Books: The Poetry of Edmund Wilson |
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The Poetry of Edmund Wilson

Apart from Poets, Farewell!, which was published in 1929 and has been unobtainable for most of the time since, the two main collections of Edmund Wilson’s verse are Note-Books of Night and Night Thoughts. Of these, Note-Books of Night was published in America in 1942, took three years to cross the Atlantic (Secker & Warburg brought it out in May 1945) and has since become fairly unobtainable itself, although it is sometimes to be found going cheap in the kind of second-hand book shop that doesn’t know much about the modern side. Night Thoughts, published in America in 1961 and in Britain a year later, is still the current collection. It regroups most of the work in Note-Books of Night into new sections, interspersing a good deal of extra matter, ranging from lyrics written in youth to technical feats performed in age. The final effect is to leave you convinced that although Night Thoughts is good to have, Note-Books of Night remains the definitive collection of Wilson’s verse. Less inclusive, it is more complete.

Being that, it would be an interesting book even if Wilson’s verse were negligible — interesting for the sidelight it threw on the mind of a great critic. But in fact Wilson’s verse is far from negligible. Just because Wilson’s critical work is so creative doesn’t mean that his nominally creative work is a waste of time. Even without Memoirs of Hecate County and I Thought of Daisy, the mere existence of Note-Books of Night would be sufficient evidence that Wilson had original things to say as a writer. It is a deceptively substantial little book which looks like a slim volume only by accident. There are more than seventy pages of solid text, with something memorable on nearly every page. Thirty pages are given to prose fragments and the rest to poetry. It isn’t major poetry, but some of it is very good minor poetry — and in an age of bad major poetry there is very little good minor poetry about.

Wilson was no shrinking violet, but he knew his limitations. He knew that his touch with language wasn’t particularly suggestive so he went for precision instead. He possessed a lot of information to be precise with. Where his verse is excessive, it is the excess of the seed catalogue — a superfluity of facts. He never usurps the lyrical genius’s prerogative of saying more than he knows. Nor did he ever consider himself talented enough to be formless — his formal decorum always reminds us that he stems from the early 20th-century America which in retrospect seems more confident than Europe itself about transmitting the European tradition. The work is all very schooled, neat, strict and assured. And finally there is his gift for parody, which sometimes led him beyond mere accomplishment and into the realm of inspiration. In ‘The Omelet of A. MacLeish’, for example, the talent of his verse is reinforced by the genius of his criticism, with results more devastating critically than his essays on the same subject, and more vivid poetically than his usual poems.

In Note-Books of Night the poems are arranged in no chronological scheme. From the rearrangement in Night Thoughts it is easier to puzzle out when he wrote what, but even then it is sometimes hard to be sure. Eventually there will be scholarly research to settle the matter, but I doubt if much of interest will be revealed touching Wilson’s development as a writer of verse. After an early period devoted to plangent lyricism of the kind which can be called sophomoric as long as we remember that he was a Princeton sophomore and an exceptionally able one into the bargain, Wilson quickly entered into his characteristic ways of seeing the world. Like other minor artists he matured early and never really changed. Indeed he was writing verse in the thirties which forecast the mood of the prose he published in the early seventies, at the end of his life. The desolate yearning for the irretrievably lost America which makes Upstate so sad a book is already there in Note-books of Night, providing the authentic force behind the somewhat contrived Arnoldian tone of poems like ‘A House of the Eighties’.

—The ugly stained-glass window on the stair,
Dark-panelled dining-room, the guinea fowl’s fierce clack,
The great gray cat that on the oven slept—
My father’s study with its books and birds,
His scornful tone, his eighteenth-century words,
His green door sealed with baize
—Today I travel back
To find again that one fixed point he kept 
And left me for the day
In which this other world of theirs grows dank, decays,
And founders and goes down.

