R.P. Blackmur was much possessed by failure, by what René Wellek calls an insight into human insufficiency. Perhaps the most brilliant member of a brilliant generation of critics—he was born in 1904, died in 1965—Blackmur worried more than any of them over what can’t be said, can’t be faced, over the places in history and personal life where hope winds down and possibilities seem to die. “We burn the last dry lifewood of the mind,” he wrote in a poem in 1945; but he was always doing that, and then finding life after all in the ashes. His criticism was, as Denis Donoghue has said, a way of postponing failure, but it was also a way of probing and celebrating it, of turning it into a distinctive glory. Blackmur wished he could show, “clearly, self-evidently, and irrefutably,” how criticism resembles art.

But only revelation can do all that. I think it has something to do with radical imperfection. I risk it that in literary criticism you get the radical imperfection of the intellect striking on the radical imperfection of the imagination.

Radical imperfection looks like a desperate cousin of original sin, and yet could be a mercy after all, since it may save us from delusions of sufficiency and from all the quicker, soothing forms of failure. “Most failures come too easily,” Blackmur sternly wrote. “A genuine failure comes hard and slow, and, as in a tragedy, is only fully realized at the end.” And again: “Pascal is not a great man manqué; he is a great man, and also manqué.” No success like failure, as Bob Dylan used to drone.

Blackmur was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, and spent most of his early life in Cambridge. He left school at fourteen and received no further formal education. He learned much of what he knew (which was a lot) in the bookstores where he worked for several of his young years. Honors descended on him later in life—he was a full professor at Princeton, adviser to the Rockefeller Foundation, lecturer to the Library of Congress, member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences—but he retained, as Russell Fraser suggests in his intelligent, slightly cryptic biography,* the mild pedantry of the self-taught, the habit of reaching for the dictionary and the arcane word. He was a mandarin, but an upstart mandarin. His major critical work was done early, in the 1930s, when he was widely taken (by Eliot, Winters, Tate, and others) to be the best reader modern poetry had found. He had, Fraser says, what Blackmur himself called a prehensile imagination, able to wrap itself around its object, “like the monkey’s tail on the branch, or the fingers on the ladder rung when the foot slips.” Blackmur was an editor of the magazine Hound and Horn for part of its brief life (1927–1934: it started at Harvard, then moved to New York). He eked out a precarious free-lance existence through the Thirties, sustained by his wife’s teaching and painting jobs; then held a series of short-term appointments at Princeton (in creative arts, at the Institute for Advanced Study) before reaching the haven of the English department there in 1948 and tenure in 1951. Fraser has stern words for Blackmur’s later writing:

A lot of late Blackmur is high-toned journalism, and you feel as you read it how a great critic is losing his way.

Leslie Fiedler told Fraser that he thought Blackmur had invented his late style so that he himself wouldn’t know when he was making sense and when he was making nonsense. There is something in this. The late prose acquires all sorts of fuss and manner. Blackmur writes that “when we come to Lorca something has happened to the Western mind,” and the pompousness of the phrase makes Eliot’s efforts in the same vein seem models of modesty. But there was fuss in Blackmur’s early work too (“a susurrus of irony,” the word ail used as a noun, as in “Adams was in the worse ail”), and even in the very latest work a fine agility persists, a gift for so holding a thought to the light that it shows angles you had not dreamed of and can scarcely count. He understood what he himself called “the seriousness of frivolity,” and in his teaching, Frazer says, was “unwilling to condescend—unable by temperament.” In his classes at Princeton, his students “didn’t always know what he was talking about, but even the least of them knew himself in the presence of a mind turning over.”

Blackmur published three volumes of verse (collected as Poems of R.P. Blackmur, Princeton, 1977), and five volumes of criticism: The Double Agent (1935); The Expense of Greatness (1940); Language as Gesture (1952); The Lion and the Honeycomb (1955); Eleven Essays in the European Novel (1964). Since his death more essays have been assembled in A Primer of Ignorance (1967), and his work on Henry Adams and Henry James has been gathered into two separate books, published in 1980 and 1983 respectively. Blackmur spent a good portion of his life, from about 1936, not completing his book on Adams—some seven hundred pages of manuscript exist, of which the 1980 book offers, in Donoghue’s words, “the most finished parts.”


