Learning from a Modern Master

Robert Barker/Cornell University Photography
M.H. Abrams, Ithaca, New York, 2008

Hour One

During the days I spent in Cornell’s philosophy department as a graduate student in the late 1940s, I thought poorly of English departments, and believed myself, concerning literature, beyond instruction. However, after the first humbling year among the mathematically minded, I needed some relief. My fellow students were firecrackers. Their bursts of stardom lit the intellectual landscape. I was the damp fuse one lights and then impatiently waits for.

There was a class on Psychology and Lit that came recommended. So, in my armored costume of a smartass, I came to the first meeting of this class in time to hear its youthful leader, M.H. Abrams,* cite…who?—Coleridge; quoting…whom?—the Reverend James Bowyer…huh? “In the truly great poets …there is a reason assignable, not only for every word, but for the position of every word.” To meet the Principle of Sufficient Reason on my first day!

The following semester I attended Abrams’s seminar on Coleridge. We were studying the Biographia Literaria in the following fashion: each of us was assigned a book or bunch of books mentioned or consulted by Coleridge, and told to come to our sessions prepared to explain just what these references were and how they fit into the Biographia as a whole. I could not imagine a better method of approach, especially since my subject was the reception of the Lyrical Ballads of Coleridge and Wordsworth. To my new task I brought writers mostly of my own time—Eliot and Pound and Yeats, Faulkner and Joyce and Ford Madox Ford—and critics fresh from the bakery like Blackmur, Ransom, Tate, Empson, and Brooks. They taught me how to read, how to reread, even to overread—slow read and rapid read; they readied me to admire Finnegans Wake and its subsidences. Ulysses was not hard to read, just difficult to understand; Pound’s Cantos were difficult to read, therefore the proper measure of a man.

John Donne was splendid when we first set our eyes on him, but even a greater poet when we got through with our inquiries. Shelley, some said, did not vacuum very well. Congratulations for enjoying such prejudices should be directed to whom, then? Not to a “he,” not to a “him,” but to a “we” whom we called the New Critics. They also came equipped with fallacy detectors, purifiers, instruments of analysis and deduction, mops to sweep up multiple meanings: they enlarged poems, they did not diminish them. Above all, they were largely poets—good poets—themselves.

Hour Two

Many of Abrams’s essays in The Fourth Dimension of a Poem are defensive. They point to elements in poetry that are frequently overlooked, and aspects that should be attended to. They wish to protect the traditional humanist from the poststructuralist’s heavy boot. And often there is a tone not of defeat, but of hopelessness in the arguments of the opposing sides when Abrams refers to them. The issues seem so minuscule; yet one kind of thinking about literature is at war with another; the quarrel has been going on since caves were invented; and the price to the defeated side may be silence for centuries.

The poet composes the poem; the critic explains it. The poet is inspired to write the lines; the critic interprets them. But suppose, as has been proposed by followers of Jacques Derrida, there is no right reading of the work, no correct sense for it. Out of a cage of calculations, suppose we are free to choose the pigeon we like best.

It might be a rich source of amusement for a poet to wonder whether her poem about her broken heart could be interpreted as a ballad in praise of the changing seasons, or a song about pregnant girls who’ve been put in prison; but if the poem (à la Derrida) is receptive to any interpretation, the poet’s shattered heart can turn into a fistful of fluttering leaves by means of a single metaphor’s transformation; subsequently these leaves can be felt falling on prison walls with the fierceness of a heavy rain or the tears of a hundred captive nuns. Poets might not mind what interpretation is given to their words as long as honor is heaped upon them; but critics will—it will put them out of business.

Abrams says, in his collection of essays Doing Things with Texts (1989):

For Derrida…it is a matter of all-or-nothing; there is no intermediate position on which a determinate interpretation can rest, for if no meanings are absolutely certain and stable, then all meanings are unstable and undecidable.

Absurd connections produced in this way are found to be funny, however, because we still see in the various parts of these jumbles a grimacing face or a tired dog or the picture of a nun peering out a barred window onto a wet courtyard covered with scarves. And it is usually easy for a group to see hints of the same likeness in several Rorschach images. In short, amidst this chaos there still dwells some meaning. Defendable connections have been made. That is what Finnegans Wake says to its reader as the text resubsides in lengthy wavelets down the page.

I am holding up my hand in class. I want to look smart. Add something to the discussion. Dominate the game.

