Jan 31, 2007

Another Review of the New Thomas Hardy Biography

The New York Times Book Review has joined the current discussion of Thomas Hardy, one of the great poets of the English language whose work is well represented in the Yvor Winters Canon of the greatest poems. It has published Thomas Mallon’s review of the major new biography of Hardy that initiated all this activity. The biography is entitled Thomas Hardy, by Claire Tomalin. (By the way, Mallon is a fine journalist and writer, who has delved into some interesting topics in his career. His popular survey of the history of memoirs, A Book of One’s Own, I highly recommend.) Mallon’s insightful, if rather brief, review is entitled “Thomas Hardy’s English Lessons” and can be found at:


There is much to ponder in the piece. Mallon considers, as Tomalin does, the so-called Emma poems to be central to Hardy’s literary career. As Tomalin apparently does, Mallon stresses that these poems about his late wife explore some kind of guilt and regret Hardy experienced over their troubled marriage. Once again, I must stress, as I have in previous posts, that Hardy’s poetry, even the poems that we can discern to be about Emma, make few direct references to his first wife or to any specific troubles in their marriage. Few, too, are the references to any specific mistakes either spouse may have made or to any specific cruelties dished out (so I hope no one will start reading Hardy’s poetry to find some sensational details about his peccadilloes). Rather, Hardy studies his experiences of and with Emma mostly in generalities, though his inexplicit language is beautifully concrete. There are many examples of his poetic method, but I chose one, which I happen to know well, that I think more clearly shows his typical way of composing a poem. This is not a great poem, but it is a good one and illustrative:


That night, that night,
That song, that song!
Will such again be evened quite
Through lifetimes long?

No mirth was shown
To outer seers,
But mood to match has not been known
In modern years.

O eyes that smiled,
O lips that lured;
That such would last was one beguiled
To think ensured!

That night, that night,
That song, that song;
O drink to its recalled delight,
Though tears may throng!

The night is called “that” night, but which night is not specified. Nor are the song, the eyes, the lips, the night, the delight. The poem is not discernibly about Emma, or about any occasion Hardy was willing to identify, as the title tips us off. This shows Hardy’s common method, in my opinion, which differs from what Mallon suggests you will find in Hardy’s poetry about Emma. The final two lines, I note in passing, may stand as one of the most sparklingly concise expressions of Hardy’s view of life in his poetry: life has delights, but tears will fall in recalling them. Note, however, that we don’t quite know from this poem what might cause the tears to throng.

Mallon also touches on a number of large topics, such as Hardy’s curmugeonliness, his fascination with those who delight in the world despite its obvious pains and sorrows (he appears to have been one of these people himself, like Tess of his famous tragic novel), and his final great novel of cosmic injustice and cruelty Jude the Obscure. Yvor Winters, I must note, had very little to say about Hardy’s novels, even when he chose to discuss serious fiction in his essays. I presume Winters read them, just because of his high regard for Hardy’s poetry. Judging from his critical bent overall, I think we can safely conjecture that Hardy’s novels were much too melodramatic for Winters. Melodrama, in which the emotions conveyed far outstrip their occasion, is a form of sentimentalism, an emotional tone or stance which Winters derided in any form of literature; he considered sentimentalism an unjust and inappropriate, perhaps even a dangerous, emotional bearing to take toward any profound or important subject matter. Mallon also mentions Hardy’s “memory of [Christian] belief,” which his alternating beliefs in atheism and the malevolent god he speculated about had pushed aside. This stands in distinction to Adam Kirsch’s strong stress upon Hardy as an atheist, which I discussed briefly in a recent post. Yvor Winters had little regard for Hardy’s metaphysical opinions, considering him an amateur as a philosopher. But he also believed that the value of his poetry did not lie in his overt philosophy, but in the supreme intelligence of the way he wrote about his views. (This is a crucial matter of Winters's critical theoriy I must and do plan to return to shortly in this blog.)

In his final paragraphs, Mallon admits to a curious opinion about Hardy’s writings:

To those, like this reviewer, who have always thought Hardy as unwise to have given up fiction as George Meredith was to neglect poetry, even for a time, Tomalin’s treatment of the Emma poems prompts at least a tentative reconsideration.

This is a striking admission for a learned literary journalist to make, that he has long disregarded the great poetry of Thomas Hardy. At least Mallon has been inspired, though only tentatively, to give Hardy’s poetry another look. I join Yvor Winters in offering a much stronger commendation, as you might guess. Hardy’s poetry deserves a lifetime of study, for its searching examination of the meaning of life, its moral profundity, its emotional power, and its superior language and poetic skill.

Final Note: I quoted Hardy's great poem "My spirit will not haunt the mound" in a recent post on Thomas Hardy. Several different aspects of this poem are discussed by Aaron Haspel in his "God of the Machine" blog. Just go to the blog, which has a link on my front page, and search on the poem's title. Much of Haspel's discussion of the poem, especially concerning its technical aspects, is worth reading.

Jan 25, 2007

Some Modern Religious Poems

The Poetry Foundation recently put out a feature article by poet Mark Jarman about modern religious poetry entitled “Original and Unorthodox: Ten religious poems worth knowing.” In light of the topics we have been discussing lately on this blog, the article is worth a brief look, though perhaps no more than a brief one. The article can be found at:


As a Wintersian, I don’t consider most of the “poetry” Jarman recommends to be poetry exactly, nor most of the prose reflections -- a form of literature which I would like to see everyone begin to call “musings” rather than poems -- to be all that well written as prose (let alone as poetry). But a few lines and turns of phrase were worth reading and a few of the nearly random ideas were worth pondering. I doubt that Yvor Winters would have wasted more than a minute of his time on any of this work except for, perhaps, the only two pieces in the list that I, and probably Winters, would consider poetry, those by Edwin Muir and W.H. Auden. Muir’s piece is a moderately sharp, loosely coherent, and mildly insightful study of hope and unorthodox Christian salvation written in a loose blank verse. The idea that all creation, even all evil deeds and horrors, will be redeemed at the end of all time, which Jarman takes to be “unorthodox” in some way, is actually an ancient idea that goes back to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.

Auden’s verse never impressed Winters much, nor me. His flaccid meters and meandering poems probably would have not passed muster with him, as they often don’t with me, though he is at times worth reading. Winters mentioned Auden only once in his published writings and very seldom in his letters. He claimed to have read him. I take it that he was very little impressed, since he didn’t consider it worth his time to write about his work. But that’s just a reasonably well informed guess. Perhaps someone who knew Winters better could enlighten us all on his take on Auden.

Concerning the remaining eight poems -- or rather musings, as I should begin saying -- that Jarman has chosen, they are all just prose chrestomathies of observations that try to be sparklingly witty and resolutely serious. None of these remaining poems is closely argued or presented as a rational statement about some aspect of human experience. They proceed almost by pure association, a widespread and tiresome way to construct a poem -- to me. The first piece, John Berryman’s, can serve as representative. It is little more than an unorganized catalog of observations in prose broken into random lines and pointless four-line stanzas, in which Berryman tries hard to use unusual words and syntax in order to appear intelligent and sensitive. The poem has little coherence, save the “poet’s” whimsy. A few of Berryman’s observations are interesting, one or two are even sound and striking in one way or another. But this is far from great or even good poetry. It’s not even especially good prose.

I noticed in passing that one of people who left a comment to the article asked for poems about atheism. This has been a topic lately on this blog, especially concerning Thomas Hardy’s work, in which that reader might find a congenial metaphysical view -- at least according to Adam Kirsch, who in writing of Hardy recently in the New Yorker so strongly emphasized his atheism, accurately or not.

It’s worth noting that many of the poems Yvor Winters chose for the Winters Canon (follow the easy links to the Canon through the Ben Kilpela web site, the home page of which is linked in the right column on this blog) are concerned with religion or metaphysics (in the traditional sense, not the modern magical sense, which refers to beliefs in such peculiar ideas as the efficacy of tarot cards) in one aspect or another. Winters’s choices are well worth knowing, everyone one worth memorizing, in my judgment. They are far superior to anything offered in Jarman’s article, though I think Jarman’s poems are worth reading, at the bare minimum -- though they’re not really “worth knowing,” as Jarman claims. Well, maybe I’m being too harsh. The Muir poem might be worth knowing, and there are a few scattered fragments in the other poems worth knowing, if you want to wade through all the useless chunks and crumbs and chips to find them. Here’s a few modern religious poems (several atheistic in one sense or another) from the Winters Canon to get you started:

1. “My spirit will not haunt the mound”, Thomas Hardy [I have quoted this poem in full on this blog already.]

2. “The Virgin Mary”, Edgar Bowers [John Fraser did NOT choose this great poem for his New Book of Verse, which I have been discussing on this blog from time to time. I must come back to this ommission, for I think Fraser has made a mistake in judgment.]

3. “Love Not Too Much,” Robert Bridges [I have quoted this poem in full as well on this blog.]