Wilson’s poetry of the thirties frequently deals with houses going to rack and ruin. The houses are in the same condition that we find them in forty years later, in Upstate. They are in the same places: Talcottville, Provincetown, Wilson’s ancestral lands. Houses pointing to the solid old New England civilization which once found its space between the sea and the Adirondacks and was already being overtaken by progress when the poet was young. In his essays of the thirties (notably ‘The Old Stone House’ collected in The American Earthquake) Wilson wrote optimistically about an America ‘forever on the move’. But if his essays were true to his then-radical intellect, his poetry was true to his conservative feelings. His dead houses are metaphors for a disappearing way of life.

And when they found the house was bare
The windows shuttered to the sun
They woke the panthers with a stare
To finish what they had begun

The poem is called ‘Nightmare’. As we know from his great essay of 1937, ‘In Honour of Pushkin’ (collected in The Triple Thinkers and rightly called by John Bayley the best short introduction to Pushkin — a generous tribute, considering that Bayley has written the best long one) Wilson was particularly struck by the supreme poetic moment in Evgeny Onegin when Lensky is killed in a duel and his soulless body is compared to an empty house, with whitewashed windows. The image is one of the climactic points in all poetry — it is like Hector’s address to Andromache, or Eurydice holding out her useless hands, or Paolo kissing Francesca’s trembling mouth — so it is no wonder that Wilson should have been impressed by it. But you also can’t help feeling that the image was congenial to his personal psychology. Although in his books like Europe Without Baedecker Wilson did his best to secede from the weight of the European heritage, the fact always remained that by his education — by his magnificent education — and by his temperament he was inextricably committed to an American past which owed much of its civilized force to the European memory. This was the America which was dying all the time as he grew older. One of the several continuous mental struggles in Wilson is between his industrious loyalty to the creative impulse of the new America and his despairing sense — which made itself manifest in his poetry much earlier than in his prose — that chaos could in no wise be staved off. The decaying houses of his last books, with their cherished windows broken and highways built close by, are all presaged in the poetry of his early maturity.

But in some respects maturity came too early. Coleridge, perhaps because he had trouble growing up, favoured a slow ripening of the faculties. There was always something unsettling about the precocity of Wilson’s mimetic technique: his gift as a parodist was irrepressibly at work even when he wanted it not to be, with the result that his formally precise early lyrics tend towards pastiche — they are throwbacks to the end of the century and beyond. The tinge of Arnold in ‘A House of the Eighties’ — the pale echo of his melancholy, long withdrawing roar — is compounded even there, it seems to me, by memories of Browning. At other times you can hear Kipling in the background. Wilson’s attempts at plangent threnody call up the voices of other men.

Wilson’s elegaic lyrics are never less than technically adroit: their high finish reminds us forcibly not only of the standards which were imposed by Christian Gauss’s Princeton (standards which we can see otherwise in the poetry of John Peale Bishop) but of a whole generation of American poets, now not much thought about, who had complete command of their expressive means, even if they did not always have that much to express. Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elinor Wylie have by now retreated into the limbo of the semi-read — Eleanor Farjeon and Ruth Pitter might be two comparable examples from this side of the water — but when you look at the work of Elinor Wylie, in particular, it is astonishing how accomplished she was. Wilson’s criticism helped American writing grow out of its self-satisfaction at mere accomplishment, but he knew about the certain losses as well as the possible gains. In his poetry he committed himself to the past by synthesizing its cherishable tones, but he paid the penalty of mimetic homage in not sounding enough like himself. In ‘Disloyal Lines to an Alumnus’ he satirized the poetry of Beauty —

And Beauty, Beauty, oozing everywhere
Like maple-sap from maples! Dreaming there,
I have sometimes stepped in Beauty on the street
And slipped, sustaining bruises blue but sweet...

But his own lyric beauty was not different enough from the Beauty he was satirizing. These lines from ‘Riverton’ take some swallowing now and would have needed excuses even then.

—O elms! O river! aid me at this turn—
Their passing makes my late imperative:
They flicker now who frightfully did burn,  
And I must tell their beauty while I live.
Changing their grade as water in its flight,
And gone like water; give me then the art,
Firm as night-frozen ice found silver-bright,
That holds the splendour though the days depart.

