"A critical sense worthy of respect": John Marston and the early poetics of Robert Penn Warren (1).
-- Paul Valery (2)
Deep art implies a destruction of order for the sake of reordering. There is something incorrigible and anarchic lurking in art.
-- Robert Penn Warren (3)
In their study of Robert Penn Warren's developing poetics, critics have never given their attention to Warren's B.Litt. thesis on the Elizabethan satirist John Marston. Completed in 1930 as a Rhodes Scholar project at New College, Oxford, "A Study of John Marston's Satires" has remained one of the most obscure moments in Warren's career. (4) When repeatedly asked in interviews about his own critical development, Warren never referred to the thesis nor to Marston and his satires. He never returned to the subject in any of his subsequent critical writing, but he reveals at various points his continued interest in Elizabethan poetry and metaphysical poetics. For all practical purposes, Warren seems to have forgotten about John Marston. Because the work has remained unpublished, Warren's critics have also forgotten about it, instead devoting their attention to Warren's Fugitive and Agrarian context in the 1920s and 30s and to his first book, John Brown: The Making of a Martyr, published even while Warren began hi s work on Marston. But Warren's work on Marston and Marston's contributions to Elizabethan literary theory must not be forgotten, even if Warren and his critics have allowed it to remain too long neglected. What saves Warren's thesis from insignificance is its engagement with the critical and theoretical issues raised by Marston's satires and its indication of the nature and shape of Warren's own poetics.
Warren's thesis provides the earliest indication of what would become his characteristic stance in his criticism: that of the poet grappling with the tensions involved in the act of poetic creation. In a 1969 interview, Warren remarked, "I just don't think of myself as a critic. As I said, criticism is a kind of conversation or speculation that gets into writing. I have no critical sense. I've never had a critical sense, never had the ambition. [...] Such critical pieces I've done were one way of thinking about issues that concerned me" (Watkins 139). As striking as Warren's self-assessment may be to the student of the wide-ranging body of Warren's critical work, it suggests a stance that is apparent even in his Marston thesis. Criticism was always a personal task and a part of the creative process for Warren. Within the pages of his thesis we hear the beginnings, even if brief and tentative, of that conversation continued throughout his career. As with his other significant critical dialogues, carried on wit h writers such as Coleridge, Conrad, and Melville, Warren's engagement with Marston provides a forum within which he thought about those issues that continually concerned him as a poet. He identifies those issues in the final pages of the thesis as he summarizes Marston's literary opinion. He focuses primarily upon "the two theoretical matters of criticism [...] touched on in the course of the satires: the place of 'fiction' in poetry and the relation of style to content" (72). Although his respect for Marston is qualified throughout much of the thesis, Warren does conclude that "Marston brought to these matters [...] a real enthusiasm for literature and a critical sense worthy of respect" (72). These theoretical matters are points that not only continued to exercise Warren in his own critical and creative work but have proven to be persistent issues in contemporary literary debates. In Warren's remarks, we hear his own very real enthusiasm for literature and his own respectable critical sense.
The body of Warren's thesis is made up of three chapters that deal successively with Marston's relation to classical satire and the contemporary pamphlet literature, Marston's relation to his fellow Elizabethan satirist Joseph Hall, and Marston's literary opinions. (5) Within these chapters, Warren does not engage in any systematic interpretation of the satires, Metamorphosis of Pigmalion's Image, and Certaine Satires and Scourge of Villainie (both published in 1598). In fact, he acknowledges that they are on the whole "mechanical" and monotonous in theme, focusing more often than not upon what he considers to be the vice of lust (10). Rather, Warren engages Marston's literary theory at the point of his feud with the contemporary critical penchant for form at the expense of substance and obscurity at the expense of concreteness. Despite any qualifications regarding Marston's literary style or originality, Warren praises Marston's insight into these literary theoretical matters that confronted not only Marston 's generation but Warren's own.
Warren's reading of Marston's literary opinion occurred not only at the beginning of his own critical development but also at the beginning of a revival of interest in Marston's work. T.F. Wharton has charted the course of this revival in The Critical Fall and Rise of John Marston, pointing out that "in three and a half centuries, the only phases of Marston's reception that have been predominantly positive have occurred in the last sixty years of the twentieth century"(xi). That positive reception began in the 1930s, in the midst of a general sense of cultural collapse. According to Wharton, "it was the angst of the 1930s that awoke readers to his kindred disaffection, and that period's sense of fragmentation found in him an echo of itself' (xii). More specifically, though, this revival came in the midst of a literary-critical collapse in which there was the loss "of those shibboleths of conservative criticism, the well-made play and the theme of humanitarian feeling" (31). At such a time, Marston "seemed to acquire the ability to strike an echo even among critics who professed to be baffled by him or to despise him" (31). Marston's revival began with the publication in 1934 of T.S. Eliot's review essay of the first volume of Wood's complete edition of Marston's plays. According to Wharton, Eliot's review essay "is something of a watershed in the rehabilitation of Marston" (31). Prior to Eliot's essay, Marston's work remained in disrepute and in relative obscurity, such that Eliot could write that Marston remained "for both scholars and critics [...] a territory of unexplored riches and risks" (162).
In his essay, Eliot concentrates on Marston's plays and considers the satires only in their secondary relationship to the plays. According to Eliot, it is the plays that win for Marston any claim to power or genius. In fact, if Marston may justly be called a poet, he merits this title not because of his satires but because of his plays.