4. “Epigram 43, J.V. Cunningham (“In whose will is our peace”)

5. “Of Heaven Considered as a Tomb,” Wallace Stevens

6. “Sunday Morning,” Wallace Stevens

7. “O strong to bless,” Elizabeth Daryush

8. “Autumn, dark wanderer,” Elizabeth Daryush

9. “To the Holy Spirit,” Yvor Winters [In my judgment, this is perhaps the single greatest poem in English.]

10. “For Elizabeth Madox Roberts,” Janet Lewis

11. “Indecision,” Helen Pinkerton

12. “Error Pursued,” Helen Pinkerton

Lots of superb poetry there. And there’s certainly more in the Winters Canon and more excellent work by these poets that concerns religion in general, if you care to pursue more of their best work. I hope you can find the poems. Most university libraries will have them all, as well as Winters’s anthology containing them, Quest for Reality. I’d just print them all out if I weren’t worried about copyright. I will try to trickle out a few poems without getting permissions, on the assumption that if I find it printed on an American web site, my reprint here will slide in under the law.

Jan 23, 2007

Another Web Essay on Thomas Hardy

Slate has come out with a brief, sharp, informative essay on Thomas Hardy’s poetry -- or at least a portion of the poetry: the famed poems that he wrote about the death of his wife, whom he mistreated for long periods, the beloved Emma Hardy. The essay, “A Pessimist in Flower: The love Songs of Thomas Hardy,” is by Meghan O'Rourke, Slate's literary editor and can be found at:


O’Rourke offers many an insight into Hardy’s work, and her explication of Hardy’s poetry discusses his atheism very little, in contrast to what Adam Kirsch did in his recent New Yorker piece on Hardy (see my previous post). Kirsch apparently believes that atheism stands at the center of all Hardy’s writing. Instead, O’Rourke points to Hardy’s “realism” about life and death, a philosophical and moral stance which Yvor Winters found to be the most important achievement of Hardy’s work:

Unlike the Modernists, Hardy places little value on individual experience; the speaker's loss is rendered as an immense foreground only to be dismissed with the matter-of-factness that earned Hardy the label "pessimist" (but that he might himself have merely called "realist"). In his view, bleakness is not fatalism, but an accurate portrayal of the mechanics of life. That he insists so while appearing to inhabit forgotten emotions all over again is the more extraordinary -- and one of the reasons these poems, with their condensed bursts of insight, are the equal of his best novels.

I consider this an apt summarization of Hardy’s Emma poems. I would quibble with the idea that he “dismisses” his individual experience of love and joy, or that he does so almost nonchalantly, as O’Rourke implies. I think Hardy’s work usually feels a little cold and distant, at times downright bleak, because there was no convention of detailed personal confession that we have grown so accustomed to over the last 60 years or so. Consider just Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton (two sometimes bleak poets whose poems feel strangely personally warm) as examples of the convention, among thousands of poets -- if not millions. Hardy felt the joys of life strongly, I believe (I would argue his poetry shows this well), but the poetic convention he employed is one that reaches thousands of years back. A poet did not speak personally in his or her work, or refer to the small events of private life, but spoke in generalities and abstractions, because in olden days poets endeavored to speak of general truths in this fashion (a fashion that Yvor Winters highly approved and championed throughout his criticism, by the way). For these reasons and others, I agree with O’Rourke that labeling Hardy as a “pessimist” is inaccurate for the most part.

Jan 18, 2007

Review of a New Thomas Hardy Biography

For Wintersians, the New Yorker has been on a roll of late (see several of my blog entries during the past few months). The magazine has come out with yet another essay that is acutely pertinent to the study of Yvor Winters’s critical theories, an essay on the fiction and poetry of Thomas Hardy, on the occasion of the release of a new biography on Hardy. The essay, by Adam Kirsch, a fellow who has written specifically about Winters a couple times in recent years, is entitled “God’s Undertaker: How Thomas Hardy Became Everyone’s Favorite Misanthrope,” and can be found at:


Yvor Winters considered Thomas Hardy to be one of the greatest poets in the history of English literature. He included 10 of Hardy’s poems in his anthology of the greatest poems in English, Quest for Reality (see http://www.msu.edu/user/kilpela/quest1.htm for the Table of Contents and links to most of the poems). Ten is the third highest number of poems for any poet in the Winters Canon, exceeded only by J.V. Cunningham and Winters himself. (I must hasten to explain that Winters did not select his own poems for his distinction as “great”; Winters’s graduate student co-editor, Kenneth Fields, added Winters’s great poems to Quest after Winters’s death in early 1968.) Winters used passages of Hardy’s poetry as illustrations of superior craftsmanship dozens of times in his essays. Further, in those casual lists Winters made of the greatest poets or best poems, when he wished to get his readers to rethink what I call the “Standard Canon” or to point them quickly to works of art that best illustrate his ideas about true literary achievement, Winters regularly pointed to Hardy as among the six or seven finest poets in English.

