Poetry: Gate of Lilacs — Postscript | clivejames.com
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Gate of Lilacs :  Postscript

Proust was a very clever man, and had nothing to do with his day except observe, study and write. His powers of observation were as acute as Dante’s, Shakespeare’s or Goethe’s, but we might say the same of Lucretius, or of Homer when he registered in a set of syllables the quivering of a bowstring: when Conrad said that the writer’s aim was ‘above all, to make you see’, he forgot to say that the ability to observe is the writer’s first qualification. But we ought to think harder about Proust’s capacity for study, because there is a bad tendency, in the accumulated scholarship and criticism about him, to worry away about where he got his theory about time and duration. Hence we are encouraged to believe that before we read Proust we should find out something about the philosophy of Henri Bergson. But Proust had no philosophical theories worth bothering about. His justly celebrated concern with subjective and objective time is simply the offshoot of his preoccupation with the function of memory, a field of interest in which, we can safely assume, he really was, among great writers, the first cab off the rank. Not even Hamlet complains about how slow his mother was to come upstairs and kiss him, and we may assume that the idea didn’t occur to Shakespeare either: not, anyway, as a subject for writing. For Proust, memory is the catalytic theme. Examination of one’s own soul was in the air at the time. In Vienna, Arthur Schnitzler, in his fiction, had brought genuinely subtle powers of analysis to the constitution of the human spirit: and had done so rather more plausibly, in fact, than Sigmund Freud, who was also operating in that same period, but who still thought that the fine women of Vienna must have had something wrong with them if they didn’t want to sleep with their husbands.

Proust wasn’t alone in treating the soul’s history as decisive. But he was alone in going back so far, and so deep. The sound of the sea you hear in Proust, as if the whole book were a shell held to your ear, is the sound of the amniotic fluid, reminding you, across all your barriers of self-protection, that the first thing you ever heard was voices in the water. From our viewpoint, his childishness paid off. But for the great artist, everything pays off. That was something Pushkin was terribly right about, in his short time on Earth: for the poet, even the disasters are on the agenda.

Perhaps it merely blurs categories to say that the expression of a thought in prose can have a poetry of its own, but in fact poets have always been attracted to the mere sound of phrases lying loose. Tell a poet that Kepler, with his newly improved refracting telescope, observed SN 1604 in Serpentarius and you might get no reaction. But tell the same poet that Kepler studied the geometry of lunar shadows and he might make a note, because the phrase sounds good. There is an interzone between prose and poetry: a porous border where the discursive expression of a thought is rhythmic or resonant enough to take off on its own and enter the area where words and phrases, seemingly in search of one another, combine into a meaning beyond analysis. Prose that deliberately hankers after the status of poetry is likely to be awful, but poetry that harks back to prose has been a feature of English poetry ever since Shakespeare, who decided, probably for theatrical reasons, that the blank verse paragraph was the best way of stating a chain of thought in poetic form. In his plays, after a transitional period in which he allowed the old technique to coexist with the new (John of Gaunt in Richard II begins a scene speaking couplets and graduates to blank verse, as if his anguish could no longer brook confinement), Shakespeare used the couplet that he had inherited from Chaucer mainly to clinch scenes, or, within a scene, to allow an actor to transmit a deliberately stilted effect. He might well have asked his actors to speak in couplets throughout the play, but he would probably have died poor. Later on there were attempts, most notably by Dryden, to revive the couplet as a basic theatrical device, but it was too late: Shakespeare (not to forget his brilliant but short-lived predecessor Marlowe, who gave him the idea for the Mighty Line, and gave us a terrific part for Rupert Everett) had changed the game. If Racine had done the same thing, the French might have had a poetic theatre to rival ours. As things happened, they got stuck with the couplet as the best measure of theatrical speaking.

We were set free, although such was the scale of Shakespeare’s success that our playwrights ever since, except for the occasional rebel like Christopher Fry or interloper like T. S. Eliot, have usually avoided the poetry that sounds like poetry. The verse paragraph, however, was such a hit that it invaded the field of formal poetry and became the default mode for any poet who had an argument to develop. The more discursive poems of Pope — An Essay on Man, for example — were holdouts against that tendency but they suffered cramps as a consequence. Wordsworth’s The Prelude would not only have been no better had it been written in a set form, it would have had less in it.

But the poet who really picked up the verse paragraph and ran with it was Browning. His dramatic monologue ‘Andrea del Sarto’ (‘So free we seem, so fettered fast we are!’) is pure theatre without the encumbrance of a dedicated building. His blank verse paragraphs link one idea to the next with such a conversational flow that they almost persuade you, as you read, that you yourself are speaking them. But there is such a thing as developing your own breakthrough to the point of disaster. Browning’s The Ring and the Book, his masterpiece in his own eyes, can be spoken aloud only by a maniac. Cacophonous with syntactical trickery, it’s a traffic jam pretending to be a NASCAR race, and clear proof that even the most brilliant artist can go berserk if he gets more interested in his means of expression than in what he has to express. I have to concede, however, that exactly the same objection was levelled at Proust. Do something new, do it well, and there will always be people to say that what you have done was too trivial to bother with.

