Ancient beauty, modern verse: romanticism and classicism from Plato to T. S. Eliot and the new formalism.
Those who think of modern or postmodern art as a radicalization of certain ideas of the Romantics of the nineteenth century tend to claim that art is expression, namely self-expression, and so long as something gets expressed in art--much the way the breast exhales, the skin perspires, the tree blossoms, or the heart issues its most sudden and profound cry--then the work will be legitimate, sincere, and therefore good. (2) We should note that this weighty theory actually refers to the origin or creation of the work rather than anything inhering in the work itself. It is a theory of art as process and expression that stands more in reference to the psychology of the artist than to art as a particular kind of thing made. A second doctrine, consistently referred to as Classicism, says something other about artworks, without obvious reference to their origin. Namely, a work of art may be an organic unity that transcends the sum of its parts, but it is made up of parts nonetheless, and the difference between the better and worse work of art lies in how fully those parts have been dominated and brought under the rule of a formal logic. If the former doctrine derives from the Romantics, this latter is attributed--for reasons that are not always just--to classical civilization, or to the "classical" moment in this-or-that national culture. Thus, ancient Greek authors, those of the French seventeenth century, or of the English eighteenth, are often called in some sense "classical" precisely because they exemplify a concern with form, measured craft, and logical technique above all else. As mention of the English Augustan age intimates, "classical" does not necessarily mean great, but may sometimes be used as a slur to dismiss a disciplined, perhaps enervatingly methodical, commitment to rational statement and precise versification as standards of excellence. Even the most steadfast admirers of Alexander Pope do not think him comparable to the "pre-classical" Shakespeare; conversely, some of Shakespeare's most provocative interpreters have been those who have fixated on the lack of classical order in his work. (3)
To bring this set of parallel descriptions to completion. I should add that nearly everyone acknowledges there is something great, mysterious, and self-transcending about the best works of art, and so concedes to Romantic doctrine that there is more to art than a mastery of craft. The language of "excess" and "saturation" found in contemporary phenomenology has served to give such claims a renewed respectability in our day. (4) Nearly all parties accept in practice, however, that a poem subsists as a composition--as a singular form wrought out of disparate elements --and that the most intense heat of inspiration will not compel us to appreciate a poem if the parts it fuses be inadequate or deformed. Securing this acceptation has been one of the enduring successes of the New Critics, with their various calls for an "ontological critic" who could treat a work of art as a work of art rather than something else (such as historical artifact, useful propaganda, or psychological complex). (5)
These descriptions of Romanticism and Classicism will be familiar to readers of Abrams's seminal The Mirror and the Lamp, which sought to define the peculiarity of the modern theory of literature as Romantic, as distinct from its classical forebears running from Johnson back to Horace (vii). From this specifically modern perspective, Romanticism as I have discussed it thus far could be taken as a mere umbrella term for what Abrams defines as the expressive theories of poetry and art (77). Classicism, in contrast, would seem to draw upon the ancient resources of mimetic and pragmatic theories Abrams describes (8-14), but will clearly be seen to aspire to--without quite becoming--what Abrams terms an "objective" theory of art (27). It will become evident in what follows that, far from dissenting from Abrams's characterizations, I believe his account of Romanticism and Classicism takes on richer significance when we more fully appreciate the ancient philosophical roots he so admirably traced and idle upon them: such an exercise will alter our understanding not only of the origin but the importance of both terms for thinking about art and literature.
If everyone acknowledges the two sides of this apparent antinomy, and if scholars such as Abrams have convincingly anatomized it, then one may wonder that there should be anything more to say about them. I have already indicated that I think there is, and for two reasons. The historical contest between so-called Romanticism and Classicism has given shape to our literary culture for the better part of two centuries, beginning with the Weimar of Goethe and Schiller, continuing through the Paris of the Third Republic, and on to the London of the nineteen-twenties. This contest continues to influence our culture in the present, including the teaching of art in our schools, the way contemporary artists pursue their vocation, and even how the dazed undergraduate understands copyright law as it is applied to creative works. I believe we need to rethink Classicism and Romanticism as critical terms precisely because present usage conceals their weightier significance, their more ancient pedigree; unveiling that history may at once give us a clearer understanding as to why these terms, as it were, do not seem to go away, and, perhaps, why we should not want them to.
If we can re-ascend to origins (Eliot, Christianity and Culture 49), getting behind their uneven and varied usage to arrive at the original perceptions they connote, we may deepen our understanding of the nature of art in general and of poetry in particular by rediscovering its unacknowledged dependence on the nature of beauty. Modern art, and modern theorists of aesthetics, have frequently proposed that art is no longer "about" the manifestation of beauty, but about some kind of creative expression, recording of experience, or display of craft. (6) This claim, I believe, derives not so much from an apprehension of the character of modern art as it does from a failure to grasp the nature of beauty; but it does at least have the merit of suggesting that fine art can stand in various relations to beauty or, perhaps better, that beauty is sufficiently complex that we may emphasize different elements of it.
While I hope to explore these claims to strengthen contemporary reflections on the nature of art in general, it will become clear that the specific interest of this essay at once extends beyond aesthetic theory and finds a more concrete purpose in hopes for a renewal of verse in contemporary poetry. The genealogy of Romanticism and Classicism I offer may be of interest to anyone open to resolving intractable modern questions by reference to categories of thought that precede them historically and surpass our critical vocabulary in precision. But I hope also to suggest how such theoretical insights might guide the work of practicing poets.
The argument to follow is tripartite. First, I shall recall the defining moment in Anglo-American modernism in which the lines of the contest between Classicism and Romanticism became most familiarly drawn. Second, I shall deconstruct that moment in an attempt to restore a richer understanding of those words, one that draws on the Christian-Platonist tradition's understanding of the metaphysics of beauty. This will carry us from modern London back to medieval Paris, before depositing us in ancient Rome and Athens. But, third, I shall return us to the present to contemplate the implications of these terms for the practice and evaluation of contemporary poetry. This will include brief reference to the directions Romanticism has taken in our own day among the poetic avant-garde, but it will focus on the achievement of the revived Classicism to be found among the new formalist poets who came to prominence during the last three decades. (7) This discussion will culminate in an examination of two poems, by Bill Coyle and Rhina P. Espaillat.
Let us turn our attention to a formative episode in the history of modern poetry, namely, the controversy between T. S. Eliot and his friend and colleague John Middleton Murry, whose best known consequence was the former's great essay, "The Function of Criticism" (1923). If Eliot was the most influential poet-critic of the last century, his essays "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and "The Function of Criticism" have probably shaped our understanding of the theory behind modernist art more than any others.
In "Tradition," Eliot argued that the achievement of an artist cannot be measured in terms of a work's expression of the artist's personality, nor can an artwork be understood in isolation from external criteria. Rather, one must interpret and evaluate any given work only as it stands within an ideal order, a larger historical pattern, that informs it and that it may inform --that is, modify--with its own existence (The Sacred Wood 50). "No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone," Eliot insisted. "Elis significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists" (The Sacred Wood 49). As such, the practice of the artist is to perfect his medium so that the finished work may enter into this impersonal, ideal order of tradition. In a dry but devastating formulation, Eliot averred, "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things" (The Sacred Wood 56). You may contradict the critic, that is, but then he will convict you of turning to poetry to compensate for a bookish and hollow interior life: an assumption that the case of John Stuart Mill seems to prove. This theory of art has long been thought to draw directly on the metaphysical and aesthetic theories of the philosopher and critic T. E. Hulme--who had recently been killed in the Great War, and whom Eliot will later mention in the "Function" essay (Selected Essays 21). Eliot would soon follow Hulme in designating the theory outlined here as "Classicism." (8)
In the years before his death, Hulme had contended that modern culture was due for a classical revival. The previous decades had been dominated by Romantic humanism, by which Hulme described any belief in an essential continuity of all aspects of reality with the biological realm of life (3). Romanticism, he pronounced, tended to absorb the divine into the natural, the natural into the psychological, the psychological into the emotional, and the emotional into an evolutionary optimism that all things would be explained and improved through a happy, inevitable apotheosis of biology. Such a naturalistic reduction may seem a far cry from early European Romanticism, which specifically followed Immanuel Kant in seeking to preserve a realm of freedom and spirit that infinitely transcended the determined mechanisms of matter that modern science claimed to discover (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason 115; Critique of Judgment 2.25). But Hulme evidently saw such a project as inexorably issuing in the immanentism and materialism of the late Victorian age (10). (9)
And so, he offered the classical viewpoint as a necessary alternative, by reasserting the "religious attitude" that saw man as "an extraordinarily fixed and limited animal whose nature is absolutely constant" (116). Human nature was conditioned by original sin, which cut it off entirely from what Hulme called the realms of absolute mathematics and absolute divinity, leaving man stuck between, in the relative "slush" of life (10-11). The religious person would aspire to absolutes, while acknowledging them impossible to attain by any natural means; they were on the far side of a conceptual abyss and so, above all, must not be confused with or reduced to the natural realm. This classical metaphysics of discontinuity would provide Eliot a foundation on which to build his theory of tradition. (10)
In "The Function of Criticism," Eliot would elaborate this theory by distinguishing it from the Romanticism of rival man of letters John Middleton Murry. Murry had pronounced that Englishmen were by nature Romantic, and that Romanticism amounted to a "sense that in the last resort" one "must depend upon the inner voice" (Selected Essays 16). If one were to dig "deep enough" in one's "pursuit of self-knowledge," one "will come upon a self that is universal," indeed one will "ultimately hear the voice of God" (Selected Essays 16). Hulme had proposed absolute divisions between the rational laws of mathematics, the divine laws of God, and the unstable organic zone of human life. Murry, in contrast, buries all meaning in the human individual's heart.
