The figurative and the literal

The Times Literary Supplement, April 19, 2013

There is an interesting moment in Barbara Everett’s consideration of Shakespeare in this the April 19th TLS‘s Commentary section — an edited version of a talk given at Stratford earlier in the year. Everett is trying to make sense of the Merry Wives of Windsor, that hodgepodge of a play (as she characterizes it), which so very much seems to be bound to the various circumstantial and occasional demands that surrounded it. She begins tracing a link between these occasional presences in the poem and in a way its failure to contain poetry, or (to make the word somewhat more flexible, and perhaps to mix metaphors) what we particularly think of as a poetic note that Shakespeare is so often able to hit.

Everett is not trying to seal off the poetic from any sort of alternative definition, and her question is put in a generous way that makes us feel the power of old terms like “poetry” and “imagination” to describe what we are doing with poems of all sorts. This isn’t an easy feat. Harold Bloom, for example, uses these words constantly, but he has used them flatly so often, or with weak qualifications–“strong poet” is, ironically, one of these–they only seem fussy. Everett is much more like David Bromwich, who is probably the most wonderful practitioner of this art, invigorating the old words each time they are used, with a forceful insistence in a context you wouldn’t expect them in, but where you immediately recognize they should have been present all along. Such terms have an advantage when used this way, as their breadth and spread loosens up any crabby, clenched impulses that are also so much a feature of a conservative critical vocabulary.

She proceeds to look at what is poetic not by any neat oppositions or systematic partitioning, but by taking us to an example of that poetic note. This is Sonnet 107.

Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time,
My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I’ll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes:
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.

What Everett wants to make clear is something that happens around line five here, and in general throughout the whole second quatrain.

The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.

What matters here for Everett is the way the lines relate to history, and the way that Shakespeare uses history in these lines. For, she points out, we can hear, in the line “The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,” a reference to “the crescent formation of the ships of the armada in 1588,” or a reference to “Elizabeth’s death in 1603,” or any other of the many references that fill the “half of dozen pages of (small-printed) annotation,” that Everett finds the sonnet invariably dragging along with it in modern editions, and which are prompted so easily by the inclusion of “now,” that little quirky marker that seems to invite us into some world when now actually is. For isn’t this density of historical allusion here the quality that makes this engagement with history richer? Isn’t the fact that so many things can be referred to here, in fact are referred to here, something that makes it so vivid and rich a poem?

No, is what Everett says. It is only this, insofar as the things have been, as the nineteenth century critics would say, coloured by the imagination. The things referred to have to have some meaning to a poet’s imagination to be relevant and interesting and rich. And that means they must be a part of a particular kind of imagination. Without this, the details may bear on the work, but they tend to turn it into a mere text–something fascinating to scholars perhaps, but hardly interesting, hardly living.

We feel ourselves agreeing with this, thinking that anyone who has ever heard a sonnet being read aloud, for example, or spoken aloud like the plays are spoken aloud, knows that they only can live, in some sense, can only be living, live, in the now. To merely append these sorts of references begins to make the poem into a different object altogether–or makes them only apply, as it were, to another poem, by a different writer, with a different kind of imagination. In the latter sense, they may not give us any appreciation of the historical engagement of the poem at all–we have to consider the thing a document, along with the annotators, before we do that.

Everett thinks the type of imagination she is dealing with is contained in the way that “the Moon, the augurs, the olive-trees bury inside ‘this poor rhyme’ an epic grandeur of Roman and even Greek civilization, never visible from the outside, but felt in the final ascension of ‘I’ll live.’” As she says:

I have never seen it clearly pointed out, despite the wealth of annotation, that Sonnet 107 changes its nature in its course, the turning-point being that brilliant obscurity in its middle lines, from about the fifth to the ninth. It begins as a love poem, meditative rather than articulate, but it ends as a poem about the exultation of being a creative writer, a poet.

And the key thing is that “the transit from love to poetry is hardly illogical…” That is, that we end up coming out of those middle lines, with all their wealth of reference, with a confidence that even the obscurity in them is something that is condensing and yet never doing so unintelligently. This is what Shakespeare’s imagination typically does; this is the quality of imagination that is typical to Shakespeare.

Bold claims. But now is a time when bold claims need to be made by critics, and this one is extremely welcome. We can only take so much hedging around what might perhaps, possibly, in potential readers’ eyes, in theory, in some possible world, in some people’s views, according to several authorities who are however to be suspected–be true of a poem, of a work of art, of anything, really. No more of this postmodernist nonsense, full of endless doubt and endless skepticism. Except here, what makes such claims powerful, we feel, is not this implied rejection of the postmodern interpretive paradigm, and the postmodern aesthetic in general–as New Historicist Shakespearians did, picking up history and bashing postmodernism with the fact of it.  What makes such claims powerful is the very conscious and generous attempt to suggest something about Shakespeare’s poetic gifts that is real, and which we can feel in the poems. What is powerful, in Everett’s analysis, is the way she suggests a kind of intelligence even in obscurity, a kind of ability to use details in a rather haphazard but always poignant fashion, a texture of sensibility we can find in the poems and understand as generative of such quatrains, which bring together disparate tones and aims and arguments, and turn one into the other with a rigorous that never quite can be followed even though it is unremittingly felt. This is what Everett calls an “‘observant’ imagination.”

