Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500–2001 by Carolyn Forché & Duncan Wu (edd) - review by Seamus Perry

Seamus Perry

‘I Suffered, I Was There’

Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500–2001


W W Norton 629pp £22

‘For thou wert there’, says Coleridge, wonderingly, in the lines he addressed to Wordsworth after hearing him recite The Prelude – the ‘there’ in question being the Revolution in France. Wordsworth had not only witnessed events first-hand but had also been swept up by the violent excitements of the time in a way that scholars are still attempting to figure out. Asked years later what he had got up to, Wordsworth replied cagily that he had been ‘pretty hot in it’, whatever that means. Coleridge remained discreet too, but he probably knew what had gone on and no small part of his reverence grew from the conviction that his friend had been at the epicentre of their generation’s historical experience and had managed to make something of it. ‘For thou wert there’: Wordsworth had successfully rode, as Auden put it in some great lines, ‘the dangerous flood/Of history that never sleeps or dies,/And, held one moment, burns the hand.’

‘I am the man, I suffered, I was there.’ Whitman’s line is a claim less about his poetry than about the man standing behind it, and one whole wing of literary theory would refuse to admit the distinction any viability in the first place. The ‘Whitman’ and ‘Wordsworth’ that matter are not the creatures who happened to roam the earth, but rather the voices or implied mentalities that are the work of their poems. ‘The more perfect the artist’, T S Eliot once said, ‘the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates’; and though he puts it with a demanding audacity of his own, Eliot is not peculiar among the moderns in believing that poetry is the better the more fully it evades the historical messiness of the life of the person from whom it emerged. W B Yeats is always good on the subject, and incidentally affords an insight into mornings in the Yeats household: a poet, he insists, is not ‘the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete’.

He puts the point with all the anti-mundane hauteur of high symbolism; but more dogged voices in 20th-century literary criticism maintained with no less insistence that the circumstances of the poet’s historical existence should not be considered when we are getting to grips with a poem. The once-famous ‘intentional fallacy’, which still sometimes makes an appearance at the seminar table, is really an academic rule against bringing in anything from outside the world that is provided by the poem itself – what is sometimes called, in a plain-sounding phrase that actually conceals a multitude of complexities, ‘the words on the page’.

Of course, most normal readers don’t usually have a problem with the idea that our knowledge of a writer’s historical existence might feature somewhere in a sense of his or her works. But this plain-sounding common sense is also trickier than it looks. The late Tony Nuttall had a nice thought experiment in which he invited you to imagine what would happen to your understanding of Jane Austen’s novels if some assiduous and trustworthy research showed that Austen was in fact a ‘humourless, drug-crazed mystic’. The purist’s answer would no doubt be that nothing about her works, or about the figure of ‘Jane Austen’ that emerged from them, would be changed in the slightest – but it is hard to imagine that this would, in fact, be the case. Similarly, if the latest biographer conclusively demonstrated that Wordsworth had in truth spent the whole revolutionary era obliviously tending a smallholding in Wiltshire, our sense of the great books about France in The Prelude would surely be transformed. Not a word would have been changed, and it would be very difficult as a consequence to say how they had altered as strictly literary experiences; but I do not suppose that readers’ feelings would be left unaffected and I suspect most would feel that some kind of moral contract had been violated.

Neither of those discoveries is likely to transpire, and perhaps there is nothing more to be drawn from all this than the truism that the experience of poetry is never pure. Auden thought that was the inevitable consequence of using language for art in the first place: ‘It is both the glory and the shame of poetry that its medium is not its private property,’ he said memorably, characteristically managing to make such impurity sound both a great credit to poetry and its sorriest shortcoming. Incorrigibly, our reading draws in, and draws upon, all kinds of things, including history, that earn their place not through the justification of a theory so much as the exercise of some more elusive and often quite personal sense of what’s relevant, which is bound to be endlessly disputable.

The Prelude explicitly casts itself as an autobiography and so presents the interinanimation of poetry and history in its most insistent form; but a lot of poetry appears to gather strength from the way it is snagged up with what happened to happen outside its formal boundaries. This enjoyable and hefty anthology, Poetry of Witness, dedicated to poems falling within that important but indefinable category, brings such questions to mind. It is a sequel to Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, which Carolyn Forché produced in 1993, a powerful collection of writings that bore conscious witness to the terrible events in which the last century seems to have specialised, from the Armenian Genocide to the repressions of contemporary China. The new collection expands the range of material back to the Tudors, and expands too upon its organising principle, moving beyond the poetry of testimony to poems that manage to register the impress of history with all kinds of purpose and inflection. The works within are written by those ‘marked by history’, Duncan Wu says in his introduction, which sensibly states a modest but enabling sort of policy. Carolyn Forché puts it all a little more cryptically in her own essay: the notion of witness at stake is ‘a mode of reading rather than of writing, of readerly encounter with the literature of that-which-happened’, and she claims to find in this ‘intersubjective sphere of lived immediacy’ a timely solution to the bad ethics sponsored by Cartesian dualism, which seems a scurry of loose hares. She is evidently keen not to give up on the autonomous poem cherished by Eliot and Yeats: ‘the poem is the experience’, she writes, ‘rather than a symbolic representation’. But it is difficult to see how one could hold firmly to such an anti-representational line while valuing, say, Cowley’s The Civil War as a response to the political events of his times or finding Surrey’s lines on Sardanapalus to be a ‘critique of Henry VIII’.

