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Fall 2011

Herrick and Donne and the Problems of Modernist Poetics

Mark Anthony Signorelli

Occasionally, we are brought up short in our reading by a claim that is made with great confidence—even audacity—by its author, upon a point that seems to us rather dubious. Thus, F. R. Leavis, in his book New Bearings in English Poetry (1932), states: “My suggestion that Donne was indisputably a major poet and Herrick only a minor came to him as a new idea.” Now, the precedence of John Donne over Robert Herrick does not at all seem like an evident truth (as apparently it did not seem so to Leavis’s interlocutor). In fact, it is arguable that Herrick has left us a number of pieces which exemplify very nicely the sort of qualities one would desire of a lyric poem, whereas Donne has left us few or none. Leavis’s exaltation of Donne’s style was offered in the course of his exaltation of T. S. Eliot’s style, and the style of the emerging modernism more generally. The excellencies that constitute the value of Donne’s poetry, Leavis was arguing, are the very excellencies that constitute the value of modernist poetics. A consideration, therefore, of the relative merit of Herrick and Donne might shed light on the problems presented by modernist poetics.

In brief, a common theme of reflection in the Western tradition upon the telos of the poet’s art is the basic belief that the experience of a poem ought to be a pleasingly affective experience, that what the poet intends to accomplish is to move the audience, in a fashion that simultaneously brings the audience delight, and renders them amenable to the edification of the poet’s matter. Aristotle, for example, famously tells us that the tragic poet aims to elicit the passions of “pity and fear,” in order to accomplish the catharsis of these emotions. The author of On the Sublime speaks of poetry “dazzling” and inspiring “awe,” insofar as it faithfully represents the “passions.” Sir Philip Sidney identifies the distinctive virtue of poetry as its capacity to “move” the individual soul towards goodness: “For who will be taught, and what so much good doth that teaching bring forth as that it moveth one to do that which it doth teach?” The eighteenth-century critic Joseph Warton claimed that “no man is master of himself” while he reads the works of great poets like Homer and Milton.

But a distinction is in order here. Clearly, there are myriad incommensurable forms of pleasure, the effects of an almost infinite variety of things in the world. Poetry itself can bestow delight in numerous modes. Once can, for example, distinguish between a poetry of ingenuity, and a poetry of beauty and sublimity; between a poetry comprised of witty observations or unusual comparisons, and a poetry comprised of well-phrased sentiments or lovely images. The latter move us; the former only elicit our admiration. The pleasure which we take in beauty and sublimity is a pleasure that is bound up with our desire, and desire is the fundamental form of human consciousness; the emotions of pity, fear, sympathy, exultation, and indignation are all bound up with desire, so the poet who moves these emotions stirs the soul at its depth, and affords his reader the most profound sort of pleasure which the art can afford.

The pleasure which we take in ingenuity, on the other hand, is a wholly intellectual pleasure, the pleasure of a mathematical problem neatly resolved or a syllogism finally worked out. The poet of ingenuity adheres to the dictum of Giambattista Marino: “e del poeta il fin la meraviglia” (the marvelous is the end of poetry). It is a pleasure that never hooks up with desire, and thus fails to move us in our deepest mental recesses. The poet of beauty and sublimity works in accord with Coleridge’s injunction to “bring the whole soul of man into activity,” whereas the poet of ingenuity only arouses the intellectual capacities of his audience. The pleasure elicited by beauty and sublimity ultimately stems from the things of the world, as they are represented and revealed to the audience through the unique grace of poetic language; the pleasure of ingenuity does not have any reference beyond the mind of the poet, out of which that ingenuity emerges. We admire the cleverness of the poet, but not the things upon which he exercises his cleverness.

The poet of beauty and sublimity is like a tour-guide, who wishes to direct the attention of the reader to some wonderful object in the world, with just the right words and gestures. The poet of ingenuity is like a street-performer, who wishes to draw the attention of the reader away from the world towards his own extravagant performance. Or to employ a somewhat more impressionistic comparison, the pleasure derived from the poetry of beauty and sublimity is akin to the pleasure derived from observing a sunrise, whereas the pleasure derived from the poetry of ingenuity is akin to the pleasure of completing a puzzle. When critics have referred to the delight afforded by poetry, they have been referring specifically to the delight which originates in beauty and sublimity, since that is the only form of delight by which we are truly moved. We might sum up the consensus of our critical tradition in the affirmation that poetry is a thing like a sunset, and not a puzzle.

When we turn to the work of Herrick, it seems clear that, at his best, he does move the reader in this way. Consider the lovely conclusion to “Corinna’s Going A-Maying,” which captures all the melancholy nostalgia of the carpe diem theme, or the following lines from his unjustly neglected “His Age,” in which the poet imagines a scene when, as an old man, he reminisces among friends and family on the artistic accomplishments of his youth, exclaiming:

Thus, frantic, crazy man, God wot,
I’ll call to mind things half-forgot,
And oft between
Repeat the times that I have seen !
Thus ripe with tears,
And twisting my Iülus’ hairs ;
Doting, I’ll weep and say, in truth,
Baucis, these were my sins of youth.

One should not oversell the merits of Herrick; he was a decidedly minor poet, whose work displays a limited range of themes and effects. But what is undoubtedly true is that in the most excellent passages of his work Herrick accomplishes what it is that poets have always strived to accomplish uppermost: he brings his reader pleasure through that particular stirring of the emotions which results from the presence of what we call beauty.

What about Donne? Does he also provide his readers with this unique form of pleasure? Most certainly, he does. His was a soul too generous and capacious to be insensible to such emotions, and his talents were more than adequate to arouse them in his readers. Thus, we frequently encounter in his lyrics such lovely lines as these from his “Song”: “It cannot be / That thou lovest me as thou say’st / If in thine my life thou waste / That art the best of me.” What I referred to as a pleasing affectability, then, is evinced in numerous places by Donne’s poems, but it is rarely the most salient stylistic feature of his work. That place is usually occupied by the predominance of the metaphysical conceit, and of course, Donne takes his place in literary history as the best known, and probably most accomplished, exemplar of English Marinismo, of that stylistic tendency which came to be called the metaphysical. So if we were to look for the most distinctive passages in Donne, we would cite such lines as these, from “Twicknam Garden”:

But O, self traitor, I do bring
The spider love, which transubstantiates all,
And can convert Manna to gall,
And that this place my thoroughly be thought
True Paradise, I have the serpent brought.

It is clear that Leavis bases his estimation of Donne’s work on this particular feature, the ingenuity of his conceits, citing his “distinguished intelligence” as a precedent in his apologetics for the work of Eliot and Pound. He defends modernism on the grounds that its strange and elusive character represents a stylistic continuity with the most salient feature of one of the most excellent of lyric poets in the English tradition. Crucially, he disparages what he calls the “Victorian” presumption that poetry should “move”: “Wit, play of intellect, stress of cerebral muscle had no place: they could only hinder the reader’s being ‘moved’—the correct poetical response.” And it is precisely on these points that we need to criticize the critic.

The locus classicus for criticism of metaphysical poetry is, of course, Samuel Johnson’s Life of Cowley, the essay which first gave to the world the very title of “metaphysical.” In a long and relentless prosecution of his case, Johnson tasks the metaphysicals severely for the flamboyantly bizarre character of their imagery: “Their thoughts are often new, but seldom natural; they are not obvious, but neither are they just.” In accord with the assertion that the poetry of ingenuity draws the attention of the reader to the poet’s invention, rather than the objects of the world, Johnson declares “they cannot be said to have imitated anything; they neither copied nature nor life; neither painted the forms of matter, nor represented the operations of intellect.” He claims that their wit consists essentially of “a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike . . . the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” Such undisciplined ingenuity tends to cause the reader more labor than enjoyment: “the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.” And this is really the substance of Johnson’s objection to metaphysical poetry: it does not please, it does not move, it does not bring delight. He states that “they were not successful in representing or moving the affections.” He calls them “men of learning, and to show their learning was their whole endeavor.” Thus, they “fail to give delight, by their desire of exciting admiration,” and their talents were directed “not so much to move the affections as to exercise the understanding.” In those portions of their work which are most distinctive, the poetry of the metaphysicals is marked most prominently by the fatal characteristic of frigidity.

