poems in English worthy to be set beside an average Horatianrnode. However, even the failures of English poetry are at a levelrnhigher than they might have been, if the only readers of versernhad been illiterate stockjobbers with degrees in economics orrnbusiness.rnFord wrote for that rarest of imaginary beings—more preciousrnthan the unicorn, more fatally mesmerizing than thernbasilisk, though by no means as indestructible as the hydra—rnthe common reader, the man or woman who, through somernflaw of character or upbringing, likes to read what others havernwritten and has enough everyday learning to prize intelligencernand craft above all the meretricious effects of the thrill-manipulators.rnIf pressed, I might be able to provide some reasons whyrncivilization and good language should be inextricably linked,rnbut far more important than any why is the mere fact that theyrnare. Tastes, of course, will vary from age to age—but even thernrigidity of early 18th-ccntury taste is an indication of the beautifulrnformality of that period, and if Coleridge could not properlyrnappreciate Pope (nor, had their ages been reversed. Popernappreciate Coleridge), it does not mean that cither poet didrnnot write according to certain enduring and universal standards.rnThat writers almost always fail to live up to their idealsrnonly means that they have aimed sufficiently high. The abandonmentrnof standards that marks all our postmodern literaturernis neither daring nor innovative, and it signifies nothing morerninteresting than effeminacy and sloth. We no longer have thernenergy to dress for dinner or calculate rhymes; so far from writingrnverse, we cannot even be put upon to read it.rnThere is a tedious literary debate on whether we are livingrnstill in the modern age, or have entered the postmodern age, orrnthe post-postmodern age. This discussion, which would haverndelighted Ford, interests me no further than to observe that thernhallmark of modernism in literature, the quality that is sharedrnby such diverse writers as Pound and Proust, is an obsession withrntechnique, a contempt for popular bourgeois standards, an ambitionrnto make words do more they can do in our poor, uninflectedrnlanguages. “Words slip, crack . . . perish under thernstrain.” While the best of living writers remain, for the mostrnpart, modernists—Cormac McCarthy, for example, andrnGeorge Garrett—most arty literature of the 90’s represents notrna continuation of the modernist impulse but a flight into inconsequencernand solipsism. That nobody reads the literaturernpublished in literary reviews is a truism not worth repeating, butrnthe reverse is also true: an educated readership (and by readershiprnI am including critics, literature professors, and editors)rnwould not tolerate what is passed off as poetry and fiction theserndays, and their demand for good writing would act like arnmagnet in drawing talent out of the obscurest corners of thernEnglish-speaking world.rnLiterary modernism entre deux guerres was the last madrncharge of the serious artist against the hordes of vandals andrnhuns whose wanton destruction has left hardly a blade of grassrngrowing in their wake. Pound gave way to madness, Eliot grewrnever more taciturn, and countless numbers of writers simplyrngave up—as a painter might cease to paint if all the world werernsuddenly blinded. Poor Ford, despite his generous enthusiasmsrnfor his contemporaries, despite all his plots and schemes for thernadvancement of himself as the leader of the modern school, despiternthe tributes from such diverse writers—to name onlyrnAmericans—as Conrad Aiken, Louis Bromfield, Allen Tate,rnGlenway Wescott, and even Isabel Paterson—was already a fishrnout of water by the end of the Great War. He never ceased tornwrite, and not all of his later, prodigious output is unworthy ofrnhim, but in his failure we can read the failure not only of hisrngeneration of writers but of the entire century. Rather thanrngive way to despair. Ford had kept up his little fight for seriousrnliterature. Graham Greene summed him up in his obituary:rn”I don’t suppose failure disturbed him much: he had neverrnreally believed in human happiness, his middle life had beenrnmade miserable by passion, and he had come through—withrnhis humor intact, his stock of unreliable anecdotes, the kind ofrnenemies a man ought to have, and a half-belief in a posterityrnwhich would care for good writing.”rnIn this belief. Ford Madox Ford was less than half-wrong.rnThere are readers and writers who care as much about goodrnwriting as about good cooking, but they, or rather we sufferrnfrom the realization of how few we are, how outnumbered, andrnhow inadequate to the task. The ancient music theorist, Aristoxenusrnof Tarentum, commenting on the degeneracy of musicrnand poetry in his own day (the late fourth century B.C.) comparedrnhis situation to that of the people of Poseidonium,rnGreeks who had lived long enough in Italy to forget their veryrnGreekness. Once a year they gathered to celebrate their pastrnand went away lamenting. So we few who appreciate the classics,rnhe concluded, gather together to remember the way thingsrnused to be. Aristoxenus, who was a scholar and philosopher,rncould afford his Miniver Cheevyism. A writer cannot, andrnnothing has been so deadly as the acedia that comes with thernrecognition that all one’s best efforts are probably futile. Fordrnnever gave up, but he was lucky enough to die before the SecondrnWar. How long, I wonder, could he have kept up the act?rnI remember back in my student days coming across a copy ofrnGregory of Tours’ Historia Francorum. Writing in the late sixthrncentury. Bishop Gregory apologized in advance for any mistakesrnhe might make in his bad Latin—it was, as his own bookrnrevealed, a violent and barbarous age, little inclined to good letters.rnThis, at least, is what I remember, for I have never put myrnhands on a copy since, and to check the quotation I should havernto make an hour’s drive to Madison, so barbarous is this city ofrn250,000 souls (the metro population) that its libraries containrnso few good books. Ah, say the techno-prophets, books are obsoleternand within a short time you will be able to find anythingrnyou want from the Internet. Perhaps. But who will pick thernbooks that survive, and will that poor, pious barbarian bernincluded? Who will type in the Latin? (Gregory’s Latin isrnprobably less barbaric than any translation made in our time,rnand if some librarian points to the Penguin edition on the shelf,rnI can only say QED.) And, what is more to the point, who,rnapart from a few thousand medievalists, will know enough torncall it up and print it out, and which of them can read any Latinrnwithout the aid of a trot? Ford’s Katherinc Howard, a mererncountry gid, reads and writes Latin, In these barbarous times,rnthe ability to write plain English is the rarest of accomplishments.rnIt is denied to Presidents and their speech writers, torncollege professors and journalists, to novelists and poets. WhenrnI think of how well some of us might be able to write, if wc tookrnour craft seriously and if wc really believed there were morernthan a few thousand people capable of appreciating the difference,rnand how far short we fall of our own limited ideals, I thinkrnof Poseidonium, whose people knew enough to mourrr whatrnthey had lost. If you will go to Pacstum (as it is now called), asrnShelley did, and climb among the ruins of that insignificantrnGreek city, you will come away wondering if wc shall ever givernanyone cause to mourn our passing. crn12/CHRONICLESrnrnrn