The manners of the book are much less enigmatic and many readers will enjoy the spread. Sections are dedicated to 16th- and 17th-century lyrics, emerging from the background of Tudor monstrosity and religious upheaval; poems of the English Civil War; the Restoration; the Age of Revolution; the American 19th century and the campaign against slavery; and the book ends with the 20th century, characterised here as ‘The Age of World War’. Many of the works included might have been categorised by our predecessors as ‘poems on affairs of state’: Marvell’s ‘Horatian Ode’, or Katherine Philips on the defeat of the Royalist forces at Worcester, or Lord Fairfax on the execution of the king, for example. Others are written out of desperate situations in which an individual life has found itself unwillingly cast in the role of an exemplary sufferer, a political prisoner or a prisoner of war: the gaol poems of Thomas Wyatt, Anne Askew, the United Irishman Robert Emmet and the Chartist Ernest Jones, say. And others are campaigning poems, wanting to push history in one way or another: Bamford’s lines about Peterloo (‘If England wills the glorious deed/We’ll have another Runnymede’), for instance, or the fierce religious parodies of Francis Quarles in the 17th century and Frederick Douglass in the 19th.

The most interesting poems to think about within the editors’ rubric (because they are most disputable) are those where history seems to be present in more tentative or fleeting ways. Shakespeare and Jonson, say, are both represented by passages deemed to be oblique expressions of their authors’ attitudes towards contemporary politics: Hamlet as a reflection of the anti-Catholicism of the Elizabethan state and Volpone as a satirical portrait of Cecil. Meeting those works here is like the bracing if slightly disconcerting experience of seeing a familiar face in an unexpected quarter – rather as it felt to find Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ included in Tom Paulin’s Faber Book of Political Verse, a choice no doubt influenced by Empson’s account of the poem as an articulation of the stagnant class politics of the mid-18th century (‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,/And waste its sweetness on the desert air’). As that example shows, the greater the degree of obliquity the more thrilling the critical enterprise, but also the more precarious the claim to historical ‘witness’. Yet it is among the duties of such an anthology to include difficult cases and the editors are to be commended. Edmund Waller presents what feels like a good test:

Chloris, since first our calm of peace

Was frighted hence, this good we find:

Your favours with your fears increase

And growing mischiefs make you kind.

Any specific references have been emptied out here into the sheer airiness of generic literary charm, as it might seem; but the editors are willing to chance their arm that the poem conceals historical anxieties ‘beneath a cynical comment on love’ and to state firmly that the poem ‘refers to the Civil War’ in its ‘growing mischiefs’. You decide.

Coleridge offers another case. In his turbulent youth he wrote many poems directly engaging with the political decisions of his day, and a couple of his more interventionist works are duly to be found in the book. The editors’ headline choice is ‘Kubla Khan’ – ‘the “ancestral voices prophesying war” suggest some insight into recent history’, says the headnote. That might well be – in which case the notorious tyranny of the Khans could come into play as part of a broader covert portrait of the great European regimes; you could piece together many of Coleridge’s statements that indicated his hatred for despotic emperors. But you do not need to regard ‘Kubla Khan’ as a symbolist poem to appreciate how hard it is to say just what the relevance of such information might be. ‘The shadow of the dome of pleasure/Floated midway on the waves’, writes Coleridge; it is not merely aestheticism to recognise that the poem seems to float off from its historical moment too.

‘The more closely great literature is examined’, said F W Bateson, ‘the remoter its connections turn out to be with any sort of history’: which is not to say that there are no connections, merely that they can often be remote. For modern literary critics, history is usually, in Fredric Jameson’s celebrated formulation, ‘what hurts’, and so it is in Poetry of Witness. ‘The bell tower showed me such sight/That in my head sticks day and night’, Wyatt writes. You cannot imagine someone writing a book called The Peace of the Augustans these days, not because we know so much more about the 18th century than the learned Saintsbury did, but because we would never begin to think about historical processes in those terms. Nevertheless, we are figments of history, in the fullest sense, as we are of chemistry, and no doubt Empson was right to say that ‘a profound enough criticism could extract an entire cultural history from a simple lyric’. But he was equally right to say that you wouldn’t want to do it all the time.

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