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Mutations of Poetic Insight

ISSUE:  Summer 1943

Four Quartets. By T. S. Eliot. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.00. Sireil Songs. By Edith Sitwell. The Macmillan Company. $1.75. Genesis. By Del-more Schwartz. New Directions. $3.00. Poems. By John Berryman. New Directions. $1.00. This Is My Beloved. By Walter Benton. Alfred A. Knopf. $2.00. Last Poems. By Elinor Wylic. Alfred A. Knopf. $2.75.

The person who sits down to say a few words about a miscellaneous assortment of books which have appeared in any three or four month interval, is likely to seem impatient with some of the titles placed before him, and overly indulgent with the others. Fortunately for me, the present list of titles offers no such embarrassment in critical discrimination; two books of poems, Mr. Eliot’s and Miss Sitwell’s, are obviously far superior to the other books upon my table, and by virtue of their superiority, my discussion falls naturally into two divisions without danger of seeming unjust, or adding to the general confusion of critical standards which so frequently exists in quarterly commentaries on the season’s poetry.

In the face of much discontent concerning the quality ot poetry written during the past four years, the years of the present World War and its continuance, it is heartening tc read and reread Mr. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and Miss Sitwell’s “Street Songs.” Actually, to some of us, the publication of “Four Quartets” will be an occasion for rereading, for the first of the poems in Mr. Eliot’s new book is “Burnt Norton,” which had been written before his “Collected Poems, 1909-1935” appeared and had been included as the last poem in that volume. Through magazine publication in this country, the two following poems, “East Coker,” and “The Dry Salvages,” have already received considerable attention from those who write critical articles in literary reviews as well as among those who read poetry for pleasure. The last poem of Mr. Eliot’s new cycle, “Little Gidding,” is now being published in this country for the first time. In the order of their original appearances, and at the various moments of their publication, three of Mr. Eliot’s four quartets seemed to take on the character of a tour de force, a tour deforce in which the poet engages the attention of the reader by brilliantly rewriting very nearly everything he has said in the past twenty years; and it seemed a near impossibility that Mr. Eliot could bring his cycle of four quartets to a completed round and a satisfactory conclusion. The writing of “Little Gidding” and its appearance in the present volume dispels all doubts which may have existed during the progress of his new, and, I believe, most important contribution to the literature of the twentieth century since the publication of “The Waste Land.” His maturity and its progress is now assured, and in the composition of his “Four Quartets” he has accomplished in terms which are his own the same arrival at a destination that Wordsworth so memorably expressed for himself and others upon the final publication of “The Prelude.” My saying this does not imply that Mr. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” are in the least Words-worthian, and Mr. Eliot has wisely refrained from introducing them, as Wordsworth did his “Prelude,” as being indicative of “the growth of a poet’s mind.” The two works are alike only in that they contain “a glance backward over travelled roads,” and in that they express in the language of a highly gifted and acute sensibility the mutations of poetic insight through a generation that has witnessed external changes, including political revolutions, in the affairs of men. It can be said that Mr. Eliot has anticipated, and now reasserts more affirmatively, with greater penetration, and with a more profound grace and sense of movement than he has hitherto expressed, the devotional spirit of his age. To show how he has accomplished this end in the writing of “Little Gidding” would compel me to list a long series of parallel quotations from “Four Quartets” and very nearly every poem that Mr. Eliot has published since “Ash Wednesday.” The attempt to do so would be a worthy, and perhaps illuminating exercise in the technics of academic discourse, yet it would fail, I think, to reveal the spirit in which poetry is actually felt and written, seen and heard. I shall content myself by quoting a passage from “Little Gidding” which I submit as one of the finest lyrics of our time:

The dove descending breaks the air With flame of incandescent terror Of which the tongues declare The one discharge from sin and error. The only hope, or else despair Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre— To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love. Love is the unfamiliar Name Behind the hands that wove The intolerable shirt of flame Which human power cannot remove.

We only live, only suspire

Consumed by either fire or fire.

One feels that Mr. Eliot is at the height of his powers and that he has arrived at the close of his present period with the profoundly realized conviction that

all shall be well and All manner of thing shall be well By the purification of the motive In the ground of our beseeching.