Blackmur’s preface to Eleven Essays, apologizing for that work as “fragments of an unfinished ruin,” hints, perhaps unintentionally, at the great attraction of the perfectly unrealizable project, the right sort of failure. His original scheme, he says, “a volume each on Dostoyevsky, Joyce and James, two volumes on the European novel, one on the English and one on the American novel,” no longer seems to him “feasible or perhaps desirable to complete.” Feasibility can’t really have loomed very large in his thoughts, and a few more fragments, in any case, won’t do any harm. He will, he writes, put together

something on Gide, Kafka, Broch, Proust, Balzac and Stendhal; something more on Tolstoy and Joyce; something on Smollett, Jane Austen, George Eliot and Conrad; and of course a small set of studies on James.

And then—Blackmur has the bit between his teeth now—“something on Don Quixote and something on that most lyric and exotic of all novels, The Tale of Genji.” All those somethings. What is charming about the list is Blackmur’s evident affection for all its contents, the pleasure he promises himself. The marvel is that with this dream of infinite reading in his head he should have written anything at all.

Blackmur’s poems were derivative at first, full of echoes of Pound and Yeats and Eliot, but became elegant and individual, if a little cramped; witty as Blackmur’s prose is through a mixture of snappy and abstract language. Often the poems recount private choices, errors of attempted wisdom in love, economies of emotion. The heart exaggerates, we learn, tenderness is better than fury and foam, we can know one another without injury and bewilderment, “Or so we plead—we who have married reason / on desperate cause, when the heart’s cause was lost.” From such marriages, in the end, both reason and the heart defect. But the poems also contemplate politics and history, a world trying to rise again from the ruins of war, and they recommend a casualness which seems all the more desirable because the poet has to study it so hard. “The Dead Ride Fast,” for example, is a fine poem about “the inviolable standstill / everything comes to,” and the writer’s decision to be “deliberately unprepared” until the last day, when he will be just as prepared as we all have to be at that time:

Perhaps you don’t catch what I mean. Look here.
There have been bats in this house, variously
crawling and flitting, not easy to get out,
but always bats whether you knew them or not;
there have been seabirds beat against the window,
bill on, some die, but mostly only stun;
ducks in the marsh, with their known unknowable voices;
also telegrams delivered at night;
all these are wholesome until you stiffen to meet them.
You understand: I will not make of politics
a superstition, of religion a distrust,
of thought a mania. I will not look under beds
with stiffened eyes, knowing what I shall see.

Denis Donoghue’s generous selection of essays includes chapters from Eleven Essays on Crime and Punishment and Mann’s Doctor Faustus, as well as the promised “something” on Stendhal, a rather willful and crotchety piece on The Charterhouse of Parma. But the selection mainly concentrates, I’m sure rightly, on Blackmur’s work on modern poetry and on Henry Adams and Henry James. It is a pity not to have “Anni Mirabiles,” the four lectures on modernism Blackmur gave at the Library of Congress in 1956, which I know Donoghue admires as much as I do. But they are dense and difficult and patchy, and perhaps not the best place to start with this critic.

Blackmur on poetry was strict and haughty, but not self-righteous. The Selected Essays opens with a well-known essay defining criticism as “the formal discourse of an amateur…it names and arranges what it knows and loves.” It also, with occasional waspish wit, says what it can’t love: Cummings’s vagueness, for example, his “confused” relation to language; the “despotically construed emotions” besetting Hart Crane and a whole age in love with raw experience. Emily Dickinson wrote a “kind of vers de société of the soul.” She and Whitman were geniuses, no doubt, but they didn’t find a satisfactory form for their sense of the world, and didn’t even—here is the mischievous twist—seem to miss it. “The great bulk of the verse of each appears to have been written on the sustaining pretense that everything was always possible.”


