Tuesday, June 22, 2010
In Requiem by Hugh Trevor Roper
In 1942 Logan Pearsall Smith* made the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper the chief heir in his will, which was, however, revoked shortly before his death. Characteristically, Trevor-Roper did not mind forfeiting the money, but was exasperated by his difficulties in obtaining the books that he had been bequeathed under the new will. Smith's greatest gift to his protege had, anyway, been given in his lifetime: he passed on his literary precepts, which were evident in everything that Trevor-Roper wrote – books, essays, reviews and his supremely private letters – after 1940.
Partly because Trevor-Roper was in Germany, researching The Last Days of Hitler, and partly because Smith had suffered a nervous breakdown and was forbidden visitors, the two men seldom met in the nine months before Smith died on 2 March 1946. ' A great section of my life seems to me to have ended with his death. No one else has had such an effect on my personal life. It is ineradicable,' Trevor-Roper wrote in requiem. 'What did I learn from him? When I ask myself this question, I do not know how to answer it, for I learned everything. My whole philosophy seems, now that I consider it retrospectively, to have come from him, and what I would have been without him I cannot envisage, cannot imagine.
From that day when, walking alone around the Christ Church Meadow, I had resolved to trifle no more among the twigs of matter but to try to understand the root of it, I had, for two years, forsaken all literary and artistic interests. I neglected poetry & prose; cared nothing for music or pictures, read neither Gibbon nor Homer, but only studied, and studied only essential monographs and laborious theses; and in the book that I was myself writing, Archbishop Laud, I consciously ignored the temptation of style. I only sought to understand, & to this extent, though I understood imperfectly, it is at least an honest book. But neither humanity nor divinity touched it, & therefore it is also incomplete & a narrow book. I cannot now think why Logan thought so highly of it.
' For it was Logan who afterward re-interested me, in a time when the war had separated me from desperate academic study, in style & the world of sensation,& enabled me thus to fill in the hard structural pattern of thought I had thus evolved; and how can I express gratitude for such an experience?
Who showed me that life is short, and three parts routine, & most of it comedy, & can only be saved from triviality & given significance by some ideal to which all else, or at least much else […] including human pleasures and meritorious aims, and especially power and success, must be sacrificed, as by a merchant who sold out to reinvest all in one pearl of great price; and that style is worthy of this sacrifice.
This I learned from him and believed, & I still believe it, and shall, I hope, continue, like Gibbon, to value reading above the wealth of India. For in his life and conversation, among the tinkle of coronets and the wild extravagant gossip, and the exquisite relish of high life and la comedie humaine, of which it also witness, he illustrated this philosophy to me so vividly that if it has not become mine, at least mine can never be altogether emancipated from its influence.'
Introduction to Letters From Oxford; Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson edited by Richard Davenport-Hines; Phoenix Paperback, Orion Books, 2006.