Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
Justin Quinn

Calls for Clarification

Words Alone: The Poet T. S. Eliot by Denis Donoghue . Yale UP, 326pp.

Adam’s Curse: Reflections on Religion and Literature by Denis Donoghue. University of Notre Dame Press, $24.95 192pp.


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Click here to recive news and leave comments for CPR.There are few readers of poetry like Denis Donoghue. One of the last apprentices of the New Critical tradition, he is a passionate close reader. A common prejudice at present is that such attention to texts forecloses any wider philosophical concerns (the corollary being that most critical theorists pay only lip-service to literary texts). Donoghue profligately exceeds such narrow categorization, and his criticism shows us how close-reading, carried out properly, engages one with profound issues.

     Of course, the smallest incursion into the prehistory of the New Criticism gives the lie to this kind of categorization, as is demonstrated, for instance, by the career of René Wellek. He began his career in Czechoslovakia before the war and was closely associated with Roman Jakobson and the Prague Linguistic Circle, which would later prove one of the main influences of Structuralism. Like many other European Jews, he fled Hitler to America and settled eventually in Yale; with Austin Warren, he was the author of one of the central texts of New Criticism, A Theory of Literature (1949). A few decades later, when Yale became the home of what can loosely be called Deconstruction, it was in some respects a reunion of two different paths out of Prague: one which led through Paris, structuralism and then post-structuralism; and the other which connected with Agrarianism and the Fugitives in America.

     Donoghue has edited the essays of R. P. Blackmur and while he does refer frequently to other New Critics such as Tate and Ransom, that critic remains a touchstone. He rarely surpasses Blackmur's insights about key modernist poets, but he ranges more widely in his concerns, and also applies his intellect with more concentration and stamina. Words Alone: The Poet T. S. Eliot follows the work chronologically (with a few autobiographical asides), but diverges from this plan for one chapter entitled "Stevens and Eliot", and an explanation of what is at stake there is the best part of an explanation of what is at stake in the entire book. In "Wallace Stevens: An Abstraction Blooded" (1943), Blackmur made the following remarks:

Granting the poet his own style, it could not be better expressed. Mr. Stevens, like the best of our modern poets, is free master of the fresh and rejoicing tongue of sensibility and fancy and the experience in flush and flux and flower; but he lacks, except for moments, and there, too, resembles his peers, the power of the "received," objective and authoritative imagination, whether of philosophy, religion, myth, or dramatic symbol […]

Eliot is obviously the counterexample here, and in his essay on Four Quartets, "Unappeasable and Peregrine", Blackmur remarks that Eliot "preserves in himself the 'inveterate scars,' the living sore points, of what he takes to have been a credible public world". Essentially, Donoghue repeats this argument: Eliot forces us to confront the past and stops us escaping into the realms of self-deluding Humanism, whereas Stevens exults in those realms. An interesting twist which Donoghue puts on this opposition is the idea that no poet was more attracted to those very realms than Eliot himself and he had to first force himself to turn away, before forcing his readers. 

     For Donoghue, Stevens stands for "a certain motive, indeed a prejudice […] in American life":

It is an active force whenever Americans feel that life is their oyster, that at any moment they can make a fresh start, hit the road. […] The motive I am describing comes into political life when Americans cannot understand why other people evidently do not want to live like Americans. The ideology of America as Redeemer Nation depends on this prejudice and on the still-deeper prejudice by which reality is taken to be the scientific account of it, or the positivist's version of it.

The tone of disillusionment in this passage reflects the wider disillusionment with Emersonian individualism. The last twenty years have seen countless broadsides at what was once the mainstay of Cold War American criticism and which launched books such as F. O. Matthiesen's American Renaissance (1941) and Roy Harvey Pearce's The Continuity of American Poetry (1961). Most of these attacks were historicist in orientation and showed the way that this individualism was used to rationalize the corporate capitalism of the second half of the nineteenth century. Donoghue, although he knows about these criticisms, does not acknowledge them here (it would have been an interesting twist to see that historicist criticism used for the defense of T. S. Eliot). 

