You searched for 2012/02/08/chiaroscuro-a-memoir-patrick-j-keane | Numéro Cinq

Aug 092016
 

Self-Reliance cover 500pxCover image for The Domino Project’s edition of “Self-Reliance,” c2011.

x

Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, “What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?” my friend suggested—“but these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very ready transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my own constitution, the only wrong is what is against it. 

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1841)

x

Quantum sumus, scimus. That which we find within ourselves, which is more than ourselves, and yet the ground of whatever is good and permanent therein, is the substance and life of all other knowledge.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Aids to Reflection (1825)

x

If I live my life according to my God-given insights, then I cannot go wrong, and even if I do, I know I have acted in good faith.

Adolf Hitler, in conversation (1941)

 

1.

This year marks the 175th anniversary of the publication of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” Until I sat down recently to re-read it in preparation for a talk I’d been invited to give on the subject, I’d somehow managed to forget just how complex and internally qualified that essay is, and how the interpretive problems are as compounded as they are clarified by Emerson’s later revisitings of his central idea. As Spinoza tells us in the final note to the Ethics, “All excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.” The difficulties one encounters in reading Emerson in general are inseparable from the pleasures. The principal complications stem, in the first place, from Emerson’s temperament and style, and, second, from the richness of the spiritual, philosophic, and poetic traditions in which he was embedded, and by which, for all his originality, he was profoundly influenced.

Stylistically, Emerson is so committed to polarity that his powerful yet ambiguous texts are full of overstatements and qualifications, swerves and counter-swerves. In the second half of many lectures and essays, he takes away with the left hand what he has just given with the right. As he notoriously proclaimed in our main text, “Self-Reliance,” a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (E&L 265). His disciple Walt Whitman was never more Emersonian than when (in “Song of Myself” §51) he asked a rhetorical question and responded audaciously: “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well, then, I contradict myself./ (I am large. I contain multitudes)”—to which Emerson’s German disciple, Friedrich Nietzsche, responded: “It is precisely such ‘contradictions’ that seduce one to existence.”[1]

There is a polarity at the heart of “Self-Reliance,” a primary thrust and a secondary elaboration, taking the form of a caveat, an inconsistency, what the prosaic Understanding would consider a “contradiction.” What Emerson meant by his pivotal idea is not always as obvious as our initial excited response to the clarion call to independence in “Self-Reliance” would suggest. The ambiguity lurking beneath the surface has required interpretation, and thus potential misreadings, of what the volatile and not always consistent Emerson actually intended to convey in urging on us his imperative of self-trust and inner reliance. In what follows, I will flesh out those complications and “contradictions,” and attempt to resolve them, not only by exploring Emerson’s later elaborations on the idea, but by placing climactic emphasis where he himself placed it in the final sentence of “Self-Reliance”: on the “peace” that relies on trust in Intuition, yet requires a moral, divinely inspired component, “the triumph of principles.”

“Self-Reliance” is Emerson’s most widely-read essay and, if not his greatest, certainly his most influential. Emerson’s central idea in this essay has had a profound impact on American thought as well as on the world of practical affairs, commercial and political, especially in its glorification of the “individual” at the expense of “society,” depicted as a distraction or hindrance. Many an American Captain of Industry has found Emersonian sanction for often rapacious business practices. But despite his strenuous advocacy of self-reliance, admiration of men of action exercising “power,” and observation that, like history, “an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man” (E&L 267), Emerson’s individualism was not meant to endorse commodification and the Exchange in the form of ruthless corporate aggrandizement, nor, though this connection has also been made, to justify Western expansion. It is certainly open to use and abuse, but in its various adaptations, self-reliance has all-too-often been simplified, even distorted—most often in the same way in which “Social Darwinism,” with its self-centered doctrine of the “survival of the fittest,” has misrepresented Darwin’s theory of the various ways, often cooperative rather than competitive, evolution actually works.

We are not wrong to read “Self-Reliance,” a prose Song of Myself, as an unforgettably defiant declaration of independence: an exhilarating celebration of the individual who has cast off the repressive and conformist strictures of society, and buried the dead past in favor of “the present hour.” Employing a favorite device, the rhetorical question, Emerson asks: “Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence, then, this worship of the past?” Where the soul “is, is day; where it was, is night; and history is an impertinence and an injury, if it be anything more than a cheerful apologue or parable of my being and becoming.” Narcissistically, this out-trumps Trump, but it is saved by Emerson’s turn to “today” and to Nature. The “blade of grass or the blowing rose”

exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence….But the man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with a reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy or strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time. (E&L 270)

But Emerson’s concept of the sovereign self, living for the moment and liberated from the burden of the past, simultaneously incorporates (though often overlooked, especially by thrilled young readers rebelling against their elders) an insistence that every person’s inmost identity is part of a larger whole, a transpersonal universal. To be sure, “Self-Reliance” sets the individual in splendid isolation against all that would threaten the imperial self, especially the opinions of others and all the interrelated conformist pressures of society and tradition. And yet the essay also stresses “virtue” and “principles”: built-in safeguards against the egocentricity Emerson seems not only to most value, but to license and unleash.

Emerson_engraving_1878_cropped3Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1878 (via Wikimedia Commons)

x

2.

The concept of an inner self that transcends the merely private and egoistic (just as Jungian “individuation,” or “self-actualization,” often seems inseparable from “self-transcendence”) is rooted in those earlier-mentioned spiritual, philosophic, and poetic sources comprising the “traditions” by which Emerson was influenced. For even this arch-champion of self-reliant originality and radical independence was deeply indebted to selected precursors, preeminent among them John Milton and his visionary progeny: poets and thinkers in the Romantic tradition (Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle) and clerics in the line of radical “inner light” Protestant spirituality, from Reformation theologians to one of his own mentors, the liberal Unitarian William Ellery Channing. Emerson’s “star of the American Church” (JMN 7:470) proclaimed, in his famous sermon of that title, “man’s likeness to God,” a God who “dwells within us.” Emerson was an even more ardent believer in the God within. Fusing the “still, small voice” of the Lord (1 Kings 19:12) with Jesus’ assertion that “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21), he told his cousin David Greene Haskins: “I believe I am more of a Quaker than anything else. I believe in the still small voice, and that voice of Christ is within us.” He had “only glimpses” of the “divine principle that lurks within us,” but for Emerson, “God is, and we within him,” a conviction for which he found even pagan support—in the 6th and final book of Ovid’s Fasti: “There is a God within us. It is when he stirs us that our bosom warms.” (JMN 4:27-29, 3:12)

However radical, Emerson’s insistence on what Milton (negatively) and the British Romantics (positively) referred to as “divinity within” has precedent in both testaments of the Bible. “I will put my love within them,” says the Lord (Jeremiah 31:32-33), anticipating Jesus’ assertion that “the kingdom of God is within you.” The uncanonical Gospel of Thomas contains an identical formulation, “The Kingdom of God is inside you.” Though a suppressed text unknown to the author of “Self-Reliance” (it was rediscovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt more than a century after that essay was written), this Gnostic gospel is remarkably aligned with Emerson’s own religious radicalism, most fully developed in the “Divinity School Address” he delivered at Harvard on July 15, 1838.

On that memorable evening, Emerson shocked the theological faculty of his alma mater by (among other outrages to even Unitarian convention) describing “historical Christianity” as corrupt and “corpse-cold.” One “would rather be,” he intoned (quoting Wordsworth’s sonnet, “The World is Too Much with Us”), a “pagan, suckled in a creed outworn,” than to be a conformist Christian “defrauded” of the “manly right” to “dare” to “live after the infinite Law that is within you.” In a passage uncannily parallel to a central passage in Thomas (“if you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you”), Emerson announces, in the most dramatic antithesis in the Divinity School Address: “That is always best which gives me to myself….That which shows God in me fortifies me. That which shows God out of me makes me a wart and a wen.”[2]

What scandalized the Divinity School faculty—especially as garbed in the deliberately provocative rhetoric Emerson employed on this notable occasion—thrilled the young graduates in the audience. Each neophyte preacher, fortified by the God within him, was, proclaimed Emerson, to go forth on a revolutionary mission: “Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity and acquaint men at first hand with Deity.”[3] That unmediated access to the divinity within, Emerson’s refusal to draw a clear distinction between the inspired “self” and the inspired Savior (Jesus was but one, though the first and greatest, to realize that “God incarnates himself as man”), along with his contemptuous dismissal of tradition and “conformity,” allies the Divinity School Address with the essay it directly anticipates: “Self-Reliance.” In fact, that essay is in part a reaction to the furious public controversy following Emerson’s Address: a widespread and incendiary brouhaha in which the lecturer was condemned as a “mad dog,” a “pagan,” an “infidel,” even a demonic Pan or devil who had planted “the cloven hoof” of German pantheism and atheism in New England.[4]

It is true that, in both lecture and essay, Emerson was intellectually participating in a philosophy imported from Germany: in the epistemological “Copernican revolution” of Immanuel Kant, as transmitted to him, “filtered,” through the British Romantics, principally Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle, both of whom stressed the centrality of Kantian Transcendental Idealism and the radical extension of Kant by J. G. Fichte, who transcended the antithesis between Ich and Nicht-Ich—famously Englished by Carlyle and Emerson as “Me” and “NOT ME” (E&L 8)—by positing a “pure I,” even a “Divine-Me.” In Biographia Literaria (1817), Coleridge published a caricature, what he called a “burlesque on the Fichtean Egoismus.” Coleridge’s satiric doggerel opens with a burst of Latin translatable as “Huzzah! God’s vice-regent, myself God,” and continues:

The form and the substance, the earth and the sky,
The when and the where, the low and the high,
The inside and outside, the earth and the sky,
I, you, and he, and he, you, and I,
All souls and all bodies are I itself I!

Everything, the Supreme Being included, is part of the world’s “Lexicon,” with the “I” or Ich as the “root.” In all “cases,” grammatical and philosophic, the Fichtean Ich is the “case absolute,” “self-begot,” yet indistinguishable from “the God infinitivus!”[5] What Coleridge says here of the Fichtean Egoismus was later said, more genially and in more readable verse, of Emerson by his friend James Russell Lowell. Writing at his epigrammatic best in the finest vignette in his 1848 Fable for Critics, an amused and yet devastatingly on-target Lowell wrote:

All admire, and yet scarcely six converts he’s got
To I don’t (nor they either) exactly know what;
For though he builds glorious temples, ’tis odd
He leaves never a doorway to let in a god.
’Tis refreshing to old-fashioned people like me
To meet such a primitive Pagan as he,
In whose mind all creation is duly respected
As parts of himself—just a little projected;
And who’s willing to worship the stars and the sun,
A convert to—nothing but Emerson![6]

Though Lowell was aware of the complexities in Emerson’s position, his parody conveyed (to quote Coleridge on his own “burlesque” of Fichte) “as tolerable a likeness” of his subject’s “idealism as can be expected from an avowed caricature.” In an early, unpublished poem of his own, Emerson located God at the “bottom of my heart,” his “voice therein” an “oracle” and “wise Seer” who always guides “aright.” I “never taught what it teaches me,” Emerson concludes. “Whence then did this omniscient Spirit come?/ From God it came. It is the Deity” (JMN 4:447-48). Another notebook entry, a meditation recorded on May 26, 1837, begins and ends with questions: “Who shall define to me an Individual?….Cannot I conceive the Universe without a contradiction?”

In between these genuine questions, Emerson contemplates the “One Universal Mind” and “my being embedded in it.” God is “the soul of Me. I can even with a mountainous aspiring say, I am God, by transferring my Me out of the flimsy & unclean precincts of my body…and my private will.” A “believer in Unity, a seer of Unity, I yet behold two….Hard as it is to describe God, it is harder to describe the Individual.” He overcomes this philosophic duality and “contradiction” by falling back on the mysterious light of Intuition. At moments, a “certain wandering light comes to me which I instantly perceive to be the Cause of Causes. It transcends all proving. It is itself the ground of being; and I see that it is not one & I another, but this is the life of my life.” At such privileged “moments,”

I have known that I existed directly from God, and am, as it were, his organ. And in my ultimate consciousness Am He. Then, secondly, the contradictory fact is familiar, that I am a surprised spectator & learner of all my life….But whenever the day dawns, the great day of truth on the soul, it comes with awful invitation to me to accept it, to blend with its aurora.[7]

Emerson’s imagery in this extraordinary passage reflects the Inward Light of radically immanent Protestantism, and, more specifically, the language of his favorite lines in the poem that most haunted him and to which he most often alludes: Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” where those intimations are presented as “the fountain light of all our day/…a master light of all our seeing.” But the merging of self and God also resembles that of Fichte, which casts its own light, thrilling yet problematic, on the concept of Self-Reliance.

Wordsworth Coleridge Carlyle composite(l. to r.) William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle (via Wikimedia Commons)

x

3.

Allied with the spiritual conceptions of an “inward light” or “divinity within,” the most radical aspect of Emerson’s conception of “self-reliance” is derived in part from German Idealism. Emerson’s core idea had, in turn, a momentous impact on a later German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, the anti-Idealist proponent of the Will to Power and of the Übermensch. The American’s most enthusiastic and formidable European disciple, Nietzsche considered Emerson the major thinker of the age and filled almost every margin of his copy of the Essays with scribbled annotations. Nietzsche is “Emersonian” in his condemnation of the dead weight of the past, in his praise of “Dionysian” instinct and intuition, in his exaltation of the exceptional or “higher” man, and in his dismissal of the conformist “herd.”

At times, Emerson could be as ruthless as Nietzsche toward the mediocre “herd,” as in the following provocative passage on the relationship of “great” individuals to the community, which occurs in no less crucial a text than “The American Scholar,” a lecture read by Nietzsche and a precursor of his untimely meditation “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.” Here, sounding like Nietzsche, is the supposedly benign Emerson on the current condition:

Men in the world to-day are bugs, are spawn, and are called “the mass” and “the herd.” In a century, in a millennium, one or two men [approximate] to the right state of every man. All the rest behold in the hero or the poet their own green and crude being,—ripened, yes, and are content to be less, so that may attain to its full stature….The poor and the low are content to be brushed like flies from the path of a great person, so that justice shall be done by him to that common nature which it is the dearest desire of all to see enlarged and glorified. (E&L 66)

The goal is the “enlargement” of the self, a crucial concept Emerson derived, as we shall see, from Coleridge. Furthermore, in keeping with the related reciprocity between “Each and All” as laid out in Coleridge’s “Essay on Method” in The Friend, we “each” have a stake in developing the potential of “all” for the greater good. But this Nietzsche-anticipating (if not quite Nazi-foreshadowing) passage in “The American Scholar” is a notably harsh as well as hyperbolic cultural teaching. Usually, Emerson qualified or caveated his most hyperbolic assertions; Nietzsche tended not to. And though he borrowed the phrase from Emerson’s Divinity School Address (E&L 88), Nietzsche, that atheist and self-professed Antichrist, really meant it when he announced that “God is dead.” Emerson, devotee of the God within, cannot have known what the catalytic impact of the doctrine of self-reliance would be on the precociously brilliant German youth who began to read him at the age of seventeen. Himself a great liberator, Nietzsche found his own liberating god in Emerson.

What gets liberated is another matter. Though the Nazis exploited and distorted much that was in Nietzsche, few serious readers any longer accept the once-commonplace alignment of Nietzsche with Nazism. But such explosive phrases as “the blond beast,” “the master race,” the “Will to Power,” and the Übermensch, did provide materials to be exploited and distorted. As Nietzsche himself said in opening the “Why I Am a Destiny” section of Ecce Homo, “I am no man; I am dynamite,” and dynamite, which can explode indiscriminately, is particularly dangerous in the wrong hands, a “fate” Nietzsche feared.[8]

Emerson was an equally brilliant and provocative phrasemaker. His guilt by association is less notorious than the Nazification of Nietzsche, but Emerson—that glorifier of the “aboriginal Self,” celebrator of one’s “sacred impulses,” professor of “one doctrine: the infinitude of the private man” (JMN 7:342), and champion of autonomy, “self-reliance” and the “God within”—has also been connected with Hitler and Nazism. One distinguished American critic, Alfred Kazin, reported in 1997 in God and the American Writer that he once heard another distinguished literary critic, the conservative Southerner Cleanth Brooks, “charge that ‘Emerson led to Hitler.’”[9] The charge is of course excessive. Yet, in his own perverse way, Hitler was a product of the same German Idealist philosophy that found its way to Emerson by way of Coleridge, Carlyle, and French philosopher Victor Cousin. Reading Fichte, philosopher of the “Divine-Me,” Hitler marked passages in which Fichte claimed that “God and I are One….My work is his work, and his work my work,” among other identifications of himself “with God.” In perusing Fichte, the Führer found evidence to support his own growing belief that the “mortal and divine were one and the same: that the God he was seeking was in fact himself.”[10]

Johann Gottlieb FichteJohann Gottlieb Fichte (via Wikimedia Commons)

Appropriately enough, Hitler’s eight-volume set of Fichte was given to him by Leni Riefenstahl, the filmmaker who also gave the world in 1934 the greatest of all propaganda films, The Triumph of the Will, whose opening shot features a plane bearing Hitler descending from the clouds: deus ex machina, the Führer as God. At the Eagle’s Nest precisely a century after the 1841 publication of “Self-Reliance,” a metaphysical Hitler informed his mesmerized guests: “If there is a God, then he gives us not only life but consciousness and awareness,” adding, in the sentence adopted as my third epigraph, “If I live my life according to my God-given insights, then I cannot go wrong, and even if I do, I know I have acted in good faith.”[11]

This emphasis on divinely inspired intuitive “insights” sounds remarkably like the Emerson of much of “Self-Reliance”: the champion of “Intuition” who privileged “self-trust” and the “aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded,” and who insisted on “the source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions. In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin” (E&L 268-69). To this Emerson, as we have seen, “no law can be sacred” but that of his own nature. He lives “wholly from within,” and, while his “impulses” seem to him to come not “from below,” but “from above,” even if “I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil” (E&L 261-62). Given his equation of the individual with infinitude, the self with the God within, Emerson, who has been blamed for so much by so many critics of unrestrained individualism, might even be blamed for the messianic psychopath whose will to power transformed the most culturally and philosophically sophisticated nation on earth into the most barbaric and, together with an all-too-willing new Germany, produced worldwide carnage and a genocide so ferocious that it shattered our naïvely optimistic theories of progress and disfigured the image of humanity itself. But unlike Emerson, Hitler genuinely was “the Devil’s child”: “the devil’s miracle man,” in the memorable depiction by psychologist and Holocaust historian Walter Reich.[12] The supposedly “God-given insights” of Adolf Hitler were really the dark side of the Protestant belief in the Inner Light, of Fichte’s “Divine-Me,” and a particularly rancid example of the High Romanticism of Coleridge, Carlyle, and Emerson gone sour.

Pace Cleanth Brooks, Emerson is not responsible for the rise of Hitler. Nevertheless, that the concepts of divinity within and of self-reliant individualism are not only liberating, but also potentially anarchic or tyrannical or both, was conceded by some of the British Romantics and American Transcendentalists themselves, usually in their later, “conservative” years. For all their emphasis on the individual mind and heart, and their celebration of “genius” and the godlike creative Imagination, Coleridge and Wordsworth—like their mentor Milton and unlike the advocates of a rugged individualism or will to power that is mindlessly or brutally self-assertive—retained a belief in autonomy, freedom, and idealism without forgetting that the needs of a humane society, knit by ties of reciprocal obligation, were incompatible with selfish (merely private and therefore petty) individualism. Despite his obsession with society’s threat to the self, the same is true of Emerson.

Hitler contemplates Nietzsche Hitler and bust of Nietzsche (via Axis History Forum)(Photo credit)

x

4.

On the other hand, making the author of “Self-Reliance” socially responsible runs the risk of de-radicalizing or “taming” Emerson, whose fierce celebration of self-reliance and the God within at once fascinates and troubles even that most devout of Emersonians, Harold Bloom. “In forming the mind of America,” Bloom writes, Emerson “prophesied a crazy salad to go with our meat.” That last image is a silent but appropriate allusion to Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Daughter” (1919), a poem endorsing (in contrast to externally driven women like Maud Gonne, who “eat a crazy salad with their meat”) the “radical innocence” of the autonomous soul that discovers that it is “self-delighting,/ Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,/ And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will.” This concern about the Pentecostal and political ramifications of Emerson’s alignment of the autonomous self with the divine will occurs in Bloom’s 2004 book, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?[13] The following year, another major literary critic, Denis Donoghue, agreeing with this momentary reservation but, unlike Bloom, hostile to Emerson, set himself against all benign interpretations of self-reliance. Rejecting the depictions by stalwart Emersonians of their hero’s individualism as a “social value,” even “the flowering of democracy” (a thesis nuanced in Stanley Cavell, strenuous in George Kateb), Donoghue, going too far in the other direction, presents us with an “arch-radical” with “no interest in providing professors of politics with a theory of society.” Emerson was “really an anarchist; necessarily so, since he cultivated the thrill of glorifying his own mind and refused to let any other consideration thwart him.”[14]

Two decades earlier, Bloom had registered his negative response to the often-castigated passage early in “Self-Reliance” where Emerson denies his “obligation” to those “poor” with whom he has no “spiritual affinity,” even though he confesses “with shame” that “I sometimes succumb” to the call of “miscellaneous popular charities” (E&L 262-63). In response, Bloom acknowledged that “self-reliance translated out of the inner life and into the marketplace is difficult to distinguish from our current religion of selfishness,” a remark endorsed with vigor a few years later by John Updike, always hostile to Emerson, who reduced this anti-philanthropic passage to a simple doctrine of “righteous selfishness.” Subjecting the same provocative passage of “Self-Reliance” to a brilliant textual and contextual reading, Stanley Cavell insists that the biblical sources on which Emerson is playing reveal him as clearly distinguishable from “those who may be taken as parodies of him.”[15]

Perhaps. But there is no denying that Emerson disliked “stirring in the philanthropic mud,” even when—as in his open letter to President Van Buren protesting (in vain) the carrying out of the brutal and unconstitutional Jacksonian policy of uprooting the Cherokees from their ancestral lands—he believed in the cause. What he resented was being pressured into acting. As an exponent of self-reliance, he was determined to do only what “concerns my majesty & not what men great or small think of it….I write my journal, I read my lectures with joy—but this stirring in the philanthropic mud, gives me no peace.” And, in concluding on the quietist note that “I will let the republic alone until the republic comes to me,” he endorses the “wise passiveness” of Wordsworth, who condemned (in “Expostulation and Reply”) the overbusy conviction that “nothing of itself will come,/ But we must still be seeking.” He had also alluded to these lines in 1837, declaring, in the peroration of “The American Scholar,” that if “the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him” (E&L 70), and again, three years later, and explicitly, when he told the abolitionists in his audience that he would persist in wearing his loose and unbecoming “robe…of inaction, this wise passiveness, until my hour comes when I can see how to act with truth as well as to refuse.”[16] That hour would come, the republic would seem to Emerson to have “come” to him, when the question of slavery, and the danger of its extension, epitomized in the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law, moved Emerson to eloquence on behalf of a republic threatened by what he slowly but surely perceived to be a moral abomination.

The hour had not quite “come” in writing the letter to President Van Buren, when Emerson had accepted the activist role “rather from my friends” than from his own dictate. “It is not my impulse to say it & therefore my genius deserts me, no muse befriends, no music of thought or word accompanies. Bah!” (JMN 5:479). The violence of his language reveals his sense that no matter the justice of the cause, he had, by submitting to collectively imposed pressure from his neighbors, betrayed his own intuitive “impulse,” his nonconformist creed of self-reliance.[17]

Readers of Emerson are aware of the often-chilly dismissals of human ties sometimes required by the dominant aspect of the doctrine of “self-reliance.” Consider an often-overlooked element in the famous or notorious epiphany in the opening chapter of Nature, where Emerson becomes a “transparent eyeball”:

Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing, I see all; all the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign or accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances…is then a trifle and a disturbance. (E&L 10)

In this ocular epiphany, the self becomes part of God, “While with an eye made quiet by the power/ Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,/ We see into the life of things” (Wordsworth,“Tintern Abbey”). But we are so caught up in the visionary moment that we barely notice the dismissal of “friends” and “brothers”—even Emerson’s beloved brother Charles, the “dear friend” whose recent death is alluded to in this chapter’s final words (E&L 11). “Who can ever supply his place to me?” Emerson writes in a heartbroken journal entry. “The eye is closed that was to see Nature for me, & give me leave to see” (JMN 5:152). Now, in a kind of compensation, Charles’s metaphorical transmutation into an all-seeing but impersonal eyeball leaves Emerson at once exhilarated and isolated, friendship reduced to the foreign and accidental, even brotherhood a trifle. Similarly, the great and disturbing essay “Experience,” written in the aftermath of the death of little Waldo, Emerson’s son taken by scarlet fever when he was not yet six, proclaims the allegedly superficial nature of grief and love. In the most troubling single passage in all of Emerson, he says of “this calamity: it does not touch me. Something which I fancied was part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me…falls off from me, leaving no scar. It was caducous” (E&L 473).

Devastated by the death of his boy, Emerson is struggling to compensate for his loss by adapting Wordsworth’s idealist praise of those “obstinate questionings/ Of sense and outward things,/Fallings from us, vanishings,” in Emerson’s favorite stanza of “Intimations of Immortality.” Yet, even if we detect this verbal and thematic connection to the great Ode, we cannot but be shocked by the apparently heartless use of the coldly scientific term, “caducous,” typically applied to a placenta or shed leaves from a tree, or other fallings-off that leave the quintessential life unchanged.[18] Later in “Experience,” we are told that

The great and crescive self, rooted in absolute nature, supplants all relative existence, and ruins the mortal kingdom of friendship and love….There will be the same gulf between every me and thee, as between the original and the picture….The soul is not twice-born, but the only begotten,…admitting no co-life….We believe in ourselves as we do not believe in others. (E&L 487-88)

xWaldo_Emerson 480pxWaldo Emerson, four months before his death in January, 1842. (Harvard University Library, via Wikimedia Commons)

To return to the essay “Self-Reliance”: immediately preceding his denial of any “foolish” obligation to miscellaneous popular charities, Emerson rejects “the doctrine of love” when it “pules and whines,” famously declaring: “I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim” (E&L 262). Having, like Jesus (Matthew 12:34-48), played this audacious variation on Deuteronomy 6:9 and Exodus 12:23, Emerson immediately adds, “I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company.” This afterthought is a minor example of a dominant pattern in Emerson, who characteristically supplies the reservations or qualifications to his own liberating, challenging, but overstated case in “Self-Reliance.” Though implicit throughout, it is only at the very end of “Self-Reliance” that Emerson most clearly qualifies, delimits, and moralizes his claim for the liberated self. “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself,” he writes, adding at once and finally: “Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles” (E&L 282; italics added).

In the second half of the essay Emerson had spoken of “our docility to our own law” and the “poverty” of all else, even “nature,” in comparison to “our native riches.” But this is so only because “God is here within.” Emerson rejects “the rage of travelling” (E&L 278). Man’s “genius” is admonished “to stay at home, to put itself in communication with the internal ocean” (the source of the title, The Inner Ocean, of George Kateb’s first book on Emersonian “self-reliance”). Consequently, “let us not rove; let us sit at home with the cause,” alone, “begirt each one with a precinct or sanctuary. So let us always sit” (E&L 272-73). As that loyal Emersonian Robert Frost would later put it in a 1936 couplet included in his collection, A Witness Tree (1942): “We dance round in a ring and suppose,/ But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.”[19] In fact, to fully illuminate this passage of “Self-Reliance” requires us to enter a veritable echo chamber.

Transparent eyeball by CranchCaricature of The Transparent Eyeball by Christopher Pearse Cranch (Harvard University Library, via Wikimedia Commons)

x

5.

Emerson concludes that “all concentrates,” since the “vital resources” of everything in nature, including human nature, are “demonstrations of the self-sufficing, and therefore self-relying soul” (E&L 272). As in his description, earlier in “Self-Reliance,” of honor as “self-dependent, self-derived” (E&L 266), Emerson’s language echoes that of Milton’s Satan, describing himself and his fellow fallen angels as “self-begot, self-raised/ By our own quick’ning power…./Our puissance is our own” (Paradise Lost V:860-64). But the purport (Emerson as “the Devil’s child” notwithstanding) is less blasphemous than an affirmation of what Yeats, as we have just seen, referred to as the self-reliant soul’s recovery of “radical innocence”: the realization “that it is self-delighting, / Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,/ And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will.” The analogy with Yeatsian “radical innocence” is not forced since Yeats is echoing, not Satan, but the Emerson of “Self-Reliance,” who tells us early in that essay that to remain always “formidable” we must “avoid” external “pledges,” and adopt an “unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence” (E&L 261).

The “ultimate fact” in every instance, Emerson continues in the passage we began with, is “the resolution of all into the ever-blessed ONE,” since “Self-existence is the attribute of the Supreme Cause” (E&L 272). The language of the ONE is that of the Neoplatonist Plotinus, as mediated by Coleridge, but Emerson—fusing psychology and morality with Neoplatonist mystical theology—locates divinity in the tabernacle of the self. It is, however, what he will later call—in “Uses of Great Men” and his late essay “Character”—an “enlarged self.” But even in “Self-Reliance,” his phrases (the “triumph of principles” and “ultimate fact”) echo Coleridge’s insistence, in The Statesman’s Manual, that only the “enlargement and elevation of the soul above its mere self attest the presence, and accompany the intuition of, ultimate PRINCIPLES.”[20] In “Character” (1866), referring in detail to these “great enlargements,” Emerson defines “morals” as “the direction of the will on universal ends,” adding: “He is immoral who is acting to any private end. He is moral—we say it with Marcus Aurelius and with Kant—whose aim or motive may become a universal rule, binding on all intelligent beings.” Having linked the correspondence sought by the Roman Stoic between the universe and his own moral impulses with the modern ethicist’s “Categorical Imperative,” Emerson quickly buttresses Marcus Aurelius and Kant with the Wordsworth of the Intimations Ode, quoting, as he so often does, the lines about “truths that wake/ To perish never,” the “fountain light of all our day,” and “master light of all our seeing,” which lead, in moral men, “to great enlargements” (W 10:94-97). In “Uses of Great Men,” the Introduction to Representative Men, Emerson says that “these enlargements” liberate “elastic” man from his “bounds” so that he is “exalted” by “ideas” transcending his individual self (E&L 622-23).

But this transcendence of the private self, though an aspect of the argument in “Self-Reliance,” is hardly the primary thrust most of us register while reading the essay, or in the immediate aftermath of our initial bewitchment by Emerson’s rhapsodic celebration of the “spontaneous,” “intuitive” self as the very font of “originality” and “power.” In the opening paragraph of the essay, we are urged

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. (E&L 259)

The dramatic imperative to “believe your own thought,” your own “private heart,” can make us miss the reciprocity between “inmost” and “outmost,” our “first thought” and the “Last Judgment,” the individual and the “universal.”

It’s no wonder most readers miss these qualifications and caveats. David Hume roused Kant from his “dogmatic slumbers,” and Emerson wants to shake and shock us out of our conformist complacency. So powerful is his advocacy of self-reliance that Stephen Whicher, whose Freedom and Fate was for several decades the most praised study of Emerson’s “inner life,” influentially insisted that “the lesson” Emerson “would drive home is man’s entire independence. The aim of this strain in his thought is not virtue, but freedom and mastery. It is radically anarchic, overflowing all the authority of the past, all compromise or cooperation with others, in the name of the Power present and agent in the soul.”[21] It would be hard to improve on so brilliantly concise a summation of so crucial an aspect of Emerson’s position. Though not the only “strain” in Emerson’s thought, it is exhilarating, and can be—as Denis Donoghue and others have emphasized—anti-democratic and dangerous.

Cavell, Lawrence Buell, and George Kateb would disagree, but hostile critics—most (not all) coming from the political Left, and most of them focusing on “Emersonianism,” as opposed to the personally benign Sage of Concord—have seized on the ambiguous legacy of Emersonian individualism in order to stress immoral rather than moral “enlargements”: the hazards of a detached, egoistic, antisocial, unlimited, avaricious, anarchic, even solipsistic self, valorized and privileged at the expense of solidarity, association, community. Morse Peckham, writing a decade after Whicher, spoke for many in saying of Emerson, he “created a doctrine of ‘self-reliance’ which could be and was absorbed by the anarchic individualism of the socially irresponsible middle-class Philistine.”[22]

One might respond that, just as Nietzsche should not be blamed for the crimes of Nazism, the excesses of unfettered capitalism or of Ayn Randian selfishness should not be laid at the door of Emerson. But the provocative ideas and stylistic seductiveness of both of these great liberators, in particular their exaltation of a seemingly autonomous self, opened casements on some perilous seas. Nevertheless, for those who would, under the aegis of self-reliance, confuse the Miltonic distinction between “license” and “liberty,”[23] Emerson has an austere response, even in “Self-Reliance.” The “populace” may think that the “rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism,” a wholesale dismissal of moral law. That is not so. A commitment to self-reliance “enables me to dispense with the popular code.” But “if anyone imagines that this law is lax, let him keep its commandment [for even] one day.” For self-reliance has its own “stern claim” and self-legislated challenge:

truly it demands something godlike in him, who has cast off the common motives of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself as a taskmaster. High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others! (E&L 274)

The preacher of self-reliance as “law, to himself,” has his own Categorical Imperative; and, as in Milton, he “who loves liberty, must first be wise and good.”

x

6.

I have already elaborated on the third of my epigraphs, citing Adolf Hitler. As indicated by that epigraph and the first, from Emerson himself, Emersonian Self-Reliance is less a doctrine than—as Nietzsche would put it—potential “dynamite.” It can also be (at least hypothetically and theoretically) diabolical—“if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil”[24]—unless it is tempered by other considerations. Here, the formative influences, crucial to Emerson, are those of John Milton and his principal Romantic disciple, Coleridge.

Like Hitler, Milton’s Satan bases his “divinity” on a corrupted sense of what Milton himself meant in his prose texts, as well as in the masque Comus and Paradise Lost, by “freedom.” As my friend and former colleague, Milton scholar William Shaw, observed in responding to the present essay, this “warped” sense of freedom is impervious “to the freedom of others, and not only self-serving but without a moral foundation.” It inevitably leads to “tyranny, and the more powerful the person, the more terrible the tyranny.” In Milton’s Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, Bill notes, the “tyrant” is defined as “he who, regarding neither law nor the common good, reigns only for himself and his faction.”[25]

As my middle epigraph reveals, Coleridge strove to affirm the primacy of “that which we find within ourselves,” without losing sight of our moral and communal responsibilities and without surrendering to the willfulness of what Coleridge, specifically citing Milton’s fallen archangel, called “Satanic pride,” “wicked” enthusiasm, and self-worshiping rebellion. In its “reprobate” form, he writes in a much-discussed Appendix, “the WILL becomes Satanic pride and rebellious self-idolatry in the relation of the spirit to itself, and remorseless despotism relatively to others,” the consequence of the will’s “fearful resolve to find in itself alone the one absolute motive of action, under which all motives from within and from without must be either subordinated or crushed.”[26]

Like Coleridge and Wordsworth (indeed, all the British Romantics), Emerson was steeped in Miltonic thought and poetry. In Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve, having disobeyed God, immediately “fancy that they feel/ Divinity within them breeding wings/ Wherewith to scorn the earth”; but the “false fruit” inflames instead lascivious “carnal desire” (IX:1009-14). Familiar with Jesus’ assertion that the kingdom of heaven is “within you,” the Romantics and their American disciple were also well aware that, in the final book of Milton’s epic poem, the Archangel Michael promises fallen Adam, as abundant recompense for the Eden lost, a “Paradise within thee, happier far” (XII:587). Having experienced a bogus sense of “divinity within,” Adam and Eve achieve (to again cite Bill Shaw) “their ‘paradise within’ when they have learned obedience to God,” along with “such virtues as…temperance and charity. And the Lady in Comus is unassailable because of her subscription to ‘sober laws.’ She loves ‘virtue’ because she alone is free.”

But the Romantics, who venerated Milton, also revised him. To one degree or another, they naturalized the supernatural, secularized the sacred, and, as Wordsworth made dramatically manifest in the great “Prospectus” to The Recluse, psychologized Miltonic theology. For nothing in Heaven or Hell, neither “Jehovah—with his thunder,” nor the “darkest pit of lowest Erebus,”

can breed such fear and awe
As fall upon us often when we look
Into our Minds, into the Mind of Man,
My haunt, and the main region of my song.
(“Prospectus,” 35-41)

Emerson printed the whole of the “Prospectus” in his anthology Parnassus, renaming it “Outline” to accurately present it as Wordsworth’s guide to his entire canon: a Kant-echoing synopsis (to quote the conclusion of The Prelude) of “how the mind of man becomes/ A thousand times more beautiful than the earth/ On which he dwells, above this frame of things/…In beauty exalted, as it is itself/ Of quality and fabric more divine.”[27] Emerson followed the Romantics in this internalizing process, emphasizing, above all, the sanctity of the sovereign human mind. In the final and climactic sentence of his seminal book, Nature—his imagery of light, blindness, and perfect sight silently but unmistakably gathering up Milton, Coleridge, and Wordsworth—Emerson had proclaimed “the kingdom of man over nature” (E&L 49). Four years later, in “Self-Reliance,” he insists that “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” continuing by posing that characteristically audacious rhetorical question: “What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions if I live wholly from within?” (E&L 261-62)

In such passages, Emerson is the rhapsodic champion of autonomy and originality, exalting an intuitive “divinity within” and liberation from the dead weight of the past. Repudiating outworn institutions and established authority, he insists, in notably virile (and, as we’ll see, again Miltonic) imagery, that to be a “man” one “must be a non-conformist,” since “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members…The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion” (E&L 261). Once again, faced with this antithesis between society and self, we need to seek the balance Emerson wants us to find, however difficult he makes the task by the power of his own rhetoric.

Paradise Lost 1667 title page

x

7.

Resistance to conformity and to the burden of tradition also extends to self-reliance and self-trust in engaging literary and historical texts, though, here again, we encounter a huge caveat. We are to read “creatively,” Emerson tells us in “Self-Reliance” and in “The American Scholar,” adding in a third, “History” (which opens Essays: First Series), that the student is to read “actively and not passively; to esteem his own life in the text,” for everything is “within us, of the soul.” This, he asserts, is his “claim of claims” (E&L, 237, 239). If this claim, exciting as it is, seems excessive, it’s because it is. Anticipating all of these essays, Emerson had foreshadowed in an 1831 journal entry his defiant assertion of autonomy and originality. The journal entry reads: “Every man has his own voice, manner, eloquence. Let him scorn to imitate any man, let him scorn to be a secondary man” (JMN 3:199). And following this scornful rejection of parasitic imitation in favor of creative originality, he inscribed in the same journal these four lines of verse:

In your own bosom are your destiny’s Stars.
Confidence in yourself, prompt resolution;
This is your Venus! & the sole malignant,
The only one that harmeth you, is Doubt! (JMN 3: 251)

But despite adamant and absolute “confidence in yourself,” this ringing endorsement of self-reliant originality is borrowed. The lines are quoted from a German play by Friedrich von Schiller, which Emerson referred to as “Coleridge’s Wallenstein” since he read Schiller’s drama in the British Romantic’s translation—just one of many examples of Coleridge serving as a transatlantic conduit of German thought to his less-than-totally self-reliant American recipient. “Insist on yourself,” cries Emerson; “never imitate,” which is, at best, to half-possess “the adopted talent of another.” And this imperative was foreshadowed in the dramatic declaration at the outset of “Self-Reliance” that “imitation is suicide,” that a man “must take himself, for better, for worse, as his portion” (E&L 278-79, 259). Nevertheless, other examples of what has been called the “paradox of originality” occur in “Self-Reliance” itself. Though it rejects “imitation” and mere reading (“tuition”) in favor of spontaneous “intuition,” “Self-Reliance” begins, “I read the other day some verses….” (E&L 259). And halfway through, Emerson begins a paragraph: “Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am’ but quotes some saint or sage” (E&L 270). But once again, despite the point he is making, Emerson himself is quoting, this time from René Descartes’ Second Meditation. “The truth,” as Emerson acknowledged in an 1835 lecture, “The Age of Fable,” is that “There never was an original writer. Each is a link in an endless chain.” Indeed, our debt to our precursors is “so massive” that one might say (as he does in a splendid late lecture, “Quotation and Originality”) “there is no pure originality. All minds quote.” “Genius borrows nobly”; if we could trace the line back to them, we would, he adds, find that “even the archangels” quote.[28] This paradox is never more paradoxical than in Nature. That seminal book, which announces American and Emersonian originality, is riddled with unacknowledged borrowings from Coleridge and Wordsworth, and yet somehow remains original.

Claiming originality yet quoting, mixing what he contrasts as book-learning or “tuition” with original “intuition,” Emerson is not dismantling the whole “upright” and individualistic thesis of “Self-Reliance,” a text that is nothing if not a rejection of suppliant dependence and an expression of what he repeatedly calls the “sovereignty” or “majesty” of “the erect position” (E&L 282)—though, even here, Emerson is echoing Milton’s description of unfallen Adam and Eve, “erect and tall,/ Godlike erect,” and “clad/ In naked majesty.”[29] And yet, since a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, Emerson can, in a famous passage at the outset of “Self-Reliance,” propose as the “highest merit” ascribable to “Moses, Plato, and Milton” that they supposedly “set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they [themselves] thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages” (E&L 259). These inner flashes anticipate the “Spontaneity or Instinct,” the “primary wisdom” Emerson calls “Intuition” (E&L 269, cf. 259 and 271). These gleams of light constitute, Emerson insisted in a contemporaneous (1845) journal entry, “the best part…of every mind.” Tantalizing “gleams” hovering “unpossessed before” a man, they far exceed in significance “that which he knows” through pedestrian Understanding. Emerson’s famous contrast, derived from Coleridge, between “Reason” and mere “Understanding” is complicated by the fact (a source of confusion for readers) that Emerson also follows Coleridge in equating capitalized Reason with “intuitive Reason” and thus with what the Romantics mean by the creative Imagination.

Those mysterious “gleams” to which Emerson refers emanate essentially, as we have seen, from his most cherished poem, the Intimations Ode. He was haunted by its “visionary gleam” and turned Wordsworth’s “a master light of all our seeing” into “the master light of all our seeing.” These profound intuitions and intimations, which even Wordsworth acknowledged were ineffable (“be they what they may”), remained, in Emerson’s favorite phrase from the Ode, “the fountain light of all our day.” That repeated “our,” replicated in Wordsworth’s shift from “I” to “we” in the final stanza of the Ode, marks the transition from the private self to a more generous inclusiveness. The “self within” of Emersonian self-reliance is also more expansive than it initially appears—an expansiveness reflecting a pair of talismanic texts provided to a grateful Emerson by Wordsworth’s friend and fellow-laborer, Coleridge.

I have earlier cited Coleridge’s emphasis, in The Statesman’s Manual, on the “enlargements and elevation” of the principled soul “above its mere self,” a passage echoed by Emerson in both his essay “Character” and in “Uses of Great Men.” Two Coleridge texts that meant even more to Emerson, the “Essay on Method” in The Friend and Aids to Reflection, provided crucial help in forming—as a sort of supplement or qualification, even partial corrective, to “Self-Reliance”—his idea of an expanded or enlarged self. The reciprocity between “each and all” (“the relation of each to the other, of each to all, and of all to each”), coupled with the Latin axiom Quantum sumus, scimus (“we are what we know, and know what we are”), became, with the help of Coleridge’s own gloss in Aids to Reflection, momentous sources for Emerson’s finding (to synopsize the passage of Coleridge cited as my second epigraph) “within ourselves,” a self that is paradoxically “more than ourselves,” the ground and substance of the moral life and of “all other knowledge.”[30] This Coleridgean sanction for an inner self that transcends the merely egoistic helps explain what, at its deepest level, Emerson meant by “self-reliance.” However straightforward it may seem at times, it is actually a complex concept—mixing Milton, Kant, and the British Romantics, in a blend that turns out, paradoxically but as usual, to be distinctively “Emersonian.” As such, it cannot, or at least should not, be reduced to “rugged individualism,” let alone to mere selfishness.

Transparent Eyeball by Ron KosterTransparent Eyeball courtesy Ron Koster, Psymon Web Bindery

x

Conclusion

Given Emerson’s habit of emphasizing, depending on the occasion, a single aspect of a larger truth, his formulations are often ambiguous, and this is nowhere more true than in his various presentations of self-reliance. In the end, however, Emerson’s key concept seems to embrace and illuminate—however fierce the affirmation of individualism and independence in the essay actually titled “Self-Reliance”—the problematic relationship between the merely private self and what a Coleridgean Emerson called the “enlarged” Self, between the Self and God, even the polarity between what he referred to as Solitude and Society. An “intensely focused thinker who kept returning lifelong to his core idea,” Emerson was, notes Lawrence Buell, “forever reopening and reformulating it, looping away and back again, convinced that the spirit of the idea dictated that no final statement was possible.” Nevertheless, like George Kateb, perhaps the most penetrating analyst of the theory of Self-Reliance, Buell insists on the importance to Emerson of what Kateb calls “impersonal individuality”: a formulation that subsumes the apparent or actual “contradiction” between the God within and what Emerson calls “the “Over-Soul,” between the assertion of an autonomous, intuitive self and the absorption of that self in an all-encompassing universal and impersonal life-force. I cannot improve upon Buell’s final formulation:

The Me at the bottom of the me, the “Trustee” or “aboriginal Self” on which reliance may be safely grounded, is despite whatever appearances to the contrary not a merely personal interest but a universal. The more inward you go, the less individuated you get. Beneath and within the “private” is a “public” power on which anyone can potentially draw. So Self-Reliance involves not a single but a double negative: resistance to external pressure, but then resistance to shallow impulse.[31]

That a double negative should be at the crux of an affirmative vision is only one of many paradoxes attending Emerson’s central idea. One is occasionally left wondering if Emersonian self-reliance is advocacy of extreme individualism, or individualism at all. If we are to take Emerson at face value when he later claims (W 11:236) that “Self-reliance, the height and perfection of man, is reliance on God,” it has to be added that few of the ardent young readers intoxicated by the essay of that title have taken it as a theological treatise.[32] And what, precisely, is Emerson telling us about the relationship between Spirit, Nature, Mind and, ultimately, between God and Man, Divinity and the Self? Such protean relationships, volatile in themselves, are further problematized by Emerson’s often shifting definitions, within a single text or over time. The paragraph of “Self-Reliance” that begins by insisting that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” continues:

With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day.—“Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.”—Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood. (E&L 265)

In the case of Emerson, this admission or, rather, vaunting of inconsistency, contradiction, and sibylline incomprehensibility, may seem to be the “last fact behind which analysis cannot go” (E&L 269). Yet even in “Self-Reliance,” the aboriginal Self is neither anarchic nor arbitrary; indeed, it is disciplined by “stern” if self-imposed laws, a Self whose internal moral depths renders trivial the merely private good we associate with our superficial selves. “Compare all that we call ourselves,” says Emerson in “Character,” all “our private and personal venture in the world, with this deep of moral nature in which we lie, and our private good becomes an impertinence, and we take part with hasty shame against ourselves.” Juxtaposing two phrases separated graphically by only a single letter, Emerson explicitly contrasts our deep “moral nature” with what Wordsworth refers to in the pivotal stanza of the Intimations Ode as “our mortal nature,” whose hasty shame takes the form of guilty trembling. After evoking those Wordsworthian “High instincts, before which our mortal nature/ Doth tremble like a guilty thing surprised,” Emerson goes on to quote the rest of this crucial ninth stanza—accurately, with the exception of one significant change; he alters Wordsworth’s “a master light” to “the master light of all our seeing.” (W 10:94).

That is the light that Milton, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle, and their American disciple, Ralph Waldo Emerson, call “intuitive Reason”: the near-angelic power that leads the lowercase self, limited by “tuition” and mere Understanding, to “that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition”; and it is in that “deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go,” that “all things find their common origin….Here is the fountain of action and of thought” (E&L 269). And it is this “fountain light of all our day,” the “master light of all our seeing,” that guides and distinguishes the higher (individual and yet universal) Self: the Transcendental Self in which we can “trust,” and upon which “reliance may be safely grounded.” The lower self, “bound” and constricted, is often mired in “mean egotism” (E&L 10). But “whenever the great day dawns, the day of truth in the soul, it comes with awful invitation to me to accept it, to blend with its aurora” (EPP 497). In that aurora—the great Ode’s “fountain light of all our day” illuminating intuitive “truths that wake,/ To perish never”—contradiction and duality blend (for those, however skeptical, still open to that light) into a Unity in which Reason and Intuition are indistinguishable, the enlarged Self finding “peace” in (to again quote the final words of “Self-Reliance”) “the triumph of principles.”

—Patrick J. Keane

x
Patrick J Keane smaller

x

Numéro Cinq Contributing Editor Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2008).

x

Photo credit  Return to photo

Photo originally reproduced in “The Uses and Abuses of Nietzsche in the Third Reich: Alfred Baeumler’s ‘Heroic Realism’” by Max Whyte, in Journal of Contemporary History, April ­2008.

Emerson texts cited parenthetically

E&L   Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte. NY: Library of America, 1983.

EL   The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E. Whicher, Robert E. Spiller, and Wallace E. Williams. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964, 1972.

EPP   Emerson’s Prose and Poetry, ed. Joel Porte and Saundra Morris. NY and London: Norton, 2001.

JMN   The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William H. Gilman, Ralph H. Orth, et al. 16 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1960-1982.

W   The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Centenary Edition, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. 12 vols. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-1904.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. On the Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay, §2, in Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1967), 99.

  2. E&L 81; italics added. For the passage (verse 70) in Thomas, see Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Gospel of Thomas (New York: Random House, 2003), 32.

  3. E&L 80, 89. Ironically, given Emerson’s thirty-year ostracism from Harvard following this address, it was voted in 1903 that money left over from the celebration of the centennial of his birth be spent on a marble tablet, placed in the old Divinity School chapel, and inscribed: “Acquaint yourself at first hand with Deity.”

  4. For a synopsis of the vehement response to the Divinity School Address, as well as Emerson’s own response, in his poem “Uriel,” see my Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 339-44.

  5. For both lampoon and commentary, see Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate, 2 vols. 1:160. Vol 7 in The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn and Bart Winer, 16 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press (1969-2003).

  6. Lowell, A Fable for Critics (New York: George P. Putnam, 1848).

  7. EPP 497. This polarity was later fleshed out in “Circles,” in the famed paragraph beginning, “Our moods do not believe in each other,” and ending, “Alas…for this vast ebb of a vast flow! I am a God in nature; I am a weed by the wall” (E&L 406): a vacillation between self-deification and utter nihilism.

  8. Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann, in Kaufmann and Hollingdale, 326. This opening paragraph had begun, “I know my fate. My name one day will be associated with the memory of something tremendous.” Expressing a “terrible fear” that “one day” he would be “pronounced holy,” he said he was writing Ecce Homo to “prevent people from doing mischief with me.” Written in 1888, but not published until 1908, eight years after Nietzsche’s death, Ecce Homo did little to prevent mischief.

  9. Kazin, God and the American Writer (New York: Vintage, 1997), 14.

  10. This is the conclusion of Timothy W. Ryback, in “Hitler’s Forgotten Library: The Man, His Books, and His Search for God” (Atlantic Monthly [May 2003], 76-90). In 2001, Ryback studied Hitler’s annotations in these and other religio-philosophical books and manuscripts in the Führer’s personal library, volumes now housed in the Hitler Collection in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

  11. Quoted by Paul R. Hinlicky, Before Auschwitz: What Christian Theology Must Learn from Nazism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013), 134.

  12. Reich, “The Devil’s Miracle Man,” New York Times Book Review, January 30, 1999.

  13. Bloom, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? (New York: Riverhead Penguin, 2004), 200. Earlier, however, in the title of the Prelude to a 1996 book, Bloom equated Emersonian “Self-Reliance” with “Mere [pure] Gnosis,” especially with the Gnostic concept of the “deep self” as a “unit of the universe,” the “original self” being “already one with God.” Omens of Millennium (New York Riverhead, 1996), 1, 15, 20, 23.

