There has been no shortage of speculation about what the rise of the Internet will do to change our habits of reading and research. If every book ever published will be at our virtual fingertips, thanks to Google and more specialized search tools, will it become unnecessary to maintain libraries, or to own books at all? Will human memory itself change, as we delegate the storage of information to our machines?
One rather specialized, but not insignificant, aspect of these changes has so far been less discussed. This is the effect that the Internet will have, or is already having, on the way writers make use of allusion. For if Google means that no book, however rare or obscure, will actually be hard to find, so it means that no quotation, however recondite, will be difficult to recognize. Enter any phrase into the search engine and you will instantly discover who, if anyone, has used it before, and when and how. You can even have the novel and strangely reassuring experience of beginning to type in a quotation, only to have it automatically completed for you by Google—a sign that it has been searched for by others already, that you and some anonymous fellow reader are on the same track.
Try asking Google, for example, about the phrase “Datta, dayadhvam, damyata.” Any reader of English poetry will immediately recognize those Sanskrit words: they appear in the fifth section of The Waste Land, “What the Thunder Said,” as three possible interpretations of the thunder’s monosyllabic utterance, “Da.” The words are not defined in the poem itself, except indirectly, by the sense of the passages they introduce:
Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract….
Only by turning to T.S. Eliot’s notes, which have become almost as famous as the poem itself, does the reader learn that words mean “Give, sympathize, control,” and their source: “The fable of the meaning of the Thunder is found in the Brihadaranyaka—Upanishad, 5, 1.” At the time Eliot wrote these notes, in 1922, this Sanskrit text had not been translated into English, and the best he could do was point the reader to a German version (“Deussen’s Sechzig Upanishads des Veda, p. 489″), which is presumably where the poet himself read it.
Ever since The Waste Land, “Datta, dayadhvam, damyata” has had something like the status of a trademark: for us, the words belong to Eliot much more than to their original source. Eliot established his right to the phrase, one might say, by finding something so remote from the experience of the English reader—even the best educated and most widely read—that the only way for such a reader to encounter it was through Eliot. Even the growth of Western knowledge of the Upanishads, in the subsequent decades, has not diminished the phrase’s association with Eliot. On the contrary, it is likely that many people sought to learn about the Upanishads precisely because they had encountered this reference in The Waste Land.
Today, however, if you enter the phrase into Google, the first item you will find is a detailed homily, by Swami Krishnananda of the Divine Life Society, on chapter five of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Here you can read the whole fable that remains so powerfully arcane in Eliot: how gods, human beings, and devils all asked Brahma, the Creator, for wisdom; and how his one-syllable response, “Da,” was variously interpreted by them according to their different temptations, so that the greedy humans heard it as an order to give (datta), the cruel demons as an order to sympathize (dayadhvam), and the libertine gods as an order to control themselves (damyata). (The second Google result, appropriately, leads to a Web site devoted to discussions of The Waste Land.)
We know that the Internet has made it very difficult for intellectual property owners to assert their rights—to music, movies, books, or newspapers. What this example suggests is that the Internet also tends to disrupt the more casual, but for literature highly meaningful, kind of right that gives a poet property in his allusions. The Waste Land itself is old enough and famous enough that when we read these Sanskrit words—or the lines it borrows from the Pervigilium Veneris or Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy —we are still likely to think of Eliot. But the advent of Google means, I think, that no future poet will ever be able to make allusions with the same kind of boldness and authority that Eliot did. No matter how esoteric, his references will be an open book to any reader with a computer; the poet will be unable to “trademark” them as successfully as Eliot did.
What this also means is that no future reader, however well informed, will enjoy the particular kind of satisfaction that readers once derived from successful recognition of a poet’s allusions. It used to be the case that the ability to recognize when a poet is alluding to Virgil, or Milton, or even the King James Bible set the reader apart as a member of a more or less exclusive intellectual group. Nor was this simply a matter of snobbishness; there is a genuine aesthetic pleasure in recognizing an allusion, which comes from the reader’s sense that he has successfully entered the poet’s mental world. If the allusion is arcane or clandestine, the pleasure is that much greater, since it suggests how difficult true attunement between poet and reader can be. But here, too, the Internet democratizes and universalizes what used to be a kind of distinctiveness. If every reader can tune in, allusion is no longer a privileged channel of communication.
In this new poetic environment, the figure of Christopher Ricks takes on a new stature, and also a new poignancy. Ricks is probably the greatest living scholar and editor of modern English-language poetry. His editions of Tennyson and of Eliot’s juvenilia, his numerous anthologies, and his studies of lyricists from Keats to Bob Dylan have made him, at age seventy-six, a critic of unrivaled authority. His new book, True Friendship, consists of long essays on three late-twentieth-century poets—the Englishman Geoffrey Hill and the Americans Robert Lowell and Anthony Hecht—with particular attention to their literary debts to T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. And this means that Ricks can make use of what has long been his most important critical tool—his ability to detect allusions so impalpable that other readers might not recognize them or even, in some cases, acknowledge their existence.
