Thursday, February 25, 2010

Wit on the Scaffold

(The first part of this yadda-yadda is here; what follows below is the second part.)

Against the vastness of the world and time, the woman's coyness, in Marvell's "To a Coy Mistress" seems… little; she is belittled by the poem. In Freud's view, Marvell's wit affords him the means “of surmounting restrictions and of opening up otherwise inaccessible pleasure sources.” As Hyman points out (anybody read him anymore?!), “beneath the bantering mockery of the woman's coyness is the desire to overcome space and time;” the witty juxtaposition and sharp contrast of the “eternal” and “ideal” with the “temporal, sensuous, and ordinary” make for extraordinary poetry. When Marvell attaches fanciful images to the facade of a story, the deeper thought is that time is short for us, though we dare not admit it; and in clothing this thought in images that oppose it, a compromise is effected. On the one hand, nothing is greater than pleasure, and “it is fairly immaterial in what manner one procures it;” one might be able to postpone gratification, “but how do I know whether I shall still be alive tomorrow?” On the other hand, by containing one's one-sided demands, one perhaps can “knit” one's life more closely to others', “to form such an intimate identification with others, that the shortening of one's life becomes surmountable;” the decision in this conflict “is possible only through the roundabout way of a new understanding.” The understanding achieved in the poem allows for the fact that there is no definite solution of the conflict of a life in time, despite the pretense to the reverse. “Life remains a blessing / Although you cannot bless.”

In “The Definition of Love,” Marvell does not directly address the object of his yearning. “My love,” in the first line, is not a well-bred person, but the speaker's emotion; as Wilcher notes, “the origin of this strange passion is traced to the impossibility of its desires ever being fulfilled.” Stanzas 3 and 4 “express the forced separation of the lovers” in physical images: fate, with its iron wedges, takes on a force not granted love in the poem, and is able to prevent the lovers' union. A perfect union would transgress the laws that govern the state of things as they are and so result in the “ruin” of Fate, the embodiment and guardian of those laws.

In Auden's famous poem on the subject of Law, it is (depending on whom you ask) the sun, wisdom, stuck-out tongues, priestly words to unpriestly people, judges' explanations and the writing of law-abiding scholars, crimes, clothes, “Good-morning and Good-night,” Fate, the state, the crowd, or something that has gone away. Nevertheless, “All agree / Gladly or miserably / That the Law is.” Auden identifies a “universal wish to guess / Or slip out or our own position / Into an unconcerned condition;” this is naturally impossible—

Although I can at least confine
Your vanity and mine
To stating timidly
A timid similarity,

that law is like love. Auden says law is like love, but actually, this is a timid way of saying, too, that law determines love: we don't know where or why there is love, we can't compel it, we often weep over it, and we seldom keep it. The poem says one thing, means another, too: Auden wittily embraces a conflict embodied in the poem. While no solution is proposed to the problem of love's determined fleetingness, the articulation of it is faithful to reality.

If in the Auden poem love is something we seldom keep, Marvell supplies an astronomical form for this idea. His lovers, in fact, are (Wilcher again) “as far apart as the human imagination can reach—to the poles of the universe.” In stanza 7, Marvell refines and exploit the notion Auden has that “Law, say the gardeners, is the sun.” For Auden, the sun comes and goes, “To-morrow, yesterday, to-day;” time goes on forever, though individual lives and loves do not. Even those hyphens never meet. In the Marvell poem, unlike some of Donne's, physical difference really does separate lovers: the lines of latitude that represent the full-bodied world are infinitely parallel, while the lines of longitude meet in angles at the poles. The poem ends in a paradox, “the only available linguistic device for formulating the quality of a love that draws together and drives apart with equal force.” “Conjunction” and “opposition” continue the astronomical conceit. The poem, like Auden's, persists in a hopelessness that also strongly evokes the possibility of love's lasting, even if not infinite, value.

The call to love in Marvell is characteristically an opportunity to weigh against each other the bonds and separations in a life lived in time. “Young Love” is addressed to a girl too young indeed to hear or answer. “Come, little infant, love me now.” As well, Auden's “Lay your sleeping head, my love,” is addressed to one who cannot reply, being asleep. “Now then,” Marvell says mixing up time, “love me: time may take / Thee before thy time away.” And for Auden, “Time and fevers burn away / Individual beauty from / Thoughtful children, and the grave / Proves the child ephemeral.”