  14. The American Classics: A Personal Essay (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 42-43, 51. In a Marxist critique, V. F. Calverton conceded Emerson’s sincerity and his initially liberating impulses. “Eternally,” however, “Emerson’s stress is upon the self, the individual self, the personal ego. Society can take care of itself, or go hang, as the frontiersman would have put it. It is the individual who must be stressed, the individual who must…become sufficient unto himself….Without wishing it, Emerson gave sanction by virtue of his doctrines to every type of exploitation which the frontier encouraged.” But Calverton goes too far in concluding that the faith of Emerson and Whitman in the common man as “a petty bourgeois individual” is outmoded and must now be replaced (he was writing in the depth of the Depression) by “our belief” in the common man as “proletarian collectivist.” The Liberation of American Literature (New York: Scribner’s, 1932), 247-49, 258, 479-80.Whatever Emerson’s sins, it’s Calverton’s vision of the “future” that now seems outmoded.

  15. Bloom, “Mr. America,” New York Review of Books (November 22, 1984). Updike, “Emersonianism,” in Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism (New York: Knopf, 1991). Cavell responded to such charges, perhaps more ingeniously than persuasively, in his 1984 lecture “Hope against Hope,” reprinted as Appendix A of his Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 134-35.

  16. EL 3:266. His initial reticence but final commitment to the abolition of slavery has been clarified by Emerson’s Antislavery Writings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), ed. Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson; and by The Political Emerson: Essential Writings on Politics and Social Reform, ed. David. M. Robinson (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004).

  17. Robert Lowell, invited to a White House reception during the Vietnam war (which he opposed), was planning to attend—until urged not to by friends and colleagues, who wanted the nation’s most prominent poet at the time to make a statement by rejecting President Johnson’s invitation. Like Emerson, Lowell agreed with the opposition to presidential policy, but took an activist and public position only because pressed to do so by friends.

  18. The “caducous” passage is repugnant enough to call for a note to assure readers that its author was anything but a cold, unfeeling parent. No stranger to familial tragedy, Emerson had earlier suffered the loss of his beloved Ellen, his first wife, and of two cherished brothers, Charles and Edward. But the death of little Waldo was the single most devastating event of his life. Despite his famous optimism, the self-reliant exponent of “the erect position” acknowledged in “Threnody,” his long-delayed elegy for his son, that “this losing is true dying;/ This is lordly man’s down-lying,/ This his slow but sure reclining,/ Star by star his world resigning” (lines 162-65). With the help of Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality Ode, Emerson managed to supply the generically-required consolation; in the final quintessentially Emersonian line, his precious son is pronounced “Lost in God, in Godhead found” (line 289).

    But elegy is one thing, agony another. Nine-year-old Louisa May Alcott, who had been sent by her father to inquire about the condition of “little Waldo, then lying very ill,” never forgot what she saw and heard when Emerson entered the room. “His father came to me, so worn with watching and changed by sorrow that I was startled and could only stammer out my message. ‘Child, he is dead’ was the answer.” That was “my first glimpse of a great grief,” she recalled in commemorating Emerson’s own death forty years later, adding that “the anguish that made a familiar face so tragic…gave those few words more pathos than the sweet lamentation of the Threnody.” (“Reminiscences of Ralph Waldo Emerson,” in Youth’s Companion [May 25, 1882], 213-14.) Similarly, the brother of Elizabeth Hoar—who had grieved with his sister when her fiancé, Emerson’s brother Charles, died in 1836—said that he was “never more impressed with a human expression of agony than by that of Emerson leading the way into the room where little Waldo lay dead.” For the reaction of Rockwood Hoar, Jr., see Ralph L. Rusk, The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949), 294.

  19. Frost, “The Secret Sits.” The allegiance to Emerson on the part of Robert Frost was confirmed in his lecture “On Emerson,” delivered to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on receiving the Emerson-Thoreau Medal in 1958. On that occasion, Frost stressed his alignment with Emerson’s monistic idealism; but in anti-welfare system poems like “Provide, Provide!,” Frost sounds like the Emerson resistant to giving to “miscellaneous charities.” Frost considered “Uriel” (Emerson’s defiant response to attacks on his Divinity School Address) the best American poem; Job, a character in Frost’s The Masque of Reason (line 344) refers to “Uriel” as “the greatest Western poem yet.”

  20. Coleridge, The Statesman’s Manual, in Lay Sermons, ed. R. J. White (1972), 23. Vol. 6 in CC.

  21. Whicher, Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953), 56.

  22. Peckham, Beyond the Tragic Vision: The Quest for Identity in the Nineteenth Century (New York: George Braziller, 1962), 236.

  23. In the sestet to Sonnet XII, Milton refers to those who “bawl for freedom in their senseless mood,/ And still revolt when truth would set them free./ License they mean when they cry liberty;/ For who loves that must first be wise and good.”

  24. Nietzsche partially transcribed the passage in “Self-Reliance” in which Emerson nonchalantly says that if he is “the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” An echoing Nietzsche has his prophet say (in “On the Pitying,” the section on repression in the second part of Zarathustra): “to him who is possessed by the devil I whisper this word: ‘Better for you to rear up your devil!’” Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking, 1954), 201.

  25. William Shaw, email to me dated June 1, 2016. Bill raised a crucial double-question: “Is Emerson saying that what made intuitive behavior wise was some fixed principle of the person defining it for him/herself? Or, does the person define that principle as well, so there is this floating relativity?” Though I am arguing that the “principles” that “triumph” in the final sentence of “Self-Reliance” are “fixed,” there is evidence enough in Emerson’s texts to also support a “floating relativity” thesis.

  26. Coleridge, Appendix C of The Statesman’s Manual, in Lay Sermons, 63.

  27. Wordsworth, The Prelude (1850), XIV:450-56. The equivalent cognitive turn in Keats occurs in the first of the great odes. Like the “Prospectus,” the “Ode to Psyche” assimilates and supersedes Milton and adopts Wordsworth’s (Coleridge-influenced) adaptation of Kant. As the neglected goddess’s priest and choir all in one, “see[ing] and sing[ing] by my own eyes inspired,” Keats will, in the extraordinary final stanza, “build a fane/ In some untrodden region of my mind” (lines 50-51), precisely that “Mind of Man” chosen by Wordsworth as his haunt and the “main region” of his “song.”

  28. “The Age of Fable,” in EL 1:284-85. “Quotation and Originality,” in EPP 320, 323.

  29. PL IV:288-90. In his deliberately sordid 1920 poem “Sweeney Erect,” whose title constitutes a phallic pun on Emerson’s (Miltonic) “erect position,” T. S. Eliot cites Emerson by name:

    The lengthened shadow of a man
    xxxxxxxIs history, said Emerson
    Who had not seen the silhouette
    xxxxxxxOf Sweeney straddled in the sun.

    In these lines, Eliot alludes to another formulation from “Self-Reliance” (“an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man”), which he fuses with a related phrase from Emerson’s “History”: “If the whole of history is one man, it is all to be explained from private experience.”

  30. The Friend (vol. 4 of the CC, 1969), ed. Barbara Rooke, 2 vols. I:511; Aids to Reflection (vol. 9 of CC, 1993), ed. John Beer, 30n. This book’s immense impact on Coleridge’s American disciples, Emerson included,was partly attributable to the cogent “Preliminary Essay” by James March (included by Beer) in introducing his 1829 edition of Coleridge’s 1825 text.

  31. Buell, Emerson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 2003), 65. Kateb, The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 90-91. See also Kateb’s Emerson and Self-Reliance (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995).

  32. This fusion of self-reliance with “reliance on God”—along with Fichte’s self-identification with God and Emerson’s similar “inner light” sense of divinity within (at least at certain “illuminated” moments)—has, as we’ve seen in the case of Adolf Hitler, tragic ramifications. There are also tragi-comic examples that amount to a reductio ad absurdum of the idea. Displaying humor as well as utter obliviousness to the widespread suffering caused by his industry, Lloyd  C. Blankfein, head of Goldman Sachs, publicly quipped, in the immediate wake of the 2008 crisis that had just upended millions of “lesser” lives, that bankers are “doing God’s work.” On a less calamitous level, hip-hop artist and pseudo-fashionista Kanye West, whose colossal ego dwarfs that of even the most self-entitled banker, has proclaimed, with not a trace of saving irony, that “God chose me. He made a path for me….I am God’s vessel.” Both men, especially West, have recently been presented, not as agents fulfilling a divine purpose, but as “assholes.” See Aaron James, Assholes: A Theory (New York: Anchor Books, 2012), 76n, 85.

Jul 252016
 

CaptureMark Rothko’s 1953 “Untitled: Purple, White, and Red.”

It’s almost August, summer is on the wane, the sun is setting toward the south, the great thunder clouds have been parking over Elmore to the northwest of an evening putting on a show of fireworks unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and now, you know, another issue is coming out, something chimerical in this one, a non-conformist issue forged around fiction by Curtis White and major essays on the great Catholic activist Dorothy Day and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s iconic “Self-Reliance” (which I read for the first time when I was 13 in the bathroom at the farm in Waterford because my mother made me). And more!

Who else brings you such strangeness?

Curtis White is an essayist, social critic and fiction writer out of the school of Laurence Sterne and Rabelais, that is, his style is unorthodox, playful, witty and knowing  but not necessarily a pomo faddist. In the piece we have for August, he riffs on the American-Mexican western, jumping off Cormac McCarthy’s diving board, into, well, something different. Think: cowboys likening the ur-American landscape to a Mark Rothko painting. Think Blood Meridian and Joseph Cornell.

Chimerical/non-conforming.

So, tired but dogged, they saddled the horses and cut the girl loose from her stake. She rubbed at the raw welts on her wrist but climbed quickly on to her horse without complaint. She was in withdrawal from one or more opioids, and so was starting to think that the best thing for her was to arrive somewhere, anywhere. She was a hard girl after the long months in the criminal camp on the desert floor, and she’d seen her share of addicts piled on the ground their bones clattering like castanets. She was a girl who paid attention and learned, Jake gave her that, but he also knew he’d have to treat her without pity. Pity was something he didn’t have time for. So what if she had some bloody welts from the leather cords. Let her keep still then. —Curtis White

Curtis WhiteCurtis White

1968Dorothy Day

Laura Michele Diener returns to these pages with a mega-essay on Catholic-feminist-moral icon Dorothy Day who hitched her traditional theological loyaties to just about every advanced 20th century social movement.

She fought on the cusp of practically every crucial social movement of the twentieth century—against the war in Vietnam, against the Atom Bomb, on behalf of Civil Rights, labor, and suffrage. She didn’t just live as a Catholic, she lived according to Gospels, stripping herself of her possessions because Christ had commanded it, loving the poor—truly loving them, which was an act of will, because the poor, up close, can be horrifying. —Laura Michele Diener

Laura Michele Diener author photoLaura Michele Diener

Self-Reliance cover 500pxCover image for The Domino Project’s edition of “Self-Reliance,” 2011.

Emerson_engraving_1878_cropped3Ralph Waldo Emerson

Pat Keane returns to his beloved Emerson whose controversial essay “Self-Reliance” let loose the demons and angels of our contemporary idolatry of the self, from hippies to self-help libraries. But what was he really saying?

Stylistically, Emerson is so committed to polarity that his powerful yet ambiguous texts are full of overstatements and qualifications, swerves and counter-swerves. In the second half of many lectures and essays, he takes away with the left hand what he has just given with the right. As he notoriously proclaimed in our main text, “Self-Reliance,” a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (E&L 265). His disciple Walt Whitman was never more Emersonian than when (in “Song of Myself” §51) he asked a rhetorical question and responded audaciously: “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well, then, I contradict myself./ (I am large. I contain multitudes)”—to which Emerson’s German disciple, Friedrich Nietzsche, responded: “It is precisely such ‘contradictions’ that seduce one to existence.” —Patrick J. Keane

Patrick J Keane 2Patrick Keane

Evan Levander-SmithEvan Lavender-Smith

Also in fiction in August, we have a witty, insistent (those insistent, obsessive parallels), off-the-wall (in the best possible sense) short story from Evan Lavender-Smith.

I have a question.

—Shoot.

—Why do you say always shoot when I say I have a question?

—Shoot. It means go ahead and ask your question. Shoot, fire away, lay it on me. Ask your question.

—It does?

—Yes. What did you think it meant?

—That you were tired of me asking you so many questions. Like, oh no, here we go again. Like, you know, shoot.

—Evan Lavender-Smith

RilkeRainer Maria Rilke

Allan Cooper, who last graced these pages extolling the poems of Frank Stanford, returns with brand new translations from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies.

But because being truly alive is difficult: because the fleeting
things of the world need us, and in a strange way
call out to us. And we’re the most fleeting of all.
Each living thing is here once, that’s it. And we
live once. But to have been here
once, completely alive here–
to have been a part of this world–nothing can take that away.

—Rainer Maria Rilke translated by Allan Cooper

allan cooperAllan Cooper

Zazil by Mari H. Res+®ndizZazil Alaíde Collins

From Mexican we have poems from the dazzling young writer Zazil Alaíde Collins with an interview by Dylan Brennan. The original Spanish translated by Cody Copeland.

Words are crabs
Buried in the deep.

Shipwrecks speak
in seashells.

The wind sings its syllables
of whispered names.

—Zazil Alaíde Collins translated by Cody Copeland

Susan Gillis

From Canada, Susan Gillis graces our pages for the first time with a gorgeous, powerful paean to a city, the poem formed around a central image, a towering construction crane seen from the poet’s window.

Boom, traveller, plumb, hook, cab – I will miss the yellow crane when the building is finished.

The crane has just lifted a load of steel I-beams and lowered them to a point I can’t see, though I can see the figures of people walking along the roof.

Days close in on a wasp’s nest of days.

Is there a procedure for emptying myself?

As when the sky suddenly empties and resurges toward a storm.

—Susan Gillis

Carolyn Ogburn pens here a review of Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry.

We might not have initially considered the comparison, but Lerner introduces it: “why not speak of it — fucking and getting fucked up was part of it, is, the way sex and substances can liquefy the particulars of perception into an experience of form. The way a person’s stutter can be liquefied by song.” Like sex, like speech itself, poetry is forever seeking purchase in the real, yet exists only in “the glimmer of virtual possibility.”

—Carolyn Ogburn

Carollyn OgburnCarolyn Ogburn

Cynthia photo Shawnigan lakeCynthia Flood

And one of our favourite fiction writers Cynthia Flood recounts a horrible true-life experience with amnesia.

Each August, my family rents a lakeside cottage at Shawnigan. Swim to the island and explore, row to the island for a picnic, canoe there with the dog anxiously aboard — everyday activities.

With my teenage grand-daughters, one afternoon I stepped into the refreshing lake-water, all sparkly in the sun, and began to swim.

Next: I am lying flat, wearing a blue hospital gown. A voice says, “We’ll take her up to the ward now.”

—Cynthia Flood

Daniel Lawless 2Daniel Lawless

Daniel Lawless contributes whimsical, heart-felt poems, contemporary and vibrant with personality.

Or are you still thinking about that half-dressed dancing girl
With her scorched toddler-mind, how childishly beautiful she was
Making jewelry out of a snake,
The aroma of her pale breasts and the illicit thought
Of kissing them, taking them topped with Lychee Love Sauce
Into your mouth?

—Daniel Lawless

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALawrence Sutin

Lawrence Sutin sent in an essay on that perennial question “What is Reality?” and, of course, as you would expect, his answer is pure Sutin-esque whimsy.

We are not constructed to agree. The uniqueness that we claim we each possess, the distinctive consciousness we feel to be within ourselves and not within others, is very real in its billions upon billions of subtly human variations. Whether a meal is well-cooked or sadly dry, whether a city street is a triumph of order or a stream of chaos, these are questions that become unanswerable when asked of a human array of tasters and observers. And most of us have experienced being on both sides of the same question. The street we found charming one day becomes a biting snake the next. The person we thought we would love forever becomes a thought that we cannot imagine we ever thought, not really.

—Lawrence Sutin

Margaret NowaczykMargaret Nowaczyk

Margaret Nowaczyk is a writing student with Caroline Adderson. She wrote this story based on the exercise I give in the short story structure essay in Attack of the Copula Spiders. The result was so astonishing, Caroline straight away shot off an email to me.

The first time he saw Adèle she was dancing on a chair at their med school orientation party. She wore autographed boxer shorts from an upper classman, the prize token for the scavenger hunt; a wide grin – all teeth – split her face, thick brown hair parted in a bob on the right. As she shook it off her face her eyes met Bentley’s and she winked at him, her face an invitation. Bentley felt his face grow hot.

They were sleeping together a month later. Bentley, virginal, realized right away that Adèle was much more experienced than he would allow himself to imagine. Her lipstick on his penis – kissing it, biting it, sucking it she smeared the crimson on the pearly pink of his shaft and foreskin. He pushed aside thoughts of the unnamed men, their greedy hands, their probing tongues and dicks that knew Adèle better than he did.

He realized then that he would never let go of her.

—Margaret Nowaczyk

moya_nina_subinHoracio Castellanis Moya

Ben Woodard reviews Horacio Castellanis Moya’s Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador.

A blistering novella that satisfies the darkness clouding the cynical side of our souls.

— Benjamin Woodard

Revulsion

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATed Deppe

And Ted Deppe contributes lovely poems.

Start off singing a madrigal, return
with words a girl wrote on a wall
of a concentration camp, set to music
by Górecki. I didn’t learn he’d died
until the next day, but lingering
beneath such sadness, I didn’t need
to know. The music
stopped, I walked on,
and the lights in the valley
were candles in a starless church.

………………………………………………………—Ted Deppe

Though there is more, as always. NC at the Movies. Jason DeYoung reviewing the latest by Rikki Ducornet. Check out the issue when it starts to appear August 1st.

Chimerical/non-conformist.

 

Apr 042016
 

Donald Trump collage

x

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

— W. B. Yeats

x

x

CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION
The Perennial Relevance of “The Second Coming”

PART ONE
The Poem as Response and Anticipation

I. Vexed to Nightmare: The Financial Crisis; the Iraq War; the Rise of ISIS
II. A Vast Image: From Political Genesis to Archetypal Symbolism

PART TWO
Things Fall Apart, Contemporary Crises, 2003-2016

III. Mere Anarchy: Polarization at Home; the Challenges of ISIS and Syrian Immigration
IV. Things Fall Apart: The American and European Political Center Threatened
V. What Rough Beast?: Can (Should) the American Center Hold?

x

x

INTRODUCTION

In his 2016 foreword to the 20th anniversary edition of Infinite Jest, novelist Tom Bissell asks how it is that, two decades after its publication and almost eight years after its author’s suicide, David Foster Wallace’s complex and groundbreaking fiction, though “very much a novel of its time,…still feels so transcendentally, electrically alive?” Wallace himself, as Bissell notes, “understood the paradox of attempting to write fiction that spoke to posterity and a contemporary audience with equal force.” In a critical essay written while he was at work on Infinite Jest, Wallace referred to the “oracular foresight” of writers such as Don DeLillo, whose best novels address their contemporary audience like “a shouting desert prophet while laying out for posterity the coldly amused analysis of some long-dead professor emeritus.” But in the case of those lacking DeLillo’s observational powers, Wallace continued, the “deployment” of, say, contemporary pop-culture “compromises fiction’s seriousness by dating it out of the Platonic Always where it ought to reside.” This observation demonstrates the usual disconnect between Wallace’s lucid critical prose and the enigmatic, multi-layered, funhouse of his fiction. For ought is not is. As Bissell observes, Infinite Jest “rarely seems as though it resides within this Platonic Always, which Wallace rejected in any event.”

Infinite Jest, as its Shakespearean title confirms, is the work of a modern Yorick, a man acutely aware of the contemporary world, especially of the play-element in culture. And yet it is “infinite,” a novel transcendent both in its linguistic exuberance (language being Wallace’s only religion) and in terms of its ambition to express “everything about everything,” even if we are left, 20 years later, still unable to “agree [as] to what this novel means, or what exactly it was trying to say.”

Unlike Wallace, W. B. Yeats did believe in the “Platonic Always”: in that “Translunar Paradise” to which he had been initiated by his studies in the occult and by his later immersion in the Enneads of the Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus. And yet Yeats could, in the same poem (“The Tower,” III) in which he evokes Translunar Paradise, “mock Plotinus’ thought/ And cry in Plato’s teeth.” For the antithetical tension that generated the power of Yeats’s poetry required allegiance as well to the things of this world. Even as he yearned for his heart to be consumed in spiritual fire and gathered “into the artifice of eternity,” he remained “caught in that sensual music,” the very fuel that fed the transcendent flame. These antitheses (cited here from “Sailing to Byzantium”) play out in all those dialectical poems leading up to and away from the central “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” (1927).

In the case of Yeats’s apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming,” written eight years earlier, the “Platonic Always” is present in the poem’s archetypal symbolism: that of a bestial image rising up in the desert. The vision is at once concrete and sublimely vague: timeless, universal, transcendent. Its genesis, however, was thick with particulars. In the process of revision, Yeats deleted (aside from “Bethlehem”) all specific references; but examination of the poem’s drafts reveals that Yeats’s symbolism and apocalyptic prophecy were rooted in his response to contemporary events. In registering details of the moment in time in which he was writing, the immediate aftermath of the First World War, the drafts reveal a poet looking back, into earlier history, and ahead, to our own time, with what David Foster Wallace called “oracular foresight,” and birthing a beast that, a century later,  “still feels…transcendently, electrically alive.”

Written almost a century ago, “The Second Coming” has emerged as the prophetic text of our time, uncannily and permanently “relevant.” The best-known poem by the major poet of the twentieth century, it has become something of a requiem for that century, now carried over into the first decades of the twenty-first. That “The Second Coming” is the most frequently-quoted of all modern poems testifies to its remarkable applicability to any and all crises—not only to the Communist Revolution to which Yeats was initially responding when he wrote the poem in 1919, and to the rise of Nazism, which, almost twenty years later, prompted Yeats to quote his own poem; but to the domestic and international crises we ourselves face in 2016, a crucial election year.

A decade ago, “The Second Coming” was often cited in connection with the Iraq War. The 2007 Brookings Institute report on Iraq was titled “Things Fall Apart”; the following year, Representative Jim McDermott called his House speech demanding a strategic plan for Iraq “The Center Cannot Hold.” These days, the disintegrating “center” evokes the polarization of American politics, or the European economic and migration crises, while Yeats’s slouching “beast,” its “hour come round at last,” portends current eruptions in the Middle East, especially the specter of ISIS rising up in the desert and its exportation of terror within and beyond the region. In addition to substantial ISIS-claimed or ISIS-inspired attacks in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Turkey, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Lebanon, European jihadists inspired by ISIS have launched large-scale attacks in France and Belgium. At the moment I am writing, March 28, 2016, there are threats of further, and imminent, attacks on European targets. As noted at the end of Chapter I, ISIS jihadists have announced that Paris and Brussels are “just the beginning of your nightmare,” and that networks already positioned in Europe are ready to unleash “a wave of bloodshed.”  Are “Mere anarchy” and Yeats’s “blood-dimmed tide” about to be “loosed”?  And the fearful prospect of radioactive materials in the hands of radical jihadists is now no longer a nightmare but an approaching certainty.

At home, as the survivors of an increasingly sordid and embarrassing primary campaign, the two remaining principal contenders for the Republican presidential nomination out-bellow each other, each boasting, based on zero experience in foreign or military affairs, that he and he alone is the man needed to utterly defeat and destroy ISIS. Listening to simplistic Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, one is reminded of Pauline Kael’s devastating synopsis of John Wayne’s 1955 anti-Communist propaganda movie Blood Alley: “Duke takes on Red China—no contest.” One way or the other, a rough beast is slouching to the Republican convention in Cleveland.

Such Yeatsian allusions have, of course, become commonplace. In accounting for the extraordinary power and perennial relevance of “The Second Coming,” I will illustrate its near-ubiquity and show how Yeats’s revisions of his original (historically-specific) manuscripts universalized the final poem, making it, oracle-like, applicable to all crises, our own included.

 ↑ return to Contents

x

PART ONE: THE POEM AS RESPONSE AND ANTICIPATION

I. Vexed to Nightmare: The Financial Crisis; the Iraq War; the Rise of ISIS

The genesis of “The Second Coming” is to be located in Yeats’s troubled response to contemporary history, specifically, the European political and economic crises attending the immediate aftermath of the First World War. As I noted in an essay published four years ago in Numéro Cinq, the genesis of my own thoughts on the poem’s timelessness, as an ode for all seasons, was my observation—nearing the tenth anniversary of 9/11—of the remarkable frequency with which “The Second Coming” was being applied—in magazines, newspapers, and blogs—to almost every contemporary crisis or division, foreign and domestic.  Centers weren’t holding, conviction was lacking, passionate intensity defined the worst, and rough beasts seemed to be slouching in every direction. It was an old story.

Yeats’s poem in general, and its ominous yet expectant final line in particular, provided, back in 1968, the title for Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” and the iconic collection of the same title. The essay describes an outer and inner de-centering: the ’60s druggy counterculture and the author’s own disintegration as a result of her immersion in the ethos initiated by Haight-Ashbury. The collection as a whole dramatizes the breakdown of order and civility when rough beasts slouch to Los Angeles and New York City. That line continues to inspire allusions. While some found comic relief in Slouching Towards Kalamazoo (the ’60s novel by Peter and Derek de Vries), that judgmental judge, conservative legal scholar Robert H. Bork, titled his grim 2003 projection of an America in cultural and moral decline Slouching Towards Gomorrah. The great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, echoing Yeats’s poem (its first four lines appear as the epigraph), titled his 1958 elegy over the breakdown of Igbo culture Things Fall Apart. In our own contemporary Culture Wars, things continue to fall apart, with communal decency ruptured, on both sides, by political ideology.

Surveying the decline in the quality and civility of specifically conservative discourse, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, himself a conservative, alluded to Yeats’s poem in observing: “It’s a climate in which the best often seem to lack a platform commensurate to their gifts, while the passionate intensity of the worst finds a wide and growing audience.” Rush Limbaugh, who repeatedly moralizes, though with none of Judge Bork’s civility, comes to mind. Notable among Limbaugh’s many pontificating violations of taste and decency was his public branding of a Georgetown law student (an advocate for women’s health issues seeking inclusion of contraception in her college’s insurance coverage) as a “slut” and “prostitute.” That was in 2012, three years before Donald Trump, out-Rushing Limbaugh, found his wide and growing audience.

That famous line made even more famous by Achebe—“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”—has also been aptly applied to the European debt crisis, and its threat to the world economy. In 1919, when he wrote the poem, Yeats was looking out at a postwar Europe torn apart by crippled economies and various national revolutions. Though today we have a “European Union,” it is, economically and demographically, gravely imperiled. Complete financial collapse has been averted by cheap loans from the European Central Bank, and the actions of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Time Magazine’s 2015 “Person of the Year”). But failure to resolve the underlying problem of the inefficient economic policies of the most indebted nations (Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal) means that we may still face the prospect of what some prominent economists were envisaging—to cite the blood-red cover and banner headline of the August 22, 2011 issue of Time—as nothing less than “THE DECLINE AND FALL OF EUROPE (AND MAYBE THE WEST).”

The cover article itself, titled “The End of Europe,” following in the line of Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart’s 2009 history of sovereign debt, This Time is Different, noted that Europe was not experiencing a typical, correctable recession or even facing “a double-dip Great Recession.” Rather, wrote Rana Foroohar, “the West is going through something more profound: a second [post-1929] Great Contraction of growth,” with investors “suddenly wary that the European center is not going to hold.”  Doubling down on that allusion to Yeats, Foroohar began her lead article in Time’s October 10 “special issue” on the economy: “If there is a poem for this moment, it is surely W. B. Yeats’s dark classic ‘The Second Coming’.” She compared what the poet faced in 1919—“the darkness and uncertainty of Europe in the aftermath of a horrific war”—with the current situation. After quoting the poem’s opening movement, and connecting the “centre cannot  hold” with the “shrinking” of “the middle class,” Forohoor observed of the poem as a whole,  “It’s hard to imagine a more eloquent description of our own bearish age.” Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, saw, even after emergency help, “dark storm clouds looming on the horizon.” The resistance to the austerity pushed by Merkel and the stubborn lack of growth had led to violence in the streets and to the emergence of extremist, fringe parties. Coupled with Muslim immigration and the rise of Islamic extremism, that trend has since continued and intensified: in France, Poland, even in Germany, with the emergence of revanchist and authoritarian parties. Politically as well as economically, it would seem, “the center cannot hold.”

 §

Shifting from Europe to the Greater Middle East and beyond, the crises have also intensified, with responses to them participating, rhetorically, in the same pattern: the compulsion to return in times of turmoil to the resonant images of “The Second Coming.” Over the past three years, the poem has been repeatedly quoted in regard to the increasing instability of the international order. Though not the first to consider Yeats’s lines uniquely relevant to their own time, we have a better claim than most. The poem’s opening movement, posted on the website Sapere Aude!, was singled out as the “best description” we have of “the dismal state the world is in right now.” Stephen M. Walt, Professor of International Relations at Harvard, responded to the dangerous “crumbling” of the old “international order” by quoting the whole of “The Second Coming,” a poem that “seems uncannily relevant whenever we enter a turbulent period of global politics.” He concluded “A Little Doom and Gloom” (his sweeping survey of crises in Europe, the Middle East, Iran, and Asia) on a note of foreboding: “I hope I’m wrong, but I think I hear Yeats’s ‘rough beast’ slouching our way.”

Walt’s concerns resonate, and Rogoff and Reinhart may have been right; perhaps “this time” (for, as of March 2016, the European economic crisis is hardly resolved) is “different.” Or it may be that such projections as those sensationalized by that blood-dimmed Time cover were alarmist hyperbole—as charged by one sanguine respondent to the Time issue, who thought “our shifting economies” more likely to be “birth pangs of a new day.” Perhaps; indeed, Yeats’s eternal gyre can be read optimistically, though the birth pangs of his annunciatory rough beast suggest otherwise. When we consider the rise of ISIS and the metastasizing international threat presented by jihadist terrorism, along with Europe’s current immigration crisis, we may conclude that there may be even more terrifying doomsday scenarios in the future. Either way, Yeats’s “The Second Coming” will remain in attendance, ready to supply apt metaphors embodying our sense of an ending: the dying of one age, with another, yet unknown, “to be born.”

This talismanic poem’s projection of cyclical and violent rebirth in the form of a sphinx-like beast rising in the desert eerily foreshadows today’s Middle East, most dramatically, the rise of ISIS out of the wreckage of Syria and Iraq. The once hopeful Arab Spring has long since turned autumnal. Caught up in the region’s cross-current of sectarian, ethnic, and tribal tensions, overwhelmed by military elites and by long-suppressed but well-organized Islamists, the young rebels who actually initiated the Arab Awakening quickly became yesterday’s news. Revolutions devour their own children. History “Whirls out new right and wrong,/ Whirls in the old instead,” to quote Yeats’s “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” a poem originally titled “The Things That Come Again.” As two Middle-East experts, Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, accurately predicted as early as September 2011: whatever the outcome of this struggle, “victory by the original protesters is almost certainly foreclosed.” And so it has turned out. Optimistic anticipations of beneficial change were shattered by what Agha and Malley called, perhaps echoing the Yeatsian widening gyre, “centrifugal forces” (“The Arab Counterrevolution”). Many in the chaotic Middle East are now, as various Islamic sects vie for power, and ISIS galvanizes jihadists, wondering what comes next—or, in Yeats’s stark image of expectation-reversal, what rough beast is slouching their way.

The long-sustained hostility has also intensified between Israel and the Palestinians, with the elusive two-state solution further away than it was when the UN partitioned Palestine 2/3rds of a century ago. That embittered stalemate is epitomized in the title of a recent book, Side by Side: Parallel Narratives of Israel-Palestine. In lieu of advancing any proposals to resolve the issue, the book offers, on facing pages, differing perspectives on the same events. The “sheer reciprocal incomprehension” in these parallel narratives, with “two sides locked in…a dialogue of the deaf,” reminded British journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft of a famous phrase of Yeats (for once, not from “The Second Coming,” but from “Remorse for Intemperate Speech,” a poem written a dozen years later): “Great hatred, little room.”

Like many lines from “The Second Coming,” this phrase, too, applies throughout much of the Greater Middle East. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad, militarily propped up by Vladimir Putin, continues to barrel-bomb his own people, while we puzzle over how, now that one plan to arm the Syrian “moderate” opposition has ignominiously failed, we might prevent further carnage. In Afghanistan, what began as a justified attack on the Taliban sponsoring al Qaeda now seems a futile counter-insurgency: a struggle hampered by our putative “ally” in the region. Playing both sides in its own self-interest, Pakistan covertly supports the resurgent Taliban it originally created and funds extremist madrassas (now over 1,300) intended to displace Afghan state schools, where secular subjects are taught as well as religion. And Pakistan is itself an unstable nation, its nuclear arsenal partially dispersed and therefore vulnerable to seizure by its own Islamist radicals.

And then there is the nuclear game-playing of a truly paranoid regime. North Korea is already in possession of several nuclear weapons, and its erratic dictator, 33-year-old Kim Jong-un, has become increasingly provocative. North Korea’s nuclear bomb test in January was quickly followed by a rocket-launch, part of a project whose goal is to eventually mount a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental missile. The rocket was launched not only in violation of several UN Security Council resolutions, but even in defiance of the Hermit Kingdom’s powerful neighbor, China, the only nation thought to have the leverage to restrain its unpredictable ally. Apparently not; Kim Jong-un is spinning out of control, threatening, in March 2016, to aim nuclear missiles at Seoul and Washington. A propaganda video released the same month depicted a submarine-launched ballistic missile visiting nuclear devastation on the US capital.

There is a double threat involving Iran: the danger of that theocracy violating the recent accord by surreptitiously working to develop a nuclear weapon, and of the predictable and unpredictable ramifications of an Israeli and/or US preemptive strike. Should our policy be to prevent, to contain, or to attempt to destroy? This issue, politicized in this election year, has become as polarized as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And yet, unless the nuclear agreement works, unless reason on both sides prevails and the center holds, we may be careening into yet another, and potentially even more profoundly destabilizing, war in the Middle East.

In Iraq, we have ended our large-scale military presence after a war we should never have started. But in toppling Saddam Hussein, we rid Iraq of a brutal and megalomaniacal dictator whose tyrannical reign had at least one positive aspect: his repression of militant Islamists. As a result we have left behind not only an economically ravished country (35% of those fortunate enough to have survived Operation Iraqi Freedom live in abject poverty), but one divided along predictably sectarian lines. The discrimination against the ousted Sunnis, not yet redressed by Haider al-Abadi, who succeeded Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister in 2014, not only affects every aspect of life, but alienates (since they have little incentive to protect the Shiite government in Baghdad) the very Sunni fighters needed to resist ISIS.

The negative consequences of our misguided disbanding of Saddam’s Sunni army after its defeat in 2003 were compounded by our decision to back Maliki over secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, whose party won the March 2010 parliamentary elections, but fell two seats short of a majority. Maliki, pressured by Shiite Iran, broke his pledge to integrate the government and instead institutionalized the repression of the Sunnis. Obama was urged to cease supporting Maliki by, among others, Ali Khedery, who served as special assistant to five US ambassadors to Iraq and as a senior advisor to three CentCom commanders. Khedery concluded a 2014 opinion piece:

By looking the other way and unconditionally supporting and arming Maliki, President Obama has only lengthened and expanded the conflict that President Bush unwisely initiated. Iraq is now a failed state, and as countries across the Middle East fracture along ethno-sectarian lines, America is likely to emerge as one of the biggest losers of the new Sunni-Shiite war, with allies collapsing and radicals plotting another 9/11. (Washington Post, 3 July 2014)

Shortly after we initiated the Iraq War, a Syrian businessman, Raja Sidawi, a friend of Washington columnist and writer David Ignatius, offered a prescient observation. Ignatius cited it, somewhat skeptically, in his July 1, 2003 Washington Post column, “The Toll on American Innocence.” A dozen years later, in October, 2015, he reprised it; and its second coming—in a cover-piece in The Atlantic, “How ISIS Spread in the Middle East”—was far more somber. What Raja Sidawi told his American friend in June 2003 was this: “You are stuck. You have become a country of the Middle East. America will never change Iraq, but Iraq will change America.” Given his cultural and practical knowledge of the region, Sidawi’s remark may not quite match the oracular clairvoyance so many of us have found in Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” But it will do. We stormed into Iraq with “shock and awe”; and with hubris, a mixture of political duplicity and the American confidence of Innocents Abroad—“innocence” indistinguishable from ignorance. We changed; the region didn’t. The result: a variation on the old Sunni-Shiite war, “with allies collapsing and radicals plotting another 9/11.”

§

Principal among those plotting radicals, their brutal implementation of an apocalyptic theology flourishing in the implosion of Syria and Iraq, is of course the Islamic State: ISIL, or Da’esh, best known as ISIS. Confronted by the spectacle of ISIS, commentators from Left and Right, including experts on Islamist terrorism, turned in 2015 to Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”  In a Huffington Post piece titled “ISIL: The Second Coming,” composer Mohammed Fairouz, whose setting of Yeats’s poem premiered in New York City on March 10, applied his epigraph, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” to President Obama’s failure to confront barbarous ISIS early on. A June 2015 posting on a West Coast socialist website, titled “Iraq: ‘Things Fall Apart’,” cited the opening three lines of the poem, noting that Yeats “might have written today, and nowhere is this more true than in Iraq.” In a blog posted in August, a former liberal turned Neo-conservative announced, “Read this, and think of ISIS.” The “this” was the full text of “The Second Coming.” The poem had been haunting her, she reported, since 9/11, and “these days it seems more than ever that the rough beast is on the march.”

Between these two, in a July Wall Street Journal essay, “A Poet’s Apocalyptic Vision,” David Lehman, himself a poet, described “The Second Coming,” extrapolating from the moral anarchy of 1919, as a fearful pre-vision of our present anarchy. “If our age is apocalyptic in mood—and rife with doomsday scenarios, nuclear nightmares, religious fanatics, and suicidal terrorists—there may be no more chilling statement of our condition than” this poem, in which Yeats envisages no Christian “second coming,” but “a monstrosity, a ‘rough beast’ threatening violence commensurate with the human capacity for bloodletting.” The accompanying color illustration— a slouching leonine creature with light beaming from mouth and eyes—attempts to visually capture that “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.” But the image, in this case, is a counter-example to the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words, or even (if they are Yeats’s) seven words.

Lehman WSJ essay photo by Yao XiaoPhoto by Yao Xiao

After sketching its historical, psychological, and occult contexts, Lehman focuses on the text, celebrating the poem’s “metrical music,” “unexpected adjectives,” and such “oddly gripping” verbs as “slouches,” as well as Yeats’s “epigrammatic ability,” best exemplified in the last two lines of the opening stanza: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” The aphorism, says Lehman, retains its authority as both “observation” and “warning.” We may, he suggests (yielding to the irresistible impulse to specify politically), “think of the absence of backbone with which certain right-minded individuals met the threats of National Socialism in the 1930s and of Islamist terrorism in the new century.”  He concludes by recommending that we read the poem aloud to appreciate its “power as oratory,” and then ask ourselves which most “unsettles” us: “the monster slouching towards Bethlehem or the sad truth that the best of us don’t want to get involved, while the worst know no restraint in their pursuit of power?”

Lehman’s question is valid, despite his being unaware that Yeats, interpreting Marxism-Leninism as a second coming of the Jacobin Terror of the French Revolution, initially identified the “worst” with the Bolsheviks, perpetrators of such revolutionary crimes as the slaughter of the Russian royal family; while the putative “best” were vacillating European moderates and liberals who had failed to respond to, much less resist, revolutionary brutality. In its initial drafts, “The Second Coming” reflected Yeats’s response to the violence in Russia in light of the violence in France a dozen decades earlier. But in its final version, the poem also looks, almost clairvoyantly, ahead to the future. And even French and Russian revolutionary brutality can seem tame in comparison with the theologically inspired and politically intimidating barbarism of ISIS, with its mass rape and enslavement, beheadings and crucifixions, and its growing capacity to inspire and ignite terror attacks well beyond the borders of its Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. ISIS is also seeking radioactive materials. As in the past, “The Second Coming” is at hand to supply metaphors. In the final pages of  ISIS: The State of Terror, two noted experts on Islamist jihadism, Jessica Stern and J. M. Berger, quote “The Second Coming,” and then conclude:

It is hard to imagine a terrible avatar of passionate intensity more purified than ISIS. More than even al Qaeda, the first terror of the twenty-first century, ISIS exists as an outlet for the worst—the most base and horrific impulses of humanity, dressed in fanatic pretexts of religiosity that have been gutted of all nuance and complexity. And yet, if we lay claim to the role of “best,” then Yeats condemns us as well, and rightly so. It is difficult to detect a trace of conviction in the world’s attitude toward the Syrian civil war and the events that followed in Iraq….

The double point made by Stern and Berger epitomizes their theme as well as the current crisis, marked by the bloodlust and passionate intensity of the “worst,” and the lack of conviction the civilized world, the “best,” has thus far displayed in fully engaging this religiously inspired death cult. Reviewing this book, and two others on ISIS, Iraq specialist Steve Negus remarks that “only one quotes Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming,’ but the others must have been tempted” (New York Times Book Review, April 1, 2015). Negus was writing before the publication of the latest book-length study, counterterrorist expert Malcolm Nance’s Defeating ISIS: Who They Are, How They Fight, What They Believe (2016). He was also writing five months prior to the publication of perhaps the best of the bunch: The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, by William McCants. His deep knowledge of ISIS’s political strategy and apocalyptic theology reflects McCants’s immersion in primary Arabic sources. His good-news, bad-news conclusion is that ISIS will be defeated, but that its example will inspire future jihadists. McCants does not cite “The Second Coming.” However, given his richly informed apocalyptic emphasis, it seems safe to imagine that he, too, “must have been tempted.”

In the month I am writing, March 2016, US commandos killed the Finance Minister of ISIS, and, as a result of coalition bombing and Iraqi army advances, ISIS is losing some ground in Syria and Iraq. But even as its Caliphate contracts, ISIS is expanding—geographically into Libya and elsewhere, and exporting terror throughout the Middle East and Africa, and into the heart of an under-prepared Europe. Last November’s coordinated attacks in Paris, which took 130 lives, were replicated by members of the same Molenbeek-based Belgian cell in Brussels on March 22, when two brothers and a third suicide bomber slaughtered 31 and wounded almost 300. Hundreds of alienated European Muslims, radicalized and militarily trained by ISIS in Syria, are now back in Europe, organized in operational cadres. In a video released on March 25, two Belgian ISIS fighters warn that “This is just the beginning of your nightmare.” Promising more “dark days” ahead for all who would oppose them, the terrorists in command of ISIS have threatened that jihadists already positioned in Europe are prepared to unleash a “wave of bloodshed.” Once again, “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed.…”

↑ return to Contents

II. A Vast Image: From Political Genesis to Archetypal Symbolism

In accord with the mystery of the Sublime, Yeats’s sphinx-like beast slouching blank-eyed toward Bethlehem is a horror capable of many interpretations but limited to none, and, therefore, all the more terrifying. For that very reason, as I’ve just illustrated, “The Second Coming” is perennially relevant. Almost a century after the poem first appeared, pundits in books and essays, newspapers and magazines, routinely draw upon Yeats’s evocation of cultural disintegration and imminent violence, and lines from the poem (the whole poem, in Joni Mitchell’s 1991 riff) riddle popular culture, as we can see by consulting Nick Tabor’s recent compendium of dozens of pop-culture allusions, itself titled “No Slouch.”[1] More gravely, as part of our common crisis-vocabulary, we intone that “things fall apart”; that “the centre cannot hold”; that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”; that “the ceremony of innocence is drowned”; that we confront forces “blank and pitiless as the sun”; that one era, symbolized by a “widening gyre,” is ending and another imminent, signaled by the loosing of a “blood-dimmed tide” of “mere anarchy,” dreadfully attended by a  “rough beast” slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. How has the poem achieved this Bartlett’s-Familiar status?

sci fi collage

An Endless Source
x
In addition to those already mentioned in the text, there are many titular allusions to “The Second Coming.” Canadian poet Linda Stitt considered calling her 2003 collection Lacking All Conviction, but chose instead another phrase for her title: Passionate Intensity, from the line of “The Second Coming” that immediately follows. Describing a very different kind of disintegration than that presented by Judge Bork in Slouching Towards Gomorrah, another law professor, Elyn R. Saks, called her 2007 account of a lifelong struggle with schizophrenia The Center Cannot Hold.
x
Detective novels, crime fiction, and pop culture in general have drawn liberally on the language of “The Second Coming.” The second of Ronnie Airth’s Inspector John Madden novels is The Blood-Dimmed Tide (2007). H. R. Knight has Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle tracking down a demonic monster in Victorian London in his 2005 horror novel, What Rough Beast. Robert B. Parker called the tenth volume in his popular Spenser series The Widening Gyre. I refer in the first endnote to Kevin Smith’s Batman series appearing under that general title.
x
Science fiction writers seem particularly addicted to language from “The Second Coming.” Among the episodes of Andromeda, the 2000-2005 Canadian-American sci-fi TV series, were two titled “The Widening Gyre” and “Its Hour Come Round at Last.” But the prize for multiple allusions goes to a project that originally appeared as a six-part e-book in 2006 (marking the 40th anniversary of the original Star Trek series). An omnibus edition, Star Trek: Mere Anarchy, was published in 2009. This “Complete Six-Part Saga” takes from Yeats more than its main title (also borrowed by Woody Allen for his 2007 collection of comedy pieces). All six of the individual novellas in Mere Anarchy (each by a different author) derive their titles from “The Second Coming”: Things Fall Apart, The Center Cannot Hold, Shadow of the Indignant, The Darkness Drops Again, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, and Its Hour Come Round.

A friend, Bill Nack, biographer of the great racehorse Secretariat and an informed reader of Yeats’s poetry, remarked of “The Second Coming” in a letter: “So many lines and images are written indelibly, chipped in stone on that wailing-wall we call the 20th, now the 21st century.” The poem is a mine of incisive and quotable phrases, from the opening movement’s bullet-point declarations (fusing metaphor and abstraction, chaos and order) to that final momentous question. The presentation is cinematic, with the “vast image” looming gradually, and dramatically, into focus:  a mere “shape,” then “lion body,” then “head of a man,” then a zooming in on the creature’s “gaze,” followed by a panning movement back out, since that gaze is “blank and pitiless as the sun.” In addition to the tensile strength of its unforgettable verbs (loosed, troubles, reel, vexed, slouches), the poem’s extraordinary power is attributable to its sources in the occult and the unconscious, its Egyptian and mythological reverberations, and, above all, its alteration of the Bible (Daniel, the gospels, Revelation), culminating in the shock value of the subversion of the Christian interpretation of the “second coming.” “The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out” than the poet envisages, not the return of Christ, but the advent of a sinister rough beast. Apparently moribund for two millennia, it is now, ominously and sexually, “moving its slow thighs,” while “all about it/ Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.” Indignant because those circling scavengers had mistakenly thought the immobile creature mere carrion; but the beast, imperceptibly stirred into antithetical life by the rocking of Jesus’ cradle two thousand years earlier, is alive. Now, initiating a new cycle, it slouches, provocatively and precociously, towards that infant’s birthplace in order itself “to be born.”

But the poem’s universal relevance, its adaptability, is, above all, testimony to the success of Yeats’s method in revising the original manuscripts. Written in January 1919, first printed in The Dial in 1920, and collected the following year in Michael Robartes and the Dancer, “The Second Coming” had its sociopolitical roots, as the poet’s widow confirmed in the 1960s, in Yeats’s troubled response to the political situation in Europe in 1917-19. And the drafts of the poem, some of the pages preserved by his wife, reveal that Yeats’s apprehensions about the socialist revolutions in Germany, Italy, and, above all, Russia, during and immediately after World War I, were associated, as we’ve seen, with his reading of the Romantic poets and of Edmund Burke, and their responses to the French Revolution: what Shelley called “the master theme of the epoch in which we live.”

As earlier noted, Yeats initially identified the “worst” with the Bolsheviks, perpetrators of such revolutionary crimes as the slaughter of the Russian royal family; while the putative “best” were those who had failed to resist, eventually epitomized, for Yeats, by the British King, George V. As it happens, Kerensky’s Russian Provisional Government had initiated an offer of asylum, promising to send the Tsar and Tsarina and their children to England for safety: an offer rejected by the King (fearful of reaction from the British Labor Party), even though he was Nicholas’s cousin. This cowardice and violation of the family bond, not known to Yeats at the time he wrote “The Second Coming,” surfaced two decades later in “Crazy Jane on the Mountain,” where Yeats’s most famous and least inhibited female persona is revived to bitterly decry the fact that

A King had some beautiful cousins
But where are they gone?
Battered to death in a cellar,
And he stuck to his throne.

Family_Nicholas_II_of_Russia_ca._1914Tsar Nicholas II and family, ca. 1914 (via Wikimedia Commons)

But “The Second Coming” resonates far beyond that old atrocity. It looks back from the Bolshevik to the French Revolution, as filtered through Yeats’s reading of Edmund Burke and the Romantic poets.[2]

Yeats’s natural affinities were with his major poetic precursors, those permanent revolutionaries Blake and Shelley. But in his own political response to revolution, Yeats found himself closer to the great Anglo-Irish conservative statesman Burke, the chief intellectual opponent of the French Revolution and chivalric champion of the assaulted Marie Antoinette. He also found himself aligned with a former supporter of the Revolution (“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very heaven”): the largely if not completely disenchanted William Wordsworth. At this time, Yeats was reading the French Revolutionary books of Wordsworth’s Prelude as well as Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. His own ambivalent response to catastrophe (horrified and yet strangely exultant), as projected in “The Second Coming,” registers the differing perspectives of Burke and the Romantics on the French Revolution, now refracted through the prism of what Yeats took to be its rebirth in Bolshevism.

An idiosyncratic yet often complex and even profound visionary, Yeats was as much a disciple of Nietzsche as of Blake and Shelley, and an occultist to boot. All of these influences, along with his conservative reverence of Swift, Burke, and of an idealized Anglo-Irish aristocracy, as well as his response to Wordsworth’s Prelude, converge in “The Second Coming,” as in its close relatives, “A Prayer for My Daughter” and the sequence “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” All three reflect, along with the Great War and the Bolshevik Revolution, the beginning of the War of Independence in Ireland. And they all recapture Burke’s elegy over the fall of Marie Antoinette, and his premonition of “the glory of Europe…extinguished forever,” of “all…to be changed.” The sequence’s recurrent “nightmares” and the drowning of “the ceremony of  innocence” in “The Second Coming” echo Burke’s “massacre of innocents” (with the palace at Versailles “left swimming in blood”) and Wordsworth’s “ghastly visions” of “tyranny, and implements of death,/ And innocent victims,” in passages of The Prelude dramatizing his reaction to revolutionary massacre. Such echoes confirm Yeats’s juxtaposition of the excesses of the French Revolution with the postwar turmoil in which he was writing in 1919.

Deciphering Yeats’s handwriting and interpreting his associative connections, we can trace in the drafts of “The Second Coming” his linking of Burke’s lamentation over the assaulted Marie Antoinette with the spectacle of the Russian royal family, including the Tsarina Alexandra, “battered to death in a cellar” (as he would have Crazy Jane later put it). Yeats connects Bolshevik brutality with such French atrocities as the September Massacres and the Jacobin Terror—what, annotating Wordsworth, he characterized as “revolutionary crimes.” In the face of “unjust tribunals,” with admitted royalist “tyranny” replaced by “mob-bred anarchy,” Yeats laments that there’s “no Burke to cry aloud, no Pit[t]”—no one, that is, to “arraign revolution,” as Burke had in the Reflections and in later speeches and William Pitt in ministerial policy. In further noting that “the [G]ermans have now to Russia come,” Yeats seems to combine the 1917 military invasion of Russian territories with the decisive German role in spiriting Lenin, and thus Marxian Communism, into Russia. As a result: “There every day some innocent has died” in revolutionary purges epitomized by the Bolsheviks’ July 1918 slaughter of the Tsar, the Romanov children, and the Tsarina Alexandra: “this Marie Antoinette,” who “has more brutally died.” The crucial point is that, as he continued to revise, Yeats stripped “The Second Coming” of all these particularized references. What prompted him to do this? The drafts themselves offer intriguing clues.

