Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Recommended Reading: The Burden of the Past

Lately I've been reading a book well-known to students of Western literature. The full title is The Burden of the Past and the English Poet ; it was compiled from lectures given by W. Jackson Bate (1918 - 1999) at the University of Toronto and published in 1970 by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here is a passage I particularly like (page 70):

And most of us are far guiltier in stretching the chronological limits of what from the past we sift and coalesce into ideal. As Wordsworth was to say, in an article he wrote for Coleridge's The Friend (1809): "There are two errors into which we may easily slip when thinking of past times." One error lies in overlooking "the large overbalance of worthlessness that has been swept away," and selecting only the very best as "typical." In our imaginative voyaging through the past, we are like those travelers through the jungle who are told where the grave mounds of giants from earlier days may be found. When we find the grave, with the remains of what may indeed prove to have been a giant, we then assume that he was typical ("There were giants in those days") rather than that he had been given such a mound in the first place and then remembered simply because he happened to have been a giant. The second error is that we so quickly, in our habitual feelings, divide time merely into two parts, past and present, and then "place these in the balance . . . not considering that the present is in our estimation not more than a period of thirty years, or half a century at most, and that the past is a mighty accumulation of many such periods." It is precisely for these reasons that, as Ortega y Gasset was to say in our own century, every age will inevitably feel itself "empty" in comparison with the past.

I always find it fascinating when someone generalizes as to what we all do mentally. Bate addresses other profound issues in this book as well, including taste, influence and recognized achievement in (Western) poetry.

As for writers, Bate makes it seem that the search for an original phrase or expression is not unique to modern times: Bate quotes (page 3) Khakheperresenb, an Egyptian scribe who lived sometime around 2000 B.C., who wrote, "Would I had phrases that are not known, utterances that are strange, in new language that has not been used, free from repetition, not an utterance which has grown stale, which men of old have spoken."

Here is another passage I especially like. In it, Bate considers the achievements of the English Romantic poets and what directions may afford opportunities for writers today (pages 115 - 116):

And yet, with all the strikes against them, the greater Romantics still succeeded (astonishingly, when we remember that in England we are dealing with only some twenty-five or thirty years, in a nation with about a twenty-fifth of the population of the English-speaking world now). To try to touch on what each of them did would demand not only another lecture but a series of lectures, and ideally a step-by-step biography of the drama of each writer's life. I use this moment to plead for a more sympathetic - a more psychologically and a more literarily informed - use of biography: a recognition of what the artist confronted in what were for him the most important things with which to struggle (his craft and his whole relation with tradition, with what has been done and with what he hopes can still be done). In comparison, so much to which we confine ourselves in literary biography is far less relevant - no more relevant than it would be for any number of other people who had devoted their years to doing nothing. (It is like assuming, as Coleridge said, that every "deer-stealer" had it in him to become a Shakespeare.) Strangely, biographies of statesmen or scientists (or artists in other fields) are less guilty of this reductionism to the "deer-stealer" approach, and will focus primarily on what the man really did, why and how he was great: the situation he inherited and his struggle with that inheritance. Why are we alone so shy of the essential? As with biography, so with the reconsideration of literary history itself that we now seem about to make: here too these concerns could profitably be nearer the center of our thinking.

If we are forced to try to answer our question in a few sentences, we have only to repeat the cliches about Romanticism - but with a special imaginative sympathy for the particular question we have been discussing here - and we can get a tolerable notion of what at least permitted, if it did not create, this remarkable end-product of the eighteenth century, which provided the creative capital off which the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth (though in the latter case uneasily) has continued to live. For example, one answer is surely to be found in the opening up of new subject matters where the challenge of the past was less oppressive: simple life (of which there were to be twentieth-century urban as well as romantically rural varieties), children, the poor and socially slighted; landscape and scenery; such inward experiences as revery, dream, and mysticism; the whole concept of the "strange" either to awaken attention through difference in mode or phrase, to explore something really new, or to provide setting and focus for familiar nostalgia; the past itself in periods or ways not previously exploited by the traditional genres; the geographically remote or unusual, or conversely its apparent opposite (for example, Wordsworth; or the young Emerson on the central challenge of the age: "I ask not for the great, the remote . . . I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low"). Every attempt to "define" Romanticism in the light of a subject is doomed to failure except as it applies to a limited part. For the opening of new subject matters, as of approach, proceeds in almost every direction, like spokes pointing outward from the hub of a wheel but with no rim to encase them. The one thing they all have in common is an interest or hope in the hitherto unexploited. And despite the strong attraction of twentieth-century post-romantic formalism to ideals of retrenchment and self-limitation, that still remains with us as a premise with which we are disinclined to quarrel.

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