Literary Awakenings

Among the memorable formulations in Wordsworth’s great Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1798, one may serve to characterize a common spirit in the essays collected here. His formulation attempts to define and celebrate what the Poet is and does:

He is the rock of defense for human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love. In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs; in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things violently destroyed; the poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time.

Twenty-eight years old when he composed this preface, the young Wordsworth calls upon his resources of eloquence and inclusiveness to conjure up this vision of universal strength and sympathy that, he believes, informs his and Coleridge’s collection of poems. Never before in English criticism had such claims been unapologetically put forth.

These essays by contributors to The Hudson Review are naturally pitched in a lower key, and their concerns are pointed in many directions with no obviously central theme uniting them[1]. But although “theme” is too inclusive a word for what binds them together, there is a pervading spirit that, while not to be confused with Wordsworth’s matchless evocation of The Poet, is nevertheless comparable to it. Calling the spirit “literary awakenings” invites questions, since immediately the sophisticated reader, perhaps a professor of English, asks to know what’s gained by evoking “literary,” an old-fashioned word that must earn its keep if it’s to have reputable value.

In the final item of this book, the veteran writer of familiar essays, stories, and biographical evaluations, Joseph Epstein, coming to the end of his essential, if impossible, attempt to locate the pleasures of reading, suggests that wide reading over time would or ought to confer on one “the literary point of view.” He puts it in quotes, as if to assure us that he knows how slippery a subject he’s taken on, but proceeds to make perhaps the very least claim that can be made about the subject: that the literary point of view “teaches a worldly-wise skepticism, which comes through first in a distrust of general ideas.” And he quotes with approval Ortega y Gasset: “As soon as one creates a concept, reality leaves the room.” But Epstein doesn’t merely endorse a healthy skepticism about general ideas as the final reward of wide reading; instead he has the temerity to insist that the literary point of view teaches us profoundly, and that what it teaches is “the richness, the complexity, the mystery of life.” Such a claim invites further derision from the sophisticated: “mystery,” “richness,” “complexity”—what are these words but an admission that the product of wide reading is beyond words, beyond the resources of language altogether? Yet in a slightly different vocabulary, Wordsworth would have known and approved of what Epstein is advocating, and he would have sympathized with his essay’s title, “The Pleasures of Reading,” since for Wordsworth the production of pleasure was the first and last task of the poet’s art: “It is a homage paid to the native and naked dignity of man, to the grand elementary principle of pleasure, by which he knows, and feels, and lives, and moves.”

Many of the essays gathered here describe various, disparate awakenings to the pleasures of poetry, that is, of literature. In a poem that serves as the book’s epigraph, Jeffrey Harrison takes us to his car on the way to the grocery store, which trip gets derailed by his absorption in a CD he’s listening to of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. He overshoots the store, then sits with the car idling, “because now she is going over it all again / though differently this time, with new details, / or from inside the mind of someone else, / as if each person were a hive, with its own murmurs and stirrings.” Visiting this “hive” for the first or maybe the tenth time produces something—“something we can take / with us as we fly back out into honeyed daylight.”

Such visitations and discoveries are a recurrent experience in this collection. Perhaps the most explicit example of discovery, of and within a literary work, is Seamus Heaney’s example of Wordsworth, whose great poem “Resolution and Independence” provides the most striking instance of a meeting where the poet “comes faces to face with something or someone in the outer world recognized as vital to the poet’s inner creative life.” Heaney’s title, “Apt Admonishment,” alludes to the climactic moment in the poem when Wordsworth (surely in no disguise), having thought of “mighty poets in their misery dead” and realized that “As high as we have mounted in delight / In our dejection do we sink as low,” runs into an old leech-gatherer on the lonely moor. A curious conversation with him ensues (no direct words from the man’s lips are given), then a rather ordinary portrait of a poor man making do as best he can by gathering leeches is displaced in a stanza of visionary raptness:

The old Man still stood talking by my side;
But now his voice to me was like a stream
Scarce heard; nor word from word could I divide;
And the whole body of the Man did seem
Like one whom I had met with in a dream;
Or like a man from some far region sent,
To give me human strength, by apt admonishment.

