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Critical Review by Robert Daniel
SOURCE: A review of Modern Poetry and the Tradition, in Sewanee Review, Vol. 48, 1940, pp. 419-24.
In the following review, Daniel explains Brooks's theory of the evolution of poetic style.
In keeping with the critical principles that underlie Understanding Poetry, Cleanth Brooks makes in Modern Poetry and the Tradition a clear statement of the fundamental similarities between modernist verse and the metaphysical verse of the seventeenth century. "Modern poetry" means of course the work of Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Tate, and the others who have participated in the revolution that commenced about 1912 with the change in Yeats's style and the emergence of Pound—a revolution, Brooks maintains, comparable in importance to that which began in 1798 with the publication of the Lyrical Ballads.
The need for a new definition of metaphysical poetry has become apparent in the loose and conflicting usages of the term in much recent criticism, and in the application of it to modern poetry by such critics as John Crowe Ransom. Brooks's description of the metaphysical mode is exhaustive. Taking up one of the stock definitions, "the poetry of wit", he shows how it fits the work of Donne and his fellows on two levels. Wit in its present sense operates not only in the minor poetry of the time but in that of Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton—as is shown by their common fondness for puns, playful comparisons, and satirical thrusts. Wit in its older meaning of intellectual power presides over what all these poets wrote, developing and controlling the emotion. It led the metaphysical poet to regard his subject from all points of view, and thus to render an account of experience as complex as life itself. Hence Brooks derives a definition of wit as "a lively awareness of the fact that the obvious attitude toward a given situation is not the only possible attitude." The tone that wit produces in the poem Brooks call irony, meaning by it the total attitude resulting from a combination of the approbative and satirical attitudes—that is, by a mature mind fully commanding the situation and exploiting every aspect of it. Its presence accounts for the frequent occurrence of paradox in this poetry, and its habitual absence from the poetry of the next two centuries is the essential distinction between the two.
Because the intellect and not the emotions was sovereign in the writing of metaphysical verse, it recognized no class of words and objects as inherently "poetical". A thing was poetical only as it was successfully employed in a poem, and the poet was free to choose his subjects and his metaphors from the whole of life. At the same time, the metaphors were employed functionally rather than decoratively, for the figures cannot be removed from a metaphysical poem without demolishing it. "The comparison is the poem in a structural sense."
The different texture of the verse typical of the next two centuries resulted from the new conception of metaphor as an illustrative or decorative accessory, a point upon which both Samuel Johnson and A. E. Housman, writing as critics, are in complete agreement. These timid metaphors, which degenerate so readily into similes, may be removed without destroying the theme of the poem. It simply becomes less clear or less "beautiful". The fluid state in which such a poem exists is its radical difference from a metaphysical poem. From what seems to have been the older view of a poem as an object having a valid existence of its own, poets and critics turned to the notion that a poem was a statement intended to change the reader in some way. "… the test of the statement's value [was] its truth; and the success of the poet, his success as an expositor." The imagery and metrics were to be pleasant in themselves, apart from what was being said, and their only connection with what was being said was to make it more palatable.
The reason for the change was the dominant position that rationalism and the new science assumed at this time under the leadership of Hobbes. Hobbes, who was so suspicious of metaphor that he excluded it entirely from prose, allowed it a place in poetry "only for pleasure or ornament". Poetry was believed to be, like science, a search for demonstrable truth. "For the imaginative act of fusing what in ordinary experience is inharmonious, the Hobbesian poet tended to substitute the rational act of sorting out the discordant and removing it from the context." A spirit of levity and paradox would impede the search for scientific truth, and since metaphor's only function was to make the demonstrated truth more agreeable, naturally the poet was not allowed to employ disagreeable words and images. "The first critical revolution in modern English poetry, then, may be described as a simplification of poetry." The poet sacrificed the totality of his vision: serious poetry had to be exclusively serious in tone, and satire was relegated to a secondary place. Abstractions and generalizations resembling those of science replaced the vivid particularity of Shakespeare and Donne.
The advent of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and their followers, Brooks maintains, produced only a demi-revolution; and the halfheartedness of their revolt from the eighteenth-century notions may be seen in a variety of ways. In the highest poetry, they supposed, materials that were technical, sharply realistic, and definite were to be avoided. The notion persisted of a limited class of objects that were intrinsically poetical, though the limits were extended and the objects changed. Simplicity was still preferred to complexity; and wit with its flashing conflict of attitudes was thought to be out of place. Either poets continued to kowtow to science and serve its ends or with "romantic irony" they wholly rejected its view of the world. In either case they failed to recapture the attitude that poetry is not in competition with science but complements it by offering a kind of knowledge that science does not know.
