Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Time's wingèd chariot, springing a leak



Wit is nothing but a free play of ideas.
- Jean Paul

In his survey of the techniques of wit, Freud begins by quoting a characterization of it that he finds “most satisfactory:” “Wit is a playful judgment.” For his part, T.S. Eliot, in his essay on Marvell, figures that the great imaginative power of that poet's wit lies in an “alliance of levity and seriousness,”—adding parenthetically—“(by which the seriousness is intensified.)” In making the narrow distinction between “imagination” and “fancy,” Eliot observes that poetic playfulness is not without its risks: “Obviously, an image which is immediately and unintentionally ridiculous is merely a fancy.” Johnson saw the fanciful as characteristic of metaphysical poetry and damaging to it when he complained about those most heterogeneous ideas “yoked by violence together.” Still, a once well-known philosopher named Lipps felt that the contrast of ideas in wit -

"is not formed in a manner to show the ideas connected with the words, rather it shows the contrast or contradiction in the meaning and lack of meaning of the words... A contrast arises first through the fact that we cannot adjudge a meaning to its words which after all, we cannot ascribe to them."

Wit can be used when language itself is nearly insufficient; there are situations when a simple statement won't do, and one says one thing and means another, too. Freud described wit as the containment of an idea and its opposite: it transforms “the expression of one of the ideas into an unusual form until it furnishes an associative connection with the second thought.” The contradictions of wit work to allow the use of a single, dominating voice while at the same time disclosing the “limitations of its vision... through the very conceits and rhetorical devices that constitute its medium of expression.”

You can see how this works in Marvell's “Mourning.” It opens by acknowledging the difficulty of interpreting the act of weeping, and addresses astrologers, inviting them to “decipher” Clora's tears. As astrologers read out the “fate” of human offspring from the skies, a man must read a woman's tears—and the reader must interpret Marvell's poem. The poem is filled with nearly-confusing false clues: “Of human offsprings from the skies” seems for a moment to refer to extraterrestrials; yet it sets up a serious parallel between human beings, who do seem to come out of nowhere, and the tears that “Spring from the stars of Clora's eyes.” “Late / Spring” might be glimpsed as a time of year. In stanza 2, her eyes themselves are confused, and in a pun are “doubled over.” The tears are “suspended,” which means both that they fall and do not fall. Indeed, they “Seem bending upwards,” in a gesture that suggests humility and acceptance, but also reproach, sending all that woe right back where it came from.

By stanza 3, one has cause to wonder how “precious” Clora's tears really are, and this is because Marvell regulates his rhetorical devices as carefully as Clora does her tears. Those tears may have real value (as in Donne's “A Valediction: Of Weeping”); Marvell's “pretending art” strengthens his fine assessment of the conflict contained in the poem. He pretends to dismiss the gossip: in stanzas 4 and 5 the tears fall to “soften” a place near Clora's heart for another wound, and in stanza 7, the tears are discarded in a kind of housekeeping; but Marvell claims the gossipers dream. Clora's tears are said to be as unfathomable as the seas. At the same time, while he says that divers “Would find her tears yet deeper waves / And not of one the bottom sound,” there is a deep impression that not one of Clora's tears is, at bottom, sound. Marvell claims in stanza 9 to keep his “silent judgement;” as “oft as women weep, / It is to be supposed they grieve.” Looked at one way, one sees that when women weep there may be genuine grief; seen another way, it is a matter of tact to act as if false grief is not counterfeit. The poem addresses what Robert Wilcher calls “the artifice of women,” yet it exemplifies the artifice of poetic wit: "Hiding behind the skill of an art that avoids all temptation to simplify the enigma of experience—even so trivial an enigma as that of Clora's tears—Marvell keeps his 'silent judgement.'” This “pretending art” through which alternative points of view are kept “hovering” behind the argument expresses the sad truth that grief is not as simple as it appears. Marvell's wit is a mode of expression that, like Clora's tears, softens a place near his heart to fix another poem.