Marston is very competent, and perfectly perfunctory. He wrote satires, as he wrote Pygmalion, in order to succeed; and when he found that the satire was more likely to lead him to the gaol than to success, he seems to have taken up, in the same spirit, the writing of plays. And however laboured the first two tragical plays may be, there is more poetry in them than in anything he had written before. (166)
Eliot's criticism of Marston's satire, though, appears to be consistent with his general distaste for any Elizabethan satire. "The Satire," he comments, "is a form which the Elizabethans endeavoured to naturalize with very slight success; it is not until Oldham (1653-1683) that a satire appears, sufficiently natural to be something more than a literary exercise" (165). For Eliot, Marston's satires were mere "literary exercises" written "in order to succeed." Warren, however, takes just the opposite view, contending that Marston wrote with a seriousness about satire itself: "Marston's insistence that satire was a serious matter rather than a literary or academic exercise is probably one of the most significant aspects of his work; after making certain allowances for the violent exaggeration, there appears to be little reason to doubt the fundamental earnestness of his intention, or to define him as an affected opportunist" (27). Warren goes on to argue that this seriousness displayed itself in a self-conscious ness typical of Elizabethan satire of the 1590s, explaining that "the satirist devoted a good deal of his energy to the subject of literature itself" (45).
In Eliot's estimation, what finally establishes Marston "among the writers of genius" (174) is his ability to achieve a "doubleness" of meaning in his dramatic texts, a "pattern behind the pattern into which the characters deliberately involve themselves; the kind of pattern that we perceive in our own lives only at rare moments of inattention and detachment, drowsing in the sunlight" (177). This genius is rooted in Marston's "positive, powerful and unique personality" (173). In commenting on Marston's play The Malcontent, Eliot observes:
We are aware, in short, with this as with Marston's other plays, that we have to do with a positive, powerful, and unique personality. His is an original variation of that deep discontent and rebelliousness so frequent among the Elizabethan dramatists. He is, like some of the greatest of them, occupied in saying something else than appears in the literal actions and characters whom he manipulates. (173)
But by dealing with Marston's ability to achieve a doubleness of meaning and his strength of personality in connection only with the plays of Marston, Eliot misses those broader and related theoretical points of Marston's satires that Warren observes some four years prior to this. (6) For example, Warren observes the same strength and power of personality in his thesis but makes the connection between this and the deliberate critical and theoretical debates opened up by Marston.
Observing this same strength of personality and self-consciousness governing Marston's work, Wharton argues that Marston deliberately took an aggressive and combative approach to his work to engage not a general reading public but his specific literary contemporaries. "It was the chosen method by which Marston set out to gain literary recognition and force his way into the contemporary canon. He chose from the start the most controversial of literary forms, then set out publicly to quarrel with his own readership and with the most prominent writers of his day" (1). To ensure "that he would be taken seriously as an antagonist and a major writer," Marston hoped to engage "his readers and his rivals in the theoretical issues of literary form and tone." A careful reading of the satires, then, involves "looking at the critical discourse Marston opened up on the peripheries of his texts and the nature of the literary debate into which he drew his contemporaries as they were compelled to meet the challenge he so voc iferously posed for them" (xii). For his part, Warren argues similarly in his thesis, even if not as clearly and exhaustively. Marston's satire, Warren says, like that of those who went before him, was "the personal protest of a reflective individual" (5), but Warren points out that such protest was not only leveled against the depravities of his culture or society but was also directed in a more pointed way to what he considered the literary transgressions of his generation. Warren does note, though, that while Marston, on the one hand, held a high view of contemporary literature, rather than slighting it in favor of the older classical satire, Hall, on the other, saw contemporary literature as corrupt. "This was a primary point of disagreement, which led Marston to his own defense of contemporary work" (70). That defense, however, is carried on through Marston's own sort of "transgressive" approach to the theoretical matters confronting him and his contemporaries.
In an aggressive engagement with his contemporaries, Marston guaranteed "the hostility of his culture to him as a writer" (Wharton 2) by creating an ironic, self-castigating persona named Kinsayder. (7) In reference to a passage from Marston's Metamorphosis of Pigmalion's Image, Wharton observes, "This curious reflex of self-castigation within the text serves as a brilliant invitation to the literary discourse beyond it, with the saving reminder at the end of this passage that there are grounds (such as literary honesty, by contrast with 'beguil[ing ...] masked showes') on which he excels" (3). Wharton's description of the "literary discourse beyond" the text parallels Eliot's idea of "doubleness" in the text, but whereas Eliot sees this "beyond" as the corresponding experience in the world, Wharton links it specifically to that discourse on critical and theoretical issues confronting him and his contemporaries. (8) Marston's prime target in this literary combat is Joseph Hall, who in 1597 "claimed the honor of being the first English satirist with Virgidemiarum" (Routh 377). (9) Marston found in Hall a satirist who conformed to the contemporary conventions of obscurity and form and who could therefore be readily parodied in order to make his own theoretical points. (10) Shelburne summarizes Marston's strategy:
Marston's explicit criticism of his fellow satirist Joseph Hall in "Satyre Il" and "Reactio" [both of Matamorphosis of Pigmalion 's Image, and Certaine Satires] underlines his own poetic notions of satiric decorum and, consequently, his notions of proper satiric persona, style, and target. Hall, Marston asserts, gets it wrong on all counts: he takes a censorian stance which virtually no one is qualified to assume; he rails rather than "laugh[s] and sport[s]"; and, in his attacks on contemporary poetry, he censures poetry's essence rather than its peccant manifestations. Marston's concern in his criticism of Hall is not simple remediation [...] But neither is it Marston's intention merely to libel Hall; rather, Marston invents occasions to discuss topics that are of importance to him. (212)
By employing this trope of combative engagement, Marston opens the space in which he can foreground his own voice in literary critical matters. This self-conscious creation of a fictional struggle proves to be a curious example of the kind of engagement between poets described by Harold Bloom in "The Breaking of Form." In the terms of Bloom's theory, Marston sets out to win "the freedom to have a meaning of one's own" (3) by targeting Hall who represents "a prior plenitude of meaning, which is tradition," against which Marston can fight (4). Hall is no moderate antagonist but a necessarily strong one with whom Marston can enter into what Bloom describes as an agonistic struggle in order to win some "fresh sublimity" (5). By means of agon, "freedom of meaning is wrested by combat, of meaning against meaning." In this combat, then, Marston initiates a certain "breaking of form to produce meaning" (14), subverting the very ideals of form dominating the Elizabethan satire.
