Oct 272003

Literary criticism turns up in odd places. I’ve been waiting to have my say about Tolstoy, that youthful rake turned pious old fraud, only to find that the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, in his curious novel Mysteries, beat me to it by a century. His main character, Nagel, gets drunk and begins to rant:

To get back to Tolstoy, in my opinion his intellect is no greater than, say, General Booth’s. They are both preachers, not thinkers but preachers. They deal with the status quo, popularize already accepted ides, reduce them to the lowest common denominator, and then sit back and watch them take root. But if you’re going to sell, you must do so at a profit, and Tolstoy’s enterprises show a staggering loss. Once two friends made a wager; one bet the other twelve shillings that he could shoot a nut out of the other fellow’s hand without grazing it. Well, he fired, missed, and blew the whole hand to shreds, but he did it with style. As he was about to faint, his injured friend moaned, ‘You lost the bet — give me the twelve shillings. Give me twelve shillings,’ he said! God, how Tolstoy labors to eliminate humanity’s happy vices and make the world full of love and mankind! It just fills me with shame… It would be different if Tolstoy were a young man struggling against temptation or if he had a battle to fight and tried to win it by preaching virtue and clean living. But his sources have run dry; he has no more humanity left to struggle with. You may say: But this has nothing to do with his philosophy. But it has everything to do with it! Oh, just wait until old age has made you self-satisfied and callous! Then you go to the young man and say, ‘Renounce these superficial trappings.’ The young man ponders, sleeps on it, and comes to the conclusion that this indeed is what the Bible preaches. But he doesn’t ‘renounce’; he goes on sinning for the next forty years. And so it is. When his forty years are up and the young man has grown old, he saddles his snow-white mare and rides off with his crusader’s banner held high in his bony hand, calling out a pious message of renunciation to the youth of the world. It’s a comedy that endlessly repeats itself. I get a kick out of Tolstoy. I’m glad the old boy is capable of so much munificence.

Lord, make me chaste, forty years hence.

Oct 262003

Computers may or may not be changing the nature of art; I leave this question to the eminent Blowhards. But at the very least they could be the handmaidens of literary scholarship. Shouldn’t the Internet be full of concordances by now?

You remember concordances. Those thick books your English professors had on their shelves, where you could look up how many times Milton uses the word “swain,” or Dryden “wit,” or Dickinson “nature”? Now difficult as this may be for some of you juvenile readers to grasp, in antediluvian times scholars compiled these by hand. They are indispensable for serious literary scholarship, and excellent for settling arguments and jogging memories.

There are a few online concordances for the obvious choices, like Shakespeare and the Bible. There’s even pretty cheap software that will do it for you automatically, which these folks have used to make a desultory stab at a few of the British romantic poets. The University of Georgia English Department has managed to post a complete one for William Blake. It is defective (a search for “rose” yields hits for “prose” and “arose” with no way to ask for the whole word only, or to distinguish the noun from the verb) but far better than nothing. Bartleby offers search on its texts, but they are nearly always single works or selections. No remotely complete online concordance exists for, moving in reverse chronological order and considering only a few poets who interest me, Stevens, Robinson, Hardy, Hopkins, Dickinson, Pope, Dryden, Milton, Jonson, Donne, Greville, Ralegh, Gascoigne, Skelton, and Chaucer. Print concordances exist for every one of these authors.

Clearly there’s a shortage people with the necessary technical skills and literary interests to do the job. A sufficiently interested and modestly competent database programmer could rig this up in a jiffy. Do I know anyone like that? Oh. Right. Never mind then.

Oct 242003

Erin O’Connor favorably cites this piece from the poet Tom Henihan, slagging poetry workshops. Henihan writes:

The teaching of poetry has become epidemic. The question of having the “gift” never comes up; the assumption being that poetry can be acquired like everything else. I have to say that the poets who head up these little retreats are very sensitive, preferring to lie rather than give any genuine criticism that may offend the student. You see they must keep these aspiring poets coming back, year after year, stanza after stanza, by shamelessly lending credence to the most flat literal efforts. I have yet to meet anyone who has been told the truth about their work (good or bad) at one of these little soires in the woods.

The blame shouldnt go so much to the hapless souls that sign-up for these exercises but to the purveyors of snake oil that put them on. I am not suggesting that poets cannot teach one another a trick or two, but taking 10 to 15 aspirants to a nunnery in Sooke for a 3-day workshop is so sweet it could make one cry. It goes up against everything radical, wild and individual in poetry. These people would be better served and brought closer to poetry if they got drunk, got laid, or went dancing.

