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Dante and the Henchman; or, the profession of English

February 8, 2010

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

“All the professions are timid and expectant agencies. The priest is glad if his prayers or his sermon meet the condition of any soul; if of two, if of ten, ’tis a signal success. But he walked to the church without any assurance that he knew the distemper, or could heal it. The physician prescribes hesitatingly out of his few resources, the same tonic or sedative to this new and peculiar constitution, which he has applied with various success to a hundred men before. If the patient mends, he is glad and surprised. The lawyer advises the client, and tells his story to the jury, and leaves it with them, and is as gay and as much relieved as the client, if it turns out that he has a verdict. The judge weighs the arguments, and puts a brave face on the matter, and, since there must be a decision, decides as he can, and hopes he has done justice, and given satisfaction to the community; but is only an advocate after all. And so is all life a timid and unskilful spectator. We do what we must, and call it by the best names. We like very well to be praised for our action, but our conscience says, ‘Not unto us.’ ‘Tis little we can do for each other.”

—Emerson, “Considerations By the Way

Cover of Delbanco's 1997 book, published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

“From my colleagues who teach mainly poetry, I understand that even the most sophisticated students still tend to have little idea about prosody and are not quite sure why it should matter. This is not a case a fallen standards. Graduate students are more precociously professional than ever before. But by and large, under the sway of teachers from my own generation, they do not become aspiring professors in the old religious sense of that word: believers, testifiers, witnesses. Lately, I have noticed some signs that this may be beginning to change—hints of a revival of interest in what lifts a style out of the pedestrian and makes it distinguished. If I am right, our students are ahead of us, because my own generation seems permanently marked by the spirit of the 1970s, when literature, which had been celebrated by the ‘New Critics’ in the 1950s as a counter-universe to the spiritually barren world in which they found themselves living, and by the ‘Myth Critics’ in the 1960s as a way of entering the unconscious life, first came to be widely thought of as not a sphere of beauty but an instrument of power.”

—Andrew Delbanco, Required Reading

“Few people can take much pleasure in modern academic literary criticism except its practitioners, who do not mind that an intelligent outsider would surely find it both arcane and depressing. One of the questions such an observer might reasonably but naïvely ask is whether there is a connection between such work and teaching. Isn’t teaching the primary reason why these people have their jobs?”

Frank Kermode, An Appetite for Poetry

1. Marvell’s Crown of Thorns

Below is a poem by Andrew Marvell called “The Coronet.” It has to do with anyone’s motives for writing, and also, perhaps, with anyone’s motives for reading and teaching—or for that matter, with anyone’s motives for laboring in his chosen vocation. Each of us must find a way to do that without sinning, as Falstaff knew. “The Coronet” is Marvell’s attempt. The poem opens up for me what will be, in the pages that follow, the main debate, which runs along these lines: Is it possible to be compromised, even corrupted, by what we write and read and teach, and by how we write, read, and teach it? Over the course of the last twenty-five years, many in English Departments said it was possible, as we came to suspect that the literary works we had traditionally taught, and the traditional canon itself, were tainted by racism, sexism, and empire—as we came to suspect, as Andrew Delbanco puts it, that literature might be not “a sphere of beauty but an instrument of power.” As for his own vocational ordeal, here is what Marvell had to say:

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

When for the thorns with which I long, too long,
With many a piercing wound,
My Saviour’s head have crowned,
I seek with garlands to redress that wrong:
Through every garden, every mead,
I gather flow’rs (my fruits are only flow’rs),
Dismantling all the fragrant tow’rs
That once adorned my sheperdess’s head.
And now when I have summed up all my store,
Thinking (so I myself deceive)
So rich a chaplet thence to weave
As never yet the King of Glory wore:
Alas I find the Serpent old
That, twining in his speckled breast,
About the flow’rs disguised does fold,
With wreaths of Fame and Interest.
Ah, foolish Man, that wouldst debase with them,
And mortal glory, Heaven’s diadem!
But thou who only could’st the Serpent tame,
Either his slipp’ry knots at once untie,
And disentangle all his winding snare:
Or shatter too with him my curious frame:
And let these wither, so that he may die,
Though set with skill and chosen out with care.
That they, while Thou on both their spoils dost tread,
May crown thy Feet, that could not crown thy Head.

In the first line, “for” means “in place of,” or “instead of.” Marvell—we may as well dispense with the fiction of a “speaker”—is making a confession. He has “long, too long” brought to the altar of his poetic vocation a crown of thorns. The reference, of course, is to the many poems he had written, and which he still somehow is writing every time a reader entertains him (these poems are the “garlands” and the “fragrant towers” he soon speaks of). Marvell is saying that the motive of his poems ought properly to be devotional and pious, but that as often as not they crucify instead, through failure of self-abnegation, or through indulgence in worldly affairs (these latter may involve either erotic attachments to a “Shepherdess,” or what he here calls a quest for “Fame and Interest”). Marvell goes so far as to claim that we almost always find entwined, even in our very best work, the “Serpent old.” The “moral” of the poem, then: “Working from impure motives is a sin, and there can be no truly secular work—no occasions when we might relax our vigilance in this matter. We are always responsible, in our vocations, to something higher. Even when we suppose ourselves to be dealing in merely private pleasures, such as Marvell’s engagements with his ‘shepherdess,’ we are always already obligated to the Good and the True. In fact, there can be no merely private sphere in which we can set aside these obligations.” Marvell never published his poems—most of them anyway—and still he felt they committed him, if not to the public then at least to God. He had to come clean. Incidentally, there is a note of Puritan confession about the sinfulness, or ephemeral worldliness, of poetry in the parenthesis “my fruits are only flow’rs.” That is to say, his fruits have not in fact ever really ripened: his works have been arrested at their intermediate stage, so to speak (they are still only flowers; they never carried through to maturity). And by their fruits ye shall know them: What had the poets of England done with their talents since the theaters closed? What had poetry itself ever done for a world well lost? And to move on to more immediate vocational concerns: What had the English Departments that teach poetry—Marvell’s included—ever done to relieve, or at any rate attend to, the world’s injustices?