Edith Sitwell’s new book, “Street Songs,” contains some of the same elements of surprise and brilliance and tonal clarity that came to light and were heard when readers of poetry suddenly discovered the importance of the late W. B. Yeats’s poems in “The Tower” volume of 1928. Not unlike the earlier poetry of W. B. Yeats and its promise for the future, Miss Sitwell’s early verse has been neatly classified and ticketed by critics; therefore her present book, the best single book of poems, I think, to arrive unexpectedly out of England since 1939, communicates a slight shock to the reader. Among those who were looking for “war poems” from the usual sources, Miss Sitwell’s “Street Songs” might well occasion a moment of embarrassment, for her lyrics are of a fresh and vivid quality that is usually looked for in the work of a young and preferably unknown poet. She is now in the excellent position of a gifted and established writer awaiting rediscovery, and like Mr. Eliot, she is apparently writing at the height of her reawakened powers. Her “Street Songs” is a slender volume of some twenty-two poems; its acknowledged emotional sources are those of the present war in Europe, as though the war had touched off her impulse to write poetry again. But whatever the immediate causes of her reawakened gifts may be, her new poems express a greater depth of feeling than anything she has written in the past, a greater depth, and a magnificently controlled expression of lyric intensity. The opening stanzas of her “Serenade: Any Man to Any Woman” illustrate what I mean:

Dark angel who art clear and straight As cannon shining in the air, Your blackness doth invade my mind And thunderous as the armoured wind That rained on Europe is your hair;

And so I love you till I die— (Unfaithful I, the cannon’s mate): Forgive my love of such brief span, But fickle is the flesh of man, And death’s cold puts the passion out.

And as in Mr. Eliot’s new poems, the devotional spirit of our day finds its voice in the closing lines of Miss Sitwell’s “Still Falls the Rain”:

Still falls the Rain—

Then—O He leape up to my God: who pulles me doune— See, see where Christ’s blood streames in the firmament: It flows from the Brow we nailed upon the tree Deep to the dying, to the thirsting heart That holds the fires of the world—dark-smirched with pain As Caesar’s laurel crown.

Then sounds the voice of One who like the heart of man Was once a child who among beasts has lain— “Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood, for thee.”

I believe that there will be other readers who will “rediscover” Miss Sitwell’s poetry with something of the same delight that I experienced in reading it and that they will be reassured as I am that the gifts and graces of poetic imagination are by no means silenced or obscured in darkness during the present interval of a second world war.


The rest of the titles in the collection of current verse assembled for this survey may be described as documents of poetic activity rather than the accomplishment of any single contribution in terms of poetry. The weightiest of these, and indeed, it happens to contain the greatest number of words and pages, is Mr. Delmore Schwartz’s “Genesis,” a first volume of what promises to be a trilogy, written in alternate passages of verse and prose. Mr. Schwartz has been ill-advised, I think, in prefacing his book with a few words to the reader, for they betray an uneasy, ambitious, and defensive claim for the validity of his intentions. Now, good intentions may be granted any poet, for the writing of poetry implies a stricter discipline and a more profound insight than the skills which are brought into use in the writing of a novel. Mr. Schwartz writes, “I have no wish to emulate Swinburne, but rather the ‘morbid pedestrianism’ of such poets as Donne and Hardy, Webster and Wordsworth.” This, to put it mildly, is a confused, and perhaps unintentionally pretentious claim. To bring Donne and Hardy, Webster and Wordsworth together in one breath, and to group all four under the general heading of “morbid pedestrianism” makes Mr. Schwartz’s potential reader suspect that he is incapable of recognizing the essential qualities that distinguish the work of one poet from another. I would say that he was impelled to join their names because they seemed impressive in unison, and because of the play of consonant against vowel in repeating the four names aloud, but in reading Mr. Schwartz’s choruses in “Genesis” itself, I am less certain of my second supposition than I am of the first.

