MATTHEW ARNOLD VERSUS WALTER BENJAMIN

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

ARNOLD:

 

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.

 

BENJAMIN:

 

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.

 

WINNER: BENJAMIN

 

 

BOY V. PROF! SHELLEY AND MATTHEW ARNOLD CLASH IN THE WEST!

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.

THE CLOUD

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.

DOVER BEACH

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!!!!!

THE 2013 SCARRIET MARCH MADNESS BRACKETS!!

Here they are!!

Competition will start immediately!

The four number one seeds: Goethe, Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge, no surprise there…

Let the Road to the Final Four begin!!

ROMANTICISM: OLD AND NEW

THE NORTH

1. HOLY LONGING-GOETHE
2. STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING-FROST
3. LESBIA LET’S LIVE ONLY FOR LOVE-CATULLUS
4. THE WHITSUN WEDDINGS-LARKIN
5. WHY SO PALE AND WAN FOND LOVER?-SUCKLING
6. MISS GEE-AUDEN
7. DELIGHT IN DISORDER-HERRICK
8. PETER QUINCE AT THE CLAVIER-STEVENS
9. SONG: HOW SWEET I ROAMED-BLAKE
10. I KNEW A WOMAN-ROETHKE
11. A RED, RED ROSE-BURNS
12. SYRINGA-ASHBERY
13. EDEN-TRAHERNE
14. LINES-RIMBAUD
15. FOLLOW THY FAIR SUN-CAMPION
16. IN BERTRAM’S GARDEN-JUSTICE

THE SOUTH

1. ODE TO A NIGHTINGALE-KEATS
2. LADY LAZARUS-PLATH
3. WHOSO LIST TO HUNT-PETRARCH
4. L’INVITATION AU VOYAGE-BAUDELAIRE
5. AMORES I,V-OVID
6. A SUBALTERN’S LOVE SONG-BJETEMAN
7. THE GARDEN-MARVELL
8. PRIMITIVE-OLDS
9. TANTO GENTILE-DANTE
10. THE GROUNDHOG-EBERHART
11. A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT-BARRETT
12. A COLOR OF THE SKY-HOAGLAND
13. ON THE BEACH AT CALAIS-WORDSWORTH
14. THE FISH-BISHOP
15. DORCHIA-POSEIDIPPUS
16. LITMUS TEST-NIKOLAYEV

THE WEST

1. THE CLOUD-SHELLEY
2. AND DEATH SHALL HAVE NO DOMINION-THOMAS
3. MARIANA-TENNYSON
4. AND YOU AS WELL MUST DIE, BELOVED DUST-MILLAY
5. O BEST OF ALL NIGHTS, RETURN AND RETURN AGAIN-PROPERTIUS
6. I THINK CONTINUALLY OF THOSE WHO ARE TRULY GREAT-SPENDER
7. DON JUAN (FROM CANTO III)-BYRON
8. MEETING AT NIGHT-BROWNING
9. UNDER THE LINDENTREE-VOGELWEIDE
10. PASSENGERS-COLLINS
11. LA! MORT QUI T’A FAIT SI HARDIE-D’ ORLEANS
12. RIVER ROSES-LAWRENCE
13. ODE ON SOLITUDE-POPE
14. LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE-YEATS
15. SONG FOR ST. CECILIA’S DAY-DRYDEN
16. DOVER BEACH-ARNOLD

THE EAST

1. KUBLA KHAN-COLERIDGE
2. THE RAVEN-POE
3. WAS THIS THE FACE-MARLOWE
4. HYSTERIA-ELIOT
5. WHEN IN THE CHRONICLE OF WASTED TIME-SHAKESPEARE
6. THE BLUE GIRLS-RANSOM
7. THE GOOD MORROW-DONNE
8. WORKING LATE-SIMPSON
9. LOVE-HERBERT
10. HERE AND NOW-DUNN
11. SINCE THERE’S NO HELP COME LET US KISS AND PART-DRAYTON
12. CYNARA-DOWSON
13. GOLDEN SAYINGS-NERVAL
14. WHEN I WAS ONE-AND-TWENTY-HOUSMAN
15. BALLAD OF BARBARA ALLEN-ANONYMOUS
16. AT THE TABUKI KABUKI-MAZER

WILLIAM LOGAN: “MICHAEL DICKMAN IS JUST SOME GUY WITH CREEPY FANTASIES”

The obnoxious brat, Michael Dickman, a “demon kid whose poems are scrawled in fingerpaints or fiddled on an Etch-A-Sketch.”

The critic William Logan exists to give spankings to poets like Michael Dickman—who contemplates Emily Dickinson, for instance, like so:  “Standing in her house today all I could think of was whether she took a shit every morning/or ever fucked anybody/or ever fucked/herself.”

Logan’s spanking is administered with a yawn:

This seems a touch more impolite than Swift’s Strephon, emerging from a lady’s dressing room (“Disgusted Strephon stole away/ Repeating in his amorous Fits,/ Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”). Swift took romantic longing down a peg. Dickman is just some guy with creepy fantasies.

Nice. 

But there’s no “creepy fantasies” in Dickman’s “Emily Dickinson to the Rescue,” just your typical haunted scenario featuring Victorian/goth/white dress/child Emily flying above her bed, and then Dickman actually introduces a comforting image, “Her ankles and wrists held tightly between the fingers of some brightly lit parent home from a party” before ending the poem ambitiously, hopefully:

Heaven is everywhere
but there’s still
the world

The world is made out of cancer, house fires, and Brain Death, here in America

But I love the world

Emily Dickinson
to the rescue

I used to think we were made of bread
gentle work and
water

We’re not
but we’re still beautiful
killing each other as much as we can
beneath the pines

The pines that are somebody’s
masterpiece

It’s not a bad poem.  Dickman’s a sentimentalist.  He’s a secret Victorian, spitting out modernism on his way back to the fuzzy mid-19th century.  “The pines that are somebody’s masterpiece…” that’s God.

This is not Fred Seidel creepy at all.  It’s not even Sharon Olds creepy.  This is much closer to the  Barbie Doll school of poetry; it could have been written by Lucie Brock-Broido, Jorie Graham, or Marie Howe.  “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” by Billy Collins might be considered far creepier.   Creepy poems about Emily Dickinson could probably fill a book by now, and Dickman’s would be one of the milder ones, even though its opening lines would probably get all the attention.

So can we blame Professor Logan for focusing on them, even though Mr. Dickman was probably just setting a frank tone for the more sentimental parts? That’s the ‘art’ now of poets like Dickman: balancing attitudes, moods, and tones which avoid insincerity because-what-they’ve-got-to-say-may-seem-overly-heavy-or-silly-but-they-finally-need-it-to-succeed-poetically.  “The pines that are somebody’s /masterpiece” is a brilliant ending stroke because it just comes out of nowhere, but it works.

Logan obviously has no patience for all this.

I confess I cannot see the “incipient violence” or “manic overflow of powerful feeling” (how far Wordsworth has fallen) previous readers have noticed in such poems. What has been called a calculated clumsiness seems just, well, clumsy. Dickman’s childishness provides, not access to the world of innocence by a man of experience, just a reason to prolong post-adolescence a few more years.

William Logan is a product of his age—he is a modernist, not a Victorian.  When William Logan knocks poets over, he does so on the run, and not with a great deal of patience.  Logan wears no God-like frown, no vest coat, no whiskers, and sports no cane, but administers justice in a T-shirt, and with a grin.  Logan’s always in a hurry, and this is partly modern poetry’s fault: so many awful poets to ridicule, so little time.

Logan is guilty of not ‘getting’ Michael Dickman because Logan fails to heed the words of Matthew Arnold to “see the object as in itself it really is” and forgets Oscar Wilde’s advice to take both virtue and vice with a grain of salt when judging art, and does not recall Pater’s suggestion to realize the data of art distinctly and subjectively.

Logan expresses disgust with the opening lines of “Emily Dickinson to the Rescue,” but he fails to look at the whole poem.

Criticism was boiling over in the late 19th century, and only one critic really took the late 19th century to heart—T.S. Eliot, who turned out to be the most successful 20th century critic.  Logan can quote others—the Swift quotation was brilliant—but will Logan himself ever be quoted?  Not, we feel, until he mends his manner a little.

And yet—and yet…Logan begins his review of Dickman with a little essay on American surrealism which rescues the slipshod reading of Dickman’s actual poetry—quoting entire poems isn’t in the critic’s bag of tricks these days, anyway.  We don’t read poems with critics, at least not since Edgar Poe wrote criticism; critics instead pick a topic very much at random—surrealism, let’s say—and whether the poet under review is really a “surrealist” is anybody’s guess.

Logan’s point that the early Surrealists were anti-Christian is probably true, and this may be an idea worth chewing on, but I’m not sure what it has to do with Michael Dickman.

We should think of it as a Christmas gift from Logan to Dickman—whose search for fame gets a boost, as Michael Dickman is now…a fourth-generation American Surrealist!

Whooo!  Congratulations, Michael Dickman!

God bless us, every one!

IN FINESSE OF FIDDLES FOUND I ECSTACY! ‘REFLECTIONS ON VERS LIBRE’

Eliot’s pal, Ezra Pound: cabal criticism “sold the wares.”

“Reflections on Vers Libre,” the very short essay, published in the middle of WW I and the Russian revolution, when Eliot was still an unknown writer in his late twenties, appeared in the New Statesman, founded just a few years earlier by a couple of socialist aristocrats.  If  you think a socialist aristocrat sounds like an oxymoron, you probably don’t know the kinds of circles Eliot and Pound were moving in at this time, and you probably aren’t sophisticated enough to detect the trick Eliot played on his readers as he apparently dismissed free verse—another oxymoron?

Pound and Eliot weren’t revolutionaries, they were gangsters, and they were moving deeply into cheap merchandise (modern poetry) because they thought it was a good way to enrich themselves. It was working with modern art; Eliot and Pound’s lawyer (and art collector), the Irishman John Quinn, (Golden Dawn, British Intelligence) was making a killing in modern art, and Quinn would help the boys strike a multi-level publishing deal with Eliot’s Waste Land—before Pound had even finished the edits.

“Reflections on Vers Libre” is one of the top ten documents of Modernism, and famous for it’s closing line, “there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.”  

What was good verse? 

That was easy. 

It was what Eliot, Pound, and their associates were writing. 

Bad verse was Romanticism and Pope and Poe and Shakespeare, the old order which was about to topple. 

And chaos?  Pound and Eliot’s friend: War, racism, and social instability—so that good and bad could be turned upside down.  1914–1945 would not be a pretty time in Europe, but when the smoke cleared, two men would be canonized in world literature forever, and “chaos” was the factor which made bad verse seem good.  Eliot’s powers of persuasion didn’t hurt, either.

We usually don’t like it when someone publishes opinion anonymously, but there’s another dubious practice which may be worse: when we write essays as ourselves but present persons as real—who do not really exist.  Keep in mind Eliot’s piece appeared during a time when young men were being slaughtered in a war, a Communist revolution was shaking the world, and women were fighting for the right to vote; he introduces us to “a lady” of obvious leisure and sophistication who he quotes as saying, “Since the Russians came in I can read nothing else. I have finished Dostoevksi, and I do not know what to do.”  The poor “lady” does not know what to do.  Eliot rolls his eyes at the “lady” as he unsuccessfully points out to her that Dostoevski is a mere sentimentalist, like Dickens, and then adds, “she could no longer read any verse but vers libre.”  And we are off to the races:

It is assumed vers libre exists. It is assumed that vers libre is a school, that it consists of certain theories; that it group or groups of theorists will either revolutionize or demoralize poetry if their attack upon the iambic pentameter meets with any success. Vers libre does not exist, and it is time that this preposterous fiction followed the elan vital and the eighty thousand Russians into oblivion.

Pound’s school, Imagism, does exist, however, for not only does Eliot respectfully mention this school in his essay, he copies one of its founder’s poems (T.E. Hulme’s) to show the excellence of vers libre—which Eliot says does not exist.  Yea, we’ll get this eventually.

T.E. Hulme, one of the original Imagists, will die in WW I, months after Eliot’s essay sees print.  Eliot’s other “contemporary” samples proffered in this essay are by Pound, and Pound’s American friend, H.D.  Eliot doesn’t name these “contemporary” writers in his essay, for it must have been a little embarrassing that the great modernist revolution in poetry was being fought with a sheaf of mediocre poems composed by a tiny group of friends under the banner of Imagism, a movement which, to speak frankly, had little more to recommend it than its vers libre.

