Poetry and Freedom: Discoveries in Aesthetics, 19852018
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Poetry and Freedom: Discoveries in Aesthetics, 19852018


Obtenez un accès à la bibliothèque pour le consulter en ligne
En savoir plus
180 pages

Vous pourrez modifier la taille du texte de cet ouvrage


A ground-breaking exploration of the aesthetics of poetic freedom

This book offers a ground-breaking exploration of the aesthetics of poetic freedom. The range is broad, from antiquity to the present and from Europe and the Middle East into the poetry of the English-speaking world. Revealing questions about the elusiveness of poetic freedom—what does the term actually mean?—are repeatedly tested against the accomplishments of major poets such as Whitman, Dickinson, Rilke, Dante and Virgil, and their public yet intensely private originality. The result is a fresh, and well-nigh revolutionary, way of seeing literary and modern history, or an initiation into the more striking gift of aesthetic freedom.

Preface: Among the Nightmare Lovers of Hades; 1 Eliot as Revolutionary; 2 Goethe and Modernism: The Dream of Anachronism in Goethe’s Roman Elegies; 3 Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano; 4 Does Time Exist?; 5 The Age of Authenticity: An American Poet in England; 6 Whitman and Wilde in Camden; 7 Dangerous Thoughts, Puzzling Responses; 8 Scaling the Wall; 9 Mass Death and Resurrection: Notes on Contemporary, Mostly American, Jewish Fiction; 10 Rilke, Einstein, Freud and the Orpheus Mystery; 11 Shrouds Aplenty (on poems of Janowitz, et al); 12 Ambushes of Amazement (on poems of Wakoski); 13 Dangerous and Steep (on poems of Jacobsen); 14 Small Touching Skill (on poems of Ponsot); 15 Language Mesh (on Paul Celan); 16 Sweet Extra (on poems of Cuddihy, Ray); 17 Maze of the Original (on translating poetry); 18 Approaching the Medieval Lyric; 19 Dark Passage (on poems of Stafford); 20 Mistress of Sorrows (on Ingeborg Bachmann); 21 The Innocence of a Mirror (on poems of Oliver); 22 Peskily Written (on Sade); 23 Is There Sex after Sappho?; 24 Saving One’s Skin (on medieval poetry); 25 Brilliant White Shadow (on poems and prose of Saba); 26 Serpent’s Tale (on Minoan archeology); 27 How Honest Was Cellini?; 28 The Poetry of No Compromises (on poems of Rehder); 29 Assigning Names (on poems of Nurkse); 30 History and Ethics: Bruni’s History of Florence; 31 Virgil’s Aeneid Made New (a translation by Robert Fagles); 32 Painting with Poetry (on the poems of Annie Boutelle); 33 Vampires and Freedom (on the work of Erik Butler); 34 How the West Learned to Read and Write: Silent Reading and the Invention of the Sonnet; List of Publications; Index.



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Poetry and Freedom
Other books by Paul Oppenheimer

Before a Battle and Other Poems
Till Eulenspiegel: His Adventures (translation)
Beyond the Furies: new poems
The Birth of the Modern Mind: Self, Consciousness and the
Invention of the Sonnet
Evil and the Demonic: A New Theory of Monstrous Behavior
Infinite Desire: A Guide to Modern Guilt
Rubens: A Portrait (biography)
Blood Memoir, or The First Three Days of Creation (fiction)
The Flame Charts: new poems
In Times of Danger (poems)
Machiavelli: A Life Beyond Ideology (biography)
Poetry and Freedom
Discoveries in Aesthetics, 1985–2018
Paul Oppenheimer
Anthem Press
An imprint of Wimbledon Publishing Company
This edition first published in UK and USA 2020
75–76 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8HA, UK
or PO Box 9779, London SW19 7ZG, UK
244 Madison Ave #116, New York, NY 10016, USA
Copyright © Paul Oppenheimer 2020
The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above,
no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or introduced into
a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means
(electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise),
without the prior written permission of both the copyright
owner and the above publisher of this book.
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
ISBN-13: 978-1-78527-297-4 (Hbk)
ISBN-10: 1-78527-297-7 (Hbk)
This title is also available as an ebook.
Preface: Among the Nightmare Lovers of Hades
1 Eliot as Revolutionary
2 Goethe and Modernism: The Dream of Anachronism in Goethe’s Roman Elegies
3 Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano
4 Does Time Exist?
5 The Age of Authenticity: An American Poet in England
6 Whitman and Wilde in Camden
7 Dangerous Thoughts, Puzzling Responses
8 Scaling the Wall
9 Mass Death and Resurrection: Notes on Contemporary, Mostly American, Jewish Fiction
10 Rilke, Einstein, Freud and the Orpheus Mystery
11 Shrouds Aplenty (on poems of Janowitz, et al )
12 Ambushes of Amazement (on poems of Wakoski)
13 Dangerous and Steep (on poems of Jacobsen)
14 Small Touching Skill (on poems of Ponsot)
15 Language Mesh (on Paul Celan)
16 Sweet Extra (on poems of Cuddihy, Ray)
17 Maze of the Original (on translating poetry)
18 Approaching the Medieval Lyric
19 Dark Passage (on poems of Stafford)
20 Mistress of Sorrows (on Ingeborg Bachmann)
21 The Innocence of a Mirror (on poems of Oliver)
22 Peskily Written (on Sade)
23 Is There Sex after Sappho?
24 Saving One’s Skin (on medieval poetry)
25 Brilliant White Shadow (on poems and prose of Saba)
26 Serpent’s Tale (on Minoan archeology)
27 How Honest Was Cellini?
28 The Poetry of No Compromises (on poems of Rehder)
29 Assigning Names (on poems of Nurkse)
30 History and Ethics: Bruni’s History of Florence
31 Virgil’s Aeneid Made New (a translation by Robert Fagles)
32 Painting with Poetry (on the poems of Annie Boutelle)
33 Vampires and Freedom (on the work of Erik Butler)
34 How the West Learned to Read and Write: Silent Reading and the Invention of the Sonnet
List of Publications
Preface: Among the Nightmare Lovers of Hades
Not everything here deals with poetry. It all deals with freedom and aesthetics, though, and indirectly at least, with aesthetic innovations in poetry for the sake of freedom.
The type of freedom varies: aesthetic, imaginative, political, individual (which despite popular beliefs in some quarters is not the same as political), sexual, emotional, historical, psychological, linguistic (with respect to translation), rhetorical, fantastical (as in fantasy worlds) and philosophical. A number of puzzling attitudes toward freedom, such as those of the Language poets, to wit, that if poets free their words of all familiar contexts they will produce more adventurous poems, are omitted except to take note of their absurdity. Along these lines, it should be noted that ours may be the first age in which nonsense verse is often produced by people without any sense of humor. In this topsy-turvy situation, in which solemnity is confused with profundity, poets may find it close to impossible to write another “Jabberwocky.”
From the moment when I began writing these essays and reviews, in other words, I wanted to take a stab at exploring significant aspects of the problem of modern poetic freedom. I also welcomed the fact that in any of the arts the present evokes the past, if only because works of art, at least at first, assume much of their meaning in relation to other works of art. The prospect of dealing with the past in terms of the present retains a magnetic, rather than an antiquarian, appeal: one reads the medieval German poet Walter von der Vogelweide not because he is old but because he is new, and not because he offers more astute insights into his own culture than his historian contemporaries but because his poetic intelligence differs from theirs in refreshing and insightful ways, and not because he is an anthropologist (which he is not) but for his literary style. This literary achievement, that of style, is often neglected now, along with how thrilling and incisive it can be, how valuable, and these essays seek to draw attention to it.
A plan has thus been in place from the start, and it may to some extent excuse collecting and arranging what might otherwise seem unrelated pieces rescued from journals, newspapers and magazines. On the other hand, the plan was always tentative, an effort at reports from the front lines of the struggle for poetic freedom, rather than an attempt to promote some bland ideology. It has always seemed to me that while any responsible critic ought to subscribe to aesthetic and human values, the chance to exercise critical freedom, to observe, test various hypotheses and demur, vanishes amid tedious ideology-promotion schemes.
Why opt for poetic freedom at all, though, rather than some other basis for this book? An apposite answer to this question lies in stressing the importance of what may be called wriggle-room, by which I mean that any unknown artist, and it is worth remembering that even Shakespeare was once unknown, seeks out opportunities to be heard among the rest, if not long after many of them, a free-feeling and free-seeming place in which to be understood on his or her own terms. On occasion, as with T. S. Eliot, the wriggle-room may amount to more than any idea of mere wriggling suggests—it may be more expansive—because it has been secured through a poetic revolution, though as is suggested below in an essay on Eliot’s centenary, what constitutes a revolution in the arts is often problematic. Often too, as is argued in “Scaling the Wall,” a piece dealing with freedom of expression in the defunct Soviet Union (but which I hope readers may find of interest on historical-political grounds), genuine aesthetic revolutions are more apt to be crushed by state bureaucracies less eager to grant wriggle-room to poets than an unpleasant roominess to censors and even, on occasion, executioners.
If authentic wriggle-room, or space for maneuver, is paradoxically crucial to pressurizing, or boiling pure, the quality of good poetry, to refining and strengthening it, the atmosphere surrounding its expression is always unique. The witty breeze wafting through Heine’s lyrics differs in its smoothness from the wily storms racing through Byron’s. Rilke’s angelic skies hardly blend with Goethe’s pagan sun. As a result, the critic needs to be at least an amateur meteorologist of diction. He or she should not only bring back frontline reports on how poetry is meeting new challenges by changing but also weather reports on the cultural atmosphere surrounding the words themselves, and between the words and the world. Venturing into this slip-sliding terrain, which has turned into a modern Hades of angst over belief, and even a lover’s angst of mistrust as well as a twilight zone full of the wandering lovers of nightmares, and doing so with fairness, is, I am convinced, the modern critic’s chief challenge. It emerges here, I hope, in useful ways in the 10 essays and longer review articles that lead off this collection, and with equal if punchier cogency in the shorter articles (and even in my translation of Rilke’s “Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes.”) that follow, in which a candid critical ambitiousness seeks out fresh perspectives on old questions: even vampirism, as in the penultimate article here, “Vampires and Freedom,” may have a lot to suggest, and especially these days, about the nature of human and literary freedom of expression.
On the other hand, a drastically different report from the aesthetic front is attempted in the very last essay, on the invention of the sonnet, a broad, research-based inquiry into literary fashions and how people in the West have come to read and write as they do. The issue here is the extraordinary development of silent reading and its effects in modern times.
I remain deeply grateful to the editors who have published these pieces (in fact what follows represents well under half my output over the past 25 years), who looked with tolerance on these efforts to explore pathways through the modern Hades—at Alea ; American Arts and Letters ; the American Book Review ; Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics ; From Wordsworth to Stevens (a Festschrift in honor of Robert Rehder); The Jewish Quarterly (UK); The Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence ; The Literary Review (United States); P.N. Review (UK); Paideuma: A Journal Devoted to Ezra Pound Scholarship ; Renaissance Quarterly ; Clio: A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History ; and Rilke und die Moderne (a volume of papers presented at a Rilke conference in London, issued in Munich). The generosity of these editors is no doubt greater than I deserve, but is more than matched by the support of poet friends and critics, especially Barry Wallenstein, Fred Reynolds, Alexander Stillmark, Wolfgang Karrer, Barbara Fisher and Elizabeth Mazzola. Carolina Hubbell provided incomparable technical assistance. My daughters, Rebecca and Julie, offered essential support, on occasion in the face of gloom. My wife, Assia Nakova, exceeded all bounds of assistance with her brilliant suggestions, dedication and intrepid confidence. For their kindness, and that of others who encouraged these forays into the realms of poetic freedom, I count myself lucky indeed.
New York, July 2019
Eliot as Revolutionary
In poetry as in politics, revolutionaries are really frustrated fighters for old ideals. They are purists, bearing witness to betrayed hopes. As a result, the revolutionary is often thoroughly rational, devoted to logic and memory as well as compassion. His purpose is probably the rebuilding of a lost condition of grace and freedom. The purpose cannot be revenge or defiance, as ideals cannot be encouraged by bitterness or cynicism, but only assaulted by them. If the revolutionary is often confused with the embittered anyway, and even with the maddened nihilist, this is because the two may come to use the same weapons and on occasion resemble each other. Clearly, the twentieth century overflows with these confusions, in politics and the arts, including poetry. The confusion is dramatic between T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and it may be valuable, even crucial, to revise the commonly held view of Pound as the “truer” revolutionary of the two. Pound may be less a revolutionary than a possibly crippled, if sometimes brilliant poet, whose bitterness, savagery and self-pity make in the end a bizarre parody of the whole idea of revolution.
It is entirely apropos to take a dispassionate look at these issues during the centennial of Eliot’s birth. In fact it may also be apropos to take a backward glance, comparing a few of the powerful poetic revolutions of the past with Eliot’s own achievement. Eliot may here be seen to rank with Catullus, Dante, Marlowe and Milton, other acknowledged revolutionaries in the art. This list might be slightly expanded—it is not as long as might be imagined—but it will perhaps appear surprising only to those accustomed to seeing their revolutionaries as bomb-throwers rather than creators, as wrenchers of language and the human spirit rather than as clarifiers, as avengers rather than as bountiful providers of new ways of seeing ourselves and the world.
Eliot, if the masses of books recently published about him are any guide, has never been more popular, never commanded greater interest. This too may surprise those prepared to take his presence for granted, much like an old gray ghost kept around the house and cheerfully ignored as harmless. In language, the old and often rational gray ghosts rule us all. Eliot knew about the “ghost problem,” of course. His poetry brims with speculations on how to handle the ghosts of poets past haunting every word of English, haunting our feelings and thoughts, haunting happily our most lucid moments. Probably, as he also knew, only a trivial poetry, a poetry in which the words lack energy of their own, can be written by those who do not know and praise the great ghosts, who ignore their present voices, for there is surely no liberated present without an articulate past. If Eliot has become one of those great ghosts himself, if he merits praise as one of our most recent revolutionary poets in the English-speaking world, along with Whitman, it may be freeing to consider how he haunts and changes the words we speak, which is to say how his poetry continues to make revolutions in the modern soul.
More than 40 lengthy studies of Eliot’s poetry have appeared since his death in 1965, and close to one hundred since his winning the Nobel Prize in 1948. The thrust of much of the best criticism is that Eliot is a classical poet, a maker of phrases and marvelous lines of music, rather than a mere recorder and rearranger of common, or even uncommon, speech. There is a sense, in the best criticism, that he is a modernist by default, more in rebellion against the madness of his times than in search of a new modernist order. Books such as David Ned Tobin’s The Presence of the Past: T. S. Eliot’s Victorian Inheritance (Ann Arbor, 1983) and Andrew Clearfield’s These Fragments Have I Shored: Collage and Montage in Early Modernist Poetry (Ann Arbor, 1984) speak unerringly of Eliot’s indebtedness to immediately previous poets, among them Arnold, Browning and Tennyson, and his none-too-enthusiastic embrace of the bold surrealist techniques of the most modern painters of his day.
Throughout, as well, the criticism probes the sort of real revolution that Eliot was making in poetry, and that continues, decades later, deeply to influence literature of all types in England and America, if not the world. To write classical verse while the world goes mad is courageous. To find new highways for classical poetry while many rejoice at the burning of Rome, or in this case the abandonment by many of Western classical traditions, is to be a risk-taker and modernist in the highest sense. It is to seek, as have few other poets, revolutionary methods. Catullus made a revolution in Roman verse by introducing the personal, combining it with the witty and allowing into his lines an echo of the drumbeat of epic and tragic poetry. This changed the very sound of Latin. Giacomo da Lentini, in the thirteenth century, revolutionized poetry, or at least the poetry written since Roman times, by inventing the sonnet, the first lyric form since the fall of Rome intended not for performance or singing but for silent reading. In doing so, he created the modern lyric of self-consciousness, or of the self in conflict, and a meditational form suitable to it. He thus changed the very art of reading, bringing into it the vast magnitude of silence. Milton added large numbers of new Latinate words to English, shifting and enriching its vocabulary. This was an accomplishment more revolutionary than his power as a poet to transport his readers’ souls to heaven and hell, more potent perhaps for aesthetics than the idea of salvation itself.
Shakespeare was decidedly not a revolutionary. Neither was Yeats. Neither was Emily Dickinson. Shakespeare writes, “Why is my verse so barren of new pride, / So far from variation or quick change,” confessing that he lacked any interest in revolutionary ambitions, or “new found methods,” and that an aesthetic revolution was extraneous to his genius. Yeats, who notes that “all skill is joyful,” writes in a traditional manner and admits that he has only “tried” to be modern, or technically innovative, no doubt because he did not need to be modern to release his brilliance. The Victorian period, just prior to Yeats, continues to exert an inferior attraction on the minds of many recent poets, not because it produced an inferior poetry but because its poetry lacks a revolutionary quality, the sort of electricity presently in demand.
Both Blake and Whitman were revolutionaries, but not in the senses in which they are commonly discussed. Blake’s mysticism is not revolutionary, and neither is Whitman’s “free verse,” which is not so much free as it is a series of carefully controlled cadences. But Blake is the first poet to create a private mythology in lines astonishing enough to arouse a vast public interest. This was a revolutionary act that changed the philosophical opportunities in poetry for many poets, including Yeats, who created one of his own. Whitman showed how in modern times a political poetry, or “nation poetry,” might be written that would be more, far more, than mere propaganda, that would in fact reinvent the very idea of “nation.”
Seen in this light, Eliot is the great maker of the modern poetic revolutions. Any fine poet affects diction, improving the precision of the words that he chooses and that others use after him. But a revolutionary poet somehow changes the whole language. He alters how we listen and read. This act is perhaps akin to creating a new politics or a new society. It may be as important.
Eliot’s poetry is revolutionary because it creates a new type of voice, a new type of fact and a new type of knowledge, all of which appreciably change the English language, even for those ignorant of what he has done. The first two of these, the voice and fact, are by now so influential and widely imitated that it is hard to imagine that they were not always there, or that Eliot invented them. The last, the new type of knowledge, is often rejected these days by poets who are devoted to sentimentality, or who dismiss city life as aesthetic material, which is to say by many “nature poets” who also reject Eliot.