What Heaney calls, in a fine phrase, “the great unglamorous strength of Wordsworth’s verse,” saves the day for the despondent poet by leading him out of himself in an experience of “estrangement” that somehow returns him to life with renewed powers. But it is not, or should not be, the poet alone who is the benefi­ciary of this power and renewal; an active reader may also be taken to a place he hasn’t quite been before. Not just the Man’s effect on Wordsworth, but the poem’s effect on that reader pro­vides something like apt admonishment, an aesthetic response that is also a moral and human one, which gives us entry for a time into the grand, elementary principle of pleasure.

Perhaps the most telling account in these essays of an awakening to literature that is also an estrangement from one’s previous life is Antonio Muñoz Molina’s description of his educa­tion as a writer and a citizen, consequent upon his youthful wide reading that took him into political spaces he hadn’t been before. Growing up in Franco’s Spain, he became a student-radical essentially because it involved carrying around “presti­gious books” as an antidote to the regime’s totalitarian immunity to them. Ironically the regime encouraged his awakening to politics as well as to writing; the freedom he and others eventually won was something that “had to be learned the hard way by us Spaniards, because there were no teachers on hand.” As the essay’s title makes clear, it was a “double education” and one that could not have been achieved except through an estrangement from the mundane, from an ordinary world where both literature and political freedom were absent.

More than one person, I suspect, has begun his career of wide reading as an attractive alternative to other worldly duties and social responsibilities. When a teacher in elementary school, trying to interest us in poetry, assured us that we were not escaping from the world but rather engaging with it in praiseworthy moral terms, I probably assented, not foreseeing how often my preoccupation with literature was at least partly a way of dodging commonplace tasks like raking leaves or mowing the lawn, or, later, avoiding the social swing of things. That literature thought of as an escape still carries a weight of opprobrium seems unjustified when, as is the case with more than one of these essays about literary discovery, the struggle to “escape” is a struggle to build a more substantial identity. It is not simply a matter of receiving “apt admonishment” from works of genius, King Lear or Paradise Lost, but from more homely, even poorly-regarded books and writers. Igor Webb’s loving account of his romance with the Horatio Hornblower sequence of novels has everything to do with the fact that he discovered these books as a young Holocaust survivor, emigrating with his parents from Slovakia to Quito, Ecuador, then to an apartment at the northern tip of Manhattan where the youth made his discovery. Webb had missed out on having stories read to him as a child, and his parents seemed unable to introduce him to the “right” books. So, he tells us, when he came upon the first paragraph of Lieutenant Hornblower and met “a tall and rather gangling individual, with hollow cheeks and a melancholy cast of countenance,” he found a soul-brother or father. As a boy Webb was a neat dresser (his mother was a seamstress), and he took Hornblower—“whose uniform looked as if it had been put on in the dark and not readjusted since”—to his heart, no longer feeling confined to his status as a well-dressed youth. He cites Jane Eyre, stuck in her constrained life and traveling through books into new realms of possibility. What Webb calls the desire for “guidance” enabled him as an “uncertain Slovak boy” to keep company with the upstanding Captain Hornblower who, like the child Webb with memories of wartime terrors, met his own terrors as well and triumphantly overcame them.

An even more intense, somewhat morbid awakening to literature is recounted by Joyce Zonana’s history of her fixation on Dickens’s famous character from The Old Curiosity Shop, Little Nell, whose death made thousands weep. Zonana encountered the book as a child of ten living in a two-room apartment in Brooklyn and became possessed by the novel through “passionate, deep reading.” To say the book and its character had constituted an escape from herself would be too mild a word for how she was taken possession of as a “child surrounded by fears, simultaneously frightened of and fascinated by a grotesquely menacing world.” Later on, living in Philadelphia, a few blocks from the statue of Dickens and Little Nell in Clark Park, she was scarcely aware that the book and its author had exerted such a formidable influence on her. Her story is about the book as refuge, and in identifying with its heroine—an activity professors like me warn students against—she can’t imagine what her childhood would have been like had she not met Little Nell: “A witness, my alter ego, the self who existed in language and gave me a home there as well.” The title of her essay says it all, succinctly, “Nell and I.”

To those awakened readers who go on to become professional teachers of literature, there must always be some tension between what the profession encourages or demands from the aspirant, and the aspirant’s unease with the professorial burden. More than one writer in this collection is moved to meditate on the satisfaction or dissatisfaction with what they perceive to be treatments of “English” that maintain themselves at the expense of the human values and truths literature presumably serves. The poet and professor David Mason looks back upon his literary experience in college and is dissatisfied by what he remembers:

When I read poetry in college I was taught to be impersonal, always impersonal, as if to avoid contaminating what I read. Now it seems to me that the force of personality is every bit as important as the mastery of craft. Reading and writing are an invitation to a great untidy conversation that spans generations and cultures.

