0

Introduction to Theory of Literature ENGL 300 – Lecture 5 – The Idea of the Autonomous Artwork – Yale

Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 – Lecture 5 – The Idea of the Autonomous Artwork

Chapter 1. New Criticism and the Poem as (Miniature) World [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: Okay. Moving then as quickly as possible into our subject matter for today, we begin a series of lectures on various aspects of twentieth-century formalism–a big word. At the end of our run through the varieties of twentieth-century formalism, I hope it doesn’t seem quite as big and that its many meanings–yet a finite number of meanings–have been made clear to you. That is to say, what we’re taking up this week, is as much really the history of criticism as literary theory. You remember in the first lecture I said there’s a difference between the history of criticism and theory of literature, one difference being that the history of criticism has a great deal to do with literary evaluation: that is to say, why do we care about literature and how can we find means of saying that it’s good or not good? This is an aspect of thought concerning literature that tends to fall out of literary theory but not out of the materials that we are reading this week. You can see that when Wimsatt and Beardsley talk about the “success” of the poem, they understand the whole critical enterprise, including its theoretical underpinnings–the question of what is a poem, the question of how should we best read it–to be still geared toward literary evaluation.

That makes the subject matter that we’ll be discussing this week, as I say, as much a part of the history of criticism as it is of literary theory. We’re going to be reading it with a theoretical spin. That is to say, we’re going to focus on the question of what a poem is and the question, “What criteria should we invoke in order to read it for the best and correctly?” But there are other ways of approaching this material.

In any case, then, Wimsatt. Beardsley by the way was actually a philosopher who taught at Temple University, a good friend of his. In the book in which the essay “The Intentional Fallacy” appeared, a book called The Verbal Icon, Wimsatt collaborated with Monroe Beardsley on three essays, and this is one of them. So we try to remember to say “Wimsatt and Beardsley” even though it is Wimsatt who taught at Yale. That in itself needn’t be significant except that the New Critics, the school of critics to which he belonged, have always been identified with Yale and indeed consolidated here a kind of teaching method and attitude toward literature which constituted the first wave–the first of two waves–of involvement in literary theory which amounts to the Yale English and comparative literature departments’ claims to fame. Many of those figures who belong to the New Critics did much of their important work before they arrived at Yale. Others never were at Yale, and yet at the same time it’s a movement closely associated with this institution.

When I arrived at Yale, Wimsatt was still teaching, Cleanth Brooks was still teaching, and so I feel a kind of personal continuity with these figures and understand, as we all will more fully later on, the way in which the style, and emphasis on the style, of close reading that evolved within the New Criticism meaningfully and importantly left its mark on much subsequent criticism and theory that hasn’t in fact always acknowledged the New Criticism perhaps to the extent that it might have. Much of this should be reserved for next time when I talk about Cleanth Brooks and return to the whole subject of the New Criticism and the way in which it’s viewed historically–so much of it can be reserved for next time.

But what I do want to say now is this. If it weren’t for the New Critics, none of you probably would have been able to sit patiently through any of your middle or high school English classes. When Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren published a book called Understanding Poetry, first published in 1939 and then subsequently reissued again and again and again as it swept the country, suddenly schoolteachers had a way of keeping kids in the classroom for fifty minutes. Close reading, the idea that you could take a text and do things with it–that the interpretation of a text wasn’t just a matter of saying, “Oh, yes, it’s about this and isn’t it beautiful?”–reciting the text, emoting over it, enthusing about it, and then looking around for something else to say–it was no longer a question of doing that. It was a question of constructing an elaborate formal edifice to which everybody could contribute. Students got excited about it. They saw certain patterns or certain ways of elaborating patterns that the teachers were talking about and, lo and behold, the fifty minutes was over and everybody had had a pretty good time. This had never happened in an English class before. [laughs] [laughter]

Seriously, you’re English majors because of the New Criticism–I admit, especially if you went to private school. This way of teaching did not perhaps quite so much for a variety of reasons permeate public school literature teaching, but it was simply, as a result of Understanding Poetry, the way to go. It took time. If you had more than fifty minutes, you could actually make ample use of it. T.S. Eliot, who was in many ways associated with the New Criticism, one of its intellectual forebears, nevertheless took a somewhat dim view of it and called it “lemon squeezer criticism.” What this meant is it takes time. You’ve got to squeeze absolutely everything out of it, and so it was ideal from the standpoint of teaching and was, it seems to me, also wonderfully galvanizing intellectually because it really did make people think: “look how intricate what I thought was simple turns out to be.” The New Criticism, incontestably and without rival, created an atmosphere in which it was okay to notice that things were a little more difficult than they’d been supposed to be. This in itself was extraordinarily useful and constructive, not just for subsequent literary theory, I think, but for the way in which English teaching actually can help people think better. All of this the New Criticism had a great deal to do with–and when I talk next time about the way in which it’s been vilified for the last [laughs] forty or fifty years, naturally I will have this in the back of my mind.

Chapter 2. Formalism and Immanuel Kant [00:07:28]

So in any case, where did this preoccupation with form–because we’re beginning to think about the way in which theory can preoccupy itself with form–where does it come from? Well, needless to say, I’m about to say it goes back to the beginning. When Plato writes his Republic and devotes Book Ten, as I’m sure most of you know, to an argument in effect banishing the poets from the ideal republic, part of the argument is that poets are terrible imitators. They imitate reality as badly as they possibly can. They are three times removed from the ideal forms of objects in reality. They’re a hopeless mess. They get everything wrong. They think that a stick refracted in the water is therefore a crooked stick. They are subject to every conceivable kind of illusion, not to be trusted, and Socrates calls them liars.

Okay. Now when Aristotle writes his Poetics he does so–and this is true and rewards scrutiny if one thinks carefully about the Poetics–he does so very consciously in refutation of Plato’s arguments in the Republic, and perhaps the keystone of this refutation is simply this: Plato says poets imitate badly. Aristotle says this is a category mistake because poets don’t imitate reality. Poets don’t imitate, says Aristotle, things as they are. They imitate things as they should be. In other words, the business of poets is to organize, to bring form to bear, on the messiness of reality and, in so doing, to construct not an alternate reality in the sense that it has nothing to do with the real world–that is to say, it doesn’t mention anything in the real world, or it somehow or other invents human beings made out of chocolate or something like that–instead, it idealizes the elements existing in the real world such that its object is something other than reality as such. This is really the origin of formalism. Aristotle is considered the ancestor of the varying sorts of thought about form, and it’s this move, this move that he makes in the Poetics, that engenders this possibility.

Now turning to your sheet, in the early, early modern period the poet and courtier, Sir Philip Sidney, wrote an elegant, really wonderfully written defense of poetry, in one edition called The Apology for Poesie. In this edition he, while actually a fervent admirer of Plato, nevertheless develops this idea of Aristotle with remarkable rhetorical ingenuity and I think very impressively lays out the case that Aristotle first makes, here in the first passage on your sheet. Sidney’s talking about the various kinds of discourse: divinity, hymnody, science, philosophy, history–in other words, all the ways in which you can contribute to human betterment and human welfare. He says in the case of all but one of them, each discourse is a “serving science.” That is to say, it is subservient to the natural world; its importance is that it refers to that world. The first sentence of your passage: “There is no art but one delivered to mankind that hath not the works of nature for his principal object.” This by the way– although what they serve is not exactly a work of nature–is why even that which is incontestably better than secular poetry, in other words hymnody, and also divine knowledge or theology–even these fields, which are the supreme fields, are also serving sciences. They are subservient to an idea that they have to express, which is the idea of God, right, and God is real. There’s no sense that we’re making God up in this kind of discourse. Sidney is a devoutly religious person and there’s no semblance of doubt in his attitude, and yet he is saying something very special about the poet who is somewhere in between divinity and the other sorts of discourse with which poetry is traditionally in rivalry: science, philosophy and history. And he says this is what’s unique about poetry.

Only the poet disdaining to be tied to any such subjection [subjection, in other words, to things as they are], lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature… . He nothing affirms and therefore never lieth.

In other words, Plato is wrong. The poet is not a liar because he’s not talking about anything that’s verifiable or falsifiable. He is simply talking about the parameters of the world he has brought into being. Sidney thinks of it as a kind of magic. He invokes, for example, the science of astrology. The poet, he says, ranges freely within the zodiac of his own wit. He also invokes the pseudoscience of alchemy when he says that the poet inhabits a brazen world, and of this–“brazen” means brass–of this brazen world, he makes a golden world. In other words, poetry is transformational. In representing not things as they are but things as they should be, it transforms reality. All right. So this is an argument which in outline, once again, justifies the idea of literature as form, as that which brings form to bear on the chaos and messiness of the real.

Now I don’t mean to say things just stood still as Sidney said they were until you get to Kant. A great deal happens, but one aspect of Kant’s famous “Copernican revolution” in the history of philosophy is his ideas about aesthetics and the beautiful and about the special faculty that he believes has to do with and mediates our aesthetic understanding of things, a faculty which he calls “the judgment”; so that in The Critique of Judgment of 1790, he outlines a philosophy of the beautiful and of the means whereby “the judgment” makes judgments of the beautiful. He does a great deal else in it, but I’m isolating this strand, which is what’s relevant to what we’re talking about. In many ways Kant, without knowing anything about Sidney, nevertheless follows from Sidney particularly in this, as you’ll see.

I’m going to look sort of with some care at these passages so all will become clear, but particularly in this: Sidney–and I didn’t exactly quote the passage in which Sidney does this but I urged you to believe that he does–Sidney actually ranks poetry somewhere between divinity and the other sciences. In other words, poetry is not the supreme thing that a person can do. Sidney believed this so much in fact that when he knew himself to be dying, having been mortally wounded in a battle, he ordered that all of his own poems be burned. From the standpoint of a devout person, he had no doubt that poetry was inferior to divinity. Now in a way that’s what Kant’s saying, too. In the passages you’ll read, you’ll see that the point is not that art and the judgment of the beautiful is the supreme thing that humanity can be engaged with. The point is only that it has a special characteristic that nothing else has. That’s the point that this whole tradition is trying to make. This is the way Kant puts it, turning first to the second passage:

The pleasant and the good both have a reference to the faculty of desire [The pleasant is the way in which our appetency, our sensuous faculty–which Kant calls “the understanding,” by the way–understands things. Things are either pleasant or unpleasant. The good, on the contrary, is the way in which our cognitive and moral faculty–which Kant calls “the reason”–understands things. Things are either to be approved of or not to be approved of, but in each case, as Kant argues, they have a reference to the faculty of desire–I want, I don’t want, I approve, I disapprove], and they bring with them the former [that is to say, the pleasant], a satisfaction pathologically conditioned; the latter a pure, practical, purposeful satisfaction which is determined not merely by the representation of the object [that is to say, by the fact that the represented object exists for me, right] but also by the represented connection of the subject with the existence of the object [in other words, by the way in which I want it or don’t want it, approve of it or don’t approve of it].

My subjective wishes, in other words, determine my attitude toward it, whereas what Kant is saying is that my attitude toward that which simply stands before us as what is neither pleasant nor good, but is rather something else, doesn’t exist for me. It exists in and for itself.

The next passage: “Taste is the faculty of the judging of an object or a method of representing it by an entirely disinterested satisfaction or dissatisfaction.” In other words, yeah, I still like it or don’t like it, but my liking has nothing to do either with desire or with approval–moral, political, or however the case may be. I just like it or I just don’t like it according to principles that can be understood as arising from the faculty of judgment and not from the faculty of the understanding, which is appetitive, and the faculty of reason, which is moral.

So with that said, perhaps just to add to that, the fourth passage: “Beauty is the form of the purposiveness of an object so far as it is perceived in it without any representation of a purpose.” You say, “Whoa, what is this?” [laughs] [laughter] Kant makes a distinction between the purposive and the purposeful. What is the distinction? The purposeful is the purpose of the object in practical terms. What can it do? What can it do for me? How does it go to work in the world? What is its function among other objects? What bearing does it have on–in particular–my life? But the purposiveness of the object is the way in which it is sufficient unto itself. It has its own purpose, which is not a purpose that has any bearing necessarily on anything else. It has, in other words, an internal coherence. It has a dynamism of parts that is strictly with reference to its own existence. It is a form. It is a form and that form, because we can see it has structure and because we can see it has organization and complexity, is purposive. That is to say, it manifests its self-sufficiency.

So that’s Kant’s famous distinction between the purposive, which is the organization of an aesthetic object, and the purposeful, which is the organization of any object insofar as it goes to work in the world or for us. An aesthetic objectcan be purposeful; that is to say we can view it as purposeful. I see a naked body, which the art historians call a nude. Let’s say I don’t accept that it’s merely a nude. I want it or I disapprove of it and, lo and behold, it’s no longer aesthetic. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but I hope you can see that that is a distinction between the purposive and the purposeful.

Chapter 3. Kant and Coleridge: the Good, the Agreeable, and the Beautiful [00:21:35]

Now just in order to reprise these important distinctions, I want to turn to a passage in Samuel Coleridge who is, at least on this occasion, a disciple of Kant and is, I think, usefully paraphrasing the arguments of Kant that we have just been engaged in. This is the fifth passage on your sheet:

The beautiful [says Coleridge] is at once distinguished both from the agreeable which is beneath it [and notice the sort of stationing of the beautiful as Sidney stations it between what’s beneath it and what’s above it]–from the agreeable which is beneath it and from the good which is above it, for both these necessarily have an interest attached to them. Both act on the will and excite a desire for the actual existence of the image or idea contemplated, while the sense of beauty rests gratified in the mere contemplation or intuition regardless whether it be a fictitious Apollo or a real Antinous.

In other words, the judgment of beauty does not depend on the existence of the object for its satisfaction.

Now Oscar Wilde, ever the wag and a person who generated more good literary theory in ways that didn’t seem like literary theory at all, perhaps, in the entire history of thinking about the subject, says in the famous series of aphorisms which constitute his “Preface” to The Picture of Dorian Gray–he concludes this series of aphorisms by winking at us and saying, “All art is quite useless.” I hope that after reading these passages and enduring the explication of them that you’ve just heard you can immediately see what Wilde means by saying all art is quite useless. He’s appropriating a term of opprobrium in the utilitarian tradition–oh, my goodness, that something would be useless, right?–he’s appropriating a term of opprobrium and pointing out that it is an extraordinarily unique thing about art that it’s useless; in other words, that it appeals to no merely appetitive or other form of subjective interest. We don’t have to have an “interest” in it in the sense of owning part of a company. We don’t have to have an interest in it in order to appreciate it. In other words, we can be objective about it. We can distance ourselves from our subjective wants and needs and likes and dislikes, and we can coexist with it in a happy and constructive way that is good for both of us, because if we recognize that there are things in the world which have intrinsic value and importance and what we call beauty, and yet are not the things that we covet or wish to banish, we recognize in ourselves the capacity for disinterestedness. We recognize in ourselves a virtue which is considered to be the cornerstone of many systems of moral understanding.

To realize that we’re not interested in everything and merely because we’re interested take a view of things, but that there are things that we don’t have to have that kind of interest in and can nevertheless recognize as self-sufficient and valuable, is important. Wilde’s suggestion, but I think also Kant’s suggestion before him, is important for our recognition of our own value. By the same token, all this harping on the autonomy of art–that is to say, the self-sufficiency of art, the way in which it’s not dependent on anything, or as Sidney says, the way in which it’s not a serving science existing merely to represent things other than itself, right?–the way in which this is possible for art is, as also our own capacity to be disinterested is, a way of acknowledging that freedom exists: that I am free, that things are free from my instrumental interest in them, so that in general what’s implicit in this view of art and this view of human judgment, and what makes it so important in the history of thought, is that once again–and this is not the first time we’ve brought this up in these lectures and won’t be the last–it’s a way of recognizing that in addition to all the other things that we are, some of them wonderful, we are also free. There is in us at least an element that is free, independent, serving nothing, autonomous. This idea of our freedom, and by implication of the freedom of other things, from our instrumental interests is what sustains the formalist tradition, and against various kinds of criticism and objection that we’ll be taking up in turn as the case arises, sustains and keeps bringing back into the history of thought on these subjects the notion that form simply for its own sake–as the notorious Aestheticism movement at the end of the nineteenth century put it–is valuable.

Chapter 4. Wimsatt and Beardsley: the Anatomy of the “Poem” [00:28:21]

All right. Now John Crowe Ransom, who was never at Yale but is nevertheless one of the founders or first members of a self-identified school of figures who called themselves the New Critics, published a book called The New Criticism, and that’s [laughs] where the term “the New Critics” comes from. You may have noticed in your Wimsatt essay that there is a footnote to somebody named Joel Spingarn who wrote an essay called “The New Criticism” in 1924. Not to worry. That has nothing to do with the New Criticism. That just means criticism which is recent, [laughs] a different matter altogether. By the same token, there is the work of Roland Barthes and some of his contemporaries–Poulet, whom I mentioned, Jean Starobinski and others–that was called in the French press La Nouvelle Critique. That, too then is an instance of the New Criticism being used as a term, but that too has nothing to do with our subject.

The New Critics, the American New Critics as they are sometimes identified, were a school–and I use that term advisedly because they are self-identified as a group–a school of people who evolved this idea of the independent status–Ransom calls it a “discrete ontological object”–of the work of art and the means whereby it can be appreciated as independent in all of its complexity. Our first foray into the thinking of this school will be our reading of Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “The Intentional Fallacy,” which I’ll get to in a minute; but, simply as a reprise, take a look at the two passages from Ransom which complete what’s on your sheet and which, I think you can see, create a link between the sort of thinking you’ve encountered in reading “The Intentional Fallacy” and the tradition that I’ve been trying to describe.

Passage seven ought to be completely transparent to you now because it is simply a paraphrase of the passages I have given you from Kant and Coleridge: “The experience [says Ransom] called beauty is beyond the powerful ethical will precisely as it is beyond the animal passion. Indeed, these last two are competitive and coordinate.” In other words, what they have in common with each other, ethical will and animal passion, is that they’re both grounded in interest. Right? That’s the point of Sir Kenneth Clark’s word, “the nude.” [pronounced “nyewd”] For the naked human being, as viewed both by the appetites and by moral reason, as a common term from the standpoint both of what Kant calls “the understanding” and from what Kant calls “the reason,” the expression “naked body” is just fine; but if we do believe there is another category, the aesthetic, viewed by an independent faculty called “the judgment,” we need another word for what we’re looking at–modern painters like Philip Pearlstein and Lucian Freud would strongly disagree, but in a way that’s the point. When we’re looking at a painting of a naked body we don’t say, “Oh, that’s a naked body.” We say, “That’s a nyewd,” and that distinction is what, as it were, bears out the implicit way, the semiconscious way, in which all of us acknowledge there to be a category that we call the aesthetic judgment.

On the other hand, a lot of people think it’s all hokum, and in fact the predominant view in the twentieth century has been that there’s no such thing as disinterestedness, that whatever we are looking at we have an interest in and form views of, and that this Kantian moment of dispassionate or disinterested contemplation is what the early twentieth-century critic I.A. Richards called a “phantom aesthetic state.” The predominant view is of this kind of–but, just to do it justice in passing, there is a certain sense, is there not? in which we suddenly find ourselves, without meaning to and without being simply victims of any sort of cultural tyranny, standing in front of something, clasping our hands, tilting our head and feeling somehow or another different from the way we feel when we typically look at things. And that, too, is an intuitive way of saying, “Yeah, however rigorously we can define it or defend it, something like this does seem to go on in our minds at certain kinds of moments of experience.” We just feel differently looking at a certain work of art or a certain landscape, let’s say, than we feel looking at other sorts of things. Maybe we don’t know why. Maybe we doubt that the difference is absolute in the way that Kant wants to insist it is. Nevertheless, we have in tendency feelings of this kind and we should acknowledge them because again, at least in terms of a weak understanding of these positions, it does tend to justify them. At least it explains to us why people can have had such thoughts.

Okay. Wimsatt–I keep saying Wimsatt. Again it’s Wimsatt and Beardsley, but I already explained how that is. Wimsatt right off the bat attacks what he calls “the Romantic understanding of literature.” Now what does he mean by Romantic? It’s the attitude which supposes that a “poem,” and that’s Wimsatt’s privileged word which I’ll try to explain, that a poem is an expression–that is to say, is the expression of some passion or profound genius working its way into a form, but that the important thing is the expression. This much, by the way, Wimsatt has in common with Gadamer, because Gadamer doesn’t talk much about authors either, and Gadamer is interested in what he calls meaning, the subject matter, die Sache. Right? He’s not interested in your sort of expression of that meaning or my expression of that meaning. He’s interested in the way in which a reader can come to terms with a meaning conveyed by a text, and that much, as I say, despite the profoundly different nature of their projects, Wimsatt and Gadamer have in common.

So a poem is not an expression but an independent object with a self-contained meaning, and if this meaning is not self-evident to the attentive reader then we don’t judge the poem a success. This is where evaluation comes in. The success or failure of a poem depends on the realization of meaning. It doesn’t depend on our going to the archive, finding out what the author said in his letters about it, finding out what he told his friends, or what he told the newspapers. It doesn’t involve any of that. If the meaning is not clear in the poem, we judge the poem a failure. We don’t refer–we have no reason to refer, if we respect the autonomy of the poem as such, we don’t refer–we don’t appeal to an authorial intention.

Hence, on page 811, the left-hand column, about a third of the way down:

“… [T]he design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art…”

It follows from this that even a short poem, even a short lyric poem–and here you could see Wimsatt “following” Foucault, though obviously not following but anticipating Foucault, and again they have nothing to do with each other, but there is this overlap–even a short poem doesn’t really have an author. It has a “speaker,” a figure speaking in the poem, that needs to be understood dramatically, that is to say as though the poem were one of Browning’s or T.S. Eliot’s dramatic monologues–in other words, so that the speaker of any poem on Wimsatt’s view is a speaker endowed with a certain character, a certain viewpoint, a certain argument to be put forward, and our concern about the speaker has to be a concern within the poem about the way in which this character is elaborated, and not reinforced, somehow, by biographical reference to that which is not the speaker but the author standing back there somewhere behind the poem.

Now why focus on the “poem”? Notice that we never hear about literature. We never even hear about “poetry.” The object of attention for an analysis of this kind is the poem. Well, the poem is, as John Donne puts it, a little world made cunningly. It’s a microcosm. It is a distillation or quintessence. It is a model in other words for the way in which literature can be understood as world-making–not a representation, again, of things as they are but of things as they should be; whereby “things as they should be” is not necessarily an ideal but rather that which is formal, that which is organized, and that which has a coherence and makes sense self-sufficiently and within itself. That’s why the poem, the lyric poem, is privileged among the forms of literary discourse in the New Criticism. All literature is by implication a “poem,” [laughs] but the poem is the privileged site of analysis whereby this broader statement can be made to seem reasonable, hence the emphasis on the poem. The absence of the Romantic word “poetry” is therefore not insignificant. Poetry is that which just sort of spills out of me. It’s the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. (Never mind that.) The New Criticism isn’t interested in spontaneous overflows of powerful feelings. Wimsatt has his little joke about drinking a pint of beer, taking a walk. So the New Criticism just isn’t interested in those sorts of spontaneous overflow. Sorry. [laughs] I won’t go there. [laughter]

Chapter 5. Wimsatt and Beardsley: Permissable Evidence [00:40:34]

But in any case, he goes on. He goes on to say, “All right. If we’re focused on the work of art in and of itself, on the poem, we obviously in thinking about what it means need to come to terms with three kinds of evidence.” That is to say, some things have a bearing on what it means and some things don’t. What does have a bearing is language–that is to say, words in the public domain which all of us share and which we can study in order to come to terms with the exact meaning of the poem. A certain word–this is, of course, what kept you in your high school classes for so long–a certain word has five or six different meanings. The New Criticism delights in showing how all five or six of those meanings do have some bearing on the meaning of the poem. That’s all legitimate evidence. That is what one uses to build up the structure of the interpretation of the poem. What is not relevant is what I’ve mentioned already: what the author said about the poem in letters to friends, to newspapers and so on. That has no relevance.

Then Wimsatt acknowledges that there’s a sort of messy third category of evidence which has to do with language and is therefore legitimate to a point, but also has to do with the author’s idiosyncrasies–that is to say, the way that author in particular used language, certain coterie words, or simply a private misunderstanding of certain words. You’ve got to know when you’re reading Whitman what he means by “camerado.” It’s not exactly [laughs] what the rest of us typically mean when we–well, we don’t use that word exactly, but it’s [laughter] [laughs] what we typically mean when we speak of comrades or comradeship. In other words, the word is loaded in ways that–Wimsatt would probably acknowledge– need to be taken into account if we’re going to understand what Whitman is up to. Now this is very tricky, and he spends the rest of his essay talking about the murky boundaries between types of evidence, type of evidence number two which is out of play and type of evidence number three which may be in play but has to be dealt with in a gingerly and careful way.

But I’m more interested, actually, in a footnote which arises from this argument about the idiosyncratic nature of language as a particular author may use it because the footnote says, you know what? That’s just one consideration we bring to bear on the function of language in a poem. This footnote, number eleven at the bottom of page 814 over to 815, is just about as devastating and counterintuitive a pronouncement as is made anywhere in our entire syllabus, the most earth-shattering pronouncement that anybody could ever possibly make in the New Criticism. Well, look at this footnote:

And the history of words after a poem is written may contribute meanings which if relevant to the original pattern should not be ruled out by a scruple about intention.

That is bold. The great creator raised his plastic arm, right? Everybody knows Akenside didn’t mean polymers, but now we’re all into cyberborgs and we take all of this very seriously. In a way it’s a tribute to the great creator and also an acknowledgement of the fact that the great creator lives in the Eternal Moment. He’s not subject to history. The great creator knew in the eighteenth century that some day plastic would mean polymer, right? Obviously that’s one of the divine attributes. Therefore, if the great creator chooses to raise his prosthetic limb, that is simply a way of understanding what it is like to be everything, omnipotent and omniscient in the Eternal Moment. In other words, if you take Wimsatt’s eleventh footnote seriously, that is a perfectly legitimate way not to ironically undermine Akenside’s line but actually to reinforce it and to give it a kind of formal richness which it does not otherwise have.

I realize that I’m out of time, and so I’ll begin the next lecture by talking about a poem of Yeats called “Lapis Lazuli” written in 1935, in which he talks about the way in which people who build up things that have been destroyed are always “gay.” And of course, if we invoke intention, Yeats doesn’t mean that they’re always gay in our sense. He is using the English translation of the German word froehlich from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. Yeats is an astute and careful reader of Nietzsche and in some ways is elaborating on what Nietzsche says in that book in his poem “Lapis Lazuli.” At the beginning of the next lecture we will do the same thing with the word “gay” that we’ve just done with the word “plastic” and then we will go ahead and consider the essay of Cleanth Brooks and other aspects of the New Criticism.

[end of transcript]

0

Introduction to Theory of Literature ENGL 300 – Lecture 4 – Configurative Reading – Yale

Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 – Lecture 4 – Configurative Reading

Chapter 1. Gadamer Revisited [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: So before we go on to talk a little bit about the American historicist hermeneutical scholar E. D. Hirsch, and then Wolfgang Iser–for whom you have your reading assignment–I want to go back to Gadamer a little bit and say something more about his taste, that is to say, the kind of literary and intellectual canon that his approach to hermeneutics establishes. You remember Gadamer is very much concerned with the norm of classicism, which later in his essay he is inclined to call “tradition” instead, and the reason that’s so important to him is that he actually has a very conservative view of what the reader can accomplish in understanding another horizon. Gadamer, in other words, doesn’t think that the reader can perform any great miracles in intuitively feeling his or her way into the mind of another time and place, so that the value of classicism and of tradition for Gadamer is that there is evident common ground in certain texts. Sometimes we refer to them as “great books”–in other words, the sort of text that speaks, or we feel as though it’s speaking, to all places and times. Of course, it’s contested whether or not there is really any merit in talking about texts that way. But Gadamer’s view is very strongly that this conservatism about the canon, which is intimately related to his conservative doubt about the actual capability of a reader to span enormous gaps–and I use that word advisedly because it is the word that Iser uses to talk about the distance between the reader and the text, and the way in which that distance should be negotiated–so in any case this conservatism, it seems to me, however, can be questioned.

I thought that we’d begin then by turning to page 731, the left-hand column, the footnote. You’re beginning to realize, I’m sure, that I like footnotes. Gibbon of course was said to have lived his life in his footnotes. Perhaps I live my life in the footnotes of other people. In any case, in this footnote Gadamer says something–I think it’s very rare that we can actually just sort of outright disagree with Gadamer, but he says something in this footnote that I believe we can actually disagree with. Toward the bottom of the footnote, 731, left-hand column, he says, “… [J]ust as in conversation, we understand irony to the extent to which we are in agreement on the subject with the other person.” We understand irony only, he means, to the extent to which we are in agreement with the other person. If you are expressing an opinion, in other words, which differs radically from my own, I can’t understand, according to Gadamer, whether or not you’re being ironic.

This seems to me to be just patently false. Think about politics. Think about political talk shows. Think about political campaigns. When our political opponent is being ironic about our views we understand the irony perfectly well. We’re used to it, we have accommodated ourselves to it, and of course it’s the same in reverse. Our opponent understands our ironies, and there is, it seems to me, a perfect kind of symbiosis, ironically enough, between political opponents precisely maybe in the measure to which their ironies are mutually intelligible. It probably teaches each of them a good deal to be able to accommodate, to encounter, to get used to the ironies of the other, and I think this applies to conversation in general. It’s very easy to pick up most forms of irony. We don’t have an enormous difficulty grasping them, and it doesn’t seem to me that our capability of grasping irony is founded on a necessary, underlying agreement.

That’s what he’s saying. Now if this is the case, it seems to me that one has found a loophole in Gadamer’s conservatism about what the reader can do. His premise is that in order to understand, there has to be a basis of agreement; but if what we’ve just said about understanding each other’s ironies, even where there is pretty wholesale disagreement, is true, that ought to apply also to our capacity to read work with which we distinctly disagree, with which we feel we can never come to terms in terms of affirming its value, but which we nevertheless can understand. If understanding is not predicated on agreement, the possibility of opening up the canon, as we say, insisting that it doesn’t have to be an absolutely continuous traditional canon, is available to us once again and Gadamer’s conservatism on this issue can be questioned.

Now it’s not that Gadamer is insisting on absolute continuity. On the contrary. You’ll probably remember that he says early in the essay that in order to recognize that we are in the presence of something that isn’t merely within our own historical horizon, we need to be “pulled up short.” In other words, to go back to that example once more, we need to recognize that there’s something weird about that word “plastic,” and in being pulled up short we recognize the need also for the fundamental act of reading in Gadamer which is the merger of horizons: in other words, that we are dealing knowingly with a horizon not altogether our own that has to be negotiated, that has to be merged with our own for understanding to be possible.

In fact, Gadamer even insists that if we don’t have this phenomenon of being pulled up short, our reading is basically just solipsistic. We just take it for granted that what we’re reading is completely within our own horizon and we don’t make any effort at all to understand that which is fundamentally or at least in some ways different. Gadamer acknowledges this, even insists on it as I say, but he doesn’t lay stress on it because the gap that is implied in the need to be pulled up short is not a big one. That is to say, it’s one that we can easily traverse. Take the example of “plastic” again: “Oh, gee, that’s a strange word,” we say, so we go to the OED [Oxford English Dictionary], we see it meant something different then, our problem is solved, and we continue. No big deal, right? But there may be ways of being pulled up short, occasions for being pulled up short, that Gadamer thinks exceed the imaginative grasp of a reader. As you’ll see when we return to Iser after I’ve said a few things about Hirsch, this, as you’ll see, is the fundamental difference between Gadamer and Iser. Where for Gadamer, the gap between reader and text, between my horizon and the horizon of the text, is perforce a small one, for Iser it needs to be a much larger one in order for what he calls the “act of the reader,” the reading act, really to swing into high gear, and we’ll see that this has implications for the obvious difference between their two canons.

Chapter 2. Hirsch’s Historicism [00:08:47]

All right, but now I want to say something about the passage from which I quoted over against the passage from Gadamer at the end of the Gadamer lecture. You remember Gadamer said we have to be open to the otherness of the past in order that for us it may “speak true,” but if we simply bracket out our own feelings, that can’t possibly happen so that we have to recognize that in this mutuality of the reading experience we really are in a conversation. We’re open to being told something true by someone else.

Hirsch on the other hand says, “Oh, well, no. The important thing is to know the exact meaning of that other person because that’s the only way to honor the otherness of the person. Kant says people ought to be an end and not a means for us; we ought to understand them on their terms.” Gadamer’s claim, however, was that if we do that, we are in fact suspending the way in which it might be that they speak true. We are honoring instead the integrity of what they’re saying without thinking about whether or not it might be true.

So I introduced Hirsch in that context, and now I want to go back to him a little bit and I want to work with two passages which I have sent you all in e-mail-form and which I have neglected to put on the board, but they’re so short I don’t think that will be necessary. The first of the two passages I want to talk about is Hirsch’s argument that “meaning is an affair of consciousness and not of words”–meaning is an affair of consciousness and not of words. In other words, the text is what makes the ascertainment of meaning possible and available to us, but meaning is not in the text. Meaning is in the intention of the author, and that is what we need to arrive at as we work through the text. Meaning is an affair of consciousness and not of words.

Now think about this. What it means is that in understanding a text, we are attempting to grasp it in paraphrase. We are, in other words, attempting to grasp it in a sentence that might read something like, “What the author means to say is–” Right? So that it’s not what the text means–which might be anything, according to Hirsch, if you just appeal to the text; it’s what the author means to say.

Okay. So what’s implied here? On the one hand, you could say this is just absolute total nonsense. We use a text to find meaning in something that we don’t have available to us. Why don’t we just find meaning in the text, which is available to us? That would make more sense. It’s up to us to construe the text. We can’t possibly know what the author meant except on the basis of our determination of the meaning of the text, so why not just focus our attention to meaning on the text? Hirsch was a student of Wimsatt. Hirsch was engaged in lifelong disagreement with Gadamer but he was a student of Wimsatt, the author of “The Intentional Fallacy.” Obviously, Hirsch was a rebellious student [laughs] and insisted that, far from wanting to take Wimsatt’s position, appealing to intention was the most important thing you can do, the only thing you can do which establishes–according to the title of his first important book on hermeneutics–”validity in interpretation.”

All right. It’s very difficult intuitively to assent to Hirsch’s position, and I’ll just tell you by the way that I don’t, I can’t, but I will say in passing in defense of Hirsch that if we reflect on the matter, we realize that in common sense terms, appealing to an author’s intention is precisely what we do for practical reasons. Let me give you an example. You’re all students. You are sitting in classrooms that in many cases oblige you to take exams. Your instructor tells you when you write your exam, “Don’t just parrot the words of the authors you’re studying. I want to know that you understand those authors.” Think about it. You prove to your teacher that you understand the authors by being able to put their meaning in other words–in other words, to say the author is intending to say something, not just that the text says something and this is what it says, with your exam then being one long screed of quotation. Ironically, the instructor doesn’t really want just quotation on an exam. He wants explanation, and the form of explanation is paraphrase. You can’t have paraphrase unless you can identify a meaning which is interpersonal, a meaning which can be shared among a group that understands it and can be expressed in other words. That’s the key. If you can put it in other words, those other words take the form of an appeal to intention.

All right. That’s an important argument in Hirsch’s favor. We realize that practically speaking, the necessity of appealing to paraphrase in order to guarantee mutual understanding certainly does seem to be something like agreeing or admitting that meaning is an affair of consciousness, not of words–my consciousness, the author’s consciousness, the consciousness that we can all share. That’s where we find meaning, and meaning takes the form of that kind of paraphrase that everyone can agree on.

So much then to the advantage or benefit of Hirsch. There are lots of things to be said against it, on the other hand, which I don’t want to pause over now because I think a course of lectures on literary theory will inevitably show the ways in which paraphrase is inadequate to the task of rigorous interpretation. Cleanth Brooks, a New Critic, writes a famous essay called “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” insisting that proper literary interpretation is a wooden, mechanical, inflexible exercise if it reduces the incredible complexity of a textual surface to paraphrase. So it’s a complex issue, and I should leave it having said this much, at least for the moment.

Now one other thing that Hirsch says, the other thing that I quoted, is in effect–I’ll paraphrase now–[laughs]that what Gadamer omits to realize is that there is a difference between the meaning of a text and the significance of a text. That is Hirsch’s other key position, and we can understand it by saying something like this: the meaning of a text is what the author intended it to mean–that is to say, what we can establish with a reliable paraphrase. The significance of the text, which Hirsch does not deny interest to, is the meaning for us–that is to say, what we take to be important about this meaning: the way in which, for example, we can translate it into our own terms historically, we can adapt it to a cause or an intellectual position–the ways, in other words, in which we can take the meaning of a text and make it significant for us. The difference between meaning and significance then is something that Hirsch takes very seriously and he insists–and here is, of course, where it becomes controversial–he insists that it’s possible to tell the difference between meaning and significance if, good historicists that you are, you can pin down accurately and incontestably the author’s meaning, appealing to all the philological tricks that you have, throwing out irrelevancies and insisting that you finally have the meaning right–of course, how many times has that happened? which is obviously one point of disagreement with Hirsch. Then, once you’ve done that, once you have secured the integrity and accuracy of the meaning, Hirsch says, “Okay, fine. Now you can do anything you like with the text. You can adapt it for any sort of possible purpose, but the crucial thing is to keep the distinction between meaning and significance clear.”

Obviously, Gadamer refuses to argue that we can distinguish in that way reliably. We don’t know–because it’s a question of merging horizons, my horizon and the horizon of the text–we don’t know with any guarantee where meaning leaves off and significance begins, so that the splitting apart of the two terms is something that simply can’t be accomplished by the way in which we enter the hermeneutic circle. That’s Gadamer’s position, and it is the position of anyone who opposes that of Hirsch, although what he means by the distinction is clear enough. “Yes, yes,” you say, “I see exactly what he means.” Nevertheless, to secure the distinction in actual practice, to say, “Okay. This is the meaning and now this is how I’m going to make it significant”–well, it seems unlikely indeed that this is something anyone could ever accomplish.

Chapter 3. Iser: The Act of Reading [00:19:44]

All right. Finally, to turn to Wolfgang Iser: Iser is concerned with what he calls the act of the reader–Akt des Lesers is the title of one of his books–and in so doing he establishes himself as a person very much in the tradition of phenomenology deriving from Husserl and more directly, in Iser’s case, from an analyst of the way in which the reader moves from sentence to sentence in negotiating a text, a Polish intellectual named Roman Ingarden who is quoted frequently in the essay that you have. Those are the primary influences on Iser, but he himself has been tremendously influential in turn. Iser’s interest in the reader’s experience is part of a school of thought that he helped to found that grew up around the University of Konstanz in the sixties and seventies, and which resulted in a series of seminars on what was called “reception history” or alternatively “the aesthetics of reception.” Iser’s colleague was Hans Robert Jauss, whom we will be reading later in the course. The influence of the so-called Konstanz School spread to the United States and had many ramifications here, particularly and crucially in the early work of another critic we’ll be turning to later in the semester, Stanley Fish.

So reception history has been a kind of partly theoretical, partly scholarly field, one that’s really still flourishing and has been ever since the early work in the great Konstanz seminars of Iser, Jauss and others. Iser, later in his career–he died just a couple of years ago–taught annually at the University of California, Irvine, and by that time he was very much engaged in a new aspect of his project, which he called the anthropology of fiction–that is to say, “Why do we have fiction? Why do we tell stories to each other?” All of Iser’s work is grounded in the notion of literature as fiction. He’s almost exclusively a scholar of the novel–and by the way, one of the first obvious differences you can notice between Iser and Gadamer is that whereas Gadamer is an intellectual historian whose canonical texts are works of philosophy, works of social thought as well as great works of literature, for Iser it’s a completely different canon. He is exclusively concerned with fiction and how we read fiction, how we come to understand fiction, and how we determine the meaning of a work of fiction. As I say, in the last phase of his career when he started thinking about the anthropology of fiction, he raised the even more fundamental question–I think a very important one, though not necessarily to be aimed exclusively at fiction–the anthropological question of why we have fiction at all, why it has been a persisting trans-historical phenomenon of human culture that we tell stories to each other, that we make things up when after all we could be spending all of our time, well, just talking about things that actually are around us. In other words, how is it that we feel the need to make things up?

All right. Now as you read Iser you’ll see immediately that in tone, in his sense of what’s important, and in his understanding of the way in which we negotiate the world of texts he much more closely resembles Gadamer than Hirsch. We can say this in two different ways. We can say that Iser’s position is a reconstruction of what Gadamer has, essentially, to say about the merger of horizons. For example, on page 1002, the bottom of the left-hand column over to the right-hand column, he says, “The convergence of text and reader”–Gadamer’s way of putting that would be the merger of the reader’s horizon, my horizon, with the horizon within which the text appears–“brings the literary work into existence.” This is implied in Gadamer as well. It’s not your horizon; it’s not my horizon; it’s that effective history which takes place when our horizons merge. That is the locus of meaning for Gadamer.

By the same token, what Iser is saying is that the space of meaning is “virtual”–this is the word he uses. It’s neither in the text nor in the reader but the result of the negotiation back and forth between the text and the reader, he says, that sort of brings the literary work into existence in a virtual space. “… [A]nd this convergence can never be precisely pinpointed, but must always remain virtual, as is not to be identified either with the reality of the text or with the individual disposition of the reader.” So you see this is Gadamerian. This is the result, this is the fruit, of the hermeneutic engagement between horizons that results in meaning. It’s put in a different way by Iser, but it is in a large degree the same idea. He also plainly shares with Gadamer the assumption, the supposition, that the construal of meaning cannot be altogether objective. In other words, Iser is no more an historicist than Gadamer is but insists rather on the mutual exchange of prejudice between the two horizons in question. So he argues on page 1005, the right-hand column:

One text [this halfway down the column] is potentially capable of several different realizations, and no reading can ever exhaust the full potentia, for each individual reader will fill in the gaps in his own way.

This of course brings us to the issue of “gaps” and the role that they play in the act of reading as Iser understands it. It’s an interesting term. I don’t actually know whether Iser, to be Hirschian, means [laughs] what I’m about to say about gaps, but plainly a “gap” is an abyss, it’s a distance between two points; but what’s really interesting is that we think of spark plugs–we think of gapping a spark plug. I don’t know if you know how a spark plug works, but for the electrical current to fly into operation in a spark plug, the two points of contact have to be gapped. They have to be forced apart to a certain degree. Too much, there’s no spark. Too little, you short out. Right? There’s no spark. So you have to gap a spark plug, and it seems to me that the “ah-ha” effect of reading, the movement back and forth across the gap between the reader and the text, can be understood in terms of a spark, right, as though the relationship between the reader and the text were the relationship between the two points of a spark plug. Whether Gadamer means that when he speaks of gap or whether he simply means an abyss or a distance to be crossed [laughs] I couldn’t say. Much like the opportunities in the word “plastic,” I think it’s useful to suggest that this sense of gapping a spark plug may have some relevance to our understanding of what goes on in this reading process.

Chapter 4. Expectations [00:28:25]

Now how then does he differ from Gadamer? One way that is I think not terribly important but I think is interesting in view of what we’ve just been saying about Hirsch and another way that’s absolutely crucial that we’ve implied already and to which we need to return. The way that’s perhaps not terribly important at least for present purposes–although this is a distinction that’s going to be coming up again and again later in the semester–is the way in which he actually seems to distinguish–this is page 1006 in the upper left-hand column–between “reading” and “interpretation.” This is at the very top of the left-hand column. He says: “… [T]he text refers back directly to our own preconceptions–”–Gadamer would call those “prejudices”–“which are revealed by the act of interpretation that is a basic element of the reading process.” So there’s a wedge there between the concept of reading and the concept of interpretation. I would suggest that it’s not unlike the wedge that Hirsch drives between the concept of meaning and the concept of significance. In other words, meaning is construal. Significance is the application of that construal to something. I think that the distinction Iser is making between reading and interpretation can be understood in much the same way.

Iser doesn’t make much of the distinction. In other words, it’s not an important part of his argument, which is why I say that the difference with Gadamer–who never makes the distinction between reading and interpretation–in this matter is slight, but the other difference is very important, and that is–to return to this point–that Iser stresses innovation as the principle of value governing the choice and the interpretive strategies of reading. Innovation is what Iser’s canon is looking for. That’s what makes it so different from Gadamer’s conservative continuous traditional canon. Iser’s understanding of gapping the spark plug is a much more bold affirmative of the imaginative powers of the reader, a much more bold process than the hesitant conservative process suggested by Gadamer.

Now in order to illustrate the way in which what Iser calls virtual work gets done in this regard, let me just run through a few passages quickly. If Gadamer says, in a way, that he doesn’t really stress in the long run that in order to know that there is actually a difference between the reader’s horizon and the horizon of the text you need to be “pulled up short,” something needs to surprise you–well, Iser throws his whole emphasis on this element of surprise. If it doesn’t surprise, it isn’t worth it; it doesn’t have value. And we’ll talk in more detail about the ways in which it doesn’t have value in a minute. If the element of surprise is to become absolutely central and paramount in the reading process, the gap has to get bigger. [laughs] It has to be a bigger distance, a broader abyss, and that’s what Iser is working with in the passages I’m about to quote. As I say, I’m going to quote three, more or less rapid-fire. The first is on page 1003, the upper left-hand column: “In this process of creativity”–that is to say, the way in which a text induces the feeling of surprise in the reader– “the text may either not go far enough, or may go too far…”

Now I admit in this particular passage you get a hint of Gadamer’s element of conservatism. The text may go too far. In other words, it may make demands on us that are too great. For example, we’re reading Finnegan’s Wake. We haven’t got a clue. The text has gone too far. We can’t get from sentence to sentence, and even within the sentence we have no idea what the words mean, so we’re lost at sea unless, of course, we really rise to meet the challenge; but typically or characteristically in Iser’s terms the text has gone too far: “… [S]o we may say”–he elaborates here’–“that boredom and overstrain form the boundaries beyond which the reader will leave the field of play.” In other words, if there are no surprises, it’s just a yawn. Why bother to read at all? If the surprises are too great, then they induce overstrain and we throw away the book in frustration and despair. So the distance of the gap needs to be between the outer limits of boredom and overstrain according to Iser.

Continuing to page 1004, the upper right-hand column: “… [E]xpectations”–this word is what Iser thinks governs the sort of dialectic that the reading process is playing with. Reading consists, according to Iser, in the violation of expectations. For the violation to work the expectations have to be there.So that’s the dialectic; that’s what’s negotiated. There has to be a sense, moving from sentence to sentence, that something is likely to happen next. If that underlying sense isn’t there, then whatever happens is simply met with frustration, but if we have the expectation that something’s going to happen next, and then something different happens, or if the suspense of wondering what will happen next is in play so that anything can happen–but the experience of suspense has been gone through, then in those cases that’s all to the good; that’s a good part of the reading process. “… [E]xpectations,” says Iser, “are scarcely ever fulfilled in a truly literary text.” You see, that’s where the evaluative principle that completely revolutionizes Gadamer’s canon comes in. In other words, innovation, the principle of change, the principle of violated expectation, is what imposes or establishes value in the literary text–not continuity, not a sense that across the abyss truth is being spoken to us, but rather the sense that across the abyss we are being constructively surprised. Right? That’s what has changed between these two positions.

“We implicitly demand of expository texts,” he goes on to say–and he may be alluding to Gadamer here because after all Gadamer is talking primarily about expository texst, works of philosophy, works of social thought, which of course aren’t trying to surprise [laughs] or trick us. They’re trying to lay out an argument which is consistent and continuous and keep surprise to a minimum. It’s difficult, philosophy and social thought, but it’s not difficult because of the element of surprise. It’s the vocabulary, it’s the complexity of the thought, and so on that makes it difficult. Iser acknowledges this. He says, “… [W]e implicitly demand of expository texts… [that there be no surprise] as we refer to the objects they are meant to present– [but it’s] a defect in a literary text.” That’s the difference for Iser between nonfiction and fiction. With nonfiction, we don’t want to be surprised. It poses other kinds of difficulty, let’s say; but in the case of fiction, in order to be engaged, in order to enter the hermeneutic circle properly, we need the element of surprise, as I say, as a way of distinguishing between fiction and nonfiction.

Let’s turn to page 1010, the lower right-hand column. The word “defamiliarization” we will encounter soon when we take up the Russian Formalists. “Defamiliarization” means precisely pulling you up short or taking you by surprise, making you feel that what you thought was going to be the case or what you thought was the state of affairs is not the state of affairs. The poet Wallace Stevens puts it beautifully when he says that poetry should make the visible a little hard to see; in other words it should be a defamiliarizing of that which has become too familiar. That’s an aspect of the reading process, and so Iser says: “This defamiliarization of what the reader thought he recognized is bound to create a tension that will intensify his expectations as well as his distrust of those expectations.” In other words, the tension itself of simultaneously having expectations and feeling that they should be violated, that probably they will be violated, being on the alert for how they’re going to be violated–this is a kind of tension, a constructive tension which constitutes for Iser the psychological excitement of reading.

All right. Having said all of this, obviously what Iser means to say is that the reader should work hard, that the virtual work done by the reader to constitute, to bring into existence, a virtual meaning should be hard work, and there’s not much work to do if two things are the case: first of all, if the text just seems real. In other words, if there’s no spin on reality, if there’s no sense of this being a fictive world, if it just seems to be about the everyday, about life as we live it, the life that we find ourselves in–then according to Iser, at least, there’s no violation of expectations. The gap isn’t big enough.

This is, of course, disputable. There is a kind of a vogue recurrently in the history of fiction for a kind of miraculous sense that this is just exactly the way things are. People enjoy that in ways that Iser may not be fully acknowledging in this argument, but there’s no question that it doesn’t involve the violation of expectations. There’s not much gap at all. It’s another kind of pleasure that Iser is perhaps not taking into account that we take in that which seems to be simply incontestably real as we read it, and Iser leaves that out of account. On the other hand, he says that there is no use either, no value either, in that form of engagement with a text in which an illusion is perpetually sustained. In other words, an illusion is created; a never-never land is created. We know it’s an illusion, but we get to live in it so comfortably with so little alteration of the nature of the illusion or of the way in which we negotiate the illusory world, that it becomes kind of womb-like and cozy.

Here of course, Iser is referring to what he calls “culinary fiction,” the sub-genres of literature like, well, nurse novels, bodice-rippers, certain kinds of detective fiction–although a lot of detective fiction is much better than that description would imply: in other words, novels in which undoubtedly it’s an illusory world. Things just don’t happen the way they happen in nurse novels and bodice-rippers–in which somehow or another the pauper marries the prince. This doesn’t happen, but at the same time it’s a world of illusion in which the reader lives all too comfortably. Right? So these are forms of the experience of reading fiction of which Iser disapproves because there’s no work being done. The virtual work of the reader does not involve surprise, does not involve the violation of expectations.

The relationship between text and reader must be a collaboration, Iser argues. The poly-semantic nature of the text–that is to say, the fact that the text sort of throws up all sorts of possibilities of meaning if it’s a good text– [laughs] and the illusion making of the reader are opposed factors. In other words, there is something in the reader that wants to settle comfortably into the world of the nurse novel, the bodice-ripper, the formulaic detective novel–that wants just to sort of exist comfortably in those worlds; but a good text is perpetually bringing the reader up short and preventing that comfort zone from establishing itself, so that the tension between the tendency on our part to sustain an illusion and the way in which the text keeps undermining the illusion is again that aspect of the psychological excitement of reading that Iser wants to concentrate on.

Chapter 5. Tony the Tow Truck [00:43:12]

Now a word about Tony the Tow Truck in this regard. I brought the text with me. You can look at it now or at your leisure. I wanted to call attention to a few places in the text in which it is a question of expectation and of the way in which this expectation can be violated. Now it’s only fair to say that if we’re going to read Tony seriously in this way we have to put ourselves in the shoes of a toddler; that is to say, as readers or auditors we have to think of ourselves and of the psychological excitement of experiencing the text as that of a toddler. It’s not so very difficult to do. For example:

I am Tony the Tow Truck. I live in a little yellow garage. I help cars that are stuck. I tow them to my garage. I like my job. One day I am stuck. Who will help Tony the tow truck?

All right. Now this is a wonderful example of the tension between having expectations, the expectation that someone will help Tony, and being in a state of suspense, not knowing who it will be. Now from the adult point of view, this is culinary because we know that we’re in the world of folklore and that in folklore everything happens three times. We know that two vehicles are going to come along and not help Tony and that the third vehicle will, because everything, as I say, happens in threes in folklore. Notice Tony the Tow Truck [emphasizes consonants] –next week when we read the Russian formalists, we will learn the research finding of one of the early formalists to the effect that “repetition in verse is analogous to tautology in folklore.” We have exactly that [laughs] going on in Tony the Tow Truck, “t- t- t,” and then the three events, Neato the Car, Speedy the Car, and Bumpy the Car coming along in sequence, with Bumpy finally resolving the problem.

So in any case we have an expectation. We have the dialectic of suspense on the one hand, how will this be resolved, and inevitability on the other, “Oh, it’s a folk tale, it’ll be resolved, don’t worry about it.” We have this suspense, as I say, between expectation, the possibility of violation, and simply not knowing.

Okay. Now we continue:

“I cannot help you,” says Neato the Car. “I don’t want to get dirty”… “I cannot help you,” says Speedy the Car. “I am too busy”… I am very sad. Then a little car pulls up.

I think it’s wonderful because it “pulls up” just like Gadamer being “pulled up short,” and there is, it seems to me, there’s another crisis of expectation in this line in that especially as a toddler I need to negotiate that expression idiomatically. I’m three years old. Maybe I don’t know what “pulls up” means. It’s probably not very good writing for a toddler precisely for that reason, but at the same time it lends itself to us because we recognize that there’s a reading problem or a piece of virtual work that needs to be overcome before you can get on with it. You have to find out what “pulls up” means in the same way that the adult reader of Pleasures of the Imagination has to find out what “plastic” means. As I say, it’s a wonderful irony that this particular difficulty in reading is precisely what Gadamer calls being pulled up short.

All right. So you solve the problem and then, lo and behold, it turns out that:

It is my friend Bumpy. Bumpy gives me a push. He pushes and pushes and– I’m on my way. “Thank you, Bumpy,” I call back. “You’re welcome,” says Bumpy.

Now I think we get another expectation. This is the kind of story that has a moral. It’s a feel-good story. Something good has happened. A sense of reciprocity is established between the tow truck and the person who helps the tow truck out of being stuck–a fine sense of reciprocity, so the expectation is that there will be a moral. The tension or suspense is: what will the moral be? There are a variety of ways, in other words, in which this story, just like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, could end. It’s by no means clear that The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner will end with “Love all things, great and small things.” It could have ended any number [laughs] of other ways, and just so this story could end a number of ways. It happens to end “Now that’s what I call a friend.” Well, fine. The moral is that reciprocity is friendship and so good, all to the good, but as I say there’s a moment of suspense in the expectation at the point in the text when we expect a moral but we don’t know what the moral is going to be. Once again, there is that moment of suspense that the reader is able to get through with a kind of pleasurable excitement and then overcome as the moral is actually revealed. So even Tony the Tow Truck, in other words, is not absolutely culinary and can be treated in ways that I hope shed some light on the reading process.

Chapter 6. Gadamer, Iser, Hirsch, and the Canon [00:48:51]

All right. The time is up, so let me conclude by saying that if there is this remarkable distinction between Gadamer and Iser, between canons, where the methodology of Gadamer seems to impose on us a traditional canon and the methodology of Iser seems to impose on us an innovative canon, isn’t there some relief in historicism after all–because the whole point of historicism, as Gadamer himself puts it, is that it lets the canon be? We’re not interested in establishing a principle of value that shapes a canon. We’re interested in hearing everybody on his or her own terms and letting those texts be. In other words, doesn’t historicism open the canon and indeed make the process of reading, the experience of reading, archival and omnivorous rather than canonical? If every text just is what it is and we can’t bring, methodologically speaking, any kind of preconception to bear on what’s a good text or what’s a bad text, haven’t we solved the problem of the limitation imposed on the reader by any kind of canon formation?

Well, that’s the case only, I say in conclusion, if we can distinguish between meaning and significance. In other words, only if we really are sure that the historicist act of reading is effective and works, if I know the meaning of a text. Well, fine. Then later on, if I wish, I can establish a canon by saying certain texts have certain significance and those are the texts that I care about and want to read, but I can only do that if I can distinguish between meaning and significance. But if meaning and significance bleed into each other, what I’m going to be doing is establishing a canon, as it were, unconsciously or semiconsciously. I’m going to say, “Ah, this is just what the text means,” but at the same time, I’ll be finding ways, without realizing it, of affirming certain kinds of meaning and discrediting certain other kinds of meaning–all the while saying, “Oh, it’s just meaning. I’m not doing that.” But if in fact my reading practice can be shown not clearly to distinguish between meaning and significance, well, then that’s what would happen. So it’s still up in the air and it’s still perhaps inescapable that we read, as it were, canonically, but by thinking of various approaches to hermeneutics in these terms, I think what’s shown is that there is a relationship between methodology and canon formation, that certain things follow from our assumptions about how to read. Evaluation would seem rather at a distance removed from simple considerations of how to read, but in fact I think we’ve shown that evaluation is in one way or another implicit in certain methodological premises as they establish themselves in the work of these various writers.

Okay. Thank you very much.

[end of transcript]

0

Introduction to Theory of Literature ENGL 300 – Lecture 3 – Ways In and Out of the Hermeneutic Circle – Yale

Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 – Lecture 3 – Ways In and Out of the Hermeneutic Circle

Chapter 1. The History of Hermeneutics [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: All right. Let’s hope we can free our minds of these matters now and turn to something a little more substantive, which is the question–before we plunge in to Gadamer really: what is hermeneutics? Well, what it is is easily enough explained despite the sort of difficulty and thorniness of the word. It is the art or principles of interpretation.

But hermeneutics has a history; that is to say, it’s not something which has always just been there. It’s not something that people have always thought about in a systematic way. Strictly speaking, what I have just said isn’t true. Many of you probably know that Aristotle has a treatise called De Interpretatione. The Middle Ages are rife with treatises on interpretation. I suppose what I’m really saying is that the word “hermeneutics” wasn’t available, and the idea that there ought to be a sort of a systematic study of how we interpret things wasn’t really current.

Of course, by the same token the notion of hermeneutics arises primarily in religion first, specifically in the Christian tradition, but that isn’t to say that there hasn’t been, that there wasn’t long before the moment at which hermeneutics became important in Christianity, that there wasn’t centuries’ worth of Talmudic scholarship which is essentially also hermeneutic in nature–that is, to say concerned with the art and basis of interpretation.

What gave rise in the Western world to what is called “hermeneutics” was in fact the Protestant Reformation. And there’s a lot of significance in that, I think, and I’ll try to explain why. You don’t really puzzle your head about questions of interpretation, how we determine the validity of interpretation and so on, until A) meaning becomes terribly important to you, and B) the ascertainment of meaning becomes difficult. You may say to yourself, “Well, isn’t it always the case that meaning is important and that meaning is hard to construe?” Well, not necessarily. If you are a person whose sacred scripture is adjudicated by the Pope and the occasional tribunal of church elders, you yourself don’t really need to worry very much about what scripture means. You are told what it means. It goes without saying therefore what it means. But in the wake of the Protestant Reformation when the question of one’s relationship with the Bible became personal and everyone was understood, if only through the local minister, to be engaged with coming to an understanding of what is after all pretty difficult–who on earth knows what the Parables mean and so on, and the whole of the Bible poses interpretative difficulties–then of course you are going to have to start worrying about how to interpret it. Needless to say, since it’s a sacred scripture, the meaning of it is important to you. You do want to know what it means. It can’t mean just anything. It’s crucial to you to know exactly what it means and why what it means is important.

So as Protestantism took hold, by the same token the arts and sciences of hermeneutics took hold, and people began to write treatises about interpretation–but it was always interpretation of the Bible. In other words, in this tradition religion came first. After that, the next thing that happens is you begin to get the rise of constitutional democracies, and as you get that, you begin to become much more interested, as a citizen or as a person who has suffrage or as a person who in one way or another has the rights of the state or nation–you begin to become concerned about the nature of the laws you live under. That’s why hermeneutics gradually moved–I should say, it didn’t desert religion, but it expanded–to the study of the law. The arts and sciences that had been developed in thinking about interpreting scripture were then applied to the interpretation of something the meaning of which had become almost as important; that is to say, it mattered what the law was and how it was to be interpreted. You know of course that this is absolutely crucial to the study of the law to this day: what are the grounds for understanding the meaning of the Constitution, for example? There are widespread controversies about it, and many of the courses you would take in law school are meant to try to get to the bottom of these thorny questions. Well and good. Once again you see that hermeneutics enters a field when the meaning of something becomes more important and when that meaning is recognized to be difficult to grasp.

Now as yet we haven’t said anything about literature, and the fact is there is no hermeneutic art devoted to literature during the early modern period and for most of the eighteenth century. Think about the writers you’ve studied from the eighteenth century. It’s very interesting that they all just sort of take meaning for granted. If you think about Alexander Pope, for example, or even Samuel Johnson, as they reflect on literature and why it’s important and what the nature of literature is, they aren’t concerned about interpretation. They’re concerned about evaluation, establishing the principles of what’s at stake in writing a poem or in writing literature in some other form and raise questions that are largely moral and esthetic. They are not concerned about interpretation because to them, good writing is precisely writing that’s clear, writing that doesn’t need to be interpreted but has precisely as its virtue its transparency of meaning. In fact, during this whole period playwrights were writing prologues to their plays abusing each other for being obscure–that is to say, abusing each other for requiring interpretation. “I don’t understand what your metaphors are all about. You don’t know what a metaphor is. All you do is make one verbal mistake after another. Nobody can understand you.” This is the nature of the prose and verse prefaces to theatrical pieces in the eighteenth century, and from that you can see that interpretation is not only not studied but is considered to be completely extraneous to what’s valuable about literature. If you have to interpret it, it isn’t any good.

Then as the eighteenth century wears on, you begin to get the sense– with the emergence of Romanticism, as is well known and I think often overstated–you begin to get a cult of genius. You get the idea that everything arises from the extraordinary mental acuity or spiritual insight of an author and that what needs to be understood about literature is the genius of its production. Well, well and good, but at the same time, if that’s the case, and if there is this extraordinary emphasis on the importance of the expression of genius, you can see what’s beginning to happen. The literary creator starts to seem a lot more like the divine creator, that is to say, and in a certain sense could be understood as a placeholder for the divine creator. Remember that secularization in Western culture is increasing during the course of the Enlightenment–that is to say, during the course of the eighteenth century, and there’s a certain way in which Romanticism and what’s important about Romanticism can be understood as what Northrop Frye has called a “secular scripture.” In other words, the meaning of literature becomes more difficult because it’s profoundly subjective and no longer engaged with the shared values that had made for the importance of literature; that is to say, our sense of why it’s so important to understand it has also grown because for many people, it begins to take over partly at least the role of religion.

So with the rise of secular scripture–that is to say, literature imagined as something both terribly important and also difficult to understand–naturally the arts and sciences of hermeneutics begin to enter that field. In particular, the great theologian of the Romantic period, Friedrich Schleiermacher, devoted his career to principles of hermeneutics that were meant to be applied as much to literature as to the study of scripture, and established a tradition in which it was understood that literature was a central focus of hermeneutics.

Chapter 2. The Hermeneutic Circle [00:20:37]

So much then for the history of hermeneutics. What followed was the work of Wilhelm Dilthey around the turn of the century, of Heidegger in his Being and Time of 1927, of Gadamer who in many ways can be understood as a disciple and student of Heidegger; and a tradition which persists today follows from the initial engagements of Schleiermacher during the Romantic period with literature.

All right. So what is the basic problematic for hermeneutics in this tradition? It’s what we probably all have heard about and something that I will briefly try to describe, what’s called the hermeneutic circle. So what is the hermeneutic circle? It’s a relationship between a reader and a text or–as is the case for certain kinds of students of hermeneutics but not Gadamer, I think–of a relationship between a reader and an author: in other words a relationship which is understood to aim at understanding the intention of an author. The author of the fourth quotation on your sheet for today, E. D. Hirsch, belongs in that tradition and understands the hermeneutic circle as a relationship between a reader and an author where the text is a kind of a mediatory document containing the meaning of the author.

But for Gadamer and his tradition, it’s a little different. It can be understood as the relationship between a reader and a text, and this can be put in a variety of ways. It’s often put in terms of the relationship between the part and the whole. I approach a text and of course the first thing I read is a phrase or a sentence. There’s still a lot more of the text and so that first fragment a part, but I immediately begin to form an opinion about this part with respect to an imagined or supposed whole. Then, I use this sense I have of what the whole must be like to continue to read successive parts–lines, sentences, whatever they may be. I keep referring those successive parts back to a sense of the whole which changes as a result of knowing more and more and more parts. The circularity of this interpretative engagement has to do with moving back and forth between a certain preconception about the whole that I form from studying a part, moving then to the part, back to the whole, back to the part, back to the whole and so on in a circular pattern.

This can also be understood as a relationship between the present and the past–that is to say, my particular historical horizon and some other historical horizon that I’m trying to come to terms with, so that I refer back and forth to what I know about the world before I engage the text; what the text seems to be saying in relation to that which I know, how it might change my sense of what I know by referring back from what I know continuously to an understanding of the way in which the past text speaks. Finally of course, because hermeneutics isn’t just something that takes place across an historical gulf–because it also can take place across a social or cultural gulf, or maybe not even very much of a gulf–when we engage each other in conversation, we are still performing a hermeneutic act. I have to try to understand what you’re saying and I have to refer it to what I want to say, and the circuit of communication between us has to stay open as a result of this mutual and developing understanding of what we’re talking about. It’s the same thing, of course, with conversations across cultures. So understand that hermeneutics isn’t necessarily about, as Gadamer would put it, merging historical horizons. It’s also about merging social and cultural and interpersonal horizons and it applies to all of those spheres.

All right. Now the hermeneutic circle, then, involves this reference back and forth between the entities that I’ve been trying to describe. Let’s just quickly–and here we begin to move in to the text–listen to Gadamer’s version of how the circularity of this thinking works. This is on page 722 toward the bottom of the left-hand column.

The reader [Gadamer’s word is ‘he’] projects before himself a meaning for the text as a whole as soon as some initial meaning emerges in the text. [In other words, as soon as he sees what the part is like, he projects or imagines what the whole must be that contains this part.] Again the latter [that is to say, the sense of the initial meaning] emerges only because he is reading the text with particular expectations in regard to a certain meaning. The working out of this fore-project [that is to say, the sense we have in advance of the meaning of what we are going to read] which is constantly revised in terms of what emerges as he penetrates into the meaning, is understanding what is there.

In other words, what is there–which is a kind of way of talking that Gadamer inherits from Heidegger–really has to do with what Gadamer means when he talks also about die Sache, the subject matter. In other words, the effort of a reader in coming to terms with the meaning of a text is an effort to master the subject matter, what is there, and–I suppose it’s fair enough to say as a kind of paraphrase–what the text is really about. That’s what Gadamer means when he says “what is there.”

Anyway, you can see that in this passage on page 722, Gadamer is describing the circularity of our reading, and he’s describing it in a way that may raise certain concerns for us. “What do you mean, a fore-structure or a fore-project or a fore-having? Can’t I view this thing, as we might say, objectively?” In other words, aren’t I going to be hopelessly prejudiced about what I read if I’ve got some sort of preliminary conception of what it’s all about? Why don’t I just set aside my preliminary conceptions so that I can understand precisely what is there? How am I ever going to understand what is there if I approach it with some sort of preliminary idea which I never really get rid of because each revision of what I think is there as a result of further reading nevertheless becomes in itself yet another fore-project or preliminary conception?” In other words, this way of thinking seems to suggest–to tell you the truth it does suggest–that you can’t get away from preliminary conceptions about things.

This, of course, is disturbing and it’s especially disturbing when you then get Heidegger and Gadamer insisting that even though there are always these preliminary conceptions–which Gadamer sort of boldly calls “prejudices,” and we’ll come back to that–even though there are always these preliminary conceptions, there nevertheless are, as Heidegger puts it, two ways into the circle. All right? A circle, in other words, is not necessarily a vicious circle. See, that’s what you are tempted to conclude if you say, “I can never get away from preconceptions.” All right? “I’m just going back and forth meaninglessly because I’m never going to get anyplace.” Right? But Gadamer and Heidegger say, “No, that’s not true. That’s not true. A circle isn’t at all necessarily vicious. The way into the circle can also be constructive.” That is to say, you really can get someplace, and so you’re entitled to say, “Well, okay. It can be constructive, but how can that be?”

Take a look at the second passage on your sheet from Heidegger, not the whole passage but just the first sentence of it where Heidegger says, “In an interpretation, the way in which the entity we are interpreting is to be conceived can be drawn from the entity itself, or the interpretation can force the entity into concepts to which it is opposed in its manner of being.” “Now wait a minute,” you say. “If I’m just dealing in preconceptions here, how can I take anything from the entity itself?” Right? That’s just what seems to be at risk if I can never get beyond my preconceptions.

Chapter 3. On Prejudice [00:23:45]

Well, let me give you an example. I was going to do this later in the lecture but I feel like doing it now. In the eighteenth century, a poet named Mark Akenside wrote a long poem called The Pleasures of the Imagination, and in this poem there is the line “The great creator raised his plastic arm.” Now let’s say that we’re into polymers. We know what plastic is. We have no concern or hesitation in saying what plastic is, and so we say, “Oh, gee. Well, I guess the great creator has a sort of a prosthetic limb and he raised it. All right. So that’s what the sentence must mean.” But then of course, if we know something about the horizon within which Akenside was writing his poem, we are aware that in the eighteenth century the word “plastic” meant “sinuous,” “powerful,” “flexible,” and in that case of course, we immediately are able to recognize what Akenside meant, why it makes perfect sense. The great creator raised his sinuous, powerful, flexible arm, and we know where we stand.

Now notice this. In other words, this is an example of good and bad prejudice, right? The good prejudice is our prior awareness that plastic meant something different in the eighteenth century than it means now. And we bring that prejudice to bear on our interpretation of the line, then that is a constructive way into the circle according to Heidegger and Gadamer. The bad prejudice is when we leap to the conclusion, without thinking for a moment that there might be some other historical horizon, that we know what plastic means. The reason we can tell the difference, by the way, is that if we invoke the eighteenth-century meaning of plastic, we immediately see that the line makes perfect sense, that it’s perfectly reasonable and not even particularly notable; but if we bring our own meaning to bear–that is to say our own sense of what the word “plastic” means–then of course the meaning of the line must be crazy. I mean, what on earth? Why would he be saying this about the great creator?

Now I think I’ll come back to this example next week when we’re talking about an essay called “The Intentional Fallacyby W.K. Wimsatt,” and I will revisit the possibility that there might be some value in supposing that Akenside meant the great creator raised his prosthetic limb, but I’ll leave that until next week. I think for the moment it should be plain to you that this is a good way of understanding what the difference between a useful preconception and a useless preconception brought to bear on an interpretative act might consist in.

Chapter 4. Historicism and “Historicality” [00:23:45]

All right. Now in giving the example, I’ve gotten a little bit ahead of myself, so let me reprise a bit. As you can tell from your reading of Gadamer–and of course, the title of the great book from which this excerpt is taken is Truth and Methodor Wahrheit und Methode, with its implicit suggestion that there is a difference between truth and method–the great objection of Gadamer to other people’s way of doing hermeneutics is that they believe that there is a methodology of interpretation. The basic methodology Gadamer is attacking in the excerpt you’ve read is what he calls historicism.

Now that’s a tricky word for us because later in the semester we’re going to be reading about something called the New Historicism, and the New Historicism actually has nothing to do with what Gadamer is objecting to in this form of historicism; so we will return to the New Historicism in that context. For the moment, what Gadamer means by “historicism” is this: the belief that you can set aside preconception, in other words that you can completely factor out your own subjectivity, your own view of things, your own historically conditioned point of view–I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said “historically conditioned,” I mean your own point of view–that you can completely factor that out in order to enter into the mindset of some other time or place: that you can completely enter into the mind of another. This then is the object of historicizing and, as we’ll see at the end of the lecture, there’s a certain nobility about it to be juxtaposed with the nobility of Gadamerian hermeneutics. In the meantime, Gadamer is objecting to this because he says, you simply can’t do this. You cannot factor out these preconceptions. All you can do, he says, is recognize that you do exist in, you do live in, you do think consciously within a certain horizon, recognize that you are coming face-to-face with another horizon, and try to bridge your horizon and the other horizon–in other words, to put it simply, to find common ground, to find some way of merging a present with a past: a here with a there, in such a way that results in what Gadamer callsHorizontverschmelzung, “horizon merger.” This act of horizon merger has as its result what Gadamer calls “effective history,” and by “effective history” he means history which is useful–that is to say, history which really can go to work for us and is not just a matter of accumulating an archive or distancing ourselves from the past.

I’ll say again, somewhat in advance perhaps of the time I should say it, that Gadamer thinks that there’s something immoral about historicism. Why? Because it condescends toward the past. It supposes that the past is simply a repository of information, and it never supposes for a minute that if we actually merge ourselves with the moment of the past, the past may be able to tell us something we ought to know–that is to say, it may be able actually to teach us something. Gadamer believes that historicism forgets the possibility of being taught something by past-ness or otherness.

Chapter 5. Gadamer’s Debt to Heidegger [00:27:48]

Now I think in order to make this viewpoint seem plausible, we probably should study it for a moment a little bit more philosophically. That is to say, you’re asking yourself, “Well, sure. You know what? I pride myself on this: I can factor out all forms of subjectivity. I really can be objective. I’m perfectly capable of understanding the past in and for itself without any contribution of my own, without, in short, any preconceptions.” So let’s look at a couple of passages from your sheet, from Heidegger’s Being and Time, from his analytic of the hermeneutic circle, and see what Heidegger has to say about this claim. This is the first passage on your sheet. Heidegger says:

When we have to do with anything, the mere seeing of the things which are closest to us bears in itself the structure of interpretation and in so primordial a manner that just to grasp something free, as it were, of the “as” requires a certain adjustment…

What is Heidegger saying? He is saying, I stand here and I am just looking. I look back there and I’m just seeing that sign that says ‘exit’. I’m not interpreting it. I don’t have any preconception about it. I’m just looking. Right? No, Heidegger says, this is a total illusion. How do I know it’s a sign? How do I know it says ‘exit’? I bring a million preconceptions to bear on what I take to be a simple act of looking. And then Heidegger says, you know what? It’s not at all uninteresting to imagine the possibility of just seeing something without seeing it as something. It would be kind of exhilarating, wouldn’t it, to be able just to have something before us. Right? But he says, “You know what? That is well nigh impossible. It is in fact a very, very difficult and derivative act of the mind to try to forget that I am looking at a sign that says ‘exit’ and, in fact, just looking at what is there without knowing what it is. In other words, I don’t not know first that that’s a sign that says “exit.” The very first thing I know is that it’s a sign that says “exit.” There’s no prior act of consciousness. It’s the very first thing that I know.

It’s an interesting thought experiment to try not to know that that’s a sign that says “exit.” As Heidegger points out in this passage, that’s a thought experiment which, if it can be done at all, derives from that prior knowledge. I always know something first as something. If I can just have it there before me, that is a very difficult and derivative intellectual act, and it cannot be understood as primordial or primitive. I am always already in possession of an interpretation of whatever object I look at, which isn’t at all to say that my interpretation is correct. It’s only to say that I can’t escape the fact that the very first movement of mind, not the last movement but the first movement of mind, is interpretative. Right? We always see something as something, and that is precisely the act of interpretation. We can never just have it there before us or, as I say, if we can–if we can–it’s a very, very difficult act of concentration.

Continue the passage: “This grasping which is free of the ‘as’ is a privation of the kind of seeing [and you see how attracted Heidegger is to it because he shifts his rhetoric] in which one merely understands.” In other words, It would be an extraordinary thing not to understand, Heiddeger is saying. We can’t help understanding. We always already understand, which has nothing to do again with whether or not we’re right or wrong. We always already just necessarily do understand. It’s a kind of imprisonment, understanding, and when Heidegger says, wouldn’t it be great not to have to merely understand? right, he’s saying, wouldn’t it be great just to have it there before us? but he’s also insisting that this is an incredibly difficult, if not impossible, moment of thought.

All right. So that’s why–and this is perhaps the essential, the central passage, and I don’t want to pause over it–but you can look at passage number three on your sheet, which says roughly again what Heidegger is saying in the first passage–that’s why we must work always as interpreters with preconceptions, with fore-understandings.

Chapter 6. Prejudice and Tradition [00:33:21]

Now what about this word “prejudice”? It is a sort of a problematic word. Gadamer is a bit apologetic about it, and he goes into the appropriate etymologies. The French préjugé and the German Voruteil all mean “prejudgment” or “prior judgment.” They actually can be used in a court of law as a stage toward arriving at a verdict. They needn’t be thought of as vulgar prejudices, one of which is in fact the “prejudice against prejudice.” As Gadamer says, this is the characteristic idea of the Enlightenment: its prejudice against prejudice, that we can be objective, that we can free ourselves of–

Okay, fine. But prejudice is bad, we know prejudice is bad. We know what prejudice has wrought historically and socially, so how can we try to vindicate it in this way? It’s extremely problematic.

What Gadamer does in his essay is actually an act of intellectual conservatism, it has to be admitted. That whole section of the essay in which he talks about classicism–and you may have said to yourself as you were reading it, “Well, gee, isn’t this sort of digressive? What’s he so interested in classicism for?”– the whole section of the essay in which he’s talking about classicism and which he later calls “tradition” is meant to suggest that we really can’t merge horizons effectively unless we have a very broad and extensive common ground with what we’re reading. The great thing about classicism for Gadamer, or what he calls “tradition,” is that it’s something we can share. The classical, Gadamer argues, is that which doesn’t just speak to its own historical moment but speaks for all time, speaks to all of us in different ways but does speak to us–that is to say, does proffer its claim to speak true. The classical can do that.

“Okay, great,” we say to Gadamer. “Certainly you’re entitled to an intellectually conservative canon. Maybe other principles of hermeneutics will place much more stress on innovation or novelty or difference, but you’re not sure people can understand unless they share a great deal of common ground.” All well and good, but you know what? That’s where the bad side of prejudice sneaks in. Slavery was considered perfectly appropriate and natural to a great many of the most exalted figures working within the tradition that Gadamer rightly calls classical–classical antiquity. A great many modern figures never stopped to question slavery. Slavery was an aspect of classical culture which had its defenses. Well, Gadamer doesn’t talk about this obviously, but it is an aspect of that prejudice that one might share with tradition if one weren’t somewhat more critical than this gesture of sharing might indicate. I just say that in passing to call your attention to it as a risk that’s involved in our engagement with a hermeneutic project of the nature of Gadamer’s. It’s not to say that Gadamer favored slavery or anything of the sort. It is, however, to say that prejudice–while plainly we can understand it simply to mean preconception which is inescapable and can understand that philosophically–nevertheless can still be bad. We have to understand the way in which it’s something that, if we’re going to accept this point of view, we need to live with.

Chapter 7. E. D. Hirsch [00:37:20]

All right. So it is troublesome, and it’s troublesome also, perhaps, in a variety of other ways that I won’t go into. I think that what I’d like to do in the time remaining is to call your attention to two passages, one in Gadamer’s text which I’m about to read and the other the fourth passage on your sheet by someone called E. D. Hirsch, whom you may actually know as the author of a dictionary of what every school child should know and as a sort of a champion of the intellectual right during the whole period when literary theory flourished, but a person who also is seriously invested in hermeneutics and conducted a lifelong feud with Gadamer about the principles of hermeneutics.

The two passages that I’m about to read juxtapose the viewpoints that I’ve been trying to evoke in describing Gadamer’s position. The dignity and nobility of Gadamer is that it involves being interested in something true–that is to say, in hoping that there is an intimate relationship between meaning, arriving at meaning, and arriving at something that speaks to us as true. Hirsch, on the other hand, is evoking a completely different kind of dignity. What I want you to realize as we juxtapose these two passages is that it is impossible to reconcile them, and it poses for us a choice which, as people interested in interpretation, needs ultimately to be made and suggests perhaps differing forms of commitment.

Now the first passage is in Gadamer’s text on page 735, the very bottom of the page, and then I’ll be going over to page 736. Gadamer says, and here again he’s attacking historicism:

The text that is understood historically is forced to abandon its claim that it is uttering something true. We think we understand when we see the past from a historical standpoint, i.e., place ourselves in the historical situation and seek to reconstruct the historical horizon. [I’ve been attempting to summarize this position and so I trust that it’s easily intelligible as I read it to you now.] In fact, however, we have given up the claim to find, in the past, any truth valid and intelligible for ourselves.

And, by the way, this would also apply to cultural conversation. If I’m proud of knowing that in another culture if I belch after dinner it’s a compliment to the cook, right, and if I’m proud of knowing that without drawing any conclusions from it, that’s sort of the equivalent of historicism. It’s just a factoid for me. In other words, it’s not an effort to come to terms with anything. It’s not an effort to engage in dialogue. It’s just historicizing otherness in a way that somehow or another satisfies my quest for information. So it’s not just a question of the past, as I say and as I’ve said before. It’s a question of cultural conversation as well.

Continuing:

Thus, this acknowledgment of the otherness of the other, which makes him the object of objective knowledge, involves the fundamental suspension of his claim to truth.

This is a devastating and, I think, brilliant argument. I think it ought to remind us of what’s at stake when we invoke the notion of objectivity. Implicit, according to Gadamer, in the notion of objectivity is an abandonment of the possibility of learning from the object, of learning from otherness. It only becomes a question of knowing the object, of knowing it in and for itself, in its own terms, and not at all necessarily of learning from it, of being spoken to by it.

All right, but now listen to Hirsch. All right? This is really a hard choice to make. [laughs] What Hirsch says, invoking Kant–rightly invoking Kant–is: “Kant held it to be a foundation of moral action that men should be conceived as ends in themselves, not as instruments of other men.” In other words, you are an end and not a means to me unless in fact I’m exploiting you and instrumentalizing you. Right? That’s Kant’s position and that’s what Hirsch is leaping to defend. This idea that I don’t really care, or that I don’t really think I can come to terms with the actual meaning of an entity as that entity, is instrumentalizing the entity. In other words, it’s approaching it for me. This turns the whole idea of being open to the possibility that the other is speaking true–it turns it on its ear and says, Oh, no, no. You’re just appropriating the other for yourself. Right? You’re instrumentalizing the other. You’re not taking it seriously as itself. That’s Hirsch’s response.

He continues:

This imperative is transferable to the words of men because speech is an extension and expression of men in the social domain and also because when we fail to conjoin a man’s intention to his words, we lose the soul of speech, which is to convey meaning and to understand what is intended to be conveyed.

Notice that although the nobility of this alongside the nobility of Gadamer is obvious and painful [laughs] and really does seem to bring us to a crossroads where we really want to be Yogi Berra, right, and go in both directions–even though this is the case, notice one thing. Hirsch is not saying anything about truth. Right? He’s talking about meaning–that’s good–and he’s making the notion of arriving at a correct meaning as honorific as he possibly can, but it is significant that he’s not talking about truth. It’s Gadamer who is talking about truth. For Hirsch the important thing is the meaning. For Gadamer the important thing is that the meaning be true, right, and that’s where the distinction essentially lies. Gadamer is willing to sacrifice because of his belief in the inescapability of preconception. He’s willing to sacrifice historical or cultural exactitude of meaning. He’s willing to acknowledge that there’s always something of me in my interpretation, but it’s a good something because after all I am mindful of the horizon of otherness. I am not just saying “plastic” means “polymer,” right, but nevertheless there’s something of me in the interpretation.

Hirsch is saying, “There’s nothing of me in the interpretation. Therefore, I am able to arrive accurately and objectively at the meaning of the other, and I honor the other by arriving with such accuracy at the meaning,” but notice that truth isn’t backing it up. It doesn’t seem to be a question for Hirsch of whether the other speaks true. This is unfair to Hirsch, by the way, because truth actually is backing it up. All you need to do is read him and you will recognize that it does matter to Hirsch whether the other speaks true, but it’s not implicit in the philosophical position he’s taking up here. It’s something that the philosophical position sacrifices.

Okay. So that’s the basic distinction and, as I say, as far as I can see it’s irreconcilable so it leaves us with a choice that really does have to be made, and it’s a choice which looms over a course in literary theory and coming to understand the tradition of literary theory. Some will take one side, others will take another, and we’ll find ourselves siding or not siding with them, at least in part for reasons that arise out of the distinction between these two positions that I’ve been making today.

We may or may not have the lecture on Iser, but on Tuesday we’ll be getting into the varieties of formalism and first we’ll take up the American New Criticism. All right. Thanks.

[end of transcript]

0

Introduction to Theory of Literature ENGL 300 – Lecture 1 – Introduction – Yale

Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 – Lecture 1 – Introduction

Chapter 1. Introduction [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: I thought I’d begin today–this [gestures to outline on chalkboard] is, by the way, the regular practice. This is as close as I get to bulleted Power Point. It’s all there. I ought to have got through those topics by the end of the lecture. If I don’t, not to worry. I’ll pick up wherever the dotted line emerges in the subsequent lecture.

In any case, I thought I’d begin today by making a few remarks about the title of our course because it has some big words in it: “theory” and “literature,” but also “introduction.” I think it’s worth saying a word or two about the word “introduction” as well.

Now the word theory has a very complicated etymological history that I won’t trouble you with. The trouble with the etymology of theory and the way in which the word has been used traditionally is that sometimes it actually meanspractice, and then at other historical periods it means something very different from practice, something typically from which practice is derived. Well, that’s the sense of theory that I like to work with, and I would pause over it by saying that after all, there is a difference and practice and we shouldn’t too quickly, at least, confuse the terms. There’s a difference between theory and methodology. Yes, it’s probably fair enough to say that methodology is applied theory, but there’s a great danger in supposing that every aspect of theory has an immediate application. Theory is very often a purely speculative undertaking. It’s an hypothesis about something, the exact nature of which one needn’t necessarily have in view. It’s a supposition that whatever the object of theory might be, theory itself must–owing to whatever intellectual constraints one can imagine–be of such and such a form.

At this level of abstraction, plainly there isn’t all that much incentive to apply thinking of that kind, but on the other hand undoubtedly theory does exist for the most part to be applied. Very frequently, courses of this kind have a text–Lycidas, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a short storyand then once in a while the disquisition of the lecture will pause, the text will be produced, and whatever theory has recently been talked about will be applied to the text; so that you’ll get a postcolonial reading of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner–something, by the way, which is absolutely fascinating and important to do–and so on through the course.

Now I suppose it’s my reluctance to get into the intricacies of questions having to do with applied theory that makes me prefer to keep it simple. Our text is a story for toddlers called Tony the Tow Truck. I’ve decided not to pass it out today because, after all, I want to get it into the right hands! You can’t read it unless you take the course!–and so I’m going to wait a little bit. [holds up the text] We won’t come back to it at least for the moment, but you see that it’s mercifully short, and as time passes we will do some rather interesting tricks with it. We will revert, as others revert to Lycidas, to Tony the Tow Truck for the purpose of introducing questions of applied theory.

Now this choice may suggest a certain condescension both toward theory and toward literary text, which is not at all intended. It’s much more a question of reminding you that if you can do it with this, you can do it with anything; but also of reminding you that, after all, reading–reading just anything–is a complex and potentially almost unlimited activity. That’s one of the good things that theory teaches us and that I hope to be able to get across in the course of our varied approaches to Tony the Tow Truck.

Chapter 2. Theory and Philosophy [00:04:29]

Now theory resembles philosophy perhaps in this: that it asks fundamental questions and also at times builds systems. That is to say, theory has certain ambitions to a totalization of what can be thought that resembles or rivals philosophy. But theory differs from philosophy–and this is something that I’m going to be coming back to persistingly in the second half of this lecture and many times hereafter: theory differs from most philosophy in that it involves a certain–this is by no means self-evident, and “Why should this be?” is one of the questions we’re going to be asking–it involves a certain skepticism. There seems to be a doubt, a variety of doubts, about the foundations of what we can think and the basis of our opinions, that pervades theory, and is seen somehow or another to characterize its history. Not all theory that we read in this course is skeptical. Some of the most powerful and profound thought that’s been devoted to the subject of the theory of literature is positive in its intentions and in its views, but by and large you will happily or unhappily come to terms with the fact that much of what you’re going to be reading this semester is undergirded, or perhaps I should say undermined, by this persisting skepticism. It’s crucial, as I say, and I’m going to be coming back to it, but it’s just a point I want to make in passing about the nature of theory now.

Turning to the word literature, this is not theory of relativity, theory of music, or theory of government. This is a course in theory of literature, and theory of literature shares in common with other kinds of theory the need for definition. That is to say, maybe the most central and, for me, possibly the most fascinating question theory asks is–well, what is literature? How do we know it when we see it? How can we define it? Much of what we’ll be reading takes up the question “What is literature?” and provides us with fascinating and always–for the moment, I think–enticing definitions. There are definitions based on form, circularity, symmetry, economy of form, lack of economy of form, and repetition. There are definitions based on psychological complexity, psychological balance, psychological harmony, sometimes psychological imbalance and disharmony, and there are also definitions which insist that somehow there is an epistemological difference between literature and other kinds of utterance. Whereas most utterances purport to be saying something true about the actual state of things in the world, literary utterance is under no such obligation, the argument goes, and ought properly to be understood as fiction–making it up as opposed to referring.

All right. Now all of these definitions have had currency. We’ll be going over them again and finding them, I hope, more fascinating as we learn more about them; but at the same time, even as I rattle off this list of possibilities, probably you felt in yourself an upsurge of skepticism. You say, “My goodness. I can easily find exceptions to all of those rules. It’s ridiculous to think that literature could be defined in any one of those ways or even in a combination of all of them. Literature is many things, a many-splendored thing,” you say to yourself, “and it simply cannot be confined or trapped within a definition of that kind.” Well and good, properly ecumenical of you, but at the same time it gives rise to a sense that possibly after all, literature just isn’t anything at all: in other words, that literature may not be susceptible of definition, of any one definition, but it is rather–and this is the so-called neo-pragmatist argument–but it is rather whatever you think it is or more precisely whatever your interpretive community says that it is. This isn’t really a big problem. It’s kind of unsettling because we like to know what things are, but at the same time it’s not really a big problem because as long as we know about the fact that a certain notion of literature exists in certain communities, we can begin to do very interesting work precisely with that idea. We can say there’s a great deal to learn about what people think literature is and we can develop very interesting kinds of thinking about the variety of ways in which these ideas are expressed. And so it’s not, perhaps, crippling if this is the conclusion we reach, but at the same time it’s not the only possible conclusion. The possibility of definition persists. Definition is important to us, and we’re certainly not going to give it short shrift in this course. We’re going to make every effort to define literature as carefully as we can.

Chapter 3. What Is Literature? [00:10:08]

Now in addition to defining literature, literary theory also asks questions obviously not unrelated but which open up the field somewhat. What causes literature and what are the effects of literature? In a way, there’s a subset of questions that arises from those, and as to causes these are, of course, what we’ll be taking up next time: the question “What is an author?” That is to say, if something causes literature, there must be some sort of authority behind it and therefore we find ourselves asking, “What is an author?” By the same token, if literature has effects, it must have effects on someone, and this gives rise to the equally interesting and vexing question, “What is a reader?” Literary theory is very much involved with questions of that kind, and organizing those questions is basically what rationalizes the structure of our syllabus. You’ll notice that we move in the syllabus–after a couple of introductory talks that I’ll mention in a minute–we move from the idea that literature is in some sense caused by language to the idea that literature is in some sense caused by the human psyche, to the idea that literature is in some sense caused by social, economic, and historical forces. There are corollaries for those ideas in terms of the kinds of effects that literature has and what we might imagine ourselves to conclude from them.

Finally, literary theory asks one other important question–it asks many, but this is the way at least I’m organizing it for today–it asks one other important question, the one with which we will actually begin: not so much “What is a reader?” but “How does reading get done?” That is to say, how do we form the conclusion that we are interpreting something adequately, that we have a basis for the kind of reading that we’re doing? What is the reading experience like? How do we meet the text face-to-face? How do we put ourselves in touch with the text which may after all in a variety of ways be remote from us?

These are the questions that are asked by what’s called hermeneutics, a difficult word that we will be taking up next week. It has to do with the god Hermes who conveyed language to man, who was in a certain sense, among many other functions, the god of communication, and hermeneutics is, after all, obviously about communication. So hermeneutics will be our first topic, and it attempts to answer the last question that I’ve mentioned which is raised by theory of literature.

Chapter 4. The Idea of an “Introduction” [00:13:10]

All right. Now let me pause quickly over the word introduction. I first started teaching this course in the late 1970s and 80s when literary theory was a thing absolutely of the moment. As I told the teaching fellows, I had a colleague in those days who looked at me enviously and said he wished he had the black leather concession at the door. Theory was both hot and cool, and it was something about which, following from that, one had not just opinions but very, very strong opinions. In other words, the teaching fellows I had in those days–who knows? They may rise up against me in the same way this semester–but the teaching fellows I had in those days said, “You can’t teach an introduction. You can’t teach a survey. You can’t say, ‘If it’s Tuesday, it must be Foucault. If it’s Thursday, it must be Lacan.’ You can’t approach theory that way. Theory is important and it’s important to know what you believe,” in other words, what the basis of all other possible theory is.”I am a feminist. I’m a Lacanian. I am a student of Paul de Man. I believe that these are the foundational moments of theorizing and that if you’re going to teach anything like a survey, you’ve got to derive the rest of it from whatever the moment I happen to subscribe to might be.”

That’s the way it felt to teach theory in those days. It was awkward teaching an introduction and probably for that reason [laughs] while I was teaching Lit 300, which was then called Lit Y, Paul de Man was teaching Lit Z. He was teaching a lecture course nearby, not at the same time, which was interpretation as practiced by the School of de Man. That was Lit Z, and it did indeed imply every other form of theory, and it was extremely rigorous and interesting, but it wasn’t a survey. It took for granted, in other words, that everything else would derive from the fundamental idea; but it didn’t for a minute think that a whole series of fundamental ideas could share space, could be a kind of smorgasbord that you could mix and match in a kind of happy-go-lucky, eclectic way, which perhaps we will be seeming to do from time to time in our introductory course.

Well, does one feel any nostalgia now for the coolness and heat of this moment? Yes and no. It was fascinating to be–as Wordsworth says, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”–to be around in those days, but at the same time I think it’s rather advantageous for us too to be still “in theory.” That is to say we still have views. We still have to recognize that what we think derives from this or that understanding of theory and these or those theoretical principles. We have to understand the way in which what we do and say, what we write in our papers and articles, is grounded in theoretical premises which, if we don’t come to terms with them, we will simply naively reproduce without being fully aware of how we’re using them and how, indeed, they are using us. So it is as crucial as ever to understand theory.

In addition, we have the vantage point of, I suppose, what we can now call history. Some of what we’ll be studying is no longer practiced as that which is the absolutely necessary central path to methodology. Some of what we’re studying has had its moment of flourishing, has remained influential as a paradigm that shapes other paradigms, but is not itself, perhaps, today the sole paradigm–which gives us the opportunity of historical perspective, so that from time to time during the course of the course, I’ll be trying to say something about why certain theoretical issues and ideas pushed themselves into prominence at certain historical moments, and that too then can become part of our enterprise. So an introduction is not only valuable for those of us who simply wish to acquire knowledge. It’s also valuable, I think, in lending an additional perspective to the topic of theory and to an understanding about how theory is, on the one hand and perhaps in a certain sense, now an historical topic and is, on the other hand, something that we’re very much engaged in and still committed to: so all that then by way of rationale for teaching an introduction to theory.

Chapter 5. Literary Theory and the History of Modern Criticism [00:18:11]

All right. Now the question, “How does literary theory relate to the history of criticism?” That is a course that I like to teach, too; usually I teach Plato to T.S. Eliot or Plato to I.A. Richards or some other important figure in the early twentieth century. It’s a course which is absolutely fascinating in all sorts of ways, and it has one very important thing in common with literary theory: that is to say, literary criticism is, too, perpetually concerned with the definition of literature. Many of the issues that I raised in talking about defining literature are as relevant for literary criticism as they are for literary theory, and yet we all instinctively know that these are two very different enterprises. Literary theory loses something that literary criticism just takes for granted. Literary theory is not concerned with issues of evaluation, and it’s not really concerned with concomitant issues of appreciation. Literary theory just takes those for granted as part of the sense experience, as one might say, of any reader and prefers, rather, to dwell on questions of description, analysis and speculation, as I’ve said.

So that’s what’s lost in theory, but what’s new in theory? Here I come to the topic which will occupy most of my attention for the remainder of the lecture. What’s new in theory is the element of skepticism that literary criticism by and large–which is usually affirming a canon of some sort–doesn’t reflect. Literary theory, as I say, is skeptical about the foundations of its subject matter and also, in many cases, about the foundations of what it itself is doing. So the question is: how on earth did this come about? It’s an historical question, as I say, and I want to devote the rest of the lecture to it. Why should doubt about the veridical or truth-affirming possibilities of interpretation be so widespread in the twentieth century?

Now here is a big glop of intellectual history. I think the sort of skepticism I mean arises from what one might call and what often is called modernity–not to be confused with Modernism, an early twentieth-century phenomenon, but the history of modern thought as it usually derives from the generation of Descartes, Shakespeare, and Cervantes. Notice something about all of those figures: Shakespeare is preoccupied with figures who may or may not be crazy. Cervantes is preoccupied with a figure who is crazy–we’re pretty sure of that, but he certainly isn’t. He takes it for granted that he is the most rational and systematic of all thinkers and raises questions about–since we all take ourselves to be rational too–raises questions about just how we know ourselves not to be paranoid delusives like Don Quixote. So that can be unsettling when we think of this as happening at a certain contemporaneous moment in the history of thought.

Now Descartes, you remember, in his Meditations begins by asking a series of questions about how we can know anything, and one of the skeptical questions he asks is, “Well, might I not be crazy?” In other words, Descartes is still thinking along these same lines. He says, “Well, maybe I’ve been seized by an evil genius of some kind or maybe I’m just crazy.” Now why–and here is the question–why do we get this nervousness about the relationship between what I know and how I know it arising at this moment? Well, I think it’s characterized at least in part by what Descartes goes on to say in his Meditations. Descartes settles the matter–perhaps somewhat sweeping the question of whether he is crazy under the rug because I’m still not sure he answers that question–but he settles the matter famously by saying, “I think. Therefore, I am,” and furthermore, as a concomitant, “I think, therefore, all the things that I’m thinking about can be understood to exist as well.”

Now the Cartesian Revolution establishes something that is absolutely crucial for what we call the Enlightenment of the next hundred, hundred and fifty years–in other words, the idea that there is a distance between the mind and the things that it thinks about, but that this distance is a good thing. In other words, if you look too closely at a picture or if you stand too far away from it you don’t see it clearly–it’s out of focus–but if you achieve just the right distance from it, it comes into focus. The idea of scientific objectivity, the idea that motivates the creation of the great Encyclopedia by the figures of the French Enlightenment–this idea all arises out of the idea that there is a certain appropriate objective distance between the perceiver and the perceived. Gradually, however, the idea that this distance is not too great begins to erode so that in 1796 Kant, who isn’t exactly enlisted on the side of the skeptics by most of his serious students, nevertheless does say something equally famous as that which Descartes said and a good deal more disturbing: “We cannot know the thing in itself.” Now as I said, Kant erected such an incredibly magnificent scaffolding around the thing in itself–that is to say, the variety of ways in which although we can’t know it, we can sort of triangulate it and come to terms with it obliquely–that it seems churlish to enlist him on the side of the skeptics, but at the same time there’s a sense of a danger in the distance between subject and object that begins to emerge in thinking of this kind.

Now by 1807, Hegel in The Phenomenology of Mind is saying that in recent history and in recent developments of consciousness something unfortunate has set in. We have “unhappy consciousness,” unhappy consciousness which is the result of estrangement, or Verfremdung, and which drives us too far away from the thing that we’re looking at. We are no longer certain at all of what we’re looking at, and consciousness, therefore, feels alienated. All right. So you can already begin to see a development in intellectual history that perhaps opens the way to a certain skepticism. But the crucial thing hasn’t yet happened, because after all, in all of these accounts, even that of Hegel, there is no doubt about the authority of consciousness to think what it thinks. It may not clearly think about things, about objects, but it has a kind of legitimate basis that generates the sort of thinking that it does. But then–and here is where I want you to look at the passages that I’ve handed out. Here’s where three great figures–there are others but these are considered the seminal figures–begin to raise questions which complicate the whole issue of consciousness. Their argument is that it’s not just that consciousness doesn’t clearly understand what it’s looking at and is therefore alienated from it. It’s also that consciousness is alienated from its own underpinnings, that it doesn’t have any clear sense of where it’s coming from any more than what it’s looking at: in other words, that consciousness is not only estranged from the world but that it is in and of itself inauthentic.

So just quickly look at these passages. Marx, in the famous argument about commodity fetishism in Kapital, is comparing the way in which we take the product of human labor and turn it into a commodity by saying that it has objective value, by saying that we know what its value is in and of itself. He compares that with religion. The argument is: well, God is a product of human labor. In other words, it’s not a completely supercilious argument, sort of “God is brought into being the same way objects that we make use of are brought into being.” God is a product of human labor, but then we turn around and we say God exists independently and has value objectively. Marx’s argument is that the two forms of belief, belief in the objective value of the commodity and belief in God, are the same. Now whether or not any of this is true, believe me, is neither here nor there. The point that Marx is making is that consciousness, that is to say the way in which we believe things, is determined by factors outside its control–that is to say in the case of Marx’s arguments, social, historical and economic factors that determine what we think and which in general we call “ideology”; that is to say, ideology is driven by factors beyond the ken of the person who thinks ideologically.

So you see the problem for consciousness now is not just a single problem. It’s twofold: its inauthentic relationship with the things it looks at and also its inauthentic relationship with its own underpinnings. The argument is exactly the same for Nietzsche, only he shifts the ground of attack. For Nietzsche, the underpinnings of consciousness which make the operations of consciousness inauthentic are the nature of language itself. That is to say that when we think we’re telling the truth we’re actually using worn-out figures of speech. “What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms–in short, a sum of human relations which became poetically and rhetorically intensified,” etc., etc., etc., “and are now no longer of account as coins but are debased.”

Now that word “now” [laughs] is very important. It suggests that Nietzsche does somehow believe that there’s a privileged moment in the history of language when perhaps language is a truth serum, when it is capable of telling the truth, but language has now simply become a question of worn-out figures, all of which dictates what we believe to be true. I speak in a figurative way about the relationship between the earth and the sky, and I believe that there’s a sky god. I move from speech to belief because I simply don’t believe that I’m using figures of speech. All of this is implied in Nietzsche’s argument. In other words, language, the nature of language, and the way language is received by us, in turn determines what we can do with it, which is to say it determines what we think, so that for Nietzsche the distortion of truth–that is to say the distortion of the power to observe in consciousness–has as its underlying cause language, the state of language, the status of language.

Freud finally argues for exactly the same relationship between consciousness–that is to say, what I think I am thinking from minute to minute–and the unconscious, which perpetually in one way or another unsettles what I’m thinking and saying from minute to minute. You know that in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud reminded us that the Freudian slip isn’t something that happens just sometimes–and nobody knows this better than an ad libbing lecturer–;it’s something that happens all the time. The Freudian slip is something that one lives with simply as a phenomenon of the slippage of consciousness under the influence of the unconscious.

Chapter 6. The Hermeneutics of Suspicion [00:32:10]

Now in the passage I gave you, Freud says a very interesting thing, which is that after all, we have absolutely no objective evidence that the unconscious exists. If I could see the unconscious, it’d be conscious. Right. The unconscious, Freud is saying, is something that we have to infer from the way consciousness operates. We’ve got to infer something. We’ve got to figure out somehow how it is that consciousness is never completely uninhibited, never completely does and says what it wants to say. So the spin on consciousness for Freud is the unconscious.

Now someone who didn’t fully believe Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, a very important modern philosopher in the hermeneutic tradition named Paul Ricoeur, famously said in the fourth passage on your sheet that these great precursors of modern thought–and particularly, I would immediately add, of modern literary theory–together dominate a “school of suspicion.” There is in other words in Ricoeur’s view a hermeneutics of suspicion, and “skepticism” or “suspicion” is a word that can also be appropriated perhaps more rigorously for philosophy as negativity. That is to say, whatever seems manifest or obvious or patent in what we are looking at is undermined for this kind of mind by a negation which is counterintuitive: that is to say, which would seem not just to qualify what we understand ourselves to be looking at but to undermine it altogether. And these tendencies in the way in which Marx, Nietzsche and Freud have been received have been tremendously influential. When we read Foucault’s “What is an Author?” next time we’ll return to this question of how Marx, Nietzsche and Freud have been received and what we should make of that in view of Foucault’s idea that–well, not that there’s no such thing as an author but that it’s rather dangerous to believe that there are authors. So if it’s dangerous to believe that there are authors, what about Marx, Nietzsche and Freud? Foucault confronts this question in “What is an Author?” and gives us some interesting results of his thinking. For us, the aftermath even precisely of the passages I have just quoted, but certainly of the oeuvre of the three authors I have quoted from, can to a large degree be understood as accounting for our topic–the phenomenon of literary theory as we study it. In other words, literary theory, because of the influence of these figures, is to a considerable degree a hermeneutics of suspicion recognized as such both by its proponents and famously–I think this is perhaps what is historically remote for you–by its enemies.

During the same period when I was first teaching this course, a veritable six-foot shelf of diatribes against literary theory was being written in the public sphere. You can take or leave literary theory, fine, but the idea that there would be such an incredible outcry against it was one of the most fascinating results of it. That is to say for many, many, many people literary theory had something to do with the end of civilization as we know it. That’s one of the things that seems rather strange to us today from an historical perspective: that the undermining of foundational knowledge which seemed to be part and parcel of so much that went on in literary theory was seen as the central crucial threat to rationality emanating from the academy and was attacked in those terms in, as I say, at least six feet of lively polemics. All of that is the legacy of literary theory, and as I say, it arises in part from the element of skepticism that I thought it best to emphasize today.

Now I think that one thing Ricoeur leaves out, and something that we can anticipate as becoming more and more important for literary theory and other kinds of theory in the twenty-first century, is Darwin. That is to say, it strikes me that Darwin could very easily be considered a fourth hermeneut of suspicion. Of course, Darwin was not interested in suspicion but he was certainly the founder of ways of thinking about consciousness that are determined, socio-biologically determined: determined in the realm of cognitive science, determined as artificial intelligence, and so on. All of this is Darwinian thinking and, I think, increasingly will be central in importance in the twenty-first century. What will alter the shape of literary theory as it was known and studied in the twentieth century is, I think, an increasing emphasis on cognitive science and socio-biological approaches both to literature and to interpretive processes that will derive from Darwin in the same way that strands of thinking of the twentieth century derive from the three figures that I’ve mentioned.

But what all this gives rise to–and this brings me finally to the passages which you have on both sides of your sheet and which I don’t want to take up today but just to preview–the passages from Henry James’ Ambassadors from 1903, and from Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard from 1904. In other words, I am at pains to remind you that this is a specific historical moment in which, in a variety of ways, in each case the speaker argues that consciousness–that is to say, the feeling of being alive and being someone acting in the world–no longer involves agency: the feeling that somehow to be conscious has become to be a puppet, that there is a limitation on what we can do, imposed by the idea that consciousness is determined in ways that we cannot control and cannot get the better of, so that Strether in The Ambassadors and Yepihodov in The Cherry Orchard speak for a point of view which is a kind of partially well-informed gloom and doom that could be understood to anticipate texts that are much better informed, that we will be considering but nevertheless are especially important as an aspect of their historical moment. I want to begin the next lecture by taking up those passages. Please do bring them, and I will also be passing around Tony the Tow Truck and I’ll give you a brief description of what the little children’s book actually looks like, and then we will plunge in to the question “What is an author?” So I’ll see you on Thursday.

[end of transcript]

Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 – Lecture 2 – Introduction (cont.)

Chapter 1. Introduction [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: Last time we introduced the way in which the preoccupation with literary and other forms of theory in the twentieth century is shadowed by a certain skepticism, but as we were talking about that we actually introduced another issue which isn’t quite the same as the issue of skepticism–namely, determinism. In other words, we said that in intellectual history, first you get this movement of concern about the distance between the perceiver and the perceived, a concern that gives rise to skepticism about whether we can know things as they really are. But then as a kind of aftermath of that movement in figures like Marx, Nietzsche and Freud–and you’ll notice that Foucault reverts to such figures when he turns to the whole question of “founders of discursivity,” we’ll come back to that–in figures like that, you get the further question of not just how we can know things in themselves as they really are but how we can trust the autonomy of that which knows: in other words, how we can trust the autonomy of consciousness if in fact there’s a chance–a good chance, according to these writers–that it is in turn governed by, controlled by, hidden powers or forces. This question of determinism is as important in the discourse of literary theory as the question of skepticism. They’re plainly interrelated in a variety of ways, but it’s more to the question of determinism I want to return today.

Chapter 2. Anton Chekhov and Henry James [00:01:52]

Now last time, following Ricoeur, I mentioned Marx, Nietzsche and Freud as key figures in the sort of secondary development that somehow inaugurates theory, and then I added Darwin. It seems particularly important to think of Darwin when we begin to think about the ways in which in the twentieth century, a variety of thinkers are concerned about human agency–that is to say, what becomes of the idea that we have autonomy, that we can act or at least that we can act with a sense of integrity and not just with a sense that we are being pulled by our strings like a puppet. In the aftermath of Darwin in particular, our understanding of natural selection, our understanding of genetic hard-wiring and other factors, makes us begin to wonder in what sense we can consider ourselves, each of us, to be autonomous subjects. And so, as I say, the question of agency arises.

It’s in that context, needless to say, that I’d like to take a look at these two interesting passages on the sheet that has Anton Chekhov on one side and Henry James on the other. Let’s begin with the Chekhov. The Cherry Orchard, you know, is about the threat owing to socioeconomic conditions, the conditions that do ultimately lead to the Menshevik Revolution of 1905, to a landed estate, and the perturbation and turmoil into which the cast of characters is thrown by this threat. Now one of the more interesting characters, who is not really a protagonist in the play for class reasons, is a house servant named Yepihodov, and Yepihodov is a character who is, among other things, a kind of autodidact. That is to say, he has scrambled into a certain measure of knowledge about things. He is full of a kind of understandable self-pity, and his speeches are in some ways more characteristic of the gloomy intellectual milieu that is reflected in Chekhov’s text really than almost anyone else’s.

I want to quote to you a couple of them. Toward the bottom of the first page, he says, “I’m a cultivated man. I read all kinds of remarkable books and yet I can never make out what direction I should take, what it is that I want, properly speaking.” As I read, pay attention to the degree to which he’s constantly talking about language and about the way in which he himself is inserted into language. He’s perpetually seeking a mode of properly speaking. He is a person who is somewhat knowledgeable about books, feels himself somehow to be caught up in the matrix of book learning–in other words, a person who is very much preoccupied with his conditioning by language, not least when perhaps unwittingly he alludes to Hamlet. “Should I live or should I shoot myself?”–properly speaking, “To be or not to be?” In other words, he inserts himself into the dramatic tradition to which as a character he himself belongs and shows himself to be in a debased form derived from one of those famous charismatic moments in which a hero utters a comparable concern.

So in all sorts of ways, in this simple passage we find a character who’s caught up in the snare–if I can put it that way–the snare of language. To continue, he says at the top of the next page, “Properly speaking and letting other subjects alone, I must say”–everything in terms of what other discourse does and what he himself can say, and of course, it’s mainly about “me”–“regarding myself among other things, that fate treats me mercilessly as a storm treats a small boat.” And the end of the passage is, “Have you read Buckle?” Now Buckle is a forgotten name today, but at one time he was just about as famous as Oswald Spengler who wrote The Decline of the West. He was a Victorian historian preoccupied with the dissolution of Western civilization. In other words, Buckle was the avatar of the notion in the late nineteenth century that everything was going to hell in a handbasket. One of the texts that Yepihodov has read that in a certain sense determines him is Buckle. “Have you read Buckle? I wish to have a word with you Avdotya Fyodorovna.” In other words, I’m arguing that the saturation of these speeches with signs of words, language, speaking, words, books, is just the dilemma of the character. That is to say, he is in a certain sense book- and language-determined, and he’s obscurely aware that this is his problem even as it’s a source of pride for him.

Turning then to a passage in a very different tone from James’s Ambassadors. An altogether charming character, the elderly Lambert Strether, who has gone to–most of you know–has gone to Paris to bring home the young Chad Newsome, a relative who is to take over the family business, the manufacture of an unnamed household article in Woollett, Massachusetts, probably toilet paper. In any case, Lambert Strether, as he arrives in Paris, has awakened to the sheer wonder of urbane culture. He recognizes that he’s missed something. He’s gone to a party given by a sculptor, and at this party he meets a young man named Little Bilham whom he likes, and he takes Little Bilham aside by the lapel, and he makes a long speech to him, saying, “Don’t do what I have done. Don’t miss out on life. Live all you can. It is a mistake not to. And this is why,” he goes on to say, “the affair, I mean the affair of life”–it’s as though he’s anticipating the affair of Chad Newsome and Madame de Vionnet, which is revealed at the end of the text–“couldn’t, no doubt, have been different for me for it’s”–“it” meaning life–”[life is] at the best a tin mold either fluted or embossed with ornamental excrescences or else smooth and dreadfully plain, into which, a helpless jelly, one’s consciousness, is poured so that one takes the form, as the great cook says”–the great cook, by the way, is Brillat-Savarin–“one takes the form, as the great cook says, and is more or less compactly held by it. One lives, in fine, as one can. Still one has the illusion of freedom.”

Here is where Strether says something very clever that I think we can make use of. He says, “Therefore, don’t be like me without the memory of that illusion. I was either at the right time too stupid or too intelligent to have it. I don’t quite know which.” Now if he was too stupid to have it, then of course he would have been liberated into the realm of action. He would have been what Nietzsche in an interesting precursor text calls “historical man.” He simply would have plunged ahead into life as though he had freedom, even though he was too stupid to recognize that it was an illusion. On the other hand, if he was too intelligent to, as it were, bury the illusion and live as though he were free, if he was too intelligent to do that, he’s a kind of an avatar of the literary theorist–in other words, the sort of person who can’t forget long enough that freedom is an illusion in order to get away from the preoccupations that, as I’ve been saying, characterize a certain kind of thinking in the twentieth century. And it’s rather charming at the last that he says–because how can we know anything–“I don’t quite know which.”

Chapter 3. Author and Authority [00:11:26]

That, too, strikes me as a helpful and also characteristic passage that can introduce us to today’s subject, which is the loss of authority: that is to say, in Roland Barthes’ terms, “the death of the author,” and in Foucault’s terms, the question “What is an author?” In other words, in the absence of human agency, the first sacrifice for literary theory is the author, the idea of the author. That’s what will concern us in this second, still introductory lecture to this course. We’ll get into the proper or at least more systematic business of the course when we turn to hermeneutics next week.

Now let me set the scene. This is Paris. It wouldn’t have to be Paris. It could be Berkeley or Columbia or maybe Berlin. It’s 1968 or ‘69, spilling over in to the seventies. Students and most of their professors are on the barricades, that is to say in protest not only against the war in Vietnam but the outpouring of various forms of authoritative resistance to protest that characterized the sixties. There is a ferment of intellectual revolt which takes all sorts of forms in Paris but is first and foremost perhaps organized by what quickly in this country became a bumper sticker: “Question authority.” This is the framework in which the then most prominent intellectual in France writes an essay at the very peak of the student uprising, entitled “What is an Author?” and poses an answer which is by no means straightforward and simple. You’re probably a little frustrated because maybe you sort of anticipated what he was going to say, and then you read it and you said, “Gee, he really isn’t saying that. In fact, I don’t quite know what he is saying” and struggled more than you’re expected to because you anticipated what I’ve just been saying about the setting and about the role of Foucault and all the rest of it, and were possibly more confused than you might have expected to be. Yet at the same time, you probably thought “Oh, yeah, well, I did come out pretty much in the place I expected to come out in despite the roundabout way of having gotten there.” Because this lecture is introductory, I’m not going to spend a great deal of time explicating the more difficult moments in his argument. I am going to emphasize what you perhaps did anticipate that he would say, so that can take us along rather smoothly.

There is an initial issue. Because we’re as skeptical about skepticism as we are about anything else we’re likely to raise our eyebrows and say, “Hmm. Doesn’t this guy Foucault think he’s an author? You know, after all, he’s a superstar. He’s used to being taken very seriously. Does he want to say that he’s just an author function, that his textual field is a kind of set of structural operations within which one can discover an author? Does he really want to say this?” Well, this is the question raised by the skeptic about skepticism or about theory and it’s one that we’re going to take rather seriously, but we’re going to come back to it because there are ways, it seems to me, of keeping this question at arm’s length. In other words, Foucault is up to something interesting, and probably we should meet him at least halfway to see, to measure, the degree of interest we may have in it. So yes, there is the question–there is the fact that stands before u–that this very authoritative-sounding person seems to be an author, right? I never met anybody who seemed more like an author than this person, and yet he’s raising the question whether there is any such thing, or in any case, the question how difficult it is to decide what it is if there is.

Let me digress with an anecdote which may or may not sort of help us to understand the delicacy of this relationship between a star author, a person undeniably a star author, and the atmosphere of thought in which there is, in a certain sense, no such thing as an author. An old crony and former colleague of mine was taking a course at Johns Hopkins in the 1960s. This was a time when Hopkins led all American universities in the importing of important European scholars, and it was a place of remarkable intellectual ferment. This particular lecture course was being given by Georges Poulet, a so-called phenomenological critic. That’s one of the “isms” we aren’t covering in this seminar. In any case, Poulet was also a central figure on the scene of the sixties. Poulet would be lecturing along, and the students had somehow formed a habit of from time to time–by the way, you can form this habit, too–of raising their hand, and what they would do is they would utter a name–at least this is what my friend noticed. They would raise their hand and they would say, “Mallarmé.” And Poulet would look at them and say, “Mais, oui! Exactement! A mon avis aussi!” And then he would go on and continue to lecture for a while. Then somebody else would raise his hand and say, “Proust.” “Ah, précisément! Proust. Proust.” And then he’d continue along. So my friend decided he’d give it a try [laughter] and he raised his hand and he said, “Voltaire,” and Poulet said “Quoi donc… Je ne vous comprends pas,” and then paused and hesitated and continued with his lecture as though my friend had never asked his question.

Now this is a ritual of introducing names, and in a certain sense, yes, the names of authors, the names of stars; but at the same time, plainly names that stand for something other than their mere name, names that stand for domains or fields of interesting discursivity: that is to say–I mean, Poulet was the kind of critic who believed that the oeuvre of an author was a totality that could be understood as a structural whole, and his criticism worked that way. And so yes, the signal that this field of discursivity is on the table is introduced by the name of the author but it remains just a name. It’s an author without authority, yet at the same time it’s an author who stands for, whose name stands for, an important field of discourse. That’s of course what my friend–because he knew perfectly well that when he said “Voltaire,” Poulet would [laughs] have nothing to do with it–that’s the idea that my friend wanted to experiment with. There are relevant and interesting fields of discourse and there are completely irrelevant fields of discourse, and some of these fields are on the sides of angelic discourse and some of these fields are on the side of the demonic. We simply, kind of spontaneously, make the division.

Chapter 4. “The Founders of Discursivity” [00:19:36]

Discursivity, discourse: that’s what I forgot to talk about last time. When I said that sometimes people just ultimately throw up their hands when they try to define literature and say, “Well, literature’s just whatever you say it is. Fine. Let’s just go ahead,” they are then much more likely, rather than using the word “literature,” to use the word “discourse” or “textual field,” “discursivity.” You begin to hear, or perhaps smell, the slight whiff of jargon that pervades theoretical writing. It often does so for a reason. This is the reason one hears so much about discourse. Simply because of doubt about the generic integrity of various forms of discourse. One can speak hesitantly of literary discourse, political discourse, anthropological discourse, but one doesn’t want to go so far as to say literature, political science, anthropology. It’s a habit that arises from the sense of the permeability of all forms of utterance with respect to each other, and that habit, as I say, is a breakdown of the notion that certain forms of utterance can be understood as a delimited, structured field.

One of the reasons this understanding seems so problematic is the idea that we don’t appeal to the authority of an author in making our mind about the nature of a given field of discourse. We find the authority of the author instead somewhere within the textual experience. The author is a signal, is what Foucault calls a “function.” By the way, this isn’t at all a question of the author not existing. Yes, Barthes talks about the death of the author, but even Barthes doesn’t mean that the author is dead like Nietzsche’s God. The author is there, sure. It’s a question rather of how we know the author to be there, firstly, and secondly, whether or not in attempting to determine the meaning of a text–and this is something we’ll be talking about next week–we should appeal to the authority of an author. If the author is a function, that function is something that appears, perhaps problematically appears, within the experience of the text, something we get in terms of the speaker, the narrator, or–in the case of plays–as the inferred orchestrator of the text: something that we infer from the way the text unfolds. So as a function and not as a subjective consciousness to which we appeal to grasp a meaning, the author still does exist.

So we consider a text as a structured entity, or perhaps as an entity which is structured and yet at the same time somehow or another passes out of structure–that’s the case with Roland Barthes. Here I want to appeal to a couple of passages. I want to quote from the beginning of Roland Barthes’ essay, which I know I only suggested, but I’m simply going to quote the passage so you don’t have to have read it, The Death of the Author. It’s on page 874 for those of you who have your texts, as I hope you do. Barthes, while writing this–he’s writing what has perhaps in retrospect seemed to be his most important book, it’s called S/Z. It’s a huge book which is all about this short story by Balzac, “Sarrasine,” that he begins this essay by quoting. This is what he says here about “Sarrasine”:

In his story “Sarrasine” Balzac, describing a castrato disguised as a woman, writes the following sentence: “This was woman herself, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive worries, her impetuous boldness, her fussings and her delicious sensibility.” [Barthes says,] “Who is speaking thus? Is it the hero of the story bent on remaining ignorant of the castrato hidden beneath the woman? Is it Balzac the individual, furnished by his personal experience with a philosophy of Woman? Is it Balzac the author professing “literary” ideas on femininity? Is it universal wisdom? Romantic psychology? We shall never know, for the good reason that writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject [and this is a deliberate pun] slips away [“our subject” meaning that we don’t quite know what’s being talked about sometimes, but also and more importantly the subject, the authorial subject, the actual identity of the given speaking subject–that’s what slips away] the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.

So that’s a shot fired across the bow against the author because it’s Barthes’ supposition that the author isn’t maybe even quite an author function because that function may be hard to identify in a discrete way among myriad other functions.

Foucault, who I think does take for granted that a textual field is more firmly structured than Barthes supposes, says on page 913 that when we speak of the author function, as opposed to the author–and here I begin quoting at the bottom of the left-hand column on page 913–when we speak in this way we no longer raise the questions:

“How can a free subject penetrate the substance of things and give it meaning? How can it activate the rules of a language from within and thus give rise to the designs which are properly own–its own?”

In other words, we no longer say, “How does the author exert autonomous will with respect to the subject matter being expressed?” We no longer appeal, in other words, to the authority of the author as the source of the meaning that we find in the text.

Foucault continues,

Instead, these questions will be raised: “How, under what conditions, and in what forms can something like a subject appear in the order of discourse? What place can it occupy in each type of discourse, what functions can it assume, and by obeying what rules?” In short, it is a matter of depriving the subject (or its substitute)… [That is to say, when we speak in this way of an author function,] it is a matter of depriving the subject (or its substitute) [a character, for example, or a speaker, as we say when we don’t mean that it’s the poet talking but the guy speaking in “My Last Duchess” or whatever] of its role as originator, and of analyzing the subject as a variable and complex function of discourse.

“The subject” here always means the subjectivity of the speaker, right, not the subject matter. You’ll get used to it because it’s a word that does a lot of duty, and you need to develop context in which you recognize that well, yeah, I’m talking about the human subject or well, I’m talking about the subject matter; but I trust that you will quickly kind of adjust to that difficulty.

Chapter 5. Critique of the “Author Function” [00:28:20]

All right. So with this said, it’s probably time to say something in defense of the author. I know that you wish you could stand up here and say something in defense of the author, so I will speak in behalf of all of you who want to defend the author by quoting a wonderful passage from Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare, in which he explains for us why it is that we have always paid homage to the authority of the author. It’s not just a question, as obviously Foucault and Barthes are always suggesting, of deferring to authority as though the authority were the police with a baton in its hand, right? It’s not a question of deferring to authority in that sense. It’s a question, rather, of affirming what we call the human spirit.

This is what Johnson says:

There is always a silent reference of human works to human abilities, and as the inquiry, how far man may extend his designs or how high he may rate his native force, is of far greater dignity than in what rank we shall place any particular performance, curiosity is always busy to discover the instruments as well as to survey the workmanship, to know how much is to be ascribed to original powers and how much to casual and adventitious help.

So what Johnson is saying is: well, it’s all very well to consider a textual field, the workmanship, but at the same time we want to remind ourselves of our worth. We want to say, “Well, gee, that wasn’t produced by a machine. That’s not just a set of functions–variables, as one might say in the lab. It’s produced by genius. It’s something that allows us to rate human ability high.” And that, especially in this vale of tears–and Johnson is very conscious of this being a vale of tears–that’s what we want to keep doing. We want to rate human potential as high as we can, and it is for that reason in a completely different spirit, in the spirit of homage rather than cringing fear, that we appeal to the authority of an author.

Well, that’s an argument for the other side, but these are different times. This is 1969, and the purpose that’s alleged for appealing to the author as a paternal source, as an authority, is, according to both Barthes and Foucault, to police the way texts are read. In other words, both of them insist that the appeal to the author–as opposed to the submersion of the author in the functionality of the textual field–is a kind of delimitation or policing of the possibilities of meaning.

Let me just read two texts to that effect, first going back to Roland Barthes on page 877. Barthes says, “Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile.” By the way, once again there’s a bit of a rift there between Barthes and Foucault. Foucault wouldn’t say “quite futile.” He would say, “Oh, no. We can decipher it, but the author function is just one aspect of the deciphering process.” But Barthes has entered a phase of his career in which you actually think that structures are so complex that they cease to be structures and that this has a great deal to do with the influence of deconstruction. We’ll come back to that much later in the course.

In any case, he continues.

To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism [and criticism is a lot like policing, right–“criticism” means being a critic, criticizing] very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyché, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is “explained”–a victory to the critic.

In other words, the policing of meaning has been accomplished and the critic wins, just as in the uprisings of the late sixties, the cops win. This is, again, the atmosphere in which all of this occurs–just then to reinforce this with the pronouncement of Foucault at the bottom of page 913, right-hand column: “The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.”

Now once again, there is this sort of the skepticism about skepticism. You say, “Why shouldn’t I fear the proliferation of meaning? I want to know what something definitely means. I don’t want to know that it means a million things. I’m here to learn what things mean in so many words. I don’t want to be told that I could sit here for the rest of my life just sort of parsing one sentence. Don’t tell me about that. Don’t tell me about these complicated sentences from Balzac’s short story. I’m here to know what things mean. I don’t care if it’s policing or not. Whatever it is, let’s get it done.” That, of course, is approaching the question of how we might delimit meaning in a very different spirit. The reason I acknowledge the legitimacy of responding in this way is that to a certain extent the preoccupation with–what shall we say?–the misuse of the appeal to an author is very much of its historical moment. That is to say, when one can scarcely say the word “author” without thinking “authority,” and one can definitely never say the word “authority” without thinking about the police. This is a structure of thought that perhaps pervades the lives of many of us to this day and has always pervaded the lives of many people, but is not quite as hegemonic in our thinking today perhaps as it was in the moment of these essays by Barthes and Foucault.

All right. With all this said, how can the theorist recuperate honor for certain names like, for example, his own? “All right. It’s all very well. You’re not an author, but I secretly think I’m an author, right?” Let’s suppose someone were dastardly enough to harbor such thoughts. How could you develop an argument in which a thought like that might actually seem to work? After all, Foucault–setting himself aside, he doesn’t mention himself–Foucault very much admires certain writers. In particular, he admires, like so many of his generation and other generations, Marx and Freud. It’s a problem if we reject the police-like authority of authors, of whom we may have a certain suspicion on those grounds, when we certainly don’t feel that way about Marx and Freud. What’s the difference then? How is Foucault going to mount an argument in which privileged authors–that is to say, figures whom one cites positively and without a sense of being policed–can somehow or another stay in the picture?

Foucault, by the way, doesn’t mention Nietzsche, but he might very well because Nietzsche’s idea of “genealogy” is perhaps the central influence on Foucault’s work. Frankly, I think it’s just an accident that he doesn’t mention him. It would have been a perfect symmetry because last time we quoted Paul Ricoeur to the effect that these authors, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, were–and this is Ricoeur’s word–“masters.” Whoa! That’s the last thing we want to hear. They’re not masters. Foucault couldn’t possibly allow for that because plainly the whole texture of their discourse would be undermined by introducing the notion that it’s okay to be a master, and yet Ricoeur feels that these figures dominate modern thought as masters.

How does Foucault deal with this? He invents a concept. He says, “They aren’t authors. They’re founders of discursivity,” and then he grants that it’s kind of difficult to distinguish between a founder of discursivity and an author who has had an important influence. Right? And then he talks about the gothic novel and he talks about Radcliffe’s, Anne Radcliffe’s–he’s wrong about this, by the way. The founder of discursivity in the gothic novel is not Anne Radcliffe; it’s Horace Walpole, but that’s okay–he talks about Anne Radcliffe as the person who establishes certain tropes, topoi, and premises that govern the writing of gothic fiction for the next hundred years and, indeed, even in to the present, so that she is, Foucault acknowledges, in a certain sense a person who establishes a way of talking, a way of writing, a way of narrating. But at the same time she isn’t a person, Foucault claims, who introduces a discourse or sphere of debate within which ideas, without being attributable necessarily, can nevertheless be developed. Well, I don’t know. It seems to me that literary influence is not at all unlike sort of speaking or writing in the wake of a founder of discursivity, but we can let that pass.

On the other hand, Foucault is very concerned to distinguish figures like this from scientists like Galileo and Newton. Now it is interesting, by the way, maybe in defense of Foucault, that whereas we speak of people as Marxist or Freudian, we don’t speak of people as Radcliffian or Galilean or Newtonian. We use the adjective “Newtonian” but we don’t speak of certain writers who are still interested in quantum mechanics as “Newtonian writers.” That’s interesting in a way, and may somehow or another justify Foucault’s understanding of the texts of those author functions known as Marx and Freud–whose names might be raised in Poulet’s lecture class with an enthusiastic response–as place holders for those fields of discourse. It may, in some sense, reinforce Foucault’s argument that these are special inaugurations of debate, of developing thought, that do not necessarily kowtow to the originary figure–certainly debatable, but we don’t want to pause over it in the case either of Marx or of Freud. Plainly, there are a great many people who think of them as tyrants, right, but within the traditions that they established, it is very possible to understand them as instigating ways of thinking without necessarily presiding over those ways of thinking authoritatively. That is the special category that Foucault wants to reserve for those privileged figures whom he calls founders of discursivity.

All right. Very quickly then to conclude: one consequence of the death of the author, and the disappearance of the author into author function is, as Foucault curiously says in passing on page 907, that the author has no legal status. And you say, “What? What about copyright? What about intellectual property? That’s a horrible thing to say, that the author has no legal status.” Notice once again the intellectual context. Copyright arose as a bourgeois idea. That is to say, “I possess my writing. I have an ownership relationship with my writing.” The disappearance of the author, like a kind of corollary disappearance of bourgeois thought, entails, in fact, a kind of bracketing of the idea of copyright or intellectual property. And so there’s a certain consistency in what Foucault is saying about the author having no legal status.

But maybe at this point it really is time to dig in our heels. “I am a lesbian Latina. I stand before you as an author articulating an identity for the purpose of achieving freedom, not to police you, not to deny your freedom, but to find my own freedom. And I stand before you precisely, and in pride, as an author. I don’t want to be called an author function. I don’t want to be called an instrument of something larger than myself because frankly that’s what I’ve always been, and I want precisely as an authority through my authorship to remind you that I am not anybody’s instrument but that I am autonomous and free.”

In other words, the author, the traditional idea of the author–so much under suspicion in the work of Foucault and Barthes in the late sixties–can be turned on its ear. It can be understood as a source of new-found authority, of the freedom of one who has been characteristically not free and can be received by a reading community in those terms. It’s very difficult to think how a Foucault might respond to that insistence, and it’s a problem that in a way dogs everything, or many of the things we’re going to be reading during the course of this semester–even within the sorts of theorizing that are characteristically called cultural studies and concern questions of the politics of identity. Even within those disciplines there is a division of thought between people who affirm the autonomous integrity and individuality of the identity in question and those who say any and all identities are only subject positions discernible and revealed through the matrix of social practices. There is this intrinsic split even within those forms of theory–and not to mention the kinds of theory that don’t directly have to do with the politics of identity–between those for whom what’s at stake is the discovery of autonomous individuality and those for whom what’s at stake is the tendency to hold at arm’s length such discoveries over against the idea that the instability of any and all subject positions is what actually contains within it–as Foucault and Barthes thought as they sort of sat looking at the police standing over against them–those for whom this alternative notion of the undermining of any sense of that which is authoritative is in its turn a possible source, finally, of freedom. These sorts of vexing issues, as I say, in all sorts of ways will dog much of what we read during the course of this semester.

All right. So much for the introductory lectures which touch on aspects of the materials that we’ll keep returning to. On Tuesday we’ll turn to a more specific subject matter: hermeneutics, what hermeneutics is, how we can think about the nature of interpretation. Our primary text will be the excerpt in your book from Hans-Georg Gadamer and a few passages that I’ll be handing out from Martin Heidegger and E.D. Hirsch.

[end of transcript]

0

Modern Poetry ENGL 310 – Lecture 2 – Robert Frost – YALE

Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 – Lecture 2 – Robert Frost

Chapter 1. Introduction: Robert Frost [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: I imagine that you all have images of Robert Frost and actual images in your mind when you think of this poet. He’s a familiar face in American literature, and I’ve gathered some of them that seemed representative. This is Frost in old age, as an American bard from a magazine. This is the Frost that you probably know, as if he were born with white hair, right? And a kind of, well, kindly and monumental, and yet approachable figure that is familiar from American school rooms. Here’s another image of that same guy, Robert Frost, painted by Gardner Cox, reminding us of Frost as a kind of link to nineteenth-century life, to rural Vermont. Another image of Frost, this one from The Times, just a little story: “President Hails Bond With Frost” – that president would be John F. Kennedy – “On TV He Extols Poet Who Calls New Frontier ‘Age of Poetry and Power.’” And perhaps you have seen images of Frost reading his poem, “The Gift Outright,” at Kennedy’s inauguration. It was a kind of powerful moment in American culture where the president allied himself with poetry in this way.

Oh, more pictures. This is Frost with grandchildren, Frost with his pet calves. He was kind to animals, and a farmer. This one I like. This is Frost with a stick, or Frost with a branch. You can think about that when you read “Birches.” This is Frost boyish, even in age, Frost who also likes to play and even who looks just a little bit, don’t you think, malevolent? All of these images would seem to make Frost not a modern poet at all, not a modern poet in the sense that Eliot and Pound established; that is, a difficult poet in ways that I suggested last Wednesday, a poet resistant to ordinary language and common frames of reference, formally innovative, disorienting, urbane, metropolitan. I think of nineteenth-century art as being horizontal and stretched out like agricultural life in New England. And modernism is all about verticality, from a certain angle. This was the Stieglitz picture, City of Ambition, I showed you last Wednesday. Another pairing, this wonderful landscape by Martin Johnson Heade, and we could contrast it with these images of Brooklyn Bridge by Walker Evans, or even underneath the bridge. The bridge seems to – a figure of crossing – it seems here to rise up and out of the city and the river.

This is Frost before he had white hair, Frost at 18, which is, I believe, 1892 or so: boyish. And his first book is entitled A Boy’s WillA Boy’s Will, Robert Frost. This is a cover of the first edition that you can go over to Beinecke and see. When you open it up and look at the table of contents, you see titles of poems, and underneath those titles are little legends and moralizations. “Into My Own” (title). “Legend”: “the youth is persuaded that he will be rather more than less himself for having foresworn the world.” Or “Storm Fear”: “he is afraid of his own isolation.” These are poems, in other words, that come with little labels to tell you what they mean and what they’re about.

Modernism in Eliot and Pound is, in some ways, founded on expatriation, on a kind of internationalism. Frost’s poetry seems resolutely American, or at any rate it seems to be. There is, in fact, another Frost, a modernist Frost, a Frost that is, in fact, as international as Pound and Eliot, who began his career, in fact, beside them, as a London expatriate.

This is more of the table of contents. You can see how it’s laid out. This is the Frost who published that book. This is Frost at thirty-nine, Frost in a suit made by a London tailor in London. And when we go to the title page of A Boy’s Will we see that this New England poet publishes his first book, in fact, in London in 1913, there on New Oxford Street. Interesting. North of Boston, a great book that follows A Boy’s Will, is a title that locates these poems in a specific place in northern New England. It, too, is published in London, this time on Bloomsbury Street. You don’t really think of Frost as part of Bloomsbury, do you? But there he is, publishing his book in that place, just like Prufrock, also published on Bloomsbury Street – this in 1917, North of Boston in 1915.

You remember that table of contents page I showed you a moment ago with the titles and the moralizations that Frost has for A Boy’s Will? Well, here’s the modernist table of contents of Prufrock, and of course, what would the legend for “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” be? “He wanders around in a melancholy way, quoting Hamlet for…” Well no, it – Eliot didn’t do that. When we look at the table of contents of this book, which is North of Boston, well, it looks a lot like Eliot’s. Those little tags that seemed to explain the poetry have disappeared and instead we simply have the titles of these very great poems: “Mending Wall,” “The Death of the Hired Man,” “The Mountain,” “Home Burial.” There’s something in Eliot’s – the presentation of Eliot’s work and indeed in the work itself that is affronting, resistant, impersonal. And the typography, the presentation of the book is part of that. It’s part of Eliot’s whole aesthetic. But North of Boston, well, you know, when we start looking at these two books together, it seems to share some of the properties of Eliot’s book; and indeed the poems that we find when we open that book also have things in common with Eliot’s. The other Frost, not the simple, familiar, monumental Frost but the Frost who is a modernist poet who begins writing in London, is really quite as cosmopolitan, quite as learned as Pound and Eliot at this moment. And yet he uses his learning differently. He uses it very often by concealing it, in fact.

Well, let me turn from pictures to text. On your handout today, the handout number two, we have – well, there are several quotations from Frost’s letters, and let’s look at the first one first. Frost says at the time that he’s publishing A Boy’s Will, to a friend:

You mustn’t take me too seriously if I now proceed to brag a bit about my exploits as a poet. There is one qualifying fact always to bear in mind: there is a kind of success called “of esteem” and it butters no parsnips. It means a success with a critical few who are supposed to know. But really to arrive where I can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else I must get outside that circle to the general reader who buys books in their thousands. I may not be able to do that. I believe in doing it – don’t you doubt me there. I want to be a poet for all sorts and kinds. I could never make a merit of being caviare to the crowd the way my quasi-friend Pound does. I want to reach out, and would if it were a thing I could do – if it were a thing I could do by taking thought. [Frost to John Bartlett, November 1913]

Frost wishes to be so subtle as to seem altogether obvious. It’s not just that he seems obvious but is really subtle. Rather, his subtlety shows itself in his deliberate concealment of it, in the ways in which he masks himself in obviousness. The problems that Frost’s poetry poses for us as readers are not problems of reference. They can’t be solved by footnotes. Compare the footnotes in the Frost poems to the footnotes in The Norton that you find next to Eliot or Pound’s poems. The problems that Frost poses are problems of interpretation, problems that provoke you to ask not, “what does he mean exactly?” but “how does he mean that?” Is he joking or is he serious? Is there something on his mind that he’s not saying? The wonder of Frost is really in his tone, his way of saying things without saying them in so many words.

Now, this guile of his, because that’s what it entails, this guile is something temperamental, I think. It came naturally to him. But it also reflects a specific literary situation. The popular, old-fashioned Frost and the elite, modern Frost – these roles point to a division in the audiences for poetry that emerges clearly in this period. The Frost who writes a familiar, crafted lyric that would have been easily recognizable as poetry, that we could give a little tag to after its title; well, contrast this with the poet of The Waste Land, say, whose work would not have been recognizable to many readers as poetry and indeed was not. On one level Frost was – spoke for and to an audience trained by the genteel poetry of late nineteenth-century America, readers who loved Longfellow, the Fireside Poets, poets who published in Victorian popular magazines and wrote those gilt-embossed books that cultured families kept behind glass bookcases and that you can still find at tag sales on New England greens. That’s the obvious Frost, the one that the subtle Frost in many ways constructed, aiming all the time not at a general reader at all but at an elite reader of the new tiny-circulation, Little Magazines where the work of Eliot, Williams, Stevens, Moore and others were first published; those magazines I showed you last week, magazines like Broom or Blast or Rogue or The Criterion.

There’s duplicity in Frost’s poetry, and there’s a certain doubleness in the figure that he projects as a poet. I like to think of his obsession with double meanings, which he has, as a way of responding to a division in culture, between popular and elite readers, a division that he saw as expressive of a division in American culture between money and esteem, business and art. In that quotation I read for you a few moments ago, Frost opposes two kinds of success: one of “esteem,” that success with a critical few that “butters no parsnips” – You can see he brings in the kind of folksy term to, well, to what? To disdain that kind of success or put it in its place. – and on the other hand, a success with the general reader who buys books in their thousands. Frost wanted both. The opposition is between poetry that makes money and poetry that, precisely because it is good poetry as modern poetry defines it, does not.

Notice that the latter kind of poetry, the good kind that “butters no parsnips,” is associated here with Frost’s “quasi-friend Pound.” Instead of butter, Pound writes “caviare” – kind of a European thing, right? Caviar. By contrast, Frost is declaring his ambition to reach out to a large audience. It is for Frost a frankly economic ambition. By becoming a poet for all sorts and kinds, Frost intends, as he says, to arrive “where I can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else…” This is ambition for a career, but it’s also a desire for personal autonomy. For Frost, poetry is invested with a longing for autonomy in, well, both simple and complex senses. He wants to use poetry to stand on his own two legs. He sees it specifically – and this is important – as a form of work that will allow him to be self-sufficient and self-determining.

Frost was born in 1874 into a working family. His father’s death, when Frost was a boy, represented, among other things, an economic crisis for his family. Frost’s schooling was erratic. This is impressive: he dropped out of both Dartmouth and Harvard, and he did so to take laboring jobs, each time enacting a conflict between intellectual life and manual labor that would be a persistent and central theme of his poetry. He worked at all sorts of jobs: in factories, at a mill, on a newspaper. He was a schoolteacher, and of course he was a farmer, too, when his grandfather gave him a farm to work, which he did, for ten years in Derry, New Hampshire. It’s in fact at the end of this period that Frost moved himself and his family to England, in a last-ditch bid to make literary contacts and advance his career as a poet. It was first in England that Frost published the books that established his reputation as the pasture poet of New England, a poet whose authority seemed to rest on his being rooted in his region. Once he returned to New England in 1916, after North of Boston, success followed on success. Poetry was a way for Frost out of manual labor but it was also a form of work for Frost that was opposed to manual labor. It was an escape from it, a way of transcending it, but also in many ways allied to it – valuable because it could be a form of productive labor, something he could use to “butter his parsnips.”

Chapter 2. Robert Frost Poem: “Mowing” [00:19:21]

These concerns that I’m laying out all inform his poetry. They structure Frost’s work as a poet and his ongoing inquiry into that work. Frost poems perform a kind of phenomenology of work, of labor. They say what it is like to work at something. In so doing, they are always also brooding on what it is like to read and write poems. This is the case with “Mowing,” which is in your packet from RIS, and is an example of one of these Frostian poems about work. Let me read it for you.

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound –
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

This is a monologue by a worker, a mower. It is a sonnet, too. It’s a sort of song of a worker. Notice that Frost is interested at once in the presence of a sound, the sound of a solitary worker, or, to be more precise, the sound of the tool of the worker. The sound is the sign of his work. And it raises a specifically interpretive question: what is the message of the work that the man does? What is it saying? What is its meaning? “What was it it whispered?”

Beside this one of many tools in Frost, I asked you to pay attention to tools in his poetry as you read it over the weekend. To work in Frost is to use a tool. Tools mediate the worker’s relation to the world. It’s what the worker uses to do things and to make things. Things are not “made up” in Frost, “not made up” in the sense of imagined, called up out of thin air, like fairies and elves. Instead, things in Frost are “made” in the sense of “constructed.” They’re the products of specific acts, of the acts of a worker. Think of other tools in those poems. There’s the spade in “Home Burial,” the spade that’s used to bury the couple’s little child. I’ll talk more about that poem next time. There’s the ladder to heaven in “After Apple-Picking.” It’s a ladder used to ascend a tree, it’s a kind of tool of ascent that’s a kind of a tool for getting fruit. And then there’s the terrible chainsaw in Out, Out – .” In “Mowing,” the scythe makes a sound as it cuts, and that sound is delicate, it’s quiet, it whispers. But cutting is something fearful and forceful; it’s a kind of controlled violence. Frost takes it for granted that we will remember that the scythe is a conventional image for time, which harvests all of us in death. Time and death – these are the forces that the worker works against and tries to marshal in the process of working his will in the world, to make his way in it, to earn his living, to stand on his own two feet.

But these forces are not something that the man controls as a simple extension of himself. Tools in Frost are tricky. You have to learn how to use them. They have in Frost a kind of independent, objective existence.

Chapter 3. Robert Frost Poem: “Out, Out – ” [00:25:13]

Remember “Out, Out – .” If you look on page 213 in your Norton, well, I’ll read from the middle of the poem. A boy is out sawing:

His sister stood beside them [ – the group. He’s not alone, he’s with
others.] in her apron
To tell them “Supper.” At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap –
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand,
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all –
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart –
He saw all spoiled. “Don’t let him cut my hand off –
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!”
So. But the hand was gone already.

And the boy dies. It’s an extraordinarily powerful poem. This saw, rather than whispering, snarls and rattles. Ultimately, it takes the life of the worker. It reminds the worker that it has the power of death, the force that the worker only accesses through the tool. Although Frost’s tools give the worker a way to impose his will on the world, the tool is part of the object world and it declares here brutally and cruelly that the worker’s will is limited and subject to the tools he uses.

Chapter 4. Verbal Sounds, Metaphorical Associations and the Suggestive Choice of Words [00:27:19]

In “Mowing,” the poem’s lines are like sweeps of the scythe as it lays down rows of swale. Frost wants us to think about that. He wants us to see the row, the harvested rows as being like lines of verse. It’s an ancient association from classical poetry. The word “swale” is interesting. You hear in it the s and the w, the two key sounds of this poem, which are the sounds of the whispering scythe. Frost loves verbal sounds and he loves to play with their metaphorical associations. He invites us to hear the sweep of the scythe in those s sounds themselves, I think, and maybe even to hear the workers huff and puff, his rhythmic exhalation in the w’s, which alternate and interact with those s’s.

The whisper of the scythe then. This is what the poem is all about. The whisper is not, Frost specifies, a “dream of the gift of idle hours.” Poetry is not, that is to say, a leisure class activity. Frost is writing against the Romantic idea that poetry is written in repose, received passively as inspiration. Poetry, in Frost, is action, not a matter, as Wordsworth would say, of emotion recollected in tranquility. Frost is also here specifically writing against the early poetry of Yeats, which you’ll read next week, poetry that finds reality exactly in “dream,” and that has plenty of fairies and elves in it. Frost is not after “easy gold” but rather hard-earned wages.

“Dream”: here Frost implies that it is something, “dream” is something more than the truth. He has that phrase, “Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak / to the earnest love that laid the swale in rows.” That’s an interesting phrase, “more than the truth.” Why not “less”? Why isn’t “dream” less than the truth? Frost has made a suggestive choice of words. Truth is something less than dream, in Frost. Truth is life-sized. To get down to it, you have to cut away what is not true, what is inflated, beside the point, excess, ornament. The truth is something that you get down to. The truth is a reduction, a simplification. It is what is fit for the earnest love that is working for truth.

“Love”: this is a crucial word in Frost. You don’t think of Frost as a love poet. There are love poems in Frost. And yet even apart from those there are many poems that use that word “love,” often in crucial places in the poems. In fact, love and desire are really at the center of Frost’s poetry. So far, I’ve been stressing a kind of anti-Romantic side of Frost, how he seems to be saying, “Nothing but the facts, please.” “But the fact,” he says in that next to last line, “is the sweetest dream” of labor, and it is earnest love that is doing this cutting. Labor loves; labor dreams. When we look carefully at this poem, in fact, the distinction that Frost seems to make between fact and dream starts to give way.

Let me go back to the sound of this work. “What was it it whispered?” Note Frost’s use of words like “something” and “perhaps.” These are words you’re not supposed to use in poems or in even writing about poems. In Frost, there is here this explicit, deliberate, calculated vagueness, a withholding of certainty that allows a range of possible meanings to be entertained, held open. It’s a rhetorical and conceptual move that I think is analogous to the whispering of the scythe. What I mean is that this tool doesn’t speak loudly; it whispers, and you have to lean forward to hear it. The same is true with the poem, with any Frost poem – except that line 13 seems to violate that, it seems to violate that principle. “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” Well, here Frost seems to be spelling things out, making a declaration, making a statement, saying what the fact is, and seeming to celebrate the literal: “the fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.”

Importantly, though, that’s not the last thing the poem says. What difference would it make had Frost, as he could have, I suppose, reversed the order of lines 13 and 14? Line 13 stands out, as if almost – as if out of the poem, as if out of time, as a kind of fact or truth, a fixed principle that is stated in a kind of eternal present – “the fact is” – like no other sentence in this poem. Had Frost decided to end the poem there, he would have said, or seemed to be saying, “This is what it’s all about.” It would be like one of those morals following the titles of his poem. But in fact, he doesn’t end there. He doesn’t make so clear a declaration.

Line 14 returns us to the work of mowing. “My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make” returns us to the work of mowing and the work of reading and interpretation and deciphering. The poem ends with an image of process, and not of product, an image of the process of labor. The implication is that it is the same way for the poet who lays his words in rows, in those rows of swale that are his lines of verse. The hay, that is, well, what? The payoff, what the poem is all about, what mowing is all about. The hay isn’t handed over to you. It’s rather “left… to make.” That’s a rich phrase.

What Frost gives you here and elsewhere is a poetry that leaves its meanings to make, all the time. Frost’s poetry is engaged in construing, constructing, constituting facts, which means it doesn’t give us the truth as if it were a product, a fashioned object; rather, it gives us a process, an act of fashioning, an act that is involved with dreams and desire and with love. Facts are made and not found in Frost’s poetry of work. And this is to say that the process by which facts are made is, well, it’s like work and is therefore, well, it’s something daily, ordinary, ongoing; and for these reasons incapable of completion. It’s something that we have to do over and over again, that is, making up the world. “Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.” Stevens said that, but Frost could have said it, too. Meaning in Frost poems, as in the world that they evoke, has to be interpreted every day. It has to be in that sense worked for again and again.

Chapter 5. Metrical Pattern [00:36:56]

Well, let me use this poem as a way into now talking about sound in more actual, more literal ways in Frost’s poetry and to begin with you to think a little bit about meter, in fact, and what Frost does with it. Let me go back to the handout where we’ve got more passages from Frost’s letters, and in particular what Frost has to say about something he calls “the sound of sense”; although he says in that first quotation that, well, he doesn’t like to brag.

I alone of English writers have consciously set myself to make music out of what I may call the sound of sense. [This is an ambitious guy.] Now, it is possible to have sense without the sound of sense (as in much prose that is supposed to pass muster but makes very dull reading) and the sound of sense without sense (as in Alice in Wonderland, which makes anything but dull reading). [This is a wonderful metaphor.] The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words…. [Understand what Frost means? He wants us to think about how we could understand what people are saying without taking in the words that they’re using, simply by catching the tones and rhythms of their exchanges. … The sound of sense, then. You get that. It is the abstract vitality of our speech. It is pure sound – pure form. One who concerns himself with it more than the subject is an artist. But remember we are still talking merely of the raw material of poetry. An ear and an appetite for these sounds of sense is the first qualification of a writer, be it of prose or verse. But if one is to be a poet he must learn to get cadences by skillfully breaking the sounds of sense with all their irregularity of accent across the regular beat of the metre. Verse in which there is nothing but the beat of the metre furnished by the accents of the polysyllabic words we call doggerel. Verse is not that. Neither is it the sound of sense alone. It is the resultant from those two. There are only two or three metres that are worth anything. We depend for variety on the infinite play of accents, in the sound of sense. [Frost to John Bartlett, July 1913]

Frost’s “sound of sense,” the abstract vitality of our speech. It has to do exactly with how people say what they say. These are dimensions of communication that I’ve been identifying in “Mowing” with the whisper of the scythe, that is, a tone of meaning or a way of meaning. “The sound of sense.” It represents common and vernacular elements of speech. The sounds of sense are all part of language in use, which people are using to do things with. But, Frost stresses, poetry is not only that; it’s something more. It’s the sound of sense, as he says, broken – and that’s another interesting metaphor – it’s broken, he says, skillfully across the beat of the meter. Meter is something regular; it’s a fixed scheme; it’s inflexible, as Frost conceives of it here. The speaking voice, by contrast, is something idiosyncratic, irregular, particular.

In the second quotation, or rather the last on the page but the second one about the subject, Frost says:

My versification seems to bother people more than I should have expected [because he seemed to ears tutored in nineteenth-century norms to have a kind of rough and irregular metric] – I suppose because I have been so long accustomed to thinking of it in my own private way. It is as simple as this: there are the very regular pre-established accent and measure of blank verse [blank verse, that is – and I’ll explain it – unrhymed iambic pentameter]; and there are the very irregular accent and measure of speaking intonation. I am never more pleased than when I can get these into strained relation. [Frost wants to create a sound effect of strained relation in his poetry, a strained relation between speech and meter.] I like to [and again the same word] drag and break the intonation across the meter as waves first comb and then break stumbling on the shingle [and now I’m writing a poem, it seems]. That’s all [he says,] but it’s no mere figure of speech though one can make figures enough about it [and in fact, you can see Frost doing that in his poetry very often]. [Frost to John Cournos, July 1914]

“Strained relation,” this tension between speech and pattern, suggests the tension between all sorts of contending forces in Frost: the vernacular and the literary, the concrete and the abstract; flux, fixity; the individual will and material fact. The special sound of Frost’s poems result from the tensions between these pairs of opposing forces as they are embodied in his language.

To approach this, you’ll need to know a little bit about meter. In fact, a rough grasp on traditional English meter is essential to Frost and it’s also important to other poets we’ll read – to Stevens, say, or to Crane, or to Auden or Bishop. Obviously, these are poets who work usually in quite traditional meters. And yet, it’s also important for reading Pound and for reading Eliot and for reading Moore, who sound the way they do partly because they make a point of not writing pentameter, the meter that Frost often, but not always, chooses. How many of you know what iambic pentameter is? Don’t be shy. Okay. I’m going to spend a little bit of time at the beginning of class next time talking about it and working with you a little bit as we read Frost and in particular we can use the poem “Birches” to do that.

Don’t be distressed if you’re unfamiliar with it. Knowing what iambic pentameter is, is not a gift of birth, but rather something that comes through a little bit of practice, which means we have to work at it a little bit. And I will, in order to enable you to do that, give you a – or actually ask the TFs [teaching fellows] in section to hand out a meter exercise that you can do for next week. When you leave today, I would like to collect cards, just to figure out how many of us there are, and as I say, on Wednesday, between the online registration and our work on it in class, we should be able to get our sections ordered. So, see you on Wednesday.

[end of transcript]

– –

Credits:

“Provide, Provide” and “Out, Out – ” from THE POETRY OF ROBERT FROST edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1916, 1969, copyright 1964 by Lesley Ballantine, copyright 1936, 1944 by Robert Frost. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

This material is not licensed under a Creative Commons license. Users must seek permission to use such third-party materials directly from the publisher or estate, as appropriate.

0

Modern Poetry ENGL 310 – Lecture 13 – Hart Crane

Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 – Lecture 13 – Hart Crane

Chapter 1. Hart Crane Poem: “Legend” [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: Crane is a challenge. He’s a challenge for you; he’s a challenge for me as a teacher. He’s a challenging poet. He challenges his reader. He challenges us and he makes invitations to us. He calls to us in various ways, places demands on us.

I’d like to talk about a text I’m not, in fact, holding. Does somebody have an RIS packet handy that I could have in my hands? Thank you, Jean. And that is the poem “Legend,” which is the poem placed first in Crane’s first and only book of lyrics called White Buildings. It’s a poem that he used to introduce himself to the reader, as it were. So, why don’t we use it to begin thinking about his work:

As silent as a mirror is believed
Realities plunge in silence by…

The poem begins with a kind of riddle or enigma, and then the first person comes forward:

I am not ready for repentance;
Nor to match regrets. For the moth
Bends no more than the still
Imploring flame.

It’s a wonderful idea: “I’m not going to repent of anything; I’m not going to regret anything. I have not bent any more, I have nothing more to regret than the flame which has drawn me, which bent as well.”

For the moth
Bends no more than the still
Imploring flame. And tremorous
In the white falling flakes
Kisses are, – [comma, dash]
The only worth all granting.

Characteristically here, for Crane, there’s a compressed set of images. Those “tremorous white falling flakes” there; well, they’re almost images, aren’t they, of a burnt moth, a moth that’s been drawn to the flame. And then those come to be seen as, here, kisses. Kisses, if we unpack Crane’s odd syntax, it would seem – the sentence would seem to read – although it’s maybe available to other constructions – “kisses are tremorous in the white falling flakes.” But these kisses, these kisses that are also emblems of flame and of extinction even, are “the only worth all granting”; that is, the only value that seems to grant all, I think. Again those words, “all granting,” might be construed in a couple of different ways. Crane says:

It is to be learned [what is to be learned?] –
This cleaving and this burning [the kind I’m talking about]…

We must learn to be drawn to the flame and we must learn to recover from the flame and renew our desires and renew our quests.

It is to be learned –
This cleaving and this burning,
But only by the one who
Spends out himself again.

In order to do this, you’ve got to spend yourself repeatedly, over and over again. And then he gives us other images of this kind of repeated burning:

Twice and twice
(Again the smoking souvenir,
Bleeding eidolon! [“eidolon” is a Greek word for “image”]) and yet again.

This activity is repeated and repeated:

Until the bright logic is won
Unwhispering [he returns to that initial enigmatic image] as a mirror
Is believed.
Then, drop by caustic drop, a perfect cry
Shall string some constant harmony, –
Relentless caper for all those [and here we are challenged and invited to
meet him and join him] who step
The legend of their youth into the noon.

Well, it’s a hard poem and yet there are a few, I think, simple, basic ideas that it projects that are important to the poet that Crane saw himself as, and the one he wants us to receive and in a sense join. He presents himself as an unrepentant visionary, Romantic, and lover – since, after all, these roles are all held in some association here. He talks about here a willingness that’s erotic, that’s aesthetic, that’s spiritual; to exhaust oneself in the pursuit of one’s desires; to “spend out” yourself again and repeatedly. There is in this the promise that by doing it repeatedly, “drop by caustic drop,” a kind of lyric voice will emerge that will be “a perfect cry.” And despite this destruction and pain and blood, “bleeding eidolon”, a “constant [that is, sustained] harmony “will be achieved, “harmony” invoking, of course, more than one voice.

And what is this? This is a poetic project, and it’s a project that he describes as a “relentless caper,” a “relentless caper.” “Caper” comes from Latin, in the sense of the goat that leaps. It’s also a word that suggests, well, some kind of minor mischief: a “relentless caper for all those who step / the legend of their youth into the noon.” And here, Crane presents himself as a young person who would project all of the youthful vitality of his vision and desire into this symbolically pregnant moment that he calls “the noon.” It’s a time very important in Crane’s imagination, I think: idiosyncratically, individually, but also in a way that alludes to noon in Emily Dickinson’s poems; Dickinson being a poet that Crane shares a great deal with. The poetry of Hart Crane – it proposes to approach what he calls “noon,” which is an experience of fullness and absolute presence.

Now, what does he mean, he’s “not ready for repentance”? Who after all has told him to repent? Who has told him he has something to regret? “Repent” is something that Crane heard from the culture at large in important ways. Crane is writing in the mid-twenties, or at this point. I think this is a poem from 1924 or so. It is post-war America. Crane sees himself as a member of a new youthful world, centered in places like Greenwich Village. He sees himself as part of a young America, bound together across place by a kind of common dedication to art and to their will to free themselves from the sexual and economic disciplines that he calls in this letter that I have quoted other sentences from, calls “Puritanism.” Crane is writing in an era, the era of the Eighteenth Amendment. Prohibition is in effect. There is a range of kinds of censorship that are a real and present threat. James Joyce’s novel Ulysses has been banned from the United States shores for its obscenity. There’s a way in which modernist art is mixed up with questions of sexuality. Crane got his copy of Ulysses smuggled from France, which a friend then stole. Crane is living, too, in a vital and nascent gay culture, in New York in particular, and yet within a nation, then as now, that is strongly homophobic and anti-gay in all sorts of ways. Crane’s insistence on, his refusal to repent, his refusal to regret, are assertions of his will towards forms of sexual and imaginative freedom. They’re also affirmations of a Romantic poetics, essential to him.

Chapter 2. Hart Crane’s Reading of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” [00:12:59]

There’s also a literary historical context for this that’s important and that I think you can probably already start to guess at. Crane is a deep and a deeply ambivalent reader of The Waste Land and T. S. Eliot. He says in this letter to Gorham Munson in January 1923:

There’s no one writing in English who can command so much respect, to my mind, as Eliot. However, I take Eliot as a point of departure towards an almost complete reverse of direction. His pessimism is amply justified in his own case. [Why? I don’t know. Well, Crane had his fantasies about Eliot’s sexual life, I think.] But I would apply as much of his erudition and technique as I can absorb and assemble toward a more positive, or if I must put it so in a skeptical age, ecstatic goal. I should not think of this if a kind of rhythm and ecstasy were not at odd moments and rare a very real thing to me. I feel that Eliot ignores certain spiritual events and possibilities, as real and powerful now as, say, in the time of Blake. [Blake is very important to Crane.] Certainly the man has dug the ground and buried hope as deep and direfully as it can ever be done. After this perfection of death [which is what Crane is – this is how he’s reading The Waste Land] nothing is possible in motion but a resurrection of some kind [he says].

Crane is reading The Waste Land and he’s reading Eliot’s criticism. He’s responding to – well, he’s responding to a series of texts, and I’ll just show you some of what he’s reading here. This is The Criterion, the first place Eliot’s poetry, The Waste Land, appeared. That’s in October 1922, Eliot’s own magazine. The first American publication of the poem was in The Dial in November 1922, and then the poem appeared in – I don’t know if you can see that very well – the poem appeared in a New York publication in book form as its own discreet text. When the Liveright edition of the poem was being prepared, as I mentioned last time, Eliot was asked to make the poem a little longer, because after all it was a little too short, and, or so the story goes, this was in part one of his motives for producing the notes to the poem. As I said last time, this is the way the poem looked in America when it first appeared, and of course with just a few lines per page. Last time I called it the shortest long poem in the language. You can see the way in which it’s sort of drawn out. Here’s the little section I ended by talking about, “Death by Water.”

Well, as I suggested last time, Eliot’s notes suggested and created a kind of role for the poet where the poet was not only the creative lyric presence at the center of the poem but was also a kind of scholar and critic of his own work: framing it, mastering bodies of knowledge, and arranging meaning in ways that the notes emblematize. In the process, Eliot’s doing a couple of things that Crane is responding to. He is establishing himself in what I described as a new role, and that’s very much the role you see Eliot embodying here; that is, the poet as a kind of scholar poet, a figure backed by institutional authority of various kinds.

And this figure’s created specifically in The Waste Land through the poem’s turning away from and turning against, in complicated ways, its own forms of Romanticism, which last time I suggested were emblematized by that drowned Phoenician sailor, Phlebas, who is a kind of figure for what the poem sacrifices or, you might say, a kind of version of the self that Eliot is willing to give up. Crane, encountering the poem, I think, must have been obsessed with the section, “Death by Water” – must have seen, must have heard Eliot talking to him when Eliot says, “Consider Phlebas who was once handsome and tall as you.” Crane means to reassert the power of youth, reassert the potential for Romantic vision, and to do so in a way that he imagines as a kind of resurrection and, specifically, as a kind of passage through and beyond “Death by Water.”

Chapter 3. Hart Crane Poem: “Voyages” [00:20:55]

Drowning is an important imaginative motif in Crane’s work. The poems that I’ll concentrate on now to explore this idea all have images of romance quest and drowning at their center. And I mean, first of all, the very great love poem called “Voyages” on page 609, which Eliot or – excuse me, which Crane began in the spring of 1924, about a year after he’s read The Waste Land. And the poem is, I think, his first sort of developed reply, and it centers, as I say, on images of drowning. The poem arises from a love affair with, as it happens, a Danish sailor who was part of the Bohemian crowd around the Provincetown Players in Greenwich Village. Crane’s letters are full of both reflections on Eliot and also ecstatic and very moving accounts of his love affair with Emil Opffer. I’ll read you just a few sentences from one letter to his friend, Waldo Frank. He says – Crane does:

It will take many letters to let you know what I mean, for myself at least, when I say in this relationship that I have seen the Word made flesh. I mean nothing less. And I know now that there is such a thing as indestructibility, in the deepest sense where flesh became transformed through intensity of response to counter-response, where sex was beaten out, where a purity of joy was reached that included tears.

Now, imagery from this and other letters that Crane wrote during the period emerge in “Voyages.” The very first section of “Voyages” had been, in fact, sitting on Crane’s desk for three years:

Above the fresh ruffles of the surf
Bright striped urchins flay each other with sand.
They have contrived a conquest for shell shucks,
And their fingers crumble fragments of baked weed
Gaily digging and scattering. And in answer to their treble interjections
The sun beats lightning on the waves,
The waves fold thunder in the sand;
And could they hear me I would tell them: O brilliant kids, frisk with your dog,
Fondle your shells and sticks, bleached
By time and the elements; but there is a line
You must not cross nor ever trust beyond it
Spry cordage of your bodies to caresses
Too lichen-faithful from too wide a breast.
The bottom of the sea is cruel.

The poem begins on shore, begins with kids playing. Their play in all its innocence seems to imply and gesture towards ferocious energies that are emblematized by the sea in all of its thunder and lightning and power. They fondle, they flay. The shoreline is a place where there are fragments of debris, proof of the sea’s force. The poem begins with a simple moral injunction or, really, a practical warning. To give yourself over to the sea would be to enter a field of unbounded energy, to risk your identity, to risk being overwhelmed. Think of Prufrock, on the shore, “shall I wear my trousers rolled?” Crane is there, in the same place, and having issued this warning, having acknowledged the cruelty of the bottom of the sea, he throws it off and throws it behind, and enters the water:

– And yet [that important piece of Cranian punctuation, the dash – a bit
of punctuation that separates and connects elements – pushes that
warning away and takes us into the sea] this great wink of eternity,
Of rimless floods, become borderless space, unfettered leewardings,
Samite sheeted and processioned where
Her undinal vast belly…

Crane images the sea here as a woman’s body and as a kind of belly that bends towards the moon. It’s a kind of vision of the open horizon of the sea as, you know, it seems to project the curve of the earth in it.

Her undinal vast belly moonward bends,
Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love;

That’s a wonderful Cranian word, “wrapt.” It would seem to mean both “wrapped,” in the sense of “wrapped up,” and “rapt,” in the sense of “held in rapture.” He’s kind of combined, possibly through error, these two forms. Crane makes errors. He’s unlike the scholarly Eliot. He continues, and now gives us instructions:

Take this Sea, whose diapason knells
On scrolls of silver snowy sentences,
The sceptred terror of whose session rends
As her demeanors motion well or ill,
All but the pieties of lovers’ hands.

Here, being in the space of the sea is like being in love or in the act of love, as Crane imagines it. It’s also like being in a fabulous rhetorical world: a space of gorgeous extravagant language, which Crane unleashes here in all of its terrific force. Its language, which is iambic pentameter, unlike Eliot, is a language as rich and ornate as on the English Renaissance stage. Marlowe would have liked this. It is also a kind of Romantic diction, and there are elements of a sort of late nineteenth-century British and French poetry that Crane is combining here. He says:

And onward, as bells off San Salvador
Salute the crocus lustres of the stars,
In these poinsettia meadows of her tides, –
Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,
Complete the dark confessions her veins spell. Mark how her turning shoulders wind the hours,
And hasten while her penniless rich palms
Pass superscription of bent foam and wave, –
Hasten, while they are true [because they will not be true forever], – sleep, death desire,
Close round one instant in one floating flower.

Crane understands that love, like rhetoric, casts a spell, and that love and poetry create illusions. He does not therefore despise them; different from Eliot, in a basic way. He acknowledges, as it were, the temporariness of his desire. In fact he says:

Bind us in time, O Seasons clear, and awe.
O minstrel galleons of Carib fire,

What are “minstrel galleons of Carib fire”? Well, maybe they’re actual ships that he’s imagining passing among. Maybe they are the lights of the moon or sun on the sea. He says to the sea:

Bequeath us [I know we’re going to die] to no earthly shore [in other
words, “don’t bury us”] until [and as in legend, Crane produces a funny,
syntactic reversal here]
Is answered in the vortex of our grave
The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.

There the subject of the sentence comes last. The sentence is: “The seal’s wide spindrift gaze is answered in the vortex of our grave.” What Crane has done there is: he’s reversed the syntactic order of subject and verb. By doing so, he’s introduced first the image of death by drowning – that is, the vortex of our grave – and he’s put that up first; and then, he’s followed it with the image of the seal’s gaze, which comes and emerges after drowning. The seal is here a figure of a kind of consciousness and desire expressed through the eyes that survives death.

Look back to the poem preceding, called “At Melville’s Tomb.” Here this is an elegy for Melville which seems to presume, falsely, that Melville was drowned, and is not buried on shore, as he is. And there’s an image again of drowning in lines 11 and 12, and again an image of a vortex:

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil [after the storm that has wrecked
the ship],
Its lashings charmed [and those lashings remind you of the flayings of
the kids in “Voyages”] and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

How do eyes lift altars? In Crane’s letter to Harriet Munroe, in defense of this poem and what he calls “the logic of metaphor,” Crane says, well, eyes lift altars in the sense that they bring the object of their desire into being through their desire; that is, you raise the altar, you create the object of worship through your yearning for it. This is, again, a kind of visionary act, and it’s a version of the one that we find at the end of the second section of “Voyages” where we see the seagull’s – excuse me, “the seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.” “Wide.” “Wide” because it’s a gaze that is large and takes in much space; “wide” because the sea is a kind of space in which we have latitude of action. “Spindrift”: it’s a word that Crane took from Moby Dick, from Melville, replacing another word – not such a good word – which also came from Moby Dick: “finrinny.” It’s good he got rid of that.

“Spindrift” is important. When you are in the sea, it is like being in a Crane poem. You don’t have the ground under your feet. You spin and you drift; you spin and you drift and words mix and match and create words like “spindrift.” This is a condition that Crane calls, in the next poem, “infinite consanguinity,” where there’s a kind of sharing of elements, a kind of transformation through exchange that goes on. This is understood as what happens in love. It’s also understood as a kind of model for poetic process. It’s imaged here in this poem in triumphant language as a kind of transcendence of death. Here, describing a moment of climactic intensity, Crane writes:

And so, admitted through black swollen gates
That must arrest all distance otherwise, –
Past whirling pillars and lithe pediments,
Light wresting there incessantly with light,
Star kissing star through wave on wave unto
Your body rocking!
and where death, if shed [like a skin],
Presumes no carnage [no final death of the body], but [rather] this single
change, –
Upon the steep floor flung from dawn to dawn
The silken skilled transmemberment of song; Permit me voyage, love, into your hands…

“The silken skilled transmemberment of song”: this is Crane’s final, fantastic line of iambic pentameter, where he proclaims a kind of transformation that is at once erotic and rhetorical, where elements between two parties have been exchanged and reversed just as the “silk” and “skill” give us phonemes that are held in almost a kind of mirror relationship and alliteration: the i-l-kk-i-l. And then Crane introduces us to another word that he coins: “transmemberment.” “Transmemberment”: what does “transmemberment” mean? It seems to be made out of – what? Rememberdismembertransformation. He’s talking about a kind of activity that involves all these things at once, and through it achieves a kind of vision of union, which is again, as I say, both linguistic and interpersonal.

Well, that seems like a good place to stop for now. We’ll carry these poems on as a way to read his long poem in reply to The Waste Land – The Bridge.

[end of transcript]

0

Modern Poetry ENGL 310 – Lecture 1 & 2 YALE

Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 – Lecture 1 – Introduction

Chapter 1. Introducing the Course and Requirements [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: Now, this is not only a course for English majors, but for other majors too. The poets we’ll be reading – well, they knew about science, music, politics, economics, and they presumed to talk about those things, in their poetry and out of their poetry too. My lectures are going to presume no special knowledge on your part. I see this as a course that’s an introduction to the literature of a period, to modern poetry. We’ll be studying several poets in some detail. The presumption is that they all reward and demand a certain amount of close reading. At the same time, I do mean to give you some sense of the period in which they’re writing, some sense of modernism as a field, as one of the richest fields in English language writing. Finally, though, this really is a course in poetry, plain and simple. I mean to introduce you to particular poems, to give you ways to possess them, enjoy them, be puzzled or frustrated by them too; to learn something from them and to care about them and to carry them with you as you go forward after this class. So, that’s a sense of what I want to accomplish in these lectures. It will mean reading a lot of poems and writing about them some.

The syllabus you’ll see notes the general topic of each lecture and the reading that I want you to have done for that day. There’s a Midterm. That will be a short answer test that’s intended to give you a chance to show how diligently you’ve been reading and coming to class. The Final will include both a short answer component and then some essay questions. There are two papers, a shorter and a slightly longer one. The first paper is going to ask you to write about one short poem; the second will ask you to write about two or more poems, or poems perhaps by two authors, or perhaps a poem and some other kind of text or image.

The teaching fellows in this course, I’m lucky to work with and you are too. They are trained and have an interest in modern poetry, and this is a happy collaboration for me with them. As I say, we’ll start to get our discussion sections organized on Monday and they should be set, I hope, by the Wednesday lecture next week. I want you to come to lecture on time. I did today, I started on time. I don’t always do that but I’d like to, and I can if you come at 11:30. Bring your books; I’m going to be talking about the texts and I hope you’ll have them open. And of course you will come to your discussion sections in the same state of joyful preparedness. As I say, the syllabuses should be accessible on the Classes*v2 server; however, I’ve had problems with that in the past and you should please let me know if it’s not.

There are just two books for the course; they’re both at Labyrinth. One is the first volume of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, Third Edition. It’s edited by Jahan Ramazani, formerly a Teaching Fellow in this course. There’s also Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems. There will be a packet that you can order from RIS [copy center] that gathers a few supplementary readings. There will be the visual images that I’m going to talk about in lecture, and that I will make accessible to you on the class’s server. There are also audio recordings of the poets that we will be reading that come from Sterling and you can get to on the Center for Language Study website. All those things we can talk about more as the semester develops, and I hope you will talk to me. You can do that on email, you can do that in my office, which is downstairs on the first floor of this building, in LC-109. You can catch me after lecture or before. We can have lunch – all sorts of opportunities for talking, and I hope you’ll take advantage of it.

Chapter 2. Modern Poet Introduction: Robert Frost [00:05:50]

For Monday, we’re going to start talking about Robert Frost, and I’d like you to pay special attention to his poem “Mowing,” in the RIS packet, and to his poem “Birches” in The Norton. And as you read, pay special attention to images of tools, work, play. Read Frost’s short poetic statement, prose poetic statement in The Norton called “The Figure a Poem Makes.” So, The Norton Anthology, this book, this heavy book, I order it as a way to, well, reduce your expenses. Here’s just one big book to buy. It also provides needed annotation. Modern poetry is in need of annotation. This new edition of this old book is an excellent one. You should read Jahan Ramazani’s introduction, read his prose notes that preface his various selections.

Having said that, there’s really nothing so dead as The Norton Anthology, or ponderous, and I do order it with a little – well, some misgivings for that. The poems come to you abstracted from the contexts in which they were originally produced and read, from their place in a body of work, in a book, in a magazine, in a life that produced it. In order to counteract the packaged and monumental form of The Norton, I will be using Beinecke’s [Yale library for rare books and manuscripts] and Sterling’s [Yale’s main library] resources, using Power Point digitized files. This will allow me to project images in class and for you to look at them later at home. There’ll be files for not all but most of the poets that we discuss, and the aim is to give you some sense through those images of modern poetry in its historical, material dimensions, to represent it as something that was lived, and in many ways is living now.

Chapter 3. Modern Poet Introductions: T. S. Eliot and Marianne Moore [00:08:46]

Now, the poems that you’ll be reading, we’ll be talking about, did not, of course, always exist in the form that you find them. Their first form was very often a manuscript. If you go to Beinecke, you can find – and we will go to Beinecke, those of you who want to come with me – and look at manuscripts that were early versions of texts that you now find in The Norton and other books. When poems that had gone through their processes of revision and so forth and came to publication, they very often were published first, not in book form certainly, but rather in Little Magazines that are now more or less lost to us today but were in fact the essential vehicle for the creation of modern poetry.

What is a Little Magazine? Well, very often they were big – big in format and size. They were little because their circulation was small. These were the funded-on-a-shoestring magazines that rose up and very frequently faded away just as quickly in the 1910s and 1920s, and that were in many cases the first avenue of publication for Stevens, Eliot, Moore, the poets that you will be reading in this class. These magazines were acutely aware of their differences from the popular literary magazines of the nineteenth century, general interest popular magazines of the twentieth century, magazines with wide circulation, polite audiences. The Little Magazine was written by, addressed to, new young writers and artists, and they were determined to make trouble.

Nothing, I think, captures the nerve of these magazines like the cover of Blast, which meant “kaboom,” a magazine as a kind of bomb, or maybe a curse-damn you, blast. Pound was one of the contributors. Eliot’s Rhapsody on a Windy Night appeared here in this number of the magazine from July, 1915 in the midst of the First World War; Rogue – another, also from 1915. Notice the price – five cents. Stevens appeared here, in this magazine. You could contrast the roguish and fanciful, clearly done by hand, title of the magazine, with that machine-type Blast. Both of these are mischievous, oppositional magazines but with very different styles and attitudes. Here’s another, Broom. This is a magazine just slightly later. This is an issue of 1922. It’s a cover by Ferdinand Léger; Hart Crane would appear here. Broom meant to make a clean sweep of things, a clean sweep of what had come before. It also clearly meant to have fun doing it. Oops, I have gone too far. This is the back of the magazine. I don’t know how well you can make it out but there’s a little broom guy there with glasses, playing air guitar with his broom, and I guess this is meant to capture the spirit of the contributors.

Contrast that with the magazine that flashed there a moment ago, The Criterion. This is a long way from Broom. This is October 1922, comes out just before Broom is created. Here you’ve got a magazine that doesn’t present itself as attacking anything at all, but rather as what? As setting the standard, The Criterion. It looks official, doesn’t it? The editor is T. S. Eliot. This is the first number of the magazine. The magazine, in many ways, announced and facilitated Eliot’s rise to a kind of cultural authority as a taste maker, and with it certain ideas of modernism. This issue here, October 1922, includes The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. It also includes a little bit further down the page of review and essay by Valerie Larbeau on a new novel by James Joyce called Ulysses. That’s some sense of the spectrum of magazines that are coming out, and all with different roles to play in this culture and that position their writers and poets and artists associated with them in different ways.

Book publication can be just as interesting and it can tell us just as much about modern poetry as magazines. This is The Wind Among the Reeds, author William Butler Yeats, the year 1899, on the verge of the new century. It’s a beautiful book. It’s a book that wants to be beautiful, that’s happy to be beautiful. It’s rich in color and texture. It’s designed, embossed, gilt. It’s self-consciously Irish, Celtic. There’s a sense that you’re supposed to leave the bookstore with a kind of talisman that you have bought, with a Celtic charm. Contrast this book, Prufrock and Other Observations, the subtitle left off here of the cover of T. S. Eliot’s great book, published in 1917. This is a different object, isn’t it? Severe, unsentimental, dry, so much so as to be maybe even a little bit funny. And you laughed, right, and I think you’re supposed to. It’s not entirely serious, even as it declares its seriousness. If Yeats’s book was so explicitly Irish, look at this book. It has no observable nationality at all, does it? A certain kind of, well, you might say impersonality. Its rhetoric is so flat and unemotional, so overtly unrhetorical. It is, in fact, a very deliberate and self-conscious repudiation of that late romantic aesthetic that Yeats’s early book, and even the cover of that early book, represents. Prufrock isn’t beautiful and its author is not a bard.

Another book, another book cover, The Weary Blues, by Langston Hughes, 1926. Unlike Prufrock, this one is full of color and of course it is the work of a poet of color. The image presents the book not as a work of poetry at all but rather as a kind of music, as a book of Blues, and it associates its poet singer with honky-tonk piano players; not Broom’s bohemian egghead air guitarist, but another kind of vernacular, another kind of celebration and another kind of music. It makes us think about black artists playing for a living in Prohibition Era back rooms.

Now, poems, like books, project an image of the poet who produces them. While the poet is creating her or his poems, the poet is also creating a poet, a certain figure of the poet, a public image of the poet. And this is an evolving project, a work in progress. That’s part of the work and part of the subject and part of what I will be talking about here. Let’s look, for example, at a series of photos of Ezra Pound. Together, they tell a kind of encapsulated history of this central, fascinating, problematic poet’s career. He begins as an aesthete. This is 1913, Pound in London, styling himself, isn’t he, after those Renaissance artists and poets whom he would write about, translate in this period. It could be a miniature worn by a Provencal damsel, no? Well, here he is a little later, Pound after the war in 1923, sort of full flower of modernism, still a young man but he’s got that cane, and he’s in Paris where he would meet Eliot and work on The Waste Land with him.

Well, fast forward twenty years. This is Pound, Pound accused of treason; Pound accused of treason by his country, accused of treason as he tries to bend the world to his vision of it, and he escapes trial only by reason of insanity when he is brought from Italy under charges of having made broadcasts on fascist radio, back to the United States, after an ordeal in a cage in Pisa. And he poses for this photo as an intake photo as he enters St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane in Washington. In this final photo from 1971, back in Italy in Rapallo, well, here’s Pound presenting us with an image of something that would have seemed impossible when he began, which is an image of modernism grown old, old and blasted, in many senses. Contrast this career, encapsulated in those images, with this one.

Who’s this? This is the author of Prufrock. In fact, this is the Harvard student who wrote Prufrock; Eliot wrote Prufrock largely when still at Harvard and in the years immediately following. Sexy? A little, maybe; those full, slightly parted lips, that windswept hair, the general J. Crew look. Notice the handkerchief. Here’s the editor, great editor of the publisher Faber & Faber, thirty years later, or more, surrounded by books, the cultural arbiter of the English speaking world; T. S. Eliot at sixty. That hair is now slicked down, there are glasses between him and us. This is the young man who’s become a monument. But really, the costume’s the same one, right? There’s the handkerchief. Pound’s descent into infamy and insanity and indignity and Eliot’s rise to the extraordinary cultural power and prestige that he occupied and that is represented by this and many other photos, well, these are key stories in modern poetry and they’re interestingly interlocking, just as their two lives were.

Another modern poet. This is an old woman called Marianne Moore who became a kind of civic icon, who became a celebrity even, as an eccentric New Yorker who wore tri-cornered hats and went to baseball games and the zoo, and here appears in, well, her hair braided and wrapped around her head; fanciful, virginal, kindly, safely out of fashion, full of a kind of civic virtue, the embodiment of a certain kind of popular idea of poetry. And you can’t read it but there’s a kind of stamp of approval here from the governor Nelson Rockefeller. Think of how far away this is from Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. This is another image of modern poetry. But Moore’s hair was not always done up. This is the image of a child, also named Marianne Moore, with delicious, prodigious locks. It reveals maybe a little bit of the power and extravagance and glory that you feel in her poems but that she preferred always to restrain and bind and control in extraordinary ways, and not always to hide.

One of the enduring works written in 1922, the amazing year that The Waste Land and Ulysses appeared and The Criterion started its publication – one of those amazing works is Marianne Moore’s poem called Poetry. You’ve got a sample of it on your handout. Moore, who revised her poems, just the same way she ended up binding her hair, republished this poem eventually in short form, very short, where three pages were reduced to two sentences. The first two sentences you see:

I, too, dislike it: there are things important
beyond all this fiddle.

Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it after all, a place for the genuine. Some of what she cut out of the poem, cut out of its later version, is a list of what she had in mind as the genuine, as examples of it, which is the first quotation there; again, on your handout:

The bat, holding on upside down [and so on]
A flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician –
nor is it valid
to discriminate against “business documents and
school-books”; all of these phenomena are important.

The drive to include the world – Moore’s omnivorous poems claim for poetry all the subjects that she mentions here and indeed many, many more. All these are new, modern subjects. Because they represent dimensions of experience formerly excluded from the elevated, idealized discourse that is poetry, dimensions of experience excluded as prosaic. Moore is quoting here in that phrase “business documents and school-books,” as she tells us, from Tolstoy, a prose writer. But she goes further than Tolstoy in her commitment to the seemingly non-poetic. She will not only include Tolstoy’s prose, she will not even discriminate against business documents and school books. Moore exemplifies in this way a key aspect of modern poetry – its radical heterogeneity, its will to mix many kinds of materials and discourses, to make poetry reach out from the rarified and limited domain of the poetic to keep including more and more of the world.

The next quotation on your handout – this is another example of this. I won’t sing for you or give you my Italian, but these famous lines, “London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down” and so on, these come from the conclusion to The Waste Land. They thrust together different texts, different languages, writing from different historical periods, all there, compressed in that remarkable mad song that concludes the poem. In the next quotation, Eliot tells us that a various and complex civilization, such as ours, produces, he says, various and complex results, as if inevitably, lest we think that there’s anything particularly forced or outlandish or willful about his own remarkable poetry in lines such as those I just quoted for you. Eliot was there, in that essay on the metaphysical poets that I’m quoting from, defending as necessary what is the primary characteristic, not only of his own poetry, but really of modern poetry generally, what is often called its difficulty.

Whatever else it may be, everyone’s always agreed that modern poetry is difficult. You will probably too. By “difficult,” it is meant, I think, well, first of all that it is in some sense set apart from common speech, as a specialized and highly self-conscious use of language. Eliot would go further and say that there is no common form of modern speech, and that’s the problem. According to Eliot, the modern world lacks a center, a kind of set of collective beliefs and commitments that would enable communication between us. Modernity for Eliot, as for Moore, as for Pound, is marked by a profusion of languages, both national languages such as French or Russian, which turn up in The Waste Land; also, a bewildering array of specialized types of discourse, technical genres, varieties of speech, business documents and school books. There’s an extraordinary sense of verbal chaos, a kind of word hoard that modern poetry and modernism – generally, a kind of linguistic environment of great complexity from which modern poetry and modernism emerge.

This is an image called “Rotterdam” by the artist Edward Wadsworth. It’s a woodcut image from Blast. I like it because it’s a kind of image of the modern city that makes the modern city look like language, look like letters, look like a kind of scattered alphabet, a kind of babble. It’s a kind of picture for me of the linguistic environment, if you will, of modern poetry. Behind this environment are the great social processes of migration and modernization that produced that new urban form, the metropolis. All of the poets we read, even that New England hayseed, Robert Frost, begin their careers in metropolitan centers, primarily in London and New York. “All that is solid melts into air,” Karl Marx said, evoking the accelerating transformation of modern economic and social life. The metropolis is the center of this unsettled world that Marx describes. Coming to the metropolis a hundred or ninety years ago now entailed, for the writers that we’ll be reading, as much as for anyone else, a kind of break with a world that they had known, a break either with a native language – this is what the emigrant or the expatriate experiences – or perhaps with native ways of speaking and knowing, familiar spheres of reference.

Life in the modern metropolis was de-familiarizing. It de-naturalized language. Where there are many languages in use, language comes to seem arbitrary rather than natural, as the product of convention; not as something you’re simply born into but something that you learn, something that is made and that can be remade. This is a presumption of all the poets we’ll be reading. Modern American writers and artists immigrated famously to London, to Paris. Another key event in the making of modernism is the great migration of African-Americans from the rural south to the urban north. Langston Hughes’s poetry comes out of this experience in a community of black intellectuals and artists it created specifically in Harlem. And you’ll see on your handout two quotations from poems by Hughes, the first, “125th Street,” giving us well, here, images of black life in the rural south transposed to Harlem. There’s in those images, I think, a kind of utopian promise that the familiar, ordinary pleasures of rural life can be recaptured in a new society of plenty. But there’s also something hallucinatory and troubling about those images and vaguely disturbing that’s brought out, I think, in the related, famous poem, “Harlem,” on the next side of the page where if we’ve had faces as food in the first text, something possibly reassuring, those faces begin to look like dangerous objectifications in the second one where that raisin in the sun threatens to explode.

Metropolis is, in modern poetry, set against a backdrop of war and violence and conflict, and modern poetry, as it absorbs the world of the metropolis, absorbs that violence and energy as well. The metropolis, well, it’s a place of ambivalence, a place of promise and of threat, of exultation and also of dread. This ambivalence that I’m describing is at the center of modern literature generally. And the metropolis is crowded with language, crowded with faces, but there’s also a pervasive sense of absence and of loneliness and of loss captured also again paradigmatically in The Waste Land, and I’ve included there more lines from that poem. “The nymphs are departed,” Eliot says. Eliot’s speaking of a spiritual and imaginative state. Modern poetry arises, in Eliot’s case, with the death of God, with the loss of a theological justification for life, with a sense of disenchantment, a sense of depletion, depletion of meaning and value. The metropolis which uproots people, takes them away, takes them out of traditional cultures, also uproots traditional religious belief and practices.

Eliot’s poetry, the poetry he created out of this experience, is a poetry of spiritual agony. Modernity is, in his work, a condition of social and psychological fragmentation which is both a private, personal dilemma and a public one, as he understands it. Compare to Eliot’s city, Eliot’s sense of the city, this one. This is a photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, City of Ambition. This is the modern city, not as a scene of fragmentation or despair, but rather a place of ascent and aspiration. It’s also a scene of crossings, bridging past and future. This is a photo by another American photographer, Walker Evans, a photo of Brooklyn Bridge. You recognize it. And here is another, another image by Evans of the bridge. This one comes from a page of Hart Crane’s epic poem The Bridge, and a book that you can go find at the Beinecke, a remarkable edition of Crane’s poem where Evans’s photos, grand photos, appear as almost miniature images surrounded by white space, as you get some sense in this image.

In Crane, in his great poem The Bridge– and here’s another photo by Evans, this time of Crane on the rooftop of the apartment building in Brooklyn, 110 Columbia Heights where he lived and where he began the poem, with the bridge in the background. In Crane, the emphasis is not on what is lost in modernity but what is found or what might be. Here’s another quotation from your handout, number 7:

New thresholds, new anatomies, wine talons
Build freedom up about me and distill
This competence to travel in a tier
Sparkling alone within another’s will.

Modern poetry is difficult and these are difficult lines. “New thresholds, new anatomies”, well, that’s not such a hard concept; that’s an image of what the modern promises for Crane, and indeed those Gothic arches of the bridge seem to emblematize for him. Yet, Crane’s poetry in those lines I just read really are difficult, just as Eliot and Pound are difficult, but not because as in those poets Crane presents us with obscure references or languages unknown to us, or learned allusion. Instead, what’s difficult in Crane is a kind of compression in his writing. They show us a poet taking language apart and putting it back together in new ways, new configurations, new anatomies.

Crane is full of mixed metaphors; you’re not supposed to mix your metaphors and he does, all the time. “Wine talons,” there’s one. “Wine talons,” what are they? Well, think about it. Perhaps you too have felt wine talons grip you unexpectedly sometime and carry you aloft. The metaphor suggests ecstasy, the exaltation of modern life, that aspiration imaged in Stieglitz too. It suggests that ecstasy is like wine, and wine is like an eagle clasping you; it’s prey in its claws. And keep in mind when Crane wrote those lines too, it was illegal to buy and sell wine in this country. modernity, in Crane’s strange, gorgeous poetry, is all about getting high, about elevation, exultation. Crane was an alcoholic. And if you study this photo, you can see the qualities of a man struggling with alcoholism. This friendly and even dignified face has prematurely white hair. His cheeks are veined. Being drunk became for Crane a kind of grim literalization of the freedom that came with being modern; and that vision of freedom is something that his poetry preserves for us and carries forward for us and continues to give us as a gift.

Contrast his images of joyous or demonic assent with the images of catastrophe, of descent, of collapse in Eliot, “London Bridge is falling down.” The decay of Christian belief and practice is not a loss but rather an opportunity for poetry, in Crane. He says in The Bridge, he asks the bridge to lend a myth to God, and he suggests that this is something that every age must do because our names for God are always metaphors, poems, something imagined, acts of speech. Crane shares these general ideas with Wallace Stevens.

Chapter 4. Modern Poet Introduction: Wallace Stevens [00:42:52]

This is Wallace Stevens, Wallace Stevens who said, “Poetry is a means of redemption”, and meant it. Stevens began life as a choirboy and as a Christian, but his work is all about replacing Christian theology with poetry. For Stevens, when modernity takes away God what it does is unveil the poet’s Godlike powers, a power to create the world through imagination, imagination which created God in the first place. In Stevens, modernity shows us that the truth of religion was always a fiction, a fundamentally poetic construction.

Stevens’s world is secular and non-transcendental, and he is fully at home in it, so much so that he lives the life of a bourgeois businessman, as an executive of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, a great Connecticut burger and poet. Stevens celebrates the bourgeois world over and over again in a poetry that is about and itself enacts our perpetual recreation of reality through the mind and its special medium – language. Stevens understands tragedy, but he is a comic poet, a humanist who is concerned to preserve and exalt the human. The relativity of truth, the profusion of languages, these things that afflict Eliot are a source of faith for Stevens.

Modern poetry seeks absolutes, what Moore calls the genuine, what Crane calls the myth of America, the voice of the thunder in Eliot; Stevens’s supreme fiction; Pound’s Cantos, a poem that would, as he intended, include history. Modern poetry is, in all these ways, Promethean, astounding, arrogant, enormous, imprudent, visionary. But it also contains other positions, alternatives that open those over-sized cultural ambitions to critique, to imaginative alternatives of many kinds. And these are suggested, I’ll suggest briefly, by the last two poets we’ll read – W. H. Auden, to begin with here, pictured as an Oxford undergraduate, ever cheeky, who has written on the side of his photo, “The cerebral life would pay,” dry, cool, pragmatic; and Elizabeth Bishop, young in this glamorous George Platt Lynes photo.

While modern poetry in many of its forms strives to master reality, Auden reminds us, there on your handout, cautiously, that poetry makes nothing happen. While Stevens represents the poet as a kind of God, Bishop sees the poet rather as a sandpiper, that little bird skittering along the shore, not in control of the world but subject to it, subject to its continual fluctuation and awesome powers. Bishop’s sandpiper poet, there in your handout, is obsessed with the mere details of experience, those sand grains, quartz grains. Her aim is to get along in a world that is dominated by shifting forces that can be registered and reacted to by poetry, but not explained. This is, I think, really also a version of poetic activity that has some sources in and has a lot in common with Robert Frost’s, as we will see on Monday. Thank you.

[end of transcript]

ENGL 310 – Lecture 3 – Robert Frost (cont.)

Chapter 1. What Is Meter? [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: We talked on Monday about Frost’s idea of “the sound of sense” and vernacular speech forms, his wish to put these in tension or, as he put it, “strained relation” with metrical pattern. The primary metrical pattern in Frost is the primary metrical pattern in English poetry, which is to say blank verse or unrhymed iambic pentameter.

Well, meter: what is meter? Meter is – it’s a scheme for organizing verse, for organizing lines of verse. It’s a scheme that in English counts accents or stresses per line and then arranges them in a pattern. Ordinarily, in accentual syllabic verse, which is what we’re reading more often than not in English poetry, the accents are arranged in relation to unaccented syllables, creating a kind of limited array of standard units. The most standard of these is the iamb. The iamb is a simple pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. A boatabouta dressa coat: these are all simple iambic phrases that you hear in our language all the time. If you repeat a boat three times – a boata boata boat – you have trimeter, iambic trimester – three iambs in a row. If you do it four times, you’ve got tetrameter, a more common meter in English. And if you repeat them five times, you have pentameter.

Accent: what is an accent? For some of you, this will seem self-evident; for others, it’ll seem like a great puzzle. What constitutes an accent when you – what is an accent in a given English word? In fact, linguists often argue about this subject, and it’s a complicated one. Accent is something somewhat difficult to define and categorize. Don’t worry about that. Poetry is not interested in expert debate at all, and it converts the big spectrum of possible degrees of accent into those two simple categories: stressed and unstressed syllables. So, if you’re unsure about the metrical definition of a line, because it’s hard to discriminate between levels of stress, as will almost certainly be the case, remember that more often than not, the context takes over and the regular beat of a meter rules and perhaps promotes an accent in a phrase that might not otherwise seem to have one to you.

Chapter 2. Robert Frost Poem: “Birches” [00:03:55]

Let’s illustrate these general points by just reading together and trying to hear the beginning of Robert Frost’s poem “Birches,” on page 211 in The Norton. This is an example of blank verse, and that is always to be – blank verse always, perhaps confusingly, to be distinguished from free verse. Blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter. Free verse is non-metrical poetry, another thing altogether. This is blank verse; it’s the language of Shakespeare; it’s the language of Milton.

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

Well, for me, when I try to make sense of the meter of given lines, I think it’s useful to try to settle, to start, those syllables that seem most clearly stressed, to, you know, identify where there isn’t question; and use that then as a structure from which to interpret the rest of the lines.

So, why don’t we do that together? Just looking at this first line: “When I see birches bend to left and right.” “When I see birches bend to left and right.” “When I see birches bend to left and right.” And sometimes it’s not good to repeat it too often; then you start to become unhinged. Let’s see if we can’t identify those syllables that we all are going to agree on. Where’s the first accent that you really want to say, “that’s an accent”? “I.” “Birches.” “Bend.” “Left.” “Right.” Debate there? Anybody want to propose another stress in that line? Yes? There’s a stress on “when” and “see.” But what if I had the phrase, “I see”? What would be stressed in that phrase, “I see”? “See.” That’s true. “When I see birches bend to left and right.” I think I would want to scan that line as a bit of an odd beginning. I think that word “see” deserves the accent there, and so it’s – the first unit of sound isn’t quite normative. It takes Frost a little sweep to get going. “When I see birches bend to left and right.” But by the time we finish the end of that line, we are really right in the middle of very regular iambic pentameter.

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

“Across the lines of straighter darker trees.” Let’s do “the lines of straighter darker trees.” Let’s do that line. Accents here? “Cross.” “Lines.” “Straight.” “Trees.” Yes, that one’s pretty simple. Thank you Frost, you have delivered this to us. And as is not often the case – excuse me, as is not seldom the case in Frost – there is almost a kind of metaphorical play between what he’s describing and the sounds with which he is doing the describing. Here, this image of the lines of trees and the metrical regularity of that verse that describes them. “I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.” “I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.” Yes, what about this line? “I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.”

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Langdon Hammer: The point is that “swing” has some interesting swinging effect. Yes, I’m not sure how to describe that exactly. Yes, we want to put a stress on “swing.” What other words in that line? I’m sorry, “think”? Good. “Like,” yes. “I like” is like “I see.” “I like to think some boy’s,” “swing,” “them.” Yes, this, too, is an utterly regular iambic pentameter line: unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, five in a row.

And, yet, think about the qualities of sound that are so different between “across the lines of straighter darker trees” and “I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.” What Frost is interested in is what, really, ultimate variety of sounds he is able to produce as that metrical pattern comes into some kind of tension with English sentence sounds, as he calls them, with the effect that each of Frost’s lines of iambic pentameter has different qualities, even when they’re utterly regular. And there are, in Frost, often some variations. This is something I’d like you to practice, I’d like you to think about, be conscious of, and it’s something we can return to. It’s not something I expect you to necessarily master or become advanced in your expertise, but it is a dimension of the poetry that’s absolutely essential to what it is and to what you’re doing when you read and you hear that voice speaking. And so, I’d like you to work on attuning yourselves to it.

What can you do with sound as interpreters? How do we start to make a connection between what we hear and what things mean? Well, in Frost’s case, as I’m suggesting, there’s often very skillful and complex imitation going on between Frost’s sounds and what he’s imaging or describing or the actions and events in the poem. That’s the case marvelously in this poem, and I’d be happy to talk about particular examples with any of you who’d like to work through it. But the point I want to make about it is much more general and we don’t have to look at particular cases to make it. This is a poem about bending and breaking, or not breaking, forms – forms, the material givens of the world. It’s a poem, in fact, about strained relation in a kind of play that Frost is exploring, and that strained relation that the boy achieves as he learns how to play with these trees.

Well, that’s a version of what we hear in the poem when we hear the forms of strained relation between Frost’s dynamic speech sounds and the metrical pattern of his writing. The kinetic activity of the form of the poem, in other words, is something that’s like, but it’s also itself for Frost, an instance of the relations of force and counter-force, desire and gravity, that the poem is describing. The meter has, in other words, in relation to his individual sentence sounds, some of the flexibility and also resistance that those trees have in relation to the boy using them to swing; to swing, to go up and down; to come and go safely. These are primal forms of play, if you like, that suggest forms of poetic activity; also, spiritual activity. Frost’s ways of using language in short are like – are versions of the boy’s way of using the trees.

Let’s look at the poem together. I’ll read it.

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. [Frost is going to counter-pose the boy’s swinging to
the natural forces imaged in the ice storm.]
Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow crust –
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter of fact about the ice storm,
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows –
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile,
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

So, think about the birches as a tool, another tool, but this time a tool for play, a tool for playing alone. As in “Mowing,” Frost is writing about solitude, an essential loneliness. The boy’s solitude is like the mower’s. Who’s absent? Well, other children. The other character that’s mentioned in the poem is the boy’s father, whose trees they are, the property owner, who also is absent. It’s his absence that leaves the boy alone to his own devices. We might think of him not simply as the farmer who holds the deed to those birches but as maybe God the Father, who created them, and is likewise absent or invisible.

In the solitude, the solitude of that absence, the boy uses the tree to work his will playfully. This time, he’s not really a worker – to work his will on the world. And the boy uses the trees to do two things, right: to go up, or go out, and come back, to return. This activity in a wonderful homely way is a version of romance quest. It’s an image of ascent toward heaven, from which the boy returns. He’s able to rise, to transcend the limits of his own body and station. At the same time it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous to want to get away from earth awhile, to get your feet entirely off the ground. What might happen to you? Well, to put too much pressure on any tool is to risk breaking it – breaking down maybe, crashing, coming back to earth like Icarus, the over-reacher. The poet, after all, is subject to gravity in Frost, to the force of the earth. That checks. It’s a counter-weight to Frost’s romantic longing. The skill and the play that Frost is talking about depend on being able to use the tool – in this case the tree, emblematic of the world in its sturdy but also delicate materiality – to use the tool to return safely to the ground to get your feet back on the ground. For “earth’s the right place for love,” Frost says. It’s love that makes the boy climb, as it made the mower work, remember?

But who was talking about love? It’s the – Frost is so sly. He brings it up as if we know that this is what he’s been talking about all the time. Notice, in fact, the cleverness of all this discourse in the poem! Notice the freedom that he exercises in unfolding what feels like an improvisatory monologue in which he makes you race to keep up with him as he follows a semi-hidden logic that he treats as self-evident. Notice that final colloquial phrase, “to go.” He repeats it twice. “I don’t know where it’s” – love – “likely to go better,” and then, “I’d like to go by climbing a [birch] tree.” A wonderful phrase, “to go,” meaning what? A variety of things: “to go” in the sense of to make something work out, to make it go, to journey, to choose how to live, to go to the limit, where the tool can bear no more. Yes. And people use that phrase, too, to mean “to die,” don’t they? You know, “I’d like to go in this way”; all those resonances in those two words.

On Monday I stressed that poetry was, for Frost, always a mode of work, and that work was for him a model of poetic activity. With “Mowing” as the example, I said that in Frost, meaning is always something made, something the poet works on and works for. Frost’s modernity consists in that: the idea that truth is something that’s concrete and contingent, not a metaphysical matter, not an ideal principle, and that it’s something that’s only available in the act of deriving it, constructing it; an act that is ordinary, that’s not capable of being completed and therefore necessarily always to be repeated; an ongoing task, something you have to get up and do every day. Frost is a kind of materialist, by which I mean he calls attention to the circumstances of imagination, its limits and conditions.

Poetry is, in Frost, an encounter between fact and desire: what we want and what is. Tools, in Frost, are an image of the enabling and defining conditions of imagination, and they include in the work of poetry itself all sorts of tools, all the technology of language and the technology, in particular, of verse, including, importantly, meter. The relation between the speech sounds and the metrical frame of a poem, such as “Birches” – it’s like the relation, as I’m saying, between the boy and the birches. In other words, meter is something Frost knows how to use. It’s a material force that his rhetoric challenges and relies on, gives him a means of getting off the ground, and a means of always getting back to it, too. And that’s another kind of doubleness in Frost. I talked about doubleness last time. Think, in “Birches,” of really the extraordinary play of language, the freedom of association, the metaphorical invention – all of which is being played off of the strict demands of the meter, at every moment. It’s part of the energy and force of the poem. The work of poetry in Frost, really the high drama of the will at work in the world, is something that we can actually hear in his poetry, in the expertly explored tensions between speech and meter.

In that meter, too, we’re hearing some of Frost’s modernity. Let me say more about what I mean. Let me say more about what I mean by approaching the question of his modernness, his modernity, from the point of view of his subjects. Last time I showed you his second book and its cover, North of Boston. The title of that book, published in 1914, and the one that more than any other made him famous, locates his subjects in a specific geography. It’s important for thinking about Frost’s place in modern poetry. Boston, well, it was the capital of nineteenth-century American literature and culture, a name synonymous, eventually, with gentility, Puritanism, old American money and style; exactly, in other words, everything modernism was attacking.

Chapter 3. Where Did Frost Go to Write Poetry? [00:27:33]

So, where do you go to write modern poetry? Well, anywhere but Boston. Pound and Eliot importantly go to London, Paris. There’s the New York of Crane, of Moore, of Stevens, too. But Frost says differently. He alone moves poetry north of Boston. To do this is to reverse the social direction in which everyone else is going, to reverse the direction of American modernization, which is evacuating rural New England, sending its workers to the cities in the new industrial economy. You can think about Crane’s images of the Brooklyn Bridge in this course and then compare Frost’s image of the woodpile – that abandoned woodpile that some worker has left in the poem called “The Woodpile.” These are, in a sense, complementary images of the modern in America. Frost, when he goes north of Boston, goes back to the country, goes in, in a sense, the opposite direction that America is going. He goes in a sense in an anti-modern direction, maybe even in some sense in a reactionary direction, at least in relation to other poets’ ideas of progress and innovation.

This move roots Frost’s poetry of work in the lives of rural workers, people who have to sustain and entertain themselves, often on their own or alone. What these people have to work with are the tools that have been passed down to them, or sometimes that they have invented. The poverty of the people Frost writes about is important. It makes them materialists, too, or realists, like Frost. They are acutely conscious of the circumstances in which they live their lives. And they suffer, they rage. Their New England, importantly, is not an ideal, pastoral place. The heart of North of Boston is a series of dramatic monologues and dialogues, speeches and conversations for people who really had never spoken or never spoken very much in modern – excuse me, in American poetry before and who, in Frost, speak in a wholly distinctive way: that is, in Frost’s combination of colloquial sentence sound and unrhymed iambic pentameter. Blank verse: it is the heroic language of Shakespeare, of Milton, of Wordsworth. “The Death of the Hired Man,” “Home Burial,” “A Servant to Servants,” “The Fear” – these are poems in which Frost is giving New England workers the language of the great English poets.

Chapter 4. Robert Frost Poem: “Home Burial” [00:30:56]

I’ve been stressing Frost’s solitude. Well, all the people Frost writes about are in some sense alone, often alone together. They share solitude, solitary, too, in their relation to each other. Frost as a narrator, in these great poems I’m describing, frames his people’s words minimally, with few bits of narrative information. He just sort of plunges you into their speech, into their lives, and you have to, in a sense, work to get into their character to be able to keep track of who is speaking.

Let’s look at what is, for me, the most gripping example of this kind of poem: “Home Burial,” on page 204. Giving us little introduction, little framing, and no consoling closure really, where the moral might come in another poet, Frost creates a kind of uncomfortable intimacy for us with his characters where we’re challenged by them, we’re brought up close to them. Look at “Home Burial” here.

He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him. [And that’s a kind of emblematic moment in Frost
where one person is, in a sense, seeing another without being seen.]
She was starting down,
Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.
She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again. He spoke
Advancing toward her: “What is it you see
From up there always? – for I want to know.” [This is another important
Frostian motivation, “for I want to know”; here, a desire expressed
between two people, a husband and a wife.]
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that, [as if collapsing]
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time: [And isn’t that an interesting phrase, “to gain time”?]
“What is it you see?”
Mounting until she cowered under him. [For he is fearful, or fearsome.]
“I will find out now – you must tell me, dear.”
She, in her place, refused him any help,
With the least stiffening of her neck in silence.
She let him look, sure that he wouldn’t see,
Blind creature; and awhile he didn’t see.
But at last he murmured, “Oh,” and again, “Oh.”
“What is it – what?” she said.
“Just that I see.” “You don’t,” she challenged. “Tell me what it is.

Put it into words. What does he see? Well, “The wonder is I didn’t see at once” and that is the grave that he has made for their child. In those blocks of speech there’s, importantly – there’s white space around what they have to say. It’s almost a way of inviting us to visualize the separation of these two people as they speak. And as we read, we have to fill in the nature of their relationship. Here, well, people are locked into themselves in Frost and in their points of view. Here, the issue in this poem is grief, how the mother and father each express how they deal with the death of their child. Simply where and how they stand in relation to each other as they speak is important. The woman, the mother, wishes to – can’t help herself from trying to hold on to the dead child, and she’s caught looking behind her as if towards the past, which is also, frankly, a wish to escape her husband who is a frightening force, to escape his will, I think. His will, his force – these are his ways, his resources for responding to death.

The woman’s objection, as the poem unfolds, is summed up by his choice, the father’s choice, to bury the child himself. He responds to this grievous loss privately by taking it on himself, by seeking to master it himself, and specifically as a worker. And the grim tool, if you like, of his mourning is his spade, the shovel he uses to do the burying. On page 206, she says, well, “There you go sneering now!” And he says:

“I’m not, I’m not!
You make me angry. I’ll come down to you.
God, what a woman! And it’s come to this,
A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead.” “You can’t [speak] because you don’t know how to speak. [She says.]
“If you had any feelings, you that dug
With your own hand – how could you? – his little grave;
I saw you from that very window there,
Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.

Well, the father in “Home Burial” is a worker, a worker there in those lines reduced to this tool that he’s using, almost mechanically, that makes the dirt leap; a kind of desperate mechanism that’s trying to take control of the world and failing as he, well, she says to him, and this chills her:

“I can repeat the very words you were saying:
‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.’
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!”

But in fact, in his own way, he’s talking about his inability to keep his child alive there; in a kind of metaphorical way, speaking of his failure to build a fence to last. And it drives his wife ultimately, disgusted by him, away, fearing him.

Well, “Home Burial” is a poem about the limits of work, the inability of the worker to bring a knowable world, a safe world, into being. There is in Frost no God, no transcendental source of guidance or consolation, nothing out there in the world but the material conditions of our circumstances. Over and over again in Frost poems, you see speakers, you see the poet himself, wanting to know; and wanting to know means pressing towards some revelation, towards some sense of the meaning of things, a search for some kind of presence behind the way things are. That is the subject of the great sonnet “Design.” Also, in a very different mood, the poem “For Once, Then, Something.” It’s also the subject of “Neither Out Far nor In Deep,” which I asked you to read for today and is on page 220. I won’t read it since we’re running a little short of time. The people on the shore that Frost describes there looking out to sea – they’re watching for something. But is there anything to watch for? Is there anything coming? No, it doesn’t appear so. But as he asks at the end, “… when was that ever a bar / to any watch they keep?” In these poems, well, when Frost does give us images of God or some informing presence, that presence is imagined negatively, to be, well, as a kind of malevolence perhaps, to be inferred from the arbitrariness and cruelness of nature’s destructive force of the conditions of life of the people Frost is describing.

So, if in Frost you can’t look to God for it, what kind of hope can be offered? How can you save your soul? This is a question Frost is interested in. In his own ways, he’s interested in redemption – an important word for Stevens. To conclude, let me look quickly with you at two great late poems. One on page 222 is called “Provide, Provide.” I’ll read this.

The witch that came (the withered hag)
To wash the steps with pail and rag
Was once the beauty Abishag, The picture pride of Hollywood.
Too many fall from great and good
For you to doubt the likelihood. Die early and avoid the fate.
Or if predestined to die late,
Make up your mind to die in state. Make the whole stock exchange your own!
If need be, occupy a throne,
Where nobody can call you crone. Some have relied on what they knew,
Others on being simply true.
What worked for them might work for you. No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard. Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!

And in some recordings Frost then says, “… or somebody’ll provide for ya.” It’s a very funny poem, and you’ve got triplet rhymes there to make sure you know that Frost is joking, and it feels like light verse. But, of course, what are we laughing at? Public achievement, moral stature – they’re of no use. The end is hard and it’s going to be hard, no matter how you come to it. So, you better look out for number one. This is good, old-fashioned American wisdom. What is scathing about it is that Frost gives up all justification for self-interest. There’s no argument for it except self-interest itself. And then, Frost says, even that won’t work. The choice is a terrifying one of no friendship and “boughten friendship,” which really isn’t friendship at all. In short, the only thing to do in life is to provide, and provide is just what you cannot ever adequately do, as the husband in “Home Burial” knows. This is a poem written in the depth of the Depression and also at the height of Frost’s fame. You could see the kind of grim refusal to apologize for “boughten friendship,” as a kind of, well, as a kind of apology for his own popular success.

Chapter 5. Robert Frost Poem: “Directive” [00:45:21]

Let me conclude by just pointing to another poem, a late poem, “Directive,” a poem published in 1947. It’s on the page following. A poem published after the Second World War, written about the post-war world. It begins by, in a sense, rehearsing or taking us back to Frost’s own initial move north of Boston.

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house…

And that is where he’s going to take us in the poem. You can see that house as, in a sense, a version of the home in “Home Burial.” Frost describes it here, movingly, as, well, an image of a home that is lost, of a home that has failed. And, yet, Frost’s attention is drawn, interestingly, to a playhouse that is part of that household. He says in the middle of the poem on page 225:

First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house…

And so on. At the end of the poem, here, Frost gives us, however, a kind of alternative to this image of the failure of the home and the failure of the worker’s life, in our own imaginative access to a spring, a source, above the house that was the water of the house that nurtured it, that was its refreshment. He says:

Your destination and your destiny’s
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring, as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.

I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved as Saint Mark says they mustn’t. [And there he
sounds like a child, doesn’t he?]
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

There, the goblet, the tool that Frost comes to is a – it’s a tool from romance quest. It’s the Grail; it’s the cup of the Last Supper. But what is it? It’s, in fact, a broken goblet from the children’s playhouse. Frost returns us there to the early sources of imagination in children’s play, and it gives us, at least imaginatively in this shared journey with him, access to a kind of primal refreshment, what he calls our “waters” and our “watering place.” It’s a disillusioned and self-consciously ironic promise of salvation, of wholeness. But it’s still a promise, and it’s a promise of the powers of imagination and of poetry, and of poetry made out of play, of a child’s play.

Well, that’s a good place to stop. Next week we will go to work on William Butler Yeats.

[end of transcript]

– –

Credits:

“Provide, Provide” and “Out, Out – ” from THE POETRY OF ROBERT FROST edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1916, 1969, copyright 1964 by Lesley Ballantine, copyright 1936, 1944 by Robert Frost. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

This material is not licensed under a Creative Commons license. Users must seek permission to use such third-party materials directly from the publisher or estate, as appropriate.

0

Modern Poetry ENGL 310 – Lecture 2 – Robert Frost

Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 – Lecture 2 – Robert Frost

Chapter 1. Introduction: Robert Frost [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: I imagine that you all have images of Robert Frost and actual images in your mind when you think of this poet. He’s a familiar face in American literature, and I’ve gathered some of them that seemed representative. This is Frost in old age, as an American bard from a magazine. This is the Frost that you probably know, as if he were born with white hair, right? And a kind of, well, kindly and monumental, and yet approachable figure that is familiar from American school rooms. Here’s another image of that same guy, Robert Frost, painted by Gardner Cox, reminding us of Frost as a kind of link to nineteenth-century life, to rural Vermont. Another image of Frost, this one from The Times, just a little story: “President Hails Bond With Frost” – that president would be John F. Kennedy – “On TV He Extols Poet Who Calls New Frontier ‘Age of Poetry and Power.’” And perhaps you have seen images of Frost reading his poem, “The Gift Outright,” at Kennedy’s inauguration. It was a kind of powerful moment in American culture where the president allied himself with poetry in this way.

Oh, more pictures. This is Frost with grandchildren, Frost with his pet calves. He was kind to animals, and a farmer. This one I like. This is Frost with a stick, or Frost with a branch. You can think about that when you read “Birches.” This is Frost boyish, even in age, Frost who also likes to play and even who looks just a little bit, don’t you think, malevolent? All of these images would seem to make Frost not a modern poet at all, not a modern poet in the sense that Eliot and Pound established; that is, a difficult poet in ways that I suggested last Wednesday, a poet resistant to ordinary language and common frames of reference, formally innovative, disorienting, urbane, metropolitan. I think of nineteenth-century art as being horizontal and stretched out like agricultural life in New England. And modernism is all about verticality, from a certain angle. This was the Stieglitz picture, City of Ambition, I showed you last Wednesday. Another pairing, this wonderful landscape by Martin Johnson Heade, and we could contrast it with these images of Brooklyn Bridge by Walker Evans, or even underneath the bridge. The bridge seems to – a figure of crossing – it seems here to rise up and out of the city and the river.

This is Frost before he had white hair, Frost at 18, which is, I believe, 1892 or so: boyish. And his first book is entitled A Boy’s WillA Boy’s Will, Robert Frost. This is a cover of the first edition that you can go over to Beinecke and see. When you open it up and look at the table of contents, you see titles of poems, and underneath those titles are little legends and moralizations. “Into My Own” (title). “Legend”: “the youth is persuaded that he will be rather more than less himself for having foresworn the world.” Or “Storm Fear”: “he is afraid of his own isolation.” These are poems, in other words, that come with little labels to tell you what they mean and what they’re about.

Modernism in Eliot and Pound is, in some ways, founded on expatriation, on a kind of internationalism. Frost’s poetry seems resolutely American, or at any rate it seems to be. There is, in fact, another Frost, a modernist Frost, a Frost that is, in fact, as international as Pound and Eliot, who began his career, in fact, beside them, as a London expatriate.

This is more of the table of contents. You can see how it’s laid out. This is the Frost who published that book. This is Frost at thirty-nine, Frost in a suit made by a London tailor in London. And when we go to the title page of A Boy’s Will we see that this New England poet publishes his first book, in fact, in London in 1913, there on New Oxford Street. Interesting. North of Boston, a great book that follows A Boy’s Will, is a title that locates these poems in a specific place in northern New England. It, too, is published in London, this time on Bloomsbury Street. You don’t really think of Frost as part of Bloomsbury, do you? But there he is, publishing his book in that place, just like Prufrock, also published on Bloomsbury Street – this in 1917, North of Boston in 1915.

You remember that table of contents page I showed you a moment ago with the titles and the moralizations that Frost has for A Boy’s Will? Well, here’s the modernist table of contents of Prufrock, and of course, what would the legend for “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” be? “He wanders around in a melancholy way, quoting Hamlet for…” Well no, it – Eliot didn’t do that. When we look at the table of contents of this book, which is North of Boston, well, it looks a lot like Eliot’s. Those little tags that seemed to explain the poetry have disappeared and instead we simply have the titles of these very great poems: “Mending Wall,” “The Death of the Hired Man,” “The Mountain,” “Home Burial.” There’s something in Eliot’s – the presentation of Eliot’s work and indeed in the work itself that is affronting, resistant, impersonal. And the typography, the presentation of the book is part of that. It’s part of Eliot’s whole aesthetic. But North of Boston, well, you know, when we start looking at these two books together, it seems to share some of the properties of Eliot’s book; and indeed the poems that we find when we open that book also have things in common with Eliot’s. The other Frost, not the simple, familiar, monumental Frost but the Frost who is a modernist poet who begins writing in London, is really quite as cosmopolitan, quite as learned as Pound and Eliot at this moment. And yet he uses his learning differently. He uses it very often by concealing it, in fact.

Well, let me turn from pictures to text. On your handout today, the handout number two, we have – well, there are several quotations from Frost’s letters, and let’s look at the first one first. Frost says at the time that he’s publishing A Boy’s Will, to a friend:

You mustn’t take me too seriously if I now proceed to brag a bit about my exploits as a poet. There is one qualifying fact always to bear in mind: there is a kind of success called “of esteem” and it butters no parsnips. It means a success with a critical few who are supposed to know. But really to arrive where I can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else I must get outside that circle to the general reader who buys books in their thousands. I may not be able to do that. I believe in doing it – don’t you doubt me there. I want to be a poet for all sorts and kinds. I could never make a merit of being caviare to the crowd the way my quasi-friend Pound does. I want to reach out, and would if it were a thing I could do – if it were a thing I could do by taking thought. [Frost to John Bartlett, November 1913]

Frost wishes to be so subtle as to seem altogether obvious. It’s not just that he seems obvious but is really subtle. Rather, his subtlety shows itself in his deliberate concealment of it, in the ways in which he masks himself in obviousness. The problems that Frost’s poetry poses for us as readers are not problems of reference. They can’t be solved by footnotes. Compare the footnotes in the Frost poems to the footnotes in The Norton that you find next to Eliot or Pound’s poems. The problems that Frost poses are problems of interpretation, problems that provoke you to ask not, “what does he mean exactly?” but “how does he mean that?” Is he joking or is he serious? Is there something on his mind that he’s not saying? The wonder of Frost is really in his tone, his way of saying things without saying them in so many words.

Now, this guile of his, because that’s what it entails, this guile is something temperamental, I think. It came naturally to him. But it also reflects a specific literary situation. The popular, old-fashioned Frost and the elite, modern Frost – these roles point to a division in the audiences for poetry that emerges clearly in this period. The Frost who writes a familiar, crafted lyric that would have been easily recognizable as poetry, that we could give a little tag to after its title; well, contrast this with the poet of The Waste Land, say, whose work would not have been recognizable to many readers as poetry and indeed was not. On one level Frost was – spoke for and to an audience trained by the genteel poetry of late nineteenth-century America, readers who loved Longfellow, the Fireside Poets, poets who published in Victorian popular magazines and wrote those gilt-embossed books that cultured families kept behind glass bookcases and that you can still find at tag sales on New England greens. That’s the obvious Frost, the one that the subtle Frost in many ways constructed, aiming all the time not at a general reader at all but at an elite reader of the new tiny-circulation, Little Magazines where the work of Eliot, Williams, Stevens, Moore and others were first published; those magazines I showed you last week, magazines like Broom or Blast or Rogue or The Criterion.

There’s duplicity in Frost’s poetry, and there’s a certain doubleness in the figure that he projects as a poet. I like to think of his obsession with double meanings, which he has, as a way of responding to a division in culture, between popular and elite readers, a division that he saw as expressive of a division in American culture between money and esteem, business and art. In that quotation I read for you a few moments ago, Frost opposes two kinds of success: one of “esteem,” that success with a critical few that “butters no parsnips” – You can see he brings in the kind of folksy term to, well, to what? To disdain that kind of success or put it in its place. – and on the other hand, a success with the general reader who buys books in their thousands. Frost wanted both. The opposition is between poetry that makes money and poetry that, precisely because it is good poetry as modern poetry defines it, does not.

Notice that the latter kind of poetry, the good kind that “butters no parsnips,” is associated here with Frost’s “quasi-friend Pound.” Instead of butter, Pound writes “caviare” – kind of a European thing, right? Caviar. By contrast, Frost is declaring his ambition to reach out to a large audience. It is for Frost a frankly economic ambition. By becoming a poet for all sorts and kinds, Frost intends, as he says, to arrive “where I can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else…” This is ambition for a career, but it’s also a desire for personal autonomy. For Frost, poetry is invested with a longing for autonomy in, well, both simple and complex senses. He wants to use poetry to stand on his own two legs. He sees it specifically – and this is important – as a form of work that will allow him to be self-sufficient and self-determining.

Frost was born in 1874 into a working family. His father’s death, when Frost was a boy, represented, among other things, an economic crisis for his family. Frost’s schooling was erratic. This is impressive: he dropped out of both Dartmouth and Harvard, and he did so to take laboring jobs, each time enacting a conflict between intellectual life and manual labor that would be a persistent and central theme of his poetry. He worked at all sorts of jobs: in factories, at a mill, on a newspaper. He was a schoolteacher, and of course he was a farmer, too, when his grandfather gave him a farm to work, which he did, for ten years in Derry, New Hampshire. It’s in fact at the end of this period that Frost moved himself and his family to England, in a last-ditch bid to make literary contacts and advance his career as a poet. It was first in England that Frost published the books that established his reputation as the pasture poet of New England, a poet whose authority seemed to rest on his being rooted in his region. Once he returned to New England in 1916, after North of Boston, success followed on success. Poetry was a way for Frost out of manual labor but it was also a form of work for Frost that was opposed to manual labor. It was an escape from it, a way of transcending it, but also in many ways allied to it – valuable because it could be a form of productive labor, something he could use to “butter his parsnips.”

Chapter 2. Robert Frost Poem: “Mowing” [00:19:21]

These concerns that I’m laying out all inform his poetry. They structure Frost’s work as a poet and his ongoing inquiry into that work. Frost poems perform a kind of phenomenology of work, of labor. They say what it is like to work at something. In so doing, they are always also brooding on what it is like to read and write poems. This is the case with “Mowing,” which is in your packet from RIS, and is an example of one of these Frostian poems about work. Let me read it for you.

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound –
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

This is a monologue by a worker, a mower. It is a sonnet, too. It’s a sort of song of a worker. Notice that Frost is interested at once in the presence of a sound, the sound of a solitary worker, or, to be more precise, the sound of the tool of the worker. The sound is the sign of his work. And it raises a specifically interpretive question: what is the message of the work that the man does? What is it saying? What is its meaning? “What was it it whispered?”

Beside this one of many tools in Frost, I asked you to pay attention to tools in his poetry as you read it over the weekend. To work in Frost is to use a tool. Tools mediate the worker’s relation to the world. It’s what the worker uses to do things and to make things. Things are not “made up” in Frost, “not made up” in the sense of imagined, called up out of thin air, like fairies and elves. Instead, things in Frost are “made” in the sense of “constructed.” They’re the products of specific acts, of the acts of a worker. Think of other tools in those poems. There’s the spade in “Home Burial,” the spade that’s used to bury the couple’s little child. I’ll talk more about that poem next time. There’s the ladder to heaven in “After Apple-Picking.” It’s a ladder used to ascend a tree, it’s a kind of tool of ascent that’s a kind of a tool for getting fruit. And then there’s the terrible chainsaw in Out, Out – .” In “Mowing,” the scythe makes a sound as it cuts, and that sound is delicate, it’s quiet, it whispers. But cutting is something fearful and forceful; it’s a kind of controlled violence. Frost takes it for granted that we will remember that the scythe is a conventional image for time, which harvests all of us in death. Time and death – these are the forces that the worker works against and tries to marshal in the process of working his will in the world, to make his way in it, to earn his living, to stand on his own two feet.

But these forces are not something that the man controls as a simple extension of himself. Tools in Frost are tricky. You have to learn how to use them. They have in Frost a kind of independent, objective existence.

Chapter 3. Robert Frost Poem: “Out, Out – ” [00:25:13]

Remember “Out, Out – .” If you look on page 213 in your Norton, well, I’ll read from the middle of the poem. A boy is out sawing:

His sister stood beside them [ – the group. He’s not alone, he’s with
others.] in her apron
To tell them “Supper.” At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap –
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand,
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all –
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart –
He saw all spoiled. “Don’t let him cut my hand off –
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!”
So. But the hand was gone already.

And the boy dies. It’s an extraordinarily powerful poem. This saw, rather than whispering, snarls and rattles. Ultimately, it takes the life of the worker. It reminds the worker that it has the power of death, the force that the worker only accesses through the tool. Although Frost’s tools give the worker a way to impose his will on the world, the tool is part of the object world and it declares here brutally and cruelly that the worker’s will is limited and subject to the tools he uses.

Chapter 4. Verbal Sounds, Metaphorical Associations and the Suggestive Choice of Words [00:27:19]

In “Mowing,” the poem’s lines are like sweeps of the scythe as it lays down rows of swale. Frost wants us to think about that. He wants us to see the row, the harvested rows as being like lines of verse. It’s an ancient association from classical poetry. The word “swale” is interesting. You hear in it the s and the w, the two key sounds of this poem, which are the sounds of the whispering scythe. Frost loves verbal sounds and he loves to play with their metaphorical associations. He invites us to hear the sweep of the scythe in those s sounds themselves, I think, and maybe even to hear the workers huff and puff, his rhythmic exhalation in the w’s, which alternate and interact with those s’s.

The whisper of the scythe then. This is what the poem is all about. The whisper is not, Frost specifies, a “dream of the gift of idle hours.” Poetry is not, that is to say, a leisure class activity. Frost is writing against the Romantic idea that poetry is written in repose, received passively as inspiration. Poetry, in Frost, is action, not a matter, as Wordsworth would say, of emotion recollected in tranquility. Frost is also here specifically writing against the early poetry of Yeats, which you’ll read next week, poetry that finds reality exactly in “dream,” and that has plenty of fairies and elves in it. Frost is not after “easy gold” but rather hard-earned wages.

“Dream”: here Frost implies that it is something, “dream” is something more than the truth. He has that phrase, “Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak / to the earnest love that laid the swale in rows.” That’s an interesting phrase, “more than the truth.” Why not “less”? Why isn’t “dream” less than the truth? Frost has made a suggestive choice of words. Truth is something less than dream, in Frost. Truth is life-sized. To get down to it, you have to cut away what is not true, what is inflated, beside the point, excess, ornament. The truth is something that you get down to. The truth is a reduction, a simplification. It is what is fit for the earnest love that is working for truth.

“Love”: this is a crucial word in Frost. You don’t think of Frost as a love poet. There are love poems in Frost. And yet even apart from those there are many poems that use that word “love,” often in crucial places in the poems. In fact, love and desire are really at the center of Frost’s poetry. So far, I’ve been stressing a kind of anti-Romantic side of Frost, how he seems to be saying, “Nothing but the facts, please.” “But the fact,” he says in that next to last line, “is the sweetest dream” of labor, and it is earnest love that is doing this cutting. Labor loves; labor dreams. When we look carefully at this poem, in fact, the distinction that Frost seems to make between fact and dream starts to give way.

Let me go back to the sound of this work. “What was it it whispered?” Note Frost’s use of words like “something” and “perhaps.” These are words you’re not supposed to use in poems or in even writing about poems. In Frost, there is here this explicit, deliberate, calculated vagueness, a withholding of certainty that allows a range of possible meanings to be entertained, held open. It’s a rhetorical and conceptual move that I think is analogous to the whispering of the scythe. What I mean is that this tool doesn’t speak loudly; it whispers, and you have to lean forward to hear it. The same is true with the poem, with any Frost poem – except that line 13 seems to violate that, it seems to violate that principle. “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” Well, here Frost seems to be spelling things out, making a declaration, making a statement, saying what the fact is, and seeming to celebrate the literal: “the fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.”

Importantly, though, that’s not the last thing the poem says. What difference would it make had Frost, as he could have, I suppose, reversed the order of lines 13 and 14? Line 13 stands out, as if almost – as if out of the poem, as if out of time, as a kind of fact or truth, a fixed principle that is stated in a kind of eternal present – “the fact is” – like no other sentence in this poem. Had Frost decided to end the poem there, he would have said, or seemed to be saying, “This is what it’s all about.” It would be like one of those morals following the titles of his poem. But in fact, he doesn’t end there. He doesn’t make so clear a declaration.

Line 14 returns us to the work of mowing. “My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make” returns us to the work of mowing and the work of reading and interpretation and deciphering. The poem ends with an image of process, and not of product, an image of the process of labor. The implication is that it is the same way for the poet who lays his words in rows, in those rows of swale that are his lines of verse. The hay, that is, well, what? The payoff, what the poem is all about, what mowing is all about. The hay isn’t handed over to you. It’s rather “left… to make.” That’s a rich phrase.

What Frost gives you here and elsewhere is a poetry that leaves its meanings to make, all the time. Frost’s poetry is engaged in construing, constructing, constituting facts, which means it doesn’t give us the truth as if it were a product, a fashioned object; rather, it gives us a process, an act of fashioning, an act that is involved with dreams and desire and with love. Facts are made and not found in Frost’s poetry of work. And this is to say that the process by which facts are made is, well, it’s like work and is therefore, well, it’s something daily, ordinary, ongoing; and for these reasons incapable of completion. It’s something that we have to do over and over again, that is, making up the world. “Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.” Stevens said that, but Frost could have said it, too. Meaning in Frost poems, as in the world that they evoke, has to be interpreted every day. It has to be in that sense worked for again and again.

Chapter 5. Metrical Pattern [00:36:56]

Well, let me use this poem as a way into now talking about sound in more actual, more literal ways in Frost’s poetry and to begin with you to think a little bit about meter, in fact, and what Frost does with it. Let me go back to the handout where we’ve got more passages from Frost’s letters, and in particular what Frost has to say about something he calls “the sound of sense”; although he says in that first quotation that, well, he doesn’t like to brag.

I alone of English writers have consciously set myself to make music out of what I may call the sound of sense. [This is an ambitious guy.] Now, it is possible to have sense without the sound of sense (as in much prose that is supposed to pass muster but makes very dull reading) and the sound of sense without sense (as in Alice in Wonderland, which makes anything but dull reading). [This is a wonderful metaphor.] The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words…. [Understand what Frost means? He wants us to think about how we could understand what people are saying without taking in the words that they’re using, simply by catching the tones and rhythms of their exchanges. … The sound of sense, then. You get that. It is the abstract vitality of our speech. It is pure sound – pure form. One who concerns himself with it more than the subject is an artist. But remember we are still talking merely of the raw material of poetry. An ear and an appetite for these sounds of sense is the first qualification of a writer, be it of prose or verse. But if one is to be a poet he must learn to get cadences by skillfully breaking the sounds of sense with all their irregularity of accent across the regular beat of the metre. Verse in which there is nothing but the beat of the metre furnished by the accents of the polysyllabic words we call doggerel. Verse is not that. Neither is it the sound of sense alone. It is the resultant from those two. There are only two or three metres that are worth anything. We depend for variety on the infinite play of accents, in the sound of sense. [Frost to John Bartlett, July 1913]

Frost’s “sound of sense,” the abstract vitality of our speech. It has to do exactly with how people say what they say. These are dimensions of communication that I’ve been identifying in “Mowing” with the whisper of the scythe, that is, a tone of meaning or a way of meaning. “The sound of sense.” It represents common and vernacular elements of speech. The sounds of sense are all part of language in use, which people are using to do things with. But, Frost stresses, poetry is not only that; it’s something more. It’s the sound of sense, as he says, broken – and that’s another interesting metaphor – it’s broken, he says, skillfully across the beat of the meter. Meter is something regular; it’s a fixed scheme; it’s inflexible, as Frost conceives of it here. The speaking voice, by contrast, is something idiosyncratic, irregular, particular.

In the second quotation, or rather the last on the page but the second one about the subject, Frost says:

My versification seems to bother people more than I should have expected [because he seemed to ears tutored in nineteenth-century norms to have a kind of rough and irregular metric] – I suppose because I have been so long accustomed to thinking of it in my own private way. It is as simple as this: there are the very regular pre-established accent and measure of blank verse [blank verse, that is – and I’ll explain it – unrhymed iambic pentameter]; and there are the very irregular accent and measure of speaking intonation. I am never more pleased than when I can get these into strained relation. [Frost wants to create a sound effect of strained relation in his poetry, a strained relation between speech and meter.] I like to [and again the same word] drag and break the intonation across the meter as waves first comb and then break stumbling on the shingle [and now I’m writing a poem, it seems]. That’s all [he says,] but it’s no mere figure of speech though one can make figures enough about it [and in fact, you can see Frost doing that in his poetry very often]. [Frost to John Cournos, July 1914]

“Strained relation,” this tension between speech and pattern, suggests the tension between all sorts of contending forces in Frost: the vernacular and the literary, the concrete and the abstract; flux, fixity; the individual will and material fact. The special sound of Frost’s poems result from the tensions between these pairs of opposing forces as they are embodied in his language.

To approach this, you’ll need to know a little bit about meter. In fact, a rough grasp on traditional English meter is essential to Frost and it’s also important to other poets we’ll read – to Stevens, say, or to Crane, or to Auden or Bishop. Obviously, these are poets who work usually in quite traditional meters. And yet, it’s also important for reading Pound and for reading Eliot and for reading Moore, who sound the way they do partly because they make a point of not writing pentameter, the meter that Frost often, but not always, chooses. How many of you know what iambic pentameter is? Don’t be shy. Okay. I’m going to spend a little bit of time at the beginning of class next time talking about it and working with you a little bit as we read Frost and in particular we can use the poem “Birches” to do that.

Don’t be distressed if you’re unfamiliar with it. Knowing what iambic pentameter is, is not a gift of birth, but rather something that comes through a little bit of practice, which means we have to work at it a little bit. And I will, in order to enable you to do that, give you a – or actually ask the TFs [teaching fellows] in section to hand out a meter exercise that you can do for next week. When you leave today, I would like to collect cards, just to figure out how many of us there are, and as I say, on Wednesday, between the online registration and our work on it in class, we should be able to get our sections ordered. So, see you on Wednesday.

[end of transcript]

– –

Credits:

“Provide, Provide” and “Out, Out – ” from THE POETRY OF ROBERT FROST edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1916, 1969, copyright 1964 by Lesley Ballantine, copyright 1936, 1944 by Robert Frost. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

This material is not licensed under a Creative Commons license. Users must seek permission to use such third-party materials directly from the publisher or estate, as appropriate.

0

Modern Poetry ENGL 310 – Lecture 24 – Elizabeth Bishop – YALE

Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 – Lecture 24 – Elizabeth Bishop

Chapter 1. Introduction: Elizabeth Bishop [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: Frost was born in 1879, I think; Hart Crane in 1899, representing almost another generation from Frost. Auden was born in 1906, Bishop in 1911. She’s the latest, the youngest on our syllabus and she’s almost two generations distant from Robert Frost.

When I was a freshman at Yale in 1976, in April, Elizabeth Bishop came to read at Yale. She’s, in a sense, a part of our world in a way that the poets that we’ve been reading really aren’t quite. She was good friends with John Hollander, Penelope Laurans, on our faculty, Sandy McClatchy and others. She filled the art gallery lecture hall – 400 people. And this was at a moment, interestingly, when she was not yet at the height of her fame. She would become by the end of the century a figure as prominent, as often read and widely read and esteemed, as any of the poets we’ve been reading, which is a remarkable event in literary culture because Bishop would have seemed, to herself and to others through the course of most of her career, as an interesting poet but not as a major figure. And surely, she was herself uncomfortable with that kind of stature.

She was, I think it’s fair to say, excruciated by public occasions, including this one that I’m referring to. Listen to her read. I think there are some recordings of her on the Center for Language Study website. Bishop has a kind of exaggeratedly ordinary voice, in a sense, a very private voice that she was willing to put on stage but always only uncomfortably. So, in this particular reading, I’m remembering she had read for about 20 minutes and then looked across the stage with these 400 people in front of her at her host, Penelope Laurans: “Is that enough Penny?” she said. And of course, people wanted a lot more and a lot more of her, but she was reluctant to give it and uncomfortable giving it.

Bishop, in a sense, belongs to poetry after modern poetry, poetry after modernism. In September, I’m going to give a lecture course on poetry after 1950, and we’ll start with Bishop and pay a lot more attention to her than we have room to do in this course. But Bishop belongs, too, in any history of modern poetry and she provides, I think, an important endpoint to the work that we’ve been doing together. She provides, in a sense, a kind of extension of certain strains of modern poetry and also at the same time a kind of critique of them.

Bishop went to Vassar and she was on the literary magazine there. In 1929, I think, she interviewed the important guest on the campus, T. S. Eliot. I would have liked to have been in the room. She wrote – well, I guess what I want to highlight is the fact that Bishop was in college reading Eliot and having Eliot visit when she was really forming herself as a writer. She wrote a paper for one of her courses called “Dimensions for a Novel,” and this essay involved a reading of Eliot’s essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which you’ve read and which we’ve talked about. Bishop liked it; she was interested in it. In her account of the way in which she uses Eliot, she accents certain aspects of his ideas and downplays others. Let me quote from that essay. She says – this is on your handout:

A constant process of adjustment [and that’s Eliot’s word, “adjustment”] is going on about the past – every ingredient dropped into it from the present must affect the whole. [You remember Eliot writing about that in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” where he talks about how new work reshapes everything that’s gone before.] Now what Mr. Eliot says about the sequence of works of art in a tradition, in history [and this is Bishop’s extension of Eliot’s idea] seems to be equally true of the sequence of events or even of pages or paragraphs in a novel…. but I know of no novel that makes use of this constant readjustment among the members of any sequence.

So, what Bishop’s doing is applying Eliot’s idea of sequence in tradition to the way in which a literary work might itself unfold; that is, where every, as it were, new moment in a novel – here she’s talking about a novel – affects a kind of readjustment of what’s gone on before. It is, as she’s imagining it, a literary form in which there is a kind of continual reorientation required by both reader and writer.

She takes over specifically that phrase “constant readjustment” and identifies this as a kind of poetics, if you will. This is really an important idea in modern poetry generally. And you could look at Eliot’s own poetry in, for example, “Prufrock” as exemplifying something of what Bishop is describing, that is, a poem that unfolds, disclosing at every point new principles of order and perspective. It’s an idea that is in that sense central to modern poetry, but Bishop takes it and she pushes it in her own work much further. She creates in her poetry a radically relative point of view that is adjusted to a kind of metamorphic and decentered world, as she sees it – a world that is living in change.

That phrase you might remember from the very end of “Primitive Like an Orb,” Stevens’s great, late poem. Bishop is, in many ways, a Stevensian poet, a poet of change, constant change. But significantly in Bishop’s imagination, as in Auden’s, there are no Stevensian giants, no major men, no large men reading. The poet in Bishop’s poetry describes the world rather than creates it. The poet is not like God as the poet is in Stevens. The poet is much more like an ordinary person, a woman on stage in a skirt, speaking uncomfortably, if you like, to a large audience in an ordinary voice. Her poetry is, in fact, full of ordinary people, and this links her to Frost.

There are generally few, oh, emblematic or archetypal figures such as you find in Yeats or in Moore’s poetry or often, for that matter, in Auden’s. There is in Bishop really no sublime, no Yeatsian ascent out of “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” There’s no Cranian verticality, no Icarus-like ascent of the sky. Instead, Bishop’s poetics of description are what I would call a kind of horizontal poetics that moves laterally, that is earthbound and is concerned with, in a sense – this is her primary recurrent trope – mapping the world, giving an account of the earth’s surface. It’s a perceptual poetics that she’s concerned with, something she calls “geography” or sometimes “travel.”

Chapter 2. Elizabeth Bishop Poem: “The Map” [00:11:09]

The poem that really inaugurates Bishop’s mature writing and that she placed first in her first volume of poetry, North and South, and that subsequently was placed first in all collected volumes of her poems is the poem called “The Map.” It’s a kind of preface to her work and it’s an inevitable place to start thinking about her. So, let’s look at it together. A poem written in – I believe at least begun New Year’s Eve, 1933 as Bishop left college. Maybe you seniors will write your own “Map” next year. She didn’t collect it in a book until 1946, which is her first book publication; like Stevens, like Frost, she’s slow to gather her first poems. The poem begins with a marvelous, limpid clarity.

Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?

It’s a deceptively declarative, flat voice, a voice of description. It is interestingly impersonal and intimate at once. It’s as if we were so close to her she need not introduce herself. We are invited to look over her shoulder with her at the map. She doesn’t, as I say, introduce herself or her subject really here. She just starts. The poem represents itself as happening now, as if it were recording the mind in action, a process, an action of perception.

The poem was gathered first for publication by Marianne Moore, who was Bishop’s friend and mentor – a friendship described in Bishop’s long, beautiful, funny memoir, “Efforts of Affection,” that I asked you to read when we were reading Moore; an essay that tells you a lot about Moore but also tells you a lot about Bishop. Moore, as her mentor, gathered this and two other poems and had it published in a volume in which an older poet presented a younger, as a teacher or mentor would present a protégé. Moore says about Bishop’s poems a number of interesting things. I’ve sampled just these sentences on your handout.

Some authors do not muse within themselves [but by contrast, Bishop does]; they [they, those other authors] “think” — like the vegetable-shredder which cuts into the life of a thing. Miss Bishop is not one of these frettingly intensive machines. Yet the rational considering quality in her work is its strength [the rational considering quality] — assisted by unwordiness, uncontorted intentionalness [phrases that only Marianne Moore could have produced], the flicker of impudence, the natural unforced ending.

These are important qualities of Bishop’s writing, although to highlight them is to risk a sort of misperception; that is, if Bishop presents herself as a kind of rational, considering intelligence in these poems, what she very rapidly uncovers is fantasy and the fantastic or fabulous or metaphorical. Just so, her poetry of perception and description rather than giving us a kind of poetics of objectivity that we might associate with Pound and Imagism, very quickly turns back on the perceiving subject to ask questions about the process of perception itself and to suddenly become a poetry very much about subjectivity. You can see this going on already in the lines that I’ve quoted here. Bishop no sooner says one thing than she elaborates it or questions it. “Shadows, or are they shallows,” she says. She’s formulated one idea, and then she asks a question about it, and then a further question about that. This is very much an image of, a poetics of a mind in action, a mind thinking. That is the drama that Bishop shares with us.

In another early statement, this in a letter to a poet, Donald Stanford, she quotes a literary critic on Baroque – that is, seventeenth-century – prose which she liked. And this quotation is also on your handout.

“Their [that is, the writers of Baroque prose] purpose was to portray, not a thought, but a mind thinking…. They knew that an idea separated from the act of experiencing it is not the idea that was experienced. The ardor of its conception in the mind [that’s my misprint] is a necessary part of its truth.”

The ardor of the conception in the mind is what Bishop wants. “Ardor” – that’s an important word. It suggests passion, a certain amount of heat, emotion, and heart. In Bishop’s case, this ardor is communicated sometimes through the deceptively cool manner of self-interrogation and in particular through the grammatical form of the question. Here in this very first paragraph of her poetry, Bishop is asking questions. There’s a kind of level of clarity and detail in her observations that makes what’s she’s looking at interestingly unstable and uncertain. She turns back on it, asks questions about it.

You could contrast Bishop’s questions with Yeats’s great rhetorical questions, a form that we stressed in reading “Leda and the Swan” and other late Yeats poems. In general, thinking about Bishop’s relationship to Yeats, you could say that romance quest, which is this essential structure that’s behind all of Yeats’s poetry, romance quest has come down in Bishop to the act of asking questions, raising questions, here in this poem and very frequently in other Bishop poems questions specifically about boundaries, about the way in which we categorize and frame the world, how we draw lines and separate and connect things at the same time. As we do, one thing seems to turn into another; opposites interact, opposites are involved.

Notice the pair of opposites that she’s stressing here. Land and water: these are primary categories that her poetry centers itself on over and over again. Bishop is a poet of the seashore. There are poems throughout her career that station themselves on the beach, in particular; a place of unstable, uncertain dynamic boundary. You can see the same kind of play of similarity and difference between terms in Bishop’s poetry on a formal level already working here in this first stanza. It is rhymed poetry, isn’t it? But what an interesting set of rhymes! Green, edges, ledges, green; under, itself, shelf, under. These are rhymes where it seems as though words are a little too close together. They’re repeated, “green,” or maybe a little too far apart.

In the second stanza then, the rhyme scheme gives way entirely. And this is like Bishop to set up one pattern and then drop it.

The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador’s yellow, where the moony Eskimo
has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,
under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,
or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.
The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
– the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.
These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.

Then the rhyme scheme returns, and, again, it’s a peculiar one that includes not just a rhyme but a repetition of particular words.

Mapped waters [she says] are more quiet than the land is,
lending the land their waves’ own conformation:
and Norway’s hare runs south in agitation,
profiles investigate the sea, where land is.
Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?
– What suits the character or the native waters best.
Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West.
More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.

It’s a poetry like aspects Yeats’s – no„ like aspects of Moore’s, that presents itself with a kind of resolute clarity and simplicity and lucidity of language that sometimes seems to feel like prose. There is a lyric power here but it’s got at through a language, again, close to that of ordinary life. As Bishop observes the boundaries that she’s talking about here – the sea and the shore – she’s also concerned with another set of opposed terms and ones that will follow her throughout her poetry; and that is the difference between the real and representation and the ways in which representation, that which is represented, can take on a certain kind of reality itself, as she fancifully allows the forms of the map to do here. The map really becomes a world and not only a representation of it, and the poet plunges really imaginatively into it – takes us with her, as she does, entering the versions of life that it suggests to her.

In that third stanza there, though, as she returns to that peculiar rhyme scheme, there’s a certain kind of holding back, a gathering of her intelligence in reflection on the process that she’s been engaged in. What emerges there is a kind of key idea, the one I’ve already mentioned, geography or topography here. Geography, topography: they display “no favorites.” They represent a poetics that is non-hierarchical in its orientation and, again, this is a link to Moore. Bishop is interested in a point of view that takes no sides, except to suggest, to insist on, the relativity of all cognitive categories. “North’s as near as West”: it always is, right? That is, it’s as near to the perceiver, whose perspective is constantly shifting, constantly readjusted.

I talked about perspectivism in Auden. Well, Bishop has a hold on the same idea and will make it even more central, make it more thematically central to her work than even Auden. The opposition that she ends with is the one between the historian and the mapmaker. She presents herself here clearly on the side of the mapmaker, one whose colors – colors of rhetoric – are more delicate than the historian’s and on the side of the historian; who could we place? Perhaps Yeats, perhaps Pound, perhaps Eliot; certainly Bishop’s great contemporary, Robert Lowell. Bishop presents herself as engaged in a poetics of geography and of mapmaking that is more delicate than that of the historian.

In that word, “delicacy,” there is certainly some implication of gender. The opposition between the mapmaker and the historian: well, it would be too simple to call it an opposition between woman and man, and yet gendered terms are there in Bishop’s language, I think. This poem, as I suggested, is composed in 1933 after Bishop has left Vassar and has made friends with Moore who will be a central figure in her life. If, in some sense, emotion might exceed its cause, might lead Bishop to get carried away, there were lots of reasons why this might be so.

Chapter 3. Elizabeth Bishop Poem: “The Gentleman of Shalott” [00:30:05]

Bishop grew up at first in Nova Scotia. She is a Canadian poet as much as an American poet – a poet of uncertain national identity, you might say. Her father died when, I believe, she was five. Her mother in grief went mad and was institutionalized, and Bishop was separated from her, so that she grew up very much as an orphan. Much has been made of her biography. I wouldn’t encourage you to because Bishop herself treats it as an important frame and resonance for her poetry, but not as a rule as its subject. There is, I think, simply the important point to be made that here is a poet who grew up with a certain primary sense of dislocation and disorientation, and an acute sense of divided identity: biographical facts that, in a sense, lead us very quickly into the ethical and cognitive problems that are central to Bishop’s work, and I think to this problem in particular: how do you hold yourself together? It’s an important one and one that we all in various ways struggle with.

Bishop finds various ways to raise that question, to figure it and explore it. One early, amusing, and suggestive instance is the poem called “The Gentleman of Shalott.” And I’d like to look at that with you to get a little more sense of Bishop’s poetics and some sense of her early self-conception as a poet. Remember the idea that she’s taken from Eliot: she wants to imagine a kind of writing that would include time in it, that would include change in it, and in which the organization of the whole would be constantly subject to readjustment; a text that would incorporate flux, a text that would be determined locally rather than by some global and general perspective.

The, I think, unstable orders of a poem like “Prufrock” are important for Bishop in that Prufrock is, in fact, a figure behind this one of Bishop’s, “The Gentleman of Shalott.” Bishop’s character is a kind of dandy, like Prufrock. Bishop is also at the same time playing with Tennyson and his poem, “The Lady of Shalott.” A kind of gender switch has occurred in Bishop’s poem. What does it mean? Well, I’ll leave you to ponder it, but I think that one way to understand her joke here – I’m not going to write about the lady of Shalott, I’m going to write about the gentleman of Shalott – one way to understand her joke here is to suggest that this poem is in part about what it means for Bishop to be a woman poet, and it implies that that meant for her a certain kind of gender switch, a sex change, and one that might introduce a certain amount of stress, as well as comedy. Well let’s listen to some of it.

Which eye’s his eye?
Which limb lies
next the mirror?

Her joke is that the gentleman of Shalott, like the lady of Shalott, is fixated on a mirror, but the mirror that is in place here is one that, as she’ll describe it, goes down the body, splits this figure, and creates a kind of divided figure.

Which limb lies
next the mirror?
For neither is clearer
nor a different color
than the other,
nor meets a stranger
in this arrangement
of leg and leg and
arm and so on.
To his mind
it’s the indication
of a mirrored reflection
somewhere along the line
of what we call the spine. He felt in modesty
his person was
half looking-glass,
for why should he
be doubled?
The glass must stretch
down his middle,
or rather down the edge.
But he’s in doubt
as to which side’s in or out
of the mirror.
There’s little margin for error,
but there’s no proof, either.
And if half his head’s reflected,
thought, he thinks, might be affected.

This is poetry that presents itself as light verse. In that way, it’s again like much of early Auden, and yet it is a poem that is secretly very serious. Well, much of the lightness as well as the seriousness of the poem depends on its formal organization. These lines are, well, aren’t they about half as long as a normative line of poetry? And they’re rhymed, but they’re rhymed in a most interesting and playful way. In fact, the poem has a lot of play in it. The pleasure that it gives is one of a certain mild exhilaration and uncertainty, of a pattern that includes and that in fact tolerates, or even generates, dramatic change in line length and surprising rhymes. The gentleman is, in a sense, trying to hold himself together. The idea is repeated by the poet trying to hold her lines together in rhymed couplets.

Bishop is, in general, a very interesting poet technically. Here, as elsewhere, how relaxed, how unpretentiously casual, how disorientingly casual, even, the voice is! There isn’t here or elsewhere in Bishop Frost’s tension between speech and meter. Rather, as in this case, each keeps getting adjusted to the other. It’s important; there’s almost no blank verse, no iambic pentameter in Bishop. The canonical heroic meter doesn’t appear here, except, I think, possibly in one or two examples. There are in Bishop free verse poems. There’s meter and rhyme. There are often poems that move in and out of these forms, much as “The Map” begins in rhyme, moves out of rhyme, and returns to rhyme.

The poems don’t seek Moore’s highly idiosyncratic crafted formal arrangements. Instead, Bishop’s practice is probably closest to Auden’s, who’s got a form for every occasion and a form for every purpose. But Auden’s forms are always in a sense pre-set, drawn from an existing repertoire. What is right for this occasion? A ballad – I will do a ballad, a sestina, elegiac quatrains, et cetera. That’s the way in which Auden presents himself. And Auden adheres strictly to his forms, and he uses those forms to shape and interpret the occasions of his writing.

In Bishop’s case, it’s really just the other way around. What she does is alter her forms under the pressure of the occasions of her writing, her purpose and subject. Nothing in Bishop is pre-set. Everything is provisional, in the process of being remade, and in the process of constant readjustment on a technical level as well as on the perceptual level that I began by talking about. This is a vision really of what the world is like and how writing might respond to it. All of these things are going on in this little poem, “The Gentleman of Shallot”, and with a sense of comedy.

If the glass slips
he’s in a fix –
only one leg, etc. But
while it stays put [so long as we accept this provisional arrangement]
he can walk and run
and his hands can clasp one
another. The uncertainty
he says he
finds exhilarating. He loves [and here’s that phrase from the essay on
Eliot]
that sense of constant re-adjustment.
He wishes to be quoted as saying at present:
“Half is enough.”

A kind of motto that Bishop might have adopted, too.

Chapter 4. Elizabeth Bishop Poem: “Sandpiper” [00:40:57]

Let’s look at another version of this figure, this time not a person but a creature, and I mean specifically the sandpiper who appears in a much later book, Questions of Travel, from a book written largely in the 1950s and early 1960s. “Sandpiper” is on page 131. Again, it is a poem that takes place on the shore. Instead of the gentleman of Shalott in his fussy way, and yet practical way, getting along in the world, we are introduced to a finicky bird:

The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a sense of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

Another poem that is stationed on a shifting boundary, the boundary of the tide. Bishop is engaged here in a kind of playful, active revision of the visionary innocence celebrated by William Blake. I quote the lines on your handout that Bishop is referring to:

To see a world in a grain of sand [this is the beginning of “Auguries of
Innocence”],
And heaven in a wildflower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

Well, here, Bishop is sort of playfully saying: well, what kind of figure is really Blakean? What kind of figure wants to see the world in a grain of sand? Well, a sandpiper, looking for his food.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes. – Watching, rather [and this is again Bishop correcting – proceeding by
correcting her perception], the spaces of sand between them,
where (no detail too small) [and again the sandpiper, like the poet, is
focused on detail] the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains. The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which. [“North’s near as West.”]
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied, looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

The poem’s own structure shifts interestingly in terms of its line lengths and Bishop’s ways of using enjambment or end-stopped lines. The world is – well, the place is a world of vast forces, of roaring, and of mist, and yet it’s also minute and clear – all of these things at once or in succession. The bird’s perspective can’t tell us whether the tide is higher or lower because he is, as it were, in the picture: he’s always wherever it is. It is a position again of constant readjustment.

What is he looking for? “Something, something, something.” A calculatedly vague word, a word that we see Frost using in “For Once, Then, Something.” Instead of moving here towards generalization, the poem moves towards more detail: towards a list, a series finally of colors, simply. In a sense, Bishop moves away from the black and white to other shades, shades that involve combinations of colors.

The question is really, how can the world be seen serially? How can it be made? How can it be seen as a series of perceptions, and yet be able to cohere? This is a fundamental question of Bishop’s poetry. It is, as it were, the complement of the question: how can you hold yourself together? Well, how can you hold the world together, how can you hold the world that you perceive together? Bishop’s great poem on this subject is the travel poem, “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” which I promise to talk about on Monday. Thanks.

[end of transcript]

Credits:

“The Map,” 1935 “Sandpiper,” 1962 and excerpts from: “The Gentleman of Shalott,” 1936. Copyright (c) 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

This material is not licensed under a Creative Commons license. Users must seek permis

Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 – Lecture 25 – Elizabeth Bishop (cont.)

Chapter 1. Elizabeth Bishop Poem: “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: Today I’m going to try to talk a little bit more about Elizabeth Bishop, and I’m also going to try to give some big perspectives on the poets we’ve been reading and also some ways of thinking about how they fit together.

Let’s look at Bishop’s poem, “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” the poem placed second in her second book called A Cold Spring, published in 1955 – the latest poems that we’ll discuss in this course. On Wednesday I talked about Bishop’s poetics of geography or travel as a horizontal poetics, as opposed to the ascendant and sublime impulses in many of the poets that we have been examining this term. This poetics is ultimately a poetry of shifting perspectives and local perceptions. The question that it immediately poses is, well: how do we put these perceptions and these points of view together? The, I think, exciting but also difficult textures of Bishop’s great landscape poems, “Florida,” “Cape Breton,” “At the Fishhouses,” “A Cold Spring,” and others, all pose this very clearly to us, this problem. You might see the grains of sand that the sandpiper searches through in that little poem “Sandpiper” as, again, exemplary of this problem in Bishop – that is, how do we hold onto, organize, and find coherence in a world of discrete and shifting phenomena?

This is really the master problem that Bishop addresses very self-consciously in this poem, “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.” Like “The Map,” it’s a poem that is in part about a representation. She, by implication, begins the poem by referring to a book, presumably the one mentioned in the title, “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.” What kind of book is that? She doesn’t specify, but as the poem unfolds there’s reason to believe it’s a Bible, I think – perhaps a family Bible. She says:

Thus should have been our travels:
serious, engravable.

Our travels, our experience in the world, our experience of geography, and our experience as geography should have been, ought to be, serious. It ought to add up to something. I ought to be engravable, something that might be bound in book form. The image of a book with illustrations in a complete concordance holds up an idea that word and image, perhaps word and flesh or representation and experience, might be bound together in a coherent unity, might be shown to exist in concordance or in some kind of correspondence.

Against this ideal or this model of things, where illustration and text are bound together, Bishop poses her own wayward experience – her travels – which this poem will list, record, and give us fragments of. What the poem reveals to us is a world of discrete fragments, parts that gain meaning, if at all, through their mere adjacency or through the perceiver who holds them together – holds them together through the quality of her attention and the sensibility behind it, a form of attention for Bishop that is always pushing towards revelation and seeking meaning or something beyond surface detail but never quite arrives there and never, in that sense, arrives at a place of repose or rest or home.

Let me read the second paragraph which brilliantly represents the world brought into being by this poetics of geography.

Entering the Narrows at St. Johns
the touching bleat of goats reached to the ship.
We glimpsed them, reddish, leaping up the cliffs
among the fog-soaked weeds and butter-and-eggs.
And at St. Peter’s the wind blew and the sun shone madly.
Rapidly, purposefully, the Collegians marched in lines,
crisscrossing the great square with black, like ants.

The poem is composed almost of the fragments of a travel diary or bits of a letter, and if you read Bishop’s letters you will indeed find observations like this on every page.

In Mexico the dead man lay
in a blue arcade; the dead volcanoes
glistened like Easter lilies.
The jukebox went on playing “Ay, Jalisco!”
And at Volubilis there were beautiful poppies
splitting the mosaics; the fat old guide made eyes.
In Dingle Harbor…

And we jerk from one place to another, with each sentence one country, one spot on the map.

In Dingle Harbor a golden length of evening
the rotting hulks held up their dripping plush.
The Englishwoman poured tea, informing us
that the duchess was going to have a baby. [This is one of Bishop’s
provocative juxtapositions in the poem.]
And in the brothels of Marrakesh
the little pockmarked prostitutes
balanced their tea-trays on their heads
and did their belly-dances; flung themselves
naked and giggling against our knees,
asking for cigarettes. It was somewhere near there
I saw what frightened me most of all [implying, of course, that all of these
scenes had frightened her]:
A holy grave, not looking particularly holy,
one of a group under a keyhole-arched stone baldaquin
open to every wind from the pink desert.
An open, gritty, marble trough, carved solid
with exhortation, yellowed
as scattered cattle-teeth;
half-filled with dust, not even the dust
of the poor prophet paynim who once lay there. [Just dust.]
In a smart burnoose Khadour [presumably their guide] looked on
amused.

Looking at this series, this way Bishop’s life seems to add up, she continues reflecting on the poem and on its structure.

Everything only connected by “and” and “and.”
Open the book.

And we’re back to the book now, that ideal form of representation in which text and image are bound.

(The gilt rubs off the edges
of the pages and pollinates the fingertips.)

Bishop wants us – as in “The Map,” too – she wants the book as something that can be held and touched. She’s a marvelously tactile poet. Along with the unity of experience that it promises to give us is a sense of intimacy, too, with an object.

Open the heavy book [she says to us]. Why couldn’t we have seen
this old Nativity while we were at it?
– the dark ajar, the rocks breaking with light,
an undisturbed, unbreathing flame,
colorless, sparkless, freely fed on straw,
and, lulled within, a family with pets,
– and looked and looked our infant sight away.

The Nativity is the scene of the Incarnation, that moment when the Word is made flesh; Christmas morning, that moment when the divine takes human form and so becomes present in the world. This is specifically here, as Bishop imagines it, a scene of revelation. That wonderful phrase, “the dark ajar” – as if the shadow were a door and you could enter it; “the rocks breaking with light” – that which is solid opening. What emerges is a flame, a sign of spirit.

But notice how in this light, the sacred is secularized. What Bishop finds there is not the holy family but “a family with pets.” There is nostalgia here, in this poem, poignant and powerful; that is, a nostalgia not so much for the holy as for the family once constituted by their relation to the holy, the family with pets but also the family that gathered around the book to look at them – a family gathered through religious practice, who might then have “looked and looked our infant sight away.” In that, looking expresses a kind of primal longing for community and for human connection – a longing expressed through looking, importantly for Bishop, which is really what the poet is doing in “The Map,” I think, in the way that she invites us into her act of looking in that poem. Here Bishop’s nostalgia is sad but also resigned. This Nativity is a scene that can be remembered and looked at from afar but not entered into, as the belief system that it comes out of and refers to can be looked at from afar but not entered into.

Chapter 2. Perspectives on Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot [00:12:38]

Bishop, as several people remarked in section this week, calls us back in lots of different ways to Frost. Frost is perhaps an unusual place to begin a course on modern poetry because – remember him? – he really is generally an exception to the metropolitan scene and inspiration of modern poetry. Modern poetry is a poetry of the city, of the metropolis, of the world city, and of the place where the world’s peoples, goods, languages, traditions and cultures are all “accessible,” to use Marianne Moore’s word from her poem “New York.” Pound, Eliot, Crane, Moore, Hughes, and even Williams and Stevens in their somewhat different ways, are all poets of the metropolis. The sense of ambivalence about modernity in these poets is an ambivalence in many ways about the city and what it promises and also what it in many ways threatens us with. Their sense of experience, their visions of modernity and of modern forms of community are all located and expressed there.

Frost aggressively defines his work against that context. In doing this, he links his writing to nineteenth-century American writing and art and links his writing to rural culture, which dominates the nineteenth century. There is an anti-modern strain in Frost just as there is in Yeats and, more complexly, in Pound and in Eliot. What’s modern about Frost is what has changed in the rural cultures that he writes about; that is, the collapse of farming economies and communities and the decay of nineteenth-century Protestantism, the white church on the village green. You feel that loss in the terrific aloneness of Frost’s people. The great poem “Directive” is about all of these things. Frost’s poetry struggles to incorporate the secular truths of modern science and to make poetry, like science, a disenchanted knowledge. In this way, Frost has a lot in common with Auden, and Frost, again like Auden, is fundamentally concerned with poetry as a form of knowledge, a way to know the world.

At the same time, poetry preserves for Frost certain archaic, primitive powers of enchantment: powers associated with primitive motives and childhood experience that make it a crucial alternative to science and scientific knowing. Think of the magic trick at the end of “Directive” when Frost takes us to the ruined house of nineteenth-century culture – the ruined farmhouse of “Home Burial” maybe – and steals from the abandoned children’s playhouse “a broken drinking goblet like the Grail” and uses it to invite us to drink from a primal source “too lofty and original to rage,” that spring, and in drinking to “be whole again beyond confusion.” What are we drinking there then at the end of Frost’s poem, this poem published at the end of the Second World War? We’re drinking a kind of elemental power that seems to fuse language and longing and imagination. This is, in Frost, a conscious rewriting, I think, partially even a send-up as well as a competition with Eliot in The Waste Land and the Grail myths that are one of the central motifs of that poem: one of the central motifs that embody for Eliot a sense of the holy, which is present, however, for Eliot only through literary allusion, something fascinating but unavailable as actual experience; something available only, in a sense, as quotation.

Chapter 3. Perspectives on Wallace Stevens [00:17:57]

Poetry in Frost, as in Eliot, does the work religion no longer does. But notice how in Frost, in “Directive,” the belief that poetry asks from us is a belief in a fiction, in make-believe. And in this Frost is strangely and wonderfully and surprisingly perhaps fully the contemporary of Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane whose work proceeds from that same assumption. Stevens’s wartime poem “Asides on the Oboe” begins:

The prologues are over. It is a question, now,
Of final belief. So, say that final belief
Must be in a fiction. It is time to choose.

This is the theme of Stevens’s wartime masterpiece “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction.” And notice the contradictory impulses in Stevens’s title. When poetry takes the place of religion for Stevens it presents itself as a supreme fiction, a total representation of the world and experience.

But we only have partial, provisional access to that fiction. What Stevens gives us is merely notes – notes, something that Elizabeth Bishop might present us with, too. In this sense, in Stevens the shift from religion to poetry is also a shift from totalization, from system to contingency and incompletion, to parts rather than a whole. For Stevens, the disappearance of the Christian God as the center of emotional, spiritual, cultural life is essentially, however, a cause for celebration. In Eliot it’s a cause for mourning – mourning and anxiety, distress. In Yeats it’s a cause of fascination and horror; in Crane, for the making of new myths, new metaphors. Hughes’s secular poems are Christ-haunted. Christ and all of the iconography associated with him is a source of hope and also irony for black culture and a reproach to the white world.

Chapter 4. Perspectives on Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore and Hilda Doolittle [00:21:05]

How do people, how does culture find bearing in a world without divine sanction? This is played out as an ethical question, a question about how to live and act rightly in Moore and then later in Bishop. In general, it is a less urgent question, a less central one in the later poets than in the earlier ones. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” Yeats says in “The Second Coming.” Bishop is fundamentally at home in this condition, which is a condition of centerlessness or homelessness. She liked the phrase “the world’s an orphan’s home” in Moore. Bishop is at home then with a certain kind of homelessness. Travel is her metaphor for the mobility of consciousness in a world without a stable center. Her poetry is written from the disturbingly and disorientingly decentered point of view that we find already in those early poems of hers, a point of view that takes for granted the absence of central authority that religion once provided. Remember in “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” that holy grave? It’s not even particularly holy, she says. The place of the sacred in Bishop has been vacated.

Might poetry fill it? This isn’t a question Bishop asks or is concerned with. But it is, as I’ve been suggesting, an urgent one in many ways for the poets who preceded her. The poetry of the period 1920 through 1940, say – really the great phase of modern poetry – this period is structured, I think, by two big questions: how should poetry be written and what can it do, what can it accomplish in the world? In the first lecture I talked about these different impulses which are at once opposing but also, I think, related and interlocking. I called one of them formal and inward-turning, an aesthetic; the other rather outward turning, concerned with the moral, the political, and the social. The first one tends to limit the definition of poetry to say what is particular to this art, to isolate what is essential to it. The other works to extend poetry’s scope, to give it an expanded role in culture, in the world, and in our lives. You see different versions of both of these impulses in the career trajectories of H.D. and William Carlos Williams, who begin as masters of a certain kind of short poem and go on to create epic poems of cultural sweep – H.D.’s being called Trilogy, Williams’s Paterson.

Chapter 5. Perspectives on Ezra Pound and Hart Crane [00:25:08]

But the poet who more than any embodies these two impulses in the shape of his career is Pound, of course: as I said, the author of the shortest and the longest poem in modern poetry, the exponent of Imagism, and the author of The Cantos. Imagism seems to want to get outside of history, to explore the “sudden liberation… from space limits and time limits,” Pound says, in a kind of autonomous aesthetic experience. The Cantos, however, are a poem, as Pound called it, “including history”: a poem of the greatest possible range and scope and ambition.

In Imagism, there’s an attempt to establish the primary poetic unit, to cut away what is inessential, to find what is true. This is a kind of formal program that expresses a drive towards truth telling that we find in somewhat different terms in Frost and Auden and Moore. Think of Frost’s sense of fact versus, in “Mowing,” the “easy gold at the hand of fay or elf.” Or think of Yeats’s stylistic transformation as expressed in that short poem “A Coat” or “The Fisherman,” poems from 1915. Think about Moore’s and Auden’s severe revisions of their work, in each case involving cutting out poems or cutting away many lines in order to arrive at what Moore called, in “Poetry,” that poem subjected to severe revision, “the genuine.” These are all creative acts of, I think you could say, self-limitation and they’re linked to the general recurrent theme in these poets – in these poets in particular: Auden, Moore, Frost – to the general theme of restraint or reticence. “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; / not in silence, but restraint.” Remember Auden’s stone god “that never was more reticent, / always afraid to say more than he meant.”

This impulse that I’m describing in modern poetry is also related to formal experiments with restraint. You see this worked into Moore’s syllabics. Modern poetry in many ways seeks to restrain the singing voice and the lyric voice of romantic poetry as received through nineteenth-century poetry. Frost’s vernacular, his will to get the “sound of sense” into his poems functions in this way. So does Hughes’s vernacular, his black speech. Think about Eliot’s syntactic and logical discontinuities and disjunctions, the way they interrupt and fragment lyric utterance, or think about Pound’s incorporation of blocks of prose, as he did in The Cantos. There is in all of these examples a tendency to define what is modern in modern poetry by the incorporation of traditionally non-poetic forms of speech and language use and, moreover and importantly, non-traditional methods of organizing poetic language. At the same time, this impulse can be seen as a way not of limiting or curtailing poetry’s scope, but rather the opposite: expanding it, expanding it to include even, as Moore puts it, “school-books and business documents,” making poetry available for people and cultures and experience that had not previously been represented in poetry.

Other modern poetry is experimental in a very different way, indeed in its revival and recovery and incorporation of historical poetic forms. You could understand Hart Crane’s reclaiming of Elizabethan and nineteenth-century forms of ornamental rhetoric and versification as exactly this kind of reclaiming of archaic materials. There’s something similar going on in Pound, in Pound’s recovery of Provençal and Anglo-Saxon verse forms, his revival of these forms. Pound and Crane are both heroic poets. They answer that question – what can poetry do? what can it effect in culture? – by saying simply “everything.” That’s really the extraordinary presumption of their long poems – The Bridge and The Cantos. They are very different poets, however, and to some extent exposed – no, opposed figures, although indeed their claim for poetry made them both exposed figures in poignant and complicated ways. When I talk about their difference, I’m thinking of Pound’s suspicion of rhetoric, his suspicion of representation, and his will or drive to get beyond these things versus Crane’s faith in rhetoric, faith in rhetoric and imagination, and their power to transform the world.

In a sense, you couldn’t have two more different poets. But both of these poets take poetry as a kind of metaphor, as not only a metaphor but as the salient instance, of the creative impulse in history. What makes history happen? What makes action in history? And they place poetry at the center of all that is most important that we do. They both propose that poetry can fulfill the central mediating functions that religion once did.

Pound and Crane become cautionary figures for later poets. To some extent Yeats does, too; that is, figures who seem to show the limits of poetry precisely in their efforts to expand them. This is one way we can understand Bishop’s poem, “Visits to St. Elizabeth’s” on page 133. This is a poem that describes Bishop’s periodic visits to Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeths Hospital where Pound was institutionalized, incarcerated, after his return to the United States on charges of treason. Bishop was living in Washington as the Poetry Consultant to the Librarian of Congress and it befell her almost as an official duty to visit Pound, hear him talk, and bring people to Pound, and it became the occasion for this poem built on the form of “This is the House that Jack Built.” This is the poetry that Jack made.

This is the house of Bedlam. This is the man
that lies in the house of Bedlam. This is the time
of the tragic man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

And she continues adding, each time adding and, of course, in Bishop’s distinctive manner not only repeating but revising the terms that she’s given us; again, a poetics of constant readjustment. As the poem builds, characters are included, not only Pound but Pound represented as the man but also a soldier, a boy, and a Jew, figures that are versions of Pound perhaps, reaching a climax in the final stanza:

This is the soldier home from the war. [Perhaps that’s Pound in some
sense.]
These are the years and the walls and the door
that shut on a boy that pats the floor
to see if the world is round or flat. [Again, Bishop touching a map.]
This is a Jew in a newspaper hat
that dances carefully down the ward,
walking the plank of a coffin board
with the crazy sailor
that shows his watch
that tells the time
of the wretched man
who lies in the house of Bedlam.

Chapter 6. Perspectives on W. H. Auden [00:35:38]

It’s a great poem. I spoke of Auden’s and Bishop’s perspectivism. Here, Bishop gives us multiple perspectives on Pound and by extension on the social and political ambitions of modernist poetry. Pound is “tragic,” “talkative,” “honored,” “old,” “brave,” “cranky,” “cruel,” and finally simply “wretched” – a word that comes from “The Seafarer.”

Arguably, one strain of modern poetry ends here in 1950 in the madhouse, in Bedlam. Importantly though, it is not that Bishop stands apart form, in a position to judge, Pound. Instead, she is interestingly, I think, implicated in the scene. She must have enjoyed, and by her choice of title calls attention to, the irony that Pound is in a madhouse that has the same name as Bishop. In Bishop’s great war poem “Roosters,” there is a sense that to oppose conflict out in the world one must encounter conflict in oneself. Here, too, I think in multiple ways Bishop implicates herself in the objects of her critique and satire.