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell, by Samuel Cooper (died 1672). National Portrait Gallery, London.

The “moral” to which I just referred in speaking of “The Coronet” was adopted with zeal by Marvell’s successors in the Bermudas (as he might say) of the New World, where the most radical of the Protestants sought their self-reconstructive refuge, the better to build what they hoped would be a more perfect, and more pure, society. And all differences allowed for, that moral was adopted as well by what might be called the more exacting Roundheads in the English Departments of the New World in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was myself a graduate student. (The “Roundheads,” of course, were the Puritan-Republican revolutionaries of Marvell’s day.) We came to believe that, in teaching literature, and also in writing about it, we were responsible to something higher, something that had more to do with the (politically) good than with the (merely) beautiful. We came to distrust the whole category of the “aesthetic,” and to distrust as well the claim that we might, in our classrooms and offices, set aside an arena in which private pleasures, rather than public commitments, might be pursued. We discovered—it was a discovery worth making—that our literary-critical coronets had often, in fact, been crowns of thorns; that we foolish scholars and teachers had debased with mortal glory Heaven’s diadem. Our vocation, we now saw, had “long, too long” been somehow implicated, if only indirectly, in sins—sins against women, against the disinherited, against the colonized. Following Marvell’s example, we set about dismantling all the “fragrant” towers of our own canon, which came to look suspiciously Cavalier (if not Royalist) in its elitism. (“Cavalier,” it will be recalled, is the name given to mid-17th century partisans of King Charles, the “high-church” Bishops, and “tradition.”) We convinced ourselves that there should be no “secular” teaching, no teaching not devoted to the good, as against the beautiful (either we serve God, or we serve the Serpent old, just as Marvell says). And we set about to purify the vocation.

A typical Puritan "Roundhead," as painted by John Pettie (1839–1893)

Prince Rupert, an archetypical Cavalier. Painting by Anthony van Dyck (1599)–1641).

But if we take “The Coronet” seriously, we have to concede that proper vocational “redress” is not so easy to achieve. Remember how the poem turns out: Having forsworn both courtly poetry and the poetry of courtship (the “coronets” he had made for his lady), Marvell offers up a crown of “flowers” rather than of “thorns” to the Lord, as he sees it, of the only “real” world—the world of Spirit, Eternity, and the Good, not the world of Flesh, Time, and Beauty. He thinks that he has set his vocation right—that he has found his true calling. But all the while he is very likely “deceiving” himself—flattering himself, really—that the King of Glory never wore “so rich a chaplet.” With that last thought sin enters in, again. The Serpent old insinuates his “speckled” breast—it is always maculate, never immaculate—into the weaving lines of this poesy: infecting the supplicant’s motives are “Fame and Interest.” It goes hard for any poet, any writer, or for that matter any teacher, when he tries entirely to disentangle these from his wreaths. So much is sin a part of us that it infects even the acts of contrition and penance we undertake; the thing we wish to purge takes vigor from the act of purgation. Poets are not exempt from this stern law, and neither are the men and women who assign poets to undergraduates in English Departments. We can sin even in our efforts to be sincere. We like very much to be praised for our works when we dismantle the fragrant towers of the past, as we did in English Departments in the reforming 1980s and 1990s. But if we are Marvellian about it all, our conscience says (with Emerson): Not unto us.

Portrait of King Charles I in the robes of the Order of the Garter, 1636. By Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641).

There is certainly a Puritanical drift to all this, as I have implied. “The Coronet,” let us say, enjoins those who teach it in the English Department candidly to “interrogate” themselves and their works (as we now say). It asks that we exercise what American Communists in the 1930s used ominously to call “self-criticism.” Exactly how bourgeois, how counter-revolutionary, had we, in the profession, been? Exactly how patriarchal, how “white,” and how “Western”? Our virtue—all of it—may be a foolish splendor. We may merely be sorry conductors in the sorry circuits of worldly Power. That is the truly chastening—and, I believe, the truly humane and helpful—insight of “The Coronet.” I consider efforts, in the late 1980s and 1990s, to purge Paul de Man and Deconstruction from the discipline of literary studies as having fallen out along roughly Marvellian lines; Martin Heidegger now faces the same fate. In those days, some of us thought we were weaving the richest chaplets literary critics ever wove, but found them, all at once, infected, compromised, haunted. Much self-criticism followed. There was in our (post-structuralist) work still a weakness for Charles I, and a suspiciously “New Critical” sort of unworldliness: How else to explain how so central a figure in our vocation as de Man could possibly have authored anti-Semitic articles for a collaborationist newspaper? A New Historicism had to be brought to bear on the enterprise. So we said: Off with Paul de Man’s head, this time executing one of the executioners in a second phase of the literary-industrial revolution that writers like de Man himself had helped to begin.

