Baudelaire versus Saussure

Baudelaire learned from Poe that melancholy is the most beautiful in art, but for everyone but the genius melancholy begins to hurt too much, and turns to pain, and the beautiful is lost and replaced with envy and despair. Poe was sober, chaste and truly loved the beautiful.  Not Baudelaire.  Baudelaire is the vermin song in the spot where Poe the angel was. In Baudelaire’s shadow we sink further from the master. In Baudelaire’s famous poem, “Au Lecteur,” Ennui, or Boredom, presides over the other devils. If Baudelaire had been honest, he would have written somewhere in Fleur du Mal of his own envy which gnawed at him (the real king of his demons) and ushered in Modernism—which envies the Classical.

Ferdinand Saussure was born in 1857, the year Fleur du Mal first appeared in Paris bookshops. Just as Romanticism was born in the 18th century—not the 19th, as traditionally taught, Modernism was born in the 19th century—but what we find interesting is that language-obsessed post-Modernism which owes so much to Saussure arrived later in the 20th century only because Saussure’s ideas were transmitted tardily.

Materially, the various eras follow each other in perfect order: cotton gin, camera, automobile, etc.

But in terms of art and ideas, eras exist in no order at all-–scholars simply assume that people ‘thought this way’ or ‘thought about these kinds of things’ during this or that era; the divisions are made based on convenience, or ideology; all is slippery and evasive—and because ideas are more important than things or technology, the truth, we can be sure, is lost.

Saussure made the incredible claim that all knowledge, all thought, all ideas, don’t exist until they are put into language.

He then posited that language is arbitrary and has no positive definition; it is a field of negatives: this is not this, etc.

Here is the dangerous Post-Modernism idea generated by Saussure: there is nothing real behind language.  Further, whatever we do, or speak, exists from a blind allegiance to social convention: we are hopelessly trapped in group-think from one end of our minds to the other. We may smile, we may shout, we can attempt to authenticate expression in any number of performances imbued with the highest feeling: no matter.  We are only robots exhibiting group behavior.

However: Can I not walk down the street and see someone walking towards me, observing how they grow increasingly larger as they approach?   I do not need language to note this principle.

Saussure is wrong. There is a world of thought which does not need a language to exist.  Saussure does not deny pre-linguistic thought; he only says it is a confused jumble.  But what is confused about perspective?

It is certainly more difficult to think without language; but is it thinking we are doing with language?—perhaps all the thought worthy of the name is precisely that which comes into existence before we try it out in mere words.

What does it mean for us if the Saussurean principle is rife with error?


Benjamin versus Freud

Freud was an old man when the Nazis came to power, escaping to London at the end of a distinguished life; Benjamin was middle-aged and a failed professor when the Nazis took over, killed trying to escape. Freud read Shakespeare in English. Benjamin translated Baudelaire into German.  Freud, intellectually free, grounded by studies of insanity and the science of human pathology, influenced by great masters, such as Schiller, willing to seek all paths and byways, changed sex into religion. Freud’s involvement with hypnosis, free association, transference, will make him forever significant from a literary standpoint. It could almost be said that Freud took literature and turned it into science.  Not literature-as-scientific-study. Science formed by literature.  Freud changed the world. Benjamin was crushed by it.


Pater versus Wilde

Pater narrowed Letters in a vague manner. Wilde expanded Letters in gem-like, aphoristic glee.


Ransom versus Eliot

This is an interesting match, since Ransom represents the American, and  Eliot, the European strain of conservative High Modernism.  Both men were born in 1888, Ransom in the spring, Eliot in the fall.

T.S. Eliot, which Scarriet never tires of pointing out, since it is highly significant and no one else ever points it out, traces his literary heritage back to Emerson through his distinguished grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, and grand uncle, Christopher P. Cranch, Dial poet, both friendly with Emerson—who made important pilgrimages to England: setting the groundwork for Eliot’s Anglo-American snobbery and Eliot’s hatred of the patriotic Irish-American, and enemy of Emerson, Edgar Poe. (Ransom’s New Critics, though Southern, disliked Poe, too.)

Modernism was the sickly, over-intellectual, internationalist reaction to American idealism—embodied by a writer like a Poe, who worshiped all sorts of ideals: Beauty, Country, Woman, Romance, Love, Verse etc, simple ideals easily mocked, distorted, and mangled by the morbid, cutting, intellectualizing of characters such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. 

Modernism wasn’t progress; it was rudeness elevated to art: a vast generalization, perhaps, but with a grain of truth, which we assert for that important grain. Rudeness is as old as the hills—there’s nothing ‘modern’ about it; but since Eliot and Pound are ‘of’ our time, we assume they are more ‘modern’ than Poe, or that Poe’s idealism must belong to the past.

John Crowe Ransom, Southern Agrarian and New Critic, was clever, wrong-headed, Modernist, and superficially conservative like Eliot, and worked with Paul Engle, Robert Lowell, and Robie Macauley (Iowa Writers Workshop, CIA, Playboy fiction editor) to get the Program Era rolling. Eliot went to Europe and moped over England’s loss of influence, etc. During the 30s, Eliot made his speech against the Jews, Ransom published the reactionary “I’ll Take My Stand.” But for the most part, these were highly intelligent men. Ransom enjoyed himself more, was more well-rounded, and actually got more done. Both Eliot and Ransom slammed the Romantics; Eliot, a kind of craven prude, attacked Shelley personally; Ransom dismissed Byron as old-fashioned. They were of their time and rode the time as Modernist scolds with a mandarin, reactionary fervor.  Loony Post-Modernism makes Eliot and Ransom seem sensible by comparison; however as brilliant as they were, they were not.



Barthes: the tenacious theoreticalism of the French is always good for a little hilarity


Physics is an organized body of knowledge about nature, and a student of it says that he is learning physics, not that he is learning nature.

Art, like nature, is the subject of a systematic study, and has to be distinguished from the study itself, which is criticism. It is therefore impossible to “learn literature:” one learns about it in a certain way, but what one learns, transitively, is the criticism of literature.

Similarly, the difficulty often felt in “teaching literature” arises from the fact that it cannot be done: the criticism of literature is all that can be directly taught.

So while no one expects literature itself to behave like a science, there is surely no reason why criticism, as a systematic and organized study, should not be, at least partly, a science.

Certainly criticism as we find it in learned journals has every characteristic of a science. Evidence is examined scientifically; previous authorities are used scientifically; fields are investigated scientifically; texts are edited scientifically. Prosody is scientific in structure; so is phonetics; so is philology.

And yet in studying this kind of critical science the student becomes aware of a centrifugal movement carrying him away from literature. He finds that literature is the central division of the “humanities,” flanked on one side by history and on the other by philosophy.

Criticism so far ranks only as a subdivision of literature; and hence, for the systematic mental organization of the subject, the student has to turn to the conceptual framework of the historian for events, and to that of the philosopher for ideas.

The literary chit-chat which makes the reputations of poets boom and crash in an imaginary stock exchange is pseudo-criticism. That wealthy investor, Mr. Eliot, after dumping Milton on the market, is now buying him again; Donne has probably reached his peak and will begin to taper off; Tennyson may be in for a slight flutter but the Shelley stocks are still bearish.

This sort of thing cannot be part of a systematic study. The texture of any great work is complex and ambiguous, and in unravelling the complexities we may take in as much history and philosophy as we please, if the subject of our study remains at the center.

The only weakness in this approach is that it is conceived primarily as the antithesis of centrifugal or “background” criticism. Antitheses are usually resolved, not by picking one side and refuting the other, but by trying to get past the antithetical way of stating the problem.

I suggest that what is at present missing from literary criticism is a co-ordinating principle, a central hypothesis which, like the theory of evolution in biology, will see the phenomenon it deals with as parts of a whole.

We speak of the rhythm of music and the pattern of painting; but later, to show off our sophistication, we may begin to speak of the rhythm of painting and the pattern of music.

Rhythm, or recurrent movement, is deeply founded on the natural cycle, and everything in nature that we think of as having some analogy with works of art, like the flower or the bird’s song, grows out of a profound synchronization between an organism and the rhythms of its environment, especially that of the solar year. With animals some expressions of synchronization, like the mating dances of birds, could almost be called rituals. But in human life a ritual seems to be something of a voluntary effort (hence the magical element in it) to recapture  a lost rapport with the natural cycle.

Patterns of imagery, on the other hand, or fragments of significance, are oracular in origin, and derive from the epiphanic moment, the flash of instantaneous comprehension with no direct reference to time, the importance of which is indicated by Cassirer in Myth and Language.

The myth is the central informing power that gives archetypal significance to the ritual and archetypal narrative to the oracle.


In France, Mallarme was doubtless the first to see and to foresee in its full extent the necessity to substitute language itself for the person who until then had been supposed to be its owner. For him, for us, too, it is language which speaks, not the author; to write is, through a prerequisite impersonality (not at all the to be confused with the castrating objectivity of the realist novelist), to reach that point where only language acts, ‘performs,’ and not ‘me.’ Mallarme’s entire poetics consists in suppressing the author in the interests of writing (which is, as will be seen, to restore the place of the reader). Valery, encumbered by a psychology of the Ego, considerably diluted Mallarme’s theory but, his taste for classicism leading him to turn to the lessons of rhetoric, he never stopped calling into question and deriding the Author; he stressed the linguistic and, as it were, ‘hazardous’ nature of his activity, and throughout his prose-works he militated in favor of the essentially verbal condition of literature, in the face of which all recourse to the writer’s interiority seemed to him pure superstition.

Proust himself, despite the apparently psychological character of what are called his analyses, was visibly concerned with the task of inexorably blurring, by an extreme subtilization, the relation between the writer and his characters; by making of the narrator not he who has seen and felt nor even he who is writing, but he who is going to write (the young man in the novel—but, in fact, how old is he and who is he?—wants to write but cannot; the novel ends when writing at last becomes possible), Proust gave modern writing its epic.

I can delight in reading and re-reading Proust, Flaubert, Balzac, even—why not?—Alexandre Dumas. But this pleasure, no matter how keen and even when free from all prejudice, remains in part (unless by some exceptional critical effort) a pleasure of consumption; for if I can read these authors, I also know that I cannot re-write them (that it is impossible today to write ‘like that’) and this knowledge, depressing enough, suffices to cut me off from the production of these works, in the very moment their remoteness establishes my modernity (is not to be modern to know clearly what cannot be started over again?).

Is Frye correct when he says literature cannot be taught, only the criticism of literature can be taught?  We think he is right. What does this mean for Creative Writing?  Is this why Creative Writing has replaced the English major? Critical theory bores people, but criticism of your work and your peers’ work will always fascinate?

Barthes, the “Death of the Author” critic, belongs to the text-mad tradition, and was this the real goal, after all? when he says,  “Mallarme’s entire poetics consists in suppressing the author in the interests of writing (which is, as will be seen, to restore the place of the reader).” The reader?

What shall we do with the reader?

In Creative Writing, the reader and the writer become one, and the question is finally, does this hurt them both?

In Theory, the reader becomes a mole, burrowing into the text, as if to hide from the world.

The readers of popular works don’t count at all, of course.

Barthes is actually rather enjoyable to read, and we like his definition of Modern: to know that we cannot start over.

Frye attempts to bring readers back into the sunshine of a unified reality, but that’s perhaps the problem; in his unified myth, he simply bites off more than he can chew.  But we admire the attempt.






Philip Sidney: loved Christ, poetry and Plato


They say that poetry is absolutely of no account , and the making of poetry a useless and absurd craft; that poets are tale-mongers, or, in lower terms, liars; that they live in the country among the woods and mountains because they lack manners and polish. They say, besides, that their poems are false, obscure, lewd, and replete with absurd and silly tales of pagan gods, and that they make Jove, who was in point of fact, an obscene and adulterous man, now the father of the gods, now king of heaven, now fire, or air, or man, or bull, or eagle, or similar irrelevant things. They cry out that poets are seducers of the mind, prompters of crime, and, to make their foul charge fouler, if possible, they say they are philosophers’ apes, that it is a heinous crime to read or possess the books of poets; and then, without making any distinction, they prop themselves up with Plato’s authority to the effect that poets ought to be turned out-of-doors.

Poetry proceeds from the bosom of God, and few, I find, are the souls in whom this gift is born; so wonderful a gift it is that true poets have always been the rarest of men. This fervor of poetry is sublime in its effects: it impels the soul to a longing for utterance; it brings forth strange and unheard-of creations of the mind; it arranges these meditations in a fixed order, adores the whole composition with unusual interweaving of words and thoughts; and thus it veils truth in a fair and fitting garment of fiction. Further, if in any case the invention so requires, it can arm kings, marshal them for war, launch whole fleets from their docks, nay, counterfeit sky, land, sea, adorn young maidens with flowery gardens, portray human character in its various phases, awake the idle, stimulate the dull, restrain the rash, subdue the criminal, and distinguish excellent men with their proper meed of praise: these, and many other such, are the effects of poetry. Yet if any man who who has received the gift of poetic fervor shall imperfectly fulfill its function here described, he is not, in my opinion, a laudable poet. For, however deeply the poetic impulse stirs the mind to which it is granted, it very rarely accomplishes anything commendable if the instruments by which its concepts are to be wrought out are wanting—I mean, for example, the precepts of grammar and rhetoric.




Now for the poet, he doesn’t affirm, and therefore never lies.

The poet never makes any circles about your imagination to conjure you to believe for true what he writes. He cites not authorities of other histories, but even for his entry calls the sweet Muses to inspire into him a good invention; in truth, not laboring to tell you what is or is not, but what should or should not be.

Shall the abuse of a thing make the right use odious? Poetry may not only be abused, but that being abused, by the reason of its sweet charming force it can do more hurt than any other army of words, yet shall it be so far from concluding that the abuse should give reproach to the abused.

Now Plato his name is laid upon me, whom I must confess, of all the philosophers I have ever esteemed most worthy of reverence, and with great reason, since of all philosophers he is the most poetical. Yet if he will defile the fountain out of which his flowing streams have proceeded, let us boldly examine with what reasons he did it. First, truly a man might maliciously object that Plato, being a philosopher, was a natural enemy of poets: for indeed, after the philosopher had picked out of the sweet mysteries of poetry the right discerning true points of knowledge, they forthwith putting it in method, and making a school-art of that which the poets did only teach by a divine delightfulness, beginning to spurn at their guides like ungrateful apprentices, were not content to set up shops for themselves but sought by all means to discredit their masters; which, by the force of delight being barred them, the less they could overthrow them, the more they hated them.

Plato hated the abuse, not the poetry. Plato found fault that the poets of his time filled the world with wrong opinions of the gods, making light tales of that unspotted essence, and therefore would not have the youth depraved with such opinions. The poets did not induce such opinions, but did imitate those opinions already induced. For all the Greek stories can well testify that the very religion of that time stood upon many and many-fashioned gods, not taught so by the poets, but followed according to their nature of imitation. One may read in Plutarch the discourses of Isis and Osiris, of the cause why oracles ceased, of the divine providence, and see whether the theology of that nation stood not upon such dreams, which the poets indeed superstitiously observed, and truly (since they had not the light of Christ) did much better in it than the philosophers, who shaking off superstition, brought in atheism. Plato therefore (whose authority I had much rather justly construe than unjustly resist) meant not in general of poets to misuse, but only meant to drive out those wrong opinions of the Deity (whereof now, without further law, Christianity hath taken away all the hurtful belief), perchance (as he thought) nourished by the then esteemed poets. And a man need go no further than to Plato himself to know his meaning: who, in his dialogue called Ion, gives high and rightly divine commendation to poetry. So as Plato, banishing the abuse, not the thing, not banishing it, but giving due honor unto it, shall be our patron and not our adversary.


We love how Sidney understands that “Plato hated the abuse, not the poetry.”  Sidney is more subtle than Boccaccio, handling the same theme: poets are bad/good. If only poetry had a monopoly on “lewd;” it would be more popular: Boccaccio is right of course, as is Sidney, poetry can be naughty or nice; it isn’t poetry that is ever the problem—the question is, who is using it and what are they using it for? Today we don’t ask this question: we merely whine that no one reads it—without defining what it is.






It is never possible to be sure that a dream has been completely interpreted.

Dreams reproduce logical connection by simultaneity in time. Here they are acting like the painter who, in a picture of the School of Athens or of Parnassus, represents in one group all the philosophers or all the poets. It is true that they never were in fact assembled in a single hall or on a single mountain-top; but they certainly form a group in the conceptual sense.

Every attempt that has hitherto been made to solve the problem of dreams has dealt directly with their manifest content. We are alone in taking something else into account: their latent content.

Oedipus Rex is what is known as a tragedy of  destiny. Its tragic effect is said to lie in the contrast between the supreme will of the gods and the vain attempts of mankind to escape the evil that threatens them. The lesson which, it is said, the deeply moved spectator should learn from the tragedy is submission to the divine will and realization of his own impotence.

It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first murderous wish against our father.

There is an unmistakable indication in the text of Sophocles’ tragedy itself that the legend of Oedipus sprang from some primeval dream-material which had as its content the distressing disturbance of a child’s relation to his parents owing to the first stirrings of sexuality.

Hamlet is able to do anything—except take vengeance on the man who did away with his father and took that father’s place with his mother, the man who shows him the repressed wishes of his own childhood realized. Thus the loathing which should drive him on to revenge is replaced in him by self-reproaches, by scruples of conscience, which remind him that he himself is literally no better than the sinner whom he is to punish. Here I have translated into conscious terms what was bound to remain unconscious in Hamlet’s mind; and if anyone is inclined to call him a hysteric, I can only accept the fact as one that is implied by my interpretation. The distaste for sexuality expressed by Hamlet in his conversation with Ophelia fits in very well with this: the same distaste which was destined to take possession of the poet’s mind more and more during the years that followed, and which reached its extreme expression in Timon of Athens. For it can of course only be the poet’s own mind which confronts us in Hamlet.



The poet can find material for his art only in his social environment and transmits the new impulses of life through his own artistic consciousness. Language, changed and complicated by urban conditions, gives the poet a new verbal material, and suggests or facilitates new word combinations for the poetic formulation of new thoughts or of new feelings, which strive to break through the dark shell of the subconscious. If there were no changes in psychology produced by changes in the social environment, there would be no movement in art; people would continue from generation to generation to be content with the poetry of the Bible, or of the old Greeks.

The only theory which has opposed Marxism in Soviet Russia these years is the Formalist theory of Art. The paradox consists in the fact that Russian Formalism connected itself closely with Russian Futurism, and that while the latter was capitulating politically before Communism, Formalism opposed Marxism with all its might theoretically.

The Formalists are not content to ascribe to their methods a merely subsidiary, serviceable and technical significance—similar to that which statistics has for social science, or the microscope for the biological sciences. No, they go much further. To them verbal art ends finally and fully with the word, and depictive art with color.

The quarrels about “pure art” do not become us. Materialistic dialectics are above this; from the point of view of an objective historical process, art is always a social servant and historically utilitarian, and quite independently of whether it appears in a given case under the flag of a “pure” or of a frankly tendentious art.


Freudian psychology used to be everywhere—it became a religion for 20th century intellectuals, and it still reverberates.  Freud conquered Christianity, manners, sex, art, pillow talk, literary criticism, and although the bomb went off several generations ago and the sound of its explosion has passed, its effects are still here; the ideas no longer need to be argued, they are in us.  But are they true?  Are they good?

Psychology occupies a privileged position between philosophy and poetry—with the withering away of both, Psychology has grown into a colossus.  Undergraduates study it, corporations manage people with it, and millions of people try and figure out themselves and others with it. Freud starts fires; Freudian psychology is a Dionysian force against religion, art, statesmanship and work, which orders and pacifies people.

Just look at what Freud does to not only Hamlet, the play, but to Shakespeare himself, just from the brief excerpt above:

Freud is certain that Hamlet, Shakespeare’s character, delays killing his uncle because Hamlet naturally feels he is a sinner in the same way: Hamlet, like all of us, wants to kill his father and sleep with his mother; not only this, Hamlet’s “distaste for sexuality” is quickly held aloft by Freud as a pathology, and then just as quickly ascribed to Shakespeare, the author.

Was the New Criticism, and other sorts of complex literary commentary, merely a fire wall against this sort of fiery Freudian Criticism?  We sometimes forget how very influential Freud was. One thinks of Princess Marie Bonaparte, a member of Freud’s inner circle, and her 700 page ‘psycho-biography’ of Poe (1933), which helped to cloud, mitigate, distort, and even destroy, the literary reputation of that famous author.

Trotsky reminds us that Futurism fit in with Soviet art, but “purist” Formalism did not, even though the two went hand in hand in the Modernist upsurge. Trotsky, writing for “the state,” can’t abide “purist” art, which is not a big surprise.







Schleiermacher: Common sense alternative to the New Critics and other text-obsessed thinkers.


As every discourse has a two-part reference, to the whole language and to the entire thought of its creator, so all understanding of speech consists of two elements—understanding the speech as it derives from the language and as it derives from the mind of the thinker.

Every discourse depends on earlier thought.

It follows that every person is on one hand a locus in which a given language is formed after an individual fashion and, on the other, a speaker who is only able to be understood within the totality of the language.

Grammatical and Psychological are completely equal: the psychological is the superior only if one views language as the means by which the individual communicates his thoughts; the grammatical is then merely a cleaning away of temporary difficulties. The grammatical is the superior if one views language as stipulating the thinking of all individuals and the individual’s discourse only as a locus at which the language manifests itself.

Only by means of such a reciprocity could one find both to be completely similar.

Exposition is an art. Every part stands by itself. Every composition is a finite certainty out of the infinite uncertainty. Language is an infinite because every element can be determined in a specific manner only through the other elements.  And this is also true for the psychological part because every perspective of an individual is infinite; and the outside influences on people extend into the disappearing horizon. A composition composed of such elements cannot be defined by rules, which carry with them the security of  their applications.

Should the grammatical part be considered by itself, one would need in some cases a complete knowledge of the language, or, in others, a complete knowledge of the person. As neither can ever be complete, one must go from one to the other, and it is not possible to give any rules as to how this should be done.

The text is not always the focus of attention. Otherwise the art would only become necessary through the difference between text and discourse; that is to say, by the absence of the living voice and by the inaccessibility of other personal influences.




The office of philosophical disquisition consists in just distinction; while it is the privilege of the philosopher to preserve himself constantly aware, that distinction is not division. In order to obtain adequate notions of any truth, we must intellectually separate its distinguishable parts; and this is the technical process of philosophy. But having so done, we must then restore them in our conceptions  to the unity, in which they actually co-exist; and this is the result of philosophy. A poem contains the same elements as a prose composition; the difference therefore must consist in a different combination of them, in consequence of a different object proposed. According to the difference of the object will be the difference of the combination. It is possible, that the object may be merely to facilitate the recollection of any given facts or observations by artificial arrangement; and the composition will be a poem, merely because it is distinguished from prose by meter, or by rhyme, or by both conjointly. In this, the lowest sense, a man might attribute the name of a poem to the well known  enumeration of the days in the several months: “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November, etc.” and others of the same class and purpose. And as a particular pleasure is found in anticipating the recurrence of sounds and quantities, all compositions that have this charm superadded, whatever be their contents, may be entitled poems.

So much for the superficial form. A difference of object and contents supplies an additional ground of distinction. The immediate purpose may be the communication of truths; either of truth absolute and demonstrable, as in works of science; or of facts experienced and recorded, as in history. Pleasure, and that of the highest and most permanent kind, may result from the attainment of the end; but it is not itself the immediate end. In other works the communication of pleasure may be the immediate purpose; and though truth, either moral or intellectual, ought to be the ultimate end, yet this will distinguish the character of the author, not the class  to which the work belongs. Blest indeed is that state of society, in which the immediate purpose would be baffled by the perversion of the proper ultimate end; in which no charm of diction or imagery could exempt the Bathyllus even of an Anacreon, or the Alexis of Virgil, from disgust and aversion!

But the communication of pleasure may be the immediate object of a work not metrically composed; and that object may have been in a high degree attained, as in novels and romances. Would then the mere superaddition of meter, with or without rhyme, entitle these to the name of poems? The answer is, that nothing can permanently please, which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise. If meter be superadded, all other parts must be consonant with it. They must be such, as to justify the perpetual and distinct attention to each part, which an exact correspondent recurrence of accent and sound are calculated to excite. The final definition then, so deduced, may be thus worded. A poem is that species of composition, which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species (having this object in common with it) it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.


Do you know why art and poetry used to be really beautiful?  Because of thinkers like the two above.  To put it as simply as possible, they understood parts, and how parts relate to the whole.

Schleiermacher (b. 1768) makes a useful distinction between two vital aspects of writing: Psychological and Grammatical. Philosophers tend to get bogged down in one or the other; they become obsessed with text, and forget the “living voice,” or they become excited by various insights of their own (think of typical modernist extravagances: Gertrude Stein, John Cage, Charles Olson, etc) which don’t translate into speech that is scientifically sound (we don’t usually think of grammar as scientific, but it is).

Coleridge offers wisdom to both sides of the verse/free verse/what is poetry? debate: poetry is not an empty shell of metrics, but neither is it truth-telling prose—the end of poetry involves three things: pleasure, unity, and the compatibility of each part with its unity in the communication of that pleasure. One can see how metrics may very much be involved in this end—or not. One can also see how the pretentious poetaster of prosey ‘truths’ will not get much of a hearing.  Poetry is difficult to define; Coleridge may have come closest.




Fanon: Saw 9/11 coming in the 1950s


Philosophers have assumed utterances report facts or describe situations truly or falsely. In recent times this kind of approach has been questioned—in two stages.

If things are true or false it ought to be possible to decide which they are, and if we can’t decide which they are, they aren’t any good but are, in short, nonsense.

Secondly: people began to ask whether statements dismissed as nonsense were really statements after all. Mightn’t they perhaps be intended not to report facts but to influence people in this way or that, or to let off steam in this way or that? Or perhaps these utterances drew attention in some way (without actually reporting it) to some important feature of the circumstances in which the utterance was being made? On these lines people have now adopted a new slogan, the slogan of the ‘different uses of language.’ The old approach, the old statemental approach, is sometimes called even a fallacy, the descriptive fallacy.

I want to discuss a kind of utterance which looks like a statement and grammatically, I suppose, would be classed as a statement, which is not nonsensical, and yet is not true or false. These are not going to be utterances which contain curious verbs like ‘could’ or ‘might,’ or curious words like ‘good,’ which many philosophers regard nowadays as danger signals. They will be perfectly straightforward utterances, with ordinary verbs in the first person singular present indicative active, and yet we shall see at once that they couldn’t possibly be true or false. Furthermore, if a person makes an utterance of this sort we should say that he is doing something rather than merely saying something.

When I say ‘I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth’ I do not describe the christening ceremony, I actually perform the christening.

If I say ‘I congratulate you’ when I’m not pleased or when I don’t believe the credit was yours, then there is insincerity.

If I say something like ‘I shall be there,’ it may not be certain whether it is a promise, or an expression of intention, or perhaps even a forecast of my future behavior, of what is going to happen to me; and it may matter a good deal, at least in developed societies, precisely  which of these things it is.

By means of these explicit performative verbs and some other devices we make explicit what precise act it is that we are performing when we issue our utterance. But here I would like to put in a word of warning. We must distinguish between the functions of making explicit what act it is we are performing, and the quite different matter of stating what act it is we are performing.

Consider the case, however, of the umpire when he says ‘Out.’ Performing has some connection with the facts.

Statements, we had it, were to be true or false; performative utterances on the other hand were to be felicitous or infelicitous. They were doing something, whereas for all we said  making statements was not doing something. Now this contrast surely, if we look back at it, is unsatisfactory.