Mason lays the “impersonal” idea to T. S. Eliot’s influential essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which calls poetry an escape from personality rather than an expression of that personality. It has more than once been pointed out how Eliot’s own untidy personal life at the time was responsible in part for the impersonal demand or doctrine. Often forgotten however is the sentence in Eliot’s essay that follows his assertion about poetry being an escape from emotion, from personality: “But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from those things.” So the “escape” is really a recognition of how rich and troubling is the life that gave impulse to it. In his essay “Writer and Region,” and using Huckleberry Finn as his key book, Wendell Berry worries that the striving to be “free” may involve an inability to imagine community life. (Huck wants to light out for the territory ahead of anything that would restrain him.) To neglect the moral imperative of community is insufficiently to recognize the tragic life “lighting out” attempts to escape. Literature has human, social responsibilities, which, in that early essay, Eliot neglected.

Often the writer, the teacher, discovers something or some­body that makes him call into question his previous academic training. It was so with the poet and critic Dana Gioia when, as a graduate student at Harvard, he found in Robert Fitzgerald’s approach to poetry a simplicity and elegance for which he was both unprepared and deeply grateful. Studying the Odyssey with Fitzgerald, Gioia realized “how much my critical education had alienated me from my own experience of literature.” Although he doesn’t specify exactly just what that critical education consisted of, it evidently did not include the “unorthodox and often subjective remarks” his new professor made. Invariably, Gioia writes, the teacher and his students considered features of the poem that Fitzgerald found moving and memorable but that were neglected by the more orthodox, sometimes mechanical, approach Gioia had grown up with.

Unorthodoxy and subjectivity come in many forms, one of the most extreme being what George Watson found in the great critic Sir William Empson. Known to most through his formidable dealings with poems in his first book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, Empson, in Watson’s eyes, was a very unacademic teacher whose early training in mathematics as a Cambridge undergraduate preceded his literary career. That training, Watson suggests, permitted him to enter literary studies as an amateur, “and he kept the freedom of the amateur to the end of his days.” One of the ways in which Empson’s critical operation differed from, even disdained, more conventional approaches to literature, showed itself in an “unquenchable propensity to be flippant,” a quality that, he sometimes feared, “might persuade the world that he did not mean what he said or that what he said might not be worth attending to.” Very different from Robert Fitzgerald’s urbane elegance, Empson’s incorrigibly witty, sometimes disheveled manner, was partly a way of holding off solemn, more “professional” critical behavior.

A literary education gains in satisfaction and complexity when the reader is prompted, in respect or annoyance, to talk back to the writer, to the book. Any teacher knows how difficult it is to provoke students to talk back to the poem or novel they’re engaged with; somehow this smacks of irreverence, as if it were inappropriate for youth to question the presumed wisdom of their elders. And often it’s preferable for the inexperienced reader to take it slow before venturing into colloquy with the experienced author. Of course the back talk needn’t have been provoked by a single text or writer; it may stem from an idea or convention that seems to have taken hold, not necessarily to the reader’s benefit. Such a convention is criticized in Clara Claiborne Park’s “Talking Back to the Speaker,” an original take on things academic-literary whose title anticipates the sharp and entertainingly useful piece to come.

Some decades ago, teaching a course in Great Books at a community college, Park was somewhat taken aback by a question from a not particularly bright student. The class had been reading Homer, Plato, Dante, and the student, concerned about their respective views of the afterlife, asked her, since each writer had a different view, which one of them was “true”? Today, she writes, she could tell them in her wisdom how Plato’s Socrates is a fictional speaker invented to serve a particular artistic purpose, and that there is a difference between Dante the author and “Dante” the speaker in the poem. Such a sensible and sophisticated critical practice, Park claims, would have enlightened the student by raising “wall after glass wall between him and these vanished human voices he had come to think had something to say directly to him.” At present this convenient wall of “the speaker” is part of any student’s literary equipment; they know, or will quickly learn, that you say “the speaker” and not “Frost says”: “That it’s not Shakespeare who worries he’s growing old, not Donne who’s saying good-bye to his lover, not Keats who talks to a vase.” Soon the “locution of detachment” will become second nature, and they will be ready to take on Ford’s The Good Soldier and its untrustworthy narrator.