The suspicion we in the English Department labored under is this: Our vocational sins may well have invaded the remedies we put over against them, with the result that we could never really be sure when we had got our business in proper order. Marvell wanted his poetry to do justice to God (or to the Good), but always found it marred, or always suspected he found it marred, by worldly and merely private aspirations and pleasures. Poetry was at once his redemption and his disease. And insofar as we in the English Department are concerned, the same might be said about the “canon” and “canonical” ways of teaching it: these are both our redemption and our disease.

2. Dante and the Henchman

Detail, cover of Edmudson's Literature Against Philosophy (Cambridge, 1995)

This brings me to a very old theme: the relation of the Good to the Beautiful. I want to talk about this relation in the halo of light cast by Marvell’s “Coronet.” Some in the English Department, let us say, love literature for its Goodness, others for its Beauty, and some for both. The first of the three groups sometimes think of the second as a little decadent, as not quite wholesome: the Beautiful must never—can never—be detached from the Good, they say. Plato is in this camp of course; he might be said to have founded it, as Mark Edmundson suggests in Literature Against Philosophy. In setting out a countervailing plea on behalf of an “aesthetic” approach to literary criticism, an approach more attuned to “the beautiful,” Denis Donoghue complains that that very term “aesthetic” now troubles many critics and teachers: “It is thought to connote moral lassitude, political irresponsibility, decadence.” He has in mind, partly, what W.J.T. Mitchell describes as a shift, in literary studies, from criteria of “meaning” to criteria of “value.” We asked not so much, “What did this poem mean to Andrew Marvell, or to readers in the 17th century?” as “Is this poem, or what this poem represents, good for us now—good, in fact, for the ‘culture,’ and even for the ‘community’?” We ended up with a classroom in which, says Donoghue, with some exaggeration, “it is difficult to speak of language, form, style, and tone without appearing decadent, ethically irresponsible”—without, let us say, feeling as Marvell did when he contemplated all the garlands he had woven for his shepherdess’s head. Frank Lentricchia purports to see in the “literary wing” of the academy “an eager flight from literature by those who refuse to take the literary measure of the subject, whatever the subject may be,” and who instead take their measure from economic and political criteria. Ross Posnock, for his part, reports that in his English Department (and he thinks of it as representative) literature and “indeed the aesthetic itself” are in “very low repute.” Literature, he suggests, excites a “suspicion,” namely the suspicion that claims on behalf of a purely “literary” sort of study are, if not immoral in their bearing, at least irresponsible. As Mark Edmundson has it, “The philosophical critique of poetry is ascendant. In the provinces of literary criticism, Plato’s heirs have apparently won out,” with the result that “the practice of submitting literary writing to categories, particularly of a moral and political sort, may be at an all-time high.” Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach reads: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Why should literary critics and teachers exempt themselves from the business? Shouldn’t we all join Teachers for a Democratic Culture, an organization founded in 1991 on the (Roundhead) assumption that our vocation simply must be committed to the common good? (An organization for, let us say, deeply committed Cavaliers, exists in the form of the National Association of Scholars.)

Edmundson has in mind such still-influential arguments as this one, from a classic and still often-taught essay by Annette Kolodny, “Dancing Through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism”:

Tillie Olsen (1912–2007)

When feminists turn their attention to the works of male authors which have traditionally been accorded high aesthetic value and, where warranted, follow [Tillie] Olsen’s advice that we assert our `right to say: this is surface, this falsifies reality, this degrades,’ such statements do not necessarily mean we will end up with a diminished canon. To question the source of the aesthetic pleasures we’ve gained from reading Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and so on, does not imply that we must deny those pleasures. It means only that aesthetic response is once more invested with epistemological, ethical, and moral concerns. It means, in other words, that readings of Paradise Lost which analyze its complex hierarchical structures but fail to note the implications of gender within that hierarchy; or which insist upon the inherent (or even inspired) perfection of Milton’s figurative language but fail to note the consequences, for Eve, of her specifically gender-marked weakness, which, like the flowers to which she attends, requires `propping up’; or which concentrate on the poem’s thematic reworking of classical notions of martial and epic prowess into Christian (moral) heroism but fail to note that Eve is stylistically edited out of that process—all such readings, however useful, will no longer be deemed wholly adequate. The pleasures we had earlier learned to take in the poem will not be diminished thereby, but they will become part of an altered reading attentiveness.

I would not take issue with much of this. But it does strike me that Kolodny is disingenuous when she suggests that the pleasures we had earlier, in our more strictly “aestheticist” days, taken in Milton will not be “diminished.” If those pleasures had been at all implicated in what Olsen, in the passage to which Kolodny alludes, calls the “degrading” drift of certain literary texts, or in the “falsification of reality,” then how can they not be “diminished”? How can we not, with Marvell, wish to dismantle these “fragrant towers”? How can we not deny those pleasures that might distract us—for the implication is that they will distract us—from “ethical and moral concerns”? Haven’t we, in indulging those pleasures, neglected the salvation of our students, if not of our souls?