Give me then the art, indeed. He had the artifice, but the art was mainly that of a pasticheur. When consumed by Yeats’s business of articulating sweet sounds together, Wilson was the master of every poetic aspect except originality. Listen to the judiciously balanced vowel-modulations in ‘Poured full of thin gold sun’:

                            But now all this—
Peace, brightness, the browned page, the crickets in the grass—
Is but a crust that stretches thin and taut by which I pass
            Above the loud abyss.

A virtuoso is only ever fully serious when he forgets himself. Wilson is in no danger of forgetting himself here. In his later stages, which produced the technical games collected in Night Thoughts, his urge to jump through hoops clearly detached itself from the impulse to register feeling; but it should also be noted that even early on the division existed. His penchant for sound effects, like his ear for imitation, usually led him away from pure expression. On occasions, however, when consciously schooled euphuistic bravura was lavished on a sufficiently concrete subject, Wilson got away from tricky pastoralism and achieved a personal tone — urban, sardonic, tongue-in-cheek, astringent. The consonant-packed lines of ‘Night in May’

Pineapple-pronged four-poster of a Utica great-great

were a portent of what Wilson was able to do best. Such a line is the harbinger of an entire, superb poem: ‘On Editing Scott Fitzgerald’s Papers’, which first appeared in the preliminary pages of The Crack-Up and stands out in Note-Books of Night as a full, if regrettably isolated, realization of the qualities Wilson had to offer as a poet.

Speaking personally for a moment, I can only say that it was this poem, along with certain passages in Roy Campbell’s bloody-minded satires, which first convinced me that the rhyming couplet of iambic pentameter was still alive as a form — that in certain respects it was the form for an extended poem. Wilson, like Campbell, by accepting the couplet’s heritage of grandeur was able somehow to overcome its obsolescence: once the effect of archaic pastiche was accepted, there was room for any amount of modern freedom. In fact it was the fierce rigour of the discipline which made the freedom possible. And Wilson was more magnanimous that Campbell: his grandeur really was grandeur, not grandiloquence.

Scott, your last fragments I arrange tonight....

The heroic tone is there from the first line. (It is instructive, by the way, that only the tone is heroic: the couplets themselves are not heroic but Romance — i.e. open rather than closed.) It would have been a noble theme whatever form Wilson had chosen, because Wilson’s lifelong paternal guardianship of Fitzgerald’s talent is a noble story. Fitzgerald was the Princeton alumnus who didn’t benefit from the education on offer. From Wilson’s and Fitzgerald’s letters to Christian Gauss, we can easily see who was the star student and who the ineducable enthusiast. But Wilson, like Gauss, knew that Fitzgerald was destined to make his own way according to a different and more creative law. Wilson called This Side of Paradise a compendium of malapropisms but knew that it had not failed to live. When the masterpieces arrived he saw them clearly for what they were. Much of his rage against Hollywood was on Fitzgerald’s behalf: he could see how the film world’s sinister strength was diabolically attuned to Fitzgerald’s fatal weakness. He understood and sympathized with Fitzgerald even in his most abject decline and guarded his memory beyond the grave.

Such a story would be thrilling however it was told. But the couplets are ideal for it: the elegaic and narrative strains match perfectly, while the meretricious, Condé Nast glamour of the imagery is entirely appropriate to Fitzgerald’s debilitating regard for the high life — the well-heeled goings on to which, as Wilson well knew, Fitzgerald sacrificed his soul but which he superseded with his talent. Hence Wilson evokes the memory of Fitzgerald’s eyes in terms of a Vogue advertisement. Passing their image on to what they mint, they

... leave us, to turn over, iris-fired,
Not the great Ritz-sized diamond you desired
But jewels in a handful, lying loose:
Flawed amethysts; the moonstone’s milky blues;
Chill blues of pale transparent tourmaline;
Opals of shifty yellow, chartreuse green,
Wherein a vein vermilion flees and flickers—
Tight phials of the spirit’s light mixed liquors;
Some tinsel zircons, common turquoise; but
Two emeralds, green and lucid, one half-cut,
One cut consummately — both take their place
In Letters’ most expensive Cartier case.

