Wednesday, March 19, 2008

`Whimsical Whirligig? Or Spiritual Crisis?'

One of my favorite essayists was no essayist at all, at least according to the fickle strictures of literary reputation. J.V. Cunningham (1911-1985) was a poet, one of our best. He worked in traditional forms and was a masterful epigrammist. His poems fuse wit, formal rigor and a Jesuitical gift for fine moral distinctions. Most of The Collected Essays of J.V. Cunningham (1976) is devoted to his academic specialty, Renaissance literature in English, particularly Shakespeare. Unexpectedly, as one is reading Cunningham on, say, Dunbar or Donne, the personal, like a revelation, flashes forth.

This time, Emily Dickinson sent me to Cunningham. I was reading her Complete Poems, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, in the edition I’ve had for about 35 years. I couldn’t remember having read No. 749, dated by Johnson around 1863:

“All but Death, can be Adjusted –
Dynasties repaired –
Systems – settled in their Sockets –
Citadels – dissolved –

“Wastes of Lives – resown with Colors
By Succeeding Springs –
Death – unto itself – Exception –
Is exempt from Change –”

The theme is familiar – death’s dominion – but it struck me as an oddly optimistic declaration, at least as regards the mortal world, our world. In evanescence is solace, of a sort, though not the sort we mostly crave. I remembered that Cunningham had an essay about Dickinson, “Sorting Out,” and wondered if, of her 1,800 surviving poems, he mentioned this one or at least indirectly illuminated it. What I returned to was this grand opening salvo:

“I am a renegade Irish Catholic, from the plains of Montana, upper lower class, a onetime scholar in Latin and in the English Renaissance. Consequently, I speak without authority on a nineteenth-century New England spinster, of the American governing class, schooled in the feelings and expectations of revivalistic Calvinism, and an admirer of Emily Bronte and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. That I have anything new to say seems unlikely at this date in Dickinson studies; even a new untruth – but we shall see. I shall at least be novel in what is not said.”

This is funny in at least two ways. Cunningham paints himself as the Mick bull crashing into the WASP China shop. The essay, delivered as a lecture at Mount Holyoke College in 1967, is a prescient satire of the idiocy of identity politics. Tuesday morning on the radio I heard a black woman tell her white interviewer he had no right to an opinion on Barack Obama because – oh, to hell with it. Cunningham’s prickly essay didn’t help much with No. 749, but it’s consistently sharp, funny and celebrative of Dickinson. When Cunningham is unable to find a consistent religious point of view in her poems – in fact, he reveals a veritable Walt Whitman sampler of fruitful contradictions – he writes:

“Is this simply whimsical whirligig? Or spiritual crisis? It is, in fact, a prolongation of that adolescent crisis, already referred to, of incomplete conversion, in a context of emotional Christianity yet open to all the destructive anti-Christianity of nineteenth-century thought.”

A marvelous reading of Dickinson, and no faulting-finding implied. It roots Dickinson in her time and place without condescending to her queer genius by presuming to explain it. This is Cunningham’s typical mingling of brilliance and humility. As a critic, he’s no headhunter though his readings are always sharp. It’s notable that he writes most about writers and works he admires. There’s an occasional cockiness to his humility. At the start of his introduction to the Collected Essays, Cunningham announces:

“There is less to be said about literature than has been said, and this book adds a little more.”

Yes, 463 pages more. One of his most satisfying pieces is the brief “Technology and Poetry,” written as a lecture in 1970. The title is chilling – vaguely apocalyptic in a safely professorial sort of way -- but Cunningham, by returning tangentially to Dickinson’s long affair with death, a form of highly ritualized flirtation, makes it at once personal and public. He closes the paragraph with a selection from his “Epigrams: A Journal” (from The Judge is Fury, 1947):

“Consider the social act of death. This has so changed in my lifetime that any competent anthropologist would be forced to conclude that a whole society had been destroyed and replaced by invaders. Death is no longer ritualized. Men no longer train themselves to die a good death. We have no Ars Bene Moriendi. And when did you last see the black armband, the purple wreath? Formal mourning is out of style. This with the dissipation of Christianity, also in my lifetime, has profoundly affected poetry. One may come to the consequence sparely as in this epitaph for oneself [how many of those did Dickinson write?]:

“When I shall be without regret
And shall mortality forget,
When I shall die who lived for this,
I shall not miss the things I miss.
And you who notice where I lie
Ask not my name. It is not I.”

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