Like most other kinds of writing, literary criticism is subject to its own successive spells of fashion, styles, and movements bred by the society it is born into. It seems a long time now since the days of the ideological critic: men like George Lukács on the European continent, Lionel Trilling in America, George Orwell and F.R. Leavis in England. They coincided in part with the New Criticism of T.S. Eliot and I.A. Richards and the tutelary spirits of Kenyon College, where both Robert Lowell and Anthony Hecht studied under that fine poet and teacher John Crowe Ransom. The next wave, as it were, consisted of the philosophers of “literary theory,” many of them French, like Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Now literary theory, too, seems to have had its day. There is not much trace of it, or indeed of combative ideology, in the three admirable books of criticism under review.
What they have in common instead is a gift of the closest attention to the artistic detail, to what Ruskin must have had in mind when he stated that the critic could not go wrong if he began by looking at and studying the smallest things. It is in this spirit that Denis Donoghue takes a close look at the idea of beauty, and Anthony Hecht shares with Christopher Ricks, the critic to whom he dedicates Melodies Unheard, an almost uncanny sense of the mysteries of poetic implication, of what we intuit and respond to without seeming actually to hear; or conversely, and to put it another way, what we are aware of in poetry without quite knowing how and why we are aware of it. Thomas Campion, the Jacobean poet and composer, believed that English poetry should not rhyme, and indeed wrote a treatise to that effect; but I nonetheless have the feeling, and I’m sure many other readers have it too, that in Campion’s poetry “rhymes” can nonetheless be heard, or rather unheard, by what Keats called “the spirit” rather than the “sensual ear.” They, the rhymes, seem to be invisibly or spiritually there, even as the poet-composer avoided them:
Rose-cheekt Lawra, come,
Sing thou smoothly with thy beawties
Silent musick, either other
Rhymes unheard are a kind of “silent musick,” as is the beauty itself of the young girl. Campion’s verse is a wonderful example of the poet-critic Anthony Hecht’s profound though deceptively simple thesis: that all poetry worthy of the name works on us not only through the sense of the poem on the page, but through something that can only be fathomed through the deepest, almost unconscious, symmetries of our own mental process. We read, respond to, perhaps enjoy the poem, but it has another and a different silent life in the mind, into which it may leap like a fish escaping into water, or may on occasion be rejected and left outside. This is why “Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry” is the correct and accurate subtitle of Hecht’s book.
The mysterious linkage between Keats’s “melodies unheard” and poetic form, shape, convention, and tradition is the theme by which Hecht finds himself both fascinated and challenged. He begins, in his introduction, by making one matter abundantly clear. Quoting Ruskin’s dictum that bad pictures fall into two categories—the weakly and passively bad, and the energetically and actively bad—he observes that bad poetry today is usually, or at least strenuously attempts to be, of the energetic and active kind. “Under the pretext of freeing themselves from the bondage of prosodic and formal considerations,” many poets choose to avoid “the very obvious risks entailed by submission to form and meter.” It is literally safer to play the poetic role of independent radical. (Hecht tells us that “one such radical has recently affirmed that anyone who observes formal constraints” in the writing of verse “is unambiguously a fascist.”)
What the argument comes to in fact, although Hecht does not say so directly, is that “melodies unheard” only become so by slipping under the net of some kind of poetic formality and proportion, constraint or craftsmanship, on which their escape nonetheless depends. Only thus do we begin to hear the “secret harmonies” of the mystics, referred to by Anthony Powell in the last books of his great series A Dance to the Music of Time. The easy, or what Hecht so tellingly calls the “safer,” way out is for the poet to attempt a knockout blow at the outset to stun, alarm, possibly even to delight the reader, and this seems the special temptation today: indeed it has been tempting ever since Diaghilev issued to Jean Cocteau the dangerous but tempting injunction “Étonne-moi.” Where poetry is concerned it is far easier to astonish us for a moment than to calm and satisfy us, as Matthew Arnold said only great poetry can, with the long-lasting magic of words and their melodies.
Unlike Helen Vendler, who interestingly marshals her own detailed analyses by considering the idea of a poet’s first definitive masterpiece, Hecht gives us successive essays on poems or poets whose connection with the generality of his theme is various and subtle. Every page has some new felicity to offer us, like this, for instance, on the underworld relation between the sonnet form and the forms seen in nature or art:
W.H. Auden once raised this puzzle of the sonnet’s survival powers and asked us to speculate about how to account for it. He himself volunteered the very probing and suggestive notion that there must be manifest in the proportions of some familiar natural objects (say, the trunk of certain trees in relation to the crown of their branches and leaves) a ratio that corresponded in some way that we unconsciously recognized to the proportions of the two parts of a Petrarchan sonnet to one another, of the octet to the sestet, of eight to six.