Yeats handwriting collagePages from drafts of “The Second Coming”

Deciphering Yeats’s handwriting
x
Despite the conjectures necessitated by the rapid scribbling of a man whose handwriting was maddeningly difficult to begin with, most of the specifics and the gist of what Yeats means are clear in this early draft (page 1., image above):
x
Ever further h[aw]k flies outward
from the falconer’s hand. Scarcely
is armed tyranny fallen when
when this mob bred anarchy
takes its place. For this
Marie Antoinette has
more brutally died and no
Burke [has shook his] has an[swered]
with his voice, no pit [Pitt]
arraigns revolution. Surely the second
birth comes near—
x
……….intellectual gyre is thesis to
The/ gyres grow wider and more wide]
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
The germans have now to Russia come
There every day some innocent has died
The [ ? ] comes to [?fawn]…[?murder]
x
In other drafts (all Box 3, Folder 39, W. B. Yeats Collection, SUNY, Stony Brook), Yeats confirms his regret that there’s no Burke or Pitt to arraign Bolshevik crimes as they had French Revolutionary terrorism: “—no stroke upon the clock/ But ceremonious innocence is drowned/ While the mob fawns upon the murderer/ And there’s no Burke…nor Pitt….”; and, again, “there’s no Burke to cry aloud no Pit[t].” Astutely analyzing the drafts in 2001, Simona Vannini had no doubt about the coupling of French and Russian atrocities. But, resisting the “scholarly consensus” (she refers to Donald Torchiana, Jon Stallworthy, and myself), she doubts, based on the drafts alone, that Yeats intended an “explicit correspondence between the murder of the French and the Russian royal families.” But one does not live by the drafts alone.
x
Finally, as slowly but surely as the rough beast itself, the poem as we know it begins to emerge (pages 2.-4., image above).

§

In the most dramatic of the visions induced in Yeats during some 1890 symbolic-card experiments with MacGregor Mathers (the head of Yeats’s occult Order, the Golden Dawn), the poet suddenly saw, as he records in an unpublished memoir, “a gigantic Negro raising up his head and shoulders among great stones”—a vision transmogrified, in the published Autobiographies, into “a desert and a Black Titan.” Even in this dramatic instance, Yeats continues, “sight came slowly, there was not that sudden miracle as if the darkness had been cut with a knife.” In the drafts of “The Second Coming,” groping for figurative language to introduce the mysterious moment immediately preceding the vision of the vast image rising up out of “sands of the desert” and “out of Spiritus Mundi,” Yeats first wrote: “Before the dark was cut as with a knife.” Whether examining the finished poem or the drafts, we are surely justified in locating one of the principal origins of the rough beast in Yeats’s occult experiments with MacGregor Mathers.

We may also have, in the cautionary example of Mathers himself, a key to Yeats’s abandonment, in the course of revision, of the historical figures and events specified in the drafts. Yeats found his occult friend’s apocalyptic imagination, “brooding upon war,” impressive when it remained “vague in outline.” It was when Mathers “attempted to make it definite,” that “nations and individuals seemed to change into the arbitrary symbols of his desires and fears.” Yeats was aware of the tendency of literalists and cranks to apply the obscure symbols of Revelation to the world-historical crisis of their own particular moment in time. This is what Mathers was in the habit of doing and what Yeats had initially done, as evidenced by the drafts of “The Second Coming.” Of course, it was what the Apocalyptist himself had done in producing a text that was less an inspired prophecy than a coded account of events happening at the time he was writing. But there was one clear prophecy. John insists, following Paul and Jesus himself, that the promised second coming was imminent. Implicit throughout Revelation, that prophecy is explicit and particularly resonant at the end, where John puts the premature parousia in Christ’s own mouth, “Surely, I am coming soon” (echoed by Yeats: “Surely the Second Coming is at hand…”), and concludes by intensifying the urgency in his own voice: “Come, Lord Jesus!” (22:20)

Less interested in correlating specific events with Revelation or in predicting the future than he was in artistically mining Revelation as a rich source of resonant symbolism, Yeats was particularly fascinated by sublime aspects of the apocalyptic Beast: simultaneously menacing, exciting, destructive, and potentially renovative. (In depicting the first coming of Christ, he had referred, in the turbulently sublime final line of his visionary poem “The Magi,” to “The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.”) Above all, Yeats, as visionary, would have had no desire, by binding his prophecy to particular events, to make himself ridiculous—as had many biblical scholars, or MacGregor Mathers. That would be to succumb to what Alfred North Whitehead would later call (in one of Yeats’s favorite books, Science and the Modern World) “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”

St. Jerome, aware of the many strained, historically specific misreadings preceding his translation of the Bible, was content to revise previous commentaries on the Book of Revelation rather than venture one of his own. As he observed in a letter, “Revelation has as many mysteries as it does words.” The same might be said of the final version of “The Second Coming,” which retains Yeats’s own “desires and fears” without limiting those generalized (“abstract”) emotions to the specific (“concrete”) historical events that originally provoked them. That the beast slouches, in the single vestige of specificity, towards Bethlehem makes the creature a type of the Antichrist. But Yeats was hardly a conventional Christian pitting sectarian goodness against Satanic and bestial evil. In fact, while the final poem and title refer to Christ’s parousia, the original drafts repeatedly refer, not to the “second coming,” but to the “second birth,” echoing Wordsworth’s “nightmare” premonition in The Prelude that the “lamentable crimes” of the September Massacres were not the end of revolutionary violence in France, but a precursor of the far worse Terror to come: “The fear gone by/ Pressed on me like a fear to come…”

For the spent hurricane the air provides
As fierce a successor; the tide retreats
But to return out of its hiding-place
In the great deep; all things have second birth. (Prelude 10:71-93)

Wordsworth’s image of a malevolent and returning tidal sea may remind us not only of the loosing of “the blood-dimmed tide” in Yeats’s poem of “second birth,” but of another powerful, and no less apocalyptic, prophesy of  “coming” destruction. In Robert Frost’s 1926 couplet-sonnet, “Once By the Pacific,” the water is “shattered,” and “Great waves looked over others coming in,/ And thought of doing something to the shore/ That water never did to land before.” This is an unprecedented rather than repeated act of destruction, but its premeditated “thought” makes Frost’s ocean even worse than Yeats’s “murderous innocence of the sea” (in “A Prayer for My Daughter,” where revolutionary violence takes the form of “sea-wind…/ Bred on the Atlantic”). Though Frost’s shore “was lucky in being backed by cliff,/ The cliff in being backed by continent,” the sea seems backed by God himself, whose creative fiat in Genesis, “Let there be light,” is soon to be superseded by his apocalyptic extinction of light:

It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God’s last Put out the Light was spoken.[3]

In that final line, Frost moves from Genesis (1.3) to the Book of Revelation (21:1). In reversing Christian expectation (in Matthew 24 and Revelation), the poet of “The Second Coming” echoes the whole of the Prelude passage, which ends with Wordsworth returning to Paris, scene of the worst atrocities of the September Massacres, to find the place “unfit for the repose of night,/ Defenceless as a wood where tigers roam.”[4] Yeats’s “strong enchanter,” Nietzsche, author of The Antichrist, invoked a Dionysian and eternally recurrent “savage cruel beast”: an eruptive force incapable of being “mortified” by what he called, in Beyond Good and Evil, these “more humane ages.” Unsurprisingly, since Yeats believed that “Nietzsche completes Blake, and has the same roots,” and that “Nietzsche’s thought flows always, though with an even more violent current, in the bed Blake’s thought has worn,” Nietzsche’s beast (first trotted out in Yeats’s 1903 play Where There is Nothing) later resonated in his archetypal mind with Blake’s Tyger and his half-bestial Nebuchadnezzar, slouching on all fours (as in Daniel 4:31-33) on Plate 24 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

William Blake Nebuchadnezzar (Tate copy)Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Rough Beast
x
The vast image or animated sphinx “out of Spiritus Mundi” has many “sources.” It can be traced back to the most dramatic of the mental images induced in Yeats during the symbolic-card experiments he conducted in 1890 with MacGregor Mathers, the dominant figure in the occult Order of the Golden Dawn. In his most memorable vision, Yeats saw a “Black Titan” rising up ominously from the desert sands. Other components are drawn from Shelley’s stony pharaoh Ozymandias (his wrecked statue almost lost among the “lone and level sands”) as well as from his Demogorgon (in Prometheus Unbound): a nightmare denizen, along with the “rough beast” of “The Second Coming,” of the mysterious “Thirteenth Cone” in Yeats’s occult book, A Vision.
x
Around 1902, Yeats “began to imagine” a brazen winged beast “afterwards described in my poem ‘The Second Coming’.” In that same year, in his uncanonical play Where There is Nothing, he envisaged a laughing, destructive beast resembling the eternally recurrent “savage cruel beast” of Nietzsche: a Dionysian, libidinal, eruptive force incapable of being “mortified” by what Yeats’s “strong enchanter” called (in Beyond Good and Evil) these “more humane ages.”
x
In perhaps the most momentous of his imaginative fusions, Yeats believed that “Nietzsche completes Blake and has the same roots,” and that Nietzschean thought “flows always, though with an even more violent current, in the bed Blake’s thought has worn.” The rough beast of “The Second Coming” can be seen as a fusion of Nietzsche’s savage cruel beast with (along with the dragons of Revelation and of comparative mythology) aspects of Blake’s Urizen, his Tyger, and his bestial Nebuchadnezzar, crawling on all fours at the conclusion of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
x
In the 1795 color print reproduced here, Blake returned to the image he had engraved on the final plate of The Marriage. In Daniel 4:33, the Babylonian king, cursed and “driven from men,” ate “the grass as oxen”; his hair “grew like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws.” Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar, his mind darkened, stares, unseeing, directly at us. Though his “gaze” is as “blank” as that of Yeats’s “rough beast,” Blake’s king is more terrified than terrifying. But his bestiality and slouching posture is likely to have contributed to the composite beast of “The Second Coming.”

All precursors of the “rough beast.”  But Yeats’s response to French revolutionary violence, and its rebirth, was at least as powerfully influenced by the bestial imagery and conservative politics of Edmund Burke. For conservative Yeats, the September Massacres and French Reign of Terror foreshadowed the emergence in Bolshevik Russia of that “Marxian criterion of values” he described in a letter of April 1919 as “in this age the spearhead of materialism and leading to inevitable murder”: the same inevitability Burke had early and uncannily prophesied in 1790. In terms of imagery, attitude, and actual verbal details, “The Second Coming” would be a very different poem if it had not had precisely this twin historical genesis. Finally, however, the poem, in its final, published text, is not “about” either the French or the Russian Revolution.

Nor is it about the National Socialist revolution. Many readers have taken it that way, citing a 1936 letter in which Yeats, refusing to politicize the Nobel Prize by recommending a German dissident writer, also condemned Nazism, quoting the most Burkean line in the poem as evidence that he was not “callous”: “every nerve trembles with horror at what is happening in Europe, ‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned’.” While Hitler, with the help of Goebbels, read himself positively into the Book of Revelation, as a secular Aryan Messiah and initiator of the thousand-year Third Reich, Yeats, though a man of the Right, saw the Führer as a type of the apocalyptic beast. In applying to Nazism and the threat of a second world war an image he drew from Burke and applied to the First World War and the threat of Jacobinism reborn as Marxist-Leninist Communism, Yeats was being neither hypocritical nor intentionally misleading. Indeed, he was participating in a tradition of allusion that goes on to this day. And justifiably. For if “The Second Coming” were “about” any one of these historical cataclysms, it could hardly accommodate, as it does, all of them.

§

No less a figure than Goethe has said that to be fully understood, works of art must, to some extent, “be caught in their genesis.” The manuscripts of “The Second Coming” serve a legitimate purpose in revealing the original historical counterparts of what became a universalized prophecy of an unleashing upon the world of anarchy and blood-drenched violence. The speaker has had an apocalyptic vision, a “lifting of the veil” (the Greek meaning of Apokalypsis) and the disclosure of something hidden from the rest of us. But when “the darkness drops again” over the manuscripts, as it should, we are left  with what really matters—the public text of the poem, freed of the umbilical cord attaching it to its genesis, and thus  limiting its evocative power.

If, in studying any poem, particularly one responding to contemporary events, we were to focus unduly on generative intention, and on the immediate context of its creation, the poem would inevitably dwindle in meaning and impact as that particular moment receded. Yeats’s realization of this explains his deletion, in revising “The Second Coming,” of specific historical details. In Waiting for Godot, Yeats’s fellow Irishman and fellow Nobel Prize winner, Samuel Beckett, achieved symbolic resonance by avoiding all overt reference to the historical-political matrix of the play: the German Occupation and French Resistance. Similarly, by cancelling allusions to the Irish situation and all specific references to past and contemporary revolutions, to Burke, Marie Antoinette, Pitt, Germany, and Russia, Yeats liberated his poem from those localized events destined to be assimilated like so many grains of sand in the desert of time. As an anti-Marxist, Yeats would have enjoyed the effect, since it is Marxist critics above all who have been disturbed by the autonomy of works of art, by their capacity to outlive their particular hour—what Geoffrey Hartmann has memorably called art’s “aristocratic resistance to the tooth of time.”

Insistent that the power of his images derived in part from their roots, Yeats declared in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” one of his late retrospective poems: “Those masterful images because complete/ Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?” As we’ve seen, “The Second Coming” arose out of two sources, particular and universal. The specific events that provided its initial stimulus helped to shape the final poem. But Yeats, who was, like Carl Jung, fascinated not only by the occult but by alchemy, knew what he was doing when he transmuted the base metals of his historical minute particulars into the poetic gold of universally resonant archetypes. The archetypal symbols he received, or evoked, especially that mysterious and bestial “vast image” taking form “somewhere in sands of the desert,” came, he asserts, “out of Spiritus Mundi”: out of the World Soul that Jung—who reported strange beasts troubling the dreams of his own patients during the First World War—called the Collective Unconscious. That storehouse of archetypes causes universal symbols to arise in individual minds. But if the symbols in “The Second Coming” reflect Yeats’s own immersion in what he called the “Great Memory,” it is also, since each mind is linked to it, our Unconscious as well. In the dialectic of Yeats’s symbolic poems, myth is personal and experience is mythologized. In a similar reciprocity, allusions to “The Second Coming” register individual responses to current crises, contemporary forebodings which, simultaneously, resonate with eternally recurrent archetypes transformed by a great poet into “masterful images.”

“The Second Coming” obviously and dramatically transcends the minutiae of its origins. But it is one thing to simply be general and abstract, quite another to universalize after having delved deeply into, and worked through, materials that are concrete and specific. The method of Yeats—who always insisted that “mythology” be “rooted in the earth,” that we must delve “down, as it were, into some fibrous darkness”—falls into this second category. Influenced, as was Joyce, by the cyclical philosophy of Giambattista Vico, Yeats agreed with Vico that “Metaphysics abstracts the mind from the senses; the poetic faculty must submerge the whole mind in the senses. Metaphysics soars up to the universal; the poetic faculty must plunge deep into particulars” (Scienza Nuova, 1725). Yeats has it both ways in “The Second Coming.” The specific details of the poem’s political genesis have been buried; but the poet’s rooting of his fears and cryptic prophecy in contemporary history—significant soil enriched by the conflicting responses of Burke and Wordsworth, Blake and Shelley, to the great upheaval of their era—surely contributed to the unique power of a disturbing poem whose universalized vision of violent transformation haunted the rest of the twentieth century, and shows every sign of haunting ours. Without that rooting in Viconian and Blakean “particulars,” idiosyncratic theories and his obsession with what Joyce mockingly called Yeats’s “gygantogyres” could easily have produced oracular bombast that would be truly “callous” and shapelessly rather than sublimely vague.

What we have instead is a poem in which Yeats has it several ways at once. The seer casts a cold eye on the whirling of gyres beyond our control, yet seems, at least in part, excited by the rebirth of cyclical energy. But the note of boredom-relieving anticipation detectable in “its hour come round at last” is offset, not only by the elegiac Burkean music of the opening movement, but by the poem’s deepest tonality. For the real surprise, trumping the Nietzschean irony that this “second coming” will take a very different “shape” than that expected by naïve, optimistic Christians, is that Yeats’s own expectation will be exposed as a pipe dream. We must trust the tale and not the teller. For the poem itself, less aloofly visionary than human, suggests that the antithetical era being ushered in will not assume the hopeful form of the Nietzschean-aristocratic civilization welcomed (“Why should we resist?”) in Yeats’s long note to the poem. Instead, the newborn age is likely to take the chaotic shape prefigured by its brutal engendering. With that deeper insight, that peripeteia or sudden plot-change and readjustment of apocalyptic expectation, both the theoretician and the cold-eyed oracle in Yeats yield to the poet and man whose vision of the beast truly “troubles my sight.” This troubled vision is also rooted in apocalyptic literature. Yeats is doubtless recalling the response of the prophet Daniel (two hundred years before an echoing John of Patmos) to the final and most “terrifying and dreadful” of the “four great beasts” he sees in a dream: “my spirit was troubled within me, and the vision in my head terrified me….I was dismayed by the vision and did not understand it” (Daniel 7:19-20, 8:15-27; cf. Revelation 13:7).

Yeats’s dramatic plot-change, foreshadowed in the poem’s drafts, is reflected in his final punctuation. Violating the grammatical logic of its own peroration, “The Second Coming” ends in a question, leaving us with an open, apprehensive, awestruck glimpse of imminent apocalypse, or transformation, or the loosing of a blood-dimmed tide of terror that may constitute (to again quote Shelley on the French Revolution) “the master-theme” of the post-9/11 “epoch in which we live.” Yeats was even more honest when, in the drafts of the poem, he explicitly acknowledged that whatever gnosis was involved was not his, but the beast’s: “And now at last knowing its hour come round/ It has set out for Bethlehem to be born.” In the poem as published, we are left with human uncertainty rather than prophetic certitude. The syntactical and vatic momentum that follows “but now I know…” is retained, and yet the poet ends, as Daniel had, with a cryptic, troubling vision he “did not understand,” and therefore with a genuine question: the mark of interrogation that always, according to the unknown Greek author of the great treatise On the Sublime, attends that mystery.

Peering into the dark forward and abysm of time, their sight “troubled,” readers of Yeats’s poem are easily persuaded that something ominous is afoot. But we are left wondering which of our own current crises might emerge as no less transformative than the events Yeats was responding to in the manuscript-drafts of “The Second Coming,” specifically his connection of 1919 with the bloodshed following 1789. As those drafts reveal, Yeats was paralleling the two most momentous events in the history of the modern Western world: the French Revolution, and its blood-dimmed aftermath, with the First World War and its various sequelae. The consequences of the Great War include the global influenza pandemic that swept away at least 10 million more people than the 37 million fighters and civilians lost in the war itself, as well as the slicing of the modern Middle East out of the rotting carcass of the Ottoman Empire. Before the 1921 Cairo Conference, which created, ex nihilo, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, John Maynard Keynes warned the man who had presided over this division, British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill: “If you cut up the map of the Middle East with a pair of scissors you will still be fighting wars there in a hundred years’ time.”  Five years from that centennial, Keynes seems no less prophetic, and rather more specific, than the poet who envisaged anarchic disintegration and a beast rising from “somewhere in sands of the desert.”

Though excised by the poet, and partially erased from our collective memory by a historical flood bringing even greater calamities, those World War I-related events sowed the seeds of much that followed. Even Yeats’s stress, in the manuscripts, on the execution of the French queen and its repetition in the massacre of the Russian royal family, were not idiosyncratic choices. Whatever one thinks of Yeats’s politics or of the hapless Romanov dynasty, Yeats was not simply—in Tom Paine’s trenchant critique of Burke’s tear-stained apostrophe to Marie Antoinette—“pitying the plumage while forgetting the dying bird.” Alexandra (“this Marie Antoinette” who has “more brutally died”) was battered and shot to death with her husband and children in the “House of Special Purpose” in Ekaterinburg. Though there was no signed order, the ultimate decision was Lenin’s. Those murders marked a pivotal moment when—in the summation of historian Richard Pipes in his magisterial The Russian Revolution—history made a turn toward genocide, when human beings were placed on a list of expendables and the world entered “an entirely new moral realm.”

Yeats sensed this seismic change and registered it in the drafts from which “The Second Coming” evolved—though he saw it not as “an entirely new” moral phenomenon but as a “second birth” of revolutionary massacre. The execution of the Russian royal family—the barbarous slaughter, in particular, of the children, shot, clubbed, and stabbed to death by drunken incompetents—was Yeats’s contemporary example of the loosing of a blood-dimmed tide and slaughter of the innocents that, for him, hearkened back to the French Reign of Terror and, for us, as readers of “The Second Coming,” prefigures all the horrors of the twentieth century and beyond: war, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, genocide, famine, economic chaos, ecological degradation, melting ice shelves and rising sea levels, and political anarchy—in the form, in our own country, of an ideological and special-interest polarization so intense that the center can no longer hold.

Yeats’s prophetic poem—as open to interpretation as the Beasts and Dragons and Horsemen of the Biblical Apocalypse—envisages, or, rather, can be made to envisage, any and all of these nightmares. Front and center at the moment is ISIS: the apocalyptic cult of fanatics operating out of their medieval Caliphate and able to ignite or at least inspire terror wherever the Internet and the various forms of social media they have mastered can reach. ISIS does not exhaust the legion of threats our own century of stony sleep has vexed to nightmare.  Like Yeats, we are left wondering “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, /Slouches towards” us?

W.B. YeatsW. B. Yeats, 1932 (photo by Pirie MacDonald)

In Part Two, we will revisit the turmoil of the Middle East and the rise of ISIS. Though both have deep causal roots, both are the immediate result of our 2003 decision to invade Iraq: a disaster exacerbated by its antithesis: President Obama’s understandable but consequential decisions and then indecisions regarding the Syrian civil war. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq are the roots of the tree from which most of the poison fruit has fallen, but the carnage and chaos in Syria not only expedited the rise of ISIS but produced the current immigration crisis. It is a tragic history.

When various moderate factions first rose up against the Alawite tyranny of Bashar al-Assad, it seemed part of the hopeful Arab Spring. Obama, who had been criticized for his alacrity in abandoning President Mubarak in Egypt, was now criticized for his reluctance to urge the ouster of Assad. After several months of calibrated diplomacy and sanctions, Western policy shifted to regime change. In tandem with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and British Prime Minister David Cameron, President Obama announced that, for the good of the Syrian people and before his regime was utterly rejected by them, the time had come for “President Assad to step aside.” The policy became distilled to three fateful words: “Assad must go.”

That was in August, 2011, when perhaps 2,000 had been killed in the conflict. Figures differ, but a consensus estimate is that, in the subsequent five years of civil war, well over 300,000 Syrians and non-Syrian combatants have been killed, while another 70,000 have perished because of lack of water, medicine, and other basic necessities. Assad alone is responsible for the slaughter of 10% of his own people, over 40% of them civilians. In 2013, President Obama, in a decision as fateful as the announcement that Assad must go, drew a red line, threatening to attack Assad if he used chemical weapons against his own people. When the Syrian President crossed that line, twice, Obama, on the verge of ordering airstrikes, reversed himself, for reasons, and with consequences, we’ll revisit. Meanwhile, the slaughter continued. In addition to the deaths, nearly two million people have been wounded in the ongoing conflict, and approximately 120,000 are currently starving and freezing in towns besieged by government or anti-government forces, and subject to bombing—from the air by Assad and (until recently) by his Russian ally, and, on the ground, by the various warring factions, especially ISIS, which recently launched its worst bombing attack of the war, killing at least 130 people.

The continuing horror in Syria has also created a wider humanitarian and political crisis. Millions of refugees have inundated not only the region but a Europe already buckling under the burden of debt and demography, and giving rise to right-wing anti-immigrant movements that are now threatening centrist governments. The primaries leading up to our own 2016 presidential election—driven by populism on the Left and, most dramatically, on the Right—exposed a fragile political center that, here as in Europe, may not hold. Thrilling some, dismaying most, a nativist rough beast, Donald Trump, is slouching towards Cleveland to become the presumptive Republican nominee, or to hurl the convention into anarchy.

↑ return to Contents

x

PART TWO: THINGS FALL APART, CONTEMPORARY CRISES, 2003-2016

III. Mere Anarchy: Polarization at Home; the Challenges of ISIS and Syrian Immigration

Its evocation of imminent yet mysterious catastrophe has made “The Second Coming” the swan song of our time. As the 20th century’s preeminent visionary poet, Yeats, alert to the dangers of hubristic Enlightenment faith in reason and the utopian myth of collective moral progress, was also telepathically attuned to the paradoxically related loosing of the tides of irrational fanaticism. Religion obviously plays a role in a cyclical poem in which the Christian era’s twenty centuries of “stony sleep” are said to have been “vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle”:  a nightmare that takes the shape of an apocalyptic beast returning to Bethlehem to be born. But in the twenty-first century, there is an even more terrifying twist on the visionary “nightmares” that rode upon Yeats’s sleep in “The Second Coming” and “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” For today, the forces of irrationalism threatening civilization are quintessentially theological and not only committed to terrorism, but, potentially, armed with the most nightmarish, even apocalyptic, weapons.

In part a reaction to Western colonialism and more recent US intervention, militant Islam has deep theological roots in the “sword-passages” of the Quran. Though we have no choice but to confront the threat of jihadist terrorism, our “global war on terror” is both quixotic and often counter-productive. In the Bush-Cheney administration, Neo-conservative hubris joined with the evangelical notion that it is our messianic mission to extend to all cultures, however little we may understand the ethno-sectarian complexities, what President Bush invoked as “the Almighty’s gift of universal freedom.”  The result was the disastrous decision to invade Iraq, worsened when “liberation” became occupation. Worst of all, in the case of such stateless actors as al Qaeda and affiliated jihadists, and now, in the case of ISIS, our global war tends to generate more terrorists than we can kill. We face a metastasizing religious fanaticism impervious to traditional forms of rational or military deterrence and driven by the mad conviction that any and all forms of terror against the infidel West are part of a holy war carried out to avenge past injustices, all under the auspices of their approving God.

President Obama’s anti-terrorist policy, militant but limited, and only partially effective, will doubtless be intensified, whether Hillary Clinton or a Republican is the next President. If the latter, the principal competing visions may once again become apocalyptic, with each side embarked on a sacred mission to eradicate perceived evil. Along with religious-right hawks, we have militants ranging from Rapture-ready End-Timers to apocalyptic Christian Zionists to unreconstructed theoconservatives still clinging to a version of Bush’s Bible-based foreign policy. Despite Ted Cruz’s hyperbolic pledge to make the desert sands “glow,” there is a significant difference between the combatants: a distinction made graphic in the recent nuclear threats by apocalypse-hungry ISIS jihadists, whose suicide belts and Kalashnikovs will seem a quaint memory once they have acquired enough radioactive material to build a divinely sanctioned dirty bomb.

And then there is Iran. Its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameinei, insists that the endlessly reiterated chant, “Death to America,” is aimed, not at the American people, but at the US government and its “arrogant policies.” There is a danger of that distinction blurring should Khameinei—despite the more “moderate” elements in his government and against the majority wishes of the Iranian people, as reflected in the March 2016 elections—choose to resume Iran’s drive to acquire a nuclear weapon. Iran is already defying UN sanctions by testing missiles, tests not covered in the recent US-Iran strictly nuclear agreement. Any cheating on that nuclear accord would invite, well beyond sanctions, harsh retaliation, probably in the form of a massive preventive airstrike on Iran’s nuclear facilities—by the US alone, or in concert with Israel. No one knows what geostrategic repercussions might follow.

A greater nightmare scenario involves actual rather than potential nuclear weapons, with more to come. Pakistan is planning to more than double its arsenal of 100 warheads, including tactical (“battlefield”) weapons, which lower the threshold to nuclear war. And Pakistan, which would then be the fifth-largest nuclear power, is a state (to cite the title of Ahmed Rashid’s recent book) “on the brink” of chaos, perhaps in the form of an Islamist coup. Nine years ago, a matured Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan, determined to resist such militants. “Extremism” can be contained, she said, “if the moderate middle can be mobilized to stand up against fanaticism.” Just before the general election, she was assassinated. No Pakistani since has mobilized any “moderate middle,” and there is no prospect of any “center” likely to “hold.” Even if there is no full-scale coup, Pakistan’s arsenal—widely dispersed to deter the perceived enemy, India—will become still more vulnerable with the addition of those smaller, easier-to-steal “battlefield” nuclear weapons. They, or larger warheads, could be seized by a now more globally oriented Pakistani Taliban or by a post-bin Laden al Qaeda still inspired by 9/11: in both cases, terrorists clearly willing to use even these ultimate weapons in the name of Allah.

Though he admired much in the Islamic and Asian traditions, Yeats, who had read Spengler, feared a decline of the West accompanied by the rise of a barbarous fanaticism threatening all civilization. Europe’s debt crisis has now been compounded by Putin’s actions in Ukraine, and, above all, by the potential of the new migration crisis to destroy the European Union, now “on the verge of collapse,” according to Europe’s central figure, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose policy of  welcoming Syrian refugees has put even her dominant position in jeopardy. Yeats’s history-based vision of impending European disintegration, a centrifugal blowing apart triggering a decline and fall of the West as a whole, has taken a demographic and terror-haunted form. The problem of Europe’s dramatically declining native birthrates, long accompanied by growing Muslim populations, is, in 2016, exacerbated by the flood of refugees. Many Muslim immigrants, old and new, unassimilated and hopeless, are often hostile to the host countries, with some extremists eager to kill in the name of jihad—as demonstrated by various terrorist plots, culminating in the coordinated attacks in Paris and, three months later, in Brussels. Noting, in the aftermath of those attacks, that the EU has a single currency but lacks a common database to screen terrorists, Die Zeit political writer Jochen Bittner wondered (in the Yeatsian title of his March 24 NY Times op-ed): “Can the European Center Hold?”

Confronting crises in the turbulent Greater Middle East itself—the rise of ISIS, as a “state” and as a generator of jihadist attacks beyond the region; the mass migration produced by the ongoing carnage in Syria; and the apparently irresolvable impasse between Israel and the Palestinians (their contested land the setting for the biblical myth of Armageddon)—we have ample reason to fear that some momentous change is “at hand,” attended by anarchy and violence. Even those of us most skeptical of oracular clairvoyance often find ourselves caught up in the mingled terror and apocalyptic shudder of the Yeatsian Sublime. No matter how novel the specific threats that arise, we can’t seem to find better or, it sometimes seems, other words than those Yeats put on paper almost a century ago.

Responding to “The Second Coming” in our own troubled moment of history, we sense—now more than ever—that “the centre cannot hold.” Like the “falcon [that] cannot hear the falconer,” things seem to be whirling giddily out of human control. The centrifugal forces we have ourselves unleashed—sociopolitical, technological, military, economic, ecological—are now in the saddle and ride mankind. Within the long-term impact of the overarching global climate change we have exacerbated, there may be perfect storms combining nature and technology. Full-time teams are still fighting the radioactive tide at Fukushima, the nuclear plant devastated five years ago by earthquake and tsunami. A full clean up may take the rest of this century, and in the meantime, officials acknowledge, Fukushima remains vulnerable, a Japanese disaster threatening to become a wider catastrophe.

We in America gaze out at what, despite (and often because of) free-market globalization, is an increasingly unstable world: overheated and overpopulated, sporadically wealthy but overwhelmingly impoverished, violent, threatened by terrorism, and by both under- and over-reactions to it; and  groaning for a deliverance that seems never to come. The Arab Spring quickly lost its liberating early bloom, and Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, and Iraq, far from evolving into even semi-stable states, let alone democracies, are well on their way to falling apart: into mere anarchy, or becoming failed states ripe to be dominated by Islamist extremists. China (Napoleon’s sleeping giant) is awake but stumbling; Russia is once again militant under Putin; Iran and North Korea pose future and, in the case of the latter, a present nuclear threat; jihadism is on the march in the Middle East and Africa, its terror networks threatening to unleash a “wave of bloodshed” in Europe. Fresh crises loom everywhere, none more existential than the challenge to the planet itself presented by global climate change, and the threat to Western civilization posed by the apocalyptic savagery of ISIS.

Looking homeward, we wonder about the state of our own democracy. The Democratic Party offers little to rally around, and President Obama, reluctant to get into the trenches, has had a dismal record of working with Congress.  In fairness, it must be added that this President was resisted from the outset by many who, for political, economic, ideological, or racist reasons, never accepted him;  35% of registered Republican voters remain unreconstructed Birthers, and another quarter are “not sure” he was born in the United States. Even so, Obama has been too aloof to be fully effective.

§

But the primary blame is located in the very titles of some recent books: The Disappearing Center; Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy; Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party; and It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. The respected bipartisan authors of the latter, Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, formerly critical of both parties, now insist that the core of the current dysfunction and polarization is an inflexible and obstructionist Republican Party. Beginning with the demonization of opponents prescribed by Newt Gingrich, the party’s “center of gravity has shifted far to the right.” Today’s GOP is “ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” Mann and Ornstein concluded by hoping that voters in 2012 would “punish ideological extremism at the polls and look skeptically upon candidates who profess to reject all dialogue and bargaining with opponents.” Only then will “an insurgent outlier party” have “some impetus to return to the center. Otherwise, our politics will get worse before it gets better.” But things have continued to fall apart, with Republicans uninterested in moving toward a “center” that, many clearly believe, should no longer “hold.” The extremism Ornstein and Mann described three years ago is more obvious today. With no sign of getting better, our politics has gotten far “worse,” incarnate in that reductio ad absurdum, Donald Trump.

Even those of us who intend to vote this November have become frustrated by a system not only dysfunctional, but increasingly venal. Mark Twain’s old witticism that “we have the best government money can buy” was never more telling. Our electoral process has been utterly corrupted by “dark money”—to cite the title of Jane Mayer’s brave and brilliant new expose of the Koch Brothers and affiliated billionaires behind the rise of the radical Right. Their flood of filthy lucre was fully unleashed by the Super PAC-producing Citizens United decision—reinforced by the SpeechNow and McCutcheon cases—all thanks to a conservative and “activist” Supreme Court majority. Those decisions have set more beasts a-slouching. In an overheated 2012 essay titled “Beast of Citizens United Slouches Forward,” Charles Pierce described Mitt Romney as “in every way the rough beast” predicted by Justice John Paul Stevens (in his eloquent dissent in Citizens United): a beast “slouching toward Iowa to be born.” (This particular beast in pinstripes would be undone by the secretly taped revelation that he, like the rich donors he was speaking to at the time, believed that 47% of Americans were freeloaders, mooching on government handouts).

Writing in Vanity Fair, Craig Ungar also cited “The Second Coming,” in noting the re-emergence of a discredited Karl Rove, among the quickest to appreciate the SpeechNow decision, which overturned limits on individual contributions to PACs, making it easier for big donors to influence elections. “Proving the Yeatsian verity about the best lacking all conviction and the worst being full of passionate intensity, Rove has created a ruthlessly efficient political operation beholden to no one but himself.” Though dismissed by Donald Trump as a “total moron,” Rove, like Yeats’s irrepressible rough beast, is again heading-up his American Crossroads Super PAC, specifically dedicated to defeating Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The corrupting power of unrestricted money is manifest in the sorry spectacle of politicians pandering to the narrow interests of their party’s base and accommodating an ever-growing army of lobbyists, the most influential representing corporate interests. The result is legalized bribery, and, under the aegis of supply-side economics and an antipathy to government, a breakdown of that balanced public-private partnership epitomizing the genius of the American system at its best. Today, competing in a global market, Western democracies must engage as never before in strategic economic planning. Public investment in jobs, infrastructure, education, and research will be required to restore economic competitiveness. But such federal prescriptions are disdainfully rejected by Republicans, who have turned Ronald Reagan’s mantra about the federal government being the “problem” rather than the “solution” into Ayn-Randian economic dogma, referring to Washington as if it were an enemy capital and indulging the fantasy that the “socialist” federal government, which has supposedly “never created a job,” should just “get out of the way” and let the infallible free market work its trickle-down magic.

In this ideologically polarized context, those of a Keynesian bent, who still wish President Obama’s initial stimulus package back in 2009 had been larger, more innovative, and tied to financial regulation of the bailed-out banks, and who see a positive role for an activist federal government in economic crises, can expect no compromise (now a dirty word) from those committed to the deregulated market forces of the private sector. Hence, the persistent clamor of Republicans, who have virtually all signed on to Grover Norquist’s Pledge, for lower taxes on the most wealthy—the “job creators.” That remains a priority even in the face of an accelerating disparity between the many and the very few: a concentration of private and corporate wealth that translates into political power since laws tend to get written in accord with the interests of those (say, the Koch Brothers) writing the checks. Democrats, when they are not complicit in corporate power, bow to their own special interests, fostering divisiveness in the form of identity politics.

Either way, little constructive gets done. Despite the abysmal approval ratings of Congress, partisan confrontation blocks progress on any measure aimed at healing our economy and repairing our crumbling infrastructure. Three years ago, two liberal commentators drew on Yeats’s “The Second Coming” to deplore the gridlock. Addressing the political “failure” to grasp the “urgency” of the labor-market crisis, economist Paul Krugman decried (in his New York Times column in September 2012) Republican opposition to any plan likely to reduce unemployment. “These days,” charged Krugman, “the best—or at any rate the alleged wise men and women who are supposed to be looking after the nation’s welfare—lack all conviction, while the worst, as represented by much of the G.O.P., are filled with a passionate intensity.” Five months earlier, Bill Clinton’s former Labor Secretary announced his fear that the US economy was “Slouching toward a Double-Dip.” Playing a variation as well on “the center cannot hold,” Robert Reich observed that the top percent or two have now accumulated “so much of the nation’s total income and wealth that the middle class no longer has the purchasing power to keep the economy going full speed,” and that Republican resistance to tax increases had drained funds required to finance important public investments depended upon by that collapsing middle class. With Washington paralyzed by the divide between dread of mounting debt and the need to invest in infrastructure, education, and job retraining, our economy is still “slouching toward” potential disaster.

Krugman and Reich (and Bernie Sanders) notwithstanding, debt, deficits, and burgeoning entitlement spending certainly matter, and must be addressed, as fiscal conservatives rightly insist. On the other hand, most Republicans seem ideologically incapable of acknowledging the opposite danger: that deep retrenchment in public spending is likely to have the same effect here as in Europe, where fiscal austerity, even when it has arrested the downward slide, has failed to produce growth. Yet, as Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri has said, “market fundamentalism, radical privatization, and a universal fear of state power are overly simplistic answers to the question of how to sustain a modern, globalized economic order.” His focus is European and global, but Avineri is not forgetting the private-enterprise purists of the Republican Party in the United States.

§

Political tension, even partisanship, is not only inevitable but desirable; as William Blake reminds us in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Without Contraries is no progression.” Blake also notes in the same text that “Opposition is true friendship,” that differences can be dialectically fruitful, and need not sour into enmity.  But our current political divide is less dialectical than rancorous; and it transcends “politics as usual” because the widening gap is not only economic and ideological but often cognitive. Senator Moynihan’s reminder that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” has been trumped by political expediency and, often, by actual or willful ignorance. This phenomenon has been exacerbated by a polarized and polarizing media that caters to those who prefer to have their own prejudices confirmed and amplified rather than to actually think. In the cable war, CNN tacks to the center, but the conservative audience addicted to Fox News has little in common with the liberal audience addicted to MSNBC; and in that war, the clear victor has been Fox, the supposedly “fair and balanced” organ of Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes.

In the 1960s, historian Richard Hofstadter devoted two books to Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and The Paranoid Style in American Politics. One needn’t accept every nuance of what conservatives might consider his “elitist” condescension to conclude that Hofstadter’s fears are, today—when the political spectrum in the United States has shifted dramatically to the right—far more justified than they were when he was writing a half-century ago. What would he make, for example, of venomous, pseudo-populist right-wing radio or of the dominance of the Fox News Network? What of fundamentalist resistance, not just to ACLU excesses, but to the very concept of a constitutional separation of Church and State? Or of the Religious Right’s self-congratulatory challenge to the validity of science; most notably, dismissal of the scientific consensus on a partial but manifest human impact on global climate change and, most mind-boggling to the rational, the faith-based denial of the demonstrable truth of evolutionary biology? What would Hoftadter have to say, if he wasn’t rendered mute, by the spectacle of Ben Carson, a physician who is also an evolution-denying biblical literalist; of Ted Cruz, a sanctimonious, inflexible ideologue who deems everyone who demurs from his religio-political absolutism a far-left extremist; of insult-monger Donald Trump, who is—well—TRUMP.

At times we seem to be re-fighting the Civil War. During that defining national tragedy, both sides, equally immersed in the wrathful sword-and-vintage imagery of Revelation that dominates “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” saw themselves engaged in an apocalyptic struggle, each on God’s side and fighting against perceived evil. The Confederacy may have been defeated by the Union armies, but the old ideological struggle persists between central government and states’ rights, between a concept of the common good and unfettered individualism. And once again, though with considerably less justification, what ought to be a public-private partnership is turned into a conflict hyperbolized and sanctified by conservatives and libertarians as a fight to the death between federal “tyranny” and individual “liberty,” now intensified by the guns-and-God identification of the former with all that is reprehensibly “coercive” and “secular,” the latter with stridently libertarian and evangelical concepts of “freedom of religion.”

Faced with the acrimonious divide in our current religio-political Culture War (another example of a “dialogue of the deaf”) and attuned to the language of Yeats’s apocalyptic poem, we readily concur that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Ross Douthat, the conservative columnist earlier cited, returning to “The Second Coming” in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, lamented the “disappearance of a Christian center.” This “polarization is a sign of what happens” to a deeply religious country when “its theological center cannot hold.” However persuasive or dubious Douthat’s specific claim, his citation of Yeats’s famous line helps rhetorically by locating his argument within a larger and resonant context.

More than a quarter-century ago, in a 1988 “On Language” column, William Safire noted that Yeats’s line about the “center” failing to hold “is quoted whenever polarization takes place and centrists disappear.” That observation is even more germane today, when most centrists have fled Washington in frustration or been driven out by their own party’s more extreme elements. Six-time Indiana Republican Senator Dick Lugar, a notably civil and nuanced Republican with almost unparalleled expertise in foreign policy, was defeated in the 2012 primary by a Tea-Party challenger funded by massive outside spending.

The House situation worsened with the 2010 mid-term elections, when the Republican State Leadership Committee, deploying over $200 million from Republican-aligned “independent groups,” achieved the Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP) dream, giving the GOP control of the redistricting process until the new census in 2020. By assuring right-wing Republicans safe seats, gerrymandering underwrites obstinacy, reducing the Congress to a partisan, obstructionist combat zone, with opponents demonized and compromise replaced by mutual contempt and deadlock. When, in December 2015, Donald Trump, touting flexibility, criticized the relentlessly uncooperative Senate behavior of his main rival, Ted Cruz, he was furiously attacked by right-wing bloviators Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin for so much as suggesting he would be willing to work across the aisle. In response, a Cruz spokesperson, back when her man was still relentlessly buttering up The Donald, regretted only that Trump, in accurately noting Cruz’s rejection of any compromise, had resorted to “Democrat talking points”! No wonder centrists leave in frustration. What moderate Republican Olympia Snowe described, in announcing her retirement, as the Senate’s “crumbling center” epitomizes our larger cultural breakdown. When things fall apart, no center, religious or political, can hold.

The 2012 Republican primary debates were filled with fevered, self-righteous, semi-theological rhetoric about “taking our country back,” and “saving the soul of America.” Obama was still elected to a second term, to the dismay of Republicans who, from the outset of his first term, never intended to be a “loyal opposition.” Mitch McConnell flatly stated that the “priority” was to make Obama “a one-term president.” Even now, most Republicans put partisan politics ahead of cooperation, then complain when Obama resorts to executive actions. The old adage that politics ends at the water’s edge is long gone with the wind. Republicans adamantly resist, or ridicule, the nuclear deal with Iran, and would rather criticize a president they despise than find common ground in confronting the danger of ISIS.

Though there are thoughtful individual Republicans, their Party has become ideologically extremist and anti-intellectual, hostile to “elites” and to science. No Republican presidential candidate (even when there were seventeen of them) felt free to publicly accept the fact of biological evolution, let alone acknowledge the crisis of global climate change, resorting to denialism based on reports covertly funded by fossil-fuel interests. In December 2015, the Obama administration helped bring together in Paris 195 nations in an accord committing them, for the first time, to lowering planet-warming carbon emissions to help stave off the most drastic effects of climate change. The modest reductions are tailored but voluntary, making this an executive agreement, not a treaty, which would have been rejected by the Senate, controlled by Republicans who, beholden to the Kochs and their affiliates, either deny established climate science, pronounce the cost of combating the problem prohibitive, or are simply out to thwart the President’s agenda.

§

The 2012 Republican primary was temperate compared to the 2015-16 anti-establishment circus, initially starring a pious, clueless neurosurgeon (who would later flame out and endorse Trump), then dominated by a talented but absentee junior senator; an articulate but hyper-ambitious ideologue loathed on both sides of the aisle; and, above all, by a reality-TV huckster and hyperbolist. After losing to Ted Cruz in Iowa, Donald Trump crushed Cruz and Marco Rubio in the next three primary states, becoming—against all predictions from pundits left and right—the prohibitive frontrunner for the nomination. He has continued to cleverly exploit the national frustration at the polarization and dysfunction of Washington, as well as the growing (and justifiable) annoyance with “political correctness.” But in the process, building on and exacerbating the growing fear of all, not just radicalized, Muslims, the Birther-in-Chief (who later played that card on Canadian-born Cruz) has tapped into the nativist zeitgeist and Know-Nothingism of a substantial slice of the American electorate—whose fears, frustrations, and left-behind fury he adroitly channels and fuels.

Republican leaders, having long ginned up their base but caught off guard by the consequences, are now terrified at the looming prospect of Trump becoming their nominee. But he is the untethered Frankenstein’s monster they created—liberated from the Establishment, from Fox News, even from the Koch Brothers! The GOP’s strongest ticket would include John Kasich. But in an extremist milieu, victors tend to be those who appeal to voters “full of passionate intensity,” rather than to the “best”—the better-informed and less absolutist, who don’t expect simple answers to complex questions. Hoping Trump (and Cruz) would fade, the Establishment sought to anoint, as the Party’s “savior,” the more “electable” Rubio, whose initially upbeat campaign quickly darkened into the same old fear-mongering, religious pandering, and strident hawkishness. Since Bernie Sanders, despite his victories and virtual ties, seems unelectable in a center-right country, the Democratic nominee will be a self-wounded, baggage-laden Hillary Clinton.

We can be sure that both sides will be full of passionate intensity. We can also be sure that the Democratic and Republican candidates will be equally supported by their respective Super PACS. Hillary Clinton is flush in PAC money, Cruz is second only to her, and even Donald Trump (closing in on the nomination) will eventually come to the trough. Before his departure, Rubio’s cash cows included three multi-billionaires, who also happen to be pro-Israeli zealots. Despite differences (especially over the West Bank settlements), Israel is our ally, to whom we are bound by history and culture. But must loyalty be obsequious? The Republican nominees (even Trump, who caught hell for saying he would try to be a “neutral” negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian impasse) are tripping over each other vowing unconditional support of Israel. But 2016 began with primary emphasis on the terrorist and refugee crisis emanating from Syria and Iraq.

This was the subject of President Obama’s rare Oval Office Address in late December (a speech prompting emails from two old Fordham college friends, a Democrat and a Republican, but both foreign-policy hawks). In his Address on the terrorist threat, the President said that we should continue our current policy: working with international partners, using targeted airstrikes and special forces to attack terrorist networks. But he also warned against an expansive ground war in Iraq and Syria, calling for a “sustainable” victory using a minimal number of US ground forces. ISIS (or ISIL, as he prefers) would only grow stronger as an insurgency against an occupying power. “We will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless.” But alliterative rhetoric is no substitute for a specific strategy.

Until recently, almost everyone (aside from John McCain and Lindsay Graham) agreed with the President that substantial (tens of thousands) of American ground forces would be counterproductive. Trump’s characteristically crude and crowd-rousing alternative—to “bomb the shit out of ISIS”—was bested by Cruz’s lunatic and illegal proposal to “carpet-bomb” their “troops,” to make the desert sands “glow,” presumably with radioactivity.  Given the jihadists’ proximity to the civilians they terrorize and use as shields in the places they occupy, how many tens of thousands of innocents would we have to vaporize to destroy the Caliphate? Besides, even as ISIS loses territory in its Syrian-Iraqi base (down by more than a third from its apogee), the cancer metastasizes—to Yemen, Libya, elsewhere in Africa; and it retains the ability to inspire and coordinate terror attacks far beyond.

There was a shift, to include substantial “boots on the ground,” in the March 10 Republican debate. In calling for a large-scale injection of US troops into the region, the Republicans are in ironic accord with ISIS, itself the bitter fruit of our misguided invasion of Iraq and, in particular, of our ill-planned, blundering occupation, whose chaos created al Qaeda in Iraq. We want no more of that carnage. ISIS does, committed as it is to its own chiliastic scenario, its version of Armageddon. Based on ancient myth, revived by Abu Musàb al Zakhari, founder of al Qaeda in Iraq and the godfather of ISIS, and reiterated by the “Caliph” himself, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS apocalypse calls for a final battle on the plain outside the small village of Dabiq (north of Aleppo, in Syria). This unlikely place has long been prophesied as the site of the ultimate victory of the Islamic Caliphate over the armies of the infidel—nowadays, those of the United States. Much ISIS propaganda is devoted to luring us into that land war.

Dabiq Burns Cursader ArmiesImage from Islamic State video, in Dabiq (issue one) (via Clarion Project)

It is a lure we should resist. We can target, provide intelligence and special ops; but the main anti-ISIS ground force must eventually be made up, as the President says, of other Sunnis. At least for now, those Sunnis are divided among themselves. The Saudis, the promulgators of fundamentalist Wahhabism and funders of radicalizing madrassas throughout the Greater Middle East, continue their long and sordid double-game—though there are recent signs that they may finally be ready to field anti-ISIS troops. In any case, thus far, President Obama has not displayed the leadership skills (given these divisions, perhaps no one can) required to put together a pan-Arab force, let alone helm or guide the alleged coalition of “sixty-five” partners.

I agreed with some of the substance, though not the “anti-academic” tone, of the response to the Oval Office speech by my Republican Fordham friend. Ridiculing the president’s claim that his plan was “working,” he described Obama as “the ultimate college professor,” couching events that

unfold before his eyes as academic exercises requiring intellectual examination. True, there is a scholarly aspect than can be argued long into the night, but what is really needed is a bold, rousing response like that of George W. Bush, with the megaphone atop the rubble. It’s about looking and acting like a leader, despite the fact that it might not go beyond immediate visceral satisfaction.

Obama may indeed be too “professorial,” but I have no nostalgia for the sort of “bold, rousing response” that led us, hard on the heels of the justifiable attack on the Taliban harboring al Qaeda in Afghanistan, to the duplicitous invasion of Iraq. That 2003 invasion and the subsequent violence and chaos of the occupation triggered a massive increase in worldwide terrorism, an increase British Intelligence has aptly dubbed the “Iraq Effect.” It also engendered much of the current crisis in the Middle East—notably including the abrupt turn, in word and deed, to apocalyptism among Sunnis, not only in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, but in the global jihadist movement. This new End Times appetite among Sunnis, hitherto skeptical of apocalyptic thinking, was fueled by Sunni clerics and by the al-Qaeda precursor of ISIS, Zarqawi, who envisaged the new American “Crusaders” as having joined the Shia and the Jews in a triple union to “destroy” true Muslims. Unlike al Qaeda leaders bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, Zarqawi believed “the Final Hour must be approaching, to be heralded by the rebirth of the caliphate, the Islamic empire that had disappeared and whose return was prophesied.”[5] We now know what rough beast, its hour come round at last, has been slouching to be born in the deserts of Iraq: ISIS.

According to unreconstructed foreign policy hawks who still defend the invasion of Iraq and still fail to grasp the historic complexity of the Sunni-Shia division, that monstrous birth is entirely attributable to Obama, who “abandoned” a “liberated” Iraq made “stable” by the “Surge.” In exploiting the Anbar Awakening, General David Petraeus bought the provisional loyalty of Sunnis even more appalled by al Qaeda than by American forces. But while it was a success tactically and as PR, the Surge, elevated to the status of myth by Republicans, barely affected the underlying realities. Yet the President is incessantly condemned by Neocons, the right-wing media, and the current crop of GOP candidates for “squandering” our “gains” in Iraq by withdrawing “precipitously.” Though he is not without fault, this is far too sweeping, and, of course, characteristically partisan.

