I’m rereading The Great Gatsby which floats above us on Fitzgerald’s exalted lyrical prose style. A sample in the early pages brings Nick Carraway into Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s mansion on East Egg:
“We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling—and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does the sea.
“The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood there for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”
Fitzgerald considered this style his strength, more so than plotting or presenting grand ideas. What I didn’t know until the other day was that he credits his style to an early immersion in John Keats. In a letter to his daughter when she was in college and aspiring to write, he wrote:
“Poetry is either something that lives like fire inside you—like music to the musician or Marxism to the Communist—or else it is nothing, an empty, formalized bore, around which pendants can endlessly drone their notes and explanations. The Grecian Urn is unbearably beautiful, with every syllable as inevitable as the notes in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or it’s just something you don’t understand. It is what it is because an extraordinary genius paused at that point in history and touched it. I suppose I’ve read it a hundred times. About the tenth time I began to know what it was about, and caught the chime in it and the exquisite inner mechanics. Likewise with Nightingale, which I can never read through without tears in my eyes; likewise the Pot of Basil with its great stanzas about the two brothers; ‘Why were they proud, etc.’; and The Eve of Saint Agnes, which has the richest, most sensuous imagery in English, not excepting Shakespeare. And finally his three or four great sonnets; Bright Star and the others….
“Knowing those things very young and granted an ear, one could scarcely ever afterwards be unable to distinguish between gold and dross in what one read. In themselves those eight poems are a scale of workmanship for anybody who wants to know truly about words, their most utter value for evocation, passion or charm. For a while after you quit Keats all other poetry seems to be only whistling or humming.”
Time to reread Keats.