Thursday, March 09, 2017

`Detached Good Things'

Harry de Forest Smith (1869-1943) was born in Gardiner, Me., where Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935) and his family moved when the poet was eighteen months old. Robinson wrote “On the Night of a Friend's Wedding” for Smith, who taught Greek at the University of Pennsylvania and Amherst College. The friends once considered translating Antigone together. Their fifteen years of correspondence was published as Untriangulated Stars: Letters of Edwin Arlington Robinson to Harry de Forest Smith 1890-1905 (Harvard University Press, 1947). Robinson was a jealously private man, the opposite of a “confessional” poet, and Smith was that rare friend in whom he could share thoughts on literary matters. In his editor’s introduction, Denham Sutcliffe says of Robinson’s poetic tastes:

“Among poets his early favorite was Matthew Arnold; Cowper, Wordsworth, and Tennyson were not for him outmoded, and the last of them he could read `over and over again without tiring of him.’ His one reference to William Butler Yeats was scornful.”

My one-man agitation to rouse enthusiasm for Cowper has thus far gone nowhere, so Robinson’s interest is pleasing. On April 15, 1894, Robinson writes to Smith that he is reading The Task (1785), and hopes he will read and enjoy it:

“I am getting infinite pleasure from that poem now and I am glad that I am only half way through it. This is saying considerable of a poem containing two hundred pages. It is more than I can say of Paradise Lost—though I would not place the two in comparison.”

A week later he writes again to Smith:

“Excepting The Task, I have read little during the past week. I wonder why it is I like Cowper as I do? Something tells me that he is not, and never will be, one of the really great poets, although in occasional passages he is well nigh unsurpassable. There is much of the sandy desert in his work, but still it is comfortable travelling. The green and glorious places that come every little while are all the brighter for the comparative barrenness around them.”

This is a shrewd and honest assessment. We should be able to freely criticize the poems and poets we love, but we’re reluctant to do so, perhaps because we feel that a less-than-inclusive judgment sounds half-hearted. If our man is inconsistent, can he really be any good? I like Yvor Winters’ preference for poems over poets. In his judgment, George Herbert wrote one undisputedly great poem, “Church Monuments.” Many of us think otherwise, but that’s a happy difference of opinion. Robinson continues in his April 22 letter to Smith:

“His timidity was a disease, and the making of verse and rabbit-hutches, together with gardening, was his occupation. He was a strange man; and this strangeness, with his almost pathetic sincerity, go to make up the reason for my fondness for his poetry.”

Near the end of the same letter, Robinson tells Smith he will mail a copy of The Task for him to “browse over at [his] leisure.” He offers his friend some good reading advice:

“Never read it when you are in a hurry, depend upon finding much that is commonplace, and do not let Book I count for too much in your opinions. You must read with an eye ever open for detached good things rather than for a continuous procession of splendid poetry.”

Here is one of those “detached good things” from The Task (Part IV, lines 315-320): 

“The squirrel, flippant, pert, and full of play.   
He sees me, and at once, swift as a bird,
Ascends the neighbouring beech; there whisks his brush,  
And perks his ears, and stamps and scolds aloud,      
With all the prettiness of feigned alarm,            
And anger insignificantly fierce.”

No comments: