Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, January 17, 2011

looking up the allusions

I want to agree with part of a recent post by Nick Carr and disagree with another part.

Here’s the part I agree with:

Kirsch says that T. S. Eliot "had to include notes" to "The Waste Land" in order to enable readers to "track down" its many allusions. The truth is different. The first publications of the poem, in the magazines The Criterion and The Dial, lacked the notes. The notes only appeared when the poem was published as a book, and Eliot later expressed regret that he had included them. The notes became, he wrote, a spur for "bogus scholarship," stimulating "the wrong kind of interest among the seekers of sources ... I regret having sent so many enquirers off on a wild goose chase after Tarot cards and the Holy Grail." By turning his allusions into mere citations, the notes led readers to see his poem as an intricate intellectual puzzle rather than a profound expression of personal emotion — a confusion that continues to haunt, and hamper, readings of the poem to this day. The beauty of "The Waste Land" lies not in its sources but in its music, which is in large measure the music of allusion, of fragments of distant melodies woven into something new.

This is exactly right. Eliot added the notes precisely because Faber wanted to print “The Waste Land” as a book and the poem simply wasn’t long enough without them. (I might add that the “bogus scholarship” that Eliot refers to is not that of his critics, but his own. He thought, perhaps unnecessarily harshly, that the notes themselves were based on limited knowledge.) And if your eyes are continually darting to and from the notes you have no chance of hearing the poem’s music, which is indeed remarkable. As Nick says later in the post, “If you see an allusion merely as something to be tracked down, to be googled, you miss its point and its power. You murder to dissect.”

But Nick goes on to comment on a poem by Yeats that subtly echoes Shelley’s poem “Alastor”:

the allusion deepens and enriches Yeats's poem whether or not you pick up on it. What matters is not that you know "Alastor" but that Yeats knows it, and that his reading of the earlier work, and his emotional connection with it, resonates through his own lyric. Because, moreover, Yeats provides no clue that he's alluding to another work, Google would be no help in "tracking down" the source of that allusion. A reader who doesn't already have an intimate knowledge of "Alastor" would have no reason to Google the lines.

That last point is true, but I think it’s clearly wrong to say that “what matters is not that you know "Alastor" but that Yeats knows it.” It does matter that Yeats knows it — Yeats’s encounter with Shelley strengthens and deepens his verse — but is also matters if the reader does, because if I hear that echo of Shelley I understand better the conversation that Yeats is participating in, and that enriches my experience of his poem and also of Shelley’s. And not incidentally, the enriching power of our knowledge of intellectual tradition is one of Eliot’s key emphases.

So I would argue that the reader of “The Waste Land” who comes to it already knowing something about Shakespeare, Augustine, Buddhist teaching, Dante, the Grail legends, and the Upanishads is going to hear its music better than the reader who doesn't know any of that stuff — which raises some questions about when and in what circumstances teachers should try to teach that poem.

But it’s also worth remembering that poems can be read more than once. Maybe the first time I read a difficult poem I won't get much out of it because I’ll be reading the notes, or googling the allusions. But if I study carefully, and have a decent memory, then maybe when I come back to that poem later, more experienced and better informed, I’ll be able to drink very deeply from its well. The teaching of literature is often, or should be, preparing students for future readings.

(P.S. I’ll get back to The Whale and the Reactor soon.)


  • dunnettreader said...

    This resonates so strongly! I had always assumed I simply had a tin ear for poetry — I could analytically appreciate word-smithing, metre, enjambement, etc. But only rarely would I feel 'captured' by a poet's vision, or perception, or emotion. So it would never occur to me to pick up poetry to read — give me fiction or plays or prose, but leave poetry off the list, thank you very much.

    And then I started rummaging around the 17th and 1st half 18thC, coming to specific literary works from political and intellectual history — why was this play or poem or author or critic important to a political conflict or cultural debate like Ancients v Moderns — rather than starting with a poem and working outwards to try to understand its context. And lo and behold, I discovered that I adore this stuff, even if I'm still painfully aware of how much a newbie I am, and how much of the conversation (with both tradition and the contemporary scene) I'm still missing.

    And thus, an epiphany — I was trapped by the whole romantic expectations of poetry as individual sensibility and expression(ism), and when I couldn't "share" the poet's experience, I figured I just wasn't made for poetry.

    Which produced another epiphany — aesthetically, what I relate to is conversation in the broadest sense of the term. I prefer symphonies to concertos, duets and trios to arias, jazz quartets to soloists, unless it's a diva like Sarah Vaughn who plays her voice like an orchestra with all the other musicians. I'm dreadfully prejudiced against most of the great American post-war novelists, whom I find engaged in self-indulgent monologues (even when there's a cast of thousands) about which I can't find the energy to care.

    Or perhaps it's just that I'm not adequately tuned in to the conversation of the white male intelligensia. Of course even the romantics were intensely engaged in conversation (often not polite, often debate or polemic) with each other and with tradition. So eventually, I should give them another try with my newly found approach. Still, I imagine I'll continue to prefer Byron's compulsively conversational Don Juan to most of the rest.

