The Patron and the Crocus – Virginia Woolf

Men and women starting to write are given the advice to write what they have to write as shortly and clearly as possible and saying exactly what they have in them. But none adds to say “and choose your patron wisely”. Because the patron is not only the paymaster but also the instigator and inspirer of what is written, so he should be a desirable man.

But who will take the best out of the writer’s brain? The Elizabethans chose the aristocracy to write for and the playhouse public (pubblico di teatro). The 18th century patron was a combination of coffee-house wit and Grub street bookseller. In the 19th century the great writers wrote for the half crown magazines and the leisured (agiate) classes. But for whom should we write? There is a great variety of patrons. There is the weekly, the daily and the monthly press, the English and the American public, the bestseller public and the worst-seller public, the highbrow public and the red-blood public, organized entities making their needs known. So the writer who has been moved by the sight of the first crocus in Kensington gardens has to chose the patron who suits him best. It is futile to say “think only of your crocus” because writing is a method of communication and the crocus is imperfect until it has been shared. There are some writer who write for themselves alone but they are unenviable and an exception.

The high minded will say that it should be a submissive public, accepting obediently whatever he likes to give it. But great risks are attached to it. In that case the writer remains superior to its public (as in Samuel Butler, George Meredith and Henry James). Each failed to attain (raggiungere) a public. Their crocuses are tortured plants. The opposite extreme is to give 20 pounds for a crocus which shall blossom (sbocciare) upon every breakfast table. But will one crocus be enough? The press is a great multiplier of crocuses but some of these plants are very distant from the original flower. The newspaper crocus is amazing but still a very different plant. It is beautifully finished but when the night comes these flowers fade. The most brilliant of the articles when removed from its element is dust and sand.

Journalism in a book is unreadable. The patron we want then is somebody who helps us preserve our flowers from decay. To know whom to write for is to know how to write. The writer will require a patron with the book-reading habit rather than the play-going habit. He must be instructed in the literature of other times and races. There is the question of indecency so the patron must be immune from shock. He must be a judge of the social influences which play a great part in modern literature, and being able to say which fortifies and which makes sterile. He should brace (sostenere) a writer against sentimentality and a fear of expressing his feelings. It is worse being afraid of feelings than feel too much. About language he would say that Shakespeare violated much grammar. And to forget the sex because a writer has none.but the patron’s prime quality is something that can be expressed by the world atmosphere. He should envelop the crocus in an atmosphere which makes it appear a plant of the very highest importance. He must make us feel that a single crocus, if real, is enough for him, he does not want to be elevated, improved. He is now ready to efface himself or assert himself as his writers require. He is bound to them. The fate of literature depends upon their happy alliance; the choice of a patron is of the highest importance. But how to choose rightly? How to write well?

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