The Living Moment: Modernism in a Broken Worldby Jeffrey Hart
In the spirit of Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, and Susan Sontag, the renowned literary critic Jeffrey Hart writes The Living Moment, a close reading of literature as it intersects with the political. Hart’s book is an even-handed guide for anyone toddling into the mists of the modernist moment, effortlessly moving between such modernist monuments as/i>… See more details below
In the spirit of Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, and Susan Sontag, the renowned literary critic Jeffrey Hart writes The Living Moment, a close reading of literature as it intersects with the political. Hart’s book is an even-handed guide for anyone toddling into the mists of the modernist moment, effortlessly moving between such modernist monuments as Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Mann’s Doctor Faustus, and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Hart’s most stunning achievement is his brilliant inclusion of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead as a modernist text, for the way the novel teaches us to see more, to hear more, to feel more. Hart’s dazzling study is an examination of important works of literature as they explore the experience of living in a broken world with thought and sometimes with examples of resolve that possess permanent validity. The Living Moment is for anyone who is wearied by so much of today’s trendy, narrow, and ideologically driven criticism.
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The Living MomentModernism in a Broken World
By Jeffrey Hart
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2012 Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRobert Frost and T. S. Eliot: Modernisms
Literature is news that STAYS news. —Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading
At first the disproportion between Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot seems immense. In relation to Eliot, Frost's reputation suffered from his popularity among readers of the middle range of discernment, a popularity he cultivated through his public persona. Eliot, first famous with The Waste Land, conceded nothing to readers of that middle range, but he was hailed as a champion of modernism and possessed enormous authority among the most discerning. But such differences in reputation are extraneous to the merits of the poetry itself. Together Frost and Eliot constitute polarities of energy that have been intrinsic to American culture; their success in expressing this struggle would not have been possible had they been other than powerful writers.
During the summer of 1912 Robert Frost took a big gamble. If he succeeded in gaining recognition, he would continue to strive as a poet. If he failed, he would quit. He had taught successfully in New Hampshire, published poetry in obscure journals, and now had some assets in the form of his Derry farm, purchased for him by his grandfather, as well as an annuity of $500 from that grandfather's estate. On August 23, 1912, he sold the farm and sailed from Boston with his wife, Elinor, and their young children to England. It would be recognition or defeat.
They rented a cottage in Beaconsfield. Frost spread out his poems on the floor and arranged them in a sequence reflecting the shifting moments of a young man's mind. Completely unknown in England, he submitted those poems over the transom to the publisher David Nutt in London. The manuscript was accepted and appeared as A Boy's Will on April 23, 1913. The American poet, who had been born in San Francisco, who had spent his childhood there, but who was thought accurately to be a quintessentially New England poet, first achieved recognition in London. A year later, on May 14, Nutt published North of Boston, with the publisher Henry Holt in Boston contracting for American rights and henceforth serving as Frost's publisher. Meanwhile Frost circulated among the London literary figures, including Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, and, most important for Frost, Edward Thomas, a literary journalist known both for his accurate perceptions about literature and for being among the earliest readers to understand the special qualities of Pound's poetry. In F. M. Ford's English Review Thomas had considered Pound's Personae (1909), distinguishing it from the melancholy and preciosity of the Edwardians and praising the firsthand intensity of feeling realized in its verse: "He has ... hardly any of the superficial good qualities of modern versifiers.... [He is] full of personality and with such power to express it, that from the first to last lines of most of his poems he holds us steadily in his own pure grave passionate world." Thomas would be an excellent ambassador for Frost to the new literary circles in London, in which Pound was a central figure.