The delicious irony here is that Imagism was nothing more than vers libre—a style Eliot rebukes with great fanfare in front of the house—as vers libre strolls openly into the house from the rear. Eliot isn’t really objecting to vers libre at all.  He only pretends to do so. This odd mixing-yet-separating-out of the two movements (Imagism, which was Pound’s, and vers libre, which was nobody’s) occurs after Eliot smashes manifesto-ism in a dazzling display which could have been an attack on the very con of modernism itself.  It is so on the mark, we must quote it in full. It occurs early in the essay:

When a theory of art passes it is usually found that a groat’s worth of art has been bought with a million of advertisement. The theory which sold the wares may be quite false, or it may be confused and incapable of elucidation, or it may never have existed. A mythical revolution will have taken place and produced a few works of art which perhaps would be even better if still less of the revolutionary theories clung to them. In modern society such revolutions are almost inevitable. An artist, happens upon a method, perhaps quite unreflectingly, which is new in the sense that it is essentially different from that of the second-rate people about him, and different in everything but essentials from that of any of his great predecessors. The novelty meets with neglect, neglect provokes attack; and attack demands a theory. In an ideal state of society one might imagine a good New growing naturally out of the good Old, without the need for polemic and theory; this would be a society with a living tradition. In a sluggish society, as actual societies are, tradition is ever lapsing into superstition, and the violent stimulus of novelty is required. This is bad for the artist and his school, who may become circumscribed by their theory and narrowed by their polemic; but the artist can always console himself for his errors in his old age by considering that if he had not fought nothing would have been accomplished.

This could have been Eliot writing privately to Pound to tell him, look, I can’t go along with this madness—but here it is inserted into one of Eliot’s first published essays, an essay which transparently does Pound’s bidding.  Eliot is describing modernism as a fake revolution by a small circle of “second-rate” friends quixotically attacking “great predecessors.”  Eliot knew he was selling his soul to this modernist enterprise; Eliot’s ability to pinpoint what Pound’s “revolution” was, right under Pound’s nose, while pushing the very modernist agenda  he ridicules, should be proof, once and for all, that Eliot was a little more clever (precisely because of the depth of his doubts) than Pound and all the rest.

Who does Eliot quote as praise-worthy in this essay?  Hulme, H.D. and Pound, the “inner circle,” as well as two of Eliot’s predecessor stand-bys, John Webster, the Elizabethan playwright, and Matthew Arnold.

Reading carefully, we can see precisely where Eliot, in a sly manner, hints that what he is actually doing is defending his friend Pound’s Imagism—under the guise of seeming to banish vers libre:

Vers libre has not even the excuse of a polemic; it is a battle-cry of freedom, and there is no freedom in art. And as the so-called vers libre which is good is anything but “free,” it can better be defended under some other label. Particular types of vers libre may be supported on the choice of content, or on the method of handling the content. I am aware that many writers of vers libre have introduced such innovations, and that the novelty of their choice and manipulation of material is confused—if not in their own minds, in the minds of many of their readers—with the novelty of the form.  but I am not here concerned with imagism, which is a theory about the use of material; I am only concerned with the theory of the verse-form in which imagism is cast. If vers libre is a genuine verse-form it will have a positive definition. And I can only define it by negatives: 1. absence of pattern, 2. absence of rhyme, 3. absence of meter.

Note Eliot’s implication that imagism is a legitimate “theory” re: the “content and the method of handling the content,” which is implicitly priviledged over mere “verse-form.”  We see Eliot’s true thesis: Imagism is “a theory about the use of material,” a theory which Eliot passes over in silence, and thus tacitly approves; but Eliot is “concerned with “the theory of the verse-form in which imagism is cast.”  In other words, Eliot is afraid (concerned)  a certain “verse-form” called vers libre will discredit his friends the Imagists.  Given the fact that examples  in the essay which Eliot gives in praise are Imagist works of Hulme and Pound, what are we to think?  

This is how Eliot introduces his two friends’ extracts: “I have in mind two passages of contemporary verse which would be called vers libre. Both of them I quote because of their beauty.” 

What follows is clearly second-rate verse.

First, a complete poem by Hulme:

Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstacy,
In the flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.
Now see I
That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy.
Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.

Is Pound’s associate and chief founder of Imagism, T.E. Hulme, who repudiated the Romantics and claimed poetry must reflect the times they are written in—is this revolutionary Imagist poem—which Eliot in his illustrious essay has dragged forth as an example of good vers libre—is this poetry as well-written as prose?  

“Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstacy”  “Now see I that warmth’s the very stuff of poesy?”  Comparing the sky to a blanket?  A revolution in poetry is about to happen!   Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstacy!

Can it get any worse?  It does. Eliot brings forth a second “contemporary.”  Surprise!  It’s Eliot’s friend, Pound, the master of ‘poetry-as-good-prose’ himself:

There shut up in his castle,  Tairiran’s,
She who had nor ears nor tongue save in her hands,
Gone—ah, gone—untouched, unreachable—
She who could never live save through one person,
She who could never speak save in one person,
And all the rest of her a shifting change,
A broken bundle of mirrors…—

Is this the revolution?  Is this the “new?”  Shut up in his castle?  Who needs Tennyson, when we can have this from Pound, savored by Eliot for its “beauty?”

No wonder Pound wrote in the press the same year, “Eliot has said the thing very well when he said, “No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.”  Ah, there’s nothing like brotherly, manly, forthright praise!

Eliot, always the historian, now moves into another phase of his essay. Following the display of “contemporary” vers libre success by Hulme and Pound, Eliot ventures back to the Elizabethan era, (when people also wrote about being “shut up in castles”) in order to demonstrate how the playwright John Webster “who was in some ways a more cunning technician than Shakespeare” (fie?) turned to vers libre when his characters were at the height of tragic emotions.   Eliot’s logic runs like this:  Pound wrote bad poetry, but so did John Webster—for a dramatic purpose.  And since John Webster is “in some ways a more cunning technician than Shakespeare…”  well, there you go!  Sold!

Eliot writes, “Webster is much freer than Shakespeare, and that his fault is not negligence is evidenced by the fact that it is often at moments of the highest intensity that his verse acquires this freedom.  …In the White Devil Brachiano dying, and Cornelia mad, deliberately rupture the bonds of pentameter.”

But what happened to Eliot’s “there is no freedom in art?”

I recover, like a spent taper, for a flash
and instantly go out.

Cover her face, mine eyes dazzle, she died young.

You have cause to love me, I did enter you in my heart
Before you would vouchsafe to call for the keys.

This is a vain poetry: but I pray you tell me
If there were proposed me, wisdom, riches, and beauty,
In three several young men, which should I choose?

So here are the quotes from the playwright John Webster, and surely it’s an interesting question: is it a good thing when pentameter breaks down to signal intense feeling in the plays of John Webster?  But what does this have to do, really, with second-rate, vers libre-which-is-not-vers-libre poetry by his contemporaries?

What about Shakespeare, the playwright “less cunning” than Webster, but slightly better known, and a begetter of that Romantic tradition which Pound and Eliot had no use for?  Eliot only looked at Webster, but I cannot resist glancing at Shakespeare, too.  Selecting Macbeth, at random, I’m curious to see how Shakespeare’s verse reacts to intensity of feeling.  Does it devolve, as it does with Eliot’s Webster, into forgettable vers libre? (which is good prose, at least, unlike Eliot’s Hulme and Pound examples.)  Let’s see:

I dare do all that may become a man.
Who dares do more is none.

I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you

But screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail.  When Duncan is asleep

Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep”—the innocent sleep

He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O, hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

Out, damned spot! out, I say!  One; two.
Why then tis time to do’t. Hell is murky.

To bed, to bed!  There’s knocking at the gate.
Come, come, come, come, give me your hand!
What’s done cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed!

Well, guess what.  Eliot’s use of Webster proves inconclusive, since Shakespeare makes  powerful use of verse at the height of tragic intensity.

Vers libre, so says Eliot’s irrefutable logic, is defined by lack of “pattern, rhyme, and meter,” and therefore, as a positive category, it does not exist.  But Eliot knows all too well that, at least among his friends, vers libre does exist, and not as chaos, but as good verse.  Bad verse is merely the Shakespeare/Romantic tradition that Eliot and his friends, with manifestos tucked in their tweed pockets, are trying to overturn.

Eliot writes, “There is no campaign against rhyme.”  The vers libre invasion (which doesn’t exist) will let rhyme live.  But Eliot does think rhyme can be used more creatively, more sparingly, perhaps. “There are often passages in an unrhymed poem where rhyme is wanted for some special effect, for a sudden tightening-up, for a cumulative insistence, or for an abrupt change of mood.”

