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“… echoes are the old man’s arts, / Ample are the chambers of their hearts.””

July 24, 2010

from Go Down, Moses, “The Old People”
William Faulkner (1897-1962)

He taught the boy the woods, to hunt, when to shoot and when not to shoot, when to kill and when not to kill, and better, what to do with it afterward. Then he would talk to the boy, the two of the, sitting beneath the close fierce stars on a summer hilltop while they waited for the hounds to bring the fox back within hearing, or beside a fire in the November and December woods while the dogs worked out a coon’s trail along the creek, or fireless in the pitch dark and heavy dew of April mornings while they squatted beneath a turkey-roost. The boy would never question him; Sam did not react to questions. The boy would just wait and then listen and Sam would begin, talking about the old days and the People whom he had not had time ever to know and so could not remember (he did not remember ever having seen his father’s face), and in place of whom the other race into which his blood had run supplied him with no substitute.

And as he talked about those old times and those dead and vanished men of another race from either the boy knew, gradually to the boy those old times would cease to be old times and would become part of the boy’s present, not only as if they had happened yesterday but as if they were still happening, the men who walked through them actually walking in breath and air and casting an actual shadow on the earth they had not quitted. And more: as if some of them had not happened yet but would occur tomorrow, until at last it would seem to the boy that he himself had not come into existence yet, that none of his race nor the other subject race which his people had brought with them into the land had come here yet; that although it had been his grandfather’s and then his father’s and his uncle’s and was now his cousin’s and someday would be his own land which he and Sam hunted over, their hold upon it actually was as trivial and without reality as the now faded and archaic script in the chancery book in Jefferson which allocated it to them and that it was he, the boy, who was the guest here and Sam Father’s voice the mouthpiece of the host.

Faulkner 1961

An Old Man’s Winter Night
Robert Frost (1874-1963) (Frost in 1961 reading the 1914 poem aloud)

ALL out of doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him—at a loss.
And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping there, he scared it once again
In clomping off;—and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
He consigned to the moon, such as she was,
So late-arising, to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.
One aged man—one man—can’t fill a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.

Frost 1960

Dr. Glenn Arbery, at Thomas More College, Convocation 1994

On Tuesday, one of the great literary critics of this century died, Mr. Cleanth Brooks. You seniors will remember him best, I suspect, not for Understanding Poetry, the book he first wrote with Robert Penn Warren over fifty years ago, and not for his works on lyric poetry or Faulkner. For you, he will probably always be the little 85-year-old man who rode up from New Haven in a Nor’easter that paralyzed the East Coast. What should have been a three-hour trip took all day, and after that harrowing drive, he stood at this lectern, under the always-uncertain ceiling light, weary, in what must have seemed to him the dark. As Frost puts it in “An Old Man’s Winter Night”: “All out of doors looked darkly in at him / Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars, / That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.” Except that this room was full of people. He had come to speak on Faulkner’s understanding of nature, and he meant to do it—but he could barely see the text of Go Down, Moses that he was going to use.

For a while, he faltered word by word through suddenly indecipherable passages of “The Bear” that he had known and written about for decades—but then, recognizing the situation for exactly what it was, he had the happy idea of having someone else read for him. What I remember best about the night is Kara Johnson standing here, attentive and equable, reading Faulkner to us in her clear Canadian voice as though she had just been born from the brow of Mr. Brooks. Yet she was never more clearly Kara Johnson. He would listen, and when she finished reading a passage, he would comment on what she had read, as if he had read it himself. There was something, not proud, but deeply kind about the way that he did not concede the responsibilities of his fame to the past and yield to the exigencies of old age. He found a way, and showed himself to be both courtly and indomitable.

That memory has a radiance lent to it, in part, by the blizzard outside that framed and intensified this room’s interiority, where Mr. Brooks’ voice doubled itself in order to prevail against the dark. It is made more luminous, now, by the circumstance of his death. Following so closely upon the death of another of America’s most influential thinkers of the past half-century, Dr. Russell Kirk, who also spoke here and loved this college, the loss of Mr. Brooks cannot help but make us think about what we owe to men like these and what the prospects are for an answering generosity—more specifically, your generosity, since in these past two weeks you have taken on an implicit responsibility: You have stood here at this lectern and spoken, each in your own voice, where Cleanth Brooks has stood and spoken.