Ills that have been found to afflict statements can be precisely paralleled with ills that are characteristic of performative utterances. And after all when we state something or describe something or report something, we do perform an act which is every bit as much an act as act of ordering or warning.



The national middle class which takes over power at the end of the colonial regime is an underdeveloped middle class. It has practically no economic power, and in any case it is in no way commensurate with the bourgeoisie of the mother country which it hopes to replace.


Colonialism pulls every string shamelessly, and it is only too content to set at loggerheads those Africans who only yesterday were leagued against the settlers. The idea of  the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572 massacre of Protestants in Paris) takes shape in certain minds , and the advocates of colonialism laugh to themselves derisively when they hear magnificent declarations about African unity. Inside a single nation, religion splits up the people into different spiritual communities, all of them kept up and stiffened by colonialism and its instruments. Totally unexpected events break out here and there. In regions where Catholicism or Protestantism predominates, we see the Moslem minorities flinging themselves with unaccustomed ardor into their devotions. The Islamic feast-days are revived, and the Moslem religion defends itself inch by inch against the violent absolutism of the Catholic faith. Sometimes American Protestantism transplants its anti-Catholic prejudices into African soil, and keeps up tribal rivalries through religion.


Austin is not well-known, which is a pity, for this brainy, nerdy, Harvard/Oxford/military intelligence 1940s-1950s professor is very easy to understand and articulates the crucial idea about language which goes to the heart of every philosophical debate from Nietzsche to Wittgenstein to Derrida; linguistic theory, poetry, science and religion cannot be understood without understanding what Austin is talking about in the brief excerpts above: All language is performance. This is Austin’s conclusion. Language doesn’t lie or tell the truth—it does things, and it does things whether or not it lies or tells the truth. Language poetry comes out of this whole notion that language is performance.  But in a misguided manner, since language poetry is so awful, and since the poets have always understood that poetry is precisely that which is neither true nor false, and yet is not nonsense—due to both its pleasurable effect and its grammatical epistemology.

Fanon confines himself to the facts of colonialism—a completely different topic one would think, but not really: “Moslem minorities flinging themselves with unaccustomed ardor into their devotions” is a prophecy of 9/11 made in the 1950s. Religion—the realm where language is performance—dominates politics, or, it might be said, is politics, and always will be. Liberalism has unconsciously known this, and its victories in the university and in Washington—uneasy, dumbing-down, ravenous sorts of victories, threatening to collapse all that Liberalism ostensibly stands for—are due precisely to this knowledge. If science and democracy often seem irrational, this is why.





Hey. It’s Wollstonecraft. Don’t mess with her. 




Milton describes our first frail mother, though when he tells us that women are formed for softness and sweet attractive grace, I cannot comprehend his meaning, unless, in the true Mahometan strain, he meant to deprive us of souls.

Soldiers, as well as women, practice the minor virtues with punctilious politeness. The great misfortune is they both acquire manners before morals, and a knowledge of life before they have, from reflection, any acquaintance with the grand ideal outline of human nature. Officers are particularly attentive to their persons, fond of dancing, crowded rooms, adventures, and ridicule. Like the fair sex, the business of their lives is gallantry—they were taught to please, and they only live to please. Yet they do not lose their rank in the distinction of sexes, for they are still reckoned superior to women, though in what their superiority consists it is difficult to discover.

Let it not be concluded that I wish to invert the order of things; from the constitution of their bodies, men seem to be designed by Providence to attain a greater degree of virtue. I speak collectively of the whole sex; but I see not the shadow of a reason to conclude that their virtues should differ in respect to their nature. In fact, how can they, if virtue has only one eternal standard? I must therefore, if I reason consequentially, as strenuously maintain that they have the same simple direction, as that there is a God.

It follows then that cunning should not be opposed to wisdom, little cares to greater exertions, or inspired softness, varnished over with the name of gentleness, to that fortitude which grand views alone can inspire.




The poems of Homer and his contemporaries were the delight of infant Greece; they were the elements of that social system which is the column upon which all succeeding civilization has reposed. Homer embodied the ideal perfection of his age in human character; nor can we doubt that those who read his verses were awakened to an ambition of becoming like to Achilles, Hector and Ulysses: the truth and beauty of friendship, patriotism, and persevering devotion to an object, were unveiled to the depths in these immortal creations: the sentiments of the auditors must have been refined and enlarged by a sympathy with such great and lovely impersonations, until from admiring they imitated, and from imitation they identified themselves with the objects of their admiration.

The whole objection to the immorality of poetry rests upon a misconception of the manner in which poetry acts to produce the moral improvement of man. Ethical science arranges the elements which poetry has created, and propounds schemes and proposes examples of civil and domestic life: nor is it for want of admirable doctrines that men hate, and despise, and censure, and deceive, and subjugate one another. But Poetry acts in another and diviner manner. It awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought. Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar: it reproduces all that it represents, and the impersonations clothed in its Elysian light stand thenceforward in the minds of those who have once contemplated them, as memorials of that gentle and exalted content which extends itself over all thoughts and actions with which it coexists. The great secret of morals is Love: or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person not our own.


Here we go. Percy Shelley, his iconic “Defense of Poetry” in hand, faces his mother-in-law, the great feminist writer, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died giving birth to Percy’s future wife—Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

Wollstonecraft indicts gentleness as a damaging piece of flattery to women, while Shelley, a man, glories in it.  Feminism is correct even as it enslaves the female mind, for complaint breeds complaint; women, to improve themselves, imprison themselves in a better nature, or a search for a better nature, even as old and new conspire to make it impossible, while men—in this case, Shelley—slip out of their nature and identify with beauty not their own, making exalted poetry, while feminism festers in combativeness.

Wollstonecraft steels herself—to die. Shelley swoons—to live.

The contest is stacked against the woman, not because she is a woman, but because she attempts to argue as one in the first place. All feminist thought contains the seed of its own destruction. If women could only leap over themselves, they would be exalted and discover freedom on the other side. They would find gentle Shelley, poetry, wisdom. They would find bodies in a mist, sexless streams, and paradise.

This is not to say that Mary does not get it.  She does.    “…if virtue has only one eternal standard…”   Yes.




The owlish Cleanth Brooks.  In his eyes, the “process of composition” has nothing to do with “the thing composed.”




To make the poem or the novel the central concern of criticism has appeared to mean cutting it loose from its author and from his life as a man, with his own particular hopes, fears, interests, conflicts, etc. A criticism so limited may seem bloodless and hollow. It will seem so to the typical professor of literature in the graduate school, where the study of literature is still primarily a study of the ideas and personality of the author as revealed in his letters, his diaries, and the recorded conversations of his friends. It will certainly seem so to the young poet or novelist, beset with his own problems of composition and with his struggles to find a subject and a style and to get a hearing for himself.

And to emphasize the work seems to involve severing it from those who actually read it, and this severance may seem drastic and therefore disastrous. After all, literature is written to be read. Wordsworth’s poet was a man speaking to men. In each Sunday Times, Mr. J. Donald Adams points out that the hungry sheep look up and are not fed; and less strenuous moralists than Mr. Adams are bound to feel a proper revulsion against “mere aestheticism.” Moreover, if we neglect the audience which reads the work, including that for which it was presumably written, the literary historian is prompt to point out that the kind of audience that Pope had did condition the kind of poetry that he wrote. The poem has its roots in history, past or present. Its place in the historical context simply cannot be ignored.

I have stated these objections as sharply as I can because I am sympathetic with the state of mind which is prone to them. Man’s experience is indeed a seamless garment, no part of which can be separated from the rest. Yet if we urge this fact of inseparability against the drawing of distinctions, then there is no point in talking about criticism at all. I am assuming that distinctions are necessary and useful and indeed inevitable.

The formalist critic knows as well as anyone that poems and plays and novels are written by men—that they do not somehow happen—and that they are written as expressions of particular personalities and are written from all sorts of motives—for money, from a desire to express oneself, for the sake of a cause, etc. Moreover, the formalist critic knows as well as anyone that literary works are merely potential until they are read—that is, that they are re-created in the minds of actual readers, who vary enormously in their capabilities, their interests, their prejudices, their ideas. But the formalist critic is concerned primarily with the work itself. Speculation on the mental processes of the author takes the critic away from the work into biography and psychology. Such explorations are very much worth making. But they should not be confused with an account of the work. Such studies describe the process of composition, not the structure of the thing composed, and they may be performed quite as validly for any kind of expression—non-literary as well as literary.




The best critics of our time remain Empson and Wilson Knight, for they have misinterpreted more antithetically than all others.

When we say that the meaning of a poem can only be another poem, we may mean a range of poems:

The precursor poem or poems.

The poem we write as our reading.

A rival poem, son or grandson of the same precursor.

A poem that never got written—that is—the poem that should have been written by the poet in question.

A composite poem, made up of these in some combination.

A poem is a poet’s melancholy at his lack of priority. The failure to have begotten oneself is not the cause of the poem, for poems arise out of the illusion of freedom, out of a sense of priority being possible. But the poem—unlike the mind in creation—is a made thing, and as such is an achieved anxiety.

How do we understand an anxiety? By ourselves being anxious. Every deep reader is an Idiot Questioner. He asks, “Who wrote my poem?” Hence Emerson’s insistence that: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts—they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

Criticism is the discourse of the deep tautology—of the solipsist who knows that what he means is right, and yet that what he says is wrong. Criticism is the art of knowing the hidden roads that go from poem to poem.


The New Critics were not new. They belonged to the band of revolutionary Modernists determined to remove from the Academy, in Brooks’ words, the “typical professor of literature in the graduate school, where the study of literature is still primarily a study of the ideas and personality of the author as revealed in his letters, his diaries, and the recorded conversations of his friends.”

This early 20th century enemy, the “typical professor,” which Pound and Ransom likewise attacked in their writings (see “How To Read” and “Criticism, Inc”) was in the way, not because they took no “account of the work” (a pure straw man argument) but because they took “account” of Milton, Shakespeare, and Keats, rather than Pound, Eliot, and their New Critic friends. The New Critic’s approach had nothing to do with theory, criticism, or pedagogy.  Brooks’ back-pedaling apology above rings hollow—because it is.  (God forbid “biography” or “psychology” be in the mix!) The New Critics’ plea to look at “the work” instead of “the ideas and personality” of the author was secret code for: get the famous authors like Keats and Milton out of the Academy; let us in.  It was really that simple. Where is the proof that “the work” was not studied in the cases of Keats and Shakespeare? The New Critics merely said it was so, and it was so. The Creative Writing push by the New Critics (Allen Tate) and their allies (from Paul Engle to Ford Maddox Ford) soon followed, the ultimate example of: “focus on the work” and never mind those “famous authors” and their “diaries.”  The “new” wasn’t ideological.  It was personal.   The “new” wasn’t philosophy.  It was ambition. This was the great secret of Modernism.

As for Harold Bloom, (who later on in his career became more mainstream in his populist writings: Shakespeare-worship, etc) the agenda in his Anxiety of Influence is basically the same: focus on “the work” in an effort to overthrow the larger, more sane view currently in place.

Bloom’s “The meaning of a poem can only be another poem” is just a more crackpot focus on “the work” than even the New Critics offered.  A writer like Edgar Poe (excoriated by both Brooks and Bloom) can no longer be regarded as standing for sane, or wise, philosophical principles. Everything has to be yanked down to a Alice-in-Wonderland universe of  ‘close-reading,’ in which poems mean each other, etc.  Tunnels (“hidden roads”) wind about. Scholarship becomes mystical, hermeneutical, claustrophobic. Criticism becomes its own ‘poem.’ The fresh air of the heavens, in which philosophy takes the broadest view possible, is refused for the swamp of intra-textual hermeneutics. Obscurity is rewarded. Only those who can breathe for long periods underground will be worthy to effect the revolution from within.






A sentiment cannot be supposed to be anything. “In the domain of sentiments,” writes Gide, “the real is not distinguished from the imaginary. And if to imagine one loves is enough to be in love, then also to tell oneself that one imagines oneself to be in love when one is in love is enough to make one forthwith love a little less.” Discrimination between the imaginary and the real can be made only through behavior. Since man occupies a privileged situation in this world, he is in a position to show his love actively; very often he supports the woman or at least helps her; in marrying her he gives her social standing; he makes her presents; his independent economic and social position allows him to take the initiative and think up contrivances: it was M. de Norpois who, when separated from Mme de Villeparisis, made twenty-four trips to visit her. Very often the man is busy, the woman idle: he gives her the time he passes with her; she takes it: is it with pleasure, passionately, or only for amusement? Does she accept these benefits through love or through self-interest? Does she love her husband or her marriage? Of course, even the man’s evidence is ambiguous: is such and such a gift granted through love or out of pity? But while normally a woman finds numerous advantages in her relations with a man, his relations with a woman are profitable to a man only in so far as he loves her. And so one can almost judge the degree of his affection by the total picture of his attitude.

But a woman hardly has means for sounding her own heart; according to her moods she will view her own sentiments in different lights, and as she submits to them passively, one interpretation will be no truer than another. In those rare instances in which she holds the position of economic and social privilege, the mystery is reversed, showing that it does not pertain to one sex rather than the other, but to the situation. For a great many women the roads to transcendence are blocked: because they do nothing, they fail to make themselves anything. They wonder indefinitely what they could have become, which sets them to asking about what they are. It is a vain question. If man fails to discover that secret essence of femininity, it is simply because it does not exist. Kept on the fringe of the world, woman cannot be objectively defined through this world, and her mystery conceals nothing but emptiness.


It is not enough for feminist thought that specifically lesbian texts exist. Any theory or cultural/political creation that treats lesbian existence as a marginal or less “natural” phenomenon, as mere “sexual preference,” or as the mirror image of either heterosexual or male homosexual relations is profoundly weakened thereby, whatever its other contributions. Feminist theory can no longer afford merely to voice a toleration of “lesbianism” as an “alternative life style” or make token allusion to lesbians. A feminist critique of compulsory heterosexual orientation for women is long overdue.

I do not assume that mothering by women is a “sufficient cause” of lesbian existence. I believe large numbers of men could, in fact, undertake child care on a large scale without radically altering the balance of male power in a male-identified society.

Pornography does not simply create a climate in which sex and violence are interchangeable; it widens the range of behavior considered acceptable from men in heterosexual intercourse—behavior which reiteratively strips women of their autonomy, dignity, and sexual potential, including the potential of loving and being loved by women in mutuality and integrity.

Lesbians have historically been deprived of a political existence through “inclusion” as female versions of male homosexuality. To equate lesbian existence with male homosexuality because each is stigmatized is to erase female reality once again.Part of the history of lesbian existence is, obviously, to be found where lesbians, lacking a coherent female community, have shared a kind of social life and common cause with homosexual men. But there are differences: women’s lack of economic and cultural privilege relative to men; qualitative differences in female and male relationships— for example, the patterns of anonymous sex among male homosexuals, and the pronounced ageism in male homosexual standards of sexual attractiveness. I perceive the lesbian experience as being, like motherhood, a profoundly female experience.

Who can navigate the maze of ‘women’s issues’ touched on above by De Beauvoir from 1949, and Rich from 1981?

Simone de Beauvoir’s personal issues are well-known: intending to be a nun until she was 14, she had a devout Catholic mother and a free-thinking father; she was suspended from her teaching job for seducing a female student; she seduced girls and passed them on to the existentialist Sartre; one of these girls, who rejected Sartre, eventually married de Beauvoir’s male lover.

As for Rich, we have the suicide of Rich’s Harvard professor husband, father to her three children, in 1970, just as she was separating from him in Rich’s radical Black Panther days; also her shared National Book Award prize in 1976 with Allen Ginsberg, rejected by Rich, and instead ‘accepted’ with the two other woman nominees, Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, on behalf of all women.

Arnold Rice Rich, Adrienne Rich’s father, was Chairman of Pathology at Johns Hopkins Medical School.  John B. Watson, the father of Behaviorism, was fired from John Hopkins in 1920 for having an affair with his student.

Behaviorism is the philosophical component of Simone de Beauvoir (b. 1908)  and Adrianne Rich (b. 1929)

Personal crisis and Behaviorism seem to go hand and hand, and we would not be a good behaviorist philosopher if we did not point this out.  Perhaps the philosophy should be called Bad Behaviorism.  Remove the ‘bad’ and it is no philosophy at all.  It fades into custom. We anticipate a certain amount of objection to bringing in personal issues; but without the personal issues, have the philosophical issues any basis?  Behaviorism is a bold response to crisis—the “bad” behavior is owned and accepted—as behaviorism—putting aside intellectual reasons, in the spirit of either existentialism or its mirror-reverse, moralistic and religious fanaticism.

De Beauvoir says, “a sentiment cannot be supposed to be anything.”  This is the door to behaviorism.  According to some views, “a sentiment” is not to be rejected—our feelings about an issue are of paramount importance, and not to be dismissed, no matter how authoritative the radical social science branch of learning is, which attempts to dismiss it.

The door is opened and de Beauvoir walks through: “Discrimination between the imaginary and the real can be made only through behavior.”

Any philosophical system which makes “behavior” the primary tool for discriminating between “the imaginary and the real” cripples thought, and hinders philosophy itself.

What is love?  What is gender?  What is sex?  If we turn these questions into mere descriptions of discrete patterns of particular behaviors, the ‘things anyone, at any time, might feel compelled to do’ becomes the ruling animus of philosophical investigation, and we strip ‘making sense of the universe in terms of both pleasure and reason’ from the whole process; we destroy science, ideality, happiness, morality, and reason, and replace it with experience—experience which justifies itself, no matter what. 

Behaviorism is used to justify behavior, any behavior—but philosophy is the way to determine reality above and beyond behavior.

In ordinary human experience, behavior creates our reality; in philosophy, our understanding of reality determines how we behave.  The two are radically different.

It begins innocently enough, with de Beauvoir, who, as we see in the example above, takes love away from its sentiments and attaches it instead to specific forms of behavior—love becomes utilitarian, in the name of making things better for women, even though, as de Beauvoir points out, it is not the utilitarian aspect which makes things worse for women; what de Beauvoir seems interested in is erasing the differences between men and women.  Turn the tables, she says; make the woman wealthy and the man poor, and the ‘mystery’ of the woman for the man disappears; in other words, there is no ‘sentiment,’ there is no ‘intangible’ factor; put the man’s dress on the woman and she is, in fact, a man. 

If a woman behaves like a man, she is a man.  Judith Butler already exists in de Beauvoir.

The ‘radical’ nature of de Beauvoir’s argument is based on simple equivalence.

Rich, though she might be considered more radical than de Beauvoir, a radical “advancement,” to some, actually travels backwards; Rich argues for lesbianism as a sentiment, not simply as behavior; in her pornography statement, for instance, Rich pleads for a woman’s “dignity,” which is not a behaviorist (or existentialist) term at all—Rich is more traditional and conservative than de Beauvoir.

We see “radical” philosophy developing in a “step-forward, step-back” fashion: a step forward with de Beauvoir, a step back with Rich, even though, as a whole, it moves forward in the same behaviorist fashion.

What is this “compulsory heterosexual orientation” which Rich mentions, but, in her view, philosophy at odds with reality, old philosophy at odds with behaviorism?

Rich wants more than an “acceptance” of lesbianism; she believes there is an unquestioned, mysterious core value to it  (beyond behavior) worth cultivating. Rich doesn’t want to look at the issue scientifically; she is not interested in cause-and-effect. “I do not assume that mothering by women is a “sufficient cause” of lesbian existence.” The philosopher would ask, “Scientifically speaking, what is lesbianism exactly?” Rich, like de Beauvoir, is hunkered down in behaviorism—there is no interest in a philosophy standing above the behavior; but unlike de Beauvoir, Rich invests a mystery and sentiment to the lesbian existence, precisely as de Beauvoir dismantled the mystery and sentiment of the woman’s existence.

Who wins, here?  The one who began the job.



Sartre wanted to marry her.  de Beauvoir said, no.


Each of our perceptions is accompanied by the consciousness that human reality is a ‘revealer,’ that is, it is through human reality that ‘there is’ being, or, to put it differently, that man is the means by which things are manifested. It is our presence in the world which multiplies relations. It is we who set up a relationship between this tree and that bit of sky. Thanks to us, that star which has been dead for millennia, that quarter moon, and that dark river are disclosed in the unity of a landscape. It is the speed of our car and our airplane which organizes the great masses of the earth. With each of our acts, the world reveals to us a new face. But, if we know that we are directors of our being, we also know that we are not its producers. If we turn away from this landscape, it will sink back into its dark permanence. At least, it will sink back; there is no one mad enough to think that it is going to be annihilated. It is we who shall be annihilated, and the earth will remain in its lethargy until another consciousness comes along to awaken it. Thus, to our inner certainty of being ‘revealers’ is added that of being inessential in relation to the thing revealed.

If I fix on canvas or in writing a certain aspect of the fields or the sea or a look on someone’s face which I have disclosed, I am conscious of having produced them by condensing relationships, by introducing order where there was none, by imposing the unity of mind on the diversity of things. That is, I feel myself essential in relation to my creation. But this time it is the created object which escapes me; I cannot reveal and produce at the same time. The creation becomes inessential in relation to the creative activity. First of all, even if it appears finished to others, the created object always seems to us in a state of suspension; we can always change this line, that shade, that word. Thus, it never forces itself. A novice painter asked his teacher, ‘When should I consider my painting finished?’ And the teacher answered, ‘When you can look at it in amazement and say to yourself, “I’m the one who did that!”

Which amounts to saying ‘never.’ For that would be to consider one’s work with someone else’s eyes and to reveal what one has created.


A text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game. A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible. Its law and its rules are not, however, harbored in the inaccessibility of a secret; it is simply that they can never be booked, in the present, into anything that could rigorously be called a perception.

And hence, perpetually and essentially, they run the risk of being definitely lost. Who will ever know of such disappearances?

The dissimulation of the woven texture can in any case take centuries to undo its web: a web that envelops a web, undoing the web for centuries; reconstituting it too as an organism, indefinitely regenerating its own tissue behind the cutting trace, the decision of each reading. There is always a surprise in store for the anatomy or physiology of any criticism that might think it has mastered the game, surveyed all the threads at once, deluding itself, too, in wanting to look at the text without touching it, without laying a hand on the “object,” without risking—which is the only chance of entering into the game, by getting a few fingers caught—the addition of some new thread.  Adding, here, is nothing other than giving to read. One must manage to think this out: that it is not a question of embroidering upon a text, unless one considers that to know how to embroider still means to have the ability to follow the given thread. That is, if you follow me, the hidden thread.

Modern philosophy’s obsession with absence, lack, impotence, estrangement seems to spring from this little poem by Poe:

…I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand—
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep—while I weep!
Oh God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! Can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all the we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

Beauty, to be truly beautiful, needs to be partially obscured, or veiled, and Truth cannot be looked at directly either, and needs to be wrapped in riddles—the Divine Mysteries, from Oracles, Prophecy, and Fate, through Christian Exegesis and Parables, lands in the 20th century as Philosophy which Teases and Deceives—but the Ancient Philosophies and Religions which propounded their stories, their sciences and their devotions attended by actual spirits in actual settings, covered in mists of ignorance and beauty as they might have been, can be contrasted to 20th century Philosophy, which seems to tease us for no end; or, simply out of despair, or vanity, or some philosopher’s ambition.

Sartre (b. 1905), in his excerpt, evinces the Man-centered universe inherited from the Renaissance: “man is the means by which things are manifested” and, invoking the “speed of our car and our airplane,” he revels in “we know we are directors of our being,” but with it, also, comes the sad recognition that, “we also know that we are not [our being’s] producers” and we are “inessential to the thing revealed.” This is unfortunate, but why, philosophically, does Sartre need to assert this gulf between “directing” and “producing?”

Sartre does so for no other reason, it seems, than to produce a kind of balance: being and non-being.

But it doesn’t feel motivated by anything beyond a kind of philosophical or mathematical attempt at a tidy formula, and we see how it manifests itself in Sartre’s discussion of art: “I cannot reveal and produce at the same time; the creation becomes inessential in relation to the creative activity.”

Why this pessimism?  How is it true, for instance, that the painter or poet’s “creation” is “inessential” to his or her “creative activity?”  It is mere pedantry to fret whether a work of art is “finished,” or not, and Sartre’s explanation is an empty piece of cleverness.  Sure, we can always tweak our poem, but the gist, and the excellence of its entirety is not some illusion. Sartre had a political and a real world existence, as his fame will testify, but we should not therefore miss what is in front of us here: Sartre’s overly fastidious, overly academic, and feeble complaint, passed off as scary existentialism.  It brings to mind the famous anecdote in which Sartre finished first in his examinations to become an instructor, with de Beauvoir, second. Much was made of the “open relationship” between these two public intellectuals, but few bothered to point out that de Beauvoir did not want to marry him, or live with him.  Sartre’s philosophical fretting is merely academic, or perhaps just as bad, personal.

Sartre eventually argued that anyone making art was reactionary and hopelessly bourgeois—a political position almost inevitable, considering the major philosophical qualms he first lays out.

As for Derrida, as time passes after his death, and his reputation fades, his audacious hiding appears more and more as insufferable cuteness.




I would not wish to live in a century other than my own, or to have worked for any other. We are citizens of our own Age no less than of our own State. And if it is deemed unseemly, or even inadmissible, to exempt ourselves from the morals and customs of the circle in which we live, why should it be less of a duty to allow the needs and taste of our own epoch some voice in our choice of activity?

But the verdict of this epoch does not, by any means, seem to be going in favor of art, not the least of the kind of art to which alone my inquiry will be directed. The course of events has given the spirit of the age a direction which threatens to remove it ever further from the art of the Ideal. This kind of art must abandon actuality, and soar with becoming boldness above our wants and needs; for Art is a daughter of Freedom, and takes her orders from the necessity inherent in minds, not from the exigencies of matter. But at the present time material needs reign supreme and bend a degraded humanity beneath their tyrannical yoke. Utility is the great idol of our age, to which all powers are in thrall and to which all talent must pay homage. Weighed in this crude balance, the insubstantial merits of Art scarce tip the scale, and, bereft of all encouragement, she shuns the noisy market-place of our century.

If man is ever to solve the problem of politics in practice he will have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it is only through Beauty that man makes his way to Freedom.


It is the secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself) , by abandonment to the nature of things; that beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw, by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors, and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him; then he is caught up into the life of the Universe, his speech is thunder, his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals. The poet knows that he speaks adequately then only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or “with the flower of the mind;” not with the intellect used as an organ, but with the intellect released from all service and suffered to take its direction from its celestial life; or as the ancients were wont to express themselves, not with intellect alone but with the intellect inebriated by nectar.

This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other procurers of animal exhilaration. All men avail themselves of such means as they can, to add this extraordinary power to their normal powers; and to this end they prize conversation, music, pictures, sculpture, dancing, theaters, traveling, war, mobs, fires, gaming, politics, or love, or science, or animal intoxication,—which are several coarser or finer quasi-mechanical substitutes for the true nectar, which is the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact. These are auxiliaries to the centrifugal tendency of man, to his passage out into free space, and they help him to escape the custody of that body in which he is pent up, and of that jail-yard of individual relations in which he is enclosed. Hence a great number of such as were professionally expressers of Beauty, as painters, poets, musicians and actors, have been more than others wont to lead a life of pleasure and indulgence; all but the few who received the true nectar; and, as it was a spurious mode of attaining freedom, as it was an emancipation not into the heavens but into the freedom of baser places, they were punished for that advantage they won, by a dissipation and deterioration. But never can any advantage be taken of nature by a trick. The spirit of the world, the great calm presence of the Creator, comes not forth to the sorceries of opium or of wine. The sublime vision comes to the pure and simple soul in a clean and chaste body.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s voluble sermonizing says so many things at once in such an impressive manner that one can simply believe Ralph Waldo Emerson is saying whatever one wants him to be saying; this might explain his high reputation to this day among both radicals and conservatives. Whitman discovered his poetry in Emerson’s prose, and here then is how America avoided the precision of Poe and embraced the effulgence of the Anything Goes school in the last century. It is hard to believe that, in the passage above, Emerson is sternly cautioning the poet to be sober.  The “nectar” Emerson is selling is clearly not sold anywhere, and his “the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact” and his “abandonment to the nature of things” exist nowhere except in Emerson’s fact-mind and in the thing-minds of those who want to play along with Mr. Emerson—which, as we look over American Letters today, are quite a few.  Beware opium, wine, fires, and mobs.