Addressing further the problem of a mistress's coyness, when Marvell says “Had we but world enough, and time...” he indicates the opposite: that neither is available enough to allow room for coyness. The idea is that if time did not make the seduction ritual foolish, Marvell would “gladly play the conventional game of protracted courtship.” The poem advances this half-hearted argument by unfairly matching fancy against reality. By suggesting that one could have world enough and time, possibility is made to seem “equivalent to actuality,” to paraphrase Freud. This is executed through the use of playful images: the woman would find rubies by the Ganges, while by the tide (a word which once also meant “time”) of the Humber, he would complain; the juxtaposition of these two presumably Heraclitean rivers hints at the separations contained in time and the world. He would love her ten years before the Flood, and she refuse till the conversion of the Jews; his is an astonishing “vegetable” love. It's all just talk! Auden works the same neighborhood in “As I walked out one evening”—the crowds he sees are “fields of harvest wheat.” Auden's lover sings,

I'll love you, dear, I'll love you
Till China and Africa meet
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street...

and so on, with the ocean hung up to dry and stars squawking like geese in the sky. At this point in each poem comes a telling “But...” In the Auden, clocks begin to whirr and chime; unconquerable, deceitful Time has his leisurely fancy. In Auden's nervous condition, life leaks away in headaches and in worry, and suicide is contemplated (ridiculously, since Time eventually will do the job, anyway). Meanwhile, glaciers knock in the cupboard, and even the crack in the tea cup (tea being one way to kill time) “opens / A lane to the land of the dead.” By the end of the poem, the lovers are gone; in this vacuum, the clocks cease their chiming, their work done.

Marvell doesn’t hear the clock ticking, but rather the whirring sound of time’s wingèd chariot. The image itself is almost ridiculous: imagine that fancy heavy thing hovering behind your ear—who rides it, and who drives? But before the reader has enough time to crack a smile, rhetoric about a courtship projected through time is superseded by the prospect of what lies “before” us: “Deserts” of vast, sterile eternity:

Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song...

Even should his verse survive and resound, it will not be heard in the tomb, or at least, from within the tomb; whether his song sounds or not will be unknowable to him. This doesn't prevent him from finishing the poem, as it happens. In another shifting of time, the poem returns to the “Now,” and Marvell has not got time for more frilly talk of love. Instead, he talks of “sport,” “amorous birds of prey,” tearing pleasure, and “rough strife.” As for the woman, she is waiting with pores, as it were, instantly inflamed. It's as if there is barely time for a last desperate quickie, as if a rushed bit of intercourse can compensate for all that gnawing eternity (which is replete with phallic, yet also detumescent, worms!). This imagination of sex—here neither love- nor baby-making—shows Marvell to be creepily undaunted in the face of the whirring clock. “Rather at once our time devour,” he says, while in the Auden poem the reverse happens: his lovers have run off, though in Marvell’s poem they stay put — and make time run on.

[Essay continued here....]

8 comments:

David Shapiro said...

Wonderful stories of Diderot on the opposition of wit and esprit in nightingales or in cucku as judged by the... donkey. Phong Bui read them to me the other day: arguments deciding that the French have esprit but no common sense as the English do. But, but the English lack wit. Wildly funny debate between Montesquieu and Lord Chesterfield.

Alfred Corn said...

If you want wit about mourning, you could hardly do better than Wilde's speaking of a widow whose hair "turned quite gold with grief."

Alfred Corn said...

David, you can't be serious, think how witty Shakespeare is, Congreve, Johnson, Pope, Walpole, Byron, Firbank, Auden, Waugh, Larkin. As for the French and common sense, certainly many women have it: Mme. de Sevigne',Mme. du Deffand, Mme. de Stael, Colette, and Frenchwomen I have known.

David Shapiro said...

I didn';t concur, simply passed on Diderot's stories to his
mistress. I myself should kick more stones for common sense and ridicule myself for esprit. How could I not agree, remembering Colette had a Dear Ann Landerslike column. Who wouldn't listen to Colette lacks all common sense/ Alfred, we drink from the same urn and spill the wine
on a menu. --Voltaire at Ferney has it all "Dear Diderot was dull but did his best." " Read some of his long mtrvelous letters but kept none." As for WEaugh,one wails and marvels. I will show you wit in a handful of...beaded bubbles winking at the EWaugh.

Henry Gould said...

I can think (at the moment) of nothing more dramatically captivating than CORNERED wit - wit under duress - wit on the scaffold (Charles I testing the edge of the blade) - wit with "something dangerous" (Hamlet) in it for the bully or the oppressor...

- too bad I'm not witty enough to offer some examples...

Don Share said...

I talk about Chuck on the scaffold in part II! Stay tuned...

Kent Johnson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Henry Gould said...

I referred to "wit from the scaffold" at the end of a post today over at the Plumbline School...

http://theplumblineschool.blogspot.com/2010/02/hp-postscript-neo-acmeism.html