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“What better proof could we have of how thoroughly the plagiarists have overcrawled the world?” (J.J. Chapman)

October 1, 2009

John Jay Chapman (from the photograph reprinted in "John Jay Chapman & His Letters," ed Mark A. DeWolfe Howe

I find a fit summary of John Jay Chapman’s literary criticism in the following passage, which occurs in an 1891 letter to Annie Adams, wife of James T. Fields, the Boston publisher. It must be taken whole.

I hate sonnets because they are the most literary of all the forms of verse—even our best English poets are on their best literary behavior in the sonnet—their best foreign manner gloved and scented. Shakespeare’s sonnets stand by themselves. They have the charm of his poetry, his songs and madrigals—and it is his own. They don’t pretend to be sonnets. They don’t follow the traditions of sonnets and they don’t smell like sonnets. Michael Angelo being an Italian was at home, so to speak, in the sonnet and wasn’t obliged to imitate anyone in particular—(for an Englishman to write a sonnet is as if he should try to say his prayers in French) and Michael Angelo was constantly taken up only with the endeavor to say the thing—he was not giving sops to literary tradition. He was like a powerful man packing a carpet bag—when he has too many things to go in. You can see the veins swell on his forehead as he grips the edges and tries to make it close. Half the time he takes everything out again on the floor and makes a new arrangement—with the shaving brush at the bottom—and then he is so uncertain which is best that he allows both readings to stand. But they have thought in `em. There is not a fraud nor a paper stuffing nor a filigree ornament in the volume—and O, how can we ever be grateful enough for this! Here is a man that writes poetry as good as prose. [The language of his sonnets] is colloquial and simple—anything but literary.

Sir Philip Sidney, artist unknown. National Portrait Gallery, England.

Into this one paragraph Chapman condenses a highly suggestive history of the short poem in English in the age of Shakespeare. Astutely (if impatiently) Chapman scouts what would later be called the “Petrarchan” or—somewhat more grandly, by C.S. Lewisthe “golden” style in English verse, as we find it, say, in the sonnets of Spenser and Sidney. Chapman understands how utterly “secondary” that poetry can often be, even at its best, what with its continental and Latinate affectations, and with its often stultifying conventionality, and all this at precisely the time when English lyric poetry was, in its other phases, attaining an astonishing colloquial vigor (in Donne), a purity and simplicity of diction (in Herbert and Jonson), a brilliantly expressive facility with structure (again, in Herbert), an unrivaled grace and poise (in Jonson again), and a complexity in thought and argument (alike in Shakespeare, Greville, Donne, and Herbert) which was never really to be matched again. And if that weren’t enough, Chapman whimsically outlines just how difficult it can be, even for a poet native to the form, to “pack” a sonnet; it is a very tight valise. One can’t mistake the easy familiarity of Chapman’s account of Michelangelo at work (the swelling of the veins in the forehead, the shaving brush); he came by this naturally, having himself translated the sonnets—or, to take up his metaphor, having himself unpacked and repacked them for a transatlantic journey into his own American English. This intimacy with the sonnet in its native context probably accounts for Chapman’s feeling that the form wears so badly in English. In fact, sonnets in English seem to have struck his ear like a phony accent.

But the best of this remarkable letter is still to come:

Do you know I really believe that there’s a great deal of humbug talked about workmanship and form in poetry. These things are results—the shimmer and gleam that come from saying things well. They are not entities. They are no more things in themselves than the relation between two lights is a thing in itself, and anyone who sets to work to put good form on his poetry is like the man in the story who wanted good architecture put on to his house. These Aldriches who think style is the means of saying things well! How false is a philosophy of composition which admits that there is such a thing as beauty—as an end to be reached—and yet this simple proposition seems like a paradox—what better proof could we have of how thoroughly the plagiarists have overcrawled the world? `Use beauty-wash!’ they cry—patent Italian sonnet-varnish—the only thing that has stood the test of time. Use the celebrated `Milton finish’ for odes, epics and epitaphs—cures lame feet and rhymatism. Use the Petrarch burnisher—porcelain-lined, it secures fame. Use Shakespolio, Wordsworthene, and Racine—they never vary and are Reliable’—Is it a wonder a man will not arrive anywhere if he spends all his life getting forward and backward over his style?

Thomas Bailey Aldrich, editor of "The Atlantic Monthly" from 1881-1890.

Seldom has the folly of abstracting “form” from meaning, or beauty from truth, been so forcefully expressed. The topic occasions a wicked satire of the off-the-shelf gentility, and the superficial polish, of American verse in the years between the end of Reconstruction and the turn of the century—a gentility which Chapman rightly associates with the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, Thomas Bailey Aldrich. (Chapman wonderfully achieves, here—and effortlessly, to boot—what Ezra Pound tried so often, and so inadequately, to achieve in his letters and essays of the 1910s, and also in Lustra.) The parody of American advertising jargon with which the letter concludes is used to make a definite point. American poetry, by the end of the nineteenth century, had been assimilated to the culture of commerce and business, with the result that it, too, took on something of the timidity and unacknowledged dishonesty of that culture. Our poetry had become a well-adjusted sub-department of the literary “Ideological State Apparatus,” to use the ponderous Althusserian term. It was a Rotarian sort of poetry, a poetry written to please, and above all never to startle or offend. In any case, it was the characteristic expression of an era that hardly knew what to do with the “lame feet and rhymatism” of so unkempt and original a writer as Emily Dickinson (she always “varied,” and she wasn’t “reliable”).

N.B. Following is one of Michaelangelo’s sonnets, as translated by Chapman:

Give me again ye fountains and ye streams
That flood of life, not yours that swells your front
Beyond the natural fullness of your wont.
I gave, and I take back as it beseems.
And thou dense choking atmosphere on high
Disperse thy fog of sighs—for it is mine,
And make the glory of the sun to shine
Again on my dim eyes, O Earth and Sky.
Give me again the footsteps I have trod.
Let the paths grow where I walked them bare,
The echoes where I waked them with my prayer
Be deaf—and let those eyes—those eyes, O God,
Give me the light I lent them.

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