223. (Emily Dickinson)

To begin with recapitulation and self-remonstration: poetry must, in F.H. Bradley’s persuasive formulation, get within the judgment the condition of the judgment. So much is true for Donne, Milton, Clare, Browning, and Ginsberg, to sample from all directions.

The interpretive task of a critic becomes not an explication of meanings or “readings” but a working out of the judgments a poet makes in the choice and arrangement of words and topic, as well as a working out of the conditions of those judgments, as conveyed in the same choice and arrangements; the evaluative task of the critic emerges, implicitly or explicitly from the interpretive task, as the commentary turns to rightness of the judgments in light of the conditions of judgment.

I’ve quoted Geoffrey Hill as a touchstone, since he invokes Bradley’s formulation:

When Keats, in Book I of the first Hyperion, is endeavoring to reveal hos poisonous now to the Titan in his decline are the ‘spicy wreaths | of incense’ offered up by mortal men, he focuses on the central impression of pollution. Suddenly we find:

                        Instead of sweets, his ample palate took

                        Savour of poisonous brass and metal sick.

 Our question can be put as follows: what is contributed to the quotation by the word ‘savour’? First, it is getting within the judgment the condition of the judgment, ‘savour’ being so to speak the normative focus of eating or drinking; second, though Hyperion is in one sense helpless, a sufferer, a degree of petulance within the suffering is perhaps suggested by the verb form ‘took savour’ and by the moment of enjambment in which, presumably, he might have come up with some alternative less satisfyingly wounded.

Other critics, without appealing to Bradley, exemplify the critical mind no less than Hill. Empson, for instance, whose evaluations remain implicit, is everywhere working along the lines of Hill and Bradley; he proliferates readings and meanings in order to better understand both particular judgments and the more general grounds that make them possible, all at once. Donald Davie is another critic distinguished by such an approach, and his criticism has served as an inspiration for coming to grips with poets in the last few posts.

Among Davie’s anchoring notions, “decorum” features among the possible conditions of judgment for poets, more in some eras than in others. Davie errs, sometimes, in thinking perhaps that it is a uniquely valuable condition of judgment, or in assuming that a poet cannot write without it. If he means the latter, he would seem to be suggesting that the necessary condition of judgment is one of etiquette, taste, and propriety.

Any defense of Davie has to stretch what decorum means, so that it refers to some socially sanctioned standard of appropriate or inappropriate language. But since society is hardly unified, since no one social standard exists, and since it would be snobbery to think that only the elite decide what counts as decorum, it does not make sense to think that decorum is itself a single set of standards.

My initial definition of decorum is itself harmed by the word “etiquette, taste, and propriety,” since the residue of snobbery and caviar clings to them so unctuously.  The concept needs to be slackened and fortified at once. Slackened so that it can refer to any standards of what language is right in a particular situation or circumstance; fortified so that it takes on further elaboration, with “rightness” taken as a sanction that transcends individual whim, that refers instead to a consensus among a group who would see such standards of rightness as integral to their identity; “rightness” also suggests a fit between utterance and occasion.

“Decorum” then can be dangerously limiting and blinding in several respects.

–It can be integral to the identity of a social group that is repressive or violent, or that adheres to a code of conduct and way of life that is reprehensible (the old South, for instance).

–It can also be limited on its own terms, if it does not suggest standards that guide utterance over a wide range of occasion, so that one cannot be decorous and speak of or to these occasions at the same time.

–It can close off other possibilities of speaking, resist to change, and guard closely the borders of language, so that new entries to the range of acceptable utterances are not possible.

–It can offer a highly intricate, even Byzantine, set of gradations so that occasions are distinguished by minute and even trivial differences, with corresponding rules of propriety.

The question arises whether all common, shared standards of rightness, however small the group, are themselves examples of decorum. I’d like to resist that implication, if only because it empties the concept of its strength, slackens it too much. Decorum does not mean, that is, any “standard of rightness.” The potential limitations I’ve suggested above, I think, give greater specificity to what characterizes decorum:

–A sense of a distinct group, with its own interests and identity, within a larger group of language holders, among whom communication is possible and frequent. Decorum divides.

–An aspiration to permanence, and identity, over time, so that modifications and innovations are regarded with wariness, though the decorous of one age might draw upon the truly decorous of the past without feeling any breach of propriety, and words in quotation marks (invisible or visible) are not infrequent any more than disruptions of decorum for the sake of satire. What matters is that the decorous standards are themselves constant.