Erin glosses:

Henihan may come off as a snob at first glance. He may come off as one of those vaguely anti-intellectual artistes who hold critics and teachers–the people who try to analyze the why and the how of their art–in unapologetic contempt. But to read his essay that way would be to miss the point. There are some things that cannot be taught. Inspiration is one, creativity is another, having a “feel” for language a third. Skills can be taught, and those are certainly necessary if one wants to be a writer of any caliber. But too often creative writing courses are about far more than the teaching of skills–there is a dishonesty to them, as Henihan notes. Their premise is that everyone enrolled in the course can write; their guiding principle is that deep down, we all have a poet or a novelist in us just waiting to come out. We don’t.

Doing original mathematics requires inspiration, creativity, a “feel” for numbers, all the mysterious qualities that Erin posits for poets; yet no one would dream of saying that teaching calculus to a class of sub-Eulers and sub-Gausses is useless. Why, then, is there no point in teaching poetry to a class of sub-Jonsons and sub-Dickinsons? Poetry is every bit as technical as car repair, and poets, like car mechanics, need to know what they’re doing. The byways of literary history are crowded with talented poets who damaged themselves with technical misunderstandings and home-grown metrical theories. Gerard Manley Hopkins, with his theory of “sprung rhythm” and “outrides” and his belief that there can be five-syllable feet in English, is the most famous case. Hopkins’ problem was assuredly not that he didn’t get drunk, get laid, or go dancing, although by all accounts, being a Jesuit priest, he didn’t.

Good poets need good models, and most modern poets are bad because their models are bad. Trying to write like William Carlos Williams is hopeless unless you’re William Carlos Williams. Trying to write like Walt Whitman is hopeless even if you are Walt Whitman. Trying to write like John Milton, whose virtues are unique but whose vices are easily imitated, set English poetry back about a hundred years.

I’ve never attended a poetry “workshop,” and I stipulate that they are as ghastly as Henihan says. My poem’s OK, your poem’s OK. The fact that poetry is often taught badly, however, does not mean it cannot be taught at all. If I had a two-week poetry workshop to teach, I guarantee that I would improve the poetry of everyone in the class. Or your money back, no questions asked.

Here are my first three assignments, for those of you following at home.

1. No one who can’t read poetry has any business writing it, and you have not read a poem properly unless you can paraphrase it. Of course the meaning of a poem does not consist entirely of its paraphrasable content; if it did we wouldn’t need the poem. But the paraphrase remains the indispensable baseline. Paraphrase the following three poems: in order of increasing difficulty, Ben Jonson’s To Heaven, John Donne’s Valediction: Of My Name in the Window, and Fulke Greville’s Down in the depths. When you finish this assigment you will understand that poems can argue, with great complexity, and that great poetry is possible with a minimum of imagery, or none whatsoever. These three poems make Ezra Pound’s petals on a wet black bough seem like a pretty pallid affair.

2. Now it’s time to develop a little respect for traditional forms. Find two perfectly regular iambic pentameter lines — no substitutions, no elisions — that differ as far as possible from each other rhythmically. Meter is simply the background, the bass line, as it were, against which the movement of the line takes place. This assignment will turn your attention to syllable length, caesura placement, strength of accent, and all the other aspects of rhythm that make lines move the way they do. It will prove especially useful to people like Ron Silliman, who sneer at “tub-thumping iambic pentameter” as if all metrically identical lines sound alike, or K. Silem Mohammed, who is so bored by meter that he’s going to hold his breath until he turns blue. To get you started I’ll do this one myself. The first line is from the 16th century, Dowland’s Songbook; the second is from the 20th, Wallace Stevens’ Sunday Morning. They are both regular pentameter lines.

Fine knacks for ladies — cheap, choice, brave, and new!
The world is like wide water, without sound.

Mike Snider has also already completed it.

3. Write three poems in rigid forms. Begin with the easiest, an Elizabethan sonnet, next a rondeau, and finally a villanelle. This will be graded strictly on its adherence to the form in question. Don’t worry that the poems are bad: they will be bad. Attend instead to the way formal demands concentrate the mind. You can’t say exactly what you want because it won’t fit. You begin to revise it until it will fit. Then, if you work at it enough, you find that your revision is better — more precise, more compressed, more poetic — than what you thought you wanted to say in the first place. Poets who always compose in slack meters cannot grasp this process, which is how all great poetry is forged.

(Update: Mike Snider comments. George Wallace comments. Nate Bruinooge comments. Jim Henley reports from the belly of the beast. PF, who seems to know a great deal about Russian poetry, comments. Desbladet comments.)

(Further: Dr. Weevil notes that I misquoted the Dowland line. This has been corrected. Two lines of verse in the damn post, and I get one of them wrong.)

