the end of poetry?


Better theories and worse poems

When Thomas Macaulay went to Cambridge in 1818, everybody expected he would do brilliantly, since he had been born doing brilliantly – talking brilliantly, reading Latin when he was five, making up brilliant arguments when he was 15, and so on. He did shine at Cambridge, but he didn’t take away the highest honors. This was due to his detestation of Mathematics. Classic Barbie said, “math is hard”. Too bad classic Barbie was never stuffed with Macaulay’s words to his Mom about the subject:

“I can scarcely bear to write on Mathematics or Mathematicians. Oh for words to express my abomination of that science, if a name sacred to the useful and embellishing arts may be applied to the perception and recollection of certain properties in numbers and figures! Oh that I had to learn astrology, or demonology, or school divinity! Oh that I were to pore over Thomas Aquinas, and to adjust the relation of Entity with the two Predicaments, so that I were exempted from this miserable study! "Discipline" of the mind! Say rather starvation, confinement, torture, annihilation! But it must be. I feel myself becoming a personification of Algebra, a living trigonometrical canon, a walking table of Logarithms. All my perceptions of elegance and beauty gone, or at least going. By the end of the term my brain will be "as dry as the remainder biscuit after a voyage." Oh to change Cam for Isis! But such is my destiny; and, since it is so, be the pursuit contemptible, below contempt, or disgusting beyond abhorrence, I shall aim at no second place. … Milton's descriptions have been driven out of my head by such elegant expressions as the following

Cos1 + 1 -   ∕1+2 etc.”

It is fascinating to watch this repulsion towards mathematic grow into the conviction that mathematics and science were the cognitive and cultural rivals of poetry, engaged in a life or death duel. The first and finest expression of this is in an essay Macaulay wrote on Milton – the poet who, in his 1819 letter, was driven out of his head by parody math – that applies these ideas to a primitive but powerful whiggish idea that history put a certain version of Europe at its center. In as much as Europe, here, includes the white dominated Anglosphere, that idea still dominates our politics and intellectual history.
Macaulay’s essay on Milton was a review of Milton’s recently discovered Latin manuscript, Doctrinâ Christianâ libri duo posthumi. Macaulay, quite evidently, was not doing the essay because he was an expert on Christian apologetics. Rather, his interest was on Milton the person and Milton the poet. As a person, Milton was treated by the conservative English intelligentsia rather as Neruda is treated by American conservatives: as an accomplice to terrorism. After all, he was Oliver Cromwell’s secretary, and Cromwell was the great blot on a version of English history that could grudgingly accept the Glorious Revolution, but baulked at the Puritan one. Samuel Johnson’s life of Milton was full of denigrating comments, the best of which is the following:

“Cromwell had now dismissed the parliament by the authority of which he had destroyed monarchy, and commenced monarch himself under the title of protector, but with kingly and more than kingly power. That his authority was lawful, never was pretended; he himself founded his right only in necessity: but Milton, having now tasted the honey of publick employment, would not return to hunger and philosophy, but, continuing to exercise his office under a manifest usurpation, betrayed to his power that liberty which he had defended. Nothing can be more just than that rebellion should end in slavery: that he, who had justified the murder of his king, for some acts which to him seemed unlawful, should now sell his services and his flatteries to a tyrant, of whom it was evident that he could do nothing lawful.

This is spoken from the very heart of conservatism. It is a heart that must contend with the irreality of its sentiments, in as much as they have to do with the real changes of any established system, and the permeating nostalgia that both incites and distances any re-establishment of a better order, since that is to make the past the rebel of the present.

Macaulay was at the time he wrote his essay an initiate, through his father, of that odd branch of Torydom that plumped for the abolition of slavery. He was on his way to a more robustly whiggish view of things. And though he learned from Johnson’s thunder, he modified it to his own way of tossing lightningbolts.

In any case, before he gets to the merits of Milton’s poetry he inserts a little disquisition on the inevitable decline of poetry in an enlightened age.
Here let me insert a large gorgeous slice of Macaulay-ism:

“We think that, as civilisation advances, poetry almost necessarily declines. Therefore, though we fervently admire those great works of imagination which have appeared in dark ages, we do not admire them the more because they have appeared in dark ages. On the contrary, we hold that the most wonderful and splendid proof of genius is a great poem produced in a civilised age. We cannot understand why those who believe in that most orthodox article of literary faith, that the earliest poets are generally the best, should wonder at the rule as if it were the exception. Surely the uniformity of the phænomenon indicates a corresponding uniformity in the cause.

The fact is, that common observers reason from the progress of the experimental sciences to that of the imitative arts. The improvement of the former is gradual and slow. Ages are spent in collecting materials, ages more in separating and combining them. Even when a system has been formed, there is still something to add, to alter, or to reject. Every generation enjoys the use of a vast hoard bequeathed to it by antiquity, and transmits that hoard, augmented [6] by fresh acquisitions, to future ages. In these pursuits, therefore, the first speculators lie under great disadvantages, and, even when they fail, are entitled to praise. Their pupils, with far inferior intellectual powers, speedily surpass them in actual attainments…

But it is not thus with music, with painting, or with sculpture. Still less is it thus with poetry. The progress of refinement rarely supplies these arts with better objects of imitation. It may indeed improve the instruments which are necessary to the mechanical operations of the musician, the sculptor, and the painter. But language, the machine of the poet, is best fitted for his purpose in its rudest state. Nations, like individuals, first perceive, and then abstract. They advance from particular images to general terms. Hence the vocabulary of an enlightened society is philosophical, that of a half-civilised people is poetical.”

Those half-civilized people! We are not surprised, when we read that phrase, that we will soon run into the idea that savages are perpetually at the “children’s” phase of intellectual development.

"Truth, indeed, is essential to poetry; but it is the truth of madness. The reasonings are just; but the premises are false. After the first suppositions have been made, every thing ought to be consistent; but those first suppositions require a degree of credulity which almost amounts to a partial and temporary derangement of the intellect. Hence of all people children are the most imaginative. They abandon themselves without reserve to every illusion. Every image which is strongly presented to their mental eye produces on them the effect of reality. No man, whatever his sensibility may be, is ever affected by Hamlet or Lear, as a little girl is affected by the story of poor Red Riding-hood. She knows that it is all false, that wolves cannot speak, that there are no wolves in England. Yet in spite of her knowledge she believes; she weeps; she trembles; she dares not go into a dark room lest she should feel the teeth of the monster at her throat. Such is the despotism of the imagination over uncultivated minds.”

The triangle that is drawn here, between the madman, the savage and the child has been analyzed by Johannes Fabian, the anthropologist, in terms of “allochrony” – a way of allotting different time zone types to contemporaneous cultures. The savage in the Americas of 1825 is both a child and living in the “stone age”, while the trousered author of the review of Milton is living in the age of the Enlightenment.  Technological time recapitulates biological time in this paradigm – the child and the savage are both of a type, both poetic, both irrational, both violent, while the reviewer and the colonizer are philosophical, rational, and have a just view of the limits of imaginative power. They have no unconsciousness, while the colonized has, to stretch an antipodes, no consciousness – or little.

Now, as Macaulay was not only an admirer of poetry but a maker of it, and as he was no mathematician or admirer of it, this is a curious view to express. But lifting it away from its biographical anchoring points, it poses a question: is Macaulay right about the effect of a certain society on poetry – both on its prestige and its continuing creation?




Comments