Nov 032003

Letters aren’t usually to my taste, but I except an odd little book I’ve just finished, W.B. Yeats and T. Sturge Moore, Their Correspondence 1901-1937.

One of our correspondents needs no introduction. Yeats the Great The other, T. Sturge Moore (1870-1944), was the brother of the Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore, whose Principia Ethica was still being assigned in freshman philosophy when I was in college. He made his living at the graphic arts, in which he showed considerable flair in an art nouveau vein; it is the sort of thing you will like if you like that sort of thing. Among other things he designed most of the covers for Yeats’ books. Moore the Obscure Moore was also an extremely distinguished poet and verse dramatist, and he wrote at least one poem and two verse plays (Medea and Daimonassa) that are far better than anything in Yeats.

Yeats plays the great man in his letters, as he does in his poetry, constantly prevailing on Moore for small and not-so-small favors. He borrows money — it is not always clear whether he pays it back — makes appointments and breaks them, pleading fatigue or “neuralgia,” and, once, egregiously, sends Moore to the copyright office on his behalf.

I am going to send you a bundle of plays to get copyrighted. Mrs. Emery, who would have done this for me, is away and for certain reasons these plays have to be done at once… You will be able to do the whole thing in an afternoon…. Will you send the plays to the Censor, or, if not, will you send me his address? It might be as well for you to send them. I will of course send you a cheque for the cost.

“I will of course send you a cheque for the cost”: God forbid I should ask you to do me a huge favor and pay you for it in advance. Personally I would have told Yeats to get stuffed. But Moore accedes gracefully, as if he too were convinced of Yeats’s superiority.

At the heart of the letters is an argument about “Ruskin’s cat” that runs for several years. Yeats believed in ghosts and spirits, like many of his mystical Irish friends, and tries to justify their existence to Moore philosophically:

John Ruskin, while talking with Frank Harris, ran suddenly to the other end of the room, picked up, or seemed to pick up, some object which he threw out of the window. He then explained that it was a tempting demon in the form of a cat. Now if the house cat had come in both cats would have looked alike to Ruskin. (I know this for I once saw a phantom picture and a real picture side by side.) Neither your brother [G.E.Moore, who defended in his Refutation of Idealism the common-sense view that the external world exists independent of our senses] nor [Bertrand] Russell gives any criterion by which Ruskin could have told one cat from the other. No doubt if pressed they would have said that if Ruskin’s cat was real Harris would have seen it. But that argument amounts to nothing. Dr. Smyllie, a well-known Dublin doctor, made his class see the Indian rope trick by hypnotic suggestion a few years ago. All saw it: whether the suggestion was mental or merely visual makes no difference. Perhaps Russell would say ‘a real object’ persists, a phantom does not. Shelley pointed out that the same dream recurs again and again… not only things but ‘dreams themselves are a dream.’

Moore replies sensibly enough:

Do you deny that there are such things as illusions? Do you think that there are black snakes wriggling on the counterpane of a man who has D.T.? If so, we are only quarrelling about a fact, not a word. If you suppose there is a separate reality for each one of us that is not what we usually mean by reality it is putting a new meaning to the word… Do you deny that our sense can be deranged and make mistakes, just as our reasoning faculty may, as in Othello’s case, make a mistake? If you bang your head against a door you see stars that are not there but swim around as though they were. The blow has deranged your sense of sight, just as a disease may, or a hypnotic trance, or even a conviction may.

This reduces Yeats to incoherence.

Damn Russell — he is as fine a mathematician as you like, but when he philosophises a politician walking on his hands… Your brother is not a politician but a philosopher. Berkeley and practically all philosophers since have contended that ‘sensations’ are part of the human mind and that ‘we know nothing but spirits and their relations.’ Your brother and his school contend that ‘sensations’ are ‘behind,’ not in, the mind. They, like Berkeley, are concerned with immediate knowledge: what you write about hallucinations has nothing to do with it.

Yeats’s summary of philosophic thought on the mind-body problem leaves something to be desired. He makes a hash of Moore’s brother, who said that sensations were “before” the mind, not “behind” it. And “immediate knowledge” begs the question of whether a hallucination is “knowledge” at all. Yeats goes on in further letters to adduce the range of early 20th century spiritual phenomena — photographs of thoughts, Richet, Madame Blavatsky and the like — eventually exasperating Moore:

It is all moonshine and nonsense… When you say that seeing two pictures on the wall when only one is there is as good proof of the existence of two pictures as if both were on the wall you contradict yourself, because you admit there is only one on the wall. You make a distinction between what you know to exist and an illusion of sense and deny it at the same time. That is to make two contradictory propositions both of which cannot be true. It is not a question as to what happens to be fashionable among intellectuals, but as to whether there is a case that can be stated without involving a contradiction. Fools follow fashions in thought as in other things and then they think because they are very many they must needs be right as well as strong.