Mr. Schwartz’s “Genesis” has a more positive relationship to documentary literature than the other books before me, and in reading it I was reminded of the almost forgotten “Potash and Perlmutter,” Edward Dahlberg’s “Bottom Dogs,” Mary Antin’s “Promised Land,” “The Rise of David Levinsky,” and Michael Gold’s “Jews Without Money.” “Genesis” is the narrative of a boy brought up in the environment of the city of New York, and the characters that he meets are at different levels the same people one encounters in the novels I have mentioned; all are as rigidly unpleasant, but are presented with less intensity than the creatures of Mr. Dahlberg’s “Bottom Dogs,” nor are they endowed with the facile humour and sentimental charm that gave “Potash and Perlmutter” temporary fame and Mr. Gold’s heroes of New York’s East Side an air of exotic impudence and being. Let us grant that Mr. Schwartz has no desire to rival those who practise the arts of journalism and light fiction, that his narrative contains the theme of attempting to find the meaning of a personal identity which lies half-hidden under a ridiculous given name, for his hero, Hershey Green, is named after “Hershey Bar.” All this is very well, but the means by which he tells his story lack imagination and firmness of speech; the prose is as awkward as the verse, and both read together contain more words than the not-too-subtle theme and narrative seem to justify: One grows justifiably weary of such passages as these:

This Mrs. Rinehart too, She was a victim too, her mother’s toy, Impressed by her with the Almighty Dollar, And by newspapers singing of actresses Who married millionaires. Made by her beauty Narcissist, like so many by sweet flesh, She turned aside the short fat man’s pursuit For several months.

Then went to the doctor. He with his knife corrected her, and soon she was pregnant,

Making Jack silent, awkward and kind as never before, of an inconceivable self-consciousness and awkwardness, trying to think of himself as a father,

And when one finds Mr. Schwartz comparing Jack with Henry James, one feels that he has either misrepresented one of the characters in his narrative or has failed to understand the nature of James’s genius:

These motions and reversion in Jack’s soul Remind me of the poet Henry James . . .

Mr. Schwartz is, of course, permitted to make whatever analogies his fancies happen to desire at the moment; but the result shows an unfortunate lack of what an eighteenth-century critic would call “wit.” Something of that same lack is also evident in the poetic exercises of Mr. John Berryman. Mr. Berryman’s verse is consciously flat and uninspired and is perhaps consciously repetitious in its use of the hackneyed attitudes of verse written in the latter years of the nineteen-thirties. In his “Poems” he can and does follow the external rules of writing formal verse, but he has yet to discover the possibilities of its tonal brilliance

and the need for verbal distinction:

At any rate, The moon came up late and the night was cold, Many men died—although we know the fate Of none, nor of anyone, and the war Goes on, and the heart in the breast of man is cold.

It would seem that Mr. Berryman’s ear is defective, or that he lacks tonal sensitivity; perhaps neither is true, but the quality of the verse in his present volume supports my conclusion, and it is difficult to understand how any writer who accepts the responsibility of writing poetry at all can continue to write verse on Mr. Berryman’s level. Its documentary value lies in the fact that its mannerisms reflect impressions temporarily received and then rapidly exhausted by those who followed the poetic styles of Messrs. Auden and MacNeice.

In Mr. Walter Benton’s book, which pretends to be no more than a series of love letters in unrhymed verse, I find a quality of freshness and a response to the pleasure of discovering a concrete image that is totally lacking in Mr. Schwartz’s writing and in Mr. Berryman’s “Poems.” Although the general tone of Mr. Benton’s verse reflects the atmosphere of so-called “experimental poetry” written in the nineteen-twenties, its revival at this late hour is salutary; and arriving as it does, in contrast to ambitious schemes and projects in writing verse, it has the quality of seeming genuine in its expression. In other words, Mr. Benton in his “This is My Beloved” seems to have something to say however limited his range may be, and he seems to have realized in terms of poetic imagination the potentialities and limitations of his subject, which was, at the moment he sat down to write his series of letters, the physical delight of recalling the beauty of a particular woman.

Mrs. Wylie’s “Last Poems” are documentary in the sense that they are a last collection of what our ancestors were fond of calling “fugitive papers,” and they have been de-ciphered and transcribed from manuscript by Miss Jane D, Wise and are published with a foreword by Mr. William Rose Benet and a personal tribute by Miss Edith Olivier. I doubt if the publication will increase Mrs. Wylie’s stature as a poet, but the book does become a necessary item among those who are making a complete collection of her work.


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