Sunday, February 07, 2010

Cleanth Brooks, Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth-Century Poetry

Cleanth Brooks, Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth-Century Poetry, University of Missouri Press, Columbus, 1991.

Andrew Marvell…is ‘minor’ only in that he attempted no major work.(2)

Though I am here principally interested in literary criticism, I want at the outset to stress my own belief in the importance of biographical-historical information for the elucidation of a literary document. On occasion, such information may indeed provide the only way for arriving at the meaning” (2) … We must remember, however, that such information as the biographer or historian can provide cannot in itself determine literary value. Often it cannot even fully determine meaning. (1)

…the difficulty required to find a solution is not necessarily a measure of its importance—historical or literary. Poor literary work, I repeat, may be as difficult to interpret as good. In fact, as T. S. Eliot wrote long ago, communicate before they are fully understood. (6)

“To His Coy Mistress” and “The Garden” are remarkable poems, but it is not remarkable that one and the same poet could write them. They do reflect, to be sure, differing views of time and eternity, but they have much in common in the ideas they touch upon. In any case, they are not declarations of faith but presentations of two differing world views, dramatizations made by a poet who, though suffused with the Christian concept of reality and the ethic it implies, also knew his classics well and had evidently read them with sympathy. /
Like a great many men of his era, Marvell was concerned to incorporate into the Christian scheme as much as possible of the classical insights and wisdom. But, when he chose, he could also treat with understanding and at least dramatic sympathy the great classical literary forms, not only as frames of reference, but as representing time-honored classical attitudes toward life and death. He makes such a presentation in “To His Coy Mistress.” But as I have suggested earlier, it may be possible to find even in this pagan-classical poem a trace of Christian and even Puritan feeling, particularly in the references to death. After all, Marvell has not lived in the happy pagan time in which, as Theophile Gautier conceived it, the skeleton was kept invisible. Like John Webster, Marvell “saw the skull beneath the skin.” (107)

To sum up, on the evidence of the two poems we have been comparing, Marvell was not a man who was unable to make up his mind or a waverer between commitments or a trimmer. A comparison of the poems tells quite another story: it reveals the presence of fair-mindedness, awareness of alternatives, and sensitivity to the complexity of the issues involved. (108)

Such letters might very well enhance for us the meaning of the poem as a personal document of Lovelace’s life. But if we may thus enhance a poem at will by importing into it all sorts of associations and meaning, then we can theoretically turn an obscure poem into a clear poem—and a poor poem into a good poem. …But only the unwary would take the triggering of such an emotional response [as learning demographic details about the character in a pathetic little poem] as proof of the value of the poem. In the hypothetical case just cited, the response comes from the poem not as poem but as personal document. What references and allusions are legitimate parts of a poem and what are merely associations? The distinction is not always obvious, and I do not care to try to fix here a doctrinaire limitation. But I think that we shall have to agree that some limits must exist. [Postscript 1990, “The foregoing essay was delivered on 23 April 1959 as a lecture to a special seminar arranged by the poet Stanley Burnshaw. It was not published, however, until 1962] (115)


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