This post is the second of a series of evolving sketches about “decorum” in poetry. This is the messiest of the bunch, conceptually and historically. Dickinson was the provocation rather than the central subject. But it gets to her in the end, as does the next post, which is again, on Emily Dickinson, hopefully in much clearer terms.
One of the pleasures of Tudor poetry (Elizabethan and earlier) is watching the development of highly and self-consciously, self-avowedly artificial style according to standards that are themselves being pressed into being by an emergent national elite; the emergence of the decorum of a distinct English verse rhetoric and the decorum of court culture happen, it seems at once. The insistence on verse might be misplaced; the age of Lyly and Nashe suggests that prose was part of the process too. But if that is the case, then there is at least a sense in Tudor English that decorum itself was an artificial construction to be worked out in prose and verse alike. The psalm translations of Mary Sidney show that an alternative was available, against which the invented decorum could perhaps know itself. Shakespeare, of course, is a witness to the range of possibilities, having excelled in both achieving and advertising the decorous rhetoric, and then in both reducing and outdoing it.
In some eras, prose offers itself as a model of decorum less artificial, more natural and sinewy than verse; that is not to say that its decorum was any less artificial, but that it arrogated to itself the rights of a foundation for the language. In some of these eras, that decorum of prose, as a foundation for the language, was at one with the decorum of verse, as in the early Augustan; later, with Wordsworth, it was felt that the prose itself, along with the poetry, was too artificial, its decorum hollow, and the assertion of another natural English was claimed to provide a surer standard of correctness—under these conditions, Milton’s example as a decorum genuine apart from any prose, and so most apt for the high style, exerted a new influence; then, once more, in the Victorian era, we find an alternative language of poetic artifice emerging, in diction but also syntax, against a range of prose styles.
But the Tudor moment is worth returning to, worth dwelling on for a moment, because of the significance it holds for American poets, whose situation can be paralleled to it, albeit on an individual rather than a social scale. The Tudor artifice, exemplified throughout Spenser as well as early Shakespeare, announced itself as decorous even as it invented its standards of decorum; it is a style of the arriviste, which Shakespeare knew when he made the arriviste a focus of the sonnets, where the decorous style exhausts itself, and where the exhaustion of style itself becomes a source of inspiration. Spenser, amidst the atrocities of the Irish colonies, is himself, as are Shakespeare’s patron and speaker both, a representative of a nascent power imposing itself upon the world.
Tudor Poets wanted to establish some standards of acceptable artifice that would do justice to the violence of Tamburlaine as well as the passion of Sydney (P.); to the Romance of Spenser as well as to the sorrows of Richard. And they did. Their decorous artifice made it possible for them to speak to howl of and through a wide range of emotions and experiences with what could be recognized as, at the same time, eloquence and amplitude: a right way of howling. But the artifice was always a game, played by the in-crowd, as Shakespeare tells us, again and again. Why not, he saw, just “howl howl howl howl”? But the advantage of such a decorum as Shakespeare knew was that such a bleak breaking of language is most keenly felt against the artifice that has disintegrated around it. To the end, he is indebted to the shifts to and from decorous high style that his early training permitted.
The aspiration to decorum in America has been vexed and uneven, and for the most part it has been pursued by individual poets rather than by a group or era. On the one hand, it can seem an ideal associated with European Civilization (good or bad; corrupt or not; healthy or unhealthy), and on the other, it can be difficult to know where to turn for such a standard: to the public? To prose? To an existing register or range of registers? To Europe? Elsewhere?
Before Whitman, in Longfellow and Bryant, European standards are not too much disturbed, and decorum is more or less accepted as an ideal. Whitman rejects the notion that poetry needs to be decorous, but does not reject all decorum; it is for him the privilege of the American poet to appeal to a European tradition of artifice, as well as to the American pulpit, as he sees fit. He towers because he can take it or leave it, rise or not, as the circumstance requires; the condition of a judgment of word and phrase may include a standard of decorum.
Whitman clears one way, but so wide that it provides little clear direction. Other poets go another way. Frost and Robinson appeal, it seems, to what they want for us to believe to be a standard of American speech. Frost’s poetry contains within itself a sense that there are ways of speaking that are right and not right, but more than that, and at its best, it contains within itself an awareness of what can and cannot be said within speech as Americans really/ought to have spoken it. The rhythm and meter must carry much of the unarticulated throbs of feeling and it does—especially where the feeling itself becomes most articulate, as in “To Earthward.” But there is much that such a poetry cannot do, because of what such a poetry cannot say. I am not sure, however, that Frost is a “decorous” poet.
Some sort of congealing alternative standard of poetic decorum in American verse, beyond any single poet, does seem to have formed in the post-Eliot era, when America could proclaim its ascendency, in the 1940s, as the economic and military power of the power; the poets perhaps felt entitled to fashion a decorum in their own image, so Tate and early Lowell and others did, for a brief while into the 1950s.
But other poets wanted, because of their sense of their own experiences, their alienation and isolation, a high style that would be at once decorous and artificial, and also affirm itself as a non-natural way of speaking that was not simply unnatural or aberrant but that possessed standards, no matter how idiosyncratic or removed from any public.
I write other poets, but two stand out in my mind: Emily Dickinson and John Berryman. (Hart Crane’s weirdness is in part probably a result of his not admitting how isolated and esoteric his artifice was, of not going far enough in fashioning for himself—not as Stevens evades the problem by absorbing so much philosophy into his verse, writing so abstractly as to establish a conduct of language according to another discipline of thought (and where it shatters, Stevens emits his da-da-ist howls and sound effects).
Dickinson and Berryman are different because they want a poetry that is an alternative, that is an artifice that is capable of distinguishing itself from other forms of speech, even as it perforce accommodates and relies on them, and that contains with itself a standard of rectitude in language that could make eloquence out of excruciation.
I am thinking especially of Berryman’s Dream Songs which affirm, when maybe no other poet was affirming it, a decorum of their own, an artifice of language that allows a poem to shed strange light on experience; it is found I think in all of Dickinson’s work. Even as both write lines that can feel crabbed, scarred, eroded, those same lines soar, find loft and perspective on experience from above; the former is owing to their self-understood isolation and alienation, and the latter to their ambition.