Sep 272003

Don’t you hate it when people tell you to read something, when what you really need is less to read, not more? This blog, as ever, is at your service.

First stop reading the newspaper. My grievances against Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes are many and serious, but I have always admired his steadfast refusal to read the paper. If yesterday’s paper is good for nothing but wrapping fish, what does this say about what you’ve retained from yesterday’s paper? Besides, the news is depressing.

I know people who have read five times as many introductions to works of classic literature as works of classic literature. Don’t be one of them. Forewords and afterwords are to be treated like dessert: read, if at all, after the book, never before, lest you read through the eyes of Professor So-and-So instead of your own. Professor So-and-So tends to natter pointlessly anyway.

Biographies are the scandal sheets of the literate. Great geniuses have the shortest biographies, said Emerson, incorrectly. Great geniuses now have 800-page doorstops memorializing what they ate for breakfast. If you are interested in a novelist, read the novels; in a jurist, the opinions; in a philosopher, the philosophy; in a painter, look at the pictures. Biography is gossip. Worse, it is disingenuous gossip, which you can read in the guise of acquiring an education. Kelly Jane Torrance, among others, beat me to pointing this out; bully for her.

As I grow older I find more wisdom in Ezra Pound’s stricture that the best reading program is to know a dozen good books extremely well. (Not that ol’ Ez followed his own advice.) If your experience is anything like mine you will reliably forget most of any good book the first couple of times you read it, and misunderstand the rest. Then when you return to it you will be astonished at what an idiot you were. Which is an education in itself.

You can cut down on blogs substantially. Female bloggers, for instance. Not all of them, of course: I read several, ranging from the marvelously surly Andrea Harris to the effervescent Sasha Castel to the brilliant Megan McArdle. They have one thing in common: to my knowledge, they are childless. Mother bloggers inevitably start writing about how the school bully is picking on little Eustace or how little Tiffany has been punished for posting nastiness in someone else’s comments section and it was really her who wrote it, not me, no matter what you think, and how dare you call social services on me, and you must be deranged to imagine that I would do something like that. Follow the links if you must. The point is, you need not.

The biggest spread on Wall Street is reputed to be between your current job and your next one. The biggest spread in the universe, mothers, is between your own and everyone else’s interest in the doings of your precious darling. As for the Father of all Mother Bloggers, am I the only one who skips the Gnat parts?

Finally, stop reading the ingredients on the cereal package. Yes, you. If you’ve reached ascorbic acid and trisodium phosphate you’ve gone much, much too far.

(Update: George Wallace dubs excessive child-blogging Lilexia. I like it. Rick Coencas co-sponsors Lilexia. It’s a meme! It’s a viral meme! Brian Micklethwait comments.)

Sep 242003

Friedrich von Blowhard is on about story structure:

My son loves to watch Stuart Little 2; consequently, I have listened to this film a large number of times while out doing errands. Hearing the movie all the way through repeatedly, it finally dawned on me that its basic story structure is broken up into four roughly equal parts:

Part I — Introduction to our hero/heroines inner, emotional problem

Part II — Introduction to our hero/heroine’s outer, practical problem and the explanation of the link between it and the inner problem

Part III — First round of engaging the practical problem

Part IV — Second round of confrontation with practical problem, culminating in ultimate success or failure

Friedrich applies this to The Great Gatsby and amusingly concludes that it is really a noir, which, considered from a certain angle, it is.

Let’s take Friedrich’s notion out for a spin with one of my favorite novels, Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady.

Part I — Isabel Archer sails from America to England to visit her cousins, the Touchetts. She is young, beautiful, clever, proud, naive, and single. She begins poor, but James provides her with a fortune, in his usual way, to allow her maximal freedom of action, or to put it differently, enough rope to hang herself. Isabel resolves to tour Europe to gain an education.

Part II — She is also touring Europe to find a husband. Suitors present themselves. First is Lord Warburton, who, being handsome, kind, well-spoken, titled, and immensely rich, clearly won’t do.

Part III — Next up is the young American magnate, Caspar Goodwood. Isabel, who by this time has fallen under the spell of the arch-European Madame Merle, refuses Goodwood because he is too good, too wooden, and just altogether too American. Instead she marries Madame Merle’s choice, the evil gold-digging aesthete Gilbert Osmond.

Part IV — Isabel realizes her error, which it is too late to correct, for super-subtle Jamesian reasons to which I cannot do justice in a sentence and to which James, in truth, doesn’t do justice in the novel either.

Well, it works, I guess. Yet it is too vague to satisfy. Friedrich deals in themes, when what we really need is a classification of plots.