I was a cryptologist during World War II. We sent signals dressed in randomly selected five-letter groups. Wouldn’t these resemble Derrida’s undecidables?

Only on the face of it, young man. The wartime messages that were concealed by an outpouring of alphabets—when decoded—were expected to be as sturdy as a table, clear as tap water, short as a fuse. A periscope in an open sea implies a submarine beneath it (symbol system 1). The presence of the submarine beneath the periscope is recorded on a map that fixes the boat’s location (symbol system 2). The location of the submarine beneath the periscope is encoded (symbol system 3) and then sent by Morse (symbol system 4) to other ships that begin to take precautionary measures—zigzags (symbol systems 5, 6, 7…).

Let’s look at an actual scrap of Yeats’s composing, in this case the poem he first called “What Matter,” which was published as “The Gyres” in the 1930s:


Version 1

What matter—wrinkled rocky face look forth
What’s thought too long can be no longer thought

Version 2

What’s thought? What’s thought? Old rocky face look forth
What’s thought too long must be no longer thought

Version 3

What’s thought too long—old rocky face look forth
What’s thought too long can be no longer thought

Version 4

Old cavern man, old rocky face look forth
Things thought too long can be no longer thought

Version 5

The gyres! The gyres—old Rocky face look forth

Version 6

The gyres, the gyres—old rocky face look forth
Things thought too long can be no longer thought

Version 7

The gyres! The gyres! Old Rocky Face look forth; (a)
Things thought too long can be no longer thought (b)
For beauty dies of beauty, worth of worth, (a)
And ancient lineaments are blotted out. (b)
Irrational streams of blood are staining earth; (a)
Empedocles has thrown all things about; (b)
Hector is dead and there’s a light in Troy; (c)
We that look on but laugh in tragic joy. (c)

We can follow the starts and stops, the cancellations and erasures, of countless trials before the final version is given permanence on the printed page. It is as if Yeats were hunting for a pair of exclamatory lines with which to open the perfect poem.

The poem packs two “thoughts” in one self-reflective warning. A figure of speech floats above the text waiting for a weary line to come its way; perhaps an assertion will be asked to step forth from the page, and speak the poet’s mind. This is how a poem most often comes to be. Many other lines and pieces of later passages impinge upon what has come and what will come, each move causing an adjustment, so that the mental air is vibrating with altered refinements. Scarcely a word passes through these trials untouched.

In this case it is the biblical phrase “look forth” and the key first ideas, “things thought too long” and “can be no longer thought.” The gyres—Yeats’s word for spirals—do not blunder into the poem until version five. (In “The Second Coming,” written in 1919, the falcon flying in widening gyres cannot hear the falconer. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”)

What finally remains unchanged does not necessarily signify that the writer is satisfied with what’s been done; the perfect poem remains a wraith; nevertheless, only the poet is authorized to make changes. A magazine may purchase the rights to publish it but the author, alone, is its source. If an editor meddles, it is only by permission. In the first two lines of “The Gyres” we will find the poem’s initial title, “What Matter,” but in time this phrase will appear in the second stanza instead of the opening one.

Of course the creative atmosphere is not really crowded with ideally formed statuary or perfectly composed sonnets or tunes as frequent as bees. Yet as the artist alters lines of songs or traces a pair of thighs along a run of marble—erases, starts and stops, adds or subtracts—tries this, avoids that—to arrive more closely at some desirable station—perhaps in a baroque mannerist style such as this is—using everywhere nominalist lists because universals have been discarded—the artist’s actions will be as if the perfect instance did exist, as if a goal did persist—if only…

Hour Three

Roughly, back in the day, the writer created the text and spelled its edges; the critic presented it, assisted with its reading; and the reader—well—the reader read, another skill as important, and as rarely done well, as that of the art of writing itself. Whatever torture the poem went through was allegedly for its own good; the critic had to admire the more deeply understood poem that he had helped create by his efforts at understanding; but that was easy enough to do because most of the people analyzing and admiring were poets themselves; they may have been opponents of other critics but not of the poems, or the poets who wrote them either, or of readers eager to be taught.

Cleanth Brooks might write a book entitled A Shaping Joy. Imagine the shaping. Imagine the joy. Little did writers, readers, or critics suspect that in all those works, whose art had enlivened their lives, there lurked contradictions as friendly to the face as Iago’s, and as treacherous. Nor did he imagine that these beloved works were the habitations of spurious ideals, and exhibited such bad housekeeping that they gave readers license to muck about. This stirring of the pot was called “deconstruction” and its victims sometimes blamed the French, a few the pot.