The consummately cut emerald is obviously The Great Gatsby: the half-cut emerald is probably Tender is the Night; and we suppose that the tinsel zircons are the hack stories Fitzgerald turned out in order to pay his bills. But apart from the admittedly preponderant biographical element, what strikes you is the assured compression of the technique. In lines like ‘Tight phials of the spirit’s light mixed liquors’ Wilson was forging a clear, vital utterance: that he was to take it no further is a matter for regret. In this poem his complicated games with language are confined within the deceptively simple form and serve the purpose. Here is the public voice which Wilson so admired (and by implication adumbrated for our own time) in the artistry of Pushkin. In ‘On Editing Scott Fitzgerald’s Papers’ his playfulness, his seriousness, his severe humour and his sympathetic gravitas are all in balance. The proof of Wilson’s mainly fragmentary achievement as a poet is the conspicuous force he attained on the few occasions when his gifts were unified. The artist who is all artist — the artist who, even when he is also a good critic, is nevertheless an artist first of all — can recognize this moment of unity within himself and lives for nothing else but to repeat it. Wilson had too many other interests: which, of course, it would be quixotic to begrudge him.

There are other narrative poems by Wilson, but they lack the transforming discipline of the couplet. Similarly he has other strong subjects — especially sex — but as with most revelations their interest has become with time more historical than aesthetic. Yet other poems are full of named things, but the names deafen the vision. Three different kinds of deficiency, all of them interesting.

The first deficiency is mainly one of form. Wilson’s narrative poems are an attempt at public verse which certainly comes off better than comparable efforts by more recognized American poets. Nobody now could wade through Robinson Jeffers’ Roan Stallion, for example. Wilson’s ‘The Good Neighbour’ is the story of Mr and Mrs. Pritchard, who become obsessed with defending their house against invaders. Wilson guards against portentousness by casting the tale in hudibrastics, but the results, though very readable, are less popular than cute. The technique is too intrusive. Another narrative, ‘The Woman, the War Veteran and the Bear’, is an outrageous tale of a legless trapeze artist and a girl who married beneath her. It is full of interesting social detail but goes on too long: a glorified burlesque number that should have been a burlesque number. The stanzas are really ballad stanzas, but the poem wants to be more than a ballad. ‘Lesbia in Hell’ is better, but again the hudibrastics are the wrong form: they hurry you on too fast for thought and leave you feeling that the action has been skimped. Doubly a pity, because the theme of Satan falling in love with Lesbia involves Wilson in one of his most deeply felt subjects — sexual passion.

It still strikes the historically minded reader that Note-Books of Night is a remarkably sexy little book for its time. Wilson, we should remember, had a share in pioneering the sexual frankness of our epoch. Memoirs of Hecate County was a banned book in Australia when I was young. Wilson lived long enough to deplore pornographic licence but never went back on his liberal determination to speak of things as they were. Poems like ‘Home to Town: Two Highballs’ convey something of the same clinical realism about sex which made Wilson’s prose fiction extraordinary and which still gives it better than documentary importance. In Memoirs of Hecate County Wilson drew a lasting distinction between the high society lady, who appealed to the narrator’s imagination but left his body cold, and the low-born taxi-dancer who got on his nerves but fulfilled him sexually. The chippie seems to be there again in ‘Two Highballs’.

And all the city love, intense and faint like you—
The little drooping breasts, the cigarettes,
The little cunning shadow between the narrow thighs....

