Saturday, August 25, 2007
Most folks, I assume, who’ve surfed their share on the internet have heard of The Exile. It’s a poorly mannered free weekly, to put it mildly. One of its most popular writers, perhaps even the most popular, is John Dolan. At least if you count what he writes as under his nom de guerre, Gary Brecher, the War Nerd. But in addition to his military obsessions, there’s a literary side. Under the byline of Dr. Dolan, he has written scads of reviews, most of them with a typical rhetorical swagger, such as the piece that designated Auden “The World’s Most Overrated Poet.”
But in addition to being a journalistic bad boy, Dolan is very much a Doctor, having received a PhD from the Rhetoric department at Berkeley. He’s even had academic jobs, though he gave up a tenured position in New Zealand to write for The Exile full time because, according to one of his online bios, he “didn’t want to spend the rest of his life writing with footnotes.” However, despite his distaste for such writing, he has managed to publish one well-footnoted monograph, Poetic Occasion from Milton to Wordsworth, and I think it’s a fine example of academic writing, a remarkably entertaining read and quite informative. It illuminates a somewhat obscure period in English literature and explains the origins of the dominant strain of contemporary English poetry. Dolan has written a history vital for today.
Before going any further, I acknowledge that I have read little of the critical canon for this period and cannot vouch for the originality of Dolan’s work. His claims do correspond to what I know of the poetry discussed, and he does expose quite a few features of the poems I had not previously considered. But more than anything, the book is entertaining. In part this is due to its narrative structure. It’s got a plot, with a dramatic crisis and a resolution. Such a structure isn’t available to every academic endeavor. In addition to the plot, the style is also a pleasure, clear in its explanations and willing to present interesting details in an interesting way.
What makes its entertainingness remarkable is the dismalness of its topic. Occasional poetry is a genre little respected. If it’s thought of at all, it’s usually considered fusty and quaint. And the century between 1650-1750 is something of a critical wasteland. I have never known it to be a hot field in literary studies, and as Dolan points out, it is even given short shrift in the Norton Anthology of Poetry. But Dolan manages to find much of poetic interest within these dismal moors.
Dolan makes careful, informative close readings of poems (his exposure of the crucial rhetorical turns in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” reveals the cunning in what might otherwise seem a soft, sentimental effusion) at the same time he thoroughly situates these poems and their poets in a sociological frame. His main question is, “How does a poet forge a career?” This frame includes the rise of the English public school as well as the expansion of a publishing industry and the very possibility of making a living as a writer. There’s plenty of both aesthetics and history in Dolan’s book.
Dolan fixes his work between two end points: Milton’s submission of “Lycidas” to the memorial volume for his schoolmate, Edward King, and a young Wordsworth’s refusal, 150 years later, to submit to a memorial volume for the recently deceased master of his college. What had been, in the mid-17th century, a necessary venue for poetic ambition, was, by the end of the 18th century, optional. But this understates the case. Earlier, the memorial volume was not just a necessary outlet—it was about the only outlet for ambitious young poets to get published. Later, it was not just optional—it was a career move to be avoided at all costs for Wordsworth to establish his new poetic ethos.
The dominant feature of the early phase is the ruthless and pervasive cultural hostility to invention in post-Jacobean England. Poets foreswore fiction: anything they wrote had to be verifiably true, which limited them to two topics, Scripture and public occasions, which in turn produced a tremendous scarcity in suitable subjects for poems at a time when the new schools were mass-producing highly trained (in classical rhetoric) writers and the burgeoning cities were producing a big new market for literature. The scarce public occasions—the births, marriages, and deaths of aristocrats; victories on the battlefields—led to feeding frenzies among poets and fights, some even physical, between schoolmen and pamphleteers over the right to eulogize. Dolan is at his finest dramatizing the frictions and highlighting the blazing ambition of Milton and Dryden.
Dryden is the supreme occasional poet in English, and his career marks the high point of the genre. After his death (one of the many fun anecdotes in the book is a retelling of Johnson’s hilarious apocryphal account of Dryden’s funeral), English poetry entered into a decline, a “famine of invention,” in the words of Edward Young, one of the later poets who found strategies for breaking out of the drought. Dolan would like to call this era “The Generation of Namur” to emphasize the centrality of occasion to the era’s poetics (Namur being one of Marlborough’s great victories). Dolan shows that the deprecation of the era’s poetry is not an anachronistic perspective of later critics. The poets feel themselves to be part of a lesser era at the same time they commit themselves totally to an even more anti-inventive poetics than the previous generations. (An interesting exception is the career of Pope, who, barred from official sanction due to his Catholicism, was prohibited from a career as an occasional poet and subsequently has to invent his own track as a translator and writer of “autobiographical…urban, urbane” epics.)
