Rupert Brooke: Angry, perplexed, and the true face of tragic Modernism.
THE QUESTION: WHAT IS THE MODERN?
has been over-examined into platitude. The answers have hardened into unthinking cliche. It’s so bad that not only have the answers hardened into cliche—they’re simply wrong.
Here’s a simple quiz: which of the following events shaped Modernism the most?
1. American Revolution
2. American Civil War
3. Franco-Prussian War
4. Russo-Japanese War
5. World War I
The answer, of course, is that all five are significant, but, in the usual discourse on Modernism, No. 5 gets all the attention. “The Waste Land” was supposedly a reaction to World War One. Well, not really.
The time has arrived to take a wider look at Anglo-American Letters (and its ancillary ethnic writings): to connect theory and practice, theory and the human, theory and the world at large.
Poetry has a disappeared down the rabbit-hole of theory, and it’s time to bring her back, with all due respect to Wordsworth, Coleridge, Arnold, Pater, Eliot, the New Critics, and the various post-modernist schools of Freud, Feminism, Linguistics, Multiculturalism, and Foucault. I have left out the New Historicism, because calling historiography “new” is just another part of the problem—modernism studied from the perspective of “the modern” only perpetuates the myopia and the platitude.
American poetry criticism, by a strange accident, is Southern.
Poe, America’s first critic, though he lived many years in Philly/NY, established his critical renown in Virginia (after attending Jefferson’s newly formed U. VA), and even as Poe rose to world eminence as a post-romantic populist, poet, short-story writer, novelist, and literary inventor, his reputation as a critic made him ‘who he was,’ a hated figure in many places: New York, London, and New England. Ralph Waldo Emerson traveled to London and wooed the English instead, bowing down before figures like Wordsworth and Carlyle—whom Poe, in good fun, had only insulted. Emerson turned his back on Poe, which established a long trend of Yankee aesthetes preferring the English to their own: T.S. Eliot and Henry James come rapidly to mind.
In his review of Poe’s complete works, Harold Bloom called Poe “inescapable.” Poe is “inescapable,” so much so that 20th century Anglo-American Modernism almost means “kill Poe.” On one side, you’ve got Poe, as ubiquitous as the trees and the sun and boats, and, on another, a person writing a poem on their grandmother’s cancer treatment as an MFA student in one of American’s creative writing workshops. Emerson, who Bloom kept almost comically touting in his 1984 NY Review piece on Poe, is not “inescapable.” Emerson, therefore, is allowed in the room.
The second wave of influential American poetry criticism emerged from a Southern campus: Vanderbilt University, as Ransom, Tate, Warren, and Brooks took a 20th century American-world-prominence view of wave Number one, Poe, as a battered, Romantic figure of “pure poetry.” The New Critics theorized narrowly, even as they thought they were being expansive: Robert Penn Warren’s lecture in 1942 at Princeton—where Allen Tate founded one of the first Poetry Workshops and where John Berryman learned to drink—a lecture subsequently published in John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review, was called “Pure and Impure Poetry,” and it boldly says:
In so far as we have poetry at all, it is always pure poetry; that is, it is not non-poetry. The poetry of Shakespeare, the poetry of Pope, the poetry of Herrick, is pure, in so far as it is poetry at all.
And then, just as boldly:
Poetry wants to be pure, but poems don’t.
And, just as boldly, this as well:
Then the question arises: what elements cannot be use in such a structure? I should answer that nothing that is available in human experience is to be legislated out of poetry.
And by way of assertion, Warren quotes Wallace Stevens’ professor at Harvard, George Santayana, and in this delightful quote from Santayana, one can see exactly where Stevens’ method comes from, even as it advances Warren’s argument:
Philosophy, when the poet is not mindless, enters inevitably into his poetry, since it entered into his life; or rather, the detail of things and the detail of ideas pass equally into his verse, when both alike lie in the path that has led him to his ideal. To object to theory in poetry would be like objecting to words there; for words, too, are symbols without the sensuous character of the things they stand for; and yet, it is only by the net of new connections which words throw over things, in recalling them, that poetry arises at all. Poetry is an attenuation, a rehandling, an echo of crude expression; it is itself a theoretic vision of things at arm’s length.
In this 1942 lecture, Warren lumps Shelley with Poe as naive examples of pure poetry (as part of the great modernist revolt against ideal Romanticism) and, at the same time Warren deftly expands the definition of pure poetry with the help of the now forgotten Frederick Pottle and his “Elliptical” poetry—poetry that is pure, yet obscure and suggestive.
Warren proves to his satisfaction that “pure poetry” cannot exist—and nicely within the terms established by the godfather of New Criticism, T.S. Elilot. Warren adds this acknowledgment:
Marvell and Eliot, by their cutting away of frame, are trying to emphasize the participation of ideas in the poetic process.
