re-read them several times.

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Some writers just pour out the stuff. The letters of Lewis seem like a life's work in themselves - never mind all the books, essays and scholarship. George Bernard Shaw was even more productive of correspondence.

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But why should it be worth reading correspondence?

The simple answer is that the writer is freer to say what they want; free from the constraints of satisfying editors and promoting sales - yet (unlike diaries and journals) at the same time constrained (and rewarded) by the need to be engaging, the need to interest their correspondent - which curbs extremes of selfishness and maudlin introspection.

When the writer and correspondent are old friends and the letters make a series, a conversation extending perhaps over years, correspondence can be really worthwhile: Jack Lewis's letters to his brother Warnie are, for me, some of the best writing he ever did.

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