Even within this wasteland Dolan informs and delights his reader. For those intent on the political, there is the more and more direct role poets are taking in legitimizing the state and the use of literary accomplishment as a pre-requisite for a bureaucratic career. The poetic and historical rationale for the Poet Laureate is uncovered. The position, which now seems only honorific today, was a means of establishing an officially legitimized epideictic voice. In the sessions of the poets, he was the state sponsored contestant. And as the hostility to invention increased, poets produce strategies for deferring responsibility, such as writing poems about poems. The most entertaining of these are polemical attacks on other poems, “anti-poems,” which in turn lead to “anti-anti-poems” in a kind of rhetorical warfare. Dolan also identifies a feature, the proliferation of elaborate subtitles whose autobiographical specificity (e.g. “Written at Althorp in a Blank Leaf of Waller’s Poems, upon seeing Vandyke’s Picture of the old lady Sunderland”), that prefigures the more personal poetics to come.
The poet who breaks English poetry out of its death-spiral of anti-invention is Thomas Gray. Dolan’s biggest claim is to the importance of Gray: “Gray is the single most innovative technician in the history of English verse.” “Elegy” is the only “epochal” poem in English, the only poem “uniquely important to the development of poetic technique.” This focus on specific rhetorical strategy is to be expected given how Dolan is both a student of literary history and a poet himself.
Gray, along with Young, William Cowper, and Robert Blair, develop a poetics that grounds itself in private mental events rather than actual public events. The main technique for overcoming the previous poetics’ truth requirement is obscurity. In the “Elegy,” Gray deploys a generalizing vagueness as to time and place. He also blurs the identification of the speaker and the poet. The poem is no longer historically verifiable. In place of an external grounding for the poem, there is an internal grounding. Taking center stage is the poet’s ethos. Though the poem may have no actual historical referent, it is grounded in the sincerity of the poet, in the depth of his feeling. The life of the poet legitimizes the feelings called forth in the poem (leading to, among other things, mentally ill writers being prized for the undeniable intensity and sincerity of their feelings).
The book ends with another claim, a corollary to its big claim. Wordsworth is not the technical innovator he claimed to be. Tbe emphasis on the connection between mental and physical events had been established by Gray some fifty years previously, and the use of low diction in poetry had been established by Cowper over a generation before the Lyrical Ballads.
But Dolan still considers Wordsworth great. If he was not a technical innovator, he was a Prometheus of self-promotion. Gray and Cowper had studiously avoided claiming any innovation, for fear of running afoul of the dominant poetics. “Actual daring innovators cannot generally afford” to announce their daring, says Dolan; “they generally try to hide their innovations, as Gray did with his constant footnoting of his truly new techniques to alleged Classical models.” Wordsworth is “a master strategist, a Bonaparte, of the new-modeled lyric.” He takes what was a well-already established strategy and ruthlessly exploits its potential. “Wordsworth becomes a hero for deploying devices which have been in existence for generations; but he dos so by first becoming the hero in his narrative of poetic history.” Wordsworth knows that the poet’s ethos is the ground for the future poetics. When in the final phase of his career he accepts the Laureate, it is on the condition that he not be required to write any occasional poems. Thus the position became honorific, that is, a function of the poet’s ethos.
And what worked for Wordsworth works to this day. And there’s an even stronger consistency. Throughout Dolan’s history, the same commitment to a poetics of truth remains. Though the occasion shifted from public to private, Wordsworth is as committed to Milton to the reality of the occasion, as evidenced in his claim to be able to vouch for the exact date and location for the mental events behind each poem. And every issue of the American Poetry Review is full of accounts of actual epiphanies.
Dolan claims the genesis of today’s dominant lyric poem is “an epideictic, elegiac poem without a corpse.” I’m surprised that Dolan doesn’t exploit the polemical possibilities of this image. At the very least it would suggest a deeper resonance to Frank O’Hara’s “In Memory of My Feelings.”
Thanks for the pointer, Lawrence. That period includes much of my favorite English literature, and I hadn’t thought of it as the reign of the occasional. But it’s true, the term can stretch from satires and libels to theatrical prologues and epilogues.