Adam Kirsch leaves the clear impression that atheism stands the center of Hardy’s life and career. And yet you’ll find very little open mention of God or his alleged “death” in his poetry or the fiction. I would characterize Hardy as less atheist than “anti-Christian.” For his disagreement with Christian ideas and doctrines played a more significant part in his life and his writings, though some sort of atheist indeed he was. Still, Hardy wasn’t quite the pure and sure atheist that Kirsch makes him out to be. Many who have studied Hardy have discerned a unmistakable strain of the supernatural in his poetry. Also, quite evident at times is a sense of fate as some sort of divine power -- and the suggestion comes across in dozens of poems that Hardy at least entertained the thought that there might be gods or a god ruling over us (usually with the cautionary proviso that these powers are probably malevolent, as we can surmise, in Hardy’s judgment, from their unending mistreatment of us). This is why I think of Hardy as more anti-Christian than atheist, though I do admit that atheists will find affinities with many of his poems and ideas.

Kirsch claims that the baldest presentation of Hardy’s atheism will be found in the novels. Winters said almost nothing of the novels in his criticism, which concentrated almost solely on Hardy’s poetry. Like Winters, though, Kirsch leaves us with one suggestion that there might be something spiritually beneficial in Hardy’s atheism, though he leaves the comment for the very last phrase of his essay. Here’s the whole final paragraph:

It is this readiness to confront bitter facts, and to make their bitterness sweet through his art, that makes Hardy not just a great writer but a wise and trustworthy one. Poetry has had plenty of mystics and experimenters since Hardy’s death; even before he died, he saw that the modernists were turning toward the forbidden magics of vitalism, occultism, and nihilism. “At present,” he wrote in 1922, “when belief in witches of Endor is displacing the Darwinian theory and ‘the truth that shall make you free,’ men’s minds appear . . . to be moving backwards rather than on.” But almost a century later, when Yeats’s visions and Eliot’s piety and Pound’s politics seem to belong to a troubled past, it is Hardy’s sad Victorian rationalism that still has the power to convince, and to console.

A great deal could be said about the various sweeping summary opinions expressed in this one short paragraph, but I will make just three comments for now.

1. Does Hardy make the bitterness sweet? Hardly. He asks us to confront all that is bitter in life, and his art is his effort to understand the facts and properly orient our emotions to the understanding of the human condition gained thereby. There is no effort to make the bitter sweet as such, which suggests that Hardy was trying to transform poison into punch or help us get the poison down with a spoonful of poetic honey.

2. And where does that final phrase come from, stating that Hardy’s poetry has the power “to console”? There is no indication anywhere in Kirsch’s essay of what he Kirsch finds important in Hardy‘s atheistic poetry, besides its superior craft, until those final two words. But what Kirsch thinks is or might be consoling about Hardy’s vision of human life without a god is left for us to discover on our own. Kirsch should have at least given us more than a hint at his own views. The hint is in that quoted comment that Hardy thought that believing in God is in some sense a “moving backwards,” though Kirsch does not defend this position in any way and though it is highly contestable at every level. Sadly, Kirsch tells us nothing more of his ideas about what in Hardy’s treatment of a universe without god he finds consoling. Or whether it is the best or most rational consolation, though Kirsch makes it quite clear through the whole tenor of his essay that he believes that it is.

3. Does Hardy’s poetry have the power “to convince” us that there is no god? That, my friends, is also highly contestable. Hardy makes no philosophical case for his atheism in the poetry. He just assumes it. If you are convinced by other means that atheism is true, you will find Hardy’s ideas roughly congenial to your views. But Hardy offers nothing in his poetry or fiction other than a vague argument against the existence of a god on the basis of the problem of evil. This objection to a god is answerable and has been answered in many ways down the centuries and during all the decades since Hardy lived and wrote. Hardy’s metaphysics do not convince me, and naturally so, for they don’t seem to have been intended to convince anyone of anything. Hardy assumes his philosophy for his art; he does not bother to defend it therein.

Nonetheless, I applaud Kirsch’s piece, even if I find it a little off-kilter overall. I recommend it for all interested in one of the greatest poets of all time, a status that Winters so ably defended throughout his career as a critic.