Warren's comments on two of the theoretical matters Marston championed in this combat give insight not only into Marston's theoretical commitments but also into Warren's own convictions as a poet. (11) At the end of his third chapter, after he has dealt with the Marston-Hall controversy, Warren summarizes his survey of Marston's literary opinion by commenting on the "two theoretical matters of criticism [...] touched on in the course of the satires" and adds that "Marston brought to these matters [...] a critical sense worthy of respect" (72). Interestingly, these two points were specifically at the center of Renaissance and Elizabethan poetics. Weiss points out their centrality when he comments, "Because of the critical commentaries that were current in Marston's day, inventio [fiction] and elucutio [style] were generally accepted as the two basic criteria upon which the success of a poem was to be judged" (25).
2. Fiction in Poetry
The first matter Warren takes up is the "essential" relation between fiction and poetry. He states:
In connection with the Mirror for Magistrates, "fiction" is defined as the essence and essential difference of poetry, and later in Ad Rithmum a certain kind of "invention," rather than an arbitrary element like rhyme, is indicated as the important and differentiating thing. It would be easy to deduce too much from these incidental remarks, but at least it seems that in the long-fought problem of the distinction between poetry and other forms of expression Marston held an approach through psychological rather than formal differences. (72)
According to Warren, Marston defines two qualities of fiction that distinguish it as "the form, the spirit, the essence, the life, and the essential difference" of poetry (52). First, the employment of fiction in poetry is deliberate rather than arbitrary. In Marston's defense of the Mirror for Magistrates against the critical opinion of Hall, he argues for "the necessity of 'Fiction' as the 'soule of Poesies invention'" (52). (12) Cunliffe helps to clarify this point when he states, "Joseph Hall ridiculed its 'branded whining ghosts' and curses on the fates and fortune; and, though Marston tried to turn the tables on Hall on this point, his Reactio does not appear to have succeeded in impressing the public" (224). Marston apparently gives priority to the necessary role of fiction in the Mirror, whereas Hall directed his attacks at the level of the style, meter, and rhyme. But for Marston rhyme is an arbitrary element and therefore could not be considered the essence of poetry because its importance was relat ive to the thematic content of the poem. Fiction, however, is central to his concern for the priority of content because it demands from the poet "a certain kind of 'invention."' It is important precisely because it is the "differentiating thing" of the work. Shelburne describes the nature of this differentiation according to Marston's analogy between the unity of the artistic work and the unity of the individual: "The poetic fiction is the metaphoric equivalent of the human soul: it is that which makes poetry distinct. To deny poetry its essential fiction is to excise its spirit, a procedure as ludicrous as attempting to take the soul out of the body" (217). The difference effected is not merely formal but is "psychological"; that is, it involves the deeper logical structure, or "soul," that gives power to the work rather than the surface or "formal" element of rhyme. Therefore, Marston goes on to note in the second place that fiction constitutes an "essential difference" between poetry and other forms of ex pression. The only thing that rhyme adds to the invention of fiction is "surquedry," or presumption, and it "is nothing more than a gaudy ornament" (69). Rhyme is only a formal difference that acts as a "friendly ayde" to the essential difference of fiction.
In the course of his analysis, Warren relates the matter of fiction to Marston's literary realism. Warren states in the first chapter that Marston "rarely deals with a subject in general terms, and the theme of a satire is treated by running illustrations in characters rather than by discussion" (5). This avoidance of abstraction through attention to concrete detail was derived, Warren suggests, from the contemporary pamphlet literature. "Classical satire provided a method and in some cases the themes for Marston, but it was the realistic pamphlet literature of the time that chiefly influenced him, as well as other satirists, in his characters. In a sense it was through this medium that the older satire touched the new" (11). In fact, Marston was perhaps unique among Elizabethan satirists in his lack of reliance upon classical background; apart from the names of characters, Warren finds only two instances of classical allusion in Marston's characters. Instead, Marston captured the domestic background of his c haracters in ways that Lodge, Hall, and Donne did not (15-16). Though Marston believed that satire effected no social change or reform (5), Warren notes that he nonetheless "aimed at a more direct application of his satire to contemporary life" (16). As a result, the "local color" (Warren's phrase) of his poetry "is consistently that of England, or, more precisely, that of London" (16). Warren brings Marston's realism into relief against the work of Hall:
Hall's satire was, for the most part, aimed at follies; Marston's was aimed at depravities. There is a hint of literary origin about the former's work, as contrasted with the suggestion of immediate and realistic models for that of the latter. Thomas Warton stated the difference in his well-known passage on the two satirists: "Hall has more humor, Marston more acrimony. Hall often draws his material from books and the diligent perusal of other satirists; Marston from real life." (37) (13)
By drawing his characters from "real life," Marston was able to show the depravities that he attacked rather than simply discussing them in general terms. Thus, he drew upon not only such stock characters as the cuckold, courtesan, courtier, and soldier--all of which Warren believes were drawn from Lodge's Wits Miserie (23-24)--but also upon the exaggerated characters of the poet and satirist, among whom Hall was Marston's chief "real life" model.