Schiller (b. 1759), sounding very modern, says things we agree with.

But Emerson is so much more fun.



Gotthold Lessing (b. 1729) elucidated the great differences between painting and poetry.



The first person who compared Poetry and Painting with each other was a man of fine feeling, who perceived that both these arts produced upon him a similar effect. Both, he felt, placed before us things absent as present, appearance as reality. Both deceived and the deceit of both was pleasing.

A second person sought to penetrate into the inner nature of this pleasure and discovered that in both it flowed from one and the same source. The beautiful, the notion of which we first derive from corporeal objects, has general rules applicable to various things; to actions, to thoughts, as well as to forms.

A third person, who reflected upon the value and upon the distribution of these general rules, remarked that some of them had prevailed more in Painting and others more in Poetry, and that with respect to the latter rules, Poetry could be aided by the illustrations and examples supplied by Painting; with respect to the former rules, Painting could be aided by the illustrations and examples supplied by Poetry.

The first was an amateur; the second was a philosopher; the third was a critic.

It was not easy for the two first to make a wrong use either of their feeling or of their reasoning. On the other hand, the principle force of the remarks of the critic depends upon the correctness of their application to the particular case, and it would be astonishing, inasmuch as for one really acute, you will find fifty merely witty critics, if this application had always been made with all the caution requisite to hold the scales equal between the two Arts. Apelles and Protogenes, in their lost writings upon Painting confirmed and illustrated the rules relating to it by the rules of Poetry, which had been already established; so that we may be assured that in them the same moderation and accuracy prevailed, which at the present day we see in the works of Aristotle, Cicero, Horace and Quintilian, when they apply the principles and experience of Painting to Eloquence and to Poetry.

It is the privilege of the Ancients in no one thing to do too much or too little.

But we moderns have often believed that in many of our works we have surpassed them, because we have changed their little byways of pleasure into highways, even at the risk of being led by these safer and shorter highways into paths which end in a wilderness.





I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would—that is to say, who could—detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say—but, perhaps, the autorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writers—poets in especial—prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition—and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought—at the true purposes seized only at the last moment—at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view—at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable—at the cautious selections and rejections— at the painful erasures and interpolations—in a word, at the wheels and pinions—the tackle for scene-shifting—the step-ladders, and demon-traps—the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.

The initial consideration was that of extent. If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression—for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed. But since, ceteris paribus, no poet can afford to dispense with anything that may advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones—that is to say, of brief poetical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least, one-half of the “Paradise Lost” is essentially prose—a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions—the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity of effect.

And here I may as well say a few words of the versification. My first object (as usual) was originality. The extent to which this has been neglected in versification is one of the most unaccountable things in the world. Admitting that there is little possibility of variety in mere rhythm, it is still clear that the possible varieties of metre and stanza are absolutely infinite, and yet, for centuries, no man, in verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original thing. The fact is that originality (unless in minds of very unusual force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition. In general, to be found, it must be elaborately sought, and although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.


Edgar Poe is, of course, the greatest literary theorist next to Plato; Poe’s inventiveness is always a grounded and timeless effort—one never finds Poe qualifying his rhetoric by appealing to old or new ways; Poe never abased himself before the past or the future.

Lessing’s Laocoon belongs to the past, certainly, but his observations in that work on the relationship, and essential differences between Painting and Poetry are invaluable. Modernism and Post-Modernism have blurred the two Arts and nearly destroyed both in the process. When the two Arts blend, the waxing of the conceptual destroys everything human and actual in its path until we reach the Modern Art pathology of Tom Wolfe’s the “Painted Word.”

Poetry has not been immune to the toxic blur, either, though it is less easy to quantify the damage: Abstract Art cripples and shrinks what Painting can depict; that is easy to see, but hasn’t free verse simply expanded what verse can do?

Lessing and Poe (it is a shame one has to lose) would both remind us that material particulars trump freedom when it comes to art and poetry.

Lessing and Poe would both agree on this: the crippling logic of free verse works in the following way: we create poetry by taking prose and turning it into a visual product.  Read aloud, free verse is prose—only by seeing line breaks on the page are we alerted to the ostensible nature of the product. Can we take prose, make it a visual product, and thereby create poetry? Of course we cannot. But this is what happens when Moderns run amok. Poe would quickly point out that it does not help to blame “Moderns.” The term is meaningless. Error is error, no matter in what Age it occurs, and error belongs as much to the past as it does to the present.

Just listen to Poe. Using specific examples, he will fix it now.




Aphra Behn: worthy opponent of Thomas Aquinas




It seems that the Holy Scripture should not use metaphors. For that which is proper to the lowest science seems not to befit this science, which holds the highest place of all. But to proceed by the aid of various similitudes and figures is proper to poetry, the least of all the sciences. Therefore it is not fitting this science should make use of such similitudes.

Further, this doctrine seems to be intended to make truth clear. Hence a reward is held out to those who manifest it: They that explain me shall have life everlasting. But by such similitudes truth is obscured. Therefore to put forward divine truths by likening them to corporeal things does not befit this science.

Further, the higher creatures are, the nearer they approach to the divine likeness. If therefore any creature be taken to represent God, this representation ought chiefly to be taken from the higher creatures, and not from the lower; yet this is often found in the Scriptures.

On the contrary, It is written: I have multiplied visions, and I have used similitudes by the ministry of the prophets. But to put forward anything by means of similitudes is to use metaphors. Therefore this sacred science may use metaphors.

It is befitting Holy Writ to put forward divine and spiritual truths by means of comparison with material things. For God provides for everything according to the capacity of nature. Now it is natural to Man to attain to intellectual truths through sensible objects, because all our knowledge originates from sense. Hence in Holy Writ spiritual truths are fittingly taught under the likeness of material things. This is what Dionysius says: We cannot be enlightened by the divine rays except that they be hidden within the covering of many sacred veils. It is also befitting Holy Writ, which is proposed to all without distinction of persons—To the wise and to the unwise I am a debtor—that spiritual truths be expounded by means of figures taken from corporeal things, in order that thereby even the simple who are unable by themselves to grasp intellectual things may be able to understand it.




I think the Tragedies not worth a farthing; for Plays were certainly intended for the exercising of men’s passions, not their understandings, and he is infinitely far from wise, that will bestow one moments private meditation on such things: And for Comedie, the finest folks you meet there, are still unfitter for your imitation, for though within a leaf or two of the Prologue, you are told that they are people of Wit, good Humour, good Manners, and all that: yet if the Authors did not kindly add their proper names, you’d never know them by their characters; for whatsoever’s the matter, it hath happened so spitefully in several Plays, which have been pretty well received of late, that even those persons that were meant to be the ingenious Censors of the Play, have either proved the most debauched, or most witless people in the Companie: nor is this error very lamentable, since I take it Comedie was never meant, either for a converting or confirming authoratative direction: in short, I think a Play the best entertainment that wise men have; but I do also think them nothing so, who do discourse as formally about the rules of it, as if it were the grand affair of human life. This being my opinion of Plays, I studied only to make this Play as entertaining as I could, which whether I have been successful in, my gentle Reader, my Good, Sweet, Honey, Sugar-candied Reader (which I think is more than any one has called you yet) you may for your shilling judge.


When Thomas Aquinas (b. 1225) writes “all our knowledge originates from sense,” we are surprised to find a Church Father from the Middle Ages opining thus; Enlightenment philosophes are better known for this opinion.  Every Platonic “form” is grounded in the senses, as well; thus ideality is, especially in the modern age, greatly misunderstood.

Aphra Behn is delightful, but an Aristotle she is not.







Helene Cixous. A pretty good business: I write woman.


All the kinds of criticism we have been considering lead back to an ultimate kind, the Criticism of Criticism, which should provide the logical and procedural grounds for them. Here belongs all systematic statements involving discrimination, classification, methodology, possibility and standards of evaluation, and the like. And ideally, here should be a terminology whose logic could be carried systematically into the most minute observation of Poetic and Textual Analysis.

However, there must always be a discrepancy between the object of our observation and the medium by which we observe, even though, as in this case, the object (the poem) and the medium (the critique) are both verbal. The relation between poetry and criticism is here somewhat analogous to the relation between “revelation” and “reason” in theology. The poem, as the given, is something extra, something by nature beyond the reach of a purely critical rationale; hence, in the intuiting of it, there is always something which the critical treatment cannot equal (just as there is, in a physical object, something which a poem about it could not equal). The poem, as the object of the critic’s intuition, thus forever sets an obligation, that can never be wholly met, to bring the facts of the poem wholly within the orbit of the critic’s terms. A criticism of the poem is not the poem (though at times a critic does seem to be asking of other critics that they do somehow contrive to write the poem over again, giving exactly the same quality of experience as the poem itself gives, in an idiom that simultaneously both is and is not a replica of the original.)

Though the Criticism of Criticism should, in its ideal perfection, provide the events out of which all other kinds of criticism could be drawn, often the discrepancy between the poem and the critique is widened to the point where the Criticism of Criticism becomes antithetical to specific analysis. It is then given to kinds of analysis that serve as “statements of policy” about literature, and provide no leads at all into the areas of the intrinsic.


Woman must write her self; must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies—for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement.

The future must no longer be determined by the past. I do not deny that the effects of the past are still with us. But I refuse to strengthen them by repeating them.

I have been amazed more than once by a description a woman gave me of a world all her own which she had been secretly haunting since early childhood. A world of searching, the elaboration of a knowledge, on the basis of a systematic experimentation with the bodily functions, a passionate and precise interrogation of her erotogeneity. This practice, extraordinarily rich and inventive, in particular as concerns masturbation, is prolonged or accompanied by a production of forms, a veritable aesthetic activity, each stage of rapture inscribing a resonant vision, a composition, something beautiful. Beauty will no longer be forbidden.

Write, let no one hold you back, let nothing stop you: not man; not the imbecilic capitalist machinery, in which publishing houses are the crafty, obsequious relayers of imperatives handed down by an economy that works against us and off our backs.

I write woman: woman must write woman. And man, man.

Nearly the entire history of writing is confounded with the history of reason, of which it is at once the effect, the support, and one of the privileged alibis. It has been one with the phallocentric tradition. It is indeed that same self-admiring, self-stimulating, self-congratulatory phallocentrism.

Only the poets can defy tradition—not the novelists, allies of representation. Because poetry involves gaining strength through the unconscious and because the unconscious, that other limitless country, is the place where the repressed manage to survive: women, or as E.T.A. Hoffman would say, fairies.

Kenneth Burke belonged to the 1920s Dial magazine Modernist priesthood which presented itself annual Dial Award prizes with large cash awards: Eliot,  Pound, Williams, Moore; Burke received his in 1928.

Burke’s analogy: poetry as “revelation” and criticism as “reason” may sound like it is grounded in classical studies, but it is the clever Emersonian line of Modernism: the secular poet as mystical priest.

Burke encourages criticism—exegesis—to stand apart from the poem and support the poem’s “revelation” with its “reason.”

This ‘New Criticism’ formula champions “the poem” as a kind of critic-proof, sacred object.

In this Burkean formula, the “reviewer” becomes irrelevant; honest criticism becomes a nuisance, in contrast to the formula of Plato/Pope/Poe/Wilde, in which the critical consciousness is just as important as the creative consciousness, nay, is really the same thing as the creative consciousness, but in reverse, so that the mind of the artist ‘reveals’ itself equally in poetry and criticism.

These are the two approaches to poetry:  1) New Critical/mystical/Modernist and 2) Critical/Creative.  We like the latter.

Cixous is a primitive, dancing against the “phallus” and “capitalist machinery” in her war makeup.

We like her Romantic energy, her innocence.  She finally offers more excitement than Burke.



Virginia Woolf: a beauty with an audacious mind. A supreme opponent in Oscar.



I should have said that great artists worked unconsciously, that they were “wiser than they knew,” as, I think, Emerson remarks somewhere, but it is really not so.

All fine imaginative work is self-conscious and deliberate. No poet sings because he must sing. At least, no great poet does.  A great poet sings because he chooses to sing. It is so now, and it has always been so. We are sometimes apt to think that the voices that sounded at the dawn of poetry were simpler, fresher, and more natural than ours, and that the world which the early poets looked at, and through which they walked, had a kind of poetical quality of its own, and almost without changing could pass into song. The snow lies thick now upon Olympus, and its steep, scraped sides are bleak and barren, but once, we fancy, the white feet of the Muses brushed the dew from the anemones in the morning, and at evening came Apollo to sing to the shepherds in the vale. But in this we are merely lending to other ages what we desire, or think we desire, for our own. Our historical sense is at fault. Every century that produces poetry is, so far, an artificial century, and the work that seems to us to be the most natural and simple product of its time is always the result of the most self-conscious effort. There is no fine art without self-consciousness, and self-consciousness and the critical spirit are one.

The longer one studies life and literature, the more strongly one feels that behind everything that is wonderful stands the individual, and that it is not the moment that makes the man, but the man who creates the age. Indeed, I am inclined to think that each myth and legend that seems to us to spring out of the wonder, or terror, or fancy of tribe and nation, was in its origin the invention of one single mind.




It is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex.

It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman. And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death. It ceases to be fertilized. Brilliant and effective, powerful and masterly, as it may appear for a day or two, it must wither at nightfall; it cannot grow in the minds of others. Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the act of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated.

If one is a man, still the woman part of the brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her. Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous.

No age can ever have been as stridently sex-conscious as our own. The Suffrage campaign was no doubt to blame. It must have roused in men an extraordinary desire for self-assertion; it must have made them lay an emphasis upon their own sex and its characteristics which they would not have troubled to think about had they not been challenged.

The blame for all this rests no more upon one sex than upon the other. All seducers and reformers are responsible. All who have brought about a state of sex-consciousness are to blame, and it is they who drive me, when I want to stretch my faculties on a book, to seek it in that happy age, when the writer used both sides of his mind equally. One must turn back to Shakespeare, then, for Shakespeare was androgynous; and so was Keats and Coleridge. Shelley was perhaps sexless. Milton and Ben Johnson had a dash too much of the male in them. So had Wordsworth and Tolstoy.

The whole of the mind must lie wide open if we are to get the sense that the writer is communicating his experience with perfect fullness. There must be freedom and there must be peace. Not a wheel must grate, not a light glimmer. The curtains must be close drawn. The writer, once his experience is over, must lie back and let his mind celebrate its nuptials in darkness. He must not look or question what is being done. Rather, he must pluck the petals from a rose or watch the swans float calmly down the river. And I saw again the current which took the boat and the undergraduate and the dead leaves; and the taxi took the man and the woman who came together across the street, and the current swept them away, as I heard far off the roar of London’s traffic, into that tremendous stream.


Modern literature and the sexes; modern life and the sexes; life and the sexes; the sexes.  Rather inescapable, isn’t it?

The unhappy marriage is at the heart of all literature.

Literature is perhaps the invention of the unhappy marriage.

Wilde, in the Madness passage quoted, sounds like he would have admired Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition,” and it’s perfect, for at the top he rebukes Emerson, the anti-Poe.

Woolf strives towards some aesthetic reconciliation between man and woman: is it doomed to failure?  Is it a mere abstraction, this sexual intercourse of the spirit? We think we know what she means, this hankering after the “androgynous” mind of the genius; it’s an attempt to reconcile all unhappy marriages, and what’s so bad about that?

Woolf wants two sexes for the mind. Wilde wants one mind: the self-conscious, critical artist.  One versus two.





Giambattista Vico (b. 1668) seeks to advance against Maimonides (b. 1138)


You should not think that these great secrets are fully and completely known to anyone among us. They are not. But sometimes truth flashes out to us so that we think that it is day, and then matter and habit in their various forms conceal it so that we find ourselves again in an obscure night, almost as we were at first. We are like someone in a very dark night over whom lightning flashes time and time again. Among us there is one for whom the lightning flashes time and time again, so that he is always, as it were, in unceasing light. Thus night appears to him as day. That is the degree of the great one among the prophets, to whom it was said: But as for thee, stand thou here by Me, and of whom it was said: that the skin of his face sent forth beams, and so on. Among them there is one to whom the lightning flashes only once in the whole of his night; that is the rank of those of whom it is said: they prophesied, but they did so no more. There are others between whose lightning flashes there are greater or shorter intervals. Thereafter comes he who does not attain a degree in which his darkness is illumined by any lightning flash. It is illumined, however, by a polished body or something of that kind, stones or something else that give light in the darkness of the night. And even this small light that shines over us is not always there, but flashes and is hidden again, as if it were the flaming sword which turned every way. It is in accord with these states that the degrees of the perfect vary. As for those who never even once see a light, but grope about in their night, of them it is said: They know not, neither do they understand; They go about in darkness. The truth, in spite of the strength of its manifestation, is entirely hidden from them, as is said of them: And now men see not the light which is bright in the skies. They are the vulgar among people. There is then no occasion to mention them.

Know that whenever one of the perfect wishes to mention, either orally or in writing, something that he understands of these secrets, according to the degree of his perfection, he is unable to explain with complete clarity and coherence even the portion that he has apprehended, as he could do with the other sciences whose teaching is generally recognized. Rather there will befall him when teaching another that which he had undergone when learning himself. I mean to say that the subject matter will appear, flash, and then be hidden again, as though this were the nature of this subject matter, be there much or little of it. For this reason, all the Sages possessing knowledge of God the Lord, knowers of the truth, when they aimed at teaching something of this subject matter, spoke of it only in parables and riddles.

Do you not see the following fact? God, may His mention be exalted, wished us to be perfected and the state of our societies to be improved by His laws regarding actions. Now this can come about only after the adoption of intellectual beliefs, the first of which being His apprehension, may He be exalted, according to our capacity. This, in its turn, cannot come about except through divine science, and this divine science cannot become actual except after a study of natural science. This is so since natural science borders on divine science, and its study precedes that of divine science in time as has been made clear to whoever has engaged in speculation on these matters. Hence God, may He be exalted, caused his book to open with the Account of the Beginning, which, as we have made clear, is natural science. And because of the greatness and importance of the subject and because our capacity falls short of apprehending the greatest of subjects as it really is, we are told about those profound matters—which divine wisdom has deemed necessary to convey to us—in parables and riddles and in very obscure words.




Now, before discussing poetic wisdom, it is necessary for us to see what wisdom in general is. Wisdom is the faculty which commands all the disciplines by which we acquire all the sciences and arts that make up humanity. Plato defines wisdom as “the perfecter of man.” Man, in his proper being as man, consists of mind and spirit, or, if we prefer, of intellect and will. It is the function of wisdom to fulfill both these parts in man, the second by way of the first, to the end that by a mind illuminated by knowledge of the highest institutions, the spirit may be led to choose the best. The highest institutions in this universe are those turned toward and conversant with God; the best are those which look to the good of all mankind. The former are called divine institutions, the latter human. True wisdom, then, should teach the knowledge of divine institutions in order to conduct human institutions to the highest good. We believe this was the plan upon which Marcus Terentius Varro, who earned the title “most learned of the Romans,” erected his great work, Divine and Human Institutions, of which the injustice of time has unhappily bereft us.

Wisdom among the gentiles began with the Muse, defined by Homer in a golden passage of the Odyssey as “knowledge of good and evil,” and later called divination. It was on the natural prohibition of this practice, as something naturally denied to man, that God founded the true religion of the Hebrews, from which our Christian religion arose.  The Muse must thus have been properly at first the science of divining by auspices, and this was the vulgar wisdom of all nations. It consisted in contemplating God under the attribute of his providence, so that from divinari his essence came to be called divinity. The theological poets, who certainly founded the humanity of Greece, were versed in this wisdom, and this explains why the Latins called the judicial astrologers “professors of wisdom.” Wisdom was later attributed to men renowned for useful counsels given to mankind, as in the case of the Seven Sages of Greece. The attribution was then extended to men who for the good of peoples and nations wisely ordered and governed commonwealths. Still later the word “wisdom” came to mean knowledge of natural divine things; that is, metaphysics, called for that reason divine science, which, seeking knowledge of man’s mind in God, and recognizing God as the source of truth, must recognize him as the regulator of all good. So that metaphysics must essentially work for the good of the human race, whose preservation depends on the universal belief in a provident divinity. It is perhaps for having demonstrated this providence that Plato deserved to be called divine.

Maimonides occupies a key place among the world’s thinkers; he takes for granted his sublime mission without forgetting that the reader’s ability to find access to what he calls the “secrets” is as important as the “secrets” themselves.  Maimonides transcends the secular v. religious debate; such is the delightful nature of his rhetoric, which often borders on poetry: “even this small light that shines over us is not always there, but flashes and is hidden again, as if it were the flaming sword which turned every way.” Vico here is more historical than poetic.





The dashing Joseph Addison, Man of Letters



Hence, the word which sounds without is a sign of the word that shines within, to which the name of word more properly belongs. For that which is produced by the mouth of the flesh is the sound of the word, and is itself also called the word, because that inner word assumed it in order that it might appear outwardly.

Whoever, then, desires to arrive at some kind of a likeness to the Word of God, although unlike it in many things, let him not behold our word which sounds in the ears, either when it is brought forth in sound, or when it is thought in silence. For all words, no matter in what language they may sound, are also thought in silence; and hymns run through our mind, even when the mouth of the body is silent; not only the numbers of the syllables, but also the melodies of the hymns, since they are corporeal and belong to that sense of the body called hearing, are present by their own kind of incorporeal images to those who think of them, and silently turn all of them over in their minds.




Everything that is new or uncommon raises a pleasure in the imagination, because it fills the soul with an agreeable surprise, gratifies its curiosity, and gives it an idea of which it was not before possessed. We are, indeed, so often conversant with one set of  objects, and tired out with so many repeated shows of the same things, that whatever is new or uncommon contributes a little to vary human life, and to divert our minds, for a while, with the strangeness of its appearance; it serves us for a kind of refreshment, and takes off from that satiety we are apt to complain of in our usual and ordinary entertainments. It is this that bestows charms on a monster, and makes even the imperfections of nature please us.


The weighty thoughts of our philosophical predecessors are sometimes more accessible in small doses—the imagination of the reader fills in, as with a poem, the wider philosophical implications—or not.

Every philosopher, like every poet, trembles before the flighty mind of the reader.  A tower of philosophical strength before the frailest ignorance may fall.

The philosophy of Faith certainly has scientific elements, and if God is a metaphor, poetic elements as well, even for the most faithless—if we are allowed to use that word.

Augustine, the preacher, seems to want to say more, but the Madness format forces him to hold his tongue; we are left to wonder how a silent song may reside corporeally within the human frame.

Team Addison seeks to please with a simple idea, perhaps the most profound of all: what pleases us?  “It is this that bestows charms on a monster” has to fill a hearer with the greatest wonder.

No real winner, here, but for reasons of the merest secularist practicality…





In some remote corner of the universe, flickering in the light of the countless solar systems into which it had been poured, there was once a planet on which clever animals invented cognition. It was the most arrogant and most mendacious minute in the ‘history of the world;’ but a minute was all it was. After nature had drawn just a few more breaths the planet froze and the clever animals had to die. Someone could invent a fable like this and yet they would still not have given a satisfactory illustration of just how pitiful, how insubstantial and transitory, how purposeless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature; there were eternities during which it did not exist; and when it disappeared again, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no further mission that might extend beyond the bounds of human life. Rather, the intellect is human, and only its own possessor and progenitor regards it with such pathos, as if it housed the axis around which the entire world revolved. But if we could communicate with a gnat we would hear that it too floats through the air with the very same pathos, feeling that it too contains within itself the flying center of this world. There is nothing in nature so despicable and mean that would not immediately swell up like a balloon from just one little puff of that force of cognition; and just as every bearer of burdens wants to be admired, so the proudest man of all, the philosopher, wants to see, on all sides, the eyes of the universe trained, as through telescopes, on his thoughts and deeds.

It is odd that the intellect can produce this effect, since it is nothing other than an aid supplied to the most unfortunate, most delicate and most transient of beings so as to detain them for a minute within existence; otherwise, without this supplement, they would have every reason to flee existence as quickly as did Lessing’s infant son.

As a means for the preservation of the individual, the intellect shows its greatest strengths in dissimulation, since this is the means to preserve those weaker, less robust individuals who, by nature, are denied horns or the sharp fangs of a beast of prey with which to wage the struggle for existence. This art of dissimulation reaches its peak in humankind, where deception, flattery, lying and cheating, speaking behind the backs of others, keeping up appearances, living in borrowed finery, wearing masks, the drapery of convention, play-acting for the benefit of others and oneself—in short, the constant fluttering of human beings around the one flame of vanity is so much the rule and the law that there is virtually nothing which defies understanding so much as the fact that an honest and pure drive towards the truth should ever have emerged in them.

Insofar as the individual wishes to preserve himself in relation to other individuals, in the state of nature he mostly uses his intellect for concealment and dissimulation; however, because necessity and boredom also lead men to want to live in societies and herds, they need a peace treaty, and so they endeavor to eliminate from their world at least the crudest forms of the bellum omnium contra omnes. [War of all against all] In the wake of this peace treaty, however, comes something which looks like the first step towards the acquisition of that mysterious drive for truth. For that which is to count as ‘truth’ from this point onwards now becomes fixed, i.e. a way of designating things is invented which has the same validity and force everywhere, and the legislation of language also produces the first laws of truth, for the contrast between truth and lying comes into existence here for the first time: the liar uses the valid tokens of designation—words—to make the unreal appear to be real; he says for example,  ‘I am rich,’ whereas the correct designation for this condition would be, precisely, ‘poor.’ He misuses the established conventions by arbitrarily switching or even inverting the names for things. If he does this in a manner that is selfish and otherwise harmful, society will no longer trust him and therefore exclude him from its ranks. Human beings do not so much flee from being tricked as from being harmed by being tricked.

What is a word? The copy of a nervous stimulation in sounds. To infer from the fact of the nervous stimulation that there exists a cause outside us is already the result of applying the principle of sufficient reason wrongly.

We believe that when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers, we have knowledge of the things themselves, and yet we possess only metaphors of things which in no way correspond to the original entities.

Every concept comes into being by making equivalent that which is non-equivalent.

Like form, a concept is produced by overlooking what is individual and real, whereas nature knows neither forms nor concepts and hence no species, but only an ‘X’ which is inaccessible to us and indefinable by us.

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations which have been subjected to poetic and rhetorical intensification, translation and decoration, and which, after they have been in use for a long time, strike a people as firmly established, canonical, and binding; truths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions, metaphors which have become worn by frequent use and have lost all sensuous vigor, coins which, having lost their stamp, are now regarded as metal and no longer coins.

Human beings have an unconquerable urge to let themselves be deceived, and they are as if enchanted with happiness when the bard recites epic fairy-tales as if they were true, or when the actor in a play acts the king more regally than reality shows him to be. The intellect, that master of pretense, is free and absolved of its usual slavery for as long as it can deceive without doing harm, and it celebrates its Saturnalian festivals when it does so; at no time is it richer, more luxuriant, more proud, skillful, and bold.




One of the facts that might come to light in this process is our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects or parts of his work in which he least resembles anyone else. In these aspects or parts of his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man. We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavor to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. And I do not mean the impressionable period of adolescence, but the period of full maturity.

Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.

Someone said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.


Friedrich Nietzsche’s wave after wave of pessimism exhilarates if it fails to drown; perhaps it is only the exhilaration of a gnat, but it is exhilaration.

The unsentimental Nietzsche appears to see through all illusion to bravely penetrate beyond words to the truth that lies in the abyss, but in actuality his pessimism is the merest and shallowest verbosity. Life is mere vibration, he says, but he never penetrates the miraculous nature of what he condemns.  Yes, life is a mere ‘vibration,’ but what a ‘vibration!’  Yes, we are only ‘gnats,’ but what extraordinary gnats we are!  His pessimism is easily reversed.

Eliot’s well-known formulation from “Tradition and the Individual Talent” may be his greatest piece of sustained writing.

Rhetoric, like painting and poetry, can have three dimensions, can have that “perspective” which Shakespeare, in his Sonnets, said was “greatest painter’s art,” and with which that other Renaissance titan, Leonardo, agreed. By invoking “dead poets,” Eliot achieves more than Nietzsche who, by comparison, two-dimensionally paints with words, and with all that bitterness which usually attends mere shows of learning. Not that Nietzsche does not present insights; he does; but they are largely Kant and Hegel’s pessimism exaggerated; Hegel turned into a cartoon.




A 19th century Frenchman of pure Modernism tries to win against a 20th century American university reformer.


French readers, their habits disrupted by the death of Victor Hugo, cannot fail to be disconcerted. Hugo, in his mysterious task, turned all prose, philosophy, eloquence, history, to verse, and as he was verse personified, he confiscated from any thinking person, anyone who talked or told stories, all but the right to speak. Poetry, I believe, waited respectfully until the giant who identified it with his tenacious hand, a hand stronger than that of a blacksmith, ceased to exist; waited until then before breaking up.

Does the need to write poetry, in response to a variety of circumstances now mean, after one of those periodical orgiastic excesses of almost a century comparable only to the Renaissance, that the time has come for shadows and cooler temperatures? Not at all! It means the gleam continues, though changed.

That prosody, with its very brief rules, is nevertheless untouchable: it is what points to acts of prudence, such as the hemistich, and what regulates the slightest effort at stimulating versification, like codes according to which abstention from stealing through the air is for instance a necessary condition for standing upright. Exactly what one does not need to learn; because if you haven’t guessed it yourself beforehand, then you’ve proved the uselessness of constraining yourself to it.

The faithful supporters of the alexandrine, our hexameter, are loosening from within the rigid and puerile mechanism of its beat; the ear, set free from an artificial counting, discovers delight in discerning on its own all the possible combinations that twelve timbres can make among themselves.

It’s taste we should consider very modern.

The poet who possesses acute tact and who always considers this alexandrine as the difinitive jewel, but one you bring out as you would a sword or a flower only rarely and only when there is some premeditated motive for doing so, touches it modestly and plays around it, lending it neighboring chords, before bringing it out superb and unadorned; on many occasions he lets his fingering falter on the eleventh syllable or continues it to the thirteenth. M. Henri de Regnier excels in these accompaniments of his own invention as discrete and proud as the genius he instills into it, and revelatory of the fleeting disquiet felt by the performers faced with the instrument they have inherited. Something else, which could simply be the opposite, reveals itself as a deliberate rebellion in the absence of the old mold, grown weary, when Jules Laforgue, from the outset, initiated us into the unquestionable charm of the incorrect line.

Speech has no connection with the reality of things except in matters commercial; where literature is concerned, speech is content merely to make allusions or distill the quality contained in some idea.

Contrary to the facile numerical and representative functions as the crowd at first treats it, speech which is above all dream and song, finds again in the Poet, by a necessity that is part of an art consecrated to fictions, its virtuality.






There are three sorts of trained performers who would appear to have some of the competence that the critic needs. The artist himself. The philosopher. The university teacher of literature.

Professors of literature are learned but not critical men. The professional morale of this part of the university staff is evidently low. Nevertheless it is from the professors of literature, in this country the professors of English for the most part, that I should hope eventually for the erection of intelligent standards of criticism. It is their business.

Criticism will never be a very exact science, or even a nearly exact one. But neither will psychology.

Rather than occasional criticism by amateurs, I should think the whole enterprise might be seriously taken in hand by professionals. Perhaps I use a distasteful figure, but I have the idea that what we need is Criticism, Inc., or Criticism Ltd.

The principal resistance to such an idea will come from the present incumbents of the professorial chairs. But its adoption must come from them too. The idea of course is not a private one of my own. If it should be adopted before long, the credit would probably belong to Professor Ronald S. Crane, of the University of Chicago, more than to any other man.

Crane argues that historical scholarship has been overplayed heavily in English studies.

The students of the future must be permitted to study literature, and not merely about literature.

At the University of Chicago, I believe that Professor Crane, with some others is putting the revolution into effect in his own teaching, though for the time being perhaps with a limited program, mainly the application of Aristotle’s critical views.

This is not the first time that English professors have tilted against the historians, or “scholars,” in the dull sense which that word has acquired.

The most important recent diversion from the orthodox course of literary studies was undertaken by the New Humanists.  The New Humanists were, and are, moralists.  Mr. Babbitt could make war on romanticism for purely moral reasons.  But this is certainly not the charge that Mr. T.S. Eliot, a literary critic, brings against romanticism. His, if I am not mistaken, is aesthetic, though he may not ever care to define it very sharply.

Following the excitement produced by the Humanist diversion, there is now one due to the Leftists, or Proletarians, who are also diversionists. Their diversion is likewise moral. Debate could never occur between a Humanist and a Leftist on aesthetic grounds, for they are equally intent on ethical values. But the debate on ethical grounds would be very spirited, and it might create such a stir in a department conducting English studies that the conventional scholars there would find themselves slipping, and their pupils deriving from literature new and seductive excitements which would entice them away from their scheduled English exercises.

On the whole, however, the moralists, distinguished as they may be, are like those who have quarreled with the ordinary historical studies on purer or more aesthetic grounds: they have not occupied in English studies the positions of professional importance. In a department of English, as in any ongoing business, the proprietary interest becomes vested, and in old and reputable departments the vestees have uniformly been gentlemen who have gone through the historical mill. Their laborious Ph.D.’s and historical publications are their patents. Naturally, quite spontaneously, they would tend to perpetuate a system in which the power and the glory belonged to them. But English scholars in this country can rarely have better credentials than those which Professor Crane has earned.

It is really atrocious policy for a department to abdicate its own self-respecting identity. The department of  English is charged with the understanding and the communication of literature, an art, yet it has usually forgotten to inquire into the peculiar constitution and structure of its product.


Mallarme (b. 1842) and Ransom (b. 1888) each represent the two primary modes of attack with which Modernism effected its gains against Philosophical and Literary Tradition in the last century and a half.

Mallarme is insouciant candlelight, the tremulous ecstasy of the “incorrect line,” fitting the informal student, or guest, with the intoxicating mask of “poet,” imbued historically with all that term signifies, so he or she, so fitted, might be invited to the masque.

That most of Mallarme is nothing but glittering surface, moustache-pedantry, and name-dropping does little to diminish the charm of its eleven-fingered poetic style, but how much more really intoxicating when elevated to a position of money and respect by the pedagogical behemoth of the American university system. This is what the Program era did, starting with a muddy patch called the University of Iowa, aided by ‘power point’ efforts of New Critics like John Crowe Ransom.

One can hear Ezra Pound’s faux aesthetics in the accents of Mallarme and recognize the excitable Ezra’s ‘outsider’ sneering at the old English professors in Ransom’s calmer approach.  The motives and goals were the same: Gates. Barbarians. Storm.  Pound, Eliot, Williams and the New Critics were the barbarians, and all were on the same page—not the silly aesthetic one, but the one that counted. They won. Mallarme’s masque now walks the quiet carpets of the university. English students, as Ransom wanted, no longer know anything “about literature.”  They do literature. And according to the Creative Writing Program poets who teach them, they do it well.






Heidegger: Man is the speaking creature.


To define beauty, not in the most abstract but in the most concrete terms possible, to find, not its universal formula, but the formula which expresses most adequately this or that special manifestation of it, is the aim of the true student of aesthetics.

“To see the object as in itself it really is,” has been justly said to be the aim of all true criticism whatever; and in aesthetic criticism the first step towards seeing one’s object as it really is, is to know one’s own impression as it really is.  What is this song or picture to me? The abstract question, the exact relation to truth or experience is of no interest.

What is important, then, is not that the critic should possess a correct abstract definition of beauty for the intellect, but a certain kind of temperament, the power of being deeply moved by the presence of beautiful objects.  To him all periods, types, schools of taste, are in themselves equal. “The ages are all equal, ” says William Blake, “but genius is always above its age.”

The Renaissance may be traced far into the middle age itself, with its motives already clearly pronounced, the care for physical beauty, the worship of the body, the breaking down of those limits which the religious system of the middle age imposed on the heart and the imagination.

To regard all things and principles of things as inconstant modes or fashions has more and more become the tendency of modern thought. Let us begin with that which is without—our physical life. Fix upon it in one of its more exquisite intervals, the moment, for instance, of delicious recoil from the flood of water in summer heat. What is the whole physical life in that moment but a combination of natural elements to which science gives their names?

And if we continue to dwell in thought on this world, not of objects in solidity with which language invests them, but of impressions, unstable, flickering, inconsistent, which burn and are extinguished with our consciousness of them, it contracts still further: the whole scope of observation is dwarfed into the narrow chamber of the individual mind.

To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.

Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only to be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire for beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.


Man speaks. We speak when we are awake and we speak in our dreams. We are always speaking, even when we do not utter a single word aloud, but merely listen or read, and even when we are not particularly listening or speaking but are attending to some work or taking a rest. We are continually speaking in one way or another. We speak because speaking is natural to us. It does not first arise out of some special volition. Man is said to have language by nature. It is held that man, in distinction from plant and animal, is the living being capable of speech. This statement does not mean only that, along with other faculties, man also possesses the faculty of speech. It means to say that only speech enables man to be the living being he is as man. It is as one who speaks that man is—man. These are Wilhelm von Humboldt’s words. Yet it remains to consider what it is to be called—man.

We encounter language everywhere. Hence it cannot surprise us that as soon as man looks thoughtfully about himself at what is, he quickly hits upon language too, so as to define it by a standard reference to its overt aspects. Reflection tries to obtain an idea of what language is universally. The universal that holds for each thing is called its essence or nature. To represent universally what holds universally is, according to prevalent views, the basic feature of thought.

To talk about language is presumably even worse than to write about silence. We do not wish to assault language in order force it into the grip of ideas already fixed beforehand. We do not wish to reduce the nature of language to a concept, so that this concept may provide a generally useful view of language that will lay to rest all further notions about it.

To discuss language, to place it, means to bring to its place of being not so much language as ourselves: our own gathering into the appropriation.

We would reflect on language itself, and on language only. Language itself is—language and nothing else besides. Language itself is language. The calculation and hence usually overbearing, call this proposition an empty tautology. Merely to say the identical thing twice—language is language—how is that supposed to get us anywhere? But we do not want to get anywhere. We would like only, for once, to get to just where we are already.

This is why we ponder the question. “What about language itself?” This is why we ask. “In what way does language occur as language?” We answer: Language speaks. Is this, seriously, an answer? Presumably—that is, when it becomes clear what speaking is.

To reflect on language thus demands that we enter into the speaking of language in order to take up our stay with language, i.e., within its speaking, not within our own. Only in that way do we arrive at the region within which it may happen—or also fail to happen—that language will call to us from there and grant us its nature. We leave the speaking to language. We do not wish to ground language in something else that is not language itself, nor do we wish to explain other things by means of language.

What does it mean to speak?

First and foremost, speaking is expression. Secondly, speech is an activity of man. Finally, human expression is always a presentation and representation of the real and the unreal.

It has long been known that the characteristics we have advanced do not suffice to circumscribe the nature of language. No one would dare to declare incorrect, let alone reject as useless, the identification of language as audible utterance of inner emotions, as human activity, as a representation by image and by concept. We still give too little consideration, however, to the singular role of these correct ideas about language. They hold sway, as if unshakeable, over the whole field of the varied scientific perspectives on language. Yet they never bring us to language as language.

If we must seek the speaking of language in what is spoken, we shall do well to find something that is spoken purely rather than to pick just any spoken material at random. What is spoken purely is the poem.

The primal calling, which bids the intimacy of world and thing to come, is the authentic bidding. This bidding is the nature of speaking. Speaking occurs in what is spoken in the poem. It is the speaking of language. Language speaks. It speaks by bidding the bidden, thing-world and world-thing, to come to the between of the dif-ference.

Pater is a wimpier version of Gautier; Pater has a much larger reputation as an art for art’s sake critic in the English-speaking world, however. Gautier presented art for art’s sake with meat on its bones; Pater is a ghost, by comparison, a bloodless spirit who speaks of art for art’s sake famously as subjectively felt “moments.” The Englishman’s modesty, however, in comparison to the Frenchman’s verbose honesty (I like the naked chicks!) makes Pater more useful for all sorts of post-modern politics.  The flamboyant, cigar-smoking Gautier sings the praises of the “naked woman,” while Pater praises, in passing, “the worship of the body,” which one can quickly see, implies more than Gautier’s good-humored, nonchalant heterosexuality.  Buttoned-up and abstract passion ends up presenting a canvas with more radical possibilities.

Heidegger fell into the post-modern abyss, with his theoretical “language is language,” a repetitive kind of poetry; one can find a certain sort of inspiration in Heidegger’s madness, unless one reads him too deeply, and then one becomes hopelessly lost.  Too much “knowledge” is a dangerous thing.



 Gautier.  Loves the useless because the beautiful is useless.



Mr. Locke very justly and finely observes of wit, that it is chiefly conversant in tracing resemblances; he remarks at the same time, that the business of judgment is rather in finding differences. It may perhaps appear, on this supposition, that there is no material distinction between the wit and the judgment, as they both seem to result from different operations of the faculty of comparing. But in reality, whether  they are or are not dependent on the same power of mind, they differ so very materially in many respects, that a perfect union of wit and judgment is one of the rarest things in the world. When two distinct objects are unlike to each other, it is only what we expect; things are in their common way; and therefore they make no impression on the imagination: but when two distinct objects have a resemblance, we are struck, we attend to them, and we are pleased. The mind of man has naturally a far greater alacrity and satisfaction in tracing resemblances than in searching for differences; because by making resemblance we produce new images, we unite, we create, we enlarge our stock; but in making distinctions we offer no food at all to the imagination; the task itself is more severe and irksome, and what pleasure we derive from it is something of a negative and indirect nature. A piece of news is told me in the morning; this, merely as a piece of news, as a fact added to my stock, gives me some pleasure. In the evening I find there was nothing in it. What do I gain by this, but the dissatisfaction to find that I had been imposed upon? Hence it is, that men are much more naturally inclined to belief than to incredulity. And it is upon this principle, that the most ignorant and barbarous nations have frequently excelled in similitudes, comparisons, metaphors, and allegories, who have been weak and backward in distinguishing and sorting their ideas. And it is for a reason of this kind that Homer and the oriental writers, though very fond of similitudes, and though they often strike out such as are truly admirable, they seldom take care to have them exact; that is, they are taken with the general resemblance, they paint it strongly, and they take no notice of the difference which may be found between the things compared.

Now as the pleasure of resemblance is that which principally flatters the imagination, all men are nearly equal in this point, as far as their knowledge of the things represented or compared extends. The principle of this knowledge is very much accidental, as it depends upon experience and observation, and not on the strength or weakness of any natural faculty; and it is from this difference in knowledge that we commonly, though with no great exactness, call a difference in Taste proceeds.

So long as we are conversant with the sensible qualities of things, hardly any more than the imagination seems concerned; little more also than the imagination seems concerned when the passions are represented, because by the force of natural sympathy they are felt in all men without any recourse to reasoning, and their justness recognized in every breast. Love, grief, fear, anger, joy, all these passions have in their turns affected every mind; and they do not affect it in an arbitrary or casual manner, but upon certain, natural and uniform principles. But as many of the works of the imagination are not confined to the representation of sensible objects, nor to efforts upon the passions, but extend themselves to the manners, the characters, the actions, and designs of men, their relations, their virtues and vices, they come within the province of the judgment, which is improved by attention and by the habit of reasoning. All these make a very considerable part of what are considered as the objects of Taste; and Horace sends us to the schools of philosophy and the world for our instruction in them.

Whatever certainty is to be acquired in morality and the science of life; just the same degree of certainty have we in what relates to them in works of imagination. Indeed it is for the most part in our skill in manners, and in the observations of time and place, and of decency in general, which is only to be learned in those schools to which Horace recommends us, that what is called Taste by way of distinction, consists; and which is in reality no other than a more refined judgment. On the whole it appears to me, that what is called Taste, in its most general acceptation, is not a simple idea, but is partly made up of a perception of the primary pleasures of sense, of the secondary pleasures of the imagination, and of the conclusions of the reasoning faculty, concerning the various relations of these, and concerning the human passions, manners and actions. All this is requisite to form Taste, and the groundwork of all these is the same in the human mind; for as the senses are the great originals of all our ideas, and consequently of all our pleasures, if they are not uncertain and arbitrary, the whole groundwork of Taste is common to all, and therefore there is a sufficient foundation for a conclusive reasoning on these matters.




It is as ridiculous to say that a man is a drunkard because he describes an orgy, a rake because he describes a debauchery, as to claim that a man is virtuous because he writes a moral book.

It is one of the manias of these little scribblers with tiny minds, always to substitute the author for the work and to turn to the personality, to give some poor scandalous interest to their wretched rhapsodies. They know quite well that nobody would read them if they just contained their personal opinion.

Books follow manners and manners don’t follow books. Pictures are done from models, and not models from pictures. Someone or other said somewhere or other that literature and the arts had an influence on manners. Whoever it was, he was certainly a great fool. It is as if one said: green peas make the spring grow; green peas grow, on the contrary, because it is spring.

There are two kinds of utility, and the meaning of the term is always relative. What is useful for one is not useful for another. You are a cobbler, I am a poet. It is useful for me that my first line rhymes with my second. I have no wish to disparage the illustrious profession of cobbler, which I honor as much as the profession of constitutional monarch, but I humbly admit that I should rather have my shoe unsewn than my line ill-rhymed, and that I’d rather do without shoes than do without poetry.

Is there anything absolutely useful on this earth and in this life which we are living? To begin with, there is very little use in our being on earth and being alive. I defy the most learned of my company to say what purpose we serve, unless it is not to subscribe to Le Constitutionnel or to any kind of paper whatever.

Nothing beautiful is indispensable to life. If you suppressed the roses, the world would not materially suffer; yet who would wish there were an end of flowers? I would rather give up potatoes than roses, and I believe that there is only one utilitarian in the universe who could tear up a bed of tulips to plant cabbages.

What is the use of women’s beauty? Provided that a woman is physically well formed, and that she is capable of bearing children, she will always be enough for economists.

What is the use of music? What is the use of painting?

Nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless; everything useful is ugly, for it expresses a need, and the needs of man are ignoble and disgusting, like his poor weak nature. The most useful place in a house is the lavatory.

I am among those to whom the superfluous is necessary.

I prefer to a certain useful pot a Chinese pot which is sprinkled with mandarins and dragons, a pot which is no use to me at all.

I should most joyfully renounce my rights as a Frenchman and as a citizen to see an authentic picture by Raphael, or a beautiful woman naked.

The most becoming occupation for a civilized man seems to me to be inactivity, or cogitating as one smokes one’s pipe or cigar.

My God! What a stupid thing it is, this so-called perfectibility of the human race! I am sick and tired of hearing about it.


This is an epic battle between a sensible, dignified philosopher and a crazy, outrageous one.

Edmund Burke demands that we trace the connection between art and life; he trusts that we can measure Taste, that Taste is not merely the whim of an individual person.  Is this a truth, or a dream?

Gautier believes art is precisely that which is not connected to life, but is best when it is a mere dream.

Gautier, painter, poet, critic, (b. 1811) gives us Art for Art’s sake before Pater, before Wilde.

We prefer reading Gautier.  He is delightful.

We wonder though, if Gautier is aware that his simple love of a Chinese pot makes the art traders rich, and that his “inactivity” is impossible?





Matthew Arnold: sentimental, dour, whiskered. Influenced T.S. Eliot.



Wordsworth says in one of his letters:—

“The writers in these publications, (the Reviews) while they prosecute their inglorious employment, can not be supposed to be in a state of mind very favorable for being affected by the finer influences of a thing so pure as genuine poetry.”

But is it true that criticism is really, in itself, a baneful and injurious employment; is it true that all time given to writing critiques on the works of others would be much better employed if it were given to original composition, of whatever kind this may be? Is it true that Johnson had better have gone on producing more Irenes instead of writing his Lives of the Poets; nay is it certain that Wordsworth  himself was better employed in making his Ecclesiastical Sonnets than when he made his celebrated Preface, so full of criticism, and criticism of the works of others? Wordsworth was himself a great critic, and it is to be sincerely regretted that he has not left us more criticism; Goethe was one of the greatest critics, and we may sincerely congratulate ourselves that he has left us so much criticism.

The critical power is of lower rank than the creative. True; but in assenting to this proposition, one or two thing are to be kept in mind. It is undeniable that the exercise of a creative power, that a free creative activity, is the highest function of man; it is proved to be so by man’s finding in it his true happiness. But it is undeniable, also, that men may have the sense of exercising this free creative activity in other ways than in producing great works of literature or art; if it were not so, all but a very few men would be shut out from the true happiness of all men. They may have it in well-doing, they may have it in learning, they may have it in criticising. This is one thing to be kept in mind. Another is, that the exercise of the creative power in the production of great works of literature or art, however high this exercise of it may rank, is not at all epochs and under all conditions possible; and that therefore labor may be vainly spent in attempting it, which might with more fruit be used in preparing for it, in rendering it possible.

For the creation of a master-work of literature two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment, and the man is not enough without the moment; the creative power has, for its happy exercise, appointed elements, and those elements are not in its own control.




Lithography enabled graphic art to illustrate everyday life, and it began to keep pace with printing. But only a few decades after its invention, lithography was surpassed by photography. For the first time in the process of pictorial reproduction, photography freed the hand of the most important artistic functions which henceforth devolved only upon the eye looking into a lens. Since the eye perceives more swiftly than the hand can draw, the process of pictorial reproduction was accelerated so enormously that it could keep pace with speech. A film operator shooting a scene in the studio captures the images at the speed of an actor’s speech. Just as lithography virtually implied the illustrated newspaper, so did photography foreshadow the sound film.

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.

The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol.


It seems to us that Arnold is merely speculating to no purpose, while Benjamin really has something to say.






Is the photograph modernity’s face?




The world—and even the world of artists—is full of people who can go to the Louvre, walk rapidly, without so much as a glance, past rows of very interesting, though secondary, pictures, to come to a rapturous halt in front of a Titian or a Raphael—one of those that have been most popularized by the engraver’s art; then they will go home happy, not a few saying to themselves, ‘I know my Museum.’ Just as there are people who, having once read Bossuet and Racine, fancy that they have mastered the history of literature.

Fortunately from time to time there come forward righters of wrong, critics, amateurs, curious enquirers, to declare that Raphael, or Racine, does not contain the whole secret, and that the minor poets too have something good, solid and delightful to offer; and finally that however much we love general beauty, as it is expressed by classical poets and artists, we are no less wrong to neglect particular beauty, the beauty of circumstance and the sketch of manners.

The child sees everything in a state of newness; he is always drunk. Nothing more resembles what we call inspiration than the delight with which a child absorbs form and color. I am prepared to go even further and assert that inspiration has something in common with a convulsion, and that every sublime thought is accompanied by a more or less violent nervous shock. The man of genius has sound nerves, while those of the child are weak. With the one, Reason has taken up a considerable position; with the other, Sensibility is almost the whole being. But genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.




A technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself. It is the coercive nature of society alienated from itself.  Automobiles, bombs, and movies keep the whole thing together until their leveling element shows its strength in the very wrong which it furthered. It has made the technology of the culture industry no more than the achievement of standardization and mass production. The need which might resist central control has already been suppressed by the control of the individual consciousness.

The step from the telephone to the radio has clearly distinguished the roles. The former still allowed the subscriber to play the role of subject, and was liberal. The latter is democratic: it turns all participants into listeners and authoritatively subjects them to broadcast programs which are all exactly the same.

Real life is  becoming indistinguishable from the movies. The sound film, far surpassing the theater of illusion, leaves no room for the imagination or reflection on the part of the audience, who is unable to respond within the structure of the film, yet deviate from its precise detail without losing the thread of the story; hence the film forces its victims to equate it directly with reality.

Those very art forms which are known as classical, such as Mozart’s music, contain objective trends which represent something different to the style which they incarnate. Instead of exposing itself to this failure in which the style of the great work of art has always achieved self-negation, the inferior work has always relied on its similarity with others—on a surrogate identity.  In the culture industry this imitation finally becomes absolute.

No object has an inherent value; it is valuable only to the extent that it can be exchanged.


Adorno is nothing but Marx for the film age.  The pessimism is a necessary intellectual stimulation—how can we not love, “the film forces its victims to equate it directly with reality?” But how can anyone resist the revery of Baudelaire’s more optimistic, “genius is…childhood recovered…?”  Baudelaire’s pull is greater, even as we feel the dismay of being a “victim” of a film, or of—childhood?

Adorno’s fear that art which pulls us in will kill us probably goes back to the idea that hunting deer should take priority over drawing them on the cave wall.  It is always interesting, but finally tedious to mingle primitive fears with technological, economic, and reproductive sophistication.  Adorno’s distinction between telephone (active) and radio (passive) has merits in light of where technology is going today.

Philosophically, we find self-conscious modernism a big fat bore, and it can be downright malevolent sometimes, too.  The pathology of self-consciously modern philosophy is the primary manifestation to any real philosopher.  We see it in Baudelaire’s small-minded attack on the bourgeois love of Titian and Raphael.  My God, what is wrong with people loving Titian and Raphael?

Joni Mitchell recalled to an interviewer that her parents “each owned three records” when she was growing up (and she grew up in the age Adorno is writing about): her father owned three jazz trumpet records (Harry James, etc) and her mother, three classical piano records (Claire de Lune, etc).  People did not have huge record collections back then, but Mitchell found inspiration in her parents’ tiny collection.  Baudelaire looks forward to our over-saturated era with his recommendation that we seek “particular” beauty in numerous “minor” artists, but Baudelaire’s (childhood?) logic is flawed: great artists like Raphael give us more “particular” beauty than any given “minor” artist, and looking at a lot of minor artists does not give us more “particular” beauty—that would be to confuse substance with number.  It is tempting to say, and it’s often said: bring on the particular and give the ‘minor’ artists a chance, too, but when looked at soberly, this is nothing but crass, minor ambition.  We must always beware Raphael-hating.

The whole philosophical aesthetic of modern technology can be summed up by the despair generated when photography, which gives us so much to look at, gives us too much to look at, and instead of celebrating the variety seen and felt, we mourn the fact that everything now looks, and feels, the same.