Eliot's essay parries this appeal to the supremacy of individual conscience by equating it with the drunken vulgarity of English soccer fans; it muses, the "possessors of the inner voice ride ten in a compartment to a football match at Swansea, listening to the inner voice, which breathes the eternal message of vanity, fear, and lust" (Selected Essays 16). Refusing these slushy and sloshed subjective authorities, Eliot defends Classicism, which doctrine insists "that men cannot get on without giving allegiance to something outside themselves.... If, then, a man's interest is political, he must, I presume, profess an allegiance to principles, or to a form of government, or to a monarch: and if he is interested in religion, and has one, to a Church; and if he happens to be interested in literature, he must acknowledge, it seems to me, just that sort of allegiance" for which Eliot had argued in his "Tradition" essay (Selected Essays 15).
In Murry's Romanticism, then, we find a conception of morality and literature that centers on individual conscience, self-expressive genius, and emotional inspiration. In Eliot's Classicism, we find that the individual work of art, and the life of the individual person, take on meaning and value chiefly through their immersion in a larger order; it must indeed be a coordinate within a greater system that can in some sense be measured or charted so that one work stands in a definite relation to another, and that to the whole tradition. For instance, certain lilies in The Waste Land take on complete meaning only in reference to Dante, which reference, in turn, implies a statement on the postwar condition of London relative to the whole of the West.
These are expansive categories, this Romanticism and Classicism, resonating more as a whole way of life than as a theory of art. Murry had even equated, on what basis we may doubt, Romanticism with Englishness per se, and Eliot's rhetorically powerful but confused formulation leaves ambiguous why one would offer allegiance to one political system or Church rather than another. How different, after all, is Eliot's concept of "a man's interest" from Murry's resolution of all things into the English Romantic conscience? Even when Hulme wrote of Romanticism and Classicism before the Great War, the terms were already overloaded as categories of cultural politics--especially in France, where Classicism had become the tag of the right-wing monarchist group UAction Frangaise (Hulme 113-14). Furthermore, by the time Eliot wrote his first great essay on Baudelaire, he conceived of the French modern poet as classical "in tendency" though he lived "in a Romantic age" (Selected Essays 340). Although such language originated in debates about the nature of art, the statements themselves suggest that they no longer refer primarily to poems but to human psychology, dispositions, and, sometimes, Zeitgeists.
In 1927, Eliot declared his critical position as that of "a classicist in literature, a royalist in politics, and an Anglo-Catholic in religion" (To Criticize the Critic 15). The very month of his baptism in the Church of England, he discussed accusations that he and his journal. The Criterion, were indulging in "something called 'neo-Classicism'" (Eliot, "A Commentary"). (11) As if to dispute the negative implications of this charge while accepting and defending part of the label (he resisted the "neo"), Eliot began, in that issue, the publication of an exchange of essays that would make it clearer than ever that one could not merely be "a classicist in literature."
The first contributor to the exchange was, perhaps inevitably, Murry. His "Towards a Synthesis" scarcely discusses literature at all, taking as its focus the nature of intuition in relation to reason and knowledge. He begins with a quotation from Eliot's recent long review of two books by Herbert Read and Ramon Fernandez published the previous year, in which Eliot had dismissed the idea of "intuition" as a "potent and thuriferous juju" (Eliot, Review of Reason and Romanticism and Messages 757), and suggested that "intelligence," understood according to Aristotle and Aquinas, was the condign term for any and every sort of knowledge. Murry denies this and gives the reader a swift tour of the history of thought in which he portrays the Scholastic system of St. Thomas Aquinas as having comprehensively synthesized the knowledge of faith with the knowledge of reason: it was "one of the noblest creations of the human mind" (297). (12) Satisfactory though this synthesis was for the medieval mind, which knew a unity and order that eludes the present age, the modern loss of religious faith had led also to a confusion of the faculties and contents of reason and faith. Murry regrets this confusion and avails himself of the terms Classicism and Romanticism to diagnose it:
This, I think, is what Mr. Eliot means by Romanticism--the confusion of reason and faith, which did historically and necessarily occur after the collapse of the School; and by Classicism I believe he means that rigorous discrimination between reason and faith which St. Thomas so magisterially proclaimed. Not only have I no quarrel with such a use of the terms Classicism and Romanticism; but it seems to me the most valuable and most definite use that can be made of those Protean and unsatisfactory words. (300)
Murry's essay proceeds to argue that the medieval distinction and synthesis of faith and reason has, in the confused and faithless modern age, issued in the dualisms of Science and Art (304), or quantity and quality (305), which are the formal objects respectively of reason and intuition. For most modern persons, because only quantity is the proper object of reason, quantity is also the only constituent of real knowledge. Murry rejects this rationalism, believing that both reason and intuition command our assent as ways of knowing, as distinct movements in the mind's dialectic, its vacillation between cognition and immediate experience (308). Further, he believes a new synthesis must be discovered that gives both intellect and intuition their due (311).
Only here does his discussion of these originally literary terms actually refer to literature: he holds up Shakespeare and Goethe as forerunners of a new synthesis adequate to what the modern mind knows. Indeed, as Coleridge's Romantic aesthetics had more subtly proposed a century earlier (Abrams 310, 317), any philosophical articulation of a new modern synthesis will be no more than a commentary on what is already "implied in Shakespeare" (Murry 311). The dialectic of Classicism and Romanticism culminates in works of art, or rather, in the comprehensive, synthetic vision such works may someday provide, and which they even provide now in mice. But this is to say that the aesthetic comprises all the other acts of the human mind and that Classicism and Romanticism may be "literary" terms only in the sense that literature provides the final account of reality--quantitative and qualitative--we can have. There is nothing beyond literature, nothing beyond its synthesis of reason and intuition, as there clearly was thought to be in the ages before the collapse of faith and its reduction to intuition (313). Faith has been reduced to art, and art contains all, but does so only as intuition incarnated.
The celebrated Thomist philosopher Martin D'Arcy, S. J. would ably reply to Murry, recapitulating the fundamental distinction to be found in Aquinas between intellectus and ratio, which the work of another Jesuit, Pierre Rousselot, had recently brought to renewed attention (D'Arcy 223). Intellectus is the perfect vision of truth, of which ratio can only approximate by way of "inquiry and discursive thinking" (223). Intelligence is one faculty, but human intelligence operates unevenly: by an "intuition, which makes subject [knower] and object [known] one," we know some things virtually and immediately (223), but most things are known by means of the discursive act that we call "reasoning." Although he does not clarify the point, D'Arcy's theory of knowledge entails that reason begins in an immediate knowledge of first principles--which he calls, here, "intuition," but which the Thomist tradition calls "intellection"; further, reasoning culminates in knowledge, where, as is the case with the knowledge of first principles, knower and known become virtually one (Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles 1.59.2). Reasoning is just a temporal, human means of arriving at the immediate knowledge of intellect that God possesses simply, i.e. apart from all sequential composition and division (Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles 1.59.4). As Rousselot writes, discursive reasoning constitutes the effort "on the part of an intelligence bound up with sense to find a substitute for pure ideas in its effort to feign a direct intuition of reality" such as that proper to God (9). The "intuition" of God's pure intellect is the archetype of all intelligence and the ideal or goal of human reasoning (68, 185, 190-91). Thus, as a historical argument. Murry's claim that "intuition" serves as a disillusioned substitute for "faith" in modernity will not hold, for the simple reason that the medieval world has already a place for something like intuition, which is an act of the intelligence, and which is prior to and independent of the act of faith (D'Arcy 216). Perhaps intuition and faith have been confused in the modern age, but this does not indicate the maturing beyond, or discrediting of, the earlier Scholastic synthesis. To the contrary, it suggests that modern man has lost the resources to situate his natural way of knowing within a larger hierarchy of intellection.
Other writers would intervene, but Eliot's contribution homes in on the stakes in play in D'Arcy's debunking of Murry's history. Eliot writes,
for Mr. Murry poetry--or at least that poetry that he likes--is a substitute for everything: not only for the 'abstract conceptual thinking' of science and philosophy, but for religion itself ... when Mr. Murry makes poetry a substitute for philosophy and religion--a higher philosophy and a purer religion, he seems to me to falsify not only philosophy and religion, but poetry too ... 'being on the side of intelligence' means keeping philosophy, religion and poetry each in its proper place, or else doing away with one or another of them altogether. (343-44)
Thus, Eliot's Classicism does entail a specific conception of the literary or aesthetic; and, while it expressly does not subsume reason, intuition, or faith within the work of art (as Murry's "Romantic" system had), the language of the aesthetic--Romanticism and Classicism--does, as this passage suggests by its scare quotes around a phrase associated with the neo-Thomism of Jacques Maritain and the monarchism of L'Action Frangaise. In brief, despite Eliot's protestations to discretion, Classicism was a sensibility or position at once aesthetic, philosophical, and religious. (13) He resisted the reduction of all things to art or poetry, and yet this implied a specific relation of art to all things outside itself. Romanticism and Classicism thus were foundational terms, allowing one to indicate the available positions in each of the major debates of this time.
This comprehensiveness clearly served a heuristic purpose. And yet, less than a decade after writing "The Function of Criticism," Eliot largely avoided the terms in his series of Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, in which he sought to sketch the historical uses of poetry and criticism, because of their slippery signification, which could, in certain contexts, expand "to cover almost the whole of the life of a time and of nearly the whole world" (The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism 121). The categories were so expansive as to appear meaningless in the restrained context of Eliot's lectures, even as they clearly seemed to capture opposed conceptions of art and of life in an earlier one, where much more seemed at stake than how poetry might be read. One may justly wonder, how can two opposed words be, as it were, absolutely definitive and frustratingly vague? How could words from aesthetic theory seem necessary in a broad, cultural context, and yet unhelpful in their natural context, an extended discussion of poetry? Eliot never resolved these points, though he would persist in the use of the terms even as he repeatedly protested their inadequacy--until, in old age, he confessed, "as for Classicism and Romanticism, I find that the terms have no longer the importance to me that they once had" (To Criticize the Critic 15).