Warren's observation of Marston's theoretical commitment to concreteness of invention supports what other critics have noticed about Marston's rejection of "obscurity" as a vital mark of good satire. Wharton points out that "Renaissance literary theory generally held that satire properly modeled on the ancients, especially Juvenal or Persius, must be obscure in meaning" (8). Lewis notes Hall's self-consciousness about this theoretical point and explains his commitment to it: "He has a good deal to tell us about his art and seems, at first, more interested in satire than in the things satirized. The 'ruder Satyre' should go 'rag'd and bare,' displaying 'his hairy hide.' One of its proper characteristics is obscurity" (470). Hall even complains at one point that some of his satires have not been obscure enough and that "in the future his meaning will be much harder to find" (Lewis 470-71). But Marston attacks Hall's poetry precisely for this reason. For Hall, the "shadow" was to be so rough that the meaning wou ld be darkened, whereas for Marston the substance may be rough and not the shadow (Warren 69). Such a position, Warren notes, accords what is to Marston "a seemly decorum." According to Shelburne, Marston's opposition to obscurity is rooted in his distrust of that "Protean hypocrisy" which emphasizes shade, mask, and body, even at the expense of substance, essence, and spirit (200). Marston judges that Hall is supremely guilty of such hypocrisy and that "Hall's obscurity is ultimately self-defeating because in its affected sophistication it shrouds itself in impenetrable darkness" (Shelburne 213). Marston would rather seek that concreteness of invention and candor of expression in which there is a clear "consonance of matter and manner" (215).
While Warren is careful not to deduce too much from Marston's remarks about fiction in poetry, he does state that "in the long-fought problem of the distinction between poetry and other forms of expression Marston held an approach through psychological rather than formal differences" (72). (14) Warren locates the difference of Marston's approach in the strength of the poet rather than in the shape of the poetic object. Marston's demand for the priority of fiction or invention necessarily locates the poetic power with the poet himself rather than in the poetic work. The difference of poetry is not to be found simply in its formal distinctiveness, as in a scientific or quantitative analysis; rather, if there is any difference, it must first reside within the poet himself. Such a concern for the psychological steers a course between the purely psychoanalytical approach of later Freudian critics and the merely biographical concerns of earlier literary historians. It relates the work to personal experience, both t o the poet and the reader. Such a view undergirded the development of various New Critical approaches in the 1920s and 1930s, even as Warren wrote on Marston. This concern also reflects a general rejection of theories of "pure" poetry common to New Critical approaches.
The way in which Warren delineates Marston's distinction must be seen in the larger debate regarding theories of "pure" poetry, a debate to which Warren made his own vital contribution. In his 1942 essay, "Pure and Impure Poetry," Warren points out that this debate was current even in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. "When Sir Philip Sydney, for example, legislated against tragicomedy, he was repeating a current doctrine of purity. When Ben Jonson told William Drummond that Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging, he was defending another kind of purity" (16). Marston's emphasis upon fiction in poetry in his attacks on Hall would seem to indicate his own ironic doctrine of pure poetry, in which he supplants those formal aides such as meter and rhyme with the "essential" elements of fiction and invention. By insisting that fiction is the single "essence and essential difference," Marston apparently falls into what Warren calls the common denominator of "pure" doctrines: "The commo n denominator seems to be the belief that poetry is an essence that is to be located at some particular place in a poem, or in some particular element" (20). But his notion is ironic because the element that he has located subverts that notion of purity and rests in a tension with the arbitrary elements of rhyme and rhythm. Fiction brings in what Warren calls the "impure," which resists the "pure" elements of rhyme and rhythm. The sort of realism that Marston employs as the soul of his poetry's invention "mars" a poem and calls the reader "back to the world of prose and imperfection" (Warren, "Pure and Impure Poetry" 5). Warren certainly appropriated this tense mixture of the pure and the impure in his own poetry, a poetry marked by a similar realism in its concrete detail and language and draws us "back to the world of prose and imperfection." Of his early poetry, "The Ballad of Billie Potts" displays this mixture most clearly. Although his early poems contain classical allusions and give deference to past m asters much as Marston's poetry did, there is a developing movement from abstract ideas to concrete characters that is realized in "Billie Potts." There is a new sense of local color from the Kentucky backwoods and a fresh narrative voice filled with "redneck" cadences that together conceive the primary fiction--or fable--that marks this poem off from his earlier work and sets the course for his later poetry.
The theoretical notion that fiction is what in part differentiates poetry as a distinctive form of utterance has maintained an interesting currency in critical debates. For example, Bloom maintains the same priority of invention in "The Breaking of Form," for there he posits that "all that a poem can be about, or what in a poem is other than trope, is the skill or faculty of invention or discovery, the heuristic gift. Invention is a matter of 'places,' of themes, topics, subjects" (1). He goes on to clarify: "Form, in poetry, ceases to be trope only when it becomes topos, only when it is revealed as a place for invention" (2). Bloom reveals his own agonistic struggle with his theoretical predecessors--even the New Critics--when he quotes Curtius's distinction between the theory of poetry and a poetics: "The poet's conception of himself [... and] the tension between poetry and science [...] are major themes ofahistory of the theory of poetry, not of a history of poetics" (3). Bloom puts it in his own words: "T he poet's conception of himself necessarily is his poem's conception of itself, in my reading, and central to this conception is the matter of the sources of the powers of poetry." These powers are located in previous poets and in "poems already written." The way in which Bloom's theory of influence springs in part from his emphasis upon the priority of invention provides a helpful analogue not only of Warren's reading of Marston but also of Marston's own engagement with Hall and his contemporaries. (15)
3. Style and Content
The second and related matter of criticism touched on in Marston's satires is "the relation of style to content" (72). Warren comments on this point by focusing upon Marston's objection to the convention of Elizabethan poetics that would dictate a genre-specific style. Warren notes that Marston "seems to have opposed the dictation on a priori grounds of an especial style to a given type, such as satire" (72). Marston's protest in this matter flows from the same critical principles and parallels his emphasis upon priority of fiction in poetry. Warren observes that although style, like rhyme, is a secondary and arbitrary element for Marston, he willingly grants the place of a "seemely decorum" and a "peculiar speech." But Warren's concern here as in the previous point is that content would be the shaping factor of the structure and style of the work. Warren points out earlier that Marston "held that different degrees of ease and finish in the verse were requisite for different subjects" (68). Marston repudiated any doctrine that would in effect constrain the subject of the poem by prescribing a certain style. So he rejected both "the conventional 'rough writ' style and [...] the 'riming laws' which would dictate a consistent smoothness which might or might not be relevant to the subject at any given point" (69). Instead, the "essential difference" lay in the subject of the poem that determined the demands upon the work. Beyond this emphasis, though, Warren says that Marston is "more vague" when it comes to "the matter of a positive definition of the style required" (69). The only positive statement that he can find leaves the matter open-ended: says Marston, "I will not deny [...] there is a seemely decorum to be observed, and a peculier [sic] speech for a Satyres lips, which I can willinglier conceave, than dare to prescribe; yet let me have the substance rough, not the shadow" (69). Marston deliberately plays the poet here, rather than the critic, when he says that he can willingly conceive of a proper decorum bu t is unwilling to prescribe such for other poets. This is precisely what he repudiated in the work of Hall and his contemporaries. Yet, Marston does not hesitate to state his own commitment to a rough substance rather than a rough shadow. There is no point in having the "shadow," or style, rough when the "substance," or content, is not. Rather, the subject should dictate the style, and the style should be in relationship to the content. His use of the term "decorum" suggests that the given style should be appropriate to the fiction at the heart of the poem.