Johnson submits the evidence for his case, in the form of numerous quotes—drawn chiefly from the work of Donne and Cowley—which illustrate the veracity of his charges. Johnson’s descriptions would apply equally to the work of the early modernists, if they were quoted in the place of their seventeenth-century forbears. So, for instance, where Johnson writes, “as the authors of this race were perhaps more desirous of being admired than understood, they sometimes drew their conceits from recesses of learning not very much frequented by common readers of poetry,” we can substitute, for the lines of Cowley and Donne cited in proof by Johnson, almost the entirety of Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” such as:

The tea-rose tea-gown, etc.
Supplants the mousseline of Cos,
The pianola “replaces”
Sappho’s barbitos.

Where Johnson writes “of thoughts so far-fetched, as to be not only unexpected but unnatural, all their books are full,” we can cite Wallace Stevens’s “ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea” from “The Idea of Order at Key West,” or from Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead”:

Night is the beginning and the end
And in between the ends of distraction
Waits mute speculation, the patient curse
That stones the eyes, or like the jaguar leaps
For his own image in a jungle pool, his victim.

And just in case anyone thinks that these criticisms pertain only to the work produced by the first generation of moderns, or that the legacy of their revolution had waned in influence, we can peruse the work of the so-called poets who are most prominent in our day, and easily discover there dozens of such violently unnatural passages. Thus Richard Wilbur in “Objects”:

Oh maculate, cracked, askew,
Gay-pocked and potsherd world
I voyage, where in every tangible tree
I see afloat among the leaves, all calm and curled,
The Cheshire smile which sets me fearfully free.

And these lines from Geoffrey Hill’s “Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England”: “Autumn resumes the land, ruffles the woods / with smoky wings, entangles them.”

So if we grant to Leavis the fundamental stylistic affinity between metaphysical poetry and modernist poetry, we must add that all of the objections which may be fairly made against the metaphysical style can also be fairly made against modernism. Indeed, those criticisms must be magnified, because poets like Donne and Cowley did mix among their exotic imagery a lyric sweetness which they gleaned from the dominant strain of poetry in their ages; the modernists emulated only the strangeness of the metaphysicals, and left the sweetness behind. Moreover, whereas the unnatural violence of the metaphysicals exhausts itself in imagery, that of the modernists extends to the totality of language—discursive sequence, syntax, and even grammar, as in Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”: “behaving as the wind behaves / No nearer.” We might say that modernism is the quintessence of the very worst spirit running through the metaphysicals.

And if the metaphysicals were culpable of frigidity, how much more culpable, then, should the modernists stand? They are, indeed, the masters of frigidity, whose work, though it may occasionally evoke admiration or stimulate the understanding, can never move, can never please, can never delight. No reader was ever truly moved by a line of Eliot or Pound or Stevens or Wilbur or Hill. And this is to assert nothing less than that these writers have failed to fulfill the most basic and incumbent duty of a poet. Then the verdict which must ultimately be pronounced of these writers, and of their present-day disciples, is the same verdict which Johnson pronounced upon the metaphysicals: they “lose their right to the name of poets.” The work of the modernists may sometimes be a clever puzzle; it may sometimes be an accurate testimony to the discord of its historical epoch; but it can never be called poetry by those who understand and love what poetry has always been.  

Mark Anthony Signorelli is an Editor-at-Large at Front Porch Republic and a contributing editor at the New English Review. His poetry has appeared in the Evansville Review, the Publican of Philadelphia, and the New English Review. His website is markanthonysignorelli.com.

Posted: November 13, 2011 in Essays.

The ... conservative is concerned, first of all, for the regeneration of spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at its highest.

Russell Kirk

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