Now Muse assist me, aptly to describe
Mechanic contests of the Critic tribe;
Choose but condign exemplars for my song,
Lest, like themselves, I explicate too long;
Let me shed light on things both dark and dense
Yet never move them into common sense.
First of the few for whom the Muse finds space,
See Wilson Knight advance and take his place.
A Double Boiler fixed on fiery wheels,
Hisses hysteric or ecstatic squeals;
He takes a play, The Tempest, from his poke,
Kisses the boards and drops it in the smoke.
The smoke redoubles and the cauldron roars;
At length he turns a cock and out there pours
The play—Ah, no! it cannot be the play
To myth and symbolism boiled away;
Where are the plot, the actors and the stage?
These are irrelevant, explains the sage;
Damn action and discourse: The play’s no more
Than drifts of an extended metaphor
Did simple Shakespeare think: ‘The play’s the thing’?
What Shakespeare thought is hustled from the ring.
He’s shouted down: ‘Fallacious by intent’;
Critics repudiate what the author meant.
Is Lear the story of a King? Ah, no,
A tract on clothing and what lurks below.
Well, but the audience came to see men act
And not to hear a philosophic tract?
Wrong once again, my friend: we won’t admit
That many-headed monster of the pit,
Who think The Tempest tells a tale perhaps
And not a long-drawn metaphor, poor chaps;
In three short hours how could they hope to judge
What takes a critic twenty years of drudge?
But who would write a play with this in view?
That only proves that Shakespeare scorned them too.
A sovereign critic is a mighty god;
Author and audience vanish at his nod;
He takes the poet’s place, re-weaves the spell,
And is its only audience as well.
Scarce had the Goddess viewed this weird machine,
When envious Leavis thrusts himself between;
Cries: ‘What, infringe my patent, thievish swine!
The “extended metaphor” conceit is mine,
Mine the “dramatic poem” device, I say,
By which I demonstrate a play’s no play.
Ignore him, Goddess; turn those eyes divine
From Wilson’s shandrydan and gaze on mine!
In shining nickel and unblushing brass
Streamlined to make a genius seem an ass,
Reverse the judgment of the centuries,
Make and unmake Tradition as I please,
Exalt the lowly and put down the great.
Observe now while I prestidigitate!’
So saying he thrusts great Fielding in his pot
And in beside him tumbles Walter Scott;
Pours in some gallons of high-octane spleen;
Fiddles and draws a belch from the machine;
Hey Presto! From a trap-door there escape
A hunch-back pigmy and a crippled ape.
‘Behold my triumph, Queen!’, the critic cries,
‘My metamorphoses confound all eyes.
Can this be Fielding whom they knew immense
For wit and charity and common sense?
No, a mere tyro—take a second view—
From whom Jane Austen learned a trick or two.
Can this be Scott, then, whose magician’s quill
Delighted Europe and delights it still?
Not so! Look once again: my art unveils
A dabbler in romance and old wives’ tales.’
At this the Goddess smiles and nods her head:
‘Who then, dear son, would you exalt instead?’
‘Observe, great Matriarch,’ her son replies,
‘This mannikin, the sport of wasps and flies,
Peevish and arrogant, he vents a flood
Of words which he calls “thinking with the blood”;
With generous Fielding, or with noble Scott
Compared, he shrinks and dwindles and is not.
And now—watch carefully—in my machine
I place him; add some drops of wintergreen,
A pinch of scrutiny, a touch of gall,
And D. H. Lawrence towers over all.’
There was a moment’s silence then a howl
Of jealous rivals: ‘Out! A Foul! A Foul!’
The Goddess pursed her lips and then she smiled:
‘Such stratagems would not deceive a child,
Remove these baubles; let the Games proceed
And bring me critics of a sterner breed.’
Next from the ranks comes clucking T. R. Henn
Attended by a train of faceless men;
And at his side, in female garb, there move
Caroline Spurgeon, Rosamunda Tuve;
Blest pair of Sirens, dredges of Heav’n’s joy,
His mother and his aunt, their charms employ
To prove, though art is long and life is short
That Drake and Shakespeare shared a favourite sport
And demonstrate ad nauseam the way
By Tudor rhetoric to build a play.
(Read them, alas, discover to your cost:
The proof’s irrelevant; the play is lost.)
These chicks, for mighty Henn, who stalks between,
Push forward an ingenious machine
As full of pigeon-holes, as bare of birds
As those the Record Office stuffs with words.
Great Henn dismisses them, affects to nod,
Selects a poet and assumes the god.
‘You call on us, great Queen, and not in vain.
Ours is a subtler, more insidious strain.
