blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

Laura (Riding) Jackson's Early Criticism

Laura Riding Gottschalk
"A Prophecy or a Plea"

 The most moving and at once distressing event in the life of a human being is his discovery that he is alive. From that moment to his death the fact of life is a constant white glare over him, an unsetting and shadowless sun. For darkness, for repose, for a quiet examination of the conditions of existence, for the experience of appreciation and pleasure, it is found necessary to close the eyes, to create an interior where life is a dim infiltration through the heavy curtains of the flesh into this dark room of the soul and where, so seen, through eyes reopened in a more endurable light, it appears lovely, describable. Art has become an evocation of the shadows

What has happened? We have been blinded by life so we turn out senses inward, against it; and the utterance of relief is made in pride, the cry of cowardice becomes the authentic act of art. The tradition of art, of poetry especially, as a catharsis has so thoroughly legitimized this process that it is almost impossible to attack it. It is not a question of proving another method more legitimate. There is no other method. For if the matter be examined more closely it will be seen that the quarrel must be made not with the way we write but with the way we live. For art is the way we live, while aesthetics, in divorcing art from life, sets the seal of approval upon the philosophy of escape. We live life by avoiding it. Art then as the strategy of this philosophy is no more than an inversion, and, as an inversion, is barren. It is not, as it should be, the conduct of life itself, but merely an abnormality of conduct.

Life, then, may be an experience in which we are the passive objects of a force to which our nature offers no resistance, but transmits the shock of impact to the functions of poetry. In this definition man is but a stream of passage between the source that is life and the outlet that is poetry. The climate of this stream, its slight waves and winds and temporary havens constitute the notion of beauty. The artist of this mood sees it not as an inexhaustible infinity of the source whose entirety he is able to reconstruct from his partial vision of it or as the ultimate mold of the mysterious vessel into which life flows. The quality of beauty is rather an accidental, a peculiar flavor of the poet's own soul, an isolated phenomenon, the taste of a wine rather than very pulse of running blood. The taste may be whatever pleases the whim of the moment. There is no eternal form, no ideal. Something vague as a flood pours in upon the being, something in excess of it that becomes unbearable until poetry or another muse, like an old phlebotomist performs the operation that lets the magic or the accursed fluid out. It is this attitude toward life that has inspired almost every poet who has suffered or rejoiced in living and cried out in art. To the poet of classical tradition art is the measure of self-control against the violence of existence. To the old romanticist (I mean to speak of another) it is the flourish of escape from one impossible world into another. Does the modern realist do better? The test of his art is the quantity of life compressed in his work. The expressionist lives in a realm that is neither art nor life but a limbo that borrows from both and belongs to neither. The impressionist achieves an unhappy blur of art and life in which he himself is obscured. But the differences between all these lie in no fundamental quarrel of values but in personal eccentricities of method. For all the role of art is medicinal. For the poets of the classical mood it is a strong cathartic that keeps them free of malaise and dyspepsia and wraps them in an urbane Horatian peace; for the Elizabethans, a pretty pastoral constitutional; for all the romanticists, a drug--a stimulant for Byron, a delicious dose of laudanum for Shelley (even such as Baudelaire bought their cocaine at the same shop); a soothing syrup for the Victorians; a tonic for the realists; a heady wine for the impressionists; a profound emetic for the expressionists. In this strange company--the earnest Theocritus, the author of the unhappy and magical Pervigilium Veneris, the divine Dante, the seraphic Keats, the slobbering Swinburne, even the modern female lyricists who squeal with dainty passion under the fine pin-pricks of life--the poetic tradition accomplishes the vitiation of life in art. The pressure of life is unbearable and the poet in this hazard does not hurl himself against it but finds a safety-valve in song; and existence, that art should have spiritualized, becomes despiritualized in art.