Like others, the President was slow to realize the gravity of the threat presented by ISIS (far from the “JV-team” of his glib dismissal), and he failed to heed warnings about the double-dealing of Maliki. The President was eager to get out of Iraq, in accord with his promise during the 2008 campaign, and reflecting the consensus of the vast majority of the electorate. But Republicans tend to pass over that other pledge: the one made by us to the Iraqi government, to completely withdraw US troops by 2011, a pledge made by President Bush. Without the Status of Forces agreement rejected by Maliki (at Iran’s behest), were we to leave in place, in violation of our own agreement and against the express disinvitation of the host government, a residual force of, say, 15-20,000 American troops? The President’s critics on the Right blandly assume that such a force would have prevented the rise of ISIS. General Petraeus recently expressed a wish that we had “tried the experiment,” though he is doubtful “it would have made a difference.”

Opportunities were lost, especially in Syria; today, ISIS entrenched and the Internet at its command, there are no longer any routes to a quick victory without considerable risks and downsides. Any plausible, as opposed to preposterous, plan to defeat ISIS, would not be wildly different from what the President seems to think he can wish into existence, and would involve actual rather than half-imaginary coalitions, Arab and European. But our internally-divided NATO and Arab allies lack the capacity to organize and lead an effective counteroffensive on their own. And Obama may not be the leader required to inspire and implement such a strategy. More hawkish Hillary might be up to the task, more so than Trump, Cruz, and the departed Rubio, all of them as inexperienced as they are bellicose. Had he not fallen from grace, the gifted David Petraeus, running as a Republican or a Democrat, might have provided both experience and thoughtfulness.

We should be under no illusion that there is any military silver bullet that could even conceivably resolve a crisis ultimately based on a long-delayed backlash against Western imperialism and economic exploitation, grievances made toxic by the most militant sections of the Quran being fed by radical clerics to alienated young Muslim men, ripe for revenge. But understanding the causes does not eliminate the need to confront the consequences. Given the deep sociopolitical, economic, cultural, and religious context, and the endless supply of hopeless young men susceptible to the siren call to jihad, eager to spill blood for the glory of Allah and to advance the End Times, there may be no way to avoid a protracted struggle. One would be more satisfied with a multi-pronged, gradual degradation of ISIS leading to eventual defeat were it not for the immediate dangers presented by sleeper cells, and by the ultimate nightmare: the acquisition by ISIS or its affiliates of a dirty bomb or, worse yet, a full-fledged nuclear weapon. Time is no more on our side here than in the need to confront the challenge of global climate change. So, what to do?

In Europe, intelligence has to be much better shared and the EU borders made less porous. Thousands of European Muslims have traveled to Syria and back, now thoroughly radicalized, militarily trained, and ready to wage jihad in their home countries. One such man, Salah Abdeslam, who helped orchestrate the attacks in Paris, slipped easily out of France and into Belgium. Four months later, he was found, by sheer luck, hiding out in jihadi central, Molenbeek, the Brussels neighborhood where he grew up. Though Belgian authorities announced that another attack was “credible and imminent,” Abdeslam’s questioning, apparently perfunctory, yielded no information. Within days of his capture, members of his cell launched their lethal attacks on the Brussels airport and metro station.

In the struggle against ISIS in the Middle East itself, we should counter Iran by pressuring al-Abadi to re-enfranchise the Sunnis, incentivizing the “Iraqi” army to fight, as it has started to do by recapturing Ramadi. We should also inform Turkey that we’re going to intensify our arming of the Kurds—and directly, not through Baghdad. Even then, we can hardly be confident that Sunni forces, themselves radical (foolishly disbanded but left armed by the US in 2003, they became the insurgency against us), would produce eventual stability. And the Kurds, willing and demonstrably able to fight ISIS, are primarily interested in their own independence: understandably, but a further source of regional instability. In fact, in the final week of 2015, Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, resumed a fierce battle to “annihilate” the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), militants who have long sought Kurdish autonomy.

In the immediate future, Iran and Russia have to be accepted as in fact what they are: major players in the region. This will outrage most on the Right and, when it comes to our policy in Syria, undermine what’s left of the “Assad-must-go” position of the Administration. The more pragmatic assessment of the President’s own Joint Chiefs is that any vacuum left by the removal of Assad will be filled with Sunni extremists rather than largely non-existent Syrian “moderates.” Even a provisional alignment with the supporters of the murderous Assad regime is repellent. But the principal goal we have in common with Iran and Russia is defeating ISIS. For now, along with preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon (the one other goal we share with Putin), confronting ISIS must be a strategic priority. In December 2015, a UN Resolution, jointly sponsored by the US and Russia, united many nations in an overdue effort to cut off the sources of ISIS funding. But that cooperation was dwarfed by the impact of Russia’s continued and intensified bombing of Syria, little of it targeting ISIS.

§

Caught up as we are in the struggle with ISIS in particular and jihadism in general, there is a related tension: between Islamophobia and a realistic assessment of the facts. In the wake of the large-scale Paris attack (preceded by the Charlie Hebdo murders and followed by the events in San Bernardino; Brussels was yet to come), President Obama sought to avoid demonizing Islam, while acknowledging that the Muslim community needs to grapple with the issue of radicalization and political violence. In his Oval Office Address, he urged Americans “to see Muslims as neighbors, friends, and countrymen, and to avoid bigotry and discrimination. If we’re to succeed in defeating terrorism, we must,” he said, “enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate.” But, the President added, that “doesn’t mean denying the fact that an extreme ideology has spread within some Muslim communities,” a “real problem that Muslims must confront without excuse.”

The latter is a problem that also needs to be confronted by those who, like the President, want to accept, if not the 65,000 recommended by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), at least 10,000 Syrian refugees. Donald Trump’s blatantly unconstitutional proposal that we ban all Muslims until we can figure out “what’s going on” is outrageous, but not, for many, much more so than the Administration’s plan to take in refugees whom even the Director of the FBI acknowledges we cannot properly vet. Tens of thousands of Syrians are starving in besieged towns, and almost all refugees have suffered horribly and deserve compassion. But ISIS would be derelict in its terrorist duty if it didn’t seek to infiltrate and radicalize some of those masses. Syria’s Middle Eastern neighbors—Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan—have taken in almost four million refugees, and Iraq and Egypt between them another 400,000. Even after the Paris attacks, up to the turn into 2016, Sweden and Germany (having already accepted over a million refugees) were absorbing very high numbers per capita. That ended abruptly in the final week of 2015. Since then the sexual attacks in Cologne and elsewhere on New Year’s Eve, by Arab and North African Muslim men, have challenged Merkel’s admirable welcoming policy and fueled legitimate concern, as well as xenophobia, erupting in street violence between right-wing opponents of immigration and leftist advocates of asylum.

Since our own Muslim population is far better assimilated it seems inhumane and craven for us to resist welcoming a mere 10,000 more, two-thirds of them (as referred to us by the UNHCR) women and children. But many Americans of good will, even those aware that the refugee problem has become a humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen since World War II, nevertheless fear, when it comes to Syrian war refugees, the radicalizing reach of ISIS. Of course, that is just one more aspect of the ISIS strategy of inculcating fear, turning victims seeking to escape from barbarism and lethal violence into potential security threats. The record suggests otherwise. According to an October 2015 Migration Policy Institute report, of the 784,000 refugees we’ve taken in since 9/11, only three have been arrested on terrorism-related charges. But recent events have intensified our concern. Having accepted fewer than 2,000 Syrian refuges since 2012, and now, with many Americans (and virtually all Republicans) opposed to the President’s plan regarding the 10,000, the United States runs the risk of fueling—across the European continent—the sort of anti-immigrant (and anti-American) far-right populism represented in France by Marine Le Pen and her National Front party, and, in Hungary, by Putin buddy Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Worse yet, our resistance to accepting refugees further destabilizes such frontline states as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and strains relations with Germany, which has borne the brunt of the flood into Europe. We have contributed $450 million to alleviate the crisis in Syria, yet appear to be sitting it out, though we are hardly blameless in terms of responsibility. An increasing number of Germans believe, with good reason, that while they are shouldering the consequences of the collapse of Syria, it is America that bears much of the responsibility for the causes of that collapse.  Even former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, Bush’s war partner, though still proud of the ouster of Saddam, admitted (on CNN in October 2015) that “mistakes” were made. Indeed, “the rise of ISIS and the disintegration of Syria figure among the catastrophic consequences of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.”

That accurate conclusion was drawn by Michael Ignatieff, playing off but going beyond Blair’s admission. The Murrow Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School observed in his November New York Review of Books essay “The Refugees & the New War,” that the refugees present not only “a humanitarian crisis,” but “a national security challenge,” though not the one stressed by those unnerved by the possibility of importing terrorists. US strategy in the final year of Obama’s presidency should start, he concludes, from the understanding that helping Europe deal with the refugees is

critical to the battle against jihadi nihilism. If Europe closes its borders, if the frontline states can no longer cope, the US and the West will face millions of stateless people who will never forget that they were denied the right to have rights. In a battle against extremism, giving hope to desperate people is not charity, it is simple prudence….In a war against jihadi nihilism, in a world of collapsing states and civil war, a refugee policy that refuses to capitulate to fear belongs at the center of any American and European strategy.

This openness—at once strategic and in accord with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent confirmations of the rights of stateless refugees—is currently complicated by the sheer scope of the crisis; while hesitance is propagandized by jihadists as anti-Muslim hatred. Trump’s “total ban” feeds that narrative, yet appeals to some annoyed by Obama’s attempt to recognize distinctions. With jihadism expanding and growing more savage and dangerous with the emergence of the apocalyptic and ruthless Islamic State, many have wearied of the President’s nuanced language, especially his apparent inability to utter the phrase “radical Islamist terrorism.”

This semantic sensitivity, though diplomatically defensible and admirably intended to avoid turning combat with jihadist terrorism into a war on Islam itself, nevertheless seems misguided, unnecessary, and patronizing—to the vast majority of Muslims and to those capable of distinguishing between them and jihadists. His stubbornness on this point (adhered to by Hillary) also leaves Obama, once we get beyond the lunatic Right’s delusion that he is himself a covert Muslim, vulnerable to the charge of politically correct reticence—and worse.

In a discussion of foreign policy during the December Republican primary debate, Chris Christie contemptuously dismissed the President as a “feckless weakling.” None of the other Republicans on the stage objected to this depiction of a sitting President, whose reputation affects national security. The prime example of this “weakness” for most of his critics, even for many of his supporters, remains Obama’s pivotal rethinking of his initial decision, in the summer of 2013, to militarily enforce the chemical-weapons “red line” he had drawn in Syria, cancelling the airstrikes intended to punish Assad for crossing that line. While the President should never have laid down that red line, he did have valid reasons, military and political, to rethink the airstrikes. His reversal was influenced by David Cameron’s failure to get parliamentary authorization, Angela Merkel’s reluctance, and Obama’s own second thoughts about the danger, in blowing up chemical depots, of poisoning the very civilians he was trying to save.  But the price was not only a loss of US “credibility,” but a perception of Obama himself as vacillating, indecisive, “weak.”[6]

Though Obama’s reluctance to intervene in the cauldron of the Middle East should be appreciated as wisdom rather than dismissed as weakness, he can also be frustratingly overcautious. He can also appear casual, as in his decision, after Brussels, to continue his visit to Cuba and Argentina rather than rush back to Washington. (Despite the baseball-and-tango “optics,” he was also ordering the commando operation that took out the ISIS Finance Minister.) Better Obama’s cool and restraint than the reckless hubris of Cheney and Bush, whose “bold, rousing response” led to the catastrophic invasion and occupation of Iraq. Obama’s restraint is also preferable to the macho chest-thumping of Chris Christie, hailed (three years ago by conservative pundit Bill Kristol) as a much-needed incarnation of Yeats’s “rough beast.”[7] This President’s scrupulous deliberation has its own flaws, but it is sober and rational compared to the half-truths and hyperbole that have marked this Trump-dominated Republican primary in general.

↑ return to Contents

IV. Things Fall Apart: The American and European Center Threatened

In fact, the more one sees and hears Donald Trump, the more one recognizes in him, far more than in Christie (who later hitched on to Trump), the contemporary political incarnation of Yeats’s “rough beast”—boorish, narcissistic, reckless, given to irresponsible hyperbole and ad hominem bullying. In a January 20 New York Daily News op-ed, “Slouching toward Des Moines,” Harry Siegel deplored the inadequacy of the candidates then gathering for the Iowa caucuses. “The people who would be President are lunatics, liars or both,” he opined. Citing Yeats’s poem in its entirety, he synopsized “the Republican view of the world, and America’s place in it,” by directly quoting Trump, and captioning as a symbol of “passionate intensity” a photo of Trump being endorsed by syntax-challenged flamethrower and nitwit, Sarah Palin. “What rough beast?” Siegel wondered, answering himself: “I’m afraid we’re about to find out.” One day earlier, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson noted the intensified conflict between the frontrunners for the Republican nomination: Trump, an “ethno-nationalist wrecking ball,” and Ted Cruz, “more demagogue than ideologue.” Gerson concluded his January 19 Washington Post column: “For Republicans, the only good outcome of Trump vs. Cruz is for both to lose. The future of the party as the carrier of a humane, inclusive conservatism now depends on some viable choice beyond them”—a sentiment echoed by his NY Times counterpart, David Brooks, hoping for Trump and Cruz to kill each other off.

A few days later, National Review, the venerable conservative journal founded by William F. Buckley, weighed in with a special Against Trump issue, featuring twenty-two diatribes denouncing Trump, a “philosophically unmoored opportunist who would trash the conservative ideological consensus.” In varying degrees of panic (the one African-American among them, Thomas Sowell, more exercised by hatred of Obama than fear of The Donald, sounded positively unhinged), the right-wing pundits (plus Glenn Beck) projected the nomination of Trump as a disaster for the Republican Party and a catastrophe for their own “principled,” intellectual conservatism.

Trump characteristically dismissed National Review as a failing, elitist magazine, and announced that his followers’ loyalty was such that if he were to “shoot someone on Fifth Avenue” it would have no effect on his numbers. The outrageous remark was at once offensive and funny. Fears that it might also be accurate were allayed when a suddenly vincible Trump was defeated in evangelical Iowa by a hymn-citing Cruz (“To God be the glory!”), while just edging out a no-less-pious Rubio, praising “Jesus Christ, who came down to earth and died for our sins.”  Better Trump than Cruz, though it’s hard to know which demagogue best embodies the Yeatsian “worst.” As a deal-maker par excellence, Trump seems flexible and pragmatic, but as a candidate on the stump and on TV, he plays a man “all conviction” and “full of passionate intensity,” his certitudes and seemingly spontaneous outbursts cunningly calculated to inflame, while entertaining, the huge crowds he attracts. Media-savvy and freewheeling, a master of the immediacy of reality TV, Trump plays on the frustrations and fears, the anger and alienation, of his core audience: white, non-college-educated, struggling economically—in short, the very “losers” this relentless exponent of “winning” almost certainly despises even as he charms them.

Going into New Hampshire, some attention shifted to Cruz and Rubio, but moderate Kasich beat them both, and all were trounced by Trump, whose decisive victory there, in South Carolina and Nevada (and solid lead in the national polls) left the Republican Establishment reeling. Much of the Religious Right has rallied to Trump, but not Richard D. Land, the former President of the Southern Evangelical Seminary. Dipping into the “maelstrom” of sociopolitical turmoil agitated by the “populist uprising” of 2016, Land, now executive editor of The Christian Post, reported on January 31, that lines of Yeats’s “famous poem” keep “running through my mind.” He quoted a half-dozen lines of “The Second Coming,” beginning, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” and asked, in conclusion: “Can the political-societal center hold, or has it been hollowed out (center, and increasingly the center-right and center-left) to the point that America and her political institutions have devolved into…ethnic, societal, religious, and electronic tribes (Fox, CNN, and MSNBC)?” Has the “tidal wave of intense populism” surfed by Sanders and Trump left us with a “political tsunami” and an anti-centrism “currently beyond rational constructive consensus?”

This imagery, like the loosing of Yeats’s irrational “blood-dimmed tide,” captures the out-of-control aspect of the 2016 election. The populist appeal of Bernie Sanders, focused on inequality of wealth and opportunity, though anti-establishment, is comparatively benign. But just as Yeats tapped into the Collective Unconscious of  Spiritus Mundi for his images in “The Second Coming,” Donald Trump has, alas, tapped into part of the American psyche—not the Emersonian “Oversoul,” but the darker Under-Soul, or “base,” or id, of the contemporary Republican Party. His appeal, populist-nationalist and pseudo-conservative, though based on himself as the latest embodiment of the Great Man theory, feeds on the facile illusion of simple solutions to complex problems and on what Nietzsche called ressentiment.

As E. J. Dionne noted in an August, 2015 Washington Post op-ed titled “When Yeats Comes Knocking,” Trump “is a symptom of a much wider problem.” Citing the “most cited poem in political commentary,” Dionne observed that we are “definitely in for another ‘Second Coming’ revival,” since “the center is under siege all over the democratic world.” Dionne, a liberal, quoted conservative Reihan Salam, also struck by the similarities between Trumpism and rising movements (to the left and right of centrist European parties) that “manage to blend populism and nationalism into a potent anti-establishment brew.” In a February 24 NY Times op-ed, Jacob Weisberg, author of a balanced new study of Ronald Reagan, noted that unless the Republican Party (which venerates Reagan, but more in the breach than the observance of his pragmatism) “repudiates the inflammatory rhetoric of the primary, it will lose Reagan’s claim to the center and become more like one of Europe’s chauvinistic right-wing parties.”

Trump’s wealth allows him to spurn corporate donors and PACs (appealing to his working-class supporters), and to mock (in tweets) his fellow candidates as “puppets” who (aside from Kasich) flock to palatial meetings to “beg for money from the Koch Brothers.” But he is at one with the Republican Right in fomenting hatred of a federal government allegedly out to “take away our guns” and freedom; and no one has matched Trump in manipulating the festering rage and fear over rapid demographic and sociocultural change that the former fringe but now center of the GOP has been scaremongering for years. That witches’ brew culminates in Obamaphobia: a visceral hatred directed at the ultimate “other”: that alien and Constitution-spurning usurper in the White House whose domestic reign Republicans deem “lawless” and “imperial,” even as they pronounce him “weak” in foreign policy. The hatred is most toxic in Cruz and Rubio, who accused the President of deliberately intending to damage the United States.

In dealing with Syria and ISIS, Obama’s characteristic weighing of every alternative can summon up, even among some of his supporters, the most repeated phrase from “The Second Coming.” I would not myself ascribe to the President a “lack of conviction,” let alone the sweeping “all conviction,” applied (by David Lehman and by the authors of ISIS: The State of Terror) to those who have demonstrated insufficient decisiveness in confronting the terrorist challenge. Cool, poised, and aloof amid the fevered atmosphere of polarizing and extremist babble, Obama may see himself (a colleague, historian Ed Judge, suggests) as the “Man” in Kipling’s “If”: “If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” Almost congenitally incapable of expressing and evoking that “visceral” response sometimes required of a leader, Obama can vacillate. Again, his pivotal decision/revision not to enforce with air strikes the red line in Syria brings to mind Yeats’s tragic insight, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”

This President may not be the “best,” but he is far better than this year’s Republican alternatives, all (with the only partial exception of John Kasich) critics and haters at once dismissive of Obama’s “weakness” and apoplectic about his exercise of executive power. Finally, however, as it is worth recalling, there are passions even more intense than Obamaphobia. The excellent documentary, “VICE Special Report: Fighting ISIS,” which debuted on HBO on the final day of 2015, ends with Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Baghdad, lamenting the presence in fragmented Iraq of multiple “passionate intensities,” none boding well for the region, or for us.

§

Like the volatile American primary races, the world doesn’t stop turning and churning. 2016 began with the US stock market’s worst-ever start to a new year, a five-day sell-off reflecting international economic and political turmoil. There are two epicenters this time, Europe and China. In China, runaway economic growth has come to a sudden halt, reflected in the plummeting of its financial markets and fostering a cycle of decline and panic throughout the world, especially in South America and in South Africa, whose economies rely on supplying Chinese manufacturing’s insatiable demand for natural resources. These negative repercussions are compounded by the collapse in the price of crude (at its lowest point in a dozen years), which has already had a devastating impact on petro-states, much of whose oil is sent to China. The dramatic slowdown of the long overheated Chinese economy, the second largest in the world and a main driver of international trade, could conceivably trigger a global recession deeper and wider than the US and Europe-centered financial crisis of 2008.

The European situation is more immediate and more dire. Geoffrey Wheatcroft opened a February 18, 2016 essay in The National Interest: “There are times—and the present moment is very much one of them—when certain great poems, minatory and ominous, force their way into the mind.” He cites Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians,” Auden’s “The Fall of Rome,” Kipling’s “Recessional.” But his title, “Europe’s Political Center Cannot Hold,” confirms that he really has in mind “that extraordinary, oracular work,” Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” The lines about mere anarchy and the blood-dimmed tide being “loosed upon the world” were (notes Wheatcroft, aware of the poem’s original context) “not meant to be a guide to everyday politics.” Yet the words “the center cannot hold” and “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” written in 1919, “seemed all the more forceful with every year over the next decades of totalitarianism, total war, and total murder.”

So they do again today. We have witnessed the explosion of the Levant and the implosion of Europe, the rise of demagogues on both the Left and, more notably, on the Right, on both sides of the Atlantic. The internal atrophy of politics in the United States is another question [and one not limited to “Donald Trump’s vulgarity”]….But we Europeans should hesitate before sneering….What has happened in these recent years is not just the near collapse of the European Union, but the demonstration of its complete inadequacy to deal with present dangers, from the self-inflicted and unresolvable crisis of a single currency…to the awful problem of mass immigration [caused mostly by refugees fleeing the horror in Syria]….Beyond that is the acute threat within Europe to political stability. The [the old center-right and center-left consensus] is now being severely challenged from the outside left and outside right by parties and politicians called “extremist” or, much more revealingly, “populist.”

Hungary, Poland, and other Eastern European countries, only free of Soviet imperialism for a quarter-century and in the European Union for a decade, have shown “alarming signs of sliding back into authoritarianism, nativism, racism and corruption.” Even “more perturbing” are events in the nations of Western Europe, recent experience in the largest of which (France, Germany, and Italy) has been “somber.” Consider France, where the National Front founded by neofascist Jean-Marie Le Pen is now headed by his more adroit daughter, who expelled her father from a party whose tone, however, remains staunchly nativist, “anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim.” Wheatcroft’s survey, brief but ominous, provides sufficient evidence to support his grim Yeatsian thesis: “Europe’s political center cannot hold.”

On the humanitarian and political fronts, 2016 arrived accompanied by an intensification of already bad news. The Syrian refugee nightmare continued to worsen by the day, with tens of thousands of Syrian civilians—cut off in towns besieged by pro- or anti-government forces, and bombed from the air—starving and freezing as a harsh winter set in (an ironic reminder of the antithetical crisis: accelerating global warming). Russian airstrikes, especially in and around the rebel-held city of Aleppo, intensified sharply. The February peace talks in Geneva were suspended before they even started, a “temporary pause” essentially attributable to Putin’s bombing, a strategy popular at home and successful in turning the war in favor of Russia’s ally, Assad. In March, that goal achieved, Putin withdrew.

Putin was always seeking a military rather than a political solution in Syria; while the US negotiated but seemed unable to stop him, debating even about airdrops of food and medicine in areas where Russian planes were operating. The agreement reached in Munich on February 11, between John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, called for a “cessation of hostilities” on the ground in Syria in order to get humanitarian aid to besieged areas. This tentative step toward a true cease-fire depends on its being honored by the various warring parties and by Assad himself. At the very moment when negotiations to that end were underway, ISIS launched its deadliest attacks of the civil war, bombings that took at least 130 lives. Whatever our role or Putin’s, without a genuine cease-fire, the humanitarian crisis will intensify within Syria and continue to expand throughout the Middle East and Europe as desperate refugees flee starvation and carnage.

At the same time, we have an expanded example of the post-World War I European fragmentation that prompted Yeats to conclude in 1919 that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” In 2016, beyond the internal collapse of the European “center,” the transatlantic alliance binding the United States and Europe since the end of World War II and anchoring global stability for seven decades seems no longer able to hold. We are still united by shared values, but there is a growing divergence between European and American priorities. Their militaries underfunded, worried about the potential threat of unassimilated Muslim populations, the nations of Europe (and Turkey, also a NATO member) are too divided among themselves to present much of a united front. Insufficiently full-throated in celebrating American “exceptionalism,” and caricatured by jingoists as “apologizing” for America, Barack Obama has been more justly accused of indecisiveness in his vacillation over the Syrian “red line.” We retain—for good or, as we know all too well, for ill—the option to act unilaterally; but  things have fallen so far apart that, whoever is President, the US may no longer be able to lead a coalition of the unwilling, or unable.

This transatlantic division and consequent diminution of resolve and leadership is especially dangerous at a moment when the West is confronted by so many global challenges. The most urgent emanates from the world’s most volatile region, the Middle East, torn by its own divisions: the old and apparently irresolvable breaches between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Shia and Sunni. After three decades of opining about the Middle East, Tom Friedman, in effect, threw up his hands, admitting in his February 12 NY Times column that none of “the many Mideast solutions” are any longer viable. He concluded that the “real,” as opposed to the “fantasy,” Middle East is “a wholly different beast now slouching towards Bethlehem.”

The intra-Muslim rift has been intensified by the recent rupture between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the region’s two most powerful oil-rich states, and the principal defenders, respectively, of the Sunni and Shia branches of schismatic Islam. Triggered by the Saudi execution of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, and the ransacking and torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, the crisis between these regional rivals led, in early January, to a severing of diplomatic relations and to escalating tensions affecting the whole of the Middle East. The breach torpedoed hopes for diplomatically resolving the crises in Syria and Yemen, in which Tehran and Riyadh support opposing sides, and it works to the benefit of ISIS by further destabilizing a region already fractured along ethno-sectarian fault lines. With this Saudi-Iran rupture, we also have the hypocritical spectacle of one barbaric theocracy criticizing the other for behaving—barbarically.[8]

Both autocracies relish the graphic execution of their perceived enemies, and both spread terror: our “ally” through its far-flung madrassas and by permitting its elites to fund jihadists; our opponent, but partner in the nascent nuclear agreement, more directly, and through such proxies as Hamas and Hezbollah. The January 4 New York Times account of the crisis was accompanied by a video of a Tehran mob being whipped into a religio-political frenzy by a cleric ranting that the decapitation of al-Nimr, part of a mass execution (forty-seven in all, mostly by beheading and mostly Sunnis), was carried out at the behest of Islam’s true enemies. According to this turbaned pundit, the Saudis are the “collared dogs” of the Little and Great Satan; thus, the protest climaxed with the usual chants: “Death to Israel,” “Death to America” (even, for good measure, “to England”).

As a fomenter of hatred, unrest, and terror, Iran is second only to ISIS. Offering one glimmer of light, the March 2016 Iranian elections confirmed widespread support for the reformers and those most committed to the nuclear agreement with the US. Whatever the leadership’s internal stresses, and while it remains a theocratic tyranny, Iran seems dynamic compared to its sclerotic regional rival. While revolutionary Iran meddles, propping up the Assad government, bankrolling Israel’s regional opponents, and stirring up Shia minorities in the Sunni-dominated Gulf states, the Kingdom is experiencing its own severe internal tensions. The new dynastic discord within the Saudi royal family has reached the point where open conflict is now a plausible threat, a scenario incomprehensible before the January 2015 ascension of King Salman. Reputedly suffering from dementia, the aging King may have deferred considerable authority to his favorite son, defense minister and Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed bin-Salman.

Whoever is calling the shots, ailing father or impulsive son, the monarchy’s new and unilateral aggressiveness (pursuing in Yemen a costly, brutal, and indecisive war against the Houthi movement and the Yemeni army, and ordering these recent provocative executions) reflects less strength than fear. Fear of a succession crisis; fear, despite huge cash reserves, of a collapsing oil-based economy; above all, fear of revolutionary Iran and its hegemonic ambitions in the region. The nuclear deal with the US has alarmed not only Israel and Saudi Arabia, but all the Sunni states. Its verification procedures are persistently and deliberately misrepresented by its opponents, but the accord still comes with a cost. Even those of us in favor of the deal— given the unpalatable alternatives—should be as troubled as its opponents are by the prospect of a $100 billion or so windfall attending the unfreezing of Iranian assets in the initial withdrawal of sanctions. Most of that money will be needed to rebuild the sanction-damaged Iranian economy. But some of it will inevitably be used to fund Iran’s proxies. What impact might that influx of cash have on the region?

Bahrain and Sudan joined the Saudis in breaking diplomatic relations with Iran; the Emirates sharply reduced contacts; and Shia militias bombed Sunni mosques in Iraq. Quickly rippling through the Middle East, the decision to behead al-Nimr stirred protests as far away as Pakistan and India. The fact that the United States advised against the execution of al-Nimr and was given no advance notice of the Saudi decision to sever diplomatic relations with Iran suggests that the young Crown Prince may be in charge in Riyadh. With the role of the US diminished, China and Russia both weighed in, urging restraint; Putin even offered to mediate. This political and religious crisis, the most dangerous regional confrontation in decades, threatens, in the language of several Middle-East experts, to “spiral out of control.”  Retired General Mark Hertling, a perceptive CNN military analyst, concerned that a more direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran could erupt, employed the same imagery: “That’s the key issue. This is spiraling very quickly.” It is hard, in pondering the perennial relevance of “The Second Coming” to contemporary crises, not to think of Yeats’s own spiraling imagery: the poem-opening falcon, no longer under the control of the falconer, “turning and turning in the widening gyre,” its spiraling movement replicated by the “desert birds” whose shadows “reel” about the ominous “shape” moving in “sands of the desert.”

This crisis, on hold but potentially explosive, is part of a recurrent centrifugal pattern. Yeats was responding to specific historical events in “The Second Coming.” If readers were bound by the literary equivalent of judicial “originalism,” the theory espoused by the eloquent but reactionary late Justice Antonin Scalia, many or most of them would be guilty, in endlessly citing and alluding to the poem, of misappropriation, quoting Yeats’s words while inadvertently or deliberately misconstruing his original political intentions. But we are not thus bound, as Yeats also intended. For his deepest and most genuine foresight, as we have also seen, was his decision to delete, in the process of composition, virtually all the specific details that would have tethered his poem to the events of 1919 as seen through the perspective of the worst atrocities of the French Revolution. The result is a universal poem that has resonated with every generation of readers, and from every political perspective, for almost a century.

Whether we have in mind international political and economic crises, the coarsening and polarization of American politics, the metastasizing of Islamist terrorism, the fragmentation of the European Union and of the Middle East, the refugee tide inundating Europe and the Levant, the danger of nuclear proliferation and nuclear blackmail, or the interrelated ecological challenges threatening life on the planet itself in our new “Anthropocene Age,” we may be reminded of John Donne’s disoriented cry early in the 17th century. With “new Philosophy” calling “all in doubt,” sun and earth “lost” and the “Firmament”  itself “crumbled out againe” to atoms, the Metaphysical poet summed up the chaos in a single line: “‘Tis all in pieces, all cohaerence gone” (The First Anniversary, 205-13). That lamentation over the loss of wisdom, cohesion, stability and order was surely recalled by an admirer of Donne, W. B. Yeats, when he wrote the line that has become so familiar to those contemplating the world the modern poet prophesied as he brooded, in excited reverie and dread, over European disintegration, and envisioned, “everywhere,” the loosing of an irrational blood-dimmed tide of “anarchy” and varieties of “passionate intensity” erupting in violence and chaos. To quote it once more: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

One recalls that open question from Yeats’s near-parallel poem, the great sequence “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”: given all this, “is there any comfort to be found?” If so, it is unlikely, for most readers of “The Second Coming,” to derive from Yeats’s own Burkean political perspective, in which the sociocultural disintegration threatened by centrifugal forces could be countered only by the values of a hierarchical, aristocratic civilization. What comfort there is, if there is any at all, may be inherent in the symbol of the gyre itself: the eternal cycle which, for Blake, was a dehumanizing nightmare, but, for Yeats’s other great mentor, Nietzsche, an eternal recurrence to be embraced with astringent tragic joy. And there is a variation more comic than tragic. That aspect of the recurrent cycle was caught by an anonymous editorial writer in the Christmas Eve 2015 issue of a newspaper, the Memphis Flyer. “Simultaneously looking back and forward,” and proceeding “ahead into the next turning of the eternal gyre,” the editorialist invoked the locus classicus:

That aspect of the eternal gyre is something we of the Western world owe to William Butler Yeats, whose poem, ‘The Second Coming,’ gave us lines to remember through all the cycles, all the turnings of fate that seem to foreshadow an end but merely invite a new beginning. There are times, as Yeats wrote almost a century ago, when ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.’ A hundred years later, and it’s still true. It will always be still true. And we will survive and scramble to find our place in a brand new cycle, which itself will seem to be heading to an end but will just be the same old adventure in a new cycle….

The phrasing at its most glib—“merely,” “brand new,” “just be the same old adventure”—is in keeping with the purpose of the editorial, which was to wish its readers a “Happy New Year!” But, mutatis mutandis, this  optimism differs only in tone from Yeats’s own pipe dream, as expressed in his lengthy annotation to “The Second Coming.”  I refer to the vision—influenced by Nietzsche but one that would have repelled Blake—of that new and nobler hierarchical civilization Yeats hoped, and apparently believed, would succeed the democratic and Christian age that was dying.

Introducing his play, The Resurrection, Yeats presents a counter-myth to democracy, Christianity, and that linear “progress” Nietzsche dismissed as a “modern theory, and therefore vulgar.” “When I was a boy” Yeats tells us,

everybody talked about progress, and rebellion against my elders took the form of aversion to that myth. I took satisfaction in certain public disasters, felt a sort of ecstasy at the contemplation of ruin. [Around the turn of the century, after reading Nietzsche], I began to imagine, as always at my left side just out of the range of sight, a brazen winged beast that I associated with laughing, ecstatic destruction.

Yeats goes on in this paragraph to cite his 1903 uncanonical play Where There is Nothing, featuring a Nietzschean beast with the literally hilarious name, “Laughter, the mightiest of the enemies of God”—a beast (he adds in a footnote) “afterwards described in my poem ‘The Second Coming’.”

But is this assertion, this claimed identity, really accurate? Mythically and politically, the apocalyptic “rough beast” of “The Second Coming,” wingless and certainly not laughing, may represent both the end-product of the vision of the “progressive” Left and the first stirrings, life arising out of death, of an antithetical vision of the aristocratic Right. But however “exciting” it may be, the risen and slouching creature, as actually presented in the poem, is far less promising than sinister, its imminent birth less hopeful than horrifying. In terms of its precursors, Yeats’s rough beast resembles Nietzsche’s beasts, cruel or laughing, only peripherally. And it has less in common with Blake’s prophetic Tyger, terrible but beautiful, than with the slouching, bestial Nebuchadnezzar of Blake’s striking illustration. Indeed, as a creature of “second birth,” the rough beast may most resemble one of those “tigers” Wordsworth imagined prowling the bloodied streets of revolutionary Paris, ready to pounce again in the even worse Terror to come: for all things have second birth.

In short, whatever the poem’s original starting point as a response to his juxtaposed Bolshevik and French Revolutions, and whatever Yeats’s own politics and cyclical counter-myth to the vulgar modern myth of linear progress, “The Second Coming” turned out, as a linguistic work of art, to have a momentum all its own, quite aside from authorial intention. Though the tone of the finished poem mingles dread with a vestigial schadenfreude (“I-told-you-so”) exultation, it ends in human incertitude rather than prophetic certainty.

Other readers may differ, but, aside from that breathless and ambiguous phrase, at once cyclical and terminal, “its hour come round at last,” I find—once we’ve turned from the prose glosses to the actual text of “The Second Coming” itself—little or nothing of the anticipatory optimism attending Yeats’s theoretical celebrations of ecstatically destructive beasts. Nor, I believe, at least as poet rather than prose annotator or apocalyptic theorist, did W. B. Yeats—his sight titillated, but, finally, as “troubled” as ours by what he glimpsed before the darkness dropped again.

↑ return to Contents

V. What Rough Beast?: Can (Should) the American Center Hold?

Re-narrowing the focus, I want to return to the current American political scene, specifically to the 2016 Republican primary race. As mentioned earlier, back in 2012, Bill Kristol, the conservative mastermind who had earlier helped midwife both the Iraq War and the emergence to national prominence of Sarah Palin, welcomed Chris Christie as the “rough beast” the Republican Party needed to win the Presidency. This time around, we have two far more likely Republican contenders for the title of “rough beast”: Donald Trump, obviously, but with Ted Cruz lurking in the wings.

Christie was forced out of the 2016 race after a humiliatingly weak showing in New Hampshire, but not before humiliating Marco Rubio, who, in a campaign-altering meltdown, reiterated a canned accusation that it was Obama’s deliberate intention to damage the US:  “We have to stop saying that Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing; he knows exactly what he’s doing….” Rubio kept robotically repeating this charge of presidential treason, even after Christie had twice ridiculed, not the malice or the mendacity, but the verbatim repetition! In a second coming, Christie, out of the running himself, returned as a revenant the day after the Republican debate in Austen, Texas, to repeat his takedown of Rubio. Having finally been put on the defensive in that debate by Rubio, Trump demonstrated his skill in dominating the news cycle. The next day, in a surprise “Big Announcement,” he trotted out Christie to repeat his ridicule of Rubio while effusively endorsing the “one man” able to provide America “the strongest possible leadership” and insure that “Hillary Clinton will never return to the White House.” In one stroke, this tag team of bullies blunted Rubio’s short-lived post-debate “momentum,” taking the wind out of the sails of the Republican Establishment’s preferred last hope to Stop Trump.

Shortly thereafter, with Christie looking less like a formidable surrogate than a flaccid sycophant, Trump managed (after failing, in response to repeated questions from CNN’s Jake Tapper, to definitively repudiate the support of David Duke and the KKK) to reach a new level of vulgarity. Trump turned Rubio’s innuendo-laden taunt about his allegedly “small hands,” and what that “meant,” into a boastful “guarantee,” in the next debate, of his impressive sexual endowment. The “debates” had deteriorated from mere incivility to schoolyard braggadocio, with “he-started-it” silliness to follow. When a lush photo from Melania Trump’s modeling days was distributed by a group unaffiliated with Cruz, Trump tweeted a threat to “spill the beans” on Cruz’s wife, Heidi. At first Cruz responded with an indignant defense of his wife (its sincerity tainted by the fact that it was plagiarized, verbatim, from the 1995 film, The American President), before bellowing, after Trump had posted an unflattering photo of Heidi, that this “sniveling coward” better leave “Heidi the hell alone.”

In the first Super Tuesday round of primaries and caucuses, Ted Cruz, who had not at that point descended into the Trump-Rubio gutter, did well, crucially holding his own state, Texas, and winning several others. Though Rubio, ironically the first “Tea Party” senator, had briefly become the darling of the Establishment, the attempt to slow down Trump by wrestling with him in the mud had backfired and been to no avail. Trump took seven of eleven states on Super Tuesday. Subsequently, and even more ironically, with Rubio fading (he would never get beyond his two minor victories: the Minnesota caucuses and the Puerto Rican primary), and Trump denounced by Mitt Romney as a fraud, Cruz, in whom everything anti-Establishment was concentrated as in a bouillon cube, emerged as that Establishment’s last desperate hope to keep the blond-maned rough beast from slouching to the convention in Cleveland with the required 1,237 delegates, or with so many fired-up acolytes chanting Trump! Trump! Trump! that it would prove difficult if not impossible to broker him out of the nomination.

It would be a battle between egotistical demagogues, equally capable of commanding an audience, though their oratorical styles could hardly be more different. Silver-tongued Cruz, who can’t say “hello” without sounding as if he’s pontificating from a pulpit or from atop a soapbox, deploys the  elaborately-constructed, orotund sentences of a trained debater, skillfully weaving his points into a coherent argument. Rambling and repetitive Trump rallies his rapt audiences in staccato, non-syntactical bursts, hitting the same few points, and often legitimate grievances, but appealing less to reason than to emotion and prejudice. In a March 8 NY Times op-ed, “Only Trump Can Trump Trump,” Tom Friedman noted the folly of rivals trying to rationally convert Trump “fans” who respond to him on a “gut level” impervious to logical argument. Friedman’s conclusion, that “you can’t talk voters out of something that they haven’t been talked into,” aptly reminded my friend Dennis O’Connor of Jonathan Swift’s advice to a young clergyman in 1720: “Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired.”  In addition, with his base, Trump assumes the ethnic stereotypes he shares with them, and in which, as a businessman, he has trafficked for years. He also possesses a bully’s ability to size up an opponent and skewer him with an ad hominem epithet. “Little Marco” was left, diminished, on the ropes; a single hyphenated adjective, “low-energy,” from which Jeb Bush never recovered, was enough to demolish a dynasty. “Lyin’ Ted,” puffed up with hubris, proved able to take a punch.

The latest avatar of the Religious Right and a purist ideologue—a contemporary right-wing version of Robespierre, the “Incorruptible” of the French Revolution—Ted Cruz is, for many, more frightening even than Trump. An unctuous, sanctimonious ultra-conservative, Cruz thunders apocalyptically about undoing everything done by his hated predecessor on “my first day in office”—“repealing” Obamacare, “ripping to shreds” the nuclear agreement with Iran, getting rid of regulations on corporations, stringently curtailing a woman’s reproductive rights, rolling back environmental protection measures (indeed, terminating the EPA, along with the Department of Education and the IRS); devoutly committing ourselves to Israel, right or wrong; to judicial originalism; and to the extremist agendas of both the NRA and the Koch Brothers.

Hardline conservatives applaud many of these presidential priorities, but Ted Cruz is a zealot and a singularly unattractive one, loathed from the outset by his Princeton and Harvard classmates and later by his Senate colleagues. It is not necessary to consider him (to cite the paired photo of Cruz and Grandpa Munster that has gone viral) “a blood-sucking vampire from a bygone era,” or as “Satanic” (a televised adjective David Brooks later modified to “Mephistophelian”), in order to be turned off by Cruz’s naked ambition, his self-righteousness, his preening arrogance, and the studied artifice of his oratory, as bombastic as it is demagogic. One can admire his verbal skills, but despise the man himself, to say nothing of the hard-right policies he so apocalyptically and inflexibly espouses.

Ted Cruz Grandpa Munster

To observe that Cruz was cursed with a vampiric and (however appropriately) a Joe McCarthy-like visage is to risk joining Donald Trump in belittling a person’s physical appearance. But it’s his facial expressions I find repellent, wincing every time he punctuates his favorite applause lines by chuckling—silently, creepily, barely moving his lips and without anything resembling actual human mirth. Listening to his speech to his followers on the evening of the third Super Tuesday, the Ides of March, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s Cassius, that cunningly ambitious man who thinks too much and has “a lean and hungry look.” As Caesar intuited, “Such men are dangerous.” Though many Republicans, including former rivals Jeb Bush and Lindsay Graham, have now, however half-heartedly, endorsed Cruz as the only way to Stop Trump, others remain no less terrified of the prospect of the reptilian Ted Cruz slouching towards Washington.

Republicans unnerved by Trump and repelled by Cruz are now hoping for an open convention, in which most pledged delegates, committed to the primary and caucus results only through the first ballot, would be free to vote for anyone on a second and subsequent ballots. But that threatened to loose “mere anarchy.” If Cruz or front-runner Trump were to be spurned at a contested convention, their followers might revolt—even, as Trump warned (or threatened), “riot” or launch an independent third party. As March ended, the panicked GOP, having long nurtured its radical right wing, seemed on the verge of disintegration. Party elders feared that neither a detested Cruz nor an unpredictable Trump would be able to defeat a damaged but still formidable Hillary Clinton (they continued to dismiss “that socialist,” Bernie Sanders). In addition to losing the Presidency, with Trump as nominee, Party bosses fretted that some centrist Republicans would either cross over, or not vote at all in November; or that the “Trump Effect” would further radicalize the GOP, strengthening Tea Party challenges to Establishment incumbents, and wrecking what was left of the no longer very grand Grand Old Party.

With no center able to hold, Ayn Randian conservative Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, now seemed like a moderate. But, however respected, even revered he was, Ryan was unable to get hardliners on his right to endorse his budget, while being threatened, from his other flank, by Trump, who rejected cutting Social Security benefits, and informed Ryan who would be “boss.” Even the Republican center-right, the position represented by all three Bushes, had manifestly collapsed, with Trump having achieved the unique feat of unleashing the furies of both the extreme Right and, for Republicans at least, the populist Left. Ryan himself was privately and publicly urged to become the savior at the convention (a role Kasich hoped to play, in the wake of his March 15 victory in Ohio). But any such convention coup, though infinitely preferable to the extremist alternatives, would leave the ultras committed to Cruz and the devotees fanatically loyal to Trump more convinced than ever that they had been betrayed yet again by the Washington elites: insiders represented, on the Democratic side, by Hillary Clinton, a battered but resilient survivor of Bernie Sanders’ valiant and stunningly popular insurgency from the progressive Left.

The division within the parties reflected, but failed to resolve, the massive discontent in the nation: the very frustration and anger—much of it rooted in the slowly, weakly and, above all, unevenly recovering economy—that had fired up the anti-Establishment Sanders and Trump movements in the first place. Some professed themselves perplexed by voters torn between the apparent extremes of Trump and Sanders. That phenomenon can be explained by their overlapping support from blue-collar workers. Those workers, always a low priority for Republicans, were largely abandoned in the 1970s by the Democrats, who have become—as progressive gadfly Tom Frank argues in Listen Liberal, Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? (2016) —more allied with non-union technocrats and other professionals. There are exceptions among individual pundits and politicians (even Hillary Clinton is having second thoughts on trade). But in general, the “party of the people” became less interested in blue-collar workers and thus in economic inequality—which has actually widened under Obama.

Into this vacuum came Sanders and Trump, whose populist blue-collar appeal is based on their protectionist opposition to outsourcing and to international trade agreements that have benefited corporations but taken away thousands of manufacturing jobs, especially in the Midwest rustbelt. American de-industrialization is not attributable to NAFTA, CAFTA and the TPP alone, but unemployed factory workers are understandably less interested in nuanced theoretical discussions of the positive aspects of globalization than in eagerly listening to those who reflect their grievances and promise to redress them. No matter that, as a businessman, Trump does not practice what he preaches when it comes to outsourcing and hiring illegals. No matter, as well, that he (and Bernie) make campaign promises, many of which they would not be able to fulfill as President. Both create hope, much of it false. But the desperation is real, and the appeal powerful.

Though the American economy under Obama has created 4 million private sector jobs since 2010, many without a college education or lacking the skills required in a new economy have been left behind. Unemployed and underemployed whites are at the core of Trump’s constituency. But these painfully real socioeconomic conditions do not fully explain the phenomenon of Trump, who is also, as David Remnick observed in the March 14 New Yorker, “the beneficiary of a long process of Republican intellectual decadence” (the assault on science, the elevation of Sarah Palin, etc.) and years spent “courting the basest impulses in American political culture,” beginning with  Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and including, more lately, “a birther movement and the Obama Derangement Syndrome.” Birther-in-Chief Trump, flaunting endorsements by the barely coherent Palin and the evolution-denying Doctor Carson, occupies a prominent position at the populist epicenter of this intellectual decadence.

Unlike that of Sanders, Trump’s populist insurgency is spiked by a toxic dose of nationalism and xenophobia. Something short of a fascist or a racist himself, Trump assumes and fuels the resentment and racism of many of his followers: a visceral hatred evident in the outbreaks of violence at recent Trump rallies. As usual, there are two, if not quite equivalent, issues in tension. Sarah Palin, eloquent as ever, has dismissed the protests as “punk-ass little thuggery” cheered on by a leftist media. It is true that Black Lives Matter activists intend to disrupt more than protest, undermining the free-speech rights of Trump supporters. What matters is how Trump has responded to this double “tension.” Unsurprisingly, he has not made it a “teachable moment.” While he does “not condone” the violence against the various protestors (some carrying “Sanders” signs), Trump most certainly does not condemn it. Instead, he incites or incentivizes it, announcing from the podium that he himself would like to “punch” protesters, and waxing nostalgic about the days when such dissidents would be “carried out on stretchers.” When one of his fans did in fact sucker-punch a black protestor as he was being led away, Trump offered to pay any legal fees incurred by the assailant—who was immediately afterward taped, not only expressing pleasure at having punched his victim in the face, but adding ominously that he was “not one of us,” and that “next time we may have to kill him.”

Such behavior and such an attitude are obviously extreme even in the most raucous Trump rally. But the “passionate intensity” of the “worst” is often allied with prejudice and ignorance. One is therefore unsurprised by Trump’s professed “love” for the “poorly educated,” and by the enthusiastic willingness of “my people” to follow their Leader. Even Vladamir Putin, that poster boy for virile masculinity, has been impressed by the same quality in Trump—who returned the compliment (“at least,” in contrast to Obama, “he’s a leader”). The exception among foreign heads of state, Putin also pronounced Trump “brilliant and talented,” leading to an official endorsement by the head of Russia’s state-owned news agency.

No Putin, let alone Hitler, Trump has been more engagingly compared to Mussolini. The Donald recently, if unwittingly, re-tweeted a favorite maxim of Mussolini (“It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep”), and his neo-fascist tendencies extend beyond the jutting jaw he shares with Il Duce.[9] But even this alignment is overblown. More apt is the comparison with a later Italian leader, plutocrat turned prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, with whom Trump shares a megalomaniacal and vulgarian cult of the Self. Like all his buildings and projects, Trump’s private Boeing 757 airliner, the backdrop at outdoor rallies, is emblazoned with his name in huge letters. Each step of the plane’s airstair has two “TRUMP” signs; every bath-fixture and seat-buckle is 24-karat gold; every leather seat is stamped with the Trump crest. Asked recently who he consults on “policy,” he responded, as a narcissist would, “I talk to myself. I have a great brain.” The machismo and self-aggrandizement are grotesque, but to his fans, such displays project their leader’s confidence, strength, and authority.

Trump Mussolini

Jonathan Weiner, co-author of Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics (2009), recently described Donald Trump’s core voters as driven by their attraction to authority, to plain-spoken solutions to problems and the promise of decisive action in defense of their traditional values. In “Why Trump?,” an online essay published on March 6, cognitive scientist George Lakoff interpreted the nation’s politics, and Trump’s in particular, “metaphorically,” in familial terms. The “conservative and progressive worldviews dividing our country” can be encapsulated in two common but antithetical forms of family life: “The Nurturant Parent Family (progressive) and the Strict Father Family (conservative).” Inculcating “discipline” and “strength,” the Strict Father model produces “winners,” who deserve to win, not only in life, but in electoral contests. Thus, a “formidable candidate’s insults that stick are seen as victories—deserved victories.” For those whose attitudes and prejudices have been deemed outmoded and stigmatized as “politically incorrect,” Trump “expresses out loud everything they feel—with force, aggression, anger, and no shame.” By supporting and voting for Trump, they make him their voice, and their views are made “respectable” by “his victories.” He is “their champion. He gives them a sense of self-respect, authority, and the possibility of power.”

Donald Trump photo by Tony WebsterPhoto by Tony Webster (via Flikr Creative Commons)

Lakoff sketches out a conservative worldview embracing distinctions  Trump adroitly straddles.[10] But it is the distinction between “direct” and “systemic” causation that most illuminates Trump’s appeal to the wide following he has attracted. According to Lakoff, empirical research has shown that conservatives “tend to reason with direct causation,” and to deal with a problem by “direct action,” whereas progressives are more in their element engaging the “complex” interactions involved in “reasoning with systemic causation.” If it sounds like Trump vs. Obama (he of the unenforced “red line”), it is.

“Many of Trump’s policy proposals,” as Lakoff notes, “are framed in terms of direct causation.” Immigrants are flooding in from Mexico: build a wall to stop them. Many have entered illegally: deport them, even if 11 million are working and living throughout the country. Jobs are going to Asia: slap a huge tariff on the goods produced there. ISIS profits from Iraqi oil: send US troops to Iraq to seize it (in fact, coalition bombing is now taking a serious toll on ISIS oil production). Want to defeat ISIS?—“bomb the shit” out of them, and threaten (even if it’s a war crime) to kill the families of jihadists. Seeking information from terrorist suspects?—water-board them, or worse. Afraid a few terrorists might slip in among Syrian refugees?—ban all Muslims from entering the country.  To add the latest: tired of funding NATO and providing a nuclear umbrella in the Far East?—declare NATO defunct and let Japan and South Korea develop their own nuclear capability. “All this makes sense to direct causation thinkers, but not [to] those who see the immense difficulties and dire consequences of such actions due to the complexities of systemic causation.” Trump’s can-do machismo (including his insulting of the way a woman “looks”) will be less effective in a general election than it has been on this rowdy campaign trail.[11]

§

Contemptuous of Trump’s penchant for simplistic solutions to complex problems, and stunned by his colossal egotism, skeptical observers of his campaign were initially incredulous, even amused. But their sides stopped shaking in mirth as he piled up victories. With his near sweep on the third Super Tuesday (March 15), his delegate count became virtually insurmountable. Crushing Rubio in his home-state, winner-take-all Florida, Trump drove the Senator from the race, collecting a bonanza of 99 delegates. Kasich held on in his home-state, denying Trump Ohio’s 66 delegates. Cruz won nowhere, but continued to collect delegates, slouching toward Cleveland with a number sure to be second only to the front-runner,  whom he planned to defeat at a contested convention. Needless to say, if he fails to reach the nomination-clinching 1,237 prior to the convention, Trump will not go gently in any floor fight; there are arms to be twisted, and there’s always that threat of a “riot.” Quite aside from his own fierce will to “win,” The Donald has repeatedly told us that what he is leading is not a mere political campaign, but a “movement.”  He’s right, and he’s not alone.

