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Narcissus as Narcissus

ISSUE:  Winter 1938

On this first occasion, which will probably be the last, of my talking about my own verse, I could plead the example of Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote an essay entitled “The Philosophy of Composition.” But in our age the appeal to authority is weak, and I am of my age. I prefer to leave the propriety of self-discussion to the reader. You will remember the Englishman who refuted an American’s criticism of Drinkwater, who had, on the opening night of his “Robert E. Lee,” permitted Grant to appear in gray and Lee in blue: “Oh, I should think that Drinkwater would know about that.” I am willing to let Drinkwater know about that, with the reminder to the reader that what I happen to know about the poem I shall discuss is limited. I remember merely my intention in writing it; I do not know whether the poem is good; and I do not know its obscure origins.

How does one come to write a poem: where does it come from? That is the question asked by the psychologists or the geneticists of poetry. Of late I have not been able to read any of their theories through: years ago I read one by Mr. Conrad Aiken; another, I think, by Mr. Robert Graves; but I have forgotten them. I am not throwing off on verbal mechanisms, dreams, or repressions as origins of poetry; all three of them and more besides may have a great deal to do with it. Nor should I ignore Mr. I. A. Richards, whose theories I have read a great deal: to him a poem seems to be a kind of ideal harmony among the greatest number of our appetites, which ordinarily jangle, and the reader gets the same harmony or “ordering of the mind” second-hand—only it is really as good as first-hand since the poet differs from the mere reader by the hair of a talent for constructing appetitive harmonies in words. While this theory may be false, I can only say that given a few premises which I shall not discuss, it is logical: I do not care whether it is false or true.

Other psychological theories today—I speak from rusty acquaintance—say a good deal about compensation. A poem is an indirect effort of a shaky man to justify himself to happier men, or to present a superior account of his relation to a world that allows him but little certainty, and would allow as little to the happier men if they did not wear blinders—according to the poet. For example, a poet might be a fellow who could not get enough self-justification out of being an automobile salesman (whose certainty is a fixed quota of cars every month) to rest comfortably upon it. So the poet, who wants to be something that he cannot be, and is a failure in plain life, makes up fictitious versions of his predicament that are interesting even to other persons because nobody is a perfect automobile salesman. Everybody, alas, suffers a little. … I constantly read this kind of criticism of my own verse. According to its doctors, my one intransigent desire is to have been a Confederate general, and because I could not or would not become anything else, I set up for poet and began to invent fictions about the personal ambitions that my society has no use for.

Although a theory may not be “true,” it may make certain insights available for a while; and I have deemed it proper to notice theories of the genetic variety because a poet talking about himself is often expected, as the best authority, to explain the origins of his poems. But persons interested in origins are seldom quick to use them. Poets, in their way, are practical men; they are interested in results. What is the poem, after it is written? That is the question. Not where it came from, or why. The Why and Where can never get beyond the guessing stage because, in the language of those who think it can, poetry cannot be brought to “laboratory conditions.” The only real evidence that any critic may bring before his gaze is the finished poem. For some reason most critics have a hard time fixing their minds directly under their noses, and before they see what is there they use a telescope upon the horizon to see where it came from. They are woodcutters who do their job by finding out where the ore came from in the iron of the steel of the blade of the axe that Jack built. I do not say that this procedure is without its own contributory insights; but the insights are merely contributory and should not replace the object that gives rise to them. A poem may be an instance of morality, of social conditions, of psychological history; it may instance all its qualities, but never one of them alone, nor any two or three; nor ever less than all. In making women “instances” of sex we make them whores.

Genetic theories, I gather, have been cherished academically with detachment. Among “critics” they have been useless and not quite disinterested: I have myself found them applicable to the work of poets whom I did not like. That is the easiest way.

I say all this because it seems to me that my verse or anybody else’s is merely a way of knowing something: if the poem is a real creation, it is a kind of knowledge that we did not possess before. It is not knowledge “about” something else; the poem is the fullness of that knowledge. We know the particular poem, not what it says that we can restate. In a manner of speaking, the poem is its own knower, neither poet nor reader knowing anything that the poem says apart from the words of the poem. I have expressed this view elsewhere in other terms, and it has been accused of ojstheticism or art for art’s sake. Rut let the reader recall the historic position of Catholicism: nulla salus extra ecclesiam. That must be religionism. There is probably nothing wrong with art for art’s sake if we take the phrase seriously, and not take it to mean the kind of poetry written in England forty years ago. Religion always ought to transcend any of its particular uses; the true art for art’s sake view can be held only by religious persons who are always looking for something that they can respect apart from use (though it may be useful), like poems, fly-rods, and formal gardens… . These are negative postulates, and I am going to illustrate them with some commentary on a poem called “Ode to the Confederate Dead.”