Yet these same poets will often use his characteristic voice, which is not simply a voice, and certainly not a voice at all in the usual sense, but a new universalizing and generalizing mode of utterance. It appears first in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1911), and its tone, adopted by Eliot in his well-known recording of the poem, is ghostly, disembodied, hard, thin, anxious, wheedling, shrewd, crisp, internal, external, and above all, representative. Prufrock is the twentieth-century Everyman. He may say “I,” but he means “we,” and in “The Waste Land” the “we” becomes an even clearer “we,” as the horrified, haunted quality is perfected: “I think we are in rats alley / Where the dead men lost their bones.” This is the “we” not of a group of people, but of a culture, and not of one culture or two or three, but of culture itself, or the idea of culture betrayed. It is the voice of civilization losing its memories, the very dream-stuff that makes it civilization. It is the voice of Humanity the Amnesiac, teetering and blind, struggling desperately to recall its address in the universe. Far more than the voice of a person or a sensibility, it has no real precedent in literary history. When Pound uses it, rarely, he is in fact imitating il miglior fabbro , the better maker, in this case Eliot himself.
Eliot’s quite revolutionary accomplishment was his creation of this voice for the mute millions, a fact that accounts to some extent for his fascination and popularity. These were mostly, but by no means entirely, the literate mute millions. In a deeper and broader sense, they were the post–First World War planetary millions, and in many countries, whose confidence in civilization and its nobility sickened and expired during four years of murder on the European continent. As the uniformed hundreds of thousands of ordinary men perished for what appeared to be nothing but the vanity of politicians and autocrats, values floated free of their systems, which ceased to inspire belief. For the first time since the plague, masses of people, mostly Europeans and then Americans, became an audience at the latest ghastly show of apocalypse. Eliot was a Saint John for this audience, and his poetry a new Book of Revelations . His was the voice groping for meanings, in the past, in the present, amid invading nightmarish monsters, collapsing towers and the awesome silence of the dead battlefield, which had become the human soul. It is not Prufrock’s loneliness that is thrilling but his courage, a dim courage, and flame-like. In “The Waste Land,” the “shantih,” or “Peace that passeth understanding,” is also a signal, however weak, of significance, and the courage to believe in significance. The cynicism of “The Hippopotamus” masks an idealist’s mourning for a purer spirituality than the “wallowing” Church can offer.
At the same time, in “Prufrock,” “The Waste Land” and “Four Quartets,” Eliot creates a new sort of poetic fact. This consists of a deadpan association of past literature and present experience, with the past literature rendered anew and often rewritten, or placed in a fresh and modern context. Contemporary experience becomes what may be termed anachronistic fact, as when Hamlet, Hesiod, Dante and the Lazarus story from the Bible are suddenly reproduced in twentieth-century dress in “Prufrock,” or when the poet of the second section of “Little Gidding,” wandering the city streets of “interminable night,” meets his “dead master,” a compound of Dante, Swift, and Yeats, who reminds him of his poet’s task, “To purify dialect of the tribe,” only to leave him “In the disfigured street,” fading at daybreak.
We are dealing here, as readers of Eliot realize, not with mere literary allusions but with deliberately contrived violations of time and naturalism. This is the quintessence of modernism. Nor is the result merely a cultural linkage, with fragments of the past shored up against anarchy and madness. Fact itself has been redefined. It is now not simply “something that happened,” but “something that keeps happening,” or that must be kept happening by poetry if civilization is to survive as civilization. The aim of poetry at its highest is to turn history into a continuously present event.
This leads into the new type of knowledge. It is the knowledge that ordinary speech, even the speech of the street, is full of poetry, that it contains infinite “poetic possibilities” and that the routines and even technology of modern urban life are fitting and even exciting materials for the poet. Eliot is not the first poet to discover this. But he is the first in the twentieth century to make use of it. Eliot was at work on “Prufrock” as early as 1911, and while this catalytic poem shows the oblique influences of Jules Laforgue, Whitman and even Wordsworth, who had thought along similar lines, Eliot’s cunning departure, his originality, lies in his demonstration that ordinary speech need not be inflated or made rhetorical to become splendid. It is already splendid, or often so. So too are ordinary objects (“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”). So too are the operating theaters of hospitals (“the evening […] / Like a patient etherized upon a table”). So too are trams, hallways, factories, cellars and vacant lots. Eliot’s revolutionary use of modern modes, affecting countless poets and other writers ever since, blends perfectly with his new universalized voice, the social voice and the invention of eternal or anachronistic facts. It reveals Eliot as classical-revolutionary by temperament.
By contrast, a good deal of Pound’s work must be seen as a mere pastiche. Pound himself is a poseur. His voice in his early book, Personae , is a false voice. Neither its deliberately archaic tone nor its “translations” from Latin have the discipline of authenticity. The Spirit of Romance , Pound’s dissertation on medieval and renaissance poetry, is a false book. It consists largely of quotations from others, limp translations, mistranslations and ignorant assertions about medieval literature. Pound congratulates François Villon on his intimacy and daring at precisely those points where Villon is utterly conventional, doing what any of his contemporaries would have done, and did. The Cantos , Pound’s unfinished “epic,” which is more than twice the length of Paradise Lost and far less interesting, provokes arguments over its “unity” and “form,” issues less important perhaps than the frequent dullness of its lines, its clearly expressed bigotry and the childishness of its theories of economics and history. His constant theme is power. His constant method is the distortion of the language into a kind of Newspeak, with an undertone, in both his prose and poetry, of ill-suppressed rage. Edmund Wilson has remarked that one turns to Pound expecting to find a great poem, but finds instead only occasional good lines. This is no longer any surprise. Pound’s chief contribution, apart from helping Eliot and other fine poets, has been sloppiness. He is revolutionary only in the sense that his sloppiness continues to convince many that if they are equally sloppy, or more so, they may be excellent poets. This contribution, at the expense of tradition and the individual talent, still exerts a wide influence.
It is not tradition as tradition that matters. It is meaning. As a classical-revolutionary poet, Eliot early understood what is probably a law of both language and poetry: that meaning without knowledge is impossible, that knowledge is always of the past and that the past, for the poet of vision, is the key to expressing the vitality of his own day. The past, shining into the present like gleams and shoots of light in a chinked wall, makes vision possible. The cemeteries of Paris are not so much burial grounds for the dead as candelabras of the imagination. The monuments to Balzac, Bizet, Sarah Bernhardt, Proust, Jimi Hendrix and Heinrich Heine conjure up worlds of artistic brilliance matched only by ancient Rome or Athens. The tombs of Eloise and Abelard, empty and thrilling, restore the visitor to dreams of devotion. The ruins of Pompeii, like the living, intimate voices of Dante and Marlowe, counsel the modern soul with illuminated articulate ghosts and recognizable passions. The recognitions matter. They are the sources of meaning. They are the sources of civilization. For the prophetic poet, such as Blake or Whitman, they are also the sources of foresight. To Eliot, struggling to find a way through popular madnesses, terrors, confusions and useless beliefs, the recognitions are beacons on the path to major poetry.
Goethe and Modernism: The Dream of Anachronism in Goethe’s Roman Elegies
The modern sensibility is characterized by constant intimations of anachronism. So frequent are the jarring intrusions of the present into the past, and of the past—an often irrelevant and unintelligible past—into the present, that they are, one realizes, simply taken for granted most of the time—or treated as natural. It is part of being modern to exist amid wholly startling historical jumblings and scarcely to mind. On occasion one is pleased, as if the past were a refreshment. Sometimes one is convenienced: the fifteenth-century Welsh inn, where one has chosen to spend a quiet weekend in the country, turns out to possess a hot tub after all, and a compact disc player, and a disc library (itself an anachronistic term) blessed with a delectable menu of Bach, Bob Dylan and Purcell. The music of three eras, not simply three centuries, thus easily dazzles three colloquious aspects of one’s modern soul, and this above a courtyard in which, long ago, sojourning players may have acted out scenes of Christ’s passion, or a vision of Noah’s flood-bound ark, or the bitter temptation in the original Garden, most likely from the Wakefield mystery cycles. In fact the latest modern players may themselves arrive, ready to reenact these and other misted biblical fables, possibly in modern dress and while speaking a modernized English. If they do so, however, they will almost certainly skip in by car, train, plane or even helicopter. They will scarcely come bumping along in a covered medieval wagon dragged by a team of sweaty, ancient horses.
Not everything is quite so pleasant. If modern anachronistic life has eliminated a bit of the sweat, it has not succeeded in eliminating a good deal of the old-fashioned horror. The shuffled deck of history produces more losers than winners. Plagues, epidemics, mass illiteracy, pogroms, religious wars, famines, acts of piracy and rampant poverty—all phenomena with an archaic Inquisitorial atmosphere, a sixteenth- or a thirteenth-century smell—wrangle and kick up a strange dust beside gleaming Lear jets and satellite dishes collecting radio waves in a malarial jungle. History, whatever it is, wants gentillesse. Its livid surgery lacks anesthesia. Perhaps for this reason modern times may also frequently be defined by an absence of time: “Mein Leben ist nicht diese steile Stunde,” as Rilke observes of an oddly plummeting modern haste, “darin du mich so eilend siehst” (My life is not at all this avalanching hour/in which you see me rushing past). Transitions, the sweeteners of the unprepared psyche in previous ages, have dissolved into a novel acceptance of the timeless multidimensionality of modern life.
It is this multidimensionality of the historical present which is new, this interleaving of past habits of mind, of ancient ruins and relics put to modern uses, and this perhaps to legitimize a modern sense of floating above and away from history altogether, a peculiarly modern shyness, anxiety and enthusiasm. What is also new in the midst of it all, however, is the paradoxical absence of any serious effort to assimilate the past. If the early Church fathers sought to allocate some sort of position, however diminished and misinterpreted, to previous pagan beliefs and gods within the new Christian hierarchy, thus embracing the past with a snowy bear hug and a calculated kiss of death, the modern attitude is to seek few assimilations altogether. The past is simply tolerated, or arranged and rearranged beside the present. It is inserted into the present willy-nilly. One walks through the past—a ruin refurbished, or an idea, such as that of monarchy, left stranded in splendid isolation—as part of the present. As a result, a special mental world comes into being, a surrealistic panjandrum, rather like finding the Van Dykes beside the Picassos in The National Gallery, or, and this is more typical, a stylishly furnished flat in which a poster by David Hockney hangs next to one by Mucha, which in turn overlooks an eighteenth-century Pennsylvania-Dutch kitchen table. All three will have been collected at some expense for their intrinsic aesthetic appeal, coaxed into becoming living reminiscences, and this because the modern temperament rejoices at their surprising, yet somehow smooth, juxtaposition, seeking, or at least allowing, a new democracy of periods and expressions. If a new democracy of cruelty sometimes emerges as well, as when obviously mad people are left to roam the streets without proper psychiatric care lest their civil rights be abused—a relic of the eighteenth and earlier centuries—one is not, or not usually, astonished.
The point in fact is the modern lack of astonishment. Another point is that one does not encounter mere allusions to the past in these cases, or some witty comment on it, as with the famous clock in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Modern wit is likely to be sardonic and cool about its anachronisms. It is considered unfashionable and naive to pay much attention to them. This response may be due to their sheer ubiquity. No one is seriously amazed at the Byzantine cathedral sporting a twentieth-century electronic sound system, at the television commercial that sets off some new mountaineering jeep against a Mozart symphony, at motorized sloops, or films that show the dead as alive and the past itself—past wars, past public figures, past movie stars and past stock-market collapses—as present, as possessing a ghostly vigor.
Linguistic anachronisms are similarly accepted and wryly encouraged. English and other languages overflow not merely with archaisms but with stimulating anachronistic usages, some of which remain museumy preservations, while others have become hostages delivered out of a past half senseless, half sensate: “horsepower”; the mythic names of the planets; phrases such as “the heavens,” whose celestial meaning recalls a religious outlook now exhausted for large numbers of people; expressions such as “have a heart,” a residue of ancient Roman and medieval medical theories of the emotions but still pungent; “influenza,” an astrological term transferred to the hospital and sick room; “Lord” as a term for God, a persisting medieval inheritance; anachronistic inventions such as “electronic mail” and “electronic bulletin board,” which is a double anachronism; and countless others, some of which, such as “manuscript,” retain a whiff of the era of candlelight in an age when many word-processing authors know little about pens, inks or papers.
It is probably impossible to cite a moment of inception for this peculiarly modern attitude toward the past, to establish precisely when the modern temperament, developing in Europe and America, and convinced of the appropriateness of what may be termed self-conscious anachronism—and often, too, discovering a new fullness of being in it—first began to become fashionable. We cannot know whether Homer was deliberately or naïvely anachronistic in his depictions of battles and social customs in the Iliad and Odyssey. It seems a legitimate guess that he was at least naïvely so. It seems fair to speculate that his audience may have sensed mix-ups of historical eras in his two epic poems that, after all, paint before the mind struggles, kingdoms, and bickerings among the ancient gods at least nine centuries old by the time he comes to reckon with them and that he endows with contemporary speech and colors with the sentiments of his own day. What is more certain is that Homer, like Shakespeare in his history plays, which teleport a Lear or a Cleopatra into an Elizabethan setting, or Dryden’s translations of Horace, which deliver the Roman love affairs of the first-century B.C. poet into an English countryside familiar to his readers, places no stress on the past qua past, and apparently does not view it as a Ding an sich whose potent magnetism palpitates and pulls at the present. In the works of each of these poets, the anachronistic aspect is blithely ignored. The past, especially when it is considered heroic or divine, is treated as irrecoverably lost. The scholar may discover the anachronistic in Homer’s or Dryden’s poetry. The critic may tease out its meanings. The poetry itself makes no mention of it.
T. S. Eliot’s “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” in “The Waste Land,” however, presents an interestingly different aesthetic phenomenon. The “fragments” in Eliot’s mini-epic of disillusion and hope are works of art. They are snatches of verse by Webster, Dante, Homer himself, Hesiod and other poets. Paradoxically, these quilted snatches are viewed as past moments—of clarity, beauty, civilization and spiritual elation—that must somehow be retained and restitched in a sense, spliced onto the present, or so the poem urges, as if they were alive, as if they were types of intelligent, deathless energy, and this so as to allow the past, with a nourishing insistence, to feed the present. These snatches are, moreover, consciously displayed in Eliot’s modernist poem, even if they are only briskly remarked on in footnotes, like the jumble of collectibles in the modern house or the Byzantine cathedral with its twentieth-century sound system. For Eliot and other modernists, they become vital dimensions of the full modern life. If that life is to awaken into its fullness at all, “The Waste Land” seems to maintain, these “fragments” must be shored against the ruins of the present, against its wreckage without them.
This last notion is both unpleasant and important. What is meant by wreckage in Eliot’s view is apparently a novel, defeating alienation within modern experiences, one that occurs because of a modern disconnection between actions and meanings. This disconnection is ultimately seen to be humiliating to the modern soul, and as a result of it the modern spirit, if deprived of its past dimensions, may often and tragically be twisted into a bone-dry creature, withered and wanting rescue. Nor is this all. A sensual conflict may be discerned beneath the surface one, and modernist modes of anachronism in the arts often consist of efforts to eliminate this deeper alienation from the sensual apprehension of existence itself. George Steiner, in Language and Silence (1967), describes a few of the sources of what may be termed the modern sensual dread:

Hegel found that in the Homeric epics the depiction of physical objects, however detailed and stylized, did not intrude upon the rhythm and vitality of the poem. Descriptive writing in modern literature, on the other hand, struck him as contingent and lifeless. He threw out the illuminating hint that the industrial revolution and the correlative division of labor had estranged men from the material world. Homer’s account of the forging of Achilles’ armor or the making of Odysseus’s raft presupposes an immediacy of relationship between artisan and product which modern industrial processes no longer allow. Compared to Homeric or even to medieval times, modern man inhabits the physical world like a rapacious stranger. This idea greatly influenced Marx and Engels. It contributed to their own theory of the “alienation” of the individual under capitalist modes of production. In the course of their debate with Lasalle and of their study of Balzac, Marx and Engels came to believe that this problem of estrangement was directly germane to the problem of realism in art. The poets of antiquity and the “classical realists” (Cervantes, Shakespeare, Goethe, Balzac) had achieved an organic relationship between objective reality and the life of the imagination. The “naturalist,” on the other hand, looks upon the world as upon a warehouse of whose contents he must make a feverish inventory. “A sense of reality,” says a contemporary Marxist critic, “is created not by a reproduction of all the features of an object but by a depiction of those features that form the essence […] while in naturalistic art—because of a striving to achieve an elusive fullness—the image, also incomplete, places both the essential and the secondary, the unimportant, on the same plane.” (288)
Steiner’s description of this problem of meaning—can physical experiences mean anything at all in modern times?—seems to imply a political solution: the society must be changed before meanings can be discovered. For modernist artists, however, the problem has appeared to be one of aesthetics, with aesthetics regarded by them as at least as important to the full human life as politics, and probably more so. Thus the modernist solution to the problem of alienation from the sensual lies neither in naturalism nor in realism, but in an anachronistic art that intentionally combines history, now taken to be as oddly alive as any present event, with naturalism, realism and surrealism. What is more—and here is an issue important to anyone curious about the origins of the modernist outlook—the modernist solution seems to have been arrived at earlier than has hitherto been assumed, and certainly earlier than Hegel, Marx and Engels, to whom it was unknown and might have seemed incomprehensible. It is to be found, startlingly—and if not for the first time, then surely in one of its first brilliant realizations—in the erotic landscape of the Römische Elegien , Goethe’s tapestry of 24 poems, in hexameter and pentameter distichs, that purports to depict a loose and free love affair in Rome. In important ways, these provocative, linked poems also anticipate the much later modernist inventions of Eliot, Pound, W. H. Auden and, when he is being modernist, William Butler Yeats.
Several circumstances surrounding the composition of Goethe’s remarkable poetic cycle, which was published in its entirety in a bilingual English edition by David Luke only in 1988 and which even in authoritative German editions was virtually suppressed for 150 years, help to reveal its early and intrinsic modernism, its deliberate creation of an anachronistic world in which a caustic alienation dissolves into a liberated sensual and amorous adventure.
It is pertinent, for instance, that despite the Roman Elegies of the title, Goethe did not write these poems in Rome at all but in Weimar between 1788 and 1790, during a 21-month period after his return from his first Italian journey. It is relevant too that the elegies, which are elegiac only in the sense that they duplicate a popular ancient metrical pattern and not in their contents, which are usually jolly, passionate and ironic, are also fictional: they do not present an experience recollected in tranquility. Whether parts of that experience have some basis in the actual events of Goethe’s life at Rome remains a matter of conjecture, though it is clear that he began working on them only after commencing an affair, following his return from Italy, with Christiane Vulpius, whom he met rather casually in a Weimar park. This love affair scandalized Weimar’s polite society, especially after Goethe started living openly with the 23-year-old Christiane, whom he was not to marry until 1806—a detail that is important because it suggests that he was probably far more inspired by his defiant, sensual pact with her than by any brief, however fiery, tryst during his Roman stay.
Still, it would be a mistake to imagine that Rome itself, or an eccentric version of it, had no influence on Goethe’s poems. Here context needs to be taken into account, inevitably so, since Goethe himself has recorded his reactions to it. This context was first of all aesthetic, with a vision of a sublime, yet surviving, ancient beauty superimposed on a city—“the hub of the world,” Goethe termed it—that, in Goethe’s day, often disappointed the foreign visitor, with its imperial monuments all but strangled, dismembered, buried and ignored amid the scruffy detritus and misuse of centuries. Visitors brought up on widely sold, exported etchings of Rome, however, most likely those by Giambattista Piranesi (1720–1778), were unlikely to be disappointed. They would have been trained in the picturesque possibilities of the shabby and unclean by a contemporary master of dramatic shadows, a genius of lofty, suggestive outlines. “All the dreams of my youth have come to life,” wrote Goethe in his Italienische Reise (November 1, 1786) in describing his initial reactions to Rome, “the first engravings I remember—my father hung views of Rome in the hall—I now see in reality, and everything I have known for so long through paintings, drawings, etchings, woodcuts, plaster casts and cork models is now assembled before me.” It is a better than safe guess that the engravings hung by Goethe’s father in his Frankfurt home, and probably the etchings that later so inspired him, were either taken or copied from Piranesi’s universally known Le Antichità Romane, published in 1756, when Goethe would have been seven years old, or from Piranesi’s Vedute di Roma , which circulated through Europe as single prints between 1748 and 1778.
Piranesi distorted, recreated and popularized the legendary relics of his capital, stimulating a new tourism and the imaginations of rival artists. This is not to say that Piranesi’s Rome did not exist or that it does not in many ways exist today, but to emphasize that Piranesi’s ability to see Rome afresh, to see it in terms of its glorious-hideous past while slicing and scissoring out much of its deteriorated present, contributed greatly to a developing classical fascination among late-eighteenth-century artists and writers, among them, it is likely, Goethe himself. Piranesi’s etchings thus become important to any investigation of Goethe’s elegies, and of modernism.
Piranesi’s technique, which combines views from the ground up, to exaggerate height and depth, with voluptuous shadows, both flatters ancient Roman buildings as they appeared in the eighteenth century and seems to extract them from time so that they float in a special world, a stainless and timeless world, of their own. Shadows in Piranesi’s etchings, especially, are never mere absences of light. They become colossal marks of punctuation. They are living question marks and exclamation points. They speculate and rejoice. They muse on antique mysteries of dissipation and ritual, or excitedly strip an ancient architectural triumph—the Arch of Tiberius or the Column of Vespasian—of its agglutinated filth, so that it shines forth with a seductive luminescence. In Piranesi’s Roman antiquities, history thus becomes a romanticized hysteria. Stones quiver as if wrapped in nostalgic dreams. Old roads undulate with forsaken sufferings. The mockeries of dead emperors, courtesans and slaves glitter through an unreal darkness of grottoes and statues. Time adopts angles of memory and becomes a triangle of return. Piranesi creates, in other words, an anachronistic city—or the true Roman city as it existed for him.
Goethe himself was immediately struck by Rome’s anachronistic aspects ( Italienische Reise , November 7):