     The difficulty with this is that Donoghue inherits from Blackmur a limited apprehension of Stevens's poetry. It is true that up to 1942, Stevens could be comfortably read as a disciple of the Emersonian tradition. In other words, Stevens celebrated a version of the human imagination that was free of history and social and familial bonds; this is the kind of individual that, as Fitzgerald said about Gatsby, seemed to have sprung from his Platonic conception of himself, without parents, siblings, or a childhood. But during World War II, as Stevens entered the last decade of his life, there is an important shift in the poetry: Stevens turns towards family and tradition as the points d'appui of his imaginative world. The place-names of Pennsylvania where Stevens's family had lived for generations, and indeed the names of his ancestors occur repeatedly in the work of this period. Granted, Stevens does not embrace tradition in the form of the Church of England as Eliot did (and the balance of evidence is still, in my opinion, against Stevens's conversion to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed); nevertheless, there is a clear awareness that imaginative force is sponsored, not restricted, by past generations.  

     But Donoghue praises Eliot for other reasons beyond his attitude to tradition. He especially pays homage to the way in which Eliot's lines insinuate themselves in the mind before comprehension. He is also good at elucidating Eliot's use of allusion and translation: Donoghue holds that these allow him to get at emotions that would otherwise have been closed off to him, or: "Eliot's poems often try to escape from the emotional condition that incited them, not by willing its opposite but by working through a wide range of alternative conditions". It is when one encounters a remark like this, or for instance, "It is the aim of Eliot's poetry to make our delusions uninhabitable", that one realizes that Donoghue's gift is for epigram rather than sustained argument. The latter remark is perhaps the briefest and best gloss on The Waste Land. We expect critics to be original, but Donoghue, in Words Alone, has written a book that has something much more valuable than that: it is a sensitive, intelligent reading of Eliot's entire oeuvre that shows how reading poetry becomes a way of thinking about the world.

     Adam's Curse is not so satisfactory. It was adapted from a series of lectures given at the University of Notre Dame in March and April 2000, and is subtitled Reflections on Religion and Literature. Donoghue was raised as a Roman Catholic in Northern Ireland, and it appears that he has not left that church. A criticism that takes religion in twentieth-century literature seriously is promising, if only because so much of what has been done in this area so far is so poor. It is poor because for the most part it is partisan; for instance, the critic proves that W. B. Yeats or T. S. Eliot was really a Roman Catholic, and how this informs all the poetry. Unfortunately, Donoghue's approach is fragmentary, as he takes small episodes where religious and literary concerns overlap and comments on them. 

     There are however, many excellent moments, as for instance when he discusses the implications of the absence of religious orthodoxy for ethical readings of literature. Czeslaw Milosz famously criticized Philip Larkin's poem "Aubade" because it was not "on the side of life". A good poem, yes, but ethically unsound. Certainly, it is difficult to imagine the reader whose optimism is not sapped, at least momentarily, by the poem. Seamus Heaney has also commented on "Aubade" and the terms of his appreciation are more or less those of Milosz. Donoghue turns on them both:

Heaney and Milosz […] assert their merely personal preferences while trying to present them as objective and impersonal. They have no criteria to which they may appeal. In default of such criteria, they resort to merely assertive gestures, employing words with which debate on the relevant issues is futile. "Life" as they use the word is a mere counter, designed to fend off every call for clarification.

The implication of this for criticism is profound: it forces us to interrogate the ethical foundation of all our remarks about literature. Clearly, literary taste, as something which precedes literary criticism proper, will always be made up of half-formulated ideas about "life" and such, but when we come to write or teach literature then Donoghue forces us to ask ourselves about our standpoint. It is to be regretted though that he does not develop these ideas further. In recent decades, U.S. literary criticism has turned unquestioningly on ideas of victimhood, whether social or ethnic, and a sustained descriptive and prescriptive study of the relations between ethics and the reading of literature would be welcome. But perhaps this is only wishful thinking, and perhaps Donoghue's book remains fragmentary precisely because there is no shared orthodoxy which would support such an ethical approach. At the very least, this book then should make us more aware of the silent importation of "merely personal preferences" in discussions of literature. This kind of clarification is what makes Donoghue a critic worth reading.


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