The child’s verse form, it’s important. Bishop identifies with, I think it’s fair to say – she’s certainly interested in – children, throughout her poetry. This interest points, I think, to Bishop’s sense of herself as a minor poet; that is, a mapmaker, not a historian; a poet who refuses to write the major, culturally central, aggressively ambitious poetry to which modernism and, above all, the poetry of Pound aspired. Auden’s perspectivism in “Musée des Beaux Arts” seems to position the poet and poetry similarly. So does that famous statement in the Yeats elegy, “For poetry makes nothing happen.” These poems, “Musée des Beaux Arts” and “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” read like rebukes to modern poetry’s promethean ambitions – its verticality, if you like – and rebukes, too, to Auden’s own political poetry of the 1930s, exemplified by a poem like “Spain 1937.”

But, as I stressed, Auden doesn’t put a full stop on that sentence, “For poetry makes nothing happen.” Rather, he punctuates it with a colon and continues, “it survives.” There is perhaps a double implication here. Either poetry does not have an effect on the world but still survives, despite its lack of making something happen, or it survives because it makes nothing happen. It is not a cause and it doesn’t take up causes effectively. What it does rather, as Auden represents it here, is create a space: a space of happening, a landscape, and a model of the world, seen in the same time as a valley and a river, the river that flows through it.

There’s terrific power of affirmation in this claim about poetry’s survival at the moment of Yeats’s death, at the moment of the onset of the Second World War when “all the dogs of Europe bark.” Ultimately, in Auden, poetry survives as “a way of happening,” as he calls it, that is, a “way” in a sense of both a method and a path; and implicitly, as I suggested talking about this poem earlier; it survives as a kind of open space, a place to come into to collect and gather in for us. And it is figured, I think, finally and implicitly as a mouth, the human mouth – open to speak old words and new words, too. Poetry survives in my mouth and also in yours, which seems like a good last sentence to end this course with. So, thank you very much.

[end of transcript]

Credits:

“Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” 1955 and “Visits to St. Elizabeths,” 1950 from THE COMPLETE POEMS 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop. Copyright (c) 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

This material is not licensed under a Creative Commons license. Users must seek permission to use such third-party materials directly from the publisher or estate, as appropriate.

0

Modern Poetry ENGL 310 – Lecture 22 – W. H. Auden – YALE

Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 – Lecture 22 – W. H. Auden

Chapter 1. Introduction: Wystan Hugh Auden [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: W. H. Auden, Wystan Hugh Auden. There really is no more dramatic contrast in this course, I think, than to go from late Stevens to early Auden. Stevens is born twenty years before Auden. Auden goes on writing to his death in 1973, so his career is somewhat later than Stevens. But again, we’re doing something a little complicated; we’re moving from Stevens’s poems of the late 1940s, early 1950s, now to Auden and his early career, including poems written in the very late 1920s, in the 1930s, and we’ll get up to the start of World War Two by the end of class. So, in one sense, we’re going back in time, back in literary history, and back in cultural history, moving from the 1950s, from this post-war moment, in which Stevens is writing his late poems, to an earlier phase. At the same time we are also, however, moving forward, in a sense, in literary history; moving forward to a poetry that is distinctly and variously a poetry that comes after modernism, and to that extent that we could think of as post-modernist.

Well, what do we mean by that? What do I mean? With Stevens in mind, there are no giants in Auden. Everything is life-size. Poems don’t take the place of mountains. Rather, they, you could say, take place among them, and mountains figure interestingly in Auden’s poetry in a number of places. In Auden, there is no new knowledge of reality to be had. In fact, there’s only old wisdom that nobody wants to face. Modernism turns on a kind of axis, you could say; modernism as wasteland or as bridge, a state of cultural decay and crisis or of promise and celebration – Pound and Eliot on one side, maybe Crane and Stevens on the other. Well, Auden is beyond these debates. They don’t matter much to him. He is, in a sense, beyond the nostalgia of the one side, and he’s also quite self-consciously beyond the romantic exultation of the other.

Auden is a British poet. He writes out of a distinctly British tradition, a tradition in which, well, tradition itself is, in a sense, taken for granted. It’s something that’s there, accessible, part of the poet’s repertoire that needn’t be either struggled for or against. Industrial capitalism – Hart Crane is all excited about this stuff. It’s an old thing in the north of England, and Auden’s early poems take place in a landscape of now fading and century-old industry.

Chapter 2. The Early W. H. Auden [00:04:57]

Early Auden, later Auden: these are caricatures that are important to the history of Auden’s reception. There’s been a tendency to see his career as coming in two halves, divided by his immigration to the United States at the very end of 1938: a British Auden and then an American Auden. Both Audens, you could say, have distinct caricatures.

Early Auden. Early Auden: a poet born in the city of York, the son of a doctor, interested in natural science and in scientific ways of knowing; a poet for whom science was not an enemy but rather a kind of tool, a point of view or perspective, expressed importantly for early Auden in the work of Freud; the work of Freud but also the work of Marx. The early Auden is not an orthodox Marxist and certainly not a Communist Party member, but Marxism is important to him. It’s part of a worldview. It’s worked into his sense of the world as seen where social classes compete and struggle with each other and where the important choices to be made are moral ones, moral ones that enter into our political choices. It’s also the case in Auden’s early poetry that he tends to conceive of the world in a kind of “us and them” construction. There’s a sense in the early poems of extreme privacy in the privacy of address, the way in which the poet speaks to us, the way in which he conceives his point of view. These early poems conceive a kind of, you could say, coterie audience who are Auden’s intellectual, leftist, largely gay friends at Oxford, where he’s writing his earliest poems.

Homosexuality is an important context for this early Auden and his ways of imagining himself and talking to us. Auden comes with a kind of embattled, necessarily secretive and self-protective investment in intimate relationships. They’re something that has to be fought for. They are prized and they are something that must be protected from the intrusions of other hostile or disapproving eyes. Yes, let’s look at an early poem here. This is in your RIS packet. “From the Very First Coming Down,” it’s called.

I’ll show you some photos first before getting to the poem. This is one I like of the Oxford Auden, a sensitive boy, with the interesting legend that he has applied to himself here, probably in retrospect. “The cerebral life would pay,” he says. He was going to make it work to be an intellectual. This is another one: Auden, the rakish young Auden; this one also with a kind of legend on top in Auden’s hand where he calls himself “utopian youth, grown old Italian,” as, in fact, this was a certain kind of trajectory he would live starting as a utopian youth and then later learning how to relax and have a good time in Italy.

Let’s see. I’m afraid I’ve got my slides somewhat backward. This is Auden’s Poems, his first book. I believe it’s 1930. They’re written while he’s a student at Oxford and it includes poems that are – this one that I’ll discuss in a moment but it’s worth seeing them on the page – they’re laid out without titles again, somewhat as Williams’s early poems are presented. They are set here almost sort of secretively, I’d like to say, without that public introduction of a title and, well, as I’m suggesting, some degree of self-protection and reticence are important qualities and in fact themes of this early poetry.

Chapter 3. W. H. Auden Poem: “From the Very First Coming Down” [00:12:08]

Let’s take a look at this poem that I’ve got up on the screen right now, which is called “From the Very First Coming Down.” That’s the first line of the poem and it’s generally known that way.

From the very first coming down
Into a new valley with a frown [already we’re listening to a poet who
rhymes]
Because of the sun and a lost way,
You certainly remain [there’s a “you” here, there’s an “I.” The poem is a
kind of letter and, in fact, a kind of love letter]: to-day
I, crouching behind a sheep-pen [and this is that Northern landscape that
Auden comes from], heard
Travel across a sudden bird,
Cry out against the storm, and found
The year’s arc a completed round
And love’s worn circuit re-begun,
Endless with no dissenting turn.
Shall see, shall pass, as we have seen
The swallow on the tile, Spring’s green
Preliminary shiver, passed
A solitary truck, the last
Of shunting in the Autumn [and so on].

Your letter comes, speaking as you,
Speaking of much but not to come.

The letter comes in a sense from an intimate, a friend, perhaps a lover, saying much and yet we’re given no content to it. It’s veiled in that sense. It’s speaking of much but much that is “not to come,” it seems; its very content and promises, it seems, are withheld. Then there’s this further stanza.

Nor speech is close nor fingers numb,
If love not seldom has received
An unjust answer, was deceived.

This early Auden has this highly compressed syntax that requires you to kind of put the sentences together and fill in parts that seem to have been occluded in the poet’s compressing of language; again, an almost veiled form of speech. Auden says:

I, decent with the seasons, move
Different or with a different love [there’s a sense that the love that
animates him is a different love, it sets him apart],
Nor [he doesn’t] question overmuch the nod,
The stone smile of this country god
That never was more reticent,
Always afraid to say more than it meant.

There’s an intimacy that the poem establishes here with the “you” and with us as readers that suggests a kind of implied, shared knowledge that the poem nonetheless does not openly declare and doesn’t specify but rather remains reticent about . And we’re invited into that reticence, as well as the poet’s scruple, expressed here as the wisdom of that country god, which – it’s hard to know exactly how we’re supposed to interpret that, whether that’s an actual figure or a kind of stone in the landscape that the poet is animating in this way: but in any case, seeing that figure, that country god as emblematic of a reticence that scruples not “to say more than it meant.” In other words, well, you could compare this to Marianne Moore’s investment in “restraint,” very closely related in its moral valences.

The idea here is one that’s crucial in Auden throughout his career: that is, the poet wishes to master his intentions as a speaker. He does not wish to say more than he means, and he means to say what he means and to insist on meaning what he says. This is a long way from – it’s very different from Wallace Stevens’s lavish forms of play, his interest in inexactness or poems that might “resist the intelligence almost successfully.” Auden wants very much to say what he means and he wants us to be able to grasp that. Auden conceives of poetry, and of language generally, as a sphere of moral action in which truth is always at stake, where the poet’s specific office is to control and use language in a kind of responsible and honest way. This is a poet who wants to be honest.

Poets have not always wished this. You can think about Hart Crane saying, “sleep, death, desire, hasten, while they are true”: in other words, Crane’s willing investment in what he recognizes as illusion or a kind of temporary truth. Auden is, rather, morally bound to, responsible for, what he says. He’s concerned in this sense with the limits of poetry, with saying only what’s meant. Again, a connection should be drawn to Marianne Moore who shares something with Auden in this way. You remember her long poem “Poetry”: “I, too, dislike it: there must be something important beyond all this fiddle,” and yet after “reading it… with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers nonetheless a place for the genuine,” she says, or something very close to that. Well, that’s the beginning, in Moore’s case, of a very long and extravagant poem which over the course of her career, as she returned to it and sought to tell the truth in her poem and to insist on what was genuine, she eventually cut to only those lines. Moore was, as a poet, a rigorous self-reviser who cuts out pieces of her poems and who cuts out individual poems from her body of work. So was Auden.

Chapter 4. W. H. Auden Poem: “Spain” [00:20:39]

Auden, importantly, revised his own poems, sometimes on multiple occasions, always as he collected them and returned to them in later volumes. There are a couple important examples of this, including the poem “Spain” on page 791, a poem that Auden wrote in response to the anti-Fascist struggle in the Spanish Civil War, which he participated in. And it is a poem that complexly and yet nonetheless strongly comes to affirm the priority of making political commitments over and above, it appears, individual, moral discriminations and other forms of individual commitment. And there are ideas expressed in this poem that became an anthem in one of Auden’s most famous poems of the thirties. Well, let me give you just a few lines from it, on page 793. Stirring us to march, Auden says, “To-morrow, perhaps the future… / To-morrow the rediscovery of romantic love…” and so on. But:

To-day [on line 93] the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
[even] The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
To-day the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

He’s calling us to do the work of revolution and postpone as a goal the rediscovery of romantic love and other utopian projects. Auden would come to find the morality of this poem objectionable and to repudiate the notion that we should ever accept guilt in “the necessary murder,” that rather, any murder would be necessary in order to advance a cause. And expressing his own self-censure, he cut the poem out of his work. If you buy Auden’s Collected Poems, edited by his executor, Edward Mendelson, you will find that this poem is not in there.

Chapter 5. W. H. Auden Poem: “September 1, 1939” [00:24:09]

There are other examples of dramatic self-revision. Let me just point to one more that is famous in the poem “September 1, 1939,” again, one of Auden’s most celebrated and circulated poems. He has in the next-to-last stanza these assertions, on page 803, “All I have…” This is a poem occasioned by the beginning of the Second World War. It positions the poet in a dive in Manhattan, drinking with others. He’s reflecting on the European catastrophe now underway. He says:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

As your note below registers, “Auden later attempted to revise this line,” which struck him as – in fact, he called it “incurably dishonest,” and he revised it first with what seemed to him a more truthful claim: “We must love one another and die” because we’re going to have to die, in any case. And eventually he gave up on it altogether and cut the entire stanza. These are examples of Auden applying a kind of stringent moral self-examination to the language that he uses, and it’s a crucial part not only of the history of his work – in other words, what he did with it – but what, of course, he was doing in it; which was attempting to speak in a truthful way that he could take responsibility for, and yet which led him repeatedly to forms of rhetoric that he would mistrust and later abandon.

All of this is consistent with the ways in which Auden reconceived the modern poet’s role. Auden writes against vatic, romantic inspiration. He sees the modern poet as a kind of rationalist, a rationalist especially skilled in the techniques of poetry and of language use, as expressed specifically in technical mastery of verse form and genre. Auden reclaims, following Pound, Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter. He writes in popular ballad forms, all kinds of song forms, and many kinds of rhyme and meter. He takes over, you could say, song forms from the British music hall, which is something like vaudeville. He produces intricate, stanzaic patterns that we might find in metaphysical poetry. He produces ornate, syllabic poems, not unlike Marianne Moore sometimes. He influentially revives the Provençal forms of the sestina and the canzone and other troubadour forms. If your poetry writing teachers have made you write sestinas, you have Auden to thank for this, as well as much else.

There is, in these various acts of appropriation and reclaiming of verse forms, a kind of – no nostalgia. Rather, there’s a sense that all these forms are simply available. They should be part of a poet’s toolkit. And this is also part of what is, well, Auden’s presentation of himself as a kind of expert, as a poet with expertise: with expertise in language. And all of this is part of, in his early poetry, what you would have to call his precocious adultness, his knowingness which is, again, connected to his will to tell the truth, to tell the truth unclouded by sentiment. The early Auden, the Auden that we see in those photographs, he’s remarkably cool, in all senses. This is a cool poet. James Merrill, a poet who was a friend of Auden’s and influenced by him in many ways, once remarked that all of Auden’s poems were written on paper on which the tears had dried. And that’s an evocative idea. It’s important first of all that yes, those tears have dried. But it’s also important that there were tears. And both of these are properties of the poems and they make Auden a special kind of love poet.

Chapter 6. W. H. Auden Poems: “This Lunar Beauty” and “Lullaby” [00:30:58]

Let’s look at the early poem, “This Lunar Beauty,” which is on page 787.

This lunar beauty
Has no history
Is complete and early;
If beauty later
Bear any feature
It had a lover
And is another. This like a dream [this love that I experienced and write of and out of]
Keeps other time [it’s lunar]
And daytime is
The loss of this;
For time is inches
And the heart’s changes
Where ghost has haunted
Lost and wanted. But this was never
A ghost’s endeavour
Nor, finished this,
Was ghost at ease;
And till it pass
Love shall not near
The sweetness here
Nor sorrow take
His endless look.

Contrast this poem to a closely related poem, Hart Crane’s “Voyages,” a poem of extravagant rhetoric. Here, Auden is not writing iambic pentameter, he’s writing – what is the meter here? Dimeter: there are two beats per line. You can’t have a line that’s much shorter and have it be a line or a meter. It’s really, in a sense, the smallest measure meter can sustain. There is in the poem a kind of formal reticence, and what is proclaimed as endless here is not love but sorrow, or sorrow’s look. And sorrow is personified there in the position of the poet, looking at the beloved, already in a sense looking back at him – a lunar beauty.

Let’s turn a few pages forward to page 790 and read another of Auden’s love poems, closely related.

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful. … Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass [they always do, they are bound to]
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost. [You’re going to have to pay for it. But here it is, and it
is now and to be celebrated.]
Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of sweetness show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness see you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

Here again, love is seen in the secularizing light of certain future betrayal and loss. To be living here is to be mortal and guilty. To love is to be sure that you will be faithless, that is, to love fully; and so to know love and beauty entirely and in their entirety is to know them in the knowledge of time, to know precisely that love’s passing. Time here is not so much a kind of emblem of human inconstancy, but rather of something like natural law, to which everyone is subject.

Chapter 7. W. H. Auden Poem: “As I Walked Out One Evening” [00:36:31]

This is the theme of the very great poem, written in popular ballad form, with this title in Auden’s Collected Poems: “As I Walked Out One Evening,” on page 793.

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat. And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway [and here is his song]:
“Love has no ending. “I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street. “I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky. “The years shall run like rabbits
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages
And the first love of the world.” [Have you ever said that? Has someone
said that to you?] But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime [and they say]:
“O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time. “In the buroughs of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss. “In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day. “Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow. “O plunge your hands in water
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed. “The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead. “Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer
And Jill goes down on her back. “O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress;
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless. “O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.” It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.

This is a ballad. Auden’s choice of it suggests that the song form is conveying popular common wisdom, something we all know. It’s expressing truth as a kind of commonplace that is shared, like the tune itself. Truth is not an elite knowledge. It’s something that’s out there in the street, and it touches all of us in common.

There are here in the poem two distinct voices in quotation marks: first the lover’s and then the voice of time, of the clocks. The lover, when he speaks, well, the poem seems to say or seems to acknowledge he’s lying, even if he doesn’t know it or mean to. And yet the poem still allows him his truth, his say. What it does really is it frames his truth with this other, larger truth, which is time’s truth uttered by the clocks. And the clocks speak from the point of view of disenchantment. The lover cannot wash his hands. The poem gives us a kind of image of primary sinfulness; again, how different from Stevens! Ordinary life here is haunted by, disrupted by elemental forces; “the glacier knocks in the cupboard.” The domestic includes tragic and uncanny dimensions. They return like repressed parts of the psyche in the poem.

And still there is a kind of consolation in view in that ambiguous promise or command that you and I will love each other; our “crooked” hearts will meet. There’s a sense in which people are bound to each other precisely by the circumstances that the poem describes and by the crookedness of their hearts. At the end then the lovers and the clocks are all gone, both, and the river runs on. There’s that last stanza.

Poetry in Auden speaks on behalf of necessity, necessity that frames what we do and think; necessity that determines the circumstances within which we make our moral choices. In this way Auden, like Bishop whom we’ll read next week, is a poet constantly drawing our attention to matters of perspective: how things are seen, how things are framed, what the context of any given point of view or utterance or action is. What is true and what is right from one point of view may not be from another. And this is part of the principle by which Auden comes to, in fact, revise and make decisions about his own work that involve censoring his own language. The great poem about this theme, that is, the way in which our knowledge and action is determined and bounded by the perspectives in which it is viewed, in which it takes place; the great poem on this theme is “Musée des Beaux Arts” and is also a poem that we’ll have to wait to talk about until Monday when we will talk about it in connection with the almost contemporaneous poem, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.”

[end of transcript]

Credits:

W. H. Auden, “This Lunar Beauty,” 1930; “Lullaby,” 1937 and “As I Walked Out One Evening,” 1940. Used by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

This material is not licensed under a Creative Commons license. Users must seek permission to use such third-party materials directly from the publisher or estate, as appropriate.

Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 – Lecture 23 – W. H. Auden (cont.)

Chapter 1. W. H. Auden: “Another Time” [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: Second Auden lecture. I was reading last time from poems from the ’30s, those love poems: “Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love,” and “This Lunar Beauty.” The ballad that I read for you, “As I Walked Out One Evening,” also a poem about love, also comes from the later ’30s. It is collected though in this book called Another Time, a book Auden published in 1940. And I wanted to, well, let’s see, I’m afraid I’ve got my order all mixed up here. I wanted to show you just the table of contents of this book because it has a number of masterpieces in it that you are reading.

It’s also significant that it’s organized in the way that it is. The first section is called, humbly I guess or practically, “People and Places” and it includes in it the poem I’ll be discussing shortly, “Musée des Beaux Arts.” There’re another couple of sections, a section called “Lighter Poems” that includes all kinds of song forms: “Refugee Blues,” different kinds of blues, and some kind of Gothic, satirical ballads – “Miss Gee,” “James Honeyman” – poems that are antecedents for a song like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” This is the kind of thing Auden was writing. And then there’s also something else called “Occasional Poems,” and in this box Auden has put “Spain 1937,” that great political poem from the Civil War, and these poems that I’ll be discussing today: “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” and “In Memory of Sigmund Freud.”

I wanted to call attention to this book, first of all because it shows us these poems embedded in the actual context in which they first appeared, but also to point out the way in which Auden has organized his book. That is to say, he has thought of his poems as belonging to specific categories and placed them accordingly. And they have different genres, different forms suitable to different purposes and occasions. And this is very much the way in which Auden imagines himself as a poet, I think, that is, someone writing with a kind of technical mastery with access to a whole repertoire of traditional forms which are suitable to different purposes and different occasions.

This general perspective on his work is related to the topic that I introduced in discussing “As I Walked Out One Evening,” and that is the whole question of perspective in Auden. You remember I talked about how that poem seems to include, well, at least three different perspectives: that is, the quoted song of the lover who tells his beloved that he will love her until the end of time; then, there’s the voice of the clocks who speak from the point of view of time and correct his claims; and then finally there’s a kind of narrative voice that seems to frame the whole thing with that image of the river running on.

As in that poem, Auden seems to be able to incorporate in his poetry multiple perspectives, each of which comment on or are framed or conditioned by the others, but each of which has its independent truth, you could say. This is a topic that we’ll explore more today looking at other poems.

I wanted to show you some photographs. In the 1930s during the Japanese-Chinese War, a prelude to the Second World War, Auden went with his friend Christopher Isherwood to China and they created a book together called Journey to a War which includes Isherwood’s prose and Auden’s poetry. It’s quite a remarkable book. It also includes photographs which are presented in an interesting way. We have here two different photographs of boys, boys who are classified here as “soldiers” and “civilians” and then grimly are identified as “with legs” and “without.” There’s a kind of interest in these photographs and in their presentation of how – in the ways in which in war who we are is a matter of perspective and point of view. The war gave Auden and Isherwood an opportunity to experience what it was like to be on the ground when planes are overhead bombing you, and here’s one photograph of that condition. And here is another illustration of this general point I wanted to make. There are unidentified corpses under blankets there. There are then scattered human remains and debris. And the one photograph is identified as “The Innocent” and the other as “The Guilty.”

Chapter 2. W. H. Auden Poem: “Musée des Beaux Arts” [00:07:17]

Well, the great poem on this general theme in Auden’s work is “Musée des Beaux Arts.” It is a poem that Auden wrote after returning from China in December, I believe, 1938, contemplating a return to the United States where he had visited a short time before, contemplating, in fact, expatriation; also, contemplating an imminent war, a world war that would extend the horror that he had witnessed in China to all of Europe and beyond. Suffering, in other words, was on his mind, and it’s the subject, or rather, art’s relation to suffering is the subject of this poem. The poem has as its occasion a visit to the Musée des Beaux Art in Brussels where Auden saw among other works this painting, “The Fall of Icarus,” that is painted by Pieter Brueghel. This and other Brueghels are referred to in the course of the poem which proceeds almost as a kind of imaginary gallery tour or walk in which Auden as our companion takes us to different works and contemplates their commentary on the general issue that he is raising here: what is art’s relation to suffering?

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position [he’s concerned with how you position suffering in
human life, and he’s taking Brueghel as a model]; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully
along [as this line of poetry itself seems to];
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth [now he’s contemplating a Nativity scene], there
must always be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot [the old masters]
That even the dreadful martyrdom [and now he’s looking at Brueghel’s
painting “The Massacre of the Innocents”] must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse [no
more innocent or guilty than those boys, I suppose]
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

The Old Masters know the human position of suffering, its position in human life. “Position” is important; it’s an important word for Auden here. He’s concerned with how experience is placed. Sometimes he calls this geography. It is a topos, a motif, and an idea in his poetry that Elizabeth Bishop will take over quite directly from him and develop and make central to her poetry. The idea is that things have meaning in relation to, in their connection with, but also their separation from each other. Suffering is part, but only a part and not the center of human life, a repertoire of actions and conditions and states of being that is much larger. In Brueghel, in his “Massacre of the Innocents” – I won’t try to find it now among my slides for you – Auden focuses on the “torturer’s horse,” the animal that is part of the scene and that motivated by an itch, scratches its behind while the dreadful martyrdom runs its course.

In this poem, as in other Auden poems, note the prose rhythms. The poem does seem to at times walk dully along. Auden, like Moore, is writing in an expository manner, I guess an essayistic manner. This is part of the tone of the poem. Auden is getting into his poetry a kind of neo-classical, eighteenth-century aesthetic, an ability to talk about ideas in poetry in, again, a discursive, expository manner that includes humor and that is matter-of-fact, is observant. Pain, like the tears that I talked about last time that had dried on Auden’s pages, pain is part of the picture, but it is just a part. It’s, in a sense, been put aside.

All of this is a function of what I’m calling Auden’s perspectivism. Any scene borders on other scenes where other people are positioned looking at the same thing differently or not looking at it at all. And this is one of the themes of the second section of the poem where Auden specifically describes this painting. He says:

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance….

And this is a poetry in which the poet says “for instance,” just as Moore might have said “however.”

how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster….

And he’s talking about the shepherd who’s looking up to the sky, he’s talking about the ploughman who has his back turned to the fall; and where is it? It’s hard probably for you to see, but it’s hard to find in any case because this dramatic event that is the center of Brueghel’s pictures – in fact, these bare legs disappearing into the sea as the overreaching son of Daedalus plunges into the water – is not at all in the center of the picture.

how everything turns away [Auden observes]
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure.…

He’s not concerned with flying to or beyond the sun. For him the sun merely shines, it helps him cultivate the land.

the sun shone [of necessity]
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water [the white legs disappearing into the green water]; and the
expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Well, here Auden wasn’t thinking about Hart Crane, but he might have been. It’s almost as if this figure has leaped off the back of the boat, as Crane did. He is, however, thinking, I suppose, about romanticism in general and its ambitions. Here, the sun shines as it had to. What it illuminates are white legs. There’s a kind of objectivity in that, there’s a kind of naturalism. It shines on green water. It’s as if from a certain perspective, from the perspective of aesthetic form, these elements of the picture are merely elements of the picture – colors, which have meaning as they are placed in a system of relationships and a system of perspectives.

Well, there’s a great deal more to be said about this painting. I think one idea that is worth emphasizing is the way in which the ploughman, in Auden’s account as in Brueghel’s painting, has prominence, has a greater prominence than the heroic, romantic figure plunging into the sea. The ploughman is going about his ordinary daily work, and as he turns these furrows, we are reminded, as Auden surely was reminded, of the ancient classical connection between verse – meaning the turning, in Latin, from one line to another – and the shaping action of the plough that creates these furrows in the earth, committing the poet, as he identifies with the ploughman, to a kind of poetry of craft and of the earth that involves, in a sense, turning away from disaster.

Chapter 3. W. H. Auden Poem: “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” [00:18:44]

Well, this poem was written in Europe. It is a poem that Auden – let me find this picture here – with which Auden, in a sense, turns his back on Europe and, for the moment at least, the imminent world war. He comes to the United States; he immigrates to the United States in January 1939. This personal turning point in a poetic career comes at a moment when the world is about to be split in war. It also comes at a significant moment in literary history when Yeats dies, and Auden recognizes this occasion as a moment to celebrate the poet, contemplate the achievement in modern poetry that he represents Yeats and, in a sense, provide a kind of epitaph for a poetry now in the past and behind us that positions Auden in the present.

Let’s look at the view of Yeats and of Yeats’s poetry that emerges here. The poem extends the questions of “Musée des Beaux Arts” by asking not so much what is art’s relation to suffering as what is the place of art in society generally, or poetry in particular? Auden begins:

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the air-ports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
Oh, all the instruments agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

There’s a sense, as Auden elaborates these ideas, that natural science is here mocking the pathetic fallacy that all nature should mourn when the poet dies and reflect the grief of this event. He’s saying, Auden is, it was a cold day and we had instruments to measure it and that that’s what it was, in a kind of factual way. He continues, Auden does:

Now he [Yeats] is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections….

The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

Yeats is passed on to us. And yet to whom has he passed on? What difference does he make? Auden doesn’t want us to make the mistake of thinking that Yeats is too central a figure, that he matters too much.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow [he continues]
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom;
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

This is an attempt to, in some sense, place poetry realistically in culture. It doesn’t matter to the brokers “roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse.” It doesn’t matter to the poor who have their suffering “to which they are fairly accustomed.” It matters, well, perhaps to “a few thousand” people, not a negligible number but not a large one either. There’s a kind of modesty in Auden’s claims for Yeats, for poetry. You could contrast Pound at the same time as this poem is being written, broadcasting his ideas on Fascist radio, or you could think about Stevens at the same time dreaming up a poem he will call “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” This is a rather different claim for what poetry might do. It returns to a theme of The Waste Land. Somehow, the world that Auden is describing is one in which we are each imprisoned in the cell of ourselves, recalling the locked chambers of Eliot’s poem.

In the second section, Auden moves to address Yeats directly. Now Yeats has, in a sense, claimed for us his difference, the vatic powers of language, the visionary ambition, and the occult learning. All of that that would distinguish and separate him from us is put aside, and what he shares with us is emphasized:

You were silly like us [silly]: your gift survived it all; [it had to survive a lot,
it had to survive]
The parish of rich women, [who doted on him, his own] physical decay,
Yourself [himself; Auden says]; mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still [you did not affect it,
you did not affect it because you are a man and only a man. In fact],
For poetry makes nothing happen.…

This is one of the most quoted sentences in modern poetry: “poetry makes nothing happen.” It is almost always quoted, however, out of context. It is part of a long sentence. It comes first as a qualification on what Yeats, on the difference Yeats has made in the world. Auden’s saying in a sense, no, you haven’t made a difference, for poetry makes nothing happen. But the poem continues then, the sentence continues. Auden says, (colon): “it survives.” “…Poetry makes nothing happen: it survives.” Where? It survives:

In the valley of its saying where executives
Would never want to tamper, it flows south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Poetry doesn’t make things happen. It has a different kind of action. It survives; it lasts. How does it last, where does it last? It lasts “in the valley of its saying,” a kind of imaginary landscape or a kind of world that is created through speech here. “The valley of its saying”: perhaps a rich place to live but also a space that evokes a kind of absence or hollow, right? Or a kind of opening perhaps, or a gap. As Auden develops this idea the poetry becomes what he calls “a way of happening, a mouth.” And then that valley is refigured as a mouth – an open mouth, I’m sure, a mouth open where words are coming out, where more words will follow and flow like a kind of river.

Poetry, in that sense, doesn’t make anything happen. It is rather a way of happening, that is, a kind of method or model, a path or discipline: a way. Not a deed, but something more like the symbol of a deed or the figure of a kind of potential action, a nothing that is somehow something, too, again, I think, an image implying an open mouth; that is, the mouth of a river or the mouth of a poet, through which language flows.

Then the poem moves into, I think, a kind of illustration of the kind of action that poetry engages in, and that comes with the movement into these ceremonial quatrains in iambic tetrameter, essentially. Is that what it is? Well, it’s definitely a tetrameter. The rhyme enters. The prose rhythms of the poem up to now give way to a kind of ceremonial lyric language. Here poetry is identified with praise and with prayer. The poem gives us a kind of performative language of human ceremony that honors Yeats, that lays him to rest and yet also absorbs and affirms the power of poetry that was in him.

Earth, receive an honoured guest;
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

Auden goes on to describe the way that time will honor poetry and will honor Yeats; that time will even, he says – Auden does – forgive Yeats for the right-wing politics that Yeats’s later career is marked by and that Auden separates himself from and needs to come to terms with in this poem. He says:

Time with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel [Kipling, for his imperial jingoism, Claudel
for his proto-Fascist ideas],
Pardons him [Yeats also] for writing well.

Auden, looking back on this poem, would ask himself, how could I possibly presume to judge Yeats and forgive him morally for his politics? And he struck these condescending lines from his poem. So, you won’t find them in The Collected Poems but you will find the powerful lines that proceed from them.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate; Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

What does the poet do in this condition?

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night….

The poet descends and descends into night, a night that is this nightmare in which Europe barks, ready to attack itself.

With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice; With the farming of a verse [and remember the ploughman now, as a
figure for the poet]
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress; In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

This is what poetry can offer. It can offer a lesson in how to praise. This is not making something happen politically in the world, perhaps, but it’s making something happen in the heart and perhaps within the eye of each of us who look locked and staring with our pity, frozen there. Poetry would be a kind of farming in the desert of the heart that would break open that which is locked there and free feeling. It’s a powerful and very traditional claim for what poems can do. And in talking about The Waste Land, I stressed the ways in which Eliot sought language of public ritual that might join people separated in the cells of themselves. Here, Auden is working through the same ideas and providing a kind of model for how that might work.

Chapter 4. W. H. Auden Poem: “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” [00:35:12]

Let me turn ahead with you to another great poem from this period, “In Memory of Sigmund Freud.” Freud is a kind of ploughman. He is another model for the poet, for Auden. And this poem proposes still other ways to understand poetry’s relation to suffering, represented here by Freud’s humanistic, therapeutic technique. What sort of hero is Freud? Auden calls him “an important Jew who died in exile.” It’s significant that he is called that by Auden at this moment. If you look for the figure of the Jew in “Gerontion,” Eliot’s early poem, you’ll see that the figure is not dignified with a capital J. Anti-Semitism is a crisis in Europe and it’s certainly a pervasive current in modern poetry. Whether it is actually a theme or a motif, as it appears in Eliot or Pound, or simply a kind of voluble prejudice as you would find it in Williams’s letters, anti-Semitism is powerful. And here, Auden is identifying himself with Freud as a Jew and as a Jew in exile. And it seems as though Freud in this way represents a figure for people who are in some sense extracted from the nation and who are international in their perspective. And Auden himself is writing in America from a similar point of view.

As in the Yeats elegy, Auden is reluctant to single Freud out when, as he says, death is so common and suffering is so common. But Freud’s point of view for Auden is powerful and valuable precisely because it emphasizes the commonplaceness of human suffering, its ubiquity. He’s praised – Freud is – as the poem unfolds, specifically for the ways in which he responds to suffering. How does he do it? Well, around line 28 or so, on page 804, Auden says:

All that he did was to remember
Like the old and be honest like children. He wasn’t clever at all [he was silly like us]: he merely told
The unhappy Present to recite the Past
Like a poetry lesson till sooner
Or later it faltered at the line where Long ago the accusations had begun,
And suddenly knew by whom it had been judged,
How rich life had been and how silly [there’s that word again],
And was life-forgiven and more humble, … No wonder the ancient cultures of conceit
In his technique of unsettlement [that’s what he (Auden) calls Freud’s
therapeutic technique, the talking cure: it’s a technique of unsettlement]
foresaw
The fall of princes, the collapse of
Their lucrative patterns of frustration. If he had succeeded [Freud], why, the Generalised Life
Would become impossible, the monolith
Of State be broken and prevented
The co-operation of avengers. Of course they called on God [his (Freud’s) detractors]: but he went his
way [like the poet who follows right to the bottom of the night],
Down among the Lost People like Dante, down
To the stinking fosse where the injured Lead the ugly life of the rejected. And showed us what evil is: not as we thought
Deeds that must be punished, but our lack of faith,
Our dishonest mood of denial,
The concupiscence of the oppressor.

Auden emphasizes Freud’s literary dimensions. The talking cure is like a poetry lesson. It puts faith in speech, in the powers of true speech, to correct and reshape and heal human life. It is a technique of unsettlement that is a threat to princes, all worldly authority, because it questions authority and empowers the individual speaker to take life into his hands. Like Dante or like Pound’s Ulysses in Canto I, like the poet at the end of the Yeats elegy, Freud, in Auden’s poem, goes down among the lost people and goes into “the stinking fosse,” which is a powerful word. It’s a word that appears in Canto I where Ulysses, Pound’s Ulysses, goes to seek Tiresias. “Fosse,” it’s an Anglo-Saxon word. It reaches back, in that sense, in cultural history to suggest that our present misery is one with, continuous with, that of the past.

And yet history is something here that can be intervened in, in an individual way through the kind of true speech that Auden celebrates in Freud and that he aspires to in poetry. As the elegy builds towards its conclusion, on page 806, again the night appears. Freud:

… would have us remember most of all
To be enthusiastic over the night [and its lost people, ourselves]
Not only for the sense of wonder
It alone has to offer [night, the unconscious], but also
Because it needs our love: for with sad eyes
Its delectable creatures look up and beg
Us dumbly to ask them to follow….

That is, all the properties here of the unconscious that are identified at the same time with all those who are lost in society and need to be represented and claimed. They are, like Freud:

…exiles who long for the future
That lies in our power. [Again a power of speech.] They too would rejoice
If allowed to serve enlightenment like him [like Freud],
Even to bear our cry of “Judas,”
As he did and all must bear who serve it.

Freud here is in exile, and he brings insight but he also brings love. Auden is imagining a kind of general state of homelessness, which Freud’s technique of unsettlement isn’t meant to redress but rather to recognize and accept and help us adjust to and live in. Auden’s own technique here is – well, his verse form is a simple syllable count: 11 syllables, 11 syllables, 9 syllables, 10. The normative ten-syllable line comes last and fourth and gives a kind of resolution to each quatrain. This simple pattern, again, accommodates and promotes a kind of prose speech, a kind of ordinariness that identifies Freud’s work and the poet’s work with a kind of ordinary, ongoing work and that accommodates rationality in a rational voice, as Auden will describe Freud’s as being, and yet also accommodates feeling at the same time and accommodates love.

One rational voice is dumb [Freud’s, he’s silent]: over a grave [his grave]
The household of Impulse mourns one dearly loved [because he
understood how to love our impulses].
Sad is Eros, builder of cities,
And weeping anarchic Aphrodite.

It’s eventually a powerful, moving conclusion. Eros and Aphrodite have lost their champion.

Chapter 5. W. H. Auden Poem: “In Praise of Limestone” [00:46:08]

I’m going to conclude by commenting very quickly, since we’re almost out of time, on one last poem, arguably Auden’s greatest, “In Praise of Limestone,” a poem written from the perspective of the post-war in the United States, but about a kind of imaginary landscape that combines elements of his childhood – a landscape in northern England – and the Italian landscape where he returned in the post-War period and became increasingly attached to. It is a kind of allegorical space and it represents a home, I suppose, for the homeless, for we, “the inconstant ones,” as he describes us. It is, this limestone landscape, something to be praised, and it is a poem of praise.

It is an image of the world without another transcendental world beyond or behind it. To be in the world, as described in this poem, is to be in an entirely earthly realm. And again, you might think of the ploughman turning away from the over-reacher who tried to fly to the sky and turns rather to the earth. It is a landscape like that of Stevens in “Sunday Morning.” It is a landscape that Auden can only describe as a kind of imaginary place through counter-factual statements. It is porous. It’s rich, it’s fertile, and it’s moderate. It is not a place of extremes; and hermits and Caesars; they don’t belong here. They go elsewhere. It’s rather a place in which ordinary life and ordinary people might live.

The very end of the poem is extremely powerful because it looks towards a kind of redeemed human life, sees it in this landscape, and yet represents it in the conditional. Auden says – this is on page 808:

In so far as we have to look forward
To death as a fact [something he will never let us forget], no doubt we
are right: But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead [and you note the
conditional in both phrases],
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes [the people that he peoples this landscape with] and
gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. Dear [and now he speaks to a beloved], I know
nothing of
Either [that is, what it would mean to be blessed or to have nothing to
hide: I know nothing of either of those things], but when I try to imagine a
faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

A landscape that is Auden’s version of an earthly paradise and our only image of these ultimate promises. Auden manages somehow here to make us see and feel what the life to come might be like, what it might be like to be blessed, while still acknowledging that we can only live in and be in and speak in the world before us, which is the one that Auden remains, throughout his poetry, dedicated to.

Well, we’ll go on to a poet closely identified with Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, on Wednesday.

[end of transcript]