Paul Dehn, mentioning this passage when the poem was reprinted in Night Thoughts, found it ridiculous, but I don’t see why we should agree. Wilson’s attempts at a bitter urban poetry —

And the El that accelerates, grates, shrieks, diminishes,
            swishing, with such pain—
To talk the city tongue!

are at least as memorable, and certainly as frank about experience, as the contorted flights of Hart Crane. Of Crane, when I search my memory, I remember the seal’s wide spindrift gaze towards Paradise and the bottles wearing him in crescents on their bellies. There were things Crane could do that Wilson couldn’t — the wine talons, the sublime notion of travelling in a tear — but on the whole Wilson did at least as good a job of reporting the city. And in matters of sex he was more adventurous than anybody — ahead of his time, in fact.

But if you are ahead of your time only in your subject, then eventually you will fall behind the times, overtaken by the very changes in taste you helped engender. So it is with Wilson’s sexual poetry: all the creativity goes into the act of bringing the subject up, with no powers of invention left over for the task of transforming it into the permanence of something imagined. Ideally, Wilson’s sexual themes should have been a natural part of a larger poetic fiction. But as we see in ‘Copper and White’ (not present in Notebooks of Night, but Night Thoughts usefully adds it to the canon) what they tended to blend with was greenery-yallery fin de siècle lyricism.

I knew that passionate mouth in that pale skin
Would spread with such a moisture, let me in
To such a bareness of possessive flesh!—
I knew that fairest skin with city pallor faded,
With cigarettes and late electric light,
Would shield the fire to lash
The tired unblushing cheeks to burn as they did—
That mouth that musing seemed so thin,
Those cheeks that tired seemed so white!

It is as if Ernest Dowson and Lionel Johnson had been asked to versify Edith Wharton’s discovery of passion as revealed in her secret manuscript Beatrice Palmato. The very tones of out-of-dateness. But the informing idea — of loneliness in love — is still alive. It should have been the poem’s field of exploration, but Wilson was content to arrive at the point where his much admired Proust began. Wilson was protective about his selfhood, as major artists never can be.

As to the naming of names — well, he overdid it. Great poetry is always full of things, but finally the complexity of detail is subordinated to a controlling simplicity. Wilson wrote some excellent nature poetry but nature poetry it remains: all the flowers are named but the point is seldom reached when it ceases to matter so much what kind of flowers they are. In ‘At Laurelwood’, one of the prose pieces in Note-Books of Night, he talks of how his grandfather and grandmother helped teach him the names of everyday objects. His range of knowledge is one of the many marvellous things about Wilson. In poems like ‘Provincetown, 1936’ he piled on the detail to good effect:

Mussels with broken hinges, sea crabs lopped
Of legs, black razor-clams split double, dried
Sea-dollars, limpets chivied loose and dropped
Like stranded dories rolling on their side:

But in the long run not even concrete facts were a sufficient antidote to the poetry of Beauty. Humour was a better safeguard. On the whole, it is the satirical verse which holds up best among Wilson’s work. Quite apart from the classic ‘The Omelet of A. MacLeish’, there are ‘The Extrovert of Walden Pond’ with its trouvé catch-phrase ‘Thoreau was a neuro’ and ‘The Playwright in Paradise’, a minatory ode to the writers of his generation which borrows lines from ‘Adonais’ to remind them that in Beverly Hills their talents will die young. In these poems Wilson’s critical intelligence was at work. If he had possessed comic invention to match his scornful parodic ear, he might have equalled even E. E. Cummings. But ‘American Masterpieces’ (which makes its only appearance in Night Thoughts) shows what Cummings had that Wilson hadn’t: in mocking the clichés of Madison Avenue, Wilson can win your allegiance, but Cummings can make you laugh. At the last, Wilson’s jokes are not quite funny enough in themselves — they don’t take off into the self-sustaining Empyrean of things you can’t help reciting. His humour, like his frankness, ought ideally to have been part of a larger fiction.