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in 1918.

Logo of the NAACP

And there is always to be answered W.E.B. DuBois’s challenge in a 1926 address before a convention of the N.A.A.C.P., published subsequently in The Crisis under the title “Criteria of Negro Art”: “The apostle of Beauty thus becomes the apostle of Truth and Right not by choice but by inner and outer compulsion. Free he is but freedom is ever bounded by Truth and Justice; and slavery only dogs him when he is denied the right to tell the Truth or recognize an ideal of Justice. Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.” The “wailing of the purists” has been heard often enough since 1926, when DuBois wrote these remarks, and in fact the “purists” had their day in the academy—several decades of it in fact, from about the time when the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the Moscow Show Trials, and the murder of Leon Trotsky sent the literary left into deep retreat, until sometime after 1968, when the New Left began to come into its own in the academy. During these decades, Art, whatever else it was to have been, was thought to have nothing at all to do with “propaganda,” even in DuBois’s nuanced sense of the word.

Extract from The Romantic Fragment Poem: A Critique of a Form (1986) by Marjorie Levinson. ("RFP" is an abbreviation from the title of the book.) I consider this a fair example of the more "Roundhead" style in literary criticism.

The reaction against this since the late 1960s has, to be sure, been often enough emphatic. Many in the English Department now take it for granted that our vocational interest in literature must be allied, somehow, to the pursuit of justice, to the pursuit of “the good” more than of “the beautiful.” “In the waning years of the Vietnam War and its bitter aftermath,” writes Andrew Delbanco, “literature was revealed as just another means by which we are indoctrinated into pernicious doctrines like patriarchy and progress. We were invited to study books as a part of the state apparatus. Literature began to be talked about with metaphors of incarceration—as a ‘prison-house of language’ or a ‘hermeneutic circle.’ Culture came to be thought of as totalitarian, and books, no less than gulags, became instruments of domination.” The category of the aesthetic, many came to believe, had as one of its chief functions what Marjorie Levin, in an influential (and “Roundhead”) essay on Wordsworth, calls the “suppression of the social.” (See the illustration above.)

Edmundson, of course, makes no mistake when he says that criticism grounded in moral or political concerns reached, in the 1990s, a high water mark. And we might profitably approach the business through a kind of counter-example. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in a sonnet titled “Dante,” likens The Divine Comedy, and by implication all truly powerful poetry, to a cathedral we enter in order to leave the political/historical “tumult of the time disconsolate” behind. This is what reading Dante, or perhaps just reading, is like for him, as he tells it in a fine Italian sonnet:

H. W. Longfellow

Oft have I seen at some cathedral door
A labourer, pausing in the dust and heat,
Lay down his burden, and with reverent feet
Enter, and cross himself, and on the floor
Kneel to repeat his paternoster o’er;
Far off the noises of the world retreat;
The loud vociferations of the street
Become an undistinguishable roar.
So, as I enter here from day to day,
And leave my burden at this minster gate,
Kneeling in prayer, and not ashamed to pray,
The tumult of the time disconsolate
To inarticulate murmurs dies away,
While the eternal ages watch and wait.

The sonnet might be a plea on behalf of poetry of the sort Longfellow wrote, as opposed to the sort written by his abolitionist Quaker contemporary John Greenleaf Whittier (about whom, more presently). After all, Longfellow is one of DuBois’s “purists,” while Whittier most assuredly is not. In any case, this sonnet makes a religion of poetry, as the American Romantics sometimes did, and as the New Critics—in the story we now often tell about them anyway—did as well. Longfellow takes for granted, but also quietly argues, that the aesthetic is properly a category detached from society and history. The latter are profane and worldly, the former sacred and eternal—quite literally so, as Longfellow sets things out here. Reading Dante for him is like entering a cathedral. He lays down his worldly burdens in the narthex of poetry. The implications, for my purposes, are clear. Poetry is other-worldly, an idea gently upheld by the Christian association hanging about the word “consolation,” which figures in the poem by way of its very worldly antonym, “disconsolate.” The world, with its affairs, is prosaic, noisome, diverting and dull. It affords no consolation. When we read, we leave “the tumult of the time” behind us. Here, the aesthetic most certainly does entail what Levinson calls the “suppression of the social.”