But Poe had said the same thing 70 years earlier: It would require a high degree, indeed, both of cultivation and courage, on the part of any versifier, to enable him to place his rhymes—and let them remain—at unquestionably their best position, that of unusual and unanticipated intervals.”  This is from Poe’s “Rationale of Verse,” an essay in which Poe writes on verse that does exist, rather than on verse that does not.

Here’s how Eliot introduces his rhymeless samples:

So much for meter. There is no escape from meter; there is only mastery. But while there obviously is escape from rhyme, the vers librists are by no means the first out of the cave:

The boughs of the trees
Are twisted
By many bafflings;
Twisted are
The small-leafed boughs.
But the shadow of them
Is not the shadow of the mast head
Nor of the torn sails.

When the white dawn first
Through the rough fir-planks
Of my hut, by the chestnuts,
Up at the valley-head,
Came breaking, Goddess,
I sprang up, I threw round me
My dappled fawn-skin…

Except for the more human touch in the second of these extracts a hasty observer would hardly realize that the first is by a contemporary, and the second by Matthew Arnold.

H.D. (selected as the nameless “contemporary”) and Matthew Arnold are quoted in order to prove that vers libre is nothing to be afraid of.  We’re safe, you see, because Matthew Arnold didn’t rhyme.  As with the John Webster example, Eliot’s point is neither strong, nor finished.  Think of all the past poets who did not rhyme, from Homer to Virgil to Milton.  What does Eliot think he is proving by quoting Matthew Arnold?  Or H.D.?

Surely the key to Eliot’s strategy is his famous declaration that, “What sort of a line that would be which would not scan at all I cannot say.” 

This idea has been swallowed by many hook, line, and sinker. 

“Any line can be divided into feet and accents,” says Eliot, and here he presents the truth of an innocent child.  If Eliot really stands by this absurdity, however, he has no right to say there is good verse, bad verse, and chaos.  For if “any line can be divided into feet and accents” then there cannot be any chaos.

Eliot, the child, and Eliot, the astute critic, are two different persons, obviously, just as T.S. Eliot, independent man of Letters, and T.S. Eliot, servile lackey to Pound, are not the same—and we see the contradiction acutely on display in “Reflections on Vers Libre.”

Eliot, anticipating an observation he made at the University of Virginia in the 1930s, which got him in trouble, makes this general plea for purity:

Only in a closely-knit and homogeneous society, where many men are at work on the same problems, such a society as those which produced the Greek chorus, the Elizabethan lyric, and the Troubadour canzone, will the development of such forms ever be carried to perfection.

Don’t blame vers libre.  Blame democracy.

“The decay of intricate formal patterns has nothing to do with the advent of vers libre.”

But, wait.  Didn’t Eliot say that vers libre didn’t exist?  Didn’t he say it was only something that a “lady” only thought existed?  Now we find Eliot, at the end of the essay, defending it.

What is this so-called “revolutionary” essay, “Reflections on Vers Libre,” anyway? 

It’s Eliot under the sway of Pound.

It’s a couple of thugs moving merchandise.

YEATS HATES KEATS: WHY DO THE MODERNS DESPISE THE ROMANTICS?

They don’t have Yeats!  Only Keats!  The Modernists don’t sell candy. 

Yeats on Keats:

His art is happy, but who knows his mind?
I see a schoolboy when I think of him,
With face and nose pressed to sweet-shop window…
Shut out from all the luxury of the world,
The coarse-bred son of a livery stablekeeper…

Here’s the whole poem which makes it quite clear this is unfortunately Yeats’ actual opinion of Keats.

Yeats, also wrote, “A line will take us hours maybe; yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, our stitching and unstinting has been naught.” 

The key here is “A line will take us hours…”

This puts Yeats (despite some Romantic impulses) squarely in the Modernist camp—he was closer to his friend Pound than he was to any Romantic.

Keats, on the other hand, said writing poetry should “come like leaves to a tree.”  He didn’t say, ‘the poet should make it look like his poetry comes as naturally as leaves to a tree.’  No, Keats meant the poetry should, in fact, come as naturally to the poet as leaves to a tree, and Keats added that the poetry should appear almost as a “remembrance.”   