–Versatile readiness, so that it is equipped to speak of any number of occasions, even seemingly novel occasions, by suggesting that they belong to a finite set of categories for which decorous language is equipped.

–A sense that small features in occasions are sufficient to distinguish those occasions from one another, so as to permit an understanding of what is proper and improper in each.

I think that a poem must suggest that all of these are conditioning its judgment of utterance, and succeed in adhering to these, if it is to count as a decorous poem.  When Donald Davie writes about the “urbanity” of verse or the “purity” of verse, these are the characteristics to which he often appeals. Without all four, “decorum” does not seem a relevant term for a poet (or novelist). On my account, among novelists, James is a master of decorum. Proust, on the other hand, though highly sensitive to decorum, is not himself a decorous author.

Decorum has advantages, which can be seen in its gradations: a neatly ordered world, a versatile and “robust” (to use the MBA parlance) language with which to encounter the world in all its variety, a sense of where language is inadequate and silence preferred, a recourse to the past, the perpetuation of a tradition and so the establishment of identity beyond oneself.

I’ll stress here that “decorum” does not itself exhaust all standards of rightness, and certainly does not align with the idea of “conditions of judgment.” I’ll also stress again that decorum is not the sole purview of the elite, though it is obviously most associated with them because, in many societies, they are so comfortable establishing and maintaining power by monitoring, regulating, and disciplining all forms of behavior.  But groups opposed to the elite might no less establish forms of decorum. Decorum does not need to be fought by the absence of all decorum; it can be opposed by an alternative.

Poets, then, can relate to decorum in numerous ways. Some of which include:

–A poet can accept the decorous standards of a particular group, as, say, Pope does, and break or sustain them as required in the poetry; the poetry making clear all the while that the decorum is itself part of the condition of judgment. Among the judgments is a decision to adhere to the standards of decorum, and the poetry reckons with why such standards might be worth holding. Burns’ Scots poems, no less than the most urbane Augustan pieces, might be said to affirm a decorum of their own.

–A poet can write against one standard of decorum entirely, either by way of irony or else by way of obscenity, as it would be defined by a decorous group. Here ,though, the judgment to write against decorous standards depends upon an understanding of what those standards are, and the poetry will need to communicate why it is breaking with those standards (the conditions of the rebellion need to get into the poetry somehow).

–In some eras, prose and verse decorum might diverge, in which case a poet might adhere to the decorum of verse, but not prose.  Here, the aspiration to write poetry might lead an author to a decorous language that is otherwise hollow and misplaced, yielding, as in Milton’s worst admirers, “poesy.”

–Decorum might be a myth: what never existed in the past. It might also be an aspiration: what could exist in the future (when a vernacular poetry is introduced, perhaps). It might also be a genuine historical reality, and provoke nostalgia or sentimentality.

–A poet might conjoin, ally, or contrast various decorums. Burns again seems possibly an example, with the poems that unite Scots and English.

There are no doubt other possibilities. Decorum can be used, misused, or rejected by poets; each judgment is itself capable of becoming a part of a poem, along with, ideally, the condition of that judgment.

I began this series of posts thinking about Dickinson and John Berryman and was led to Keats as a digression. Davie misreads Keats, I think, by assuming that he was interested in decorum when he was not; Davie might object that a poet is not free to enlist and reject decorum as it suits him, but I do not think any such prohibition exists provided it works in a given poem…provided that is, that the poet persuades us that his decision to do so is founded on valid conditions.

But how does what I say apply to Dickinson? How is it the case that Dickinson is a poet for whom the word decorum might apply, given her isolation and her eccentricity?

That, I think, is the mystery she shares with Berryman, which is their desire to establish what looks like a decorum from a position of isolation, in a nation that has not very fully established standards of what decorum might be, among any of its groups. I don’t think that she nationalistically wants to build up a decorum for a new American elite, as the Elizabethan poets perhaps did, but I do think she wants to, courageously and perversely in equal measures, overcome her isolation by writing by the standards of a decorum that she can but imagine and imply, as if a group existed.

Aside from the question of whether she appeals to a social group as decorum does, her poetry affirms time and again that she aspires to decorum, that decorum matters. That it does so even as proclaiming also her isolation from her society and world is a mark of her ambition and self-assurance, inventing for herself what ought to be a social inheritance.

