306. (William Empson)

Though it is probably the third most famous of Empson’s villanelles, “Reflection from Anita Loos” is a fine example of what makes his poetry so fine, and holds up against “Missing Dates” as his finest villanelle. Empson remarked that Auden could work the form naturally as he himself could not, but the form served Empson’s poetry well, demanding a clinching statement of anchoring clarity, around which his conceits and metaphors could play without crumbling into obscurity. “Reflection from Anita Loos” does one of the things that Empson, among twentieth century poets, does distinctly well: offer advice that is at once reassurance, self-reassurance, steadying, and seeking its own steadiness. It turns inward and outward at once, less rhetoric or oratory than a voice that assumes a standard of public discourse and exchange.

Reflection from Anita Loos

No man is sure he does not need to climb.
It is not human to feel safely placed.
“A girl can’t go on laughing all the time.”

Wrecked by their games and jeering at their prime
There are who can, but who can praise their taste?
No man is sure he does not need to climb.

Love rules the world but is it rude, or slime?
All nasty things are sure to be disgraced.
A girl can’t go on laughing all the time.

Christ stinks of torture who was caught in lime.
No star he aimed at is entirely waste.
No man is sure he does not need to climb.

It is too weak to speak of right and crime.
Gentlemen prefer bound feet and the wasp waist.
A girl can’t go on laughing all the time.

It gives a million gambits for a mime
On which a social system can be based:
No man is sure he does not need to climb,
A girl can’t go on laughing all the time.

 

The poem is itself an exchange, an unlikely one perhaps, between Empson and Anita Loos, “Reflection on” both because the poem turns upon and turns over her words, as well as reflecting them in the rhyming phrase that is Empson’s contribution to the villanelle patter: “No man is sure he does not need to climb.”

Empson is sensitive to gendered language, and the “man” of “No man is sure he does not need to climb” is balanced against, accommodating, “A girl can’t go on laughing all the time.” The two lines interact somewhat like a mock-heroic double plot, with Empson’s foreboding insight made to feel spontaneous and occasional, even as Loos’ “A girl can’t go on laughing all the time” is elevated from the spontaneous and occasional to foreboding wisdom. In the opening stanza, they are both braced against “human” in the middle line, and this line, “It is not human to feel safely placed” is a key to the poem and to Empson’s thought more generally, which is always both centric and eccentric, and always both situated and seeking to accommodate all possible perspectives; it is decidedly insecure about “place” and the poems where they succeed often apprehend the insecurity of place (“The Garden,” “Let it Go” with “madhouse” rather than “madness,” etc), as the poems that are less successful often cannot be made sense of because they cannot be placed (in the “Letter” poem looking down from a diving board, the place is lost behind the shimmer of associations and figures).

In his discussion of the poem, Kenneth Haynes writes that: “In the next two lines, however, the final clause ‘but who can praise their taste?’ impoverishes Loos’s sentence by making taste so emphatically involved in it. It suggests that fun should be abandoned when it is in bad taste, a simplistic reduction of her words.” I disagree somewhat: since the poem returns repeatedly to the words, this single recasting of the sentiment, even if it does reduce them, cannot deflate the effect of the poem as a whole; more pertinent to the line itself, “taste” is freighted with meaning and also conveys the serious moral judgments that might be expressed—for reasons of decorum or face-saving—in language of social and aesthetic judgments. The second stanza is intended to suggest, I think, Pope’s poetry, where “taste,” as Empson would write a decade later (but the idea was no doubt germinating), is, like “wit,” operating on several planes. Empson is both asking us to recognize the profundity and consequence of “taste” (recall also his words on Austen and manners, along the lines that manners are outward signs of values more deeply held), and also parroting the decorum of those who are forced to (by virtue of their social context or public standing, both pertinent to celebrity-Loos) express their judgments in such a tone. They are “placed” in such a way—as Henry James would use the term—that “taste” conveys a great deal. The poem, like Empson’s criticism, is alive to the variety of guises and speech styles in which vital points of moral insight may be passed along. The shift from the near-snobbery of “praise their taste” to the last line is all the more abrupt, intended to be seen as continuous: “No man is sure he does not need to climb” is, as it were, the bass line running beneath the frivolity of praising taste. There is something more at work. “Climb” here recalls social climbing, but also climbing free, climbing away—climbing away even perhaps from that way of speaking.

