To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Reconfiguring Romanticism (4): Hugo & Dickinson

with Jeffrey C. Robinson

Victor Hugo

One day, the entirety of my work will form an indivisible whole. I am making – like many other poets, I might add; the critics of the future will understand this – I am making a Bible, not a divine Bible, but a human one. A multiform book summing up an age – that is what I shall leave behind me. (V.H., quoted in E.H. & A.M. Blackmore, Selected Poems of Victor Hugo)

And it’s this ambition, when set beside the poetry itself, that marks him as the first & greatest of the belated French Romantics. His range in that sense was enormous – an attempt, as with a number of the Romantics & others in their wake, at a global perspective & a search for the means to bring it across. As a mark of his productivity he composed, in addition to plays like Hernani & novels like Les Miserables and Notre Dame de Paris that made for his greatest celebrity, some 160,000 lines of poetry, much of it still unpublished at the time of his death. The structural procedures (not trivial) opened up forms of irregular versification, still within the frame of fixed meter & rhyme but that sometimes brought strong condemnation. Yet the real breakthroughs were in his work’s unbounded content & its often contradictory perspectives, as in his massive “trilogy” (The Legend of the Ages, The End of Satan, & God, the latter two left incomplete & posthumously published) of which Dieu (God) is the culminating section. For that last series he drew on a panoply of religious beliefs & disbeliefs (Christianity, Islam, assorted paganisms & polytheisms, satanism, atheism) in all of which he participated empathically & as a fullblooded act of the imagination. Along with these came a body of witnessing poems (the equivalents in a sense of Les Miserables) & other politcal/revolutionary poems & tracts that brought him into twenty years of voluntary exile (on Jersey & Guernsey in the British channel islands) from the oppressive regime of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte. An exemplary & remarkably self-aware figure throughout, he up-ended the Romantic stereotype of the aging poet, moving from a conservative stance in youth to an increasingly radical one in middle & later life.


I am the ogre, then – I am the scapegoat.
In this chaotic age that wrings your withers,
I trampled good taste and ye old ffrenche verse
Under my feet; I, hideous creature, said:
Let darkness be! – and voilà! there was darkness
(from “Reply to a Bill of Indictment,” translated by E.H. & A.M. Blackmore)

Wrote Mallarmé in tribute: “Pursuing his mysterious task, Hugo reduced all prose – philosophy, oratory, history – to poetry; and since he was himself poetry personified, he nearly abolished the philosopher’s, speaker’s, or historian’s right to self-expression. In that wasteland, with silence all around, he was a monument.” Or Jean Cocteau, jokingly but with an insight that holds: “Victor Hugo was a madman who believed that he was Victor Hugo.”

Emily Dickinson

When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse – it does not mean – me – but a supposed person. (E.D., July 1862) And again – in an often cited statement: If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way. (E.D., August 1862)

(1) While Dickinson has moved from an almost self-imposed obscurity (“a poet who never willingly consented to print” – R.W. Franklin) to recognition alongside Whitman as one of the two major American poets of her time, the reach & ferocity of her work belies the frail, reclusive image of her life-&-work-made-myth. Against the normative metric of her poems (a still recognizable ballad form or Protestant hymn measure) she launched a radical barrage of deformations, splintering her lines with dashes & with nervous run-overs that could be read as line breaks or as grammatically “lawless” but musically articulate silences & speech-like gaps; marking off alternative readings for certain words set beneath her poems like footnotes; & even, as in the version presented here of “A poor - torn Heart - a tattered heart,” adding collaged images that partially obscure the text & thus create an unanticipated visual poetry. For this her mode of “publication” was a series of handwritten & handstitched fascicles, which formed the early portion of the nearly 1800 poems & poem fragments now gathered as her oeuvre. Together with her surviving letters, these can be read (by those venturing to do so) as a single continuous poem, an unsent “letter to the world” that ends not in aesthetic time but with the end of life itself. In all of which she was a poet, in Susan Howe’s phrase (from Heidegger), "on the trace of the holy;" the formal disruptions and gaps in her poems reflecting, precisely, the struggle to wrest meaning in a space “ … like chaos - stopless, cool, - / Without a chance or spar, / Or even a report of land / To justify despair.”

(2) Writes Howe whose book My Emily Dickinson (1985) set the pace for poets & readers in pursuit of Dickinson: "In prose and in poetry she explored the implications of breaking the law just short of breaking off communication with a reader. Starting from scratch, she exploded habits of standard human intercourse in her letters, as she cut across the customary chronological linearity of poetry. ... An artist as obsessed, solitary, and uncompromising as Cézanne ... like him ignored and misunderstood by her own generation, because of the radical nature of her work."

And Camille Paglia (1990), with a sense of the still darker, even “Sadean” implications of that work & its “stupefying energy”: “Words are rammed into lines with such force that syntax shatters and collapses into itself. The relation of form to content is aggressive and draconian. … Dickinson’s poetry is like the shrinking room of Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum, a torture chamber and arena of extremity.” Or again, as the directive, let’s say, for a radically new poetic reading: “She uses metaphors more literally than anyone else in major literature.”

N.B. In bringing Dickinson’s poems into these pages, we have followed the numbering system established by R.W. Franklin, here using it for titling her otherwise untitled poems. We have also included, where applicable, the alternative readings that she marked off with crosses & placed beneath poems in her fascicles. But even so her own handworked versions may in the end be the best key we have for charting her intensities.

[Commentaries excerpted from Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3:The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, which Jeffrey Robinson & I have co-edited for the University of California Press. The book itself is scheduled for publication in January 2009 with an expectation of advance copies in November or December. For further information check the following URL: Earlier excerpts appeared on June 11, June 18, and June 24.]


Doug said...

Mr. Rothenberg,

I wanted to let you know that I very much enjoyed your Book of Concealments, which I read in the Mandeville Special Collections today.
Thank you for writing this.

Anonymous said...

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