Surely there are several plots even if there is only one theme. The Seven Plots (or however many there are, maybe fewer, certainly no more) is one of the desperately needed books that may never be written, along with Albert Goldman’s proposed Encyclopedia of Musical Plagiarism. One of the seven, I am sure, is the hourglass plot, in which two characters begin high and low, cross in the middle, like an hourglass, and swap positions at the end. Martin Amis, for one, can write nothing else. Success is quintessentially hourglass; and Money and The Information both rely heavily on hourglass elements.

Instructors in screenwriting are fond of talking about character arcs, and they may be on to something, much as it pains me to admit. Since all stories take place in time, make time the x-axis. Represent a character’s death as y=0. Graph the plot, with a single line if there is one main character, with more if, as in the hourglass, there is more than one. Zoom out and note the shape. There’s your plot type. A Greek tragedy would look like an upside-down hyperbola, the protagonist cruising at the peak of his powers until the sudden revelation, and disaster. Novels of descent — say, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano — would look like straight lines with negative slope, with an occasional squiggle to keep the reader’s attention. Horatio Alger stories are the same, except positively sloped.

The Great Gatsby is another single-line affair, Gatsby himself being the only character who changes. It might be a skewed bell curve: Gatsby begins with nothing, reaches his peak with his affair with Daisy — “I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts” — soon realizes that nothing will come of it, and is shortly thereafter found floating face-down in his swimming pool. Tales of peril and redemption will be inverted bell curves, skewed right when the peril takes more space than the redemption, the usual case.

A book’s merit, of course, has nothing to do with its graph. If The Seven Plots is ever written, let alone read, it will serve the useful purpose of dispelling the notion that some types of plots are better than others, and refocus the reader’s attention on other qualities, where it properly belongs.

Stanislaw Lem once wrote a little collection of reviews of non-existent books called A Perfect Vacuum. Its unstated premise was that the review rendered the actual book superfluous, and the titles themselves were marvelous — Die Kultur als Fehler (Civilization as Mistake) by Privatdozent W. Klopper, Being Inc. by Alastair Waynewright, Toi, “a novel about the reader,” by Raymond Seurat. A collection of reviews of non-existent books that we actually need would be an equally profitable exercise.

Sep 212003

Alexander Pope is the most widely quoted English poet after Shakespeare. You know a good deal of Pope whether you realize it or not. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. A little learning is a dangerous thing. What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed. To err is human, to forgive divine. Hope springs eternal. Damn with faint praise. Whatever is, is right.

At the same time he is now nearly impossible to read at any length. The reasons for this are related, and interesting.

The 18th century made a fetish of “correctness,” and Pope wrote the vast majority of his verse the heroic couplet, the preferred form of the time. Pope translated Homer, among the least correct of poets, into heroic couplets; it is excruciating reading. His couplets are invariably end-stopped; grammatical units rarely extend beyond the two rhymed lines. The accents are heavy. The caesuras fall mid-line, after the fourth, fifth, or sixth syllables, almost without exception. Enjambment, being “incorrect,” is out of the question. The effect, after thirty or forty lines, is deadly, and Pope’s poems run 500 lines or more. Here is an oft-admired passage, the introduction to Book IV of The Dunciad:

Yet, yet a moment, one dim ray of light
Indulge, dread chaos, and eternal night!
Of darkness visible so much be lent,
As half to show, half veil, the deep intent.
Ye powers! whose mysteries restored I sing,
To whom time bears me on his rapid wing,
Suspend a while your force inertly strong,
Then take at once the poet and the song.

F.R. Leavis comments that “this astonishing poetry ought to be famous and current as the unique thing it is,” which testifies only to Professor Leavis’s capacity to be moved by heavy rhythms and trite language. The passage is as far as possible from being “unique”; it is a formulaic invocation to the Muses. It succeeds to the degree it does precisely because the language is stereotyped. Here Pope mocks the convention, as in The Rape of the Lock; unfortunately ironical triteness is still trite, and still dull. And Pope employs the same procedure perfectly seriously in other poems, such as Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady, that Professor Leavis praises with nearly equal fervor.

Pope has better moments:

Beneath her foot-stool Science groans in chains,
And Wit dreads exile, penalties and pains.
There foamed rebellious Logic gagged and bound,
There, stripped, fair Rhetoric languished on the ground.
His blunted arms by Sophistry are borne,
And shameless Billingsgate her robes adorn.
Morality, by her false guardians drawn,
Chicane in furs, and Casuistry in lawn,
Gasps, as they straiten at each end the cord,
And dies, when Dullness gives her page the word.

