From The Kenyon Review, Spring 1951, Vol. XIII, No. 2
I am sure it is a very good thing for the editors of The Kenyon Review to set up this little group portrait of contemporary criticism (like those engravings of the Confederate generals with a large, oval-cut Lee surrounded by a circlet of lesser generals). I am not at all sure it is a good thing for us to be engraving ourselves, especially as I have a feeling that Lee may get left out of the picture and that some of us staff second lieutenants may get drawn too big. Self-portraiture is a dangerous game, which can lead a practising critic into the bad taste of saying that the essential possession for the practising critic is good taste.
The only kind of knowledge about himself a critic ought to have is the kind he gets by being relevant or—if he’s that good—even wise about books and authors. If a critic is that good we are interested in criticism about him, some one else’s criticism; in Allen Tate on Johnson or Herbert Read on Coleridge or Howard Nemerov on Tate. All these people are proper subjects for criticism because they area part of literature. But they are dangerous subjects for themselves. There is more genuine and healthy self-knowledge—if that is what you are curious to see—in Mr. Tate’s “Our Cousin, Mr. Poe” than in all Mr. Burke’s explanations of what he thinks we ought to think we are thinking.
This is not to say that first principles and methods are not important parts of criticism; obviously they are—so much so that you have to be constantly on your guard against getting preoccupied with them to the exclusion of criticism. To do so makes you an aesthetician, which is no doubt a good kind of thing, but not a critic. Mr. Tate has put this better than anyone: “It has seemed to me that the best criticism at all times has its best function in the ordering of original insights and in passing them on, through tentative frames of reference, to other persons secondhand . . . . I am suspicious of all critical generalizations, of those that I have intemperately made in the past, and of the one I am about to make.” The word to notice here is “intemperately.” Critical generalizations are one of the devices for making an insight available in secondhand condition; critically it is intemperate to indulge in their use beyond that. There is evidence that this indulgence is even habit-forming. Which one of us has not at some time or other been intoxicated by the neatness of his own demonstration that historical scholarship is silly, or the fallacy of creative form a fallacy, or a knowledge of Freud the only possible grounds of criticism? All of us in this symposium are running the risk of taking one too many swallows of our own theoretical brilliance in dealing with such matters.
Anyway, some critical methods work well with some authors, others with others; almost all methods have certain advantages and the best are useless if a kind of mental and emotional activity anterior to the use of any method is not habitual with the user. This activity grows out of something which, when we are quite serious, we call love, but which most of the time looks more like the habitual and somewhat off-hand affection people have for the place they live—including the irritation, the disrespect, the detailed knowledge of the latest sewer-contract scandal. We fumble around trying to find a name for this activity—taste, imagination, sensibility—without ever communicating much about it to people who do not already know what it is. Criticism comes out of it like the occasional puff of steam and aroma of coffee from the pot that simmers all day long on the back of the stove. I would guess that this basic activity looks something like what follows.
You have reread Jane Austen’s Persuasion, in the line of duty or just for fun. As you go about your ordinary day listening to students lie about their late papers, sitting in committee rooms, and “bringing your desk calendar briskly up to date,” you keep turning the novel over in your mind; it has got itself temporarily lodged there, as it does every time you read it. You puzzle over why, though it occurs in a drastically limited world—geographically, socially, and intellectually limited—Persuasion is, morally, such a big novel. You’re just turning this matter over; you can’t even be said to be thinking about it. Then some one draws you into an argument about The Sun Also Rises, and you find yourself maintaining heatedly that it is Hemingway’s best novel. You’re full of critical generalizations, firm about the relevant criteria of value, and pretty flashy with the debater’s tricks for scoring off your opponent—a regular authority. But all the time, somewhere at the bottom of the pot, The Sun Also Rises is getting stirred in with Persuasion. You begin to wonder where you might come out if you were to assume they had something in common. Just to see what will happen you begin to try various comparisons; anything similar in the novels’ attitudes toward Cohn and Sir Walter, toward Frances Clyne and Mrs. Clay, toward their heroes and heroines? Anne Elliott is sure, even at the end, that Lady Russell was right in advising her to reject Frederick Wentworth’s first proposal; Brett is sure she is right in advising herself to send Romero away; anything here? Why, though her ending brings two happy lovers together, does Jane Austen seem self-possessed, cool, remote, while Hemingway, though his ending is grimly unhappy, appears by comparison extravagant, sentimental, involved? Is this a characteristic difference between novels of the two periods, possibly even between attitudes common in the two societies?
Maybe you begin to take this mixture seriously; maybe you even write a piece about it. Or maybe you just work up a joke about it: there are possibilities in Jane Austen and Hemingway. (I once heard Empson work out with fascinating ingenuity a very witty theory about Ulysses and then remark that he guessed he wouldn’t write it up because it made such good conversation.) Or maybe you just gradually get tired of the whole thing and start in on something else.
There has been for some time now an irritable reaching after fact and reason in your mind about Pound’s “The Return.” The lines,
Gods of the winged shoe!
With them the silver hounds,
sniffing the trace of air!
have been particularly annoying, and for no reason at all, apparently, they seem to connect up with the earlier lines,
As if the snow should hesitate
And murmur in the wind,
and half turn back.
What can be holding these things together? This time your mind grabs onto something in the dark and you remember that “The hounds of spring are on winter’s traces” and that, only a few lines further along, we hear that
. . . winter’s rains and ruins are over
And all the seasons of snows and sins.
There are considerable charms here for the long hours in committee rooms. If this is an unconscious echo, as it appears to be, how much is the whole poem an echo? Both are full of a sympathetic melancholy about the departed pagan gods; the more you think about the similarity, the more it grows on you. To what extent is the Pound of 1912 in general such an echo? How about Eliot’s willingness to agree in 1920 that “at one period of our lives we did enjoy [Swinburne] and now no longer enjoy him”? This may lead to all sorts of random recollections about Pound and the ‘nineties and the Pre-Raphaelites; and what about the doctrine of the “absolute rhythm,” about Mauberley’s elegant historical irony (at whose expense?) about how
The Burne-Jones cartoons
Have preserved her eyes. . . .
The English Rubaiyat was still-born
In those days.
Why was Eliot so kind, so judiciously kind, in his essay on Swinburne? This is the sort of back-of-the-stove business which can go right on out of the committee room and home to dinner, where you find yourself not answering your wife’s questions.
But maybe you get diverted before you can quite complete your new literary history of the early 20th Century. You have just settled down to Wallace Stevens’ “Idea of Order at Key West,” which you must teach the next day, thinking that it’s about time you changed the assignment since you’ve read this poem ragged in the last few years; this is of course the ideal state of mind for discovering something that you have never noticed in a poem before, and you are suddenly jolted by a nasty feeling that Stevens is up to something more than has ever met your eye about ghosts.
She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion. . . .
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang. . . .
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea, . . .
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
“Fluttering its empty sleeves.” Does this suggest that a body wholly body has no form or shape because it lacks the spirit which only the human maker can give it? Is there something in this idea of the genius, the “informing spirit” of a place, only not exactly what our ancestors supposed, so that without her song or something like it the sea is about as real as a silly ghost-story spirit trying to frighten us by fluttering its dirty sheet (“Vindicta, Vindicta! Oh, Revenge!”)? Is Stevens’ point, then, that the imagination is the familiar spirit of all natural objects so that the evanescent, ghostlier demarcations made by sounds at the command of the imagination’s Blessed rage for order are our only means for making the world exist? And is that “fluttering its empty sleeves” a little joke at the expense of Stevens’ own attitude? Wasn’t “ghost” the Anglo-Saxon word for spirit or soul? Is that why we speak of the Holy Ghost and does Stevens mean that this is his holy ghost? It probably takes a trip to the Oxford Dictionary and several more readings of the poem to dissipate this mirage.
I hope these three illustrations of how the pot boils are not wholly frivolous, though when you are trying to put down mental events in anything like the order of their actual occurrence, it is almost impossible to ignore entirely their ludicrousness; I suspect it is important for criticism not to. If anything were to come of the comparison between Persuasion and The Sun Also Rises, it would have to start with some consideration of why certain novelists do so drastically limit the scope of their novels. One of the obvious advantages is that in novels so limited all the characters will belong to the same society and be governed by the same code of manners. Probably that means bringing in Richardson and James. Isn’t it because Richardson never really succeeds in making Mr. B. a gentleman according to the code which is supreme in the Pamela world that we are disturbed by the book’s ending? But the conduct of James’s most imposing evil people like a Mrs. Grantham or a Mrs. Newsome is always awesomely ladylike. Anyhow, you’d probably have to go on to other things in Jane Austen’s period and Hemingway’s which were congruous with—if not the causes of—the production of novels deeply concerned with manners. Any piece along these lines will consist in some sort of analysis of moral and social attitudes in the novels and some kind of history of ideas. The model might be a critic like Leslie Stephen or Bagehot.
Something approaching the shockingly old-fashioned game of influences is at work in Pound’s echo of Swinburne, if it is an echo. Maybe nothing more is. But if anything came of this idea, it would have to be an essay in literary history, in the development of literature—insofar as “literature” was responsible for that development—between Swinburne and Eliot; you might even find yourself writing about Romanticism if you weren’t pretty cautious. The model here would, I suppose, be the good essays in works like The Literary History of the United States.
If Wallace Stevens’ ghost is not just a ghost, a consideration of him would produce an essay in verbal and structural analysis, with some special consideration of the irony involved in evoking both the Holy Ghost and hants. You would have to deal with “The Idea of Order at Key West” in detail, and if you were ambitious you might bring in other Stevens poems and end up with a discussion of Stevens’ work as a whole. I will risk being denounced before the Un-American Activities Committee by Mr. Davis and say right out that I think the model here is Cleanth Brooks or some other good New Critic.
Possibly there are critics who start out in perfectly cold blood, selecting for a subject, let us say, The Americanism of Thoreau, because such a subject, if Thoreau isn’t too recalcitrant, will encourage democratic ideals, and choosing the method of Van Wyck Brooks because Edmund Wilson admires it or because some editor does. I’m afraid the universities, with their ever-normal-granary conception of scholarship, may occasionally force young instructors into this kind of thing; the desire to promote a quick reputation can produce the same results independently; and everyone has some time to face a deadline with nothing to say. But I doubt that anyone has ever produced good criticism this way, because good criticism has to start from something deeper in the mind than any critical theory or method.
Circumstances are never right for good criticism. As Edmund Wilson once put it about his own career as a serious professional journalist, “To write what you are interested in writing and to succeed in getting editors to pay for it is a feat that may require pretty close calculation and a good deal of ingenuity.” If you are not, like Mr. Wilson, trying to get around commercial editors, you are up against conservative professors who control appointments, or five children, or laziness—or a notion that criticism consists in discovering parallel passages, influences, ambiguities, phallic symbols, or myths. But I think with Mr. Tate that it consists in getting hold of other people’s insights, somewhere deep in the seriously idle, unawed, and affectionate part of the mind, and then, by whatever method serves the occasion best, trying to make them available.