A question, in fact, of proportional relationship, which we are, as it were, aware of without noticing. In his book On the Laws of the Poetic Art Hecht has himself put forward the example of Vitruvius, the leading architect of Augustan Rome, who suggested that the greatest and most enduring architecture is in correspondence to the anatomy of “a well-shaped man.” The Vitruvian idea, as Hecht points out, is made explicit in Yeats’s late poem “The Statues,” where proportion becomes a mystique, urging a kind of worship upon its acolytes, so that they may even find themselves wishing to press “live lips upon a plummet-measured face.”
Parody can be the most demure as it is the most sardonic of unheard notes and chuckles. Housman was a brilliant parodist; Hecht quotes his comment in rhyme on Longfellow’s “Excelsior”:
The shades of night were falling fast
And the rain was falling faster,
When through an Alpine village passed
An Alpine village pastor…
Longfellow is in his own way a very fine poet, but his melodies, their meaning, and their morals can be heard all too clearly; and to make the point even more clear he glossed this poem with a prose commentary, explaining, rather as the Alpine village pastor himself might have done, just what lofty lessons were to be drawn from his poem “Excelsior.”
The point about a hidden harmony is that it stays hidden; our sense of the melody can only be present to us because the melody itself is not heard. That may sound a trifle obscure, but Hecht illustrates the way it works admirably in his essay on Robert Frost’s well-known poem “The Wood-Pile.” This is essentially a mystery poem, but what the mystery is, or if it exists, will never be solved. No harmony could be more silent than that, and yet the harmony itself is eloquent in the last lines of the poem.
Walking in a frozen and lonely swamp the poet finds far from anywhere “a cord of maple, cut and split” and neatly stacked to measure. Who did it and why? Maybe, the poet reflects, “someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks” had left it there—
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay.
Why these two lines should be so magically effective, why indeed the poem itself should work so eerily well, is a question explored by Hecht in a thoroughly persuasive way. The lines themselves are a magnificent example of what Ruskin called “the Pathetic Fallacy,” the attribution to unfeeling and insensate things of feeling, purpose, and intent. Who and where is the ghostly figure who so cherishingly assembled the woodpile in so unpromising a spot? As Hecht suggests, the likelihood is that he has died, but Hecht does not add the further disquieting “fallacy” that the woodpile has itself taken on its owner’s life, being, unknown purposes. The poem retains the mystery that it only seems to reveal to the reader in its two last lines. Hecht goes on to speculate that Frost is fashioning into a poem, consciously or unconsciously, his chagrin at the indifference with which his own first book of poems, the “handiwork,” like splitting logs, “on which he spent himself,” had been received by reviewers and by the public.
Hecht is illuminating on the curiously but happily random nature of Eliot’s The Waste Land. And yet randomness, the sense of a tune with a lot of notes missed out, or overheard later, never seemed as felicitous as this:
It is…a measure of the poem’s greatness that it continues to surprise, in marked contrast to a lot of poetry which aims crudely at effects of shock and violence but which lies dead on the page at even a second reading. Eliot’s verse is subtle, intricate, and reflexive in that it returns upon itself for the fulfilment of its significance. And this is exhibited even in its singular and compelling music. Out of the first seven lines, five end with participles—in part a musical device, providing for run-on motion and continuity.
In fact Eliot became so enamored of participle-ended lines that he went on to use them in Ash Wednesday, and in choruses from his verse play The Rock.
Even more remarkable about the opening lines of The Waste Land is the way generalizations, almost as if in Vivaldi, are made about April “mixing/memory and desire,” and winter paradoxically keeping us warm, only to burst into the surprise of summer
coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten….
Who is this “we” whom we, as it were, have suddenly become? It is the oddest of shocks to find ourselves transformed into historical people, as if taking part in a musical performance; for the Starnbergersee (enchanting and melodious name) was once, in early drafts of the poem, “the clear, dark-green Königsee,…the most beautiful lake in Germany” according to Baedeker, and very close, as it happens, to Hitler’s Berchtesgaden. But the poem refers subterraneously to another and earlier story, that of the tragedy of Mayerling and Countess Marie Larisch (author of My Past, 1913), whom Eliot had met at some point, and with whom he may well have talked about the doomed Archduke Rodolph. To cap the general air of instability and triumphant insouciance in the poem (its first bizarre title, taken from Dickens, was “He Do the Police in Different Voices”), we are reminded by Hecht that much of it was worked on while the poet was being treated in Switzerland by a psychiatrist, while his first wife, Vivien, had already given signs of being seriously unstable. Where art is concerned, instability itself can, as it does here, become its own version of poise and harmony.
