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Four Ways of Criticism

ISSUE:  Winter 1940

Master Builders, A Typology of the Spirit. By Stefan Zwcig. New York: The Viking Press. $3.75. Forces in American Criticism, A Study in the History of American Literary Thought. By Bernard Smith. New York: Har-court, Brace and Company. $3.00. Shakespeare. By Mark Van Doren. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $3.00. Modern Poetry and the Tradition. By Cleanth Brooks. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. $3.00.

There are two simple phrases that every literary critic should constantly keep before his eyes: “the only possible method” and “the ultimate truth.” Both are found in Spingarn’s great manifesto, “The New Criticism,” but they might have been penned by any dogmatist. We have before us four books of criticism. They follow four radically different methods; not one of them gets within sight even of the penultimate truth; yet the four methods must be voted valid, because the four books are good.

In “Master Builders,” Stefan Zweig’s approach is psychological. He gives us nine portraits of the kind for which Bradford coined the term “psychographs”: Sainte-Beuve’s technique, simplified and hardened. His central theory is found in the essays on Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. Dostoev-sky, he says, brought a new revelation, confirmed and organized by modern psychology, of the complexity and the irreconcilable conflict in man’s nature. In this blunt form, the theory is manifest nonsense.

Of no supreme poet can it be said that his heroes “look forth, clear-eyed, into a fair and lucid world.” The struggle within the heart of man is as ancient as the Psalms and the Prophets; it is the key to Christianity; it is the theme of Shakespeare, Pascal, and Racine. But the difference, we are told, “the secret of Dostoevsky’s greatness,” “lies in his limitless, restless, conscious, and defenseless surrender to his duplex destiny.” This conception is founded upon the great romantic belief that intensity, and not harmony, is the sole criterion of greatness. It is linked with the doctrine expounded in the second part of “The Fight with the Daimon.” The daimonic stands for obscure, unhuman, irrational forces, beyond good and evil, and sublime because they are forces. The fenced-off world of reason and morality is sane and intelligible; but it is negative, static, lifeless. The true poet abandons himself to the surge from the abyss. Tame it he cannot, and would not. He knows that the untamed will toss him, rend him asunder, destroy him; but, for a few ecstatic moments, he will ride in conscious power on the crest of the unconscious wave.

This again is pure romanticism: Hugo’s (not Byron’s) “Mazeppa.” It is the key to German “dynamism,” which became flesh and was named Wagner, Nietzsche, Hitler. In terms of Anglo-Saxon utilitarianism, it is nonsense. In terms of the romantic quest, it is supreme wisdom. Welcome madness, welcome disaster; the price is not too high for the glory of being at one with the Force that hurtles aimlessly through the infinite.

Stefan Zweig offers the pathetic spectacle of an all-too-clear, orderly, analytical, almost mechanical intellect desperately striving for the alien realm of the passionate, the mystic, the Dionysian, the daimonic. The strain is visible in his style. The essay on Dostoevsky, in particular, is written with laborious, cold-blooded sublimity. The effect is not frankly funny, as when Boileau, “with learned and holy intoxication,” indited a Pindaric ode. But in our age of understatement this willful ranting is slightly embarrassing.

In “Forces in American Criticism,” Bernard Smith attempts “to relate the history of American literature to the history of American life.” The result is not, as the subtitle has it, “A Study in the History of American Literary Thought,” but the reflection of political and social thought in the minds of literary critics. Mr. Smith himself is a sociologist with literary taste and training, although it might be that he prefers to be known as a literary man venturing into the domain of sociology. He is welcome in both fields: I have no faith in departmental fences. The hybrid genre he has in mind deserves a name of its own. It has been practiced by Matthew Arnold, Renan, Taine, Babbitt, Van Wyck Brooks, Joseph Wood Krutch, and Ortega y Gasset. Professional sociologists may smile, but for the interpretation of social phenomena, a rich and delicate culture may be a more accurate instrument than statistics, those common prostitutes. In its own dual yet well defined domain, “Forces in American Criticism” is extraordinarily good. Almost incidentally, Bernard Smith, simply as a man of taste, is a literary critic in his own right. Unlike some Marxists, he refuses to despise Shakespeare because Shakespeare was a reactionary, a parasite of the bourgeoisie and a snob; and we can almost detect him giving a furtive bow to, one of his betes noires, Art for Art’s Sake. He is honestly of the Left: so honestly that even readers who belong to his own party will find intellectual sustenance in his work. Mark Van Doren is no less definite, telling us with perfect frankness what his “Shakespeare” is not: “I have ignored the biography of Shakespeare, the history and character of his time, the conventions of his theatre, the works of his contemporaries.” The play is the thing: a bold and most welcome simplification.

Mr. Van Doren’s method is psychological and stylistic, but not psychological in the same manner as Zweig’s. He does not attempt to analyze the mysterious entity that is Shakespeare. He examines Shakespeare’s characters as though they were creatures of flesh and blood. This is one of the hoariest forms of criticism, and one of the most profitable. It culminated in Goethe’s interpretation of Hamlet, which was accepted as final for generations. Mr. Van Doren’s own conception of Hamlet, by the way, is at the same time modest and startling. We do not know Hamlet, he says; we never see him except when he is playing a part, to an audience or for his own benefit. Perhaps the very essence of his being is to be histrionic.