I detect an ambiguity in the first line of the third stanza where “it” might either be “love” or “the world,” so that either love or the world might be mistaken as rude or slime. “Love” is, I think, the chief meaning though: it’s wonderful to be romantic and seeking love, but love is itself not certain, and if it is nasty, it will itself be disgraced. Crucially, Empson does not write that the person in love will be disgraced; this is not a poem seeking to shame, and the proper target is love itself, the notion that love is not all that some think and realizing this is itself valuable. Against that reading, we can accommodate the possibility that the world might be rude or slime, and that, being so, it will be disgraced. In light of either, there is no point going on laughing all the time; nonetheless, the poem wants us to see, we might still laugh some of the time. It is not a poem in favor of dour solemnity.

The fourth stanza I take as being curiously generous to Christ, even if not to Christianity; Christ was trapped like a bird in lime, and was tortured. We should not worship God, but nonetheless, the message of Christ, aiming, in flight (though he was trapped in lime), at the stars and other planets (here Empson wants us to think of his version of Donne, believer of multiple worlds in need of, and perhaps receiving, salvation), means that they are not waste; that there are other places from which to conceive of and imagine our own situation. We do not know for certain that we should be content with where we are, and even Christ’s message, properly understood (an understanding Empson would have felt to be beyond Christians) should be seen to say that. The last line here takes on special meaning owing to Empson’s dispute with Rosamund Tuve over a poem by Herbert: Empson wanted Herbert to suggest that Christ raised on the cross was the equivalent of Adam replacing the apple on the tree; “No man is sure he does not need to climb” back on the tree, to recover something that was lost. But I do not think Empson would have advocated for a Christian belief and find this the most confusing. Of obvious significance is the breadth of its vision, the cosmic background it gives to Loos’ words, and the need for reconciliation with something larger than man that is suggested by “No man is sure he does not need to climb.” “Waste” is always an interesting word in Empson’s poetry and criticism, not least in a villanelle, both because the most famous villanelle (“Missing Dates”) turns on the word and because the form is itself conservative from one view (always coming back to squeeze more out of the words) and lavish in another (insisting the words contain so much). The attitude of the central line is characteristic of Empson’s pastoral vision of life: waste is real, unavoidable, but not as a consequence tragic and total. There remains space for laughter, even if not all the time; no man is certain he does not need to climb does not mean that man must always climb, or that the climbing must exhaust a man or exceed limits.

The penultimate stanza knocks against the apparent social snobbishness in the “taste” clause of the second. “It is too weak to speak of right and crime” announces that the matter at hand is not about moral judgment or legality: it is about something as basic as getting on with living, maintaining oneself in a world where “gentlemen” hold women to the impossible and excruciating standard of wasp waists and bound feet, both tortures themselves; the idea emerges in the last two stanzas that Christ was ruined by a lime that fixed him in place and made his torture the object of veneration (rather than something else in his message?) and that women are fixed in place and tortured according to other ideals. “No man is sure he does not need to climb” and morally progress; but for those who are fixed in place, who are told to keep laughing and to conform, it is not just a matter of right and wrong or legal norms (though it is those), but a sense of what life does and should entail (it is moral, broadly, but Empson clearly wants to push back against a particular discourse of morality, aiming at something more broadly human), and to be in such a position means refusing to laugh. “A girl can’t go on laughing all the time” now sounds, perhaps, more desperate, more urgent, with “go on” taking on tones of “living” as well as “continuing” and “laughing all the time” representing the same expectation that gives us “wasp waist” and “bound feet.” There is a problem with “taste”: one response, that of the second stanza, is to reclaim the word, to argue over what taste should be; another response, in this, the penultimate stanza, is to suggest that even “right and crime” are too weak a way of responding to the problem. The poem argues over how to argue, tests out different styles of arguing the point.

The “it” that opens the final stanza is characteristically vague—not ambiguous because it is not clear what it could refer to: any number of possibilities present themselves. A “gambit” here might be the opening move in a game of chess, or else any opening that involves some risk. The “mime” is an acted out version of life on which a social system might be placed. Whatever it is gives a million possible ways of opening a social scene upon which an entire social system might be based. Against that scene and system, one must remember that no man is sure he does need to climb and a girl cannot go on laughing all the time.

Perhaps the most satisfactory way of resolving the last stanza is to see “it” as referring to the two final lines: that truth, what is contained in there, gives a million possibilities for opening an interaction upon which a better social system can be based; the poem ends with a plea for reform, latent in its references to foot binding, corsets, and torture, and in line with other poems (the red dawn, for instance) of the 1937 volume in which this poem appeared.

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