This is as close as he comes to calling Yeats a fool. Of course Yeats is a fool. Mrs. Yeats is reported to have said that Yeats simply never understood people; certainly he did not understand Moore.

Now it is possible, I suppose, to be a fool and also a great poet, although I can think of no such case. To take most of Yeats’s poetry seriously it is not necessary to believe in ghosts. It is, however, necessary to prefer aristocratic to democratic government, assertions to reasons, instinct to intellect, astrology to astronomy, and the mystical properties of sex to just about anything else. Even more than Blake, his poetry is preposterous because his ideas are preposterous.

Yeats is generally considered one of the master stylists of the 20th century. Yvor Winters explains his reputation:

In the first place, there is real talent scattered throughout his work; in the second place, our time does not recognize any relationship between motive and emotion, but is looking merely for emotion; in the third place, Yeats’s power of self-assertion, his bardic tone, has overwhelmed his readers thus far. The bardic tone is common in romantic poetry; it sometimes occurs in talented (but confused) poets such as Blake and Yeats; more often it appears in poets of little or no talent, such as Shelley, Whitman, and Robinson Jeffers. For most readers the bardic tone is synonymous with greatness, for through this tone the poet asserts that he is great, in the absence of any (or sufficient) supporting intelligence. If the poet asserts his own greatness long enough and in the same tone of voice, the effect is hypnotic; we have seen the same thing on the political platform in the persons of such speakers as Mussolini, Father Coughlin, and Adolf Hitler.

Winters omits one point: Yeats looks like a Great Poet, with his piercing gaze, roman nose, and snowy hair. He was exceptionally jealous of his hair. He refers in the letters to the equally fine-maned Bertrand Russell as “bald-pated,” and in his poetry frequently employs bald men, as in The Scholars, as a symbol for intellect, which he despised. The reputations of Shelley and Whitman also profit from their looks. Moore, by contrast, looks like the harmless village eccentric. And Yeats is a great man, and no one has heard of Moore.

(Update: Colby Cosh troubles to read the Moore poem I cited. He dislikes “carven,” which is a perfectly respectable English word, although it smacks of the 1890’s, from which Moore, and Yeats for that matter, never freed himself entirely. He objects on metrical grounds to line 5, which I scan as follows:

Though un / intend / ed, ir / revoc / able!

The inversion in the fourth foot is unusual, but not problematic. Neither is the elided article in line 6; Moore is writing not about a particular incident but a type. What I think raises this poem to greatness is its perception of the nature of speech; “self-bemusing ease” is a master stroke. Bloggers have talked a lot lately about how easy it is to hit the “Send” button or the “Print” button. This poem is about how easy it is to hit the “Talk” button. I will be very happy if everyone reads it as attentively as Colby does.)

(Further: Alan Sullivan doesn’t like the poem either. Craig Henry comments. Alex(ei) comments. Mike Snider promises to tell me, sometime, why I’m wrong, so I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice.)

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 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.)

Jun 172003

The relative reputations of Oliver Goldsmith and George Crabbe have long troubled me; I worry about such things.

Goldsmith is best-known for The Deserted Village (1780), which still appears in many standard English literature textbooks, like the one I had in high school. Crabbe is scarcely known at all. Goldsmith slaughters him in a Googlefight by a three to one margin, although to be fair Goldsmith, unlike Crabbe, has some fame outside of his poetry for his plays and his one novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, which are better than the poetry, and for being a butt of Samuel Johnson’s jokes, which are excellent.

The Deserted Village mourns the death of the English village, somewhat prematurely, in a manner befitting someone who spent most of his adult life in London coffeehouses:

And all the village train, from labour free,
Led up their sports beneath the spreading tree;
While many a pastime circled in the shade,
The young contending as the old survey’d;
And many a gambol frolick’d o’er the ground,
And sleights of art and feats of strength went round;
And still, as each repeated pleasure tir’d,
Succeeding sports the mirthful band inspir’d;
The dancing pair that simply sought renown
By holding out to tire each other down:
The swain mistrustless of his smutted face,
While secret laughter titter’d round the place;
The bashful virgin’s sidelong looks of love,
The matron’s glance that would those looks reprove…

Etcetry etcetry. You notice nothing because there is nothing to notice. Another dozen lines of this and we are informed that “all these charms have fled,” along with the villagers themselves. It does not occur to Goldsmith that the villagers may have fled because they thought that they would find a better, or at least less miserable, life in the city, which the mortality rates of the time bear out. Instead the usual villains, trade and wealth, are called to account:

But times are alter’d; trade’s unfeeling train
Usurp the land and dispossess the swain;
Along the lawn, where scatter’d hamlets rose,
Unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp repose,
And every want to opulence allied,
And every pang that folly pays to pride.
Those gentle hours that plenty bade to bloom,
Those calm desires that ask’d but little room,
Those healthful sports that grac’d the peaceful scene,
Liv’d in each look, and brighten’d all the green,–
These, far departing, seek a kinder shore,
And rural mirth and manners are no more.

