Academic journal article Style

"A Critical Sense Worthy of Respect": John Marston and the Early Poetics of Robert Penn Warren (1)

Academic journal article Style

"A Critical Sense Worthy of Respect": John Marston and the Early Poetics of Robert Penn Warren (1)

Article excerpt

[O]ne only reads well when one reads with some quite personal goal in mind. It may be to acquire some power. It can be out of hatred for the author.

-- Paul Valery (2)

Deep art implies a destruction of order for the sake of reordering. There is something incorrigible and anarchic lurking in art.

-- Robert Penn Warren (3)

In their study of Robert Penn Warren's developing poetics, critics have never given their attention to Warren's B.Litt. thesis on the Elizabethan satirist John Marston. Completed in 1930 as a Rhodes Scholar project at New College, Oxford, "A Study of John Marston's Satires" has remained one of the most obscure moments in Warren's career. (4) When repeatedly asked in interviews about his own critical development, Warren never referred to the thesis nor to Marston and his satires. He never returned to the subject in any of his subsequent critical writing, but he reveals at various points his continued interest in Elizabethan poetry and metaphysical poetics. For all practical purposes, Warren seems to have forgotten about John Marston. Because the work has remained unpublished, Warren's critics have also forgotten about it, instead devoting their attention to Warren's Fugitive and Agrarian context in the 1920s and 30s and to his first book, John Brown: The Making of a Martyr, published even while Warren began hi s work on Marston. But Warren's work on Marston and Marston's contributions to Elizabethan literary theory must not be forgotten, even if Warren and his critics have allowed it to remain too long neglected. What saves Warren's thesis from insignificance is its engagement with the critical and theoretical issues raised by Marston's satires and its indication of the nature and shape of Warren's own poetics.

Warren's thesis provides the earliest indication of what would become his characteristic stance in his criticism: that of the poet grappling with the tensions involved in the act of poetic creation. In a 1969 interview, Warren remarked, "I just don't think of myself as a critic. As I said, criticism is a kind of conversation or speculation that gets into writing. I have no critical sense. I've never had a critical sense, never had the ambition. [...] Such critical pieces I've done were one way of thinking about issues that concerned me" (Watkins 139). As striking as Warren's self-assessment may be to the student of the wide-ranging body of Warren's critical work, it suggests a stance that is apparent even in his Marston thesis. Criticism was always a personal task and a part of the creative process for Warren. Within the pages of his thesis we hear the beginnings, even if brief and tentative, of that conversation continued throughout his career. As with his other significant critical dialogues, carried on wit h writers such as Coleridge, Conrad, and Melville, Warren's engagement with Marston provides a forum within which he thought about those issues that continually concerned him as a poet. He identifies those issues in the final pages of the thesis as he summarizes Marston's literary opinion. He focuses primarily upon "the two theoretical matters of criticism [...] touched on in the course of the satires: the place of 'fiction' in poetry and the relation of style to content" (72). Although his respect for Marston is qualified throughout much of the thesis, Warren does conclude that "Marston brought to these matters [...] a real enthusiasm for literature and a critical sense worthy of respect" (72). These theoretical matters are points that not only continued to exercise Warren in his own critical and creative work but have proven to be persistent issues in contemporary literary debates. In Warren's remarks, we hear his own very real enthusiasm for literature and his own respectable critical sense.

1. Background

The body of Warren's thesis is made up of three chapters that deal successively with Marston's relation to classical satire and the contemporary pamphlet literature, Marston's relation to his fellow Elizabethan satirist Joseph Hall, and Marston's literary opinions. …

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