So where should you start with Hardy? There are 10 great poems found in the Quest for Reality anthology, most of which are available through links on my Quest web page or by searching on google. Perhaps the first poem one should try to absorb is one that Winters discussed most often when he wrote of Hardy, “My Spirit Will not Haunt the Mound,” which is part of the Winters Canon:

My spirit will not haunt the mound
Above my breast,
But travel, memory-possessed,
To where my tremulous being found
Life largest, best.

My phantom-footed shape will go
When nightfall grays
Hither and thither along the ways
I and another used to know
In backward days.

And there you'll find me, if a jot
You still should care
For me, and for my curious air;
If otherwise, then I shall not,
For you, be there.

I don’t want to come off as bashing Adam Kirsch, but let me point out how this more representative poem belies Kirsch’s general opinions of Hardy. First, you see that the disbelief in immortality is quietly assumed in the poem, which does not explicitly argue against immortality. Second, there is little bitterness about life expressed in the poem, and little effort to make the bitter sweet. Rather, the sweetness of life is strongly suggested. The evils and injustices of life are not mentioned. For these reasons, this hardly sounds like the work of someone whom we would call “God’s Undertaker,” the phrase with which Kirsch summarizes Hardy’s career. Indeed, we could harmonize the ideas found in this poem with a conception of immortality and a belief in a god or gods or some sort of higher power (a “Something More,” as William James called humankind’s wildly varied conceptions of the supernatural and divine), since the poem speaks to the earthly existence of the speaker after his earthly death, not to whatever existence he might have beyond this universe (though certainly, from all indications, Hardy’s intention was to write of existence from a position that there is no human immortality).

“My Spirit” is a sharp and lovely poem offering what Hardy believed, at times, to be the only consolation we have in death, our spirit’s living in the memory of those who knew us. The particular emotional effect of this poem (and dozens of others in Hardy) arises from its use of the ballad style. Kirsch does not discuss the style of Hardy’s poetry in detail, which derives from and deepens that ballad convention in English. But it seems clear that the use of ballad form in this poem and hundreds of others lends a striking emotional resonance that can be found in no other poetry in English. I feel Hardy calling on us to accept all we can achieve and to enter death with the spiritually steadying knowledge of whatever we found in life to be “largest” and “best” -- a life that might have been sweet but is, sorrowfully (“tragically” in Winters’s opinion), temporary. How we might define what is or should be “largest” or “best” in life is left open to our personal scruples.

Though not all readers who are moved by this poem will be atheists, this poem gives us one aspect of the human condition. This earthly life could be all we will ever have, yes. But there could be more. For myself, I do hope for more, though the hope is dim. Though I am not a Christian or an adherent of any religion that teaches immortality, I have a hope of immortality like that articulated by the non-Christian scientist Martin Gardner in his very fine book of popular philosophy The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (which I recommend highly). There is consolation in Hardy’s great poem, however minimal, however thoroughly mixed with sorrow, but he expresses little bitterness in this statement of how his spirit might live on (though there is plenty of bitterness elsewhere in Hardy, especially the fiction). As a study of the tragedy of human life and human death without immortality, it is a brilliant presentation of an understanding of the human condition and a proper emotional stance toward that understanding. It does not and cannot give us the whole story about life and death, but it shows what the poetry of the Winters Canon can do so nearly perfectly: rationally treat a subject and properly adjust our emotions to the understanding achieved.

Note, in conclusion, that this discussion of Kirsch on Hardy and Winters’s greatest Hardy poem ties right into our discussions of Winters’s and Janet Lewis’s opinions of Christianity, which I have discussed recently -- as well as into our discussions of Charles Baudelaire, whose poetry, as we have seen, made an effort, in part, to adjust our lives to an understanding of the hegemony of Evil in human life and to our utter extinction in death.

Jan 11, 2007

More Recent News on Baudelaire

Upon the release of the new edition of Walter Benjamin’s essays on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, which I have discussed once on this blog, a couple of review essays have been published, one by Richard Wolin at The Nation and another by an English professor named Leslie Whitten, Jr. at The Washington Times. Here are the url’s for the entire articles:



As I have pointed out, Winters considered Baudelaire to be one of the greatest poets because he saw in many of his best poems, those found in the book-long sequence Les Fleur du Mal, the work of a poetic thinker who had met the metaphysical and moral horrors of human experience and human existence with the calm control, rational steadiness, and spiritual insight of an exemplary stoic. Richard Wolin’s piece mostly concerns itself with Walter Benjamin, the utopian Marxist of the early 20th century who found a kindred spirit in Baudelaire, and only touches on Benjamin’s studies of the French poet. Drawing special attention to an intensely personal memoir of Benjamin's Berlin childhood, which has also been republished recently, Wolin claims that Benjamin sought to bring "to bear on the German capital the same lyrical sensibility that had served Baudelaire so well with regard to Paris in Les Fleurs du Mal.” That seems a rather odd comment, since Benjamin had considered the Berlin of his childhood to be an Eden, to which he longed to return, while Baudelaire felt something close to revulsion at what nascent capitalism had turned the dear city of Paris into.