That these poems address people who cannot hear them, and are intended to be read by lots of third parties, has a dramatic effect: they're like asides in a play. The speaker in them, at a temporary remove from the scenes he plays, identifies the ways that love can be inadequate. For Marvell, “doubtful fate” portends “ill” that can only be counteracted by nipping fate in the bud: “Of this need we'll virtue make, / And learn love before we may.” Marvell combines the problem of time with the unyieldingness of women. Unable to gratify himself, he takes the reader as his confederate, the way some schmucks might make a smutty joke about a woman they consider to be intransigent. Marvell's wit makes gratification possible despite a hindrance. Freud calls this an obscenity that has become wit, one that “is tolerated only if it is witty.” The poem doesn't come off very well because - among other things - there are places where the weakness of his argument leads to a failure of wit, such as in the peculiar fourth stanza. Auden's poem works better because he asks his unconscious lover only to “find the mortal world enough.” For Auden, the question of “fidelity” is at issue. His is a flawed and faithless love, but a “human” love, after all. In his poem, wit serves to take the edge off the facts of a less-than-ideal relationship, which doesn't mean his point isn't ultimately made.

Marvell, at any rate, again collapses time and sexuality in “The Picture of Little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers.” His seduction dialogue begins in the pastoral mode, nymph included, along with green grass and flowers, but as in “Young Love,” he creepily addresses someone who can’t really respond. Little T.C. plays in the grass (which we know from Isaiah withers) and “names” flowers (which fade)—at once a kind of Adam in the plant-world and a creator, who tells them what colors and scents to effect. She “begins” these days (the word introduces the idea of their transience) and they are “golden” (new, yet redolent of impending decay, like golden leaves). If the girl is potentially a woman, her innocence is only for now a foregone conclusion. By stanza 2 Marvell is already predicting her command of Cupid; by then her virtue will lie in her contest with adult men. Yet in stanza 3 he interjects himself, as Wilcher notes, to make a “first person appearance to negotiate a truce before battle is joined.” Her might consists not of virtue, but sexual power. She will wound and conquer with her eyes, which crush her lovers like chariot wheels. As for Marvell, he retreats to the “shade,” ostensibly to stay safe from her sexuality—but also to step back and write the poem. Again he has used separation to express sentiments about time and love. “Meantime” he is back from the future, describing a trampled Eden. “Procure,” with its connotations of taking measures, bring about by care or pains, and of obtaining women for the gratification of lust, chimes in a central rhyme with “endure.” As T.C. ruins the flowers to make them perfect, if less flowery, so Marvell would prospectively “cure” the girl of her flowering sexuality rather than endure the ruination of his own virgin hopes. As flowers and girls come one after the other, for Auden childhood beauty is lunar, untouched. It

Has no history
Is complete and early;
If beauty later
Bear any feature
It had a lover
And is another.

In childhood, Auden says,

Love shall not near
The sweetness here
Nor sorrow take
His endless look.

While on the face of it saying the opposite of Marvell, Auden, too, wrestles with the beauty of childhood, which will be ruined by puberty and effaced by age. The poem is, as Edward Mendelson says, an effort to “refuse the tasks of time... either by dying out of time or by finding some arcadian locus not yet affected by it.” This poem, and also “Schoolchildren,” says straight faced what the Marvell poem slyly and disturbingly disguises: that in children “the sex is there.”

By the end of Marvell's poem, as in “Young Love,” a sense of foreboding is extended from the speaker and the girl to the third-party readers: he tells T.C. to spare the buds lest lethal Flora

Do quickly make the example yours;
And, ere we see,
Nip in the blossom all our hopes and thee.

The real prospect, therefore, is not the “simple” picture Marvell purports to give us. Spoken from withdrawal, his real concerns are the “imperfections and transitoriness of created nature” whose witty articulation is all there is to carry him “across the gulf that separates him—and us—from the mind of a child not yet a prey to the longing, dissatisfactions, and fears that knowledge and experience bring.”

In his love poems Marvell articulates the conflict between an ideal love and the corruptions of time; in his political poetry an ideal of political order comes into conflict with the actual nature of history. “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland” opens with the “forward” youth who must give up his books, “Nor in the shadows sing.” In “Spain,” Auden puts it succinctly: “Yesterday is all the past.” The time of “shadow-reckoning” is over. Auden describes “the inglorious arts of peace” in some detail; and as Marvell packs away the books, so Auden says, “Yesterday the classic lecture / On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle.” Like “three-forked lighting” Cromwell breaks and burns through the new moment, a stormy “disturbance in the fixed, natural order of things.” In Auden's words, “the menacing shapes of our fever / Are precise and alive.” Political thoughts are seen as independent bodies; similarly, Marvell is able to see Cromwell as the instrument of “angry heaven's flame.” Called up from his private gardens, Cromwell embodies the feverish thoughts of the nation. He cannot be confined to his own “plot,” planting the bergamot, the “pear of kings.” Instead he must uproot the monarchy, and shifting from the horticultural image to that of iron forging, Marvell shows how Cromwell could “cast” the kingdom into another “mould.” This transformation not only changes the picture of Cromwell, distancing his later role from his earlier private one, it also contains the tension between peaceful and warlike pursuits. The time of war forcefully “shapes the individual's belly and orders / The private nocturnal terror;” in Auden's poem, moments of peace “blossom” into the forced iron power of the firing squad, the bomb, and the ambulance.