Park argues plausibly that increasing sophistication of critical theorizing about what a poem is—crudely, words on the page rather than the utterance of a poet—has amounted to the poem’s dissolution: “Dissolved in the persona, his poem scattered under new rubrics like ‘tone’ and ‘imagery,’ the student is no longer in a position to ask questions about the attitudes and convictions of a single human being.” She notes as well, tellingly, that there is inconsistency even within proponents of the speaker rather than the poet: such as Reuben Brower in The Fields of Light, or the influential Understanding Poetry by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. In the 1960 edition of that textbook, Park notes, “Brooks and Warren did not completely banish the poet; though Keats was speakerized, Marvell and Yeats were left alone.” Overall she finds a gain in subtlety to be a loss in human community for those naive community college students “eager to take literature into their own lives.” Yet it’s interesting to realize that Park’s own subtlety as teacher and theorist vivifies her subject, making it not merely a matter of technical mechanics but a useful inquiry into its human consequences.

In a TLS review of a book about literary life in England since the First World War, the reviewer, Kate McLoughlin, concludes with a salute to reading she calls joie de lire. What does this joy consist of, she asks, and answers by invoking “Literature’s unique ability to fire the imagination, extend mental worlds, dazzle with the use of language and convey one’s human ideas and experi­ences to others across time and space.” This seemed to me a good twenty-first-century attempt to find further terms for the grand elementary principle of pleasure that Wordsworth championed more than two hundred years ago. In a few of the essays collected here, their very title suggests an overbalance of pleasure, as in Judith Pascoe’s tribute to Clarissa: “Before I Read Clarissa I Was Nobody: Aspirational Reading and Samuel Richardson’s Great Novel.” Her title aspires to inspire, as she accounts for her aspirational reading of the novel in various lively ways, including confessing toward the essay’s close that one of the reasons she like Clarissa so much is “for the same petty reason that I like The Princess Casamassima—because I’ve read it and not everyone has.” Petty enough, but in its perhaps ignoble reason for loving a book, it stays with us.

Pascoe teaches the novel to students at the University of Iowa, but her real interest is not in furthering Clarissa scholarship by adding another item to its bibliography. Her motives are more cagey:

These days, I read Clarissa so that I can teach the novel to undergraduates. I justify teaching a whole course on Clarissa, urging students through the novel at the rate of one hundred pages per week, by making grandiose pedagogical claims in my course description. I say I will use the novel as a window onto eighteenth-century culture; I suggest its critical reception will allow me to delineate the major schools of twentieth-century literary theory. But that’s just to impress the curriculum committee. The way I draw undergraduates in is by suggesting they will be initiated into the exclusive coterie of people who have read Clarissa in its entirety. You wouldn’t think this kind of bald elitist appeal would play very well at a state university in Iowa.

The sheer mischievousness of this is itself a product of the literary education Pascoe has acquired through wide reading of books that among other things are filled with superb moments of ironic comedy—of the “worldly-wise skepticism” Joseph Epstein counts as one of the important results of wide reading.

Let us conclude this brief look-around at the essays with by all odds the book’s shortest one, a mere five pages by Thomas M. Disch on Byron. It doesn’t do much more than communicate Mr. Disch’s enthusiasm for “My Roommate, Lord Byron,” whose erotic exploits earn him the title of the “nineteenth century’s most accomplished make-out artist.” No one ever accused William Wordsworth of filling this bill. In fact Disch mentions Wordsworth in making his claim that Byron is “the most living of all the Dead White Males who wrote poetry. Keats will shiver your soul to a deeper depth, and Wordsworth elevate it to a higher altitude, but if you simply want to spend the night with your best friend, Byron’s the man.” For all the contrast in diction, Disch’s reader (who is Disch himself in no disguise) is in search of that same principle of pleasure Wordsworth evoked so memorably. Disch concludes almost before he begins with a tribute to Byron’s power—“He will open the door to his soul, and to yours too.” But he qualifies that claim by admitting, in an appropriately witty way that “With Byron it is sometimes hard to get a word in edgewise, but that’s the problem of having a genius for a friend.”
[1] This essay serves as the introduction to Literary Awakenings: Personal Essays from The Hudson Review, edited by Ronald Koury, to be published this autumn by Syracuse University Press.