The heresy of success could hardly be taken further. Literature for Blackmur was getting things into vivid language, or into shape, an attempt to “realize in word and images obdurate things,” as a poem puts it. The task requires not a mastery of language but a trust in it: “The only mastery possible to the poet consists in that entire submission to his words which is perfect knowledge.” Wallace Stevens makes us “aware of how much is already condensed in any word,” and

An author should remember, with the Indians, that the reality of a word is anterior to, and greater than, his use of it can ever be; that there is a perfection to the feelings in words to which his mind cannot hope to attain.

Poetry, Blackmur insisted, “is life at the remove of form and meaning; not life lived but life framed and identified.” And for poets it is “the only means of putting a tolerable order upon the emotions.”

And yet Blackmur argues that order itself, the dream of form, is a burden, an oppressive fiction. Pascal suggests to him “a sense of the intolerableness of even the most necessary order,” and “the only sound orders,” in Blackmur’s view, “are those which invite as well as withstand disorder.” Form for him was not a prescription or a fixed final shape but something like a spiritual exercise, a demand to be made of life and of ourselves. He writes most persuasively not about achievements of form of failures of form but about battles for form: Yeats making magic do the work of faith; James creating in his stories a company he could not find among his contemporaries; Eliot discovering hints of order in the randomly shuffled world. Magic, Blackmur says, is really nearer to us than psychology will ever be. “We are all, without conscience, magicians in the dark.” James and his father were fastidious, idealistic Americans, “dissenters to all except the society that was not yet.” And a “drift of stars” in Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” provokes this extraordinary commentary:

Drift is a deep dominance from a force outside knowledge—it is occult knowledge showing—and contrary or across other forces; like a current, like a tide; like what the current brings—strange movements in calm, the debris, the flotsam, in a drift of order.

The last phrase specifies the paradox. Order is caught up in flux, in an encounter with what Blackmur often called “behavior,” the immediate, higgledy-piggledy substance of lived life.

It is the actual behavior of things that willy-nilly gets into poetry, and what poetry does to behavior is to give it some sort of order, good for the time, or the life, of the poem.

And again:

Poetry is as near as words can get us to our behavior: near enough so that the words sing…. It is behavior, getting into our words, that sings.

The order and the singing should be as beautiful as possible, but they will necessarily fail, be toppled by the sheer sprawl of the mind and the world and language:

Thought asks too much and words tell too much; because to ask anything is to ask everything, and to say anything is to ask more. It is the radical defect of thought that it leaves us discontented with what we actually feel—with what we know and do not know—as we know sunlight and surfeit and terror, all at once perhaps, and yet know nothing of them.

We need to look at Blackmur’s rhetoric of failure, for it is central to his thinking and critical practice. It certainly contains an element of snobbery about mere mortal success, and it works its grand pathos very hard. “Success,” Blackmur says in a discussion of Henry Adams,

is not the propitious term for education unless the lesson wanted is futile…. Surely the dominant emotion of an education, when its inherent possibilities are compared with those it achieved, must strike the honest heart as the emotion of failure…failure in the radical sense that we cannot consciously react to more than a minor fraction of the life we yet deeply know and endure and die.

Well yes, if such grand possibilities really are inherent and if we place that sort of premium on conscious reaction. But the honest heart might well experience the emotion of modest success if it had honestly done all it possibly could. Donald Davie, expressing a similar reservation about Blackmur’s thought, said Blackmur was after poetry not poems. He looks for

a quality or condition of language never exemplified without some adulteration in even the greatest poems, seen there only by glimpses, by fits and starts, a fortunate visitation in some one line or snatch of lines.

