ROMANTIC BRACKET MAKES FOR THE SWEET 16

Marx versus Wordsworth

Marx and Wordsworth both hungered for simplicity; a certain nostalgia characterizes the madly ambitious intellect of the modern world.

Life was anything but simple for Marx and Wordsworth, but a hunger for the ‘simple life’ launched efforts on their part to deconstruct all that was complex.

Both of these gentlemen wanted to get rid of religion—because of its tendency, they thought, to confuse a world with a world, to distort one world with the promises of another.

These men were radical, because religion had not yet been widely questioned in their day; religion represented morality and order—which kept nature, red in tooth and claw, at bay.

Is nature really so terrifying?  For Wordsworth, fresh air, exercise, the beauty and the peace of rambling through the countryside is health—surpassing all the jargon and complexity of religion.

Marx was more urbane; he was not a hiker, like Wordsworth, and condemned, in fact, “the idiocy of bucolic life,” but Karl Marx, scribbling away in the British Museum, not hiking about like Wordsworth, also despised religion, and compared the “fetishism” of religion with the “fetishism” of commodities; capitalism, for Marx, like religion for both, was a trick of the mind, leading to inequality.

Wordsworth wanted simple poems, Marx, simple labor practices; this was dangerous heresy in a complex world, but simplicity proved to be wildly attractive, and very popular as modern (naive) systems of thought. Marx wrote for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, as did Emerson, devotee of Wordsworth, and landlord of Thoreau—the thinker who quietly united Wordsworth and Marx.

One might say Marx was a lot more dangerous than Wordsworth, but one can find politics in Wordsworth if one looks hard enough—but one cannot find poetry in Marx.

WINNER: WORDSWORTH  William Wordsworth has made it to the Sweet 16!

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Edmund Burke versus Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Burke is best known for his “conservative” objection to the thrills and dangers of the French Revolution.  Coleridge is best known for a few iconic poems, plagiarizing the Germans, talking endlessly, and theorizing iconically as well. Also: unhappiness in love, poor Coleridge! and opium abuse. And his on again, off again, friendship with Wordsworth. I know this crap: Imagination and Fancy, etc because I was an English major, the field of study which truly rocked, but for some reason is dying out, even though grammatical/philosophical literacy remains vital and other fields of study have nothing as interesting as Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

WINNER: COLERIDGE Congratulations, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, you join your friend Wordsworth in the Sweet 16!

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Edgar Poe versus Thomas Love Peacock

Whence came Edgar Poe?  We can’t get our heads around his greatness. The modern literary genius should come from London or Paris or Boston, not from the slave-owning South! There’s something in that which offends the literary sensibility of cool.  But, too bad; the greatest American literary genius came from the slave-owning South. And also had no money.

To make it worse, Poe’s genius is inescapable and unquestioned; it cannot be trivialized or wished away, though many have tried it, with a shoddy, slanderous, mumbly ignorance.

Since Poe overwhelms opponents to such a degree that it is like watching a helpless person pinned to the ground longer than we think is reasonable, people hate him.  And when someone is always right, or truly looks into our mind and soul with a calm stare that is truthful and honest, we are thrown into moral and even physical agony. Poe is too good to be believed, so good, he annoys, because we have little to do after we accept his ascendency. We cannot dilly-dally with pleasure after we absorb his templates. His inventions force us to be brief and intelligent, or die.

Thomas Love Peacock is a brilliant author, and his “The Four Ages of Poetry” is a masterpiece of criticism, inspiring his friend, Shelley’s, “Defense.”  Peacock’s novels were mostly conversations, like Plato’s dialogues. Peacock was known as “The Laughing  Philosopher.” He and his friend Shelley shared a love of Ancient Greece. Peacock worked in the offices of the East India Company, and was succeeded by John Stuart Mill.

But what chance does a Peacock have against Edgar Poe?

WINNER: POE  Poe ushers himself into the Sweet 16.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson versus Percy Shelley

Ralph Emerson talks about the soul to such an extent that one is quite certain, after reading Emerson, that the soul does not exist. Emerson is the kind of person that when you are thinking about something, says, ‘excuse me, let me do that for you.’ You don’t read Emerson, you surrender to him. Emerson will spend several hours explaining how the soul relates to the natural fact when he could have simply told us the soul is the natural fact—but nothing is simple for Emerson, or for those who attempt to understand him. His prose is poetry—when rearranged a bit with the name ‘Walt Whitman’ attached. Poetry that hectors. Emerson called Poe ‘the jingle man, but Poe’s jingle is melodic and clear compared to the jangle jungle that is Ralph Harvard Divinity School Emerson. The ‘forward-thinking liberal’ who makes superstition seem reasonable? That would be Waldo, the axe-grinder. Emerson wants argument everywhere: even in meters, as he tells us in “The Poet.” But you can’t be good at meters if you are not good at argument, so why does Emerson fault good meters which lack argument? I know a poet good at meters, Emerson says, but the true poet, etc….and here the sermon assures us that sermonizing about poetry is the way to get at it—thus Emerson envied Poe and Emerson’s heir, T.S. Eliot (Unitarian grandfather knew Mr. E.), hated Shelley.

Ah, Shelley! Shelley needs no argument. Shelley argues against religion and God with a music that remakes them. One cannot write like Dante and be an atheist. There is more God in the paganism of Plato than even in the unconscious accents of the modern non-believer. The sun recommends nature and God at once, and Shelley is that type of artist who reconciles, even in despair.

WINNER: SHELLEY

MADAME DE STAEL TANGLES WITH THOMAS PEACOCK IN THE ROMANTIC BRACKET

File:Madame de Staël en Corinne 1807.jpg

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

DE STAEL:

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

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

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

PEACOCK:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WINNER: PEACOCK

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