Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Trilling on Polonius

My lyric-writing son has been thinking about the way he writes songs.  Recently he read Hemingway's A Moveable Feast and was much taken with Ernest's earnestness about 'truth'.   Applying this to song-writing, Son finds it best exemplified in songs by Bruce Springsteen.  In the light of this, I thought I'd have a look at Lionel Trilling's Sincerity and Authenticity, which I haven't read since 1977, and on page 3 came upon the following passage.  It is something we all know and recognise in Polonius's famous speech, but I think Trilling puts it terrifically well. It has not much to do with song writing, although  the phrase "the way the lines sound" might be useful to any aspiring Cole Porter or Paul Simon.

There is a moment in Hamlet which has a unique and touching charm. Polonius is speeding Laertes on his way to Paris with paternal advice that has scarcely the hope of being heard, let alone heeded.  The old man's maxims compete with one another in prudence and dullness and we take them to be precisely characteristic of a spirit that is not only senile but small. But then we are startled to hear:

This above all: to thine own self be true
Anmnd it doth follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

We naturally try to understand that concluding sentence of Polonius's speech in a way that will make it consort with our low opinion of the speaker - 'If you always make your own interests paramount, if you look out for Number One, you will not mislead your associates to count on your attachment to their interests, and in this way you will avoid incurring their anger when, as is inevitable, you disappoint their expectations'.  But the sentence will not submit to this reading.  Our impulse to make its sense consistent with our general view of Polonius is defeated by the way the lines sound, by their lucid moral lyricism.  This persuades us that Polonius has had a moment of self-transcendence, of grace and truth.  he has conceived of sincerity as an essential condition of virtue and has discovered how it is to be attained.

Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (1972) 
 

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