I agree with the mature Eliot that the words, Romanticism and Classicism, as they were used in his day, leave one in frustration. But they were the only words ready to hand to account for certain clear differences between works of art and ways of life, and were valuable for that, though they obscured almost as much as they revealed. To explain this unsatisfactory circumstance, we have to trace a rather thin historical thread from modern debates about art to medieval and classical discussions of the Beautiful. The words that Eliot's generation bequeathed us regarding art derive from that curious moment in Western culture called the "Copernican Revolution" in philosophy, chiefly attributable to the late writings of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (Critique of Pure Reason 113). Concepts that had a clear and informative meaning in an earlier period lost, through a process I shall discuss, their precise descriptive function regarding what constituted Beauty per se, and came to serve a related, but harder to identify, purpose in modern talk about art and sensibility.
According to Umberto Eco's classic study of the subject, in the ancient and medieval Western world, there were two apparently competing positions on what made a particular thing beautiful and what constituted Beauty itself. These positions did not necessarily, or even primarily, refer to the beauty we identify with the fine arts, or with the human body, or the natural world. Rather, the beauty of such things was thought a mere participation in, a mere appearance that shadowed forth. Beauty in its ideal, substantial form (Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages 18).
Why would the ancient Greeks and medieval Schoolmen hanker after a definition of Beauty utterly detached from--not to say oblivious to--the experience of the senses? Because, it has been the great distinction of the Western tradition, up until modern times, to understand Beauty as a foundational principle of reality (Dupre 22). Things in their reality are beings; things in their intelligibility are true; things in their desirability are good; but when we recognize that a thing's being, truth, and goodness are one, we see the form of the thing in its fullness--and then we have a vision of Beauty itself. (14) The Western intellectual tradition, which may rightly be called in a broad sense the Christian-Platonic tradition, proposes that the vision of Beauty itself is the intellectual perception of all reality in its fundamental unity, its actual order, and its fullest significance. As Plato's Symposium argued in the opening act of this tradition, human life, at its best, is concerned with an arrival at the vision of Beauty and a dwelling and engendering therein (Plato 206b). (15) This is simply what human life is: a pilgrimage to the Beautiful that enfolds within it goodness, truth, form, and being. For Plato, to dwell in Beauty is not an aesthete's "antinomian" refusal of the normal order of reality, as it was for Walter Pater (Donoghue 114); rather, it was to live in accord with the intelligible reality that gives form and order to all things.
If one accepts this legacy, to which we are all partially disinherited heirs, one has nonetheless not solved the chief question that vexed the ancients and medievals themselves. "Fair enough," they might say, "the world is ordered by and to Beauty, but what is Beauty?" All sensible things are composed of parts, answered one school; when those parts are ordered properly, proportioned properly each-to-each so that they subordinate themselves to a larger whole, then that whole is beautiful. This school advocates what Eco calls the Aesthetics of Proportion (Art and Beauty 2830). Beauty is the ratio, even the mathematical equation, of well-ordered units. As one might expect, this tradition has its roots in Pythagoras, the man who discovered the mathematical proportion of the musical scales, but Eco cites also Plato, Aristotle, and, later, St. Augustine and Boethius (28-29).
"But, that's preposterous," one might reply (as, in fact, Plotinus did (.Enneads 1.6)). "If a whole is only beautiful because of the proportion of its parts, then what happens when a part is taken just by itself? If that part-reduced-to-a-whole is ugly, then how could its arrangement with other ugly parts come to constitute a beautiful whole? Where is beauty actually situated? We do not call only relations between things beautiful, but often refer to things in themselves as beautiful. Some things are simply beautiful, are they not?" Beauty must be a property of things themselves and not merely a way of describing an arrangement of parts, or else one would confer more reality on the "invisible" relationship between parts than on the visibly existing parts themselves. More importantly, while a beautiful painting or a beautiful woman can be contemplated partitively, an idea, being incorporeal, has no "parts" at all. And yet, surely, ideas are often more wholly beautiful than corporeal beings precisely because, lacking the complexity of parts, they exemplify the simple beauty our interlocutor insists upon (Plato, Symposium 21 la-b). Even a beautiful woman, truth be told, has her unflattering angle and, as we know, classical statuary was sculpted to be viewed from particular vantage points and would appear deformed from others. But regardless of the "position" from which one examines the idea of Beauty Itself, it must be beautiful, or else it will quite literally not be itself. Beauty must therefore transcend all parts and, indeed, it must transcend all form as the light of the sun surpasses the discus out of which it emerges. A beautiful object must participate in, and so shine forth, ideal Beauty. This school Eco dubbed that of the Aesthetics of Light (Art and Beauty 49-50). Plotinus's Enneads give voice to this school, as would, much later, Suger, Abbot of St. Denis (Art and Beauty 46).
Despite the appearance of conflict, the Aesthetics of Light and the Aesthetics of Proportion are not opposed at all, either in principle or in fact. Most figures, from Plato and Aristotle forward, made statements that comprehend both positions and suggest them as complementary, rather than competitive. Eco draws on St. Augustine's writings to define both (Art and Beauty 30,43, 47). The light of Beauty gives form, and therefore measure and proportion, to all things. Even the simple beings of ideas might be said to have certain analogical proportions (a hero is most noble, when he is wholly himself or when he has integrity, and our ugliest behavior comes out on those days when we are "bent out of shape" or "not quite ourselves"); and we are especially perceptive of relational proportions, like that of word to sentence, knower to known, color to light and to the eye, an equation to the principle of number, and essence to existence, all of which are essentially non-material in nature (Eco, Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas 86).
Taken together, Proportion and Light tell us something almost indisputable. Something is beautiful when: a) all of its parts are measured and ordered in perfect proportions to themselves; b) they may be fittingly related to everything outside of themselves (Eco, Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas 97). And yet, when something is beautiful, we see not only that well-measured form, but the form in its whole. It produces a surge of intellectual light, a clarity that shines forth, revealing the thing in three aspects: a) as a being with its own measurable integrity; b) as one which also participates in a larger order and whose relations to that order can be individually perceived; and c) as an intelligible fullness containing but transcending the previous two aspects. It is easier for us to comprehend a) and b), but most phenomenological descriptions of the experience of beauty wind up with something like c): that is, we generally encounter what is beautiful the way we encounter a person, rather than how we set about solving a problem in mathematics. We sense that beauty is self-transcending; it always gives us more than the sum of its parts. Plow else to explain the way a painting or even the briefest of verses can seem to lead us, in Wordsworth's phrase, to "see into the life of things" (133)? (16) While proportion and light are distinct in concept, they are a unity in reality. And thus, St. Augustine called Beauty splendor ordinis, the radiance of order, and St. Thomas Aquinas, in a more satisfactory formulation, called it splendor formae: that is beautiful which shines forth a form that transcends its elements without leaving them behind (Maritain, Art and Scholasticism 24). Form and splendor, Aquinas's synonyms for Proportion and Light, together constitute the Beautiful. Richard Viladesau helpfully explains Aquinas's use of these terms by reminding us that "'light' and 'luminosity' for medieval thought symbolizes the nature of being an 'intelligible' and--at its higher levels--self-conscious. 'Form,' in turn, is the intelligible quality that gives actual existence to a substance" (114). Thus, the beautiful draws into a unity the proportions of an existent thing as something capable of being known by us precisely because it has been previously thought into existence by God. Significantly, therefore, beauty is a real property of being, but one which comprises a being's internal relations (proportion) and its relation to minds beyond itself (the light of intelligibility).
By a curious development, the complementary elements of ontological beauty that are form and splendor were translated and transformed in the modern age into Classicism and Romanticism. An attention to form, to good order and measurement, as we have observed, Eliot and others described as a classical "tendency." An attention to the eruption of power and light that seems to come as unbought grace and from inexhaustible depths was transmuted into "Romanticism." If it were a mere matter of translating words, however, Classicism and Romanticism would be as helpful to us as form and splendor were to the Scholastics and their predecessors. But they are not mere translations. How then did the venerable philosophical understanding of beauty as form and splendor get mired in the intractable dualism of Romanticism and Classicism?
As with so many questions about the origins of modern thought, the natural place to turn is to Kant. In his Critique of Judgment, Kant would transform the aesthetics of light and proportion in his effort to provide a new theory of beauty defensible within his idealist system. He thus laid the foundations for modern aesthetic discussion by re-describing beauty not as a property of, and in, a real being, but as a consequence of one's taste, as the outcome of a subjective aesthetic judgment. (17) Although we may "talk about the beautiful as if beauty were a characteristic of the object," he tells us, beauty is only a name for a judgment regarding an "object's presentation ... to the subject" (Critique of Judgment 1.6). When we call some thing beautiful, we are merely naming our subjective taste-relationship to it, and so are in fact not saying anything about the thing in itself, but only about something in ourselves.
In this essentially Kantian context, Hulme and Eliot's declarations in favor of "Classicism" mark an attempt to recover the aesthetics of proportion and to reclaim for the modern artist a sense of the objective properties of an artwork in itself, in its relation to other works of art, and finally in its relation to the order of reality (hence Eliot's definition of "tradition"). They wanted us to evaluate an artwork's value and meaning in terms of its formal properties, rather than in terms of our subjective dispositions. But they lacked the critical vocabulary to pull off that project entirely, and so Classicism appeared as just one more subjective taste set against, but finally absorbed by, Romanticism; it was a "tendency" in an artist like Baudelaire, an age's Weltanschauung, a general disposition or "interest" in a person, but it did not necessarily refer to a real object such as a poem.