Language departments swiftly succumbed because, apparently, they had nothing else to do, but they were also weary of the New Criticism, now old, and still an apparent opponent of scholarly, biographic approaches. This French import’s managed coup has been much argued in the academy. Abrams has examined these enthusiasms with his customary fairness in “Construing and Deconstructing,” an essay in Doing Things with Texts, as well as in The Fourth Dimension of a Poem. I hope to be excused for my cavalier treatment of deconstruction but I am overcome with gaiety at its departure.

Abrams quotes J. Hillis Miller (one of the spokespersons for the method) telling us what he’s up to:

The deconstructive critic seeks to find…the element in the system studied which is alogical, the thread in the text in question which will unravel it all, or the loose stone which will pull down the whole building.

In kindergarten, I was constructing a tower of blocks that an envious brat kicked over. This dismayed me, and I was ready to kick him in return, when he popped a couple of the letters of the alphabet into his pockets. I accused him of theft in front of our teacher. Upon examination Miller’s sentence is as stuffed as that kid’s pants.

(1) The deconstructive critic seeks to find… “Seek and ye shall find” is the saying he is thinking of but here he doesn’t need both seeking and finding, one will do. “Find” is perhaps too confident.

(2) The deconstructive critic seeks the element in the system studied… More padding. “System” is sufficient.

(3) The deconstructive critic seeks the element in the system that is alogical, the thread in the text in question… What other text are we talking about? “In question…” is a phrase that can go without capsizing the boat. By the way, “alogical” is a fancyfied word for “indifferent to logic.”

(4) The deconstructive critic seeks the element in the system that is alogical, the thread which will unravel it all. All of it? The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, for instance, uncoiling coils of snake? Or, with a yank on “the loose stone” pull down a volume of Faulkner? The statement seems to be widely directed, but just in case, how about deconstructing something by Longfellow, who always seems to have a solidly personal point of view?

(5) The deconstructive critic finds the thread in the system that will unravel it, or the loose stone which will pull down the whole building. Even those tales told by Edgar Allan Poe or his carefully plotted raven poem? Moreover looseness doesn’t pull. If removed, the building collapses from its own weight. Which is it going to be? The system is either a building or a sweater. The two metaphors—thread or stone—refuse to marry. May I suggest another image: in some cases the text may act like a wave that washes over us, followed by the undertow that draws us back. Fads do that too.

‘Samuel Taylor Coleridge, table-talking’; drawing by Max Beerbohm

An analysis of the sort I have just dragged you—the reader—through is clear and orderly by one kind of measure but tedious and skippable by another. Especially skippable are the spots where the critic is endeavoring to explain the beauties of a poem’s sound, as Abrams must do in the essay “The Fourth Dimension of a Poem”:

Time is a healer; but the dimming of grief in the passage of time can make us feel guilty, as though it impugned the depth of our love. In the sharpness of his self-blame, the poet (in the fourth dimension of his language) belabors himself with a barrage of blunt, bilabial b’s—how “have I been so beguiled as to be blind/To my most grievous loss!”

The first sentence is as easy as a playground slide. The second sentence is as bumpy as a cobbled street.

Hour Four

Several of the essays in Abrams’s splendid collection take issue with Theory (thus it asks to be named) in a temperate, careful, patient, and comprehensible way, turning some significant literary conflicts into lots of fun. Customarily we read without impediment—Abrams’s essay is an example—a brief bit of verse by Wordsworth, written, the page says, during 1779–1780 in Germany, and called “A slumber did my spirit seal.”

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

Our task is to interpret these two stanzas (that is, translate English into English, poetry into prose, subject into predicate—from what does it sing to what does it say?). The site is the seminar at Cornell directed by Abrams and the philosopher Max Black. Fortunately, they turn out to be of opposing opinions. The real adversaries are—in order of nonsensical inflation because their statements are quite general—Harold Bloom, who is at least brief and blunt and characteristically certain: “There are no right readings.” This statement resembles other rhetorical hyperbs: “There are no honest men.” Stanley Fish breathes into the balloon: “Any procedure that attempts to determine which of a number of readings is correct will necessarily fail.” I should have thought that the bully’s bag of marbles was as varied in aim and point of view as those from whom he has snatched his collection.