What was the nature, we can reasonably wonder, of his ambition at your age? Did he see from the beginning the form his career would take? Surely not. When Brooks and Robert Penn Warren first wrote a handbook for their classes at LSU, they did so because no one seemed to know how to read a poem, and they could have had no idea that a later version would become perhaps the most widely influential textbook in the history of the American academy, one of the “foundation stones” of the New Criticism, as his New York Times obituary said yesterday. LSU was a young college in those days, and if it was an exciting place, it was because other men like Warren—and later, Eric Voegelin—were there, not because it already had a national prestige.

lt is true that Huey Long himself—Willie Stark’s prototype—promoted it, getting funds from the legislature for it, because he wanted Louisiana to have a first-rate university. Part of Brooks’ good fortune was that even literature could get funded, if it seemed to enhance the reputation of the university. Brooks edited the Southern Review from 1935 until 1947, when he left LSU for Yale, and to [he?] made it one of the two or three most important literary quarterlies in the Golden Age of such journals. What does that mean? lt means that for twelve years—from his late 20’s to his early 40’s—he was at the charged center of literary taste and critical opinion in America, having to judge poetry, fiction and criticism by the most important writers of his generation. Many reputations we now take for granted were aided in their formation by Mr. Brooks and his colleagues.

At the same time, he was working to develop a body of his own criticism. Shortly after he moved to Yale, his book The Well-Wrought Urn established for a whole generation of students a way of reading literature that later became misrepresented as a method, “close reading,” synonymous with the New Criticism. In truth what Brooks taught was simply a way of reading poetry well, one that he used in the classroom and also tested by fire in actual judgment of works not yet published, much less anthologized, and therefore not yet approved by someone else’s critical act. His tenets on reading were earned by ordeal, but his real concerns, as his large work on Faulkner demonstrated, were broadly cultural rather than narrowly formalistic. There is obviously much to admire in such a career, even sketched so barely, and much mystery in its providential form; as Warren’s Willie Stark says, “It might have all been different.”

But if I may pluck one famous teaching from his work to stress to you, it is the notion of “the heresy of paraphrase” that he develops in the last chapter of The Well-Wrought Urn. This idea has been misconstrued, as though Brooks were claiming for each poem an entirely inexpressible difference from anything that could be said about it—an extreme position that would make poetry, in effect, arcane and useless as a mode of knowledge. Brooks actually wanted to register an important point of disagreement with another seminal New Critic, John Crowe Ransom, who argues that each poem has a paraphrasable core around which a structure of “irrelevance” is built—the metaphors, images, and metrical effects. Brooks agrees that one can certainly paraphrase a poem and say what it is about, but he insists that this paraphrase is not part of the poem; it is a construct of the reader. The poem itself is clearly “organic” for Brooks; Ransom is uncomfortable with the metaphor of organism.

The quarrel over such a point would be insignificant were it not clearly related to the idea of analogy and a broader understanding of man and his place in being. Like Ransom, Brooks took the nature of poetry very seriously indeed, and his use of the word “heresy” rather than “fallacy” (the term preferred by his contemporaries William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley) underscores the point. Why would he insist that the idea of a “paraphrasable core” in a poem is heretical rather than simply fallacious?

There is more to be thought about here than we have time for today, but in part the doctrine at issue can be inferred from a question or two about you: Do you as seniors, by virtue of having been through largely the same experience of the same curriculum, have a paraphrasable core of knowledge with respect to which you in your individuality are interesting, even endearing, but really irrelevant? Or has the experience of the curriculum necessarily become part of you in a way inseparable from who you are in your individuality—or as Dr. Crosby would say, in your incommunicability? Obviously, a test on a body of material implies that there is a great deal that can and should be understood in common, but any test (and especially an occasion like the senior projects) allows others to see how this body of knowledge has become a dimension of who you are, and has therefore undergone a subtle ontological change; and I don’t mean the kind of change that happens when you translate a passage of Latin without knowing the vocabulary. The differences in the same knowledge, accurately understood, are always genuinely illuminating. They reveal at least part of the complexity of the analogical imagination that Brooks intuits in the unparaphrasable particularity of the poem.