In the three years that remained of Thomas's life, he and Frost became intense literary and personal friends. Thomas, burdened with oppressive self-consciousness, felt emboldened by Frost's determination and proceeded to realize himself as a poet, producing a remarkable number of good poems, clearly influenced by Frost, during the few years before his death at Arras in April 1917. In his study of this friendship, Matthew Spencer titled his book Elected Friends: Robert Frost and Edward Thomas to One Another, alluding to Goethe's Elective Affinities, with its allusion to Calvin's theology of God's "predestined elect." In English periodicals useful to Frost's struggle for recognition, Thomas wrote three reviews of North of Boston. In the London Daily News of July 22, 1914, Thomas began, "This is one of the most revolutionary books of modern times, but one of the quietest and least aggressive." This is felicitous. Frost was a concealed modernist, unlike the theatrical and insurgent Pound. Though a modernist, Frost never appeared in magazines with such titles as Vortex, Blast, or Broom. In the New Weekly of August 8, 1914, Thomas again reviewed North of Boston and also discussed A Boy's Will: "Mr. Frost has in fact gone back, as Whitman and as Wordsworth went back, through the paraphernalia of poetry into poetry once again." He reviewed North of Boston for a third time in the English Review of August 1914: Frost had "refused the 'glory of words,' which is the modern poet's embarrassment. ... Only at the end of the best pieces, such as 'The Death of the Hired Man,' 'Home Burial,' 'The Black Cottage,' and 'The Woodpile,' do we realize that they are masterpieces of deep and mysterious tenderness."
In terms of furthering Frost's nascent career, two reviews by Ezra Pound—famous as an impresario of modernism and possessing an exceptionally acute sense of language—were especially welcome. His review of A Boy's Will appeared in the New Freewoman (London, September 1913) and concentrated on Frost's fresh verisimilitude. Through apt quotation Pound demonstrates, without analysis, the presence of new elements in his verse. Perhaps this omission reflected haste, since that same year in Patria Mia (an important work, written in 1913 but languishing in a publisher's files until 1950 when it was finally published), Pound defined some new, or recovered from the past, elements of style that would characterize Frost. A year later, writing in Harriet Monroe's influential Poetry (December 1914), he showed more attention to Frost's verse in his treatment of North of Boston. Pound's reviews (later collected in his literary essays) were important for Frost as an indication of regard by the leader of the modernist movement. In 1915 Pound virtually forced Harriet Monroe to publish Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in Poetry, though she did not understand the poem.
In Patria Mia Pound depicts the United States as barren of poetic culture and pointedly observes that the renaissance of the arts in Italy had been the work of a relatively small group of like-minded men, no doubt having himself in mind as the leader of such a cohort promoting a new renaissance with modernism as its unifying cause. In Patria Mia Pound also analyzes what he admires in the English language—and what the moment cried out for. This was the best analysis then, and perhaps now, of what Frost was accomplishing in his verse. Pound argues that modernism has "strengthened it [the English language] and given it fibre. And this is hardly more than a race conviction that words scarcely become a man [italics added].... [The] man is the man ready for his deed, eager for it, eager for the glory of it, ready to pay the price. If a man has this quality and be meagre of speech one asks little beyond this." (Pound finds a quality such as this in Whitman, words held close to action: "Camerado, this is no book; / Who touches this touches a man.") Pound continues, "Here is a spirit, one might say, as hostile to the arts as was the Anglo-Saxon objection to speaking at all [italics added].... The strength of both peoples [English and American] is just here; that one undertakes to keep quiet until there is something worth saying." When Edward Thomas enlisted in the British army on July 19, 1915, Frost praised him as "a man of words and deeds, a man of his word, a man." There Frost would have been echoing Patria Mia had that essay been available to him. As Frost wrote to Thomas on November 6, 1916, "Talk is almost too cheap when all your friends are facing bullets. I don't believe I ought to enlist (since I am of course an American), but if I can't enlist, at least I refuse to talk sympathy beyond a certain point." Thomas had used the phrase "a language not to be betrayed" in his poem "I Never Saw That Land Before." Frost wrote a poem conveying this verbal reticence, "On Talk of Peace at This Time":
France. France, I know not what is in my heart.
But God forbid that I should be more brave
As watcher from a quiet place apart
Than you are who are fighting in an open grave....
Not mine to say you shall not think of peace,
Not mine, not mine, I almost know your pain.