Such anti-centrist movements, driven by right-wing authoritarianism and galvanized by Europe’s even greater immigration crisis, are proliferating throughout the West. In France, Marine Le Pen has slowed her activities as president of the right-wing National Front, but only because she is preparing to run next year for the Presidency of France. (Her father, the party’s ousted neo-fascist founder, having tweeted in January that if he were an American, he “would vote for Donald Trump,” accurately described Trump in March as “an independent candidate with populist language; this is what has made him successful.”) In Germany, Angela Merkel’s centrist coalition is under threat because of her (no longer welcome) welcoming policy toward migrants. That policy, controversial within her own party, is challenged by right-wing opponents, most prominently by Frauke Petry, the efficient and determined leader of the AfD (Alternative for Germany), a populist, anti-immigration party she led to victory in several mid-March elections. Going beyond even Marine Le Pen, Petry has proposed that police “shoot, if necessary,” at migrants attempting to enter the country illegally.

In impoverished Greece, over 100,000 migrants have arrived since the beginning of the year; in late February, police clashed with asylum seekers at the Macedonian border. Politically, demographically, and economically, the culminating moment came on the night of March 7, when Europe officially closed its borders. The leaders at the summit convened in Brussels, the EU capital (also, ironically, the central nest in Europe of unemployed, unassimilated jihadists in the making), proclaimed the end of “irregular flows of migrants.”[12] Henceforth, refugees fleeing from war-ravaged Syria and Iraq would no longer be able, in the typical scenario, to escape to the Turkish coast, board a raft to Greece, and travel on, seeking refuge in Germany or elsewhere in Western Europe. Instead, the EU pledged billions in aid to Turkey in exchange for a commitment to take the migrants back. It was a drastic step, but the alternative seemed to be the continued fracturing of Europe, with centrist governments, burdened by debt (with the exception of Germany) and besieged by refugees (and here Germany is no exception), battling against “energized movements from right and left.”

I am quoting a February 25 Washington Post column by Fareed Zakaria, repeated three days later on his GPS Sunday-morning television program on CNN. Zakaria’s title and theme are a modestly hopeful variation on Yeats: “In the West, the Political Center Holds—but Barely.” He begins:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” It’s time to quote W. B. Yeats’s famous poem again. But this time, it really does seem that the political center is under intense pressure—from left and right—all over the Western world….Across Europe, governments that occupy the center ground find themselves struggling against [extremist] movements….Centrists are under siege in the United States as well….Why are centrists so vulnerable?

Zakaria notes that moderate politicians and governments have performed rather well in recent decades, steering their countries through many difficult challenges. But while they may be competent, “centrists are dull, practical types,” and “there is always a search for romance in politics.” Even amid centrist success, there are still problems, many of them, often outnumbering the successes, stemming from the same force: globalization. Whatever their ultimate source, there are “enough problems to galvanize the romantics who believe that the answer is a revolution.” And, in contrast to traditional politicians, “outsiders,” a Donald Trump for example, “promise easy answers.” Zakaria turned again to “The Second Coming”:

“The best lack all conviction,” Yeats wrote, “while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The simple solutions are, of course, non-solutions. And they mostly won’t happen.…But what is happening is political paralysis. The romantics and the radicals might not have the power to overturn the centrist consensus, but they can place it under relentless pressure….In the United States, the country and its political leaders have spent months debating fantasies [building the wall, deporting 11 million people, banning all Muslims]. Meanwhile, there is no discussion of the important issues and the actual, plausible policy options to deal with them—regarding the global economic slowdown, massive infrastructure deficits, growing inequality and climate change, among others.

Yeats was wrong. The center can and does hold, but just barely.

Even that tempered and terminally caveated hopefulness—though a far cry from the optimistic interpretation of the eternal gyre as “just the same old adventure in a new cycle”—may or may not amount to whistling in the dark. Just one day after Zakaria’s reassurance on television, provocative social critic James Howard Kunstler also repaired to “The Second Coming,” painting (in a March 1 blog titled “Yeats’s Widening Gyre is Upon Us”) a dismal picture of the United States as the two parties slouched toward their 2016 conventions. The “sinking global economy,” igniting “cluster-bombs of default through the financial system,” would centrifugally “effloresce,” Kunstler surmised, right around the time of those conventions. He foresaw both front-runners “lumbering inevitably toward their respective nominations,” with the GOP likely to split into “warring factions” in a probably futile attempt to derail Trump at the convention: a split reflecting, and exacerbating, the nation’s economic and cultural fissure. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders’s campaign has sparked a revolt that could spawn a liberal version of the Tea Party, which might, in turn, become a truly revolutionary movement were Trump or Cruz to win the presidency. Kunstler concluded: “Yeats’s widening gyre is upon us, and the second coming will not be the reappearance of the celebrity known as Jesus Christ, but rather of the event called the American Civil War.”

The optimistic God’s-eye interpretation of the eternal gyre seems, in the present circumstances, far too cheery to be persuasive. We may hope that Fareed Zakaria’s less dramatic projection of a threatened “center” holding, “but barely,” proves more accurate than James Kunstler’s vision of a second Civil War.  And yet, the American political “center” richly deserves to be challenged, as it now is—powerfully from the left, even more powerfully from the right. In his 1925 poem “Shine, Perishing Republic,” Robinson Jeffers brooded, “sadly smiling,” as “this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire.” Prophesying coming decay, this austere, almost survivalist poet of rock and hawk held out one Nietzschean-Yeatsian hope. There will always be “noblest spirits,” for whom “corruption/ Never has been compulsory.” When “the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.” So, “shine, perishing republic./ But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center.”

The Jeffers poem, written at the same time as Robert Frost’s earlier-quoted sonnet of impending disaster, “Once by the Pacific,” was only one of three darkly prophetic poems cited by readers responding to a March 2016 essay, “Donald Trump and the Remaking of America.”[13] The essay was by military historian and retired colonel Andrew J. Bacevich, whose critical history, America’s War in the Greater Middle East, would be published in April. He has long condemned the Iraq War as a catastrophic decision—as has Trump, though Bacevich otherwise dismisses The Donald as a reckless celebrity performer who has, dangerously and all-too-effectively, adopted a bellicose “attitude or pose that feeds off, and then reinforces, widespread anger and alienation.” At once less interventionist and more hawkish than Hillary, Trump was aligned by Bacevich with Cruz and Rubio, in that all are “unabashed militarists,” each claiming that, as commander-in-chief, he would take no “guff from Moscow, or Pyongyang or Beijing or Tehran.” Each has asserted that, once in office, he “will eradicate ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’ put the Mullahs back in their box, torture terrorists, and give Bibi whatever he wants.” (In this same month, Trump pronounced all of Islam motivated by “hatred of us,” and threatened to kill the families of terrorists—though conceding that if, as president, he could not “expand” the laws, he would, reluctantly, abide by the Constitution and the Geneva Convention.)

Responding to the Bacevich essay online, “John T” summoned up the famous “centre” that “cannot hold” and the loosing of “the blood-dimmed tide,” recalling as well that “the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” and that a “rough beast, its hour come round at last,” is slouching to be born. After quoting eight lines of “The Second Coming, John T observed that the emergence of Donald Trump marks “the fulfillment of a half-century’s considered and deliberate emasculation of the underlying sense of social responsibility that once held this country together in a fragile balance.”  But, as it turns out, John T is no fan of the contemporary American center.

“The centre cannot hold,” as Yeats said long ago, but it is the corporate center itself that created and unleashed the monster of Trumpism that is tearing the Republican Party apart and that, in the end, will put an end to the corporate institutions that… have so successfully controlled and undermined the very social contract that made their dominance possible. Donald Trump and what he so gleefully represents is a cancer metastasizing through the Republican Party, but what the Democratic pundits who are so joyfully pouncing on the wounded beast fail to understand is that it is a cancer that will bring the Democratic Party down in the same manner….[The followers of Bernie Sanders] expect and demand real and fundamental reform. [They are] not going to have it,…and are not going to accept the lies and pretense that Hillary Clinton is attempting to market. Donald Trump may be the rough beast slouching towards Washington, but the coming fragmentation of the two parties quarrelling over the prize he is seeking is the only hope for real long-term reform that we have left—if we can weather the storm.

Responding, “Ikallitres,” a poetry-lover aware of Matthew Arnold as well as of Robinson Jeffers, observed that “quoting Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ has become passé because it can be used to describe any and every one of the disasters that our politics has become.” (From my perspective, the second part of that sentence at once demonstrates and rebuts the first.) The same was true, he continued, of Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (locating us “here as on a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/ Where ignorant armies clash by night”). Though grateful to have been reminded of the finale of “Dover Beach,” John T responded to the criticism of his having cited Yeats in words I’ve been employing throughout this essay, though, unlike Ikallitres, I do not find “The Second Coming” outmoded: “Yeats is so passé precisely because his poem was so very prescient at the time he wrote it and so very relevant today.”

Will the Western “center” hold? Should it? The “centre” celebrated by Yeats (a Romantic drawn to both Burke and Nietzsche) was cultural, steeped in ceremonious tradition: not our moderate political center, which he would have doubtless found as “vulgar” as the “thickening center” deplored by Jeffers, a fellow Nietzschean. And yet Yeats, in revising, purged his poem of particulars that restricted it to his own moment in time and reflected his own political perspective. As I have stressed throughout, in so doing, he universalized the poem, making it perennially relevant, applicable to the crises not only of his time but of ours. Reading “The Second Coming” in 2016, we lament the collapsing of the center and the falling apart of things in our present world of anarchy and blood-dimmed violence. We also dread the emergence—from the chaotic Middle East, from fragmented Europe, from our own polarized politics—of some new incarnation of that rough beast, its hour come round at last, and slouching towards us.

—Patrick J. Keane

↑ return to Contents

 

Patrick J Keane smaller

 

Numéro Cinq Contributing Editor Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2008).

 x

x

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. “No Slouch” (Paris Review, 7 April 2015). Oddly, Tabor’s otherwise thorough gathering omits Mitchell’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (on the Night Ride Home album, 1991). But he lists innumerable pop-culture references, including many book-titles, especially sci-fi and detective novels. My own favorite examples range from the titles of all six volumes in the recent Star Trek compendium, itself titled Mere Anarchy (also a Woody Allan book title) to the 12-issue Batman series, written by Kevin Smith, and gathered together under the rubric The Widening Gyre.
  2. In fact, those crucial lines, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” echo Shelley and Wordsworth. According to the last Fury in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, the “good” lack “power,” the “powerful” lack “goodness”; and “all best things are thus confused to ill” (1:625-28). But Yeats, who was reading the French Revolutionary Books of The Prelude, is also recalling a phrase he underlined in Book 11 (“I lost/ All feeling of conviction”), and is verbally close to a passage in Book 10 in which, contrasting the moderate Girondins to the murderous Jacobins, a troubled Wordsworth speaks of “The indecision on their part whose aim/ Seemed best, and the straightforward path of those/ Who in attack or in defense were strong” (130-32). And there is a final parallel. In Wordsworth’s Excursion, which Yeats read in 1915, the “bad” earn “victory o’er the weak,/ The vacillating, inconsistent good” (4:298-309).
  3. Frost’s poem is riddled with more-than-biblical echoes, though the poems alluded to all have apocalyptic implications. In “Once by the Pacific,” the “clouds were low and hairy in the skies,/ Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes”: a fusion of the “insolent fiend” who, in the phantasmagoria at the climax of Yeats’s evocation of  “the things that come again” (the original title of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”), “lurches past, his great eyes without thought/ Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks,” itself a negative echo of the primary passage Frost has in mind: “the locks of the approaching storm,” in Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,”  where the wind-blown clouds are “Like the bright hair uplifted from the head/ Of some fierce Maenad.”
  4. Prelude 10:92-93. Almost eleven hundred victims suspected of Royalist plotting were butchered during the September Massacres. Among those dragged from prison in September, sentenced to death by tribunals, and killed instantly by small squads of executioners was the Princess de Lamballe, maid of honor to Marie Antoinette. Notoriously, her body was mutilated and its sexual parts paraded before the windows of the prison that held the royal family.
  5. McCants, The Isis Apocalypse, 146. For evidence that “most modern Sunni Muslims viewed apocalyptic thinking with suspicion before the United States invaded Iraq,” and on the “triple-union” now helmed by the American “new Crusaders,” McCants (145-46) cites Apocalypse in  Islam (2011), 121-40, by the French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu.
  6. For details, see Jeffrey Goldberg’s “The Obama Doctrine,” The Atlantic (April 2016), 70-90.
  7. Following a Republican 2012 presidential primary debate and registering both the on-stage verbal meltdown of then front-runner Rick Perry and the continued right-wing lack of enthusiasm for Mitt Romney, Kristol fired off a Weekly Standard “special editorial,” titled simply “Yikes!” Kristol—who then wanted the outspoken New Jersey governor to get into the race—ended by quoting an email from a fellow-Republican equally dismayed by the caliber of his party’s candidates. Concurring with the emailer’s allusion—“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”—Kristol couldn’t “help wondering if, in the same poem, Yeats hadn’t suggested the remedy: ‘And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?’ “Sounds,” he concluded, “like Chris Christie!”
  8. Reviewing a study of the Iran-Iraq War in January, 2016, Graeme Wood cited Henry Kissinger’s observation at the time that it was “a pity both sides can’t lose.” Given the horrific death-toll, the remark was (as Wood says) not only “famous” but “fatuous.” Nevertheless, in contemplating the potential of a larger Iran-Saudi conflict, one might be forgiven if, for an irresponsible moment, Kissinger’s realpolitik remark came to mind—along with then-Senator Harry Truman’s observation, in June 1941, when Nazi Germany had invaded the USSR: “If we see that Germany is winning, we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible.” Brutal; but, Truman thought, in the best interest of democracy.
  9. See Fedja Buric’s “Trump’s not Hitler, he’s Mussolini: How GOP anti-intellectualism created a modern fascist movement in America,” Salon (11 March 2016) accessed April 1, 2016.
  10. As in the old Chain of Being (or the Elizabethan World Picture diagrammed decades ago by E. M. W. Tillyard), this conservative worldview is hierarchical, extending from God to man to nature. Conservative “family-based moral worldviews run deep,” and, Lakoff argues, “Conservative policies” are inflected, even shaped, by this Strict Father hierarchy. Your moral worldview defines for you what the world should be like; “when it isn’t that way, one can become frustrated and angry.” Lakoff notes variations and the split among white evangelical Christians, laissez-faire free-marketeers, and pragmatic conservatives bound by no evangelical beliefs. Winning among all three groups, Trump himself is “a pragmatic conservative, par excellence.”
  11. Trump, already opposed by almost three-quarters of women polled, finally suffered what may be genuine damage. On March 30, pressed hard by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on the question of abortion, Trump said, not only that it should be illegal, but that any woman who had an abortion should be subject to criminal “punishment.” Here is the exchange, verbatim:

    Matthews: Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no, as a principle?

    Trump: The answer is there has to be some form of punishment.

    Matthews: For the woman?

    Trump: Yes, there has to be some form.

    A more deft politician would never have let himself be cornered by this cable-news version of Socratic dialogue. For Rush Limbaugh, who quickly sped to Trump’s defense, Chris Matthews was no Socrates but a “Democratic Party hack,” whose gotcha question came “out of left field.” Of course, Limbaugh has no problem when the same relentless badgering is employed in the form of questions coming “out of right field,” as they incessantly are in the habitual technique of his fellow right-winger Sean Hannity. In any case, however it was educed, Trump’s astonishing statement, which goes beyond even the extremist anti-abortion positions of Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, was quickly walked back by Team Trump. But the damage was done. The Donald’s freewheeling, unscripted style had finally cost him. How much remains to be seen; but some backlash was quickly evident in his falling well behind Ted Cruz in the polls leading up to the next important primary, in Wisconsin, on April 5.

  12. The Brussels agreement, finalized on March 18, went into effect on March 20. Two days later, three suicide bombers (two of them brothers) killed 31 people and wounded some 300 in Brussels, striking at Zaventerm airport and Maelbeek metro station. A fourth terrorist, whose device remained undetonated, escaped, becoming the subject of a widespread manhunt. Anti-terrorists raids and searches occurred in France and Germany as well as Belgium; and ISIS threatened more “waves of bloodshed,” especially in Europe.
  13. The Jeffers poem has a more direct connection to another poem by Frost. “Our Doom to Bloom,” one of Frost’s late—serious yet light-hearted—assaults on the US welfare state, has as its epigraph Jeffers’s “Shine, perishing republic.”
Jan 312016
 

Ainsley as Cuchlain in At the Hawk's WellHenry Ainsley as Cuchulain in Yeats’s play At the Hawk’s Well, 1916.
Photo by Alvin Langdon Coburn, by permission of George Eastman House.

x

On Christmas Day 1888, Oscar Wilde read to Yeats “The Decay of Lying,” later published in Intentions. That collection also includes “The Truth of Masks,” an essay on theatrical costumes that ends with Wilde’s declaration that “in art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true….It is only in art criticism, and through it, that we can realize Hegel’s system of contraries. The truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks.”[1] That final aphorism might, in style and content, have been written by Friedrich Nietzsche. In fact, Wilde’s fusion of Hegelian dialectic with Blake’s insistence on the fruitful clash of “Contraries” would have particularly resonated with W. B. Yeats after the turn of the century, when his reading of Wilde became aligned with his earlier study of Blake and his “excited” recent reading of Nietzsche, that “strong enchanter” whose thought, he believed, “completes Blake and has the same roots.”[2]

W.B. YeatsYeats, 1932 by Pirie MacDonald.

It might also be said that, in many ways, Nietzsche “completes” Wilde. “A truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true,” says Wilde. Writing two years later, Nietzsche, affirming art and life over moral/philosophical conundrums, tells us that, for well-constituted spirits, such an “opposition” as that between “chastity” and “sensuality” need not be “among the arguments against existence—the subtlest and brightest, like Goethe, like Hafiz, have even seen it as one more stimulus to life. Just such ‘contradictions’ seduce us to existence.”[3] Obviously, Nietzsche, that master perspectivist, strenuously denies (to again quote Wilde) any “such thing as a universal truth,” and, from The Birth of Tragedy on, he elevated art above philosophy, dismissing (in Twilight of the Idols) Kantian Idealism with its physical reality-denying doctrine of the ghostly “thing-in-itself” as “that horrendum pudendum of the metaphysicians!”[4] Nietzsche’s axiom, from Part III of the material posthumously published as The Will to Power, is well-known: “We possess art lest we perish of the truth” (§822; italics in original).[5] Unsurprisingly, Nietzsche’s references to “masks” are in accord with Wilde’s equation of metaphysical truth with, or its replacement by, “the truths of masks.” Several of his formulations even help illuminate Wilde’s “pose.” Here are the half-dozen most crucial passages—all from Beyond Good and Evil, a book written in the same year (1885) as the original version of Wilde’s “The Truth of Masks”:

All that is profound loves a mask; the very profoundest things even have a hatred for images and likenesses. Shouldn’t the opposite be the only proper disguise to accompany the shame of a god?….Every profound spirit needs a mask; even more, a mask is continually growing around every profound spirit thanks to the constantly false, that is shallow interpretation of every word, every step, every sign of life he gives. (Part 2: §40).

Too noble for “Socratism,” Plato, the most daring of all interpreters,…took the whole of Socrates like a popular theme and folksong from the streets in order to vary it infinitely and impossibly, specifically into all his own masks and multiplicities. Spoken in jest, and moreover Homerically: just what is the Platonic Socrates if not “Plato in front, Plato in back, Chimaera in the middle” (Part 5: §190). [Nietzsche quotes the phrase in quotations in Greek, paraphrasing Homer on the tripartite chimaera (The Iliad VI: 181)].

That strength-cultivating tension of the soul,…its inventiveness and courage in enduring, surviving, interpreting…and whatever it was granted in terms of profundity, mystery, mask…: has all this not been granted…through the discipline of great suffering?….[in the] constant pressure and stress of a creative, shaping, malleable force…the spirit enjoys its multiplicity of masks…it is in fact best defended and hidden by precisely these Protean arts—this will to appearance, to simplification, to masks…. (Part 7: §225, 230)

Deep suffering makes noble; it separates. One of the most subtle forms of disguise is Epicureanism and a certain openly displayed courageousness of taste that takes suffering lightly and resists everything sad and profound. There are “cheerful people” who use cheerfulness because on its account they are misunderstood:—they want to be misunderstood. There are free impudent spirits who would like to conceal and deny that they are shattered, proud, and incurable hearts; and sometimes foolishness itself is the mask for an ill-fated, all-too-certain knowledge.—From which it follows that part of a more refined humanity is having respect “for the mask” and not practicing psychology and curiosity in the wrong place. (Part 9: §270)

Whoever you might be: what would you like now? What would help you recuperate? Just name it: what I have I offer to you! “To recuperate? To recuperate? Oh how inquisitive you are, and what are you saying! But give me, please—” What? What? Just say it!—“Another mask! A second mask!” (Part 9: §278)

Do people not write books precisely to conceal what they are keeping to themselves. Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a hiding place, every word also a mask. (Part 9: §289) [6]

§

Nietzsche Beyond Good and EvilFriedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil.

In letters to Lady Gregory and John Quinn (who had sent him in 1902 a new anthology of well-selected writings of the German philosopher), Yeats praised what he called, with remarkable tonal accuracy, Nietzsche’s “curious astringent joy” (Letters, 379), which he related to Blakean delight in energy and to Nietzsche’s own exuberant, life-affirming “respect for the mask.” In annotating selections from Nietzsche in the margins of that anthology, Yeats set up a diagram that explains much, if not all, of his subsequent thought and work, including his dramatic assertion three decades later (in “Vacillation”) that “Homer is my example and his unchristened heart,”[7] and the assertion, three weeks before his death, when, filled with an “energy” he had despaired of recovering, he concluded, “When I put it all into a phrase I say, ‘Man can embody truth, but he cannot know it.’ I must embody it in the completion of my life” (Letters, 922).

Here is the diagram, based on Nietzsche’s major antitheses: Day vs. Night, Many vs. One, Dionysus vs. the Crucified, Homer vs. Plato/Socrates, Master Morality vs. Slave Morality; above all, the Nietzschean (and soon to be Yeatsian) distinctions between passionate, embodied being and cerebral, abstract knowing; and between power issuing in “affirmation” and ressentiment issuing in “denial.”

Night (Socrates/Christ) one god

Day (Homer) many gods

denial of self, the soul turned towards spirit seeking knowledge.

affirmation of self, the soul turned from spirit to be its mask & instrument when it seeks life.[8]

Yeats’s diagram graphically demonstrates how “Nietzsche completes Blake.” The Romantic poet’s mature dialectic stresses polar inclusion: “Contraries are positive, a negation is not a contrary,” he incised in reverse at the beginning of Book the Second of Milton (Plate 30). But Blake is more dramatically antithetical in the far better-known passage in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in which he introduced his oppositional Contraries, and their distortion by the “religious,” blind to the Blakean/Nietzschean dialectic “beyond” conventional “good” and “evil”:

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence. From these Contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.[9]

Here is one source of the “energy” embodied in Yeats’s final letter and in the “frenzy” of “an old man’s eagle mind” in his late poem “An Acre of Grass.”   In both cases, Blake is “completed” by “Nietzsche, whose thought flows always, though in an even more violent current, in the bed Blake’s thought has worn.”[10] His Nietzsche-inspired diagram includes Yeats’s first recorded use of the term “mask.” A half-dozen years later, he wrote: “I think that all happiness depends on the energy to assume the mask of some other self; that all joyous or creative life is a rebirth of something not oneself.”[11] Yeats’s concept of the mask, as both a strategy for carrying on his quarrel with himself and an attempt to restore a lost Unity of Being, is identical to what he would later call, in “Ego Dominus Tuus” (1915), the “anti-self.” The last words of that dialogue between Hic and Ille (“This One” and “That One”) are given to Ille, whose position on mask and anti-self is so close to Yeats’s own that Ezra Pound (with his friend at Stone Cottage when the poem was written) famously observed that Ille should have been “Willie.” Seeking “an image, not a book,” Ille concludes that there is one, like yet unlike himself, who can “disclose/ All that I seek, and whisper it” in secret:

I call to the mysterious one who yet
Shall walk the wet sands by the edge of the stream
And look most like me, being indeed my double,
And prove of all imaginable things
The most unlike, being my anti-self.

Created “in a moment and perpetually renewed,” that mask of some “other self,” of “something not oneself,” is described in the 1909 diary entry as the “painted face” or “game” in which one “loses the infinite pain of self-realization.” It resembles Nietzsche’s “mask” concealing deep suffering, as well as Wilde’s “pose” and “mask,” artifices enabling the multiplication of personalities.

Yeats’s first public use of the term occurred in 1910, in “A Lyric from an Unpublished Play,” retitled “A Mask” three years later in ASelection from the Love Poetry of William Butler Yeats (Cuala Press). The first speaker in this three-stanza dialogue is anxious to discover whether his beloved’s dazzling “mask of burning gold/ With emerald eyes” conceals “love” or the “deceit” of an “enemy.” The reply: “It was the mask engaged your mind,/ And after set your heart to beat,/ Not what’s behind.” First worn by Decima in The Player Queen, this mask was initially inspired by Yeats’s mistress at the time, Mabel Dickinson. But since the poem appears in a slender volume (The Green Helmet and Other Poems, 1910) dominated by lyrics to and about Maud Gonne, and reappears in a selection from his “love poetry,” Yeats seems to want us to identify the masked figure with his Muse. To his anxious inquiry as to whether she is his “enemy,” she responds, “What matter, so there is but fire/ In you, in me?” Playing with fire is exciting but dangerous, especially if we are dealing with Maud Gonne, political activist, actress, and femme fatale. A Wildean Salomé in a mask, she is kin to that aloof young queen to whom the lowly jester, having had his “soul” and “heart” rejected, sacrifices his titular “cap and bells” in a beautiful early lyric that perversely flowers, four decades later, in Yeats’s Salomé-like plays for masks (especially A Full Moon in March) in which even colder queens demand severed heads, decapitation replacing the symbolic self-castration of “The Cap and Bells.”

Maud GonneMaud Gonne

“The Mask” was followed, five years later, by “The Poet and the Actress,” a prose-dialogue (unpublished until 1993) in which the dramatic poet urges an actress to cover “her expressive face with a mask.”[12] The Poet is echoing the man Yeats considered “the greatest stage inventor in Europe,” Gordon Craig, who had collaborated in Abbey Theatre productions for several years beginning in 1909, and who insisted, in the first (March 1908) issue of his magazine, The Mask, that “human facial expression is for the most part valueless…Masks carry conviction… The face of the actor carries no such conviction; it is over-full of fleeting expression—frail, restless, disturbed, and disturbing.” Yeats also knew Craig’s “A Note on Masks,” published the same year Yeats wrote his poem “The Mask.”[13]

Craig sought a theater “purged of hideous realism,” and he and Yeats agreed that the Ibsen school of “realism” must be replaced by a theatre of masks if artists were to do justice to what Yeats called in this long-unpublished dialogue, the “battle [that] takes place in the depths of the soul.” It was a conviction realized in Yeats’s own mask-plays, combining Japanese Noh drama with the theatrical insights of Wilde and of Craig, who stage-designed Yeats’s Cuchulain play At the Hawk’s Well, featuring costumes and masks by Edmund Dulac. Launching his “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young” (1894), Wilde asserted that “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.”[14] He was being more than witty. Yeats agreed with Wilde and Craig, as with Nietzsche, that the purpose of artifice, specifically the wearing of a mask, was not merely to conceal, but to reveal deeper and immutable truths: gathering the audience, to adapt a famous phrase from “Sailing to Byzantium,” into “the artifice of eternity.”

Gordon CraigGordon Craig

There was also the theater of Eros. In diary notes written after the long-delayed sexual consummation (in Paris, in December 1908) of his love for Maud Gonne, Yeats proclaimed that, in “wise love,” both partners may achieve their masks: “each divines the high secret self of the other and, refusing to believe in the mere daily self, creates a mirror where the lover or the beloved sees an image to copy in daily life. Love also creates the Mask” (Memoirs, 144-45). But that night in Paris had been followed by a morning-after note in which Maud told Yeats she was praying he would be able to “overcome” his “physical desire,” and expressing the wish to revert to their old mystical marriage, an intimate but non-sexual relationship. His immediate grief triggered a mature reassessment, which included sublimation in the form of the century’s greatest body of love poems and affairs with “others.” After the execution of Maud’s estranged husband, Easter Rising leader John MacBride, Yeats had revived his hope of a sustained relationship with Maud: a dream that ended definitively with her final refusal of marriage, physical or mystical, in June 1917. Four months later, he married Georgie Hyde-Lees.

Of course, that “perverse creature of chance” (in “On Woman,” the first of the Solomon and Sheba poems) would continue to fascinate Yeats; and the acceptance of the attendant anguish plays a major part in his poetic embrace of Nietzschean eternal recurrence, both in “On Woman,” where the lovelorn speaker chooses to come “to birth again,” and in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” where the choice to “live it all again/ And yet again,” means plunging once more into “that most fecund ditch of all,/ The folly that man does/ Or must suffer, if he woos/ A proud woman not kindred of his soul.”[15] As Yeats noted, paraphrasing Blake’s “old thought” (in both “Anima Hominis” and in a later letter glossing the erotic tension in “Crazy Jane Grown Old Looks at the Dancers”), it may be that “sexual love” is “founded on spiritual hate” (Memoirs, 336, Letters, 758). Indeed, the “mirror where the lover or beloved sees an image” will return to maliciously threaten the Self in the very poem in which Maud is depicted as “not kindred of my soul.”

 §

The power of Yeats’s best poetry springs from the dialectical tension between “contraries” (Hegelian, Blakean, Wildean, Nietzschean): “Contraries” without which, as Blake said in his most dialogical work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, there is “no progression.” At the heart of this Yeatsian antinomy is the gap between the “bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast,” as he put it in the “Introduction” to the projected deluxe edition of his work—and the self dramatically “reborn”: the Mask, italicized and defined (in the 1937 edition of A Vision) as Will’s “opposite or anti-self.”[16] The internal Yeatsian drama of masks and personae is played out in interactions and oppositions beginning with St. Patrick and Oisin (The Wanderings of Oisin, 1889); Hic and Ille in “Ego Dominus Tuus”; Aherne and Robartes (‘Nineties’ personae revived for “The Phases of the Moon”); or gentler oppositions between the latter and the young girl in “Michael Robartes and the Dancer,” or between the blonde beauty and the Yeatsian old man in “For Anne Gregory.” The agon continues in the crucial “Dialogue of Self and Soul” and, in the Crazy Jane sequence, in the debates between the repressed and repressive Bishop and Jane, who dialectically double-puns that “Nothing can be sole or whole/ That has not been rent.” These tensions persist to the end. Proudly rehearsing his earthly and imaginative accomplishments in his final years, Yeats is challenged—“‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost, ‘what then?’”—by a more formidable spokesman of the spiritual Otherworld than the Soul in “Dialogue,” let alone Jane’s hypocritical Bishop. Even in the face of death, as we’ll see, the Yeatsian Man has to contend with his own sardonic Echo.

There are also singular anti-selves, impulsive figures such as lusty Red Hanrahan and the ghost of Leo Africanus, a 16th-century Moor conjured up by Yeats in séances beginning around 1909. Yeats imagined this adventurer and travel writer being “drawn to me because in life he had been all undoubting impulse,” while “I was doubting, conscientious, and timid.” There are several parallels having to do with the Gregorys and Coole Park. Among the “excellent company” frequenting the Great House was “one,” Yeats himself, “who ruffled in a manly pose/ For all his timid heart” (“Coole Park, 1929”), a description that illuminates several poems in The Wild Swans at Coole, as well as his private contrast between himself and the Gregorys.

On a rare occasion when his defense of Lady Gregory against attack had struck mother and son alike as inadequate, Yeats tried, in a letter to Robert, to explain. Because of his analytic mind, with its tendency “to exhaust every side” of a subject, he had lost the capacity for “instinctual indignation.” His “self-distrustful analysis of my own emotions” had, Yeats said, “destroyed impulse.” On this point, he found his stance “unreconcilable” with that of the Gregorys, whose instinctual “attitude toward life” had, like Maud Gonne’s, that “purity of a natural force” Yeats admired, envied—and left to others to embody.[17] And there is, of course, the ambivalent comparison with Robert Gregory himself: the Irish airman whose “lonely impulse of delight” made him one of those heroic men of action who “consume/ The entire combustible world in one small room,” while others, like sedentary Yeats, tediously “burn damp faggots” or count swans on the lake while shuffling among the autumnal leaves littering the estate Robert Gregory would have inherited had he not met his “fate/ Somewhere among the clouds above.”

But Yeats’s central hero—his most formidable opposite, mask, or anti-self—is the Celtic Achilles, impulsive Cuchulain, representing “creative joy separated from fear” (Letters, 913). Resurrected from ancient epic, he became the protagonist of a cycle of five Yeats plays and of several poems. The last of those plays, The Death of Cuchulain, and his final poem on the hero, the terza rima masterpiece “Cuchulain Comforted,” were written in the shadow of Yeats’s own impending death. In the poem, the slain hero is now in the Underworld; hence the Dantesque stanza-form, repeated in Eliot’s adaptation of terza rima in the encounter with the largely Yeatsian “compound ghost” in “Little Gidding.” The hero, nameless except in the poem’s title, lays down his sword to take up needlework; he joins a communal sewing bee, stitching shrouds among his polar opposites, “convicted cowards all.” He is soon to join them in their transformation as well. Those shrouded spirits, already described as “birdlike things,” suddenly sing, but “had nor human tunes nor words,/ Though all was done in common as before [.]/ They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds.” On an autobiographical level, this role-reversal, almost gender-reversal, by Yeats’s solitary, hyper-masculine, and defiantly non-conformist warrior-hero, tends to confirm the essential truth of one of Yeats’s most revealing self-appraisals, or un-maskings: his reference to himself, already cited, as “one who ruffled in a manly pose/ For all his timid heart.” Even here, in that birdlike “ruffling,” there is a faint vestige of the mask of the hawk-god, Cuchulain.

The Guardian of the Well in ‘At the Hawk’s Well’ (frontispiece). Illustration by Edmund Dulac for “Four Plays for Dancers” (1921)Edmund Dulac design for costume and mask for At the Hawk’s Well.
Illustration from Four Plays for Dancers, 1921.

There is a similar revelation of the sensitive man under the heroic mask at the conclusion of a dialogue-poem already referred to, “Man and the Echo.” Standing in the cleft of a mountain and confronting imminent death, the Man hopes to “arrange all in one clear view,” and, “all work done,” prepare to “sink at last into the night.” But the world is too contingent for such well-laid plans. Echo’s ominous repetition, “Into the night,” raises more, and more metaphysical, questions: “Shall we in that great night rejoice?/ What do we know but that we face/ One another in this place?” Finally, all philosophic thoughts stop together, interrupted by an intervention from the physical world, and a reminder of the suffering and radical finitude the poet shares with all mortal creatures:

But hush, for I have lost the theme,
Its joy or night seem but a dream;
Up there some hawk or owl has struck
Dropping out of sky or rock,
A stricken rabbit is crying out
And its cry distracts my thought.

Mitchio Ito as the Hawk collageDancer in costume designed by Dulac,  At the Hawk’s Well, 1916.
Photo by Alvin Langdon Coburn, by permission of George Eastman House.

In some poets, such a conclusion might be sentimental. But it is precisely Yeats’s frequent deployment, especially after encountering Nietzsche at the turn of the century, of a heroic, pitiless mask that makes this moment so poignant. For here Yeats identifies—not, as he so often had, with the perspective of the predatory bird (with Cuchulain, son of that “clean hawk out of the air”)—but with the death-cry of a defenseless, pitiable victim. One recalls chastened Lear on the storm-beaten heath (“Take physic, pomp…. I have ta’en too little notice of this”) and Nietzsche’s final breakdown in Turin, tearfully embracing a beaten coach-horse.[18]

§

“Man and the Echo” (1938) is the last, and one of the greatest, in Yeats’s long litany of dialogue-poems. Given the tension between the provisional nature of his commitments and his attraction to a form of polarity that generates power, it is unsurprising that Yeats was repeatedly drawn to poems (over thirty in number, great and small) that take the traditional form of debate or dialogue, necessarily exercises in masking. “The Mask” itself, a brief early instance, would be followed by much more elaborate examples, beginning with “Ego Dominus Tuus.” Later Yeats presents us with more dramatic oppositions and dialogue-poems, such as the Crazy Jane and Man and Woman Young and Old sequences, and, along with “Man and the Echo,” the most resonant of them all, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” (1927) and the appropriately-titled “Vacillation” (1931-32). That poetic sequence begins by explicitly laying out the antinomial tension between contraries that had, in the wake of his completion of Blake by Nietzsche, supplanted Yeats’s hitherto univocal vision. “All things fall into a series of antinomies in human experience” (A Vision, 193): an abstraction blooded in the opening lines of “Vacillation”:

Between extremities
Man runs his course;
A brand, or flaming breath
Comes to destroy
All those antinomies
Of day and night;
The body calls it death,
The heart remorse.
But if these be right
What is joy?

It turns out (as in “Lapis Lazuli” and its lesser companion-poem, “The Gyres”) to be a Nietzschean “tragic joy,” based on the antinomies (“Night/Day,” “Christ/Homer”) set up three decades earlier in the margins of that Nietzsche anthology. In the debate in section VII of “Vacillation” (“A Dialogue of Self and Soul” in stichomythia), the defiant Heart refuses the purifying fire proffered by the spiritual Soul: “Look on that fire, salvation walks within.” Temporally and thematically wrenching Augustinian Christianity into a pagan and heroic context, Heart, a “singer born” who indignantly refuses to be “struck dumb in the simplicity of fire,” responds: “What theme had Homer but original sin?” And, in his own voice, inflected by Nietzsche, Yeats asserts in the final movement of “Vacillation” that “Homer is my example and his unchristened heart.”

But not even that resonant proclamation ends the antinomy. The poem’s final movement had begun with a question: “Must we part, Von Hügel, though much alike, for we/ Accept the miracles of the saints and honour sanctity?” The spiritual side of the usual Yeatsian antinomy is here represented by the Catholic theologian and mystic, Friedrich, Baron von Hügel, whose The Reality of God and Religion and Agnosticism had been posthumously published in 1931. Yeats might be as moved by the miraculous state of the body of St. Theresa, which “lies undecayed in tomb,” as he is by the preservation of “Pharoah’s mummy,” yet

                                      I—though heart might find relief
Did I become a Christian man and choose for my belief
What seems most welcome in the tomb—play a predestined part.
Homer is my example and his unchristened heart.
The lion and the honeycomb, what has Scripture said?
So get you gone, Von Hügel, though with blessings on your head.

Citing Samson, who took honey from the bees swarming in the body of the slain lion, Yeats is adapting the Bible (Judges 14:14) to make his own recurrent point that it is “only out of the strong” that sweetness comes. The poem’s final line—a patronizing yet courteous, benign dismissal of the spiritual spokesman—was cited by Yeats in a 1932 letter to Olivia Shakespear, his first lover (“young/ We loved each other and were ignorant”) and most intimate lifelong correspondent. Having just reread his entire canon, and thinking of the old debate between Oisin and St. Patrick and of the more recent one between Heart and Soul in “Vacillation,” Yeats clarified what he now considered the power-producing tension dominating all his poetry: “The swordsman throughout repudiates the saint, but not without vacillation. Is that perhaps the sole theme—Usheen and Patrick—‘so get you gone Von Hugel though with blessings on your head’?”(Letters, 798)[19]

Yeats’s principal Celtic “swordsman” is Cuchulain rather than Oisin; but no matter, Saint and Swordsman emerge as Yeats’s ultimate antinomial “contraries,” and his most sustained “masks.” The blessing on von Hügel’s head is a terminal benediction by a man who, like von Hügel, believed in miracles, and who had also experienced such privileged moments as the epiphany recorded in section IV of “Vacillation,” when his “body”—that of a fifty-year-old poet sitting “solitary” in a “crowded London shop”—“of a sudden blazed,” and “twenty minutes more or less/ It seemed, so great my happiness,/ That I was blessèd and could bless.”

It seems to me no accident that in “Little Gidding,” his masterpiece and the very poem in which he encounters Yeats’s ghost, T. S. Eliot also alludes to Yeats’s dismissed saint, echoing von Hügel’s “costingness of regeneration” in referring to the cost (“not less than everything”) of refinement in spiritual fire. Eliot knew that, despite Yeats’s momentary sense that he was “blesséd and could bless,” everything was a price too high to be paid by the older poet, a “singer born” who refused (in section VII of “Vacillation”) to be consumed in the “simplicity” of spiritual “fire.” This is only one of several even more obvious allusions to “Vacillation” in the course of Eliot’s encounter with the “familiar compound ghost” in Part II of “Little Gidding.” That the recently dead Yeats plays the predominant part in that “compound” is demonstrated by both the drafts and the final version of this magisterial passage, as well as by Eliot’s explicit remarks in several letters. Nevertheless, it may be said that, as presented in the ghost-encounter in this final poem of Four Quartets, Yeats and Eliot emerge as one more example of opposites “united in the strife that divided them” (“Little Gidding,” III, 174).[20]

§

Four years before “Vacillation,” in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” My Self, anticipating the antinomies (day/night, death/remorse) set up at the outset of “Vacillation,” chooses “emblems of the day against the tower/ Emblematical of the night.” Yeats’s emblem of vital and erotic life is again a sword, but this time, a Japanese ancestral sword (the gift of an admirer, Junzo Sato) wound and bound in female embroidery. In his magnificent, life-affirming peroration, the Self embraces the entangled joy and pain of Nietzschean eternal recurrence: “I am content to live it all again/ And yet again.” Having read Nietzsche’s The Dawn, Yeats adopted the “privilege” of the autonomous self in that book “to punish himself, to pardon himself,” so that “you will no longer have any need of your god, and the whole drama of Fall and Redemption will be played out to the end in you yourself.”[21] The Yeatsian Self, spurning Soul’s ultimate doctrinal declaration, “only the dead can be forgiven,” a grim passivity that turns his own tongue to “stone,” asserts the right to

Measure the lot, forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

Reversing a venerable tradition (running from Plato and Cicero through Marvell) of debates between Body and Soul, flesh and spirit, the Self is triumphant, reflecting the “movement downwards upon life, not upwards out of life,” Yeats had adopted in the first years of the new century. It was a movement he associated—in the remarks to Ezra Pound prefacing AVision—with “a new divinity”: Sophocles’ chthonic Oedipus, who “sank down body and soul into the earth,” an earth “riven by love,” in contrast to, or in “balance” with, Christ who, “crucified standing up, went into the abstract sky soul and body.” (Letters, 63, 469; A Vision, 27-28). But since My Soul is also a part of Yeats, the “Dialogue” ends in a state of self-forgiving secular beatitude, including the “joy” sought in “Vacillation,” with the Self employing the spiritual terms Soul would monopolize.

The Soul had summoned Self to imbibe from the Plotinian “fullness” that “overflows/ And falls into the basin of the mind,” and so “ascend to Heaven.” Self, embracing a pagan affirmation of life, began his peroration by defying Neoplatonic Soul, punningly declaring that, “A living man is blind and drinks his drop.” In effect, Nietzschean Self “completes” the climactic cry of Blake’s Oothoon, heroine of Visions of the Daughters of Albion: “sing your infant joy!/ Arise and drink your bliss, for every thing that lives is holy!”—a Blakean “praise of life” Yeats specifically connects with “Nietzsche…at the moment when he imagined the ‘Superman’ as a child.”[22] Hating the “same dull round” of all forms of cyclicism, Blake would have rejected Nietzsche’s doctrine (or thought experiment) of eternal recurrence as an anti-humanistic nightmare. But Yeats forces the “completion” on the basis of the energy and childlike joy in life shared by Blake and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, prophet of the Übermensch.[23] The fusion, anticipating the more personal epiphany in “Vacillation,” enables Yeats to conclude that “We are blest by everything,/ Everything we look upon is blest.” The religious vocabulary conventionally reserved for the spiritual spokesman becomes, in the unchristened mouth of Self, a rhapsodic chant. For, as Yeats had memorably observed in the “Anima Hominis” section of Per Amica Silentia Lunae, “we make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”[24]

In this psychomachia, this antinomial conflict between opposing aspects of the self, Yeats also completes Wilde with Nietzsche, whose stress on antithetical conflict, penchant for images of combat, and sense of discipline added hardness and virility to what Yeats had inherited from Wilde concerning mask, artifice, and pose. Thus Nietzsche helped forge the “mask” we think of as most distinctively Yeatsian: the poet’s own version of what he called in A Vision Nietzsche’s “lonely, imperturbable, proud Mask” (128). It is a Homeric mask, as Robartes makes clear in “The Phases of the Moon,” Yeats’s poetic synopsis of his lunar System. Eleven phases “pass, and then/ Athena takes Achilles by the hair,/ Hector is in the dust, Nietzsche is born,/ Because the hero’s crescent is the twelfth.”

And yet, as we’ve seen, in two of his latest and greatest poems, “Man and the Echo” and “Cuchulain Comforted,” the second describing the transformation of his own proud hero and anti-self, Yeats, who had earlier assumed the masks of Crazy Jane and a Woman Young and Old, also revealed a gentler, feminine, almost androgynous side of himself—perhaps what we might call the Wilde(r) side. It is no accident that Yeats’s greatest composite symbol, Sato’s sword, is not only sheathed, but protected and adorned by “That flowering, silken, old embroidery, torn/ From some court-lady’s dress and round/ The wooden scabbard bound and wound,” in effect, reenacting the rondural structure of the Winding Stair (as literal staircase in Yeats’s Norman tower, emblem, and book-title) as well as the spiral symbolic of both Goethe’s Eternal Feminine and Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence.

Oscar WildeOscar Wilde

§

Discussing the relation between “discipline and the theatrical sense” in Per Amica Silentia Lunae, Yeats outlined the “condition for arduous full life”:

If we cannot imagine ourselves as different from what we are and assume that second self, we cannot impose a discipline upon ourselves, though we may accept one from others. Active virtue as distinguished from the passive acceptance of a current code is therefore theatrical, consciously dramatic, the wearing of a mask.[25]

Yeats here combines the Blakean Contraries (“the active springing from Energy” preferred to “the passive that obeys Reason”) with the theatrical language of “The Truth of Masks.” But Yeats never acknowledged Wilde’s use of the term “mask.” Perhaps because, for all his importance as a precursor, Wilde had to be “completed” with Blake and Nietzsche, and with Yeats’s own theories, classical and occult, of hero and Daimon. In the “Anima Hominis” section of Per Amica Silentia Lunae, Yeats writes, “I thought the hero found hanging upon some oak of Dodona an ancient mask…that when he looked out of its eyes he knew another’s breath came and went within his breath upon the carven lips.” He tells us that “the Daimon comes not as like to like but seeking its own opposite”; that unity is achieved “when the man has found a mask whose lineaments permit the expression of all the man most lacks” and “perhaps dreads”; and that “the poet finds and makes his mask in disappointment, the hero in defeat.” (Mythologies, 335-37)

There are many sources (psychological, theatrical, occult) for Yeats’s inter-related but shifting aesthetic and ethical theories about what he called “the Mask.”[26] In “The Decay of Lying,” Wilde had asserted that “truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style,” and Yeats insists that “Style, personality (deliberately adopted and therefore a mask), is the only escape” from the heat of “bargaining” and the “money-changers” (Memoirs, 139; Autobiographies, 461). Contemporary “reality” and the merely individual may be transcended by tradition, by elemental, ideal art, “those simple forms that like a masquer’s mask protect us with their anonymity.” A quarter-century earlier, in “The Tragic Theatre” (1910), Yeats had celebrated, as another “escape” from the “contemporary,” the expression of “personal emotion through ideal form, a symbolism handled by the generations, a mask from whose eyes the disembodied looks, a style that remembers many masters.”[27] The most recent of the masters to swim into Yeats’s ken at just the right time to shape his new style was “that strong enchanter, Nietzsche.”

Yeats Four Plays for Dancers

In prose and in many poems and plays written after 1903, Yeats adds to his arsenal Nietzsche’s theory of the mask, as well as his concepts of self-overcoming, the will to power, and the contrasts between Apollonian form and Dionysian energy, slave morality and magnanimous master morality. To a considerable extent, he also adopted the Nietzschean “critique of pity,” the masked endurance and transformation of “great suffering” inherent in Nietzsche’s noble morality and tragic vision. “What I have called ‘the Mask’ is an emotional antithesis,” Yeats writes, “to all that comes out of [the] internal nature [of subjective men.] We begin to live when we have conceived life as tragic” (Autobiographies, 189). Yeats’s subordination of “passive acceptance” to “active virtue” in the service of tragic joy was most notoriously displayed in his refusal to include in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse poems “written in the midst of the Great War.” It was idiosyncratic enough to presume to liberate Oscar Wilde’s stronger from his weaker self by cavalierly cutting lines in reprinting “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” in his Oxford anthology; quite another for Yeats to exclude altogether the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Wilfred Owen.

Though “officers of exceptional courage and capacity,” and men whose vivid and humorous letters revealed them to be “not without joy,” as poets they felt themselves bound to “plead the suffering of their men,” suffering they made “their own.” Yeats is thinking of Sassoon and Graves, but primarily of Wilfred Owen, who announced from beyond the grave that his book was “not about heroes,” nor “concerned with poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity.” As editor, Yeats said, he had “rejected these poems for the same reason that made [Matthew] Arnold withdraw his Empedocles on Etna from circulation; passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies.” Repeating, as he often did, Coleridge’s striking image of mimetic passivity, Yeats concluded: “When man has withdrawn into the quicksilver at the back of the mirror no great event becomes luminous in his mind.” In explaining to Dorothy Wellesley why he had omitted the war poets (including Owen, killed in action on November 4, 1918, one week before the Armistice), Yeats repeated his point about “passive suffering” not being a theme for poetry, adding “The creative man must impose himself upon suffering.”[28]

The contrast between “passive acceptance” and “active virtue” is more palatably symbolized in the opening movement, “Ancestral Houses,” of Yeats’s sequence, Meditations in Time of Civil War. Fusing Coleridge’s mechanical-organic distinction with his own elegiac reverence for the Anglo-Irish aristocratic tradition, Yeats counters the fountain-image of Plotinus with an overflowing fountain of autonomous life associated with Homer and Nietzsche, whose will to power and morality of master rather than of slave is evident in the imagery:

Surely among a rich man’s flowering lawns,
Amid the rustle of his planted hills,
Life overflows without ambitious pains;
And rains down life until the basin spills,
And mounts more dizzy high the more it rains
As though to choose whatever shape it wills
And never stoop to a mechanical
Or servile shape, at others’ beck and call.

Mere dreams, mere dreams! Yet Homer had not sung
Had he not found it certain beyond dreams
That out of life’s own self-delight had sprung
The abounding glittering jet….[29]

In A Vision, Yeats distinguishes passively accepted “necessity and fate” from a chosen “destiny,” and antithetical “personality” (creative, active) from primary “character” (imitative, passive): “rhetorical” concepts and contrasts that play out in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” where Yeats makes “poetry” out of the “quarrel” with himself. Prior to Self’s triumphant recovery, he wonders how one can escape what Yeats called in “Ancestral Houses” that “servile shape”:

That defiling and disfigured shape
The mirror of malicious eyes
Casts upon his eyes until at last
He thinks that shape must be his shape.