Jacques Derrida: “In any text, the inescapable absence of a transcendental signified extends the…play of signification to infinity.” Boy, is that designed to buffalo. Paul de Man is cagey but after all he has reason to be: “We no longer take for granted that a literary text can be reduced to a finite meaning or set of meanings, but see the act of reading as an endless process in which truth and falsehood are inextricably intertwined.” If what he meant here was that, like Borges’s Pierre Menard, each age would be reading certain passages in their own way, then a smiling assent might be in order; but de Man does not mean anything so remarkably sensible.

Miller is a little clearer than usual. He denies that “any work has a fixed, identifiable meaning…. Any reading can be shown to be a misreading on evidence drawn from the text itself.” I wonder how he knows that. Has he examined the books in the library and found it to be so? How weary these words “no,” “all,” and “any” must be, trapped in such endless and inescapable paragraphs.

At the actual issue is this: four other poems of Wordsworth’s, lurking nearby, suggest that this fifth one also concerns “Lucy” although she is unnamed. In the first Lucy verses, death is foretold; in the second, her death is announced; in the third, she is remembered; in the fourth, Lucy, in Death, is married to Nature. Now we’ve reached the final poem. Does the “she” in line three stand for the lady in the first four or does it refer to “my” (also unnamed but believed to be Wordsworth’s) spirit? Professor Abrams carries out the investigation with admirable thoroughness. Its procedure is an education.

The reader of this essay will have to consult Abrams and Black to learn the outcome. I would hate to give away the result. But in the process, the critic calls for evidence from Wordsworth’s other poems as well as the help of the poet’s household habits. Here, the intentions of the poet do matter. The New Criticism, in its heyday, threw out such sources instead of sifting them for reliability and value. The cultural envelopes that poems come in are not always misleading and useless. Sometimes society, psychology, commerce, and custom contribute to a text like manners at a banquet. That (1) Wordsworth’s poem is the length of an epitaph; that (2) it is surrounded by others concerned with the death of a young girl; and that (3) it has been placed in a larger group of stanzas that (4) are set in cemeteries—these are important factors in its appreciation.

Hour Five

My favorite essay in Abrams’s present gathering is the one on Hazlitt, partly because it is so well done but also because Hazlitt is a walking contradiction: “gauche, graceless, suspicious” (Abrams), the “most restless of the English romantics” (David Bromwich, whose book, Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic, Abrams is reviewing), “brow-hanging, shoe-contemplative, strange” (Coleridge), who exhibited “great impartiality of assault” (Leigh Hunt), yet is “one of the wisest and finest spirits breathing” (Lamb), who nonetheless bad-mouths his hero, Coleridge (another kind of walking contradiction), a treachery that I will not tolerate although I am, like Hazlitt, a pickypecky short-breathed sentence peddler. You should take note of how I got my name pinned to the end of this notable line of critics. Abrams sums up the situation:

It is difficult to call Hazlitt a critical impressionist without seeming to derogate his achievement, because we tend to apply the term to critics who substitute their own reveries for qualities of the work they ostensibly discuss.

I draw my hands down and hide them behind my back.

Great orators and masters of rhetoric like Edmund Burke are capable of overcoming the distaste the public may have for their Tory politics so that they may admire, against their will, sheer eloquence. Two interests collide: a political side that Burke wants to persuade his reader to take, and the beauty of his prose, which takes his audience into a realm of pure appreciation, rather than any room of belief. Burke happily greets his message but he embraces his messenger; it is his messenger who gets introduced all round; it is his message that is left to sit in a quiet corner of the party practicing smiles of acceptance.

Hazlitt tends to bring to his subjects an eye unfettered by any ideology. Literary works, furthermore, are not in artistic competition with one another. The race is run against time, not the winds of public approval; the light of one star does not extinguish the glimmer of another. Nor should one sort of writing shoulder another out of the crowded car, as Abrams quotes Hazlitt:

To know the best in each class infers a higher degree of taste; to reject the class is only a negation of taste; for different classes do not interfere with one another.

Hazlitt would grant to poetry the powers of oratory and successfully demonstrates the way social structures are embedded in poetic enterprises: epic and tragic for kings and princesses, as Aristotle had suggested, because only people with great power and importance should serve as the subjects of serious plays. Landed gentry, I suppose, get the pastoral. So when Wordsworth dips into the rustic’s vocabulary, he is deliberately drawing disgrace down upon the given cultural position of poetry. However, he is dependent, as well, on the simple life of the serf for the effect his condescension enjoys, including the chastisement of his critics. Wasn’t it complained of Stephen Spender that he wrote a poem about the gas works? I don’t remember with any confidence now. Maybe it was about an aerodrome. Hazlitt says of Wordsworth’s vocabulary:

His Muse…is a leveling one. It proceeds on a principle of equality…. His popular, inartificial style gets rid (at a blow) of all the trappings of verse, of all the high places of poetry…. Kings, queens, priests, robes, the altar and the throne…are not to be found here.