Useless to carp. A minor artist Wilson remains. But it ought to be more generally realized that he was a very good minor artist, especially in his poetry. Of course, Night Thoughts didn’t help. Inflated with juvenilia and senescent academic graffiti even duller than Auden’s, the book blurred the outlines of Wilson’s achievement — although even here it should be noted that its closing poem, ‘The White Sand’, is one of Wilson’s most affecting things, a despairing celebration of late love so deeply felt that it almost overcomes the sense of strain generated by the internally-rhymed elegiacs in which it is cast.

What has worked most damagingly against Wilson’s reputation as a poet, however, is his reputation as a critic. It is hard to see how things could be otherwise. As a critical mind, Wilson is so great that we have not yet taken his full measure. He is still so prominent as to be invisible: people think they can know what he said without having to read him. When he is read again, it will soon be found that he saw both sides of most of the arguments which continue to rage about what literature is or ought to be. Among these arguments is the one about modern poetry and its audience. Nobody was more sympathetic than Wilson to the emergence of a difficult, hermetic poetry or better-equipped to understand its origins. But equally he was able to keep the issue in perspective. First of all, his standards were traditional in the deepest sense: knowing why Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare and Pushkin were permanently modern, he knew why most of modern poetry was without the value it claimed for itself. Secondly, he had an unconquerable impulse towards community. All his writings are an expression of it, including his verse. He would have liked to read fully intelligible works while living in an ordered society. As things turned out, the works he admired were not always fully intelligible and the society he lived in was not ordered. But at least in his own creative writings, such as they were, he could try to be clear. So his poems are as they are, and the best of them last well.



Edmund Wilson is a city, of which his poetry is only an outer suburb, but with a direct subway line to the downtown district. When I was young he filled a lot of my sky. Later on — and partly through following up the trails of reading he had opened to me — I found that not even so voracious a mind as his could take in the whole world. Politically he was an isolationist by temperament, with Marxist overtones: two different ways of getting things wrong both working at once to undermine his social commentary. (Europe Without Baedeker was enough to prove that he had barely understood even World War II.) After his death, the diary volumes kept on coming out: reminiscence packaged by the decade, their unsympathetic streak made him look steadily less monumental. Perhaps that was his original plan in writing them at all: a kind of edifying self-sabotage. If so, it was too successful. Wilson began to disappear, buried under his own books. I hated to see it happen. When his name was minimized at a literary lunch table, I always made a point of recommending The Shores of Light and Classics and Commercials as the books that gave you the essential man, who was essentially a critic. The way he would learn a new language, forge on into a new literature — the fearless gusto of his approach still seems to me the finest example in modern times of what a critic should have by nature, the quality that the mighty philologist Menendez Pidal called a spontaneous yearning after the totality of knowledge. The totality can’t be had, of course: but the yearning can.

Even in that department, however, Wilson had his blind spots, and at least one of them was disabling. It was all very well for him to say that he had never ‘got around’ to reading Middlemarch: George Eliot had enough admirers not to need the endorsement. But he was shamefully feckless in not bothering to learn Spanish. He could hardly plead that he didn’t have the time: though learning Hebrew — a hard nut to crack — might have brought results, did Hungarian really repay the effort? He could have mastered Spanish with a tenth of the sweat, but he thought there was nothing to read. (Mercifully Cervantes was no longer around to hear him say so.) Thus the whole story of what was going on in Latin America in his lifetime — a story whose political aspects alone, by the target they offered, would have suited his isolationist convictions down to the ground — escaped him, and we lost the clarifying intelligence he might have brought to it. There was also the story of how the writers in the Spanish homeland reacted to the bountifully accumulating literary achievement in the Americas. He would have found Unamuno a man after his own heart, and would have been able to contend with Ortega’s critical writings on the level at which they were composed, with a poet’s judgement of weight and balance. For Wilson, Spanish was the road not taken. But the roads he took are enough to be going on with, and poetry was one of them. Not many full-time poets write even one poem that will live. Wilson’s verse tribute to Scott Fitzgerald still brings at least one reader to the point of tears with its opening line: ‘Scott, your last fragments I arrange tonight...’ Prosaic perhaps; forgettable never.