Even more interesting than the psychological analyses are the discussions of style. Here Mr. Van Doren shows commendable freshness and courage. He makes no effort to demonstrate the inerrancy and literal inspiration of the Shakespearian Scriptures. In many cases, the analysis of style and that of character are one; but the chief interest of Van Doren the poet is in Shakespeare the poet, and above all, in Shakespeare the musician. The triumph of “Macbeth” is the creation of a nightmare world, but this is achieved by means which are tonal rather than graphic. The themes of dread, blood, and sleeplessness are interwoven as they would be in a symphony.

Mr. Van Doren’s essays naturally partake of the same musical quality. They might be called the resonance of Shakespeare’s great chords in a finely attuned instrument or delicate variations on Shakespearean motives, but they remain sound criticism. Mr. Van Doren is the perfect accompanist; his sole thought is to bring out the richness and power of the incomparable master, and Shakespeare is all the more Shakespeare for all the subtle overtones that Mr. Van Doren reveals in him—or perhaps creates for him.

Cleanth Brooks is in the grand tradition of criticism. He is not afraid of general principles, and you can imagine him engaging in lofty debate, across the centuries, with Sydney, Dryden, Coleridge, and Arnold. These names suffice to prove that literary theory need not be pedantic and unpoeti-cal.

“Modern Poetry and the Tradition” is a defense of modern poetry, not as “modern”—a cheap word—but as renewing a tradition. He links the “new” poets with the seventeenth-century metaphysicals, T. S. Eliot with John Donne. Both schools are not afraid of wit, if by wit we mean the quick realization and intense relish of incongruities. Nor do they admit that wit, even in the form of puns, is inimical to “the higher seriousness.” Well said! “Candide” is earnest, compared with the conventionality, i. e., the dishonesty and frivolousness, of so many sermons and theological treatises.

A more essential point made by Mr. Brooks is that for late classicists and romanticists alike, a metaphor was a mere ornament. The purpose of the poem could be stated in clear intellectual terms, even when the spirit was sentimental. An image had no more functional use than a baroque statue gesticulating on a balustrade. “We have changed all that,” says Mr. Brooks.

How? First of all, through music, which is magic and incantation, rather than plain discourse. And in the second place, by making the image an evocation of a complex mood and of a whole system of thought. Word, image, thought, and feeling are integral. A poem is a whole: that single unit is like a new word, coined to denote depths and shades which had never been expressed before.

All this is vitally important for the understanding of modern poetry—and of all poetry. I believe, however, that Mr. Brooks overemphasizes the manifest resemblance between the romanticists (including the Victorians) and the late classicists. Blake may be isolated as a poet; as a theorist, he gave, as Saintsbury showed, the purest romantic doctrine; and a late manifesto of the ultramoderns could do nothing better than return to Blake. “Kubla Khan,” the epitome of romanticism, is not intellectual; its imagery is “integral.” It is an incantation; its music is its meaning. Unfortunately for the “musicians,” if there is Verlaine on their side, there also is Edgar Allan Poe; the notorious author of “Ulalume” is the black sheep, the disreputable uncle, the blot on the ‘scutcheon; and it must be noted that Poe was revered by two poets who are among the acknowledged masters of the “moderns,” Baudelaire and Mallarme.

Cleanth Brooks makes a very good and a very clear case for obscurity, which need not be “obscurantism” or “the cult of unintelligibility.” But there are qualities and degrees in darkness, as there are in light. There is the obscurity of incompetence; the willful obscurity of the faker; the obscurity of condensed thought (Einstein, Paul Valery); that which results from reference to a myth peculiar to the author, as in Blake and Yeats. When the reference is to a scheme not generally known, and not mentioned in the poem—like “The Waste Land,” based on Jessie Weston’s Grail studies— obscurity becomes very murky indeed. Obscurity per se is no criterion; for a man ignorant of Greek mythology, the tritest neoclassical poem might seem profound.

No doubt the history of English poetry should be “revised,” not by every generation, but by every reader. If you rank highest the special pleasure that Donne can give, then Milton, Pope, Gray, Burns, and Shelley must recede. I like all poems that are good of their kind, from Matthew Pryor to Robert Bridges and W. H. Auden; and I like each kind according to my mood: there are hours for Wordsworth and hours—well, minutes—for Ogden Nash. So there is no need to damn Shelley altogether, as the fashion now is. At his best, he attains an effect of immensity through purity, as others reach a corresponding effect through ironic contrast. Each method has its perils; if the Shelleyans can be trite, the metaphysicals can be forced, cryptic, and ludicrous. As for the philosophies back of the poems, they are irrelevant; it is the poet’s sensitiveness alone that counts. Bourgeois liberals may use the terms of Shelleyan humanitarianism, but the subtle faith of T. S. Eliot is shared by every housemaid in Kensington. The poem is the thing, and you are the judge.


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