Talking the talk

This was always going to be tough, like that difficult second album (or is it the third?) after the first flush of success when the creative energy that rises from naive enthusiasm is replaced by the demands and expectations of managers, producers, executives, critics and fans. Having read John Selden’s Table Talk I’m certain he would have had something to say about the above analogy, probably in heavy tones of irony, drawing on legal statutes from the reign of Henry the Second and very probably in Latin.

In 200 pages he covers the gamut from Abbeys to Zealots, stopping off to comment on Bishops in the Parliament, Canon Law, Consecrated Places, God’s Judgements, Popery, Prophecies and the Wife. It is heavily footnoted by the its editor the Late Fellow and Tutor of Brasenose College, Samuel Harvey Reynold, MA., who clearly shared Selden’s love of Latin. The tenor of his writing can perhaps be seen in his entry on Praemunire:

“There can be no Praemunire,” he wrote, explaining that “A Praemunire was when a Man laid an Action in an Ecclesiastical Court, for which he could have no remedy in any of the King’s Courts, that is, in the Courts of Common Law, by reason the Ecclesiastical Courts before Henry the Eighth were subordinate to the Pope, and so it was contra coronam et dignitatem Regis; but now the Ecclesiastical Courts are equally subordinate to the King. Therefore it cannot be contra coronam et Dignitatem Regis, and so no Praemunire.”

You had to be there I suppose. There being 1640s England and being invited by John Selden to his table to listen to him talk. Somewhere in all this I came across a comparison to Samuel Johnson presumably written by someone who had never read anything written by Samuel Johnson.

It is easy to mock such writing which of course is why we do it, and yet he had been included in Arnold Bennett’s reading list. Why? What was it in  the writings of a seventeenth century constitutional lawyer, a member of parliament, a disputer with presbyterians and friend of the playwright Ben Jonson that Bennett thought could contribute to the formation of a literary taste? An answer, I think, can be found in the 1909 edition of The Dictionary of National Biography where Selden’s life is described over ten pages. From them comes the description of an educated man, temperate in his passions but “liberal with his table”, neither a follower of those how claimed the divine right of kings nor of those claimed the divine right of those who regarded themselves elected by God to rule the roost, a believer, above all, in the social contract between a king and his people. Reasons enough for any educated British liberal born in the last decades of the nineteenth century to regard him as worthy of attention and study.

Bennett writes of the importance of regular mental stocktaking warning that “…if you omit this mere business precaution, it may well be that you, too, without knowing it, are little by little joining the triflers who read only because eternity is so long.” Later he adds “…if the memory of these books does not quicken the perception of beauty…does not help you to correlate the particular trifle with the universal, does not smooth out irritation and give dignity to sorrow-then you are…unworthy of your high vocation as a bookman.” By the end John Selden’s Table Talk I had form a surprising liking for the man who, at least from his writings, spoke badly of no one. But having reminded myself of what Bennett described as his own “severely moral mood” when it came to the formation of a literary taste I have no choice but to plot a very disappointing coordinate of (2,8).

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