  • dunnettreader said...

    Back to Nick Carr's original post. I find that Google is enormously valuable in appreciating 17th & 18thC lit. True, there are gobs of allusions that pass right over my ignorant head. But there are lots of things for which the web serves as a gigantic reference library at one's finger tips.

    Take your example of the Upanishads. If I know that they're relevant but I don't know squat about them, it takes me literally seconds to get at least an initial orientation. And if that whets my curiousity, Google gives me lots of further links to background essays, etexts of passages, and so forth.

    In the process of following one thread, I often discover not-so-obvious additional connections -- to why an allusion might have been important, to other authors or works that also used that source, etc. The real challenge with the web isn't its propensity for flattening. It's disciplining one's self not to keep following links to more and more fascinating materials.

    And having texts available on the web -- whether etexts a la Project Gutenberg or scans of out-of-copyright books on Google Books or Internet Archive -- is an enormous boon. Frex, being able to quickly look at Erasmus' 'Praise of Folly' or More's 'Utopia' when reading Swift's Tale or Gulliver or Pope's Dunciad. Or comparing side-by-side Pope's 'Silence' with Rochester's 'Nothing'. Or having the text of Boileau's 'Sublime' when puzzling out aesthetics debates among English critics.

    Or reading a Dryden poem and thinking, "that rings a bell," and quickly using Google to find a similar phrase by Pope in a poem I read earlier -- was it an allusion to Dryden, or was it a "commonplace" that both poets were playing with, maybe in different ways? Hmmm... back to Google....

  • I think these are my favorite blog comments EVAR.

  • dunnettreader said...

    Oh, my! I shall hug that to myself for some time to come!

  • dunnettreader said...

    [1 of 2]
    While I'm on a commenting jag on why I love to use Google -- it's a bit long, so it's a 2-parter.

    Another plus of using Google to get a better feel for allusions, or the conversations in which a work is participating, is that the reader isn't limited to the "authority" of the editor who decides what the reader "ought" to know. I'm sure you were quite sensitive to that issue when you were recently wearing an editor's hat.

    The techniques and values in literary analysis and criticism change over the decades/centuries, so there are advantages to being able to compare online editions (even if the text is the same, the explanatory material will differ considerably). It's also quite useful to be able to research beyond the (usually quite brief) information the editor thinks critical for understanding a given passage.

    The following example is just a nit, but illustrative for all that.

    Pope's Imitation of the 1st Epistle of the 1st Book of Horace is addressed to his close friend and philosophical guide, and principal pariah of the ruling Whigs, Bolingbroke, in lieu of Horace's politically well-connected patron, Maecenas. Pope's opening salutation fits neatly with Horace's own text. But Pope riskily (or from the Whig perspective, scandalously) takes the relationship to another level: "St John, whose love indulg'd my labours past / Matures my present, and shall bound my last!" Splendid, brave, loyal stuff!

    In John Butt's one-volume Twickenham Edition [p 625], we come to the lines (31-2):
    "Sometimes, with Aristippus, or St. Paul,
    Indulge my Candour, and grow all to all;"
    Butt provides Pope's note to l. 31, which quoted the Latin line in which Horace refers to Aristippus. So Pope had made it clear to his readers that Horace, not he, had introduced the figure of Aristippus. Equally obvious, Horace himself didn't refer to St. Paul. For modern readers, Butt helpfully quotes several passages from St. Paul which include the "all things to all men" notion -- allusions which Pope's readers would have instantly grasped without assistance.

    Then, for the ordinary modern reader who is likely not to know exactly who Aristippus was, Butt glosses: "Aristippus founded the Cyrenaic school of Philosophers, who held that, since the present only can be experienced, momentary pleasure is the chief good. He was Bolingbroke's favorite philosopher."

    Now, since I arrived at Pope via political and intellectual history of the period, I've got a pretty good handle on Bolingbroke. And I've noticed that historians and literary scholars seem unable to pass by a mention of him without an adolescent smirk or sly giggle about his libertine behavior as a young man and his early reputation as a free-thinker, with respect to both of which he refused to be an apostate in later life when he was battling to have his political proscription lifted. Though the salacious innuendo of scholars usually omits to mention his stable 30-plus-year marriage with his rather remarkable second wife or his extensive deistic writings on moral philosophy (other than that they were mocked by Garrick, were trashed by Johnson, shocked the bien pensant and were dismissed with a sneer by Burke).

    So I had a wee notion that Bolingbroke might not have chosen Aristippus as his "favorite philosopher" simply because he thought "momentary pleasure is the chief good."

  • dunnettreader said...