Now I am insisting that the pressure is a challenge not to a retreat into the  penumbra of introspection but to the birth of a new poetic bravery that shall exchange insight for outsight and envisage life not as art an influence upon the soul but the soul as an in­fluence upon life.  The age of creation that was initiated by the Renaissance extends to-day to the physical aspects of life alone.  For the rest we might as well be living in the Middle Ages.  Our minds, compared to the noisy world inhabited by the flesh, are re­cesses of cathedral quiet.  Living is the inspiration, art is the expiration. As such it is critical rather than creative, a criticism of life rather than a recreation of it.  Even so radical a poet as T. S. Eliot becomes, as a critic, thoughtfully traditional.  Of two artists, he says, the one who is the better critic is likely to be the better artist.  In other words, life takes precedence over art which is, as of old, the recollection in tranquility.   But it is now life it­self that discredits the order by leaving art so far behind that both have become meaningless. Mechanics outrun metaphysics. Do not Philistines lead the race? Do they say to the poets: "You have lagged behind, lost contact with life, grown irrelevant and ob­scure?"  The difficulty is to be settled not by trying to write poetry that the Philistines can understand but by outdistancing them in the very race they have set.  For while poets have been the parasites of the spiritual world they were born to, sucking up old essences, these others have suffused the physical world with the breath of creation, they have turned visions into actualities. The artist too much turn producer: and his visions must be begotten not of the darkness that lies behind closed eyes but in the steady light of a life he not only confronts but, because he enters upon it forti­fied by personal faith alone, even creates. He will not recollect life, so that his art would seem touched with the past, but life will proceed from him as from a champion: He will be something of the warrior, something of the prophet. Shelley indeed had this sense of initiation, but Shelley's romanticism has the quality of departure, it escapes with its victories to hypothetical heavens and so is ineffectual on earth. Francis Thompson had it better than he, with a clearer sight, a more happily crystalized faith. In his own terms he certainly succeeded, certainly realized life through art, made his soul the agent of perfection in an imperfect life:

Lo, here stand I and Nature, gaze to gaze,
And I the greater!

The source of his faith we need not accept or reject. The real source was Francis Thompson. It does not matter what the source of Francis Thompson was. We need only see the indentity of faith and the spirit of his art in him as a first cause from which life followed as an emanation, in Francis Thompson almost as a radiation,   to which he gave meaning, truth, and, because his vision was complete, an organic beauty. Other more modern poets will be moved by other truths, other ideals. Perhaps the differences will be even more than nominal. But if they are to succeed, their constitution must contain some of the elements that went to make up Francis Thompson--the magic at the start (non murato, ma veramente nato) the power of wonder that begets wonder, and miracle, and prophecy. They will be egoists and romanticists all, but romantics with the courage of realism: they will put their hands upon the mysterious contour of life not to force meaning out of it, since unrelated to them it must be essentially meaningless to them, but press meaning upon it, outstare the stony countenance of it, make it flush with their own colors. It is impossible to foretell who the gods of this vigorous idealism are going to be. Probably, because these are going to be intensely human times, there will be no gods, but men and women possessed of a passion they can communicate to life. There will be not only a new romanticism but, because faith grows more personal, a new romance. There will be lovers, a little less worldliness, perhaps, and, if we can believe in one another--and what else will there be left to believe in by then?--love. There will be fewer poems written, less of "art", more of artists. The poet will cease talking in sophisticated half-tones to himself not so much because his oracles have become less esoteric as that men and women shall come to understand through the little poetry in them that without him life would be without significance. If he has been obscure in the past, if his art has had no bearing on life, the fault is not entirely his own. If he shrank from life it was because life could be a weapon in the hands of other human beings less sensitive than he and repulse him by its brutality into the fortresses of contemplation. It is the part of the plain man, then, to call upon his portion of idealism to convert the world into a more accessible place, kindlier, less terrible. There must be poets of peace, poets of politics before the poet proper can be seen not as a troubadour but as a teacher. In the meantime a few brave singers will go on singing quand meme.