Fairford Cathedral, whose stained-glass windows were spared by Puritan militants, during their campaign of iconoclasm.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s (and also in the 2000’s) poetic “Cathedrals” were no safer in the hands of literary critics than real ones were in the hands of militant Puritans in 1642. We have been made “ashamed to pray” (to borrow Longfellow’s phrase) at the altar of poetry, or at least at the altar of the poetry of the past. Why else would George Levine find it necessary, in his introduction to Aesthetics & Ideology, to face up to what he calls his “own anxieties about what [his] passion for literature will seem like to the critical culture with which [he wants] to claim alliance”? His passion will seem indulgent, naïve, counter-revolutionary, or what have you; he may even be denounced as something of a crypto-purist (to recur to DuBois’s dyslogistic term). We in the English Department make our sternly Protestant reply to Longfellow: “Let’s get rid of the censers,” we say, “together with all the other trappings of literary priest-craft, and put in a plain pine bench. Let us see the poem as in itself it really is, not as the poem prefers to see itself (its preferences in this regard will almost always be deceptive).” Stained glass windows, such as Longfellow thought he found in the poetry of Dante, are something to be suspicious of, no matter how beautiful they may be. This time the Puritans among us will not spare the windows of Fairford Cathedral; this time, like Oliver Cromwell at Ely, they will stable the horses of the people’s army even at the communion rail itself, where scholars and teachers used to pray with no thought of the tumult of the time disconsolate. Poetry and art can be seductive, even dangerous. Beauty is often felt to be. That is why the “apostle of beauty,” as DuBois says, must “ever” be “bounded by Truth and Justice.” And so, as Mark Edmundson puts it, adapting an argument of Arthur Danto‘s, literary criticism has moved to “neutralize art”—to contain and demystify its seductions, the better to uphold the Good. Literature, after all, has what Edmundson calls its “disciplinary affiliations,” its work of coercion to do, just as does the church. And the real work of Longfellow’s sonnet (some might now say) is to put those “disciplinary” offices well out of sight and out of mind.

L'homme à la houe (The Man with the Hoe), by Jean-François Millet, ca. 1860-1862.

But we cannot for long ignore the “tumult of the time disconsolate.” Longfellow’s pious “laborer,” laying his burden down, might not need cathedrals at all if life beyond their walls were not so damned alienating. So we dispense with Longfellow, reproaching what we take to be the glib maneuver with which, in the sestet, he identifies himself—this New England reader in Modern Languages at Harvard—with a European peasant laboring in the “dust and heat” of worldly strife, with (let us say) Jean François Millet‘s L’homme a la houe. Is Longfellow’s alienation really the same as his? Maybe. But similitude is not identity, even if poetry, in its metaphors, would sometimes have us believe otherwise. We must make no such assumptions as Longfellow makes as to what is really best for that laborer in the dust and heat: the paternoster, or the barricades. And this creates a problem for readers more than for Longfellow. It is no longer possible to be at ease with what we read, especially when we feel its seductions. We do not quite trust it. We wonder what our pleasure in reading certain texts—by Emerson, Mark Twain, Conrad, Faulkner, or Marvell—indicates about the condition of our souls, and wonder as well whether or not, as Tillie Olson puts it, we have somehow been “falsifying reality.” No one would argue in favor of complacency in a case like this. So serious has our attachment to “the time disconsolate” become in English Departments—so complete is our dedication to making its “inarticulate murmurs” articulate in the classroom—that, as Edmundson argues, “history is now something of a sacrosanct word in literary criticism; challenging its status can draw professorial bile. For to be historical is to be, almost by definition, responsible, a good citizen of the academy and of the world. The proponent of historical criticism is likely to see the purveyors of close reading, whether they quest for organic form or the breaking of forms, as decadents, self-indulgently removed from real people and events.” There can be no world elsewhere, not in Longfellow’s minster, not anywhere in poetry. Break up the Church of Poetry. Dispossess it. That has been the idea, which is why what might be called “high-church” critics like Harold Bloom have, just as they did in 1642, so vigorously protested.

Above I gave a title to Longfellow’s sonnet: “Dante.” I was cheating a little there, because that title is given the poem not by its author, but by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who included the sonnet in his widely read Oxford Book of English Verse. In fact, the sonnet originally appeared as a part of a sequence of sonnets on Dante, which Longfellow published under the general title “The Divine Comedy.” In isolating the sonnet from that larger context, Quiller-Couch tells us something about his own assumptions as to what poetry ought to be. He stands firm in what we might call Longfellow’s counter-Reformation camp: for him, a poem can be, and without sin, readily isolated from its contexts, bibliographical and historical alike; it can be abstracted from Time. He is one of DuBois’s “purists.” For him, poetry is already hardly of this world anyway.

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892)

