Who are the major poets who have not excelled in something that might be called “light verse”? Even Wordsworth, the least funny of major poets, has his “We Are Seven” and “Expostulation and Reply,” which possess the strengths and effects of light verse; and Milton has his sonnet on the Cambridge mail-carrier, not to mention the playful syntax in Book 4 of Paradise Lost.
If I were to think of a major poet whose verse is not light verse, only Whitman might come to mind, but then his poetry does not feel like it is any of the opposites of light verse. If he is a test-case, a limiting example, then what does he limit? What is it that I mean for the term “light verse” to catch (it need not hold it for long)?
I would think of an analogy in film–the delight in technique that we see in the films of Alfred Hitchcock or Billy Wilder, master of suspense and comedian respectively. In the films of either, the subject matter is made to suggest implications and significance beyond the immediate exigency of a film’s end, but it is made to do so only by virtue of the unwavering commitment to realizing that end. In the case of Wilder, a wry smile at life’s absurd ironies; for Hitchcock, a braced suspicion of its horrors. Comedy and thrillers share a common structure, albeit the poles are inverted. In a comedy, the tension builds to a moment of relief, wherein the pleasure is satisfied; in a thriller, the audience craves the tightening, the turning of screws to the utmost points, and it is the increase of tension, made possibly only by the contrasting relief, that satisfies. When a work of art is focused first and foremost on finding materials, and handling them, so that the relief is brought to tension, or the tension yields relief, it is light art. That movement sustains the work; nothing else is required for its success. More, however, might be required for its greatness or depth of vision.
No successful work of art can do without a background of tension and relief. They must play some role in the machinery. But the machinery is not always directed towards them. For Faulkner, for instance, the depth of vision is pursued directly; in Cather’s novels, the artistry lies in asking the readers to occupy the spaces between tension and relief, where there is no evident movement to or from the other.
The opposite of light art, then, is not serious art, but either heavy art, art that is directed at investing a subject with weight, or else reticent art, art that asks us to invest in calmness. Heavy art aims the machinery at a different end from the start. It might fail to be serious and become instead portentous (Faulkner, Conrad, Toni Morrison risk this). Reticent art might seem to have no clear aim except what cannot be aimed at; it might fail to be serious and become trivial or dull (Cather risks this).
The distinction serves, I think, for painting too, where Rothko might be trivial and dull; where Francis Bacon might risk portent.
To say that a risk is incurred is not a criticism; it is an inevitability. Light art risks frivolity. The trouble is not, as in the case of art that is trivial, that it does not show us anything of significance, but that it fails to take the weight of what it shows us.
I was led to this series of distinctions when reading some of the minor poets of Christopher Smart. I’ve been reading Schiller’s Aesthetic Education of Man and thought that his distinction between two extremes of art might be an interesting way of taking a fresh look at someone as mysterious (to me) as Smart; but the Minor verses convinced me to pursue another approach.
I will quote the first stanza of the poem that brought the thought about. It is from poem to Smart’s eventual wife, titled “The Force of Innocence,” published in The Midwife around (I am near sure, but with some doubt) the middle of the eighteenth century:
The blooming damsel, whose defense
Is adamantine innocence,
Requires no guardian to attend
Her steps, for modesty’s her friend:
Tho’ her fair arms are weak to wield
The glittering spear, and massy shield;
Yet safe from force and fraud combined,
She is an Amazon in mind.
The “joke” comes in the final line, with the unveiling of “Amazon” contained by “in mind”–where she is one in her own mind, but also in his as he contemplates her. As light verse, it tilts between implicit contrasts–blooming/adamantine; guardian/friend; “glittering/massy”–the metaphor of the Amazon is set up, but the idea of the glittering spear and massy shield intimate other glittering and massy objects that a lady might possess; the enjambment between “attend” and “her steps” moves us from the human guardian to the personification of modesty, and that progress from line to line, where the first of each couplet describes what might be a perfectly natural and realistic lady, and the second, completing the thought, also elevates the thought into the realm of myth, personification, and grandeur; though couplets, the modulation between the realism of one line and the exaggeration of the other, does not seem a series of abrupt peaks that fall off into the mundane; instead, they lead one into the other, like a sequence of connected waves, so that the Amazon is a culmination. In the stanza that follows, the warrior imagery is developed, but once again, the tension between realism and hyperbolic fantasy is maintained:
With this artillery she goes,
Not only ‘amongst the harmless beaux:
But even unhurt and undismay’d,
Views the long sword and fierce cockade.
Tho’ all a siren as she talks,
And all a goddess as she walks,
Yet decency each action guides,
And wisdom o’er her tongue presides.