Suppose someone asks me whether I consider the palace I see before me beautiful. I might reply that I am not fond of things of that sort, made merely to be gaped at. Or I might reply like that Iroquois sachem who said that he liked nothing better in Paris than the eating-houses. I might even go on, as Rousseau would, to rebuke the vanity of the great who spend the people’s sweat on such superfluous things. I might, finally, quite easily convince myself that, if I were on some uninhabited island with no hope of ever again coming among people, and could conjure up such a splendid edifice by a mere wish, I would not even take that much trouble for it, if I already had a sufficiently comfortable hut. The questioner may grant all this and approve of it; but it is not to the point. All he wants to know is whether my mere presentation of the object is accompanied by a liking, no matter how indifferent I may be about the existence of the object of this presentation. We can easily see that, in order for me say that an object is beautiful, and to prove that I have taste, what matters is what I do with this presentation within myself, and not the respect in which I depend on the object’s existence. Everyone has to admit that if a judgment about beauty is mingled with the least interest then it is very partial and not a pure judgment of taste. In order to play the judge in matters of taste, we must not be in the least biased in favor of the thing’s existence but must be wholly indifferent about it.


It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production. Then begins the epoch of social revolution.

In considering such transformations a distinction should be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the productive social forces and the relations of production.

Man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent.

There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value-relation between the products of labor which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to products of labor, so soon as they are produced as commodities.

The capitalistic mode of production ( essentially the production of surplus-value) produces thus, with the extension of the working-day, not only the deterioration of human labor-power by robbing it of its normal, moral and physical conditions of development and function. It produces also the premature exhaustion and death of this labor-power itself.

Kant is all reflection and Marx is all fight, but both exhibit the modern tendency to split the world into two forever divided camps; Kant, its use and its beauty, Marx, its use and its use-value—the latter of which Marx maintains, is experienced by mankind religiously and aesthetically; so finally Kant and Marx are very much the same, ushering in fantastically devised estrangement.

Though Kant might be considered ‘conservative’ and Marx, ‘radical,’ the lynx-eye of true philosophy notes the profound similarity between these two philosophers, both, in many respects, brilliant but deranged producers of woe.

It is difficult to pick a winner between these two deep and similar types of conflict.




Study Greek models night and day.

Whatever advice you give, be brief, so that the teachable mind can take in your words quickly and retain them faithfully.

Whatever you invent for pleasure, let it be near to truth. We don’t want a play to ask credence for anything. The elder citizens chase things off the stage if there’s no substance in them, and the high-spirited youngsters won’t vote for dry poetry.  Combine pleasure with usefulness.

There are some mistakes we forgive. The string doesn’t always give the note that the hand and the mind intended: it often returns a high note when you ask for a low. The bow won’t always hit what it threatens to hit. But when most features of a poem are brilliant, I shan’t be offended by a few blemishes thrown around by carelessness or human negligence. But what then?  If a copyist goes on making the same mistake however much he is warned, he is not forgiven; if a lyre-player always gets the same note wrong, people laugh at him. I’m even angry when Homer nods, though a doze is OK in a long work.

Poetry is like painting. Some attracts you more if you stand near, some if you’re further off.


Horace still charms with graceful Negligence,
And without Method talks us into Sense,
Will like a Friend familiarly convey
The truest Notions in the easiest way.

Tis not enough your Counsel still be true,
Blunt Truths more Mischief than nice Falsehoods do;
Men must be taught as if you taught them not;
And Things unknown propos’d as Things forgot:
Without Good Breeding, Truth is disapprov’d;
That only makes Superior Sense belov’d.

Some positive persisting Fops we know,
Who if once wrong, will needs be always so;
But you, with Pleasure own your Errors past,
And make each Day a Critic on the last.

Whoever thinks a faultless Piece to see,
Thinks what ne’er was, nor is, nor e’er shall be.
In every Work regard the Writer’s End,
Since none can compass more than they Intend.

Music resembles Poetry; in each
Are nameless Graces which no Methods teach,
And which a Master-Hand alone can reach.

Pope (b. 1688) was keenly aware of Psychology before it became a ubiquitous and pedantic school subject in the early 20th century: “Blunt Truths more Mischief than nice Falsehoods do; Men must be Taught as if you Taught them Not” is Psychology in a nutshell. Nothing more needs to be understood, for coming at Psychology directly always fails; if great authors teach anything, it is that all Wisdom is profoundly indirect. And yet intention is all—as flexible as Pope is, you will be held to that.

Alexander Pope also earns points by praising Horace, his opponent.

Team Pope really wants to win this thing.

We moderns like to flatter ourselves that we are more easy-going and flexible than our predecessors, but it depends on who one reads; Pope and Horace are not rigid pedants: stand back from this poem/painting, you’ll like it better; don’t hanker after perfection; there are some beauties no method can reach—Pope learned from Horace’s nonchalant wit. And yet the easy-going can have high standards, too, and intimidating terms Genius, Master, and God in Pope’s context serve, with gentleness and suavity, beauties which continue to please.



“Philosophy is the true Muse” —Thomas Brady



1. Plato
2. Aristotle
3. Horace
4. Augustine
5. Maimonides
6. Aquinas
7. Dante
8. Boccaccio
9. Sidney
10. Dryden
11. Aphra Behn
12. Vico
13. Addison
14. Pope
15. Johnson
16. Hume


1. Kant
2. Burke
3. Lessing
4. Schiller
5. Wollstonecraft
6. De Stael
7. Schliermacher
8. Hegel
9. Wordsworth
10. Coleridge
11. Peacock
12. Shelley
13. Emerson
14. Poe
15. Gautier
16. Marx


1. Baudelaire
2. Arnold
3. Pater
4. Mallarme
5. Nietzsche
6. Wilde
7. Freud
8. Saussure
9. Jung
10. Trotsky
11. Woolf
12. Eliot
13. Ransom
14. Heidegger
15. Benjamin
16. Adorno


1. Wilson
2. Burke
3. Lacan
4. Sartre
5. Brooks
6. De Bouvoir
7. Austin
8. Frye
9. Barthes
10. Fanon
11. Rich
12. Bloom
13. Derrida
14. Said
15. Cixous
16. Butler


“A man in black with a Meinkampf look”

The biography of the poet—how important is it?

For Romantic Poetry, it is of paramount importance, for Humanist and Renaissance and Platonist reasons—the poem is a reflection and extension of the human.

Our interest in John Keats, for instance, cannot be separated from an interest in the poetry of John Keats.

Biographical interest was considered heretical by the New Critics, who, as self-appointed “moderns,” were anxious to leave the Romantic era behind and root out those Keats professors merely interested in—“watering their own gardens,” as John Crowe Ransom impatiently put it—to replace them in the universities with what Ransom called “the new writing” professors.  Ransom’s 1930s essay was called “Criticism, Inc.” and is one of the crucial founding documents of the Program Era, though it is forgotten/ignored by the avant-garde today.

The now-famous Program Era was ushered in by the New Critics and their allies like Professor Crane at U. of Chicago and Paul Engle at U. Iowa—who was awarded his Yale Younger Poets prize back in the 30s by one of the Fugitive set.  Ford Maddox Ford, who met Pound off the boat in Great Britain, was an associate of the New Critics and helped to launch the Program Era in the U.S.  If you are still following this, the Fugitives, the Southern Agrarians and the New Critics (all Rhodes Scholars) were a single evolving animal, and very influential in terms of text book and canon in the last century.

T.S. Eliot, the Modernist master, went out of his way to attack Shelley’s character; Eliot was fiercely anti-Romantic in his writings.  People write poetry; one cannot eliminate biography entirely, but Modernism sought to dismantle its importance—Shelley, the Heroic Natural Man was replaced by Prufrock, the Grotesque Fictional one.  Writing became detached from reality.

The current debate re: Conceptualism is problematic for the very reason that its really a natural outcome of the Modernist Avant-garde: Writers like Amy King and Seth Abramson, Program Era products, attack anti-humanist Conceptualism without understanding its roots—or, understanding its roots but without any understanding of how they themselves are tangled up in them, having themselves completely swallowed the doctrines of the Modernist avant-garde.

One has to embrace the Romantics, as Scarriet does, and see the Modernists for what they are, to escape the “conceptualist” dilemma.

Suppressing biography to enhance the poem was an interesting experiment, especially in light of the fact that all the New Critics are now unknown, overshadowed by a single Romantic Ballad-like poem : “Daddy,” by Sylvia Plath, dripping with blood and biography.

In the Tournament contest today, Plath faces off against living poet Tony Hoagland and his poem, “Why the Young Men Are So Ugly.”

Hoagland’s poem is about young men in general.

Plath’s is about her father and her husband.    (The poem is explicitly about Hughes, but this fact is often overlooked.)

Guess which one wins?


They have little tractors in their blood
and all day the tractors climb up and down
inside their arms and legs, their
collarbones and heads.

That is why they yell and scream and slam the barbells
down into their clanking slots,
making the metal ring like sledgehammers on iron,
like dungeon prisoners rattling their chains.

That is why they shriek their tires at the stopsign,
why they turn the base up on the stereo
until it shakes the traffic light, until it
dryhumps the eardrum of the crossing guard.

Testosterone is a drug,
and they say No, No, No until
they are overwhelmed and punch
their buddy in the face for joy,

or make a joke about gravy and bottomless holes
to a middle-aged waitress who is gently
setting down the plate in front of them.

If they are grotesque, if
what they say and do is often nothing more
than a kind of psychopathic fart,

it is only because of the tractors,
the tractors in their blood,
revving their engines, chewing up the turf
inside their arteries and veins
It is the testosterone tractor

constantly climbing the mudhill of the world
and dragging the young man behind it
by a chain around his leg.
In the stink and the noise, in the clouds
of filthy exhaust

is where they live. It is the tractors
that make them
what they are. While they make being a man
look like a disease.


You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time—
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one grey toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene

 An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Tarot pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You—

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two—
The vampire who said he was you
and drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat, black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

Plath wins, 69-43 and advances to the Sweet Sixteen!


USA!  USA!  John Keats has a major task before him: slay Wordsworth!

William Wordsworth has to be a favorite to win any Romanticism tourney—the serenity of nature betokening our highest spiritual aspirations is nowhere better expressed than in the work of Wordsworth.  In the little-known poem of his that follows,  we see a perfect example.

Wordsworth’s only drawback as Romantic top dog is that in the Poetry (Romanticism) of the Child, Wordsworth always sings as a grownup, always presents himself as a rather didactic, wise old priest, and so the very identity of the poet with the type of poetry itself is lacking.  Otherwise Wordsworth is supreme, even in his plain demeanor.

In battling for Sweet 16 in the Scarriet 2013 Poetry Tournament, John Keats is also represented by one of his minor poems, inspired by his brother (with family) settling in America.  While Wordsworth sang of England’s trees (all the more sacred because the British Empire sought to cut down trees from other lands to feed its manufacturing might) Keats sings in a Promethean vein in the style of William Blake.

What a battle it is!


‘Tis the witching hour of night,
Orbed is the moon and bright,
And the stars they glisten, glisten,
Seeming with bright eyes to listen —
For what listen they?
For a song and for a charm,
See they glisten in alarm,
And the moon is waxing warm
To hear what I shall say.
Moon! keep wide thy golden ears —
Hearken, stars! and hearken, spheres! —
Hearken, thou eternal sky!
I sing an infant’s lullaby,
A pretty lullaby.
Listen, listen, listen, listen,
Glisten, glisten, glisten, glisten,
And hear my lullaby!
Though the rushes that will make
Its cradle still are in the lake —
Though the linen that will be
Its swathe, is on the cotton tree —
Though the woollen that will keep
It warm, is on the silly sheep —
Listen, starlight, listen, listen,
Glisten, glisten, glisten, glisten,
And hear my lullaby!
Child, I see thee! Child, I’ve found thee
Midst of the quiet all around thee!
And thy mother sweet is nigh thee!
But a Poet evermore!
See, see, the lyre, the lyre,
In a flame of fire,
Upon the little cradle’s top
Flaring, flaring, flaring,
Past the eyesight’s bearing,
Awake it from its sleep,
And see if it can keep
Its eyes upon the blaze —
Amaze, amaze!
It stares, it stares, it stares,
It dares what no one dares!
It lifts its little hand into the flame
Unharm’d, and on the strings
Paddles a little tune, and sings,
With dumb endeavour sweetly —
Bard art thou completely!
Little child
O’ th’ western wild,
Bard art thou completely!
Sweetly with dumb endeavour,
A Poet now or never,
Little child
O’ th’ western wild,
A Poet now or never!


Where holy ground begins, unhallowed ends,
Is marked by no distinguishable line;
The turf unites, the pathways intertwine;
And, wheresoe’er the stealing footstep tends,
Garden, and that domain where kindred, friends,
And neighbours rest together, here confound
Their several features, mingled like the sound
Of many waters, or as evening blends
With shady night. Soft airs, from shrub and flower,
Waft fragrant greetings to each silent grave;
And while those lofty poplars gently wave
Their tops, between them comes and goes a sky
Bright as the glimpses of eternity,
To saints accorded in their mortal hour.

Hard to pick this one.

Which iconic Romantic poet will advance?

The boy or the man?

It’s Keats, 91-89!!


In this contest between Sir John Suckling’s 400 year old poem, “If You Refuse Me Once,” and Philip Larkin’s 60 year old poem, “Talking In Bed,” the interest lies not only in looking back at two eras of poetry (English Renaissance, English Modern) but two eras of love.

It is yet fashionable to think of old poetry and modern poetry as very different; the bomb of revolutionary modernism that went off in 1910 is still showering its debris.

We like to think that very soon this is going to change, and Letters and life will truly reflect and enhance each other once again.

Modern poetry has thought to reflect life by showing everything in the mirror (poem) but with the fading of poetry’s popularity, we are finding that mere reflection does not enhance.  The moderns freed up poetry to reflect everything and anything, and nothing could be more simplistic and straightforward: the more things you can put in poetry, the better, right?

Careful.  How you answer that question could destroy you as a poet.   Because poetry is about to change.

Letters is enhanced by life, and life, by Letters, in a more unique and complex manner than previously thought.

Using Letters as a dumping ground does not make Letters reflect life better, and we should always be making Letters able to reflect life better, and not simply seeking to have it reflect as much of life as possible.

Modern poetry congratulated itself on this simple ability: poetry shall reflect as much of life as possible.  But it’s not that simple.

This is the sole reason why rhyme and meter were chucked by modern poetry.  This is modern poetry’s sole raison d’etre: reflect as much of life as possible.  “More is better,” as the dry-humored man in the A.T.T. commercials, sitting at a little table with the grade school children, currently says on TV.

The most significant change in poetry in the last 500 years has been both in form and content, but formal concerns are insignificant compared to content, simply because poetry has become prose and is still classified as poetry, and this practical truth trumps all other objections, no matter how much the formalist poet may protest.

You want rhyme?  Go to popular song.

But this is not an argument against formalism in poetry; we seek merely to look at the whole issue of old and new as truthfully as possible.  We hope our larger net will feature a catch that will in the long run please the formalist, as well as everyone else.  We argue for, not against.

The relationship between life and Letters is more complex than the ‘include everything’ modernist would have it.

Subject-wise, the most significant change in poetry is how love is no longer a leading feature of poetry.

Why did poetry and love coexist for hundreds of years?

Love helps Letters and life to enhance each other for several reasons that are so obvious, we may have lost sight of them for that very reason:

1. Love is a popular topic.   Life and letters cannot enhance each other if Letters is the domain of the few, or merely a rote, academic pursuit.

2. Love is of universal interest precisely because it incorporates every significant aspect of human existence: behavior, desire, morals, children, judgment, pride, spirituality, beauty, manners, and rhetoric.  It is from a practical standpoint not a ‘romantic’ one, that love is significant as a literary topic.  To reject love as ‘romantic sentimentality’ is to reject it for ‘romantic sentimental’ reasons.  No other topic comes close.

3. Since so much of past poetry involves love, to make it the prime topic of poetry again will reconnect old poetry and living poets, which will add to Letters and life mutually enhancing each other.

4. Finally, popular music was once all about love, and that’s no longer true; more & more popular music is about sex.  Love needs an art form again.  Who will step in?

When it comes to love and young people, the most sophisticated thing said is, “they’re going to have sex.”   This may be true, but certainly there’s a world of nuance and interest that ought to go far beyond this.

From a purely social historical perspective, one can see differences in the two poems below, but this does not mean that Sir John’s poem is not valid either as a treatise on love or as a poem.

Nor does Larkin’s more cynical approach to love cancel out the fact that Larkin’s poem is a love poem.

Nor should the social historical approach to poetry, or any approach to poetry, which finds moral or other differences between love old and new, invalidate the love poem as poetry.

Why should modern, gizmo poetry be considered more significant?


If you refuse me once, and think again,
I will complain.
You are deceiv’d, love is no work of art,
It must be got and born,
Not made and worn,
By every one that hath a heart.

Or do you think they more than once can die,
Whom you deny?
Who tell you of a thousand deaths a day,
Like the old poets feign
And tell the pain
They met, but in the common way?

Or do you think it too soon to yield,
And quit the field?
Nor is that right, they yield that first entreat;
Once one may crave for love,
But more would prove
This heart too little, that too great.

Oh that I were all soul, that I might prove
For you as fit a love
As you are for an angel; for I know,
None but pure spirits are fit loves for you.

You are all ethereal; there’s in you no dross,
Nor any part that’s gross.
Your coarsest part is like a curious lawn,
The vestal relics for a covering drawn.

Your other parts, part of the purest fire
That ever Heaven did inspire,
Makes every thought that is refined by it
A quintessence of goodness and of wit.

Thus have your raptures reached to that degree
In love’s philosophy,
That you can figure to yourself a fire
Void of all heat, a love without desire.

Nor in divinity do you go less;
You think, and you profess,
That souls may have a plenitude of joy,
Although their bodies meet not to employ.

But I must needs confess, I do not find
The motions of my mind
So purified as yet, but at the best
My body claims in them an interest.

I hold that perfect joy makes all our parts
As joyful as our hearts.
Our senses tell us, if we please not them,
Our love is but a dotage or a dream.

How shall we then agree? you may descend,
But will not, to my end.
I fain would tune my fancy to your key,
But cannot reach to that obstructed way.

There rests but this, that whilst we sorrow here,
Our bodies may draw near;
And, when no more their joys they can extend,
Then let our souls begin where they did end.

TALKING IN BED—Philip Larkin

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds about the sky,

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

This contest is too close to call…!

But someone has to win.

Suckling 99 Larkin 98

Sir John Suckling is going to the Sweet 16!


Lyric poetry once had simple things to say and said them as memorably as possible.

Was that such a bad idea?

Here is Catullus, from two thousand years ago, taking on Herrick, from 500 years ago.  Catullus, the ancient Roman, requires translation (a new one from Scarriet) while Herrick’s Renaissance English is his:


Lesbia, you ask how many kisses of yours
Are enough to satisfy my desires?
As many grains of Libyan sand on Libyan shores
That lie between the oracle of Jupiter’s fires
And Battiades’ tomb among Cyrenean cedars
Where Egypt’s Jupiter is worshiped;

As many stars, when the night moves not,
That gaze on desires no one else sees;
As many of your mad kisses kissed
For mad Catullus that ever were,
Impossible to count from any spot
That might be hiding spies with evil tongues.


GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,
    Old time is still a-flying :
And this same flower that smiles to-day
    To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
    The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
    And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
    When youth and blood are warmer ;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
    Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
    And while ye may go marry :
For having lost but once your prime
    You may forever tarry.

Catullus was naughty, and therefore his poem is dramatic.  Herrick was a life-long bachelor who spent his life writing occasional poems to please others; therefore his poem is didactic.

How to pick a winner?

Herrick had a marvelous ear; Catullus, in Latin, is lost to us in English.

Catullus survives because of a single volume of his that was discovered in an old house in Italy hundreds of years after his death.

He is not considered a major poet, and yet Catullus talks to us.

Catullus wins 87 to 83!


Goethe and Burns battle with poems of exquisite love.  Post-modern theories in abeyance, here is civilizing emotion, whose benefits justify these stupid sentiments.  Be stupid, be sentimental, be civilized, be happy, is the secret of the old poets.

THE VIOLET—Johann Goethe (trans. A.S. Kline)

A violet in the meadow grew,
Bowed to earth, and hid from view:
It was a dear sweet violet.
Along came a young shepherdess
Free of heart, and light of step,
Came by, came by,
Singing, through the flowers.

Oh! Thought the violet, were I,
If only for a little while,
Nature’s sweetest flower yet,
Till my Beloved picked me, pressed
Me fainting, dying to her breast!
So I might lie,

There, for but an hour!
Alas! Alas! The girl went past:
Unseen the violet in the grass,
Was crushed, poor violet.
It drooped and died, and yet it cried:
‘And though I die, yet still I die
By her, by her,
By her feet passing by.

A FOND KISS—Bobby Burns

A fond kiss, and then we sever;
A farewell, and then forever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.
Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,
While the star of hope she leaves him?
Me, nae cheerfu’ twinkle lights me;
Dark despair around benights me.
I’ll ne’er blame my partial fancy,
Nothing could resist my Nancy;
But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love forever.
Had we never lov’d say kindly,
Had we never lov’d say blindly,
Never met–or never parted–
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.
Fare thee well, thou first and fairest!
Fare thee well, thou best and dearest!
Thine be like a joy and treasure,
Peace, enjoyment, love, and pleasure!
A fond kiss, and then we sever;
A farewell, alas, forever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee!

The pathos of the German poet is irresistible, even though Burns’ famous words, “Had we never lov’d say kindly, Had we never lov’d say blindly, Never met–or never parted–We had ne’er been broken hearted,” sums up the pain of love memorably.

Goethe 81 Burns 78

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe advances to the Sweet 16!


Louis Simpson in his last days.  The poet did not live to see himself in Scarriet 2013 March Madness: Romanticism

The final combatants in the first round of Scarriet’s Fourth Annual March Madness Poetry Tournament are both pious men, not really Romantics, and yet any sort of devotional poignancy worked out in poetry can usually sound “Romantic,” though we are still not sure these poets are the real thing, though the Committee did finally invite them to the tourney.  

George Herbert was a 17th century Anglican priest who got along well with the king, and with everyone it seems, a divine who lived a clean, generous life.

Louis Simpson, who died last September, fought hard in the Second World War, a good egg who rhymed and resisted avant-garde nonsense.

WORKING LATE—Louis Simpson

A light is on in my father’s study.
“Still up?” he says, and we are silent,
looking at the harbor lights,
listening to the surf
and the creak of coconut boughs.

He is working late on cases.
No impassioned speech! He argues from evidence,
actually pacing out and measuring,
while the fans revolving on the ceiling
winnow the true from the false.

Once he passed a brass curtain rod
through a head made out of plaster
and showed the jury the angle of fire–
where the murderer must have stood.
For years, all through my childhood,
if I opened a closet . . . bang!
There would be the dead man’s head
with a black hole in the forehead.

All the arguing in the world
will not stay the moon.
She has come all the way from Russia
to gaze for a while in a mango tree
and light the wall of a veranda,
before resuming her interrupted journey
beyond the harbor and the lighthouse
at Port Royal, turning away
from land to the open sea.

Yet, nothing in nature changes, from that day to this,
she is still the mother of us all.
I can see the drifting offshore lights,
black posts where the pelicans brood.

And the light that used to shine
at night in my father’s study
now shines as late in mine.

LOVE—George Herbert

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack,
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d anything.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Herbert has to be thought the crowd-pleaser, here: “Taste my meat”??   Religious musings can take one anywhere!  Herbert, the Metaphysical, gets down to it, while Simpson, the Modern, seems sentimental and rambling, by comparison. 

Herbert over Simpson, 69-55.

That’s the end of the first round!  We had 64, and now we have 32 survivors, who will play for the Sweet 16!

To recap the East winners:

Coleridge d. Mazer
Poe d. Swinburne
Housman d. Marlowe
Eliot d. Nerval
Shakespeare d. Dowson
Ransom d. Drayton
Donne d. Dunn
Herbert d. Simpson

And here’s the upcoming contests for Sweet 16:


Goethe v. Burns
Frost v.  Blake
Catullus v. Herrick
Larkin v. Suckling


Keats v. Wordsworth
Plath v. Hoagland
Petrarch v. Barrett-Browning
Olds v. Eberhart


Shelley v. Dryden
Millay v. Yeats
Vogelweide v. Lawrence
Collins v. d’ Orleans


Coleridge v. Housman
Poe v. Herbert
Eliot v. Donne
Shakespeare v. Ransom



Can Dunn run with Donne?
In this contest—the penultimate First Round game as we round out things in the East—we have two monumental poems expounding iconic, monumental opposite beliefs and doing it so well that, at the end—and we find this so beautiful—both poems seem to be saying the same thing, if not quite agreeing with each other, then adding to each other in such a way, that ultimately, there is agreement.
But what a delicious war this is!
The 17th century Donne, devotional supplicant to love’s singularity.
The 21st century Dunn, with a shrug, putting on some music.
Yet, 21st century Dunn, in his way, is devotional, too, for isn’t the thing he obviously wants,  “you and me…here and now from here on in,” the same thing 17th century Donne not only wants, but gives us?
And if we disagree with Donne, there is nothing more for us, if we agree with Dunn—except less possibility for poetry—for Dunn, like all moderns, essentially surrenders to “random things out there,” that have no truck with poetry, for if we believe the moderns, whatever is “out there” is indifferent to us.
Further, the sort of thinking we do in poetry about what is “out there” has no reason to take place if indifference is truly the state of things.  And, further, if description of these “things out there” is sought, poetry, in terms of pure descriptiveness, falls short of the visual arts.
In spite of Dunn’s agnostic stance, the whole power of Dunn’s poem resides in the fact that he skillfully entertains what Donne embraces—the modern begs at the ancient, devotional table; the vignette of coming darkness at the end of Dunn’s poem is dependent on Dunn’s philosophical musing in the beginning, whether or not that musing is definitive, or not.
The poem—if we take ‘the poem’ seriously, depends upon an assumed philosophy, as well as an aesthetic (painterly, musical, sculptural, architectural) reality; the latter will usually crash if the former is not in place; mere babbling or scribbling is always possible, and there are even modern philosophies that support scribbling and babbling, but Donne is no special case: poetry is actually more beholden to Donne, than Donne to poetry; Dunn is real only in relation to Donne; all poetry is.  The world (see Donne) is far smaller than we think.
If the avant-garde doesn’t get this…well, that’s precisely why they need to puff themselves up with terminology such as: avant-garde.
We maintain that poetry is always poetry.
Dunn is speaking Donne’s language; the moderns, if they live at all, live in the past—all is one; Donne is right.
Donne’s “twas but a dream of thee” anticipates Dunn’s desire, if not his philosophy—of which he has none, save as it exists in Donne.
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.
HERE AND NOW—Stephen Dunn
There are words
I’ve had to save myself from,
like My Lord and Blessed Mother,
words I said and never meant,
though I admit a part of me misses
the ornamental stateliness
of High Mass, that smell        
       of incense. Heaven did exist,
I discovered, but was reciprocal
and momentary, like lust
felt at exactly the same time—
two mortals, say, on a resilient bed,
making a small case for themselves.        
      You and I became the words
I’d say before I’d lay me down to sleep,
and again when I’d wake—wishful
words, no belief in them yet.
It seemed you’d been put on earth
to distract me
from what was doctrinal and dry.
Electricity may start things,
but if they’re to last
I’ve come to understand
a steady, low-voltage hum        
      of affection
must be arrived at. How else to offset
the occasional slide
into neglect and ill temper?
I learned, in time, to let heaven
go its mythy way, to never again        
      be a supplicant
of any single idea. For you and me
it’s here and now from here on in.
Nothing can save us, nor do we wish
to be saved.        
        Let night come
with its austere grandeur,
ancient superstitions and fears.
It can do us no harm.
We’ll put some music on,
open the curtains, let things darken
as they will.
The “home crowd,” the “present,” clamors for the living poet, but John Donne defeats Stephen Dunn, 90-82


Michael Drayton—a metaphysical poet never included with the Metaphysicals—takes on John Crowe Ransom

The sweet flower that was Romanticism (late 18th cent—early 19th cent, Amer Rev, French Rev, Napolean, Beethoven) has its roots in the Renaissance (and its Ancient Greek re-discovery) and throws its shade on 20th century Modernism, cooling many a tortured, modern brow. 

Michael Drayton, a courtly poet and Shakespeare contemporary, who is easily as metaphysical as Donne, drew his love-metaphysics from Dante and Petrarch by way of Plato, and indulged in it so wonderfully, he may have put this type of poetry to rest forever. 

We are not sure why Drayton—born 10 years before Donne—never gets included with the so-called “Metaphysical Poets.”  We are just stupid not to cast a wider net.  T.S. Eliot, with his friend Ezra Pound, in the name of a narrow Modernist agenda, may be to blame.  The Modernists were often not so much critics as gerrymanderers. 

If you want metaphysical paradox, read Michael Drayton.  Then you may talk to us about John Donne.

This is Drayton’s most anthologized poem, and perhaps his least metaphysical one.

THE PARTING—Michael Drayton

SINCE there ‘s no help, come let us kiss and part–
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me;
And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of Love’s latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And Innocence is closing up his eyes,
   –Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
   From death to life thou might’st him yet recover.

We have always admired this popular poem: the firm, mono-syllabic “Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part—Nay, I have done, you get no more of me; and I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,” dissovling, finally in the hopeful, wavering of “yet recover” is wonderful. 

Great poems, in how they sound and in how they talk, and in how they simultaneously picture things, are like dreams, and this one resembles a dream.

Its Modernist counter is John Crowe Ransom’s, the poem we think is his best; often anthologized, “The Blue Girls.”

THE BLUE GIRLS—John Crowe Ransom
Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the sward
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.
Tie the white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.
Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail.
For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a woman with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished — yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.
No matter what one thinks of John Crowe Ransom, this poem is a masterpiece—an array of characters is presented: “bluebirds, blue girls, teachers old and contrary,” the poet with “loud lips” who will “publish Beauty, Beauty itself that is “so frail,” and then, when the stage has been filled in a mere 12 lines, the final stanza packs a wallop and unites all in one more character: “a woman with a terrible tongue, blear eyes fallen from blue.” 
It is with a beautiful poignance that the poet finally celebrates the “woman” over the “blue girls,” with the magnificent final line,  “Since she was lovelier than any of you.”
Ransom moves on, defeating Drayton, 72-69!


The tragic Ernest Dowson thinking: Can I really win this thing?

Genius finds the singularity that is universally true in that which the ordinary mind thinks is a mere particular. The singularity is usually overlooked not because it is hidden, but because it is so very obvious. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 56 states the issue immediately with its title phrase, “Chronicle of Wasted Time.”  The all-too-obvious-truth is: All poems, all writing, all memory, is a “chronicle” or record of that which is gone, or “wasted.”  No matter how accurate or “realistic” the record, it can never be reconciled to its subject—which belongs irrevocably to “wasted time.”   And this is not a fact to be considered by the poet; it is the fact to be considered by the poet: the poem records what no longer exists.  

This is bad news and good news, for the poet, and finally, because of the way Shakespeare entertains it, good news.

It is finally good news because Shakespeare’s insight is good news: which is why we recognize Shakespeare as a genius (a genius always means good, not bad)—not to merely use the word, “genius,” because some authority tells us Shakespeare is a genius, but because we ourselves are really impressed with what we read. 

The bad news is that everything articulated belongs to “wasted time;” everything in the past is gone.  Not just partially gone.  Gone.  “Wasted.”  Time has eaten it up.  It is no more. 

The good news is that the “chronicle” is extremely important—because it’s all we’ve got.  The poem may not be much, but it is all.  The “chronicle” (poem) is everything.  The poem is the reality.   And to the poet, that’s got to be thrilling.

Here’s the sonnet, in full:

When in the chronicle of wasted time
I see descriptions of the fairest wights,
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,
Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty’s best,
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I see their antique pen would have express’d
Even such a beauty as you master now.
So all their praises are but prophecies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring;
And, for they look’d but with divining eyes,
They had not skill enough your worth to sing:
For we, which now behold these present days,
Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.

Shakespeare positions himself in the present by twice saying, “I see” (lines 2, 7). 

The poet is looking at a recorded past: “in the chronicle” at “descriptions of the fairest,” but is quick to remind the reader that the past, because it is “wasted,” does not exist as the past, but, in the poet’s words, (the “chronicle”) in the present: “beauty making beautiful old rhyme.” 

Past and present are collapsed into each other; we have two “chronicles”—the one which Shakespeare sees (the “descriptions” lost to “wasted time”) and the one which is Shakespeare’s (present) sonnet itself. 

Implied, of course, is Shakespeare’s awareness that his sonnet (“chronicle”) records (and is thus a present disappearing into a past) the past “chronicle,” and, in so doing, replaces it as a past “chronicle,” too.  And yet the present tense of line 3, “making” presents for the reader a present presence: “beauty making beautiful old rhyme” which is “beautiful” in the present, even as it refers to “old” rhyme—“rhyme” which cannot be “wasted,” since Shakespeare is rhyming now in his sonnet, and about beauty!  Shakespeare’s sonnet is literally refuting “wasted time” by keeping “beauty” alive with “rhyme” that is both “new” (in his sonnet) and “old” (the past “chronicle” he is looking into). 

Shakespeare uncouples the past from the present, suddenly, right in the middle of the sonnet, lines 7 & 8.   Note how, while introducing, for the first time, “you,” the person in the poem he is praising, Shakespeare wrenches the present from the past:

I see their antique pen would have expressed  
Even such a beauty as you master now.

And Shakespeare continues in this same vein:
So all their praises are but prophecies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring
The “chronicle” Shakespeare sees is not merely a record of the “wasted” past;  it “prefigures” the future.
With the introduction of “you,” the collapse of past and present now gives way to collapse of past and future, which is a logical and natural progression:
First, past takes present into it (Shakespeare’s sonnet becomes the past “chronicle” to which it refers, since we, the present readers, are reading Shakespeare’s sonnet—which now belongs to the past).
Second, past takes the future into it (the past “praise” vaults into the future as “prophecy” which leap-frogs over Shakespeare’s “present” to we, the readers of the “future,” currently/in the future? reading Shakespeare’s sonnet.
The reason why “we” (in a present/future now forever blended) “have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise” is because “tongues to praise” would merely start the “chronicle” sequence all over again—unnecessary because Shakespeare has sketched out the whole issue already: “eyes to wonder” is the speechless fact that stands apart from all “chronicles” and the “chronicle of praise/prophecy” unites past, present, and future, which would otherwise be “wasted.”  
There is both a dead record of death and a dead record of life, but the best, Shakespeare, maintains, is a living record of life: which requires praise that must become prophecy.
If we are correct that the past/present trope in Shakesspeare’s Sonnet 56 is crucial to all poetry, we should find it to be true for any poem called on to examine.
We do see its importance. 
True, time is not Dowson’s conscious subject, as in the Shakespeare, but look how crucial it is: the poem begins, “Last night…” and the key turning is, “when the feast is finished…then falls thy shadow…”
Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was gray:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
The Dowson poem may be sweeter, but the  Shakespeare poem is a glory.
Shakespeare wins, 66-63.


Instead of dismissing old great poetry as old, which is the default reaction of many a modernist and post-modernist, it might profit the next generation, and the practice and appreciation of poetry in general, if we analyze why it is great.

The following poems by Christopher Marlowe and A. E. Housman (the Marlowe, a famous excerpt from his play, Faustus) positively shine with sweetness, glory, and popularity:


Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wittenberg be sack’d;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear’d to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!
When I was one-and-twenty
       I heard a wise man say,
“Give crowns and pounds and guineas
       But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
       But keep your fancy free.”
But I was one-and-twenty,
       No use to talk to me.
When I was one-and-twenty
       I heard him say again,
“The heart out of the bosom
       Was never given in vain;
’Tis paid with sighs a plenty
       And sold for endless rue.”
And I am two-and-twenty,
       And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.
This is one of those Scarriet March Madness contests in which it is a shame to have a loser—well, that’s been true of every contest this year.
Why are these two poems particularly great?
We might begin with this phrase: dramatic action.
These poems both ring with speech-action.
Sound and sense co-vibrate in the reader’s comprehension.
There is serial-interlocking action, serial-interlocking thought; the whole moves forward rapidly in its thought-action progress.
The rapidity is due not only to a wise choice of sounds, but due to the swift painting of rhetoric, rather than the inefficient rhetoric that attempts to paint. 
What you get so often in contemporary poems is a series of dry, detached statements—the interlocking quality of thought, sound, painting, and action simply does not exist, because this would carry the contemporary poet towards a style which does not sound contemporary enough.
This is the horrible truth.  Seeming stylistic choices, made in order to sound contemporary, lead the poet down a cul-de-sac of loosely-made, dull-sounding poems.
The error involves confounding style with method. 
For it isn’t about style at all, really.
The compositional method of a Shelley or a Swinburne, for instance, is thought by the brain-washed modern to be a stylistic tic of a certain time period—which, because it seems to be a style belonging to a certain time period, is automatically rejected.
Thus poetry, by a mere trick, is overthrown.
We note also a kind of moral, cause-and-effect urgency is present in both poems—is this the atmosphere great poems swim in, or is it a mere accident of what inspired the poet?  Probably the latter; we tend to think the issue is one of compositional method rather than morals, though these two might be mysteriously linked in some way.
Housman wins, 55-52, and advances to the second round.


Algernon Swinburne: nominated for a Nobel eight times. His aristocratic, maternal grandfather had 17 children

When the world moulders away and the ruins of the past become beautiful, falling down in their departing ruin, beautiful, art falls madly in love with the past, and all that’s new seems brutal, unpoetic, fast.  The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is a beautiful, red, island-wound in the middle of the 19th century, a realm in which High Romanticism found a practical home in a leafy, backwards-looking guild. The Brotherhood helped Whitman when America was neglecting him; it fostered Beautiful Socialism and kept artful, wan love alive; it is no surprise that swooning Swinburne was associated with The Brotherhood, or that Swinburne lives anew in Scarriet’s Romanticism Tourney, or that Swinburne is fated to face off in the first round against Poe.

Swinburne and Poe are “Wall-of-Sound” poets, creating waterfalls of poetic sound in their poems; their excess is logical, for poetry is not painting, nor is it philosophy; why shouldn’t poetry, then, use sound to maximum effect, since this is what distinguishes it from painting and philosophy? 

Both men were excessive, yet correct in their excess.   

Rumor of personal excess followed both men; Poe was more chaste, but both instinctively responded to false accusation in the same manner: confessing to more falsehood. Swinburne: I had sex with a monkey and ate it!  Poe: I set fire to my grandmother!

The following ballad shows Swinburne in typical rhyming fervor, but here is rigor and order, as well; a bracing, sane, beautifully built poem:


Let us go hence, my songs; she will not hear.
Let us go hence together without fear;
Keep silence now, for singing-time is over,
And ended all old things and all things dear.
She loves not you nor me as we all love her.
Yea, though we sang as angels in her ear,
She would not hear.

Let us rise up and part; she will not know.
Let us go seaward as the great winds go,
Full of blown sand and foam; what help is here?
There is no help, for all these things are so,
And all the world is bitter as a tear.
And how these things are, though you strove to show,
She would not know.

Let us go home and hence; she will not weep.
We gave love many dreams and days to keep,
Flowers without scent, and fruits that would not grow,
Saying, `If thou wilt, thrust in thy sickle and reap.’
All is reaped now; no grass is left to mow;
And we that sowed, though all we fell on sleep,
She would not weep.

Let us go hence and rest; she will not love.
She shall not hear us if we sing hereof,
Nor see love’s ways, how sore they are and steep.
Come hence, let be, lie still; it is enough.
Love is a barren sea, bitter and deep;
And though she saw all heaven in flower above,
She would not love.

Let us give up, go down; she will not care.
Though all the stars made gold of all the air,
And the sea moving saw before it move
One moon-flower making all the foam-flowers fair;
Though all those waves went over us, and drove
Deep down the stifling lips and drowning hair,
She would not care.

Let us go hence, go hence; she will not see.
Sing all once more together; surely she,
She too, remembering days and words that were,
Will turn a little toward us, sighing; but we,
We are hence, we are gone, as though we had not been there.
Nay, and though all men seeing had pity on me,
She would not see.

Poe’s Raven needs no introduction.   

In the work of poets like Poe and Swinburne, we see that thought and rhyme do go together.

Poe prevails, 77-73, but we cannot soon forget the Swinburne!


Last year’s Scarriet March Madness Tournament Champion, Ben Mazer: Should S.T. Coleridge be afraid?

First Round play in Scarriet’s Romanticism, Old and New, Madness Tournament East Bracket awaits: with icons Coleridge, Poe, Shakespeare, and T.S. Eliot, plus living poets Stephen Dunn and Ben Mazer!

First round play is finished in the North, South, and West.

So far, three living poets have managed to advance to the second round, mixing with the best Romantic poets of all time: Sharon Olds, Tony Hoagland, and Billy Collins.

Philip Nikolayev (“Litmus Test”) almost upset First Seed John Keats in the South.

One change to report: Algernon Swinburne has made the cut as a 15th seed in the East, replacing “The Ballad of Barbara Allen.”  The Scarriet Madness committee has an obscure rule that no Anonymous authors may compete, thus barring the folk ballad (often replete with Romantic genius).

Here’s a recap of the poets advancing:

Goethe “Holy Longing” d. Donald Justice “In Bertram’s Garden”

Frost “Stopping By Woods” d. Thomas Campion “Follow Thy Fair Sun”

Catullus “Lesbia Let’s Live Only For Love” d. Rimbaud “Lines”

Larkin “Whitsun Weddngs” d. Thomas Traherne “Eden”

Suckling “Why So Pale and Wan Fond Lover” d. Ashbery “Syringa”

Burns “Red, Red Rose” d. W.H Auden “Miss Gee”

Herrick “Delight in Disorder” d. Theodore Roethke “I Knew A Woman”

Blake “How Sweet I Roamed” d. Wallace Stevens “Peter Quince At The Clavier”

Keats “Ode To A Nightingale” d. Philip Nikolayev “Litmus Test”

Plath “Lady Lazarus” d. Poseidippus “Dorchia”

Petrarch “Whoso List To Hunt” d. Bishop “The Fish”

Wordsworth “On The Beach At Calais” d. Baudelaire “L’invitation Au Voyage”

Hoagland “A Color Of The Sky” d. Ovid “Amores I,V”

Barrett “A Musical Instrument” d. Betjemen “A Subaltern’s Love Song”

Eberhart “The Groundhog” d. Marvell “The Garden”

Olds “Primitive” d. Dante “Tanto Gentile”

Shelley “The Cloud” d. Arnold “Dover Beach”

Dryden “Song For St. Cecilia’s Day” d. Dylan Thomas “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”

Yeats “Lake Isle Of Innisfree” d. Tennyson “Mariana”

Millay “And You As Well Must Die” d. Pope “Ode On Solitude”

D.H. Lawrence “River Roses” d. Propertius “O Best Of All Nights, Return and Return Again”

Charles D’Orleans “La! Mort Qui T’A Fait Si Hardie” d. Spender “I Think Continually Of Those Who Are Truly Great”

Billy Collins “Passengers” d. Byron “Don Juan” excerpt

Walther Vogelweide “Under The LindenTree” d. Browning “Meeting At Night”

And those are the (North, South, West) winners so far!

We need 8 more from the East Bracket.

Ben Mazer, last year’s Scarriet March Madness Champion, who defeated Marilyn Chin for the title, advancing past the likes of Seamus Heaney and John Ashbery, draws a tough challenge this year: “Kubla Kahn” by Samuel Coleridge, perhaps the most famous Romantic poem of all time.  Last year’s amazing run by Mazer was against living poets.

Here’s the Mazer entry:


She was a hothouse flower, but she grew
to such proportions that she never knew

her brand of people, less her brand of steeple,
and saw things as they happened, from the view.

Her husband took her on his trips to Asia,
to count the factories, and meet the heads
of government and business. In her beds
were flowers, chocolates, cinctures of aphasia.

In time the path sloped upward, and the driver
relaxed a bit, began to tell his story.
It grew less clear just who was driving who,
she, the loquacious one, or he, the taciturn McGiver,

or if it was a modern sort of dory.
As she listened, she began to rue
the little fables, and the many tables,
and the entire vast illusion, too.

As we read this brief poem by Mazer, up against Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, we might think it is a lamb going to the slaughter, but not so.  We observe, for instance, Mazer’s delicate ear in the first few lines: “grew, knew, people, steeple, from the view.”  We also note the compactness of imagery and story; an undertone of despair sweetly mixed with an undertone of humor; informative density “heads of government and business” effortlessly combines with lyric surface: “flowers, chocolates, cintures of aphasia.”

If we might take a moment to define the genius of the Romantic era and poetic genius in general, as evinced by Mr. Mazer, it is this: the poet of genius, moved by that love in which desire seeks its goal by any means necessary, fires all its guns in a burst of fervor and ardor in which no poetic strategy is rejected, no rule is obeyed other than: the more rules broken, the better; no poetic school or fashion is followed; the poet shoots all the arrows available in his quiver at the sun.

Mazer is not rhyming so much as rejecting the modern rule that you shall not rhyme—there is a difference between the two; the Romantic rebel, we feel, and we know not how, is doing the latter.

Shelley, in a poem, writes of a “cloud,” and that’s all he does, and the wise elders think, “You can’t just have a poem about a cloud!”

This is what Romanticism is: it is not “about romance,” per se; it is love following its own vibrations, passionately rejecting rules and embracing whatever-it-takes to enkindle a certain profundity of delight.

You cannot mention McGiver—much less use it as a rhyme!—in a brief, melancholy lyric and make it work!   But Mazer does.  This is what impossible-to-define-genius does.

It is not what genius does that makes poetic genius genius, but how it manages to make whatever what happens to be come to life in unexpected ways.

KUBLA KHAN, a dream fragment—S.T. Coleridge

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
   Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
   The shadow of the dome of pleasure
   Floated midway on the waves;
   Where was heard the mingled measure
   From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
A damsel with a dulcimer
   In a vision once I saw:
   It was an Abyssinian maid
   And on her dulcimer she played,
   Singing of Mount Abora.
   Could I revive within me
   Her symphony and song,
   To such a deep delight ’twould win me, 
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
This poem is a mess.  Yet it works, better than almost any poem ever written.   What sort of claptrap is this?  “A damsel with a dulcimer/In a vision once I saw” and yet who does not delight in it?  The Romantic era reached this pinnacle: poets created Taste by violating it, a phenomenon which has largely been missing from poetry ever since.  Since the 19th century, poets, in their compositional techniques, have been prosier, more correct—and colder.
Coleridge 88 Mazer 79
Mazer fights hard, but the iconic poem carries the day.




Robert Browning joins his wife in this tournament—Elizabeth Barrett advanced in her Round One contest—as a bridge between Romanticism and Modernism: one foot in each, and Barrett, a well-known poet before her husband, serves as that, too; she wrote verse drama (and corresponded with Poe) well before she wrote those famous sonnets to Browning, and in dramatic verse both she and her husband found speech in poetry, of which the honor often goes to Robert Frost.

The claim is made often: speech rhythms in poetry, etc.  But we suspect speech and poetry will always be oil and water, and the speaker will always own speaking more than the speech, and this is precisely why William Shakespeare, writing for actors, made poetry that is speech before Wordsworth, or Browning, or Frost.

“Meeting at Night” is a Browning lyric that boils with romanticism:

The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed in the slushy sand.

Then a mile of warm-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, through its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!

The landscape that moves, the adventure, the chiarascuro, it’s all lovely; though it feels to us that “and” begins too many lines—could we just strike some?—and “through its joys and fears” feels a little awkward.  In our experience, Browning’s verse always seems a little rough.

Browning matches up today against a 13th century (!) piece of Romanticism by a German gentleman, Walther von der Vogelweide.

This poem, like Browning’s, recalls a tryst—this time from the woman’s point of view, and the poem has the charm of speaking to exactly nobody, (where the Browning poem doesn’t really speak, it paints).  “Under the Lindentree” almost seems like an Ur-text of Bashful Romanticism. It is full of beautiful detail, even in its shame.

UNDER THE LINDENTREE (trans Michael Benedikt)

Under the lindentree
on the heather
there a bed for two was
and there too
you may find blossoms grasses
picked together
in a clearing of a wood
the nightingale sang sweetly.

I came walking
over the field:
my love was already there.
Then I was received
with the words “Noble lady!”
It will always make me happy.
Did he kiss me?  He gave me thousands!
O look at my red mouth.

He had made
very beautifully
a soft bed out of the flowers.
Anybody who comes by there
may smile to himself.
For by the upset roses he may see
where my head lay.

If anyone were to know
how he lay with me
(may God forbid it!), I’d feel such shame.
What we did together
may no one ever know
except us two
one small  bird excepted
and it can keep a secret.

Vogelweide defeats Browning, 78-75!

And that closes out Round One in the West, as now we move onto the East…


Byron: hated by husbands and modern poets. Can Billy Collins match up with him?

The chief objection to the poet from the typical sports watching lay person is that the poet ‘makes shit up.’

Yup, the poet does ‘make shit up’ and this is why philosophers like Plato object to them and why citizens immersed in reality have no time for them.

The world is full of shit, and shit is what most people are busily involved in—it’s the making the poets supposedly do which arouses suspicion and distaste for poets, because first of all, only God and people who work with their hands can ‘make’ something, and secondly, anyone who ‘makes’ something with words has got to be suspicious right from the start.

Common sense keeps words docile and doesn’t let words do anything tricky; poetry, on the other hand, lets words do anything they want; why should someone who maybe doubts their ability to keep all words under control, never mind all word-combinations under control, trust poetry?

It’s not surprising that poetry doesn’t have a lot of fans.

One might object by asking: what of the fabulist, the fictioneer, the novelist, the TV or movie script-writer? They get more love than the poet. Why?  Don’t they make up stuff with words, too?

Unlike the poet, the strict story-teller uses reality’s language, even if fantasy or sci-fi is the genre: words behaving themselves can talk about anything, but poet’s words do not behave. Misbehaving words afflict the mind itself, transforming the reader into something they may not recognize about themselves. This is scary.

The reader needs to feel safe: they prefer moral instruction which keeps their own mind intact as a reality construct, receiving reality’s information. Keeping a ‘made-up story’ at arm’s length is safe. Having your mind invaded by tricky words is something totally different.

The predictability of genre, reviewing, reader feedback and the ‘best seller’ phenomenon is crucial: this is why readers choose books by genre, by reviews, by recommendation, and by what’s on the ‘best-seller’ list.  The moral arc of predictable story-telling comforts the reader. The brains of most readers cannot receive beauty in language; words simply tell them what they can understand, and this is all that reading is for them.

Poets don’t cooperate with this system, because words which don’t obey a certain moral-reality-paradigm literally alter one’s brain and one’s morals.  Not all poets can do this, of course, nor could most readers have their brains altered by what they read even if they tried; but this is the perception in terms of readers generally choosing what they like or do not like.

Two poets who have more fans than most are contemporary poet Billy Collins, and 19th century poet Lord Byron, who had celebrity status from his poetry.

Collins takes great pains to not sound like a traditional poet.

Selling books is like herding bovines. Large house editors and publishers, if they really wanted to, could make Byron’s Don Juan a best-seller again: it would just require a large enough advertising budget and a movie tie-in.

It is not in the interest of publishers to do so, however, since if the industry can sell millions of books written in the plain style of King or Steele or Grisham, why raise the bar, Byron being so much a better writer?  Why build a cathedral when a wooden church will do?

Byron (beautiful, smart, funny) is dutifully kept in his place by the publishing industry; first of all, to make sure no authors feel they have to write well (like Byron) to sell, and secondly, Byron today occupies a down-trodden, sub-sub-position even within wretched poetry which, since Byron’s death, has morphed into a ‘modern’ product of plain speech and easy-to-grasp morals—as part of fiction’s publishing strategy of ‘most efficient bovine herding.’

Byron doesn’t sell today on account of being one of those tricky poets who ‘make shit up,’ barred from the lay reader’s comprehension.

Not only that, however: Byron is not even respected among poets today as a poet, rejected by them precisely because he is comprehended.

During poetry’s transformation from pretty to plain during WW I—when poets who wrote prettily (Brooke, Thomas, Owen) were literally being slaughtered in the trenches—as poems became plain-spoken to fit in with mass living, a last-minute alteration occured: seeing poetry had nothing now to distinguish it from plain speech, in a calmly calculated effort to keep poetry as the ‘elite’ art form everyone understood poetry to be, poetry labeled itself “difficult,” so that in its new plain state at least it would not completely disappear.

The anglo-american poetry industry made a Faustian bargain: poetry will continue to exist as a “difficult” genre the lay person cannot trust—and this will be poetry’s sole (but vital) distinguishing characteristic. It would attract a small following of the mad, but at least it would still exist as what the mad groupies were sure was “poetry.”

Not everyone in Modernville was happy this happened, but it did. Exceptions, of course, exist. Poets, determined to be understood, have written easily understood poems: on wheel barrows. But once an industry criterion is established, it doesn’t easily go away: a wheel barrow in a poem has deep meaning whether it really does—or not.  This is the iron law.  It has long since been established as poetry’s trade-pamphlet reality: all poems are/ought to be “difficult,” even little ones about wheel barrows. 

Poetry—whether by Byron, or not—is not popular today because not being popular became poetry’s identifying marker when poetry self-consciously became ‘modern’ and jettisoned all its previous charms.

Again, exceptions exist; elements of the public yearn to reverse the Modernist Faustian Bargain, and popular poems do peep through the cement occasionally. But obscenity-trial “Howl” was an ugly flower; the public still mistrusts poetry; “difficulty” lingers on as poetry’s identifying elitist marker.

Byron (past) and Collins (present) are good examples of populist, anti-modernist poetry; they are welcome participants in Scarriet’s 2013 Madness Tournament.

Collins writes plainly; it is the equivalent of one approaching a doe in the woods: “It’s okay! Don’t be afraid! I won’t hurt you!”

“At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats,” is the first line of Collins’ Madness Tournament entry, “Passengers.” 

There is no meter, no rhyme; just one line after another, as if it were prose—but easier.

Gently the doe is offered food: “At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats.”

PASSENGERS–Billy Collins

At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats
with the possible company of my death,
this sprawling miscellany of people—
carry-on bags and paperbacks—

that could be gathered in a flash
into a band of pilgrims on the last open road.
Not that I think
if our plane crumpled into a mountain

we would all ascend together,
holding hands like a ring of sky divers,
into a sudden gasp of brightness,
or that there would be some common spot

for us to reunite to jubilize the moment,
some spaceless, pillarless Greece
where we could, at the count of three,
toss our ashes into the sunny air.

It’s just that the way that man has his briefcase
so carefully arranged,
the way that girl is cooling her tea,
and the flow of the comb that woman

passes through her daughter’s hair…
and when you consider the altitude,
the secret parts of engines,
and all the hard water and the deep canyons below…

well, I just think it would be good if one of us
maybe stood up and said a few words,
or, so as not to involve the police,
at least quietly wrote something down.

Collins does not ‘make shit up,’ he merely records his quirky ruminations—the charming thing about “Passengers” is that it exists as an actual document of someone thinking about something which he cannot share.

The very people Collins could share it with are not allowed to access his thoughts—and the reason it cannot be shared is the very reason for the poem itself.

The “police” are absent censors until the poem is liberated in front of us—who become the “passengers” of Collins’ poem.