In view of this, it is interesting to consider the case of the poem that succeeds “Dante” in Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse: “The Henchman,” by John Greenleaf Whittier. A “henchman” was, formerly, simply the attendant of a nobleman or noblewoman (the term carried no negative connotations in its native setting). But why do we find, here in Quiller-Couch’s anthology, a pretty little lyric of medieval (or at least Cavalier) England penned by a radical American democrat, by a Quaker no less, and in 1877? For that was when “The Henchman” was written—a little sadly, I like to think, for the aging abolitionist in that year of the Southern “Redemption” from (and demolition of) the radical Reconstruction experiment in inter-racial (and inter-class) democracy (ca. 1868-1872). The immediate occasion for the poem, Whittier’s biographer tells us, was a request from a friend’s young daughter that the earnest and worldly old poet compose what he had never before composed—a charming love lyric, which she might set to music. As the young woman knew, Whittier had been writing about politics and social class for decades, as an abolitionist and antinomian democrat (he is most definitely a poet of “the time disconsolate”). She wanted something more in the Longfellow line. And Whittier obliged her, or anyway tried to. In a letter to an editor about “The Henchman,” he himself remarks: “I send, in compliance with the wish of Mr. Bowen and thyself, a ballad upon which, though not long, I have bestowed a good deal of labor. It is not exactly a Quakerly piece, nor is it didactic, and it has no moral that I know of. But it is, I think, natural, simple, and not unpoetical.” “Poetical” means, here, what Longfellow implicitly takes it to mean in the poem Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch calls “Dante”: a far cry from “the loud vociferations of the street.” And the question I would raise in reading “The Henchman” is simple. Could a poet of Whittier’s more or less radical turn of mind write a lyric entirely innocent of “morality” and “didacticism”? Could he leave the “tumult of the time disconsolate” altogether behind? My answer is that he could not. This radical Quaker democrat may attempt to write a Cavalier lyric that smacks of aristocracy. But the better angels of his abolitionist nature win out, even in that grim year of the Southern Redeemers, when the condition of (American) involuntary servitude was beginning to be cloaked with romance in the new literature of the “plantation” school. Whittier simply cannot represent the un-republican situation he takes for his theme as admirable. We are brought to feel, in “The Henchman,” that “caste” is un-natural, and that submission to our “betters” is an indignity, perhaps a pathological indignity. From a strictly “Quaker” point of view, then, the “coronet” he weaves for his young female friend has in it less of the Serpent, not more, than might be supposed. In the paragraphs to follow, I will suggest that “The Henchman” is in certain respects incoherent, that its motives are impure. The lyric proves unable to manage the tensions that arise between its eulogistic aspiration to make the subordinate relation of servant to mistress charming—as, again, such relations were made to appear in post-Reconstruction “plantation” literature—and an inexorable tendency to condemn that same relation. To put the matter another way, certain implications in the metaphors the poem depends upon are not altogether controlled by the purpose of “naming” the aristocratic situation in a charming way. The idea requires some explanation. But first, the text of “The Henchman”:

Another photograph of Whittier.

My lady walks her morning round,
My lady’s page her fleet greyhound,
My lady’s hair the fond winds stir,
And all the birds make songs for her.

Her thrushes sing in Rathburn bowers,
And Rathburn side is gay with flowers;
But ne’er like hers, in flower or bird,
Was beauty seen or music heard.

Oh, proud and calm!—she cannot know
Where’er she goes with her I go;
Oh, cold and fair!—she cannot guess
I kneel to share her hound’s caress!

The hound and I are on her trail,
The wind and I uplift her veil;
As if the calm, cold moon she were,
And I the tide, I follow her.

As unrebuked as they, I share
The licence of the sun and air,
And in a common homage hide
My worship from her scorn and pride.

No lance have I, in joust or fight,
To splinter in my lady’s sight;
But, at her feet, how blest were I
For any need of hers to die!

Cover of Empson's landmark book, first published in 1930.

As William Empson points out in 7 Types of Ambiguity, the most general type of ambiguity found in poetry has to do with metaphor itself, “where one thing is said to be like another, and they have several different properties in virtue of which they are alike.” Empson cites Herbert Read, here, who said that metaphor marks the “synthesis of several units of observation into one commanding image; it is the apprehension of a complex idea, not by analysis, nor by direct statement, but by a sudden perception of an objective relation.” How “objective” that relation truly is will vary, because it indicates as much about the person establishing the relation as it does about the things related. Consider what Whittier has his Henchman say of himself and the lady he serves: “The hound and I are on her trail.” Implicit in the line is a comparison of the Henchman to the “fleet greyhound” that accompanies the lady. The two have “several different properties in virtue of which they are alike.” They are both in service to the lady, both loyally devoted to her, both of a low or mean rank, and so on. But another layer of associations emerges. To say that the hound and the Henchman are “on the lady’s trail” makes us think not so much of “fleet greyhounds” as of hunting hounds. Maybe the “trail” is a hunting trail, the lady the quarry. This complicates our feeling about the relationship between henchman and his lady. We suspect that there may be something illicit about it, something transgressive. Plainly, the Henchman himself believes there is, because he points out that he shares the “licence” of the sun and air unrebuked. He means that if his lady knew how he felt she (or those around her) would chastise him. He has to hide his love, whatever love it is, because it would do some violence to good social order; his is a love that dare not speak its name. He can only “lift” his lady’s “veil” vicariously, appointing the “wind” his deputy.

Richard Lovelace (1618–1657)

It is as if the Roundhead Whittier would, but cannot, achieve the frank ease of the Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace in his “Song: to Amarantha, That She Would Dishevel her Hair“: “Let it fly as unconfined,” the old Royalist writes:

As its calm ravisher the wind,
Who hath left his darling th’ east,
To wanton o’er that spicy nest.

Whittier sets about to allow himself the sort of imaginative liberty Lovelace simply takes for granted. But he cannot do it. The mild note of moral censure implicit in the word “licence,” as it appears in Whittier’s poem, is appropriate. Whittier catches this word midway along a career from its origin as a term condemning a morally illicit freedom to its modern, more neutral sense of permission to take a particular liberty to which one is entitled. The breeze enjoys the liberty of lifting the lady’s veil, but not the Henchman. This only cements his “class” solidarity with the hound, so to speak, as the lady doesn’t so much lead the Henchman along as become, ambivalently, the object of his desire. The natural elements, the weather, are “democratic” and permit free congress; the social world of caste is not and does not. This makes us suspect that the barriers that ideologically provide for a “rebuke” of this Henchman’s imaginary “license”—and he has “conscientiously” internalized these barriers—are not really “natural.” And this is surely a “Quakerly” sentiment. The Henchman must take his liberties on the sly.