Hecht’s own poetry is in a sense at one with his criticism. Both share the same values and endorse, as they do in the case of T.S. Eliot, the same kind of outlook on art and life. In his review of Hecht’s last book of poems, The Darkness and the Light, A. Alvarez commented on the fact that in the Fifties of the last century, when Hecht began to take his first steps as a poet and critic, literary criticism “seemed like a noble vocation” while “the Fifties poets took their art seriously. It was a craft, a skill to be learned, a hard discipline, like drawing from life, that stayed with you no matter what you did with it later.”1 It certainly stayed with Hecht, as this latest splendid collection amply demonstrates.
Collected Later Poems comprises three slender books of his poems that have come out in the last few years—The Transparent Man, Flight Among the Tombs, and The Darkness and the Light. The second of these, with Death appearing in the form of various personae, was illustrated with twenty-two woodcuts by Leonard Baskin, small-scale masterpieces which happily reappear now in this collection. My own favorite—both for woodcut and text—is “Death the Mexican Revolutionary,” whose skull-like head and drooping cigarillo are dwarfed under an immense sombrero. Rather unexpectedly this alarming creature recommends to the epicurean gringo a delicious meal, which he had better eat quickly, however, before “a brand-new social order” arrives which will consign him to
Six cold, decisive feet
South of the border.
Hecht has many moods and many voices, all exquisitely patterned and controlled. His “Judith”—to be compared with John Crowe Ransom’s poem on the same lady—is beautiful but detests her own powers of allure and cannot overcome her dislike of men:
But at last, as fate would have it, I found a chance
To put my curse to practical advantage.
It was easy. Holofernes was pretty tight;
I had only to show some cleavage and he was done for.
Hecht is probably the most elegant poet writing in English today and also the one who obtains a perfection of effect with the least fuss.
Helen Vendler begins her brief study with a persuasive and delightful piece on the young Milton, and has no trouble in convincing us by demonstration that “L’Allegro” (but not “Il Pense-roso”) is the poet’s first indisputable masterpiece. Its sustained brio has a kind of energetic innocence about it which is like nothing else by Milton, as if he was giving himself up to pure enjoyment of his now confident talent. He mixes “high” and “low,” combining rustic fairy lore with classical allusion in the manner he had learned from Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, and combining himself as cultured young poet in the narration with an imagined peasant narrator, whose account of the helpful nocturnal goblin completely steals the show. This rustic speaker
Tells how the drudging Goblin sweat
To earn his Cream-bowl duly set,
When in one night, ere glimpse of morn
His shadowy Flail hath threshed the corn
That ten day-labourers could not end;
Then lies him down the lubber fiend.
And stretch’d out all the Chimney’s length,
Basks at the fire his hairy strength….2
Vendler is brilliant on Keats’s comparatively slow but sure practicing on the Petrarchan model, culminating in the sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” structured on only two sentences, and traveling from poetic “realms of gold” to the sharp reality of Cortez the conquistador “Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” She is equally good, by contrast, on the gradual evolution of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” wisely borrowing from Christopher Ricks’s annotated edition of Eliot’s early volume, Inventions of the March Hare, with its gnomically revealing couplet—
Do I know how I feel? Do I know what I think?
Let me take ink and paper, let me take pen and ink
—foreshadowing the young Prufrock’s famous indecision.
A melody unheard might be said to acquire a bizarre, almost jocular dimension in a famous passage of “Prufrock.” The author must have been aware of a mute but single letter on the page that, as it were, challenged his own, and accompanied it:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
is a fog-dog or dog-fog that accompanies us faithfully to the end of the passage, when it “curled once about the house, and fell asleep.” The dog is present in all but one letter of its name, an unheard companion as silent and humorous in its way as Sherlock Holmes’s dog that did not bark in the night.
