My friend Peter Robinson has written a moving tribute to the late Christopher Hitchens on the website Ricochet and Christopher Buckley has written another in the New Yorker (hat tip to Gregg Hurwitz, who sent it to me). Both these men knew Hitchens and so their remarks are worth reading. I met him once, so I’ll be very brief.
Both Robinson and Buckley resort to poetry to express their feelings about their lost friend. I think this must say something about the man, because a poem immediately came to my mind too when I heard about Hitchens’ death. It was some lines that Auden ultimately deleted from his wonderful memorial to the poet William Butler Yeats:
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives…
Hitchens wrote so well, so wildly well. Buckley reports that some people chided him for once calling Hitchens ”the greatest living essayist in the English language.” To which he responds: “O.K., name a better one.” And yes, I was trying to think of a better one last night or one even close to as good, and couldn’t.
I’m talking about pure prose here, the pure beauty of language, greater to me than music. And while I think I know why Auden cut those lines from his poem, they do express something in my heart as I think they must’ve expressed something in his. I would rather spend time reading good prose than right thinking or fine sentiments. It’s a joy when they all come together—as they sometimes did in Hitchens’ work—but if I have to choose one, I’ll take the prose. If this is sin in me, and it may well be, I think of it as Auden thought of his homosexuality: a sin I’m going to continue committing. Maybe—to be kind to myself—it simply reflects my understanding that beauty and truth are one.
Anyway, there are people who lost in Hitchens a loved one or a friend, and I’ll leave the real memorializing to them. All I lost was a wonderful, wonderful writer… but I do take that rather hard.