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Posts Tagged ‘literature’

28 JANUARY, 2014

The Poetic Principle: Poe on Truth, Love, Reason, and the Human Impulse for Beauty

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“A poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement.”

“True poetic form,” Edward Hirsch wrote in his wonderful meditation on how to read a poem, “implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity.” James Dickey, in his guide on how to enjoy poetry, argued that “poetry makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world.” In his sublime Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the late and great Seamus Heaney asserted that poetry works to “persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness” and remind us that we are “hunters and gatherers of values.” But, surely, all these exaltations apply to good poetry — great poetry, even. The question, then, is what makes great poetry, and why does it make the human soul sing so?

Arguably the most compelling answer ever given comes from Edgar Allan Poe in his essay “The Poetic Principle,” which he penned at the end of his life. It was published posthumously in 1850 and can be found in the fantastic Library of America volume Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews (public library), which also gave us Poe’s priceless praise of marginalia.

Poe begins with an unambiguous definition of the purpose of poetry:

A poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags — fails — a revulsion ensues — and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.

And yet, he argues, this isn’t necessarily how we judge poetic merit — he takes a prescient jab against our present “A for effort” cultural mindset to remind us that the measure of genius isn’t dogged time investment but actual creative quality:

It is to be hoped that common sense, in the time to come, will prefer deciding upon a work of Art, rather by the impression it makes — by the effect it produces — than by the time it took to impress the effect, or by the amount of “sustained effort” which had been found necessary in effecting the impression. The fact is, that perseverance is one thing and genius quite another

(It’s interesting that he uses the term “sustained effort” more than a century and a half before the findings of modern psychology, which has upgraded the term to “deliberate practice” to illustrate the qualitative difference in the effort necessary for achieving genius-level skill.)

After discussing a couple of examples of poems that elevate the soul, Poe takes a stab at what he considers to be the most perilous cultural misconception about poetry and its aim, a fallacy that profoundly betrays the poetic spirit:

It has been assumed, tacitly and avowedly, directly and indirectly, that the ultimate object of all Poetry is Truth. Every poem, it is said, should inculcate a moral; and by this moral is the poetical merit of the work to be adjudged. We Americans especially have patronized this happy idea; and we Bostonians, very especially, have developed it in full. We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem’s sake, and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true poetic dignity and force: — but the simple fact is, that, would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified — more supremely noble than this very poem — this poem per se — this poem which is a poem and nothing more — this poem written solely for the poem’s sake.

He goes on to outline a dispositional diagram of the human mind, a kind of conceptual phrenology that segments out the trifecta of mental faculties:

Dividing the world of mind into its three most immediately obvious distinctions, we have the Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense. I place Taste in the middle, because it is just this position which, in the mind, it occupies. It holds intimate relations with either extreme; but from the Moral Sense is separated by so faint a difference that Aristotle has not hesitated to place some of its operations among the virtues themselves. Nevertheless, we find the offices of the trio marked with a sufficient distinction. Just as the Intellect concerns itself with Truth, so Taste informs us of the Beautiful while the Moral Sense is regardful of Duty. Of this latter, while Conscience teaches the obligation, and Reason the expediency, Taste contents herself with displaying the charms: — waging war upon Vice solely on the ground of her deformity — her disproportion — her animosity to the fitting, to the appropriate, to the harmonious — in a word, to Beauty.

(I wonder whether Susan Sontag was thinking about Poe when she wrote in her diary that “intelligence … is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.”)

Beauty, Poe argues, is the highest of those human drives, and the domain where poetry dwells:

An immortal instinct, deep within the spirit of man, is thus, plainly, a sense of the Beautiful. This it is which administers to his delight in the manifold forms, and sounds, and odors, and sentiments amid which he exists. And just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and sounds, and colors, and odors, and sentiments, a duplicate source of delight.

[…]

The struggle to apprehend the supernal Loveliness — this struggle, on the part of souls fittingly constituted — has given to the world all that which it (the world) has ever been enabled at once to understand and to feel as poetic.

Acknowledging that the poetic sentiment may manifest itself in forms other than poetry — art, sculpture, dance, architecture — he points to music (“Music”) as an especially sublime embodiment of the Poetic Principle:

It is in Music, perhaps, that the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired by the Poetic Sentiment, it struggles — the creation of supernal Beauty. It may be, indeed, that here this sublime end is, now and then, attained in fact. We are often made to feel, with a shivering delight, that from an earthly harp are stricken notes which cannot have been unfamiliar to the angels. And thus there can be little doubt that in the union of Poetry with Music in its popular sense, we shall find the widest field for the Poetic development.

