To Edit the Editor

The editors of our major anthologies face their share of trade-offs and hard choices. One might alter the Shakespeare canon; or make the case for Christina Rossetti’s poetry being superior to Matthew Arnold’s; or recover a lost voice while silencing another. A sure sign of danger, however, is when editorializing takes on a life of its own:

Donne was long grouped with Herbert, Vaughan, Crashaw, Marvell, Traherne, and Cowley under the heading of “Metaphysical poets.” The expression was first employed by critics like Samuel Johnson and William Hazlitt, who found the intricate conceits and self-conscious learning of these poets incompatible with poetic beauty and sincerity. Early in the twentieth century, T. S. Eliot sought to restore their reputation, attributing to them a unity of thought and feeling that had since their time been lost. There was, however, no formal “school” of Metaphysical poetry, and the characteristics ascribed to it by later critics pertain chiefly to Donne. Like Ben Jonson, John Donne immensely influenced the succeeding generation, but he remains a singularity.  

It seems to me that the student who imbibes this wisdom from the Norton Anthology of English Literature (10th ed.) is going to scrap Metaphysical poetry, while the teacher who might have mentioned it will choose not to.

Without intending cruelty, I would ask, has any editor of the Norton Anthology ever written such incitements to poetry as the following, all taken from Eliot’s 1921 essay “The Metaphysical Poets”?

…their mode of feeling was directly and freshly altered by their reading and thought.  In Chapman especially there is a direct sensuous apprehension of thought, or a recreation of thought into feeling, which is exactly what we find in Donne.

A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience.

…the ordinary man…. falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

Responding to Dr. Johnson’s famous “yoked together by violence”:

…a degree of heterogeneity of material compelled into unity by operation of the poet’s mind is omnipresent in poetry.  [That makes one think of Coleridge’s conception of “Imagination.”]

Eliot in his concluding paragraph:

We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult.  Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.

Why is Metaphysical poetry being edited out of the Norton?

I want to suggest that historicism is the culprit, or, more judiciously and fairly, that historicism is the culprit when it indulges itself at literature’s expense. To construct a historical background is, few would deny, an important part of studying any author. But it is never the whole. Literature and history are and must remain separate disciplines. By placing too great an emphasis on history, we risk eroding the field of literature. In other words, we risk turning literature into a byproduct of history.

Is “Metaphysical poetry” a worse offender than, say, “the Renaissance,” “Augustan literature,” or “the Age of Johnson”? What is more artificial than “the Sixteenth Century”? An obsessive historicist—the specialist of disintegration—will superannuate such terms, although they help us make sense of literary history.

The notion of schools or movements is especially valuable to poets. It gives them a platform, to support or attack. It helps them to understand the work they are up to; to bring order to a vast and bewildering expanse; to find sustenance and power in the past.

Emily Dickinson apparently never read Donne. She read Herbert and Vaughan. But it is a loss for the young writer who cannot hear the “Metaphysical” note in her poetry.

I would not talk, like Cornets –
I’d rather be the One
Raised softly to the Ceilings –
And out, and easy on –
Through Villages of Ether –
Myself endued Balloon
By but a lip of Metal –
The pier to my Pontoon –

If a literary editor ought to serve literature, it follows that he or she ought to maintain the grounds of a living tradition. This work of custodianship was once widely approved. It continues in a small number of books and journals, including Literary Imagination and Literary Matters. “The past is not necessarily conservative,” the great Derek Mahon once said to me (Elizabeth Bishop, on the subject of “tradition,” would have agreed). And yet, many scholars, goaded by whatever bugbears and dragonets, remain hostile to literary tradition. They work in an endangered field. It may be a strange irony, but “Metaphysical poetry” is their friend.

Author’s note: I wish to thank my stepfather, the poet and scholar David Kleinbard, who supplied all the quotations from Eliot via email, as well as the aside about Coleridge. Professor Emeritus Kleinbard (CUNY Graduate Center) reminds me that Eliot’s essay begins with his comments on Herbert Grierson’s collection, Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler. Grierson’s collection was first published in 1921. Kleinbard bought and used the book while he was at King’s College, Cambridge, 1956-58. He still has it.

Lee Oser

Lee Oser

Lee Oser is President of the ALSCW. His next book of literary criticism, Christian Humanism in Shakespeare: A Study in Religion and Literature, is forthcoming with Catholic University of America Press. His next novel, Old Enemies, is in progress.
Lee Oser

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Author: Lee Oser

Lee Oser is President of the ALSCW. His next book of literary criticism, Christian Humanism in Shakespeare: A Study in Religion and Literature, is forthcoming with Catholic University of America Press. His next novel, Old Enemies, is in progress.