Cover, unexpurgated text, El Paso Norte Press (August 14, 2009).

His lady is no Lady Chatterly; or, to put it still another way, she will not be bringing him home to dinner. He hides his liberties in a “common homage,” which is to say in the very general homage paid to her by the “total environment” of this lady, for whose sake “Rathburn side is gay with flowers.” The word “henchman” unstably begins to work in its more shadowy 19th century American sense, the one to which Whittier’s ears were inevitably attuned in 1877. By that date, the term had already become one of opprobrium, denoting someone who, in vassalage of one sort or another, slavishly does the dirty work of another; it was no longer a value-neutral, let alone a eulogistic, term for the waiting-man of a person of consequence. Whittier startles us a bit by forcing the word back into its archaic, anti-republican sense. The poem’s several equivocations ultimately derive from the peculiarity of the project Whittier set himself: namely, to write, Quakerly democrat that he was, a poem of an aristocratic mode of life.

In light of this, we might well ask how Whittier has been anthologized over the years. Quiller-Couch, who presents only one of his poems, chooses for The Oxford Book of English Verse “The Henchman,” which is clearly unrepresentative of Whittier’s work. (Whittier himself recognized its unrepresentative quality, as the letter cited above indicates.) The editors of a recent one-volume edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature represent Whittier with two political poems. One is highly topical in interest: “Ichabod!“—a poem denouncing Daniel Webster for supporting the Compromise of 1850, which included the infamous Fugitive Slave Bill.

Typical Poster Printed by Abolitionists in the Early 1850s

The second poem in the Norton, the prelude to “Among The Hills,” is more generally social in interest, but nonetheless firmly political in theme. The editors of the Heath Anthology of American Literature represent Whittier—more generously, given their convictions—with four vigorous anti-slavery poems. To them, Whittier is clearly a poet of social change and protest. After all, his is the sort of poetry on which The Heath Anthology places a premium (as an anthology it is as “Roundhead” in its bearings as Quiller-Couch’s is “Cavalier”). Neither the Norton nor the Heath includes “The Henchman.” Nor for that matter does the Library of America’s extensive two-volume anthology of 19th century American poetry, which includes more of Whittier’s work than any anthology now in print (eighteen poems, totaling more than fifty pages). This much information suffices to indicate that Quiller-Couch’s choice is eccentric to say the least. In his anthology, Whittier will not, must not, be the political poet that he surely was in his own day. Quiller-Couch wants his lyric pure, it seems, set apart from the “tumult of the time disconsolate.” That “The Henchman” should follow “Dante” is therefore perfectly fitting; it is as close as this Roundhead, Quaker poet ever got to a Popish Cathedral.

In his widely-read primer Literary Theory—more than 30 years after its first publication, it is still a fixture in undergraduate classrooms—Terry Eagleton discusses at some length the problem of isolating a literary work from its historical contexts (which also include its bibliographical contexts). An orthodox New Critic (as Eagleton somewhat Roundheadedly caricatures him) would read “The Henchman” without reference to Whittier’s life, to his activism, or to the peculiar place the poem holds in Whittier’s body of work.

Eagleton's influential primer, whose first edition I was assigned in an 1984 undergraduate class.

He would not be interested in the anachronistic fact that this “Cavalier” lyric was written in 1877 by a Quaker and former abolitionist—even as the Reconstruction collapsed, and as the new, sentimental cult of Antebellum “plantation aristocracy” began to flourish in America. Nor would he bring to bear in his reading of the poem Whittier’s own remarks about it, in the letter I quoted above. For my part, I have taken into account biography, the general nature of Whittier’s poetry, Whittier’s remarks about “The Henchman,” and so on, all in the interest of representing the poem as Whittier’s (at least partly) unsuccessful effort to adopt what might be called a “Cavalier” persona, and to leave behind his quite different “Quakerly” persona. Implicit in my argument is a proposition of a more or less “Roundhead” nature: that Whittier’s failure was fortunate; that his failure is, in fact, what makes the lyric “valuable”; and that had Whittier succeeded in what he undertook for his young friend we might find very little to say about the poem.

Whittier’s account of the poem, in short, is inadequate to the poem he actually produced. This raises a subsidiary question, which is by now old hat. In what sense may a poem be said to “express” intentions of which its author is unaware? We can, of course, read not for a poet’s “intentions” in a limited, every-day sense of the word, but instead for the “intentions” (figuratively speaking) of the larger social body to which he belongs, which is what we were urged to do in the 1980s and 1990s (though literary critics had certainly done this before). These intentions do not form a part of a poet’s consciousness. Instead, they may be said to constitute that consciousness—to mark out the contours and horizons of what is “thinkable,” even in such a way as to “falsify” reality. It is proper to try to understand these socially situated “intentions” (they are what we have in mind in speaking of “ideology”), even if doing so requires that we break a few stained glass windows. At the end of the day, that is the relatively modest claim put forward by critics interested more in the Good than in the Beautiful—critics who hold that the Good comprehends and includes the Beautiful, and who therefore follow (Roundhead) Whittier instead of (Cavalier) Longfellow. Under the influence of critics like these, literary study in the major universities of the United States, and even in minor ones like the one I worked at in the 1990s and early 2000s, have undergone their radical Reformation. It is in this sense alone that literary study might now properly be said, and with all due respect, to be “Puritanical,” even as writers like Donoghue, Delbanco, Bloom (and others) register a kind of “Cavalier” protest—or anyway, a tentative and worthwhile qualification.