In Warren's estimation, "there is some real reason to regret that Marston is not more explicit on this point, for his approach to it exhibits considerable taste and sound critical judgment" (69). Warren perceives the way in which this point is related both to Marston's rejection of obscurity and to his conception of the work of the poet. For example, Warren notes early in his study Marston's use of indignation as a convention: "Besides exaggerating this convention [...] as the impulse of the satirist[,] Marston gives it another implication--that of the Malcontent's desire for oblivion as an escape from the evils which excite such indignation and that of the ironic admission that the protest will bring no good" (4). While other critics situate this use of indignation as a convention within the context of Marston's use of the Kinsayder persona, Warren reads it within Marston's attempt to be both simple and concrete. The exaggeration is not found in the mere style of the work--though that indignation pushes the form of satire to its limits--but in the concrete voice that utters its satiric judgment on its society and ironically upon itself.
This indignation is made apparent in his commitment to a rough substance first and then in his dealing with the style of the work. Wharton explains that Marston was able to work within the conventions of stylistic roughness and to adopt them as a way of aggressively contending for his own ideas. He writes that "Marston seems to accept it as the only means by which his intense moral indignation can be expressed and then to push the theory to its extremes" (8). But the stylistic roughness is but a mirror for that more essential element of the poem, the invention of the poet. "In stylistic roughness, Marston clearly believes, resides dignity of purpose. It is actually the outward sign of inspiration. [...] He actively seeks, therefore, to exceed his contemporaries in metrical roughness" (8). Marston seeks the freedom of his own poetic voice by the use of the form and the conventions to the point of the breaking of that form. Only in this way is he able to save his satires from becoming an empty form like those o f Hall (Shelburne 217).
Marston's understanding of the relationship between style and content forms a rudimentary theory of the organic nature of poetry, a central tenet of the varieties of New Criticism. This tenet was influenced not only by this sort of concern apparent in Elizabethan poetry and giving shape to the work of the Metaphysical poets but also by the theory expounded by German romantic thinkers filtered in large part through the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. At each stage of literary history, this organic theory was defended against various types of a bare formalism. This was true of the New Critics, as well. Brooks and Warren comment in Understanding Poetry, "The relationship among the elements in a poem is what is all important; it is not a mechanical relationship but one which is far more intimate and fundamental. If we must compare a poem to the make-up of some physical object it ought not to be a wall but something organic like a plant" (16). A bare formalism would emphasize simply the mechanical relationship wi thin the elements of a poem, whereas an organic theory incorporates those more existential elements that are "intimate and fundamental." This appears to be the very point that Warren is making about Marston's critical understanding: the relationship between all the elements, whether it be "fiction" to rhyme or style to content, is what is all important. To allow the arbitrary elements of rhyme and style to dictate the nature of the fiction and the content would be merely mechanical. (16)
In the organic metaphor, the fiction and content would be the root and stem of the poetic plant that Marston conceives. Warren had earlier returned to this matter in "Pure and Impure Poetry," developing what he considered to be sound critical judgment. In this essay he argues that poetry "depends upon the set of relationships" among the various elements of the poem and this set determines the structure of the poem (24). Just as Marston held that the degrees of ease and finish were related to the different subjects of poems, Warren contends that various elements are related to one another by a necessary and generative tension. But Warren cautions, "This does not mean that anything can be used in any poem, or that some materials or elements may not prove more recalcitrant than others, or that it might not be easy to have too much of some things. But it does mean that, granted certain contexts, any sort of material, a chemical formula for instance, might appear functionally in a poem" (24). Context and content a re organically related to one another. Warren allows context to determine the choice of materials and the voice of the work just as Marston allows the content to determine the style of the poetry.
Warren followed Marston's imperative in the composition of "The Ballad of Billie Potts," in which the style of its speech, images, and structure is determined by the characters and the narrative itself. Here Warren sheds the strict rhythm and sentence structure that marked poems such as "To a Face in a Crowd" ("Brother, my brother, whither do you pass?" [Collected Poems 61]) and "The Return: an Elegy" ("Whirl out of space through time O wheels/Pursue down backward time the ghostly parallels" ), and he pursues the style and voice that are intimated in "Pondy Woods" ("Big Jim Todd was a slick black buck/Laying low in the mud and muck" ). Warren had certainly confronted the harsh, the brutal, the violent in earlier poems, but here the style of the ballad is brought in line with the content of this cruel and pitiful tale in a way that set it off from his earlier work. For example, Warren writes near the end of "The Ballad of Billie Potts,
And he jingled his pockets and he took his sop, And patted his belly which was full nigh to pop, And wiped the buttermilk out of his beard And took his belch and up and reared Back from the table and cocked his chair And said: "Old man, ain't you got any fresh drinken water, this here ain't fresher'n a hoss puddle?" And the old woman said: "Pappy, why don't you take the young gentleman down to the spring so he can kin git hit good and fresh?" And the old woman gave the old man a straight look. She gave him the bucket but it was not empty but it was not water.