This poem irked Crabbe to no end, though not because of its foolish economics: why people left the village for the city concerns Crabbe not at all. What concerns him is Goldsmith’s sentimental picture of English rural life, which Crabbe, who grew up in the country and spent considerable time as a village parson, knew very well. In his reply, The Village (1783), he paints a rather different picture:

Where are the swains, who, daily labour done,
With rural games play’d down the setting sun;
Who struck with matchless force the bounding ball,
Or made the pond’rous quoit obliquely fall;…
Where now are these? Beneath yon cliff they stand,
To show the freighten pinnace where to land,
To load the ready steed with guilty haste,
To fly in terror o’er the pathless waste,
Or, when detected, in their straggling course,
To foil their foes by cunning or by force;
Or, yielding part (which equal knaves demand),
To gain a lawless passport through the land.

It is obvious whom to believe, but more than that, Crabbe’s verse is superior in every detail. His couplets are firm where Goldsmith’s are flabby. He eschews, except to mock, the clichés of the period, where Goldsmith indulges in them. “Swains” and “gambols” and “shades” that were already tired by the time Milton used them in Lycidas a century and a half before. There is nothing else especially rural about Goldsmith’s details; he seems to be viewing his subject from an immense distance, as, in fact, he is.

The Deserted Village lives, briefly, when he forgets that he is supposed to be apotheosizing the villagers and begins to satirize them instead. Thirty dull lines on the virtues of the minister, and then this:

The village all declared how much he knew;
‘Twas certain he could write, and cipher too;
Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage,
And e’en the story ran that he could gauge.
In arguing too, the parson own’d his skill,
For e’en though vanquished, he could argue still;
While words of learned length and thundering sound
Amazed the gazing rustics rang’d around;
And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew
That one small head could carry all he knew.

I know bloggers like that. I may even be one. Goldsmith’s characterization of the “parlour splendours” of the “village statesmen” is also very sharp:

While broken teacups, wisely kept for show,
Rang’d o’er the chimney, glisten’d in a row.

These are the best lines in The Deserted Village. It is a poor harvest from a 400-line poem that has been in the canon for more than two centuries.

Crabbe’s village minister, on the other hand, is unforgettable:

And doth not he, the pious man, appear,
He, “passing rich with forty pounds a year?” [the quote is from Goldsmith]
Ah! no; a shepherd of a different stock,
And far unlike him, feeds this little flock:
A jovial youth, who thinks his Sunday’s task
As much as God or man can fairly ask;
The rest he gives to loves and labours light,
To fields the morning, and to feasts the night;
None better skill’d the noisy pack to guide,
To urge their chase, to cheer them or to chide,
A sportsman keen, he shoots through half the day,
And, skill’d at whist, devotes the night to play.

His village doctor is better still, or worse:

Anon, a figure enters, quaintly neat,
All pride and business, bustle and conceit;
With looks unaltered by these scenes of wo,
With speed that, entering, speaks his haste to go,
He bids the gazing throng around him fly,
And carries fate and physic in his eye:
A potent quack, long versed in human ills,
Who first insults the victim whom he kills;
Whose murd’rous hand a drowsy Bench protect,
And whose most tender mercy is neglect.

Crabbe is at his best in natural description. He was a sort of amateur botanist, who annoyed his wife by bringing home mosses and lichens and spreading them around the bedroom. Goldsmith’s description is all “mossy” this and “shady” that; here is Crabbe’s:

From thence a length of burning sand appears,
Where the thin harvest waves its wither’d ears;
Rank weeds, that every art and care defy,
Reign o’er the land, and rob the blighted rye;
There thistles stretch their prickly arms afar,
And to the ragged infant threaten war;
There poppies nodding, mock the hope of toil,
There the blue bugloss paints the sterile soil;
Hardy and high, above the slender sheaf,
The slimy mallow waves her silky leaf,
O’er the young shoot the charlock throws a shade,
And clasping tares cling round the sickly blade.

“Sickly” in particular, with its double meaning, is a master-stroke. You will not find more accurate nature poetry than this in any English poet save Hardy — not in Wordsworth, who interested himself in nature only as a prop for his jejune philosophy, and certainly not in Goldsmith.

Crabbe also provides a clue to Goldsmith’s continuing popularity, and to his own neglect:

From this chief cause these idle praises spring,
That themes so easy few forbear to sing;
For no deep thought the trifling subjects ask;
To sing of shepherds is an easy task;
The happy youth assumes the common strain,
A nymph his mistress, and himself a swain;
With no sad scenes he clouds his tuneful prayer,
But all, to look like her, is painted fair.