In the end, what Hegel and, later, feminist critics would call the Gaze of the Other, must be countered by the assertion of creative autonomy. As Yeats famously declared, “soul must become its own betrayer, its own deliverer, the mirror turn lamp.”[30] In “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” the servile mirror of passive acceptance is replaced by active self-redemption. The internal “quarrel” between Self and Soul issues in that “Unity of Being” Yeats always sought, but, after 1903, not through exclusion but through inclusion, an antinomial vision accepting, not half, but the whole dialectic. In the language of Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher as important to Yeats (who aligned him with Blake and Nietzsche) as to T. S. Eliot, “attunement” can only be achieved through the “counter-thrust” that “brings opposites together,” for “all things come to pass through conflict.”[31] As Soul-supporting George Russell (A.E.), “saint” to Yeats’s “poet” and “swordsman,” surmised in a letter to his friend about the poem, “perhaps when you side with the Self it is only a motion to that fusion of opposites which is the end of wisdom.”[32]

Those opposites—reflected in shorthand in the old diagram Yeats drew in the margin of his Nietzsche anthology, and played out in many of the major poems that followed—set the One, Logos, universal Truth, Eternity, and Divinity against the Many, Contraries, minute Particulars, Moments in time, and Humanity. But fusion, ultimate reconciliation at a dialectical higher level, requires that provisional clash of opposites; for (Blake again) “without Contraries is no progression.” The “Dialogue of Self and Soul,” perhaps Yeats’s central poem in terms of its ramifications throughout his work, before and after, is also his greatest exercise in creative, life-affirming masking. In the poem’s final fusion of opposites, or antinomies, or Heraclitean counter-thrusts, Yeats’s crucial precursors are Blake and Nietzsche (as well as Macrobius, whose Commentary on Cicero’s dialogue between ghost and grandson in “The Dream of Scipio” Yeats echoes in order to alter).[33] But a role is also played by Oscar Wilde, as audacious as the Romantic poet and the German philosopher in reminding Yeats that the play of antinomial “contraries” is artistic, and that “the truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks.”

Hildo Van Krop masks of Cuchulain, Emer, and Woman of the Sidhe Bronzes cast from Hildo Van Krop’s masks for 1922 Dutch production of  Yeats’s The Only Jealousy of Emer.
(From l. to r.) Emer, Cuchulain, Woman of the Sidhe.

—Patrick J. Keane

x

Patrick J Keane smaller

Numéro Cinq Contributing Editor Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

x
x

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. “The Truth of Masks,” in The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, ed. Richard Ellmann (New York: Vintage, 1968), 432. Intentions (1891) also includes “The Critic as Artist.”
  2. The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954), 379. This Yeatsian formulation may be one source of Harold Bloom’s theoretical conception (in Bloom’s term, tessera) of how a later poet, experiencing the “anxiety of influence,” imagines himself preserving his originality by “completing” a somehow truncated precursor.
  3. Genealogy of Morals, Third Treatise, §2. Nietzsche recalls and refutes Pauline dualism: “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are contrary to one another” (Galatians 5:11). Citations from both the Genealogy and from Beyond Good and Evil are from Beyond Good and Evil / On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Adrian Del Caro (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014). Here (pp. 287-88, as on p. 192, Beyond Good and Evil, Part 5 §198), Nietzsche couples his hero Goethe with the Persian poet Hafiz, who inspired Goethe’s final book of poems, West—Eastern Divan (1819).
  4. Twilight of the Idols, “The Four Great Errors”: 3, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking, 1954), 495. When Wilde says that “the truths of masks are the truth of metaphysics,” he means, my colleague Michael Davis astutely suggests, two things. The first is that “metaphysics is itself a mask,” adding that “Pater and Wilde are sharply suspicious of metaphysics precisely because” it is “beyond the physical,” and “both were intent on breaking down the mind/body distinction.” The same, of course, is true of Nietzsche. Though “mask” can be “something like a false face, a merely superficial ideological construction,” it is also the case “that masks themselves might have an alternative value to metaphysics, an alternative site for the construction of meaning that might even undo metaphysics and replace it with another sort of truth.” Again, Nietzsche would be in total agreement. My paper was initially written in response to a presentation on Wilde, Yeats, and the Mask by Jean Paul Riquelme (Le Moyne College, November 2, 2015), which both Michael and I attended. His observations cited above were in response to that first draft.
  5. The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Random House, 1967), 435. The full context is instructive. “For a philosopher to say, ‘the good and the beautiful are one,’ is infamy; if he goes on to add, ‘also the true,’ he ought to be thrashed. Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish of the truth.” If Nietzsche is criticizing the famous equation uttered by Keats’s hitherto silent Grecian Urn, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” he might be less surprised than most to find Keats asserting, in his own voice, the inferiority of “poetry” to “philosophy.” Again, the full context—the entry for March 19, 1819, in Keats’s extended journal-epistle to his brother and sister-in-law in America—is illuminating. “Though a quarrel in the streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine; the commonest man shows a grace in his quarrel—by a superior being our reasoning[s] may take the same tone—though erroneous they may be fine. This is the very thing in which consists poetry; and if so it is not so fine a thing as philosophy—For the same reason that an eagle is not so fine a thing as a truth.” The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, 2 vols. ed. Hyder E. Rollins (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958), 2: 80-81. Like Blake, Nietzsche, and Yeats, Keats contrasts univocal truth, longed-for yet rejected, with the clash of contraries: the antinomies that generate “the energies” finely displayed, whether in a “quarrel” in the streets, in the dynamic tensions energizing a poem, or in what Yeats called the “quarrel with ourselves” out of which we make “poetry.”
  6. Beyond Good and Evil, 41-42, 85-86, 129, 135, 185, 187-88, and 191-92.
  7. From the seventh and final section of Yeats’s poetic sequence “Vacillation.” All of the poetry is cited, by title rather than page-number, from W. B. Yeats: The Poems, ed. and intro. Daniel Albright (London: Everyman’s Library, 1992).
  8. Scribbled in the margin of p. 122 of Nietzsche as Critic, Philosopher, Poet, and Prophet: Choice Selections from His Works, compiled by Thomas Common (London: Grant Richards, 1901). The book is now housed in the Special Collections Department of the library at Northwestern University (Item T.R. 191 N67n.). In that last letter, leading up to the assertion that “Man can embody truth but he cannot know it,” Yeats told Lady Elizabeth Pelham, “I know for certain that my time will not be long….In two or three weeks—I am now idle that I may rest after writing much verse—I will begin to write my most fundamental thoughts which I am convinced will complete my studies. I am happy, and I think full of an energy, of an energy I had despaired of. It seems to me that I have found what I wanted.” The letter was written on January 4, 1939. Yeats died, or “completed” his life, on January 28.
  9. Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman, commentary by Harold Bloom (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965), 34. This is Plate 3 of the Marriage; for the reverse-passage from Milton, see 128.
  10. Essays and Introductions (London and New York: Macmillan, 1961), 130. The poem cited names Blake and alludes to the eagle-like soaring of Nietzsche’s “aeronauts of the intellect” (Dawn §542).
  11. Memoirs, ed. Denis Donoghue (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 191. Much of Yeats’s unpublished autobiographical material, including the important 1909 Diary, first appeared in this volume.
  12. First published in the expanded edition (1993) of David R. W. B. Clark’s Yeats and the Theatre of Desolate Reality (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1965).
  13. Quoted in Denis Bablet, Edward Gordon Craig (London: Heinemann, 1966), 110. Yeats had been aware of Craig’s work since 1901, when he saw his celebrated production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneus. For the appraisal of Craig as Europe’s “greatest stage inventor,” see Uncollected Prose by W. B. Yeats, 2 vols. ed. John P. Frayne and Colton Johnston (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), 2:393.
  14. The Artist as Critic, ed. Ellmann, 433.
  15. The thought might make you “throw yourself down and gnash your teeth,” says Nietzsche’s demon in the passage introducing the thought-experiment or ordeal of eternal recurrence. But have you, even “once,” experienced a “moment” so “tremendous” that you “fervently craved” it “once more” and “eternally?” The Gay Science, trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974), §341. Echoing that passage, the Yeatsian speaker in “On Woman” wants, should he come “to birth again,” to find “what once I had/ And know what once I have known.” He will accept sleeplessness, “gnashing of teeth, despair;/ And all because of some one/ Perverse creature of chance,/ And live like Solomon / That Sheba led a dance.” In the draft of a Solomon and Sheba poem published 80 years after it was written, Yeats depicts himself as a folly-driven Solomon perplexed by the “labyrinth” (a code-word for Maud) of Sheba’s mind. Will he be proven a wise man or “but a fool.” (See Yeats Annual 6: [1988] 211-13.)
  16. Essays and Introductions, 509; A Vision (London: Macmillan, 1962). For the “Rules for Discovering True and False Masks,” see 90-91. Each Phase in Yeats’s intriguing if bizarre lunar scheme has, along with its Will, Creative Mind, and Body of Fate, its Mask, True and False. Wilde is located, along with Byron and “a certain actress,” in Phase 19, “the phase of the artificial, the fragmentary, and the dramatic” (148). Nietzsche is the solitary occupant of Phase Twelve, that of “The Forerunner” and the hero (126).
  17. In this draft letter to Robert (Memoirs, 252-53, 257), which may or may not have been sent, Yeats describes this as the “one serious quarrel” he ever had with Lady Gregory. In “The People,” another poem in The Wild Swans at Coole, Yeats similarly contrasted himself, “whose virtues are the definitions/ Of the analytic mind,” with the impulsive Maud Gonne, who has not “lived in thought but deed” and so has “the purity of a natural force.” The poems alluded to later in this paragraph—“The Wild Swans at Coole,” “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” and “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death”—are the opening three poems in The Wild Swans at Coole, their bleak tone reflecting both the contrast with heroic Gregory and Yeats’s despondency in the aftermath of Maud’s rejection of his fourth and final marriage proposal.
  18. No sooner had he famously embraced the horse being viciously whipped than Nietzsche collapsed in the street: a collapse that proved mentally permanent. Yeats’s Nietzschean critique of “pity” as inappropriate to art explains his two most notorious public rejections: of Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie for the Abbey Theatre, and of Wilfred Owen’s war-poetry from the Oxford Book of Modern Verse.
  19. The Olivia-poem cited is “After Long Silence.” In his attitude toward von Hügel, Yeats may be recalling another statement in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, almost as famous as, and allied with, “Without Contraries is no progression.” This statement, “Opposition is true Friendship,” at the end of Plate 20 (Poetry and Prose, p. 41), is painted out in some copies of the Marriage, perhaps because Blake did not want readers to think he was reconciling with his opponent in the immediately preceding passage: the debate between himself and the conventionally religious “Angel” in the fourth and most important “Memorable Fancy.” That debate had ended with the Blakean figure declaring, “we impose on one another, & it is but lost time to converse with you whose works are only Analytics.” Yeats doesn’t want to reconcile with von Hügel, but his tone confirms that opposition need not preclude friendship.
  20. The correspondents in the letters referred to are John Hayward, Maurice Johnson, and Kristian Smidt. For details, see Helen Gardner, The Composition of “Four Quartets” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 64-67. And see below, n. 29.
  21. §437, §79. The volume Yeats knew as The Dawn (a book that demonstrably influenced other poems as well, most notably “An Acre of Grass” and its companion-poem, “What Then?”) has been best and most recently translated by R. J. Hollingdale as Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982). I quote pp. 186-87 and 48 of this edition.
  22. Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1955), 474-75. In epitomizing Blake’s “praise of life—‘all that lives is holy’,” Yeats is fusing passages. Along with Oothoon’s chant (final plate, Visions of the Daughters of Albion), he is recalling the choral conclusion of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “For every thing that lives is Holy!” And his phrase “praise of life” also seems to echo Blake’s America, Plate 8:13: “For every thing that lives is holy, life delights in life.” (The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, 50, 44, 53). John Steinbeck, who puts the slightly misquoted line, “All that lives is holy,” in the mouth of his Blakean-Whitmanian prophet Jim Casy in Chapter 13 of TheGrapes of Wrath, was probably thinking only of the finale of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
  23. When Zarathustra jumps “with both feet” into “golden-emerald delight,” he also jumps into a cluster of images and motifs we would call “Yeatsian,” primarily but not only because of Self’s laughing, singing self-absolution, echoing Blake’s “every thing that lives is holy”:

    In laughter all that is evil comes together, but is pronounced holy and absolved by its own bliss; and if this is my alpha and omega, that all that is heavy and grave should become light, all that is body, dancer; all that is spirit, bird—and verily that is my alpha and omega: oh, how should I not lust after eternity and the nuptial ring of rings, the ring of recurrence? (Thus Spoke Zarathustra III:16)

    Along with Self’s final chant, one recalls the Unity of Being projected in the final stanza of “Among School Children,” an antinomy-resolving state where “body is not bruised to pleasure soul,” and we no longer “know the dancer from the dance.” And Zarathustra’s transformation of “spirit” into “bird” will remind us of the natural and golden birds of the Byzantium poems and the final transfiguration of Yeats’s central hero—in both The Death of Cuchulain and “Cuchulain Comforted”—into a singing bird.

  24. Mythologies (London and New York: Macmillan, 1959), 331.
  25. Mythologies, 334, and Autobiographies, 469.
  26. For a full discussion of the subject, see the essays gathered in Yeats Annual 19 (2013), titled The Mask, especially Warwick Gould’s long and characteristically thorough study, “The Mask before The Mask.”
  27. Yeats’s Preface to his early essays, collected in 1934 as Letters to the New Island, xiii. (The volume was re-published in 1989 (ed. George Bornstein and Hugh Witemeyer) in The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats. “The Tragic Theatre,” in Unpublished Prose 2:388.
  28. Letters on Poetry from W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley, intro. Kathleen Raine (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 21; cf. 124-26. Yeats, Introduction to Oxford Book, section xv. Matthew Arnold had de-canonized Empedocles on Etna because, he said in the Preface to his Poems (London: Longmans, 1853), “no poetical enjoyment can be derived” from situations “in which the suffering finds no vent in action” (viii). Nevertheless, Arnold’s decision was as regrettable as Yeats’s. Owen’s famous description is from a draft-Preface for a collection of poems he hoped to publish in 1919.
  29. The caveat (“Mere dreams, mere dreams!”) is followed by recovery: “Yet Homer had not sung/ Had he not found it [the abounding jet sprung out of “life’s own self-delight”] certain beyond dreams.” But the pattern of vacillation continues in the lines that immediately follow, since “now it seems,” in the twilight of the Anglo-Irish tradition, as if “some marvellous empty sea-shell” (a beautiful fossil that once housed life), and “not a fountain, were the symbol which/ Shadows the inherited glory of the rich.”
  30. This celebrated phrase, from the 1936 Introduction to the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, later supplied M. H. Abrams with both title and epigraph for his 1953 landmark study of Romantic theory, The Mirror and the Lamp.
  31. Charles H. Kahn, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus: An Edition of the Fragments with Translation and Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), Fragment #8 (Diehls-Kranz enumeration). This passage was used by Eliot as the second of two untranslated fragments (the second is “The way up and the way down is one and the same”) as epigraphs to the first printing of “Burnt Norton,” the opening poem of what became Four Quartets. Both were later printed to apply to the sequence as a whole. See Jewell Spears Brooker, “Eliot and Heraclitus,” in New Pilgrimages: Selected Papers from the IAUPE Beijing Conference in 2013, ed. Li Cao and Li Jin (Beijing: Tsinghua University Press, 2015), 259-69. Brooker does not refer to Yeats in her paper, but, as earlier noted, in the ghost-encounter in the final poem of Four Quartets, Yeats and Eliot may be seen as one more example of opposites “united in the strife that divided them.”
  32. Letters to W. B. Yeats, ed. Richard J. Finneran, George Mills Harper, and William M. Murphy, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1972), 2:560. Yeats wrote Dorothy Wellesley in 1935, “My wife said the other night, ‘AE is the nearest to a Saint you or I will ever meet. You are a better poet but no saint. I suppose one has to choose’” (Letters, 838). Yeats’s poem “The Choice” (1931) begins, “The intellect of man is forced to choose/ Perfection of the life, or of the work.” Finding, as Nietzsche said, “one more stimulus to life” in the “opposition” between “chastity and sensuality,” antithetical Yeats chooses sensuous poetry.
  33. For a discussion of the Commentary on Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis by the 4th-century Neoplatonist Macrobius, see Patrick J. Keane, Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (London and Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987), 143-44.
Nov 082015
 
xAnne_Hutchinson_on_Trial Anne Hutchinson on Trial by Edwin Austin Abbey via Wikipedia

Anne Hutchinson on Trial by Edwin Austin Abbey via Wikipedia

 

.

Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1841 (Peabody Essex Museum) via Wikipedia

Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1841 (Peabody Essex Museum) via Wikipedia

 

There may be no more eloquent contemporary defender of Calvinism and the Puritan tradition than the 2012 National Humanities Medal recipient, Marilynne Robinson. In prize-winning novels from Housekeeping (1980) through Gilead (2004), and Home (2008), to Lila (2014), Robinson swims against what Yeats called “this filthy modern tide.” She does so more explicitly in essays, collected in The Death of Adam (1998), Absence of Mind (2010) and The Giveness of Things (2015). Her 1994 essay, “Puritans and Prigs: An Anatomy of Zealotry,” appeared in the Summer 2015 special issue of Salmagundi, celebrating that magazine’s 50th anniversary. I encountered it there at the same time that I happened to be reading, also for the first time, “Mrs. Hutchinson,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1830 sketch contextualizing and dramatizing the 1637 civil trial of Anne Hutchinson. It seemed to me that one remark of Robinson was refuted by both sides involved in what Hawthorne rightly calls the “remarkable case” of that  multifaceted woman—variously described as an antinomian dissenter, pioneer proto-feminist, trouble-making rebel, and champion of religious liberty. The Puritan civil court pronounced its verdict on Anne Hutchinson on the sleety evening of November 8—378 years ago this very day.

In “Puritans and Prigs,” Robinson distinguishes between shallow contemporary values (fashionable, judgmental “priggishness” in various forms) and the richness of an ancestry some progressives contemptuously spurn as “puritanical.” That misused adjective, itself an example of linguistic “priggishness,” has had the unfortunate effect of causing far too many Americans to glibly dismiss a civilization which, while it flourished in North America, established, as Robinson claims, “great universities and cultural institutions and an enlightened political order.” Puritan civilization achieved unprecedented levels of literacy, longevity, and mass prosperity; in short, what Robinson summarizes as “happiness,” at least as it was conceived of in pre-modern days, before being reduced to mass consumerism and sexual liberation. Not, not at all, that the actual as opposed to the caricatured Puritans were opposed to sexual happiness or, for all their seriousness, to joy in general. But whole volumes of scholarship devoted to the history of New England Puritanism (and of the related Quaker tradition in Pennsylvania) have been trumped in the popular imagination by H. L. Mencken’s witty, unforgettable, and (ever since he uttered it in his 1949 Sententiae) widely accepted definition: “Puritanism—The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

Marilynne Robinson’s antithesis between Prig and Puritan sets an advantaged, judgmental contemporary “elite,” distinguished by politically correct discourse, in stark opposition to the old Puritan Elect, “chosen by God in a manner assumed to be consistent with his tendency to scorn the hierarchies and overturn the judgments of this world.” Though Robinson’s social and ecological agenda, stressing responsibility to others and to the earth, seems “liberal,” it is, she insists, in the tradition of Calvin, whom she cites on our responsibility to our neighbors, and whose imperative she quotes directly: to “embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love.” No political conservative, Robinson is nevertheless telling in targeting liberal smugness, one of its distinguishing marks being disdain for those who have failed to keep up with every nuance of ever-changing politically correct language. This exclusionary tendency of progressivism leads her to the following sweeping claim (defensively hedged by a double qualifier regarding Calvinism): “I have not yet found a Puritan whose Calvinism was so decayed or so poorly comprehended that he or she would say to another soul, I am within the circle of the elect and you are outside it.” Really?

Since I was reading these words at the very time I was engaging Hawthorne’s “Mrs. Hutchinson,” it occurred to me that Anne Hutchinson, hardly an obscure figure, would have provided Robinson with a preeminent example of her sought-for-in-vain Puritan. For Anne Hutchinson most certainly did say to others—indeed to the male Elect governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony itself—“I am within the circle of the elect and you are outside it.” And there is a related but far wider point on which I disagree with Marilynne Robinson. Her cogent defense of Calvinism in general and of the Puritan tradition in particular, though it provides a contrarian and tonic corrective to some mushy secular thinking, passes over the somber, brutal cruelty of which the Puritans were capable. Worse yet, she implicitly accepts much that is theologically inhumane and repellent, above all, the doctrinal insistence, derived by Calvin primarily from Augustine, on original sin and the eternal punishment of most of humankind: the ultimate and everlasting exclusion from the “circle of the elect.” But it is time to turn from Robinson’s defense of Puritan tradition to the subject indicated by my title: the dramatization of the trial of Anne Hutchinson by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the American writer most ancestrally and thematically haunted by the darker aspects of that tradition.

***

Born on the 4th of July in Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne came into the world  associated with two major events of colonial history: the 1776 declaration of the colonies’ independence from England, and, almost a century earlier, the Salem witch trials. His earliest American ancestor, William Hathorne, who arrived in Salem in 1630 with John Winthrop, was a magistrate noted for persecuting Quakers; his son, John, another prominent Puritan judge, tried and condemned Salem witches in 1692. In his writing, Hawthorne (who probably added the “w” to his family name in part to distance himself from such ancestors) is unsurprisingly preoccupied with hidden sin, guilt, and the individual’s confrontation both with the larger community and with evil. A loss to his biographers, but a benefit to his art, his own religious views remain ambiguous. He later characterized his forced attendance as a boy at Salem’s Meeting House, where his ancestors had worshiped for nearly two centuries, as “the frozen purgatory of my childhood,” and, as an adult, he attended no church, subscribed to no orthodoxy.

Yet it’s no wonder that perhaps his most perceptive admirer, the author of Moby Dick, famously singled out in Hawthorne “his great power of blackness,“ finding in his friend that “Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free.” Hawthorne’s was indeed, as Melville recognized, a “deeply thinking mind,” and it produced fictions (sketches, short stories, novels) rising from mere “romances” to some of the most profound psychological explorations in American literature: texts in which there are seldom simple answers, and several modes of perception and interpretation remain open to attentive readers. The origin of these multiple perspectives is, of course, the open or inconclusive point of view of the author himself, both as a man of his particular ancestry and psychological temperament, and, more importantly, as an artist.

To cite the most notable example: after 165 years of general perusal and scholarly study of his masterpiece (and the first great American novel), The Scarlet Letter, it is still difficult to determine precisely what Hawthorne himself, caught between the Puritan and contemporary worlds, believed regarding Hester’s behavior. He is unwilling to commit himself: either to fully approve of her sexual rebellion against unnatural restraints, as many romantic Transcendentalist individualists did and as most contemporary readers do, or to align himself with the strict moral code and harshness of Puritan judgment. The aesthetic result is to simultaneously liberate and burden us, his readers, with the task of interpretation. Though also true (despite their symbolic names) of the characters of Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, even of little Pearl, it is this suspended or divided judgment regarding Hester that makes this novel, somber but no moral tract, an endlessly fascinating work of art.

The same is true of Hawthorne’s ambivalent stance toward Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643), another woman subjected to Puritan judgment. His admiration of her intelligence and audacity is mingled with criticism and at least partial concurrence in the verdict of the court. In both texts, Hawthorne seems as conflicted, or as adroitly balanced on the historical wind, as Andrew Marvell in his magnanimous description of the doomed king on the execution block (“He nothing common did or mean/ Upon that memorable scene…”) in that greatest of public poems, the “Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” or in Yeats’s equally public and equally double-minded group-elegy, “Easter 1916,” which, like “The Second Coming,” consciously echoes Marvell’s imagery and dual perspective.

Hawthorne’s perspectivism (Marvellian, Yeatsian, almost Nietzschean) seems nothing if not modern; and yet, at the same time, those “visitations” Melville mentioned characteristically took, in Hawthorne’s fictions, the “shape” of parables and allegories—devices seeming to some, even at the time, rather old-fashioned. The same might be said of his prose. Hawthorne’s literary style, very much in the opulent rhetorical mode of the 18th century, is too often syntactically complex, inflated in vocabulary, over-loaded with latinates. Sometimes such rhetorical inflation was employed, as in Jonathan Swift, in the service of wit. Of a clergyman who had predicted that the world would end in 1843, Hawthorne mockingly observed that he appeared to have “given himself up to despair at the tedious delay of the final conflagration.” At other times, the humor was inadvertent or misplaced. The simple description, in an early draft of his story “Ethan Brand,” of a “great, old dog,” was heightened in revision so that the poor creature became a “grave and venerable quadraped”—precisely the sort of “poetic diction” Wordsworth had ridiculed four decades earlier in his famous Preface to Lyrical Ballads.

It must be added, of course, that Hawthorne’s formal and highly “finished” rhetoric is usually as lucid as it is orotund. Employing an answerable style, he produced two fully realized novels, The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, and, writing in his distinct and unmistakable manner, such wonderful shorter fictions as (to choose a dozen) “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” “Young Goodman Brown,” “Wakefield,” “The Snow-Image,” “The Wives of the Dead,” “The May-Pole of Merry Mount,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “The Birthmark,” “Ethan Brand,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” “The Artist of the Beautiful,” and “Feathertop.” Nevertheless, and not infrequently, Hawthorne’s tendency to linguistic expansion led—as F. O. Matthiessen noted three-quarters of a century ago in American Renaissance—to diffusion of detail and consequent confusion for the reader. Though he laments and chuckles over Hawthorne’s “grave and venerable quadraped,” Matthiessen never mentions “Mrs. Hutchinson.” But we need look no further for an example of misplaced elaboration than the dreadful opening sentence of that sketch: “The character of this female suggests a train of thought which will form as natural an introduction to her story as most of the prefaces to Gay’s Fables or the tales of Prior, besides that the general soundness of the moral may excuse any want of present applicability.”

The opacity is less attributable to literary allusion than to convoluted rhetoric. Even for readers familiar with Gay and Prior, this introductory sentence is a syntactical dragon at the mouth of the cave. Hawthorne is trying to say that, as in John Gay’s Fables (many of them aimed at moderating the behavior of the “female sex”) and in the format occasionally adopted by Matthew Prior (a poem followed by “The Moral”), there is a “moral” in Anne Hutchinson’s “story,” indeed an instructive precept of such “general soundness” that it supersedes the absence of any particular details that may not seem immediately relevant. But if the author were someone less notable than Hawthorne, and the case of Anne Hutchinson of less intrinsic interest, only the hardiest reader would forge on to the next sentence.

***

That didactic opening initiates the prologue to the specific case of “Mrs. Hutchinson,” a preamble which, whether making the prosecution’s case or meant to provoke dissent, raises questions of perspective. Is the “we” here Hawthorne speaking in propria persona? or the voice of an unreliable “narrator”? The content and tone presumably reflect some of the author’s own complaints about “female” writers. What are acknowledged to be “slightly exaggerated” forebodings—that these “ink-stained Amazons” will assume an even more public role, in a “period” from which the speaker hopes he will “be gone hence ere it arrive”—are surely to be taken, as the wit and hyperbole suggest, with a pinch of salt. He seems considerably more serious about the dangers of women obeying “the inward voice.” The long “Introductory” to The Scarlet Letter, “The Custom House,” is integral to an understanding of that novel. In his preamble to this sketch is Hawthorne loading the dice, or inviting resistance? What light, if any, does the prologue, with its apprehension about inspired women going public, cast on Hawthorne’s presentation of the character of the most public, inwardly inspired female Puritan dissident, and on her trial as portrayed in “Mrs. Hutchinson”?

We’ll return to the preamble, but our main interest is in the story it ambiguously precedes. Historically, and as recreated by Hawthorne, this “remarkable case” is part of an archetypal conflict: between individual and community, rebellion and conformity; between an “inner,” higher law, signaled by the “inward” voice and light, and society’s external law; between truth and delusion, freedom and thought-control. And there is a subtheme—from Antigone through Joan of Arc to the present—of the lone woman among male antagonists. Like his Concord neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson (the great champion of self-reliance against the forces of conformity), Hawthorne was fascinated and frightened by the formidable Margaret Fuller. As already suggested, he had similarly mixed feelings about Anne Hutchinson, whose civil trial in November, 1637, he dramatized in this sketch (The later religious trial, on 22 March 1638, simply confirmed the guilty verdict.) The same ambivalence evident in “Mrs. Hutchinson”—fascination and admiration mingled with reservation and judgment—reappears two decades later in Hawthorne’s depiction of Hester Prynne, the half-Calvinist, half-Emersonian heroine of The Scarlet Letter. We may devote a few moments to the central figure of that 1850 novel before returning to the central figure of “Mrs. Hutchinson.”

***

Hester Prynne2

However well we may think of her, Hester considers herself stained by sin and justly burdened by shame and sorrow. This is hardly the case with Anne Hutchinson. At one point, however, Hester characterizes her adultery with the inadequate Dimmesdale as an act of mutual “consecration.” The community around her at the time condemns her transgression; Hester regrets rather than repents of her sin, and, significantly, it is in her mouth that Hawthorne rightly puts the visionary anticipation of a future female “angel and apostle” who will—“when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s good time”—reveal a “new truth,” establishing “the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness,” and “showing how sacred love should make us happy, by the truest test of a life successful to such an end!” Anne Hutchinson, who had fifteen children, knew all about marital sex, and would certainly have endorsed Hester Prynne’s establishment of “sacred love” on the foundational concept of a “new truth” superior to received dogma on sex and on the treatment of women.

But seeking parallels for Hester, we are as likely to look forward as back, and to fiction as much as to history. Hester anticipates Hawthorne’s own (Margaret Fuller-based) Zenobia in The Blithesdale Romance (1851) and Miriam, with her mysterious past, in The Marble Faun (1860). Hester is also a precursor of Henry James’s magnetic Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, and of the bold heroine of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. There is no question that Hester’s self-reliance, greatness of spirit, and balked but still brave and vital sexuality impressed her own creator, winning enough of divided Hawthorne’s admiration to turn him from a “mere” romancer to a novelist of almost unparalleled psychological depth.

The first great heroine of American fiction, Hester is infinitely superior to the men with whom she is involved: her sensitive, conscience-tortured and cowering lover Dimmesdale and the cold Chillingworth—the elderly husband from whom she had been separated when they sailed in different ships for the New World. Having survived shipwreck, he emerges from the forest disguised, driven by diabolical vengeance, and determined to expose the secret father of Hester’s child, Pearl. The corrosive impact of Chillingworth on the life of Arthur Dimmesdale is a significant aspect of the novel. But it is, of course, Hester herself who matters most to Hawthorne—and to generations of readers, even to most contemporary younger readers for whom Puritan moral strictures and sexual guilt may often seem more quaint than compelling.

The communal condemnation of Hester Prynne is “puritanical” on overtly sexual grounds; the communal condemnation of Anne Hutchinson was on overtly theological grounds. Gender, however, was a huge factor in both cases, cases  linked by Hawthorne. For in the very audacity of her self-reliance, Hester is a fictional analogue of the admirable if unrestrainable Hutchinson, specifically alluded to in “The Prison Door,” the short opening chapter of The Scarlet Letter.

At the threshold of that prison, the “black flower of civilized society,” there grows, we are told, “a wild rose-bush,” its fragrance and fragile beauty suggesting to the entering or condemned prisoner that “the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.” One of its flowers, imagined presented to the reader, might, in the chapter’s final sentence, “symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.” The rose-bush had “survived out of the stern old wilderness…long after the fall of the gigantic pines and oaks that originally over-shadowed it,” but what was its own origin? Perhaps, “as there is fair authority for believing, it had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Anne Hutchinson, as she entered the prison-door.” Before being banished, Hutchinson had indeed, between her two trials, civil and religious, been imprisoned, as had Hester, by the Puritan authorities.

***

Unknown artist. Anne Hutchinson Preaching in Her House in Boston. From Harper’s Monthly, February 1901. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. LC-USZ62-53343From Harper’s Monthly, February 1901. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

How had it all come about? Husband and eleven children in tow, Anne Hutchinson had emigrated from England three years earlier, following to Massachusetts the dynamic minister John Cotton—grandfather of Cotton Mather of the Salem witch trials and an ancestor of the mother of Emerson’s second wife. There she quickly became the most famous or notorious woman in American colonial history: the fiercely independent and charismatic religious dissenter who, along with brother-in-law John Wheelwright, defied the male elders of her Puritan community. Hutchinson emphasized not only salvation through divine grace rather than good works, but individual intuition and a rejection of that primal Augustinian-Calvinist concept: original sin. Denouncing the colony’s clergy (with the exception of Cotton), she threatened divine judgment on the leaders and the land itself were she to be hindered in her ministry. Under questioning on the final day of her civil trial, she claimed to be directly inspired by God, heeding an “inward voice,” illuminated by an “inward light.” Judgment was passed, and she was banished from the colony.

Wheelwright.John.AmAntiquarianSocJohn Wheelwright, Hutchinson’s brother-in-law. Attributed to John Coles Sr. (1749-1809) who copied the image from a c. 1677 portrait by an unknown artist. via American Antiquarian Society via Wikipedia

Drummed out of the Bay Colony and finding refuge in Rhode Island, Anne, her husband, children, and some of her followers established a religious community. After the death of that husband (dismissed by Hawthorne as, “like most husbands of celebrated women,” an “insignificant appendage of his mightier wife”), and restive in Rhode Island, Anne Hutchinson pushed on to the Dutch territories, “where, having felled the trees of a virgin soil, she became herself the virtual head, civil and ecclesiastical, of a little colony.” But followed, “her enemies believed,” by “the anger of Heaven,” she came to what Hawthorne calls an “awful close.”

With fourteen of her followers, Anne Hutchinson perished in an Indian massacre in what is now the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx (hence the Hutchinson River and Parkway). The mistaken slaughter (the Algonquians, including a group called the Siwanoy, intended vengeance against the Dutch) occurred during an evening prayer-session at her home, with most of the Hutchinson children among the victims. “In the deep midnight, their cry rang through the forest.” The one survivor, Anne’s nine-year-old daughter Susanna, was captured, adopted, and raised by Wampage, penitent chief of the Siwanoy war party. That “circumstance” did not, Hawthorne concludes, go “unnoticed by our stern ancestors, in considering the fate of her who had so troubled their religion, that an infant daughter, the sole survivor amid the terrible destruction of her mother’s household, was bred in a barbarous faith, and never learned the way to the Christian’s Heaven. Yet we will hope, that there the mother and the child have met.”

John Cotton Hutchinsons mentor original unknown - Samuel Drake, History of Boston Antiquities, 1856, opposite p. 158. via WikipediaJohn Cotton, Hutchinson’s mentor. Original unknown – Samuel Drake, History of Boston Antiquities, 1856, opposite p. 158. via Wikipedia

***

That is the final sentence of what is less a short story or historical account than a “sketch,” a favorite Hawthorne genre, here combining fact and imagination. The slightly uneasy relationship between historical synopsis and the creative, more “fictional” evocation of local and courtroom detail is signaled by such awkward signpost-sentences as, “We shall endeavor to give a more practical idea of this part of her course,” and “We shall here resume the more picturesque style of narration.”

However we categorize it, “Mrs. Hutchinson” begins, as earlier noted, with a preamble (“hinting” at “sentiments which may be developed on a future occasion”) revealing Hawthorne’s (or the narrator’s) less-than-liberated conception of the role of women in society, whether Puritan society or his own, circa 1830. “There are,” we are told, “portentous indications, changes gradually taking place in the habits and feelings of the gentle sex, which seem to threaten our posterity with many of those public women, whereof one was a burthen too grievous for our fathers.” The allusion to Anne Hutchinson, whose intellectual powers are not only acknowledged but demonstrated in the sketch that follows, is itself followed by the assertion that “Woman’s intellect should never give the tone to that of man, and even her morality is not the material for masculine virtue.” The narrator (who will shortly revisit the contrast between virtù and “virtue”) fears an “evil, likely to be a growing one.” He envisions a time when “fair orators shall be as numerous as the fair authors of our own day.” Women have set aside their needlework to take up the pen, “ink-stained Amazons” threatening their male rivals until “petticoats wave triumphant over all the field.” Given this comic hyperbole, are we meant to share or resist his fear of what worse evil will follow when they enter fully into public life, trading the delicate if paternalistic “respect” of men for a dubious “fame”?

We, or women at least, are admonished (in revealingly prurient imagery fleshing out the earlier implicit contrast between male virtù and female “virtue,” or chastity) that there is a “sort of impropriety in the display of woman’s naked mind to the gaze of the world, with indications by which its inmost secrets may be searched out” (italics added). What is normal in a man is “irregular” in a “woman,” who, “when she feels the impulse of genius like a command of Heaven within her, should be aware that she is relinquishing a part of the loveliness of her sex, and obey the inward voice with sorrowing reluctance, like the Arabian maid who bewailed the gift of Prophecy.” The Arab-Christian Sajah, who declared herself a prophetess after the death of Muhammed, but later repented, is here held up as a warning to women who yield to the inward voice—women such as “the celebrated subject of this sketch,” Anne Hutchinson, who had also hearkened with dire consequences to a voice she claimed to be that of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

The very next sentence, in which Hawthorne launches the specific tale of the titular Mrs. Hutchinson, informs us that she was “a woman of extraordinary talent and strong imagination”—the latter quality, augmented by the “enthusiasm” of the times, prompting her to “stand forth as a reformer in religion.” Even in England, though restrained by the milder Cotton, “she had shown symptoms of irregular and daring thought.” Once arrived in Massachusetts, “she bore trouble in her own bosom, and could find no peace in this chosen land.” She held weekly meetings, promulgating “strange and dangerous opinions,” above all, challenging the authorities by asserting the superiority of her own inner light. Thus, she threatened the “very existence” of the Puritan community, based on unity and stability.

***

Following that signpost sentence offering to give a “more practical idea of this part of her course,” we are presented with “a summer evening,” with “dusk” settling “heavily” upon woods, waves, and the peninsular colony, increasing the “dismal aspect” of that “embryo town,” its houses “straw-thatched and lowly roofed,” its streets “still roughened by the roots of trees, as if the forest, departing at the approach of man, had left its reluctant footprints behind.” This is early Boston, said to have “drawn tears of despondency from Mrs. Hutchinson, though she believed that her mission thither was divine.” Hawthorne’s camera moves closer, to focus on a particular house, then a room, where a plainly attired middle-aged woman, her dark eyes “kindling up with a gradual brightness,” is preaching, surrounded by an engaged audience, whether disapproving, or challenged, or inspired.

Four men among her “hearers” are mentioned by name: the young recent governor, Sir Henry Vane, a Hutchinson enthusiast; John Cotton, her former and formative mentor, now wavering in his support; one Ward, who thinks to diminish her message by frivolous wit; and Hugh Peters, “full of holy wrath,” barely able to contain himself from “rushing forward to convict her of damnable heresies.” He is foremost among the sterner ministers present, frowning and whispering among themselves as she “unfolds her seditious doctrine.” Representative of some others in the audience is one “whose faith seems shaken in those whom he had trusted for years; the females, on the other hand, are shuddering and weeping, and at times they cast a desolate look of fear among them.” But many hunger for the “bread” she offers; and “young men lean forward, fiery and impatient, fit instruments for whatever rash deed may be suggested.” What is the subversive message, delivered with “eloquence,” that stirs all these disparate passions?

The woman tells them (and cites texts from the Holy Book to prove her words) that they have put their trust in unregenerated and uncommissioned men, and have followed them into the wilderness for naught. Therefore their hearts are turning from those whom they had chosen to lead them to Heaven, and they feel like children who have been enticed far from home, and see the features of their guides change all at once, assuming a fiendish shape in some frightful solitude.

Exposing what she claims the people were feeling—that the colony’s leaders were false prophets, less saintly than demonic—was too much. Such proceedings “could not long be endured by the provincial government.” Though impressed by Anne Hutchinson’s intellect and audacity, Hawthorne understands the other side of the conflict, may even concur that she not only challenged the theocratic leadership, but presented an existential threat, endangering the very survival of the colony. “When the individual feels, the community reels”: thus spake the thought-controllers in Huxley’s Brave New World. But, in religious terms, the challenge to established order presented by divisive individualism has roots much deeper than modern dystopian fantasy. The primordial unity of Christianity, whether dated to Peter’s rock, to the Church Fathers, or to the wedding of religion and state under Constantine, remained an ideal that still inspired, however paradoxically, considerable nostalgia among the very Protestant Reformers who had shattered that original unity. When Separatists separate, the centrifugal process gathers its own momentum. Once harmony is violated, the process ends, potentially, in chaos, with multiplying sects either flying apart or consuming each other. Discussing celestial “order” and “degree” as reflected in the “unity and married calm of states,” Shakespeare’s Ulysses famously observes, in the war-tent scene of Troilus and Cressida: “untune that string,/ And, hark, what discord follows.”

Hutchinson’s was, as Hawthorne tells us, a “remarkable case,” but it was hardly without precedent, and it has been repeated in various forms. It was, Hawthorne insists, a case “in which religious freedom was wholly inconsistent with public safety.” In a more liberal age, such dissent could be tolerated, but the “principles” of the early colonial period, “an illiberal age,” indicated “the very course which must have been pursued,” both by “worldly policy and enlightened wisdom.” Fleeing religious persecution in the Old World, the Puritans had crossed a perilous ocean and achieved a precarious toehold in the New: a harsh, alien landscape. If they were to survive in this “frightful solitude,” they must neither disperse nor allow their religious experiment to splinter in sectarian schism. Hawthorne succinctly and rather beautifully epitomizes the Puritans’ particular participation in the wider and deeper irenic impulse to maintain Christian unity and stability based on reason and peace (the English translation of the Greek eirene):

Unity of faith was the star that had guided these people over the deep, and a diversity of sects would either have scattered them from the land to which they had as yet so few attachments, or perhaps have excited a diminutive civil war among those who had come so far to worship together.

With opposition to the establishment diminished by the removal of Vane from office (he would depart for England, never to return), and with the “wise and pious” John Cotton recognizing that his opinions were “unhappily discordant with those of the Powers that be,” the stage was set for a trial. A “Synod, the first in New England, was speedily assembled, and pronounced its condemnation of the obnoxious doctrines” of Anne Hutchinson, who was “next summoned” (perhaps mistakenly, more likely for dramatic purposes, Hawthorne reverses the actual order of the religious and civil trials) “before the supreme civil tribunal.” It is at this point that Hawthorne resumes “the more picturesque style of narration.”

***

The hall in “New Towne” (later Cambridge) in which the Elders meet, “sitting in judgment upon the disturber of Israel,” is humble: “rude benches,” a floor of axe-hewn wooden planks, roof-beams that still “wear the rugged bark with which they grew up in the forest.” Had he been writing seven years later, Hawthorne would surely have noted a striking coincidence: for it was in a new but almost equally humble wooden building on the exact site of this log church that, in 1837, Emerson would deliver his signature lecture, the Phi Beta Kappa address, “The American Scholar.” That second declaration of American independence demoted conventional “tuition” (allied with mere “understanding”) in favor of self-reliant “intuition,” characteristic of “genius,” and associated with the Puritan and Quaker inward light. “I believe I am more of a Quaker than anything else,” Emerson confided to his cousin, David Haskins. “I believe in the still, small voice, and that voice of Christ is within us.” He was fusing God’s “still, small voice” as heard by Elijah (1 Kings 19:12) with Jesus’ insistence that “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). In the Phi Beta Kappa address, Emerson celebrated an America in which “each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.” Echoing his British Romantic mentors, Carlyle and Coleridge, especially the latter’s democratic and religious emphasis on “each and all,” with “every man the Temple of Deity,” Emerson was also, in effect, championing the claim of immanent and unmediated revelation for which the Puritan Elect had tried and condemned Anne Hutchinson on that very spot precisely two hundred years earlier.

In a more radical endorsement of that doctrine a year later, again at Harvard, this time in the Divinity School Address, Emerson imagined Jesus saying, in a momentary “jubilee of sublime emotion, ‘I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think’.” What is needed, Emerson told the shocked clergy present among the thrilled young graduates, is direct, unmediated vision. Each neophyte preacher in the audience, fortified by the God within him, is to go forth on a revolutionary mission: “Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity.”

For his radical proclamation of inner-light self-reliance and insistence on “reading God directly,” Emerson was not, unlike Anne Hutchinson, banished from Massachusetts, nor was he tried for heresy, as his contemporary Abner Kneeland had been. But three decades would pass before the “mad dog,” “blasphemer,” “infidel,” and “cloven-hoofed pantheist” (charges he endured with characteristic equanimity) was invited back to Harvard. Ironically, given Emerson’s thirty-year ostracism from his alma mater following this address, it was voted in 1903 that money left over from the celebration of the centennial of his birth be spent on a marble tablet, placed in the old Divinity School chapel, and inscribed: “Acquaint thyself at first-hand with Deity.” If her scalped and burned body could rise from its grave, Anne Hutchinson would be entitled to smile, grimly but triumphantly.

***

We can return now to the rugged site of her civil trial, as vividly recreated by Hawthorne. The hearth of “unhammered stone” is heaped with blazing logs. “A sleety shower beats fitfully against the windows, driven by the November blast, which comes howling onward from the northern desert, the boisterous and unwelcome herald of a New England winter.” There are, within the hall, other boisterous, unwelcome, and violent forces threatening the community: “Here are collected all those blessed Fathers of the land, who rank in our veneration next to the Evangelists of Holy Writ, and here also are many, unpurified from the fiercest errors of the age and ready to propagate the religion of peace by violence.”

The “highest place” among the Elders is occupied by John Winthrop. It was Winthrop, leader of the Puritans arriving in the New World on the Arbella, who, seven years earlier, had referred, in a now famous shipboard sermon, to the incipient colony as “a city upon a hill,” a beacon of light and example to all. (He was aware that many would be monitoring their success or failure, not least England’s rival colonial powers, the Spanish and French.) Winthrop had, in May 1637, resumed gubernatorial power, following the brief governorship of Vane, an astute aristocrat and adherent of the free-grace movement represented by Cotton, Wheelwright, and, above all, by Anne Hutchinson. As presiding judge at her civil trial, Winthrop is described by Hawthorne as “a man by whom the innocent and the guilty might alike desire to be judged, the first confiding in his integrity and wisdom, the latter hoping in his mildness.”

Next mentioned is past and future governor John Endicott, an ambiguous hero in the tale “Endicott and the Red Cross,” here depicted as a zealot “who would stand with his drawn sword at the gate of Heaven, and resist to the death all pilgrims thither, except they travelled his own path.” There are others, but Hawthorne presently zooms in on the central figure, initially stressing her intellect:

In the midst, and in the centre of all eyes, is the Woman. She stands loftily before her judges, with a determined brow, and, unknown to herself, there is a flash of carnal pride half hidden in her eye, as she surveys the many learned and famous men whom her doctrines have put in fear. They question her and her answers are ready and acute; she reasons with them shrewdly, and brings scripture in support of every argument; the deepest controversialists of that scholastic day find here a woman, whom all their trained and sharpened intellects are inadequate to foil.

Aside from that unconscious, half-hidden “flash of carnal pride,” the portrait is admiring, even reminiscent of Jesus defeating or deflecting the theological challenges of his rabbinical enemies. But Anne Hutchinson is not only a woman of sharp intellect and deep biblical knowledge. Along with an acute mind, she possesses, and is possessed by, the inward voice and inward eye of an enthusiastic, perhaps fanatical, true believer. The court confrontation intensifies, and

by the excitement of the contest, her heart is made to rise and swell within her, and she bursts forth into eloquence. She tells them of the long unquietness which she had endured in England, perceiving the corruption of the church, and yearning for a purer and more perfect light, and how, in a day of solitary prayer, that light was given; she claims for herself the peculiar power of distinguishing between the chosen of man and the Sealed of Heaven, and affirms that her gifted eye can see the glory round the foreheads of the Saints, sojourning in their mortal state. She declares herself commissioned to separate the true shepherds from the false, and denounces present and future judgments on the land if she be disturbed in her celestial errand. Thus the accusations are proved from her own mouth. Her judges hesitate, and some speak faintly in her defence; but, with a few dissenting voices, sentence is pronounced, bidding her go from among them, and trouble the land no more.

Of course, “trouble” followed the exile. Her path through Rhode Island led to the Dutch territories, and to Anne Hutchinson’s “awful close” in that bloody massacre in which the one survivor, her daughter, became a captive of those who had mistakenly slaughtered her family. Some comfort may be found in Hawthorne’s own compassionate “close.” In contrast to the schadenfreude and vindictiveness of some Puritan judges, confident that the banished woman had been justly pursued by “God’s anger,” Hawthorne ends on a note of elegiac consolation. Though little Susanna, raised by the Siwanoy, “never learned the way to the Christian’s Heaven,…yet we will hope, that there the mother and the child have met.”

Massacre William Cullen Bryant's A popular history of the United States, 1878Massacre from William Cullen Bryant’s A Popular history of the United States, 1878

***

What is there left to say about the ultimate significance of Anne Hutchinson’s “remarkable case”? I’ll conclude by focusing on the obvious, her place in a long tradition of male judgment of women, and, less obvious though already suggested, on Anne Hutchinson as an unacknowledged precursor of Emerson—who claimed, in his central epiphany, “I am part or particle of God”—and of what we rightly think of as the Emersonian spiritual and poetic tradition in America.

The colonial-period documents collected by Ruether and Keller in Women and Religion in America (1983) stress the book’s titular theme. The female editors note that Anne Hutchinson’s trial, though the most famous, was not an isolated phenomenon, but instead “represents the fate of a large number of New England women of her generation who received similar judgments before the law.” Like many later victims of European and New England witch-hunts, Anne Hutchinson was a midwife and healer; but the principal reason, or rationalization, behind her perhaps pre-ordained condemnation was her assertion, under intense questioning, of immediate revelation: her claim to hear—directly, without the mediation of church authorities—the voice of God. Asked, on the final day of her civil trial, how she knew that her inward voice, the voice of her conscience, was truly of “the spirit,” she posed a counter-question about the near-sacrifice of Isaac:

Mrs. H. How did Abraham know that it was God that bid him offer his son, being a breach of the sixth commandment?
Deputy Governor. By an immediate voice.
Mrs. H. So to me by an immediate revelation.
Deputy Governor. How! an immediate revelation.

As the exclamation suggests, that is the crucial moment: the moment at which, in Hawthorne’s phrase, “the accusations are proved from her own mouth.” For it was this claim to direct revelation that justified her further claim: possession of the power, that “gifted eye,” to distinguish between true spiritual leaders and false, the latter exemplified by the male accusers presently sitting in judgment of her.

Accusations like theirs were also “proved” in two other “cases,” both, as in Hutchinson’s case, combining the rebellion of the individual against the powers that be with sexual politics, theology, and immediate revelation. The parallel likeliest to come to mind is the trial of Joan of Arc, the medieval heroine unskeptically eulogized by Mark Twain, for once shorn of his cap and bells. Under duress that dwarfs Anne Hutchinson’s, Joan refused to yield, insisting to the fiery end on the truth and spiritual origin of her “voices.” But the first and most famous figure to privilege a higher, spiritual law (themis) above the civil proclamations of authority (nomoi) is Sophocles’ Antigone. When, in his great essay “Experience,” Emerson sought to define what he repeatedly refers to as “spiritual law,” he repaired to the locus classicus and earliest statement of that law: Antigone’s arch response to Creon (Antigone 455-57) that she did not think that his laws—even if he is a king with the power to sentence her to living entombment—could countermand “the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws”: laws which are immutable, divine, and, on the human and therefore subjective level, intuitive.

***

HUTCHINSON Statue Massachusetts State House Boston Cyrus Edwin DallinHutchinson Statue, Massachusetts State House, Boston, Cyrus Edwin Dallin

Thus began the West’s long history of freedom or anarchy, truth or delusion, an “inward” history eventually fusing inner-light Protestantism, German Idealism, and British Romanticism, culminating in a distinctively transatlantic emphasis on self-reliance and divinity within. The central American figure is, of course, Emerson. “Shall I not treat all men as gods?” he asks, only to be responded to by D. H. Lawrence (in a review of Stuart Sherman’s 1922 book, Americans): “If you like, Waldo, but we’ve got to pay for it, when you’ve made them feel that they’re gods. A hundred million American godlets is rather much for the world to deal with.”

