MADAME DE STAEL TANGLES WITH THOMAS PEACOCK IN THE ROMANTIC BRACKET

File:Madame de Staël en Corinne 1807.jpg

Germaine de Stael: her daddy was finance minister for Louis XVI of France

DE STAEL:

Man’s most valuable faculty is his imagination. Human life seems so little designed for happiness that we need the help of a few creations, a few images, a lucky choice of memories to muster some sparse pleasure on this earth and struggle against the pain of all our destinies—not by philosophical force, but by the more efficient force of distraction. The dangers of imagination have been discussed a good deal, but there is no point in looking up what impotent mediocrity and strict reason have said on this topic over and over again. The human race is not about to give up being stimulated, and anyone who has the gift of appealing to people’s emotions is even less likely to give up the success promised by such talent. The number of necessary and evident truths is limited; it will never be enough for the human mind or heart. The highest honor may well go to those who discover such truths, but the authors of books producing sweet emotions or illusions have also done useful work for humanity. Metaphysical precision cannot be applied to man’s affections and remain compatible with his nature. Beginnings are all we have on this earth—there is no limit. Virtue is actual and real, but happiness floats in space; anyone who tries to examine happiness inappropriately will destroy it, as we dissolve the brilliant images of the mist if we walk straight through them. And yet the advantage of fictions is not the pleasure they bring. If fictions please nothing but the eye, they do nothing but amuse; but if they touch our hearts, they can have a great influence on all our moral ideas. This talent may be the most powerful way there is of controlling behavior and enlightening the mind. Man has only two distinct faculties: reason and imagination. All the others, even feeling, are simply results or combinations of these two. The realm of fiction, like that of imagination, is therefore vast. Fictions do not find obstacles in passions: they make use of them. Philosophy may be the invisible power in control of fictions, but if she is the first to show herself, she will destroy all their magic.

The morality of history only exists in bulk. History gives constant results by means of the recurrence of a certain number of chances: it’s lessons apply to nations, not individuals. Its examples always fit nations, because if one considers them in a general way they are invariable;  but it never explains the exceptions. These exceptions can seduce each man as an individual; the exceptional circumstances consecrated by history leave vast empty spaces into which the miseries and wrongs that make up most private destinies could easily fall. On the other hand,  novels can paint characters and feelings with such force and detail that they make more of an impression of hatred for vice and love for virtue than any other kind of reading.

Memoirs? If most men had the wit and good faith to give a truthful, clear account of what they had experienced in the course of their lives, novels would be useless—but even these sincere narratives would not have all the advantages of novels. We would still have to add a kind of dramatic effect to the truth; not deforming it, but condensing it to set it off. This is the art of the painter: far from distorting objects, it represents them in a way that makes them more immediately apprehended. Nature sometimes shows us things all on the same level, eliminating any contrasts; if we copy her too slavishly we become incapable of portraying her. The most truthful account is always an imitative truth: as a tableau, it demands a harmony of its own. However remarkable a true story may be for its nuances, feelings, and characters, it cannot interest us without the talent necessary for the composition of fiction.

PEACOCK:

Poetry, like the world, may be said to have four ages, but in a different order; the first age of poetry being the age of iron; the second, of gold; the third, of silver; and the fourth, of brass.

The first, or Iron Age of poetry, is that in which rude bards celebrate in rough numbers the exploits of ruder chiefs, in days when every man is a warrior, and when the great practical maximum of every form of society, “to keep what we have and to catch what we can,” is not yet disguised under names of justice and forms of law. The successful warrior becomes a chief; the successful chief becomes a king; his next want is an organ to disseminate the fame of his achievements and the extent of his possessions; and this organ he finds in a bard, who is always ready to celebrate the strength of his arm, being first duly inspired by that of his liquor. This is the origin of poetry, which, like all other trades, takes its rise in the demand for the commodity, and flourishes in proportion to the extent of the market. Poetry is thus in its origin panegyrical. This is the first stage of poetry before the invention of written letters. The numerical modulation is at once useful as a help to memory, and pleasant to the ears of uncultured men, who are easily caught by sound: and from the exceeding flexibility of the yet unformed language, the poet does no violence to his ideas in subjecting them to the fetters of number. The savage lisps in numbers, and all rude and uncivilized people express themselves in the manner which we call poetical.