That poem is “about” solipsism or Narcissism, or any other ism that denotes the failure of the human personality to function properly in nature and society. Society (and “nature” as modern society constructs it) appears to offer limited fields for the exercise of the whole man, who wastes his energy piecemeal over separate functions that ought to come under a unity of being. (Until the last generation, only certain women were whores, having been set aside as special instances of sex amid a social scheme that held the general belief that sex must be part of a whole; now the general belief is that sex must be special.) Without unity we get the remarkable self-consciousness of our age. Everybody is talking about this evil, and a great many persons know what ought to be done to correct it. As a citizen I have my own prescription, but as a poet I am concerned with the experience of solipsism. And an experience of it is very different from a theory about it.

I should have trouble connecting solipsism and the Confederate dead, as a rational thesis; I should make a fool of myself in the discussion, because I know no more of the Confederate dead or of solipsism than hundreds of other people. (Possibly less: the dead Confederates may be presumed to have a certain privacy; and as for solipsism, I blush to the philosophers who know all about Bishop Berkeley; I use the term here in its strict etymology.) And if I call this interest in one’s ego Narcissism, I make myself a logical ignoramus, as well as a loose-mouth with mythology. I use Narcissism to mean only preoccupation with self; it may be love or hate. But a good psychiatrist knows that it means self-love only, and otherwise he can talk about it more coherently, knows more about it than I ever hope or desire to know. He would look at me professionally if I piped up with the remark that the modern squirrel cage of our sensibility, the extreme introspection of our time, has anything whatever to do with the Confederate dead.

But when the doctor looks at literature it is a question whether he sees it: the sea boils and pigs have wings because in poetry all things are possible—if, as the drug-store cowboys would put it, you are man enough. They are possible because in poetry the disparate elements are not combined in logic, which can combine only under certain categories and under the law of contradiction; they are combined rather as experience, and experience has decided to ignore logic, except perhaps as another field of experience. Experience means conflict, our natures being what they are, and conflict means drama. Dramatic experience is not logical; it may be subdued to the kind of coheience that we indicate when we speak, in criticism, of form. Indeed, as experience, this conflict is always a logical contradiction, or philosophically an antinomy. Serious poetry deals with the fundamental conflicts that cannot be logically resolved: we can state the conflicts rationally, but reason does not relieve us of them. Their only final coherence is the formal re-creation of art, which “freezes” the experience as permanently as a logical formula, but without, like the formula, leaving all but the logic out.

Narcissism and the Confederate dead cannot be connected logically, or even historically; even were the connection an historical fact, they would not stand connected as art, for no one experiences raw history. The proof of the connection must lie, if anywhere, in the experienced conflict which is the poem itself. Since one set of references for the conflict is the historic Confederates, the poem, if it is successful, is a certain section of history made into experience, but only on this occasion, and on these terms: even the author of the poem has no experience of its history apart from the occasion and the terms.

It will be understood that I do not claim even a partial success in the junction of the two “ideas” in the poem I am about to discuss. I am describing an intention, and the labor of revising the poem—a labor spread over ten years— fairly exposes the lack of confidence that I have felt and still feel in it. All the tests of its success in style and versification would come in the end to a single test, an answer, yes or no, to the question: Assuming that the Confederates and Narcissus are not yoked together by mere violence, has the poet convinced the reader that, on the specific occasion of this poem, there is a necessary yet hitherto undetected relation between them? By necessary I mean dramatically relevant, a relation “discovered” in terms of the particular occasion, not historically argued or philosophically deduced. Should the question that I have just asked be answered yes, then this poem or any other with its specific problem could be said to have form: what was previously a merely felt quality of life has been raised to the level of experience—it has become specific, local, dramatic, “formal”—that is to say, in-formed.


The structure of the Ode is simple. Figure to yourself a man stopping at the gate of a Confederate graveyard on a late autumn afternoon. The leaves are falling; his first impressions bring him the “rumor of mortality”; and the desolation barely allows him, at the beginning of the second stanza, the heroically conventional surmise that the dead will enrich the earth, “where these memories grow.” From those quoted words to the end of that passage he pauses for a baroque meditation on the ravages of time, concluding with the figure of the “blind crab.” This creature has mobility but no direction, energy but no purposeful world to use it in: in the entire poem there are only two explicit symbols for the locked-in ego; the crab is the first and less explicit symbol, a mere hint, a planting of the idea that will become overt in its second instance—the jaguar towards the end. The crab is the first intimation of the nature of the moral conflict upon which the drama of the poem develops: the cut-off-ness of the modern “intellectual man” from the world.

The next long passage or “strophe,” beginning “You know who have waited by the wall,” states the other term of the conflict. It is the theme of heroism, not merely moral heroism, but heroism in the grand style, elevating even death from mere physical dissolution into a formal ritual: this heroism is a formal ebullience of the human spirit in an entire society, not private, romantic illusion—something better than moral heroism, great as that may be, for moral heroism, being personal and individual, may be achieved by certain men in all ages, even ages of decadence. But the late Hart Crane’s commentary is better than any I can make: “The theme of chivalry, a tradition of excess (not literally excess, rather active faith) which cannot be perpetuated in the fragmentary cosmos of today—’those desires which should be yours tomorrow,’ but which, you know, will not persist nor find any way into action.”

The structure then is a tension between the two themes, “active faith” which has decayed, and the “fragmentary cosmos” which surrounds us. (I must repeat here that this is not a philosophical thesis; it is an impressionistic rendering of a conflict that is concrete within the poem.) In contemplating the heroic theme the man at the gate never quite commits himself to the illusion of its availability to him. The most that he can allow himself is the fancy that the blowing leaves are charging soldiers, but he rigorously returns to the refrain: “Only the wind”—or the “leaves flying.” I suppose it is a commentary on our age that the man at the gate never quite achieves the illusion that the leaves are heroic men, so that he may identify himself with them, as Keats and Shelley easily and beautifully did with nightingales and west winds. More than this, he cautions himself, reminds himself repeatedly of his subjective prison, his solipsism, by breaking off the half-illusion and coming back to the refrain of wind and leaves—a refrain that, as Hart Crane said, is necessary to the “subjective continuity.”

These two themes struggle for mastery up to the passage,

We shall say only the leaves whispering
In the improbable mist of nightfall

which is near the end. It will be observed that the passage begins with a phrase taken from the wind-leaves refrain— the signal that it has won. The refrain has been fused with the main stream of the man’s reflections, dominating them; and he cannot return even to an ironic vision of the heroes. There is nothing but death, the mere naturalism of death at that. Autumn and the leaves are death; the men who exemplified in a grand style an “active faith” are dead; there are only the leaves.

Shall we then worship death?

… set up the grave
In the house? The ravenous grave . . .

that will take us before our time? The question is not answered, although as a kind of romanticism it might, if answered affirmatively, provide an illusory solution to the solipsism of the man; but he cannot accept it. Nor has he been able to live in his immediate world, the fragmentary cosmos. There is no practical solution, no solution offered for the edification of moralists. (To those who may identify the man at the gate with the author of the poem I would say: He differs from the author in not accepting a “practical solution,” for the author’s dilemma is perhaps not quite so exclusive as that of the meditating man.) The main intention of the poem has been to state the conflict, to concentrate it, to present it, in Mr. R. P. Blackmur’s phrase, as experienced form—not as a logical dilemma.

The closing image, that of the serpent, is the ancient symbol of time, and I tried to give it the credibility of the commonplace by placing it in a mulberry bush—with the faint hope that the silkworm would somehow be implicit. But time is also death. If that is so, then space, or the Becoming, is life; and I believe there is not a single spatial symbol in the poem. “Sea-space” is allowed the “blind crab”; but the sea, as appears plainly in the passage beginning, “Now that the salt of their blood …” is life only in so far as it is the source of the lowest forms of life, the source perhaps of all life, but life undifferentiated, halfway between life and death. This passage is a contrasting inversion of the conventional

… inexhaustible bodies that are not Dead, but feed the grass …

the reduction of the earlier, literary conceit to a more naturalistic figure derived from modern biological speculation. These “buried Caesars” will not bloom in the hyacinth but will only make saltier the sea.

The wind-leaves refrain was added to the poem in 1930, nearly five years after the first draft was written. I felt that the danger of adding it was small because, implicit in the long strophes of meditation, the ironic commentary on the vanished heroes was already there, giving the poem such dramatic tension as it had in the earlier version. The refrain makes the commentary more explicit, more visibly dramatic, and renders quite plain, as Hart Crane intimated, the subjective character of the imagery throughout, But there was another reason for it, besides the increased visualization that it imparts to the dramatic conflict. It “times” the poem better, offers the reader frequent pauses in the development of the two themes, allows him occasions of assimilation; and on the whole—this was my hope and intention—the refrain makes the poem seem longer than it is and thus eases the concentration of imagery—without, I hope, sacrificing a possible effect of concentration.


I have been asked why I called the poem an ode. I first called it an elegy. It is an ode only in the sense in which Cowley in the seventeenth century misunderstood the real structure of the Pindaric ode. Not only are the metre and rhyme without fixed pattern, but in another feature the poem is even further removed from Pindar than Abraham Cowley was: a purely subjective meditation would not in Cowley’s age have been called an ode. I suppose in so calling it I intended an irony: the scene of the poem is not a public celebration, it is a lone man by a gate.

The dominant rhythm is “falling,” the dominant metre iambic pentameter varied with six-, four-, and three-stressed lines; but this was not planned in advance for variety. I adapted the metre to the effect desired at the moment. The model for the irregular rhyming was “Lycidas,” but for that other models could have served. The rhymes in iv given strophe I tried to adjust to the rhythm and the texture of feeling and image. For example, take this passage in the second strophe:

Autumn is desolation in the plot
Of a thousand acres where these memories grow
From the inexhaustible bodies that are not
Dead, but feed the grass row after rich row.
Think of the autumns that have come and gone!—
Ambitious November with the humors of the year,
With a particular zeal for every slab,
Staining the uncomfortable angels that rot
On the slabs, a wing chipped here, an arm there’:
The brute curiosity of an angel’s stare
Turns you, like them, to stone,
Transforms the heaving air
Till plunged to a heavier world below
You shift your sea-space blindly
Heaving, turning like the blind crab.

There is rhymed with year (to many persons, perhaps, only a half-rhyme), and I hoped the reader would unconsciously assume that he need not expect further use of that sound for some time. So when the line, “The brute curiosity of an angel’s stare,” comes a moment later, rhyming with year-there, I hoped that the violence of image would be further reinforced by the repetition of a sound that was no longer expected. I wanted the shock to be heavy; so I felt that I could not afford to hurry the reader away from it until he had received it in full. The next two lines carry on the image at a lower intensity: the rhyme, “Transforms the heaving air” prolongs the moment of attention upon that passage, while at the same time it ought to begin dissipating the shock, both by the introduction of a new image and by reduction of the “meaning” to a pattern of sound, the ere-rhymes. I calculated that the third use of that sound (stare) would be a surprise, the fourth a monotony. I purposely made the end words of the third from last and last lines—below and crab—delayed rhymes for row and slab, the last being an internal and half-dissonant rhyme for the sake of bewilderment and incompleteness, qualities by which the man at the gate is at the moment possessed.

This is elementary but I cannot vouch for its success. As the dramatic situation of the poem is the tension that I have already described, so the rhythm is an attempt at a series of “modulations” back and forth between a formal regularity, for the heroic emotion, and a broken rhythm, with scattering imagery, for the failure of that emotion. I have pointed out that the passage, “You know who have waited by the wall,” presents the heroic theme of “active faith”; it will be observed that the rhythm, increasingly after “You who have waited for the angry resolution,” is almost perfectly regular iambic, with only a few initial inversions and weak endings. The passage is meant to convey a plenary vision, the actual presence, of the exemplars of active faith: the man at the gate at that moment is nearer to realizing them than at any other in the poem; hence the formal rhythm. But the vision breaks down; the wind-leaves refrain intervenes; and the next passage, “Turn your eyes to the immoderate past,” is the irony of the preceding realization. With the self-conscious historical sense he turns his eyes into the past. The next passage after this, beginning “You hear the shout …” is the failure of the vision in both phases, the pure realization and the merely historical. He cannot “see” the heroic virtues; there is wind, rain, leaves. But there is sound; for a moment he deceives himself with it. It is the noise of the battles that he has evoked. Then comes the figure of the rising sun of those battles; he is “lost in that orient of the thick and fast,” and he curses his own moment, “the setting sun.” The “setting sun” I tried to use as a triple image, for the decline of the heroic age and for the actual scene of late afternoon, the latter being not only natural desolation but spiritual desolation as well… . Again for a moment he thinks he hears the battle shout, but only for a moment; then the silence reaches him.

Corresponding to the disintegration of the vision just described, there has been a breaking down of the formal rhythm. The complete breakdown comes with the images of the “mummy” and the “hound bitch.” (Hound bitch because the hound is a hunter, participant of a formal ritual.) The failure of the vision throws the man back upon himself, but upon himself he cannot bring to bear the force of a sustained imagination. He sees himself in random images (random to him, deliberate with the author) of something lower than he ought to be: the human image is only that of preserved death; but if he is alive he is an old hunter, dying. The passages about the mummy and the bitch are deliberately brief—slight rhythmic stretches. (These are the only verses I have written for which I thought of the movement first, then cast about for the symbols.)