Once upon a time, the writer might have the ear of an emperor or a pope, or possess a pulpit from which to proclaim, like Donne, his Christian message. He almost certainly had a patron to protect him; but in our time the power of the poet has been successfully confined, by the indifference of commerce and readers, to the page. He is free to experiment as he pleases; not even the street’s language is refused him or any imaginable subject. He is encouraged to ignore the requirements of rhythm, rhyme, repetition, or alliteration, consonance, assonance, onomatopoeia, metaphor, simile, or anything apparently rhetorical. In short, when he writes he scatters the page with prose and calls it lyric.

Hour Six

In the essay that gives his collection its title, Abrams describes the four dimensions of a poem. The First Dimension: what you see when you open a book, namely words in rhythmic patterns, prominent pieces of punctuation (!), and other signs that poetry is about to be committed. A special voice may be prepared; it is usually pumped full of breathy air. The Second Dimension: the sound of the words when read or when said subvocally. The Third Dimension: the immediate meaning of the words, including some of their ambiguities. The Fourth Dimension: the enunciation of those words as the ideal reader ought properly to speak them, for instance when reading Burns or using dialect as in Dickens.

Most words are made with the sounds of the alphabet and those sounds bear no more connection to their meaning than rattles to square roots. However, continuous use (over centuries sometimes) creates the sense of a close connection. The sound “bloom” and the meaning “bloom” are an agreeable pair. Enunciation is everything in Wallace Stevens’s little punning exercise from “Poesie Abrutie”:

The water puddles puddles are
And ice is still in Februar.
It still is ice in Februar.

Abrams’s examples are splendid (Auden, Dickinson, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Dowson, Ammons). The choice of Ernest Dowson is somewhat surprising because “Cynara” (“Gone with the Wind”) is an anthology favorite, and the poem lost its legitimacy by becoming a book title; but peering through the popularity we can discern a real poem there.

Keats and then Hopkins are two masters of the vocal aspect of poetry, and each reader will have his or her favorite examples. I should say first that it is shocking that many who today call themselves poets neglect the speechifying aspect of the art—when it is not an aspect of the art but, along with the music of the meaning, is the heart of the art. Listen to the way “The Eve of St. Agnes” begins and enjoy perfection.

St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.

January 20—St. Agnes Eve. The date is no empty square on the calendar. The lines fill with frozen grass, shivering plants, birds, wild and domestic animals, man, his prayer beads, his breath, like the soul it once symbolized—the words for each participant painted on the paper, sung where the choir sits.

Even if the reader goes no farther than these nine lines, he or she will feel the poet’s sensuous skill, and the immaculate marriage of sound and sense. Reread how the hare limps into the following stanza whose scansion repeats the cold conclusion of the first: “His prayer he saith….” Every living thing has been slowed to a stop by the cold. How cold? “The sculptur’d dead” will be aroused so they may feel it too.

His prayer he saith, this patient, holy man;
Then takes his lamp, and riseth from his knees,
And back returneth, meagre, barefoot, wan,
Along the chapel aisle by slow degrees:
The sculptur’d dead, on each side, seem to freeze,
Emprison’d in black, purgatorial rails:
Knights, ladies, praying in dumb orat’ries,
He passeth by; and his weak spirit fails
To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails.

The knights and ladies first must die, then they are returned to life by the sculptor in order to be frozen again on January 20. The reader will find a bunch of Abrams’s instructive examples, juicy, each of them, and, by analysis, carefully skinned, such as Autumn, in its famous ode, “sitting careless on a granary floor,/Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind.”

I am reciting lines I first saw when I bought a volume of Keats at Cornell in 1948. Looking at the book now, since I still have it at hand, I remember how I more than once walked from Professor Abrams’s class not just refreshed, but reassured about a life I was trying to dislike.

  1. *

    I have learned only recently that he is known to everyone as “Mike,” but he was Professor Abrams to me, and then became identified by his initials, M.H.A., when his books came out. I see no reason why he should remember now a W.H.G. However, my ignorance is a measure of the distance between us.