I couldn’t say it any better myself. So I won’t try.

(Update: Several solecisms corrected. I was drunk when I wrote this.)

Jun 082003

Homework help continues apace, as the search strings grow increasingly, and suspiciously, specific. IP wants to know “what does no man moved me mean in Emily Dickinson’s poem I started early I walked my dog”? He further inquires “what does frigates in the upper floor mean in Emily Dickinson’s poem I started early I walked my dog”?

Well,, the poem begins, “I started early, took my dog,” not “I walked my dog.” You might want to reread it a couple times before resorting to Yahoo. As for “frigates,” consult the dictionary: they’re ships. The “upper floor” is the sea’s surface; you will note that mermaids are in “the basement.” You’ve heard of rats deserting sinking ships? Rats (and mice) board them the same way, on ropes. That’s what “hempen hands” are.

“No man moved me” is more difficult. The sea in this poem represents, most generally, destructive power. It is death, and has elements of male sexuality as well: the tide goes “past my bodice” and “made as he would eat me up.” She is saying that she was untouched by, and even unaware of, this power until she experienced it; and having done so, she flees to the safety of “the solid town.” The sea withdraws, like a proper gentleman, but its latent power remains, and we shall all confront it eventually.

I trust you can write your term paper now, and next time you have questions, just ask, OK?

Jun 032003

Special thanks to AC Douglas, for flagging this bitter little resumé of the state of poetry. And extra-special thanks to “Abiyah,” “a locally acclaimed hip-hop artist,” for touching, in one ill-written paragraph, on everything that has gone wrong with aesthetic theory in the last couple of centuries:

Certainly, there are basics of poetry that may need to be learned, but the learning of these techniques may inhibit rather than enhance the Hip Hop poets ability to express himself or herself. Academia or academic settings tend to discourage the Hip Hop poet, especially those who are innovative and experimental. Poems cannot and will not be created by recipe. In a classroom setting, particularly one focusing on creative writing, pre-emptive judgment calls by an instructor on the validity of a students poetry can be extremely detrimental. The instructor must be well-versed in cross-cultural contexts in order to fairly interpret each individual students poems.

Put aside the question of how one is to know that one is original by cultivating a studious ignorance of the history of poetry. Like Keynes’s proverbial madman who hears voices in the air, Abiyah assuredly has no idea what a profound debt she owes to academic scribblers, a bunch of late eighteenth-century German and English aestheticians in her case. “Innovation” and “experimentation” did not spring, like Athena, fully armed from Zeus’s breast. Until quite recently poetry was generally conceded to give words to the familiar: “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” Folk poetry like The Iliad is this way practically by definition.

The Elizabethans did not especially prize originality. They often rewrote each other’s poems, trying to improve them. (This tradition, ironically, survives in hip-hop in the remix, although for rather different reasons.) One of Ben Jonson’s best lyrics, “Drink to me only with thine eyes,” is a translation of Philostratus, an accurate one, the scholars say, though lacking Greek I cannot judge. The theory of the organic imagination originated, probably, with Herder and Schelling at the end of the eighteenth century, and was popularized, plagiarized, and jargonized by Coleridge — “esemplastic imagination,” “assimilative power,” “coadunating faculty,” and the like. The mind of the genius was supposed to be not like a mirror, reflecting an agreed-upon external reality, but like a plant, taking mere nourishment from reality and recombining it in strange and wonderful ways. (Shakespeare, its best illustration, largely owes this theory his exalted reputation.) Hence originality is the true mark of genius. It is a small distance from originality to shock, and from this theory to épater les bourgeois.

Our locally acclaimed hip-hop artist is certain the purpose of poetry is to express oneself. I’ve got a news flash for you, cupcake: nobody cares about your precious personality except your mother, and maybe not her either, if she’s anything like my mother. Self-expression, too, is a relatively recent development in aesthetic theory, heralded by the ever-grandiose Wordsworth in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, in which he defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” which makes it sound a good deal like road rage. The more spontaneity, the better, according to J.S. Mill: Natural poetry, the best kind, “is Feeling itself, employing Thought only as the medium of its utterance.” Naturally technique and study are positive hindrances to spontaneity; our hip-hop artist reminds us that “poems cannot and will not be written by recipe.” This whole business so irked T.S. Eliot that he called for “the extinction of personality”; too late. The spiritual descendant of Wordsworth and Mill is Picasso, with his “Whatever I spit — that is art.” And here we are.

*The definitive work on the evolution of these ideas is M.H. Abrams’ The Mirror and the Lamp, although Abrams appears not to recognize the disastrous consequences of the ideas that he chronicles so thoroughly.