Ours not to denigrate, pervert, deny
Or puff inferior scribblers to the sky;
Patient and meek, we seize on honest worth
And, like the meek, inheriting the earth,
We take them over, make them ours perforce,
Trace every image to its remotest source,
Load it with analogues, gild, trick and frost;
Meaning runs into meaning and is lost;
We read between the lines and read again
Between those lines inserted by our pen;
Add statues, pictures, junk and bric-à-brac
Until the poem’s fabric starts to crack
And trick the guileless reader to believe
We still have something further up our sleeve,
Without which, though now driven to the wall,
He cannot understand the poem at all.
Faced with this parasitic mould indeed,
Readers, intimidated, cease to read.
The pleasure of discovery denied,
No corner left where mystery may hide;
And even the simplest poem seems obscure
When every root’s confused with its manure.
Come, here’s a poem of William Butler Yeats:
This simple thing my genius recreates;
Processed and pulped in my machine, it grows
To fifty pages of inspissate prose.
It is my boast, dear Mother, by this trick
To have found him marble and have left him brick.
Now watch me, Goddess, to confirm my claim,
Take Shakespeare next and treat him much the same.’
Thus far he spoke, when rose a general shout:
In rushed a psychoanalytic rout;
Machines they pushed of every shape and size
That mind or myth or madness could devise.
Before them, rattling Shakespeare’s honoured bones,
Lumbers the burly form of Ernest Jones:
‘Have done with literary chit and chat!
What, Bullough come again? No more of that!
Ur-Hamlets? Fudge! Old Saxo? Tush and Pish!
Castration Fantasies, the dark Death Wish,
Oedipus Complex, narcissistic blocks:
This Key and this alone his heart unlocks.
As for esthetic theories, save your breath!
Topsoil at most; the pay-dirt lurks beneath;
Learn that all literature is fantasy,
All art, Neurosis which you cannot see.
The endless carping of the Leavisites,
Chatter of Cleanth Brooks and L. C. Knights,
What underlies their cultural debate?
A secret wish their fathers to castrate!
And as for Henn’s Compulsive Ritual,
Anal Fixation will explain it all.
See, Goddess, see: their fictions I destroy!
Come, where is Herbert Read, my whipping boy?
Wheel me that Viennese contraption there!
Now fetch me Hamlet—handle him with care—
Now press this button and let in your clutch:
The play which Shakespeare wrote in Double Dutch,
Which lay dissolved in endless Wilson Knight,
Behold! Let Freud appear and all is light!
Was Hamlet mad or indecisive? Come,
He simply longed to go to bed with Mum;
And so did Shakespeare: “to avoid worse rape”,
He found this mechanism of escape.
Good-night, Sweet Prince; to dream, perchance to skid
Between your Super-ego and your Id!’
He ceased. While hate and hubbub flew around,
The critics gnashed their teeth; the Goddess frowned:
‘Your scheme, as far as I can make it out,
Destroys my foes, and yet I stand in doubt.
I read your heart, sir; in that heart I see
A sly, libidinous design on me,
Your mother and your queen. That purpose is
To deal with me as Oedipus with his.
Presumptuous slave!’ … A shriek arrests her tongue
And furious Maud comes striding through the throng:
‘Jung, Mother Jung’s the name to conjure with!
Poems are simply archetypal myth;
Poets, blind mouths through which Old Chaos streams;
And Racial Memory dictates their dreams.
A woman to a woman, hear my cry:
As I am Bodkin, let this traitor die!’
She spoke and with her weapon pierced him through.
While consternation seized the manly crew,
The Amazon bestrides the corpse of Jones,
Splits up his hide and extricates the bones,
Smears them with unguent from a shaman’s pot
And Jones becomes the thing that he was not.
Reclothed with flesh, though stricken well in years,
An Ancient Mariner he now appears;
An albatross about his neck is hung;
He sings a Vedic hymn and calls on Jung!
The Goddess smiles: the critics all applaud:
‘Behold a Rebirth Archetype!’ cries Maud.
A New Medea, she towers to the skies
And stands in expectation of the prize.
Just then a form of more plebeian mould
Cries in stentorian tones: ‘Hold, Goddess, hold!
Beware the muddles of the bourgeoisie;
For genuine muddle listen first to me!’
And, a left-legged Jacob, squat and wide,
With David Daiches trotting by his side,
Christopher Caudwell issues from the ranks,
Backed by a threatening brace of Soviet tanks.
The tanks advance; the critics all give ground;
He views the various machines around:
‘This bourgeois junk, these antiquated arks!
No, Goddess, learn from Lenin and from Marx!
These are but children, squabbling at their play;
In Muscovy we take a shorter way:
The trial, the concentration camp, the knout,
Decide what literature is all about.
(Think of Akhmatova and Pasternak—)
Something your western bourgeois cultures lack
Are these two critical machines behind
The readiest way to halt the march of mind.’