(Again, I wonder whether Poe was on Susan Sontag’s mind when she wrote that “music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts,” or on Edna St. Vincent Millay’s when she exclaimed, “Without music I should wish to die. Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is.”)

Poe returns to the subject of beauty as the ultimate source of this “Poetic Sentiment” in all its varied expressions with an argument that rings all the more poignant and stirring today, in an age when we question whether pleasure alone can make literature worthwhile. Poe writes:

That pleasure which is at once the most pure, the most elevating, and the most intense, is derived, I maintain, from the contemplation of the Beautiful. In the contemplation of Beauty we alone find it possible to attain that pleasurable elevation, or excitement, of the soul, which we recognize as the Poetic Sentiment, and which is so easily distinguished from Truth, which is the satisfaction of the Reason, or from Passion, which is the excitement of the heart. I make Beauty, therefore — using the word as inclusive of the sublime — I make Beauty the province of the poem, simply because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring as directly as possible from their causes: — no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation in question is at least most readily attainable in the poem. It by no means follows, however, that the incitements of Passion, or the precepts of Duty, or even the lessons of Truth, may not be introduced into a poem, and with advantage; for they may subserve, incidentally, in various ways, the general purposes of the work: — but the true artist will always contrive to tone them down in proper subjection to that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the real essence of the poem.

He then offers a precise, unapologetic definition of poetry:

I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. Its sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience, it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever either with Duty or with Truth.

[…]

While [the Poetic Principle] itself is, strictly and simply, the Human Aspiration for Supernal Beauty, the manifestation of the Principle is always found in an elevating excitement of the Soul — quite independent of that passion which is the intoxication of the Heart — or of that Truth which is the satisfaction of the Reason. For, in regard to Passion, alas! its tendency is to degrade, rather than to elevate the Soul. Love, on the contrary — Love … is unquestionably the purest and truest of all poetical themes. And in regard to Truth — if, to be sure, through the attainment of a truth, we are led to perceive a harmony where none was apparent before, we experience, at once, the true poetical effect — but this effect is preferable to the harmony alone, and not in the least degree to the truth which merely served to render the harmony manifest.

Portrait of Poe by Benjamin Lacombe. Click image for details.

Poe ends with an exquisite living manifestation of his Poetic Principle — a sort of prose poem about poetry itself:

We shall reach, however, more immediately a distinct conception of what the true Poetry is, by mere reference to a few of the simple elements which induce in the Poet himself the true poetical effect He recognizes the ambrosia which nourishes his soul, in the bright orbs that shine in Heaven — in the volutes of the flower — in the clustering of low shrubberies — in the waving of the grain-fields — in the slanting of tall, Eastern trees — in the blue distance of mountains — in the grouping of clouds — in the twinkling of half-hidden brooks — in the gleaming of silver rivers — in the repose of sequestered lakes — in the star-mirroring depths of lonely wells. He perceives it in the songs of birds — in the harp of Æolus — in the sighing of the night-wind — in the repining voice of the forest — in the surf that complains to the shore — in the fresh breath of the woods — in the scent of the violet — in the voluptuous perfume of the hyacinth — in the suggestive odor that comes to him, at eventide, from far-distant, undiscovered islands, over dim oceans, illimitable and unexplored. He owns it in all noble thoughts — in all unworldly motives — in all holy impulses — in all chivalrous, generous, and self-sacrificing deeds. He feels it in the beauty of woman — in the grace of her step — in the lustre of her eye — in the melody of her voice — in her soft laughter — in her sigh — in the harmony of the rustling of her robes. He deeply feels it in her winning endearments — in her burning enthusiasms — in her gentle charities — in her meek and devotional endurances — but above all — ah, far above all — he kneels to it — he worships it in the faith, in the purity, in the strength, in the altogether divine majesty — of her love.

Find more of Poe’s timeless wisdom in Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews and complement it with his meditation on marginalia and Lou Reed on the challenge of setting Poe to music.

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20 JANUARY, 2014

The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald: An Endearing Record of His First Loves from His Secret Boyhood Diary

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A lesson on self-awareness without self-consciousness.

As a hopeless lover of famous diaries, I was at once astounded and thrilled to learn that in the summer of 1910, shortly before turning fourteen, F. Scott Fitzgerald began keeping a short memoir in a notebook labeled Thoughtbook of Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald of St. Paul Minn U.S.A., in which he collected fragmentary observations about his life and his social circle. Though he only kept it for six months, the celebrated author would later turn to the journal again and again, drawing on the vignettes and people in it as inspiration for his fiction. But despite being a critical piece of literary history, the Thoughtbook remained a well-kept family secret for decades, with access granted only to Fitzgerald’s official biographers, and only sparingly. Eventually, it ended up at the Special Collections Library at the University of South Carolina, in a facility out of a James Bond movie — a humidity-sensitive vault deep underground, controlled by fingerprint- and eye-scan doors.