In regard to Baudelaire’s poetry, Wolin makes a basic mistake often made concerning Baudelaire:

In poems like "A Corpse" and "The Litanies of Satan," Baudelaire formulated one of the key ideas of art for art's sake: An object can be of keen aesthetic interest not only despite being ugly or grotesque but because it is ugly or grotesque.
This has been the typical take on Baudelaire’s ostensible subject matter over more than a century, but a study of Yvor Winters’s writings on Baudelaire -- and on many other poets and authors (such as his brief but insightful discussion of Dante’s religious beliefs in the essay on John Crowe Ransom [which can be found in In Defense of Reason]) -- quickly shows this take to be a mistake and enables us to set such critical confusions aside. According to Winters, Baudelaire was not seeking in “A Corpse” to portray a rotting, stinking corpse as beautiful in itself, as though it were the equivalent of a rose in bloom. Nor was he lauding the intrinsic beauties of Satan or Evil in “The Litanies of Satan.” Rather, Baudelaire was seeking to understand, in the first poem describing a corpse, the meaning of the human experience of a world that has putrifying corpses in it and, in the second poem invoking Satan, the human experience of a world torn by terrifying powers of darkness and Evil that continue to prowl our streets and alleys. The “beauty” of Baudelaire’s poetry resides not in the description of the surface subject matter, but in the controlled, rational treatment of that subject matter. Baudelaire uses his great intelligence to seek to understand -- and most crucially, to properly adjust our emotions to -- a world with corpses and a world with forces of Evil so powerful and massive that they require that capital “E” to name them.

Wolin later discusses Baudelaire’s use of drugs in relation to Benjamin’s own drug use, matters which seem pertinent to our study of Winters in this blog:

It was Baudelaire, too, who inspired Benjamin's experiments with drugs. Benjamin had long been fascinated by the "alternative experiences" championed by turn-of-the-century spiritualists -- among them Chinese ancestor worship cults, hallucinations, delirium, mystical visions. In a sense, these "profane illuminations," as he called them, were gateway drugs for a man seeking inner-worldly transcendence, for liberation from a modern world that stood under the sign of natural science. At the age of 27, [Benjamin] discovered Baudelaire's Artificial Paradise, "an attempt," as he put it in a letter to Ernst Schoen, "to monitor the 'psychological' phenomena that manifest themselves in hashish or opium intoxication for what they have to teach us philosophically." He added: "It will be necessary to repeat this attempt independently of this book."

On Hashish contains transcriptions of Benjamin's various drug-induced experiences -- with hashish, mescaline and morphine -- from the late 1920s and the '30s. He was introduced to narcotics by an old university classmate, Ernst Jöel, who had become a physician and needed subjects for his clinical research on the medical effects of hallucinogens. Benjamin eagerly volunteered, joining an illustrious list of writers -- Baudelaire, Thomas de Quincey and Aldous Huxley -- who tried to enhance their creative powers and expand their mental horizons via the magic of intoxicants. His drug experiences show once again how singularly committed he was to the program of the avant-garde: overcoming the limitations of the self by subjecting it to an array of pulverizing, Dionysian, ego-transcending influences.
It is mostly true that Baudelaire used drugs in hopes of reaching some higher knowledge of life and death. But his crazed, neurotic use of drugs, whatever its motivations, seems to have accomplished little more than the hastening of his destruction. Oddly, Winters pays little attention to the dissolution in Baudelaire’s life, in contrast to his deep thinking upon Hart Crane’s dissolution and suicide in relation to Crane’s poetry (which I have discussed several times in the past few months on this blog). What did Winters think of the life that Baudelaire continued to live despite the poetry? We cannot know, even though it appears to be as relevant to Baudelaire’s poetry as Crane’s behavior was to his own work. If I were to make a quick guess, I would say that Winters probably believed that Baudelaire’s art and thought shows that he was trying to master the forces that were ushering him toward destruction, while Crane’s art and thought show that he had sided with those forces.

