- The Presence of the Past
213 Pages; Cloth, $125.00
This is a dazzling collection of essays, most of them published originally as book reviews. It deals with the nature of time, the comparative validity of induction and deduction, the reality of evil, and other profound philosophical questions. It also involves serious discussions of physics, history, government, psychology, art, music, and of course, literature, with a major focus on poetry. Works of British, American, German, French, and Italian literature are considered, as well as classical poetry.
Obviously, in this brief review, from a collection of thirty-four articles I can only examine those that seem most significant. But even the "lesser" essays contain scattered aperçus and observations, launched in passing, but laden with insight and wisdom. "Eliot as Revolutionary," published in 1987, the centennial of Eliot's birth, begins the collection. The author's claim that T. S. Eliot "has never been more popular," was probably true at the time of writing but, unfortunately, I do not believe that it is true any longer." The poetintellectual is out of favor these days. Sincerity and passion are often seen as the major positive values to be sought in poetry. Wit, experience, learning, cultural awareness, and craft tend to be downgraded in favor of vague expressions involving love—or anger. Then Eliot's statement declaring himself a classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion has not won him many new friends in the literary community. Allegations of anti-Semitism have also been damaging to his reputation, as well as feminist critiques of his "misogyny."
Nevertheless, Eliot's achievements rise above anything on the contemporary scene. Oppenheimer's main thesis is "Eliot's poetry is revolutionary because it creates a new type of voice, a new type of fact and a new type of knowledge, all of which appreciably change the English language."
This new type of voice is "a new universalizing and generalizing mode of utterance," as exemplified by Prufrock, who is "the twentiethcentury Everyman," "whose confidence in civilization and its nobility sickened and expired during four years of murder" and whose "values [End Page 25] floated free of their systems, which ceased to inspire belief." This is the voice "groping for meaning."
The new sort of poetic fact consists of a deadpan association of past literature and present experience." Historical characters that might be termed archetypes reappear in a modern context, violating normal time sequence and naturalism. The author justifies this practice by asserting that "the aim of poetry at its highest is to turn history into a continuously present event."
The third element in Eliot's revolutionary achievement is a new type of knowledge. By this the author means Eliot's realization that ordinary modern speech and the objects and processes of everyday urban life, including technology, can be fruitful for poetry. In the meantime, this insight has been exploited by countless modern poets.
An essay on Ezra Pound is devastating in its negative portrayal of his character. But Oppenheimer's comments on his art in The Cantos is hardly more flattering as he remarks on "the frequent dullness of its lines, its clearly expressed bigotry, and the childishness of its theories of economics and history." He also mentions Pound's "occasional brilliance." It would have been interesting to read the author's perceptions in this regard.
"Goethe and Modernism" offers a provocative historical precedent to Eliot's interweaving of poetry of the past with scenes of the modern world. In the late 1780's Goethe, having spent several months in Rome studying the monuments of antiquity and reading the Latin poets, composed twenty-four poems in the classical form of the elegy. The erotic aspects of these works combine Goethe's personal awakening and sexual liberation with the myths and poetry of the ancients. Oppenheimer maintains that "this is a type of modernist art indeed, in which the ancient, mythic and divine will blend—significantly—with the contemporary and the mundane. The ordinary, the quotidian, is to be lit up from within...