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“Such was that happy Garden-state, while Man there walk’d without a mate…”

November 5, 2009

I want to talk about two poems today, one by Frost and a second by Andrew Marvell. But before getting round to them I must revisit the business of the “gender/sex system” (as Gayle Rubin put it her 1975 essay “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex”). To do that, I’ll take a short tour back through Simone de Beauvoir‘s great book The Second Sex—the book which put into play so much of what has followed in the English Department.

Beauvoir shows us how it was “no accident” (as the saying goes) that imperatives of “order,” “reason,” “logic,” “structure,” and “form,” became associated with “masculinity.” She regards this association as a consequence of an effort on our part—on our species’s part—to slip the bonds of earth; on our effort to establish some manner of control over the “natural” fates that had always determined us, and from which we had “mysteriously” sprung. The onset of patriarchy, on her account, coincides with the development of agriculture, which for the first time made the


Simone de Beauvoir (photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson)

natural world subordinate to our purposes: no more catch-as-catch-can, no more gathering. (Cf. chapter five of The Second Sex: “Early Tillers of the Soil.”) We sought above all things to transcend mere “repetition,” mere “animal” life, and to realize ourselves as self-determining “existents” (to borrow a term from Beauvoir’s existentialist vocabulary). But in so doing, we—at this point the “we” begins to become gender exclusive—came to see in “woman” a creature more intimately bound up with “Nature” than “man.” Why? Because of the asymmetry in the relations men and women separately have to the “natural” reproductive process, which much more intimately conscripts the bodies of women than the bodies of men, from the onset of menstruation, on through pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and so on. (Here, cf. chapter one of The Second Sex: “The Data of Biology.”) The body of woman came to seem as if it were the very site at which the “natural” realm laid hold on “us”—again, the pronoun becomes invidiously gender-exclusive—and it was from that realm that we sought our emancipation. In woman (Beauvoir tells us) men behold their point of origin, as well as a token of the fact that they were once utterly dependent on another (female) creature for survival. Men hate this fact, Beauvoir suggests, because they wish to be “autonomous” and “free.” Men’s devotion to Order, Logic and Reason is a part of a larger project to master their contingency, their limitation (both of which, again, man associates with woman, who appears to him irrecoverably bound up in the “animal” processes of nature). All of this, Beauvoir suggests, explains the origins of the “binary oppositions” that so govern our thinking, and which are essentially “patriarchal” in character.

Let’s rehearse a few such familiar oppositions, to the analysis of which so much effort in the English Department was devoted back in the 1980s and 1990s. All of them are ranged under what we might call the master opposition of “Feminine” to “Masculine”:

Mere life/Authentic Existence

Needless to say, Beauvoir argues that these binary oppositions damn the feminine and exalt the masculine. That is why we speak of them as “patriarchal.” They so thoroughly permeate our discourse (philosophical, theological,aesthetic, political, medical) that it may reasonably be said that our language is itself “patriarchal” in “structure”—that is to say, in the “structures” through which it organizes the world.


Cover, Vintage Paperback Edition. Click on the image for (partial) access to the text at Amamzon.

We must emphasize the point: The animosity that often colors this subordination of one value to another in the pairs of terms listed above is ultimately a function of “male” contempt for our “natural” origins. It is very deeply seated, and very ancient. Beauvoir says: “Woman inspires man with horror: it is the horror of his own carnal contingence.” This “horror” is expressed most starkly in the many strictures and taboos that ancient peoples (and some modern peoples) establish around menstruation and childbirth. (Cf. chapter nine of The Second Sex: “Dreams, Fears, Idols.” Cf. also chapter 12 of the book of Leviticus: “ If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days; according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean. And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled. But if she bear a maid child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her separation: and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying threescore and six days.”)

“The female,” then, “is the victim of the species,” as Beauvoir succinctly puts it. This idea arises, as might be expected, from consideration of the mechanism of reproduction: “Even when she is willing or provocative, it is unquestionably the male who takes the female,” Beauvoir explains. “Often the word applies literally, for whether by means of special organs or through superior strength, the male seizes her and holds her in place . . . In this penetration her inwardness is violated, she is like an enclosure that is broken into. The male is not doing violence to the species, for the species survives only in being constantly renewed and would come to an end if eggs and sperms did not come together; but the female, entrusted with the protection of the egg, locks it away inside herself, and her body, in sheltering the egg, shields it from the fecundating action of the male. Her body becomes, therefore, a resistance to be broken through, whereas in pentrating it the male finds self-fulfillment in activity.” (Again, cf. chapter one, “The Data of Biology.”)


