01.4.2007

Teaching the Architectonics of the Metaphysical Poets

      In his survey of the rise of the American university and its relationship to the simultaneous development of literary criticism and theory, Professing Literature, Gerald Graff recounts an incident involving literary critic I. A. Richards’ attempt to "demonstrate" to an English literature class the pedagogical power of "practical criticism," his applied variation on New Criticism. New Criticism, which has its seeds in the development of the American research university in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, insists on the primacy of the text at hand and the secondary status of all other contextual data during the process of interpretation. Although the idea of "close reading" and text-centered criticism might appear to be indisputable interpretive values for many teachers and students who grew up under the influence of New Criticism between the 1940s and 1960s, the movement had to fight off a number of competing interpretive values, many of which (1930s Marxism, for example) had a broader appeal to both students and teachers who could not imagine an interpretative strategy that demoted historical, cultural, political, economic and social information. Yet I.A. Richards was only one of many professors who crusaded against the various fallacies (authorial, paraphrase, pathetic, etc.) which, in toto, diverted attention from the words on the page. Presenting a John Donne poem "cold" to his students, Richards registered his frustration as students "wandered" from the words on the page and began groping, in verbal statements and written comments, for biographical and historical information to supplement their "readings" of the text. For Richards, this desire for extraneous information simply meant that the students’ reading and concentration skills were lax, that they needed to focus even more on the words in the poem. As critics at the time and since have pointed out, the students — not Richards — were correct: no one can make sense of a "poem" without an adequate context. Because Richards already knew the biographical and historical information his students lacked, because he brought that prior information with him to his own reading, he did not see that what appeared to him to be information "intrinsic" to the text was, in fact, prior information, information he already had from years of study. Since his students did not have this information prior to their encounter with the text, their confusion and comments indicated a desire for belated — not, as Richards thought, "extrinsic" — information.

It should not be surprising that the revolution in literary theory and criticism that continues to loosen the paralyzing grip New Criticism has held and still, even today, holds on academic literary studies has, for all its various trajectories (e.g., feminism, Marxism, deconstruction, cultural studies, post-colonial and queer theory,), one common denominator: the insistence on the necessity of context in the determination of meaning.

      Feminists have, for example, insisted on the construction of sexual roles — i.e., "gender" — in the formation of personal and public identities which reinforce one another so seamlessly that they take on the aura of the "natural." In literary studies this insistence on the importance of gender has meant subjecting Western literature to a gendered analysis that brings its most transcendent tendencies back to earth. And queer theory has not only "outed" literary figures whose sexual orientation has been carefully shielded from literary history (often by those very literary figures themselves) but it has also insisted on disseminating sexual identity across a range of "positions" that complicate simplistic notions of "male" and "female." Meanwhile, post-colonial theorists have undercut the notion of "Western literature" as a self-contained category and demonstrated how the category itself arose from the imperial surges of the European powers, a historical trajectory which "contaminated" both the West and the East. In short, for many postcolonialists, literature is another field on which the war for cultural hegemony, if not unmitigated power, is waged. And as the term hegemony suggests, Marxism, in all its forms and tendencies, has been no stranger to this systematic de-textualizing of the text. Along with cultural studies, deconstruction, psychoanalysis and ethnic studies, the literary text has been treated as a refraction, if not reflection, of the social, generic and personal forces that produced it. It is true that this relentless emphasis on "context" has meant that there are, perhaps, fewer guilty pleasures, that a certain ignorance, and thus a certain bliss, has vanished from the unhappy consciousness of too many academics. But putting the issue this way presupposes that most ancient prejudice, indeed, the one that first gave literature its rationale for being (and, for Plato, one of the principal reasons literature should be banished from the ideal republic): the belief that literature is first and foremost pleasure. The flip side of this convention, of course, is that literature conveys no essential "information," that literature is not "useful." Once literature has been conceived outside all didacticism, the return of "context" as a central concern for literary theorists can easily be read as the "politicization" of literature. I cannot argue the point here so I will simply assert that, for me, this is mere prejudice. Literature does convey information, it is used (and useful), and, not unrelated to all this, it is pleasurable. I have no problem understanding how political scientists, mathematicians, physicists, and even accountants can find their work pleasurable and useful, inspiring and informative. Yet the same breadth of purpose and effect is, too often, denied literature. But what has any of this, one may wonder, to do with architecture and poetry?

      At the level of pedagogy, an "architectonic" approach to literature has meant, for me, teaching it in as many disciplinary contexts as manageable. It has meant drawing on a number of disciplines in every literature and theory class I teach. For example, in my fall semester 1999 literature and the moral imagination courses at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, I taught four of the 17th century metaphysical poets to students who, for the most part, had never seriously studied poetry of any kind, much less that of a so-called "bygone" era. It is impossible to understand the multilayered poetry of John Donne, John Dryden, Andrew Marvell and George Herbert without first and simultaneously understanding the world-shaking events that assaulted the 17th century Western European sensibility, not the least of which were the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660 and the subsequent French and Italian influence on English culture via the court of Louis the XIV, the cosmological investigations and discoveries of Galileo in Italy and, a little over a century earlier, Queen Isabella’s politically-motivated funding of an ill-fated expedition to India, headed by the crafty, if incompetent, explorer and entrepreneur, Christopher Columbus. Along with new discoveries in human perception, mathematics, physiology, the on-going controversies surrounding the origin of language (and thus the origin of humans), and the influence of the Cartesian a priori, the ambitious political figures who deftly deployed their poetry to ingratiate, mock, plea and philosophize for political and economic favors from the conservative state-church apparatus had to resort to a poetry of indirection, of implication, loaded with puns, palindromes, antinomies, allegories and conceits, disguised in tortuous rhetorical devices, to, more often than not, suggest without saying, speculate without meaning, insinuate without insisting.