The passage is energetic but trivial. It would not make the slightest difference to its meaning if Wit were gagged, Science exiled, Morality in chains, Logic stripped, and Rhetoric garotted. And the monotonous movement has begun to set in.

The heroic couplet is indelibly associated with Pope in the history of English literature, but it can be used very differently. Consider this passage from Pope’s near-contemporary, Charles Churchill. He is satirizing Wiliam Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester, a notable literary bully of the time.

Bred to the law, you wisely took the gown,
Which I, like Demas, foolishly laid down.
Hence double strength our Holy Mother drew;
Me she got rid of, and made prize of you.
I, like an idle Truant, fond of play,
Doting on toys, and throwing gems away,
Grasping at shadows, let the substance slip.
But you, my Lord, renounced Attorneyship
With better purpose, and more noble aim,
And wisely played a more substantial game.

The passage has a subtle and stately movement; Churchill achieves an especially brilliant effect by ending the self-description at line 7 while suspending the rhyme. One looks in vain for anything like it in Pope.

The 18th century loved its abstractions, large and capitalized. Yet reason, as we understand it, has very little do with Reason, morality with Morality, and science with Science. These facts can be put aside when reading short excerpts of Pope but quickly become impossible to avoid. Pope conceives of Reason as knowing one’s place in universe as the middle link in the Great Chain of Being. “To reason well,” he writes, “is to submit”:

In pride, in reasoning pride, our error lies;
All quit their sphere and rush into the skies.
Pride still is aiming at the blest abodes,
Men would be angels, angels would be gods.

Professor Lovejoy, whose book The Great Chain of Being is the best on the intellectual history of the century and a model for writing the history of ideas in general, properly terms this “rationalistic anti-intellectualism.” The Age of Reason turns out to be ironically named.

For all Pope’s apostrophes to Isaac Newton, his view of Science shows clearly enough in his lines on the microscope:

Why has not man a microscopic eye?
For this plain reason, man is not a fly.

It’s poor flawed humanity jumping itself up again. True Science, intent, as Pope often writes, on seeing things whole, has no need for such artificial aids. Here Pope agrees with his friend Swift; Book III of Gulliver’s Travels, the voyage to Laputa, has much the same theme. It is anti-technology and at bottom anti-scientific. All told the microscope has had a rather more impressive career than seeing things whole has.

Ethics, similarly, is easily disposed of. If whatever is, is right, then what else do you need to know? “Equal are common sense and common ease.” Know and keep your place in the universe is what Pope preaches, everywhere and always. In practice this advice devolves into petty Toryism:

Order is heaven’s first law, and this confessed,
Some are, and must be, greater than the rest,
More rich, more wise.

The best poetry is rarely the most quotable; it derives much of its meaning from its context. Pope is highly quotable because he had a superb verbal gift; but the context is foolish. He is like an exceptionally brilliant student who has mastered his exercises and regurgitates them expertly. His poetry is unsatisfactory because the dominant ideas of his time are unsatisfactory. He might have written great poetry had he been born a hundred years earlier or two hundred later. Instead he was bequeathed a cheap and facile philosophy, lacked the intelligence to think his way out of it, and became a poet of glittering fragments, no more. His vices are those of his age; his virtues are his own.

(Update: Miriam Jones comments. Alex(ei) comments.)

Aug 272003

I’ve often been asked (well, twice) what my favorite poem in English is. This one, from Emily Dickinson, is my favorite poem today. It was also my favorite yesterday, five years ago, and, I expect, ten years hence.

As imperceptibly as grief
The summer lapsed away;
Too imperceptible, at last,
To seem like perfidy.

A quietness distilled,
As twilight long begun,
Or Nature, spending with herself
Sequestered afternoon.

The dusk drew earlier in,
The morning foreign shone;
A courteous, yet harrowing grace,
As guest who would be gone.

And thus, without a wing,
Or service of a keel,
Our summer made her light escape
Into the beautiful.

Dickinson was a nearly exact contemporary of Emily Brontë, in whose novel stormy emotions and stormy weather always coincide. In this poem she takes a rather different view. It says, very approximately, that it is an error to believe that the seasons and nature are in sympathy with ourselves (“to seem like perfidy”). In fact nature is not only indifferent to human affairs (“sequestered afternoon”) but utterly alien from them (“the morning foreign shone”). We see it only through the prism of our emotions, which are real but unrelated. The late summer light escapes into the Platonic “beautiful,” a noun, and our perception escapes as well, into memory, where we confute it with summer itself. A friend once told me that Emily Dickinson’s poems reminded him of diary entries. Anyone out there who writes like this in her diary please send it to me immediately.

