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The two general essays that frame Skeptical Music make ...
The two general essays that frame Skeptical Music make Bromwich's aesthetic commitments clear. In "An Art without Importance," published here for the first time, Bromwich underscores the trust between author and reader that gives language its subtlety and depth, and makes the written word adequate to the reality that poetry captures. For Bromwich, understanding the work of a poet is like getting to know a person; it is a kind of reading that involves a mutual attraction of temperaments. The controversial final essay, "How Moral Is Taste?," explores the points at which aesthetic and moral considerations uneasily converge. In this timely essay, Bromwich argues that the wish for excitement that poetry draws upon is at once primitive and irreducible.
Skeptical Music most notably offers incomparable readings of individual poets. An essay on the complex relationship between Hart Crane and T. S. Eliot shows how the delicate shifts of tone and shading in their work register both affinity and resistance. A revealing look at W. H. Auden traces the process by which the voice of a generation changed from prophet to domestic ironist. Whether discussing heroism in the poetry of Wallace Stevens, considering self-reflection in the poems of Elizabeth Bishop, or exploring the battle between the self and its images in the work of John Ashbery, Skeptical Music will make readers think again about what poetry is, and even more important, why it still matters.
How many poems he denied himselfBut why should a modern artist choose to associate his art with an ascetic self-denial? Stevens replies with another question:
In his observant progress, lesser things
Than the relentless contact he desired.
What was the purpose of his pilgrimage,As admirers, we may grant the radical value of the modernist formalization of experience; grant an origin of the movement close to the unprecedented catastrophe of the First World War; grant that it was the aesthetic counterpart of political idealisms not less single-minded. There remains a problem with all the historical accounts, and the problem is that they are historical. They look on modernism as a completed project now entirely submerged in a distant past.
Whatever shape it took in Crispin's mind,
If not, when all is said, to drive away
The shadow of his fellows from the skies,
And, from their stale intelligence released,
To make a new intelligence prevail?
Out of the wood of thoughts that grows by night
To be cut down by the sharp axe of light,--
Out of the night, two cocks together crow,
Cleaving the darkness with a silver blow:
And bright before my eyes twin trumpeters stand,
Heralds of splendour, one at either hand,
Each facing each as in a coat of arms:
The milkers lace their boots up at the farms.
The darkness crumbles away.Here again the action is simple, though it holds an irony in reserve: the man who speaks the poem in a language of affectionate mockery has been startled when the rat jumped over his hand. A soldier, exposed to the limits of bodily suffering, he is afraid briefly from a trivial cause. A sharper reversal of expectation is held for the end of the poem: the rat looks in the soldier's eyes and is imagined to see the truth of an expression known to soldiers. "What do you see in our eyes . . . What quaver--what heart aghast?" The difficult and suggestive phrase "druid Time" must mean that the war makes earth a scene of human sacrifice. From this continuous disaster, the poet extracts the humblest of tokens, a poppy--related by myth to the blood of men, but also, in these fields of France, growing out of a soil that is watered by men's blood. The two final couplets mark a contrast: "Poppies whose roots are in man's veins / Drop, and are ever dropping" (hieratic, declamatory)--and then the comfort (oddly domestic) of "But mine in my ear is safe-- / Just a little white with the dust." The soldier is satisfied to know that the poppy is safe behind his ear, as if it were lucky and he made it so. At the same time, the words "Just a little white with the dust" are also a reminder of death. One comes to feel that the writer has faced his predicament with a courage entirely informed by terror of his probable end. He has then turned away from that impression, back to the scene where he lives with the war and his companions in it. As much as Edward Thomas's poem, this one avoids a dramatic climax, or any moral to capitalize the significance of the incident.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps in my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet's poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver--what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man's veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe--
Just a little white with the dust.
I balanced all, brought all to mind,The speaker and subject is Major Robert Gregory, the son of the poet's patron, whom Yeats in a full-length elegy would describe as "Our Sidney and our perfect man." But this shorter poem, with its pretense of restraint, still glorifies the same martial virtue as the elegy. A death so clearly foreseen must have been selfless, but it was also, Yeats implies, an act of admirable indulgence. The poem celebrates the aristocratic blood of a man who was a lover of heights, of risk in all its seductive kinds, and he remains at his end a conscious and properly dramatic hero. Instinct drove him to choose this way of death: in a cool hour, he approved of his own gesture, which he knew to be sufficiently arbitrary. We are asked only to share his approval. For Yeats, the airman's death makes above all a satisfying aesthetic image. Life and death are joined as a painter may measure a stroke of a brush, by the work of the discriminating eye. "I balanced all, brought all to mind."
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
Excerpted from Skeptical Music: Essays on Modern Poetry by David Bromwich Copyright © 2001 by David Bromwich. Excerpted by permission.
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