The Modern poet sees, then consciously and unsentimentally presents what he sees (“no ideas but in things”).  

Keats, on the other hand, says poetry should express the poet’s “highest thoughts.” 

If high thoughts, memories, prodigious natural talent, youth, luxury, desires, and passion belong to the Romantics and the neo-Romantics, what is left for the poor, bitter Moderns?

Snobbery.  Elitism.  Puritanism.  Jealousy.  

We see these qualities in Yeats’ indictment of Keats.  

“Who knows his mind?”  asks Yeats of the “coarse-bred” Keats. 

Here is the (supposedly) conscious artist, Yeats mocking the (supposedly)unconscious one, Keats.  

The modern mind mocks the romantic mind, finding it vague, sentimental, inexact and invisible.

The youth in today’s MFA, the neo-Romantics who celebrate their frenzied exstence in a luxurious world, are hated by the ‘new Modernist’ old farts, who, ostensibly of animistic zeal in their avant impulses, in reality, resent all that animism stands for: joyous Romantic frenzy.  Or so a certain current theory goes.

Those who love the best of the Romantic poetry cannot stomach most modernist poetry; the former, at its best, had philosophy, while the latter, at its best, had mere manifesto.   Keats was highly conscious, but his conscious was in dialogue with his subconscious, and we suggest that all great artists carry on this inner conversation.   We only know the existence of subconscious and conscious by this dialogue, which spills out and forms the poetry: the reader overhears the two talking.   How can the unconscious exist to us but when the unconscious makes itself known to our conscious? 

The Moderns rejected this, thinking to give the conscious mind control of things (literally control of things, or things in control, which is animistic, come to think of it).  But the drab, inartistic nature of this Imagiste experiment quickly became apparent as High Modernism withered in its ‘little magazine existence,’ pretty much unread.

Who knows his mind? indeed.

The English Romantics woo’d, assimilated, and mated with  previous eras, courting the Greeks, the Enlightenment, the earlier German Romantics, the East, Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, while the Moderns cut off history like a furious murderer with a knife.  One can see it in Tate and Ransom’s essays ridiculing the keepers of history in the English Departments, who, according to them, paid scant attention to objective poetic forms—but was Modernism really a formalist enterprise?   Of course it wasn’t.  Tate and Ransom’s prose has a certain steely, Sadean power.  But who reads their poetry?

To understand the Modernists, one simply has to read the New Critics, starting with perhaps the most important critical document of the 20th century, Eliot’s “The Sacred Wood” (1920).  

On the very first page of the introduction to that book, what does Eliot do?  What the Modernists and the New Critics made a career of doing, of course.  He attacks the Romantics. 

“To anyone who is at all capable of experiencing the pleasures of justice, it is gratifying to be able to make amends to a writer whom one has vaguely depreciated for some years.” 

Eliot begins as nobly as one can begin, talking of the “pleasures of justice” and reaching out to a writer from the past, the 19th century poet and critic Matthew Arnold.  But after saying he’s re-read him and is starting to appreciate him more, here’s what Eliot then quotes from Arnold:

it has long seemed to me that the burst of creative activity in our literature, through the first quarter of this century, had about it in fact something premature; and that from this cause its productions are doomed, most of them, in spite of the sanguine hopes which accompanied and do still accompany them, to prove hardly more lasting than the productions of far less splendid epochs.  And this prematureness comes from its having proceeded without having its proper data, without sufficient material to work with.  In other words, the English poetry of the first quarter of this century, with plenty of energy, plenty of creative force, did not have enough.  This makes Byron so empty of matter, Shelley so incoherent, Wordsworth, even, profound as he is, yet so wanting in completeness and variety.

Eliot then adds to Arnold’s words, “This judgment of the Romantic generation has not, so far as I know, been successfully controverted…”

No “justice” for Byron and Shelley, apparently.  (Wordsworth, the dullest of the Romantics, and the most resembling a Modernist, at least is called “profound.”)

The dismissal of whole swaths of literary history, especially the Romantics, by Pound, the Moderns, Winters, and the New Critics is well known.  And here we see T.S. Eliot choosing to lead off his most important critical work by quoting Arnold calling Shelley “incoherent,” Byron “empty,” and strangely damning one of the greatest literary periods in human history.

Yeats hates Keats.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 114 other followers