In the opening two lines Dickinson tosses off an incidental insight about grief to which inferior poets would happily devote an entire poem, as Wordsworth did, to a similar insight about dissolution, in his famous sonnet On Mutability. The description of late summer, given entirely in terms of its effect on the observer, fuses symbol and subject in a way that no physical description could. This poem also employs off-rhyme more effectively than any other I know. The theme, in one sense, is the off-rhyme between the natural world and how we perceive it.

I used to think that in line 14 “a keel” would do just as well and “service of a keel” was chosen to pad out the line. Eventually I realized that “service” stresses the difference between the wing and the keel, the natural and the man-made, which is integral to the theme of the poem. There is a hint of Dickinson’s eccentric spinster grammar in line 12, where she drops an indefinite article, which proves only that no poem is no perfect in God’s eye, or mine.

Trite Dickinson productions like “I’m nobody. Who are you?” find their way into the standard anthologies and this poem never does. Some selections of her own verse manage to omit it. If this doesn’t tell you all you need to know about anthologists, then consult Palgrave, Oscar Williams, Louis Untermeyer, or Quiller-Couch.

(Update: Carl G. Jung points to an aspect of the poem that I overlooked. George Wallace comments. The Russian Dilettante comments.)

Aug 022003

Poor Thomas Nashe. He is credited with one of the most famous lines in English poetry, and he never wrote it.

From Summer’s Last Will and Testament

Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss,
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys,
Death proves them all but toys,
None from his darts can fly.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade,
All things to end are made.
The plague full swift goes by.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkes will devour;
Brightness falls from the air,
Queens have died young and fair,
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector brave,
Swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds ope her gate.
Come! come! the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Wit with his wantonness
Tasteth death’s bitterness;
Hell’s executioner
Hath no ears for to hear
What vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Haste, therefore, each degree
To welcome destiny.
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage;
Mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Metrically the poem is brilliant. It is nominally in iambic trimeter, but Nashe produces a dirge-like movement by beginning most lines with a trochee, which emphasizes the line breaks. The repeated double trochees that conclude each stanza give the unmistakable impression of death bells tolling, and for thee.

It is also extremely unfashionable. Its grim theme of the inevitable procession to the grave will not resonate with the modern reader, who expects to live forever. Gold buys a lot more health now than it did in 1600, the plague full swift stopped going by in Western countries about a hundred years ago, and there is a good deal that can be done about wrinkles nowadays. The consolation of the afterlife Nashe offers in the last stanza will not persuade many today; indeed Nashe himself seems unconvinced. (He did haste to his welcome destiny nonetheless: like many other Elizabethan poets, including his posse, Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene, Nashe lived fast and died young.)

The poem’s structure is also alien. It is syllogistic, with an argument that might have been taken, as J.V. Cunningham points out, wholesale from Aquinas:

They are such propositions as might have been translated from the Summa Contra Gentiles of Thomas Aquinas, and they are located in that general tradition. St. Thomas, for instance, discusses the following questions: That human happiness does not consist in carnal pleasures; that man’s happiness does not consist in glory; that man’s happiness does not consist in worldly power; that man’s happiness does not consist in the practice of art; that ultimate happiness is not in this life, “for if there is ultimate happiness in this life, it will certainly be lost, at least by death.” But these are the propositions of Nashe’s lyric, some literally, some more figuratively put.

The Elizabethans often wrote syllogistic poems — Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress and Ralegh’s The Lie come to mind. Moderns never do. The best modern poems proceed associationally, by coherence of feeling rather than coherence of argument. One may doubt whether this is an advance.

Notwithstanding all of this, Nashe’s poem is famous for the line “Brightness falls from the air.” It’s evocative, it’s ambiguous, it’s thoroughly modern. In Portrait of the Artist Stephen Dedalus has a page-long meditation on the line, which he first misremembers, characteristically, as “Darkness falls from the air.” T.S. Eliot dilated on it. At a less exalted level, James Tiptree and Jay McInerney borrowed it to title their novels, and astronomers are very fond of it.

Trouble is, the line makes no sense in context. All of the other metaphors in the poem are homely and literal. Nashe’s 20th century editor, McKerrow, writes, with a practically audible sigh: “It is to be hoped that Nashe meant ‘ayre,’ but I cannot help strongly suspecting that the true meaning is ‘hayre,’ which gives a more obvious, but far inferior, sense.” What is obvious, once you read this, is that “Brightness falls from the hair” is the correct reading. It is literal, sensible, and on the same order as the rest of the poem. It’s not modern, but neither was Nashe.