The “inescapable” Edgar Poe, and his “pure poetry,” is killed by Robert Penn Warren—in his “Pure and Impure Poetry.”
Southern Poe, according to Southern Warren, is wrong. All sorts of ideas and things may be included in poetry.
If Poe chooses to include all sorts of things (quite successfully) in his work that is not poetry, Warren would rather not have to contemplate that.
But to each his own. Poe had to be “escaped.” And he was.
Warren was borrowing from Emerson, of course, who had attempted to dethrone Poe a century earlier with similarly excitable and high-sounding rhetoric:
The sign and credentials of the poet are, that he announces that which no man foretold. He is the true and only doctor; he knows and tells; he is the only teller of news, for he was present and privy to the appearance which he describes. He is a beholder of ideas, and utterer of the necessary and casual. For we do not speak now of men of poetical talents, or of industry and skill in metre, but of the true poet. I took part in a conversation the other day, concerning a recent writer of lyrics, a man of subtle mind, whose head appeared to be a music-box of delicate tunes and rhythms, and whose skill, and command of language, we could not sufficiently praise. But when the question arose, whether he was not only a Iyrist, but a poet, we were obliged to confess that he is plainly a contemporary, not an eternal man.
Only an Emerson could get away with denoting who was an “eternal man” and who wasn’t, and Poe, who must be the writer to whom Emerson refers, “a recent writer of lyrics, a man of subtle mind, whose head appeared to be a music-box of delicate tunes and rhythms,” was being eternally damned by Emerson, the modern seer, for writing what 100 years later, the New Critics would also consider a sin—writing “pure poetry.”
The third Wave in American Criticism was Confessional Poetry, and this, too, is Southern. Robert Lowell, on the advice of family psychiatrist Merrill Moore (an original member of Ransom and Tate’s Fugitive group at Vanderbilt) left Harvard for Tennessee to stay with Tate, and to study with Ransom and room with Randall Jarrell at Kenyon, and later, as a graduate student, to study with Warren and Brooks at Louisiana. The whole “confessional” mileau was coined by M.H. Abrams in a review of Lowell, but it was also overshadowed by Wave Number One, Poe, analyzed by one of Freud’s inner circle, Princess Marie Bonaparte, in a landmark biographical study published in French in 1933. Another way to “escape” Poe, apparently, was to psychoanalyze him, to keep his literary achievements at arm’s length by turning him into a person with a lot of hang-ups. Wave Number Three was essentially born out of Wave Number Two and Wave Number One.
Where is criticism now? It ambles along with Harvard’s Helen Vendler celebrating Wallace Stevens, who was at Harvard himself, 100 years ago; Stephen Burt is set to succeed Vendler—and Burt’s chief resume item is his bogus, 10-year old claim that he coined the term “Elliptical poetry.”
In the 1940s, F.O. Matthiessen wrote Poe out of the canon in his American Renaissance, firmly establishing Emerson and Whitman in Poe’s place; Matthiessen was a professor at Harvard when Bly, Ashbery and Creeley were students there, and they are now minor poetic icons: Bly, the hippie, Creeley, the refined hippie, Ashbery, the inscrutable.
John Ashbery’s “Elliptical” type of poetry now reigns—according to the influential critic, Harold Bloom, whose Anxiety of Influence (a theft of W. Jackson Bate’s The Burden of the Past and the English Poet) supports Ashbery’s amusing “Oh fuck it all” approach to poetry. Ashbery is the implicit answer to the ‘dead-end’ of Western culture, as well as New Criticism’s desire for purely “impure poetry.”
The only objection to Ashbery’s importance comes from the South, in what might be described as the Fourth Wave of Criticism: William Logan, born, really, from the Second Wave. Logan might be called New Criticism’s revenge, a Randall Jarrell II, who sees Modernism not as a break with Romanticism, but as a legitimate continuation of it; for Logan, post-Modernism is where the problems really begin.
Criticism has traveled, and will travel, paths other than the Four Waves described here, but these are the essential ones. Other topics arise: Islam v. the West, for example; but topics like this will finally be more about politics and religion than art.
Poetry Criticsm has always been found in a wilderness inside a wilderness. Talk about the larger wilderness, and one is not really talking about poetry anymore.
Let’s make an attempt to look at the larger wilderness as it applies to Anglo-American poetry criticism:
The two most popular poets in English-speaking poetry over the last 200 years are William Wordsworth and Robert Frost. One celebrates the English landscape, the other the landscape of New England. This is not insignificant.
