Saturday, February 17, 2018

`An Eye Ever Open for Detached Good Things'

Some writers we go on reading even when their time has passed and they are no longer in vogue, or when their faults and failings are undeniable. To acknowledge Max Beerbohm or Ivy Compton-Burnett as “minor” is no reason to stop reading them. Not everyone is cut out to be Marcel Proust. Such readerly attachments are mistaken for sentimentality or a flawed critical sense, when they are acknowledgements of affinity. They answer some temperamental/aesthetic need in us as readers and perhaps as writers. Here is Edwin Arlington Robinson writing to his friend Harry de Forest Smith on April 22, 1894:

“Excepting The Task I have read little during the past week. I wonder why it is that 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 traveling. The green and glorious places that come every little while are all the brighter for the comparative barrenness around them.”

Makes sense, but I hadn’t made the connection. Cowper and Robinson are solitaries. Both are melancholics, with Cowper shading into suicidal madness. Both have a droll sense of humor, Robinson more obviously. Cowper had a strong religious sense, often tortured. Robinson had none. The letter continues:

“[Cowper’s] religion is akin to mawkish to a man of my doubts, but I readily overlook that in the consideration of his temperament and his surroundings. He is popularly and justly, I suppose, called feminine; but human nature has a word to say regarding such matters, and a little sympathy is not likely to be wasted upon this poet. 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 its almost pathetic sincerity, go to make up the reason for my fondness for his poetry.”

Robinson is twenty-four and a sophomore at Harvard. After the death of his father, he will be forced to drop out at the end of the academic year for financial reasons. He never earned a degree. A little more than a week later, on May 1, Robinson writes to Smith again and promises to send him a copy of The Task. His advice to his friend is excellent:   

“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 presence of splendid poetry.”

Cowper and Robinson are the poets of sadness and loss (not to be confused with self-pity, on most occasions), themes as important as happiness and celebration. Robert Frost, in his introduction to Robinson’s posthumously published King Jasper (1935) called him “a prince of heartachers.”

[Quotations are from Untriangulated Stars: Letters of Edwin Arlington Robinson to Harry de Forest Smith 1890-1905 (Harvard University Press, 1947).]

No comments: