Friday, October 10, 2008
The Vicar of St. Leavis
Leavis thought that Auden’s “Miss Gee" exhibited “pointless unpleasantness.” After discussing the poem in class earlier today, I can understand his point. But it also seems clear that Auden turns that reaction back on the reader at the end. It is Dr. Thomas who speculates about the repressive origin of cancer, and I think many readers finally recoil at Miss Gee’s corpse in the hands of Buck Mulligan’s right noble scholars.
So, is this “shameless opportunism,” even if you accept the ironic turn? (My quotes are from Leavis’s review of Another Time. I believe it should be viewable via Google Books.)
That’s a hard one. I’d never read “Miss Gee” before and I’m not sure I’m happy to have done so. My first recoil is at what seems to be the speaker’s own cold description in the second stanza, with her squint and “no bust at all”: it seems objectifying in a way nearly as cruel as her treatment by the students and the “Oxford Groupers.” But then, Auden’s flat tone can certainly be misleading, and I don’t think there’s any doubting the pathos of the final images.
Is it just me, or does this remind anyone else of ‘Eleanor Rigby’?
Yes, I’d say it’s pointless unpleasantness. Auden gives himself full access to Miss Gee’s physique, dreams, and thoughts, and invents nothing sympathetic beyond the human universal of death and the commonplace of loneliness. She’s the stereotype of Miss Gee as other people see her—complete with little poetic touches that reinforce it, like the harsh back-pedal brake—but with nothing inside that contradicts that. Even on the outside, she has not a single friend.
And Dr. Thomas is remarkably clueless. I don’t know if any doctor at the time would really have so little experience that they’d think that cancer was confined to the repressed.
And finally, when Auden butchers his flat character, sure the lack of sympathy is “turned back on the reader”—in a very obvious and predictable way, familiar to anyone who has had someone they knew but did not particularly like die.
Sometimes when a poet appears to be being nasty, it’s not ironic, it’s just nasty.
I’ve like Auden quite a lot in the past, but I figured this one was just guyishness coming through—he was young and sure that he’d be comfortable and connected all his life. It’s a blaming the victim poem—and not terribly sympathetic to people who were training to be doctors, either. It doesn’t reverse itself the way Shakespeare’s treatment of Cleopatra does—drag queen early and really something else at the end.
(As my baby sister said, “Guys. Straight or gay, they’re still guys.")
Shrug. I don’t idolize poets and don’t expect them to be exemplars of moral perfection even half the time.
I don’t think it’s a matter of him being an exemplar of moral perfection—no one expects poets to be that—so much as that it’s just not a very good poem.
The figure of Miss Gee strikes me as a particular kind of cliché, the empty life of the sexually repressed. I take D.H. Lawrence to be the main promulgator of this kind of figure. Or does the source lie elsewhere?
I’m sure that this particular sort of psychosomatic belief was in the air in the 30s and Auden with his extensive reading and lively interest in popularized everything picked it up....it is a nasty poem, and I’d say that the relation between lowerered horn (which doesn’t pierce Miss Gee( and surgical instrument (which) does makes the ironic-reversal reading hard to maintain; the irony is at Miss Gee’s expense....