Criticism: The Foundations of Modern Literary Judgment

By Mark Schorer; Gordon McKenzie et al. | Go to book overview

of Henry James, of whom Mrs. Wharton has left a portrait entertaining but slightly catty and curiously superficial. About herself she tells us nothing much of interest; and she makes amends to her New York antecedents for her satire of The Age of Innocence by presenting them in tinted miniatures, prettily remote and unreal. It is the last irony of The Age of Innocence that Newland Archer should become reconciled to "old New York." "After all," he eventually came to tell himself, "there was good in the old ways." Something like this seems to have happened to Edith Wharton. Even in A Backward Glance she confesses that "the weakness of the social structure" of her parents' generation had been "a blind dread of innovation"; but her later works show a dismay and a shrinking before what seemed to her the social and moral chaos of an age which was battering down the old edifice that she herself had once depicted as a prison. Perhaps, after all, the old mismated couples who had stayed married in defence to the decencies were better than the new divorced who were not aware of any duties at all.

The only thing that does survive in A Backward Glance is some trace of the tremendous blue-stocking that Mrs. Wharton was in her prime. The deep reverence for the heroes of art and thought--though she always believed that Paul Bourget was one of them--of the woman who in earlier days had written a long blankverse poem about Vesalius still makes itself felt in these memoirs. Her culture was rather heavy and grand--a preponderance of Goethe and Schiller, Racine and La Bruyère--but it was remarkably solid for an American woman and intimately related to her life. And she was one of the few Americans of her day who cared enough about serious literature to take the risks of trying to make some contribution to it. Professor Charles Eliot Norton--who had, as she dryly remarks, so admirably translated Dante --once warned her that "no great work of the imagination" had "ever been based on illicit passion." Though she herself in her later years was reduced to contemptuous complaints that the writers of the new generations had "abandoned creative art for pathology," she did have the right to insist that she had "fought hard" in her earlier days "to turn the wooden dolls" of conventional fiction "into struggling, suffering human beings." She had been one of the few such human beings in the America of the early nineteen hundreds who found an articulate voice and set down a durable record.


W. H. AUDEN: The Public v. the Late Mr. William Butler Yeats*

THE PUBLIC PROSECUTOR:

Gentlemen of the jury. Let us be quite clear in our minds as to the nature of this case. We are here to judge, not a man, but his work. Upon the character of the deceased, therefore, his affectations of dress and manner, his inordinate personal vanity, traits which caused a fellow countryman and former friend to refer to him as the greatest literary fop in history, I do not intend to dwell. I must only remind you that there is usually a close connection between the personal character of a poet and his work, and that the deceased was no exception.

Again I must draw your attention to the exact nature of the charge. That the deceased had talent is not for a moment in dispute; so much is freely admitted by the prosecution. What the defense are asking you to believe,

____________________
*
"The Public v. the Late Mr. William Butler Yeats" first appeared in Partisan Review, Spring 1939, and was later included in The Partisan Reader ( 1946). It is reprinted here by permission of the editors of Partisan Review, copyright, 1939, and the author. Mr. Auden (b. 1907) has written many essays and reviews which remain uncollected.

-168-

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