Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Notes on Recent Reading 6 [Jewett, Addison, Crabbe]

Country of the Pointed Firs [Jewett]

Reading Jewett one thinks of William Carlos Williams’ line in “To Elsie”: “The pure products of America/ go crazy—“ Though Jewett’s bona fides as an old-line downeaster are impeccable, she writes as though the region was populated entirely by eccentrics with the exception of the normative detached narrator. Just as pastoral poetry was originally written by urbanites amusing themselves with a mythological projection of country life, the late nineteenth century regional American writers virtually all wrote from a doubled perspective: familiar with the local culture yet not contained within it.

Indeed, Jewett marvels at what she sees of “the waste of human ability” along the Maine coast where individuals are stranded like sea-wrack. A person in a small town may have “a fine able character” yet feel “caged” by “a narrow set of circumstances.” (467) A devolution has occurred: the earlier generations were “more vigorous.” (473) When the chunky Mrs. Todd is compared to Antigone (417), Jewett is plainly playing an endgame of belated epigones. The poignancy of her one romance and the dull marriage that followed is sentimental rather than tragic. Her plodding tidy decent endurance, however admirable, falls far short of heroic.

In historic terms, many of the odd characters that populate Dunnet’s Landing testify to the passing of the old order in which sea captains not only commanded a prosperous industry but also brought a cosmopolitan viewpoint to an otherwise small and isolated seacoast town. Travelers know that the economic backwaters are always the most colorful tourist destinations, and, in spite of her own Maine origins, Jewett, like her narrator from Boston, was just passing through.

Cato [Addison]

Joseph Addison’s play was a hit when it premiered in 1713. Written to conform to the neoclassical literary theory of the sort advocated by Thomas Rymer, it set the standard for a generation of tragedies and maintained its popularity on the stage well into the nineteenth century. Since that time, despite academic interest and occasional revivals, it has lingered in some obscurity while the author’s marvelous essays, casual and elegant at once, have always commanded readers.

Addison’s blank verse is pallid compared to Shakespeare, but whose is not? Cato the Stoic (great-grandson of the Censor) speaks in a rhetoric that is nothing if not dignified, uplifted with sublime sentiment. The listener can only be charmed by the self-abnegating virtues of the hero. The love interests of Marcus, Portius, and Juba are adventitious; what the play presents is the grandeur of tragic submission, contemptuous of mere passion. Though Cato must argue himself into acceptance of immortality, noting, in a line later quoted by the pleasant Mr. Micawber, “Plato, thou reasonest well,” his detachment from desire and devotion to others are exemplary.

The more-or-less “natural religion” of Stoicism was not the only reason Cato was the rage in the Enlightenment era. Addison was an active Whig, and participated in the struggle to decrease the prerogatives of the monarchy. His play was read as part of a developing critique of tyranny that impressed both American and French revolutionaries. George Washington, in fact, had the play performed for the troops at Valley Forge. Cato himself had been elected plebian tribune and had, with Cicero, opposed the patrician Catiline conspiracy, and so might be regarded as something of a progressive. At any rate the old Stoic is surely innocent of the fact that his name is used today by rightwing sycophants of our own tyrannical Caesar, the corporate dollar.

Collected Poems [Crabbe]

We tend to accept the idea of the penniless poet as natural, though the poor had little voice until the Romantic movement created a new interest in the lives of the humble and an audience for poets like Burns, Crabbe, and Clare who had themselves experienced real privation. For a man like Crabbe, the English countryside inspired neither the confectionary fantasies of classical pastoralism nor the mystical afflatus of Wordsworth. Like American writers a hundred years or so later such as Edwin Arlington Robinson or Edgar Lee Masters, he described struggles and dramas taking place far from the centers of power, often with a dark or tragic tone.

In Byron’s phrase, Crabbe was “Nature’s severest painter, yet her best,” and The Borough, The Village, and “Sir Eustace Grey” remain worth reading for their psychology and pathos. The tales in verse are well-shaped and satisfying, even if most would agree with Émile Legouis’ observation that “His ear has no fastidious requirement.”

As much a poet of depression as of rural life, it is no wonder that some categorize him as a pre-Romantic, yet Leavis places him last of the Augustan Tradition, and Horace Smith called him “Pope in worsted stockings.” Though he says he “sought the simple life that Nature yields” it was in fact his circumstance from birth, and it is to his credit that he set down as much of its horror as of its picturesque charm. He was a competent craftsman, and in his often easy-going heroic couplets (sometimes ballad-like stanzas), if he rarely comes up with striking images or thrilling thoughts (we are no longer impressed with his sententiae), he sustains a consistent simmer of interest and generally hits his mark. While he rarely soared, he regularly looked closely at his surroundings, material and emotional, and recorded what he saw in carefully wrought language.

1 comment:

  1. JFK suffered from Addison's disease.