Leslie Whitten, in that other review of Benjamin’s essays from the Washington Times, also discusses Baudelaire’s questionable behavior and his drug abuse. Whitten suggests that such misdeeds sprang from Baudelaire’s deep abhorrence at the odious conditions of his times and of human existence in general:

...in Paris, [Baudelaire] misspent his inheritance on dandyish clothes, absinthe, opium and hashish for poet friends and on his whorish mistress who betrayed him even as he tried to nurse her back from her paralytic attacks. In another mode, we see him as the admired companion of France's most esteemed literary and artistic figures (and the despair of many of them). Plagued with debts, he fled France to Belgium which he came to scorn and hate along with almost everything else but his own perfect poetry.
It would seem clear that Baudelaire’s mind, as great as Winters believed it is shown to have been through his art, didn’t succeed in saving him from dissolution, depravity, and destruction.

Whitten’s review is much less concerned with Benjamin than with Baudelaire. Overall, his main purpose seems to be to fathom why people of late have taken a renewed interest in his poetry and life:

Why is all this happening? Maybe because in a unique way we fearful and confused souls recognize that Baudelaire's mordant and yet often exquisitely beautiful poetry and screwed-up life are a kind of mirror noir of our own teetering times. The same violent deaths, political treacheries, religious confrontations -- and yet brief Roman candle bursts of loveliness are there.
Yet such is the character, more or less, of every discernible period of modern history (if not every period of history from its beginnings) between Baudelaire’s day and our own, no? Haven’t there almost always been prophets of doom rising up and declaring that society and culture have become degraded and are heading to destruction? Sheesh, didn’t it happen just a few short decades before in Baudelaire’s own country and city, during the wild times of the Revolution? Have seers not regularly arisen to proclaim that the final days are upon us? In my opinion, the up-tick in interest in Baudelaire is probably nothing all that significant, just the usual random turning of the wheels of culture. Still, Whitten has a few insightful points to make and offers one great poem for your review:

For Baudelaire's poems are dark jewels, magical, capable of changing one's life much as psychotherapy can. I challenge you who have read this far to thoughtfully parse "The Voyage" ("Le Voyage") with its profound words about love, death and God. By understanding what you have read, you honor not just Baudelaire's disturbing truths, but your own perceptiveness.
Whitten never explains these comments or gives an example of how he interprets one of the poems of Les Fleur du Mal in such a way that we can see how they can change a life, whatever that phrase might mean exactly. But he does suggest an excellent poem to turn to if you would like to discover what might be important in Baudelaire on your own. “The Voyage” is a poem that Winters never mentioned in his published criticism or letters, that I am aware, but I have long considered it one of the finest in Baudelaire, which makes it, in my judgment, one of the greatest poems in the history of literature. I would propose this poem for the Winters Canon, but I will save my case for a future blog entry.

In closing, I must say that a study of Winters’s views on and interests in Charles Baudelaire can only be pursued so far, strangely, for though it is clear that Winters considered Baudelaire one of the very greatest literary artists throughout his career, he did not write extensively about him. It would seem that he would have condemned most of these aspects of Baudelaire’s life, but that he still saw greatness in much of the poetry. I believe the matter requires further study for Wintersians, especially in relation to the work and life of Hart Crane.

To get you started on your consideration of the achievement and value of what I consider a great poem, I offer here Robert Lowell’s interesting and rather unbridled translation, typically so for Lowell, of Baudelaire’s “Le Voyage,” from Marthiel & Jackson Matthews, eds., The Flowers of Evil (NY: New Directions, 1963):

The Voyage


For the boy playing with his globe and stamps,
the world is equal to his appetite —
how grand the world in the blaze of the lamps,
how petty in tomorrow's small dry light!

One morning we lift anchor, full of brave
prejudices, prospects, ingenuity —
we swing with the velvet swell of the wave,
our infinite is rocked by the fixed sea.

Some wish to fly a cheapness they detest,
others, their cradles' terror — other stand
with their binoculars on a woman's breast,
reptilian Circe with her junk and wand.

Not to be turned to reptiles, such men daze
themselves with spaces, light, the burning sky;
cold toughens them, they bronze in the sun's blaze
and dry the sores of their debauchery.

But the true voyagers are those who move
simply to move — like lost balloons! Their heart
is some old motor thudding in one groove.
It says its single phrase, "Let us depart!"

They are like conscripts lusting for the guns;
our sciences have never learned to tag
their projects and designs — enormous, vague
hopes grease the wheels of these automatons!


We imitate, oh horror! tops and bowls
in their eternal waltzing marathon;
even in sleep, our fever whips and rolls —
like a black angel flogging the brute sun.

Strange sport! where destination has no place
or name, and may be anywhere we choose —
where man, committed to his endless race,
runs like a madman diving for repose!