Thomas (December 31, 1916), now a second lieutenant, replied with perfect tact that the poem "expresses just those hesitations you or I would have at asking others to act as we think it is their cue to act. Well, I am soon going to know more about it." After this, Frost, valuing silence here, appropriately never published the poem. Thomas was killed on April 9, 1917.
Writing from a wartime perspective, Frost and Thomas were nonetheless emphasizing what Pound had said about all serious writing: that every word must count, that writing must possess integrity, and that there are times when silence is the only form integrity can take. Pound had enjoined, "One undertakes to keep quiet until there is something worth saying." Frost also wrote a very fine poem, "Not to Keep," probably in the spring of 1916, not about Thomas but likely inspired by him, the entire poem working hard to charge the four plain words in its last line with great force. Here, a wounded soldier has come home to his wife to rest and recuperate. "And she could have him," says the letter from the front. His wife inquires, "What was it, dear?" The soldier answers,
Yet not enough. A bullet through and through,
High in the breast. Nothing but what good care
And medicine and rest, and you a week,
Can cure me of to go again." The same
Grim giving to do over for them both.
She dared no more than ask him with her eyes
How was it with him for a second trial.
And with his eyes he asked her not to ask.
They had given him back to her, but not to keep.
Here words disappear into complete silence, and not only for "a man" but for a woman as well. Only silence could speak under pressure from emotion so powerful. The poem works effectively for those last four words, words indeed of wide human application. "Not to Keep" appeared in the Yale Review (January 1917) and was reprinted in New Hampshire (1923). That volume would be a central document in Frost's poetic battle against T. S. Eliot, whose Waste Land appeared both in England and America in 1922 and now held aloft the banner of modernism.
Eliot, in his Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry (1917), had shown through his close analysis of Pound's early verse how specific his high estimate of his craftsmanship could be. Until the publication in 1971 of a facsimile draft of The Waste Land typescript showing Pound's deletions and corrections, we did not realize the extent of his role. Pound cut a fifty-four-line passage of dialogue at the beginning, made other cuts, tightened the poem overall—made its reader work harder between passages—and in total effect intensified its modernism. Pound was more than an editor here—but not quite a coauthor. When we become aware of Pound's large role in shaping The Waste Land, we are not surprised that Eliot dedicated it "For Ezra Pound il miglior fabbro [the better craftsman]." This repeated the compliment Dante bestows upon Arnaut Daniel in Purgatorio (canto xxvi), judging him superior to all his rival Provençal poets. In later correspondence, Eliot characterized the original Waste Land as "a sprawling, chaotic poem," which Pound "reduced to almost half its size."
The Waste Land begins with half a metaphor:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Arresting, especially the rhyming gerunds trying to move the resisting nouns, but where is the rest of the metaphor? What does it all mean? Those are the wrong questions. The meaning of these four lines, conveyed by the language, the poem's distinctive idiom, partly issues from its voice—or voices. The Waste Land begins with a mysterious voice, that of a shaman, perhaps, or a witch doctor, with the noise of drums beating in the jungle. James M. Cox has made a useful distinction in declaring that Eliot's poetry has "the sense of sound" while Frost's has the "sound of sense." Frost himself used the latter phrase to characterize his poetry.
The Waste Land made an immediate impact, receiving forty-six reviews in the United States and England, about equally divided between approval and condemnation. Alert readers sensed its power even as they were bewildered. In November 1922 the poet John Peale Bishop wrote to his friend Edmund Wilson, "I have read The Waste Land about five times a day since the copy of the Criterion came into my hands. It is immense, magnificent, terrible." Burton Rascoe called it "perhaps the finest poem of this generation," a poem of "sheer verbal loveliness, enough ecstasy, enough psychological verisimilitude, and enough even of a readily understandable etching of modern life, to justify Mr. Eliot in his idiosyncrasies." William Carlos Williams felt that The Waste Land had blown away what he was trying to do in verse, recalling in his Autobiography that it "wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it and our brave sallies into the unknown were turned to dust.... I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years." So commanding a presence did the poem soon become that if a reader dismissed it as unintelligible, such a reader committed cultural suicide and disappeared from serious discussion of poetry.