Cover, Oxford UP 30th Anniversary Edition. Click on the image for (partial) access to the book at Amazon.

The point to bear in mind is that the “interests” of the “individual” woman and the interests of the “species” are not (necessarily) in harmony. If we consider the “interests” of what Richard Dawkins calls the “selfish gene,” it is easy to see how any one individual woman may become “the victim of the species.” It is as if the “species” realizes itself by hijacking the bodies of particular women, whose “private” aspirations, insofar as these conflict with the demands of the species, aren’t allowed to develop. The problem for us is that “morality” and “ethics” have precisely to do with individual men and women, and not with “genes” or with “the species.” In us, “Nature” happened upon a species whose individuals may regard themselves as characteristically in conflict with Nature, as set apart from it. From the point of view of Nature—if I can indulge the fancy of giving it a point of view—we may be a terrible mistake. We’ve come to realize that our interests need not be the interests of Nature at all—that Nature’s interests, which certainly have to do with what Beauvoir calls “mere life,” are not necessarily ours. Where these interests conflict, we have to “take sides.” This feminism has done through advocacy of contraception, abortion rights, and so on, to speak only of political and medical matters.

Click on the image for a link to partial access to the book at Amazon.

Click on the image for (partial) access to the book at Amamzon.

But the point Beauvoir would make is very simple: there’s no reason whatever that the category “Nature” ought to play a determining role in our lives. The final conquest of Nature by Culture, its final subordination to “human” purposes, means that the ancient “asymmetry” I spoke of above can be redressed. Woman will no longer be “the victim of the species.” (This dream accounts for the utopian investment that radical feminists like Shulamith Firestone—author of the now-neglected The Dialectic of Sex (1970)—once placed in advanced reproductive technology, envisioning, ultimately, gestation outside the womb.) At the end of the day, as Beauvoir tells us, “it is only in a human perspective [as opposed to a “natural” or “biological” one] that we can compare the female and the male of the human species. But man is defined as a being who is not fixed, who makes himself what he is.” And with this, Beauvoir anticipates a major insight of what we now call, speaking very generally, post-structuralist theory: “Man is not a natural species: he is a historical idea.” In certain respects, Darwin laid the basis for this recognition, and as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett make clear, it is a perversion of his thinking to argue from supposedly “Darwinian” grounds that “morality” either inevitably has, let alone must have, a basis worth calling “Natural” in any strong sense (as popular writers on evolutionary psychology sometimes wrongly assume it does). To put it in a contrarian sort of way Dawkins might well approve of: The more “un-Natural” we are, the better and more “human” we become. “Society is not a species,” says Beauvoir, and it should not, therefore, be considered in a “biological” or “Natural” light. But do these ideas help us read poetry?

Consider “The White-Tailed Hornet,” a poem by Robert Frost first collected in his 1936 volume A Further Range. “The White-Tailed Hornet” begins with an anecdote, related in Frost’s ingratiating and self-impeaching way, about a hornet who strikes not unerringly, as one might expect an “instinctual” creature to do, but in an all-too-human, fallible sort of way. This hornet mistakes nailheads and huckleberries for flies, and when he finally does strike a fly, he misses.