The golden age of poetry finds its materials in the age of iron. This age begins when poetry begins to be retrospective; when something like a more extended system of civil polity is established; when personal strength and courage avail less and men live more in the light of truth and within the interchange of observation. This is the age of Homer.

Then comes the silver age, or the poetry of civilized life. This poetry is of two kinds, imitative and original. The imitative consists in recasting, and giving an exquisite polish to, the poetry of the age of gold: of this Virgil is the most obvious and striking example. The original is chiefly comic, didactic, or satiric: as in Menander, Aristophanes, Horace, and Juvenal. Experience having exhausted all the varieties of modulation, the civilized poetry selects the most beautiful, and prefers the repetition of these to ranging through the variety of all. But the best expression being that into which the idea naturally falls, it requires the utmost labor and care so to reconcile the inflexibility of civilized language and the labored polish of versification with the idea intended to be expressed, that sense may not appear to be sacrificed to sound. Hence numerous efforts and rare success.

This state of poetry is however a step towards its extinction. Feeling and passion are best painted in, and roused by, ornamental and figurative language; but the reason and the understanding are best addressed in the simplest and most unvarnished phrase. Pure reason and dispassionate truth would be perfectly ridiculous in verse, as we may judge by versifying one of Euclid’s demonstrations. This will be found true of all dispassionate reasoning whatever and all reasoning that requires comprehensive views and enlarged combinations. It is only the more tangible points of morality, those which command assent at once, those which have a mirror in every mind, and in which the severity of reason is warmed and rendered palatable by being mixed up with feeling and imagination, that are applicable even to what is called moral poetry: and as the sciences of morals and of mind advance towards perfection, as they become more enlarged and comprehensive in their views, as reason gains the ascendancy in them over imagination and feeling, poetry can no longer accompany them in their progress, but drops into the background and leaves them to advance alone.

Thus the empire of thought is withdrawn from poetry, as the empire of facts had been before.

It is now evident that poetry must either cease to be cultivated, or strike into a new path. The poets of the age of gold have been imitated and repeated till no new imitation will attract notice: the limited range of ethical and didactic poetry is exhausted: the associations of daily life in an advanced state of society are of very dry, methodical, unpoetical matters of fact: but there is always a multitude of listless idlers, yawning for amusement, and gaping for novelty: and the poet makes it his glory to be foremost among their purveyors.

Then comes the age of brass, which, by rejecting the polish and the learning of the age of silver, and taking a retrograde stride to the barbarisms and crude traditions of the age of iron, professes to return to nature and revive the age of gold. This is the second childhood of poetry.

Thomas Peacock’s “The Four Ages of Poetry” is neglected, known by a few as the work which inspired his friend Shelley’s much better known “Defense;” its glory has eclipsed Peacock, for where is Peacock’s poetry? Poets know Shelley, even though none write like him today; ironically, Shelley belongs to ‘another age,’ we think, and we are thinking exactly like Peacock—who no one reads. Poets should come to terms with those, like Plato, who doubt poetry, but they do not not. They prefer flattery in every case. Peacock, using history in remarkably modern ways, lays waste to poetry almost as effectively as Plato himself; perhaps more so: Peacock uses facts of Time and Manners and Science against the Muse; by comparison, Socrates merely speculated on Method and Morals—overturned to every poet’s satisfaction by Aristotle, Sidney, Shelley, etc.

We may laugh at Peacock’s confidence when he writes, ” as the science of morals and of mind advance towards perfection,” knowing what befell “morals” in the 20th century, so much that we can ignore his entire thesis—but no so fast. Morals still exist, as do Peacock’s ages of poetry; does Hitler disprove Peacock? Modernism might think so, but this would actually involve making all sorts of assumptions within a very small window of history. Peacock makes an excellent, sweeping case for large, pertinent dilemmas facing poetry right now.

De Stael is the common sense alternative to Peacock’s theoretical history. We will always need “fictions,” she says, and no apology is needed, or if it is, let us keep it out of sight in order to be properly “stimulated.” Hers is the bedtime story we need, as we otherwise drift into chaotic nightmare, the science of Peacock hopefully greeting us when we wake.

Unlike so many literary philosophers, De Stael writes clearly and accessibly, and we love this: “Beginnings are all we have on this earth—there is no limit.”

This is a tough one to call. De Stael is good enough to upset Peacock, but his work is a little more necessary.  This has to disappoint women, and it disappoints us, to say goodbye to Madame de Stael.

WINNER: PEACOCK

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