And they will sing more largely as they proceed, more naively as they conquer complexities by admitting them with simplicity. They will have the souls of children and the sense of men. Whitman more than any other was one of these. There do not seem to be others in these times. Foreign poets are either grotesquely up-to-date or out-of-date; they lack that final timeliness, that quality of self-possession that inspires at least the better English and American poets. But these nevertheless are still worshipping that old god, Experience: it is all there somewhere in life, the truth, you must only let life flow over you, inundate you, and it will leave behind with you the fine sediment of proper feeling. Here is the apotheosis of inertia. You are clay, life is a potter, it is very wonderful. You are like this, like that, you are swept here and there you are dead. And it is all very moving, all very wonderful. A body of poetry is inspired, thrilling, lyrical, sentimental, cynical and helpless all of it, the poetry of effect. But who has ever learned anything from experience? We get nothing from it, we give everything to it. Development comes through self-exercise, not through being hammered upon. To these poets, however, life is looked upon as an absolute wealth into which one has only to plunge One's thumb to pull out a plum, not as a pudding we must not only make but even gather plums for. So Sandburg does not possess life, life possesses him, croons to him as to a child. The English poets, perfect and polite, are still busy saying the right thing. Even Masefield is mastered by his sea, he does not master it. Housman cries "Love!" and "Death!" from quiet English pastures. Edna St. Vincent Millay echoes prettily "Love!" and "Death!" across the Atlantic. The New Englanders talk and talk wisely. T. S. Eliot and his imitators endeavor to show how their chastity and ennui remain intact through all their orgies of intellectual debauchery. But to all of these life is an unquestionable first premise of which all their wisdom is a deduction.

But the function of the poet, of the poetic mind, is inductive rather than deductive. Life needs proving in poetry as well as in science. Philosophy is but a compromise between fact and fancy. The poet of a new spiritual activity admits neither. He, the human impulse, is the only premise. He is the potter. He is the maker of beauty, since all form originates in him, and of meaning, since he names the content. Life is create with him. The poetry of this mood will have still the wonder, still the exaltation. But the wonder will proceed not from the accidental contacts with a life that comes to us as a visitation but from a sense of self that adventures so steadfastly, so awarely beyond it that its discoveries have the character of creation and the eternal element of self-destiny. Confronted by a terrifying, absorbing, fascinating universe, it does not cry out: "How big, how terrifying how fascinating!" and permit itself to be overcome by it, but answers it, since this universe, a thing apart, can be answered in no other way, atom for atom in a recreated universe of its own, a universe defiantly intelligible. For this poetry, song is not surrender but salvation. If the music will at first seem harsher than older tunes, it is because the new poet must be endowed with the ruthlessness of a pioneer. He is a little harder, a little more muscular because he is called upon to be equipped not merely for static ecstacy or despair but for a progress into an unexplored terrain. He will be rude as a violator because he must advance alone, gentle as a guide, because he must get others to follow him.  His poetry may be less pleasant than that which came before it, but it will at any rate be more honest since he must prove it workable at least for himself.  It may be more difficult because more metaphysical since he is preoccupied chiefly with meaning, but a meaning inevitably rhythmical and poetical since it is a barren life reborn, touched and shaded with accent, inflamed with his own soul and molded into a temporary or an eternal form that is a  symbol of peace and reconciliation between the inner nature of a man and the external world without him.

There will not be many who will be able to go the whole way, to complete the entire cycle that identifies at its close the ideational world of man, that begins with him, with the presumably impersonal world, that ends with him. If it will be argued that the poets who travel only a portion of the way sing as well and more than those who go beyond, since they are less likely to lose themselves in philosophical pitfalls, that a cheerful poet clears a little road just long enough for rambling but not long enough to lead him astray, and that the way of analysis is the way of destruction, I can only answer that if one is faithful enough, constant  enough, the analysis will induce the synthesis, the poet will come home: and he will have tramped the whole road, he will have seen. By taking the universe apart he will have reinte­grated it with his own vitality; and it is this reintegrated universe that will in turn possess him and give him rest. If this voy­age reveals a futility, it is a futility worth facing.

From The Reviewer 5(April 1925):1-7.

Return to Laura (Riding) Jackson