Paradoxically, what characterized one as "classical" was specifically an interest in reclaiming the Kantian notion of the "disinterested" subject's sensibility as a criterion of Taste and Beauty (Kant, Critique 1.5). To subordinate the purpose of art to some end outside it, or to treat art as a "substitute" for something (such as faith, in Murry's theory), was the disreputable habit of the Romantic, whereas, we have seen, Eliot the classicist insisted on keeping art as a reality unto itself: the artwork is ordered in itself, and is part of a larger "ideal order" of all art in a tradition, but is free from extrinsic purpose, use, or reference (Donoghue 67-68). In this last regard, Eliot's account of Classicism was successful. He deflected the Romantic habit of racing from the artwork back to the "inner voice" of the artist by proposing that, far from expressing an author's emotion, poetry could produce "a new art emotion" (Selected Essays 20), which Denis Donoghue defines as "one that arises not from personal circumstances but from expressive possibilities the artist has discovered in the particular practice of his medium" (118). Similarly, Eliot's essays on Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists frequently come to focus on the personality of the playwright; but the works he discusses are not only, or even primarily, expressive of the personal voice, but productive of it. The artist's personality serves "to build a world of art" (Selected Essays 192), and that world of art in turn builds up a personality that is a whole unto itself, but not necessarily the subjective whole of the historical author (Selected Essays 179). Romantic emotion and personality, as redefined in Classicism, lose their status as mere genetic qualities and become real properties of the work of art. Kant's subjective aesthetics thus also bears within it the seeds of what Abrams calls objective theories of art (Abrams 27). And yet. Eliot also demonstrates that one could describe French monarchists and English footballers as classicists or Romanticists even though neither had any obvious connection to, say, the classically proportioned plays of Jean Racine or the tragic Platonism found in the Romantic poems of Shelley. Why did this positive effort to reemphasize objectivity, form, and order in art so easily get entangled in psychology and--depending on how one views it--watered down or widely diffused in a larger cultural debate?
The Kantian concept of Taste, which redefined beauty as a subjective experience rather than an ontological reality, naturally extended beyond the realm of the fine arts, because it referred to a way of perceiving and judging rather than to a specific object judged. If the perception and appreciation of form and order in art remained for Eliot and Hulme, no less than for Kant, a matter of taste, then so also might one have a taste for order, form, and proportion in all things. Hulme and Eliot's arguments for Classicism really amounted no more than to the assertion that a subjective taste for these things was a positive good; and while their language sometimes suggests that this is absolutely the case, at other times, it seems that the argument for Classicism is reducible to the (effectively subjective) demands of the present historical moment. Hulme wanted an art that would unsettle the optimistic materialism of late-Victorian culture; Eliot did, as well, only adding the belief that the modern age was complex and so required a formally "difficult" art (Selected Essays 248-49). The philosophy of Kant made it possible to explain Classicism not as an account of what is good, true, or beautiful in reality, but as merely a tendency to call certain things good, true, or beautiful out of some subjective--though perhaps historically determined--need. For these modernists no less than for Kant, the language of aesthetics continued to qualify as statements about the subject.
This subjective valence given to Romanticism and Classicism partially conceals the extent to which the terms are, finally, continuous with the older aesthetics of Light and Proportion. Recall that, for the ancients and medievals, to define Beauty was to define the nature of reality and the purpose of human life: reality had a perceptible order to its parts, but it also gave itself to the intellect--was intelligible--not merely as so many parts, but as a whole. Modern thinkers did not simply abandon the belief in proportion and light as in some sense totalizing, but rather redirected the meaning of such a belief from the universe, "out there" as it were, to the subject, that is, to the dispositions of the interior self. Instead of speaking about the world, they now spoke of worldviews. Eliot's Classicism expressly attempts to reverse this. Following on insights he had developed in his dissertation on the post-Kantian idealist F. H. Bradley, Eliot even called into question the validity of the subjective/objective divide, by prefacing his argument for Classicism thus: "I am aware that 'outside' [objectivity] and 'inside' [subjectivity] are terms which provide unlimited opportunity for quibbling, and that no psychologist would tolerate a discussion which shuffled such base coinage" (Selected Essays 15). But, finally, he lets those terms stand, unable to leave behind the subjectivizing assumptions of modern idealism. (18)
As we have seen, "Classical" and "Romantic," in their typical usage, do not speak about the real properties of beings in the same way as discussions of form and splendor do. They define subjective dispositions rather than constitutive properties of beauty. But one provocative exception to this may be found in the work of the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. In von Balthasar's The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, he sought to synthesize the modern attention to aesthetics (i.e. taste judgment) with the ancient and medieval tradition of grasping Beauty as a real property of being. He lamented that modern thought had severed beauty from being (1.22). And so, seeking to restore to it "a comprehensive doctrine of Being," he simply resurrected the ancient practice, partly under the guise of the vocabulary of the present. He would argue that, "[psychologically," the
form as it appears to us is beautiful only because the delight that it arouses in us is founded upon the fact that, in it, the truth and goodness of the depths of reality itself are manifested and bestowed.... The appearance of the form, as revelation of the depths, is an indissoluble union of two things. It is the real presence of the depths, of the whole of reality, and it is a real pointing beyond itself to these depths. (Balthasar 1.118)
By means of this dyad of "real presence" and "a real pointing beyond," von Balthasar accounts for form (which he identifies with species) and splendor (lumen). Recalling the long association of the ratio of form with the ratio of mathematics in the aesthetics of proportion, he explains that "the beautiful can be materially grasped and even subject to numerical calculation as a relationship of numbers, harmony, and the laws of being" (1.118). But, he continues, it must also always be "fundamentally a sign and appearing of a depth and a fullness that ... remain beyond both our reach and our vision" (1.118). Beauty is a light appearing beyond all form, but it is also form; beauty can be analyzed as if it were a quantity, but it is never reducible to quantity. Such language is consonant with that of Aquinas and the Greeks before him (1.50), but von Balthasar is careful to underscore its debt to Kant and Schiller as well (1.22-23), the latter of whom adds the dyads of shape and life, reality and form, and contingency and necessity (among others) to the Scholastic splendor formae (Schiller 76-78).
This pan-historical synthesis helps von Balthasar to account for the apparent variability of Beauty (or Taste) over the centuries as part of a shifting of emphasis on number or fullness, drawing into communion the principles of the aesthetics of Light and Proportion with the modern language and experience of Classicism and Romanticism:
In different periods of intellectual history, to be sure, one or the other of these aspects may be emphasized: on the one hand, classical perfection (Vollendung: the form which contains the depths), on the other, Romantic boundlessness, infinity (Unendlichkeit: the form that transcends itself by pointing beyond to the depths). Be this as it may, however, both aspects are inseparable from one another, and together they constitute the fundamental configuration of Being.... We see form as the splendour, as the glory of Being. (1.118-19)
Von Balthasar thus redeploys the modern terms so that they refer to a reality beheld rather than to a subject's disposition of beholding, resolving the apparent dichotomy of Classicism and Romanticism by revealing their fundamental unity to lie not in the subject but in being. In so doing, he solves the riddle with which we began.
We all understand that an artwork is not reducible to its formal proportions, that some clarity must shine from beyond them. And yet, those formal proportions are essential to the work's existence and to its acting upon us. We considered earlier that Eliot and Murry, despite themselves, shared the Kantian premise that Classicism and Romanticism had their origins in the subject as tastes, interests, or tendencies. 1 suggest now that Romanticism and Classicism, the aesthetics of Light and of Proportion, whatever the apparent tensions between them, ultimately share in the same doctrine of being as beautiful, and of beauty as a composite of form and splendor. Romanticism and Classicism are obfuscating and intractable terms insofar as they cause us to think of beauty in terms of subjective taste and insofar as they suggest we can talk about art without also at least implicitly talking about beauty. But if we restore their ontological valence, as does von Balthasar, then they become useful terms indeed. The aesthetics of Light and Proportion are reconcilable in reality, but may be differentiated in reason. Romanticism is just that way of thinking about beauty that places special emphasis on fullness, light, splendor, or depths of meaning. Classicism, conversely, describes the thinking of beauty that emphasizes form, proportion, number, or perfection.
We should pause here to entertain a possible objection. Von Balthasar's account of a shifting emphasis across history between Classical and Romantic bears an obvious resemblance to Hegel's famous account, in the Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, of art as undergoing a dialectical movement between symbolic, Classical, and Romantic forms. According to this reading of aesthetic history, symbolic art is that which manifests natural, sensuous objects as "having in them an aspect in which they are capable of representing a universal meaning" (Hegel 83). However, the senusous object is patently inadequate to the Idea it represents, so that we are made conscious of the "foreignneess of the Idea to the natural phenomena" (Hegel 83). The result is that the art work insistently points beyond itself to a reality it cannot properly represent. Often, the result is "bizarre, grotesque, and tasteless" (Hegel 83). In Classical art, a development occurs, such that "the free and adequate embodiment of the Idea is realized "in the shape that, according to its conception, is peculiarly appropriate to the Idea itself" (Hegel 84). Hegel specifically has in mind the form of the human body, which is our singular instance wherein "mind is adequately revealed to sense" (Hegel 85). Classical art is limited, however, by the adequacy of its form only to this "particular case of mind, [that is] as human mind" (Hegel 84). Romantic art transcends this limitation. As was the case with the symbolic, the Romantic phase betrays an obvious inadequacy of the form to the Idea, but it does so only because it had become conscious that Mind and Idea must transcend concretion and specification and be revealed as "simply absolute and eternal" (Hegel 84), as "absolute inwardness" (Hegel 85). In sum, Romantic art is "free, concrete intellectual being, which has the function of revealing itself a spiritual existence for the inward world of spirit" (Hegel 87). As such, Romantic art manifests the promise of its own transcendence: its concrete from gestures toward spiritual existence, but all concretion must eventually be surpassed. We shall leave art behind and enter into pure philosophy.
Von Balthasar quietly corrects this history on several points. First, Hegel's history is teleological: the Romantic is higher than the Classical and transcends it. For von Balthasar, the two may toggle dialectically in actual history, but both are equal, partial expressions of a single reality and truth. They could--and often do--coexist in the same art work, much less the same epoque. Second, and more decisively, von Balthasar accounts for the Classical and Romantic as manifestations of Being rather than Idea. As such, beauty is not primarily expressive of a transcendent subjectivity that is in some sense "more real" than the objectivity of matter, but of reality in all of its entitative plentitude. Again, his is a realist rather than an idealist aesthetics. Rather than promoting subjectivity as a reality that eventually transcends the objective, as Hegel does, von Balthasar underscores that Being is reality and every being's beauty points not to an ideal that eventually will leave it behind, but rather to the Being Itself that gives to every thing its reality. The vision of the Beautiful is, therefore, not merely an anticipation of one's escape to a realm of pure idea. Rather, it is an encounter with form and splendor as realities in themselves and as integral to the whole economy of creation. Proportion and Light are each parts of that economy, between which we need not choose, because only together is Beauty constituted in being. The resemblance to Hegel is not incidental, therefore, but part of von Balthasar's ongoing effort to correct the "Copernican" turn first taken by Kant and extended in later German idealism.