Of course, the invention of decorum suggests at least one other possible contradiction: if decorum resists innovation, then how can it be conjured anew? An answer is: wholesale. The break from language that is not counted as decorous, from other standards, must be so absolute as to suggest that this entity of decorous language has its own being, according to which novelty can be judged. Put another way, Dickinson might refute the idea that she invented her decorum by claiming that it was always there, and that she alone perceived it. Thus her isolation led her to the decorum of her poetry by letting her see standards that none around her could.

To understand Dickinson’s decorum, it’s helpful to look at poems where she complains about the politeness and strictures of the world, complaining as she does not that decorum exists, but that it is so poorly developed and cramped. It falls prey to all of the worst limitations; it is, even, a sham decorum against which she would write:


She dealt her pretty words like Blades–

How glittering they shone–

And every One unbared a Nerve

Or wantoned with a Bone–


She never deemed–she hurt–

That–is not Steel’s Affair–

A vulgar grimace in the Flesh–

How ill the Creatures bear–


To Ache is human–not polite–

The Film upon the eye

Mortality’s old Custom–

Just locking up–to die.


The poem can be read in at least three ways. In one, the “she” is the poet whose pretty words cut deep, wanton with the bones; wounds are grimaces, dismissed as vulgar, both because they are unsightly as wounds and because they are not attractive as smiles would be; she blames the victims for aching humanly, failing to find polite expressions for their pain. In this reading, the poem is exultant and flirts with cruelty, but also self-censuring and self-satirical, the speaker susceptible to dismiss the pains of others by standards of propriety that are inadequate to human suffering. In a second reading, the “she” is not the poet, and the satire is directed outwardly, to those whose words are cruel and who in turn dismiss the suffering of others by wrong standards of politeness.

In either case, the poem is not so much a strike against the “decorous” as against the warping of decorum by those who confuse terms and who wield words carelessly in the first place. The rich irony does not preclude the aspiration for an alternative high style; the accusation is itself couched in circumlocution and euphemism that parodies fatuous politeness but that goes beyond presenting a scarecrow version for mockery. Dickinson offers a right way of speaking in its place, a correction of the wrongheadedness that itself establishes standards of correctness, which is felt in the scruples of certain words. “Deemed” catches the self-importance in the woman who wields the words, but also jars against the grammar, since it is not really the right word, and suggests that Dickinson offers a better description than she would herself be capable of; it describes her properly. “Custom” in the penultimate line thrusts an alternative tradition against the traditions of a society that would refuse to speak of human aches; the older tradition of “human” pain and morality has a propriety and etiquette of its own, which transcends the blinkered objections of politeness against which Dickinson writes. The film upon the eye could be a tear, a portent of the last pains before death, or the eyelid closed in pain, or closed in death itself; the body itself has an “old custom,” with an etiquette of its own, if people are not too blinkered to see. Finally, the word “Just” in the final line might mean “only,” but also “justly”: this is all that happens and it is right that it happens thus, it is a custom itself, as much a social act as paying a call to a neighbor. That Dickinson recognizes it as such implies not just her rightness of understanding, but also her possessing the proper euphemism for talking of the matter.

On these two readings, the final three lines in particular correct the rest of the poem: whereas society cannot speak about pain and death, or can only do so in warped fashion, she can do so properly.

But there’s a third reading possible too. This reading is quite different. In it, “she” is Dickinson presumably, but at any rate a heroine, able to cut close to the bone and expose nerves, glad to inflict pain on others with her words in order to break down their facades of politeness, to reveal their humanity in their aches.

This third reading depends upon a different syntax in the second stanza: “She never deemed [but instead] she hurt” followed by a line that looks back to “deemed” and means “steel blades don’t worry about deeming, instead they only aim to hurt” so that the second line of the stanza clarifies the first, before the stanza moves on to explain what pleasure she took in bringing about the wounds of grimaces. In this case, the wounds are grimaces on faces, brought about by the heroine of the poem saying things (wielding words) that went too close to the bone and exposed nerves, that caused those around her to ache–to ache in fact to the point of reminding them of mortality. Here, she cuts through the hollow politeness of society to remind everyone that the body has customs of its own,  and that she, and her words, serve these: a more profound decorum.

I prefer the third reading, but see that in all three, the isolation from what others think counts as politeness is in fact a mistake about decorum, which the poet, in her proper understanding of it, sets to both correct and present in the poem itself.



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