The “long sword and fierce cockade” belong the officer-gallants who might pursue her in the London scene. Here a break is sharper after the fourth line, and the image of the Amazon abandoned; but the descent is easy and soft. She is still compared to a goddess and a siren, but the extended metaphor and heroic tableaux of London society gives way to cliche that recalls a song’s throw-away lyrics. The facility is to the point; her blandishments seduce to a blander praise, and the poem reaches its most relaxed poise.
The tension builds again in the next stanza, where the first line opens with an imperative and the scope of geography is involved: “Place her in Russia’s showery plains | Where a perpetual winter reigns, | The elements may rave and range, | Yet her fix’d mind will never change.”
And so on…the analysis is tedious because it’s maybe not the case that the light verse does do much to bring the subject’s dimensions or depths into focus as a side-effect. But this, to me, qualifies as light verse because it is concerned first and foremost with praising a loved one through a structure of tension and relief; it would be hard to say that the poem moves with interest in, say, the feeling itself (it courts, but doesn’t love) or in saying anything about strength, or the relationship between the sexes.
A much funnier performance, and more to my point, would be “To the Rev. Mr. Powell, on the non-performance of a promise he made the author of a hare.” But I will not quote it; here is a link.
Smart’s facility in light verse might not seem surprising, since the 18th-century has such a firm grasp of the stuff that it obscures the poetry’s seriousness if readers aren’t careful (as Arnold wasn’t; Empson restores the seriousness in his reading of Pope, without denying that it is light). Auden, in his introduction to the Oxford Book of Light Verse, explains the eighteenth century’s light-verse flourishing in terms of the close-knit reading and writing publics, such that readers and authors shared a background of assumptions; maybe Auden is right, but the image of the isolated poet is probably a fiction itself, cultivated during the 19th-century and brought into perfection by modernists, as Frank Kermode’s Romantic Image pretty persuasively, even after all these years, explains (Kermode’s study is a history of an idea of what the poet is and what poetry ought to be). Swift, anyway, was genuinely isolated, and Mallarme wrote inaccessible verse from a salon of friends and adorers; I’m not sure the sociological explanation is required.
But I don’t think it should be taken for granted because appreciating the light verse that Smart could produce helps to understand what it was that he could bring to his serious verse. If we take light verse to be a primary preoccupation with relief and tension, an aim at these in the structure of the verse itself, like a comic or thrilling scene, then it becomes less surprising to see how a training in light verse might become essential to many a poets: relief and tension are essential to so much of life. They are so broad that there is little that cannot be brought under their auspices: perplexity and understanding; desire and satisfaction; loathing and violence; speech and action; thought and speech. They are a basic movement of form.
But they are, it needs to be emphasized, not the only way to structure an entire work–be it a poem or a novel or a film or a play. There are even comedies that might work differently (surprise gags don’t rely on tension, and extended physical sequences might rely on it in terms of what happens to bodies in the scenes, but not in terms of the structure of the presentation setting them up); thrillers perhaps too (absurdity, disorientation, fragmentation).
And so Christopher Smart, coming up as a poet in an era when light verse was cherished, was given a special training. (Though Wordsworth and Coleridge would have received the training too, it could be said that they shifted the emphasis away from it, onto training of another sort, though the merits of light verse were not off the table (as an aside, it feels a bit dismaying that contemporary American poets seem rarely to train in the field at all; it’s no good blaming modernists, when Pound and Eliot excelled at it; as did Bishop and Lowell–though maybe these latter two are to blame for it’s being knocked off the syllabus entirely for many learners and teachers). ) And Smart could be said to have benefited specially from that training because the relief and tension of light verse were so directly applicable to his great subject matter of personal damnation and insanity and divine salvation and redemption; despair to hope.
It might be, in other words, that the central virtues of “The Hymn to the Supreme Being” and “The Hymn to David” are those of light verse, that Smart writes with the principles of light verse near the front of his mind, even though the subject matter is of the utmost seriousness to him. From the former:
But soul-rejoicing health again returns,
The blood meanders gentle in each vein,
The lamp of life renew’d with vigor burns,
And exiled reason takes her seat again–
Brisk leaps the heart, the mind’s at large once more,
To love, to praise, to bless, to wonder and adore.
Or in the final stanza:
Deep-rooted in my heart then let her grow,
That for the past the future may atone;
That I may act what thou hast giv’n to know,
That I may live for THEE and THEE alone,
And justify those sweetest words from heav’n,
“That HE SHALL LOE THEE MOST TO WHOM THOU’ST MOST FORGIVEN”
Among the sources of the poetry’s power is the uncertainty as to whether what is being felt at any moment in the cycle is tension or relief: the sudden influx of new life feeling like both an escape from despair but also an impossible, unsustainable mounting of energy; the final stanza registering both the happy hope that God’s words promise and the anxious urgency that they might be lived up to.
It is the strangeness of these hymns that they move–with simultaneous relief at God’s promise and tense terror at his power and majesty.