The feelings that Hecht, Hill, and Lowell harbor toward their great modernist predecessors are, of course, complex and conflicted. That is why Ricks has cunningly chosen a title that is itself an allusion to a saying of Blake, “Opposition is true Friendship”: in this way, even open expressions of hostility can be read as signs of inverted gratitude. Hill, for instance, has been vocal in his disparagement of Eliot, whom he sees as a kind of literary-moral trimmer, all too ready to exchange the young poet’s acerbity for the easy blandness of the metropolitan man of letters. Eliot’s “middle- and late-period lectures and essays,” Hill writes in “Eros in F.H. Bradley and T.S. Eliot,”
…could only have been written and delivered by someone reconciled to the discovery that the world of art is the region of the worthless-in-itself and that the overriding reality to be accommodated is what Bradley termed “the captious ill-will or sheer negligence” of the average reader-auditor.
As it happens, Hill’s polemic against Eliot has also involved, as a kind of collateral damage, some pointed criticism of Christopher Ricks. Writing about Eliot in another essay, “Dividing Legacies,” Hill called Ricks “uncharacteristically imperceptive” for his readiness to praise Eliot’s late masterpiece, Four Quartets, which to Hill is merely a monument to “tonelessness” and “torpor.” Even worse, in Hill’s eyes, is the fact that “against all the evidence his own unrivalled critical intelligence could bring to the process, [Ricks] is pleased to be numbered among Larkin’s advocates”—Philip Larkin being, for Hill, still more torpid than the late Eliot.
Ricks’s reply to these criticisms—of Eliot and of himself—in True Friendship involves shifting the grounds of the discussion. Trust the tale, not the artist, D.H. Lawrence said, and Ricks would add, trust the tale’s allusions most of all—those subtle borrowings and references that, at times unconsciously, demonstrate a writer’s real indebtedness to his predecessors. “Poets are characteristically more generous than critics, and poems will often prove more generous than their poets,” as Ricks puts it. And Hill’s poetry, Ricks convincingly shows, is frequently in dialogue with Eliot’s.
Take Hill’s catalog, in one poem, of
hirelings, the resourceful;
those who are obese—the excellent heads of hair—
the beautiful or plain wives, secretaries and translators.
Isn’t this, as Ricks argues, “an inspired transporting” of Eliot’s catalog of doomed humanity in Four Quartets?
The captains, the merchant bankers, eminent men of letters.
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors.
The very poem Hill disdains as toneless has helped him invent his own tone. Ricks quotes William Empson’s homage to Eliot—“I do not know for certain how much of my own mind he invented”—as a tacit rebuke to Hill, who could say the same thing.
Ricks’s ability to detect the resemblance of these passages is a reminder that allusion is not just a matter of quotation. The rhythm of Hill’s and Eliot’s catalogs and their preference for Latinate words identify them as kin, even though they have no words in common. For that very reason, no search engine would be able to spot the allusion to Eliot in Hill: it takes a human reader, alive to the weight and resonance of words, to recognize that Hill’s “secretaries and translators” owe something to Eliot’s “chairmen of many committees.” One might even go further than Ricks does in this instance, and identify the spirit of Auden in Hill’s lines; a phrase like “those who are obese—the excellent heads of hair” has a definitely Audenesque ring to it.
But no sooner do the allusions start to proliferate in this way than the reader becomes justifiably uneasy. If Eliot’s voice is in these lines of Geoffrey Hill’s, then why not Auden’s—and if Auden’s, why not another, or many others? “The sea has many voices,/Many gods and many voices,” Eliot wrote, in what Ricks identifies as an allusion to Tennyson’s Ulysses (“The deep/Moans round with many voices”). But when the critic hears too many voices, a poem can become a phantasmagoria—as though every word must carry the intonation of every poet who has ever used it.
Something like this seems to happen when Ricks, having linked Hill to Eliot, tries to go even further and link Hill to Larkin. Larkin’s poem “At Grass” observes retired racehorses: “Do memories plague their ears like flies?/They shake their heads.” Hill’s poem, a section from the book-length sequence The Triumph of Love, mentions “a field corner where the flies/gather and old horses shake their sides.” Does this coincidence—the collocation of flies, horses, and shaking, in both poems—amount to an allusion? “Plainly,” Ricks admits, “it is not a question of [Hill’s] poem sounding like or being like Larkin’s.” But he does argue that “had it not been for Larkin, it is to be doubted that Hill’s poem would have taken the precise form it took.”