This balanced pairing of imagination and observation, the world inside the head and that outside the self, seems to me an unimprovable explanation of Shakespeare’s greatness as a writer, a poet.

And it does this, we feel, in a way that historicism precisely misses. “The trouble is that our highly politicized culture has despised and abandoned imagination.” That is, it gets caught in the observation, in the details, and forgets that these things are brought together, fused, as another romantic critic (Coleridge), would (and did) put it. What happens is that we see in the moon, for example, some historical event that might have been observed by the poet.

Putting it in terms of how our culture is politicized is, of course, courting controversy. Would it really be the case that if culture wasn’t so politicized, we would appreciate the observations as aspects of an imagination? We come away rather skeptical of this, I think. It seems that what is lacking, if anything is lacking, is hardly an ability to read poems, so much as an ability to see an author as a human being. One who, if he saw an event, and thought it was a useful thing when caught in a certain tight spot in poem, used it.

That is, what might be lacking is some concept of a poet as an intelligence. And we get the feeling Everett, despite the rather crabby contention about politics, thinks something like this is more the case, when we see her insist that if Shakespeare saw something an annotator would note down, we can’t be quite sure that it is the event we think it might be: “this poet kept things in his mind for decades, until he was ready to use them.” In fact, the real problem (we begin to reflect) may not be with our politicization of culture, but simply with a fact of human and critical sympathy. As she puts it: “we underestimate the multiplicity of what his head held.”

It is the creeping sense of some sort of larger argument about culture here, we feel, that makes Everett claim something that, she hopes, will expose the over-historicized readings of Shakespeare for the unimaginative readings they are. Regarding the notes to the key line “The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,” she says:

Though far from ridiculous, these notes do make themselves vulnerable to a charge of misreading: they don’t exercise the right kind of vocabulary and syntax, tone and rhythm. If we emphasize observation so much as to ignore the imagined, we shall not know when we encounter the figurative and when the literal.

True enough. But then she says the following:

In line five, the word “mortal” is anachronistic if taken to mean “human” or “female”; the Moon is the real Moon, set on the edge of the late-medieval earthly cosmos and therefore fallen, like all our world, fated to die, “moriturus”.

This makes sense at first glance, but the more and more we think about it, the more and more it seems to be a strange way to prove what exactly Everett wants to say. Is it true that “the Moon is the real Moon?” Something in us sees the point. Something in us wants to say that what is being talked about here is a kind of human thing that has been seen and observed, and not some mere historical fact by which it would become figurative. The moon–we can still see it, the same one that is being talked about here. It is the one that fades away each month and then comes back again, despite the fact that she looks like she is disappearing. It is not something that Shakespeare saw, and used figuratively, to mean the shape of the Spanish fleet as they were being destroyed (how something would endure out of this I’m not sure), or to talk about Elizabeth, who despite her death lives on. The thing being used, the moon, does not have to become some sort of un-literal thing, in order to do the work the poem needs it to do here. It does not need to attenuate itself by becoming a mere association with a set of observed data, until the image of the real moon, the moon itself, disappears or can become only something secondary to this particular observation, which it in some way stands in for or illustrates.

And yet, we begin to feel that Everett is not just acknowledging a kind of humanity behind the image, but is actually introducing a spirit of literalism precisely where it shouldn’t be, or needn’t be. That is, Everett speaks as if it were the point of a poem to talk about the real moon when it is intelligent to talk about it so. And this, we can’t but think, is rather backwards. I’d simply describe the moon, record it, chronicle its waxing and waning, if I wanted to do this. I wouldn’t write a poem with the moon in it. In making the moon something like an image that the poet saw and stored in his head, until it could be used deliberately and well, Everett is trying to resist a historicist idea about the poet’s witnessed image that is unrelated to the human effort it takes to imagine it, to produce it, to use it in a poem–an idea that tries to get a fix on the historical nature of that image, and in doing so, makes the poetry merely a bit of testimony to its occurrence, at some point, in the poet’s life. At the same time what she does is insist that the way that the moon should be understood in instances like this, is as an event in a real historical world, a moon “set on the edge of the late-medieval earthly cosmos and therefore fallen, like all our world, fated to die.” For it becomes hard to see how this is more real than a moon in a poem read and understood figuratively; and it also (and more importantly) becomes hard to see how seeing this as a real moon would be any more involved in the imaginative work of the poet than a moon treated figuratively by an over-zealous scholarly annotator, so long as the latter was at some level sympathetic and sensible to the fact that some human at some point took up this image. Everett seems to back away from her claim indeed precisely at this point, and start talking about how the moon is figurative:

If she is figurative at all, she is a goddess of love–pathetic because also the figure of mutability. She will one day, like us, die, and every month appears to do so–but recovers, to bear the new moon.