In this reductio ad absurdum of schismatic multiplication, every man not only his own sect, but his own godlet (American “exceptionalism” run amuck), Lawrence is having some jocoserious fun. Yet even our most devout Emersonian, Harold Bloom, acknowledges being as troubled as he is fascinated by his hero’s fierce affirmation of the autonomous self, conceding that Emerson “prophesied a crazy salad to go with our meat.” Bloom is silently but aptly echoing a graphic image from Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Daughter,” a poem in which the self-reliant, divinized soul, recovering “radical innocence,” learns “at last that it is self-delighting,/ Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,/ And that its own sweet will is heaven’s will.” Yeats couples with this Emersonian alignment of the self with God, a warning—resembling Hawthorne’s admonishments in his preamble to “Mrs. Hutchinson”—about women entering the public arena. Thinking as always of his Muse, the political firebrand Maud Gonne, who bartered her cornucopia “for an old bellows full of angry wind,” Yeats declares: “It’s certain that fine women eat/ A crazy salad with their meat/ Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.”

Bloom enlists Yeats’s “Prayer” in this rare moment of reservation regarding Emerson in his 2004 book, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? And, for Bloom, America’s daemonic wisdom, substantial fare mixed with crazy salad, is to be found principally in its great poets: Emily Dickinson and Hart Crane and, above all, Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens. Identifying the “Me Myself” with divinity, Whitman is (in “Song at Sunset”) “ecstatic to be this incredible God I am.” Whitman is, of course, a disciple of Emerson; as, only slightly less overtly, is Wallace Stevens, whose Canon Aspirin announces in Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (canto 8 of the final section): “I have not but I am and as I am, I am.”

Declaring that “before Abraham came to be, I am” (John 8:58), Jesus had dared to utter the name of Yahweh, self-described in Exodus 3:14 as “I am who am” (eher asher ehyeh). Audaciously repeating the forbidden name three times, Stevens, like Whitman before him, consciously participates in the divinity-within tradition of one part of Emerson. Torn between antinomies, defined by what he calls “polarity” or “contradiction,” Emerson oscillated between passive, uninspired states, when he was no more than “a weed by the wall,” and sublime moments when—“become a transparent eye-ball,” the “currents of the Universal Being” circulating through him—he participates in divinity. That moment in the opening chapter of Nature is the most celebrated, or notorious, Emersonian epiphany. But there are others. “A certain wandering light comes to me which I instantly perceive to be the Cause of Causes. It transcends all proving. It is itself the ground of being.” And he adds, a few sentences later: “In certain moments I have known that I existed directly from God, and am, as it were, his organ. And in my ultimate consciousness Am He.”

The “wandering light” that, at certain “auroral” moments, revealed to Emerson his divine origin, and, in his “ultimate consciousness,” his identity with God, was recorded in a journal entry of May 26, 1837. Precisely two centuries earlier, Anne Hutchinson, though never claiming to be a godlet, told the Puritan elders judging her how she had long been “yearning for a purer and more perfect light, and how, in a day of solitary prayer, that light was given.” This inward light endowed her, she claimed, with the capacity that would condemn her: “the peculiar power of distinguishing between the chosen of man and the Sealed of Heaven”—in short, between a truly spiritual Elect and the “unregenerated” men who had been chosen by the Puritan community to “lead them to Heaven,” only to see (in Hawthorne’s dramatic synopsis of the accusation she levelled against her accusers) “the features of their guides change all at once, assuming a fiendish shape.”

The official transcript of the civil trial of Anne Hutchinson ends with the following exchange between the presiding judge and the defendant. Governor Winthrop: “Mrs. Hutchinson, the sentence of the court you hear is that you are banished from out of our jurisdiction as being a woman not fit for our society, and are to be imprisoned till the court shall send you away.” Her final response, “I desire to know wherefore I am banished,” is silenced—despite Winthrop’s personal “integrity,” “wisdom,” and “mildness”—by the “fiendish” voice of inexorable and tyrannical authority: “Say no more, the court knows wherefore, and is satisfied.”

The forces of the status quo, of established authority, are always “satisfied” when the courageous but dangerously disruptive—often women—are silenced. No matter how many penetrating questions they may have raised, and challenges they astutely responded to, Antigone and Joan of Arc had heard the same words that later shut off Anne Hutchinson: “Say no more, the court knows…and is satisfied.” The “divinely chosen” members of the Elect, however idealized by Marilynne Robinson, do not always reflect God’s tendency to “scorn the hierarchies” of the world, at least not when they themselves constitute one of those hierarchies.

And yet we also remain, like some members of that Puritan court, suspended between awe and fear, admiration and wariness of Anne Hutchinson—impressed, as was Hawthorne, by her intellect, passionate intensity, and courage, but inevitably uncertain as to whether the “light” given to her was in fact “purer and more perfect,” or, as the majority concluded on that wintry day in 1637, the result of “delusion.” Reading about her claim to an “inward light” and “inward voice,” we wonder as well. Was her revelation, which clearly provided “bread” to some, too mixed with crazy salad for a communal meal? Our guide on this occasion is Nathaniel Hawthorne, and our own uncertainty reflects the duality of that notably “inconclusive” artist himself: here, as always, balancing conflicting perspectives and leaving, not the final judgment, but the final interpretation, to his readers.

§

Coda. Hawthorne would remain a perspectival thinker and a writer more given to options and innuendo than to absolutes. Nevertheless, by the time, two decades later, that he wrote The Scarlet Letter, he seems to have moved considerably closer to approval of his “Mrs. Hutchinson.”

As mentioned earlier, Hawthorne suggests, at the end of that novel’s opening chapter, that there is “fair authority for believing” that the rose-bush that grew by Hester Prynne’s prison-door “had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Anne Hutchinson.” Following that hint, I have already suggested a connection between Hutchinson and Hester, a hint worth fleshing out. When, in Chapter 8 of The Scarlet Letter (“The Elf-Child and the Minister”), the Reverend Mr. Wilson asked little Pearl, “Who made thee?” that precocious and perverse imp, though Hester had often spoken to her of her Heavenly Father, “announced that she had not been made at all, but had been plucked by her mother off the bunch of wild roses that grew by the prison-door.”

The child figures as well in Hawthorne’s most direct association of these two women. In Chapter 13 of the novel, “Another View of Hester,” we are introduced to a great change in the heroine of The Scarlet Letter. Once the most reviled of women, condemned to wear the scarlet A as her badge of adulterous shame, Hester gradually emerges as a model of virtue and, in her public role, an angel of mercy to those in the community in need. Her interior life was also transformed as she increasingly turned to thought, to speculation both deep and ‘bold.” That thinking remained private; she never became an activist. But were it not for Hester’s need to care for and educate Pearl, we are told that

it might have been far otherwise. Then, she might have come down to us in history, hand in hand with Anne Hutchinson, as the foundress of a religious sect. She might, in one of her phases, have been a prophetess. She might, and not improbably would, have suffered death from the stern tribunals of the period, for attempting to undermine the foundations of the Puritan establishment.

It is not too much to say that, at least in retrospect, Hawthorne’s early “sketch” of Anne Hutchinson can be seen as a test-run for his fully matured story of another bold woman. Hester Prynne, the heroine of Hawthorne’s masterpiece, also suffered, not death, but condemnation at the hands of a Puritan tribunal administering the stern law of a colony destined to survive despite, or because of, the suffering of the individual who violates a sacred code of that community.

—Patrick J. Keane

.

Patrick J Keane 2

Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

.
.

Sep 062015
 
Secretariat via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

.

Kentucky Derby 1973

Preakness 1973

Belmont Stakes 1973

1

TRIPLE CROWN WINNER American Pharoah’s recent loss in the 2015 Travers Stakes has, I’ve noticed, occasionally been accompanied by the erroneous remark that the greatest of all Triple Crown champions, the incomparable Secretariat, had also lost that race in Saratoga, the fabled “graveyard of champions.” This misstatement, coupled with the off-hand comment by Donald Trump a week earlier that “Secretariat wasn’t one of the best,” have combined to propel me back to the summer of 1973, to recall at least some of my memories of Secretariat, and to finally record something of the impact he’s had on my life.

In terms of direct, visceral experience, my relationship to Secretariat is reducible to a furtive touch and a mere breath. Yet a similar experience with the great California-bred Swaps—winner of the 1955 Kentucky Derby (his owner ignored the other two Triple Crown races) and 1956 Horse of the Year—so affected Bill Nack that it led him to a career that resulted in, among other accomplishments, the writing of the definitive biography of Secretariat, the basis of the widely-viewed 2010 film. Bill and I have become friends, discovering that we have at least two things intensely in common. He is, I quickly learned, an informed appreciator, and public reader, of poetry, not least the poetry of Yeats, the poet whose work I happen to know most about. But Bill is also, of course, not merely enamored of Secretariat, but the world’s leading expert on the horse. That brings us back, again, to that annus mirabilis, 1973.

Though Secretariat had been the phenomenon of that summer, just as The Donald has been the rather-less-glorious phenomenon of the summer of 2015, Big Red had competition for the nation’s attention in 1973. That was also the summer of the Watergate hearings, which I watched on television in the recreation room of Helen Hadley Hall at Yale University. At the time, I was a participant in a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar taught by Harold Bloom, already as spectacularly outstanding, indeed unique, in the world of literary criticism as Secretariat had swiftly become in the world of thoroughbred racing.

The national malaise attending Watergate and the dismal winding-down of the tragedy of the Vietnam War had, for many in the country and not only sports fans, been alleviated by the brilliant performances of “the People’s Horse.” It was not only his power, dazzling speed, and breathtaking come-from-behind style that made Secretariat so popular. He was extraordinarily intelligent and curious, with a playful personality almost as noticeable and appealing as his sheer physical beauty. Magnificently muscled, the “perfect horse” or “horse that God made” had a chestnut coat that shimmered like copper in the sunlight. The photos of him that appeared on the covers of three national magazines in a single week have become collectors’ items. The June 11, 1973 Time cover, one of four framed portraits of Secretariat hanging in my home, shows him looking directly at us, eyes alert, ears pricked. The words to the right of the picture say it all: SUPER HORSE.

Time cover

In a curious parallel on the personal level, my despondency in the summer of 1973 over the painful breakup of the most passionate relationship of my life had been relieved by the exhilaration of working with Harold Bloom and, even more, by the thrill of watching Secretariat win the first Triple Crown in a quarter-century. Of course, he not only won; he set records in all three races. Those records still stand more than four decades later; and his culminating performance in the last and longest leg, the Belmont Stakes—winning by 31 lengths in an almost miraculous 2:24 flat—is almost impossible to imagine ever being matched let alone beaten.

But back for a moment to those remarks made in 2015, first Trump’s.

The author of The Art of the Deal brazenly claims that his exaggerations and outright falsehoods are “innocent” utilitarian untruths; the end justifies the means, he argues, and hyperbole is effective salesmanship. His art of the deal continues in the current presidential campaign, with the media-savvy huckster playing fast and loose with facts, while touching, with uncanny insight and precision, more than a few nativist nerves and appealing to a much larger Washington-weary constituency, alienated and frustrated by political polarization and dysfunction.

But, to extend to Trump the fairness he seldom extends to others, his remark about Secretariat was not directed at the horse’s legendary performances on the track but at his lesser performance as a stallion: a testosterone-centered category in which the supermodel-collecting billionaire has always flaunted his own prowess. At the overflow August 21 rally in Mobile, Alabama, where Trump made the casual reference to Secretariat, it was in the context of his characteristic boasting about his own brilliance. On this occasion, referring to his “family’s intelligence,” he announced to the crowd that he “believes in the gene thing.” It was thought, he continued in his usual teleprompter-free stream of loose association, that Secretariat “couldn’t produce slow horses. But Secretariat wasn’t all that great, if you want to know the truth.”

From the documentary Penny & Red: the Belmont Stakes extended cut

The slur, as usual with Trump, was a half-truth. It’s true that Secretariat never produced a horse of his own caliber (what sire could?), thus disappointing the unrealistic expectations of some who had invested in that expensive $6 million syndicate and were dreaming of miraculous progeny. But he did in fact sire some stakes-winning colts and a series of remarkable daughters, most notably, the 1986 Eclipse Horse of the Year, Lady’s Secret, who won many Grade 1 races and dominated the field in that year’s Breeder’s Cup Classic. She is one of the few fillies ranked among the 100 top thoroughbreds. Another of Secretariat’s daughters, Terlingua, became the dam of Storm Cat, the most successful sire (his breeding fee at the peak of his stud career was $500,000) in thoroughbred history.

Though it is as a broodmare sire that Secretariat has left his most enduring mark on breeding, he did produce several fine colts as well. His son Tinner’s Way had lifetime earnings of over $1.8 million. Another, Risen Star, was beaten (along with all the other boys) in the 1988 Kentucky Derby by the sensational filly, Winning Colors, who ran wire-to-wire. But he came back in the remaining Triple Crown races, taking The Preakness and then romping to victory in the Belmont, in what was then a time second only to that of his daddy. Another son of Secretariat, General Assembly, won a number of stakes races, most dramatically the 1979 Travers, in which, on a sloppy track, he set a new record, 2:00 minutes flat: a mark that still stands, both for the Travers and for that distance, 1¼ miles, at Saratoga.

I was there that wet day, cheering on General Assembly in the performance of his life, but also in what I saw as an act of poetic justice: payback for the medical fluke that, a half-dozen years earlier, had prevented his father from adding to his Saratoga legacy following his Triple Crown triumph earlier that summer.

.

2

I had been in love with Secretariat from the first time I saw him in the flesh and, in fact, actually touched him. That was in Saratoga in early August, 1972, in the minutes leading up to the Hopeful Stakes. I was at the paddock rail when a man standing to my immediate right pointed his camera at Secretariat. With Ronnie Turcotte in the saddle, the beautiful two-year-old, already a camera-conscious star, strode to the rail. I instinctively raised my hand, then thought better of it; after all, he would be on the track competing in just a few minutes. However, Turcotte, with a resigned and understanding nod, gave me the green light. When I stroked that muscled crest of a neck, Secretariat turned and looked right at me with those intelligent eyes. I felt the warmth of his breath on my bare forearm.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ux87nv_dBOM1972 Hopeful Stakes

The young colt then went out and ran the most dazzling Hopeful Stakes in the history of a race often thought of as a preview of the following year’s Triple Crown competition. He broke languidly, then, in a sudden, breathtaking move, surged past eight horses, exploding from dead last to first in little more than a furlong. He would do the same thing the following year, in The Preakness, making the other horses look as if they were standing still as he rocketed by. But by then he was a mature three-year-old. When he made that huge move in the Hopeful, I was jumping up and down, yelling to everyone near me that we were watching the future Triple Crown champion. My friends laughed at my premature enthusiasm, but I wasn’t just responding to that unprecedented burst of speed; I was still conscious of having stroked him, still feeling his breath on my arm. Bill Nack has said that he can still remember the life-changing moment when Swaps, the first horse he loved, breathed on his hand as he was stroking him. From the day I touched Secretariat and he breathed on me, I was similarly smitten for life.

The other half-truth I referred to was a claim made in the aftermath of American Pharoah’s failure on August 29. Secretariat, too, we were told, had lost at Saratoga, with the implication sometimes explicit: that he had “lost” the Travers.

American Pharoah did indeed lose the Travers. Bill Nack, recently asked to contribute to a special American Pharoah issue of the horse magazine Equus, told the editor that he was not the right contributor since he could not bring himself to rank the horse among “the greatest in history”; the editor invited him to write instead about a few of those he did so rank. Pharoah’s performance in the Travers may confirm Bill’s skepticism, conveyed to me in an email full of wonderful anecdotes about the golden age of racing.

Prior to the Travers, not even that email could steer me off Pharoah. I was at the track and noticed, from about 40 feet away, that he was sweating as he headed out for the big race, and it seemed clear, even though he led for almost the entire trip, that he was running tired. As his trainer, Bob Baffert, observed even as he graciously complimented the winner, his horse “did not bring his A-game.” No wonder—having been flown back and forth across the country in a matter of three weeks. Following his Belmont win, capping the first Triple Crown in 37 years, Pharoah had won the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth handily, with his jockey, Victor Espinoza, coasting in the final stage of the stretch, saving his horse for what we all hoped would be the Travers. It was well known that Baffert didn’t like Saratoga, whose track-surface he considers deep and demanding; and Saratoga’s reputation as the “graveyard of champions” had been painfully demonstrated to him in past attempts to win the Big One at the Spa. Baffert had saddled five strong horses in previous Travers Stakes, winning only once, in 2001, with the great Point Given.

It was probably the combination of a dazzling work on August 22 at Del Mar, Pharoah’s home track in California, coupled with the NYRA decision to sweeten the Travers purse by $350,000 to $1.6 million in an attempt to lure the colt back across the country, that convinced the owner, Ahmed Zayat, and a more reluctant Baffert to run their horse in the Travers.

On top of the cross-country travel, Pharoah was not given sufficient time, less than three days, to acclimate himself to Saratoga. In the race, even in the lead, he did not seem his usual smooth self. Challenged at the head of the stretch by Frosted, he struggled, but regained the lead. That was the moment to close the deal, and many of us thought he was about to. But having beaten back the challenge by Frosted, Pharoah could not hold off the late rush of Keen Ice, who had also closed on him in the Haskell, cutting his lead from 5 to 21/2 lengths. But, with that race won, Espinoza had eased back. In the Travers, in sharp contrast, he was whipping Pharoah hard. But the horse was spent; Keen Ice passed him in the final seconds, to win by a full length.

His schedule may have been mismanaged, but the 2015 Triple Crown champion had his shot at the Travers and was beaten fair and square. In 1973, Secretariat had never gotten his chance. After easily winning the Arlington Invitational in Chicago, Secretariat was scheduled to run in both major races at Saratoga, the Whitney and the Travers, and was overwhelmingly expected to win both. Coming back to the scene of his triumphs as a two-year-old in the Sanford and Hopeful Stakes, the Triple Crown champion was welcomed as a returning hero. The Saturday of the Whitney Stakes, August 4, was declared Secretariat Day; the town was festive, draped in his blue and white colors, and—he lost!

In an astonishing upset, he was beaten by Onion, trained by Allan Jerkins. When those of us watching in growing dismay finally realized that Secretariat, who came in second, wasn’t going to storm past Onion in the stretch, a shockwave of disbelief spread through the grandstand, stunning an adoring crowd that had come to see the triumph, on his way to the Travers, of the greatest thoroughbred since Man o’ War—whose only defeat came as a two-year-old in the 1919 Sanford at (of course) Saratoga, losing to a 100-1 longshot unbelievably but aptly named Upset.

In the eerie silence that followed my hero’s defeat, I left the track in tears. It turned out that Secretariat had not simply been the victim of Jerkins as “giant killer” or of Saratoga as the graveyard of champions, however well-earned both those reputations were. Secretariat had failed to fire in the stretch because of a virus he had been incubating, a low-grade fever that—salt in the wound—also prevented him, as he further sickened, from competing in the Travers.

His son would help make up for that by winning the Travers in the fastest time ever recorded. But that would be six years in the future. The immediate compensation for the numbing disappointment of the Whitney came just a month later, and I was there to see Secretariat’s astonishing recovery. What was originally intended to be a match race between Secretariat and his stablemate, Riva Ridge, had been cancelled when both horses unexpectedly lost. Instead, a star cast was assembled for the inaugural running of the Marlboro Cup Invitational.

Along with Riva Ridge and Onion, the talented field included Annihilate ‘Em (the actual winner of the 1973 Travers), Canadian champion Kennedy Road, and the 1972 three-year-old champion, Key to the Mint. I was at Belmont on that September day when, with his stablemate coming in second, Secretariat galloped to victory in 1:452/5, setting a new world record for 11/8 miles on dirt. Once again, I left the track after the feature race—again in tears, but this time tears of joy.

Secretariat via Zenyatta

Secretariat in retirement, running for the fun of it

.

3

Such tearful reactions may seem excessive to those who don’t share the passion some of us have for truly great horses. So let me try one more story involving tears and Secretariat. This one takes place not long after 1989, the year Secretariat, suffering from incurable laminitis, was humanely euthanized (yes, I wept that day, but that’s not the tale of tears I’m about to tell). I was visiting Saratoga, to see friends and to take in some races. Walking on Union Avenue, I noticed that one of the great houses was serving temporarily as a museum. I went in and was immediately struck by a splendid bronze in the middle of the room.

Secretariat statue

Perhaps two-thirds life-size, it depicted Secretariat immediately after winning the Kentucky Derby. Having just broken the old Derby record (Secretariat’s 1:592/5 still stands), the horse is pumped. Turcotte is in the saddle, gripping the reins, but one feels the strength pulsing under him. Even Eddie Sweat, his groom and the man who knew “Big Red” best, can barely restrain him. Fluent in bronze, Secretariat’s muscles are sharply delineated, his eyes dilated with excitement. The sculptor had caught perfectly the stunning surface beauty of the horse and the flexed power throbbing beneath that rippling coat.

via Horseguru

Noticing me admiring it, the curator walked over and asked if I had a minute for a story involving the sculpture. Unsurprisingly, I did. She told me that the piece was not commissioned but a labor of love, begun by the artist on a much smaller scale, but gradually possessing him until this seemed the minimum size to convey his sense of the horse. When it was exhibited, the sculptor arranged for Eddie Sweat to be flown up from Florida, where he was still working with horses.

When Eddie arrived, the sole black man in a white world of brie and chablis, he walked directly to the sculpture. He proceeded to circle it, slowly and repeatedly, without saying a word and with no discernable facial expression. At last the sculptor, concerned (the curator told me) by the lack of overt response on the part of the man who knew Secretariat most intimately, walked over to him.

“What’s the matter, Eddie,” he asked nervously, “You don’t like it?”

His eyes never leaving the sculpture, Eddie said simply:

“That’s him; that’s him.”

The sculptor, so overwhelmed with emotion that he had to leave the room, later told the curator that lavish praise from the most distinguished art critic in the world could not have meant as much to him as those four words from Eddie Sweat.

Eddie Sweat and SecretariatEddie Sweat and Secretariat

The artist was internationally renowned equine sculptor Edwin Bogucki, who had first conceived of a tribute to Secretariat after seeing the horse in retirement at Claiborne Farm, just months before his death. Later, to reproduce the horse in his prime, he examined photos, made sketches, and took measurements. Ron Turcotte was always to be included in the piece. But when Bogucki saw a photograph of Eddie Sweat, alone and in tears, having just surrendered his beloved “Red” to Claiborne to begin his retirement, he knew that no depiction of Secretariat would be complete without the man who knew and loved him best.

The magnificent life-size version of this sculpture is now on permanent display in Lexington’s Kentucky Horse Park, the entrance to which is guarded by a statue of Man o’ War, its pedestal resting on the transposed grave of the only horse in thoroughbred racing history that can be considered Secretariat’s equal.

Secretariat’s own grave is nearby, at Claiborne Farm. Traditionally, even a champion thoroughbred’s body is cremated; only the symbolic head, heart, and hooves are buried. Secretariat was given the rare honor (shared only, as far as I know, by Man o’ War and the greatest of all fillies, beautiful, doomed Ruffian) of being buried whole. Even the oxygen-crunching organ that powered him to records—revealed in the necropsy to be the largest equine heart ever measured—was returned intact to his body. Visitors to that grave who also happen to love poetry may be reminded of the opening and closing lines of Wordsworth’s sonnet evoking immense power at rest: “Dull would he be of soul who could pass by/ A sight so touching in its majesty…/ And all that mighty heart is lying still!”

Last video of Secretariat

—Patrick J. Keane

September 2, 2015

.

Patrick J Keane 2

Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

.
.

2012

 

Vol. III, No. 12, December 2012

Vol. III, No. 11, November 2012

Vol. III, No. 10, October 2012

Vol. III, No. 9, September  2012

Vol. III, No. 8, August 2012

Vol. III, No. 7, July  2012

Vol. III, No. 6, June 2012

Vol. III, No. 5, May 2012

Vol. III, No. 4, April 2012

Vol. III, No. 3, March 2012

Vol. III, No. 2, February 2012

Vol. III, No. 1, January 2012

Jun 072014
 

cen

 Transatlantic Transcendentalism is a richly-informed and luminously intelligent exploration of this complex but crucial subject. Thorough yet concise, dense yet lucid, it reflects an impressive knowledge of the primary and secondary texts, yet relentlessly focuses on what the author designates “the Romantic triad.” This distinguishable yet integrated trinity of Nature, Spirit, and Humanity preoccupied Romantics on both sides of the ocean.     —Patrick J. Keane

Capture

Transatlantic Transcendentalism: Coleridge, Emerson, and Nature
Samantha C. Harvey
Edinburgh, 2013,
218 pages, $120
ISBN: 978-0748681365

 

By 1798, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, though by then largely disenchanted by the course of the French Revolution, were still considered dangerous radicals by the Pitt government, which had set spies on them. In that year, hopping a looming draft into the militia, the two poets and Dorothy Wordsworth sailed to Germany. The Wordsworths hunkered down in Goslar during the coldest winter of the century, where William began work on what would eventually become his great autobiographical epic, posthumously published a half-century later as The Prelude. In contrast, the gregarious and convivial Coleridge travelled to university towns, omnivorously ingesting German philosophy and German beer. Once back in England, armed with his own version of the thought of Immanuel Kant and of other German Idealists, Coleridge was uniquely positioned to shape the philosophy behind British Romanticism, and to become the principal transatlantic conduit of these ideas to America.

To let the cat out of the bag right off, the book under review is a remarkable study. Transatlantic Transcendentalism is a richly-informed and luminously intelligent exploration of this complex but crucial subject. Thorough yet concise, dense yet lucid, it reflects an impressive knowledge of the primary and secondary texts, yet relentlessly focuses on what the author designates “the Romantic triad.” This distinguishable yet integrated trinity of Nature, Spirit, and Humanity preoccupied Romantics on both sides of the ocean. It also provides Samantha Harvey with her main theme and organizing principle in tracing the transformative impact of the philosophic, theological, and critical thought of Coleridge on his American disciples—principally Ralph Waldo Emerson, but also James Marsh, who introduced Coleridge to New England, then (a development of special interest to many connected with Numéro Cinq) restructured the University of Vermont on Coleridgean principles.

Harvey’s study of the Coleridge-Emerson connection is the most recent volume in the “Edinburgh Studies in Transatlantic Literatures” series (a study of Emily Dickinson and British Victorian poets is forthcoming). The sixteen books in the series range widely in subject, but all are globally oriented, exploring ideas and texts unconfined by temporal or national boundaries. One crucial example of an overarching Romantic and Transatlantic subject is the one that matters here: Coleridge’s committed and pivotal mediation of the categories of nature, spirit, and humanity. Harvey’s book is in fact organized on the basis of this Romantic triad. Following a general introduction, and flanked by two historical chapters tracing Coleridge’s impact on Transcendentalism in Boston (Chapter 2) and Vermont (Chapter 8), Harvey devotes one chapter (beginning with “Nature”) to each category of the triad, with a pause midway. That chapter, “The Landing Place,” alludes to Coleridge’s description of a spiral staircase, with its various “landing-places” analogous to the perspective-gaining pause before continued cognitive mounting. Here, Harvey surveys Coleridge’s “method” and practice of “distinguishing without dividing,” before moving on to chapters on “Humanity” (5) and “Spirit” (6). The penultimate chapter focuses on Emerson’s seminal book Nature (1836), a text structured on Coleridge’s distinctions, “method,” and the categories of the Romantic triad. Despite this culmination, the final chapter, on Coleridge’s influence on curricular and philosophic developments in Vermont, is anything but anticlimactic.

A primary emphasis in the Edinburgh series is the dialectic between “affinity and contrast,” and this study is no exception. “Coleridge’s influence on Emerson reveals a complex blend of the categories of contrast and affinity, particularly the way in which key ideas endured and yet were substantially modified as they crossed the Atlantic” (12). Harvey traces not only Emerson’s immense indebtedness to Coleridge, but the ways in which the American Transcendentalist’s appropriation and assimilation of his benefactor stimulated his own creativity: the sine qua non for an apostle of self-reliance and originality. In Harvey’s wonderfully well-chosen lead epigraph, Emerson advises us to “take thankfully and heartily all” our succession of teachers “can give.” Eventually the “dismay” that attends an “excess of influence” will be withdrawn, and the benefactor “will be no longer an alarming meteor, but one more bright star shining serenely in your heaven, and blending its light with all your day” (1).

That last phrase is a transparent allusion to Emerson’s favorite line in his favorite poem, Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality…,” a poem that haunted the American Transcendentalists as much as it did Coleridge. But often, most obviously in Nature, Emerson went out of his way to cover his tracks. Nevertheless, as Harvey notes, some contemporaries “recognized his massive and largely unacknowledged debt to transatlantic sources” (3). Recent studies have tracked these debts—to Carlyle, to Wordsworth, and, above all, to Coleridge, both as original thinker and (even more than Carlyle and Victor Cousin) as Emerson’s principal filtering conduit to German philosophic thought. Harvey is perfectly aware of Emerson’s re-filtering, his “selective assimilation” of his principal benefactor. “Coleridge’s eclectic amalgamation of Christian, Platonic, and German idealist concepts fundamentally shaped Emerson and the development of Transatlantic Transcendentalism.” But “key ideas” of Coleridge were “appropriated” by Emerson and other liberal American thinkers, who separated those ideas from Coleridge’s Anglican conservatism, while “discarding many metaphysical subtleties and secularizing his theological language” (96). Though Emerson’s splendid essay-lecture, “Quotation and Originality,” is almost the last word on the fascinating and paradoxical subject of thankful inheritance and creative innovation, I’m delighted to be in accord with Samantha Harvey when she writes, “I agree with Patrick Keane that Emerson could very well be the best example of Thomas McFarland’s ‘originality paradox’ in which a profound indebtedness can enable, and even enhance, the originality of a writer” (3).

This raises the issue of Harvey’s own originality. The Edinburgh promotional literature describes Transatlantic Transcendentalism as “the first book devoted to Coleridge’s influence on Emerson and the development of American Transcendentalism.” And Harvey herself twice repeats the verb “devoted” in claiming that “to date no book has devoted itself to elaborating Coleridge’s vital role for Emerson and Transatlantic Transcendentalism, a lacuna which this book endeavors to remedy”; and, again, that, however well-known to Romantic scholars the “connection between Coleridge and Emerson,… surprisingly there is no single monograph devoted entirely to the subject” (19). With those caveats registered, I agree wholeheartedly with Harvey’s and Edinburgh’s claim. And not only is this the first book-length monograph devoted solely to the connection, it’s one that I suspect (despite Harvey’s modest anticipation of fuller studies to come) will prove hard to improve upon.

When it comes to transatlantic studies in general, and even to the Romantic triad in particular, Samantha Harvey is, as a good Emersonian, “thankfully” generous to her co-workers in the field. She praises such transatlantic “pioneers” as Robert Weisbuch, Leon Chai, and Richard Brantley; notes the work of James Engells and others on Emerson’s adoption of Coleridge’s creative misreading of Kant; acknowledges that her formulation of the Romantic triad itself is “beholden to scholarship by M. H. Abrams, Thomas McFarland, Seamus Perry, and John Beer”; and remarks on the “deep influence” on her book, especially her chapter on “Spirit,” of Abrams’s landmark Natural Supernaturalism (1971) with its “elaboration of the underlying spiritual paradigms” adapted, altered, and, generally and most dramatically, secularized by the Romantics (16).

I was happy to be included in such distinguished company when it came, specifically, to the galvanizing impact of Coleridge on Emerson: “Patrick Keane has done the most work on the pair in Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason [2005]. I agree fundamentally with Keane’s approach, which he describes as ‘an exploration of elective affinities, family resemblances, and analogies binding together [many creative individuals] in a visionary company.” But, she adds, by including Milton, Wordsworth, and others, I “obscured Coleridge’s crucial impact on Emerson in a profuse tangle of interrelations” (19). Guilty as charged. Of course, I was writing a different book than hers; but the result is indeed a “profuse” comparative study. More to the immediate point: for those seeking an informed, illuminating, carefully laid-out analysis focused on the Coleridge-Emerson relation, the one indispensable book to read, for now and the foreseeable future, is not mine but Samantha Harvey’s.

 §

How does Harvey go about her project? With good reason, she attends closely to the familiar Coleridgean distinctions inherited by Emerson (between Reason and “mere” Understanding; between active, creative natura naturans and passive, static natura naturata, between Genius and “mere” Talent, as well as between the “primary” and “secondary” Imagination). But she rightly devotes even more attention to Coleridge’s “method.” This orchestrated mode of inquiry permanently shaped Emerson’s own cognitive processes, and was to have a pervasive influence among the Vermont Transcendentalists led by James Marsh, and thus (158-59) on the subsequent pragmatism of John Dewey. Emerson enthusiastically concurred in Coleridge’s high valuation of his “Essays on the Principles of Method” in The Friend. There he presents, as the indispensable introduction and “basis of my future philosophical and theological writings,” a “method” of thinking (at once intellectual, spiritual, and literary) that was coherent, progressive, and ever-ascending: a dynamic mode of inquiry immensely appealing to Emerson for those very reasons. Method commenced “with the most familiar truths…gradually winning its way to positions the most comprehensive and sublime.” Nothing will “more aptly prepare the mind for the reception of specific knowledge” than “the full exposition of a principle which is the condition of all intellectual progress, and which may be said to even constitute the science of education, alike in the narrowest and in the most extensive sense of the word” (67-68, citing The Friend 1:445-46).

Samantha Harvey has her own “method” when it comes to elucidating difficult texts. Coleridge and Emerson can be obscure, even self-contradictory—whether exhilaratingly or maddeningly. Though also true of Emerson, for whom consistency was famously the hobgoblin of mediocre minds, Coleridge’s dense and sinuously dialectical thought, always moving (sometimes staggering) toward a projected synthesis, can be confusing in the course of enacting that process. Opposites are reconciled only to generate yet more opposites, to be reconciled in turn at a higher level. Yeats spoke of “images that yet/ Fresh images beget,” and Coleridge, more exuberantly than apologetically, said his thoughts “bustle along like a Surinam toad, sprouting out of back, side, and belly,” elsewhere describing the prose in which these thoughts were conveyed as spawning parentheses resembling Surinam toadlings. Coleridge’s organic Dynamic Philosophy is both reflected in, and often made more difficult by, the sheer length and complexity of many of his progressive and digressive sentences. In the Dedication to Don Juan, Byron, no man for toads, depicted the author of Biographia Literaria as “a hawk encumbered by his hood,” expounding in darkness “metaphysics to the nation—/ I wish he would explain his Explanation.”

Leaving Byron’s delightful irreverence aside, there is no question that in reading Coleridge, there are syntactical nettles that need to be grasped and worked through before “Explanation,” let alone evaluation, can begin. Enter Samantha Harvey, whose characteristic pattern, or “method,” is to cite a passage of Coleridge (or of Emerson) at some length, then paraphrase and unpack it. Emulating Coleridge and Emerson, Harvey has an enviable gift for apt quotation; and, like Abrams in Natural Supernaturalism, she eschews glib and “knowing” citation. She always quotes sufficiently, reproducing enough of a passage not only to preserve its context but to generously invite the reader to work and learn along with her. Her explanations can come at a cost. “Nothing is got for nothing,” as Emerson famously reminds us; and Harvey’s repeated rhythm of quotation followed by explication leads to some redundancy. Yet it is a cost more than offset by the resulting clarification. Her careful and informed explications and synopses are invariably models of astute comprehension conveyed with lucidity.

Having just mentioned explication, I have to add that it seems a shame that a close reader as astute as Harvey, in the commitment to her major focus, has denied herself, and us, much attention to poetry, though she knows (84-89) that the “Poet-Prophet” is the most elevated figure in the Romantic pantheon. Emerson’s best poetry was in prose; but there are no better embodiments of the reconciliation of nature, spirit, and humanity than the major poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth. Wordsworth is the master-poet of the ultimate unity of nature, spirit, and humanity, but that unity was distilled in a single exclamation— “O! the one Life within us and abroad”—by Coleridge, Harvey’s chief celebrant of the Romantic triad, who added that line in 1817 to “The Eolian Harp,” a poem originally written in 1795.

In the one exception to this neglect of the poetry, Harvey connects Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode” with Emerson’s comparison of our changing “moods” to “many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue,” so that “we animate what we can,” and see “only what we animate,” since “all depends on the mood of the man.” Though she doesn’t cite the lines about “that inanimate cold world” unilluminated by the inner light issuing “from the soul itself,” Harvey does note Coleridge’s insistence, later in this same stanza of the Ode, that “we receive but what we give,/ And in our life alone does Nature live.” (89). Wordsworth also insisted on the epistemological and emotional reciprocity of giving and receiving and (continuing the adaptation of Kant he inherited from Coleridge) asserted the ultimate subordination of external nature to the sovereign mind and imagination: “The kingdom of man over nature,” as Emerson puts it in the finale of the book paradoxically, even misleadingly, named Nature.

Harvey’s citation of the Dejection Ode occurs in the course of her discussion of Emerson’s adherence to Coleridge’s fruitful misreading of Kant’s distinction between Reason and Understanding. Like Coleridge, Emerson privileges intuitive Reason, making it synonymous with the Romantic creative Imagination (an equation puzzling to inexperienced readers of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Emerson). Thus interpreted, Coleridgean Imagination “placed the poet-prophet at the center of the Romantic triad, gazing out at the natural world, reading it for spiritual meaning, embodying those perceptions in literary form,” and transmitting those perceptions to the rest of us. For Emerson, this imagination acts as a “lens through which nature is viewed, depending on “the special abilities of the poet-prophet.” (89)

I am not suggesting that Samantha Harvey should join me in the ranks of the diffuse by putting at risk her thematic focus. But that very focus, by her own account, is best exemplified in the work of the “Poet-Bard.” However we judge his poetry, Emerson considered himself “a poet in the sense of a perceiver & dear lover of the harmonies that are in the soul & in matter, & especially of [their] correspondences” (65-66, quoting from an Emerson letter). Harvey’s comment—“Literature would prove the best medium for reconciling the Romantic triad poetically, rather than systematically”—is reinforced in the following chapter, “Humanity,” in which the “Reconciliator” is specified as “Art”: “If philosophic and metaphysical resolutions of the Romantic triad were hard to resolve systematically,” then it was up to “the poet’s imaginative powers” to evoke the “spirit of unity” (76, 82, italics added)

Though something of a lacuna, the inattention to poetry is finally a quibble considered in the full context of what Harvey so brilliantly does attend to: the crucial role of Coleridge’s distinctions and dynamic “method” in “galvanizing Emerson’s thought at a critical moment in his intellectual maturation” (141). Indeed, the extraordinary impact of Coleridge’s thinking on the whole of New England can hardly be overstated. Along with the curricular and philosophic developments in Vermont, that thought simultaneously shaped Concord and Boston Transcendentalism. Since Samantha Harvey deals rigorously and clearly with concepts that are difficult but central to an understanding of the development of American philosophy and literature, her book deserves a wide audience. Specialists will appreciate it. But, precisely because she is so good at elucidating passages that initially may seem opaque, paradoxical, occasionally even incoherent, Transatlantic Transcendentalism should appeal to newcomers seeking entrance to what Coleridge brought to America. What he introduced and clarified for his disciples on the other side of the Atlantic were the often mysterious but always intriguing interactions among the three permanent but dynamically fluid elements in the Romantic triad. The result was not only New England Transcendentalism, but an American Renaissance.

 —Patrick J. Keane

 

Patrick J Keane 2

Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

Nov 042013
 

daffodil

The other day Pat  Keane dashed off 10,000 words on Wordsworth’s daffodils and sent them to me wondering if I might want them for Numéro Cinq. He starts off with a detour through the mine field of contemporary American literary criticism, the still fresh battles fought between the proponents of intrinsic criticism and extrinsic criticism, the New Critics who value “close reading” and the contextual critics who bring in tradition, influence, history, biography and sometimes psychoanalysis to help explain a poem. Helen Vendler’s analysis of the Wordsworth poem stands as an example of the former and after giving it fair due, Pat launches into what he whimsically calls “a few contextual elements” — those, um, 10,000 words more or less, starting with Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal entry (see facsimile page below) on the day she and her brother saw the daffodils and ending with Immanuel Kant’s immortal line about the starry heavens and the moral law. This is a gorgeous essay on criticism, on the provenance of a poem, and on Wordsworth (and his sister) — also a wonderful re-visioning of a poem that sometimes is difficult to see because it has, yes, become oh so familiar.
dg
As my doubly plural title indicates, I’ll be wandering beyond the received text of one of the most familiar poems in the literary canon, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”—Wordsworth’s best-known poem, though demoted by some to “that damned thing about daffodils.” Since its initial publication, in 1807, the poem has been parodied and admired, despised and exalted. Today, though it can still produce an occasional groan, it is generally ranked among Wordsworth’s small triumphs, one of his self-described “simple songs for thinking hearts.” That simplicity is complicated by the fact that, while we rightly consider it one of Wordsworth’s “signature” poems, it bears the signature of more than one Wordsworth; indeed, of more than two. Yet it remains quintessentially “Wordsworthian,” both intrinsically and thematically. For “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” gives us, writ small, the theme—“the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…recollected in tranquility”—of such indisputably major poems as “Tintern Abbey,” the opening Book of Wordsworth’s autobiographical epic, The Prelude, and the great “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”[1]
SPACE
The mixed reception of the Daffodils poem is not an anomaly. Wordsworth’s road to recognition was a rocky one, and even after he had “arrived,” he was still subjected to withering criticism. No one who has read it can ever forget the opening of Francis Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review reception of Wordsworth’s long-awaited epic poem, The Excursion. When it finally appeared, in 1814, Jeffrey famously dead-panned, “This will never do.” It’s hard for us to know whether to laugh or to cry; Wordsworth did neither. Seven years earlier, his friend and admirer, Margaret, Lady Beaumont, underestimating the “invincible confidence” of the poet, thought he would be distressed by the disparaging reception of Poems, in Two Volumes (1807). Responding, Wordsworth pronounced himself unperturbed by temporary attitudes. Quoting another friend well known to Lady Beaumont, he insisted that a “great and original” poet “must create the taste by which he is to be relished; he must teach the art by which he is to be seen.”[2] That was certainly the case with Wordsworth, who endured savage, often belittling criticism before he eventually triumphed, becoming the dominant poet of the 19th century, and, after a brief decline in the earlier twentieth century, reemerged in our own time as a monumental figure—widely, if not universally, considered the major poet to have written in English between Milton and Yeats.
SPACE

samuel

SPACE

The friend Wordsworth quoted to Lady Beaumont was, of course, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who inspired, and was inspired by, Wordsworth and who, as a critic, did more than any other single figure to advance the case for Wordsworth as a major poet. But he was also aware of “defects” in his friend’s poetry, and readers who continue to resist that “damned thing about daffodils” will be heartened to know that he, too, thought that whatever flashed “upon that inward eye,” it ought to have been something rather more momentous than a bunch of “daffodils,” which he italicized to emphasize the trivial nature of what was being “retrospected.” As we shall see, given what he considered the bathetic emphasis on mere daffodils, he judged what have become the most famous lines in the poem—“They flash upon that inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude”—to be an example of “mental…bombast.”[3] As we’ll also see, though Coleridge presumably didn’t know it, those two lines were actually not written by Wordsworth, at least not by William Wordsworth. But this takes us outside the autonomous, internal world of the poem, and I want to begin with an intrinsic reading.

SPACE

The Daffodils and Helen Vendler

helenvendler

Helen Vendler

1

As it happens, the critic and teacher generally recognized as the most acute living exponent and practitioner of intrinsic criticism, Helen Vendler, writes at length about “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” in the third edition of her superb text for college students, Poems, Poets, Poetry.[4] After a brief two-page analysis of Robert Herrick’s “Divination by a Daffodil,” she devotes the remaining pages of her 11th chapter, “Writing about Poems,” to Wordsworth’s daffodils poem. As an intrinsic critic, Helen Vendler preaches and practices close reading, or explication. For her, a poem is essentially an autonomous artifact, a work of art to be experienced in and of itself. And it is to be experienced, she says (323, 329-31) in two somewhat different but equally indispensable ways: temporally (unfolding itself in time, with a beginning, middle, and end) and spatially (viewed from a distance as a space full of elements set in relation to each other). Vendler is, of course, aware of authorial and historical contexts:  who the author is, when he or she wrote, and under what circumstances. But in examining and writing about a poem, she is primarily engaged by the interrelated elements within the particular text itself—its words, families of words, sentences, sounds (alliteration and assonance), rhyme and rhythm, etc.

As one can see from what she has to say about many of the poems in her book, not least “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” this focus on close reading is immensely illuminating. Praising “a good paper,” the sort she wants students to write, Vendler says such a paper “leaves your readers, when they come back to the poem, feeling ‘Oh, yes! And yes! Of course!’ It makes readers see aspects of the poem they may not have noticed themselves, in their more cursory reading of the poem, but now see clearly because you have showed them those things” (336). This is precisely Vendler’s own great gift. “Yes, of course; why didn’t I see that for myself?” so many of us have said over the years, responding to one or another of her brilliant close readings: explications which clarify almost everything. I said “almost everything” by design—as Browning’s Duke says in “My Last Duchess”—because, in her emphasis on the internal dynamics of the individual poem, Vendler omits most external factors. She’s perfectly aware of the contexts beyond the poem.  As she says herself of this particular poem, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”: it can “be set in larger frames,” for example, “among other Wordsworth poems,” or “among other Romantic poems,” or “among poems about memory; and so on” (336). As I’ve already suggested, I will be exploring, among others, precisely those “larger frames”; but, even then, there is much to be said in favor of close reading.

There was a time, prior to the advent of the modern pioneers of close reading, the so-called “New Critics” of the 1940s and ‘50s, when it was perfectly acceptable for college professors, supposedly discussing with their students such a poem as (to choose an example once cited by the critic Richard Fogle in demonstrating old critical shortcomings) Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” to say little or nothing about how the poem actually “worked.” Instead, they would lecture about the “occasion” of the poem (the tour made by Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy); about the intense personal and literary relationship between the Wordsworths and Coleridge; and about the political context in which the poem was written (the era of the French Revolution, of which Wordsworth and Coleridge were initially ardent enthusiasts). And then, as class-time was running out, the professor would conclude by saying something like: “as for the poem itself—ah, beautiful, is it not!” This was not good enough: indeed, it was just such cursory, or negligent, treatment of poems that gave rise to the New Critics.

It’s not that such contexts don’t matter. Indeed, they mattered to Wordsworth himself, who sometimes incorporated them into the poem, or at least its title. For example, he makes sure, toward the end of “Tintern Abbey,” that readers realize that his sister has been present all along, as a silent auditor (making the poem a kind of surprise dramatic monologue). In addition, his own long title —“Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour”—gives us the precise circumstances of the poem’s composition. And his inclusion of the date, “July 13, 1798,” one day short of Bastille Day, the anniversary of the outbreak nine years earlier, of the French Revolution, is intriguing since the poem itself says nothing about politics, an absence which is itself not without interest.  Unfortunately, too many historically-sophisticated critics, especially the so-called New Historicists, have so emphasized this “absence” or “political evasion” on the part of Wordsworth—what is “repressed” or “not said” in the poem—that they de-emphasize what is there, actually present in the poem. Reading through the prism of politics offers its own illuminations, but this re-swinging of the critical pendulum has ironically brought us back to the situation earlier addressed by the intrinsic critics who preceded Helen Vendler: the need to read a poem as a poem, and not as something else, either a political tract or a “message.” In The Prelude and elsewhere, Wordsworth can hardly be said to avoid politics. But a poet has the right to choose his own subject matter and theme; in “Tintern Abbey,” his focus is on his psychological-imaginative engagement with the landscape.[5]

Wordsworth2

2

Vendler begins her discussion of “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” by printing the poem in its final version, accompanied by an imaginary student’s running commentary, noting the poem’s four-beat meter and ababcc rhyme scheme, and raising questions.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee;
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company;
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.   (WP 1:619-20)

Vendler’s hypothetical student, annotating the opening stanza, wonders why the “lonely” speaker is “like a cloud”; notices the natural scene of hills and valleys; and that “crowd,” generally used of people, here refers to flowers, as does “host,” usually describing “armies” (he or she omits “angels”); then remarks that the line “Beside the lake, beneath the trees,” offers a “closer focus than vales and hills.” The final line of the stanza prompts the student to ask how rooted flowers can be said to “dance”? With the second stanza’s “much further focus—up to the stars,” the student wonders about the “difference between shine and twinkle”; marks the expansion of never-ending and ten-thousand; notes that “saw becomes glance”; and that the dancing daffodils become people, tossing their heads. The waves of the third stanza are “like people too, dancing,” and the “flowers have feelings: glee.” The jocund company indicates that the speaker is “not alone anymore.” The crucial transition from saw to glance to gazed and gazed is noted, as is the glance back to golden in stanza 1 implicit in this stanza’s reference to wealth and show (itself a shift from company). Of the opening of the fourth and final stanza, For oft, the student notes, “past anecdote over, now present tense,” and follows that accurate observation with a flurry of marginal questions: “Difference between vacant and pensive? Flash; not dance or flutter or toss: why? Solitude: different from first lonely? Earlier, eye (outward and inward); now heart?” Finally, the student, observing “same rhyme-sound as in stanza 1,” has noticed at least the rhyme on daffodils in both the opening and closing stanzas.

Vendler then turns to the poem’s words, suggesting that students consult a dictionary to “check out etymologies and different connotations,” since poets have a “very specific sense of the aura around each word.” Her own search reveals words with roots in Old English (crowd, shine, twinkle, bliss), Middle English (glance, glee, gaze, flash), Latin (host, jocund, vacant, pensive, solitude), French (gay), and Greek, since daffodil itself derives from the Greek asphodelos. Wordsworth, she suggests, is “balancing” words, the Latinate (Latin-French) with the Germanic (Anglo-Saxon). She also notes the “families” of words that “help to organize the poem,” focusing on four inter-related clusters: “Glee, gay, and jocund  (a family of being happy, in terms of both meaning and—in the case of the first two—alliteration); Glance, glee, gay, gaze (words connected by alliteration, joining looking and happiness); Saw, glance, gaze (a family of looking); and Float, flutter, shine, twinkle, toss, flash, fill (a family of verbs of motion).”

Discussing sentences and rhythm, Vendler notes that the first two stanzas are periodic; the sentence is the stanza. But, despite our expectation that the pattern will continue, the third and fourth stanzas “together make up the third sentence,” with the “hinge” that joins them “the couplet, ‘I gazed—and gazed—but little thought/ What wealth the show to me had brought.’ This couplet leads into the exemplification of the ‘wealth’ in stanza 4.” And since the “third sentence is twice as long as the other two,” it “bears twice the weight.” The poem’s ababcc rhyme-scheme suggests, says Vendler, an initial statement (the quatrain) followed by an additional observation (the couplet). Of rhythm, she notes that the basic iambic beat of the first five lines is purposefully disrupted in the sixth line, where, “to emphasize the unexpected motion of the flowers,” Wordsworth shifts to a strong syllable followed by a weak: “Fluttering.” She concludes her thoughts on this subject by observing that a “careful reader will see that for his concluding rhyme (‘fills/ daffodils’) Wordsworth has reused one of the rhyme-sounds from his first stanza (‘hills/ daffodils’), giving us a strong sense of the end coming back to the beginning.” (In fact, if we count slant-rhyme, Wordsworth may be said to have reused two rhymes, the final stanza’s “mood” and “solitude” obliquely chiming with the first stanza’s “cloud” and “crowd.”)

Most importantly, Vendler invites us to look at the poem temporally, then spatially. We examine the poem temporally to see what changes we can observe as it moves from A (the opening, with the speaker lonely, as “unconnected to the world as a cloud when floating high above the earth”) to Z (where, though “still alone,” he is “no longer lonely,” since “now he feels the bliss of solitude”). How does Wordsworth move us, persuasively, from A to Z, the point at which, alone in his room, “suddenly, unasked, the daffodils flash into his mind so vividly that he sees them with his ‘inward eye’,” filling “that empty container, his heart,” with a pleasure that recaptures “his previous pleasure on that apparently forgotten day”? How does he convince us that the daffodils have “indeed lasted intensely in his mind, without any conscious effort on his part?” The explanation lies in “all the verbs of motion, all the verbs of seeing, all the verbs of delight”—in short, those “families” of words earlier discussed. Now it is the job of the reader-critic to see, along with much else, precisely how those verbs are deployed in the poem.