Mystery is integral to one reach of Eliot's meaning. Against Eliot's powerful and immensely influential Waste Land, Frost saw that he had to defend a poetic clearing in which his own poetry and its sound of sense could live, his own brand of modernism, quieter and less aggressive certainly than the spectacular Waste Land. The method of Frost's poetry differed widely from Eliot's. Fundamentally skeptical, Frost was wary of metaphor and needed to be persuaded of identities between disparate things; he used lyrics to test experience when he ventured a metaphor, testing even, or especially, contradictory experience. Metaphor had to be earned against the pressure of skepticism. Eliot placed metaphor at the center of his poetic world and arranged the entire sequence of his poems along the line of The Divine Comedy, the great traditional drama of damnation and salvation. His use of Dante was an example of the "mythic method" that Joyce, Pound, Yeats, Stravinsky, Picasso, and even Freud undertook. The Waste Land refers to myth and legend, even Sanskrit, as echoes of a vanished mind—of which the modern mind is a shrunken continuation. Frost hinted at myth sometimes but drew back when skepticism's breath touched the poem.
The cacophony of voices in The Waste Land, written in an extraordinary variety of rhythms, dramatizes the tormenting loudness and dissonance that direct the reader toward the longed-for divine silence. Eliot arrived in London in September 1914 to the confusion of sounds in the imperial metropolis and was terribly dismayed. This letter to his aunt may prefigure The Waste Land:
The noise hereabouts is like hell turned upside down. Hot weather, all windows open, many babies, pianos, street piano accordions, singers, hummers, whistlers. Every house has a gong: they all go off at seven o'clock, and other hours. Ten o'clock in the evening, quiet for a few minutes, then a couple of men with late editions burst into the street, roaring: GREAT GERMAN DISASTER! Everybody rushes to windows and doors, in every costume from evening clothes to pajamas; violent talking—English, American, French, Flemish, Russian, Spanish, Japanese; the papers are all sold in five minutes; then we settle down for another hour till the next extra appears: LIST OF ENGLISH DEAD AND WOUNDED. Meanwhile, a dreadful old woman, her skirt trailing on the street, sings "the Rosary" in front, and secures several pennies from windows and the housemaid resumes her conversation at the area gate.
Eliot adds that the noise becomes "attached to the city": "I find it quite possible to work in this atmosphere. The noises of a city so large as London don't distract one much; they become attached to the city and depersonalise themselves." In The Waste Land we again hear the voices and cacophonous sounds as they become the Unreal City.
Frost's voice is very far from that of shaman or witch doctor: instead it is the voice of rural New England, albeit a highly educated voice, skeptical, individualistic, testing all claims against a resistant, even unyielding actuality. Myth may appear in this rocky soil but hesitantly, against the strength of fact. The distinctive voice Frost evolved used an iambic meter modified by the rhythms of colloquial speech distributed in natural word order. This produced lines close to prose but nudged into verse by the latent iambics. As Frost put it, he sought to "get cadences by ... breaking the sounds of sense with all their irregularity of accent across the regular beat of the meter." Here we have one aspect of Frost's modernism, his use of the vernacular in this way, though with slang filtered out. He was alert to tonalities, simple words such as yes or no through tone meaning different things. He also sought to speak with indirection in a poem, telling the truth "slantwise," as he put it, no doubt to make the poem represent for the reader the process of seeking the meaning, or, to put it another way, making the reader work for the truth. In this kind of difficulty he demanded effort of his readers, as Eliot did, the required effort not so easily grasped at first. Frost, as much as Pound or Eliot, considered his procedures revolutionary: to his friend Hyde Cox, Frost writes from England that "the book [North of Boston] is epoch-making. I don't ask anyone to say so. All I ask now is to be allowed to live."
Excerpted from The Living Moment by Jeffrey Hart Copyright © 2012 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jeffrey Hart is a cultural critic, professor emeritus of English at Dartmouth College, essayist, and columnist who lives in New Hampshire, United States.
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