This is not perfectionism but a kind of love affair with the unavailable, and Blackmur, thinking again of Adams, spoke of “the guilt of what we are not, and cannot ascertain, rather than the guilt of what we are.” This is the guilt of Kafka’s Trial, and the screws tighten into masochism when we read, in Blackmur’s essay on Adams, a phrase like “His heart’s hope was his soul’s despair.” This sounds like luxury living in what Lukács called the Grand Hotel of the Abyss. But at his best, and even here in the midst of these tortured demands, Blackmur is also saying something a good deal more powerful and even liberating. “Every significant word,” he asserts, is “necessarily equivocal,” and the word failure comes to include ordinary failure and much of what we mean by success, and still serves, if we are able to take it sternly and simply enough, as a memento of human limits, a reminder of all that really can’t be grasped or said or loved. Henry Adams knew precisely this, in Blackmur’s view:

That is the greatness of Adams as a type of mind. As it is a condition of life to die, it is a condition of thought, in the end, to fail. Death is the expense of life and failure is the expense of greatness.

Denis Donoghue is right to say that none of this adds up to a method or depends on a theory—Stevens thought that Blackmur’s fault as an expositor of ideas was that he didn’t know what his ideas were—but I’m not sure Blackmur can be conscripted for the role of anti-theorist Donoghue has in mind for him:

It is odd and therefore exhilarating that we are reading Blackmur more ardently than ever in conditions which he would have reproved. He flourished in an Age of Criticism, but he would not have borne in patience an Age of Theory.

I hope it’s true that many are reading Blackmur ardently, and of course it’s true that he disliked what he called “easy theory and outmastering dogma”; that he insisted that Dante’s “habit…of imagination” was “not a theory.” But he also said, “Theory is primarily a way of looking at things, especially a fruitful way; it need not be a world view.” Theory is a blurred word, and currently one of our great academic temptations, a contemporary retreat into Axel’s castle. As for experience, our students, or the readers of The New York Review, will tackle that for us. Theory is a late instance of the “technique of trouble” Blackmur saw in modern disciplines like psychology, anthropology, sociology: a means of “finding trouble in ourselves and in the world,” as if we hadn’t trouble enough. Blackmur suggested that the very title of Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life was a lie. He meant, I take it, that the everyday cannot be a pathology, since it is just what there is. And if we call it a pathology, we lose its ordinariness, turn it into a lair of monsters. This is what the poem I quoted earlier resists as “stiffening”: superstition, distrust, mania. Solidified theory risks encouraging this in literature and elsewhere, and needs opposing whenever the risks arise.

But to say, as Donoghue does, that Blackmur “didn’t want a theory near him” is to go a little too far, to make Blackmur seem less of a speculator than he was, less interested in the traffic of the mind with events and feelings. Donoghue was closer to the sense of this work, I would suggest, when he wrote (in his introduction to the poems) that Blackmur sought “not to enlarge the scope of his knowledge but to practice different ways of knowing.” This is exactly what Blackmur’s style is up to, but the practice itself reflects a theoretical interest—at least I don’t know what else to call it.

Still, there are difficulties in such a claim, as James T. Jone’s book on Blackmur shows. Wayward Skeptic gives a sensible and coherent exposition of Blackmur’s ideas on language, convention, poetry, criticism, and some individual authors. Jones also looks briefly at Blackmur’s poems and at his critical style. The book at times seems to be too much an anthology of quotations, but Blackmur offers unusual lures in this respect, and Jones deals clearly with some elusive concepts. “Art, for Blackmur,” he says, “is among other things intellect purged of its resistance to paradox.” He notes the permanent “provisionality” of Blackmur’s thinking, and acutely calls this a “form of temperance.” Extracting and arranging (Jones’s words) Blackmur’s ideas is a matter of pursuing “insights,” “modes and configurations of…thought,” “operative or controlling principles”—no problem so far. But Jones wants to make it all into “theory” or a “system of theories.” This is awkward, because as Jones engagingly admits, Blackmur’s thought was not only antisystematic but “when it comes right down to it, anti-theoretical.”

Wonderful bits of unintended logical comedy follow from this concession, rather as if Borges had somehow got into the conceptual works. Blackmur’s theories “are not obvious even to his most devoted readers,” and indeed the “resourcefulness with which Blackmur managed to submerge his theory may constitute his greatest contribution to literary theory as a whole.” With friends like this, theory scarcely needs enemies.