Here is an entity [Rome] which has experienced so many drastic changes in the course of two thousand years, yet is still the same soil, the same hill, often even the same column or the same wall, and in its people one still finds traces of their ancient character. Contemplating this, the observer becomes, as it were, a contemporary [italics mine] of the great decrees of destiny, and this makes it difficult for him to follow the evolution of the city, to grasp not only how Modern Rome follows on Ancient, but also how, within both, one epoch follows upon another.
Many epochs, in other words, seemed to be confused in the Rome that Goethe saw, and in some unresolved and as yet unclear way, full of an equivalent emotional vitality. At the same time, the author-traveler, who also was busy developing one of Europe’s, if not the world’s, most intelligent and adventurous sensibilities, the sensibility of the protean artist who could work successfully in all forms, sensed a welcome invitation to taste of novel sensual freedoms amid the Roman streets crowded with an uninhibited and often rather desperate population, teeming with a modern people who seemed an ancient people incarnate. Goethe experienced his first sexual love affair at Rome, while worrying, or so he tells us in his seventeenth elegy (according to Luke’s renumbering [see acknowledgments, below], which arranges his cycle correctly for the first time), about catching syphilis. The promiscuous ruins, which seemed as populated as ever with ancient divinities, were matched by a promiscuous carelessness. Time stood still or seemed fluffed out of itself. The sexual repressiveness of Weimar could be dismissed. One could indulge one’s appetites, while considering the future of one’s art.
Goethe could only have been dimly aware, if indeed it was possible for him to be aware at all, that this anachronistic city, in which he spent three fruitful and happy months working on his Faust , recasting his Iphigenie in blank verse and conceiving his plan for the Römische Elegien (which he called his “Erotica” for a while), might be a harbinger of humanity’s future. He could scarcely have understood that the historically confused atmosphere of the eighteenth-century city, with its jumblings of epochs, would, within a century, become the innocent model of the familiar atmosphere of a great many other cities, such as London, Paris and even New York, which sports medieval-looking gargoyles anachronistically alongside glassy skyscrapers. The idea of a modern anachronistic age had not yet been assimilated, or even conceived, nor the fact that people everywhere would fairly soon be bustling about among disparate, though spliced, historical moments, while cultivating a new, alienation-inspired timelessness.
Telltale inklings, however, were indeed in the air and Goethe soon became interested in them. The American Revolution, followed by the ratification of the American Constitution in 1789, and the French Revolution of the same year, which rapidly reaped a harvest of grimly democratic slaughter for the sake of the latest principles of equality, were established facts by the time Goethe returned from Rome. “You can well imagine that the French Revolution was a revolution for me too,” he wrote in a letter to his friend Fritz Jacobi in March 1790, indicating, one may surmise, a hardening of his dislike of what many already saw as mob rule in the new democratic states. An awareness of a thickety historical abruptness, as manifested in unpredictable new institutions thrown up against earlier imperial ones, which continued to thrive despite them, is perhaps also betrayed in Goethe’s phrase “a revolution for me too.” The sensibility that had steeped itself in an anachronistic metropolis for three months was unquestionably better prepared than most to begin to experience its own internal revolution, to begin to see history, and even human consciousness, as essentially anachronistic processes. At any rate, there is good evidence that he now saw his way clear to do so.
Goethe’s Römische Elegien seemed even more scandalous in their own day than his love affair with Christiane Vulpius. His literary circle, which included Schiller, was deeply uneasy with the elegies’ violations of taboos against packing serious, if ironic, poetry which seldom abandoned what Erich Auerbach has termed the middle style—as opposed to mere bawdy verse—with flirtatious games, kissing for its own sake, bodies tangling in sweaty passions, fun-filled lovemaking, and references to breasts, the penis, and the likelihood of contracting a venereal disease if one or one’s partner fooled around a bit too much.
There are powerful signs in the poems, however, that the unease of Goethe’s admirers, though understandable within the prudish salons of Weimar society, was misplaced, and that their attention might more profitably have been turned to the aesthetic revolution tumbling through image after image, and line after line, of the new Roman Elegies. In fact the poems reveal as great an artistic passion for promoting just such a revolution as they do for celebrating the delights of a sexual love between a man and a woman. They surely suggest that the aesthetic revolution, which consists of the invention and decoration of a liberated anachronistic world, makes the sexual celebration possible.
The elegiac form, for instance, is itself anachronistic. Adapted from Goethe’s readings, shortly after his return from Rome, of Propertius, Ovid and the Carmina Priapea , a group of some 80 Latin poems dating from the first century and meant to honor the phallic god Priapus, his elegies’ unrhymed distichs immediately supply his fictional love affair with an ancient background music. The effect of this music, because it is heard within a purely modern situation, a bit like Eliot’s twentieth-century meeting on London Bridge with his “dead master” (Dante, Swift and Yeats all rolled into one) in “Little Gidding,” is to take the reader not so much into the past as into an aesthetic environment in which freedoms unavailable in life become available in art. Goethe’s handling, as well, of his modern sexual subject matter, his tone, a deliberate adaptation of the worldly wise, puckish, yet eager tone of a Catullus or a Horace, is likewise alien to the late eighteenth century and especially perhaps to Germany, where few if any precedents for it existed. These anachronistic features of the elegies are plumped out with constant and detailed references to ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses and to ancient myths, which slip seamlessly into Goethe’s episodic, first-person-singular tale of wild nights, nervous days, misgivings, secret rendezvous and apprehensions about whether acquaintances may be engaging in salacious gossip. The presence of these old Greek and Roman gods, like classical Greek and Roman music, grants essential permissions and sexual releases to an anachronistic environment in which anything, and certainly any passion, seems likely. If Priapus is invoked in the first elegy, for example, and returns to frame the whole sequence in the twenty-fourth, Jupiter and Juno, along with Eros, seem to glide into the lovers’ bedroom in the third and at just their moment of ecstasy in a bed that is described as none too fancy:

Ohne das seidne Gehang und ohne gestickte Matratzen,
 Stehet es, zweien bequem, frei in dem weiten Gemach.
Nehme dann Jupiter mehr von seiner Juno, es lasse
 Wohler sich, wenn er es kann, irgend ein Sterblicher
Uns ergotzen die Freuden des echten nacketen Amors
 Und des geschaukelten Betts lieblicher knarrender
Here are no curtains of silk, no embroidered mattresses;
 In the wide bedroom it stands, ample in width to take
Not now Jupiter’s pleasure in Juno’s embraces is
   And no mortal’s content vies, I will wager, with
Ours is the true, the authentic, the naked Love; and
              beneath us,
 Rocking in rhythm, the bed creaks the dear song of
(trans. David Luke)
The bed creaks with their lovemaking, or love song, as well as with the music of ancient hexameters and pentameters, which sing the lovers’ pleasures, the oldest human pleasures, rejuvenated, in the poem itself. The bed rocks, too, against the unexpected jealousy of the gods, of Jupiter and Juno. They seem to frown here, while gazing on as voyeurs—and as they do so, the entire scene may lead the reader to consider the strange sort of art that is to be elaborated by Goethe through the rest of the elegies. This is a type of modernist art indeed, in which the ancient, mythic and divine will blend—significantly—with the contemporary and mundane. The ordinary, the quotidian, is to be lit up from within and without by ancient, magisterial presences and stories.
The contrast with the anachronisms of previous poets could not be more impressive. If Alexander Pope, in The Rape of the Lock , and Milton, in “Lycidas,” also introduce ancient Greek and Roman deities and allusions to old myths into their contemporary settings—while sticking, however, to a more modern music of Italianate-English iambics rather than employing Goethe’s ancient measures—the reality of their poems is purely theatrical. A divorced artificiality, a world of impossible yet moving events, is established, one far removed from the creaking bed and ordinary human encounter of Goethe’s two lovers who seek and find their freedoms. Pope’s intention, in addition, is to satirize, while Milton’s is to flatter the dead while decrying a religious hypocrisy, and this in a way that successfully emulates the ancient poems of mourning known to him. The emotions explored by both English poets thus differ interestingly in type from the daily-exciting sensations of the Roman Elegies , which present unadorned physical passions with openness and sincerity. Indeed, these are passions whose expression would have seemed outrageous, or at least more intensely disturbing than any genuine sexual liaison, in the sensually alienated climate of Weimar.
Equally striking differences are to be observed between the joyful, intimate events depicted in Goethe’s poems and the anachronistic plots of still other earlier authors. The Arthurian romances of Chrêtien de Troyes, of Chaucer (in “The Knight’s Tale,” the mocking “Tale of Sir Topas” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” which is set against an Arthurian background) and of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur all take their audiences, despite an anachronistic flavor, into distant realities. Chrêtien, Chaucer and Malory limn idealized, far-away kingdoms to which no living person has ever gained, or could gain, entrance. They offer daring, insightful escapes. Like Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival or Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan , they transport the reader into Never Never Lands of grandeur, magic, witchcraft, prophecy, nonsense, mystical revelation and triumph. The anachronistic in these works renders the unfamiliar familiar. It does not discover a mythic dimension in the familiar. The divine-evil realm of Dante’s Inferno and the parodic landscape of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso , which are also fitted out with anachronisms, likewise summon the reader to partake of what cannot and should not exist in daily life, of unusual exaggerations, terrors and absurdities—a far cry from Goethe’s illumination of the terrestrial, plucky and present with antique sunsets that may burn on, as his elegies reveal, in ordinary modern situations.
Goethe’s approach to human relationships here, as well as to aesthetics, becomes especially clear in the fifth, seventh and eighteenth elegies. In the fifth, after a word of encouragement to his mistress not to worry about the swiftness of her surrender to him (“dass du mir so schnell dich ergeben”), the poet, or more likely the poet-persona of this fictional account, plunges into a descriptive list of those ancient Roman gods and heroic lovers who had no cause to regret their impulsiveness: Eros himself, Venus and Anchises, Diana and Endymion, Hero and Leander and Rhea Sylvia and Mars, who sired Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. They are presented not as the inhabitants of some remote past or superstitious mythology, but as neighbors, even if gifted with superhuman qualities, as rather like the ancient people incarnate that Goethe saw on his walks near the Forum and Coliseum every day. The gods and old heroes have become types of janitorial assistants.
In the seventh, after observing that he feels himself happily inspired on “classical soil” in Rome (“Froh empfind ich mich nun auf klassischem Boden begeistert”), Goethe virtually announces his artistic purpose:

 Vor- und Mitwelt spricht lauter und reizender mir.
Hier befolg ich den Rat, durchblättre die Werke der Alten
 Mit geschäftiger Hand, täglich mit neuem Genuss.
Aber die Nächte hindurch hält Amor mich anders beschäftigt;
 Werd ich auch halb gelehrt, bin ich doch doppelt
Und belehr ich mich nicht, indem ich des lieblichen Busens
 Formen spähe, die Hand leite die Hüften hinab?
 Past and present speak plain, charm me as never before.
Here I follow the counsels and busily thumb through the
 Of the ancients, and each day with increasing delight.
But at the love-god’s behest, by night my business is
 Half my scholarship’s lost, yet I have double the fun.
And is this not education, to study the shape of her lovely
 Breasts, and down her hip slides my adventuring hand?
(trans. David Luke)
Enchanted by past and present alike, harkening to both, pouring himself into the writings of the alive ancients and a modern love affair, he observes a meshing of incommensurate eras, educating himself in the old books and her youthful body for the sake of his art. Her body in fact becomes the delicious tablet on which he discovers the lost music of his poems. On it, as she sleeps, he composes his modern-ancient poetry:

Überfällt sie der Schlaf, lieg ich und denke mir
Oftmals hab ich auch schon in ihren Armen gedichtet
 Und des Hexameters Mass leise mit fingernder Hand Ihr
          auf den Rücken gezählt.
And when she sinks into sleep, wakeful and thoughtful I
Often I even compose my poetry in her embraces,
 Counting hexameter beats, tapping them out on her back
Softly, with one hand’s fingers.
(trans. David Luke)
Her body is both historical metronome and sexual historian. It instructs him in how to see and understand the ancient marble of the statues all about him by day (“Dann versteh ich den Marmor erst recht”) so that, reconciled with his own sensuality, a sensuality hitherto suppressed and alienated, he may see “with vision that feels,” and feel “with fingers that see” (“[ich] Sehe mit fühlendem Aug, fühle mit sehender Hand”). Her passion teaches him a sought-after reunion of himself and the world.
What is in fact exciting throughout, what is revealed as forming the theme of the entire love adventure, is the progressive healing of the poet’s fragmented spirit. In this elegy, he begins to recombine the making of his poetry, his art, with its intellectual and sensual sources. These become a single, fluent process, with the result that the reality of the sequence acquires a timeless, modern elasticity. The poet becomes much like Wallace Stevens’s modernist philosopher in “To an old Philosopher in Rome,” who on “The threshold, / Rome, and that more merciful Rome / Beyond, the two alike in the make of the mind,” sees “the figures in the street / Become the figures of heaven,” with the city molting into “A shape within the ancient circle of shapes.” The nineteenth-century Hegelian problem of estrangement from reality, later to be diagnosed by Marx and Engels as an alienation of the individual within a capitalist system, is here resolved, in other words, as it would be resolved again by modernist poets over one hundred years later, by a redeeming, anachronistic approach.
In the eighteenth elegy, one of the longest (it runs to 51 lines), this aesthetics achieves its most magnificent display. A trivial-seeming incident is presented. The poet-lover finds himself in a Roman tavern, among a familiar circle of German acquaintances. The woman with whom he spends his pleasure-filled nights—her name may be Faustina, but we cannot be sure—is seated at a nearby table with her mother. She adjusts her bench to let him see her profile, to let him gaze rapturously upon her neck. She raises her wine glass in a toast to a Roman girlfriend and deliberately allows some of her wine to spill on the table. Tossing him a frivolous glance, she casually traces both of their names in the wine, mingling them, and as he watches, she adds a roman numeral one and then a five, discreetly arranging a time when they can meet, which, he realizes to his regret, will be four hours after nightfall, or eight hours hence. With her message received, she erases everything, and he sits there dumbstruck and bewildered. The time of their appointment is indelibly stamped on his brain. He bites his lip in anticipation, and this so distractedly that he makes it bleed. He cannot think how to pass the next empty hours and burns with a desperate eagerness.
He manages to pass them in a totally fantastical way. The history of Rome itself seems to flash before him. The sheer length of that history, recalled and made to live once again in the present, shortens his waiting time. History blots out the avid anxiety of his ordeal. He concocts this astonishing panacea in his art by, first of all, addressing the sun. Painting Roman history in words that mix light and shadow, he reverses the traditional carpe diem posturing of poets and lovers—that time is short, so they should gather their rosebuds while they may—by begging the sun to speed up, to move swiftly across the sky today and set early: “Aber heute verweile mir nicht, und wende die Blicke / Von dem Siebengebirg früher und williger ab!” (“Only today do not linger, consent to be brief in your survey, / Sooner than usual to take leave of the fair Seven Hills!”) Marveling at the old sunlight that shone long ago on the greatness of Horace’s Rome and that inspired so many artists with its peculiar brightness, he suddenly wishes that all sunlight were gone, and with it all corrosive time, so that he might the more quickly and perfectly be with his beloved. He observes the modern sun glinting on the ancient facades, columns, domes and obelisks that filigree the city to its edge and the horizon, and then imagines Rome as it once was, as mere wooded hills, as dark foliage spangling nearby swamps and riverbanks framed by flimsy rushes. He sees Romulus’s early tribe of men, the fortunate robbers (“glücklicher Räuber”), as he calls them, reenacting their legendary rape of the Sabine women and settling with them in this once desolate place. That event, he notes, marked the birth of a world, the ancient Roman world, which the sun would later see crumble into ruins, and which now, guided by the love god Eros, may yet witness a rebirth, the blossoming of something greater among its ruins, his love and the love of his mistress. The poem’s historical panorama thus moves from rape to love, from theft to munificence, from darkness into light, with the light paradoxically turning into the new darkness of a new night, as the time passed in this historical way sweeps on unnaturally fast and as he realizes that very soon now, with history liberating time, she will be with him.
Inside this unusual temporal cottage, the poem thus creates an anachronistic reality strongly reminiscent of Piranesi’s etchings. Goethe’s poem, like Piranesi’s depictions of Roman palaces, fountains and arcades, shows the shadows of a lost epoch as grammatically alive, as emphasizing and clarifying the present, as dramatizing it and filling its emptiness with meaning. Crucial to the linguistic life of these shadows, moreover, is a discovery that the reader may make only later, and that casts the special anachronistic world of their love into even bolder relief. This is that the manner of the lovers’ meeting in their Roman tavern, or osteria , is itself an artful fiction. Its decisive moment, that of their appointment scribbled in spilled wine, is borrowed, and then set into fresh, modern circumstances, from Ovid or Propertius, though other late Latin poets use it too. In his Heroides (xvii, 87), Ovid writes,

orbe quoque in mensae legi sub nomine nostro
  quod deducta mero littera fecit AMO.
And more than that: where you wrote my name in
 wine on top of the round table, you added the
 letters spelling I LOVE.
With this ancient context established, the entire incident must be seen afresh. It is at once 1,800 years old and utterly new. It is vestigial and modern. What is more, as we learn in the earlier fifteenth elegy, this moment has come about only through Goethe’s instruction in aesthetics and love by the ancient god of love, Eros, and the ancient poets themselves. In the fifteenth elegy, Eros announces his challenge to any poet who wishes to heal himself and to practice his art—that he must allow freely selected parts of history to recur and blossom again within him:

Denkst du nun wieder zu bilden, O Freund? Die Schule der
Blieb noch offen, das Tor schlossen die Jahre nicht
Would you now practice your art once more? The school of
            the Greeks is
Open as ever; the years pass, yet its doors never
(trans. David Luke)
Eros exhorts the poet along these anachronistic lines—“Lebe glücklich, und so lebe die Vorzeit in dir!” (“Now, by enjoying your life, make the past live on in you!”)—and it is clear that in taking this difficult command seriously, and in modern times, Goethe achieves his important aesthetic innovation. At one stroke, he succeeds in combining the middle style (with its implications of a full emotional range) and intimate sensual experience. In arranging this through an extraordinary use of anachronism, he also, and almost casually, discovers his appealing aesthetic solution to the problem of meaning, or sensual alienation, with all of its healing potential.
Postmodernist positions, in so far as they exist, are very different from what Goethe invents in his elegies, and they are worth noting for the sake of making distinctions clearer and gaining a perspective on Goethe’s accomplishment. The collective postmodernist position is of course that there is no solution at all to the problem of sensual alienation and fragmentation. In the latter plays and stories of Samuel Beckett or the fiction of Peter Handke, sensual dread and alienation are diminished to relatively minor issues, because language itself is viewed as collapsing, as hollow, as imploding. Meaning, on even the most superficial levels, is understood as unobtainable. Significance, values, and feelings are seen as shifty things that constantly moult into new instabilities, like leopards incessantly changing their spots. Terror and somnambulance prepare a value system of emptiness. Even social and political change seems a fraudulent and bleak extravagance. Often one is diverted by a suave and pointless playfulness.
These attitudes toward art, needless to say, would scarcely have interested Goethe or any of the other modernists who became his successors. Despite his opposition to the seeming materialism of Newton’s physics and his futile conviction, as expressed in his Die Farbenlehre , that colors are to be found in objects and that they express definite spiritual impulses, Goethe was no opponent of the modern science that seeks to uncover the harmonic laws of the physical universe and that therefore affirms the capacity of language to describe all sorts of behavior, as well as emotional and psychological states, in solid, sensible and final terms. The universe for him is hardly a Beckettian pandora’s box full of unappealing dragons. His Italienische Reise itself brims over with his passionate interest in geology, with his conviction that facts, whether physical or psychological, can be established. The Römische Elegien also constitute an exploration of this possibility. The modernist, anachronistic world of the ordinary that they create may exist chiefly in the minds of the poet and his readers, but in that intimate mental niche their vitality, and their meanings, are genuine and authentic. One of these meanings is surely that Hegel’s and Marx’s sensual dread is superfluous. Another is that alienation itself—and this idea is implied several decades before Georg Büchner invents a view verging on postmodernist nihilism in his Woyzeck— may be brushed aside through a new type of art, one that makes ample use of Goethe’s new principle of open anachronism. The desperations of the nonreligious soul may be relieved and consoled through an art that is multidimensional in limpid, time-defiant ways.
A similar problem seems to have been solved by Goethe in his Faust , and in a similar way. In retrospect it is not difficult to see why finding a solution to this problem—how to assimilate a superstitious belief in the devil to a developing modern world which would not accept such a belief and in which any pact with a Mephistopheles might easily appear as a silly self-indulgence—occupied the mental and emotional energies of nearly 50 years of his life. The world itself was changing with the poet, and through its sheer scruffiness and abruptness of change, amounting to successive political and social revolutions, providing hints and clues that would only gradually show him the way. Perhaps his realization that the new world coming into being would be in its essence thoroughly anachronistic provided the most substantial clue of all, leading to his creation in Part II of Faust of a poetry as deliberately anachronistic and intimate as any that may be found in the Römische Elegien. Christopher Marlowe, in writing his own very different version of the Faust legend, had no need to face so intractable-seeming a problem. He lived in an age, in the sixteenth century, when beliefs in the devil were commonplace, and when trials for practicing witchcraft took place daily. For Marlowe, who lifted a late-medieval legend into a new Elizabethan setting, anachronism could remain a mere aesthetic toy, device and jest. It could enliven a remote and foreign past. It was a playwright’s license. For Goethe, however, popular disbelief collided with an inner conviction of the obviousness of evil on the psychological and social planes of human life, making the antique and apparently obsolete essential to throwing sharp lights of relief, and the light of an aesthetic freedom, onto what was new.
I wish to express my thanks for many helpful suggestions and ideas to the members of the Department of German, University College London, where this essay was first presented in an unfinished form at a faculty seminar, and especially to Martin Swales, Adrian Stevens, Alexander Stillmark and Irving Dworetzsky. Complementary discussions of Goethe’s Römische Elegien may be found in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Roman Elegies and The Diary , verse translation by David Luke, introduction by Hans Rudolf Vaget (London 1988); Hans Jürgen Meissler, Goethe und Properz (Bochum 1987); Meredith Lee, Goethe’s Lyric Cycles (Chapel Hill, N.C. 1978); and Nicholas Boyle, Goethe: The Poet and the Age, Vol. I: The Poetry of Desire (1749–1790) (Oxford 1991), 57–74, 632–41.
Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano *
As an assessment of the Modernist Period, this book is very superior. As a biography of Ezra Pound, who must be regarded as a major shaping influence on modernist and postmodernist poetry, it is far more lucid, honest and entertaining than its subject. Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson offers the case of a silly and attentive man producing a marvelous study of a great man. Often this is achieved through a fawning and unbearable enthusiasm. John Tytell’s biography offers the reverse. A man inferior in every way to an unflattering if balanced biography is revealed in his true and complex lights, with the author’s enthusiasm largely reserved for the spellbinding facts.
Ezra Pound was a poseur , a con man, and his life and art, such as they were, are all of a piece. The hollowness that one feels at the center of his poetry corresponds to the hollowness of a life that when it was not busy with poetry, was devoted to ranting about the virtues of authoritarianism, raving about imaginary conspiracies and promoting bigotry. The poetry too is distinguished not so much by occasional brilliance as by fragmentation. It is a series of modern shards that are exploded in all directions. It is a collection of modern ruins. Bit heaves on bit, chunk on chunk. Grammar crumbles under their weight. Sense, not to mention common sense, vanishes. If the excuse given is “newness,” the excuse will not do. Seen in context with Pound’s life, in fact, the excuse disappears into the obvious fact that Pound himself seems to have been a series of bits and shards and roles to be played, a collection of empty costumes, of struttings. Fascism and Nazism do not have greater appeal because of their “newness,” after all, any more than genocide becomes more palatable because it is managed with ruthless modern efficiency.
If these comments seem severe, it will perhaps be admitted by any reader of Tytell’s book that the facts justify them. Moreover, the issues are momentous for poetry. No previous poet sought to promote his art, the very type of poetry he chose to write, on the basis of his political and social views, or not to the same extent as did Pound. With Pound, the question of social doctrine, of his attitude toward the institutions of humanity, is all important from the start, and anyone who wishes to ignore this peculiarity must ignore an enormous amount of the poetry and nearly all of the prose. With Pound, therefore, begins the recent critical practice, as current as it is lamentable and confused, of evaluating a poet’s work in terms of the poet’s prejudices and ideology. But Pound demands this. Simultaneously, he demands that he be seen as a “pure” artist. These claims are mutually exclusive, obviously so, which is perhaps why no poet prior to Pound ever made them with the same insistence. The claims are also the true source of all arguments over the value of what Pound wrote, and over Pound himself.
Tytell’s biography documents Pound’s posturings and posings, as well as his quest for a “voice,” from his not so humble beginnings. He was born on October 30, 1885, 13 years after the Franco-Prussian War, and 20 years after that other harbinger of modern methods of mass slaughter, the American Civil War. In England, Tennyson was poet laureate. Also in England, Oscar Wilde, advertising the philosophy of aestheticism that Pound would later disparage, was scribbling such aphoristic vacuities as “In art, only Browning can make action and psychology one.” Wilde’s major plays, as well as Dorian Gray and his trials, imprisonment and humiliating end, lay ahead of him. In France, Paul Gauguin argued before café audiences of poets and painters that “symbolism is necessary in art and poetry” to avoid “the abominable error of naturalism.” One year later, Jean Moreas was to publish his “Symbolism: A Literary Manifesto” in Le Figaro , in which he would describe symbolist poetry and fiction as a new and inevitable movement, full of characters that slip “through surroundings distorted by [their] own hallucinations and desires; the only reality is contained in this distortion.” In Vienna, Sigmund Freud, who had received his medical degree just four years earlier, was collaborating with Joseph Breuer on the studies of hysteria that were to lead to the theory that the mind contains vast subconscious, or unknowable, areas of behavior. Ahead, 10 and 20 years in the future, lay Einstein’s major papers on relativity theory, which were to alter drastically the belief that there could be any objective observer of events at all. Also ahead was Max Plank’s discovery of quanta, with its implications of the possible randomness of subatomic events, not to be published for another 15 years. Adolph Hitler would not be born for another four years, in rural Braunau, in Austria. Benito Mussolini, whose Fascism Pound would later come to admire and fanatically support, was two years old. In the arts and sciences, the Western world, just prior to the turn of the century, sat before a Door of Unknowing, beyond which waited awesome horrors and marvels, and deeply wrenching conflicts with the past.
These conflicts are evident in Pound’s life, if not his very soul, almost from the moment of his birth. Though he was born in Idaho, where his father had been sent to establish a government land office, Pound and his mother soon moved to New York, and then, with his father, to Philadelphia, where he grew up in plush Victorian surroundings. The transition from frontier to civilization, from the wildness of a barely settled territory to an established literate culture, was symbolically important. The clashing and bruising of barbarism and order were to become a grand theme of Pound’s poetry. It was no doubt a paradox of his odd Weltanschauung that he was to find order and safety in a European civilization gone mad with barbarism, and in a complete rejection of democracy. A bitter notion of disinheritance—not in Nerval’s pagan-spiritual sense but in the sense of feeling himself cheated out of what he saw as his legitimate connections to political power in the United States—seems also to have mesmerized Pound while he was quite young and to have haunted him throughout his life.
One of his ancestors had been Captain James Wadsworth, who helped to write Connecticut’s constitution in the seventeenth century. Pound’s paternal grandfather Thaddeus had served as acting governor of Wisconsin from 1870 to 1871, as a member of Congress and as a popular orator in Republican presidential campaigns. Thaddeus had adopted a style of bombastic denunciation that sounded remarkably like his grandson’s Fascist tracts, to be ground out by the score a couple of generations later.
Pound received an ample schooling in his “disinheritance”—Thaddeus was denied a cabinet position under Garfield—from his maternal grandmother Mary Weston, whom he often visited at her rooming house in Manhattan. On these visits, he had no doubt also had a chance to witness a development that for him was as distasteful as it was influential. This was the latest flood of immigrants into New York, among them many Jews and Slavs. By 1910, in his long essay on New York, “Patria Mia,” he was writing scornfully that these new Americans would help to produce a mongrel nation.
Another source of conflict was America’s literary, and specifically poetic, heritage. From the beginning, America had been a contradictory, as well as inviting, place for poetry, with ghostless forests and modern unspoiled Gardens of Eden on every side, along with Indian tribes as various in mood, violence and friendliness as the domains they ruled from scattered districts. The trails blazed through the New Albion might lead as easily to evil as to good. The savagery matched the innocence. The same might be said of the pioneers and later settlers. A frequent intellectual sophistication and idealism were often accompanied by virginal greed and naive intolerance.

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