The two most beautiful words in the English language

Dear Henry,

From A Backward Glance by Edith Wharton
Henry James’ portrait from A Backward Glance by Edith Wharton

I hope it’s OK that I’m calling you Henry. ‘Mr. James’ just seems so formal, considering our past relationship. Of course, it was years ago, and more than a little difficult, but still, I remember you.

My American literature prof introduced us, no doubt hoping we’d hit it off. I recall sitting in the reading lounge next to the Humanities building with you in my lap, trying to get to know you. But you were never easy  to figure out. I suppose the 114 year gap in our ages  was partially to blame. You just didn’t talk the way I did. By the time I followed one of your sentences to its end, I’d totally forgotten what you’d said at the beginning.*

I complained about your verbosity to my sister, another English literature major. She did her best to help me understand you, putting The Turn of the Screw in my hands. With high drama, she assured me that it was “really creepy.”  But with 19-year-old ingratitude, I pronounced it more crappy than creepy, tossing it – and  you – aside.  I honestly can’t say that I’ve thought much about you or your writing since.

Until last week.

I was cruising around on the Internet (you’d love it, Henry; you get a lot of press), looking to see if  other writers have experienced the same summertime writing malaise that I am. Ever since the weather turned warm, and the days stretch out as lazily as I want to, writing has been just about the furthest thing from my mind.

And then, I discovered a special edition of The Quote Garden, blooming with writerly words about summer. As I scrolled down the page, I ran across this quote:”Summer afternoon – summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”  Ahhh…I thought, how true. Wonder who said…What? Henry James? You’ve got to be joking!

Sorry, Henry. I guess that sounds a little harsh. But the words and the sentiment were so unlike the Henry James that I remembered. Not only was the sentence short enough for me to understand, but it was the first time that I felt as though I could relate to something you’d said.  I just didn’t realize that you were capable of that kind of  emotional spontaneity and  authenticity. So my next thought was…Why? What circumstances prompted such an un-Henry James-like reaction to a summer afternoon?

20140729_130219
Wharton at her writing desk, from A Backward Glance

At first, I thought you had put the words into the mouth of one your characters. But no – the phrase was yours, as reported by Edith Wharton in her autobiography A Backward Glance. You must have been really good friends because she devotes an entire chapter to you in the middle of the book, and you appear often in subsequent sections. The two of you visited each other frequently, in both the United States and in England until you were “more and more never apart.” Clearly, Edith respected your writing, your habit of being “always so helpful and hospitable to young writers,” and the “literary rough and tumble”  you engaged in together as you discussed each other’s and your contemporaries’ writing.

In the way of a true friend, Edith also understood and accepted your eccentricities. Apparently, your speech was as wordy and complex as your writing. She good-humoredly reports a dinner guest listening to one of your stories, “floundering helplessly in the sea of James’ parentheses.” But she helped me to understand why you used words that way. As a boy, you had a severe stammer that doctors said was incurable. Speaking slowly and using “involved phraseology” was what she termed a “partial victory” over that speech impediment.

Edith was also aware that you were afflicted by bouts of nervous depression, which became “acute and uncontrollable” in the summer heat. She discovered that the “one panacea” for your distress involved bundling you into her car and driving you around. “While we were moving, he was refreshed and happy; his spirits rose.” You revelled in the sights and sounds of the English countryside. “No one ever felt more imaginatively, or with deeper poetic emotion, the beauty of sea and sky, the serenities of the landscape, the sober charm of villages, manor houses and humble churches.”

Photo credit: Lorne Dmitruk
Photo credit: Lorne Dmitruk

On one of these motoring escapes, the two of you  went to Bodiam, a 14th century moated castle in East Sussex. “It was still the old spell-bound ruin, unrestored, guarded by great trees….Tranquil white clouds hung above it in a windless sky, and the silence and solitude were complete as we sat looking across at the crumbling towers, and at their reflection in a moat starred with water lilies and danced over by great blue dragonflies. For a long time no one spoke, then James turned to me and said solemnly, ‘Summer afternoon – summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.'”

For Edith, your words were “the essence of that hushed scene, those ancient walls.” For me, your observation about the serenity of summer afternoons also embodies the essence of your relationship with Edith. You could be completely yourself with her, assured of her friendship in spite of your constant battles with impediments that impacted more than your speech. You could say exactly what was in your heart, in the simplest possible way.

20140729_080927I can relate to how you must have felt that day. I feel the same way early on a summer morning when I step out onto my dew-moistened deck with a steaming mug of coffee. The canopy of maple leaves is motionless, the cloudless blue sky beyond them already diluted by the promise of afternoon heat. But now, the air is cool, the sun filtering golden through the elm on the other side of the fence. Sometimes, my neighbor is out with her coffee at the same time. We say good morning in quiet voices, not wanting to interrupt each other’s serenity.

So, Henry, I just wanted to let you know that almost 40 years after our first meeting, I finally found an emotional intersection with you. Maybe I needed to mature a little before I could appreciate you. Maybe I needed Edith’s assistance to understand the you who was, in her words,”so different from the grave personage known to less intimate eyes.” I’ve learned over and over again that people seldom reveal their complexities unless we give them time, space, patience, and compassion. Making this discovery about you, Henry,  was a wonderful reminder of that truth.

With love (two more of the most beautiful words in the English language),

Pam

* Here’s a sample sentence  from James’ The Golden Bowl: “She had got up with these last words; she stood there before him with that particular suggestion in her aspect to which even the long habit of their life together had not closed his sense, kept sharp, year after year, by the collation of types and signs, the comparison of fine object with fine object, of one degree of finish, of one form of the exquisite with another–the appearance of some slight, slim draped “antique” of Vatican or Capitoline halls, late and refined, rare as a note and immortal as a link, set in motion by the miraculous infusion of a modern impulse and yet, for all the sudden freedom of folds and footsteps forsaken after centuries by their pedestal, keeping still the quality, the perfect felicity, of the statue; the blurred, absent eyes, the smoothed, elegant, nameless head, the impersonal flit of a creature lost in an alien age and passing as an image in worn relief round and round a precious vase.” (As reported in http://ask.metafilter.com/35008/What-is-Prousts-longest-sentence)

4 comments

  1. How lovely! The only thing I have ever read of his is the quote “Summer afternoon, …” so I guess I have always thought him quite brilliant. But having read the sample sentence of his you provided, I’m not sure I will tackle any more of his work. I think I will let him rest in my mind as the great thinker and appreciater of summer I have up until now, thought him to be!

  2. One of my problems with his work was that I was “force fed” it when I was too young to appreciate it. Sometimes, I go back to these writers to see if there’s anything I missed at the time I was introduced to them. Not sure I’d do this with James, but I did enjoy knowing more about his life circumstances, and I discovered Edith Wharton’s book in the process, which I may well read in its entirety at some point.

  3. Pam…what a lovely, writerly piece! I of course really enjoy/ed James (try Turn of the Screw again sometime ;). This essay reminded me so much of his work and of the (mostly) happy days I spent as a lit major. Now on to Austen…what do you think of her now???

    Deb

  4. Maybe it is time to turn the screw again. Last summer, I reread Who Has Seen The Wind, and appreciated it so much more than when I first read it. Always did like Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility – wonder what I’d think of it now?

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