Should the line be corrected in future anthologies? Too late; the question is irrelevant. The poem will survive in its current form no matter what Nashe intended. The great literary critic John Ford had the last word on the subject: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

(Update: Glenn Frazier comments. Eve Tushnet posits Philip Larkin as a modern who proceeds logically, not associationally. I don’t quite agree, but I will write about Larkin soon at some length and will take this up then. Terry Teachout points out that Constant Lambert set this poem to music.)

Jul 262003

Dear Aaron,

I am hoping you can answer a quick poetry question for me. In the following poem by John Updike, what do you think “blither” means?

(Upon reading of the genetic closeness of mice and men.)

Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
Braw science says that at the leastie
We share full ninety-nine per cent
O’ genes, where’ere the odd ane went.

O nibblin’, pink-tail’d, bright-ee’d sir,
We hail frae ane sma’ fearful blur
‘Neath dinorsaur feet, lang syne-
Na mair be pestie, cousin mine.

Stay oot my larder, oot my traps
An’ they’ll snap softer doon, p’rhaps,
For theft and murther blither go
When a’s i’ th’ family, bro’ and bro’.

Thank you,
Amy Greenwood

Dear Amy,

Updike is imitating Robert Burns here, so first I go to the Scots dictionary to find that “braw” is Scots for “fine.” This helps me understand the poem but does not answer your question. “Blither” is not a Scots word, but it is an English word, with two meanings. Usually it is a verb, but as a verb it makes no sense in the poem. It is also a comparative adjective, meaning “more blithe,” and this second sense clears the matter up. The last two lines mean: “theft (by the mouse) and murder (by the poet) are cheerier affairs when they’re kept in the family.” Unfortunately “blither,” following “murther” directly, sounds far more natural with a short than a long i, which compounds the difficulty.

There is a similar problem in one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, “Farther in summer than the birds,” which has a line beginning “Antiquest felt at noon.” She means “more antique,” but many, many readers have read the word as “anti-quest.”

Pedantically yours,

Jul 012003

When a true cult appears in the world, you may know it by this infallible sign; that it sells taped lectures to the faithful at exorbitant prices. Literary critics, who usually lecture for a living, are the curious exception, lacking the shrewd understanding of price elasticity that the religious cults, the philosophical cults, and the buy-real-estate-with-no-money-down cults all seem to share. Maybe C.P. Snow had a point about the rift between the Two Cultures, at least between literature and economics. Maybe the cult critics simply didn’t care for money. But they missed out on a serious marketing opportunity. Who among the acolytes of F.R. Leavis, John Crowe Ransom, T.S. Eliot or Yvor Winters wouldn’t shell out the big bucks for the lectures of their favorite on cassette?

What becomes a cult critic? Evaluation, above all. For most of the last century instruction in literature aimed at producing someone like the befuddled art critic in the old New Yorker cartoon who says, “I know all about art, but I don’t know what I like.” It was possible, in my student days twenty years ago, to major in English without once being told why we were reading the writers we were, instead of some others. One of the epigraphs to Leavis’s The Common Pursuit is from Robert Graves:

At the end of my first term’s work I attended the usual college board to give an account of myself. The spokesman coughed and said a little stiffly, “I understand, Mr. Graves, that the essays that you write for your English tutor are, shall we say, a trifle temperamental. It appears, indeed, that you prefer some authors to others.”

Cult critics distinctly prefer some authors to others. They usually arrive on the scene by dynamiting an established reputation. Ransom lays waste to Shakespeare’s sonnets (the whole essay isn’t online, but an excerpt, on Sonnet 73, is here). Leavis writes that Milton “has forgotten how to use the English language.” Winters reads nearly the entire 18th and most of the 19th century out of the poetic canon. English students are starved for this sort of thing, and they flock.

Some of the best passages in the cult critics are the demolition jobs. Winters on Yeats, for instance:

Yeats’s concept of what would be the ideal society is also important. Such a society would be essentially agrarian, with as few politicans and tradesmen as possible. The dominant class would be the landed gentry; the peasants would also be important, but would stay in their place; a fair sprinkling of beggars (some of them mad), of drunkards, and of priests would make the countryside more picturesque. The gentlemen should be violent and bitter, patrons of the arts, and the maintainers of order; they should be good horsemen, preferably reckless horsemen (if the two kinds may exist in one); and they should be fond of fishing. The ladies should be beautiful and charming, should be gracious hostesses…, should if possible be musicians, should drive men mad, love, marry, and produce children, should not be interested in ideas, and should ride horseback, preferably to hounds. So far as I can recollect, the ladies are not required to go fishing.