‘Son,’ cries the Queen, ‘although I sympathize,
This would not do yet in democracies.
There for the nonce, a better way to win
Is the slow rot of judgment from within;
Perhaps in any case a better way;
For violence breeds martyrs, so they say;
The hangman and the headsman and the stake
Are apt to raise rebellion in their wake,
Whereas a mind corrupted by degrees
Slides into Vacancy and calls it Peace.’
‘Well, from your contest, then I must withdraw,
Dear Mother, till the reign of martial law;
Besides, a news-flash from the Chosen Land
Tells me that poets have got out of hand;
My thugs are needed there; I must return
And heads will roll while ivory towers burn.
Meantime, with blessings on this company,
I leave you Daiches here; no Marxist he,
But fit to sow confusion: his machine
Tests art by mirrors. Should the social scene
Show a left-wing reflection of a tale,
Though dull, it passes, but if not, must fail.
Spenser and Malory to him are dross
And Rabelais and Sidney a dead loss.
Farewell, pro tem.; your Godhead I salute,
This Lumpenprofessoriat to boot.’
He raised his arm aloft and clenched his fist,
(Warning to every deviationist).
The tanks roll off; the critics roll an eye
And even David Daiches heaves a sigh.
A pause ensues: the Games are at a stand
Until the Goddess lifts her royal hand:
‘Bring on the pachyderms of Much Ado,
My Formal Critics marching two and two!’
And from their verbal jungle to the bar,
Chanting a solemn dead march, from afar
Majestic in their pace and bearing, come
The Mastodons of Meaning, all and some.
Spokesmen and leaders of this lumbering crowd,
See Cleanth Brooks and Empson trumpet loud,
Wreathing the lithe proboscis in duet,
They greet the Goddess and to partners set,
Small tails like wreathing o’er each massive bum,
And dance the pompous dance of Dunderdom.
The Queen, bewildered by this ponderous show,
The sense of their ‘enactment’ seeks to know.
‘Mother,’ booms Empson, with a final thud,
‘Our convolutions should be clear as mud;
Simplicity, great Queen, is for the birds.
Mark this vast structure built of Complex Words;
Insert a lucid poem; pause, and see
How all dissolves in Ambiguity.’
‘All hail, Semantic Father!’ answers Brooks.
‘For Adumbrations, let her read my books,
Explore that intricate, inane Sublime
And play cat’s-cradle to the end of time.’
‘Thank you,’ replies the Queen, ‘I’d rather not.’
Translates the pair to a remoter spot,
Praises their efforts to enhance her state,
But owns that nine such critics make a Tate.
Now Allen Tate comes on with massive tread:
His poems are golden but his prose is lead;
In Labyrinthine coils it crowds and squirms
With knotted syntax and entangled terms,
Strangles each poem, as the serpents once
Laocoön and his unhappy sons,
Enfolds and squeezes, crushes and extracts
Small crumbs of meaning and vast files of facts;
The poet crumbles and the reader nods
Yet on and on and on and on he plods.
The tulip’s streaks are numbered, all admit,
But is the poem illumined? Not a whit;
For all his purpose is to demonstrate
The sensibilities of Allen Tate.
Alas, his language gives his game away
And sets a bound to all he has to say.
The Goddess yawns, the serpent folds untwist
And slough, as Tate and Tedium are dismissed.
But now with heavier beasts the earth is trod:
Blackmur and Northrop Frye with equal plod
And equal in gravamen, as in groan,
With cumbrous frolics next approach the throne.
Behind them Kenneth Burke and Schorer prate,
Twin masters of the Inarticulate.
They speak no language, mime and reel and sprawl:
What does it matter? They ‘enact’ it all;
For in their doctrine that’s the final test
And acrobatic verse is judged the best.
‘Tis not enough a poet’s lines should flow
With eloquence, with sense and passion glow,
Sing like an angel, speak with grace and tact:
All fails, unless its meaning it ‘enact’.
The Queen surveys these antics, turns around
And calls on Frye and Blackmur to expound.
Ere torpid Blackmur rouses to reply
Great Frye displays his fearful symmetry;
The multitude draw round to hear him speak;
He preaches a full hour; it seems a week;
And Frye, still preaching in the wilderness,
Regards the hungry multitude’s distress;
Still preaching, from his hat he takes a fish
Called William Blake and set it in his dish;
And, preaching still, he lays it on the coals
And, while his magic eloquence unrolls,
A Miracle! the fish becomes a feast
Of twenty thousand baskets-full at least.
Alas, the empty multitude is fed
Not meat, but predication, stones for bread.
‘Now, having explained my author, I explain
My explanation, brethren, and again
Explain those comments, while you break your fast:
To this all literature must come at last!’
The crowd are on their feet! They cheer and sing:
‘Reward him, Mighty Mother! Frye for King!’
But, at this music, drowsy Blackmur wakes:
‘Still preaching from the pulpit or the jakes!
What? Give the prize to Frye? Make Frye a King?
Promote him to a gibbet: let him swing!
My fist knocks off his sanctimonious hat;
I smite between his horns; take that, and that!’
So saying, he strikes; his rival sways; he sprawls;
His breath is spent and like an ox he falls.
The fickle crowd at once begin to cry:
‘Crown Blackmur, mighty Queen! A fig for Frye!’
They dance and clap and raise the Victor’s Hymn
And tear unhappy Northrop limb from limb.
But over all laborious Blackmur’s strain,
Still rumbling in the bowels of Hart Crane,
Drowns out their cries and makes the welkin ring:
‘Hear me, great Mother, hearken while I sing!
In tortuous syntax, lame and out of hand,
Explaining what I do not understand;
I cannot tell the Bull’s feet from the B’s,
Nor see the wood for counting all its trees.
Lucus a non lucendo is the fashion,
But my impenetrable explication
Earns me the prize (though stultifies the song)
Who say so little and who talk so long.’
The crowd renews its plaudits and its cries
To see great Blackmur crowned and win the Prize;
But Dullness falters, hesitates and hums;
Then springing from her throne, exclaims: ‘He comes!
He comes, by prophets and by seers foretold,
To usher in my spurious Age of Gold;
Latest of all my sons, my chiefest care,
Messiah of Nonsense and great Arthur’s Heir!’
Meanwhile her eyes are fixed where, from the east,
A speck, a dot, a blot, a cloud, increased
Moment by moment fascinates each eye
And, speeding towards them, glitters in the sky.
In graceful arcs it spirals, swerves and swoops,
Emitting heavenly Muzak, as it loops;
Light iridescence gleams along its side
—For now ’tis near enough to be descried—
And soon it lands and taxis towards the line,
A glistening engine of unknown design.
Swift through the crowd, like cats’-paws o’er a lake,
Conjecture runs with rumour in its wake.
Some say a sputnik and a UFO some,
The Second Coming or the Millennium,
As, from the hatch on top, a curious dome
Of shining perspex and resplendent chrome,
A smiling figure, uniformed in white,
Steps down and blinds them with excess of light.
He stood there—for at least it seemed to be
A He—or might, perhaps, it be a She?—
Quite featureless, yet as the crowd look on,
Each seemed by turns to recognize his own;
Then moving like a dancer, proud, serene,
The radiant newcomer salutes the Queen.
‘Hail, Mother, late in time behold me come!
To join the Games prescribed at Arthur’s Tomb.’
He turns towards the Tomb and kneeling there:
‘Great Avatar of Nonsense, hear my prayer!
My time is not yet come, yet here behold
Your true Successor by dark stars foretold.
These Esaus spurn, reject their horoscopes
And bless me, Father, Jacob of your hopes!’
The Tomb flies open with a hollow sound,
And coiling up from shades of underground,
A mighty serpent glides, and winks an eye,
And disappears into a bog nearby.
And next the Stranger turns towards the throne:
‘The contest, Goddess, let it now go on!
And let me demonstrate before my Queen
The sovereign virtues of my blest machine.’
‘Alas, dear child, whoever you may be,
Still wrapt in clouds of dim futurity,
The victims whom I raised to demonstrate
Are all used up. Forgive me, you must wait
Till I can summon up, and so I will,
Some modern genius worthy of your skill.’
‘Fear not, fond parent,’ was the Shade’s reply.
‘For on mere authors I no more rely;
Now Automation and the Critic’s Art
Make poets obsolete as horse and cart.
In this superb contraption here, you see
The Self-moved Mover as Machinery;
The Muses are redundant now; and thanks
To automatic brains and memory banks,
Pure Criticism triumphs over all
Without resort to Raw Material.
The Last Age, primitive although it was,
Produced Pure Poetry; eschewed the dross
Of subject, narrative, connective themes;
Now ours at last evolves the Dream of Dreams:
Pure Criticism, without thought or fuss;
Pure Theory formed, with nothing to discuss!
This rare device embodies in its guts
No cranks or levers, pistons, cogs or nuts;
A “magic eye” looks inward and controls
Pure Critics musing on their own pure souls.’
A murmur sweeps the mob; the murmur dies
And Dullness rises and bestows the Prize:
‘The Works of mighty Arthur, may he live
In well-tooled leather, nicely gilt, receive!
Peruse them duly, emulate his fame,
And rule the nations in thy Greater Name!
But now, Young Prophet, we must make an end:
The time has come for Arthur to ascend.
Let all assemble soon to see him rise
And let your plaudits waft him to the skies;
And may this Morning Star his reign forestalls
Stand up and catch his mantle as it falls!’
End of Book V