Everything to Be Endured: An Essay on Robert Lowell and Modern Poetry

Everything to Be Endured: An Essay on Robert Lowell and Modern Poetry

Everything to Be Endured: An Essay on Robert Lowell and Modern Poetry

Everything to Be Endured: An Essay on Robert Lowell and Modern Poetry

Excerpt

In the famous Preface of 1853, Matthew Arnold explained why he was omitting "Empedocles on Etna" from this edition of his poems. It was true, he admitted, that his protagonist suffered from peculiarly "modern" frustrations, but this was not a sufficient reason for preserving the poem. There is a strangely contemporary resonance in Arnold's language. He might almost be observed in the act of anticipating Wallace Stevens, for Arnold remarks that in the person of Empedocles "the dialogue of the mind with itself has commenced." Had we not read "Empedocles on Etna," it would not astonish us if that suppressed work were in fact found to contain something akin to Stevens' best nineteenth-century-meditative style, and to learn that it had been rejected because of its hyperbolic self -consciousness:

It has to be on that stage
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one.

(Stevens, "Of Modern Poetry" )

But Arnold could not find the desire, and perhaps not the courage, to write poetry in that vein which has become so very recognizably modern; the "poem of the act of the mind-" was singularly unappealing to him:

But the modern critic not only permits a false
practice; he absolutely prescribes false aims.--'A

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