December 25, 2009

After proud knowledge

Russell Blackford is a guest blogger for Sentient Developments. This post is cross-posted at Sentient Developments and Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

I'm currently reading a book that has been sitting on my shelves, unbroached as far as I can recall, for too many years: The Proud Knowledge: Poetry, Insight and the Self, 1620-1920, by John Holloway (London: Routledge, 1977).

The Proud Knowledge has certain annoying features. One is a generally disdainful or arrogant attitude on the part of the author. He dismisses Robert Southey's then-enormously popular but now-almost-unread narrative poems, The Curse of Kehama and Thelaba the Destroyer, as "ridiculous works" (p. 94) and almost valueless, despite their influence on the likes of Keats and Shelley. Well - perhaps so. I can't say otherwise, since I, like most people these days, have never read them. Perhaps they really are dreadful. But Holloway rather loses my sympathy when he faintly praises Southey's occasional descriptive passages of merit, facility for prosody, and varied style (pp. 102-103), then adds:

But in the main, those two poems more or less fulfilled for their time the function fulfilled in recent times by films in gorgeous technicolour of the Orient, and by science fiction and possibly by a novel like The Lord of the Rings. Scenery, romantic affairs, fantastic travel, cosmic warfare, other grandiose but trifling thrills, make their stock in trade. (p. 103)

Despite its haughty tone, this passage actually makes The Curse of Kehama and Thelaba the Destroyer sound pretty interesting! Maybe their popularity, including with Keats and Shelley, wasn't just an aberration of literary taste. As I read Holloway's description, I start to wonder whether Southey's narratives really are as bad as is commonly assumed - whether they might not, in fact, be pretty good and just waiting to be rediscovered (perhaps by Hollywood screenwriters). Southey was, of course, rendered a ridiculous figure by Byron's satirical attacks (as was Thomas Shadwell by Dryden's at an earlier time). He is best known as a radical-turned-conservative and a literary dunce ... but surely anything worth being compared to science fiction and The Lord of the Rings must at least have suspense and entertainment value.

Nearly as annoying is Holloway's assumption that anyone reading his scholarly work must be fluent not only in English but also French, Latin, and ancient Greek. His pages are peppered with quotations in these languages - without translations. Now, anybody who has read widely in the history of ideas is likely to have picked up some useful Greek and Latin words and phrases, while my French is at least good enough for me to cope easily with many of the shorter quotations. But I am not inclined to struggle, my Babelfish in hand, with solid blocks of literary French whose full significance might well elude a sophisticated native of Paris. I realise that Holloway's attitude was still common in the 1970s among British literary academics, so the book is a product of its time, but it's nonetheless annoying to be told, in effect, that you are not wanted as a reader unless your fluency in foreign languages matches the author's. If Holloway finds it so easy, why not provide his own translations and potentially expand his readership?

All that said, the book is worth a reading. Holloway is dealing with the solitary quest for deep knowledge, undertaken by so many of the English poets from the sixteenth century through to the time of the high Modernists (and perhaps beyond). He offers the insight, obvious once pointed out, that this was simply not a theme in English poetry before the modern period. Instead, the lyric meditations of Donne and his predecessors tended to fall back on a body of generally-available cultural wisdom, associated with Christian doctrine. By Milton's time, this is becoming problematic (even though Milton does attempt to justify the ways of God to Man), and by the time of the Romantics we see great poets such as Blake, Wordsworth, and Shelley embarking on their own far-flung intellectual quests. Even when the wisdom they bring back resembles conventional religious reassurances, it is hard won through individual experience and insight - often involving epiphanic moments. Objects and events are now observed with a new intensity, by poets attempting to understand them for themselves, rather than being analogised to aspects of the traditional, commonly-available wisdom. The Romantic poets achieve, or affect to achieve, a special knowledge unavailable to more prosaic or city-bound souls - or in some cases they come to see the proud, solitary quest as essentially destructive, as chasing a will-o'-the-wisp that leads only to despair or desolation.

In literary terms, of course, much has been gained by our culture - namely the mighty works of the Romantics and those who followed (among them, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Hardy, Yeats, and Eliot).

At one point, early in his book, Holloway lucidly expresses what was lost - if "loss" is the best way to describe the subversion of false certainties. Discussing Henry Vaughan's "Cock-Crowing", he observes:

In these facts about the task undertaken by the poem, I see signs of two great convictions which have lain at the heart of civilization over long periods in the past, but do so no longer. The first is, that man [sic] was the primary entity in the cosmos, and that the other orders of creation were secondary entities of which the significance was in the end derivative. The second, that the great and essential truths which map out the human situation do not await discovery, or even constant re-discovery, but have been established long ago, and once for all. The poet's task is therefore to present truth rather than explore it; and the quality of attention which he brings to his experience reflects that guiding fact. (p. 57)

Exactly right. By the time of the Metaphysical poets, these convictions are coming under pressure, but even John Donne (so it seems to me, and evidently to Holloway) is always quick to grasp the traditional, culturally-available knowledge, however much he may rely upon new forms of learning for his ingenious figures of speech. Writing during the Enlightenment, the great Augustans seem to me (though Holloway might not agree with this formulation, since he pretty much skips from Milton to Blake) almost reactionary figures, attempting to hold on to old certainties and values, despite the drift of the times. In any event, the traditional, culturally-available knowledge is losing its prestige throughout the Enlightenment and appears to require defence, restatement, qualification, and some kind of harmonisation with the down-to-earth knowledge of the politically ascendant bourgeoisie.

But of course, it is the Romantics who first valorise the enterprise of poetry as a lonely quest for unique insights: insights possibly reaffirming the traditional dogma, in some ways - or to some extent - but quite possibly antithetical to it. Even in moments when they opposed the moods of their times, the Romantics were products of a breakdown in the long-accepted synthesis of ideas in Christian Europe - as, of course, are we. What's more, there is no going back; and why would we want to, when the new era has produced extraordinary beauties of its own? Without the breakdown of the traditional wisdom - most prominent, perhaps, in the seventeenth century - we would have nothing remotely like Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley (or Mary Shelley!), Keats, Tennyson, Arnold, Browning, Hardy, Yeats, or poor, nostalgic T.S. Eliot - much less Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, or Ted Hughes ... or even Milton, Dryden, and Pope. This is even before we step beyond the canon of English poetry, into other cultures, other literary domains (such as the science fiction that Holloway evidently scorns), or other artforms.

What comes next remains to be seen. Holloway seems to apprehend the impending close of our era of quests for "proud knowledge" - and he may even be correct, though the arguments need to be made out and examined. Most certainly, however, we cannot return, like contrite runaway children, to a time when ideas of human exceptionalism and received wisdom were unchallenged. "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?" as Eliot asked. However we answer, we can only go forward, and there's no good reason that I can see to do so in a chastened or bleak spirit. We have learned much, and we can continue with a fitting optimism.

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