The white-tailed hornet lives in a balloon
That floats against the ceiling of the woodshed.
The exit he comes out at like a bullet
Is like the pupil of a pointed gun.
And having power to change his aim in flight,
He comes out more unerring than a bullet.
Verse could be written on the certainty
With which he penetrates my best defense
Of whirling hands and arms about the head
To stab me in the sneeze-nerve of a nostril.
Such is the instinct of it I allow.
Yet how about the insect certainty
That in the neighborhood of home and children
!s such an execrable judge of motives
As not to recognize in me the exception
I like to think I am in everything—
One who would never hang above a bookcase
His Japanese crepe-paper globe for trophy?
He stung me first and stung me afterward.
He rolled me off the field head over heels,
And would not listen to my explanations.
That’s when I went as visitor to his house.
As visitor at my house he is better.
Hawking for flies about the kitchen door,
In at one door perhaps and out another,
Trust him then not to put you in the wrong.
He won’t misunderstand your freest movements.
Let him light on your skin unless you mind
So many prickly grappling feet at once.
He’s after the domesticated fly
To feed his thumping grubs as big as he is.
Here he is at his best, but even here—
I watched him where he swooped, he pounced, he struck;
But what he found he had was just a nailhead.
He struck a second time. Another nailhead.
“Those are just nailheads. Those are fastened down.”
Then disconcerted and not unannoyed,
He stooped and struck a little huckleberry
The way a player curls around a football.
“Wrong shape, wrong color, and wrong scent,” I said.
The huckleberry rolled him on his head.
At last it was a fly. He shot and missed;
And the fly circled round him in derision.
But for the fly he might have made me think
He had been at his poetry, comparing
Nailhead with fly and fly with huckleberry:
How like a fly, how very like a fly.
But the real fly he missed would never do;
The missed fly made me dangerously skeptic.
Won’t this whole instinct matter bear revision?
Won’t almost any theory bear revision?

So much for “instinct,” then, and for “theories,” too. And Frost continues:

To err is human, not to, animal.
Or so we pay the compliment to instinct,
Only too liberal of our compliment
That really takes away instead of gives.
Our worship, humor, conscientiousness
Went long since to the dogs under the table.
And served us right for having instituted
Downward comparisons. As long on earth
As our comparisons were stoutly upward
With gods and angels, we were men at least,
But little lower than the gods and angels.
But once comparisons were yielded downward,
Once we began to see our images
Reflected in the mud and even dust,
‘Twas disillusion upon disillusion.
We were lost piecemeal to the animals,
Like people thrown out to delay the wolves.
Nothing but fallibility was left us,
And this day’s work made even that seem doubtful.

Frost obviously has Darwin in mind, here—the thinker whose “downward comparisons” forever detached us from the angels and cast us down with “the dogs under the table.” Though he certainly doesn’t say evolutionary theory’s “downward comparisons” are “untrue,” Frost does imply that they are somehow not “beneficial” for us, that they have, in certain cases, bad “human” consequences. He is giving us, in a delightfully playful sort of way, a “pragmatic” reason for quarantining Darwin, at least in certain arenas of human endeavor. (This is precisely what Richard Dawkins does in The Selfish Gene, in his own rather different way, and to his own rather different purposes: “We [homo sapiens sapiens] at least have the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests. We can see the long-term benefits of participating in a ‘conspiracy of doves,’ and we can sit down together to discuss ways of making the conspiracy work. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination [e.g., into institutions like patriarchy and white-supremacy]. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism—something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone upon earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators” [pages 200-201 of the 1989 edition].)


Cover, 1st Edition, 1936

“The White-Tailed Hornet” advocates something like a principled turning away from our knowledge of, and from the imperatives of, biology. But what accounts for this turn away from “the natural” and back toward “the super-natural,” if that is in fact what the poem involves (i.e., “upward comparisons”)? Why should a discovery that we have feet of clay—that our image is reflected in the mud and dust—be so dispiriting? Does Frost wish us to enter into a Dawkinsian “conspiracy of doves”? Perhaps. But there’s more to it than that. For one thing Frost—or rather the persona he adopts for the purposes of “arguing” this whimsical poem—is “denied his transcendence,” as the existentialists (and Beauvoir) say. No more of those “stout” “upward comparisons” whereby we once identified ourselves not with the “body” but with the “soul.” (Goodbye St. Paul, and may God be with ye!) Now, nothing but our cherished all-too-human “fallibility” is left us, and even that seems “doubtful,” the poem tells us, as an index by which we might finally distinguish the “human” from the “animal” (because “animal instinct,” too, can “err”). We “lose ourselves piecemeal,” in a hard Darwinian turn, “to the animals.” Which is to say: Nothing but “the body” is left us. Literary critics indebted to Beauvoir might argue along the following lines: The “chastened” air of the last section of “The White-Tailed Hornet” is really a function of a particular man’s contempt for his own “contingent” and “carnal” origins. He looks down at the dust out of which he arose, which is also the place where he is destined again to lie (the womb and the tomb of earth). He loses himself to brute Nature, and he doesn’t like it. Man’s curse, says Beauvoir in “Dreams, Fears, Idols,” is to have “fallen from a bright and ordered heaven into the chaotic shadows of his mother’s womb. This fire, this pure and active exhalation in which he likes to recognize himself, is imprisoned by woman in the mud of earth.”