In 2013, the prized artifact finally came to public life as The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Secret Boyhood Diary (public library), featuring a transcription of Fitzgerald’s original diary contextualized by scholar David Page, and accompanied by a selection of photographs from Fitzgerald’s childhood.

There are two particularly curious and prominent features of the Thoughtbook — young Francis’s propensity for lists, and his intense dedication to being a ladies’ man, meticulously recording his interest in various girls and theirs in him. Best of all, however, is the intersection of the two — his lists ranking the girls according to their appearance and his affections.

Fitzgerald at age fifteen, taken while he was a student at the Newman Academy in New Jersey just a few months after he finished the Thoughtbook.

In the opening entry, titled “My Girls” and penned in August of 1910, he details with delightful freedom of spelling and grammar his impressions of his first two loves:

My recollections of Nancy are rather dim but one day stands out above the rest. The Gardeners had their home three miles out of town and one day James Imham, Inky for short, my best friend, and I were invited out to spend the day. I was about nine years old Nancy about eight and we were quite infatuated with each other. I was in the middle of the winter as soon as we got there we began playing on the toboggan. Nancy and I an Inky were on one toboggan and Ham (Nancies big brother) came along and wanted to get on. He made a leap for the toboggan but I pushed off just in time and sent him on his head. He was awful mad. He said he’d kick me off and that it wasn’t my toboggan and that I couldn’t play. However Nancy smoothed it over and we went to lunch.

Kitty Williams is much plainer in my memory. I met her first at dancing school and as Mr. Van Arnumn (our dancing teacher) chose me to lead the march I asked her to be my pardner. The next day she told Marie Lautz and Marie repeated it to Dorothy Knox who in turn passed it on to Earl, that I was third in her affections. I dont remember who was first but I know that Earl was second and I was already quite overcome by her charms I then and there resolved that I would gain first place.

In another entry, written a month later, Fitzgerald introduces Violet Stockton, who would later serve as a major inspiration for the female characters throughout his fiction:

Violet Stockton was a niece of Mrs. Finch and she spent a summer in Saint Paul. She was very pretty with dark brown hair and eyes big and soft. She spoke with a soft southern accent leaving out the r’s. She was a year older than I but together with most of the other boys liked her very much.

[…]

At the time I was more popular with girls than I ever have been befor. In truth Kitty Shultz, Dorothy, Violet, Marie and Catherine Tre all liked me best.

In an entry from November of 1910, young Scott pens a list under the heading “These are the boys and girls I like best in order,” with clarifier that “the first three boys are tie”:

Art
Bob
Cecil
Shumier
Boardmen
Bigelow
Sturgis
Jim
D. Driscoll
R. Washington
Paul
Speply
Rube
Mitchell
Smith
Smith
Alida Bigelow
Margaret Armstrong
Kitty Schulz
Elizabeth Dean
Marie Hersey
Dorothy Green
Caroline Clark
Julia Door

But the most remarkable aspect of the list is a sentence that young Scott wrote vertically along the middle of the page, between the two columns of names — an expression of his crystalline awareness, even at such a young age, that human personality is in constant flux and that to change one’s mind is an essential part of the human journey:

This list changes continually
Only authentic at date of chapter

Indeed, what makes the Thoughtbook so extraordinary is the absolute earnestness with which young Scott observes his life as it unfolds, full of self-awareness but free of the self-consciousness by which most adult writers are chronically afflicted — perhaps the same outlook that Fitzgerald wanted to instill in his own young daughter twenty-three years later.

Pasted in the Thoughtbook is an endearing earlier entry from another journal, which young Scott wrote in 1908 at the age of eleven:

I love Kitty Williams. Today in dancing school I told her she was my best girl. I dared Earl Knox to say “I love you Kitty,” to her and he did it. Then I did it too. She asked me if I liked dancing school and I said I liked it if she went. Then she said she liked it if I went.

Beneath it, a list appears ranking his favorite girls in 1911:

  1. Kitty Schultze
  2. Alida Bigelow
  3. Elenor Alair
  4. Marie Hersey
  5. Julia Dorr

He then replicates the list for 1912 — but since the journal was only kept between August 1910 and February of 1911, it appears to be a projection for his future affections, making it all the more of a charming curiosity:

  1. Elenor Alair
  2. Kitty Schultz
  3. Marie Hersey

On February 12, 1911, he records his changing affections yet again:

Since dancing school opened this last time I have deserted Alida. I have to new crushes, to wit — Margaret Armstrong and Marie Hersey. I have not quite decided yet which I like the best. The 2nd is the prettiest. The 1st the best talker.

