Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Rock and Loam of Eden

TLS January 15 2010

from Cairns Craig's Commentary piece "The last Romantics" on the influence of Herbert Grierson on Irish, English and Scottish modernisms:

To those who questioned whether it was possible for love poetry to "speak a language which is impassioned and expressive but lacks beauty", Grierson argued that Donne's was a "dramatic" poetry which "utters the very movement and moment of passion itself". More like a novel, Donne's poetry mimics passion in a "vivid realism" with profound psychological insights:
"The central theme of his poetry is ever his own intense personal moods, as a lover, a friend, an analyst of his own experiences worldly and religious. His philosophy cannot unify these experiences. [bold emphasis mine] It is used to record the reaction of his restless and acute mind on the intense experience of the moment, to supply a reading of it in the light now of one, now of another philosophical or theological dogma or thesis caught from his multifarious reading, developed with audacious paradox or more serious intention, an expression, an illumination of that mood to himself and to his reader."
The result was "a poetry of an extraordinarily arresting and haunting quality, passionate, thoughtful, and with a deep melody of its own". . . . unlike his great precursors Dante and Petrarch, Donne does not make love a route to religious spirituality; rather, Donne uses the "intellectual, argumentative evolution" of the medieval love poets "to express a temper of mind and a conception of love which are at the opposite pole from their lofty idealism", one which celebrates the body rather than denying it.
*
The meeting with Grierson and the confrontation with the Dublin audience in the following week were to transform Yeats's career. Grierson sent Yeats a copy of his edition of Donne in 1912; Yeats replied that
"Poems I could not understand or could but vaguely understand are now clear and I notice that the more precise and learned the thought, the greater the beauty, the passion; the intricacy and subtleties of his imagination are the lengths and depths of the furrow made by his passion. His pedantry and his obscenity--the rock and loam of his Eden--but make us the more certain that one who is but a man like us has seen God."
*
Grierson's Donne was just as crucial to the development of the young T.S. Eliot. Indeed, one of Eliot's most influential essays, "The Metaphysical Poets", was written as a review of Grierson's anthology, and a famous passage from it takes Grierson's account of Donne's poetic sensibility as the basis for a critique of the failures of English poetry:
"It is something which had happened to the mind of England between the time of Donne or Lord Herbet of Cherbury and the them of Tennyson and Browning; it is the difference between the intellectual poet and reflective poet. Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility."
*
Scottish modernism was to be no less indebted. Grierson's account of Donne emphasized the tension in Donne's work between "the strain of dialectic, the subtle play of argument and wit, erudite and fantastic; and the strain of vivid realism". That opposition became, in G. Gregory Smith's Scottish Literature: Character and influence (1919), the defining element of the whole tradition of Scottish literature, which is shaped on the one hand by its "grip of fact", "its sense of detail", its realism, and, on the other, by its enthusiasm for "the horns of elfland and the voices of the mountains". The characteristic tenor of Scottish poetry is an "easy passing . . . between the natural and the supernatural", producing that "zigzag of contradictions" which Smith defined as "the Caledonian antisyzygy". Determined to create in Scotland the "Renaissance" that Smith described taking place in Ireland, Christopher Murray Grieve adopted that characterization of Scottishness in his invention of his poetic alter ego. Hugh MacDiarmid. To MacDiarmid, Grieve attributed the antisyzygetical energy--the desire to "aye be whaur/Extremes meet"--which Smith identified with the Scottish tradition.
*
Another of Grierson's editions, The Poems of Lord Byron, published in 1923, was to be equally significant to MacDiarmid. In a lecture of 1920, Grierson had placed Byron not only in the line of Donne but in the line of Burns: "Byron was masculine and passionate, as Donne and Burns had been before him".

***

from Kelly Grover's review of "Constantinople, or the Sensual Concealed: The imagery of Sean Scully":

For thirty-five years, he has built a reputation on repetition--on enormous canvases of cramped, abutting stripes, which refuse to confess connection to any living thing. Yet beneath the shouldered planks of filthy ochres, slate clays, and scabbing reds, stirs an unexpected warmth of vision which aligns the works more to the humid golds of Byzantine icons than to Rothko's vaporous saturations, more to the muscular light of Turner than to the frenetic flinging of Jackson Pollock.
*
Scully's physical stature is that of an ageing but still agile boxer (a sport he trained in before taking up painting full time), while his meditative conversation is that of a homespun philosopher, with a taste for aphorisms ("the paint loves to be loved") that best describes the late works.

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