Jones does at the end of his book put quotation marks around “theories,” but the gesture is late and can’t in any case serve his purpose. He is writing from the heart of theory’s castle, and feels he has to certify Blackmur as a theorist in order to “make him available in a meaningful way to my contemporaries.” This is rather like structuralists and semiologists thinking they needed to demonstrate that Proust had an interest in signs and signifiers (he did) before they could expect fashionable readers to continue to take him seriously. Still, Jones’s intentions are of the best and not entirely off the mark. He does point up the difficulties surrounding a troubled term. How much or how little do we want theory to mean? If theory is a system, Blackmur is not a theorist. Perhaps we can’t actually call him a theorist at all on any definition, but if theory includes organized curiosity (Henry James: “The theory too is interesting”), Blackmur wasn’t against it, and I hope we aren’t either. What we need surely is a relation to live theory, a theory which knows practice and refuses superstition. “A man with one theory is lost,” the young Brecht wrote in his diary. “He needs several of them, four, lots! He should stuff them in his pockets like newspapers.”

It seems to me that a tussle with theory of Henry James’s kind, not the mania, the congealed, monster-making variety, is what we often appreciate in Blackmur, in his sustained and intricate arguments about culture and particular authors, but also in twirling phrases, the arabesques of what he called idiom (“the twist of truth, the twist, like that of the strands of a rope, which keeps its component fictions together”). Theory in this sense is the mind looking for ways of looking. We remember bits of sentences from Blackmur, I think, as we remember Empson’s reckless unpacking of words or Trilling’s stern and anxious discoveries of essential crossroads. Delmore Schwartz thought some of Blackmur’s writing had “the force and lightning of great proverbs,” and that is just the note we hear again and again. “Half our sleeping knowledge is in nonsense; and when put in a poem it wakes.” “Coincidence is the artist’s way of representing those forces in us not ourselves.” “Promises worth making are never kept.” The first piece of Blackmur I came across was his “something” on Stendhal. I didn’t make much sense of it then, and make possibly less sense of some of it now. But I read, “Games, in Stendhal, are how you handle the incomprehensible,” “and I was hooked. This is a fine insight into Stendhal, and a good example of how criticism can talk like a human being.

But there is also something more subtle in Blackmur’s prose, an edging of language toward mystery or turbulence, toward the sheer shifting pace of experience, and the wit can be very quiet, unproverbial. Hardy’s poetry, for instance, is “reduced to riches.” James hears “the steady supplication of doubt,” and creates the “indestructible life which…must lie at the heart of the actual life that has been hurt.” Yeats had Homer as his example, and his own unchastened heart, “but he also needed shenanigans.” Idiocy in Dostoevsky is “the dive beneath the syntactical mind,” and Prince Myshkin is unique in his novel “because he alone is without a ghost.” Dostoevsky is “the great master of the unmotivated,” and Blackmur’s description of old man Karamazov must be quoted at slightly greater length:

He is a buffoon for two reasons: because it is expected of him and because he likes to make buffoons of others; and perhaps for a third reason: that buffoonery is a good medium in which to get random things done—in which to snatch up a windfall of possibility. He plays, and knows that he plays, one of the most tempting of all roles: the man of whom no one knows what he will do next: except that it will be unpleasant, or vicious, or senseless: somehow against any cultivated order of things. Such a fellow is bad enough on the street corner or in a parlor game, but at the center of life he makes pandemonium and himself a natural subject for murder…. he is the unmotivated out of which motives are made (the disorder in which order is seen necessary); he is also the fellow whose portrait appears: the bloated figure with the pendulous Adam’s apple, the slobbering speech, and black tooth stumps who likes to think of himself as a Roman patrician of the decadent period. He is your own picture of his picture of himself: a cynosure of every thought of parricide; you can’t keep your eyes off him.

There are all kinds of shenanigans here; plenty of close reading and pockets full of theory. The life of a text meets the mind of a critic, and the meeting finds a complex, racy, and fast-modulating voice. I can’t find the imperfection in such writing, and have to believe that even Blackmur could forget failure once in a while.

This Issue

May 7, 1987