If we are right to follow von Balthasar in relating form and splendor to Classicism and Romanticism, then we can conclude that Murry rightly celebrated the "intuitive" power of Shakespeare and Goethe to manifest more than our discursive reason can account for, but he was wrong to situate this power in the human heart, which risks reducing the reality which art opens for us to an unaccountable sentiment--an impulse as easily dismissed as Eliot dismisses the cravings of English footballers. Eliot and Hulme clearly accepted the "aesthetics of light," the splendorous power of works of art, celebrated in Romanticism. Otherwise, they would neither have proposed that art could correct the intellectual errors of the "Romantic" Victorians nor suggested that art could speak of and to realities beyond itself. But their argument for Classicism sought to reassert the priority of form, of proportion, and of the work as an ontological reality, both to its depths of meaning and to our subjective responses to it. Both parties in this debate ran up against the obstacle Kant's "Copernican turn" had put in their way: for it is very difficult to argue about the nature of art and literature--or reality--if you do not have the principles or critical vocabulary in place to talk about the thing itself rather than our subjective perceptions, our tastes. It becomes absolutely impossible to do so if you do not believe, as Kant did, that universal agreement might be discovered among our individual subjective tastes (Critique of Judgment 1.6): Murry and Eliot, we have seen, appealed to national character and historical condition to justify their still "subjective" Romanticism and Classicism, indicating that neither believed a subjective or objective universality to be any longer attainable.
In this light, we see how important it is that von Balthasar takes an intellectual step that Eliot wanted to but could not: you can only understand beauty--in itself and as it has been variously perceived at different historical moments--if you can account for it in terms of being. Both Romanticism and Classicism, as he redefines them, tell us that being is beautiful insofar as it meets distinct but inseparable conditions: it must be formed (proportioned) and that form must reveal depths or light (a significant, if paradoxical, pairing) beyond itself. Debates between the Romantic and Classicist positions remain intractable unless one allows them to cease to be about the dispositions of the parties and to become about the nature of the beauty actually found in real beings.
What is perhaps most remarkable in tracing the ideas of Romanticism and Classicism back to their origin in the form and splendor of the ancient ontology of Beauty is what does not change in the course of it. We see a shift from ontology to epistemology, from Beauty as property of being to a quality of subjective experience. But, for Murry and Eliot no less than for Plato and Augustine, what is at stake is not exclusively--or even primarily --our judgment of works of fine art. Rather, those particular judgments are synecdoches for far vaster claims about the character or form of reality as such. The modern view simply restricts itself to describing a disposition toward reality, whereas the ancient view from which it derives seeks to account for the orderliness and intelligibility of the cosmos, of what is real, in itself.
Before detailing the legacy of the Romanticism and Classicism debate for modernist and postmodernist art, I want to address one question about the plausibility of my historical argument. I have claimed that Romanticism and Classicism derive historically from the ancient and medieval doctrines of Beauty as form and splendor, and that the chief historical event that accounts for their difference is the subjective turn initiated by Kant in modern thinking about art and beauty. This may lead one to believe that moderns simply set aside or dropped the earlier aesthetics and that, therefore, von Balthasar's confident identification of form and splendor with Romanticism and Classicism smooths over what was in reality a complete breach. In fact, Romantic thinkers such as Coleridge and Shelley were avid synthesizers, combining freely Kantian subjectivism and Platonist realism. If Abrams is correct, the precise moment when the metaphysics of beauty was dissolved into subjective taste aesthetics came in those passages where Plotinus's conception, imagining the cosmos as reality endowed with form (proportion) by the One who is beyond all form (splendor), received a novel interpretation. The One lost its specific identity as the singular principle productive of all finite things and became the exemplar of the artist whose genius freely imposed form on a work of art (Abrams 58-59). The transition from the aesthetics of form and splendor to that of Classicism and Romanticism might more aptly be understood as a shift in our ways of reading the Platonic tradition than as a leaving behind of the ancients in favor of the moderns (Stockitt 27-35). Von Balthasar summons us to synthesize the ancients and moderns once more, but to do so in a fashion that gives absolute priority to being and metaphysical realism. (19)
From this, it should be obvious that, however "intractable" the debate, Hulme and Eliot were on to something. They sensed that the form of a work of art matters--that it stands in a certain relation to the first principles of reality. They believed that the effect it might have on its audience should not in principle depend upon the taste or disposition of the audience but upon the good order, the formal proportions, of the work itself. And, finally, they saw that something had gone awry in modernity, cutting it off from a "classical" sensibility that they found, at least in comparison, to be more true. Or rather, we saw that they essayed such claims, but without finally reversing the subjective turn of post-Kantian thought. Perhaps this inability to rethink the foundation of aesthetics in terms of being (as their contemporary, Maritain, was doing in France) led to their zealous, and yet uncertain, efforts to secure their position by favoring precisely those works of art that revealed their form with a severity that seemed to befuddle all measurement. Eliot concluded that modern poetry must "become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his [the poet's] meaning" (Selected Essays 248). Hulme, in apposite fashion, rejected Roger Fry's talk of "machinery being as beautiful as a rose" (105). Against that "verbose sentimentalist," Hulme would advocate an art of severe, geometrical abstraction so that the machine itself might become the standard of beauty; roses might still be called beautiful only insofar as they conformed to "the superb steel structures" of modern buildings (105). They and their followers celebrated the fragmentary and irregular lines of modernist poetry (e.g. The Waste Land or The Cantos), the harsh geometries of cubist painting and sculpture (e.g. Jacob Epstein or Wyndham Lewis), the thickly laden, "inimitable crudities" of the novels of Leon Bloy and James Joyce (von Balthasar 1.50-51), not to mention the shocking tonalities of modern music (e.g. Stravinsky). Uncertainty is the mother of zeal, and hard forms impress themselves more zealously.
These modernists wanted to retrain our vision to attend to the shape of the work, but in doing so they risked sounding a note in its way more akin to Romanticism and the abstract aesthetics of Light than to the aesthetics of Proportion to which they sought a return. Late in his career, Eliot would closely follow Coleridge, for instance, in saying that what "matters, in short, is the whole poem: and if the whole poem need not be, and often should not be, wholly melodious, it follows that a poem is not made only out of 'beautiful words'" (On Poetry and Poets 32; see Abrams 134). This may sound initially like a statement from the heart of the aesthetics of Proportion: the form of the poem governs its parts by ratios that make the work as a whole beautiful. It also suggests that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, as the aesthetics of Light grants. There seems to be no
ground for objection. But, according to Eliot, in what manner are the parts of a work of art subordinate to the whole? Like steel to the sword? Or are they to be sacrificed to it like logs to the fire? The frequent resorting to the grotesque in Eliot's work suggests that the "classicizing" modernists felt obliged to sacrifice in practice the very constitutive element of form--parts ordered and measured in fitting proportion--in order to win back from the Romantics, in principle, the priority of external form to subjective ("inner-voice") splendor in an artwork (Donoghue 170). For, the poem with "ugly" elements will indeed violently impress its form upon us, but Eliot perhaps fails to appreciate how that striking form provokes the reader to hurry beyond the work itself in search for satisfaction in some hidden depth that its formal properties, its surfaces, cannot fully explain. (20)
Ezra Pound would justify this centralizing-by-deforming of form in terms of a psychological paganism:
When any man is able, by a pattern of notes or an arrangement of planes or colours, to throw us back into the age of truth, everyone who has been cast back into that age of truth for one instant gives honour to the spell which has worked, to the witch-work or the artwork, or to whatever you like to call it ... I saw and heard the God Pan.... (Literary Essays 432)
For Pound, the shocking forms of the artwork instantiate and dramatize an ecstatic encounter with an immanent divinity (Pan), and, crucially, he saw modern art as making this encounter possible because it reasserted the primacy of "pattern" (form) over "emotion" (splendor) (Literary Essays 434). (21)
Literary historians rightly look back on Eliot and modernist poets in general as having made possible free verse as a new formal principle. (22) While the past is riddled with poetries that are not measured by meter or quantity (that is, by the two types of foot scansion proper to Classical and modern European languages), the exceptions still conform to some--usually quantifiable--pattern (Gwynn 18, 29; Wilson "The Splendor of Form" 43-46). In contrast, free verse highlighted the form of the poem by untethering it from any regulating principle, making it severe, enigmatic, or even opaque like marble--but at the price of sacrificing the traditional constitutive element of poetic form in English, accentual-syllabic meter. If the modernists made free verse possible in order to "save" or restore artistic form to our consciousness, it is a natural temptation to believe that the continuation of the poetic art must trace a curve of ever-increasing realization of that possibility: verse must become freer and freer until it is not recognizably verse any longer, until the form of each poem appears as utterly its own rather than as part of a genus called verse. Each poem will
declare its individual being through its absolutely individual form, much as the idea of haecceitas found in Gerard Manley Hopkins's experimental poetry had promised only a few decades before the advent of modernism (von Balthasar 3.357).