I believe the term modulation denotes in music the uninterrupted shift from one key to another: I do not know the term for change of rhythm without change of measure. I wish to describe a similar change in verse rhythm; it may be convenient to think of it as also modulation of a kind. At the end of the passage that I have been discussing the final words are “Hears the wind only.” The phrase closes the first main division of the poem. I have loosely called the longer passages strophes, but if I were hardy enough to impose the classical organization of the lyric ode upon a baroque poem, I should say that these words bring to an end the Strophe, after which must come the next main division, or Antistrophe, which was often employed to answer the matter set forth in the Strophe or to present it from another point of view. And that is precisely the significance of the next main division. But I wanted this second division of the poem to arise out of the collapse of the first. It is plain that it would not have suited my purpose to round off the first section with some sort of formal rhythm; I ended it with an unfinished line. The next division must therefore begin by finishing that line, not merely in metre but with an integral rhythm. I will quote the passage:

The hound bitch
Toothless and dying, in a musty cellar
Hears the wind only.
Now that the salt of their blood
Stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea,
Seals the malignant purity of the flood, …

The caesura, after only, is thus at the middle of the third foot. (These are the familiar terms; I should use others in an extended discussion of prosody.) The reader expects the foot to be completed by the stress on the next word, Now, as in a sense it is; but the phrase, “Now that the salt of their blood,” is also the beginning of a new movement; it is two “dactyls” creating momentarily a mounting rhythm counter to the falling rhythm that has prevailed. But with the finishing off of the line with blood, the falling rhythm is restored; the whole line from Hears to blood is actually an iambic pentameter with liberal inversions and substitutions that were expected to create a counter-rhythm within the line. From the caesura on the rhythm is new; it has—or was expected to have—an organic relation to the preceding rhythm; and it signals the rise of a new statement of the theme.

I have gone into this passage in detail—I might have chosen another—not because I think it is successful, but because I labored with it; if it is a failure, or even an uninteresting success, it ought to offer as much technical instruction to other persons as it would were it both successful and interesting. But a word more: the broader movement introduced by the new rhythm was meant to correspond, as a sort of Antistrophe, to the earlier formal movement beginning, “You know who have waited by the wall.” It is a new formal movement with new feeling and new imagery. The precarious illusion of the earlier movement has broken down into the personal symbols of the mummy and the hound; the pathetic fallacy of the leaves as charging soldiers and the conventional “buried Caesar” theme have become rotten leaves and dead bodies wasting in the earth, to return after long erosion to the sea. In the midst of this naturalism, what shall the man say?—What shall all humanity say in the presence of decay? The two themes, then, have been struggling for mastery; the structure of the poem thus exhibits the development of two formal passages that contrast the two themes. The two formal passages break down, the first shading off into the second (“Now that the salt of their blood …”), the second one concluding with the figure of the jaguar, which is presented in a distracted rhythm left hanging in the air from a weak ending—the word victim. This figure of the jaguar is the only explicit rendering of the Narcissus motif in the poem, but instead of a youth gazing into a pool, a predatory beast stares at a jungle stream, and leaps to devour himself.

The next passage begins:

What shall we say who have knowledge
Carried to the heart?

Should the reader care to think of this as the gathering up of the two themes, now fused, into a final statement, I should see no objection to calling it the Epode. But upon the meaning of the lines from here to the end I see no need for further commentary. I have talked about the structure of the poem, not its quality. One can no more find the quality of one’s own verse than one can find its value, and to try to find either is like looking into a glass for the effect that one’s face has upon other persons.

If anybody ever wished to know anything about this poem that he could not interpret for himself, he is still in the dark. I cannot believe that I have illuminated the difficulties that some readers have found in the style. But then I cannot, have never been able to, see any difficulties of that order. The poem has been much revised. I still think there is much to be said for the original barter instead of yield in the second line, and for Novembers instead of November in line fifteen. The revisions were not undertaken for the convenience of the reader but for the poem’s own clarity, so that, word, phrase, line, passage, the poem might at worst come near its best expression.

I know that this long commentary has been a long presumption. But perhaps I have not been talking chiefly of the ostensible subject. At any rate, the presumption cannot be so egregious as the shorter presumption of the poem itself. There is nothing so presumptuous as poetry.


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