In this formulation, allusion has become something impalpable, almost metaphysical. Just as, according to chaos theory, a hurricane can be traced back to the flapping wings of a butterfly, so a poem, on Ricks’s view, can be described as the result of everything that might conceivably lead it to take “the precise form it took.” And since the development of a poet’s thoughts is as mysterious as anyone else’s, it is impossible to rule out anything he has read as a possible contributing factor.
Such a chain of influences is not even theoretically terminable. If Hill got his word “shake” from Larkin, Ricks goes on to suggest, Larkin got it from Yeats, who wrote in one short poem about how Pride and Truth “shake their wicked sides at youth/Restraining reckless middle-age.” And of course, since Hill read Yeats as well as Larkin, “shake” in Hill’s poem can be traced back to Yeats’s “shake” both directly and indirectly. Ricks’s analysis culminates in a kind of echolalia of allusiveness:
Larkin, They shake their heads; Hill, shake their sides; Yeats, To shake their wicked sides. Larkin, plague; Yeats, plague. Hill, age; Yeats, middle-age, age. Hill, where; Yeats, Where, where.
In a passage like this, Ricks can appear like John Henry, racing to keep up with the steam engine that is Google: there is something computer-like about his assemblage of similarities. So energetically does he find allusions, in fact, that Ricks seems unintentionally to make the very concept of allusion implode. Words are forced to bear too much weight, to stand in too close a relationship to themselves: if “where” can be an allusion, why not “and” or “the”?
At the same time, words are stripped of their actual weight, by being denied the possibility of referring to things in the world. Nowhere in Ricks’s analysis, for example, is the possibility entertained that the reason why both Hill and Larkin write about horses, flies, and shaking is that, in fact, horses shake themselves to get rid of flies —a phenomenon likely to be independently encountered by any poet (or anyone else) who takes the time to look at horses. Hill, Ricks writes, “owes gratitude” to Larkin, and Larkin and Hill “in turn owe gratitude” to Yeats; but no one, it seems, owes gratitude to the horse. In this way, Ricks—whose scholarship is traditional in the best sense, and quite free from any burden of literary theory—seems to arrive at the same position as Derrida: that words refer only to one another, a chain of signifiers with no tether in the real.
Writing about Geoffrey Hill makes it especially tempting for Ricks to inflate the category of allusion. After all, Hill is a highly allusive poet who seems to be denying his borrowings, at least from Eliot; and so Ricks must pile up more and more evidence, like a zealous detective. But Hill’s ornery independence is not the only position for a poet to take in relation to his predecessors—just as opposition is not the only kind of true friendship. In this book’s other two sections, Ricks examines poets who took quite different approaches to Eliot: Anthony Hecht and Robert Lowell.
Hecht, too, was at times sharply critical of Eliot as a man and poet, particularly when it came to Eliot’s anti-Semitism. When he first read Eliot, as a teenager, Hecht remembered finding “something undeniably provoking and humiliating,” even “personally wounding,” about the overt anti-Semitism of certain poems. These feelings, far from diminishing with the years, “kept my continued reading of Eliot from ever falling into a settled and uncomplicated pleasure.”
Yet no more than Hill’s do Hecht’s reservations about Eliot prevent him from absorbing the older poet’s influence. At times this is apparently unconscious, as in Hecht’s “Meditation,” which includes the lines “After the closing of cathedral doors,/After the last soft footfall fades away.” When an interviewer pointed out the resemblance of these lines to a cadence from The Waste Land —“After the torchlight red on sweaty faces/After the frosty silence in the gardens”—Hecht acknowledged the similarity, while disclaiming any intentional allusion: “This echo, if that’s what it is, was quite unconscious, a faint reminiscence of a familiar music.” As Hecht remarks, a rhythm, no less than an abstruse quotation, can become a poet’s copyright: “Isn’t it curious that one has only to begin two consecutive pentameter lines with the words ‘After the’ for an alert reader to say: ‘Ha! Eliot!…'”
More often, however, Hecht’s invocations of Eliot are conscious, even self-conscious. As Ricks points out, when Hecht uses the adjective “wrath-bearing” in his translation of Aeschylus, he is borrowing an Eliotic coinage from “Gerontion.” When Hecht writes, punningly, “Between post oak and propter oak/Falls the inevitable shade,” he is counting on the reader to recognize “The Hollow Men”: “Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow.” Nor is it only Eliot to whom Hecht alludes in this forthright way: he wrote a poem called “Le Masseur de Ma Soeur,” a parody of Wallace Stevens’s “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle.” The title of Hecht’s best-known poem, “‘More Light! More Light!'” actually puts Goethe’s dying words in quotation marks, placing the allusion front and center.