Auden's citizens say, “O show us / History the operator, the / Organiser, Time the refreshing river,” but nothing quenches the thirst for change in the Marvell poem, where Cromwell must “ruin the great work of time.” The nation must be refashioned, and in Auden's poem, the nation says, “I accept, for / I am your choice, your decision.” Marvell says that Nature invites and makes room for the “penetration” of violence. And so Charles must go to the scaffold, “While round the armèd bands / Did clap their bloody hands.” As Auden explains, “To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death, / The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.” The bleeding head found beneath the Capitol's foundation contrasts with the gentle gesture of the King's bowing his “comely head / Down, as upon a bed.” The Republic is based on forced power.

“To-day the makeshift consolations” are acceptable. So Marvell claims that the Irish, “though overcome, confessed” how good, just, and fit Cromwell's command is. An ambiguous wit is at work here: the lines maybe be read as ironical or not, and themselves have a forced power. As the architects “forsaw” the State's “happy fate” earlier in the poem, now Cromwell “forbears” his fame, “to make it theirs.” The action of the poem, though occasioned by Cromwell's return from Ireland, projects itself into the future. As we have seen, this is how Marvell gathers his wits when the present appears to be inadequate or dangerous.

Marvell's image of the falcon, Wilcher says, “enhances by contrast the magnanimity of Cromwell, whose submission to Parliament and people is an act of moral choice, whereas the obedience of bird to falconer is merely a conditioned response to training.” Still, the “What may not...” the “If's” and “But's” and the wordplay on “parti-coloured” infuse Marvell's dream of the future with careful skepticism. As the poem ends, Cromwell, like time, marches indefatigably on; his “active star” lights up the “shady night.” As Auden says at the end of “Spain,” “We are left alone with our day, and the time is short...” In the Auden poem, the struggle “to-day” (the hyphen lending force to the possibility of action, and to the day) divides “yesterday” from “to-morrow.” In a sense, each day of struggle repeats this, and must “maintain” that transitive power. Tomorrow resembles yesterday, and is, in fact, a “rediscovery.” The “forward” fighter must, alas, actually maintain the new status quo, against all pressures of time and history. Thanks to this, a certain servile wit is at work in both poems. Auden later repudiated his “flat ephemeral pamphlet.” That the work is ephemeral explains the “expending of powers” in such topical matters. Freud complained that witticisms containing allusions to actual persons and events are endowed with a tension that is lost over time, diminishing their pleasurable effect. Auden felt that his poem claimed to have “joined the realm of the private will to that of the public good, when in fact the union had been made through the force of rhetoric alone.” Mendelson characterizes the poem as “nostalgia for the future,” a Utopian work.“ As for Marvell, he evidently never published his Ode.

In the last couplet of the poem, Marvell maintains that the same ”arts“ that gained a power must keep it alive. These arts, presumably, do not include the art of poetry, Auden's ”poets exploding like bombs,“ despite the fact that the Ode is, after all, a poem—Marvell's ”measured“ endorsement of Cromwell. That touch is characteristic. In his poems Marvell's wit involves, as Eliot concludes, ”a recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible;“ Marvell's taste for wit ”finds for him the proper degree of seriousness“ for the subjects he treats, an ”equipose, a balance and proportion of tones.“ At the same time, Marvell's wit shows how language ”is unreliable and is itself in need of examination for its authority.“ This is an irritation as well as an incitement and a pleasure; perhaps a reader may calm his or her own agitation ”by resolving that he himself should take the place of the narrator,“ and maintain the gains of poetry by - you guessed it! - writing more of it.

Pictured: The infamous "Tyburn tree!"

1 comment:

Henry Gould said...

Don, you might enjoy this "close reading" of the Derek Mahon poem in this weeks' New Yorker :

(The sense of it depends partly on some of the immediately previous posts there.)