(Collected Poems 88).
These lines represent well the brutal irony that veins the whole of the poem. Little Billie Potts returns home to the "land between the rivers" section of Kentucky after years of prosperous living in the West, only to be greeted by his greedy and murderous parents when he attempts to trick them by concealing his identity. The son turns out to be the "young gentleman" escorted to the spring and there killed by the axe concealed in the bucket by his unknowing mother. The disarming simplicity of the language and the erratic rhyme scheme cannot conceal the curious overturning of the Oedipus legend as the son is killed by the father, and it actually serves to heighten the sense of irony in the text. When the old woman suggests that "he kin git hit good and fresh," her words betray not simply the idioms of a regional dialect ("kin" for "can," "git" for "get," and "hit" for "it") but even more so the doubleness of the situation. The young gentleman is literally kin to the man and woman, and instead of getting "it," that is, the fresh spring water as a metaphor of life, he is literally hit and killed by the father.
Warren's juxtaposition of sections of ballad, like the one above, and narrator comment serve to make this tense irony all the more evident. Within the same poem we find two voices, each of which speaks in a style appropriate to its function within the fabric of the narrative. The style of each section is determined by the specific demands of ballad on the one hand and comment on the other. Warren continued to develop the relation between style and content in his subsequent poetry, allowing the style to be governed by the vital image that formed the heart of each poem. In his later poetry, though, he extends this notion beyond the diction required by certain characters to govern the structure of individual lines and complete poems. At times, his sense of irony demands not "a consistent smoothness" in poetic lines but the jagged rhythms and halting cadences of an age marked by crisis and alienation.
4. The Critic as Poet
While Warren's thesis provides insight into the development of his poetics by revealing his own critical judgments in the matters considered, it also clearly displays the character of a critical impulse that was born out in both his critical essays and in his comments on criticism. It is this impulse that distinguishes Warren's work from that of his New Critical counterparts, those whom he considered to be "professional critics," such as Cleanth Brooks and I.A. Richards (Watkins, Hiers, and Weaks 139, 266). The central impulse in Warren's criticism, here and elsewhere, is not primarily the critical attitude but the poetic sensibility. Warren understood the difference to be found in his refusal to develop and defend a critical system. Forty-seven years after completing his Marston thesis, Warren commented,
A real critic, like Cleanth Brooks or I.A. Richards, has a system--they develop a system. And it's a critic's main interest, and he's concerned with that primarily. I'm not. I'm interested in trying to understand this poem or that poem, but I'm not interested in trying to create a system. I'm interested in a different kind of understanding.
(Watkins, Hiers, and Weaks 266)
Warren's goal in his criticism is not to erect a system or a theory but is to approach that poetic understanding which is the fruit of a careful and personal reading of poetry. That Warren wrote his criticism as a poet is as apparent in this earliest of his critical works as it is in his latest. Warren writes with a poet's sense of language in all of its complicated power and with the poet's sense of artistic vision. His respect for Marston's critical sense is rooted in his appreciation of the struggles that underlie the poet's concern for the role of fiction in poetry and the relation of style to content.
Warren displays the same self-consciousness in his work as a critic as he observed in Marston as a poet. His brief comment upon Marston's assessment of the critics of his age notes that Marston's attack upon "professional" critics comes from the standpoint of his own role as a "professional writer": "[H]e believed that the man who is actually practising the craft is the only critic who thoroughly understands the problems involved" (70). However appropriate this statement may be of any position held by Marston, it betrays far more about Warren's own approach to criticism as a "professional writer." Warren touched on this attitude toward criticism when he stated in a 1970 interview, "Any kind of criticism that has to do with the nature of the process by which a work comes to exist is bound to profit from some experience with the business of creation" (Watkins, Hiers, and Weaks 176). His own criticism is marked by his experience as a creator, a poet; he has a keen understanding of the problems involved in writin g because, like Marston, he was a man actually practicing the craft. This stance is made all the more apparent by Warren's remarks in a February 1930 letter to Donald Davidson in which he discusses his first book, John Brown: The Making of a Martyr, published in 1929 even as he began his work at Oxford. At the end of the letter, Warren informs Davidson that "the thesis is going along slowly and I haven't much time for anything else. [...] In any case, I have a very interesting subject--Marston's satires. It is also a very complicated one; but I hope for the best" (Selected Letters 182). But while he worked on his thesis, he began to receive reviews of his book. Earlier in the letter, Warren tells Davidson,
The reviews which I have received so far have been about equally divided between vicious attacks and large praise; and I don't know which is preferable under the circumstances. [...] But according to Payson and Clarke the book is not selling well. Naturally I am disappointed in that. There are some grave faults in the thing, but I haven't seen the review yet which was concerned with them--or with such poor virtues as the book possessed.
Warren does not criticize the critics either for their "vicious attacks" or their "large praise;" rather, he takes them to task for their failure to come to terms with the work itself, with the "grave faults in the thing" that he as the writer is able to perceive. Their criticism is too critical and not nearly "poetic" enough for Warren.