But, if we return to what Hulme, Eliot, and others actually wrote, we might glean a contrary lesson. Their labor was to restore to consciousness the fact that the splendor of a work of art is always the splendor of its form. Form is generative of splendor and so, while we may have unsplendid forms, we may not have formless splendors. Those poets who came to prominence in the wake of Eliot, late-modernists such as Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Lowell in America, and W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice in England, retain some traces of the severe forms the older poet seemed to recommend, as is most evident from their rough meters and irregular stanzas; but already their technique draws more confidently and comfortably on the traditional poetic forms, as evident in the sonnets of Ransom or Auden. A generation later, those poets sometimes dismissed as "academic formalists," such as Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht, would sand away nearly all the rough surfaces of modernism, while retaining Eliot and Hulme's conviction that form above all is the condition of meaning. Hulme's replacement of the rose with the machine as the standard of beauty finds expression, in the academic formalists, almost exclusively with the frequent use of enjambment and anapestic substitutions in otherwise conventional versification and with a concentration of irony --often aloof or distancing, sometimes morbid or brooding--in poetic voice (McPhillips 9-10). Hulme's praise of harshly geometrical sculpture and Eliot's practice of broken stumps of verse begin to look like "necessary" extremes that could be moderated by later artists once, as it were, form had been restored to its proper place alongside splendor. If this genealogy suggests anything, it would seem to be that the real poetic heirs to the modernists will be those who seek to master form in such a way that it will shine forth the depths of reality without violently "dislocating" form. Rather than loosening their lines, rather than sacrificing formal principles on the altar of severe ("Pandemic" in Pound's sense) forms, poets should, with ever greater attention, seek to restore and re-master the traditional means of giving order, measure, and weight to the potentialities of the English language. They would do so recognizing that such qualities--and not the depths of the artist's feeling--are the condition of possibility for a work's fullness or splendor.
That this has not been the course taken by a great deal of contemporary art and poetry should not surprise us, however. Classicism's attention to form, I have just suggested, inadvertently ceded the field to Romanticism by celebrating "hard to appreciate" gnomic forms that often required a leap of faith on the part of the audience, in order to believe the artist even knew what he was doing. Contrary to claims about the "death of the author," contemporary art and literature often seems to depend upon the identity of the author to give a piece its cultural capital--its identity as a "work" meriting prestige or attention (Steele, Missing Measures 290). And yet, anyone who has visited a gallery or poetry reading in recent decades knows that this Romantic triumph led in unanticipated directions. The individualism and egoism that Murry approved as the Romantic spirit is not the most obvious feature of contemporary art. Or rather, it has been pursued to its natural conclusion, so that the integrity of the individual voice has collapsed along with contemporary belief in the reality of what Murry called the "innervoice," and what we might call the substantiality of the ego.
Following in the wake of the Nietzschean line of postmodern philosophy, which interrogates the modern understanding of individual identity to expose it as a mere epiphenomenon produced by the confluence of sundry power relations, the more typical project of contemporary literature solipsistically mocks the very notion of the integrity of an individual voice. (23) Proliferating signifiers without signifieds, the language of a John Ashbery poem, for instance, seems to indicate at once that subjectivity is the only reality poetry can explore--and yet, there is no subject. The collages of commercial language in a Richard Bernstein poem suggest something even more radical--that even the illusion of human identity and agency has been absorbed within the networks of power, capital, and marketing. (24) The Romantic reliance on the self as the only possible source of authentic meaning, or Truth, left its adherents (Murry's descendants, as it were) no escape when, in art and philosophy alike, they became convinced of what an unstable and incoherent concatenation of fear, envy, and lust the self really is. Having rejected already the "Classicism" of Eliot and the metaphysical realism of Maritain and von Balthasar, the heirs of Romanticism cannot turn outward, throwing themselves on the mercy of an order with divine foundations or at least a rich ontology, but rather presume interior chaos is one with the eternal flux of will and power in the world.
If I am correct that Romanticism and Classicism are modern analogues to the aesthetics of Light and Proportion, this postmodern eventuality need not surprise us. In Eco's Art and Beauty, he argues that the aesthetics of Light and Proportion gradually gave way in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. To speak of God as Beauty ceased to provide a positive understanding of being as appearing in form and gesturing toward the creative Good Itself, beyond being and beyond form, from which all things come and to which they return, as it had, for example, for Pseudo-Dionysius (76). Rather, God-as-Beauty came to appear as tantamount to saying "that he was good, or infinite: beauty was just a word used to describe the indescribable, so describing it by what it was not" (Eco, Art and Beauty 90). The consensus vision of reality and human life as ordered to Beauty was not lost but transformed, until form and splendor seemed inadequate to account for divine reality. (25) Darkness and infinity soon took their place, and, first by Meister Eckhart (Eco, Art and Beauty 91), and then, in early modernity, by Blaise Pascal and Rene Descartes, God comes to appear as the bottomless abyss that dwarfs with otherness and ignorance the order of natural being and the purpose of human life (Pascal 16, 113). According to Eckhart's doctrine, writes Gilson, "God is ... the wilderness of Godhead ... God's infinite essence is unfathomable, even to God" (The Unity of Philosophical Experience 87). The ascent of the human person, in search of happiness, to eternal Beauty was twisted into his descent into the abyss of the divine unlikeness, where the "seeing" of form and light could have no purchase.
Aquinas spoke for most of the ancient and medieval tradition when he claimed that the human intellect was to the intellectual light of God as the owl's eye is to the light of the sun. We are unable to see it properly, not from darkness, but from excess. Nevertheless, he concludes, "the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things (Summa Theologica 1.1.5). While God's infinitely transcendent light and beauty seem to blind, it is nonetheless a real light that really illuminates us. Consequently, the life of the Christian may be understood as a pilgrimage toward that light. But for Eckhart, knowledge gives way to darkness, and in that darkness we may love, but never know God. We have no place to go, because it is precisely ourselves as individual selves that stand in the way of being united to God in love (Denys Turner 173). Pseudo-Dionysius's elegant account of all creation as engaged in a pageant-like procession from and return to the Divine Beauty was supplanted by union-through-dissolution in the divine.
In her poem "The Romantic Eros," the contemporary poet Helen Pinkerton has written of artistic Romanticism as prey to this same penchant for the abyssal. She addresses the god of the Romantic poet thus:
Your name is Nothing. God without being, sly, Your forms seem infinite and always lie. Passion ignores what is to reach for you, Untouchable, unanswering, untrue. All that 1 am not, cannot be, and was You promise in seducing me, because, Unreal, you realize yourself in me. I thought my coldness was your property. (21)
Drawing on the work of Denis de Rougemont, Pinkerton claims that the Romantic makes the self into a god insofar as he claims that he can possess everything he desires and even become whatever he desires. But this eros for, or "promise" to become, all-in-all is "untrue," and so quickly becomes a desire to be nothing-at-all (Rougemont 68; see Wilson "The Realism of Helen Pinkerton" 643-44). Only the self is acknowledged as real in Romanticism, with all else reduced to an image of the self's desire. But the self-as-all soon reveals itself as an indeterminate abyss: having mistaken the self for the criterion and sum of reality, the Romantic is soon aswim in "unreal" fantasies that she devours and discards: all things are absorbed in the self, and all things are ultimately found wanting. The absolute love of self consequently becomes a desire for negation or extinction.
Murry's Romanticism proclaimed that the self was final, but if the self proves to be an empty idol, then its worship leads to delusion, fantasy, and, so Pinkerton suggests, self-annihilation. The love of the self becomes a love of not-being, a hunger for self-possession that proceeds from the "what-is-not" of impossible ideals to the simple what-is-not of no-thing. Such has been the course of most modern art: it is a kind of making that seeks to unmake itself. Having begun with a conception of the self as the expressive source of meaning, the persistence of Romanticism even after the discrediting of the Romantic ego has led it into disintegration and the abyss.
Despite the repetitiousness of our history, there is nothing necessary about it. Rather than accepting and retreading the Christian-Platonist tradition's abyssal conclusion in the late Middle Ages, we might learn from its greatest exponents and eschew the modifications of its late heirs, such as Eckhart. Von Balthasar provides us an example of someone who has learned from both this earlier tradition and the modern episodes of Romanticism and Classicism. In the literary world, the New Formalist poets have justly argued that contemporary writers are similarly positioned to learn from the modernist experiments in free verse, which teach that not just anything can suffice for a verse form (Gwynn 20). Mere lineation will not do, for typographical tricks merely inform the page, not the poem. Pure syllables will not either, for unless they are rhymed, they are no more linguistically significant than typographic lineation; poets have frequently observed that, however much syllable count by itself may guide the composition of a poem, it often becomes imperceptible thereafter, even to the author. (26) Rhyme without meter will hardly suffice, not because it is formless, but because it provides so erratic a formal principle as to seem always sloppy, slangy, or cute. Syntactical repetitions such as
those found in the Psalms or Walt Whitman are acceptable, but they are also stifling and inflexible. But accentual-syllabic meter--and especially iambic pentameter, rhymed or blank--is supple to the native cadences of casual English speech and yet strictly measured enough to give order to every atomic unit of a poem. (27)
Proportion implies limitation and determination; that which is infinitely elastic is certainly formless and probably nonexistent, lambic pentameter has proven itself over the centuries to be that measure best proportioned to the rhythms of our language (Steele, All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing 8-12; Fussell 41, 52); the very observation of that proportion gives off a certain light of its own, for it shows that how a poem speaks matters. Poetry is not an exploitation of the infinite malleability of the blank page, but a committing of ideas that are, like the light of Plotinus, in some sense beyond form, to the measured forms of language. The discipline of meter indeed makes possible the showing forth of the light of ideas--formal measurement makes that light visible for the perception of our intellects. Abstract statements are, by definition, more universal than concrete ones. But the more concrete and individually realized a statement is, the more we tend to be able to read into its depths and complexities, whose comprehensiveness leaves abstractions seemingly "bland generalities" in comparison. Plato long ago observed that precise images and symbols have what we might now call an iconic quality: they make possible for the human intellect the exploration of otherwise inexhaustible depths (Schindler 319-20; see Wilson, "Retelling the Story of Reason" 22-23). Once again, form makes splendor visible for us.
