Friday, September 24, 2010

The Critical Climax


The commercial with the fried egg should have said, "This is your brain... This is your brain on Deleuze." And so from my fried egg I give you this rhizome or plateau or something, concerning something completely different:

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:

She seemed a thing that could not feel

The touch of earthly years.


No movement has she now, no force;

She neither hears nor sees;

Roll'd round in earth's diurnal course

With rocks, and stones, and trees.


I just read some E. D. Hirsch on historical criticism, from Validity in Interpretation. Hirsch (I keep wanting to call him "Ed") compares two critiques of Wordsworth's "A slumber did my spirit seal." One is by Cleanth Brooks, a Formalist whom I like most dearly. The other is by F.W. Bateson, who I don't know much about except that he doesn't like historicists. So Hirsch is comparing two critics that are not from his camp, and he makes it a contest. Hirsch believes in determinate meaning, so one of these guys (or neither) has to be "right."

Hirsch chooses Bateson as the winner, not because of his optimistic interpretation, but because of the word "pantheistic." Hirsch sees that word as proof that Bateson is taking into consideration the life and times of Wordsworth, a Romantic poet who would have some pantheistic beliefs or motifs. Hirsch goes on to point out how the two critiques are irreconcilable and therefore one of them must be invalid. Pantheism seems like a silly way to determine a winner, but it would be silly for me to complain about his choice since I don't believe in determinate meaning anyway. The contest is the problem. If I ran a contest with these two, I would try to determine who was the better critic, not who gave the right interpretation. Here they are, first Bateson, then Brooks:

The final impression the poem leaves is not of two contrasting moods, but of a single mood mounting to a climax in the pantheistic magnificence of the last two lines . . . The vague living-Lucy of this poem is opposed to the grander dead-Lucy who has become involved in the sublime process of nature. We put the poem down satisfied, because its last two lines succeed in effecting a reconciliation between two philosophies or social attitudes. Lucy is actually more alive now than she is dead, because she is now a part of the life of Nature, and not just a human "thing."

[The poet] attempts to suggest something of the lover's agonized shock at the loved one's present lack of motion -- of his response to her utter and horrible inertness. . . Part of the effect, of course, resides in the fact that a dead lifelessness is suggested more sharply by an object's being whirled about by something else than by an image of the object in repose. But there are other matters which are at work here: the sense of the girl's falling back into the clutter of things, companioned by things chained like a tree to one particular spot, or by things completely inanimate like rocks and stones . . . [She] is caught up helplessly into the empty whirl of the earth which measures and makes time. She is touched and held by earthly time in its most powerful and horrible image.


I was so moved by Brooks and kind of grossed out by Bateson. For instance, the line "We put the poem down satisfied" really rubs me the wrong way. If we subscribe to Horace's miscuit utile dulci, maybe putting a poem down satisfied is what we should hope for? But satisfaction is not exactly the same as delight. Delight doesn't require any thinking. Bateson's satisfaction is not instant or aesthetic, but apparently based on his own interpretation which smooths out any conflict in the poem. On a "reconciliation between two philosophies or social attitudes." That's pretty vague, and it hardly sounds satisfying. Certainly not delightful. It's as if he's saying the poem has satisfied its requirement to come to a resolution (as if that is a requirement of good poetry).

Bateson's pantheism angle turns Lucy's resting place into an Elysium instead of a dead stone revolving in space, but besides creating some nicer imagery than Brooks' darker interpretation provides, I don't think the critique is very effective (or affective). The whole aim of it seems to be, like I said before, to smooth out conflicts, to reconcile differences, and to cancel out oppositions without a hitch. He talks of "two contrasting moods" that are actually "a single mood," without making anything out of how these moods were sublated or elevated. He talks of the dead-Lucy "opposed to" the living-Lucy but doesn't explain the opposition, ending on a bittersweet line, the equivalent of "she's in a better place now." It's almost mawkish.

Two moods becoming one, two people (who are really one) who oppose one another, two philosophies reconciled -- these things all seem pretty interesting, and like they might occur at some climactic hinging point in the text, but Bateson doesn't bring it out of the poem. He just explains it conceptually and we are supposed to accept it. The funny thing is he does mention something that sounds exciting, and even uses the word "climax" in the line at the front of the paragraph, where he claims that "a single mood mount[s] to a climax in the pantheistic magnificence of the last two lines." Sounds so exciting, and then he doesn't deliver on it.

My impression of Bateson's critique is sort of just that -- an impression. And he even calls his own critique an impression of the poem. But even if his prose style moves someone more than it moves me, even if his vague impressions of the poem are enough for someone else to sink their teeth into, there would still be that undeniable attempt to "solve" the poem there, to smooth it over, to get relief from its tensions. What that does is just turn the poem into its interpretation. We have the end result so there's no use in re-reading the text. I may not like Bateson's delivery of his critique, but more importantly I don't like his aim. It's anti-climactic.

Brook's critique may be slightly amiss in its pessimism (even if we're not going to be historical, let's be reasonable -- I would take into consideration that Wordsworth is not a poet of sad, dark poems, so me might avoid going down the "agonized" path), but its strength is that the conflict in the poem is not canceled out. It makes for a better critique when conflicts and tension are pointed out explicitly. And if a claim is made that a text has a climax, something climactic should be brought into focus by the critic. In fact, the critique itself should have a climax.

The first line of Brooks's paragraph has us picturing a cold dead body through this whole thing, a lover looking on in "agonized shock." The "shock" may be a little over the top, but it certainly gives us an image to hold onto while Brooks elaborates on what the text does with the dead girl, and the beautifully understated "present lack of motion" makes the lifeless body even more vivid. Brooks then uses the concrete language of the poem (rocks, trees, rolling...) and shows how the differences between alive and dead, still and moving, are depicted "sharply" by Wordsworth's chosen images. He also substitutes some of his own sharp, concrete words like "whirled about" contrasted with "object in repose."

Brooks drives his images home, perhaps a little more than a Wordsworth poem seems to require. The death in the poem sort of washes over us and leaves us drenched in the weight of Lucy's helplessness. It's not nearly as "horrible" a thing as Brooks makes it out to be. But even if Brooks gets carried away, the tension he points to, and even the sadness he alludes to, is real. Perhaps this contrast between Brooks's pointed prose (which can be quite poetic) and Wordsworth's fluid poetry makes that even more apparent. The poem is not merely translated into an interpretation and left for dead, but complemented and brought to life by a good critique.

In the second half of Brooks's paragraph, things are still "at work" in the poem, not reconciled. Brooks finds similar tensions to what Bateson found (although Brooks focuses on still vs. moving where Bateson focuses on life vs. death), and he magnifies them and explicates them with a close reading on rocks and trees and such. In the last two lines of the paragraph, Brooks combines the poem's concrete images with some abstract and more emotional language to create a critical climax: "She is touched and held by earthly time in its most powerful and horrible image." Wow. That is not a resolution, but a gorgeous predicament. And that makes the reader want to go back and pore over this poem for himself. Or, he can always go back to just drinking in the poem for what it is, the "impression" of it made a little more delightful by the critic's illuminations. Since the poem is never resolved, and it is always at work, it is always worth reading.

Brooks wins!

1 comment:

  1. Could the basic premise of both be amiss, viz., that the poem is about a dead girl?

    http://garethprior.org/close-reading-a-slumber-did-my-spirit-seal/

    ReplyDelete

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