April 1, 1996
Like many other people, I long believed that T.S. Eliot’s famous remark about Henry James— “He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it”— was a snub. I never doubted that Eliot was being ironical; far from imagining that ideas could violate a mind, I took it for granted that ideas constituted mind. So for all that I adored The Portrait of a Lady, it was sweet revenge for sweating over the later James— “say it out, for sake, and have done with it,” I groaned, as William James did on reading The Golden Bowl— to savor Eliot’s delicious and authoritative putdown.
Eventually I found out that the joke was on me. Eliot’s remark was the sincerest of compliments. “James’s critical genius comes out most tellingly in his mastery over, his baffling escape from, Ideas; a mastery and an escape which are perhaps the last test of a superior intelligence. ... He is the most intelligent man of his generation.” Intelligence without ideas! As a doctrinaire rationalist, I was mortified.
Older and wiser now— having been violated humiliatingly often by one or another Idea—I think I understand. Well enough, at any rate, to discern now and then a case where something like Eliot’s praise may be in order. There are plenty of ideas in Seamus Heaney’s poetry and prose, to be sure. But he’s been at great pains in his criticism to show what else, in what sequence and what proportion, goes into a poem; to effect his own—and vindicate other poets’— “mastery over” and “escape from” Ideas, in the overweening, upper-case sense.
Political ideas, above all. From the epigraph of his first book of essays— a passage in which Yeats considers whether he has “written to affect opinion”— to the conclusion of his recent Nobel Prize lecture, Heaney has been preoccuppied with “how poetry’s existence as a form of art relates to our existence as citizens of society— how it is ‘of present use.’” Because he is a citizen of a riven society, Northern Ireland, the internal and external pressures to be of immediate political use have been strong. His struggles with them are recorded in “Frontiers of Writing,” “The Redress of Poetry,” “Nero, Chekhov’s Cognac and a Knocker,” and other essays which, now and in time to be, will help a great many people to keep their feet morally in a gale.
“The idea of poetry’s answer”— to the demands of politics, that is—“being given in its own language rather than the language of the world that provokes it…has been one of my constant themes…I have been intent on treating poetry as an answer given in terms of metre and syntax, of tone and musical trueness; an answer given also by the unpredictability of its inventions and its need to go, emotionally and artistically, ‘above the brim,’ beyond the conventional bounds” (“Frontiers of Writing”).
And just how, a politically doctrinaire person might ask, is all that supposed to help? To which one might reply— if one were less good-natured than Heaney— that if in no other way, at least in this way: the more time politically doctrinaire persons devote to poetry, the less time they will have for making political mischief.
Still, it’s not an unreasonable question. Granted that poetry civilizes us. How? Others have weighed in, of course. By enlarging our sympathies, said Shelley: “A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others. ... The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.” By training our ear, said Brodsky: “[Aesthetic experience] can . . . be, if not a guarantee, then a form of defense, against enslavement. For a man with taste, particularly with literary taste, is less susceptible to the refrains and the rhythmical incantations peculiar to any version of political demagogy. ... [E]vil, especially political evil, is always a bad stylist.”
Heaney’s answer emphasizes the benign effects of form, the way “humanity is served by the purely poetic fidelity of the poet to all words in their pristine being.” Pristine words make for unviolated minds. The poets of his generation in Northern Ireland, he writes, “did not feel the need to address themselves to the specifics of politics because they assumed that the tolerances and subtleties of their art were precisely what they had to set against the repetitive intolerance of public life.” To the ruinous instability induced by sectarian rhetoric, poets oppose “the stability conferred by a musically satisfying order of words.”
This stability, Heaney hints, is not only moral and psychological but also metaphysical, or perhaps spiritual. Poetry contributes to our moral education by fortifying our metaphysical equilibrium.
"In that liberated moment, when the lyric discovers its buoyant completion and the timeless formal pleasure comes to fullness and exhaustion, something occurs which is equidistant from self—justification and self—obliteration. A plane is— fleetingly—established where the poet is intensified in his being and freed from his predicaments. The tongue, governed for so long in the social sphere by considerations of tact and fidelity, by nice obeisances to one’s origin within the minority or the majority, this tongue is suddenly ungoverned. It gains access to a condition that is unconstrained and, while not being practically effective, is not necessarily inefficacious."
("Nero, Chekhov's Cognac and a Knocker”)
This is only a hint, tentative and tactful. But it’s as good as we have just now, and enough to be going on with.