Friday, April 11, 2014

`The Grim Dominion of His Art'

“Art for art’s sake is a confession of moral weakness. Art for the real Art’s sake is the meaning and the truth of life. This is just beginning to be understood, and it is on this understanding that the greatness of future literature stands. If [William Dean] Howells could realize this, he might write novels that would shake the world; as it is, his novels shake nothing but his own faith. I have the greatest admiration for the man, but I pity him. Zola is a parallel case, but his objective power is so enormous that his work must eventually have a purifying effect.” 

The very confident-sounding critic is the twenty-seven-year-old Edwin Arlington Robinson, in a letter to his friend Edith Brower on March 14, 1897 (Edwin Arlington Robinson's Letters to Edith Brower, 1968). One year earlier, the poet had self-published his first book, The Torrent and the Night Before. Robinson is unfair to Howells (see Indian Summer and A Hazard of New Fortunes) but shrewd about Zola. Purification followed just three years later in the form of Sister Carrie. Robinson virtually predicts the waning of the genteel tradition and the coming of naturalism and more robust strains of literature. In another letter, Robinson refers to Zola as “the greatest worker in the objective that the world had ever seen.” I read Zola’s novels the way some people read thrillers. One book – say, The Belly of Paris, my favorite – launches a binge. I read them the way I used to read newspapers—for the glut of information and the density of social observation. Ten months after Robinson’s letter, Zola published an open letter of his own, "J'accuse." On June 19, 1929, Robinson wrote to an old friend, Laura E. Richards, the author of children’s books: 

“You are entirely wrong about my being steeped in Zola and Hardy when I was young. When I was young I read mostly Dickens, Dime Novels (which cost five cents), Elijah Kellogg, Harry Castleman, Oliver Optic, Horatio Alger, Bulwer-Lytton, Thackeray and Bryant’s Library of Poetry and Song. When I wrote that rather pinfeatherish Zola sonnet I had read only L’Assommoir, and I have read only one of his books since then.” 

“Pinfeatherish” is a coinage unique to Robinson, and needlessly self-deprecating. Pinfeathers are the immature feathers on a bird. They imply a callowness and inadequacy that don’t quite fit, even in a poet not yet thirty years old.  It’s a fair-to-middling sonnet, a little overheated, and was collected in Robinson’s second book, The Children of the Night (1897), which also includes “Richard Cory,” “The House on the Hill,” “George Crabbe” and "Verlaine." Here is “Zola”: 

“Because he puts the compromising chart
Of hell before your eyes, you are afraid;
Because he counts the price that you have paid
For innocence, and counts it from the start,
You loathe him. But he sees the human heart
Of God meanwhile, and in His hand was weighed
Your squeamish and emasculate crusade
Against the grim dominion of his art. 

“Never until we conquer the uncouth
Connivings of our shamed indifference
(We call it Christian faith) are we to scan
The racked and shrieking hideousness of Truth
To find, in hate’s polluted self-defence
Throbbing, the pulse, the divine heart of man.”

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