Friday, July 27, 2012

`A Kind of Somber Power'

Fergus Allen’s choice of Fulke Greville (1554-1628) as his “Poet of the Week” at the Carcanet Press website is inspired and almost brave, though while praising Sidney's great friend he betrays a rather silly understanding of what constitutes great poetry: 

“His poems make their appeal to the ear and the intellect, not to the inner eye. While the verses, with their elaborate analogies and parallels, are always elegantly turned, he sometimes allowed the exigencies of rhyme and scansion to distort the syntax to a point at which two readings may be  needed to discover his meaning, though the effort will usually be rewarded.” 

Two readings? More like a lifetime’s worth. One hears similar objections to, among others, John Donne, T.S. Eliot and Geoffrey Hill, though, oddly, seldom to Charles Olson or Robert Duncan, adepts of incoherence. Poems are not tests to be passed or failed, or codes to be cracked, but some of the best verse, even by a poet so readibly accessible as Shakespeare, is written to be lived with, not conquered.  One does not “discover his meaning,” then discard the poet. When Allen assumes an adversarial relation between poem and reader, he betrays the stink of the poorly taught classroom. Enjoy “Sonnet 100” from Greville’s Caelica: 

“In night when colours all to black are cast,
Distinction lost, or gone down with the light;
The eye a watch to inward senses plac'd,
Not seeing, yet still having power of sight,
Gives vain alarums to the inward sense,
Where fear stirr'd up with witty tyranny,
Confounds all powers, and thorough self-offence
Doth forge and raise impossibility;
Such as in thick-depriving darkness
Proper reflections of the error be;
And images of self-confusedness,
Which hurt imaginations only see,
And from this nothing seen, tells news of devils;
Which but expressions be of inward evils.”

A thoroughly modern poem, I should think, one that might be profitably reprinted in a psychology text. “Witty tyranny” is itself witty, as is “impossibility,” a favorite of Emily Dickinson’s. R.L. Barth, poet and Vietnam combat veteran, uses the first two lines of Greville’s sonnet as the epigraph for “Night-Piece” (Looking for Peace, 1985): 

“No moon, no stars, only the leech-black sky,
Until Puff rends the darkness, spewing out
his thin red flames, and then the quick reply
Of blue-green tracers climbing all about.
In night such lovely ways to kill, to die.” 

My guides to Greville have been Thom Gunn and his teacher Yvor Winters. In “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature” (The Function of Criticism, 1956), the latter writes: 

“The writings of Aquinas have latent in them the most profound and intense experiences of our race. It is the command of scholastic thought, the realization in terms of experience and feeling of the meaning of scholastic language, that gives Shakespeare his peculiar power among dramatists and Fulke Greville his peculiar power among the English masters of the short poem. I do not mean that other writers of the period were ignorant of these matters, for they were not, and so far as the short poem is concerned there were a good many great poets, four or five of whom wrote one or more poems apiece as great as any by Greville; but the command in these two men is not merely knowledge, it is command, and it gives to three or four tragedies by Shakespeare, and to fifteen or twenty poems by Greville, a concentration of meaning, a kind of somber power, which one will scarcely find matched elsewhere at such great length in the respective forms.” 

To put it charitably, perhaps this is what Allen means when he says Greville “remains essentially a grave and reflective writer.”

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