Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Earl Wasserman: A Critical (Re-) Reading

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Earl Wasserman: A Critical (Re-) Reading

Article excerpt

To illuminate Earl Wasserman's critical moment, I begin with a meditation on Post-Kantian aporia. When the history of the New Criticism is written, its line of descent will begin with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and indirectly from Immanuel Kant. Mobilizing Kant's insight that consciousness exists, a priori, independent of the object of consciousness, Coleridge wrote poems such as "The Eolian Harp" ("Effusion XXXV") that teetered on the edge of satanic solipsism, or texts such as "Christabel,." "Kubla Khan," and Chapter Twelve of the Biographia Literaria, all of which are interrupted in one way or another by the eruption of the subject. The worst fear of Coleridge's life, to judge from late poems such as "Work without Hope" and "Constancy to an Ideal Object," was that he was Schopenhauer--that there was no hope because every endeavor, up to and including keeping one's eye on the hope of transcendence, was nothing more than a form of ego-projection, a mistaking of the gloriously backlit self for angelic glory itself.

The growing predicament of much nineteenth-century poetry--what it is "about"--and the increasing subjectivity of that poetry are Coleridge's legacy, helped by John Stuart Mill's distinction between the "heard" (eloquence) and the "overheard" (poetry) in "What Is Poetry?" So, too, is the positing of criticism as the "correction" of history--as, for example, in Matthew Arnold's "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" (See my "Criticism and Metahistory"). By the time of T. S. Eliot, subjectivity is a paramount concern of the poetry itself, and of the criticism--say, "The Metaphysical Poets" and "Tradition and the Individual Talent." The dissociation of sensibility and intellect serves to fragment the poet-as-subject, but it does not shift the focus of poetry away from the subject. And the mutual informing that occurs between the individual poet and the historical place that s/he attains is, above all, the informing of the subject. Poetry is about the mind of the poet in the act of creation: enter New Criticism, I. A. Richards, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, et al., stage right.

Wasserman's critical position evolved over eighteen years from The Finer Tone: Keats's Major Poems (1953) to Shelley: A Critical Reading (1971), the same years as the New Criticism. In the "Foreword," Wasserman took aim at "the new critic" (Tone 3), unnamed but quite probably Brooks, Warren, or both. This tentative identification is prompted by what Wasserman said about how the New Critic understands poetry generally, the focus of Brooks and Warren's Understanding Poetry, as well as what he said about Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn"--in more than one sense the centerpiece of Brooks's The Well-Wrought Urn. As Jack Stillinger observes, "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is an exemplary text in Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's extremely influential textbook, Understanding Poetry (1938), where it is presented with a dozen questions beginning "In what sense is the urn a 'sylvan historian' (line 3)?" and concluding "Are the last two lines a teasing utterance or not? What is their truth? Do the preceding 48 lines serve to define it?" (474-76). As the subject of a famous essay, "Keats's Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes," in Brooks's The Well Wrought Urn a decade later, it has a central place among case studies assembled to demonstrate that "the language of poetry is the language of paradox" (3).

Wasserman was concerned that the poem, considered as the transcendental subject, had been consigned by the New Critic to a nominalistic hermetism that verges on subjective solipsism. "The new critic insists that a poem be examined as a poem and not as another thing, but he has constricted this excellent principle until it has come to mean that everything communicated by the poem is defined within its own boundaries and nowhere else" (Tone 3). Not that the hermetic (or hermeneutic) circles can remain unbroken: "I state this constriction in extreme form because, although most explicators are sensible men and know the need of reaching outside the text for information, it is clear that they resent the act, engage in a ritual of violent self-flagellation for occasional transgressions, and wish the work were so self-sufficient it would not tempt them to sin" (3). …

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