Friday, June 15, 2007

You think _that's_ bad criticism? Watch me blather!

My first full week of generals reading has been about 55-60% satisfying. I started with Swinburne, but his early 20th cen. critics were kind enough to allegorize for me why I shouldn't have started with him. I suppose it was a chronological choice, and his poems came first from Amazon. Anyhow, here's Eliot on "Swinburne as Poet":
"It is a question of some nicety to decide how much must be read of any particular poet. And it is not a question merely of the size of the poet. There are some poets whose every line has unique value. There are others who can be taken by a few poems universally agreed upon..."
And so on. Exactly! It seems uncanny that this should have been the first thing I read as I sat down to the generals banquet. Which is why, after three days reading the charming diffuseness of Swinburne's 1866 Poems and Ballads, I put him aside in favor of a reboot, such that i'm now knee deep in the Harlem Renaissance. It's better this way.

But that's not to say that Swinburne didn't leave his mark, and I'll certainly be back. What strikes me in the passage on Rosetti that Evan quoted is the "imperial array and ornament of this august poetry," since "imperial" rings an occasional and fascinating note in Swinburne's own verse. In "Faustine," e.g., where the title vamp (and all of Swinburne's dark Venuses are direct models for Pater's Gioconda, a prose stylist in this line, if slightly more reined in) was once steeped in the bloody arena of gladatorial combat; but now "Where are the imperial years? and how/ Are you Faustine?" (lines 87-8). I also think of the unredeemable exotic that appears in "Laus Veneris" at lines 354-6:
"Father, though the Lord's blood be right sweet,
The spot it takes not off the panther's skin,
Nor shall an Ethiop's stain be bleached with it."
So while the poetry is imperial in the general Roman grand guignol extravagance of it all, and in the typical gesture of effusion to near collapse, it is not "august" or "Augustan" in the typical sense of refinement and high imperial stateliness (someone can argue against that real easy I imagine. go for it. i might do so in what i write next, this is sorta off the top of my head.)

Rather I'm drawn to Hardy's description in his elegy for Swinburne, "A singer Asleep," that Swin. dropped
"In fulth of numbers freaked with musical closes,
Upon Victoria's formal middle time
His leaves of rhythm and rhyme."
And to the sense that his fullness is, as the overwrought passage on a like-minded contemporary suggests, "almost a parody of the Athenian." That quotation is Eliot again, same essay -- an essay glorious in its backhanded compliment. Swinburne is interesting for how he seems to be the one poet from this period who is okay to let half-way into the pantheon, for such authors as Eliot and Pound, though he certainly can't cut mustard as a critic. (So much of the inclusion coming from the fact that he is the first real popularizer of Baudelaire in English, and thus both Eliot's primary forebear as well as his chief antagonist in claiming B's influence for any kind of aesthetic break.)

Eliot suggests that, in his essays, Swin. should've "analyzed and dissected" the verse he instead fawned over at exceptional length. But this isn't Swin's mode of corporeal thought whatsoever. Poems don't have organs to dissect, and bodies in his poems just have a bunch of hearts (much in the way cows have four stomachs). All his parts are interchangable -- a crit. drawn by Eliot, Pound and A.E. Housman alike, who all correctly guess that you could read the stanzas of, say, "Dolores" out of order and it would make an almost identical sense.

When he is forced to examine the "animacules and infusoria" of his own verse, in his reply to the harsh critics of Poems and Ballads ("Notes on Poems and Reviews," 1866), Swinburne generally re-emotes on the themes of his poems and, in a sense, continues them even further. He cannot treat the "gigantic malade imaginaire called the public." But Eliot, as if DSM in hand, diagnoses Swinburne instead of his society:
"The morbidity is not of human feeling but of language. Language in a healthy state presents the object, is so close to the object that the two are identified. They are identified in the verse of Swinburne solely because the object has ceased to exist, because the meaning is merely the hallucination of meaning, because language, uprooted, has adapted itself to an independent life of atmospheric nourishment." (149)
Downright postmodern free play of the signifier here, and the unrootedness allows a recourse to the "impersonality" that Eliot values but also routes the option that is offered as the highest praise of Rossetti: "fellow-feeling". (I may do some more reading on Swinburne's republicanism when i come back to him.)

For Swinburne then, this soupy morass of laudation is GREAT criticism; and it's a token of how deeply we still exist in New Critical matrices, descending from Eliot, that this prose sounds so purple (well, and cause it is purple). The prose dances down the same mise en abyme that I think defines so much of his aesthetic: think of that wonderful image with which he more-or-less starts the book:
"Forth, ballad, and take roses in both arms,
Even till the top rose touch thee in the throat
Where the least thornprick harms" ("A Ballad of Life" lines 71-3).
That is, sing of roses until they stab the very organs of song. Make your love immortal in Sapphic immitation (in translation deliberately "diluted and dilated" accd to "Notes," because Sappho's glories "could not be reproduced in the body"), only to have that immortality suffer you for an eternity, an eternity of singing about the love object, making it more eternal somehow, more eternal suffering, etcetera. But Jerome McGann's nutty and fun book Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism takes up just this sort of "impressionistic" criticism and declares it untouchable, or not usefully touched, by the picking-apart at which we are so adept.

"The analysis of poetic structures," he writes (in the voice of one "Coulson Kernahan"), "is one way (hardly the best way) of reminding ourselves that poems abide by law, however much our own chaos may drive us to forget this fact" (11). I guess if i had to draw a question out of this whole mess i've just written, it would be something about what laws Swinburne is operating outside of, if that is at all what McGann might be suggesting. "The purpose of poetry is to create an image of life, a 'virtual life'" writes another of McGann's personae (the book is a conversation in six voices, all 19th cen. writers about Swinburne). How far is this from Eliot's contention that "the world of Swinburne does not depend on some other world which it simulates"? I'm interested in the toggle between immerision and decoration as modes in the virtual saturnalias of Swin.'s verse.

It's quite damn late -- does any of that make sense? Bit of a blah-blah. See you for lunch tomorrow evan. Paul Laurence Dunbar is amaaaaaaaaazing.