Sunday, January 27, 2008

Helen Vendler's "Poets Thinking"

A friend gave me the Vendler book on Shakespeare's sonnets a while back, and I spent an absorbing weekend reading her analysis, and seeing the sonnets in a new light. She is particularly good, I think, at tracing the workings of the poetic imagination as it proposes, considers, disposes, and re-proposes. In her readings, the third quatrain becomes the site of acutest insight.

Now I am reading her on Pope, Whitman, Dickinson and Yeats in her book "Poets Thinking." Her interest, in this book, in particular, and in her literary work, in general, lies more in "developmental questions pertaining to an author's poetic oeuvre as a whole, and in single poems as examples of aesthetically directed fluidity, than . . . an all-purpose theory of lyric or a single aspect (rhetorical, imagistic) of technique. When, as a young student, I read literary critics, I longed for them to dwell on, and above all to explain, the aesthetic intent governing the unfolding of an individual poem, and wanted as well to see them track the aesthetic determinants of an entire oeuvre. What I did not find, I have tried to create--a criticism guided by the poem as an exemplification of its own inner momentum rather than as an illustration of a social, philosophical, psychological, rhetorical, or theoretical thesis. Criticism, I believe, while being alert to the smallest nuances of language-use, ought to infer from the text the emotional motivation that not only compelled a poet from silence into speech but also produced the originally unforseeable contours of the evolving inner form of the work of art." And that, I think, sums up pretty well the aim of good literary criticism. She is a poets' critic.

I have just finished reading her chapter on Pope, and am beginning the one on Whitman. In Pope, Vendler saw his thinking as characteristically miniaturizing, modelling, and mocking ideas. In her hands, "The Essay on Man" is not a museum of outmoded ideas, but the electrification of the received ideas of Pope's day. It is not an essay, in the sense of a short non-fictional literary composition, but in its original sense of weighing, and testing. The testing is not of "ideas" against "ideas," but of "ideas" against the vivification of poetic form.

I find her reading of the magnificent opening to Pope's second Epistle both acute and moving.

Detached from all reference to his own biograhy, Pope is not, here, the warm friend, the social companion, the scourge of dullards, or the pious son; rather, he is looking at himself in his interior solitude. Before his eyes, in a secular Ecce Homo, he places himself: the strange genius-cripple, the frustrated yearner, the inquisitive skeptic, the self-deluding self-satirist, the baffled inquirer, the language-tethered visionary. He is bold enough to think that what he sees in himself can be generalized to the rest of us, as he describes archetypal Man:

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

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