      This is, then, a poetry all too aware of its status as language, as words on a page, and so form, shape and even genre are significant aspects of the work. Aside from focusing on the relationship between, for example, variations in meter and rhetorical twists and turns in an argument, or the cultural significance of favoring Greek and Italian "imports" like dialogue and the sonnet over the English ballad, I tried to show the importance of the cross-cultural wars in 17th century England by examining pre- and post-Restoration architecture and its relation to the extensive use of allegory in the poetry. As concerns architecture, I am not an architect nor a theoretician of architecture. However, we did, in those classes, speculate on the analogous relationships between 17th century "allegory," in many respects the predecessor to 20th century constructivist modes of poetry, and certain trends in architectural design. Is it mere coincidence that the most devout poets of this period–for example, George Herbert–were also the ones most interested in this iconographic facet of language? And is this prevailing interest related to the Graeco-Roman influence in the religious architecture of the period? To put it another way, is there a relationship between devout poetry in which an individual meditates on his relationship to God, nature and the "world," and the privatization of religious experience that was the hallmark of Protestantism, derived from the civic facade of the Anglican Church (and distinguished, on this level, from the Catholic "heresy" only by degrees, not kind)? The formation of intricate, maze-like abbeys, monasteries and sanctuaries, the classical Graeco-Roman structures with decorative late Italian facades, seem inseparable from this privatization of religious experience in the same way that the focus on the individual as a separate entity that desires ravishment by an absolute other plays itself out in the lyric angst of, for example, Donne’s religious meditations. And these meditations, especially in Donne and Herbert, are often deployed through allegory.

      Why allegory? From the point of view of spatial relations, allegory often involves the personification of abstract ideas, and insofar as these ideas were considered Platonic forms by the 17th century poets, they were "higher," closer to the "Good," than mere material reality. In this sense, material Christian churches themselves, whatever the denominations or sects, may be viewed as an allegory of both human aspiration and human failure to scale the heavens. Allegory thus establishes a vertical relationship between the mortal or worldly and the immortal and otherworldly, between the temporal and the eternal. But allegory has a less metaphysical, practical effect too: in the hands of the skillful poet it can disguise heretical or treasonous sentiments since allegory must also extend itself horizontally in a narrative. Since narrative meaning is, traditionally, cumulative, the "moral" aspiration of a given allegory is always confounded by its double and simultaneous movement along this horizontal axis, linking the spiritual and ideal with the material and real.

      A similar, though usually less intricate, relation obtains for the conceit, an extended, often fanciful, metaphor, yet another stable of the metaphysical poets. The conceit generally conflates two objects or things–abstractions are rarely involved — and is generally shorter in length than allegories. Yet, precisely because it involves a metaphor extended over most, if not the entire, poem, the conceit’s horizontal, narrative, drive also serves to shield the poem from explicit, unambiguous, statements. For example, in my classes I tried to draw analogies between the 17th century idealization of the garden and the intricate, maze-like, rhetoric of the poetry. The architectonics of the English garden, meditated upon, if not celebrated by, nearly all of the major metaphysical poets, seem inseparable in value from the architecture of the period and the architectonics of the poetry.

      And what is this value? In a world whose very sense of itself as the world was being exposed to a larger, more troubling sense of existence per se via Columbus, Martin Luther and Galileo, to pick the more obvious and sensational examples, the old philosophical, ethical, scientific, political and religious certainties trembled on their very foundations. For any well-educated, ambitious figure, it would have been impossible to deny the advent of these new ways of looking at things. But it would have been equally impossible to simply jettison an entire metaphysics of existence. Thus reason becomes Reason, an hypostatized logic that inevitably leads to the Good or Evil, to God or Satan, which is why Reason cannot serve itself–that would be the self-idolatry of pride, Lucifer’s sin–but must serve that which surpasses it–faith–even if faith must pass through Reason in order to be faith. Indeed, the whole debate over whether Reason served Passion (Milton) or Passion served Reason (Pope) is a fight among subordinates: the priority of faith is always, however troubled by rationalism, a given. Just as the function of the Italian and French influence on English architecture does not call into question, for the 17th century, the object of architecture: the veneration of Christianity in buildings of worship, instruction and judicial and legislative argument.

      From some points of view, the study of architecture and poetry could not be more different. Architecture is, at least, about something, something concrete, man-made and yet, for all that, something also natural, obvious. Buildings have functions: one enters one to do something. Poetry has no apparent function; it is defiantly anti-utilitarian. These are commonplace prejudices, not the least among certain schools of poetry and certain theories of architecture. But if architecture is–as I believe–about the tension between its utilitarian and anti-utilitarian poles, its functional and aesthetic axis, can the same be said for poetry? What is the function of poetry today? A huge question, one I cannot even hope to adequately address. But I can say this: the explosion of poetry today–not just speech-oriented performance poetry but also traditional page-oriented poetry — is perhaps not unrelated to its anti-utilitarian posture. In a culture in which every facet of human experience is increasingly subject to quantification, utility and market value, anti-utilitarian poetry may well enact resistance to the encroachment of exchange and use value. This may be the case even as certain types of poetry — e.g., performance poetry — broadens the exposure of poetry by embracing the very market values it declaims. Just as there are certain features of even the most functional architecture that point towards an anti-utilitarian aesthetic, so too certain features of the most obstinate, anti-commercial poetry — e.g., 17th century English poetry — can still be "understood" by college students and used to demonstrate not only the infinite range of the human imagination and, therefore, human possibility but also the cultural, social and historical forces that invariably shape without, absolutely, predetermining them.

Tyrone Williams (© 2007)