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On "In Praise Of"

Michael Thurston

At the end of his career Rolfe still found it useful to explore political terrain in a sonnet, to bring the associative networks of the form to bear on the contemporary scene. This is evident in "In Praise Of," published in 1954 in the California Quarterly:

To understand the strength of those dark forces
phalanxed against him would have spelled surrender:
the spiked fist, the assassin’s knife, the horses’
eyeless hooves above as he fell under.
To understand the sum of all this terror
would a priori have meant defeat, disaster.
Born of cold panic, error would pile on error,
heart and mind fall apart like fragile plaster.

Therefore I honor him, this simple man
who never clearly saw the threatening shapes, yet fought
his complex enemies, the whole sadistic clan,
persistently, although unschooled. Untaught,
he taught us, who could talk so glibly, what
the world’s true shape should be like, and what not.

(Collected Poems 223)

In this Italian sonnet, Rolfe encapsulates both the menace of postwar anti-Communist paranoia and the only strategy left with which to fight against that menace -- stubborn, unreflective resistance. The octave sets out the problem any Leftist would encounter in fifties America; at all levels, in all places, lurk dangers as threatening as marauding armies. More dangerous than these, though, is the awareness of them. To know all that one is up against can lead only to paralysis. The forces arrayed against the poem’s protagonist are so numerous, so powerful, so inexorable and ineffable, that an accurate appraisal, a recognition of their strength and multiplicity, would on its own crush him. In the sestet Rolfe finds in the protagonist’s partial ignorance the ground for praise. Unable to assess his enemies, this "simple man" fights on. His example takes on powerful, though paradoxical, significance. "Untaught, / he taught us, who could talk so glibly;" laboring without benefit of subtle understanding, the protagonist compels the speaker to understand. Schooled in subtleties, the speaker talks in the face of those dark forces; his glibness masks a willed impotence, a version of the surrender elaborated in the octave. Blind and untaught, the protagonist teaches the speaker not the truth of things as they are, but of how they ought to be. More importantly, the speaker learns what "the world’s true shape" ought not to be. From blindness, insight. From ignorance, imaginative resolution.

Rolfe plays on the sonnet’s two-part structure to explore this paradox, and on the form’s forced compression to give it added sharpness. In altering the traditional rhyme scheme of the last three lines, Rolfe calls our attention to the poem’s ultimate message: "taught," "what," "not." The protagonist’s example provokes a recognition of the present’s distance from "the world’s true shape." But the formal choice of the sonnet does more than this; the Petrarchan sonnet’s traditional associations give force to yet another paradox at work here. A relative of the Italian and French love songs of the fourteenth century, the sonnet becomes, in Petrarch’s hands, the vehicle for praise of the distant and unattainable beloved. Wyatt and Surrey, Petrarch’s first English imitators, retain the courtly love content of the form and, throughout its long history in English the sonnet has retained this amatory and intensely personal focus. But sonnets are not simply poems of love; they are exercises in seduction, dense clusters of verbal strategies by which the poet hopes to realize love’s true shape. Thus burdened with conventions both formal and rhetorical, the sonnet is a "schooled" form, harbor and home to glibness through its centuries-long career. A sonneteer in "In Praise Of," Rolfe enacts the glib talk he decries and exemplifies the protagonist’s paralyzed counterpart. But, at the same time, Rolfe’s educated, practiced formal exercise enables the protagonist. Without the poem, "this simple man" disappears, perhaps overwhelmed after all by those phalanxed forces. In the political realm as well as in the wider world of love, Rolfe’s formal choice implies, poetry attempts to draw the "is" and the "ought" together.

from Michael Thurston, Making Something Happen: Politics and Modern American Poetry.

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