Yesterday’s post on Andrew Marvell perhaps flew too high in abstraction; the thought that literature might be classified by tolerance of waste on the one hand and the abundance or scarcity of the world on the other could seem perversely arbitrary or narrow, even taking into consideration waste’s variety.
But it can be defended. First from the guarded position that to claim these characteristics are helpful for characterizing literature is not to say that they central to all literature, even if they do touch on all literary works. Second in a posture of attack: all literature can be centrally conceived of in terms of its attitude towards waste, if only because waste is the negation (not the denial) of value, and it seems little stretch to say that literature constantly affirms, reveals, redeems, and tries (as a chemical procedure) value in all the manifestations of life and language. To say that literature is concerned with how to tolerate waste is to conceive of literature as not narrowly adjudicating in debates over value, but as sifting for value, reckoning with the world’s reckonings of value, and with the world’s dispensing with, or ignoring, what is valuable by its (a work’s ) reckoning. The other axis might similarly be defended with large claims for the concerns of all literature: creativity, fecundity, generation, sufficiency, excess, abundance, dearth, scarcity, absence, economy in the world. These are terms of evaluative quantification, the basic assumptions of daily exchange that face all societies, whether capitalist and instrumentally rational or not. By “abundant” I do not mean how much is in the world at a given time, but also by the world’s capacity for yielding more. I would not say that these are the only two central concerns of literature (purity/danger, risk, isolation/intimacy…these are everywhere too), but they do seem to be present through and through.
I emphasized that the two axes cannot be dependent: the toleration for waste cannot be due to a comic work’s perception of abundance. In part, this is because the pastoral imagination also tolerates waste, without a perception of the world’s abundance; if the pastoral has another cause, then the comic work must likewise. It might be rejoined that the question is one of degree; pastoral sees scarcity, but less severely than tragedy. Satire sees abundance, but less inexhaustible abundance than comedy. It feels as if the tragic intolerance and comic tolerance for waste must be owing to the tragic vision of scarcity and the comic vision of abundance.
But to speak this way would be to fail to do justice to the particulars of literary works. The axis of abundance and scarcity is more a backdrop against which the tolerance for waste is felt: writing of the American Civil War, Whitman could tolerate the waste of life but not because of the fact of regeneration that is also essential to his vision; similarly, for Hardy, Tess’s fate is not intolerable owing to the diminished generative powers of the world. Her fate is intolerable because of the cruelty inflicted on her by stupidity, men, and an unjust economic system; that is set against a world the indifference of which is stinginess; though Hardy’s inclination to call some of his poems satires of circumstance might be on the mark; the world is often a place of fecundity, the waste of life being made intolerable because of humankind’s stupidity in organizing itself and cooperating amid that (in other words, his works are perhaps extreme satires). In the case of Whitman, the waste of life is tolerable because of nobler ideals of freedom and equality that he professed; at the same time, he celebrates the rejuvenating capacity of humanity and the cosmos. If we insist that tolerance or intolerance derives from a sense of abundance or scarcity, we reduce authors to utilitarian calculators.
I said that Marvell straddles the axes, and that this is what Eliot might have (in very different terms) been getting at in his definition of wit. Another shortcoming of the last post was my not substantiating the point beyond a few stanzas, which do not speak clearly to either axis. Without diving into analysis of its details, there is a single poem by Marvell that shows quite readily the two double-perspectives, or quadruple-perspective, that Marvell achieves: viewing simultaneously scarcity and abundance, tolerance and intolerance—not loss, followed by gain; not suffering followed by consolation (those would be different entirely); but instead that awareness of other experiences in any one experience: the experience of abundance being also one of scarcity, of tolerance being also one of intolerance:
HOW wisely Nature did decree,
With the same eyes to weep and see ;
That, having viewed the object vain,
They might be ready to complain !
And, since the self-deluding sight
In a false angle takes each height,
These tears, which better measure all,
Like watery lines and plummets fall.
Two tears, which sorrow long did weigh
Within the scales of either eye,
And then paid out in equal poise,
Are the true price of all my joys.
What in the world most fair appears,
Yea, even laughter, turns to tears ;
And all the jewels which we prize
Melt in these pendants of the eyes.
I have through every garden been,
Amongst the red, the white, the green,
And yet from all the flowers I saw,
No honey, but these tears could draw.
So the all-seeing sun each day
Distils the world with chymic ray ;
But finds the essence only showers,
Which straight in pity back he pours.
Yet happy they whom grief doth bless,
That weep the more, and see the less ;
And, to preserve their sight more true,
Bathe still their eyes in their own dew.
So Magdalen in tears more wise
Dissolved those captivating eyes,
Whose liquid chains could flowing meet
To fetter her Redeemer’s feet.
Not full sails hasting loaden home,
Nor the chaste lady’s pregnant womb,
Nor Cynthia teeming shows so fair
As two eyes swollen with weeping are.
The sparkling glance that shoots desire,
Drenched in these waves, does lose its fire ;
Yea oft the Thunderer pity takes,
And here the hissing lightning slakes.
The incense was to Heaven dear,
Not as a perfume, but a tear ;
And stars shew lovely in the night,
But as they seem the tears of light.
Ope then, mine eyes, your double sluice,
And practise so your noblest use ;
For others too can see, or sleep,
But only human eyes can weep.
Now, like two clouds dissolving, drop,
And at each tear in distance stop ;
Now, like two fountains, trickle down ;
Now, like two floods, o’erturn and drown :
Thus let your streams o’erflow your springs,
Till eyes and tears be the same things ;
And each the other’s difference bears,
These weeping eyes, those seeing tears.
The wit is most succinct in the clinching paradox, the final line, where eyes that weep are bemoaning loss whereas tears that are shed by the eyes that bemoan allow for a new clarity and perspective that would grant an acceptance of loss; neither is given precedence because of the logic of the image which (as Christopher Ricks notices of Marvell’s images more generally) folds back on itself.
The poem has hints of “The Garden”: a self dissolved is a self wasted, but also a self transcended; both at once. The retirement from the world in a garden is a refusal to waste oneself on its futile destruction, but a simultaneous wasting of one’s powers away from its opportunities (“the forward youth must now appear”); and the garden itself is an entire world, abundant and generative, but also a place of isolation and remove, autotelic to such an extent that it might be a desert flower in Gray’s Elegy blooming unseen.
Empson detects these tensions in pastoral, but the tensions in pastoral are not whether something is tolerable or not, but how; they are not whether the world is abundant or scarce, but how that scarcity conditions the experience (not the tolerance) of waste (George Eliot is a test case; compare Adam Bede, ultimately a comic work by my account, with the pastoral Middlemarch; again, the question is not how much stuff is in the world at any given time, but how much stuff is forthcoming from the world’s stores). In “Eyes and Tears,” though, the world is abundant (teeming, a womb, ready with further riches), but also limited in what of genuine value it can offer (the transitory, extinguishing, costly tears); the tears themselves are further riches ready to be exploited, but as further riches, they are salt, worthless, waste products of mourning. Here, it could be said, the intolerance for waste and the dearth of the world, and the tolerance for waste and the abundance of the world, all meet in the image of the eyes that weep and see by tears, and the tears that redeem the weeping without being other than tears.