‘Ah far be it,’ said he, ‘dear dame, for me
to hinder soul from her desired rest,
Or hold sad life in long captivity
The Faerie Queen, Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)
Modern poetry began when poetry became imprisoning, when its function as charming story-telling fell into the cul de sac of self-conscious pedantry.
Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” was meant, in Pope’s words, “to divert a few young ladies, who have good sense and good humor enough to laugh not only at their sex’s little unguarded follies, but their own.” Pope’s poem “was communicated with the air of a secret” but “soon found its way into the world,” as an “imperfect copy” was “offered to a bookseller.”
Once upon a time, a poem was a secret that had to get out, and booksellers were only too happy to comply.
Pedantry, however, banned the delicious secrets sprung entirely from the machinations of the sexes, and turned poetry from rare and extravagant gossip desired by booksellers, into the universal and moral platitudes of the learned—no wonder the public for poetry became disenchanted and gave up. Byron said, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” Alas, the Romantic age is over. In our modern age it takes a poet fifty years to become famous and this is because the poet no longer has secrets the impetuous crowd clamors for—unless a Joyce, a Ginsberg or a Rushdie arrive with a book banned by self-appointed moral guardians. Banned books, of course, are not necessarily good. Pope and Byron gave the ladies great art.
But pedantry, telling us poetry ought to be this and ought to be that, that it was that and now must be this, that it was this and can never be this again, that it is some mysterious project that has to do with wisdom;—pedantry, by doing this, has perverted poetry from its true purpose and made it an artificial product of academia.
It began with Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, which, in the spirit of its time, contains enchanting story and rhyme, but which the pedants insisted was excellent due to Wordsworth’s dull moralizing. The old wisdom, which said, ‘never forget delight’ was forgotten, and a new wisdom put in its place, in which scholars became guardians of trends, movements, and schools, and poetry became a school-subject with a history of change and discovery of itself, for itself and in itself, as if poetry were a science and the world at once, an ever-evolving world scientifically elaborated—instead of a source of charm, teaching in a manner apart from learning, per se.
Now pedantry covers all. First, it was decided that poetry is really an intimate lyric of personal reflection. Dull, sentimental and tedious examples of this, such as “Tintern Abbey”— and “The Prelude” offered by old Wordsworth, England’s poet laureate, were put in the very foreground of the canon, eclipsing even Pope and Byron (too charming and playful compared to the professor-worthy and serious Wordsworth) and thus every wag who dallies with the muse turns Wordsworth at last—believing every personal reflection made is memorable. Even so-called modern poets, priding themselves on the fierce pedantry of trends and schools and the ‘new,’ were going up and down and up and down old Wordsworth Hill, as we see in the following by Modernist Robert Penn Warren:
At night, in the dark room, not able to sleep, you
May think of the red eyes of fire that
Are winking from blackness. You may,
As I once did, rise up and go from the house. But,
When I got out, the moon had emerged from cloud, and I
entered the lake. Swam miles out,
Toward moonset. Montionless,
Awash, metaphysically undone in that silvered and
Unbreathing medium, and beyond
Prayer or desire, saw
The moon, slow, swag down, like an old woman’s belly.
Getting back to the house, I gave the now-dark lawn a wide berth.
At night the rattlers come out from rock-fall.
They lie on the damp grass for coolness.
What I remember, but do not
Know what it means
All I can do is offer my testimony.
–Robert Penn Warren (1905–1989) from Rattlesnake Country
This is over 100 years after Wordsworth, and written by a poet-critic explicitly embracing the modernist intoxication of new! new! new! but this is…pure…Wordsworth. The pedants managed to cover up an obvious truth: Shakespeare, Milton and Pope were the seeds of Romanticism, and Wordsworth, Arnold, and TS Eliot the sticks and stones of Modernism. Wordsworth took Romanticism and turned it into Victorianism; in other words, Mr. W. took joy and turned it into a moral. Byron and Shelley and Keats were closer to Pope was than what Wordsworth became. Byron, Shelley and Keats were not textbook-nature poets, nor did they hammer down with pedantry what poetry could be into dull lessons of Dutch-realism.
Byron was already ‘post-modern,’ and not all anxious and morbid about it:
To turn,—and to return;—the devil take it!
This story slips forever through my fingers,
Because, just as the stanza likes to make it,
It needs must be—and so it rather lingers;
This form of verse began, I can’t well break it,
But must keep time and tune like public singers;
But if I once get through my present measure,
I’ll take another when I’m next at leisure.
—Byron (1788-1824) from Beppo
Byron can be annoying, but at least he’s never pedantic.
We think of Ashbery as a post-modern wit, but in fact Ashbery’s academic audience (he doesn’t really have a public one) admires him for anxious pedantry like this:
You can’t say it that way any more
Bothered about beauty you have to
Come out into the open, into a clearing
Ought to be written about how this affects
You when you write poetry:
The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate
Something between breaths
—John Ashbery (1927-) from And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name
The idea of escaping from old forms, old sentiments, old ways of communicating is as old as poetry itself. Even the Father of Moral Modernism, Wordsworth, could playfully ponder the prison:
I to the muses have been bound,
These fourteen years, by strong indentures:
Oh gentle muses! Let me tell
But half of what to him befel
For sure he met with strange adventures.
The owls have hardly sung their last,
While our four travelers homeward wend;
The owls have hooted all night long,
And with the owls began my song,
And with the owls must end.
And thus to Betty’s questions, he
Made answer, like a traveller bold,
(His very words I give to you,)
‘The cocks did crow to-whoo, to-whoo,
And the sun did shine so cold.’
—Thus answered Johnny in his glory,
And that was all his travel’s story.
Wordsworth (1770-1850) from The Idiot Boy
Moderns are besotted with the dull sticks-and-stones-ism of Wordsworth. But even Wordsworth couldn’t have foreseen the yoke of pedantry poor poetry now bends under; we saw Ashbery pedantically alluding to Rousseau; here Elizabeth Bishop feels obligated to mention Baudelaire in a manner that might be charming to modern academics, but would probably leave Pope’s “ladies with a sense of humor” cold.
At low tide like this how sheer the water is.
White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare
and the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches.
Asorbing, rather than being absorbed,
the water in the bight doesn’t wet anything,
the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.
One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire
one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.
—Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) from The Bight
The Wordsworth-style aside, Bishop almost had me going until she pedantically name-dropped. She can be playfully attentive. Her sly Baudelaire/marimba music-reference is sure to win three out of four readers, today, (just those relatively few who bother to read Bishop) but that’s only because we live in a pedantic prison—and, sadly, we know it.