Frost, arriving in London, 1957

It is not at all gratifying—or so poems like “The White-Tailed Hornet” imply—to find your “image” “reflected” in the “mud” and “dust.” Much better to bear with those old “upward comparisons,” which promise otherworldly origins and ends, and a “bright and ordered heaven.” It is possible to discern, here, a “patriarchal” habit of thought, even though the question of “woman” never once arises in the poem. Literary critics of the Roundhead stamp (so to speak) simply ask that we weigh the importance of this habit of thought in the total context of the poem. How much sin is here, and how much sincerity? Is there something more, here, than a mischievous response to Darwin—something from which all the charming wit and play might well distract us? I think there is. “The White-Tailed Hornet” is complicated by a knowing irony, which says, on my reading: “It is foolish to resist these ‘downward comparisons.’ The ‘upward comparisons’ of the Christian epoch were just a splendid fiction, worth indulging in now only in a qualified, winking sort of way, or worth relying on only insofar as they insulate us from overdrawn ‘naturalist’ reductions of human motives, experiences and possibilities.” No one seriously attached to those “upward comparisons”—and untold millions still are attached to them—could tolerate Frost’s general pragmatism, which is, at the end of the day, anti-foundationalist. He would deny any account of our “human” nature a secure purchase on the way things “really are.” His criterion for “choosing” between such rival accounts as Darwinism and (say) Christianity, in this very playful poem, has nothing whatsoever to do with whether one or the other more “truly corresponds” to the world. The question is simply which one best helps us make our (contingent) way in the world.

But what are we to say to the Andrew Marvell of “The Garden,” a poem in which we find the “patriarchal” habit of thought just traced out in “The White-Tailed Hornet” untempered and pure? I ask the question because that poem, to this day, enjoys a place of real prestige in all the teaching anthologies, and so lies precisely at the heart of the canon. I regularly teach it myself. Indeed, I rather like it (for reasons I will explain in due course).

How vainly men themselves amaze
To win the Palm, the Oak, or Bays;
And their uncessant Labours see
Crowned from some single Herb or Tree,
Whose short and narrow verged Shade
Does prudently their Toils upbraid;
While all Flow’rs and all Trees do close
To weave the Garlands of repose.

Fair quiet, have I found thee here,
And Innocence thy Sister dear!
Mistaken long, I sought you then
In busy Companies of Men.
Your sacred Plants, if here below,
Only among the Plants will grow.
Society is all but rude,
To this delicious Solitude.

No white nor red was ever seen
So am’rous as this lovely green.
Fond Lovers, cruel as their Flame,
Cut in these Trees their Mistress name.
Little, Alas, they know, or heed,
How far these Beauties Hers exceed!
Fair Trees! where s’eer you barks I wound,
No Name shall but your own be found.

When we have run our Passions heat,
Love hither makes his best retreat.
The Gods, that mortal Beauty chase,
Still in a tree did end their race.
Apollo hunted Daphne so,
Only that She might Laurel grow.
And Pan did after Syrinx speed,
Not as a Nymph, but for a Reed.

What wond’rous Life is this I lead!
Ripe Apples drop about my head;
The Luscious Clusters of the Vine
Upon my Mouth do crush their Wine;
The Nectaren, and curious Peach,
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on Melons, as I pass,
Ensnared with Flow’rs, I fall on Grass.

Mean while the Mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness:
The Mind, that Ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other Worlds, and other Seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green Thought in a green Shade.

This is a poem of “retreat,” of which there are many in the 17th century—retreat from the city, from the court, from the field of battle, and, indeed, from the world. Men “vainly amaze” themselves—confuse themselves—by pursuing military, political, and literary glory (of which, respectively, the palm, the oak, and the bays are emblematic). Better to retreat to the “garden,” where “all trees do close” to “weave the garland of repose” (i.e., we need satisfy ourselves with no “single herb or tree,” as men often do with the “palm,” or the “oak,” etc.)

NPG 554, Andrew Marvell

Andrew Marvell (portait, ca. 1655-60, artist unknown)

By contrast to the city, where “busy companies of men” abound, Marvell’s garden is an orderly, hermetic place (as are also Marvell’s stanzas: eight lines of eight syllables each). This is all well and good. But Marvell is in retreat not simply, not even chiefly, from “busy companies of men,” with their emblematic palms and oaks and bays. He is in retreat from the “white” and “red” that were emblematic of feminine beauty: “No white nor read was ever seen / So am’rous as this lovely green,” he says, speaking of the trees that weave the garlands of a repose that women could only perturb. “Cruel lovers” carve their mistresses’ names in the bark of trees. Marvell, if he “wounds” the trees at all, carves only the names of the trees themselves, writing “Birch” on the birches, “Oak” on the oaks. He is a dendrophiliac. After all, the trees “far exceed” in “beauty” any woman of whom he might once have been enamored. This poem of seclusion is a poem of chastity; Marvell writes with an almost Buddhist aspiration to abolish sensual desire. “When we have run our passions’ heat / Love hither makes his best retreat.” Love ought not be “passionate,” ought not be fleshly, ought not be “of the body” at all. This lesson we know even from the old myths: All the gods who chased “mortal beauty”—that is to say, beauty of an “embodied” sort—wound up in the trees. Apollo pursued Daphne, only to find her transformed into a laurel. So why not follow the example of the gods? Why not “withdraw” from the “lesser” “pleasures” of the body into the higher pleasures of the mind, wherewith we might “annhilate” the merely physical world (“all that’s made”) into “a green thought in a green shade”? Whereupon Marvell drives home the point:

Here at the Fountains sliding foot,
Or at some Fruit-tree’s mossy root,
Casting the Bodies Vest aside,
My Soul into the boughs does glide:
There like a Bird it sits, and sings,
Then whets, and combs its silver Wings;
And, till prepared for longer flight,
Waves in its Plumes the various Light.

Such was that happy Garden-state,
While Man there walked without a Mate:
After a Place so pure, and sweet,
What other Help could yet be meet!
But ’twas beyond a Mortal’s share
To wander solitary there:
Two Paradises ’twere in one
To live in Paradise alone.

The logic goes as follows: 1) When we make our “best retreat,” Soul is released from Body (it “casts the body’s vest aside,” the body being but a kind of inessential “garment” for the soul); 2) Reason is released from Passion (“passion’s heat” no longer unsettles the temperate movements of the mind); and 3) Man is released from Woman (“Such was that happy Garden-state, / While Man there walked without a Mate”). The “binary oppositions” of which I spoke above, in summarizing Beauvoir’s arguments, do all the thinking here: Man is to Woman as Soul is to Body (to turn away from the one is to turn away from the other); or Man is to Woman as Reason is to Passion; or as Heaven is to Earth (the soul, redeemed from the body, “whets and combs its silver wings,” readying itself for upward flight).


Diorama, "Adam and Eve," in the Creation Museum, Louisville, Kentucky. The astute eye will notice how the curators avoid the age-old theological question as to whether Adam had a navel.

Marvell withdraws into his “bright and ordered heaven,” as Beauvoir would say, the better to escape the chaotic (and chthonic) shadows of the womb, and of the earth. It may be precisely as Beauvoir says: “Woman inspires” Marvell, as she does all men, “with horror.” After all, she is the Devil’s doorway. Tertullian said so—and he, too, was thinking of Adam’s mate. In laying bare the structure of “binary oppositions” that organize the thinking done in this poem we are simply giving sense to the idea that it is “patriarchal” in disposition. We are suggesting that what Gayle Rubin calls the “gender/sex system” had consolidated in Andrew Marvell a “subjectivity”—a way of being in the world, a way of “seeing” and “feeling”—that could contemplate woman only with a kind of anxious contempt. (For what it’s worth—perhaps nothing—Marvell never married, though after his death Mary Palmer, his housekeeper, claimed that he had secretly married her, a claim that was never verified, and much disputed.)

