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Essays on Modern Poetry
Skeptical Music: Essays on Modern Poetry, by David Bromwich; xvii & 256 pp. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001; $49.00 cloth, $16.00 paper.
In his preface to this gathering of his essays and reviews on twentieth-century American and British poetry, David Bromwich regrets that it is "too late to suppress the evidence of a critic educating himself in public" (p. xi). But even the earliest work reprinted in Skeptical Music--"The Making of the Auden Canon," published in the Times Literary Supplement in 1976, when the author was still a graduate student at Yale--hardly qualifies as juvenilia. Indeed, in Bromwich's case, evidence of a critic educating himself in public seems to have been suppressed from the start. No single explanation will account for an author's precocity, but the consistency of Bromwich's critical voice over the last quarter century is certainly related to his early preoccupation with William Hazlitt, the subject of his first book. In choosing Hazlitt as his model, Bromwich rejected what he took to be the legacy of systematic and professional literary theory extending from Coleridge to each new school of academic criticism. Bromwich's own development as a critic has therefore been subtler and more introspective than the critical retooling of so many of his colleagues. Although never far from the evaluative art of the reviewer, Bromwich has come to favor the more speculative dimension of his work. The more recent the piece, the more overt the attempt to imagine "what was in the poet's mind, or what was in the poem's mind, on the theory that certain thoughts and feelings are worth the trouble to characterize because of their strangeness and originality" (p. xi).
Some of the most compelling chapters in Skeptical Music imagine what was in the poet's mind, or the poem's mind, by telling stories about complex relationships between poems by different poets--between the work of Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, or T. S. Eliot and Hart Crane. These are stories about literary influence, or deep temperamental affinity. As in Harold Bloom's work, the stories are grounded in close readings, usually of the passages the critic prizes for their aesthetic superiority.
A related procedure is at work in "Stevens and the Idea of the Hero"--a long speculative piece on Wallace Stevens's transfer of allegiance, at a crucial moment in his career, from the pragmatism of Nietzsche to the pragmatism of William James. What Stevens found "most persistently attractive" in Nietzsche's pragmatism, Bromwich coolly explains, was "the suggestion that the good of existence is change" and that "our most vivid acknowledgment of that good comes from the ability to imagine a life wiped clear of ourselves" (p. 71). But the Nietzschean sublime proved insufficient for Stevens. During the Second World War, the poet was confronted by "the reality of American soldiers going off to fight . . . for a cause which, as Stevens saw it, they could only make true by their fighting" (p. 68). Stevens turned to James for "the less brutal idea of a [End Page 368] man or woman who is made great by an enterprise in which others have a part" (p. 78).
Bromwich's argument that Stevens became a more valuable poet when he located heroism in human solidarity, not just Nietzschean contingency and self-creation, bears a family resemblance to the work of one of James's heirs, Richard Rorty. Like Rorty, Bromwich often feels the pressure to adjudicate between the claims of the individual artist and the claims of the community; and like Rorty, he makes his judgements on a case by case basis, without recourse to a set standard, rule, or theory. In the closing chapter of Skeptical Music--"Is Taste Moral?"--Bromwich directly addresses the tension between aestheticism and the social good, a subject that also surfaces at the close of his preface and at numerous moments throughout the book. But the claims of the community seem relatively muted...