    [con't 2 of 2 - though #1 seems to be caught in the ether, but I assume it will show up]

    Nor would I expect, given the pride and affection in Pope's opening address to Bolingbroke, that Pope retained Horace's reference to Aristippus principally to suggest "libertinism" to the reader (though the coincidental connection between Bolingbroke's undoubted interest in Aristippus and Horace's choice of Aristippus would have amused Pope as a private in-joke, if nothing else). And the tip-off is that in this specific instance Pope equates Aristippus with St. Paul, who was certainly not advocating for momentary pleasure as the highest good when he was "all things to all men."

    So what is the Aristippus reference all about? And here a quick Google will go to the text of the main source we have re Aristippus — Diogenes Laertius. And what do we immediately find in this classic text?

    Aristippus "was a man very quick at adapting himself to every kind of place, and time, and person, and he easily supported every change of fortune."

    Ah ha! That he could adapt himself to every… person, that he could be… all things to all men! And since few prominent figures of Pope's day had been buffeted by Fortuna quite so much as Bolingbroke, the fact that Aristippus advocated making the most of what Fortuna dishes out, of trying to make lemonade out of lemons, suggests at least one reason why Pope might have found it apt to retain Horace's reference to Bolingbroke's "favorite philosopher." And Pope might have anticipated that some of his readers would make that connection.

    We could go further with Google and discover that Bolingbroke criticised both Stoicism and Epicureanism on the grounds that the one denied pleasure, the other pain, both searching for escape from the anxieties of existence and fears of the future and death. Whereas Aristippus seems to have embraced the realities of both pleasure and pain and the importance of coming to terms with what we can and cannot control, and suggested that a major source of pain is what we allow to control us, including pleasure. Hmmm… maybe there's more to Bolingbroke's interest in Aristippus than that the ol' Greek advocated rutting like a billy-goat.

    Anyhow, with a few quick Google searches, a rather different set of layers of allusion emerges than those suggested by John Butt's gloss.

  • This is what we call serendipity, right? — following the paths of intuition and inference and finding some unexpectedly valuable connections. I used to say that the internet was the enemy of serendipity, but experiences like the one you relate made me change my mind.

  • Can we expect a post on re-reading and the importance thereof?

  • dunnettreader said...

    Quite. But like any tool, it's all in how you use it, no? It can be an intellectual strait-jacket or immensely liberating.

    You quoted Carr: If you see an allusion merely as something to be tracked down, to be googled, you miss its point and its power. You murder to dissect. And indeed it's "murder" if you use Google to get "the" answer and stop there -- think you can pin down a dissected bit like a specimen. But with a modicum of curiosity, the dissected bits don't stay pinned down but rather are stepping stones in the exploration of possibilities, of the rich allusiveness of allusion.

    I think Carr badly undercuts his argument when he claims: The beauty of "The Waste Land" lies not in its sources but in its music, which is in large measure the music of allusion, of fragments of distant melodies woven into something new. And just how does he propose that I hear those fragments of distant melodies if I've never heard the original songs? I can't share the emotional experience of the poet if I can't recognize the conversation. The very issue you raise when you ask when and how to teach the poem.

    My Pope example shows what a fabulously transforming tool Google is. Just think about the sort of effort that would have been required to pursue that single line without the web. I'd have to have some sort of reference handy that would tell me enough about Aristippus to suggest where I might find more info. And since it would be unlikely I had Diogenes Laertius on my shelf, it would be off to the library (and no, I'm not on a university campus). Any further exploration of where Aristippus fits within the Greek schools, and what that might suggest for the Pope-Bolingbroke connection, would have taken a whole lot more digging, requiring considerable tenacity (or single-minded obsession).

    I am so intensely grateful to the web. The delight of the Augustans simply would have been closed to me without the internet's ease of exploration. Google dismantles hefty barriers to the serendipity of following the paths of intuition and inference and, I'd add, of curiosity and intellectual excitement.

  • Brian: no, but you can read a simply lovely chapter on the subject in my forthcoming book!

  • dunnettreader said...

    May I second what I take to be Brian D's request for a post on re-reading?

    While I'm being greedy, I'd also be interested in whether/how you found the web useful in your recent editing gig. Would you ever be tempted to design an edition for a wired e-reading device like iPad with external links -- that is, see your role as an editor not just to provide your own gloss but act as a curator to direct people to starting points on the web?

    One further thought on whether the web is a barrier to or a stimulus for exploration. I wholeheartedly endorse your observations re the "History" of Wikipedia pages. Good research "hygiene" of course demands checking out the History before accepting any "facts" as relatively stable. But the debates shown in a lively History are also often great leads to further exploration. Lots of opportunities for a bit of serendipity lurking in the bowels of Wikipedia.

  • dunnettreader said...

    Oops, my comment crossed yours. I probably missed an earlier announcement, but when is your simply lovely chapter likely to be released?

  • Thanks for asking about the book! The information may be found by following this link.

  • dunnettreader said...

    That'll teach me to skip TextPatterns for a few days. Thanks!

  • Shameless self promotion!

    I look forward to reading it.

  • I mean, what's the point of shamed self-promotion?

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