Having agreed to all this, one may still be at a loss as to where one may turn in our present literary world to discover poetry in which the verse coruscates with splendor. For thirty years, poets associated with the New Formalism have demonstrated a mastery of rendering colloquial speech and contemporary familiar situations in well-wrought verse. Against the common modernist complaint that iambic verse distorts in the process of disciplining language--forcing the author into the stilted Latinate syntax of Milton or inciting the resurrection of the archaic diction of yesteryear (Steele, Missing Measures 33,40)--they have sometimes bent over backwards as if to show that the most familiar banality may be rendered in fluent rhyme royal. This would seem in itself a great accomplishment, for it testifies to how completely the mere formal proportioning we impose upon the everyday may reveal its substance, its real depths. Take, for instance, the opening stanza of Timothy Steele's familiar (though not banal) "From a Rooftop":
At dawn, down in the streets, from pavement grills, Steam rises like the spent breath of the night. At open windows, curtains stir on sills; There's caging drawn across a market's face; An empty crane, at its construction site, Suspends a cable into chasmed space. (Sapphics and Uncertainties 3)
Here, and in the stanzas to follow, the poem parcels out the landscape with an attention to literal detail that shows forth the city's "diagonals and parallels," that is, its proportions and coherence, which, though perhaps obscured by the hum of day, reappears through the slumber, stillness, and renewal of the night. It is worth noting that, although the "spent breath of the night" is a vivid and telling cue as to the time of this tableau, the literal depiction of the suspended cable of the crane seems to do something more. Presented with neither metaphor nor explication, the spare image seems pregnant with meaning: things return to themselves in idleness, and regain their orderliness, even when robbed of function and left suspended in a void. We can perceive the ordered beauty of the world if only the quotidian (utilitarian) movements of city life can be suspended for a while. The poem may thus suggest by analogy that language refined into verse in some sense returns to itself; the ordering of syllables in iambic pentameter is, as Steele argues in his guide to prosody, the fulfillment, rather than the distortion, of the nature of the English language (All the Fun's 8). Rest, like that depicted in the poem, is, after all, a traditional sign of completion or fulfillment.
Though Steele and other poets associated with the New Formalism (such as Dana Gioia, Rachel Hadas, Robert Shaw, and David Mason) have shown the integrity of meter as a good in its own right, they would also insist that meter alone does not constitute the form of a poem. (28) What we often call the matter or content, the voice, plot, scenario, action, setting, and so forth: these too are formal properties that inform the only true matter of poetry, which is words. And yet, in their effort to renew the orderly resources of meter, the New Formalists may sometimes appear to be under-informing their poems. One prominent poet sometimes stamped with this label, Alan Shapiro, once complained of his contemporaries that they seem to believe "that the erection of a metrical frame around a subject was all the imaginative work they had to do" (208). Form taken as an end in itself may make for a kind of ersatz poetry: it looks like poetry, sounds like poetry, but does not do what real poetry does: it does not reveal splendor. What has become, most readers would ask, of the light of reality, of which artistic form should always be an ordered sign?
We may justly reply that some contemporary poems do indeed shine out. 1 would draw attention to the work of two poets who have come to prominence in the wake of the New Formalism. In the title poem of Bill Coyle's first collection, "The God of this World to his Prophet," we find one incantatory instance.
Go to the prosperous city, for I have taken pity on its inhabitants, who drink and feast and dance all night in lighted halls yet know their bacchanals lead nowhere in the end. Go to them, now, commend, to those with ears to hear, a lifestyle more austere. Tell all my children tired of happiness desired and never had that there is solace in despair. Say there is consolation in ruins and ruination beneath a harvest moon that is itself a ruin, comfort, however cold, in grievances recalled beside a fire dying from lack of love and trying. (3-4)
The poem chants and enchants. It offers a dark vision of a world straining after hedonistic pleasures, and, having found they do not satisfy, turning, at Satan's call, to a satiating self-pity. The voice of the Devil sounds, initially, like a summons to redemption after the fashion of Blaise Pascal's apologetics, as if "happiness desired / and never had" will serve to provoke one to search for a lasting, true happiness. But then it plunges into an invitation to lurk in a "lack of love and trying." In every dimension of its form, it speaks the pathos of despair, as if the trimeter couplets were sharpening the blade of a knife. Coyle, like most poets in the New Formalist line, often writes in a colloquial, if metered, voice. But "The God of this World" testifies, first, to a rare ability to write in a more elevated and serious one, and, second, to the moral depths that can open up through the musical surfaces of poetry. In other work, Coyle queries, in the Christian-Platonic tradition, the relation of appearance and Being, of justice and charity, producing some of the most promising meditative lyrics of the last decade. (29)
Rhina P. Espaillat's "Vignette" chisels in tetrameter quatrains an image of Hector's wife, Andromache, as she walks the walls of Troy in the days just prior to the start of the Greek invasion. A cry disturbs her, causes her child to leap in her womb, and prompts her to reflect on her good fortune:
Andromache, one misty morning, walking the city's crown of stones, is startled by a cry whose warning pierces the marrow of her bones. The child beneath her heart is stirred, turns in its groove as if to know what augury without a word intrudes where such clam waters flow. The sentry, stolid at his post, salutes Prince Hector's pretty wife. He cannot know how, ghost by ghost, she has relinquished death for life. He wonders why she reads this place as if it were a graven prayer, as if Scamander's cursive pace inscribed the sum of blessings there. How blessed--she thinks--this plain, unhaunted, where those I cherished never bled; blessed, to be ordinary, wanted by the good man who shares my bed. (Nicol, The Powow River Anthology 42)
These lines overflow with dramatic irony, anticipating the foundational cataclysm of classical civilization. The "crown of stones" perhaps echoes between Athens and Jerusalem, recalling Jesus's crowning of thorns (in Matthew 27:28-30 and John 19:4-5), as the child "stirred" in the womb recalls the event of Mary's visitation of Elizabeth in Luke's Gospel (1:39 ff.). More immediately, the choice of stones as a synecdoche for walls foreshadows their eventual leveling, their return to rubble in the fall of Troy (whether in the account of Virgil or of Ezra Pound's later references to Troy in the Cantos). The movement in perspective from Andromache to the sentry suggests that the details reported here all conceal some inner dimension: Andromache cannot know what her child's movement means; the sentry cannot know what Andromache is thinking; Andromache is uniquely hopeful at a moment when fate prepares a cause for despair as yet unknown. But, for the moment, blessed, she looks up in the sky:
The mist has cleared; far off and pale, the cry she heard takes form at last: only a gull, circling a sail approaching neither slow nor fast. (Nicol 43)
At the start of the poem, we anticipate the cry Andromache hears as that of her husband. Hector, dying at the hands of Achilles. But we almost immediately discern that the scene is prior to the war: the cry of the gull should ring as a false alarm, but in fact sounds as a harbinger, circling about the sail of the ship that will bring death to her husband and ruin to Troy. The gull "takes form" and, in doing so, begins to signal depths that Andromache cannot yet penetrate. Its cry is unintelligible--just a "shape" in the air--to her, but is saturated with meaning for us. We are familiar with hubris, and the ancient Greeks' conception of the recalcitrance of fate before the ambitions of the magnanimous hero. But the banal phrase "neither slow nor fast" suggests another strain of fate's recalcitrance: the steady and implacable way in which disaster approaches despite our fears.
Coyle and Espaillat, both of whom are members of the Powow River poets group that has been operating almost as a New England annex of the New Formalism for two decades now, continue a modern tradition in verse that weighs good and evil along with its syllables, one which includes the "academic formalists" mentioned above: the senior poet of our age, Richard Wilbur, and the late Anthony Hecht. Importantly, these two poets pave the way back to Robert Frost, who, like Eliot, insisted on the splendor of form, but who. unlike Eliot, saved the formal principle of art--not by drawing attention to its harsh "classical" geometries, but simply by mastering his meter and proportioning his speech.
Such poets demonstrate that our age, too, can measure and master its speech. For the present, the legacy of modernism forces us to do so with the greatest consciousness. We must not simply practice and appreciate meter, or form more generally, but must understand it. We must understand that the nagging current of emotion present in poetry tugs us not further into ourselves, but out, into the depths of being. And when we understand what is entailed in the making of a poem, we may see that we are not so estranged from the Proportion and Light of our ancestors as we might at first believe. Beauty-as-Being has been with us all along. We never stopped talking about it, though it was disguised by the back-and-forth of old and intractable literary debates about Romanticism and Classicism. We have still the resources in place to understand reality, including the history of aesthetics, in the terms of an older, richer metaphysics, and to apprentice ourselves to our ancestors' formal discipline. Ancient beauty still has lessons in store for modern verse.
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(1) Peter Gay's Modernism, in its effort to be comprehensive and elegantly simple in its definition of modernism, has perhaps inadvertently made the continuity between modern and Romantic art and literature so complete that it is likely to provoke new reflections on the putative "Classicism" of modern art. According to Gay, each of modernism's indispensable figures illustrates two stylistic traits: a susceptibility to "the lure of heresy" and a turn toward "principled self-scrutiny" (3). It is all too easy to reduce these supposedly distinctive modernist attributes to the iconoclastic liberalism found in Shelley or the concern with self and sensibility found in Wordsworth. See Gelpi for a more satisfactory exploration of modern poetry's debt to Romanticism, and Robert Boyer's review essay of Gay's book for a sense of how interpretations of modernism and Romanticism still touch upon contemporary letters outside scholarly debate. See also Allinson's "The Perpetual Oscillation" (25-39) for one recent effort to think about contemporary poetry by means of the dualism of Classicism and Romanticism.
(2) For a comprehensive description of this theory, see Abrams The Mirror and the Lamp 47 ff. For one new formalist's account of the radicalization of Romantic doctrine of art as pure self-expression, see Steele, Missing Measures 193-96. As we shall see below, much postmodern art clings to the principle of self-expression and process even as it abandons the theory of subjectivity, of the irreducible integrity of self-identity, typical of earlier modes of Romanticism. For examples of such a post-subjective conception of self-expression, see Hejinian; Antin.
