Twentieth Century Poetry: Selves and Situations

By Peter Robinson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Selves and Situations

I

In his ‘Réflexions sur la poésie’, dated ‘Paris, janvier 1944’, the poet and member of the resistance Robert Desnos wrote that ‘La grande poésie peut être nécessairement actuelle, de circonstances … elle peut donc être fugitive’ (Great poetry may necessarily be of the present day, the circumstances … it may therefore be fugitive.)1 The philosopher Thomas Nagel, delivering the 1990 Locke lectures almost a half-century later, suggested that ‘We must turn our attention to the circumstances in which people act and by which they are formed, and we must change the question from “How should we live, whatever the circumstances?” to “Under what circumstances is it possible to live as we should?”’2 Desnos’s fate between the writing of those reflections on poetry and his death from typhus and malnutrition in a concentration camp the following June is enough to start thoughts about adequate circumstances. This fate both sharpens the urgency of Nagel’s alternative questions and casts shadows of doubt upon their adequacy to the situations of life in which human selves will be shaped and in which they will be obliged to act.

A few painful war years before Desnos’s remark on the fugitive nature of great poetry T. S. Eliot, lecturing in England, wrote that the music of a word ‘arises from its relation to the words immediately preceeding and following it, and indefinitely to the rest of its context’ and from the relation ‘of its immediate meaning in that context to all the other meanings which it has had in other contexts’.3 What these three passages have in common is a dependence on the uses, meanings, and associations of ‘contexts’ and ‘circumstances’, words that share the idea of a subject around which everything else circulates. Both ‘context’ and ‘circumstance’ are, like ‘surroundings’, words no one would want to be without.

1 Robert Desnos, Destinée arbitraire, ed. M-C. Dumas (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), 237.

2 Thomas Nagel, Equality and Partiality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 52.

3 T. S. Eliot, ‘The Music of Poetry’, in On Poetry and Poets (London: Faber & Faber, 1957), 33.

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