Eliot, who is temperamentally incapable of such viciousness, must be read out of the ranks of the true cult critics on that account. He sets himself up as a defender of “tradition” and can scarcely bring himself to pronounce that certain works that have been read for a long time are just plain bad. Calling Milton “magniloquent” is as much vitriol as he can muster. Too much hedging will never gather you a proper cult, and when it comes to hedging Eliot had no peer.

Cult critics are all hedgehogs, not foxes; they have one big idea and they beat it senseless. Leavis takes dibs on “life,” Winters “moral judgment,” and poor Ransom is left with “structure [the argument] and texture [the images],” which is dualistic, to begin with, and dualism is no way to run a cult. In any case it bears too much resemblance to the ancient Horatian formula that a poem must “teach and delight” to excite the unquestioning allegiance that the true cult critic demands. Ransom was also an extremely polite Southerner, and politeness, in this league, will never do.

This leaves only Leavis and Winters standing as the preeminent cult critics of the 20th century. They have in common a finely-honed sense of persecution at the hands of academia. Although Leavis spent most of his career at Cambridge and Winters at Stanford, each considered himself disastrously underappreciated, and with reason. Leavis was well past 40 before he secured a permanent position, despite an impressive list of publications. “They say I have persecution mania,” he remarked. “Comes of being persecuted, you know.” Winters’ plaint at the end of his last book, Forms of Discovery, could serve almost as the cult critic’s motto:

It has been a common practice for years for casual critics to ridicule my students in a parenthesis; this has been an easy way to ridicule me. And the sneer is the easiest of all weapons to employ; it costs the user no labor, no understanding, and I should judge that it raises him in his own estimation. But I think the time has come when my faithful reader may as well face certain facts, no matter how painful the experience: namely, that I know a great deal about the art of poetry, theoretically, historically, and practically; that a great many talented people have come to Stanford to work with me; that I have been an excellent teacher; that six or seven of my former students are among the best poets of this century; that some of these and a few others are distinguished scholars.

Loyalty, clearly, flows top-down as well as bottom-up. Winters was very near death when he wrote this, and it’s true, actually. It’s true! His students included J.V. Cunningham, Edgar Bowers, Thom Gunn, Scott Momaday, and a host of minor figures. Still, your impulse is to close the book out of embarrassment.

Cult leadership is lonely work, and Leavis and Winters were both blessed with helpfully literary wives. Mrs. Winters was Janet Lewis, a distinguished poet and novelist (The Return of Martin Guerre) who didn’t care much for disputation but reliably backed her husband in public. The famously truculent Mrs. Leavis, known to her husband as Trixie, the Leavisites as Queenie, and the reading public as Q.D., was another matter. Her Ph.D. thesis, Fiction and the Reading Public, is still cited today. With her husband, she co-edited Scrutiny, the house organ of the Leavisites, for its entire 20-year run, and she was widely considered the more terrifying of the couple. Truly a match made in — truly a match.

Now, a confession: I am a Winters cultist myself, as my regular readers will have gathered by now. Winters, too, had his own, more modest version of Scrutiny, a little magazine called The Gyroscope. Four issues, with the approximate production values of a high-school literary magazine of the pre-PC era, were published in 1929 and 1930, and I own, at vast expense, the complete run (cf. cassette tapes).

There is an old Matt Groening cartoon that lists the Six Types of College Professors. One of them is “The One-Idea-To-Explain-Everything Maniac,” and there is a footnote: “Warning: Idea might be true.” So it is with Winters. Poems really are, largely considered, moral judgments about a human experience. Ben Jonson and Greville really are superior to Spenser and Sidney, Wordsworth and Shelley really are bad jokes, and 1700-1850 really is a trough in the history of English and American poetry. I urge any of my readers who have made it this far to go look up his books, especially the omnibus In Defense of Reason and Forms of Discovery; you will learn more about poetry than you ever thought possible.

Leavis, on the other hand, was spotty. He is a sensitive reader, especially of Shakespeare, but a lousy theoretician — “life” can take you only so far — and his considered judgments are unlikely to stand the test of time. (D.H. Lawrence, for the record, was not the greatest novelist of the 20th century. If Lawrence survives for anything, it will be, ironically, a work of criticism, the splenetic curiosity Studies in Classic American Literature.) None of Leavis’s epigones will be remembered. And Leavis, unlike Winters, was no poet himself, and incapable of the close metrical analysis that is one of the distinctive features of Winters’ criticism.

This, for the budding cult critic, is the most inspiring lesson of all. You will need feral energy, a boundless capacity for holding grudges, and barking monomania. What you won’t need, necessarily, is to be a good critic.

(Update: Michael Blowhard comments. And Jim Henley has some especially interesting remarks.)