(3) The denial of greatness to Augustan Classicism finds its most famous expression in Matthew Arnold's Romantic claim that "Dryden and Pope are no classics of our poetry, they are classics of our prose" (Arnold 253). From Milton onward, Shakespeare was often taken as a "Romantic" poet of nature, "warbling his woodnotes wild," but in more recent critics, a more complex theory of Shakespeare as the great poet of un-classical dis-order has emerged, and finds that quality explained in strikingly similar ways but culminating in radically different judgments by such exegetes as George Santayana ("The Absence of Religion in Shakespeare," Interpretations 90-101), T. S. Eliot ("Hamlet and His Problems," Selected Essays 121-26), Erich Auerbach (312-33), Harold Bloom (53-87), and Jonathan Dollimore.
(4) E.g. Marion In Excess. Although Marion adduces art to illustrate the "saturated phenomenon" it is not archetypal of it.
(5) See Ransom, The New Criticism xi and 280-281; Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism 56-57.
(6) Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy would divide art from beauty in the name of vindicating the aesthetic as a pure realm of its own, preparing the ground for understanding art as pure self-fashioning or self-expression (113-14). Gadamer, of course, traces this division back to the descendants of Kant (51-52).
(7) The "new formalism," sometimes called "expansive poetry," emerged in the mid-nineteen-eighties as a movement calling for a renewal of rhyme and meter as principles of poetic form and for a revival of narrative, ballad, and other poetic modes as a means of freeing American poetry from the modernist legacies of allusive difficulty and formal fragmentation (See Gwynn; McPhillips). The new formalism was explicitly associated with "Classicism" by one of its earliest advocates and most prolific theorists, Frederick Turner, in Natural Classicism and elsewhere.
(8) One of Eliot's mentors and intellectual influences was Irving Babbitt, author of the important study Rousseau and Romanticism (1919). Babbitt's teaching surely disposed Eliot against all things Romantic, but the structure of Eliot's ideas clearly reflects those of Hulme (See Gordon 111; Eliot, Letters 1.102).
(9) The telling moment here is Hulme's parenthetical linkage of Romanticism in literature and modernism in religion. Theological modernism had just been condemned by the Roman Catholic Church (in Pius X's Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907)) for its various heresies of naturalism, immantism, and subjectivism--all of which Hulme attacks.
(10) As would it influence his later association of Classicism with Christianity, which would be aided, in part, by Eliot's coming to understand Hulme's philosophy in terms of the Christian apologetics of Blaise Pascal (Essays Ancient and Modern 167-68).
(11) For a fuller discussion of this episode, see Wilson, "An 'Organ for a Frenchified Doctrine': Jacques Maritain and The Criterion's Neo-Thomism."
(12) Murry displays enough knowledge about Scholastic thought to have probably read one of the many guides to Aquinas published during this period--most likely one by Etienne Gilson. His description of Aquinas's thought is rhetorically clever in its praising Aquinas in just those terms the neo-Thomist apologists might approve as a philsophical answer to modern positivism, only to set his achievement irretrievably in the past as a historical monument rather than a permanent truth.
(13) Eliot was ready to indicate it had political connotations as well, as he does early in his review of the neo-Thomist Jacques Maritain's Three Reformers (818).
(14) Unity, truth, goodness, and beauty are some of the traditional transcendental properties of being, that is, properties that belong to being as such, and which, therefore, transcend the categories that specify beings according to Aristotle (Categories lb). The ancient understanding of the nature of these properties became fully formulated only in the medieval doctrine of transcendental, where beauty occupies an uncertain position (See Gracia). But, drawing on this tradition in a compelling way, Jacques Maritain writes, "Strictly speaking, Beauty is the radiance of all the transcendentals united. Wherever there is anything existing, there is being, form and proportion; and wherever there is being, form and proportion, there is some beauty ... in the things of sense, and ... in spiritual things" (Art and Scholasticism 173). This claim would be put in doubt by Eco as unhistorical but insightful (The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas 39), and would be further undermined by Aertsen, who denies that beauty belongs on the table of transcendental properties of being, insisting rather that beauty describes merely a relation between two transcendental: "the beautiful is the true taken as good" (95). But, as O'Reilly has shown, this restores to beauty its "unitive" function even though it has lost its status as a transcendental, at least in Thomas Aquinas's thought (109). If, however, we follow the Greeks, and ancient and medieval hylomorphic metaphysics more generally, in understanding the perception of truth as the seeing of a form (Dupre 18), it would seem impossible to deny Maritain's understanding of beauty as transcendental in fact, even though few authorities explicitly call it one. This is my position, even though I may have seemed to identify with that of Aertsen and O'Reilly in my review of the latter's book (Wilson, "Review of Aesthetic Perception: A Thomistic Perspective").
(15) All references to Plato are to the Complete Works.
(16) As will become evident, it is significant that I cite a Romantic poet on this point. One could invoke others, such as Coleridge's mention of the "Almighty Spirit" whose spiritual light is veiled by the natural lights of the world, but which gives those lights their meaning or significance (40).
(17) This was part of Kant's project to clear a space for spirit and freedom apart from the realm of nature and necessity, but what follows calls into question the success of that endeavor.
(18) The Thomist philosophers on whom Eliot would frequently rely in his efforts to promote "Classicism" provide a ready explanation for why Eliot could not escape the subjective point of departure in his discussions of art and beauty. In the first book by Maritain that Eliot read, Maritain claims, "If one begins by assuming that the 'objective concept' or the object of thought can be treated and studied as something other than the extramental thing itself rendered present to the soul, as a simple 'phenomenon objectively conceived,' one can never validly rejoin it to being" (Oeuvres Completes 51). He would elaborate this point in The Degrees of Knowledge (75 ff.), where he draws on the especially strident anti-Kantian realism of Gilson (see Gilson, Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge). I consider Eliot's engagement with these ideas in Wilson, "Style and Substance."
(19) If these claims are correct, Maritain's categorical distinction between divine and human ideas and concepts marks not a pedantic distinction but a serious critique of the Romantic doctrines he generally approved. In "The Frontiers of Poetry," he writes,
God's ideas are not like our concepts, that is, representative signs drawn from things, intended to introduce into a created mind the immensity of that which is, and to render this mind consonant with existants (actual or possible) independent of it. God's ideas precede things, they create them. This is why theologians, in order to find some analogy for them here below, compare them to the artist's ideas. (Art and Scholasticism 120)
Maritain proceeds to emphasize that God's ideas are the archetype for our ideas, because "one truly has the idea of a thing only when one is capable of making it" (Art and Scholasticism 121), but that our sort of making is not productive of reality in this sense, because it always derives, by way of the senses, from what has already been made by God.
(20) It is worth noting that Maritain's philosophy of modern art, which sought to defend the same principles as did Eliot's criticism, in Art and Scholasticism enthusiastically embraced this understanding of art: the form of true art serves as a provocation to move beyond appearances and the merely "academic" beauties of a polished imitation of nature, down into the ontological depths. Form was paramount, but superficially beautiful visible forms concealed, even denied the existence of, the form that constitutes a being (54-55). Decades later, in Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, he would reaffirm in greater detail and with satisfaction that Romanticism had made art conscious of itself (27-28, 114-15), and a properly conscious art will reject the mere imitation of surfaces (225-26). Analogously, "modern poetry often dispenses, or believes it dispenses, with the music of words ... [in search of] a tougher, not pleasurable, broken music, ... [to reveal] the pure expression of the inner pulsions of images" (322). He cites Eliot twice in support of this claim (314, 321).
(21) Glenn Hughes has recently considered the immanentized theology of Pound's poetry, showing that the passages I have cited should not be taken as mere figures of speech. On the one hand, he writes, "Pound is 'essentially a religious poet,' convinced that order, goodness, truth and beauty flow into society only through human participatory attunement to divine being or 'light" (Hughes 33); on the other, the "radically transcendent God of Hebrew-Judaic and Christian faith is almost totally absent ... because Pound viewed as civilizationally destructive the Hebrew and Christian condemnation of the gods of polytheistic myth" (35).
(22) For the early apologies for free verse in English, see Pound Literary Essays 6, and Eliot's "Reflections on Vers Libre" (To Criticize the Critic 183-89). For the most cogent historical account of the prosodic meaning of free verse, see Steele, Missing Measures 3-28.
(23) See Wilson "Socrates in Hell" 161-62.
(24) Ashbery writes that "They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music. / We see only postures of the dream" in his seminal poem "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" (189). While it is impossible to take any one passage from Ashbery as a statement of poetics, this one neatly conveys the now familiar practice of the postmodern lyric that sends the reader in vain, if pleasurable, search of a non-existent meaning. The poem becomes a series of surfaces--postures and dreams--that seem to conceal an integrated, authorial voice, but do not. From Bernstein's many books, we might cite simply the line, "I want / a poem as real as an Orange Julius" (Rough Trades 29) as exemplary of his stance that the artifice of poetry resists as long as possible its nonetheless inexorable absorption into networks of capital. The line mocks conventional readings of Cezanne, which suggest that his still lifes of fruit bring us into an encounter with the authentic or the real (e.g. O'Connor 75), by indicating that what we take for real--for outside mere "market relations"--has already been, or will soon be, commodified--for even the desire for something outside the marketplace has its assigned place in the market. See his "Artifice of Absorption" in Poetics (9-89).
(25) I would speculate there were multiple causes of this transformation: the tendency toward nominalism in defense of God's divine freedom in late Scholasticism, a response to the evils of late-medieval life during the plagues, and the triumph of the Copernican understanding of the universe, which dissolved the finitude of rational order believed to give form to the cosmos in the expansiveness of space and time with no natural limit (Dupre 65-66, 123-24).
(26) See the debate over the prosodic significance and value of syllabic verse in Baker 48-51.
(27) For an extended treatment of this claim in the same philosophical context offered here, see Wilson "The Splendor of Form." For a compelling demonstration of its truth, see Steele's All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing, the first half of which explains with great nuance the flexibility of iambic verse.
(28) On this point, see Gioia's "Notes on the New Formalism" and the other essays by New Formalists collected in New Expansive Poetry (Gwynn 15-27).
(29) See Wilson, "Traces of the Fugitive Gods."
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|Author:||Wilson, James Matthew|
|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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