The connection between Warren's work on Marston and his John Brown lies more importantly, though, in Warren's preoccupation with the work of the poet. Both Marston and Brown function as poetic figures for the young Warren. Although this function may be more obvious in his dealing with Marston, it is nonetheless present in his dealing with Brown. Like Marston, Brown plays the role of an aggressive figure who asserts his own ideals in such a way that he must be reckoned with as an antagonist. He clings to his values by means of violent attack against his opponents. Even if Warren does not give moral approval to the character and actions of John Brown--indeed, Thoreau's valorizing of Brown would alone have been enough to cause Warren to castigate him--he nonetheless recognizes that he is dealing with a powerful figure who demanded a reckoning with his values. Eliot's description of Marston appears to be applicable to Brown as well: he presents a "powerful and unique personality" who displays a "deep discontent a nd rebelliousness" (173). In the expression of his discontent, there is the mixture of the pure and the impure; he is a figure of great tension, the very tension encountered by the poet. Warren describes Brown precisely in terms of that fundamental tension:
In a strange way the homicidal maniac lives in terms of grand gestures and heroic stances, and is a carrier of high values, but is a homicidal maniac! This is a strange situation; and the split of feeling around Brown makes the split of feeling in a thing like my character Stark almost trivial. Brown lives in the dramatic stance of his life, rather than in the psychological content of it; he lives in noble stances and noble utterances, and at the psychological and often factual level of conduct was--it's incredible--brutal. Perfect self-deception--yet "noble."
(Watkins, Hiers, and Weaks 155)
The tension between the maniacal and the heroic in Brown displays a fundamental tension for Warren, even if it is exaggerated in the figure of Brown. Brown is the man who seeks to bring final reconciliation and fusion between fact and idea. In Warren's analyses of American history, this tension is everywhere apparent in the conflict between law and experience or value and action (Burt 18). But this same tension also forms the fabric of Warren's novels--such as in All the King's Men, to which he alludes--in all of which the main character is confronted as an individual with the questions that also confront the individual as a poet. Like Brown and Stark, the poet is also always in danger of self-deception and always lives in the tension between the goal of making a final utterance and the fact of the experience of his own fallible speech. The poet deceives himself precisely when he denies this tension, and that deception is the death of poetry as much as it was the death of Brown and Stark.
The work of the poet endures through the ongoing and agonistic grappling with this tension, and he must endure this agony if he is to develop as a strong poet. For Marston, that meant the engagement of Hall through his satires in order to win his own voice, though he ran the risk of his own self-deception. Warren, like Marston, won through to his own "fresh sublimity" through his struggle with no moderate antagonist: T.S. Eliot. In his "Foreword" to The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren, Harold Bloom argues that "the dominant influence upon Warren's own poetry, from 1922 through 1966, was T.S. Eliot" and that the force of this influence was not fully shaken until the publication of Warren's 1968 volume, Incarnations: Poems, 1966-1968 (xxiii). But in his last and greatest poetic phase (1966-1986), Warren "wrestled with the angel of the poetic sublime and carried away a new name" (xxiii). Bloom points out that Warren was himself aware of the power of that influence and said as much to Bloom in an "exuberant letter" in response to his Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, a book that cost Bloom some old friends but secured for him a new friend in Warren. According to Bloom, "Warren emphasized his uncanny sense of recognizing his own relation to his precursor, Eliot, in my descriptions of the agonistic relationship between strong poets and their inheritors" (xxiv). Warren's own writing supports Bloom's claims. In his 1976 essay "The Use of the Past," where Warren meditates on how the writer uses the past, he rejects that idealism which shows itself through either a contempt for the past or through a valorization of it. In short, he rejects "pure" theories of history just as much as he rejects "pure" theories of poetry. Warren contends, though, that the society's experience of crisis is parallel to that crisis facing a writer; either he will be overcome by the literary tradition or he will learn to use it in order to overcome it. This use requires the dynamic, ongoing engagement of the tension of life in the world: "For we live in the world, and our understanding of it is of crucial importance to us. Only by trying to know our role in the world can we, in the end, come to know our selves" (42). For the writer, this tension in the world unavoidably involves his confrontation with the past. Warren claims that
[t]he more [a writer] knows about the past, and the more he reveres the great creators of the past, the more he must struggle against them. He is like Jacob, who wrestled the angel all night in the place called Peniel and, though at the break of day he received the mystic wound in the thigh, would not let go of the mysterious stranger until he had exacted the blessing he craved and could say that he had "seen God face to face." (47)
In support of his position, Warren then cites "a recent and fascinating book called The Anxiety of Influence" in which Bloom describes "this struggle of a poet with the past as the dynamic of literary tradition" (47). Warren interprets Bloom to mean that "the self, by such a view, can be discovered only in the attempt to assert itself against a powerful opponent from the past."
Although Warren's thesis does not contain all the insights of his more mature criticism, it nonetheless displays the seeds of that development in its self-consciousness about the struggles of the poet in relation to his precursors and to himself. It contains in nascent form the central concern of what became Warren's own theory of poetry, that is, the preference for the psychological rather than the formal difference. From Warren's standpoint, there is no way of finally driving the wedge of form or tradition or idealism between the poet and his poetry. Through the creative act, the poet bears in himself a wound received in his attempt to make his voice known. Marston bore that wound, or "scourge," in his own attempt to make utterance in the midst of his contemporaries (Wharton 2). Warren likewise carried this wound throughout what he understood to be the poet's work, "the long attempt to define himself" (Watkins, Hiers, and Weaks 399). Warren's reading of Marston proves, therefore, to be that sort of reading described in my first epigraph by Paul Valery: Warren reads "with some quite personal goal in mind" and through his reading acquires that power necessary for his own long and arduous attempt to define himself.
(1.) I wish to thank John Burt, literary executor of the Warren estate, for permission to quote from Warren's unpublished thesis. I would also like to thank The Keeper of Western Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, custodian of the Warren thesis (Shelfmark MS. B. Litt. d.216), for permission to read the manuscript.
(2.) Qtd. in Bloom, "The Breaking of Form" 6.
(3.) "Foreword" 8.
(4.) I am indebted to Joseph Blotner's biography for details regarding Warren's time in Oxford. To my knowledge, his is the first published mention of Warren's thesis. See Blotner 88-108.
(5.) The thesis also includes six appendices, three of which deal with Joseph Hall and Marston's relationship to and controversy with him. It is significant that Warren deals with this relationship. See below.