Isn’t a blank verse paragraph just a chunk of prose bent around corners after every five beats? Try doing that and you’ll not only get lines that don’t scan, you’ll also get, and all too often, the one effect that you definitely don’t want: successive lines that rhyme. As with any other verse form, the apparently informal form of blank verse requires discipline, and it’s out of the requirements of discipline that an unexpected thought arrives, and takes you where you didn’t realize that you wanted to go. With blank verse the biggest unforeseen opportunities are offered by the enjambment: a technical French word that has never been fully anglicized because not enough people care.

Unless the line ends with a full stop, the enjambment takes the sentence around the corner. The impetus at the beginning of the next line can be used for dramatic effects. Indeed the project will soon die if it isn’t. But let’s just assume for now that although the blank verse paragraph is a lot harder to handle than it looks, it’s worth the effort for the impetus it can give to an argument: and the impetus can even help to conjure an argument into existence, by dint of the most intoxicating thing that practising an art form can do: make you a bit more clever than you ever realized.

There remains the matter of this poem’s language. Our word enjambment made it only into this accompanying essay, but the poem itself, a quinzaine of rhapsodies, is dotted with French words throughout. This isn’t, I hope, a posturing caprice on my part, but the result of an intractable fact about the English language. A lot of our words concerning social hierarchy, diplomacy, polite behaviour, food, drink, fashion, style and the fine arts all come from the French. Some of them arrived when the Normans invaded England. The French newcomers were, on the whole — and here I speak as someone whose ancestry began in France on both my mother’s and my father’s side — a bunch of swine. They ruled not only by violence but by their new invention: manners, then as now one of the most daunting codes of supremacy. Since their power was absolute, their names for polite customs became universal, and even today the phrase for one of their more condescending practices, droit du seigneur, is in our language unchanged. So are the words for (and here I list only some of the French-derived English words in my poem) beau monde, hauteur, salon, soirée, bête noire, cliché, ambience and many others. Some of them tend to lose, in the course of time, their italics and accents, but the French spelling remains as is, or as was. (It is quite common for a French word to go out of a specific use in its country of origin but still be used in its superseded sense by us.) Even in recent times, if the French were first to a social or artistic idea, we tended to borrow the word. Used in the poem, a term like belle époque and a word like demimonde were new at the time when Proust was writing his roman-fleuve, but we still use them now, and will probably never change them.

English is unlikely to try disguising its borrowed French words in the near future, although the tin-eared reductionism of the Web might strip them of their accents and Americanize their spellings. English has never been afraid of being taken over by a foreign vocabulary. (Today we have office workers talking of the jihad that has been launched against them by the personnel department.) The French, however, have a traditional fear that their language might be taken over by foreign elements, by which they mean English. (Hence their doomed rearguard action against Franglais.) It probably won’t happen, because French, as the language of diplomacy, carries too much historically sanctioned prestige: another French—English word. It’s far more likely, when it comes to the higher matters of civilization, that the politically ascendant Anglosphere will continue to speak a language which has been, like Russian society under the Czars, decisively and continuously influenced by France. The polite form of English is really camped between two languages: a fact that this poem happens to reflect, although such was not my aim. On the other hand, I deliberately kept any words of conspicuously German—English (kindergarten, ersatz, blitz, lebensraum) out of my picture, so as to keep the tone germane (yet another French—English word). Tone, in poetry, is always a matter of choice. Some would say that a choice of tone is all that poetry is. It gives a partial view, and the best you can hope for is that the part implies the whole. Try to evoke everything at once and you’ll be back to saying what babies say when they cry.

Some admirers of Finnegans Wake think that Joyce was trying to speak in the language that a baby speaks in the cradle, when it can pronounce all the sounds of any language in the world. (In Proust’s dying year, Joyce met him at a party Proust struggled out to attend because he didn’t want to disappoint Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Picasso. Yes, those were the days.) They might be right. We can be sure, however, that Proust was trying to speak the language of someone who has come to the end of life, and wants to pass on the summary of his reflections. It was generous of him. He was rich enough never to do a tap of ordinary work, and right until the last moment, when he was at last shut away from the parties and receptions that he loved, he was still having ice-cream and iced beer sent in from the Ritz. In the cork-lined room of his extinction he could have just lain there and taken more time over his breakfast, instead of fighting like a hero to get his masterpiece finished. Luckily for us, he did the unexpected. That some people will do that is the only thing we can be sure of.