Now, here is the argument made by (some) literary critics affiliated, in the old days, with “post-structuralism”: to the extent that we associate ourselves with the views taken in “The Garden”—to the extent that we take real “pleasure” in reading it, let alone in teaching it—we somehow involve ourselves inevitably in the “logic” and the language of patriarchy, and for that matter also in the “institution” of patriarchy. We become a “vector” through which the “infection” of patriarchy is transmitted. Should we purge the canon of “The Garden”? Should we deal with it by, say, “teaching the conflicts” through it? Or—to shift coordinates a bit—should we point out that Marvell’s thinking is continuous with that of the Church in the 17th century, and so may be said to further the imperatives of it as an “ideological state apparatus” (to borrow Louis Althusser‘s useful phrase)? Will doing these things in the English Department help, in any way, to bring into being “a community or culture made up of numerous anti-systematic hints and practices for collective human experiences that is not based on coercion or domination,” as Edward Said once phrased his hopes? And if it will help us to do this, are we being irresponsible, or even “immoral,” when we attend to what might be called the “beauty” of “The Garden,” as I am about to do? In reading “The Garden,” let us attend to what Annette Kolodny calls “aesthetic pleasures,” and also to the “perfection” (or anyway to the “grace”) of Marvell’s figurative language. And let us ask ourselves whether “ethical and moral concerns” (as Kolodny puts it “Dancing Through the Minefield“) might require of us a “denial,” or at least a serious qualification, of those pleasures.

For example, we might speak of the “balance” and “proportion” of its eight-line stanzas, each composed of eight-syllable iambic tetrameter lines whose tempered regularity of movement registers a poise already-achieved—a poise that seems, for all the world, to arise out of precisely the setting that “The Garden” describes. To put the matter another way: “The Garden” effectively (and affectingly) creates the condition of mind to which it aspires. We are reading a poem already “chaste,” a poem already well rid of “passion’s heat.” There is nothing whatsoever intemperate about it. What’s more, this poem may be said to mark the “sublimation,” the elevation and redirection, of a “passionate” eroticism. The desire that might once have been directed toward the “red” and “white” of a (female) lover finds its redistributed objects instead in the things of this passing strange garden of his, which are described with a sensuality at once unmistakable and, somehow, utterly purged of “heat”: the “delicious” solitude, the “luscious” grapes, and so on. It would be no surprise to find in “The Garden” a merger of “redemptive” and “erotic” experiences. This sort of thing is everywhere to be encountered in 17th century poetry. There is paradox here, just as there is in the Donne’s sonnet “Batter my heart, Three-Personed God.” This garden both “ravishes” and “chastens” Marvell. In fact, it chastens him by ravishing him: he is “ensnared,” “fallen,” enraptured—but all the while finds his soul the more redeemed from bondage to the body and to worldly affairs. Of course, we must qualify any analogy to Donne as soon as we make it: “Batter my heart” is as intemperate and unbalanced in its movements as “The Garden” is poised in its movements. In reading Donne, I always suspect that it is only with great difficulty that he achieves any “retreat” at all from “passion’s heat.” Marvell makes the thing look easy.

But when we speak of such matters, are we at all derelict in our duty (as Annette Kolodny claims), lapsed in our commitments to the common good? Is it an evasion (let us say) of the “real work”—is it a “mystification” of the poem—to suggest that “The Garden” is not so much an instance of “patriarchy” as an instance of a more “general” will to detach the self from the body, the better to achieve some redemption from the “passionate” claims on us of what Beauvoir herself calls “the species”? And to suggest, further, that in its artful poise and temperate wit the poem already vouchsafes us an experience, or foretaste, of that “redemption”? Must we think of “passion’s heat” as a positive good, in the way we emancipated Westerners often do? (I have in mind, here, our general tendency to “celebrate” the body and its desires, our tendency to say “Yes!” to life, rather than to treat it, the body, and bodily desires with a certain, well, wariness. Consider, for example, how, in “The Traffic in Women,” Gayle Rubin speaks, with nostalgic sympathy, of “the wild profusion of infantile sexuality.” Is that what we really want?) If we abstract from “The Garden” not merely those “memes” peculiar to patriarchy (to borrow a useful term from Richard Dawkins), but also those peculiar to the Christian Church, we may find in it merely an aspiration toward what the Buddhists might call perfect “detachment.” After all, “The Garden” is really a sort of “fire sermon.” Maybe we should, rather liberally—and cutting the poem a little slack—take from it the following  monkish admonition: It simply must be possible to turn away from “the body” and the “world” (albeit, for my purposes anyway, without believing in “the soul”).

But however that may be, one thing we certainly can say: In the English Department we are no longer able to read “The Garden”—let alone to teach it—with a kind of unruffled confidence in its integrity. Poetry no longer awes us in the classroom, not usually. Our otherworldly gig, it would seem, is done with.


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