(6.) For a lengthier discussion of Eliot's essay, see Wharton 31-34.
(7.) See Weiss's argument concerning the necessary distinctions between Marston and the persona of Kinsayder. "There is little reason to doubt, therefore, that Marston wished the reader to see Kinsayder as a persona; indeed, he represents Kinsayder in the recognizable mold of the self-deceived artist who ... is caught in his own web because of his distorted vision of man" (25). Weiss develops his argument in the context of the critical issues of invention and style.
(8.) Eliot comments, "It is the pattern drawn by what the ancient world called Fate; subtilized by Christianity into mazes of delicate theology; and reduced again by the modern world into crudities of psychological or economic necessity" (177).
(9.) Warren devotes the second chapter to "Marston's Relation to Hall," and the fourth appendix to "Conclusions of Marston-Hall Controversy." It is important to note that after Marston turned to drama he adopted the same aggressive stance, taking on Ben Jonson in the midst of the "war of the theaters" (Dixon 44).
(10.) For a summary of the Marston-Hall controversy, see Wharton 5-8.
(11.) It should be noted that Warren observes these as the "only two theoretical matters" Marston dealt with explicitly in his satires. While his observation may be limited in terms of the presence of other related theoretical matters in the satires, it is nonetheless accurate in what it does say, as has been attested to by more recent Marston criticism.
(12.) Mirror for Magistrates proved to be one of the most important English texts of the second half of the sixteenth century, going through at least five editions between 1555 and 1587. It compiled various forms of tragic and epic poems about the lives of great men in the history of Britain. But it is not generally praised for the quality of its verse. Lewis's careful estimation is typical: "An immense amount of serious thought and honest work went to its composition and it remains, with [Tottel's Miscellany] the chief poetical monument of the Drab Age. Like Tottel, it did useful work in re-establishing metrical regularity, but in other respects its influence on succeeding poets was mainly bad" (246). Cunliffe is more pointed in his criticism: "The moralising is insufferably trite, and unrelieved by a single spark of humour. Seldom does the style rise to the dignity and pathos of subject and situation; the jog-trot of the metre is indescribably monotonous, and one welcomes the interruption of the connective passages in prose, with their quaint phrases and no less quaint devices" (224).
(13.) Warren is quoting from Thomas Warton, History of English Poetry iii.450.
(14.) Warren's comment about "psychological" difference is likely influenced more by I.A. Richards than Sigmund Freud. Warren apparently read Richards while at Oxford and sent copies of his books to Tate (Blotner 131).
(15.) Philip Harth situates the concern for "fiction" in poetry characteristic of New Criticism within an impersonal theory of poetry deriving from T.S. Eliot (528-35). In his concern for fiction here, Warren is not espousing such a theory; rather, Warren seeks to remove the wedge driven between the poet and the poetic creation. See comments in Section Four below.
(16.) Compare the notion of organic unity found in Brooks and Warren as well as in the work of fellow New Critics Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom with Marston's analogy of unity discussed above. Marston's concern for the "soul" and the New Critical concern for oncological aspects of reading and criticism bear further consideration.
Bloom, Harold. "The Breaking of Form." Deconstruction and Criticism. New York: The Seabury P, 1979. 1-37.
_____. Foreword. The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren. Ed. John Burt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1998. xxiii-xxvi.
Blotner, Joseph. Robert Penn Warren: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1997.
Burt, John. Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.
Cunliffe, John W. "A Mirror for Magistrates." The Cambridge History of English Literature. Vol. 3. Ed. A.W. Ward and AR. Waller. New York: Macmillan, 1917. 216-26.
Dixon, W. Macneile. "Chapman, Marston, Dekker." The Cambridge History of English Literature. Vol. 6. Ed. A.W. Ward and A.R. Waller. New York: Macmillan, 1917. 33-65.
Eliot, T.S. "John Marston." Elizabethan Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956. 162-78.
Harth, Philip. "The New Criticism and Eighteenth-Century Poetry." Critical Inquiry (Spring 1981): 521-37.
Lewis, C. S. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama. London: Oxford UP, 1954.
Routh, Harold V. "London and the Development of Popular Literature." The Cambridge History of English Literature. Vol. 4. Ed. A. W. Ward and A.R. Waller. New York: Macmillan, 1917. 362-4 15.
Shelburne, Steven. "Principled Satire: Decorum in John Marston's The Metamorphosis of Pigmalions Image and Certaine Satyres." Studies in Philology 86.2 (1989): 198-218.
Warren, Robert Penn. The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren. Ed. John Burt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1998.
_____. "Foreword." Christian Faith and the Contemporary Arts. Ed. Finlay Eversole. New York: Abingdon P, 1962. 7-9.
_____. "Pure and Impure Poetry." Selected Essays. New York: Random House, 1958. 3-31.
_____. Selected Letters of Robert Penn Warren. Ed. William Bedford Clark. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2000.
_____. "A Study of John Marston's Satires." ms. B.Litt. d. 216. Bodleian Library, Oxford.
_____. "The Use of the Past." New and Selected Essays. New York: Random House, 1989. 29-53.
Warton, Thomas. History of English Poetry. Ed. Richard Price. London: [no publisher], 1840.
Watkins, Floyd C., John T. Hiers, and Mary Louise Weeks. Talking with Robert Penn Warren. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1990.
Weiss, Adrian. "Rhetoric and Satire: New Light on John Marston's Pigmalion and the Satires." Journal of English and Germanic Philosophy 71(1972): 22-35.
Wharton, T.F. The Critical Fall and Rise of John Marston. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1994.
John C. Van Dyke (email@example.com) is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and has taught at Appalachian State University and at King College. His work on Warren's poetry is rooted in the interdisciplinary study of literature and theology. He has previously published work on Warren's view of language and is currently completing a book, Saying the Unsayable, to be published next year by the University of Tennessee Press.
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|Author:||Van Dyke, John Charles|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2002|
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