It is evident that on these disputed points the practice of the modernists is that of the metaphysicals. Wit, intellectual activity, and totality of vision, the inclusion of words and images of all kinds, the use of metaphor functionally rather than decoratively, the "reconciliation of warring elements", and the conception of poetry as a form of knowledge—all these characterize the work of Yeats and the rest. The obscurity of the moderns is of the same kind as that of Donne's verse and many of Shakespeare's Sonnets: it results from the poet's being once more a "maker" rather than an expositor, so that the experience his poem creates must inevitably contain something new and individual—that is, at least partially private. Brooks remarks that no-one blames Wordsworth for employing a leech-gatherer as the symbol for resolution and independence; yet it is a symbol at least somewhat private and obscure. Significantly enough, readers find obscurity not only in Donne on the one hand and Yeats on the other but also in the three intervening poets whose work (for example, in its untrammeled use of symbols) most resembles theirs: Blake, Emily Dickinson, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Here the affinity between symbolists and metaphysical poetry becomes apparent—an affinity, Brooks shows, that caused the influence of French symbolists like Laforgue and Corbière to lead Eliot and the rest back to the principles underlying the metaphysical lyric.
Brooks's view of English literary history finds its firmest support in the chapter, "A Note on the Death of Elizabethan Tragedy"; and it is here that he shows himself most original and independent. The thesis is that tragedy fell a victim to the process that had changed the course of lyric poetry. The complexity of Shakespeare was replaced by the simplicity of Dryden, or else Shakespeare's plays themselves were simplified when they were revived. Like the Greek protagonist with his tragic flaw, the Elizabethan hero was hero and criminal at once; and from this ambiguity, together with the irony that the subject-matter was potentially comic if differently treated, there resulted the equilibrium, the tension, of great tragedy. After the Restoration, however, the subplot was condemned (though not even the neo-classicists could regard Lear's Fool as "affording comic relief"), and the result was such an abstraction that, as Empson remarks, "one might almost say that the English drama did not outlive the double plot." Tragedy had come to envy science its ability to give answers; in order to do so the characters were simplified and made two-dimensional, that the audience might have a single attitude towards them, and the action became predictable and contrived. Comedy survived for a time because it allows of a single attitude; but it is significant that the most complex of Restoration comedies, The Way of the World, failed on the stage, and that Congreve retired from playwriting when he had scarcely reached his prime.
The novelty of this chapter indicates how the thesis of Modern Poetry and the Tradition has necessitated a revaluation of literary history, and in fact the last chapter is called, "Notes for a Revised History of English Poetry." In it Brooks makes plain his belief that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poets wrote more alike than is commonly supposed, and that the work of Yeats and the rest is directly in the tradition of Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton. In this way Brooks shifts the burden of the proof from the modern poets to their assailants. The unity of the book results from the fact that the tradition is restated so as to include modern poetry, and thus the author fulfills his twin purposes of revaluating the work of the past and justifying that of the present; but it is to be regretted that he did not push on to particular analyses of non-metaphysical poems, to show how they are different and, as he believes, inferior. Even so, the importance of Modern Poetry and the Tradition in its aim can scarcely be overstated; and in the opinion of this reviewer the fulfillment of its aim is completely successful.
As Brooks himself acknowledges, his debt to such critics as Empson, Eliot, and Ransom is a large one; but by this means his book achieves a drawing-together and clarification of the principles basic to these most unsystematic and often puzzling writers. For example, the title of Allen Tate's book, Reactionary Essays is accounted for by Brooks's contention that Tate and the rest have not uprooted the tradition of English verse but rather have reacted from its perversion to an earlier age when it was in a state of health. Modern Poetry and the Tradition is particularly valuable for its illuminating analyses of The Waste Land, Yeats's mythology, and the verse of Ransom, Warren, Tate, MacLeish, Auden, and Frost (whose inclusion as a modern poet may surprise the dedicatee), so that the general comments on these poets are confirmed by detailed examinations of their achievements.
This book, it has been remarked, is not a manifesto of the kind that appears at the outset of a revolution. It is a work of elucidation the time for which arrives when the revolution is a fait accompli. For this reason readers familiar with Empson and the others will find much in it that is not new. It is, however, the most consistent and intelligible, statement of their position that has been made, and indeed it is not primarily addressed to the friends of modernist poetry.
This section contains 1,885 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)