Analogy is the basis both of the community and of the individuality so much in evidence in your class. May I congratulate you, and extend also the best wishes and praise of Dr. Virginia, who admires you all for your deep Christian respect of forms and—she used the word—your incommunicability. As for Mr. Brooks’ own advice to you, I think that without consciously meaning to, he made Kara Johnson’s reading a sign for each student at Thomas More, a symbol of the way to take up the nobility of the tradition when its advocates falter. I doubt that Mr. Brooks would object if I gave the last word to Mr. Ransom, in his poem “Antique Harvesters”:

True, it is said of our Lady, she ageth.
But see, if you peep shrewdly, she hath not stooped;
Take no thought of her servitors that have drooped,
For we are nothing; and if one talk of death—
Why, the ribs of the earth subsist frail as a breath
If but God wearieth.

Thomas More College

a footnote to “The Heresy of Paraphrase” chapter eleven of The Well-Wrought Urn by Cleanth Brooks (1906-1994):

We may, it is true, be able to adumbrate what the poem says if we allow ourselves enough words, and if we make enough reservations and qualifications, thus attempting to come nearer to the meaning of the poem by successive approximations and refinements, gradually encompassing the meaning and pointing to the area in which it lies rather than realizing it. The earlier chapters in this book, if they are successful, are obviously illustrations of this process. But such adumbrations will lack, not only the tension—the dramatic force—of the poem; they will be at best crude approximations of the poem. Moreover—and this is the crucial point—they will be compelled to resort to the methods of the poem—analogy, symbol, etc.—in order to secure even this near an approximation.

Urban’s comment upon this problem is interesting: he says that if we expand the symbol, “we lose the ‘sense’ or value of the symbol as symbol. The solution … seems to me to lie in an adequate theory of interpretation of the symbol. It does not consist in substituting literal for symbolic sentences, in other words substituting blunt truth for symbolic truth, but rather in deepening and enriching the meaning of the symbol.”

Brooks and Warren (1905-1989)

Antique Harvesters
John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974)

(SCENE: Of the Mississippi the bank sinister, and of the Ohio the bank sinister.)

Tawny are the leaves turned but they still hold,
And it is harvest; what shall this land produce?
A meager hill of kernels, a runnel of juice;
Declension looks from our land, it is old.
Therefore let us assemble, dry, grey, spare,
And mild as yellow air.

“I hear the croak of a raven’s funeral wing.”
The young men would be joying in the song
Of passionate birds; their memories are not long.
What is it thus rehearsed in sable? “Nothing.”
Trust not but the old endure, and shall be older
Than the scornful beholder.

We pluck the spindling ears and gather the corn.
One spot has special yield? “On this spot stood
Heroes and drenched it with their only blood.”
And talk meets talk, as echoes from the horn
Of the hunter—echoes are the old man’s arts,
Ample are the chambers of their hearts.

Here come the hunters, keepers of a rite;
The horn, the hounds, the lank mares coursing by
Straddled with archetypes of chivalry;
And the fox, lovely ritualist, in flight
Offering his unearthly ghost to quarry;
and the fields themselves to harry.

Resume harvesters. The treasure is full bronze
Which you will garner for the Lady, and the moon
Could tinge it no yellower than does this noon;
But grey will quench it shortly—the field, men, stones.
Pluck fast, dreamers; prove as you amble slowly
Not less than men, not wholly.

Bare the arm, dainty youths, bend the knees
Under bronze burdens. And by an autumn tone
As by a grey, as by a green, you will have known
Your famous Lady’s image; for so have these;
And if one say that easily will your hands
More prosper in other lands,

Angry as wasp-music be your cry then:
“Forsake the Proud Lady, of the heart of fire,
The look of snow, to the praise of a dwindled choir,
Song of degenerate specters that were men?
The sons of the fathers shall keep her, worthy of
What these have done in love.”

True, it is said of our Lady, she ageth.
But see, if you peep shrewdly, she hath not stooped;
Take no thought of her servitors that have drooped,
For we are nothing; and if one talk of death—
Why, the ribs of the earth subsist frail as a breath
If but God wearieth.

Ransom and Allen Tate (1899-1979)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Finny permalink
    July 26, 2010 8:23 am

    One of the best things I’ve read in a good while. I keep encountering Kara Johnson in indirect sort of ways of late. I just missed her while I was in Canada, as she was spending the month in Italy, but the people I stayed with considered themselves kind of her crew, and she was spoken of fondly and often.

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  1. “worthy of / What these have done in love” « Rainscape’s Weblog

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