So, I would ask, in closing, that my fellows in the General English Department of Our Planetary Sphere, and in the Modern Language Association, look about them as they work. How hard is it to tell the Roundhead from the Cavalier members of your local enterprise? Not so hard, I’d wager. You’ll also be able to spot those who, like George Levine, find it difficult to face up to what he calls his “own anxieties about what [his] passion for literature will seem like” to the Roundhead “critical culture with which [they want] to claim alliance.” And to spot those who, with Andrew Delbanco, seem “permanently marked by the spirit of the 1970s, when literature, which had been celebrated by the ‘New Critics’ in the 1950s as a counter-universe to the spiritually barren world in which they found themselves living, and by the ‘Myth Critics’ in the 1960s as a way of entering the unconscious life, first came to be widely thought of as not a sphere of beauty but an instrument of power.”

As for The Era of Casual Fridays: I aspire to straddle the whole affair, as if it were possible—and it ought to be, oughtn’t it?to do our work as Cavalier Roundheads—as in this entry, or in this one. Whether I succeed or not, I leave it to those who happen upon these web-pages to judge. Maybe I’m having my cake and refusing to pay for it, too; or, perhaps I simply evade the larger questions. In any case, I most certainly am with Emerson in the passage placed at the head of this entry: “We do what we must, and call it by the best names. We like very well to be praised for our action, but our conscience says, ‘Not unto us.'”


N.B.: By way of contrast to “The Henchman,” I leave you with one of Whittier’s best anti-slavery poems. His analysis of the American state of affairs in the era when King Cotton held sway is withering, shaded, as it is, by a kind of intuitive Marxism. The poem is called “The Haschish”:

Sketch from "Harpers Weekly," 21 Septemer 1861.

Of all that Orient lands can vaunt
Of marvels with our own competing,
The strangest is the Haschish plant,
And what will follow on its eating.

What pictures to the taster rise,
Of Dervish or of Almeh dances!
Of Eblis, or of Paradise,
Set all aglow with Houri glances!

The poppy visions of Cathay,
The heavy beer-trance of the Suabian;
The wizard lights and demon play
Of nights Walpurgis and Arabian!

The Mollah and the Christian dog
Change place in mad metempsychosis;
The Muezzin climbs the synagogue,
The Rabbi shakes his beard at Moses!

"King Cotton Bound; or The Modern Prometheus," from Punch (2 November 1861).

The Arab by his desert well
Sits choosing from some Caliph’s daughters,
And hears his single camel’s bell
Sound welcome to his regal quarters.

The Koran’s reader makes complaint
Of Shitan dancing on and off it;
The robber offers alms, the saint
Drinks Tokay and blasphemes the Prophet.

Such scenes that Eastern plant awakes;
But we have one ordained to beat it,
The Haschish of the West, which makes
Or fools or knaves of all who eat it.

The preacher eats, and straight appears
His Bible in a new translation;
Its angels negro overseers,
And Heaven itself a snug plantation!

The man of peace, about whose dreams
The sweet millennial angels cluster,
Takes the mad weed, and plots and schemes,
A raving Cuban filibuster!

The noisiest Democrat, with ease,
It turns to Slavery’s parish beadle;
The shrewdest statesman eats and sees
Due southward point the polar needle.

The Judge partakes, and sits erelong
Upon his bench a railing blackguard;
Decides off-hand that right is wrong,
And reads the ten commandments backward.

O potent plant! so rare a taste
Has never Turk or Gentoo gotten;
The hempen Haschish of the East
Is powerless to our Western Cotton!

Here, Whittier suggests that “common-sense” public morality, institutional theology, and “representative” politics all speak for the class in whose hands power and capital are concentrated—in this case, the cotton magnates of the lower south, for whom the white “weed” of cotton is a kind of intoxicating drug (hence, “The Haschish”). Essentially, this poem concerns what Louis Althusser, in Lenin and Philosophy, calls “Ideological State Apparatuses,” or “ISAs“—institutions not apparently affiliated with the state that nonetheless do the state’s work, and do it, moreover, for the benefit of those who chiefly own the means of production characteristic of the economy in question (in the present case, a slave-holding one). Whittier understood power quite well. He knew how easily (and how unwittingly) we lend ourselves to its purposes. He also knew that in the 1850s down to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, 50-60% of all revenues from exports in the United States derived from cotton alone. He knew what Senator James Hammond of South Carolina meant when he pompously (and cynically) declared, in 1858, that “without firing a gun, without drawing a sword, should [the North] make war on us, we could bring the whole world to our feet. What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years? England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her to save the South. No, you dare not to make war on cotton. No power on the earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is King.”

King Cotton

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