We have here a recognition that the real moon isn’t a real moon at all, but a figurative one. Just not one which has been over-historicized. To imply this is only merely figurative, as we feel Everett does, could miss the point that the figurative might be precisely what has this precise, small and subtle, effect on the real.

We might have made a case for the lines simply by pointing to the way they make little direct sense, or only make it obliquely, and by having a little more confidence in their ability to thereby be human statements that engage with history. That is, Everett might have retraced the path put down by William Empson, precisely in a highly politicized cultural environment.

In this line about the moon, we are not entirely in the realm of Empson’s example of “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang” from 7 Types of Ambiguity, but we are close. What is distinctive about such lines, Empson says, is the position they put us in. In Sonnet 73 basically several senses can be given to the line, several paraphrases of its meaning are possible, but it is clear at once that none of them quite seems exactly definitive, or exactly right. And perhaps–here is the scary part–none of them will ever seem this way unless we really think about it, unless we make up for ourselves what we think it might mean, unless we feel our way through it.

In other words, suddenly the line opens up in its meanings to all sorts of associations, and we float between them, without quite settling in any one, to the point where it is this type of agency itself, this ability to float between these several meanings, that has to be called into play in order to actually take away something from the line.

Well and good–we’ve all heard about Empson. But there is a rather interesting aspect to this argument, which focuses on the historical consequences of this, the relationship of such lines to the history they talk about. “Bare ruined choirs.” We know those. They are the ones knocked about and knocked down in the Reformation. But then again, “where late the sweet birds sang…” This rather cryptic addition changes in a way the whole historical relation of the bare choirs here to the choirs they refer to. Who saw the birds, witnessed them singing? Were they in the choirs after they were destroyed? How long after?

“Late” in other words changes entirely what just seemed like a stable sort of temporal relationship. The fact that we could say the choirs were ruined, but then also became bare then, at one or another point in time, destablizes, precisely because there is the possibility of witnessing these birds there. How were they seen, how are they imagined, did they have to be seen to be imagined? As soon as we imagine this as an actual image witnessed by a speaking poet, then we begin to wonder. And though this process, this observation easily can be become not so long ago. And then again we don’t know really how long ago–how late is “late?” This is all not to mention that the whole sense of “bare,” is changing, as we look at it again and again, when we factor in what birds singing really means.

Slowly the reference to a precise sense of historical event seems to loosen, and while we are basically able to knock something together in our head when we hear it at first, we also see that when we really hear the line, we have to begin to think between these senses, and in some way let go of the idea that we have a rather easy way of understanding the way the poem talks about something historical. Eventually, in order to walk away from it at all, we’ll have to begin to find out some way, some tolerant posture, where we can keep–not all of the senses we discovered, but the ones that are important to us. And this is difficult, and satisfying, and wonderful. And it occurs not by asserting that there is a greater reality to things than what may have been merely historically observed, but a greater figurativeness–that is, “reality,” used in a figurative or fictional manner.

To assert this however is difficult. And what is key to such an understanding is precisely an even more sympathetic understanding of the human capacity of imagination. We feel that Everett can only think of the “multiplicity” of Shakespeare’s imagination precisely as a limiting force upon what we see in the lines. And where she asserts an ability of Shakespeare’s mind to hold on to certain things for years, a certain hyperconsciousness or perpetual awareness, we might instead see a spotty awareness, a kind of haphazard sort of engagement with ideas and images and sounds and material for use.

All of which invites us to see the lines as taking a stab at what they are trying to get at, rather than deploying precise testimonies for the smartest effect. We sense that what Everett wants to also argue against is the fact that for many many years, this other posture can often hold the words of the work against the artist, effectively. The imagination of artists, is just fodder or grist for critics and scholars. In this way the ambiguity of the imagination was held against the artist’s process of imagination itself. The work got away from the author, the author died, all that was left was facts–end of story.

And yet we sense this is precisely not something that could come from the politicization of culture. It may even come from the opposite–namely, from culture’s removal from any sort of human politics, a politics that we might understand and sympathize with. It might be even its conversion into broad virtuous habits of thought, of mental labor, that accomplishes this–Eliot and Leavis, we remember, were some of the keenest at promoting “intelligence” in particular as if it alone was admirable (indeed, even after Leavis turned against Eliot, and became a prophet of stupidity and “life,” as you can see from the relevant documentation he appends, rather ridiculously, to his book on D.H. Lawrence: Novelist).

How can we be sure what causes this might not be the aesthetization of politics, and or the abandonment of its practical means and ends, which happens as soon as politics becomes something larger than the action of human individuals and starts becoming something like a style–namely, an ideology, a language or lingo?