Byron is represented with a random excerpt from his long poem, Don Juan:

Hail, Muse! et cetera.—We left Juan sleeping,
       Pillow’d upon a fair and happy breast,
     And watch’d by eyes that never yet knew weeping,
       And loved by a young heart, too deeply blest
     To feel the poison through her spirit creeping,
       Or know who rested there, a foe to rest,
     Had soil’d the current of her sinless years,
     And turn’d her pure heart’s purest blood to tears!

     O, Love! what is it in this world of ours
       Which makes it fatal to be loved? Ah, why
     With cypress branches hast thou Wreathed thy bowers,
       And made thy best interpreter a sigh?
     As those who dote on odours pluck the flowers,
       And place them on their breast—but place to die—
     Thus the frail beings we would fondly cherish
     Are laid within our bosoms but to perish.

     In her first passion woman loves her lover,
       In all the others all she loves is love,
     Which grows a habit she can ne’er get over,
       And fits her loosely—like an easy glove,
     As you may find, whene’er you like to prove her:
       One man alone at first her heart can move;
     She then prefers him in the plural number,
     Not finding that the additions much encumber.

     I know not if the fault be men’s or theirs;
       But one thing ‘s pretty sure; a woman planted
     (Unless at once she plunge for life in prayers)
       After a decent time must be gallanted;
     Although, no doubt, her first of love affairs
       Is that to which her heart is wholly granted;
     Yet there are some, they say, who have had none,
     But those who have ne’er end with only one.

     ‘T is melancholy, and a fearful sign
       Of human frailty, folly, also crime,
     That love and marriage rarely can combine,
       Although they both are born in the same clime;
     Marriage from love, like vinegar from wine—
       A sad, sour, sober beverage—by time
     Is sharpen’d from its high celestial flavour
     Down to a very homely household savour.

     There ‘s something of antipathy, as ‘t were,
       Between their present and their future state;
     A kind of flattery that ‘s hardly fair
       Is used until the truth arrives too late—
     Yet what can people do, except despair?
       The same things change their names at such a rate;
     For instance—passion in a lover ‘s glorious,
     But in a husband is pronounced uxorious.

Byron is self-consciously rejecting old poetry with his jokey, “Hail, Muse! et cetera.”  Byron is more modern than many moderns would like to admit. Maybe it’s time to come out and admit that “Modern” is merely a brand. 

Byron, like Collins, also conveys the forbidden: love/sex/marriage advice: highly embarrassing to the public at large, which would prefer Byron to be a character in a novel, not a free-thinking poet speaking out in a poem as a thinly-veiled version of himself.

The chief fault with the Byron is the tone of lecturing, combined with the feeling that too much sweat is spilled for the sake of wit and rhyme that attempts to mitigate that same tone.  Otherwise, it’s just brilliant.

Collins, despite his prose, does use poetic language; note the assonance of: “some spaceless, pillarless Greece.”

One might say Collins and Byron are apples and oranges, but a winner there must be.

Collins 90, Byron 88.

Lord Byron goes down!


Stephen Spender between Auden and Isherwood: the Truly Great?

The two poems in today’s contest are what certain petulant members of today’s avant-garde might call Quietist—in the extreme. 

The avant-garde poet Ron Silliman took the term “Quietist” from Edgar Poe (eventually they all take everything from Edgar Poe).

Poe used “Quietist” to condemn a self-satisfied, New England puritan-astuteness, a Ralph Waldo Emerson type of wisdom, which Poe felt was mostly superior-sounding rubbish.

In Silliman’s avant alteration, “Quietist” has come to mean simply, not avant-garde, so we are to think that all avant-garde poetry (wretchedly obscure, cut-and-paste, 150-year-old Duchamp’s moustache-on-a-Mona-Lisa done over and over and over again…) is somehow exciting—when nothing could be further from the truth…

If you believe with Scarriet that it is not the poet’s job to know—but to be understood, you will be less likely to fall for Silliman’s avant-garde’s flattery.

These 2013 Scarriet Poetry March Madness Tournament poems are “populist” poems.

Charles D’Orleans and Stephen Spender, about to clash before roaring crowds, have produced the kind of works which make avant-garde insects scatter, running for the obscurity they require, to avoid the light poems such as this produce.

Poems like this do not arise from randomly tossing poetry kit magnets onto a fridge.

The trick that makes this whole issue somewhat difficult to grasp is this: the random, fridge-magnet poem (the avant-garde poem) has a certain textual integrity that the poems which follow—Silliman’s so-called “Quietist” poems—do not.

By “textual integrity,” we refer to the fact that before the fridge-magnet poem randomly ‘comes together,’ it exists no where else; its textual integrity is all the integrity it has.

The random fridge-magnet poem is a New Critic’s dream.

The random fridge-magnet poem is a conceptual poet’s dream, as well, since the conceptual poet gets to have effortless ‘textual integrity’ paired with the ‘concept:’ I made the executive decision as a conceptual poet to throw magnets at a fridge and to employ randomness as a blow against mere Quietism.

The following “populist” poems are not necessarily difficult to write, and we all know they are not difficult to read, or understand;—the randomly generated fridge-magnet poem is difficult to read, and in some people’s minds, is better for that reason alone.

But the issue, contrary to the Modernist mantra, is not “difficulty,” for random poems and bad poems can be “difficult” as hell; to promote “difficulty” as a standard is nothing more than a Modernist, avant-garde ruse.

The poems by D’Orleans and Spender exist not just in their textuality but mostly in the truth of what was felt and thought prior to their existence as texts—a concept difficult for the New Critic and the avant-garde Modernist to wrap their minds around, but which is a concept celebrated by those who actually love poetry.

Las! Mort Qui T’a Fait Si Hardie (trans. Fred Chappell)
Charles D’ Orleans (1394-1465)

Death, you have made it your pleasure
To take the noble princess
Who was my comfort, my treasure,
And everything to bless
My life. Since my mistress
You take, take once again:
Take me, her servitor.
Better to die than bear
Such torment, sorrow, and pain.

She was beautiful past measure,
In the flower of youth she was.
May God work His displeasure
Upon your faithlessness!
My anguish would be less
If you had taken her when
Old age had burdened her;
But you hastened to show your power
With torment, sorrow, and pain.

I live imprisoned, my leisure
Lonely, companionless…
My Lady, goodbye. Now has our
Love departed. This promise
I make to you: largess
Of prayers and, until slain,
My heart, yours evermore,
Forgetting nothing in its sore
Torment, sorrow and pain.

God, Who art sovereign
Of all, in mercy ordain
That the bright spirit of her
Will only briefly endure
Torment, sorrow, and pain.

We love this poem, and it would seem to survive its translation, as well.

It goes against this chestnut from Sir Stephen Spender, who ran Horizon magazine (1940-49) with, it turns out, CIA money.  He was part of Auden’s circle, and a fine poet.


I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

What is precious is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are fŠted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center.
Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.

We don’t know if we believe the poet when he says, “I think continually of those who were truly great,” but it is a forceful and memorable phrase.

D’Orleans wins, 88-84.

The 15th century poet advances!


Did Sextus Propertius (Rome, 55 BC) invent Western romantic love?

Properitus is one of the first to write gendered opposition poem sequences to one maddening beloved (Cynthia) a trope repeated endlessly in the Western poetic tradition: Dante’s Beatrice, Petrarch’s Laura, Sir Philip Sidney’s Stella, Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, are just a few examples.

One surely can’t put it down to one poet: one could say Western Romance was invented by Augustan Rome, where loose morals, personified by loose women, unraveled the Empire in a manner that made news while it was happening.  Sex became a weapon of revolt not only among women, but among competing males.

Woman’s liberation in Rome meant sex outside of marriage, which, of course, gets the poet’s juices flowing: the poem just isn’t necessary inside a stable marriage; outside the marriage, however, the writing of a poem becomes the man getting up an unofficial document, an erotic certificate, of a woman not officially his.

The Roman love elegy is not just the male celebrating love, it also represents the male in panic mode: how to control one’s beloved?

We could go so far as to say that the poem during the reign of Augustus invented Western romantic love.


How she let her long hair down over her shoulders, making a love cave around her face.
Return and return again.

How when the lamplight was lowered she pressed against him, twining her fingers in his.
Return and return again.

How their legs swam together like dolphins and their toes played like little tunnies.
Return and return again.

How she sat beside him cross-legged, telling him stories of her childhood.
Return and return again.

How she closed her eyes when his were wide open, how they breathed together, breathing each other.
Return and return again.

How they fell into slumber, their bodies curled together like two spoons.
Return and return again.

How they went together to Otherwhere, the fairest land they had ever seen.
Return and return again.

O best of all nights, return and return again.

If the British Empire, a male-dominated, naval empire, was the modern-day Greece, its rival Germany was Rome.

D.H. Lawrence, son of a Welsh coal miner, eloped with a German Barnoness, Frieda von Richtofen.

Romantic love is, in the simplest terms, the reverse of war: the male, instead of the brave soldier, runs to the woman to hide in/with her.

Lawrence wishes to be lost “by the Isar” (a river in Germany) where “no one knows us.”

Propertius seeks shelter in the “love cave” of his lover’s hair.

The men wish to disappear with their women.


BY the Isar, in the twilight
We were wandering and singing,
By the Isar, in the evening
We climbed the huntsman’s ladder and sat swinging
In the fir-tree overlooking the marshes,
While river met with river, and the ringing
Of their pale-green glacier water filled the evening.

By the Isar, in the twilight
We found the dark wild roses
Hanging red at the river; and simmering
Frogs were singing, and over the river closes
Was savour of ice and of roses; and glimmering
Fear was abroad. We whispered: “No one knows us.
Let it be as the snake disposes
Here in this simmering marsh.”

We like the language of the Lawrence better—all those delightful ‘ings.’  The ancient poems are held hostage by imperfect translations.

Lawrence advances past Propertius, 75-69.


The woman is quicker to be annoyed by the slightest thing and this is a great advantage when it comes to composing poetry. The man will sweep problems under the rug or soothe all worry by announcing he will take care of it (no he won’t) or he will invent God to fix everything. Edna Millay laments death with eyes wide open like no one else.

To read Millay is like opening a door onto Great Poetry of the Past. One almost suspects it is a trick, she is so good. She is that good, for she is not writing in the Past but in her present, which to us is a default past only and no more the past than this moment is. If we read it as the past, we are confusing the great and the past, which have nothing to do with each other and are, in fact, opposites, since what is great is eternal and has no past.


And you as well must die, belovèd dust,
And all your beauty stand you in no stead;
This flawless, vital hand, this perfect head,
This body of flame and steel, before the gust
Of Death, or under his autumnal frost,
Shall be as any leaf, be no less dead
Than the first leaf that fell, this wonder fled,
Altered, estranged, disintegrated, lost.
Nor shall my love avail you in your hour.
In spite of all my love, you will arise
Upon that day and wander down the air
Obscurely as the unattended flower,
It mattering not how beautiful you were,
Or how belovèd above all else that dies.

The whole thrust of Millay’s poem is Do you see how unfair this is?  Others may shrug in the face of death but these others are not poets—since a shrug won’t write many poems.

Millay isn’t trying to cleverly rationalize the problem of death away: she chooses to focus on two things: death and praise of the beloved who must die and the praise is so beautifully done that it makes Millay’s annoyance with death beautiful–if that is possible.

It doesn’t take Millay long to say what she needs to say, precisely because there is no solution to the problem and so the short lyric form is ideal for her in this case (as it is for her generally), since neither complaint nor beauty can work rhetorically for very long, and Millay is more than up to the template’s task, as she makes every line beautiful.

This is why Millay is such an exceptional poet. Poets can do many things, but few can make every line beautiful–and we use the word, “beautiful,” in the profoundest sense possible–we don’t mean pretty or comely or abstract, since Millay’s topic–death–is the most serious topic there is.

Beauty is not found on the highway.  There are very specific reasons for beauty, but this explanation of Millay’s poem need not diminish her, since poetry is not found on the highway, either.  ‘Highway poets’ may object.  Let them. (Millay was abused in print by Pound’s influential clique.) Millay needs no apology.

Alexander Pope belongs to that poetic tradition in which a certain amount of critical abuse reigns in the public arena—healthy and dangerous for the individuals involved (like mountain trekking)—but healthy, we think, for Letters in general. Scarriet believes in Criticism, and if Criticism is good, then Scarriet’s Poetry March Madness Tournament is good. Let the whole chorus sing out-loud in harmony.

We are sad there has to be a loser here.  Millay is 4th seeded in the West, and Pope, not thought of as a ‘Romantic,’ is only seeded 13th.  Born in the 17th century, Pope’s lyric, “Ode On Solitude” out-Wordsworths Wordsworth.  The pyramidal stanza, which reminds us of Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” is especially forceful:

ODE ON SOLITUDE–Alexander Pope

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest! who can unconcern’dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mix’d; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.

These poems are delicious compliments to each other; not surprisingly, the game has gone into overtime, as both teams refuse to lose, clawing at each other, embracing each other like lovers, exhausted, the battle refusing to end.

Finally, it’s over: Millay 106, Pope 105


A funny thing happens when poems gather for battle: the superficial aspects of song take on a new prominence; the mind cannot take in all the “nuances” of “poetry,” and so, as poems eager for a crown press upon us in the public tumult, where emotional cries punctuate the slopes of ideas, the surface-joys of music become our pleasure, almost as if we were at home with a phonograph, or at a rowdy concert, letting our minds go…

Oh if you can just get past JohnJohnny” Dryden’s “Nature underneath a heap/Of jarring atoms lay,/And could not heave her head,” knowing Nature cannot heave her head because the world has not yet arisen, and all the pre-world atoms are still in chaos…if you can not worry this idea too much, musically you’ll be better off…

To hell with Ezra Pound, already, and his grumbly precepts against the full-on joys of music.

Dryden’s “Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” tickles our senses like a brass band:

From harmony, from heavenly harmony
This universal frame began:
When Nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
“Arise, ye more than dead!”
Then cold and hot, and moist and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And Music’s power obey.
From harmony, from heavenly harmony
This universal frame began:
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man.

What passion cannot Music raise and quell?
When Jubal struck the chorded shell
His listening brethren stood around,
And, wondering, on their faces fell
To worship that celestial sound.
Less than a god they thought there could not dwell
Within the hollow of that shell
That spoke so sweetly and so well.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?

The trumpet’s loud clangour
Excites us to arms,
With shrill notes of anger
And mortal alarms.
The double double double beat
Of the thundering drum
Cries “Hark! the foes come;
Charge, charge, ’tis too late to retreat!”

The soft complaining flute
In dying notes discovers
The woes of hopeless lovers,
Whose dirge is whispered by the warbling lute.

Sharp violins proclaim
Their jealous pangs and desperation,
Fury, frantic indignation,
Depth of pains, and height of passion
For the fair disdainful dame.

But oh! what art can teach,
What human voice can reach
The sacred organ’s praise?
Notes inspiring holy love,
Notes that wing their heavenly ways
To mend the choirs above.

Orpheus could lead the savage race,
And trees uprooted left their place
Sequacious of the lyre:
But bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher:
When to her Organ vocal breath was given
An Angel heard, and straight appeared –
Mistaking Earth for Heaven.

As from the power of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great creator’s praise
To all the blessed above;
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And music shall untune the sky.

Ta Da!!

Of course there is a philosophy here, but it’s such a deep one, it’s shallow: music is the cause and effect of both the world, and the world beyond.  Who cannot groove to this?  “More than dead” is how Dryden describes the cold universe before the world was made, and up the world arises—sweeter and more miraculous than any zombie movie.  Can you dig it, baby?

Dylan Thomas, the favored seed in this Western Bracket contest with Dryden, presents what has to be experienced by the crowd in the Scarriet Madness arena as music, and it creeps upon us with the same magic in the same manner that Mr. Dryden’s did:


And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

Dylan Thomas was a glorious, and yet a lazy, sloppy poet—he found gold with

Though lovers be lost love shall not
And Death shall have no dominion.

But we wish he had worked on “Dominion” more—even made more stanzas, because the template is so admirable; look how the third and final stanza droops with vague talk of “gulls” and “daisies”—to finish a magnificent poem so poorly!  What was Dylan thinking?  Speak the first two stanzas aloud to yourself and it will bring tears, and then stumble over the third, ruining the climax…”No more gulls cry at their ears”???

Let’s move quickly to the second contest, Marla Muse, recovered from your fainting spell…

Marla Muse (a little wearily): Thank you, Tom.

You’re welcome, Marla.  I like your green dress.

William Butler Yeats is a poet the Official modernists do not know what to do with, because Yeats—does not rhyme with Keats—sang like the Old Romantics, or at least, superficially, he did…if you really listen, Yeats is close to a doggerelist when compared to Shelley and Keats…but then analysis of any kind is barred when it comes to authors like Yeats, covered as they are with the whole Irish thing, exploited by every hypocrite that leaves his native land to make it big in London.  One simply can’t be reasonable, honest, or discerning inside that green, blathering cloud.

But this poem of Yeats’ is uncannily beautiful—everything seems right.  It probably is Yeats’ best poem, even though it lacks a lot of the fussy symbolism and foreboding pomposity of his ‘major’ poems, and it merely copies Wordsworth.  But who cares?  To read this poem is to fall under a sweet and delicate spell, each and every time.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavement grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

There is something about the confidence of that first line: “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,” which lures one in…

And Yeats’ opponent today—Tennyson!!   Once that name—Tennyson—was equated with poetry itselfBut like Longfellow, hairy, tobacco-stained, Tennyson doesn’t thrive in post-modernity’s placid, plastic glare. Lord Tennyson, reputed as that stuffy, imperialist, Victorian, Englishman, falters, fades in the gloaming by the moat…  The memory of Lord Alfred Tennyson in poetic circles seems to moulder even as the memory of William Butler Yeats, the Irish mystic, flies on, steadily…

But now the music begins, the music arrives in the dark of our subjectivity…  Listen!  Here is the song that surely made young Emily Dickinson fear for her soul…but it freed her, for what self-pity was allowed her, the poor recluse, after this!


WITH blackest moss the flower-pots
    Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
    That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds look’d sad and strange:
    Unlifted was the clinking latch;
    Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange.
        She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!’

Her tears fell with the dews at even;
    Her tears fell ere the dews were dried;
She could not look on the sweet heaven,
    Either at morn or eventide.
After the flitting of the bats,
    When thickest dark did trance the sky,
    She drew her casement-curtain by,
And glanced athwart the glooming flats.
        She only said, ‘The night is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!’

Upon the middle of the night,
    Waking she heard the night-fowl crow:
The cock sung out an hour ere light:
    From the dark fen the oxen’s low
Came to her: without hope of change,
    In sleep she seem’d to walk forlorn,
    Till cold winds woke the gray-eyed morn
About the lonely moated grange.
        She only said, ‘The day is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!’

About a stone-cast from the wall
    A sluice with blacken’d waters slept,
And o’er it many, round and small,
    The cluster’d marish-mosses crept.
Hard by a poplar shook alway,
    All silver-green with gnarled bark:
    For leagues no other tree did mark
The level waste, the rounding gray.
        She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!’

And ever when the moon was low,
    And the shrill winds were up and away,
In the white curtain, to and fro,
    She saw the gusty shadow sway.
But when the moon was very low,
    And wild winds bound within their cell,
    The shadow of the poplar fell
Upon her bed, across her brow.
        She only said, ‘The night is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!’

All day within the dreamy house,
    The doors upon their hinges creak’d;
The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse
    Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek’d,
Or from the crevice peer’d about.
    Old faces glimmer’d thro’ the doors,
    Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
Old voices call’d her from without.
        She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,’
            I would that I were dead!’

The sparrow’s chirrup on the roof,
    The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof
    The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
    When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
    Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower.
        Then, said she, ‘I am very dreary,
            He will not come,’ she said;
        She wept, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            O God, that I were dead!’

This poem, with its never-ending, melancholy gloom, reaches a peak of that kind of sad expression which seems fantastical, in the way Tennyson expresses it, but which actually is ordinary and wraps itself around us all.

“Mariana” had to be written, so that Victorianism could end, and Modernism could begin. Tennyson brought us to the top of the old heights, so the new low ground could be made ready.

But will such music ever end?

Who prevails, in the end, in the very end, the Yeats, or the Tennyson?

In our action today, we see Dryden triumph over Thomas, 72-69.

And here, in the corner of the stadium, Tennyson weeps, for by a score of 80-79, Yeats has won.


We all know “The Cloud” by Shelley, and “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold are classics.

Both poems seek a redemptive consistency amidst change and fear, and it would be safe to say this is the chief role of religion, and once, the chief role of poetry.

Shelley’s poem is remarkable for its sound—no contemporary poet can match Shelley’s music without crashing and burning in sounding like Dr. Seuss.  Faith in this kind of poetry is necessary to persist in the beauty which can result—but more than beauty: the atomism of Shelley’s poem, its glittering movement, replicates the tumbling, mutating cloud-theme itself.


I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,
From the seas and the streams;
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
In their noonday dreams.
From my wings are shaken the dews that waken
The sweet buds every one,
When rocked to rest on their mother’s breast,
As she dances about the sun.
I wield the flail of the lashing hail,
And whiten the green plains under,
And then again I dissolve it in rain,
And laugh as I pass in thunder.

I sift the snow on the mountains below,
And their great pines groan aghast;
And all the night ’tis my pillow white,
While I sleep in the arms of the blast.
Sublime on the towers of my skiey bowers,
Lightning my pilot sits;
In a cavern under is fettered the thunder,
It struggles and howls at fits;
Over earth and ocean, with gentle motion,
This pilot is guiding me,
Lured by the love of the genii that move
In the depths of the purple sea;
Over the rills, and the crags, and the hills,
Over the lakes and the plains,
Wherever he dream, under mountain or stream,
The Spirit he loves remains;
And I all the while bask in Heaven’s blue smile,
Whilst he is dissolving in rains.

The sanguine Sunrise, with his meteor eyes,
And his burning plumes outspread,
Leaps on the back of my sailing rack,
When the morning star shines dead;
As on the jag of a mountain crag,
Which an earthquake rocks and swings,
An eagle alit one moment may sit
In the light of its golden wings.
And when Sunset may breathe, from the lit sea beneath,
Its ardours of rest and of love,
And the crimson pall of eve may fall
From the depth of Heaven above,
With wings folded I rest, on mine aëry nest,
As still as a brooding dove.

That orbèd maiden with white fire laden,
Whom mortals call the Moon,
Glides glimmering o’er my fleece-like floor,
By the midnight breezes strewn;
And wherever the beat of her unseen feet,
Which only the angels hear,
May have broken the woof of my tent’s thin roof,
The stars peep behind her and peer;
And I laugh to see them whirl and flee,
Like a swarm of golden bees,
When I widen the rent in my wind-built tent,
Till calm the rivers, lakes, and seas,
Like strips of the sky fallen through me on high,
Are each paved with the moon and these.

I bind the Sun’s throne with a burning zone,
And the Moon’s with a girdle of pearl;
The volcanoes are dim, and the stars reel and swim,
When the whirlwinds my banner unfurl.
From cape to cape, with a bridge-like shape,
Over a torrent sea,
Sunbeam-proof, I hang like a roof,
The mountains its columns be.
The triumphal arch through which I march
With hurricane, fire, and snow,
When the Powers of the air are chained to my chair,
Is the million-coloured bow;
The sphere-fire above its soft colours wove,
While the moist Earth was laughing below.

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.

How different is the Arnold poem, as it drags in sentiment and commentary, Arnold, the school teacher making assumptions about figures from the past, Arnold, the pacifist making statements against war, Arnold, the over-educated Victorian as rotting Romanticism, but with the torch still burning!

Shelley’s poem contains no human sentiment—it is not, actually, “Romantic,” but the voice of pure existence; if the God of tremulous existence could speak, Shelley would be the mouthpiece.  Romanticism is the highest concentration of human passion in art—artless human passion is legion, but the artful part belongs to the great Romantics like Shelley, and “The Cloud” is merely the result of the highest human passion inscribed artfully naturally evolving into the god-like with its purest manifestation in the sound-sense of highly skilled poetry.

Arnold’s poem begins divinely, and competes with Shelley’s genius, even surpasses it, in the opening music of that remarkable first stanza, but then it falls to human bathos, the human sentiment of pedantry and self-pity, but since Arnold is alive to the Romantic tradition we hardly notice the worm invading the corn. 

Historically, in the movement from Romanticsm to Modernism, the physics of “The Cloud” ends with Arnold’s lament that behind Shelley’s materiality is emptiness, but this is because Arnold the critic did not take Shelley to heart and chose instead to elevate Wordsworth as the Great Romantic. 

“Ah love, let us be true to one another” is a bracing sentiment in the face of Arnold’s universal despair, but this temptation needs to be resisted—we mean giving into Arnold’s despair, because if love is brought in as a last-minute rescue, as a sentiment that is the only good thing, it ends up detaching love from the universe itself—it finally gives into smallness and fear, not to mention pedantry.  Shelley’s materiality is more than that, since the poet is the god, the creative impulse is what matters, not Arnold’s subjective and highly seductive wailing.


The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

The great seduction is: “ignorant armies,” because the reader, of course, pats himself on the back with Arnold…at least I’m not ignorant and war-like, as I survey with Arnold this woeful world.  

Matthew Arnold was, in fact, one of the figures T.S. Eliot, and other modernists, hitched a ride on, in order to ultimately give into self-pity and denigrate the glorious likes of Shelley.  It is against the rules of Scarriet March Madness to quote another poem by a contestant during a match, but Shelley’s “Stanzas Written in Dejection, near Naples,” which resembles “Dover Beach,” has none of the latter’s over-educated justification of acute misery. 

O, violent, brawling game!

Fights are breaking out in the stands!

The game is delayed five times to clear the court!

The refs seem to want to give the game to Arnold….

Triple Overtime!

Shelley 101, Arnold 100!!!!

Marla Muse has fainted!!!!!


Scene from Ovid’s Amores
Poet Tony Hoagland, fresh off a 2013 AWP panel in which he advocated soul, wisdom, and humanity, saying poetry today had lost its way in the halls of academia to fakery and cleverness, seemed an ideal contemporary choice to represent neo-Romanticism in this year’s Scarriet March Madness Poetry Tournament.
The following spazzes out in high Romantic splendor—well, Keats doing Catullus doing O’Hara, perhaps:
Windy today and I feel less than brilliant,
driving over the hills from work.
There are the dark parts on the road
                     when you pass through clumps of wood   
and the bright spots where you have a view of the ocean,   
but that doesn’t make the road an allegory.
I should call Marie and apologize
for being so boring at dinner last night,
but can I really promise not to be that way again?   
And anyway, I’d rather watch the trees, tossing   
in what certainly looks like sexual arousal.
Otherwise it’s spring, and everything looks frail;
the sky is baby blue, and the just-unfurling leaves
are full of infant chlorophyll,   
the very tint of inexperience.
Last summer’s song is making a comeback on the radio,   
and on the highway overpass,
the only metaphysical vandal in America has written   
in big black spraypaint letters,
which makes us wonder if Time loves Memory back.
Last night I dreamed of X again.
She’s like a stain on my subconscious sheets.   
Years ago she penetrated me
but though I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed,   
I never got her out,
but now I’m glad.
What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.   
What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.   
What I thought was an injustice
turned out to be a color of the sky.
Outside the youth center, between the liquor store   
and the police station,
a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;
overflowing with blossomfoam,   
like a sudsy mug of beer;
like a bride ripping off her clothes,
dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,
so Nature’s wastefulness seems quietly obscene.   
It’s been doing that all week:
making beauty,
and throwing it away,
and making more.
Romantic spume.  Keats’ “fine excess” dripping everywhere.  Sexy but sad.  Ah, Romanticism.
It’s clever the way Hoagland mentions “police station,” youth center,” “liquor store,” which imply youthful, reckless behavior; more signs that “sexual arousal” and the “obscene” are quietly navigating through his poem in a melancholy, reflective fashion: romance recollected in tranquility.  Nature’s “wastefulness” is obscene, perhaps more so than sexual arousal is obscene.  But the question is, has  Hoagland written a poem, or just an intellectual exercise?  He seems to be walking a line between cleverness and soul; obviously he’s shooting for the latter.  Does he reach it?
And Hoagland, the modern, has a hard task here in the Scarriet Tourney; he’s got to get by Ovid.
In Sports, unlike Poetry—as seen by the New Critics—talk outside the game (text) is just as important (if not more) than what happens in the game.
After all, what’s more interesting, the bouncing of a ball, or the lives, the heartbreaks, and the personalities attached to that ball?
Hoagland teaches. 
Ovid, when he was Hoagland’s age, was exiled forever by the emperor for writing sexually immoral poetry which helped destroy the Roman Republic.
Professor Gilbert Highet, in his book, Poets In A Landscape, puts it colorfully.  Ovid encouraged
absolute freedom from the ties of family, personal loyalty [and] public morality. Vergil’s Aeneid is a heroic poem about a single man who surmounts enormous difficulties and temptations…Ovid’s Transformations is a huge poem, partly didactic…in which men and gods live by their passions alone….Ovid even takes up several of the stories told in the Aeneid, and retells them—always in such a way as to make them more exciting and less meaningful, shallower and more vivid, occasionally almost comic. It is as though Byron had composed, in the style of Don Juan, a poem which was designed to outdo and occasionally to mock Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Here’s where the whole Romanticism thing gets tricky.   No two poets could be more different than Byron and Wordsworth, who are both considered “Romantics.” 
We ought to distinguish between a Victorian Romanticism: Wordsworth and a Roman Romanticism: Byron.
Or, proper v. juicy?
Is that too simplistic?
What to make of Hoagland’s,

I should call Marie and apologize
for being so boring at dinner last night
Is that Victorian?  Or Roman?
Does this social record depend on the age the poet is living in?   Does the poet have any say in this at all?
Or what to make of Hoagland’s pathetic fallacy of
a little dogwood tree is losing its mind
Is Hoagland being merely clever, or does this powerfully invoke the ‘no-mind’ of nature?
Of course, no one brings juicy Romanticism like Ovid.
From Ovid’s Amores (trans. Derek Mahon):
The day being humid and my head
heavy, I stretched out on a bed.
The open window to the right
reflected woodland-watery light,
a keyed-up silence as of dawn
or dusk, the vibrant and uncertain
hour when a brave girl might undress
and caper naked on the grass.
You entered in a muslin gown,
bare-footed, your fine braids undone,
a fabled goddess with an air
as if in heat yet debonair.
Aroused, I grabbed and roughly tore
until your gown squirmed on the floor.
Oh, you resisted, but like one
who knows resistance is in vain;
and, when you stood revealed, my eyes
feasted on shoulders, breasts and thighs.
I held you hard and down you slid
beside me, as we knew you would.
Oh, come to me again as then you did!
 Aesthetically, Ovid’s poem has a cinematic focus, a unity of image and feeling, which the Hoagland cannot replicate, as Hoagland’s poem is more rambling, more meditative, more intellectual—though Hoagland does struggle mightily to make it all into one theme: the whole bursting and excessive, yet fragile and doubtful, aspect of sex, as experienced by an intellectual yet ordinary, American.
And the winner is…
Hoagland upsets Ovid, 81-80 in OT!!
Congratulations to Tony Hoagland!!!


Intoxication in Romanticism is joyful or insightful, not depressing as in this Degas painting 

Moving to Romantic Poetry Madness South action, Keats and his Nightingale, no. 1 seed, match up against Philip Nikolayev, 16th seed, and his poem, “Litmus Test.”

Nikolayev’s poem ends with an homage to a potential mate: “You had changed my chemical composition forever,” after she rescues the poet with attention and hot soup after the poet has a scary LSD debauch before a Saturday morning lecture, which he barely makes: “I took faithful notes diagonally across my notebook (which was unliftable).”  The “Litmus Test” narrator desperately has to pee in his folly at the party through most of the poem, and has typically stoned thoughts: “I realized that we are chemical through and through, so determinate and so chemical…” before crashing in his student pad: “I stepped across some literature to my solitary bed…”

Nikolayev evokes a marvelous Pushkin universe of love, philosophy, young manhood, and intoxication—and Nikolayev’s poem grabs us with the classic college party invitation—-the one that always promises more than it delivers: “my buddy insisted sangria, perfect chance to chat up Jessica and Jake, so we went at midnight.”

John “To cease upon the midnight with no pain” Keats seems to be talking about a party, too: “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk…” and the desire to get wasted: “That I might drink, and leave the world unseen… but Keats, like the “Litmus Test” narrator, rejects wine and LSD (“I will fly to thee, not charioted by Bacchus and his pards”).  Keats isn’t after hot soup and a nice girlfriend; Keats desires to fly with poetry—which is the performance and which is the intoxication, and here is the genius of Keats’ famous poem.

“Litmus Test” is about something; “Ode to a Nightingale” is the something.

Plath, the no. 2 seed, puts her “Lady Lazarus” against the oldest poem in the tournament, Poseidippus’ “Dorchia,” from 300 B.C.

Here is the Poseidippus in this beautiful translation by Edward Arlington Robinson:


So now the very bones of you are gone
Where they were dust and ashes long ago;
And there was the last ribbon you tied on
To bind your hair, and that is dust also;
And somewhere there is dust that was of old
A soft and scented garment that you wore—
The same that once till dawn did closely fold
You in with fair Charaxus, fair no more.

But Sappho, and the white leaves of her song,
Will make your name a word for all to learn,
And all to love thereafter, even while
It’s but a name; and this will be as long
As there are distant ships that will return
Again to your Naucratis and the Nile.

The “dust” of “Dorchia” is replaced in the Plath with “ash,” as memorium in the ancient poem is transformed in its 20th century equivalent.  Plath’s horror throws down against the placid Greek!  What a contest!

Marla Muse: Tom, I am forever amazed at how every poem in these Scarriet tournaments has a similar theme to its opponent—how does Scarriet do it?  First, we have Keats’ and Nikolayev’s theme of intoxication; then Poseidippus and Plath with their “dust” and “ash,” and now look at this one: Petrarch v. Bishop.

It’s a miracle; that’s all I can say.  It’s because Scarriet is the greatest poetry site and the Muses look upon us kindly.

Yes, Marla, the Petrarch advises to leave off hunting the deer, “since in a net I seek to hold the wind,” while the Bishop says, “I caught a tremendous fish…and I let the fish go.”

WHOSE LIST TO HUNT–Petrarch (trans. Wyatt)

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, alas, I may no more
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore.
I am of them that farthest cometh behind;
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the Deer: but as she fleeth afore,
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain:
And, graven with diamonds, in letters plain
There is written her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am;
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

The Petrarch and the Bishop are saying the same thing, but there is something sweetly mysterious and deathly serious about the Petrarch poem which moves us to a greater degree.

And for the final South battle today, Baudelaire (with translation help from Richard Wilbur) wars with Wordsworth:


My child, my sister, dream
How sweet all things would seem
Were we in that kind land to live together,
And there love slow and long,
There love and die among
Those scenes that image you, that sumptuous weather.
Drowned suns that glimmer there
Through cloud-disheveled air
Move me with such a mystery as appears
Within those other skies
Of your treacherous eyes
When I behold them shining through their tears.

There, there is nothing else but grace and measure,
Richness, quietness, and pleasure.

Furniture that wears
The lustre of the years
Softly would glow within our glowing chamber,
Flowers of rarest bloom
Proffering their perfume
Mixed with the vague fragrances of amber;
Gold ceilings would there be,
Mirrors deep as the sea,
The walls all in an Eastern splendor hung–
Nothing but should address
The soul’s loneliness,
Speaking her sweet and secret native tongue.

There, there is nothing else but grace and measure,
Richness, quietness, and pleasure.

See, sheltered from the swells
There in the still canals
Those drowsy ships that dream of sailing forth;
It is to satisfy
Your least desire, they ply
Hither through all the waters of the earth.
The sun at close of day
Clothes the fields of hay,
Then the canals, at last the town entire
In hyacinth and gold:
Slowly the land is rolled
Sleepward under a sea of gentle fire.

There, there is nothing else but grace and measure,
Richness, quietness, and pleasure.

Both Baudelaire and Wordsworth address a “child” in a cosmic, comforting landscape, the Frenchman painting more ambitiously fantastical scenery, the Englishman tempering his paean with slightly more realism—though both poems express exquisite transcendent power.


IT is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
   The holy time is quiet as a Nun
   Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the sea:
   Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
   And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder–everlastingly.
Dear Child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
   If thou appear untouch’d by solemn thought,
   Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year;
   And worshipp’st at the Temple’s inner shrine,
   God being with thee when we know it not.

The winners are:

Wordsworth 59  Baudelaire 51

Petrarch 68 Bishop 60

Plath 80 Poseidippus 78

Keats 90 Nikolayev 84

Philip Nikolayev made it a very close game against the no. 1 Seed, John Keats!

The North Bracket is now down to 8 poets:

Goethe (d. Justice)
Frost (d. Campion)
Catullus (d. Rimbaud)
Larkin (d. Traherne)
Suckling (d. Ashbery)
Burns (d. Auden)
Herrick (d. Roethke)
Blake (d. Stevens)


The beautiful Robert Burns wrote love songs.  He battles homely Auden in the North.

W.H. Auden takes on Bobby Burns as the 2013 Scarriet Poetry March Madness Tournament rolls on.

Auden, a 20th century “Romantic” poet, is the no. 6 seed in the North, and takes on no. 11 seed Robert Burns, the 18th century Scottish song-writer and balladeer.  Auden, who wrote opera librettos, also wrote plenty of ballads, a form we’re sure can survive all.

What is the link between romantic love and sex?  Surely there’s a fine line between them, which Freud managed to blur thoroughly.

We might say that as love is to sex, mental health is to bodily health.

One might even say that sex is where body and mind meet rather harshly, and love is where body and mind meet more delicately.

Freud, the doctor, is taken seriously as such, as Auden the poet, in this ballad, warns that childless women will get cancer.

Auden’s ballad, “Miss Gee:”

Let me tell you a little story
About Miss Edith Gee;
She lived in Clevedon Terrace
At number 83.

She’d a slight squint in her left eye,
Her lips they were thin and small,
She had narrow sloping shoulders
And she had no bust at all.

She’d a velvet hat with trimmings,
And a dark grey serge costume;
She lived in Clevedon Terrace
In a small bed-sitting room.

She’d a purple mac for wet days,
A green umbrella too to take,
She’d a bicycle with shopping basket
And a harsh back-pedal break.

The Church of Saint Aloysius
Was not so very far;
She did a lot of knitting,
Knitting for the Church Bazaar.

Miss Gee looked up at the starlight
And said, ‘Does anyone care
That I live on Clevedon Terrace
On one hundred pounds a year?’

She dreamed a dream one evening
That she was the Queen of France
And the Vicar of Saint Aloysius
Asked Her Majesty to dance.

But a storm blew down the palace,
She was biking through a field of corn,
And a bull with the face of the Vicar
Was charging with lowered horn.

She could feel his hot breath behind her,
He was going to overtake;
And the bicycle went slower and slower
Because of that back-pedal break.

Summer made the trees a picture,
Winter made them a wreck;
She bicycled to the evening service
With her clothes buttoned up to her neck.

She passed by the loving couples,
She turned her head away;
She passed by the loving couples,
And they didn’t ask her to stay.

Miss Gee sat in the side-aisle,
She heard the organ play;
And the choir sang so sweetly
At the ending of the day,

Miss Gee knelt down in the side-aisle,
She knelt down on her knees;
‘Lead me not into temptation
But make me a good girl, please.’

The days and nights went by her
Like waves round a Cornish wreck;
She bicycled down to the doctor
With her clothes buttoned up to her neck.

She bicycled down to the doctor,
And rang the surgery bell;
‘O, doctor, I’ve a pain inside me,
And I don’t feel very well.’

Doctor Thomas looked her over,
And then he looked some more;
Walked over to his wash-basin,
Said,’Why didn’t you come before?’

Doctor Thomas sat over his dinner,
Though his wife was waiting to ring,
Rolling his bread into pellets;
Said, ‘Cancer’s a funny thing.

‘Nobody knows what the cause is,
Though some pretend they do;
It’s like some hidden assassin
Waiting to strike at you.

‘Childless women get it.
And men when they retire;
It’s as if there had to be some outlet
For their foiled creative fire.’

His wife she rang for the servant,
Said, ‘Don’t be so morbid, dear’;
He said: ‘I saw Miss Gee this evening
And she’s a goner, I fear.’

They took Miss Gee to the hospital,
She lay there a total wreck,
Lay in the ward for women
With her bedclothes right up to her neck.

They lay her on the table,
The students began to laugh;
And Dr. Rose the surgeon
He cut Miss Gee in half.

Dr. Rose he turned to his students,
Said, ‘Gentlemen if you please,
We seldom see a sarcoma
As far advanced as this.’

They took her off the table,
They wheeled away Miss Gee
Down to another department
Where they study Anatomy.

They hung her from the ceiling
Yes, they hung up Miss Gee;
And a couple of Oxford Groupers
Carefully dissected her knee.

Now we move from Auden’s Dr. Rose to Bobby Burns’ “Red, Red Rose,” a ballad which does not lack “creative fire”:

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry:

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee well, my only Luve
And fare thee well, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.

There is no way to adequately explain the greatness of this little poem; it is like beauty or love itself: it has a truth beyond words.

Shakespeare, in his Sonnets, famously mocked the whole idea of simile, of metaphor, the whole notion of equating X and Y, of saying that this was “like” that.  One only has to think of Sonnet 130, “My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun,” or Sonnet 18, “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day,” both of which imply all comparison is odious, false, misleading, and tedious: my love’s eyes like the sun? Uh…not really. If I compare you to a summer’s day, will that work?  Nope.

Burns seems to run right into this falsehood with “my love is like a red, red rose,” but one only has to reverse the stanzas in Burns’ ballad, putting the comparison stanza last, to see how the stanzas of action “I will come again,” are more important and are properly placed at the end.  Burns’ poem moves quickly from the sight-oriented “red red rose” to the ideality of “in tune,” and “I will luve thee still,” to the final “And I will come again, tho’ it were…”    It is not ostentatious, but the poem does have a movement: the simile of the rose is the pretty introduction, not the heart of the poem.

Just as the Auden ballad explicitly warns that standing water breeds disease (childless women get cancer), the Burns ballad implicitly champions movement and action (the lover’s pledge eclipses the rose simile).

Can it be these two very different poems from different eras have the same message?

They do!

In another North battle, we have this exquisite match-up:  “Delight In Disorder” by Herrick (7th Seeded) v. “I Knew A Woman” by Roethke (10th Seeded).    Holy Cow!

Here’s “Delight in Disorder:”

A SWEET disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness :
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction :
An erring lace which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher :
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly :
A winning wave (deserving note)
In the tempestuous petticoat :
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility :
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.

And “I Knew A Woman:”

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)
How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin:
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing did we make.)
Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved.)
Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I’m martyr to a motion not my own;
What’s freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways.)
Like  Auden/ Burns, these two poems from different eras are very similar; although the Roethke ‘gets more into it,’ the Herrick  says the same thing: “she moved more ways than one,” as the Roethke puts it.

This is a memorability issue: the Roethke is richer, but the Herrick sticks in the mind: who can forget, “Is too precise in every part.”So who do you give it to?And to finish first round North action: Wallace Stevens faces William Blake: “Peter Quince” (8th seeded) v. “How Sweet I Roamed” (9th seeded).

William Blake’s poem, the older one, has that quotable memorableness which so often more complex modern poems lack.  It shines, this poem—it’s bright to look at:

How Sweet I Roam’d

How sweet I roam’d from field to field,
And tasted all the summer’s pride
‘Til the prince of love beheld
Who in the sunny beams did glide!

He shew’d me lilies for my hair
And blushing roses for my brow;
He led me through his garden fair,
Where all his golden pleasures grow.

With sweet May dews my wings were wet,
And Phoebus fir’d my vocal rage
He caught me in his silken net,
And shut me in his golden cage.

He loves to sit and hear me sing,
Then, laughing, sports and plays with me;
Then stretches out my golden wing,
And mocks my loss of liberty.

The beauty of Love contrasted with the poet’s “loss of liberty” is sweetly, swiftly and deliciously rendered; Blake’s exhuberance knocks one over.  No poet rages within formal convention like Blake—there’s a lesson in that alone.

Stevens, to our ears, gets the sound of Romanticism in places, and the sense of it in other places, but rarely gets it all at once.  This poem has the feel of a jaded jingler, a soul not quite believing in song, even as it wishes to sing.  Quince reminds us of Eliot’s Sweeney—and Eliot’s  Mrs. Porter section from The Waste Land.


Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna;
Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders, watching, felt
The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.
In the green water, clear and warm,
Susanna lay.
She searched
The touch of springs,
And found
Concealed imaginings.
She sighed,
For so much melody.
Upon the bank, she stood
In the cool
Of spent emotions.
She felt, among the leaves,
The dew
Of old devotions.
She walked upon the grass,
Still quavering.
The winds were like her maids,
On timid feet,
Fetching her woven scarves,
Yet wavering.
A breath upon her hand
Muted the night.
She turned —
A cymbal crashed,
Amid roaring horns.
Soon, with a noise like tambourines,
Came her attendant Byzantines.
They wondered why Susanna cried
Against the elders by her side;
And as they whispered, the refrain
Was like a willow swept by rain.
Anon, their lamps’ uplifted flame
Revealed Susanna and her shame.
And then, the simpering Byzantines
Fled, with a noise like tambourines.
Beauty is momentary in the mind —
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
The body dies; the body’s beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden’s choral.
Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death’s ironic scraping.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.
Here are the results:
Burns defeats Auden 66-60
Herrick defeats Roethke 69-63
Blake defeats Stevens 80-72


Can Ashbery go further in Scarriet’s 2013 Romanticism tourney?
Is the ancient quarrel—who is better?—between ‘ancients and moderns’ a conceit of those ancients who are gone, or a conceit of we moderns who, deluded, live?
Which is real?  Learned authority which comforts and excites the ambitious school boy who desires poetic fame?
Or, that pregnant subjectivity which rejects all ‘authority’ in its ambition for fame without sweetness, pretention or glory?
Is the historian the judge of ‘great poetry?’
Or is there such a thing as ‘timeless good?’
These questions weigh upon every shot, every rebound, every fast-break, every dunk, every steal, in March Madness.
In more Round One action, no. 4 Seed Larkin (“The Whitsun Weddings”) battles no. 13 Seed Thomas Traherne (“Eden”).
Larkin’s poem, some say, is the best poem of the 20th century; it doesn’t preach; it is immersed in experience, and yet one gets the feeling that the poet is surveying human reality in sum.  The poem is formal, though not heavy-handed in its formality.  It almost feels like this is the holy grail of a modern poem, and it doesn’t matter that a reclusive, grumpy librarian from Hull, England, wrote it.  Is it Romantic?  Surely it is.  It feels like Keats reincarnated in the 20th century.
The Whitsun Weddings
That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.
All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept
For miles island,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
Displace the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
Until the next town, new and nondescript,
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.
At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading. Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,
As if out on the end of an event
Waving goodbye
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant
More promptly out next time, more curiously,
And saw it all again in different terms:
The fathers with broad belts under their suits
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewelry-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochers that
Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
Yes, from cafes
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed abroad: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
Just what it saw departing: children frowned
At something dull; fathers had never known
Success so huge and wholly farcical;
The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared
At a religious wounding. Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
Now fields were building-plots. and poplars cast
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem
Just long enough to settle hats and say
I nearly died,
A dozen marriages got under way.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
-An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,
And someone running up to bowl -and none
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:
There we were aimed. And as we raced across
Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Traveling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
The amazing thing about this 17th century poem by Thomas Traherne, “Eden,” is how much it anticipates Wordsworth, how it is all Rousseau, even though it glows with Christian purity.
Wordsworth merely filled in Traherne’s philosophy with buds and birds and trees.
Meanwhile, Larkin did the same to Wordsworth, adding even more realism (a train ride) and chucking philosophy entirely for Keatsian silent wonder.
So we see the progress of poetry, flying in the air with philosophy, and letting it go, as more and more sights appear.
A learned and a happy ignorance
          Divided me
      From all the vanity,
From all the sloth, care, pain, and sorrow that advance
      The madness and the misery
Of men. No error, no distraction I
Saw soil the earth, or overcloud the sky.
I knew not that there was a serpent’s sting,
          Whose poison shed
      On men, did overspread
The world; nor did I dream of such a thing
      As sin, in which mankind lay dead.
They all were brisk and living wights to me,
Yea, pure and full of immortality.
Joy, pleasure, beauty, kindness, glory, love,
          Sleep, day, life, light,
      Peace, melody, my sight,
My ears and heart did fill and freely move.
      All that I saw did me delight.
The Universe was then a world of treasure,
To me an universal world of pleasure.
Unwelcome penitence was then unknown,
          Vain costly toys,
      Swearing and roaring boys,
Shops, markets, taverns, coaches, were unshown;
      So all things were that drown’d my joys:
No thorns chok’d up my path, nor hid the face
Of bliss and beauty, nor eclips’d the place.
Only what Adam in his first estate,
          Did I behold;
      Hard silver and dry gold
As yet lay under ground; my blessed fate
      Was more acquainted with the old
And innocent delights which he did see
In his original simplicity.
Those things which first his Eden did adorn,
          My infancy
      Did crown. Simplicity
Was my protection when I first was born.
      Mine eyes those treasures first did see
Which God first made. The first effects of love
My first enjoyments upon earth did prove;
And were so great, and so divine, so pure;
          So fair and sweet,
      So true; when I did meet
Them here at first, they did my soul allure,
      And drew away my infant feet
Quite from the works of men; that I might see
The glorious wonders of the Deity.
 John Ashbery’s Syringa is pure meditation, closer, actually to Traherne than to the more modern Larkin; Ashbery eschews art for talk, chucking both Traherne’s philosophy and Larkin’s experience for pure, flowing ephemera—the poem itself questioned, everything is questioned, Ashbery the 100 foot child (Rousseau’s revenge?) crushing all.  Ashbery is a burbling, inarticulate, child-like questioner, afflicted with grown-up melancholy and book-learning, a Faust who never made that bargain and yet regrets it and now cannot shut up.  Ashbery is Romantic because he is always on the verge of Romanticism–even as he wades past it.
We love in the end how Ashbery gives up his meditation to settle in that “small town…one indifferent summer.”
The favorite here is Sir John Suckling, the No. 5 Seed, against Ashbery’s 12th Seed.
Suckling’s poem is memorable in a way that no Ashbery poem could be.
The difference is startling: the Suckling of so few words compared to the Ashbery!
Can Suckling’s annoyance be Romantic?
More so than Ashbery’s meditative dream?
We should pause merely to record our amazement as these two very different Romantic poems meet.


Why so pale and wan fond lover?
Prithee why so pale?
Will, when looking well can’t move her
Looking ill prevail?
Prithee why so pale?

Why so dull and mute young sinner?
Prithee why so mute?
Will, when looking well can’t win her
Saying nothing do’t?
Prithee why so mute?

Quit, quit for shame, this will not move,
This cannot take her;
If of herself she will not love,
Nothing can make her;
The devil take her.

Larkin, the favorite, defeats Traherne 91-72.

Suckling, the favorite, defeats Ashbery in a close one, 61-60.


Rimbaud: Goes Against Catullus in Round One

Robert Frost is the no. 2 seed in the North—right behind Goethe’s no. 1 seed, ‘The Holy Longing,” the Romantic tour de force by the German titan.  The famous Frost poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” is much beloved for its scenic beauty (yes, a few poems in just a few words manage that feat) with its clean, practical longing: “miles to go before I sleep.”

But look at this lesser-known poem, no. 15 “‘Follow Thy Fair Sun” by Thomas Campion, a 16th century poem which does battle against a 20th century one: a classic pre-Romantic versus post-Romantic battle, brought to you by Scarriet’s March Madness:

Follow thy fair sun, unhappy shadow,
Though thou be black as night
And she made all of light,
Yet follow thy fair sun unhappy shadow.

Follow her whose light thy light depriveth,
Though here thou liv’st disgraced,
And she in heaven is placed,
Yet follow her whose light the world reviveth.

Follow those pure beams whose beauty burneth,
That so have scorched thee,
As thou still black must be,
Till Her kind beams thy black to brightness turneth.

Follow her while yet her glory shineth,
There comes a luckless night,
That will dim all her light,
And this the black unhappy shade divineth.

Follow still since so thy fates ordained,
The Sun must have his shade,
Till both at once do fade,
The Sun still proved, the shadow still disdained.

The trope is extremely simple: light and shade (“The Sun must have his shade”) with metaphysical, moral, romantic and metaphorical aspects attending its arc.  The whole thing is lovely to behold, even if every last nuance is not quite understood.

The advantage the Frost has is “Stopping by Woods” shows, where “Follow Thy Fair Sun” tells.  All great art, they say, shows rather than tells.  Yet the Campion tells with such charm!

In our second match-up today, the no. 3 seed “Lesbia, Let’s Live Only For Love” by the Roman poet Catullus contends with “Lines” by the decadent, 19th century French poet, Rimbaud.  If Catullus is Romanticism’s passionate root, Rimbaud is perhaps its rotten fruit.

The translation of Catullus is a Scarriet original, published for the first time on Scarriet:

Lesbia, let’s live only for love
And not give a crap
For jealous, old lips that flap.
The sun, when it goes down
Comes back around,
But, you know, when we go down, that’s it.
Give me a thousand kisses, one hundred
Kisses, a thousand, a hundred,
Let’s not stop, even during our extra hundred,
Thousands and thousands of kisses our debt,
But let’s not tell that to anybody yet.
This business will make us rich: kisses.

Old poems can get right to the point in a manner that today would feel too embarrassing.  This is because invention demands ever more novelty, ever more variety and nuance, and the more contemporary must feed this requirement more, even if it means we  never get straight to the point again.

The Rimbaud, written nearly two thousand years later, writhes in its nuances for the acute sensitivity of a jaded reader:

When the world is no more than a lone dark wood before our four astonished eyes—a beach for two faithful children–a musical house for our bright liking—I will find you.
Even if only one old man remains, peaceful and beautiful, steeped in “unbelievable luxury”—I’ll be at your feet.
Even if I create all of your memories—even if I know how to control you—I’ll suffocate you.

When we are strong—who retreats? When happy, who feels ridiculous? When cruel, what could be done with us?
Dress up, dance, laugh. —I could never toss Love out the window.

My consumption, my beggar, my monstrous girl! You care so little about these miserable women, their schemes—my discomfort. Seize us with your unearthly voice! Your voice: the only antidote to this vile despair.

We can get lost in the Rimbaud, a truly ‘modern’ poem: it does not march in a simple structure from A to B.  Rimbaud’s ‘art’ is looser, but that looseness allows so much to be added!  Yet since poetry is a temporal art, even loose poems have a beginning (A) and an end (B).  We have to think Rimbaud is concluding with “voice” for a reason—the “voice” that saves us, the “voice” that is “unearthly” does not care for “schemes;” it is the expression of something unplanned, indifferent and apart.  Heated and loose, the Rimbaud finally seeks a cold expression.

The Catullus really has a similar attitude: honest, crass, and heated as it ultimately loses itself in the coldness of mathematics.  Rimbaud and Catullus are as similar as two peas in a pod, separated by two thousand years.

Frost and Catullus advance.

Frost 67 Campion 58

Catullus 60 Rimbaud 59

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