It is a pity that Vendler’s book is not as long as Hecht’s, for it is equally full of perceptions and rewards that send one scurrying back to the text. So promising is the idea of a poet’s “first real poem” that one would wish it to be developed over a much wider spectrum of poetic achievement. And possibly developed at a greater length, especially in the case of a poet like Sylvia Plath, who really requires a whole book, or half of one at the least, if her achievement—or failure to achieve—is to be assessed fully and fairly. Taking one poem, “The Colossus,” as the breakthrough poem will hardly do, or at least hardly persuade even the most charitable skeptic of Plath’s overall stature when compared with the other three poets in the book. The poem, like so many of Plath’s, notably lacks that sense of surprise (not to be confused with the Cocteau and Diaghilev “astonishment”) that great poetry, and in particular the decisive breakthrough poem, should give us. It could be argued that this poem is just more Plath, standard Plath as it were. We have been here before, and we shall be here again.
Plath most certainly deserves the kind of sympathetic close criticism that Clive James, for instance, has given in several masterly essays on Philip Larkin, demonstrating, incidentally, the breakthrough point when Larkin abandoned early “Celtic” influences and began to write about what was actually happening to him day by day, rather as Lowell was to do in Life Studies. Plath has to be rescued by the critic from Plath worshipers, just as Larkin has to be rescued from the equally mindless denigration which he has received as a personality, not as a poet.
Henry James wrote a story called “The Beldonald Holbein”—one of “the little dramas of beauty,” as Denis Donoghue felicitously puts it, to which he was “especially alert.” Lady Beldonald is persuaded to have her portrait painted, and the painter has the immediate and discouraging recognition “that her life had its center in her own idea of her appearance.” She thinks, indeed she knows, that she is beautiful and worthy to be painted by Holbein. She has a friend called Mrs. Brash who is accounted plain, but the painter immediately recognizes that she is, as it were, a true Holbein, and he longs to paint her. Mrs. Brash’s “center” (James’s sense and use of names is always meaningful) is not in an idea of her own appearance. It takes an artist to perceive and admire her own kind of beauty. (I was reminded of J.M. Barrie’s story “Peter Pan,” in which the villainous Captain Hook is obsessed with the idea of “good form,” and is tormented by the thought that his humble bo’sun Smee has good form without knowing it, “which is the best form of all.” Peter Pan himself, of course, has good form, and knows it.)
Vendler’s awareness makes Lady Beldonald, like Garbo, immediately available as a beautiful object, whereas the pictorial beauty of Mrs. Brash, and the moral beauty of Bo’sun Smee, have to be looked for. But must true beauty always be unconscious of itself? It is questions like these that Denis Donoghue talks about, with a delightful informality and absence of dogma. He quotes Alexander Nehamas, a writer on aesthetics, who says that the value of beauty is always in question. We cannot, as Kant ruled, be compelled to recognize anything as beautiful. The perception of beauty is never satisfied: it remains an aspect of yearning, never fulfilled by contemplation.
The crime of modernism, according to T.J. Clark, is to assert or at least to imply that the beauty of art is a matter of mechanism, wholly divorced, as in the case of Jackson Pollock, from the human and the social. Clark, though he admired some examples of Pollock’s work, nonetheless found this view repugnant. But could not the modernist reply that the human and the social can in practice never be excluded from any artwork accomplished by a human being, even though it may be no more than Damien Hirst’s half of a dead sheep, pickled in formaldehyde? It is impossible to take an entirely aesthetic or mechanistic view of such an object, or indeed any “mechanistic” object presented as art.
Ranging around such matters as he delightfully does, Donoghue shows where his own sympathies lie by describing the critic Paul de Man, in a notable phrase, as a “grim reader,” hostile to literary pleasures, concerned only with that dread word “text,” and “moving between phenomenology and Structuralism.” Not much scope there for most people’s ideas about the beautiful. We may find Ruskin, and especially Proust on Ruskin, more sympathetic. Ruskin was not, Donoghue writes, “aesthetic at first and moral afterward”; in him morality claims its “rights within the very heart of aesthetics.” This might seem satisfying to most of us, even when we are standing, as it were, in St. Mark’s Square in Venice, the very heart of the aesthetic. (But Henry James did not think so. He called Ruskin’s writings on Venice “aids to depression” and “the work of an angry governess.”)
One of the most charming features of Denis Donoghue’s book is his appendix of “afterwords,” brief quotations on beauty from sundry writers revealing, one way or another, their view of the matter. The Russian theorist Bakhtin lends his august authority to what Donoghue’s lively conversation has been saying, or implying, all along. “Beauty does not know itself; it cannot found and validate itself—it simply is.” The same point, really, is engagingly made by another “afterword” quotation, from J.V. Cunningham’s “Four Epigrams”:
Within this mindless vault
Lie Tristan and Isolt
Tranced in each other’s beauties.
They had no other duties.
I have modernized the spelling in conformity with The Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Christopher Ricks (Oxford University Press, 1999).↩