Nature, that hoary term, is used by poetry, as it is used by imperial design—Nature is a political trope. Natural beauty appeals to everyone; camping-out doesn’t require poetry as part of the camping equipment; one might tell stories in the tent—probably ghost stories—but reading nature poetry in the wilderness is twee, and anyone bringing Wordsworth along on a camping trip would be viewed as a bit of a dork. Wordsworth is Nature for the drawing-room and parlor. Emerson’s “wilderness:” where is it, really? Nature poetry has less to do with wilderness than with the misanthropic musings of a highly patriotic Englishman:
It is that feeling of fresh loneliness that impresses itself before any detail of the wild. The soul—or the personality—seems to have indefinite room to expand. There is no one else within reach, there never has been anyone; no one else is thinking of the lakes and hills you see before you. They have no tradition, no names even; they are only pools of water and lumps of earth, some day, perhaps, to be clothed with loves and memories and the comings and goings of men, but now dumbly waiting their Wordsworth or their Acropolis to give them individuality, and a soul.
We all know Rupert Brooke’s famous poem that goes “If I should die, think only this of me:/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England. There shall be/In that rich earth a richer dust concealed.” The prose excerpt above is from Rupert Brooke’s Letters From America, (prefaced by Henry James) when the young poet traveled to the U.S. and Canada right before the Great War. In these Letters, Rupert Brooke is a typical “liberal,” a refined, literary person. Here he writes on Niagra Falls:
The human race, apt as a child to destroy what it admires, has done its best to surround the Falls with every distraction, incongruity, and vulgarity. Hotels, powerhouses, bridges, trams, picture post-cards, sham legends, stalls, booths, rifle-galleries, and side-shows frame them about.
Here’s the remarkable thing we learn from these Letters by the 24 year old Rupert Brooke, poet, English gentleman, beloved of elder literary statesman Henry James, and sensitive recorder of his race’s sensibility before World War I: He is morose in the extreme.
According to Brooke, “America has a childlike faith in advertising. They advertise here, everywhere, and in all ways. They shout your most private and sacred wants at you.”
Buying and selling, for Brooke, is a great stain on humanity.
He believes completely in the superiority of his race and pities the other races relentlessly: “These little towns do not look to the passer-by comfortable as homes. Partly, there is the difficulty of distinguishing your village from the others. It would be as bad as being married to a Jap.”
He feels American Indians were noble, but now they’re gone, dwindling into drunken “half-breeds.” Nature is beautiful, but terrifyingly lonely, unless it’s the nature of good old, comfortable England. Population growth is a menace. English civilization is ideal. Americans are idiots. They spit all the time. They don’t wear jackets. There is some admiration for the Americans: only they could have built the Panama canal, but canals and dams are just ruining the planet, anyway, so that’s bad. Russia is a “vague evil” to him, while the Irish, French and Japanese are “very remote.” He has a few sentimental feelings about Germany, because he had some good times in Munich once, but his love of England is so overwhelming, that at the end of the book, when war is declared, he is ready to fight. Why shouldn’t he fight? His pre-World War One journey through America and Canada have made him depressed as hell.
Before World War I, the young, handsome, poet Rupert Brooke’s English soul was a “waste land.”
Modernism was the not the effect of World War I—it was the cause.
No wonder they gave orders for the slaughter and the English enthusiastically heeded the call; their old world was rapidly fading before overpopulation, anyway.
Everything depressed Rupert Brooke:
I travelled from Edmonton to Calgary in the company of a citizen of Edmonton and a citizen of Calgary. Hour after hour they disputed. Land in Calgary had risen from five dollars to three hundred; but in Edmonton from three to five hundred. Edmonton had grown from thirty persons to forty thousand in twenty years; but Calgary from twenty to thirty thousand in twelve…”Where”—as a respite—”did I come from?” I had to tell them, not without shame, that my own town of Grantchester, having numbered three hundred at the time of Julius Caesar’s landing, had risen rapidly to nearly four by Doomsday Book, but was now declined to three-fifty. They seemed perplexed and angry.
This may be touching, but it’s easy to see that it’s Rupert Brooke who is “perplexed and angry.”
Here, indeed, is the tragedy of the intellectual West and the essence of “angry and perplexed” Anglo-American Modernism, on the eve of World War One.
T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land” is a cry of the perplexed British soul, not a reflection of any specific events or circumstances of humanity’s soul.
Brooke was perplexed by the great department stores in New York, where “improvisations by Herr Kandinsky” were sold cheaply, and “inspired French post-Impressionist painters” were happily working in the advertising departments, and Schonberg was a likely to be heard as Victor Herbert, or Beethoven, while people shopped. Modern art was not resisting America’s culture of buying and selling—it was part of it. There was no escape for a cultured English poet like Brooke.
Modernism had completely played itself out before World War One.
Even as the 20th century began, Modernism was already dead.