Our soul is a three-master seeking port:
a voice from starboard shouts, "We're at the dock!"
Another, more elated, cries from port,
"Here's dancing, gin and girls!" Balls! it's a rock!

The islands sighted by the lookout seem
the El Dorados promised us last night;
imagination wakes from its drugged dream,
sees only ledges in the morning light.

Poor lovers of exotic Indias,
shall we throw you in chains or in the sea?
Sailors discovering new Americas,
who drown in a mirage of agony!

The worn-out sponge, who scuffles through our slums
sees whiskey, paradise and liberty
wherever oil-lamps shine in furnished rooms —
we see Blue Grottoes, Caesar and Capri.


Stunningly simple Tourists, your pursuit
is written in the tear-drops in your eyes!
Spread out the packing cases of your loot,
your azure sapphires made of seas and skies!

We want to break the boredom of our jails
and cross the oceans without oars or steam —
give us visions to stretch our minds like sails,
the blue, exotic shoreline of your dream!

Tell us, what have you seen?


"We've seen the stars,
a wave or two — we've also seen some sand;
although we peer through telescopes and spars,
we're often deadly bored as you on land.

The shine of sunlight on the violet sea,
the roar of cities when the sun goes down;
these stir our hearts with restless energy;
we worship the Indian Ocean where we drown!

No old chateau or shrine besieged by crowds
of crippled pilgrims sets our souls on fire,
as these chance countries gathered from the clouds.
Our hearts are always anxious with desire.

(Desire, that great elm fertilized by lust,
gives its old body, when the heaven warms
its bark that winters and old age encrust;
green branches draw the sun into its arms.

Why are you always growing taller, Tree —
Oh longer-lived than cypress!) Yet we took
one or two sketches for your picture-book,
Brothers who sell your souls for novelty!

We have salaamed to pagan gods with horns,
entered shrines peopled by a galaxy
of Buddhas, Slavic saints, and unicorns,
so rich Rothschild must dream of bankruptcy!

Priests' robes that scattered solid golden flakes,
dancers with tattooed bellies and behinds,
charmers supported by braziers of snakes..."


Yes, and what else?


Oh trivial, childish minds!

You've missed the more important things that we
were forced to learn against our will. We've been
from top to bottom of the ladder, and see
only the pageant of immortal sin:

there women, servile, peacock-tailed, and coarse,
marry for money, and love without disgust
horny, pot-bellied tyrants stuffed on lust,
slaves' slaves — the sewer in which their gutter pours!

old maids who weep, playboys who live each hour,
state banquets loaded with hot sauces, blood and trash,
ministers sterilized by dreams of power,
workers who love their brutalizing lash;

and everywhere religions like our own
all storming heaven, propped by saints who reign
like sybarites on beds of nails and frown —
all searching for some orgiastic pain!

Many, self-drunk, are lying in the mud —
mad now, as they have always been, they roll
in torment screaming to the throne of God:
"My image and my lord, I hate your soul!"

And others, dedicated without hope,
flee the dull herd — each locked in his own world
hides in his ivory-tower of art and dope —
this is the daily news from the whole world!


How sour the knowledge travellers bring away!
The world's monotonous and small; we see
ourselves today, tomorrow, yesterday,
an oasis of horror in a desert of ennui!

Shall we move or rest? Rest, if you can rest;
move if you must. One runs, but others drop
and trick their vigilant antagonist.
Time is a runner who can never stop,

the Wandering Jew or Christ's Apostles. Yet
nothing's enough; no knife goes through the ribs
of this retarius throwing out his net;
others can kill and never leave their cribs.

And even when Time's heel is on our throat
we still can hope, still cry, "On, on, let's go!"
Just as we once took passage on the boat
for China, shivering as we felt the blow,

so we now set our sails for the Dead Sea,
light-hearted as the youngest voyager.
If you look seaward, Traveller, you will see
a spectre rise and hear it sing, "Stop, here,

and eat my lotus-flowers, here's where they're sold.
Here are the fabulous fruits; look, my boughs bend;
eat yourself sick on knowledge. Here we hold
time in our hands, it never has to end."

We know the accents of this ghost by heart;
our comrade spreads his arms across the seas;
"On, on, Orestes. Sail and feast your heart —
here's Clytemnestra." Once we kissed her knees.


It's time, Old Captain, lift anchor, sink!
The land rots; we shall sail into the night;
if now the sky and sea are black as ink
our hearts, as you must know, are filled with light.

Only when we drink poison are we well —
we want, this fire so burns our brain tissue,
to drown in the abyss — heaven or hell,
who cares? Through the unknown, we'll find the new.