He adds, proudly:

Last year in dancing school I got 11 valentines and this year 15.

But brains prevail over beauty and Margaret wins out over Marie. In another entry from February 24, young Scott gushes:

I am just crazy about Margaret Armstrong and I have the most awful crush on her that ever was. This has been the case ever since Bob’s party. She is not pretty but I think she is very attractive looking. She is extremely graceful and a very good dancer and the most interesting talker I have ever seen or rather heard.

He proceeds to recount an impossibly endearing anecdote, brimming with the exalting highs and crushing lows of teenage love:

Jim Portfield and I were invited to call on Elizabeth Dean by Elizabeth and when we got there we found her too and we started out for a walk. Margaret and Jim walked ahead and Elizabeth and I behind. This made me mad and this was further inflamed when they got a block ahead of us. Then Elizabeth told me some things. She said that Margaret had given her a note the day befor in school which said “I know I am fickle but I like Jim just as much as I do Scott.” When I learned this I was jealous of Jim as I had never been of anyone before. I said some ridiculous things about how I was going to get even with him in Margarets estimation when we reached the country club. Elizabeth went ahead and asked Margaret which of us she liked the best. Margaret said she liked me best. All the way home I was n the seventh heaven of delight.

Slim as it may be, The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Secret Boyhood Diary is infinitely delightful and highly recommended. Pair it with grown-up Fitzgerald on the secret of great writing and his exquisite reading of John Masefield’s “On Growing Old.”

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23 DECEMBER, 2013

Neil Gaiman Reads Charles Dickens’s Original Performance Script for “A Christmas Carol”

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“No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused.”

Though Charles Dickens figures among literary history’s most notable pet-lovers with his raven Grip, he also had several cats, which he held dear — so much so, that he famously exclaimed, “What greater gift than the love of a cat?,” a line so popular that it even made it into a New Yorker cartoon. When one of Dickens’s most beloved cats, Bob, died in 1862, the author’s sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, had Bob’s paw taxidermied and turned into a letter-opener. She engraved it “C. D. In Memory of Bob. 1862″ and presented it to the author as a gift intended to forever remind him of his feline friend. This odd object, which sat by Dickens’s side in the library at Gad’s Hill where he wrote, is one of the artifacts featured in Molly Oldfield’s wonderful The Secret Museum (public library) — that magnificent inventory of sixty never-before-seen “treasures too precious to display,” culled from the archives and secret storage locations of some of the world’s greatest libraries and museums, including such gems as Van Gogh’s never-before-seen sketchbooks, Anne Frank’s friendship book, and the surprisingly dark story of how the Nobel Prize was born.

Charles Dickens's letter opener. The handle is made out of his cat Bob's paw.

Today, Dickens’s bizarre literary instrument survives as a prized possession in the collection of the New York Public Library, where it shares space with the writing desk and chair the author used while traveling, as well as thirteen of the “prompt copies” that Dickens, the first famous writer to perform his own works, had made for his public readings — special performance scripts created by taking apart an existing novel, cutting and pasting select sections into a blank-leaf book, then filleting the text by highlighting the most dramatic scenes and annotating them with reading cues and stage directions. NYPL curator Isaac Gewirtz tells Oldfield:

Dickens wasn’t only a great writer, he was a fantastic actor: he loved to perform his work, rather than simply read extracts from it.

Among NYPL’s most treasured Dickensian prompt copies is that of A Christmas Carol (free download) — the classic 1843 novella, which blends elements of science fiction, philosophy, mysticism, satire, and cultural critique to tell a timeless story about the benevolence of the human spirit and our heartening capacity for transformation and self-transcendence.

Neil Gaiman, dressed as Charles Dickens, with Molly Oldfield. (Photograph: NYPL)

At a recent NYPL event hosted by Oldfield, one of the greatest writers of our time, Neil Gaimanchampion of the creative life, man of discipline, adviser of aspiring writers, contemplator of genius — reads one of the greatest writers of all time, in exactly the way Dickens intended for his classic work to be read, based on the annotations and directions in that precious NYPL prompt copy of A Christmas Carol. Here is Oldfield, introducing Gaiman, who proceeds to give an enchanting and entertaining reading of the Dickens classic:

It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.

The Secret Museum is absolutely fantastic in its entirety, and A Christmas Carol is available as a free download, as is the entire NYPL readings series — how’s that for a priceless gift?

For more Gaiman goodness, see his 8 rules of writing, his charming children’s book, and the lovely story of his bachelor party.

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