91. (Andrew Marvell)

Rather than delete the earlier posts, which now seem wrong in different ways, I’ll keep them and build on them: I agree with what I say about Marvell and wit, and about the poems themselves, but the somewhat odd typological apparatus and axes are in need of adjustment. I think I have a better answer now; this is not just a matter of my banging my head against (padded) walls, but represents run-off from a class I’m teaching where I’ve been struggling to clarify the different modes/genres to students.

Originally, I had proposed that the four major modes, Tragedy, Pastoral, Comedy, and Satire, can be defined in their attitudes towards wasted life. This seems to me still right. The trouble was that saying simply that Pastoral and Comedy were more tolerant of waste than Tragedy and Satire was not sufficient to distinguish Pastoral and Comedy or Tragedy and Satire. Another axis was needed. The resultant configuration, incidentally, clockwise, is: Tragedy (1,1), Satire (1, -1), Comedy (-1,-1), Pastoral (-1, 1). The numbers in parentheses indicate coordinates. In the last post, I defend the focus on waste: literature affirms, sifts for, sifts through, tests, scrutinizes, qualifies, critiques, presents claims of value; the absence of value, or its loss, or failure to materialize, are implied by the work it does. Now I think I was not focused enough on waste.

The trouble has been the Y-axis. I wanted to resist the idea that the two axes were dependent, because saying that the comic perspective tolerates waste because of the world’s abundance is fine, but saying the pastoral tolerates it because of the scarcity of the world doesn’t make sense; so that in effect, the y axis (abundance or scarcity) would only provide only an explanation for comedy and tragedy but not satire and pastoral.

Now I think that waste needs to be on both axes, but the measure of waste taken to differ: scarcity and abundance seem cop-outs if I am trying to avoid talking about waste on the y-axis, since they both have implications for waste.

Here is an alternative. Along the x-axis: tolerance of waste to intolerance of waste (left to right). On the y-axis (top to bottom), the susceptibility to waste, with the top being more and the bottom being less susceptible (or prone) to waste. Comedy and satire share a world view in which the world is less susceptible/prone to waste (or more resistant to waste); tragedy and pastoral in which the world is more susceptible/prone to waste (or less resistant to waste).

This is to be preferred because it actually makes sense of the weird attitudes, pastoral and satire, in a neater form: for pastoral, waste is to be tolerated because the world is so susceptible to waste; for the pastoral attitude, that is a ground for toleration. Obviously, other reasons are needed that make susceptibility to waste the grounds for tolerating waste–and that is where the work gets interesting, as it differs for different authors.

In the case of satire, the world’s resistance to waste, or its not being so prone to waste itself, is a ground for not tolerating waste; the toleration takes a different color, a comic light, because the world is so resistant to waste that we feel it cannot be harmed. But the satirist has cause to be annoyed still, perhaps because of something else about the world: a fragile order that has been cleared from the chaos of growth and matter: perhaps, for the satirist, the fact that the world is resistant to waste means that the world is teeming, and over-abundant, too fertile for its own good; that civilization is a bulwark against the excesses of the world, and this means that the waste of excess in other forms, within civilization, are to be corrected by the satirical eye. Here is perhaps the attitude of Pope.

I return to Eliot’s beguiling words: With our eye still on Marvell, we can say that wit is not erudition; it is sometimes stifled by erudition, as in much of Milton. It is not cynicism, though it has a kind of toughness which may be confused with cynicism by the tender-minded. It is confused with erudition because it belongs to an educated mind, rich in generations of experience; and it is confused with cynicism because it implies a constant inspection and criticism of experience. It involves, probably, a recognition, implicit in the expression of every kind of experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible, which we find clearly in the greatest as in poets like Marvell.

And I believe that this also does greater service to Marvell, who is able to see the world as both prone to waste and resistant…who admits both possibilities; who is tolerant and intolerant of waste…he stands at the juncture of the axes and so, even if not the greatest of the poets of his time, is exemplary as no other poet is.

Even when not at the center, he strides along the axes, with the detachment of a man walking a ridge between valleys; and that detachment seems a peculiar quality of the poetry, found elsewhere in other poets of wit: Baudelaire and Christina Rossetti, for instance.

The typology has the limitations of a typology, but it is so broad, since waste is so broad, as to permit explorations in many directions; but at least in so far as the typology is concerned, the axes as described here are broadly correct.


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