Does this kind of overt reference represent a capitulation on the poet’s part—a willingness to accept belatedness, rather than to challenge it? Ricks does not say so, but it seems significant that Hecht, whose way with allusion is so much less fraught than Hill’s, also seems like a less aggressively ambitious poet. As Ricks says, “Ghosts haunt Hecht’s poems”—both literal ghosts and the ghosts of the mighty dead, from Shakespeare to Eliot.
The contrast with Robert Lowell could not be clearer. Lowell, who translated the mighty dead with a joyful insubordination, a blatant indifference to fidelity (as in his book Imitations), writes about Eliot in a manner notably free from awe. In fact, the poem of Lowell’s on which Ricks focuses is not really an allusion to Eliot but a reminiscence of him, one of a series of memorial sonnets that Lowell included in Notebook. These poems, which show Lowell meeting on terms of respectful intimacy with Eliot, Pound, Frost, Williams, and other writers of the modernist generation, are expressions of the confidence that marked Lowell’s poetic career from the beginning. Here is Eliot speaking to Lowell at Harvard:
“Don’t you loathe to be compared with your relatives?
I do. I’ve just found two of mine reviewed by Poe.
He wiped the floor with them…and I wasdelighted.”
“And he,” Ricks notes, reminds us of the curt introductions to the speeches in Dante, and of Eliot’s homage to Dante in Little Gidding. But the tone of this anecdote has none of the submissiveness with which Dante greets Virgil, his poet-guide. On the contrary, Lowell and Eliot at Harvard are equals of a special kind: both share the names of famous presidents of Harvard and of Harvard houses. They stem from the New England aristocracy, and Eliot’s witticism reminds the reader that both poets consider themselves, with justification, to be superior to their “superior” relatives. (Ricks cites the old saying about Lowells talking only to Cabots—or, in this case, Eliots—who talk only to God.)
Lowell’s is a very different way of encountering Eliot than Hecht’s—it is the difference between inclusion and exclusion, comradeship and condescension. We are reminded in this minor poem, as we also are in Lowell’s grander and more serious work, of how great a poetic asset he found it to be born into the American aristocracy. Elizabeth Bishop, for one, envied him this birthright. Writing to Lowell about the autobiographical poems in Life Studies, she complained:
I feel that I could write in as much detail about my Uncle Artie, say—but what would be the significance? Nothing at all…. Whereas all you have to do is put down the names! And the fact that it seems significant, illustrative, American etc. gives you, I think, the confidence you display about tackling any idea or theme, seriously, in both writing and conversation.
Bishop strikes right to the heart of the issue that True Friendship is constantly circling around: the problem of poetic authority and how it is earned. For poets of the generation of Lowell (born in 1917), Hecht (1923), and Hill (1932), T.S. Eliot was a figure of enormous and potentially stifling literary authority. His poems were, and to a great degree still are, the canonical texts of modern poetry; as Ricks shows, it is difficult to write poetry without invoking Eliot, yet to sound even a little like Eliot is to risk becoming his epigone. This is the double bind that Hill, Hecht, and Lowell face, and try with varying success to outwit, in their allusions to the master.
Yet allusion is only part of a larger and more interesting story of influence and its discontents. Ricks mentions that the young Geoffrey Hill was enthralled by the poetry of Allen Tate. He could also have pointed out that Lowell was a personal disciple of Tate’s, and as a college student even lived for a while in a tent pitched on Tate’s lawn. Did both Hill and Lowell find their way to Tate because they instinctively recognized in him a weaker father-figure than Eliot? It is almost as though the young poets used Tate as an inoculation against Eliot; he gave them Eliot’s mandarin style, impersonality, and cultural pessimism, but in a lower, more manageable dose. Lowell’s turn to confession, and Hill’s to a kind of manic satire, are clearly reactions against Eliot’s example and doctrine—reactions that can only partially be understood through the lens of allusion.
Fittingly, Ricks concludes True Friendship with a discussion of an episode from Dante that meant a great deal to Eliot and his successors: the meeting with Brunetto Latini, in Canto XV of the Inferno. That passage, which inspired Eliot’s terza rima homage in Little Gidding and also a direct translation by Lowell, is one of the classic statements of the tensions of literary influence. Brunetto, the poet whom Dante calls ” maestro,” is ruthlessly placed by his admirer in Hell, as punishment for the sin of sodomy. Yet Dante cannot help granting his master a final victory, writing (in Lowell’s version):
Then he turned back, and he seemed one of those
who run for the green cloth through the green field
at Verona…and seemed more like the one
who wins the roll of cloth than those who lose.
As Ricks’s study shows, damning your predecessor is sometimes the best way of ensuring his immortality.
April 8, 2010