Looking at the poem spatially, Vendler draws our attention to three descriptive “glances” at the same phenomenon.” The first glance (“I saw”) shows us the daffodils as many (“a crowd, a host”), in a landscape (lake, trees), and in motion (“fluttering and dancing”). The second glance (“at a glance”) shows us the daffodils as many (like “stars that shine/ And twinkle on the milky way,” “ten thousand”), in a landscape (“along the margin of a bay”) and in motion (“Tossing their heads in sprightly dance). The third glance (“I gazed—and gazed”) shows us the daffodils as many (“a jocund company”), in a landscape (“waves beside them”), and in motion (“they/ Outdid the sparkling waves in glee”). If we considered these three descriptions temporally, we would distinguish between “seeing, glancing, and gazing.” But in considering them spatially, as three reiterated versions of “the same thing” (such “repetition” is actually “intensification”), what marks the daffodils is that (a) they are not alone, but many; that (b) they  feel “at home” in their natural setting; and that (c) “they are not gloomily rigid but in joyous motion responsive to the waves and the breeze.” As Vendler suggests without dwelling on the point, Wordsworth’s prepositions play a crucial role in positioning the daffodils and integrating them into their natural world. They are “Beside the lake, beneath the trees,/ Fluttering and dancing in the breeze,” “stretched in never-ending line/ Along the margin of a bay,” beside “the waves.”

We also notice that the poem, still being examined spatially, is divided into two parts: “outdoors (stanzas 1-3 and indoors (stanza 4).” The outdoor part, in the past tense, tells of the particular day when the poet saw the daffodils; the indoor part, “phrased in the habitual present tense (representing something that happens often), removes the daffodils from a physical scene (in nature) to a virtual scene (in the mind). Wordsworth makes explicit, at the end, the connection between what the eye has seen, glanced at, and finally gazed at (imprinting the scene firmly) and what the heart feels.” Bringing the daffodils indoors, Wordsworth wants us to “recognize that the poem has been brought to closure.” (330-31)

The interaction between speaker and flowers is made credible by the alternation between them. The speaker governs the first sentence, with the daffodils the objects of his observation; but this governing function changes, producing “an antiphonal structure of alternation…in which the poet and the daffodils engage in a ‘syntactic dialogue,’ as first one predominates, then the other. We ‘believe in’ the speaker’s interaction with the daffodils because the poem shows it happening.” In case we missed it, Vendler points out that Wordsworth has put the word dance, in one or another of its variants, in each stanza: dancing; dance; danced, dances. And we notice that “the word dance alliterates with daffodils, making them ‘belong’ together phonetically” (331). At this point, it’s up to the student to write an essay about how the poem “works,” and Vendler devotes the remainder of this chapter (332-40) to suggesting a variety of potentially fruitful approaches to the poem and to ways to organize a coherent and persuasive essay.

 SPACE

The Daffodils in Context

daffodils

3

Thanks to astute observation of the sort she wants students to emulate, Vendler has provided all the preliminary spadework as well as the framework for an intrinsic analysis. I will be doing my own share of close reading; but before returning to “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” I want to bring in a few contextual elements, extrinsic to the poem, at least until its final form. To begin with, we can locate the actual incident that inspired the poem. As by now everybody knows, or else should know, the genetic episode was recorded by Dorothy Wordsworth in her Journal for Thursday, 15 April 1802. She tells us that she and William came across many flowers on this memorable walk, including the Lesser Celandine, that

starry yellow flower which Mrs C[larkson] calls pile wort. When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the waterside. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more, and at last, under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them [six words crossed out] along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones, about and about them; some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness, and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake. They looked so gay—ever-glancing, ever-changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was, here and there, a little knot, and a few stragglers a few yards higher up—but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity and unity and life of that one busy highway.[6]

The poem that resulted—originally titled “Daffodils”—was composed later, sometime between March 1804 and April 1807 (WP 1:1005). Some readers have preferred the journal-entry to the poem. A scholar no less distinguished than Ernest de Selincourt, referring to the “unforgettable walk” of 15 April 1802, describes the Wordsworths’ encounter with the daffodils, “which William records in verse,” as “more lovely in Dorothy’s unstudied prose.” Even those who may not agree can see his point. But that prose was not quite “unstudied.” Dorothy’s manuscript (reproduced by de Selincourt on the overleaf that follows his remark), shows that she deleted six words after “a long belt of them” (“the end we did not see”), and jotted in as an afterthought, “This wind blew directly over the lake to them.” It is also worth noting, as Pamela Woof does in her edition of the Grasmere Journals, that Dorothy wrote a letter to Mary this same day, in fact, immediately on returning home from the walk along Ullswater. In this account, the wind is “furious” and “sometimes almost took our breath away”; but, as Woof notes, “it is not a creative force: no daffodils are mentioned, no partnership with the wind in dance.”[7]

In 1815, Wordsworth gave the poem its present title, dropping “Daffodils” for, I would surmise, two reasons: first, to place initial emphasis on the isolated speaker (“I wandered lonely…”), second, to defer the surprised delight of his, and our, first encounter with the flowers to the poem itself. He also inserted a new stanza (see WP 1:1006n), beginning “Continuous as the stars that shine…” A cluster of interrelated questions arise. Why did he feel the need to add these lines? How does this new second stanza affect our interpretation of the poem? What else is there in the poem that isn’t in Dorothy’s journal-entry? Alternately, what does Dorothy give us in prose, “unstudied” or otherwise, that her brother doesn’t?  And what do the differences between journal-entry and poem suggest in terms of experiential response and aesthetic shaping, even, perhaps, in terms of female and male responses to the natural world? Whatever changes he made in shaping his own poem, does knowing that Wordsworth adhered so closely to Dorothy’s journal-entry alter our attitude regarding Wordsworth’s creativity? In what follows, I return to the Daffodils poem in connection with three Wordsworths (William, Dorothy, and Mary); then in connection with Coleridge and Emerson, on the subject of “eyes” and the sublimation of the commonplace. I’ll conclude by placing “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” in a larger Wordsworthian and even Coleridgean-Kantian context.

ww

4

Even though two years passed between Dorothy’s April 1802 journal-entry and Wordsworth’s initial draft of the poem, that remarkably perceptive and imaginative entry was obviously in the poet’s mind when he sat down to write, or, as was often his practice, began to chant lines while walking. Of course, we cannot know the precise extent to which he was indebted to his sister’s observations. Considerably, it would seem, though we cannot rule out the possibility that he may have had some influence on her wording in the journal-entry, given the crucial omissions in the contemporaneous letter to Mary, and, especially, given the closeness and reciprocity of the relationship between Dorothy and her brother.

Dorothy  Wordsworth journal

Reciprocity is, in fact, one key to the poem. “So much depends…,” William Carlos Williams opens “The Red Wheelbarrow,” a little poem as alternately loved and resisted by students as Wordsworth’s daffodils. Williams’s opening foreshadowed a mutual dependence: just as the poet depends on what he sees, the things of the world, as necessary raw material, so those “found” objects depend on the poet to perceive, frame, and so order them aesthetically—through unexpected line-breaks, division into three- and one-word couplets and juxtaposed colors and textures (“a red wheel/ barrow// glazed with rain/ water// beside the white/ chickens”)—that they are transformed into a work of art. In a similar reciprocity in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” the Wordsworthian speaker’s mood is affected by the daffodils, which, in turn, depend on the poet (and, in this case, Dorothy, in her journal-entry, though not in her letter to Mary) to record their gaiety as they “dance” in the breeze. At the same time, as that personification or pathetic fallacy indicates, Dorothy and William are also projecting, attributing human characteristics and emotions (primarily, joy) to the flowers. The speaker in the poem begins by “naturalizing” himself, comparing his loneliness to that of a floating cloud; then reverses the process by personifying the flowers; and, finally, internalizes their supposed joy when every subsequent recollection of them so “fills” with pleasure his momentarily empty heart that it “dances with the daffodils”—all, aside from the related “Fluttering” and “Tossing,” to an iambic-tetrameter beat.

When he started to write the poem, two years after Dorothy recorded her journal-entry, Wordsworth clearly depended on that entry, both to refresh his memory and for emotional coloring. In the poem, he deploys her observations selectively, emphasizing certain aspects, omitting others, most notably her reference to those daffodils that seemed to rest their heads on the stones they grew among. Dorothy, in fact, begins by noticing these presumably wind-beaten flowers resting their heads on the elegiac “mossy stones… as on a pillow for weariness.” Whether or not this reveals a specifically female sensibility, it is a sympathetic, even poignant observation unregistered in her brother’s poem. He focused instead, and exclusively, on the flowers animated by the breeze off the lake. According to Dorothy, they “tossed and reeled and danced,” a joyous movement replicated in the poem: “ten thousand saw I at a glance, / Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.” A later, more orthodox Wordsworth would dismiss Keats’s “Hymn to Pan” (which his young admirer had been pressed to read to him) as “a very pretty piece of paganism,” even though Keats’s main source was a favorite mythological passage in the fourth Book of Wordsworth’s own Excursion. Here, however, he adds to his sister’s head-“tossing” personification of the daffodils a light but detectably pagan note, their “sprightly dance” allying them with sprights or sprites: elfin supernatural beings. I’ll return to this point.[8]

Interestingly, the description closest to his sister’s did not appear in the poem until 1815, in the couplet concluding the stanza Wordsworth added that year. This addition may be his equivalent of the phrase she had deleted, “the end we did not see,” referring to the “long belt of them,” which, together with her reference to the Lesser Celandine, “that starry yellow flower,” may have led to Wordsworth’s belated insertion of this stanza, in which the multitude of daffodils that “stretched in never-ending line” are said to be “Continuous as the stars that shine/ And twinkle on the milky way.” This shifts the focus above the cloud that “floats on high,” and far above Dorothy’s “long belt”—now extended to stars, perhaps reminding Wordsworth of another “Belt,” Orion’s. Not part of our Milky Way, Orion, so familiar to stargazers, is the easiest constellation to find, and so the best way to orient ourselves to viewing the edgewise Milky Way’s “never-ending line,” or “busy highway,” of stars. In short, even Wordsworth’s most distant, sublime, celestial comparison, added more than a dozen years after she made her journal-entry, may still be partially indebted to Dorothy’s original description of the daffodils.

However we judge the relationship between his sister’s journal-entry and the poem, we know that Wordsworth, like Coleridge, valued Dorothy’s acutely sensitive perception of the details of the natural world. In the concluding lines of “The Sparrow’s Nest,” a short lyric grouped with “Daffodils” in the “Moods of My Own Mind” section of the 1807 Poems in Two Volumes, Wordsworth says of Dorothy (lightly disguised as “My sister Emmeline”):

She gave me eyes, she gave me ears;
And humble cares, and delicate fears;
A heart, the fountain of sweet tears;
And love, and thought, and joy.  (WP, 1:529-30)

Though every item in this litany of gifts to her poet-brother is crucial, his priority is, significantly, ocular: “She gave me eyes….” It seems all the more remarkable, therefore, that the lines Wordsworth himself described as the poem’s “two best”—“They flash upon that inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude”—were contributed not by the poet’s sister, but (he told Isabella Fenwick) by his wife, Mary. Dorothy may have given him “eyes,” but, in what borders on a co-operative family affair in the creation of this particular poem, it was another female member of the household who gave him his final and sublime image, “that inward eye.” “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is nothing if not an “ocular” poem, one in which the speaker “saw,” and “saw,” and “glance[d],” and, more intensively, “gazed—and gazed”: a pattern culminating in that “inward eye” upon which those gazed-on and imprinted daffodils later “flash.” Wordsworth himself described the poem in 1815 as “rather an elementary feeling and simple impression [approaching to the nature of an ocular spectrum] upon the imaginative faculty, than an exertion of it….” (WP, 1:1006n)

But it must be added that it would be erroneous to over-emphasize the “ocular spectrum” at the expense of “the imaginative faculty.” Even in the note I have just cited, Wordsworth does not deny the exercise of the faculty of imagination, only of the sort of strenuous effort suggested by his italicization of the verb “exertion.” The point is confirmed by the fact that the note was written in the process of Wordsworth elevating the poem, previously located in “Moods of My Own Mind,” to a “higher” status among what he called, in the 1815 re-grouping, “Poems of the Imagination.” What we see with the physical or external eye still matters immensely, for without the initiating and necessary grounding in visual apprehension there would be no Romantic transcendence, defined by David Vallins as “at once a feeling of elevation or sublimity, and a process of contemplating, explaining, or evoking the unity of phenomena.”[9] In “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” the “continuous,” integrated belt of daffodils is further unified and internalized through the power of the poet’s “inward eye.”

RalphWaldo_Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

5

The phrase I’ve just quoted from David Vallins occurs in his analysis of the reinterpretation of Romantic ideas by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The legacy of the “inward eye” includes the responses of Coleridge and of his (and Wordsworth’s) American disciple, Emerson, both of whom had things to say about the Wordsworthian “eye” engaging the commonplace, the humble things of the world.  Coleridge was the first and, in many ways, the most astute appreciator of the poetry of Wordsworth, a poet he ranked with (and second only to) Shakespeare and Milton. But he devoted a whole chapter (22) of Biographia Literaria to the “characteristic defects” (BL 1:119) of his friend’s work. As indicated earlier, in that chapter, he cited the lines in which the daffodils “flash upon that inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude” as an example of a thought or image “too great for the subject,” and thus approximating “what might be called mental bombast, as distinguished from verbal” (BL 1:136). Just as Wordsworth was not minimizing the role of imagination in his 1815 “ocular” note on “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” so Coleridge was not criticizing these lines in themselves; only their misuse, since their very sublimity leads us to expect a more significant “joy of retrospection”—such as the passing before “our conscience” of “a whole well-spent life”—rather than what he considered on this occasion the relative triviality and bathos of a recollection of mere “daffodils” (137).

Coleridge, whose compelling Mariner mesmerizes us as well as the Wedding Guest with his “glittering eye,” was not a man to undervalue the eye. In a crucial and influential passage from Aids to Reflection (1825), Coleridge identified, as a “higher gift” than the life breathed into man and animal alike, man’s “Reflection, or Reason,” associating it with the moment in Genesis when “man became a living soul” (Gen 2:7), and providing an echoing Emerson with what he would later call (in the “Idealism” chapter of Nature), the “eye of Reason.”[10] God has given us a house gloriously furnished, writes Coleridge, “Nothing is wanted but the eye, which is the light of this house, the light which is the eye of this soul. This seeing light, this enlightening eye, is Reflection.”[11]

Coleridge here aligns his biblical quotation—“And man becomes a living soul”—with the moment in “Tintern Abbey” (46-49) when, laid asleep in body, we “become a living soul.” Thus empowered, we are—in Wordsworth’s visual image—able to “see into the life of things” with “an eye made quiet by the power/ Of harmony and the deep power of joy.” Thus, Coleridge might have agreed with Wordsworth, who seems not to have been merely patronizing his wife when he described the “inward eye” lines to Isabella Fenwick as the “two best lines in” the poem. For many subsequent readers, they have certainly seemed to be the poem’s most quintessentially “Wordsworthian” lines, even if they are more Mary’s than William’s.

Of course, just as it is possible that Wordsworth had some influence on Dorothy’s journal-entry on the daffodils, Mary may, like Coleridge, have been remembering that “ocular” passage in “Tintern Abbey.” Three decades later, and across the Atlantic, Emerson, another admirer of Wordsworth, remembered both ocular images, connecting them with the premature death of his closest brother, Charles—a victim of the same disease, tuberculosis, that had earlier claimed both his nineteen-year-old his wife and his younger brother, Edward, and that had, moreover, threatened his own eyesight. Devastated by this third family tragedy within five years, Emerson wondered of Charles, “Who can ever supply his place to me? None,” he answers, for Charles was to him what Dorothy was to Wordsworth: “The eye is closed that was to see Nature for me, & give me leave to see.”[12] Emerson’s partial compensation came in the form of a metaphorical transmutation of his dead brother’s “eye” attuned to the natural world. In the most celebrated moment in his book Nature, written in the year Charles died, Emerson famously or notoriously describes a moment in which, “my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space;—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all” (E&L,10; italics added). At once lonely and exhilarated, he experiences an uplifting, a rapturous and self-transcending unity with the divine in which “the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God”: a version of Wordsworth’s less explicitly religious “sense sublime” of “A motion and a spirit, that impels/ All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/ And rolls through all things” (“Tintern Abbey,” 95, 100-102). Seven years later, in his great essay “The Poet,” Emerson looks back on that epiphanic moment, remarking how rare and difficult it is to attain “the all-piercing…and ocular air of heaven” (E&L, 451-52). Along with his brother’s “eye,” all-seeing but now closed in death, the American Transcendentalist seems to be recalling both the culminating ocular image in the Daffodils poem, that “inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude,” and that “Serene and blessed mood,” in which the affections gently lead us on until, our breath and even the motion of our human blood almost suspended, “we are,” to repeat the lines from “Tintern Abbey,”

SPACESPACESPlaid asleep
In body, and become a living soul;
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things. (30, 41-49; italics added)

space

Dorothy Wordsworth's silhouette

Dorothy Wordsworth’s silhouette

6

As with so many Wordsworthian roads, this emphasis on seeing leads back to Dorothy, who “gave” Wordsworth “eyes to see,” just as Charles’s “eye” was “to see Nature” for Emerson, and give him “leave to see.” Of course, Dorothy makes an appearance, albeit belated and unnamed, in “Tintern Abbey.” Though we do not find out until the final movement of the poem, “thou my dearest Friend…, My dear, dear Sister!” (119-120, 124), has been silently present all along, on the banks of the Wye, just as she was present when brother and sister saw the daffodils dancing in the wind beside Ullswater. But while Dorothy was there, and while her journal-entry inspired the Daffodils poem, her journal and her presence go unmentioned in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” It is not hard to guess why Dorothy was left out.

In what is perhaps the most repeated of all definitions of poetry, Wordsworth called it “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…recollected in tranquility.” In the case of this poem, the supposedly spontaneous overflow took place over many years—from 1804, when he first drafted the poem, through its first printing in 1807, and its revised version in 1815, in which Wordsworth, though leaving the final stanza intact, improved the first stanza, replacing “dancing” with “golden,” and “along” with “beside” in lines 4-6. Some devotees of simplicity may prefer the original phrase in line 16, “laughing company,” to the permanent change made in 1815: “jocund company.” Though echoing the “large recompense” in “Lycidas,” the more-than-Miltonic Latinate and polysyllabic “abundant recompense” in “Tintern Abbey” seems ponderous. Here, the Latinate adjective seems less so; in addition, “laughing company” may have belatedly seemed to Wordsworth too close to Dorothy’s delightfully over-the-top surmise that the daffodils “seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake.” Most importantly, of course, in 1815, Wordsworth inserted an entirely new stanza. As earlier suggested, that stanza’s galaxy of “stars” may echo Dorothy’s “starry yellow flower” and  seemingly-endless “long belt” of daffodils;  and the new stanza concluded by directly echoing Dorothy’s description of the daffodils as they “tossed and reeled and danced.” Nevertheless, it would hardly do to mention that journal-entry, even in an appended prose note, since that would reveal that what was being “recollected” was less the poet’s “spontaneous” feelings than Dorothy’s, jotted down more than a dozen years earlier. An awkward affair best avoided.

Nor could there be room for Dorothy as a character in the poem. Though Keats would later famously and accurately refer to “the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime,” the omission of Dorothy here has nothing to do with the “mean egotism” Emerson shed when he became a transparent eye-ball. Dorothy’s omission is thematic. “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” depends upon the speaker’s initial isolation, wandering “lonely as a cloud,” as preparation for the  moment when, “all at once I saw a crowd,/ A host, of golden daffodils,” and, caught up in their “glee,” becomes part of their “jocund company,” all leading to his very different final “solitude,” when emotion is recollected in a tranquility at once thoughtful and blissful, and his “heart with pleasure fills,/ And dances with the daffodils.” Indeed, the memory of the daffodils seems a talisman against loneliness. As long as he retains this, and other similarly vivid remembrances of Nature, Wordsworth will never be truly alone, or bereft of material for poetry. That initial loneliness and final solitude, associated with the “inward eye” upon which the remembered golden daffodils “flash,” is even more essential in this poem than it is in “Tintern Abbey,” where the repeated “I” finally yields to a petition to his beloved sister that she “not forget” that “after many wanderings, many years/ Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,/ And this green pastoral landscape, were to me/ More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake! (158-62; italics added). The poem rightly ends by focusing on Dorothy and past, present, and future, for though she has been silent, he has read his “former pleasures in the shooting lights/ Of thy wild eyes,” and caught “from thy wild eyes these gleams/ Of past existence” (121-22, 151-52; italics added).

An ocular presence in “Tintern Abbey,” as a poignant reminder of what were once his own unmediated “wild ecstasies,” Dorothy is an absent presence in the public encounter with daffodils, the poem inspired by her strikingly visual journal-entry. But we know from “The Sparrow’s Nest” that, along with her “eyes,” Dorothy also gave her brother “a heart” and “love, and thought, and joy.” All of these, thought included, are reflected in the final lines of the Daffodils poem. When he intensely “gazed—and gazed” at the daffodils, impressing them on his memory, the poet “little thought/ What wealth the show to me had brought,” but that “wealth” is revealed in stanza 4. There the poet, indoors and in either vacant reverie or in “pensive mood,” transforms an engraved but, at the moment, involuntary memory of the daffodils into a mature joy: a renovating spot of time now restored in the mind and incorporating, along with the initial joy, the “thought” absent in his original emotional and visceral response.

There are Then/Now parallels in the “Ode” and, earlier, in “Tintern Abbey,” which opens: “Five years have passed; five summers, with the length/ Of five long winters….” In the hovering on “length,” the seasonal references, and the triple repetition of that long-voweled “five,” we feel the “heavy and the weary weight” (39) of the world. Back then, when he first “came among these hills,” it was, says Wordsworth, “in the hour/ Of thoughtless youth.” “I cannot paint/ What then I was,” says the poet, who then proceeds to do just that, magnificently:

SPACESPAESPACThe sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion; the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colors and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, nor any interest
Unborrowed from the eye. That time is past…. (77-85; Italics added)

A similar shift from feeling to thought, from past to present, comes, in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” with the pivot—syntactical and thematic as well as temporal—from the third into the fourth and final stanza. For now, when the poet is indoors, alone and reclining in “vacant or in pensive mood,” wandering in his mind, the recalled flowers “flash” upon his “inward eye,” his last and most piercing “glance.” That brilliant, intermittent “flash” gathers to a greatness the poem’s light-imagery (shine, twinkle, sparkling). It also becomes a flash-flood, for the sudden recollection of the flowers so “fills” the poet’s heart with pleasure that it “dances with the daffodils.” The “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” has been “recollected in tranquility,” by thought supplied, but retaining, in the mind’s eye, the original excitement of what he “saw” with the outward eye. The three “glances” in the poem, and its version of that empowered “eye” that enables us to “see into the life of things,” seem fused in a Marianne Moore poem that also shifts back and forth from perceiver to the object perceived, concluding that works of art “must be ‘lit with piercing glances into the life of things’.”[13]

SPACE

7

Despite Wordsworth’s final fusion of thought and emotion, head and heart, in the Daffodils poem, some readers will concur with Coleridge that too much is being made of too little here; that, following the sublimity of the “inward eye,” the final lines “sink” into bathos. Influenced by such responses, more by the negative British reviews he read than by Coleridge’s momentary fault-finding, Emerson was among those who at first scorned Wordsworth’s penchant for making the trivial sublime. In a June 1826 letter to his Aunt Mary (whose insight into Wordsworth was at the time deeper than his own), Emerson asked, “Is it not much more conformable to that golden middle line…to let what Heaven made small and casual remain the objects of a notice small and casual, and husband our admiration for images of grandeur in matter or in mind?”[14] He had been reading British reviewers who (however inaccurately) caricatured Wordsworth as blubbering over the flower at the end of the Ode. But gradually, as he read more of Coleridge and (with the help of this mentor’s genuine insights) saw more deeply into Wordsworth, he came to admire what he originally dismissed. In Nature and elsewhere, in locating the miraculous in the commonplace, Emerson was emulating Wordsworth, the great poet of the “lowly” and neglected, of the humble, common, and seemingly trivial. Wordsworth’s “imagination” was chiefly engaged, as William Hazlitt pointed out in The Spirit of the Age, “in raising trifles to significance.” It was “his peculiar genius,” Walter Pater added a half-century later, “to open out the soul of apparently little or familiar things.”[15] Wordsworth is able to do so, as Coleridge understood just as well, and even more intimately, than Hazlitt and Pater, because he makes us “see into the life of things,” and to see what had been passed over by earlier poets, who thought such things literally beneath their notice.

space

Emily Bronte

Emily Brontë

space

No doubt Dorothy helped her brother see. We will never know just how much “wealth” Wordsworth owed to her meticulous, affectionate, and imaginative apprehension of the “little things” of the natural world, especially flowers. It is a detailed, discerning, and passionate attention that anticipates Emily Dickinson. And the Wordsworths’ Daffodils also anticipated another Emily, Dickinson’s “gigantic Emily Brontë.”[16] In one of the most beautiful passages the latter ever wrote, Catherine Earnshaw’s daughter (the second “Cathy” in Wuthering Heights) describes her “most perfect idea of heaven’s happiness.” She would be “rocking” at the heart of the natural world, “with a west wind blowing, and bright, white clouds flitting rapidly above,…grass undulating in waves to the breeze; and woods and sounding water; and the whole world awake and wild with joy….I wanted all to sparkle and dance, in a golden jubilee.”[17] Cathy’s idea of heaven is an earthly paradise, its primary “literary” source obvious. The entire passage (clouds, waves, breeze, woods, water, the whole world awake and joyous), and, especially, Cathy’s wanting “all to sparkle and dance in a golden jubilee,” reflects Wordsworth’s “golden” host of “Fluttering and dancing” flowers that out-danced and out-sparkled “the sparkling waves in glee,” their “never-ending” line “Continuous as the stars that shine/ And twinkle on the milky way.” Cathy’s description suggests that Emily Brontë was also familiar with William’s source: Dorothy’s loving and dynamic description of those “beautiful” daffodils that “tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed in the wind that blew upon them over the lake. They looked so gay—ever-glancing, ever-changing.”

Wordsworthian Emerson was also attuned to the sort of earthly paradise that appealed to both Emilys. He began his 1838 Divinity School Address by fusing the “gladsome pagans” in what was his as well as John Keats’s favorite Book of The Excursion, those pagans who “looked” and “were humbly thankful for the good/ Which the warm sun solicited, and earth/ Bestowed” (4:932-38), with the “pagan” of “The World is Too Much with Us.” Quoting Wordsworth’s sonnet, Emerson shocked his devout audience from the outset by declaring that he, too, would rather be “A pagan suckled in a creed outworn” than a Christian impoverished by being cut off from vital, fecund nature. And he began his Address with a deeply responsive evocation of nature’s vital, sparkling, floral beauty. In “this refulgent summer,” it has been “a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold” (E&L, 75). Those meadows were alive with flowers aglow with the light of Wordsworth’s “golden daffodils,” and sharing the pagan vitality of their “sprightly dance.”

 SPACE

8

Having found the transplanted and transparent “eye” he was seeking in the aftermath of his brother’s death in Mary and William’s “inward eye” in the Daffodils poem, Emerson, reading  his favorite Wordsworth poem, the “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” again found an emphasis on sight, on the mature eye, and, climactically, on a simple flower. More importantly, he was not alone in finding in this great poem lasting consolation for grief. Like so many, Emerson valued the Ode not only for its intimations of immortality, but for its appreciation of the natural world, both when it seemed, as in childhood, “appareled in celestial light,” and later, when Wordsworth loved it “even more,” though the initial radiance had been irretrievably lost. Innumerable readers in the nineteenth century and after have cherished the poem for the literally thoughtful consolation it offered to those who understand the pains as well as the joys of the human heart. In his “Memorial Verses,” written in the very month that Wordsworth died (April 1850), Matthew Arnold speculated that Time might bring us the wisdom of another Goethe, the force of another Byron; “But where will Europe’s latter hour/ Again find Wordsworth’s healing power?”[18]

That healing power takes linguistic form in the Ode. We can only reintegrate the sundered self, Hegel insists in the Logic, through knowledge, since, in his famous homeopathic metaphor, “the hand that inflicts the wound must be the hand that heals it.” As Helen Vendler demonstrated a third of a century ago in her challenge to Lionel Trilling’s celebrated essay, Wordsworth, in an intricate series of repetitions and alterations, had triumphed over what Trilling considered “the discrepant answers of the second part of the Ode.” The poem’s language reveals an autonomous pattern of self-healing—in Vendler’s phrase, a “homeopathic cure”—largely dependent on thought.[19] For example, in the Ode’s initial pastoral in stanza 3, while the lambs bounded to the shepherd-boy’s tabor and the birds sang a “joyous song,” to the poet “alone there came a thought of grief.” He claims, rather too quickly, to recover and, again “strong,” vows that “no more shall grief of mine the season wrong.” But when the pastoral is replicated in stanza 10, the true recovery fuses joy with cognition: “We in thought will join your throng.” And though the once-bright radiance “Be now forever taken from my sight,” we will “grieve not, rather find/ Strength in what remains behind,” both in the “primal sympathy/ Which having been must ever be,” and in “the soothing thoughts that spring/ Out of human suffering.”

In a now-familiar pattern, the Ode brings together the trinity of eyes, heart, and thought. For “though the radiance which was once so bright”—the celestial light attending the dawn of life, when we came from God, “trailing clouds of glory”—has “now” and forever been “taken from my sight,” the “clouds that gather round the setting sun” are said, in a reciprocal balance, to “take a sober coloring from an eye/ That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality.” This is not the eye of that “Child,” over whom “thy Immortality/ Broods like the Day,” and who was addressed in stanza 8 as “thou Eye among the blind,” but of a mature adult acquainted with suffering and death. We have an elegiac “gathering” of the clouds around the “setting sun,” and a “sober” coloring imparted to them by a mature “eye.” But the Ode does not end in despair or defeat. Emerson concluded one of his most justly-famous notebook-entries, jotted down in the immediate aftermath of the death of his little boy, “I am Defeated all the time, yet to Victory am I born” (JMN 8:228). Concluding his Pindaric ode, a form used by the Greek poet to celebrate athletic triumphs, Wordsworth employs a similar race-image, pagan and Pauline (Corinthians 9:24), of loss and compensation, defeat and hard-earned victory:

Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.  (Ode, 199-203)

We had heard earlier in the Ode of “The Pansy at my feet” (54) and Wordsworth’s most sublime masterpiece concludes with the “meanest [or, as he first wrote, “humblest”] flower that blows.” And with this, we are back—though with a more sober coloring and accompanied by a decidedly different metrical music—to flowers that, recollected in tranquility, “flash upon that inward eye,” filling, to cite the Ode, “the human heart” and evoking deep “thoughts.” Thus, the conclusion of the Ode brings us, by a route Coleridge called “rondure,” and Joyce “a commodious vicus of recirculation,” back to Dove Cottage and environs. Back to Mary, who supplied that “inward eye,” and to Dorothy, who “gave” Wordsworth “eyes to see,” and who shared with him notebook observations that, while they had nothing to do with the metrical and Then/Now orchestration of the Daffodils poem, provided him with closely-observed and already imaginatively-organized raw material. When we recall Dorothy’s loving and detailed journal-description of the daffodils, and the principal gifts that, by his own account, she “gave” her brother—“eyes,” “humble cares,” “delicate fears,” a “heart,” which was the “fountain of sweet tears,” and “love, and thought, and joy”—it begins to seem appropriate (though by Wordsworth’s order the Ode was to stand last in every collection of his verse) that in John Hayden’s splendid two-volume edition, ordered by date of composition, “The Sparrow’s Nest,” begun in the same month as the great Ode, and, like it, first published in 1807, appears immediately after the Ode’s concluding lines. Dorothy seems an absent presence here as well, though it is crucial to note that, while the final word of the Ode is “tears,” no “fountain of sweet tears” actually flows. Whatever may be invented by careless readers, whether malicious or maudlin, the lines are clear: thanks to the tenderness, joys, and fears of “the human heart by which we live,” the humblest flower that blossoms and blows in the wind can evoke “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

If Dorothy did not literally give her brother “eyes to see,” she certainly enhanced his own “eye” for detail and (in this instance) even design, supplying him with a vivid example of his own central theme: the joy intrinsic in vital, personified, nature. Dorothy gives Wordsworth, and us, a “long belt” of beautiful, joyous daffodils that “tossed and reeled and danced” in the lakeside breeze, recollection of which later fills with pleasure the thinking heart of the poet, so that it “dances” with those dancing flowers. Dorothy did not write the poem, but without her notebook-entry, recording precisely what she “saw” on that “Thursday, 15 April 1802”—“I never saw daffodils so beautiful”; and how they appeared to her (“they looked so gay—ever glancing, ever-changing”)—it is doubtful that “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” now considered one of Wordsworth’s signature poems, would ever have been written. Along with the “eyes” he said she “gave” him, Dorothy’s “heart” and her ultimate trinity of gifts—“love, and thought, and joy”—inform her notebook-observation of the daffodils that “tossed and reeled and danced,” seeming to enjoy “the wind that blew upon them over the lake.” Wordsworth was inspired by these details, and, perhaps most of all, by Dorothy’s final noticing of a “few stragglers a few yards higher up,” but “so few as not to disturb the simplicity and unity and life of that one busy highway.”

Here, keen-eyed “ocular” observation kindles into a genuine Vision of what Coleridge called, in a line added to “The Eolian Harp” almost a quarter-century after he originally wrote the poem, “The one Life within us and abroad.” And that “one Life” necessarily extends from earthly flowers into the very universe itself, which seems to me to explain the need Wordsworth evidently felt to add, in 1815, that stanza in which the “ten thousand” daffodils he “saw…at a glance,/ Tossing their heads in sprightly dance,” are said to have “stretched in never-ending line/ Along the margin of a bay,” as “Continuous as the stars that shine/ And twinkle on the milky way.” It has been noted recently, by Pamela Woof, that “the permanence of stars, as compared with flowers, emphasizes the permanence of memory for the poet.”[20] And that’s true, too. But the addition of this stanza emphasizes even more, I would suggest, the extension into the interstellar universe of the continuity, harmony, and unity with which Dorothy concluded her journal-entry. Echoing her previous awe at encountering “more and yet more” daffodils, until, “at last, under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road,” she ends by stressing (to repeat the key phrase) “the simplicity and unity and life of that one busy highway.”

Orion

Orion’s belt

As with the transmutation of yellow flowers into an angelic “host of golden daffodils,” in the alembic of Wordsworth’s creative imagination Dorothy’s imagery of terrestrial unity (flowers, trees, shore, and country road) is transmuted (through the oxymoronic fusion Thomas Carlyle and, later, M. H. Abrams, called “natural supernaturalism”)[21] into celestial unity: the shining and twinkling of myriad stars on the Milky Way. If, as the final line of this stanza strongly suggests, Wordsworth had returned for inspiration to Dorothy’s journal-entry, he may have linguistically associated her “long belt” of daffodils (as suggested earlier) with Orion’s Belt, and, consciously or unconsciously, echoed her reference, immediately preceding the encounter with the daffodils themselves, to one of his own favorite flowers, the Lesser Celandine, as a “starry yellow flower.” These details may or may not have prompted his belated but sublime likening of her “more and yet more” daffodils in a unified “highway” to our Milky Way’s glowing roadway, that arching band of “continuous” stars splashed across the night sky. Whatever its genesis, the added stanza completes the poem’s (and Dorothy’s) theme of continuity and unity by fusing flowers and stars, microcosm and macrocosm.

SPACE

A Kantian-Coleridgean-Romantic Coda

kant

Immanuel Kant

These thoughts recall the famous opening of the “Conclusion” of The Critique of Practical Reason (1788) by the preeminent philosopher of the age, to whose thought— a pivotal influence on Romanticism—Wordsworth, like Emerson, was introduced by Coleridge:

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within. Neither of them do I have to search for and conjecture as though they were shrouded in obscurity or in a transcendent region beyond my own horizon; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my own existence.[22] (italics added)

What Immanuel Kant says of the starry heavens above and the moral law within— “I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my own existence”—Dorothy and William Wordsworth said of the now-famous daffodils: “We saw a few daffodils….we saw that there was a long belt of them….I never saw daffodils so beautiful….they looked so gay…” (Dorothy).  “All at once I saw…Ten thousand saw I at a glance….I gazed—and gazed…They flash upon that inward eye…And then my heart with pleasure fills/ And dances with the daffodils” (William). Seeing the flowers before them, and connecting them with the consciousness of their own existence, the Wordsworths here, as so often, affirm a loving unity with nature, with the Coleridgean “one Life within us and abroad.” As Kant continued, glossing his “two things,” his sense “of the place I occupy in the external world of sense” is enlarged by an intuition of relationship with the whole: “I am not in a merely contingent but in a universal and necessary connection… reaching into the infinite” (CPR, 154). In “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” the extended, universal, even eternal harmony, the sense of interrelationship from which the “lonely” poet was at first alienated, is expressed in the immediate delight he takes in the daffodils, in the presence of whose companionable “glee,” a “poet could not but be gay.” But it is, to fuse half-lines from Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli” and “Tintern Abbey,” a gaiety transfiguring all this unintelligible world—a world that at first seemed as aimless as the poet’s wandering, or as fluctuating as the flowers, whose natural “fluttering” was, however, instantly transformed into a no-less-joyous but ordered “dancing.” That dancing, floral and later human and emotional, is also mental, a matter of consciousness. And since that dancing company is “Continuous as the stars that shine,” it all seems part of a cosmic dance, the daffodils and the “heart” that “dances with” them participating in a post-Pythagorean harmony of the spheres.

The transforming power that fuses the infinitesimal with the infinite is that of the orchestrating mind, no longer passively afloat and wandering, but once more active and order-making. That change takes place under the auspices of Kantian Reason. According to Kant’s Theory of the Sublime, through the power of Reason, “a faculty of the mind surpassing every standard of Sense,” one is able to form “an idea of the Infinite.” Often retaining (a cause of confusion) the term “Reason,” the Romantics (Coleridge, Wordsworth, Emerson) identified it with Imagination, with what Coleridge called in the “Dejection” Ode, “My shaping spirit of Imagination” (86). The “wealth” the ocular show “had brought” to Wordsworth in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” —as “Tintern Abbey,” the Ode, The Prelude, and the “Prospectus” to The Recluse demonstrate at length—is directly related to what Kant called the inner law, both moral and epistemological since, in keeping with Kant’s Copernican Revolution, the external world is shaped by what is within us: the co-creating mind, which fits Things to Thought.

In the poem in which he lays out his entire project, the “Prospectus” to The Recluse,  Wordsworth designates “the Mind of man/ My haunt, and the main region of my song,” adding that “the discerning intellect of Man,/ When wedded to this goodly universe/ In love and holy passion, shall find these/ A simple produce of the common day.” As simple and common, we might say, as daffodils. And even the shifting agency in the Daffodils poem, alternating back and forth from poet to flowers, is later philosophized in Wordsworth’s overt adaptation of Kant’s epistemology. At the crux of the “Prospectus,” Wordsworth proclaims “How exquisitely the individual Mind/…to the external World/ Is fitted,” and how, even more rarely and significantly,

The external World is fitted to the Mind;
And the creation (by no lower name
Can it be called) which they by blended might
Accomplish:—this is our high argument. (“Prospectus,” 61-71; WP 2:38-39)

At the conclusion of The Prelude, to which he always referred as “the Poem to Coleridge,” Wordsworth tells his friend and “joint-laborer” that

SPACESPACESACESPACESPACwhat we have loved,
Others will love, and we will teach them how;
Instruct them how the mind of Man becomes
A thousand times more beautiful than the earth
On which he dwells, above this Frame of things,…
In beauty exalted, as it is itself
Of quality and fabric more divine.[23] (14: 446-54)

I may seem to have gone far afield in contextualizing—by setting, in what Helen Vendler called “larger frames”—so “simple” a lyric as “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” There is always the danger of losing the individual poem in a widening gyre of associations, however valid each may seem to be. But had he read the poem in this enlarged context—Wordsworthian, Romantic, and Kantian—Coleridge would surely have been less likely to accuse his friend of “mental… bombast” in making lowly daffodils exemplify “what we have loved.” For these flowers are loved things which, however “common,” are so cherished that, years later, in renovating memory, they “flash” upon the poet’s “inward eye.” And, in keeping with the “out-in-out” dialectic M. H. Abrams has rightly attributed to the structure of the “greater Romantic lyric,” the inward inevitably moves outward. By means of the very poem in which they are immortalized, the daffodils expand their power to delight beyond the immediate pleasure they gave to Dorothy on that long-ago April morning in 1802 and beyond that retrospective “bliss” experienced in “solitude” by her brother, whose suddenly overwhelmed heart dances with them. For, as readers, we, too, join their throng, first as delighted, then as thoughtfully delighted, participants in the daffodils’ “jocund company.”[24]

That is as it should be, for, perceptive as his admirer Keats was in identifying him with the “egotistical sublime,” Wordsworth is a poet who chooses to “sing,” as he says in the “Prospectus” to The Recluse, “Of blessed consolations in distress;/ Of moral strength, and intellectual Power;/ Of joy in widest commonalty spread” (16-18; WP 2:37-38). Along with the “moral strength” and “intellectual Power,” which he associated with Kant, Coleridge considered that last line so quintessentially Wordsworthian that he summoned it up years later in a pivotal afterthought. Just as Wordsworth had added, in 1815, a crucial six lines to the Daffodils poem, first printed in 1807, so Coleridge added, in 1817, several thematically-crucial lines to “The Eolian Harp,” a poem first written in 1795, the year he met William and Dorothy:

 O! the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance everywhere— (26-29)[25]

Aside from the penultimate line (“sound” being necessary to a poem focused on a wind-harp, its music a response to the ever-changing breeze), the passage might have been written of the Wordsworths’ Daffodils. The “glee” of that “jocund company” in “motion” registers “Rhythm in all thought,” and truly spreads “joyance everywhere,” a bliss culminating in William Wordsworth’s preeminent addition to the joyance Dorothy had recorded in her journal that day: his internalization of the past scene in excited reverie. His fusion, in the present, of joy and “thought” as a result of the renovating “flash upon that inward eye” dramatizes precisely what Coleridge had in mind, and heart, when he cried out, “O! the one Life within us and abroad.”

–Patrick J. Keane

—————————

Patrick J Keane 2Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition(1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), andEmily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering(2007).
Contact: patrickjkeane@old.numerocinqmagazine.com

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. In context, Wordsworth’s famous definition is complex rather than paradoxical. His point is that  the spontaneity at the moment of composition is preceded by thought and influenced by poetic skill, and that—in a process central to my argument—the contemplative tranquility itself leads to a resurgence of emotion resembling the original emotion, but now actually “exist[ing] in the mind.” Here is Wordsworth’s complete sentence, quoted from the 1802 edition of the “Preface to Lyrical Ballads”: “I have said that [all good] poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.”
  2. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. 2nd ed. ed. Ernest de Selincourt. Vol 2: The Middle Years, Part I, 1806-1811,  rev.  Mary Moorman (Oxford UP, 1969), 145-46 (21 May 1807). He adds that Lady Beaumont should “never forget” this point, which “I believe was observed to you by Coleridge.” In the “Essay Supplementary to the Preface” to the 1815 Poems, Wordsworth repeated the point, adding, “This remark has long since been made to me by [my] philosophical Friend. Wordsworth: The Poems, ed. John O. Hayden, 2 vols. (Yale UP, 1981), 2:944. (WP; though, for the major poems, I simply cite line-numbers).
  3. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate [Vol. 7 of the Collected Coleridge, 1969-2001]), 2 vols. (Princeton UP, 1983), 1:136.  (BL)
  4. Helen Vendler, Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology (Bedford/St. Martin’s, third printing, 2010), Chapter 11, “Writing about Poems, 323-40.
  5. Predictably defending poetry and intrinsic criticism, Helen Vendler polarized a 1990 conference on “Revolutionary Romanticism” by fiercely rejecting what she characterized as Marjorie Levinson’s “vulgar” assault on “Tintern Abbey.” Pointing out that Wordsworth did not conceal (or “repress” or “exclude”) his “political investments and political disillusion” in his poetry as a whole, she called it “absurd that he should be obliged to mention them in every poem, or even in ‘Tintern Abbey’ alone.” Along with Levinson’s New Historicist demands, John Barrell’s criticism of the poem on gender grounds was also characterized as an assault in Vendler’s “‘Tintern Abbey’: Two Assaults,” in Wordsworth in Context, ed. Pauline Fletcher and John Murphy (Associated University Presses, 1992), 173-90. The debate is synopsized in my own Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (U of Missouri, 1994), 182-83, and, a decade later, in Eric K. W. Yu’s “Wordsworth Studies and the Ethics of Criticism: The ‘Tintern Abbey” Debate Revisited,” in Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies 30 (July 2004): 129-54.
  6. Dorothy Wordsworth: The Grasmere Journals, ed. Pamela Woof (Oxford UP, 1991], 85. (DWGJ.)
  7. See Ernest De Selincourt, Dorothy Wordsworth: A Biography (Oxford UP, 1933), 137; DWGJ, 216n; and L, The Early Years, 1787-1805, ed. de Selincourt, rev. Chester L. Shaver (Oxford UP, 1967), 350.
  8. When, in 1817, Keats read the “Hymn” to the now-firmly Christian older poet, Wordsworth famously sniffed, “a very pretty piece of paganism.” This seems both condescending and  ironic, since his young admirer was echoing the rhapsodic aspects of the evocation of Greek mythology in a passage of The Excursion (4:858-64) his friend Benjamin Hayden (marking the lines in his copy) said “Poor Keats used always to prefer…to all others.”
  9. Vallins, Coleridge and the Psychology of Romanticism: Feeling and Thought (St. Martin’s, 2000), 5.
  10. Nature, in Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte (Library of America, 1983), 33. (E&L)
  11. Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, ed. John Beer [Vol. 9, Collected Coleridge] (Princeton UP, 1993), 15-16.
  12. Emerson, The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William H. Gilman, Ralph H. Orth, et al. 16 vols. (Harvard/ Belknap Press, 1960-82), 5: 152. (JMN)
  13. Marianne Moore, the penultimate line of “When I Buy Pictures.” In her note to the poem, Moore tells us that she borrowed the quoted phrase from A. R. Gordon’s 1919 study The Poets of the Old Testament (which may partially explain her insistence, in the poem’s final line, that an art-work “must acknowledge the spiritual source that made it”). But Gordon, whose final prepositional phrase, “glances into the life of things,” clearly echoes “Tintern Abbey,” may also have recalled the “glance,” and  more piercing “gazed—and gazed,” in the Daffodils poem.
  14. The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph L. Rusk (vols. 1-6 [1939]) and Eleanor M. Tilton (vols. 7-10, [1964]). 10 vols. (Columbia UP, 1939-1995), 7:148-49.
  15. The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe, 21 vols. (Dent, 1930-34), 11:88. Walter Pater, “Wordsworth” (1873), reprinted in 1889 in Pater’s Appreciations (Macmillan reprint, 1906), 48.
  16. Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas  Johnson and Theodora Ward, 3 vols. (Harvard UP, 1958), 721.
  17. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (Norton Critical Edition, 1972), 198-99.
  18. “Memorial Verses,” in The Poems of Matthew Arnold, ed. Kenneth Allott (Longmans, 1965).
  19. The Logic of Hegel, trans. W. Wallace (Oxford and Fairlawn, N.J.,1892), 56. Helen Vendler, “Lionel Trilling and the Immortality Ode,” in The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics (Harvard UP, 1994), 93-114. “The Immortality Ode” first appeared in Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination (Viking, 1942), 129-53.
  20. Woof’s comment was made in a 2009 BBC program on “The Wordsworths and the Cult of Nature.”
  21. . The oxymoronic phrase, its terms at once  paradoxical and complementary, occurs as the title of chapter 8 of Book III of Carlyle’s  Sartor Resartus (first published in Boston, in 1836, with the help of Emerson). It later provided the title for M. H. Abrams’s Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (Norton, 1971), a landmark study of the secularization of spiritual motifs in German and British Romanticism.
  22. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason. Introduction, Dennis Sweet (Barnes & Noble, 2004), 154.  But I have not adhered slavishly to this slightly dated translation, by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott.
  23. 1850 version, cited from The Prelude, 1799, 1805, 1850, ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill (Norton Critical Edition, 1979), 483.
  24. I’m thinking specifically of the shift from the outward to the inward eye and then out again to the eyes of the poem’s readers; but Abrams’s essay on “Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric” is partially relevant to “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” in a larger sense. The Greater Romantic lyrics he has in mind usually begin, writes Abrams, with “a description of the landscape,” which “evokes a…process of memory…closely interwoven with the outer scene,” issuing in a “meditation,” in the course of which “the lyric speaker achieves an insight, faces up to a tragic loss, comes to a moral decision, or resolves an emotional problem. Often the poem rounds upon itself to end where it began, at the outer scene, but with an altered mood and deepened understanding which is the result of the intervening meditation” (77). Our less ambitious poem engages fewer issues. Nevertheless, though it moves from an outdoor to an indoor scene, it certainly “rounds upon itself” since, in the final stanza, the “outer scene” returns and is internalized. There is a deepened understanding as a result of a revived memory, taking the form, of a “wealth” previously not “thought” of.  In short, much, though by no means all, of what Abrams says here, including his later subhead-emphases on “The Coalescence of Subject and Object” (94) and  “The Romantic Meditation” (104), applies, mutatis mutandis, to “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Abrams’s essay, first published in 1965, is here cited from its reprinting in Abrams’s collection, The Correspondent Breeze: Essays in English Romanticism, Foreword by Jack Stillinger (Norton, 1984), 75-108.
  25. “The Eolian Harp,” in The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge, 2 vols. (Oxford UP, 1912), 1:100-102 (for the first version of the poem, see 2:1021-23). Coleridge added seven lines, of which I cite the first four.

The Patrick J. Keane NC Archive

 

 

Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

 —-

Of Beginnings and Endings: Huck Finn and Tom Eliot

Emerson and Self-Reliance: Paradoxical Idea, Ambiguous Legacy

Slouching towards Anarchy

Blake, Nietzsche, Wilde, and Yeats: Contraries, Anti-Selves, and the Truth of Masks

Proto-Feminist, Trouble-Making Rebel: Hawthorne, a “Remarkable Case” & the Genesis of Hester Prynne

Secretariat: A Personal Memoir

A Great Labyrinth: The Winding Stair, Maud Gonne, and a Quest for the Quintessential Yeats

Inquiring Spirit: My Friend, Jim Cerasoli (1938-2015)

A Good Time Was Had by Some: On Assigning & Relishing the Eternal Punishment of Others

I Cried to Dream Again: Song — Maura Kennedy | Introduced by Patrick J. Keane

The Pope, Charlie Hebdo, and Islamist Terrorism

Natural Supernaturalism: Emily Dickinson’s Variations on the Romantic Theme of an Earthly Paradise

The Alexander Debate and the Murderous Innocence of Bucephalus: Fiction

The Originality Paradox: Review of Samantha C. Harvey’s Transatlantic Transcendentalism: Coleridge, Emerson, and Nature

“Second Thoughts” in Seamus Heaney’s North: From “Antaeus” to “Hercules and Antaeus” to “Exposure”

Identity and Difference: Coleridge and Defoe, Crusoe and Friday, Prospero and Caliban

Keats and Identity: The Chameleon in the Crucible

On Looking Into and Beyond the Wordsworths’ Daffodils: An Intrinsic and Contextual Reading

The Wordsworthian Sources of Emersonian “Hope” and “Light”

Mark Twain, Nietzsche, and Terrible Truths that can Set Us Free

The Ambiguous Legacy of Nietzsche

Mountain Visions and Imaginative Usurpations

A Poetry of Petition: W. B. Yeats’s “The Stare’s Nest by my Window” and Derek Mahon’s “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford”

The Senses of an Ending: The Grapes of Wrath, Novel and Film

Leaving the Zoo: A Fictional Memoir

  Chiaroscuro: A Memoir

  Eternal Recurrence: The Permanent Relevance of William Butler Yeats’s The Second Coming

  Rintrah, Essay upon a Cat

 Convergences: Memories Involving The Waste Land Manuscript

Making the Void Fruitful: W. B. Yeats as Spiritual Seeker and Romantic Poet

Essay & Memoir

 

essay logo 4

Personal Essays, Aphorisms, Memoirs, Speeches, Diaries, Sermons, Science & Nature Writing, Travel Essays, Belles Lettres, Criticism, Philosophy, Craft Essays

.

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

H-I

J-K

L

M

N

O-Q

R

S