A more negative review than yours, by Howard Erskine-Hill in the Review of English Studies, takes issue with what he considers Dolan’s arbitrarily set boundaries, but in fairly friendly terms:
“One cannot but reflect that there are times when the occasionality of academic works betokens bad faith—on the part of those who require of academics a rapid and regular succession of small books. If the present author has not had the opportunity needed to explore fully his chosen subject, it is his achievement to have been suggestive both within and beyond the period of the book.”
I’m feeling similar frustration at present with Sean Keilen’s slim Vulgar Eloquence, whose thesis calls for an onslaught of wide-ranging citations but instead precedes a handful of tendencious inwardly-spiralling meditations on interesting trivia. (One takeaway sample for biographically-inclined T. S. Eliot scholars: the nightengale’s “iug” [as in “jug jug tereru"] was associated by George Gascoigne with the Latin “iugum”, or yoke—as in the yoke of marriage.)
Your closing paragraph leaves me with an itch on the tip of my tongue: there’s some poem I love by somebody not too far away from O’Hara that contains a line something like “A [something]. A [something] without a [something].” Do you know how hard it is to do a decent search on “without a”?
I don’t have access to the review at this time, but when I get back to work I’ll look it up. But that doesn’t stop me from having a reaction. I can understand the call for a broader range, & it seems possible to me that circumscribing the parameters could warp a study. On the other hand, every book has a beginning and & end, & it seems Dolan exploited his chosen range to full narrative effect. Are there distorting effect to a narrative? Duh. That’s why you have to read more than one book. I never expect one book to be the only book needed. & if more authors took pains to make their books more readable, than we could read more books & have a more well-rounded view of the object.
P.S. If there is any bile in this response, I apologize to Mr. Erskine-Hill. He has triggered an unpleasant memory from graduate school, which he has no responsibility for.
I promise I won’t let a negative review keep me from your positively reviewed book! But I know we’re both sympathetic to the notion that many academic fix-ups would be more satisfying as a series of loosely linked apercus—it is the way many scholarly pleasures present themselves....
"a somewhat obscure period in English literature”? That’s the Long Eighteenth you’re talking about.
Your summary makes it sound like a pretty standard account, with fairly standard dismissals of Wordsworth’s supposedly “pre-romantic” predecessors. No reason to run down Wordsworth, but this is not the only way, or even the best way, to read 18c poetry.
"Literature” might not have been the most accurate word. Dolan is focusing exclusively on poetry. And his assessment of the poetry is shared by the editors of the Norton Anthology & almost every English graduate program in the country (although I admit my knowledge on that end is a little rusty, and perhaps a great vogue in 18th cent. studies has recently arisen). & he didn’t run down Wordsworth, he called him “a Bonaparte.” There’s no horse higher than that, esp. when you consider that Dolan is not a pacifist. & he calls Wordsworth’s predecessor Gray the greatest innovator in English poetry, and he also highly praised the innovations of Cowper & Young.
One thing I’ll grant you is that my review did not show how Dolan is also praising the “Generation of Namur.” He believes those poets made the most of a very difficult situation, and Dolan takes great delight in some of their work, most notably the “anti-poems.” It wasn’t their fault that the age refused to allow them to be creative. As Dolan claims, “Talent is no doubt evenly distributed over time, but opportunity is not.”
Well, I’d hate to disagree with the editors of the Norton Anthology and graduate students around the world, but the point is that specialists work up an appreciation for writers and genres that undergraduates and the general public may not be able to stomach. Once again, I don’t think this is a problem. Medievalists have learned to adjust to the limits to their canon in the undergrad and grad curriculum, and 18c lit presents similar issues.
It would be an interesting question, how many of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets have a larger or more devoted audience than, say, James Thomson, who is occasionally assigned to undergrads and grad students.
Contemporary poets may or may not be able to appreciate 18th century poetic forms in the same way that they still applaud Wordsworth’s rejection of those forms. This does not affect these poets’ worthiness as objects of study, even if those poets and poems have been allowed to go out of print.
My only point about Wordsworth is that no matter how gifted a poet he is, or how influential his criticisms of the poets he knew, reread, and reacted against, there is no good reason for us to limit ourselves to his selective readings of the eighteenth century writing. Yes, a Bonaparte. But I wouldn’t restrict my definitions of “creative” to Wordsworth’s notions.
What you say makes sense to me. & again I may have distorted the book. Dolan did make the early 18th century seem interesting & did make me want to go & read those poets.